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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.

 

Chapter Text

9 - BAZ

Obviously, I took the phone.

I didn’t answer it (I’m not completely insane). I hung up. Again. And then I texted Snow to say I was busy, but that I’d get back to him.

And then I left. With the Mage’s phone in the pocket of my blazer.

“Atta boy,” Fiona said when I told her about the emails. “I’ll get some of our people working on the cipher. You should go back and get the phone, though.”

Because, obviously, I didn’t tell Fiona I’d taken it.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said.

That was a few hours ago. Now I’m sitting in my room (our room) and texting Simon Snow. So far, I’ve written:

- How are you? (Simple. Uncompromising. Something anyone could have sent him.)

And Snow has written:

- Hello!
- Fine
- Bit bored
- Is anything happening?

He responded immediately. And repeatedly. (And with much better spelling than I’d expected – I’d assumed Snow would go in for emojis and half sentences, but perhaps the Mage refuses to respond to anything that incomprehensible.)

The whole thing is completely surreal. Not only because I’m texting the Mage’s Heir, the boy I’ve been in love with for years – although frankly, that’s weird enough. It’s surreal because, if I’m going to do this, if I’m actually doing this – I’m going to have to pretend to be the Mage. Snow’s mentor. The man who’s trying to drive my family out of magic. Who murdered my mother.

How do I even get in character? Think about how much I hate myself? And want myself to die? (Not too difficult unfortunately.)

For something to do while I consider my response, I get up and open the window. It’s cold. But it would be cold if Snow were really here. It helps me think.

The Mage is the sort of person who often doesn’t answer questions (he’s a terrible teacher) so I assume it’s in character to ignore Snow’s. Which is good because I have no idea where the Mage is. (I can only assume he isn’t in his office marking essays or coming up with lesson plans.) (Or dusting.)

I write:

- Only the ignorant and uncurious are ever bored, Simon.

I’ve never called him by his first name to his face before. (I suppose I still haven’t.) I almost delete it. But the Mage calls him Simon. And I’d like to.

- Guess that explains it, Snow writes back.

I suppose I should be pleased he’s that self-aware – I’ve called him much worse. Repeatedly. And he definitely can be an idiot. But I’m not pleased. 

I’m Snow’s enemy – of course I tell him he’s an idiot. But the Mage is his guardian. Shouldn’t he be reminding Snow how brilliant he is? How much potential he has?

Anyway, I write back:

- You’re not ignorant. You’ve just been badly taught. You’re clever and curious enough to have uncovered at least one plot against Watford every year since I’ve known you.

I regret it as soon as I sent it. The Mage doesn’t talk like that. And he wouldn’t criticise himself.

But then Snow sends back a smiley face. (I knew I was right about the emojis.) And I imagine the real Snow smiling. Happy – happier, anyway. Because of something I’ve said.

Because of me.

I’ve seen him smile before. Mostly from a distance and never at me. Never even when he thought I was watching. (Because I probably would have taken the piss out of whatever he was smiling about and ruined it.)

I’m grinning back at him as he keeps typing:

- I mean I had help 
- Any chance Penny can visit??? At half term?

I respond noncommittally:

- We’ll see.

Which Snow, of course, takes as agreement.

- Amazing!!
-Thanks
- I really miss her

I don’t mind, since I’m not the one who has to produce Penelope Bunce at any point.

He’s still writing. He must be really bored. (Hasn’t he got anyone to talk to at all wherever he is?)

- and I know Penny would help me with these fire spells
- Although I’m getting better
- I promise

I should probably be worried that somewhere out there Simon Snow is playing with fire (and only getting better.) Last time our class practiced heating spells towards the end of seventh year, he accidentally boiled the fountain in the next courtyard dry. All the fish died instantly, including a rare carp that probably shouldn’t have been in a school in the first place.

If Snow was here, I’d remind him about it. And about all the other times his lack of preparation and understanding has made him a danger to himself and others. I’d wheel them all out ruthlessly until I got a reaction. It’s what Snow would expect – of me, anyway.

Fortunately for him, I’m not trying to be me right now.

So, instead, I write back:

- Which fire spells?
- Tell me about them.

 

10 – THE MAGE

I receive regular reports from the front line. From all the front lines, but there’s only one that matters. The war against the Families is a distraction. The dark creatures are pests – as long as they keep themselves to themselves, I will let them be. Even the Humdrum isn’t the true enemy.

The real war we’re fighting is against Simon Snow’s ignorance.

All that power, all that raw talent, and he still prefers to solve problems with brute force.

I’ve watched him struggle for years and barely intervened. I thought that if it was his destiny to succeed, then naturally, he would find a way. But I see now, that was a mistake.

This school was never built for someone like Simon, even now it’s mine. It was built for the Pitches and the Grimms and the Crowes of this world. Children born with a magickal silver spoon in their mouths. Children without a fraction of the potential Simon has, but who know how to shape their vowel sounds in the way we all expect. The way we have always been taught must be right.

I’ve changed half the teaching staff since Natasha Grimm-Pitch’s day, but I always struggle with who to replace them. No British magician has been trained anywhere other than Watford for hundreds of years. Even the most progressive of our kind have learned what magic is, how it should be taught, from the Pitches. There are different schools of thought in Europe, but all equally patrician. I appoint a minotaur to teach Greek, a creature who literally worked the grounds before my arrival – and find him using the same Coven-approved curriculum as his predecessor.

Only America is experimenting with anything truly revolutionary by putting magickal children into Normal schools – but even they are mired in tradition when it comes to actually learning the craft. Spells literally pass from father to son. What it must be like to be a gifted child of mediocre parents in the supposed land of the free? You might never know there was more to you than there was to them, if the only spells you ever learn are theirs.

When I put Simon through a Normal primary school, without telling him of his magickal heritage at all, I thought I would be arming him with the ability to question what even I take for granted. I thought I was giving my son a gift. To be able look at magic with the eyes of an outsider, to be able to harness it in ways that no one who knows the rules could ever imagine.

Instead he stumbles through his classes without understanding.

I should have kept Simon close all these years. 

But I cannot do everything myself.  The other wars may have been a distraction, but if I hadn’t fought them, I wouldn’t have a school to put Simon into. There wouldn’t have been a world left for the magickal to live in.

At least, there may still be time to correct my mistakes.

While I can’t afford to take myself out of the battle, I can take Simon out of Watford. I can put him in the hands of a teacher who was never trained there, has never worked there. But will it be enough?

The holes grow every day. Magic is gone from so much of the land. Whatever Martin Bunce says about his research, I know Simon is the answer.

If only the news was better.

Each time, a little bird lands on my window sill or on the roof of my car, I pray that it will bring me news that Simon has finally mastered his strength. That the Greatest Mage is finally worthy of that title.

Instead I hear that Simon is improving, but that he is distracted. That he is still far behind the level expected of his gifted classmates. That he is afraid of his own magic.

The notes are short by necessity (small birds may only carry small burdens). I have limited time to read reports – it’s why I favour this mode of communication – but I can’t help but wish for more information, when this particular task is so vital. Perhaps, if I could locate my phone, I would call. But what good would it do me to know more?

For now, I will continue to wait. This plan may yet succeed.

If not, I will think of something else before it’s too late for all of us.

 

11 – BAZ

I never intended to start teaching the Chosen One magic. It was an accident.

At first.

I only asked about the spell he was learning because I thought I should probably find out what he was being taught. In case I was going to have to duck whatever it was in the not-too-distant future.

But then Snow started telling me exactly how he was struggling with this spell. Blaze of Glory – perfect for Snow, actually. As that’s probably how he’s going to die.

It’s a spell I’ve known since prep school. Typical Snow, he could set himself on fire, easily enough. But the point of the spell is to project the fire away from you. In the direction of whoever, or whatever, is pissing you off at that particular moment.

There is a trick to it. But it’s an easy one. A sharp flick of the wrist up, fingers down. Without that, the spell has nowhere to go, even if you’re a wand-worker and you’re pointing your wand right at the person you want to incinerate. 

Anyway, I told him. And I told him to watch clips of Spider-Man shooting webs, since the movement is basically the same.

Because – I don’t know. Because I thought Snow could already wipe us out just by losing his temper. And really, how much worse could it get?

Also, I don’t think I expected him to listen. Snow wouldn’t listen to me. But he must listen to the Mage because the next day he was back, telling me how much better the spell was working. So well, in fact, that he was now working on something else.

And so on.

I wake up and there are new messages from Simon. Updating me on how the previous day has gone. I text him between classes and when I go to sleep. (I’m fairy sure Niall’s noticed this this, but he hasn’t asked what it means. He knows when I want to tell him what I’m doing, I will. And if I don’t, he knows to stay out of it.)

It’s bliss, honestly. Even if we’re mostly just talking about magic and how bad Simon is at it.

I’d like to talk to him about other things too. And we do sometimes talk about other things. But I love magic. Thinking about how it works. And how I can explain how it works to someone who’s studied magic for seven years but still expects things to just happen if he waves his wand.

It’s not exactly what I wanted from this relationship, but frankly it’s more than I ever thought I would get. And it’s easy.

He’s easy to talk to.

I know now that Simon is off somewhere (he hasn’t said where) practicing magic to use against the Humdrum. Or the Pitches. Readying himself for the fight ahead, anyway.

He has some kind of a tutor there with him, I think. Because he tells me sometimes that Grayling (the tutor) has said the cold weather will help his concentration. (Debatable). Or that Snow is dying for a burger, but Grayling is a rather pious vegan. (My words, not his. But heavily implied.)

I’ve looked in the Mage’s contacts list and there isn’t anyone there with that as a first or last name, so I assume it’s a pseudonym. A secret identity. What kind of idiot goes by a fake name in real life? I mean, honestly. Grayling probably dresses up like Robin Hood as well.

I can’t tell whether Grayling is a good magician or a good teacher from what Snow says about him. But whoever he is, he isn’t a Pitch.

It’s been obvious to me for years that Simon isn’t just more powerful than everyone else. His magic is fundamentally different from mine. From anyone’s. It flows differently. Unpredictably. It seeps from his skin.

To have even a hope of understanding it, you need to be steeped in magic yourself. To understand how magic works at the deepest level. To have studied generations of your own freakishly powerful magicians and what makes them tick.

I expect the Mage thinks everyone can be as good as him if they just try hard enough. That they can do what he did – come from some no-one family and become the head of our world with a good work ethic. It would explain all the low-powered half-wits in my class. 

As an idea, it’s naïve. And it’s dangerous.

My mother wouldn’t have made the same mistake.

I’m trying not to. Although sometimes, even when I know I’m right, when it’s something absolutely obvious, I know I’m still fucking it up. The worst was when I tried to help Snow with “the best form of defence”. It’s a battle spell. It should feel like a punch to the gut. But when Snow casts it, apparently it surrounds him with fences. Actual fences. Wood. Chainlink. Fences. (There’s not even a spell for that.) (Why would there be a spell for that? Even someone like my father would barely use it.)

My advice on enunciation just caused the fences to become studier and more attractive.

It took me three hours in the library – during which Bunce watched me like a hawk – before I had even a credible theory about what was happening. Which I then had to abandon because Snow texted to say he couldn’t get back into the house, as it was fenced off, and could I suggest anything to get rid of them that wasn’t also going to destroy the door.

“Having an arboreal crisis?” Bunce asked as I pulled Step-by-Step Landscaping, and Alan Titchmarsh’s How to Garden out of the stacks (it was the closest we had to a book on fences). Along with The Sweet Spell of Success, Randolph’s guide to effective magickal punning.

“I’m working on my eighth-year spell,” I told her. “So back off – you’re not copying me.”

“Like I’d need to,” she scoffed. Though I noticed her glance shrewdly at me a few more times. Like she knew exactly what I was really doing.

I suppose Bunce has probably worked with Simon’s magic more than anyone. Perhaps she recognises the signs of someone dealing with his particular brand of chaos.

In the end I just got him to climb in through the upper-floor window.

The fences were gone by morning. Which I pretended was exactly what I thought would happen. I don’t get enough admiration from Snow that I can afford to ignore what I’m given.

He has mentioned me (the real me) a few times. Several times.

I’ve tried to discourage it.

- I don’t have time for teenage drama, I wrote when he tried to ask me whether I’d seen Wellbelove and me together.

- Do you really think I’d let a vampire into this school? I asked when he told me to check our room for a hidden mini-fridge full of blood. (Not a bad idea, actually. I’d try it if I didn’t think he’d come back and catch me.)

- Basilton is the least of your problems, I told him firmly when he warned me that I was probably plotting something and should be watched. He’s studying hard. As you should be.  

Perhaps I should be flattered. That Simon thinks about me practically every day.

I have tried. To be flattered. To read something into it. Something good.

Mostly, I find it depressing.

Simon has told me to my face, repeatedly, that he thinks I’m an evil vampire. Trying to kill him. Plotting to steal his girlfriend.

But I thought – I hoped – he might talk differently about me when I wasn’t there. He might think about me differently.

He doesn’t.

That’s why this is so important. This time we have. Before I let something slip about who I really am. Before the Mage remembers to cancel his phone contract.

Right now, I’m lying in my bed. Writing a few last texts to Simon before I go to sleep.

It’s late. And it’s dark. The curtains are open, but the moon isn’t full tonight. The only light is from the screen of the Mage’s phone, which is current displaying a trivial exchange between me and the Chosen One about hats.

It’s going to rain tomorrow and Simon doesn’t own a hat. He hasn’t ever owned one except the lower-school boater. (Not even Baz could make that stupid hat look good, he wrote earlier. Which I would have disputed if I’d been allowed to defend myself.) (I didn’t like that hat, but I wore it with a certain rakish indolence that Simon Snow could never dream of.)

Now he’s trying to convince me, as the Mage, to get rid of the boater. To break with tradition, which is the sort of thing the Mage likes to do. Even though I pointed out a change in hat policy wouldn’t help him now since eighth years don’t have to wear them.

He’s written:

- If I can’t beat the humdrum, I’d like to know I did something good with my life!

I’m grinning.

This is probably the point where the Mage would deliver some sort of inspiring speech. The power of positive reinforcement. You will beat the Humdrum.

But it’s late. And we’ve been doing this for weeks. And I haven’t slipped up since that first night. Simon completely believes that I’m the Mage, I know it.

So I write what I’m actually thinking:

- You’re an idiot.
- But I like talking to you.
- I’m glad we’re talking properly at last.

A moment later the phone begins to ring.

It’s him. Of course. Wanting to talk to me.

Properly.

I could let him talk. I could just listen – lie in my bed in the dark and let him talk to me. As though he’s in the bed next to me.

I could do something to my voice, to make it sound like he expects. I’ve thought about it before.

It’s not a difficult spell (I’ve looked it up), but it is weird. Creepy. At least the medium of text message lets me delete inappropriate thoughts, if I want to. And I can forget, sometimes, that I’m pretending to be Simon’s mentor. Not his friend. And definitely not his boyfriend.

I want to stick my tongue into Simon Snow’s mouth (I wouldn’t mind sticking other parts of myself into other parts of him, either). I can hardly tell him that in our headmaster’s voice.

I reject the call. And write:     

- I’m in a meeting.

It’s almost midnight, but whatever. I can imagine the Mage at a midnight meeting, I’m sure Simon can.

Simon writes:

- OK! :)
- Anything I can help with?

And I think: How about helping me get over you, Simon Snow?

But I don’t write it. Because the Mage isn’t in love with Simon. (And also: I don’t want to get over him. I want him to love me back.)

I contemplate Simon’s message.

And then the temperature drops suddenly. (Literally, not metaphorically.)

I put down the phone. The window’s still closed, but the room feels like ice. Usually I’m asleep (or trying to be) by this time. Or I’m down in the catacombs. I stayed up talking to Simon because he was still awake.

There is a faint shape – possibly – by Snow’s bed.

I push the covers off and stand up.

“Mother?”

Perhaps she isn’t just watching over me. Perhaps she’s angry I haven’t offed the Mage yet. That I’m not even trying. (Hamlet again. “Do you not come your tardy son to chide?”) It is true that I’ve been so busy with Simon that I’ve barely thought about the Mage’s inevitable murder at all this week.

But she also asked me to protect myself and the people I love. And the best way to protect Simon (and the rest of the World, if he is the Chosen One) is to teach him how to use his magic properly. Isn’t it?

“What do I do?” I ask the air, the insubstantial ghost. “Should I stop talking to him?”

The cold is deep in my bones. It feels like I’m the one who’s dead. The one deep within their grave. (I know I’m half there already, normally. But this really feels like it.)

Mother,” I repeat. I know I sound like a frightened child, but maybe that’s what I am, under everything.

Then the cold lifts.

And I know I’ve missed her again.

It’s almost Samhain. There are only a few days until the Veil closes. If she is trying to tell me something new, I’m running out of time to hear it. But I have no idea what to do to make her come back.

I get back into bed, pulling the Mage’s phone out from underneath me. I unlock it and look back at Snow’s last message: Anything I can help with?

I write:

- Maybe you can. Think of this as a test, Simon.
- I’m being Visited. But they aren’t coming through the Veil properly.
- What would you do?

Because at this point, I’ll try anything.

There’s a thoughtful pause, and then the answer appears. Well. Not the answer. Simon doesn’t give me the spell I need to fortify the ghost, but I didn’t expect him to. He’s written:

- I dunno. I’d probably ask you or Penny.

And he’s right. (Astonishingly.)

It is that simple.

Obviously, I’m not asking the Mage (Can you imagine? “Excuse me, sir. Could you help my mother materialise properly? I think she wants to give me some more information about how you murdered her.”) And I can’t ask any of the teachers because they work for him.

I’d have already asked Fiona if I didn’t think her answer would involve her coming up to Watford, breaking into my room somehow, despite the wards, and shouting, “What the fuck is it, Natasha?” until my mother materialised properly.

I haven’t even told my father that my mother came back the first time. It would just make him sad.

I thought that was basically everyone who might know what to do. I thought I’d exhausted the list so completely that I actually asked Simon Snow.

But he’s right. I haven’t considered Bunce.

Bunce, who deals with this sort of shit all the time. And whose ability to case a library is second only to my own.

The Mage’s phone pings again with another text. Also from Simon.

I laugh as I read it, the sound echoing in the cold, dark room.

- OK, I’ll bite. What’s a visit?

 

12 – PENELOPE

I still think I’m right. You can’t have more than three people in your life who you really care about. There just isn’t time. Not if you want to really know them. I had to make an exception for my family, because if I didn’t talk to them, they’d still be there. But apart from them, there’s no exceptions. And I think that’s right. Just three.

Micah is one of my three. And he’s in America. That only leaves me with two slots left for people at Watford. Two more friends. Two people I put serious time and effort into. Simon and Agatha.

And I’ll be honest – I probably wouldn’t have chosen Agatha if Simon hadn’t liked her so much that I knew she was going to be like my family and always around, whether I wanted her or not. Agatha and I don’t like the same things (apart from Simon and astronomy). And sometimes she’s weirdly jealous that Simon and I are so close, even though she’s the one he’s dating. (If they are still dating.) (Retrospectively, I should have always been annoyed that the two of them were risking our friendship by dating each other – but I mostly let it go. Even though it was never going to work and the more time they spend pretending it might do, the less I’m convinced, honestly.)

After seven years, I know Agatha really well. She’s easy to be around. She cares about other people. And both Simon and I can get really intense – and sometimes we need someone like Agatha to remind us to eat. Or laugh or watch a film or something. I think she’s good for us. We work well as a unit. If I’d been looking for proof about my mum’s theory about defending your friends from a hungry rakshasa, I’d have pointed to me, Simon and Agatha. It just worked.

But the problem with only having two friends at Watford is that you don’t have a back-up plan if one of them disappears unexpectedly at the beginning of term.

I think even my mum would say that one friend isn’t really enough.

I suppose, if Agatha had been the one to disappear and Simon was still here, I might not have minded so much. But Agatha and I have always liked Simon better than we liked each other.

The two of us have hung out before, just me and Agatha, but it doesn’t really work without him. I don’t have anyone to get really excited about something with before Agatha tries to calm me down. Watching a movie is fine, sometimes, but we should do some other things as well. 

This is probably why Simon and Agatha’s relationship never worked out, come to think of it. She doesn’t even seem that sad he’s gone.

If I ever see Simon again, I’ll tell him. I’ve done the research, and I’ve proved scientifically they shouldn’t be together. It only works if I’m there too – and I don’t think either Micah or I would like that.

There are lots of things I want to tell Simon. That I’m storing up for the next time I see him.

I miss him.

Weirdly, I think Baz is missing him too. That sounds crazy, I know, but Baz keeps wandering over when I’m working on something else and asking about Simon. Where Simon is. When he’s going to get back.

You think he’d be glad to be rid of him.

Someone needs to tell Baz to watch a movie and remember to eat. (And it can’t be Agatha because that relationship wouldn’t work, either, whatever Simon and Agatha seem to think about it. No way is Baz interested in horses or making polite conversation. It would be a complete disaster.) 

Baz’s spending a lot of time in the library too. More than usual, I think, if you can believe Simon. (Who has given me blow-by-blow accounts of Baz’s daily movements before, even though I always try to stop him.)

I don’t think it’s just because Baz wants to do well this year. I think he doesn’t know what else to do now Simon’s not here to fight with. He’s got too much free time.

Baz’s reading some really strange books. I know he isn’t just working on his eighth-year spell. So I’ve been watching him, trying to work out what he’s up to. (Which is something I’m not going to tell Simon later. He’d just think it justified his choices).

Like, right now, he’s reading Warden’s Grimoire. And he’s got a copy of the Torah rolled out next to him. And a Harry Potter book, the fifth one. And a stack of other books – most of which are about death or dying. Or explictely about ghosts.  

It’s pretty clear he’s interested in the Visitors. I was reading almost the same books myself a week ago. (Trying to materialise Aunt Beryl. No luck.)

Can you make a spell out of the Veil? I don’t see how. Unless Baz is trying to open the Veil more than once every twenty years – I know he’s lost his mother. It’d make sense if he wanted to see her again.

That would be amazing. (Not the fact that she’s dead. She’s amazing. Natasha Grimm-Pitch – I bet she has loads of amazing secrets.) Although it could also be really dangerous. There are some forces you don’t mess with, and I think the Veil is one of them. But the Pitches are dark. So, it’s possible Baz doesn’t care.

One of the books in the stack is facing away from me and I can’t see what it is. It could be the key.

I’m supposed to be working on my own spell. I’m trying to get something out of The game’s afoot. But it’s not happening.

I get up and pretend to inspect the shelves behind Baz. It’s the modernist fiction section. (Why the Mage thought this would be useful for us, I don’t know because as a genre it’s not exactly full of memorable lines.) Once I’m there, I sneak a look at Baz’s desk. The book I couldn’t see earlier is one on summoning.

Also, it looks like Baz doesn’t speak Hebrew, because he’s got a dictionary out open at M.

I peer down at notes. I think he’s tracking the different Hebrew forms of the word ‘veil’ back through their phonetic roots – I really don’t know how that will help him. Unless he is genuinely trying to create a new spell, but I don’t think he is judging by the rest of his books. I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting before, but he’s also got a copy of our first-year textbook open at Stand your ground. There are notes in the margins of the explanation.

I don’t think he’s trying to summon anyone particular – that’s not what any of this looks like. It’s not just that Baz’s magic is different from mine, or that his research method is different – he’s not looking for the same thing I was looking for. But he is using the same books.

I tilt my head to try and get a better look at the notebook.

Baz coughs. Not as though he needs to. As though he’s noticed I’m looking at his work.

I look at him. He’s looking right at me. (I guess he has noticed.)

“Can I help you?” he says acidly.

“This isn’t your eighth-year project,” I say.

I’m not embarrassed to be caught looking at his work. If he didn’t want people reading it, he could go to his room – it’s not like Simon’s there. This is a public area.

“Isn’t it?” Baz says.

I sit down next to him. His eyebrows rise, but he doesn’t tell me to sit somewhere else.

“If I had to guess I’d say you were trying to extend a Visiting,” I say, pulling Baz’s notebook towards me. “Holding a soul here until they can deliver a longer message. Am I right?”

He doesn’t answer, but I know I am.

Something chimes in his blazer pocket. Something that sounds like a mobile phone. “Are you going to get that?”

“Get what?” Baz says. Unconvincingly. But then it pings again, and again, and he pulls the phone out of his pocket and sends a short reply to whoever it is trying to get in contact with him (smirking the whole time) and pockets it again.

Well?” he says, looking at me as though none of that happened

Stand your ground isn’t going to work,” I say. “Souls don’t have any connection to the Earth.”

“That must be why I’m looking for an alternative,” Baz says dryly.

“If I’m right, people have done it before,” I say. “Your family, even. I remember reading about it back when Simon and I were trying to open the Gate in third year.”

Third year. It feels a lifetime ago now. And another lifetime since I saw Simon.

“I think it’s. Yeah. The twelfth century. Hang on––”

I get up and pull the right book from the stacks. The Pitch family history. It’s black (of course) and embossed in silver – the whole set is. All ninety-one of them. Baz almost grabs the book from my hands as I flick the right section. It’s about one of the old Pitches forcing his dead grandfather to tell him the location of some treasure.

“Let me see that.” Baz scans the page and then dismisses it at the same time I do. “This won’t work – we’ve lost the necessary velar and palatal fricative sounds and I can’t replicate them.” He closes the book with a snap. “The story’s probably apocryphal anyway. I assume it doesn’t reoccur? I haven’t actually read any of these.”

“You’re not missing out.”

The Pitches may have been good at magic, and they had really interesting lives, but they’re not great writers. I think they think it wouldn’t be dignified to explain how anything’s done or introduce anybody without listing all their ancestors in order.

Still, there’s an easy way to find out whether the Pitches ever used this particular spell again. We can just hunt for the critical word.   

I point my ring hand at the shelf of black books. “Fine tooth comb, sāwol.”

Thirty other books fly out towards us. Baz and I both have to duck. I laugh – and even Baz cracks a smile.

Stevie Nicks, I’m bored.

Or at least, I have must been. If I’m helping Baz. And if helping Baz is actually fun.

I don’t think I’ll tell Simon about this, either.

 

13 – BAZ

Penelope Bunce is such a know-it-all. I knew she wouldn’t be able resist helping me. Obviously, I’m a know-it-all too, that’s how I knew it would work. As long as I didn’t actually ask her for help.

She’s also an excellent theoretical magician. In three hours, we had half a dozen different spells that, with the right twist, might help my mother stay longer if she appeared. Thankfully none of them are actually based in old English since neither of us speak old English. Penelope said she could call her mother for help if we needed it – apparently, her mother is some sort of medievalist among the Normals – but since her mother probably hated mine, I was glad it wasn’t necessary.

I didn’t tell Bunce that’s who I was trying to reach, of course. Though she probably guessed. It wouldn’t have been the most difficult problem she’s had to solve today. Who else would I have been so desperate to talk to?

It’s almost midnight, now. That means my mother should be almost here – if she’s coming back tonight.

I’m passing the time texting Simon, as always. Today he learned how to float properly. Under his own power – although Grayling had to bring him back down to Earth after Simon got stuck on the roof of his cottage. Honestly, it’s a funny story – and I’d probably be enjoying it, if I wasn’t waiting to do complex magic in order to try and speak to my mother again. (My mother who may or may not approve of me spending all my time talking to the Mage’s Heir.)

A few times, I almost tell him that I spent today with his best friend. That it’s clear she misses him. That I think she and I actually got on well – so it wouldn’t be awkward if he and I started dating.  (I mean – it would be awkward. But not for that reason.)

Maybe Bunce would even put in a good word for me. (Maybe not.)

There’s a rattle at the door.

Crowley, it’s him, a part of my brain thinks. Simon.

A stupid part. (I know Simon is miles away in a cottage somewhere. There’s no way he could be outside. It’s probably just the wind.)

But then the door opens. And I stand up.

It’s Bunce.

She looks excited. “Is she here yet? Your mum?”

She’s out of school uniform, wearing a coat over red pyjama bottoms covered in penguins. She doesn’t look anything like powerful enough to have sliced through the school’s wards like butter. (Even with the spells my mother cast on me when I was small, I’m not able to break through the residence hall’s gender barriers.) (Not that I’d want to.) She’s out of breath, but only because she’s run up the tower stairs.

I stare at her. “What are you doing here? How did you even get in here?”

“Not important,” Bunce says, falling onto Simon’s bed. She leans over, opens his bedside table drawer – and pulls out a Mint Aero. Simon’s Mint Aero.

I gape at her in horror as she unwraps it, snaps off a piece and puts it in her mouth. “Stop it. Put that back.”

A nasty part of my brain points out how comfortable Bunce looks in Simon’s bed. (Even though I know she’s not interested in him.) (I’d definitely have noticed that.)

“Why do you care?” Bunce says. “Simon won’t mind.”

And he wouldn’t. Obviously. But he also left that Aero there. And even though I know he may never come back, I wanted it to be there for him if he ever did. I’ve kept that side of the room exactly as he left it – even though it means leaving the stupid towel and one of his manky trainers only half pushed under the bed. Now Bunce has just barged in, thrown herself down, and ruined everything.

Admittedly I’m probably more upset about this than a normal person would be. 

Bunce is looking at me suspiciously.

“I’m allergic to chocolate,” I lie.

“Good thing I’m getting rid of it, then.”

I’m about to snipe back at her when the temperature plummets. I can practically see the glass panes of the window icing up.

“This is it!” I say, but Bunce is already casting.

“Hold fast! Abide with me!”

I point my wand into the space between the beds. “You’ll be there in spirit!”

Nothing.

Abide with us: for it is toward evening,I try. (We weren’t sure whether the Biblical version would work better than the hymn. My mother wasn’t religious, but that shouldn’t matter if the spell works. Which it doesn’t.)

“You’ll be there in spirit!” Bunce says again.

“I already did that one,” I snap at her.

There is another spell, another option we identified earlier. (Well, Bunce did.) But neither of us want to go down the Celine Dion route, for obvious reasons. But nothing else is working. I grit my teeth.

And then I then try and relax because the song isn’t about acute embarrassment and it definitely won’t work unless I feel like it means. That’s the hardest part of spellcasting, controlling not just what you say and how, but what you feel as you speak.

Simon isn’t good at controlling his emotions, another reason he struggles.

“You're here, there's nothing I fear, And I know that my heart will go on.”

I don’t sing it (I don’t sing. Ever). But I speak the words and I think about yearning. For my mother. For Simon Snow.

My whole life seems to be built on yearning.

Which might be why it works.

I feel a catch in the fabric of space, a thinning of the Veil. And then a woman, pale as marble, appears beneath the window, staring up at the stars.

Bunce looks over at me.

“Er – that’s not your mum,” she says.

It isn’t.

It’s someone I’ve never seen before. Crowley. This could get bad fast.

“You fucked up the spell,” I say accusingly.

“It wasn’t me,” Bunce snaps.

“It was your idea.”

The woman who isn’t my mother turns to look at us.

She has long, curly blonde hair and wide, expressive eyes. She looks familiar, but like no one in my family. We’re all dark, even the Grimms. And tall and slender. This woman has broad shoulders. She’s definitely pretty, but she looks like she would win in a fist fight against most other people. And that she’d insist on it being a fair fight, too. My family all look like – Well, like evil plotting vampires. Although, as far as I know, I’m the only one who turned the look into a lifestyle choice.

“Hi,” Bunce says.

“What did you do?” the dead woman asks.

It isn’t accusing – she wants to know what’s happened. Why she’s here in this room, looking at me and Bunce, rather than whoever it is she travelled from beyond death to talk to.

Bunce and I exchange glances. I have no idea what the etiquette is in this situation.

“I tried to come earlier. The fog was so thick,” the ghost says. “And I couldn’t get through. I kept calling and calling. But you couldn’t hear me. But now you can.”

“You’re the one who’s been Visiting me,” I say.

It was never my mother, then. Not after that first time. I’m not sure how to feel about that right now.

“I’ve been looking for my son,” the woman says. “But I was too weak. And he never came. But I didn’t know where else to look for him.”

“Simon,” Penelope says, realising it the moment I do. “Simon’s your son.”

That’s why she looks so familiar.

Now I know, I can see Simon’s eyes. And his hair. And his broad face. His broad shoulders. (He must not look like his father at all.)

The ghost of Simon’s mother smiles sadly. “I just wanted to talk to him. Just once. If I couldn’t hold him. I miss him so much.”

No wonder the Titanic spell worked – that’s practically my inner monologue. 

“I have his number,” I say without thinking. Without thinking about how a ghost will use a mobile. Or about what Bunce will think of my offer. “I can call him. And you can talk to him––”

“You’re a sweet boy,” Simon’s mother says. “But we both know that won’t work.

“Can we take a message, then?” Bunce asks. Because she’s intensely practical.

“Thank you,” the ghost says. “Yes. And it must be now. I can feel– I’m fading.”

And she’s right. I can see right through her now, to the wall and the window and the stars.

“Tell him––” She pauses, as though – even in death – uncertainty remains. “Tell him, I would never have left him. That I loved him from the beginning. I held him and I loved him. And that it wasn’t his fault.”

“What wasn’t?” Bunce says, but I don’t think the ghost can hear us anymore. Or at least, she doesn’t answer the question. Now she’s begun, she wants to say what she came to say.

“It wasn’t Davy’s fault either,” she says as she fades. “I know he did it for the best. And I didn’t tell him I was sick. But the things he’s doing now – they make me afraid for my son. Where is he? What has Davy done with him?”

“Who’s–?” Bunce begins. But I shake my head.

“I would never have left him,” the ghost says. “Simon. Simon. My rosebud boy.”

And then she’s gone. Like a candle flame has been snuffed out.

Like my mother.

The room warms and Bunce turns on me.

“You should have let me ask her for more information. That was so vague! We don’t know anything. Except that Simon’s in danger.” She shakes her head, stands, and strides to the door. “I’m going to check the library.”

I want her to go, so that I can start thinking through the implications of what the ghost said for myself. But I hear myself say:

“I doubt Snow will be in there.”

“Very funny,” Bunce says. In a tone that means it isn’t funny. “Look, I know you don’t care, but since you didn’t let me ask his mum, I need to find out who this Davy is, so I can protect Simon from him. Or at least warn Simon about him. Therefore – library.”

I stare at her. “But we know who he is.”

Now it’s Bunce’s turn to stare at me.

“David Evans?” I say.

Bunce still doesn’t react.

I can’t believe she doesn’t know this. I suppose we don’t move in the same circles. Where I come from the Evans name is mud. Well-known mud.

“The headmaster of your school?”

“The Mage?” Bunce says.

“Exactly.”

She still looks gobsmacked. “The Mage has a name?”

