Sometimes I think I have nothing to worry about.
I’m going to pass my exams. Become Mage. Save the world – or the country at least. Marry Baz. (Eventually. For now, we can just shag each other’s brains out, and kiss and stuff.) Live happily ever after – or as close as we can get, anyway.
But the closer the exams get, the more I start to panic.
Because I might fail. I really might. It could happen. Even though I actually feel pretty good about Magic Words, Elocution and Political Science. The problem is everything else.
“What if I fail?” I ask Penny as we’re watching television together. (Penny’s watching it – I’m trying to decipher my Magickal History notes.)
“That’s not very likely. Almost nobody fails eighth year."
“Yeah, but what if I do? I can do loads of things most people can’t.”
“Then you try again, Simon,” Penny says. “I’m sure my mum would let you.”
I know she’s trying to be comforting, but the idea of being twenty-six and still at school is probably the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard. I have to take myself off to my room to revise, which just feels wrong. I’ve never studied while Penny’s been relaxing. Never. Not once in fifteen years.
I don’t tell Baz how worried I am – he’d just tell me I’ll be fine – but I’m sure he knows anyway. He watches me almost as much as I watch him. He’ll have noticed that I spend every lunchtime in the library now, even when he isn’t there. And that I have the Latin names for several plants written on the back of my hand most days, to try and help me remember them. (It’s not working.)
I think he’s worried about upsetting me. That’s why he doesn’t mention it.
On Saturday morning, though – a week before the exams start – I wake up to the sound of someone ringing my doorbell. Repeatedly.
At first, I think it must be a package. (Sometimes the Coven gets deliveries sent to me, rather than to headquarters, if they know I’m going to be home. And there’s been some weird things. Things I can tell the postman wants to get rid of as soon as possible.) Then the bell somehow gets even louder – and more annoying – and I realise it must be a magician. An impatient one. Not that that narrows it down much.
“Simon!” Penny shouts from inside her room. “Make it stop!”
“All right, I’m getting it.”
I open the door – in yesterday’s pants and a t-shirt I found on the floor – to find Fiona Pitch on my doorstep.
“About fucking time,” she says, pushing past me into the flat. Like she’s got every right to be here. “If the place was on fire, you’d have burned to death.”
I rub my eyes. I’m not awake enough for this.
“Is that a threat?”
Fiona scoffs. “Pitches don’t make threats. We act.”
“Baz has threatened me tonnes of times,” I point out.
“That’s because he’s always been soft on you,” Fiona says sniffily – which makes me happy, even though I already know Baz is soft on me.
What doesn’t make me happy is Fiona taking a seat at my kitchen table. She starts taking things out of her bag. Folders. Notebooks. Two boxes of cigarettes.
I’m actually getting increasingly worried she’s going to be here all day. I don’t even know why. (Although I suppose it’s good the answer doesn’t seem to be: arson. Penny and I don’t even own the place – we just rent.)
“Sorry, what are you doing here?” I ask her.
“Your boyfriend asked me to help you revise for Botany,” Fiona says. “So put some bloody trousers on. Make me some tea. And we’ll get started.”
“Baz isn’t my boyfriend,” I say, even though it’s not even slightly the weirdest thing she’s said. I just feel like Baz would want me to correct his aunt on this.
“Calm down, Snow,” Fiona says. “I’m not going to murder you for dating my nephew.”
“Fuck a nine-toed troll,” Penny shrieks – having arrived at the absolute worst moment, of course. “Simon! You’re going out with Baz?”
“I’m not.” My face is on fire. “I’m not going out with him. Yet.”
That yet is the reason I haven’t already told Penelope about kissing Baz. And wanting to kiss him. I didn’t think he’d want anyone else to know. I definitely didn’t think he’d tell his whole family, although it does explain why Malcolm asked me what I was doing for Christmas last time we spoke. I thought that was weird.
“What do you mean yet?” Penny says. “And I can’t believe you didn’t tell me!”
Her boyfriend, Sam, staggers up behind her, sleepily. “Why’s everyone shouting?”
“Simon’s going out with his worst enemy!” Penny explains.
“No, I’m not.”
Penny waves her hand dismissively. “Former worst enemy, then.”
“Cool,” Sam says. “Congratulations, mate. Glad it worked out.”
“Isn’t anyone going to get me some tea?” Fiona says pointedly.
“Look. Baz and I agreed we couldn’t be in a relationship until I’d finished school,” I explain to Penelope. “So, we’re actually still just friends right now.”
“But you finish school in a week, Simon!”
I feel myself grinning. “Yeah.”
“Nicks and Slicks, I’ve got to tell Agatha,” Penelope says. She rushes away to get her phone. Sam gives me another thumbs up and follows, leaving me with Fiona.
