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Fever Blossoms

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Sin found Mae sitting on the steps of the wagon she was sharing with Jamie. Mae had her arms wrapped around her drawn-up knees, and she was barefoot, wearing a floaty white skirt and a black t-shirt that was too big for her. It also didn't have a catchy slogan, so Sin was pretty sure it was Nick's. The black pearl in the hollow of her throat—half-hidden in the folds of the shirt—shone like a star.

"Hey," Sin said, sitting down next to her. Mae stretched her legs out and edged over to make room, but the steps were too narrow for them to sit with much space between them. Sin leaned into Mae's side. "Where's Nick?"

"Do I look like his keeper?" Mae snapped, automatic, and then her mouth quirked.

"No," Sin said, drawing out the word. "His keeper is a lot taller than you, and ginger, and kind of buff. Lovely singing voice. Great kisser."

Mae snickered. "Hey, I'm kind of buff." She flexed an arm—or tried to, anyway, and Sin snorted and poked her until she put her arm back down, her hand light on Sin's jeans-covered thigh.

"You're a good kisser, I'll give you that," Sin said, judiciously.

Mae grinned, but her cheeks went a little pink. It was always impressive, Sin thought, that she managed not to clash with her hair. "Why thank you, Cynthia," she said, in a ridiculous approximation of Alan's voice. Sin rolled her eyes, and slid her fingers over Mae's until they were almost, but not quite, holding hands. "What's up?" Mae asked, in her own voice.

It was approaching dusk on Market Day. Sin had spent the morning hanging lights with Seb and Jonas, and then she'd walked the sprawling edges of the Market, talking to her people. The Market was getting larger every day, and there was more to do: disputes to settle, and wagons to build, and with more people there were more events to plan, more mouths to feed, more faces to recognize, and more confusing paperwork to bring to Mae; but everyone seemed to be settling into the changes. Even the magicians were making friends. She'd found Ivy and Jessica Walker with their heads bent together over a book, Matthias teaching sign language to one of the women from the Aventurine Circle, Jamie and a couple of necromancers working over the Market's perimeter of camouflage spells.

"I was looking for Alan," she said to Mae. "I want to see if I can talk him into dancing with me tonight."

Mae turned her hand over on Sin's thigh, tangling their fingers together. "Last I saw, Nick was dragging him off down the hill for a sword lesson." She sounded a little bitter, all of sudden, rougher around the edges than Sin was used to, and Sin frowned.

"Mae." Mae pulled her hand away, and Sin turned in towards her on the steps, tucking her legs up beneath her. "What's wrong?"

"I'm happier than I've ever been," Mae said bleakly, "even after everything we've been through, after my mother, and what happened to Jamie, and Alan, and Nick almost burning down London, and all the people we killed. I don't regret anything I've done, and I don't believe in crises of faith. You do what you have to do, and maybe sometimes you get the things you want. Like the Market," she smiled, bright and brief like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, and Sin was reminded again of just how much Mae loved the Market, just how much—in the end—she wasn't a tourist at all; it had stopped hurting a while ago. "I can't even believe I'm saying this, but sometimes I'm just—not sure. Like I have to give up something. Can it really be okay, to just have everything?"

This from the girl who'd been rich her whole life, Sin thought cynically, but she knew what Mae meant. She got the strangeness, too. The Market was flourishing, and so were they; and it was very strange, to not be constantly looking over her shoulder, to let people see through some of the roles she played, to trust that the world might not end if she fell. "I think you might have to get over that," she said to Mae.

Mae rolled her eyes. "Thanks for mocking me in my moment of vulnerability."

"I've been hanging out with Nick," Sin said, and Mae laughed. It sounded involuntary, but Sin would take what she could get. "Anyway, what would you give up?"

Mae sighed. "I don't know. I don't think I could, really. Obviously not the Market, but—"

Sin edged down on the step, pressing her leg against Mae's bare calf. "I don't think you have to give up anything, Mae." Mae frowned down at her, and Sin picked up her hand, again. "This is the Goblin Market. Don't you know we can do anything?"

Mae was silent for a moment, and then she nodded once, solemnly, and squeezed Sin's hand. "Plus," Sin added, squeezing back, "you're our fearless leader, and you're kind of too pig-headed to let anything stop you."

"Really, thanks," Mae said dryly, but she was smiling again. Sin was thinking about talking her into the wagon to get dressed for the evening—or rather, undressed, they had a little daylight left before they had to be anywhere—when Mae straightened, eyes catching on something past the line of wagons. Sin followed her gaze, and saw Alan and Nick coming up the hill.

