"We build too many walls, and not enough bridges." - Issac Newton
Thomas Nightingale has always tried to avoid lying to the ones that he professes to care about. However, if asked about that particular night later, he would never admit that it happened at all. He'd swear that he did not, in fact, go looking for Zachary Palmer in that pub below Oxford Street with T-Rex absolutely not playing very, very softly in the background. He'd be willing to testify that he did not order a pint of Guinness. He would sign a witnessed Affidavit that stated that he did not take a seat. His coat remained unremoved.
"What do you want, anyway?" said Zach, nervously fidgeting with the frayed neckline of his t-shirt. "I mean, you can go wherever you like, but we weren't expecting to see you down here. Not exactly your local, is it? Bit off your manor."
It was not exactly his local and was, in fact, categorically off his manor, so to speak. He had, however, walked from the Folly, crossing Russell Square and following Montague Place past the great, slumbering bulk of the British Museum. He'd spent happy years there as a boy, wandering through the marble galleries while his Nanny read her newspaper in the tea rooms. He'd brushed the stone with the tips of his fingers, picked up the vaguest hint of vestigia: the smell of dust and paper, the sound of echoing footsteps and the hollow ticking of a distant clock.
It was comforting, somehow. To know that some things never changed.
"I want to talk about Peter," said Nightingale. "Or, rather, I'd...There's." He frowned. He hadn't thought this through, entirely. "Your opinion. You have a rather...unique perspective, thanks to your lineage."
Fairies knew things - that much had always been clear. Fortune-tellers, grifters, confidence men, mediums; they didn't always use those powers for good.
"Right," said Zach, still sounding nervous, taking a sip of his cider. "Okay. Shoot."
It took Nightingale a moment to grasp the vernacular.
"It's in connection with Leslie May. I am given to understand that you were...close." Zach gave him a startled look over the rim of his pint glass, but Nightingale pressed on. "I need to know how to bring him through it. What'll keep him putting one step in front of the other."
His Guinness was cold, reassuringly bitter with an after-taste of iron.
"I don't know, man," said Zach, twitching a shoulder in something that Nightingale was forced to assume must have been designed to be a shrug. "Just keep him occupied. That usually works. Don't let him stop moving. I don't see much where he's concerned except...Well. Disaster, but only potentially."
Which sounded about right.
Nightingale finished his pint in silence and then stood up, straightening his overcoat.
"If you see Leslie, tell her…" He paused, searching for the right words. "Tell her everything's not lost. Not if she doesn't want it to be."
"Yeah, right, boss," said Zach, collecting the empty glass, already turning to go.
If it wasn't a conversation that ever happened, then it didn't matter whether he honestly thought that Zach would ever pass that message on, whether he saw Leslie May or not.
Rather than going straight back to the Folly, Nightingale found himself a seat in Bedford Square Garden. The garden itself remained private, but the lock on the gate proved no challenge to Nightingale. He closed it gently behind him, found a bench shadowed by the trees. The Folly wasn't yet under-siege; he trusted Molly to look after things for a while, to keep Peter safe while he slept.
It had been the longest of the long days. He found himself craving a little quiet, a little space.
He paused, taking a deep breath.
"Good evening, Miss Brook," he said.
Beverly Brook sat down on the bench next to him, half hidden in her puffy jacket. She looked younger than she was, slouching like that, the heels of her running shoes dug into the soft turf. Her hair was shorter that he remembered, pulled up into a ponytail on the back of her head. Sitting there in silence, Nightingale could feel the power rolling off her, deep and rich, a little muddy like all of the rivers were.
"Mum doesn't know that I'm here," she said.
"I rather thought that she wouldn't."
"I just…" She worried her lip with her teeth for a moment. "We heard that you'd locked the Folly up, real tight, and Zach told me what happened to Peter." She frowned. "He's alright, isn't he?"
"He's in one piece," he said. Which was not, entirely, the same thing.
"He's an idiot," said Beverly, her jaw tight. "You've got to know that."
"He...has a very particular way of doing things."
"I finally figured it out," she said, shifting, the fabric of her coat crinkling. "Why he never seems to figure it out. It's you, isn't it? He's figured you out and it's turned me into an afterthought."
It wasn't something that Nightingale could deny.
"I am sorry, for what it's worth," he said. "You deserved better."
