The Second Half of the Christmas Present
And now the second half of the Christmas present, even more shockingly long than the first! And with my thanks to all those who have read The Demon’s Lexicon and The Demon’s Covenant. (This story, as I should perhaps have warned last time but I thought it was implicit, is actually set during the Demon’s Covenant, and thus spoils it a ton.)
Stuff that will make Sarah cry: saying ‘I wish book three was from Jamie’s pov’ is kind of like saying ‘Man, I wish this short story/hat was a book/coat’ and is a sad thing for any present-giver to hear! And while this story is on the world wide web and thus free to all, a) written for fans and b) I tend to assume people reading the blog are fans, so taking the time to tell me in the Present For Fans post ‘Oh, I’m not a fan, I haven’t read your books’ is kind of upsetting also! Unless followed by ‘but now I want to’ which is nice, but I am still distressed you have been spoiled so much. 😉
If this present has made you say to yourself ‘Self, what I need is more lovely Christmas presents by writer folk’ I have a link for you! The December Lights Project is a collection of Christmas short stories written by fabulous people like Sherwood Smith (sartorias) and Karen Healey (karenhealey).
Without further ado, I hope you enjoy:
On the next day, Gerald sent a message saying to meet him after school in the art room.
Seb always stayed late after his art class, so Jamie was fully aware of who was going to be there, and he told himself all day that he wasn’t going.
He was seriously annoyed with himself when he went anyway.
Gerald and Seb were having a discussion in low, sharp voices, but when Gerald saw Jamie leaning in the doorway he straightened up and gave him one of his beautiful smiles.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said.
Jamie could feel himself flushing. He stared at the floor. “Yeah, hi,” he mumbled, which was not ‘Wicked magician, your blandishments are useless against me.’
“I’d like it if we got on better,” Seb exclaimed awkwardly.
“It’s such a coincidence that you developed that wish at the same time the magicians came to town,” Jamie said. “Not that I suspect your motives at all, not at all. For I know you are an honourable gentleman.”
“I told you this was useless,” Seb snapped at Gerald.
“Give us a moment,” Gerald suggested, and Seb slunk out, exchanging nasty glances with Jamie as he went by.
“What would you do if I said that I’d go with you, but I wanted you to leave Seb behind?” Jamie asked, and wanted to bite out his tongue. It sounded so petty, and besides that it wasn’t like Jamie would sign up to be a magician as long as everything was just the way he wanted.
“I wouldn’t do it,” Gerald said. “And you wouldn’t want me to. I mean it when I tell you that our kind has to stick together. Everyone in the circle is under my care. I want you to be able to trust that.”
“You always say the right thing,” Jamie said slowly. “Are there classes for that, too? ‘Teaching Magicians How To Be Totally Smooth’? I could use a class like that.”
“You’re fine the way you are,” Gerald said. “That’s what I keep trying to tell you.”
Jamie looked back at the floor. He refused to betray himself too much.
He was terrified sometimes, waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Gerald who always seemed like he genuinely cared to betray that he was just a liar, like Alan, like Jamie. He had to be.
He was terrified sometimes that if he did betray himself, Gerald might actually respond, and Jamie would never know if it was a way to make him join the Circle.
Jamie didn’t have a lot of pride, but he had enough for that idea to be horrifying.
“I’m not asking you to become any different,” Gerald continued. “I’m just asking you to be who you really are.”
“I think being a murderer might make me different,” Jamie said in a low voice.
“We don’t kill people,” Gerald said. “Demons kill people.”
“If you open the door of a tiger’s cage and it gets out and kills people, though, you’re a bit responsible.”
“I thought you and Nick were spending time together,” Gerald observed. “Do you think he’s nothing but a tiger, or some other bloodthirsty animal? Or does he have a mind?”
“Of course he has a mind!” Jamie said.
“Then it’s the demon’s responsibility,” Gerald continued. “Not ours.”
Jamie opened his mouth and then shut it again. He shouldn’t keep flattering himself with the delusion that he could make the right argument, and rescue Gerald from his evil ways. He knew, intellectually he did know, that it was dumb, and that Gerald didn’t want to be saved.
He saw Gerald’s feet cross the piece of floor he was concentrating on, and looked up into his eyes.
“I know it’s not quite as simple as that,” Gerald said. “That’s the world. It’s all shades of gray, and it all hurts. But we’re in this together, all of us magicians. You and me. Things will be easier than this. Things will be better than this, when you come with me. I promise you that.”
Jamie suppressed a shiver, and looked away to another patch of the floor. Gerald said nothing more. He just left, quietly, leaving the door open with the light streaming through it.
