By the time I got back to the lab, Mr. Dunworthy was gone.
“Colin—” Badri began, but I didn’t let him finish.
“You’ve already sent him through. Let me go after him,” I pleaded.
“No,” he said. “No drops for anyone until Mr. Dunworthy returns. Dunworthy’s orders.” I started to object, but the sympathetic look on Badri’s face stopped me. I could hardly claim Badri didn’t understand when it was all too clear he did, and didn’t like the situation, either.
I turned my back on him, and was very tempted to smash the torch I’d brought against the nearest wall, but I didn’t do it. Now, more than ever, I needed Badri and the others to see me as an adult.
Badri placed a hand on my shoulder, and it took a conscious effort on my part not to shrug it off. He meant well. All of the adults in Mr. Dunworthy’s circle mean well, but none of them are willing to let me out of the “too young” cage.
“Colin. I’ll let you know the minute he and Polly come through. Even if it’s the middle of the night, if you like.”
“Yes, please,” I said, and left the lab while I still had some semblance of self-control.
I hurried over to Mr. Dunworthy’s rooms, as it was the nearest place I could expect some privacy. I needed to settle myself before approaching any of the other adults. I needed to think.
Dunworthy had been worried enough about slippage that he’d gone to fetch Polly. Why was he so concerned? Surely he didn’t think Ishiwaka’s theory was correct. Polly had three years to go before her deadline. If the potential for slippage were that bad, what would happen to Mr. Dunworthy? He’d traveled to the Blitz, hadn’t he? When?
About an hour later, Kivrin knocked on the door. I let her in saying, “Have you heard?”
She nodded. “I’m going to tell you something you don’t want to hear.”
“You want me to go back to Eton,” I said dully. Kivrin had been my best hope for staying on in Oxford to help. She’s become the sister I never had, but she can be nearly as overprotective as Mr. Dunworthy.
“Not this very minute, but today.”
“Why are you in such a hurry to pack me off?” I said, then realized, “The drop won't open, will it? Dunworthy went flash-time and Badri's already tried a retrieval and the drop won't open.”
“Yes,” Kivrin said, looking grim.
“When were you planning on telling me?!” I could hear my voice becoming shrill.
“Not for a few days yet, if I could manage it without lying to you,” she admitted. “This will likely sort itself out in short order. There was no need to upset you when there was nothing you could do about it. I see two possibilities. One: Dunworthy and Polly will return in a matter of hours or days. In that case, there’s no reason for you not to be at school.”
“But I’m on holiday—”
“Colin, your acceptance to Balliol is conditional. You need to finish the summer half and do well on your A levels. I know how much time you’ve spent here helping Polly. You’ll be sent down or fail your exams if you spend much more time in Oxford. Go back to school and study.”
I wanted to contradict her, but she was right. I should have known Dunworthy would tell her about the calls from my housemaster. Years ago, my mother had put Dunworthy down on my school form as a contact. At the time, I’d thought it apocalyptic. Only later had I discovered how inconvenient it could be to have a responsible adult in my life. “And the second possibility?” I asked.
“It could be months or even years before Dunworthy returns,” she said.
Kivrin nodded. “Unlikely, but possible. In that case, if you want to help us get them back—”
“Of course I do,” I interrupted.
“Then you’ll need to become a properly trained historian. Which, again, means you need to finish up at Eton.”
“Kiv, I don’t understand why Dunworthy’s so worried about slippage,” I said.
“I don’t either, and Badri’s puzzled as well.”
Which explained how Kivrin had found me so quickly. Badri must have called her and Kivrin had guessed I'd go to Dunworthy's rooms. “But if Polly’s in danger, what about Mr. Dunworthy? Surely his deadline is much sooner?”
“Yes,” she acknowledged. “Colin, I don’t know what’s going on in Dunworthy’s head just now. I’ve spoken to Badri and Finch and Ned, and Dunworthy hasn’t shared his concerns with anyone. We’re not keeping something from you. We’ll notify you as soon as they return.”
“Or if you learn something important,” I added.
“Yes,” she replied without hesitation.
“I’ll go back to Eton,” I agreed reluctantly, “but if they’re not back by the time I leave, I want to help.”
“I know,” she said. “I do know what they mean to you.”
It wasn’t a promise that she’d let me help, but it was better than a flat refusal. We had dinner together and then I went back to school, trying not to think of the third possibility, the one neither of us had dared to mention.
