Thomas Nightingale has had rather more time to contemplate his own body than the average person. On the whole, he’s rather fond of the thing, appreciative of its height, durability, and ability to throw some really good fireballs. However, he’s also had quite a bit of time to contemplate the way that the aforementioned body has, in recent decades, appeared to be under the impression that linear time is something that happens to other people. Such a phenomenon certainly lends a degree of complexity to the proceedings, and it turns out that there are only so many things one can wriggle one's way out of via a stiff upper lip...
Lost in a scrum of siblings, Thomas finds it a relief to be shipped off to Casterbrook on the advice of a favourite uncle. His particular power manifests early and he is sat down by no less than three different masters on ten different occasions for the usual lecture on the danger of the collision of the brashness of young men with the tenderness of cerebral matter with magic; the masters extract the requisite promises from him re: not gutting his own brain while drunk with power and send him on his way. (For all modern technology after the 1960s will pass him by, Thomas does see the elegant utility of ‘re:’ and will gingerly lift it from the world of electronic mail for his own personal usage elsewhere). David Mellenby gets similar lectures, albeit with different content—likely to do with ethics and the perils of genius, the particular loneliness found at the top of the pile, and the importance of turning off the gas when one finishes one’s science experiments. (His eyebrows do grow back eventually). They’re in the same age set but with vastly different interests and talents, so it takes several years for Thomas to wonder whether there isn’t something just a bit uncanny about all the smiling and stammering and accidental property damage they seem to do in each other’s presence.
Thomas runs away from school one night when he is fourteen. Spring is in flower and the moon is high in the sky and he’s realised, with a horrible lurch, that is he absolutely and helplessly obsessed with David Mellenby. Thomas hasn’t quite learned to control his emotions yet—he’s used to bashing them into submission via either the rugby pitch or the duelling hall and then supressing the remainders by force. This strategy has not proved useful in dealing with the matter at hand and the situation is therefore, on balance, Not Good.
He runs and runs and runs, through the woods where they summon ghosts and the hedgerows where they hitch rides to the village and over the broad moonlit fields where they get chased by farmers for nicking apples. His lungs hurt and his eyes are burning and his heart feels as if it just might explode.
He comes to the Thames.
There’s an old man sat at the riverbank. Thomas feels an overwhelming wave of beer and skittles—a warm fireside, a long gale of laughter, giddily wandering home down the lane, warm and happy and in desperate need of a piss. Fun, uncomplicated. He hesitates.
Casterbrook’s Year Three curriculum includes learning about genii locorum in some depth. (Thomas will tell Peter Grant this in a century’s time and Peter will instantly begin referring to him as ‘Professor Lupin.’ It’s one of a million passing nicknames that Peter will give him. Most of them go wildly over Thomas’ head (what the devil is a ‘yoda?’) but he will secretly cherish them nonetheless). It is in these lessons that David first clocks the fascinating possibilities exemplified by genii locorum and Thomas first clocks the fascinating possibilities exemplified by David Mellenby’s entire person, so it’s probably fitting that it’s come to this.
“Come join me,” says Baba Thames, gesturing to the log next to him with his pipe.
Thomas doesn’t bother with backstory. He suspects Father Thames already knows.
“Hello,” he says instead.
“Hello,” says Father Thames. “In a spot of trouble, are we?” He takes a long drag from his pipe.
“What’s going to happen to me?” Thomas asks bluntly. (In hindsight, adult-and-then-some Thomas will wince when he remembers this. Fourteen-year-old boys are a very special breed indeed.)
Father Thames laughs.
“I don’t think you want to know that, son,” he says, clapping a hand on Thomas’ shoulder.
“Why not?” Thomas says stubbornly. He’s not thinking much beyond next Thursday’s rugby match and whether David will be in the stands and whether this will be enough to make Thomas spontaneously combust.
“It usually comes at a price.”
“What sort of price?”
Father Thames shakes his head. And then he sighs. “It usually comes at a price. For you, though…” He looks Thomas over. “I don’t believe I can charge. You will pay soon enough, at any rate.”
“Right,” says Thomas. He tries to school his face into the appropriate expression of expectant reverence.
“All is not lost. Hold tight to the sacred flame.” Father Thames leans back, satisfied, and takes a long drag from his pipe.
“…right,” says Thomas. He does have manners, sometimes, and he knows that ‘is that all?’ is not an appropriate response to being handed clairvoyant advice by a river god. Besides, all is not lost, which is probably the best he can hope for under the circumstances. The bit about the sacred flame is probably just a reminder that he should be spending more time revising and less time on the rugby pitch.
“I’m fairly useless when it comes to boys, mind you,” Father Thames says.
“That’s all right. I am too,” says Thomas.
Father Thames is right, by and large. By the time Thomas and David reach the sixth form, it has become clear that the two of them are bound together by being a league of their own.
“The mind-body problem,” explains David on a walk through the woods one evening, “Essentially comes down to whether you believe that your soul and your corporeal self are separable. Dualism refers to the belief that they are separate; monism refers to the belief that they are one.”
“Sounds quite theological,” says Thomas.
They’re both C of E, but on a technicality at best. There’s a chapel at Casterbrook and the masters don’t say anything overtly blasphemous on principle, but in light of the fact that every boy can turn water into wine by the time he reaches sixth form, Jesus Christ looks like a kindly wizard at best and an insufferable show-off at worst.
“Some philosophers, like Aristotle and Plato, believe that souls are incorporeal and that there are different sorts of souls present in different sorts of life. For example, only humans are capable of pain, pleasure, desire, and reason. The major Hellenistic schools, however, disagree. They are of the opinion that the body and the soul are inseparable.”
“Didn’t the Stoics have something slightly different, though?” asks Thomas, frantically dredging his memory. He got rather hung up on the way David said desire and is still trying to catch the thread of the conversation.
“They believed that the soul can survive the death of the body, yes. But they still believed it to be entirely mortal. In the Epicurean tradition, meanwhile, the soul is composed of two parts, one rational, one nonrational.”
“What do you believe?” asks Thomas, who would rather Epicurus didn’t have a look at the nonrational part of his own soul at the moment.
“Dualism would certainly explain ghosts,” says David. “And, well…” He gestures skyward, loosely, presumably to indicate the divine. “But we’d not be quite ourselves without our bodies, would we? That’s why ghosts have such a difficult time of it.”
They’ve come to the clearing where in their younger days they’d lit campfires and summoned ghosts. There’s a fire ring of stones with heaps of ash inside it, felled trees dragged around it in a circle.
“What about the fae?” asks Thomas. “Are they corporeal the same way as we are? Is Fairyland, for that matter?”
David shrugs. “I’d like to find out, someday.”
Neither of them have ever been to Fairyland, though Thomas knows David is itching to go. Thomas wouldn’t mind going himself, though he knows without a doubt that he would be tagging along as the muscle of the operation. They have both started to come into their respective powers in earnest: Thomas is practice while David is theory. Their conversations in shadowy corners of pubs after they slip out via the night gate hint, with thrilling inexorability, at something else arising between them. They are both reckoning with the fact that they are on the edge of surpassing their masters, coming to grips with the joint fear and excitement that realisation engenders.
