Actions

Work Header

Parcel

Work Text:

This is the best day ever, Colin thought while bounding into the shimmer of the net. He’d time-traveled to the Black Death and helped rescue someone. More than helped, actually, as he’d done most of the scheming necessary to get Mr. Dunworthy and Badri out of hospital. It was better than any vid he’d ever seen and it was real.

“We’ve got her. She has some broken ribs, but she’s all right,” he announced triumphantly, then turned back to watch Dunworthy and Kivrin arriving behind him. He helped Dunworthy to a chair and glanced around the near-empty lab in surprise. “Has no one from Infirmary turned up? We’ve been gone for ages. How thick are they?”

“It’s absolute chaos over there,” Badri replied. “They’ve been having database problems. Finch says someone from Infirmary rang Balliol to say that multiple patients have been discharged erroneously in the past day. They’re trying to contact everyone to check on their well-being.”

So William did it, Colin thought.  He was surprised to see Kivrin draw back as the nurse approached them.

“Keep away,” Kivrin said sharply. “I’m contaminated,” she added, gesturing down at her blood-stained clothing, “and we’ve all been exposed to the plague.”

“Anachronistic diseases can’t pass through the net,” Dunworthy reminded her gently. “You know that.”

Colin gave Dunworthy an uneasy glance, then turned to Badri. “Badri?”

“The drop opened,” Badri said, shaking his head as he sank into a chair. He looked exhausted, even though he’d likely spent most of the time they’d been away resting on a cot the nurse had brought with her.

Kivrin argued, “Things which can change history can’t pass through the net. What if plague can pass through to an era where effective medical treatment exists?”

“Kivrin...”

“It doesn’t matter,” the nurse interrupted. “I’ve had my injections.” She put tach bracelets and temp monitors on them and handed each of them a temp to swallow, before gingerly pressing on Kivrin’s ribs.

“What did Finch tell Infirmary?” Dunworthy said, as the nurse left Kivrin’s side to check him.

Badri shrugged.  “He said he hadn’t seen me at all, and that you told him you were going to stay with a friend, since you’d never get any rest in your rooms with Mrs. Gaddson hanging about.”

The nurse scrutinized Dunworthy’s tach bracelet and monitor. “You’ll have to go back. You may be having a relapse. You should all be in hospital.”

“Then it’s time for you to leave,” Dunworthy said. “We’ll ring Infirmary after you’ve gone.”

The nurse shook her head. “It would take too long to pack up everything. I have a cover story. I’m to say that someone rang me hours ago and asked me to provide med support for a drop. I brought my kit along to Balliol and didn’t realize who the retrieval was for until you got back.”

“What about the injections?” Kivrin asked. “Won’t someone wonder why you’ve had them?”

“No,” the nurse answered with a smile. “Several people have had them in the past few days. It’s one of the database problems, and everyone’s too busy to question why they’re having another injection. I didn’t think anything of it until William told me what I was wanted for.”

She moved on to check Colin while Badri telephoned Finch.

Dunworthy glared expectantly at Colin. “Colin? The database?”

Colin squirmed slightly before admitting, “William arranged it. I did suggest introducing multiple false orders, if it could be done without endangering anyone.”

“What else have you been up to?” Dunworthy asked, but to Colin’s relief, he was smiling.

 

Within seconds of their arrival at Infirmary, medical personnel surrounded Dunworthy, Badri, Kivrin, and Colin, checking their vitals and asking rapid-fire questions without properly listening to the answers.

“I’m fine,” Colin insisted, but his nurse went on dictating notes to a handheld as if he hadn’t spoken.

“Temp is 34.5, pulse and blood pressure normal, lungs clear,” the nurse was saying. “Patient has been exposed to plague. Possible exposure to other harmful diseases...”

“That’s not how the net works,” Colin protested, to no avail.

“… evaluate for hypothermia, check for frostbite and vermin, start a prophylactic antibiotic...”

“I did that before we went.”

A doctor who’d been inspecting Mr. Dunworthy must have overheard them, because he turned to give Colin a suspicious look. “Why would you have needed an antibiotic?”

