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Keep Calm

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1 – SIMON

The Mage is waiting for me, outside the door to Mummer’s House.

It’s so dark that I almost walk into him. Fortunately, Penny yanks my arm back with the hand that isn’t holding the plate of sausage and mash we stole from the dining room, and I stop just in time.

The Mage doesn’t blink, even though I was about a foot away from knocking him over. Or covering him in potato. I guess he might have magic to protect him from that sort of thing. Practical jokes just slide off him, and he never gets dirty, even when you’d think it’d be impossible to avoid, like that time we waded through the Wyre Bog. (He’s a bit like Baz, in that way. Except Baz’s power comes from being posh and evil. I’m not really sure where the Mage gets it from. He’s not posh – he’s Welsh.)

From what I can see (my night vision is shit) (obviously), the Mage is in full uniform, like always, but he’s wearing a cloak over the top of it. That probably means he’s either on his way back from something, or he’s about to ask me to go off on a mission with him.

Wonderful.

It’s only my first night back. Nothing at all during summer, but now I’m back at Watford and I bet we have to go now, before I’ve even had time to properly eat dinner. Not that I’m complaining (well, I am a bit) – I’m actually really glad the Mage wants to talk to me at last. I’ve been wanting to talk to him for months.

About the Humdrum. About everything.

“Good evening, sir,” I say. “Did you have a nice summer?”

It's not any of the things I want to ask, but it's a start.

“Did you find the Humdrum?” Penelope says. (She doesn’t believe in small talk. It can be a bit annoying sometimes. But it is useful.)

The Mage turns to look at her. His eyes are cold. “As I’m sure your parents would tell you, that information is classified, Miss Bunce. Simon, can I have a word please? In private.”

Penny nods when I look at her – she knows I’ll tell her whatever the Mage says, even if he says I shouldn’t. (The Mage probably knows it too, although he likes to keep up the pretence.)

“Yeah,” I say. “We can go to my room. Baz isn’t back yet––”

“Excellent,” the Mage says.

He takes me by the elbow and steers me away from Penny – and away from Mummer’s House. Probably is a mission then. I wish I hadn’t let Penny carry the food.

“See you tomorrow,” she calls after me.

“Yeah,” I say. Although I’m not sure I will see her tomorrow. (I never know how long these things will last. We were out chasing selkies for almost a week in fourth year.)

The Mage is walking faster now as we pass the White Chapel and into the courtyard. In front of the gate, a group of what looks like second years are playing a skipping game – or possibly trying to summon a demon. Anyway, they scarper as the Mage lets light flare in his hand.

“Games,” the Mage mutters. “As though any of us has time for games.”

He still hasn’t told me where we’re going.

“What is it this time, sir?” I prompt. “Is it the Humdrum?”

“In a manner of speaking,” the Mage says.

He nods at Premal, who is still standing guard. “Open the gate.”

This time Premal’s all business (I guess he doesn’t believe in small talk either). He just salutes and stands out of the way as the heavy gate swings inwards.

“Has there been another attack, then?” I ask the Mage as the two of us step out of the Watford grounds and onto the drawbridge.

“Actually, what we’re doing is seeking to prevent another attack.”

“Cool,” I say. “Where?”

“At Watford, Simon,” the Mage says, like this explains everything.

The school gate closes behind us.

Even though I know it’s not what he means, I turn back to look at the courtyard through the bars of the gate. It looks fine to me. Even those dodgy second years have gone. It looks peaceful. Beautiful. Somehow, I feel more in love with it than ever each time I come back.

“Sorry, sir. I don’t think I understand.”

The Mage sighs. Which makes me wish Premal wasn’t standing right here, because it’s the kind of sigh the Mage makes when he’s realised I’m too stupid to understand something really obvious. I’m pretty sure Premal already thinks I’m an idiot – he doesn’t need the Mage to point it out for him.

“Simon,” the Mage says, looking at me properly for the first time this evening. “You must have noticed the Humdrum only attacks you when you’re at Watford.”

For a moment I still don’t get it. Not because I’m thick – I just can’t imagine that the Mage would ever say something like this. That he’d want me to leave Watford. Because that’s what he’s saying. That I can’t come back. I’ve been waiting all summer. And it was a terrible summer. I only got through it because I knew I was coming back here. I’ve been back a day. Less than a day.

The Mage puts a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry. But If I let you stay, you’ll put everyone at risk. Your friend Miss Bunce. Your girlfriend, your teachers, all your classmates.”

I think about telling him that I’m not sure whether Agatha and I are together anymore (is someone still your girlfriend if you catch them holding hands with your nemesis?). And that, while I like most of my classmates, I don’t really care if the Humdrum gets Baz (serves him right for holding hands with Agatha, doesn’t it?) (And for being evil).

But I don’t think any of that would help my case.

“Penny wants to fight the Humdrum,” I say instead. Premal scoffs and I turn on him. “She does! And Agatha does.” (I mean, she hasn’t said she won’t, anyway.)

“They can help the cause most by finishing their studies,” the Mage says firmly. “The Coven has arranged for you to have a private tutor. As the Chosen One, your path is, by necessity, narrower than the road of your peers. You have to learn the spells necessary to defeat the Humdrum. What use are Latin prefixes and star charts when we’re facing the end of the world as we know it?”

