Mae had been rummaging through Alan’s bookshelves, trying to find anything that would be relevant to Jamie’s GCSEs. She had tried asking Nick, but it hadn’t taken her long to realise that it was a pointless exercise. Nick always made sure he had his knives whenever they had to run, his favourite sword always close by. Textbooks were just one more thing to weigh them down.
He had tried strategically abandoning them at school, but the looks of disappointment that he got from Alan in return were too much to cope with. Sometimes he asked Alan questions about the things he was studying; it made Alan happy, and Nick liked that.
Nick thought that Mae’s obsession with trying to get Jamie to revise was ridiculous, but understandable. She was trying to convince herself that her brother wouldn’t, couldn’t die – he was going to have a future and he needed to prepare for it. Nothing else made sense to her.
Nick knew that anybody could die, without any warning at all, and hoping didn’t change a thing. Countless magicians’ victims in the past must have had friends and family, people who cared whether they lived or died, and it hadn’t made a bit of difference. Weapons protected people. Feelings wasted time.
Jamie submitted to Mae’s nagging for the most part, but it was obvious his mind wasn’t on it. Nick could see him trying gamely to read about the Vietnam War, or to learn the quadratic formula, but he was pale and drawn, nightmares taking their toll, and it didn’t take long before his eyes wandered away from the page and he stared off into the middle distance. Death was apparently more pressing than a few exams, important or not.
Sometimes Alan would come into the living room where Jamie was curled on the sofa with a book and smile, fondly and a little wistfully. Alan loved books, loved learning, had even loved exams. Nick could remember him taking his GCSEs three years ago and his A-levels after that; they’d moved around a lot, as always, and a new school every few months was hardly an atmosphere conducive to learning, but Alan had printed off syllabus after syllabus and made lists of everything he was supposed to learn and wheedled spare textbooks out of the teachers at every school, reading into the night, happy and absorbed the way Nick was when he fought.
He had still cooked for Nick and their mother almost every night, though. As the exams themselves had approached, Nick took to shoving him out of the way of the cooker and doing it himself, because Alan looked heavy-eyed and exhausted, always tired. Nick couldn’t see why he was working so hard on something so stupid and pointless when he needed to be alert in case the magicians came, but Alan looked so happy surrounded by the books that he let him.
Jamie liked it when Alan helped him with the revision, smiling up at him as Alan leaned awkwardly against the sofa arm and tested him on dates and quotes and formulae. Sometimes when Mae was there too she and Alan would speak French to each other and ostensibly to Jamie, who tried his best to nod along and try out a halting sentence every now and again. Nick knew Alan was teaching her bits of Sumerian, as well.
Nick couldn’t speak French, despite having sat through classes in it for the last five years. Sometimes he listened to them speak, hovering in the shadows in the hallway outside, but it just sounded like gibberish to him. Alan had given up on trying to get him to revise anything. Sometimes Nick tried, to please him, but the words jumped around on the page and nothing stayed in his memory afterwards. Why waste valuable time and effort, he wondered, when he could be doing something productive? A useless paper certificate wouldn’t help to keep him alive if the magicians found them.
When he listened to them, though – Mae’s light tones blending with Alan’s deeper ones, laughter in both of their voices, Jamie offering hesitant phrases when he could – he found himself wishing he felt differently. He might not have been able to understand the words they were using, but he could hear the emotions perfectly well.
The sounds of content togetherness reached Nick where he stood alone in the shadowed hall. He turned away.
It turned out slightly more angsty than I had planned (I was going for a cute and funny vignette of the group being adorable amd familial, but it came out somewhat differently). I hope you enjoy it anyway.