Category Archives: Developmental Theory

Generativity vs. Stagnation

It took them years before they were any good at the trade; then, it only took them months to edge out all other competition.

Lord Fairfax, Sr. died of chronic liver failure two years before their control over the drug trade was absolute.  Charles became the new Lord Fairfax, Baron of Berkeley, instead of Billy.  In private, Charles had expressed outrage that the eldest son had been passed over.  Billy, for his part, showed no concern for the slight at all.

“You’re his son,” Billy had said.  “His legitimate son, I mean.  If you ask me, it was always yours.  Besides, I never wanted to be nobility.”

Charles had forced himself to express more indignation and issued several empty promises of ‘making things right,’ knowing full well that he had no intention of doing any such thing.  It was his birthright, after all.  He had been the one to survive under the tender ministrations of the Lady Fairfax…he had endured years of benign neglect from their father.

Billy had received love, affection, and understanding from the late Lord Fairfax.  It seemed perfectly equitable that Charles should receive the title.

(He repeated that thought to himself, night after night, and it never felt equal to him.)

Life became nothing more than work, from that night.  Occasional interlopers attempted to muscle in on their business.  Billy identified the newcomers and Charles destroyed them, either through the force of law or through force of arms.  They turned the drug trade from something that thrived only in the criminal underground into a business that turned over record profits, year after year.  They used that money to hire or coerce others from overseas into streamlining the process, minimizing their operating costs, and flying in the best help that money could be.

Decades after they had started, the two brothers found themselves at the head of one of the profitable criminal enterprises in living memory.  Their business included the production and sale of various illegal substances, shrouded in the auspices of otherwise legitimate industries.  They worked with major gangs in Russia and South America, doing their best to stay on the cutting edge of the business.  When difficulties arose, they dealt with them as a team, moving with synchronized efficiency to maintain their grip on their employees and the beast they had built.

Life was good.  To Charles, however, a good life wasn’t enough.

On the night of his thirty-eighth birthday, Charles started the same argument that he’d been having with his brother for five years.

“We can do more,” Charles said.  He kept his voice at an appropriate volume, even though there wasn’t anybody else in their private suite.  “You know I’m right.”

“It isn’t as though we’re hurting for money or influence.”

“We don’t need the Russians, for one.  The amount of money we pay them to handle the smuggling side of operations isn’t exactly insignificant.”

“Sure, we lose a chunk of profits to them.  But allow me to present a couple of reasons why we don’t want to cut them out of things.  One: they’re the best at this sort of thing.  They’ve been doing it for years, and the Bratva are very proud of that.”

Charles downed the remainder of his Scotch in a single swallow and refilled the glass from a crystal decanter.  “They’re the best now.  What about that new technology from Brazil?”

“Untested and, therefore, unreliable.  But let’s assume for the moment that the Brazilians got their act together and perfected the process.  We’ve still got point number two: they are insane over there, Charles.  Seriously.  I’m not even talking about the stories I’ve heard, just the people I’ve actually spoken to.  London is too profitable for them to let the entire city go without putting up a fight.”

A headache began building behind Charles’ temples.  He took a deep breath before continuing.  “What if I want a fight?”

“Then you’re an idiot,” Billy said and shrugged.  “The Russians are…the Russians.  We’ve been at this for a couple of decades.  They’ve been elbow deep in crime since the Berlin Wall came down.  We aren’t the first people who thought we might be able to wiggle out from underneath them and, after they’re finished burying our mutilated corpses, we won’t be the last.”

“And if I know someone who’d be willing to intercede on our behalf?  Maybe they’d supplement our men with a little more firepower, in case the Russians decide to disagree with our business choices.”

Even that slight tentacle of conjecture was enough to jolt Billy out of his indolent, casual demeanor.  He sat up straight and locked eyes with Charles.  “What do you mean?”

“Let’s call them…possibilities.”

“And have you spoken to these possibilities?”

Charles said nothing.

Billy put his drink – a bottle of some Welsh beer that Charles couldn’t be bothered to remember the name of – down onto the table and leaned both elbows onto his knees.  “I just want to make sure I understand what you’re talking about here.  You want to cut ties with the fucking Russians, of all people, in favor of someone crazy enough to back that sort of play?  Did you think that these ‘other parties’ aren’t going to be just as bad, if not even worse?”

“Of course I’ve thought about that,” Charles snapped.  “But we’re never going to get any bigger than we are now, so long as we’re stuck to the Russians.”

“We won’t get any bigger if we’re killed, either.  And why do we need to get bigger?  We own London.”

“Because this is nothing compared to what’s out there.  Think about what we could do with our influence, if we could actually put it to use, Billy.”

“And these ‘possibilities?’  You think they aren’t going to have their own restrictions to deal with?”

Charles shrugged, faking a bit more nonchalance than he actually felt.  “We can deal with that problem when we come to it.  First the Russians.”

“I have thought about expanding,” Billy said, after a long, thoughtful pause.  “And that would only be signing up for more trouble than we need.  We got into this so that we could have money for medical treatments, Charles.  Maybe a little bit extra spending money, I’m not going to lie.  But we never planned on getting this big.  I don’t even know what we’re going to do with all this when we’re gone, but I’m certainly not about to work on giving us both even more work to deal with.”

