Don’t ask me
The day begins badly before they even get to dawn.
William dreams continually, thrashing awake and then lying there, wide eyed and breathing hard until Arthur puts an arm around him and coaxes him back into sleep. Arthur is learning that there are good nights and bad nights with William now, and this is one of the bad ones. At about six in the morning he gives up on trying to get more sleep.
"Perhaps you should talk to someone," he says, when William stops clinging to him and starts putting the space back between them again, "it doesn't have to be me. Grant had dreams when he came back from France, didn't he? He talked to you."
"Leave it, Arthur."
"You can't keep waking yourself up every night. Is it that flight that you dream about?"
"I said leave it!" William rolls over, putting his back to Arthur. Arthur watches him.
"I'm getting up then."
William says nothing. He's dozing again by the time Arthur is dressed: he won't get up while Arthur is there. There's something that's bothering him but he won’t talk about it and Arthur worries that by pushing too hard he will do more harm than good. So now when William is in this mood, Arthur leaves him to his own devices.
William shows up to work late but Arthur isn't going to reprimand him for it. He has other things to think about this morning with the visitors turning up from Station X. Arthur has done his share of work with Station X, and he values the intelligence they provide, but finds having to deal with them in person occasionally frustrating. They are just a little too far removed from the actual fieldwork to easily find a common ground. Their war is all deskwork: regulated shifts and little bits of paper. In Arthur’s opinion, it makes them too eager to talk about things, and rather too slow to act. None of which must show on his face, of course. However little sleep he has had or how worried he is about William, the war demands that he do his best for his country. Even if his best involves gritted teeth, and a long morning of tea and diplomacy.
Mr Segundus does the magic
Segundus and Strange have been up since early this morning, preparing everything for the magic they have to perform. It appears to be making Strange fret more with every passing hour, but Segundus finds it soothing. This is the first time he has been asked to use magic that is partly of his own invention and perform it in front of an assembled crowd for the good of the war effort. It’s a thought he doesn’t want to dwell on too much so he’s grateful for the necessity of this quiet time, laying out the books they might need, polishing the silver basin to mirror brightness and making the tools they will use. They had debated the florilegium endlessly, working from Strange’s first and instinctive vision spell to break the enchantment over France. If a little less had depended on the outcome, Segundus would have said he had enjoyed the process. He is, at heart, a rather more academic magician than Strange, more comfortable with the slow development and study of spells than the intuitive methods Strange prefers. Segundus smiles to himself as he checks that the jug has enough water to fill the bowl. He would have made a poor field agent, but there is still a role for him here.
There’s a sharp rap at the door and Grant enters. “Are we ready gentlemen?”
Strange looks at Segundus, who nods. They are, it would seem, as ready as they ever will be.
“I think we’ve done as much as we can,” Strange says.
“Good! We’ll have to give them a good show. They’ve been winding Arthur up all morning with their demands. Very exacting in their requirements. Let’s show them that we may be Ungentlemanly, but we still have the best magicians. Do you need me to carry anything?”
They make their way to Arthur’s office, which has been secured against all possible eavesdroppers. Segundus instantly recognises that it is Childermass’ work and he finds it comforting. John is excluded from this meeting, lacking the security clearance for such work. He had caught Segundus this morning and kissed him for luck before he left, but to find the warm and familiar presence of his magic here is even more welcome. If he cannot have Childermass with him, this is the next best thing.
It also goes some way to make up for the atmosphere in the room. One of the Bletchley men is vehemently explaining something in a way that makes it clear he doesn’t have much respect for Wellesley’s intelligence. Segundus winces slightly. If there is one unbreakable rule here, it is that one does not underestimate Arthur Wellesley.
“Yes, well I’m sure we all understand that security is paramount,” says the other man, interrupting the first. He smiles in a placating but vaguely insincere way.
Grant coughs meaningfully and all eyes turn to him. “This is Jonathan Strange,” he says, “primarily one of our magicians but also a field agent, and John Segundus, who previously worked with Norrell up in Yorkshire. Strange, Segundus, this is Mr Edwards and Mr West from Station X.”
“I’m sorry, did you say a field agent?” Mr Edwards dismisses the introductions and goes back to his argument. “Are you suggesting that we allow a magician to see the visions we are talking about and then go wandering into France, to be captured and risk passing all that information on? That could risk the whole war!”
“Tom, don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves here,” says West, taking his unlit pipe from his mouth and gesturing at Arthur with it. “Is Mr Strange still an active field agent?”
“Lieutenant Strange is indeed a field agent. We don’t have the men to spare to keep them kicking their heels in England.” Arthur smiles, but it’s a smile with an unspoken ‘unlike your men’. “It was my understanding that you gentleman had come here because you needed information that couldn’t be gained any other way.” Arthur shrugs and waits for their reply. Segundus takes a seat in the corner and tries to make himself invisible. He catches De Lancey’s eye across the table: he looks just as uncomfortable as Segundus feels.