I roll my eyes. “He also has your precious Chosen One. And he’s doing things that make a ghost afraid for her son. Somewhere. Although I have no idea where.”

I’m hoping that perhaps Bunce does. That she’s been holding out on me all this time. And on Simon, since I know she’s never visited him.

But she doesn’t leap into action. She just stares at me, suspiciously.

“Earlier - you said you had Simon’s phone number.”

I think about denying it. But there are plenty of reasons Simon Snow’s nemesis might have his phone number. Nefarious reasons. I don’t need to tell her about the Mage’s phone.

“So?” I say.

“So, give it to me. I want to call him.”

I fold my arms.

It’s fine that I worked with the Chosen One’s sidekick to contact his dead mother. (I thought I was using Penelope Bunce to contact my mother, and it just didn’t play out as expected. It’s a mistake anyone could have made.) But actively aiding and abetting that sidekick to help rescue the Chosen One starts to look objectively bad. Bunce isn’t stupid – even if she doesn’t know our headmaster’s name. She’d question it.

“Baz,” Penelope says, and I notice that her ring is glowing purple. The air smells like sage. “I don’t have his number, so I need you to give it to me.”

She’s not trying to compel me, but this is definitely a threat.

My wand is in sleeve, as always. I’d just need to crook my arm for it to drop into my hand. She’s not my roommate so there’s no Anathema to save either of us – the two of us could kill each other up here and the room wouldn’t do anything about it. (Although we’d both probably be posthumously expelled.)

Fortunately, I don’t want to fight her.

“Now, please,” Bunce says.

“I don’t think he knows where he is,” I point out as I hand her my phone (my own phone, the one I saved Simon’s number into while I was standing in the Mage’s office.)

Bunce scoffs. “I’m not asking him.”

I watch her wait for Simon to pick up. I think we’re both holding our breath. But I know he’ll answer. He’s alone and he’s bored and he won’t recognise the number she’s calling from so he won’t think it’s me.

I wonder what spell she’s going to cast. A tracking spell, presumably. But she might skip straight to teleportation – it could even be a family speciality, if her mother’s performance at the end of last year is anything to go by.

He answers. And my vampire hearing carries the tinny sound of his voice to me across the room. “Who is this?” (I’ve been teaching him magic, not manners.)

“Simon!” Penelope says into the phone. “It’s- Yes, it’s me and–– I know I shouldn’t have one, but everyone does. Now listen – are you using an iPhone?”

He is. An old one the Mage doesn’t want any more.

I listen to her talk him through how to turn on Find Friends, a creepily invasive app that lets you follow your loved ones’ movements around in real time. Fiona loves it. (She says it’s like a long-distance soap opera.) The Mage probably loves it too.

I should have thought of it earlier. The odds of the Mage not having set it up so he can track Simon are miniscule at best.

But then what? I’d know where Simon was, but I couldn’t visit him. Simon and I aren’t friends, not in real life. Not anywhere it matters.

If I showed up at his door, he wouldn’t pull me into his arms; he’d slam it in my face. 

And if Bunce brings him back to Watford, then even the fragile relationship I’ve built with Snow over text will be destroyed. I can’t continue to be the Mage if the actual headmaster could walk around the corner at any minute and tell Snow everything I’ve said to him is shit.

The hopelessness of my position is suddenly incredibly clear to me.

This is it. It’s all over. Everything.

“Got it,” Bunce says as Snow’s location appears on the screen. “OK, Simon – stay where you are. I’m coming to get you.”

She hangs up and throws my phone back to me. I put it back into my pocket – the one I don’t use to carry the phone on which Simon Snow and I have been texting each other about rooftops and Star Wars quotes.                                               

“Can I sleep in Simon’s bed tonight?” Bunce asks. “I hate my roommate. And it’s not as if Simon’s using it.”

It’s an easy decision – if you’re reckless and you’re in love. And you don’t mind operating without a plan. (Yet.) Fuck the fact it’s suspicious. I’ll talk my way out of it later.

“Fine,” I tell Penelope. “You can stay. Tonight. But on the condition that I come with you to get Snow.”

Because it’s not over.

I can fix this.

 

Chapter Text

14 – SIMON

It took a few hours for the calm spell to wear off.

We were half way down the M40, just passing Swindon, when I felt it. Anger. A rush of absolute fucking fury.

I think the Mage felt it too because he pulled over into a motorway service station. He said he was just hungry, but I’ve been on missions with him before. He survives on energy bars. The Range Rover is full of them.

“Just try it for a week,” he suggested over packaged sandwiches and horrible tea. He meant – just try staying away from Watford. With a random tutor in the middle of nowhere. “I’m asking you this as your guardian and your headmaster. Trust me. This is what’s best for you.”

I thought about saying no. (Again.) Fighting back. I could see the Mage thought I was going to. He had his wand out on the table, even though we were surrounded by Normals.

But saying no hadn’t worked the first time. And I didn’t have anywhere else to go. (The Mage is my guardian. And everyone else I know is at Watford – which he’s the headmaster of. It’s not like I had anyone else to turn to.)

So I said yes.

And we drove the rest of the way to the house.

I thought I’d hate it. Because I’d been kidnapped. And because it wasn’t Watford. And because the Mage has never taken me anywhere nice. Just lots of different shitty places where people have ignored me or tried to kill me.

But I don’t hate it.

There are only two rooms. Both full of books with weird titles. And there’s no central heating, just a stove in the main room. Baz would probably rather die than stay here, but – I dunno. It feels like a home. Not a Home. I mean, like somewhere people might actually live. I’ve stayed in plenty of Homes and none of them felt anything like this. None of them felt like somewhere I wanted to be. Nowhere I’ve ever lived has felt like that, except my room in Mummer’s House. And if I can’t be there (and apparently I can’t), I suppose I don’t mind being here.

Or at least, I wouldn’t if the food weren’t quite so shit. And if there was literally anyone else to talk to apart from Grayling.

I’m sick of talking to Grayling. (He’s not a bad guy – but he’s really vague. I can have a whole conversation with him and still not know what he thinks at the end of it.) (Is that a teaching method? I mean, it could be.)

I keep asking the Mage if he’ll come and spend some actual, proper time here. But he says he’s too busy. Which I guess I can understand. He is fighting a war. Lots of wars.

Somehow, he still finds the time to text me, though. Every day.

It’s funny. I thought this might be like my sixth year all over again. Once he’d found somewhere to stash me, he’d forget about me completely.

He hasn’t.

I’m learning way more from him than I am from Grayling, even though he’s not physically here. I’ve probably learned more in a month than I have in seven years, even with Penny’s help. Maybe it’s just because Baz isn’t sneering at me every time I get something wrong, but I think it’s because of him.

I even managed a Float like a butterfly for the first time yesterday. It was epic, even if I did end up on the roof. When I texted the Mage about it, he wrote, Great, kid. Don’t get cocky. (Because he really likes Star Wars, apparently.)

I’ve always loved magic – other peoples’ magic. I loved being around it. Using my own was never fun or easy. Now it sort of is. (Fun, anyway. It’s still not easy.)

The Mage is a really good teacher. Maybe even better than Miss Possibelf. He’s always giving me lots of different ways to do things, and he explains things really well, even just in text.

About a week ago, I told him he should give up trying to rule the magickal world and teach properly – he’d be amazing at Magic Words. He asked whether I was criticising his leadership and I had to change the subject in case he thought I was criticising him. (I definitely wasn’t – I’m not Baz.) 

It’s not just the magic, though. We’re just talking. Properly talking, too. Not just him giving me orders and me accepting them. Or him teaching me magic to defeat the Humdrum.

Sometimes we just talk about stuff. Lots of the time. Stuff we like. And stuff we don’t. He still doesn’t talk about his own life much, but he asks my opinion about things. And I can tell he remembers what I’ve said. That he’s listening.  

Weirdly, he knows a lot about football, which I really would not have guessed from any of the times we’ve hung out before. He’s never come to any of the school matches, even though he’s the headmaster and most of the other teachers do. (Maybe he just doesn’t like watching Baz showing off, which I can understand. Personally, I find it hard to watch any of the other players because Baz is always moving. The others might as well not show up.)

- You and I should play some time, I texted him once
- 1 on 1. Maybe when you come and visit.

He wrote back:

- I’d like that.
- Although you know I’d beat you. Easily.

I told him that it was the taking part that counted. And he said that the only people you ever heard say that were people who never won.

A few moments later he texted back:

- Obviously, I don’t mean against the Humdrum. Even if you lose, and I hope you don’t, it matters that you tried. You’ve risked your life for our world. That matters. I appreciate it a lot.

I sent back:

- Thanks. But I know

Because I do. Now.

The Mage has never said anything like this to me in person. I know he’s always believed in me. He’s told me loads of times that it’s my destiny to defeat the Humdrum. That I’m the Chosen One. That I’m the only one who can save the World of Mages.

I’ve always thought that if he believes that, he must think I’m doing the right thing.

But sometimes – more and more, actually – I felt like he thought I wasn’t trying hard enough. Even though I’ve almost died lots. Even though he said the reason he didn’t talk to me in sixth year wasn’t because he didn’t want to, but because people were watching him. I definitely thought he was disappointed in me.

So, you see, it means something to have him say that wasn’t true. That he was always proud of me. And he’s been saying lots of that kind of stuff since we started talking over text.

Penny’s right that the reason I’m fighting the Humdrum is that I can, and someone has to. But now, I think – I’m probably doing it for him, too. Because he believes in me.

I think I always was.

He’s my headmaster and my guardian. And now – I don’t know. I feel like he’s my friend too. Like he finally realised I’m not a child any more. We aren’t equals – he still knows loads more than me – but we’re mates.

Talking to him is the best thing about being here. Better than the house, better even than the magic.

- I like talking to you, he wrote to me a few days ago.

Actually, what he said was:

- You’re an idiot.
- But I like talking to you.
- I’m glad we’re talking properly at last.

(Because for some reason he’s more OK with taking the piss out of me via text as well.)

Anyway, I read that – and I just knew I had to talk to him. Right then.

I have good instincts, Penny says. (Although she also says that doesn’t meant I should just do whatever I think of as soon as I think of it. Apparently, it’s not the same thing.)

I just – really wanted to talk to him. To hear him say some of this stuff out loud. To help me believe it.

Obviously, I know it’s him, I’d know him anywhere, but it would feel more real if I could talk to him. Really talk to him. Hear him saying that he liked me.

I know it’s stupid, that it doesn’t matter. But it felt important.

So I called him.

And OK, so he didn’t pick up, but that’s fine. I’m not worried. I know he’ll come back for me.

I think this is his house. The Mage’s. Or it was, a long time ago.

I’m not sure why I think that. It doesn’t look anything like his office. And it doesn’t have throwpillows embroidered with welcome messages either (I knew that was a joke). It just – I don’t know, feels like him. Like he spent a lot of time here once.

And I like that. I like feeling close to him.

Right now, I’m sitting in the living room side of the living room-kitchen area, waiting for Penelope. I’m reading a book the Mage recommended to me about metaphors. (It was in the house – I just had to summon it – but it felt a bit like he’d left it for me. On purpose, like a present.) I thought it’d be really boring, but it’s full of jokes (dirty jokes - probably why it’s not on the official reading list) and I’m really enjoying it. I’m definitely going to ask him if I can keep it when he comes to pick me up.

Today I’m not feeling it, though. I know Penny will arrive any minute and I keep getting up to look out the window. I’m actually nervous. Of Penny.

The thing is - I haven’t told her yet that I’m not leaving. I want to see her – I really want to see her – but I know she’ll want me to go back to Watford. And I can’t do that.

The Mage was right. I have to prepare, to be ready. And I can’t stay at Watford when the Humdrum’s after me.

There haven’t been any more attacks on Watford since I left, not according to the Mage. It’s been weeks. No Humdrum. The Mage says the worst thing to hit Watford this year is Trixie’s new earrings, which jangle constantly, ruining everyone’s concentration. (I told him Penelope would agree.)

The Humdrum hasn’t attacked me here either. Maybe he needs to know where I am to be able to snatch me. It'd make sense. It's probably why he never attacks during the summer holidays. And why the Mage is always moving me ‘round, never the same care home twice. He must have guessed ages ago. It’s why he never let me stay at the Wellbeloves over the holiday – he was protecting them.

There’s a brisk knock at the door. The house doesn’t have a doorbell, it’s not that kind of place. It doesn’t even have a lock. (“Put your faith in magic,” the Mage told me when we arrived. “If you cast the right spell, nothing will get through that door.” I said that wasn’t very reassuring, since I never cast the right spell, and he did it for me.)

That’s her. It must be. Grayling just comes in. And it’s not the Humdrum – I can’t imagine him knocking. 

I’m up, out of my chair, like it’s on fire – which it was, a week ago (It isn’t any more. I put it out.) (I said I was getting better.)

When I get to the door, I yank it open.  I’m grinning ear to ear because, even though I’m nervous, I can’t wait to see her. I haven’t seen her for over a month – and even then, it was only for a day.

Penny. My best friend. Who somehow found my phone number and got all the way out here, just to see me.

And it is her. Witchy glasses and her own big smile. Even though she doesn’t like to make scenes and I don’t like hugging very much, she looks like she’s only just holding back. 

It should be a happy moment, the best. But I can feel my face fall.

Because behind her is my worst enemy.

Looking better than ever – thinner, maybe, but in a way that suits him. Like my absence was the best thing that ever happened to him.

He gives me a cool smile from behind Penelope and I just stare at him because my brain is still trying to process what’s happening and essentially failing.

Baz.

Baz is at my house.

Baz.

 

15 - PENELOPE

I knew he wouldn’t like it, but I thought Simon would eventually understand me bringing Baz. (He knows I can’t help being practical and Baz does have a car.)

I definitely didn’t think he’d try and curse Baz immediately. I thought I’d have time to explain.

Fortunately, Baz is good with counter charms and I’m good at protection spells, so there’s no permanent damage. But it’s not a good start to our mission to bring Simon home.

Somehow, after all that, I get us all inside and Simon makes us all tea – even Baz, although he doesn’t look happy about it. Baz doesn’t look happy about being here either, which I do understand (nobody likes being cursed), but my sympathy is limited. He was the one who insisted he come along in the first place.

“An Englishman’s word is his bond,” he told me. “I don’t want to hurt Snow. And I can help you find him.”

I shook off the grease-burn heat of his spell and glared at him. “Why?”

Baz grimaced. “I was trying to talk to my mother and I found his instead. That feels significant. It also feels like an obligation.”

Plausible, I guess. But it’s not the truth.

I don’t know what the truth is. (Yet.) But I do know that Baz isn’t going to tell me. And I know I needed a ride.

Right now, Baz’s staring at the Mage’s bookcases, which I admit is worth doing. There must be hundreds of books here. Thousands. I pulled a few really rare ones off the shelves when I arrived just on instinct. They all had Watford Library marks inside them. I suppose the Mage is the headmaster – he can do what he likes with the books. But I’d have thought they’d be more useful in the school than all the way out here.

I don’t think Baz has come here to reclaim them for posterity, though. No matter how hard he glares at the pages of Fantastic Trees of the Middle East.

Me, I’m watching Simon.

He looks OK. Loads better than when I saw him at Watford. He must actually be eating. But there’s something off about him. Something different. It’s not just because Baz is here.

I can’t quite work it out – and then I see it.

He’s making the tea with magic. Heating the water. Even just pulling cups and stuff off the shelf. Just like Miss Possibelf always suggests we do over the summer. Small predictable spells. Good practice. But it’s weird. Simon never uses his magic if he doesn’t have to. I know he doesn’t practice during the summer.

“So, you’ve just been here, learning spells to use against the Humdrum?” I say. “Since the beginning of term?”

“Yeah,” Simon says. He hands me the tea and leaves Baz’s on the table for him to collect himself. “I’m getting loads better. The Mage’s been teaching me––”

That surprises me (I thought he’d been at school), but maybe it’s why Simon’s mum was so scared.

“The Mage’s been here?”

Simon shakes his head. “He’s busy. But he messages me all the time––”

“Crowley. Is this soy milk?” Baz interrupts from across the room. He must have just sniffed his tea. He sounds disgusted.

“We don’t have regular milk in the house,” Simon says. “Or any rat’s blood, either, if you’re wondering.”

I wait for Baz to throw a fit or something (normally implying he’s a vampire is like a red flag to a bull), but he just scowls.

“Soy’s fine, thank you.”

“Great,” Simon says sarcastically. “I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you.” 

This time, Baz barely bites back a retort. But – credit to him – he manages it. I guess he remembered he’s on Simon’s territory.

“I’m not inconvenienced.”

“That makes one of us,” Simon retorts.

Okay!” I say brightly before either of them can escalate this any further. Simon and Baz’s fights are always so boring and I always have to patch Simon up afterwards. (He doesn’t come off worse than Baz most of the time, but Baz isn’t my problem.)

“So, what you’re saying, Simon,” I say, “is that basically you’ve had a great time out here. And nothing weird has happened at all since you left Watford?”

“You mean, apart from a vampire showing up at my doorstep?” Simon says. (Baz doesn’t so much as twitch this time. Maybe he’s cast a muffling spell – it’s what I’d do.)

“Apart from us coming to get you, yeah,” I say.

Simon shrugs. I can tell it’s getting to him that Baz isn’t taking the bait. He’s still glaring at Baz’s back.

“No Humdrum. No Mage. No anything,” he says.

It just doesn’t make sense.

Simon’s mother said she was afraid for him. Because of the Mage and whatever was going on down here. But nothing’s happening. 

“It doesn’t make sense,” I say aloud.

“What doesn’t?” Simon says.

“Why do you think we’re here? We got a warning. Me and Baz. About you. And the Mage.”

Simon’s face falls. “What about the Mage? Is he all right? I was just speaking to him this morning.”

This is the difficult part. I usually just tell Simon what I think, straight out. It saves a lot of trouble. That’s why we have the No Secrets pact. But Simon loves the Mage. He’s willing to put up with some complete bullshit – like that time he had to climb the side of the Weeping Tower at three in the morning – just because the Mage told him to.

What I’m about to tell him is going to completely ruin that.

“He’s fine, Simon. It’s just––”

Hey,” Simon snarls, his attention snagging on something – or rather, someone – else. “Stop that.”

Baz. Of course. (It's always Baz.)

As far as I can see, Baz isn’t even doing anything right now. I know I’m not as obsessed as Simon is, but seriously – he’s not doing anything. He’s just picked up the book Simon must have been reading when he came in. The Sweet Spell of Success – which I remember seeing Baz reading a few days ago. He probably thinks it’s funny that Simon’s reading it too, or he wants to pick up where he left off. It seems like a totally normal thing for him to do, from my perspective. But Simon’s acting like Baz is going to burn it or rip the pages out of it or something. (It’s not like Simon even likes books.)

“Put it down!”

Baz drops the book like it’s burning him.

“Fine! What can I touch? Can I sit down, or should I stand in a corner without talking?”

“Corner sounds great,” Simon says.

Baz glares back at him. It looks like it could turn into a right barny, like the one and only time Simon suggested Baz’s mother’s death had screwed him up. (I mean – let’s be fair, it probably has, but Baz didn’t take it well.)

I can’t help but feel a bit guilty. I really needed that car, though. Agatha doesn’t keep hers at school.

“This is nice tea,” I say.

It’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever said out loud (because it’s not even nice tea), but it makes both of them look at me. I almost laugh at how similar their expressions are. Both angry. And both surprised to find someone else (me) here.

What?” Simon says.

Baz sighs. “Bunce. I’m going to wait in the car.

The air is thick with Simon’s magic as Baz stomps out. It’s difficult to take anything seriously with it everywhere – it’s like being drunk – no wonder I still feel like giggling. (This is why I hate being around Simon when he’s more than usually pissed at Baz. It’s not just that he won’t shut up about him, which makes it difficult enough to think. I can’t even see straight some of the time.)

“What’s he doing here?” Simon hisses as soon as Baz is out of the room.

“He asked to come.”

“Yeah. So that he could kill me.”

I think about Baz and me speaking to Simon’s mum. And about how deadly serious Baz looked when he offered me his car. It’s not just that he swore he wouldn’t hurt Simon on this particular trip. It’s more than that.

“I really don’t think he wants to kill you, Simon,” I say, still trying not to laugh.

“Penny, you know that makes no sense. He’s tried to kill me at least––”

The door slams open and Simon and I look up.

It’s Baz. His face is even paler than usual and he’s got his wand in his hand.

“Can you feel that?” he says, just as the sudden feeling of vacuum washes over me. Dry. Hot. Draining Simon’s magic right out of the air. It’s like an instant hangover cure. Like whiplash.

The Humdrum.

Simon pulls the Sword of Mages from his hip and holds it out. He doesn’t look pissed at Baz any more. He looks frightened. Focused. Like a different Simon. A grim Simon.

“He’s found me.”

 

16 - PENELOPE

The Humdrum is the biggest threat to magic anyone in our world has ever known. If we don’t fight it, we risk losing magic forever – and I think I was starting to get used to it. I was starting to get bored.

I know that sounds weird, but it’d just always been there. And we’ve always beaten it. Simon’s good at fighting monsters.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always hated the feeling of losing my magic (I’ve gone with dad to so many of the holes to help me get used to it and I never do), but there’s always been enough around for me to help Simon fight off whatever it is. In the last year, whenever the Humdrum sent monsters to attack, I’d catch myself thinking things like, ‘But I was in the middle of this essay! Couldn’t it wait?’

Everything changed last summer. When Simon and I were pulled away across the country. When we saw what the Humdrum really looks like and I lost all my magic at once. When I really couldn’t fight.

Now, I’m afraid.

Outside, something roars. Some sort of animal. A big one. Probably a dark creature because the Humdrum has some sort of affinity with them and he always sends dark creatures. A dragon, maybe. Or a manticore.

That’s a relief, though. It means it’s just a monster.

Not that I’m relaxing. This isn’t just another random attack. Simon told us earlier that he’s been a month and the Humdrum hasn’t attacked him. And I know it hasn’t attacked Watford. A whole month without an attack, but now we’re here for what must be about half an hour and suddenly here it is?

That has to be related.

“Why now?” I ask the boys.

I’m fairly sure the Humdrum isn’t interested in me, even though I was carried along with Simon when he was taken that day. Is it Baz? He was there when Simon and I were abducted. And he is a dark creature. I don’t see how it can be Baz, though. And Simon clearly isn’t in the mood to uncover this mystery right now.

“Who cares?”

“I have to agree with Snow,” Baz says (Simon gives me a smug look, before he remembers that who exactly is agreeing with him). “Let’s defeat the monster first and work out its motivation afterwards, if we’re alive.”

There’s another roar from outside, but closer. And then something pushes its head through the wall of the house, right through the Mage’s books.

It’s a lion. A massive lion, at least twice the normal size. And it roars again, this time sending fire into the room.

“Out, out, brief candle,” I shout as Baz shouts, “Make a wish!” The fire goes out before it reaches the books.

“We need to get outside,” Baz says. “There’s too much flammable material in here.”

More of the lion has come through the wall now. And now I can see that it’s not just a fire-breathing lion. There’s a goat head on its back. And a long tail like a snake.

A chimera. 

“Merlin. Not this shit again,” Simon growls as the three of us rush to the door. He hates not being able to use his sword. “What’s it even doing here? The Humdrum never sends the same thing twice!”

The door slams behind us.

“He hasn’t sent a chimera before,” Baz points out. “That was me.”

“So, you at least know how to stop it?” I say, because Simon’s looking murderous again.

“Not exactly,” Baz says. “Last time Snow just went off and destroyed it. I wasn’t planning to meet another one.”

The chimera bursts out through the door and Baz throws up a shield before it sends more fire towards us. Snakes, it’s good to have him here. I find it hard to think about defensive spells and offensive spells at the same time. My brain just doesn’t run on those tracks at the same time.

“It’s a fire creature,” I say, thinking out loud. “Cold and water should work against it. Something like – Chilled to the bone!

Baz shakes his head as my spell bounces harmlessly off the monster.

“I remember this from last time now. Nothing I did worked at all. It’s too powerful. And the fire’s on the inside, not the outside.”

“Brilliant,” Simon says sarcastically. “So, what do we do? Run? Or just shout at me until I explode?”

“If the fire’s on the inside, then we need to get inside it,” I say. “That shouldn’t be difficult. It probably wants to eat us after it sets us on fire.”

Simon scowls. “Plans that involve us getting eaten on purpose always go wrong.”

“I hope that’s a joke,” Baz says.

Simon and I both shake our heads and then the giant animal leaps and we all leg it, Simon dragging me behind him.

Fortunately for Baz, the chimera is still incorporeal when it lands on the car, so there isn’t any damage. Not to the car anyway. The forest behind us catches alight quickly. The chimera pads free of the car and prowls after us.

“I wish I could just use my sword,” Simon grumbles. “These incorporeal monsters are such shit.”

Baz’s eyes go wide. “Sword,” he says. “Of course. The sword would work.”

“It really doesn’t,” Simon begins, but Baz cuts him off.

“Bunce is probably right – it would make sense to cast a spell inside the chimera. But none of us want to be digested or used as bait. So, what we need is a magickal instrument with reach. Your sword.”

I can see where he’s going with this, but as far as I know Simon has never cast any spells using the sword. He mostly just hacks at stuff.

“There’s a first time for everything,” Baz says when I point this out.

He’s looking hungrily at Simon now and I can tell it’s freaking Simon out more than the chimera is.

“No one casts spells with swords,” Simon says. “that’s not what they’re for. I know what this is. You’re trying to feed me to a chimera.”

“That didn’t work last time. And unlike some people here, I learn from my mistakes,” Baz says coldly. “I can’t believe you didn’t think the Humdrum might send a chimera and look up how to beat it.”

“I thought he’d already sent one!”

“I think it’s worth trying,” I say. Too much stuff is on fire for us to be having this argument right now. I have to wipe sweat out of my eyes. “And if not––”

Simon scowls. “I’ll just blow it up.”

“We’ll shield you. And we’ll think of something else,” I say firmly.

“Fine,” Simon says moodily. “I don’t know any cold spells, though. Except for Put it on ice but that’s for drinks.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Baz says. “Think. We’ve learned several at school. And I’m sure the Mage has taught you a few more since you’ve been here. What about––?”

The chimera lungs towards us, snake tail thrashing. I see Baz push Simon forward, towards it – it does look like he’s trying to push Simon to his death, and maybe I’d have believed that was what was happening a year ago. But now, I’m just really glad I brought Baz with me. He’s really useful.

Baz is shouting over the roar of the chimera and the roar of the fire, but it sounds helpful, not angry.

“Chin up, speak clearly, think about what it means to be so cold you shatter. Hold that in your mind.”

Simon pushes the sword upwards and I hear him shout, “You’ll freeze to death like that.”

There’s a cracking sound. Baz shouts, “Get down!” and the chimera explodes into fragments – like ice shattering around a point.

I duck behind the car. Bits and pieces of monster crash into it. (Nicks and Slick, I hope it still works well enough that we can get home.)

The feeling of the Humdrum in the air lifts.

I hop out from behind the car and survey the damage.

There’s a lot of it. The car is wrecked. The chimera is gone. Baz and Simon are standing in the middle of a crater, which is just in front of the house. The house itself looks fine, though. I’d like to have a look at the protections the Mage put on it, as they are seriously impressive. I’ve seen bits of Watford collapse after Simon’s gone off – although, wait a minute. This time he didn’t go off, did he? This is just what it would be like if Simon used his magic. Actually, used it.

“I did it,” Simon says with disbelief.

Baz grins, like he’s just come top of the class in a surprise test. “Great kid – don’t get cocky.”

Simon blinks at him and Baz frowns. “Crowley, I hope both my eyebrows made it this time,” he says and Simon starts laughing.

I suppose we must have won. But otherwise, I have no idea what’s going on.

 

17 - SIMON

Penny suggested we should head back to Watford tonight, but I can tell her heart’s not in it. She’s exhausted. Baz is exhausted too, even though he says he isn’t. I feel fine, but I don’t want to get into how I’m not leaving right now, so I don’t push it. Also, the car got slammed with bits of frozen chimera and while Penny and Baz both think they can fix it, they’d both prefer the light to be better. And Baz says he hates driving in the dark.

Anyway, I told them they could both stay for the night – Penny because she’s my friend, and Baz because … well, he had nowhere else to go.

And he did help me with the chimera. (Even if he did do it to save his own skin.) (Again.) Using the sword was basically a stroke of genius, even if the genius in question is a complete git.

I’ve never liked my wand and it’s definitely never liked me. The best thing I can say about our relationship is that I’m better at remembering to bring it with me than I used to be. But using it still makes me feel like a prat pretending to be a wizard for Halloween.

The sword is different. It’s mine. Part of me.

When Baz said I could use it, I thought it must be a trick, because. Well, because it was Baz saying it. But at the same time, I knew he was right. That sounds weird, I know. But the way Penny talks about her ring, how it’s an extension of herself, that’s what the Sword of Mages is to me. 

Using it was – easy. The spell just flowed through me, along the blade. It felt like I was meant to use it. It felt good.

It felt magic.

Not that I’m going to tell Baz that.

The inside of the house isn’t too damaged because we got the chimera out of there pretty quickly, except everything smells like smoke now. Baz says that’s normal for anywhere I’ve spent any time at all in, so he doesn’t notice the difference. Which I’d have been annoyed about except Penelope agreed with him.

“Where’s the bath, Simon? I feel like I’ve been sitting in a bonfire.”

Obviously, there isn’t a bath – there wouldn’t be room for it. But there is an outhouse with a shower. I let Penny go first, which leaves me and Baz alone in the only slightly burned living room area.

It’s dead awkward.

We’ve spent loads of time alone together, of course, but generally at least one of us was asleep. Or in the bathroom (one of us was in the bathroom). Or he was doing homework and I was looking out of the window. Or I was yelling at him about something.

I don’t know what to say to him now. Or if I should say something to him. He’s my guest and (as the Mage would say) “from a certain point of view”, he did just save my life. So I’m not angry with him right now. But if I’m not angry, then I don’t know how to talk to Baz. Even if he did save my life, he’s probably just going to try and kill me later. Or use the information I give him to depose the Mage or something equally evil.

Baz doesn’t seem to know what to do either. I think he’s sucking on his fangs without realising it, which he does while he’s thinking. (I’ve noticed it before while he does homework.)

“Did you have a good summer?” he says eventually.

Merlin. I think he’s trying to be nice. Make small talk.

“All right,” I say. “You?”

“Fine.”

This is so weird. Do I have to think of something nice to say to him now?

I have no idea how long Penny usually showers for. She seems like she’d be quick.

“How’s the football going?” I ask, because I am actually interested in this.

Baz looks pleased – as pleased as he ever does, anyway – to be asked this. “You’ve only missed one match – we won.”

“You mean, you did.”

He always scores most of the goals, he’s so fucking good. He’s easily the best player on the team and he knows it. I expect him to grin smugly – but he frowns.

“Football is a team sport, Snow.”

“Yeah. But I bet you think the others are holding you back.”

Baz crosses his arms. “How exactly? We won.”

He’s still frowning. It’s almost like I’ve hurt his feelings somehow. Which can’t be true because I know Baz doesn’t give a shit what I think. And anyway, I’ve said lots of worse things to him before. This is practically a compliment.

I’m not apologising. I just shrug and he turns away.

“How long do you think Bunce is going to be?” he says.

“I dunno.”

I wish I did. Penny and Baz drove here and I happen to know Watford is almost four hours away from this house. I assume they must have talked about something during that time. I haven’t been able to fill ten minutes.

Maybe they both really like Game of Thrones (I’m never anywhere with a TV long enough to watch a whole season). Or computer games. I’ve never seen Baz play computer games, but it’s probably shit without the internet. He could do it when he’s at home. I don’t think Penelope does, though, so it’s probably not that. And she thinks Game of Thrones is really sexist.

“Listen, Snow,” Baz says.  “Why don’t you make some food or something? I haven’t seen you eat since I got here so you must be ravenous.”

I can’t think of a time I’ve been more relieved, even though he’s insulting me. Actually, it’s good to be insulted – I know where I stand.

I retreat to the kitchen-y half of the room and use my magic to set the oven going. Five minutes later, Penny’s out of the shower and I’ve fixed us something to eat – Linda McCartney burgers. I’m not looking, but I can sense Baz’s lip curling.

While we eat (while Penny and I eat – Baz doesn’t touch his food. Typical), Penny and Baz talk about some spell Penny’s working on for class. And Penny talks to me about what’s been going on for the last month. Baz and I don’t talk to each other.

A few times, I think Penny is going to start saying something to me about the Mage and that warning she got, but Baz always changes the subject back to magic. Even though I wouldn’t mind talking about the Mage, it’s probably a good idea. (I can’t imagine Baz not making a sarcastic comment, since his whole family hates the Mage. It’s practically Baz’s duty as a Pitch to be a dick about him. And I don’t want to go off in the Mage’s house. Not after we saved his books from the chimera.)

Penny loves talking magic. Even to me and I don’t know half the things that Baz does. She’s lit up now, pushing her glasses back up her nose and leaning forward, as she gets really into her argument about this spell she’s trying to invent.

“It has to be good for something – it’s Shakespeare plus Holmes.”

“There’s your problem,” Baz says. “You don’t know what it’s for. You should start with the need and then look for the phrase––”

That feels right to me. Lots of times I make things happen with words that aren’t real spells, just because I really need something to happen. But I’m not taking his side against Penny. Not that she needs my help – Penny can out-argue anyone.

She waves her burger at Baz emphatically. “Larkin says otherwise. And look how many spells he invented.”

Larkin was an angry, mean-spirited, old git who hated everyone. I wouldn’t put it past him to lie about his methods.”

“My mum says otherwise – it’s not like she wanted to invent a battle spell. And what about Penrig? Or Ainsworth-Randall’s treaty?”

Baz makes a dismissive noise, but his face is like Penny’s – bright. He’s just as into this conversation as she is. I’ve never seen him like this, except on the football pitch.

It suits him.

I mean, it makes him look less like a forbidding twat.

Thinking about it, I haven’t seen Penny like this either, not with another student. Except for Micah, nobody’s really been in her league before. Agatha and I certainly aren’t. I’ve been away for a month – did they actually become friends in that time?

Or does Baz just want me to think that they’re friends? That’s the sort of thing he’d do. (Why does he have to try and take everything that’s mine?)

I must be staring at him without noticing because Baz suddenly scowls. “What have I done wrong this time?”

Confronting him over Agatha never worked – it only let him know how much he was getting to me. I’m also not sure if he is getting to me. I don’t feel angry. More confused than anything.

“Just wondering if you want your burger,” I say.