“Let the next guy concern himself with what comes after us.”  Charles heard his volume increasing and couldn’t summon the concern to modulate his voice.  “I’m bigger than this.”

Billy leaned back and looked at Charles for a long minute.  He sighed, finally, and reached out for his beer.  “That’s what this is really about, isn’t it?”

Charles blinked.  “What?  What are you talking about?”

“Being better than this,” Billy clarified.  “Not that we’re better, though.  That you’re better.”

“Billy, I don’t know what – “

“At least you can be honest with me!” Billy snapped, summoning palpable heat and willpower in the blink of an eye.  Before he could help himself, Charles found himself recoiling into his own chair.  “We’ve known each other for most of our lives, Charles; do you really think I can’t figure out when you’re hiding something from me?”

Charles took several seconds to think about what he should say next; those seconds proved to be too much for Billy to suffer through.  The older man stood up, bumping one knee into a bucket filled with chilled champagne bottles, and began stalking out of the room.

“Wait!”  Charles extended a hand and managed to make contact with Billy’s arm, before it was jerked out of his reach.  “Wait, can we talk about this?”

Billy whirled around.  “What exactly do you want to talk about, brother?  Because you clearly don’t have any intention of telling me what this is really about.”

“I just…I just want to build something on my…on our own.  I don’t know what’s wrong with that, and I don’t know what’s got you acting like this.”

“You just said it,” Billy replied.  “Just now.  You probably didn’t even hear it, did you?  You want to build something on your own.  Not together.  Not the way we built this whole operation with our bare hands, starting from nothing except for our childish hopes and dreams.  It doesn’t matter to you, unless you did it without me.”

“I don’t…I don’t even…”

“You don’t even know what to say?  Yeah.  I figured you’d say something like that.”  Billy dug into his pocket and fished out a cell phone.  He entered the necessary codes and threw it across the room, where it landed onto the couch cushion just to Charles’ right.  “One of your lackies didn’t realize that we apparently aren’t working together anymore.  Sent an email to the joint account instead of to whatever private account you have set up.”

The temperature of Charles’ blood dropped about a dozen degrees in a heartbeat.  “Whatever you read, Billy, it isn’t…”

“It isn’t true?  You’re really going to sit there, look me in my eyes, and lie to me?  I’d rather you just shut up and not waste both of our times trying to dig your way out of this.”

As much as he wanted to find some way to defuse the situation, Charles wasn’t foolish enough to disregard good advice.  If Billy had somehow intercepted any of the private messages that Charles had been sending, there really wasn’t any point in denying their contents.  At the same time, nothing he’d sent recently had been of critical importance.  The occasional disparaging comment, certainly; more than a few phrases he would have preferred his older brother not be aware of, absolutely; but nothing about the possible benefactors or the decision Charles had been forced to make in the past few days.

“Okay,” Charles said, while his thoughts continued to race.  He couldn’t risk any more pauses.  Not if he wanted a chance to talk Billy off of the ledge…or to cancel the plans that had already been set into motion.  “Okay, I can explain.”

“I thought I understood you,” Billy said.  “I thought we were brothers.”

“We are!”

“We obviously are not.”  The intensity of Billy’s glare forced Charles a little deeper into his couch and a little farther away from his older brother.  “Unless the definition has changed in the past few years, I don’t believe brothers would say the sort of things I read about one another.”

“It isn’t…it isn’t what you think it is,” Charles sputtered.  “The men have certain ideas about things and it’s easier to just go along with them than to correct them.”

“Oh?  That’s why you told them that you wished I hadn’t ever come to live with you and Father?  That was their idea, was it?”

Charles winced.   He’d written that particular message to one of his closer confidants – as close as he allowed the hired help to get, anyway – during a fit of irritation.  “You…it wasn’t about you, Billy, it was about Father.”

“Please, enlighten me.  What did Father have to do with any of the things you wrote?”

Thinking about what he’d written – recalling the exact state of mind he’d been in while he’d typed out the email – brought those feelings back to the forefront of his thoughts.  He felt cornered by his older brother’s anger and that trapped feeling only amplified the anger that never simmered too far from the surface.  “Because he forgot about me as soon as you got there, Billy.  Or didn’t you notice that?”

It was Billy’s turn to blink.  The heat of his glare died away, replaced by a puzzled expression.  “He did not – “

Long buried heat bubbled up from some private room in Charles’ heart.  He stood up and slashed a hand through the air like a knife, cutting his older brother off before Billy could begin to focus his own thoughts.  “No, you wouldn’t have noticed it.  Because you didn’t even think about it.  As soon as you moved in, you just carried on, being whoever you wanted to be and it worked.  You weren’t expected to conform or to change who you were friends with so that the family name wouldn’t be weakened.”

“I didn’t even have the family name!”  Billy regained a measure of control and put it to work immediately.  “You and Father agreed with me on that.”

“That isn’t the point, Billy!”  For a single ludicrous moment, Charles wanted to sweep an arm across the table and scatter their bottles to the floor.  That bone-deep sense of etiquette and proper decorum kept him from venting his frustration in a manner so loud and public.  He loaded all of that frustration and vitriol into his voice, instead, and spoke without really thinking.  “The point is that you’ve never understood what it’s like to be a Fairfax, because you weren’t one.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, Charles knew he’d gone too far.  Still, he was all too aware that he couldn’t take back what he’d said.  The only thing worse than uttering those particular words would be cheapening them with a false apology.

