In his dream Alan stood at the window, staring straight into the sun. He could do that now. The sun was low in the sky, painting streaks of red and gold across London, touching his face with warmth. The warmth filled him with a satisfaction edging into vicious glee; satisfaction, he catalogued, for Anzu's benefit, as automatic as he'd ever told words to Nick, and Anzu tightened around him in choking darkness. Alan didn't know whether Anzu was thanking him for the word, or hating him for it, or if Anzu didn't care. Anzu cared about the uses of this body, and about the city spread below them like an invitation.
Anzu cared about Cynthia, curled up behind them on the sofa. That was Alan's fault.
He heard Cynthia rise and come padding over to them. Anzu didn't turn to look at her, but waited, with the still patience of a demon, until Cynthia reached out and curled her hand around the back of his neck. She drew his head gently down to hers, and kissed him.
"I'm right here," Cynthia whispered. "Hold on."
Alan could not afford to feel anything at all, and for a moment he thought the rising bloom of hope was his own terrible mistake. Then he realized that it was Anzu's, Anzu tapping into emotions that didn't feel foreign to Alan, because Alan was giving him everything. Anzu smiled, Alan's slow sweet curve of a smile. I'm going to keep her, he murmured inside their head, each word a silent terrible vacuum of absolute intent. Alan said nothing back, could say nothing back, but he let Anzu have his rush of pain and fear and fury, and under the horrible onslaught of Anzu's laughter he fractured a little more.
It hurt, far worse than any of the tortures Gerald had sent. It was far more intimate, and it went on, and on, and on.
Winter sunlight was pouring white through the bedroom window, such a different light from the one in his memory that it seemed to come from another world. Alan levered himself up, noting absently that his face felt damp and his bad leg was one dull pulling ache. His throat didn't hurt, though, which was good. He probably hadn't been screaming.
When Alan went out to the kitchen five minutes later, he discovered Nick eating cereal and looking unconcerned. Definitely no screaming, then. "Good morning," Alan said.
Nick gave him a nod.
Alan cracked eggs into their chipped frying pan. "Ready for today?" he asked Nick over his shoulder. Today was the holiday gathering that Cynthia hadn't been able to talk her father out of hosting. Alan was in fact looking forward to it very much.
"I'll behave," Nick said dryly. "I'll tone down the aura of demonic menace. I hear it's out this season."
"Let's pretend it is, for Mrs. Price's sake," Alan agreed. Cynthia’s Grandma Tess was not in on the secret of Cynthia’s social circle; and Mrs. Price tolerated Nick, but only because she thought Alan was such a nice boy.
Alan didn't wonder what she would think if she ever learned that her granddaughter's sweet boyfriend had once been possessed, and had placed Cynthia in horrible danger. Alan knew exactly what she would think, because he thought it himself.
Nick came over to the stove, stealing a fried egg. Alan forgot to take a whack at Nick's hand with the spatula, as he would have done if he'd actually been on form that morning, and Nick gave Alan a puzzled look, yolk sliding down the side of his fork.
"I'm not worried about your demonic menace," Alan said, a little at random. It was not his best effort, but it was too late now, so he smiled and flipped the remaining egg onto a waiting plate. "But we've never done a Christmas party."
"You'll like it," Nick said. He said it flatly enough that Alan couldn't be quite sure whether this was a hope or a demand, but often with Nick those were the same thing.
"We will," Alan told him. "Besides, I'm sure Jamie and Mae have been to plenty of Christmas parties. We can just follow their lead."
Jamie and Mae were at the Aventurine Circle's townhouse; Mae was dividing her time between the Market and her brother over the holidays. Alan stayed in the car, idling at the kerb, while Nick went out to ring the doorbell and returned in short order with the Crawfords. Nick was walking a little behind and to the left of Jamie, like a bodyguard, and Mae was chattering away beside Nick, bright and animated. As always, Alan saw the three of them together and felt a spike of affection; as always, he clamped down on the feeling for a moment of panic before remembering that it was all right now. The worst possible thing had happened, and there they were, happy and mostly whole.
"Happy Christmas!" Jamie offered, climbing into the front passenger seat. Nick and Mae had slid into the back; in the rearview mirror, Alan could see they were holding hands, which Nick seemed tolerantly amused by. Mae was wearing tiny mistletoe earrings.
"Happy Christmas," Alan returned, pulling back out onto the road. "Busy time of year?"
Jamie nodded. "Seb was going to come too, but he's out of London. The holidays are a good recruitment time, apparently. You know, because a magician can turn up to say 'Hello! Family getting you down? Join our Circle! Come for the great parties and accepting atmosphere, stay for the demons and killing!' So Seb's off trying to find young magicians before the murderous Circles can get them."
"I'm sorry he couldn't come," Alan murmured, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Jamie duck his head, smiling.
They arrived at Cynthia's father's house in good time. They weren’t the first ones there, as Mrs. Price had invited several of her friends, but they were the first of the Market people to arrive. Cynthia met them at the door in jeans and a flattering red jumper, her hair pulled up in a twist, her father's daughter. She went up on her toes for a moment to light a kiss on Alan's lips, then turned to Mae and Jamie, hugging each of them in turn. She gave Nick a smile, and he returned a friendly nod.
Alan stayed in the doorway a beat too long with the ghost of Cynthia's kiss still pressed to his mouth, the light against his eyelids streaked for a moment as red as fire. Then he remembered himself, and followed the others inside.
Jonathan and Tess Price had liked Alan almost instantly. Mrs. Price liked him because he was polite, and because he was so good with Lydie and Toby; Mr. Price liked him because he seemed so much more stable and responsible than Market folk usually were. It was easy to make Cynthia's family like him, as Alan liked them very much himself, Mr. Price who quietly dealt with numbers all day and loved Cynthia more than life, Mrs. Price who had taken in Lydie and Toby without question. It was easy to make Cynthia's family like him because Alan had been preparing his whole life to be the solicitous boyfriend of a clever girl from a loving family. Thea's Alan was the most effortless part he'd ever played.
Alan hadn't imagined it would be quite like this. This was much better.
Nick was in the kitchen, no doubt using his demonic wiles to convince hapless old ladies that he should be allowed to cook. Alan made to follow him, but by the time he got his head round the doorway, Nick had already been conscripted for carving a turkey, and was standing at the kitchen table, a head and shoulders taller than everyone else in the room, knife in hand. None of the old ladies seemed in the least bit bothered by this.
While Alan stood in the doorway someone slipped in under his arm: Lydie, her hair bright and her dress covered in glittery silver. She went right up to Nick and watched him carve the turkey in fascination. Nick glanced down at her and his mouth twitched in brief amusement; then he looked up and caught Alan's eye.
Alan gave him a slow, spreading smile of approval, and Nick mirrored something like it back at him. He still didn't smile very much like a human did, but despite the carving knife, it didn't look too threatening.
Thus assured, Alan went back into the next room. Mae was holding court from a sofa, her brother perched on the arm next to her, both of them chatting with several of the Market people Cynthia had invited. Alan settled himself on a rug, and when Toby toddled by, he gathered the child into his lap, where Toby was content to stay.
Cynthia was drifting through the rooms, smoothly switching from her father's Thea to Sin of the Market and back again. When she saw Alan on the floor with Toby she smiled, a smile full of such love that it shook Alan to the core.
It was so strange to be looked at like that, when Alan's memories of his father were so faded they seemed unreal sometimes, when the face he was used to seeing every day was Nick's, blank and fathomless. Cynthia smiled at him, and Alan smiled back helplessly.
She sat with him at dinner, both of them wedged between Nick on one side and Cynthia's friend Chiara on the other. Mr. Price had unfolded a card table from somewhere, and between this and the big oak dining table, everyone more or less managed to fit. Alan kept an eye on Nick, who was sitting in silence while Mae, next to him, talked dancing venues with Jonas and Jamie. While the cranberry sauce was being passed down, Nick caught Alan watching him, and rolled his eyes so expressively that Alan gave him a rueful smile and redirected his attention elsewhere. But he could still feel Nick sitting solidly next to him, even if he wasn't looking, and that was good.
Down the table someone produced several Christmas crackers, though they seemed to be garden variety rather than Market make. Alan pulled one with Lydie across the table. She wore the resulting purple paper crown with great pride; it sat askew on her head, since it was much too big. Alan's end of the cracker had a joke slip, which he dutifully read aloud.
Lydie laughed at it, and Cynthia laughed with her, more encouraging than actually amused, since like all Christmas cracker jokes, the one Alan had received was terrible. Cynthia's right leg was pressed against Alan's left one, a reassuring pressure. "All right?" she murmured to Alan.
"Yes," Alan murmured back, with exactly the right sort of smile, selling it, but Cynthia raised her eyebrows at him, and Alan had to look away. He stared down at his plate and offered, "The food's very good. I really should tell your grandmother."
"Do," Cynthia said, mercifully not pursuing it. "She loves to hear that sort of thing."
Alan nodded, and loved her for not making him explain.
He knew he wasn't putting in a very good performance at all. Of course this scene of domestic cheer had to be just as odd for Cynthia as it was for Alan, but she was doing an excellent job of selling it as utterly normal. It was utterly normal, of course, and it was exactly what Alan wanted. It was properly for him, and for Nick and Cynthia and the Crawfords, and it was lovely, and still it felt like it belonged to someone else.
Somewhere out in the world, Anzu was in someone's body.
"Thanks," Alan said to Jamie when Jamie passed the pudding bowl down to him, and the word came out rough and sanded-down. Jamie only blinked before giving Alan a normal smile, but Alan knew he'd noticed.
He also caught the flash of Cynthia looking at him and away again. She carried on her conversation with her father, but she also pressed her thigh a little harder against his. Alan was absurdly grateful for the contact.
Dessert was winding down when the phone call for Jamie came. He took it in the next room, and came back in a minute later looking pale. Going to Mae and Nick, he leaned down between them and said quietly, "I have to go meet Seb. It's Anzu. He's ... running down early."
"I'll come with you," Nick said at once, low.
"I'd better get back to the Market," Mae said, "let everyone know things are being handled."
They said their goodbyes, Mae apologizing for having to leave early, Jamie making cheerful jokes that sounded much more convincing than they would have a few months ago. "Thank you so much for coming," Mr. Price told them; "Remember we need to go over setup!" Jonas said to Mae in parting. No one seemed to suspect anything was amiss. Alan didn't know whether the Crawfords even realized that he'd overheard.
All the same, he followed them to the front door, if only to make Nick's departure look less suspicious, and lingered in the corridor while Jamie and Mae bundled up against the winter chill. Nick shrugged on his coat and scarf in quick efficient movements, and only then did he look up at Alan.
He said nothing, but gave Alan a long, fierce, inarticulate look.
Nick was no good at asking if Alan was all right. He didn't like it when Alan lied, of course, but neither did he like it when Alan told the truth, because there was nothing he could do about this. So Alan didn't say anything either; he just gave Nick a smile, reassuring and real.
It was always easy to smile when Nick showed how much he cared.
Alan did his best to carry on normally while the rest of the party dispersed. He helped several of Mrs. Price's friends carry all the dishes back to the kitchen. He took Toby away to get ready for bed so Cynthia and her family could say goodnight to the other guests. His smile felt stuck, though it must not have been as bad as all that, since Toby was sleepily docile all the way through being tucked in for the night.
Alan came back downstairs to find just Cynthia and Mr. Price, sitting on a sofa together. The room was dim, a glow coming from the string of white lights on the Christmas tree. It looked like the Market, like it should be surrounded with coloured stalls, like Cynthia belonged here. Alan stood in the doorway with nothing left to do.