He doesn’t.

 

18 – BAZ

There’s only one bed in the house (if you can call it a house) and Bunce immediately commandeers it. That leaves Snow and I to share the living room. I don’t complain. Even when Snow offers me the floor and keeps the sofa for himself. We’re not friends, after all. There’s no reason for him to sacrifice himself for me.

Besides, I don’t mind the floor.

“I used to be a Cub Scout when I was younger,” I explain to Snow, who looks like I’ve just told him I used to unicycle professionally. (I didn’t.) Complete disbelief.

What’s so unbelievable about Cubs? I suppose he didn’t have a normal childhood.

Sleeping on the floor also means I can lie next to the stove, which is the only source of heat in this god-forsaken place. Except Snow himself, I assume. He probably doesn’t even notice how cold it is, here. He hasn’t complained about it yet anyway. Whereas if I’d been the one evacuated out here, I’d have mentioned it on the hour, every hour.

I cast “Lights out,” and the room goes dark. I can hear Snow breathing across the room. And I can smell him – that sweet, heady scent that makes me want to sink my teeth into him somewhere.

I can also just about see him in the dim light of his phone screen, though it’s probably too dark for him to see me. He bites his lip while he’s texting – I didn’t know that. Although I’ll certainly remember it now.

A moment later, the Mage’s phone vibrates with a series of messages.

- Humdrum finally showed up today
- Not in person. Chimera
- Some of your books got burnt (not many)
- Sorry :(

I don’t answer.

I’m not in the mood to pretend. I’ve been pretending all day, to be something like the version of myself that Snow expects – and now I’m tired.

I knew it would be bad – to see him again and talk to him. I knew it would be painful. And it is – every scowl he sends my way is torture, even the lightest insult makes me feel like I’ve been staked.

What surprises me is how badly I’m dealing with it. I’ve had years of pretending to hate Snow, years of dealing with his disdain. It should be second nature. It was.

In one month, I’ve destroyed the only protection I had against him.

And I still don’t know what to do about the fact that Bunce is determined to bring him back to school with us. So this could be my fucking life from now on. Forever.

The obvious solution is to stop Penelope telling Simon about his mother’s warning, so that he continues to trust the Mage. Or even better, I could use the Mage’s phone to insist that Simon stays where he is, whatever she says. (I know he’d believe that. He trusts me – that version of me.)

Then, Simon stays; Bunce and I leave. Things go back to normal. Back to how they were before the Visitings. The two of us texting each other from different sides of the island. I know he’s bored, and that he misses Watford, but he’s safe enough. He’s the Greatest Mage. If anyone can defeat the Humdrum single-handed, he can. 

On the way here, I thought I could do it.

But now –

Now I’ve seen him again.

He’s watching the phone, waiting for me to reply. My vampire eyes show him to me – curled up inside the sofa. Bronze curls (still growing back in after the summer) spilling over the edge of the seat. Fidgeting, of course. Impatient.

I hate myself, but I reply:

- Books are replaceable. I’m glad you survived.

All too true.

Across the room, Simon grins and writes:

- Please. I’ve been fighting chimeras since I was 15
- It didn’t stand a chance

I roll my eyes. That’s certainly one way of looking at it. A really optimistic way, which takes no account of my presence and frankly brilliant deductions. 

I type: - Which spell did you use? Then I press send before I can think too much about what I’m doing.

It’s stupid, but I want him to tell me about me. The real me. I know I won’t hear anything good, Simon made it quite clear afterwards that he still thinks of me as a loathsome intruder. But surely even someone as thick as Simon noticed how well today went. Because of me. Because I know him and what he’s capable of.

It was almost like this relationship – the one we have over the phone – was real. He smiled at me as though it was. As though he knew and was OK with it.

My phone buzzes with Simon’s answer about which spell he used:

- Freeze to death
- Worked great. Lucky you taught me that one last week!

Again, no mention of me. Although I note he also doesn’t refer to Penelope Bunce, which is interesting. I suppose we aren’t really supposed to be here. You have to sign out before you leave the school on weekends, and Bunce and I didn’t do that for obvious reasons.

It is possible Simon’s protecting us, though why he’d be protecting me is beyond my comprehension.

Since I’ve come this far, I write:

- I’m glad to hear it. But I’m surprised that spell managed to penetrate the chimera’s outer skin.

Snow bites his lip harder, clearly thinking.

I can feel my fangs trying to pop as I watch him. Is he going to draw blood? He might do. And then I could–Well. I don't like to think about it.

Crowley, is he even wearing that cross? I can’t see it around his neck – no wonder my senses have been going mad since I got here. Maybe I should have insisted on the bed in the other room after all. At least I could have sneaked out during the night to go hunting.

Turning over onto my other side, towards the stove, helps. At least I don’t have to look at him, though I’ll smell it if he does bite too hard.

I try and concentrate on the phone, which is now displaying the following messages:

- I used my blade
- Not as a weapon - I used it to cast the spell

I type back:

- Interesting
- How did you know that would work?

Let’s see him try and get out of that without saying: Basilton Pitch told me to do it.

No reply. I feel briefly smug about his inevitable defeat – and then Snow says my name. Out loud.

“Er. Baz?”

I don’t react – visibly. But my fucking heartrate has definitely increased.

He can’t have guessed.

I thought maybe he had after the chimera, but then he treated me like dirt for the rest of the day. Simon Snow is a man without guile. If I’d given myself away, if he’d guessed, he would have already confronted me.

“Baz?” Snow says again. “I know you’re awake.”

Why does he always have to push? If I want to pretend to be asleep to get out of talking to him, I should be able to do that.

I turn over to face him, putting as much scorn into my voice as possible. “What?”

“You know today.”

“I know of it.”

“How did you know it would work to use my sword? Against the chimera.”

I breathe a sigh of relief. He doesn’t know. This is just my own question reflected back at me – Snow needs an answer for the Mage. But he looks genuinely interested. I suppose if I were him, the question of how I knew would be eating away at me too.

I could lie – but Crowley, now I want to tell him. He asked, he asked me. And I’ve never told him anything real about myself before.

And I suppose I’ve been thinking.

Something the goatherd said back in that shed has been bothering me, on and off. She said I could be nicer to Simon.

I know she’s just a crazy hippy – she probably thinks everyone can get on, even vampires and golden boys with golden destinies. But it’s not inconceivable that part of the reason Snow hates me so much is that I am always completely foul to him.

I mean, I can see the logic.

So I tell him the truth.

“My grandfather could cast spells with the bow of his violin, as well as his wand. The official line is that each magician has a connection with a single magickal instrument, but that clearly wasn’t true in his case.”

In the dark, Snow looks thoughtful. “What about you?” he asks eventually.

“What about me?”

“You play the violin. Can you cast spells with it?”

“No. He was an exceptional magician and an even better musician.”

“And?” Simon says. “So are you – according to you, anyway.”

I really don’t know what to say to that.

“Not in the same way he was,” I say eventually.

“So, you’ve tried it?”

Is this what it’s like having a conversation with Simon Snow?

So many questions. He must get it from Bunce (on the way here, she grilled me about my mother’s cure for gnomeatic fever, which I admit passed the time), although Simon’s questions are softer somehow. Bunce wants knowledge – which I can understand.

I don’t know what Simon wants.

“Once. In third year,” I say. I force myself to tell him the rest of it. “I couldn’t focus the spell and accidentally set the room on the fire.”

It was Christmas. Fortunately, I was too young to be allowed in the family library at the time, or I’d never have been allowed back there. As it was, Daphne nearly had a fit, thinking I was trying to end my own life, despite a complete lack of evidence. I had to spend the rest of the holidays playing Scrabble where everyone could see me and using plastic cutlery.

Not a mistake you make twice, in other words.

I expect Snow to laugh, but he doesn’t.

“That was five years ago,” he says. “You should try again. With a different spell. One that’s more like what you’re playing. You’re into sad stuff, right? So maybe a cooling spell would work better.”

Crowely and fucking Jones, is Simon Snow actually giving me advice about spellcasting?

Also, he’s noticed that I tend to play incredibly depressing music all the time. Which is humiliating, even if he doesn’t know it’s because I’m in love with him and unenthusiastic about my prospects.

He does have a point, though. I chose a fire spell because I’m good at fire spells, but I didn’t think about the song. It was probably just Mozart – I was obsessed with Mozart at that age. Something quick and lively to show off my fingering. No wonder the fire jumped off the candelabra and into the rest of the room.

“I’ll think about it,” I say.

“Just don’t try it when I’m in the room,” Snow says cockily.

I should probably tell him to piss off. Or tell him not to try any magic when I’m in the room.

I don’t.

Because he’s smiling. And I don’t want him to stop.

The Mage’s phone buzzes with the answer to my earlier question about how Simon knew the sword would work. He’s written:

- Someone said something about their family doing something similar
- Not with a sword
- Just remembered
- But I guess it worked!
- How was your day?

He really is a terrible liar. (I don’t know why I find that so endearing.) I like to think even the real Mage would see through that tissue-thin deception, but I won't call him out on it.

I think about my answer.

Today has been an absolute nightmare. And – it hasn’t.

Not that I can tell him that. I can’t tell him anything real. I can’t tell him how I feel about him.

- Tolerable, I write.
- Overall.

I could keep Simon here, if I wanted to. It would be easy. A few quick words from me on his phone, a short text with a caution against returning to Watford, and he’d stay, I know he would. We could go back to how we were.

The problem is that it’s not what I want. The controlled, careful communication where I hide everything about myself.

I want the real thing.

These past few weeks I’ve been fooling myself into thinking that what we have at the moment, these conversations by text, is enough. It isn’t.

I want what Penelope has. What Agatha Wellbelove never appreciated having. What the Mage doesn’t even know he has.

And still more.

 

19 – SIMON

When I wake up, Baz is gone and Penny’s sitting in the armchair across the room reading a massive book about dark creatures.

“Morning, Simon!” she says brightly. “Sleep well?”

I groan and press my face back into the sofa. Since I make my own food now (by myself for myself), and I don’t have regular classes, I can’t usually be bothered to get up before noon and it’s not even eleven yet. I thought Trixie was supposed to be the annoyingly perky roommate. At least Baz always lets me sleep.

Today, he must have managed to leave without waking me, as I can’t see him anywhere. Probably got hungry and is out draining the local wildlife.

It’s funny – I think I noticeably hate Baz less this morning. Last night we actually had a conversation. (Sort of.) And this morning I can almost understand what it’s like to crave blood, like we’re on the same wavelength or something. I’m so desperate for meat after a month of eating vegan that it’s like I can smell bacon in the air right now. It’s a bit scary. Isn’t that one of the signs you know you’re getting cancer? When you can smell bacon?

When I stagger to the outhouse for a morning piss, I see Baz kicking a football up against the wall of the house. I guess he must have brought it with him. He raises a hand to me, but I don’t wave back. (Like I said, I hate him less, but I definitely still hate him.)

“Baz and I fixed the car,” Penny says when I get back inside. “We can leave whenever you’re ready.”

I grunt – I still haven’t told her I’m staying.

“I mean, after breakfast, obviously,” Penny says, misinterpreting the grunt. “It’s on the table.”

She points at a brown McDonalds bag that I didn’t notice before. Brown paper, filled with animal products wrapped in bread. It’s where the bacon smell is coming from. I’m not hallucinating.

I cram one of the Egg McMuffins into my mouth just to be sure. It’s cold. And amazing. Rich and fatty. I feel my arteries clogging with happiness. Merlin and Morgana, I’ve missed food. Real food.

“The nearest McDonalds is miles away,” I say through my second sandwich.

“Twenty miles, yeah,” Penny says. She looks grossed out and I close my mouth. “Once we fixed the car, Baz said he’d be damned if he was going to go another day eating rabbit food.”

So yeah. For a moment I almost like Baz.

I mean, I don’t like him. But he didn’t have to bring enough for all of us. I guess this means he might not be a complete tosser.

Unless – Shit, could he have done something to the food?

I stop mid-bite. How do you tell if you’ve been poisoned? Is it too late already?

“They’re not poisoned, Simon,” Penny says, like she’s a mindreader. I suppose it must be pretty obvious when I start stressing out about Baz. I do it often enough.

I swallow so I can answer her. “Why do you trust him now?”

“I don’t completely trust him.”

“But you do like him,” I say accusingly.

Penny shrugs and I remember what else I’m angry about.

“Is he with Agatha now?”

Penny turns back to her book. It’s a classic Penelope I don’t want to talk about Baz manoeuvre. “I don’t think either of them were really interested in each other, to be honest.”

“He’s said that to you?”

“I’ve got eyes, Simon. He’s barely looked at her at all this year.”

I suppose it could be true. Maybe his dad told him he couldn’t go out with anyone who wasn’t properly one of the Old Families. Serves him right for being such a snob. Even Agatha Wellbelove isn’t good enough for handsome, clever, superstar footballer Basilton Grimm-Pitch. Well, fuck him.

“Anyway,” Penny says firmly. “Shouldn’t you be packing?”

“Nah,” I say. I figure now we’ve come to this, it’s best to face it straight on. “I think I’m going to stay here. It was great to see you though.”

Now Penny puts down the book. She’s gaping at me.

“What do you mean you’re staying?”

“You’re the smart one, you tell me,” I tease. But she’s not in the mood for joking around.

I sigh. “Look, the Humdrum’s going to keep coming after me––”

“Yeah, I know. That’s why you need your friends around you to help you fight him. He’s a massive cosmic force who eats magic. You can’t beat him alone.”

“Penny, that’s my destiny. That’s literally why I exist.”

She shakes her head. “I don’t even know if I believe in destiny. But I know you aren’t supposed to be alone. That’s mad. If you won’t come back, then I’ll just have to stay here with you.”

I can see she means it. She’s got her fiercest expression on and I know that if I say yes, she’ll give up her final year of school to live in a cottage in Wales with me and fight off chimeras. Penny’s mum could bring all her stuff (or I guess Baz could). I’d sleep on the couch, and Penny could have my bed.

I really want to say yes.

But I can’t do that to her. She’s my best friend. And it’s just – it’s wrong.

“You can’t leave Watford, Penny.”

“Why not?” She shuts me down before I can answer. “No, Simon. Don’t even try. Any reason you think of can be applied to you too.”

“How about: Your mum would freak out and probably kill me?” I suggest.

Penelope snorts. “You think she isn’t livid that you’ve been taken out of school? She’s written a letter to the Mage – and the Record. She called you being withdrawn: flagrantly irresponsible and short-termist.”

That can’t be right, though. I’ve been reading the Record, because the Mage thinks I should stay in touch with current events. I didn’t see anything about me in there.

“The Mage wouldn’t let them print it,” Penelope explains. “Which only made her crosser.”

I laugh, even though my mouth’s still full of McMuffin.

Please,” Penny pleads. “You have to come back. What about if the Humdrum attacks Watford while you’re away – have you thought of that? We might not be able to fight him off. You could be dooming us all.”

I haven’t thought about that.

I’d hate myself if that happened. Even though I know Penny and Baz would have worked out how to take down that chimera yesterday if I hadn’t been there. And if it had attacked the school, Miss Possibelf would have been there. Maybe even the Mage.

“The Mage says the Humdrum hasn’t attacked at all this year,” I point out.

“You said he hadn’t attacked you here until yesterday, either,” she argues. “He’s unpredictable. Insidious. Even my dad can’t work out what he’s going to do next. Therefore, you might as well be with your friends and your teachers at your school – which you love.”

Penny’s good at arguing. The only time I’ve ever seen her lose a debate was against her mum – and even then, her mum conceded a few points. Usually, I’d just give up, but I can’t. Not this time.

I play my trump card: “This is what the Mage wants for me.”

It should finish the argument, but Penny just scoffs.

“The Mage isn’t always right. No one is.”

He is.”

Simon,” Penelope says exasperatedly. “You know that’s not true. What about when he sent us to look for the Third Gate at the wrong end of the country?”

“That was character building – he wanted me to work it out for myself.”

Penny sighs. “He’s clever and I’m glad he’s talking to you again, but he’s human. He makes mistakes. We all do. But some of the Mage’s mistakes could hurt you.”

And then she tells me something I think she’s been avoiding telling me since she got here.

How, while I was away, there were these Visitings. Which I already know about because the Mage explained to me that they’re a real thing that happens every twenty years, not fake, like I thought.

And one of the ghosts who came back was my mum.

She just showed up, Penny says, in my bedroom at Watford. The one year that I wasn’t there.

I can’t help but think this makes literally no sense. How would a ghost know my address and not be able to find me? But Penny says that’s how it works. The ghosts aren’t psychically connected to you or anything. They’re just like regular people, except they’re dead. They go where they think they might find you based on what they know about you.

She said she missed me, and she loved me, and that I should be afraid of the Mage. “The things he’s doing now – they make me afraid for my son,” Penny recites carefully. 

I never knew my mum. That means, I’ve never really missed her. I mean, I’ve missed the idea of her and my dad. The idea of having a mum and dad who loved me. Who’d rescue me from the children’s home and keep me safe.

But the Mage already did that.

He’s my family now.

And I’m not going to doubt him. Not because some dead person I’ve never even met told me I should. 

I can tell Penny wasn’t expecting me to get angry. From the way she’s talking, quiet and gentle (like when she’s telling me I went off and accidentally destroyed a building), I know she was expecting me to be upset.

I’m definitely upset. It’s just – I’m even angrier than that. So angry I can barely feel anything else.

Penny’s taken my hand, but I shake it off.

“How do you know it was even really my mum?”  

She looks even more worried. “Simon, she looked just like you. And the dead don’t lie – they can’t.”

“Yeah, but it might not even have been a real ghost––”

Visitor,” Penelope corrects automatically. She looks worried.

“It could have been a trick. You said Baz was there.”

“Baz was there because it was his room. He didn’t cast anything except the spells we talked about.”

“Not while you were there,” I counter.

Only this week the Mage has been telling me about spells that don’t activate immediately. You can set something going well in advance and set a trigger that’ll activate it later. Like, a countdown on a bomb. It’s really advanced magic, but Baz is smart. He’d be able to do it.

“It was a real Visitor,” Penelope insists. “She came back to warn you––”

But I’ve had enough of this conversation. 

“I need to get some air,” I say.

Then I storm out through the back door and slam it behind me.

 

20 – SIMON

For Christ’s sake. I’ve spent the last month wishing someone else was here, now I can’t wait to be alone. Baz and Penny can’t leave quickly enough.

My magic’s going crazy. It’s thick in the air, worse than yesterday by about a million times.

I pull out my phone and text the Mage:

- Did you know my mum?

Almost immediately, he starts writing a reply. I can see the three dots that show he’s typing flickering in the message screen. Then the dots vanish. I wait and he still doesn’t respond.

Does that mean he did know her?

Or does it just mean he has no idea how to respond to such a random question? As far as he knows I don’t even know who my mum is. I still don’t.

All I know is that she looked just like me. 

Merlin. This is such shit.

I want to punch something. Or break something – that always makes me feel better. I almost throw my phone into the side of the building, but I stop myself just in time. (I’ll need it later to read the Mage’s reply.) But there are plenty of other things to smash or punch.

I’d forgotten Baz was out here, for a start.

Baz, who tried to steal my girlfriend and my best friend. Who’s spoken to the mum I’ve even never seen.

Baz, who brought me Egg McMuffins this morning and slept on the floor and helped me fight off a chimera. And who's just confusing.

He’s stopped kicking the football he was practicing with earlier. Now he’s just looking at his own phone. I don’t think he’s even noticed me even though I slammed the door really hard. Whatever he’s looking at must be absolutely fascinating. (Probably How to Spend It.) (Or his own reflection in the screen - I’d probably spend more time looking at myself if I looked like Baz.)

Over the years Baz and I must’ve punched each other dozens of times. It never gets old.

At least, it hasn't until now.

For some reason, I don't want to hit him today. Maybe because I don’t actually think he created a fake ghost of my mum to tell me to stay away from the Mage. It’s not really his style. If he had made the ghost, it would have told me to go on a secret mission down the bottom of a well filled with man-eating kelpies. (He'd have wanted to wait at the top and laugh at me while I fought them off.)

I just – I don’t know what to do if the ghost is telling the truth.

Baz looks up at me then, like he's finally realised I'm just staring at him. Maybe he’s finally smelled my blood.

The football’s at his feet and I take a run at it. He shakes his head, not like he’s annoyed, but like he’s shaking something off – but whatever it is, he’s too slow. I’m way past him, the ball in front of me before I hear him coming after me.

"Excuse me - that’s mine.”

I'm grinning. That was almost too easy.

But whatever I think of Baz, he’s a legitimately amazing footballer. He catches up with me before I’m half way to my destination and tackles so smoothly I barely notice. I turn on my heel and leg it after him, back in the direction of the house. But I’m not going to catch up. He’s too fucking fast.

Baz!” I shout. “Look out.”

There’s nothing there. But when a chimera landed on your car yesterday, you’re more likely to play it safe than normal. Sure enough, Baz turns sharply to see whatever it is I’ve seen – and I take the ball back off him.

“That’s cheating, Snow,” he calls after me, but this time he doesn’t sound annoyed.

I lose the ball again when I try to kick it into the woods, though. Baz holds onto it then, spinning and countering anything I try. He knows there’s no way I’m getting it back off him without another fake out and I’m about to give up when he kicks it over to me.

I’m so surprised I nearly miss it, but I guess I must have played enough that my instincts kick in. I catch it and juggle the ball between my knees for a moment. It escapes, but I catch it before Baz does.

Wow,” Baz says sarcastically. “You actually blocked me.”

“Fuck off,” I say, though I know I’m grinning.

I don’t play much, but I love it. 

Football’s a big deal in most of the Homes I’ve been in. It’s basically the only good thing about them – but because I like it, it’s usually the first thing I get banned from if I accidentally punch someone. Sometimes Gareth’ll get a friendly five-aside together at school – we play against the year above (or at least, we did) – but I’m not exactly reliable. He dropped me from the regular Wednesday slot when I missed three in a row in our fifth year. (Griffin attack, giant spider attack, and a Coven meeting about taxation that the Mage wanted me at for weird unknowable reasons.)

I pass the ball back to Baz before he can get it off me. He travels with it and I chase him, admiring (and cursing) his control – and then he just passes it back to me, like we’re on the same team now. (Baz and I have never been on the same team. Even in friendly games. It’d be too weird.)

We trade back and forth until Baz gets bored again and tries to tackle me again. This time, I’m ready for him, though, and I shove him as he gets close.

Foul,” he calls after me.

“Prove it,” I shout back at him. I’m pulling away now, speeding towards the woods. 

“Take the shot,” Baz shouts, even though I’m pretty sure we’re not on the same team anymore and neither of us set up anything like a goal post. I’m going to do it, though. I’m going to score.

Then, suddenly there’s a third person on the pitch. Not Penny – a small boy, in a faded t-shirt and baggy jeans.

It’s me. Aged eleven.

“What the hell?” Baz says as he runs up behind me.

The air is dry.

I can hear Baz’s breathing, as loud as my own.

“Hello,” the Humdrum says. “Can I play?” 

Chapter Text

21 – SIMON

Somehow, we escape.

We always escape. But he always, always wins. I shouldn’t be surprised the same thing happened again.

Right now, I’m sitting in the back seat of Baz’s car with Penny on the way to Watford. Baz has the radio on (some indie thing I don’t know), which almost covers the silence.

We’re leaving behind a massive hole in the magickal atmosphere. A hole where the Mage’s house used to be. All the spells he put there are gone.

And I know I can’t ever go back.

I was actually having a good time for once – with Baz of all people. I just had something normal and nice, something that was mine. Then, the bloody Humdrum showed up to remind me exactly how shit my life is. Wearing my face and using it to grin stupidly at Baz, like Baz was a fucking hero.

“You’re a really good player. Almost as good as my dad. You could be a professional."

He didn’t talk last time. I didn’t think he could talk. But of course, his voice sounded like mine too. (Or what mine would have sounded like if I’d talked much at this age.)  Listening to him, I realised I must have learned something in all those Elocution lessons, whatever Baz says. I noticed how short his vowel sounds were. Mine’ve all been smoothed out. You can only just tell I grew up in the North

“You haven’t even got a dad!” I told him (yelled at him). “You’re just a thing.”

The Humdrum scowled. “I have too got a dad. And a mum – she’s a model,” he said coyly to Baz, like it was a secret.

Which it was.

My secret.

And he just told Baz.

Standing there in my stupid jeans and my too-big t-shirt and a shaved head that made it all look ten times worse, because no one had ever given a shit about me at that point. He just straight out told my stupidest secret to the person who could hurt me most, like that was in any way OK.

Baz looked at me then, his dark eyebrows drawn together in confusion. “Snow – are you the Humdrum?”

I’m the Humdrum,” the Humdrum said. “He’s me.”

Baz was still looking at me, like he’d never seen me before.

And that was the worst part. Worse than the loss of the house, or the headache I still have, or the feeling that I should’ve been able to do something about it. And that I did nothing.

The worst part was the confusion in Baz’s eyes.

I didn’t know what to do about that. I still don’t. And I definitely didn’t know what to do about the Humdrum. I ended up just shouting at him.

“Shut up! You’re not me. Just shut up! Shut up!”

Maybe I would’ve done better than that eventually (although I doubt it). But then the ground started shaking.

I thought it was me to begin with, that I was so angry that my magic was tugging on the Earth, trying to make it shake the Humdrum free. Then the sound, the rumbling, turned into the sound of hooves. And someone scooped the Humdrum up, like he really was a little boy, and cantered off with him.

Grayling.

“Simon. Get out of here,” he shouted over his shoulder. But I couldn’t move. Baz and Penny had to drag me away.

None of us have spoken much on the journey back – which is a relief, honestly. I felt sure the others were going to make me talk about what had happened, but Baz only said,

“Grayling’s a centaur, then.”

“Yeah,” I said.

And that was it. Nothing else now for hours.

I guess we all have a lot to think about. (Or in my case, to try not to think about.)

I’ve already tried texting the Mage, to tell him what happened. And that I was coming back. But he hasn’t replied since I asked about my mum. (I don’t want to think about that either.) So mostly I've just been staring out the window.

It’s dark by the time we reach Watford. About an hour before dinner. 

It’s so weird to be back.

I usually prepare to come back to Watford by thinking of all the good things about it, the things I love about being here that I don’t get to have in whatever Home I’ve been stuck in. But, apart from the food (which I really have missed), I’ve had all the really good things with me. Like the Mage.

And Penelope.

And – 

I even got to play football. (For a while.)

I didn’t have Agatha, I suppose. But I don’t think I’ve missed Agatha. And honestly, fuck the Wavering Wood. So, what am I really coming home to this time?

Sour cherry scones. Butter and roast beef.

And my room. I suppose I did miss my room. (Although I didn’t miss having to share with Baz. Which makes it extra weird that sharing the living room with him last night was actually fine.)

Miss Possibelf catches the three of us as we’re leaving the car park. I think she’s here to tell Penny and Baz off for sneaking out without permission. But then she sees me and she sort of smiles. And tells me she’s looking forward to having me back in her class.

It’s just a small thing, that smile. But it makes me feel happy for the first time since the Humdrum showed up. (I should probably add Miss Possibelf to my list. She’s always been really good to me.)

“Is the Mage here?” I ask as she walks us back to Mummer’s House.

“I’m afraid not,” she says – and her eyes flick to Baz for some reason. “But he’ll be back soon. Good evening, Simon. Basilton.”

I think Penny wanted to sneak up to our room, but she can’t while Miss Possibelf is watching. Anyway, I don’t think Baz would allow it. Which is fine – I’ll see her at dinner.

Right now, I really want a bath and a change of clothes, and both of them are waiting for me up in the room I share with Baz. I wave to Penny, and to Miss Possibelf, and follow my roommate up the tower.

As I climb, I remember that I’ve been away long enough that I should probably introduce myself to the room again. I draw the Sword of Mages, and Baz whirls on me, wand out.

Anathema!”

It’s like he thinks I’m going to attack him, right then and there. Like I waited until the moment was right, ignoring the football game and the car trip (while he was paying attention to the road and to what had happened), and chose now.

How thick does he think I am? (Really thick – he’s told me often enough.)

“I don’t think the corridor counts,” I say.

He frowns at me and for some reason I find this hilarious. Like all the crazy, horrible tension over the last few hours has finally burst. I laugh out loud (a bit manically) and that makes Baz frown even more.

“Are you hysterical?”

“Relax,” I tell him. “I’m just letting the room know I’m back.”

I tilt the sword towards my other hand, but Baz stops me before I can cut myself. “Snow – you’re an eighth-year student. You can cast the damn spell.”

I mean – I guess I could. I’ve been using magic more for normal stuff, since the Mage told me I should during our texting. And it means I don’t need to cut myself in front of a vampire, which can only be a good thing. (I don’t even remember where my necklace is. There didn’t seem to be much point wearing it in the middle of nowhere with only a vegan centaur for company.)

I raise the sword and point it towards the door. “Honey, I’m home.”

Baz nods approvingly and pushes open the door.

Behind it, my room (our room) looks exactly the same as I remember it.

Really. Exactly the same. All of my shit is exactly where I left it.

Merlin, there’s even a towel on the floor, which must have been me because Baz magicks his clean and folds them after every shower. While I know Baz hates cleaning up after me, I’m surprised he was bloody minded enough to leave it there for a month. (No, I’m not. This is Baz, I’m talking about.)

I dump the towel in the laundry bin and check my phone. The Mage still hasn’t texted back. Maybe he never will now I’m back at Watford – I know we’re not supposed to have phones, though I can see Baz is checking his right now as well. (Maybe they changed the rules while I was gone and no one told me.)

He pockets his phone and looks up at me. “I was thinking during the journey home.”

“OK,” I say.

“And I don’t think you’re the Humdrum,” Baz says – like this is some great revelation.

“I know,” I say.

But I do think there’s a connection. There has to be. He looks exactly like you. And he knows things about you. Things that only you know, correct?”

I’m not answering that – even Baz should have the decency to forget anything the Humdrum told him.

“I think you probably are the only one who can defeat him."

“Yeah. I know,” I repeat. (Merlin and Morgana, is Baz just working this out for the first time? It’s not like the Mage hasn’t been saying it since he found me.)

“Not just because you’re powerful,” Baz says. “That’s only part of it. I mean, because of the connection between the two of you. The family bond.”

“The Humdrum’s not my family,” I say hotly.

Not that I know there I came from.

For all I know, the Humdrum could be my little brother. Like an evil twin, only eight years younger. But just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean it’s right. He doesn’t just look like me like Penny looks a bit like her sister Priya; he looks exactly like me. He even had my ball. 

“We don’t know what he is,” Baz says. And he almost looks pained to say it – like admitting he doesn’t know something is really hard for him.

“He’s not that,” I say again.

Baz holds up his hands. “All right. For the record, I don’t think he is either, but there is a relationship between you. And between your magic and his most recent appearances. Bunce was right to question the timing of the attacks this weekend. It can’t be a coincidence. Both times, your magic was sloshing around everywhere, like it does when you’re angry––”

I didn’t think he noticed that. I thought Baz was immune. But I guess he’s just really good at pretending. (Which doesn’t surprise me. I still haven’t managed to convince anyone apart from Penny that he’s a vampire.) (And even Penny says there’s no actual proof.)

“What’s your point, Baz?” I say flatly. “That I should stop being angry?”

“It would help, but I doubt it’s that feasible,” Baz says. “What you need is to learn control. How to pull your magic in when you feel like this.”

This.

He said this – like it’s happening now. Shit. Shit.

I can feel it, now I’m thinking about it. My skin’s humming. The air smells like smoke. Like a fire about to happen.

If Baz’s right, then things could be about to get really bad.

Luckily, the surprise (and embarrassment) I’m feeling must be enough of a change, because Baz says,

“Exactly, thank you.”

He’s visibly relieved and I feel even worse. He really was afraid.

“There are techniques,” he explains. “My family are fire magicians – we have to learn control at a very young age. I can help you.”

I blink at him.

“Why would you want to help me?”

Now it’s Baz’s turn to look confused.

“Why wouldn’t I want to help you?”

I make a face and sort of wave my hands in a way that I hope will convey “everything that happened in the last seven years”. I’ve been away a month. A month. He didn’t change his whole personality in that time. He still wants to kill me. (Doesn’t he?)

Baz huffs and tucks his hair behind his ear. I can tell he thinks I’m being thick.

“Snow. As difficult as it may be for you to believe, I like being alive. And I like using magic. The Humdrum wants to eat magic. If I’m right and you are the only one who can defeat him, it would be helpful if you knew what the fuck you’re doing.”

I guess that makes sense.

Sort of.

“We’re in a school,” I say. “It’s full of teachers.”

Baz shakes his head. “You don’t learn well in a classroom environment.”

I’m about to tell him to fuck off, because it sounds like a typical Baz insult. But I actually think he might be right this time.

I love Watford, I love learning magic – but I get distracted a lot during our lessons. Partly because other people are doing magic around me and I want to watch because I love magic. (Partly because Baz is in loads of my classes and it stresses me out.)

Most of what I learned here, I didn’t learn in class. 

I wish the Mage would text me back. I wish he’d come back. I’d much rather he was teaching me than Baz. Even if he doesn’t want to kill me.

But Baz is a really good magician. And, if he is trying to kill me, I should probably try and learn as much from him as possible just to make it harder for him.

“All right,” I say, sticking out my hand. “Thanks. I mean, I accept.”

Baz and I have shaken hands lots of times over the years. The Crucible, obviously, when we were eleven, was the first. And lots of times after we’ve been fighting someone – usually a teacher – will force the two of us to shake hands as though it solves anything.

When Ebb made us shake the time after I broke Baz’s nose, he squeezed my hand so hard with his vampire strength that he broke two of my fingers. (Though even Penny said I’d done it myself by not protecting my hand properly when I punched him. I know it was him, though.)

This is probably the first time I’m not being forced to shake his hand against my will.

That must be why it feels odd when Baz takes my hand in his. Not because he’s cold, although he is – really cold (it’s probably why he always wants the window closed). Or because his fingers are freakishly long and elegant and strong. (At least, he doesn’t seem to be trying to break any bones this time.)

Somehow, it feels – I don't know. Significant.

I wonder if Baz feels the same.

I look up at his face – and I think I catch him smiling (shit – what does that mean?) before he drops my hand and pulls away.

“We start tomorrow.”

 

22 – BAZ

I never intended to start teaching the Chosen One magic.

The first time.

The second time, I did it coldly and calculatedly. I knew that it would give me an excuse to be with him for hours at a time. To be kind to him occasionally. And yes, all right, to stand closer than necessary to him sometimes to adjust his form.