Left alone but with Seb and Gerald presumably outside the outbuilding where art class was held, Jamie felt a bit uncertain of how to proceed. He looked at the easel where Seb had been drawing, and saw a landscape done all in green and gold, hills and hanging leaves that looked as if they could drift right out of the picture.
Jamie went over to it and looked at it more closely, and then flipped over the heavy white page to see the page that lay beneath. It was a quick, clever sketch, all in black and white, of the entrance hallway in the magicians’ house. There were shadows spilling out of one door, almost forming shapes.
“Hey!” Seb said from the doorway. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Naturally, he shoved Jamie out of the way and seized the big notepad jealously in his ungracious arms.
“Just looking,” Jamie said mildly.
“Well, what did you see? And it doesn’t mean anything. And they’re private.”
“I only saw a couple of pictures,” Jamie said. “And they’re amazing.”
“Oh,” Seb said.
Jamie was stunned to see Seb’s eyes drop. He kept clutching the notepad like it was his firstborn child, but he also blushed a bit.
“I can’t believe someone our age drew them,” Jamie said. “You total idiot.”
Seb’s mouth fell open. “Hey. What are – you make no sense. If you – if you really like them, why are you insulting me?”
“I was always insulting you, I just talk a lot and it took me a minute to get round to it,” Jamie snapped. “You’re really talented! Why do you spend all your time mooching around the bike shed and joining up with evil magic gangs when you could be focusing on this?”
Seb bit his lip. “If you really like them,” he said, “you can-”
“You make me sick,” Jamie told him, and walked out.
Except Jamie couldn’t even make a dramatic exit, because Seb spoke and for some reason Jamie stopped to listen to him.
“So it’s Gerald, is it?”
Jamie said nothing, but he could feel the blood rushing hot up into his face, betraying him quite sufficiently.
“I can’t believe it,” Seb said after a moment, his voice thickening and twisting. “After all that you’ve said, after your great moral stance. You’re such a hypocrite.”
“Takes one,” said Jamie, and took off.
That’s the world, and it hurts, Gerald had said. But that didn’t seem to be the world for everyone. Jamie loved music and he hadn’t been any good at the recorder, let alone the guitar. He loved dancing and he wasn’t ever going to be as good at it as Mae or Nick. He loved art, and someone as hateful as Seb was brilliant at it. He loved all the stuff that made the world beautiful, that people made and that made the world nicer.
And he couldn’t do any of it. The only thing Jamie was good at was magic, and magic killed.
He was a little surprised to find Nick there when he got home, and more than a little anxious. He remembered Mum’s reaction to Darren very well.
He was more than a little stunned when Mum seemed to rather take to Nick, based on shared love for fencing or something equally inexplicable, and invited him to stay the night.
It was fine for Mum. Nick wasn’t staying in her room.
Not that Nick staying in Mum’s room would have been any better. Oh, horrible thoughts, terrible mental image.
Nick slept in a funny way. He didn’t make any sounds, or move at all. Jamie kept peeping over the edge of his bed to check Nick was still alive.
Nick had taken a pillow and a blanket, and apparently just gone to sleep. Creepy, quiet sleep.
Jamie could only see Nick’s ice-pale profile, tucked against a pillow, and the curve of his shoulder where the blanket had slipped down. Shoulders did not tell you if someone was breathing.
Jamie reached tentatively down from the mattress, with intent to poke Nick in the shoulder and check if he moved in his sleep. Dead people did not move.
His hand never connected. Before the gesture was half complete, Nick moved. He went from sleeping to attacking in one smooth silent move, and Jamie froze with black bleak eyes staring up into his, and a knife glittering in the moonlight a whisper away from the exposed veins running along the inside of Jamie’s arm.
Nick’s eyes narrowed, slants of shadows, like a door ajar with shadows spilling out instead of light. Jamie thought of Seb’s picture of the magicians’ house, and the shadows waiting there.
“Sorry,” he whispered.
“No more sudden moves,” Nick said.
Jamie drew his arm carefully away, and lay back down on the bed. He curled under the covers and realised that he’d been lying to himself again: lie number five thousand and forty-six, and if he wasn’t actually himself he would think about leaving… himself.
He hadn’t been worried about Nick. He’d just been scared.
There was a demon in his bedroom, again.
Jamie lay and watched the moonlight cast shapes like ghosts on his ceiling, and thought about the cold weight of the demon’s mark on his body, and knowing he was going to die.
Gerald could chop logic about whose responsibility it was, but he didn’t know what Jamie knew. Jamie wanted no hand in making people feel fear like that.
Eventually he got out of bed, not because he’d decided to face his fears – Jamie was a big fan of running away from his fears at speed – but because he needed to go to the bathroom.
