It is the season, and so of course I have been preparing a gift for my loyal and lovely fans. Because you, like many celebrities who use L’Oreal, are worth it.
Unfortunately such is my zeal at present-making that the present has become unacceptably long. Hence half now, half later!
With thanks to all those who have read The Demon’s Lexicon and The Demon’s Covenant, then, I bid you happy Christmas and present you with…
Being terrorised by one demon was bad luck: it could’ve happened to anyone.
Being terrorised by two meant there was something wrong with Jamie himself. He was obviously giving off some sort of signals. Like ‘Easy Prey’ or ‘Catnip for Demons’ or ‘Makes Hilarious Whimpering Noises When Threatened.’
A knife whizzed through the air, two inches from his face. Jamie made a whimpering noise and hit the deck.
Nick did not look notably amused. And in the time it had taken Jamie to turn his head and look at him, he’d got out another knife. Where was he keeping all his knives? He wore quite form-fitting clothes!
Jamie felt like he wasn’t helping himself, here.
“Can you please stop throwing knives?” he asked in a hollow voice.
“Can you tell me how I’m supposed to teach you how to throw knives without throwing knives?” Nick demanded.
Jamie was about to snap back that he didn’t want to be taught how to throw knives, when he remembered that he’d agreed to come to Nick’s house so he could be taught to throw knives.
Just like he’d agreed to be friends with Nick.
There was something wrong with Jamie, and it was the fact that he was stupid. How could anyone be friends with Nick? It was one of those ideas that was manifestly terrible, like French-kissing a barracuda.
But Jamie had said yes, because his brain was terrible. He’d said yes to being friends because he didn’t have any friends. And he’d said yes to coming over to have missiles of doom thrown about in his vicinity, because his sister was dating his worst enemy and there was nowhere else he could go.
He was stupid, and worse than that, he was pathetic.
Nick stood looking down at him, messy black hair whipped around by the wind. Jamie tried to make out an expression on his face, but couldn’t. He wondered why Nick spent all his time messing around with weaponry when he’d obviously be amazing at poker.
“Are you going to stay there on the ground having a conversation with yourself in your brain?” Nick asked. He didn’t sound particularly interested in the answer.
“I might,” Jamie said warily. “I happen to be a sparkling brain conversationalist. Are you going to be throwing any more knives?”
“Is there something you’d rather do?”
“Uh,” Jamie said. “Almost anything? See what’s on TV? Go to the movies like normal people?”
“If you throw a knife that hits the target, we can go to the movies,” Nick said.
“Flying a kite,” Jamie suggested desperately. “That might be a lark! What do you say!”
Nick threw a knife in Jamie’s direction.
Jamie waited for the red flashes going on and off behind his eyes, like psychic police car lights, to fade away before he said, very carefully: “Have I offended you in some way? Do you hate kites?”
“What?” said Nick.
Jamie was still staring at the knife, blade embedded in the earth a centimeter away from his hand.
“You threw a knife at me.”
“Have you been stabbed?” Nick asked. “No? Then I didn’t throw a knife at you. I threw a knife to you.”
“You’re a demon,” Jamie said reproachfully. “Surely you shouldn’t be playing cruel vocabulary games with me.”
That sounded a little bit racist against demons, though Jamie wasn’t actually sure if it was possible to be racist against demons, since demons ran around killing humans all the time and thus humans had a right to complain about them.
He glanced up and Nick didn’t seem to be offended. He was just looking at the knife, in a way that was either intense because maybe Nick loved the knife, or expectant because maybe Nick thought Jamie should pick it up.
Jamie picked up the knife, gingerly. It felt all heavy and dangerous.
“I think this is a bad idea,” he said. “I could hit a squirrel. Or a King Charles spaniel. Or a tot with curly locks.”
“Could you?” Nick said. “I’d be surprised.”
Nick’s voice was either monotone or deadpan. It was so hard to tell which.