Alan was limping a little more heavily than usual, and even now that was the first thing Sin saw; but it wasn't flavored with the old distaste. Now, she worried, and her eyes chased up Alan's long, lean body to his face, until she saw that he was grinning. He was sweaty and rumpled, glasses sliding just slightly down his nose, and his red hair was messy and sweat-damp and golden in the late afternoon light—but not gold like Anzu's, not ever again, and his laughing blue eyes belonged to no one but Alan. He was leaning into Nick, one arm around his brother's waist, and Nick was letting him. Nick, in fact, was leaning back into Alan—barely enough to see, and not enough to upset Alan's balance, but Sin was a dancer, and she knew bodies; she knew what it looked like when you didn't want to let go of someone. Nick was carrying two swords, and he was smiling. Not his intimidating smile, or the amused and sarcastic one he kept for Jamie, or the cautious one he gave Mae; this was Alan's smile, and his black eyes were still demon's eyes, but they were demon's eyes that looked at Alan with immeasurable love. Once Sin had seen that, she hadn't been able to stop seeing it; she didn't mind, though, not when Alan and Nick both looked so happy.

"Who won?" Mae called out to them.

"You really think I can beat Nick in a duel?" Alan called back, "I'm touched by your confidence."

"Depends on what kind of duel," Sin said, and Nick smirked at her. They cut through the wagons and approached Sin and Mae, drifting slowly apart until they were standing at the foot of the steps, no longer touching.

"I take it you had a good afternoon?" Mae asked Nick. Alan blushed, and then looked utterly horrified. Sin started laughing.

"Clive," she said, grinning at him, "you're slipping."

"Oh shut it, Bambi," he said, and she let go of Mae and slid off the steps. He caught her around the waist, light, and set her down. Standing, she leaned up to kiss him; he tasted like grass, and water, and Nick.

"God, you guys," Mae said, sounding amused, and not nearly as disgusted as she probably meant to, "what is even up with those names?"

"Telling us," Nick said dryly, "would ruin the enjoyment they get out of the fact that we have no idea what they're talking about." His typical sarcasm couldn't entirely hide the resonant echo of contentment in his voice.

She let go of Alan and spun on her toes. "If you dance with me tonight, maybe I'll tell you." She was lying, of course, but that was half the fun.

Nick raised an eyebrow. "Did you mean me, or Mae?" He was leaning against the side of the wagon, and he wasn't quite touching Mae, but his free hand—the hand not holding the swords—was resting next to hers on the step. It was the kind of odd, careful gesture he was making more often, these days. Neither Sin nor Mae knew quite what to make of them, because Nick was still Nick, caustic and black-eyed and unfeeling, and at the same time he was making space for Mae, touching Alan, exchanging barbed wit with Sin, teaching Jamie to throw knives; family, Sin thought, sometimes. Takes all kinds.

"Both of you," Sin said, and then she turned back to Alan. "And you, too."

Alan's mouth quirked. "You and Nick and your endless exercise will be the death of me," he said, but it wasn't a no. "What do you say, Mae, want to go somewhere quiet and dimly-lit and read some nice dusty books?"

Mae tilted her head, considering. "You are a sly seducer, Alan Ryves."

"I do try," Alan said demurely, and for just a moment Sin watched Nick watching them. His eyes on Alan and Mae were possessive, and the way he leaned against the wagon with two swords held loosely in one hand was a kind of disguise; not a lie, because even in their bodies demons could not lie, but a misdirection. Behind the misdirection, behind the quiet affection, the almost-human ease, he was always ready to strike. Sin liked that, about Nick.

Nick caught her watching, and smiled with his teeth.

"Well," she said, not looking away, "I am going to go take off all my clothes, and put on a pretty dress." She leaned over to kiss Mae, a light brush of lips that Mae answered, and then she kissed Alan, hitting just the right angle so that Nick and Mae could see when she tangled her hands in his hair and slid her tongue into his mouth, sweet and quick. "See you later," she said, and sauntered off towards Chiara's wagon, where her dancers were laughing and stretching and getting ready for dark.

"Where have you been?" Chiara demanded, handing Sin her dress.

Sin smiled, cultivating mystery. "Busy."

"Whatever, your highness," Chiara said, rolling her eyes. "Now go get dressed before the sun goes down."

Sin ducked behind the curtain, tugged off her jeans and t-shirt, and slipped her dress on over her head. It was white gossamer silk, tonight, with thin straps and a snug bodice, and red fever flowers woven through the fabric to weigh down the hem of the skirt that swirled around her thighs. She put on her lipstick, red as the flowers in the dress, did a pirouette in front of the mirror, and pulled her hair out of its braid until her curls were loose and shining around her shoulders.

