The first time Varvara met the Nightingale in person was in the spring of 1979. She had just taken up magic again and well, maybe she shouldn’t have trusted that everyone would blame it on the good weed, but she didn’t expect a tip-off at the next goblin market that a certain practitioner had been asking questions about her, nor did she expect to find that practitioner loitering outside the place she was currently staying, not even trying to blend in.
So she ran in the opposite direction, fast, until the Nightingale cornered her in an alley barely two streets later, throwing a silent fireball to counter Varvara’s frost as soon as they were out of view from the street. They sparred for a few minutes, testing each others capabilities without truly intending to cause any damage. Nightingale singed the end of Varvara’s sleeve with another fireball, smaller and more precise and Varvara could see her neat shoes go white with frost as she threw a spell back at her.
“You don’t look bad for someone who’s meant to be nearly eighty, did you know that?” Varvara yelled across the alley as Nightingale changed tactics and threw a wall of water in her direction. It crashed into the bins to her left as she dived out of the way.
Varvara whipped around as a hand gripped her wrist. Her eyes widened as Nightingale twisted her arm behind her back and pushed her to the floor. Like this she could feel all of the power, physical and magical, that Nightingale was holding back. She moved like a person much younger than her apparent age, no matter her real one.
“The same goes for you, Varvara Sidorovna Tamonina. Your driving licence lists you as born in 1921.” Nightingale stated with a raised eyebrow. Up close, Varvara could see the brown still in her hair and clear grey eyes that held her gaze. Nightingale had a small amount of dust on her, but nothing Varvara could throw at her had really damaged her dark red suit, or her hair, still neatly in a roll.
After a moment of silence Varvara asked, “Aren’t you going to read me my rights then, Inspector?”
Nightingale released her wrist and stood up. “I was wondering if you could assist me in a matter. Unofficially, of course.”
“You chased me down here to ask me if I could help you?”
Nightingale frowned, “May I remind you that you were the one who ran from me?”
“May I remind you that you’re the Nightingale? Of course I was going to run, or don’t you know your own reputation?”
Nightingale went on as if she hadn’t heard her. “I’ve ran into a small amount of bother with a case and I would prefer someone with more knowledge of Russian practice than I have to take a look at some documents for me. Your name would be kept out of the official side of things, of course.” When Varvara didn’t respond, she stooped down to retrieve her cane from where she had dropped it. “Think it over. I believe you know where to find me.” she said and walked out of the alley into the fading daylight. By the time Varvara scrambled to her feet and made it to the entrance she was gone.
Varvara could feel a smile creeping onto her face as she picked herself up from the floor.
It didn’t take Varvara long at all to find Nightingale’s address and the next morning she was ringing the doorbell of a townhouse on the south side of Russell Square. Her eyes flicked up to the Latin on the lintel and she snorted. Knowledge is power. Knowledge didn’t exactly save the fools that inhabited this place before Nightingale did. The name they sometimes used for this place was more than apt.
Nightingale had came out of nowhere, as far as the GRU could tell. No-one in Russia had heard of female English practitioners, not in any official sense. Not until the rumours started, about an English witch with razor sharp control and incredible power and the impressive price the fascists had put on her head. They hadn’t thought the English were that desperate. As far as anyone knew, the Newtonian wizards, the Issacs as they’re called in the demi-monde here, always thought themselves above training the fairer sex, even in the war. It wasn’t like they had the Germans on their doorstep.
The next Varvara had heard of her, once she had drifted back into the demi-monde was that by the 1950s, the Nightingale had somehow become the official representative of the Folly.
The door swung inward silently, without a hint of vestigia. Nightingale stood just on the other side. “Welcome.” she said as Varvara stepped onto the tiled flooring. Nightingale gestured her over to a table in the atrium covered in books and pamphlets, with a small tea tray with biscuits set on the side. “Tea, Varvara Sidorovna?”
“Yes, please. Have you got any jam?” she asked, the corner of her lips turning up when Nightingale tried to hide her grimace as she poured. The English, always so easy to tease!
“These are the books I wanted you to check.” said Nightingale, once she had poured both teas and taken a ginger biscuit, indicating a small pile of books at the side of Varvara’s tea. “They were found in a raid a few days ago.”
Varvara flipped through the top one in between bites of her own biscuit and scoffed. “This was either written by a drunk or a child.”
“I had suspected it might be something along those lines, but it never hurts to be thorough.”
“I thought you couldn’t read Russian.” Varvara said archly, letting the book fall shut.
“Not well, but I know what a badly learnt spell looks like when it’s heading in my,” she paused and rolled her eyes, “general direction.”
Nightingale gave a short laugh and then said, “Well, you know what you said about a drunk possibly being involved?”
Varvara had to stifle a grin in return, hiding it behind her teacup, “That bad?”
