Thomas paced the Folly's library, hoping for some flash of insight to strike him. It was hard to focus when his mind kept straying back to Peter's prone body on Abdul's examination table, his cold flesh and glassy eyes, the terrifying pallor of his skin.
"His heart has stopped," Abdul had said, stopping Thomas's own, and then, "but his body isn't showing the usual signs of decomposition. He seems to be... suspended. Thomas, I've never seen anything like this. I have no doubt that this is magical in nature."
"Can he be revived?" Thomas had asked.
The look on Abdul's face had been one of abject pity. “There’s no sign of activity in the brain. I don’t know what’s causing his body to behave in such a way but... he’s gone. Peter’s gone.”
“I... see,” Thomas said.
Abdul had sighed, and closed his eyes, and said, "I'll give you a day to work it out. If I don’t put a rush on, it could take that long to get to him anyway. But Thomas—don't expect miracles."
Thomas had clasped Peter's clammy hand one final time and received a flash of confusing vestigia, a jumble of images, the smell of sulphur. "Twenty four hours," he'd said to Abdul. "I'll be back."
But that day was fast slipping through Thomas's fingers. The circumstances of what exactly Peter had been doing were proving difficult to ascertain. Peter and Beverley Brook had had what Thomas usually thought of as a 'falling out', though Peter termed it 'on a break'. Though Peter never said what he was up to, Thomas certainly had strong suspicions about what he was doing when he went out in clean jeans and a shirt with a collar rather than his usual excessively scruffy off-duty attire. Thomas had heard a few names mentioned now and then: Jameela, who cropped up in a story about a trip to Kew Gardens; Bianca, apparently a companion at a disastrous football match; and Helle, when Copenhagen had been relevant to a case. However, he was loath to bring it up apart from where it actively interfered with Peter's apprenticeship. It was not decorous for an Inspector to discuss such matters with his constables, and, in any case, Thomas did not want any details. He was doing his best not to think too hard about why. The fact was that he had no idea how to contact any of these women, and, indeed, no idea if any of them was likely to have seen Peter...before. He had not yet called Peter's mother. He hadn't been able to bring himself to do it.
Thomas sat and put his head in his hands, leaning his elbows heavily on the library desk. He had no leads, no ideas, and no helpers. The team of constables the Folly had at its disposal had been tasked with scouring the city for Zachary Palmer in case either the Faceless Man or the Fae were involved. Varvara was out pulling on all kinds of strings that Thomas had decided not to ask about the legality of. Abigail had been packed off, protesting, back to her parents the moment Thomas had learned that something had happened to Peter. After all, there were only so many apprentices one could lose one's grip on before the weak link became apparent. The difficulty was that he had not quite understood how completely he had come to rely on Peter's presence: his easy charm, his constant pushing for answers, his chatter filling the Folly's dusty corridors that Thomas and Molly had rattled around alone in for years until they'd met him. How could they return to that, now?
A warm weight settled on Thomas's feet, and he reached down to scratch Toby behind the ears.
"What the hell are we going to do?" Thomas said. Toby whined in response.
Thomas ran his hand through his hair and tried to gather his tired, scattered thoughts. Suspended, Abdul had said.
Spread out on the desk before him were a dozen tomes on death magic and underworld myths, hedge wizard journals and Folly records going back hundreds of years. It was going to be a long night indeed.
Thomas awoke to the sound of barking.
He blinked his eyes open, but the darkness did not abate. Even so, it was instantly clear that he was no longer in the Folly. There was dirt beneath his hands and the air was thick with the scent of sulphur. He patted down his pockets, taking a quick inventory: he had on his mackintosh, with his Swiss army knife in the pocket, but he could not see his staff. He did not seem to have any immediately obvious injuries.
The barking continued. Thomas focused on the forma for a werelight.
Rather than the modest ball of light he had intended, the werelight blazed to life as though it were the sun itself, and Thomas flung a hand across his eyes to shield them. Not fairyland, then. Peter had described how he had been unable to perform magic there, but this was the opposite. Magic was strong here, stronger than it ought to be. There was a whine, and a wet nose pressed against his fingers. Thomas opened his eyes.
"Toby," he said, relieved, as the light illuminated the terrier at his side. "Good boy. Now, where are we?"
