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Aftermath

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Jamie woke in the small darkness before dawn with his face pressed into Seb’s armpit and his heart as frantic as a hummingbird trapped behind his ribs. This happened sometimes, waking with terror and loss locking his throat tight. Or with his skin prickling, aching for the surge of silvery magic thrilling through his veins. Jamie supposed that was ok, that it was normal - and at least it didn’t happen as often as it could’ve, given that in the past year Jamie had been marked for death, acquired a demon as a best friend, had more knives thrown at his head than he had fingers, watched his mother die in front of him, lived with a group of people who were just like him and nothing like him at the same time, had magic run through him like a river, a torrent, an undeniable and inescapable flood, cut off his own hand, and handed the man he had loved and didn’t love anymore over to a demon as a trade to change all the established rules of his new world.

Given all that, it seemed fair enough that sometimes - just sometimes - Jamie woke up in the middle of the night and felt like there were ghosts beneath his skin.

It helped having Seb there, now that he didn’t act like he hated Jamie all the time. Now that Jamie didn’t have to strongly dislike him in return.

Now that Seb lay curled like a warm comma beneath and around Jamie, adapting to Jamie’s starfish desire to encompass as much of the bed as humanly or starfishly possible.

The hummingbird wasn’t struggling quite so hard anymore. Jamie exhaled a warm breath against Seb’s side and moved his face from Seb’s armpit. Jamie had never thought of himself as the kind of boy who shoved his face into another person’s armpit the moment the opportunity presented itself, but clearly the moment he was asleep, that was the kind of boy he became.

He didn’t want Mae to kiss him on the cheek in the morning and smell armpit on his face, though.

He put his cheek against Seb’s shoulder instead and the other boy made a small noise, curling closer. There was something young and sweet about Seb, sleeping - Jamie pressed his lips against the base of Seb’s neck, feeling his heart settle down with that small warmth.

“How sweet,” drawled a voice from somewhere above Jamie, in a way that suggested that the speaker was in fact looming over them both like some sort of horrifying nightmare.

Jamie yelped and jerked himself upright. Sadly, that wasn’t enough to save his nose from Seb’s astonishingly hard head as Seb woke and launched himself up in one swift move, the deadly shine of magic welling up in his outflung hand.

Jamie had one hand over his nose, which was throbbing and felt like it might be bleeding, and tried to grab Seb’s wrist with the other - only to remember, as he reached out, that he didn’t have another hand anymore and he was reaching with the blunt smoothness of his stump.

He faltered.

But Nick grabbed Seb’s wrist easily, twisting it and stepping out of the way. “Watch it,” he said, without any particular viciousness. The shine of magic died, leaving them in the greyish pre-dawn light.

Jamie could feel Seb’s heart hammering against his shoulder. Seb had been reaching out to protect him, he thought, and felt a flush of warm happiness.

He knocked his elbow gently against the other boy’s ribs and felt a tiny bit of the tension leave Seb.

Nick stood over them, all darkness and white skin, his expression impassive.

Jamie took his hand away from his nose and saw his palm dark with blood. Seb made a low, worried sound, his hands gentle on Jamie’s skin but his gaze kept flickering back to Nick.

Seb, Jamie thought, had not really had time to get used to Nick’s alarming tendency to appear out of the shadows like a cat. Or Batman. With about as much sense of social acceptability.

“Nick,” said Jamie, muddy and blurred, because Nick was perfectly capable of just standing there and staring at them at them until the sun rose and Mae came to tow him out by his collar. “Nick, Nick, what are you doing here? Is it Mae-?”

But no, because Nick was calm and there was no blood on his skin and no knives in his hands, so they were not under attack. Jamie had seen Nick, when assassins came to the Goblin Market to destroy their precarious equilibrium, came with their knives and spells and demons to kill its new leader. Jamie had seen Nick then.

His skin tightened with a shiver of memory and he said, lightly, “Or do you miss our sleepovers? Those golden days of yore when you tackled me to the floor and menaced me with knives?”

The corner of Nick’s mouth curved. “Happy days,” he said. “Mavis is fine.”

Jamie felt Seb start to bristle behind him and knocked him again with an elbow, a little harder this time. “Then why,” he asked piteously, “are you lurking? I thought we agreed that there would be no more lurking?”

He added hopefully, “And that there would be more knocking. On doors. And then waiting, so that people aren’t terrified by you appearing like a phantom in the night.”

Nick’s mouth twitched again. He seemed faintly pleased by the idea of inspiring terror like a phantom in the night. “You said you would start training again,” he said.

“Did I?” said Jamie.

Nick just looked at him.

“Yes... yes I did,” Jamie said valiantly. “But... now?” The clock said very clearly that it was an inhuman hour. Inhuman and inhumane. Jamie would have told Nick this, but then Nick would have pointed out his lack of humanity, and reminders like that inevitably made Jamie extremely uncomfortable and also feel the need to overcompensate wildly.

