Alan was in the middle of making breakfast when the wave of pain hit. It was like the stabbing twinge his leg got when he'd been moving too long, but unimaginably stronger, ravaging his body from the inside out. It was the sort of pain that was so bad it buckled Alan's legs and made him drop the frying pan and forget to be worried about burns and then forget his own name. It took Alan outside himself.
When it passed, Alan lay for a moment staring at the kitchen floor with his glasses askew. Half-fried eggs were splattered in interesting patterns on the lino. Alan groped for thought, and eventually a word surfaced: Nick. It was enough to get Alan to lever himself upright. Nick will have heard you drop the frying pan.
Alan shut off the stove and set the frying pan in the sink. By then his limbs had mostly stopped shaking. He could afford the aftershock tremors in his hand while he cleaned the egg with paper towels. He heard Nick's tread on the floorboards outside, and looked up to see Nick leaning against the kitchen door frame, watching Alan expressionlessly.
"Breakfast's still a few minutes away," Alan said. "Sorry."
"What happened?" Nick asked.
"Too much standing at the bookshop yesterday." Alan gave Nick an apologetic smile, the one that would annoy Nick because Alan was never as careful of his leg as he should be. But it happened sometimes, Alan's leg collapsing under him without warning because he'd put too much pressure on it. Alan knew he could get away with it this time, because Gerald had sent him five spasming agonies so far, and this was the first one Nick had heard.
"Fine," Nick bit off. He disappeared into the hallway. Alan rinsed the pan, rescued the toast from burning, and cracked some more eggs. Nick came back into the kitchen, set his second-best sword on the table, and began going over it with rag and oil.
Alan watched the eggs sizzle and went over the problem in his head. He'd been lucky so far, in that Nick was never in the room when the attacks hit, but it was taking longer for Alan to collect himself each time; eventually Nick was bound to notice. It was also possible that Gerald had the reach to know whether Alan was alone, in which case Gerald was counting on Alan to keep the attacks from Nick. The question, as always, was strategy: Gerald wanted Nick as a pet demon, and was using Alan in some bid to get to Nick. The magician's mark didn't allow Alan to access any of Gerald's thoughts or plans, but this didn't prove that the reverse was also true. It left Alan at an impasse with his own thoughts, since any correct guess at Gerald's plans might give Gerald the room to change them, and any course of action Alan chose to take might allow Gerald to anticipate it. The only thing to do, therefore, was to live each day with measured innocence and to strike only in reflex reaction to whatever Gerald threw at them.
Nick might even approve of this plan.
The eggs were done. Alan gathered them together with the toast and limped to the table, passing half across to Nick. Nick accepted his plate, ate in silence for a moment, and said abruptly, "I have an idea."
Alan cut off a neat slice of egg, dipped his toast in the yolk, and nodded.
"I know where Jamie is," Nick said. "I know where Mae is. I can keep them from getting hurt."
He meant the demon's marks, of course, the one Jamie had taken for strategy and the one Mae had apparently taken earlier for reasons Alan spent time carefully not understanding. "Yes," Alan said, "and Gerald knows where I am, so we'd better not have this conversation."
Nick looked up at him. His eyes were black demon's eyes. Alan knew that they disconcerted everyone, even Mae and Jamie, even Dad, who for years had known Nick just as long as Alan had; but there was nothing unknown to Alan in Nick's expressionless face. "What's stronger," Nick said, "a demon's mark or a magician's mark?"
"No one knows, Nick," Alan said. Magician's marks were new. Not even Nick could predict what Gerald could do.
"Well, I want to find out," Nick told him.
It took Alan a long precious moment to understand. Then he knew: Nick wanted to mark him, wanted to erase whatever Gerald had written and mark Alan as his. Some dangerous, terrible longing flared hot in Alan's belly. "Nick," he said gently. "No."
"I wouldn't make you do anything," Nick said, not understanding. "I wouldn't even make you tell the truth."
Alan believed Nick. He did. Nick hadn't tried to heal Alan's leg again, after Gerald returned it to the way it had been for years -- as though Gerald knew what would hurt Alan. That's what had first given Alan hope, because if Gerald thought that giving Alan his limp back was going to do any worse than irritate Nick and demonstrate Gerald's own power, he didn't understand the Ryves brothers at all. "I know," Alan said, "but we have no idea what might happen if I have two marks --"
"I know what happens with the mark you have," Nick interrupted, harsh. His hands curled into fists on the tabletop. "He hurts you. Whatever Gerald does, it's bad enough that it makes you drop things, it's bad enough that you fall over and turn grey ..."
So Nick had seen after all, and probably he'd seen the attack that had happened only just earlier this morning. Alan smiled. "It's not so bad."