If Simon notices that I’m obsessed with his line of sight along his blade (to the extent that I constantly have to check it for myself, from right behind him), he hasn’t mentioned it. I think Bunce has noticed, though (unlike Simon she knows enough magic to know what is and isn’t necessary for a spell to work) so I try not to do it when she’s around.

I’m aware it’s pathetic.

It’s even more pathetic to imagine that – sometimes – he leans back into me.

The universe has already been exceptionally kind this year. Kind enough to give me a month of text messages, and now this, whatever this is. I don’t expect it to give me a real relationship. Simon Snow returning my affection. I can’t think that and stay sane.

Still, I think things are changing between us.

It’s been a week since I drove him and Bunce back to Watford, since we played football outside that cottage. Since I offered to help him and he accepted.

We walk to breakfast together now, although we still don’t sit together once we get there.

Simon closes the window at night without me asking him to and he’s started picking up his things “so we have more space to practice.”

When he almost went off in Chemistry on his first day back (he’d got the measurements wrong and, like Simon himself, his experiment was about to explode), I was able to take him aside as Bunce dealt with the imminent catastrophe.

“Deep breaths, Snow. In through your nose, out through your mouth. It’s all right.”

Then he let me talk him through what he should have done with his experiment. He said thank you.

(Really, it’s extraordinary, the kind of thing I can get away with under this deal. Under the pretext that I’m merely trying to save my own life and magic. I should have “reluctantly” changed sides years ago.)

Yesterday he asked me – no warning, out of the fucking blue – where he should go to buy more clothes, because apparently even Simon has noticed that he won’t be able to wear his uniform every day once he graduates.

“You always look good,” he explained sheepishly as I stared at him, hoping none of the gay panic showed in my face.

It was all far too much. (The thought of dressing Simon Snow. For myself. In whatever I wanted. The fact he asked me to do it. And he actually said I looked good. Crowley - the whole thing.)

I sneered and put him off, though not so much as to completely close the door to him asking again. I don’t hate myself that much.

All of this aside, he definitely is learning.

I’m teaching Simon meditation, primarily, and picking up some of the things I was working on with him over the phone. (I can tell Simon thinks I’m naturally gifted at this too, in the same way I’m ‘naturally gifted’ at other things I spend most of my time practicing, like football and magic and the violin. That I’m so indescribably clever, I can just walk into his training completely cold and somehow get through to him even faster than “the Mage” did. That I just get him.) (Obviously, I happy to let him think that. I’m not proud.)

However, now I’ve seen the Humdrum – the same little boy I see glaring out at me from the Mage’s phone every time I use it – I have changed the programme I operated as the Mage.

You see, I’d been preparing the Greatest Mage for a battle.

Even Grayling, who must have been briefed by the Mage (and I assume the Mage has that photo on his phone for a reason), seems to have been doing the same.

And while there is a need for that, while there are still monsters to fight (my car definitely doesn’t run as well following its meeting with the chimera), neither of us thought about how Simon can fight this enemy who wears his own face. An enemy might be him in some way I can’t even begin to understand yet.

It’s a tricky problem – and I can tell Simon doesn’t appreciate the work I’m putting into it.

“What good is this going to be against the Insidious Humdrum? he complained when I taught him The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

“I’d have thought that was obvious,” I said, knowing it wasn’t in the least obvious but unable to help myself. “He knows your secrets; you need to know his. What is he? How can we defeat him?”

Simon scoffed. “It’s not going to be that easy.”

I agreed with him, but suggested it was worth trying unless he had any better ideas.

“Anyway, isn’t this spell illegal?” Simon said as I adjusted the height of his wrist. (That day, his flesh smelled like the kind of cinema popcorn I always pretend I’m buying for Mordelia. Sweet. And salty. It was a struggle not to lick him.)

“The Pitches have used this spell for every deal for the last century.”

“So, that’s a yes, then.”

“It’s about using the spell responsibly. Some like it hot was banned for almost five years because some idiots kept scalding themselves. I don’t know about you, but I think trying to take down the greatest threat to magic is fairly responsible.”

“You’re actually saying it’s OK because I’m Spider-Man?”

“With great power comes great responsibility, Snow. Clichéd, but essentially accurate.”

Obviously, I knew it was a risk to teach him this particular spell.

Simon’s been trying to get me thrown out for being a vampire for years – the temptation to ask if I was one under oath must be strong.

It’s not even the only one of my secrets that would ruin me.

Fortunately, either my ominous words about responsibility or his own fear of breaking the law, meant he didn’t even question my decision not to let him test the spell at all. On anyone. Even though that’s usually something I insist on. (Simon is a kinaesthetic learner, he learns by doing. Which means he always tries to do before he knows what he’s doing – which means he fails, which he finds embarrassing, which means he doesn’t learn. The whole cycle is now very clear to me.)

Simon knows the theory – that will have to be enough. And in the meantime, I don’t have to tell him I’m a vampire.

Or that I love him.

Or that I know why his mentor – who was so attentive during the time he was away – now won’t text him back.

I know it’s hurting him.

That I’ve hurt him. More than I ever have before – far more than I ever managed when I was his enemy.

Bunce told me Simon complete dismissed the warning from his mother. (I've never heard of that happening with a Visitor.) He dismissed it because the warning was about the Mage.

“And Simon loves the Mage,” Bunce explained. “It’s like the Mage's his dad. A really shitty dad, but the only one Simon knows. And it’s worse than ever now. He just won’t listen.”

I didn’t even think about what it would mean to Simon when the Mage dropped him. 

I just wanted to talk to him.

Simon leaves new messages every morning. I’ve thought about not reading them, but they keep coming and I keep reading. 

- Hi! I think you need to charge your phone.
- Or maybe your contract has expired?
- Where are you?
- Do you need help?
- Are you coming back to school soon?

I’ve also thought about answering. Repairing that relationship. Reminding Simon that someone cares about him.

It wouldn’t help me at all (beyond excising some guilt, although I’m used to it by now). But I’d do it. If I thought it would help him.

But Simon doesn’t need more lies to make him feel better. And the truth isn’t exactly palatable.

Unlike Simon, I do know where the Mage is.

Fiona’s people (whatever that means) eventually decoded the emails I sent through from the Mage’s phone. But even if they hadn’t, we’d have been able to work it out what was going on fairly quickly, since the emails describe a pattern of raids his Merry Men should make on certain people’s houses.

People like me. Houses like mine.

My house is actually right at the top of the Mage’s list. Because, of course, we’re public enemy number one. Even though I notice the Mage’s emails don’t even try and pretend to his followers that we’ve actually done anything wrong this time.

He just thinks we might have something. Something he needs.

Something to make him more powerful.

He’s preparing for war.

The emails are vague about intent (the Mage doesn’t like to share information even with his own allies) but the kind of things he’s looking for are all power amplifiers. Quartz. Dragon bone. Rosemary.

There’s plenty of stuff like that at our house – although, now we know what the Mage is doing, Father’s had most of it shipped out to our estate in Ireland. All that was left when the Mage called was a few shitty amulets I ordered from eBay when I was too young to know any better. (Fiona thought it would be a good idea for the Mage to find something. To show we weren’t hiding anything.)

She texted me from home the other day. (We’ve discussed it and agreed there’s no point in me coming back to face him. If the Mage dies at my house, it won’t take a genius to work out how.) He's taken them. The amulets that – at eleven – I thought might be worth something, but which are now very obviously bits of dead rabbit held together with a weak booster charm.

He’s also taken some books about necromancy that we’re admittedly not supposed to have and a Buckingham Palace snow globe. A completely non-magickal snow globe. Tourist tat Fiona bought in London. I can only assume he took it for pure spite.

That’s what he’s doing – taking children’s toys.

Not working out how we can beat the Humdrum. Or teaching at his school.

Not coming back to check his protegee is all right, even though someone must have told him that Simon is back at Watford now. Grayling. Or Miss Possibelf – someone must have been able to reach him.

That means the Mage knows that Simon met the Humdrum (again).

That Simon survived, but isn’t much closer to working out how to win.

That he’s suffering.

I know I hate the Mage. I know he killed my mother – but even I’m surprised at how little responsibility he seems to feels towards Simon. How little he seems to love him. (Simon Snow is far too fucking easy to love – Crowley knows I wasn’t trying.)

And still the messages come. More and more every day.

- Are you OK?
- I miss talking to you
- Call me when you get this.

 

23 – SIMON

“Breathe in for four,” Baz says, his voice rising. “And then out for eight.”

He counts down slowly as I do it.

“Feel your magic rise as you breathe in, and your chest expands – and then draw it all the way back in as you breathe out. Focus on the breath.”

I wouldn’t have thought it, but listening to Baz counting and saying the same thing over and over again is weirdly relaxing. (Probably because I know where he is and what he’s doing, so I don’t have to worry he’s plotting to kill me or anything. It’s always comforting to know where Baz is.) 

We’re sitting on the floor in our room. I can feel my magic in a ball in my chest. Still not a tight ball, not one I’ve got control over or can catch hold of. A ball of smoke. But at least it’s not going everywhere.

And Baz is smiling, which means it’s going well.

I mean – I’ve got my eyes shut, so I can’t say that for sure, but I know what his voice sounds like when he’s smiling. And it sounds like he’s doing it right now.

I sneak one eye open. And - yeah. He’s smiling.

He looks relaxed. I’ve just got my legs crossed, but (of course) Baz can do the proper pose – he’s so fucking elegant about it too. Like his body just does it and he doesn’t even have to try. I can do it, but it fucking hurts, so I stopped after a while.

Even though we just started, I’m picking up meditation quickly. I think even Baz is impressed, although he says it’s because he’s a clearly an amazing teacher.

“And, of course, it’s not as if there’s anything much in your head to get rid of. No wonder this comes naturally to you.”

I told him to piss off, but he is sort of right.

Not that there’s nothing in my head at all – that’s him being a git. But I do spend lots of my life not to thinking about things. Meditation is just doing that but with everything, not just the bad stuff.

All I have to think about is Baz, his voice cool and calm in my ears.

The other thing is that he actually is an amazing teacher, not that I’d ever tell him that. The way he explains stuff makes it so obvious what I should do. And he’s great with all the hand movements and funny waves. (I call it that to piss him off – I do know the real name.) Penny has always just said I should look at the diagrams properly, that it's all there – and the Mage was just guessing because we weren’t in the same room. Baz always takes the time to adjust my posture personally. It’s really helpful.

I know it shouldn’t be a surprise that Baz is good at this (Baz is basically brilliant at everything, the tosser). But it is a surprise that he’s patient. I thought he’d flip out every time I made a mistake. (Which is often.)

He doesn’t. He just frowns, which for some reason makes me feel bad, like I’ve let him down and should probably keep trying until I get it right. (How does he do that? Is that something his mum taught him?)

But he’s not frowning now. He looks peaceful.

“All right,” Baz says and I quickly close my eyes again, so he won’t know I’m cheating. “Now I’m going to try and make you angry. Try and remember to keep breathing through it.”

We’re practicing up in our room, because Baz says the Humdrum can’t see me up here.

“Why do you think you’ve been rubbing your blood into the woodwork for almost a decade? When you’re in here, you’re invisible to the outside world. You’re protected.”

That sounded like shit to me, because otherwise the Mage could have suggested I stay locked in this room, instead of shipping me off to Wales. But I didn’t argue (much) because at least if we stay in the room, I know Baz definitely can’t hurt me, which means he probably is trying to teach me.  

Also, right now, it means he’s not going to try and piss me off by throwing things at me. Which is a relief. He’s just going to be himself.

I hear him stand up – and then I hear him shut the window.

This is such a stupid, petty Baz thing to do that I almost laugh, even though I’m concentrating on my breath, like he said. I can’t tell if he’s doing it on purpose – if closing the window is really the best thing he could think of – or if he’s just taken the opportunity while I’m stuck on the floor with my eyes closed to do it.

Whatever. It’s hilarious.

“You know of course, that this is a waste of my time,” Baz says. “You should have learned how to breathe eighteen years ago. Children can do this. Babies. Crowley, even my three-year old siblings can control themselves better than you can.”

OK, this has got to be it. He’s definitely trying to insult me now.

The thing is: it’s not making me angry. I’m just interested.

Baz hasn’t ever really talked to me about his family, except that night at the cottage where he told me about his grandfather and the magic violin (and how his family flipped their shit because perfect Baz made one mistake). It’s probably still the nicest conversation we’ve ever had. Although we’ve had a few arguments about whose football team is better since getting back to Watford, which've been pretty good. (Baz’s team aren’t even in the premier league, so I think he should automatically bow out. He doesn’t agree.)

I think he might get softer when he talks about his family. And I like to hear about other people’s families – just really boring things, like how Penny's brothers and sisters always argue about who gets to use the shower first, or what to watch on telly, whenever they're home together. And I love Agatha’s family.

I know Baz has younger brothers and sisters, but I didn’t know some of them (two of them, I guess) were twins. That’s cool.

I really want to ask him about them – what it’s like. If they’re identical. But I know that’s not the point, so I just keep counting and breathing and listening to Baz.

“I know Watford’s gone downhill since the Mage took over,” he says now, “but even you should have learned something in the last seven years. It’s like you haven’t once opened a book since you got here. Or is it that you can’t read? Didn’t they teach you that at the orphanage? How to read?”

This is getting closer to upsetting me.

Obviously, I can read, and Baz knows that – but I don’t like being reminded about the time I’ve spent in care. Even now I know that the Mage put me there to protect everyone else the Humdrum – and now I know I don’t have to go back. It feels like a mark I’ll never be able to wash off. That nobody wanted me.

I breathe in. Hold the breath. Feel the magic rise to my skin – and let it go.

It’s OK. The Mage wanted me. He came to get me. He’ll always come for me. I’m good.

“I still can’t believe you’re the Mage’s Heir,” Baz says (like Penny, he’s freakishly good at mind reading – or maybe he just knows where my buttons are, after pushing them for seven years). “You are. Although I suppose it makes sense. Once you put a cretin in charge, he’s doomed to appoint other cretins to follow him. I can’t imagine what the future’s going to be like. The current Mage is bad enough. A clueless, leftie windbag with a ridiculous moustache. But at least he’s able to use his own power. At least, he is a magician, rather than a trained monkey with a sword.”

Wow, Baz. Hitting hard, there.

“No wonder your girlfriend likes me better than she likes you.”

“Stop.” I open my eyes. “Sorry - it’s not working.”

Baz looks surprised. “What do you mean it’s not working? I can’t feel your magic at all. You’ve got it completely under control.”

“Because I’m not angry.”

I can tell Baz doesn’t believe this.

“But I called you a monkey with a sword,” he says. “I even insulted the Mage.”

“Yeah – but you didn’t mean it.”

Baz frowns. Not like he’s angry. And it’s not the frown he does when I’ve got something wrong that I should have got right, either. This is a different Baz frown. (I keep track of them.) Like he doesn’t know what’s going on.

It’s exactly the same face he made when I asked him about clothes for after Watford. (“I agreed to teach you how to use magic, not how to dress,” he snapped eventually. Although he did leave me out some catalogues with some things circled.) (Apparently Baz sees me as a sort of James Dean knock-off. Either that, or he thinks I’d struggle with anything more difficult than jeans. Which is fair, really. I probably would.)

“You were just saying stuff to make me angry,” I tell him. “You don’t even like Agatha.”

I’m not sure when I realised that. But Penelope’s right. I haven’t seen him talk to her once since I got back. And he didn’t try and pull her while I was away, either – which he could have done. I know she likes him and it’s not as if I was here to do much about it.

In fact, Agatha told me when I got back that she’d basically decided we weren’t dating any more since I hadn’t told her I was skipping eighth year or talked to her at all since before summer. So, it would have been really easy for Baz to get in there. She wouldn’t even have thought she was cheating on me.

“I think you and I both know this has never really been a real relationship,” she told me on my second day back. Which should have hurt, I think, but just felt like a good point.

Agatha and I were fifteen when we got together. We were just kids. We’ve kissed – lots – and I’ve taken her to tonnes of dances. I love her family (and her house). But I didn’t miss her during the holidays, or while I was away. I think that means Agatha’s right. We were just friends, who liked kissing each other. (I mean – I assume Agatha liked it. I definitely did.)

I know I should probably still be sad that she doesn’t want to be with me.  But, mostly, I think I’m just glad she didn’t leave me for Baz.

That really would have made me go mental.

“Snow. Believe me, I can simultaneously feel something and say it to make you angry,” Baz explains. “Like this, for example – you’re an idiot.”

He’s said stuff like that to me a hundred times and I’ve always believed that’s exactly what he thought of me. Now, though? I don’t know. If I’m such an idiot, how come Baz has spent the last week trying to patiently teach me things? (And succeeding.) Surely that really would have been a waste of his time.

“I’m not an idiot,” I say.

“I think you are.”

“Well. Maybe I just don’t care what you think,” I say, shrugging.

Which makes Baz frown even more (it’s the pissed-off frown this time. Like I’ve upset him). Even though, I know he doesn’t care what I think.

“All right. I’ll come up with something else,” he says.

“Cool,” I say, levering myself up off the floor. “Not now, though, yeah? It’s dinner time.”

All my muscles have gone to sleep from sitting on the floor. I stretch my arms up above my head, which pulls the bottom of my shirt out of my trousers by accident. (Baz turns away – he can’t stand scruffiness.) I tuck it back in.

Before we leave the room, I check my phone like always, just in case the Mage has replied to any of my messages. But he hasn’t. I put the phone back in my pocket.

“You coming?” I ask Baz, who nods and follows me out, down the tower stairs. (I always go to dinner with Baz now. It’s just easier.)

We walk in silence for a while, and then Baz says:

“What if I pushed you in the moat? Would that make you angry?”

I shake my head. “I’d take you with me. Watching you treading water and trying to punch merwolves would definitely help me see the funny side.”

He sneers. “I’d like to see you try.”

“You really wouldn’t.”

“True. I’ll keep thinking.”

We separate when we get to the dining hall. Baz says it would confuse his minions (his word, not mine) if they had to eat with me. “Confuse, and disgust them,” is what he actually said. “You eat like a wild dog.”

“Well, you don’t eat at all,” I countered. And I think that made him drop it.

Agatha’s stopped eating with us, since she broke up with me (I did tell her it wasn’t necessary, but she says she likes the quiet), so it’s just Penny waiting for me today on our table.

Dinner today is shepherd’s pie. Which is one of the greatest foods the English have ever come up with.

We have it sometimes at the homes I stay in, but not like this. Generally, back in the homes, the mashed potato will be from a packet. And the beef is sometimes still frozen. That’s assuming the whole thing didn’t just come in a plastic tray with film over the top of it.

This shepherd’s pie is full of butter. It’s got real mash – and the beef is probably real steak, not even in mince. It’s also full of carrots and peas and topped with cheese. Penny’s already got me two plates – and an extra plate of scones for dessert because she knows I’ve been working and working makes me hungry. (Well, more than usual.)  

“How are the lessons going?” she asks as I start on my second plate.

“Yeah, all right.”

I’m watching Baz over the other side of the room. He’s with his friends (not eating) and nodding at something Dev’s saying. I can’t hear what it is from over here.

“You know, I really don’t think Baz likes Agatha.”

“I do know that, Simon,” Penelope says. “I told you that. Oh! I bet this is for you. Look.”

I look – up, in the direction she’s pointing, and see a small brown bird flying in through the open dining room doors.

I feel a wave of relief wash over me.

It must be from the Mage.

Other kids do get bird-messages, especially at meal times. Mostly from their parents who know they won’t be interrupting lessons. But lots of parents just send letters. (Or texts, I suppose. If Penny’s right and everyone else has mobile phones on them all the time.)

Most of the birds that we see delivering messages in schooltime are from the Mage, though. Or they’re flying around the Mage, just in case he needs them. Sometimes he sends messages to the teachers this way, like if we’re going to have a fire drill – but often, they’re for me.  

He must have heard what happened back at the house. Grayling will have told him, somehow, and this must be the Mage getting in touch to let me know that he’s OK. (I bet he has lost his phone. I lose mine all the time and I’ve only had it a few months.) (Maybe that’s why he’s always used birds before. Because you can’t lose them.)

This bird is definitely for me. No question about it now.

It lands on the table next to my plate and chirps a bit before dropping a note written on a folded up post-it right in the middle of my pie. I un-fold it (the note, not the pie) and read:

“I’m afraid your flies are open.”

It’s Baz’s handwriting, not the Mage’s.

I look down (my flies definitely aren’t open). And then across at Baz, who seems to be absolutely wetting himself with laughter. Niall and Dev are laughing too.

Penelope sighs. “What is this, second year?”

I scoop up one of the scones I haven’t eaten yet, stand, and lob it towards him. He bats it away before it can hit him in the face. His cronies laugh even harder.

“Angry yet?” he asks as I follow Penny out of the dining hall.

“Furious,” I say – and throw another scone right at him.

 

24 – BAZ

I’ve given Simon the evening off tonight. From work. (From me.)

Since he missed more than a month of this term, the teachers have (wisely) excused him from homework until he catches up with the rest of us. I don’t have similar dispensation and frankly I’m falling behind.

Of course, it doesn’t truly matter. I’d sacrifice my own grades in a heartbeat. If I thought it would save Simon’s life. Or win my way into his affection.

Given everything that’s happening, given the opportunity to work with Simon, I’m finding it hard to care about class, even though I know it would upset my mother to hear it. I’m wasting my time here – I’m already ahead in Latin and Greek and there’s nothing I couldn’t learn from Miss Possibelf that I couldn’t learn from a book.

If I thought he’d agree, I’d suggest the two of us leave right now. Go to Fiona’s flat (she’s not using it). We’d order take-away every day and listen to music while we studied.

No distractions at all. (Except the fact that I’d be alone in a one-bedroom flat with Simon Snow. But I wouldn’t do anything about it.)

Unfortunately, not many people would agree to run off with their worst enemy. No matter how helpful he’s being at this moment. Things haven’t changed that much.

That means, we have to stay at Watford. And if I stay, I have to excel, or people will get suspicious. (People other than Bunce.)

I’m also mindful of Simon’s attention span. He’s been working hard for days on end. Classes and then whatever it is that I’ve decided he should actually learn. And he’s been doing well. But anyone would need a break. I don’t want him to burn out. (Or hate me.) (Again? I’m not sure if that’s right. More?)

I assumed he’d go off to spend some quality time with Bunce (or Wellbelove – he’s barely seen her at all since we got back. Which I’m trying not to read anything into. The Mage and I have both impressed the need to concentrate on beating the Humdrum this year. Wellbelove is definitely a distraction). But he returned to our room after only an hour, which was presumably only long enough for him to eat dinner three times and have a quick chat.

Now he’s swinging his sword through some complicated series of movements on the other side of the room.

I’m trying to concentrate on my Poli Sci essay (fortunately I finished the Latin while he was away), but I can hear the blade slicing through the air and soft grunts of exertion from Simon as he steps through the sequence. There’s even a slight reflection of him in my laptop screen, a blur of white school shirt and gold skin.

It's intolerable.

“Do you mind? I’m working and you could take someone’s eye out with that thing.”

I must’ve said something like this to him every week since first year. He usually responds with something about it being a free country, or that since he’s on his own side of the room, it’s clearly my fault if I walk into the blade. (Which it would be.)

I’m playing my part, but Simon seems to have forgotten his.

“Oh right. Sorry. Yeah, I’ll go outside.”

And he means it, the complete moron.

He’s actually putting the sword away. He’s leaving. Going to practice somewhere else, which I obviously don’t want. In seven years, he’s never once suggested anything like this.

Wait,” I say, putting as much reluctance into my voice as I can. “It’s freezing out there. And I need you to defeat the Humdrum – I don’t have time for you to get sick.”

It is cold. A November evening, sun long down. And it’s raining – I don’t relish having to sneak out later to the Catacombs so I can feed. No normal person would want to be out in it.

Simon Snow is not normal. He shrugs.

“It’s fine.”

“Don’t be an idiot. Stay – just stay quietly.”

I give it about ten minutes (during which I write nothing into my Political Science essay, although I do clack the keys pointlessly so Simon thinks I’m working) and then turn around – slowly. Because if he’s going to be here, I might as well look at him.

I think Simon knows I hate it when he practices swordplay in our bedroom. What he doesn’t know (I hope) is that the reason I hate it is that I find the exercise almost unbearably erotic. Unbearable, being the important word there. I tend to end up with an erection, if I’ve fed recently enough, and the urge to say something ridiculous like, “Take me now,” whenever he looks in my direction.

So yes - of course, I hate it.

He’s working through a set of forms. Moving sharply between poses, one movement per breath. I’ve noticed before that he follows something like the yoga katas I use in my practice, but with an actual sword and none of the fluidity of movement I’d expect.

But then, Simon Snow isn’t graceful. (At all.) What he has is something entirely different.

Brute force.

Determination.

At times like this, I can imagine what it would feel like to be ravaged by him. (Overwhelming – in the best possible way. Simon Snow is overwhelming.)

Crowley, I’m glad I haven’t fed yet today.

Simon stops when he notices me watching him. It’s both a relief and a disappointment.

“Sorry, I’m being too distracting – I’ll go outside.”

I shake my head.

“It’s not that.” (It definitely is that.) “I’m just thinking about the Sword again.”

It’s a plausible lie, one I know Simon will buy.

He and I both know the Sword is a problem. We’ve talked about it before. Bunce and I have also talked about it before.

It’s obviously a huge step forward in helping Simon focus his spells. And he’s starting to rely on it. I haven’t seen him use his wand once since we got back to Watford.

But as a magickal implement it’s too long. Inconvenient. Difficult to use in a confined space, like our bedroom.

It’s also not exactly subtle. He wouldn’t be allowed to wear it on the London Underground, for example. He doesn’t wear it between classes.

That’s been useful to me before. In my previous role as Simon’s enemy.

I always keep my wand in my sleeve and I can drop it into my hand in seconds; Simon, meanwhile, has to recite lines of pretentious twaddle or remember where he’s put his own wand.

By that point I’d usually have hexed him.

Bunce and I have been reading up about the Mage’s weapon in between class and my sessions with Simon. There’s not much on it that isn’t hearsay. Most Mages have been secretive bastards. Even my own ancestors who reached that rank have left nothing in the histories about how any of it worked.

“Maybe if Simon just thought the pledge,” was Bunce’s best suggestion. “Or thought about it? He can think quicker than he can talk.”

“Non-verbal spellcasting? He can barely cast verbal spells as it is,” I pointed out as Simon scowled at me from across the library table.

“I’m right here, arsehole.”

We’ve also had a few entertaining evenings seeing just how fast he can say the whole Pledge. And how fast Bunce can say it. (And how fast I can say it.) It’s never fast enough. None of us can make it work. Which means the Sword remains our greatest hope – and one of our biggest problems.

And?” Simon says now. “What’s today’s grand plan?”

He’s swinging the sword in a lazy circle by its hilt. (I try not to swoon too obviously.)

“It’s not a plan exactly – it’s … a notion.”

“OK, so what’s today’s grand notion, then?”

I have no idea, Simon. I’m making all of this up, so I don’t have to tell you that I’ve been fantasising about you tearing my shirt off me. (It’s a school shirt – I have others.)

I’m very good at making things up, though. It’s what I do.

“The Sword is inconvenient because of its shape, correct?” I say – slowly, to give my brain time to catch up with mouth. Simon nods. “But it’s a magickal weapon. It’s made of magic. There’s no reason it has to look the way it does. It could be shorter. Or lighter.”

Simon frowns. “You mean, it could be a dagger.”

“It could. Or a wand. Or whatever. All you’d have to is reach into the spell-structure and instruct it to take another shape.”

“Wicked,” Simon says.

“Yes.”

“Let’s try it. Can you do it now?”

He holds the hilt out towards me.

And I stare at it.

The Sword of Mages. The ancient weapon of all our greatest leaders (and the not so great ones). A symbol of the power and authority of centuries of magicians.

It was never meant for me, I know that now, though other Pitches and other Grimms have been able to draw it.

I did think I might be Mage once. That it was my destiny to off Simon, take his Sword and his place at the head of our World. That’s how the story should have ended.

Instead I fell in love with him.

Now, I don't like to think about what it would take to overthrow the Mage's Heir. How close I've definitely been on a few occasions. How much I thought I wanted it.

I fold my arms. “I can talk you through it.”

“Yeah,” Simon says. “I have no idea how to do whatever it is you said. And I really don’t want to fuck it up. So, do you want to do it – or should I ask Penelope? Or should we just wait for another idea or what?”

He holds the Sword out towards me again. I don’t take it.

“You’re not even slightly worried what I might do if you give me one of the key artefacts of your power? You do remember who I am?”

Simon shrugs. “You said you needed me.”

And he’s right – I did say that. But from Simon’s lips, it doesn’t sound mercenary.

It sounds like the truth.

I frown (because I don’t want my face moving into any other expression of its own volition) and I let him press the Sword into my hands. I let him close my fingers around it and draw away.

Because he wants give me this, the complete idiot.

And I’d let him do much worse things to me, if he wanted. Whatever he asked.

Because he’s right – I do need him. (Much, much more than he suspects.)

And I want this.

But I don’t feel any different once I’m holding it.

Or at least, I don’t feel like the most powerful magician in the world. What I feel like is an idiot holding a sword I don’t know how to use (it’s broadly possible this is how Simon feels most of the time).

It’s heavy. Heavier than I expected – but then I don’t know much about swords. Even non-magickal ones. (I did think about taking up fencing in fourth year. When I was trying to think of new and exciting ways of releasing my pent-up aggression towards my roommate.) (Retrospectively, I’m glad that idea never got off the ground. Although I suppose I might have worked out sooner that what I was feeling was lust as well as anger, if I’d been forced to think about crossing swords with him more regularly.)

The metal grip is warm from Simon’s hands.

He’s watching me, blue eyes intent. And I turn away, because I need to concentrate. Because I can’t concentrate if I have to look at him. (Not on something that isn’t Simon, anyway.)

I’d assumed this sword would feel obviously magickal, which it doesn’t. That means, I’m not really sure where to start. A straightforward transfiguration spell might work better than what I’d planned, but I’m not sure.

I flick my wand out of my sleeve and run it over the blade, just to see if that will pull the magic to the surface. Nothing. I try and tug on it with my magic – nothing continues to happen.

“What’re you doing?” Simon asks softly from behind me. He’s leaning over my shoulder, trying to see what I’m doing. (Although he’s several inches too short to get a good view, so I’m not sure why he’s bothering.) I feel all the hairs on the back of my neck prickle and stand on end.

“Experimenting. It isn’t reacting as I expected.”

Frowning, I tap my wand against the edge of the blade and think about what I want it to become – a duplicate of the wand. Simon has been a wand-worker for most of his career (if not a very good one) and it’s the kind of spellwork I’m most familiar with. A wand is sensible. Practical.

Presto chango!”

The Sword shudders, but otherwise stays firmly sword shaped.

“Didn’t work,” Simon observes.

“I know it didn’t work,” I say more sharply than I intended. (Simon is so warm behind me. And I think I can feel his breath against the back of my neck.)

I step forward slightly, out of his reach.

“It doesn’t feel live to me. It’s like there’s no magic in it – does it feel like that to you?”

“Dunno. I don’t think so,” Simon says. And he actually reaches round me and wraps his right hand around mine, over the hilt of the sword, the way I do when I’m pretending it’s completely necessary to touch him.

“How about now? Any different?”

Yes, I think.

It’s different.

The Sword is alive in my hand now. Thrumming with power. My mouth tastes like smoke. Like Simon.

I should be concentrating on what that magic feels like, but all I can think about is Simon’s hand on mine. The way his chin is resting on my shoulder. How much I want him to wrap his other arm around my waist and bite my neck.

“Baz?” Simon says against my ear.

And apparently, I do have enough blood in me, after all.

I pull away before he notices. And I don’t look at him as I press the Sword back into his hands.

“I can’t do it.”

“What?” Simon says. “You barely even tried.”

“I know – but I’ve just realised I have to go out. Now. I’m already late.”

“You said it’s freezing outside. You said I shouldn’t go.”

“I’ll take a coat,” I snap and escape before he can remind me of anything else I’ve said or done. I expect more of it incriminates me than I currently realise.

It’s still raining as I run across the courtyard. I’m too distracted to keep a proper weather-protection spell going for long, but at least the Catacombs are dry. And catching rats takes my mind off Simon Snow and his ridiculous magic sword.

At least – it does, until I emerge from the Catacombs and find him waiting at the entrance under a large umbrella.

“You forgot your coat,” Simon explains as I stare at him. “And I thought you might get sick. Which would be bad – since I need you to tell me how to beat the Humdrum.”

He smiles hopefully at me.

I feel like crying. (Crowley, I’m pathetic. I’m eighteen. An adult and I’m a Pitch. I shouldn’t be on the verge of tears because the boy I’m in love with doesn’t love me back.)

On the surface, this is a stupidly romantic gesture. Classic 90s romcom material. It could only be more perfect if he pulled me into his arms and threw the umbrella away.

And it means nothing to him.

Unless it does mean something to him. Unless this is Simon Snow trying to woo me.

It could be.

I tried not to watch him romancing Wellbelove, so I can’t remember what that might look like. I think he brought her flowers (terrible, cheap flowers from petrol stations). And I definitely remember him reciting a poem in the middle of the dining hall, because I had to leave before I threw up.  

I don’t remember if he ever stood outside in the rain for her.

I think about telling him that I’m a magician and under normal circumstances I can keep myself both dry and warm. And anyway, I don’t get sick – I’m a vampire. Simon knows this. He’s told Bunce that it’s a sign.

Then I think about how nice it would be to walk under an umbrella with Simon, even if it doesn’t mean anything.

And I step under the umbrella.

 

25 – SIMON

I’m sitting in a corridor outside the music rooms, listening to someone playing a violin behind one of the shut doors. 

I say someone.

It’s clearly Baz. I didn’t see him actually go in, so I suppose that it could be someone else. Or it could be a recording. But it probably is him. I know he’s in the building – I followed him.

I’m not really sure why I’m here, if I’m honest. I think I might be taking a point of principle much further than it ever should have been taken. (Penny’s always saying that to me.) Either that, or it’s just instinct again.

In any case, I just started following Baz when he walked off after our Astronomy class without me. Penny tried to stop me because we were supposed to be studying together after dinner, but I didn’t want to lose him.

“I just need to find out where he’s going,” I told her as she jogged behind me.

Why do you?”

Penny. You know why.”

“No, seriously, Simon, I don’t. You’ve been with him since we got back, and he hasn’t done anything to you. I don’t think he’s going to. And – I already know where he’s going.”

That stopped me in my tracks.

“Where?”