“Penny says you never know what might come in handy,” I say, even though I’ve said the same thing as the Mage in basically every astronomy lesson since fifth year (much to Penelope’s disgust).

Penny also says I shouldn’t just focus on my present. That I should prepare for my future when perhaps Latin will be useful. But I don’t want to say that to the Mage because I don’t want him to say that I probably don’t have a future.

I just know I can’t leave Watford. And I won’t.

Except. Wait. No. Shit - we’re already outside the gates, aren’t we? That dick.

I left without even realising it.

And the worst part, the fucking cherry on the top of this terrible cake, is that I know the Mage did it on purpose. He didn’t tell me where we were going until I was already out. Because he knew I wouldn’t agree, so he just made me throw myself out.

I can feel my magic rising under my skin and I try to shove it back down.

Stay cool, Simon,” the Mage says, wand out.

He’s trying not to sound worried, although he must be glad I’m outside his school right now. Last time I went off on the grounds we lost the theatre.

“Keep Calm and Carry On,” he snaps.

Suck it up,” Premal casts at the same time.

I’m about to shout at him, at them both, because I hate people casting spells on me at the best of times and right now, I’m fucking pissed.

But then the two spells – Premal’s and the Mage’s – sink through my magic into my skin.

It tastes like smoke, the magic. Smoke (that’s the Mage) and sage (that’s Premal – I guess it must run in the family. Penny’s tastes the same). And suddenly I am calm.

My magic retreats.

And I take a deep breath.

I feel like a cool river, rather than a fire. I think I’d normally be embarrassed that I almost went off on the Mage, but I’m too calm to let it bother me. 

“You all right, Simon?” Premal asks. “You look kind of … spacey.” He sounds worried. I think he thinks he might have hurt me. But I feel better. Like it doesn’t matter anymore.

“He’s fine,” the Mage says firmly. He puts a hand on my shoulder and grips it a bit too hard. I don’t mind though.

I don’t mind anything.

“I’m sorry, Simon,” the Mage says to me. He even sounds like he means it. Like it pains him to have to do this to me (not enough, though. Not enough to stop it). “I know how important this school is to you. But if it’s important, then it is also worth protecting. It is worth the sacrifice.”

“Yeah,” I say. (What else is there to say?)

“Let’s go then. Pramod will tell your friends you aren’t coming back.”

I don’t know who that is, but Premal nods so I guess he must.

Penny will get what happened out of her brother, anyway, even if he forgets, so I’m not worried about that. And Penny can tell Agatha and Gareth and Rhys. And the Mage will tell the teachers. I mean, I assume he will.

I wonder if anyone will tell Baz.

I suppose he’ll work it out when I don’t show up, he’s not stupid. It’ll probably be the best day of his life. (Baz has a sad life.) No sharing a bathroom. No arguments over the window being open.

He’ll probably throw a party to celebrate. A posh, boring party without enough food.

Actually, I don’t think Baz enjoys parties, even crap ones. (One thing we agree on.) He’ll probably just smile smugly. And maybe switch out my bed for a fridge full of blood. It would be practical.

He could have a fridge of blood in his wardrobe, I guess. I never thought to check.

But it’s too late now. And anyway, it’s not like I need to worry about Baz murdering me in my sleep anymore.

In fact, as I follow the Mage into his Range Rover, it occurs to me thatthe only good thing about this whole thing is that I don’t actually have to care what Baz does anymore.

I guess I must be looking forward to it.

 

2 – BAZ

I can tell Snow’s already back long before I open the door to our room.

For one thing, he always rushes back to school after the holidays as early as possible because he has nowhere else to go. (Meanwhile, I tend to drag my holidays out to prove that I do.) (Have somewhere to go, I mean.) For another thing, there’s two-day old blood smeared across our doorjamb. Like the idiot doesn’t know he lives with a vampire.

I try not to inhale.

Once I’m inside there’s more evidence of Snow. A towel left on the floor (disgusting). Some clothes that smell faintly like smoke and iron. Our wastepaper bin already full of chocolate wrappers. The window wide open, even though it’s raining onto the floor. (I shut it.)

Snow’s put his uniform away – or he’s wearing it already. Meanwhile there’s a pile of clothes on my bed (green and white striped blazer. No hideous boater now we’re upper years, thank Crowley). As usual, it looks as though Snow has managed to crash into my bed at some point in two days he’s had the room to himself. My uniform’s obviously gone flying, and he’s tried to put everything back without me noticing. (I always notice. He’s terrible at folding.) It doesn’t matter – I always cast anti-creasing spells on all my clothing – but I’ll give him shit about it anyway once he gets back to the room.

I check my watch. Hm. He’ll be at dinner for another half an hour at least.

Thirty minutes.

I could go down. Niall came to the house a few times, but I haven’t seen Dev all summer. He’s been on a tour of the vineyards with his parents. It sounded excruciating, so Dev will probably make it funny. I could use a laugh, but Snow will be there.

Do I want him to pick a fight with me already? Because he will. He always thinks I’m laughing at him. (“What’s so funny, arsehole?”) And I always pretend I am. (“I’m sure even you can work that one out, Snow.”)