"Shut up," Nick snapped. "He's tearing you apart. I know how to do that. I remember how to do that. And I think I can stop him, so don't be stupid. Let me try."
Alan took a deep breath. This was going to be more difficult that he'd thought. "You can't," he said, his voice scraping in that strange Nick-like way it did whenever he was forced to honesty, "because I want you to. I can't give you that much power over me, and you really can't give me that much power over you --"
Nick's eyes had gone wide. The rest of his face was still as inhumanly blank as ever. "Oh," Nick said, and there was a terrible understanding in that syllable. He had never learned the complexities of most human interaction, and only knew the rules governing loyalty to brothers because it was what Alan had shown him for sixteen years, but power ... Nick had understood the rules of power for thousands of years. "Alan," he said, and his voice rasped over the next word just as badly as Alan's had. "Please."
For a long moment Alan could only sit very still. There was no surety that a demon mark would do anything to overpower Gerald's; perhaps only a magician's blood could erase it. (They'd tried erasing it with a demon's blood, Nick's own, the second day Alan had Gerald's mark, but either it wasn't the key or Nick's human body wasn't of use.) But likewise there was no reason the two marks could not coexist. And Nick was asking. Nick had said please.
"All right," Alan said.
Nick looked startled, like he hadn't really thought Alan would agree. Alan let out a steady breath in quiet horror. He was so good at denying Nick until the time was right. They had so much to lose, and right now ... right now there was nothing that Alan wanted more than to have something of Nick's on his skin, counterpoint to Gerald. There was nothing Nick could make him do that Alan would not have freely done.
Then Nick was standing fluidly, saying, "Come upstairs."
Of course. The kitchen looked out on the street and was tactically inadvisable. Alan knew that right now was the moment to say no, to back out, to keep being Nick's older brother. Instead he stood too, and followed Nick out of the kitchen and up to his own bedroom, because it was the one that faced the back of the house. He unbuttoned his shirt as he went. Nick turned at the rustle of cloth. An eyebrow went up. "Even Mae didn't use this as an excuse to take her shirt off," he said, with an edge of mocking. Alan shrugged the shirt off and folded it with crisp deliberation.
"Put the mark on my side," Alan said. "Just under my ribs. No one will see it there."
Nick cocked his head. "No," he said. "Sit down."
Alan folded down onto the bed beside Nick, pulse climbing to his throat. "Nick," he said, and it came out smooth and kind, exactly the way he was supposed to sound. "I'm agreeing to this because it might keep us a bit safer, and I need your word that you won't do anything but protect me from Gerald's attacks."
"I won't do anything but protect you from Gerald's attacks," Nick repeated, inflectionless with truth. He wrapped a hand around Alan's wrist and lifted it, studying Alan's palm -- the palm that was still blank, Alan's own, without the magician's mark on it. Nick considered it, and Alan's breath caught. He didn't have time to say, No, Nick, not where everyone can see, but he did somehow have time to realize that every particular of what Nick was about to do was out of Alan's control anyway.
Nick lifted Alan's palm to his mouth, and pressed his lips to it, soft and dry.
The pain wasn't anything like what Gerald sent. This radiated outward from Alan's palm, consuming, trapping Alan in the moment. He tried to cringe away and he tried to press up against Nick, wanting to rip his hand away, wanting Nick to keep going, desperate for something to change, his back arching and digging into the wall he'd somehow slammed up against while Nick followed patiently, hands implacable wrapped around Alan's wrist. Somewhere distant Alan was saying "Nick Nick Nick" in some strange hoarse voice of raw honesty, begging Nick to let go before Alan gave everything away, because he hadn't changed his mind and he'd do anything to keep Nick safe and if it meant destroying himself and burning up right here he'd embrace it.
Nick let go. "There," he said, after a moment.
Alan stared down at his palm. A third-tier mark. Nick could possess him. Nick could do anything he wanted. He looked up, shuddering with aftershocks, and met Nick's eyes. Nick looked back, quiet and fathomless and considering, and Alan realized that he was painfully hard. From the mark? From Nick? He sat there for a suspended moment, trying to work out the story he could tell himself to disentangle from this, and suddenly it didn't matter.
He leaned forward, seizing Nick's t-shirt, and kissed him hard. It wasn't a kiss Alan could ever give to the kid brother he'd taught to speak. It wasn't the sort of kiss he could give to Mae, or any of the other girls at the shops and schools in countless towns. It wasn't even the sort of kiss he might give to a girlfriend or boyfriend he'd been with affectionate years. It was a kiss for Nick, the demon in a human body that Alan had shaped and who was shaping him now in turn, open-mouthed and messy and desperately hungry. Nick didn't even hesitate a moment in returning it; he wrapped his fingers in Alan's hair and tugged, hard, and Alan felt himself go pliantly boneless.
Nick laughed softly against his mouth. "Mae didn't react like this."