So yes, there is snogging. Snogging in spades, in fact. Among other things.
They go their separate ways after Casterbrook. It’s not something they ever speak of; it’s just an understanding that’s always existed between the two of them. Career comes first; everything else is auxiliary. Thomas is shipped off to the colonies to do the endless paperwork that accompanies the end of a war and David is apprenticed to the Folly’s resident scientist, though that word is a rather generous one for what the man actually does, which mostly seems to consist of drinking tea and using the phrase ‘the cosmos’ a rather lot. They’ve never had a conversation about monogamy as such, so when Thomas finds himself in Tibet chasing German archaeologists with a rugged American professor, well… when in Rome… (Er, Tibet). When Thomas visits London, sporadically and never for very long, he and David fall together again, lingering over tea and pummelling each other in the gymnasium and slipping out of each other’s rooms at dawn.
Sometime in the mid-thirties, David shows Thomas the changes he’s made to the Folly’s lab. It’s been totally modernised--with the exception of the continued presence of the original resident scientist, who dozes in an armchair in the corner and stays out of David’s way, which is exactly how David likes it.
“If anything happens to me,” David says, awkwardly, and shows Thomas the particular cabinet where his notes are all stored. Inside is a combination safe. “It’s keyed to your signare as well, so the only way it opens is if you do it under your own free will,” David says as he turns the wheel to demonstrate. “The combination is 090600.”
“My birthdate,” says Thomas.
“Just so you remember, you see,” says David, but they both turn bright red and don’t quite know what to say after that.
The war comes and Thomas is recalled from the subcontinent for the final time. He and David meet at Casterbrook, which has been requisitioned for the war effort. It’s odd without the constant din of hundreds of rowdy adolescents, but the two of them have a sizeable volume of material from their youthful fantasies to work through. There’s a brief but memorable fuck in one of the spare classrooms; a few instances of fellatio in broom closets; and a not-insignificant amount of snogging in the woods. Once they’ve decamped to Germany, the tent-sharing is downright brazen, but since everybody else is doing it too it doesn’t matter.
They come together and apart during the war, David and Thomas, as they had during peacetime; different battles, different theatres, different shore leaves. They enter their forties with the understanding that both of them aren’t likely to make it back. (Sixty years hence, Thomas will express to a sniggering Peter Grant his desire to have a word with a certain Ms Morissette regarding her erroneous understanding of irony). Thomas greys in earnest—at his temples at first, then spreading further back. He blows up a number of things and gets quite a good price on his greying head, the steady increase of which his commanding officers keep him abreast through congratulatory telegrams. He’s always been rather good at blowing up things. “Calm under fire,” his commanding officer says with pride. “Nerves of steel, that Nightingale.”
Ettersburg brings Thomas and David together again in a haze of cigar smoke in the Folly’s lounge. There are maps and models and hushed voices from wizards with a rather lot of bars on their uniforms and Thomas can feel himself shouting, fighting against what he knows is a suicide mission. Thousands of them, the best and brightest of British wizardry dropped behind enemy lines to be slaughtered in the name of recovering something they can never in good conscience use.
He and David argue that night in a way that they’ve scarcely argued before. In the end, for all the circling, it comes down to this: that Thomas thinks David will selfishly put men to the slaughter in the name of knowledge, and that David thinks Thomas will selfishly squander a chance at recovering something earth-shaking out of a desire to protect his own life.
Thomas leaves David in the bedroom and steps out into the night, panting and angry. The formae are rising in his throat, roaring with his signare, always stronger when he’s brimming with emotion. He puts them back in their box; if he’s going to slash runnels in his brain with the forms and wisdoms, it won’t be in anger.
Molly steps out beside him. More accurately, she isn’t there one moment and is the next, which Thomas is still getting used to.
“Rotten business,” he tells her, through tears. “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”
They all go to Ettersburg and very few of them come back. Starved and burned and shot, Thomas crawls back to England, throws himself across the threshold of his motherland to find that David is dead by his own hand, surrounded by the horrors of the Black Library. He thought Thomas dead, thought it his own doing for letting Thomas push him onto the glider in his stead. He doesn’t leave a note and Thomas is alone, well and truly.
Duty calls. Thomas convalesces, his battered and wasted body coming back to something resembling life in a half-bombed-out hospital and then under Molly’s rather strict care. The only wizards left alive are those too old or too important to go to Ettersburg; those that don’t break their own staffs in horror at what they have wrought pass away within a decade. Thomas, coming back to himself in hazy fragments, has inherited the whole of British wizardry whether he likes it or not. He goes to Casterbrook and carves thousands of names in the wall, then he walks across the fields to the Thames and sits by the bank, wondering.
Father Thames doesn’t show.
All is not lost. Hold tight to the sacred flame.
The Folly he keeps in good nick (or at least with only a cosmetic amount of mankiness as befits a historic edifice). The ghosts he keeps in less-good nick, although occasionally their pleas to be fed are strong enough for Thomas to send werelights bobbing off down the corridors if only to snatch a few hours of precious sleep. It takes him an entire year to clean out David’s bedroom; Molly offers, but Thomas can’t bear to give in lest he think himself a coward for it. He also can’t bear the thought of Molly seeing whatever traces of their association linger on David’s possessions.
The paintings he doesn’t know what to do with; he studiously avoids them for the better part of six months until some workmen come to repair the pipes and something has to be done unless Thomas fancies giving them a free show. In the end, the formal portrait of Thomas and the tasteful nude of Molly are relegated to the coach house. The tasteful nude of himself, however, he takes down to the firing range and dispatches from this mortal plane with the assistance of a quiet fireball. He takes up walking and gets a dog at the suggestion of the Met’s resident psychiatrist, who in spite of being overwhelmed by everything Thomas is, does give some good advice.
There are shouts, here and there. Some nasty business with a nuclear reactor (Folly-related, in the end) and some even nastier business with serial killers (not Folly-related, in the end). London is simultaneously being rebuilt and emptied out; people are decamping to places with names like Milton Keynes, lured in by brand-new three-bedroom semis and something they’re calling ‘green space.’ The radio talks about a baby boom, a massive new generation being born to returning soldiers and their wives in those far-off three-bedroom semis.
Occasionally the scarred remains of the old-timers make their way into town and Thomas is unfailingly polite over Eccles cakes. They thank him for his service, for his sense of duty. To their eyes, he is all that is right about the Old Ways, tradition and a stiff upper lip, Queen and Country. As if the moment he waves at their trains departing to Leominster and Hastings and Saltburn-by-the-Sea he doesn’t turn around, step neatly off the platform, and vanish back into grimy, overwhelming, bombed-out London to duck into one of a handful of bars of his acquaintance. His body is no longer young and lovely, certainly, but in this new world where a homosexual is something one can be aloud (quietly, and in certain spaces and at great risk of arrest, grant you) there are all sorts of men who are seizing the day.
