Toby’s yapping woke me up.
I didn’t wake easy. I’d fallen into bed after midnight after getting out of bed before midnight the night before – one of the demimonde got himself in more trouble than he was worth, and I didn’t like to wake Nightingale, since he’d been under the weather, and also waking your boss is a dicey issue even after you’ve made DC. It’d been a long, complicated 24 hours, followed by less than an hour of sleep. I wanted to stay asleep only a little less than I wanted to stay alive.
But Toby’s determined, persistent barking was a sign that something was happening that just might kill me, and living once again won out. I hauled my reluctant self out of bed and stumbled downstairs in my nightwear, which, since it was one of the hottest weeks on record in London, was just boxers. Not the right attire for addressing probably magical emergencies, but there’s a limit to what a man can force himself to do at two in the morning.
In the lobby, Toby was standing on the marble floor, feet planted, staring fiercely at the door, and barking steadily, like he’d been promised a bowl of meat if he kept it up for an hour. I grabbed my staff out of the umbrella stand near the door – a copper likes to have his baton available, and a magician likes to have all the power he can get at the ready – and cautiously touched the handle.
The vestigia hit me like a rock. I smelled rotten eggs and fresh milk, heard moans and wails, felt hot wind rushing past my face. Toby was still barking, but it seemed like I was hearing him from a great distance. I’m not sure how long it lasted; it felt like an hour, but I think it was only seconds before I slammed back into reality.
I eyed Toby and debated. “That was … strong,” I said, and the words felt totally inadequate. It isn’t often vestigia give you a full out-of-body experience. “Perhaps I’d better wake Nightingale.”
I felt, rather than heard, Molly glide into the room. I didn’t have to look at her to know she’d have a disapproving expression on her face. “Look, I agree, he needs his rest, but he won’t thank me if the Folly falls down around his ears while he’s sleeping.” Yeah, he’d somehow managed to experience flu like an old man even as he approached his thirties again from the other side – he’d spent weeks looking tired, dazed, and dizzy – but that didn’t mean he’d want to sleep through our latest magical catastrophe. If I’m honest, I didn’t want to leave him out. I was a fully-paid-up magician and DC, yes, but Nightingale’s presence really increased everyone’s chances of survival. And I liked having him around.
Molly’s air of disapproval deepened.
“Fine,” I sighed. “You stand well back. If I get topped by a dragon or something, you deal with it.” And I opened the door, staff held firmly in my other hand.
Copper’s instincts – when I saw no one at the front door, I looked quickly at both sides of the street, checking for running forms. Only then did I glance down.
It’s an embarrassing cliché, I know, but there was an actual basket, made of what looked to be actual wicker, actually sitting there. It was oval and large and had spaces for handholds on either end; for a minute, I thought it was full of laundry, and my mind spun an image of a ghost laundress. Then the small hand emerged from the basket, waved around for a minute, and smacked down again.
Then the baby started wailing, high-pitched and louder than an air raid siren on the otherwise silent street.
I made a rapid situational assessment, weighing multiple factors both metaphysical and mundane. And then I picked up the basket, carried it into the lobby, and turned to Molly. “Wake Nightingale. Now.”
She left, of course, without a word, but I noticed she was moving quickly.
I turned to Toby. “This is all your fault, you realize.”
He wagged his tail.
Nightingale came down the stairs moving rapidly but quietly, his patented “walk softly but carry enough power to take out a tank” approach. I had my usual quick hopeful look, but as always, he’d taken the time to get on his dressing gown and slippers and grab his staff; Edwardian men show up everywhere fully dressed, which is a little depressing for those of us secretly hoping to see a glimpse of ankle.
Molly and I exchanged looks. Mine said, he’s looking better. Hers, unless I failed my “interpret head tilt” roll, said, you break him, you’ll buy it.
He still looked a bit pale and interesting, with shadows under his eyes that seemed to be trying to become a permanent feature, but he was alert and focused, and I was glad to see it, despite the circumstances. “Peter, what --” he began, and then he saw the baby I was cautiously unwrapping on the table that I think, once upon a time, was for visitors’ attache cases.
He blinked. I felt him cast something complex and subtle, something I hadn’t even seen him use before, maybe a seventh-order spell. Nothing happened, and his brow wrinkled slightly. “That’s a real infant,” he said, his tone flat and just a little disbelieving.
“The crying was my first clue,” I said, and pulled back the last fold of the blanket.
The baby was black, but light-skinned, considerably lighter than me in my baby pictures. He had a little bit of black fuzz on his head, and his round face was flushed and screwed up in anger. I knew he was a boy because he wasn’t wearing anything, not even a nappy, and I understood the reason for his wailing immediately. I’d have been mad about lying in my own mess, too.
“I need some kind of wipe,” I said. “A lot of them. And something to use for a nappy.”
Molly left, and I picked up the baby and held him, trying not to get any of the mess on me. Nightingale came in a little closer.
“You seem to know what you’re doing,” he noted.
“I’ve got more cousins than you’ve got books,” I said, which was only a small exaggeration. Then I realized where this was going and quickly headed it off. “But I’m not taking sole charge, here. What if he’s magic?”
Nightingale looked at me, one eyebrow quirked in surprise, his “I can’t believe you need this explained to you” look. I leaned in a little closer to the baby. Vestigia hit me again – heat and wails and light, this time, and not nearly as strong as the door handle. Not surprising, since human flesh just doesn’t retain vestigia as well as quality metal doorhandles, but when I shared this with Nightingale, he frowned and went off to inspect the front door.
The baby, who had calmed down a bit when I picked him up, got tired of waiting and started to yell again. Molly reappeared with a selection of thick white cloths, which worked wonderfully to clean him with and terribly as nappies. None of us could manage to fold them into something that would stay on him and catch anything. The floor and I both were rapidly anointed with baby wee; I had to think it was the first time such a thing had ever happened under the judgmental stone gaze of Sir Isaac Newton.
“Perhaps,” Nightingale said some ten minutes later, when our latest effort just slid straight off the baby’s legs, “it is time to call in a specialist, with … specialist equipment.”
“Social Services?” I said thoughtfully. “I suppose we could, but what would we tell them?” I knew the Folly had once had an arrangement with what passed for Social Services back before World War II, but it had long since lapsed. Developing a proactive working relationship with key members of affiliated community services was definitely on my to-do list, but unfortunately it had never risen above about position 700. In my defense, it had really only come up twice – three times at most – and we spent most of our time putting out the metaphorical fires that generally occupied spots 1-30 on my list.
Nightingale frowned. “Abdul and Jennifer first, I think.” At my expression, he continued, “The vestigia and the manner of the infant’s arrival both suggest that this is not a typical human child. We could be putting both the Social Services worker and the baby in danger.”
“It’s not exactly like we’re a crack team of child-minders,” I pointed out. “We can’t even keep clothes on him.”
“In any case, Abdul and Jennifer will answer our call,” Nightingale said. “How do you rate our chances of getting a Social Services caseworker out here before dawn?”
He was right. I knew he was. But I didn’t want to acknowledge it, because that made my course of action only too obvious.
While Nightingale woke up whichever of our medical staff had drawn the short straw for being on call that night, I pulled out my phone, hit the cutoff switch to reconnect the batteries, and rang my mum.
Mum somehow managed to arrive before Dr. Vaughan, despite not owning a car and being encumbered by several large carrier bags full of supplies. “Peter,” she said when she walked in. “Thomas, Molly.” Then her eyes fell on the baby in my arms – we’d given up on trying to make a nappy for him and just wrapped him in a large towel, and I was carrying him because that made him less likely to cry – and her face did something utterly terrifying. It went soft and hazy. “Oh, look at him,” she said. “He’s beautiful.” My heart slid down into my feet.
Mum sent Molly off to heat up formula according to her precise instructions, and she made us take the baby upstairs, out of the lobby and into a proper room. (“Who keeps a baby standing in the hall like a stranger?” she asked us, and neither Nightingale nor I bothered to attempt a defense.) I got a bowl full of warm water, and she got the baby clean and in a nappy and dressed with familiar efficiency, though I found myself considerably more impressed by it after having spent close to an hour trying to manage a baby by myself. Babies are more complicated than they look. Molly came up with the formula, and it seemed we were on track.