He saw Nick’s eyes were open, blank as a doll’s, fixed on the ceiling, and sank to the floor with a sigh, drawing his knees up to his chest.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said. “But what are you doing here?”
Nick levered himself up on his elbows and gave Jamie the same blank look he’d been aiming at the ceiling. Muscle rippled under his skin as he moved, but because it was Nick, even the view of a really amazing chest was spoiled by the fact he had a scar there because he was a demon who wore an anti-demon talisman. It was like a bad smell wearing air freshener around its neck, if smells had necks.
“I thought friends were supposed to do stuff like this,” he grated out.
“Sleepovers,” said Jamie, and did not say: well, yes, when you are ten. “Sure,” he said weakly.
“If you want me to do things differently, you have to tell me what to do,” Nick said in his flat voice.
“I’m not really the issuing commands type,” Jamie said.
“Mae can tell me what to do,” Nick observed.
There might be a hint of wistfulness beneath the impassivity there, Jamie thought, and wondered if Nick had a demonic version of a crush on his sister because she was bossier than God.
He employed the language of a past teacher of Mae’s, and said tactfully: “Mae is a commendably though sometimes excessively forthright soul. I can’t do that. Where are you keeping your knife when you have hardly any clothes on?”
“That one I was keeping under my pillow,” Nick said.
“There are other – I have no further questions,” Jamie told him hastily. “None at all.”
Nick seemed to take this as a signal to lie back. Wow, with abs like that, who needed basic morality?
“I don’t want you to think I don’t, like, appreciate the friendship gestures,” Jamie said, snapping out of the brief moment of distraction. Nick was silent, so Jamie decided to reach out despite the knives of last time. He patted Nick gingerly on the shoulder.
Nick flinched. “What are you doing?”
“I was expressing a measured amount of friendly affection,” Jamie explained.
“Are you done with the affection now?” Nick asked. “Can I go to sleep?”
He rolled over onto his stomach, throwing an arm over the back of his messy hair. Jamie stood.
When he got back from the bathroom Nick woke up, tackled him and held a knife to his throat, but aside from that it was a beautiful moment.
“I don’t even believe this,” Jamie said. “Lunchtime is a sacred time for relaxing. Also I think it is illegal for us to leave school grounds!”
“It’s not illegal, it’s just forbidden.” Nick frowned. “I’m pretty sure.”
“Oh, that’s amazing, I’m going to prison,” Jamie said. “Do you think it will be worse than school? Is there homework in prison? Do you have to do it in your cell? Do they have desks in prison cells?”
“Just throw the knife,” Nick said.
Jamie threw the knife. He kept his eyes open and winged one of the tree branches, at which point the knife went sailing over the neighbour’s fence.
Jamie went indoors to wash his hands free of knife taint while Nick went to collect the knife, and found Alan in the kitchen making himself a sandwich.
“Hey again, Jamie,” Alan said, mouth curving. “Nice to see you back. Sandwich?”
“Yes, please,” Jamie said, collapsing into a kitchen chair. “Nick is getting his knife back. Don’t ask questions.”
“Wasn’t going to,” Alan said equably, but his mouth went flat at the mention of Nick’s name.
Jamie straightened up in his chair. There was a window covered with one of those big, blurry see-through yellow stickers behind Alan, touching his red hair with muted gold, like a tarnishing halo.
“Something happened to you guys when you were gone,” Jamie ventured. “Whose fault was it?”
He was pretty sure he only felt brave enough to ask because he thought chances were Alan would lie to him.
“My fault,” Alan said, staring at the dull blade of his knife. “Sometimes you make a decision. And it feels like the only decision you can make. And then, without quite realising how it happened or feeling very different, you know you’ve done evil. You’re evil.” He glanced over at Jamie, and then sent him a rueful, sideways smile. “Is that ominous and cryptic enough for you? I’m sorry. You must be totally confused.”
“No,” Jamie said, his mouth dry, and offered Alan a tremulous, tragic smile back. “I understand some of it.”
Alan gave Jamie his sandwich, and gave Jamie’s shoulder a little squeeze as he did so. Jamie leaned into the touch and felt more sympathy for Alan than he had since Black Arthur’s house.
“What do you think about evil?” Jamie asked Nick as they drove back to school.
“I don’t think about abstract concepts much.”
Jamie swallowed. Just this once, he felt it would be really helpful if Nick’s voice showed some expression.
“Do you think you’re evil?” he asked, a little desperately.
He looked imploringly over at Nick, who was looking straight ahead because he was driving, and because it would never have occurred to him to look over at Jamie anyway.
“Probably,” Nick said at last. “It wouldn’t matter, except that Alan minds.”