Jamie looked at the target, which Nick had decreed was a tree. It was kind of a skinny, sad-looking tree, backed up against the fence. Nick had been throwing knives at it for ages. That couldn’t be good, horticulturally speaking.
Jamie told himself to stop empathizing with a tree, closed his eyes, and threw.
“Did I hit something?” he asked, leaping up immediately afterward. “Was it a squirrel?”
Nick was already strolling over to retrieve his knife from the daisies where it lay. Daisies cut off in their prime by Jamie’s murderous hand.
“You’re lethal, all right,“ Nick said.
“I don’t want to be.”
Nick picked up the knife, wiped it absently and tucked it away in some sort of little pocket at the shoulder of his T-shirt. He regarded Jamie: Jamie feared there was an extra layer of emptiness behind Nick’s black eyes right now.
When someone was consistently impassive, it was hard not to get the feeling he was bored of you, and contemptuous of everything about you.
“Do you want to see my car,” Nick said.
“Um,” Jamie said. “Sure?”
He was pretty sure Nick didn’t mean in the sense of ‘via being run over by it’ although given Nick’s knife-throwing ways, it was hard to be sure.
Nick led the way, Jamie cautiously following him, and he threw open the dented tin side of his garage. There was a sort of skeleton car inside, looking like it needed to be put out of its misery and put in the great junkyard in the sky.
“Oh,” Jamie said. “Oh, cool.”
“It’s an Aston Martin Vanquish,” Nick said.
He might as well have said ‘it is a trifle made of giraffes’ for all the sense that made to Jamie.
“Really? Awesome,” Jamie said.
Nick said a few curt things about superficial repairs, and the engine still being sound – which Jamie thought was good – but it needed new brakes – bad, Jamie was sure brakes were important – but some other stuff about cables and obsolete carburetors and at this point Nick was basically speaking Car Esperanto as far as Jamie was concerned.
“Wow,” Jamie said. “That’s so interesting.”
Nick’s face was shadowed by the car bonnet, but Jamie was prepared to bet being able to see it wouldn’t have helped him anyway.
“It still needs a lot of work,” Nick said.
“I can see that,” Jamie said. “But I have every faith you can totally kick that car’s ass. But as you say there’s a lot of work to do! So I’d better leave you to it, then.”
There was a pause. Jamie wasn’t sure if this was one of the regular pauses that happened when trying to hold a conversation with Nick, or if this was the pause of even Nick being able to recognise that this little get-together had gone incredibly badly.
“I can drive you back,” Nick offered, in his unenthusiastic monotone. Jamie was certain it was a monotone this time.
“Oh no,” said Jamie. “I don’t want to be a bother.”
“Okay,” Nick said. “Go.”
“Oh,” said Jamie. “Oh, okay. Bye.”
Nick and Alan lived in a seriously nasty part of Exeter. Jamie got offered drugs on a street corner in broad daylight, and was a bit scandalised. He found himself laughing nervously and saying: “I just have so many drugs right now!” before he backed away.
He wished, a bit, that he’d taken Nick up on his offer, but then he would not have been able to do what he was planning to do.
He told himself that he was just going to arrive at the door, report that Nick and Alan were in Exeter and they had a plan to take down the magicians, try to get the Obsidian Circle to leave without bloodshed. Avoiding bloodshed and conflict was a worthy goal.
Only of course, Laura opened the door of the house, and people nodded at him and smiled as he went by them in the halls, and Gerald was there, in a room filled with light, a piano open that he left immediately on seeing Jamie.
He smiled and said: “I’m glad you’re here.”
Gerald took the news that there was an all-powerful demon plus his adopted brother who made Machiavelli look disorganised after him very casually.
“So you’re not planning to, um, flee Exeter?” Jamie asked.
Gerald laughed. “Don’t tell me you’re disappointed.”
In some ways, Jamie was very disappointed. It would solve a lot of his problems if the magicians disappeared, the dilemma of wanting to be welcome and wanting to be good, the fact that Mae was preparing to battle to save him again and this time he felt much more conflicted about being saved.
