Squint

Hamlin squinted and gingerly raised a hand to his brow, shielding his eyes from the first rays of golden sunshine that reached across the pale morning skies. The long, narrow strip of alabaster sand reflected the light of the sunrise, glowing like a bare light bulb. The surf was calm this early in the morning, gently and dutifully lapping against the white shores with a low, soothing hiss, like the steady rise and fall of a breath. White foam occasionally peaked at the crests of the shallow waves, breaking languidly upon the banks – but they were placid, and Hamlin's tired body relished the sheer simplicity of this serene world.

He raked his gaze over the beach, scanning its length until he caught the hidden form of little Alexy at the very far end of the beach. The boy sat nestled deep between the jagged teeth of the cliffs that bookended the pale stretch of sand, and he was almost invisible in the massive shadows they cast in the faint sun. Yet even from this far away, it wasn't hard to tell that he was daydreaming again – his absent gaze was lost out over the ocean breakers, plunged deep into the vast expanse of polychromatic morning sky.

Alexy always had been a dreamer, an idealist in every way that Hamlin was the realist, the more rational of the two of them. The Facilitators had hated him for it, and they had never endeavoured to conceal their distrust: in his youth Alexy would come home with many a red line imprinted on his knuckles most days, and his thumb and forefinger still bore strange indentations in their junctions from the times when he would be forced to spend hours at a blackboard writing sentences as punishment, until some adult had satisfied his mandatory quota of child brutality for the day.

On those days, Hamlin would have to sit in the back of the stuffy, dusty, hot classroom and wait for Alexy to finish his lines – which could take all night, sometimes, for although Alexy wrote in the tidiest and most refined cursive, he formed each letter with such agonizing slowness that longer words could often take him minutes to write. To make matters worse, he could never leave, for their mother would have grounded him for eternity if he ever came home without Alexy.

He had tried it once when Alexy was still only seven, right around the release of a new and highly popular game – one he'd had his eye on for months, and one his mother had been dangling in front of his nose as incentive for him to behave well ever since then. Well, he'd done as any fifteen-year-old would do and, with a pat on his head and some condescending jibe, left Alexy standing at that board in favour of dashing to his friend's house. By the time he returned home, Alexy was crying his eyes out and both his knees looked like something had jumped up and taken a bite out of them, they were so badly scuffed up.

Upon seeing him, his mother, trying to comfort little Alexy, had just given him the look, and that look, enough to turn his blood to ice, was worse than any tangible punishment she could give. It went without mention that he never got his game after all.

He had resented it in secondary school, for when he'd have to wait for his brother to endure his punishments, he wouldn't get to play Rampart Guard with the other boys, and really, what self-respecting fourteen-year-old boy wants to have his six-year-old baby brother in tow wherever he goes? But then it became a game, an unspoken pact, a personal secret between them. For whenever the supervising Facilitator would mysteriously disappear during the middle of a Punishing and leave them alone in the room, Hamlin would scramble to the front, take up another piece of chalk, and write out the same sentences right alongside him: I will not dream such ridiculous things. I will not dream in school. I must learn that dreaming is a waste of time, again and again, until Hamlin was reciting it in his sleep, and Alexy's fingers were so cramped from overuse that he couldn't even hold a spoon to eat his cereal the next morning.

Star bound, their mother had always used to call him. She would shake her head, and her pretty flaxen ringlets would bounce in such a way that made her look so pristine, and there would be a little smile stretched across her lips, and she would look perfect. Content. Peaceful. Almost young again, as if in Alexy she had been given her own life back to her. For as much as she complained about his utter lack of attention, Alexy was always the son she favoured more – Hamlin knew it well enough, but he had never really resented it, for she was once a dreamer too, and she envied the wild abandon he indulged himself that she hadn't dared to give in to. That she had let go of when she had chosen their father and a mundane sinecure and this idyllic cliffside retreat over the opportunity to have whatever she wanted within seconds of wanting it.

The memory of it made his heart seize with pain. How simple the nights had been, and how close they still felt. Sometimes when the wind blew across the rocks in the dead of night, it carried her chiming laughter with it, and he was taken back to a time when he, plagued by nightmares and she, spurning sleep, would sit on the rocks, stare into the night, and wonder at the things beyond the horizon.

