If I’d been just a little less inquisitive, none of this would have happened, was what I told myself later. Which was completely wrong, because technically speaking all the happening had taken place about eight years before that, and we would have found out about it sooner or later anyway.
It had all been in the name of data security anyway: we’d been fielding some very pointed questions from, of all things, a student journalist who’d crossed paths with us (a friend of Abigail’s, and don’t think I didn’t blame Abigail for that) and she’d been particularly interested in how long, exactly, Nightingale had been working for the Met. I blamed Nightingale, too, for making a casual reference to the winter the waste collectors had struck under Thatcher – he still looked about forty, but these days that meant he looked more or less like an average Millennial. I’d told him that once and he’d taken about a week to forgive me. For that I blame the Telegraph, which he still persists in buying ‘for the crossword’ and which has adopted the sad habit of using ‘Millennial’ as a shorthand for ‘young people of whom we disapprove’. And they definitely mean whom.
In all this cavalcade of blame, it had occurred to me that if Abigail’s student journalist friend did any real digging, there was an outside chance she’d come across Nightingale’s birth certificate, which was old enough now to have become publicly searchable. So I used my police access to check that it hadn’t. I could have just done the public search and got the same answer, but…I was curious, okay, and I had something like an excuse.
I didn’t expect to get two records. I definitely wasn’t expecting one of them to be for a marriage.
I like to think that I wouldn’t have opened the record, except that Nightingale had told me for a fact – sometime around when Beverley and I had broken up – that he’d never been married, or intended to be. The only part of his past Nightingale is prone to being cagey about is the war and where he was immediately after, for what I’m sure are very good reasons; what I don’t know is more omission by inertia, along with his proper English distaste for personal conversations. But he’d said that he’d never been married so casually that I had had no doubt it was true.
So I looked. And then I thought I’d misread it. And then I thought it must be some sort of elaborate prank, probably to be blamed yet again on Abigail. And then I looked at the date, and the location, and a slow wave of something started to work its way up my spine.
“Peter,” Nightingale said, behind me. I think I jumped about three feet out of the chair, which promptly rolled sideways, leaving me to lean heavily on the computer desk to avoid falling.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you’d heard me come in,” he said. I turned around to see him looking at me with some amusement, although he was too polite to laugh.
“Right. No,” I said, still operating on autopilot. “No, I didn’t.”
The amusement faded from his face. “Is there something wrong?”
“I, uh. I’m not sure.”
He waited. I didn’t really feel up to explaining, so I just pointed at the computer screen, and moved out of the way.
He leaned over to read it. “What?”
It was the most blunt, blank expression of surprise I’d ever heard from him. Well, fair enough.
“I think it must be a joke,” I said. “Or – or – “
“This is…” He took in the screen. “These are Somerset House records?”
“And the date –“
“But then – surely it can’t be a prank. There wasn’t anybody else there, except that vicar, and -”
“Yeah,” I said, a third time. “I mean, it can’t possibly be legal, but it seems like…the Registry Office might think that we’re. Uh. Married.”
It was only the second time I’d ever heard Nightingale say something you couldn’t air on TV pre-watershed.
We tried to retire to the kitchen but Molly was doing something complicated involving most of the table and shooed us out the minute we darkened the door. We knew better than to argue. Abigail was doing some indexing in the library, so we ended up in the reading room with a decanter of the good whiskey and took up armchairs where we didn’t have to look each other in the face.
“What I don’t understand,” Nightingale said, “is how it possibly could have – she was obviously very confused, but we didn’t fill out any paperwork. I’m quite certain I would have remembered that.”
“We did not,” I agreed. “There wasn’t a licence to sign, because we weren’t actually getting married. And there weren’t any witnesses. I’m pretty sure it’s not legal without witnesses.”
“No, there was one. The gardener? I think he was the gardener.”
“Well,” I said. “That’s definitely the last time I let a dottery vicar go through a marriage ceremony because she’s confused us for a different gay couple.” I rethought that sentence. “I mean, not that we – you know what I mean.”
“She just seemed so excited.” Nightingale sighed. “About being able to perform the ceremony within the church. Since they’d just allowed it.”
I sunk further down into my armchair and stared into my whiskey glass. “I’m not even Church of England.”
“I suppose I am,” he said, “but I can’t say, if I were to marry, that the presence or absence of a religious ceremony would be much on my mind.”
“If, you know, Bev and me had,” I said, “I think we’d have just got whichever church Mum was going to then. Or whoever Bev’s mum wanted.”
Nightingale let out a short laugh. “I suppose if you had married Beverley, we would have found about this a lot sooner – assuming they cross-check these things.”
I contemplated this prospect. “I think you’ve actually made me feel better. It could have been worse.”
Sahra, of course, chose this moment to hunt us down. She was dressed like she’d been out on the job and her jacket was dusted with raindrops – she must have just got to the Folly. She put her hands on her hips and gave both of us a dubious look. “Not that I’m passing comment on your drinking habits, but is there any reason for breaking out the hard liquor at two o’clock in the afternoon?”
I looked at Nightingale. Nightingale looked at me.
“We might as well,” he said.
“Or we could not,” I suggested. “We could just never speak of this again.”
“Too late, you’re speaking about it,” Sahra said, taking an armchair of her own. She still refuses to officially move into the Folly, but in practical terms she’s here about half the time, the Job being what it is. “Is it something I need to know about?”
“No,” I said, at the same time as Nightingale said, “Through what appears to be a deeply improbable series of accidents, Peter and I have a marriage on record at Somerset House.”
The General Registry Office had moved out of Somerset House more than half a century ago now, but it didn’t seem worth it to correct him. We both knew what it meant.
Sahra frowned, shook her head slightly, looked from him to me, and then at the whiskey decanter.
“Okay,” she said. “You are going to have to explain this further, but the drinking is making sense. What kind of improbable series of accidents leads to that?”
We didn’t actually have a good answer for that – aside from the thing where we’d let a vicar who probably had dementia go through a wedding ceremony for us eight years ago in Suffolk, and then resolved to forget about it – so the next day, after spending an hour pacing around the tech cave talking myself into it, I called the General Registrar’s Office to find out exactly what improbable series of accidents had led to us being, in strictly technical terms, married. I was doing the calling because Nightingale is more than happy to admit that I’m much better at navigating bureaucratic phone trees than he is, although in this case it was less ‘admit’ and more ‘point out quickly and with great emphasis’.
“I think it will go much faster if you handle it,” he said, over breakfast. It was just the two of us; rebelliously spurred by Sahra, Abigail – even though she was still on probation – had moved out to flat with two of her friends last year, and it was just us and Molly again. We were looking to get more constables, but until then things were pretty quiet at the Folly outside business hours, although of course with our job business hours could be nearly any hour of the day.
“I think you’re -” I almost said ‘being a total coward about it’, but Nightingale takes that sort of phrase much more seriously than I do and I wasn’t trying to actually upset him. “- going to owe me for that one, but fine, I’ll do it as soon as they’re open.”
Molly brought in the coffee with what I felt was something approaching a smirk.
“Don’t you start,” I told her. “It’s not funny.”
“Well,” said Nightingale, having apparently gained some equilibrium after a night of sleeping on the news. “I think it might be. Perhaps in half a decade or so, when we’ve sorted it out.”
“Yes,” I said, “but it’s not funny now. And if you think it is then I invite you to explain it to my parents.”