He enters his sixties. Retirement as such is out of the question, but he begins to wonder what to do when he perishes. For twenty years Thomas has sat on a death watch: for himself, for the Folly, for Newtonian magic, for the world to which he gave his entire self. Just waiting, quietly, for all of them to expire. Training up an apprentice for the sole purpose of him taking Thomas’ own miserable place in this mausoleum is something that he cannot in good conscience do. He considers asking one of the Rivers to take the Black Library into their custody; he considers asking MI5 to find a particularly safe time-release vault for it; he considers asking Molly to build his funeral pyre out of the contents of the bloody thing. He wonders what David would have wanted, then he reminds himself that David is dead and they never agreed on these sorts of things anyway. His joints crack alarmingly when he gets out of bed in the morning and he suspects Molly is slipping vitamins into his food. His suits fit differently as he ages; he takes them to Dege & Skinner for the necessary adjustments. When thinking about the day he finally shuffles off this mortal coil, he finds that he does not fear for himself, but only for what is under his care. Plus ca change.
August Bank Holiday, 1966. Thomas will recoil in horror from this phrase some fifty years hence, from the lips of one Varvara Sidnorovna Tamonina, the same way he will recoil from Peter sussing out, in the way that only Peter can and the way of which David would be proud, that the Omega watch once belonged to David. It is the way he recoils from anything that might show his hand, the way that knowledge slips outside of his control, to be made and remade by others quite without his permission.
He is sixty-six. He awakens with the dawn because he can feel everything.
The ghosts in the abandoned downstairs gents. The thrum of Molly’s triple-cadenced heartbeat two floors down. The creak and groan of the Folly’s old timbers, the quiver of the blancmange setting in the refrigerator. He rises and realises he can feel something else, too, much closer at hand.
“Really,” he half-whinges aloud, looking down. “Is that strictly necessary?”
It is, apparently, so Thomas dispatches the problem via a warm shower, his right hand, and sleepy thoughts of beautiful men he has known flitting through his head. Not David, because his brain has helpfully labelled the man ‘here there be dragons’ and therefore not useful for uncomplicated masturbation. The softest noise escapes Thomas when he comes, forehead leaned against the tiles.
He shaves and dresses with the radio on as he does every day. The Beatles are to play their final concert today at Candlestick Park in San Francisco; at Lake Como, the Rockefeller foundation is hosting the world’s first seminar on the field of theoretical biology, which, the radio presenter explains, is the use of mathematical modelling and theoretical analysis of organisms to understand the universal laws governing biology.
“Hmm,” says Thomas around his toothbrush. It sounds very much up David’s alley.
There’s a report on immigration too. Later, it will be called the Windrush Generation—immigrants of colour come from the protectorates to Britain in search of a better life. Now, it’s mostly just thinly-veiled racism. (In fairness, it will also be thinly-veiled racism later, too).
Thomas’ shoulders have the alarming tendency to crack like gunshots when he puts on his shirt, but not today.
“You feel it too, I presume,” he says to Molly, who’s appeared out of nowhere to perch on his bed. (Except in case of emergency, she’s been persuaded to do this only when Thomas is fully conscious and dressed, even if she thinks the whole conceit is rather foolish). “Strange, isn’t it?”
She nods and hands him a cravat--the swinging sixties have not passed him by entirely, and he finds that paisley suits him. “I don’t suppose you have any idea what it’s all about.”
She shakes her head.
“Would you like the day off?”
“Very well, then.” He tightens his cravat and straightens his shirt. “I’m going to…” he stops. ‘I don’t quite know actually. I suppose I’ll go out. Do you need more paints?”
She forces some breakfast into him before he goes, which he finds tastes remarkably better than usual—has her cooking improved overnight, or are his taste buds suddenly more amenable? Both seem in the realm of possibility.
He sets out on foot into a morning where everything feels new.
The empire is dying as Thomas improbably lives; Thomas suspects that the two are linked. After that first day, when he walks for miles around London and finally falls into bed with solicitor in Muswell Hill, he makes a daily habit of it, looking with interest at this new world to which he feels, somehow, an heir. The Thames below Teddington Lock gets a genius loci for the first time since Bazalgette. She is—was? Thomas isn’t sure on the appropriate verbiage here--a nursing student from Nigeria; Thomas meets her as he sits by the Thames in Southwark one night. He’d gone out, as young people would come to call it, ‘on the pull,’ as one does when the night air has the edge of a promise and one feels something echoing deep in the chest. He does that rather more now than he used to.
In 1967, on a changeable day of sun and rain, same-sex relations among men over the age of twenty-one in private spaces are decriminalised. Thomas does not celebrate the occasion by retiring to a private space and having decriminalised same-sex relations (though he is well over twenty-one); that day instead finds lying on his front in an abandoned house in the East End coaxing a ghost out from under a bed. That the ghost only speaks Xhosa is posing an additional problem. That the roof caves in on him is the fluffy fondant icing on the problem cake, which is itself cracking under the strain. He supposes it’s adequate punishment, given that he is, at least by dint of his occupation, part of the problem. He stuffs his badge in his pocket and walks home.
Time is a funny thing. It takes Thomas about a year to realise he’s stopped aging. It takes him a further year to realise that it’s going in reverse, and only because a particularly worrisome age spot had faded of its own volition and he’s no longer up four times a night to use the loo.
There are other perks, of course: he can run again, and really give it some welly when he is of a mind to take the front off a building (only when strictly necessary of course). Molly’s cooking (more specifically, the sheer volume of suet therein) is no longer going to his waist with such alacrity. He takes his suits to Dege & Skinner with no small amount of trepidation to reverse the alterations of the previous decade, but the tailors are nothing if not discreet.
He wonders, endlessly at first and then less as time goes on, why this is happening to him. At first it keeps him up at night, but then he realises he has no one to tell and figuring out why this is happening won’t make any difference in the slightest. Maths were more David’s thing, but it has occurred to Thomas to worry about the implications about aging backwards. He isn’t sure childcare is Molly’s forte. He wonders what will happen if a brain that was biologically childlike were forced to contend with his adult memories. He doesn’t fancy the collision, but he supposes what is coming will come regardless of his feelings on the matter.
The plague begins in the mid 1980s. Thomas, having been spared Spanish influenza and polio and everything else that snatched young people from the mortal plane before their time, wonders if this is the one that has his name on it. He’s not a terribly frequent visitor to the clubs, mind you, but he hears the whispers beginning in…1985, is it? He’s stopped wearing glasses, he remembers that much. And then the leaflets stressing the importance of prophylaxis begin appearing in the loos, hand-lettered and Xeroxed to within an inch of their lives.
(“You would call it prophylaxis,” laughs Peter Grant thirty years later, rolling Thomas over and nuzzling into the juncture of Thomas’ neck and shoulder in just the way that makes Thomas shiver and, god help him, whimper.)
There are young men dying in droves, horribly. It reminds Thomas too well of the War (always ‘the War,’ in his head, never room for any other). He can’t do anything for any of them. He can rip the front off a building and disable a Tiger Tank and a thousand other horrible, flashy things, but he can’t stop the cancers blooming across the faces of twenty-year-old men and the wail of sirens in and out of Soho.
He’s always been at ease in this world (as close to ‘at ease’ as The Nightingale can get, at any rate): it is full of men living double lives. Men like Thomas who go home to a place and world that they don’t speak about. Thomas doesn’t have a wife and a City job, but he does have the Folly and a cursed library and a fae housekeeper and, technically, a duty to enforce decency laws. He supposes if he were to be dragged into the Met on indecency charges they would merely send him home. They tolerate him there as a mysterious relic of a bygone era who could nonetheless make their lives very, very unpleasant if he had half a mind.
And then, in the middle of the plague, as men are dying around him, Thomas stops aging backwards and simply…stays put, sometime in his forties. With this comes a realisation, horrible and intriguing and so diametrically opposed to the carnage around him that Thomas can’t help but laugh, brokenly, because the alternative is a blind and panicked rage that would probably level half the neighbourhood.
David was obsessed with genii locorum and Thomas was obsessed with David, which means that by the transitive property Thomas knows a thing or two about genii locorum. So it isn’t entirely a surprise when Thomas surmises that he himself has turned into one. Father Thames, sat on that riverbank in 1914, had known, or at least suspected. That was why there hadn’t been a price for the prophecy. He was taking care of his own, Thomas supposes. Friends and family discount, if you will. All is not lost. Hold tight the sacred flame. It hadn’t been about David after all. Or had it?
Thomas’ own powers don’t change much, on balance. By all accounts he’s already a powerful wizard; on principle, he doesn’t glamour anyone unless the situation is dire. Besides, there isn’t anyone about for Thomas to glamour anyway, unless you count Molly. Thomas does not count Molly due to the fact that he likes his internal organs arranged the way they currently are, thank you very much. So Thomas stays in his mausoleum with his ghosts and his books and wonders what precisely he has been put in this stasis to wait for.
He meets Abdul Walid in 1991, by which point Thomas is reasonably sure at that point that the reverse aging has stopped or at least stabilised to an acceptable crawl. There has been a particularly grisly death in Soho that, no matter which way you slice it (literally), cannot not be explained by anything other than magic. So Thomas sits the good doctor down in the foyer of the Folly and plies him with Molly’s Bakewell tart and does his duty re: explaining that all of the weird bollocks, as Alexander Seawoll will come to call it, is in fact real.
And then, since Abdul seems to be taking it all in stride, Thomas tells Abdul the truth about himself. He has never actually told anyone aloud; Molly knows, obviously, but the two of them have never had a need to say anything aloud to one another.
The words, hanging in the air, are astonishing in their brevity.
“I began aging backwards in the mid 1960s. Within the last few years it appears to have stabilised.” And hasn’t that been strange, the wrinkles working their way back into nothingness, his vision sharpening until his reading glasses were more hindrance than help, the twinges in his back upon waking fading gradually. Thomas sets his teacup back in his saucer to hide his trembling hand.
“Do you have a theory as to why?” asked Abdul right off the bat, which sets Thomas at ease. He doesn’t have to worry about covering up an esteemed medical professional’s sudden need to retire to the countryside to tend llamas, for one.
“Gift horse,” says Thomas. “Mouth.”
Abdul doesn’t seem to entirely believe him. “Am I supposed to accept that a mind such as your own living in a body such as yours has never tried to get the bottom of the matter? In that event, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.”
Thomas sighs. “Of course I have, Dr Walid. The difficulty is, it wouldn’t make any difference if I were to know the how and wherefore. This is happening entirely outside of my control. I am merely a vessel for something outside myself entirely.” The fact that Thomas would have no one to tell save Molly is also a factor, certainly, but he isn’t about to unload a half-century of loneliness on someone he’s only just met.
Abdul splutters in a way that every scientist of his close acquaintance has when faced with Thomas’ obstinacy. It will become a running theme in the long span of Thomas’ life—first David, then Abdul, and then, later, Peter Grant, aghast that Thomas hasn’t jumped into their mad knowledge-chasing schemes with both feet.
“But it’s still worth knowing,” the good doctor half-squawks, accidentally putting his elbow in the remnants of his scone.
It’s not as if these things come with a manual, thinks Thomas with a touch of indignation. One just does one’s best.
After a few months, Thomas lets Abdul take his blood. He does quietly request that Abdul slip an HIV test into the battery that Abdul is running on what seems like an alarming quantity of Thomas’ blood; Abdul looks at him with something uncomfortably like dawning comprehension and sympathy and pity all rolled into one and adds a line to the end of the order form. The dozens of vials that Abdul has just drawn from the crook of Thomas’ elbow glint in the unforgiving fluorescent lighting of the hospital.
“Eat your biscuits,” says Abdul, pointing to the untouched packet on the arm of Thomas’ chair. “I nearly drained you dry. I’m going to go find you some squash.”
It is 1993, though, before Thomas lets Abdul coax him into one of those horrid thumping machines that takes pictures of any part of him it pleases.
“Normal,” says Abdul over high tea at Claridge’s (the man has a fondness for a good scone). “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were a perfectly average man in your early forties. You’ve even got the expected wear on your teeth.”
Thomas flips through the folder of papers Abdul has handed him. “That’s my brain, is it?” he says, pointing at the grey smudges before him.
“It is indeed,” said Abdul. “Congratulations. You are in possession of one perfectly regular brain.”
Of course it is this body that Thomas has settled in—the body that took him to Ettersburg and the body that took him away. The body that ransacked every corner of the spirit world it could find trying to bring David back. The body that carved two thousand, three hundred, and ninety-six names into the wall at Casterbrook and the body that had been shot.
Thomas isn’t sure of the implications, but he supposed he has time to ponder them. He has quietly drawn up some paperwork giving Abdul exclusive scientific control over his body once he dies. He doesn’t know whether Abdul will be able to bring himself to dissect a friend, but Thomas wants to give him the opportunity nonetheless.
“What is your healing process like?” Abdul is asking.
“Pardon?” says Thomas, who has been drifting.
“When you cut yourself or when you get a cold—do you heal more quickly than expected?”
“No, I don’t think so. I think I do all that in the ordinary way.”
Abdul helps himself to another scone. “I think it would be wise, then to take proper precautions when…” he trails off, possibly because a look of horror has taken up residence on Thomas’s face. “Sorry, just…” Abdul waves his scone. “If you can become ill the same way a regular man can…” He takes a bite of the scone, possibly to stop himself talking, and jam goes everywhere.
The HIV test had been negative, but Thomas knows that Abdul—as the closest thing Thomas had to a GP—felt medically obligated to look out for him, regardless.
“I understand,” Thomas says, and Abdul looks relieved.
A new millennium, sweet Christ. There had been wild speculation in his day about the mysteries of life in the 2000s, and now he’s here. Thomas finds himself rather unprepared. No one had predicted the Spice Girls, for one. There is something called the Internet now; there is something called Cybercrime, on the subject of which Thomas is made to sit through an interminable presentation and walks away more confused than he was when he entered the room. What he does get out of the experience, however, is that you can now talk to other people through the ether. Maybe there are others like him; maybe he could find them, if he wanted.
As they approach the dawning of the new year, Thomas finds he doesn’t quite understand the panic about computers and numbers and such and so decides not to trouble himself. He’s assured that all the panic has come to aught by a new Mancunian sergeant who is built like an ox and makes the most delightful noises when Thomas drives into him from behind. They watch the last straggling fireworks flare against the dawn from the warmth of Thomas’ bed, cradled in each other’s arms and trading lazy kisses.