“Right,” Jamie said, and rubbed his knuckles hard against his forehead, feeling the points of bone roll beneath his skin. “I think I’d like to get drunk.”
“Not a good idea,” Nick said. “Messes up your reflexes.”
“My reflexes are terrible anyway!” Jamie shouted.
“That is a point.”
“And I think it might make me feel better,” Jamie said. “Or at least – at least feel less bad. I don’t know. And it’s not like you would know.”
“About feelings?” Nick asked. “Not so much. Where do you want to get drunk, then?”
Jamie decided later that this counted as Nick enabling him. Fortunately Mae rescued him, though not before he’d almost fallen down the stairs, got sick, told Mae he was crazy about Gerald, and been not-entirely-rude to Seb, which was against Jamie’s personal policy.
But at least on Saturday Mae found out Seb was a magician, and there was one person in the world he didn’t have to lie to anymore.
The way Mum liked Nick was wrong, sick and wrong, especially when they conspired to make Jamie exercise, not just on Saturday when he was hung over, but on the Sunday following as well.
“A daily exercise regime is very beneficial to the constitution in all sorts of ways,” Mum said, looking approvingly at Nick while Nick made her an omelette.
Mae was upstairs sleeping late, like all rational people on Sunday mornings. Like Jamie himself had been, before demonic invasion of his home.
“But not on Sunday,” Jamie protested. “Resting on Sunday is holy. It’s like the Bible says. Restliness is next to cleanliness is next to godliness. I’m pretty certain of this.”
“Daily means every day,” Nick said in a bored voice, adding salt and pepper.
“Oh, you think you’re fancy because you got a B minus on the last English test,” Jamie accused. “And you are a venial woman, accepting bribes of food to betray your only son, like a food Judas.”
“Perhaps we should wake Mavis,” Mum said, glancing at the ceiling.
“I wouldn’t,” Jamie advised. Matricide on a Sunday was probably extra sinful, he thought.
“She could stand to exercise more as well,” Mum said. “Get her figure in trim.”
“Mae looks as if she’s intelligent enough to find things to eat,” Nick said, and shoved a plate across the kitchen island at Mum. “That’s not a bad thing. You two don’t eat.”
“I have a dietary plan,” Mum said, and began eating the omelette. “This is really excellent,” she added.
“I tried to grate some cheese for myself one time and I had to go to hospital,” Jamie said. “Can I have an omelette?”
“No,” Nick said. “Come on.”
“Always a pleasure, Nicholas,” Mum said, with a warmer smile than Jamie had seen her bestow on anyone since Cliff. “You’re welcome back anytime.”
Jamie really wasn’t sure how Nick had done it. Mum had called the police and reported a dangerous-looking trespasser when she’d found Darren watching TV in the parlour. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she hadn’t met Darren five times already.
Mum’s rash words came back to haunt them that very evening. Mum was sitting in the dining room with papers spread out before her, looking intent and absorbed, which was Mum’s version of being happy, and Mae was at the kitchen table reading Sylvia Plath and listening to something on her iPod so loud that Jamie could faintly hear the drums.
Jamie vacillated between one room and the other, one table and the other, and one occupied family member and the other.
“James, could you stop hovering, I have work to do,” Mum said sharply after his fifth drift by the open doors.
Jamie took a step back. “Right,” he said. “Of course. No. Sorry.”
Mum pulled the thin gold bracelet around her wrist taut: for a moment Jamie thought it might snap.
“I apologise, James, but I really do have work,” she said, the edges of her voice smoothed away. She looked back at her work, then looked back up with a visible effort. “In a couple of weeks a few clients and I are planning a trip to a Handel concert. I did wonder if you might like to accompany us. But you would probably find it dull.”
“No,” Jamie said. “I wouldn’t. I mean, I’d like to go.”
“Excellent,” Mum told him, and then gave him a slightly fixed stare and smile. Jamie took the hint and gently closed the door.
He wandered back out to Mae, who lifted her pink head from her book and smiled at him. Jamie came and took the seat beside her, and Mae silently offered him an earbud.
He accepted it. He didn’t much fancy this kind of music: it made him think of the Goblin Market, that hidden night-time place wheeling out of control, with magic rough and unfinished, not tamed like it could be. But he listened because Mae was listening, and their fingers on the tabletop tapped out the same rhythm. He leaned against her soft shoulder.
“Are you still mad at me for lying?” he asked, in a muted voice.
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU,” Mae said, and then pressed pause on her iPod.
“Are you still mad at me?” Jamie repeated.
Mae looked at him for a moment, her stubborn mouth screwed up with thought and lingering hurt. Jamie had always been able to read everything she felt on her face: he guessed most people could.
“I don’t get mad at you,” Mae said eventually, and put her arm around him. “I just, you know. When you rile me I go into your room and steal your stuff, and sell it on ebay.”
“Seems fair,” Jamie responded, and sank lower on his seat so he could rest his head on Mae’s shoulder, even though he was quite a bit taller than her by now. She leaned her cheek against his forehead, and pressed play on the iPod again, and he sat there listening to drums with a pink fringe obscuring his vision.
Eventually he became aware of the doorbell ringing, and he got up to get the Chinese food.
Except Mum had already answered the door, and it wasn’t the delivery guy. It was Nick.
He and Mum seemed to be having a chat.
“-just not a very demonstrative person,” Mum said. “I don’t see why society demands that we all have to wander around discussing our private emotions and making displays.”
Nick, arms crossed, and leaning against the doorframe, nodded vigorously.
“You should call me Annabel,” Mum told him. “Oh James, there you are. I called for you.”
“I was listening to Mae’s music,” Jamie explained. “Nick, I am not going to exercise any more, and if you try to make me, I will begin sobbing uncontrollably and talk to you about my feelings incessantly. For hours.”
“There’s no need to get nasty,” Nick drawled. “We’re going to the movies.”
Jamie blinked. “We are-”
“I said if you threw the-”
“OH YES I REMEMBER NOW,” Jamie shouted before Nick could say ‘knife’ in front of his mother, though the way things were going she would probably just nod and murmur approvingly about the ancient and noble knife-throwing art. “We totally are. Come on then!”
Nick wheeled and disappeared into darkness. He could be a bit abrupt like that. Not to say mannerless.
“Oh great,” Jamie muttered.
“Have fun, James,” Mum said. “I like that boy. I think he’s a rough diamond.”
She patted Jamie, with extreme awkwardness, on his shoulder, and Jamie realised with incredulous horror that she was giving him her blessing.
“I’m not going out with Nick, thank you,” he said. “I have enough problems! You go out with him if you like him so much.”
He ventured out into the darkness, because he had learned from trying to hide in the cupboard from jogging that Nick just came back and started providing incentives to move like knives.
Then he dashed back and said: “But seriously no, don’t go out with him, because that would be disturbing.”
Mum gave him a look that said he was being a little too unique again. “Enjoy the movie, James,” she said firmly, and shut the door.
Leaving Jamie alone out in the dark, about to have to negotiate a new sort of social engagement with Nick. Oh how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it was to have a mother who tried to set you up with demons. Or something.
“So what do you want to see?” Jamie asked once he was in the car.
“I don’t know,” Nick answered.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“I’ve never been to the movies before,” Nick said.
“You’ve never seen a movie before?”
“I’ve seen movies,” Nick said. “Alan likes costume dramas.”
Things were worse than Jamie had feared. “Do you like costume dramas?” Jamie asked carefully.
“No,” said Nick.
“I’ll just choose the movie, then,” Jamie decided.
“All right,” Nick said. After a moment, he offered: “Your mother seems to be a nice sort of mother to have.”
“Don’t sleep with my mother, Nick!” Jamie commanded.
“All right,” Nick said.
Nick’s mother Olivia had looked a lot like Nick, although her face had formed expressions on account of she’d been human. She’d been tall, dark and terrifying like Nick: at the time Jamie had thought she seemed just the kind of mother Nick would have. She’d been very dramatic, which Nick was all the time.
He didn’t exactly mean to be, though, Jamie supposed. Olivia had been demonstrative enough, though what she’d displayed toward Nick was horror and hatred. Jamie could sort of see why a mother who wasn’t demonstrative might appeal to Nick.
Jamie chose the movie mostly based on the fact some guy was holding a sword in the poster.
His virtue was rewarded when the movie opened with the sword-wielding guy having some sort of wrestling match in the sand which involved having his shirt wrestled right off.
Jamie leaned over to where Nick sat, still and cold as a statue in the flickering darkness, and whispered: “This movie is awesome.”
“That movie was ridiculous,” Nick said in the parking lot afterward.
“Oh, no,” Jamie said. “Well, some of the wrestling methods I did suspect were a little unorthodox.”
“That was meant to be a broadsword,” Nick said. “They’re heavy. You don’t handle them that way. The grip was all wrong. He’d have cut his own leg off.”
“When will people learn to concentrate on the important bits of a movie,” Jamie said. “By which I mean the, uh, sword-y bits.”
Nick opened the boot of the car and said: “Look, I’ll show you.”
“Oh no, Nick, honestly, I – for God’s sake put it away.”
Jamie looked away from the horrifying sight of Nick brandishing a sword in the night to the even-more-horrifying-in-context sight of the public parking lot, well-lit with streetlights casting burning orange points and shedding pools of white light on the tarmac.