That shut him up for the rest of the meal. Nightingale’s always had proper respect for my mum. As he should.
Up until 2008 I could have gone into an office and talked to somebody, but they moved the Registry Office to Merseyside in the early 90s and then closed down the office in Clerkenwell on the grounds that everything was online now. As I wasn’t about to drive halfway up the country, I made the call. Once I’d worked my way through to somebody who could help – not without shamelessly identifying myself as Detective Sergeant Peter Grant from the Special Assessment Unit and letting them think it was for a case, I will admit – she explained it to me. It wasn’t good news.
“There’s a note on this one,” said the Registry Office woman, who was called Catherine and had a strong south Welsh accent, though somehow a much less sarcastic one than Jennifer Vaughan’s. “It seems like they had some trouble with the record-keeping for this parish, and a few weddings didn’t get correctly recorded. So they just copied the whole batch across for the last six months of that year. If you didn’t – you’re saying you didn’t intend to get married?”
“We didn’t have a licence or anything!” I said. “It was a mix-up and – would you believe me if I said it seemed quicker and easier to let her go on with it than try and explain for a fourth time we weren’t who she thought we were?”
Catherine laughed. “Er, perhaps. But the trouble is, you see, it’s registered now. They would have pulled your address from another database. Surely you were sent a copy of the licence?”
“No,” I said firmly, although if we had been the odds of finding it after eight years were not high. “But we didn’t sign anything, either.”
“Yes, the register got damaged,” Catherine explained. “Some of the signatures were missing, but if you were in the middle of a legitimate batch…the short and the long of it is, as far as we’re concerned here, and certainly the rest of the British government, and I suppose the Church of England, the two of you are married.”
I must have gone silent for a suspiciously long time, because she prodded me verbally. “Alright there, Sergeant Grant? Is Mr Nightingale a friend of yours, at least?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “Can you – can we get a copy of the marriage certificate, then? I have a funny feeling we’re going to need it.”
Nightingale looked up hopefully when I walked into the library, but my face must have said it all; his fell. “No good news?”
“Seems like we’re going to need a lawyer,” I said.
He sighed very deeply.
“Yeah,” I said. “My feelings exactly.”
I would have expected Nightingale to have a solicitor, but he didn’t; apparently the man had died in the nineties and he’d never bothered to get a new one.
“Nothing came up that meant I needed one,” he explained. “And it wasn’t as if I anticipated any reason to change my will, or anything like that.”
I’d come into contact with plenty of lawyers over the years, of course, but most of them had been working for suspects, or were Crown prosecutors. I definitely didn’t know any divorce lawyers. Luckily Sahra came to the rescue.
“My sister does family law,” she said. “She’ll talk to you over coffee for free if I ask her nicely.”
“What’s the catch?” I asked suspiciously.
“Honestly,” she said, “you both look miserable and I thought I’d give you a break.” Then she grinned. “Also, I’m going to be dining out on this one for years – it’s too good.”
“Oh, screw you,” I said. She grinned wider.
Sahra’s sister Leila – still Guleed professionally, although I knew from Sahra that she was married with three children – wore a beautiful bright yellow hijab and an extremely conservative black pantsuit. She met us in a café near her chambers.
“Alright,” she said when we all had our coffees. “You have half an hour, out of love for my sister – even if she couldn’t stop giggling when she was asking me. What’s the problem, exactly?”
“We’re unintentionally married and we’d like to not be,” I said. “Please don’t ask about the unintentional bit. It’d take up all our time.”
She gave me a very sharp look, highly reminiscent of her younger sister, although she had several years on Sahra and quite a few more lines at the corners of her eyes – that was probably the three kids.
“I won’t, I’ll ask Sahra later,” she said. She tapped a hand on the table. She’d done her nails to match her hijab. “Alright, divorce, then.”
“Er – yes,” said Nightingale. “I suppose our question is what the most expedient way to file is. Given that we’re both equally interested in, ah, putting this behind us, I can’t imagine it’s that complicated.”
Leila laughed. “You don’t know a lot of people who’ve got divorced, then.”
“Not in the last few years,” Nightingale said. “My understanding was it had become considerably easier.”
“Easier, yes. Not easy, compared to some jurisdictions.” I felt a twinge of unease.
“First question – how long ago was this…unintentional wedding?”
“Eight years,” I said. “But we only found out about it last week.”
“I’m really going to have to ask Sahra for the full story, then.” She shook her head. “Alright. And you both work with her, I assume that’s how you know each other…it should be relatively easy to get one on the grounds of separation, then – if you’ve never lived together.”
“Ah, actually…” said Nightingale.
She raised her eyebrows. “You have? For how long?”
“We don’t – it’s not living together,” I said. “We have the same address.”
“For how long?” She sounded suspicious now.
I had to count back in my heard. “Thirteen years? Almost.”
“Good lord, is it really?” said Nightingale.
“Yeah, January 2012,” I said. “Although I was practically living at Bev’s for a couple of years -”
“Have you been legally resident at the same address this whole time?” Leila interrupted. “Bills going there, your employer thinks you live there, that kind of thing?”
I sighed. “Yes.”
“Then it counts,” she said. “Does anybody else live there?”
“Yes, but…” Nightingale shook his head. “For a variety of reasons that’s not easy to demonstrate.”
“Why – right.” I’d never really established how much of a legal existence Molly had, although it was enough of one for a bank account. But she certainly couldn’t testify in court as to the strictly platonic and work-related nature of our cohabitation. Such as it was.
“I’ll have to ask Sahra about that too.” Leila was starting to look genuinely curious, as well as entertained – somewhat the same way Jennifer Vaughan looked when she got a really good corpse. “Okay, let’s leave that aside for now. The next most common pretext is unreasonable behavior. For instance – and I make no assumptions here – if one or both of you are straight, the courts more or less rubber-stamp incompatible sexuality cases these days.”
Nightingale brightened. “Well, that’s easy enough.”
“Uh,” I said. “It is?” I’d assumed for years that he was into blokes – I mean, there’d been David Mellenby, hadn’t there – but if I was wrong –
Nightingale gave me a very uncertain look. “Isn’t it?”
“I mean…I thought you…” I said.
“Yes, but you, that is, Beverley -”
“Right,” Leila said loudly and very firmly. “We can move on from that and the two of you can come out to each other when you’re not using up your precious free half-hour to do it. Anyway, that aside, unreasonable behaviour can be lots of other things – just go and write a list of all the stuff that’s been getting on your nerves for the last thirteen years or whatever it is. The only problem is, some judges can be a bit difficult about it unless it’s very serious. Sometimes you have to give it a couple of goes, or do a separation instead.”
“Of two years, isn’t it?” I said. “That’s a bit longer than we really want to wait.”
“Well, that just leaves adultery,” she said, matter-of-factly. “You mentioned living with someone. Are you still seeing her?”
I coughed. “No, we…that ended about two years ago.”
“Pity. That’s long ago enough that it looks like reconciliation. From a court’s standpoint. And there hasn’t been anybody else since who you could bring up? You, ah…” She looked down at her coffee for a second, abashed. “It does need to be an ongoing thing to count. A one-night-stand won’t cut it.”
I thought about my very boring, nay, practically non-existent post-Bev sex life. It’s a lot harder to meet people at nearly forty than it is at twenty-five, at least unless you want to spend a lot of time on meeting new people – new people you’re not investigating for criminal activity. Or who you don’t work with. Or who your mother isn’t trying to set you up with. Or who aren’t properly suspicious of you being an Isaac.
