“I don’t want to see you cry either,” Nick said.
Her face softened slightly, and he realized she’d taken that the wrong way. Nick imagined spending the next five minutes explaining to her that actually she could cry all the time if she liked, he just didn’t want to see it, and then shut his mouth.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” Mae asked, her voice a little gruff with crying. She scrubbed at her wet cheeks with her sleeve and looked embarrassed.
Nick chose his words carefully. “Jamie said I should come and apologize.”
“Oh,” Mae said. “Okay. Apology accepted, I guess. It’s not really you I’m mad at, anyway. I’m just — I’m scared, and that makes me angry, you know?”
“Not really,” Nick answered, leaning against the door frame. “I don’t recall ever being scared.”
Mae looked taken aback.
“Fear’s useless,” he tried to explain. “Either something bad happens or it doesn’t: If it doesn’t, you’ve wasted time being afraid, and if it does, you’ve wasted time that you could have spent sharpening your weapons.”
Mae stared at him for a while.
“You’re lucky you’re cute,” she said eventually. “Because you’re kind of creepy.”
Nick grinned at her. “It’s a vibe that works for me.”
It was much more comfortable to flirt with her than see her cry. He risked a few steps into her room and she didn’t immediately burst into tears, so he looked around. Jamie made his bed, he noticed; Mae left her underwear on the floor.
“Hey,” Mae said sharply, and he looked away from her underwear and raised an eyebrow.
“I’ve never been scared,” he said, conceding her something. “But I’ve been angry, all right.”
“Oh really,” Mae said. “You come off as so Zen.”
Nick grinned at her again, standing beside her bed. She smiled back and wiped a final fierce time at any tears still lingering on her cheeks.
Mae took a deep breath and seemed to be done with crying. “It’s just — he’s all I have. Even before they split up, Mum and Dad spent more time at the tennis club than with us. We used to play dolls together for hours when we were little.”
“Oh,” Nick said. “Well, me and Alan did too. Obviously.”
“Obviously,” Mae echoed, smiling.
“If by dolls you meant knife practice.”
“Maybe you can understand,” Mae allowed. “You do have a brother.”
Guarded in case this was a womanly plot to make him talk about his feelings, Nick nevertheless let himself relax a bit more and said, “I do have a brother.”
“He’s my little brother,” Mae continued. “I have to — I should be able to protect him, and I can’t. I didn’t. And I always did before. He’s my little brother,” she repeated insistently, speaking more to the universe than Nick, and then she took another deep breath. “I guess you can understand that. Alan must look after you.”
“When I was small,” Nick conceded, and shrugged. “I don’t need much looking after these days.”
He almost smiled as he thought about being small, before Alan had been hurt, when he’d never imagined it was possible for Alan to be hurt. Alan had taught him to read and told him pointless bedtime stories and insisted on holding his hand when they crossed the street.
It was different now. They looked out for each other. They were a team. Or that was how it had been; Nick didn’t see how keeping secrets was looking out for him.
“What’s wrong?” Mae inquired.
He looked down at her and saw her frowning. He reached out, wrapped a strand of that silly pink hair around his wrist, and smiled at her slowly, drawing a smile from her in return.
“What could be wrong?” he asked.
He knew where this was going, and from the calm look in her eyes she did too. It was solid ground in the midst of his home being invaded, Alan lying, girls crying, and boys talking to him about empathy. It was good to be sure of something again.
“So,” Mae said, uncurling from the tight ball of misery she’d been in and stretching a little. “You don’t get scared.”
“Ever get lonely?” She smiled as she spoke, her dimple showing as she brought out the line.
He stooped toward the dimple, and then remembered Alan.
He let go of her hair, and it fell from around his wrist. “No,” he said, his voice cold. “I have my brother.”
Mae looked puzzled, as if she was trying to work out what had inspired this change of behavior rather than getting ready to weep again. Nick was a little relieved, but mostly he just wanted out. He didn’t want to see girls cry, and he didn’t want anything that Alan might want for himself.
“Wait,” Mae said as he headed for the door. He glanced back at her. “Thanks for coming up,” she said. “I thought — Alan said you might want help with your homework.”
She looked at him questioningly, and he was glad she wasn’t making a scene. He supposed he should have predicted this. It would take more than demon hunting to make Alan stop nagging him to do his homework.
He shrugged and said, “Sure.”
A few minutes later he found himself in the sitting room and on the floor, hunching over the small table like a grouchy vulture. The teachers had assigned him an essay on a stupid book about some idiot girl whose problems were too small to really count and whose life had happened too long ago to matter. Alan usually helped him with this kind of thing; the fact that Alan was somewhere upstairs, doing God knew what, made Nick feel even more annoyed by the book girl.
Nick was already wrestling with the girl’s love life when Mae joined him. She came over to the table, sat crosslegged, and took the book in her hands.
“What are you having trouble with?”
The answer was everything, but Nick decided to be more specific. “The stupid girl goes back to the man who lied to her. She’ll never be able to trust him. What am I supposed to write about that?”