Nightingale still had a small smile on her face as Varvara put her teacup down and went back to the books. A moment later she heard a rustle of paper as Nightingale did the same. It was surprisingly comfortable, sitting with the Nightingale as they poured over terrible books with tea and biscuits.
She found the first book that could have been of any actual use to anyone four deep into the pile, and from the way Nightingale audibly exhaled after putting one back on the pile with slightly more force than required, she wasn’t doing much better. The remaining two in Varvara’s pile didn’t improve things. “I think someone took some of the spiritualism they spouted at the last place I was living and translated it, badly.”
Nightingale looked at the small book in her lap and smiled ruefully. “I can’t say I’m having much more luck here. Are they all the same level of terrible?”
“This one might be a little useful if you already know what it’s talking about, but I doubt it is if your knowledge is coming from the other books.”
“As I said, good to have it confirmed.” Nightingale said.
There was a slightly awkward pause before Varvara pushed back her chair and stood, “Thank you for the tea, Inspector.”
Nightingale rose with only the smallest of winces, following her to the door. “No, thank you, Varvara Sidorovna.” she looked down for a second. “And my name is Alice.”
Varvara smiled again, almost by accident. She walked out into the square, wincing as the sun hit her full in the face, much higher than it had been when she’d entered the building. Had it really been that long? Spending time with Nightingale seemed almost comically easy, in comparison to the rumours and the legend built up around her.
The next time Varvara saw Nightingale it was nearly the longest day. That wasn’t surprising, really. Magic had been returning for nearly a decade and a half by this point but it always seemed to reach its zenith at the solstices and equinoxes.
With magic came mischief. And also, apparently, magically spiked booze.
The goblin market was in Notting Hill that month, so she’d had no excuse to avoid it. After checking the stalls for any interesting finds, she’d worked her way over to the bar and was sipping a slightly too-warm pint when the market started emptying. She looked around, before she heard a cut-glass voice from over by the far side of the stalls. Nightingale was standing next to two teenagers, clearly scolding them even if the words were too distant to make out from where she was sitting. By the time she was done and the boys had slunk off into the shadows, the market was nearly empty.
Varvara waved as Nightingale looked over in her direction. She looked confused for a moment and then seemed to recognise her, coming over to her table.
“Teenagers.” Varvara said as Nightingale pulled out the other chair. There was even less grey in her hair than three months ago and the lines around her mouth and eyes seemed to have lightened somewhat. Or that might just have been her being out of the terrible lighting in the Folly.
“Apparently they were planning to hand it out at Mama Thames’ Summer Court.” Nightingale said.
“I bet that would’ve gone down well.”
“Indeed. Luckily one of them was very proud of the whole plan, bragged about it and word got around to Fleet.” said Nightingale. “Now that is universal.”
Varvara looked around at the goblin market, and the few stragglers left and smiled at Nightingale. “How about we find somewhere where you won’t stick out so much?”
Nightingale blinked. “At this time of day?”
“Why not? I know a nice pub around the corner.”
Which was how they found themselves in Varvara’s local before midday on a ridiculously warm June day. It was even worse indoors than out. Nightingale bought another pint for Varvara and one for herself.
“Aren’t you on duty still?” Varvara asked.
“Even in the unlikely circumstance that something else does happen today, is that what you really think of my tolerance, Varvara Sidorovna?
“Well,” Varvara said. “When you’re from my country, you always find that, comparably, everyone else’s tolerance leaves much to be desired.”
“I can imagine.” Nightingale smiled at her. In the morning sun her features definitely made her look more dignified than weary and Varvara was surprised to find herself thinking that even without the fury of battle behind her she was beautiful. Nightingale ‘hmm-ed’ and Varvara suddenly realised she had been staring.
“Why were you at the market today?” asked Nightingale, suddenly.
“I try to get to at least a few every year and this one was barely a stone’s throw from where I live. If you want work in the demi-monde you have to be seen.” she sipped her beer. It was fairly vile, but probably not as bad as what they tried to pass off as vodka. “You don’t go to many.”
Nightingale huffed. “For good reason. Did you see what happened when I told off those miscreants?”
They lapsed into a comfortable silence. Varvara had almost entirely tuned in to what the barman was saying to an angry patron before Nightingale spoke again. “Do you have any plans for the solstice?”
Nightingale blushed from ear to ear. It made her look younger than even her apparent age and she tried to hide in her pint glass. “I was wondering if you would accompany me to the Summer Court. It wouldn't really do anything for your standing in the community, but-”
Varvara couldn’t resist any longer and lent over the table to press a quick kiss to Nightingale’s cheek. She was almost surprised that Nightingale could get redder without fainting at this point, and as she pulled away Nightingale pressed her hand to that cheek, a look of utter surprise on her face. She glanced back up at Varvara and her expression cleared into a shy smile.
Varvara smiled back, almost compulsively. “I think I’d like to, Alice.”