“It’s Tuesday, it’s seven o’clock. He has violin practice – which I know you know because you’ve made me stake out the music rooms on lots of other Tuesdays.”

“I should probably just make sure,” I said.

And now here I am. Getting hungrier by the second, because I haven’t eaten since lunchtime. And listening to Baz play.

Because it is definitely Baz. I know that, because it’s good. And because it’s sad. (I don’t think he knows any happy songs. Or if he does, he never plays them.)

I’m knocking before I really think about what I’m doing. Then – I think about just running away (that isn’t very Greatest Mage behaviour, although it would be quite funny). And then Baz opens the door.

He’s got his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows – and his violin dangling from one hand.

What?” he says. “I told you I was busy this evening.”

“I know. I just––”

Merlin. What am I doing?

I don’t have any explanation.

Penny’s right (as usual). Baz isn’t doing anything. He’s not plotting against me. He’s just standing in a room by himself and playing sad music. I should just leave him, he’s had to put up with me for long enough already today. And all the other days since we came back from the Mage’s house.

But I don’t want to.

I don’t know why, but I know I want to stay. Even though I could be eating dinner right now.

“Can I come in?”

Baz looks confused. (I don’t blame him. I feel confused and I’m the one asking.)

“I don’t play for other people. And if I did, I wouldn’t play for you,” he says.

“All right. I’ll sit in the corridor then.”

He rolls his eyes but steps back and lets me in – although, to be honest, the room isn’t all that much better than the corridor. There aren’t any chairs, for a start, so I just sit on the floor next to Baz’s violin case.

I cross my legs and close my eyes – and remember to breathe, like he told me.

In for the count of four. Out for the count of eight.

And, after a while, Baz starts to play.

It’s something different from whatever it was he was playing before, but just as sad. I want to concentrate on my meditation, but I end up watching him instead.

His hair’s falling over his face and his mouth is a thin line.

Baz usually holds himself really still, like he’s got himself completely under control, but he doesn’t play like that. He leans into the notes, like he can’t help it. Like he can’t help feeling like they do.

I’ve never watched him play before.

What does Baz Pitch have to be sad about? He’s basically got the perfect life.

His mum, I guess. And the fact he’s a vampire (although it doesn’t seem to have held him back at all). But none of that’s new.

Then he notices me watching him and his eyebrows pull together, although he doesn’t stop playing.

What is it?”

I guess this is why he doesn’t play for other people. (Because he doesn’t like other people.)

Probably not a good time to tell him I’m trying to work out what his problem is, then.

“Just thinking about your magic bow,” I say.

“My what?” Baz says.

“You know. Have you tried casting a spell with it yet?”

“No,” Baz says.

I’m not usually a very good at this – lying – but Baz is making it easier by assuming that I’m talking nonsense and wasting his time, as usual. Also, it’s a pretty good lie, because I have been thinking about that night at the cottage and how nice it was to have Baz actually tell me things about his family and his life (instead of just slagging off mine).

“You should try it,” I say.

He shrugs slightly (or maybe it’s just him leaning into something in the song). “I will.”

“You should try it now. It’d be so cool.”

“Snow – I’m already far cooler than you could ever hope to be.”

He absolutely is.

“In your dreams,” I say. “You’re just a posh git; I’m the saviour of the Wizarding World.”

“That’s Harry Potter,” Baz says. He flips his hair out of his eyes. “Anyway, I thought you said you didn’t want to be in the room if I tried it.”

OK, so I did say that. Back in the cottage. But it was just a joke and I think even Baz got it.

Why wouldn’t I want to see someone – Baz – use a violin to do magic? That sounds incredible. I love magic. Especially weird, awesome magic. And Baz –

Baz is amazing at weird, awesome magic.

“I changed my mind,” I say. “Now I just want to see you fuck up.”

Baz laughs slightly, like he’s surprised. This time, he does stop playing. (He keeps the violin tucked under his chin, though.)

“I don’t fuck up. Unlike certain other people I could mention.”

I grin at him. “Big words.”

“I have no idea what you’re on about. You don’t understand them?”

“Piss off. I meant, prove it.”

I’m not nervous at all. He’s not going to set the room on fire. I know Baz’s got this

“You don’t do magic – you are magic,” Penelope told me the first time I met her.

It wasn’t all that helpful, to be honest, although she was only eleven. I was trying to do my first transfiguration spell and it wasn’t working – I know she was trying to help, but it just made me feel even worse about being so shit.

But I think I know what she was on about now. It’s the difference between people like Baz and Penny and people like me.

Baz is magic.

He’s playing again now – something else. Not sad. Kind of bold – triumphant. Maybe Mozart (although I have no fucking idea really).

It’s not just the song that’s different, though. Baz is different. He doesn’t look as sad anymore; he’s concentrating.

Then he speaks, his voice full of magic:

“See what I mean!”

I sit up straighter. I don’t know if Baz knows this (or how he could know this, if he does), but See what I mean is one of my absolute favourite spells.

It’s basically pointless, but also really impressive. Penny uses it all the time to write in mid-air when she forgets to bring a notebook, but you can use it for all sorts of stuff. If you’re giving someone directions, you can walk them through where they have to go, like Google Streetview. And our teachers are always using it to show us clips of stuff they saw on YouTube, so they don’t have to set up the projector.

It’s probably a good spell to try, if you aren’t sure your magic is going to work like you expect, because nothing can go too wrong. (One of the reasons I like it.)

Baz doesn’t get things wrong, though.

I can feel the spell working. The magic flowing down the violin bow and out. And it works. I can see what Baz means – what he’s thinking about.

Weirdly - it’s me.

A moving image of me, like a home movie. A memory, I think, from outside the Mage’s house. Me as seen through Baz’s eyes, trying to keep Baz away from the football we were playing with.

Obviously, I have seen photos of myself – and some videos. Mostly of me at Agatha’s at Christmas, since that’s where she’s allowed to use her mobile. And her mum is mad about recording everything. There are tonnes of photographs of Agatha everywhere in that house.

It’s still kind of bizarre to see me projected like this, though. I think it’s because there definitely wasn’t anyone filming this at the time. All the other pictures I’m in have me smiling – awkwardly – at a camera. And the videos are usually me messing around on purpose (stuff like karaoke) or opening presents and making sure I look happy.

This isn’t like that. It’s just me having a good time.

I’d say I don’t know why Baz’s remembered this in such detail, but I can tell immediately why he’s showing it to me. It’s because I implied he might not be perfect, even though I was joking.

“Fucking hell. My footwork’s utter shit,” I groan.

Baz stops playing and grins at me over the edge of the violin. The image of me vanishes.

“If you think that’s terrible, wait until you see your attempts at spellcasting.”

“You think you’re so funny.”

“I am funny.”

“Must be why I’m laughing. Look – why not show me something else? What about your family?”

Baz frowns. “You want to see my family?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Not your horrible aunt, but like – your brothers and sisters. You’ve got three, right?”

“Four,” Baz says. (I think it surprises him I was so close, but I do listen.) “My brother Tony was born towards the end of the last school year. The others are girls.”

Now I think about it, I do actually remember him leaving for a few days just before exams. I figured he was off raising the dead or something else awful. Plotting another uprising. I didn’t know his stepmother was pregnant. He never said.

“I guess your family aren’t worried about diluting their magic in lots of kids,” I say.

“That’s obviously a myth,” Baz says as he begins to play again.

This time I do know the song. It’s ‘Baby Mine’ from Dumbo, which has to be the least Baz song ever. I almost can’t believe he knows it, until I remember he has four siblings who aren’t old enough to go to Watford yet. He probably has to spend most of the holidays watching Disney movies and pretending to like them. (Unless he does like them.)

I’m grinning as Baz casts “See what I meanagain and another image unfurls itself on the wall opposite the door.

It’s a hospital – a normal hospital. (Possibly a Normal hospital, but I’m not sure.)

There’s a woman in a bed – Baz’s stepmother. I recognise her from end-of-year ceremonies. And a baby in a cot next to the bed. There’s no sound, the spell doesn’t work like that, but I can see the baby’s crying until Baz picks him up. Then the baby just looks surprised.

“This is the first time I saw him,” Baz tells me. 

It’s his memory, so I can’t see what Baz’s expression is as he holds his brother. But I’m guessing it was probably something like he looks now. Soft and fond.

“It’s also the only time he stopped crying the entire time I was home. Absolute nightmare.”

He doesn’t mean it.

If you’d asked me last month, I’d have said Baz only had two expressions – pissed off and sadistically amused. (And plotting.) But I know that’s wrong now.

And I like it when he smiles.

 

26 – NIALL

I’m not stupid.

I don’t think Baz would put up with an idiot as a friend (or at least – I didn’t think that.) (Now I increasingly think Baz is an idiot.) But if you are Baz’s friend, you learn not to ask him too many questions about the wrong things. 

You don’t ask about his mum, for example. He doesn’t want to talk about her.

You don’t ask about how he felt about his dad remarrying or how the Grimm money is going to Mordelia now, because all the Old Families still hold by matrilineal inheritance.

And you definitely don’t ask about what Dev and I call “Baz’s anaemia”.

I think Baz knows we know really.

Even if Snow hadn’t broadcast his suspicions around the school, Baz’s gone for a midnight stroll practically every time I’ve slept over at his. Dev says he does the same at family things, too. The one time Dev caught him at it, Baz said he’d gone out for a cigarette, even though he was in pyjamas and clearly didn’t have any on him.

And he doesn’t ever tan.

And we all know how his mother died.

But he freaked out the one and only time I suggested he was probably being so pissy because he was low on iron. I didn’t see him for almost a week.

So, I’m not asking him what in Snakes he’s thinks he’s playing at with Snow.

I’m not even asking him about why Agatha Wellbelove (the hottest girl in school, the girl I genuinely thought Baz was so into that we were allowed to tease him about it) cornered me outside Elocution the other day and asked me whether I knew what she’d done wrong.

Apparently, she asked Baz to the Winter Ball and he said he hates dancing, which is a lie. I know it’s a lie; Wellbelove knows it’s a lie. He also said he hated horses – which wasn’t even relevant to the conversation. It was just mean.

He can do what he wants, but he should know it happened and that I know. So I drop it into conversation while the two of us are at breakfast (me eating breakfast; Baz at breakfast, but not eating breakfast) (Dev’s still asleep – I should have set the alarm).

“She actually asked me if you were interested in someone else,” I tell Baz. “Can you believe it?”

Actually, she didn’t, and he shouldn’t. But it’s a safe way to get a reaction – which I do. A bit of one anyway. A single eyebrow rising. On the Baz scale of reactions, it’s a dead giveaway. He can be a massive drama queen but only when he feels safe. When he doesn’t, he turns back into his dad.

“And what did you say?”

“I said, if you were, I didn’t know about it.”

Baz snorts and returns to sipping his disgustingly sweet coffee.

“Good man,” he says – and I watch as his gaze catches on Simon Snow waving at him from across the room.

 

27 – BAZ

It’s a warm day in November, an Indian Summer. And Simon, Bunce and I are out in the hills practicing offensive magic.

Or rather, Simon and I are practicing. Bunce is sitting against a tree, reading and powering a low-level localised shield charm because, as Simon told me earlier, “I just don’t trust you to block everything.”

I flinched instinctively (I don’t like it when Simon says he can’t trust me, even though it’s a fairly sensible position to take). Then my brain caught up with what he’d actually said, instead of what I assumed Simon Snow would naturally say to me.

“Sorry - did you just say, you don’t want to hurt me?”

He grinned at me, then (bright, arrogant – completely taking the piss. I’m still better than him), and I shoved him. Not hard. Not hard enough that he’d think I meant it, not even as hard as he shoved me while we were playing football outside the house in Wales. The way friends shove each other.

He pushed me back, I faked a stumble – and he caught me and dragged me back into him. I let him apologise, his hand still around my wrist, all the time wondering what would happen if I leant forward and kissed him.

I really have no idea what Simon thinks this thing is between us. Whether he would mind if I kissed him. Whether he’s expecting it.

Yesterday, he spent the evening listening to me play the violin and asking to see more pictures of my family. Afterwards, we walked back to Mummer’s House together, like he walked me back that night under the umbrella. Then he remembered he hadn’t eaten, and I had to sneak him into the kitchen.

It felt like a date.

That is, it felt like a date to me. But I’ve never actually been on a date. And it’s very possible that I’m just delusional. That this is just how Simon acts around his friends.

Are we friends? (Are we flirting?)

At least I’m not his enemy anymore. That’s progress.

He’s incredible today, firelight flickering along his sword and in his hair as he casts, “Blaze of glory.

It’s perfect. Exactly the way I taught him all those weeks ago.

If I wasn’t already completely in love with him, this would be it. This would be the moment. I’d probably go up in flames as the spell hit me in the middle of the chest, unable get past the terrible knowledge that I loved him. (One thing to be said for self-awareness, I suppose.)

I have no idea how Penelope can be so completely uninterested. Right now, she’s yawning as she turns the page in whatever she’s reading. I know she has her American boyfriend (who Simon tells me is “quite fit now” without any awareness of what an enraging thing this is for him to say), but her best friend is ridiculously attractive and the literal saviour of our World.

And it does nothing for her. I don’t get it.

“Not a good idea to use fire against a Pitch,” I point out, as I catch the spell in my hand, press it in until it’s burning hotter, and throw it back at him.

“Oh, piss off.” Simon swings his sword like a baseball bat and knocks the fireball out into the distance. That shouldn’t even be possible. (I try not to look impressed).

Baz!” Bunce says as the fireball explodes above us. “That’s really dangerous. It’s outside of my shield.”

“I’ll be sure to apologise to the birds later,” I say pulling more fire from around us in a burning ring of fire that closes in on Simon, who can’t simply bat this one away. “Although, strictly speaking it was Snow’s spell.”

“Barely,” Simon scoffs. The fire is almost on him, and I think it’s about to catch on the dry leaves of Bunce’s tree as well. He shouts, “Make a wish!” And then, when that doesn’t have any effect (my spellwork is better than that), “Nice weather for ducks.”

“Fuck. Simon!” Bunce says as all of us are drenched in a sudden downpour. She shakes her book off. Simon’s clothes are sticking to him and the fire is definitely out.

“Good!” I say. (Because it was, and as his teacher, I don’t want him to be discouraged. Definitely not because I can’t help it.) But Simon isn’t finished. He swings the sword into a new form and shouts,

“Freeze to death.”

I feel the water in my sodden clothes crackle and solidify, but before the spell can reach my blood I cast, “You’re getting warmer.” And everything thaws. I can feel my hair drying in undoubtedly unattractive waves.

“Put it on ice,” Simon tries instead.

“That’s for drinks!” Bunce and I say together

“It could’ve worked!” Simon protests.

“It would have worked at a cocktail party,” I say, pushing my hair back behind my ears. “Whereas, what you were looking for, is the best form of defence.”

Presumably, he’s still embarrassed about his mistake. Distracted. Because the spell slams into him and knocks him from his feet.

Both Bunce and I shout “Simon!” in a panic and I run over to him – even though I trust Bunce’s spellwork. Her shield should have taken all the force out of my attack. And anyway, Simon Snow can’t die. Not at my hand. It’s just not possible. I wasn’t even trying. But even so, even so –

Simon rolls towards me as I arrive at his side, clutching his stomach. Alive, then. (I knew he was. Logically.)

I loom over him as Bunce presumably goes back to her book. “You lost concentration. What should you have done?”

“You’re such a dick,” Simon groans.

“Not a spell. Try again.”

Simon growls, but he’s thinking. Remembering. I know I’ve told him this one.

“I should have cast the spell first,” he says eventually.

“Exactly. The best defence is a good offense. It counters itself. Can you get up?”

“No,” Simon says but he takes my hand and lets me haul him to his feet. He has to steady himself against my shoulder. I let myself breathe in the smell of his school-issue shampoo again (it really shouldn’t be as arousing at it is) and Simon tilts his chin up, just as I decide not to bury my face in his curls.

We’re practically nose to nose.

“Did you just call me Simon?” he asks

“I doubt it,” I say briskly. “Let’s try again.”

I hold my wand out in a guard position and Simon raises his sword.

Then, his phone rings.

He grabs it with what would, in other circumstances, be comedic over-eagerness. “Hello? Sir, is that–?”

And my heart drops.

I’m almost certain it’s not the Mage, but it could be. After all, he has to come back at some point. And then – I have to face this. What I’ve done to Simon. What I still have to do the Mage.

“Oh, hey, Pacey,” Simon says and he’s clearly trying not to sound too disappointed. “Yeah. OK. Do you want to talk to–?” Simon’s eyes move to Penelope and then awkwardly away. “Oh. Right … Right. OK. Hang on–”

I breathe a sigh of relief.

Not yet, then. I can still have this.

Not yet.

“My brother,” Bunce explains to me. “Probably after some Christmas present ideas. Tell him I have enough socks, Simon.”

“It’s not Pacey,” Simon says unconvincingly. “It’s someone else. I’m just going go over here … where the light’s better.”

“You don’t have the video on,” I point out.

“I’m going to turn it on.”

“No socks!” Bunce shouts after him.

I watch him walk off up the hill, vanishing the Sword of Mages as he goes. This used to be one of my main pleasures in life – watching Simon Snow walk away from me (whoever does the school tailoring has terrible taste in colours and hats, but at least favours a well-fitted trouser). Even now we talk regularly, even now I have so much Simon in my life, I don’t see a reason to give up a good view.

When I turn back, Bunce is much closer to me than I remember. She’s on her feet and she’s glaring ferociously at me.

“All right, Pitch – what is all this?”

I step back instinctively although I’m not sure what exactly I should be apologising for. Or defending myself against.

Bunce doesn’t give me enough time to do either.

“Before you answer, you should know I’ve read the texts,” she says.

I freeze. And I can tell she’s seen it because her eyes narrow.

Fuck.

I can’t believe this is happening. Although, now I think about it, it actually makes perfect sense – I know about their idiotic Pact. And Bunce is both fiendish and relentless. Even if he didn’t want to tell her, she’d get it out of him. And I’m sure he did want to tell her. I know those texts are important to him – he told me they were.

What I actually can’t believe is that I didn’t think this might happen.

That I haven’t prepared for it.

But it definitely has happened, somehow. Simon’s shown her the texts (or she stole his phone – I can’t rule that out, though I don’t know that it helps me right now). And while he isn’t able to consistently put two and two together and get four, Bunce has no such handicap. She’s clever and observant and she’s not emotionally invested in the Mage being the author of the texts, like Simon is.

I’ve been careless.

My brain cycles through possibilities – possible explanations – and lands on the safest and easiest.

Deny everything.

“What texts?”

Penelope sighs. “Come on, Baz. Cut the crap. We don’t have long until Simon gets back. I don’t know why you did it, but it wasn’t hard to figure it out. The gardening books you were reading a few weeks ago were a real giveaway. Simon’s always has problem with metaphors. Like – the best form of defence. Right?”

I frown, genuinely confused now. “That isn’t a metaphor.”

“Simon doesn’t know that.”

“He’s not an idiot,” I say defensively.

I know immediately that it was a mistake.

Bunce raises her eyebrows. I can practically see the dots joining in her head. The light of understanding in her eyes.

“Obviously he is an idiot,” I correct myself, thinking fast. “He’s terrible at spellcasting and has less than a first year’s control over his own magic. But even Snow understands that the best form of defence has nothing to do with fences. It doesn’t even have the word fence in it.”

Bunce isn’t listening to me.

“I get it,” she says. “Snakes on a Plane. That’s what this is about. You – and him. You––”

No,” I say.

Yes!” Bunce says. “That’s what all this has been about from the beginning. That’s why you were just smelling his hair!” (Fuck. I didn’t think she saw that. Fuck fuck.) “It all makes sense. All of it.”

That’s it then.

I suppose I should be grateful she doesn’t say it out loud.

I can still see Simon on the phone, coming up with Crowley knows what awful gift ideas and waving his hands around. Oblivious.

“Nothing about this makes sense,” I say.

“Baz,” she says firmly. “I like you so I won’t tell him, but you should. About the Mage, if nothing else. Although you should tell him the rest.”

As though it’s that easy.

As though I can say, Hey Simon. It wasn’t the Mage you’ve been talking to for the last month. It was me. I’ve been lying to you because I’m pathetically in love with you and I didn’t know what else to do. I hope we can still be friends.

“I can’t.”

“He might not mind as much as you think.”

I sneer – or try to.

My life is over.

At the very least, I’ll have to avoid Bunce from now on. And Simon. Or watch them both constantly to make sure she doesn’t change her mind under the pressure of the No Secrets pact. (Killing her is unfortunately off the table. And I was never going to kill him.) Thank Crowley at least my own friends have no idea.

Behind Bunce, I can see Simon jogging back towards us. His curls are long enough now that they bounce. (I don’t know how I’ll handle not be able to see him every day, every hour. Damn Bunce to hell.)

“Hey Baz – we should get to the pitch. Practice starts in ten minutes.”

I talked Coach Mac into giving Simon a chance to play defence. A couple of the team didn’t come back this year for some reason or another, and the new recruits aren’t working out. I know it’s been worrying Coach.

Simon’s good – for someone who doesn’t practice at all. He could definitely get better. And he’s already much better than some of the sixth-year idiots we’ve been carrying. We should have taken him years ago.

I can see, though, that under the circumstances it looks bad.

Bunce definitely gives me a look as I tuck my wand back into my sleeve and retrieve my kit bag from the ground next to her.

Tell him, she mouths as I swing the bag over my shoulder.

I give her the finger.

 

28 – SIMON

Baz has been avoiding me all week – and I really don’t get it. I thought we were getting on.

Like, this morning he didn't even shower – he just left before I woke up (after coming in after I was asleep. I only know he was here at all because his sheets were mussed in a different way).

Then, when I saw him in Elocution, he made sure he sat next to Gareth so that Gareth would be his partner instead of me. (Also, his hair was wet and slicked back. So, he must have showered in one of the communal bathrooms without any of his stuff. Which I know he hates. He always uses our shower after football.) Because Baz was working with Gareth, I got to work with Rhys, which is great because he’s really good and Gareth’s terrible.

Baz is really good, too, though. And I’ve been paired with him since I got back to Watford. I'm used to him now. (He's definitely not used to Gareth.)

After Elocution was over, Baz was out the door before I even realised. He doesn’t take Botany, so I didn't see him in my next class, either.

Now it’s lunch and he’s also not here - although that's less surprising, I suppose. Baz doesn't like to eat in front of other people, though he does eat. I've seen it, that time he showed me how to break into the kitchen aka the greatest day of my life. I'd say he could be there now, but I already checked. He isn't. 

“Have I been extra annoying recently or something?” I ask Penny. She sighs.

“You’re always annoying, Simon. It’s practically your brand.”

“Thanks, Penny.”

“I say it with love, Simon. I say it with love.”

I’d actually understand it if Penelope was ignoring me. Since I know she’s still pissed off that the Sword of Mages burnt her when I asked for her help transfiguring it. It really wasn’t my fault though. I told her Baz was fine when he tried.

“Well, maybe you should’ve asked Baz to do it for you, then,” she said.

I told her I had, and he’d refused.

“Well, there you are. He was obviously pretending it didn’t hurt to impress you. Mystery solved.”

Baz’s friends – Dev and Niall – arrive for lunch (without Baz) and I leave our table and catch up with them at the buffet table. They’ve clearly been briefed not to tell me anything, because they’re even more hostile than usual when I ask where Baz is.

“Haven’t seen him.”

“We thought maybe you’d murdered him. We were going to check the moat after lunch.”

“I wouldn’t murder Baz,” I say.

Because I wouldn’t.

OK, so I might kill him in a fight if he attacked me first. But he’s much better at magic than me. It’s more likely he’d kill me and I wouldn’t get anywhere near him. (Which would be a relief, honestly. Because I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to kill him less.)

“I just want to know where he is,” I explain. “I don’t know what I did, but it was a mistake, whatever it was. Can you tell him that?”

The two of them exchange glances.

“I think it’s mutual,” Niall says to Dev, who shakes his head.

“This is honestly disgusting.”

“What is?” I say.

Niall and Dev look at each other again.

“This stew,” Dev says eventually. “I hate onions. And I’ve told Cook Pritchard that. I should take her off my Christmas card list. I don’t care if she’s family.”

“They don’t know where he is, either,” I tell Penny as I sit back down at our table. “Or they’re lying.”

That makes me think about the truth spell Baz taught me a few weeks ago. Because if Dev is lying, I could make him tell me, as long as the spell works.

The only problem is I don’t think Baz would be very pleased if I compelled his best friends. Particularly if I compelled them to betray him. He didn’t even want me practicing that spell on him - or even on Penny, and the two of us tell each other everything, so it wouldn’t have mattered.

Penelope shrugs. She’s got a book out, although I don’t think she’s reading it. Which means she’s reading it on purpose because I’m talking too much about Baz. But this is different. I’m not talking about how he’s trying to kill me – I just want to know where he is.

“Why is he avoiding me?”

“Because he’s a coward,” Penny says. “Can we talk about something else now? Anything else?”

I frown. “Baz isn’t a coward.”

He’s never backed down from a fight. He’s never backed down from anything.

He’s one of the bravest people I know. Apart from Penny - which might be why she doesn't see it that way. Because she's so stupidly brave she thinks everyone else is chicken. Even a boy who stayed to fight off a fire-breathing chimera twice, even though he's flammable.

Whatever it is, she's clearly not in the mood for this discussion. 

“OK, Simon. Whatever you say.”

I drum my fingers against the dining table. I haven’t touched the stew, even though Dev is dead wrong and I know it’ll be delicious. (I wish Cook Pritchard was part of my family.)

I’m just not hungry right now.

And it’s because of him. Baz. He’s doing this to me. Freaking me out.

“Have you even thought about why this bothers you?” Penny says out of the blue.

“What?” I say.

But she doesn’t repeat the question, which means it probably wasn’t that important.

I don’t press her. Instead, I make a decision.

“I’m going to try and find him.”

I’ve got enough time before our next class (another one that Baz and I don’t share). I feel like I should get to him quickly and apologise or whatever it is. I bet he's planning on missing football again tonight and he shouldn't do that. He's already missed two this week. Coach Mac was furious – he didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t know where Baz was. I definitely don’t want Baz to get kicked off the team because of something I did. (We’d never win another match.) Penny sighs again and lets me go.

I check the obvious places first – like our room and the Catacombs – but I know that if Baz is avoiding me (and he’s definitely avoiding me), he wouldn’t be stupid enough to go anywhere I’d expect him to be. I also know I can rule out places he can’t enter, like the girls’ dormitories. And he probably hasn’t gone far outside the school grounds because I know he’s still going to classes.

I could be wrong (Baz would probably say I usually am), but I think that only leaves the hills or the Wavering Wood. I definitely wouldn’t expect him to be there, which means that’s where he is. (I think)

Merlin, I hope he took a coat this time – it’s fucking freezing today. Even I’m cold.

I jam my hands into the pockets of my school trousers and jog up the hill to keep warm.

As usual, I Ebb hails me long before I see her. (I don’t know if she’s really stealthy, or if I’m just really unobservant.) (Both, maybe.)

“Hiya Simon! Long time no see.”

She waves at me from outside her hut. She’s wearing a big puffy coat and a long Watford scarf. One of the goats is trying to eat the tassels on one end, while another, smaller goat is trying to eat the tassels on the other end. 

I don’t have that much time left to find Baz before our next class, but I’ve been spending so much time practicing (practicing my magic – and then I made the team and there are practices every other night) that I haven’t see Ebb at all since I came back. I don't think I can just walk by. Not without an explanation.

I climb up towards her, like this is what I always meant to do.

“Hi Ebb. Have you seen Baz?”

She laughs. “Déjà vu. I’ve done this one before, haven't I?”

My first thought is that the Humdrum is here, looking for Baz. And that Ebb saw him and thought it was me.

But I know that’s stupid.

The Humdrum looks like me aged eleven. Ebb’s a bit scatty sometimes, but she’d definitely notice the difference, even if he aged himself up. He literally sucks magic from the air and I don’t. (Besides, the Humdrum wouldn’t be looking for Baz. He’d be looking for me.) I’m just being paranoid.

Although I don’t think I’ve asked Ebb where Baz is before either. Usually when I’m up here, I’m trying to get away from him.

Which only leaves one really, really unlikely option. Although as Penny keeps reminding me: Sherlock Holmes once said that when you’ve ruled out all the things that are just plain wrong or paranoid, whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the truth.

“You mean Baz was here looking for me?” I ask.

“Yeah. First day of school. I guess he found you.”

That doesn’t make sense.

I mean, it makes even less sense than Baz looking for me right now, which is what I thought Ebb was saying. Baz wouldn’t be looking for me. Not right at the start of term. He hadn’t even seen my mother then.                 

“Why was Baz looking for me?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t like to say,” Ebb says and I think she winks at me. (Although knowing Ebb, she’s probably just blinking away tears.)

“But I do see things up here, Simon,” she tells me. “You two are getting on pretty well right now, aren’t you? I knew the Crucible was right to put you together. It always is. It was right about me and his aunt.”

I’m having trouble processing all of this.

“You used to live with Baz’s aunt?”

“Oh yeah,” Ebb says. And she’s definitely starting to cry now. “She was my mate. And head over heels for our Nicky, of course, God rest his soul.”

Ebb’s brother. She never talks about him. If it was literally any other time, I’d definitely stay to comfort her (even though I'm not very good at comforting). Or ask her more about all of this.

Ebb never mentions her brother - I just know he died. And I don't understand how Ebb could ever like anyone as awful as Baz’s aunt. Fiona’s a stuck-up bitch (I don't like to use that word, but it is accurate). I can’t imagine her being friends with someone who lives in a hut and talks to animals. It’d be “beneath” her.

Like Baz liking me or something.

I mean, maybe that's not so impossible. A few days ago, I definitely thought ...  I don't know, that he might not hate me anymore. But now he can't even be in the same room as me and I don't even know why. 

Merlin, I need to find him. I need to explain.

“Hold up,” Ebb says as I start to pull away. She points at something up in the sky, shielding her eyes from the sun. “Looks like someone wants to speak to you. Here - I bet this is good news.”

I look, too. There’s nothing there – just clouds, and birds.

No, not birds. Bird.

A little bird. Like the one Baz sent me in the dining room.

My heart starts beating faster.

It’s from him, I know it is.

Probably telling me to piss off or something and stop chasing after him. But it’s nice that he’s talking to me, even like this. That he thought to send a note. Maybe Dev or Niall found him and told him I'm going mental not knowing where he is.

The bird lands on Ebb’s outstretched hand, which is something I never manage. I think they’re afraid of me. It’s a small brown bird. A sparrow, I think. (I don’t know birds.) Ebb gives it a little scratch on the head before take the note from its beak.

“Hello. What’ve you got for us then?”

The bird twitters excitedly as Ebb passes me the note. My name is on the top. It’s not Baz’s handwriting, but I do recognise it. My mouth drops open as I read it.

Simon – would you come up to my office? Now, please.

“Got a way with words, hasn’t he?" Ebb says (she's reading over my shoulder). "Doesn’t like to waste them.” She chucks the bird under the chin. “Go on then – off with you.”  

I can’t tell if she’s speaking to me or the bird, although the bird flies off while I just stand there, not sure what to do.

I can’t believe the Mage is back.

He didn’t say.

“Thanks!” Ebb calls after the bird. Then she turns back to me.

Well?” she says. “Are you going or what?”

I grin. No, it’s more than grinning. My face is actually hurting, I’m so happy.

The Mage is back and he wants to see me.

“If you see Baz, tell him I’m looking for him,” I tell Ebb, who nods and pats me on the shoulder.

“Right-oh.”

Then, I turn and run down the hill.

The Mage is back.

He’s back and he wants to see me.

Everything is going to be OK.

Chapter Text

29 – THE MAGE

I see Simon running across the courtyard from the arched window in my office. He looks so small from up here. A schoolboy, like any other.

He doesn’t look like the Greatest Mage. The one born to save us all.

He looks like a child.

I wish he wasn’t running. It means our meeting will be soon, that I can’t have more than a few moments. I was the one to summon him, but I don’t relish what I have to say. I don’t relish having to tell Simon how much I’ve failed.

I’ve been looking for something – anything – that will help him, help him wield the power I gave him. The power he doesn’t know what to do with. And I’ve failed. I’ve failed him.

I’ve visited every house in the realm, turned out every wardrobe, opened every safe. Combed every library. I haven’t slept properly in weeks. There is nothing. Even the house of the great Natasha Grimm-Pitch has thus far proved useless. Full of the same books I’ve already read, worthless trinkets and crying children.

To visit that house, you might almost believe the ridiculous fictions the Old Families pedal. That is simply talent – no, divine-right – that kept the Pitches on the throne for so long. That Natasha Pitch and her kind were simply born better than someone like Simon will ever be.

But I know the truth.

They aren’t gods, any more than I am. They aren’t blessed.

They’re just selfish – as gods often are. The kinds of gods who wouldn’t share fire with mortals until Prometheus stole it from them. And cunning. And ruthless.

Experts at protecting themselves. At keeping their own secrets, even when they would lose nothing by sharing them. Even when those secrets could save us all us.

They must know that Simon is the solution.

They must know I’m trying to fix him, and that they could help if they chose to.

I know there’s something in that house they’re hiding from me. (Not simply that the Pitch brat is a vampire, a secret so obvious even Simon has discovered it. That is a secret I cannot use without staining myself more darkly than I have already – I can’t have him burnt simply for being what he is. For being what I made him.)

There are items missing from the mantlepieces when I visit. Obvious holes in the decorative balance. Somewhere there are answers, I just haven’t found them yet.

I drank tea with the new Mrs Grimm as my men tore apart the library for the third time. She didn’t flinch even as they shouted and tossed priceless books into a pile by the door. I remember her from Watford. She used to wear pigtails. Her father worked for a living. Now she’s one of them. Sleek and unruffled.

“And how is Basilton doing at school, Davy?” she asked me, stirring sweetness into her tea.

As though I were simply a tutor. Here to report on my progress in educating her step-son.

He excels, of course. Always far ahead of my own son, when he should be far behind. I’ve encouraged their rivalry in the hope that it will spur Simon to outpace him, but Basilton Pitch’s success galls me as much as I know it does Simon. In my weaker moments I will admit, I attempted his kidnapping for this reason, far more than any other. (Hard to stay top of the class after a few months in a coffin.)

It was a dark impulse. Beneath me. I’m glad I was foiled.

Sometimes I wish more of my schemes had been, even if the effects were good. Even if Natasha Pitch’s death meant that a generation of magickal children were able to learn how use their gifts. Even then – sometimes I wish things had been different.

