Actions

Work Header

The Art of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Chapter Text

Grant finds De Lancey asleep in his office chair with his boots on Grant’s desk, so Grant thinks it only fair to kick the chair away from the desk until it wakes him up.

“Is there a reason you’re in my office?” he asks, dropping a stack of reports down with a thud. “Or are you just here for a quiet place to kip?”

De Lancey stretches lazily, his pale blue uniform shirt pulling tight across his chest. “I’ve got news for you actually. They’re sending you a new magician.”

“Fuck.”

“Yes.”

“Any chance this one will actually be any good? I’m supposed to be running a magical intelligence unit here and three quarters of the men aren’t magicians at all.” Grant fishes in his desk drawer for the emergency whiskey. “And the ones we have are all useless. Anyone who is any use at all is locked up by Norrell with their little silver basins, making invisible barrage balloons that don’t work. The best I have is Childermass, and he isn’t even supposed to be a magician!”

“They are sending you Strange.”

“Strange. You mean Jonathan Strange? Jonathan Strange, the author of ‘The History and Practise of English Magic’? The most recognisable damn magician in the country and they are sending him to a covert unit? Are they mad?”

De Lancey has been expecting this reaction. He tugs the bottle of whiskey away from Grant, pours a glass and hands it to him. “I’m afraid to say that’s exactly what they are doing. Drink up, it’ll make you feel better.”

Grant downs half the whiskey. It burns his throat and warms his stomach while he warms to his familiar theme. The incompetence of the higher ups. The uselessness of magicians in warfare. De Lancey appropriates a second glass and the whiskey bottle and waits for him to stop.

“And God knows what Arthur will say to this,” Grant finishes, swallowing the last of the whiskey and gesturing with the glass to make his point.

“No word then?” De Lancey asks, a sudden cloud passing over his usually cheerful face.

“I’m sorry, nothing yet.” Grant looks down at the other man and curses his own thoughtlessness. “It’s only been three days. You know he’s been much longer in France without radio contact before.”

“Yes, of course, he’ll show up again.” De Lancey shrugs and forces a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Let me know when he does get back in touch. I’ll have words with him.” De Lancey knocks back the last of his own drink and stands. “I’ll leave you to those reports then. Your magician arrives next Tuesday.”

“William,” Grant catches hold De Lancey’s arm, giving it a gentle squeeze, “he will come back.”

“I know,” De Lancey says, “don’t worry, I know. I just think too much.” He’s gone before Grant can say another word.

Chapter Text

William cannot sleep. Despite knowing that he will have to be up and awake in a few short hours, ready to take the day shift and possibly the night shift as well, his mind remains stubbornly wakeful. The snores of the other men in the barracks compete with each other, all out of time and on different notes. It doesn’t usually bother him but tonight he can’t stop himself listening for the pattern of it and being increasingly annoyed with each new snore. There’s no light in the room, nothing to look at, not even his own grey-blanket-covered toes.

Arthur hasn’t been in touch for five days now, four days since he was expected to radio in. It was supposed to be a simple operation: in by parachute, make contact, acquire information too sensitive to be transmitted by radio and get the hell out by any means possible. Instead they have heard nothing. They don’t even know if he survived the drop into France.

William tosses and turns in his bunk, making the man below him mutter sleepy complaints. He stills. It’s not like he has a particular right to be worried. Arthur can handle himself as well as any man in the unit. He’s almost too senior to be sent out on missions like this, but he knows the man running the resistance in the area from pre-war days and the trust is already built. It isn’t even the first time he’s gone dark behind enemy lines. It might mean nothing more than a broken radio or the people he was meant to meet not being there. But still, in the dark with nothing else to think of, William worries and cannot sleep. They all know the risks, know people who went out and didn’t return, know people who suddenly went quiet and were never heard from again. It twists in his gut.

Arthur has a reputation as a ladies man so William knows he is something of an aberration in his usual pattern of affairs, but that’s no reason to suppose it means anything significant. It’s not a love affair. It’s just… bodies, together, doing what bodies do best and feeling alive.

He sighs at the ceiling and wishes Arthur would make contact. Aberration or not, casual fling or not, Arthur matters to William. He misses him. He flips his lumpy pillow to the cool side and waits for dawn.

 

Arthur Wellesley is sitting in a tree in the dark, regretting every choice that led him to this point and too afraid to sleep. If he sleeps now he risks falling and soldiers were walking underneath him not two hours ago. Staying silent is what’s keeping him alive and there isn’t much else going for him right now.

He has no working radio because it has a Nazi bullet through it, he has a bleeding laceration down one thigh because the fragments of broken radio cut him as he landed and his contact is dead because the Nazis found him on the ground waiting for Arthur and shot him. He is alone. He has been alone for the best part of five days now with dwindling supplies and no real hope of backup. The days are starting to blur together from sleeplessness.

To keep awake his thinks of all the things he will do when he does get home. He will have a good meal (to hell with rationing), he will have a good wash (to hell with regulations on water use) and he will kidnap young De Lancey and take him away for the weekend to somewhere with a proper bed.

He thinks of William (William smiling at him, William naked, William naked and smiling at him) as he grits his teeth and carefully climbs down from the tree. He won’t get anywhere staying still and he will need more food and water by tonight. The radio he buries so it won’t incriminate him. He is wearing French civilian clothing, which should be a plausible disguise, but the blood down his leg is going to give him away the moment anyone gets a good look at him. God knows what William would think of him in this state. He’s so young, and he’s hardly Arthur’s usual type, but there’s something compelling about him. It makes him a useful goal to aim towards: something to come home to. Arthur shoulders the most useful parts of his kit and sets off, limping slightly, in the direction of the coast.

 

Grant is asleep, passed out face first over his desk even though he’s supposed to be in charge of the night shift. With Arthur away, he’s been working double time, filling up spare moments with every extra little detail that needs attending to. Agents go out, reports come in, and Grant sits in his office and collates it all.

Arthur gets to bunk off and go on missions, covering himself in glory by dint of being senior enough to arrange his own going and nobody else being senior enough to tell him not to. Grant used to do the fieldwork himself: up until the Germans caught him and slowly broke every one of his fingers and most of his ribs trying to get him to talk. He made his own escape before they shot him, but when he got back Arthur decided he was too valuable to lose. So he’s stuck here, day after day, planning missions and painstakingly assembling the information gathered into something other people can use.

He wishes someone could give him a little more credit for what he’s trying to do here, with the rag tag group of magicians (and people who speak French with Yorkshire accents) who get sent to him because nobody else knows what to do with them. Magic in warfare is a bit of a joke to the rest of the military.

He needs something else to think about. He needs to get out more or he needs to get laid. Not that he’s had the chance since Arthur, after cutting a swathe through the Wrens and WAAFs, turned his attention to William and unknowingly took that bit of comfort out of Grant’s life. He’s getting a monk-like reputation in the unit. He thinks that maybe after the war, if there is ever an after the war, he might be so work out he’ll just fade into the background of the hut and never be seen again.

There’s so much he needs to do. He never meant to sleep. It just happened, drifting from sitting with his back straight, to propping his drooping head on his arm and then half lying on the desk with a mug of cold tea at his elbow. His mouth is open, putting the report underneath it at risk. The breeze cutting through the hastily built wooden wall ruffles his cropped blond hair. Later, when someone needs him and bangs on his office door, he will wake up chilled to the bone, stiff, aching and bad tempered with himself for giving in.

 

Childermass is awake early. It is an engrained habit for him and he wakes on instinct just before dawn. Working for Mr Norrell it was partly necessity and partly from his own enjoyment of that part of the day. While his first pot of tea brewed he would go outside, into the little scrubby garden behind his cottage and take a moment to appreciate the new day before he had to start work. Of course, after the arrival of John Segundus, his morning routine had been improved by going back inside, pouring the tea and taking it up to John in their shared bedroom.

He had been half responsible for Segundus coming to work at Hurtfew Abbey. They had known each other from the days when Norrell sent Childermass out to observe any magician of note (particularly those who followed Strange’s doctrine). The first forced meeting had led to an easy relationship, picked up again whenever they had leisure to meet. Only when the war broke out in earnest did Childermass find him, convalescent after a bad illness and working in a dismal War Office job in London. A few hints to Mr Norrell had secured his transfer to Hurtfew. His sensitivity to magic and recent illness had made it an easy thing to arrange for him to live away from the other magicians in the Abbey and Childermass had, in the eyes of the world, gained a new lodger.

Of course the world at large did not have to know that they slept in one bed together and their casual relationship had turned, almost without thought, into a more significant one. One where the greatest joy of Childermass’ morning was to go upstairs with two mugs and watch as Segundus slowly drifted into wakefulness under the influence of gentle kisses and the scent of tea.

Now, of course, there is no Segundus waiting for him when he makes that first strong brew and goes out to smoke in the grey dawn. It’s good to clear his head after the muggy atmosphere of the barracks, where too many men sleep with too little ventilation. There is heavy dew this morning and mist rising over the runway. Childermass hopes that in the cottage near Hurtfew, Segundus is asleep or at least going to bed. He is working in a shift pattern, trying to prevent the bombing raids over key locations, and if Childermass remembers correctly he was working last night. (Childermass always remembers correctly when it comes to John.) It had been good weather for bombers and bad weather for magicians and Segundus cares so much if he can’t prevent a bombing.

It’s so easy now, when Childermass is alone in the quiet, to remember John’s face as he sleeps: the way his face relaxes out of his habitual worried frown, how soft his hair is, the warm and pleasant smell of him in the morning. He flicks his cigarette butt into the ashtray and goes to fetch pen and paper. He owes John a letter and the dawn is as good a time as any to write it.

 

Segundus is shivering in his cold bed despite the two hot water bottles. He always has felt the cold and with fuel rationing there’s no way to warm the room enough to be comfortable. He could stay at the Abbey, where the rooms might be marginally warmer and he wouldn’t have to endure freezing bicycle rides home after every shift, but he is unwilling to be parted from the cottage where he and John had such an unexpected and blissful few months of living together.

He misses John fiercely. It aches in his chest when he is alone, particularly when he is alone in the cold cottage listening to all the creaks and groans he never noticed when there were two of them to fill the silence. He particularly misses him tonight. He wants someone to talk to: someone to tell him that it isn’t his fault that it went wrong. All their preparation and spells had been useless in the end. There were too many planes and too many incendiary bombs for the beacons to cope with. The factories and docks they were supposed to be protecting had burned, too fiercely even for Norrell’s rain spells to extinguish. All night he has watched buildings falling and people dying, powerless to do anything.

He huddles miserably under the cold blankets and feel sick with guilt at failing to save them. He can’t complain to Childermass, not when he is properly at war and doing something real to help, instead of staying at home and messing about with small magics from the safety of an Abbey like Segundus, but oh how he wishes he was here!

 

Jonathan slept well on the whole but regrets the early hour that he was forced to wake up. Bell had only rolled over and gone back to sleep at the sound of the alarm clock although she is awake now, a little bleary eyed in her red dressing gown as they say their goodbyes. It’s so odd to think that he won’t be coming back to this house this evening. This morning, just after he woke, he had sat in bed and looked at Bell, fast asleep with her cheek resting on her hand, and thought she looked almost like a stranger. During basic training he had been counting down every day until he could go home to her but now he is going away for some indefinite period and leaving her, and everything he knows, behind. By this point he has, in some ways, already gone.

Bell is quite practical and matter of fact about his going today, asking him if he has everything he needs, checking his train tickets, promising letters and tucking the last few items into his kitbag for him.

“You will write, won’t you?” she asks him when all possible preparations are done and the taxi is waiting, leaving them no other way to put off the moment of departure. She strokes his hair away from his forehead.

“Of course, dearest Bell.” He picks her up to hug her properly, knowing it will be some time before he can do so again. He wants to remember everything about how it feels to hold her. “I’ll write as soon as I get there and let you know I’ve arrived safely.”

“Good!” she laughs, “Now go, before you miss your train.”

She waves to him has the taxi pulls away, hiding behind the door so the driver can’t see her in her dressing gown. He watches through the window until the door closes and they are separated, her to a normal morning routine and him to the new life that awaits.

Chapter Text

Jonathan’s train journey takes a horrendously long time. It makes him think longingly of the King’s Roads, now sealed off in England as a defence against invasion. Instead, he navigates a baffling series of starts and stops and changes of train in stations with blacked out names. At one point they are delayed for over two hours because of a possible unexploded bomb on the line, which thankfully turns out to be nothing of the kind.

He stops for watery tea and sandwiches made with thin, grey bread when he reaches London. The bomb damage here is shocking, even to a magician who has been conjuring visions of the capital for months. It is a very different matter to walk the streets and see it with his own eyes. The other surprise is how matter of fact the people are, walking around the rubble and getting on with their day. It makes his experience of the war so seem rather abstract.

Navigating across London he finds the train heading east to the secret airfield he has been told is waiting for him. In fact there are two airfields, one a professional looking outfit full of large aircraft, brick buildings and what looks like hundreds of men busy at work. This is not the airfield he is reporting to.

The SOE airfield is the one adjoining the RAF base, a rather dismal set up consisting of hastily erected wooden buildings, a handful of elderly brick built structures and a motley collection of aircraft hidden beneath the trees.

He reports to the wooden hut that is the current operational headquarters of the Magical Intelligence Auxiliary Unit, colloquially known by SOE staff as ‘Arthur’s Ungentlemanly Magicians’. The hut doesn’t look like the headquarters of anything in particular and as there was nothing to distinguish it from any of the other buildings it had taken him quite some time to find. When he asked for directions a smirking man with a northern accent had told him that the first test of a member of the Auxiliary Unit was finding the Auxiliary Unit. Consequently when he arrives he is flustered, out of breath and late.

He knocks at the door supposedly leading to the office belonging to the Unit Commander and hears a voice bellow, “Come!” On entering the office he find a man in Army uniform, looking like he hasn’t slept for several days and is considering committing murder for a decent cup of coffee. It’s not a promising start.

Not having any way to identify who he is talking to and not expecting an army officer, Jonathan tries saluting. Unfortunately saluting has never come naturally to him. The man looks as though he has noticed.

“Strange” he says, “where the devil have you been? I was expecting you six hours ago.”

“I’m sorry, sir. It was the trains. We were delayed at…”

The man waves him to silence with a frown. “Well you are here now. I am Grant. I’ll get De Lancey to show you around. De Lancey!”

“Excuse me, I thought I was to report to Wellesley, sir.” As soon as he has said it he wishes he hadn’t because Grant gives him a look that makes Jonathan certain he thinks he is the biggest fool in existence.

“You might well have been told that, but Wellesley isn’t here. He goes wherever he is needed, which is, at present, everywhere. De Lancey!” Grant hammers hard on the wall of his office, which seems to have an effect because a ridiculously young looking man in RAF uniform sticks his head around the door.

“Sorry Grant, did you want me?”

“This is Strange, take him away and find him something useful to do.” He returns his attention to the paperwork in the desk.

“Right-oh,” the young man says, shepherding Jonathan into the corridor, “I’m Flight Lieutenant De Lancey, William if you’d rather.” He offers a hand to shake. Jonathan takes it, glancing back over his shoulder at Grant’s closed office door.

“I couldn’t help noticing that Unit Commander was a little… a little…”

“A little terrifying? Don’t worry; he’s just having a bad morning. Day. Week. I’m sure he’ll get over it, just don’t take it personally. Don’t call him Unit Commander though. That’s Wellesley’s job. Grant’s acting commander while Wellesley is… otherwise engaged.” The man frowns and Jonathan wonders what he has missed. He doesn’t like feeling so ignorant. He wants to ask what’s happening but before he can, De Lancey herds him through another door into what must be the main workroom. It’s a confusion of men in different uniforms and civilian dress. There are maps and silver dishes for conjouring visions muddled up with radio sets, telephones and machines looking like overgrown typewriters. Paper, people and equipment fight for any remaining space.

“Winespill!” shouts De Lancey, loud enough to be heard over the racket. “Winespill!” If Grant’s bellow was impressive, it’s nothing to De Lancey’s.

“He’s out back,” says a very Yorkshire voice. A human figure unfolds itself from a crumpled heap of khaki in the corner. He has a pale, rather cadaverous face covered with rough stubble that threatens to turn his moustache into a beard. A cigarette hovers precariously at the corner of his mouth. He extends a hand in Jonathan’s direction. “Mr Strange? I’m John Childermass, I remember you from when you were visiting Mr Norrell.”

“Ah… yes.” Jonathan shakes the offered hand, wracking his brains until the man in front of him resembles someone familiar, “You were Mr Norrell’s gardener, weren’t you?”

“His estate manager, but I suppose that’s close enough,” answers Childermass with a heavy dose of Yorkshire sarcasm. “Shall I take you to find Winespill?”

“Yes please, Childermass,” says De Lancey, “ask him to find something for Mr Strange to do.”

Jonathan is starting to feel annoyed at being passed on yet again, like a parcel nobody wants. He starts to say something but Childermass cuts in with “Come along, Sir” before he gets the chance. To add insult to injury, when they find the missing Winespill, he turns out to be sitting with the smirking man Jonathan asked for directions in the first place.

 

Jeremy stares at Jonathan like he has never seen a magician before. “So,” he begins, “what is that you can do, sir?”

“A great many things, I suppose, but which do you want me to do?”

“Ah,” answers Jeremy with a sceptical air, “how’s your French, sir? Or German?”

“Well, I regret to say that I never really had the opportunity for learning much German. I do speak passable French however.”

“Passable. Yes, sir, and have you ever used a parachute?”

“A parachute! Why the devil would I have used a parachute?”

Jeremy sighs and decides that Winespill owes him a favour for taking on such a hopeless case. The whole conversation continues in the same fashion. Jonathan has never fired a gun in anger, he does not know Morse code to the correct speed, he was not taught anything about decryption nor how to blend in with civilians in an occupied country. He cannot fly a plane, steer a boat or create spells of concealment. Eventually Jeremy stops his long round of questioning and sighs.

“You’d best come along with me then, sir,” he says and he steers Strange to a room full of boxes overflowing with files. “Perhaps you could just help to tidy up a bit. Until we find what best to do with you.” He goes off smiling, his problem solved, leaving Jonathan with three women who are responsible for curating the files. They smile at him, but the smiles are not friendly ones and he thinks that he has found yet more people who think he is an incompetent idiot. If he’s not careful, he’ll start to think it himself.

Dearest Bell

You will be pleased to know that I have arrived safely in the location I may not disclose to you. The train journey was everything I feared it would be and led to me arriving rather later than planned. In fact, nothing has gone as I planned since arriving and I hope you will laugh at my situation for me, because I am finding it sadly difficult.

Jonathan pauses with his pen over the paper. How is he ever to describe the situation here? Particularly when for all he knows, Grant himself will be reading everything he writes. He imagines Bell receiving a letter that has been censored in its entirety, leaving only her name and his. He has spent most of his day fetching and carrying for the three women in the file store. As a result he has also learnt very quickly that they are strict, exacting in their requirements, impervious to his charm and generally regard him as a nuisance. After the end of his shift he had been given a dinner consisting of unidentifiable stew, apparently containing whalemeat although given the way most of the unit regard him it could have been another ruse to torment him. Then he had been shown to a communal barracks with very little privacy or storage for his books and left to write his letter. It is, he admits to himself, not quite what he had envisaged when joining the Army.

 

Three days later nothing has improved. Grant, Jonathan has decided, is a sleep deprived maniac and De Lancey, who at first had seemed friendly, has been getting steadily more terse and disagreeable. The mysterious Wellesley has never appeared and Jonathan is beginning to wonder if the man even exists or if he is a figment of their collective imaginations.

He finally gets his proof of the man’s existence when there is a sudden flurry of activity among the WAAFs using the teleprinters connected to the SOE listening stations at Grendon Underwood and Poundon. “Grant,” someone shouts, “fetch Grant!”

He appears at a run, followed by De Lancey.

“What is it?”

“Transmission from France, sir, Pendragon’s signature.”

Grant grabs for the sheet of paper with the coded message and snaps his fingers until someone thrusts a codebook into it. He works quickly, leafing through to the correct cipher and scribbling the decoded message on a scrap of paper. De Lancey leans over his shoulder, reading it as Grant writes. Everyone in the room has stopped working, waiting to see what the message will contain.

“Right,” Grant announces to the room at large, “we need an extraction but he has the intel.”

“Am I flying it?” De Lancey asks.

Grant looks at him consideringly and Strange is aware that some silent conversation is taking place. De Lancey lifts an eyebrow. Grant shrugs minutely.

“Yes, we’ll have you fly. Childermass, I want you for ground crew. In my office please.”

The men disappear and the rest of the room slowly gets back to work, picking up where they left off.

Jonathan is left standing, his arms full of files. “Well that’ll cheer people up,” observes Cassandra, the friendliest of the WRENs.

“I’m sorry?”

“The news from Pendragon.” She looks at him, slightly pityingly, “Arthur Wellesley, our absent leader? That’s his call sign. He’s been missing in France for about a week and this is the first we’ve heard from him.”

“Oh.” Jonathan can’t think of anything else to say.

“He’s probably injured though. They don’t drop more people in France unless they have to. Get a move on with those files please, we haven’t got all day.”

 

Inside Grant’s office, the three men are hunched over the map.

“So, if Arthur is holed up here, the closest landing strip is here.” De Lancey points at the map. “We can land a Hudson or a Lysander, so the only question is if our priority is stealth or making sure he actually gets on the plane.”

Grant re-reads the message. “He says he has minor injuries but neglects to tell us what kind or how bad they are. Typical bloody Wellesley.”

“May I remind you, when you were captured by the Germans you sent no bloody message at all, you just walked onto one of our fishing boat in a stolen German uniform and collapsed?”

“Gentlemen,” Childermass’ low voice breaks in to the conversation, forcing the others to stop glaring at each other and turn to him. “The way I see it, what we most need in Wellesley and his information. There’s no point sending a Lysander and finding out he can’t get into it, besides the moon won’t be in the right phase for several days. I know you could do it anyway,” he raises a hand at William, who looks likely to protest, “but I think it would be easier to send the Hudson, and we’ll take a few men and collect him from the barn.”

From that moment, the plan is doomed to fail. Unfortunately, none of the men in the room know it.

Chapter Text

Before the mission

Jonathan watches Grant at the radio set: his concentration and seriousness are oddly compelling as he sends his encrypted message back to Pendragon. His light hand with a Morse key is even more so.  He looks rather like a professional musician, utterly absorbed by playing.  Jonathan wonders when he started considering the man to be attractive despite his generally disagreeable nature and imagines Bell laughing at him.  

“Quite a sight, is it not?” says a gruff voice from behind him.  Jonathan sighs and turns to face the expected mockery, but Childermass does not look particularly mocking.  Instead he looks almost curious, as though Jonathan is a problem he wishes to solve.  “One of our best pianists, in both senses of the word.”

“I’m sorry, in both senses?” Jonathan wishes he could have one conversation in this miserable place without finding yet another topic of which he is ignorant.  

“Our wireless operators, we call them The Pianists and he is one of the best.  He used to be a real pianist too until the Germans got a hold of him.  Now he sticks to singing.  If you get the chance to hear him Mr Strange, I’d take it.”  He nods significantly.  Childermass is prone to communicating like this, even though most of the time Jonathan cannot understand what he is intending to convey.  He wonders if that was now the man communicated with Norrell, who always seemed to wince from unnecessary conversation.  

“Really?” Jonathan considers Grant’s serious face again.  “I cannot imagine him singing anything at all, let alone something a man might enjoy listening to.”

“Ah, well,” says Childermass, extinguishing his cigarette, “you’d be surprised.  Nineteen hundred hours: go to the gap in the fence at the end of the runway.  It’d do you good to stretch your imagination a bit.”

At the appointed hour, Jonathan goes to the gap in the fence and is directed towards the village pub.  Since this is technically going AWOL he hesitates, but Ned and Jeremy are going too and encourage him along with more friendliness than he has come to expect from the people he works with.  The pub is not far and, when they get there, the main bar proves to be full of SOE staff and a few men from the RAF base.  There is also a snug, where the locals congregate away from the rowdier, young crowd but Jonathan is steered straight into the thick of things. The alcohol is limited, as is the case almost everywhere in England now, but it does exist and Ned tells him that the gin is at least drinkable and the beer rather better.  The girl behind the bar, introduced as Flora, is also rather pretty which improves any drink delivered by her hands.  She flirts merrily with all the flyboys, dividing her attention between them as they flock to her. Despite Flora’s enticing smiles, her Aunt, who runs the place, keeps a firm eye on anyone inclined to be too friendly and Ned warns Jonathan that nobody wants to go too far and have a Talk with Flora’s father.  

The pub has a family run feeling which Jonathan has found lacking in the airfield, with its institutional living, eating and sleeping.  The crowd is friendly and noisy; making a pleasant hum that he can feel part of even though he knows relatively few of the people. A round or two of drinks do something towards making him friends.  

He notices a piano in the corner and wonders if this is what Childermass was planning for him to hear.  Grant isn’t singing at the moment but he is by the bar with William De Lancey.  There’s a smile on his face that Jonathan has never seen before.  He nurses his half pint and settles in to a table in the corner to see what will happen. 

After not too long, Childermass advances on the piano with Lucas and Davey, who appear to be his particular cronies.  Davey is the one who plays, picking his way through various favourites like Run Rabbit Run and Roll Out The Barrels while the others join in. Then Childermass and Davey growl their way through an incomprehensibly Yorkshire duet about the dangers of going out without a hat and being eaten by worms.  

De Lancey calls out across the bar for them to play something more cheerful, then weaves his way across the room.  With Davey to accompany him, he gleefully sings his way through ‘Oh! How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning’, which earns him cheers and applause, and follows it up with ‘What Can You Give a Nudist On Her Birthday’.  The song makes Flora blush and giggle, and a very tall, stern man in the corner stands up and shakes his head at De Lancey. Jonathan assumes this must be Flora’s father, the formidable Dr Greysteel.  Grant, evidently hoping to avert disaster, drags De Lancey away from the piano with one hand over his mouth.  

“Sorry sir!” calls Childermass, “Maybe Grant should sing next?”

Grant shakes his head, but the crowd take up the call, stamping feet and banging on tables.  He shrugs ruefully, and lets go of De Lancey, who takes Davey’s seat behind the piano. The crowd falls obediently silent, even those who weren’t listening before.  

