“Oh, Peter,” Bev said. “Absolutely not.”
That seemed a bit unfair, as I hadn’t even asked the question yet. “No?”
“No,” she confirmed. “Gods, no. What are you even doing here?”
What I’d thought I was doing was making a quick pop around Richmond Park on an admittedly belated call to my on-again, off-again river of southern London, to see how she was and how her winter hols were shaping up. From the disbelieving stare the woman in question was leveling at me, this line of inquiry had been doomed well before I’d let myself in and found her embedded in her enormous leather couch.
“Er,” I said instead. “Well.”
“Utterly hopeless,” she pronounced me. “Really, stunningly dim.”
Beverley Brook was insulting yours truly from inside a bulbous cocoon of hideous fleece blankets, one that had grown large enough to encompass that couch, several cartons of ice cream, two of her younger sisters, and the remote for the giant television at the front of the room. It was playing something Nollywood and seasonal; Tonia Nwosu featured prominently.
“I can see I’ve intruded,” I said, far too late, and she waved an impatient hand at me. It was completely bare of rings or bracelets, her hair marshalled under a plain scarf and eyes untouched by any smudge or wing. She really was settling in for the winter.
“It’s not that you’re not welcome,” she said, the way parents greet recent graduates returning with hats and useless degrees in hand. “I just thought the dead air meant you’d finally worked things out over there.”
“Terrible, innit,” said Chelsea.
“So terrible,” said Olympia, and they laughed meanly together.
“That posh arsehole you call governor must be even worse,” Bev said gloomily. “He’s been on you like a broody hen since summer, and for what? Have you even noticed?”
“It was a rhetorical question,” she informed me, eyes narrowing.
I was well aware of the brooding, thank you very much. Nightingale could brood for England when properly motivated and he’d been training for the title in the months since midsummer, which meant we’d both been hermited away in the Folly and various extant properties of the school for endless rounds of defensive forma and higher-level arming spells.
I hadn’t minded, truth be told— it seemed like a natural enough reaction to our recent string of unplanned jousts with faerie queens and magical criminal masterminds, and me with less training under my belt than the average fifteen-year-old from the Folly’s heyday. I thought I detected a certain cumulative paranoia developing in the man about leaving me too long unsupervised— one which I’d been perfectly happy to indulge while we both healed up. Those jousts hadn’t been a bag of laughs for me either.
This reasoning, if it had occurred to Bev, appeared to have soothed her ire not one jot. “So-o,” she said, drawing the word out. “Considering that. I really have to wonder what it is you’re doing here.”
She made it sound leading, like she was talking a small child through a maths problem, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell what she was trying to get at. “I’m sorry for not coming round sooner,” I said earnestly.
All that got me was a pitying stare. “I’m too tired to deal with this,” she declared. “And anyway, at this rate we’ll be well froze up ‘til March. Until then—”
I had half a second to see that she was about to hit me with something, and another to consider using one of the shielding techniques Nightingale had just spent weeks drilling into my head. Maybe I should have tried one, but it was Bev. I trusted her and couldn’t imagine her doing me any truly bad turn, the way some of her sisters would delight in.
But there was no denying she was a tributary of Mama Thames, and there’s really nothing those girls like more than giving a man his due comeuppance. Somehow, she seemed to think I’d earned mine.
A flick of her slim brown finger, and I flinched as something gave a sudden heavy thump in my chest, like my heart was trying to kick out a rib. That was worrying enough, but almost immediately driven out of my mind by a second and much more piercing sensation, like a rude fingernail scraping up my, ah, inseam. I yelped and jerked back, and in the next surprised gasp tasted an improbable wash of spring: a vestigium redolent of green hay and clover honey, with a salt-wet tang I associated with estuaries and more intimate stretches of skin. It filled my mouth with an almost overwhelming sweetness, and a slow-rolling, sluggish heat moved through me from the gut out. It burned.
“What,” I squeaked, hand cupped over myself. The younger girls sniggered. “Bev! What—”
“Happy Christmas, Peter,” she said waspishly, and pulled her neon-and-navy fleece close under her chin. “Now get out. I don’t want to see your face again before equinox next.”
“Bev,” I said again, but helplessly; she was glaring now, looking at me like it’d be my head next if I didn’t clear out.
Much as I loved her, we were practically on her banks here at the park. Nightingale might have had the fortitude to stand firm and demand to know what she’d done to him— give me his decades playing Merlin and stiffest of upper lips, and maybe I could have told off a goddess in her own house, too.
“I’ll, uh. Be seeing you then?” I said, still posed there like a knob or Michael Jackson.
And so dismissed by my off-again girl, I let Chelsea and Olympia’s mocking giggles chase me out of the house and onto the street.
It was a fraught walk as whatever she’d gotten me with soaked in and stung, but I think I managed not to limp too obviously. By the time I got to my car, I could barely taste the honey and whatever harsh treatment she’d given my bits had faded to something that could be written off as tight trousers. The heat stayed, though, an uneasy excited roil in the pit of my stomach.
It wouldn’t be something actively harmful. I couldn’t believe it of Bev for a minute. Humiliating, maybe, considering the charged vestigium still sticking to my lips. I could live with a little humiliation if I had to; I just wished I knew what it was for . Dropping by unannounced, staying away so long? And how had we gotten from Nightingale to flinging curses at people?
I spent another minute sitting in the Asbo, thinking it over and staring back at the lit windows, but what was the point? I knew I wasn’t going to chance going back in.
“Rivers,” I muttered, and revved the engine before gunning it down her narrow street towards the train crossing.
The thing was, at first I couldn’t tell if Bev had done anything more than give me a kick in the pants, so to speak.
Attempts at self-diagnosis— conducted over a series of days spent hiding in the general library— turned up nothing. No lingering physical symptoms, no hint of seducere or its cousins . Perhaps a growing restlessness, but that could just as easily be attributed to being trapped indoors for an extended time. I did like to get out and about with my constituents, and more than most constables in my group. I eventually swallowed my shame and started smuggling armfuls of the more topical tomes from the magical library into a carrel downstairs; Nightingale had a policy of ‘never the twain shall meet’ when it came to grimoires and our mundane shelves, but camping out in the Newtonian stacks would have been too conspicuous for my dear governor to ignore.
I was obviously loath to involve him or Dr. Walid in the search, the latter of whom would almost certainly have insisted on thorough examination in the presence of the former. I was dead sure Nightingale knew exactly what Bev and I had gotten up to Herefordshire’s brisk waters and was only barely resisting the urge to deliver his (no doubt comprehensively negative) opinions on the matter. I imagined him using this as an excuse to begin secreting age-old pamphlets with titles like The Mortal Dangers of Magickal Congress under my door, or worse, turn to me over one of Molly’s lushly imperial breakfast spreads and try to talk about it, and my blood damn near froze.