But at times like this, the injustice of it all still burns.

At times like this, when the Pitches treat me as though I were any other servant of theirs, stepping outside of his place. Instead of the leader of this world. The only one willing to make the sacrifices necessary to defeat the evil that threatens us all. 

“I liked the movie with the fox,” I heard Fiona Pitch say as we left. “But this live-action version is fucking boring. It’s just the same shit over and over again. And I’m not convinced he’s giving it to the poor, either.”

She meant me to hear it.

They still think they’re untouchable.

They won’t listen when I tell them the truth. Money can’t protect you against the Humdrum. An ancient name won’t stand in the way of total destruction.

Just over a month ago, a hole formed over my grandmother’s house. There is no magic there, anymore. In the place my son was born. The place my wife died. Where we fulfilled the prophecies.

The Greatest Mage was protecting that house. And still it fell.

What makes these women think they won’t be next?

I’ve returned to Watford without the answers I sought, without a solution for Simon, because I know time is running out. Because the Grimms and the Pitches refused to share their power even when it would have saved them.

But I know how to make them share. I know how to make them afraid.

By now I can hear Simon’s feet on the stairs to my tower.

He always runs, never takes the lift. The lift requires magic, a specific spell, and Simon Snow may be the Greatest Mage, but I’ve never seen him cast a spell if he could use his blade or eat cold food or climb a hundred steps to the top of a tower.

Perhaps that is the real problem. Not just that his power leaks from him, but that he doesn’t choose to harness it.

If it is, then it’s I know it’s my fault too. Like everything else.

I step out from behind the desk as Simon emerges into the office. He’s panting and happy. His face warm from the wind and from the climb. Like Lucy after rugger.

I have to turn away. Sometimes, he looks too much like her.

I hated disappointing her, too.

“Three more holes have appeared in the magickal atmosphere since we last spoke,” I tell him as I shuffle the papers around pointlessly on my desk. “One you know about. Two more in––”

I stop as fourteen stone of eighteen-year old boy slams into my back. I feel the air squeezed out of my ribcage and I look down. His arms are locked around my chest.

“I’m glad you’re back,” he says. I feel him pressing his face between my shoulder blades, his nose digging into the top of my spine.

For a moment, I’m frozen.

We don’t embrace, Simon and I. We never have. He doesn’t know I’m his father and I have never treated him as my son. (He’s much more important than that.) He is my ward. My heir. My responsibility, but he isn’t mine to hold. I gave him up. I sacrificed my relationship with him for the world. I expect nothing from him beyond the obedience of another student. Another soldier.

There are times when I’m weak, though. When he looks at me with Lucy’s eyes. When he uses magic that smells like mine. When I’m tired – and I am so tired right now.

I squeeze my eyes shut. One of my hands rises without me asking it to and I almost close it around one of Simon’s.

Almost.

I let the hand drop without touching him.

“Two more holes in Leicester and Harrogate,” I tell him as though he isn’t wrapped around me like a limpet. “I’ve spoken to Martin Bunce – the frequency is increasing. As are the scale and size of the holes. Let go of me, please, Simon. It isn’t seemly or necessary.”

“Right. Sorry.”

The vice-like grip around my chest relaxes, but the pain remains. A deep, dark pain right where my heart used to be.

“I guess you lost your mobile?” Simon says as I pull away entirely, putting Natasha Grimm-Pitch’s desk between the two of us.

I don’t know what he’s saying, why it’s relevant, but I’m still off-kilter from Simon’s attack, so I answer his question.

“A few months ago. Just before the attack in Leicester––”

“Yeah, I knew it,” Simon says relieved. “I knew it wasn’t to do with my mum.”

I stare at him and his smile falters.

“What about your mother?” I say. My voice comes out a harsh whisper.

“Doesn’t matter,” Simon says quickly.

He sits in the chair opposite mine (I don’t sit) and picks up the snowglobe I took from the Pitches. It reminded me of one Lucy had. A gift from her friend Mitali. A joke, I think – a piece of the aristocracy we could look down on. Not my kind of humour, but Lucy liked it.

Simon turns it over in his hands so that the snow collects in the dome and them spirals down around the palace.

“You had one of these back in the cottage, didn’t you?” he says. I nod. (Why deny it? He’s seen it. He knows.) “Why didn’t you tell me it was your house?”

When did Simon Snow become so perceptive?

He’s been wilfully blind for eighteen years. Never asking questions I couldn’t answer. Never pushing too hard against the walls I built between us.

I didn’t want him to think of me as a person. As a person who might have a house. A wife. Books. A snowglobe.

A son.   

“It wasn’t relevant,” I say briefly. “It was a place you could learn in safety. Now it isn’t. But I don’t want you to worry, Simon. The Coven will locate another suitable safehouse in time.”

“I’m not worried,” Simon says. “I’m doing great here. I don’t think I need to go anywhere. Baz says our room is protected so it’s probably the safest house there is, right?”

“Does he?” I say.

And to my ears, my voice sounds thick with menace. But Simon is still bubbling over with all the things he wants to tell me. He doesn’t hear the threat. How thin my patience is.

“Yeah, and I’m learning loads from him. I can’t wait to show you all the amazing–– Oh, and you’re not going to believe it, but I actually made the team. We’re playing next week. You should come and watch, although we’ll probably get slaughtered because––”

I slam my hands down on the desk between us and he jumps.

Simon,” I say firmly. “I don’t know what’s got into you, but you need to concentrate on what I’m saying to you now. The Humdrum is moving. The holes are spreading. Magic is leaving our land.”

“Yes, sir,” Simon says. “I know.”

“Then you know we don’t have time for trivialities.”

“Yes, sir. I do know that, I just thought––”

“We have to focus on what we can do to stop the Humdrum. That’s the only thing that matters.”

“OK,” Simon says. “I’m sorry. You’re right.”

He means it.

I breathe more easily. I thought this might be difficult, after the fuss he made about leaving Watford at the start of the year, but he’s learned while he’s been away. Perhaps not how to control himself, not how to wield his power, but at least he’s learned that disobeying me just wastes his time and mine.

Perhaps this will work, after all.

“So, what’re we going to do?” Simon asks. “About the Humdrum?”

We’re making them afraid, Simon. We’re taking back what should always have been ours. The fire.

“We’re making a raid on the House of Pitch,” I tell him. “Tonight. Get your things.”

 

30 - SIMON

I think it’s a joke at first.

Why would the Mage want me to raid Baz’s house? I’m fairly sure Baz doesn’t have the Humdrum locked away in his attic. (If he did, he would have told me about it.) Which means it must be a joke.

But the Mage isn’t laughing. (I’m not completely sure he knows how, actually. I’ve never seen him laugh.) (Sometimes he chuckles bitterly, but I think that’s just to make a point.)

“Why?” I ask.

“Because they have something we need, Simon. Something that will help us defeat the Humdrum.”

That sounds reasonable, I guess. I mean, if they do have something we need, we should probably go and get it.

Except I still don’t understand why we’d need to raid the house. That sounds like Baz’s family are a pack of goblins and we’re raiding their hideout before they can eat any more clubbers – instead of the people Baz showed me in the music room. Kids, mostly.

OK, so I still think his dad and his aunt are scary, but his stepmother just seems really nice. Baz showed me her pretending to lose Monopoly to his little sister. And making ugly cakes that tasted good. And going riding with all the little kids. (I knew Baz came from a horsey family, although Baz says that he actually doesn’t like riding because horses are afraid of him.) (I told him I was afraid of horses and to be fair to him, I think he did try not to take the piss.)

There’s definitely something I’m not getting.

“Can’t we just ask them for it?” I say.

The Mage’s eyes narrow to slits, like I’m wasting his time.

“I have asked them, Simon. Very nicely. And then I asked them less nicely – and still, they withheld it.”

None of this sounds right, that Baz’s family wouldn’t help. I feel like, from what I know of them, that they would be reasonable if they knew what was at stake. But I admit, I don’t know them, so I can’t say for sure.

But I know Baz.

I know him better than anyone.

He’s good – even if he is a vampire. And he’s kind – even if he can still be a complete jerk sometimes. If I told him I needed something, really needed it, I know he’d give it to me. To defeat the Humdrum. OK, so he’d give me shit for it first, but that’s how he is. He picked out clothes for me eventually. And he got me onto the football team. And he played the violin for me, even though he doesn’t like to play in front of other people. He showed me his family.

And yes, he’s pissed off at me right now, but if I can find him, I can apologise. I can get him back.

“Have you asked Baz?” I ask.

“I don’t need to ask him to know his answer,” the Mage says.

“You don’t understand. Baz wants to defeat the Humdrum,” I say. “That’s why he’s been teaching me––”

The Mage looks shocked.

“He’s been what?”

“That’s what I was trying to tell you earlier.”

The Mage is still frowning at me from the other side of the desk, but I understand now that it’s my fault for not telling him earlier, for not explaining how everything’s different now. Every other time I’ve ever told the Mage about Baz, I’ve being trying to get a new roommate. Or I’ve been trying to get Baz expelled for being a vampire or trying to kill me. So, yeah, I get it – I completely see why the Mage would think I’d be on board with this plan. It’s my fault. It’s because I haven’t explained.

“Baz and Penny came to the house. They were there when the chimera attacked. Baz was the one who told me how to use the Sword.”

“Simon––”

“No, listen!” I say. “Please.” I’m talking quickly, tripping over my words. I lean forward onto the desk.  “Baz has been using all his free time to help me. He’s trying to get me ready to defeat the Humdrum. He wants to defeat the Humdrum too. And it’s working. I’m much better at magic now. I actually feel like I might win. And it’s because of him.”

“You don’t need anything from him,” the Mage snarls and I stumble out of the chair and onto my feet. “Except whatever it is his family is hiding from us.”

I shake my head. “That’s not––”

“Are you contradicting me, Simon?”

“No,” I say. “I mean – yes, sir. I am. But it’s just because you don’t understand––”

Don’t I?” the Mage says. “How do you think the Pitches stayed in power so long, Simon? They were strong, of course. But it was always more. They couldn’t have done it alone – they needed the consent of enough stupid people. Selfish people. People who wanted an easy life. Who were content to see others walked over, because the Pitches were willing to call them friends. I understand too well, I simply never considered you’d be one of them.”

“I’m not!” I say. I wish I was better with words. (I wish I was better.) “He’s been helping me.”

“Then I’m sure you won’t mind showing me what you’ve learned,” the Mage says.

He strides out from behind the desk, his wand is in his hand. His face is like thunder.

“Show me what exactly Basilton Pitch has taught you, the secrets he’s chosen to share with you. The spells that will help us defeat the Humdrum.”

I don’t understand, but I draw the Sword of Mages anyway. (It’s comforting to say the familiar words of the pledge.) The Mage sighs.

“Still relying on your blade, Simon?”

“I told you––” I begin, but the Mage is already casting.

“Resistance is futile!”

I’m not ready. I don’t even know this spell.

The force of it slams me back against the bookshelves in the Mage’s office. Several books fall to the floor. And I can’t breathe. All the air in my lungs is gone, battered out of me by the spell.

This is a mistake. It can’t be happening. The Mage would never attack me. He wouldn’t.

I choke out, “Give me liberty or give me death,” and the Mage’s spell loosens around my chest. I can breathe, but I don’t have time to get into position before he retorts.

“A hit, a very palpable hit.”

This one I know and I counter it with Penny’s favourite shield charm: “U can’t touch this!”

I know it’s a mistake as soon as I cast it (I can’t imagine the Mage listening to Hammer) but he must have done at some point because the spell bounces off and knocks over the Mage’s wastepaper bin.

I think about picking it up, but the Mage doesn’t seem to care about what happens to his office right now. He batters my shield with something from Joyce, I think – and tugs the bookcase down onto me with a nursery rhyme.

“Fight back!” he shouts as I drag myself out from under it. “Don’t just defend yourself.”

Which makes me think of Baz, of course. And his smug voice saying, “Cast it first.”

“The best form of defence,” I shout, but I know it’s not strong enough. That I don’t really mean it and you have to mean it.

But I don’t want to hurt the Mage. Why would I want to hurt him?

He doesn’t even cast a shield, just brushes it away – his lip curled. “Is that the best you can do?”

I try “Blaze of glory” – but I don’t feel right for that either. I don’t feel glorious. I feel like crying.

When the Mage casts, “Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground!” and my sword flies out of my hand, I think – At least it’s over now.

It’s over. He’s disarmed me now, and that’s it. It’s over.

But the Mage hasn’t finished.

Your shoelace is untied,” he tells me and I slip.

I land on my back in the pile of books, my skull cracking on the fallen bookshelf. Tears prick in my eyes.

“Get up,” the Mage says.

But I don’t get up.

I can’t.

I hurt. Everywhere.

I hear the Mage sigh – and that’s what breaks me, I think. It sounds so disappointed.

I don’t want to cry, but it’s heaving through me. I’m think I’m either going to cry or throw up. Or worse, go off.

I can’t go off, though. I can’t disappoint Baz as well.

Then I remember that I’ve already disappointed Baz – that’s why he isn’t speaking to me. I’ve disappointed everyone.

I’m trying to breathe. In for the count of four, out for the count of eight, but I can’t concentrate. My edges feel like they’re blurring and I try and pull them back into shape. In for the count of four. Out for the count of eight. Breathe. Control it. Hold the breath. Keep the magic inside.

The Mage’s footsteps are moving towards me. I hear him kick some of the books out of the way, and then he’s looming over me. I force myself to open my eyes and look at him.

“I knew you weren’t ready,” he says. “You can’t beat the Humdrum. You can’t even beat me.” He sighs again, impatiently this time. “Go back to class, Simon.”

And then he turns and walks away from me.

 

31 –

BAZ

I’m in Numerology when I feel it. Simon’s magic. Everywhere.

It drifts through the class like smoke. Thick smoke. Green. And choking.

The air is shimmering. I can barely see the keys on my laptop. I can’t focus on them. (Simon isn’t even in this class. He has Magical History over on the other side of the courtyard. I’ve never felt his magic from this far away before.) Someone behind me – a boy – giggles and our teacher, Professor Fleming, taps her totem against the desk and says:

“All right – just shake it off. Concentrate.”

“Your boy’s such a nightmare,” Niall groans next to me.

All this magic is making me stupid – so for a moment I just stare at him, nonplussed. Niall giggles too, Simon’s magic making him drunk like the rest of them. “Whoops. I wasn’t supposed to know that, was I?”

And that does it.

That’s enough.

I shut my laptop and push my chair back. I have to get out of here.

“Mister Pitch?” Fleming says as I get to my feet. “Is there something you want to share with the class?”

“There really isn’t,” I say, and then I’m gone. Out of the classroom, out of the building – out into the courtyard. I don’t even take my things, I just run.

I have to get to Simon.

 

SIMON

I can’t control it. It’s everywhere and I can’t stop it.

I don’t know what to do. If Baz’s right, I must be like a fucking beacon for the Humdrum right now. And I know he’s right, because he’s Baz, but I can’t stop it. I can’t remember a single thing Baz taught me that will help me and that makes me feel worse because I can’t stand that I wasted his time like that.

My magic is pouring out of me. And I can’t remember anything. How to do anything.

I can’t even remember how I got out of the Weeping Tower– I didn’t walk. But I’m outside now, I think. I can’t really see properly, and I can’t really breathe properly (I can’t do anything properly).

Is this a panic attack?

Maybe it is. I’m not sure it matters. How could it?

After all, I don’t matter.

I just want to curl into a ball and die, but if the Humdrum’s coming and I can’t stop him, I have to get out of the school. I can’t bring him here. Baz’s right – I’m the worst Chosen One ever chosen, but I can still do something.

I can draw the Humdrum away.                                                                       

I can do that.

 

BAZ

Simon isn’t in Magical History.

And he’s not in our room.

I stand at the top of the stairs, breathless from running up all of them, and try and think what to do next. A finding spell. Obviously. But I’m panicking too much to think clearly. The only relevant spells I remember are Come out, come out, wherever you are – which only helps if you’re in the same room, and Not all those who wander are lost – which is more about finding yourself than anything. There could be something in Greek, but I tend to lose my languages when Simon’s magic is like this.

At this rate, all I’ll have to do is wait and see where whatever monster the Humdrum sends lands. Simon will be in the middle of that. Then I run towards the explosion.

But that’s far too late.

The only alternative seems to be running around and shouting his name. I’m so stressed that I’m opening the window to actually try this ridiculous idea, when I remember the Normals have already thought of a way to communicate long distance without shouting.

And that I have Simon’s phone number.

 

SIMON

My phone rings as I cross the drawbridge, but it’s not the Mage. It’s a number I don’t recognise.

I don’t answer.

I’m almost out. I can see the gate. There’s not even anyone guarding it today, so I don’t have to explain why I’m like this. Covered in tears and snot and unable to breathe. I just have to get there and then it doesn’t matter what happens to me.

But once I stagger up to it, I can see the gate is locked. I give it a good rattle – and then a good kick, and then I slam my whole body into it.

Open!” I shout at it (my voice cracks). But it doesn’t. “Open! Please.”

Sometimes my magic works without me using a real spell, but that isn’t happening this time.

I kick the gate again, but it only opens with magic (real magic – not whatever this is leaking out of my skin) and I can’t draw the sword. I can’t get the words out.

Which means I’m stuck.

That I can’t even get this right.

 

BAZ

I’m running, phone in my hand, when I see a shape huddled by the foot of the Watford gate.

It takes me a while to work out what I’m seeing, but I’ve been following directions from the creepy Find Friends app that Bunce used to find Simon while he was in Wales. (Our phones were already linked, and even though Simon won’t answer my calls, he hasn’t blocked me.)

It is him. The centre of the magickal disaster. Simon Snow huddled in a grey duffle coat.

I’ve just never seen him looking so small.

His arms are wrapped around his knees. And he doesn’t look up as I shout his name. I have to come right up to him and even then he doesn’t acknowledge me at all. It’s like he doesn’t know I’m here.

I can see he’s shaking. Crying. It’s been years since I’ve seen Simon cry (since I made him cry), but it was never like this. I don’t think I could have stood it, if it had been.

The air is still thick with magic. I kneel next to him, putting my hands on his shoulders.

“Simon – look at me. Please.”

Perhaps that’s what does it. I don’t often say please. Even Simon Snow knows that means it’s important. He looks up at me, his eyes are red rimmed and blotchy. When he speaks his voice is thick and he hiccups wetly between the words.

“I’m – sorry.”

“It’s all right,” I tell him, trying to make him believe it, like a spell. (Everything is very much not all right, and I will find and kill whoever’s done this to him later, but first I have to look after him.) “Deep breaths now, Simon. Remember?”

He nods jerkily – he remembers. And he tries as I count for him, but the sadness hasn’t gone away and his face crumples again almost immediately. His breath is loud and pained, still more of a sob than anything.

I push his hair away from where it’s stuck to the dampness on his face. (Can I do this? He isn’t stopping me – but then I don’t know if he’d stop anything right now.) (I could kiss him – breathe carbon dioxide into his lungs, that would help calm him down. But I think that would be bordering on taking advantage.)

Honestly, he’s a mess. Some people can cry beautifully – unsurprisingly, Simon isn’t one of them. If I wasn’t obsessed with him, I’d probably find it completely disgusting.

As it is, I feel my dead heart breaking for him.

“You can do this,” I tell him.

He shakes his head and I can see he’s going to retreat back into his arms again, so I do something reckless.

I pull him towards me, into my lap between my knees. I wrap my arms around his shoulders and pull his head down to my shoulder. Bury my hands in his hair, cradling his skull.

“Shh.” I can feel him fist his hand in my blazer lapel as I rock him gently, like I would one of my little sisters. “Deep breaths,” I whisper. “Slow your breathing right down. It’s all right. I’ve got you.”

 

SIMON

I want to tell Baz to get out of here. I can’t drag him down with me. The Humdrum could be here any minute. And I’m probably ruining his shirt by crying on it.

But it feels so good to let him hold me.

Nobody ever has before. Agatha and I have held each other – a bit – but not like this. Like she was protecting me. Like I was worth protecting. Maybe my mum did once, but I don’t remember it.

It feels good. Safe.

Like being cared for, even if he’s only doing it so we don’t get attacked by the Humdrum.

Like maybe I’m not completely worthless.

Whatever he’s doing to my hair feels amazing. And he’s talking softly to me – nothing that matters, I don’t think. It’s just words, but I like the sound of Baz’s voice. I like knowing where he is. I like him being here instead of wherever he’s been hiding from me. Wrapped around me.

I breathe in – and it’s easier this time. I think I’ve stopped crying. The air in my lungs smells like Baz (because I’ve got my nose pressed into his shirt). Clean. And spicy, like his aftershave.

I’ve always liked the way he smells, although I’ve never been this close to him before and it smells different from here. Better. More like him.

I’ve never been this close to anyone before.

 

BAZ

I’m holding Simon Snow in my arms. And he’s letting me.

I’m holding Simon Snow and stroking his hair and he’s stopped crying now, but he hasn’t pulled away. Does that mean anything? It feels like it could mean something.

Perhaps he’s just too tired to move.

Well, I won’t force him to.

 

SIMON

I don’t want him to let me go.

Although I also know I shouldn’t take advantage. Baz was probably just trying to stop me drawing the Humdrum here with my magic (desperate times and all that).

I should probably tell Baz I’m OK now and that we should get ready for whatever the Humdrum is going to throw at us. (He hasn’t turned up yet. Maybe Baz was wrong.) (Not that it’s likely. Baz is never wrong.) But I can’t help but think that if I do tell Baz I’m OK, then he’ll just piss off again.

Because he’s probably is still angry at me for whatever I did. And he’ll be even angrier when he hears that, after everything he taught me, I’m still terrible at magic and so the whole World of Mages is probably doomed. That means I can’t let him go until I work out how to fix this.

I can’t lose Baz again. I only just got him back.

And he’s too important. He’s too important to me.

Is that a weird thing to think about your enemy?

Maybe. Although it’s probably not that much weirder than thinking about how good he smells. Or enjoying him playing with my hair.

The thing is, though – he’s not really my enemy anymore, is he? He’s just a boy.

A boy I like spending time with.

A boy I like.

Fucking hell – I think Baz was right.

I really am a complete idiot.

 

BAZ

I feel Simon stir against me. And I think – all right, I knew it was too good to last.

At least I release him before he has to tell me to do it. (I’ve never wanted to do anything less.) That means I keep my dignity, whatever’s left of it.

I assume he’ll pull back completely now my arms aren’t holding in him place, but he doesn’t.

He tilts his chin up. And I imagine kissing him because I can’t help myself.

He still looks almost feverish, although at least he’s dried his face (even if it was on my shirt). His eyes are bright blue. And I’m so close I can see the freckles on his nose.

I’m only inches away from my favourite mole below his eye. I’d barely have to lean in. I could call it an accident. It practically would be one. It’s not as though I seem to have much choice about in the matter.

Simon still hasn’t moved. He’s staring at me like he’s never seen me before. He’s biting his lip and his hand is still clenched in my blazer.

Crowley, I have to make myself stand up. I have to walk away, or I’ll do something I’ll regret. I have to get up or I’ll kiss him and I can’t recover from that. I can’t pass that off as something a concerned but straight former-nemesis would do.

“Simon––” I say.

And then he kisses me.

 

32 –

BAZ

It’s not what I expected.

I mean, obviously, I never expected that I would ever get to kiss Simon Snow at all, much less that he would be the one to kiss me. But whenever I’ve imagined it (something I’ve done, far more times than I care to admit), I’ve imagined it as a hard kiss, that first kiss. I’ve imagined it feeling like him punching me in the mouth only with more tongue. I imagined him slamming me up against a wall and ravishing me.

More and more, recently, I thought I would be the one to do it. That I wouldn’t be able to resist, that I’d have to do it. And therefore that the kiss would be desperate and probably brief before he actually punched me.

I didn’t imagine this – gentleness.

Simon tastes like salt. Like tears (and probably like snot). His lips are chapped. And he moves his mouth against mine slowly and hesitantly, like he isn’t sure. What to do. Who he’s kissing.

I haven’t even kissed him back yet. I don’t know how. I’ve never kissed anyone before. (I’ve never wanted to kiss anyone else.) What if I’m terrible at it? I haven’t practiced.

But Simon is warm and persistent. I feel my mouth opening under his, my tongue sliding against his. He lets go of my jacket to slide a hand into my hair and I hear myself make a small noise at the back of my throat. A small, pleased noise. I do it again when he sucks on my lower lip.

Crowley. This is really happening, isn’t it?

I’m really kissing Simon Snow.

 

SIMON

When I draw back, Baz looks like he’s in shock. (It looks good on him.) (Everything looks good on him.)

I don’t blame him. I’m pretty shocked too, and I was the one who did the kissing.

I’ve lived with Baz for more than seven years and I’ve never kissed him (which now seems like a serious oversight). There’s no precedent for it.  

I’d say I’ve never even thought about it until just now – but I think I’ve been not thinking about it for a while. Not thinking about how I like making him laugh. Not thinking about how much I like it when he puts his arms around me to help with my magic. And definitely not thinking about how much I like looking at him. (And smelling him, apparently.) (Come to think of it, this is probably what Penny meant when she asked me why I was so bothered Baz was ignoring me.)

I don’t know whether it’s the same for him. Whether he thinks of me the same way I apparently think about him. He certainly wasn’t expecting me to kiss him, although he did seem to like it.

“Is this OK?” I say softly.

He nods. “Yes.”

He’s whispering too – like if either of us talk too loudly all of this will stop happening. The spell, whatever it is, will be broken and we’ll have to go back to hating each other.

I think he’s afraid. (I’ve never seen Baz afraid before) And I don’t want him to feel like that, so I take his face in both my hands and kiss him again. (Also, I want to kiss him again.)

This time he’s not so surprised, so he kisses me back. His mouth is cold, like the rest of him, but I like it. I know that it’s Baz I’m kissing, not anyone else.

I think I really like kissing Baz.

 

BAZ

Simon’s very good at this.

Not that I have anything to compare it to (anything real, anyway), but I think he must be, because I’m losing my mind.

He was already half way on my lap before we even started kissing and how he’s shifted his weight completely onto me. Now his knees are either side of my hips and he’s holding my face and kissing me from a few inches above me. (Again, not how I imagined it. I’ve always been taller than him. I assumed I’d be leaning down towards him.) It’s cold out here and I didn’t remember to bring my coat from Numerology, but Simon is so warm and everywhere.

I’m letting him lead. It seems sensible – he knows what he’s doing. When he begins kissing my neck instead, I decide I must have died and gone to heaven. Light kisses, lips grazing the point where I was bitten. I let my head fall back to give him better access and drop one hand to the grass for support. I need it. I feel weak. Delirious.

I can also feel myself getting hard.

Crowley, this is humiliating. Although not exactly unexpected, I suppose.

I spent lunchtime in the forest hiding from Simon, and so I drained some of the local wildlife before going back to class. Also, I find Simon Snow arousing even when he’s doing something completely normal like yawning. And right, now he’s sitting in my lap, pressed up against me, with both his hands in my hair and his tongue down my throat. It’s probably the sexiest thing to ever happen to me.

Unfortunately, my body is very aware of that. Very, very aware.

At least Simon doesn’t seem to have noticed yet.

 

SIMON

I’m pretty sure Baz is getting a stiffy.

Am I OK with that?

I’ve never kissed a bloke before and now I’ve got actual cock digging into my leg. Baz’s cock.

Bloody hell – Baz is hard because of me.

I guess I probably am OK with it.

 

BAZ

All right, this is officially driving me crazy. I have to put an end to it – we’re still outside by the fucking gate, for Crowley’s sake. Anyone could walk by. And at some point, Simon has to notice there’s a bloody great erection between us. (Not his – I can’t feel anything from his side, which is all the more reason not to let him work it out.)

I push him gently away from me with one hand. “We should probably – stop.” My voice sounds ragged. I don’t even want to know what I look like.

Simon face falls as he slides back onto the grass. “OK. Sorry.”

“I meant, for now,” I clarify.

The way he smiles, the relief on his face (at the idea that we can kiss again in the future, that I’m not pushing him away forever), is almost enough to make me change my mind. Sod the rest of the school, the temperature, and any lingering doubts Simon might be having about his sexuality – I could just tumble him over and have my way with him right here on the ground. It’s definitely appealing.

But Simon’s used to listening to me by now, after weeks of spellwork practice. He’s already up and brushing grass off his trousers. 

“Yeah, I guess the Humdrum might attack at any minute.”

I’ve completely forgotten about the Humdrum.

“Exactly,” I say, taking his hand and letting him pull me to my feet. “Plus, it’s freezing out here. And we should get back before they close the drawbridge.”

Two very good points, even if I did make both of them up as I was speaking. Now we’re barely touching any more, I can feel the wind whipping around me. Bitingly cold. I wrap my arms around myself to stop myself shivering.

“Shit,” Simon says. “Sorry. I even didn’t think. Do you want my coat?”

He’s already unbuttoning it. And even though I do want it (I’m cold and I love the idea of wearing Simon’s clothes, even if everything he owns is hideous, this coat no exception – Paddington Bear isn’t exactly a style icon), I hear myself say:

“I’m a magician, Snow.”

No, it’s definitely for the best. I shouldn’t push this thing too far too quickly. He’s not my boyfriend. We kissed and Simon clearly wants to do it again, but it’s not the same thing as committing to an actual relationship like the one he had with Wellbelove. (Not that I’ve seen her in this coat before, mind, but I haven’t been paying attention all the time.) He isn’t obliged to look after me, just because we exchanged saliva.

I cast, “You’re getting warmer,” over both of us and Simon finishes removing his coat.

“I’m too hot,” he says.

I raise an eyebrow at him. There’s no way he’s actually too hot. Even my spell has only raised the temperature to barely adequate.

“I am,” Simon protests and holds the coat out to me. "Don't be a prick - I can see you shivering."

As though it's that simple.

 

33 – BAZ

We walk back to the school without touching. Or talking very much. Although Simon does keep turning to look at me and smiling. (Somehow, I am wearing his coat. It’s heavy and scratchy. The pockets are full of chocolate-bar wrappers. I love it.)

None of it feels real.

Or at least, none of it feels real until I leave Simon at the entrance of the kitchens and sneak in to get some food.

Cook Pritchard catches me as I’m stacking scones inside a clean handkerchief. Normally she doesn’t mind me taking food, but she’s in the middle of trying to feed several hundred hungry teenagers and I’m getting in the way. I think she might even be about to shout at me until I tell her I’m on a date (which I am. Sort of) at which point she goes all gooey at the thought of facilitating young love.

“Ooh - what else does she like?”

I don’t correct her, since I’d rather the fact that I just snogged Simon Snow didn’t immediately get back to my father – but it’s a bracing reminder of the real-world consequences of my actions.

My family won’t be pleased. None of them are delighted I’m gay (assuming they know about it – I doubt Cook Pritchard does), but at least I’ve never acted on it. My father could comfort himself with the idea that I’d die a bachelor or find a loveless marriage to be a part of. 

He’ll find out eventually. And then we’ll have to have another Talk, where neither of us say much, but I understand just how deeply I’ve let him down by existing.

I’m scowling as I return to Simon, laden with apples, brownies, several kinds of sandwiches, and a carton of milk, in addition to the scones.

The look on his face, though, makes it difficult to stay angry. At first, I think it must be for the food (I’ve only seen Simon Snow look this delighted before when a new course arrives at lunch), but then he says,

“You look really cute in that coat.”

The tips of his ears are red.

I’m grateful that I’m a vampire and don’t blush, that unlike him I can cover this up. (Crowley, I want to kiss him again, but we’re in public, walking across the courtyard now, and I’m not ready for him to know exactly how weak I am for him) (unless he already does – he’s incredibly unobservant, but then I’m incredibly obvious).

I raise an eyebrow. “I’m looking forward to taking it off.”

This time its Simon’s turn to raise his eyebrows. (I’m really glad I can’t blush.) I suppose I didn’t think about how that would sound. Although it’s true. I want to get out of this coat and possibly out of all my other clothes too. I want Simon to take them off me. And then – I don’t know. Improvise.

I walk faster. “Let’s get back to our room, shall we?”

Even that feels suggestive, now. Just the words ‘our room’. Even though Simon and I have shared that same room since we were eleven. Now it’s not just our room: the room we both have to live in because some idiotic ancient ceremony forced us to. It’s our room: somewhere with a lock and beds, where we won’t be disturbed. And it’s definitely too far away still for me to be thinking this sort of thing.

“You don’t think we should be getting ready to fight the Humdrum, then?” Simon says  

I shake my head. “I think if he were going to attack, he’d have done it by now.”

Good,” Simon says, far too emphatically since I know he likes fighting monsters. He enjoys it. That means he’d rather be doing something else he enjoys even more.

Crowley.

I need to get my mind off this. At least until we get upstairs. (Simon wants to kiss me when we get upstairs. Again. He wants to spend his evening kissing me.)

“On both occasions at the cottage, the attack or appearance came within ten minutes of you losing control,” I say, focusing on that. On the dull mundanities of how exactly we almost died. “That either means my theory’s completely wrong. Or possibly, that you were able to avoid the attack by pulling your magic back in.”

Simon laughs. “Are you saying us snogging beat the Humdrum?”

“No.”

That would be desperate. (And besides, Simon had already calmed down long before he kissed me.)

“OK. But we could still test that theory,” Simon says. “Couldn’t we?”

We’re at the door of Mummer’s House. The steps up to our room (locked door, no disturbances) have never seemed so numerous or so steep. I’d magic us up there right now if I didn’t think I’d probably get the spell wrong.  

My lips are dry – and I can see Simon watching as I wet them. I can see him thinking about kissing me. Kissing me repeatedly.

How long would be enough to test that theory? An evening? A month? Ten years?

I’m sure I could string it out.

“You’re an idiot,” I say as I start climbing the stairs.

“Yeah. And you like it,” Simon says.

He’s grinning. I’m grinning too.

“Prove it.”

He’s chasing me up the stairs now. Like when we played football outside that cottage. I’m laughing, we both are. Which makes sense, because this whole situation is ridiculous. (Because I’m happy.)

I lean deeply on the handle to our room as Simon catches up to me. He leans into me. The door swings open under our combined weight and I stagger over the threshold, taking him with me.

If I had slightly less balance, I’d probably fall flat on my back, and I can’t help thinking that would be good. Because Simon would fall with me, onto me, and we wouldn’t have to go anywhere. But as it is, he’s close, panting – so fucking gorgeous. I barely have to lean forward to close the gap. And I could. I can.

I’m allowed.

“Simon!” someone shouts and we spring apart.

