The house is quiet when Roman’s door creaks open. He peers out into the darkness, checking no one is around as he creeps downstairs and into the door under the stairs that leads to the imagination, slipping inside and pulling the door closed with a soft click behind him.
Someone grabs him, covering his mouth with a hand, and he flinches. When the lights of the staircase turn on it’s just Remus, as expected, and he rolls his eyes and licks his twin’s palm to make him let go. Unfortunately it’s Remus and he just raises an eyebrow with a grin until Roman gives in and shoves the hand away.
They turn to head through the portal together, Remus silently wiping the wet hand over Roman’s face and jumping through before he can be caught as Roman is forced to silence his shriek of indignation and horror and chase after him.
In the dark blue fields of the imagination- Roman could’ve sworn they were green when he left them but Remus must’ve been tampering again, and really why shouldn’t the grass be blue?- they run and run, before one of them conjures a horse and the other swiftly follows, laughter scored to the beat of hooves over the ground.
They travel many miles that way, crossing sections of the imagination they’ve been building in for all the long years of their individual lives, until they reach the lands they built before they were separate. Everything feels different here, raw and exposed like an ungrounded current through a wire, or looking at an eclipse without those silly special glasses that everyone makes you wear. It makes Remus’s skin prickle deliciously and Roman shivers. They dismount and walk on hand in hand, unable to bear being apart, not here.
At the heart of these lands there’s a castle, grand and surrounded by thickets of giant thorns. It’s kept perfect by the combined powers of the twin Creativities, and also by the absolute power of Memory, wielded by the Lord of Nostalgia himself; Patton. After careful questioning the twins have managed to figure out that Patton actually has no idea that he’s partly responsible for this apparition, and has no idea that it even exists. Although in his defence even the twins who rule these lands didn’t find it until just a few months ago, and they’d been journeying through the place for well over a decade by that point.
They go inside now, having carved a route in over many long nights of hard work. The doors open with a creak and reveal the still and silent entrance hall, draped with bright gold tapestries and flags with an unfamiliar crest. The whole place always carries the echoes of voices and footsteps and life, but there’s never a soul around when they enter, not since they finally gained access just a week ago.
Although, that’s not strictly true. There is one soul, in fact, and Roman and Remus nudge and push each other as they race up the grand staircase to the top of the tallest tower, knocking on the door and roughhousing as they anxiously await permission to enter from the person within. The person they’ve been waiting to meet. They’d both known when they’d woken up that morning that today would be the day- all the signs had been there last night and now at last their quest was over and he was awake.
“Get in here!” Comes the jovial shout, and they burst in, stopping just inside the doorway as the figure inside stands from the bed and stares at them.
Romulus covers his mouth with his hand, and Roman’s eyes glitter with unshed tears. Remus just stares at the King, mouth closed and shoulders high and nervous.
“Boys, you’re- look at you,” Romulus whispers, and with the silent tension broken Roman stumbles forwards with a sob and flings his arms around the older man, almost knocking him off his feet with the force of the hug.
Remus hangs back, eyes wide. He swallows, frozen to the spot, until Romulus lifts his head from Roman and holds a hand out to him. “Don’t make an old man beg, boyo,” Romulus croaks, and Remus bursts into tears to match his brother, running to slam into the embrace.
The three of them hug for a few long minutes before Romulus pulls back, cupping their faces and gracing them both with tender smiles. “You’ve grown so big and strong, look at you both. Are you happy? Are you healthy? Are you helping Thomas?”
They talk for a while, sitting on the bed and then migrating to the couch by the fireplace that Romulus pulls up for them, curled close together. He’s only a shade, this Romulus, but in the deep imagination they keep him so alive he could practically walk out into the mindscape with them. Maybe one day, with enough power, he will, but that possibility is a long way off yet.
The night ends too soon and Remus and Roman cling to the man they’re already thinking of as their older brother, their father, whatever he is to them he’s so important. Romulus gives them both a gracious kiss on the forehead and sends them off with a sad smile, to await their return the following night.
Remus is near inconsolable as they exit the portal, and Roman holds him as best he can, guiding him out and onto the couch to cuddle for a while and calm down from the experience. Tomorrow they’ll go back and carry on the conversations they’d started, perhaps start to discuss the logistics of leaving the castle for an adventure or two even. But tonight the twins fall asleep on the couch together to get a few hours in before breakfast, when Remus will slink away into the darkness and Roman will pretend he doesn’t miss the other half of himself more than he’d miss air if it was taken from him.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow; Romulus will be there.