“Peter?” the man in question asked from the open doorway, and I jumped a little as his voice brought me out of a vivid visualization of that heinous conversation. “Is everything all right?”
He was as polished and impeccably dressed as always, today with the addition of a cashmere vest under his suitjacket in concession to the low temperatures. It matched his eyes, a soft-looking slate interrupted by small silver buttons and the glint of a pocket-watch chain. He stood straight as a ruler, his hair in its customary and old-fashioned side parting; the cane was nowhere in sight, something that happened more and more regularly when it was just the three of us in the Folly. He’d told me once he still woke some mornings expecting all the creaks and painful indignities of an aging body, but that the memory was fading as surely as the white hair and wrinkles had.
He looked, in short, like Hollywood’s best conception of a detective from that penny-dreadful period when they were assumed to have been uniformly handsome, upperclass, and white. Very Yannick Bisson as William Murdoch, if the good detective Murdoch had been able to punch fire through a Tiger tank when properly motivated. I guess even Hollywood got it right some of the time.
“Oh, yeah, sure,” I said. I fumbled for the nearest mundane book and tried to seem like I’d been enthralled by the wonders of— ugh, cosmogony. A set of theories so utterly bunk they’d set the standard for ancient science for almost two thousand years. Sometimes history was like that. “Just working on a few things.”
“So I see,” Nightingale said, giving the room a slow once-over. “You’ve been unusually quiet. Any difficulties?”
He looked partly concerned and partly suspicious, like he thought I might be cooking up something experimental and explosive amongst the sturdy acres of mahogany. I mostly saved that for the firing range these days, but blow up one— oh, no, there was that werelight torch business— three sitting rooms and you never heard the end of it.
“Not particularly. I thought I’d study ahead. On… Empedocles.” The treatise in my hands was upside down, which had hopefully escaped notice. “Getting a jump on the next set of elemental vocabulary.”
“Oh?” He sounded faintly amazed, which was a little insulting. “An excellent thought, if we’re to keep to schedule in the new year. Carry on.”
But he lingered a moment longer, a faint frown crossing his face. I shifted in my seat, oddly uncomfortable; there was a diffuse, edgy energy in the air that hadn’t been there before, and it made me want to stand up and stretch. Peel my jumper off, or get outside. Take Toby for a long walk in the cold and wind.
“Sir?” I asked.
“Something on your mind?”
Nightingale blinked at me, then gave a wry sort of smile. “Not especially. It’s been a quiet few, hasn’t it?”
I mentally reviewed the windy, rainy slide from September to December, nothing more dangerous than Brexit talks to contend with. It rather had been. “Should we be worried, d’you think?”
“Not necessarily. And not that I’m objecting. However, one does like a bit more to do than paperwork,” and here he rapped his knuckles smartly on the wooden doorframe, “from time to time. I’ll leave you to it.”
He disappeared around the corner, and I could hear his steady footsteps trail off towards the foyer. No doubt bound for his study and the snowy drifts of unread mail and hardcopy reports produced when one’s workplace had no computers in the main building— and when one’s Detective Chief Inspector predated even punch-card computation.
I let the book fall open on the table and blew out out a long, slow breath, slumping back in the chair. A close call, but I’d just been gifted a very important data point— Nightingale hadn’t noticed anything amiss in middling proximity, which meant I was likely clear to move about the Folly while waiting for Bev’s Christmas gift to— fade, or manifest. Do what it would. Which was excellent, because what the assembled Englishmen, Arabs, and Germans had to say on magically-induced venereals didn’t bear full translation and I’d be only too glad to abandon the search for now. I really could do with that walk I’d been thinking of, too— I still felt a little overheated, like I’d been sitting too close to the radiators. Toby could do with some exercise, if the little beast could be coaxed away from the kitchen hearth. Besides, I’d been meaning to get down to the bookshop on Bury for some holiday browsing. I still hadn’t gotten Nightingale or Molly’s presents yet, and the day of reckoning was fast approaching.
It wasn’t until I pushed back from the table and started to stand that I realised some of my discomfort was due to being inexplicably half-hard in my trousers— stiff enough to make me wince as I straightened and obvious enough straining against my fly for a reflexive, “Shite.”
I caught it, then— just a hint of it, air tinged rich in the back of my throat. Honeyed and slightly brackish. I glanced quickly at the door, then down at myself again. Had I…? Had he?
“Shi-i-ite,” I said again more slowly, and eased myself back into the chair.
Not quite done with the translations, then. And God, I sincerely hoped Nightingale hadn’t sensed or seen any of it; the kind of lecture I could expect for letting Beverley Brook get a metaphysical leg over was nothing compared to the questions that would arise if he thought I was in here getting off to pre-Socratic transmigrationists.
Although the collection available in the magical library had a distressing amount to say about curses and genitals, I had thoroughly exhausted its stores of actual knowledge versus wild speculation by the end of the night. I dragged myself upstairs with dawn poking chilly fingers in through the windows and an all but dead fire in the hearth in my room. I’d have to remember to thank Molly, since it made getting out of my clothes almost bearable. The hot water bottle in the bed had gone stone cold, though, so I kicked it out and curled myself into a miserable ball in the middle of the sheets until they warmed enough to make sleep possible.
I was starting to get a bit angry with Bev, to be honest— what kind of friend slaps a spell like that on someone and expects him to just get on with it? Especially when it affected something so personal as a man’s, er, manhood. Now that I wasn’t in immediate danger of getting swept out to brook, I had half a mind to text her so.
I got a response half an hour later, right as I had started to fall asleep.
>>this is chelsea
>>bev says ur an absolute saddo just do it already
I caught myself texting back am not a saddo!, but after a few wavering moments decided it would be better to leave arguing with teenage rivers to a more awake, shame-having Peter. I was an adult, and (almost) a full wizard of the Isles— I could act like it.
Besides, the very last thing I needed was another one of them out for me.
Unfortunately, magical crime and otherworldly lawbreakers waited for no man. I had to hoist myself upright and stumble downstairs just scant hours later, ready to greet the new shift with slitted eyes and a truly foul taste in my mouth— I’d neglected to clean my teeth before shivering myself to sleep.
As was his custom, Nightingale was at the breakfast table with a cup of tea. He had the mobile Requisitions had finally foisted on him laid on top of the day’s paper, and was grimly but determinedly pecking out a message with one forefinger. I hesitated in the doorway for a moment, scanning the room, but I didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary. Neither did he, if his total lack of reaction to me standing there was anything to go by.
“Incoming, sir?” I asked as I stepped inside, heading for the credenza and coffee pot.
He looked up and gave me a somewhat absent smile, and I didn’t quite hear what he said next. Something about Stephanopoulos and Belgravia’s holiday party and whether or not the Folly would be permitted to make an official appearance; I know if Stephanopoulos had her druthers we’d be banned forevermore, but I had a few moles in the Investigative team I hoped could sway her— or at least sneak us in through the kitchen entrance.
I didn’t take in any more than that, because I was suddenly struck by how beautiful he looked just then— his fine-boned face and pale eyes, readers slipping to the end of his nose; the barest hints of silver glinting in the dark hair at his temples. Already dressed to the nines in the thinnest of pinstripes and a fastidious little pocket square in jade. His ankle was laid on his knee, very casually, and the relaxed, almost languid pose drew the eye up a trim waist to surprisingly solid shoulders.
There was the slightest note of honey in the air.
“Peter?” he asked, brows drawing slowly together as I stared, enthralled. “Is something the matter?”
“Oh,” I breathed, and the very hot coffee I’d been pouring while having this revelation spilled out of my cup and over my fingers. “Shite—”
I dropped the full cup on the edge of the silver tea tray and upset the whole business, and the resulting clatter startled Nightingale to his feet, set Toby barking like a dog possessed and very effectively ended any thrall that might have come over me. Coffee, cream and sugar were sprayed liberally over my front and half the credenza; worse, the noise drew Molly down on me like an avenging angel, black eyes wide with righteous fury.
“Good God, are you hurt?” Nightingale said, attempting to capture my hand in his as Molly hissed her displeasure. “Sana—”
This close I could taste Nightingale’s signare as it bloomed between us, that memory of cold stone and pine, and I jerked my hands away and behind me to avoid it. I probably looked deranged, but wherever that bout of dozy adoration had come from I was absolutely desperate to avoid a repeat with him standing so close. “I’m fine! I’m absolutely— Molly, I’m so sorry, please let me help—”
By the time she’d accepted my apologies and we’d soaked up the worst of it, Nightingale had at least stepped back to lean against the table. “If you’re sure you’re all right,” he said with a doubtful look.
“Peachy,” I said, darting a quick look at him and away again. “I’ll, ah— be heading out then?”
Doubt turned to bafflement. “What, already?”
“Uh, yes. Yeah. See you later!” I said, and departed sans breakfast, coffee, and any dignity for the safety of the Asbo.
As far as diverting one’s attention from personal problems, the Folly’s unending surplus of dogsbody work was ideal— moreso when you factored in my newly-minted community relations and documentarian campaigns. The varied magical strata of the London boroughs were far more underserved and understudied than any of the subsets I’d been taught to interact with in CKP, and running around town for them made for a busy and most importantly distracting day. In the next twelve hours I responded to a handful Falcon-coded inquiries that were variously resolved by gifts of rosemary to a roiled pictsie clan, a quick and dirty impello palma on a deadbeat fae’s tyres, Tesco-brand spritzers to the genius loci of King’s College, and a mumbling constable who’d eventually admitted that the lads at Dagenham nick had dared him to see if the code was still current. They’d heard the stories out of Belgravia, he said, and was it true that an evil ghost had caused the Covent Gardens riot? What like in Ghostbusters?
I sent him away with a bug in his ear about abusing Met resources and because I could, the strong impression that Mad Eye Moody would soon be hearing about his bad behavior. He went away looking more confused than ever and I considered it a job well done.
I hesitated over it a long time, but in the end I texted Nightingale to say I wouldn’t be home for dinner. What if it happened again? What had even happened the first time?
I called around and found a pub night to crash with Caffrey and the bomb squad instead, and only turned to an imaginary Nightingale twice to point out the abysmal scoring on the rugby match two screens over.
I was able to get away with avoiding him for longer than I should have, considering we were a two-person team— most of the week, in fact. I’d have thought that little quip of his about paperwork would have jinxed us to merry hell and back, too, but the last few before Christmas ended quietly in desultory flurries and lingering, low-draped clouds. London had a particular pallette in early winter, before the cold had a chance to leach all saturation from the streets, and the brownish-gray fug stained everything— the cobbles, parks, Thames, and Nightingale’s handmade shoes.
“These will need attention,” he mused, eyeing them critically while we shucked off our winter gear at the tradesmen’s entrance by the garage. I’d been on a shout in an excruciatingly posh area of West Brompton, and he’d showed up about halfway through with a kind of steel in his eyes that did not bode well for me after we’d performed our due diligence. The case had turned into the demimonde’s equivalent of a cat up a tree— though the cat in this case had a tendency to burrow through solid concrete and spew reeking alkaline waste when cornered. I’d found out the Folly had a whole side business in certifying imported supernatural animals for the pet trade, complete with a decaying 70s-era catalogue of recognised breeds that Nightingale had pulled out of the Jag’s boot, and furthermore that Nightingale could give Siegfried and Roy a run for their money in cat wrangling. I’d even managed a mostly-stable third-level lux formae I’d been practising and wove a very pretty net of light to herd the thing back into confinement. All that, and only casualties had been some of the more snobby shrubbery around Farm and Halford. It’d been a jam-packed enough outing that I’d almost forgotten there was a reason I was avoiding him.
“Though they are salvageable, I think. I wonder where Molly’s hidden the brushes this… Peter?”
I could see Nightingale’s puzzled stare in minute detail, suddenly, because I had taken the two steps up from the garderobe and was now standing very close to the man, our faces mere inches away. We weren’t touching, but only because he had leaned back to maintain some distance.
“Uh,” I replied. His eyes were quite lovely, I’d always thought, and from this close gave up surprising little blooms of blue and amber amongst the grey. “Brushes?”
“That we keep with the polish,” he said, lovely eyes narrowing.
“For the shoes,” I said, voice low and gaze dropping to his lips. They were slightly parted in confusion, revealing a silver of teeth that looked very lickable. “Right. I’ll have a look in the atrium, shall I?”
He blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“For the brushes,” I said, aware of the smell of spring and green water rising around us, and forced myself to turn and walk steadily away despite the desperate dryness in my mouth.
“I’ll be right back!” I called, and broke into a jog.
I had a muddled idea of getting away as quickly as possible, and as luck would have it met Molly on my way out of the back hallway. I said in a rush, “Nightingale, shoes, brushes?” and kept going all the way through to the other side of the house, where the cloudy glass greenhouses and firing range crowded up to the Folly’s venerable stone.
Either Nightingale had no idea where I’d gone, or he was just as unnerved by my behavior as I was and willing to let it lie. In any case, he didn’t seek me out and I stayed in the chilly range long enough to lose all natural illumination and feeling in my toes, calling cold light in webs and streaks until the whole place blazed in blue-white.
Introspection was not my favourite pastime, but it was unfortunately the kind of thing Nightingale often stressed as essential to mastering Newtonian magic. Thinking about my complicity in this sorry state of affairs gave me near-immediate palpitations, but I had an uneasy hypothesis brewing in my head: one built from Bev’s have you even noticed? and Nightingale’s sudden overwhelming appeal. So I called her, the one person who might have been able to clarify what she meant by it all.