Mae leaned back thoughtfully, arching her spine a little. “Maybe she doesn’t want to completely trust him. Maybe she’s looking for an element of danger.”
“Maybe she’s stupid,” Nick said. “Still doesn’t give me much to write about.”
“You might find things slightly clearer if I read out some important bits,” Mae suggested, and did so. Her voice was calm and sweet.
She obviously had very specific ideas about which were the important bits. She’d worked out, after three days, that Nick didn’t like to read. She might run away to raves all the time, but she was smart, in the same way Alan was smart.
When the low light fell on her ridiculous hair that way, it looked a pale rose color. She lifted her gaze from the book to meet his, and shadows quivered in her dark eyes.
“Right,” Nick said. “Thanks.”
Mae smiled slowly. “You’re welcome.”
Nick had never really wanted to get to know a girl, but here she was, in his house. He felt as if he was being forced into it.
Mae walked toward the door and as he watched her go, she turned her head to look at him. The light went out, and the curve of her neck and fall of her hair were suddenly swallowed up in darkness.
Her voice was even. “I suppose this isn’t a power failure.”
Nick did not bother to answer her. They both knew what it was.
Nick had excellent night vision and acclimated himself quickly to the darkness. He palmed a knife from the sheath strapped around his arm and walked with a soft tread toward Mae. He could see her shape clearly, but he knew that to her there was nothing but black night and then the sudden touch of his hand on her waist. He held on to her with one hand and his knife with the other.
She stayed still. She had not even flinched when he grabbed her. Nick did like her courage.
“Don’t move,” he said. “If I see something move, I will stab it.”
Her voice was a whisper. He did not even see the movement of her lips in the shadows. “I understand.”
They waited a while, standing close, the curve of her hip pressed against his thigh, until it became clear that there was nothing stirring in that still night. Light brimmed for a moment, a faint flicker caught between shadows and brightness, and then flooded the room. Now that she was safe and could see, Mae moved. She put her hand on his arm, her fingertips five warm points against his skin, and he remembered her trembling lips close to his on the night of the Goblin Market.
“I have to make sure Alan is okay,” said Nick.
“I’ll check on Jamie,” Mae responded.
Nick sheathed his knife instead of watching her go. It would be better if she and her brother both left, as soon as possible.
The sudden descent of darkness had only moved Alan to light a candle so he could see the map of England he had stretched out on their floor.
“If demons had attacked under cover of darkness, were you planning to roll that up and hit them with it?” Nick inquired.
“No,” said Alan, and waved his gun to prove it. Then he used the gun to trace a line along the map from Exeter to London. “Tell me what you see.”
“I think it’s called a map.”
Alan gave him an expressive look over the top of his glasses. “The Obsidian Circle’s coming for us,” he said patiently. “Liannan said they’d take nine days. It doesn’t take nine days to get from Exeter to London, even with the summoning circle. They’ll want to make a stop, find a good place to set up their circle so they can arrive in London with a full complement of demons. They’ll want to be at maximum strength. They’ll be calling up every demon they have.”
Nick was glad that Alan wasn’t keeping the plan a secret. He felt he could wait to see why his brother clearly considered this good news.
Alan’s eyes were gleaming with triumph. “So where, between Exeter and London, would you stop to do a spot of demon calling?”
His gun traced the path between Exeter and London again, lingering for a moment to give Nick a clue. Nick whistled between his teeth.
“Of course,” he said. “Stonehenge.”
Alan called Mae and Jamie up to hear their plan, and once Alan had recovered somewhat from Mae sitting on his bed, he was able to explain it.
“Magicians have the same traditions as the Goblin Market people. They’ll choose a place with a lot of human history attached to it to call their demons, and there’s a six-thousand-year-old tomb on the way.” Alan shrugged. “They’ll come looking for us here. We can surprise them there.”
“We catch them off guard,” Nick said. “We catch two of them and bring them back here. Then we kill them and use their lifeblood to take off the marks. You guys can go home, and we can go into hiding.”
He thought the plan sounded good, and Jamie seemed to agree with him. Mae and Alan looked faintly wistful.
“You’ll have to teach me Aramaic by e-mail,” Mae said, and Alan looked embarrassingly pleased.
They launched into an enthusiastic little dialogue about dead languages which Nick, as someone who had failed French, did not pay much attention to. He just noted that this time Alan had picked someone with whom he had a lot in common. That might help him. He was glad, he told himself. It would help them both. Alan could use a girlfriend to distract him from that girl Marie in the picture. Nick wouldn’t even think about touching Mae if she was his brother’s girlfriend.
Mae shifted on the bed, and a book fell out from under Alan’s pillow. Alan moved so fast that he caught it before it hit the floor and shoved it out of sight.
Nick saw Alan’s wary glance toward him. He was still trying to keep the picture a secret, then.
“We’ll go tomorrow,” Alan said. “I’ll write you a note about going to the dentist, Nick, but you can still make your morning classes. You’re not skipping two full days this week.”