Like diamonds they hung suspended in the air, bathed in the gentle luminescence of the street lights lining the many paths of the city, fighting against the inevitable pull toward the ground. A smile crept across his face as he watched the vain struggle, marvelling in the striking beauty that nature could achieve by merest chance. It was almost magical. Quite fitting.
Tranquillity reigned across the glorious city in the clouds. For weeks madness had held Neopia in its grasp, forcing pets to acts of wild desperation as the Month of Celebrating drew long and the its looming crescendo hurried ever closer. But now it was past, the hour finally come to greet them, and with it not even the usual blustery winds of the skies dared break the peace. Only the gentle snowfall continued unabated, covering the pastel streets in a crisp white veil.
Alone on the streets, the pet finally tore his attention from the display, and set off once more at a leisurely pace. It had been over four years since last he had stepped foot in this land, and it would not do to rush things now. So little had changed, and yet somehow everything felt more different for it.
His path brought him to the familiar side street, buildings of pink and yellow gathered close on either side like pets huddled for warmth against the seasonal chill. Nothing had changed here. Still the same colours, the same houses, and he suspected still the same families within, enjoying the day now it had come at last. Even the air tasted the same, closed in on both sides by the press of the houses. It was strange how the small details came back, even after time away. Already it was beginning to feel like he had never left.
His feet finally brought him to the waiting portal, freshly painted before the winter set in. It was white again. No matter how often he had suggested a new colour, they still kept it the same. His eyes automatically scanned it for signs of wear, the bland colour showing every mark clearly to his discerning taste. It would need another coat come the spring. The same as always.
Calmly he raised a hand toward the knocker. Three notes rang out across the street, the sound rising clear through the stillness before the quiet could close about it anew. Against his will he felt a shiver run through his body. Was he nervous?
A familiar voice answered the cry, her words muffled within the house. Quickly the waiting pet adjusted himself, straightening his handsome black coat and affixing his most pleasant smile in place. Yes, he was certainly nervous. After all he had done these past four years, it came as a surprise.
The door opened, releasing a tide of shining light into the darkened street, accompanied by the luxurious aroma of fresh cooking. His smile took new hold as it wafted over him, filling his senses with the unmistakeable sights, smells and sounds that could mean only one thing.
A towering pet stood dumbstruck in the hallway, his eyes wide as he regarded the newcomer on his threshold. Little had changed in his younger brother's appearance, the blue Moehog still resembling a brick wall with his towering height and broad shoulders, to say nothing of the eminent blankness sprawled untidily across his face. A ghost of cheer still lingered about his mouth, the fading relic of a smile slowly eclipsed by sheer disbelief at the phantom on his doorstep.
'Hello, brother,' his guest said politely, holding his welcoming smile.
The Moehog did not respond.
A new voice suddenly rose from inside the house. 'Judicius? Who is it?' A middle-aged purple Moehog appeared behind the mighty form of his little brother. She gasped as her eyes fell on the newcomer, the damp dishcloth in her hands falling to the floor with a limp splat. Suddenly she threw herself at her first son, her arms flung wildly about his neck as she pulled him into a breathless embrace.
'Happy Holidays, Mother.'
Blinking away tears his mother finally stepped back, looking over the handsome Halloween Moehog. Four years had passed, but he felt he had changed far more than he truly had. A new refinement lay across his handsome features, dark eyes still shining bright with cunning intellect, while his sleek black hair had grown still longer during his absence, but beneath it all he was still the same playful child of his youth, unmistakeable to the rose-tinted eyes of his mother.
'Happy Holidays, Mortimer,' she replied, wiping away tears that refused to depart. Shaking her head she glanced around at the unmoving bulk of her second child, still staring blankly at his older brother. 'Why are the two of you just standing here? Come on, let's get out of the cold.'
Finally Judicius stirred, stepping aside to allow his mother back through. As he passed, Mortimer met his brother's eyes and a flash of distaste passed between them. It seemed he was finally recovering from the shock. Took him long enough.
Colour bedecked the small living room, flashing him back to his childhood anew. It had seemed so grand when he was a child, all the colours and decorations filling the house adding a magic and cheer to the season that seemed so lost without it. Vividly he remembered the excitement when his father would return with a tree, Mortimer himself often sitting back and leaving Judicius to decorate it, following instructions from his elder sibling.
With a sigh he tried to remember what he had done to celebrate last year. It was all a blur now.
