He came inside to find Alan frying eggs.
“Do you remember Mrs. Gilman, our neighbor from three houses ago?” Alan asked. “She used to watch you practicing the sword with binoculars. I never told you. I’m sorry.”
Nick laid his sword down on the draining board with a metallic clink.
“Why did you do it?”
“Well, Nicholas, she was over sixty. I thought you’d be a little disturbed.”
Nick said nothing. He stared at Alan, jaw set, and let silence stretch from him to his brother as if it was a red carpet he was unrolling for Alan to talk on.
“Look, they needed help and we were the only ones who could give it,” Alan said rapidly. “I can buy another talisman from the Market people tomorrow. I thought I’d just give Mae mine and replace it—”
“Stop lying to me.”
The scrape of the spatula in the pan faltered. Nick crossed his arms over his chest and waited.
“I don’t know what you m—”
“It was the boy who had the problem. You gave the girl the talisman. Don’t try to pretend that you didn’t want to give her something. Don’t pretend you didn’t want to impress her with how magically attentive to her needs you could be.”
The tips of Alan’s ears were violently red.
“Maybe you’re right,” he admitted.
Alan hesitated, then set his thin shoulders. “I wanted to impress her, but I wanted to help them too. The talisman will protect her. If I wanted her to — to like me as well, what does it matter?”
Alan looked tired in the remorseless yellow light of the kitchen. He should be asleep, not up frying eggs and worrying.
“I don’t see why it matters if she likes you or not.”
Girls were an old subject of argument between them. Alan sighed, and Nick stared out the window, where the shadows of night were paling slightly, preparing for dawn.
“Don’t — I know you’re worried,” Alan said. “Don’t be. How many people with first marks have we seen? How many first marks have you removed? How is this different?”
Nick turned his gaze from the window to Alan.
“This is different,” he said. “This is you.”
Alan looked terribly pleased for a moment, and Nick realized that his brother had taken this as one of the ridiculous, sappy things Alan was used to saying all the time. Nick had only meant what he’d said. It had never been his brother before.
Thankfully Alan did not make a fuss about it. He could believe Nick had said any stupid thing he wanted, so long as there were no scenes.
All he said was, “Here, have your dinfast. Then we can start packing.”
“Dinfast,” Nick repeated.
“Dinner and breakfast!” Alan said triumphantly. “Like brunch.”
Nick subjected him to a long, judgmental stare. “There’s something very wrong with you,” he said at last. “I thought you should know.”
Undaunted or perhaps just unsurprised by this news, Alan began to do the dishes. He pushed Nick’s sword away with sudsy fingers to make room for a wet frying pan.
“Where do you fancy living next?”
“London,” said Nick, because he thought that Alan would like it.
Alan looked pleased, and he saw he’d guessed right.
“London, then. We’ll find a better house, one with a kitchen window that’s not all smashed, and we’ll go to the museums. Then come May we can go to the Goblin Market and find someone to dance—”
“I’ll dance,” Nick said.
The comfortable clink and splash of the washing-up stopped. Alan had gone rather still.
“You don’t have to. Someone else can do it. You told me you never wanted to dance again.”
For all that Alan was so fond of talking, for all that he could bang on endlessly about nothing for hours, he didn’t actually seem to understand words. Nick had said everything quite clearly. He had never intended to go into the circle again, never intended to dance for the demons again. As far as he was concerned, the marked ones could go to someone else for help.
Only this time the marked one was Alan, and it was different.
“I’ll dance,” he repeated. Alan smiled his embarrassing touched smile, and Nick rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to any museums, though.”
It was late when Nick woke, full sunlight pressing against the restraining curtains. He only woke when he did because of a noise below that sounded ominously like someone dropping every one of their pots and pans.
Nick found a clean shirt with all due haste, and came down the stairs still buttoning his jeans.
“Give me that,” he ordered.
“Oh, but young sir, the doctor said I could go back to heavy lifting if I was real careful of my poor old heart,” Alan croaked.
Nick forcibly removed the box of cooking equipment from his brother’s thin arms. “Go pack up your books.”
It was a luxury to have time to move out of a house. Whenever Alan had to leave his books behind he got wistful, and when they moved in a hurry they always had to spend their first paycheck on plates and blankets instead of the heating bill. Nick liked the peace of physical exertion, being useful and not having to think; liked the heft of big boxes in his arms and the sun on the back of his neck as he pushed the final box into the car boot. The air felt like it had rained sometime this morning, and the sky was washed a lighter shade of blue than normal. Nick turned back to the house, cracking his neck, and let one thought form in his mind: They were going to London, and they might have at least a couple of months before all the freakish madness caught up with them.
No sooner had he thought this than a thunder of feet on the tarmac behind him made him spin, going for the knife sheath in the small of his back.
Framed against the pale sky, rushing toward him in a flurry of open flannel shirts and the chiming of about four necklaces apiece, came the odd couple from last night.
