A/N: A bit less, um... ponderous of a writing style than my usual flowery nonsense, I hope... At the very least, I know for the most part what I'm doing with this one, which is a first.

More should be forthcoming shortly. Enjoy, and please leave a review!


Matador

The silence is shattered as two simultaneous ear-splitting shrieks erupt from the stillness and ricochet down the hallway. A raucous bellow follows, and the cumulative volume of the shrieking magnifies tenfold to overpower it. Predictably, the frenzied thump-thump-thump of boots on hardwood floors follows. Doors bang open and floors groan from the abuse they receive.

"I'll kill you both! I'll cook you maggots for lunch and eat you alive!"

The screams devolve into high pitched laughter. The voices of children break out into taunts: "I'm going to get you!" "You can't catch us!" "Run, the beast is nigh upon us!" "To the castle! To the castle!" There are several nerve-wracking thuds and hollow smacking noises as wooden swords and toy horse heads bash into everything within a metre radius from their swinging, galloping paths. Every so often there is garbled whinny thrown into the mess of sound, as if the horses were real creatures protesting their manhandling. The parade crashes around the circuit of upstairs rooms, as the starving evil dragon Zaxsmellius Stinkfang pursues the Sirs Grand Noble Richard Samuel and Scott Carter of House Mayer in a path that is, unfortunately for my ears, moving ever nearer to me.

I pause in my work, tense on instinct. This house is loaded with expensive antiques, and nothing presages the destruction of a precious antique quite like the clomping of children's feet on the floor. It is only a matter of seconds before-

Crr-rrrr-rrrassh!

-before something breaks. Once again, with its incontrovertible power, the famed Demonslasher blade of the Great Emperor Slayer Sir Richard Samuel the Protector of the Sugarlands has felled its opponent: a hapless piece of pottery whose only crime was to be worth a fortune, no doubt. Pottery outlaws across the country cower in fear – or, they would, if they hadn't all been smashed already.

The screaming, thumping, hollering, and banging comes to an abrupt stop then. Nothing quite sobers up rowdy children like the prospect of parental punishment, as cruel as that may sound. It is the same old story: idiot children go on a rampage about the house, idiot children end up breaking something pricey and irreparable, idiot children commence a screaming match, replete with insults about bodily functions, on whose fault it was.

One of them cackles – Zaxsmellius. That deafening cackle can only belong to Zach. He wasn't chosen to be the evil dragon for nothing. "Ooh, you're in trouble now, Ricky! Daddy's going to cook you for lunch and eat you alive!"

That was the favoured threat of the family, apparently. I tried once to point out that it is physically impossible for one to cook his brother for lunch and eat him alive, as the process of cooking him with any degree of thoroughness would inevitably result in his death, but all I got in return was a cuffing on the ears and an order not to be such a surly wise-ass.

Richard harrumphs in annoyance and stamps his foot. "Shut up! You guys were the ones who came in here! You know we're not supposed to be in here!"

"Yeah, but you're the one who broke it, Ricky-smicky!"

A low sigh escapes my lips. I know what they broke, even without having to see it. They could only have broken one of the four unique hand-crafted and hand-painted eighteenth-century vases that were specially procured for my father fourteen years ago by one of his Italian associates, and have ever since been one of his dearly beloved possessions, out of all the expensive decorative art in our house. Three of the four already lay in pieces in our shed-turned-graveyard for destroyed antiques. The fourth was now smashed upon the floor of my father's study.

I should have anticipated this earlier and intervened to prevent this. I knew they were headed toward his study, and I knew they were going to break something – they always do. I can't help the feeling that part of this is my fault. What's worse is that my father will most likely think so too. He'll be heartbroken when he finds out that the last one's gone – another relic of my mother destroyed. But he won't show it, and he won't say anything to the boys. He'll just frown, like always, and shake his head at them – that's the only way he knows how to react these days. But when he looks at me, it'll be accusatory.

Sometimes I have to wonder if he's accusing me for the crime at hand – whatever latest antic the boys have gotten into – or if he lets his sorrow carry him so far back into the past that he's still blaming me for a greater tragedy.

But he's not here right now, and for all intents and purposes, he probably won't be back until significantly late at night. The boys know this all too well.