Billy’s mouth dropped open and stayed there for five or six seconds before, slowly, he brought his teeth together with an audible click.  Moving with excruciating care, he removed his wallet and peeled off several large notes.  “If you want to do this so badly,” Billy said, “you go right ahead.  But you do it without me.  Since this apparently isn’t a family business anymore, it shouldn’t be a problem if I go off and do things on my own.  Maybe I’ll do some traveling.”

“Billy, I…”  Charles began, but no other words came out.

Billy nodded, as if that silence was confirmation of some question he hadn’t quite asked.  “Be seeing you.”  He let the notes fall from his hands, so that they fluttered down to the table.  By the time the last piece of paper reached the table’s surface, Billy was gone.

Charles sat in the private room, still and silent, for one full minute.  On the sixtieth second, he sighed and reached out for the nearest open container: Billy’s Welsh beer.  He drank deeply from the bottle and decided, eventually, that it wasn’t entirely terrible.

When he’d finished with the beer and another glass of his preferred Scotch, Charles had managed to wrestle his emotions back down to a simmering rage.  He used his phone to dial a number.  He’d memorized the digits and, according to instructions, burned the paper they’d been written on.

Mister Hill,” the robotic voice answered on the second ring.  “We assume this is good news.”

Charles thought about what to say next.  He knew that his words could, ultimately, decide the trajectory of the rest of his life.  On the one hand, there was Billy.  Infuriatingly charming, infallible Billy.  On the other hand…

“Why should I do this?”

Respect,” the voice said, as if it were the counterpoint to his own interior monologue.  “Power.  Wealth.  All this and more.  Everything that you deserve.  Do we have a deal?”

Charles tapped a finger against the rim of his glass.  They couldn’t have built the business without his contacts or his father’s money.  As Lord Fairfax, he’d been able to open doors that illegitimate Billy hadn’t even known about.  It was only right that he be able to decide where things went now that they’d reached the extent of his own web of influence.

“My business partner isn’t on board,” Charles said slowly into the phone.  He hated to reveal even that much information, but the mysterious party had proven that they could find out whatever they wanted, should they be motivated to do so.  “What will happen to him?”

Removed from the field,” the voice said.  “Anything else would leave a potential loose end.

Ten seconds passed.  “We have a deal,” Charles finally said, “under one condition.”

The robotic voice chuckled.  “And that is?

“Don’t kill him,” Charles blurted out.  He felt ridiculous making demands at this late hour.  It wasn’t as though he could really stop his unknown benefactors if they decided to ignore him.

And why should we not eliminate potential complications?”

“Because…”  Charles swallowed.  “…because he’s my brother.”

Silence, stretching out for so long that Charles thought the voice at the other end of the line might have disconnected.  Then, finally: “We have a deal.”

The line went dead.

Charles let the phone drop from his fingers to the couch, every drop of anger evaporated in that final perilous instant.  Suddenly, what he’d chosen seemed monstrous.  Billy was his last living family and Charles had just abandoned him.

He realized that it might not be too late.  No matter how powerful the mysterious party was, they weren’t omnipotent.  They couldn’t have made a move against Billy yet.  Charles could still call him and…and what?  Fight against them?  Die together?  What purpose would that serve?

“Billy made this choice,” Charles muttered out loud.  “He did this to himself.  Besides, it isn’t personal.  It’s just business.”

Instead of reaching for the phone, Charles took the crystal decanter half-filled with Scotch and began to drink straight from the bottle.  He did that until his mind was numb, his limbs uncoordinated, and his guilt submerged so deeply that he could barely find it anymore.  By then, he almost believed the mantra he kept repeating to himself.

“It’s nothing personal.  It’s just business.  It’s nothing personal.  It’s just business.  Just…it’s just business.”

 

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Intimacy vs. Isolation

These days, Charles often wondered why he continued to be surprised.

Of course Billy had gotten into an argument with some of the elitist idiots who matriculated at their university.  And of course the disagreement had escalated from words – barbed, nasty words, designed specifically to devastate and humiliate – into harsher vitriol and, ultimately, into naked violence.  And of course Charles himself had been compelled to join in on his brother’s behalf, punching and kicking to ensure, if nothing else, that Billy wouldn’t be swarmed by more than two of the six larger boys.

His knuckles were sore and skinned, now.  There was blood drying on his cheek, just beneath a shallow cut that from the corner of an eye to the top of his cheekbone.  He was winded and muscles ached in places that he hadn’t known existed.  Charles closed his eyes, allowing the pain to wash over him, and thought about the dozen other ways the two could have avoided conflict and the myriad punishments that the headmaster could levy against them for causing such a public disturbance.

It wouldn’t matter that Billy had been provoked.  No, that would have been too much like fairness.  The boys weren’t nobility like Charles, but their families had managed to accrue vast amounts of wealth through various means.  The Fairfax name didn’t carry the same weight anymore.  His father’s poor financial decisions, coupled with his open acknowledgment of his bastard son, had robbed their family of much-needed political capital.  Charles and Billy were treated, for the most part, as something to be tolerated at best and insulted at worst.

“Hell of a fight, wasn’t it?” Billy asked.

Charles opened one eye and looked to his left.  Billy sat next to him, pressing a cold compress to a bruise that promised to turn an impressive shade of purple before too long.  He kept one arm pressed to his rib, but he was breathing easily enough that Charles doubted anything serious had been broken or fractured.

“We lost,” Charles pointed out.  “Badly.”

Billy wiped a spot of blood away from one corner of his lips and smirked.  “Bet they’ll think twice before they start up with that shit again, though.”

Charles struggled valiantly to keep a reciprocal smile from appearing on his face.  He failed.  As the smile began to stretch his lips, he shook his head and sighed.  “I’m certain that lot learned their lesson,” he said.  “Next time they want to corner you, they’ll bring ten instead of six.  Just to make certain you don’t bleed too much on their shoes.”

“They’d better bring twelve.”  Billy’s smile thinned, then vanished.  He straightened his back and turned to look Charles fully in the face.  “Been dealing with shit like that for too long, as is.  Be damned if I’m going to let anyone start up with that here.”

Charles nodded and said nothing.  This was a familiar back-and-forth with Billy.  Ever since their first meeting, Charles’ brother had carried a Big Ben sized chip on his shoulder and, almost since their first joint appearance in public, other nobles and rich children had been all too happy to taunt him.  The exact nature of the mockery varied from person to person.  Some people went after the circumstances of his birth.  Others attacked his accent…or, at least, they’d done that until Billy learned to hide the lower-class consonants and vowels in casual conversation.  Some even went so far as to imply certain things about Billy’s mother, and the nature of her employment.

That last group learned quickly to choose other targets.  Billy and Charles were very thorough about conveying the exact cost of that particular slander.

“What’d they say this time?” Charles asked.

Billy picked at his teeth.  “Wasn’t anything new.”

“Do you know what made them start in on you?”

“Other than the fact that they’re a pack of bloody berks?”

“Yes.  Other than that.”

Billy shrugged.  “Think their leader’s girl might have fancied a bit of rough.  At least, that’s what she told me.”

Charles sat forward, as well.  “You didn’t.”

“Not this time, no,” Billy said.  He laughed.  “Not that she didn’t try to change my mind.  Might have managed it, if her bloke hadn’t decided to make an appearance today.  Although…well, now I think he might have made up my mind for me.”

“You never learn, do you?” Charles asked, expecting no answer except for the self-satisfied smirk that Billy wore on a near-constant basis.  “Did you at least chat with this one first, or did she just throw herself in your path?”

Despite his birth…despite his accent…despite how little Billy fit into proper high society, nothing seemed to stick to him.  For as many enemies as he made by simply existing, Billy made twice as many friends.  It didn’t matter what he wore or how he acted; women still flocked to him.  It made him an insufferable friend.  What escalated him into a superlative brother – at least, in Charles’ limited experience – was his complete lack of self-awareness.

“You’re one to talk,” Billy said.  “What’s your lady’s name?  Chelsea?  Danielle?  You go through them so fast that I can’t keep up.”

“That’s not the same thing, and you know it.”  Charles paused.  “And her name is Laurel, by the way.”

“Seems like the same thing to me,” Billy said.

Charles considered debating the point.  He decided against it within short order.  It wasn’t something that Billy would be able to understand.  Their father had claimed Billy as a son, but Billy himself had refused to change his last name.  That marked him as an outsider more than most things, but it also insulated him from the worst part of a noble heritage.

Everyone who liked Billy did so because they liked Billy.  He had nothing to offer them: no money, no lands, no honorable name.  He was simply himself and that was all he needed to attract men and women to his side.  There were days when Charles felt certain that everyone in his life – except for his father and for Billy – only cared about what benefits a relationship with him might yield.

Not that he had those days very often anymore.  Even those sycophants and opportunists had trickled to nothing, in light of his family’s declining fortunes.

Charles started to say something – he had no idea what – when the door to Lord Fairfax’s personal study opened and their father exited.  Circles so dark that they were the next best thing to black ringed his eyes and there were thunderclouds in his expression.

“I hope the two of you understand,” Lord Fairfax began, “that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated.  Not now, not so long as you live on this property, and not as long as you live.  There are expectations and decorum and those are requirements that will be met!”

At the crescendo of his opening salvo, Lord Fairfax slapped an open hand against a conveniently placed nightstand.  Glasswear and candlesticks fell to the carpet, accompanied by soft thumps as each item made contact with the floor.

In all of his years, Charles had never grown fully accustomed to his father when he was in a mood.  It wasn’t that Lord Fairfax had ever hit him.  That had always been the purview of his late mother, God rest her damned soul.  What set his nerves on edge was the complete shift from father to nobleman, the change in demeanor and bearing that signified that Lord Fairfax had entered the room and would brook no further argument.

The Lord came out less and less these days.  That didn’t diminish the effect when some misadventure pushed him into that transition, though.

Charles cringed away from his father’s outburst, instinctively trying to make himself somehow smaller.  Billy did no such thing.  Instead he jumped out of his chair and took two long steps forward to meet Lord Fairfax’s blazing glare.

“I’ll be happy to keep my mouth shut, just as soon as these pricks get it through their heads,” he snapped back, every line of his body as imperious and commanding as Lord Fairfax at his best.  His accent came back in full force, adding a healthy dose of seasoning to each word.  “Anytime they want to start something with me, they’re free to try.  So long as they’ve got the balls to do it proper, instead of taking shots at you, or Charles, or my mum.”