Romulus is getting steadily stronger, but it’s a slow process. The twins frequently tire themselves out by putting all of their energy into bringing him to life, and he has to remind them to slow down; that he will be here for however long it takes him to gain the solidity to walk among them again.
Something shifts in the mindscape, he thinks, because one day only Remus visits, and then Roman starts coming back but later, sometimes not arriving until after his brother has left, filled with some internal conflict that he won’t share with Romulus. The twins have separated again, changing from each other, and that shouldn’t be a surprise- it’s not, they’re adults and individuals after all- but it is slightly sad. They still share the deep, insistent need to bring him back though, clinging to his arms and words whenever they come to visit.
Things come to a head when Remus comes one night, the sort of silent that bodes very ill. Roman hasn’t been in three nights, although Romulus can still feel the flow of energy from him. It just feels further away, like he isn’t venturing as far into the imagination for some reason. But Romulus isn’t quite ready to leave the castle and go searching for him so all he has are worries and theories.
When Remus falls into his arms- and god the kid had been so unbelievably cuddly ever since Roman had stopped showing up with him, poor mite- Romulus frowns and cradles the back of his head for a moment before leading him to the bed.
He tucks Remus in, sitting on the covers beside him to read him the stories of his adventures when he was real, memories he only has thanks to the thread of Patton that adds the third dimension to his form. Romulus has often considered pinging on that thread to see what happens, but that kind of curiosity had been exactly what had got him killed in the first place so he’s understandably reluctant to risk this half life he’s regained for the sake of a little adventure. Not yet, anyway.
When he looks down, Remus is crying, and more importantly- shrinking. Romulus grabs him in a panic, pulling Remus to him as the boy gets gradually smaller. For a minute Romulus worries that he’s just going to keep going until he disappears, and has a horrible thought that this could be to do with him and all the life force he’s leaching from his kids (which they are, they’re his kids, fact be damned), but that flow stays steady and Remus stops shrinking when he looks young enough to be- oh.
He looks the same age they’d been when they’d split apart, somewhere in that delicate age between child and teenager, still sweet and hopeful but starting to understand that the world wasn’t all bright things and wonder.
This Remus peers at him nervously, still wracked with sobs, so he unfreezes and makes himself smile in reassurance.
“Hey kiddo, what’s got into you then? You’re a little, uh, little today huh.”
Remus wipes a hand over his face. Romulus quickly plucks a handkerchief out of thin air without thinking about it and takes over, cleaning the mess from Remus’s cheeks and hand with soft, tender strokes. “You wanna tell me what’s going on?”
Remus shakes his head but he wilts under the stern look Romulus gives him. “Everything’s gone wrong,” he says in a small voice. “I don’t wanna go back ever again, I really don’t, please don’t make me…”
With a barely concealed pulse of fury Romulus lifts the boy and gets them both comfortable under the covers. “Okay, okay kid you can stay. This is your home too Remus, you can do what you need to for Thomas from here.”
“Um,” Remus sniffs and his face twists. It’s an ugly look on the young face he’s wearing. “Actually um, I don’t think they’d notice if I stopped. Or like, mind much. No one really likes me?”
That pulse of hot fury is back. “I like you just fine Remus.”
“Yeah but you’re not real-“
“That’s enough.” Remus, who had sat up in his passion, sinks back down with wide eyes. Romulus regrets snapping but that’s not talk he can stand to hear. “I am real. I may not be who I used to be but I am real. Don’t I feel real to you?”
“Yeah,” he gets Remus to admit quietly.
“Great. And I promise you I will always be here for you, little one.”
“I just… I wanna be like you. I wanna be real but not real and do whatever I like and stay here and never go back ever again, so they stop getting mad…”
“Remus, you’re a part of Thomas. That makes you a good person. You-”
Remus had flinched hard and is staring up at him with his mouth slightly parted. It takes a few seconds but then the reason why twigs in Romulus’ brain and he melts, cupping the back of Remus’s small head and pulling him impossibly close. “Oh my boy. Did no one ever tell you how good you are?”
The way Remus starts to shake, still staring at him, indicates a strong no to that.
“You’re so good, Remus, so good. You’re the best, you do so good, you’re doing amazing, you’re perfect just as you are, god I love you you’re so wonderful, so fantastic-“ As he drips compliments over Remus the boy melts into him, grateful and gasping and finally relaxing in a puddle of hope. “You are so good, my dear. Shh, sleep now, let me watch over you. I’ll keep you here as long as I can, you’ll never be sad again.”
