At the first the pain was so encompassing that Nightingale could only register a few sensations beyond it: the feel of pavement beneath his face, the strange emptiness of the hand which ought to be curled around the comforting power of his staff. He could smell blood, and dirt, and horse droppings, rubber and oil and tar. “Keep breathing,” someone said close by, someone the pain refused to let him identify. “It’s a habit you don’t want to break.” But his ears were full of the shriek of a silver whistle and the summoning police rattles calling back through the centuries; the two sounds blended like the rumble of an approaching train, its whistle still a promise in the distance.
The boy on the railway platform is small, and slender, and the school uniform he wears has clearly been chosen with room for him to grow into it. The woman beside him wears a dress that has not been fashionable for two years and an air of benign distraction. There is a smudge of oil paint on her glove, as if she had forgotten to remove it at a moment of inspiration. They are not the only ones waiting for the train -- the platform is full of boys and parents and small conversations about letters and studies and spare socks.
“Yes, mum?” He turns up his face obediently, waiting for her question, but she only smiles down at him and pushes a stray hair back from his forehead before settling a cap on his head.
“You’re so tall already,” she says, far too brightly. “I expect I shan’t even recognize you when you come home for the holidays.”
“Should I wear a boutonniere?” he asks, hoping the foolery will ease the shadow of loss he sees in her eyes. “A red carnation, or a rose, so that you’ll know it’s me?”
Before she can answer the train they are waiting for pulls into the station with a great blast of noise and steam. He takes the chance to hug her, breathing deep of the scents of lavender and turpentine that are as much a part of her as her eyes. School is waiting; a great adventure that he has been waiting to embark upon for as long as he can remember. But for this one moment he is still the child of his mother’s heart, and her arms around him are warm and steady as stone.
He drifted on the gentle clouds of the morphine, aware of the pain, but insulated from it, as if it belonged to another body, not his. Belonged to another time. Another place. Belonged to the smell of woodsmoke and pines and the sodden canvas of the tent at the casualty clearing station. If it weren’t for the soft electronic pinging of the machines near his bed he’d forget which century the pain belonged to. The drugs made it hard to think.
“Lux.” He makes the werelight again, just to be sure that he really can do it, and several of the other boys in the dormitory groan.
“It’s too late at night to be revising, you berk. Shut down the light!” A pillow comes at him from the side and he ducks it, losing the shape of the forma in his mind. Suddenly, there is light everywhere in the room, glimmering from every bit of metal that is in the least bit reflective and positively glaring from the one mirror at the end where they are meant to check that their ties are straight and their hair is combed.
It’s a lovely shade of blue, that light, and he tries to hold onto the unexpected spell, but he can’t. A few seconds later the light is gone, and he is blinking at the afterimages that want to play on the undersides of his eyelids. “Drat.”
The prefect turns up at the shouts of the boys and fusses until they’re all back in their beds, pretending to sleep. He pretends too, and is grateful that no one told the prefect just who had been playing with magic after lights out.
“It’s possible,” whispers the boy in the next bed. “We all saw it, so it must be possible to do it again.”
“But how, David?” he whispers back, tucking himself down under the covers and turning to study his friend in the dim light from the moon outside the windows. “I can’t remember the form. It’s gone already.”
“Half of finding something is knowing it exists,” is the reply, and he nods and pretends he understands. It’s late, and he is tired, and tomorrow he can ask one of the masters about his accidental spell.
The nurse came and adjusted the intravenous fluids. She used a swab to moisten his mouth, replacing the lingering taste of the breathing tube he could barely remember with the tang of artificial lemon. And then she fed him an ice chip, rather than changing his position enough to take a drink. He didn’t mind. Moving seemed like too much work. And it would let the pain come closer, let it chew through the clouds of the drugs till it found flesh. He was in no hurry to move.
The tumble of boys coming through the Night Gate would be noisy if it weren’t for his spell. He’s not quite as drunk as the others, and in any case, he’s better at managing magic than most of his peers, even when he’s blotto.
They’re halfway up the dexter stairs to the dorms without alerting any of the masters before poor Horace Greenway, who has the sort of luck you expect to get from dancing under ladders, manages to trip over his own feet and starts tumbling down the stairs.
He doesn’t even think about what to do. Before Horace can break his neck, Thomas has him floating in the air, held aloft by the gentlest version of impello he can manage. He can’t manage two spells at once, though, and his quiescete ends in a clatter of curses and the last verse of the rude song which Champers has been singing at the top of his lungs.
He doesn’t know who casts lux until the others go quiet and the slow clap of approval from the top of the sinister stairs tells him that their passage through the Great Hall has been observed all along. Carefully, he lowers Horace to the floor and then stands with his hands behind his back where the headmaster won’t see them tremble.
The headmaster isn’t alone, either, which only makes him wish he could sink through the floor a bit faster. But other wizard, a broadset man in his fifties with muttonchop side-whiskers the like of which are becoming rare since the Great War began, nods his approval. “That was fast thinking, youngster. Tell me, have you decided yet what you’ll do with yourself when you leave school?”
The doctor came by after the nurse, and in the fog of the drug Nightingale nearly called him by the name he’d known first. But Andrew Hamish Watson had been Abdul Haqq Walid for twenty years, and he caught himself in time before asking how badly he’d been hurt. Badly enough, it seemed, and he was grateful for the fresh dose of morphine which pushed the present away so he could fall again into the past.