“If you give us the information and then pass it onto the Germans as soon as one of your operations goes wrong, you must see that we might be better off without it.”
“A damn sight better off!” Edwards folds his arms.
“I am sorry, Wellesley, but I think we’d better talk about this.” West puts his pipe back between his teeth and chews at the stem.
De Lancey sighs, audibly, and Segundus’s eyes are drawn back to him. He’s sitting slumped in his chair and looks more than uncomfortable. He looks tired, perhaps even ill and Segundus feels for him. He can remember being convalescent and trapped in meetings with Norrell while the man droned on interminably. He offers a tentative smile, which De Lancey half returns.
The ensuing conversation has too much about security protocols and inter-departmental cooperation for Segundus to be able to participate. He focuses instead on sorting the pages of his notes. He trusts that there will be spell work eventually.
He doesn’t actually start listening again until Grant asks him a question and he looks up in confusion. “I beg your pardon?”
“I asked if you were able to do the magic. You and Strange have worked together on this, I know it requires both of you to be present but could you perhaps… I’m sorry; I don’t know the correct way to describe the process. Is it possible for you to see and direct the visions while Strange does not?”
“I suppose, theoretically…” Segundus looks to Strange.
“I would trust Segundus to perform the spells without hesitation, but if I must not see the visions we create I would need to be blindfolded, and if you wanted to hear what people were saying, I would need to be cut off from the world entirely, by magic.”
“Is such a thing possible?”
“It is, although I doubt it will be pleasant.”
“Well, if it has to be done, I’d trust Segundus to do it.” Strange looks at him and smiles. Segundus is uncomfortably aware that he is being asked to not only to take control of magic he has only assisted with before, but also to blind and deafen England’s most famous magician. His mouth feels dry. He opens it to protest.
“Well then,” Grant says decisively before Segundus can say a word, “it seems as though we have a solution to our problem.”
The men from Station X nod and Segundus takes a deep breath. What would Childermass say if he could see him now? He imagines John smiling at him. ‘Do the magic’ he would say, as if it were obvious. Segundus can hear his voice as clearly as if Childermass had spoken aloud. Well then, that is what he must do.
As always, when it comes to actually performing the spells, Segundus finds it easy to forget everything but the magic. Strange has a hand on his forearm, providing the power but blind to the outcome of the spells. Segundus feels the same momentary panic at being in charge as the first time he tried to drive Childermass’ car, but he managed that and he will manage this. The panicked feeling can be put away in favour of the work that must be done.
Time stretches in a blur of images. Segundus does not speak German particularly well, and he’s too busy to translate although he recognises the language. German officers are meeting in a bland office somewhere. A man with a machine similar to a typewriter but larger, typing so fast his fingers are a blur. A room, dark and dimly lit. A submarine perhaps. Wheels and machinery. Men marching.
Away from the visions he is dimly aware of the men from Station X, serious faced and taking detailed notes. All previous disagreements are apparently forgotten now that they have been given what they came for. William fidgets on the edges of his vision. Grant takes notes of his own, ever watchful. Jonathan’s hand is still on his arm, a constant presence with the buzz of power he provides and the tug of the spell Segundus has cast over him.
There’s a disturbance in the room: Edwards saying something and Grant putting out a hand to stop him. William speaks, sounding sharp and angry. Segundus’ concentration slips slightly and he snatches it back.
“Stop it!” he manages to say, “be quiet, please!”
Edwards and William reach for the silver basin at the same time, William left-handed. The bowl tips.
For a moment a cascade of images scatters, fragmented, over the side of the bowl with the water and then the spell breaks. The end is abrupt, with a shockwave that feels like the sides of a tent snapping inward in a strong wind. Segundus reels. Strange’s hand is gone from his arm and Segundus sees him wiping watering eyes now that the blindfolding spell has ended. The rest of the men are busy pulling files and notes away from the water.
Segundus sits, heavily.
“Alright?” Strange asks him, sounding strained.
“I think so,” he gasps and Strange slaps him on the shoulder. It’s mostly true, although there’s a whining in his ears. He will not faint though, he will not.
“Time for a break, I believe.” Grant sounds calm, despite the general chaos. “Perhaps a cup of tea? Sir, if you could escort our visitors to the canteen, I’ll see the office is dried out.” He smiles as though nothing in particular has happened, even though Segundus can see De Lancey staring at him, looking horrified.
“Certainly,” Wellesley says, without a single glance at De Lancey, “this way gentlemen.”
He leaves and the door closes.
“Grant, I… I didn’t mean…” De Lancey stammers and Grant takes him by the shoulder.