“William, you – “

“It ain’t William, and you know it!”  Billy took another step forward.  He was almost nose-to-nose with their father now.  “If you got a problem with that, or you think I ought to just shut up and play the role of a charity project so that you don’t have to explain me to your rich friends, I can leave anytime.  Got that?”

Lord Fairfax and Billy stared at each other while Charles stared at Billy.  No one spoke to Lord Fairfax like that…at least, not to his face.  But to confront the man in his own home was unheard of.  Charles found himself both thrilled that Coleman wasn’t present to behold the scene and, oddly, upset that there weren’t any other witnesses to confirm what he was watching.

The tension in the room grew to unbearable thickness.  Charles could feel the battle of wills between his brother and his father, could almost see it like thin blue lines of arcing electricity that danced between their locked eyes.  He prepared himself emotionally for the moment when one or the other snapped and lashed out.

The moment never came.

Instead, Lord Fairfax drew in a deep breath, held it for a second or two, and then released it slowly.  As he exhaled, he seemed to deflate.  His body language shifted and slid into a more casual, conciliatory posture; his eyes softened; and, when he spoke, it was clear that the nobleman had left the room.  “Billy,” he said, in a softer voice, “you have to understand the pressures that our family is under.”

“Bad business deals, bad partners,” Billy said.  “I’m not an idiot; I know you’re losing money.”

We’re losing money,” Lord Fairfax corrected gently.  “You’re a part of this family, too.”

“Yeah, but it ain’t my money.”  He gestured at their surroundings.  “If these bills are too much to handle, why don’t you sell some of this?”

Charles blinked, stunned.  He had grown more accustomed to Billy’s nonchalant dismissal of material wealth, but…but they couldn’t get rid of the trappings of prosperity.  Some of the things on the estate – some of the things in that very room – were over a hundred years old.  It was one thing to bleed money on the stock market.  It was something else entirely to sell off your very history.

As if Billy had read his mind, the older boy turned and faced Charles.  “And before you say anything about it, it isn’t my history.  You’re my brother, he’s my father, but the rest of these people?  They don’t have anything to do with me.”

“That’s not the point,” Lord Fairfax said.  He opened his mouth to continue but a wracking cough interrupted him.  He doubled over for five seconds…then those five seconds stretched out into ten.  When he finally regained control of himself, nearly fifteen seconds of scratchy, choking sounds that were awful to hear had passed.

“Look,” Billy said, placing one hand on Lord Fairfax’s back and stroking.  “Look, I’m sorry I got into the fight.  You’re right; I have to consider what it looks like for you.  I can’t keep going back to who I was every time somebody says the wrong thing to me.”

Charles noted the lower-class accent was gone now, replaced by the approximation of high society that Billy deigned to use.  He was capable of mimicking even their father flawlessly, but he chose this halfway point as an homage to both sides of his parentage.  Or, at least that was what he made a point to tell Charles, every time the conversation came up.

Lord Fairfax looked as though he might say something else for a second or two, before removing a handkerchief and wiping at the corners of his mouth.  “We’ll talk about this later,” he said to Billy.  His eyes traveled from his oldest son to his youngest and that tight, controlled authority crept back into his voice.  “Both of you.”

He pivoted on his heel and walked away, in the direction of the bathroom instead of his personal study.  Both boys watched him go.

“See?” Billy asked, when their father was out of sight.  He collapsed back onto his chair, smiling broadly and easily.  “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Charles shot Billy a dark look.  “It wasn’t so bad for you.  I don’t even know what he would have done if I’d been the one to get in a fight at university.”

“What’s the worst he could do?  You’re bigger than him.  We both are.  It’s not like he could hit us or anything like that.”

That hadn’t stopped Charles’ mother, but he kept that memory to himself.  He cheerfully shared almost everything with his brother; there were some things, however, that he preferred to keep close to his own chest.

“You don’t know what he was like before you got here,” Charles said.  “It was…”

“What, was he one of those men who goes around proclaiming his superiority to everyone who would listen?”  Billy interrupted, barely making an effort to hide how absurd that proposition was.

And Charles privately admitted to himself that it was an absurd thought.  Lord Fairfax hadn’t ever been overtly domineering.  He’ d been good to Charles, just…it was ‘good’ in a very impersonal sense.  They shared nothing with each other, except for the mutual loss of a woman that neither had particularly cared for.

Lord Fairfax shared something more personal than that with Billy, though.  It wasn’t just the loss itself, so much as the raw wound that the death of Billy’s mother had left in both of them.  Charles had never met the woman and, in fact, knew very little about her.  Neither Billy nor their father wanted to talk about it and so he found himself on the outside of that very private pain.

He was jealous of that, for no reason he could name.

“Would you really have done it?” Charles asked, instead of the dozen other questions he longed to speak.

“Done what?”

Charles swallowed.  “Would you have left?”

Billy tilted his head from one side to the other and shrugged.  “Probably not.”  Then, suddenly hearing the plaintive tone of Charles’ voice, he looked sharply over at his brother.  “I wouldn’t have left you.  You’re family.  But other than that?  It’s possible that I might have tried to make a go of things on my own.”