“What will you have than?” Grant asks.  The crowd call out suggestions, a flood of them, until he holds his hands up in surrender and says, “It will have to be lady’s choice then. What do you want Flora?”

“He Wears a Pair of Silver Wings,” she calls. 

Grant grimaces at her but De Lancey starts to play and the room goes quiet. Grant’s voice is nothing like Jonathan imagined.  It’s rich and strong, almost professional.  Jonathan would pay good money to hear this on the stage.  He makes the rather overly romantic lyrics work. Flora leans on the bar, a glass and a cloth forgotten in her hands.  When the song ends, everyone applauds as loud as they can, even Dr Greysteel.  Grant looks slightly embarrassed but offers one more song.  In consultation with Childermass and De Lancey he chooses ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square’ and Jonathan is lost.  He remembers, so vividly, dancing with Bell to this song, sung by a singer less talented than Grant.  Grant looks the happiest Jonathan has ever seen him and, if he admits it, the most attractive.  Is it possible to fall, just a little bit in love with a voice?  If Bell were here, he would tell her.  She would love the music too and Jonathan misses her sharply.  

He thinks that perhaps it must all be written on his face, his longing and attraction and homesick guilt, because Grant catches his eye across the room and, for the first time since he started singing, makes the smallest of frowns. 

 

Grant slips out of the pub before closing time. He likes the walk home alone before the rush: he doesn’t get much uninterrupted time to himself these days unless he’s locked in his office and meant to be working. Unfortunately when he leaves he finds William, stretched out on a bench on the village green with his lit torch in his lap. Grant shakes his shoulder, regretting not keeping a closer eye on him. 

“Come on William, what are you doing out here? Other than contravening the blackout regulations?”

Someone behind them laughs, and Grant turns to find Strange standing there and smiling. “Sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing. Do you need help getting him home?”

Grant examines William with a critical eye as he snuffles gently and settles his head on the arm of the bench. “Yes thank you, if he’s going to be flying in under twenty four hours I’d better get him back and pour him into bed.”

Together they hoist the soporific William up, with one of his arms over each of their shoulders. Their mismatched heights make him an awkward burden and he protests, rather incoherently. It’s not a long walk back to base but William seems to have temporarily lost the use of his feet so progress is slow. 

“If I may offer you a word of advice, Strange, never drink the gin they serve at the pub.”

“Thank you, I will bear that in mind. Any particular reason? The others were drinking it.”

“Well rumor has it that the gin is actually made by old Mrs Delgado in the village, using water from the pond for extra flavour. It has caused more appalling hangovers than I can count, so if you must drink it, be aware!”

As they walk past the row of cottages a stronger breeze hits them, rousing William enough to make him ask, “Colley… where we goin’?”

“Bed, William, you are going to bed.”

“No, no, I was having a drink.” William makes an unsteady lurch sideways as though intending to head back to the pub. They spin, turning a full circle in the lane and then walking on in the same direction. Strange grins at him around William’s body and Grant can’t help grinning back. There’s a strange camaraderie to be found in dealing with the hopelessly drunk. Grant doesn’t even mind too much that William, sliding sideways because Strange is too tall, is drooling into his hair. 

“Colley, is Arthur here?”

Grant’s brain freezes for a moment at the badly timed question but fortunately Strange breaks in with, “sorry, forgive my curiosity, but why does he call you that?”

This at least is a question Grant can answer, even if he’d rather not.  "Because my mother, in her wisdom, christened me Colquhoun.“

"Ah,” says Strange, “I can see how Grant would be easier.” He smiles again, rather a nice smile if Grant is honest with himself. It makes him feel warm in a way he hasn’t felt for some time. He might have said something, anything, but William makes that sound in his throat that Grant knows too well from previous drinking sessions. “Give him here!” He says, grabbing William and shoving his head in the direction of the closest ditch. 

“You really are the most revolting lightweight,” Grant tells William as he rids himself of the remaining gin. “Are you finished?”

He isn’t. 

Strange and Grant look helplessly at each other and shrug: there’s nothing to be done but wait for him. The night is clearing and the moon is lighting up the path and fields well enough not to need a torch. The trees shed stark shadows, making eerie stripes across the landscape. It would be a beautiful night for a walk with someone, if you had a certain someone to walk with. If you weren’t, Grant thinks ruefully, standing in a lane with England’s most famous married magician, watching your drunken friend vomit into a ditch. 

“Do you do this often?” Strange asks. 

“What, get William horribly drunk and walk him home afterwards? I try never to do that, but unfortunately it does happen. It’s the waiting to fly, I think, and he never can tell when he’s had enough.”

Strange clears his throat.  "I meant, how often do you go to the pub and sing actually.“

"Singing? I like singing. Colley’s lovely at singing,” William suddenly rejoins the conversation and follows it up with what Grant realises is a drunken version of ‘Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant-Major’. He allows himself a rare moment of indulgence and imagines pushing William into the ditch. In reality, he grabs him by the arm and steers him back along the path. Strange grabs the other arm and together they frog march him forward as fast as they can past the RAF airfield fence, before someone on security patrol comes to find the source of the noise. 

“You have a very good voice, you know,” says Strange, and then “stop that,” to William who is making a bid for freedom. 

“Thank you,” Grant feels awkward saying it, more pleased but more disconcerted by it than he was by the applause in the pub. 

“I meant it. Tonight may be the first night I’ve been glad to be here, the walk home notwithstanding.” Strange has a disconcerting habit of straightforward honesty: saying things that others might leave unsaid to prevent awkwardness. Grant never knows what to say in reply to such bluntness. He feels a little guilty for dismissing Strange as a nuisance, hoping he wouldn’t notice what they thought of him and expecting he would fade into the background, grateful for a quiet war and not making a problem to be dealt with. Unfortunately he is obviously still a problem and one that Grant will have to add to his list. Fortunately he is spared having to formulate an apologetic reply by reaching the fence, where the wire needs unfastening and refastening to hide the unofficial exit. From there it is only a short walk to the barracks. 

“Do you need any more help?” Strange asks as the reach the door.

“No, I can manage.”  It’s hard to say goodnight properly with William leaning on him. "Thank you for getting him this far.”

“Anytime.” Strange smiles and, with a last goodnight, disappears into his room.  

Grant decides not to inflict William on the communal barracks and drags him along to his own room. Space is so limited here that very few people have a room of their own but he is one of them and the privacy is a blessing at times like these. He tips William onto the mattress and removes his boots and jacket. Anything else would be too much work with him like this. 

“Kiss me g'nigh’ Sergean major” William mumbles to himself as Grant locates a bucket, just in case. “Kiss me?”

He looks up at Grant rather unfocusedly.  He looks absurdly young, too young for his uniform.  They could still be boys at school.  Grant kisses him on the forehead and pulls the blankets over him.

“Arthur?” William says, closing his eyes, “miss you, you know.” He snores.

Grant presses his lips together. “You are a smitten fool,” he says, even though William won’t hear him, “you do realise that, don’t you?  And if he hurts you, I’ll bloody kill him.”

Satisfied by past experience that he’s done enough to stop William being found dead in a ditch for one evening he leaves, seeking the familiar comfort of a bottle of whiskey and a nap at his desk. 

 

The following day

Grant is in a foul mood this morning, William thinks through the fog of his hangover. It’s not unusual on the days when people from the unit are flying overseas, frowning over the details that he can’t control.  He’d come into his room like a thunderstorm, banging coffee down on the table next to the bed and kicking William out with very little sympathy.  It’s not good for him, William thinks, to spend so much time working and not having any fun. He contemplates the problem of Grant’s personal mission to work himself to death as he forces down what passes for a fried breakfast in the canteen. It’s mostly fried bread and reconstituted egg, but if he can keep it down he has a chance of surviving the pre-mission briefing. 

He just about manages it, although he’s fairly sure Grant is deliberately shouting and Childermass looks smug throughout, blessed with a Yorkshire constitution that can down vast quantities of bathtub gin and survive unscathed. William goes to sleep afterwards in a blessedly empty barracks and by the time the sun goes down he’s ready to fly. 

They take the Hudson, their converted bomber that now drops agents, equipment and food instead of bombs.  William flies them in under cover of darkness.  They come in low over the coast into France and it’s a surprisingly quiet run. Suspiciously quiet, perhaps.  As they get close to the drop point he can see dim lights, marking out the temporary runway in a field.  Members of the French Resistance will be there, with their torches in the darkness, risking life and limb to make a path for him. 

It’s an easy landing too, because even if he says it himself, he is a damn good pilot.  Childermass and the others leave the plane and he can hear them, talking to the French group outside.  He doesn’t leave his seat though.  It’s one of the first rules as a pilot: you never leave the plane.  If he crashes, he must to destroy her and any evidence that the enemy might use.  

It’s quiet, sitting in the dark and waiting for the others to return. There’s no radio contact, nothing to tell him what the others are doing.  He sits waiting, alert for anything that might happen, any indication of what’s happening out there.  

A sudden rattle of distant gunfire startles him and he sits up, heart pounding, with his hands ready on the controls.  There’s a moment of silence then a return of fire, closer than before.  He waits, indecisive, not knowing whether to try to sit quietly in the dark and hope that whatever is happening passes him by so he still has a chance to pick up survivors.  The gunfire moves closer and he can hear shouting voices.  The moment for secrecy is over and he starts the engines.  

There’s a sharp, metallic banging somewhere over his head and he realises that he has been found and is taking fire.  Nobody can get back to the plane like this, and he has no desire to be shot where he sits.  He landed facing England, so all he has to do is get up, into the air and away, praying all the time that none of the bullets hit anything vital or, God forbid, him.  There’s no runway visible now, no people to shine a light, only the distance he tried to keep in his head, how far he can go before he hits the trees.  He mutters, “come on old girl” as she starts to move. 

He pushes the Hudson into the air amid the bright flashes and bangs that tell him they are still firing at him. There’s a whining sound from one of the engines and something has definitely gone awry with the steering but she climbs and he coaxes her aloud to just get a bit further, a bit higher. It’s just him and her right now, his old lady, and he wants them both to get home safe.  

Afterwards, he never quite remembers how he got her home, flying with one engine making increasingly awful noises and steering that constantly wants to veer left.  He does remember screaming down the radio, willing someone to hear him because all he is getting in return is static and he hasn’t come this far to be shot down by England’s own anti-aircraft guns.  

The landing is hell, bumping crazily down the runway and trying not to veer off into the trees.  When she stops, he sits there frozen in shock for what feels like seconds but must be minutes because the ground crew come running over and help to half haul him out of the cockpit.  Grant is there, shouting at him to know if he’s injured, but he doesn’t think he is. He’s only frozen to the bone, the cockpit full of holes and open to the air the whole way back.  Grant wants to know what happened, where the others are, but he hasn’t got any answers, only the gunfire and the knowledge that Arthur is still there, still stuck in France with Childermass and the others and nobody knows if they are alive or not.  

He must be blathering nonsense, because Grant starts telling him to stop, that’s it’s alright, only he can’t quite work out if he’s still talking or not.  Grant tucks William’s frozen fingers into the front of his own warm coat and the sting of it brings him back to himself.  He lets Grant drag him upright and they stagger back to the hut, wobbling because of William’s numb feet, for the official debriefing, tea with a shot of whiskey in it and whatever sleep he can manage to get.  

 

In France

Childermass is painfully aware that the whole operation is a farce. It goes wrong almost as soon as they leave the plane. Instead of meeting Arthur at the agreed rendezvous they met the German army of occupation, doing God knows what in the middle of the woods. Possibly they are on the look out for men like them. With the best will in the world, local people will always notice newcomers, someone buying more bread than usual or a new ‘washing line’ strung up to disguise an aerial. They can be as careful as possible but once the bridges start collapsing or the train tracks become mysteriously broken, the army knows where to look. Local gossips are a good starting point. 

The only luck they have is that the Germans are apparently equally surprised to meet them, still maneuvering into position, which might be the only reason some of them are still alive. At least one of the Frenchmen is dead, possibly two. Childermass and the others don’t bother to get into a firefight; they just make a run for it through the trees. A Frenchman can be explained, a Yorkshireman will raise considerably more questions that cannot easily be answered. 

They cut sideways off their planned route, hoping they can work around the army and still get to Arthur. Gunfire sounds behind them and they drop to the ground. They can hear the sudden roar of aircraft engines, interrupted by more shots, then a spluttering of malfunctioning machinery and a whine from the Hudson. They lie in the leaf litter, willing De Lancey on and hoping not to be spotted themselves. The Hudson roars over the trees and the gunfire ceases. 

The three of them wait a while, growing slowly chilled, until they can be sure it’s safe to set off again. The ride home is gone and this mission is now a very different matter. “We make for the rendezvous as agreed and see if Arthur is still there. If he is, we arrange pickup or we get him to the coast together. Agreed?” Childermass takes the lead, gun drawn. He isn’t taking any chances tonight. Davey has the compass, a neat little thing with phosphorescent marks so they need no light to navigate. The only problem is not knowing how far off course they have come, fleeing from the soldiers in the dark. They strike northeast, hoping for a little luck and some visible landmarks to guide them before too long. 

Of course nothing is going to plan tonight. Davey, usually so skilled at navigation, has made a rare miscalculation and there’s no water to try location spells. The cards of Marseille, much as Childermass trusts them, are not useful for something as concrete as a compass bearing. 

Instead of the barn where Arthur has been hiding (a useful dumping ground for all manner of materials belonging to the resistance whether explosives of friendly agents) they find a farmhouse. With only moonlight to guide them, and that fading behind more clouds, one stone building looks much like another and their stealthy approach leads them into direct conflict with a group of armed figures. 

It takes Childermass a moment to realise that these are not German or French soldiers, but local women dressed in rough men’s clothes and their hair tied up in headscarves. Ned and Davey look to Childermass to communicate, as his French is better than theirs. Unfortunately his pronunciation is pure Yorkshire so the women don’t understand a bloody word. He can’t work out if they are on the side of the British, the Germans or just on their own side against the world. It makes it impossible to know whether admitting to being British will save their lives or get them all killed. He tries to stay neutral, but it’s the wrong call or his French is too incomprehensible and after some shouting, the whole mess escalates. Their leader, or the woman he assumes is in charge because she was the first to demand he identify himself, has her gun pointed straight at Childermass and she’s shouting something he ought to be able to understand but he can’t think. There’s something about her, something strange, that he can’t quite place. Does he recognise her? She’s younger than he first thought but her face is utterly serious and older than her years.

He takes a step forwards, towards her, with his hands raised and someone shouts but it’s too late because she sees his advance as a threat. 

There’s a deafening bang and a feeling of impact to his shoulder that sends him reeling. Childermass sees Davey looking at him in horror so he raises his hand to his chest. The hand comes away black and wet in the dim light. 

Ned catches him as his knees buckle and the pain starts, like the kick of a mule to his collarbone. He feels sick and faint, and then the blackness drops over him like a hood. 

Childermass doesn’t remember the uproar after that. He doesn’t remember being carried into the house with the unnaturally silent children watching. He doesn’t remember drifting in and out of consciousness while the men pin him to the kitchen table and a French woman digs the bullet out of his shoulder. He doesn’t remember the moment when everyone thinks he is dead. All he can remember is dreaming of ravens. 

 

In England

Every night, before he sleeps, John Segundus gets out his silver dish and fills it with water.  He makes the circle, quarters it and names it Europe.  “John Childermass” he says and waits, waits for that small yellow glow to appear.  He has sworn an oath not to perform a location spell and break the Official Secrets Act.  He has promised John never to call up visions just in case, John says, he sees something he shouldn’t have to watch.  This spell is his lifeline.  Every night when he casts it and the yellow light appears in the water, representing John Childermass alive and well, he can persuade himself to sleep knowing that John is at least alive somewhere in Europe.  Every day that the yellow light is there is another day closer to someday, maybe, seeing him come home.  

Tonight, as every other night, Segundus casts his spell and feels the heady wash of relief as the yellow light appears.  “Thank God,” he thinks, not quite a prayer as he kneels by the low table with the bowl.  His hand hovers over the water as though, if he only reached out, they could touch.  

The light goes out.  

Segundus freezes.  He can’t breathe, can’t think: he’s paralysed with dread.  The background glow of the water shows him the spell is still working, but John Childermass is not there.  It can’t be.  It can’t be true.  He cannot have seen this, cannot have been watching at the very moment that John… that John…  

The light flickers back.  

Segundus feels his heart begin to beat again, thundering wildly in his chest.  He’s in a cold sweat, his mouth open as though he were about to scream.  He closes it without making a sound.  The photograph of John, the one he took on their last morning together, watches him from the table.  He isn’t quite smiling in the picture, but has been caught in the moment just before a smile begins.  It’s very quiet.  The light still shines.  

The bark of a fox outside startles him and he rises shakily from his knees.  There is no question of going to bed.  Surely if the light has flickered once, it can do so again and he can think of no logical reason for it to flicker at all unless John is close to death. Something, some unknowable horror, must have happened.  Segundus wraps himself in a blanket and huddles in a chair with the dish beside him. He will keep vigil and pray that the light does not go out.  

Chapter Text

In England

Jonathan, being on the day shift, misses most of the drama of the night.  It’s only when he walks into the hut and into complete chaos that he realises he might just have missed something.  

A meeting is in progress at one end of the room, with Grant and De Lancey at the center of it.  They both look so tired that Jonathan wonders if they have slept at all in the last twenty-four hours.  He sidles up to the table, not exactly making his presence known but not hiding his approach in case someone kicks him out for going above his security clearance. Nobody seems to notice him.  

“None of them can see anything, not even bodies.”

“Do you want to ask Norrell?”

Grant shakes his head, “No, I do not. Not if we can help it.  You know very well he’d grumble for a month and then make Segundus do it, and I don’t want that.  Not if…”

Grant and De Lancey share a significant look.  

“Can I,” Jonathan clears his throat, “can I possibly be of assistance?”

All eyes turn to him.  Grant blinks, as though he has forgotten that Jonathan exists. “Strange?  Yes, actually, I rather think you can.  De Lancey, give him half an hour to see what he can do.  I must phone Sir Walter at HQ or we shall all be for the high jump.  Excuse me.”

Grant vanishes back into his office, shouting for someone, anyone to get Sir Walter on the line.  

“Sir Walter Pole?” Strange asks his retreating back. 

“Yes, do you know him?  He works at HQ in London.  Anyway, that’s not important.  The fact is, the boys didn’t come home last night.” De Lancey has a permanent frown this morning.  

“But…” Strange doesn’t know what to say, “you, I mean, you were flying them over.  Are they…?”

“We don’t know.  The Germans found us on the ground.  The pilot’s job is to get the plane home.  Childermass and the others… I don’t know if they got away or not.” De Lancey looks bleak.  

“So what can I do?”

“There’s something blocking our view of that part of France.  There has been for months now.  We think it must be an enemy magician blocking our vision spells.  If you could try to find them, even if it’s just so we know if they are alive or dead, it would give us something to work on.”

Jonathan fetches his silver dish.  He’s always used the same one, belonging to his mother. It feels better than anything he can borrow. He frowns at it.  Today the magic is fighting him, twisting away as he tries to pull it into shape. It’s like a badly tuned radio, where you twist and turn one way or another, always approaching the moment of clarity and then sliding a touch to far again in a roar of static.  Sweat beads on his forehead.  

A vision wavers into view, fuzzy and indistinct. A man, or two men, in a barn?  His knuckles turn white on the sides of the basin. Just a little more, just a little clearer: one of the men is shirtless, wrapped in bandages.  The other is a face Jonathan doesn’t know.  They are in a barn though, he can’t get any more detail than that and when he tries to move further away the vision shakes, clouds and vanishes.  

With the end of the spell comes a rushing in his ears.  A firm hand pushes his head down, between his knees.  He sees Grant crouching in front of him, his face full of concern.  

“Steady on Strange, no need to rush.  You’ve done what none of the rest of us could.  We know Childermass and Arthur are alive now.”

“I couldn’t get a location.”

“Don’t worry, we have more to go on than we did before.  You can leave that bit to us.” Grant pats him twice on the shoulder and stands. “Someone get this man some tea!”

Jeremy brings the tea, hotter and stronger than usual, with what tastes like half a week’s sugar ration stirred in.  It helps though.  The clock tells him he has been working at the vision spell for far longer than he realised.  People in the unit are looking at him, some covertly and some openly staring.  After several days of being ignored it makes him feel uncomfortably singled out.  

“Don’t worry, sir.” Jeremy says.  “They see enough odd things they ought to be used to it by now.  Can I fetch you a biscuit?”

 

In France

Childermass wakes up with what feels like the hangover from hell.  Someone is talking to him and he wishes they would just shut up, until he realises it’s Arthur’s voice saying “and God knows why you thought it would be a good idea to get into a fight with a French woman.  You want to be careful with French women.”

Childermass tries to sit up, fails, and coughs hopelessly until Arthur hauls him up a bit and gives him a mug.  There’s lukewarm tea in it, sugarless and too milky, which wouldn’t exactly be his choice but is at least wet.  

“She shot me.”

“Yes, she did.  Glad to see you remember what happened.”

“Ned and Davey, are they alive?”

“Both fine.  Collette has them working already.  She’s a sensible girl and she won’t waste strong labour if she can get it. We are the invalids at present” Arthur gestures to his leg, which is raised up on a hay bale.

“We heard you were injured, sir.”

“Apparently there are bits of radio in it.  Damned nuisance.  Collette says it would be worse to try and take them out than to leave them under the circumstances.  It’s a fool’s game, coming to France.  I don’t know why you did it.”

Childermass grins.  “It’s good to see you alive, sir.”

“Thank you.  The feeling is entirely mutual.”  They shake hands on it.  

Childermass takes stock of his injuries.  He can still move his arm, which is a relief but it hurts like hell and he feels like he’s been run over by a bus.  He also has a thumping headache which Arthur tells him might be blood loss, or might be the spirits they gave him to shut him up because they didn’t have any other painkillers.  Childermass lets himself flop back onto the hay and do nothing more strenuous than make patterns of the beams in the ceiling.  He isn’t going to be much use to anyone like this.  It’s not a comfortable feeling, to be injured and reliant on other people for his safety.  

He dozes a bit but wakes when there’s a clatter of hobnailed boots on stone and a woman appears at the top of the stairs. 

“You shot me.” He glares at her.  

“Yes, I did.” She seems unconcerned by it and her English is perfect.  “You might have been a threat.  Be glad I didn’t kill you.”

She drops two plates down next to them. Childermass can smell strong French cheese and it makes his stomach roll.  To distract himself, he studies the woman.  She’s wearing work clothes, the kind you could do serious farming in, and a thick man’s sweater.  Her face is the mixture of fragility and determination that would probably be attractive to most men, men who aren’t Childermass.  Men who hadn’t just faced her over a loaded gun.  Her face, though, is one he ought to be able to place.  It niggles at him, a thought just out of reach.  Her French was perfect last night, but today she speaks English with no trace of an accent. Something clicks into place.  

“Bloody hell, you’re Lady…”

He never gets to finish the sentence before she cuts over him.  “No, I am not that.  Never speak that name again!  I am Emilie and I won’t die because you can’t hold your tongue.”

“Forgive me, Emilie.” He switches back to French, but speaks it slowly, careful as he can be of the accent.  As intended, it makes her smile.

“Why did they ever send you out here with an accent like that?”

“I was told I didn’t fit in elsewhere. Apparently I have trouble taking orders.”

It’s true.  It’s also true that his commanding officer noticed that all of his letters, the ordinary ones addressed Dear John and the affectionate ones addressed My Love were sent to the same place.  There might also have been some moments where he was mysteriously not visible when required on parade.  All in all it was a relief to be sent to the Ungentlemanly Magicians.  

Emilie is looking at Arthur thoughtfully. “Do you trust him, this Yorkshireman?”

“Absolutely.”

“Does he care for France and her people?”

“I do.”  Childermass isn’t sure where this is going.  It feels like a test of loyalty but she doesn’t look like the sort of person who tests.  She looks more like the sort of person who, if she doesn’t trust you, lets you know by shooting you in the back before you can make trouble.  He has met agents like her before.  

“Do you know Mr… Mr… le magicien Anglais?”

“I know several English magicians,” he answers cautiously.  

“If you return to Engaland, if you wish to help France, you should talk to Mr… to le magicien Anglais.  There is…”  She stops, looking like she might choke on the words.  

“There is what?”

“There is a… a…” she makes a noise of frustration. “I can’t say.  Don’t try to say anything or it will catch you too.  There is… over us… it is…”

Childermass looks at Arthur, who shrugs.  “It’s true.  If you try to talk about it you can’t… you can’t….  We aren’t sure if it persists in England so don’t try. It’s what we feared.  In this region there… we can’t… Fuck!  It feels like…” He rubs a hand hard over his mouth as though trying to remove some obstacle.  “Someone has to go back to England and tell them.”

“So you ask him, Yorkshireman.  Ask le magicien Anglais.  And eat that before it goes cold.  I have work to do.”  She stalks away, shoving her hands into the pockets of her trousers.  

“Does her husband know?” Childermass asks when the sound of her boots has faded away.

“You know, I don’t think he does.  He would only know the code names of agents if he knows them at all.”

“She’s an unusual woman, even if she did shoot me.”

“She’s a remarkable woman,” Arthur says, investigating the cheese and warm baguette.  “I met her when I was walking from the drop point.  Had a spot of bother with the French army.  She slit one man’s throat quite neatly, very businesslike.”

Childermass knows that this is high praise indeed from Arthur.  He also knows much as he does genuinely like the man, he would much rather be in someone else’s company right now.  Someone who does not talk about slitting throats over lunch, eating cheese while their companion tries to deal with the aftereffects of being shot.  Is it too much to ask for someone to show a little care? John would, if he were here, and Childermass hopes that if he ever makes it home someone will let him go home to him, just for a few days. 

 

In England

Grant’s day is one of crisis management.  Long phone calls with Sir Walter (being shouted at by Sir Walter) lead on to further long phone calls with other section heads. De Lancey mills about, getting in people’s way and getting on Grant’s nerves until he kicks him out to get some sleep in case they need a pilot later.  Grant himself stays shut up in his office, occasionally shouting at people to bring him updates.  Eventually, with the growing darkness comes a message.    

Pendragon to Camelot we have four men one wounded cannot be moved air transport risky awaiting further orders

It confirms at least that all of their men are alive, but if air transport is too risky the area must be crawling with Germans. The intelligence Arthur has is vital and time sensitive and he can’t see a way to solve the problem of getting them out alive.  