“I know,” he says, “let’s get you out of here.”
They follow the others out of the room, leaving Strange and Segundus alone.
“Well that was an experience,” Strange says, rubbing at his ears. “I don’t recommend those spells by the way. It’s altogether unpleasant and then when the light does come back…” He fishes in his pocket for a handkerchief.
“Don’t be. It had to be done. I believe Arthur has struck a deal with someone, and working on this is part of it.”
“Oh,” Segundus says, and then waits for a moment. “Do you think De Lancey is alright? He looked rather ill just now.”
“Is he the one who broke the spell? I wondered. Grant will sort him out, I’m sure.”
Segundus wonders if he ought to be doing something about the pooling water on the table and the floor but he feels too tired to do more than watch it drip. The notes are safe at least, damp pages spread on the tops of filing cabinets.
Grant returns. “You two look a sorry sight,” he says, “come along. I’ve got tea in my office and you look like you could do with a cup. I’ve asked Ned to come in and dry up.”
They follow him obediently to find the promised tea. Segundus finds it almost funny that he is here, ordinary John Segundus, watching as his superior officer asks him how he likes his tea and offers him carrot cake. He tells himself it’s the after effects of the spell. Food helps, as does the slightly sweetened tea. In half an hour he feels almost like himself again.
“So,” Strange asks him, “are we ready to try again?”
When the magic is finally done, Segundus leaves the office and goes to find his bunk for a lie down. The magic has left him tired and a little giddy, but in a euphoric way that makes him wonder if he could be described as slightly hysterical. Best then that he find somewhere quiet and rest.
His bunk, when he reaches it (and regrets that getting into it requires climbing a ladder) contains a very familiar shadow.
"John," he says.
"Yes, thankfully. They have what they want. Wellesley's getting rid of them."
"Good," Childermass says as he holds his arms open invitingly, "you can have a kip then."
"I can, if you've left me enough room."
Childermass snorts, "you're only small, love. Come here."
Segundus folds himself into the space remaining. His eyes close as soon as his head touches the pillow.
"You're alright though?" Childermass asks him, carding his hands through Segundus' hair.
"I'll be fine as long as you keep doing that and stop talking."
"My poor, tired love. So demanding." Childermass lets one hand rest on Segundus' backside. Segundus moves it.
"Stop it John, I'm tired and you're distracting me from my nap."
"Sorry love. It was appreciative, nothing more."
Segundus huffs a sleepy laugh. "Incorrigible," he mutters.
"That I am."
"Is it alright to sleep here now?"
"Aye, I'll stay awake. Nobody will see anything but shadows. You sleep. You've done good work today."
"I'm proud of you."
Secure in the knowledge that all is well with the world, Segundus sleeps.
Grant bids goodbye to their visitors with relief: a relief that Arthur, judging by the way he slumps down on his chair, is sharing.
“Thank you,” he says as Grant takes the seat opposite him.
“Demanding, aren’t they?”
Arthur makes a noise of agreement. “At least you sorted them out. I wasn’t looking forward to phoning Sir Walter and telling him that this planned collaboration had broken down over our need to keep a magician in the field instead of having one hanging around here for Station X’s convenience.”
“It just seemed the obvious solution. Segundus is never going to make a field agent, but he’s done a good part of the work with Strange. He might not be the same calibre of magician, but he’s damn good. You’d have thought Norrell would have wanted to keep him, however fortunate it is for us.”
“Norrell doesn’t have the wit to see what’s under his nose,” Arthur says with his customary loathing for the magician. “But you’ve done a good day’s work, Grant, and I know you put the effort into this project. I’ll see your name gets a proper mention in the report.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Arthur hums in acknowledgement. “Well, enough of that, the work is done. I suggest you find our magician and make sure he’s still in one piece.” Arthur raises one eyebrow.
Grant refuses to blush. “I will, sir.”
“I suppose I’d better go and see William. Can you manage things here if I do?”
“Of course. Just… be kind to him, please.”
“Grant,” Arthur looks at him tiredly, “I will do what I can, but I’m not sure kindness is even what he wants.”
“I don’t know what he wants, but I think it’s what he needs. I know William. The worse he’s hurting, the worse he’ll be to anyone who tries to help him but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need help.”
“Well that seems to be true enough. Where did you leave him?”
“He said he had a headache so I got him a couple of aspirin and sent him to my room to lie down. If he’s not there I imagine he’s gone back to the cottage.”
“Well, I’d better find out. You go and find your magician, Grant. You can tell him from me, he’s done good work today.”
Grant takes that as the dismissal it is intended to be and goes looking for Jonathan. If he’s in the same state as Segundus, which was dizzy exhaustion from the look of things, he’s unlikely to have gone far. The canteen proves empty but Grant finds him in the second place he tries.