"I don't want to hear a thing," Alan said, "about anyone else," and his voice came out wrecked with lust and truth.
Nick laughed again, a quiet inhuman sound, and kissed the words from Alan's mouth. Somehow he'd gone from cornering Alan against the wall to straddling Alan's thighs, rubbing up against him in a slow deliberate way that made dark heat pool at the base of his spine. But Nick was also sitting lightly, careful of Alan's bad leg, and through the haze of want, something cracked in Alan's chest. His hands fumbled under Nick's t-shirt, sliding up the warm curve of his back, and Nick arched into it. Alan's hands curled, his nails digging into Nick's skin, not because he wanted to hurt Nick but because he had to make this moment real somehow, wanted Nick, who had seared his skin and was now being so careful, to be his.
With a hiss of surprise, Nick jerked back. Alan's hands went flat again under Nick's shirt. Nick didn't seem to notice; he was breathing hard, but regarding Alan thoughtfully, as though working out a puzzle and for the first time getting an answer that made sense. Alan shifted uncomfortably, getting unaccountably more aroused under the scrutiny and hating it.
"Well?" Nick said finally.
Alan considered saying We can't, and promptly discarded it for idiocy. That was a line that might have, once, worked on his brother. Now he had a demon in his lap, and Nick had come back, and Nick had begged him to stay. And then Alan had said yes, and Nick had marked him, and Alan had no idea who was in charge anymore. A smile was starting to curl Nick's lips into something very much like possessive satisfaction, making Alan go liquid. Maybe that was his answer right there.
"Nick," he said, disentangling his hands so that he could bring them up, shaking, to cup Nick's face. Nick allowed it, with tightly controlled patience. His smile widened, and Alan realized, with an abrupt jolt, that he was terrified, not of Nick but of himself. "Nick," he said again, his voice clear and smooth, "I think we're safe."
"You don't mean from Gerald," Nick said, a simple clarification, leaning into Alan's hands. He reached out and pressed a thumb to Alan's bottom lip, and Alan shuddered. Nick grinned. "You mean from each other."
"Yes," Alan whispered.
"Good," Nick said, and leaned forward again to kiss Alan viciously.
I would die for you, Alan thought, as Nick's solid weight bore him down onto the mattress, and live for you, while he tasted blood from where Nick had bruised and bit his lip, and keep you from hurting or changing anyone, as Nick held Alan's wrists down with one hand and used the other to deftly undo Alan's fly, and you don't have to pretend to be human for me, which was no longer a lie or was the best lie Alan had ever told. Nick wrapped a hand around his cock and Alan choked on a desperate gasp.
He tried to focus enough to look up into Nick's face, but when he did, the cataloguing possessive smile was still there, stripping Alan bare, and after a moment Alan had to squeeze his eyes shut and press his burning face to his arm. Nick was still working Alan's cock, with the same effortless physicality he applied to everything, and Alan kept himself from writhing only with the barest effort of will. He was already on the hot edge of coming; it had been a long time, and he was strung out on pain, and it was Nick.
A tear slipped out the corner of one tight-shut eye, and the strangest thing of all was that Nick seemed to completely understand, because he didn't falter or ask what was wrong; he just said, softly, "Alan," and "You can let go now."
Alan shuddered and came, ridiculously grateful for Nick's hand holding his wrists to the bed and Nick's weight pinning down his legs and the fact that Nick was heavy enough to not be thrown by the writhing that Alan couldn't help now. When Alan finally shuddered still, Nick shifted, his grip loosening.
"No," Alan said.
Nick froze, then tightened his hand on Alan's wrists again. Alan cracked an eye open and risked a glance up at Nick. Nick wasn't smiling anymore. He looked thoughtful, but not unhappy. Alan cleared his throat until he thought his voice would be steady, and said, "What about you?"
Nick blinked and glanced down, as though he'd entirely forgotten the concept of sex as a mutual activity. "I forgot," Nick said, sounding a little surprised, and looked back at Alan. His mouth twitched. "You were distracting." But as colour rose to Alan's cheeks, he felt Nick's thumb trace gently up his wrist, over the pulse point and across the demon's mark. Alan shivered, a delayed aftershock of overwhelming pleasure. Nick looked pleased. "So we'll do this again," he said.
"Yes," Alan said. He couldn't imagine what his life would be without Nick holding him down and wrecking him, and maybe it was long past time for him to start enjoying it. He shifted, and this time Nick did let go and climb off him. He helped Alan sit up. They both needed a change of clothes, but for a moment Alan sat there, rubbing his palm gently with the opposite thumb. He looked up to find Nick still watching him, and smiled softly. "Nick. Thanks."
"We still don't know if it works," Nick pointed out, which was true. But he smiled back, and Alan knew that he understood.