A weight had settled upon his chest now, the freshness of the morning had been replaced by pangs of longing, and as Hamlin wandered languidly across the length of the beach, he kicked up clouds of sand with every step. He picked his way over to the rock face. He was a hale young man – that was somewhat of a necessity for any civil servant of the Capitol – but the rocks were slippery and slimy from the morning's early tides, and he found himself teetering to one side and pin-wheeling his arms gracelessly more than once when his large feet couldn't gain purchase on the slick, jagged rock face. He was big, perhaps too big for the lithe footwork required of scaling the sloping rock fall.

Alexy's ears twitched and his bowed head raised fractionally, but he made no other indication that he noticed Hamlin's approach. He was drawing again; he clutched a shapeless lump of charcoal in one hand – his left, much to the Facilitators' chagrin – and his beloved, hopelessly beaten sketchbook perched upon his lap. He was completely absorbed in the dark lines. Hamlin couldn't clearly see what he was drawing, for Alexy was hunched over the page like a covetous jeweller trying to hide his most recent acquisition, but he could vaguely see the outline of Gran Atlantica, and the world beyond the Ramparts, sketched neatly onto the page.

Alexy loved to draw, and although Hamlin, knowing next to nothing about art beyond the little they had been allowed to learn in school about the sprawling, messy, and disjointed culture of the world before the Nine Hundred Days, could hardly consider himself an expert on art, he still figured that Alexy was a pretty damn good artist for a boy of his age. It was a shame, really, because nobody would – or even could – ever know that he was, for most of the things he drew were prohibited by law.

Like now, what he assumed to be an imagined map of Gran Atlantica and the impure world outside the Capitol and the ramparts. For even sketching something like that, Alexy could be accused of treason and tossed into a correctional facility for five years, minimum. Possibly more, with the sort of rebellious infamy Alexy had gained over the years. Maps were entitled only to the Cartographers, one per sixteen districts, and all other Citizens only saw them once in their lives: in the last year of tertiary school, the very day after the Capitol announced the new year.

Alexy had missed school that day. He'd been suspended for daydreaming.

Alexy's other thing was drawing things. Fantastical creatures that couldn't possibly exist, even beyond the Ramparts. Technobiological designs that outstripped anything Aerocorps Industries had put out in flamboyant design. Vibrant, impossible landscapes awash with colour and creativity. Diagrams for devices of unknown purposes that soared way over Hamlin's head, what with his somewhat simplistic and rather provincial education. Hamlin had yet to find something which Alexy's boundless imagination could not fathom.

For this, the Facilitators hated him, for he was clearly more intelligent than their bibles of limited knowledge that a Citizen needed to know to best serve his country. In that, he was a danger to their beloved control.

With one last giant heave, Hamlin pulled himself up onto a rock adjacent to Alexy's and slid back into the crevices between the rocks. He inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with the crisp morning air, and stretched like a cat. It was that time of year when all the kids were in the other districts of the Capitol, the ones where machines did the menial tasks like his, so work had been quiet for him. He was always spoiled at this time of year in that respect.

Settling back in beside Alexy, he called tentatively, "Hey."

Alexy's lips pulled into a tight line, but he remained otherwise silent. He was not a man of many words these days, communicating mostly through the flickering patterns of light in his eyes.

"You nervous?"

Still, no reply. Alexy continued to drag the lump of charcoal across the page, dragging out several thick, bold lines on the page in what Hamlin realised was a bony spine. From up close, and from this better angle, he could see that it wasn't a map of Gran Atlantica, then, but a satirical representation of it, a hideous, grotesque creature as impure as the Facilitators told it.

Hamlin turned away again. "Well... I'd tell you not to be... but I made that promise that I'd always tell you the truth..." he tacked on as an afterthought, his voice souring with pain. Moments after he'd so tactlessly said it, Hamlin wanted to kick himself for bringing it up, but now that the words were out, he couldn't take them back. He'd always had a problem with keeping his mouth shut: he couldn't control the verbal vomit that came out of his mouth, and there was never a time when he wasn't in some kind of trouble for it.

As expected, Alexy remained silent – of course – but the chunk of charcoal veered minutely off its initial course and came to a sudden stop. Alexy's brows crossed, though whether that was from his crooked line or Hamlin's verbal blunder, he couldn't tell. He hoped it was the former, though if he knew anything at all about little Alexy, he could be sure it was his stupid mistake. Alexy foolishly blamed himself, no matter how preposterous that idea was. It was his fault, really.

After all, his inability to control his big fat mouth was ultimately how it had began.

