Nick graduates the Scholomance with George, Clay, a moderate concussion, and a scrap of paper burning a hole in his pocket.
He doesn’t remember it very well later (that’s probably the concussion). He’s in the Graduation Hall and then he’s in the portal and then he’s in Tampa, and Clay is shouting and cheering but he can’t hear it over the ringing in his ears. His parents are there. Everyone’s there, actually, he remembers going to see older clavemates graduate when he was a kid, but it’s a little overwhelming to see so many faces he used to know.
There’s a party, which he doesn’t remember much of either. Adults (his fellow adults, he realizes vaguely) keep asking him about their kids. He tries to tell them everything he can. His fingers keep finding Toby’s note.
His family lives in the enclave, so it’s a mercifully short walk to his bed after the festivities break up. His dad (Bad, because three-year-old Nick decided they were Bad and Dad like that made sense), keeps exclaiming over how tall he’s gotten and how much of a beard he has, and his other dad keeps making fun of him for getting a concussion (objectively the least cool injury).
Nick’s room is almost as he left it – it’s nicer, actually. Bad probably straightened it up at some point: after he left for the Scholomance? Just before he graduated? His old baseball caps and the posters he put up when he was thirteen are all still there, a little dusty. The stuffed panda bear he carried around when he was little is sitting on his bed. It’s like the room of a dead kid.
Standing in the door there, Nick realizes how easily it could have been. If he wasn’t as skilled, wasn’t as fast. Wasn’t as lucky.
The note is still hidden in his pocket.
Nick hugs his parents goodnight, since they’re still hovering, and then passes out. If he has dreams he doesn’t remember them. Dad comes to wake him up at some point, to make sure he’s okay with the concussion, and he is, and his dad hugs him one-armed around the shoulders, quick and secret, and tells him to dodge better.
Before he falls back asleep, Nick realizes he never said goodbye to George and Clay.
The week that follows is empty and weird. Everyone always gives new graduates a lot of space and time so they can readjust, but it’s bizarre to suddenly have nothing expected of you. Nick can’t do much while his concussion heals, so for a couple days he just sleeps and wakes and sleeps, like George.
He does go to see George, once he feels up to it, and they sit on his bed and talk about nothing. George is the same, but he’s been the same this whole time - self-centered, sarcastic, unimpressed with everything. He stayed like that all through the Scholomance, one fixed point. Nick spent a lot of time with George, in the times when George was awake.
And Clay was the opposite of George - he never slept, especially near the end, and he changed, got restless, easily annoyed, stopped caring if he was being an asshole. He was still Nick’s best friend and his brother but it got hard to want to be around him when he was like that. Nick hoped it would better once they graduated, and it is, Clay is probably sleeping, but he’s no easier to talk to.
Maybe that’s on Nick. He keeps looking at Clay and thinking about Toby.
Nick thinks about his ex-classmates a lot, actually. People who are dead, or as good as. Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs come over at one point, and there’s a lot of crying. Nick is actually okay until they leave, and he suddenly can’t think about anything but how Karl was still just barely warm when they went back for his body. He thinks about Alex, who, on the day before Nick graduated, kissed him on the cheek and told Nick not to bother waiting for him.
He thinks about Toby on the same day, solemn-eyed and tired.
The note is sitting by his computer. He still hasn’t written the email.
Days pass, and days pass. Nick can focus his eyes without getting a headache. Dad takes him out of the city to the game reserve so they can shoot rabbits, but it’s not even fun, Nick’s seen too many things die already. He keeps looking over his shoulder, too, expecting mals, but there aren’t any.
He hangs out with George in the narrow slivers when he’s awake. He hangs out with Clay, but not much, and can’t tell if he’s avoiding Clay or Clay’s avoiding him. They used to talk for hours and hours, or play games or just screw around, but now it’s like Clay has other things on his mind, and it’s like Nick never knows what to say.
He keeps not writing the email. He keeps thinking about Karl and Alex. He keeps thinking about Toby.
He keeps thinking about-
“Do you remember Tommy?” he asks George, after the conversation peters out on one long, blank afternoon.
“Sure,” says George once he blinks himself out of a doze. “The thief. Wilbur’s annoying little brother”
“I guess,” Nick says. “You remember how he used to hang out with us, so Clay could keep an eye on him?”
“Yeah.” George sounds like he wishes Nick would get on with it so he can go back to sleep.
“I was just thinking, like…he had a senior enclaver watching out for him, he was probably the safest person out of his whole group, y’know? So why did…”
“I don’t know.” George’s eyes are nighttime windows, still and dark. “I don’t actually care that he died, if that’s what you’re really asking.”
“No, yeah, whatever,” says Nick, his stomach knotting. “Except Clay spent a lot of time with him, right? I just…think that’s kinda weird?”
