Later, in the report that is sent to Sir Walter Pole and the notes of John Segundus, they will say that nobody could have predicted the effect of the spell on the trees. They will also say that had it not been for the presence of a local man out poaching perhaps the army would never have been alerted. A hundred choices, made or not made, that might have changed the outcome. Perhaps even Jeremy himself could have chosen differently: if he had not got up to look, not tried so hard to protect the magician. They will say that no reasonable assessment of risk would have predicted this. It happens anyway.
It happens like this. So much quieter than Jonathan expects: the bang from the gun some distance away from them in the trees. But Jeremy falls regardless, dropping down next to him in a sprawl of limbs. His eyes are open. The mark of the bullet is all too visible. Jonathan has never seen a man die before but Jeremy is unmistakeably dead. He had thought that the dead looked asleep. They do not. The blood smells strongly of copper, making him retch.
The Germans are looking in their direction, advancing cautiously. Jonathan can think of nothing but Grant’s voice, in his head, telling him that his spells must be destroyed at all costs before he is captured. He fumbles in his pocket for the water but the bottle is broken. In panic now he goes through his other pockets. Can he tear them? Bury them? Or burn them. Jeremy smoked; he has a lighter in his pocket even though Jonathan can hardly bear to look for it. The paper catches quickly, sending up smoke and he panics again. Smoke will only call attention to them when he needs to be hidden. He breathes on the burning paper to extinguish it but only blows the smoke forward. It obscures his view and gives him the idea that saves his life. He summons the magic out of desperation, not a spell he knows, and pushes the smoke forwards, letting it thicken into fog.
He can hear shouting, confused noise that echoes eerily in the mist. It won’t last for long and needs to get out. He puts his arms under Jeremy’s and begins to drag him towards the arranged meeting point. He will get him home, even though it’s the only thing he can do.
William looks at his watch. He’s been sitting here too long already and it’s making him nervous. The longer he stays, the greater the chance of discovery. He’s half waiting for a sudden glare of searchlights or the rattle of gunfire. At the edge of the clearing he landed in, he can see a man appear out of the trees and the people on the ground cluster around him. He can hear snatches of French but not enough to know what’s going on. He has a bad feeling about this.
The French man runs up to the plane and William leans down to hear him.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “one of your men is dead. The other one, the English magician, he will not let him go. Georges is persuading him to let us bury him but the magician says he wants to bring him home.”
William’s mind was already racing so it doesn’t take him long to grasp the situation. The passengers in the Lysander are squashed on top of one another at the best of times: it was never meant to carry two. To do so with a dead man… it would test the sanity of the bravest of men and Merlin is new to this, untested. “Home? In this plane? Tell him he bloody well can’t!”
The other man shrugs, not his problem, but goes back to the trees. This time Merlin appears too, dragging Je… William mentally corrects himself to think of it as ‘the body’. At least until they get home.
“Merlin!” he shouts, “Stop this and get in the plane. We’re running out of time!”
“No, no, I can’t, I have to take him home, please.” Merlin is almost crying. He can’t manage the burden of Jeremy’s body and nobody else is helping him. They watch, silent and uncomfortable.
“Merlin, they’ll bury him here. You can’t do this, just get in and we’ll go home.” William can’t leave the plane, but Merlin won’t get in either. He feels very cold and oddly calm as he climbs down.
“Stop this, please,” he puts a hand on Merlin’s shoulder.
“No, we can’t leave him here. William, please. Help me get him in the plane.”
“We don’t have time, let him go. He’s gone, Merlin! We have to leave. Just let go of him and get in.”
Merlin protests again, trying to lift the body up. He’s hysterical with shock and grief: sometimes it takes men that way the first time the lose somebody in a war. William slaps him, sharply across the cheek.
“Stop this. There’s nothing else you can do. Now get in the plane before you get everyone else here killed waiting around for you.” He says it like its an order. Merlin has at least stopped talking, but his fingers are knotted hard into Jeremy’s clothes. William has to pry them loose, one hand at a time. Poor fucking Jeremy. It’s not dignified, to drag him around like this. He shoves Merlin towards the plane, climbing in himself as the other people fan out, running down the field to light the runway with torches. If he’s quick, they might have time to get out of here before anyone comes to investigate.