Chiara came in with her arms full of fever blossoms, and helped Sin pin a crown of flowers into her hair, stems winding through her curls; she checked her knives, and checked herself out in the mirror, and then, with the sun setting red and gold behind the hills, she was ready to dance.

She found Alan early, as the tourists were starting to arrive. "Just one dance," she said, "I promise." They were dancing on grass, tonight, outside the city: rolling hills and wide-open spaces and lights wound around tree branches, nothing so complicated as Kensington Gardens or the Dover Cliffs. It was a safe night, to give Alan a chance. He quirked his eyebrows at her, but he was wearing black, so she knew he'd given in. The musicians played something slow for them, and Sin led Alan through the moves they'd practiced, touch and release, lift and fall; Alan pulled her close until their hips were flush, and bent her back until her hair brushed the grass, and then caught her up again. Dancing lessons had been fun—sweaty and hot and half-naked, what could possibly be bad about that?—but this was more fun. They had an audience, and Sin knew, because it was always true when she danced, that their audience was breathless and rapt. She was flushed under the lights, with the stars slowly coming out and the first groups of tourists mingling among the people of the Market, while she and Alan circled around the other dancing couples on the hill. Chiara winked at her as they whirled by, and Sin tossed her head back, and spun in and out of Alan's arms while Alan held steady, careful and unwavering, until the music stopped.

"Not bad, Ryves," Jonas muttered, only a little grudging, and clapped Alan on the shoulder.

"Thanks, I think," Alan said wryly. Sin didn't think he was going to forget the years of awkward glances and uncomfortable silences, of dancers trying not to stare at his leg and turning quickly away; but this helped, and besides, these days, Sin would probably knife anyone who said a bad word about Alan Ryves in her company.

"So?" she asked him, and he looked down at her, all smiling dark blue eyes.

"I hope you won't think I'm lying," he said, and she laughed, delighted, "if I say that was the most fun I've ever had doing something I am not any good at whatsoever."

Sin went up on her toes and kissed him. "You're a very good liar," she said in his ear, and then she let him go, and went to find Mae.

Mae was cutting a summoning circle. "Oh, thank god you're here," she said, and handed Sin a piece of fever fruit. "Ready?"

"Ready," Sin said, and stepped into the circle. In the circle, Mae was a constant whirl of pink and black, her hair flying as they danced down the demons. Sin loved dancing with Mae, especially for demons. They whirled around each other, moved closer and closer until the fever fruit burned bright and hot between them, sparking every time they touched; Mae answered every challenge Sin threw at her, caught every touch and danced away, and the more they danced, the more Sin wanted her. The demons knew that, of course, so they came; but Sin was sure-footed, and Mae was fearless, and they weren't tempted. All things considered, they had enough demons in their lives already.

When all the questions were answered, Sin and Mae banished the demons as easily as they'd called them down, and stepped out of the circle to their audience's half-frightened, half-grateful applause.

"Well," Mae said, catching her breath and leaning heavily against Sin, "I love that, but I'm not sorry when it's over."

"Mmm." Sin had an arm around Mae's waist, the tips of her fingers brushing the bare skin between her skirt and her shirt. Mae was still burning hot from the fever fruit and the dance. "What about the after effects?"

"You mean these after effects?" Mae said, sliding a leg between Sin's and tangling her fingers in Sin's hair to pull her down to kiss. They were alone in the shadows while the next pair danced, and they kissed for a long time, until they were both breathing hard and Sin was grinding down against Mae's thigh.

Mae's skin was cooler now, though, where Sin's hands were wrapped around her hips, and the fire from the fever fruit was finally easing, leaving only Sin's own arousal behind. "We should get back to the Market," she said against Mae's mouth, and Mae sighed and let her go.

"Catch you later?"

"Yeah." Sin stepped back and straightened her skirt. "I'm closing out the night with a dance."

Mae grinned, bright in the dark. "I'll be there."

"You better," she said, and gave Mae one last kiss.

She took a break after Mae and the demons, and found her father strolling through the Market stalls with Lydie and Toby.

"Sin!" Lydie shouted, and took a flying leap into her arms.

"I just saw you this morning," Sin said into her sister's hair, and then she set her back down. "Hey, Dad."

"Thea," her father said, "you look gorgeous. Where's your young man?"

Sin grinned. "He's around. I made him dance, earlier, so he may be hiding in the bushes plotting revenge. Are you having a good night?"

Lydie nodded earnestly, and Toby burbled, and her father smiled. "Have you eaten? We were just about to stop for food."

