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Target Practice

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There are times when nothing but shooting the hell out of something will do, and waking up from a nightmare in which your best friend rips off her mask and Tazes you in the face and you feel your own face fall off--well, it was enough to have me braving the erratic central heating in the Folly and heading down to the firing range at three in the morning.

I worked up a good fireball and flung it at the target--another snarling German soldier this time, from a supply Nightingale had uncovered a few months ago. It missed by over a metre. I glared at the target, who glared back, and tried again. This one detonated in midair. My third fireball went low, and the fourth didn't go off at all. I swore and sent a fifth, far too powerful, which buried itself in the sandbags with a worrying whoomph sound. The target, unharmed, continued to snarl at me. I sent off another five fireballs in rapid succession. They all missed. One hit the tripod I use for my paintball gun, and it fell over with a crash.

"Deep breath," said a voice behind me. I hadn't heard Nightingale come in, but he was there now, walking slowly towards me. "Let it out. And again, slowly. Look at the target. Relax your shoulders." He put his hands on my shoulders and pressed. "Think about the forma. Don't create it, just think about it, remember how it goes, hold it clearly in your mind. Now. One--two--and three."

I released the fireball. It hit the target, if not dead centre, at least in the centre mass.

"Again," Nightingale said, still with his hands on my shoulders. I did it again. Again. Again.

"All right, that's enough," Nightingale said. He turned me to face him. "Do not lose your temper in the firing range, Peter." He didn't add or I won't permit you to use it unsupervised. He didn't need to. His gaze took in my t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms I sleep in, and I noticed that he was wearing the same suit he'd had on during the day. "Are you done?"

I wasn't really feeling any better, but I nodded anyway. Nightingale gestured me to the door and switched off the lights. He didn't lock it, which I took as a small gesture of trust. He shooed me up the stairs and then turned towards the kitchen door.

"Have you been up all night, sir?" I asked.

"There was a call-out. It was right after you went to bed, so I handled it. It wasn't anything much." He looked at me again. "But perhaps I should have taken you with me after all."

I followed him into the kitchen. It was quiet and empty for the night, everything tidied away with terrifying precision. Toby was sleeping in a basket in front of the big black range cooker that was top-of-the-line technology in 1930 and which Molly refuses to let us replace. He opened one eye when we came in, and his tail thumped the basket a few times, but he didn't get up. Nightingale pottered around for a couple of minutes while I half-sat on the edge of the table in the middle of the room and watched him. It took a minute before I realised he was making cocoa. He stood over a saucepan on the cooker until I saw the steam rising from the hot milk, and added cocoa and sugar, then rummaged around through the cupboards again before emerging with a dusty bottle, and added a generous amber slug to the cocoa.

He passed me a steaming mug, and I discovered that Nightingale's cocoa tasted bitterly of chocolate with just a hint of sugar, and the bottle had been cherry brandy. I sipped it slowly. Nightingale didn't ask me why I'd been on the firing range shooting the hell out of things in the middle of the night. I guess it wasn't much of a mystery. Instead, after we were both about halfway through our cocoa, he said, "If you're having trouble sleeping, there's plenty of paperwork that we're still behind on."

I wasn't sure if he was recommending it as a cure for insomnia or as a threat to make me stay in bed. "Does it work?" I asked. Because I've never said anything about it either, but I've noticed that on some nights, I come downstairs early and Nightingale has black shadows under his eyes and about fifty pages of back paperwork have been finished.

He looked directly at me then. "No. No, it doesn't work. But once you're up, you might as well do something constructive with your time instead of smashing stuff."

That was comfort, Nightingale-style. I kind of appreciated it. "Okay," I said. "Paperwork it is, then."

"It does distract the mind," he added quietly. "And I won't have to worry about what you're setting on fire."

"I wouldn't want to keep you up worrying," I said. I meant it to sound snarky, but it didn't come out like that, and Nightingale gave a strange smile.

"Bit late for that," he said, and finished his cocoa. "Are you going to bed now or do you want some paperwork?"

I swallowed the last dregs and said, "I'll go to bed, thanks." I took both mugs and rinsed them out in the sink, and the saucepan. Molly would doubtless do them again when she came down, but it seemed only polite.

"What about you?" I said at the foot of the stairs, but Nightingale didn't answer.

"Go to bed, Peter. Get some sleep." He put his hand on my shoulder, just for a second, and then turned away.

I headed up to my room and somewhat to my surprise, fell asleep without difficulty. And if I had any more dreams, I didn't remember them in the morning. On my way down for breakfast I looked into the library. Nightingale wasn't there, but a lot more paperwork had been done while I slept.