“Um,” Jamie said, brilliantly. “So do you, um, play the piano?”
One part of Jamie’s brain was observing wistfully that Gerald was musical as well as having a dreamy Irish accent and looking nice in blue. The other part of Jamie’s brain was screaming that yes, Gerald probably killed people very attractively as well.
He wondered if he could find a mad scientist who would replace his brain in some sort of lightning-based experiment.
“No,” said Gerald. “I don’t have to. How are you feeling about the return of the Ryves brothers?”
He asked gently, as if he really minded how Jamie was feeling, and Jamie crossed his arms over his chest, skirting around the piano and sitting on the window seat, half-way across the room from Gerald.
“Fine,” he answered. “I like them. They did help save my life this one time.”
“Of course,” Gerald said. “You feel like you owe them. But knowing the truth about what Nick is can’t be easy. Our kind and his kind are natural enemies.”
Our kind, allying himself with Jamie, on his side where few people cared to be.
“Just like all regular humans hate magicians,” Jamie said coldly.
Gerald’s voice remained very gentle. “How are things with your sister?”
Jamie was about to demand if Gerald was spying on him when he remembered, evil magicians on a mission, of course he was spying on him.
Added to which, of course Seb had told Gerald about Mae or about anything else Gerald wanted to know, because after two years of hating the sight of Jamie and refusing to ever mention magic Seb had now decided magic was awesome.
Because now a gang of murderers could do magic, rather than the weird gay kid. And Seb liked nothing more than being part of a gang.
And Jamie was really one to talk, since he’d come to the murderers’ house for the experience of having people nod and smile at him as if they wanted him there.
Gerald did not push his point any further. He came around the piano and came to sit by Jamie, leaning against him easily and unselfconsciously, in a way guys didn’t act around Jamie usually.
Jamie looked up at him, the few golden freckles on the bridge of Gerald’s nose, and his breath caught.
Jamie kind of missed the unreasoning terror he’d felt at the mere thought of the Obsidian Circle a few weeks ago.
This was the dumbest crush Jamie had ever, ever had. Worse than having a thing for Mark Skinner for an entire year after he’d joined Seb’s gang, worse than certain thoughts about the Ryves brothers, worse than his mum’s onetime boyfriend Cliff.
“Want me to show you why I don’t need to play the piano?” Gerald asked, and Jamie found himself shyly nodding.
And music exploded around them, like light at sunrise, music of all kinds and no kind at all, like the soul of music or like Gerald had a Carnegie hall level orchestra hidden behind the curtains. Music and magic rolled warm over Jamie’s skin and sank into his pores and he wanted to dance, but didn’t move away from the leaning warmth of Gerald’s body.
He’d wanted to learn to play the guitar, once. He’d been really bad at it. He’d been even worse at the recorder. Mae had been pretty good, but she’d got bored, so they both quit.
Gerald leaned into him again. Jamie’s heart took an abrupt leap into his throat and beat hard, and he blinked up at Gerald’s glinting-gold eyelashes.
“Now you try,” said Gerald.
“Uh,” said Jamie. He wondered if he was meant to make like Christine in the Phantom of the Opera and start addressing passionate appeals to the Spirit of Music. Hopefully not in a flowing negligee.
“Just concentrate,” Gerald urged. “Think about the way the world would be, if it was all sound. And be confident in your ability to make the world like that. I know what you can do. You can make the world be any way you want it to be.”
Jamie doubted that very much, but he didn’t want to let Gerald down. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and thought about changing the world.
When he opened his eyes, the world was changed. as if it was as easy as that, as if it always had been. His vision was hazy, light changing to liquid brimming the window, drops of water on the glass turning into diamonds, and the whole world was singing. The room washed back and forth with magic and sound.
The music died as the sun went down, and Gerald smiled at him as if Jamie was something special, important: someone he did not want to do without.
Into the silence, Gerald said: “And that’s why I’m not leaving Exeter until you’re ready to come with me.”
“I have to go,” Jamie said.