Jonathan is in the magician’s office, sitting behind the desk with Arabella on his lap. His face is pressed against her uniform jacket and one of her hands is stroking through his tangled hair. Once, it would have been enough to send Grant running, unwilling to interrupt them in such an intimate moment, but he is learning new rules where they are concerned. Instead of closing the door again, he clears his throat and waits for them to look up.
“They’ve gone,” he says, “Arthur wanted me to pass on his thanks.”
“Good,” Jonathan says, leaning back against the wall, “thanks are the minimum I require for letting myself be enchanted like that.”
“You have my thanks too. It wouldn’t have been possible if you had refused.”
“I wouldn’t have refused you.” Jonathan looks up at him, smiling despite his tiredness. “But I won’t object if you feel inclined to make it up to me.”
He holds out one arm, the arm that isn’t around Arabella’s waist, and Grant goes, shoving the second chair around the desk so that he can sit next to them. Jonathan puts an arm around his shoulders, kisses him, and pulls both Grant and Arabella closer to him with a contented sigh. Grant, his head on Jonathan’s shoulder, is close enough to Arabella to secretly share a smile at Jonathan’s clinginess when tired.
“You know,” Jonathan mumbles without opening his eyes, “I could get used to this.”
“Will you come to dinner tonight?” Arabella asks Grant softly, “I don’t suppose Jonathan will be awake for long but we’d be glad of your company.”
“I wish I could, but I’ll be working tonight. I think Arthur will be otherwise engaged.”
“In that case,” Jonathan says, “I’m keeping you right here as long as I can.”
Arthur opens the door of to the cottage and is greeted with the sounds of drawers slamming. He pauses in the hall, bracing himself, until particularly loud bang propels him forward.
In the bedroom, William has his suitcase open on the bed. Half his clothes are packed, the rest are scattered. He bangs open a drawer and throws the books it contains towards the case.
"What are you doing?"
"What does it fucking look like I'm doing? I'm leaving. I can't do this any more."
"William..." Arthur trails off helplessly. He had expected anger perhaps, or misery, but not finding William already packing. He has no idea what to say. He tries anyway, and as soon as he says it he knows it is wrong. "Think about this, where the devil are you going to go at this time?"
William spins, book in hand, and for a moment Arthur wonders if he will throw it. He doesn’t, but it’s clearly a close run thing. William is white faced with anger, shaking with it. There’s a moment while they stand there staring at one another before William lets loose with everything he hasn’t been saying for the last few weeks. And William is no fool: he knows how to hurt. Everything that Arthur has ever done wrong finds its mark: his dictatorial nature, his selfishness, his absence, every attempt he has made to be kind and instead been so wide of the mark it is a cruelty of its own. William is scornful of his mollycoddling, and his blind belief in knowing what is best. This is what sticks under Arthur’s skin. He has tried, tried anything and everything to be kind, to care, to help, and William…
They both know how to be cruel.
In the end, Arthur walks away. There is no winning an argument like this and he hasn't the will to keep fighting. He goes to the living room and sits, head in hands on the sofa. If William leaves, he leaves, and let that be an end to it.
Eventually there’s the shuffle of footsteps and the click of a walking stick beside him. William doesn’t speak.
“What do you want me to say?” Arthur asks him without looking up. He feels utterly defeated. “I’ve done what I could. I tried. I thought I was helping, but apparently not.”
William drops onto the sofa beside him. He doesn’t say anything. They sit there, side by side in silence.
“Are you leaving?” Arthur asks him after a while.
“No.” The tone of William’s voice makes Arthur look up. He looks as bleak as he sounds.
“God, William, I just don’t know what to do.”
They sit for another long moment, studying the ugly carpet, neither of them knowing what to say.
“William?” Arthur says eventually, “I never wanted to turn into your nursemaid. I just… I wanted to look after you. It’s not exactly something I’ve had to do, except for the boys. I probably have no idea how. I’ve been,” he lets out a sound that could almost be a laugh, “oh God, William, I’ve been trying to find any way I could of saying ‘I love you’, without even knowing if you wanted to hear the words.”
“I wanted you to know you could have that, not just whatever we had before. I should have said it sooner, but I didn’t want to push you. I wanted it to be your choice.”
William is silent. Arthur waits. The back of his neck prickles and the desire to render the words unsaid is rising. He hasn’t had to say anything like this since Kitty, and she did most of the talking then.
“I didn’t know that I could ask.” William’s voice is unsteady.
“Then I’m sorry. I should have….”
“Do you mean it?”
“William, of course I…”
Arthur has the breath knocked out of him as William pushes him over on the sofa and stops whatever he was going to say next with a kiss. It’s demanding, desperate and it works to keep them both silent for about half a minute before William winces away with a yelp as his shoulder protests.