“How?  Do you have money saved up or something?”

Billy gave Charles a secretive smile.  “Not at the moment, no.  But…well, let’s just say that I know a few people who might be looking to hire some extra hands.”

Charles puzzled over that for a few seconds.  Billy had lived on the estate since his mother’s death and that lifestyle came with so many privileges that it seemed unlikely he’d found himself in need of part time employment.

“What’d you mean by that?” Charles asked.

Billy peered at the door that their father had exited through before lowering his voice to a conspiratorial volume.  “Well, just because dear old Dad is running low on funds, that doesn’t mean we can’t find other ways to make use of our illustrious peers.”

Charles lifted an eyebrow.

Billy sighed and broke his thought process down even further.  “I’ve got friends on both sides of the Thames, if you catch my meaning.  I got people like these entitled pricks up at Uni who all want to pretend to be rougher than they really are…and I still know a few people who never made it up out of the slums.  Figure there might be a way we could make a little money, if we’re willing to run messages from one of those groups to the other.”

It still took Charles a few moments to connect the dots.  “Drugs?”  The word came out in a harsh whisper, a little louder than he’d intended.

Billy rolled his eyes.  “I’ve been thinking about this for a while.  Maybe we could come up with just enough to hold things over until the business side of things smooths over.  Or…well, you’ve seen how bad Father’s health has been, lately.  If we’re out of money, what’re we going to do if something…happens?”

The slight hiccup in Billy’s speech, the momentary hesitation, spoke entire volumes to Charles.  He doubted that anyone else would really have been able to pick up on it.

Charles considered what his next words should be.  Billy had offered him something and, despite how casually he’d mentioned it, there wasn’t any doubt that it was a serious proposition.  Years ago, before their father had revealed his infidelity, Charles would never have considered doing anything illegal.  The risks were too great, the possible repercussions too massive to allow.

Now, though?  Now, he had an older brother who seemed incapable of failure.  Someone who had survived the loss of a mother who had loved him, who had managed to carve out a place for himself in the notoriously unwelcoming high society of London nobility.

Someone who their father loved and who honestly didn’t appear able to do wrong.

As much as that thought galled him, it also provided him with an unusual impetus to act.  He could see the possibilities unfolding in front of him.  He knew that his “friends” at Uni partook of drugs, whenever they thought they could get away with it and he was on better terms with most of them than Billy.  With the two of them working together…they might be able to turn more than just a decent profit.

The two of them might be able to do something for their father.  Something that all three of them would share, then, instead of just Lord Fairfax and his eldest illegitimate son.

“How…”  Charles swallowed nervously, started over.  “How would we do it?”

Competence versus Inferiority

“I have a brother?”

“You’ve had a brother,” Lord Fairfax said.  “He’s older than you.”

“Why didn’t Mother tell me about him?  Why haven’t I met him before?”

The older man pinched the bridge of his nose and was silent for a long time.

Charles Fairfax shuffled his feet and picked at the heavy fabric of his school uniform’s coat while he waited.

Until he’d seen his father waiting nervously at the front entrance to the estate, Charles’ day had been typical to the point of banality.  The lessons in school weren’t necessarily difficult, when he could be bothered to pay attention to them, but they provided just enough of a challenge that he had been forced to work at it.  It seemed to come easier to his school friends – if the atmosphere of near-constant backstabbing and treachery could truly foster anything like friendship – and that absolutely galled Charles.  He wasn’t stupid, but it made him feel stupid to watch as the other boys answered questions immediately that took him a few more seconds to grasp.

The end result of a day filled with dozens of little irritants had ultimately pushed Charles into a particularly foul mood.  He didn’t live in eleventh-century England.  Why should he care about who won the Battle of Hastings, or why?  He had no aspirations towards becoming any sort of mathematician; in fact, he doubted he would ever have to work at all, considering his father’s noble station and the privilege that bestowed upon Charles himself.  So what possible reason could there be for him to sit through yet another hour of intricate geometrical problems or to learn all about how Euclid proved his own version of math as valid as any other?

If he could have extracted himself without upsetting his father, Charles would have been happy to break something or yell at some undeserving soul.  He could not do that, however, and so he forced himself to wait a little longer for his father to find the right words.

All told, it didn’t take more than a minute before Lord Fairfax cleared his throat and spoke again.  “Your mother didn’t know about him,” he said slowly, as if he feared Charles wouldn’t be able to read between the lines.

The specific details of childbirth still eluded Charles, but he knew enough about the general shape of things to figure out what his father meant.  “He has a different mother.”

Bright red blossomed in his father’s cheeks and he looked away from Charles.  “Yes.  That is…”  He sighed.  “Yes, he had a different mother.”

Charles thought about his next question.  “Why are you telling me now?”

“Your brother,” Lord Fairfax said, “was…hmm.  What would be the best way to explain this?”

Your brother.  Charles turned that phrase around in his mind, examined it from different directions.  A brother.  A brother. He’d grown up surrounded by various servants and, at the same time, absolutely alone on the estate.  His school friends occasionally came over to visit, at about the same frequency as he went to visit with them, but there was always an impassable distance between them.

He tuned back into what his father was saying, although he’d missed the first few words.  “ – bit of trouble.  You understand that we have an obligation to help others, yes?”