Richard screeches again. "Shut up, you guys!" Scott and Zach's laughter grows more taunting, of course, as seven-year-old children are wont do the exact opposite of what is asked of them. Richard howls, flying into a rage, and probably launches himself upon them. Screaming and laughing in combination, they tear from the study at top speed, their footsteps bounding down the last vestibule separating me from them.

A door slams open down the hall and death metal floods the upstairs floor. Between the kids, the slamming doors, and the obnoxious music, not only is the whole house practically shaking, but I am also contemplating indulging my bleeding ears by burying myself in one of these massive piles of laundry and waiting until it all settles down. Unfortunately, I know all too well that this'll just go on ad infinitum unless I'm the one to play mediator.

That's the way these things always go.

"Hey!" someone shouts. An older voice, hoarse like it was always shouting and scratchy in a way unique to chronic cigarette smokers. "I'll kill you little shits if you don't shut the hell up!"

Sean, the eldest of the four Mayer children, typically and hypocritically contributing to both the noise level and the boys' vocabulary of forbidden words. Loud comes naturally to all the Mayer children, certainly, but to him in particular – he likes to stylise himself the headman of his (accurately dubbed) thrash band Illegal Black Clarion, which is not, as one might first assume upon hearing such a (ridiculous) choice name, an underground rap movement protesting racial inequality, but is a group of four angry teenage boys taking out their hormonal fluctuations on cheap guitars via the most trite lyrics ever written and a lot of pot.

He's no good with children (that's supposedly my job). He doesn't realise that by shouting at them to be quiet he's only adding to the noise, rousing them further to spite him, and teaching them the kind of works that are at some point going to be repeated to the wrong person and will end up blowing up right back in his face. Or in mine, the way things have been going.

Scott and Zach emerge at full speed from the study, their faces contorted in fear. That wasn't right. They were supposed to be all mischievous and victorious for instigating Richard's temper tantrums, their favourite sport. Then I notice that Richard holds in his pudgy fist a piece of broken porcelain (Father's favourite Italian, sure enough) like a knife. Tears stream from his eyes and the space under his nose is glossy with snot, but he's bellowing his head off like a maniac and spitting like an animal. He's the noticeably slower and smaller brother of the three of them (which was why he was often the one eaten for lunch by Zaxsmellius), but he possessed some frightening qualities for a six-year-old, including but not limited to those which led to this safe practice of running around with sharp broken pottery.

And the thing is, I know that he means business, too. He'll actually do it, actually stab someone with it, unless someone stops him. I know just as well how foolish it would be to expect Sean to intervene. Once again, the keeping of children who aren't mine falls to me because I seem to be the only person in this house who cares.

Sean tries to snatch Scott and Zack as they storm past his door, but they are agile and slippery for their age and size and dodge him with easy. They taunt Sean with wagging tongues and nagging fingers. I can see the ire building behind his eyes. Impulsiveness and anger go hand in hand in this family, and nothing presages injury quite like an angry boy. It's only a matter of time before someone gets hurt.

I have to do something now. I set the pile of unfolded clothes in my lap to the side and pick my way to my feet. Scott and Zach come tearing by, kicking over some of the piles I'd just folded along the way. I watch in horror as my fortress of stacks of clean and freshly laundered clothes becomes a mess of colour and shirts that have just been ironed (by yours truly) are trodden on without a care.

I should be used to this, though, seeing as it happens every time. No matter – my concern is getting to Richard before he stabs Sean. That overly cautious and worst-case scenario side of me sees that piece of broken porcelain in Richard's careless hands slashing something that can't be glued back together. Laundry can be refolded. The frown wrinkles on Sean's face can't.

I make my way down the hallway, strangely calm despite the chaos ensuing around me. I'm reaching Sean's ajar door just as clumsy Richard is. I'm sure there are curses coming from his mouth, but over the awful roar of metal, it's hard to even hear myself think. I reach for the piece of pottery in Richard's hands and Sean grabs at Richard, and between the two of us, I catch a stray elbow to the eye and a head-butt in the stomach. Richard somehow contorts himself in our corresponding grasps, yanks his hand from mine, and slashes upward. I don't realise what's going on, though, until my hand and face begin to sting like I've been attacked like a drove of wasps. Dropping Richard, my hands fly to my cheek, where I can feel wetness – blood – beading on the skin.