“Clay was weird the entire time we were there,” mutters George. “Who cares about whatever stupid thing he was doing.”
The knots get tighter. Nick folds his arms over his middle and hunches to look George in the face. “He said that one time…he said he didn’t care about anything but graduating, right?” George’s expression, already flat, turns opaque - that day ended with all three of them screaming at each other, and Nick doesn’t like bringing it up either. But he’s got an idea in his head now, and he can’t get it out.
“If…if that was true,” he continues, curling his fingers into fists, “then why did he waste so much time with Tommy?”
“I don’t care what happened to Tommy,” says George, and he doesn’t even raise his voice but his tone is so sharp it startles Nick anyway. George hasn’t sounded like that, or sounded like anything, for months. “Ask Clay, if you care so much. I’m going back to sleep.”
That’s the end of that conversation, but Nick doesn’t stop thinking about Tommy. He feels almost guilty for it, if he should be feeling bad about anyone it’s Karl and Alex (and about fucking things up with George), but he can’t stop remembering things now. Tommy wouldn’t eat unless Clay made a thing of it. Tommy sometimes had bruises. Tommy would flinch if Clay raised his hand to high-five Nick, and then flinch again at the noise.
He remembers the way Tommy started looking worse and worse, skinny and ragged and half-dead already. The way Clay got better and better, stronger and faster and more dangerous every day. Back then, Nick wondered why he worried about graduation at all. He feels sick about it now.
And he doesn’t know how to ask, he doesn’t even want to admit what he’s asking. But he and Clay still work out together sometimes, because they’re friends, and it’s easier than talking, and once, Nick says, “What do you think happened to that Tommy kid?”
Clay stares at him. Were his eyes always that green? “I don’t know. He probably killed himself, like his brother.”
Nick stares back. When did it get hard to look him in the face? “That’s not what you told Toby.”
“Oh my god.” There’s a weird brightness in Clay’s voice, like the colors on a poison frog. “I was, we were busy, we were training. I just said whatever to get him to go away.”
“That’s…kinda shitty, dude.” It’s too hot in here. Nick dries his sweating hands on his shorts. “He was being sort of brave, going up to seniors like that. Like, he trusted us.”
“I guess.” The brightness has faded to indifference, and Clay’s looking away, examining the free weights. Nick could grab him by the back of his shirt and turn him around, make him look at Nick again. He has half a mind to do it.
“I’m gonna write that email if you won’t,” he says instead, and it’s a challenge, but it’s a weak one, and he knows Clay knows it because Clay doesn’t even look over his shoulder.
Nick’s not good at words. It’s not until later, turning the conversation over in his head, that he puts together what he wanted to say: Is that the truth? Did Tommy really kill himself? Did you kill him? Did he kill himself because of you?
It’s like this: Nick knows that Clay used to cheat, back when it was just something to tease him about, and Clay in the Scholomance always had just a bit more mana than he should, and maybe his eyes were a little too bright and his smile was a little too wide even though Nick would tell himself he was imagining it, and there’s Tommy, there was always Tommy, the slowly wilting shadow in Clay’s wake.
So it’s really not hard to put two and two together and come up with maleficer. Nick probably should’ve done that math a long time ago.
And probably Tommy Ingram died for it. Maybe he did take Wilbur’s way out, or maybe if Clay let anyone in his room, they’d find a body. Maybe Nick should’ve done that math too. He saw Tommy a lot. He knew Tommy was alone, and falling behind in class, and looking tireder and sicker every day.
Maybe he should’ve said something to Tommy. Maybe he should’ve said something to Clay. Instead, he joked about it. He set mals on Tommy cause he knew Clay would laugh. He teased Tommy about being able to see Alex when Tommy couldn’t. He remembers that now. That was probably the most words he ever said to the kid.
Nick supposes it serves him right, because he’s never going to see Alex again. No one is, and no one will ever see Tommy either. They’re dead, and Karl is dead, and half the people Nick knew are dead, and maybe pieces of Clay and George are dead too, and Nick will never get any of them back.
Nick thinks about this until his head hurts, and then he brings Toby’s note to Bad.
“It’s sweet that you agreed to do this,” Bad says, and Nick has to duck to avoid a hair ruffle. “It really is, Nick! You’re a good kid.”
“Yeah…” Nick can’t fidget with the paper in his pocket, since Bad has it, so he just stands, not knowing what to do with his hands. “I kind of felt like I had to, y’know?”
“Why’s that?” Bad’s left the note on the counter and returned to taking plates out of the dishwasher. “You said these were indie freshmen, right?”
“Yeah.” For lack of anything better to do, Nick starts putting away silverware. “But, like, this Toby kid, he came right up to us. That kinda takes guts. I dunno, I wanted to do something good, I guess.”