Merlin doesn’t respond when he talks to him, probably hasn’t put on the headset. At least that means William doesn’t have to hear him cry. He shoves the Lysander into the air, not a dignified take off but speed is of the essence. He can think about all of it later: for now there’s nothing to think about but flying and he’s grateful for it.
Arthur and William
William radios the base as he approaches and tells them what has happened. Arthur and Grant both go out to meet them as they land. They always do after a bad mission. Unfortunately, they arrive to find William and Jonathan already out of the plane and shouting at one another.
“Why didn’t you let me bring him back? Why, you bastard?” Merlin looks wild. His eyes are red rimmed and his hair tangled.
“Because I didn’t think you’d want to spend the whole flight crammed in the back of the plane with a dead body!”
“It wasn’t a dead body, it was Jeremy!” Merlin takes a swing at De Lancey, catching him on the left cheekbone and sending his head snapping backwards. There’s a moment where William stands, a hand to his face, before he goes for Merlin with a punch of his own and they grapple with each other in an undignified brawl.
“Hey!” Arthur shouts at them, wading in. Grant grabs Merlin, catching his arms and twisting them back, hauling him off William. Arthur goes for William, holding him in a tight bear hug to keep his arms pinned as he squirms to get free. They shout at one another, horrible things. Merlin has a bleeding nose.
“Get him out of here,” Arthur barks at Grant, dragging William away. “I’ll deal with this in the morning. Move!” He gives William a push, propelling him forward.
He’s gone quiet, keeps stopping every few paces. Arthur has to force him keep him moving, saying “come on, keep walking. Just keep walking.” Halfway back Arthur realises William is shivering and takes off his own greatcoat to wrap around his shoulders.
This isn’t the first time Arthur has had to break up a fight, particularly after losing someone. There will be time to worry about Jeremy later: for now his concern is with the living. At least Grant is more than capable of dealing with Merlin, even if he is inclined to fight, which leaves Arthur with William.
They go to Arthur’s room, conveniently away from anywhere Strange is likely to be, and Arthur pushes him down onto the bed. William doesn’t seem to be inclined to protest. He just sits, looking at his hands. Arthur goes down the corridor to the bathroom with a flannel and wets it under the coldest water the taps can produce.
“Here,” he says, “put that on your eye before it swells shut.”
William does so, wincing. He’s going to have an impressive black eye come the morning. His knuckles are bruised too.
“What happened?” Arthur keeps his voice neutral, free of judgement, like he would if he were in his office asking for a report. When William does speak the whole story comes out in a jumble.
“I landed, but Merlin didn’t turn up, they were all shouting at me about it. Then he came out of the woods dragging Jeremy. He wouldn’t get in the plane and none of them could reason with him. I thought we needed to get out, and quickly, so I broke the rules and got out of the plane. Merlin was beside himself, wouldn’t let go of Jeremy’s body. All I could think of was how he’d be when I got him home, squashed up in the back of a plane with… that. I’ve never,” he swallows hard, “never had to do that before, drag a dead body out of someone’s hands. I shouldn’t have done it, should have let him do what he wanted, but time was running out and I was afraid we were going to be discovered. Poor fucking Jeremy. I just dragged Strange into the plane and got the hell out. No wonder he wanted to hit me.” William refolds the flannel to find a cooler patch and puts it back on his eye. He won’t meet Arthur’s eyes.
“I would have done the same, you know.”
William’s eyes flick up to meet his. The left is definitely swollen.
“I mean it,” Arthur continues, “you made the best decision you could, under difficult circumstances. Someone had to take charge and get the people who were alive home. Merlin will have to understand that in time.”
“It doesn’t feel like the right decision now. I shouldn’t have left him, should I?” William says to his boots.
Arthur goes to kneel in front of him, putting his hands on William’s knees.
“William? Will. It’s alright. It will be alright.”
He puts his hands to the fastening of William’s flight suit, meaning to help him out of it, but William flinches away.