“Oi,” said a voice, and Jamie turned to see the person watching them narrowly over the low wall between the parking lot and the street.
Of course it was a policeman. Of course it was.
“Run,” Nick ordered, and Jamie hurtled after him to the other end of the parking lot, where there was a wire mesh fence that Nick scaled as if he was flying.
Jamie climbed it with a lot of low moaning, plus the fence trembling and swaying alarmingly. (Jamie was pretty sure it was the fence.)
It started to rain while he was climbing down the other side, and at the first touch of cold drops sliding down his neck Jamie squawked and let go of the fence. Fortunately there wasn’t that far to fall.
“Took you long enough,” Nick observed.
Jamie turned around to look at the place where he’d jumped (a dark, filthy alleyway. Of course. Obviously.) and saw Nick, crouched and waiting with his sword in hand, eyeing the fence like a cat might eye a mousehole.
A monster, waiting in the dark.
“I thought our plan was fleeing,” Jamie said. “I liked that plan! Nick, you cannot just go around murdering policemen!”
“Be quiet,” Nick said.
“I don’t want to be quiet!”
“What a surprise,” Nick muttered.
“I don’t want to be a very quiet accessory to murder!”
“Jamie,” Nick said. “Shut up.”
Jamie watched the fence shiver and shift, a man’s shadow superimposed on the metal mesh. Oh God, he was in the company of an armed felon, and they were being pursued by the police.
When the policeman jumped lightly down onto the wet, broken pavement, Jamie felt a wave of recognition pass over him, something that had nothing to do with the man’s face.
“Sorry, Nick,” he said. “I was too preoccupied with all the terror to notice he was a magician. Oh, but please don’t kill him!”
Nick’s lunge was checked. The policeman’s (policemagician’s? Jamie was uncertain about the correct terminology) eyes were fixed on the demon, and there was magic rising like colored light in the centre of his palms, wrapping around his fingers and wrists like smoke. Jamie’s whole body yearned toward the sight of magic, the thought that he could have it and the gnawing ache always inside him, that he could have more, that he could have enough, that he could finally feel and be all right.
“Put that away, dude,” he said. “Let’s all be nice. How about nobody was brandishing weapons in a parking lot, and nobody was an officer of the law who secretly kills people, and everybody goes home happy and innocent of crime?”
In answer the policemagician raised his hands. Jamie glanced nervously at Nick, and saw his eyes narrow.
The light in the magician’s hands died, like two candles caught in a sudden rush of cold wind, and Nick came at the magician and his empty hands.
That could be me, Jamie thought, in another life, in a different set of circumstances, that could be me–
“Nick!” he shouted. “Don’t!”
Nick glanced at him and snarled something. There was a blur of movement and the swing of a sword.
Nick was crouching behind the magician with a hand in his hair, pulling his hair back and forcing him to his knees. He looked across the distance between them at Jamie, the night air thick with silver points of rain, black eyes narrowed in his white face and the edge of his sword gleaming against the man’s throat. Jamie could hear his own breathing, coming harsh and fast.
“You live because he wants it,” Nick said. “No other reason. Don’t come after me again.”
He pulled the magician to his feet and shoved him contemptuously: the man almost slipped on the wet cement. Jamie thought about saying that shoving was rude, but didn’t want to push his luck.
Nick sheathed his sword and and turned back to the fence, setting a foot in the wire mesh.
“Oh, we’re going back over the fence?” Jamie asked.
Nick just looked at him.
“Back over the fence, excellent!” Jamie said. “What fun.”
Jamie was staring wistfully out of the other end of the alley, plotting an alternate route, which was why he was the one who saw the magician turn around in the torrential rain. The magic rose in his hands like a snake.
“Nick, watch out!” Jamie said, and threw the magic like a shout at the man.
Magic went loose from his hands, as if it was a stolen animal set loose from a leash and coming back to Jamie.
The man let out a strangled sound. Jamie hadn’t needed to shout. Nick had not even looked back to see the attack, or where the man moved. He’d just moved himself with efficient ferocity, throwing a knife over his shoulder.
Blood spilled out of the magician’s cut throat as the last of the magic spilled from his hands.
Nick walked down the alleyway and retrieved his knife. Jamie swallowed and looked away from the dead man, watching the rain splash and shatter against the broken pavement.
“He was a full magician,” Nick observed. “Part of a Circle, wearing a sigil. And you were able to take his magic.”
Jamie nodded, as if they were reversed suddenly, and Jamie was the one who didn’t talk.
“You’re really strong,” Nick said, so much a statement of fact that Jamie didn’t even nod. “The Goblin Market would never take you. They’d consider you a magician already.”