He escaped out into the cool darkness of the hallway and almost ran into the one person in the Circle house who was never pleased to see him.
Seb took a hasty step back, green eyes going wide, and caught off guard and thinking of magic Jamie vividly recalled the moment he’d first seen Seb, the overwhelming sensation that this is someone like me, this is someone who can do magic – like the Ugly Duckling must have felt, seeing his first fellow swan. And there had been a little extra jolt there too: wow, and he is really cute.
Then Seb had opened his mouth, launched two years of incessant torment, and ruined everything.
It was different now. Jamie had felt that shock of recognition with every magician in this house.
He’d felt it with Gerald, the second magician he’d ever met. When they had first met Gerald had been tied to a chair. Jamie hoped his subsequent crush didn’t mean that Jamie had secret fetishes, finding a boyfriend seemed impossible enough already.
Seb looked at Jamie for a moment, then spoke.
“Come around to the idea of joining up?”
“Yep,” Jamie said. “I’m totally going to be an evil magician. I hope you don’t mind, they said since we’re the two newest members we have to share a room? Apparently there are going to be bunk beds.”
He sneered and shoved past Seb.
If he was being fair, he might have to admit that things were probably pretty bad for Seb at home, since he’d moved in with the evil magicians a week after meeting them.
Except that actually, Jamie had no interest in being fair to Seb.
It made Jamie worry that he was a terrible person. He resented Seb for being awful to him so much more than Gerald for murdering people.
He was kind of terrible, though. He remembered what Mark Skinner had said to him, two years ago, that he wasn’t Jamie’s friend anymore not only because of Seb and because of the whole used to secretly kiss thing, but because Jamie was always holding back.
Lying to everyone. And he was still lying, he thought as he walked down the street to home. He couldn’t imagine ever telling Mum that he was a magician, not when she had just started to like him again.
He was angry with his sister for dating Seb, and yet he was lying to her too, lying to her again. He wasn’t about to tell her that her new boyfriend could do magic.
He couldn’t do it, any more than he could have told anyone about kissing Mark back in the day. He had spent his life feeling sick whenever he feared discovery of his magic. He couldn’t tell a secret that wasn’t his.
He’d never been brave enough even to tell the secret that was his.
Mae was the brave one. Jamie had always wished he was brave like her, that he could’ve been the one who was okay at recorder, that he’d been able to attract people – friends well as boys – to her in the same way. Everyone always liked Mae best.
All that time he couldn’t ever be jealous of his sister, partly because he loved her, and he wanted her to have every good thing in the world, and she was the only person he could be certain loved him. And partly because he knew that everyone was right. Mae was better than he was. Mae was honest, and brave, and loyal and true.
The thing he’d wished most was that he was like Mae, and had nothing to hide.
When he got inside, he ran a bath, and scrubbed as if magic really had got into his pores, and he could somehow get it out. He dunked his head underwater until his ears buzzed and his lungs burned.
They used to dunk witches because they said they couldn’t drown.
He didn’t tap on Mae’s door. Even if he didn’t have a right to be angry with her, he was.
At school on Monday, Jamie kept glancing over at Nick, who had thrown himself into the chair beside Jamie’s when they got to class.
He wasn’t sure how to handle things. Nobody had ever got themselves stabbed in the liver for Jamie before.
He wasn’t that surprised that Nick would kill for him, because honestly he thought Nick would probably kill for gum. But suffering for him felt different.
He’d already thanked him. He wasn’t sure what else to do.
Jamie was starting to feel dumb. When Nick had said ‘want to be friends’ he might have meant it.
Obviously he had meant it. Nick actually never said anything he didn’t mean.
The thing was, Jamie felt like he’d just accidentally taken on a lot of responsibility. He’d agreed to be friends. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do. He’d offered the idea of doing homework together, but it didn’t seem like much.
He seriously did not want to be stabbed in the liver.
Jamie glanced over at Nick again, and saw Nick’s indifferent black and white profile.
“Stop twitching,” Nick drawled. “You’re the one who wanted to sit in the front.”