They were in a clearing of some kind, surrounded by gnarled and blackened trees. Thomas's staff—thankfully—lay a short distance from where he sat. He reached for it and pushed himself to his feet. To the north, there was the sound of running water. Toby scampered toward it, then turned and yapped once, expectantly.
There was less forest than he had expected. They walked through trees for only a few short minutes before they opened out into a grassy riverbank, beyond which water flowed serenely by. A grey mist shrouded the far bank, hiding whatever lay beyond. The smell of sulphur was more pronounced here, and there was a background thrum of low-level vestigia, a sensation of many souls in pain or fear. Thomas had begun to piece together an inkling of what was going on. His Greek may yet prove useful.
A figure materialised from the mist and stepped into the water at what must have been a ford, crossing the river with swift, sure steps. The figure stepped up onto the near bank, and Thomas got his first good look at her. A woman with a lined face and silver hair that fell in a braid to her waist stood before him. She was dressed in leather and furs, and in her hands she held a skein of scarlet thread. As he approached her, the river at her back seemed to roar fit to burst its banks, all frothing white water and swirling eddies.
Though her appearance seemed Scandinavian, the environment still had more than a whiff of the Greek about it. He dredged his memory of lessons in mythology.
"Oceanus?" he guessed, after a pause, and was rewarded with her nod. "I must say, I was expecting a man."
"I… was not," she said, regarding him.
"Oh?" Thomas asked, politely. It usually paid dividends to delay any potential conflict until one was in possession of all the facts. Thomas, at this particular moment, felt like he had a sure grasp on less than ten percent of them.
"Magic is the domain of women," she said, eyeing Thomas's staff with distaste. "Women, and those who are not real men."
Thomas stiffened. The implications of that were horribly clear. However, arguing would only waste precious time, time Peter might not have. "May I cross your river?" he asked instead.
"Are you sure you wish to cross?" she replied. "It is dangerous to meddle in the affairs of fate. On the other side, you will face many trials. There will be danger. You should turn back now, magician. Should you fail, there is no way back to the surface once you cross. The only way out is through."
"If I fail, I wouldn't wish to return to the surface," Thomas said.
She gave him a long look before stepping aside. The raging waters abated. She threw the skein of thread across to the other bank; it unravelled as it went, the scarlet thread skimming the surface of the water.
"This will lead you on," she said.
Thomas debated removing his socks and shoes for a moment, but it didn’t seem appropriate, somehow. He stepped into the icy river.
The acrid smell of burning seemed to permeate the air once Thomas set foot on the far bank. Turning to look back over his shoulder, he saw nothing but mist obscuring the way they had come; it was clear that the norn had told it true, and the only way out now was on. Toby gave a muffled bark before trotting on ahead. Thomas followed once more.
There were no trees on this side of the river, only the charred remains of what might once have been trees. Or perhaps men. Thomas declined to look too closely at the grotesque stumps. There was a palpable air of danger here, one that he had not felt before crossing the river. The first river, he reminded himself. If his schooling had been correct, there were several more remaining.
The first of these came into view not long after they began walking again. It was difficult to miss the towering flames that licked up its banks and high up into the air. Thomas paused several yards away, and even from that distance, the unrelenting heat seemed fit to char the flesh from his bones. He took a deep breath and regretted it as soon as he did so, coughing around a lungful of smoke. Shallow breaths, then. He pulled his scarf from the inner pocket of his coat, wetting the silk with a hasty aqua before wrapping it around his face to cover his nose and mouth.
Thomas felt the prickle of eyes on him, but when looked up, there was no one in sight. Instead, he noticed a wooden rowing boat moored at a jetty at the river's edge. He cast a rather despairing glance at Toby, who seemed oblivious, quivering with anticipation at Thomas's feet.
"Are you sure about this?" Thomas asked, voice muffled by the scarf.
Toby responded by running down onto the jetty and launching himself into the boat, his claws clicking across the wood before he settled at the prow. Thomas sighed and stepped gingerly down. He had never felt more aware of his centre of mass than when embarking a rowing boat over a river of fire. Phlegethan, he thought, dredging a second name from the depths of his knowledge. The gateway to Tartarus, where souls were judged after death. A shudder went through him at the idea that Peter could be there, in the clutches of a torturer. There was only one way to make sure that he was not. Thomas reached for the oars.