“I’m sorry, Bev,” I said into my mobile, safely upstairs in the tech cave. I’d snuck back to the garage like some angsting teenage delinquent and was sitting in the mostly-dark, just the sodium-orange glow of the streetlight seeping in. I pressed fingers to my eyes until I saw starbursts and said, “I’m sorry, alright? I’m sorry I picked him and magic and didn’t have the stones to just come to you in person and say it. I owe you more than that, I know I do. I’m sorry, but please, fix this.”
She didn’t answer because she hadn’t picked up— deliberately, I could tell, because she’d let it ring once before sending me to voicemail— but I felt better for having asked.
That didn’t mean I was ready to go back into the Folly and face the music. No, and no again. I booted up our single terminal— one day we’d need more than this one ancient machine, but today was not that day— and filled time reporting and filing and crosslisting and, hell, digitising some of Nightingale’s boot bestiary. He having looked so incredulous at the idea I might be studying of my own volition, I even slouched down at a corner of the couch and did some actual language drills, too. I’d have to do it all eventually, and was glad use up some time with it now.
Around eight, I had a thought about going back in for a late dinner and something in me surged a bit too happily at the idea of perhaps catching Nightingale with a glass in his study or pouring over the bits of the paper he hadn’t quite managed that morning. He sometimes saved the crosswords for evenings, and he’d lay it out over a table in the sitting room while I read a seat over.
I didn’t trust that feeling; I wasn’t usually unhappy to see him, but I also wasn’t given to this kind of immediate and overpowering— enthusiasm for him. Yes, enthusiasm. That seemed the safest way to describe it.
At least I thought so. Hoped so.
I couldn’t avoid him forever. I couldn’t even avoid him that night, because as soon as I stuck my head inside Molly was on me with nails like needles, pulling me towards the dining room. “Wait, I—”
Molly’s glare could have scoured metal, and her lip twitched upwards in clear warning. I subsided and let her drag me on.
“Oh! You’re here,” Nightingale said from the table, looking surprised and then strangely relieved. “I thought you’d gone out again. Molly’s done something interesting tonight, look— a kind of curry, I think.” Molly hissed something indecipherable but clearly meant to be informative, and he added, “Prawn curry, of course. Will you have a seat?”
He patted the space next to him, and I swayed forward like a tree bending to the wind. Did he have to be so obviously pleased to see me, and smile at me like that when I took my seat? He clapped a hand to my shoulder and it rang through my body like a bell. I had to swallow and look away, breathing through a sudden rush of awareness prickling through my limbs.
Nicely turned curry aside, there was no part of the spread that should have provoked that reaction. It wasn’t our renewed and somewhat stilted discussion on the cosmogonists, because I can think of few things less sexy than scientific inaccuracy. It certainly wasn’t Molly, who was a dear but had an abnormally large number of teeth outside of the terrifying fangs in her mouth.
“If you’d be so kind?” Nightingale asked, nodding at a lentil dish near my elbow.
“Right,” I said a bit dazedly, glancing back. His jacket was draped over his chair and a bit of fringe was falling over his forehead, a concession to informal dining. I wanted to touch it, smooth it back with my fingers until I could cup the back of his neck and tilt his head just so.
“Right,” I said again, louder, and got the man his lentils.
No, there was nothing— just the exquisite Edwardian table manners of one Thomas Nightingale, formerly last wizard in Britain, who coughed delicately at the first bite of the prawns and seemed blessedly oblivious to any odd behavior on my part. It was surreal, to sit and listen to him switch to genteel gossip he’d picked up in meetings at Whitehall while throbbing against my thigh, acutely aware of every time he slid a fork between his lips. It was a feat just to nod in the right places, and I was being forced to innovate new and greater heights of napkin arrangement the longer the dinner went on.
Oh, thanks Bev. Thanks ever so much.
“— and then clockwork birds sprung from their foreheads and began to chime the time,” Nightingale said very dryly, and I had nodded again before I caught myself. “My apologies, Peter, I didn’t realise I was being so dull. Shall we return to Empedocles, then?”
“No, no,” I said, trying to sound like someone not being slowly strangled to death by their own arousal. “No need. It’s coming along great. Really good.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You might attempt the Anaxagoras next, if you’re feeling that confident in the material.”
“Ah. Yeah, maybe I will.”
Nightingale still looked suspicious, but dropped his eyes to his plate after a few seconds. “This is a bit much, isn’t it?” he said, frowning. “The spice, I mean.”
It wasn’t quite, but I could see how someone who’d been eating Molly’s usual for several decades would think so.
“Or perhaps the room is a bit warm,” he said, casting his eyes over the table. His cheeks were reddening, I saw, and as I watched he shifted a bit in his seat. “Do you think?”
I tasted it, suddenly, a heavy sweetness seeping in and overpowering the spice. Oh, Bev, no.
“It could be, a bit! You know, I do apologise, I— well, studying and all of that, you know how it is, right, see you later,” I said, brightly and totally incomprehensibly, and took the napkin out of the room with me. There are only so many sins a lumpy jumper can be expected to excuse.
“Peter!” Oh, God, he was following me into the dark hallway, and when I reluctantly turned to face him his expression was set in a way that suggested he was feeling nostalgic for the days when caning was the acceptable solution for bad behavior in apprentices. He brought the smell of ripe sweetness with him, and it slowly filled the air around us as he came to a stop in front of me, eyes searching my face.
“I—” I didn’t have a good explanation for any of this. “I’m sorry, sir. I need to go.”
“You do not,” Nightingale said, and seemed utterly sure of that. “Peter, what on earth is going on? You’ve been avoiding the Folly for days. Did something happen?”
What to say? So sorry, those rivers you’re so wary of have glamoured me just a smidge, but don’t worry— plenty of practice keeping it in my pants around you already?
“I am your— your superior officer,” Nightingale said, and even through the haze I wanted to puzzle over what words might have fallen out in that pause. “We can’t keep on like this past week. There are cases we need to debrief, lessons you’ll fall behind on. What is the matter?”
He was staring me straight in the face. He couldn’t miss the conflicted expression I felt pulling at my eyes, the way I couldn’t quite meet his. He looked deeply frustrated for a moment, and opened his mouth as if to start shouting.
But he didn’t. After a moment his mouth closed, and he took a long, slow breath instead, still watching me. Whatever he saw there made his face soften.
“Peter,” he said more gently. “Please. Tell me.”
And in the face of that gentleness I had a kind of— slip. A moment where I wasn’t quite in or out of control of my body, but suddenly moving, backing him into the wall next to the open door to the dining room, a swelling vestigium of honey and that strange, rich saltwater tinge between us. It smelled, I realised through a full-body flush of heat, like sex— like going down on someone who was really, really enjoying themselves. Like I could taste him already.