If I had the strength to do it I’d march out of here and rain down righteous fury on everyone who hurt you, he thinks viciously to himself. “Dream incredible things, little one.”
Remus is asleep at last, and Romulus holds him ever tighter. He’s so delicate, so precious… He’s his now; and Romulus will keep him like the treasure he is.
It was about time someone did after all.
When Roman finally comes to them after over a month of total absence, they’re tucked up in bed after a long day of Remus being the rambunctious kid he should have got to be and Romulus running after him on still-weak legs. Remus is already fast asleep, little chest rising and falling peacefully as he splays out on the bed next to Romulus, who isn’t far behind but is fighting the urge to close his eyes when he could still be watching the boy sleep, pure sweet contentment lining every muscle in his body.
He only notices that Roman has arrived because the other twin lets out a soft gasp, and when Romulus sharply lifts his head, Roman is stood there, halfway into the room, a hand over his mouth as he stares at his brother. “Ro,” Romulus whispers. “You’re here. What are you-” He sighs, glancing down at Remus and rolling over onto his back so Roman gets a better view. “Don’t wake him, okay?”
Roman nods, stepping forwards unsteadily. He sits carefully on the edge of the mattress and Romulus reaches up to place a hand on his back, watching him carefully, trying to read the answers for where he’s been from his face and clothes and the set of his shoulders. Roman leans forwards across him to get a better look at Remus, who wrinkles his nose with a little snort and flops around until he’s properly starfished, head turned back towards them and a hand curled into the soft fabric of Romulus’ top.
“He’s so small,” Roman breathes, breaking his silence at last. His eyes are round and glassy with awe, but Romulus still stops him when he reaches out to touch his brother, shaking his head in warning. Roman frowns at him in confusion but Romulus shakes his head again and moves to slip out of bed, taking Roman by the shoulders to lead him reluctantly across the room to the seats by the fireplace on the other side, though Roman keeps his head turned to watch Remus as long as he can. Until he’s firmly pushed into an armchair that faces away from his brother, Romulus taking the opposite one silently.
It starts to twig for Roman that his ancestor-self isn’t smiling and overjoyed to see him, and he hasn’t offered Roman the customary bear hug he’d grown used to. “What is this? Am I in trouble for something?” He asks, instinctively on the defensive. His arms fold over his chest and he lifts his chin but Romulus knows the cornered look in his eyes because he debuted it first.
“I dunno, kid. There something you should be in trouble for?” Romulus replies evenly, leaning back more comfortably in the armchair, hands relaxed on the armrests. He raises an eyebrow and Roman scowls at him, leaning forwards to hiss back.
“No! What the hell, old man?!”
“Watch your volume, Roman,” Romulus sits forwards and warns him in a low voice, and Roman bares his teeth, but he is quieter when he continues, gripping the armrests with white knuckles.
“I said, no. I’ve been doing what I had to! Everything’s so messed up now with the Dark Sides- Thomas hasn’t been doing so good and he’s needed the distraction! I didn’t- I knew- I thought you’d understand!”
Romulus leans back without taking his eyes off Roman, folding his arms over his chest in a mirror of how Roman had been sat not long before. They look at each other, glare against even gaze, until Remus snuffles from the bed. That makes Roman’s eyebrows twitch and he loses focus, head turning instinctively. Romulus clicks his fingers to draw his attention back. “Hey, no. Back to me for now kid. You were saying?”
Roman sniffs angrily, looking at the floor. “Thomas has been struggling a lot now he knows about the others. Or, some of them anyway. He uh, Remus came up and it was- bad,” he whispers the last word with a wince, Romulus can’t help frowning in sympathy. “The others went a bit haywire, but I just wanted to distract him from everything while Virgil stops freaking out all the time! And I- Remus had you and Thomas was- it was for Thomas!” His voice is straining by the time he finishes, tight with panic and desperation, pleading with Romulus to understand.
They look at each other in silence, Roman waiting with baited breath for judgement to come and Romulus mulling over his options. It’s Remus again, yawning and calling out from the bed, that changes things. Romulus murmurs back and the boy climbs out of bed and comes over to climb into his lap, rubbing his eyes tiredly. Remus freezes when he sees Roman, looking to Romulus for an explanation.
“Yes little one, Roman is back. You wanna say hi?”
