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Dumas? It’s really you.
“It’s me. It’s me. It’s me.” Dumas repeated the words over and over, like a magical incantation. Maybe if he spoke them often enough, if he held Dee tightly enough, he would never lose his brother again. “It’s us. Together. The way we’re supposed to be.”
Dumas laughed through his tears when Dee insisted that he was too stubborn to die. They were each stubborn in their own individual ways, and that stubbornness had helped them survive a great deal. But Dumas had seen the Blight consume far more powerful people, and he knew that stubbornness was no longer enough. Now, more than ever before, they needed each other. Two sides of the same coin, finally spinning in unison once again. Ready to land on heads or tails as the situation demanded.
A guilty nod acknowledged the fact that he’d coped with their separation considerably better than Dee had. This was all his fault. His twin had suffered horribly, had sunk to this state of sickness and despair, because Dumas chose his Queen over his own brother. At the time, Dumas believed that his Queen needed him more. And maybe she had. Maybe she’d be dead if he hadn’t guided her out of Allutheria. But that still didn’t excuse the terrible price Dee had paid for the decision.
Before allowing Dee to pull away, Dumas cupped his brother’s face in his hands, his touch as gentle and tender as any lover’s. In so many ways, they were closer than lovers could ever be, joined together from the moment of their conception. Dumas didn’t speak, for fear of damaging the pride that had always been so important to Dee. But he silently vowed to make this right. During their time in the Labyrinth, there had been so many times when Dee comforted him, or went hungry so that he could have a little more food, or endured cruel punishments so that he would be spared. Now, it was Dumas’s turn. He would nurse his brother back to health. Whatever it took.
A bath sounded good to Dumas. Getting up, he eagerly took Dee’s hand and began walking alongside his brother. But he hesitated before speaking about his journey. Dumas didn’t want to admit that his memories of the last year remained hazy and conflicting. That would just make Dee worry about him -- and right now, it was clear that Dee needed all his mental energy focused on his own recovery. Under other circumstances, Dumas could simply flip the question around, asking Dee about his own adventures. Unfortunately, Dee’s current condition suggested that his story was not a happy one. It would be better to wait and let Dee tell that tale when he felt truly ready.
“When the Mad Tea Party came, I was hiding in a closet.” Best to start at the very beginning. Dumas’s memories of his last hours in Allutheria remained clearer than the ones which came after. Although, many times, they were the ones that he most wished would vanish. “I know I should have fought. I know I should have tried to do something. But I was too scared. I just curled into a ball and clamped my hands over my ears.”
It was not Dumas’s first moment of weakness. It was not the only regret he wished he could rectify. But it was the one that haunted him the most. The one that drove him to try and do better, to never again let his cowardice prevent him from helping people he cared about. “After the screaming finally stopped, I crept out. Everyone was dead. Everyone except Tsaritsa, who was nearly mad from grief. I stole some jewelry from the corpses and got us the hell out of Allutheria.”
Dumas lingered at the edge of the water, watching his twin wade in. It was an old habit, so deeply ingrained that Dumas didn’t even question it. An order established from the moment of their birth. Dee always went first, offering himself to any unexpected danger. Dumas always followed, made safer by his brother’s sacrifice.
“I know,” Dumas agreed, when Dee reassured him about his actions during the massacre. He did know. Trained knights and magical beasts died trying to defend their queen, so what chance did a Tweedle have? If he’d left his hiding place, the Mad Tea Party would have butchered him, just like they butchered the rest of the court. His death was the only thing he could have offered anyone that day, pathetic and useless. Just another body on the pile of corpses. Dumas knew that. And knowing should have eased his conscience, should have stopped the nightmares that haunted his sleep.
But it didn’t.
No blighted horrors had been stirred by Dee’s bathing, so Dumas began stripping off his own clothes. They were an odd motley these days: the red pants that had been part of his uniform at the Court of Hearts, the white silk shirt Tsaritsa bought him before they attended the fancy dress ball, and a buckskin jerkin with a rabbit-shaped brooch pinned to it. The only unifying factor was their tattered condition.
Dee’s next words caused Dumas to blink in surprise. Tilting his head, he regarded his brother with a mixture of worry and wonderment. “You’ve changed.” Not just on the outside, which was obvious. But on the inside as well. This was exactly what Dumas had hoped might happen after Dee left the Court of Hearts. Time spent apart had allowed them to grow beyond the rigid roles that defined them for so long. Dee no longer needed to be the the hardened cynic, Dumas no longer needed to be the helpless child. Yet, even though this was best for both of them, Dumas still felt a prickle of concern. Growth always came with a price, and he hoped Dee hadn’t paid too dearly.
“But then, I suppose that I’ve changed too.”
Carefully, Dumas stepped into the pond, shivering as the cool water lapped at his ankles. Dee’s approval meant so much to him. The words ‘I am so proud of you’ made his heart swell like a balloon. But his brother’s apology touched him even more than his praise. Pushing forward, Dumas joined Dee in the deeper water.
“You don’t have to be sorry -- not for anything. You’re the reason I can love as deeply as I do. All those years in the Labyrinth. One of us needed to go down a dark path, or neither of us would have survived. I can be hopeful because you carried the weight of our of despair. I can be kind because you accepted the burden of our cruelty.”