Alexy scowled and scrubbed the line of charcoal away with an already black-stained finger, smudging the yellow paper a dark grey. Scratching the back of his head – his personal nervous tic – Hamlin tried to laugh off the stumble. "I was practically pissing myself when I went in there to get Named. You know, they do it in the Pragmatist's Chamber, so they're, like, way above your head in their enormous chairs and you're standing on the ground, and you feel like a tiny little ant under the feet of giants." He chanced a tentative glance in his brother's direction, but still, nothing. The creases remained in his forehead and his eyes were wild, sparkling with a thousand conflicting emotions. He drew with a particular concentrated fury. Hamlin let out a long sigh and forged on ahead. "It's really bad if you get in during midday, too, because those silly windows shine the light right on you, and then you're sweating and twitching while they deliberate, and you honestly couldn't care less what they Name you as long as you can get the hell out of there as soon as possible."

"Exactly as they want it."

The strained voice startled him. With every passing year that Alexy got older, he grew more reticent and withdrawn into his personal fantastical worlds – Hamlin couldn't even begin to imagine them. He didn't say much at all these days – most of the time he read, or he sketched, or he just sat by the window or, like now, out on the beach, staring out toward the open waters, echoing the ghost of their mother. His voice, once soft and honeyed, had cracked and lost its melodic sheen from utter lack of use, like an old piano left to gather dust and silently weep itself out of tune. Now it was nothing more than a weak whisper, faint as a last breath, and there was something so dark about it that was perpetually incongruous with the sweetness and innocence of the Alexy he'd once known.

Even so, Hamlin could detect something that sounded like hard resentment bolstering his words. It alarmed him, that peaceful, quiet Alexy, who had never been in a fight once in his life – Hamlin took good enough care of his bullies, for sure – and had only every raised his voice once that Hamlin could remember, could be driven to rancour by anything. He was supposed to be the hot-headed one, quick to anger, and Alexy was supposed to be the carefree one, quick to pacify his multiple violent tendencies, like ice cold water dousing a fire. But then again, he reckoned that it really ought not to surprise him – Alexy had never really been inclined to the what the Classery and the Capitol did.

Of course, nobody ever admitted that kind of thing out loud, though, unless they were really stupid or really suicidal, and last time he'd checked, Alexy was neither.

Truth be told, its autocratic pluralism was like an old cliché, hardly exciting anyone these days – except maybe the wags and ponces up in the Circlet, who would eagerly allow themselves to be force-fed Capitol propaganda if it meant another strawberry razzlecake. Hamlin himself had worked a municipal service for too long to not find the optimism slightly disingenuous. The only difference was that, unlike Alexy, he knew from witnessing first hand what happened to those who even joked about the Classery what a little careless and meaningless bitterness could do.

Then again, Hamlin had been raised on a Classery leash, when his loving parents were still around to pamper him and provide for him, while Facilitators taught him the about miracle that had emerged from the indistinguishable wreckage and despair of the Nine Hundred Days to save them all and restore world order; and how the Capitol was the embodiment of this miracle, the shining beacon at the centre of the world; and how the Ramparts the fastidious protectors keeping the evils of the untamed world out.

Alexy was still young and he'd been so sheltered from the way the Classery worked, living in his own universe. He'd lived by the ocean, cushioned by dream, with Hamlin to fight his battles and Silva's beneficence and their parents' inheritance to ensure a comfortable life. Hamlin had given it his all to protect him from as much of the Capitol's propaganda as he could. And Alexy had never watched them let traitors loose on the other side of the Ramparts to be devoured by the hideous creatures. He'd never watched them line traitors up against the wall and empty cartridges into their flesh. He'd never had the authorities suddenly burst into his workplace, never watched a friend be seized from the spot right next to him, never watched that friend have his throat slashed.

Hamlin pursed his lips and let out the last of his breath. "Well, maybe, yeah. They do a pretty damn good job of it," he joked, gently clapping a hand on Alexy's shoulder. Alexy turned to look at him in surprise. Hamlin fixated him with his most poignant, most reassuring stare. "Look, you're really smart, even smarter than Father was, I'll bet. You're going to get a great name that outstrips me for sure, I'm sure of it – maybe you'll even beat Silva. Shave off a bit of her pride for me, will ya?" he chuckled, fondly ruffling Alexy's hair.