Nightingale’s eyes had gone wide and he’d raised a hand as if to ward me off, which now rested against my chest over the sternum. I could feel the heat of his palm through my jumper, his fingers curling into the knit as I pressed him into the oak panelling. “Peter?” and he sounded breathless, tilting his chin up to meet my eyes like he was offering his mouth, “Peter, what—”
I leaned in, an arm braced on the panel above his shoulder and our faces close enough to feel his next unsteady breath across my cheek. Our knees bumped, and it seemed natural to slide one leg between his and feel his thighs tense around mine. My other hand came up to mold to the small of his back and he made a small noise, other hand grabbing my arm.
“Peter,” he said more urgently. His head was tipped back against the wood and the hand on my chest had fisted there, pulling the cloth tight across my shoulders.
“Mm?” It was hard to breath around the vestigia now, thick enough to make the air feel warm and heavy in my lungs. My eyes were sliding shut, lulled by the proximity.
“Are you—?” he half-whispered, so very close, our lips almost brushing.
I stopped there, though I wanted to kiss him so badly I could feel it like a cramp in my stomach. “Am I...?”
I was sorry for the darkness, then, because I wanted to see him l— to see him blush for me in full light and colour, to kiss him until his eyes were dazed and half-lidded and watch his tongue run along his bottom lip afterwards, tasting me there.
Then he said, “What— is this?”
The answer was a monstrously bad idea, actually, and the realization of exactly what I was doing cascaded through me on the heels of that thought in an icy deluge. I sucked in a breath and shoved away from him, nearly tripping over my own feet and the Persian runner down the middle of the hallway, and wrenched to a stop a few meters away, trembling in the hot, tight grip of the glamour trying to pull me back in. I ached.
“I need— I have to leave,” I said shakily.
He hadn’t moved from where I’d had him pinned, slumped against the wall with both hands flattened to the surface. He looked unsteady, and his eyes were still very wide. “I see,” he said.
I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t stop looking at him. “I might be gone for a while.”
Nightingale didn’t move. “I… see.”
Molly appeared in the lit doorway with Toby whuffling around her ankles, stopping when she saw the odd tableau we made, and my nerve broke completely. “I’ll send you the leave forms,” I blurted, possibly the most inane sentence ever uttered by a man after a nixed kiss, and bolted.
Beverley still wasn’t answering her phone. I sat in the freezing front seat of the Asbo with my head on the wheel for longer than I wanted to admit, staring down at the mobile and willing her to call back. Eventually, I put the car in gear and started driving.
I ended up at my parents’ place, which in retrospect showed just how off-kilter the whole thing had me. Dad had been there alone for the past few weeks; Mum was spending most of December with my great aunt outside Freetown. She was supposed to come back sometime in the next day or so, according to our last call. I remembered Christmas trips with her as a haze of noise and colour, driving around to neighbors with Hifis strapped to the top of the car and when we got there downing enough joloff rice and roasted pork ribs to raise an army. She’d let me know I’d be welcome this year, too, but she’s pretty much given up on me harkening back to the homeland on any kind of schedule.
Lord Grant, as it turns out, was making the most of his last few hours unsupervised— even outside the estate fence I could see smoke slipping out of our window. It overwhelmed the persistent smell of cumin and mould in the hallway and hazed the apartment like a haywire fog machine. There were about five or six old farts camped out in our living room, a few jazz men but most from around the estate, and they had several open bottles on the table in front of them— an eclectic mix of off-brand Johnnies, Jacks, and Jims to complement the penny-ante poker pot going on in the middle.
“E-cigarettes, Peter, it’s the new thing,” one of the dinosaurs told me, wattle trembling earnestly. He was holding what looked like a pack of gum with a clarinet reed tacked on one end. “’S not at all dangerous! No tar!”
“Yeah? Doctors recommend it?” I said skeptically, dropping my humble offering of beer and crisps by my shoes; I’d stopped by the shop on Leighton, noting with some nostalgic nausea the Sushi Hut next door had apparently closed for good. “You going to be the one airing this place out so my mum don’t smell anything later?”
“Just siddown, Peter,” Dad said gruffly. He was smoking a very analogue cigar about as thick as my wrist. “And for godsakes, don’t leave the beer out in the cold.”
I lost all my pocket change and a keychain from Perth to the codgers before Dad let me go sleep in the storage space they’d made of my childhood bedroom. He was lucky he did, because I was the only one awake early enough to clear away the empties and take out a few loads of rubbish before my cabbie uncle arrived with Mum and five enormous suitcases wrapped in cellophane. The shouting had started before he and I even got a second load up, and continued through the whole laborious process of navigating the rest of the bulging bags up three flights of stairs and through hallways crowded with our neighbors’ bikes and shoes and back garden furniture. I tried to pay him, because I knew it would never occur to her, and he said, “Save the gentri — you’re a witchfinder now, yeah?”
I said a few nonsense words over the bonnet of the taxi and popped out a few of the dents with a whispered impello. He shook my hand with a grin before roaring off. Whatever made him happy, I guess.
Upstairs, I tuned out my mum’s strident Krio with the skill of long practice and started pulling out the pots and pans for breakfast, until she looked round long enough to snatch the rice out of my hand. She ordered me to unzip one of the particularly clunky suitcases to reveal what had felt and now certainly looked like ten stone of home cooking, frozen and packed in plastic containers and bags. Right on top was the binch, palm and chili oil congealed red and glistening through the sides of the tupperware. She and I ate it over the rice, while Dad had fried eggs over his— it didn’t count as a meal to Mum unless there was rice somewhere under it.
“You’re staying for dinner,” she said while we ate. “Don’t tell me you have work.”
“If you do, get a haircut while you’re out,” she said.
“That man works you too hard, you look so tired.”
“I am, I guess, but—”
“Your Auntie Dalanda will be here tonight, maybe she can cut it.”
“Mum,” I whined, fully regressing and unable to stop myself. “It keeps my head warm!”
“Buy a hat! Chaka-chaka.”
Dalanda wasn’t the only one coming over, as it turned out. She wasn’t even the tenth, and I narrowly escaped a gang-shearing by sneaking outside with the rest of the disappointing offspring. My cousins and “cousins” had all been shites of the highest caliber growing up, but it turned out age really did perform wonders on some people and anyways we’d all been conditioned from toddler up to seek safety in numbers from the auntie scourge. Some of them had even come prepared for the ordeal with liquor.
My cohort skewed to late teens and twenties; the older cousins tended to be wiley enough to invent work commitments, and the younger ones were trapped inside with their parents. In Freetown, being the young wild things that we were, we’d drive out to the ocean and build a fire on the beach, maybe dance, maybe just lie in the sand and drink. In Kentish Town, several hours away from coasts that never got particularly warm to begin with, we went to the roof. It was bitingly cold and too windy to stand out in the open, but we hid out behind the brick parapet eating fried plantains and correcting our mothers’ barefaced lies about our career and romantic prospects.
