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a spell against the lonely

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Ettersberg

In adulthood it seems like the worst kind of ignorance, wilful and meaningless, but he doesn't blame himself in retrospect only because he refuses now, at this great remove of time, to believe nineteen was adulthood. At nineteen, he thought of himself as Thomas, the name his mother used to call him in from the garden and in for dinner and to despair, lovingly, at his inability to keep his collar straight and his hands clean; and he grew up in what has since been called a harsher time but has kept the letters his father wrote to him after he had gone away to school, Dearest Thomas, I hope you are settled in now and that the jam tarts were satisfactory; Dear Thomas, forgive my delay I write to you in haste on the 11.15 from King's Cross; Tom – quick note – leather on willow all very well but you must do some work, failing that please spend enclosed twelve and six on pads and try not to break your leg again. He had had a closed handful of sexual experience before Ettersberg, almost nothing to speak of but he had been chased through the chapel passageway into Balliol's garden quad, pressed up and kissed against the stones, and the name whispered into his mouth was his own. It is in this weary adulthood that the deities of the Thames call him Nightingale, with or without the definite article, and he no longer has a given name given to him by anyone; nineteen on the hill at Ettersberg was a very, very long time ago.

At nineteen, picking his way through scraps of starveling humanity, he didn't know they weren't all Jews.

*

annus mirabilis

It's a quiet evening, long after magic has gone from the world, and the night air is softened with summer. He's walking along the quiet street towards the Folly and pauses at the sound of distant shouting, running feet, and then steps backwards with a muffled cut-off sound as someone barrels straight into him without looking. At first he thinks it's a young woman, then as he catches his breath and moves away he notes the shadow on the jawline, the blood in the man's mouth, shining muted black under the street lamps, and in that moment he makes a sudden decision.

Inside the Folly, he shouts, "Molly! Tea, and stay in the kitchen, please" – and leads the stranger into one of the lower reception rooms, propping him up against an ancient antimacassar. In the dim light, Nightingale looks him over with all the steadiness of his training, aware as though from a great distance that at one time, bringing a stranger into the Folly, even one injured on the pavement in front, would have got him expelled from the inner sanctum himself with extreme prejudice. There's no one to do the expelling now. He grins humourlessly to himself and goes to find clean gauze and medical alcohol.

When he returns, the man looks up at him with some fear. "Why are you – who are you?"

"My name is Nightingale," he says, knowing as he says it that he isn't answering the question, and checks for other injuries; the man lets him, but then draws back with a sudden hiss of pain.

"Why are you helping me?" he asks, and it's a fair question. Nightingale wants to tell him, for a moment, that there were children born in the world without magic, who would never remember the London he knew but only the gap-toothed skyline, who played in bombed-out houses as fearless children and are now on the verge of adulthood, running from Daleks and towards Beatlemania; that he has tried, nevertheless, in the years passing by, to make himself useful as a reluctant part of a world he no longer understands.

Instead he says, "Call me your guardian angel" and meets the stranger's wondering, worried smile, finishes cleaning the blood away. "You should go," he adds, and there's no argument.

As common sense reasserts itself, the analytical part of his mind begins working again; he shepherds the man out of the house, tests the firmness of the bandage and notices again the soft curls, and pretty lips. He thinks he knows what the man was running from.

Later that same night, he can't sleep. He's drifting through the house, searching for something to read, treading carefully so he won't disturb Molly and drive her into a renewed frenzy of tea-making. It's dark and he's already stubbed his toe once when he says, quite without conscious thought, "Lux."

For a moment he has to lean against the wall and then even that's beyond him; he sinks down the wall to sit on the floor, beneath the great, beautiful globe of light suspended just below the ceiling, and buries his head in his hands.

*

veni, vidi

After that, after something he was foolishly trying so hard not to grieve returns, it brings with it other things lost. Someone kisses Thomas Nightingale for the first time in a great many years in a quiet back room in a pub in Soho, and it makes his ears ring and his blood fizz, but the world, which it seems he is always despairing of, its fickle insistence on cracking and being remade anew every time he stops paying attention for a decade or so, stays stubbornly unchanged: the rain continues to drip down the window on Newtonian principles, and the sky refuses to fall. Nightingale draws back for a moment and thinks about what it would be like to hear his own name again, spoken on the edge of becoming.

*

Rubicon

It isn't that he's getting slower on the uptake, although there is that; it's that he's crossed the century the old-fashioned way, losing step with how things that were never spoken about come up at breakfast. Peter and Lesley are having what he's come to think of as one of their perennial arguments, and he's half-listening, half-reading the morning paper, doing neither with particular efficiency, so his mind skips irregularly from Lesley's derision of consent-based policing to the day's headline about Michael Gove's education policy to unnecessary police presence to falling academic standards to it's just a pride parade, Lesley to increased need for curriculum oversight.

He's giving up and reaching for the coffee pot, still not quite engaging with his apprentices, when Peter says, "It's not like they're dangerous, Lesley! I mean, Detective Sergeant Stephanopolous and present company excepted."

He looks up, sharply, and surprises Peter into a look of guilt, but even so it takes him another few minutes to understand what has just happened, his eyes dropping down to his newspaper again, the text blurring in his vision. When he does look up again it's because he can feel Peter's gaze on him, and something wary and uncertain in his presence. As though, Nightingale thinks, he's worried he might have gone too far but at the same time, has gone too far to go back.

Once Peter has gone, he looks down at his own hands and his reflection in the coffee-pot, aware of the slightly increased pitch of his breathing, no further to knowing what Peter might have noticed, or wondered, or guessed, distant as ever from the evidence of things not seen.

*

pride

On the appointed day, Peter and Lesley have both gone to see their respective families. It's a happy coincidence, and the part of his mind that still thinks in such terms is unwilling to waste such a gift of divine providence; nevertheless, he whistles for Toby out of cowardice and fetches out the leash Peter has left out for the purpose. It's an ordinary Saturday in June, and he's out walking the dog.

He doesn't have to go too far. DS Stephanopolous is waiting for him where she said she would be. "Still sure you want to do this?" she asks, and her tone is abrasive but her eyes are kind.

"Yes," he says.

"No funny stuff," she cautions, and, surprising himself, he laughs.

"How would you stop me?" he asks, quite reasonably, and she looks at him first with some trepidation, and then laughs in return. Nightingale remembers Peter called him dangerous, and oddly, that's a comfort: as though after decades he can be teased and invited on expeditions and be called someone's friend; he's once again capable of description.

Stephanopolous gives him a tiny rainbow ribbon, and he doesn't know if it's a sincere gift or an ironic one or something between the two, there's a great deal of nuance here that he doesn't quite understand, but the pleasure, he has always thought, is in the learning. Dutifully, he ties the ribbon around his own wrist, and the colour is intensely bright, another comfort in his peripheral vision. Above them the sky is such an intense blue it hurts the eyes.

"It's getting so fucking commercialised," Stephanopolous is murmuring beside him, but they keep walking, towards the distant roar of the crowds. There are banners and floats and bright colours and everywhere more rainbows. Out of habit, Nightingale checks for vestigia and finds none, but his own signare is present in the flagstones beneath his feet. He's lived in this city all of his life, he's made light underneath this sky. He's home.