It’s harder than he expects to tell his parents that he has chosen the constabulary over Oxford. With two of his brothers dead in the trenches, and the other two still in Army khaki, it really shouldn’t surprise him that they don’t want to see him go into uniform, not even the blue uniform of a policeman. But his uncle takes his side, pointing out that Thomas will be getting a good solid grounding in the practical aspects of his magic if he joins the Force. After all, the Folly is in London, and several senior wizards are there, any one of whom can take him on until he finishes his apprenticeship. “And besides,” the older wizard points out, tapping his silver topped cane on the floor as he casts a subtle spell that Thomas does not yet know. “For all that we promised to keep magic out of the war, he’s still subject to the draft. Better to get him safely into a reserved profession now than wait and trust to luck.”
Every London policeman begins as a constable on the beat, and Thomas is no different. The heavy boots and helmet, and the leather lined collar of the woolen uniform; the twelve hour days of walking a beat are a challenge, but by the time the war stumbles to a close a few months later he has strength enough to spend an hour or two at the Folly on his one off day a week, studying in the library and measuring himself silently against the wizards who live there. It’s hardly a surprise when the broadset, bewhiskered gent he’d met at school turns up one evening and introduces himself. “Inspector Murville,” he says, sitting down opposite Thomas without ceremony. “I understand you’re in need of a master.”
When the visitor came into the room he was startled into shifting position, scarcely an inch or more, but the pain woke, gnawing at his shoulder, and he stilled again, waiting for it to fade back into slumber. For a moment his eyelids fluttered, and he imagined bright light, pastel walls, and a white ceiling, but he couldn’t sustain the effort. It was his nose that told him who had come to call, bearing grapes and cornflowers, but underneath that the everpresent scent of oil paints and turpentine. She was the youngest of his nieces -- the only one who had inherited his mother’s gift for art, and the only one of his family left who knew which generation he truly belonged to. “Dear Uncle Tom,” she said, as she leaned over the bed to rest one warm, wrinkled hand against his brow. “I was hoping you’d given up getting shot at.”
The first time he nearly gets himself killed it is weeks before he is allowed to get out of bed for more than a few minutes at a time. Murville brings him back to the Folly to recover, and it is now that he befriends the young, strange, scullery maid called Molly. He teaches her to write and read -- in that order, since she never speaks -- and in return she brings him books from the mundane library and tea.
In time he’s well enough to be sent off to Oxford, to take up the lessons he missed while he is still too much a convalescent to work as a policeman. The degree is almost secondary to the chance to work through Newton’s papers, and reignite his spark of curiosity. He bypasses the chance to be declared a full wizard, takes on another apprenticeship instead, teasing out everything his professor has learned over a long life about the uses of enchantments.
His curiosity leads him to the Sons of Weyland, and Manchester, where he forges his first staff and finishes regaining his strength, all at the same time. There’s more to learn, he knows, but the old men invest him into his mastery all the same. Soon, they tell him, he will take on his own apprentices, to nurture and protect as they grow in the craft.
But time passes, and he never seems to have the chance. His career is flourishing, and his curiosity is leading him into learning things that some of his peers will never bother to know. It comes in useful when a string of murders turn out to be done by a black practitioner, someone building their power off the deaths of others. When Thomas identifies the man, he runs, and Thomas follows him, nearly to the ends of the earth, to do what must be done.
By the time he returns to London there’s a new war looming, and he doesn’t have apprentices so much as trainees, wizards young and old who come to the firing range under the Folly to practice skills that will be all too necessary when the Nazi’s co-opt the wizards of Germany and eliminate the old men who had negotiated a magical truce the last time. There is no time left, and no memories he cannot touch without pain.
The hand holding his was cool at first, but it warmed gradually, and the grip loosened. Curiosity dragged him closer to the world of consciousness. Even so, it took a deliberate plan of action to look outside his own head. The lights were much less bright this time, as if someone had turned them low, which helped to keep his eyes open, but made it harder to identify the person who was sitting slumped against the bed. The man had one hand still resting against Nightingale’s and the other arm crooked into a makeshift pillow where he could bury his face. Dark skin, a stubble of black hair, the unmistakable scent of sweat and fear and exhaustion only just now being thinned by the sweeter scent of sleep.
“Peter,” he said, remembering at last, and made to move his hand to rest on that dark head, but the motion sent fire up his spine and set the machines around the head of the bed to chattering and pinging more quickly. The door sprang open and two nurses and Walid bustled in, bringing trays and instruments and lights and bandages. For a moment Peter raised his head, unconsciously tightening his grip on Thomas’s hand, and Thomas gripped it back, or tried to.
“Go back to sleep,” Walid ordered, as he slipped more morphine into Nightingale’s IV, and the command was for both of them, it seemed, for Peter blinked and nodded and slipped back under before the nurse could cover his shoulders with a blanket.
Nightingale, already half seas under, knew that Walid and the nurses were turning him over, checking the injury, but the morphine had already made them remote and distant. It wasn’t long before they finished fussing and left, turning the lights down low once more. Nightingale, a breath from sleep, kept his eyes on young Grant as long as he could. There was so much left for his lone apprentice to learn, and only Nightingale to teach it to him. He’d have to set his mind to staying alive a while longer, that was all there was to it. Surely it would be easier to recover from a gunshot wound when one was getting younger instead of older.
He closed his eyes and dreamt of the future.