They end in an undignified tangle as Arthur tries to lift William off him without grabbing his arm.
“I keep fucking forgetting,” William says, angry again, “I go to do something and then I can’t. Just like earlier. It was just the wrong hand.”
“I know.” Arthur kisses his forehead. “I know. Come on, let’s get you up.”
They rearrange themselves, William lying on the sofa and Arthur next to him.
“I was trying to say,” William says when they are settled, “before I messed it up, I love you too.”
Arthur kisses him this time, less frantically but with meaning. William kisses back, temptation incarnate with ruffled hair and parted lips. The uniform trousers don’t leave much to the imagination either and Arthur is not made of stone. He runs his hand downwards, enjoying the high, needy sound William makes against his mouth. He opens the fastenings one handed. He’s missed this, missed William… William who is flinching away from him, biting his lip.
“William?” Arthur moves back. This is how he has been since he came home, flinching away from kisses, any hint of anything going further.
“It’s not that I don’t want to, but…”
“There are… I’m not…”
Scars, Arthur thinks, there are scars now. He’s known that there must be, but hadn’t thought it would bother William enough to stop him doing this. There are enough men with scars these days, and Arthur has scars of his own.
“I know. Did you think I only wanted you for your looks? Or that a few scars would be enough to damage them? What an unusual lack of vanity in a pilot.”
William kicks him. He deserves it, but at least there’s a smile on his face again.
“That isn’t…” William says, looking serious again.
“I know.” Arthur puts a hand to the side of William’s face a moment, runs a thumb over his cheekbone. Yes, they both know.
Rather than let things turn too serious, Arthur looks for a distraction. He does not have to look hard, with a dishevelled William stretched out in front of him, trousers unbuttoned. Arthur drops to his knees beside the sofa, unbuttoning further and tugging at William’s clothes. There are scars, it’s true, stretching over his hip and down his thigh, but they are not what holds Arthur’s attention.
This isn’t something Arthur usually does, or particularly enjoys, but William is worth it. The shocked sound he makes when Arthur first takes his cock into his mouth is worth it. William looks dazed, alternately open mouthed and biting at his lip so it flushes red. He squirms and Arthur tastes salt. Not exactly pleasant, and he could have chosen somewhere more comfortable than kneeling on the floor, but then William’s eyes flutter shut and his hips jerk upwards, and Arthur thinks that watching him is ample compensation. With a certain amount of dedication to the matter in hand, it does not take much to reduce William to a state of incoherency, panting and twisting his hands into the cushions of the sofa.
“God, Arthur, please!”
It’s been a long time, and there’s not much privacy in a hospital after all. Arthur suppresses a smirk and turns his attention to making William completely lose his mind. He keeps one hand on William’s hip: it won’t do to have him thrashing about too much, and with the other he finds William’s hand and laces their fingers together. William clutches at him.
“Please, please!” William is louder now, close to coming, and for once they don’t have to be quiet. He is still very beautiful when he comes.
“Come on you,” Arthur says, “no falling asleep just yet.”
William mumbles something, looking down at Arthur’s face resting against his thigh and their joined hands. He squeezes Arthur’s fingers in lieu of saying anything.
“You didn’t think that was it, did you?” Arthur asks him. “Now I’ve got you in my bed again I’m not letting you out of it tonight.”
William’s legs are too wobbly to stand on, but it’s hardly far to the bedroom, not too far for Arthur to pick him up and carry him, half dressed as he is. The fuzzy feeling starts to lift as Arthur strips off the rest of his clothing, enough for William to start on the buttons of Arthur’s shirt and push his braces off his shoulders.
“How shall we do this?” Arthur asks him when they are naked, running hands over skin as though they are relearning each other.
“I’ve no idea! I’m sorry. I can’t kneel for long. I can’t take the weight on my hand. I don’t know what I can do.”
“Then leave it to me, just tell me if it’s not working.”
Arthur rolls him over, propping him on pillows in a way that would feel stupid if it wasn’t for Arthur there, making it alright. It’s not the kind of sex they had before, but it’s the kind of sex they are having now, and if Arthur is there, William is happy. Having Arthur fuck him again makes him feel as though something is actually right with the world. He’s not desperate enough to come again that he’s distracted by it: all he can think about is how good it feels to have Arthur fucking him, to have Arthur’s weight leaning heavily against him. It’s not entirely comfortable, bordering on painful, and he knows that if he said anything Arthur would stop. He doesn’t want to stop. He couldn’t bear it, and it feels so good he doesn’t care. Arthur’s breath in his ear is growing harsher and he kisses William’s neck and nips at his shoulder. William is half drunk on it, on the demanding rhythm of it, everything starting to blur away except Arthur.
I love you, he thinks. You love me. I love you.
Everything is still all wrong, but you love me.
