Nick ran around the corner following George, Edie and the Gunner as they walked back to Jubilee Gardens.
"Ah there you are, where've you been hiding?" said the Gunner when he spotted her.
"Personal errand," Nick replied and smiled to herself, secretly placing the Walker's glass mirrors back in her pocket. She'd decided to keep them. It seemed like a fair swap.
Nick dawdled behind the rest, still exhausted. She was holding her hand which had now been properly bandaged. It still hurt and not properly healed yet but Nick liked that; it made her feel normal. She noticed the Gunner was lingering back as if waiting up for her.
"Go ahead," she said. "I'll catch up."
"There's something I wanted to speak to you about actually," said the Gunner. "I spoke with the Friar last night."
"Did you now?" she said back with a raised eyebrow.
"Yes. He said after everything that has gone down you wouldn't mind any longer if he shared some insight on you."
"Whatever happened to confidentiality in the church?"
"He told me you'd say that," he replied with a small grin. "He also told me just how much you've helped us spits over the years. You really are a sly one, aren't you?" He grinned but Nick didn't reply so he put an arm around her shoulders as they walked and then Nick softened. "You're a good one, Nick. And you know what? Things will be OK. Everything will be alright."
"You really think so?"
"Yes. I do."
Nick let them walk for a little longer, actually believing it. But a smile broke out on her face and it wasn't something she could resist playing with.
"You know you've said that before, right? And everything went pear-shaped."
"Way to rain on my parade," the Gunner replied grumpily.
"I'm just saying, you jinxed it."
"No I didn't."
…the arguing continued for much after that. But it was great fun.
Ash soon caught up with them. George and Edie shared knowing looks with the Gunner. George smiled audaciously as Edie caught his train of thought and the two of them walked faster, leaving Nick and Ash to trail behind. But Nick soon caught on.
"I want you to have this," said Ash, lifting up Nick's arm gently. She recognised he was holding the length of string he used to tally beads on. Both ends had been tied together making a small bracelet which he slipped carefully onto her wrist.
"Thank you," she replied, knowing full well the value of what it meant to him. She could see it in his eyes.
He had a deep cut under one eye but it would heal. It all would. In time. She knew it would.
He smiled and carried on walking.
A little further on they walked past a black cab and the radio caught their attention.
"More local news now; in an unlikely event an earthquake measuring at 4.9 on the Richter scale hit the City of London in the early hours of this morning. Seismologists have traced the epicentre to the City Temple area near Holborn. More details coming soon. Also, police have asked for any witnesses who may have seen suspicious activity near the Boots branch on Cannon Street between the hours of 03:00 and 05:00 this morning to come forward. Early reports show that there was a break in via a smashed window however the store manager has stated that nothing appears to have been taken from the store. It was thought that the earthquake which hit the area could have triggered the damage as well as the many fire outbreaks and damage to the street, but police may now also be looking into it as hooliganism, as over the road from the Boots store, the legendary Stone of London suffered similar vandalism. CCTV footage has been very limited but-"
The taxi drove away.
"Huh. So they did notice the Stone," said Nick.
"That can't be good," said George.
Nick knew that the police would not find any culprit and soon the whole story would be forgotten about. Maybe it was a good thing the Stone was getting some attention. The Lesser World, Nick shook her head, this world, might finally pay some attention to the value of it. The Gunner cheekily looked around and smiled at everyone like a naughty school kid.
"Nahhh, don't worry 'bout that, they won't find nothin'," he said, threw a glance at a worried Edie.
"But wouldn't they have heard it, the battle?"
"It's lucky that not many people actually live here. It's the business district, you see. It's actually the second smallest population for any English district after the Isles of Scilly." He came to a halt. "Wow. Definitely been spending too much time with Dictionary. No one would have been around at that hour. Well, maybe a few, but they probably would have ignored it or thought they'd imagined it, like they do."
Edie looked a bit more comforted, and in her thoughts she smiled to herself.
"Who'd have thought such a motley bunch as ourselves could have achieved what we did last night."
"You're telling me," huffed the Gunner, looking around the group and smiling.