His mother stood waiting in the middle of the room, looking him over again under the bright light. Carefully he removed his coat and stood to attention, feeling a petpet on parade under her scrutinising gaze. She would find something to say, he thought to himself, she always did. No matter how hard one tried, there was no way to stop a mother from picking holes.
'You need to eat more,' she said at length, nodding thoughtfully to herself. He laughed openly, earning a bright smile for his efforts. 'You're staying for dinner,' she added firmly, reaching over and taking his coat.
'Of course, Mother,' he replied politely as she brushed past him, disappearing with his expensive coat.
Just he and Judicius remained now, his younger brother watching him with a dark look. As one they both glanced toward the hallway, ears straining for the unchanging creak of the stairs. She was out of the way.
'What are you doing here?' Judicius hissed angrily before his brother could speak. 'You run away for four years and then suddenly decide to just show up out of the blue? You have no right.'
'I have every right,' Mortimer replied calmly, 'or have you forgotten she is my mother as well? Judicius, you and I are all she has left.'
'And for the last four years, I was all she had left while you were busy gallivanting all over Neopia! For all you cared she lost both her husband and her son that night. Didn't you even think for a moment to come back before now? Come back when she actually needed you here?'
'What use would I have been, brother?' Mortimer protested sharply. 'You were always the good son, the caring son, the son she needed then. I would have just been in the way.'
'You would have at least been there!'
'What are you two talking about in such whispers?'
Together both brothers spun to face their mother, standing in the hallway with a curious eyebrow raised. Both of her sons bore the same bright smile, perfectly modelled on the mischievous grins that used to torment her when they were young. Her eyebrow raised higher, eyes darting from one to the other suspiciously. 'What are you hiding?'
A guilty look crossed Mortimer's face as he shared a defeated glance with his brother. 'Judicius was just asking me about something,' he admitted. From behind his back he suddenly produced a rectangular present, wrapped in silver paper that shimmered under the colourful lights adorning the room. 'I was trying to hide it for later and surprise you, but he caught me first.'
To his surprise, his brother played along perfectly with the charade, looking away sheepishly as the perfect picture of embarrassment for ruining the moment. Speechless, their mother took the proffered gift, carefully unwrapping it as though afraid it would break under her touch.
A picture stared up at her from within, enclosed in an ornate silver frame. She gasped as her eyes fell upon the image contained within; both sons smiled back up at her, still in their academy uniforms from four years ago, their youthful faces as yet untainted by worry. A sense of true happiness emanated from their cheerful smiles, side-by-side in a brotherly embrace that was rare even before, and she had thought she would never see again. A perfect snapshot of her children, as they were before it all went wrong.
'Oh, Mortimer,' she breathed, tears in her eyes again.
'It was taken just before I left the academy,' he explained, 'but in the wake of everything it was never made public. I spoke with my contacts about possibly acquiring it, and after pulling a few strings and greasing a few palms I was finally provided with a copy. I remember you did not have any pictures of us together from the academy days, so I thought it would make a nice gift. Would you not agree, brother?'
Judicius gave a non-committal grunt as he cast an eye over the picture. He remembered that day only too well. He remembered that night even better. They all did.
His lack of enthusiasm was lost on their mother. Beaming broadly she placed the new picture on the mantelpiece beside the old photograph of her late husband.
'Well, the Gobbler is about ready, so Mortimer, why don't you go sit down at the table and make yourself comfortable. I want to hear all about what's been happening over the last few years. Judicius can give me a hand with dishing up.'
Mortimer opened his mouth to offer assistance, but a sharp look from his brother kept him silent. Making his way alone into the dining room, a part of him wondered if it would not have wiser to wait a few days and visit over New Year instead, avoiding the risk of meeting his brother here. The thought was quickly dismissed; he was having far too much fun to want to miss such an opportunity.
The same colourful decorations filled the dining room as he took his seat, acutely aware of four places set around the table. Guilt seeped into his heart as he wondered how often she had done this, and just how often the places for both he and his father had sat empty. Judicius was right: he should have returned sooner.
No, he was right to have stayed away, given all that he had done. Returning before all had been stabilised would have been dangerous, and not just for him.
At last his mother and brother returned bearing dishes of vegetables and sauces, lined up around the marvellous centrepiece of the rich roast Gobbler. The smell sent him back to his childhood once again, recalling the image of his proud father carving before the family, the battle between brothers to get the first slice. To his surprise Judicius placed it directly on his plate, his sharp look sharing in the reminiscence. Mortimer just nodded polite thanks as he helped himself to the rest.