This far from the shore, they were just silhouettes in the faint torchlight, just dark reflections on the surface of water that flickered orange and gold. Shadows that could never again be bound by chains. “But we’re free from that place now. No more Goblin Kings or Fairy Queens to own us. And, even though things are pretty bad in the mortal world right now, I believe we can build a life here. A life where we can both be ‘the good twin’. A life where your soul can heal. A life where you can find someone to love, the way that I love Tsaritsa and Isis.”
Dumas didn’t know if he’d ever see either woman again, since he couldn’t even remember exactly how or why they’d parted. But he did know that loving them had made him happier than anything else, no matter how things ended. And he wanted Dee to experience that joy.
You are worth it all, brother.
The words made Dumas smile. He didn’t know if anyone could ever be worth the pain and misery that Dee had endured. But he would try to be. For whatever time he had left in this world, he would try to be.
When Dee splashed him, laughter burst from Dumas’s mouth like a phoenix rising from the ashes. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed. The last time he’d played a game just for the sheer delight of it. Still laughing, Dumas scooped up a handful of water and flung it at his brother. “Who says it needs to be a fair lady?” he teased. “What if I want a dark gentleman instead?”
In truth, Dumas’s taste did lean towards women. But there had been exceptions. With a slightly wistful smile, he remembered Chip. Did any of that actually happen? Being seduced, drugged and robbed seemed all too likely. Less probable was the tenderness of their lovemaking and the sweet note Chip had left behind, pinned to Dumas’s pillow with the rabbit brooch. Maybe the bad was the truth, and the good was only the fantasy Dumas had invented to ease his shame.
But he still possessed the rabbit brooch. That proved something. Didn’t it?
Remembering that he was supposed to be bathing, Dumas scooped up more water and lifted it to his face, scrubbing thoroughly. It felt good to wash away the dirt of his travels. It felt like a new beginning.
Dumas was a humble soul, who shied away from anything that reeked of arrogance. And yet, even he had to acknowledge the truth in Dee’s words. He truly was stronger now. “Without you, I had to learn to stand on my own. And I did. I joined forces with a great wizard to defeat blighted monstrosities. I survived a game of questions with the Cheshire Cat. I think I even helped outsmart a dragon. Although that last one might have been a dream?”
Or maybe they were all dreams. Sometimes Dumas remembered too much, sometimes he could barely remember anything at all. But that was still something he didn’t feel like discussing with his brother. Instead, Dumas placed a supportive hand on Dee’s shoulder. “But you’re not stronger. Something bad happened to you. What was it?
If you say it happened, it happened.
A simple statement of support, but it made Dumas feel a hundred times better. Devon was right. He couldn’t go through life questioning every memory. Maybe, as he spent more time out of Allutheria, the haze would eventually clear from his mind. But even if it didn’t, he still needed to believe something. And if he accidentally believed something false? At best, it would give him a little more confidence than he actually deserved. At worst, he might be embarrassed during an encounter with the real life counterpart of someone from his corrupted dreams.
It was hard to explain exactly how Dumas knew what his brother was thinking at any given moment. Maybe he picked up on physical signals so subtle that few other people would notice them, or maybe a mild psychic link existed between all twins. Whatever the method, Dumas could tell that he hit a nerve when he mentioned Devon’s weakness, and he immediately regretted adding new unhappiness to the misery that had already been endured. But it was time for them both to face some difficult truths.
At first, Dumas thought that Devon would brush aside his question. Admitting vulnerability wasn’t something that ever came easily to the older twin. But Devon surprised him. After only a moment’s hesitation, he began relating the story of his descent. As he spoke, Dumas listened with sadness and compassion, knowing what a difficult confession this must be for his brother to make. It was difficult for Dumas too -- each description of Devon’s suffering made his heart ache. Pride had always been Devon’s main defense against a cruel world, along with his devotion to Dumas. After both those things had been taken away, it was easy to understand how he’d crumbled.
Although questions swarmed over Dumas’s tongue like biting insects, he managed to hold them back while Devon talked. He was afraid that if his twin got interrupted he might never start up again. And these things needed to be said. This pain needed to be released, or it would never heal. However, when Devon concluded with a surprising allusion to Isis, Dumas couldn’t hold back any longer. Maybe he was interpreting things wrong, but it seemed as if Devon was equating Hatter’s abandonment with Dumas’s loss of his first love.
“Were you and Hatter…?” Dumas struggled to imagine the queen’s spy feeling anything except cruel whimsy. It seemed like an odd pairing. But Devon possessed a troubled heart, full of bitterness and anger, so maybe that had been their common ground. Maybe their disdain for romance had actually brought them together.
“I ran into him when I went back to Allutheria. He seemed pretty bad. I mean, he’s always been a little peculiar, but this was way worse.” Dumas strained his memory, trying to recall the details of that encounter. Trying to find anything that which might offer his brother a scrap of solace. “He said he had a note to give me. A note for a changeling. Then he forgot who I was and refused to hand it over. Maybe that note was intended for you?“
Dumas shook his head. Maybe he shouldn’t be bringing this up. After all, he wasn’t even certain that any of it had actually occurred. But if he could do anything to ease Devon’s heartbreak, he wanted to do it. “Obviously, I don’t know what really happened. But it’s possible that Hatter didn’t mean to abandon you. Or, if he did, he did it to keep you safe.”