He could probably leave it there and Bad would coo at him some more and neither of them would ever think about it again. But it feels like Nick’s been keeping this awful secret trapped in his chest, one no one ever asked him to keep but that he’s afraid to say out loud. Nick’s not a coward. Why should this scare him so bad?
The forks rattle as he slides the drawer shut. “Clay used to hang out with Tommy also, so.”
“Mhm,” says Bad, and tsks at the chip on the edge of a salad bowl.
“Clay used to hang out with Tommy,” Nick continues, feeling oddly like he’s reading lines from a script, “and they weren’t, like. I mean Clay said they were friends and he was looking out for Tommy but he wasn’t really nice to him, and Tommy lost weight and started looking really tired and saying shit about…about how maybe he didn’t have much time left and it was…I dunno, it was kind of weird and…and messed up. And then Tommy disappeared.”
He takes a breath. He turns away from the counter. He makes himself look Bad in the eye. “I think Clay was maleficing from him. I think he was taking malia from this kid, and that’s why he died.”
“Oh,” says Bad. “Well, that’s not so horrible.”
If there was a script, this wasn’t on it. “What?”
“Oh, maleficing is bad, you know that,” Bad says, “I don’t think we need to have the maleficing talk again. But everyone does things they’re not proud of in the Scholomance! Sometimes you make choices there that aren’t the best ones, and that’s okay!”
“But why did he do it at all?” says Nick, upset. He feels like he stepped wrong, found a hole where he expected solid ground. “Clay was the best of all of us, he never needed to cheat.Why didn’t he tell us if, if he was running out of mana or something? That’s what enclaves are for, that’s what friends are for.” His throat’s tight with something angry and ashamed. “Why didn’t he trust me and George? Why’d he have to go do this instead?”
“Probably lots of reasons,” says Bad. He stoops to close the dishwasher, like he’s realizing this is going to be a longer conversation than he thought. “There’s statistics, a little sliver of every graduating class is maleficers. That doesn’t make them bad people. You do what you have to. I’m sure Clay thought he was doing what he had to, too.”
“He won’t talk to me about it,” Nick mumbles.
“He probably doesn’t really want to think about it,” Bad says gently. “I can tell you don’t either. It’s hurting you, thinking about your friend like that.”
“I can’t stop,” Nick says, and his voice croaks because he’s trying not to cry. “I can’t stop thinking about it, Bad, I, I keep thinking that Tommy’s dead and Clay hurt him and I saw him do it, and I feel sick and fucked up about it- sorry, sorry, I just, I feel so bad, I can’t focus on stuff anymore, I just keep thinking that I, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t wanna think about it, I didn’t say anything, why didn’t I say anything-”
He’s covering his face with his hands, he’s sobbing now and he can’t stop. Bad steps closer, and Nick can see the concern on his face through the haze of tears, and Nick reaches out to him and clings. Nick has his adult height, but Bad’s still almost a whole head taller. He buries his face in his father’s chest, and feels small, and cries, and cries.
“Oh,” says Bad, holding him. “It’s okay, panda. It’s okay, it’s okay.”
They stand in the kitchen like that, the dishes half put away. Bad rubs Nick’s back and murmurs to him softly. Nick cries about Clay and then about everything. Everyone who’s dead, everything that’s wrong. It’s a lot of stuff; it goes on for a while.
Eventually, Nick peels his face out of Bad’s shirt, which is embarrassingly wet and snotty. His mouth is dry and sticky at the same time. He feels hollow, emptied out, which is not really the same as feeling better but also not the same as feeling bad. His father gets him a glass of water.
“I guess I don’t know what to do,” Nick says after drinking, turning the glass in his hands. “I don’t know how to talk to him or make it okay.”
“You don’t have to make it okay,” says Bad, then puts a hand on Nick’s shoulder when Nick looks up at him in confusion. “It’s fine! It’s not your responsibility to talk to Clay about this, that’s not your job. If he does something out here, we’ve got ways to handle that, but I don’t think he will. What you do in the Scholomance doesn’t have to be who you are. It’s okay!”
“Things are still gonna be weird between us, though,” Nick mutters, turning away and shrugging off the contact. “I look at him and I…I dunno. We can’t talk like we used to. I can’t see him the same.”
“Nick,” says Bad, all fond-condescending, like Nick’s five again and is insisting he can tie his shoes without help. “I think you have to let this go. Let bygones be bygones. He doesn’t want to talk about it, you don’t really want to talk about it either. It’s not doing either of you any good, so just let it be in the past.”
“But he did something wrong, and someone died,” Nick cries, stepping away from Bad and whirling to face him. “And I, it’s like I let it happen, let, let him turn into someone I don’t know anymore, and I can’t just let that go!”