'It's so nice to have the family together again,' their mother suddenly declared, still beaming as she looked between her sons. 'It's been far too long.' Neither dared look the other in the eye as they agreed brightly.
Life on his own had taught Mortimer many things, but one always stood out clearer than the rest: there was nothing quite like his mother's cooking. Only decorum stopped him from attacking his plate like a starving pet, gorging himself on the succulent cuisine he had long been denied. Even the rich meals his life had earned him at Neopia's top restaurants paled in compare to the rose-tinted taste of nostalgia, and the fond memories of happier times that now hung over the dining table.
Once again his mother's voice brought him back to the present. 'So, Mortimer, what have you been doing? Where are you living now?'
Feeling his brother's icy glare upon him, he flashed his most inviting smile before answering, 'I work with the stock market in Neopia Central. Quite successfully too, if I might be so bold. I recently had some dealings with the rise of the Virtupets organisation, although this was of course before that heinous business with its founder and CEO a few months ago.'
'I read about that in the Times,' his brother supplied with a dark look. 'That Doctor Sloth sounds like a nasty piece of work.'
Mortimer returned the look with a mournful grimace, his eyes sparkling mischievously above. 'I am sorry to say I never had the good fortune to meet him, else I like to think I might have been able to reveal his nature sooner. Naturally I am no longer affiliated with the organisation, although I hear it has been converted into a fully legitimate operation since that fiasco. Gormos always struck me a skilled administrator in my previous dealings.' Or at least a good puppet, he thought to himself. 'Since then I have instead been looking at investments elsewhere. I am not sure if you have heard of the kingdom of Darigan? It recently rose to prominence as a burgeoning economy, and I like to think with my knowledge I could be of assistance.'
He relished the discomfort as it flowed across his brother's face, vanishing the instant it appeared to leave just a tight frown in place, hidden as he busied himself with his food again.
'In Neopia Central, you say?' their mother asked thoughtfully, her eyes drifting across to the buried blue Moehog to her right. 'That's where your brother works too. I'm surprised the two of you never met, both working in the big city like that.'
'It is a very big city, mother,' Mortimer explained, meeting his brother's eyes again. 'Where do you work, Judicius?'
His younger brother chewed thoughtfully, staring into the Halloween Moehog's dark eyes as he tried to decipher what game he was playing. At last he answered, 'I'm a clerk at the National Neopian. I work behind the scenes making sure things run smoothly.'
Mortimer's face split into a dark grin as he saw an opportunity. 'A clerk?' he repeated dully. 'You? Judicius, you never struck me as the type to go in for a desk job. I would have thought you'd be more suited to those new Defenders of Neopia, running around the streets fighting crime. You would be perfect for the job.'
'Fyora forbid!' their mother suddenly exclaimed, 'the very idea! After what happened to your father, I would hate to think either of my boys was involved in something like that. It's all well and good for that Judge Hog, but imagine what his mother must be going through watching him do those insane things. I hear he's been attracting some terrifying pets to the city, just seeking to challenge him, and that's on top of the normal criminals.'
'But Mother, he's keeping the streets safe,' Mortimer insisted, fixated on his brother's silent eating. 'The constabulary were stale and buried beneath ineffective bureaucracy before he arrived to keep the criminal element down. I actually saw him in action recently, and it was rather inspiring. Would you not agree the city is a far better place since he came along, brother?'
Judicius treated his brother to a dead stare as he answered, 'He has helped to motivate the force into a decent unit again, but the way he's done it is a bit excessive. It's like Mum says, and he's just attracting more villains now. Normal crime might be down, but the sort of pets he's attracting to face him are just waiting to cause more trouble. Even the best of intentions can go awry sometimes, don't you agree?'
'You suggest it takes a hero to give rise to villains? My dear brother, I have always thought it was the other way, and when villains rose to prominence it would cause a hero to emerge. When one seeks to Master, it requires a Judge to stand against them, does it not?'
'Either way, the world would be a better place with neither heroes nor villains,' their mother concluded. Both pets sounded agreement, putting the discussion to an end, but not without another dark glare from Judicius directed toward his brother. His choice of terminology had not been lost on his little brother after all.
Yes, this was certainly proving to be a more entertaining evening than he had envisioned.
A silent stalemate was called between the brothers as the meal went on, conversation returning to smaller talk of home life. Individually both talked and laughed openly, filling the house with a family it had lacked for too many lonely years, the sepia-tinted memories flowing freely once more. Yet neither brother dared speak directly to the other for long, discussions between the two quickly cut off by sharp looks and hard expressions beyond the eyes of their cheerful mother. It was not until the plates were covered with just the last scraps of a meal enjoyed that Mortimer broke the agreement.