2011. Another shout, this time to Covent Garden. Thomas’s life has become shout after shout strung out across a chain of quiet days entombed in the Folly. This one is for an unusual murder, a man’s head knocked clean off his shoulders. Covent Garden is close enough to the Folly to walk, and Thomas has always liked to stroll in the cold night air. He likes looking at London, wondering about it. He hasn’t figured out what exactly his domain is as a genius loci, but it bothers him rather less than it used to. He supposes he’ll know when the time comes.
There is a young man, lingering under the portico of the Actor’s Church. A particularly lovely man, at that, with curious eyes and an easy manner. Somewhere between IC3 and IC6, in the modern parlance. A shade shorter than Thomas, his suit cheap but well-kept. Thomas could have him, if he was agreeable. In this body, such things were possible. They had in fact moved from possible to probable to actual, on several occasions within recent years.
Thomas is mildly mortified to discover that he has accidentally tried to pull a cop. There is a tinge of pure panic around the edges of it too, a holdover from the days in which coppers lurked in public toilets and copses of trees and the shadowy corners of nightclubs to catch people like Thomas. One never really shook it, he found. That Thomas himself is a copper is something that he has tried never to dwell on for too long.
An apprentice, sweet Christ. After all this. Thomas doesn’t quite know what’s come over him, except Father Thames’ words from a century ago ringing in his ears and the undeniable fact that magical London is improbably stirring and Thomas is vastly underprepared. Young Constable Grant arrives at the Folly with a suitcase and an air of giddiness and turns Thomas’ death watch entirely upside down.
Magic, again. Magic for the joy of it. Flinging fireballs down the length of the firing range to Molly’s glee; ducking exploding apples from Constable Grant’s early efforts at impello; swotting up on Latin in secret because heaven forbid it come to light that Thomas is actually rather shite at it.
Constable Grant has a great many questions—about magic, about the Folly, about The Old Days. Thomas tries to answer as honestly as he can without giving too much away. He nearly has a heart attack when steps into the lab one day to see that Peter has brought out David’s microscope from its cabinet and is intently examining a series of microchips, but he keeps it off his face. The safe in the cabinet is locked and stays that way.
There’s someone in the house again, after all this time. Peter is rather heavy-footed and has a tendency to talk to himself, for which Thomas is very grateful—there’s never any wondering where he is. There are still surprises, though. The first time they run into each other in the corridor late at night—Peter has been in search of a snack; Thomas has been undertaking one of his usual nocturnal wanderings—Thomas stares at Peter’s vest and wonders what a Death Star is and whether he should be concerned about it.
“Nah, not your department,” says Peter sleepily. “Fancy some beans on toast?”
“Lead the way,” says Thomas.
Thomas wakes in a hospital bed with Abdul peering at him.
“You were shot,” says Abdul.
“So I gather,” rasps Thomas—or tries to, at any rate.
Through a miasma of heavy-duty pharmaceuticals and the crushing pain in his chest, Thomas notices that a bunch of blue wildflowers have been stuffed awkwardly in a vase by the bedside. If Abdul suspects they’re Alexander’s doing—Abdul had once wandered into one of DCI Seawoll’s classic corridor shouting fits and put two and two together about that particular liaison and its messy end—he’s good enough not to let on. The grapes, Thomas suspects, are from Molly, though how she got them here remains a mystery.
It’s a fair bit disjointing, being shot twice at the same age, seventy years apart. Thomas is not particularly fond of it, though the drugs are a lot nicer this time around. Abdul clucks when he sees the entry wound so close to the old exit wound, the scar from which has faded almost to nothingness.
“If you could avoid doing that again,” says Abdul, and launches into a lecture on the increased danger pneumonia poses to someone who’s been shot in the lung.
“Peter,” Thomas rasps to Abdul, who gets on it.
“I have been shot before,” he tells Peter, who is fussing. It’s not untrue, though Peter doesn’t need to know the details. For the last seventy years, Thomas’ own feelings have never required more than a cursory check-in to make sure they are still there in the unlikely event they need to be called into the breach. Thus, it takes a conscious effort to excavate them and dust them off, turning them every which way in his mind to decide which of them might apply to young Constable Grant. Thomas is, after all this time, unused to anyone looking at him this way, with unmasked care and concern and what just might be an edge of tenderness (Molly has a variety of facial expressions, certainly, but they mostly come in gradations of glowers).
Thomas is not fond of having to tell Peter the truth. He knows he’s pushed it off too long, but in his defence, he had tried to tell Peter. He just kept getting…well, interrupted.
“Old,” he rasps to Peter. ‘Turn century.” And did that century turn, and turn, and turn. (There was a nice song about that years and years ago. Right before Thomas started aging backwards, funnily enough).
“You’re over a hundred years old?” asks Peter, dumbstruck.
Thomas laughs and laughs and laughs. It comes out as a wheeze and it hurts terribly, but it feels good to say it.
He doesn’t quite tell Peter everything, though.
Peter has hinted that Thomas is what the American television shows refer to as a ‘jock,’ which in Thomas’ best estimation seems to be a lad who’s good at sport. Perhaps not entirely untrue; they know each other well enough now that Peter can tease Thomas for what Peter views as his preternatural obsession with rugby.
“Would you start playing again?” asks Peter, leaning forward to take another samosa from the plate on the coffee table. ‘There are loads of leagues around and I don’t think they ask for birth certificates.”
Thomas watches the scrum unfold on the screen a moment before answering. Every so often, someone in the counterfeiting department of Economic and Specialist Crime signs a lengthy series of nondisclosure agreements and then knocks him up a new set of documents. As far as University College Hospital knows, the man who turned up on their doorstep with a gunshot wound to the chest was born on 6 September 1969 in Brighton to a Mr Faustus and Mrs Delphinia Nightingale (née Flamel). Thomas gets the feeling that Counterfeiting a) likes getting creative with names and b) resents the nondisclosure agreements.
“Perhaps when I’m less freshly-shot,” he says, holding out his hand. Peter obligingly fetches him a samosa.
“Let me know,” says Peter. “I can print off the forms for you.”
Thomas is weak for a long time. A gunshot wound is a gunshot wound, and since he hasn’t quite figured out what he is the genius loci of, he can’t just go dunking himself in various substances hoping for restoration. He comes back slowly; he can feel the trembling in his legs when he stands and the sharpness of his shoulder blades when he sits back in a chair. Molly pushes a rather lot of game pies and Victoria sponges at him and Peter keeps worrying, which might just be the worst part in all of it.
But back he comes. Thomas hasn’t done this much magic this consistently in a very, very long time. It knackers him, makes him sleep very deeply. He knows this world of constant crises, moves comfortably in it: he is the Nightingale, calm under fire and wildly powerful. Certainly, some of the finer technological points have to be explained to him by sniggering constables, but everyone gets the hell out of his way when he starts whipping out spells, which suits his purposes perfectly.
