“DING DONG!” a voice shouted, shoving its way through the door. “Your favourite person is here!”
“Chase is already here,” Law called back, leaning back in his chair. Chase blessed him with a wicked grin over the top of his wine glass. Echo laughed and beckoned their old friends into the room. Eilidh wasted no time in swooping in and cramming Law against her, rocking him from one side to the other with far too much force. She moved on to Chase and Echo next, giving Lukas a much less bruising hug.
Rhoan came in after her and placed a bottle on the table. “Listen, chucklefucks, I’ve had enough of wine. Let’s make like the Scottish and drink whisky until we’re blind.”
Law snorted and let Rhoan pull him into a hug, feeling his friend’s lips smack onto his forehead. “Have you already started, perchance?”
“I don’t need to be merry to show my friends a little love!” he protested. Eilidh glanced up and winked.
“Yes,” she answered, settling into a chair and making grabby hands for the booze. “Oh man, continental living is swish, but I never thought I’d miss the wonderful welcome of the Scottish. The taxi man ranted about Thatcher for the entire ride, I could totally imagine my mother’s ears burning.”
“All hail Saint Margaret,” Rhoan said solemnly, raising his glance in homage to Elspeth, who was a staunch supporter of the polarising prime minster. “May dogs piss on your grave.”
Eilidh giggled and clapped her hands. “How are you all?”
“Happy to be staying in Glasgow,” Law snorted, taking a sip of wine. “I’m making some good headway on the same-sex parents project. And Chase does enough travelling for the both of us.”
“What can I say,” he said airily, “being the leading expert in cyber security puts me in some interesting circles.”
“Including politicians, I can imagine,” Rhoan said, wrinkling his nose.
“Ew,” Eilidh put in, eloquently.
“Is discussing politicians going to be the highlight of this evening?” Lukas asked, amused, accepting the whisky offered by Rhoan with a regal nod.
“Discussing is such a polite word,” Law said. “But no. How are the brood?”
“Oh GOD,” Rhoan said, suddenly, holding his head in his hands. “Samantha has reached the rebellious teenage phase,” he whimpered. “She told me I wasn’t cool the other day. The horror!”
Eilidh reached out and patted Rhoan on the shoulder. “I don’t think any parent can be cool. Brett brought a hedgehog home the other day. He doesn’t seem to get why that isn’t the best idea.”
“Kid loves animals,” Rhoan said despairingly. “Which would be fine if, you know, he stopped trying to make our house into a zoo. We already have three mangy cats and enough bones to create some sort of Frankenstein animal.”
Lukas leaned to the side, closer to Rhoan, his face utterly serious but for the twinkle in his eye.
“Frankenstein wasn’t the monster, she was –“
“Oh shut up,” Rhoan cried, making a show of downing the rest of his drink to a chorus of laughter.
“I’m not sure that’s the best way to enjoy the whisky,” Chase said, swirling his own glass.
“Well, with you bawbags I need all the booze I can get.”
Later, after Rhoan and Eilidh wobbled over to the boys’ room, Law rinsed out a couple of glasses and then turned back to his sister. Around a yawn, he asked the question he’d been burning away for hours.
“How’s the debate going?” he asked. Chase glanced up from his phone, interested.
Echo made a face. “Lukas isn’t up for telling them. Still,” she added. Chase made an appropriate noise of consolation.
“He says it might make Shanna worse and – he’s probably right, but…”
“But forewarned is forearmed, even if there’s only the smallest likelihood of the information being important,” Chase said sagely, reaching over to pull Echo into a brief one armed hug. Law had told him the entire story years ago, in the interest of leaving no secrets between them, and though it had taken Chase some time to assume it wasn’t an ill timed April Fools joke, he was as supportive of Echo’s idea to tell the children as Law was unbiased. He was more concerned about the impact the debate was having on his sister’s marriage, but the two of them seemed able to confine the effects of their argument with good accuracy.
“Exactly,” she said with an explosive sigh. “Anyway, we’ll see what happens. The kids are away for a week, but I expect we’ll be too busy entertaining our boisterous guests to bring it up,” she said, laughing in the direction of the boys’ room.
Law snorted in agreement and lead Chase upstairs, picking through the chaos of the girls’ room to the newly made bed, smelling fresh and faintly of lavender. Law was asleep instantly, Chase’s arms around him and keeping him warm.