Be a child, Colin thought. The smart thing to do is play the role of ignorant child. “How should I know? Some nurse said I had to have one, so I did.”

The doctor persisted, saying, “But you weren’t a patient.”

“I wasn’t a patient when Great-aunt Mary said I needed the T-cell enhancement, either, but I had one just the same. I do as I’m told.”

Dunworthy experienced a sudden bout of violent coughing, which recalled the doctor to his duties. Within minutes, Dunworthy and Kivrin had been bundled off to Scanning, Badri had been moved to a closed ward, and Colin found himself at the mercy of his nurse.

To his intense embarrassment, the nurse insisted on giving him some sort of decontam shower with special soap, then carefully combed his hair, as if Colin couldn’t have been trusted to do those things for himself. He was moved to an isolation room, told that he’d missed dinner, and given a meal of cold toast and porridge which looked as awful as the stuff Mrs. Gaddson had tried to feed him. He was starving, so he ate it, even though it was every bit as bad as it looked. Where’s a gobstopper when you really need one? I’ll never get that foul taste out of my mouth.

The nurse reappeared to give him injections. When Colin asked what they were, she merely said, “Medicine. Get some rest.”

He’d supposed the injections were more streptomycin and another T-cell enhancement, but became unaccountably sleepy within a few minutes. He barely had time to think, Blood, she’s given me a sedative, before falling asleep.

 

When he woke, his body felt curiously heavy and unfocused. He was surprised to find Kivrin sitting next to his bed, quietly reading the book Dunworthy had given him for Christmas.

“What have I missed?”

“Since lunchtime?”

“Lunchtime?” He struggled to a sitting position. The fuzziness was rapidly receding, but a dull headache had taken its place.

Kivrin nodded. “You’ve been awake three times today. The last time we spoke you seemed more awake so I thought you might remember it.”

“Three times… how long have we been back?”

“Almost two days.”

“What?!”

“We came back in the afternoon, the day before yesterday. The medical staff were worried about keeping us in isolation...”

“So they drugged us?”

“Not all of us,” Kivrin said, sounding apologetic. “Only you. Apparently, you’ve developed quite a reputation with the staff for evading all restrictions. The nurse found some flea bites on you when she scrubbed you down, and it had them worried that you might come down with plague and dash off somewhere.”

Colin groaned as he realized his grand adventure was over. He had been reduced, once again, to the status of child. Dunworthy had trusted him to carry out an escape plan, but the medical staff hadn’t even trusted him to stay in his room. “Where did I get flea… Oh. I helped wrap your ribs. Were they broken?”

“One broken and three cracked. Sorry about the fleas. In any case, you’ve been very groggy, if not actually asleep, most of the time since we came back. Mr. Dunworthy was furious when he found out about it last evening.” She looked thoughtful for a moment, then added, “I’d heard he can have quite a temper, but I’d never seen it. I’m rather glad I wasn’t the one he was angry with.”

“How is he? And Badri?”

“Mr. Dunworthy did have a relapse, but he’s much better now. He’ll be here a few more days, but Badri is likely to be released tomorrow. So will we.”

“We will?”

Kivrin nodded. “The doctor told us that this morning, right after he questioned you. They’ve finally sorted out the database problems and located the nurses who gave you the proper injections before you left. We’re supposed to take oral antibiotics and monitor our temps for another week, but even the doctor admits it’s an unnecessary precaution. They are absolutely paranoid about the early symptoms of plague being mistaken for a case of flu.”

“I’ve been talking?” Colin said incredulously. “Did I say anything necrotic?”

“You didn’t give anything away, if that’s what you mean. You told the doctor you were sneaking in to visit Dunworthy and had to hide in a closet to escape detection. You happened to overhear the discharge taking place and decided to follow Dunworthy because you were worried about him, then jumped into the net for the same reason. You should have seen Dunworthy telling the doctor his story. He had the most innocent expression on his face while claiming he hadn’t realized he was being released by accident in the middle of the night: he said that when someone took him to the exit and he saw it was dark he assumed the weather was extremely overcast. I nearly laughed out loud and spoiled the whole thing.”