It’s exhausting. But it’s also necessary. At least it would be.

I don’t have to face it right now, though. Not if I don’t want to.

Thirty minutes alone.

I start to unpack. Toiletries in the bathroom cabinets (Snow doesn’t use them – just keeps everything out on the side), books and records in my desk. I shake the creases out of my uniform with magic and hang it up in the wardrobe.  

Every year I try to savour these moments before I actually see him. When I can notice the little things that annoy me (why wouldn’t you hang the towel up? Or magic it dry. Something) about sharing a room with Simon Snow without having to face the big things. Without having to face him.

This is always the time – these few minutes alone – when I wonder whether it’s worn off. Whether I’m no longer in love with him.

The summer holidays are always difficult. Snow generally manages to get himself into his worst scrapes just before the end of term. (Last year, for example, he showed up on the final day of term bleeding from his skin. Lots of which I could see because his clothes were so torn up they were hanging off him. It was horrific. Like a fucking vampire porno film – I’ve been trying to forget it.)

That means I have to spend the first two weeks worried he’s dying somewhere and I’ll never see him again. And that nobody will even invite me to the funeral because everyone thinks I hate him.

Then, after a few weeks have passed, and The Record hasn’t published a long piece about the sad death of the Mage’s Heir, I allow myself to relax.

I know nothing can really hurt Snow. He is the Chosen One after all, the Greatest Mage.

And of course, I’ll see him again. At the start of the new year. And this time maybe I’ll let it slip that I was worried about him, and he’ll realise that he’s always been excessively attracted to me.

Because it could happen. I know I’m good looking. (My mother was stunning. Even my father’s hairline hasn’t completely ruined me). If Snow had the decency to be even slightly gay–– Well. Things would probably be different.

Or they might be.

I don’t know – perhaps I’m giving myself too much credit. I’d still be a vampire. I’d still be a Pitch.

Anyway, that period, those few weeks in the middle of the summer holidays, is where I get through most of my Snow-related self-abuse for the year. (I try not to think about him when I jerk off at school. He’s almost always just outside the bathroom door, getting ready for bed. It feels invasive). Our house is big enough that nobody notices if I disappear for an hour or so. And we have more than one bathroom.

Honestly, I don’t even feel bad about it. It just feels good. To think that it might happen.

For a while, anyway. I always come to my senses towards the end of August. I start to remember that Snow hates me. That he can barely stand to be in a room with me without picking a fight. That I’ll have to let him kill me at some point. So that he can carry on.

By this point, I won’t have seen the actual Simon for weeks. I’ll have built him up in my head as this beautiful, flawless hero. Kind. Generous. Radiating power. With time for everyone in the world. Everyone else.

I end up spending most of the final weeks of summer snarling at pretty much everyone, this year no exception. Desperate to see him. And absolutely convinced of how hopeless it would be if I did.

Being back in our room reminds me of what Snow is actually like. He’s not a perfect golden messiah. He snores and stumbles over his words. He eats too much. He crashes into things (not because he has no sense of spacial awareness; he does it on purpose.) He can’t even work out how to reliably cast a simple drying spell on a towel.

And this is the boy I’m in love with?

Frankly, it seems ridiculous. Right now, I can barely remember what I see in Simon bloody Snow.

I know I will, though. I’ve been here before. I actually got my hopes up in sixth year. And then he barged back in here with his moles and his hair and his complete disregard for other people’s possessions.

If he could just stay away for the whole year, maybe I’d finally get over him. But my life is not that kind.

These thirty minutes (ten minutes, now – I’ve finished unpacking) between arriving back at school and seeing Simon again are therefore to be treasured. A brief interlude of relative sanity. 

Right now, I’m not a disappointment to my family. Or to myself. Right now, I can think clearly. For the next five minutes.

Four minutes. Three. Two.

One.

 

3 – THE MAGE

I wish I hadn’t had to spell him. I wish it hadn’t been necessary.

It was an accident – Bunce’s spell and mine hit him at the same time, both of us simply trying to protect Simon from himself. But I could have removed the spell afterwards. If I’d wanted to. If I’d thought that Simon would still go with me without arguing.

He might have done. I can’t know now, I made my choice. And it is for the best.

It has to be.

 

4 – BAZ

I stay up as late as I can, but Snow doesn’t come back to our room.

He’s not there when I wake up, either. His unmade bed is unmade in exactly the same way it was when I fell asleep.

I throw off my blankets. With Snow absent, the window has remained closed during the night. It’s warm and I can’t even appreciate it.

Where is he?

The Mage can’t have agreed to give him a new room. If that was going to happen, he’d have done it years ago, and anyway, Snow has definitely been in our room. That means I can also rule out Snow simply not returning to for eighth year as a potential theory. He’s back, he’s just not here.

I walk down to breakfast alone, still stewing, and stop just before I get to the dining hall. I have to pull myself together. I can’t let him see that he’s rattled me. (Especially not over this.)  I won’t let him win.

I draw a deep breath and walk in.

Inside, it’s the typical first-day back chaos. Older students catching up with old friends (loudly) and irritating first years milling around, getting in everybody’s way.