Sensing my pain, Richard and Sean stop suddenly, staring wide-eyed. Sean steps back over the threshold of his room, into safety. The anger dissipates from Richard's childish features, distorting into something like shock and horror. The kid has never really liked me – none of them do – but even he knows when he's messed up. He lets out a cry and flings the porcelain away from him, shoving past me to join his brothers in the ruins of my laundry stronghold. I suppose it is only war to children until you throw in an older sibling. Then it is alliance and accusation.

Sean's lips twist up into a wicked smile. "That's gotta hurt."

Scott cackles. "Ooh, Richard, now you're in even more trouble! Now Daddy's really going to kill you!" Zach nods vigorously in agreement, though he looks a little green. He never functions well around blood.

"Oh," I say, all clueless eloquent brilliance, of course. My hand paws at my cheek, feeling the skin with disbelief.

Sean lets out a ungraceful snort. "No shit? You're supposed to be smart." He leans against the door frame, triumphantly admiring the gashes with a one-eyebrow-raised smirk. We never really get along – no, let me clarify that. He likes to exploit my weaknesses to the general public for his own amusement.

Well, this certainly complicates things. I turn away from him, back to the triplets. Only a third of my eighteen piles of laundry are still standing and the loft floor looks like someone had vomited colour all over it. I can't decide whether I'm more upset about the undoing of nearly an hour of work, or my most recent injuries, to add to all the other ones these children have incurred upon me of late.

I sigh, long and low, and close my eyes. My body slumps against the wall, my non-bloody hand moving to my forehead. My cheek and hand sting, and my ears are aching, but that is remarkably tolerable compared to the throbbing in my head from a combination of a lack of sleep and the stress of chasing three children around all day. There are times when I want to let these noisy brats know exactly how little I care for them and how repulsive their behaviour is, but I never do. I can't feel right disciplining someone else's children, especially since I know that the moment I open my mouth against them, their mother will be upon me like a vulture, tearing me and my credibility to shreds.

But I'll be damned if I don't miss the days before the Mayer kids existed, the days when it was just me and my father in a quiet little flat in the city, wallowing in our guilt and loneliness and poorly concealed competitive father-son animosity. Only the doorman attempted to involve me in life then. My father, locked away in his study and trapped in scotch-fuelled fantasies of the past, let me be. In silence.

When I open he boys are staring at me as if waiting for me to say something to them. Of course, I don't. Instead I peel away from the wall and make my way towards the stairs, just at the end of the loft. I have to clean myself up properly, and the first aid is downstairs.

Richard rushes up to me and throws his arms around my waist. I get a flash of his face, tear stained and imploring. "Arthur I am so so sorry-"

But I don't get to hear the rest of his apology, because he throws me off balance when he barrels into me. I'm on the lighter, smaller side of boys my age, so he's actually able to make me stumble. My legs catch around a pair of Sean's jeans, and I pitch forward, tumbling side over side towards the stairs. I go over, of course – no stopping my momentum. I bang down at least eleven steps, my face smashing against the floor a few times. Halfway down the stairs, on the partial landing, I manage to snag an arm around the banister and yank myself to a halt.

Amazingly, the house is silent for a sweet moment as it absorbs my fall. If I hadn't just fallen down the stairs, I may actually have enjoyed it. Of course, that's not so much a concern when you're completely winded and worrying about what you've broken this time.

I'm pretty old hat at this business of falling down stairs, though.

Sean materialises from the hallway at the loft banister and peers down at me. His resulting shattering – did I mention everything to do with the Mayer clan is always loud? - crow-call laughter penetrates the silence. "Go, Ricky!" he shouts, whooping with victory. Scott and Zack, always little lemmings, hop around and pipe up with their own cries of "go Ricky!" and "what a loser!". Richard himself, however, is paralysed with fear, his hands frozen in mid-air by his head.

"Got owned by a six-year-old. What a loser," Sean snorts, sneering at me.

"Yeah, what a loser," Scott echoes. He sticks his tongue out and waves his foam blade at me. A jacket of mine comes arcing towards the floor from over the banister – more desecrated laundry. I scarcely recognize it, though, because I've just discovered a flaring pain in my ankle.

Sean's eyes narrow and his arms fold. "Don't copy me, twit," he hisses, his voice dripping with venom.

Scott imitates his famous snort. "You're a twit!"

"You watch what you call me, you little shit!"

"YOUR MOM'S A LITTLE SHIT!"

BAM.

It is impossible to ignore the sound of the front door downstairs slamming open, then slamming shut. We can feel it trembling dangerously in its frame through the floors. Scott, his mouth still hanging open, turns white as paper.