“What’s wrong with sitting in the front?” Jamie asked nervously.
“Nothing,” Nick said. “Just a different view for me.”
It was a bit of a relief when the teacher came in, and started telling them about Pride and Prejudice.
Jamie spent the class thinking uneasily that Nick making him throw knives and showing him that car had been something like what little kids did when they were too young to know how to make friends, lining up their toys solemnly for another kid to see.
At the end of class, Jamie asked: “Did you have any toys as a child?”
Nick gave him a blank look, but all Nick’s looks were blank, so it didn’t disturb Jamie overmuch. “I had some,” he answered, and volunteered: “I broke them. They annoyed me.”
Jamie wasn’t touching that one.
“So Pride and Prejudice!” he said.
Nick rolled his eyes. “We were doing Jane Eyre in London,” he said. “What a pain.”
“I hadn’t thought about the fact moving around all the time would be hell on homework,” said Jamie. “And you’re, you know, you hate reading, because you’re a – spy. It’s pretty excellent that you’ve been able to keep up with the classes.”
“Few teachers passed me because I creeped them out,” Nick said calmly. “And one teacher passed me for something else.”
Jamie blinked. “That’s scandalous, that is,” he said. “If you mean what I think you mean. Do you mean what I think you mean?”
Nick nodded, shoving his books back into his bag.
“Scandalous!” Jamie repeated. “Actually that should be reported. That’s not right. You’re a student. That means you were taken advantage of by an authority figure.”
“Some day the pain and shame will pass,” Nick said.
“You mustn’t do it again,” Jamie said. “Pride and Prejudice is a pretty good book, actually. I mean I haven’t read a lot of books. I start a lot of them and then give up. But I’m going to finish this one. It’s actually pretty funny. It’s all about this bunch of sisters and their loopy parents. Also a load of hot soldiers that they just put in town for the girls, like, I don’t know, a buffet.”
“The teacher didn’t say anything about a hot soldier buffet,” Nick observed.
Jamie riffled through his copy.
“A-hem-hem,” he said, and did a Regency voice. “’It was the last of the regiment’s stay in Meryton, and all the young ladies in the neighbourhood were drooping apace. The dejection was almost universal. The elder Miss Bennets alone were still able to eat, drink, and sleep.’ So you see, they’re taking the hot soldier buffet away, and all the girls are listening to emo music and being like ‘I hate you, I hate you, nothing matters anymore’ to their parents.”
“I see,” Nick said.
“This is literary analysis,” Jamie said proudly.
“Go on,” Nick said.
Jamie realised he was being slightly demonically-herded to geography class when he was in the middle of his speculations about Lydia Bennet’s Goth phase.
Having someone to sit with in class and at lunch was really nice, but Jamie was entirely unprepared for the experience of being Nick’s partner in PE.
For one thing, Mr Cathcart almost cried about Nick refusing to join the football team.
“You’re wasting your God-given talents, boy.”
“I don’t play team sports,” Nick said shortly.
“You have the physique of a Greek god,” Mr Cathcart continued mournfully. “Or better: a young George Best!”
Jamie made a face after Mr Cathcart as he went. “So I think you’re in there,” he said. “But I urge you not to become involved in any more sordid student/teacher affairs.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nick said, and tossed Jamie a volleyball. “It’s not like I’m going to fail PE.”
Mr Cathcart did not at any point say that Jamie had the physique of a Greek god. In fact, the only thing he said to Jamie was after Jamie flopped backward on the trampoline, wheezing feebly.
“Bit out of condition there, lad!”
“That’s all right,” Nick said, dribbling a volleyball with what Jamie recognised was casual expertise, and also devilish intent to torture Mr Cathcart. “He’s going to start running every day.”
“No, I’m not,” Jamie protested. “Why would you lie to the gym teacher like that? Now he’s going to expect me to get all fit and climb his stupid ropes.”
Nick gave him another especially blank look, and said: “I don’t lie.”