The little boat seemed to shake as he cast off from the jetty but the oars skimmed through the flickering flames as though they were ordinary river water. The magic in this place was strong, strong enough to protect him from the heat of the fire, or else to make him think there was fire where there was none. He rowed on, each rhythmic stroke propelling them further down the river into the unknown.
Thomas's arms had begun to ache by the time their apparent destination came into view: a rocky cliff-face loomed before them, the river disappearing into a jagged opening within. Sharp stalactites skimmed the top of Thomas's head as they passed through into the dark abyss, forcing him to duck. The sound of distant screaming echoed off the cave walls. Toby whined and forced himself underneath Thomas's legs, where he sat cringing; Thomas reached down to scratch him behind the ears, not sure whether he was reassuring the dog or himself.
As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Thomas spotted another jetty, behind which was a set of imposing iron gates. A small figure stood there, their face wreathed in shadow. Thomas threw his tow rope toward the wooden mooring post. When the figure bent down to assist, the light from the flaming river illuminated her features. It was Lesley May.
"Alright, Guv?" she said. Or whatever it was that was wearing her face said. It was a good likeness, Thomas would give it that, but their references were perhaps a little outdated. This was Lesley as she'd been just after Thomas had taken her on as an apprentice, when she was just getting used to going outside on a regular basis again, but without the ubiquitous mask she'd worn back then. It was easier to understand why she'd done what she did when one looked at those scars. Easier, but not easy. He wasn't sure he would ever forgive her for it, or himself for allowing it to happen. But this wasn't the time to wallow in his past failures.
"You can drop the illusion," Thomas said. "I know you're not her."
"Clever Nightingale," it said, baring its teeth in a rictus grin. "How about another of your lost chicks?"
Before Thomas's eyes, the skin of not-Lesley's face began to bubble and boil, seeming to melt and reform, darkening, tightening, smoothing, her hair shrinking back and darkening too, until it was Peter that stood in front of him instead.
"Tut, tut, Nightingale," it said, with Peter's mouth and Peter's voice. "Two apprentices down, now. You should turn back, you know. He wouldn't thank you if he knew the things you want to do to him."
"Where is he?" Thomas demanded.
"You'll never find him. You should give up. He'd think you were a pervert anyway. Abuse of power. Naughty, naughty inspector, wants to play bad cop with the underling."
It was nothing that Thomas hadn't thought himself in his darker moments, but hearing it in Peter's voice was singularly upsetting. "Tell me where he is," he said, more insistently.
"Gone," the thing said.
Thomas sighed, and blasted it in the face with a fireball.
It was not one of his prouder moments, but, in his defence, it had been a rather trying day.
The thing seemed to dissolve into the wall with a chilling scream, taking the gates with it. Thomas cried out and dashed forward, but when he laid his hands against the stone, but there seemed to be no opening, nor cracks of any kind. He tested out a few well-placed higher order spells, but the wall remained stubbornly intact.
"I don't suppose you have a suggestion," Thomas remarked to Toby, who yapped from his seat in the boat. "Yes, I was rather afraid you'd say that."
It would be a long row back against the current. Onwards it was. The river forked on its path out of the cavern. Thomas took the rightmost fork, because that was the direction that Toby, standing proudly in the boat's small prow, was looking. The dog seemed to know where they were going; Thomas just hoped that he was right.
They followed the course through narrowing passages until they emerged from the stifling rock into an open space that was almost as dark. There was another mist here, lying heavily on the surface of the water, obscuring everything around them. From somewhere close, there came a sorrowful wail, a cry of despair so plaintive that it made every hair on Thomas's neck stand on end. A banshee wail.
A sensation of grief came over Thomas then, so powerfully that he could no longer hold the oars. All the men he had mourned flickered through his mind like an old-fashioned cinema reel. The war had taken most of them, but his long life had taken the rest. The boat floated along on the current, but the water seemed to be expanding on all sides, leaving them alone in the midst of a black ocean of nothingness. There was nothing left but grief.
Except there was something more than grief here, because something vast and unseen was snaking a suckered tentacle over the side of the boat.