Dunworthy and Polly might never return at all.
Nothing had changed by the time I left Eton. I’d spoken to Kivrin on a near-daily basis since April, but all she could tell me was that they were still trying to understand what had happened. Two weeks before I finished school, she sent me an odd present: a box of essays I’d written for Dunworthy over the years. Many of them were about the Crusades, but most were from other time periods, assigned as punishment for one misdeed or another. It was an embarrassingly large collection and I was surprised to learn Dunworthy had kept copies of all my work. Kivrin had enclosed a note saying, “You’ll need these!”
Reading them again with fresh eyes, I was impressed by how well-constructed they were, even the ones I’d done as a twelve-year-old. Then again, Dunworthy had never been hesitant to make me re-do work until it met his standards, especially if he sensed I was trying to scrape by with minimal effort. Seeing his handwritten notes in the margins was almost painful. Was this all I had left of him? And why had Kivrin sent them? I’d be in Oxford soon enough; there’d been no need to send them unless she meant for me to start reviewing them.
My mother took me on a brief holiday to celebrate finishing Eton. I’d tried to explain to her that I was worried about Polly and Mr. Dunworthy and not much interested in celebrating, but she couldn’t seem to take it in. All she would say was, “I’m sure they’re fine,” and, “But it’s time travel,” as if no one had ever died on a drop. During the day, I smiled and pretended to enjoy myself, but after she’d gone to bed each night, I spent an hour or two with my old essays and a few texts on my handheld.
Two days after we got back to London, I packed my things and set off for Oxford. My mother couldn’t understand why I wanted to go to university early. Apparently, I’d been expected to spend the balance of the summer wandering about Europe, getting drunk with friends, as she had done. I’d long since given up trying to make her understand that her future daughter-in-law and the man who’d raised me for the past five years might be in danger. I simply told her I had friends in Oxford to go drinking with.
By the time I reached Kivrin’s flat, I felt ready to launch into a brilliantly persuasive speech. I was no longer a schoolboy, and it was time for the adults to recognize that.
Damn. I reminded myself, not for the first time, to stop thinking of them as “the adults.” I was an adult.
I didn’t get a chance to use my speech on Kivrin. The minute I set my bags down, she grabbed me and started out the door.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Strategy meeting. I thought you’d be here earlier in the day, so we’re a bit behind schedule for meeting the others.”
“Others?” I said, but she ignored all my questions. We walked briskly to a restaurant not far from Balliol. Kivrin led me through the main dining room to a private room in the back. Ned, Verity, Badri, and Finch were already there, eating appetizers.
Apart from congratulating me on finishing Eton, no one seemed interested in discussing anything more substantial than what to order. To me, it felt more like friends getting together for a meal than a strategy meeting. We’d nearly finished eating when Kivrin turned to me and said, “Right, then. This is where things stand. Dunworthy’s drop won’t open. We decided to try retrieving anyone who was on assignment during World War II, which encompasses the area of elevated slippage. We were only able to get one drop to open, in Singapore, and that closed as soon as we got the historian back. None of the World War II drops we’ve tried will open now. We’re not sure if the drops are permanently disabled or only intermittently functional.”
“We’ve been able to piece together Dunworthy’s movements in the week preceding his departure,” Finch said. “Dunworthy was spending a lot of time on the phone with Ishiwaka, and went up to London to see him in person. Clearly, he was worried that the elevated slippage around World War II might be a hint that the continuum is breaking down.”
“He wasn’t worried enough to send someone else to fetch Polly,” I pointed out.
“True,” said Kivrin, “so we think he was concerned about Ishiwaka’s theory, but not convinced it’s correct. In addition to tracking slippage, Dunworthy was also interested in information about a drop he made in September 1940.”
“September? When in September?” I asked.
“The seventeenth,” Badri said.
“And you sent Dunworthy through to retrieve Polly when?” I asked, fearing the answer.
“The tenth,” he answered grimly.
“So Dunworthy has a deadline of one week,” I said hollowly.
“Colin, if it takes us years—” Verity said.
“We’d have to locate him and open a drop somewhere during that one week,” I said. “That’s not much to work with.”
“It’s not,” Kivrin acknowledged, “but there may have been slippage.”
“Which would give us even less of a window,” I said.
“Unless the slippage is so great he didn’t arrive until much later,” Ned countered. “Which is possible, given the slippage on some other drops to World War II.”