Colin breathed a sigh of relief. That was the story he and Dunworthy had agreed upon during the long, cold search for Kivrin. He’d been able to stick to it even when half-awake. Perhaps he hadn’t lost as much control of the situation as he’d feared. “Anything else?”

“You refused to touch the soup they brought for lunch,” Kivrin answered with a grin. “It was cabbage soup, and you told me it looked like what would happen if brussels sprouts and porridge had babies. You were right; it was dreadful stuff.”

“I want to see Mr. Dunworthy,” Colin said suddenly, even though he felt queasy and his headache had intensified.

“Likely another reason they kept you sedated.”

 

Within minutes, Kivrin was leading the way to Dunworthy’s room. 

“They’re just going to let me walk in?” Colin said incredulously. “The staff have been telling me for days that children aren’t allowed.”

“Mr. Dunworthy arranged it. The staff aren’t best pleased, but they’ll follow the doctor’s orders. Reluctantly,” she added, as they passed a sister who regarded Colin with pursed lips and an air of disapproval. “Here we are. Go along in. You should have ten minutes, but I’ll stay out here to fend off intruders. I don’t like the way that sister looked at you.”

Colin stepped inside and eased the door shut. Dunworthy was asleep. Colin quietly took a seat next to the bed and studied Dunworthy’s face. He was still more haggard-looking than he’d been when Colin had first met him, but there was some color returning to his cheeks.  Minutes passed as Colin warred with the temptation to wake him.  As much as he wanted to speak to Dunworthy, wasn't letting him rest more important?  He was on the verge of deciding that a little throat-clearing on his part wouldn't be too bad, when Dunworthy opened his eyes and smiled at him.

“Colin.  I was beginning to think they’d given you another sedative. I’m sorry that happened.”

Colin shrugged. “I’m used to it.”

“You’re used to it? Apparently, the methods of instruction at boarding schools have changed dramatically since I was a boy.”

“They don’t drug the students, if that’s what you’re thinking. I meant that I’m used to people not knowing what to do with me. Sometimes,” Colin said, glancing down at his feet, “sometimes before I was old enough for boarding school, if Mum was particularly busy, she’d send me off to one of her friends or Great-aunt Mary. Rather like a parcel.”

“You are not an object,” Dunworthy said firmly.

“I know that. Mum knows that. It’s just that sometimes, no one quite knows what to do with me. It’s not so bad, really. I’ve met lots of people and seen some interesting things. Nothing so interesting as the Black Death, though. That was apocalyptic.”

“Literally,” Dunworthy said dryly.

Colin flushed. “I’m sorry. I suppose that sounded horrible, didn’t it? I didn’t enjoy seeing the bodies, but to actually travel in time… that part was brilliant. To see something first-hand that you’ve only read about… it was like a vid come to life.”

“I understand,” Dunworthy said gently. “Even when you see terrible things happen, there's something special about witnessing history.”

A silence fell between them as Colin thought of the frozen bodies in the snow. If he’d arrived a few days earlier, he might have witnessed those people living and dying. How had Kivrin borne it? Could he ask her about that without hurting her? How would he have dealt with it if he’d been stranded there, knowing what was about to happen and powerless to stop it?

The door burst open, and the cross-looking sister stepped inside. “Your ten minutes are up.”

Colin protested, “But he slept through most of it!”

“The doctor said ten minutes. He didn’t give any orders about whether or not the patient was awake.”

Colin made a sound of frustration, then looked back in surprise as he felt Dunworthy’s hand on his wrist.

“Colin,” he said softly.

Please don't tell me to behave myself, Colin thought, as Dunworthy pulled him closer.

“About the retrieval,” Dunworthy said in a near-whisper. “Well done.”

 

Colin’s plans to return to Dunworthy’s rooms later that day were thwarted by the presence of a sister guarding the door to Colin’s room. And why they couldn’t have put her there in the first place instead of sedating me, I don’t know, he thought. Perhaps there were still too many people down with flu and no one could be spared. This is deadly dull. Perhaps it’s just as well I was asleep.

