Róża arrived in London with a whole list of things that she wanted to do, and Rose just had to spoil it all by being disciplined.
"But we never come to London!" Róża whinged, sitting on the edge of the bed in the hotel room. "We should do at least one thing for fun today. Can't we go to the Tower this afternoon? Jamie Beaufort-Stuart swears he saw the ghosts of the princes there once."
"Jamie Beaufort-Stuart is a fanciful lunatic," said Rose fondly, turning over the city map she was examining. "And we're going to a show tonight, Różyczka, in case you'd forgotten—that counts as fun. Besides, I hear the Tower is all stairs, you'd be complaining after fifteen minutes there."
Róża replied by flopping backwards onto the bed, annoyed. Rose sighed, then stood up, walked over to the bed, and peered down at Róża's disgruntled scowl.
"Come on, you," she laughed, seizing Róża by the hands and pulling her upright. "The sooner I track down these manuscripts, the sooner we can go be actual tourists around the city."
Róża didn't quite understand why Rose was wasting her time writing about the history of recorded gross stress reaction, when she was in medical school and her studies were supposed to be about helping actual people. Nevertheless, she gamely trailed Rose into and out of a series of small private libraries all morning long, patiently waiting in dusty-smelling rooms while Rose poked about shelves filled with half-forgotten diaries and disintegrating medical records.
"Can I get you anything, dear?" one librarian called to Róża from the table at which she was sitting.
"No, thank you," Róża called back from where she sat by the window. "You from Scotland?" she added after a moment, having recognised the familiar warmth of a burr.
"Glasgow," the librarian replied, not looking up from the stack of cards that she was sorting. "Your friend said you're down from Edinburgh?"
Róża nodded, then settled back against the window frame. Her eyes were tracing a V of birds winging across the gray sky when, all of a sudden, a car backfired with a crack like a gunshot. Several people outside shouted in alarm, and Róża herself started. "Holy Mary..."
A loud crash inside the library made Róża turn back around sharply. The librarian had apparently tried to rise from her chair too quickly and fallen.
"Are you all right?" Róża asked, seizing her walking stick and making her way over to the woman sprawled on the ground.
"Yes, thank you," hissed the librarian, clearly somewhat winded. "Just... lost my balance..."
Róża set her walking stick against the table and helped haul the woman to her feet. The librarian straightened herself up and briskly brushed the wrinkles out of her skirt.
"Thank you," she repeated firmly to Róża, her hand on the back of her chair to steady herself.
Only then did Róża notice the cane already propped against the table. She glanced back at the librarian critically.
"Bullet wound," said the librarian finally, because she could tell Róża wanted to know but was never going to ask.
"After." The librarian pursed her lips bitterly. "Or maybe not—depends on which war we're discussing. Crazed conspiracy theorist who was convinced that I was spying for the Soviets, about three weeks ago. I only just returned to work on Monday."
Róża's eyes narrowed as she tried to determine whether the severe-looking librarian was joking.
"Anything's possible, I guess." Róża tapped her walking stick against her own leg. "Aren't you going to ask?"
"No, dear," said the librarian, her expression becoming slightly more gentle. "Not unless you want to tell me."
"I was a Rabbit in Ravensbrück, the women's concentration camp. The Nazi doctors there spent the war taking out little scoops of my shinbone, bit by bit. By the time I escaped, the remaining bone was so thin that it snapped, just like that." Róża snapped her fingers for emphasis.
The librarian clearly didn't know how to respond to that, and so said nothing.
"I don't want your pity," Róża added. "In case you were about to tell me how sorry you were. There's a rod reinforcing the leg now, and I've had years of practice using the cane. I get around just fine."
"I have no doubt that you do," said the librarian softly. "Only I know that it takes far longer for some wounds to heal than others."
"I'll say." Róża smirked. "I'll bet that, three weeks ago, hearing a car backfire wouldn't have made you jump out of your seat with nerves."
The librarian settled herself back in her chair, scowling at Róża, who much preferred the scowl to the previous edge of softness.
"The fact is that you adjust," Róża continued. "Whether it happened suddenly or in slow, painful steps, you eventually accept that this is how life is now, and you move on from there. It helps when you understand that life just isn't fair most of the time..."
"Believe me, dear, I don't need you to tell me that," the librarian scoffed.
"Well, there you go." Róża shrugged. "It's going to make your life different. Some things will be tougher, like stairs. But as long as you have the support you need, you'll manage. And by that, I don't mean people who will treat you like an invalid, or people who will try to pretend that nothing's changed. You need friends who will acknowledge that you're angry, but who won't let you get stuck in that anger. They'll lend a hand when you need it, and they'll tell you when you're being daft for trying to do things that you simply can't do anymore, but they'll also help you recognise all the things you still can do perfectly well. You see?"
After a moment, the librarian nodded stoically.
"I do," she said, before adding wryly, "And I imagine a cane never hurts for support, too, especially in a city with as many cobbles as Edinburgh."
"Certainly not," Róża confirmed with a sly smile.
"Finished!" Rose had reappeared from whatever corner of the library she'd been buried in.
"Did you find everything you needed, dear?" asked the librarian.
"That, and more." Rose gestured triumphantly with the notebook that she clutched in one hand. "Thanks for all of your help, Miss McBrien."
"My pleasure," nodded the librarian, before adding to Róża, "And thank you for the enlightening conversation."
"I think I've earned my trip to the Tower," Róża informed Rose curtly.
"Well, that's the lot for this morning, so let's go, then!"
Rose giddily bounded out the door of the library and down the stairs, but Róża moved at a much slower and more dignified speed. The librarian, leaning heavily on her cane, followed and held the door for Róża, and the two exchanged a nod before Róża calmly moved out onto the landing, the tap of her walking stick echoing in the stairwell as she descended.