"You are a bunch of odd-balls, aren't you?"
"I see you didn't include yourself in that statement," said Nick.
"Of course not, I'm stunning."
"You're beginning to sound like Gurk," smiled Edie.
"How…horrifying," the Gunner shivered.
Edie chuckled and the Gunner beamed back at her.
"So, what's the plan then?" George asked.
The Gunner brought George close and pulled him into a mischievous headlock.
"Well, this time I'm gonna finish you proper, you little scamp" he laughed as he clung onto George firmly and gave him a nuggie.
"Oh yeah, old man?" said George, giggling. He eased his way out of the Gunner's grip and jumped onto his back, growling comically as the Gunner swung him around in circles.
"Boys," Edie said, shaking her head.
At one point George took great elation in miming exactly how he'd landed a punch on the Walker, taking great pride in the detailed slow motion action re-play that he performed dramatically on the Gunner. The Gunner laughed but sneaked in a quick, worried glance at Nick to judge her reaction. Fortunately, she found it just as hilarious. George got another piggyback and shouted marching orders to the Gunner who executed them in ways which caused Edie to combust in fits of giggles. Nick and Ash walked behind equally amused.
They continued walking. They all ached and pained with the effects of the war but they were in too good a mood to complain about it, or even notice it.
They were on top of the world.
"Seriously though…" George said after a while, now sounding utterly worn out from his exertions, "What are we going to do?"
The mood seemed to shift from dreamy to reality very quickly. He frowned and kicked himself for not leaving everyone in their ecstasy bubbles a little longer.
"A little R&R is in order. Just look at yourselves; a quartet of tramps!" the Gunner goaded, seizing up the extent of all their injuries. "All soldiers need rest. Especially the 'Soldiers of London'," he winked. "We'll recuperate. That's what we'll do. We'll work out what needs to be done later. For now, chillax," he looked to everyone, all who couldn't be happier that he'd said that. "And…" he continued, breaking into a grin, "these old codgers have a lot of time to catch up on," he nodded at Nick at Ash, "I'm sure we'll think of something."
"Oi! Old? I like to think of myself as mature," Nick hounded back in reply.
"Yeah, like an old cheese."
"You sayin' I smell?"
"Nah, course not."
He turned to George and Edie and held his nose between finger and thumb whilst waving his hand in front. They both giggled.
"Saw that," called an unimpressed Nick. "If you still had cotton undies I'd wedgie you good and proper like, and then some."
"I wouldn't mess with that kind of threat, Gunner, trust me" laughed Ash.
"Ooo, I'm so scared," the Gunner replied modestly.
"You was last night when Gresham's grasshopper got you," poked Nick.
"Oh yes?" said George intrigued, a creeping smile etching up his face.
"Grasshopper got him by the face, right, and then action man here was stumbling about like a clown and yelping like a little school girl."
"I was not!" blurted the Gunner.
"Really?" said Edie, containing a giggle.
"Wet his pants," said Nick, winking at the Gunner who was fuming. He went rigid with embarrassment and everyone laughed.
"What the Dickens? Look, I told you, this little lady has had one too many knocks on the head, she doesn't know what planet she's on if you ask me," the Gunner protested.
But they all found it more hilarious not to believe the Gunner. Nick scoffed and hopped about mimicking him being harassed by the insect. She ran up behind him and tickled his neck whilst shouting "chirp!" in his ear.
"Get off, you!" he replied, smacking her hand away from his neck, then rubbing it till the itch went.
At this, George and Edie burst out laughing so hard that it hurt, and when they settled down Edie got hiccups, which was enough to set them off again for another few minutes.
"Actually I knew Dickens well. Nice chap," said Nick.
George looked like he'd just been slapped across the face with a wet haddock. Nick nodded with inscrutable eyes. Mystified looks ricocheted between George, Edie and the Gunner.
"You should see the look on your faces! HA," Nick pointed and laughed. "Oh if only I had a camera. Priceless."