The jazz vampires are a nasty shock, to be sure; the Strip Club of Dr Moreau makes him bring up his lunch, discreetly and far away from where anyone might see. It shows him how absent he’s been these last decades, how remiss. He may have retreated into his own tomb too soon. He certainly has been far too negligent in the paperwork, with which Peter catches up with the help of a rather lot of Red Stripe and a number of baleful looks in Thomas’ directions.
There’s a new threat now, a Faceless Man of uncertain origin but dastardly intentions, so he and Peter and Leslie get cracking. And then it’s just him and Peter cracking, because Peter’s skydived off the roof of a council estate with the Faceless Man and Leslie’s gone and betrayed the Folly to get her face back. Thomas should send Peter to therapy, in light of all this. Instead, he sends Peter to Herefordshire, which in his day was what they had. That Peter then nearly gets mauled in Fairyland makes Thomas reassess his approach to mental health, slightly.
“We think he was finding his victims on Grindr,” says Miriam Stephanopoulos, pointing to a series of screenshots on the PowerPoint. Her face is bathed blue by the light of the projector and she has made it clear, multiple times, that she doesn’t think this is a Falcon case. Thomas and Peter also don’t think that this is a Falcon case, but at least the refs are good.
“What—” begins Thomas in bafflement, but Peter kicks him under the table and mouths later. Thomas dutifully makes a note on his copy of the case file. Ask Peter about Grindr.
Later is after they’ve all filed out of the briefing room and Peter is attempting to work the nick’s antiquated coffee maker.
“It’s an app—like on a smartphone, you know—that allows men to find other men to…well. Have relations with. Now where do you think they keep the coffee filters?” Peter thrashes around the cabinet very busily.
Thomas tries very hard to keep his face neutral. Constable Grant’s sexual predilections are none of his business, of course, and one would have to blind, deaf, and wilfully obtuse to not notice Peter’s repeated liaisons with one Beverley Brook. But Thomas is, through both necessity and time, practiced in the art of noticing when men are looking at other men, and young Constable Grant’s eyes spend an awful lot of time lingering. Whether some of that lingering happens about Thomas’ own person would not be professional for him to state.
Once upon a time, Thomas was current. He took all sorts of men into his bed; he had moves. He still has them, he knows, even though he might be a bit out of practise. But here he is with his junior officer who thinks that Thomas is some sort of relic that possibly predates the invention of sexual relations at all—as if Thomas hadn’t been perfectly capable of turning up at the Caravan Club in the thirties with a healthy quantity of heroin and a determination to demonstrate that twentieth-order spells weren’t the only thing his tongue was good for.
He knows it’s only a matter of time. Magic is intimate. If you spend enough time doing it with someone, secrets fall away. Things slip out around the edges of spells. Seducere is the intentional version, but you don’t need the full whack to get an idea of what someone’s about. To this day, Thomas could identify a signare from anyone in the old mob at two hundred paces; someday, Peter will have one too, not just a weak imprint of Thomas’ own hovering around the edges of his fireballs, and Thomas will have to contend with that, too.
He should probably warn Peter, Thomas thinks as Peter hands him a ‘Me Encanta Torremolinos!’ mug with a large purple crocodile on it. If only to diminish the possibility of apoplexy the first time Peter gets a glimpse under the hood of Thomas’ mind. The Caravan Club was just the beginning of it. And then, well… David was what David was.
“That seems convenient, having an app like that,” says Thomas mildly, sipping at his coffee. It is semi-solid and utter swill in the way that all respectable police coffee should be. “Takes the guesswork out of things.”
Peter chokes on his coffee, just a little.
Thomas knows that Peter suspects. Has suspected since the night they met, when a well-dressed posh gentleman of a certain age approaching a fit young man of colour under the portico of the Actor’s Church could mean only one thing. But Thomas hides behind his veneer of archaism, his stiff upper lip—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
“You don’t know the half of it,” says Peter, his need to share knowledge overriding whatever else is going on in that baffling head of his. “You get little pings when another gay man is near you.”
Thomas startles. “How on earth do they know—”
“Another gay man who also uses the app,” Peter adds hastily.
Thomas, who may or may not have just had a small heart attack, is relieved that technology is not quite that far ahead of where he thought it was.
Thomas and Peter are going undercover, which was most certainly not Thomas’ idea. Peter had insisted that such an operation was vital to flush out a particular Faceless Man operative; Stephanopoulos had backed him up thoroughly while sniggering openly at Thomas. Peter is far too excited about this particular excursion: Thomas has to talk him down from a series of increasingly ridiculous fake moustaches.
“It looks like a caterpillar orgy died on your face,” he tells Peter flatly. Peter sighs and rips the offending item off his upper lip with a hiss of pain.
‘What about a soldier?” he says, rummaging around the clothes rack and coming up with some fatigues.
“Veto,” says Thomas, with feeling.
“What’s the difference between the sort of magic the Rivers have and the sort of magic you and I have? And for that matter, the Linden-Limmers?” Peter asks a few hours later. He’s been persuaded to swap the moustaches for some sort of art-student look involving skinny jeans, a fedora, a lot of brocade, and an air of smugness mixed with existential angst. There is also eyeliner, which is doing funny things to Thomas’ insides. The look is more than suitable for their current haunt, which is a trendy rooftop bar in Hackney where all of the drinks are named after modern philosophers and cost twelve quid. (To be fair, the Judith Butler is rather good). Thomas, for his part, had dug around the Met’s stash of disguises for the better part of an hour before turning up a pair of leather trousers that more or less fit him and a maroon top proclaiming ‘Free Britney!’ across the chest (Peter assured him that donning it would not create a conflict of interest vis á vis his role as an officer of the law). He’s also held off shaving for a few days; he tries to keep from scratching at the resultant scruff that Peter insists ‘completes the look.” Stephanopoulos, in between gales of hysterical laughter, has done something to Thomas’s hair involving a great deal of product and vigorous finger-combing. It stands up rather more than it usually does. (“Good head of hair you’ve got,” she’d sniggered while taking a not-even-slightly-discreet photo with her mobile before Thomas could protest. He does have a good head of hair.)
“Are you asking whether magic is gendered? Because Caroline is—well…” Thomas sips the last of his Judith Butler to cover his ill-ease. There are so many words for things now; he finds himself rather caught out.
“Transgender,” says Peter helpfully. “Assigned male at birth, but identifies as a woman. You can’t formally do the swap—bodily-speaking—until you’re eighteen, and you have to see loads of doctors and apply to a committee and everything.”
Thomas winces. “Really? That seems a rather onerous process. I can’t see why it’s necessary for a committee to give you the right to determine who you are.”
Peter looks at him as if to marvel, which makes Thomas feel at once very indignant and very cherished.
“I do not believe magic to be a gendered phenomenon, inherently,” says Thomas. “I believe the gender differences in the kinds of magic present today are attributable to societal factors and expectations. If it were not unspeakably rude to do so, I would ask the Linden-Limmers whether Caroline’s physical, erm…that is to say, her…”
“Transition was aided by magic?”
“Quite.” Thomas peruses the drinks list. “Ah, good, one that I actually know. But why they’ve decided that the alcoholic personification of Noam Chomsky involves tequila and Um Bongo is quite beyond me.”