“I know,” said Jamie.
I’m asking you to be who you really are, Gerald had said. And maybe he was.
Jamie looked at Nick, who was looking back at him, totally careless of the dead body at his feet. The rain had turned Nick’s hair into a slick wet shadow over his face, almost hiding the black endless eyes, turning his white T-shirt basically transparent so it was like an anatomy lesson: here are all the muscles you need to murder someone with the minimum of effort. Drops of rain were chasing down his strong bare arms, not washing the traces of blood from his hands.
He looked totally the opposite sort of being to Gerald, sunny and rumpled and normal, and he was the one Jamie could be sure was telling him the truth. And that meant the world might be nothing but pain.
Maybe that was why Alan had looked so sad, in his kitchen. He already knew the choice was between pain and lies, and in the end you always got both.
“Could we go?” Jamie asked.
Nick nodded. Jamie wasn’t going to step over the body, so he followed Nick over the fence after all. His hands were cold enough on the wire links that he slipped halfway down, but Nick steadied him when he landed hard.
“Are you scared of something?” Nick inquired abruptly.
“What would you know about fear?” Jamie asked.
Nick paused. “I’m looking into it,” he said at last.
Jamie didn’t ask what that meant, because he found the idea slightly terrifying.
“Do demons hate us?” he asked.
“Short people?” Nick responded.
“Oh ha ha,” said Jamie, but he felt a little better because jokes were his language. “Magicians. The other demon – Anzu – I mean, he picked me because he could tell I could do magic. We make you do what we want. It would make sense if you hate us. When I look back on it – he hated me.”
“Tip for the future,” Nick said. “If someone seems like they hate you, don’t invite them into your bedroom. Bad idea, unless you’re into that sort of thing. Which you’re not.”
Jamie was about to demand how he knew that, and realised it was probably something horrifying like sexy demonic radar.
“Well I only realised in retrospect,” Jamie said. “He was very plausible at the time.” He paused. “You know what?” he said. “I bet you were terrible at it.”
“At what?” Nick asked, as they finally reached the car.
“All that persuading and seducing and destroying people demons do,” Jamie said. “I mean, you’re not likely to have been very good at it. You don’t have any finesse.”
“I was awesome,” Nick said, and got into the car. When Jamie did likewise Nick scowled over at him.
“I’m just calling the demon lovers like I see them,” Jamie said.
“Anzu was always the best at playing nice,” Nick conceded. “He’s the nice one.”
Jamie refused to think about Anzu, except in the dark moments just before sleep, but it sent cold shivers through him to think that the nightmare creature that had come so close to killing him was the nice one of the three demons who had formed Nick’s first gang.
Jamie told himself it was just being wet.
“Do you hate us?” he repeated.
“We hate everything,” Nick said, and started the car.
“But particularly, specially,” Jamie said. “If this is you trying to lie, Nick, it’s really obvious. Do demons hate us?”
“Yes.” Nick bit off the word.
Jamie felt the urge to promise Nick that he wouldn’t: wouldn’t join the magicians, wouldn’t call the demons to his circle and enslave them. He was almost certain he wouldn’t, almost determined.
But not quite. And he didn’t want to keep lying.
“I used to have a friend called Mark who had a pet tortoise,” Jamie said. “His name was Sinbad. I’m not sure why. Mark totally made us all play with the tortoise like it was another kid. And he used to say things like ‘Sinbad’s feeling a bit under the weather today’ or ‘Sinbad doesn’t like this game.’ And there was obviously no way he could tell, because the thing is, tortoises are like rocks with legs and teeny tiny heads. They are pet rocks. But Mark really did believe Sinbad the tortoise had a tortured psyche. The point of this story is that I worry you’re my tortoise. I don’t think you are. But people don’t really know with their own tortoise, do they?”
“I suppose you make sense to yourself,” Nick observed.
“Sometimes,” Jamie admitted. “Not always.”
They drove in silence for a while, until Jamie got bored and turned on the country music station. He really liked country music: people often seemed really cheerful about being unhappy, and Jamie felt like he got that.
Nick pulled up outside the gates, and Jamie looked at his house, big and pearl-white, glowing in the floodlights Mum or Mae had left on because Jamie wasn’t home.
“See you at school,” he said finally to Nick. “I’m sorry the people in the movie weren’t using their swords right.
“I don’t hate you,” Nick said, face turned away. “Now get out of the car, I have to go back and dispose of a body.”
“Oh Nick,” Jamie said. “You should be like a professional ruiner of moments.”
He got out of the car, and no sooner had the lights of Nick’s car disappeared around the corner that Jamie noticed someone standing by their wall.