Someone bangs on Grant’s door.  

He wants to tell them to fuck off but settles for shouting “What now?” in hope it will discourage anything that isn’t urgent. 

“I brought you something to eat.  In case you starved to death.” Strange opens to door half way and peers round it.  “May I come in?”

Grant watches as Strange navigates the door with a tray in his hand.  There’s a full plate from which steam rises and, even better, a cup of tea.  Food has been the last thing on his mind today and now he’s actually presented with it he can’t remember the last time he ate. He studies the contents of the plate. 

“That’s kind of you, Strange. May I ask what it is?”

“Ah, I’m assured it’s ‘pie’ but I can’t say more than that.  It’s not as bad as it looks.”

Grant pokes at it with a fork, shrugs, and starts eating.  It’s food, warm food, and he’s suddenly ravenous.  He’s halfway through the plate before he realises that Strange is still there. 

“Sorry, Strange, was there something you wanted?”

“Only to make sure you weren’t killing yourself with overwork.  I thought you might be rather necessary.”

Grant laughs and then winces when it makes his head ache.  He sits back from the desk, rubbing his neck, and drains the cup of tea.  

“When was the last time you slept?”  Strange is frowning at him with something like concern. It’s rather worrying, if even the magician is starting to notice.  Grant looks at the clock.  

“About, God, about thirty six hours ago.  I can’t sleep yet though, not with them still in France.  I received this from the listening station an hour ago.”

He passes Strange the slip of paper with the message on it.

“Pendragon is Arthur?”

“Yes, and from what you saw, I assume the injured man is Childermass.  It puts us in a bit of a fix.  We desperately need information from Arthur, but if Childermass isn’t fit to fly or it’s too dangerous to land we can’t risk sending someone back.  We landed once there already, a second flight is bound to attract the attention we don’t need.  It would be risky enough, but any man left on the ground afterwards would be in danger and I doubt Childermass is fit enough to get away.  I hate to lose men!” He rubs his hands over his face. “God, sorry, Strange I’ve no idea why I’m telling you all this.”

Strange is still staring at the note with a thoughtful expression.  “Well actually,” he says, “I think I might have an idea.”

 

Grant is initially skeptical.  De Lancey is more so, hearing what Strange wants to do to his aircraft.  

“So,” he says, “you tell me you want me to fly to France, then you want me to switch off the engines and let you, you who have never flown a plane before, land her with magic.”  His hand is protectively stroking over the fuselage.  Grant wonders if he realises he’s doing it.  

“Yes that is precisely what I want you to do, although I also want you to let me take off again.”

“What? No!  You’ll have the wings off her in a moment.”

“De Lancey!” 

“No!”

Grant regrets asking William to do this. He’s very protective of the Lysander, calling this one his favourite plane. She’s painted matt black and they only fly her during a full moon, navigating with map and compass for secrecy.  His navigational skills are excellent, which is part of the reason Grant chose him for this. The other reason is that he’s usually less squeamish about magic.  Grant should have realized that the problem was not so much magic as protectiveness of engineering.  

“Let him try, William.  If he can get her off the ground and back down again here it’s worth a go.  Or do you want to leave Arthur in France any longer?”

It’s a low blow, but it works.  

 

In France

In the French barn, Childermass is watching Arthur wrestling himself into warmer clothing for the flight home.  The message came in not long ago, transmitted by Grant.  His style with a Morse key is as distinctive as a signature and the familiarity of it has given them all a bit of hope.  

Night has fallen but the sky is clear, ready for the Lysander to come in.  Childermass has also been prepared for his own journey.  No planes for him.  His return is less urgent and the smaller aircraft will draw less attention, but even so it is not safe to stay where they are.  Furnished with false papers, he, Ned and Davey will be making their way to another safe house and another in stages, getting far enough away to hitch a lift home with a plane from another section.  Grant, it seems, has been calling in favours.  

“Time to go,” Arthur looks at his watch.  “Safe journey, you three.”

“And you, Sir.” Ned turns to Childermass, “Ready to go?”

“Remember what I said, Childermass?” Arthur says, giving him a raised eyebrow.  “Not a word until we get to England.”

“Yes, sir. Might I beg a favour? You’ll be back in England before we are.  Would you write to John for me?  Grant has his address.  Tell him… tell him I’m coming home.”

“Of course,” Arthur nods at him, “I’ll tell him to expect you soon.”

Ned and Davey hoist Childermass up, holding him steady between them.  His shoulder throbs.  They have a long way to go tonight, for a man with a recent gunshot wound.  

In the distance there is the sound of an aircraft engine.  It suddenly cuts out and the hairs on the back of Childermass’ neck start to rise. Time for them to leave.  

 

The rescue mission

Strange has never been in such a tiny aircraft in his life.  Somehow, in all the fuss of getting him into overalls and a brief lesson on how to use a parachute, between being given the call sign Merlin and told what to do should he be taken prisoner in France, he forgot that he would have to clamber into this flimsy craft and fly to France in her.  

De Lancey is a very different man when flying, much more serious and reserved.  Jonathan feels a little superfluous as he goes through pre-flight checks and is cleared for take off.  

In the dark, the take off is disorientating and bumpy, a feeling of acceleration and lurching upwards.  It’s louder than he realised it would be once they are in the air, the roar of the engines drowning out everything else.  

“You alright, Merlin?” De Lancey asks him over the headset and Jonathan has to wait a moment to be sure he can reply without being sick.  

Fortunately once they are in the air he feels better. There is moonlight but he still can’t see much.  England is dark beneath them with the blackout.  In the distance, the sky is lit up with an orange glow.  

“What’s that?” he asks.  

“The light?” De Lancey answers, “Bombing raid. Some poor bastards are getting hit tonight.”

Jonathan thinks of the damage he saw in London. It seems very remote from up here, just the light in the sky, but down there on the ground… He tries to put it out of his mind.  

It doesn’t take as long as he expects before De Lancey says “coming up to the coast now.”  They have agreed on the point where they will turn off the engines, and De Lancey counts him down to it.

“Turning off in one minute.  I hope you’re ready Strange.”

He tries to scramble the spell into his head, the shape of what he wants to create.  

“Engines off in three, two, one.”

The engines stop.  It’s too dark to really see if they are falling but De Lancey says “altitude is dropping.”

Jonathan lets go of the spell.  It’s not one from Mr Norrell’s books, not something created by the Aureates.  It’s made from what he has, and what he has here are the RAF wings, the wings of a swift according to De Lancey.  Birds, made from the air, enough to take one small plane and carry it down to earth safely.

He hardly notices when they do drop, letting De Lancey control the direction of their flight as he holds the birds.  The cockpit roof opening shocks him, as does the man scrambling running haltingly out od the darkness and scrambling in beside him.  

“Get us up again, Merlin!” De Lancey shouts at him. It’s harder to concentrate this time, crushed as he is into a space that was only designed for one person but now holds two.  It’s fortunate that he cast the spell so recently, the feel of it is still in his mind. He calls the birds back, willing them to lift them up again, away from here.  

“Forward and up!  Forward!” De Lancey is shouting at him over the radio, the plane groaning around him.  He’s been trying to tug the plane straight up into the air.  He pushes, forwards and up, remembering the feeling of take off. 

“We’re up!  We’re up, Merlin.  Engines back.”

Jonathan lets his head thump back against the side of the plane.  He’s done it, they are away.  Beside him, half crushed in the space, is the mysterious Arthur Wellesley.  He shouts something, but Jonathan can’t hear him over the throb of engines.  Arthur tries again, then gives up, and offers him a hand.  They shake hands, in the tiny cockpit, and it’s so absurd that Jonathan can’t help but laugh.  

 

They are clambering out of the tiny plane, stretching and groaning, when Grant arrives, huddled inside his army greatcoat against the cold night air.  Arthur claps him on the back and says he hopes he will find everything in order when he gets back to his office.  He looks a little worse for wear but exultant.  He wouldn’t admit it, but he thrives on the danger.  

“Stop it Arthur,” De Lancey says, his face splitting into a broad grin, “You know Grant is really the one running everything.”

“You!  Grant, you’ve let the pilots learn cheek while I was away.  Come here flyboy.  I need a shoulder to lean on.”  Arthur and William shuffle down the runway together and Grant can see how badly he is limping.  

Grant slings an arm around Jonathan’s neck and tows him along at a faster pace.  No doubt William will want a moment alone with Arthur before they get back to medical officers and debriefings.  

“I see you’ve earned your call sign, Merlin! How does it feel to be back?” Jonathan doesn’t have words really. He’s got that look in his eyes, the one men get when they have braved great danger and have never felt so alive. The cold night air is heady and he finds that they are walking even faster.  Grant misses the exhilaration of coming back from missions.  It feels good now, even second hand.  Too late, too distracted, he doesn’t realise that Strange has noticed that they have outpaced the others and he turns to wait for them.

“Don’t do that Merlin, let them have a moment.”

He puts a hand on Strange’s shoulder to turn him but they have both seen enough.  Two bodies, pressed together against the wall of one of the huts in the darkness.  William’s face lifted up for Arthur’s kisses, Arthur’s hand against his jaw.  Grant tugs Strange forward, allowing no refusal. 

“Come along Merlin, we will be late for the debriefing.”  He hopes that perhaps Strange’s unusually blunt manners will fail him at this, or at least that he will lack the correct words to ask questions.  In this he is correct, but Merlin does not let it stop him. 

“They were… that is, are such matters…”

Grant stops.  “Are you going to report them?”

“What? I don’t, no, I had no intention of doing so. Do you?”

“Are you intending to seek such a liaison yourself?”

“I… I am a married man.”

Grant wants to laugh at the non-answer.  “So are a great many men,” he says.  “Since you have no desire to report them or to join in, I suggest you neither think nor say any more about it.  This Unit is made up of many kinds of men, men who perhaps would not do well in other branches of the military.  They are essential for our purposes and the greater good of this nation.  As such, a certain discretion is required in anything you may see or hear.  Do you understand?”

“Perfectly, Sir.”

They walk together back to the hut in silence. If Strange looks thoughtful, Grant can only hope that the direction of his thoughts will not cause trouble.  

 

After the debriefing, which Grant tries to keep short, Arthur asks everyone but Grant to leave.  When William tries to linger, mentioning medical, Arthur dismisses him with a quick shake of the head, mouthing ‘later’.  

“Is there a problem?” Grant asks. Now that the others are gone, Arthur looks incredibly serious. 

“Yes.  I believe we have a situation developing in France.  One I am not at liberty to speak of.  Childermass will be on medical leave when he returns from France?”

“Yes, sir, I arranged for him to go straight home. Shall I change the plan?”

“No, no, let him go.  It will keep until he gets back, but when he does, I want him, you and me in a private meeting.  Nobody else. I don’t know who we can trust.”

Chapter Text

Arthur and William

Arthur is reclining in his hospital bed when Grant sees him next, fully dressed and reading a book. He is, he says, waiting for the Doctor to officially let him go, shrapnel safely removed and only some healing time required. 

“A few days leave should do it,” he says, “will everything be alright here if I take off for a bit?”

“Well, we’ve been managing so far,” Grant says. 

Arthur acknowledges the point, promising leave when things get back to normal. Then he pauses as though carefully considering his next words.  "Do you know if De Lancey has any leave coming up? Not that I want to leave you any more short handed of course. But there is Strange, isn’t there?“

Grant raises an eyebrow at him but Arthur is very hard to embarrass. 

"I can’t say for sure, sir, but I imagine a few days could be arranged. You have plans, I assume?”

“Would he object if I did?”

Grant briefly considers trying to torment the suave bastard but says, “I doubt it. I think rather the opposite in fact.”

“And would you mind?”  Arthur, damn him, knows a good deal too much about what happens in this unit. 

“I’m not his mother, sir, it’s not up to me what he does.  Go away and take your holiday. Just don’t do anything too strenuous!”

 

William is plotting flight paths when Grant finds him and hands over a slip of paper. 

“I’d give that map to someone else,” he says, “seems you’ve a few days off due.” 

William takes a moment to understand, because he definitely doesn’t have any time off accrued, but then the penny drops.  

Grant watches him realise and says  "Have fun old chap. Do try to bring Arthur back in one piece.“

William takes the hint and excuses himself to pack. He knows the rules for this kind of thing and timing is essential. He manages, by careful coincidence, to be leaving for the gate just as Arthur, newly released from medical, is driving towards the same gate in his small, two-seater car. 

"Going off base?” Arthur asks him.  

“Got some leave, sir,” he answers for the benefit of the RAF personnel on the gate. 

“I’ll give you a lift to the station then.  Hop in.”

With a thank you and a check of documents, they are away. Out of the gates like so many of Arthur’s flings on their way to dirty weekends. It makes William feel a bit unsettled, thinking of the women who have sat in this seat before him, with the plausible deniability of a lift and Arthur’s hand on their knee as a promise of something more. He’s not jealous, not exactly, but he wishes he hadn’t watched Arthur’s patented seduction routine in operation so many times. There’s just a hint of cheapness, a hint of guilt. 

He expects to be driven to a hotel somewhere anonymous, but before they get there they end up parked in the middle of nowhere because Arthur has been driving and needs to stretch his leg. They share a cigarette, perched on the bonnet of the car and staring at the flat fields and the wide blue sky. The openness of East Anglia has always disturbed William slightly, making him feel exposed by the space above him, so unsheltered it becomes oppressive. 

Maybe the openness of the landscape induces openness in other ways, because Arthur takes a long drag of the cigarette and says, “I was going to take you to a hotel, you know.” 

“I had rather assumed that was the plan.”

“I thought, we can still go if you prefer or I can drop you at the station, but I thought I’d like to go back to my place, with you, if you’d like.”  Arthur stands silhouetted against the open sky and exhales a stream of smoke. He meets William’s eyes and shrugs. “Your choice.” 

He hands back the cigarette and William wonders what the significance is, what the right answer might be.  Either way he says yes. 

They arrive at Arthur’s flat mid afternoon. It’s a nice place, converted from an old town house and Arthur has the top floor. The flat itself has a dusty, neglected feel to it. Arthur pulls open curtains long kept shut and sets dust swirling in the weak sunlight. He apologises, for the mess, for not having kept the place in better order and William finds himself hovering in the middle of the room without quite daring to touch anything, twisting the strap of his bag between his fingers. 

There’s a photograph on the mantelpiece. It shows Arthur sitting on a sofa with a woman and two young boys. Kitty Wellesley is not how he imagined her, is nothing like the women that Arthur usually picks up. She’s round and bespectacled and smiling, holding one boy on her knee. William can remember her dying, at the beginning of 1941 when he'd just joined SOE. He remembers Arthur, who he hardly knew at that point, being called to the telephone and then leaving in a rush, returning a week later in a dark suit with dark circles under his eyes. 

Arthur sees him looking. “The boys are at school at the moment.  They go to Kitty’s parents in the holidays.”  

William can’t think of anything to say. Silence stretches, the abandoned air in the flat makes him feel like an intruder. This isn’t the sort of place you bring a girl to (or a chap), it’s the sort of place you come home to alone. He wonders if he should make some excuse, find his way to a train and go up to London to get royally drunk. 

"I’ll make tea.” In the kitchen Arthur boils water and searches for a tin of rather elderly tealeaves. The cups are dusty in the cupboard and the boiler clanks and groans alarmingly when he runs hot water to wash them. 

“I’ll take you to the station after the tea,” he says, finally breaking the silence. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought you back here. It’s in no state for visitors. I’m in no state for visitors.”

It’s exactly what William has been thinking but as soon as it has been said out loud, he changes his mind. Arthur looks tired, staring out of the window and frowning.  William is used to thinking of him as infallible and indestructible, but right now he is showing every sign of being tired and worn and in pain. It’s an odd feeling, one William isn’t used to in their relationship (fling, romance, whatever it is), but he wants nothing more than to take care of him. 

He puts a tentative hand on Arthur’s shoulder and the man startles, flinching away and dropping the teaspoon in the sink with a clatter. 

“When did you last take your pills?" 

"What? When did I what?”

“The pills, the ones the doctor gave you. You must be due to take another dose soon.”

Arthur looks at his watch and shrugs. “I should drive you to the station first. You’ll be wanting to get on your way.” He still hasn’t turned around and the view from the window can’t be that entertaining. William thinks he might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb and insinuates himself into the space between Arthur and the sink, wrapping his arms around him. 

“You are in no fit state to drive anywhere,” he says, “and I don’t particularly want to go. You don’t have to entertain me. You don’t have to do anything. I just think if you don’t mind me being around, someone ought to keep an eye on you and feed you. It looks to me like there’s not a scrap of food in the place. So just… let me do it?”

He can tell the moment that Arthur gives in, the way his head comes to rest against William’s shoulder and his weight shifts to the right, away from his bandaged left thigh. 

“God knows what you see in an old man like me,” he mumbles. 

“Many good things,” William says, “and you’re not old.”

Together they find enough bed linen to make up Arthur’s bed and William pours tea while Arthur changes into pyjamas. The powdered milk doesn’t make the tea particularly appetising, but Arthur drinks it anyway, swallowing down painkillers and antibiotics. He makes a token protest when William takes the mug away for washing but five minutes later he’s asleep. 

 

Childermass and Segundus

Segundus arrives at the train station well before the train.  The timetables are usually more like guidelines nowadays.  He takes a seat in the tiny café and sips at a cup of tea, folding and refolding his handkerchief between his fingers.  He remembers very clearly the time he waited here for John to return from basic training. He had gone there a disreputable gamekeeper and estate manager, with too much hair and scruffy clothes, and returned a soldier.  Segundus had hardly recognised him on the platform with his hair cropped short and his ragged jumpers replaced with khaki uniform.  Segundus had frozen on the platform, staring like a fool.  

He is determined to do better today, no matter what John looks like. He knows that his shoulder was wounded, but little more than that despite the letter from his CO.  His mind creates worst-case scenarios while he waits. 

The train eventually steams in to the little station and John is the only person to leave.  To Segundus’ relief, he looks much the same as when he last saw him.  If it weren’t for the sling you wouldn’t immediately assume he had been hurt.  He spots Segundus at the other end of the platform and smiles.  When he moves, he looks worse, moving stiffly as though afraid of hurting himself.    Segundus hurries forward to take his bag.  

“It’s good to see you,” John says.  

“And you, John.”  Being on the station makes it hard to talk.  If they were alone, Segundus would run into his arms.  Instead they walk side by side, never touching, to the borrowed car. John is quieter than usual on the drive.  He chain-smokes cigarettes, blowing smoke out of the window in deference to Segundus.  Normally he wouldn’t smoke in the same space, more mindful of Segundus’ weak chest than Segundus ever is.  His hands shake a bit with the lighter.  

When they get home, before they even get into the house, John buries his face against Segundus’ neck and keeps it there, holding on tight.  

“Oh John,” Segundus says, stroking the soft, short hair at the back of his head, “was it so very bad?”

John nods, keeping his face hidden.  

In a few moments he pulls himself together, standing up with a sniff and clearing his throat.  “Cottage is still standing, I see.”

“Yes, amazingly I have managed not to destroy the place in your absence.  Come in and see for yourself.  I’ll make tea.”

Segundus herds John in, watching him take in every detail.  Like a wild animal returning to his territory, he thinks.  

“I’d like to get out of these clothes,” John says, “but I might need help.” 

“Of course, we’ll do that first.”  They head up to the bedroom under the eaves.  Childermass sits on the bed and starts tugging at his bootlaces with one hand.  In the end Segundus does it for him, pulling off the boots and socks, then unbuttoning his uniform jacket.  He starts on the buttons of the shirt next, until John puts a hand over his.  

“Careful,” he says, “it’s a bit of a sight.  It’ll heal though.”

Segundus nods and begins again.  When he pulls the shirt away he still has to stop himself from making some sound of horror.  John’s left shoulder is covered in bruises, deep purple to yellow.  In the centre, the dressing hides the worst of it.  

“Oh John!”  Segundus lets his hand hover over the injury.  He’d kiss it, if he could, out of a childish desire to kiss away the hurt. He can’t stop thinking about that night, watching over the bowl to see if John was still alive.  

“Don’t cry over it.  It’s not worth crying over.”  John wipes his thumb over Segundus’ cheek.  

“You nearly died!”  

“Aye, well, I came back to you.  It’d take more than a bullet to keep me from coming home to you.”

“I missed you.”

John smiles his crooked smile and says, “really, but you’ve not even kissed me yet.”

Segundus kisses him sweetly.  He’s been waiting a good long time for this kiss.  

 

Arthur and William

William finds that he usual optimism is slightly dented by the prospect of the deserted flat. It’s not as though he’s an expert on domestic matters and he still feels awkward being in a space that is so noticeable not his. All things considered though, food takes priority or they will both starve. It looks unlikely that Arthur will be in a fit state to go out to dinner. 

Fortunately luck is on his side when he goes out to investigate and he meets a woman coming out of her own door on the floor below. 

“Hello!” she says, “shall I assume that you know Mr Wellesley or shall I have you arrested as a burglar?”

She smiles so broadly that he grins back as he says, “I promise you Arthur knows I’m here. He’s upstairs actually.  Bit knocked up I’m afraid. I’m supposed to be keeping an eye on him.”

Her face is suddenly all concern. “Oh dear, poor Arthur, is he very bad? I’m sure he doesn’t look after himself properly. There can’t be a scrap of food in the place either. It very good of you to look after him but you’re just a boy. Can I help? I’m Mrs Arbuthnot.”

"Flight Lieutenant William De Lancey ma'am.” He salutes. “And you’re quite right, we haven’t a thing to eat. I don’t suppose you could direct me to the shops?" 

She calls him a dear boy (an occupational hazard of having a youthful face and an RAF uniform) then hands him a shopping basket and tows him out to the shops with her. She seems rather pleased to have a young man in uniform to show off and grills him on his work, his cooking skills and his romantic prospects (of the three, the questions on cooking are the easiest to answer because at least his mother insisted on teaching him).  She talks about her husband, Charles, serving overseas as a chaplain, and her friendship with Arthur who she met when he was living with Kitty before the war.  

“A sad story, you know.  I knew the flat above us was available and it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.  Nothing was left of their house, and of course you wouldn’t want to live there after what happened.  At least they got time to say their goodbyes.  Tell me, have you ever met the boys?  Lovely lads, both of them.  He must miss them dreadfully.”

William feels rather awkward, getting the potted history of Arthur’s life from a woman who seems to assume he already knows it.  She’s kind though, sharing food out of her own larder so he has a chance of making a complete meal and inviting him in for a proper cup of tea.  When he’s drunk his tea and eaten a slice of cake, she shoos him gently back upstairs to get on with making the place habitable.  

 

Childermass and Segundus

“You’re too thin,” Childermass tells him as they sit outside with their tea. He said he needed to see Yorkshire hills again after too much time in the south.  

“Of course I’m thin, I’ve always been thin.”

John frowns at him, disbelievingly.  “You’re working yourself to death again.  Are you not feeding yourself?”

“I’m eating plenty.  Stop worrying about me.  You are the one who needs worrying about.”  Segundus picks at the fraying sleeves of his jumper and tucks his feet under John’s thigh to get warm. Technically the jumper he is wearing belongs to John so he’s surprised not to have been teased yet for stealing it. 

It took them hours to go over what happened in France, to share the things that letters can’t convey.  Childermass isn’t used to having someone worry about him, so he reacts by aggressively worrying about Segundus instead.  It amuses him, that a man of Childermass’ reputation can be such a mother hen.  

“Has Mr Norrell got a new gamekeeper yet?” Childermass asks him. 

“No, I don’t think there’s anyone to ask. Even Mr Norrell cannot convince the government to make estate manager a reserved occupation.” It had been a source of significant conflict when John decided to leave.  

“Perhaps I can keep you better fed then, while I’m here.  A pheasant or two would come in useful.” John has his best enigmatic face on, so even Segundus, with years of experience in interpreting it, can’t tell if he’s joking or not.  

“You are not seriously suggesting poaching Mr Norrell’s pheasants? When you’ve just been shot?”

“Well,” John shrugs with one shoulder, “a man cannot help his training and I was a poacher long before Mr Norrell tried to make me respectable.”  It is regrettably true.  In the hall hangs an ancient coat that Childermass used to wear when out on business, specially designed to keep a bird or a rabbit or two in hidden pockets. He was an unconventional choice of gamekeeper, even for a man as eccentric as Norrell.  John’s mouth twitches and Segundus knows that he has been lured into a trap.  

“You are impossible!”

“Aye, but I have it on good authority that you missed me anyway.”

 

Arthur and William

Arthur wakes suddenly, half afraid that he might still be in France. It takes him a disorientated minute to recognise the familiar curtains as his own.  This is the reason he has never liked taking painkillers.  It takes him another minute to realise that it is growing dark and he has left William alone for hours.  He struggles up, fighting off the blankets, and emerges blinking into the living room.  The place has been tidied up while he was asleep.  The blackout is up, the lights on and there’s a book on the arm of the chair that says someone has been sitting there.  From the kitchen there are clattering sounds and a savoury smell suggestive of cooking.  

He finds William there, changed out of his uniform and with his sleeves rolled up, peeling potatoes.  He smiles up at Arthur and it’s absurdly, unexpectedly domestic.  He has the familiar feeling of confusion that somehow, this rather lovely young man wants him, wants to be here peeling potatoes instead of being out somewhere in town, drinking and dancing, surrounded by beautiful women (or beautiful men).  

“Did you sleep well?” William asks, “there’s stew if you’re hungry, although I’m afraid it is mostly carrots.”

Arthur doesn’t know the picture he presents, doesn’t know what William sees when he looks at him.  He doesn’t know how much he makes William smile, standing there in his crumpled blue pyjamas with his hair sticking on end.  Lacking any reasonable explanation for why William is still here, he scrubs his hands through his hair and makes tea.  

They eat the stew (which tastes good despite being, as promised, mostly carrot) and afterwards sit side by side with the wireless on and drink tea.  William leans back against Arthur, a warm and comfortable presence.  Arthur hasn’t had this type of domesticity, not since Kitty died, and it surprises him how much he welcomes it.  He lets his hands drift through William’s hair.  This wasn’t his plan when he suggested going away for the weekend.  He’d thought of a hotel, dinner out and maybe a little too much to drink, ending up in a hotel bed, not his own sofa and a heavy head against his shoulder.  