“Tea,” she says again. “And trousers. Or I’m leaving.”
“You know, technically, I’ll be your boss from next week,” I say as I put the kettle on.
“Only if you pass Botany.”
Once I’ve made Fiona her tea – twice, the first cup was too pale, apparently – I go back to my room to put some clothes on and phone Baz.
It takes him a while to answer. When he does, his voice is thick and slurred with sleep, only slightly sharpened by anxiety at my early call.
“Simon? Is something wrong?”
It’s easy to imagine what he looks like right now. Soft and tousled in his fancy pyjamas. All his defences down. I wish I could see him – but I know Baz wouldn’t accept a video call right now. (Too vain.) I wish I could touch him. Be there with him instead of across the other side of the city. I want to wake up with him. It’s why I called, so I could pretend.
(And because Baz sent Fiona to wake me up – on a Saturday – and it only seems fair.)
“Your aunt’s here,” I tell him.
“Disaster, then,” Baz says, sounding amused now.
“She seems to think I’m your boyfriend.”
“I hope you told her she was mistaken.”
“I did. She didn’t believe me.”
“Pitches are like that,” Baz says. “We don’t trust easily.”
I can hear him smiling down the phone. I want to kiss the creases left on his face by his pillow. Lick into his mouth, even if he hasn’t brushed his teeth, and tumble him back into bed.
(Just a few more weeks. A few exams. I can do it.)
“I’m looking forward to it,” I tell him. “Being your boyfriend.”
“Good to know,” Baz says. “As it happens, I’m also looking forward to that.” (It’s not a surprise, but I love hearing him say it.) (Not only because his voice gets a bit breathy.) “Now you should probably get back to my aunt before she sets the house on fire.”
“She promised she wouldn’t,” I say, but I do let him go.
I spend the weekend studying with Fiona. It’s a complete nightmare, although I do learn a lot. (When Penny’s not quizzing her about the magickal properties of sage, anyway. Then I mostly just learn about sage.) She tells me she’ll come back next weekend, too, unless she’s satisfied that I’m not going to embarrass her. Fear helps the facts stick.
The final week before the exams passes so quickly I barely notice.
I spend the final weekend cramming Magickal History with Penny, and when I drive back to Watford on Monday, I feel like I have a good chance.
To pass. To become Mage. To be with Baz. To get the ending I want.
Baz is invigilating my first exam, which isn’t a surprise since it’s Political Science. He’s wearing a dark blue suit. Probably trying not to be distracting. (Basically impossible, but it’s nice of him to try.)
I sit down at the desk marked ‘Snow.’ We’re in the dining hall with all the tables removed and desks set at least two metres apart from each other. Keira is sitting directly in front of me and Yasmin a few seats behind both of us.
“You have 90 minutes,” Baz says from the front of the room. “Starting from … now.”
I open the exam paper and read the first question:
It is currently compulsory to vote in a quarter of the world’s democracies, including Australia, the English Channel, and the Draconic Alliance. Despite the popularity of this methodology, the World of Mages has yet to introduce a similar system. Using your own knowledge, explain why this might be the case and whether you think we should change.
I glance up at Baz as he passes my desk. He winks at me. (It’s definitely not teacher-student appropriate.)
I grin back and start writing.
Simon finishes eighth in his year. Out of fifty-two. Easily in the top half.
I find out several hours before he does, because I cheated and looked at the exam results before we sent them out by bird. I have to stop myself from immediately texting Fiona about his A in Botany, or calling Simon until he knows about it himself.
It’s worth it when he does call. I’m the first person he’s told. He called me even before Bunce and she actually doesn’t know what mark he got.
He’s elated. He tells me he couldn’t have done it without me – I tell him that’s rot, but that I’m glad I could help. I tell him how proud I am of him. I tell him I want him, because I can do that now. He tells me he’s in love with me. Somehow, I manage not to cry. (Because I’m a grown man.) (And I already knew it, it’s not a surprise.) I tell him I’ve always been in love with him.
We talk about whether he should drive to Watford immediately. (So that we can start frantically groping each other as soon as possible.) Unfortunately, it’s not really practical.
Simon is about to be invested as Mage and that takes time to organise. He has to go to meetings with nearly everyone, apparently. If he came to see me, he’d have to leave after an hour. While there’s a lot we could do in an hour, I feel like I’ve waited long enough already that the first time Simon and I have sex should be something slightly more momentous that a brief fumble. He’s also catching up on everything that’s happened since the exams.
Meanwhile, I still have classes to prepare for and teach – since only the eighth years have flown the nest – so it’s not like I can go to see him, either. Besides, I received an email yesterday saying I’d been accepted onto the Coven. (I didn’t ring Simon to tell him about that, since I know it came from him.) This morning my inbox was full of submission papers about mermaids. I haven’t read any of them yet.