Jamie might have made up with Mae, because they could never stay mad at each other for longer than two days, and Mae might be going out with Seb, which forced Seb to try and make nice with Jamie. But that didn’t mean Jamie was under any obligation to make nice back.
After all, Seb was motivated by the desire to get with Mae, which was selfish and nefarious of him.
So Jamie felt it was his brotherly duty to refuse lifts from Seb. It was also possibly his brotherly duty to make obscene gestures, but that hadn’t occurred to him at the time.
He did get a certain amount of satisfaction in accepting a lift from Nick directly afterward.
“I hate that guy,” Nick said, nodding in the direction of the car ahead of him.
“Aw, Nick, we have something in common!”
Nick did not look particularly pleased by this news. “He’s a liar and a coward.”
Jamie hesitated. “So am I.”
Nick glanced at Jamie. It was odd for Nick to look at him, once he’d established he was there. Jamie thought it might be some kind of Nick version of hesitance.
“You’re not like McFarlane,” Nick said eventually. “You’re not scared of the same kind of things at all.”
Jamie wondered if Nick could tell that Seb was a magician. Probably not, he thought: Nick had been able to tell with Gerald, but he hadn’t been able to tell with Jamie, not before Jamie started doing so much magic.
It wasn’t like it was with magicians, with a demon and a magician. There wasn’t any of that radiant recognition. But there was a feeling.
At first Jamie had just thought that it was that Nick gave Jamie the creeps.
“Wait,” Jamie said. “This isn’t my way home.”
“We’re not going to your home,” Nick told him. “We’re going running.”
“Let me out of this car.”
Nick continued driving.
“This is kidnapping,” Jamie said darkly.
Alan looked very tired when he got home that evening, but he smiled when he saw Jamie.
“What a nice surprise,” he said. “Are you staying for dinner?”
He had a great smile, and a great voice. It was lucky he treated Jamie like Jamie was twelve years old, or Jamie would’ve had a crush on him before he discovered Alan was a crazy liar who tortured people sometimes and did creepy blood spells.
“I think I might have to,” Jamie said meekly. “I can’t move. Nick made me run.”
“I can make dinner,” Nick said.
Alan’s eyes touched on Nick, and then moved away, back to Jamie, as if it gave Alan pain to look at his brother for too long.
“That’s all right.”
He limped out to the kitchen, leaving an uneasy silence behind him. Jamie didn’t know how to ask how things had gone wrong between the Ryves brothers.
Nick probably wouldn’t be able to answer and tell Jamie if he was upset.
“Do you want to watch the football?” Jamie asked. “How do you fancy Liverpool’s chances?”
Nick stared at Jamie as if Jamie had begun to speak the ancient squeaky language of the mice.
“I’ve never watched football,” he said eventually. “We can if you like.”
Jamie had always kind of thought having a guy friend would mean having someone to watch football with.
He’d used to go to matches with his dad, even after the divorce. But then he’d turned thirteen and come out, and his dad had stopped taking him. He’d told his dad, hesitantly, that he did still like football, and Dad had said ‘Of course you do, of course you do!’ But Dad had never asked him again, just the same.
He turned on the football anyway. Alan came in and watched with the same level of total mystification Jamie suspected Nick was secretly feeling. He got out a book, and Nick started playing with his really sharp-looking knife.
They were both a disgrace to English manhood, but Liverpool did really well, and the curry was terrific.
Mark Skinner, the next day, said: “Chelsea were lousy last night,” and Jamie was idiot enough to respond as if two years had rolled away and they’d never met Seb.
“Chelsea’s always lousy compared to Liverpool.”
He turned in his chair a moment later and found Mark and his thuggish pal Tim Graves both staring at him.
Mark smiled, a bit awkwardly, and said: “Still a Liverpool nutter, then?”
“Um, record for most European Cup victories,” Jamie said. “Objectively the best team in England.”
“You like football?” Seb said from the door.
He sounded as stunned and incredulous as if Jamie had announced that he liked eating babies with strawberry jam.