They spend the rest of the evening together, half listening to the wireless, half drowsing.  When William’s head grows heavier, Arthur tugs his hair gently and suggests they go to bed.  They have never gone to bed together before, never got ready for sleeping so deliberately instead of tumbling in to bed for other reasons entirely.  The most they’ve done is fall asleep together afterwards, if it’s safe enough, then sneak apart in the morning before anyone notices.  It should be awkward but instead they roll together, warm and content.  It’s the best sleep Arthur has had in weeks.  

 

Childermass and Segundus 

Childermass looks tired by dinnertime, even though they haven’t done anything much all afternoon.  He does look a little better for being home though.  He always said that Yorkshire air could cure any ill.  

Segundus suggests he goes to bed early and John goes without protest. It leaves Segundus to do the washing up alone but he doesn’t mind it.  It’s pleasant to have someone else in the house for a change, even someone upstairs asleep.  It makes the house warmer and friendlier.  When he goes upstairs he expects to find John asleep but while he might have been dozing, he’s awake as soon as Segundus climbs into bed.  Awake and, more significantly, naked.  

“I thought you’d be asleep,” he says, tucking himself into the warmth beneath the blankets.  

“I was waiting for you.  I’ve missed you.”  Warms hands slide under pyjamas, letting skin touch skin. 

“You’re supposed to be recovering!”

“It will make me feel better.”  John is pressing kisses along his collar bone, nuzzling into the warmth of the crook of his neck in a way that Segundus can’t resist.  He never does play fair.  

“On one condition, John!  Stop that for one moment!  On one condition.”

“What?” John pauses, looking smug.

“You let me do this and you can lie back and think of Yorkshire.”

John laughs, muffled against Segundus’ chest.  “Well, I think I can manage that, if you insist.  I am allowed to touch, though, aren’t I?”  He does touch, without waiting for permission. 

“Oh! Yes, yes you can touch.  Please.”

John makes a satisfied noise and brings his mouth back to Segundus’ neck, teeth and tongue and a scrape of stubble against skin.  

It’s a scramble for the jar of Vaseline in the bedside cabinet, trying not to let any of the warmth out from under the covers.  Some of it drops, freezing cold, onto John’s stomach and he yelps.  It makes them laugh, heads tucked close together, barely an inch between them.  

It burns at first, making him hold still and tense at first, willing his body to remember.  

“Are you alright?”  John strokes a gentle hand over his side.  

“Yes, just been too long since we did this. Oh!  Is that you trying to distract me?”

“Is it working?”

He gasps, “yes!  Oh God I’ve missed this, missed you.”  John answers him with a kiss.  

It’s slow, tender, rocking together and holding as close as they can. 

 

Childermass doesn’t know what wakes him, maybe a noise from outside or the cold mattress beside him.  He pads downstairs, taking the blankets with him because the cottage is freezing as always.  John is sitting in the living room at his desk, similarly wrapped in blankets.  He is hunched over a selection of magical books, comparing them and taking notes.  There’s blue ink on his fingers and chin.  

“Couldn’t you sleep?” Childermass asks him.  

“Sorry, did I wake you?”  John looks up, blinking.  

“No, but when I did I found you gone.  Do you always sit up so late now?  You’ll catch a chill.”  He take’s John’s cold fingers in his warm ones.  

“Not every night.  I was just dreaming.  About the raids you know, the things I’ve seen.  I’m sure there must be something that can be done.”

“You’re doing what you can already.”

“It’s not enough, is it?  You must know that.  It’s in the newspapers every day.”

“You do good work here, I know that much.”

“I do what I can, but Norrell sits there in his library, hoarding up books he thinks are too dangerous for anyone else to read.  I’m sure there must be something in there that could help.  Jonathan Strange certainly thought so, but then he went away to war himself.”

John sounds a little bitter when he says it.  He holds himself responsible for not being able to go to war like so many other men.  Practical magic is his life.  He has always championed the idea of magicians doing something real and immediate to help the nation.  Then he worked himself into a serious case of pneumonia and, with a history of childhood asthma, found himself ruled out of any active service in the military.  He worries so much over everything, will make himself ill with worry if given half a chance. 

“You could have walked away, you know.  You could have spent the war as a civilian, but you stayed and now you save lives.  You probably save more lives than any magician doing what I do.”

“Mr Norrell thinks any magician on the battlefield is a waste. I don’t agree.”

“Well, my old master thinks what he thinks.  I’ve never found it particularly necessary to agree with him but the role of a magician on the front lines doesn’t make your work matter any less.  Now enough of this studying into the wee small hours, can you sleep or shall I make tea?”

“I’ve, ah, something better than tea if you’d like it.”  John smiles at him, a little guiltily and goes to the kitchen.

“Something better?”  

“Well, when I knew you were coming home, I thought I ought to try to find you something as a welcome home present.”  John puts his head in the cupboard and shuffles tins around.  “Here we are!”

He reveals a small tin of cocoa and, from the larder, a bottle of milk. Since they have already drunk most of their milk ration in tea, this must have been obtained by other means. Not that Childermass will complain. He has a carefully hidden sweet tooth, which has suffered with rationing.  

“Where on earth did you get that?” he asks, letting his amusement show.

John blushes.  “Well, Mr Honeyfoot’s middle daughter is married to a farmer now and they keep cows. We are in the country after all and perhaps not so strict on rationing.  I mended some broken dishes for her.  It was a fair trade!”

“John Segundus, you mean to tell me you are dabbling in the black market just to get me cocoa?”

“Perhaps?”  

Whatever way Childermass had of showing his appreciation, the cocoa was not made until morning.  

 

Arthur and William

In the morning, Arthur wakes up with his arms full of William. He stretches, luxuriating in the sensation of being in a proper bed for once.  He puts a possessive hand low over William’s belly and drops a line of kisses along his neck, just to see the moment when he stirs and his eyes flutter open. 

“Morning,” Arthur says softly to the shell of his ear.  William squirms, twisting in Arthur’s arms to face him. 

“Good morning to you too, sir.”  He slides a little emphasis on to the word sir, a cheekiness that makes Arthur want to pounce on him.  He indulges, pinning him to the mattress and enjoying the way their bodies press together. 

“Sir, is it?  I’ve a good mind to teach you proper discipline.”  He catches William’s wrists and holds them.  

William pushes up against him, letting him feel exactly how much the idea appeals to him.  Arthur retaliates by kissing his neck with just a hint of teeth.  

He strips William of his pyjama top, alternating unbuttoning with kissing the skin he reveals.  Soft, pale skin that begs to be marked.  This was what he was dreaming of in France.  

William isn’t the first bright, young thing that Arthur has spent a weekend with.  He’s drawn to them, the beautiful girls and the handsome boys, the ones looking for someone older to show them a good time.  He’d never choose the innocent, only the ones who know the rules.  The ones who understand that a weekend is just a weekend: mutual fun and no hard feelings.  

William is different though.  Sometimes so innocent, or innocent of face, but he likes things a little rougher, a little harder.  Arthur would never try to push too far, but the way William responds to being held down, or a having Arthur’s hand over his mouth to keep him quiet, is addictive and Arthur is beginning to realise that a weekend will never be enough.  He wishes his leg didn’t hurt so much this morning, so he could give him the good, hard fucking he’s been thinking of.  

“I’m too tired to discipline you properly today.” He says when William is naked.  “You’ll have to do the work for a change.”  He rolls them over, encouraging William up with a pat to his backside.  

William sits on Arthur’s lap, leaning over for lingering kisses and undoing buttons one-handed.  He’s never still, the restless movement a tease bordering on the torturous.  

When he tries to remove Arthur’s trousers they pull tight against the bandages on his thigh and make him flinch.  William stops instantly, looking guilty, and Arthur wants none of that today. 

“I’m not broken,” he says, a little sharply, “stop looking at me like that and find something more useful to do.”

William knows a challenge when he hears one and wriggles further down the bed.  His mouth is sinful and his hair so soft against Arthur’s fingers when he tugs at it. He takes, beautifully, whatever Arthur asks of him.  

If he’s beautiful with a mouth full of cock, looking up at Arthur through his eyelashes, he’s even more beautiful riding one, head thrown back and biting at his lip.  They’ve always had to be so silent before.  

“You don’t have to be quiet,” Arthur tells him, “tell me what it feels like.”

“Mmm… can’t, God, can’t,” William shakes his head hard, rocking forcefully down onto Arthur’s lap, “please, please Arthur.”  Arthur has his wrists held captive and will not release them. He knows that William doesn’t need to be touched yet.  He wants to watch him work for it.  

William makes a whining sound; hips thrusting up desperately against air and it’s his desperation that carries Arthur over the edge.  Through the fog of orgasm he watches William shake himself apart. 

It’s different, William realises, in a real bed in daylight. There’s no rush afterwards, just the two of them curled together.  It’s a luxury to be able to stretch out, a luxury to watch sunlight dapple over skin. It’s less sordid this way.  In this bed, in Arthur’s bed, he can forget that this is just an affair.   How wonderful it would be, to wake up this way every morning.

Arthur, at his most protective, holds him close and runs his hands over William’s back.  He’s rumbling nonsense words.  “Beautiful,” he hears, “What did I do to deserve you in my bed?”

It’s a question he could answer, but he won’t.  Not here, not now.  It would spoil the very reason he is here, because Arthur makes him forget.  With Arthur’s hands on his body, Arthur’s voice in his ear, he forgets the war.  It’s the only time he really does forget.  Otherwise it’s there, in the back of his mind, even when he tries not to dwell on it.  He’s not stupid; he knows the average lifespan of an RAF pilot.  Every mission could be the last one and the chances of seeing the war to the end are vanishingly small.  But if he’s going to die, if some German bastard is going to shoot him out of the sky, he wants this and he wants every moment of it he can get. Arthur makes him feel alive.  

“What are you thinking?”  Arthur asks him softly.  “You look so serious.”

William gives himself a shake and puts his thoughts away.  He could happily have a few more moments of forgetfulness.  

“I was wondering, very seriously, how long it would take you to be ready for another go, since you keep mentioning your advanced age.”  

Arthur’s outraged face is entirely worth being hit over the head with a pillow and called a cheeky brat.  

 

Grant and Merlin

They have had a quiet few days at the airfield.  No new missions have been planned for their Unit and the daily filtering of intelligence to and from agents in France can be done by people more junior than Grant.  Despite the absence of Childermass, Arthur and William, he has time to catch up on neglected work.  Like this folder of potential agents that arrived from headquarters by courier and ended up stacked on a chair without being looked at.  

Grant flicks through the collection in a desultory fashion, wishing he had left this job to Arthur.  No particular magical ability leaps out at him, nor any useful comments from the training instructors.  They aren’t short of agents so this is just a chance to pick anyone who might suit the demands of this unit.  If he can finish this, he can probably justify getting out of his stuffy office for a while.  

He shuffles though the men fairly quickly.  There are two French citizens among them who look promising, but with no magical ability they might be better put to use elsewhere, somewhere with a real shortage of good agents.  The clock ticks.  Grant has been waiting so long for a moment of quiet but now he has it, it’s rather dull. 

The women are at least more promising.  He likes to work with female agents and this unit does not have many, magic still thought of as men’s work.  The second woman in the pile has listed a ‘theoretical knowledge of magic’ that makes him pause.  She has an attractive face too, but that can be a disadvantage for an agent.  Striking people are noticed.  Grant himself relied heavily on rather ordinary features letting him blend in with the crowd.  (There is another kind of agent, one he prefers not to use if he can help it, where attractiveness is deliberately used.  He checks the form.  She is married and therefore ineligible for that kind of work.  Perhaps it’s for the best.)

He returns the file to the box and selects the next one.  This potential agent is more his preferred type: she has the right looks to pass for a Frenchwoman.  He stares at her form and realises that he is on page three without having taken in a single word.  Casting the paperwork to the side he sighs and stretches out in his chair.  There must be something better to do with his day than sit here with a box of files.  There’s the whiskey in his desk draw, but he’d rather not drink alone. If William were here, he’d suggest the pub.  

He locks his office and goes wandering.  The place is oddly empty, only the skeleton dayshift in the main office.  Outside he finds Merlin, propped up on a chair outside the barracks with a pad of paper on his knee and a frown on his face.  He looks up as Grant approaches.

“Good afternoon, Merlin.” 

“Good afternoon.  What has lured you out from your office?  Is it as stuffy as these barracks?”

“Probably,” he smiles.  Merlin always makes it easy to smile.  “To tell you the truth I was rather bored of reading files.  If I were to take a walk to the pub, could I persuade you to join me?  Or are you busy?”

“Not particularly busy, no.”  Strange frowns at his paper.  “I was writing to my wife, but since I haven’t heard a word from her since arriving here I’m rather at a loss for things to say.  Do you suppose the post is being intercepted?”

“I doubt it,” Grant offers, “or we’d have a problem with security. What I can tell you is that out here in the wilds it is certainly very slow.  I imagine you will get your letters in time.”

“I hope so.  In the meantime, a walk sounds like a better idea.”

They take a leisurely stroll to the village.  As it’s daytime there’s no need to go through the fence and they take the long way round the two airfields to prolong the walk.  Merlin makes a particularly easy companion over a pint or two and then dinner.  The cooking in the pub is infinitely better than anything on offer in the canteen.  

When Grant eventually goes back to his files, he finds he’s actually rather happy.  

Of course Merlin is a temptation, the kind he ought to avoid. It’s against his own rules to seek relationships with married men.  In his experience it rarely ends well.  He also tries to avoid anyone technically under his command.  He knows that if he were to offer, there’s a good chance Merlin might accept, wife or no wife.  The easy way they have together, the looks that are a little too long, his easy acceptance of Arthur and William: they all speak of a willingness that could be exploited. He won’t though.  He won’t ask, and he doubts Merlin will make the first move. Perhaps it could be acceptable, to indulge in a little temptation, so long as he doesn’t give in.  It might even be good for him.  

 

Arthur and William

The dressing on his thigh is stuck.  

Arthur has been sitting here for a while, staring at it.  It shouldn’t be, but it’s hard to start freeing it, tugging at the sore skin.  He could go and ask William for help but he feels like he shouldn’t need to.  He managed in France, after all.  

William knocks on the door, asking if he’s alright.  

“This damn thing won’t shift.”

William looks at him, the mess he’s made with bits of bandage on the bathroom floor.  “You could have just asked, you know.  I used to do this for Grant, after the fiasco with the Germans.  I’m not bad at this kind of thing.”

He leads Arthur to the bedroom.  He seems older and more competent again, the way he does when he flies, and the balance of power drifts into dangerous territory.  Nobody is meant to take care of Arthur Wellesley.  Arthur Wellesley takes care of himself.  

It takes time and patience to free the dressing.  William is gentle but it still stings.  

“What happened, in France?” he asks, wetting the bandages and letting it soak through.  

“You don’t want to know.”

“I do actually.  It made a bloody mess of you, and it’ll give you something else to think about so you can stop watching me like I’m about to rip all the stitches open.”

Arthur opens his mouth to deny it but William glares at him. Arthur, contrite, looks at the ceiling and wonders where to begin, how much to share.  

“You knew him, didn’t you?  Your contact?” 

“Yes, I knew him.  We were at university together.  His father wanted him to be an architect, but Christophe wanted to be an artist.  He was good too.  He drew Kitty once, when Charles was born.  I wish I still had it but it was in the house when it bombed and probably burnt along with the rest.”

“Sorry if this stings a bit.  You kept in touch with him then?”

“Ouch! Yes, I did.  Up until the war and then when I was assigned here he became useful. He could draw a map of the landscape after walking it and he could tell us how best to bring down any structure: bridges, buildings.  He said he was better at demolition than as an architect.  He was a good man, didn’t deserve what happened.”

“What happened, when you landed?”

“I don’t want to talk about it, William.  You know they killed him.”

“That’s not your fault, is it?”  William looks up.  “Arthur, it’s not your fault.”

“I’m afraid it was, rather.”  There’s a lump in his throat that shouldn’t be there.  “They spotted us coming in and they were waiting.  As soon as I got near the ground they started shooting at me.  Fortunately they hit the radio, not me but they caught the parachute too and I went off course into the trees.  This mess happened when I landed.  I went down on top of the broken radio and rolled.  They couldn’t see me in the dark so I ditched the parachute and tried to run. I couldn’t get far though.  I could hear them shouting.  The bastard had Christophe. He said if I didn’t come out, he’d shoot. I didn't do anything to help him. I stayed there in the trees, hiding.”

“You getting captured wouldn't have done any good though.  They’d have killed you both.”

“I know, I know.”  

“You know too much to end up in one of their cells.  We saw what they did to Grant.  I don’t want to see the same happen to you.”

“I shouldn’t have gone.  I won’t go again.”  He won’t. He hasn’t wanted to admit it before, but it’s too much of a risk.  It’ll be desk work for him from now on.  

“I’m glad.  I worried about you.”  William has removed the dressing at last.  The skin, half healed and then opened again, looks ugly.  It’s going to leave scars.  “You should let that have some air for a while.  How did you get home?”  He leans his head against Arthur’s bent knee as though the wounds don’t bother him in the slightest.  

“I was lucky.  I didn’t have a radio, so I made for the coast.  I tried to stay out of sight, stole food when I could.  I thought of you, waiting for me.”  He runs a thumb over William’s cheek.  

“Be serious!”

“I am.  I thought of you and I kept on walking.  I thought if I made it to one of our bases I could use their radio, or if I got to the coast I could get a lift on one of our boats.  I ran into some soldiers before I could get there, asking me what I was doing and where were my papers.  Luckily I also ran into one of our agents.  She took me in and I radioed home.  That’s all there is to it.  I suppose you regret asking.”

“Not at all.  You know, you can tell me things.”  William tucks himself under Arthur’s arm, resting his head against his chest.  “For as long as I’m here, you can tell me, and I’m not planning on going anywhere just yet.”

It might only be temporary, but Arthur will take what he can get.  

 

Childermass and Segundus

In the middle of the night, Childermass sits bolt upright in bed. Segundus, asleep next to him, wakes up with a grumble and reaches for the bedside lamp.  

“Were you dreaming?” he asks.  

Childermass shakes his head, then rubs his hands over his face. “Le magicien Anglais.  Is it possible,” he asks, “that he had an argument with a faerie?”

“You must be dreaming, John.  Go back to sleep.”

Childermass drops back onto the bed and groans.  “That bloody idiot, that bloody useless idiot.”

Chapter Text

Arthur and William take the drive back to the airfield slowly, stopping for lunch at a village pub.  Neither of them say much; they don’t need to. When they do arrive they split up, like friends who just happened to share a lift.  While William goes to unpack, Arthur goes to the main hut and bangs on Grant’s door. 

“Arthur!  You’re back.  Good leave?” Grant smiles at him, looking more relaxed than he had the last time Arthur saw him. 

“Yes, thank you, is Childermass back yet?” He closes the door behind him.

“He’s due back tomorrow.  He won’t be cleared for duty for a while but he sent a message to say he wanted to come back earlier.  Is this about the meeting you wanted?”

“I’m afraid it is.  We should talk as soon as he gets here.  A closed door meeting, I don’t want anyone there who doesn’t need to be.”

Grant frowns at him.  “Are you afraid someone might talk?”

Arthur chooses not to answer that. “I’d ask Sir Walter to attend if I could but people will notice if he arrives.  Let’s keep it to the minimum to start with, people we can trust without question.  You, me and Childermass.”

“What about William?”

“I’m afraid this is need to know Grant: only the three of us.”

 

Grant finds William in the canteen that night, prodding at a lump of something covered in what is allegedly custard.

“Did you get better food on your leave, then?” Grant asks him as he drops his tray down and slides onto the bench.

“I did indeed,” William replies, “I cooked actually.”

“You cooked?” Grant carefully lowers his voice. “I thought you went to a hotel?”

William shakes his head.  “He took me back to his place, actually.”

“He did, did he?”  Grant turns to look at Arthur, standing in the line for food. “Well I hope he made sure you were well compensated for your domestic drudgery then.”

“Don’t Colley!”  William actually looks a bit uncomfortable. “It wasn’t like that.”

“Then what was it like?”  Grant tries to keep his voice even so nobody else has a reason to eavesdrop. 

“We… talked.  I met his neighbour and she took me shopping, so I cooked. We listened to the wireless for a while, went for a walk the next day.  It wasn’t like… you know, Arthur’s usual weekends.”

“Or at least his usual weekends according to rumour. But you did…”  Grant coughs significantly.

“Ah, yes,” William actually blushes, “we did. Very thoroughly in fact, but that wasn’t all of it.  It was… nice.”

“Nice?  Oh God, Will.”

“I know, I know, you told me this would happen.”

“May I join you?”  Arthur is standing in front of them, holding a tray. Grant believes it is only his SOE training that keeps him from flushing, jumping, swearing or otherwise giving the game away to the sneaky bastard.  William is less lucky, twitching violently with his spoon and sending custard flying.

“Of course,” Grant says, “take a seat.”

 

Childermass returns to the base looking like he needs another week in bed, but he shrugs off Grant’s concern and the three of them lock themselves in Arthur’s office. 

“Childermass, if you can, will you shield the room? I want no interruptions.”

“Yes, sir.” Childermass closes his eyes for a moment and the edges of the room darken.  It’s like being cocooned in shadow and it makes the hairs on the back of Grant’s neck stand up. 

Arthur fetches one of the maps of France and lays it flat on the desk. 

“This shows our current area of operation in France. You’re aware, of course, that recently we have had certain difficulties in conjuring visions. It would appear that this area is… there is…” Arthur coughs alarmingly.  “Childermass, this is when I need you to take over.”

“It appears there’s something blocking our magic in France.  That much we knew. Now it looks as though it’s been affecting our agents.  Anyone who tries to talk about it while they are in France has their words stopped in their mouths. If you don’t try to talk about it, you can speak when you’re out of the area of influence, but once the spell has you the effect is permanent.”

“You mean that our agents are under enchantment? That Arthur is under enchantment?” Grant looks at him as though expecting him to sprout wings.

“I don’t believe it has any other effect, but I can’t be sure.  You’d need John for that, he’s better than I am at seeing spells.  You can feel it when you’re there though.  I thought at first it was the adrenaline or because I’d been shot but the air is humming with it.”

“How far does it extend?  Have we tested it?”

“Not yet, I don’t want this to become general knowledge.”  Arthur frowns at the map, “Going by our current difficulties I’d say that this… anomaly now covers the majority of our area of operational interest.  Worrying to say the least.”

“I’ve had a few conversations with Sir Walter recently,” says Grant.  “The other units are in a panic.  They’ve started to rely on our visions to tell them when agents have arrived or drops have been made. We can no longer verify when a target has been destroyed.  It’s slowing us to a crawl and our radio operators are getting more radio traffic. The more radio traffic, the sooner they come under fire.  We’re going to start losing agents.”  Grant wraps his hands around his mug of tea to warm them.  The official line is that he and Arthur are having tea and a debriefing with Childermass about his return from medical leave but no doubt the rest of the unit will guess that something else is going on.

“I want to know what it’s going to mean for us,” Arthur says.  “We have no reason to assume it’s an enemy magician.  You’ll have to trust me on that Childermass, I can’t tell you more.”

He scribbles a note on a pad and shows it to Grant.

Station X still monitoring all known magicians, no transmissions suggest operation on this scale. Nothing to suggest magician unknown.

“Got it?” Arthur asks.  He takes the note, lights a match and burns it.

“I wondered if it might be faerie magic,” Childermass says.  “It didn’t feel like anything our magicians produce.”

“But who would have been stupid enough to make a deal with a faerie?  Or annoy one this much?” Arthur drops the remains of the note into the ashtray.

“Norrell?  Might he have done something, made a bad bargain?  He’s the one who made our spells to block enemy magicians from seeing us.”  Childermass gives a one-shouldered shrug as if he feels uncomfortable with suggesting the idea.

“Norrell hates anything to do with faerie magic. It seems more likely that the problem originates with the enemy.”

“We can’t be sure it’s faerie magic at all,” says Arthur. 

“Our protection spells are small, compact. They cover offices and buildings. The largest area we have covered is this airfield.  The anomaly in France is vast and it’s unbroken.  No English magic I know of could do it.”

“It’s not unbroken.  Strange broke through while you two were in France,” offers Grant

Childermass frowns.  “That’s another difference then.  It’s still a constant cover over the area but it’s thinner. It can be broken. Did it break fully or was the image distorted?”

“Distorted, the vision was blurry and Strange couldn’t move away from the first spot he saw.  There was no sound either.  I think it took a lot of power to do that much and nobody else has got close,” answers Grant.

“Powerful magic then, diffuse and broad. I still think faerie magic is more likely.”

“Are we sure our own spells are holding? You made the assumption that their protection can be broken but ours can’t.  I’d like to be sure.  Perhaps the two are related.” Grant gestures to the remains of the note in the ashtray and asks, “Do we have any reason to assume we’ve been compromised?”

“I’ve no reason to suspect a breach. What I don’t like is the overlap between this…” Arthur waves at the map, “and the area where we are working. I believe we should look more closely at that and I want to keep this quiet.  No talking outside this room and anyone we choose to bring in. Nor do I like the idea of enchantments that may or may not affect our agents.”

“You’ll need another magician,” Childermass says, “This goes beyond my skill.  I wouldn’t ask Norrell though.  You might need someone on the ground.”

“True,” says Grant, “we need information and we need it fast.  We can’t deal with this if we don’t know what we are dealing with.  Do we bring in Strange?  He’s the best magician we have and the only one to break this spell, even partially.”

“Can we trust him?”  Arthur leans back in his chair.  “I know he proved his worth in France but this anomaly began shortly before his arrival here and we haven’t known him long.”

“If you put me on the spot, I’d be inclined to trust him.”

“I’d rather be sure.  Childermass, I know you have your cards and I know you read true. I want you to ask them.”

Childermass looks wary.  The Cards of Marseille are, strictly speaking, French magic not English magic and therefore under suspicion at present.  Not that they have ever been respectable: Mr Norrell will not hear them mentioned in his presence. 

“Do it,” Grant tells him, “we have to be sure.”

Childermass removes his cards from the pocket of his uniform and shuffles them.  They feel warm beneath his hands, almost alive.  He deals and turns them. 

“The cards say that he is trustworthy. He is our best chance I believe. They also speak of death, or change, but they say that every time I read them now.  The war makes all futures uncertain.”