Bad, Nick realizes, is staring. Nick realizes at the same time that he raised his voice to one of his parents, and he’s never done that before, not since he was old enough to stop throwing tantrums. Bad looks shocked. And Nick is upset, but he doesn’t feel like he did something wrong.
“I see,” says Bad very quietly. He adjusts his glasses, looks away. “I never told you much about when I was in the Scholomance, did I?”
“You and Dad don’t really talk about it,” says Nick. The hot anger is starting to fade out; he feels wrong-footed again. “I mean, you told me strategy stuff, but…”
“Well, I’m still not telling you about it,” says Bad, with a weird, warped flash of his usual humor. “But I- we…we did things we weren’t very proud of, there. Me and your dad.” He paces a little, walking between the far counter and the near one, still looking away. “And afterward, when we went home, we started to fight. Just going around in circles about things that happened, over and over.”
Bad and Dad, in Nick’s memory, fought all the time over silly things - dinner choices and sports teams and spells and the weather, just a background noise to life that always felt friendly, that never hurt anyone for real. But what Bad’s talking about now must have been very different fights - his voice is soft and raw in a way Nick’s never heard. It could almost be scary if Nick hadn’t already been through so many bad things.
“What did you fight about?” he says.
“Choices we made,” says Bad. He’s wringing one of his sleeves in his hands. “And what we did about it. I didn’t like how he was acting, the things he said. He, um. He didn’t like me drinking.” Nick has memories of Bad avoiding the bar at enclave parties when he was too young to wonder why; feeling them click into place is a little scarier. Just like with Clay and George, he doesn’t know what to say.
Bad’s still talking, halting like he wants to stop but can’t with Nick watching him. “We had a big fight about that one night. We both said some things no one should ever repeat. And he…he left. Went right out of the enclave. Right out of the city, actually.”
He’s looking at a spot somewhere over Nick’s shoulder, staring at the wall. “I was scared. I was scared because I didn’t know where he was.” Bad laughs, but it sounds strange, like someone’s gripping his throat and squeezing. “That’s the kind of thing that’ll getcha, even years and years after you’re out of school. But I found him. And we, we realized that not letting the things that happened go, that feeling mixed up and bad about them, that’s what was making us fight. And so we let it go.”
“And you just...never talked about it,” says Nick quietly. “You still don’t.”
The smiles Bad gives him is lopsided, almost sad. “We had so many other things to talk about. We had a life to build. We had you.” He spreads his hands, the gesture small. “Why hold onto old, bad memories when they were just hurting us?”
Nick thinks about this, about trying to live after the Scholomance and everyone who didn’t get that chance. He thinks about the families at graduation, asking desperately after their kids, and Karl’s mom crying, and how tightly his parents held him when he came back home. He thinks about Karl and Alex and Tommy, and how they’ll only ever be memories now. He thinks about why it happened like that. He thinks, again, about Clay.
“I understand,” Nick says.
He helps Bad put away the rest of the dishes. He takes the note from the counter and puts it back in his pocket.
Even having decided to write the email the very next day, it’s incredibly hard to make himself do it. Nick gets as far as typing in Phil Soot’s email address before he starts wanting to do anything else. He types a few words and has to get up and walk around the room, then get up and walk around the house. He doesn’t consider, even for a moment, asking his parents for help.
Eventually, he ends up with:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Soot and Mr. and Mrs. Ingram,
My name is Nick Sappington. I’m a graduate from the Tampa enclave. Toby Underwood asked me to send you this message so you could find out what happened to Wilbur and Tommy.
He has no idea where to go from there.
Nick tries They both passed away and They died and They’re dead. He tries Wilbur killed himself and so did Tommy. He tries We don’t know what happened to Tommy. He tries Tommy was killed.
That breaks something open in his head. He starts typing and deleting lines almost faster than his brain can get the words out: Another student killed Tommy. A maleficer killed Tommy. A senior from my enclave killed Tommy. Clay Tatum killed Tommy. Then he types My best friend killed Tommy and sits there, staring at it.
Then Nick gets up and goes to run laps outside in the heat til he almost passes out.
He drags himself home and lies on the couch with a gatorade. Through the pounding of his head, he thinks: maybe Clay will malefice again, or maybe he won’t. If he does, if he hurts more people, Nick will be the one to stop him. Nick has to be the one to stop him. He curls up around this truth, pressing the cold bottle to his forehead. He’s sweated out too much to cry.
Then he rolls off the couch and goes to finish the email.
He starts again:
My name is Nick Sappington. I’m a graduate from the Tampa enclave. Toby Underwood asked me to send you this message so you could know that Wilbur and Tommy passed away.
I am so sorry.
This is what I know: