They didn't get married in a cathedral. Ned had lobbied for the River & Rowing Museum, but Verity eventually won the day (and discovered that he was particularly susceptible to persuasion when she was running her hands through his hair). Despite the predominance of historical houses and venues in Oxfordshire, she selected an outdoor location at a modern hotel resort. Actually, the entire wedding was almost defiantly non-Victorian. (Ned wasn’t certain whom they were defying, but he had a sneaking suspicion that Verity was thumbing her adorable nose at Mrs. Mering with every tastefully ribbon-less detail.
Verity’s dress was slender and low-cut, and she looked nothing like a naiad. What she did look like was the loveliest woman in the world, and without even a hint of time-lag to blame for his Tendency to Sentimentality, Ned was rendered almost cripplingly poetic no less than three times during the ceremony.
The bride carried a bouquet of penwipers shaped like peonies. A few family members eyed it askance, but none of the Oxford guests paid it any mind. Historians were known for bringing odd habits and hobbies back with them from the past.
It was the other things that historians had begun to bring back from the past that would cause the first stumble in their plans, but they didn’t discover that until after the wedding.
Verity and Ned sat in the visitors' chairs in Mr. Dunworthy’s office. They were holding hands, and Ned kept getting distracted by the unexpected press of Verity’s ring against his fingers.
Mr. Dunworthy folded his hands in front of him on the desk as he gave the two of them that faintly paternal look he so excelled at. “I’m afraid,” he said, “there’s been a … modification to the plan for your next drop.”
Their next drop was to be their honeymoon. The plan had been simple enough: Ned and Verity had submitted a proposal for a research trip in Margate in 1920. The abstract had described it as “a participant-observation of the evolving nature of the British seaside resort after World War I.” As a cover, it was flimsy at best. Everyone knew that they just wanted to go on holiday in the past (complete with sea-bathing and roller coasters) for their honeymoon. But it looked official enough when written out in academic language and accompanied by an annotated bibliography, and between two experienced historians, they were certain to eke a monograph or two out of the trip.
They'd coauthored three papers and written another two apiece after their infamous Victorian interlude, but that had been an unusually (and hopefully uniquely) complex mission.
Verity gripped Ned’s hand a bit more firmly. “What kind of modification?” she asked.
“Perhaps I should have said ‘a complete overhaul,’” Mr. Dunworthy said apologetically. “You know of the obstacles we’ve been facing with rescue and retrieval?”
They knew. The initial retrieval of nonsignificant objects had gone so smoothly that they hadn’t considered the extreme difficulty that future retrieval missions were likely to face. But while it had been relatively simple to rescue a number of unwanted Victorian kittens unobserved, retrieving historically valuable artifacts was rarely as straightforward. The destruction of many of these objects either took place under dangerous circumstances, or under the close eye of the person wreaking the destruction. After all, a historian could scarcely retrieve Queen Victoria’s journals from the fire as Princess Beatrice was watching them burn. (Not that they hadn’t tried, but out of six attempts so far, three had ended in major slippage, two in the net failing to open at all, and one in arrest by the palace guard.) And the attempts to rescue artworks destroyed in the Dresden bombing of 1945 had been even more of a failure.
“Our next drop didn’t have anything to do with retrieval,” Ned said firmly. Beside him, Verity nodded.
“That is actually the problem,” Mr. Dunworthy replied. “The governors have asked us to halt all drops that don’t involve retrieval until we can report a higher success rate.”
Verity frowned at him, her eyes narrowing dangerously. “Don’t they realize that the value of historical research is not dependent on bringing back souvenirs?”
Mr. Dunworthy rubbed a hand across his face. “What they realize is that several other universities around the world are also implementing rescue and retrieval missions, and that Oxford will lose our monopoly on successful retrieval very shortly. If we can’t be the only institution to retrieve nonsignificant objects from the past, they want us to be the leading institution to do so.”
“So what exactly is our new mission?”
Stalking T. E. Lawrence through the Reading railway station was not precisely the traditional honeymoon Ned had envisioned. Fortunately, Verity wasn’t quite a traditional wife. She looked rather pleased as she tucked her hand into the crook of Ned’s arm, the plume on her hat tickling at his cheek.
“Lord Peter Wimsey went undercover in the course of his investigations several times,” she told him in a cheerfully confiding tone. “In Murder Must Advertise, he used his middle names as his pseudonym.”
“You may not refer to me as Quentin,” Ned said firmly. “I won’t answer.”
Verity smiled up at him cheekily. “You spoil all my fun, darling.” She’d begun experimenting with pet names in the days leading up to the wedding. ‘Darling’ was a definite favourite, which Ned infinitely preferred over ‘my deawest, sweetest Neddums.’ “Oh, is that him?” She tugged lightly at Ned’s arm, nudging him toward a slender man in tweed.
Ned studied the man as best he could without being caught staring. “I think it is,” he said. “It would be much easier to tell if he were wearing a keffiyeh.”
“Or if he were being played by Peter O’Toole,” Verity agreed. Their prep had been rather hurried, despite the fact that the history department knew better. Luck was on their side, though, because someone called out “Lawrence!” just at that moment, and their target turned to wave.
“Excellent,” Ned said, “Now we just have to follow him until he loses the manuscript and then track it until it is about to become nonsignificant.”
“It sounds so simple when you say that,” Verity said. “I’m only hoping that this time the net doesn’t have to trap us to keep us from fouling things up.”
Three hours later, Ned was wishing for the net to trap them to keep from fouling things up.
The Reading railway station in 1919 was horrifically boring, even for a historian. There was a monotony to people-watching in places of public transport. Ned felt that he’d been watching the same scene play out over and over. There were the smug passengers who arrived with plenty of time, food, and amusements; there were the rushed and harried passengers who nearly missed their trains; there were exhausted and unhappy children who wanted to know how much longer the journey would take. Threaded through all of these were the porters, seeming nearly invisible in their uniforms. And sitting in earnest conversation on a bench was T.E. Lawrence and his companion.
“Do you think I could steal the manuscript and set fire to it myself?” Verity asked. She tapped her toes, neatly clad in button boots, against the floor. “That would fulfill all of the conditions, wouldn’t it? The manuscript would be lost at the railway station, and so history would be preserved. And it would be nonsignificant, so we could bring it forward.”
Ned grinned at her, suddenly flushed with affection for his wife (his wife!!), who could be so serious and so silly in turns. “I scarcely think the net would have let us through to do that,” he replied.
“Let’s not get into another argument about the net judging our intentions or of anthropomorphising history,” Verity said hurriedly. They’d once gone through an entire night and four pots of coffee debating those ramifications. She tapped her toes again. “Perhaps you could just go over and spill a coffee on him,” she suggested. “By all accounts, he would probably enjoy it, and then he might leave the manuscript behind in the commotion.”
Ned batted at the feather on her hat. “How is it that you’ve convinced the entire History department that you’re the more rational of the two of us?”
“Why do you think I married you?” Verity asked. “Once you’d seen through my disguise of competency and professionalism, I couldn’t let you go free.”
Her high-necked dress was a shade of green that brought out the mossy tones in her eyes, and her smile made the curve of her cheek into a perfect fit for the palm of his hand. Ned was leaning toward her with extremely inappropriate-for-1919 intentions when a train whistle blew loudly, startling him into pulling back. He checked the bench were Lawrence was sitting by habit and froze.
“He’s gone,” he said. Verity whipped her head around so quickly that Ned only narrowly avoided a collision of her hat with his nose.
“What’s that under the bench?” she asked excitedly. It was a tidy parcel, sitting unacknowledged and apparently abandoned. Ned’s heart beat a happy tattoo in his chest. They were so close to a successful mission!
They were nowhere near a successful mission.
A small family had descended upon the bench shortly after Lawrence and his companion had left it - a man with thinning brown hair and a somewhat battered red flower in the buttonhole of his coat, a tired looking woman in a blue dress, and a child of about five who kicked his feet the entire time he sat on the bench, hitting no less than six passersby in the shins. They sat for twenty minutes, the man speaking enthusiastically while his wife nodded dispiritedly and his child kicked. When their train arrived, they gathered their belongings and hurried to board … taking the manuscript with them.
Which was how Ned & Verity found themselves on the train to Swindon, in the row behind the family.
As they pulled out from the station, Ned took Verity’s hand in his. “You know,” he said, “this isn’t what I intended for our honeymoon, but it will make a wonderful story to tell our grandchildren someday.” Verity raised her eyebrows, and he rushed to correct himself. “Or our cats! It will be quite the tale for our grand-cats.”
Verity squeezed his hand gently, and Ned regretted that she was wearing gloves, so that he couldn’t feel her skin against his wedding band. “I think we already have plenty of stories for Penwiper’s future progeny,” she said.
The man with the battered red flower had just stood from his seat and now he paused, looking down at them with an indulgent smile. “Just on your honeymoon, are you?” he asked jovially. “Seems like only yesterday the missus agreed to make me the happiest of men. She looks exactly like the girl she was then.” He turned his head to gaze fondly back at his wife. Her face was lined and tired, several strands of hair had come loose and were sticking out awkwardly from under her hat, and her dress was scattered with little footprints from where her son had kicked her.
Ned couldn't really fault the man for the blindness of his affection. After all, one of the reasons Verity fancied him was because she reckoned he resembled a fictional, rabbit-faced nobleman with a monocle and a roaring case of PTSD.
“I wish you joy, sir,” the man said, offering Ned his hand.
Ned shook, unable to restrain his own fond grin. “I already have all of the joy I need,” he replied. When he glanced back at Verity, she was blushing. An actual blush, climbing her cheeks like roses. After a moment of grinning sentimentally at one another, Verity reached out and tapped Ned’s mouth closed.
“You’re gawping, darling.”
When the family disembarked at Swinton, they took only their own bags and cases with them, leaving behind a waxed cotton satchel that was precisely the right size to be holding the manuscript for “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” Ned & Verity were forced to remain on the train, staying with the manuscript till it was found at Swansea. They watched closely from behind a pair of newspapers as a porter discovered that satchel and opened it to find it full of “scribblings about foreigners.”
After spending all day stalking the manuscript and waiting for their chance, Ned couldn’t help the surge of triumph that rushed through him when he crept into the furnace room of the Swansea railway station and liberated the pages from the pile of material to be burnt.
He may have been swaggering a bit when he got back to Verity, but she didn’t mock him for it. “Perhaps you’re not Lord Peter Wimsey,” she said thoughtfully, tucking her hand back into the crook of his arm. She looked for all the world like an Edwardian lady, at ease in a way that Ned quietly envied.
“No?” he asked cautiously, clutching the satchel in his other hand.
“No. More like Raffles, the gentleman thief.” She smiled up at him. Ned grinned back, and let her guide him to the ticket window to purchase their passage back to the drop.
For the rest of his life, Ned always found railway journeys unbearably romantic.