Nick let go of his knife, though not without a moment’s reluctance, and fixed them with a cold look that was usually effective. They did not run in the opposite direction, but Nick leaned his forearms on the roof of the car and maintained a baleful gaze, just in case they decided to reconsider.
Mae’s eyes scanned the filled car and Nick’s disheveled appearance, and realization swept over her face. “You’re running away!”
“You’re an investigative genius,” Nick said.
She scowled at him, small face twisted into an incongruous expression of fury. It struck Nick as funny that this short, pink-haired girl would obviously have loved to be tall and imposing and have her fury strike fear into people’s hearts.
“What about us?” she demanded. “We don’t have anyone else to help us!”
“So? I don’t care.”
Mae seemed momentarily floored, her righteous outrage lost in uncertainty. She glanced at Jamie, who was standing about doing his impression (Nick had to concede it was good) of a wounded deer. She reached out a hand to clasp his shoulder.
“You know what’s going to happen to Jamie,” she said in a low voice, scraping on her pain. “How can you just leave us?”
“Why shouldn’t I? People die all over the world, and I doubt you lose sleep over them. What’s so special about you? Why should I want to help you? You two invaded my home and got my brother marked!”
Nick set his teeth lightly into his lip. He’d come close to raising his voice. His arms were tensed, his hands clenched with the longing to reach for a knife or a sword, his insides knotted with the urge for action. He wished sometimes that he could feel angry without feeling the urge to kill, but he never had.
It was different for Alan. He’d asked his brother once what he felt when he was angry since Alan never wanted to kill people — though sometimes he had to — and Alan had looked upset and described feeling indignation and annoyance and a hundred things all at once that he said added up to anger.
Alan was too soft. All Nick felt was the violent desire to cut down whoever was in his way.
“Come on, Mae,” Jamie said, his quiet voice a shock. “I told you he’d be too angry to help us. We’ll find some other way.” He glanced at Nick, eyes sliding apprehensively from him to the safer sight of the car. “I’m sorry about your brother. We didn’t mean for him to get hurt.”
“Doesn’t matter what you meant,” Nick pointed out.
He’d be on edge until Alan’s mark was gone. He didn’t need these people bothering him as well.
Jamie reached up to take his sister’s hand that rested on his shoulder, twining her fingers around his and trying to use it to tug her away. He backed up a step and then stopped, like a boat caught short at the end of its rope. Mae stood firm, her eyes boring into Nick.
“Get lost,” Nick said, enunciating each word as if she was a bit slow. “There’s no help for you here.”
That was when Alan came outside, blinking slightly in the bright light. His quickly checked smile at the sight of Mae made Nick feel unwell.
“Hi, Alan,” Jamie said in a small voice. “Are you feeling okay?”
“Yes, of course. There’s no need to worry about me, I’ll be right as rain in no time,” Alan assured him, smile fading as he looked at Jamie. This was just how Alan had looked at the sick kitten he’d taken home so it could grow up big and strong and able to bite Nick.
Jamie offered him a little smile as if to call Alan’s back. “You’ll get it fixed at the — Goblin Market thing.”
Mae and Jamie’s faces suddenly changed, as if a shadow had fallen over them. Nick turned to see that shadow was actually Mum’s dark form at Alan’s shoulder, moving slowly forward until the cold light touched her face.
Mum walked past Alan, her hand lingering on his sleeve for an instant as she went by. Her black flag of hair streamed behind her as she went, as if it wanted to cling to the shadows. When she stopped in the middle of the yard, her hair fell with a weighted swish like heavy curtains around her face. Nick kept his eyes turned to her so he would not have to look at Mae and Jamie. It was always the same, the way people’s eyes moved from Mum’s face to Nick’s, while their expressions moved from recognition to silent horror.
Nick’s mother had a face that kept all secrets but one. Her broad, slanted cheekbones made her look catlike, and her wide mouth was constantly moving and always formed a shape at odds with her expression. She was tall, and her black hair made her look even paler than she was. She looked like Mae might have wanted to look, if Mum had not looked insane. The full mouth kept shifting with the spasms of a tic. Past the protection of hooded eyelids that seemed pulled down by heavy lashes, her eyes were icy blue and seemed always fixed on someone who was not there.
Except for the color of his eyes, Nick looked exactly like her. He hated it when people saw her. They could never look at Nick again without associating him with madness.
“We’re leaving again,” she said flatly. “I don’t know why we bother. He’ll find us.”
Nick wished he could look away from her. He wished that he could leave her. He wished that Alan would agree to leave her.
Mum smiled dreamily, the rest of her face frozen and expressionless. She said, “He’s not the kind of man who fails.”
Alan limped forward to stand beside her in the uncut grass of their front yard, and reached for her hand. Nick didn’t see how he could bear to touch her. “Olivia,” said Alan, voice low, “don’t. Let’s get in the car.”
She turned and pressed her fingers against the curve of his cheek, gazing at him but not quite meeting his eyes.
“You’re a sweet boy,” she whispered. “You’re my sweet boy, but you’ve got it all wrong.”