Nick high fived Ash and the pair of them carried on laughing as the pair of them went ahead, leaving the others left behind. The stood around for a moment then followed, clearing their throats and trying to act cool and hide their humiliation, pretending like they weren't fooled by it.
"Well you know the first thing I'm going to do?" said Ash, "Sleep!"
There laughter and playful bullying passed the time and before long they were walking across Millennium Bridge. But a loud shriek interrupted their happiness and broke their fantasy imagining. They immediately went alert and feared the worst again. The shriek issued from the side. Flying parallel to the bridge a pterodactyl soared past them, blasting its wild call into the sky. The Gunner drew out his revolver.
Once again the taint was straddled by the man in the white hoody. The top half of his face was still hidden but Nick could see he was smiling. The Gunner took a firm stance and squared his aim. George protected Edie with an arm across her. Nick and Ash just froze. The taint turned its bat-like wings vertical so it slowed and hovered out across the river besides them. As it hung in the air the man was looking right at Nick. He brought a hand to his head and chopped it down quickly in a paid salute of acknowledgement. Then Abby's face popped out sitting behind Mathew with her hands wrapped around his waist, smiling with an even bigger grin and waving. Nick saw Mathew nudge the taint with the inside of his boots and its wings pushed down hard on the air, lifting it higher while it made a 180 in the air and headed towards Blackfrairs.
"Oh no you don't…" said the Gunner, his finger laying on the trigger.
"No!" Nick yelled, jolting her hand out on the gun and pushing the Gunner's hand towards the floor.
"What are you-"
"It's flying away," said Nick. "They're not going to hurt us."
The Gunner looked back at the river and reassessed his thoughts. He grunted and put the gun away. Nick went to the side of the bridge and leant on the railings, looking out towards Blackfriars as the rising sun glistened golden crystals on the taints back. It curved its wings and waltzed peacefully, skimming through the air up the river.
A large black bird came swooping over their heads. The Raven perched on the wall of the bridge and caught Nick's attention. It looked out across the river then back to Nick, clacking its beak at her. Nick was so lost in the moment that the next passing thought in her mind caused her to jump with a start and forced her hand deep into her pocket. She pulled out her pearl.
Her jaw went slack and fell open while her eyes dilated with new found glee. Then her mouth found a smile and so did her eyes. She looked at the Raven and it bobbed its head before staring back out towards the river. Nick felt Ash come to rest on the rail besides her and saw his warm gaze on her. The pearl rested on her curled hand, nestling in the creases of her palm. The warning light showing the taints presence glowed a brilliant green. The luminosity at the edges was the brightest emerald hue, radiating the intensity of the glowing apple blush. The very centre of the heart stone was a tint of the purest jade. A colour which matched the beauty of her eyes.
"Would you look at that," said Ash.
He switched his look from the pearl to Nick and saw she was showing the most beautiful of faces through her lush eyes and smiling lips.
"It's beautiful" said Edie, coming to stand slightly behind on the other side of her.
"Well it might be small, and it's no piece of sea glass, but I reckon what you've got there is the heart of the whole ocean," whistled the Gunner.
Nick could do nothing but smile even harder. Words could not describe it. She felt George behind put a hand on her shoulder. Nick's arm reached back into her pocket and pulled out the string necklace with the stone on it. She cradled it for a moment, thinking, then let her hand extend so it was hovering outstretched above the river, the stone hanging down towards the water.
"What are you doing?" said Ash and Edie together.
Nick smiled and looked to them.
"I don't need what's in this stone. Not anymore."
Ash opened up into a smile.
"I don't think you ever did," he said.
"I think you're right. This is me now. Everything else, well, that's why they call it the past, isn't it."
Nick didn't even watch as she let her fingers part and the string slide through it. George bounded and looked over the edge to see the small plop it made as it broke through the waters surface. He looked back to Nick but she didn't seem to have a care in the world. She was back to looking at the heartstone. It was now dimmed and flickering. The green light turned back to the golden Key light as before. Nick looked down the river to see that the taint and ex-servants had disappeared into the horizon.
"The Thames always looks magnificent at sunrise."
Nick was half saying it to her self and half saying it to anyone who was listening.