Kivrin came to visit him after dinner. He spent the evening trying to persuade her to teach him, but she kept putting him off. He resolutely squelched the impulse to ask her for more details about the Black Death. Instead, they chatted about other chapters in his book, and Colin eagerly questioned her about the Crusades until the sister shooed Kivrin out, saying that it was time for bed. I wonder if they’ll guard my door all night, he thought, and fell asleep while resolving to check it in a few hours.

 

When he woke, it was daylight, although just barely, and someone had brought an inedible breakfast and his clothes. He’d scarcely finished dressing when Finch turned up, trailed by a nurse carrying a sheet of discharge instructions for him.

“I want to see Mr. Dunworthy,” Colin said.

Finch shook his head imperceptibly. “I’ve come to take you back to Balliol.” His eyes slid in the nurse’s direction.

“Where’s Kivrin?”

“She left while Dunworthy and I were persuading the staff to release you into my care. Do you have all your things?”

Colin nodded and obediently followed in Finch’s wake. “I want to see Mr. Dunworthy,” he repeated as they approached the exit.

“I know,” Finch said quietly, “but it’s best if they see you leaving. Come and have a decent breakfast in Hall, then you can sneak back into hospital afterwards.”

“Is there bacon?”

“Perhaps. There will definitely be toast and marmalade.”

 

Fortified by a breakfast of bacon, toast, marmalade, and no porridge, Colin slipped into Dunworthy’s room two hours later.

“I didn’t think I’d ever make it back here,” Colin said breathlessly as he put his book down on the bedside tray with a thump. “I couldn’t find William to arrange a distraction for me. I say, you’re not expecting the doctor soon, or anyone? There’s really nowhere in here to hide. I wanted to show you something,” he said, taking up the book again and thumbing through the pages. “Here. This is supposed to be medieval Oxford. Is that what we would have seen if we’d gone that far?”

Dunworthy lowered the bedrail. “Come closer. I can’t see it properly.”

Colin sat on the edge of the bed and handed the book to Dunworthy, while pointing. “This one. This is really Oxford?”

“Yes. Yes, I believe it is.” Dunworthy cleared his throat and said, “Colin, I’ve had time to consider something I heard the other day. In the lab, when Kivrin broached the possibility of diseases passing through the net to an era where they were treatable and therefore nonsignificant, you turned to Badri as if to ask him a question. He shook his head and told you that the net opened.”

Colin shifted uneasily, avoiding Dunworthy’s gaze. “Did he?”

“Hmm. At the time, I thought Badri meant that the net opened because there wasn’t any disease present, but that’s not what he meant, is it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Colin said, while studying the monitor screen next to the bed.

“You do know what I’m talking about,” Dunworthy insisted. “That’s not what Badri meant, is it?”

“He said… Badri said… if the net wouldn’t open to retrieve us then he was going to disable the safeguards on the net and try again. He couldn’t just leave us there to die. And he knew… he knew that even if we brought the plague through with us, that it could be contained.”

“And that’s why William got someone in Records to alter the database… so that there would be a pool of medical personnel who’d already had their injections?”

“Yes. You aren’t going to sack Badri, are you? He didn’t actually do anything; he only wanted to.”

“I am not going to sack him. I’ve already spoken to him about this, and explained to him that removing the safeguards on the net wouldn’t have made a difference.”

“What?”

“Harmful diseases can’t pass through the net, whether or not there are safeguards, as Badri should have known.”

“He said he’d learned it’s impossible, but when he saw the safeguards, he thought… hang on. Why would there be safeguards against diseases if you don’t need them?”

“Because no one knew whether or not we needed them when the net was invented. The net theorists insisted we didn’t, but we had no proof, and historians must be careful to distinguish between what they can prove is true, what they believe is possibly true, and what they have no information about at all. We put the safeguards in place because we thought they might be needed.”

“Then how do you know they’re not necessary?”

“There are diagnostic codes to indicate whether a net failure is due to a safeguard violation.  Also, I was trapped for two weeks in the seventeenth century when the net wouldn’t open. I’d contracted a bad case of flu. The safeguards were new then and we hadn’t yet included that strain of influenza. The same thing has happened in a few other instances where historians unexpectedly encountered dangerous things.”

“Why did you ask me about this if you’ve already talked to Badri?”

“I needed to know whether you trust me.”

“Why did you need to know… you’re going to teach me, aren’t you? Aren’t you?” Colin said excitedly. “You should. I’m good at History. I’ve already learned loads about the Crusades, thanks to your present.”

“History students spend a lot of time writing essays.”

“I can do that, too. Essays are easy.”

Dunworthy pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Hmm. In that case, I expect you to write an essay detailing every objectionable thing you’ve done since slipping through the quarantine perimeter.”

“Objectionable?”

“Would you prefer the word ‘naughty’?”

Colin scowled. “No. I’m not an infant.”

“That being the case, you should be able to identify which of your actions fall outside the realm of acceptable behavior and either justify them or suggest an appropriate punishment.”

That sounded suspiciously like something a headmaster would say. “Why should I do that?”

“You don’t have to, of course,” Dunworthy replied smoothly. “I was merely hoping to assess your awareness of social norms. The past few weeks have been unusual and may not be an accurate reflection of your typical behavior.”

Colin definitely sensed a trap. At any moment, Dunworthy was going to turn into a conventional adult and do something horrible like expect him to eat porridge. “What difference does it make?”

“I am trying to determine whether you would, in fact, be teachable. You do want to read History with me, don’t you?”

Colin stopped himself on the verge of agreeing. “That doesn’t sound very fair—I’m supposed to tell you everything I’ve done and how I should be punished for it? Most of those things I did to help you.”

“You did,” Dunworthy said, sounding far more placid than Colin felt. “Did I say anything about actually punishing you? This is merely an intellectual exercise.”

“You promise?”

Dunworthy raised his right hand, as if taking an oath. “I promise. No repercussions, however well-merited, will follow the shocking recitation of sins you’ve committed up until this point.”

“Including jumping into the net?”

“Including jumping into the net. I trust you now understand that you could have been maimed or killed and will bear that in mind should a similar impulse occur to you in future.”

“You’re just trying to keep me busy.”

“In part. I do need rest, but I would rather like to know what I’m getting myself into before making a commitment to tutor you.”

“Very well,” Colin said with ill grace, “but I expect you to keep your promise.”

 

Colin made his way back to Balliol, thinking about how he might organize the essay. Would chronological order be best, or should he group together similar acts, such as all the times he’d evaded or deceived the medical staff? Should he attempt to rank his transgressions in order of their severity? And what about punishments? How evil of Dunworthy to have included that little twist. Perhaps it would be best to suggest things from history books, like walking the plank or boiling in oil or the rack. Nothing that outlandish would give Dunworthy any ideas he could use against Colin later on.

Did Dunworthy have a handheld in his rooms? Colin couldn’t recall having ever seen one there, but perhaps Finch could lend him one. If Colin had to write the essay by hand, he’d still be working on it when Dunworthy left hospital, which might be what he’d intended.

Colin stopped short as he neared Dunworthy’s office. Finch was close to shouting, which was odd, as a shipment of lavatory paper had come though just before the retrieval.

“Of course we didn’t know she was dead,” Finch was saying. “How could we have known that?”

“I rang Dr. Ahrens days ago to tell her about Mrs. Templer,” said a man Colin didn’t recognize from the back. “Surely she spoke to Mr. Dunworthy about her niece, and...”

“Colin,” Finch said, flinching as he caught sight of Colin. “Colin, please come in and have a seat. I’m afraid I have very bad news about...”

Colin dropped his book and fled. At first, he ran heedlessly, bumping into people in his haste to escape the words repeating themselves in his head. Of course we didn’t know she was dead. Surely she spoke to Mr. Dunworthy about her niece.

The only niece Great-aunt Mary had had was his mother. Of course we didn’t know she was dead.

Colin stopped abruptly, chest heaving. He needed to think, and to do that, he’d need to hide. Of course we didn’t know she was dead. His mother was dead, and the adults would be looking for him soon, if they weren’t already. He’d never be able to think while they smothered him with pitying looks and hushed voices. Where could he go? Dunworthy’s rooms were out; that would be the first place Finch would check. Infirmary? William and his nurses had been his allies before, but could he count on them now? The cathedral? It would be cold there and he might need to think for a long time. The Bodleian? He’d been there before, running errands, but things were slowly returning to normal. What if they wouldn’t let him in now?

She’s dead. Perhaps Infirmary would be best, after all. Colin had discovered several good hiding places, and if he was quick, he could get there and disappear before anyone realized they should be looking for him. By the time he’d folded himself up in the back of a linen closet, Colin had got his breathing under control, but his thoughts were an endless chant of she’s dead she’s dead she’s dead.

Could he have got it wrong? Finch had said Of course we didn’t know she was dead, and then the stranger—who was he?—had said I rang Dr. Ahrens days ago to tell her about Mrs. Templer. And then Finch had said there was bad news, which must be about the person who was dead, and judging by the stricken look on Finch’s face when he’d seen Colin, the dead person had to be Colin’s mother.

But how could she be dead? Finch had spoken to her about Great-aunt Mary’s funeral, and she’d been too busy to come. Wait—had Finch actually spoken to her? What if he’d merely gotten her assistant, who’d made excuses for Mum while she was off somewhere with Eric? It wouldn’t be the first time that had happened.

She’s dead. Colin felt hot tears coursing down his cheeks. Had he been crying all this time? If so, he’d probably left a trail of witnesses behind him who could tell Finch exactly which way he’d gone. How much time did he have and what could he do? Think, he commanded himself, but all he could think about was his mother. He sobbed aloud and hastily covered his mouth with his hands so no one walking past the closet would hear him weeping. His mother was dead, and Great-aunt Mary had known about it, and not told him. Had Mr. Dunworthy known as well? Surely he wouldn’t have kept something like that from Colin, but adults did stupid things sometimes, thinking they were protecting you.

What was going to happen to him now? His mother was dead, his father had died a long time ago, and his only other relative had been Great-aunt Mary. His mother’s friends had taken him for a weekend here and there, but none of them would want Colin permanently, even if he wanted to go to them. Was he going to end up in a orphanage? Did they still have orphanages and were they like Oliver Twist?

How could he avoid being sent somewhere he didn’t want to go? He could mostly look after himself, but the adults would never believe him. They’d insist on doing something, as if he were a mislaid parcel that had started to smell funny and ooze on the carpet. No one would want him, but all of them would feel strongly that someone should do something about him.

Did he have to have an actual parent? Couldn’t he find an adult confederate to keep him from being taken into care?

How long had he been sitting here crying? Colin realized he was hungry and thirsty, and his head ached, and he needed to pee. He sighed heavily. He was going to have to face the world.

But not before speaking to Mr. Dunworthy.

 

Colin made it to Dunworthy’s room without being caught. He’d half-expected to find him dozing, but Dunworthy was staring intently at the door, as if he’d been waiting for him.

“Mum’s dead.”

Dunworthy nodded. “I’m sorry, Colin. Finch told me. Come here,” he said, and lowered the bedrail at his right side.

Colin didn’t move. “Did you know? Before, I mean?” He’d never be able to trust Dunworthy again if he’d kept that from him.

“Of course not. Come; sit.” Dunworthy patted the bed next to him.

Colin hesitated, then crossed the room to perch on the bed, facing Dunworthy. Why did it suddenly feel so awkward to sit close to him? He’d sat next to him this morning without giving it a second thought. They’d been even closer than that, the night Dunworthy had leaned against him to keep from falling off the horse. What had changed?

She’s dead, Colin thought. She’s dead and I need someone to take her place and I don’t know who else to ask and it’s going to hurt like blood if he says no.

Dunworthy studied him closely, as if trying to decide what to say. “How much did you hear?”

“Just that she was dead. Was it him?”

“Him?”

“Her live-in. Eric. He’s necrotic.”

“No,” Dunworthy answered slowly, and frowned. “Was he unkind to you? Or her?”

“Not exactly. He’s just… there’s something not right with him. When he smiles, it’s only his mouth. Most people smile with their whole face.” Colin squirmed and stared at the wall. “That sounds idiotic.”