“We’ll just have to wait for the leaver’s ceremony,” I tell Simon.
I can last that long. It’s Wednesday and the leaver’s ceremony is on Saturday – that’s just three more days. Less, really. And there’s something pleasing about waiting until the moment the magic binding Simon to the school officially breaks. The moment he unofficially becomes Mage instead, as the constitution is fulfilled.
“You just think it will be more dramatic to wait,” Simon says fondly.
“Don’t pretend you know me.”
“I do know you, and I love you.”
“Well, I love you too.”
“I’m going to call Penny now, all right?”
I tell him that’s all right. I know he’ll call me right back afterwards.
Two days passes swiftly enough. (Especially once I cast Time flies to help it along.) On Saturday I dress in one of my favourite suits – Savile Row tailoring, Liberty’s ‘Ianthe’ print – and make my way to the White Chapel.
It’s busier than usual – because of Simon – but there are still plenty of seats.
Penelope Bunce is sitting in the front row. I think about going to sit next to her, but we haven’t actually spoken since I started teaching Simon. I think I would like to be friends with her eventually, but this probably isn’t the time. I also avoid my father and Daphne, a few rows behind her. Fiona. Nicodemus Petty. Gareth Smith, who was at school with Simon and me. (He must be here to see his sister.) Instead, I sit at the back next to the other teachers.
To nobody’s surprise, Yasmin Walker took the top spot. That means she’s the one to make the end of year speech. It’s clever and funny. Touching, although it lacks the resonance that mine had. (Not that I’m competing with a nineteen-year old. That would be pathetic. It’s only that she doesn’t have the experience of losing her mother and living through a war. She’s lucky, even if her rhetoric suffers for it.)
She finishes to considerable applause and steps aside to let Simon take over the podium. He’s wearing the Mage’s ceremonial cowl – hood down – and cape, over a suit I had made and couriered to him. He looks nervous (because he hates speaking in public) and almost unbearably handsome.
“This isn’t usual,” he tells everyone. “There’s usually only one speech from a student. But Yaz said I could talk too for a bit, because. You know.”
Everyone does know – it’s why most of them are here. Simon clears his throat awkwardly.
“Maybe this will make up for how I was invited to talk last year, and didn’t turn up.”
I haven’t read his speech before. I did offer, but Simon told me that wasn’t necessary. As I listen to him talking now, I realise that he probably had another motive in not sharing it.
The speech is about patience and second chances. It’s about the things that happened in the last year, what coming back to Watford meant to Simon Snow. And it’s a manifesto for the kind of Mage he wants to be. The kind of person who doesn’t act on prejudice without knowing the facts, who is brave enough to ask questions.
It’s also – very obviously – a love letter. To me. That he’s reading out in front of hundreds of people, including my father. Penelope Bunce keeps turning in her chair to look at me. So does Fiona. (I pretend not to notice either of them.)
He finishes by drawing the Sword of Mages, because “whoever came up with the incantation said what I want to better than I ever could.”
I’ll have to tell him later he was wrong about that. His own words were exactly right, although the spell isn't bad, either.
“In justice. In courage. In defence of the weak. In the face of the mighty. Through magic and wisdom and good.”
The sword sings into existence in Simon’s hand. Sparkling in the light filtering through the stained glass.
“Thanks for choosing me,” Simon tells the assembled crowd – and me. He’s always speaking to me. “I’ll try not to fuck it up.”
Some people laugh. Others clap. I try not to swoon too obviously in my chair. Simon sheathes the sword and retires from the stage, for now. Mitali Bunce thanks everyone for coming, and the students for their hard work. The school song plays.
I get to my feet along with everyone else. Several parents try to speak to me, but I excuse myself every time. I have somewhere else to be. Someone else to be with.
And suddenly, there he is.
“Congratulations, sir,” I say as Simon Snow walks purposefully towards me through the crowd. “You must be very proud.”
He shakes his head. “I’ve changed my mind.”
My undead heart lurches.
“I don’t want you to call me sir, I want you to call me Simon,” he says. (He’s laughing.) “Although your face was a fucking picture. I’m not dumping you. Didn’t you hear my speech?”
“Simon,” I say, frustrated – and then I realise that I have nothing to say that’s more important than kissing him and there’s nothing to stop me doing it.
So, I do.
I take his face between my hands and kiss him. He kisses me back. We’re kissing each other, Aleister Crowley, in front of everyone. Then Simon’s arms are around my waist and he pulls me into the air, swinging me round in a delighted circle. Making even more of a spectacle of our happiness.
I love it. I love him. I make him put me down.
He does. He takes my hand.
“Come on,” he tells me. “Let’s go back to our room.”