“I’ll, uh, think about it,” I said.
I looked at Nightingale.
“No,” he said, very definitively.
“Come on,” I said. I didn’t know about Nightingale having had it off with anybody, for certain, but surely in the last eight years – “This is a bit of a crisis.”
“Believe me,” he said, “If I thought telling you more than you wanted to know about my personal life would get us out of this, I would happily confess. But under those parameters, it doesn’t appear it would.”
I couldn’t work out whether this meant that he’d only had one-night-stands, or it had been someone who wouldn’t be willing to admit they’d slept with the Nightingale in public, or whether there just hadn’t been anybody at all, and I didn’t want to be trying to work it out.
“Alright,” said Leila. “I have finished my coffee, I’ve given you all the options, and I think we’re straying into the details I don’t need to hear about bit again.” She picked up her handbag from below the table – capacious but resolutely black, like the pantsuit – and pulled out a business card. “Think about which of those applies to you, and if you want to hire me, I’ll be paid to hear the messy details.” She stood up. “Good luck. It sounds like you’re going to need it.”
“You know,” I said in the Jag on the way home, “I feel a lot like Schrodinger’s cat right now.”
“I can assure you without looking that you’re alive,” said Nightingale, with the smug air of someone who thought that I hadn’t expected him to understand the reference.
“No, with the whole…marriage thing.”
“Oh.” Nightingale paused the conversation by executing a – from my perspective – needlessly hair-raising right turn into a very small gap in the traffic. “In the sense that – never mind, I don’t follow.”
“Three years ago,” I said, “when neither of us had any idea that we were…about this. If anybody had asked me, I would have said I was single. Legally speaking, that is. I mean – how can being married count if you don’t know about it?”
“I would have assumed there was a legal argument that it didn’t,” said Nightingale, “but that shows you the value of making assumptions. And it sounds like it’s going to be damned difficult to get out of, with all that stuff about addresses and – really it should be easier.” He sounded highly irritated with, presumably, the entire British legal system.
“You know what,” I said, “if it wasn’t happening to us it’d be a great case study. What’s the minimum requirement to constitute a functional marriage?” I snorted. “You also know what, if one of us wasn’t British, Customs would do all our work for us and declare that it was obviously a sham.”
“I suspect that would just end in a deportation, not a divorce. Not particularly helpful.”
“True.” We’d slowed to a crawl and now a stop – a red light somewhere up ahead, I guessed, though it wasn’t in view.
Schrodinger’s marriage – why couldn’t a court just take Nightingale and my word for it that we weren’t in a marital relationship and never had been? Although from a court’s point of view, how would you tell the difference? We lived together – for a certain value of living together, although I’d been in enough posh houses at that point to know that it counted as much as a lot of intentionally married people’s ‘living together’ did. We were friends, I was pretty sure. We worked together – he was my boss, technically speaking, though more technical than not these days – but that wasn’t unheard of, either. Our lives had grown into each other, in various ways, over thirteen years. We shared cars and a television and a very elderly dog. It was – I’d never thought about us this way, and it was like a mental visual illusion; the shapes of things had shifted and I didn’t know how to shift them back.
Of course, for one thing, if we were married, we’d have slept together. Or be sleeping together. Not that sex is requisite for continued marriage – in fact I am led to understand by some of my friends that it marriage ruins the odds the longer it goes on, though I can think of just as many counter-examples, including some I’d rather not (my parents). But I couldn’t see myself marrying someone I wasn’t planning on continuing to get it off with, and I presumed that was true of Nightingale as well.
I looked over at him. He was looking straight ahead, hands at ten and two on the wheel, calmly waiting for the traffic to start moving. He was a good-looking man and a well-dressed one, as Caroline had once commented, I didn’t have any problem admitting that. But I’d honestly never considered – and surely he hadn’t either – we worked together.
“Penny for your thoughts,” he said.
“You don’t want them at any price,” I told him.
His eyebrows rose. “Then I shan’t inquire any further.”
Although, my brain helpfully pointed out, if we were married and it wasn’t our fault, DPS might not even be able to say anything about –
“So what do you reckon,” I said, to shut myself up. “Should we hire her?”
“Sahra’s sister? I don’t see why not. We’re going to need someone.”
“Good.” We were moving now, slowly. “Good, then. Let’s just get it sorted out as soon as possible.”
Leila, once officially retained, had suggested that our first attempt should be unreasonable behaviour.
“If you’re both citing it, it’s not that difficult,” she’d said, “unless we get really unlucky with the judge. Come back next week with a list, alright?” She’d frowned. “And at some point we’re going to need to find another lawyer. I can’t represent both of you.”
“Why not?” I asked. “We both want the same thing.”
“I know you do,” she said, “but traditionally this is an adversarial process. It’s fine – once we get the groundwork sorted out I can find a colleague. Just keep it in mind.”
So I sat down in the kitchen with a cup of tea and a biscuit and did my best to come up with a list of entirely unreasonable behaviour on Nightingale’s part that would be grounds for a divorce.
“Listen,” I said to Molly, who was sharpening the knives – I’d almost left her to it, but she wasn’t doing it with any particular zeal, so it seemed safe enough. “You’ve lived with him for, like, a century by now. I’ll take suggestions. There must be something.”
Molly thought about this for about ten minutes and finally indicated, via a combination of props and economical gesture, that she was unimpressed at Nightingale’s habit of only drinking half of a cup of coffee and then leaving the half-full cup on a table somewhere. Then she shrugged, as if to say that was the best she had.
“Right,” I said. “I’ll put that down.”
An hour later, the only things I’d come up with were that he still didn’t answer his mobile phone sometimes when he really should have it on, and that he hadn’t given up on correcting my perfectly good colloquial London English dialect, even when he wasn’t right. I was genuinely sick of that one. He always knew what I meant, and so did anybody else I was talking to.
There was other stuff, don’t get me wrong, but all of it was – well, it wasn’t about me and him, it was about the job, or it was the kind of thing that would kill him if I said it out loud, let alone if I put it on paperwork. I stared at my very short list. Maybe Leila could crib some examples off other clients she’d had. Nothing actually mad or abusive, but something a bit better than ‘won’t shut up about grammatically correct use of the first person singular pronoun’.
Besides, I had a strong suspicion the average Family Court judge might not find that unreasonable, as grammar is, among a certain educated set, a cheap way to pick on people who didn’t go to university. Not that Nightingale had, come to that, but he’d had plenty of bad company for the twenty-five years or so in between when he hadn’t and when most British wizards went to Ettersberg and never came back.
“What are you doing?” Abigail asked, coming down the kitchen stairs. We still hadn’t told her exactly what was going on.
“Nothing,” I said, and shut my tablet – not at all suspiciously.
“You and Nightingale have been jumpy all week,” she said, squinting at me in exactly the way I’d hoped she wouldn’t. “Is it a case? It’s not something about Lesley, is it? She’s in prison, right?”
“It’s not Lesley,” I said. “It’d be all alarm bells going if that changed.”
“Lady Ty, then?”
“It’s none of those, and if you can help, I’ll ask, alright?”
“I’m here to be helpful,” she said. “Some of the time.”
“That sounds about right,” I said, and went to do something less difficult.
We emailed Leila our lists at the end of the week – or I did, for all I know Nightingale sent his by messenger pigeon – and she called us back the next Monday; I put her on speakerphone.
