“Six inches and it’s still coming down,” Nightingale reported as he came back inside, shutting the door hastily behind him; snow blew in all the same in a gusty swirl.
I shivered, and glanced at the wood stove that was the only obvious source of heating in the main room. I’m not really an expert on wood stoves: all I know is that they’re the most inefficient way to heat a building except for all the others available prior to the introduction of reticulated gas and, later, electricity.
As if alerted to my thoughts, the lights flickered.
“That’s not good,” I said, looking up. The room was lit by a dim incandescent bulb made dimmer by a dingy fabric lampshade that might once have been white and was now a sort of beige. I could do better with a werelight, if I didn’t mind ceasing all use of electronics first. But it’d be a waste of magic when we had electricity. That’s half the reason magic fell out of fashion as the twentieth century went on – most of what you can do easily with it, you could suddenly do just as easily with technology, and without the risk of frying your brain.
“It’s to be expected,” Nightingale said. “With this sort of weather. If we don’t lose power by the morning, I’ll be astonished.”
“Fantastic.” I slumped back onto the equally dingy – and also lumpy – sofa. “How long do you think it’s going to last?”
“Well, we could consult the wireless,” he said, stripping off his driving gloves and shoving them in the pocket of his Burberry, evidently having decided we weren’t leaving the building again for the foreseeable future. He didn’t sound sarcastic, but his mouth quirked when he said it. I did not give him a look. I just thought about it.
“No phone reception,” I said, waving it at him. “Which means the only radio we have is in the Jag, because I don’t see one in here, which means we’d have to go back out there, and since you’re the one still wearing your coat -”
“There’s no chance of us going anywhere before tomorrow anyway,” he interrupted me, “so I suppose we’ll just find out then. How’s the rest of it look, by the by?”
“There’s running water,” I said. “And – let’s be pleased – toilet paper, and soap and a couple of hand-towels, and sheets and blankets. One electric heater in the bedroom. Definitely someone’s B&B, or guest cottage, or something. Probably why it was unlocked.”
“It would have been a shearer’s cottage, once upon a time,” said Nightingale, looking around. “I suppose it would be quite pleasant in summer.”
“If your definition of pleasant involves being trapped in the Scottish Highlands, sure,” I grumbled, sticking my hands in my armpits. It was above freezing in here, but not by much.
We were only up here at all because we’d had to come for, not a case exactly, more some community-building negotiation – I was here to do the talking, Nightingale was here as backup – and Nightingale had insisted on taking the Jag rather than getting the train and renting a car up here. It had otherwise been a successful trip, but on the way back from our very remote destination off a B-road the GPS unit had started playing up, the weather had closed in, and not to put too fine a point on it, we’d got a bit lost. (“This is why you can’t always rely on technology, Peter,” Nightingale had muttered, but he hadn’t exactly stocked up on detailed road maps of the area either, so I took it as displaced annoyance with himself.) When we’d spotted the cottage, we’d come up to find out where we were. But it had been empty, and now we were here and snow was coming down and we might be here for a while. We’d both fancied our chances better in the cottage than the Jag, especially since it was unlocked and we wouldn’t technically be breaking and entering.
More than the cold, I’d be worried about both of us being out of London any longer than we’d already planned to be, but Sahra Guleed could probably handle anything short of an actual rogue practitioner. As far as I knew there weren’t any of those running around right now, us being fairly certain Lesley wasn’t in the country. So it was me, Nightingale, and a stone cottage with a single wood stove and a dubious supply of electricity. And, did I mention, one bed, but on the scale of things I was worried about, hypothermia and the dubious legality of our being in here at all still ranked higher than that. I could worry about that later.
“I wonder sometimes,” Nightingale said. “What would you have done if you’d had a job that required you to move out of London?”
I blinked at him. “Found a different job?”
“Mmmm, indeed.” He made as if to look at the stove, but it didn’t do much to hide his grin.
“Just imagine,” I said. “If we’d stayed in London where we belonged, we could be sitting in the Folly right now all warm and comfortable. There’s a lesson for you.”
“I think we can be warm here, at least,” he said, opening the stove door. “There’s wood. Comfortable might be stretching it.”
“Want some help with that?” I offered.
“Have you ever actually lit a wood fire?”
“Define ‘lighting a fire.’”
“Lighting things on fire is not included in the definition, that I can tell you.”
“Then not really. How about I go turn on the -”
As I spoke, the light flickered ominously and then died. It wasn’t the fzzt of a burnt-out bulb, either. We cast werelights practically at the same instant; it was a weird overlapping sensation of our signares, similar in some ways already because Nightingale had taught me magic, jumbled up in my senses. I fixed mine to the ceiling, in imitation of the electric light we’d just lost. Nightingale’s hovered near the stove.
“Well, that tears it,” said Nightingale. “We’ve got to get this going, and going all night.”
“Is that going to be enough wood?” I had absolutely no idea.
“I think so, with what’s here. If we run low I expect there’s a woodstore out back. Or I hope there is.”
I shuffled along the couch a bit so I could see what Nightingale was doing; apparently the way the wood and – was that paper? – had been left in there to be lit was in some way unsatisfactory. I half-expected him to make a lesson of it, because even after all these years he finds it somewhere between vexing and mystifying when I don’t know things that were considered basic knowledge in the British upper-middle-class of the early twentieth century, like how to light a fire or read Latin or which fork to use first. But he must have been cold too, because he just reorganised it quickly, with neat, economical motions. His head was bowed over it and his face abstracted with concentration. I was tired – it had been a long day – so I just sat there, my elbows on my knees, and watched him. It was, despite the situation, restful.
I wanted to reach out and touch him on the shoulder but I couldn’t think why. There wasn’t anything that needed saying right this instant.
He sat back on his heels and lit the fire with one of those many useful variants of lux, though not an actual fireball – that would have been overkill. It was the same one I’d once learned to light a primus stove, so really, I could have helped, although even I could tell that was the least complicated part of the process. The paper burst quickly into flame. As smaller pieces of wood started to catch, he shut the stove door. I could feel a little heat off it already, or maybe it was just in my head; in any case, I was cold enough that I slid down off the sofa onto my knees, and moved next to Nightingale. It was more in my head than anything else, I found once I got closer, but I could feel warmth coming off Nightingale, the exposed skin of his hands and face and forearms where he’d rolled his sleeves up a little to deal with the fire. The rest of him was too well-insulated.
I had the sudden and terribly inappropriate urge to just move in as close as I could get and bury my face in his neck. It’d be so warm. But the fire was starting to give off some real heat now, and instead we both held our hands out to it. Nightingale shuffled close to me, so we were almost pressed up against each other knee to hip to shoulder, our elbows jostling. He must have been colder than he let on. I let him, because I’m generous like that.
“We should sleep in here,” he said. “I don’t think this will heat the whole place, or not reliably.”
“Well, that solves the bed problem.” My hands were too hot now. I pulled them away and tucked them under my arms again, to spread the warmth. I wondered if I could borrow his too. Probably best not to suggest that.
“I was going to suggest we toss a coin for it, loser took the sofa. Loser takes the floor instead?”
Nightingale cast a dubious look behind us. “No need; I’d rather have this rug than that.”
I considered the sofa, which was undoubtedly dragging down this place’s AirBnB rating, if it had one. “Now you mention it, I think I agree.”
He laughed, unexpectedly. I looked at him in some concern; it wasn’t cold enough for him to have got to the hallucinations and impaired judgement part of hypothermia, surely.
“Takes me back, that’s all,” he said at my look. “But this is a much improved situation, really; no need to post sentries.”
“Oh, loser definitely takes first watch, then,” I said, and stood. “I’m going to go grab the blankets and pillows.”
“Better company, too,” he said as I started to move away, but it was quite low and almost reflective, so I decided it wasn’t a comment intended for me and didn’t say anything. Saved me figuring out what on earth I’d say.
That stove really was working well; it felt warmer even on the other side of the room already.
There really wasn’t much to do but try and sleep the storm out, so that’s what we did. We took off our coats, because they’re no fun to sleep in besides being damp with snow, and I got rid of my jacket and tie and belt and shoes as well and went to bundle myself up in a blanket or two. Then Nightingale insisted I take the duvet, the only thing that wasn’t woolen and slightly itchy, and we took turns shoving it at each other before compromising on sharing. It wasn’t that difficult because there was, honestly, even less room between the sofa and the stove – staying the appropriate distance from the stove – than there was on the queen-size bed in the other room.
Good thing we were both adults and could be sensible about these things. Besides, having someone else under there helped with that tricky period when you’ve got into a cold bed, or under cold blankets on a floor, and your body heat hasn’t warmed up the air around you yet.
“It’s got colder out since we came in here, I think,” Nightingale said. His voice was low from sleep, and we were both talking quietly, even though there was nobody to disturb. It was something about the darkness and the firelight; we’d both shut down our werelights. “But the snow seems to be easing, so we may be able to dig ourselves out without too much trouble in the morning.”
“Or melt,” I said.
“Digging definitely works better,” said Nightingale. “Speaking from experience. Otherwise you can get re-freezing, and it’s really not very enjoyable for anybody except people watching.”
“Were you melting, or watching?”
“Watching,” he said, an amused light in his eye when I glanced over. “But only by chance.”
“It might not matter until the road’s clear, anyway. I hope whoever owns this place isn’t too annoyed with us. Bad look for the Met, especially now.”
“They’re not going to be out more than a few sticks of firewood. I think you can talk our way out of it if there’s anything to be talked out of.”
“I can talk our way out of it?” I snorted.
“You seem to enjoy it so much,” said Nightingale. “I’d hate to deprive you of the opportunity.”
“I have no idea why I put up with you.” It came out before I could think about it too hard, since there were several dull and obvious answers to that question.
“A mystery for the ages, indeed,” was all Nightingale said in response, cheerfully enough, but then he went quiet. After a few moments I looked over, but he was almost preternaturally still. He’d dropped right off; he was good at catching sleep where and when he could. I shifted restlessly for a bit, because the rug wasn’t that much more comfortable than the sofa would have been, but eventually drifted off as well.
I woke up sometime later, the air on my face cool but only in comparison to the rest of me, which was warm. It was particularly warm where Nightingale had slung an arm across me. He was lying on his side now, facing me. The coals of the fire, burning low, cast the room in a reddish light, but his face was mostly in shadow.
For all that, he looked terribly peaceful, and I felt like if I took the implicit invitation of his arm and snuggled in close that peace would spread itself across me, too. It was the logic of my brain half-dreaming. I inched in slightly under the grounds of plausible deniability, rolling in to face him, and then he tucked his arm in and I was pulled so close I put my face in his neck, like I’d wanted to earlier. I fell almost instantly back under, even though he was breathing on my ear, and I hate that.
My half-dreaming brain had been right. It was peaceful.
I woke up again with the overheated, sweaty feeling you get when you sleep in your clothes, especially snuggled up with another person. I couldn’t exactly say sunlight was streaming in the windows, because we’d shut the curtains against the cold, but the crack I could see if I levered myself up and looked around spoke of oncoming sunrise and a clear sky.
Levering myself up was more difficult than it sounds, because sometime in the night I’d got thoroughly entangled in both the blankets and Nightingale. We’d moved around a bit and he had his forehead tucked under my chin now, having slipped entirely off the pillow, and his legs somehow wrapped between and around mine. It was the sort of cosiness that lends itself to mornings in bed, and I gave up on the levering because it was sure to wake him up and when he did it was going to be somewhere between awkward and embarrassing, and I wanted to put that off as long as possible.
But I couldn’t help rubbing the thumb of my right hand in small circles on his lower back – where it had landed without my conscious input – because between one thing and another it had been a while now since I’d lain like this in drowsy silence with someone, and I was willing to bet a lot longer for him. I knew it was going to be awkward, but right now it was just warm and comforting and a lot of things I hadn’t realised I was missing. If we could blame it on dreams and makeshift sleeping conditions then I was more than happy to take whatever this was.
It wasn’t cuddling. Just so we’re clear.
It was around then I noticed Nightingale was having the usual sort of physical reaction to extended, comfortable, full-body contact with another person in his bed. Or on his floor, more accurately. Not that I wasn’t, but that wasn’t a surprise. It shouldn’t have been a surprise with him, either, but this is Nightingale. I suppose part of me expected him to be above that sort of autonomic reaction.
Right then it just all seemed to be part of the warm circle of comfort, too, something we could assidously avoid talking about once we were forced to acknowledge we were awake and get up and go and try digging out the Jag. Not something worth mentioning.
Oh, yeah, I’d figured out he was awake by that point. I think it had been my shuffling around trying to see if it was light out. He’s very good at holding still, but there’s a difference between even relaxed stillness and sleep – I’d seen the real thing last night – and his breathing wasn’t quite slow enough. But two could play at that game, so I kept my eyes closed and my own breathing steady and my limbs lax and my thumb moving in small circles and savoured it while it lasted.
Nightingale spoiled it by uncurling his head from under my chin and shifting up enough to put his mouth next to my ear.
“Peter,” he said, and I never did find out what he meant to say next, whether it was going to be we need to get up now or I know you’re awake or I do hope that’s your mobile phone in your pocket, because it was having him breathe my name in my ear that tipped everything over from “comfortably warm” and “autonomic reaction” to the realisation that I was caught up in the sort of slow, lazy morning want that seeps along your veins before you notice it’s there. The sort of want that isn’t about anything complicated or athletic, isn’t about urgency, isn’t even about sight or sound so much as the feel of another body against yours, about finding the right way to move until you both tip over and the long crest of it sweeps all the cobwebs of sleep out of your brain, and then maybe you’ll be coherent enough for words.
It is not, under any sort of circumstances, the sort of want you’re supposed to have, let alone indulge, when you’ve been forced to share sleeping space with a colleague. It’s not the sort of want you should be able to have in that sort of situation; it’s nothing like the nervous undercurrent of a first time.
“Mmmm,” I said, mouth not yet as verbal as my brain, and my hips moved almost involuntarily, in a motion that could just about have been explained away as an awakening stretch, except that it wasn’t. The brush of firmer contact sent a wash of pleasure through me, an enticement to more. I froze, knowing I’d just pushed that moment of awkwardness hanging over us up to right this second. But instead of withdrawing tactfully, insomuch as that was possible in our tangle of bedclothes and bodies, Nightingale let out a shuddering breath that tickled my ear in a suddenly unhelpful way. At the same moment his hand tightened where it was still resting on my hip – well, hip was a charitable interpretation – and he worked his leg further between mine, too low-down for me to grind against his thigh properly like I wanted to, but with the incipient promise of such. There were still a lot of layers between us, all our clothes, and right now I was imagining what waking up naked like this with him would have been like and wishing I knew a magic spell to whisk them all away.
For the record, there is no such spell. At least not one that’s any faster than getting undressed with average manual dexterity and leaves your clothes in a usable condition afterwards. It’s on my to-do list, just for the hell of it.
I wriggled a bit closer until I could feel his cock hard against me, properly, not just the suggestion of it, and that got him giving up on the zone of charitable interpretation and just groping me quite unashamedly on the arse. I reached down to hitch his leg up properly so I could, oh yeah, just like that. Neither of us had said anything else but I felt him smiling against my cheek, and then the delicate scrape of teeth as he mouthed at my earlobe, and I might have gasped and pushed harder against him.
We rode against each other like that for what felt like a long time but probably wasn’t really, not rushing, just enjoying, the pleasure of it making my body feel heavy and slow and golden. I didn’t even think about stopping to undress, not by then. I pressed my lips against the pulse in Nightingale’s throat, and I could feel it pounding. It was almost silent in the room, except for the sound of our ragged breathing. I wondered if anything like this had gone on in abandoned French farmhouses or wherever it was Nightingale had been taken back to while arguing about where to sleep last night, and then I decided of course it had, and then I realised I hadn’t looked him in the face this whole time. I’m a fan of plausible deniability but not when it comes to my sex life. I dragged my lips up his throat and then kissed him squarely on the mouth. His eyelids had been lowered, and they didn’t exactly fly open – we were still both too sleepy for that – but he looked at me properly then.
I suppose I’d wondered whether he thought this whole thing fell under some weird code of century-old masculinity that I didn’t know the rules of and he’d assumed I should, sort of like lighting a fire, but apparently we were just having regular twenty-first-century spontaneous and inadvisable sex. He kissed me back deep and slow, bringing what had been almost a challenge back into the tempo of the rest of it, and rolled so I was over him now, bracing myself on one hand, grinding down onto him. The movement let a little bit of cold air in under the duvet and we both broke away from kissing to yelp, kicking it back down, and then laughed, but our laughter trailed away as he rolled his hips up a little faster and I responded. I was having all sorts of grand ideas about what I wanted, about doing this again, about having Nightingale’s lithe body under me not on a hard rug-covered floor but in a bed, god, the things we were going to do. The things I wanted to do with him. I tipped over before I realised it was happening, barely keeping some of my weight on my hand as it all washed over me long and slow, in pulses I could practically feel in my toes, like the aftermath of a really good dream. Except there was nothing dreamlike about the remnant of chill along my leg where we’d pulled the duvet up, or the feel of Nightingale under me going tense and then suddenly slack, or the low noise he made as he came. Or the way he kept his eyes on me, like it felt like a dream to him, too. I kissed him again through the last of it, for the feeling of him making that beautiful low whining noise into my mouth, because fuck plausible deniability and makeshift sleeping conditions and whatever else, I wanted, and now I knew he did too.
Look, I know what it means when I have random impulses to shove my face in somebody’s neck under the pretext of huddling for warmth: there are just things it’s not useful to dwell on.
He snuck his hand under my shirt to run it gently up and down my side as we both came down, our cheeks pressed together. The skin-to-skin contact was a sudden shock after all that, like a promise. I shivered a little bit.
After a minute or so of breath-catching and definitely not doing anything like nuzzling into Nightingale’s neck I climbed carefully off. I was wishing I hadn’t left my handkerchief – I’ve started carrying them now since I seem to collect so many of his otherwise – in my jacket, on the back of the sofa. Some cleanup was going to be required before we got onto the snow-moving, because our spare clothes, such as they were for a short trip, were in the Jag still. And I really didn’t want to get out from under the blankets just yet. The fire had burned out in the wee hours of the morning and it was definitely on the cool side outside them.
Then I remembered I’m a wizard, so I could just nudge the jacket within reach with a lazy twist on impello. You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget that sort of thing, especially after entirely unexpected and unexpectedly amazing morning sex.
“Well,” I said, as I searched the pockets. “Morning. How’d you sleep?”
Nightingale stretched and smiled up at me the same way he might when he demonstrated unanticipated mastery of some piece of technology – or regulation of the Metropolitan Police Service – invented after nineteen-fifty or thereabouts. A little smug, a little mischevious, a lot pleased, anticipating hopefully that I would be pleased as well.
“Under the circumstances,” he said, “exceptionally well.”