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All Quiet

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Jamie doesn't sleep so well.

Tonight he doesn’t sleep at all. The mark is gone: the third tier, the reminder of when the demon had talons in his soul and he felt like he was freezing; the second tier, which brought nightmares that twisted inside him like a hand pushing down the handle of a jammed door; and the first tier, which tingled on his skin like scraped palms. Much as he hates himself for it, he misses the marks, for the dreams that plagued him were easier to wake from than dreams of his hidden magic.

Nick is staying the weekend, primarily for the purpose of waking absurdly early to make Jamie run, but secretly to avoid Alan. This would be fine with Jamie, if not for the running. He doesn't want to see Alan either. He doesn't want to think about how similar they are. He doesn't want to wish he were that sure about himself. He doesn't want to use magic, and he doesn't want to use knives. He wants to sleep.

The cloudy night sky hangs stifling like the backdrop of a snowglobe. Jamie heads down to the kitchen, trailing a blanket, to find something to eat.

It's all quiet in the big house. Jamie finds himself on edge, as if the pale walls and wide hallways are closing in on him in the dark, as if the shadows are razors or walls of barbed wire or jagged brick.

He thinks of falling – not the way a dancer falls, but like tumbling through air, like falling asleep, like sitting on a roof with his feet over the side, his knuckles white and the pads of his fingertips scraped from holding on too hard: all these and how easy it would be to let go.

It's all quiet. No. It's quiet in the afternoons before Mum comes home from work, hollow and lonely. But at night he can't make noise to fill the gap. His whole home is a black space, the remnants of a war zone.

Despite the heaters set a few degrees higher than they should be, it's freezing. Summer and heaps of blankets offer no reprieve from the chill.

Jamie flips on the kitchen light. He heads to the cupboard by the microwave, opens it, and pulls down a box of cereal. He sets out a bowl and mug with stiff, weary movements.

At a slight noise from the other room, he jumps; he had expected an attack, but he still whirls with his arms out, palms up, fingertips flickering with dim magic. The bowl, half filled with cereal, clatters to the floor. The rhythm of magic through his nerves, playing over his hands, slows his frantic heart.

He sees nothing from the doorway for a moment, then Nick fades out of the shadows, sword drawn, checking himself at the threshold and abruptly stopping. The blade glints wickedly, sharp and crisp and bright in a way that resembles the house, real in a way that doesn't.

They face each other, Nick's terrible sword in the doorway and Jamie's hands outstretched almost like a beckon, or a warning, or a surrender.

Nick, Jamie remembers with the lethargic clarity of exhaustion, deep and forgetful, had slept on the sofa in the sitting room. Nick had done so every time he'd crashed here since Jamie had asked him, with tact borrowed from his sister, if he'd possibly wanted to stay in one of the guest rooms, where he could sleep in a bed rather than the heap of pillows and blankets thrown on Jamie’s floor. It had come out a bit brusque, but it hadn't bothered Nick.

Of course, Nick didn't like the big, plush beds. He was used to sharing tiny flats and small dingy houses with Alan. He’d opted for the sofa, which was still plush, but more familiar.

Nick stares for a long time. He doesn't blink. Jamie shivers, but not with terror. Nick has cold, dark eyes, so different from the warm chocolate of Mae's eyes. Jamie supposes this is because he's a demon, because possessed bodies have black eyes, but the man in Merris Cromwell's awful Mezentius House had eyes that filled to the brim like oil in the sea. Nick would have attracted a lot more attention with eyes like that. As far as Jamie's concerned, he's just Nick.

And, typical of Nick, he isn't wearing a shirt.

He is wearing socks, which is better than wearing just his underclothes. Underclothes which are, Jamie notes, are a bit tight around the legs.

Right. Er.

“Really, Nick,” says Jamie. He would rather take knives right now.

The lights drain from Jamie's fingers, and Nick lowers the sword. Jamie bends to pick up the bowl, a bit of granola still caught in the center, and crosses to the counter. He rests his arms on the marble and sinks onto a stool, staring pointedly at the bowl. Fortunately he had been too far away for Nick to launch an attack, although he suspects that Nick is familiar enough with the house that he could swing the sword in front of Jamie, deflect a burst of magic, rather than going right for Jamie's throat.

Jamie would like to imagine so, at least.

“I appreciate the concern expressed in trying to attack me,” he tells Nick. “You can put that away. Cereal? Tea?” He pulls the blanket tighter around his shoulders, fingers pressing into the fabric. The silence stretches long and black in the bright kitchen.

“Do you get nightmares?” Jamie asks at last, timidly. “I mean—I know you don't feel fear, and that's okay! That's great!” He closes his mouth firmly, catching himself before he rambles nervously into the night.

He means, do you know what nightmares are like?

What Jamie wouldn't give to feel brave.

Nick crosses, then, and props his sword on the counter, blade carefully angled away from Jamie, as he slides onto a stool. Still, Jamie almost flinches. “No,” Nick says.

Nick doesn't know how lucky he is.

There's a long pause. Jamie studies his hands on the table.

Nick's voice cuts loud and harsh in the big room, and echoes back down the stairwell. “Did you have a nightmare?”

Jamie closes his eyes and breathes out slowly through his nose.

“No,” he says, quieter and gentler and not so warm at all.

“You're my friend,” says Nick roughly, and sheathes his sword. “Nothing’s going to happen to you.”

Jamie slants a gaze up at Nick and smiles, small and sudden and helpless, filling him with the warmth the blanket and the heater, even the reassuring glint of Nick’s sword protective in the darkness, couldn’t bring.

“Don’t worry, Nick. Just—it’s good to know you’ll fight off any demons that come for me.”

“Or magicians,” Nick mutters.

Jamie leans over and bumps Nick’s shoulder, putting his weight into the gesture but righting himself before Nick can flinch away. Nick doesn’t budge, but Jamie’s body, which felt almost insubstantial, steadies with the solid contact. Jamie looks up at Nick, a little flushed.

“I’ll be off to bed then,” he says. Nick will still be down here, alert in his still and silent sleep, protecting Jamie and Mae and Mum. Nick grunts in acknowledgement.

And somehow a little space has closed between them. Jamie slides off his stool, and before turning to go, presses a light kiss on Nick’s cheek, just brushing the skin, his lips still curved in a smile.

He turns and heads up the stairs, blanket trailing behind him, his steps a bit lighter than before.