"You're right," she said, all but thrusting herself back to her feet. "I did. Never mind though, eh? Plenty of other fishes in the sea. River." She flashed him a smile that didn't touch her dark brown eyes. "Whatever. Mum won't thank me for saying this but if your lot need any help, let us know. Ty and Fleet won't get involved, but me and Effra - we'd come if you needed us."
"I'll bear that in mind, Miss Brook. Thank you."
He watched her walk away. Automatically, he'd stood when she did and there seemed little point in sitting down again now.
He left the park through a different gate than the one he'd come in by.
The conversation with Beverly Brook worried at him, nipped at his heels as he walked back past the museum, turning this time to stay on Bloomsbury Street, following it until it turned into Bloomsbury Way. The properties here were similar to the more familiar structures that lined Russell Square. He'd known the Folly since boyhood; if he still felt entitled to call a place 'home' then the Folly would definitely have been it.
As he walked, the same thought occurred to him, over and over again. He hadn't realised that Peter Grant had made quite such a strong impression on young MIss Brook. The realisation came accompanied by no small amount of guilt. Nightingale had known his fair share of Genus Loci, enough to know that they didn't give of their hearts easily. Effra and Oberon were an exception, oddly Shakespearean in their connection to each other. Oxley and Isis, too. It was hard to hold their attention. In his day, there were the old man's boys and, further afield, the great rivers of India and Africa. Thomas Nightingale had been the Queen's man, after all; he had done his duty to the Empire, in the years before the war.
Peter Grant wasn't the only one who flirted with rivers.
The Folly was dark, shut tight. His key did not work in the lock and he was forced to ring the bell and wait. Molly answered it dressed, for once, not in her maid's uniform. She wore solid, midnight black, which made her lips look very red, her eyes seem dark and hollow.
"All quiet?" he asked her, taking off his overcoat when she held out her hands for it. She nodded in answer to his question and Nightingale felt himself relax just a little. "I'm going to sleep for a few hours. Wake me if necessary."
She glided away without giving any other sign that she'd heard.
Suddenly feeling unbelievably weary, Nightingale climbed the stairs. His bedroom, the one that he'd occupied since 1945 lay at the very end of the corridor. He stopped at a nearer door, his hand resting on the handle for a moment before he talked himself into turning it. It wasn't that he was unsure of his welcome - he just wondered if tonight, of all nights, it wouldn't be better for everyone to sleep alone.
He opened the door.
Peter lay in the wide brass bed, sprawled on his stomach in the low light from the fire that he'd clearly managed to light before passing out. The room had changed little since Peter had moved in. The bookshelf was a little fuller, cluttered with science fiction novels, comic books. The majority of Peter's belongings, Nightingale knew, had migrated over to the coach house. This room still looked like he was only staying there temporarily.
He stirred as Nightingale was stripping out of his shirt, hanging it in Peter's wardrobe along with his suit. By the time he walked towards the bed, Peter had already shifted over to make room. Nightingale slid in beside him. Without thinking, Nightingale lifted his hand and brushed the bare, vulnerable nape of Peter's neck. The skin felt normal but Peter still winced away from the touch.
"S'still sore," he mumbled.
"Sorry," whispered Nightingale, shifting to get more comfortable beside Peter. His fingers trailed along the knobbled, secret pathway of Peter's spine. The first few times they'd done this, Nightingale had almost been afraid to touch Peter, almost been afraid to admit to wanting to. He hadn't been a virgin since the summer of 1915; the boy he'd lost it to, the first boy he'd kissed, had signed up to fight and gone to war, served at the Somme and bled to death slowly there, his bones ground to dust by mortar fire, mixed into the tilled soil to help the poppies grow ever taller. It had taken a lot to convince him that every single boy, every man after that wouldn't be so easy to render down to dust. Eventually, he'd managed to assure himself that Peter would not break, but the fact remained that their enemy was not the only one who'd made the mistake of underestimating Peter at the start.
Peter was deliciously, almost feverishly warm under heaped blankets and Nightingale couldn't resist pressing himself closer, his bare chest against the thin, almost threadbare fabric of Peter's t-shirt. One thing he'd come to value about Peter was the way that all of the warmth in him, all of the blood, seem to crackle close to the surface. Nightingale fancied that he had been that way himself, once, but then there had been thick, deep snow on the ridge at Ettersberg and he had struggled, after that, to ever feel truly warm again.
"Where've you been?" asked Peter, still sleepy but pressing closer. "Told Molly not to let Leslie in."