Sin sat with her family while they ate, stealing bites of Lydie's pie and filling her father in on the latest Market gossip, until Jamie and Seb wandered over to join them. Seb was looking happier, these days, a little less cautious and frightened, a little more casual when he touched Jamie. Jamie was still hard-edged and bright-eyed, but he leaned into Seb's touches. Lydie had transferred her adoration from Nick to Jamie the first time she'd seen him call up fire in his hand, and he was teaching her. Just a little—Sin and her father had been adamant about that, because Lydie was still just a kid—but enough to help her control her power. Sin sat with them a while longer, while Seb tried not to look terrified about making small talk with her father, and Lydie asked Jamie a million impertinent questions, and then she got up. "I'll see you later, yeah?" She said, hugging her father and kissing her siblings on the tops of their heads. "I'll probably stay with Mae, tonight, so don't wait up."

Her father smiled up at her, "Dance well, Thea."

"Always do," she said, and went back up the hill to the dancers.

The dancing was starting to wind down, tourists drifting away while the moon rose, low and full and silver-bright. The Market people were still gathered on the hill, though, and when they saw her coming they stayed. She saw Alan sitting with Matthias, and Mae leaning against a tree talking quietly to Trish. Nick was sitting at Alan's feet, and Sin made her way over, light-footed and sure.

"Come on, Nick," Sin said, holding out a hand. "Last dance."

Nick looked up at Alan, a quick flicker of a glance that Sin thought most people wouldn't catch, and then he rose seamlessly to his feet and took Sin's hand.

Dancing with Nick was always a dream. He was still one of the best partners she'd ever had, and he lifted her effortlessly, turned her and tossed her and caught her, danced where she chased, and chased her right back. They danced with the rest of the couples for a while, the music low and fast, drum beats and pipes and deep-voiced singers. Slowly, the other dancers peeled off, going to sit on the grass and watch while Sin and Nick stole the show. No hard feelings, though, Sin knew. She was shining under the moon and the lights and the trees, her skirt swirling and her hair flying, and then—finally—Alan sang for them.

Alan sang, and Sin and Nick danced, until Sin sent Nick spinning away and danced alone. Nick didn't go all the way back to Alan; instead, he stood at the edge of the crowd with his arms crossed and watched her. That was good, she thought, for minimizing the confusion of what she was about to do. Alan stopped singing, and then it was just Matthias and the drummer, steady and haunting. Sin flipped, landed in a crouch on the grass, and drew a fever blossom out of her hair.

Her audience was watching. People she'd known all her life, and newcomers; people that followed Mae, and watched Sin dance; their friends and their growing family. The Goblin Market. They knew what the fever blossom meant, but they probably thought it was just a gesture; everybody knew how she felt about Alan. They weren't entirely paying attention until Sin rose, and turned, and threw the fever blossom in a perfect arcing line to Mae.

Mae caught it. She was utterly still for one long, breathless moment, fever blossom held tightly in her hand, and then she smiled.

A hush fell. Sin thought people were probably looking at Alan, but she didn't; instead, she cast her eyes sideways to Matthias. Entirely contrary to the conventions of Market dances, Matthias kept playing and Sin kept dancing. She kept dancing, moving like water under the moon, and then she drew a second fever blossom from her crown. Nick could have caught it out of the air, but it fell at his feet; then, very deliberately, he bent and picked it up. It was a bright splash of color against his dark clothes.

Sin did look at Alan, then. He was watching her steadily, and he didn't look like anything, really—his face was blank, but that gave her courage. Everybody was watching, and Sin reveled in it, reveled in holding her audience enraptured while she circled her hips and slid her feet fast and light across the grass. She spun the dance to a close at the crest of the hill, sinking down and tossing herself back up, landing on her feet. She pulled the third fever blossom from her hair, and smiled, and threw it to Alan.

Alan caught it, and pressed it to his heart; he wasn't quite smiling, but his eyes under the lights in the trees were very bright. Everybody breathed again, a sharp collective exhalation, and then, where there had been a hushed silence while she danced, there was a sudden riot of sound. Matthias was grinning as he put his instruments away, and Trish and Chiara were sitting in the grass, giggling. Nobody seemed particularly bothered, which Sin had expected.

Mae and Nick had drawn together at the edge of the crowd, and Alan had gotten up, shaken Matthias's hand, and walked over to join them. Sin came up to them; they were all holding their fever blossoms.

"Do you think that made the point?" she asked Mae.

Mae started laughing. "The Goblin Market can do anything."

Nick groaned, sounding put upon and annoyed and kind of happy. "Do you always have to make a scene?"

"This from the demon," Sin said, rolling her eyes, and she might have said more, but Alan chose that moment to put one arm around her shoulders and the other around Nick's.

"Come on," he said, "I think Cynthia promised us a walk in the dark."

"Oh is that what the fever blossom means," Nick said sarcastically, "I never knew."

"Shut up and you might find out," Mae said, wicked and bright, and they were all laughing as they went back down the hill.