He'd done this, of course. He'd set Nick free. Now Nick and Jamie were off tracking Anzu down before his body wore out, because the body was fighting so hard, and Mae was reassuring her people that everything was under control, and Alan had done this.
Cynthia looked up and saw Alan in the doorway. She murmured something to her father before standing up and coming to him.
"Hi," she said, as though they hadn't been sitting next to one another all evening.
"Hi," Alan returned, soft.
"Come on," Cynthia said, and pulled him upstairs. Alan went without protest, because Nick was busy tonight, and because Cynthia's warm hand in his was the only thing tethering him to the world. Everything else was dark and cold, killing cold. That it was inside Alan's head made it no less real, nor less dangerous.
In her room, Cynthia undressed Alan slowly: knit vest, button-down shirt, socks, trousers. She did it without fumbling, but she did it without artifice or grace; just Cynthia, sliding her warm hands over Alan as she took him apart.
"Cynthia," Alan whispered.
She wrapped her hands in his curls and tugged him down for a kiss, hard and urgent, anchoring. He settled his hands on her waist, hovering on the softness of her jumper for a moment before he pulled her close. They had done this hundreds of times now, but Alan could see balefire on the insides of his eyelids, and he started to shake, slow rolling shakes made far worse by the effort he was putting in to stop them.
Cynthia pulled Alan to her bed. She slid under the covers with him, shimmying out of her clothes as she did, so that Alan ended up with an armful of Cynthia in only her bra and knickers, skin hot and smooth against his. She plucked his glasses off, and Alan pressed his face against her hair.
"Tell me," Cynthia murmured, twining her fingers with his.
"Anzu," Alan said. His voice cracked. "The body's running out."
Cynthia squeezed Alan's hand but said nothing. Alan was desperately grateful for that. He didn't want her to tell him that it was for the best, this bargain they had with Anzu; he didn't want her to apologize, either, because it was a terribly clever bargain, and he would have done the same if he'd been in the position to make it. He breathed in. Cynthia smelled of Christmas dinner, and of slightly spicy shampoo, and of herself.
"I," he said. "I know how the demon world feels. Like never being warm again. Like having no words because there are no words to describe that place."
Cynthia kissed the hollow of his throat. She offered no words.
"That's what you're fighting," Alan went on. He wasn't quite sure why he was saying it, except that Cynthia knew how to listen to him like no one else did, and even if she didn't know what to do or say right away, she came to it eventually, and was exactly what Alan needed. "You're fighting being invaded," Alan told her, "and being taken over, of course. But the horror is in what the demon remembers. They want to share it, because it -- it's funny to them, to make you more like them while they're crushing you out." He was hardly shaking at all now. "I suppose it's a little like they're trying to share."
"That's charitable," Cynthia muttered.
"No," said Alan. "Not really."
They lay in silence for a while. Cynthia stroked Alan's hair, gentling. When Alan closed his eyes he didn't see balefire anymore, or the blackness between stars, only the blank of the back of his eyelids in a dimly lit room.
Alan thought about saying that he didn't want to be complicit to any possession, now that he knew. But he couldn't say that, and not for Cynthia's sake, or Mae's, or Jamie's. Because now he knew, and he wouldn't wish the demon world on anyone, not even on Anzu.
Cynthia kissed the hollow of Alan's throat again, and along his collarbone. He bent his face down to hers. She kissed his lips, soft now, and unbidden Alan made a small noise, half-broken. "I'm all right," he whispered; that was a lie, of course, when the sheer determined force of Cynthia's love called up the same in Alan, and it hurt, terribly, wonderfully.
"We did our best," Cynthia told him, and perhaps that wasn't a lie. Alan tried to imagine a world where things had gone better, but here Cynthia was, warm in his arms, looking at him close and serious with the beginning of a smile at the corner of her mouth.
"I love you," Alan told her, which was not a lie at all, and kissed her again, right at the corner of her mouth where the smile was starting. "Now let's keep pretending to be people who can handle anything."
"Clive," Cynthia murmured, "we already can."