It’s hard to watch Roman’s hopeful expression fall when Remus shakes his head slowly, but the way softness blooms when the child changes his mind and nods soothes the preceding hurt. Remus is across the gap in a flash, considerably more awake all of a sudden, and Roman sweeps him up into his lap, murmuring things Romulus can’t hear into the top of Remus’s head. Whatever they are they make Remus smile even as he sniffs.
Romulus stands with a soft groan, joints aching from overuse throughout the day. He holds his hands out. “Back to bed, you little goblin. I never felt old until you came to run me ragged day after day.” Remus smothers his giggles but looks at Roman instead of going to his father-figure.
“Will you stay, Ro?” He asks, big brown eyes melting Roman with their lethal power. Romulus snorts quietly but waits for Roman’s answer, giving him a hint of a smile when Roman looks at him for permission. “Please?”
Roman looks pretty conflicted, like he might actually be considering not letting himself say yes. Romulus steps in before he can make the wrong choice. “You’re gonna say no to that face?” he teases him gently. “Come on, bed’s plenty big enough. Remus is only a little tyke these days, aren’t you boyo?”
Remus beams at them both and bounces up, racing to bed to get in and directing Roman into place on one side of him. He takes great care in fluffing a pillow for his bigger brother and tucks the duvet over them both with a proud smile that makes Roman grin at him, eyelids starting to droop, ready for sleep. Romulus joins them back in his own spot on the other side of Remus, clicking the lights off with his fingers and reaching an arm out for Remus to pillow his head on. Roman jumps when he feels Romulus’ hand near his pillow but surprises the oldest side by moving his cheek up into his palm and sighing quietly.
Remus is already asleep when Romulus slides his fingers into Roman’s hair and massages gently just a few times, and then both of the twins’ breathing matches and he can finally fall asleep himself, both his boys safe and sound where (in his expert opinion) they belong.
Romulus takes stock when he wakes up, wonderfully warm but with a very numb arm. Both Roman and Remus have shuffled closer in sleep, and their heads are pressed close together on his arm. It’s crazy cute, and Romulus grins at the sight before the numbness gets a bit too much and he has to very carefully slide his arm out of the way and push the pillows down in its place.
“Sleep on,” he murmurs, brushing some fly-aways off Remus’s face and lightly running the back of his nails over the soft skin of Roman’s cheek. Both actions leave faint trails of gold shimmer that will hopefully permeate into their dreams, and a tension he hadn’t noticed at first eases away from Roman’s face in the aftermath, so he thinks it probably worked.
They wake some time later in the mid-morning, well past the time that the sides of Thomas’s mind would usually be up and active. Remus has been sleeping badly ever since he showed up and kiddified himself, so its heartwarming to see him finally get some decent rest. From what he knows of himself and what he’s heard so far; Romulus gathers it’s probably been much the same for Roman while he’s been… busy? Away? Gone.
The King settles himself in the window seat with a book- generously donated by Remus with unwitting help from Patton- that tells a few stories of what Thomas has been up to in the many years he’s been dead. He keeps the sunlight from waking the boys in the bed but it’s a glorious day outside and the sun warms his still firming bones perfectly.
It’s only when the sound of soft voices wakes him up that he even realises he’d fallen into a doze.
Roman and Remus are still in the same place on the bed, but they’re talking now quietly. Romulus watches carefully as Remus sniffs and Roman cuddles him close, what must be apologies dripping from his lips to fill the air.
If he listens carefully (and cheats a bit- this is still his realm and his room) he can make out words. “I lost sight of that, and I got lazy, I guess?” Roman is murmuring, and there’s a hitch in his words too that Remus clearly catches.
“It’s okay! Sometimes it’s good to be lazy, Ro?” the kid offers and Romulus tamps down the urge to snort and interject.
“No, Re, not like this. I should never be so lazy I let you hurt. Are you- do you feel better now? Like this, here?”
Yes, Romulus is quite curious about the answer to that too.
It takes Remus a moment to reply, and his sigh comes from a much older side. It’s easy to forget that he hasn’t actually changed inside, not really, but this brings it home again. “I’m better. But I’m best because you’re here now. I don’t want you to go again. We were never apart, Roman, never! And then we were and it was the worst thing ever.”
Roman clings to him, misery clear in his voice. “I know, I know. It was the same for me. I won’t ever do it again, alright? I won’t.”
“But they don’t like me! I can’t come back, Dee will try and hide me again and the others will make sure it’s for always.”
“No! Over my dead body they will!”