There’s been no sign of their target, which is just as well. Thomas doesn’t think he can run in these trousers.
“I think all magic comes from the same source,” Thomas tells Peter. “I think we all use different tools to work the same material.”
A young man who can only be a DJ steps up to a structure that Thomas had blithely assumed to be an auxiliary bar.
“Hullo, Hackney,” he says cheerfully, putting on headphones and thumping all of his equipment onto the worktop.
“Yikes on bikes,” says Peter. The DJ pops open the lid of whatever large box it is that DJs use to make music and Thomas braces himself for something loud involving electric guitars. But, confusingly, the man starts playing--
“I Love You for Sentimental Reasons,” says Thomas, baffled and a little stunned. He saw Nat King Cole perform live while on a trip to America in the early 1950s to look at their nuclear bunkers in the prairies. It’s awfully strange to be hearing it now, on a rooftop bar in Hackney with fake turf under their feet and modern, arty people everywhere around them.
“Yeah, the hipsters like that stuff now,” says Peter. “Everything comes back into fashion eventually.”
“Hopefully not everything,” says Thomas fervently, thinking of aspic jelly and the Nazis. He stands and holds out his hand to Peter.
“You can dance,” says Peter, almost accusingly.
“Every gentleman of my generation could,” Thomas says primly. If only Peter had seen the costumes he danced in, and with whom he did such things. He brings Peter out onto the floor, leads him in a slow circle.
“Jesus wept,” says Peter as Thomas dips him with a flourish.
“It’s part of our cover,” Thomas says, which fools precisely no one.
“Sir,” says Peter, looking up from his book. “Is it possible—I mean, have you considered—” He stops and shakes his head. “That you’ve aged backwards because…well…”
“That I myself am a genius loci?” Thomas rubs his face with one hand. Even his own love of reading has been tested in the last few weeks. They are in the darkest days of the Faceless Man investigation. No one is sleeping much. Sometimes when they are along and seated alongside each other, Peter lets his head drop to Thomas’ shoulder. Thomas would rather die than admit that he often sits down next to Peter in the hopes that this very thing will occur.
Peter looks relieved. “Yeah. That. Same way that Comrade Major is.” They'd all worked that one out with the assistance of a ghastly amount of Stoli. It would be Thomas' luck that the one person he finds who might share his plight is actively in league with evil.
This body, meanwhile, feels chained to the Black Library, shackled to that mouldering monument to hubris and evil and death with Thomas’ soul along for the ride as something resembling collateral damage. Varvara has been rather tight-lipped on her own feelings on the subject, but Thomas understands that she feels rather like she got the raw end of the deal, considering how little Russia did for her and what she is now involuntarily giving in return. “And what would you say I am genius loci of, Detective?”
Peter shakes his head. “Dunno. Have some guesses, though.”
“Care to share?”
Peter does not care to share.
Chorley is gone. Lesley is gone. Peter has got into counselling, finally. They try to put Thomas into counselling as well. He knows he should give it a go, intellectually speaking, but he quite frankly doesn’t think that anyone’s qualified.
Everything is fresh and new and fragile. It’s as if they can all breathe again, with the storm clouds gone. They all take a two weeks’ holiday to Robin Hood’s Bay, him and Peter and Abigail and Toby and, shockingly to them all, Molly, who walks up and down the beach under the largest parasol Thomas has ever seen. It’s there, watching the tide come in, that Thomas tells Peter that he thinks Peter has graduated from his cobbled-together apprenticeship, having shown exceptional skill and level-headedness in the line of fire. Abigail Kamara is coming along splendidly, though she does take Thomas’ eyebrows off with a poorly-aimed fireball. (That Thomas allowed it to happen because was so shamefully distracted by the way Peter was juggling his own set of fireballs is immaterial.)
They begin to talk about The Future, Thomas and Peter and sometimes Abigail, taking long walks through London.
“You are obviously aware that I was a willing cog in the imperial machine,” says Thomas. He knows you shouldn’t feed ducks, but he does it anyway, tearing off pieces of his croissant and letting them drift down into the water.
“Well, yeah,” agrees Peter, taking a bite out of his own croissant. They’re on Hampstead Heath in the late afternoon after a mercifully quick shout to a fairy-on-fairy domestic. Thomas is reasonably sure that some of the glitter has managed to make its way into his pants. Peter’s hair is sparkling in the sunlight. “But you know better now, in theory. Or at least you’re learning.”
Thomas is learning. He also suspects, down in some secret part of himself, that he is aging again. Nothing too serious; he has to squint to read menus and his knees begin to complain in the chill. He’s not certain enough to say anything to Peter, but he’s gathering the courage to ask Abdul to run some tests. He doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that this is happening now, with one apprentice graduated and more in the pipe and magic roaring to life once more in London. It’s as if Thomas’ own life has been an emergency stopgap; as if he was imbued, briefly, with power that is not his to keep, only to pass on. It doesn’t feel quite fair, but Thomas doesn’t mind. Sacred flame, indeed.
“Pub?” says Peter, so they pub. They split a shepherd’s pie, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the back of the Flask. Peter is also aging; his mid-thirties have brought creaky knees and a wonky thyroid and the tendency to whinge about them both. He also has a signare now, one that’s properly his own: the rustle of pages, a gale of laughter, warm sunlight, a hurtling train. Sometimes a small explosion in the background, for good measure. However, at times it is distressingly close to David’s. Thomas isn’t sure whether to put it down to chance, shared Folly facilities, or the fact that Thomas himself might be the common denominator.
“We need magical law enforcement, that much is certain,” says Thomas. “But it has not escaped my notice that there is not much in existence by way of magical laws. I’m wondering if a few barristers amenable to the cause might be found…”
“Nobody’s going to agree on laws,” says Peter, stealing a particularly large chunk of chicken. Thomas has a brief but entertaining vision of Lady Ty and a troll coming to blows over unicorn-parking rates.
“Of course not,” sighs Thomas. “It’ll be a long and difficult process.” In a moment of daring, he lets his head fall onto Peter’s shoulder.
“Get a room!” yells a passing punter.
“Jog on,” says Peter, which is rather good of him.
“I was thinking,” says Peter.
“It troubles me that you find such an occurrence newsworthy,” says Thomas, finishing the Times crossword with a flourish. Nineteen across: fourteen letters, synonym of ‘resemblance.’ Verisimilitude. One of Thomas’ personal favourites.
Peter rolls his eyes. “I was thinking,” he continues, undaunted, “That I’m not your apprentice anymore.”
“You are still my junior officer,” Thomas reminds him, but his heart has begun to beat. It’s been two months since Robin Hood’s Bay and several weeks since Peter saw Thomas’ stash of Silver Jubilee photos. The two of them were out all last night liaising with the Quiet People; they’d watched the sun rise while sat on the steps of St. Paul’s splitting a Chelsea bun from a café that has been around long enough to think that Thomas is just the latest product of a family that reproduces by mitosis.
“I’ve also seen you in your pants,” Peter counters, which, while not untrue, is not a memory that Thomas wants to relive. It involves a particularly poisonous and pustulent plant exploding all over him and a need to get out of his clothes right now or risk sprouting boils all over.