"It does," Ash simply replied. "So easy to take for granted. Especially for people like us. Got to keep reminding how lucky self is. Have that to hold on to. Always."
Nick and Ash shared looks.
"You remember the Frost Fairs? The Thames was stunning back then" said Nick.
The mention of the fair was so unheralded that Edie's body jumped with an unorthodox chill down the spine. Standing slightly behind, she was not noticed by Nick who appeared to be too deep in thought anyway.
"Frost Fair," the words tumbled out of Edie's mouth without thinking.
"A sightly spectacle to bear witness. Angelic," said Ash, equally talking with his back to Edie. "Little Ice Age. Remember well. Took Edward once. He loved the little craft stalls with wood carvings and the like…" his voice trailed off and Nick saw the well of his eyes.
"My Father took me once" she said, her eyes also becoming progressively full of the past. "It's one of my only memories of him. Sometimes it feels so long ago that I wonder if it's just me dreaming." She took a moment to breathe. "Mum couldn't come with us because she was having a turn so it was just me and him…" She smiled with the faintest recollection. "Funny thinking about it now after all this time. Find myself remembering little bits. We got there and I was jumping up and down by the water's edge, so charged up with energy that I almost fell in."
"Really?" Edie heard herself saying in a high-pitched register. Meanwhile, her mind span into overdrive. Her stomach plunged as she shivered and relived the piercing ice waters of the Thames water gushing down her throat.
"Yeah. I was excited to see the elephant..." said Nick.
George and the Gunner's mouths almost hit the floor and they looked at each other like a bomb had just hit. Edie forced her eyes closed and felt the pinpricks of tears stinging the back of her eyes. She opened them just as Nick turned and caught her out, looking ever so pale.
"Are you alright? You look like you've she'd seen a ghost."
"You wouldn't be far off," Edie mumbled under her breath.
"Oh, Edie. You wouldn't believe how splendid it was. It's a shame it was so long ago. It was magical."
"I can imagine" said Edie quietly. She hid her shaking hands behind her back. George and the Gunner shared nervous looks. Nick went back to looking across the river, just letting her mind meander.
"I can't remember what my Father looked like but can still hear his voice now, and feel the touch of my hand in his. I was so eager to get to the centre of it all but there was a hold up. Dad was arguing about the charges the Watermen were laying down to cross the channel."
Edie spun around with force and shot a look which ricocheted in a triangle from her to George, then to the Gunner, then back at her. She distinctively saw George mouth the words 'Oh my God'. The Gunner was struck with astonishment.
Edie had first glinted it and then seen it for her self; the little girl in the green cape with her Father questioning the fee, all the while the girl pointed and giggled. The Gunner had been close to her, besides the channel edge, before he'd dived into the water and saved Edie. George had heard the child call about the elephant.
The unparalleled circumstances of fortuity were just too big to get their heads around.
And even as the thought of it left Nick with honey-glazed eyes and a lofty smile from the recollection of a happier time of her childhood, there, creeping into the corner of that memory was another thought, much blacker than the first. It was yet another one she'd tried to forget.
As her father squabbled about the fare she had run across the wooden plank and onto the Thames, her feet immediately skidding and her arms flailing.
"Be careful!" she had heard her father call out. "Don't go too far."
But Nicola was already balanced and skipping lightly over to the distant edge of the Fare where the dazzling light from the lanterns and the heavy hum of chatter didn't make her quite so apparent. She skidded across the ice a few times, laughing and lost in a world of her own when a splash made her stop and turn round.
In the distant spread of the river, in the shadowy obscurity beyond the red light, a dark figure moved quickly and crouched down on the ice. Then an eruption of water occurred from besides and the figure caught a tangle of seaweed that had come out from underneath the ice. There was a scream of words but Nicola was too far to understand them. They were rushed and panicky, spoken in terror. Nicola stood there rooted, the Fare suddenly shrinking miles behind her.
And then she saw a white arm come from under the ice and start to flail. Try to push the hand away keeping it down. Nicola's breath stopped and the seaweed became hair, and the shouts became the screaming last words of a girl about to die.