Thomas shook his head to clear it and cast a severing spell. The tentacle vanished back into the blackness and Thomas leapt into action, grabbing the oars as Toby barked madly all the while.
Soon, thankfully, they reached dry land once more.
The next river he came to had no boat, no obvious crossing point, and no guardian that Thomas could see. It seemed fairly narrow and shallow enough that Thomas could see rocks lying on the bottom. After a brief visual reconnaissance, he determined that there were no large predators and no evidence of a fast current. There was nothing for it but to wade again. He considered—again—his shoes, decided that they were already well beyond repair, and stepped down into the flow of water.
There was a riverbank. Thomas climbed up onto its edge, pulled off his soaked shoes and socks, and dipped his feet back into the cool water.
Why had he come to this place? There had been a reason, he was certain. It felt like something important, a name on the tip of his tongue, but when he tried to grasp it, it slipped from his mind like sand through an hourglass.
There was a dog, a handsome terrier. Had there been a dog before? He didn't think he owned a dog, so he must belong to someone else. They would be missing him. Thomas tried to grab the dog but it danced away from him, barking.
Why had he come to this place? The water was cool on his aching feet.
The dog was barking. Had there been a dog before?
The dog was pulling at Thomas's coat, worrying the fabric between his teeth.
"I say, stop it," Thomas said, but the dog only growled and pulled harder. "Stop it!" Thomas said, standing up and shooing the dog away.
It was like a switch flipping: the one day he'd been given, rivers, Toby, Peter. Peter. His stomach lurched to think that he could have come so far only to forget the one thing that mattered. Lethe. That river must have been Lethe.
"Good boy!" Thomas said with feeling, crouching down to rub Toby's flanks, heedless of the smell of wet dog. "You're such a very good boy."
Toby barked once, happily, and led Thomas further on, over the crest of a hill. Thomas paused at the top to cast a spell to dry his sodden clothes, and put his shoes back on. From this vantage point, Thomas could see the path of the next river, undulating through the valley like a snake. In the distance, the tips of turrets rose just above the treeline; that must be his final destination.
First, though, the fifth river. Again, there was no boat or crossing place, and Thomas could see no evidence of danger. The previous experience, however, had reminded him that absence of evidence was not evidence of absence, as Peter was fond of saying. He spent a few minutes contemplating the width of the river and the potential for crossing it without touching the water. There were several higher-order spells that could be used to manipulate the environment, kinetically-speaking, but to propel oneself by magic means was sadly a secret known only to storybook witches and, apparently, Caroline Linden-Limmer. The riverbank was sadly devoid of conveniently-placed trees or fallen logs—but, Thomas noted, there were a multitude of inconveniently-placed ones. Toby cowered behind his ankles as he wrenched first one and then a second gnarled tree out by the roots and floated them over to bridge the river. A little inelegant, perhaps, but 'bodge it and scarper' had long been an unofficial motto of the Royal Engineers because it got the job done. Thomas intended to scarper post-haste, as it were.
He tested the stability of the makeshift bridge with one foot, and it seemed as if it would hold. He stepped out carefully and was halfway across when he was hit from the side with enormous force and dragged down under the water.
He couldn't breathe. It was pitch black beneath the surface. He didn't know which way was up, but his staff was still in his hand. He swung with it, blindly, and made contact with whatever was holding him. He kicked his legs and, miraculously, breached the surface. He took a gasping breath, and this time caught a glimpse of the crocodile before it dragged him back under. It held him and began to roll, over and over, dizzyingly fast. Thomas tried to get a grip on his own rising panic and keep the formae he needed straight in his mind. When the death roll stopped and the crocodile loosened its grip minutely, Thomas was ready with a burst of ice that froze it right where it floated. Thank you, Varvara.
Gasping and flailing with the blooming pain in his thigh, he dragged himself to the other side of the river and up onto the bank where he lay, panting, until he felt capable of moving again. Gingerly, he rolled onto his back and investigated his new wounds with his fingers. Presumably it hadn't taken the femoral artery, or he would be dead already, but there was enough damage to make walking a challenge. Crocodiles, he thought wryly. Someone's sense of irony, perhaps. His trousers were shredded almost beyond recognition, so he ripped away the tattered lower leg to make strips to bind the injury and stop the bleeding. Abdul would never take him on as an apprentice, but he hoped it would hold enough to prevent him dying of blood loss before he even found Peter.