He remembered, sometimes, the seductive slide of power through his blood, his bones, shining bright under his skin as he curled his fingers in Nick’s soft hair and spoke to him the way that all magicians spoke to all demons.

While clinging inside with frantic desperation to who - not what - he knew himself to be.

Nick glanced at the clock dismissively, then fixed his eyes back on Jamie’s face.

“I think my nose is broken,” Jamie said plaintively, futilely. Nick did not look impressed, but he felt Seb make a small, guilty movement beside him and then go rigid when Nick leaned down, sudden and sharp, to peer at Jamie’s face.

Jamie did not quail or retreat. He felt that he and Nick were beyond that now.

Sadly it seemed that they were also beyond things like manners and personal space, not that either of those had ever really been fixtures in their friendship.

“It’s not broken,” said Nick. “Shame. Might have helped your face.”

“You’re very mean,” Jamie told him reproachfully. He reflected that this was what came of being friends with demons. One had to resign oneself to being woken up at sometime between sleepy and sorrowful o’ clock, injured, then insulted.

But he also thought that Nick, who also did not like early mornings, would not have come to wake him up if there wasn’t some reason for it.

Over the course of their friendship, and Nick’s thoroughly peculiar relationship with Mae, Jamie had come to appreciate that there were often reasons underlying Nick’s weirder actions. Sometimes quite far underlying. Almost unfathomable. But he did trust that they were there.

He also trusted that Nick was probably not going to leave until he’d bullied Jamie into some form of exercise.

Jamie heaved a great, put-upon sigh. “Five minutes,” he told Nick mournfully.

The demon gave him a curt nod and left the caravan.

“Did I hurt you?” Seb asked, soft, his hands warm and gentle on Jamie’s skin. Jamie leaned in and kissed the corner of his mouth, lingering, and shook his head even though his face still throbbed dully.

“I appreciated you leaping to defend my virtue,” he said, and got out of bed, pulling on a pair of tracksuit bottoms. Jamie did not like them, he did not want them, but he had acquired them when Nick had last imposed the regime of a lean mean fighting machine on him and apparently he had retained them.

“You’re actually going?” Seb sounded startled.

“Yes,” Jamie said. He thought about it for a moment, then explained, “I don’t think Nick just tortures me for no reason. So he must have a reason. So... I’m going to trust him to be doing this for a reason.”

It was not a very good explanation.

“Also,” Jamie added, “If I don’t go running with him, he might try to make Mae do it. And I think we need Nick not to be bludgeoned round the head with a blunt object. Or a sharp one.”

Seb huffed a slow breath. “Ok,” he said, and smiled at Jamie in the dim light.

Jamie thought about how much he wanted to crawl back into bed and curl up against Seb, who was warm and inviting and very nice to sleep next to, sighed again, and went to find Nick.

 

***

 

Nick was silent as they ran, which was not unusual. He also set a fast pace, which was not unusual either. It did mean that Jamie couldn’t talk because he was too busy trying to find enough air to breathe.

He kept sneaking sidelong glances at Nick to try to figure out if this run was arbitrary sadism on Nick’s part or whether he should be trying to ask questions to dig up those underlying reasons.

Nick caught a couple of those sneaky glances and ignored them.

Jamie tried slowing down to a pace more suited for conversation.

Nick grabbed Jamie’s arm and sped up. It was either speed up with him or be dragged ignominiously through the field.

Jamie thought about the dragging option, but pity wasn’t high on Nick’s list of learned emotions. It was quite possible that he would drag Jamie until Alan or Mae arrived to stop him.

So Jamie ran and concentrated on not dying. It required a lot of concentration and conversely resulted in him thinking about just how awful he felt running like this. His heart felt like an overripe fruit and he was pretty sure that was wheezing he could hear.

And then he thought about how Nick always seemed to do something physical when he was worried. Worry wasn’t a feeling Nick liked. He coped with it by starting fights, killing things, practising to kill things, and trying to kill Jamie by pretending to train Jamie to kill things.

Nick was worried.

Nick was not good at talking about things when he was worried.

Jamie thought about this for a moment, still running. His face felt like it was melting. His heart was hammering. It would be quite impossible to talk to Nick like this.

He pretended to trip and flung himself down onto the grass.

Pressing his face into the ground, he heard Nick check himself then come doubling back.

After a moment, a strong hand closed around his arm - the one with a hand at the end of it - and hauled him bodily upright.

Nick stared at him. “How are you thwarted by tufts of grass?”

“It was a very large tuft,” Jamie said weakly. He wiped his arm across his forehead, which did absolutely no good because his arm was sweaty as well. It just relocated his sweat. “Why are we doing this?”

“You need to practise,” Nick told him. “Running. Knives. You weren’t completely useless anymore. Before.”

Jamie blinked at him. “Thanks.”