“Your mum told mine you do magic now,” one of the girls said, sitting cross-legged with a bunch if other girls in tights and huge puffy boots on an abandoned pallet. “Like, cards and rabbits for birthday parties? That a side gig or you thinking of being the next David Blaine?”
“Yours says you’re getting married next month,” I answered, hunched over my knees with a bottle of Stoli and a paper cup. “How’s that coming?”
The bloke was apparently a cheating bastard who’d stolen her dog and cleaned out her jewelry for some whore in Surrey, and I was fuzz, couldn’t I do something about it? It was a marvelously distracting topic to switch to until Abigail butted in from the side with, “It’s not party magic, it’s real.”
“What?” said the girl, annoyed by the interruption.
“It’s real,” Abigail said stubbornly. I hadn’t even seen her come up, though now that I looked there were a lot of very much younger teens out here than there had been ten minutes ago.
“God, Abby, shut up,” her brother Paul said from my left. “Go back downstairs with the rest of the babies.”
“I’m not a baby!” she said hotly, in a chorus of denials from the other babies.
“I see any of you sneaking booze, I’m legally required and encouraged to throw you in the jerry until New Years,” I said, pointing at them with the open bottle. “And I will. Don’t test me.”
“Only if you catch us, right?” said one preteen smartarse.
“With his magic spells and ghostie friends,” Paul said, waving his hands around. “Oooooo. Right, Peter?”
“That’s right,” I said seriously, before Abigail could jump in for me. “Ruddy amazing how helpful ghosts can be in the right mood, I tell you.”
That got some laughs, and the conversation moved on. Abigail looked mulish but I made eye contact and tried to give her a significant stare; the one she gave back made it clear she had no idea what I was on about, so I let it lie. Later, though, when the inevitable auntie popped up through the stairwell door and started yelling about ungrateful miscreant children, I caught Abigail’s arm in the general bumrush and pulled her down a separate set of fire stairs, with a whispered order of darkening of aer to keep us out of harm’s way.
“I’m not going to lie about it,” she said stubbornly as we reached the bottom landing, dark and grimy and metal door handle cold enough to sting the fingers. “Paul always makes fun of me and I— ”
“It’s not that, though the big man would probably encourage more discretion,” I said, shouldering open the half-broken door onto a narrow maintenance courtyard. The nearest windows were dark and barred, the cracked pavers clogged deep with soggy dead leaves. Perfect. “Look at this!”
Abigail was gratifyingly enthusiastic about the web-like lux variant, quizzing me relentlessly about the phrasing and thought-shape behind it and going deep enough into the grammatical structuring I knew she was right on target to get those Latin A-levels. While she squinted intently at the white net stretching between my fingers and mumbled under her breath, I thought about the last person I’d seen this interested in magical theory and for a moment I missed Leslie so keenly it felt like an arrow to the chest.
“For the record, though, it’s a bit creepy of you to bring me down here alone,” Abigail said, after I’d let the formae collapse and disappear. “Could be, whatsit. Misconstrued.”
I glanced around with a dawning sheepishness; she wasn’t wrong. “Er, sorry about that. I’ll walk you home?”
We went round the back way and once we’d reached our block Abigail sidled out of frame in a way that boded well for her own future aer variants, leaving me to take the full force of my mother’s displeasure and the remaining aunties’ derision. I was set to cleaning up, even though it had gone past ten and there was still a sizeable gathering on the couches in the front room, talking and laughing in a rapid-fire mix of Krio and king’s English. Aunt Dalanda kept eyeing my hair like it had personally offended her sense of pulaaku, so I tried to keep to the kitchen; Mum’s immediate family was a bit short on daughters, anyway, so it was just me at the sink with the piles and piles of dishes. I was called out once or twice to kiss family goodbye, but that stopped around scrubbed plate number one hundred. I heard the vacuum going for a bit— consequence of being a professional cleaner for most of her life, I guess; she could never just leave it— and then silence.
It was totally dark outside the small window over the sink, a hint of chill radiating off the glass. My fingers had pruned and the front of my shirt was soaking wet, but I had a nice pile of drying casseroles to show my mum when she finally walked in.
“You’re not using my good towels,” she said.
“No?” I said, because I used to know which ones those were and was pretty sure I’d gotten it right, but if she’d upgraded in the last few weeks…
“Good,” she said, and took my face in her hands. “Such a good son. Does that boy Paul help his mother like this? No.”
“Thanks, mum,” I said quietly, and let her pull me in for a kiss to the forehead.
“Will you stay here tonight?”
“Yeah, if that’s alright.”
She pursed her lips. “What will your wear?”
I didn’t have any clothes with me, and had slept in some of the ones I was wearing. Solvable with a quick trip to Market Estate, but at this hour I wasn’t going to be shopping anywhere. Mum waded through some of the detritus that had accumulated in the storage room and unearthed my old dresser, which along with a younger man’s clothes had been filled with a random assortment of dated electronics and wrapping paper. I did find pyjamas and pants, at least, and tucked myself into a made bed instead of a bare mattress and sleeping bag. Mum had tutted over the previous arrangement, but couldn’t yell at Dad for it right now— he’d fallen sleep hours ago, quite probably in self defence.
I’m on the older side of the millennial spread, but I still like to keep my mobiles nearby when I’m sleeping. I did a quick check on the Met’s beat-up old flip for work; there was nothing but routine announcements, the kind of stuff the bureaucracy pushes in snow, sleet, or dark of night, plus a nice non-denominational holiday message from the commissioner.
On my actual mobile, there was a missed call and voicemail from Nightingale. It was only an hour or so old, and the mobile told me it was nearly a minute long.
I stared at it, frozen in a moment of foreboding. I couldn’t think of a single good reason he’d have called so late and spoken so long— if it was an emergency, he would have texted and rung the work phone too. Hell, he had my parent’s number if he really needed me. This, whatever it was, was personal.
The thought was honestly terrifying. After that interlude in the hallway, there could be anything in that voicemail— anger, recrimination, excuses, rejection. Setting aside the fact that he was raised in the 1900s and had God knows what kind of antiquated views on the subject, I knew from personal experience that even the most genial of straight men could react badly to surprise advances. I wanted to shove the mobile under the pillow and forget about it until the next morning, perhaps the next year, but even as I had the thought I knew it would be useless. There was no chance I was going to fall asleep with this waiting for me like a hangman’s noose.
I hit play.
“Good evening, Peter,” Nightingale said, diction like cut crystal on the phone’s bad speakers. I sighed, then buried my face in a pillow to try to smother anything else that might slip out.
“I apologise for disturbing you, especially so late in the evening. You’ve made it clear you would prefer some time away from the Folly, and it is not my intention to prevent that.”
“Not by choice ,” I mumbled, grinding my face into the fabric. “Damn it.”
There was pause there, long enough for me lift my head to make sure the message was still playing.