“And I, you,” says Thomas, because the best defence is a good offence. Technically he’s seen Peter get utterly demolished in a pissing contest with various and sundry river gods, but that doesn’t seem very gentlemanly to bring up at the moment.
“See?” says Peter, beaming.
Thomas may have miscalculated this one. He sighs. “What are you proposing?” he asks.
“I’m knackered and really need a nap,” Peter says, bouncing on the balls of his feet. Thomas will never quite understand the man’s physiology. “And I reckon you’re going to fall asleep in about two seconds. And I was thinking it’d be rather nice if you and I did that together.”
Thomas automatically opens his mouth to protest.
“I’d like that,” he says instead, and puts the crossword aside. Peter holds out his hand and Thomas lets himself be helped to his feet.
They do this in Peter’s bed. Thomas isn’t ready for it to be the other way around. He hadn’t realized how many personal Rubicons he has left uncrossed until this damnably beautiful man entered his life and started splashing about.
There are science-fiction posters in the walls and comic books on the desk. Peter’s acquired a lava lamp at some point, which takes Thomas right back, and his bed smells like him. It’s indecently intimate; it feels like too much, too close, after so many years of too little, too far.
“All right?” says Peter, at which point Thomas realizes he’s staring.
“Perfectly,” he says and gets into bed. He’s exploded a Tiger Tank, for goodness sake. He’s not about to be undone by a cuddle.
For a moment, it’s a thrash of elbows and knees in worrying proximity to delicate areas. And then they settle in with Peter on his back and Thomas pulled against his chest and it feels remarkable.
“This is nice,” says Peter, tracing circles on Thomas’ upper back with his fingertips.
“Quite,” Thomas manages. He tilts his head up, searching. Peter, mercifully, knows where he’s going and brings a hand up to cradle Thomas’ jaw.
“Yeah?” Peter says, a little shaky.
“Yeah,” Thomas sighs back, and kisses him.
And then they fall asleep.
Thomas can’t seem to get enough of him.
“Skin hunger,” says Peter, who apparently learns about such things from the Internet. He traces gentle fingers down the dip of Thomas’ spine, giving it just enough fingernail to make Thomas shiver. Thomas leans his forehead against Peter’s bare, warm shoulder and tries to breathe.
“Good?” Peter asks, which it is, so he keeps doing it while they kiss, which is also very, very good. Peter is such a sweet boy, a brilliant and wonderful and ridiculous boy, all of which Thomas wants to say to him but can’t, in the moment. There is so much of this new world, the world that Peter brought gusting in with him through the open doors of the Folly, that Thomas does not understand, like the memes and the dance moves and the track bottoms
(though he has at last got the hang of gender-neutral pronouns, which are, at any rate, quite handy when you are dealing with a sentient supernatural entity to which gender probably doesn’t apply anyway). But there are so many things that are so sweetly Peter’s that Thomas holds in the way one might hold new-born kitten, close and tender and with wonderment: the jumpers with science-fiction characters on them, the impassioned defences of colloquial London English, the groundnut stew whose spice level makes Thomas cry and quite possibly briefly see God. It feels like he’s cracking open, fragile and happy and new.
Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. Thomas of all people knows this; he fancies something of an authority, actually. He knows, intellectually, that all of the kissing David in the chapel at Casterbrook lit by the syrupy golden light of a perfect English summer afternoon is just one moment in a sea all sorts of less-savoury things that Thomas’ mind has helpfully elbowed out of the way. He knows that what he privately thinks of as the Old Folly was rife with corruption and all of those –isms that they teach you about at sensitivity training nowadays. (Alexander has, somewhere on his mobile phone, footage of Thomas finding out in rapid succession a) what emojis are and b) to what sorts of filthy, coded purposes they can be deployed. That Alexander provided a demonstration of the aforementioned filthy purposes later that evening is immaterial). He knows that his own lifespan, however special it has been to ride sidecar to the trajectory of a century of history, covers a period of years that held untold brutality for untold millions of people. Yet here, showing lux to a small gaggle of new apprentices for the first time, Thomas feels the same sort of thrill he felt standing in the classroom at Casterbrook long ago, with a handful of fire and the portraits of masters past all gazing down at him.
“Fuck me, I can do magic,” Peter had said wonderingly, somewhat more recently.
Fuck me, I can teach magic however I like, Thomas thinks now. Peter beams at him from the other side of the room. He’s taking photographs with Thomas’ old Leica from the 1960s. Where he’s managed to source the film from Thomas hasn’t a clue, but Molly has promised to do the developing.
“Now, you all will be well-acquainted with Dr Walid’s excellent collection of brains,” Thomas says, setting the werelight to bob over his shoulder like a particularly affectionate balloon. The four new apprentices nod solemnly. “And you will also be well-acquainted with the oath you swore.” He and Peter have added some bits to the original involving ethical behaviour and responsibility to one’s community; Thomas feels it is his prerogative, as the likely genius loci of British wizardry, to fiddle with the language as he sees fit.
They also took out the ‘master’ thing.
Plus ca change, David used to say.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, Thomas used to say back.
This is a grand adventure for Peter, as all things are. Thomas is overcome with it, how responsive, how eager he is. There’s not a trace of self-consciousness or fear, just the brilliant new vistas of bisexuality opened up before him by his old, haunted, fae-touched boss who he somehow thinks is rather dishy. Thomas, for his part, worries periodically that this is some sort of gift from Medea, beautiful in the moment and poisoned in the aftermath. Fortunately, Peter has gotten rather good at knowing when to tell Thomas to shut up and stop thinking so much.
The first time Peter laughed at him in bed, Thomas thought he’d done something horribly gauche and ruined everything. But then Peter had tugged Thomas closer and moaned, sweet Christ, and called him unbelievably sexy.
“I’m nearly ninety years older than you,” Thomas protests breathlessly, because he feels it ought to be said at some point.
“Yeah, so?” mumbles Peter, who’s fumbling in the bedside drawer for lubricant. It’s a lovely spring evening, the hush of dusk falling over London. The breezing coming in through the window smells of lilacs. “You’re not my first weirdly-old lay, if that’s what you’re after. Simone, and Bev, and—”
“All right, all right, perhaps discussion of your sordid supernatural sexual history should take place outside of the present context,” suggests Thomas hastily. “I suppose I shall have to content myself with being your first Newtonian wizard, then.” His breath hitches: Peter is pawing gently at his arse, which is unspeakably cheeky and unspeakably good.
“You’ve certainly got the forms—” Peter gives Thomas’ arse a squeeze— “and I’ve bet you’ve got the wisdoms to go along with them.”
“Stop, stop,” groans Thomas, trying to thrash away. “Isaac Newton is rolling in his grave.”
“Rather do a modern policing theme? Because I’ve got some things I’d like to action myself to do…” says Peter rakishly.
“What sorts of things?” asks Thomas breathlessly. He knows a losing cause when he sees one, and Peter’s horrific crimes against wordplay certainly fit the bill.
“Anything you like.”
“You are well aware, of course, that the sacred flame occasionally requires stoking…”
Peter grins, grabs Thomas round the waist, and flips them over. “Hold tight, then.”