Young Arnie whimpered. "But what if..." his voice dropped to a whisper, "...Rai's around?"
"I talked to Aunt Suyuan, and she said that she talked to Rai about it," Theresa replied, confident the matter was taken care of. Arnie knew better. All it meant was that Rai was going to be sneakier. And rougher, too.
He whimpered again, stalling as she pushed him towards the door. "Can't I just stay with you and Luminous?" he asked, worriedly.
"No, I told you, the Realm needs an overhaul," his mother repeated. "I do wish you'd stop calling him that, he is your father."
Arnie pretended not to hear her. He didn't know why he didn't call his father Father or any diminutive thereof; he just didn't and he liked it that way. She gave him another push towards the portal. She was starting to become irritated.
"Arnold," she warned.
Reluctantly, dragging his feet, he stepped through the portal, and into the Realm of Earth.
"Arnie," Aunt Suyuan said, cheerfully, as he appeared on the doorstep. "You're here at last."
She led him by the hand into the house, and he followed behind her, meekly.
They nearly bumped into Uncle Thunder in the hallway. "Arnie," he said, simply. "I see you're here."
The boy nodded. (Thunder frightened him, just a little bit.)
"You've grown," Thunder remarked, not really caring, as he headed off on his own business. Arnie frowned.
"Pay no attention to him," Aunt Suyuan said, afterward. "He's just got a lot of stuff on his mind. Did you know he might be made into an Elder?"
The boy nodded. It had been all his mother talked about, until their Realm started leaking, in which case all she talked about was how Luminous was supposed to fix it.
Aunt Suyuan hummed to herself, thinking, and then started off down the corridor. Arnie followed her, feeling sick to his stomach. They were nearly there. Two more doors. One more door. She was turning the handle...
"Boys," she called, poking her head into the room. "Arnie's here!"
Rayden and Raimei looked up from the pictures that they were drawing. They looked at their mother, then down at Arnie, and then went back to drawing.
"Boys," Suyuan repeated, darkly.
With the sigh of much-put-upon children, they got to their feet. "Hi, Arnie," they chorused without much enthusiasm.
"Hi," he waved back. He wished he could duck behind his aunt. Rayden, the elder of the cousins, was almost eleven; Raimei was nine. They were big. Arnie was only seven, and as his mother always told him, he was small for his age.
"Now, I want you boys to play nicely," Suyuan insisted, giving Arnie a gentle shove so that he was all the way into the room. She gave a fierce glare to her younger son, the command meant for him especially.
"Yes, mother," they chorused again. She harumphed, and left. Arnie, panicked, nearly darted after her, but he didn't. He'd have to face this, sooner or later.
Both boys ignored him, and went back to their drawing. The paper, crayons, pencils, pencil crayons and markers were spread over the bedroom floor, indiscriminately. Several pages were crumpled in the general vicinity of the waste-paper basket. Arnie, curiosity getting the better of him, tip-toed over.
"Watch it," Rai growled. "You're going to step on my stuff."
"I wasn't," Arnie insisted, very, very carefully making his way over, and sitting down between the two boys so he could watch them.
Rayden was mostly doing landscapes, and Rai was mostly doing animals; both were staring intently at their creations.
"You're a good drawer," Arnie exclaimed to the younger of the two.
Rai rolled his eyes. "Thanks, squirt."
"Rai," Rayden grumbled, squinting as he attempted to make a tree more or less vertical. "Mom said not to make fun of him."
"I'm not," Rai insisted. "He is a squirt."
"I know, but you're not supposed to tell him that," Rayden insisted. Neither boy looked up to Arnie while they discussed him.
"Can I draw too?" Arnie asked, plaintively.
"No," Rai immediately replied.
But Rayden only sighed and shifted through the debris until he found a blank piece of paper and slid it over. "You can use the crayons, and the markers, they're mine," he said, shoving some of them over. "But the pencil crayons are Rai's."
"I got them from Lilith," Rai said proudly, referring to the boy's paternal grandmother. "She said I have talent."
"What does that mean?" asked Arnie in a whisper, to Rayden.
"It means she thinks he's a good drawer," he replied.
"Oh." Arnie squinted, trying to decide what to draw. Finally he settled on drawing a large sun, at the top of the page. Then three people underneath it. Then a large tree, to the side.
"That's good," Rayden said, tilting his head to look at it sideways. "What is it?"
"Me, and Mummy, and Luminous," Arnie explained. "That's a tree."
"Duh," Rai muttered, but neither paid him any attention.
"That's my tree. I have a fort in it," Arnie continued, happily. "And that's the sun. It's going to blow up so Luminous has to fix it."
"Yeah?" Both boys seemed intrigued by this. "It's going to blow up?" Rayden repeated.
"That's cool," Rai said, with a touch of awe tinging his voice. "Our Realm never does any thing cool. It's so boring."
Rayden looked up at him.
"Well, except for the river," Rai acknowledged. "It's pretty cool."
The two boys looked at each other, then grinned. Arnie was a little frightened. He knew that grin.
"Hey, do you want to go to the river, tomorrow?" Rai asked, slyly.