"Anyway, I gotta get ready for work now. Get yourself some breakfast, Alexy; you're starting to look a bit thin." He cautiously picked his way to his feet. Glancing down at Alexy's sullen expression, he sighed and shook his head. Inexplicable guilt had haunted him since that fateful day, and now it piqued whenever he looked at little Alexy and saw him – ultimately – suffering, as struggled internally. He battled and questioned and undermined himself at every turn – Hamlin saw it in the pain ringing his eyes. Only this time, Hamlin could not join him at the board, Hamlin could fend off his bullies for him, Hamlin could not carry him home when he scuffed up his knees again. These were the battles where, no matter his physical strength, he was utterly powerless to wipe the strain from Alexy's brow.

Alexy held his gaze for a second, then turned away. And that was it. The days of the past, of sharing every secret and conspiring wild and impossible tricks to play on the Facilitators and bearing the all the pains and punishments together were gone, airy and fleeting as the ghostly snatches of Alexy's voice. Somehow, without him noticing it at all, they had grown apart. Perhaps it was Alexy's rebellious and unstable age. Perhaps it was the differences in their intelligences and the divergences in their minds that grew larger, more prominent, and more apparent to Hamlin every day. And perhaps it was their individual guilt – Hamlin could overcome his, or at least push his to the side and find means enough to distract himself in his work, in playing father and brother to Alexy and adoring boyfriend to Silva. Alexy lacked that recourse: of a mental calibre higher than the one he was offered at school and utterly unchallenged in his superior imagination. Friendless, except from Hamlin and the ones who filled the pages of his sketchbooks. Empty and alone, with the one person who would have been able to help him long dead.

Feeling even more unnerved than he had been before he'd set out, Hamlin turned away and began to clamber his way back down the rocks.

"Hamlin."

He was startled by the seriousness and urgency in Alexy's voice – it was tangible this time, intense, whole again as it once had been. He turned immediately, nearly throwing himself off balance and down the face of the rocks and into the cool ocean. "Yeah?"

"Go with me to the Capitol."

The knot in Hamlin's gut clenched tighter, but he bit the bottom of his lip to hold back his grimace. "What, are you scared?" he tried to laugh, to diffuse the rigid hostility that had somehow unfolded between them. But his amusement was rather flimsy at best. Alexy, for one, was not convinced by it, nor did he much appreciate it; the anxiety remained etched into his youthful features. Hamlin's fake smile dropped from his lips and was replaced by a grim, tight line. "I have to work tomorrow, Alexy..."

Alexy's brows scrunched in pain.

Hamlin sighed in defeat, for he knew that ultimately he would yield to the stricken look on Alexy's angelic face. He was not a particularly impressionable man, and he was not in the slightest bit adept at picking up on people's emotions – as Silva often made sure to remind him. But seeing such a whole look of utter pain on Alexy's face – Alexy's starlit, guiltless, dreamy expression – would touch the coldest of hearts, and certainly Alexy was the chink in Hamlin's armour.

Watching their parents die in a horrific accident at such a young age could do that to a pair of brothers. There was nothing like the death of the only people who truly cared for their existence to teach him the true value of fraternal camaraderie. Since then, Hamlin had taken care of little Alexy. And no matter how old he grew – seventeen now, and old enough to be Named – and no matter how far apart they diverged, he would always be little Alexy to Hamlin, and he would always be the most important person in Hamlin's world.

"I'll go with you," he conceded at length.

Alexy, of course, remained absolutely silent and resumed drawing in his sketchbook. Within seconds the faraway look had once again settled upon his face, and he was gone from reality, slipping back into his precious, private cocoon, spun from thin and gossamer threads of imagination and dreams. He made no show of it, but Hamlin could tell by the way he let his shoulders sag tiredly that he had been relieved of a great burden.

Letting out a long breath, Hamlin watched his little brother until the sun was a brilliant golden disk risen well into the lazuline empyrean. At length he tore himself away from Alexy's enchanted world and trudged back toward his little seaside home. The notion of work lingered gloomily like a storm on the horizon, as with every single day before it and every single day to come with scant few exceptions. After all, the trash wasn't going to collect itself.


A/N: I'm pretty sure that this is going to be a big break for me. One of my masterworks, if you will. For one, this story is massive. It concurrently follows the stories of five characters: Hamlin, Shaya, Rodrich, and twins Caius and Emil. I know for the most part where it is going to go; it's just a matter of filling in all the details in between.