"And she won't," he said, fingers curling around Peter's shoulder, thumb stroking along the jut of his collarbone. "I had to see a few people. I'm home now."
"Sorry," said Peter, clearly making an effort to stir. "I'm...really…" A stifled yawn, "bloody tired."
Nightingale couldn't have imagined anything else. He was tired too, weary in his bones. The fight with the Night Witch had been difficult. Betrayal took its toll. Nightingale slipped one hand under the hem of Peter's t-shirt, sliding his palm up until he found the reassuring thump of Peter's heart. In his youth, he could quote much more Shakespeare than he can now. He probably thought of it as romantic. Now, he thought of Peter as a poem written in iambic pentameter, every syllable a wonder. Only one line came to mind. A boyhood reading of Julius Caesar.
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves," he murmured, but Peter was already snoring softly.
Falling asleep, Nightingale imagined (or thought he imagined) a touch of vestigia: muddy water, straw, the warmth of sunlight on bare skin.
Muddy water, straw, the warmth of sunlight on bare skin. He is seventeen years old and, somewhere, a war is being fought. Thomas Nightingale is a boy vibrating on the edge of adulthood, trembling to be fully grown. He has aged with this war, doomed to always be slightly too young to participate in the fighting (which would have been forbidden to him, anyway, because wizards have no place in war). Still, he feels a young man's need to press outwards, ever outwards, to see where the world ends and whether he could touch it with his own two hands. That end point. That beginning.
To occupy him, they send him up to a pageant on the banks of a river.
Coloured streamers dance in the breeze. The girls are dancing with the skirts kilted above their brown knees. The old man sits with his sons arrayed around him. Nightingale is there as a representative of the Folly, meant as a token, only. He is wearing his best suit, which has only contrived to make him feel wildly over-dressed.
The pissing contest takes place at sunset. He does not embarrass himself. He does not let the Folly become the subject of ridicule. He does not win.
He catches Kennet looking. When he lifts his head, Key is a little late in glancing away. They're twins, he thinks (or, at least, close enough in age or origin to trick the eye). Where Oxley is slick and dark, Kennet and Key are tall and slender, fair and tanned and lithe. When they circle closer, he can smell the magic on them, the glamour. Their power is heady, deep - similar to the sensation of diving into deep, cold water on a hot day.
A moment of heart-stopped breathlessness.
Back at the Folly, old men have told Nightingale to be careful of rivers, of all Genus Loci. Their power is deep and unknowable and, once you've taken the plunge, so to speak, it's incredibly difficult to go back. Their grip is tight, and they guard what they have jealously.
But what do those old men know? These boys are beautiful, incredibly so, and Nightingale is still young enough to ignore a lot of the advice that he's been given.
So when he's taken by the hand, he follows.
When he's kissed, he doesn't pull away.
His memory of it is more sensation than anything - he is pushed down into the long, dry grass in the shadow of the willow fronds, his clothes peeled from him. Rumpled clothes only seem to highlight nakedness but he is little more than a boy, utterly unashamed, totally unselfconscious. Hands roam across his bare chest, his belly, his thighs. He is kissed, thoroughly - a tongue dips into his mouth while another teases his nipples. Fingers intertwine and cup his cock. He is suddenly, achingly hard. He is drunk. He is willing.
Jesus, God, he's willing.
He ends up on hands and knees, caught between them. Kennet (or is it Key) pushes into him from behind, rocking him forward into a kiss from the other. Key (he's certain now), kisses him hard and deep and then he's guiding Nightingale's mouth down, sliding it onto his cock and then there's nothing but the moving that they do for him, back and forth, in and out, as deep as he can take it. So much of a young wizard's life is about holding form, making very particular, very fixed shapes.
It feels amazingly good to be taken by a current, even if it is one of his own choosing. Outwardly, he's always tried to give the impression of not moving too quickly, of never being flustered. But in the moment under the moment, he can let himself get lost. The glamour of the two rivers washes over him, warm as the sun on his bare skin, even if he does know that, rationally, it's the moon shining on his back.
He closes his eyes and lets everything happen to him, welcomes every single part of it. He loses track of who's touching him where, or when.
(What Thomas Nightingale has always known is this: that almost three quarters of the Earth is covered in water, and that all rivers are the same river, in the end, But he wouldn't tell them that).
This time, it's spices and hot brick, rainwater and the touch of silk. A wide river and a low, bloody sunset. He lies in a rumpled bed, a young body at his side. He is twenty-nine - possibly thirty - convinced that he's at the height of his own power. The Empire is in decline; in the north, in the mountains, the buildings that men like his father left behind are busily falling into dust. He is here on the Queen's business (which is on equal footing, as far as he can see, with Folly business).e
Which does not mean that he has no time for himself.
The young man lying next to him says that his name is Mayurakshi. He has smooth, dark skin and ink-dark eyes. He kisses hungrily. Tattooed across his spine, the fronds of peacock feathers. Nightingale pauses to trace those delicate strands with his fingers. Out the darkness, the flood waters are still high. This boy is capricious and dangerous, which, probably, is what drew Nightingale to him. They fucked in a slow, lazy sort of way; the monsoon humidity makes it difficult to summon up urgency.
The way Indians talk about their rivers, Nightingale had thought that any Genus Loci that he might encounter here might be female. The man he's spent the night with is beautiful, long limbed and lithe. His cock, though soft now, is lovely, too. Nightingale has not been so busy as to consider himself quite a connoisseur, but he does know what he likes.
He could stay here for a while. Drift along on warm winds.
He has yet to ever swim in any rivers. He will still not have swum in any rivers by the time he finds himself in Germany, as old as the century, knee-deep in the virgin snow. Below, through the trees, Buchenwald is an ugly smudge. Through the trees, there are wizards forced to do terrible things. Nightingale imagines that he can hear voices in the trees.
Turn back, they say. Turn back.
He is not, has never been, could never be, the kind for turning back.
He meets an officer in the snow, riding tall on a white horse. He, Nightingale, is wading through the snow, freezing in great-coat and gloves. Like a medic or a Corpsman, he carries no gun. He needs no gun. He stares at the officer for a long time. Yesterday, a man he loved bled the snow scarlet. There was nothing that he could do. Nothing that he could say. His heart is two sizes smaller in his chest. The cold has shrunk him forever, and ruined him for other, warmer things.
And so it is that he has no mercy in him anymore. He gives the officer no quarter. He feels a twinge of sympathy for the horse. This time, there is no blood. There is very little ash. It is the cleanest thing in the world.
No more than a moment later, he feels it before it happens. The world goes very quiet. No birds sing. No voices in the trees. Silence. Then bloody hell and uproar, barking dogs, blood, teeth biting deep. Magic leaves him utterly in the rush. He is knocked from his feet by the shock.
(Months later, reading about Nagasaki and Hiroshima laid waste, he will think of that moment of perfect silence through the trees).
Swooning, he hears that voice again.
Greetings from Ettersberg, it says. Fare-thee-well, brother. Fare-thee-well.
Nightingale woke up, bathed in sweat, sure that he'd shouted. He must have shouted; Peter was already awake and staring.
Nightingale all but collapsed back against the damp pillow, eyes closed.
"Dreams," he said, covering his eyes with one hand, ignoring the trembling in his fingers. "A whole jumbled mess of them."
"Ettersberg?" asked Peter. It wasn't a word that Nightingale had heard him say often. He nodded and felt Peter shift closer, crowding into his space. The very tips of Peter's fingers, hands that were not apparently delicate enough for a drafting table, brush against the puckered scar that the bullet left when it passed through his shoulder.
"Some of it. Not all."
He found himself entirely unwilling to talk about it. He turned, propping himself up on his elbow, his hair tumbled across his forehead as he bent to kiss Peter, taking care to be gentle, to not press too deep. There was something about Peter that made Nightingale want to go more gently. After Ettersberg, it had been harder to run hot. Still, he had found that Peter threw off a lot of heat.
"Well, you're awake now," murmured Peter, his hand slipping under the sheet, fingers curling around Nightingale's cock. Peter's touch was sure and firm; Nightingale had never pried into how much experience Peter actually had. It was just one more area of his life that he wasn't lacking in confidence.
"Not so sore anymore?" asked Nightingale, pressing Peter back firmly, leaning across him to fumble in the night-stand drawer. If Molly knew what Peter kept in that drawer then at least she'd never let on.
"I'm okay," said Peter. He was, after all, twenty five, around the same age as Nightingale had been during his forays into India. "Wait a minute."
It did not take long for Peter to strip himself entirely, gloriously naked. He lay back against the rumpled sheets, knees thrown wide and inviting, features drawn in shadowing in the dying light from the hearth. Thus invited, Nightingale applied himself singularly to the task in hand. Peter rocked down against Nightingale's slick fingers, heels digging into the mattress with each shift of his hips. He wasn't he most graceful partner that Nightingale had ever had, but there was a certain rawness to him, an enthusiasm and a joy in that act that was almost impossibly infectious.
"That's enough," said Peter, finally. "I'm ready."
Without any discussion, they came to a mutual decision - Peter rolled onto his stomach. For a fleeting moment, nightingale was reminded of the rivers of Kennet and Key, but then he realised how powerful it was, what a gesture of trust it was, that Peter would put his back to him at all, after being so fundamentally let down.
Love stabbed through Nightingale, painfully. Amazing that anybody could trust him so much.
As so often happened in Peter's presence, his life felt subtly rewritten.
He found a very real sense of urgency once he was inside Peter - a fumbling, squirming haste. Sometimes, it had felt as though he had grown irrevocably staid and sluggish in the days since the war. When the magic had started to go out of the world (or, at least, seemed to start to go out) almost felt like a relief. Nightingale had had plans to fade quietly, grow older for a second time and, in doing so, dwindle for certain. He'd been too far gone for too long; the chill of the snow at Ettersberg had turned into a cramped, cruel cold that had crept into his knuckles while he carved every one of those storied names on the wall at the old place. It had been an act of penance, really - an act of regretful contrition from the one who stayed standing when so many others fell. After all, nobody was supposed to survive for as long as he had. So he'd set out to freeze to death.
But that was before he'd met Peter; Peter was much, much warmer.
Peter was a spark.
Nightingale bent his head to take a kiss, rocking up into the heat o Peter's body. The tightness of him. Peter's hands were curled on the pillow on either side of his head. His fingers flexed and made fists.
"Harder," he whimpered. "Please."
"Fuck yes, harder." It came out as a long moan, the words hazy and indistinct. "Harder than that. I don't want to feel...fuck...I don't want to feel anything else. Please."
And that was Peter Grant in a nut-shell. A man who thought that he could change the world through sheer force of will.
And maybe he could?
It was, at least, a sentiment that Nightingale could appreciate.
"Alright then," he said, giving Peter's thigh a sharp smack that made both of them smile. "Up you come, then. There's a good lad."
On all fours, on hands and knees, Peter's height was seemingly more apparent. He bent his head and waited, thighs spread, backside up. In the dim light, his skin seemed darker, a million miles away from those blond brothers, but not like that other river, either.
Peter wasn't a river, was he? He was a rock, aptly named.
And rocks (when they don't get worn away) can change the course of rivers, too. Given time.
They fucked (there was no other word for it) with a slow, deliberateness, with Nightingale going as deep as he could with every thrust. Peter wanted to feel it and Nightingale found himself wanting to make sure that he did, to make sure that he could taste every single thrust. His hands were tight on Peter's hips, tight enough to bruise, and Peter buried his face in the pillows to muffle the loudest of the moans as he rocked forward on his hands. Nightingale came first, his spine pulling tight, hips jerking. Peter whimpered, squirmed, desperate to follow and Nightingale slipped a hand between his thighs, curling a hand around his cock, stroking him until he followed, hot and liquid, making a mess of the sheets.
It was almost magic, a rough and every-day sort of trick. But transformative.
They collapsed together in the sweaty, sticky sheets. Nightingale lay still, trying to catch his breath as Peter brushed the hair back from his forehead, traced both eyebrows and the straight slope of Nightingale's nose with the pad of his thumb.
"We could move into my bed, if you like," he said, stifling a yawn against Peter's shoulder. "I doubt Molly will mind."
And if she did, he'd be the one to suffer, anyway. Cold tea for a week.
Peter just shook his head and burrowed closer, making a nest out of the sheets, his knee slipped between Nightingale's, face pressed into his shoulder. It took a moment to realise that he was weeping, quietly. Nightingale slid one hand over Peter's short, shaved hair and held onto him, cradled his skull. There had been a lot of loss but, in the bed, in the light of the dying fire, they were warm and safe.
"What do we do now?" asked Peter, once the tears had stopped.
"I don't really know," said Nightingale, still stroking Peter's hair. "Our best, I suppose."
They fell asleep pressed so tightly together that even a breath couldn't have slipped between them.
Some time in the night, Nightingale woke again when the door opened and closed so softly that he might have imagined it altogether. She'd forgive him. She'd forgive both of them.
She almost always did.