Standing kind of lurkily, as if hoping to be concealed by the trees and bushes that spilled artistic fountains of leaves over the wall.
“Oi,” said Jamie, thinking that it would be typical of his life if it was a cat burglar.
It was Seb. On the whole, Jamie would’ve preferred a cat burglar.
“Oh my actual God,” Jamie said, and stormed down the street toward him. “My sister doesn’t like stalkers! What is wrong with you?”
Seb flinched and didn’t meet his eyes, but instead of apologising he said, “Was that Nick Ryves’s car?”
“Creepy trespasser doesn’t get to ask the questions!” Jamie exclaimed.
“I wasn’t trespassing, I’m outside the wall.”
“You’re still creepy,” Jamie said severely. “This is no way to get a girl to like you. Actually I think that is a lost cause anyway because she knows you’re part of the Obsidian Circle and she has this irrational prejudice against them because they tried to kill me.”
Seb’s eyes glinted, green and watchful, in the street light. “You seem to have got over that all right yourself.”
“Also, that isn’t even her window?” Jamie stormed on. “I think it’s the pantry. So you look stupid now. Which is pretty much par for the course with you, isn’t it?”
“You’re stupid,” Seb said.
“Oh gosh,” Jamie said. “But if I were to riposte with ‘I know you are, but what am I?’ where would this deadly battle of wits ever end? I guess now that Mae’s dumped you, the little truce is over and all the fun bullying can re-commence.”
“Look,” Seb said, and crossed the stretch of pavement between them.
He was a lot taller than Jamie, and a lot stronger. When he reached for him, Jamie understood what was going on.
“Physical intimidation isn’t going to work,” he told Seb. “It never did work.”
Seb frowned at him as if he didn’t know what he was talking about. Jamie’s patience snapped.
He lashed out, like he’d lashed out with Darren, and threw Seb with invisible hands up against his garden wall.
“You think it wasn’t really bullying, because you never laid a hand on me?” Jamie inquired. “I’d like to see you try. It doesn’t matter if anyone’s bigger than me, or stronger than me. I’ve known that all my life. I’m not scared of anyone hurting me.”
Seb made another move toward him, Jamie knocked him back again. It was easy, easy as making the streetlight reflect into a pattern that looked like aurora borealis in the sky, easy as making the wind rise to his will. It was all so easy.
“I’m scared of hurting other people,” Jamie said, voice lower than the wind. “I always have been. And if you weren’t so stupid, you’d be scared of that as well.”
He turned and went into the house, walking through the floodlights and the shadows that made tiger’s stripes of the driveway. He called Nick as he walked.
“What is it?” was how Nick answered his phone.
“It’s nothing. I mean, nothing’s wrong,” Jamie clarified. “Actually I am having a break from teenage angst, both normal and abnormal, to enjoy an illusory moment of triumph.”
“You do seem to be enjoying a moment of triumph,” Nick said at last. “You’re talking like Mae does.”
“I just totally menaced Seb,” Jamie said proudly, and let himself in the door.
“I don’t get the joke.”
“It’s not a joke,” Jamie said. “And you know, I shouldn’t feel good about it, obviously menacing people is wrong, but it was a little bit cathartic.”
He wandered in through the hall and to the dining room where his mother was still working. He opened the glass door a few inches and looked inside.
“I’m home,” he said, covering the phone with his hand as he spoke.
She lifted her head and blinked at him, obviously miles away and with the faint air of surprise she sometimes got on recalling her children existed.
“I hope the film was educational,” she said.
“Totally,” Jamie answered. “Hey. I hear you’re a nice kind of mother to have.”
Mum looked politely baffled, which she sometimes did around Jamie. “I’m glad you’re back safe,” she offered at last.
Jamie smiled at her blond head, bowed again over her work, and closed the door and sat down with his back against it so he wouldn’t disturb her but could look over his shoulder and see her.
“I was just wondering,” he said to Nick. “Do you have full control of the muscles in your face?”
“What,” Nick said.
“Well, have you possessed them all?” Jamie asked. “There are like teeny muscles in there, and I wondered if you might have overlooked some of them. That would explain why you make some of the obvious expressions, but not like, a lot of the little ones. What’s that noise?”
“I am putting you on speakerphone,” Nick told him. “Because I have to work on my car. But I am listening.”
“I know,” Jamie said.
“Though it seems like a bad idea.”
“I think it’s an ingenious theory,” Jamie argued. “I’m just trying to help understand your demony ways.”
“I am in full control of all my muscles,” said Nick, and Jamie heard the sound of mysterious metal things happening to cars.
Above his head he could hear the beat of Mae’s music playing loudly in her room, and over his shoulder his mother was working, but there. The night was over, and everyone was home safe for now.