“You should have more ways to kill things,” Nick said. “Not just magic.”

“Um,” said Jamie. “Um. Nick… I’m quite happy not having a lot of ways to kill things. I don’t really enjoy killing things. It’s not on my top 10 list of things to do.”

Nick looked away, across the field, back towards the cluster of caravans which comprised the permanent Goblin Market. His face was all angles and shadows, inscrutable.

Killing things probably was in Nick’s top 10.

“To defend yourself, then.” He said abruptly.

Jamie touched the demon’s mark curling dark on his jaw. The skin there felt different, scarred. He touched the mark and thought about how the mark meant more than one thing to Nick. Control. Possession.

Protection.

Nick hadn’t liked cutting Jamie off from his power. Even if Jamie had persisted in sticking to his analogy of it being like magic crack.

“Ok,” he said, agreeably, and saw some of the tension drain out of Nick’s shoulders.

The changes that Mae, Jamie, and Sin had between them imposed upon the Goblin Market had brought them a form of peaceful resolution. But it hadn’t been without cost.

Jamie had seen the flinch in his sister’s eyes every time she saw Helen of the swords, even though Mae was never anything but polite and friendly to the magicians who had joined them.

And Circles around the world were not exactly overjoyed by the arrangement between the Market and the Aventurine Circle. They kept sending assassins. Pretty soon, Jamie was going to need his missing hand to start counting the number of assassination attempts.

He thought that Nick was good at killing, and good at running, but really rather terrible at any kind of changing dynamic. He didn’t like new things.

Mae had explained as much, during one of those evenings where Jamie lay with his head in her lap and they talked about boyfriends. She had sounded tolerant and affectionately exasperated.

“I’ll give you the running,” Jamie told him. “And I may even throw things which are sharp. But,” he held a finger aloft, stern. “You have to start knocking. No more apparating into my bedroom. It’s weird, and I think it makes Seb jealous.”

Nick squinted at him. “‘Apparating’?” he echoed, in a monotone that may have suggested doubt.

Jamie nodded vigorously. “Like in Harry Potter,” he said, and sighed when Nick looked blank. “It’s like magical teleportation.”

Nick’s mouth curled, scornful, but he shrugged. “Ok.”

“And you’ll knock,” Jamie pressed, hopefully.

Nick stared at him, expressionless.

“I guess that’s asking for the moon,” Jamie said, with another sigh. Then he looked alarmed. “Not that I would actually want the moon. Don’t bring me the moon.”

Nick continued to stare at him for a long moment. “You’re weird,” he said finally, and looked away. But his shoulders were loose and easy.

Jamie patted him kindly on the arm and beamed in response to the deadly glare he got.

Nick was like a sheepdog, Jamie figured, with a very small flock of sheep. And because they wouldn’t let him herd them to someplace else, he wanted the sheep to be able to defend themselves from the wolves who kept coming to attack them.

Jamie was terribly, terribly proud of that analogy. Nick wasn’t going to appreciate it. “I don’t mind being part of your flock,” he told him, cheerfully.

Nick gave him an utterly blank look.

Jamie patted him again and Nick frowned at him.

“Stop patting me,” he said eventually, irritably, shying away like an angry cat.

There were some things Jamie was never going to be able to repay Nick for. Nick had been stabbed in the gut for him. He had let his power run through Jamie’s veins like a cool, remorseless tide, buoying up Jamie’s magic until Jamie had been able to feel it in his fingertips, his toes, even his teeth. He had come to Jamie as though he really could be called, had come to him and let Jamie yank his head back as though it meant nothing at all, his eyes as black as the night in which every star had died.

With Nick’s power running through him, Jamie had been able to imagine that night.

And now Nick acted as though none of that had mattered. As if it hadn’t had the resonance that Jamie felt it had, in the lonely, guilty, terrifying hours of the night.

In a strange, changed world, Nick was one of the most constant things.

So Jamie knew he owed him a lot. Running and throwing knives would make Nick happy.

“I pat you because you’re my friend,” he told Nick grandly, because telling Nick about all of his feelings would have made Nick terribly uncomfortable.

“You’re very strange,” Nick told him. “Very, very strange. Possibly stranger than your sister.”

Jamie beamed at him. “Well, you’re friends with me,” he said, “and you’re dating her, so what does that make you?”

“Shut up,” said Nick calmly, but there was no heat to it and there was a pleased curve to his mouth.

Jamie took a moment to feel happy as well. The sun was turning the sky in the east to pale gold and he had a friend who wanted to make sure he stayed alive and a boyfriend waiting for him to come home. And his sister, his impossible, strange, brave sister, had someone who looked pleased about how impossible, strange, and brave she was.

It was not a bad life that they were building for themselves, Jamie thought proudly.

Then, of course, Nick had to ruin the moment by making Jamie run all the way back to the Market at a pace that really wasn’t the kind of pace at which friends should make other friends run.