Jamie turned back around in his chair, and fixed his eyes on his copybook. “It is allowed,” he remarked coolly.
He kept his eyes fixed on the copybook while Seb passed his desk. Then Seb hesitated and stopped, which ruined Jamie’s plan to icily ignore him.
“Do you like-”
“Talking to you?” Jamie inquired, glancing up at him and then away. “No, I really don’t.”
“You heard him,” Nick said, monotoning for England. “Move.”
“You don’t own him,” Seb snapped.
Right then the teacher walked in, and Jamie was extremely glad to see her. Seb was a total idiot, but Jamie didn’t want Nick to kill him.
Nick had lunchtime detention.
“What do you have detention for?” Jamie asked, appalled. “You’ve only been back a couple of days.”
“I don’t ask what the detentions are for anymore,” Nick said. “They just happen.”
It was dismaying how used Jamie had got, in half a week, to having someone to sit with at lunch. Mae was at some sort of student meeting about the environment, and so he was left strolling aimlessly about the playground until he stumbled on Mae’s friend Erica.
She was sitting on a doorstep plaiting her long fair hair, and she looked up and looked delighted to see him.
She patted the doorstep invitingly. “Oh, hi.”
“Hi there,” Jamie said. “Not at the meeting?”
Erica looked nervous, which was Erica’s default state. Erica was actually one of the few people who made Jamie look bold and daring by comparison. “I don’t really,” she said. “Well, I do care about the environment, of course, I do, but-”
“I get it,” Jamie said. “I can never be bothered to recycle either.”
Erica laughed. “I thought I’d spend lunchtime with Tim, but he’s hanging around with all his friends, and honestly sitting in a group of guys smoking behind the bike shed isn’t for me.”
Jamie always forgot that nice Erica was going out with awful Tim.
“Men, eh? Can’t live with them, can’t kill them and sell their organs online.”
Erica stared at him. Jamie reviewed his last joke in his head.
“Too far,” he decided. “Sorry. I think I’m spending a bit too much time with Nick.”
“That guy is scary,” Erica said, her eyes going wide.
“I know, right,” Jamie said comfortably. “You get used to the serial killer stare after a while.”
Erica leaned over and laid her hand on Jamie’s arm. “You don’t have to hang out with him,” she said earnestly. “You can hang out with us.”
“With Tim and Seb and that?” Jamie asked, raising his eyebrows. “Pass.”
“With just us girls,” Erica urged. “We all like you, Jamie. Not just because you’re Mae’s brother. We could all go out dancing.”
“Oh, I see how it is,” Jamie said. “You only want me for my moves.”
He seized the hand Erica had left on his arm and pulled her to her feet. She was quite a lot taller than he was, but he made dipping her work anyway. Erica came back up flushed and giggling, and they performed a few steps together, hands sliding down arms, feet scuffling in the gravel. Erica wasn’t bad when you could get her to be less self-conscious.
She did the flirty dance moves that were easiest when you weren’t remotely attracted to someone, and flipped open the top button of Jamie’s shirt. Jamie made a scandalized face at her, then spun her, at which point Erica almost slammed into Tim’s chest.
“Whoops,” Erica said, still giggling. “Sorry, baby.”
Tim wrapped his arm around Erica’s waist. He was frowning at Jamie. “Are you making time with my girl?”
“Er,” Jamie said. “Seriously, two years of persecution, and you don’t know what you’re persecuting me for?”
Tim looked unsure of what the word ‘persecution’ meant.
“You were all over her,” remarked Seb, at Tim’s shoulder.
“Stop it, Seb,” Erica said, curling in to her boyfriend a little, as if snapping at Seb scared her a bit.
“Are you stupid?” Jamie asked. “No, wait, let me rephrase that. Exactly how stupid are you?”
Seb took a step forward, obscuring Jamie’s view of Tim and Erica. “Oh, keep pushing me, Crawford.”
“Okay!” said Jamie. “How about you tell me, you enormous idiot, what it is you find so upsetting about a girl and a guy dancing-”
“She was undressing you!” Seb yelled.