Remus looks at him uncertainly. “But you let them before…”
“What? No I didn’t. I- and anyway you knocked me out with your mace thing!”
They sit up and Romulus gets ready to intervene. Brothers…
“Because I didn’t want you to pretend you didn’t like me! I couldn’t see that!”
“You never gave me a single chance to prove that I’d be on your side! And it hurt-”
Romulus clears his throat. “Well. Good morning, boys,” he says, arms folding. “Breakfast? You can argue later when you’re not so hungry.”
Roman scowls- always so quick tempered that one- and gets out of the bed as angrily as possible. “Don’t bother, I’m going home. Where my family is.” Remus gasps, shocked and hurt and offended. Romulus is not overly surprised by the attack personally, and he steps into Roman’s way, redirecting him as he tries to storm towards the door and making him ball his hands into fists.
It’s interesting that somehow Romulus is taller than him, broader and older in a way he’d be fascinated to talk to Logic about if he ever had the chance. Roman lifts his chin and they’re almost nose to nose but not quite. “There’s no running today, Roman. You don’t scare me.”
“I damn well should!”
“Yeah well you don’t. So pipe down and follow me, get some food in your bellies. Remus?” The littler twin looks at him and gets out of bed with a heavy sigh. “There’s a good kid,” Romulus murmurs and tugs him in for a quick sideways hug, relishing the way Remus goes all sweet and soft at the affection and the praise. It fills some aching gap in Romulus that probably comes from somewhere very old and very young, to see the effect his words and actions have.
Together they turn to their third, and Romulus holds his hand out. “C’mon Roman. Imagination breakfast is always the best, don’t you remember?”
That breakfast is the first of many. Sure it’s tense, and quiet, but when Roman mumbles that he has to leave the brothers hug and he walks lighter out of the castle as they watch him go. Remus is tentatively hopeful for the rest of the day, clingy and demanding cuddles but prone to little outbursts of moodiness. Romulus just weathers it all with a bemused smile.
Roman comes back that night, shyly standing in the doorway as Romulus chases a cackling Remus around the room to get the scamp into bed. He casts those soulful brown eyes at the King until Romulus laughs and asks if he wants to try wrangling his brother for a while. His argument is he’s too old and achy for this kind of play, but in truth Romulus is feeling better than ever. His bones are strong; his energy is stable; his eyesight is almost perfect and his hair gleams when he brushes it. There’s still a hint of age around his face that the boys don’t have, and he’s willing to bet that the others back in the mindscape look as youthful as his two do. Well, not quite as youthful as Remus, probably, but the point stands.
Roman gets Remus up over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift, and the way they laugh only makes Romulus feel all the more energised.
“Alright, alright. So we’re all riled up, huh?” Romulus asks, tickling Remus as he comes up behind the brothers. Remus squirmed and protests breathlessly and Roman grins back over his shoulder before letting Remus wriggle back to his front. It makes for a sweet sight, Roman easily and joyfully carrying his brother, who relaxes in his hold, thoroughly trusting. “Is that how it is huh?”
“Yep!” Remus shouts. Roman shrugs at the King but his grin is equally as smug.
Romulus chuckles, rubbing the stubble on his chin. “Guess you boys will be needing a story to get you to sleep then, huh?” They nod and he puts his hands on his hips. “Well then, Roman- we’re gonna need refreshments. You wanna grab us some hot chocolates? Remus, c’mere for a second, I’ve got a secret mission for you.”
He waits for the boy to scramble down and crouches in front of him, whispering, “You wanna make Roman some cool pyjamas so he can be comfortable and feel at home here, boyo?” The kid gasps and nods enthusiastically, racing off to hide on the other side bed, hands glowing with a green as he prepares to make his brother the gift.
Everything feels just right as the smell of chocolate starts to waft through the air, and the crackling of the fire in the grate (nice touch Roman, he thinks) joins the fizzing sound of Remus’s own brand of conjuring. Romulus wanders over to the bookshelf to pick a story, bound in green dragonhide for added effect.
The fire is lit, the drinks are ready, and the look on Roman’s face when Remus presents him with his specially made pyjamas touches and fills another empty place inside Romulus’s chest. He wonders what Morality would say if he could see them now; the boys sat together on the plush fur rug in front of the fire, Roman with his legs loosely crossed and his chin on top of Remus’s head as the kid curls up in the circle of his brother’s arms, both pairs of eyes fixed on him. Romulus smiles and clears his throat, getting comfortable in the big armchair and opening the book.
Now this is family.