Grant and Arthur nod at each other. The decision is made.

“I’d like Sir Walter in on this too, if we can,” says Grant. “He’ll have to talk to the other units and we may need to borrow some agents.”

“I’ll telephone later and ask him to visit. If Strange goes to France he’ll need someone to work with.  Childermass, who would you trust?  I can’t send you until you’re fully healed.”

Childermass strokes the stubble on his chin and says, “I think Jeremy would be a good choice.  I trust him and he’s got a clear head.  I think he’d work well with Strange too from what I’ve heard.”

“Sir Walter, Strange and Jeremy then. We are agreed, gentlemen.”  Arthur drains his mug and stands.  “Let’s get out of the shadows and go back to work.”

 

William knocks and then calls through the door. “Arthur?”

It takes a moment before the door opens but when he sees who it is, Arthur holds the door wide and invites him in.

“I thought I’d come and see if you needed help with the dressings again,” William offers by way of an excuse.

“It was fine thank you, it’s healing.” Arthur sits on the bed, leaving the chair for William. 

“Actually, that isn’t entirely true.” William entirely ignores the chair in favour of the bed and crowding into Arthur’s space. “I came to see you. It’s strange, being together all the time and then I’ve hardly seen you today.  You’ve been locked up in your office for hours.  I missed you.”

Arthur brushes the hair off William’s forehead. “I didn’t mean to neglect you.   Do you have time for me to make it up to you?”

“No, I have a night flight to do: a supply drop. Very boring stuff. Were your meetings as boring?”

“William, stop fishing.  If you’d needed to be in that meeting you would have been.” Arthur tugs at William’s hair in a gentle rebuke.  “When do you fly?”

“Soon,” William shifts forwards, his mouth very close to Arthur’s.  “Won’t you give me a kiss to keep me warm while I’m gone?”

“This is why they tell the girls to stay away from the RAF boys, isn’t it?  You’re insatiable.”

William makes his move and Arthur suddenly has a lap full of demanding RAF pilot doing his best to kiss him senseless. They tumble backwards on the bed, Arthur’s hand sneaking under William’s shirt. 

“Can you come back to me later? After you get land?” Arthur nips at William’s lower lip, enjoying how it makes him squirm. 

“It’ll be late, you’ll be asleep.”

“Mmm… I know, but I’ve missed you too, and I know how you are after flying.  You’re worth waking up for.”

 

Sir Walter Pole arrives at the airfield two days later, attended by his aide Stephen Black.  Jonathan has met him before, in London, but he isn’t a particularly close acquaintance.  He shakes Jonathan’s hand though, asking after Arabella.

Sir Walter makes a small tour of the hut, nodding at people and shaking hands.  His political career is growing in London and he knows how to work a crowd. He has a pleasant manner, but Jonathan gets the impression that his eyes don’t miss much. 

Arthur eventually invites him into Grant’s office and they close the door firmly behind them.  Strange expects that to be the end of it, but after an hour or so, Grant emerges.  He finds Childermass and Jeremy, then catches Jonathan’s eye and crooks his fingers to summon him. Nobody told him to expect a meeting and it makes him uneasy.  He sees De Lancey give Grant a questioning look but the only reply he gets is a quick shake of the head. 

The office is rather cramped already, with Arthur behind the desk and Sir Walter in the best visitor’s chair. Jonathan is given the other chair, but Grant has to perch on a filing cabinet and Jeremy and Childermass are left to stand.

“Sorry about the lack of space but my office is even more crowded.  Childermass, if you could make the room secure again?”  Arthur is clearly running the meeting, despite the location.

Childermass does something, like a low, sad tune that Jonathan can’t quite hear, and the room fills with shadows. Jonathan assumes it must be for security, for secrecy, and resolves to ask Childermass about it later. The man knows all kinds of spells that Norrell has never shared. 

“So,” says Arthur, switching on the desk lamp against the sudden gloom, “you’ve been asked to join this meeting because we have a problem in France, a serious problem, and one which cannot under any circumstances be mentioned outside this room.  Any breach will be considered as an act of treason and punished accordingly. We are not playing around gentlemen; this could put our work in France in the balance.  Childermass, if you could begin.”

Jonathan listens to what Childermass says with a growing sense of horror.  From being a useless addition to the unit, responsible for nothing more serious than correct filing, he is now in the middle of a magical crisis and, given the lack of other magicians in the room, likely to be responsible for fixing it with only Childermass to help him.  Not that Childermass is a poor magician, but he has only recently been shot and is less and less subtly leaning against the wall as the meeting progresses.

“Merlin,” Grant says, “do you understand what we are asking of you?  If you think it’s likely to be beyond your power to break this enchantment or you have some other reservations I’d rather you spoke up now so we can alter our plans accordingly. We are rather relying on you though. There aren’t many men we could ask to potentially work against a faerie.”

Grant looks deadly serious, his brown eyes concerned. It makes Jonathan want to forget all reasonable considerations of self-preservation and say yes, just to please him. 

“We need time to gather information before you do anything,” Arthur adds, “there’s training we can give you and we should get your French up to speed if we can.  You won’t go alone, Jeremy will go with you and Childermass when he’s back on active duty.”

“I’ll look after you, sir.”  Jeremy smiles warmly at him, and Jonathan remembers him bringing tea and biscuits after the vision spell.  He does seem like a good man. 

“Merlin, I’m afraid I need your answer.” Grant leans forward and, under his gaze, Strange briefly forgets the other people in the room.  He thinks that Grant could easily convince a man to walk through fire.

“Yes,” he says, “I understand and of course I’ll do what I can to help.”

The meeting progresses at some speed after that, with plans that rather leave Jonathan behind.  Sir Walter agrees to extra agents, borrowing from other units to make up the shortfall and able to get them more information. At least, Jonathan thinks, they are trying to make sure he won’t go in completely blind.  Even Jeremy is vastly more experienced than Jonathan at this type of planning and Jonathan feels guilty for dismissing him as only a soldier before.  Childermass too makes more contributions on the topic of magic than Jonathan feels capable of. It makes him feel rather inadequate for the task he has been volunteered for. 

Arthur winds up the meeting and Childermass drops the shadows. Suddenly the room is bright again, less oppressive.  Jonathan feels like he is the only person for whom the meeting has had any lasting impact. Grant, perhaps noticing, catches his eyes and mouths ‘thank you’.  It shouldn’t be comforting, but it is. 

 

Merlin lingers in the office as the meeting breaks up.

“Is something the matter?” Grant asks him. Merlin doesn’t exactly answer, he just perches on the edge of Grant’s desk, slightly too close for comfort and fiddles with the pen he is holding.  

“I suppose,” he says eventually, “I didn’t quite expect this.  Rather outside my usual experience.”

Grant takes the pen out of his hands. “I’m sure you’ll be fine, Merlin. Jeremy is a good solider and an experienced one.”

“Yes, I’m sure I’ll be in safe hands. Do you have any advice?”

“You’ll get some training before you go. That should help and we won’t let you go out there alone.”  It’s what Arthur said before, but it bears repeating. 

“I suppose so.  I just wondered if perhaps we might take another walk some time, and you might tell me what it’s like in France.”

“Merlin, it’s hardly safe to go walking around the countryside discussing what we do here.  Unless you are trying to break the Official Secrets Act so thoroughly that they won’t let you go!”

“Of course, forgive me, I had not considered.”

Grant starts to wonder whether they have made the wrong choice, regardless of what Childermass’ cards said, when Strange tries again. 

“Perhaps then we could find somewhere else to talk, somewhere more private.  There’s never any privacy in the barracks, but since you have a room…”

Oh damn, Grant thinks, this was not part of the plan. He had assumed that Merlin would stay silent unless given an obvious invitation, but he should have known better than to assume.  He stands, just a little too fast, gathering papers into his desk and locking the drawer.

“I’m not sure that will be necessary Mr Strange, or appropriate.  If you will excuse me, I should…”

“Oh, of course.  Forgive me, I did not mean to cause offence.”

“You didn’t, of course, no offence is taken.” Grant looks up at Merlin who, damn him, looks unfairly attractive while being contrite.  Grant swallows hard.  The man is married, under his command and entirely off limits. Married, under his command, off limits: maybe if he repeats it often enough it will stick. 

“Are you going to the canteen for dinner?” Merlin asks tentatively, as though expecting to be rebuffed. 

“I was, if you will excuse me?”

“I was going in that direction myself actually, I hope you won’t take it amiss if I walk with you?  I promise I have no other intentions or agendas beyond the fact than that I’m hungry and would be glad of some company.”

Merlin looks so apologetic and company would be preferable to eating alone.  Surely dinner can do no harm?

“Of course, Merlin.  It’s only dinner.”

 

Grant travels to one of the SOE training schools by car. The chauffer is an army driver who salutes and calls him Captain Grant, which makes him feel vaguely uncomfortable. While he is still officially part of the army he’s grown too used to SOE and their disregard for rank.

The training school, located in a requisitioned stately home, is busy.  Packs of recruits are running laps around the house, being bawled at by the agents in charge when they start to flag.  Inside he is directed through a maze of corridors to the briefing room where his borrowed agents are waiting for his orders. 

There are two rows of them, a dozen people pulled from other units and given enough training in magic to make them useful. They will have to go out and gather the information they so desperately need: the extent of the enchantment and its nature.  He recognises some of them from the files of new agents he was given a while ago: one of the Frenchmen and the woman he thought was too pretty to be an agent.  She smiles at him with a hint of flirtation and it makes his mouth dry.  This is the part he hates most.  Some of the men and women in this room will die, and they will die on his orders.  He knows first hand the danger they will face, what he is asking them to do, but he no longer has any part in it.  Instead he must stand here and tell them what to do and hope that his orders don’t kill too many of them.  When they flirt or joke with him it makes it that much harder.

Chapter Text

The weather is growing colder. Autumn has been mild so far but now hurries onwards as though eager to turn into winter. Trees flame orange and then are bare. William says he hates it because it makes the landscape even more bleak than usual. 

Jonathan doesn’t have much time to notice the landscape because Grant is keeping him busy with training. He knows how to leap out of a plane with a parachute now, has spent long hours on the range with Jeremy learning how to fire various weapons and how to use a knife in self-defence. He can use a cipher and send and receive encrypted text to the required standard of accuracy, even if he is a little slower than the real agents. 

Childermass, for lack of other things to do while he was barred from active duty, was assigned to teach him French and basic German but the lessons stalled when Jonathan picked up the Yorkshire accent as well as the new vocabulary.  Grant, hearing his mangled accent, steps in and they fall into the habit of spending scraps of spare time talking in French, over meals in the canteen or after the end of their shifts.  De Lancey takes over with German, which is, he says, his preferred second language although it’s not patriotic to admit it.  He’s a very different teacher to Grant, making jokes about it and turning vocab lessons into games.  Grant is much more serious over his lessons, making Jonathan discuss a wide range of topics or memorise French poetry but Merlin enjoys their talks.  He enjoys the time spent, just the two of them, even though it is a guilty pleasure.  He has made no further references to their awkward conversation, or renewed his suggestions. Instead he finds himself nursing a rather pathetic longing for what time and attention Grant will spare him. He finds himself writing to Arabella for help, for new words to use in conversation just to see Grant’s faint look of surprise and pleasure over an obscure bit of vocabulary he didn’t expect Jonathan to know. 

While Jonathan spends his time on lessons, Grant’s borrowed agents are dropped in France, slowly searching out the edges of the enchantment and its nature.  Bit by bit, whispers come back to England and the map, in a securely locked draw of Arthur’s desk, begins to show the true scope of the problem.  Vision spells are tried and tested, sometimes breaking through to show a fragment of French countryside and more often showing nothing but smoke. Then, as Christmas comes nearer and winter tightens its hold, the news begins to stop.  Nobody can find a cause for the enchantment or a way to break it and tempers begin to fray. 

 

“Have you got a minute, Arthur?”

“Yes, come in.”

Grant shuts the door behind him. “It’s about the situation in France. We aren’t getting anywhere, are we? The information we’re getting from the agents hasn’t given us anything new for weeks.  I think we should get Norrell involved.”

“Norrell?” Arthur never has managed to get along with the man and his dislike shows in his voice.  “I suppose we must.  Shall I telephone him?” 

“No, don’t worry, I had a better idea. Childermass had a letter this morning from a friend in Yorkshire.  It seems John Segundus has been taken ill.  Nothing too serious from what I can gather but Childermass wants to go up there.”

Arthur sighs.  “Understanding as we may be, arranging a leave of absence on those grounds is going to be difficult.  You know that.  Is he worried?”

“Well I’ve seen him look less worried under enemy fire, but that’s Childermass for you.  Anyway, I had an idea to solve two problems at once.  He can talk to Norrell and see his friend at the same time.”

“That does kill two birds with one stone, and if it gets me out of having to be polite to Norrell so much the better.”

“I will be glad to have Childermass out of the building.  He’s been looming about, looking grim.  Doesn’t do anything for morale.  I’m not sure talking to Norrell will solve all our problems though.  We need to get magicians on the ground to take a proper look. We can train our agents all we like but I doubt they will pick up everything a trained magician would.”

“I know, but I’d been hoping to avoid doing it. Strange is a useful asset and I didn’t want to risk his hide on French soil until we knew more about what we were dealing with.  I suppose it’s unavoidable now.  Unless something changes, we’ll send him out at the next full moon.”

“We’ll need a pilot to do that,” Grant says, knowing that this is the topic Arthur has been avoiding for some time.

“What about Hurst?”

“Hurst?  Your first suggestion is Hurst?”  Arthur doesn’t say anything so Grant continues.  “What is going on Arthur?  Why are you avoiding letting William in on this?”

“I’m not avoiding anything, the pilot has no need to know the reason for this mission.  Besides, Hurst flies the Lysanders just as well as anyone else.”

“De Lancey is the best pilot we have! You said only a moment ago you won’t risk the magician’s hide but now you want to send him out with Hurst while you’ve got William twiddling his thumbs and flying milk runs.”

“There’s nothing wrong with Hurst’s flying.” Arthur’s scowl is deepening.

“But there’s also no reason to send him instead of William.”

“I have my reasons, Grant and my decision is final. This discussion is over.”

“Dear God, Arthur.  Do you not trust him?  Has he given you any reason not to trust him?  Or is this something else, some… personal bias?”

“Captain Grant, I warn you, you are crossing the line. I said this discussion was over.”

“And I say you are letting personal bias influence you to the detriment of this mission.”

“How dare you call my authority into question like this?”  

“How dare you question William’s loyalty?”

“This has nothing to do with loyalty!” Arthur shouts at him. 

“Then do you question his competence? Because I tell you if you question his competence you must be blind, or stupid.  Which is it, Sir?”

It’s too far, too much.  For a moment he thinks Arthur might rise out of his seat and hit him.  As it is, his hands curl tight against the edge of the desk.  When Arthur does speak his voice is quiet, too quiet, and very tightly controlled.

“Captain Grant, you are dismissed.”

“Sir, I…”

“Out!”  Arthur’s control snaps and he shouts again, pointing at the door. “Get out!”

Grant goes. 

 

Childermass takes the first train he can. It’s a familiar enough journey but it seems slower than ever.  He knows that he probably has no good cause to worry, particularly given that Mr Honeyfoot told him by letter rather than telegram.  It’s just that he can remember all too clearly how ill John managed to get himself last time, left to his own devices.  Childermass would like to be able to keep a closer eye on him. He’d like to keep a closer eye on everything, to be honest: he can’t be content to let people muddle along by themselves. They get it wrong too often. By the time he arrives it’s growing dark, the winter evening closing in. He knocks at the door of the Honeyfoots’ house, hears someone clatter down the corridor. 

“John?  John Childermass! Whatever are you doing here at this hour?” Mrs Honeyfoot, tea towel in hand, stares at him on the doorstep before ushering him into the house.

“I’m sorry to intrude on you. I have a meeting with Mr Norrell tomorrow and I had your letter to say that John was with you…”

“Oh dear, did you go to your cottage? It must be very cold and damp in this weather and nobody there to welcome you either.  Come in and have a cup of tea.”

“That’s kind of you, thank you. How is John?”

“Oh, he’s not too bad now.  We did worry though.  You remember how poorly he was when he first came here?”

“Yes, I do.”  Childermass doubts he will ever forget.  Or entirely forgive Segundus for writing to him and postponing their meeting due to ‘a minor illness’ when he was actually suffering from pneumonia.  Childermass would like proof of his being ‘not too bad’, to run up the stairs to his room and see it with his own eyes, but he has no socially acceptable right to do so.

“I’m sure he’d be glad to see you if you want to pop up.  I’ll make you some tea first though.  You must have had a long journey.”

He tries to make polite conversation while she brews tea.  Fortunately, while Childermass tends to be taciturn at the best of times, Mr and Mrs Honeyfoot have enough talk to make up for it.  By the time the tea is poured and slices of cake have been cut, Mrs Honeyfoot has already decided that Childermass must stay the night. 

“It’s no trouble really, it won’t take a moment to make up the bed and your cottage must be dreadfully cold. Do stay, John. We’d be glad of the company. The house is so quiet now with two of the girls married.”

He agrees, if only to be nearer to Segundus. Being so close and yet still unable to see him chafes.  He drinks his tea while it’s too hot, eating cake a little too fast to be polite. Eventually Mrs Honeyfoot stands and says, “I’ll just go upstairs and see if John’s feeling up to visitors. If you don’t mind seeing him, that is? I’m sure the poor boy must be dreadfully bored.”  Of course she calls him poor boy.  Segundus has a way of making other people mother him. 

When she finally shows Childermass into the room, Segundus looks up, beaming. 

“John!  Whatever are you doing here?”

“I heard you were ill.”  Segundus flicks his eyes quickly to Mrs Honeyfoot with a brief look of panic, so Childermass continues, “and I have a meeting Norrell tomorrow so I thought I’d visit.”

“Oh, yes, that’s very kind of you.” Segundus smiles, a little more restrained. 

“Well I’ll go and make up that bed,” Mrs Honeyfoot, her mind thankfully on domestic matters, leaves the room. They listen, in silent conspiracy, to her footsteps receding down the corridor and then the thump of cupboards being opened and shut. 

“I can’t believe you’re here!” Segundus said when the coast is clear, “Do you really have a meeting or is that an excuse? You didn’t need to come all this way, you know.”

“As if wouldn’t come, getting the letter I did. I do have a meeting though, Grant arranged it.”

“He’s a good man.”  Segundus finds it easy to see the good in people, but is never anything other than delighted when he does so.  “I’m sure the letter must have exaggerated though. It is only a cold and the Honeyfoots have been very kind.”

Since he’s propped up on about six pillows and has trouble speaking above a hoarse whisper, it’s not entirely convincing.

“I’m not sure I’d say that.  I know you.”

They hold hands, the only thing they can safely do given the potential for interruption.  It’s a tight, white-knuckled grip, trying to say what cannot be said openly: I missed you, I love you, I’m glad you’re here, I wish I could kiss you. Mrs Honeyfoot opens the door and their hands fly apart.

“The bed’s made now. I’d best go down and see to dinner if you are alright here.  Do you need anything?”

Segundus manages to convince her, through hacking coughs, that he is perfectly fine and needs nothing.  The disbelieving look she gives him at least reassures Childermass that John is being looked after by someone who knows how little to trust him. As she makes her way downstairs, Childermass finally gets the moment he has been waiting for, when he can tuck Segundus under his chin, wrap his arms tight around him and know that, despite his earlier fears, John will be alright. 

 

“Arabella?  Darling, is that you?”  The line is bad, turning the voice at the other end into one that could belong to anyone.

“Jonathan!  I’m so pleased you could phone.  I’ve missed your voice.”

“You too, Bell.  How are you?”

“I’m very well, and you?”

“Well, apart from a bit of a cold, but it seems everyone has one at the moment.”

“It’s the weather I suppose.  You’ll have to wrap up warm.  We’ve all been freezing.  You wouldn’t believe how many layers I’ve been managing to wear under my uniform.”

“How is work?  Is it terribly dull in your office?”

“Oh Jonathan.  You know I can’t talk about it any more than you can tell me what you are doing, but yes, it is terribly dull.”

“I hate not being able to talk to you properly. There are things… well, let’s just say there are things I wish I could tell you.”

“You don’t sound happy.  Is everything alright?”

Jonathan grips the telephone tightly, pushing it hard to his ear as though it can make her closer.  He misses her so much it aches and he can’t say a word.

“Jonathan, are you still there?”

“Yes, sorry Bell, I’m here.  It’s just… rather lonely actually.”

“I wish I could come and see you. I just never know when we’re going to have one of our busy moments and I barely have time to sleep, let alone travel. It’s been such a long time and the telephone is never the same, is it?  What about that friend of yours?  Can’t he help?”

“Well, he’s pretty angry right now. Not with me, I don’t think, but yesterday there was a lot of shouting and when I tried to speak to him he…”

“He what, Jonathan?”

“Well, he told me to fuck off.”

He can hear Bell laughing on the other end of the line. “Oh Jonathan!  I’m sorry to laugh, but you sound so serious about it. I’m sure that will all blow over. And there must be other people who might be friendlier.  No pretty WAAFs or WRENS?”

“I don’t want any other people,” he hisses down the phone.

“You’ve got it rather badly for this one, haven’t you?” She sounds kind, almost too kind. It reminds him that he’s probably making a fool of himself. 

“I’m sorry Bell, you know it’s not the same as you and me.  It’s just…”

“It’s alright, really it is.  I don’t mind: we discussed it.  I just wish he was kinder to you or you liked him a little less. I don’t want you to be hurt.”

“I’ll try not to be.  Honest.  I’ll be careful.”

“Be careful in everything else too. One hears dreadful stories in the papers.”

“I know: I’ll do my best to come home safe. Anyway, what about you? Are there any handsome men in your office?”

“I’m afraid not!  Well, there was one, but he only came to visit once so there was nothing to be done.  There are some very pretty girls though.  One of them is just the kind you’d notice.”

“I shall have to visit then.  I do miss you very much, Bell.”

“I miss you too.  Oh, bother, there’s someone’s waiting for the phone now and I’ve been on for ages. I’ll have to go. Stay safe Jonathan.”

“You too Bell.  I love you.”

“I love you too.”

There’s a click and the line goes dead. It takes him a moment to persuade himself to put down the phone. 

 

Childermass goes to Hurtfew early in the morning. He has missed the place, at least the grounds, and wants to see how things are going on there even though his employment is at an end.  While the outside has changed little, inside the Abbey the atmosphere is thick with magic.  So much of the work done here is reliant on spells carried out at a distance.  It makes Childermass feel stretched, like small parts of his mind are being tugged all over England to landscapes he cannot see but only feel. He has to take care to watch his feet on the flagstones of the hall. 

The imperious army liaison officer at Hurtfew, Henry Lascelles, greets him at the door of Mr Norrell’s office and makes a show of checking his appointment in the diary.  Such secretarial tasks ought to be beneath his dignity, but he likes people to know who controls access to England’s most scholarly magician. The loss of Jonathan Strange from his control must have been a bitter blow.  He is the kind of officer that Childermass most despises: dictator of his own small kingdom in a smart army uniform that has been tailored to an exacting fit and will never see use in anything more active than walking Hurtfew’s corridors. Fortunately, NCOs have ways of showing their opinions of officers like him and Childermass takes pleasure in winding him up with the deliberate sloppiness of his salute and the precisely calculated pause before he adds ‘sir’ to the end of his sentences.

When Childermass is allowed in, orders from Arthur Wellesley overcoming any petty obstacles Lascells might wish to raise, he find the library at Hurtfew has not changed since he went away to fight. Nothing dares disturb the order of Mr Norrell’s space.  The man looks up, peering through his spectacles. 

“Ah, Childermass,” he says without surprise, as though no time has passed at all since their last meeting.

“Sir.”

“I heard from Captain Grant that you were being sent to speak to me.  I’m sure I don’t know why he didn’t come himself.  Or Wellesley for that matter, although I would not let him near my library.” The last time Arthur was here, he committed the unforgivable sin of picking up a book of magic and placing it on the carpet so he had space to take notes.  Mr Norrell has neither forgotten nor forgiven the incident.

“They are both very busy, sir, and they know that I used to work for you.”

Mr Norrell sniffs.  He does not like to be reminded that Childermass has left his service. “That is as it may be. I suppose it is about the area of France that cannot be seen through vision spells.”

“That is indeed why I am here, but I’d ask how you came to know it, Mr Norrell.”

“I know it for the same reason any magician would know it.  My own vision spells were not successful so I investigated.”

“Mr Strange had some success, but it is not reliable.”

“Mr Strange’s magic is all crude force and no refinement.  If he has broken through in such a manner, it does not surprise me in the least that it is not reliable. It grieves me to see him taking his magic in this direction.  Nobody who followed the correct principles of English Magic would seek to take an active part on a battlefield.  It is not respectable.” 

“No, sir.”  The argument is one he is familiar with. 

“It is bad enough that you left me and went to war, but to be serving in such an institution.  The ‘Ungentlemanly Magicians’: I shudder to hear the name.”

“It is perhaps unfortunate, but not within my power to change it.  If I could ask about the situation in France again?”

“Yes, yes, you had better tell me what you know.” Norrell would have been happier to continue on the topic of English magic but Childermass does not have time to indulge him.  He explains the situation in detail and notices that as he does so, Mr Norrell begins to fidget. It’s not a large movement, but he polishes his glasses several times and he picks up and puts down his pen repeatedly.  They are all signs of Norrell when he is distressed and, perhaps, worrying over something.

“Well, it is most concerning. I have had one of my assistants working on it.  I shall let you have his notes but I’m not sure what more I can do to help you.”  He goes to a cabinet and removes a black leather notebook, handing it to Childermass.  As soon as he takes it, Childermass knows who it belongs to.  The magic that seals it closed is as familiar as his own. 

“Segundus was working on this?”

“Yes,” Mr Norrell looks surprised, “how did you know?” He asks it sharply, as though suspecting some trick he has not thought of. 

“His magic is familiar, that is all.”

“Hmm…” Norrell finds mention of Childermass’ sensitivity to magic an uncomfortable topic, bordering on the un-English, “well, if that is all then I fail to see what more I can do for you. If Captain Grant wishes for more help he will have to talk to me directly.  I trust you will be careful with that notebook.  It would not do for anyone to steal it.”

“No sir, I will be careful.”  Childermass pauses, considering his options. “Sir, are you certain that there is nothing further you wish to tell me about the situation?”

“Certain?  Of course I am certain.”  Mr Norrell is all bluster, as sure sign that there is something on his mind, something he does not wish to disclose.  Childermass has had a good many years of learning to read his master. 

“I had wondered if it was fairy magic, sir. It does not seem to be English magic and I had not thought French magic so very different.”

“Faerie magic,” Mr Norrell says in an offended tone, “you talk to me of faerie magic?  As though any magician in England would be so foolish as to strike a bargain with a faerie at such a time!  It is unthinkable. It would be unpatriotic, treasonous.”

“Mr Norrell.”  Norrell flinches at his tone.  Childermass tries a gentler one.  “Come now, sir, be honest with me.  Have you any reason to suspect the involvement of a faerie in this?”

“I… that is…” Mr Norrell drops back in his seat as though giving in.  “There was a person, a person who came to me from faerie.  He made me an offer, to assist us in the war against Germany. Naturally, I refused him. Nobody has made a bargain with a fairy in, what, a hundred and thirty years?”

Childermass can imagine with a terrible clarity, the likely outcome of a meeting between Mr Norrell and a faerie. He can also imagine the manner of Mr Norrell’s refusal.  He takes a breath and asks, “What happened then, when you refused him?”

Norrell doesn’t answer him at first, pressing his lips together and fidgeting in his pocket for a handkerchief.

“Mr Norrell!”

“He said he would make me blind, since I had no wit to see what an offer he had made me.”

“He would make you blind.  Then that is what he has done.  Why did you not speak of this before?”

“Well I still had my sight.  I thought perhaps he had meant only to threaten. I did not realise that he meant…”

“That he meant he would blind all of us, all English magicians.  I’m afraid you made the wrong choice, sir, in not telling us, but now that you have do you have any idea how we might break such a curse?”

“I do not precisely know.  I have been working on it but there are a great many demands on my time at present.  You had best talk to Segundus.”

“I shall sir, but if anything does occur to you, would you telephone us directly?”

“Of course,” Mr Norrell bobs his head in a nod. “Of course, one thing which may be of use to you.  Faerie magic is a natural phenomenon.  I believe it is very likely to be tied to some natural aspect of the landscape, or perhaps a person. It requires something physical, some identification to anchor it.  But that is all, I cannot help you further.”

 

Childermass goes back to Segundus after his meeting with Norrell, notebook in hand.  Luckily Mrs Honeyfoot is busy in the kitchen and he can sneak upstairs without question.  He finds Segundus dozing but he wakes when Childermass opens the door.  He sits up, rubbing his eyes as Childermass leans over him for a kiss. 

“You have had your meeting then?” Segundus asks.

 “Yes. You did not tell me you were working on the problem in France.”  Childermass drops the notebook onto the bed.

“My work?  I gather you know what’s going on then.  Of course I couldn’t tell you.  I do not ask about your work, do I?  It was a secret, and Mr Norrell asked me not to mention it to anyone.”

“Yes, well, I have been speaking to Mr Norrell about that...”

“Ah.  Should I take it that it did not go well?”  Segundus has once and only once sat in the same room as Childermass and Norrell when they were in disagreement with each other.  Childermass is under a solemn oath to hold his tongue unless Segundus can leave first. 

“Well enough, we did not argue and I have what I need, but I wish I had known you were working on it.  I could have used your opinion.  You were always better at the theoretical side of magic.”

“While you are better at the practical: you will see I had no luck with vision spells at all.”

“Nobody has had any luck with vision spells, except for Mr Strange.  Is this what you have been working yourself half to death over?”  Childermass would like to leave the blame at Norrell’s door, even though he knows how Segundus is when faced with any kind of project.

“I was not doing that, I was carrying out careful experimentation into the nature of the problem.  As a result of which I can tell you that location spells still work. I have tried them. Why do you not use those, if you wish to know whether a person or a place is there?  You do not have to see them, only know that they are there.” Segundus coughs again and reaches for his glass of water. 

“Location spells?  How would you know that location spells work in France?”

“It is part of my work of course, here, these are my notes on the matter.”  Segundus flicks rapidly through the pages of his notebook and hands it to Childermass.

“I should have asked you before. I might have known you would come up with something.”  Childermass squeezes his hand in quiet pride. 

“John, if you have agents who are enchanted I should like to see them.  I can do nothing from a distance, the magic is always clearer when I can see it directly.”

“Impossible, they are all based in the south. You’re not fit to go so far to see them.”

“I am perfectly fit!  Or I shall be in a few days.  I have an irritating cold; that is all.  I am perfectly sure I can manage a simple train journey.”

“You look like walking across the room would be the end of you.”

“Oh don’t be ridiculous.  You always overreact about these things.”

“Overreact?  Last time you had an ‘irritating cold’ you nearly died of it!”

“And the last time you went to France without proper information you did die of it!”

They stare at one another, shocked. They rarely argue, rarely even snap at one another.  Consequently they both try to apologise for it at the same time.   

“I’m sorry…” 

“Forgive me…”

“No, you first.  How did you know that about France?”  Childermass perches on the edge of the bed.

“How do you think I know about location spells? I used to look for you, once a day, just to know you were there, somewhere in Europe.  I was looking, one night before I went to bed and the light went out.  Very suddenly, it was there and then it was gone.  It came back again but I’ve never been so horribly afraid.  It was three days before I had a letter to tell me what had happened.”

Childermass, guilt-stricken, takes his hand. “I’m so sorry. You should never have had to see that. They said afterwards they thought for a minute I was dead but since I was still alive, I was never sure if they were just mistaken.  I couldn’t think how I’d come to be alive if it did happen, so I stopped questioning it. I should have told you.”

“Whatever brought you back, I’m glad it did. I can’t do what you do. I’m not even sure I’d have been brave enough to go, if I’d been able.  But I can’t stop you.  I wouldn’t ask it of you, even if I’d far rather you were at home, here, with me. Just don’t ask me to sit here, malingering in bed, if by doing so I let some other man or woman lose the person they love.”

“I just wanted to protect you.”

“I know, but there is a war on.” Segundus gives him a half smile and squeezes his hand.  “You can’t protect me from all of it.  None of us can do that.  Perhaps, one day, there’ll be a time when none of this matters any more and I can go back to teaching, and you can fuss over me as much as you like.  Until then, I have my work to do and it sounds like you need all the help you can get.”

“On one condition then, love.”

“Yes?”

“We at least wait until you can walk across the room without falling over.”

 

Grant is exactly where Arthur expects him to be, at the far end of the runway with his sketchbook.  He is drawing one of the planes where it is hidden under the trees and camouflage netting.  It’s what he does when he wants to be alone.  When he hears Arthur coming, he snaps the book shut and turns, defensive and wary. They have been avoiding each other since yesterday. 

Arthur holds his hands up.  “Don’t worry, I come in peace.  I thought you might be out here.  Bloody cold day though.”

“Well, I thought perhaps if you saw me again you might ask for my resignation so it seemed the safer option. I’m sorry, Sir, I said too much and I apologise.”

“Don’t worry, Grant.  I think I’m the one who should be apologising. Shall we shake on it and cry friends?” They shake hands.

“I thought if apologising didn’t work I might need a peace offering,” Arthur says, and offers up the small bar of chocolate in his other hand.  Grant huffs a laugh.

“You really are quite ridiculous, you know, but I accept it all the same.”

“You may be right, Grant.  I am ridiculous.”  Arthur leans against one of the trees with a sigh.  “Such a damn cliché, isn’t it?  An old man like me falling for some bright, young thing.”

“A bright, young… you mean William? Oh Christ, Arthur.” Grant stares at him in disbelief.

“I know, I know.”  Arthur fishes a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket and lights one. 

“You do know, don’t you?  Why you can’t?”

“Of course.  I did it anyway.”  Arthur shrugs, exhaling smoke. 

“Is that why you wouldn’t let him fly? Was it the fear of favouritism or to keep him safe?”

Arthur sighs, lets his head rest against the tree trunk and says, “I suppose I wanted to keep him safe, even though it was making him unhappy.  I think I’d rather he hated me for not letting him fly than risk the alternative. After Kitty…” He clears his throat, “after she died, I thought I was over that sort of thing.  Safe. Then suddenly I found myself looking at him and thinking ‘God, don’t let me be sat in my office one day, having to phone Sir Walter to report the sad loss of Flight Lieutenant De Lancey’ and I realised it was too late, I’d already gone too far.”

“You can’t keep him on the ground forever though. I sometimes wish I could, but it’s not in his nature.” 

“I know, I know.” Arthur groans. “I’m a bloody fool.”

“You’re a pair of fools, by my reckoning. I don’t suppose either of you are planning to stop this, whatever it is.”  Grant gives him a look, but Arthur can only shake his head.  “And what about after the War?”

“After the War?  If there ever is an after the War, I’ll let him go. I’ve got the boys to consider too. I don’t see enough of them.  I won’t risk a scandal.  If they’re still young enough to need a father after this mess is over, I’ll go somewhere with them. Start again, rebuild, somewhere new. The same as any of us, I suppose.”

 

Chapter Text

Planning

"There is a rose at his mouth."  Segundus is staring at Arthur intently. 

"A rose for silence?" Strange asks.  Now that Segundus is officially on loan to SOE from Hurtfew, the two of them have been bouncing ideas off each other with mutual enthusiasm.

"Yes, exactly that. Can you talk about France again please? Look Childermass, can you see it? It is only truly visible when he talks."

"I cannot see it. A faint blur perhaps but nothing more." Childermass scowls at Arthur, trying to see more clearly. 

"Well it gives you your answer: it is a silencing spell, triggered only when needed. It is a white rose too, a York rose I assume, meant as an insult to Norrell perhaps?"  Segundus scribbles notes in his book. 

"So no danger to our agents?" Arthur sounds relieved.

"None that I can tell, it is an inconvenience only.  Not well done either, to leave it so dependent on the location of the person. From what Norrell has said I would judge it to be an enchantment cast in..." He coughs, "excuse me, in irritation more than anything. Not actively malicious or cast in anger, more to challenge and thwart. It would not be unheard of for a faerie."

"So what do you make of Norrell's theory, that it's tied to the landscape?" Grant peers at the map as though it will reveal its secrets if he stares hard enough. 

"I think it more likely than ever.  It is after all the easiest way to do so.  Let me see the shape of it. What are the significant points? Does it centre around something, or is it between landmarks?"

"Remember," adds Strange, "they are points a faerie would consider. A river, perhaps, or a tree: natural occurrences."

They all focus on the map. 

"There is a wood there, to the North, that connects to the known points we have," says William, brought in for the first time for his pilot's eye view of the landscape. "Would a faerie make a bargain with a whole wood? Or is it coming in towards the centre?"

"It's possible that the whole wood is collectively part of the spell, or it might be the oldest tree," replies Strange. "So that gives us North, with it stretching out here and here. A rough square, do you think, or rather a diamond?"

"This corner, does it end with a point on the river?  The last known marker we have is close to it."

"The bridge, perhaps.  It might have been a ford at some time.  That would count as a natural landmark I believe.”  Strange puts a marker on the map. 

“Well spotted." Arthur sounds pleased. He and William have got over their previous differences about this mission, probably in ways Grant wants to know nothing about. 

"I can't get anything on this side though. There's nothing obvious, nothing that follows the map properly. Is it likely to be symmetrical? Have we got the boundaries wrong?" William is still eager to prove himself.

"Perhaps," Grant admits, "our information was running thin. Too many enchanted agents."

"We can deal with that later. For now I see two targets. How do we neutralise them, gentlemen?" Arthur, as always, sees the military view of magical investigation.

"Destruction or negotiation I believe, with a spell to end the enchantment" Strange has been conferring with Segundus.  The table around them is strewn with books of magic, stacked in heaps and crammed full of scraps of paper.  Mr Norrell would be horrified at their ill-treatment. 

"A forest can be negotiated with but a river cannot, particularly if it is tied to the presence of the bridge or ford rather than the natural course of the river." Segundus adds. 

"Well then gentlemen, since destruction is, I believe, our specialty in this organisation, how about we try with that one first?"

 

 

The First Mission

Before the mission, Grant takes Jonathan aside and provides him with an RAF uniform. 

“Put this on,” he says.  “We can’t hope to disguise you as a Frenchman yet so this is your best shot for getting out alive if you’re captured.  Your papers give your name as John Marlin, which should be close enough to your real name and call sign that it won’t be questioned should either of them be overheard.  If you are captured, you tell them your plane went down over France and you bailed. They ought to make you a POW instead of shooting you as a spy.  Stick to that story and tell them nothing else.  You don’t want to suffer the alternative.”

“No, indeed.”  Jonathan watches Grant rubbing the fingers of one hand. He wonders if he’s remembering his own time as a prisoner.  If the unit legends are to be believed, it’s not something he wants to experience.

“Good, get dressed, come back to the main office within twenty minutes for the final briefing.”

Grant leaves and Jonathan dresses, tucking his notes into his pocket with a bottle of water.  He cannot take his books or anything else into France with him in case they are taken from him.  All he has are these scraps of notes, printed on paper that will dissolve in water and instructions to destroy them if he falls into enemy hands.  He hopes that they will be enough.  He also hopes that the river will not dissolve them before he has a chance to use them. 

He tried to telephone Arabella earlier, just in case. He can’t quite bring himself to think of it as a potential goodbye, but it seemed like the right thing to do. Perhaps just for good luck. All he’d managed was to talk to a rather severe sounding woman in Bell’s office who told him that Mrs Strange was very busy and unable to get to the telephone.  He wonders if he should have left a note, also just in case, then realises that he is becoming morbid and this is a state of mind is likely to be more unhelpful than anything else.  “I shall talk to you later,” he thinks, to the imaginary Bell he pictures, busy at her work.  Besides, if something does happen, he knows that she will understand far more than he could ever write in a letter.  She needs no proof of his love.

 

Jeremy thinks that Strange looks uncomfortable in his borrowed uniform, perhaps a little nervous too.  He tries to smile in a way he hopes might be reassuring. Grant looks grim, which is his usual way during briefings but doesn’t help the new men to settle. He’s a worrier, like Jeremy’s sister, too busy fretting to see when someone might actually need a bit of a nudge in the right direction. 

The flight out in the Hudson goes smoothly but Strange fidgets all the way there.  Jeremy knows Merlin is perfectly capable of making the jump, he taught him himself, but he doesn’t want him to mess it up through panic.  Strange hovers on the edge of the open door. Jeremy puts a hand on his shoulder. The drop site is approaching rapidly.

“You go first, sir, just like we practised,” he shouts in Strange’s ear, “I’ll be right behind you.”  The first man down has a better chance of surviving, any waiting guns having less time to aim.  His orders are to protect the magician at all cost.  Fortunately, Strange makes it down without any problems and Jeremy finds him already struggling out of the tangle of his parachute.  There are men on the ground waiting for them, people he’s worked with before. 

“So this is your magician, eh?” Étienne asks him when they have exchanged greetings.  “Is he any good?”

“Not bad, not bad.”  Jeremy follows them as they head towards the river. They want to survey it before they make the real attempt at demolition tomorrow night.  Making two flights to France and blowing up a bridge is considered too risky for one night’s work, relative to a day of hiding in a French basement and waiting for nightfall.  With luck, in the confusion of the explosion tomorrow night, De Lancey will be able to fly in while people are more worried about saboteurs on the ground than planes.

The bridge is a stone one, obviously very old. Perhaps that’s why the faerie managed to use it.  Thinking about the fae makes the hairs on the back of Jeremy’s neck stand up.  It brings to mind too many of his mother’s old fireside tales when he was a boy.  People who thought they could outsmart a faerie and were never seen again.  He shudders and Étienne, noticing, hands him a French cigarette.

“It is not normal, is it?  On the… the borders.  It’s like…” he points up, “there is something in the sky where it shouldn’t be. I will be glad when it is gone.”

The two of them watch Strange as a distraction. He paces the bridge, mumbling to himself and reading from his notes.  Other people try to dodge him as they work out the best places to put charges to bring the whole thing down. 

Strange continues to fret over his notes once they are settled in Étienne’s house, holed up in the cellar until dark. Jeremy is glad when he sleeps at last: his nerves were catching.  When he wakes up again they play cards in the light of the single candle.  

At last Étienne comes back and beckons them up the steps.  It’s a colder night tonight and people are wrapped up warm despite the busy work of getting the explosives where they want them.  Strange is focused so completely on his magic that he doesn’t seem aware of anything else. He mouths strange words to the sides of the bridge and slithers down the bank to put his hand in the icy water on both sides. 

When he’s ready, Étienne sends everyone else away. “So, magician, when you are ready, give me the sign and I will,” he makes a gesture to imply blowing everything sky-high. “Jeremy, you know what to do after that?”

“Yes, thank you Étienne.”  They shake hands, and Étienne wishes them good luck before crossing the bridge.  After the explosion, he will run one way back to the village while Strange and Jeremy go in the opposite direction to meet William. 

Strange is mouthing words again, lighting a candle. Magician things. There’s a hum in the air, maybe a distant bell.  It climbs, becoming oppressive, like the buzzing in your ears after a bad cold. 

Strange blows out the candle: Étienne’s signal and the end of the spell.  There’s a dull boom, and Jeremy drags Strange down into the shelter of a ditch. In the aftermath, ears ringing for a different reason, the air feels different.  Despite being full of smoke it fizzes, like a spring breeze or the rush of jumping from a plane.  It feels like being drunk. 

“It’s gone!” Strange tells him, “The magic is gone! Can you feel it?”

They whoop, celebratory and full of joy, before Jeremy remembers where they are.  He pulls Strange up and they run, fast and free, towards the plane.

 

They come back still in high spirits despite the cramped journey and William seems to have caught it from them, grilling them on their success via the radio.  It’s cold when they leave the plane, frost crunching under their boots as they leave her to the ground crew and make their way back to the barracks. It doesn’t subdue them. They stumble into the building, crashing the door back on its hinges and trying, very loudly, to make each other be quiet.  There’s a loud thumping noise, like a fist on wood, and an angry voice yelling something that sounds like ‘shut up y’southern bastards.’  On the post-mission high it makes them laugh helplessly before they remember to be quiet. 

“Arthur’s on night shift,” William says, “I’ll go and give him the good news.” 

He heads off to the main office, while Jeremy goes left into his room.  Unfortunately this leaves Jonathan the only person in the corridor when Grant yanks open his door to find out who is making all the noise.  He has obviously been asleep: he’s wearing pyjamas with a thick dressing gown over them and there are creases from the pillow in his cheek. His hair sticks up a little wildly, begging for someone to run their fingers through it to smooth it down. Afterwards, this is what Jonathan blames for what happens. 

“Merlin!” Grant says, “what on earth are you doing?”

“I, uh, forgive me, we just got back from France. I apologise for making so much noise, it won’t happen again.”

“So it was a successful mission, I take it?” Grant gives him an understanding half smile.  “If someone has gone to tell Arthur, I shall go back to bed and pretend I didn’t hear anything.”

“Yes, William went.  The whole thing went exactly as we planned it.”

“Goodnight then, Merlin, and well done.” Grant smiles properly this time, warm and approving. 

It is, Jonathan thinks, a moment of madness. One moment he is standing there, watching Grant standing in his doorway in a perfectly rational manner and the next he is unwisely throwing himself at the man.  For a moment, just one moment, Grant kisses him back. It’s a good kiss, a very good kiss, until Grant brings his hands up and shoves Jonathan quite firmly away from him.

“Merlin, I will put that down to an excess of adrenaline and we will say nothing more about it.  Understood?”

Grant is flushed, his lips reddened. He still looks infinitely kissable, but also really quite severe and his folded arms and frown finally get through to Jonathan.  He curses himself for ruining things once again.  Why must he be so hopelessly smitten with a man that is determined to turn him down and why must he be such a fool?

“I’m terribly sorry.  I’ll just…” he waves vaguely in the direction of his room. He can feel his own face starting to heat, and not from the kisses. 

“Goodnight Merlin.”  Grant looks almost amused.  “Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us.”

It sounds like there might be a story there, but Jonathan doesn’t want to know.  He flees, to lie awake in his bed for hours, tormented by the feel of Grant’s body pressed against his, the warmth of his mouth and his own overwhelming stupidity.

He doesn’t know that Grant goes into his own room and stands, leaning against the closed door.  It’s hard to resist the temptation of calling Merlin back, of throwing away any scruples he might have for another of those kisses and a warm body in his bed.  He has been alone for some time now and it’s harder to stop himself giving in, in the face of Strange’s enthusiasm. What is he resisting for, after all? He has no wife, no lover, nobody to object. 

He stops himself, with one hand stretched out to open the door.  This is a temporary madness, he thinks, one he would regret in the morning.  He goes back to bed but does not sleep.

 

William goes to find Arthur in his office, but is told that he has gone back to his own room, only to be disturbed if something significant happens.  It’s one of the ways that he and Grant manage the three shifts with only two of them. It also gives William an entirely plausible reason for disturbing him in his room. 

He’s full of anticipation now, full of the buzzing energy that comes from flying and the knowledge that Arthur is waiting for him. He doesn’t bother to leave his flight suit in his own locker, just goes straight to Arthur’s room and bangs on the door.

Arthur opens it almost immediately. He has been sitting up in anticipation of their return, waiting to know if the mission was a success.  He tastes of strong coffee when William backs him against the wall and kisses him thoroughly.

“Mission objectives successfully achieved, I take it?” he says when William lets him go, giving him an inch of space between them to talk. 

“Yes, all done,” William says, yanking at the fastenings of his suit, “target destroyed, boys home safe, plane home safe. Not so much as a scratch on the paintwork. So fuck me, damnit.”

William always does know what he wants. He smells faintly of the aircraft, hot metal and oil, the canvas smell of his uniform and the tang of sweat. It makes Arthur want to kiss at the salt on his neck, to lick, to bite. 

“What do you want?”  He eases a hand down, between them, and William bucks forwards.

“You said, last time, you’d have me against the wall.” The look in William’s eyes is a challenge.

Arthur pushes him up, turning them quickly and pinning the younger man hard against the wall.  “Like this you mean?”

William nods, still trying to wrestle himself out of his clothes.  It’s a rush, a tangle of limbs to be freed.  He ends up half stripped, bare from the waist down but still wearing his unbuttoned jacket and jumper.  Arthur runs his hands over warm skin, leaning forward to let William feel the press of his weight against him.  At the first touch of Arthur’s fingers, William moans and Arthur shushes him, presses hard kisses against his mouth.  He’s impatient, demanding.

“Ready?” Arthur doesn’t need to ask it, William is already trying to struggle upwards, trying to wrap his legs around Arthur and pull him closer.  William’s not a small man but Arthur is strong enough to lift him and wedge his back against the wall. He fucks him hard and fast, enjoying the way he enjoys it.  William is glorious after he has been flying, wild and desperate, not shy of asking for what he wants.  He grabs Arthur’s hand and wraps it around his cock.  Arthur has to press William harder against the wall to stay upright but he doesn’t protest. One socked foot scrabbles for purchase against the desk, trying to hold himself up, while the bare one digs into Arthur’s back. 

It’s not long before William starts to make the soft whining noises that mean he is close.  Arthur knows they will get louder, and silence is essential, so he lets go of William’s cock and presses his hand over William’s mouth, enjoying the response it gets him.  William had been holding on, his arms around Arthur’s neck for balance but now he reaches down to stroke himself clumsily, hand and cock trapped between their bodies and the rough friction of the wool he is wearing.  It’s rough, unstable and too good to stop. 

William bites Arthur’s hand, hard, when he comes, then laps at the bite apologetically.  He suckles at Arthur’s fingers until the sensation of hot, wet tongue and the heat of William’s body around his cock are too much and they collapse against the wall, sticky and shaking.  Arthur pushes his face into William’s neck, panting, while William clings to him.

“Oh God, oh God” is the first thing William says, followed by “get off me, I’m going to roast.”

Arthur pushes himself up and William sprawls, a debauched mess on the floor with a flushed face and half his clothes missing. Arthur never even managed to undress properly.  He does it now, regretting that his jumper may never be the same again.  He flops back onto the bed to breathe, legs aching with the effort, as William manages to right himself and strip off his jacket. His clothes peel off to show bruises from the wall already beginning to form. 

“You bastard,” William tells him affectionately, “you don’t go easy on me.”

“Nor do you.”  Arthur holds up his bitten hand and William comes to kiss it again. He drapes himself over Arthur, body lax and contented.  The warmth makes them both sleepy. 

“I’m sorry you can’t stay,” Arthur tells him, “someone is bound to come to find me before too long.”  Neither of them can risk being found like this. They should at least dress.

“Mmm… I know.”  William nuzzles drowsily against his neck, “just a few minutes more.”

 

 

Christmas

Christmas arrives at last.  It's not the same as a peacetime Christmas, but people do their best to make something of it. Not many people have leave to go home or the means to get in these days of petrol rationing and calls to reduce unnecessary train journeys. Those who remain make the most of Christmas dinner in the canteen (a better meal than some, perhaps out of unexpected seasonal goodwill on the part of the cooks). Then they depart to the village pub, where the Greysteels are hosting a 'private party' to get around the licensing laws: the village bobby has agreed to turn a blind eye to it.  Flora greets them at the door and the boys greet her with pretend rapture and kisses on the cheek despite some significant throat clearing from Dr Greysteel.

The Greysteels have done their best to decorate the pub with holly and other greenery above the pictures and on the mantelpiece. A small fir tree in a pot has been given pride of place on a table in the corner and strung with paper ornaments and some rather elderly tinsel.  As is traditional, they switch on the wireless to hear the King speak and afterwards someone asks for a carol or two. The selection varies widely, through the traditional to the modern, the religious and the secular. A dedicated few gather around the piano as the rest of them begin to split into groups to talk or play darts and cards.  Jonathan finds himself among them, almost by accident.  Not all of them sing: Arthur insists that his only musical talent lies in playing the violin, which he no longer has. Segundus is also quiet, perhaps too shy to join in but apparently taking pleasure in the music.

Jonathan misses Bell, but not as much as he feared he might. He still hasn’t spoken to her on the telephone but he had a parcel from her yesterday and opened it this morning.  Inside had been a long letter, a package of sweets, new gloves and a copy of Lord Portishead’s new book. It’s a cheaply printed thing, and intended for children rather than grown up magicians, but she knows his fondness for the legends of the Raven King and her inscription on the front page makes it all the more precious. 