Toby, apparently unscathed, traversed the log bridge in a series of deft leaps and trotted on ahead. Thomas forced himself to his feet and followed.
The next river was ink-black and mirror-smooth, with not even a ripple to show that there was water there at all. Thomas was relieved to see another boat was moored at its near bank. But this one was not empty.
The boatman wore a cloak of black velvet. The hand it held out to Thomas, palm up, was wizened and grey, with skin like old parchment. Thomas patted down what remained of his pockets, passing over soggy pay and display tickets and mint imperials and his knife until he found what he was looking for. He pressed the old penny into the boatman's palm and it curled its fingers around it, squirreling the coin away into the depths of its cloak. Then it gestured for Thomas to sit.
The trip across the river seemed to take longer than he would have expected. This river seemed to distort time and space around it; he was beginning to understand how souls could wander here lost for many years. The boatman rowed silently, his oars cutting through the water without so much as a whisper of noise. Even Toby had grown quiet where he sat perched on Thomas's good leg. Thomas stroked the dog's soft ears and leaned back in his seat, trying to fight the temptation to close his eyes, just for a moment. He was so close to finding Peter now, he was sure of it. He had crossed five rivers already. This must be the last. The most famous.
Styx was waiting for him when he disembarked. There was something of Lady Tyburn around her eyes as she gazed at him.
His leg pulsed with pain, but Thomas attempted not to limp or lean too heavily on his staff as he approached, so as to not make his weakness even more obvious. He could ill afford more disadvantages now. They regarded one another coolly for a long moment before Styx spoke.
Thomas offered her a wry smile. "I generally prefer it without the article."
"Your reputation is well known even here. Why do you trespass in Hel's realm?"
"Someone very dear to me seems to have been brought down here, and I'd rather like to have him back, if it's all the same to you."
"It's not," she said, and lunged.
Thomas had already begun to shape the formae for a holding spell in his mind, and he loosed it with great prejudice at Styx, following it with one of Peter's so-called skinny grenades for good measure. She shrugged off the hold as if it were nothing more than an irritation, and Thomas was forced to dive aside as a torrent of vicious ice shards rained down around him, strongly reminding him of why he usually avoided trying to go toe-to-toe with genii locorum. The skinny grenade went off with a muffled whump. Styx shrieked and the waters of her river seemed to rise up in sympathy, swirling dangerously around Thomas's ankles. He threw a basic impello at her but she dodged it easily.
He needed to catch his breath; the bite from the crocodile was throbbing agony, but Styx came at him with relentless pressure. Even the increased strength of his spells was of no use, as it seemed to work just as well for her. He aimed a fireball in her general direction, and another, until all around them was a succession of smoking craters that Styx filled with water, creating a treacherous landscape of mud and smoke not unlike a Belgian battlefield. As he attempted to aim another fireball, Thomas lost his footing, leg plunging into an icy hole. He cried out as he fell and landed hard enough to knock the wind out of him, his staff skittering away from him and out of reach. Styx's soft footsteps sounded somewhere close, moving toward him. He sank his fingers into the muddy ground and clawed his way forward to where his staff now lay.
The footsteps stopped. He knew she was standing over him, considering how best to finish him. He could not let that happen. He took a deep breath, weaved a couple of extra formae into his holding spell for good measure, and launched himself onto his back through an agony of protesting muscles, releasing the spell as he went. She caught the full brunt of it this time, freezing like a butterfly pinned to a board. Thomas pushed himself gingerly to his feet, keeping his eyes fixed on Styx. Though she was immobile, there was clear rage in her eyes.
"Sorry about this," he told her, and hit her with an impello strong enough to land her back in the river. She would escape, eventually. But he hoped to be long gone by then.
He picked up his staff and considered his hideously muddy hands for a moment before conjuring a ball of water to wash them. Then he put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. Toby came slinking out from behind some greenery, also covered in mud, which he helpfully rinsed off in one of Styx's puddles before shaking the filthy water out all over Thomas's coat. Thomas stifled a sigh; the thing was probably beyond repair at this point.
"If you're quite finished," he said, "I thought you were supposed to be my guide."