Then Mum handed the baby and his bottle to Nightingale, who looked astonished and mildly perturbed, and dragged me out into the hallway by my ear.
“So,” she said, hands on her hips. That one syllable was enough to regress me twenty years.
“He’s not mine,” I said. She narrowed her eyes. “Honest, Mum. Someone left him on our doorstep.” I’ve interviewed a number of suspects who have babbled themselves into time served at the Queen’s expense, and I know the first rule of being interrogated is not to offer more than you need to, but something in me just couldn’t stop. “Nightingale thinks it’s some kind of magical thing.”
“He is not a thing, Peter. He is a baby.”
“Some kind of magical baby, then,” I said.
“Magical. Like your friend Beverley?” I could see my mum putting two and two together and getting a wedding, and I didn’t want to go there for all kinds of reasons.
“He’s not a genius loci,” I said, hoping it was true. “Totally different deal. The doctor will know.”
Unfortunately, it turned out Dr. Vaughan wasn’t prepared to stake her reputation to soothe my mum. She arrived, and it didn’t take long for me to start wishing that Dr. Walid had pulled the call; Jennifer, as a pathologist, has not exactly practiced her bedside manner. She was brisk and neither comforting nor informative.
She competently examined him, speaking her notes into her phone for later transcription. “Subject is an apparent human newborn male, medium brown skin, approximately seven pounds in weight and 21 inches long,” she began, and I saw Mum bristle. By the time Jennifer was done with her exam, we knew that the baby was reasonably healthy, that there were no physical clues to what he was or how he got to the Folly’s doorstep, and that Mum did not appreciate our version of pastoral care.
Jennifer finished up by saying, “I’ll just take a few samples and run them back at the lab.” She pulled out a kit that looked alarmingly large next to the small baby, and selected several tools that made me, Mum, and Nightingale all make near-identical noises of protest. Molly, of course, didn’t make any noise, but she did take several steps forward. Jennifer stared at us, bewildered. “I’m just going to take a blood sample and a cheek swab,” she said. “To see if we’ve got any matches.” She studied us to see if that had been enough, then added, “They’d do the same if he were in hospital.”
The baby didn’t like it, and neither did any of us. Mum, in particular, disapproved; her face took on the flat, tight expression that is a better harbinger of doom than any of the ones listed in Iorwerth’s Signs and Portents of the Modern World (published 1897, so “modern” is relative). As soon as Jennifer left, promising results within 24 hours, Mum turned to us and said, “He’ll need a name.”
Nightingale looked at me, apparently saw that I had no help to offer him, and looked back at Mum. “Er,” he said. “We might wish to wait until we have the information from Dr. Vaughan, and are more able to predict his eventual disposition and --”
“I can’t look after a baby with no name,” Mum said, folding her arms menacingly. I knew she’d never walk out and leave the baby to us, since she had to believe that that was condemning him to death, and anyway she clearly loved holding him, but I didn’t want to call her bluff. There’s things a man can’t do to his mum, even for his governor.
“We once had a system of generating names for – unidentified individuals,” Nightingale said, and I did not ask what word he’d substituted ‘unidentified’ for. “I suppose there could be no harm in using it.” He correctly interpreted Mum’s glare, and walked briskly out of the room. We followed. Even as we did, I had the premonition – not one of those documented by Iorwerth, but strong and reliable all the same – that we might all come to regret this.
Nightingale ended up, to my surprise, in the magical library, where he took down a large book I knew as the Half Index, which was conceived of as a sort of Folly ready reference. It wasn’t even close to complete, could never really be completed, was frustratingly idiosyncratic, and also was written in language so vague and allusive as to be impenetrable. I’d never seen Nightingale actually use it before; between looking in the Half Index and randomly pulling volumes off the shelves, two out of two current Folly practitioners would choose the random selection. Quicker and just as likely to be useful.
Nightingale opened the book with his eyes closed and placed his finger on a page. Then he opened his eyes. “Bartholomew,” he said, reading from the Half Index. “His name is Bartholomew.”
We all looked at the baby. Mum was holding him with his head on her shoulder, and she was bouncing up and down a bit where she stood. He stared at all of us with wide, startlingly blue eyes. “Oi, Bartholomew,” I said. “Where do you come from?”
He didn’t have anything to say for himself.
Things went very smoothly for the next three hours. Mum got Bartholomew to sleep, and when he woke up again she showed us how to feed, change, and bounce him; bouncing was apparently the key to keeping babies happy. I can’t speak for Nightingale, but I largely nodded while barely listening to anything she said; it wasn’t that I didn’t want to know, just that it was taking everything I had to keep my eyes open. Then, just about the time I was going to suggest that perhaps, what with one thing and another, a bit of a kip might be in order, Mum handed the baby to me.
“Time for my work,” she said.
I bit back a noise of protest. Nothing, but nothing, keeps an African woman from her appointed rounds, and I knew if I said anything about needing sleep, she’d point out that she was older than me and happy to go clean offices on her interrupted night’s sleep. So I gritted my teeth and bore it. Nightingale, of course, was practicing stoicism before any of the rest of us were born, and had it down to an annoyingly fine art; he looked completely unbothered to be left alone with a small, helpless, loud, living baby.
Mum kissed me, patted Nightingale on the shoulder, and left.
Bartholomew waited a good thirty seconds after the door closed behind her before bursting into betrayed wails. I looked at Nightingale, hoping he’d know what to do, and he grimaced back at me.
It took us an hour of painful and unscientific experimentation to prove that neither Nightingale nor I had whatever magical ability Mum had with babies. In her absence, we eventually discovered, the only way to keep Bartholomew happy and quiet was to walk up and down the front stairs with him. Nightingale was happy to do that, apparently for eternity, but Molly glared at me – and then, when that didn’t work, cranked her glare up to fireball levels. I tried to sound manly and brave as I sent him off to have a lie down, and I’m nearly certain I kept my voice from audibly shaking.
Forty-five minutes later, I was sweaty and dizzy with exhaustion, and I took myself off the stairs for health and safety reasons. Ten minutes after that, I was back on the stairs out of pure self-defense, but it was clearly a rearguard action, only staving off the inevitable. I pulled out my phone and scrolled through my contacts, considering who I could call.
My aunties would all be at work. I tried my cousin Aria, but she laughed at me. I considered calling Abigail and claiming it was Folly initiate stuff, but she was at school and her dad would kill me. So I dialed Bev.
Bev and I had had a bit of a disagreement over our relationship goals, yes, but I still loved her, and I knew she still cared for me. She’d not want me to die of baby-induced exhaustion. And she might find the idea of a doorstep baby so interesting that she’d come over, and then, I speculated, I could shove him in her arms and go collapse on the nearest soft surface. No daughter of Mama Thames would ever leave a baby unattended.
“Peter!” she said when she answered the phone. “What trouble have you got yourself into this time?”
It was no time for subtlety. “I’ve found a baby, and it’s hell on earth,” I said.
She laughed. “But really,” she said.
“I’m not taking the piss,” I said. To back up my statement, I provided corroborative evidence in the form of a selfie. I got a nice shot of my face and most of Bartholomew’s body, though I managed to keep his scrunched-up face out of it.
“Jesus Christ,” Beverley said once she’d got it. “What did you do?”
“I just opened the door.”
“Is it yours?” she said, her voice taking on a tense note. This wasn’t exactly what we’d argued about, but it wasn’t entirely off the course – children, and the future, and, well, a lot of things, really.
Also, of course, if Bartholomew was mine, that would have meant I was stepping out on her nine months ago, and I didn’t want the level of flooding or the supernatural vendetta that would result from her believing that. “I found him in a basket on the doorstep and Nightingale named him Bartholomew and went back to bed,” I said, attempting to project my total and complete innocence into every word. “I’m the victim, here.”
Bev laughed. “I’ve got to see this.”
