Toar strode in through the gate and sank onto the steps behind the house, falling back on his elbows immediately. He pressed himself into the cold stone, sweating, his rough shirt stuck to the sharp edges of his shoulders. Stretching his spine, he tilted his face up to catch the warmth off the sun, bent his back over the straight line of the step behind him and held it, too long, as if the ache of pulling himself back to comfort was too much to consider. Sitting there, he took four full breaths, and didn’t move.
Across from him, Alek sat under the shade of one of their father’s several wide-leafed trees. The garden continued lazily behind him, pretty and green this late in the spring. The flowers were holding out for warmer weather, but there was still something sweet coming out of the leaves. It wandered on the wind, lightly filling the space between the house and the yard’s back wall. The breeze chattering in the greenery hushed the sounds of the street on the other side, secluding the place, and making the air all the sweeter.
Holding his book against his knee, Alek watched his brother over the top of the page. “Long day?” Alek asked.
A slow smile stretched across Toar’s face, and still he didn’t move. “Good day,” he murmured. But it took him another full breath to find the inspiration to even lift his head.
Alek laughed, and let his book fall in his lap. “You look like a mountain spent the afternoon gnawing on you.”
Toar’s eyes narrowed good-naturedly. He blinked a few times, working some question through his mind, but it moved slower than his usual snapping returns. “How could a mountain gnaw on me?” he asked.
Alek shook his head. “Just imagine that its boulders are teeth, and that an avalanche is just a mountain chewing the cud.”
“So, I look like I was caught in an avalanche,” Toar said.
Alek blinked, and let out a quick, annoyed breath. “An all-day avalanche,” he corrected.
Toar smiled wide. He breathed out, almost in a laugh, then pulled it back in until his chest couldn’t hold any more. “Like I said: it was a good day.”
Alek rolled his eyes. “What did you do?” he asked dully.
Toar straightened, then fell immediately forward with his elbows propped on his knees and his hands limp in front of him. “I made a perfect invisible shield, an arm span across, higher than my head with its feet on the ground, twenty times in a row, breaking it down to nothing in between each one.” He smiled, forced his lips down into a straight line, and smiled again, unable to stop it.
“Twenty times?” Alek repeated. He glanced at Toar’s hands, noting the raw red blooming on his palms. He’d never done anything like it, but he knew that was rough work. “How long did that take?”
“To do it twenty perfect times in a row?” Toar asked. He looked at something over his head, moving his lips in the calculation. “About seven months.”
Alek raised his eyebrows. “Oh.”
“Yeah.” Toar almost grinned, but put a hand to his mouth to force that straight before it took hold.
“Stars,” Alek swore gently. “What are you going to do tomorrow?”
Toar blinked at him. “Do it twenty-one times,” he said, as if it were the only real answer to be found between the two horizons. “Beat my record.” And he hauled himself back to his feet.
He lifted his toes over each step, and shuffled across the stone patio. At the back door, he paused, half to take a breath before he lifted the heavy latch, half to give his brother one more confused look. Then he disappeared inside.
Nodding slowly, Alek pushed his book back up to his knee.