Arnie looked to Rayden. The elder boy was grinning as well. He didn't know what to make of that.
"It'll be fun," Rayden said, at last, then he snickered. Rai snickered as well, and Arnie got a sinking feeling that the river would only be fun for two out of three of the boys.
"And what are you plans for today, boys?" asked Suyuan, as they all finished up breakfast.
"We're going to the river!" Rayden and Rai announced, in unison. Arnie sighed, looking as though he hadn't gotten much sleep.
Thunder looked at the three of them with amusement. "Trying your cousin out on the rope?" he asked. They nodded. He smiled, slightly.
Arnie started to shake. This was a bad, bad sign. A bad sign. A very bad sign. He looked up to Aunt Suyuan, hoping that she would notice the immense badness of all the signs, but she didn't.
"Thor," she said, speaking to her husband, "I was talking to Cecilia the other day and she wants to know if she can bring Logicalis around for supper."
Thunder blinked. "Why?" he asked, confused. "I don't like Logicalis."
"I know that," she snapped, "but they might have something they want to discuss." Her eyes flickered towards the two boys for a moment.
Thunder seemed to clue in. "Ah. Don't they think that's a little premature? How old is Frieya, now, anyway?"
"About, let's see, nine," Suyuan replied. Both Rayden and Arnie looked to Rai, who pretended to ignore them.
"Well, I suppose we'll have to address this sooner or later," Thunder sighed.
"Can we be excused?" Rayden asked, suddenly, finishing up the last of his cereal.
"Yeah, me too," Rai quickly followed.
"I suppose so," Suyuan said. Both boys took their dishes to the counter, then darted off. Arnie remained behind, looking forlorn.
"You can go too, Arnold," Thunder said dismissively.
He sighed, slowly slinking off his chair and putting his dish on the counter. He started off towards the door to the outside.
Thunder rolled his eyes, and Suyuan smacked his shoulder. "I don't understand how your cousin could have such a weed for a child," the god said, under his breath.
"Thor!" Suyuan snapped, angrily.
"It's true," he replied.
Arnie, still within hearing range, slumped outside.
Both boys were waiting for him.
"What took you?" Rayden asked.
"Yeah, you're going to have to go faster if you want to keep up!" Rai exclaimed. They both darted off into the underbrush, and were gone in seconds.
Arnie looked fearfully at the forest. The Realm of Earth was all mountains, and tall, dark forests. He took a step forward, and cringed when he heard the dead leaves crackle underfoot. Home wasn't like this. Home was bright, and happy, and cheerful, and there were butterflies and flowers. This place was...
Arnie whimpered, and then let it all out, howling. "I want to go home!" he wailed.
He was still crying when Rai and Rayden came back to find out where he had gone. Suyuan was sitting with him, patting his back and shoulder.
"What a baby!" Rai exclaimed, and even Rayden seemed disgusted by the display.
"Boys," she snapped, "I thought you said you were going to play nice!"
"We were!" they protested. She glared at them.
"That's not what I heard." She patted Arnie's back. "Apparently, one of you told Arnie that there were monsters underneath his bed, last night."
"That was Rayden!" Rai immediately piped up, pointing.
"Was not!" his brother argued.
"BOYS!" Suyuan yelled, so loudly that a flock of birds fluttered up from one of the trees. They shut up instantly. "Now, I want you to play with Arnie, down by the river, and I don't want any more nonsense from either of you. Do you understand me? If I hear so much as one peep, neither of you will get to go to the Festival!"
"Mommmm...." they whined, in vain. She glared, and pushed Arnie out in front of her.
"Go on, dear. If you get scared, Rayden will stay with you."
"Mom," he protested, but a quick glance in his direction shut him up. He sighed, glaring, and pulled Arnie over, then pushed him off towards the trail through the woods.
Arnie was forced to march while the two Thunder boys walked behind, grumbling between themselves.
"I can't believe he snitched on us," Rai muttered. He had a stick with him and was randomly poking it at the underbrush.
"She asked me what the matter was," Arnie piped up, trying to defend himself. He didn't dare look behind him.
"Shut up, baby. Only babies cry." Rai snorted. "Not even babies snitch on each other."
"Shut up, Rai," Rayden snapped, tiredly.
"You shut up."
"You're the one making all the noise."
"You're the one that told him about monsters."
"You're the one that snitched on me!" Rayden exclaimed, remembering.
His brother was silent for a moment. "That was different."
"No it wasn't!" Rayden insisted.
Arnie sighed, trudging ever onward. He stopped, as the trail seemed to end in a thick tangle of underbrush. Rai shoved him forward.
"Keep going," he snapped.
"Go where?" Arnie whimpered.
"Go through!" Rayden exclaimed, growing impatient. He sighed, and went to the front, crawling through himself. Arnie looked to Rai, but the older boy was waiting for the younger to go next. The small boy sighed, shivering, and started into the shrubbery. Branches poked at him, and scratched, and all of a sudden, the ground gave way completely and he fell several feet onto a sandy river bank. He sat for a moment, blinking at the sudden change of scenery when Rayden grabbed him by the arm and yanked him over.