Toby barked once and ran off ahead. Thomas followed, stepping carefully across the pitted ground.
Beyond the edge of the forest lay a splendid castle of red stone, its turrets rising out of the mist like sentinels. Somewhere in the distance, a cockrel crowed. Thomas quickened his pace as much as he could, leaning on his staff with every step. Toby yapped at him as he went, dancing around his ankles.
A set of tall, ornate doors parted before him, almost as if they had been waiting for him. Beyond lay what must have been Hel's throne room. And there, kneeling at the foot of her throne, was Peter.
Thomas stifled his cry of alarm, stumbling forward even as his injured leg protested. Peter's face was upturned as he gazed at Hel, glassy-eyed and adoring. He was naked, aside from a cloak made of something that rippled like night from his shoulders. Thomas forced himself to look, but Peter seemed unharmed. Only enthralled.
"Beautiful, is he not?" Hel said, breaking the stillness of the tableau. She reached down a hand to stroke Peter's face. Bile rose in Thomas's throat.
"He doesn't belong to you."
"My dear Nightingale," she said, "all men belong to me. Eventually."
"Not him," Thomas said. He swayed forward a step, leaning heavily on his staff. "Not now. Not like this." He took another step forward.
"You'd be surprised," she said, her fingers brushing Peter's lips, "just how willingly he came with me. He courts death, your Starling. Didn't you know?"
"I've seen more death than him," Thomas said. He took as deep a breath as he could, forcing himself forward again. "A lifetime's worth. Two lifetimes. Take me instead. Let Peter go."
Hel's laughter rang through the hall like the peal of funereal bells. "I had heard that the great Thomas Nightingale was a clever man. Don't you hear what I'm telling you? You have nothing to bargain with. You're already mine."
Thomas took another step forward.
"You have been a good provider before," Hel said. Her voice had lost the syrupy sweetness of before, faded away to malice. "I drank my fill of the souls you slew at Ettersberg, What's one more? One extra for your collection?"
"Let." A step. "Him." Step. "Go." He pushed onward and nearly stumbled, leaning even more heavily on his staff. "You have no right to touch him."
"I have every right," Hel snapped. "He gave himself willingly."
"He didn't understand the consequences."
"Oh," she said suddenly. "Oh, but this is pathetic. I thought your concern was for your student."
"It is," Thomas said. He was almost at the throne now.
"You're jealous," she said. "You want him. You hate that I can touch him."
"No," Thomas said, but his stomach roiled at the thought she might touch Peter again. He reached out a hand to grab Peter's shoulder.
"Boss?" Peter murmured. His eyes lost some of their glassiness as he turned his face toward Thomas.
"Yes, Peter, it's me," Thomas said. He keep his gaze fixed on Peter's face, not daring to look away even to risk a glance at Hel's reaction.
"Where are we? I don't remember what happened." Peter shook his head as if to clear it. "And—am I naked? What the fuck is going on?"
"Peter," Hel commanded, and Peter's head snapped back to look at her again. "You will not win, Nightingale. You should bow to the inevitable."
Thomas leaned heavily on his staff. For a brief second, his Peter had been there. Now there was no trace again. Every breath Thomas was accompanied by a sharp burst of pain; he was almost certainly bleeding internally. He was not at all convinced that he would be a match for Hel's power in an all-out duel. He was, in fact, swiftly running out of options. I'm sorry, Peter, he thought, closing his eyes against the rising swell of grief. I did my best. When he opened them again, he caught sight of a flash of brown and white in his peripheral vision: Toby. Toby, his guide. Toby, who had been with him when he landed here. Toby, who had sat at his feet in the Folly's library while he researched death magic. Think, Thomas. Think.
"Well?" Hel said.
Gathering his strength, Thomas reached into his pocket and said, "I rather think I won't."
Several things happened at once. Hel's scepter crashed to the ground, sending bolts of lightning crackling toward the place where Thomas had been standing. Toby, barking madly, launched himself at her leg and latched on with his teeth. Thomas rolled to the side in a bright flash of exquisite agony, knocking Peter to the ground as he went. He raised his own staff to channel a series of protective formae, forming a bubble of impenetrable magic around them both that he knew would not last longer than a few precious seconds. And he took his left hand from his pocket, blood already flowing freely from the cut he'd made across his palm with the Swiss army knife.