“However. I find myself… thinking.” Nightingale sounded more cautious now, like a man gauging if the ice could take his weight. “Wondering if… that is. It seems only reasonable that I should be able to— to ask. ”
“I mean no intrusion on your personal life, Peter. I only wanted to say…”
“I know,” I said miserably. It’s not like I didn’t know, Bev. I was just hoping he wouldn’t have to know.
“I only want to understand what it is you need from me.”
It took a second for that one to filter in— the tone, the implicit offer. I eyed the mobile, suddenly wary.
There was another long pause. When he spoke next, a new and more hesitant note had entered his voice.
“It seems… well. I won’t make assumptions. I would not want to offer anything you were not expecting and had not looked for.”
“I would only say that I believe we need to speak, face to face.” A deep breath, audible even on the mobile. “And I will add— that I am very grateful for the place you already have in my life. If nothing else, I would never want anything to jeopardize that.”
I picked up the mobile with a light, careful grip, as if it might crack down the middle if handled too roughly.
“I hope to see you soon. Until then… I suppose I’ll wish you a happy Christmas.”
I brought the screen to my face and cupped my hands around it, watching the little line advance towards the end of the recording.
“Happy Christmas, Peter.”
“Happy Christmas, Thomas,” I said quietly.
My mum was in the kitchen when I walked out of the storage room, redressed and carrying my bag under my arm. She had her hair wrapped and a mug of tea in her hand, body layered in fuzzy purple from slippers to bathrobe.
“What, at this time of night?” she asked with a suspicious squint. “It’s Christmas Eve, Peter!”
“I know, mum, but it’s Nightingale,” I said, detouring to hug her. “I’ve got to go.”
“Christmas Eve,” she grumbled. “A witchfinder should be more respectable.”
“Presents are behind the sofa,” I said as I drew back. “I’ll see you Friday, yeah?”
“Friday. Get a haircut before then,” she said, and patted my cheek.
I would like to say that I went home, slept well, and had a mature, thoughtful conversation with Nightingale over breakfast in which I was able to express my longstanding feelings for the man without the interference of any glamours and to the absolute best effect; i.e., that he reciprocated immediately and without reservation.
“Are you out of your blasted mind?”
There’s a chance I was, because only when Nightingale asked did I suddenly realise I was soaking wet and in the process of being bound to a chair. A nice, cozy armchair, with rich red striping and exposed wood at the armrests and feet. Very much like the gentlemen’s chairs by the fireplace in Nightingale’s private rooms, actually. Because I was in fact in Nightingale’s rooms, and he was the one using forma to very forcibly bind me to his chair.
He was kneeling in front of me on the hearth rug as he worked, muttering invective against my person in between intensive bouts of spellcasting. His hair was plastered flat to his head and he was dripping water everywhere, wrapped haphazardly in a damp dressing gown that had fallen open in a vee to his waist and threatened to slip down his scarred shoulder.
“Hullo,” I said, gazing down at him in appreciation. It was entirely too pretty a picture to not admire properly. “Would it be too much to ask what just happened?”
“You tried to climb in the bath with me,” Nightingale said grimly, tightening invisible restraints with a quick and brutal string of Latin. The air around my wrists actually glowed for a moment like hot metal. Why didn’t I know that one yet? It seemed dead useful. “With all of your clothing on, I would note.”
When reviewed, my immediate short-term memory provided me exactly that scene, down to Nightingale's startled yelp and the heat of the water soaking into my trousers. “Sorry, sir,” I said as meekly as I could. Also damn— more mobiles lost in the line of duty.
“I’d ask what you thought you were doing, but that became fairly clear when you seized and attempted to kiss me,” he said. “Again.”
“Ah,” I said faintly, licking my lips. They tasted like honey. I felt dizzy and drunk, warm with something still bubbling and buzzing in the air around us. “Well.”
“Well?” he repeated with an incredulous edge, staring up at me. There was the bright colour I’d wanted to see the night before, burning high in his cheeks.
“It’s some kind of seducere, I think,” I said, smiling down at him. “But it’s fine! Completely fine. I’m working on it, you know. Should wear off any day now.”
“Sedu—” The look turned bewildered, then horrified. “Peter! Who—”
“No, it’s fine ,” I stressed, trying to lean down to his level. His hands shot up and braced against my biceps to keep me in place, which was also quite nice, actually; I relaxed into it and let him hold me.
“You will perhaps forgive me if I do not share your confidence in your ability to dispel it,” he said with some acerbicness. “When exactly did this start?” When my eyes started to wander away he shook me once and added, “Do not lie to me, Peter. When?”
There were two separate and equally veritable answers to that question, but I could feel the glamour swelling under my ribcage and making my choice for me.
“Since Covent Garden. Before Wallpenny and the Faceless Man and the rest of it,” I said, the truth spilling out of me in a gleeful rush, mouthwateringly sweet. “Before I even knew who you were, I was—”
“Not— no, the seducere, Peter,” Nightingale said, throwing up a hand and almost stuttering over his words. “I knew— I know that—”
“You know... what,” I said, forgetting his hands and trying to lean forward again. “Wait, you knew I—”
“I had guessed!” he said in protest. “You weren’t terribly—”
“You knew,” I marveled.
“Peter, it’s not that I,” he said, and stopped. Started again. “I was going to...”
“Yeah?” I said helpfully. “You were going to...?”
He lifted his eyes to give me a glare that was at once impatient, affronted, and embarrassed; his face was flushing more deeply as I watched. “It is not at all relevant to this discussion,” he said very stiffly, and glared harder when I grinned at him. “Please try to take this seriously for a moment. Setting aside what might have been your own— feelings on the matter, I will not continue this conversation if you are incapacitated by some kind of— of foreign influence! Tell me what has happened. ”
The cat was well and truly out of that bag, I supposed. And— “Bev must have known, too,” I said aloud, mostly to myself. “About me and you, before I even did. That’s a bit shameful, that is.”
“Bev— do you mean to tell me Beverley Brook is responsible for this?”
And out spilled the whole sordid tale, Nightingale’s gaze growing increasingly flinty as I described the scene at Bev’s place, the lingering spring of the vestigium.
“And of course you immediately decided it couldn’t be anything serious if it involved Miss Brook, and hid away to try to resolve the issue yourself,” he said darkly.
My guv, it’s like he knows me. “Sir—”
“Peter, it sometimes amazes me you are still alive to continually attract such disaster,” he said with sincere irritation, and stood, letting go of my arms. The dressing gown gaped in an exceedingly alluring way.
“I surprise myself, sir. Your, er, sash—”
“Peter, for the love of all that is holy, please be quiet.”
Well, if he didn’t mind it… I shut up, and Nightingale began to circle the chair. The sleeve had slid further down his shoulder to the elbow, which to me was far more interesting than when he started in on glamours and their relative vestigia. I listened with half an ear, shifting in the tight hold of his formae as water made gleaming rivulets across his bare skin. He gleamed in the the firelight like one of the marble gods downstairs come to life.