'Mother, you go and relax; Judicius and I will clear the table,' he declared brightly as the purple Moehog rose to start clearing away.
'Go sit down, Mum,' Judicius agreed, reaching over and pulling the dish from her unresisting hands.
In silence they cleared away, avoiding each other's eyes pointedly. They could hear the sounds of music coming from the living room, familiar carols playing out through the radio as they had when they were young, the sounds now strangely distant as they stood today, so far from what they had been.
Stepping into the kitchen Mortimer suddenly found his brother's hands wrapped about his collar, pulling him close until their tusks were almost interlocked. A vicious snarl covered his brother's face, hissing softly under his breath as he struggled to keep from shouting at the top of his lungs. 'Give me one good reason I shouldn't knock you out right here and now,' he spat angrily.
In disgust Mortimer reached up and wiped the residue from his face. 'Because it would ruin Mother's day,' he answered simply. 'Now really, Judicius, do you think I came here simply so I could toy with you? It has been a delightful bonus, but my main reason for coming was to see our mother. Do you really want my visit to end with the two of us fighting it out in the kitchen? Or worse, with her suddenly realising who either of us really are?'
Judicius froze as the thought entered his mind. Once again a blank look overcome his face, and his fingers relaxed their grip about his brother's collar. Brushing himself off, Mortimer just smirked triumphantly before attending to the dishes again, paying his brother no further attention.
'Do you have any idea how hard it has been?' Mortimer paused, glancing around at his brother. 'Do you have any idea how hard it has been on her?' Judicius asked bluntly, still staring into nothing. 'You weren't here that first year, when she did everything expecting you and Dad to suddenly walk back through the door like nothing had happened. Losing him was hard enough, but when you walked out the same night without a word, it was too much for her to take. And now you waltz back in, smug as you like, and treat this like some sort of game? Mortimer, I don't care what you say or do with me, but she deserves better. I wear a mask not because I'm afraid of what'll happen to me, but because I don't want her to find out what I'm doing. I don't want her to worry, so she thinks I'm a bank clerk. And she thinks I've known nothing about you for four years.'
Turning around, Mortimer found his brother still staring off into the distance, unable to face him. Something glistened in his eyes, but he ignored it pointedly, not even daring to raise a hand to wipe them away from fear of accepting his feelings.
'You think I want her to know either?' he whispered. 'It would destroy her to learn what either of us really are. That's the real reason I came back, Judicius, to show her what I am, in the same way you show her what you are. Let her think of us as a pair of suits in Neopia Central. It will stop her trying to think of us as something else, and at least in her ignorance she can be happy.'
At last Judicius turned to face him. A hard expression covered his face, every part the mighty Judge Hog of Neopia Central as he stood in the small kitchen in Faerieland. He nodded sternly, and in that instant Judge Hog disappeared, Judicius Hognatius standing before his big brother again in their mother's kitchen.
'Now go and dig the dessert out of the freezer,' he ordered sharply, nodding toward the back of the kitchen. 'You can't leave before you've had some of Mum's pudding.'
* * *
Mrs Hognatius collapsed back onto the bed and stared up blankly at the discoloured ceiling. When the day started she had not expected it to play out like this. Who could have imagined Mortimer would suddenly appear on her doorstep again after so long?
Still, she thought darkly, did her sons really imagine her so stupid? All through dinner they had barely spoken directly, exchanging dark looks every time they thought she wasn't paying attention. She had even had to do the washing up again after Mortimer had left, so bad was the job they had done. More time washing and less time arguing would have helped.
She sighed. Why was she so annoyed with them? So the boys had secrets, what was new about that? When she had walked into the kitchen to check on them they had supposedly been sharing some old joke – although she knew forced laughter when she heard it – but they had always had their own little jokes and secrets before that night Mortimer had left. They were both grown men now anyway, away doing whatever it was they did in Neopia Central, and she had no right to pry into their affairs.
She had no right to be annoyed. It mattered not what they didn't say, only what they did. For all their hidden bickering and unspoken secrets, they had tried to put on a good show for her. For the first time since her husband had died, the house had been alive with cheer and happiness again, and when the three of them were together there was nothing forced about it. She had been able to forget her problems and enjoy herself again.
For the first time in over four years, they had been a family again.
What better present could a mother ask for?