“Dunworthy chose to go through, even knowing he had a deadline,” Badri said. “He clearly didn’t think the risk was that great.”
“He’d risk anything to save one of us,” I said.
There was an awkward silence, then Kivrin said, “Dunworthy contacted Research, looking for information on the seventeenth. Apparently, he was interested in casualty lists and obituaries for that date. He asked them to locate a photograph of a Wren killed in Ave Maria Lane.”
Ned said, “All of the drops after the one to the seventeenth experienced slippage. We’re guessing Dunworthy thought something on that drop created an incongruity.”
“Hang on,” I said. "Dunworthy thinks the net is breaking down now because of something he did decades ago?"
“Nonlinear system,” Verity murmured.
“Who’s stuck in the past?” I asked. “Apart from Polly and Mr. Dunworthy.”
“Merope Ward and Michael Davies are the only ones we’re sure of,” Finch replied. “We still have a few historians out on assignment in other time periods, but we haven’t been retrieving them early. So far, we haven’t had any difficulty on return drops from any time outside World War II. Badri’s worked out a program, with TJ’s help, to systematically ping all the drop sites we’ve ever used, including unmanneds. We don’t know why this is happening or how large the problem is. We should have a decent map of what’s temporally accessible to us in—?” he said, giving Badri a questioning glance.
“Another two weeks, at least,” Badri supplied. “That’s assuming the map is stable, and it may not be, so we’ll need to run a background program to periodically check and update the map. For the time being, there are no outgoing drops, and Lady Schrapnell’s not pleased.”
Ned said, “Lady Schrapnell’s my job.”
“Brave man,” I said, and everyone laughed. Ned was the Head of Retrievals, the new program dedicated to the retrieval of nonsignificant objects. Given Lady Schrapnell’s personality, I couldn’t imagine why he’d agreed to take the job. I suspected Ned often wondered the same himself.
Ned said, “Apart from being impatient, Lady Schrapnell’s been quite decent. She’s rather fond of Mr. Dunworthy. It’s partly due to her influence that Finch is the Acting Head of Time Travel and the de facto Head of the History department.”
“Actually,” Finch put in, “Professor Trubshaw is the Acting Head of History, but he’s not interested in Time Travel.”
“His area is Nineteenth Century,” Ned reminded me. “You might not remember him, as he takes no interest in practical history. His lectures were dreadfully dull when I was a fresher. He rarely takes his nose out of a book. I’m surprised he agreed to be Head. I would have thought he’d see it as a thankless job keeping him from his students and his research.”
“It’s a status symbol to him,” Verity said, making a face. “He imagines it will give him power.” Beside me, Kivrin snickered, and I nearly joined her. The time I’d spent in Oxford had taught me that academics are about as controllable as Finch-Lewis kittens.
Kivrin said, “So Dunworthy’s responsibilities have been split among four people. Trubshaw is nominally the Head of History, but he’s such a toad that most people will ignore him when they possibly can. Finch is Head of Time Travel, not that much of a step up for him, considering how much of the paperwork he was already doing. His first act of office was inspired.”
Verity said, “Eddritch’s got the sack.”
“Not truly,” Finch said, upon seeing my gleeful expression. “Eddritch has been reassigned as Trubshaw’s assistant.”
Badri said, “So if we need something from Trubshaw, it’s going to be rather gruesome.”
“True,” Finch said. “But Eddritch is skilled at being unhelpful, not at knowing the proper forms and procedures. His ignorance can be exploited.”
Kivrin said, “So we believe we can use Finch to work around Trubshaw and Eddritch, when absolutely necessary.”
“The third part of Dunworthy’s responsibilities, tutoring students, has gone to Verity,” Ned said. “She was a lecturer last year, but next term, she’ll be a tutor for the first time. Your tutor, in fact, if you decide to specialize in Twentieth Century.”
“We know your original interest was in becoming a medievalist,” Verity said tentatively, “but we thought perhaps your priorities have changed.”
Meaning, I suppose, that I’d need to specialize in Twentieth Century to have much hope of finding Polly and Dunworthy. I’d reluctantly come to the same conclusion. I’d thought it over, and reasoned that if Dunworthy and Polly returned soon, I could always change my focus back to Medieval. I turned to Kivrin. “That's only three things. What’s the fourth?”
“You,” Kivrin said. “The last job that’s important to Dunworthy.”
“Or perhaps the first,” Badri said.
Kivrin glanced at Badri, nodded, and then told me, “You’re my task.”
I should have expected that. Dunworthy had taken me under his wing five years earlier, and nearly all of Balliol knew it. It had never been a secret, but hearing it stated so baldly caught me off guard. It was only going to make what I had to say that much harder.
“I do think I should go with Twentieth Century,” I began, “but I want to study with the best. No offense to you, Verity,” I added hastily. “I want to go to 2030 and study with Mr. Dunworthy. If I went flash-time, I could come back to 2060 fully qualified, and take an active role in the retrieval immediately, instead of years from now.”
Whatever response the others had been expecting, this wasn’t it. None of them said anything for a moment, then Verity turned to Finch and said uncertainly, “Would that be possible?”
“Probably not,” Badri answered, and my heart sank. “Preliminary results on the mapping indicate we can’t get to anything after 2000. Getting anywhere near Oxford during the first two decades of time travel has always been nearly impossible.”
“I did it,” Ned said. “Not intentionally, though.”
“Perhaps—” I began, but Kivrin cut me off.
“You’re not doing it,” she declared, with a firmness that surprised me. “Apart from the difficulties of setting up such a drop, there’s a chance you could muck up the early history of Time Travel. And it would be too hard for you, Colin. He wouldn’t be your Mr. Dunworthy. He wouldn’t know you. You’d be alone.”
I was on the verge of telling her I was already alone, when I glanced around the table. True, I’d lost Polly and Mr. Dunworthy, but I wasn’t as alone as I’d believed, and I should remember that. I bowed my head, accepting defeat.
“We have a different plan,” Verity said. I looked up at her. “You’ve a much stronger background than most first-year students. Normally, you’d be taking college examinations at the start of your first term to assess your readiness and let us know where your strengths and weaknesses lie.”
“I know,” I said quietly.
“Then you know that you can’t fail collections; they’re merely diagnostic,” Verity said. “And you likely know that you’re expected to pass the public examinations you take at the end of your first year...”
“Preliminary examinations,” I said automatically. Where was this going?
“We have two students who failed their exams and will be re-taking their prelims before the start of term,” Verity continued. “You could sit the exams, too, if you like.”
“And skip my first year?” I asked, turning it over in my head.
“I don’t think you’d be able to skip it in its entirety,” Verity answered. “You may well have to sit the prelims again at the end of your first year, but if we knew there were first-year lectures you needn’t attend, that would let you make a start on temporal theory a year early.”
Badri added, “And there are technical courses on the net you might find useful. Not necessarily the ones that would allow you to design or service a net, but how to calculate coordinates and plan drops and such.”
“And you might… might have time to do independent historical research on the side,” Kivrin said.
Such as looking for clues to Polly’s whereabouts. It wasn’t exactly what I’d wanted, but I’d expected all along they wouldn’t let me go on a drop straight away. Actually, it wasn’t a bad plan, and Undergraduate Colin seemed to be a definite step up from Schoolboy Colin. They were doing their best to create a viable pathway for me. “How would that work?” I said. “Surely the department won’t allow it. I haven’t even started university yet.”
Finch smiled. “The University would likely defer to Balliol in such matters. If and when Trubshaw takes notice of it, we can point to a letter in your admission papers from Mr. Dunworthy to the Education Committee, recommending early testing for you on the strength of your academic record.”
“Did Mr. Dunworthy actually write such a letter?” I asked, wondering just how far Finch’s skills extended.
“Yes,” Finch said. “It was always his intention that your undergraduate course of study should be enriched, although not shortened.”
“So you could spend more of your graduate career in the field, rather than lecture rooms,” Kivrin explained. “He was quite firm on your not going on assignment until you were twenty, so he thought you should make good use of your time while you waited.”
How like Dunworthy, I thought, to make arrangements for my preparation to be as thorough as possible while not budging an inch on his age rule. And to assume I’d pursue a graduate degree. Then again, he’d taken me seriously when I’d told him I wanted to be an historian at age twelve, although my mother hadn’t. “I’ve already begun revising,” I told Kivrin. “I assumed you’d sent the essays for a reason.”
“Clever boy,” Kivrin said, smiling. “Welcome to the retrieval team.”
For once, the word “boy” didn’t rankle.
Later that evening, Kivrin and I went back to her flat and she showed me where to put my things. “We’re holding Mr. Dunworthy’s rooms for him,” she said. “You can stay there if you insist, but I’d rather have you here with me, if you don’t mind.”
“Planning on setting my bed-time, are you?” I teased. “And here I was, looking forward to hosting drunken orgies in Mr. Dunworthy’s sitting room.”
I’d thought that would make her smile, but her expression became unexpectedly serious. “You’ve lost the two people you love most in the world. I don’t think you should be alone just yet.”
I hadn’t been certain she knew about Polly. Had it been that obvious? “Does everyone know? About Polly, I mean?”
“Not everyone, I think,” she said. “No doubt Dunworthy guessed, as he sees most things, but he never confided in me. Badri and Linna knew, but Finch hadn’t figured it out. Ned had guessed, even though he doesn’t see you that often. He saw you looking at Polly one day and was immediately reminded of the way he feels about Verity.”
“No one thinks it’s funny,” Kivrin reassured me. “Nor are they gossiping about it. It just came up one day while we were talking. You may think we haven’t made much progress, but it’s taken endless discussion to get this far. Dunworthy’s not an easy man to replace, even on a temporary basis. Getting Finch named as Acting Head of Time Travel was a definite coup.”
“About 2030—” I began.
“Colin, you heard Badri. I know you want to be Mr. Dunworthy’s student, but it’s not possible. We are doing our best to bring him home. Dunworthy was certainly looking forward to being your tutor, and he’ll be rather put out if you’ve already graduated by the time he returns.”
“Kiv, I don’t mind studying Twentieth Century now, but I’d truly like to be a medievalist. Will you help me?”
“You’re quite tall for that time period already, and I’m not convinced you’re done growing,” she said doubtfully.
“I could be a Viking,” I said.
“Colin the Viking,” she said, and that made her smile. “Very well. Officially, you can only have one primary tutor—”
“Verity,” I acknowledged.
“—but I can be your secondary tutor and help you with the Middle Ages on the side. Dunworthy can be your tutor when he comes back. You wouldn’t be the first cuckoo hatched in his nest.”
That settled, we turned in for the night. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought about what an eventful day it had been. I’d left my mother’s, perhaps for the last time. I’d feared Time Travel would be resigned to the loss of Dunworthy, but had happily learned his absence was considered temporary. Nothing was happening nearly so fast as I would have liked, but looking at things logically, they were making sensible decisions and proceeding methodically in search of a solution. Most importantly, I felt I’d been accepted by the others as a not-yet-trained equal instead of a child.
By the time I moved out of Kivrin’s flat and into Balliol, Badri had finished the temporal map. Many areas of the past were still accessible. Some of the inaccessible bits of history had always been impossible to reach, such as the Battle of Waterloo, but there were new areas, too. So far, Badri hadn’t been able to get to anything after 1995, which destroyed any lingering hope I’d had of studying in 2030. Worse yet, everything between 1937 and 1959 was off-limits.
The retrieval team held “strategy meetings” every week or so, to pool our knowledge and boost morale. Sometimes TJ and Linna came. Of the others, Kivrin, Badri, Finch, and I were regulars, and Ned and Verity came more often than not, although not always together.
We’d developed two possible explanations for what had happened. The “we broke it” scenario held that Ishiwaka’s theory was correct: the increased slippage around World War II indicated time-traveling historians had damaged the continuum beyond repair. Thus far, the damage was confined to the years near World War II and after 1995, but there was no guarantee things would stay that way. If true, that would mean we should stop doing time travel altogether.
The more hopeful theory was what Ned called the “we’re just along for the ride” scenario. Based on his experiences with Verity, Ned thought the closure around World War II might be part of a self-correction, and that the closed drops would begin to function again as the self-correction progressed. The trapped historians were either part of the self-correction, or were in limbo to prevent them from interfering with the self-correction. Ned and Verity had traveled to London to meet with Ishiwaka. He’d been intrigued by their experiences, which did sound as if the net had been bouncing them around the continuum as part of a self-correction, but still thought his own theory was plausible.
Thus far, we didn’t have enough data to know if either scenario was correct. The last of the historians out on assignment had come home without incident. After much debate, Ned and Finch decided to begin authorizing drops again, taking care to do each historian’s drops in chronological order. Badri and Linna had been monitoring slippage obsessively, but nothing seemed out of order.
As expected, I’d made a good showing on my exams. As my tutor, Verity advised me to skip some subjects I might otherwise have taken in favor of courses usually taught to upper-year students, including temporal theory and net mechanics. I’d been a bit worried about being accepted by the older students in my advanced courses, but they scarcely took notice of me. All of them had heard of Dunworthy, even if they hadn’t been taught by him. To them, I suppose, it didn’t seem odd that a fresher who’d grown up under the influence of a don might be ahead of his year in some subjects.
Although I’d tested well in Nineteenth Century, Verity and Kivrin urged me to attend Trubshaw’s lectures, anyway. They’d thought he might take offense if I skipped his lectures and believed that suffering through them with my yearmates would be a bonding experience. Trubshaw proved to be every bit as dull as Ned had remembered. It was grim work, but I forced myself to pay attention and schooled my body language not to betray the intense boredom I felt. I might need Trubshaw’s good will in the future.
I nearly got off to a bad start with him on the first day. Trubshaw asked a question and then pointed at me, “You. Name?”
“Colin Templer, sir,” I’d replied, and began to answer his question, but he interrupted me.
“You’re Dunworthy’s boy, aren’t you?” he asked, peering at me over his spectacles.
I hesitated a moment before saying, “Yes, sir,” and began to answer the question again.
“He used to be the Head of History,” Trubshaw informed the other students, who were now staring at me. “I expect he’s told you about me.” Something about his tone indicated I was being tested. Was I supposed to say Dunworthy had praised him to the heavens? Or had Dunworthy despised him, in which case an attempt to stroke his vanity would be an obvious lie?
I murdered my pride and said, “Sir, I’m afraid the only thing Mr. Dunworthy ever told me was to eat my Brussels sprouts.”
Everyone laughed, and Trubshaw finally let me answer the question. He moved on to another hapless victim while I sat there, seething. The other students would rag me from now on about being Dunworthy’s little boy, and I didn’t like the way he’d said, “Used to be Head of History.”
Luckily, the teasing wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. A group of students clustered around me as we left the lecture. Andrew and Taki, who lived on my staircase, had been sitting next to me, and I recognized Phoebe and Kat, who lived two staircases over. I didn’t know the others.
Phoebe said, “My mum’s a teacher. Horribly embarrassing, isn’t it?”
I smiled, as Taki asked, “So is this Dunworthy your guardian?”
“Not legally,” I told him. “I went to the Black Death with him when I was twelve, and I’ve spent my holidays here in Oxford ever since.” I hadn’t been inclined to tell anyone that, but Kivrin had warned me the other freshers would find out soon enough.
“You never,” Andrew said. “He never took you to the Black Death.”
“It wasn’t his idea,” I admitted. “I jumped in the net at the last moment. Ask Miss Engle. She’s the one we were retrieving.”
“Did he really make you eat Brussels sprouts?” Kat asked.
“Thank God, no. That would have been worse than the plague,” I said, and they laughed. “I had to say something though, didn’t I?”
“How can someone so boring be so vain?” Phoebe asked, a question for which no one had an answer. “Where's your Mr. Dunworthy, if he’s not Head now? Retired?”
Lost, I thought. “On assignment,” I said. “Not sure when he’ll return. He’s Twentieth Century, though, so we’ll still be stuck with Trubshaw when he gets back,” which made them laugh.
I hadn’t expected anyone to ask Kivrin about 1348 straight away, but Andrew did, that very evening. “Miss Engle?” he said, rising as she passed our table in Hall. She turned to look at him expectantly. “One of the other students told me you’d been to the Black Death. Is that true?”
I mentally kicked myself for bringing it up. Kivrin is used to being asked about Ashencote by now, but she’s still not fond of it. She eyed me briefly, then answered, “Yes. I expect the student in question must be Mr. Templer, as he was there also.”
I’d thought that might squash Andrew’s enthusiasm, but he grinned and said, “So, what was he like then?” I considered taking refuge under the table, but concluded that would give Andrew too much of an advantage. If I didn’t react at all, embarrassing me would be far less satisfying.
Kivrin gave me a considering look and said, “He was… a welcome sight.” I relaxed slightly, and Kivrin must have seen that because she smiled mischievously and added, “And much shorter, of course. Good thing you’ve finally grown into those feet, Templer.”
I picked up a roll to shy at her, but she gave me a warning look and jerked her head slightly in the direction of the High Table. Trubshaw was there. Damn. She smiled and passed on her way, and Andrew resumed his seat.
“Do you know all of the dons?” Taki said.
“Of course not. It’s mostly Mr. Dunworthy’s old students,” I explained. Andrew seemed satisfied at last, and our conversation turned to speculation about Taki’s chances of getting Phoebe to go on a date.
True to Kivrin’s warning, I didn’t have nearly so much time for retrieval work as I’d hoped. Research had identified the dead Wren from Ave Maria Lane as Lt. Dorothy Peyton. Going back over Dunworthy’s report at the time, he’d bumped into a Wren near St. Paul’s. Was it the same one? I’d been sifting through newspaper articles and records, but still hadn’t found anything useful about the incident. Perhaps if I looked up all the women serving with Peyton at the time, and then searched for their letters or diaries?
Why can’t we at least go back to the 1950s, I thought, and then told myself, Because that would make things too easy. Damn. If Ned were right, shouldn’t the continuum be making things easier for me, rather than harder? If we were “just along for the ride,” why wasn’t the bloody thing taking us anywhere we needed to go?
By the end of Michaelmas term, everyone had grown bored with teasing me about being “Dunworthy’s boy,” as Kivrin had predicted. Trubshaw still called on me far too often for my liking, as if hoping to demonstrate my placement in advanced courses was a mistake, but I’d fallen back on a strategy suggested by Verity.
“Be a bit dim,” she’d said. I’d looked at her incredulously. “I’m not saying you should get the answers wrong. By all means, you want Trubshaw to think you’re devoted to history and good at it.”
“I am good at it,” I'd protested. “At least I think I am.”
“Yes,” she’d said, smiling gently. “But some academics are positively fierce within their field of knowledge and incredibly woolly and oblivious about everything else. Think of Cummings.”
She'd had a point. Cummings taught my temporal theory course, and was brilliant at it, but rarely paid attention to anything else, including her footwear. It was common knowledge that she’d come to lecture one freezing February morning still wearing bedroom slippers.
“I am not going to wander about Balliol in my pajamas.”
“Of course not,” she'd replied. “But you can pretend to be socially oblivious around Trubshaw. Be pleasant to him, and don’t react to anything he says about Dunworthy or favoritism. As if you only have a History brain, and not a full brain.”
I’d thought it rather mad at the time, but I'd followed her advice all the same, and it seemed to help. Andrew and Taki had asked me why I behaved like an idiot in Trubshaw’s lectures, but Trubshaw himself was not suspicious.
Taki had managed at last to secure a date with Phoebe, which meant Andrew and I lost a whole afternoon’s worth of work to analyzing the aftermath of their date. We progressed from speculating on Taki’s chances of getting a second date to Taki’s chances of getting Phoebe to sleep with him. Andrew, handsome, popular, and rich, was steadily working his way through all the women in our year and seemed full of advice. I found myself wondering if Phoebe and her friends were getting any work done, or whether they were off somewhere discussing Taki.
“And what about you?” Taki said, turning to me. “I never hear you talking about taking out any girls. Or any boys, for that matter.”
“He’s stuck on some girl who isn’t here,” Andrew said.
“Where is she, then?” Taki asked.
1940, I thought, but I didn’t want to explain, so I said, “London.”
“Is she a student, too?” Taki asked.
“A graduate student,” I replied, and instantly regretted it.
“Oooooh,” Andrew and Taki said in unison.
“An older woman,” Andrew said. “I know what you're getting for Christmas.”
“I have an appointment with my tutor,” I lied, and got out of there, fast.
Andrew and all the other freshers left for the Christmas holiday. I stayed on, but moved back to Kivrin’s flat because all the rooms on my staircase would be needed over the break to house prospective students during their interviews. It was difficult for me to believe that a year had passed since I’d visited Oxford for my own interview, and that Dunworthy and Polly had been gone for most of that time.
I thought of Trubshaw’s never-ending insinuations of favoritism and smiled to myself. Dunworthy had been one of the tutors interviewing me that day. He’d asked a don from Brasenose and another from Jesus to sit in for my interview, and for the most part, Dunworthy had let them run the show. From his behavior toward me, no one would have guessed we’d had breakfast together a few hours earlier.
Just before I'd returned to London the following day, Dunworthy had said, “I think it likely you’ll be offered a place at Balliol. However,” he’d continued severely, upon seeing my pleased reaction, “your tendency to skip class so you can come down to Oxford does not serve you well. If you’re sent down or do poorly on your A levels, you may lose your place and have to apply again. If that occurs, be assured that I will personally supervise your education during the intervening year, to ensure your success.”
At the time, I’d been horrified by the prospect of doing a year’s worth of independent study under Mr. Dunworthy’s displeased eye. He’d meant it as a threat, and I’d recognized it as such. Now, though, I saw that statement in a different light. Underneath his sternness had been the willingness to spend time he could ill afford to help me.
I kept looking for ways I could help him, but my progress was painfully slow. I’d located diaries and letters for two of the women in Peyton’s unit, but hadn’t had a chance to read most of them yet. There were simply too many demands on my time.
I wasn’t the only one feeling stretched thin. There was grey in Finch’s hair that hadn’t been there six months earlier, and Kivrin and Badri had new lines in their faces. Verity, usually so placid, was looking strained, although perhaps for a happier reason: she was pregnant, and suffering dreadfully from morning sickness.
Badri and Linna had completed the first update of the temporal map. It hadn’t changed, which meant the drops could continue, but World War II was still closed to us. We’d had a bad scare when Linna noticed an area of markedly increased slippage around one drop, but soon realized the problem was merely road repairs detouring traffic into a little-used lane near the drop. Moving the drop a few hundred feet had taken care of the slippage, although the historian involved complained bitterly about hiking through a muddy field.
Kivrin and I attended the interchurch service on Christmas Eve. For many years, Dunworthy had always read for the service, and Kivrin had asked to take his place. Christmas had been hard for Kivrin ever since our return from the fourteenth century, and I knew she must have been missing Mr. Dunworthy as much as I was.
As Kivrin read about shepherds keeping watch over their flock, I wondered if anyone was keeping watch over Polly and the others. Was it Christmas for them, too? Did they know they were trapped? Were they somehow trying to tell us how to find them? I hoped wherever Polly was, that Mr. Dunworthy or Michael or Merope were with her. I hoped none of them were alone. Polly, I thought, I’m coming. I’m trying. Hang on.
After the service, we went round to Ned and Verity’s for a drink. Several other people were there, including a few students. It was odd to look across the crowded room, and realize that for many of the people there, this was an ordinary Christmas, a good Christmas. Most of them knew we were missing four historians, but their lives weren’t dominated by loss. A year from now, would I be celebrating Polly’s return? Or would I be trying to learn how to live without constantly thinking of what I was missing?
Kivrin came up to me, “Penny for them,” she said.
“Absent friends,” I said.
“Ah,” she diagnosed. “Getting maudlin. One drink too many. Come along, it’s time we went home.”
I walked her back to the flat, then told her I wanted to walk a bit more.
“Are you all right?” she said, looking up at me in concern.
“Yes,” I said. “I won’t stay out long. I just need some fresh air.”
I walked over to Balliol. Here and there, I could hear the voices of people returning home in twos and threes. Clearly, Ned and Verity hadn’t been the only ones who’d invited people over for some Christmas cheer.
I let myself into Mr. Dunworthy’s rooms without turning on the light. I did all my research here, away from Andrew’s prying eyes, and sometimes came here to study when there was too much noise on my staircase.
I made my way in the darkness over to the window seat. I’d slept on one my first day in Oxford. It seemed a lifetime ago now. I hadn’t even known Dunworthy then, but he’d offered to take me off Great-aunt Mary’s hands and I’d gone with him as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I’d curled up on the window seat to nap and woken with a blanket spread over me. In the middle of an epidemic, Dunworthy had even managed Christmas presents for me. He’d been that way ever since, seeing to my needs in little ways without making a fuss of it.
“Happy Christmas, Mr. Dunworthy,” I said to the still air. “Happy Christmas, Polly.”
Kivrin was waiting up for me when I got in. Her brow furrowed as she took in my bleak expression and reddened eyes. Don’t tell me they’re all right, I thought. Don’t remind me this is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t, for Christ’s sake, tell me things will get better or anything else cheery or I’ll probably sick up on the carpet.
I should have remembered how sensitive Kivrin is to my moods, despite her outward toughness. “I’ve not given up and neither have you,” she said firmly, pressing a glass of water into my hand. “That’s enough to be going on with. Drink your water; you’ll feel wretched in the morning if you get dehydrated.” She said good night, and for the first time that Christmas Eve, I felt strength instead of weakness. We might suffer, but we would endure.