“I can’t work with any of this,” she told us. “It’s all too petty – you’re practically making things up to be annoyed about. Not dressing for dinner? It sounds like you‘re taking the piss. You obviously like each other.”
“This isn’t about whether we like each other,” said Nightingale. “It’s about the fact that we’re not supposed to be married.”
“Well, think about it some more,” she said, “and think about the adultery option, too – I know the name makes people cringe, but considering you’re not in a relationship…it’s worth a try. Even if someone’s willing to just go on a couple of dates.”
“Not dressing for dinner?” I said to Nightingale once we’d hung up. “You didn’t.”
He held hands palm-up in the universal gesture of ‘what else was I supposed to do?’ “It was that or ‘occasionally leaves empty beer bottles on the arm of the couch’.”
“It’s alright,” I said. “I said you were unwilling to accept my usage of English as she is spoke and it was ridiculously snobby.”
His eye twitched, very slightly. “No comment.” I grinned.
“As for, er, the other…” he continued. “I…really don’t know where to start.”
“I’ve got an idea,” I said. “But you’ll need to give me time to work on it.”
“Oh?” he said inquiringly.
“I’m not telling,” I said. “It’s not really your business.”
“On the contrary. Right now, it quite legally is.”
“Well, you can go on wondering,” I told him, but he clearly felt he’d scored a point back. Fine – it all came out even in the end.
My idea was put into action the next evening, when I managed to get Beverley to join me for a drink at a pub near her place. To her credit, she listened and made sympathetic noises when I explained what was going on – even if she made me repeat the story of how we’d got accidentally married twice – so I was feeling hopeful. We’d had a couple of for-old-time’s-sakes in the two years and a bit more since we’d broken up; maybe not the best idea, but after that long together…anyway. I was confident by now that we could, and walk away the next day with our hearts mostly intact. And that a good time would be had by all in the process.
“So the thing is,” I said, “apparently it’s pretty easy to file on grounds of adultery if you were willing, you know…”
“We were together for most of the time you’ve been, apparently, married!” she said, with a bit of fire in her eye – I sent up a silent prayer for the sewerage of Putney now and in the next couple of weeks. “Isn’t that good enough?”
“Bev, if it was, I’d just be asking if you were willing to stand up in court and admit to having dated me.”
She considered this. “Well…probably.” Then she smiled. “You had your moments.”
“But the lawyer said it doesn’t count because we’ve been broken up for years and Nightingale and I still haven’t got divorced over it – so I was wondering if…”
Bev stared straight at me for a long moment, and then said, with great finality, “No.”
“Oh, come on!” I tried not to whine, but I’m worried I did. “I mean – “
“Peter,” she said. “Look. If you’d asked me out for a drink and said, you know what, we’re both not seeing anybody right now and I haven’t got laid for two years, would you for old times’ sake, I might have said yes. I’m not saying I would have, but I might have.” She paused for emphasis. “But I’m not shagging you to get you out of being married to Nightingale.”
I sighed. “And I thought we were friends.”
“We are friends,” she said. “That’s why I haven’t thrown this drink at you.”
“Okay,” I said. “Fair.”
She patted me on the arm. “Look, if you want, I can set you up with -”
“Nah,” I shook my head. “Too weird. Sorry.”
“Too weird is right.” She shook her head as well. “Well…good luck.”
I got back to the Folly after dinner had been served; Nightingale found me rescuing leftovers from the fridge. “Ah, you’re back. May I ask what kept you out?”
“Had a drink with Bev, it ran longer than I expected.”
That wasn’t particularly unusual, even now, so I hoped he wouldn’t –
“You weren’t, er…”
Bollocks. I shut the fridge door and turned around. “Trying to solve our paperwork problem? Maybe. Unsuccessfully, if you’re wondering.”
He looked more alarmed than I’d hoped for. “I hope not catastrophically unsuccessfully.”
“No drinks were thrown at me, I’d call that a win.” I shrugged. “It’s Bev. We’re still friends, you know.”
“I never had the impression that was the problem,” he said, which was as close as he’d ever come to asking why we’d broken up, and about as close as I wanted him to get to it.
“Anyway,” I said, “I’m a failure as an adulterer, so there you go.”
“I can think of much worse things to be a failure at,” he said, walking around the table to put a mug by the sink; apparently I’d inspired Molly to give him a talking-to, or Molly’s equivalent anyway, about his cup problem.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s not like marriage is working out for us in that regard, either.” I grinned, so he’d know it was a joke.
“Well, you’ve never asked,” he responded immediately, and then heard himself; I could tell because he was halfway through rinsing the mug out and stopped, water running in until it spilled over the edge.
All I could think of to say to that was that I had no idea how I’d go about asking, but even I know when to keep my mouth shut sometimes.
I laughed, too briefly and too late, just to show I was in the spirit of things, and said “I’m…going to eat in the tech cave.” Then I ran away.
The food was still cold, but that was alright: I am, after all, a wizard.
I woke up at one am that night feeling restless and sticky, even though I’d thrown the blanket off; maybe the Folly’s ancient heating was playing up again. I was still caught in the edges of a dream that was escaping me now, except something about skin and heat and…oh, that was it. I pressed my palm against my cock, just to take the edge off, and tried to remember what the dream had been about, but it was gone.
Never mind; I was in a hazy half-asleep state where I could touch myself and think about nothing in particular except how good it felt. A couple of nice firm strokes and –
The dream-image of Nightingale, naked against me, surged back into my brain at about the same time as my orgasm did. That was – that was – great. Fine. Exactly what I didn’t need.
I got up, wiped my hand off on a tissue, and spent an uncomfortable half-hour trying to fall back to sleep and think of anything but Nightingale. And questions I couldn’t imagine how to ask.
“Well, that’s it then,” said Leila, when we failed to produce a more serious list of things we couldn’t stand about each other. “It’s going to have to be separation. Which, unless you’ve got a magical way of going back in time…”
She paused and looked at us expectantly. I tried to look blank and cursed Sahra for whatever she’d let slip. Nightingale, with about a century’s more experience at this, just looked mildly puzzled.
“…anyway,” she went on, “you have to show two years of separation.”
“Does that mean living in different houses?” Fuck; I really didn’t want to have to move out of the Folly. No question it’d be me who’d have to, either.
“It doesn’t have to, but it does have to be intentional. You need to show you’ve started doing something differently – eating meals separately, splitting up the bills, that sort of thing. That you’re trying to live independent lives.” She paused. “Is that going to be difficult?”
“We’ll manage,” said Nightingale. “We’re very independent of each other, really.”
“Mutually dependent on Molly, maybe,” I said. “But not each other.”
“Well,” said Leila. “I’ll get started on the paperwork, then.”
As it happened, eating meals apart – and not sharing a car, which made me the definite loser in this whole sorry business – was about the best we could do. Toby didn’t need much in the way of walking these days, so there really wasn’t any point one of us taking that on permanently.
Molly was not a fan of the separate meals business. She sulked around the kitchen, pointedly stabbing things – mostly vegetables but occasionally not – and glaring at whoever was taking their turn that week to not eat at home. And Christ, it got lonely fast. I tried to catch up with friends but there’s only so many times you can do that in a week, and even Mum got suspicious of how much I was coming over.
“Has something gone wrong?” she demanded. “Is Molly not feeding you properly? She’s improved so much since you moved in there. I’d eat her food myself. You can’t have anything to complain about. Or are you getting sick?”