“That sounds very perceptive. Perception is a useful skill for historians.”

Don’t play that game. It doesn’t matter what historians are. Nothing matters anymore. “What happened?”

“According to Finch, who had it from your family solicitor—that’s the man you saw speaking to Finch—it was a skimmer accident. Your mother and Eric were visiting friends in the country and went out for a late-night ride after drinking heavily. It’s not clear who was flying the skimmer, but both of them were killed on impact. The solicitor was himself a guest of the people your mother had been staying with, and contacted Mary as soon as he learned of the crash.”

“Why didn’t she tell us?”

“Mary died that same day, and when Finch tried to contact your mother about Mary’s funeral, her assistant said she couldn’t come and sent the flowers. The assistant believed your mother was still on holiday and didn’t know where she’d gone. He then left for a late holiday of his own without telling anyone about Mary’s death.”

“Why didn’t he know about Mum’s death?”

Dunworthy hesitated, looking uncomfortable. “There was some delay in formally identifying your mother’s remains.”

Which probably means they had to piece together the bits. Colin swallowed convulsively before asking, “Did Mum send the presents?”

Dunworthy looked at him blankly. “What?”

“The jacket and everything. Did Mum send me the Christmas presents, or was it just her assistant?” Colin realized that on some level, he didn’t care who’d sent the presents, but he desperately wanted to know whether Dunworthy would try to tell him a comforting lie.

“I don’t know, Colin.”

Historians must be careful to distinguish between what they can prove is true, what they believe is possibly true, and what they have no information about at all. Colin took a deep breath before saying, “I go to boarding school year ’round.”

Dunworthy seemed confused by the sudden change of subject. “Even in the summer? I didn’t know that.”

“It’s a different place, but yes. It’s for children whose parents are out of the country on business or who aren’t wanted at home. Some of them… never… go home. So I don’t need a home. I just need someone to pretend they’re my home. So I won’t have to go to an orphanage or something necrotic like that.”

“Colin...” Dunworthy said gently, taking Colin’s hands into his own.

“Mum’s got money. Had money. I can pay,” Colin insisted, staring fixedly at their hands, “or at least I think I can. There must be trusts or something that I can use for school. I only need… I need...” Colin could feel the tears threatening to come again, and bit down on his lip to stop them. He mustn’t cry. Crying children were a bother, and he mustn’t be a bother just now.

Dunworthy brushed a thumb against Colin’s lips. “Don’t bite. You’ll hurt yourself.”

Then the tears overflowed, but Dunworthy didn’t seem bothered by them. He gathered Colin into his arms and held him easily, as if they’d done this before. Colin thought, I should pull away, I can’t afford this, I need to behave like an adult, but he couldn’t make himself do it. He clung to Dunworthy and wept, for his mother and Great-aunt Mary and even for the bodies he’d seen in 1349, but mostly he wept for his loneliness. At any moment, Dunworthy would patiently explain that an elderly bachelor wouldn’t make a good substitute parent, and then what would become of him?

“Colin, I told the solicitor I’ll be petitioning for your guardianship. I was given the impression no one else was expected to do so.”

Colin inhaled sharply in surprise, then thought, He feels obligated. How many times has he already said that I’m his responsibility? “You don’t have to,” he said quickly. “It’s all right, if you’d rather not. I’m sure I can find...”

“Don’t be absurd. I want to do this.”

Colin thought of the years he’d spent being passed between family friends and boarding schools and Great-aunt Mary. “Why?”

“It’s my turn to keep you from falling.”

Colin made a noise halfway between a hiccup and a sob. He was instantly mortified, but Dunworthy merely drew him closer and smoothed a calming hand down Colin’s back.

“You’ll return to school sometime next week, but I expect you here in Oxford for the holidays. All of them.”

Did that mean Dunworthy meant to be an actual parent instead of an accommodating friend? How would that work? Colin had enjoyed a certain independence under his mother’s benign neglect, but Dunworthy might prove more difficult to handle.

“Do I still have to write the essay?” Colin asked, and was strangely comforted by the rumble of Dunworthy’s answering laughter.

“Yes. Yes, you definitely do.”