The four siblings had taken the train on the first day of the Easter holidays – before the inevitable lethargy of Easter Sunday hit the country – and arrived in Inverness the same evening. The station was comparatively large to their local two platforms, but it was navigated with ease by the ever unflustered Isabelle, who shepherded her yawning brother (Ayr), her brother with his nose buried in a book (Quinn), and Shanna, while holding tightly to her clammy hand.
They met their great grandparents with a round of hugs. Isabelle smoothly took over James’ wheelchair duty, pushing Jessica up the street amongst the crowds of people rushing into the shops like tomorrow was Armageddon. They had planned an early evening meal in a new Sushi restaurant that had opened on one of the quieter streets next to the broad, lazy river, and they chatted as they walked.
The weather had a sharp chill and air carried the salt on its wind. The freshness of it stung throats, but Isabelle was glad for the rush of cold shaking away her sleepiness.
“Ach, cleans away the cobwebs,” James grinned as a blast hit the family when they rounded a corner.
Inside it was quiet. The distant trickle of water features and murmur of kitchen chefs seemed to bubble the silence rather than intrude upon it, and the dark interior with its shining baubles of lights was perfectly suited to the atmosphere. Sunlight blasted cheerfully through the South facing windows, though the clouds would quickly silence it once more and turn the sky grey.
James gestured to a waiter who showed them to their table, settling them with a casual air that suggested he was familiar with the two.
“We come here all the time, don’t we?” he chuckled, scooting his chair closer to the table.
“I think we’ve tried most of the menu by this point.” Jessica’s eyes twinkled as Isabelle helped manoeuvre her into a now chair-free space, their waiter having already grabbed the item and whisked it away.
Isabelle watched with satisfaction as Ayr prodded Shanna into a seat, launching into his usual jokes and teasing to help her feel at ease. She had an intense fear of leaving home, anxious that their parents wouldn’t be there upon their return, but she had finally agreed to come to their biannual sleepover. They stayed at their great Aunt’s campsite, and this year most of the clan was descending upon it for a long overdue get together. The notable exceptions were, of course, their grandmother Faye and their great Uncle Loxley. Echo had only rolled her eyes upon learning of their absence.
“And how is your reading coming along?” James asked, interrupting Isabelle’s thoughts. She brightened and turned her attention away from mothering her siblings.
“Oh, I’ve fallen behind,” she confessed, and James’ eyebrows rose at the unmistakable cheer in her voice. “There’s someone at my tree.”
“Ah,” he said wisely. “An intruder. A distracting one, I take it?”
“Very!” Isabelle shook her head with a wry grin. “He drives me up the wall. But,” she added, seeing her great grandfather’s crafty look, “he is so cute.”
Shanna nodded obediently, fidgeting around under Jessica’s warm smile. “Mum said I can phone home after we eat.”
“Of course,” Jess nodded. “You’re welcome to phone them any time, my love. We’re so proud of you for facing a fear and coming here.”
Shanna smiled in her usual timid way, and Jessica turned to Quinn instead, hoping to ease Shanna’s nervousness by letting her adjust in her own time. She was glad for the quiet in the restaurant, because her youngest great granddaughter spoke so softly that Jessica cursed not finding her hearing aid that morning.
Quinn, luckily, had a far deeper voice, and spoke much slower than his brother. He considered his words carefully, reminding Jessica very much of an old university friend that, admittedly, she couldn’t quiet remember the name of. Ah, this old age malarkey – she didn’t recommend it at all.
Ayr scraped his chair slowly over to Shanna’s side, grinning at the comical screech of the legs on hard floor. James glanced over at the complaint, shook his head fondly, and returned to discussing books with Isabelle.
“I bet you I can chug the sprite,” Ayr said, speaking out the corner of his mouth to Shanna. She squeaked with laughter.
“No you can’t! Anyway, it’s not sprite. It’s too – yellow.”
“Fancy sprite, whatever,” Ayr shot back. “And I so could. Don’t doubt my mad skills, little sister. You have a lot to learn.”
Shanna very obviously rolled her eyes. “I bet you can’t finish an entire buffet of sushi.”
“You know what?” Ayr said, reaching over to flick her nose and laughing at her grunt of complaint. “You’re probably right, but now I’m gonna try anyway. It’s your job to roll me home, titchy.”
“Don’t call me that!”
“But you’re just soooo small, Shanna. If you don’t want me to call you that, you’re going to have to grow.”