I see Wellbelove almost immediately, her golden hair shining aggressively in the morning sun. She’s alone. Snow must be over at the serving table (he isn’t) or in the loo (possibly). There’s no way he’s finished breakfast already. It’s nine thirty.

Wellbelove sees me before I can get away. She engages me in a rather phatic conversation about horse-riding, which she’s always assumed I must like because Snow hates it. Admittedly I’ve never disabused her of this idea – it’s been very useful to me – but that doesn’t mean I actually care. Before I can extract myself from the conversation, she invites me to go riding with her at the Club over the October half term.

If Snow was here, I’d say yes. Just to fuck with him.

But he isn’t here.

So I have to work out how to play this for myself.

Obviously, I’m not going riding with her. I’m gay, I’m in love with her boyfriend, and I would be avoiding the Club, even if I weren’t against the idea of trotting into the sunset with Agatha Wellbelove.

The last time I was there, I was ambushed by a bunch of rock trolls outside the tennis court. I’d left my wand in my jacket. My partner had already hit the showers and I was starting to worry that even vampiric strength wasn’t likely to be a match for three mountains, when my Aunt Fiona showed up and killed the lot of them.

“What are you, a Normal?” she demanded once the carnage was over. “Always keep your wand on you. Always.”

“This place is supposed to be protected,” I pointed out. (Rather peevishly – she was lecturing me like I was a child.) “There are standards.”

Aunt Fiona scoffed. “They let the Mitchells in last week. And clearly a bunch of great stupid numpties followed. Don’t trust anyone else to be civilised, boyo. The world’s out to get us.”

That was two weeks ago (just as I was entering my depressed ‘Snow will never love me’ phase). I haven’t been back since. I was already planning not to go back during the holidays. Now I know Wellbelove is going to be there, looking for me, there’s even more reason to get a tennis membership somewhere else.

But I don’t have to tell her that.

“I’ll let you know,” I say coolly. And then I move off to my own table to sit with Niall.

He’s alone – Dev’s overslept again. (At least – I assume he has. He could have gone missing just like Snow. But Niall looks pleased to see me, not worried and confused.)

On the way, I pass Penelope Bunce going to sit with Wellbelove. Snow isn’t with her either.

I watch their table for a bit, enduring Niall mocking me for being obsessed with Snow’s girlfriend. (Crowley – imagine if he knew the truth. I’d never hear the end of it.) It’s gentle mocking, because it’s clear Agatha likes me. And because every other boy in our year has had an Agatha Wellbelove phase - Niall just thinks mine has gone on rather too long.

“Why don’t you just ask her out?” he says now as Agatha looks at me, smiles, and then looks away again.

I stir more sugar into my coffee. (I’ve tried to like black coffee, but it’s just disgusting. And I say that as someone who regularly sucks blood out of rats.)

I think about saying, Because I don’t want to. She means nothing to me. Less than nothing.

“I’m waiting for the opportune moment,” I say. “The moment it will hurt Snow most, to lose her.”

Niall shakes his head. “Baz. You need to get over this Snow thing. Don’t you want to get laid?”

Fortunately, before I can answer this question, somebody shrieks down the end of the dining hall.

It’s a Visitor. The first I’ve ever seen, or at least – the first I remember. Milky pale and translucent. An old woman, I think. Somebody’s grandmother.

I’d love to go closer, I’ve never really understood how the Veil works. But this is a private moment. I wouldn’t want a bunch of magickal enthusiasts crowding round me if my grandmother came back.

I don’t actually think either of them will come back. My grandmothers. Both of them died long before I was born. They would have visited my parents the last time the Veil lifted, if they were going to. Not some grandson they’ve never met.

I have wondered about my mother, though.

What she might say to me, if she came back.

What the woman who died defending Watford from vampires would say to her vampire son.

I’m not sure why I bother. It’s as much of a fantasy as the one where Snow takes me in his arms and kisses me. Even if Mother does come back, there’s no reason she’d choose me. She might just appear to Fiona. Or my father – I know he’s hoping she will. (Daphne understands. She’s shockingly well adjusted.) I know both of them loved her. And they both knew her better than I did.

But that’s why it should be me. I didn’t know her. Not really. She’s my mother. And I’m not even sure the memories I have of her are real. They might just be shit that Fiona’s told me so often I think I remember it.

I deserve to see her.

But that’s not how it works. The ghosts have to want to see you. I can’t imagine that my mother wants to see me.  That’d she’d approve of what I am. 

The old lady Visitor fades away just as Dev stumbles in, still half asleep.

“Coffee,” he demands. His eyes are practically closed, but he snaps his fingers like he’s still talking to servants.

I roll my eyes and offer him mine (I’m not going to drink it, it’s cold). But Niall blocks the handover as Dev reaches out.

“He said coffee, Baz. Not sugar milk. If you don’t want it, throw it at Snow or something.”

“Can’t,” Dev says, surprising both of us by participating in the conversation. “S’no sign of him.”

Niall and I exchange glances as Dev chuckles to himself. I’ll forgive him for that one, but only because it’s morning. And because it’s the first day back.

