"Rational? What's rational about magic? Trumped-up, self-important poseurs making things happen that have no right to happen. Dangerous stuff."
– Captain Tallis, Word of Honour, page 235
It was at approximately six-thirty in the evening on an unseasonably warm Friday in October, 1883, that Pompey Craddock's desk exploded.
The detonation echoed down the corridor, easily reaching the ears of a young man named Tallis in the next room. Without a second thought, he abandoned his schoolwork and rushed out into the hall, following the acrid smell of burning and the sound of rasping coughs to the room directly to the left of his own. When he burst through the door, it was to find the ceiling wreathed in smoke, the cheap pine desk in flames, curled, blackened sheafs of paper floating to the floor – and a wiry young man with a curved nose sprawled in the corner by the bed, his pale hair in absolute disarray. The smoke was already infecting Tallis' throat and lungs and, pressing his sleeve over his mouth and nose, he darted across the room to fling open the windows.
The young man on the floor groaned and started coughing again in earnest, and Tallis hurried over, hauling him to his feet and trying to drag him out of the room. He protested, struggling against Tallis' strong hands and muttering something utterly unintelligible under his breath. It was only as the flames on the desk suddenly dampened and receded, every last ember winking out within a few seconds, that Tallis realised he had been doing magic.
Immediately, the young man slumped further into his arms, coughing even worse than before. Tallis half-carried him from the room, the smoke searing at his throat as he was forced to use both arms to support the stranger. A moment later they found themselves sliding down the wall between their rooms, weakened by coughing and leaning against each other. Not a soul came down the hallway to investigate, and the pale-haired boy dropped his head, exhausted, onto Tallis' shoulder. It was quite a few minutes before either of them found themselves capable of words.
"Tallis," he finally panted, holding out his hand for the other to shake.
"Just Tallis?" asked the other man, glancing obliquely up at him.
"Just Tallis," he repeated firmly.
The other one nodded. "Pompey Craddock," he replied, grasping Tallis' hand with a weary facsimile of strength, not taking his head from his shoulder; his pale hair was tickling Tallis' chin. Swallowing another gulp of air, he continued. "Thank you for the –" He waved his long fingers absently.
"The life saving?" Tallis smirked.
"The assistance," Pompey corrected. "I had the situation entirely under control."
"You were passed out in the corner while your desk was in flames –"
"I was not passed out –"
"– and when I finally managed to get you out of there, I was virtually carrying you –"
"The explosion took a toll on me," Pompey admitted, "and dousing the flames was an effort, but I did not need you to support me – you were simply convenient."
"You could barely stand on your own two feet," Tallis argued, frowning in indignation.
Pompey pushed himself away from Tallis' shoulder and managed to haul himself to his feet, using the wall behind him to great advantage. As Tallis had suspected, he was not only whiplash thin, but significantly taller than him.
"Well then," he said, the imperiousness in his voice sitting surprisingly well on his tongue for a young man not yet in his twenties. "I thank you for your assistance, Tallis, and I believe we will not be seeing each other again."
"My room is right here," Tallis countered, poking his chin in the direction of his door, still ajar. In the stunned, slightly insulted silence that followed, he too pushed himself up by the wall. "Are you a first-year?" he asked when he had gained his footing.
"Yes," said Pompey darkly. "Magical Theory, Practical Magic, Tactical Magic, History of Magic and Albionish Politics, if you must know," he added, pre-emptively exasperated.
Tallis raised his eyebrows. "I take AP as well," he said. "I thought you looked familiar."
"Hm. Yes," said Pompey stiffly, glaring down his nose and revealing nothing. He turned on his heel and was about to stalk back into his room when Tallis called out.
"Will you be all right?"
Pompey froze in his tracks, then turned slowly back to his neighbour. "I beg your pardon?" he asked, sounding thoroughly insulted.
"It's only," said Tallis, letting through the barest hint of uncertainty – "you seem a little pale."
"That would be the effect of the magic," said Pompey seriously. "It takes its toll." His eyes narrowed in thought, then suddenly he stuck out his hand. "Good to meet you, Tallis," he said, this time pronouncing the other boy's name with studied deliberation, as if letting the sounds find a home in his mouth. Tallis smiled to one side, the expression seeming like a benevolent sort of half-smirk.
"It was my pleasure," he said, perfunctorily taking the proffered hand. Pompey didn't return the smile, but there was a kind of softening around his eyes and a subtle twist in his mouth that spoke clearly of mirth.
The two young men turned away to their respective rooms.