The Mayer woman has returned, and at the loveliest time, too. I wonder if she heard Scott's comment – I can even say a vengeful part of me hopes she has. Judging by the fact that we probably had no front door left - just several splinters of wood and some bent metal - I bet she has.

With one last smirk, Sean slips back inside his room. I know he doesn't want to be here for the fallout now that there's an injury involved, and his mother is forthcoming. The end is forthcoming.

Richard, who had still been in shock from knocking me down the stairs, turns as pale as his brother and screams like the deuce. He vanishes into the upper floor – probably fearing what will happen if/when I out him. I am too busy watching him scamper away that I don't notice the sudden presence above me until I turn back. I jump, smashing my head against the railing.

The Mayer matriarch is staring down her long hawkish nose at me, and by the rigid line of her thin lips, she is not amused. "Boy, you have less than five seconds to explain what, exactly, is going on here."

I look at my palms, smeared with blood. Shamelessly, defiantly, I meet her gaze. She already has such a low opinion of me, it's no use trying to preserve my dignity. "I fell down the stairs," I say simply.

She looks me over. The condescension she emits is so thick and tangible, I could cut it with a knife. Or, it is a knife and she is cutting me with it, rather. I know what she's thinking: thank God you're not my son. That's always everyone's thought: thank God I'm not the one who has to deal with someone like you. Only my poor father doesn't get that consolation. "Uh huh," is all she says to me, pursing her lips. And that is that. No concern, no sympathy, not even an inquiry as to whether I am okay. Sometimes I fancy the notion that it's not because she hates me, but because she's just not used to caring for me, in the same way that I still consider, and probably always will consider, her kids to be someone else's kids and not my soon-to-be step-brothers. But then, at other times I wonder if she even loves her own kids. If she even loves my father, or if she just pities him.

At times like these, it's not her indifference to me that I bemoan. I could care less about what she thinks of me. Rather, the crushing weight that settles upon my chest – thankfully not due to my fall – is because of loss. Because when I have to look at her and her judgemental glare, she echoes back the loss, the tragedy that ruined everything twelve years ago. No more golden touches raking the hair from my eyes. No shimmering eyes reflecting back the sunsets. No more soft, slightly off-key voice to lull me to sleep in even the most violent fit of insomnia. No longer anyone whose tears will humble me.

The Mayer matriarch cranes her neck to look upstairs, surveying. Her eyes fall on Scott instantly, going cold – colder. Frigid and hard like stone with anger. "Scotty, darling."

Scott is almost paralysed with fear. "Hi, Mummy," he mutters under his breath.

She smiles sweetly, though she's a jackal and I can see her anger from down here. "Don't think you can 'hi, mummy' me. You know what you did."

Scott swallows, nodding slowly.

"Then you also know I am very angry with you right now."

This time, he can't even dignify her with an answer.

"Very well," she says smoothly, dusting off her hands on the pants of her scrubs. "I'd like you to meet me in the kitchen. We need to talk." She dismisses him with a smile, gives me one last disgusted look, and stalks away.

Without her looming over me, I can finally haul myself to my feet – albeit with a lot of strain and a bit of dependency on the sturdiness of the banister. I'm limping my way up the first stair, heedless of the streaks of blood I'm leaving on the wood – I'll clean it up later – when Scott's eyes lock briefly with mine. I try to send him a bit of sympathy, but he just frowns at me. He slinks his way down the stairs, pushing none too gently past me. My ankle flares white hot, but I don't blame him for a bit of self-vicitimising cattiness.

I give up all preconceived plans to find the rubbing alcohol in favour of retiring to the safety of my room, which is in a rarely used corner of the enormous house and, thankfully, far removed from everyone else. Proper disinfection is not worth going into the kitchen when the jackal woman is disciplining her children – my ears may just revolt and give up if I put them through any more shouting. So I continue to pull myself up the stairs, hand over hand, until I've reached the top and can limp my way along the wall to my room. As I pass through the loft, piles of discarded laundry beckon forlornly to me, but I'm in pain in various places in my body, still struggling for breath a bit, and in no mind to do any kind of service to any of the Mayer family, let alone one so menial.

I give one of the Mayer matriarch's beloved white dress shirts a gratifying kick and slink my way down the hall. Frankly, I just want to be alone.