There’s always a bit of awkwardness when you meet up with a woman you once shared quite a lot with, after you’ve mutually agreed to stay friends but see other people and/or supernatural entities. It’s hard to know how familiar to be. Hug? Kiss? Distant stare? Bartholomew solved a lot of those problems, though – he was in my arms, and he’d covered my entire right side with sicked up formula. It ruled out any kind of physical contact that didn’t occur with two thick pieces of plastic sheeting between us.
“Thanks for coming,” I said, and held Bartholomew out to Bev with a winsome smile. Us coppers are known for our clever stratagems, and it nearly worked. She reached out her hands, a gooey smile already spreading over her face.
But when her hands got within a foot of him, she froze, her face going distant and strange. Then she dropped her hands to her side. “Peter,” she said. “What have you done?”
“I told you,” I said wearily. “I just opened the door.”
She narrowed her eyes at me, but for once I was proof against it. Innocence sometimes is the best defense. “Well, I can’t help you,” she said. “I can’t touch him, and I shouldn’t even be around him. He’s off my patch.”
I blinked at her. “He’s a baby,” I said.
Beverley’s face went tight and worried. “Yes, he is,” she said. “And now might be a good time for you to ask yourself where he came from, and no, Peter, I don’t want to hear your birds and bees jokes, I want you to use your brain.”
“Jennifer’s working on it,” I said. “But if you’ve already got the answer --”
“I don’t,” she said. “I just know – he’s not for me. He shouldn’t be here. He’s way, way off my manor. He’s – yeah.” She looked weirded out, and kind of surprised.
“Like a fairy?” I was remembering her in far off Herefordshire, where the elves and the unicorns play.
“No,” she said. “Like … something else. Something that’s very much the opposite of my line of work.” She shook her head, eyes narrowed thoughtfully, and said, “I’ve got to call Mum.” And she left.
“Well, my lad,” I said to Bartholomew. “It’s just you and me now. You, me, and whatever it is about you that can cause the local river goddesses to call an emergency meeting.”
He belched so loudly I thought the walls might rattle, and that set him off in another torrent of sobs. “I’ve sussed you out,” I said, though I could barely hear me so he surely could not. “You’re part banshee.” Although, if he was, seemed like half of London was about to die.
It took me fifteen minutes to get him quiet, and when I did, it was by means of staircase. Still, when he settled against me, warm and quiet and somehow sweet-smelling despite his admittedly vile personal habits, it was – it was cute.
Either that, or sleep deprivation had driven me round the twist.
Nightingale found me about an hour later, sitting on the staircase. Bartholomew had fallen asleep, and by that point my leg muscles had gone through agony and out the other side into numbness, so I’d pretty much just done a controlled collapse where I stood.
“My watch,” Nightingale said. He’d dressed, although I noticed he’d put on his least favorite suit, and he seemed as put together and calm as he always did. But he looked like he’d done the opposite of rest, like he’d spent his kip staring directly into the abyss. He still looked good – he always does, damn him, and increasingly so the longer I know him, which is a total pisser for those of us who have a more normal relationship with time – but he looked like he’d seen awful things. Which is true, of course, so fair play to him, but normally he doesn’t show it.
I wanted to insist that I was fine, but noble will only carry you so far. I was dying for the loo, something to eat, and some time spent horizontal, and it took everything I had left just to hand the baby over slowly and gently. I headed for my room and didn’t look back, except right at the top of the stairs, just for a moment, because I had to. I didn’t know why, but I just – needed to see that Bartholomew was all right.
Nightingale was carefully settling himself on the same step I’d just vacated. For some reason, I mostly focused on his hand, which was curled around Bartholomew’s head. His hand looked huge and strong and at the same time graceful, and I wasn’t sure why, but my brain took a snapshot of that image and did the mental equivalent of saving it to three different backups.
Then I bolted the rest of the way to the toilet. There was some blessed relief, and then I think I shoved a few bites of something into my mouth before I fell onto my bed and went out like a light.
I woke up to Molly standing silently in my doorway. I’m not sure how she wakes me up so effectively just by looming, but I’ve definitely noticed an increase in the speed of my response to it over the years, either from increasing magical sensitivity or some late-developing survival instincts, I’m not sure. My room was overly warm, which suggested that everywhere else in southern England was essentially on fire. The Folly hoards cold the way a leprechaun hoards gold. And, yes, before you ask, I’ve encountered one, and no, I won’t tell you where. They’re mean buggers.
“I’m up,” I said blearily, rubbing my eyes and trying to shake the feeling of unreality that descends on you after a midmorning nap following several nights of badly interrupted sleep. “Is everyone still alive?”
She tilted her head in a way that seemed to suggest that they were, for the moment, but that could change at any time. I shoved on the lightest clothes I could find – an old, worn t-shirt that said “Science: It’s gotten us this far” and a pair of elderly, threadbare jeans – and stumbled downstairs in search of my boss and our temporarily shared magical baby.
Nightingale wasn’t in the library, or the sitting room, or the other library, or the breakfast room, or the secret library I still wasn’t supposed to know about, or the dining room, or the meeting rooms, or any of the labs. When I poked my head into the kitchen, Molly pointed down the stairs, so I nodded and descended. I eventually ran them to ground in the firing range. I came in all ready to protest – no magical practice around babies seemed a very reasonable rule, I felt, and one we should probably add to the unofficial house list – but I found him in a chair that I couldn’t remember seeing before, with a book in his hand, reading aloud quietly in the cool, dim space to a surprisingly calm Bartholomew. As I got closer, I saw that the baby was asleep, and I just stood there, looking, for a long minute. Nightingale’s head was bent so he could see the book, exposing his neck, and I found my eyes fixing there without my brain telling them to, noting the stretch of the muscles, the soft look of his skin.
I spent more time thinking about that than I should. (I should have spent no time thinking about it. I’ve had no less than five mandatory trainings and refreshers that made that very clear.)
But Nightingale’s senses were trained on battlefields and also possibly by denizens of another plane, so it wasn’t long before he looked up and caught me staring. The best defense is always a good kick to the squishy bits, metaphorically speaking, so I raised my eyebrow at him in what I hoped he’d describe as a sardonic manner.
Nightingale looked slightly embarrassed. “I found,” he said, in the same calm, quiet voice he’d been reading in, “that he slept better if he could hear a human voice.”
“Whatever works,” I said, tilting my head so I could see what literature he’d decided was appropriate for the very much younger set. It was Norwood’s De Exercitione Artium Magicarum In Insulis Britannicis Cum Commentariis Variorum Auctorum, which I’d never so much as opened.
“In my schooldays, we believed that this book contained a powerful, undiscovered sleep spell on every page,” he said. “Clearly, it still works.” He used the book to gently indicate the peacefully sleeping Bartholomew.
I studied the baby – his cherubic face, so unlike the strange, squashed, sometimes alien-looking faces of most of the newborns I’d seen, his soft fuzzy dark hair, his small warm body clad in – huh. “What is he wearing?” When I’d gone to sleep, he’d been wearing a hand-me-down duck-covered sleeper Mum had brought, borrowed I think from my cousin Vickie. Now he was wearing what looked like a very complicated, somewhat formal white dress that fit him around the top half but was much too long for him.
“Ah,” Nightingale said. “Molly made him some things. She’s very quick with a needle.” I could see that that was an accurate assessment; surely sewing anything with that many pleats and layers would take a lot of time and effort. Nightingale gestured at it. “This was typical infant attire in Molly’s youth.”
That meant that it’d been typical infant attire in Nightingale’s youth, too. I tried to imagine it, but baby Nightingale was simultaneously impossible to picture and somehow a bit too sad to think about. “He’s got the Edwardian attire, the familiarity with exceptionally dull literature on magic – he’s going to fit right in.”
“Well,” Nightingale said. “Once we’ve identified any magic he might have, we’ll of course need to hand him over to the proper, er, service.”
He was right, of course. Hard to imagine a baby growing up in the Folly. And Mum’d never believe I had nothing to do with making him, either, and that would be more complicated than anyone wanted. I nodded in agreement, and we did a procedure considerably more complicated than a second-order spell to change baby holders without waking the baby.