Nicola screamed but still didn't move.
"Nicola, what did I tell you!" said her father coming up quickly behind her and grabbing her arm. "Stay within the light of the Fare. It's dangerous out here, there are hummocks and ice holes. Come on."
And he pulled her arm so that she span round and his other hand lead her forward.
"But look!" she struggled and pointed behind her.
"What?" he father said and looked behind them.
Nicola paused as another figure, as dark as the other, crashed into the side of the first and the two went sprawling.
"What am I meant to be looking at?" her father said impatiently.
"Look. There," Nick pointed desperately. "In the dark!"
Her father stared and then grunted. "Honey, there's nothing out there. You're imagining things again."
Despite her protests, he father struggled but finally ushered her back into the red lanterns, the chants, the music, the chinking of glasses and the overwhelming aroma of hog roast. But even the marvellous elephant that now treaded slowly yards away from her could not delete the sight of what Nick had just witnessed. Nor the terror of realising that she wanted to get off the ice fast.
"How about that," said Edie, still stuck in the thought of this happening. This couldn't be. It was almost like they were linked in time.
And Nick snapped back.
"How about that," said Edie.
"How about what?" said Nick, turning to her. Edie looked so spooked when their eyes met that Nick was taken back and picked up on the strange vibe sporting the rest of the groups' expressions.
"What?" said Edie.
"What?" Nick repeated.
"Right," Nick said and then pushed off the support railings on the bridge and made tracks. Ash followed.
When he was sure he was out of earshot, the Gunner put his hands behind his head and took in a deep breath. He then blew it all out again through puffed cheeks.
"That can't be possible" said George.
"Well it is, or rather was" he snorted a laugh. "Who'd have thought it, eh?"
George and Edie looked at each other again, still in disbelief.
They reached Jubilee Gardens quicker than they all expected and found a quiet spot on the grass. The Gunner looked peaceful, turning his hands over and looking at the bronze in front of him. He was reminded about why he was made and what he stood for. He looked from George to Edie and then finally Nick, who was looking back at him, smiling, each knowing the others thoughts. Yep, he was happy he hadn't changed.
George passed him and stole his hat with a cheeky smirk.
"Oi, Maker 1, you can have that as long as you promise me you and Maker 2 will buy some ruddy phones!" harassed the Gunner.
George smiled at Edie then placed the hat over his face to block out the sun whilst laying down on the grass, the same way he did when Nick first met them. He was grateful for the bank holiday, at least he had one day left before school. He sighed and relaxed once again, forgetting everything that had happened in the last two days like it was a bad dream. Except it wasn't all bad, he remembered the good. He now had Nick as a friend and he was safe in the knowledge that the Darkness wouldn't be around anymore and people like Nick would never get tricked into being cursed again. He didn't give the Walker a second thought. At least now it was over and he really was happier, the whole of the unLondon was. The 'normal' London was safe too, even though they didn't know. They would never know, which was in a way saddening but it was for the best. He didn't need to worry anymore.
The same went for Edie, she didn't need the urge to constantly look at her heart stone. And she'd made a new friend too. The pair of them rested on their backs and closed their eyes.
Nick relaxed too because it was the first time she ever could. She didn't feel like she should be wary of her surroundings, of anyone who could be watching. She knew she wouldn't feel any jab in her stomach, pulling her away from her plans. She didn't even need an exit. With her hood left down she looked around at the friends she had made and the friend she had rekindled with. She smiled and lay down on her back. She closed her eyes and spread her hands across the smooth blades of cool grass underneath. Then something caught it, a soft warm touch that enclosed around her fingers. Nick tilted her head and opened her eyes to see Ash lying next to her, a soft smile worked on his face. For him, the calming serenity of the gardens put his mind at ease.
No ticking. Not ever. Just bliss.
Their fingers interlocked and Nick smiled back. She couldn't quite believe how happy she was, and this time, she didn't mind people knowing. She looked up to the heavens and watched the clouds move way above her. There were no stars to be seen but she knew they would always be with her. All around. At last she was free.