"Peter," he said urgently. "Peter, are you lucid?"
"Wha—Nightingale?" Peter said, blinking up from where he lay.
"I'm sorry about this, Peter, but it's the only way. Old magic. Blood of the living, to quicken the dead."
Peter's mouth opened again in confusion, and Thomas pressed two bloody fingers into it.
Peter spluttered a little before closing his lips and sucking. His tongue was warm and wet where it swirled against the pads of Thomas's fingers. Thomas tilted his hand and watched his blood smear over Peter's lips, staining them. There was nothing about this situation that should have been arousing, and yet there was a shameful swoop in his gut. He could not tear his eyes away from Peter's.
After a few moments, Thomas allowed himself the appalling liberty of leaning down to kiss Peter's forehead.
"I'll see you on the other side," he murmured, fervently hoping that was true, and that Abdul would not be examining his brain this time tomorrow. He focused, allowing the singular power of that place to flow through him, and then he knew only blackness.
Thomas swam to consciousness slowly. This time there was no barking, only the steady beeping of machines and the low thrum of chatter and activity that together suggested he was in a hospital.
"I suppose there's no point in mentioning that this was a stupid thing to do?" a Glaswegian-accented someone said from somewhere nearby.
Thomas opened his eyes. Abdul was sitting in an uncomfortable-looking plastic chair at the foot of Thomas's bed. The flippancy in his voice did not erase the worry on his face. Thomas felt a pang of guilt, but he wouldn't apologise for doing what he had to to save Peter.
"Where--" Thomas began, and Abdul said, "He's here too."
"Is he alive?"
"Just about," Abdul said. "What a pair the two of you make. And the bloody dog as well."
"Can I see him?"
"You're in no fit state to be seeing anyone."
"Please, Abdul." He just needed to see for himself. To be sure that Peter had really made it out alive.
"Oh, alright," Abdul said, "but he has to come to you. You're not going anywhere on that leg. I don't know what the hell bit you but Jennifer seems to think it was a crocodile. A crocodile, Thomas."
There was no point in confirming nor denying. Thomas chose to say nothing, and Abdul continued ranting to himself all the way out of the room.
Thomas closed his eyes, just to rest them for a moment, until he was awoken again by a voice saying, "Guv?"
Peter's skin had lost its uncanny pallor. He looked none the worse for wear from his ordeal, aside from a few bruises that might well have been from where Thomas pushed him to the ground.
"Peter," Thomas croaked. "Come here."
Peter's hand was warm now when Thomas took it into his own. He squeezed it, trying to erase the memory of cold, dead flesh.
"Nightingale?" Peter said uncertainly.
"My apologies, Peter," Thomas said stiffly, releasing him. "It's been a rather difficult couple of days." Peter was still giving him a strange look, so Thomas added, "How much do you remember of... what happened?"
"Not much," Peter admitted. "Flashes. I remember her. I'm not going out with any more bloody Danish girls, I’ll tell you that for nothing."
"Ah," Thomas said. "And... afterwards?"
"I remember you were there," Peter said. "I remember... lightning. And you made an epic shield. And..." He looked away suddenly. "I remember blood."
"Ah," Thomas said again. "Yes. I'm sorry about that, Peter. I could simply see no other choice."
"That's alright," Peter said. "You were saving my life. I'm the idiot who got himself genuinely dragged to hell. Which, by the way, we definitely need to talk about all that myth stuff being real at some point."
"Not now," Thomas said. He let his eyes flutter closed.
"Right," Peter said softly. "Thanks again, Guv. Hope you feel better soon."
When Thomas opened his eyes, Peter was gone. He allowed himself a moment to wallow in his particular brand of self-pity.
"No, but actually," Peter said, coming back into the room. "I remember that you kissed me. And don't start apologising again," he continued, holding up a hand to fend off Thomas's protests. "I came back to say that I liked it. I liked... all of it." He crossed the room in three long strides and bent to press his lips to Thomas's cheek. Thomas closed his eyes again, this time against the tide of emotion welling up in him.
"I know we need to talk about it but... I'll be here. When you're better," Peter said, and the smile he gave Thomas could have warmed even the River Styx herself.