He buries his face into the mattress, and Arthur fucks him harder. He’s demanding, and it’s almost too much, but William isn’t sure if could ever be too much. He’d never cry during sex, or anything so stupid, but something of the same emotion is prickling in his throat. He is open mouthed against the blankets, gasping.
“I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” Arthur says in his ear, and William lets go.
It takes William some time to drift back into some semblance of awareness. When he does, he finds himself unpleasantly sticky, particularly the pillow underneath his hips, and still lying awkwardly on his front with his arse in the air and Arthur’s head pillowed on his shoulder. Arthur is, of course, stroking the curve of William’s backside admiringly. It’s a comfortingly normal Arthur thing to be doing.
“You alright?” Arthur asks him.
William hums, too lazy to bother with words, or moving.
“I’ll be back in a minute.”
Arthur gets up and William basks, drifting on the edges of sleep. He manages to open his eyes again when Arthur returns with a damp flannel, a towel, and the bottle of painkillers. William frowns at the sight of them.
“I’m not going to force you to take them,” Arthur says, noticing, “but I know from experience you’ll probably want to take them sooner rather than later.”
“From experience?” William wonders if he means last year, after France, but Arthur smirks at him in a way that implies a story.
“Did I ever tell you about the time a double agent tried to stab me in the chest the day before I was due to be meeting a very attractive informant?”
“No, you didn’t. Did it really happen?” William laughs, because if it happened to anyone if happened to Arthur, and takes the towel.
“Yes, I was lucky she took pity on me. But I damn well wish I’d taken the painkillers sooner.”
“Is that where that comes from, then?” William reaches up to touch the faint, white line on Arthur’s chest, running along the outside of his rib cage. “I wondered.”
“It is. I was lucky he didn’t have better aim. The joys of fieldwork!”
“Lucky it didn’t scar much.”
William is not so lucky. Every mark from that flight from France shows up vividly on his pale skin. The cut over his shoulder pulls the skin too, tightening it into puckers around the scar. Not a pretty sight in William’s eyes.
“They don’t bother me,” Arthur tells him with a shrug. “I’m sorry that it happened, and I wish they didn’t bother you, but they are just scars.”
“I suppose I’ll get used to them.” Perhaps he will, one day.
“And the rest?”
William sighs and holds out his hand for the pills and the glass of water. The pleasant afterglow from the sex is fading and the pain is starting to make its familiar presence felt. He hasn’t got the energy to make a point out of refusing to follow Arthur’s advice.
“William,” Arthur says, “with what’s happened, I know this is hard, but you do need help sometimes. That won’t go away, and I’d like to be there, to help you when you need it, and I will try to do better at leaving you alone when you don’t. But unless you tell me, I don’t know. I can only guess.”
“I hate that I need to ask.”
“I know. God knows I’d feel the same, but I don’t want you to hate me because you hate this.” The look on Arthur’s face makes William feel uncomfortable.
“I just… I’ll try. I’ll try to remember, but I don’t want you to always be helping me. I don’t want to be a problem you have that needs solving all the time, something to be fixed.”
“You aren’t that. I promise you William, you aren’t that.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” William finishes the glass of water and Arthur takes it from him. He puts the glass on the table and turns down the gas lap on the wall.
“Perhaps we’ll have to do a bit better at working it out together then,” Arthur says as he climbs into the bed, opening his arms for William to lean against him. Neither of them have bothered with pyjamas. It’s been a long time since they were able to lie in bed like this.
“I get headaches,” William says to the safe space between Arthur’s neck and his shoulder, “bad ones. The Doctor told me it was the muscle damage in my neck, said it would pass in time, but it’s hell. It happens when I’ve done too much, or slept wrong. I never know if it’s going to happen at a time I have to be at work. I keep waking up thinking ‘not today’ or at least ‘not until I can get home’. I came back because you wanted me to work, but I can’t even do half a shift at the moment.”
Arthur sighs against his hair. “I wish you’d said something sooner. There’s no real need for you to work a set shift pattern. We should have set it up so you could work when you wanted. We can set it up that way, in the morning.”
“I don’t want everyone else to think I’m not pulling my weight.”
“I doubt anyone feels that way. I’d say most people see you as brave for coming back.”
“I’m not brave, not really. Not the way Grant is, say. You want to know what I dream about? It’s not the flight from France; it’s the last time I crashed. We were running bombing raids over Germany and our kite was hit. I tried to keep her going but she was falling apart around our ears. We bailed out, over the sea.” He stops.
“I remember reading about it in your file.”
“Then you know I was lucky. A boat picked me up, but they never found the others. I think I’ve been so convinced since then that I was living on borrowed time, that it was a mistake that it didn’t kill me. Now the flying is over and I don’t even know what to do. I just dream about it, over and over.”
“But you flew anyway. I think anyone would consider that to take courage.”