It turned out that the Norwood did contain a powerful sleep spell, and it got me. I woke up some indeterminate time later to a gentle push on my shoulder. My neck ground like gears when I sat up, reminding me that at least one of us in the Folly does get older, and that my body wouldn’t thank me for acting like I was still 25.
Bartholomew didn’t like me moving, or maybe he didn’t like the noise my neck made. He made a distressed “wah” noise that we’d already learned was a prelude to howls, and Nightingale reached in, swooped him up, and popped a bottle in his mouth, all in one smooth move. There’s nothing I admire more than competence, and that honestly made my mouth go a little dry.
“Jennifer and Abdul are here,” he said. “I thought you’d want to hear the results.”
I rubbed my neck, grimacing. “Both of them? Is it that bad, then?”
Nightingale sighed. “They wouldn’t tell me. Jennifer said something about ‘no spoilers,’” whatever that means.
“It means our Jennifer is more of a nerd than I’d thought,” I said interestedly, and hauled myself out of the chair. I followed Nightingale, who was still feeding the baby, and found myself experiencing a moment of profound dislocation for having even thought that sentence.
“We’ve only got preliminary results,” Dr. Vaughan said. “But we thought we’d better come around and tell you them.” If I didn’t miss my guess, she was also saying, and make sure the baby hadn’t eaten either of you.
“It was a bit difficult,” Dr. Walid said, “to get a match. Took us quite a lot of looking, because some of the DNA is human, and some of it is – different. We realized early that the results were consistent with what we’ve seen of human-supernatural hybridization, but of course most of our samples there come from the fae, and this pretty clearly was not fae.”
“We looked at genii loci next,” Dr. Vaughan said. “Obviously, clearly incorrect. And then we, well, floundered for a bit.”
“But,” Dr. Walid said, and their one-two act seemed a little too practiced to my mind. A little too familiar. I wondered if one of them was going to go bad cop pretty soon, and if they did, was it me or Nightingale who was the suspect? “We did find some suggestive similarities. So we thought we might be able to gather some data on site, as it were.” He cleared his throat. “The sample that gave us a clue was from before your time, Peter. Thomas, do you remember that spot of difficulty with the riots? In the late ‘90s?”
“Yes,” Nightingale said readily, his forehead already creasing in concern. “You think the baby might be infernal in nature, then?” He’d passed me Bartholomew, and I found myself tempted to cover his small ears.
“Wait,” I said. “Infernal? You think he’s a devil?” I stared at him. He seemed awfully, well, cute to be a devil. And I didn’t look forward to having to break the news to Mum.
Nightingale sighed. “Not precisely. We have no information on heaven or hell – just as the genii loci, who many consider to be gods and goddesses, are located here in this world, infernal beings are also from here. And they’re quite rare, largely because their effects on human populations are – unfortunate. They have been rather thoroughly hunted, over the centuries.”
“So they’re evil, but they’re not from hell,” I interpreted.
“No,” Nightingale said firmly. “They are not necessarily evil. We can’t speak to their morals. The infernal label is applied because of the effects of their natural powers, not the nature of their souls, or the lack thereof.”
“And their powers are …?”
“They are technically known as consumptores affectus; they feed off human emotions, the stronger the better. Over time, they’ve become very skilled at inducing those emotions in humans. Some, for example, induce feelings of envy, or anger, the better to make a meal. They’re especially skilled in ...” He trailed off for a moment, seeming to stare at nothing, and then cleared his throat and continued. “Inducing temptations.” He sounded normal, but he was staring at the table top like it was a video screen playing back a bad memory.
“Thomas killed the one from the ‘90s,” Dr. Walid said, watching Nightingale with a considering air. “As it was impossible to get near it without becoming quite ridiculously angry, and the riots were becoming unmanageable. Even hours after its death, I still found myself very tempted to punch a wall mid-dissection. But I did manage to finish the task. And I kept a complete selection of samples, of course.”
Of course. Dr. Walid’s chamber of horrors could, at this point, probably fill its own wing of the British Museum, though it’d take a special and frankly disturbing museum visitor to want to see them.
“I rather thought,” Nightingale said, in a distant voice, “that they had gone extinct.”
“Apparently not,” Dr. Walid said. “The matches were persuasive, although of course not conclusive.” He and Jennifer exchanged glances.
“Ah,” Nightingale said. “So you believe one of Bartholomew’s parents was a consumptores affectus?”
“Yes,” Jennifer said. “But at this point, infernal is as far as we’re willing to go. It’s not like with the fae, where the variation is similar to human variation and an enormous sample size would be needed to identify indicative commonalities. More like with the Rivers, where there are single markers that are strong indicators of infernality. However, a single data point doesn’t even approach conclusive.”
“But we do suspect a hybrid,” Dr. Walid said. “And not just because no one’s punching anyone else.”
“Ah,” Nightingale said again. And then he said nothing.
After a few moments, it became really noticeable. Eventually, I said, “So you’ll, uh, continue your testing?” just to keep the conversation going. I kept my eyes on Nightingale, though.
“Well,” Jennifer said, “we have some other --” and she broke off, because Nightingale was standing.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I must just go check something.” And he left.
I exchanged glances with the good cryptopathologists. “Is he still ill?” Dr. Walid said, after we’d all given each other enough worried looks, and I’d dealt with a minor flood coming out of the wrong end of Bartholomew.
“He seems better. I thought he was doing better.” He’d stopped forgetting things, or being startled unexpectedly. “Only symptom left, really, is exhaustion, and we’ve all got a bit of that going right now.”
Jennifer said, in tones of unexpected sympathy, “It’s so important to have a really reliable childcare provider.”
“My mum came in last night. She’ll be back today after she finishes work.”
“If you need a longer-term solution,” Jennifer began, displaying the most interest I’d seen from her in any topic not relating to dead bodies, illness and injury, or the supernatural, “I can give you the name of a really excellent --”
Nightingale came back in. He was absolutely tidy, in that every-hair-and-thread-in-place way he got when he was truly stressed. He looked markedly less well than when he’d left, though – paler, his eyes somehow distant. And he walked like a man facing a firing squad. Also, he didn’t sit down.
Instead, standing at a bizarre approximation of parade rest, he said, staring directly ahead of him at nothing, “Peter, you won’t be familiar with the specific vestigia left behind by infernal sources; they’re very easy to miss, even when you are familiar, and you should visit my room to experience the traces before they fade.”
“So you --” I said, and then remembered my training. When a suspect’s talking, you shut your bloody trap. And, anyway, what Nightingale said next robbed me of the ability to speak.
“I think it likely,” he said, “that you will find that I am the other donor of the, er, genetic material for Bartholomew. It would likely save time if you tested that first, Abdul, Jennifer. I’ve done a survey of the scene and found distinct traces of infernal influence, and based on the evidence, I believe the consumptor in question was of the succubus type.” He hesitated for just a few seconds, and then added, “Scholars are divided in their opinions on the nature of the daemon libidinis, with most believing that there is only one type, which appears in whatever form is most suitable. However, both August and Awad believe that the daemon libidinis has two main forms, corresponding to the infernal’s gender, so, in case it is relevant, I should note that this particular one was an incubus. Obviously, further research is needed.”
Nightingale turned, so smartly I could almost hear the drill sergeant barking orders, and left. He was walking at his customary pace, but it was hard to think of it as anything other than scarpering.
He’d even left me holding the baby.
The doctors left, although Jennifer did tell me to feel free to call her, day or night. I couldn’t tell if she was volunteering to help us with the childcare situation or concerned that Nightingale might go rogue on me, though she had to know that if it came to that, we were all fucked.
After they were gone, I took myself and Bartholomew to the stairs and did some walking and some thinking. The steps were a good place for me just then, honestly. I found myself thinking about Nightingale, fucking a demon in his room upstairs, and making a damn baby and then wandering off to lock himself in a library and, presumably, research something, all without mentioning the first thing about it to me. And leaving me to take care of the results.