Charles nodded.  “As noblemen and individuals with real power to affect change, it is our responsibility to do what we can to help those less fortunate than ourselves.”

He repeated the words he’d learned at the age of six, recited them like a chant.  After only five years, the words themselves had lost any meaning to him.  They were simply a series of syllables, repeated at a specific pattern and with a certain cadence.  He could’ve defined the concept of noblesse oblige while asleep.

“Precisely that,” Lord Fairfax said.  “And, as I have a…shall we say, a special obligation to your brother, I thought it would best to bring him here.”

“For a visit?”

“No, son.”  Lord Fairfax reached out a hand and touched the slick black sheen of Charles’ hair with two fingers.  He didn’t apply enough pressure for the grease to come off of his fingertips or to disrupt the perfectly arranged coif.  The contact was light enough that Charles could feel it, but not heavy enough that he would mistake it for anything resembling true affection.

“Then what?”

“Your brother is coming here to live with us,” Lord Fairfax said.

Charles blinked.  He opened his mouth to say something and, after allowing a second for his jaw to hang slackly open, closed it again.  He blinked a second time.  “To live with us?” He repeated, finally.

“Indeed.”  Lord Fairfax moved away from his son, across the cavernous space that served as their sitting room, until he stood near a window with its heavy curtains drawn back.  “You were listening to what I said about his mother, yes?”

“Of course,” Charles lied.

Either Lord Fairfax didn’t believe him or he didn’t care.  “She was always ill,” he said to his son, without turning away from the window.  “And it was only a matter of time before she caught something fatal.  It would be unconscionable to turn him away.”

Charles started to reply but realized, a second before he could put breath to the words on his tongue, that Lord Fairfax was speaking to himself.

“I should have done more for her,” Lord Fairfax continued in that same soft undertone.  “I knew she wasn’t doing well, but I thought…I just thought that…”

Charles cleared his throat.  “Sir?”

Lord Fairfax shook his head and refocused his attention on his son.  “Ah.  Yes.  Well, your brother needs our help.  And, as we have the capacity to provide that assistance…”

A sound came from the parlor, closer to the estate’s entrance.  Lord Fairfax let his sentence dwindle and die, turning to look in that direction.  Charles mirrored his father’s actions without really thinking about it.

Their butler, Coleman, came up the stairs holding the hand of a dirty, disheveled boy.  The boy’s eyes darted up, down, left, and right at fervent speeds, taking in everything he saw while making an effort to appear completely uninterested.  Tear tracks, pale and drying like streaks of white paint, ran from his eyes and down his cheeks.  As Coleman and the boy came closer, Charles saw that the boy’s eyes were bloodshot and puffy.

Coleman stopped, just outside of the reading room.  The boy glanced up at Charles, then Lord Fairfax, and then turned his gaze to the floor beneath his feet.

“Ah, yes,” Lord Fairfax said.  “Coleman, come in.  Charles, I’d like to introduce you to someone.”

Etiquette, drilled into Charles from as far back as he could remember, propelled him forward where curiosity might have given him a moment of pause.  He took several long steps across the reading room until he was less than foot away from the boy and held out a hand.

The boy didn’t move.  Charles, bewildered by the lack of response, continued to hold his hand out until the muscles in his upper arm began to hurt.  He lowered his hand and cleared his throat.

“What’s your name?” Charles asked, hoping that a different tactic might yield better results.

The boy cleared his throat and shuffled his feet.  Twin streaks of darkest brown mud were left on the carpet.  He mumbled something.

“What was that?”

“Speak up, boy,” Lord Fairfax said to the boy.  “This is your brother.  Coleman should have told you about him, already.  You did talk to the boy, didn’t you, Coleman?”

“Of course sir,” Coleman replied, bowing his head.

“M’name’s Billy,” the boy repeated, this time at an audible volume.

“William?” Charles repeated.

The boy shook his head with a bit more force than necessary.  “Billy,” he said.  “S’what my mum called me.”  He sniffled and rubbed one filthy hand under his nose.

“Alright, then,” Charles said, faking an ease that he didn’t feel in the slightest.  “Billy, then.  It’s, uh…good to meet you.”

Billy said nothing in reply.  After a few seconds, Charles took a half step back and pivoted to face Lord Fairfax again.

“As I’ve said, Billy’s mother has…passed on,” Lord Fairfax said.

“I’m very sorry to hear that, sir,” Charles said.

It occurred to him, for the first time, that he didn’t feel the slightest bit of surprise at learning about his father’s illegitimate son.  His own mother had died years before and he should have been offended on her behalf.  He searched himself and didn’t find any trace of that emotion.

“You, of course, understand the trauma that sort of loss can cause,” Lord Fairfax said.

Charles hadn’t particularly cared for his mother.  She’d been a shrew of a woman, constantly obsessed with decorum and proper behavior; worse, she had been a hypocrite of the highest order.  While she had insisted on enrolling Charles into the most prestigious academy that their considerable wealth could afford, the woman preferred to spend her nights crawling deep within whatever bottle of alcohol she could lay hands on.  She had been the one who, on more than one occasion, had actually struck Charles when he spoke out of turn or failed to adhere to the strict rules of protocol.

He missed her, as he felt all boys would miss their mother, but he hadn’t loved her.  And, he suspected that she hadn’t loved him, either.