The evening passes in a blur.  Jonathan plays darts against Grant, who accuses him of cheating by means of magic. William tells him that Grant is only sour because he is very good at throwing knives and thinks that darts ought to be the same.  When singing turns to dancing, Jonathan dances with Flora, which few of the others are brave enough to do, but he presents himself to Dr Greysteel as a responsible, married man and gets away with it.  Flora is an energetic dancer and, he cannot help but notice, prettier than ever. To further cultivate an air of innocence, he takes a turn with Flora’s aunt as well and then William, because female partners are in short supply.  He avoids asking Grant. 

 

People slip away at various points, there being no official closing time tonight. Arthur and William, due to take the night shift, leave earlier than most and (for William) unusually sober.

“It’s a shame to leave so soon,” William says as they cross the village green, leaving the sound of the piano starting up again behind them.

“Perhaps,” Arthur says, his collar turned up and his hands in his pockets against the wind.

“It’s not a normal Christmas I suppose, but it’s better than nothing. Where would you be, if you weren’t here?”

“Oh, doing something very boring I expect.”

“Really, what would you be doing?”  William looks at him, halfway between cheek and serious enquiry: the sort of expression that asks to be kissed.  Arthur resists.

“You really want to know?  My days of youthful Christmas exuberance are over, you know.”  The cold has taken away the warm glow of the alcohol, leaving him inclined to gloominess. 

“Don’t be ridiculous, what would you be doing?  Or would you be asleep before a good fire already?”

Arthur sighs, folding his arms to pull his coat a little closer. “Christmas is for the boys, mostly. If this were Christmas before the war, I’d have spent the day eating too much, then crawling all over the floor assembling jigsaw puzzles and settling disputes over Monopoly. By this time, as you suggested, I expect I would be asleep, or at least dozing.  Not the most exciting of days, you’ll agree.”  Arthur raises an eyebrow, mocking himself, but William frowns instead of joining in the joke. 

“That sounds rather fun actually.  You miss them, don’t you?”

“Well, they were always at school during term time so I was used to them being away and of course I was working…” Arthur talks himself to a halt, standing in the middle of the road.  “Honestly, William, I miss them every day.”

He doesn’t know what he’s expecting: perhaps an awkward silence or a change of subject.  He certainly doesn’t expect the bear hug from William, nor the questions, being asked about the phone call he had with them earlier (far too short, nowhere near enough time to hear everything he wants to hear) and how they are getting on at school. By the time they get back to the office, he’s half way through the story of his eldest’s cunning plan for getting out of cross country running.

“And he thought nobody would notice?”  William laughs.  “I’d like to meet him one day and congratulate him on the plan, even if it didn’t work.”

It’s an unthinking comment but they are suddenly on more dangerous ground. It seems to keep happening with William, no matter how much Arthur tries to avoid it.  Under what circumstances will William ever meet his sons? Some day, after the war, after the affair is over?  He tries to imagine them meeting, old friends who served together.  His sons would be so pleased to meet an RAF pilot, particularly Charlie who is currently obsessed with planes.  Perhaps William would be a father himself.  The two of them catching up on old times while the children play. He ought to be glad, to think of an afterwards where they might still be friends, but he isn’t.

“You’re thinking again.”  William nudges him with an elbow.  “Stop it! It’s Christmas!” William kisses him, and it feels like Christmas again. 

 

Grant leaves the pub a little before he has to, expecting his usual solitary walk but Merlin contrives to leave at the same time and there’s no choice but to walk together.  At least they manage half the distance in silence, giving Grant time to restore his sense of calm before Merlin starts on whatever topic has had him carefully coordinating the shared walk. 

 “About the other night,” Merlin begins, a little hesitantly.

“Yes?  I thought I told you that was forgotten?”  Grant had hoped it wouldn’t be this. 

“You did, but perhaps I don’t wish it to be forgotten.”

“I have rules, Mr Strange, and for the last time, I don’t take advantage of men under my command.”

“Your rules, is it that they… is it that you dislike relationships with married men or have I given you some other reason to dislike me?  Have I caused you some offence?”

“No, Merlin, you have not given me any cause, nor given offence, but I will not engage in a relationship with any person who is married.  It saves difficulties.”

“You see, my wife, she is a very understanding woman.”

“So are many wives.  I have found that in my experience, wives are less understanding than their husbands give them credit for.”

“No, you don’t understand.  We have an, an arrangement of sorts.  An agreement.  I assure she is aware of my regard for you and…”

“Mr Strange!  Before this conversation becomes any more involved in what your wife does or does not know, please allow me to tell you that no matter what your relationship, I will not pursue a married man, not even you.”

They walk on for a while in silence. Strange breaks it. Grant doubts he can help himself.

“But if I were not married?”

“You would still be under my command. I wish you would stop asking.”

“Forgive me, it’s just that I cannot help wondering: if I were not married, not working here, if the war was over and it was just you and me, would you still refuse me?  At least answer me that, since it is an impossible circumstance and I promise I will not give myself any allowance of hope, no matter what you say.” Jonathan’s hand rests on Grant’s sleeve, not tight but inescapable all the same. 

“Strange.  Merlin. You are lucky it’s Christmas and I am in a charitable mood.”

“That is not an answer.  Please.”  Jonathan is very close now, or perhaps Grant is the one that moved closer, each of them in the other’s space.  There’s nobody else around at this hour.  It’s cold and the stars shine brightly overhead.  The last few minutes of Christmas Day are ticking by, surely a time for a small concession to Merlin’s demands, one moment of confession. 

“Then, if you insist on an answer: yes. If you were not married, if we were not working here, my answer would be yes.”  Grant kisses him, very chastely, on the cheek. “Merry Christmas, Merlin.”

 

Childermass and Segundus leave later than most. There’s a biting chill in the air as they set off and Childermass eyes Segundus with suspicion, wondering if he is warm enough. 

“I’m fine,” Segundus tells him, reading the look before Childermass has time to open his mouth.  “I have my new jumper on.  It’s very warm.”  It’s true, and Childermass ought to know.  He knitted it himself, deflecting all comments with Yorkshire sarcasm and needles. He says nothing, but unwinds his scarf and tries to drape it around Segundus.  It doesn’t entirely work.  It’s possible that they might both have had a little too much to drink, particularly Segundus. He doesn’t have the tolerance that Childermass has.  They tussle over the scarf.  It’s a relief to be so foolish, stumbling home together in the early hours of Boxing Day morning.

In the end, the only compromise is that they both wear it, one end around each of them and tying the two of them together. They don’t mind the closeness: it is Christmas after all. 

 

Chapter Text

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. 

 

 

Aftermath

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.

“Grant?”

“Yes?”

“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?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“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.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“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.”

“No, Sir.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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?”

 

 

In memoriam

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. 

 

Chapter Text

Moving on

As January turns into February, life in the unit returns to normal.  William and Jonathan maintain a rather cool relationship, not choosing to spend much time together. The incident in France is never mentioned after the first awkward apology and they don’t fight, don’t even particularly dislike each other, but there’s a reserve that lingers. Other relationships have changed as well.  William hasn’t slept in his own bed since Jeremy died.  A collective blind eye is turned to his empty bunk and Arthur is growing used to waking up beside him, or coming to bed late after a shift and finding William already curled up, warm beneath the blankets in the borrowed pyjamas he has yet to return.

Grant had had a very serious conversation with Merlin, after his meeting with Arthur, and had told him very firmly that on no account must such a thing happen again.  It hasn’t: at least on technical grounds.  Do the kisses count?  Merlin has frayed Grant’s self-control. Far too often they find flimsy excuses to be alone together so Merlin can press Grant against the wall and kiss him senseless.  Every kiss is the last one, never to be repeated and then repeated all too soon.

Merlin is still grounded, less because of the last mission than because they still lack the information they require to break the enchantment completely.  He’s put to theoretical research with Segundus, who now looks to be a permanent addition to their number.  An improved set of spells for negotiating with forests (and a practice run on home soil that fuels several local legends for years to come) lead to a second mission. Arthur still refuses to send Merlin, but he sends Childermass instead.  After much quiet fretting from Segundus, Childermass returns, mission successfully completed.  The enchantment over France now wavers, sometimes there and sometimes not, like a flag caught in the wind and billowing.  The magicians hypothesise that the fluctuations occur because it is only tethered at two points and now has no defined edges.  In some ways it improves matters because they can at least see what is happening for part of the time, but it also has its disadvantages because now that regular intelligence is expected, other unit commanders are frustrated when does not appear.  Arthur spends a considerable amount of time on the telephone with them, explaining magical theory until he wants to throw the phone across the room. 

Grant calls a meeting and they discuss options but there aren’t many options open to them at this point.  Scrying close to the boundary of the anomaly mostly results in blurred visions, frustration and migraines (and Grant has had quite enough of Childermass behaving like a bear with a sore head). Their stock of agents is running low and Sir Walter is reluctant to send more of them without proof that it will do some good, instead of risking lives to hear the same information over and over again. 

In the end, it’s Arthur who suggests a reconnaissance flight over the countryside.  It’s a distinct change of tune from his previous reluctance to put William into danger, but William’s face lights up at the prospect and while Arthur tries hard to look unmoved, Grant can see the same happiness reflected there. Grant hopes that perhaps some deity will look kindly on him and end the war before that particular mess turns into something that he will have to deal with. 

 

In flight

If he’s honest with himself, William will admit that he joined the RAF for the prestige of being a pilot, to be one of the dashing boys in blue.  It had the other advantages of not being the army (where Grant was already enlisted, having joined before the war broke out) and not involving water.  What he hadn’t expected was to fall in love with flying itself. He never feels freer than when he’s up here, particularly when he flies alone.  It’s why he hates the flatness of East Anglia: he’d rather be in the sky than trapped under it. 

This isn’t the first time he’s flown a reconnaissance mission over France but it’s the first time he’s done so in daylight. His plane is disguised by one of Merlin’s illusions to look like a German aircraft.  With luck it will continue to hold, despite being so far away from the man who cast it, until he has had time to have a proper look at their anomaly. It should then disappear when he’s over the channel so that nobody tries to shoot him out of the sky on the home run. So far the illusion has worked, apart from one sticky moment when ground control in a French airfield tried to radio him.  Fortunately, De Lancey’s German passed muster, as did his ‘French with a German accent’. Grant taught him that skill, so William owes him several drinks when he gets back. 

The countryside looks rather beautiful from this high up.  Distance hides some of the scars of war on the landscape.  William has the coordinates for the known edges of the anomaly but even from this bird’s eye view, there’s nothing that seems to point out the corners they were expecting.  He circles the space where it’s meant to be.  Nothing stands out, no rivers or trees that look obvious.  He turns back, to take another look at the first point, following the line of the railway tracks. 

He gives himself a shake.  The railway tracks: they connect both of their supposed points of interest, before turning off to a depot at one end and curving away across the countryside at the other.  Could it really be as simple as that?  Not the two points they have been searching for, but the line between them. It’s not a natural landmark by any means, but neither was the bridge to his mind, no matter what Strange might hypothesise about ancient fords and rights of way.  Maybe a fairy road used to run here and the French saw only a conveniently straight track before dumping a railway line on top of it.

He double checks for any other landmarks, but there are none that stand out so clearly.  Exultant, this being one point to RAF reconnaissance and nil to the magicians, he turns for home. 

 

Making plans

With William’s new information and several magicians busy with the task of working out how to break an enchantment on a railway line, Grant finds himself relegated to logistics.  According to their calculations of the length of the line and the strength of the original spell, SOE do not have enough field ready magicians to place counterspells and destroy the tracks, even with Merlin taken off probation.  They will need, Arthur tells him (as though it is as simple as producing a cup of tea), the cooperation of several French magicians and several groups from the local French resistance to assist them.  Fortunately, Grant knows exactly who to ask and rumour has it that she has just returned to England. 

His quest for help takes him back to the SOE training school where he briefed their agents for the first investigation of the magical anomaly, where he asks for Emma Wintertowne at reception. As though she has a sixth sense, she appears before he has even finished asking. 

“Ça va, capitaine?” She comes up to him to kiss his cheeks in the approved French fashion, cigarette in hand. Her posture is all Gallic nonchalance but her eyes are watchful. 

“Bien, ça va?”

She shrugs and suggests they take a walk. As an agent she has no permanent office here and he doesn’t want to make his request official until she has agreed so the grounds are the easiest place to talk without being overheard. Emma is due a rest period before being re-deployed so what Grant is asking is a favour, but they have a long history together and he trusts her without question.  There’s nobody he’d rather have on his side.

They stroll around the edge of the artificial lake. It’s a beautiful spot and Grant briefly wonders where the owners are living now, with the building seconded to SOE. Emma lights a second cigarette and offers him the packet but he refuses. 

“I forgot,” she says, “you quit after the last mission, didn’t you?”

Grant takes his own turn at the non-committal shrug. “Well, you know how it is. You set fire to your bandages once and it doesn’t encourage you to do it again.”

She laughs, breaking out of her persona and turning into the Emma he knows from parachute jumps and wild nights of running through the French countryside together.  They made a good team, once upon a time, reckless but efficient.

“Rumours say you have a problem with your ungentlemanly magicians,” she says, “Tell me about it.”

As he does so she turns grave, yet another side to her. Grant is never sure which one is really Emma.  Perhaps they all are. Perhaps they are all an act, to cover up whatever she feels about her estranged husband and dangerous work. Grant doesn’t particularly care. It makes her a gifted spy and he knows the most important thing: that he can trust her with his life.

“Magicians,” Emma makes an unladylike noise, “they’re all lies and deceit.  Even the ones supposedly on our side.  Particularly the ones supposedly on our side.” 

“But you know where to find them,” Grant says, “and I wouldn’t ask you if I wasn’t desperate.  Merlin thinks this will get us past the current problem and if it does, it will save lives.”

“Take care he doesn’t lose more than he saves in the process.”  Emma frowns at him. She has her reasons for disliking magicians: failed missions and close calls have embittered her to the profession as a whole.  Grant feels the urge to defend Merlin, to tell her he’s not like the ones who nearly got them both killed, not like any of the other magicians they have encountered either. He bites his tongue.

Emma studies him for a while, then nods as if satisfied with whatever she has read from his mind.  “I’ll do it,” she tells him, “on the condition that you let me choose my team.  I want the woman I was working with before.  She’s good. You should stay for dinner and I’ll introduce you.”

Grant would rather not stay, would rather go home and eat dinner with Merlin, but he owes it to Emma.  Of course, Sod’s Law means that the agent Emma has been working with is the same one who flirted with him at that first briefing. She’s very careful not to be overt about it, but there’s still an invitation in her eyes when they talk. She’s an amusing double act with Emma, recounting tales from their latest outing, which makes for a good evening. Then Emma starts on stories of her time with Grant, which makes him groan and hide his face. 

He just wishes that his mind, when faced with two attractive and entertaining women, wouldn’t so frequently return to Merlin like a lovesick fool.  Anecdotes have a way of becoming things to share with him.  Dinner becomes a path to wondering who else is eating with him in the canteen tonight: Merlin has got into the habit of calling for Grant and keeping him company. The ease of the conversation with Emma reminds him of the unexpected ease of talking to Merlin, of their French language practice, of playing as partners in Winespill’s card games, of nights at the pub.  None of them are things he can share with Emma and her friend.  He fears he probably sounds dull now, stuck behind a desk with all the things that make life worth living hidden behind a veil of secrecy. If so, Emma is kind enough not to say so.  She lets Grant sleep on the floor of her room, wrapped in borrowed blankets and in the morning he can leave, reassured by knowing that Emma will be on the ground to coordinate the mission for him. 

Sooner than he hoped, the logistics are settled and the date of the mission is known.  All that remains is for Grant’s men to fly to France. 

 

Taking action

Jonathan goes to Grant’s office to collect the borrowed RAF uniform before the mission.  He ‘forgot’ to do so earlier but it’s a convenient excuse.  When Grant calls for him to come in, he says, all innocence, “I came to collect my uniform.”

Grant isn’t fooled: he frowns and Jonathan can’t resist him when he’s being disapproving.  He locks the door and walks over to pin Grant into his chair. Grant makes a noise, half exasperation and half desire, and then lunges up at Jonathan for a kiss.

Bell told him to be careful.  She urged restraint, told him not to risk ruining things by seducing his commanding officer.  She told him to be careful of breaking Grant’s heart or his own.  Jonathan doesn’t want her caution.  He wants these illicit kisses, the thrill of having to be quiet and all the wonderful moments when Grant finally gives in and kisses him back. He needs it.  Besides, Bell has been too busy to repeat her warnings; too busy to call or write more than the shortest of letters.  Jonathan thinks if she knew what it was like, working here, how much the risk of losing someone and being at fault crawls under his skin, she would understand.  Grant is safe.  He’s always in command, always reliable.  After Jeremy, he knew what to say and do to make it bearable. How can Jonathan not fall for him, just a little?

Grant has never allowed it to go further than kissing after that first time, even though the definition of kisses is stretched to the point of Jonathan losing his jacket and two buttons off his shirt.

“Stop!  God, Merlin, stop!” Grant pushes his hands between them and Jonathan pulls back. Grant tells him to leave, but trails his hand over the side of Jonathan’s face and Jonathan turns to follow the movement, pushing his head against it to kiss the palm until Grant pulls his hand away, telling him,  “you’ll be late.”

One last kiss turns into two and Merlin is very nearly late after all, scrambling into his borrowed uniform practically on his way to the plane and leaving his own jacket behind. 

 

Grant finds himself sitting in his office and watching the clock.  He saw the men onto the plane along with the supplies then came back here, already calculating the time. This much time for the flight, this much time to disembark.  The mission has been planned with precision: a plane to drop them, a set time to plant the explosives and another plane to fly out and collect them. Until the barrier falls they are working blind.  Grant can only hope that they will stick to the plan.  The clock ticks slowly. 

 

On the journey to France, time is hurtling forwards at an impossible rate. Childermass insists on going over the plan one last time and then there is the business of dividing up the explosives and detonators. Nobody says anything, but Jonathan does have the wit to see that it’s in case someone dies before they get there, so they don’t lose all the equipment at the same time.  It’s not a comforting thought.  

He has never worked with French magicians before but he has Childermass’ word that they can be trusted.  Childermass himself will carry part of the spell, working at the other end of their section of the line.  Because he is responsible for only part of the magic, Jonathan has also been given his share of the explosives to place. Ned gave him a lesson in how to use them safely but however many times he has been told that they are safe until attached to a detonator, they are an uncomfortable weight in his pack. He keeps it to himself while the others talk.  It’s the usual mocking banter and Jonathan wonders how long it will take him to feel as though he can face joining in.  This is, after all, only his third mission.  Childermass must have been on ten times as many. 

 

Grant pours himself a drink.  If the plan is still going according to timetable, they will be approaching the drop zone now.  He can still remember the rush of it, plummeting into the night sky, hoping to get to the ground without someone shooting at you.  It’s a rush: one he misses now he’s tied to a desk. With very little imagination he can still feel the tug of parachute straps against his chest.  He worries about Merlin, so inexperienced at this. What if he doesn’t pull the chute in time?  Or panics? He squashes the feeling down. To worry this much is a weakness, and not one he can afford.  The burn of whiskey helps.  The bottle is getting close to empty now despite his ‘emergencies only’ rationing and who knows when he will get another.  He’ll have to deal with the problem another way. 

 

Strange lands with a thump and a roll and begins the familiar task of freeing himself from his parachute. The first time he landed in France, Jeremy helped him.  Now he must do it alone. 

“Quickly everyone, we have a timetable!” Childermass is in command tonight.  He gathers them together and leads them at a brisk trot to meet their contact at the tracks.  Jonathan can barely see anyone in the darkness but he can hear them, or perhaps sense them, running around along the line.  The men scatter along the length of it and drop low, flattening themselves to the bank.

The arrival of the train is a shock of noise and light, roaring its way to the depot.  It does at least confirm that they are on schedule.  They have forty-five minutes to manage the whole operation before another train tries to pass.  Jonathan reaches for the magic to lift the enchantment on the rails. This time he has forsaken his notes: every piece of war magic he does feels easier. 

 

Grant has taken up pacing the floor. Arthur came to find him earlier, as the shifts changed, and asked Grant if he wanted to eat before Arthur went off shift.  He didn’t. He envies Arthur his calm. William flew the plane out to France this evening.  He will be back soon, for a night’s sleep in Arthur’s bed.  Grant envies him the luxury of it. 

They are between trains now.  If the spells have been placed as they should have been, the explosives should be going down.  Henri is their demolitions expert tonight and will be handling the detonation. If the spells work, if breaking the line works, if, if, if…

Grant has Segundus on watch over a silver dish in the main office.  If the enchantment breaks as it should, he will inform Grant immediately. 

Grant looks at the clock once more. Perhaps it would be better to wait out there with the others, or perhaps it would be better for the others not to see him in such a state?  He could call Segundus in here. 

He walks to the door but pauses: Strange’s jacket is still lying on the floor; incriminating evidence of what they were doing earlier. Grant picks it up. He cannot hide it, but he can at least make it look less obviously out of place. 

 

Jonathan, spells finished, is crawling along the tracks in the dark with the explosives in his hands.  They are a new kind apparently, that can be bent like putty around the rails.  He has one more to go, just one more, but time is short.  He fumbles, dropping the detonator he was attaching. 

“Here, I’ve got it.”  The woman next to him is in shadow; he has barely spared her a glance but that voice…

She holds out the detonator and everything stops.

 

In England, Grant folds Merlin’s jacket to place it over the back of a chair and a square of paper falls from the pocket.

As soon as he picks it up he knows what he has done, how badly he has miscalculated.  The woman in the photograph, one he recognises by code name only, the agent he almost recruited, the agent who flirts at briefings, his agent… is Arabella Strange. 

 

“Bell!”

He calls it out instinctively, even though he shouldn’t.  It’s out of his mouth before his mind has time to stop it.  She stares at him in shock.

“Jonathan?”

There isn’t a moment to process it. Into the silence of their mutual surprise comes a cacophony of noise: shouting from all directions.

English voices.  “Move back!  Everybody move back! Get off the line!”

Then, from the shadows, “Arrêtez!”

French voices shout: commands to stop, to freeze, to drop weapons.  The scene is floodlit from the trees, blinding them as they try to run.  Jonathan and Bell run in the opposite directions in the panic. Soldiers with guns raised surround them in the bright, white light.  It’s too late though, too late to warn Henri further down the track with his detonators and his timetable.  The track explodes, blazing up between them and sending Jonathan flying backwards to land, winded, on the bank with his eyebrows singed and his up flung hands scorched. Mud covers him, thrown up by the blast. In the confusion of smoke, he sees men struggling up and shouting, uniforms mud spattered and dirty. People flee in all directions. He can see Bell, hauling herself up out of the dirt with Emilie helping her. 

“Bell!” he shouts, “Bell, this way!”

He can see the danger before she sees it herself: the man behind her reaching out.  She shouts, screams, but Jonathan can’t hear her properly over the ringing in his ears.  The men drag her away and there’s nothing he can do.  He tries to get up, to follow, but someone behind him drags him backwards, forcing him further away. 

Bell still struggles, kicking out. Jonathan watches through blurred eyes as one of the men hits her, hard against the side of her head. She goes still. As he’s dragged away, Jonathan can’t even be sure if she’s still alive. 

Chapter Text

The flight home

Jonathan is numb.

 

Childermass, who half dragged Jonathan from the railway, deposits him on one of the seats in the plane and leaves him there. He has more important things to worry about, counting the men aboard as fast as he can, accounting for stragglers. One of his men is dead and Winespill has been shot, the bullet cutting across his upper arm. Ned helps Childermass administer first aid as soon as the plane gets into the air. At least it looks more messy than serious and if they can stop the bleeding he ought to be alright: just one new scar to show his wife when he goes home.

There are other injuries: a sprained ankle, some cuts from shrapnel from the explosion, ringing ears all round. Merlin is his last remaining responsibility, but he looks like he will need more than bandages and a mouthful of spirits to cure him, so Childermass leaves him for a moment and goes to confer with the pilot. They still don’t know if the enchantment is broken or not: he thinks it did break, but it’s hard to tell the difference between the feel of magic and the shock from the blast. If SOE can now see into France, all hell will be breaking loose back in England.

Childermass returns to Merlin. He hasn’t moved an inch from where Childermass left him. He stares fixedly at the floor and his burnt hands are shaking. When Childermass rinses them with the last of the water in his canteen, Merlin hardly seems to notice the sting.

He just sits and shakes without saying a word.

 

All hands

The unit resembles a hornets’ nest after a good kicking. The big central table has been cleared and along the wall, magicians are bent over vision spells, calling out the names of the captured, the living, and the dead.

“Three men gone from Unit Five.”

“Two survivors confirmed Unit Seven.”

“I’ve got contact with Collette. Henri is dead; they shot him after he set off the explosion. She got away with three others, but there’s no word from Emilie.”

Grant is working with William on the map they have of the area, laying out who was there, who is left. The incriminating photograph of Arabella Strange burns in his pocket.

“Grant! I want you on the radio!” Arthur has been on the telephone with the other Unit Commander operating in this area of France but now emerges from his office, downing a mug of coffee. This emergency got him out of bed, still unshaven and hair unkempt. At least he has his own clothes on. William, Grant can’t help but notice, is wearing one of Arthur’s shirts. He’s in that state of hyper-vigilance that has kept him alive in France so long, noticing everything as fast as he can in case it makes the difference between life and death. The details of today will be imprinted in his memory forever. It’s why, when the ground crew return, he sees in a moment that the worst must have happened.

“Childermass, Strange, I want you in my office now.”

Arthur must have seen the same thing. The scribbled notes on the table say that Emilie is on the list of those who may have been captured and they both know who she was working with. Grant showed Arthur the photograph in the five minutes they had before all hell broke loose.

He sees Segundus look up, poised as though to run across the room to Childermass but holding himself in check. Childermass nods at him, and Segundus turns back to his desk. Grant rather envies them the certainty of their relationship.

“Grant! Forget the radio, I need you in on this.” Arthur is summoning him. For a split second he contemplates making some excuse but he knows it would be cowardly. He squares his shoulders and goes in.  

