A bright laugh, a flash of ginger hair, the gleam of dark brown eyes. A boy in rumpled school uniform, shirttail untucked and top hat flattened in his hand, leading me through corridors I know so well before he disappears 'round a corner in front of me, his laugh fading into the darkness that hangs heavy in the musty air. Slowly a light appears, followed by footsteps, heavy and booted, and then a man walks down the curving staircase I remember so well from my childhood, middle-aged now, broad-shouldered in a brown wool Army uniform, the gold crossed wands of the 4th Queen's Own Dragoons of the 1st Magical Brigade gleaming on his chest. David, I want to say, but the word catches in my throat.
“Come with me, Thomas. Please,” he says in that posh accent of his, tinged with just a burr of Yorkshire, but he's drowned out by an explosion that rocks the house around us, sending him stumbling down the last few steps towards me, smoke twisting around us both, the faint yap of a dog's bark growing louder.
And then I'm awake, but the smoke's still there, seeping beneath the library door, and the dog's become louder, its high-pitched barks echoing in the corridor.
With a sigh, I close the book that's resting on my chest and push myself up off the sofa. The leather beneath me creaks, and my left leg wobbles, the knee nearly giving out on me. I catch myself on the arm of the tufted chair beside the sofa, reaching for my cane. My old injury always hurts more after the dreams, I've noticed, and since Peter's introduction to the Folly, the dreams have been more frequent.
Not that I blame him, mind. Or perhaps I do. I wonder at times if I would have taken him on as apprentice if I'd realised then exactly how much he'd remind me of Mellenby—of David, my traitorous heart whispers.
I open the door and Toby dashes in, bouncing around my ankles like an annoying, barking rat. “Yes,” I say with a sigh, “I'm quite aware that your human has done something absolutely idiotic again.” Toby just quirks his head and falls silent. Even he can't argue with the truth.
Peter's attempting to put out the fire when I walk into the room by smothering it with the standard-issue Met jumper he's obviously just pulled over his head, which is having entirely no effect on the magical fire. I snap my fingers, and it fades away. Mostly. He looks up at me, the jumper bunched in his hands.
“How'd you—” He breaks off into a yelp as one last flame zips up the dangling jumper sleeve, nipping at his fingertips. With another snap of my fingers it flares rebelliously before disappearing into the ether.
“Modulation of magic, Peter,” I say wearily. I've not the patience for the master-apprentice relationship and I wonder again why I let myself enter it. “You lost focus again, didn't you?”
He frowns at me. Molly glides into the room, dustpan in hand, and begins to whisk up the ashes and charred bits of paper the fire'd managed to consume. “I was observing.”
“Try not to burn the Folly down as you do.” I glance at Molly. “Might you handle this travesty? I need to go to Oxfordshire this afternoon.” She nods silently.
Peter pulls the burnt jumper back over his head, although it's hardly fit for the rag bin now. “What's in Oxfordshire?” he asks, muffled by folds of cheap wool. His face pops through, followed by a kinked mass of tight, cropped black curls.
“Nothing of any possible interest to you.”
He follows me out into the hall, watching as I unhook my dark grey jacket from the bentwood coatrack. “Is it case-related?” His voice sounds odd against the marble of the hall. Cold, perhaps. Hard. I hand him my cane.
“No.” I slip into the jacket, buttoning it over my waistcoat, then take my cane back from him. My head aches. “As I recall, you've another ten pages of Cutherbertson to read.”
“Cuthbertson is more dull than you.” His eager eyes belie the cheeky boredom of his tone.
“I'll take that as a compliment.” The tap of my cane is loud against the floor.
Peter and Toby both trail after me. “Your leg's hurting you again.”
“Your superior deduction skills amaze me, Constable.” I stop at the door to the garage. Toby's tail wags hopefully which makes me suspect Peter's been taking him out in the Jaguar again. I scowl at both invaders of my solitude. “Cuthbertson. Be prepared to explain his theory of sympathetic motion over dinner tonight.”
I slam the door behind me.
The drive west, out of the rain-soaked filth of London and down the M40 into rolling green fields and chalk hills, clears my head. There's something very calming about the soft, steady thunk of the windscreen wipers and the whisper of tyres against the wet road. I've never regretted the purchase of the Jaguar, even if it had significantly diminished the small amount of money David had left me after the war. His parents may have been able to deny me many things, but that one last connection they couldn't touch. He had done what he could to look after me in death, just the way he had when we were boys.
I leave the M40 at Stokenchurch, taking a left after the country hospital onto a smaller road edged by high hedgerows. Another ten minutes and there it is, a long, high stone wall and a closed iron gate. I stop the car and climb out, steadying myself with a hand on the wet bonnet as I limp over to the gate, the collar of my jacket turned up against the chill of the rain. It takes me a moment to find the right key—a heavy skeleton that takes both hands to turn—but when the latch finally clicks with a soft screech of iron on iron, I push the gate open and slip back in the car, driving slowly up the gravel road until it bends and I can see the overgrown lawn and the tall windows and greyed columns and arches of the stuccoed building in front of me. I turn off the engine and sit, silently watching.
The last time I'd been here Baroness Thatcher was merely a Mrs who resided in 10 Downing, though the Iron Lady had been a bit rusted by then. I'd met her once, briefly, when one of the trolls, irked by her economic policies which had flooded the Docklands underbridges with what Peter now tells me we politely call “rough sleepers”, had attempted to rip that famous helmet of hair right off her head. Mother Thames had warned me in time; she'd a fondness for the Prime Minister, “strong woman to strong woman,” she'd said.
I push open the car door. The rain blows harder, and I hurry up the steps, letting the heavy wooden door swing shut behind me as I conjure up a werelight. It hovers above the palm of my hand, casting long, flickering shadows across the parquet floor. The far wall calls me, drags me towards it as if magic itself were compelling me. I know better, but still, a shiver runs down my spine as my footsteps echo in the silent hall. History has an influence all its own.
I stop in front of the carved list of names. The fallen dead. My comrades in arms. The light in my hand illuminates the deep grooves in the wood, the thousands of letters I carved over the years, a testament to my magical brothers who'd lost their lives in Ettersberg.
A flutter of my eyelids and I could swear I can hear the whistle of the bombs again, faint this time, and I wait, hoping for the explosion that will rock the school, bring the wards crashing down around me, the supporting walls shuddering against their weight.
It doesn't come.
My fingertips trace across the names. Horace. Champers. Sandy. Pascal.
“You remind me of a wizard I used to know called David Mellenby. He had the same obsession.”
“What happened to him?” Peter laughs. “And did he leave any notes?”
A long pause. A wisp of a memory drifting through my mind. A bright chuckle. A flash of ginger hair. “I'm afraid,” I say slowly, oh so slowly, “he died in the war. He never did get a chance to do half the experiments he wanted to...”
I drop my hand. The light beside me flickers, fading, then growing brighter as I step away from the wall. I take the steps, my fingers trailing along the banister. I can hear the rush of feet running down them, smell the musky-sweaty scent of boys in mid-spring. I curse myself for telling Peter, for making these ghosts real again. And I remember.
The sheltering branches of a willow tree near the brook. Wool jackets shucked aside. Brown eyes watching me as I undo his house tie, my hands shaking. The softness of new grass beneath my knees as I push him back, leaning in to press my mouth against his. Our bodies sliding together. The feel of his lips as he whispers Thomas across my jaw for the first time...
I'm standing at the top of the stairs, staring blankly out a rain-streaked window. I press a palm to my mouth, breathing out slowly before I run it across my face, over my hair. I can see my reflection in the windowpane. Brown hair. Grey eyes. Unlined skin. A hundred and ten years I've been on this earth. I could pass for mid-forties.
The same age I'd been when I'd seen David last.
I shake myself. Enough of that. I walk down the hall, sending my werelight a few feet in front of me. It glows against the brass master's nameplates screwed into the doors. Fineaux. Brinkhurst. Portington. Woodbrygg. Carew.
I hesitate for a moment. I haven't stepped into these rooms for sixty-five years. My heart thuds softly as I reach for the doorknob.
A laugh as he pulls me back into the tangled sheets of his bed. Summer morning sunlight gleams through the paned windows, making the dust motes shimmer. “It's hols, Thomas. You needn't rush back to London.”
“I'm expected at the War Office.” I kiss him, then sit back up and reach for my trousers.
He rises up on his knees, his naked body long and lean and pale gold. “A pox on the War Office, and on Churchill himself.” His smile belies his words as he drapes his arms around my neck. We've another two hours at least before the Headmaster starts wondering what studies might be keeping me from lunch.”
“Experiments, you mean.” I disentangle myself and stand up. “What have you blown up recently?”
David's smile widens. “The cricket pitch. You ought to have seen the wickets fly.”
The room's covered in dust. It's been a few weeks since the cleaners have been in. Faint grey light trickles through the two ivy-covered windows; a thin panel of stained glass through the centre of each casts blue and gold and red shadows across the muslin-draped furniture. We'd spent hours in here, David and I, after he'd come back to the school as a master. Two thirty-two-year-old men rekindling a schoolboy pash after meeting up again at a party thrown at Chartwell House by Churchill's son Randolph, an Etonian school chum of David's younger brother Tom. I hadn't been meant to be there, not with that set. Not me, a Nightingale only by name and not birth, taken in by Miss Florence when my widowed mother--her maid--died five years after my birth. The elderly Miss Florence had managed only another five, but by the time she'd taken refuge in the earth, my magic had been noticed. It'd been her influence and her generosity that placed me in this school, filled with the sons of the upperclass and the aristocracy.
My fingers trail through the dust on the chimneypiece. I'd been with the Yard ten years by the night of the party, and I liked my position as a junior officer at the Folly. It'd been my master, old Blexham, who'd sent me out to Kent that evening as an undercover minder for young Diana Guinness née Mitford, who had just fallen in with that fascist Mosley. Keep an eye on them both, he'd told me gruffly. Matter of national security and all that.
I'd watched the future Lady Mosley, and David had watched me. It'd been quarter to midnight when he'd come out on the terrace, holding out a flute of champagne to me. “Thomas,” he'd said, and he'd smiled.
We'd had to put a memory charm on the maid who'd woken us in the morning.
His books are here, an entire wall of them. Plato and Aristotle. Augustine and St. Grigor Narekatsi. All of Newton. Hermes Trismegistus. Jabir ibn Hayyan. John Dee. Paracelsus. Agrippa. Ancient texts, handed down through his paternal line. The magic had run deep within the Mellenby family; only Tom had been born without a trace. We hadn't known then, but it was dying out. Slowly. Beginning to fade, beginning to carry us to that apocalypse that was Ettersberg.
David hadn't wanted to go. Hadn't wanted to put on that damned uniform. He'd done it because I had, because service to my country, to my master, had meant so much to me.
I stand in the door to the bedroom. The iron-framed bed is still here, bare of sheets. There's a muslin-draped sofa by the window, a braided rug cock-eyed in front of the tall wardrobe.
He turns from the mirror, looking at me. The uniform hangs well form his broad shoulders. “I look a right tit,” he says.
I stand up from the sofa. “Don't be ridiculous.” It's the night before he'll ship out to the front. My regiment will follow in a week, but by the time we reach the others it will be too late. We'll all walk into an ambush. A slaughter. A nightmare.
David grasps my hand, pulling me close to him. “Come with me,” he says quietly. “There are places we can go--”
“There aren't,” I say, perhaps too sharply. It's a ridiculous dream and he knows it as well as I. There's nowhere we can be ourselves, nowhere we can live openly. There are laws forbidding us to, moral codes that will punish us for even daring to admit what we mean to one another. “And neither you nor I are cowards.”
His fingers are warm against my skin. “No,” he says after a moment. “I suppose not.” He gives me a wan smile.
What might have happened if I'd agreed, I wonder. Would he still be here with me now? Would we be old men, wizened and toothless, sat together on that sofa, hand in hand? Would I be happy? Would he have more patience with Peter than I do? Would there be more live magicians than dead left in these halls?
I pick up a framed photo from the desk. David and myself, sitting on the steps of the school. A student had taken this on David's thirty-ninth birthday. His hand is on my shoulder. We're laughing, our faces turned to each other.
Less than six years later he'd be dead.
The notebooks are in a bottom drawer. Twenty-five of them, filled with David's neat scrawl. I take out the first three, flipping through them. There are details here of his first experiments, begun in our sixth form. Perhaps a little more advanced than Peter's current level, but he's catching on quickly. David would have been pleased with his progress.
I turn away, the three notebooks in my hand, and then stop. My gaze falls back upon the photograph. I pick it up, looking down again on David's smiling face. I wipe the dust away with my thumb.
Sixty-five years, I think. Sixty-five bloody years I've been chasing after a memory.
“I'm sorry,” I murmur, but he doesn't answer. He never will. I slip the frame into my pocket.
Peter will finish David's work one day, of that I'm certain. They've the same sharp mind, the same wholehearted passion. All it will take is my pointing him down the right path. It's the least I can do—for either of them.
I take one last look around. A tree branch, blown by the wind, scrapes across the windowpanes. The hearth is dark. The room cold.
The door snicks shut behind me, closing off the past once again.
London, now. London and the Folly. Molly and Peter and Toby. Home.
And I smile.