“Yes, sir,” Charles said out loud.

“Well.”  Lord Fairfax cleared his throat.  “Since the two of you will be living together, I thought it best that you meet and get to know each other.”

Charles turned back to Billy.  Except for the nervous shuffling feet and the furtive, almost frightened glances, he hadn’t moved.  “Did you hear that?  We’re going to be living together.”

“I heard,” Billy said.  Charles had to strain his ears to make out the words.

“And we’re going to be…”  The word stuck in his throat.  Charles swallowed, picked another word, and tried again.  “…we’re going to be friends.”

Still, nothing.

“I’d like that very much,” Charles said.  He felt his practiced poise beginning to slip.  None of his classmates would ever act this way.  Even if they didn’t mean a thing they said, the boys at his private school were fastidious about maintaining an attitude of civility.

No reply.  Charles heard his father approach from behind him.  “Give him a moment to adjust,” Lord Fairfax said.  “This must be quite a shock to the poor boy.”

The news of his father’s extramarital relationship and the child it had spawned was also quite a shock to Charles, but his father clearly hadn’t taken that into consideration.  He stayed quiet, though.

Lord Fairfax placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “William,” he began, then stopped.  “Billy.  I know that you have suffered a terrible loss.  I knew your mother well and we were…very close.  If I’d been a different person or if she had…well, it doesn’t matter.”

“She talked about you,” Billy muttered.

“Did she?  What did she say about me?”

“Told me all about my father.  Said he was a good man, but that he couldn’t live with us because it’d look bad.”

Lord Fairfax cleared his throat several times.  Charles glanced away from Billy and up at his father.  He was surprised to see that there were drops of moisture pooling at the corners of the man’s eyes.

“Did she…did she say anything else?” Lord Fairfax asked.

Billy raised his head and locked eyes with Lord Fairfax.  “Said she loved you.  Said you must not have loved her.”

Silence followed that sentence.  Charles made a conscious effort to look anywhere in the room except at his father.  Even then, he could still hear the choked sounds in his father’s throat.  They sounded like sobs.  It was more emotion than Charles had ever seen from his father, up to and including the eulogy he’d delivered at his wife, and Charles’ mother’s, funeral.

It was a great deal more emotion than Lord Fairfax had ever shown to his own son…although Billy was also one of his father’s children.

“I…I loved your mother very much,” Lord Fairfax finally managed to say.  “What happened to her was…was a tragedy.”

“You didn’t want to be with her, though,” Billy said.  His accent – something culled, no doubt, from a lifetime in the poorest parts of the city – rounded the edges off of his letters and gave the entire sentence a truculent tone.  “Why was that?”

“I had…obligations.”  Lord Fairfax looked away from the dirty boy and wiped at his eyes.  When he faced Billy again, his eyes were red but they were at least dry.  “There were things I needed to do and promises that needed to be kept.  Your mother understood that.”

“That’s why you brought me here, then?” Billy asked.  “Because you’ve got…whatever it was you called ‘em?”

Charles, who remembered exactly what words his father had used to describe the situation, kept those thoughts to himself.

There was a shift in demeanor, a subtle change in the atmosphere of the room.  Charles had been in his father’s presence often enough to identify the cause.  He could almost feel Lord Fairfax building up a wall of protocol and etiquette to separate himself from emotion, so that he could say what needed to be said without allowing his own emotions to get in the way.

“You are an obligation, yes,” Lord Fairfax said.  His words were crisp now, although there was still a thickness to his voice.  “You are my son and I have not served you in that capacity.  I intend to remedy that.  That’s why I’ve invited you to live here, with me and with your brother.”

Billy thought silently for a few seconds, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.  “What’s your name?”

It took Charles a moment to realize that Billy was speaking to him now, instead of to his father.  “Charles Fairfax,” he said and stepped forward.  He didn’t raise his hand again.  His pride still stung from that first rejection.

“Like him?”  Billy lifted his chin to indicate Lord Fairfax.  “You both got the same name?  Shouldn’t you be Charles the second or something, then?”

“Our middle names are different.  My…”  Charles trailed off, changed tracks, and started over.  “We don’t share the same middle name.  Who were you named after?”

“My uncle,” Billy said.  “He helped us out, when he could get the work.”

“Where’s your uncle now?”

“Dead.”  There wasn’t any emotion attached to the answer.  Billy said it plainly and simply.  The starkness of the words sent a wave of chills down Charles’ spine.

“Oh.  Well.”  Nothing else came to mind, so Charles lapsed back into silence.

That stretched out over fifteen seconds, with the two boys and their father all standing awkwardly in the reading room.  Coleman was there, as well, but the butler had cultivated the ability to remove his presence from any room.  Most times, Charles took that skill for granted.  Now, he found himself wishing that he could do the same thing.

“Never had a brother,” Billy said.

Charles looked up.

Billy raised a hand in slow, jerky movements and held it out in front of him.  Charles extended his own hand automatically and shook.

Brother.  The word still sounded weird in Charles’ head but, perhaps, it felt a little less strange than it had before.  Either way, it felt right in a way that nothing so far had.

He could feel his father looking down at the top of his head – their heads – and he cleared his throat.  “Brothers,” he repeated.  He tasted the word on his tongue and decided that he liked the way it felt.