“I’m sorry, I can’t. I can’t, not tonight.”
“Oh William, as if I would even ask.” He puts a comforting hand on the back of William’s neck, kisses his forehead. “Let’s get you out of this. You’ll feel better in something clean.”
They manage the clothes between them and Arthur finds a spare pair of pyjamas for him. They’re too big, covering his hands, making him look smaller and younger. He’s too quiet, too docile, sitting there with the cold flannel on his eye.
“I’m going to get you something to drink. Will you stay here while I do?”
William nods, looking up at last, “I’m sorry Arthur. I’m alright really. Just…” he holds out his left hand so Arthur can see it shaking.
Arthur goes to find him tea, as strong as possible. He probably needs to eat too. He hopes that the time it takes him will give William a bit of space to sort out his thoughts. It’s a hard thing to do, to make a decision between two bad choices, and Arthur knows how it feels. He’s not sure if it ever gets easier, but the impact lessens with repetition.
He goes back with sweet tea and a plate of toast and jam. William looks up at him and asks, “How did you get that?”
“I picked the lock on the canteen door.” He didn’t, but it gets him the smile he’d been hoping for. “Eat up, then go to sleep. You can stay here tonight, if you don’t mind me working.”
William eats about three quarters of the toast and drinks the tea. Arthur lets him be, going to his desk and finding some boring paperwork he can do to look busy. Time and space and undemanding company ought to work: he has faith that William will manage to put this into perspective on his own.
“Arthur?” William is sitting on the edge of Arthur’s bed as though he doesn’t know whether to stay or leave. Perhaps he does need a little more kindness.
“You should go to sleep.” Arthur tells him. He pulls back the blankets, waits for William to climb under them and then tucks him in, as he might with one of his boys after a nightmare. Even as he does it, he thinks that this is one more thing that will make it hard to let go. William curls up on his side and Arthur curls behind him on top of the blankets. He can feel the shivers that go through William’s body so he hugs him tighter. He will get up as soon as William is asleep.
Grant and Merlin
It takes some time to persuade Merlin to come indoors. He rants for a while and Grant lets him do it, outside on the runway where nobody else can hear him. It’s enough to give Grant the whole picture and regret that it happened but some small part of him watches Merlin’s distress and feels distanced from it. He can remember the first time he saw a man killed in combat but it was a long time ago now and death has little power to shock him. The effect on the living is worse.
He drags Merlin back inside once he runs out of things to say and the cold begins to bite. His room is the obvious place to go. His office is too close to where the night shift are at work and he would prefer it if none of the others saw the magician like this.
He gets Strange in and pours him a glass of water. Merlin only drinks half of it before he leaps up and lurches for the door. Grant’s first reaction is to stop him in case this is some mad dash to find William and continue the fight, but then he realises the more probable cause. He walks slowly to the bathroom, arriving after the worst of it is over and Merlin is sitting on the bathroom floor, wiping his mouth with his hand.
“Finished?” Grant asks him. Merlin nods, a little shakily. Grant watches him as he cleans his teeth at one of the sinks. “I’m going to get the first aid kit. Can I trust you not to do anything stupid while I’m gone?”
“Yes,” Merlin’s voice is a croak.
It takes some time to clean Merlin up. His nose has bled profusely and starts bleeding again when Grant tries to wipe it. There is other blood on his face as well, probably Jeremy’s. Grant doesn’t call attention to it. He just wipes it away with the rest.
When Merlin kisses him, he tastes like toothpaste and the salt blood from his split lip.
It’s stupid. Grant knows it, even as he does it, but Merlin begs him. He begs, with words, with his mouth, with his body, for comfort and contact. He begs for oblivion and Grant is foolishly willing to oblige. A desperate tearing off of clothes is followed by Grant on his knees and a stupid, eager fuck over the desk.
He wanted so much more than this.
He pulls away. “Not like this. On the bed.”
Merlin goes willingly, legs spread and arms reaching out. It’s different face-to-face. Merlin clings and Grant shelters him. Every kiss tastes of salt and Grant cannot kiss him enough to be satisfied. It’s everything he wanted and should never have had.