My steps got pretty stompy right around then, and Bartholomew – who Nightingale had named after a fricking old, dead magician, who’d probably never had any children himself, as I noticed your top-quality magicians tended not to – woke up.
He’d barely drawn his first deep breath to shriek it out when Molly appeared, holding out a perfectly warmed bottle and another of those endless thick, white cloths. She looked at me, her eyes narrowed, and then glided away. I took Bartholomew down to the firing range, since it was still as hot as hell in London and almost as hot in the Folly, and fed him there.
He finished his bottle, puked half of it back up on me, and then fell asleep. I positioned him carefully and picked up the Norwood, but I found myself talking, instead, making sure to keep my voice calm and level, the way Bartholomew liked.
“The thing is,” I said, “I’m sort of pissed off at your dad. One of your dads. Maybe both of them.” I considered this, thinking about the incubus who had presumably seduced Nightingale, and wondered if it were possible to truly consent to sex with a lust demon.
And that made me think about Simone, something I tried not to do. I remembered how it had been with her, how badly I’d wanted to believe in her, how badly I’d wanted her, how clouded and hazy my mind had gone whenever she’d been around.
The sex had been great, but on some level it hadn’t been real. It had been perfect, I remembered that, but when I reached for details, they were gone – I could remember, with horrifying clarity, the five minutes I spent fumbling with Sharon Wei’s bra clasp at the age of 15, but the time I spent with Simone, who was ten years closer to me than Sharon’s bloody four-hook puzzle box of a support garment, was mostly gone. I could remember some feelings, I could picture a few spectacular moments, and that was it.
I wondered what Nightingale could remember. I wondered if the sex with the incubus – and wasn’t that a kicker, to have it confirmed, after all these years, that Nightingale swung that way – had been as draining as the sex with Simone had been.
Probably more so, actually, I realized. No wonder he’d been looking peaky and forgetting things. He’d had a demon sucking – I hastily changed words and made a mental note that discussing this with Nightingale was going to require careful thought, a straight face, and ideally a thesaurus at the ready – he’d had a demon draining him. Draining his emotion, and probably also his life energy.
The strange part – well, one of the many – was that Nightingale, who could identify a fae at a thousand meters and who saw through glamors like they were made of air, hadn’t noticed he was fucking an incubus. That wasn’t what struck me the most about it, though.
I stopped thinking like Peter Grant, aged 17, and started thinking like DC Peter Grant, aged 30. Since Bartholomew was available, I used him as a sounding board. “The thing is, that speech probably just about killed Nightingale to give, but it wasn’t exactly what you’d call forthcoming, when you look at it. Yes, he’s from the time before feelings, but information, that’s his wheelhouse.”
With Bartholomew’s quiet snores as help, I assembled a list of questions and an interview plan.
And then I lay in wait.
Mum came back as soon as she’d finished work, carrying two more enormous bags of borrowed baby gear. Pretty soon we’d be able to run a daycare out of the Folly, at the rate she was going. “Auntie Zainab’s coming in to give your dad his dinner,” she said, which suggested Mum’d spent the day going spare, imagining us mailing Bartholomew like a parcel or leaving him alone in the bath or something.
Mum assembled the troops, including Nightingale, who somehow managed to avoid meeting my eyes or even looking directly at me, all without seeming to be avoiding anything, and Molly, who kept her eyes fixed on Mum like she was the source of all Pinterest recipes. And then she raked us over the coals. We hadn’t got in a proper bed for Bartholomew, we were letting him develop bad habits, we weren’t keeping track of his intake and output – at which point Molly produced a sheet of what looked to be handmade paper, with carefully calligraphed records of each bottle made, and the amount he’d consumed.
I noticed Molly used neither fluid ounces nor milliliters, but rather the rarer (and completely unknown to me) “cotyla”; Mum couldn’t have known what it was, either, but she didn’t let that slow her down. “Someone in this house is thinking,” she said. “That is a good thing. That gives me hope.” Then she made Nightingale and I put together a cot – probably borrowed off her next-door neighbors, who I knew had a little girl, since it was pink, with a pattern of little owls. It was about as easy to construct as my first staff had been, but came with less in the way of instructions or assistance. While we struggled in nearly silent agony with that, Mum lectured us on sleep, and babies, and all the ways the two of them could go wrong together. This included a lot more information on my early sleeping habits than I really wanted, but Nightingale listened with every appearance of interest, particularly whenever Mum talked about what an absolute horror I apparently had been. To hear her tell it, I didn’t sleep at all until I was about four.
Then Mum changed Bartholomew, put him into a footed sleeper, and fed him one last time. When he fell asleep at the bottle, she put him into the cot, walked out, and closed the door firmly behind her. “He is new,” she said. “You can expect him to be up in three hours.” And she went off to have a word with Molly in the kitchens, leaving Nightingale and I standing in the hallway, completely free of any sort of baby.
I spent a few seconds being amazed at this level of freedom, and then a few more seconds marveling at the fact that it only took a day for having the baby constantly with me to feel normal. Then Nightingale shifted, clearly preparing to ghost me, and I realized I was dreaming away my interview time.
“Could I have a word?” I said. Nightingale can resist a lot, but he’s well helpless in the face of civilized requests.
“Of course,” he said, looking like he’d rather detonate a demon trap with his bollocks. He followed me grimly into the last bedroom on that floor. It’s disused, with everything covered in white sheets, but the key thing was that it was far enough away from Bartholomew’s room for us not to wake him in case there was any shouting.
I pulled the sheet off the desk chair and sat on it, and made a gesture to suggest Nightingale take his pick of the other shrouded furnishings. He indicated, by staying perfectly still, that he preferred to stand.
“I’ve just been – wondering a few things,” I said, and then I heard Lesley’s voice: the suspect isn’t doing you a favor. You are, if you don’t bash his head in. “I have a few questions I’d like you to answer.”
“Of course,” he repeated, still managing not to look directly at me.
“So, this incubus,” I said. “When did you realize you’d, er, been visited by one?”
Nightingale considered this. “May 19th,” he said, which was very nice and exact and made me realize I’d fucked up by not getting my timeline in order. He picked up the white sheet I’d pushed off onto the floor and started folding it carefully, meticulously aligning the corners like he was lining up the formae of a ninth-order spell.
I shifted around a bit, trying to keep bits of the chair from poking into my sides. It had clearly been designed to help the reluctant worker stay awake through sheer discomfort. “Was that the date of its first visit?” I was doing the maths, and realizing that the incubus had gestated a normal-looking, human-looking baby in less than month. I couldn’t help wondering how that worked. And also how Bartholomew had been born. And several thousand other things. I tried to focus.
“No. That was on May 18th, at approximately 11:00 pm,” Nightingale said. Reluctance was evident in every sound he made, but one thing you can say about the Edwardians – for good or ill, they taught their boys that there was no way out but through, and then beat them until they believed it.
“So. Incubus shows up, you bang each other’s brains out, he fucks off while you’re sleeping, and the next morning you think to yourself, wait, something about that wasn’t quite cricket?”
Nightingale cleared his throat. He had finished folding the sheet, and he laid it carefully on the desk near me, centering it just so. Then he squared up. I’d seen that posture enough that I should’ve realized he was going on the offensive. “I realized that something was seriously amiss after I spoke to you over breakfast that morning, as you clearly had no memory of any of the events I thought had passed between us.” He waited a moment for that to hit home, watched as it did, and then said, “If you’ll excuse me?” and left so quickly that I thought maybe he’d been lying when he said there was no real Apparate spell.
He left me staring after him and trying to remember that breakfast. It couldn’t have been all that unusual, or I would have remembered it. I found myself wondering how Nightingale acted, the morning after, and angry at myself. If I’d just paid attention, I thought, I’d know how he was, if he’d – smiled at me, or – clasped my shoulder in a manly fashion, whatever. I really, really wished I knew. And I didn’t. And the man who did seemed to be prepared to break the laws of space and time to avoid being in the same room as me.
Here’s the thing, though: anyone can, at least in theory, as long as they’re not already a special guest of Her Majesty, walk out on a copper. We win by being determined, and, when that doesn’t work, being dogged, bloody-minded, and hell-bent. And that’s when we don’t share a house and a baby with the suspect.