“He’ll be in Greek,” Niall advises me. “Just save it.”

“I think you’ll find I have bigger plans than that for Snow,” I say haughtily.

 

5 – BAZ

Snow isn’t in Greek. Or in Political Science.

The teachers don’t even call his name.

Bunce is in both classes with me. I half expect she’ll challenge this absence, so I don’t have to do it myself (“Sir, you’ve missed off Simon. Simon Snow. The Mage’s Heir. Remember?”). But she doesn’t.  

I wonder if that means she knows where it is.

The teachers clearly know.

He could be sick, I suppose. Somehow. (He does get sick, it’s disgusting. I thought heroes weren’t supposed to catch colds.) Or he could out on one of those missions for his stupid mentor. Murdering defenceless kelpies. Burning books. Kissing babies - whatever the flavour of the month is.

It’s a good working theory, but I can tell there’s something wrong with it before I work out what that is. I’m Poli Sci when I remember that Bunce usually goes with him on these excursions. The two of them go missing together. (Which shows that – however it might seem – Snow does actually have a brain between his ears. Penelope Bunce knows her stuff. If she didn’t hate me, I’d choose her as back-up if I was going on a suicide mission. I still might – Dev and Niall are both terrible at defensive spells.)

That means he probably is sick.

I’m pondering this question (worrying at it) throughout Political Science. I don’t think I listened to a single word of that lecture. I don’t even know what it was about. I’ll have to copy Niall’s notes later.

I try and corner Bunce on the way out, but she slips past me. I end up following her down the corridor, demanding the truth like some sort of crazed paparazzi.

“Where’s the Chosen One?”

“Why do you care?” she demands.

Perhaps I am playing my cards a bit recklessly, but honestly – no one in this school has even the slightest idea how I really feel about Snow, not even Bunce. I could probably stand on the middle of a table in the dining hall, shouting that I love him, that I am in love with him, that I’ve thought about kissing him every day for the last two years. And all anyone would do was laugh.

Because it’s fucking hilarious.

“Naturally I’m worried what will happen to the rest of us, if Snow isn’t here to cast his benevolent light over the school,” I say.

“I’m sure you’ll manage.”

“If he’s sick, I don’t want him coming back to our room and infecting me.”

Bunce narrows her eyes at me. “Really? Because I thought you were never sick. Not once in seven years. Actually Simon’s got a theory about why that is. Want to hear it?”

That’s enough to get me to back off. Nobody suspects I’m gay, but I know Snow has been telling everyone I’m a vampire for years.

“Just keep him the fuck away from me,” I say as a parting shot and turn on my heels.

I hear her mutter, “Not a problem,” as I stalk away.

What does that mean? He has to come back at some point.

Doesn’t he?

 

6 – EBB

It’s always odd, the first few days the kids are back at school. I get used the peace and quiet. Just me and the nannies and the folk that live in the Wood.

Himself came back early, of course, like he always does. Dropped round for a cuppa and another go at recruiting me for his army. But I don’t think his heart was in it this year. Got other things on, now more than ever.

One or two people is fine, it’s normal. Then suddenly there are hundreds of the buggers. All running around, getting up to mischief.

Already, only a few days in, I’ve caught a bunch of fifth years smoking away, just inside the boundaries of the Wood. Like they think no one else has ever thought of it. I would have had a right go at them, but it’s just what Nicky always used to do. I tried to warn them about how trees and dry bracken’s flammable. And how smoking shortens your life. But I was crying too much by then for much of it to make sense. They just ran off.

Nicky never listened to me either, of course. He was like that.

This time of year, with everyone coming back for school – it always reminds me of him. Nicky was always so excited, like he’d run out of shit he could pull at home, the arena was too small. He needed a whole school sitting at his feet, waiting to applaud.

I miss him every day, but these days are worse than most.

And he’s not the only one I’ve lost.

I catch Mistress Pitch’s kid tying to peer through my window when I go out to call the goats in at night.

“Looking for Simon?” I ask.

He turns and stares at me down his nose, just like she used to. “And what if I am?”

Proud, like he’s got every right to be here. But somehow lost as well. Natasha Pitch was never lost in her life. But now? The way she died was horrible. Violent. And sudden. She could be lost out there, unable to move on. Looking just like her son does right now.

I’m already feeling weepy because of the time of the year and thinking about poor Mistress Pitch starts me off again. Basil looks alarmed.

“Come in,” I tell him through my tears.

I’m sure he wants to refuse, but maybe it’s too awkward, given how much I’m crying. Or maybe he just wants to see what’s inside my hut. I think he’ll be disappointed, but I can at least make him some tea. I owe his mother that, and Simon’s never let me do anything for Basil before.

I pull on the nannies with my magic and they trot in after us. I was going to round them up properly, but it’s too cold for them to stay out much longer. And I’ll lose the kid if I ask him to wait for me. Although he looks less lost now, already. His face is sharp and interested.

“How did you do that? Those goats. You didn’t use a spell. You didn’t even speak. How is that possible?”

His mother used to look like this, and all. In love with magic, the whole pack of them. Which is something I’ll never understand. It’s like being in love with eyes. Or the digestive system. Not even as good as that. I couldn’t live without my stomach. Or my small intestine. And I need my eyes to see.

People – that’s the only thing that you can love.

People and animals. Things that can love you back.

“The goats know me,” I say. Which is true enough – I could’ve got them to come in without magic if I’d had more time. “And they know it’s warm in here. And cold out there.”

“So, you’re saying they recognise your magic?” he presses.

I make my eyes go wide. “How should I know?”

I hand the kid his tea and decide to change the subject. “So, you’re looking for Simon, are ya? What’s he done this time?”

Basil sighs. He doesn’t sit down.

“He hasn’t done anything.”

That’s a start. Maybe this is the year that the two of them will finally be able to move past whatever this thing is between them. I can at least be encouraging.

“Good to hear you admit it!”

“He isn’t here to do anything. He didn’t come back to school.”                       

OK. That, I didn’t know. I haven’t felt any weird disturbances in the ley lines, which I usually do if Simon’s off on one of his adventures. But it explains why Simon hasn’t been to see me or the goats yet.

It must be hard to start the year without your roommate. Even though Fi and I never really got on as well as she did with Nicky, I’d have missed her if she didn’t come back for our final year. It’s good to have someone to talk to in the dark.

From what Simon’s told me, and what I’ve seen, these two’ve never talked much, even in the daylight. It’s not right. The crucible puts people together for a reason, so they’ll have someone. It’s good at its job, too. Me and Fi would still be friends to this day if Nicky hadn’t done what he did.

The Pitches aren’t bad people, just dark – and Simon, that boy can get on with anyone.

So, I suppose, I’ve always wondered about these two.

Not that it’s my business.

Basil’s still on his feet, looking around my hut as though maybe I’ve stashed Simon somewhere in amongst the knick-knacks. Frowning at my little china goats, like they’ve wronged him. 

“Simon gave me those,” I tell him (though I’m guessing he knows). “He’s a good kid. You could be nicer to him, you know.”

Basil scoffs. “How am I supposed to do anything to Snow when he isn’t even here?”

I wonder if he knows how much he’s giving away.

I pat him on the shoulder.

“He’ll be back. Simon always is.”

 

7 – BAZ

Snow isn’t at dinner.

He isn’t at the goatherd’s shack – although the annoying goatherd is, and it takes me a while to extract myself.

He isn’t in the infirmary either. (I pretended to twist my ankle on the way out of the dining hall. Which was a mistake because the infirmary is up several flights of stairs. By the time I got there – limping the entire way – it really did hurt like fury.)

Snow isn’t in our room when I get back for the evening. And he doesn’t barge in while I’m changing for bed in the bathroom. Or when I turn off the light.

That means he isn’t there when my mother’s ghost fades into the space between our beds.

I’m not asleep yet. (I’m glaring at the bed where Snow should be). But I am tired. It takes me a moment to understand I’m not dreaming it.

Then she says my name. “Tyrannus Basilton.”

And I sit up.

My mother. Wearing the robes of Watford’s headmistress, the robes she died in. She doesn’t look a day older than I remember her. And I know now that I remember her, not just Fiona’s stories.

“Little Puff,” she says. (I haven’t heard that nickname for years.) She’s smiling. “You’ve grown.”

“It’s been twelve years,” I say.

Because I don’t know what to say. Last time we met I was five. I hoped she’d come, but I didn’t really think she would. I haven’t written a script for any of this.

So, I just fall back on what I know. What’s been drilled into me by my father. Cool indifference. A complete lack of surprise even when faced with your heart’s desire.

“I know. Now listen carefully – I can’t stay long.”

I nod. It takes power to come through the Veil. Even someone as strong as my mother only has a minute or so. Maybe two minutes at most.

She kneels next to me.

“What happened to us wasn’t an accident,” she says. “It was a calculated attack, orchestrated by the one who gained most by my death.”

I know who she means immediately. Crowley, I’m an idiot for not seeing it before

“You mean, the Mage. Of course.”

She nods.

Of course. He gained far too much on that night for it to be a coincidence. He was perfectly placed to take over the Coven and the school. The Families have been raging about it for years, but none of us put it together.

Great Snakes, I’m lucky Snow isn’t around to hear this. He’d probably challenge my dead mother to a duel. Or more likely he’d challenge me, if I repeat anything she’s said. Which, obviously, I have to. I can’t leave my mother’s murderer in charge of our World.

“Is there evidence?”

She shakes her head. “Only the word of one Stricken from the Record. Nothing the Coven would believe. But we know, don’t we?”

I remember she used to do this. Talk about the two of us as though we were a unit, just us against the world. As though there was no one she wanted at her side more than me. 

“I’ll take care of it,” I say.

Though how I’ll take care of it, I have no idea. It’s not like the Families haven’t been trying to unseat the Mage for years anyway.

“Tread carefully. He must suspect I’d cross over to talk to you. Protect yourself and those you love.” (Is it my imagination or does her gaze flick to Snow’s bed?) “He’s dangerous.”

“Well, I’m dangerous too.”

She leans forward and kisses me gently on my forehead. Her lips burn like ice and I grip her hand. “I know you are, Little Puff. You’re my son.”

And then she’s gone.

I sit in the dark for a while, trying not to cry. Then I remember that there’s no one else in the room and I can do whatever I want, so I do.

I cry.

I cry until it stops hurting. That my mother came back for me. That I couldn’t find the right words to talk to her when she did. That I’m alone – and even Snow isn’t here.

I cry for what feels like hours.

Then, once I’m done, I call Fiona.

 

8 – BAZ

Weeks pass. Things change, but less than I thought they would.

I’m still on the football team. And I’m still top in all my classes, although I think Bunce is catching up.

“Without sidekick duties, you’re almost a respectable magician again,” I said when I found her among the library stacks a few days ago. “If I didn’t know Snow would be back soon, I might be worried about placing first this year.” (Fishing, obviously.)

Bunce didn’t so much as look at me. “Don’t worry, Basil,” she said. “Whatever happens, you’ll still be a first-rate prick.”

Obviously, I haven’t killed the Mage yet.

The thing is – we have been trying to take down the Mage for years. Without success, despite what the Old Families tell each other over cocktails. If my mother were here to plan our attack, perhaps we’d have managed it by now, but she isn’t.

At least, I don’t think she is.

But, every so often, I think I see her. Standing by the window between my bed and the bed I still think of as Snow’s. (Where in Crowley’s name is he? It’s driving me insane.) I’m always half asleep when it happens, and she never speaks to me. That means, I’m probably imagining it and the cold that comes along with the ghost. Visitors don’t tend to hang around after delivering their messages.

But my mother wasn’t an average magician.

I like to think she’s still watching over me. Until the Veil closes again.

Fiona’s convinced my mother came back to insight me to vengeance. Like Hamlet’s father – revenge her foul and most unnatural murder. (That isn’t a spell. Yet.) (Although perhaps I should be trying to make it into one. A good eighth year project as well as a solution to all my problems.) But I’m not so sure.

I think she was telling me to be safe.

My mother has a Machiavellian reputation. We’re told she was someone who always put Family first. Someone who could manipulate events to get what the Families wanted.

But now, having met her, I think perhaps she was someone who always put their family first.

Like I do.

It’s clear to me now that I need to kill the Mage not because he’s kept us off the Coven. Or because his outrageous taxes are pushing my estate to the point of ruin.

I have to take him out because he could come after my brother and sisters next. Or my father. Or Daphne (though she’s practically middle class, which might protect her, I suppose). Or Fiona.

He could even try and hurt Snow, if he decides the Chosen One isn’t any use to him anymore. (You don’t actually need to have a nuclear weapon as long as everyone thinks you do.)

I can’t let that happen. I have to do something.

Which is why I’m currently trying to sneak into the Mage’s rooms.

It was Fiona’s idea. Obviously. She’s convinced there will be some clue to the Mage’s weakness hidden up there. I’m not sure what she expects. Heart strengthening pills, perhaps (a terrible shock will finish him off). Or an extra-large bath (suggesting he’s a merman under a glamour, although what we could do with that piece of information, I don’t know).

I’ve been in before and I haven’t found anything. But I said I’d do it because I don’t know what else to do. And because Fiona’s been calling me every day since I told her about my mother’s visit. Today she threatened to come up to Watford herself if I didn’t make some progress.

“Forget it,” I told her. “Snow’s already caught you twice. You’re not exactly inconspicuous.”

“You said Snow was missing,” she pointed out.

“He is missing. He’s also incredibly unobservant and even he noticed you.”

The rest of the school are at dinner as I travel up in the staff lift.

I doubt anyone will notice my absence. I often miss communal meal times, because I don’t like eating in front of other people and I can get into the kitchens whenever I want. I probably wouldn’t ever go to the dining hall if Snow didn’t spend so much time there. But since he isn’t here, I’m not even missing the dubious pleasure of watching him gorge himself on scones.

I step out of the lift and into the corridor outside the headmaster’s rooms. I assume anything really incriminating will be in his office, so that’s where I start, but it’s a complete washout. It’s clear the Mage never comes here. There’s dust everywhere.

After a quick look at the bookshelves (hopelessly out of order), I leave and head for his personal rooms.

The rooms where I used to live with my mother.

It’s the reason I didn’t want to come here (one of the reasons), but at least the Mage’s bedroom isn’t dusty. In fact, it looks like he’s been here as recently as this morning. The window’s open and the bed’s unmade. There’s also a pile of dirty laundry on the floor next to the ensuite – which is disgusting, but unhelpful. Knowing the Mage doesn’t tidy up after himself (honestly, he’s as bad as Snow) isn’t going to win us this war.

I pull open a few drawers. They’re filled with clothes. Tights as well as other more inconspicuous outfits for when the Mage needs to move freely amongst the Normals. The wardrobe has clothes in it too.

There’s a book open on the side table – a quick glance tells me it’s one of the Greatest Mage prophecies. I have a copy at home. Fiona and I used to spend the summer holidays reading and re-reading all the Greatest Mage books in case there were any tips on defeating Snow. (There weren’t.)

There aren’t any annotations in the Mage’s copy. No bookmarks. No post-its stuck on important pages. I think about taking it just to piss him off, but it’s right here next to the bed. He’ll notice it’s gone, and I don’t think my mother would want me to endanger myself by committing a thoughtless petty theft.

I’m not looking forward to telling Fiona that her scheme failed, but there’s nothing here.

And then I see it. Plugged in next to his bed under the bedside table, which is why I didn’t see it immediately. A silver iPhone. The Mage’s iPhone. (He’s such a hypocrite. There are rules against having mobile phones of any kind on Watford school grounds – obviously I do have a phone, as do most people – but the Mage made that rule himself. He could at least abide by it.)

I pull the cable out of the wall and pick up the phone. The screen lights – and I almost drop it.

The lock-screen is a picture of Snow.

Is that weird? It feels weird. The Mage is the headmaster of our school – he shouldn’t have pictures of his students on his phone. Daphne’s phone background is some horrific picture of Mordelia sitting on me – asleep on the sofa – and grinning. But that’s because she’s Mordelia’s mother and she likes us.

Then again, the Mage is Snow’s legal guardian. I suppose it’s possible he thinks of Snow as a son and I’ve just never seen it.

Ever.

It’s Snow’s first-year school photograph, I think. His hair is cropped close to his head and he’s scowling. His lip is cut (I think that’s where my signet ring connected with his mouth for the first time – my own first-year photograph has me wearing a rapidly fading black eye, courtesy of Snow). He isn’t handsome yet – that happened about fourth year – but you can see the potential in his eyebrows and his chin. Not that I did see it. I genuinely hated him at the time this picture was taken.

Ignorance is bliss.

I stroke the screen, like I’ll never be able to stroke Snow’s real face, and the image changes, asking for the passcode. 

There are codebreaking spells, but I expect the Mage knows them. I wouldn’t past him to have put in some defensive spells that will only activate if someone tries to hack in.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t guess the code. It will probably allow at least a few bad guesses before it starts trying to kill me (I know the Mage doesn’t drink, but he’s still unlikely to get it right every time.) 

I’m about to type in the date of my mother’s death (which from his point of view would be the date that he rose to power), when I reconsider.

Daphne’s passcode is Mordelia’s date of birth. What if the Mage’s phone unlocks with Snow’s?

It seems plausible. The only problem is (and I can hardly believe I’m saying this), I don’t know when Snow’s birthday is. I’ve been obsessing about this boy for eight years, and apparently I’d fail even the easiest Chosen One trivia quiz.

I don’t exactly celebrate my own birthday – Father forgot about it for a few years and by the time he married Daphne, it didn’t seem that important. I suppose I just assumed Snow felt similarly about his own birthday. He’s never celebrated it at school.

I pull my own phone out of my pocket, call Niall and tell him to put me on with Wellbelove. Even she balks at telling me personal information about my known enemy, but eventually I convince her to part with it. The less said about how, the better.

I type 2-1-0-6-9-7 into the Mage’s touchscreen and the phone unlocks. It’s ridiculously easy (so much for the Mage’s paranoia. I just broke through his defences with a single phonecall).

Showing what I think is exceptional self-restraint, I avoid the pictures, and choose his emails. Apparently, the Mage likes a tidy inbox (which surprises me, given the state of his room), so there’s nothing there. But he doesn’t delete his sent items. There are several messages to the same email group, all of which look like they’re in some of cipher.

I forward the messages on to myself to look at later, and then delete the sent messages for good measure. Fiona was on at me to just steal something – she even suggested his phone – but he’ll definitely notice if his phone goes missing. And there are only a few people who might have either the opportunity or the motive to come into the Mage’s rooms and nick his stuff. So, I’m just here for information.

I open the call logs. Lots of names I recognise – nothing surprising. Then, it occurs to me what I should be looking for. The name that could be here.

It’s not in recent calls, so I try the Contacts.

My hands are shaking as the results narrow. And I can see now that the Mage knows two Simons. Simon Cartwright – Coven, medium-powered magician, not a major player. And the Mage’s Heir, Simon Snow.

It’s a very bad idea. A terrible idea. But I do it anyway.

I press call and raise the phone to my ear.

It rings.

And then it rings again.

And then the voice I love more than any other says, “Yeah? I mean – Sorry. Er. Hello. Sir. Is there – I mean, is something wrong?” into my ear. Because clearly he was never taught how to answer a phone.

I hang up.

I’m breathing raggedly. It’s like I’ve been in a fight. My heart (deadly slow, normally) is pattering along fast enough that a passer-by might mistake me for alive.

Snow is.

Alive.

He hasn’t died. It hasn’t been covered up. And he isn’t on some ridiculous quest. (At least, not one he can’t take a break from to answer a phone call.)

He has a phone. A phone I could call him on if I took his number.

Obviously, I’m not going to call him. We don’t talk. Except to throw insults at each other. And even if we did, even if I told the truth (which I’m not going to), he wouldn’t believe me.

But I like knowing he’s out there. And that I could call him. If things were different.

Anyway, I take his number. Just in case I find myself in an alternate reality. Then I wipe my prints from the phone with my handkerchief.

I’m about to plug it back in, when it rings.

This time, I do drop it.

The phone keeps ringing from the floor. And I stare at it. At the name on the screen.

Simon Snow is calling back.