Afterwards Merlin falls asleep almost instantly, still curled around Grant and holding him fast within the sprawl of his long limbs. Grant lies awake, holding him. There are only two things he is sure of: that this should never have happened and that it can never happen again.
Arthur wakes early, fuzzy headed and stiff, to find himself lying on top of the bedclothes and still dressed. William is still curled in his arms and breathing the slow, even breaths of deep sleep. Arthur can hear someone tapping at the door. At least if it were urgent they wouldn’t be bothering to knock quietly. He opens it to find Grant, pale and heavy-eyed.
“Coffee?” he asks.
They get mugs from the canteen and retreat to Arthur’s office.
“Where’s William?” Grant asks him, slumping down into his seat with an uncharacteristic lack of good posture.
“In my bed. Asleep. He’ll be fine.” Arthur feels a prickle of guilt, knowing what Grant thinks of their relationship. “What about Strange, did he give you much trouble last night?”
Grant groans and covers his face with his hands.
“Where is the magician? You haven’t murdered him, have you?”
“He’s…” Grant takes a mouthful of scalding hot coffee, “he’s in my bed. Asleep.”
Arthur blinks in surprise. “You mean… you two?” He gestures, vaguely, with the coffee mug. Grant nods, still covering his face. “I thought you had rules.”
“I do. I did. It’s not something I’m planning on repeating, I can assure you.” Grant’s voice is sharp but Arthur can’t help himself. He flicks one eyebrow up in enquiry.
“Not like that, you perverted bastard.” Grant usually only says things like that under stress. “It just can’t happen again.” They fall silent for a while, drinking coffee.
“So what are we going to do?” Arthur asks. “Jeremy’s family will need to be told, as soon as it’s a decent hour. I’ll arrange a telegram and get a letter written before the post leaves, or do you want to do it?”
“I’ll write separately,” Grant says. He hopes that there’s a comfort to be gained from two letters, two officers thinking a man worth the trouble of writing about. It’s a small enough thing but perhaps it might be of some help, particularly when a man cannot tell his family what work he is doing, where there are no medals awarded or battles in the papers that they can say he was part of.
“And then I suppose we had better deal with those two.” They look at each other; mutually appalled. SOE may be lax in its command structure, more understanding than the average organisation, but there is a line and they have crossed it.
Arthur recovers first. “We deal with them separately. I don’t want them in the same room together until we know they won’t start this nonsense again. I’ll talk to Strange: you talk to De Lancey. Agreed?”
“That does sound like our best option. When I talk to De Lancey, is the fighting the only thing you want me to talk to him about? I don’t disagree with his actions in France but if you want to take it further?”
“No, just the fighting. I think the call he made in France may well have saved lives, but I won’t have him lashing out at people when they disagree with him, or if they throw the first punch. He’s got potential, hasn’t he? To be more than a pilot one day. Or are you going to tell me I’m biased?”
“Are either of us truly unbiased? He’s my friend. I don’t disagree though.”
“Strange may be more of a problem. He isn’t used to this kind of work, or to taking orders. Should I be hard on him?”
“Not too hard, I don’t think he’d take it, but… firm.”
Strange appears in Arthur’s office with his split lip just healing over and the suspicion of bruising around his eyes. There’s also a vivid bruise on his neck that doesn’t look like it came from fighting. Arthur deliberately doesn’t offer him a chair.
“You’re lucky I’m not going to put you on a charge for assaulting a fellow agent,” he tells him sharply, watching to see the effect it will have. Strange pulls himself a little straighter but his face is full of badly hidden mutiny. Arthur is half expecting a confrontation, daring him to do it perhaps, but Strange holds his tongue. Maybe Grant convinced him of the wisdom of it.
“De Lancey will be similarly reprimanded for his part in the fight, but his actions in France are not in question.” Strange opens his mouth to protest, so Arthur holds up his hand to silence him. “No, whatever your opinion on the matter, De Lancey was in the right. You will listen to what I have to say and I do not wish to hear your views on it. By your actions you have deliberately endangered other agents on the ground. What happened to Johns was unfortunate, but it was a risk he knowingly undertook. If you continue to behave without regard for the rules of engagement when on enemy soil you will only cause further harm. I cannot put a man I do not trust into the field. Do you understand?”