“I just realized I hadn’t been seeing you and Dad enough,” I lied.
“If it’s really that bad and you won’t tell me,” she said, “you should bring Thomas around for dinner too. It’s not very nice of you to leave him there.”
“Oh, let it go, Rose,” said my Dad. “It’s nice to see him more than once in a blue moon.”
I managed not to engage in cranial-tabletop percussion, which was about the only win of the evening. Mum still looked at me with great suspicion, though. I resorted to a lot more takeaways. Frankly, I would have been more than happy to cook my own meals, but I didn’t want to push Molly entirely over the edge.
At least one thing was working out; Leila got the separation paperwork sorted.
“Congratulations,” she said. “You’re on the road to getting a divorce. Now keep acting like you’re single, and come back in two years. Oh, and, er…” She sighed. “I’ve got to say it. You’ve never been in any sort of romantic relationship, is that right?”
“No,” I said, very firmly. “We have not.”
“Or got drunk and shagged, or friends with benefits, or anything,” she persisted. “You understand where I’m going with this.”
“We’ve never so much as held hands,” I assured her. “He’s been my boss for thirteen years. He wouldn’t, and I definitely wouldn’t.”
“Good,” she said. “Then don’t.”
“We…weren’t planning on it?”
“I’m sure you weren’t,” Leila said, “but I just want to emphasise how much that’s going to screw things up if you do, okay? I need you both able to swear faithfully that you’re collegial colleagues who were confused and horrified to discover you were married. And have never been in a relationship like marriage. Of any sort. Ever. And were perfectly willing to take extra steps to prove this when you found out.”
“I get it, I promise,” I said. “We’ve managed to avoid any fatal attraction this long. I think we can go the next few months.”
“Two years,” she persisted. “Nothing that could be interpreted as smacking of romance at all.”
“…years,” I said. “Sure. No problem at all.”
I surreptitiously lowered my left hand below the edge of her desk, in case she got it into her head to ask about the watch.
In the meantime, Nightingale – in a fit of either lunacy or newfound zeal for the Metropolitan Police Service’s rules regarding harassment and interpersonal conduct – had proactively reported our situation to DPS.
“What the hell?” I said when he told me. “Why would you – couldn’t we just have told them once it’s sorted?”
“Two years, Peter,” he said. “And considering that Sahra already knows, not to mention Molly…I thought it best to get ahead of the situation.”
“You realise it’s going to be more your funeral than mine,” I persisted. “You’re senior. It’s not how it ends up working, usually, but they’re supposed to investigate you, not me.”
“Yes,” he said, in his best stiff-upper-lip manner, which made me realise that there was a bit more going on than met the eye.
“You really didn’t have to,” I said again. “None of this is your fault. Or not any more than mine.”
“It’s not about fault,” he said, more quietly. “It’s about responsibility.”
“Alright,” I said. “Okay. Look, it’ll be a pretty quick conversation, I reckon. I can swear faithfully to them we’re not having it off. That’s most of what they tend to worry about, which is stupid, but there you go.”
“Right. Yes.” Nightingale relaxed, fractionally. “Really I feel like that should get us some sort of, I don’t know, annulment, from the government’s perspective – don’t you?”
“It probably would have at some point,” I said. “But around the time they decided to let gay people get married they started to get past the idea that you had to have sex with someone to be married to them, too. At least that’s what Leila tells me.”
“I can’t say that makes a great deal of sense to me,” he said. “Unless it was some sort of…pre-agreed term. A marriage of convenience, I suppose.”
“Well, we’ve got a bloody marriage of inconvenience, don’t we,” I said. “Mind you, I can’t see myself ever marrying you for convenience.”
“Indeed,” he said. “I’m sure I’d be terribly inconvenient as a husband.”
“You are,” I emphasised the point. We were in the library, and Nightingale had taken a seat across the table from me and my bulwarks of books. It was hard not to look straight at him.
“Well…” he said, and trailed off; I’d talked myself into a corner and didn’t know what to say next. My brain helpfully supplied random thoughts, like how the dimmer lighting in here made Nightingale’s eyes seem a slightly greener shade of grey than normal.
“Good thing we’re working on the divorce, then,” he said finally.
“Yeah,” I said, relieved. “Exactly.”
DPS, thank God, experienced more or less complete failure to function and told us to come back when we’d got the divorce paperwork and – this was implied rather than stated – try not to do anything else ridiculous in the meantime. I can only assume that all the other investigations involving our unit had broken their will to live. You’d never think it of DPS, but I suppose everyone has their limits.
Meanwhile, having got sodding tired of enforced periodic takeaways – as had Nightingale – I went to Abigail and asked her to move back to the Folly.
“Why?” she wanted to know. “You said I didn’t have to, you’ve never had a problem getting hold of me before now.”
“Remember how you said you’d be willing to help with whatever problem we were having?” I reminded her. “This is it. Moving in will help.”
“For how long?”
“Two years. Twenty-three months now. Look, we’re about to get some new constables in too – we can use the help herding them.”
She crossed her arms. “I want an explanation.”
So I told her. She made a variety of unimpressed and alarmed faces, but didn’t laugh, which was an improvement on Sahra.
“Oh my God,” she said when I was done. “You two are just the – fine. I’ll think about it.”
“Where else can you live like this rent-free in central London?” I gestured at the atrium around us. “It’s not like you’re missing out.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said again, very firmly, but she moved back in the following week and we could finally eat meals again like normal, since obviously they were now collegial rather than marital occasions. Molly stopped stabbing things, and I swore off kebabs for the rest of the year. It was a great improvement all around.
Everything was more or less back to normal, in fact, with the timer on our separation ticking away in the background. The only refusal to accept the new state of affairs came from my subconscious, which provided me periodically with a variety of dreams about Nightingale I don’t care to discuss. It was just difficult, now, to look at him and not remember that he was legally speaking my husband, that we’d acquired an entirely different sort of connection from all the others we had.
Which was daft, because legally speaking that had been true for the better part of a decade and we hadn’t known and hadn’t cared. It wasn’t any more real now than then. It was all just paperwork and mistakes and a collective hallucination on the part of society about what made people bound to each other. There were no real promises that we’d ever meant to keep. It certainly wasn’t any excuse for lurid dreams.
We were moving ahead with recruiting new constables, as I’d told Abigail; the amount of work we had these days just outpaced what we could do, even with four of us counting Sahra and whoever from Belgravia could be hijacked for the length of an individual case. We needed more wizards, or at least more officers who could recognise a vestigium when they encountered one.
Which was what Nightingale came to tell me about after I’d just finished working out some frustration on the punching bag in the Folly gym. I had to keep fit to keep ahead of Abigail, who had turned out to be surprisingly cunning, nay, vicious, when we introduced her to magical boxing. I was so proud. And sometimes bruised.
“Peter,” he said, walking up with some paper in his hand, and then trailed off.
“What?” I said. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” he said, still frowning at me.
Nightingale’s got very slightly more relaxed about necessary dress standards around the Folly over the years, and we were also having a very hot and late autumn – thanks, climate change – so today he was, presumably to the shock and despair of our wizarding forebears, not wearing a tie. The collar of his shirt was open. I was trying not to look, and failing. Even in that sad state of undress, he was still far outpacing me in my track bottoms and sweat-stained t-shirt.
“I know I’m a mess,” I said. “I was going to go shower. Unless it’s really important?” I was still riding on exercise-induced endorphins, and I needed him and his undone collar to go far, far away. No reason to discuss why.
“Ah…no,” he said again, eyes dropping down in presumable disapproval of my appearance, and then –
Look, I’m not an idiot, I can tell when someone’s checking me out. I just wasn’t expecting to catch him doing it.
“I…is it about Choudhury and Blake?” I said, my voice distant in my own ears. “I can look at it as soon as I’m out of the shower.”
“Yes, I’ll…er…” said Nightingale. “Leave it…somewhere. For you.”
I fled for the shower. What I did there is my own business.
Constable Choudhury and Constable Blake were duly sworn in as apprentices and seemed keen enough, if extremely forlorn about the whole inimical-to-electronic-devices thing – hah, Nightingale thought Abigail and me were bad, the next generation were practically welded to the things. And two more people in the Folly made us very definitely separated. We were just colleagues who happened to live together. With all our other colleagues. Nothing to see.
As for the rest of it – we were back to normal, more or less, we really were. After all, it wasn’t as if anything real about our lives had changed. The weeks went on and turned into months, and I would have sworn that we’d have got over any remaining weirdness sooner or later. Hard not to, with how busy the place had got.
I was so determined that we were going to get over it, in fact, that when I came into the tech cave one evening and found that Nightingale had already claimed the couch for England and rugby union, I sat down right next to him – like normal, like any number of other unremarkable nights over the last decade – and opened up my laptop.
“How’s the game going?” I said. It was half an hour in and nil-all, so that question answered itself, but it seemed only polite to ask.
Nightingale gave me a mildly suspicious look, as well he should have. “Slowly.”
“I think there’s a football game on the other channel. Maybe it’s going less slowly.”
The suspicious look deepened to a sardonic one. “I do believe I got here first.”
“You looked bored,” I said, innocently. “I thought I’d suggest a change of pace.”
He held out for about five more minutes of men staggering up and down the pitch locked in what I knew was a rolling maul but would, if asked by Nightingale, have called “a fist-fight about to break out”. This particularly annoyed him because it wasn’t always wrong.
Finally, the half-time whistle having blown without anything more than a penalty being scored, he heaved a sigh and reached for the remote. It was on the other arm of the couch, so I leaned back to let him get to it. His arm brushed across my chest, and his other shoulder against mine; his breath was hot on the crook of my neck, for just a second, and I was aware of all of it. So was he – I could tell. Hopefully not as aware as certain parts of me would have been, if my laptop hadn’t been squashing their pretensions. There was just a tension to his body and deliberateness to his motions that wouldn’t normally have been there.
Nightingale huffed out a laugh as he sat back, remote in hand. “Sorry.”
I shook myself, involuntarily. “Nothing to be sorry for.”
He smiled at me, a little wryly. “It’s amazing, isn’t it, how when one isn’t supposed to think of a thing -”
“Yeah, it’s been white elephants up in here for a while now,” I said. I didn’t want to talk about it, but, then, if the alternative was not talking about it – you can only repress so much, after all. Even when you’re English.
“I’m almost –“ he hesitated, but went on. “Almost tempted to let reality pour cold water on things.” He made a face. “If only to get it out of the way.”
“You know what,” I said, shutting my laptop and putting it aside. “Fine. Go on, then.”
He stared at me, and didn’t say anything, and just at the point where I though the silence would break and we’d both laugh, he kissed me.
It wasn’t as abrupt as that sounds; he gave me plenty of time to put a hand up or move out of the way, if I’d wanted to forfeit the very particular game of chicken I’d somehow got us into. I didn’t. I was mostly sure it was going to work – it was going to be awkward, and self-conscious, and the metaphorical bucket of cold water Nightingale had suggested.
The kiss was some of those things, anyway. We were both extremely self-conscious, at least I was, and it was about as perfunctory as any I’d ever had, a close-mouthed press of lip on lip. Nightingale had just shuffled sideways on the couch and leant across and around, and I had to steady him with a hand on his arm. It wasn’t awkward, though. Without thinking about it much I pulled him further over, and he swung a leg over mine. This proved to be a bit too much to think about, and we broke apart – now with Nightingale draped half over me.
“Alright,” I said. “Admit it. How long’s it been since you tried that?”
Nightingale looked extremely put out at this slur upon his abilities. “I was trying not to – overcomplicate things.”
“I get it, I get it,” I said, trying to ignore exactly how un-awkward it was having him, more or less, in my lap. That wasn’t the point. That was the opposite of the point. How warm he was against me was the furthest thing from the point. “We wouldn’t want -”
“I’m not naturally terrible at this,” said Nightingale, who is a firm proponent of doing things well if he’s going to do them at all.
I should have shut up then, but the indignation on his face was just too entertaining. “I believe you, I promise.”
“Oh, fine,” he said, and I was biting my lip to try and not laugh in his face when he kissed me again, in a very un-perfunctory manner.
I’d intended to give him a chance to make his point, but I didn’t want to be accused of not knowing what I was doing either. And I challenge practically anybody in the world, when they’ve got a person they’ve been having thoughts of a certain nature about straddling them and kissing them slowly but seriously, to not show a bit of willing.
It was, in the greater scheme of things, probably not necessary to put a hand on the back of Nightingale’s head, or the other on his thigh, as well as kissing him back. But by that point he was cupping the side of my face and his other hand was gripping my waist where my polo shirt was riding up, so I could feel his thumb hot against the skin above the waistband of my trousers. I was half-hard already; I squeezed the back of his thigh and he sank in a bit closer, and what did you know, so was he.
I would have stopped to tell him that I was now thoroughly convinced that he was as good as this as everything else he set his mind to, but words really didn’t seem like an efficient way of doing that. I bucked up against him, half finding a better position on the couch, half – not, and, did I mention, it had been getting on for a couple of years now since I’d done this with anybody. The fleeting contact was like fire down my spine. Nightingale gasped against my mouth, and who knows where things would have gone if we hadn’t both been startled by a loud knocking noise.
We froze, and then it came again, and Nightingale got off me so fast I nearly got friction burns, but despite our horrified gazes upon it, the door failed to open.
“Some audio issues there,” said the announcer on the TV, and the background noise of the crowd – which I hadn’t even noticed vanish – flowed back.
I was forcibly reminded that Molly, or Abigail, or the new constables, or even Sahra, could have walked in at any moment.
“This is, perhaps, not the right place,” said Nightingale, who would have been having the same thoughts as I’d just had. He was breathing deeply and had a flush high across his cheekbones. I could feel a matching one across my own face, and his lips looked as wet as mine felt. I was trying to will my erection away through sheer force of necessity and, somehow, it wasn’t working.
“We should probably…” I trailed off, because I knew what we should probably do, but it wasn’t seeming like a very tempting option.
“…continue letting reality depress our imaginations in private?” Nightingale was trying for serious and professional with that statement. I’ve never seen him fail at either quite so hard.
“Yeah.” I stood up, carefully. “That’s exactly what I was going to say.”
Even with six people living in a building as large as the Folly, you run into each other much more often than you might expect – considering that we don’t use most of the rooms at all. So it was a minor miracle of its own that we didn’t walk into anybody else as we snuck back to Nightingale’s room (slightly closer than mine). The cold night air between the tech cave and the main Folly helped, but Nightingale hadn’t lost that flush, and probably neither had I. Not to mention anything else.
By the time we’d made it in there, I knew what I was going to do. I wasn’t going to stop, but unlike Nightingale, I was perfectly prepared to engage in mediocre sex if it helped both of us start thinking straight again. Besides, it had been a long time since I’d slept with a man, so I had a perfectly good excuse.
That was why, when we got to Nightingale’s room, I steered him to the bed and sat him down on it. He wound his hand in the front of my polo shirt and dragged me in for another long kiss, and it was so tempting to just fall on top of him and – I don’t know what, but I had a plan. So when we broke for air, I unhooked his hand from my shirt, and knelt down in front of him.
“Peter,” he said, unsteadily.
“Are you telling me,” I said, scowling at his button fly, “that these trousers pre-date the Second World War?”
“They made things of a much higher quality then, obviously,” he said, putting a hand on my shoulder.
“I think you just own too many clothes to wear them out,” I told him, which almost made him laugh, except then I finally managed to get a hand on the bare skin of his cock, which was apparently too distracting for laughter. It certainly distracted me.
“Peter,” he said again.
“Thomas,” I said. “Do you not want me to suck your cock?”
If you ask me that’s probably in the top ten least sexiest things I’ve said in bed, but Nightingale seemed to have a very different opinion, judging by the way he leaked a little onto my hand.
“I – do carry on,” he said, which was equally unsexy on paper but not when Nightingale said it to me, his voice gone rough and his hand gripping my shoulder and his cock smooth and hard and hot in my hand, and then in my mouth.
Like I said, it had been a long time since I’d tried this, and – I reminded myself – I didn’t want it to be memorable, so I stuck to running my tongue up and down and sucking on the tip, and letting my hand do the rest of the work. I didn’t have a lot of comparisons at this close of a scale, but I reckoned I could have taken all of it, with some practice. I had to remind myself not to try.
I really, really wanted to touch myself, but that definitely would have been a step too complicated, so instead I put my spare hand on his leg. Nightingale touched my hair, gently but inquiringly; I pulled his hand away. There wasn’t really enough of my hair to pull on at this stage of the haircut cycle, but it’s never been something I’ve liked. He murmured “Sorry,” but it faded into another gasp, which was more than a bit flattering.
It was overwhelming in a way I hadn’t expected; the taste of Nightingale on my tongue, the tension of his leg under my hand, the small soft noises he was making. He’d taken his hand off my shoulder; I eased off a little, expecting him to start thrusting, even unconsciously, but he didn’t. I pulled back for a breath, running my hand up and down his slick cock, my thumb across the tip, and saw that he had his head tipped back and his hands by his sides, clenched into fists.
I went back in, taking him deeper now I’d reminded myself I knew how to do this, and reached with my spare hand for one of his. He grabbed on, tight but still on the right edge of pain, and said “Peter,” and came, and came, and came. I held on right back.
I’d more or less got the warning but hadn’t really planned this far ahead, so as soon as he was done I was frantically looking around for his rubbish bin. Then I remembered that we were both still dressed, so I pilfered his handkerchief – he always keeps them in the same pocket – and spat into it. I’m sure he would have offered, if he hadn’t been busy recovering.
I let him keep my left hand but started opening my own trousers (with their much more efficient and modern zip fly) with my right; I was so turned on I could barely manage the zip.
I’d just got my hand around myself when Nightingale said, still rusty, “I think it’s my turn, don’t you?” and pulled me to my feet and then onto the bed. I didn’t have enough coordination, or motivation, to protest this turn of events.
He took a few moments to spread my legs to an angle that satisfied him and run a hand thoughtfully up and down my cock. I may or may not have made some noises akin to whimpering.
“For the record, I don’t mind if you want to touch my hair,” was the last thing he said before he put his mouth on me. It seemed churlish not to oblige, considering, and the noise he made when I did was extremely encouraging.
I don’t know what he was thinking, but true to form, he was as good at this – he’d probably call it fellatio and mean it – as he was at anything else he worked on, and my part was limited to trying not to thrust too hard and making a variety of incoherent noises. The world had narrowed down to the feel of Nightingale’s hair slipping through my fingers and the heat of his mouth on my cock, and I could have stayed like this for a long time. In reality, though, it felt like it took about thirty seconds before I was coming so hard that I closed my eyes and saw white.
I collapsed backwards onto the bed, conscious of not very much except a great desire to do that – or any number of adjacent things – again. With Nightingale. In the not very distant future.
Oh, fuck me, I thought, and then tried not to follow that up the way my brain wanted to.
“So,” said Nightingale, having climbed up on the bed next to me and flopped down to my left, “That… may not have had quite the intended effect.”
“It’s got to be like the adultery thing, right?” I said, once I’d got my breath back. “Once doesn’t count.”
“Well, we could ask our lawyer, but I’d rather not.”
“And that’s fine,” I went on, “because you have inhuman levels of self-control and I have sustained form at avoiding relationships, so this is…fine. We’re fine.”
I rolled over to look at Nightingale. He was lying on his back, his eyes closed. We were both still mostly dressed. I wanted to fix that, but I was going to need a minute to get my energy back.
“Quite.” He opened his eyes and turned his head to look at me. He was smiling, faintly, not as if he intended to but as if he couldn’t help it. Endorphins: they’ll get you every time.
Right. This was going to be fine.
“So how’s the divorce going?” Beverley asked me at lunch the next week. We tried to do lunch once a month these days – both for the company, and to exchange gossip. The important, work-relevant type of gossip – what I could pry out of Beverley anyway, since she’s never been very good at it. “Have you found a way to speed it up that doesn’t involve me?”
“Um,” I said. “Not really.”
She eyed me critically over her panini. “You shouldn’t be having that much trouble. You’ve still got it.”
“Can’t say I’ve been trying.” I tried to say it nonchalantly, but something must have given me away. She narrowed her eyes.
“If it’s one of my sisters, I don’t want to know about it. Still too weird.”
“I absolutely have not slept with any of your sisters, now or ever,” I said. “Cross my heart.”
“Then why are you looking all shifty?” She patted my hand. “We’re well past the point where I’d be mad about it, I promise.”
“I know,” I said, with only a vague twinge where that once might have hurt, “and it’s not that. Exactly.”
“Don’t tell me you decided to give the Nightingale a go while you’re married to him. Wouldn’t that just muck things up even more?” She went in for a bite of her panini.
“It wasn’t like that, exactly,” I said defensively, and she not only spat out her food into her water glass but laughed for about five minutes.
“It’s not that funny! It’s just like – the lawyer said we really shouldn’t and have you ever tried to not think about white elephants?”
Beverley wiped her mouth with her napkin. “Oh, Peter. I get it, I really do. It’s just very…you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You want to belong to things,” she said, gently. The twinge got a little bigger. “You always have. And you two have got so much…I don’t know. You’ve been friends a long time now.”
“It’s not a rebound, if that’s what you’re thinking,” I said. “From you, and everything. It’s just – not. It isn’t anything. It’s bad paperwork.”
“Alright,” Beverley said. “So what’s your lawyer going to have to say about it, then?”
“Nothing, because we’re not telling her.” I shrugged. “I figure it’s like the adultery thing – once doesn’t count.”
“Well,” said Beverley. “Good luck with that, then.”
“I managed to avoid sleeping with him for more than a decade,” I said. “I didn’t even consider it, in fact. How hard can it possibly be to keep not doing it?”
All we had to do was keep being separated – whatever the hell that meant, when we hadn’t really been married to start with – and not do anything that would imply we did consider ourselves to be in a marital relationship. Easy. Like, for example, sharing bills (the Folly largely paid for itself, so not really a problem), or attending social events as a couple (social events for the job didn’t count, because nobody was inviting us as that sort of couple, I was pretty sure), or eating meals together without Abigail or the new constables (which we weren’t doing on purpose that often) and, not that Leila had ever brought it up again, shagging. And regarding that last one, if you looked at it in terms of a statistically average day, we didn’t. Really. Very often.
If nothing else, Abigail and Sahra both would have given us absolute hell about it, and the new constables just didn’t need to know.
So if we did, now and again, choose to pursue the hypothesis that familiarity might breed contempt in this regard, it was usually late at night, or early in the morning, when we could go back to our own rooms unseen. Or one spring Sunday when the clocks changed and Molly was in her room all day, and Abigail and the constables had stayed out overnight doing whatever it was they did to entertain themselves of a weekend, and Nightingale had spent the night in my bed. We had nothing to get up early for, so we slept in and then had slow, lazy sex. I traced the two spots on Nightingale’s back where bullets had once cut through him – one so faded it was barely visible, one still raised under my fingertips.
“You could…go…faster,” Nightingale panted under me.
“We’re not in a rush, are we?” I leant down, bracing myself on one arm, and nuzzled the back of his neck. There was no sound for another minute or so but our ragged breathing and skin meeting skin, until he finally rasped out “Faster, dammit,” and I obliged him. It was much more fun to wait until he stopped using proper sentences.
“You know the funny thing is,” he said afterwards, while we were working up the energy to go and shower and go out for the breakfast Molly wasn’t going to be making today, “this is, in some degree, the most – most licit and legal thing I’ve ever done in a bed, and yet –“
“Not sleeping? Sleeping’s legal last time I checked. Unless you’re simultaneously trespassing.”
He poked me in the ribs. “And yet, it feels more like a stolen moment.”
“That’s because we’re trying to not be licit and legal.” I frowned. “Is licit even a word?”
“You enjoy using obscure terms far more than I do,” he pointed out.
“Just because it’s scientific it doesn’t mean it’s obscure.”
“To the general population, it does.” He grinned. “I’ll have to add that to the list of unreasonable behaviour, as a fallback measure.”
I laughed. The corners of Nightingale’s eyes crinkled. I felt like I never wanted to get out of this bed.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “Shower, or we’re going to end up going for lunch instead of a late breakfast.”
At some point – I don’t remember exactly when, but after that – I opened my wardrobe and discovered that some of the suits and shirts in it were, well, not mine. I knew whose they were though, firstly because I recognised them, and secondly because Nightingale leaned over my shoulder and said “Oh, dear, Molly seems to have got confused. Handy this morning, though.”
“I’ll mention it to her,” I said. I did. Molly looked at me blankly.
“They’re Nightingale’s clothes,” I said, in case I hadn’t been clear. “They don’t belong in my room.”
She shrugged and walked away. A selection of Nightingale’s clothes continued to appear in my room without explanation.
“Well…” said Nightingale, the next time he – not on purpose, of course – spent the night in my room. “I suppose as long as nobody tells Leila. Or, when it comes to it, the court.”
“I won’t if you won’t,” I said. He nodded, and pressed an absent-minded kiss to the corner of my mouth as he got out of bed.
Sahra informed us over dinner one evening – she’d taken Choudhury out to do interviews and they’d both missed lunch, so the least we could do was feed her at the Folly – that Leila had been asking her how the separation was going. “Apparently you’re going to need to start on the paperwork again soon.”
“Separation?” asked Blake, frowning. “From what?”
“You haven’t told them?” said Sahra.
“They told me,” said Abigail. “Only reason I moved back in.”
“I really don’t feel that it’s relevant to their duties.” Nightingale gave Sahra a very dirty look, tempered only by the need to not fight in front of the junior officers.
“It’s all going to be history in – what, five months?” I said. “So it’s really not important.”
“Oh,” Choudhury said, suddenly, fork paused halfway to her mouth. “Is this about that rumour I heard that -” Nightingale transferred his quelling look to her. She said “Never mind”, and kept eating.
“Oh, no, I need to hear this now,” said Sahra. “Whatever it is, it hasn’t got to me yet, and normally I hear everything doing the rounds about this place.”
“No you don’t – you’re part of it.” Abigail shrugged. “People aren’t going to tell you things they think are going to make you angry.”
“Is that the one about –“ Blake said to Choudhury, and made an aborted gesture with his knife that I couldn’t figure out.
“I don’t know what that means,” said Choudhury, mimicking his stabbing motion, “but if you mean the one about them being married, yeah, that one.” She turned to me and added hastily “Not that I believe it, I think it’s just because of both of you living here, but obviously we live here since we joined and so does Abigail, so that’s just -”
Sahra burst out laughing despite me and Nightingale looking at her. “Her and the Family Court both.”
“We have an, er,” said Nightingale, “unintentional legal entanglement, which is being worked out.”
“I honestly don’t know why you’re bothering,” said Abigail. “If you really cared about getting divorced that much one of you would have moved out. It’s only for two years.”
“Where,” I said to Choudhury, “did you two hear this?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, sir – it’s just one of those things people say.”
Blake frowned. “So you are -”
“No,” I said, firmly. “Not like that. We’re not – it’s a very long story. No.”
“No,” Nightingale echoed me. “No. Certainly not.”
Abigail rolled her eyes, because she thought I wasn’t looking. Sahra shook her head. The constables didn’t look particularly convinced.
Christ, I hoped neither of them got it into their heads to ask Molly.
“Tell me,” Sahra said the next day, when we were doing paperwork at Belgravia. “You are still getting divorced, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. “DPS would have fits if we didn’t. We’re just waiting out the separation period.”
“And that’s the only reason?” She raised her eyebrows. “Because I remember walking in on the pair of you looking like someone had run over Toby, the day you found out.”
“Well, who wants to find out they got married by accidental paperwork filing?” I said. “And we weren’t…”
I realised my mistake too late, but Sahra jumped on it. “You weren’t? Weren’t what?”
Sahra gave me a long, level look. “Right. Huh.”
The next week, Leila started sending us emails about the divorce filing. I mentioned it to Nightingale, and he agreed that we should definitely get onto that. Very soon. When we had time. Which seemed reasonable.
A week later, she emailed again. And then again. Finally she called me.
“Look,” she said when I answered the phone. “Are you two serious about getting this divorce put through or not? It can drag out; you want to get it in as soon as possible.”
“We are,” I said. “We need to be.”
“Because if it helps, you’re still getting billed for all the time I’ve spent on it.”
“I know. That’s fine.”
Nightingale came into the room; I took the phone away from my ear. “It’s Leila chasing me up about the paperwork.”
“Ah,” he said, studying my face very intently. “That’s…we still need to do that, don’t we.”
We stared at each other for what must have been a full thirty seconds before Leila coughed. “Hello?”
I put the phone back to my ear. “We might…have to…get back to you? We’re having trouble finding the time to get it done.”
“Just…” she sighed. “You know I’m never going to hear the end of this from Sahra? Last time I do her a favour, I swear.”
“How about,” I said, my eyes still on Nightingale, “you just…put it all aside, and we’ll get in touch when we’re ready to…when we’re ready.”
“It’s a very big decision, you know,” I told her. “We wouldn’t want to rush into anything.”
Nightingale was starting to smile.
“Ah. In that case,” said Leila, “let me be the first to say – congratulations.”