“I can’t just grow,” she retorted.
“Sure you can, it’s easy. Just buy one of those old stretching machines and let it do its thing overnight. You’ll be taller than me in no time.”
“Well Lox is currently on the continent – Germany, I believe – and taking advantage of some funding there. And Faye never has joined in with those gatherings, though I’m sure she’ll come up and see you at some point.”
“What about the cousins?” Isabelle asked, picking up her glass drink and unscrewing the cap with a satisfying click of plastic.
“Summer’s twins are there. You met them once shortly after they were adopted, but I think you were too young to remember. Skye’s daughter is in Canada, actually, though I admit I don’t remember what it is she’s doing. Her son is about Shanna’s age, and it’s a long way to come. What about Law – I heard he was working on some controversial piece of work?”
“Oh, you know Law. He’s always got a thousand projects on,” Isabelle said airily. “This one is about same sex parents. He tried to explain it to me once. Something about taking the cells before they really turn into an egg or whatever, and then making it turn into a, you know, um, sperm. Or the other way around, but I don’t really get how it works. There are lots of upset people over it.”
“In my experience,” James sighed, taking a sip of his beer, “people love to waste their time getting their knickers in a twist about whatever the latest bandwagon is.”
Once their early dinner had settled, James dropped the siblings off at Skye and Felix’s campsite – inherited from his parents – and dropped a quick kiss on Skye’s forehead before speeding back down the hill. It was only half an hour later when Felix returned from the airport, bringing with him most of the family – Summer and Uma, with their children, who at twenty-five had flown the nest earlier but had returned for the gathering, and Liam and Finn.
Lottie had pulled out a twister mat and challenged the group to a game, so Isabelle decided to give into her childish side for a change and play. Uma was talked into it by her daughter, and laughed as Shanna appointed herself the game master with a fierce grin.
“Right hand green, Iz.”
“Oh no,” Isabelle said in horror. Already her arms were straining with this awkward position, and she tried to adjust her centre of gravity in order to move her hand. The mat – slightly sticky at places as a result of drunk students – slipped underneath her and she fell onto her bum laughing.
“You didn’t even try,” Shanna accused, watching as Uma wobbled a bit but succeeded in staying upright.
“Here I am, a creaky fifty-eight-year-old, showing you up!” Uma tutted. “Rematch!”
“I’m not out yet,” Lottie protested, balancing on precariously large heels with expert grace. “I was the twister champion, ma. I have a crown and everything.”
“Good to know you’re accomplished, dear,” she snorted.
Isabelle laughed and tossed her head back. Although the fabric above them sheltered them from any daring sun, it was still warm in the crook between hills that the camp occupied. She always looked forward to these retreats, but with most of the Williams’ clan there too, she was filled with a glowing sense of love and happiness.
“Half of the challenge will be avoiding the potholes,” Felix snorted. “They might swallow you if you’re not careful. Damn highland council…”
“And don’t try any tricks until you have the basics.”
“I don’t think I could try any tricks anyway,” Ayr said, thinking of his clumsiness. “Should I have, like, a helmet?”
“No one drives up this road except for the campsite, and Fox is here now, so you’ll be fine. Just don’t fall at great speed,” Felix shrugged.
“Reassuring,” Ayr grinned, as Felix patted his leg to encourage their local stray over for a neck scratch.
“Got all that?” Finn asked.
Finn grinned, flashing white teeth. Ayr had always worshipped his great Uncle from a young age; while Quinn had Law and Loxley to look up to, Isabelle admired Skye for her attitude and practicality. Ayr, however, found a companion in Finn and, to an extent, Felix. Finn was the embodiment of cool for Ayr as a child, with his piercings, rude tops, and skateboard. Unlike the rest of the clan, Finn didn’t really have a career or any great achievements, and that never bothered him. He was relaxed and enjoyed life as it came, and Ayr hoped he could follow in those footsteps.
He glanced down as the cat wound its way between his legs. Its green eyes pierced his own and it gave a plaintive meow. Felix muttered something about cupboard love and went to fetch food – before Ayr had even heard the telltale shake of biscuits the cat had shot off and forgotten him.
“Come back to the fire before it gets dark,” Finn called over his shoulder.
Summer sat discussing her latest book, blowing out the fire on her burnt marshmallows with care. The lowest began to slide down the stick and they laughed at her predicament.