“— and I cannot understand how you hid this,” he grumbled between questing impello and aer variants, a steady stream of flicks and sparks of sensation against my wrists, temples, the soles of my feet. The smell of pine twined strangely through the honey and salt, bringing it somewhere earthier and base. He was looking for the edges of the glamour, I assumed; something to pull at or dislodge. I could have told him I’d already tried all of that, but the set of his jaw told me he was not currently accepting constructive criticism. His magic felt cool and good on my skin, anyway, and I stretched into it with a satisfied hum.
“It’s been, ah. Intermittent in effect,” I thought to offer eventually, and his eyes lifted back to mine with exasperation.
“Well, it appears quite active now,” he said. “You’re all but dripping with it.”
That phrasing was extremely unhelpful, considering his reaction to my not-quite-confessions of the night and the overwarm vestigium of honey and sex that still saturated the air around us. It wasn’t fading away now, only humming continuously along my nerves like a bow over violin strings, and Nightingale’s mere presence was playing havoc with my concentration— him being half-naked certainly wasn’t helping matters. The tight bud of his nipple was a surprising rosy pink, and I made a little sound as I squirmed again, still firmly caught. Even that was starting to be arousing.
“— listening? Peter!”
“Right,” I said hoarsely, raising my head. “Sorry, what?”
“If you can’t be quiet, then at least be informative. Describe the triggers of this intermittency to me.”
“I want to kiss you,” I said dazedly.
“Trust me,” he said through his teeth, “when I say that this particular directive of the glamour has not been difficult to detect. Is there anything else you would perhaps like to share?”
I considered that. “Please?” I tried.
His frown only deepened. The sparks at my temple snapped more strongly.
“To have borne this as long as you did… this is more subtle manipulation than I’d usually associate with Ms. Brook or her sisters,” he said, peering at me. “But the signare is quite clearly river-bourne. Whatever you may think, Peter, it is extremely concerning she both chose to and was able to do this.”
“It hasn’t been so bad,” I protested. At that moment I believed it, too— everything seemed so easy now, with him in front of me. I couldn’t remember why I’d been afraid. “Seems like she just incepted me a little.”
There was a small break in the interrogation while I tried to explain the concept despite having fallen asleep all three times I’d watched the movie, Leonardo Dicaprio or no.
“What if you’d been ‘incepted’ to kill me or burn the Folly down?” Nightingale said, thoroughly exasperated. He licked his lips. “I realise this might have seemed like a problem of a personal nature at the onset, but you are my apprentice. You’re still learning, and you need to trust me!”
I considered that. “Could you kiss me? I think it would help.”
Nightingale made a garbled noise of frustration and tried to re-wrap the sodden edges of the dressing gown. He was mostly unsuccessful. “I can’t find the keystone formae, if it is something so formal,” he admitted with bad temper. He licked his lips again, more slowly this time, like there was something sticky on them. “It’s too well-melded. Unusually pernicious glamors are usually tied to some real urge—”
“I think we’ve established that,” I said.
“— setting aside any prior attachments as variables,” he said over me with crisp decisiveness, sounding exactly as cold and uptight as the river girls made fun of him for being, and God I really did love his tidy mind. There was something else that had distracted me in that moment, though.
“Sir. Thomas. Were you very serious about not discussing feelings while incapacitated?”
“Deadly,” he snapped.
“Right,” I said, a bit choked. “Then you may want to get off of my lap.”
“What?” he said, knee planted firmly next to my hip and a hand gripping the back of the armchair. “I am not—”
“You are,” I rushed to assure him as his weight settled across my legs. The folds of the dressing gown were irrevocably parted, revealing a long, lean stretch of winter-pale skin and an awful Anglo blush clear down to his stomach. “You very much are.”
He looked baffled and increasingly hazy, and his eyes turned to mine with a kind of glazed outrage. “Bloody hell, Peter, it’s infectious?”
“If it makes you feel any better, I am sorry,” I said— sorry mostly that he was right there and I still couldn’t touch him, except to strain my body against the bindings. “And for what it’s worth, I’m still sure a kiss would help.”
“How—” A lucky twist slotted me up neatly between his bare thighs and Nightingale shuddered; I could feel the formae binding me to the chair shudder with him. “Ah. How could that possibly help.”
“Because I would really, really love to kiss you,” I said. “And because I think it might break the glamour.”
“A kiss to break the spell,” Nightingale said, sounding unimpressed and increasingly winded. “That is your hypothesis?”
“Yeah.” I looked up at him as his arms settled against my chest and shoulders, his hands coming to rest at the sides of my neck. One hand slid up to cup my cheek. “Just a little one?”
The formae covering my body trembled again, tightening and loosening like a fist. “One kiss,” Nightingale said, grey eyes dark.
“Yeah, yes,” I said, already craning my head up. “Yes—”
A few hours later saw us sprawled across the rug and chilly wood floor only a few feet away from a perfectly serviceable bed, hanging limp over each other and still breathing hard.
“Glamour’s gone,” I noted for the room. There was no sweet or salt to the sir, just the smell of the fire in the grate burning down to ruddy coals.
“So it is,” Nightingale mumbled, arm thrown over his eyes. “Good God.”
“Mmhm.” I couldn’t argue with that. Didn’t want to.
“Mmhm?” I also didn’t want to move for the next thousand years, so if he was uncomfortable he was out of luck.
“That was… I don’t want you to think it’s— that I'm like this. At least, not... all the time,” Nightingale managed to get out, after what was clearly an intense series of mental editings.
Though it took an eon, I slowly lifted my head to stare down at him. He was sweaty now rather than just wet, and looked a bit ashamed of himself.
“And what aren’t you all the time?” I asked, small smile growing at the corner of my mouth. “Freshly tumbled on your own hearth?”
He gave me a scandalized look, which was a bit hilarious under the circumstances. “I’m referring to the… overall strenuousness. Of our activities.”
“Shite,” I said, just realizing. “When was the last— am I your first in fifty years or something?”
“Most definitely not,” said Nightingale, who was clearly regretting saying anything at this point. “I was only noting that the glamour might have... exacerbated some of what just occurred.”
“Oh, could have,” I said offhandedly, hand braced on my chin. “Only, to me that just sounds like a challenge.”
“Absolutely not.” Hard to tell if he was blushing again or had never stopped; quite a bit of the red on his neck and chest had bruising at the centers, and the tender-looking pink on his inner thighs was definitely beard burn. Overall, he looked rather distractingly mauled.
I leaned in, bringing my lips to his. “No?” I murmured. I kissed him in small sips, open-mouthed over his lips, cheek, chin, until he turned his face to follow mine and pushed off the ground to connect more solidly. A hand crept into my hair and held me there.
“Well,” he said, when I let him take a breath. “I suppose I don’t see any harm in further experimentation.”