In Arthur’s office, Strange is slumped in a chair, saying nothing. Childermass does the talking, giving them his version of what happened and filling in the blanks that vision spells didn’t cover. Grant takes notes. The situation is bad, but perhaps not as bad as first feared, if only the soldiers had not managed to take prisoners.

Childermass finishes his report, looking at Strange. “Is there anything you want to add, sir?” he asks. Strange shakes his head, not looking up.

There is a silence. Childermass and Arthur turn their eyes to Grant.

“Merlin?” he says, hating what he has to ask. “You were the only man there with a clear view of your section. I have to ask this. Did you see any agents taken captive? We need confirmation.”

“Yes.”

“How many agents?”

Merlin says nothing.

“Merlin.”

“Two, there were two agents.”

Grant swallows hard. “I need names Merlin.”

“You know who they were, Grant, you know very well who they were.” Merlin looks up for the first time. He meets Grant’s eyes: hard and angry. “Did you know? Did you send me out there, knowing this would happen?”

“Merlin,” Arthur says, warningly, “we need confirmation of names from an eye witness.”

“The agent you called Emilie and my wife. Is that sufficient confirmation?”

“I swear to you Jonathan, I didn’t know.” It’s what Grant has wanted to say since Merlin walked in but it doesn’t do anything to help.

“How could you not know?”

“Childermass, you don’t need to be here for this.” Arthur dismisses him and Childermass goes. It’s probably best that nobody else hears.

“Unless I directly recruit an agent to this unit I only have code names, the aliases they use in France. I don’t see their real names. It’s part of the security protocol. I met her, certainly, but I’d never seen a photograph of your wife so I had no way of knowing that she and my agent were the same person.”

“Your agent. She was never just your agent. She was… everything. But she said she was working in an office. I had letters from her.” Merlin is less angry now, heading towards disbelief.

“We train our agents to lie. It’s essential. Nobody can know, Merlin, not even those closest to them.”

“I knew there were times when she couldn’t talk on the phone. I thought she was just busy, that they worked her too hard. The woman in her office, was that one of your people, employed to turn people away when they called?”

“Probably.”

“But I had letters from her, letters about ordinary things: dresses, the girls she worked with, rationing. Those can’t have been sent from France. How long was she there?”

“Merlin, I can’t disclose an agent’s operational history. It is classified information. But if there are delays in the arrival of letters most people blame the post office nowadays and some of our agents will write letters in advance, to be posted after deployment.”

Grant can see Jonathan digesting the information. It’s a hard thing to hear, to know that the person you love has been hiding so much of themselves: how many subterfuges agents must enact on their family and friends.

He tries to soften the blow. “She did good work, necessary work. For her country.”

“She was helping me with my French. I knew she was good, but I never imagined this.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I just… I need her back Grant. What do I do, to get her back?”

“Merlin, you have to understand…”

“She can’t be gone, this can’t be the end. She’s still there, somewhere, in France. We have to get her back. There must be some way, some magic. Tell me, what do I do? You can rescue her, can’t you?”

He looks so desperate, so pleading. Grant doesn’t have the heart to tell him that she may already be beyond saving. That this may not be within his power to fix.

“This is not a topic to discuss now.” Arthur is the one to save him, even though it is only a postponement of the truth. “Mr Strange, I suggest you have those burns looked at.”

Arthur goes to the door and bellows “De Lancey!” at full volume. Grant can only hear half of the resulting conversation. His attention is all on Merlin, who has folded in on himself again, picking at his sleeves and apparently lost in thought. Grant hopes he isn’t planning something stupid.

“Well get him off the bloody telephone, I want him in here.” Arthur slams the door. “Merlin, William is going to take you to medical and then I want to you eat something and sleep. I don’t want you doing anything stupid: understand? No attempts at magic, no scrying, no, I don’t know, summoning a faerie and putting everyone’s lives at risk.”

Merlin looks up, already starting to protest.

“No, Merlin, I want your word. Otherwise I’ll have to make sure you are not a risk to the rest of my men. Do I have it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.”

There is a brief knock at the door and then William appears.

“William, take Merlin to medical would you and feed him.”

“Of course. Um, Arthur, I’m afraid there is something you should know. I’ve been on the phone to Sir Walter.”

“Fuck.”

“Precisely. He wanted you to call him.” William makes his escape with Merlin in tow. Arthur scowls at the telephone as though it might leap up and attack him at any moment.

“So now I must explain to another man why his wife is captive in France. Grant, I suggest you get out there and keep an eye on things. I’ll call a meeting later. No doubt Sir Walter will have something to say on what we do next.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Tell me Grant, what the fuck did I do to deserve this?”

 

“Segundus, take a break.” Grant points at him, then with a quick jerk of his thumb, dismisses him from his post. Another magician is lined up ready to take his place and Segundus flees. It’s barely dawn outside, only a faint grey light showing, but Childermass is there, waiting for him with open arms.

Segundus throws himself into them, despite the mud sticking to John’s clothes and the bitter, smoky smell that clings to him.

“My God, John, I thought you were dead!”

“So did I. I’m so sorry love.”

The two of them hold tight against the stress of the last few hours: the strain of waiting and then the pressure of the work that needed doing.

“Did you hear about Strange’s wife?” Childermass asks him, when the five minutes of falling apart he has allowed himself are over.

“Yes, Cassandra told me, she heard it from Ned. Poor man.” Segundus frowns in sympathy. “I can only imagine how he must be feeling.”

“As can I. I don’t suppose he’ll be doing much for the next few hours. It was right in front of him, poor bastard.”

Segundus shivers, half from cold and half from imagined fear. “I don’t know what I’d do.”

“I do.” Childermass sounds so certain that Segundus looks up in surprise.

“You do?”

“Aye, I do. I’d steal a plane and go to France to raise hell until I got you back. What did you think? What wouldn’t I do, to get you back?”

“If they ask you, will you go with them to get Mrs Strange back?”

“John…” Childermass has no answer. He is a soldier and he will get his orders whether he likes them or not.

“You should go,” Segundus tells him. “You should go, for Strange’s sake and hers. Just promise you’ll do your best to come home safely.” He squeezes Childermass’ hand tight.

“I promise, love. You know I’ll always try to come home to you.”

 

The day is a long one for all of them. Breaks are snatched where they can get them but there’s no real rest. Eventually the stream of information from France starts to slow and Arthur calls a meeting, although he tells Jonathan that he is there as a courtesy only.

Sir Walter, it appears, has had a great many things to say about his wife’s imprisonment. Arthur looks like a man who has weathered a great storm and is now bracing himself for the next one.

“The difficulty is,” he explains for Merlin’s benefit, “that we use female agents because they arouse less suspicion. They are able to make enquiries more freely, particularly when most of the men are in the armed forces. However, they cannot be classed as combatants. They do not have the same protection as the men and are unlikely to be made prisoners of war. If caught… I’m afraid there is very little we can do about it. I’m sorry Merlin.”

“Surely you can’t… surely you don’t mean to tell me that there’s nothing you can do?”

“Merlin,” Grant says, “you have to understand, if we staged a rescue mission we would put a lot of other people at risk. There is an element of balance, of probable gain against acceptable loses. I hate to lose anyone, but hard as it is, we must be realistic about the chances.”

Jonathan can hear the words but his whole mind is rebelling against them. He clings to hope, even though he knows rationally that Grant is doing his best to take it away.

“But you escaped,” Jonathan says, “if you were able to get free, surely there is a chance that they might do the same.”

“I’m afraid the method I used would be unavailable to them.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. Why would it be unavailable?”

“You have permission to tell him,” Arthur says to Grant.

“It is unavailable because I doubt that any of the interrogators would be female. I was fortunate; one of the men was not dissimilar to me in height and appearance. I learned the rotation of the guards and when this particular solider was interviewing me, I killed him and took his uniform. I was able to leave before they noticed what had happened.” Grant makes it all sound so clipped, so… ordinary, as though escaping from prison was no great matter, no more than a magician making a door and stepping through it.

“But surely if you managed to get out, you could get in the same way?”

“I’m afraid that strategy is highly unlikely to succeed. I left by replacing one of their own soldiers, however briefly, this would require bluffing one’s way through the front gate.”

“It’s too risky to go in unannounced,” Arthur tells him, “you’d be likely to be taken prisoner, if not shot on sight, trying to enter without the correct papers.”

“But surely,” Jonathan says, “it is better to try than to leave them there without doing anything.”   He feels like the only sane man in the room, the only one who can see what this really means beyond all the talk of risk and strategy.

“Merlin, I don’t think you understand what you’re asking.” William says, sharply.

“I don’t think any of you appreciate what you are allowing to happen by refusing to do anything!”

“Merlin, Grant does have the experience but he is also a high risk target. Deploying him into enemy territory risks a lot more than his own skin.” Arthur looks sympathetic and Jonathan hates him for it.

“Grant, please. These were your agents: you recruited them. Surely you must want to get them back safely. Please?”

Grant doesn’t so much as blink, just keeps looking at the opposite wall. It’s William who reacts, angrily. “Don’t ask him that unless you understand what you are sending him back to! You keep asking, thinking of nothing but your wife and not even considering what happened in France when he was captured, what would happen to him if he was captured again.”

“William!” Grant finally snaps, “Shut up! This isn’t helping.”

“No, Grant, I will not shut up! If he’d seen you when you came back from France, he wouldn’t dare ask you. Or question your loyalty to your agents. Don’t go back, it’s madness. You know it is. You can’t do that again.”

“You cannot ask me to sit here and do nothing while they execute my wife!” Jonathan is at the end of his patience. “He told me what happened in France: he killed a man and stole his uniform. I don’t see that that was so particularly dreadful compared to leaving two women in France to be, to be killed for following his orders. We are at war after all. I don’t suppose it was the first time he killed someone.”

A muscle in Grant’s jaw twitches. Arthur’s face looks particularly blank.

“What have I not been told?” The atmosphere tells him he has overstepped but nobody appears willing to enlighten him. “William?”

“What he neglected to tell you about his escape was that they tortured him first.”

“William!” Grant’s rebuke has no effect and William continues regardless.

“Would you prefer I said ‘interrogated’? I saw you when you came back, with your fingernails missing and half the bones in your hand broken. You see Merlin, they knew Grant was someone relatively high up and they wanted to make him talk. So they interrogated him, and when that didn’t work, they beat him. To escape he had to get out of handcuffs, kill a man and walk out of there as if nothing hurt. And then, the stupid bastard, he walked half the way home with broken ribs. If the man on the boat hadn’t known him already, they’d probably have shot him, turning up in a German uniform unannounced.”

Jonathan feels sick. Grant is sitting rigidly, back perfectly upright and Jonathan can see him, so clearly, walking through the enemy with his perfect posture and his broken ribs, waiting for someone to recognise him, to kill him. And then, like a nightmare, he sees Bell in the same situation, beaten and in pain. He’s seen the scars, faint white on Grant’s hands and he imagines what must have caused them, how Bell’s delicate hands would look…

William is still talking, still describing horrific things, and it makes Jonathan dizzy.

“For God’s sake William, stop it. Think for a second: you’re telling him what his wife might be going through at this moment.”

Jonathan really might be sick.

“He had to know.” William sounds cold now and Jonathan wants to hit him the way he did after Jeremy died, sending him reeling for being such an unfeeling bastard.

“And you want me to leave her there.” He says, voice sounding strange even to his own ears, “How the fuck would you feel if it was your wife?”

There’s a small, shocked intake of breath from William. He looks down, not meeting anyone’s eyes. Grant is staring at Arthur. The atmosphere was already thick with cigarette smoke, now you could cut it with a knife.

“Enough.” Arthur allows the full weight of his command to fall on the single word. “Flight Lieutenant De Lancey, would you like to be excused? Mr Strange?”

Jonathan shakes his head. He can’t risk leaving, however ill he feels. He has to be here to fight for Arabella. William stubs out his cigarette and goes. The clatter of his chair is loud in the sudden silence. The door bangs behind him and everyone draws a breath.

“I don’t know if a rescue operation can be carried out within an acceptable level of risk.” Grant says, looking at Arthur.

“That would be a decision to make between us, if we had an appropriate plan. I will not make that decision without one in place. The question is not whether or not it should be attempted, but if the attempt is possible.” Arthur nods at Grant.

“Please,” Jonathan says, reduced to pleading, “if I can help in any way, with whatever you do…”

“Tell me, could you kill a man by magic?” Grant asks, staring at him as though he can read the true answer, regardless of what Merlin says out loud.

“I don’t know. I’ve never considered…”

“You wrote once that a magician could kill a man, but a gentleman ought not. We have a copy of the article on file. If you wish to help me Merlin, you will have to reconsider your position.”

“I wrote that article a long time ago, when I was still working with Mr Norrell.”

“That doesn’t tell me whether your opinion has changed. A rescue mission, if one can be planned, would be far more dangerous than anything you have done before. It would almost certainly require you to kill.”

“I think that none of these decisions are to be taken lightly.” Arthur saves Jonathan from having to reply. “We have no plan at present, nor could we implement any rescue operation tonight. The forecast is for adverse weather across the channel. I suggest we take a break, have some rest and reconvene when the situation changes.”

 

Afterwards

Jonathan spends the afternoon in the restless and fruitless study of magical books. Nothing seems to make sense. Everything that was once certain is clouded with doubt, with fear, with the overwhelming loss he feels. Arabella is so far away from him, in so much danger and he is powerless. He reads her letters, so carefully kept, trying to work out which ones were real and which ones were sent when she was abroad. The deception stings. He always thought their relationship was so open, that they could tell each other anything. But even as it hurts, he’s so proud of her. Bell, doing something so incredibly brave, something that needs such skill and oh, how he wishes he could see her and tell her how proud he is.

He scribbles plans and discards them: each as improbable and impossible as the last. Eventually Childermass and Segundus march him off to eat something. He doesn’t taste it, tells them he can only spare half an hour, but the food makes him suddenly tired and he sleeps, bent over his books with the photograph of Bell in his hand.

Much later he goes to Grant’s room and taps on the door. He hasn’t seen him since Grant left the closed door meeting with Arthur but they have unfinished business and much as his heart is in France with Arabella, there are things he cannot leave unsaid.

“Grant?” he says as he knocks, “I wanted a word, please. Will you open the door?”

He stands so long in the corridor that he’s contemplating walking away when the door finally opens.

“What do you want, Merlin?”

“Can I come in, just for a moment?” Grant, somewhat reluctantly, allows him in. “I wanted to apologise. For earlier, I mean. It wasn’t fair of me to ask you to go. It wasn’t fair of me to use what we have to ask you to risk your life for Bell’s.”

“Strange…” Grant drops onto his chair. “What do you want me to say? They are my agents. My mission got them captured, and one of them is your wife. One of them is the wife of the one of the highest ranking members of SOE . I wish I could save them, you have asked me to save them, but to do it risks every man I take with me and every agent whose life is put at risk if I am captured.”

“I’m sorry.” Jonathan puts his hand on Grant’s shoulder but Grant shakes it off.

“Don’t,” he says, voice full of warning, “don’t touch me like that and ask me to risk my life for the woman you married.”

“I’m sorry.” It’s all he seems to be saying now. “I didn’t realise, I mean, I’d heard the rumours about what happened in France but I didn’t know how bad it had been.”

“You can’t have thought it was anything good. You’re not so foolish Jonathan.”

“I know. I suppose I didn’t think. Was it… was it how De Lancey described it?”

“It was worse. You don’t know, you can’t imagine it. You go through all the training, try to imagine what you’d do and how it would feel, but I didn’t know until I was there.” Grant shakes his head, puts his face in his hands and rubs at it as though trying to scrub away the memories. He continues, “And I was one of the lucky ones. I was with a man called Leon, a local man, when we were captured. They realised I was in command and when I wouldn’t talk…” He falls silent.

“What happened? I wish to understand, if you will tell me. Or perhaps understand is not the right word. I would like to listen, if you will tell me.”

“There’s not much to tell, Merlin. They killed him, in front of me. They made him kneel with a gun to the back of his head and said that if I talked, they would let him go. If I remained silent they would kill him. He… he begged me…”

There are tears in his eyes. This time he does not pull away from Jonathan’s hand. “To talk would have caused the deaths of many more men. I had no choice but to remain silent. I still see him, I still hear him. I remember every one of my agents who dies but Leon, I remember him more clearly than anyone else.”

“Grant…”

“I think you should leave now.”

“I didn’t…”

Grant looks up at him, “I mean it. I’d like you to leave. I have a decision to make and I can’t make it with you here.”

Jonathan leaves, letting go of him even though his instinct says to stay, to comfort. Knowing he cannot help either of the people he cares most about is the hardest thing of all.

 

“Will he go to France?” William is sitting on Arthur’s bed, brow furrowed. They are both tired, over tired, and Arthur wishes they didn’t have to have this conversation now.

“Grant? I don’t know.”

“You won’t stop him?”

“I’ve told him it’s his decision. I’d prefer it if he refuse, but you can see that politically, with Emma involved, the decision is complicated.”

“And with Mrs Strange.”

“That too.” Arthur sighs heavily. Mrs Strange is a complication they don’t need. “The French have contacted the higher ups. We assume they will send someone to collect the prisoners, which gives us our way in if we choose to take it.”

“Did you know?”

“About Grant and Merlin? I knew something had happened after Jeremy was killed. Did you?”

William shakes his head. “He didn’t tell me. I wondered, but he never said anything. So much for his rules!” William sounds bitter.

“I suppose that was why he didn’t tell you. I hoped…” Arthur sighs. “I hoped it would end of its own accord and that would be that, no hard feelings and Strange would go back to his wife.”

“And is that what you thought was best?” William gets up, going to the window to fidget with the blackout curtain. Arthur watches him.

“Wartime affairs can be… messy. Perhaps it’s better if people go into them with their eyes open or never start them at all.”

William’s reply is spoken very quietly. Arthur isn’t sure if he’s supposed to hear. “It seems unfair sometimes, that that’s all there is. That the best option is for it just to end.”

“William…”

“Is that what you hope for? Do you want it to stop now?”

“William,” Arthur goes to stand next to him, tries to turn William to face him but he won’t turn and his face is set like stone. “I was talking about Grant and Merlin. This wasn’t about us.”

“I don’t want…” William swallows hard. “I don’t want to watch you walk away. I don’t want to see you and not have you. I don’t want it to be over, but I’ve no right to ask you to stay.”

“William, when we started this we both knew that this would be… it wasn’t meant to be anything more than an affair. We never made any promises.” William flinches away from him; Arthur pulls him back. “Listen to me, you young fool. I meant to say, we never talked about this, but that doesn’t mean I want it to end. I don’t want to lose what we have.”

“Neither of us are free to have it! You have your sons and I…”

“I know. I know why we can’t but I do care about you and I hope...”

“Don’t, please Arthur, don’t” William looks wretched. “Don’t say it if you can’t mean it.”

“I do mean it. Come here. We’re both tired; we don’t have to talk about this now. Let me take you to bed.”

William goes, letting himself be tucked into Arthur’s arms, letting himself be kissed and undressed. He’s always laughed at the phrase ‘making love’, assumed it was essentially a code for boring sex between the placidly married. Arthur doesn’t say the words, doesn’t say anything, but the phrase appears in William’s mind unbidden. Loving hands can still pin him down; tenderness can demand its own surrender. Maybe it’s still the wrong way to describe it, maybe making love shouldn’t involve teeth and bruises, but he knows that Arthur loves him and it is, without question, the best sex of his life.

 

On the far side of hell

The bare lightbulb swings above them, the light stinging Bell’s eyes.

“Tell me what you know about the English magicians.”

She says nothing. This was her training. Give them nothing, no matter what they threaten, no matter what they do. Die, if you have to, but do not speak.

“You will have to tell me eventually, my dear.”

The interrogator smiles, another change of mood. She has been keeping herself sane by watching for the techniques, for the things she was taught to expect and have used against her.

“If you do not tell me something, next time it will not be her fingers.” Emma is a heap on the floor in front of Bell, curled around her hand. The interrogator pulls her up, his hand holding her chin hard enough to bruise. “Next time it will be her neck.”

He twists Emma’s face to his. “Such a shame. She is, after all, very beautiful.”

Emma spits in his face and he slaps her for it.

He gets bored not long after that and has them thrown back in the cell they have been in since they arrived. Bell is losing track of how long it has been. A day? More than a day? There’s nothing to mark the passing time. Emma is weeping silently. She’s taken the brunt of the abuse, perhaps trying to spare Bell the worst of it.

Bell tears strips from her skirt to bind Emma’s hand. There’s no food, only a little water but she lets Emma drink most of it. It’s cold and dark: no way of knowing if it’s morning or night. The two of them huddle together for warmth.

Bell finds herself thinking of Jonathan, even though she told herself she mustn’t. She recalls his face in the darkness by the railway line and his shock. If only she’d told him, or had time to explain.

“What are you thinking of?” Emma asks her.

“My husband,” Bell replies, “I was wishing I could talk to him.”

“Really? I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to talk to mine.”

“I don’t think I could help wanting to talk to him. I think a lot of the joy in life is to see his face when I tell him things.”

“That sounds very different to my husband. Although, perhaps, I would have liked to dance with him, one last time.”

Bell sobs once, remembering the last time Jonathan took her dancing. She quickly stifles the noise but not quickly enough.

“Don’t cry, my dear,” Emma tells her, “I will protect you as long as I can. Just stay strong, and say nothing. Fix your mind on something good and try to remember that instead of anything else.”

“Is there no chance of a rescue?” Bell asks, already knowing the answer.

“I don’t think you should count on it. But who knows. If you get the chance, run.”

 

Chapter Text

Grant

From the moment an agent is taken captive, the clock begins to tick. Nobody knows how long it will take until they break under interrogation, or when their interrogators will decide, having no further use for the prisoner, to kill them. When an urgent dispatch from Station X arrives, telling them that a request has been sent to Germany to arrange transfer of two ‘valuable assets’ thought to be in possession of information pertaining to British activity on French soil, Grant knows that the clock is running out. There is a window of opportunity, however brief and if he is going to act it must be now.

 

Grant takes the German uniform out of the cupboard where it has been kept since his return from France the last time. The clothes are heavy on the hanger. A dead man’s uniform. The enemy’s uniform. It feels wrong to wear it but it is, regrettably, necessary.

William, who promised Grant that he’d be there to fly them out no matter how stupid a plan he thought it was, cuts his hair for him. It has been getting longer recently, growing out of the regulation army cut because nobody in SOE really cares. Freshly cut, cropped close at the sides and slicked down on top, it changes his face so he looks like a stranger in the mirror. Grant dresses slowly, carefully, making sure that no detail is out of place, nothing that might give him away. When he goes out to the pre-mission briefing the others look differently at him: an instinctive flinch away from the uniform and the man within it.

 

On the flight into Germany, Grant says nothing even though there are only two of them on this mission. Childermass offered to come with them but Grant refused: it’s a high-risk mission. Better that they arrive and leave with minimal personnel to account for. They are flying in at night and meeting allies from the resistance on the ground in the morning.

He sits at the far end of the plane, away from Merlin. It’s no good dressing the part of an enemy officer if he can’t act the part and he needs to forget himself for the time being. To pack the real Grant away until needed. He presses his hands over his face to shut out the world. When the pilot gives the word, he stands up like a different man. Colder, sterner: the man he might have been if he’d be born in a different country, had to join a different army.  

 

Merlin

If they are to replace of the German officer and his men arriving to collect the prisoners, they must first remove the original men and relieve them of their documents.

Jonathan has seen men killed before, saw Jeremy die in front of him, but he’s never watched it done with such cold efficiency. Nor has he seen it done by his own side: it has always been the Germans or the French and he has been able to call them the enemy for it. Now he has to stand by the side of the road, keeping lookout and watching as his allies kill the German soldiers in cold blood. Watching Grant is the worst. Jonathan tells him he shouldn’t feel such horror, that he always knew Grant was a soldier. But still, it shocks him to see the man be so merciless.

The grim work must be done quickly, cleanly, leaving no mess in the vehicle and minimising the time spent exposed on the road. If they are discovered too soon, there will be no chance of a rescue. They patch together uniforms for Jonathan and the two Frenchmen coming with them. Only Grant has a uniform that looks as though it were made for him, but as he will be the focus of the deception the deficiencies in the rest of their disguises will hopefully be overlooked.

Grant is calm as they drive through the security gates. The man posing as his driver chats to the guards as they check through the paperwork. Jonathan is under orders not to say anything: neither his French nor his German are good enough to sound convincing.

Grant greets the man in charge with an exchange of salutes and navigates the examination of the paperwork with ease. He calls Jonathan, the most convincingly dressed of their group, to follow him when it is time to collect the prisoners. Going down to the cells makes Jonathan’s skin crawl. When the door swings open and he sees Arabella he has to fight with himself not to run forward. Emma, gifted agent that she is, leaps up in front of Bell, shouting that she won’t go with them. She swears at Grant in French and spits at him. In the brief tussle to restrain her, nobody watches Bell, and by the time Emma is in handcuffs, she has schooled her face into such complete blankness Jonathan could believe that she has no idea who he is at all.

It’s remarkably easy to push the two women in front of him, down the corridor, up the steps and out towards the prison vehicle. Almost too easy, perhaps so it comes as no surprise to him when it suddenly goes wrong.

 

Grant

“Sir!” Calls one of the soldiers, “Leutnant Werner asked if you could spare him a moment.”

Grant calmly turns to face the man. “Leutnant Werner?”

“Yes sir, he said you trained together.”

“Certainly, a pleasure to see him again. I shall just get the prisoners secured.” He smiles, like a man genuinely pleased to see an old friend and turns to Merlin.

“Get those women inside,” he barks for the ears of the men around them. Then he moves closer, casually and says in a quiet voice, “Tell our driver. On my word, get out of here, full speed. You must kill the sentries on the gate. If I’m not in the vehicle, kill me too.” Jonathan opens his mouth to protest but Grant continues in the same quiet voice, “no, no arguments. Follow orders and don’t give our friends here a reason to be suspicious.” He smiles and makes a show of checking the documents Merlin is holding. When Jonathan goes back to sit with the driver and tell him the plan, Grant makes idle conversation with the man who came to fetch them. He feels very calm.

A door opens in the barracks. A man calls out the name of his assumed identity. Grant turns, as though to greet him.

“Now!” he calls, in English. He hits out at the man he was talking to, takes his gun. He’s been rehearsing it while they talked. No mistakes. Target down and take the weapon. