There are, to my knowledge, no fewer than ten flights of stairs in the Folly--twelve if one includes the attics, thirteen if Peter's annexation of the coach house is upheld, and another half-dozen for use purely by domestic staff. At a round dozen steps per staircase, and allowing for the odd doorstep or entranceway, that makes for almost two hundred and fifty steps.
All in all, it's somewhat challenging to imagine a less appropriate place for a convalescence.
Nevertheless, with some assistance from the staff of University College Hospital and a surprisingly compact collapsible wheelchair, I found myself facing those familiar doors once again--if from a somewhat unfamiliar angle.
To my right, Peter rocked somewhat apprehensively on his feet. His smile was genuine, at least, if brief--the man was utterly incapable of hiding his emotions. It was a source of bewilderment to me that he had managed to survive his probation, let alone Henry Pyke.
"Good to have you back, boss," he said.
"Thank you," I replied, somewhat awkwardly.
"So what's the plan?"
We eyed the grand marble stairway up to the carved doors of the home of British magic.
"Slow and steady, I suppose," I said.
They had taken my staff, presumably back on Bow Street as I had lain bleeding on the paving stones. The wrought iron railing to the staircase was as sturdy as it was decorative, however, and I made liberal use of its support. My back ached sharply, the padded dressing pulling against the fabric of my jacket, but pain was evidence of life, if nothing else.
Peter hovered, clearly uncertain as to whether to offer assistance or not. "Perhaps if you could relocate the chair?" I suggested, attempting not to sound strained. There were only six steps. I had already climbed two of them. Four more could not possibly be an insurmountable challenge.
"Yessir," Peter said, with an alacrity I could only dream of under most circumstances. He carried it past me without effort, and I lifted another foot despite the slight tang of jealousy at his ease. I detested recovery--time had taught me that such things would pass, and I would hardly remember the discomfort, but in the moment it was somewhat excruciating.
Settling back into the chair was more of a relief than I liked to admit. Peter took the handles and wheeled me through the lobby without bothering to ask; it was characteristically presumptuous and, ultimately, appreciated. The discharge process had taken longer than I preferred; the combination of physical exhaustion and the fog of medication were beginning to eat away at my ability to focus, even on such simple tasks as navigating my own home.
Stone isn't the best medium for vestigia, but after several centuries of inhabitation by practicing magicians it's hard to deny the Folly has retained something of that nature. A resonance, perhaps. The weight of it against my skin was a comfort; the Folly's protections would allow me time to recover in peace, even if the world beyond those doors continued on without us.
My eyes must have closed momentarily. When they opened again, I found myself in one of the smaller antechambers off the side of the library. Someone had set up a narrow bed where one of the desks would usually rest; from the punishingly exact creases in the pillow-case, it wasn't hard to deduce who.
"That's us, boss," Peter said, apparently not having noticed my brief lapse in consciousness. "Should be food in an hour or so."
"Thank you, Peter," I said, eying the bed. "But why..?"
Peter shrugged. "Doctor said you'd need more sleep for a while. Didn't seem worth wrestling with the stairs more often than needed."
That was... considerate. And mildly humiliating.
I was far more used to handling such weaknesses myself, perhaps with assistance from Molly. Admitting them to a fellow officer of the law, particularly an immediate subordinate, was exceedingly far from comfortable.
"I'm sure I could manage," I said.
"No, sir," he said cheerfully. "Not unless you're planning to teach me wingardium leviosa so I can fly you up."
"Wing-" I pinched my nose. That was a truly atrocious bastardization of the Latin tongue. And my apprentice was laughing at me.
"I'll let you rest, then," he said, and closed the door behind him.
While that was a somewhat underhanded method of ending an argument with a man in my present condition, I suspected it wasn't a fight I had the faintest chance of winning in any case. Perhaps in a week or two, after the memory of the hospital had faded somewhat and Molly's cooking had a chance to do its work.
In the meantime, as much as I disliked it, Peter had been right--I did need to rest. I levered myself out of the chair, nudging off the shoes I'd barely had a chance to use, and lay back on top of the sheets. The bed creaked under my weight, but ultimately proved solid enough.
As my eyes slipped closed once again, it struck me as odd that, though her work was evident in the preparation of this room, I'd yet to see the slightest glimpse of Molly.
She strongly disapproved of activities which resulted in my injury, and had a tendency to display this position through the food she served. It was also entirely plausible that she was worried, rather than angry--presumably Peter had kept her informed of my condition, but she would have had no way to confirm it, confined as she was to the Folly--but that was somewhat difficult to verify, as I had not seen more than the departing flick of her skirts in the three days since my return.
Regardless of the reason, blood loss, in Molly's book, could best be addressed by feeding the afflicted the blood of other creatures. My apprentice managed to last through two days of blood pudding, steak and kidney pie, fried liver, and some kind of gelatinous concoction involving oats before breaking entirely and fleeing into the streets in search of lighter fare.
I wouldn't have minded nearly as much if he hadn't refused to bring me back an order; "No offense, boss, but she's scarier than you," he'd said, which, I'd been forced to concede, might be true.
Peter hadn't spoken about how he'd managed to track down Pyke in any more detail than absolutely necessary, other than that hemomancy had been involved. Extrapolating from my own encounter with that particular brand of magic, I can't imagine that had been a pleasant experience for him.
Or for Molly.
Who was avoiding me.
I had hoped, given Peter's absence, that she might be present at dinner. Instead, when I wheeled my way into the over-large dining room, I found a single place setting and a palpable sense of judgment. Lifting the cover revealed a generous plate of beef stew over wide, floury strips of pasta. It certainly wasn't the worst thing I'd ever eaten, but the sauce had thickened in such a way that the only word which came to mind was 'congealed'. I ate it regardless.
We have our patterns, Molly and I. It is hard not to fall into such things, living together for decades as we have with the whole world slowly moving on outside our walls. After this many years, I have some understanding of what will displease her, and I do tend to avoid doing so when possible. In return, when it is unavoidable, she deals out penance in wrinkled laundry and frankly terrifying culinary reversions, which I accept without comment until she deems my debts to have been repaid. Three days, as such things go, was really not long enough for concern.
The avoidance, however, was new.
Appetite flagging, I pushed the plate aside and pulled back from the table. As I crossed under the lintel back into the hallway, the slightest clink of silver against china caught my ear.
By the time I'd gotten the chair turned around, my place setting had been cleared, and the door to the scullery was swinging closed.
"Molly? Yeah, she's been around," Peter said vaguely, when I managed to broach the topic. "Why?"
"Nothing you need concern yourself with," I told him, with as much dignity as it is possible to muster when addressing one's apprentice from approximately rib height.
He gave me a suspicious look, but let it pass without further comment.
If Molly wasn't avoiding Peter, then this had something to do with me specifically.
I could probably have persuaded myself to keep waiting, but we were swiftly approaching the point where to do nothing crossed the line from 'patience' into 'cowardice'. So later that evening, after Peter had departed to seek dinner in company I carefully avoided inquiring after, I wheeled myself out to the lobby and settled down into my chair.
I started with werelight. From experience, after an injury as severe as the one inflicted on me, it was generally advisable to be somewhat sparing with magic, once one had removed oneself from the immediate vicinity of what- or whoever caused said injury. However, I had spent quite long enough in the hospital to recover a fair degree of energy. One light proved trivial, and I added several more, beginning to rotate and interweave them in one of the control exercises my schoolmasters had been so fond of.
Perhaps it was unfair to take advantage of her fascination with such feats. But after all these years, I am pragmatic enough to prefer approaches which consistently yield results. And sure enough, a pale face appeared behind the banisters above me, the flickering lights catching in her eyes.
She drew no closer. Her expression, at this distance, was next to unreadable. To me, the marble staircase was as formidable a barrier as Bond Street at rush hour--surpassable, but not quickly, nor without significant effort.
Still. She was here. It was a start.
"I'm sorry," I said, sincerely. She continued looking down at the werelights, as if I hadn't spoken. "If it helps, Peter's admirable magical instincts took care of the gunman in rather short order."
Her hands shot through the banisters and clasped them, tight, tight enough that for an instant I worried for the stone. She hissed through the bars like something caged, and my eyes narrowed.
"Molly," I said, sinking into the calm tone familiar to any police officer worth their truncheon. "Please come down here. Help me understand."
I wasn't afraid of her. I'm not sure I knew how to be. Perhaps that was a failing of imagination, a particular weakness of mine, I will admit. It was certainly not because I thought her incapable of harming me.
But I had not expected that response. As she slunk reluctantly down the steps, I wondered if perhaps this was why she had been avoiding my attention--if she did not want me to know why she was hiding.
She stood on the marble floor, sleeves swallowing her hands, lank hair falling to conceal her face, nothing at all like a prisoner awaiting a firing squad. I looked up at her, waiting, but we both knew that she had more patience than I.
"I had thought you liked Peter," I started, for the loss of a better line of attack.
The glance she flicked me was utterly condescending. It invited me to speculate on the obvious and irrelevant nature of my statement.
Peter, then, was not the problem. Or at least, Molly's opinion of him wasn't in question.
But her eyes were not as still as they might have been. Her gaze caught on the breaks between the flagstones, darting from side to side as if searching for some missing hint. It was almost compulsive.
The atrium. Peter had mentioned the weight of the Folly's vestigia as he had descended into her hemomancy. It had happened here.
"Or is that the problem," I asked, softly. "You like him. And you hurt him."
She turned her back on me. The line of her shoulders was so pinched, her elbows so pointed, that she looked as ungainly as a swan on land, and just as full of screaming silent tension.
She had done for the Folly before the war. I had not been the only young man under her care. She remembered when these walls had echoed with the arguments and lamentations of dozens of over-confident magicians. Now, only I remained.
Now here we were. For the first time in decades, we were no longer the sole residents in this vast mausoleum. I had brought her an apprentice to watch over.
And then I had sent him to her to ask for her bite.
I would never be so oblivious as to refer to Molly as kind, or nurturing, or gentle, though in her own way she was all of those things. She cared deeply for those she thought of as hers. Peter, with his smelly dog and his oblivious boundless curiosity, had joined that list the moment he swore his oath, whether he'd known it or not.
But I had been hers first. And I'd been wounded, gravely. So she had done as she was asked.
The chair creaked as I stood, my legs weak from disuse, and Molly was already turning before I could stumble the few steps forward.
"I promise," I said, as her hands came up to catch me if I needed it. "Molly, I won't ask that of you again. I promise."
She brought her hands back to her sides, and her smile was a narrow, crooked thing, but she didn't move to hide it. We were close enough that I could hear the breath of polite disbelief she blew.
I closed my eyes. The world around me swayed quietly. The sense of home, of her, settled something inside me that was always watching.
"You're right," I said, feeling my mouth twist to mirror hers. "I can't promise that. But I'm sorry I had to ask it."
She looked at me, dark eyes focused in a way she preferred to hide behind veils of hair and movement. Moments passed. My chest throbbed urgently, then subsided into the familiar piercing ache.
Eventually, she nodded, and swung away across the hall. I sat back in the chair more heavily than I had intended, and dug my fingers into my knees.
Five minutes later, she returned, and began to dust around Sir Newton's pedestal, ignoring me completely.
I sagged in relief. We would be fine.