“Good. I’m grounding you until such time as I believe that you will conduct yourself appropriately. I suggest you revisit your previous training and find something useful to do in the meantime. You may be a very useful man, you may be the best magician we have, but if the men with you cannot trust you, you are no further use to me and I will have you transferred.”
“That is all. We will not discuss it further. Unless I have due cause, this regrettable incident will not be recorded in your file. See that it doesn’t happen again.”
“Now get out of here, and let me get on with my morning. You have the rest of the day and tomorrow, take them, do whatever you need to do to get over this. Try not to start any more fights.” Arthur lets his expression warm a little. Jonathan looks less like mutinous.
“Thank you, Sir.”
Arthur hopes this will be the end of it.
William sidles into Grant’s office like a truant schoolboy. His eye is impressively bruised and almost closed. He still stands to attention though, uniform perfectly correct.
“Sit down, you fucking idiot,” Grant tells him, reaching into his desk for the whiskey bottle. “I’m not going to give you the official speech. You already know it, don’t you?”
“Here you go,” Grant pushes a measure of whiskey at him, “this counts as an emergency. You look like you need it. Does that hurt?”
“Like hell! Merlin has better aim than I gave him credit for.”
“You know there’ll be no flying until it’s healed. I appreciate you didn’t expect him to do it, but do try to dodge next time. I’ve got enough to worry about without my best pilot being signed off because he can’t see to fly.”
“I’m sorry, Grant. I probably deserved it.”
“I don’t think you did. I’d have made the same call and Arthur said the same. In the meantime, I’m giving you deskwork to do. Don’t groan at me: I’ll see if we can find you something interesting.”
“I think you’ve got too desk bound Grant, you ought to know paperwork is never going to be interesting compared to flying.”
Grant resists the urge to roll his eyes. “Perhaps, but Arthur and I are agreed you might do more than flying one day, if you wanted. Consider this practise.”
“He said that?” William looks a little flushed, hiding his response by sipping at his drink.
“He did indeed, so keep that in mind next time you get the urge to throw a punch at someone, particularly someone you’re responsible for.”
William does go red this time, for a different reason. “It won’t happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t, and try to look suitably chastised when you leave, will you?”
Segundus brings Childermass tea at his desk. He’s writing a letter to Jeremy’s sister with his condolences. He always does, when something happens to one of his men. He can afford to be a little less official than Grant or Wellesley, and he knows the men better, knows of their families. He knows that Jeremy lost his father recently and this will be a double blow to his sister. He can at least tell her that he fought bravely, that he died doing work of national significance and he can tell her that his colleagues will miss him.
Segundus doesn’t tell him that it wasn’t his fault, for choosing Jeremy or not being there to help. It has already been said. He just brings tea and stands, letting himself lean just a little against Childermass’ shoulder.
“Will you read it?” Childermass asks. Normally he would never need to ask, always confident of the right thing to say. Perhaps asking is a comfort.
“Of course.” Segundus stands to read it, sipping his tea and letting Childermass lean against him in turn, drinking his. “It’s a good letter.”
“Thank you.” Childermass looks up at him. “I’m glad I have you to read it. I’m glad you’re here.”
Jonathan gets through the memorial service somehow. The vicar is a kindly man, brought out of retirement for the duration of the war. He’s a very different sort of vicar to Arabella’s brother, who makes more of a production of his sermons. He speaks warmly of Jeremy and has actually met him, which helps. Afterwards he shakes hands very sincerely with those who attended. Nobody cries: there are just rows of grave faces in uniform. Jonathan wonders about the other memorial service, going on at the same time in Jeremy’s home parish. Surely there will be people crying there.
It’s the first of these services that Jonathan has attended but by no means the first for the rest of them. They file back to the base afterwards without talking much. Some of Jeremy’s closest friends peel off and head for the pub to raise a glass in his memory but most of them must go back to work. Quick, quiet and without fuss: there is no time for anything more.