Rai came tumbling over the bank's edge, whooping. He landed and did a somersault.
"Show off!" Rayden yelled.
Rai stuck his tongue out at him. He got to his feet, not bothering to dust himself off, and started running down the edge of the river, disappearing around the curve of the bank. Rayden started after him, and Arnie, now over his amazement and much more comfortable by the river, tried to keep up.
"I don't like this," he said, shivering. They stood at the river's edge. It was wide and fairly fast flowing; there were innumerable whitecaps breaking along its surface.
A rope had been strung between two trees, on opposite banks. Rai jumped up and caught the rope between his hands, then swung up, and started climbing along it. When he was about half-way, Rayden ran up and yanked on the rope, hard, causing it to jerk back and forth.
Rai yelled, and lost his grip, falling into the stream. He came up a split-second later, shaking his now-sodden head. He was grinning like a maniac, and Arnie realised that he had wanted to fall in. Rai was nuts.
Rayden waited for Rai to make it to the other side (the river was not deep; it was waist high to the boy) and then started on his own way over. At the midpoint, Rai copied his brother's action and pulled down on the rope, sending Rayden flying, and then falling, into the river.
Rayden splashed up, whooping. "Come on, Arnie, your turn!" he yelled.
"The baby won't do it," Rai argued, from the shore.
"I can to!" Arnie yelled, indignantly. He tried jumping up to reach the rope, but he was too little. Rayden waded back to dry land and helped his cousin grab a hold.
"Hold it with your legs," Rayden said, waiting patiently while Arnie tried to get the hang of it. At last the boy signalled that he was ready to try it. He started, inching, his way forward.
Arnie was terrified. Truly terrified. It was sheer fear alone that kept his fingers clutching the rope, that kept his legs locked around it. He inched his way forwards, trying to ignore the sound of the river rushing by underneath him. He could do it. He would. That would show them. That would--
Suddenly, his world seemed to leap straight up. Rayden was pulling on the rope, trying to shake Arnie off.
Panicked, Arnie held on for dear life, while he was jerked up, down, and sideways.
"Let me do it!" Rai yelled, lending a hand. Both boys tried their hardest to shake Arnie free. But he held on. Gradually, the shaking ceased, and was only a swaying. Arnie could handle swaying.
Putting one hand out, he slowly began forward again, creeping along.
Finally, he looked down and saw the shore. He dropped, exhausted by the effort. He lay, gasping, in the shallows. Raimei stood over him, looking down. He tried to smile up at his cousin.
"Stupid," Rai said, with a scowl. "You were supposed to fall off. You did it wrong."
"It's been a long three days," Theresa admitted, after she pulled away from her embrace with Suyuan. The two women were close, even though they were only technically second cousins. "But Luminous finally got it under control."
"That's good," the other goddess replied. "Arnie has just been a dear."
"Yes, he is, isn't he?" Theresa murmured. "Hi, Arnie, sweetheart, did you miss me?"
Arnie ran to his mother's arms, and she picked him up and hugged him. "You're shaking!" she exclaimed. "What happened?"
Suyuan sighed. "Rayden and Rai. They're terrible. And Thor just lets them get away with anything."
Theresa stared, uncomprehending.
"They played all sorts of tricks on him," Suyuan explained, patting Arnie's back. The boy was sniffling, with his head buried in the crook of his mother's neck. "I tried my best, but I couldn't watch them all the time."
"No, no, I understand," Theresa sighed. "I suppose he has to get used to it sooner or later."
"I want to go home," Arnie whimpered.
Suyuan sighed. "I was hoping that you'd stay for a bit-- "
"I'll come back, right after I get Arnie settled," Theresa interrupted. "I won't be long." Her cousin waved goodbye, as she teleported away with her son.
Suyuan turned and stuck her head around the corner. "Rai! Rayden! Get in here, right now! I want to have a talk with you!" They both scuttled in, knowing that Having A Talk could only mean trouble. She scowled. "I told Aunt Theresa that you two were going to behave yourselves!"
They had nothing to say, and their mother continued. "And then I have to tell her that you tormented her son for three days straight! Why in the Name would you want to do such horrible things to poor little Arnie?"
"He's annoying," Rai finally admitted.
"He whines too much," Rayden added.
"He won't keep up."
"He doesn't like our games."
"He cries," Rai said, with disgust. Rayden nodded.
"A lot," her eldest agreed. "All the time."
Suyuan rubbed her eyes. She suddenly felt very tired. "What am I going to do with you two?"
Rayden started to open his mouth, no doubt to say something smart, but a glare made him reconsider, and he remained silent.
"I tell you what I'm not going to do," Suyuan continued, "I'm not going to let you two go to this year's Festival."
"Mommmm!" They wailed, in unison.
"That's final." She pointed out into the corridor. "Now, I want you to go to your room. No more playing outside today."
Rai grumbled and Rayden scowled and both slouched off towards their room. "Way to go!" Rai exclaimed, giving his brother a savage shove.
"It's not my fault!" Rayden retorted, pushing back. They started to scuffle, but Suyuan just closed the door on them. She sighed, again, heavily, and wished she kept a bottle of nectar around for the occasion...