Quinn absolutely adored Summer’s work. At first he hadn’t delved into the realm of fantasy, but it quickly became a topic to bond over with Lukas and so Quinn now treasured it dearly. Summer was a prolific author, too, with more than twenty books under her wing. Quinn was proud whenever he browsed through the lists people created of the top fantasy books to read; inevitably Summer was named.
Skye, conversely, had kept a quiet life. She and Felix ran the campsite, though she also spent some time as an unofficial mechanic for the village. Even now her fingers had grease stains around the nails from where she had been tinkering with an old motorbike propped around the side of their house.
Liam had worked as a carer up until the Christmas before when he’d packed it in. It had been something he’d loved for a long time, but in recent years the strain had worn him down. He and Finn were currently debating moving elsewhere and finding something to do with their time, but Quinn had a feeling they’d never end up deciding.
Finally there was Fox, who Quinn loved to spend time with. He worked with local musicians in the area and rarely toured anymore, but as always he was a font of knowledge about anything and everything. Their conversation would start on one topic and end up on something entirely different, reminding Quinn of the game Ayr would play on Wikipedia, jumping from one section to the next in an attempt to find his way to a specific page.
Eventually the rest of the clan drifted around the fire, Felix finding chairs to seat them all. The night was warm with their chatter and laughter, and the siblings felt that deep love which comes with being surrounded by a big family.
They slept in one of the cabins rather than tents. The air was stuffy but the cabin was luxuriously quiet, the only sounds from outside those of nocturnal animals looking for grub. An owl hooted, and somewhere a badger upturned soil in its never-ending quest for worms.
Inside was a different story. Ayr snored cheerfully, while Shanna twisted and turned. At some point in the night her blanket had fallen onto the floor, partially covering the nightlight which she insisted on sleeping with. She began to mutter to herself, and whimper, until eventually she gasped awake. Her face was already wet with tears.
She was wiping away snot on her sleeve when Ayr awoke, sensing his sister’s distress. Half asleep, he rolled to his feet, squinting against the light.
Shanna met him halfway and dove into his arms, hugging him as tightly as she could. He was reassuringly warm and solid underneath her hands. Ayr murmured meaningless words as he soothed her, hands playing with her hair and rubbing her back. She sniffed a few more times.
“Nightmare?” he whispered, aware of his siblings in the room. He felt her nod and tremble against him.
“I hate them,” she cried, hiding her face in his stomach. “It’s not fair! They’re always so real and I can’t tell it’s not and it’s so horrible.”
“I’m sorry, Shanna,” Ayr murmured, his thumb rubbing over her neck.
“This time it was Quinn.” She dabbed at tears. “This time he was gone – or missing. And I tried to find him –“
“Hey, look,” Ayr said, nudging her so that she could see Quinn’s sleeping face, mouth half open and drooling onto his pillow. “He’s there, isn’t he?”
Slowly, Shanna nodded, but still she shivered in his arms.
Ayr settled on his bed with her, pulling her into his hold. She had always responded well to being smothered like this, and Ayr could remember similar hugs from his parents when he was a boy. It was so comforting to be in a world of your own, with the familiar smell of your parent who protected you. He squinted outside to realise it was slowly growing light, and glared at the offensive dawn as if he could hold it personally responsible for the morning.
Shanna snuggled up next to his warm body and eventually relaxed by degrees until finally she was asleep. Ayr held her still, wishing he could keep her nightmares away all the time. Unfortunately, it was just something they hoped she would grow out of, but Ayr wondered how likely that was. She was affected by them during the day, too; timid and anxious, keeping to herself and refusing to go out with friends after school. It was like if she wasn’t home, she couldn’t believe that her family was – a strange lack of object permanence.
But Ayr couldn’t magic them away, just like he couldn’t magic his own problems away. Like him, Shanna would have to develop her own ways to accept and deal with life as it came.
All he could do was give her the strength to find those ways.
Okay so this chapter was almost entirely filler, haha. But then I thought you’d like to see the extended fam probably for the last time, because I’m awful at including them when there’s plot to be had. Even though they weren’t all in the same picture at once, everyone staying at the campsite was there in game. My computer dealt surprisingly well with that, but I didn’t want to push it by having Faye, Loxley, Bethany, or any other folk. Besides they all had valid, in-character reasons not to come.
How good does Ayr look in that second to last pic tho??