“You don’t understand. Afterwards, they sent me off on crash leave. I went to see Grant and he got me royally drunk until I couldn’t remember anything any more. Then the next day he brought me to see you. I just carried on. I wasn’t afraid exactly. It wasn’t bravery, it was just not knowing what else to do. Now, I haven’t a fucking clue what I’m supposed to do with my life. And I’m angry, because everything that used to be simple can’t be like that any more.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just… flying, doing what I was told, assuming that one day I’d get shot out of the sky and that would be that. I didn’t have to worry about Laura, or what I’d do afterwards, or what I had with you. It was wonderful, what we had, it was fun, and it was more than that. And it was easy. I don’t get to have easy any more.”
“Oh William…” Arthur holds him tight, and it feels welcome for a change, not suffocating.
Two worlds colliding
The note from Arthur’s mother-in-law is perfunctory. She and her husband are, it seems, quite unable to take the boys for the first two weeks of the holidays and other arrangements must be made. The message, unspoken, is that Arthur must make said arrangements if he wishes to have any claims to being a good father. The letter from Charlie is one of ink-blotted enthusiasm at the prospect of a visit, Artie’s an earnest promise to look after his brother and take responsibility for the train journey there.
The problem is that Arthur cannot take two weeks worth of leave to keep them out of mischief. Nor can he bring them onto a classified SOE airfield and let them run riot. If William was not there then he could have taken them to stay at the cottage, possibly with a girl from the village to keep an eye on them when he’s working. Flora Greysteel would likely know some young women happy to earn a bit for watching two young hooligans. But William is there, and cannot be asked to leave, not even for two weeks. He is… Arthur hates to use the word fragile, but it does fit. Things have improved, slowly, since their argument and the conversation after it, but William is still taking time to come back to himself. He works as much as he is able but when not working he is sometimes listless, sometimes distant. Arthur is never sure if he’s frustrated or in pain or just bored, but Arthur has promised not to pry. They are working at being careful with one another.
Adding two boys to the mix, a reminder of Arthur’s previous life, and all the ways that William cannot fit into it, would be impossible. The only remaining option is to find a school friend they can stay with, a set of parents Arthur can impose on for two weeks. It would be for the best.
He picks up Charlie’s letter again. The disapproval of his mother-in-law carries no weight in comparison to this. “Grandma says we’ll see you in the holidays, Dad. I can’t wait.”
He folds it into his pocket. He can find someone for them to stay with later.
“You seem bothered about something,” William tells him while he is making a last cup of tea that night. He’s propped against the kitchen door, watching Arthur doing the washing up and waiting for the kettle to boil.
“Do I?” Arthur carries on rinsing plates.
“You do.” William goes to take the kettle off the heat and pours water into the teapot. He is getting better at things like this, much as it frustrates him that something as simple as making tea needs getting used to. Don’t pick up the kettle left handed, don’t let the hot water splash against numb skin because you won’t feel it, brace yourself against the counter because you can’t hold onto your walking stick if you need your right hand for the kettle. Arthur doesn’t watch him, and he appreciates the lack of observation. Things may be getting easier, but he’d prefer not to have an audience. This is why he’s glad of having his own office, of being freed from the shift pattern. He can come and go as he pleases and nobody has to see.
Arthur still hasn’t said anything. William leaves the tealeaves to stew and comes to stand behind him, leaning his chin on Arthur’s shoulder. He lets his free arm snake around Arthur’s chest.
“You are distracting me,” Arthur says, in a tone that suggests distractions may be punished in the best way possible.
“Perhaps I want to distract you?” William says quietly, sliding his fingers into the gaps between the buttons of Arthur’s shirt to find skin. “Although I’d rather know what’s bothering you first.”
Arthur sighs and puts the last of the cutlery to drain, reaching past William for the tea towel to dry his hands.
“It’s nothing, just a problem with the boys. I’ll think about it in the morning.”
William knows that the choice is being left to him. He can ask, or he can go back to being a distraction: Arthur will let him do either. But if they really are trying to make this work, perhaps William owes him the question.
“Tell me,” he says, “tell me while we have tea and I’ll distract you afterwards.”
They settle on the sofa together, William leaning against Arthur.
“My mother-in-law won’t take the boys for the start of the holidays,” Arthur tells him. “I think she feels I’ve been neglecting them, so now I’ll need to find somewhere else to send them. I can’t spend a fortnight looking after them, whatever she thinks I ought to do.”
“Is it finding somewhere else that’s the problem? I’d have thought there’d be a friend or two they could go to. I spent most of my school holidays away from home.”
“It’s not that,” Arthur says reluctantly, “it’s more that Catherine told the boys they were going to stay with me.”