“Are you actually crazy?” Jamie demanded. “Are you having actual hallucinations?”
“If you weren’t so rude,” Seb said. “I was just trying to talk-”
“What? When? What? Is this another hallucination?”
“You and your stupid mouth-“
“Describe what you’re seeing right now, McFarlane,” Jamie suggested. “Are there aliens? How about turquoise unicorns? Do you see unicorns of any colour at all?”
It was at that point that the teacher came and put them both in lunch detention.
Nick raised his eyebrows as Jamie slunk in, and said: “Missed me, I see.”
“Quiet,” Ms Matthews ordered without looking up from her book.
“Yeah, Nick,” Jamie said, cheer returning. “God. You just never shut up.”
Nick snickered. Seb spent the detention glaring over at them both.
“Do you know where Mavis is?” Mum asked over dinner – Thai takeout tonight, Jamie’s third favourite menu.
“Probably out with her new boyfriend,” Jamie said, and made a face. “He is awful!”
Mum raised her tiny, strangely perfect eyebrows. “Quelle surprise.”
“You’re so classy, Mum, speaking in fancy Latin phrases,” said Jamie, and laughed when Mum winced. Mum and Mae were both ridiculously smart, and it was occasionally hilarious to play up being the bimbo of the house.
“How bad is this one, on a scale of one to Darren?”
“I would say her worst yet,” Jamie said.
Mum made a face of distaste, as when Jamie’s fish had committed suicide and Mum had had to pick it up with the tongs and flush it down the loo. Jamie still wasn’t sure what he’d done to drive Flipper to taking his own life.
“I would not have thought any human being could possibly be worse than that miscreant,” Mum said.
Jamie was in full agreement. Darren had up until Seb been Mae’s greatest triumph of her romantic optimism over her good sense.
Like all such triumphs, he hadn’t lasted long. Jamie could still vividly recall the break-up.
“You’ve had enough of me?” Darren had shouted, backing out of Mae’s bedroom while Jamie froze on the top step of the stairs and devoutly wished he was elsewhere. “I’ve had enough of you, you bitch! You’ve been with half my mates-”
“It’s none of your business who I’ve been with, unless I was with someone else while I was with you,” Mae had shouted from within the room. “Which I wasn’t.”
“And you dress like a slag,” Darren yelled back.
“And it was never any of your business how I dress!”
“Whatever,” Darren said, storming down the stairs as if Jamie wasn’t there. “All you were ever good for was-”
Jamie had just wanted him to stop hurling unacceptable filth at Mae.
But that wasn’t true, was it, it was another of the lies Jamie was constantly telling. He’d heard too many people talk like that, about girls, or gay people, or weird kids, or anyone: and this was Mae, who he loved best of all. He’d wanted something bad to happen to Darren, had thought viciously about him falling down the stairs and having his head smash against the marble floor at the bottom.
And Darren had gone flying as if someone very strong had given him a violent shove.
Jamie had pulled him back the next instant, terrified and taking it back, and Darren had seized the stair rail and staggered around, staring at Jamie. Jamie had gone still and small with terror, at what had almost happened, at how he’d betrayed himself.
That was when blessed, loud, stroppy Mae, who always made people look at her rather than Jamie, diverted attention by storming out onto the landing. The hair she’d worn brown with blue streaks in before she’d gone full-on pink was flying, and she hurled her jewelry box in Darren’s face.
Darren had needed three stitches.
Jamie had sat beside Mae while Mum was telling her off, holding her hand tight, and known that he deserved much worse than Mae was getting.
“Are you quite all right, James?” Mum asked, blinking interrogatively at him.
She was sitting down eating dinner with him, just him, and she hadn’t even opened her briefcase, though she’d sent it a few longing looks. Jamie fought the urge to put his head in her lap and howl, and tell her everything.
“Would you like to come to a football game with me, maybe, sometime?” he asked.
“Good God, no,” said Mum.
“Right,” said Jamie. “Right. Never mind.”