I got up to go after him. Then I thought a little harder and went to the coach house instead.
Bev picked up her phone on the third ring. “Hi, Peter,” she said. “I still can’t tell you anything.”
“It’s fine, we figured it out. The baby’s demonic, you’re a goddess, if you touch then it’s the big bang all over again.”
There was a pause. I’m an old hand at interpreting silences, and this one, I was pretty sure, meant that I was such an idiot that words were not available to express it. Then Bev took a deep breath. “All right. I still can’t tell you anything, but I’m going to anyway, because you’re so wrong it’s actually disturbing.”
I stayed quiet. I know to be good when I’m getting an under-the-table deal.
“Where does magic come from?” Bev asked.
“Do me a favor,” I said.
“Shit,” she said. “Really thought you might have figured that out by now.” She sighed. “Let’s just say – magic comes in flavors. You’re vanilla, I’m strawberry, and that baby is chocolate.”
“Is Nightingale vanilla, too?”
“No. Nightingale’s – ugh. Let’s use a different metaphor. Say magic is electricity.” I grabbed for my notepad and started writing everything down. “You can get electricity from different sources. A watermill, say, or a windmill, or a geothermal vent.”
“You’re the watermill, we’re the windmill, the baby is the geothermal vent?”
She vented a short noise that suggested she’d like me to stop asking stupid questions. “I’m a watermill, you’re one of those potato batteries we did in fourth form science, and Nightingale is connected to the mains,” she said. “But the baby – the baby gets his electricity from human batteries, like in the Matrix. And that’s fine if he interacts with you, or with Nightingale. You can switch off your power, after all, and Nightingale’s got the world’s most effective energy sink. But watermills don’t ever stop generating, and if he were to draw from me –” she broke off, but I got the gist.
“The big bang all over again?”
“Positive feedback loop,” she said. “The kind that ends with southern England under water. At best.”
I finished making my notes with the feeling that I needed to speak to Dr. Walid immediately. Or, rather, immediately after I finished dealing with the infernal baby problem. Once again, my to-do list was sprouting extra heads. “Thanks, Bev, that’s amazing.”
“I’m not supposed to discuss any of the fundamentals with you, but it’s just so frustrating to see you floundering,” she said.
“That’s not actually why I called, though.” The silence this time was a lot richer in texture and communicated thoughts about both me and her. “I wanted to ask, uh. Do you think Nightingale has a thing for me?”
Bev sighed. “Peter, I am really quite sure you can sort that out yourself, and I am also sure I don’t want to help you do it. I’m hanging up now,” she said, and did.
I didn’t even mind. She hadn’t given me the answer I was looking for, but she’d given me something Nightingale couldn’t possibly resist.
Everyone knows that criminals like to stick to their old, familiar haunts. The police know it, and the criminals know we know it. But that doesn’t stop them from visiting their mum and their local and going shopping at the grocery down the road. When you’re feeling threatened, being somewhere familiar feels safer, even when it is provably, demonstrably, absolutely more dangerous. So common criminals go home again. And we catch them there.
Nightingale wasn’t a criminal, but he had something in common with one: he was a homebody, and when he felt threatened, he wanted to stay inside the Folly, inside its wards. So I didn’t expect him to leave, even though that would’ve been safer for him. And there are only so many places in the Folly a man can hide. I found him, after some looking, in a tiny room that led off one of the labs we didn’t use much. It had a desk, a chair, a small, empty bookshelf, and a WWII-era metal filing cabinet with labels so yellowed and cracked they were about one step above dust. Nightingale was using the chair, and he’d brought a book.
I looked around with interest, but I kept myself firmly between Nightingale and the door. He wasn’t going to get the chance to bolt this time. “Nice office, this.”
He looked around. “Very out of the way, I thought. Is Bartholomew up?”
“Not yet, and Mum’s keeping an ear out for him while she has a kip in the bedroom with the singed desk,” I said.
He nodded. “It is probably time to talk about, er, longer-term options.”
I blinked at him. “That’s what you think it’s time to talk about?”
“He can’t live here, Peter. It’s hardly safe for a child.”
I opened my mouth to point out that the Folly was, in terms of both magical and physical protections, among the safest places in London to live, but I recognized in time that I was being lured. “Good effort, well made,” I said. “But I think before we talk about what we’re going to do with him, we’ve got to talk about how he got here.”
“Ah,” Nightingale said, communicating enough reluctance in that single syllable to serve an entire grammar school’s worth of students being asked to recite poetry. “If that is what you believe is the most efficient use of our time, then certainly.”
There was something slightly off about his phrasing and his tone – not the expected kind of off, I mean. A different, surprising off. It only took me a few moments to figure it out. “You’re angry at me,” I said, wonderingly.
“No,” Nightingale said tightly. “My anger I am reserving for myself, and I have none to spare for you. However, I do wonder if raking me over these particular coals is a worthwhile pastime, given that we both had somewhat full schedules even before we had care of an infant.” I noticed that he was holding unnaturally still. He’s never a fidgeter, but you’d have believed, coming upon the scene at that moment, that I was talking to a statue. I wasn’t entirely sure he was breathing.
I translated with ease. “So what’s your plan? Get Bartholomew squared away in care somewhere, have a few rousing chats about murders and 17th century spellcrafting trends, and grind on in the same old way?”
“It’s been reasonably successful thus far,” Nightingale said, still frozen in place. Apparently when you closed off their lines of escape, his generation went for the ever-popular, T. rex-defeating “if I don’t move, he can’t see me” approach.
“It’s ended up with you fucking a simulacrum of me” – Nightingale flinched at my phrasing, but I saw no reason to think subtlety would work – “getting your emotions and some of your life force drained, and making a baby we currently can barely manage to keep fed,” I pointed out. “So I’m wondering what unsuccessful would look like. In the circumstances.”
Nightingale stared at me for a full thirty seconds, his face set, his expression unreadable. Then he moved for the first time, to fold his arms. “It would look like me forcing myself upon my colleague and friend,” he said, quietly but with careful emphasis on certain words.
I considered that. “You were willing enough with the incubus, though,” I pointed out, and Nightingale sighed in a way that communicated better than any number of words how completely he wished to be done with the conversation. “Yes, Peter,” he said. “When I thought that you had initiated things, I was willing.”
“Because then it wasn’t you forcing yourself on me, it was … me forcing myself on you?” I said.
“Force was not involved. Or, rather, I thought force was not involved, but obviously things were not quite as I thought.”
“So I have a question,” I said. I knew it was important to word this carefully. “Bev told me something pretty interesting a little bit ago.”
Some of the tension went out of Nightingale’s shoulders, but it was replaced by a slight slump that suggested he was weary to the bone. “Yes?”
“She said that I’m a potato battery and you’re connected to the mains.”
Nightingale considered that for a moment. “Is this one of those things you’re always telling me can be looked up in that internet dictionary of common vernacular?”
“No. Or, I don’t know, maybe potato battery does have a few definitions in the Urban Dictionary, but they aren’t what I mean. This is about magic, if magic were electricity. I’ve got a battery, and you’re directly connected to the mains.”
Nightingale’s face cleared. “Ah. Yes. That’s – an interesting and novel way to phrase it. But essentially correct.”
I desperately wanted to ask him how he’d phrase it. Focus, Peter, I told myself. Keep your eyes on the prize. “So, this incubus, it eats emotion, right? But it also drains your life force?”
“Yes,” Nightingale said. “Or rather, the emotion is the medium through which the life force becomes available to the daemon, to be technically correct.”
“And your life force is also what you draw on for magic,” I said, and my heart started to beat a little faster as I rounded the final curve. “So basically you are an all-you-can-eat buffet to that thing.”
“So it came back,” I said confidently. “It would have had to. It would have wanted more of the energy only you channel like that.”
Nightingale went still again. “Yes,” he said quietly. “He did.”
“And you killed the other one, the one from the ‘90s,” I said. “But I’m assuming, since presumably he just had a baby yesterday, that you didn’t kill this one.”
“No.” Nightingale said quietly. “I should have. But I drove him off instead.”
And this was where I had to take a small leap and really stick the landing. “You didn’t kill it,” I said. “Because it looked like me.” I wasn’t 100% sure I was right about that, but it was one of those theories that would either be proved or disproved sixty seconds after speaking, provided I could keep my eyes on Nightingale.
I’d wondered, even as I’d mentally planned this out, what he would do if I got the balls to say it out loud. Turned out that I should have wondered what I’d do. Because Nightingale, using every bit of steel that a century of life had shoved into his spine, looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Yes.”
And I crossed the five feet between us and kissed him.
It was not a great kiss. Nightingale was still seated, so I was bent over him, and that’s not the most graceful position for kissing. And I had surprised him – honestly, I’d surprised both of us – so I suspect most of his mental resources were being spent on not putting up a shield or stinging me with magic. I broke it off after a few seconds and sighed. “You couldn’t come clean when we were in a room with a bed, could you?”
Nightingale looked at his hands, which had at some point taken a firm hold on my t-shirt, and, after a few seconds, let go. “I suspect that’s for the best,” he said, blinking a few times. “We seem to have skipped a number of necessary steps.”
I tilted my head, considering this. “You said you were into it as long as I initiated things of my own free will.”
I could tell Nightingale wasn’t thrilled with my phrasing, but sidetracks are my problem, not his. Never his. “Well, yes.”
“I initiated this,” I pointed out. “Of my own free will. Are you into it?”
Nightingale folded his hands in front of him and studied them for a good thirty seconds that felt like an eternity. Then he stood up decisively. “Yes,” he said. “I am.”
He walked out. I was so surprised it took me a few seconds to follow him.
He didn’t lead us to his bedroom, which was understandable, and he didn’t lead us to mine, either. He went to the same one we’d had our chat in the day before, the one with dustcovers on all the furniture. He snapped the cover off the bed and tossed it to one side, not seeming to care that it fell crumpled to the floor.
I studied him, trying not to let my eyes get hung up on the sweep of his neck, the trimness of his waist, the way he stood. I needed to figure out if this was some kind of Nightingale do-or-die back-to-the-wall thing, or if this was – interest. Eagerness? I couldn’t tell. He was watching me back, head tilted, and I got the feeling he was making the same assessment of me.
“Are you still initiating?” he asked, his tone calm, light, like he’d be willing to take either answer.
And because I was 30, and not 17 or 22 or even 25 any longer, I thought about it. What do you want, Peter? I asked myself, and I weighed it up. There was a lot to lose, crossing this line, and I knew what that would feel like. But I thought about Nightingale, about the way my life orbited around him, about how, to my surprise, his life also had begun to orbit around me. I thought about how he’d fucked an incubus, thinking it was me – wanting me enough to fool himself – and what a charge that was, to be wanted like that, to be wanted back. I thought about having him, and desire shot through me like entirely unmagical lightning.
“Oh, yeah,” I said, and stepped forward.
It was funny. Kissing him the first time hadn’t felt like crossing a line. But the second time, that felt like I was daring something, risking something. Walking across the room to him felt a lot more difficult than just taking a few steps. But I did it, because I was choosing this, and I wanted him to see that. I walked to him, put my hands on his face, and kissed him.
That one was a lot better than the first one. Nightingale brought his hands up to my shoulders and kissed back like he meant it, and when I pulled back, I was breathless. Nightingale studied my face, smiled a little, and kissed me again, and it was hot and wet and good, and by the time he was done, I was pulling at the shoulders of his jacket. “You wear too many clothes,” I said, after I got my breath back.
“Perhaps for this specific situation, yes,” he said drily, and stepped away, already unbuttoning his cuffs.
I just watched, and I found my breath catching. Nightingale’s always dressed, overdressed, and him deliberately undoing his buttons and sliding his coat off and then moving on to his shirt, his long fingers deft and sure on every fastening, and every bit of skin revealed to me, for me – I definitely wasn’t thinking of anything else.
He slipped off his shirt, and when I discovered he wore another shirt underneath that I made a noise – half fascinated, half frustrated. He looked up at me, eyebrows raised, and I said, “You’re all layers.”
He smiled. “Are you giving me a head start, then?” he asked, and glanced down at my still very much clad body.
“This is where modern clothing has the advantage,” I said confidently, dropping my hands to my fly. “It was made for this sort of thing.”
“I know,” Nightingale said, and there was something about his tone of voice that made me look up curiously. He was still undressing, but he was watching me with very definite interest, and he looked satisfied.
I pulled off my jeans and followed it with my t-shirt. I hesitated over my boxers, remembering another time, another guy, saying “eager, aren’t you?” Nightingale had slipped off his trousers by then, and he tilted his head, reading me as carefully as he might read the scene of a crime.
The inspection felt like too much just then. “Like what you see?” I asked, and I kept my voice light.
“Yes,” he said, his tone sincere and warm. “And I’m very glad not to see your modern clothes, which have been tormenting me for years.”
“You’d rather I kept every inch of my skin covered? I’m not you. I’d melt.” Especially in this room, which felt hotter with each passing second, though not necessarily in a bad way.
“I didn’t say that,” he said, and he let his hands fall to my bare shoulders.
I took a breath, and I could smell him, and he was touching me, and then I touched him, my hand on the planes of his back. The sensation of touching skin I’d never even seen before, something always covered and suddenly laid bare, laid bare for me – my body flushed with heat. I could feel the muscles moving as he moved his hands on my shoulders, and I let my hands wander across skin surprisingly smooth and unmarked – I realized, with a pang that was a distant blue note in my breathless wanting, that magic wasn’t just reversing age but taking away his scars, the marks of his life.
I found myself touching him pretty much everywhere, because I could, imagining my hands leaving traces on him, and then I remembered what I was doing and went in for another kiss. This one was longer, rougher, and I was dizzy when I pulled back, which is probably why I said, “Nightingale, I ...”
He smiled with just one side of his mouth, and his forehead wrinkled a bit. “Don’t you think it’s time you called me Thomas?”
“Thomas,” I said, trying it out.
“Peter,” he said. “Would you like to go to bed?”
And I wanted to, so I went. I remembered rolling around with a bloke as being very similar to my adolescent gropings with girls, just a bit more pushing and shoving, but Thomas was different. He set me out how he wanted me and just leaned back and studied me for a bit. I felt like I should be doing something, moving things along somehow, but when I reached for him, Thomas put a hand on my chest. Then he slid it down, brushing over my nipples, over my stomach, and everywhere he touched went hot and sensitive and I completely forgot what I’d been doing.
When I could focus again, I said, “So, uh, what do you want?” Partly that was nerves, partly it was me hoping he wasn’t going to come up with anything esoteric. I’d done things with a guy, but nothing that you couldn’t do fast, in a bathroom or behind a vending machine in a hallway.
Thomas considered this. Then he said, “You always do get ahead of yourself,” and bit my jaw line, gently scraping his teeth along my stubble. He made a noise of quiet satisfaction.
It occurred to me that I wanted to hear that noise a lot more from him, and I stopped listening to the voice in my head that said I needed to do things, move it along, get this done. Thomas seemed to be on a different schedule, with a different set of ideas.
They all turned out to be good ones.
When we finished, I was wrapped around him, panting, and he was lying with his head tipped against my arm. Two cases, a baby, and a really good shag – I was ready for a solid 12 hours of sleep followed by a huge meal. There wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to get the sleep, and though the meal would definitely happen it was bound to be moderately horrifying, but I gave myself a few minutes just to imagine it: sleeping myself out, wrapped up here with Thomas, and then a giant fry up.
Thirty seconds in, Thomas said, “We have things we should discuss.”
I groaned and tried to bury my face in his neck. “Seriously? Surely one of the advantages of” – I hesitated, not sure if I should use the word, but nothing ventured – “dating a repressed man from the distant past is not having to have relationship discussions.”
Thomas laughed. Real laughter, the kind I rarely heard from him, for what felt like a very long time indeed. By the end my head was up so I could stare at him, partly because it wasn’t that funny, but mostly because, like I said, it’s not something I get to see often. When he finished, he said, “Peter, what do you think affairs between men were like in the, as you call it, distant past?”
I considered this one seriously. “Furtive fumblings in an alleyway? Trips to” – I couldn’t think of a suitable word – “houses of ill repute?”
“I suppose one could, but an alley would be awfully hard on one’s clothes, and I’ve never been a rake.” He sighed. “Peter, imagine how much more careful discussion is required when a single wrong step can lead to, at best, personal ruin.”
I flopped on my back and thought about it.
“Also, of course, one tends to pick someone one enjoys conversing with.”
I noted the present tense with a lot internal smugness. He did enjoy my questions about magic! I’d always suspected.
“But then, perhaps you wouldn’t know that?” His voice held a genuine note of inquiry, so I rewound through what he’d just said and lined up the pieces.
“Not my first dance,” I said.
Thomas’s eyes widened slightly. “Really,” he said, and it didn’t sound like a question, but it was meant as one.
I didn’t want to get into it, but – there comes a time. “Nigel,” I said.
“Nigel,” he repeated. He was still asking questions without asking any, and it reminded me once again that his century of living had come with experience.
“He was a white boy, posh kid. Met him doing a summer programme at UCL for youth with an interest in architecture,” I said. “Meant for underprivileged students, you know. He was at uni, a few years older than me. He’d stolen a car, crashed it into a college building, gotten a referral order. Working with us was part of his reparation.” I paused, wondering how much I had to say. Finally I went with, “I was head over heels, and he – acted like he was, but really I was just a novelty. A new way to make his dad angry. I didn’t see any of it until it was too late. I got kicked out.” I shrugged. “No university for me. So I didn’t become an architect. Ended up a magician.” Suddenly it seemed funny, and I snorted.
“What happened to him?” Thomas asked.
“Nothing, as far as I know. Look him up on LinkedIn a few times a year. He’s an architect now, working in his dad’s firm.”
“All’s well, I guess,” I said.
Nightingale tilted his head. “Mine was trouble, too,” he said. “I didn’t get sent down, but then, my family name counted, and of course there was the war. They were never going to waste a fully trained British wizard. Didn’t listen to me as much as they might have otherwise, though.”
“What was his name?”
“David.” He paused, then shook his head. “It hardly matters now. David Mellanby.” And it wasn’t like I hadn’t always suspected, or like I didn’t know who he meant as soon as he said the first name, but I was still glad to hear it said out loud. And not just because I could check off one more of the questions that had been niggling at me since I met him.
So I’d ended up in the police, and he’d ended up in Ettersburg. “I think I got off easier,” I said, blinking. I wondered a lot of things, a lot of details, but for once I knew better than to ask.
“Maybe so.” He sat up. “I suppose we’d better dress. Bartholomew will be awake soon, and if your mother comes to find us --”
“Fuck,” I said, and leapt out of bed. I’d had Mum walk in on me with a girl, once. I’d walk ten miles of rough country stark naked to avoid a repeat.
Thomas laughed, and began gathering up his clothes. He was, I noted, not at all shy, not in the way I had expected. He didn’t hold his clothes in front of him, or dress quickly, or look embarrassed. I was fully dressed before he’d finished buttoning his shirt. Of course, his clothes were complicated. And his mother wasn’t down the hall.
When we got out, Mum was in what I’d already come to think of as Bartholomew’s room, sitting in an ancient rocking chair that had somehow materialized in there while I wasn’t looking. She was holding Bartholomew, who, despite the heat, was wrapped in a white blanket I hadn’t seen before. Judging by the size of it and the embroidery around the edges, Molly had, again, been busy; nothing Mum borrowed from any of my cousins would look so fancy.
“We do have to make longer-term plans for this child,” Thomas said, and I winced. This was not a discussion to have in front of my mum. Strategically speaking, he’d already shot himself in the foot.
“What is wrong with what you are already doing?” Mum asked. She sounded quiet, inquiring, interested, but I could hear the steel under it. We’d let her hold the baby and feed the baby and care for the baby and now she loved him. That’s how she works. Maybe to some extent that’s how everyone works, since I found myself – well, definitely concerned about his future, let’s say.
“Sooner or later,” he pointed out, “you will need a full night’s sleep, Mrs. Grant. Much sooner than that, Peter and I will need to return to work. Ethically challenged magicians aren’t going to stop their activities for a few years while we --” he glanced at me, a cue I responded to as automatically as breathing.
“Co-parent,” I said. Thomas raised his eyebrow at me. “Look, I could also call it ‘closely engaging with youthful representatives of the magical community to build a stronger rapport and a clearer code of ethics for the next generation,’ and I definitely will in any report I write, but co-parenting is what it is.” I took a moment to try to figure out if I had any feelings about that, but I couldn’t find any. Aside from an intense desire to kill anyone who ever tried to hurt Bartholomew, but that’s a reasonable way to feel about a baby.
“Yes,” he said.
Mum stiffened her spine. “This baby does not go to Social Services,” she said firmly, and I had to admit that I no longer liked that option myself.
“Oh good Lord no,” Thomas said, to my surprise. “That would be a disaster. He’s a cambion, and Peter has yet to acquire the sort of connections in Social Services that would allow us to manage this appropriately through them.”
I blinked. Somehow, a decision had been made without me, and it hadn’t been the one I was set to argue against. Also – “A cambion?”
“Half human, half daemon libidinis,” Thomas said. “He won’t have the daemonic powers to induce temptations, but he will instinctively seek to drain life force through others’ emotions, when he’s older. And he already has the ability to create powerful glamors. Untrained, it will allow him endless control over those around him. Hardly healthy for anyone.” He caught me studying Bartholomew in surprise, and added, “The glamor doesn’t work on relations.”
“I’m not,” I pointed out.
Thomas smiled slightly. “Magically speaking, you certainly are. As is your mother.” He shook his head. “I can see you still haven’t read Boxton. Consider this encouragement.”
I made a mental note, but I also rolled my eyes, to emphasize that I wasn’t Thomas’s student anymore. “So we, uh. Have to have a relative care for him? How close?” I had a million cousins, but most of them weren’t blood relations. And Thomas’s were either dead or so distant from him that they were ruled out.
“There are other people who have the ability to resist glamours,” he pointed out. “Molly hasn’t been noticeably compelled.”
True. No infant would influence others to sew them endless bundles of white linen. “The demimonde,” I said. “You’d trust one in the Folly alone? With the baby?”
“Fortunately,” Thomas said briskly, “Molly is always here to supervise.”
I looked up and saw Molly hovering in the doorway, holding out a bottle. Yeah, she’d freak whoever we hired right out. I took the bottle from her and the baby from Mum. “We’ll need to get Molly her own phone,” I said, thinking it through. Molly darted a glance at me, and I added, “A smartphone. I’ll make her one with an interrupt.”
“That would be useful,” Thomas said, and I sensed an almost visible delight emanating from Molly that made me wonder why I hadn’t got her a smartphone years ago. Would have saved my computer a lot of blue screens of death, honestly.
“And I will be coming in,” Mum said, and she didn’t let me get my protest out. “Tuesday evenings and Saturdays. On Saturdays I will come at noon, stay until night, and take Abigail home with me when I go.” I stood there, blinking at this sudden complete rearrangement of my life, and she said to me, in Krio, “The way you’re going, this will be my only grandchild, so I better know him. And whoever it is you bring in to take care of him.”
Thomas, using senses honed on German tanks and rogue magicians, decided to wrap things up on what might reasonably be considered a win. “Excellent plan,” he said. “Which just leaves the nanny. Peter, if you’ll join me in the library? We’ll make a list of candidates.”
I wordlessly burped Bart, handed him back to Mum, and followed Thomas to the mundane library. Once we were safely inside, he said, quietly, intensely, “This isn’t going to end with her living here, is it?”
“Oh my god,” I said, too shaken to pay any attention to what Thomas had to say. “My mum just arranged for us to have date night.”