He doesn’t say any more, but William can read between the lines. He knows Arthur cares about his sons, even if he rarely has the opportunity to show it. Turning them down will be hard. Of course, without leave, there’s no way to make it work, nowhere for the boys to stay… William’s thoughts come to a sudden halt. Nowhere for the boys to stay, except here, in the cottage, with the bedrooms upstairs they don’t use and Arthur, while not technically living here, still staying most nights when he isn’t at work. Arthur must have thought of it, but then discounted it, leaving the question of why he did so.
“There’s a bedroom here,” William ventures, testing the water.
Arthur is quiet a moment, his hand pausing where he had been letting his fingers rub against William’s shoulder. “I did think of it,” he says, “but I wasn’t sure. Two schoolboys aren’t exactly restful company, and I’ll be working. They’d be around all day, unless I can find someone else to keep an eye on them.”
William considers it: the idea of having two curious boys rattling around the house. He isn’t used to children, doesn’t particularly want anyone around at the moment. But it’s set against Arthur’s happiness, and how long can two weeks be? He remembers talking to Arabella, and her leaps of faith.
“I think we could make it work, couldn’t we?”
“There would have to be other people to watch them sometimes, with the shifts, and I’m not used to children, but,” he twists to look up at Arthur, “it would make you happy, wouldn’t it?”
Arthur kisses him, and then abandons the tea in favour of taking him to bed. William considers this a just reward.
Arthur goes to collect the boys from the train alone. William doesn't offer to go with him and he doesn't ask. In some ways, this is easier: a brief separation between the two halves of his life before he has to try and reconcile them under the same roof.
It's a grey day today, threatening rain as he waits on the platform. The train is late, as they usually are. He tries not to think about it too much. Bombs are much less common now. He still finds himself letting out a deep breath as the train steams into view.
There are enough people leaving the train that for a moment he can't spot the boys, but then there's a familiar shriek of 'Dad!' and a blond boy tumbles out of the carriage, apparently intent on hurtling towards him.
"Charlie!" Artie is struggling down behind him with both suitcases and a hand on the collar of Charlie's school blazer until he sees Arthur and let's him go. Charlie is off as soon as he is allowed, dodging the last passengers and throwing himself at Arthur, who picks him up and swings him up into his arms. He's taller and heavier than the last time Arthur did this, but at least not too tall to do this.
"Dad!" he says, "we haven't seen you in ages. Are we going to your flat? Did you bring the car? Are we going there right away or can we have buns first? I'm starving."
"So many questions!" Arthur pulls his school cap down over his eyes. "First we'll get the suitcases. You left Artie to carry everything."
"Sorry Dad. I have been good though. Even when we went through London."
"He has Dad, it's true." They have reached Artie, who is dragging their bags with him. "Hello," he says, quieter than Charlie, more reserved. He wasn't always so quiet but since Kitty's death he's been growing ever more serious, more grown up. Arthur misses the harum scarum boy he used to be, but he was always his mother's son: perhaps it’s only natural that he be quieter now.
"You alright?" Arthur asks him. "How was the journey?"
"It was fine. Our train was late when we changed but the porter saw us coming and he got us a seat on this one just in time."
"Good lad." Arthur puts a hand on his shoulder. He'd like to hug him as he did Charlie but Artie holds himself a little at a distance and Arthur decides not to push. Boys grow up so fast.
"So you two, I understand Charlie is famished. I thought we could find somewhere for tea."
Charlie responds with enthusiasm and Artie a slightly politer version of the same. They walk together out of the station; Arthur carrying Charlie and one suitcase while Artie manages the other. They leave the bags in the car and find a cafe for tea and buns. Arthur finds himself briefly nostalgic for the sticky iced buns they used to have on the first day home, before the war and sugar rationing.
"So are we going to the flat, Dad?" Charlie is the one keeping most of the conversation going.
"As it happens, no. I can't get enough time away from work to do that so we'll be going somewhere else."
“Where, dad?” Charlie asks, swinging his legs. Artie looks at him warily and fidgets with the milk jug.
“Near where I work there’s a cottage. A friend of mine is living there and he’s willing to let us stay. You’ll have to be on your best behaviour though: I’ll be at work some of the time. You’ll have to promise me not to get in trouble when I’m not there. Do you promise?”
They nod. So far, so good.
“The friend who we are staying with, Flight Lieutenant De Lancey,” Arthur begins. Charlie interrupts him, his eyes wide.
“Is he a pilot?”
“Yes, he is, but I don’t want you ask him about it. Charlie, I mean it.” Charlie looks up at him and frowns. “De Lancey has been unwell recently, very seriously unwell. I don’t want you bothering him more than you can help it.”
The boys both look serious now. “We’ll be good, Dad,” Artie tells him, “we promise, don’t we Charlie?”
“Right then. You boys finish your tea and we’ll go and meet him.”