It’s Bunce. I’d forgotten she could get in here. (Because it’s impossible – she shouldn’t be able to get in here). She throws herself at Simon. “I was so worried when I felt your magic and then I couldn’t find you. What happened? Is it the Humdrum?”

“Er. No,” Simon says as I shut the door and try not to frown too hard. She lets go of him. “It’s fine. Baz found me in time.”

“Oh, he did, did he?” Bunce says, turning on me. “That’s nice.”

I see her clock that I’m taking off Simon’s coat. (I refuse to be embarrassed. He probably offers it to everyone, not just Wellbelove).

“So, you two are talking to each other again, are you?” she says.

“Yes. Talking,” Simon says. He looks awkwardly at me. “Yes, we are.”

I roll my eyes. Simon still can’t tell a lie to save his life. He might as well have just told her straight out that we came up here to snog and grope each other. Which is something Penelope Bunce does not need to know right now. (Or ever.)

I’m not sure I can save this, but I owe it to myself to try.

“I’ve been neglecting Snow’s training this week to take care of some family business,” I explain as I take out the packs of scones and sandwiches. “We’ve got a lot to go over this evening, so if you wouldn’t mind leaving, we can get started.”

“Yeah,” Simon says. “Exactly. I’m really looking forward to it. The training.”

“Mmhm,” Bunce says. “I see.”

“I’m sure you’ve got lots of homework to be getting on with, Bunce,” I say as I follow her to the door. (As much as I genuinely like her, right now I want her gone. I want the door locked.) “That Political Science essay is a bear. You’ll want to get started.”

“Already done it,” she says.

“Well, read it through,” I snap and try and shut the door on her. But Bunce has lots of siblings – she’s more than wise to this trick. She thrusts her hand back into the room, blocking me. “Baz. Did you tell him all of it?”

“Get out before I turn you in to the House Master,” I hiss at her.

“I’m just saying,” she says, and this time I do slam the door on her. Then for good measure, I cast, “None shall pass,” because whatever happens next, I don’t want her dropping back in.

Trust Bunce to ruin everything. 

She’s right. I know she is. I have to tell Simon about the Mage. I have to tell him the Mage isn’t to be trusted – that he killed my mother. That the Mage isn’t the person in the texts who Simon trusts. If the ghost was right, then Simon is in danger too. He should take that threat seriously.  

And it would be a lie, wouldn’t it? If I let Simon fall for me (if that is what’s happening), without telling him all the things we’ve already said to each other.

I just – I can’t imagine a scenario where I tell him, where he knows what I did, and we can still to do this. Where he’s still willing to even talk to me.

“Snow––” I say, and I turn back into the room.

He’s looking at me. The late evening sun catching on the gold in his hair through the open window. And his expression is so soft.

“What?” he says, but I’m struck dumb.

I’ve always been good with words. I’m fluent in three languages (four if you count Latin, which I tend not to because it’s useless conversationally). My elocution is flawless in all of them. But none of that matters right now.

I just need a few words. A few words to explain.

Everything I’ve ever done, every mistake I’ve made, has been because I didn’t know what to do about how I felt. That’s still true, though.

It seems like everything’s changed – and like nothing has.

I’m still trapped.

It’s clear I’m struggling. So clear, in fact, that I can see Simon taking pity on me (he must understand – he’s terrible with words himself).

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” he says as he closes the distance between us. “I’ve been in this room with you so many times. It shouldn’t be awkward. But it is.” He rests his hands on the door, either side of my shoulders. “I guess because I’ve never wanted to kiss you while we’ve been in this room before. Right?”

“No,” I say truthfully. And his face falls.

“I’ve wanted to kiss you almost every time we’ve been in this room together,” I tell him. Quietly. “Almost since we met.”

That’s why it’s so hard to tell you the truth.

Simon’s mouth stops mine before I can even try. Another soft kiss. The softest.

I lean back against the door, cradling his face, and I let him kiss me. And I kiss him back hungrily (I’m definitely better now, the past few kisses have taught me that Simon likes it when I lick the roof of his mouth with my tongue, and when I push back into him).

But it’s wrong. I’m not sure how I stop myself, but somehow I do. I twist my head to the side, so Simon’s lips are resting against my cheek instead of my mouth. 

“Simon, I have to tell you something.”

“All right.”

He steps back. Which is good – because if I’m touching him, then I might think about how good it is to touch him. And how terrible it would be if I said something that made him never want to touch me again. Like this I can concentrate.

Or I should be able to.

“Baz?” Simon prompts. “What is it?”

I should just do it. Get it over with it.

Simon raises his eyebrows and I shut my eyes. I can’t look at him. I have to tell him – and if I’m going to tell him, I can’t look at him.

“You were right. About me. I am a vampire.”

I sneak a glance at him under my eyelashes. Simon looks nonplussed.

“OK.”

It’s not the reaction I was expecting.

This isn’t the secret that I needed to tell him, but it’s a fucking big deal. Being a vampire isn’t something I can ever change about myself. It’s who I am. And it’s enough to get me expelled from the magickal world, let alone this school.  It’s not something you can just brush off.

“What do you mean, OK?” I demand.

“I mean, OK,” Simon says. He sounds as frustrated as I am. “It’s not as if I’m surprised – comparatively.”

He ruffles the hair on the back of his neck (adorably) and sighs.

“Look, I’ve known you were a vampire since fifth year. I only worked out I fancied you half an hour ago. I didn’t even know I was gay. That’s the thing I’m dealing with right now.”

That shocks me – about as much as my own revelation completely failed to shock him.

I’ve always assumed Simon was completely straight. But since he was the one who kissed me, I naturally re-evaluated. For the last half an hour, I’ve assumed he always knew he was bi (or whatever), but wasn’t sure about approaching me specifically. Not that he realised he was interested in men and then immediately stuck his tongue into the nearest one.  

How can you not have known?”

Simon shrugs. “Maybe if you’d been less of a dick, I’d have worked it out sooner.”

I cross my arms and lean back against the door. “Maybe you should have tried harder. After all, you’ve always been a complete cretin and I still fell for you.”

Simon grins. “You fell for me?”

I roll my eyes. I still feel pissed off, although the smile Simon’s giving me (the one that makes my knees weak and my brain stop functioning), and the fact he’s closing the distance between us, is making it hard to remember that.

Yes,” I say. Grudgingly.

“What, you mean like this?” And he tackles me sideways onto his bed.

I’m stronger than him, I could definitely fight him off, gain the upper hand. But I like this. I can feel his entire weight on me and I’m on his bed. He’s holding himself above me, arms either side of my head.

“Not literally. Crowley, you really are shit with metaphors,” I tell him breathlessly.

Simon smirks. “Yeah. But not at everything.”

He’s right.

Fuck Bunce and her pushy, holier-than-though attitude. I reach up for Simon’s tie and drag him down towards me. I’m going to give myself one night. One night can’t hurt. One night isn’t going to ruin anything.

I’ll tell him tomorrow.

 

34 – THE MAGE

It’s never going to be enough, I know that now.

Somewhere I got it wrong. I gave Simon power, but not the wisdom to use it. He’s just a boy, after all.

In a few years, perhaps, he could learn what he has to. Or I’ll find the right artefact. The right talisman.

But I can’t wait for him to grow up, there isn’t time.

The Humdrum is moving. The Old Families are almost on us.

If I do nothing now, then everything I’ve done has been for nothing. Everything I’ve lost. Everything I’ve surrendered.

I know I was right.

And I need to see this through.

If I can’t stabilise Simon himself, then I have to look elsewhere for the solution.

The old texts have proved worthless. The Pitches have kept their history closed to me. But I’ve been wrong to look to the past.  Am I not the great reformer? It is in new psalms that we should seek for answers now, not dusty texts full of unspoken lies.

I think I have found what I need.

It was simple once I accepted the truth. And yes, that truth horrifies me to my core, but I’m too far down this road now for regrets.

It’s not the power that is the problem; it’s the boy.

It should have been clear long ago. But I’ve been blinded by who he is. By love. However, much I tried to distance myself from him, he’s still my son. He’s Lucy’s son. He’s all that’s left of her.

But if I put myself ahead of our world, then I’m no better than the regime I sought to replace.

She would understand, I know she would. He would, if there was time.

The spell will work – but not until the solstice.

In the meantime, I have to get Simon away from here. The longer he stays, the more the Pitches will work their claws into him. The harder it will be to convince him that what must be done must be done.

I’ve written to Grayling.

I haven’t told him the plan has changed, there’s no sense in testing his fealty – I think even I would have balked at what I’m going to do once. I don’t have time to persuade him.

I’ve asked him to arrive at dawn. To remove Simon from this nest of vipers. To keep him safe until the yuletide.

And to wait.

 

35 – SIMON

I’m not asleep.

I feel like I might never sleep again at this point.

Partly, because if this is a dream, I’d prefer not to wake up. And it really feels like it could be. It’s certainly more plausible than Baz telling me he’s been into me for years, telling me he’s a vampire and then kissing me until both of us needed a time out in the bathroom. (Separately.) (We didn’t talk about it or what we did in there. Although I did eat most of the sandwiches nervously while Baz was gone.)

The other reason I can’t sleep is that this bed really wasn’t designed for two people. Baz is taking most of it, even though it’s not his bed. He’s all elbows. And chin, tucked into my shoulder. It’s nice – but it’s also painful. And he’s still wearing his uniform, since neither of us got dressed for bed (too awkward), so there are buttons and a belt buckle (and probably his wand) digging into me too.

Worse, he still smells like Baz. Which means every time I close my eyes, I get a whiff of it and it makes me want to kiss him.

At least the window’s open, so it’s not stupidly hot. (Baz is.) (Metaphorically. Not literally. I do know the difference.)

Anyway, I’ve stopped trying to sleep for now.

I’m awake, and I’ve got my arms round Baz (who probably is asleep – the bastard), and I’m just looking at him in the light from the moon outside. Watching the ways his long, dark eyelashes flicker. Mapping the curve of his jaw with my fingers. It’s sandpaper-rough, almost a day after he last shaved. Nothing like Agatha. Or like any girl. Nope. He’s definitely a boy. A ridiculously fit boy I really wish was awake right now, because I definitely want to do something to him and I think he needs to be awake for me to do anything more interesting than stroke his face.

Honestly, looking at Baz right now makes me really wonder how I didn’t work out I was gay before, he’s so gorgeous.

His lips were pink earlier today. Bruised, because I’d kissed him so much. Now they’re back to normal, only slightly darker than his skin. I trace the shape of them with my thumb (Baz has beautiful lips. Full and elegant and really defined, like they’ve been chiselled out of his face). Then, because he’s asleep and he won’t know, I press my thumb up slightly, drawing his top lip away from his teeth so I can look at them. (They look normal)

Baz opens one blue-grey eye. And I pull my hand away guiltily.

“Stop trying to look at my fangs. They aren’t out.”

“Just checking. Since I’m sharing a bed with a vampire.”

“I’ve had my nose pressed against your carotid artery for the past few hours,” Baz says. “And you’ve only thought of this now?”

He moves slightly, so his nose isn’t digging into me anymore, and licks slowly up my throat. It makes me shudder a bit – but in a good way (a really good way). I duck my head as he reaches my chin and catch his mouth with mine. He’s soft and sleepy, nothing like I’d ever imagined Baz before. He murmurs as our lips slide over each other.

“I really hope this is real,” I tell him in between kisses.

“Me too,” he whispers back.

I roll my shoulder over, so I’m back on top of him (I really like being on top of him – not that I want to think too much about what that means at the moment) and I kiss him more deeply. I think I’ve kissed Baz more today than I ever kissed Agatha and I’m still not bored of it. Kissing him just makes me want to kiss him more.

He’s so responsive, even half-conscious. He makes these noises – and he always presses his whole body up against me, like he wants to be sure there isn’t any air between us. Or push himself right into me. Right now, his leg’s wrapped around mine and he’s got his hands up the back of my shirt (well, one of them is – the other one is a bit lower down).

Kissing isn’t just a thing you do with your mouth, for Baz. It’s a whole-body experience – and it’s fucking incredible. Like his mouth. In fact, the whole fucking thing is fairly incredible.

I’m just about to really get going (even if I don’t know what that is, yet) when something tugs on my hair. It’s not Baz, because I know where his hands are, so I try and shake whatever it is off.

And then it pecks me. 

I roll off Baz – and practically fall off the edge of the bed, because I’d forgotten how close it was. Baz sniggers sleepily (he’s still a git) and turns onto his side towards me, as I give up on the whole bed thing and just sit on the floor.

The little bird who interrupted us is flapping around above us, like it’s forgotten why it’s here. I have to grab it out of the air to take the note from its feet.

It’s from the Mage, of course. Which I guess I could have predicted if I’d let myself think about him at all since Baz found me.

It says:

I have to leave in the morning, so I’d appreciate it if you could come to my office as soon as you get this. I promise I won’t ask the same thing I did yesterday.

It’s not even five yet and I haven’t slept – and I was really enjoying what I was doing, but I know when the Mage says, ‘I’d appreciate it’, what he means is ‘get your arse over here now, Simon.’

I don’t need the note anymore, so I drop it next to the bed next to me, and push myself to my feet. This is going to be fun. I’m so fucking tired. I’m yawning (Baz shivers when I do it – which is interesting) (not that I need to be distracted right now) as I begin to hunt around for my trainers.

“Do you need more space?” Baz asks. “Because I can move, I just didn’t want to.”

I shake my head (although I seriously doubt Baz can take up less space).

“It’s just the Mage. I think he wants to apologise about earlier.”

Apologise?” Baz says and his voice is sharp now. Not sleepy at all now.

He pushes himself upright (his hair looks adorably messed up) (I did that – I like it more than I like his broken nose) and spells the lights on.

Why?” he says as I blink.

I shrug. I don’t really want to tell Baz about the Mage suggesting we raid Baz’s house – because it was obviously a mistake. And I don’t want to tell anyone about what the Mage said about me – for lots of reasons. But I think he realised that was a mistake too. And he’s going to apologise. So that’s fine. It’ll be like it didn’t happen.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter,” Baz says, “because whatever it was left you weeping and bleeding magic, and now he wants you to go and see him in the middle of the fucking night.”

“That’s what he’s like,” I say. I’ve got both of my shoes on now and I stand up as Baz reaches for the note, which I stupidly left next to him. “He doesn’t realise he’s being harsh. And he probably doesn’t know what time it is – he has this really weird sleep-schedule. We’re actually really good mates.”

“You’re not, actually,” Baz says, which is weird. Frankly. And rude, even for Baz.

I guess he has just woken up. And he probably didn’t want to be interrupted in the middle of a snogging session any more than I did.

I lean down and give him a quick kiss. (Baz doesn’t kiss me back. He’s reading the note.) “I’ll try and be back before breakfast.”

“You shouldn’t go,” Baz says. “Really. I’ve got a bad feeling about this. About him. I sincerely doubt he’s sorry. He certainly doesn’t say he is.”

“He doesn’t like to waste words,” I say, remembering what Ebb said earlier.

“On you? I can see that.”

“You don’t know him; I do.”

I’m starting to get angry, which I know isn’t a good idea, so I try and still my breathing and remember that it’s not actually Baz’s fault that he doesn’t know the Mage. He’s just trying to protect me, like the Mage is.

“He made a mistake earlier, and now he’s sorry. He’s spent loads of words on me. While I was away, he sent me all these amazing texts––”

“No, he didn’t,” Baz says. “I’m sorry, but––”

I cut him off before he can finish. “He did.”

I don’t understand this. Why is Baz gaslighting me? It doesn’t make sense. And it’s stupid, because he doesn’t know and I do. And Baz isn’t stupid. I know he hates the Mage, his whole family do – but this story doesn’t make sense. He can’t just change reality so that it fits with what he thinks is right. It’s not possible.

“Simon. That was me,” Baz says quietly.

And I stare at him.

He’s as white as a sheet. He wets his lips – and for the first time in about twelve hours, I don’t think about kissing him when he does it.

“That was me,” he says again. His voice is a whisper. “That’s what I was trying to tell you last night. It was me. I was the one who was texting you.”

I don’t know what to say.

“I found the Mage’s phone,” Baz says. He’s talking quickly now. Quickly and quietly. Stumbling over his words. “In his rooms. Because – well, it doesn’t matter. And you were missing. And I didn’t know what to do. But your number was in his phone––”

“Why are you saying this?”

“Because it’s true,” Baz says. He looks like he’s in pain. He leans towards me and I step back – I don’t want him to touch me. “Ask Bunce if you don’t believe me. I should have told you last night, but I didn’t know how. It was me. Everything – from the first day we talked about blaze of glory, until the day you asked about your mother and I was at the cottage. I’m so sorry. I just wanted to talk to you–– Simon, please––”

“I don’t believe you.”

And I don’t. I just can’t. I’d know the Mage anywhere – I know it was him. How could it be Baz? He didn’t even like me back then. I know he said he did, but now he’s saying this shit, and I don’t know what to think. Was he just fucking with me all along? Maybe he doesn’t even like me.

Merlin, I’m so confused.

I have to talk to the Mage. I have to get out of here before I start crying again.

I head for the door, but Baz grabs my arm as I try and get past him. He’s on his feet now too. I try and shake him off.

“Please. Don’t go. I don’t trust him.”

“You don’t trust him?” I repeat. “He’s not the one who just admitted he’s been lying to me from the beginning.”

“Your mother,” Baz says. “And my mother – My mother’s ghost told me––”

“I don’t care about your mother,” I snarl and I see him flinch. “If she’d been alive, she wouldn’t even have let me into Watford. The Mage did. He found me and he let me in. He’s my family.”

“He killed my mother,” Baz says. He’s angry now too. “That’s what she came back to tell me – that the Mage was responsible for her death.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m trying to save your fucking life,” Baz snarls, “like your mother asked me to.”

I shake my head and yank the door open. “You’d have to spell me to keep me here.”

“Fine,” Baz says. His eyes are flashing. “Fine. If that’s what it takes. I will.”

He flicks his wand out of his sleeve. “Sleep tight, Simon.”

And the lights go out.

 

36 – BAZ

The Roommate’s Anathema is one of Watford’s most effective child-management tools. I don’t think it’s overstating things to say it’s probably saved my life.

Not that I’m proud of it now, but there’s been more than one occasion where I’ve driven Simon to a murderous rage. Only the threat of being thrown out of the school completely stopped him running me through with his blade.

And of course, he’s suspected me of vampirism for years. He’s tried to get me expelled because of it, but it hasn’t stopped him sleeping at night – which I doubt he’d have managed if there wasn’t a hefty piece of spellwork almost guaranteeing he’d wake up in the morning with all his blood. (It allowed me to sleep too, knowing I wouldn’t wake up with a stake through my heart.)

I’ve never violated it before, not even when we were small enough that it didn’t mean permanent expulsion. I’ve never attacked him. Not even in our fifth year when he wouldn’t leave me alone and I was at my wits’ end.

And arguably, I still haven’t – the spell I used can be used to help insomniacs. Sleepless children – but I’m not too surprised to find myself whisked outside the Watford gates. 

As I’ve been telling Simon for weeks now, intention is everything in magic. And I did intend to attack him. I intended to take him out long enough for me to do what needed to be done.

By that point, it was clear he wouldn’t stay because I asked him to. That I’d ruined any chance I’d ever had of him ever listening to me again.

But I refuse to live in a world that doesn’t have Simon Snow in it, whatever he thinks of me. So, it was an easy choice. (I mean – I could have waited until he was outside the tower, but it seemed logical at the time. And it’s not even as though eighth year counts. I don’t need it.) I chose Simon.

It’s cold outside the gates.

I’m not even wearing my blazer, or my jumper, because ten minutes ago I was tucked up with bed with the boy I’ve been in loved with for years. But whether or not I’m a Watford student, I’m still a magician.

I cast, “You’re getting warmer,” over myself and then I push at the gates with my wand hand.

There are spells all over these gates. Most of them feel the Mage’s work, but there are some older ones as well – some that feel like my mother, and some even older. The official line is that once you get expelled the gates will never open for you again. I can feel something like that floating in the magickal atmosphere, but as I close my hand around the bars and push, they give – and creak inwards for me.

It’s what I expected.

I’ve been allowed into this school since I was three. The wards are set to welcome me, whether or not I’m a student, and the Mage has never taken them down. I assume it never seemed important.

That I didn’t.

Well, he’ll regret that decision soon enough. He’ll regret everything he’s ever done to my family.

The sun is beginning to rise, but slowly. Painfully. Everything’s still grey, except for the brightness in one window, high up in the Weeping Tower. The Mage’s Office. My mother’s office. Somewhere else that will welcome me.

I start running and I don’t stop until I hit the lift.

It rises quickly.

I’m shaking – I’m not sure why. It’s not cold. Anger. Fear, maybe. Adrenalin. My wand is stuttering in my hand. Crowley, I hope I’ll be able to use it when the time comes.

Then the lift stops and I step out. Into the corridor.

Into the office.

The Mage is standing with his back to me, looking out the window. I can see his reflection in the glass. He has his hands clasped behind him. He isn’t holding his wand, as far as I can see.

“I wondered when you’d finally move against me,” he says and finally turns ‘round. “What was the trigger? You must have known what happened to your mother for months, now, surely.”

He sounds polite, but disengaged, like my father at a dinner party. As though the question is only a way of passing the time and he isn’t really interested. But I tell him anyway, because I want him to know.

“You asked for Simon.”

The Mage smiles – with urbane, fake amusement.

“Ah, yes,” he says. I still can’t see his wand. “Simon told me you’d been tutoring him. I suppose you realised I was removing him from Watford and that whatever little scheme you people were cooking up would invariably fail. Trying to turn him against me, I assume. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

I want to spell him into next week. I want to throw my wand aside and punch him in the face.

It’s a bad idea. Whatever the Mage is, he’s a powerful magician. And he has twenty years of magickal learning on me. I still think I can take him, but I need all the advantages I can give myself.

I need to be calm. I need him to be the one out of control and making mistakes. I need him to be angry.

So I tell him the truth. The thing I haven’t even told Simon.

“I’m in love with him.”

That has an effect. It’s like the Mage’s face cracks, like the smug, self-assured bastard falls away, leaving behind the monster who murdered my mother in cold blood.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snarls.

“You think it’s ridiculous that anyone could love the weapon you’ve been parading around to make the Old Families wet their pants? He is a person, too, sir.

And now his wand is out, although I didn’t see him draw it. I can smell magic, like smoke. If this was Simon he’d have gone off by now.

“Don’t try and patronise me, Tyrannus Pitch. I know you. Do you think I haven’t watched you for the last seven years? I haven’t seen how you treat him?”

I try not to flinch. “You’ve seen what you wanted to see.”

The Mage shakes his head. “Even if you do fancy yourself in love with him, I know what you’re really interested in. It’s the magic. The Pitches have always loved magic more than people, and Simon has more of it than any of you have ever dreamed. That’s what you love, boy – it isn’t him.”

He isn’t right.

I know he isn’t. I love Simon because he’s sweet and idiotic, because he’s ridiculously handsome. Because he’s brave. Selfless. Funny, even if it’s not always on purpose. He’s also powerful, but that isn’t it. That isn’t the only reason. It’s just the only reason someone like the Mage can think of.

“You have no idea.”

I try and sneer it, but I hear it come out uncertain, and I know he does too because he smiles. Darkly.

Don’t I?”

I’ve never wanted to hurt anyone more.

And so I do. I level my wand at him and shout, “Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane, Follow my mother.”

At the same time, the Mage swings his own wand up and yells, “Death to the bourgeoisie!”

Neither of us cast anything like a protection spell. I’m too angry to do anything that sensible.

It should be the end.

It almost is. For both of us. In any normal circumstance, both spells would have hit. We’d both die. Mutually assured destruction. But what actually happens is that both spells disintegrate before hitting their target. The Mage chokes slightly, and I have to step back, but otherwise the magic we threw at each other is gone, completely.

It’s all gone. All the magic in the room.

It’s been replaced with a dry, itchy, scratchy nothingness that makes me want to throw up. A grasping, wheezing, prickling vacuum. The Humdrum.

Oi!” someone yells from outside. “Anyone awake up there?”

I’m running to the window before I realise it. So is the Mage. It’s just wide enough for the two of us to stand there together, and I open the window so I can lean out further. 

There’s a little boy standing in the middle of the courtyard. It’s Simon. And it’s not Simon. He waves cheekily at us.

The Mage’s knuckles are white on the window ledge next to me.

Shit,” he mutters. “It’s too late.”

 

37 –

PENELOPE

There are only a few things that could make me bust in on Simon and Baz while they’re “training” together.

Obviously, I’d do it if it was funny.

I’d also do it if a massive, magic-sucking cosmic force was taking over the school and Simon was too snogged out to get up and fight it, like right now.  

I really can’t believe his timing is this shit.

I was waiting for Simon at the bottom of the tower and Gareth came down to ask me what in snakes was going on, but no Simon.

So here I am. Running – which I hate. Up stairs – which I also hate.

I’m looking forward to yelling at Simon (and Baz) about it when I get to the top, but when I do, I realise the door’s open.

I almost turn back, thinking maybe I just missed him. But then I see Simon’s trainers from the doorway. And beyond that, the rest of Simon.

He’s just lying there, on the floor. Like the dead. And Baz is nowhere to be seen. If I didn’t know Baz was ga-ga over Simon, I’d think Baz’d finally finished him off.

I rush up the final stairs and throw myself on the floor next to him.

“Simon!” I’m shaking him by the shoulders, but he doesn’t get up. “Simon!”

 

THE MAGE

With all the magic gone from the tower, we have to take the stairs. It’s not safe to use the lift – or to float down from the window.

The Pitch boy is a few steps ahead of me as we descend. Which surprises me. I’d assumed he’d use the opportunity to raid my rooms another time, steal more of my books (Simon’s kept me informed over the years), but perhaps I underestimated the Old Families. Perhaps even the Pitches understand who their real enemy is.

We emerge into the courtyard, but it’s empty now. No sign of the demon with my son’s face.

“He’s gone,” Basilton announces. As though I’m unable to make that deduction for myself. As though I’m a fool.

I think about snarling back, putting him in place, but I have bigger problems right now than Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch.

Simon isn’t here, either.

I assume that means he’s found the battle and has thrown himself into the fray, even though he knows he isn’t ready. I have to find him. I have to help him.

We have to win.

My wand is still in my hand. I twitch it to test the atmosphere (there’s more power to work with down here – perhaps because the physical manifestation is gone, though his influence certainly remains) and then sweep the wand round in a deep circle.

“The insidious humdrum, a mundanity that creeps into your very soul.”

“That’s not a spell,” Basilton sneers.

I don’t have to answer him. I don’t owe him anything, but there’s something in his imperious tone that makes me want to show him just how much he doesn’t know.

“It’s a tracking spell. A very particular one. It works in very low-magic atmospheres.”

The wand tugs me in the direction of the gate. Out of the grounds. I think about leaving the vampire brat, but it’s possible I might need him. That Simon might.

“This way,” I tell him as I stride towards the drawbridge.

 

BAZ

I follow the Mage out of the school and into the hills. This is not how I thought the morning would go, but we are temporarily – very temporarily – on the same side. As long as his ridiculous made-up spell does what he claims it does. He has his wand out, as have I - and he's carrying his sword loosely in his other hand.

The magic in the atmosphere seems to be fading in and out. It’s honestly one of the worst things I’ve ever felt.

The sun is rising. The light stings my exposed face and my hands, but that’s fine. I welcome the pain right now. I deserve more. Much more. After what I’ve done. And what I’ve failed to do. But I do raise a hand to shield my eyes against the sunlight. (I don’t want to find the Humdrum by falling over him.)

I know where we are now. I was here a few months ago. It’s just outside the goatherd shack. As I watch, I see goats spilling from the house (they must have just been let out. Or just realised they’d been let out). The goatherd – Ebb – is sitting in the grass slightly above me. She has her arm around a little boy and a goat in her lap. She’s talking to them. She hasn’t seen us yet.

I watch as the Mage’s eyes skate over her without seeing. She’s just another part of the landscape to him. Something he expects to see out here. Nobody important.

There.” I point – and the Mage twists his head. I see him see the scene properly. His nostrils flare.

“Ebb!” he shouts and she looks up. She actually waves with the arm not around the Humdrum.

“Hiya Davy. Have you come to see the goats too?”

It’s completely surreal. I can tell the Mage thinks so too. He’s speechless.

“Ebb, you do realise who that is,” I say as we cover the final distance towards them. “It’s not Simon.”

Although I admit, it does look like him.

Simon on the first day I met him. Simon in the picture on the Mage’s phone. Eleven years old. He’s clutching the red rubber ball Simon carried around with him all our first year (until I threw it out the window) in one hand – and petting the goat on Ebb’s lap with the other hand. There’s a mole just below his eye, just like Simon’s.

It makes me want to cry, looking at him. Because I wish Simon was here. And I know if he was, I still couldn’t make things right. I could have been nicer to this Simon, though. I could have done things very differently. 

I regret everything.

Ebb scoffs. “I’m not daft – I know it’s the other one.”

She looks down as the Humdrum tugs on her sleeves. “What is it, pet?”

“I like his soft ears,” he tells her. He’s pointing the goat on her lap.

I exchange an incredulous glance with the Mage. (Yes, with the Mage. Needs must – there’s no one else here, and this is too fucking weird. Who’d have guessed the Insidious Humdrum would like goats?)

“What do you mean, the other one?” the Mage asks Ebb.

“I mean the other one,” Ebb says impatiently. “The other Simon who appeared the night our Simon came into his power. I’ve seen him around before, although we weren’t able to have a good chinwag until today, so I didn’t know he was the one sending all the monsters to upset Simon.” She ruffles the Humdrum’s hair. “Not very nice, was it?”

“I just wanted more nothing,” the Humdrum complains. “He didn’t have to fight them. He didn’t have to take everyone’s magic. It wasn’t my fault.”

And I see it. I see everything.

“Fuck. That’s it. That’s the connection.”

They all look at me – Ebb politely, the Mage impatient, the Humdrum like I’m a lunatic who’s been allowed mistakenly to roam the grounds. He isn’t completely solid, I realise. I can see Ebb’s arm through him, and the grass.

My brain is whirring.

I should have worked this out weeks ago. I was almost there – I got as far as realising there was a connection, but then abandoned the train of thought. Because I didn’t actually care.

I thought I’d found out enough to keep Simon alive.

And, of course, I thought we were becoming friends (more than friends), which was far more important than – well. Anything.

“He’s not Simon,” I say now. “He’s an impression of Simon. A fingerprint. Because Simon’s too powerful – the atmosphere couldn’t cope, and it made him. A Simon-shaped hole. A sentient hole in the atmosphere who sends monsters to attack Simon, who goes off and uses more magic and makes the hole larger.”

Ebb smiles at me. “Sounds logical,” she says. “All I know is, he’s right. It’s not his fault.”

“It might not be his fault,” I say, “but he’s still dangerous. Even if it is Simon actually taking the magic. He’s antagonising him. Simon can’t not fight back. People would die.”

“Simon isn’t the threat,” the Mage snaps. “That’s not what he’s for. It’s him.” He points his sword at the boy. “He’s the Great Devourer.”

“No, that’s Simon,” Ebb says firmly. “But Basil’s right, this kid’s not helping. The thing is, he’s only making trouble because he doesn’t know what else to do. And we’ve figured that one out now, haven’t we?” she says to the Humdrum. “You’re ready to go, if we can just give you enough to cancel you out.”

“S’pose,” the Humdrum says sulkily.

“You’re giving him your magic,” I realise.

That’s why the Humdrum is fading. It’s why all the magic in the air is sucking away and flowing back.

“Yeah,” Ebb says. “But I don’t think it’ll be enough. Not the debt he’s carrying. What we need is someone who’s got way too much and doesn’t mind sharing.”

She’s looking over my shoulder.    

“You mean Simon,” Bunce’s voice says quietly. I don’t turn to look at her.

No,” the Mage says firmly. “It shouldn’t be him. That’s not how it goes. It’s not why I made him.”

I wonder how long Simon’s been here. How much he heard me say.

It shouldn’t matter. I already knew he wouldn’t forgive me. And it’s probably the truth – he should know the truth.

But my heart breaks anyway when he walks past without even looking at me.

 

EBB

I don’t think I’ll miss it. I really don’t. It was always more of a burden than anything. Something I had to make excuses for when Davy’d come ‘round asking if I wanted to join the revolution. Something to feel guilty about because I know Nicky’s out there with nothing.

I never really wanted it.

Simon, though – he’s a different story. I’ve seen how he lights up every time someone casts something just for the silliness of it. He’d clap when I’d make the goat figurines dance. Or closed the curtains with a wave of my staff. I changed their colour half a dozen different times that first year because he thought it was so funny.

He loves magic. Like a Pitch. And it’s not just because he didn’t have it for so long, although that’s part of it. Simon just loves it, the way I’ll never understand. Unconditionally. For itself.

I wish I didn’t have to ask him to give any of it away – but it might make it easier for him. To be more like everyone else.

And we do need to do something. Not everyone’s magic’ll be compatible.

Simon pulls out of Davy’s grip and kneels next to me – and next to the other one. He’s trembling. Not crying, I don’t think, but close to it. But he’s not backing away. He’s always been so brave. Even when he was the age the little one is.

He fought a dragon. He came to this school, even though he was different from all the others. He stayed.

“What do I have to do?” he asks.

“You don’t have to do this,” Davy says, but I don’t think Simon’s listening to him right now. And I can’t say I blame him.

“Not much,” I tell Simon. And now I’m crying, mostly because he won’t. “Just hold out your hand.”

 

SIMON

The other me is already mostly gone. I try and take his hand and there’s nothing there – but something latches hold of me. Something latches onto my magic and pulls.

For a moment, even though I know this is what I have to do, I try and hold onto it. But then I remember. And I relax, like Baz’s always telling me to.

I let it go.

All of my magic, whatever he wants he can have. If I’ve been causing the holes, if Baz was right (and Baz is almost always right), then I don’t want it. I’d rather be a Normal. I’d rather be nothing.

And it feels good. Like I’m finally doing something right.

And I don’t have to look at the Mage (even though he’s really trying to get my attention). And I don’t have to look at Baz (who isn’t trying to talk to me at all). And that’s good, because I don’t know what to do about any of that right now.

When Penny woke me up earlier, I almost told her to leave me alone and just let me sleep. I knew if I came out here, the two of them would be right in the thick of whatever was happening (which they were).

Now, though, I’m glad I didn’t. I’m needed here.

What’s left of the Humdrum looks tired under Ebb’s arm. Just a little boy but he looks like he’s lived for a hundred years and hated all of it. I think Ebb’s right – I think this is what he wants. To just stop. I guess none of the good things that ever happened to me have happened to him. He just got all the shit.

He’s barely there now. And my fingertips are tingling. My ears are ringing. Sparks race over my skin. The Mage is trying to pull me away from him, I think, but you can’t move me when I want to do something. He’s shouting.

And then – the Humdrum’s just gone. Ebb’s arms are empty.

And I feel – light. Whole.

Like a weight’s been lifted from my shoulders. Like when I get my hair cut off before the summer. Like something I didn’t need, and never wanted, is gone and all that’s left is me.

I can hear what the Mage is shouting now.

Funnily enough, he’s not even shouting at me. He’s shouting at Ebb, waving his sword in her face.

“Do you know what you’ve done, you stupid woman? You’ve ruined him!”

“Calm down, sir,” Penny says. “You’re going to hurt someone.”

But the Mage isn’t listening.

“He was the Greatest Mage. The Power of Powers. I worked so hard–– And now what is he?”

Ebb has her arms crossed. “He’s Simon,” she says. “Same as ever. He’s only lost a bit of magic, that’s all. Not even all of it.”

Only––!” the Mage snarls. “Only that, eh, Ebb? Of course, you don’t fucking care.”

And he swings his sword, almost as though he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s just lashing out.

I don’t have time to draw my own sword. I don’t even have time to think.

I just know I have to stop him, before he hurts Ebb.

Luckily, over the past few weeks, Baz has drilled me in every kind of spell I might need for this sort of situation. I don’t have to think. My hands just move into the right alignment. I think about pulling back on reins, pitting my determination to stop against something else’s will to go, and I cast:

“Hold your horses!”

And the Mage stops.

I’m not using the sword or my wand. It’s like I don’t need them. But it doesn’t feel like the times I’ve just made things happen by wanting it.

It feels like I’m in control. Like I’m making it happen. Like magic.

Like I’m magic.

 

38 – PENELOPE

I’ve never seen Simon do anything like that before. I’ve never seen anyone do anything like that before. (Maybe Baz and Simon were training in their room last night.)

It’s not just that the spell works, it’s that it really works. The Mage doesn’t just pause. And take a step back, which is what usually happens. He’s not even stuck to the floor.

He just stops. All of him. Like a DVD on pause. (And let’s not even get started on where Simon’s sword is. I know Baz said he could re-structure it, but I can’t even see a ring on Simon’s hand. It must be tiny.)

Baz and I are staring. Both of us know this isn’t how magic is supposed to go. Ebb just laughs and flops further backward in the grass.

“Blimey,” she says. “That was a close one.”

I watch as Simon gently pulls the Mage’s wand and his sword out of his frozen hands and throws them away – off to the side. Then he steps back.

“As you were.”

The Mage comes back to life, then. He’s off balance and he’s still angry, and even though he isn’t armed any more, I step back out of his range.

“Simon, be careful!”

But the Mage is already collecting himself, getting it together again. He knows he can’t just tear us apart with his bare hands, even if he wanted to. (Does he want to? Things have really deteriorated – this is the headmaster we’re talking about. The Mage. But I know what that Visitor said. And I know he just tried to kill Ebb and probably would have if Simon hadn’t stopped him.)

He’s trying to smile, although I can see it’s difficult for him. His eyes are still glittering – and darting around, like he’s trying to work out where his wand’s gone. (I’m keeping my ring turned on him.)

“I’m sorry you had to see that, Simon.”

“Me too, sir.”

“Stay back,” Baz growls as the Mage steps forward, but it’s like the Mage doesn’t hear him. He’s focused on Simon.

“I wasn’t thinking. I was extremely disappointed and–– ”

“Really? What about, sir?” Simon says. And he’s so calm. It’s freaky.

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me,” Simon says. “’Cause I think it’s about me, isn’t it?”

The Mage looks like he’s considering his options – and like he doesn’t like any of them much. He tries another step towards the wand, but Simon shakes his head and raises his hand.

“Stand your ground!”

Simon,” the Mage says sternly. “This is–– ”

And then his eyes light up, his gaze catching on something behind me. Something that sounds like hoofbeats.

“Ah, here comes the cavalry.”

I know I shouldn’t, but I turn. (Baz doesn’t.)

It’s Simon’s teacher from the cottage, the one I only saw for a few moments. The centaur. He’s here somehow. (I guess the Mage asked him.) I’ve never seen a centaur before – they tend to keep themselves to themselves. I hadn’t really thought about it, but I think I assumed they’d all dress like the Mage. Woodsy. Actually, this one looks a bit like my dad – to the waist, anyway. He’s wearing a tweed jacket and a pair of thin-rimmed glasses on top of his head. The horse part of him is grey, like the tweed.

“Grayling,” the Mage says. “At last.”

“Hiya, Gray,” Ebb says. “Long time, no see.”

“Please don’t come any closer,” I say to the centaur.

He blinks at me. “What’s going on? David – Ebenezer?”

The Mage tries a chuckle. “Just a little misunderstanding.”

“You said you made me,” Simon says to him, like none of the rest of this is happening. Like a centaur didn’t just show up.

The Mage smiles tightly. “Figuratively. This is my school. Now, Grayling, would you mind removing Simon––?”

“No,” Simon says firmly. Then, he raises his hand into a casting pose. “Tell me the truth.The word is thick with magic now as Simon slides into the spell. “The whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

The Mage shudders. He looks like he’s in pain. He looks like he wants to run, but Simon’s earlier spell is still holding him firmly in place.

“The truth––” he says. And then he manages to close his teeth over the rest of the sentence before it gets out. I don’t think he’ll be able to resist for long, though.

“Stay back,” Baz snaps, swinging his wand round on Grayling, who’s taken a few steps forward towards the Mage.

"The truth––"

I’ve never seen this spell used before. It’s restricted. I didn’t even know Simon knew it, although Baz clearly did.

“The truth is,” the Mage says (and his voice is like a whisper). “That I’ve been – a terrible father.”

He looks agonised as he says it. And – I think – surprised. Which is nothing to how I feel.

Snakes, the Mage really is Simon’s dad.

I look round at the others – Baz looks horrified. Ebb’s mouth is open. Grayling’s eyebrows have risen to his hairline and his tail is twitching.

Only Simon doesn’t seem surprised.

“I had all these reasons,” the Mage tells him. And it's like he can't stop now. “For keeping you away. But the truth is, that I couldn’t bear to look at you after your mother died. And that – I didn’t want to let you down. To fail you the way I did her. I didn’t know she was sick. I loved her. She was the only one who believed in me. I wouldn’t have––”

The spell stops him, forces him to think again.

“No. Perhaps I would have – continued, even if I’d known,” he says. “But only have been because I thought it was worth it. To bring the Greatest Mage here. And it was. I did. Look at you,” he says. And his eyes are shining now as he looks at Simon. “Even diminished, you are so bright.”

Simon’s eyes are shining too. He’s crying, but he doesn’t interrupt. He doesn’t even wipe the tears away. Ebb’s already taken his hand, and he’s leaning on her.

I move forward and take his other hand. I don’t think I need to cover the Mage now. He’s not trying to run anymore. And the words are just pouring out of him.

“But it was never enough. I got it wrong. I’m the reason all this happened. I’m the reason magic is dying out. I was so arrogant.”

This is why the spell’s restricted. It doesn’t just stop you telling lies – it wrings the ‘whole truth’ out of you. Whatever’s relevant. But this is the first time I’ve seen someone say things that I don’t think even they knew about themselves.

I wonder – if Simon had cast this spell weeks ago (years ago?), before Baz worked out what the Humdrum was, could we have worked it all out sooner?

“I thought I was doing the right thing,” the Mage whispers. Simon’s hand is clenched tight around mine. “No one was listening. I thought – I thought – no one else cared. About the injustices of our world. About the deaths and pain of people who weren’t like them. I thought I was the only one who could change it.”

Suddenly he looks at me. His eyes are mad.

“I told your mother she’d never be on the Coven, girl. I told her. That they’d never let her. And I was right about that. They didn’t want people like her. But I asked her – I did. Once I was in charge, and she refused me.”

I didn’t even know mum wanted to be on the Coven. But I can guess why she didn’t want to join.

“She didn’t trust you. And she was right.”  

The Mage shakes his head. “She didn’t––” but he can’t say it, if it’s not true. “I thought she didn’t care. Even Mitali. A second-generation immigrant married to a man who almost failed the school’s power trials. Even Mitali – I thought.” He looks at me imploringly. “Can you see why I did it? Why I thought I had to do it? Why I thought I had to – make my son. Into the Power of Powers. Why I––”

His mouth does that thing again, where he’s clearly trying to bite back the words. Close his teeth over them. But the truth won’t let him

“Why I sent – vampires into Watford,” he says wretchedly. “Killing Natasha Grimm-Pitch.”

I thought I was past the point of surprise, but this takes the biscuit. We’ve always thought the Humdrum killed her. It’s what everyone’s said for more than a decade.

I look at Baz, whose face is as white as marble. But he keeps quiet.

Did he know? Or is he just really good at pretending?

“It was an accident,” the Mage says. He’s not talking to Baz, or me anymore. He’s talking to Simon. And he looks relieved that he’s allowed to say this, to find that it really is the truth. “She wasn’t supposed to die. None of the children were supposed to get hurt. But it made things easier. It opened the right vacancies. Apart from you, that was the worst––”

“Then I think we’ve all heard enough,” Grayling says behind me – and I jump. I’d forgotten he was here.

He steps forward, hooves thumping gently in the grass, and puts a hand on the Mage’s shoulder. I can see a plaited bracelet of horse hair around his wrist and it glows as he casts.

“David Owain Evans – I arrest you in the name of the Coven for the murder of Natasha Grimm-Pitch. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

The Mage nods tiredly as shackles form around his wrists. He looks relieved – I guess Grayling’s spell cancels out Simon’s. At least he doesn’t have to talk any more, if he doesn’t want to. But maybe it’s more than that.

Maybe he was just exhausted by everything.  

“I should, er – give you a caution,” Grayling says to Simon. “The whole truth is a restricted spell, after all. But under the circumstances – I think we can, um. Forget about it. In the meantime, would you …?”

He gestures to the Mage’s feet.

Simon nods and lets go of Ebb’s and my hands. “As you were.”

The Mage stumbles as his legs are unfrozen and, weirdly, so does Simon. I grab him again. Baz starts forward and then stops – like he’s just realised that Ebb and are I still surrounding Simon and there’s nothing for him to do. Not that I have time to feel bad for him – Simon’s clutching at his chest.

“What was that?”

“Ach, it’s just you’re at your limit,” Ebb says. She pats his shoulder. “Didn’t even have one before, did you? Must be a bit of shock. Don’t worry – I’ll make us some tea. Tastes better the Normal way, anyway.”

She strides up the hill towards her hut as Grayling leads the Mage off in the other direction, back towards the main gates. The Mage barely resists, although he does make sure to catch Simon’s eye as he passes.

“I was never disappointed in you,” he says insistently. “It was always myself.”

And then the two of them are gone, past the edge of the crest of the hill.

It’s just me and Baz and Simon and half a dozen goats, who don’t seem to have got the message that a whole bunch of really weird stuff has just happened. One of them’s nibbling at the edge of Simon’s trousers. Baz isn’t exactly looking at either of us – or the goats. He’s just standing, like he doesn’t know what to do with himself. Simon isn’t looking at him either.

I still don’t know what happened between these two – Simon wouldn’t tell me when I found him, and we did have bigger things to worry about. Yesterday, they were practically drunk on each other, I could hardly breathe for hormones. Now it’s like they’re strangers.And while I could bang their heads together, I think this is something they have to work out for themselves.

That means we might be here for a while. Particularly given all the other nonsense they’re both dealing with.

I mean – Simon just found out he’s not an orphan. And who his dad his. And that his dad killed Baz’s mum. It’s a lot, even without all the rest of the history. He didn't even react when the Mage said his final bit about not being disappointed. 

“I think he meant it,” I say. “The Mage.”

And I do. I’m just not sure how much it matters. (It didn’t change anything he did.) I think it might matter to Simon, though. 

But Simon just shrugs. He runs one of his sleeves over his eyes like he’s only just noticed they’re wet and kneels down to the level of the goat. It looks up at him with big trusting eyes as Simon runs a hand over its head. Presses his face into its fur.

“It really does have soft ears,” he murmurs.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Baz make a decision at last. Although – as usual – it’s the wrong one.

He turns and it looks like he’s about to walk away, but I guess Simon’s seen him too. And unfortunately (fortunately?) for Baz, Simon’s not the sort to walk away from a fight.

“Hey,” he shouts after Baz, pushing himself back to his feet. “Where do you think you’re going?”

Baz turns. He looks like he thinks Simon’s going to punch him. He’s already flinching as Simon strides towards him over the grass, past the goats, and when he answers his voice is raw.

“I’m not entirely––”

“Shut up. You spelled me,” Simon says accusingly. (I guess that’s what happened.) Baz’s eyebrows come down and his jaw tightens. “You broke the Anathema.”

Stevie Nicks. Baz is expelled? That can’t be right. He can’t be – Simon must have got it wrong. But Baz nods.

“To keep me away from him.”

Baz nods again, although he’s still not making eye contact. “I’m sorry,” he whispers.

“I can fight my own battles, you know,” Simon says. “I’m not completely incompetent.”

“That’s not–– ” Baz says. Then he shakes his head and just takes Simon’s hand. Presses it to his chest.

“Ask me,” he says – his voice is wrecked. He’s looking at Simon now, his eyes wild. “Ask me why I did it. Any of it. Ask me about the texts. I know you don’t believe me, but use the spell. Please. Like you did with him. Please. Simon––”  

“I don’t need to,” Simon says.

“Yes, you do,” Baz insists. And he’s almost crying now – I’ve never seen Baz cry before. “Please,” he says. “The whole truth and nothing but––”

“Baz. He’s not a Star Wars fan.”

Baz looks confused. I’m confused too. (I’m also wondering if I should leave.)

“I don’t understand.”

“The person who sent me all those texts is a Star Wars fan,” Simon explains. “The Mage isn’t. He didn’t say – Simon, I am your father. Did he? He just––” And then his face crumples.  “He just––”

And now he really is crying. Big, wet, gulps for air that heave through his shoulders. Simon’s hand on Baz’s chest clenches and Baz pulls him into his arms. Simon lets him.

He hugs Baz close as he cries into his shoulder.  

“I’m so sorry,” Baz whispers. “About everything.”

“Why didn’t you tell me it was you?” Simon says, his voice muffled by tears and Baz’s shirt.

Baz stops stroking Simon's hair. I can see him think about giving some bullshit excuse, but he thinks better of it just in time. 

“Obviously I thought I’d lose you."

Simon tilts his head up. “You’re such an idiot,” he says, although he’s smiling now.

This is probably the part where they start kissing.

Which means it’s definitely the part where I leave.

I turn around – and see Ebb standing in the doorway of her hut, watching whatever the boys are doing now.

She’s crying too. Crying and smiling, just like Simon. I guess it’s been a hard day for her too, although I think she could just be crying because Simon’s happy. Or because Baz is.

Or just because she’s Ebb.

She wipes her eyes with the edge of her jumper and jerks her head into the hut.  

“Come on in,” she says to me. “Tea’s made.”

Chapter Text

SIMON

Penny’s dad thinks the magic will come back to the dead spots eventually. He’s shown me studies on restoration ecology. And I’ve gone with him a few times to take a look at them, although nothing’s changed yet.

I’m sitting in one of them right now. A hole I caused by sucking magic out of the air, by going off.

“You didn’t cause the holes,” Penny says, whenever she thinks I’m getting too bummed out about it all. “Your dad made them when he decided to make you into the messiah.”

“Don’t call him that,” I always say - and she always sighs.

“You have to get used to it sometime, Simon.”

I think it does help. To be reminded that it’s not my fault I exist. (Not the other thing.) Penny also points out that I stopped letting myself go off as soon as I knew it was connected to the Humdrum. Which is true, even if I only did it because Baz told me to.

I do still feel responsible, though.

Whether or not I meant to do it, or knew what I was doing, I am the reason there are all these holes all over the country. Newcastle. Leicester. Harrogate. Down by the coast. Loads of places I’ve never even been before. Some I have.

I find myself looking around whenever I’m in one. Trying to work out what connects them. What it was that made me fuck up all these places. Penny’s dad has some theories (so does Penny), but none of them sound right to me. I think they could have been anywhere. They didn’t do anything wrong. They were just there. And I hurt them for no reason.

The first time we went to see the holes with Penny’s dad, I tried to push my magic back into the ground, like Ebb and I did with the Humdrum. I don’t need the Sword of Mages anymore (Baz thinks it’s because the Sword was always a part of me. “Much like you and the Humdrum, I made the connection but didn’t take it far enough. You never really needed it – except to stab people, and to sexually frustrate me”) so I just dug my fingernails into the grass.

I thought – I hoped – maybe I could speed up the healing process somehow. Like maybe if I could give the rest of my magic away, I’d be able to put the world back how it was supposed to be.

But I lose my magic the same as everyone else does when I’m inside the dead spots. And I’ve tried pushing my magic in from the outside of the hole – I’ve even cast “Get well soon”.

It doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t help.

“It’ll take time,” Ebb says. “It always does, to heal.”

Ebb still lives on the Watford grounds, even though she’s not a magician any more – although she did have to get someone come in and fix the plumbing properly. I was worried that I’d have argue with whoever the new headmaster was about it – and about Baz’s expulsion. And I wasn’t sure anyone would listen to me, since I was the one who’d been stealing everyone’s magic, so I was getting quite anxious about it.

But then the Coven appointed Penny’s mum.

She sorted out what happened to Baz almost immediately – and the Ebb thing never even came up. I guess someone needs to look after the goats and they do keep the weeds down. They’re dead useful.

I’ve thought about bringing the Mage a goat before.

(I know he’s not the Mage anymore, but I don’t know what else to call him in my head. His name’s David, but I can’t call him that. It’d feel too weird.) (And I’m definitely not calling him anything else.)

Right now, I’m sitting on the ground, watching him tug dandelions out between paving stones on the patio outside the house in Wales. There’s a pile of them between us, dirt still clinging to the roots. It’s almost Easter and I guess they’ve all gone crazy with the heat.

There’s still no magic anywhere round this house for about a mile. (That’s why the Coven thought it would be a good place to keep him locked up. There are wards, too, around the outside, but mostly the dead spot itself is enough of a prison. Someone I’ve never met before – also called Simon – from the Coven is sitting in the kitchen drinking tea and keeping an eye on things out the window, but he’s only here because of me. Usually they let the Mage pretty much look after himself.)

The complete lack of magic means the Mage has to do stuff like weeding by hand – a goat would probably be a big help.

Plus, it’d be company for him.

Although I think might likes being alone. Or at least, he doesn’t ever seem that happy that I’m here. Which I think means maybe I should stop coming, but I can’t just leave him. Even if it is what he did to me. I mean, he did come and find me eventually.

The problem is – we don’t really have much to say to each other. Now I’m not the Greatest Mage, and he’s not trying to work out how to win a war. I thought I knew how to talk to him, that I was working it out – but now I know I was just talking to Baz.

It was easy talking to Baz.

There are things I want to ask the Mage. About his life. About my mum. But it just feels really awkward. And it’s not like he’s ever volunteered any of it.

I don’t know even know what he likes doing when he’s not being the Mage. I mean, judging by the evidence, maybe he likes gardening, but maybe he just doesn’t have anything else to do – the Coven did take most of the books he had back to the library.

“Don’t take it personally,” Baz told me yesterday when I was stressing out about this visit. “I don’t know how to speak to my father either. In fact, I prefer not to. And he isn’t even a homicidal maniac.”

“You’re not helping,” I told him.

“Well, I don’t actually think you should go, do I?”

So far, this time, I’ve been here an hour. The Mage has asked me how I’m doing at school (“Fine,” I said) and whether I'm still with Baz. (“I don’t really want to talk about him with you,” I said, which he seemed to accept – although obviously I am still with Baz. We’ve been together almost four months now. We’ve had sex. I’ve had sex with a boy. With Baz. And it was – Well. Basically, I still find the whole thing as weird and amazing as I did on the first day I kissed him and this was like that but even weirder and more amazing.) (I definitely don’t want to tell the Mage any of that. I wouldn’t, even if he wasn’t my dad.)

Then, I asked the Mage what he’d been getting up (“This and that,” he said. “Keeping myself busy.") (Not exactly informative) and whether he’s been watching the football (he hasn’t – even though I brought him a telly last time I was here, so he could.)

And now we’re back to sitting in silence.

It’s really awkward.

I dunno, maybe Baz is right. Maybe I should stop visiting.

It’s not like I need a relationship with the Mage. I’ve been fine without knowing who my parents are for eighteen years, and things are good now. I’ve got Baz – and I’ve got Penny and Miss Possibelf and Agatha and Doctor Wellbelove. I’ve got a family, even if it’s not the one I thought I’d have when I was eleven. I’ve got more than I ever thought I could have.

I don’t need him.

But if he is my dad (and I guess he must be), I feel like I should probably try.

I don’t think I owe him anything, but I probably do owe it to myself – to the kid who wanted his dad to be a famous footballer. I mean, my dad turned out to be a wizard. A wizard who wanted to change the world, even if he went about it the wrong way.

I think the eleven-year-old me would’ve thought that was pretty cool.

And I don’t think he’d give up this easily.

The Mage is levering one of the paving slabs up with a trowel to get at the weeds underneath it. It looks a bit like he’s struggling.

“Can I help?” I ask.

The Mage looks up at me, wiping his forehead with the back of his wrist as he does so. Somehow, even though he’s been digging in the garden a few hours, he’s still spotless. (I still don’t know how he does it, but it’s clearly not magic.) (No wonder I never worked out we were related. I’d be completely covered in mud by now.)

It’s a familiar look. I know he’s weighing me up. Working out whether I know what I’m doing. Whether it will be a problem if I don’t. (I really don’t. I’d never even seen a garden until I came to Watford – only public parks and not many of those. I take Botany at Watford, but it’s more about what you can do with plants once they’re dead than anything.)

“If you like,” he says eventually. “There are extra gloves over by the outhouse – and you can bring back the spade, if you’re going.”

Once I bring the stuff back, he shows me what to do (I get the trowel, he keeps the spade) and then we’re back to silence again. Although at least I’ve got something to do with my hands, this time.

After a while I notice the Mage has stopped working. He’s just watching me again.

“What?” I say. “What is it? Am I doing it wrong?”

I don’t see how I could be, but then I also don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.

The Mage shakes his head. “It’s just – you look so much like your mother right now.”

I try and look like this isn’t a big deal. The fact that he’s talking about my mum. That he’s talking about me. I don’t want to freak him out by freaking out. So, I don’t say anything.

“She liked gardening,” the Mage explains. “She liked doing things by hand. She kept chickens over there.” He points out in the direction of the forest. “Spelled not to wander away, of course. But she cleaned them out herself. Fed them.”

“Right,” I say.

I’m trying to keep calm, play it cool, but my brain is shouting – My mum kept chickens!

I pull a few more dandelions out of the patio. And then I figure, I might as well go for it. Since we’re already at this point. Since we’re already talking about her.

“What was she like?”

The Mage frowns and turns away. For a moment I think he’s not going to answer me. Just pretend he didn’t hear, which is OK. I know it’s difficult for him. But then he says,

“Kind. Patient. A bit silly – she could make almost anything into a joke.” I see him smile. “She used to make me laugh. Which was rare, even then.”

“She sounds good,” I say.

And then neither of us talk again for a while. But it feels better this time. Like we’re both quiet because we’re thinking, and not just because we have nothing to say.

After a while, my phone buzzes in my pocket. (Magic doesn’t work in dead spots, but fortunately technology still does.) I pull it out and grin as I see it’s a string of texts from Baz.

- Has he murdered you yet? Please say yes. I’ve been looking for an excuse to go on another vengeance quest.
- Naturally, I’d miss you, but sacrifices have to be made.
- Obviously, I didn’t mean that. If you’ve been murdered, I will probably never forgive myself. Let me know immediately if anything’s wrong.

Apparently, Penny guessed immediately – that the texts I got from the Mage were actually from Baz.

I don’t see how I could have done. OK, so some stuff he said didn’t exactly fit with what I knew about the Mage, but I thought that was us getting to know each other. I thought I was learning more about him.

Now I know I was actually learning about Baz, it makes a lot more sense.

Looking back, all the texts I got (including these) are very Baz. Or at least, the Baz I know now.

Smart. And funny. A really amazing teacher. Really good at football.

A total asshole. (Even though we’re going out now, he still likes to insult me, although at least I know he feels bad about it now.)

Completely supportive.

Completely obsessed with me, the same way I am with him.

I wipe my muddy gloves on my jeans and write back:

- Is this your way of saying you’re back from McDs?

The dots at the bottom of the screen flicker as Baz types back.

- I am.
- Are you ready to leave?

I imagine him leaning against his car, just outside the dead spot, while he’s typing. McDonalds bag at his feet (he got that for me) (he’s only here because of me – he didn’t have to come to Wales on a Sunday). Sunglasses pushed up into his hair so he can see the phone screen. Cigarette between his lips.

Classic catalogue model shot.

My beautiful, thoughtful, asshole boyfriend. The bloke I get to go home with.

And I’m definitely ready to go home now. Back to Watford.

- Just give me a second

“Time to go?” the Mage says as I get to my feet.

“Yeah,” I say. “Baz’s driving me.”

“Fine,” the Mage says.

He stands too (no excuse for informality, even when you’re a criminal under house arrest in a non-magical bubble). “You know,” he says, as I strip off the gardening gloves, “I think I have some VHSes, home videos Lucy made. Somewhere in the house. I’ll find them before you come back next time. If you’d like to see them.”

I almost hug him – but I don’t think the Mage and I are there yet. I’m not even sure I’d want us to be.

But it’s a start.

It feels like we can go somewhere from here.

“Yeah,” I tell him. “I’d like that.”

 

BAZ

Fiona is obsessed with my mother’s office. So, of course, she started crying when I told her I’ve got it – even though the only reason I have it is a technicality about who can and can’t get in there.

My mother set the wards to welcome me and my immediate family; the Mage only set them to allow Simon, and his Men. And nobody thought to ask him to make any changes before they hustled him off to Wales. So, when Headmistress Bunce offered me a job on the faculty, she also said I could take the headmaster’s office and the personal rooms in the Weeping Tower. Apparently, she doesn’t want to live on campus, which means it’s not worth her time to try and break in there. Not when she has so many other things to do.

I can see the logic. And it’s what I’ve always wanted – to have my mother’s rooms back in our family. To continue her legacy. 

But even though I was already re-arranging the office furniture in my head, what I actually said when Professor Bunce made this generous offer was:

“I really don’t mind staying in my old room in Mummer’s House.”

Because my mother’s office isn’t the only thing I’ve always wanted.

Unfortunately, unlike the previous headmaster, Headmistress Bunce has some actual pedagogical training. She also has moral standards. I think she thought I was testing her.

“Obviously it would be completely inappropriate for a teacher and a student to share a room.”

I was forced to admit that I agreed. In principle.

I did not tell her I was dating Simon – although I suspect she knows. Penelope will have told her, if it isn’t already blindingly obvious. But I do actually want to stay at Watford, so I didn’t want to push it. Headmistress Bunce has made it clear she wasn’t going to overrule my expulsion. That means staying as a teacher is the best option available. At least until Simon graduates. At that point, we can both reconsider our options.

He doesn’t have a plan for what happens next (obviously). I don’t think he expected to survive.

I did have a plan.

I thought I’d study Economics. (I have a place at LSE already.)

I thought I’d move into banking.

I thought I’d gather funding and power and then – when the time was right – I thought I’d strike out at the Mage. Take his place and then spend the rest of my life trying to get over Simon Snow. Watching from a distance as he got married to someone else, had children with someone else, and eventually forgot I even existed.

I didn’t expect there might be a future where I wouldn’t finish Watford – assuming I made it out of the war alive.

But then I never expected any of this.

I never expected I’d get to choose Simon.

I never expected Simon would choose me.

I teach Elocution now.

Apparently, Madam Bellamy has been thinking about retiring all year. Her husband visited her while the Veil was open and she hasn’t been the same since. When I inherited her notes, I discovered she hasn’t written an actual lesson plan in months. Which explains why I spent the first term of my final year at Watford practicing free-form spell casting against my idiot peer group. I assumed this was yet more proof that eighth year was a waste of everyone’s time, but it turns out that the curriculum is usually more challenging – it’s just Madam Bellamy wasn’t in in any fit state to work out what to do with it, and the Mage either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

Headmistress Bunce, on the other hand, noticed immediately. She’s as sharp as her daughter. Before I’d even approached her about my expulsion, she’d worked the whole thing out. Madam Bellamy would retire during the Christmas break, which meant that someone else would have to take over. I was available – and Bunce Junior must have suggested me.

It’s hard.

Much harder than anything I’ve ever done.

I have no formal training, although Miss Possibelf coaches me during the evenings and the headmistress sits in on most of my lessons. (She’s also got me a place on a part-time PGCE at her former university next year, if I want it). I have no idea what I’m doing. Which I’m fairly sure is obvious to everyone.

Teaching the eighth years – my former classmates – is an absolute fucking car crash almost every time.

As their peer, I was someone to be afraid of (I assume). Someone who was ruthless and far ahead of almost everyone else in the class. Someone not to be trifled with.

As their teacher, though, I’m callow. Inexperienced. A joke none of them quite get.

The first time the headmistress left me alone with them, I thought there was going to be a riot. No one was paying attention, not even Penelope. The only person who was even looking in my direction was Simon. Which made me feel even worse, because he clearly felt bad for me. It was embarrassing.

Just as I was about to walk out (of the classroom; probably not out of the school), he turned and yelled at everyone.

“Oi – shut the fuck up!”

It didn’t work, obviously. They laughed. But it was enough of a prompt to snap me out of my shame spiral, and I cast, “Cat got your tongue” on the lot of them.

“I’m not sure that was technically allowed,” I told my silent class. “But I haven’t done the training and I don’t actually need this job, so I don’t care if I get fired. I suggest you bear that in mind next time you consider stepping out of line. Now – did anyone manage to counter that spell before it hit?”

Bunce’s hand went up (of course). As did Simon’s.  But I’m still not sure how to treat him in my classroom (I can’t treat him the same as everyone else. He isn’t anything like the same), so I asked her.

“How?”

“U Can’t Touch This. I cast it ages ago when I noticed your eye start twitching.”

Not a bad answer, but probably not one to rely on. Shield charms take significant magic. Casting them pre-emptively is only a good idea if you’re certain you’re going to be attacked. Bunce knows this. (Which means she must have been fairly sure I was at my wits’ end and didn’t do anything about it.) 

So, I let myself look at Simon.

“You had your wand straight out,” he explained, as though it was obvious. “Then you dragged it back. That’s – Cat got your tongue, so I cast Freedom of Speech.” 

I raised my eyebrow and he grinned back at me.

I don’t even remember teaching him that.

“That’s right,” I said lightly.

And then I cast the release spell over the others, and somehow got through the rest of the class without kissing him.

It’s a struggle every time, though. Every class I have with Simon. He’s just so good, now – it’s as if it everything finally comes naturally to him. And he’s clearly delighted that he gets it. And he’s always smiling at me – sometimes fairly lewd smiles (I think he likes it when I wear a suit. So obviously I wear one every day.) Frankly, it’s no wonder I find it difficult to keep control of the class; I can barely control myself.

The other years are much easier, though. And not only because Simon isn’t there – or because I’m actually older than the students (if not by much). It’s easier because I’m familiar with the material they’re covering. I remember what it was that helped me connect with it. And I think I’m good at explaining that.

I don’t think I’m a good teacher yet. But I think I could be.

Eventually.

I think it might be what I’m supposed to do.

Right now, I’m writing a lesson plan for my first years. (Elocution is fortunately a subject without much written homework, so at least I don’t have to spend my free evenings marking terrible essays.) I’m sitting under my mother’s portrait, working at her desk – and then I hear someone step out of the lift.

I don’t have to look up to know who it is (I can smell him – bacon and cinnamon) (plus, there are only a few people who can get in here), but I do anyway, because I like to look at him.

Simon’s taken to wearing the clothes I chose for him whenever he’s not actually in class. Snug jeans. And a t-shirt that emphasises the shape of his arms.

I shut my laptop as he comes to sit on the edge of the desk.

“Good class today,” he says. “I liked the way you wore your hair up but still had it falling around your face.”

I roll my eyes (although I’m also pleased that he thought I looked good). “Did you learn anything?”

“I learned I liked it when you wore your hair up,” Simon suggests, although he’s grinning.

I lean up and kiss him to stop him talking. And because I want to. Open mouthed and hungry. I lick at Simon’s tongue in my mouth. And then I push myself up and out of the chair, and push Simon down onto the desk. I don’t give a shit about whatever it was I tried to teach Simon’s class this morning. Or my first-year lesson plan. Not right now.

Everything is Simon. Simon underneath me, breathing hard as I try and unfasten the flies on the too-tight jeans I bought him. We’ve only had sex a few times – not all of them fabulous successes – but I think I’m getting the hang of it now. I think that if I manage to get my hand inside his trousers, I can have him coming apart underneath me fairly quickly, but Simon pushes me away just as I’ve finished worked the button open.

“Baz – stop. I can’t shag you in here. Your mother’s watching.”

He looks scandalised. And awkward. And he’s pointing up at the portrait behind the desk. I have to press my face into his shoulder to stop myself laughing.

Simon smacks me. (Not hard.) “I’m serious, you git.”

“I know.” I try and calm down enough to respond. “Technically, since she’s dead, she could be watching whatever we do. Whenever. And we’d never know.”

“Well, at least in the bedroom, I don’t have to think about it,” Simon says. “Plus, there’s a bed.”

It’s a good point well made, and I let him tug me out in the corridor and then into the living area and the bedroom. (Once we’re inside, Simon takes off his own jeans.)

My mother definitely isn’t watching – I was lying earlier. (And thank Crowley for that. I did things tonight to Simon Snow that nobody’s mother needs to see, let alone mine.)

I know she’s gone. That’s she’s moved on. I did what she wanted. I protected the people I love – the person I love the most. I taught him to protect himself. And because he’s brilliant and powerful, he exposed the whole wretched business around her death and I didn’t need to do anything.

She doesn’t need to linger anymore.

But I think if she was here, she’d be proud of me. Even though I’m queer – and a vampire. Even though I didn’t finish my final year and I’m in love with the Mage’s Heir.

Or maybe because of it. Somehow, I made it all work. Whatever life threw at me.

Somehow, I still got the happy ending I never expected.

Somehow, I’m actually happy.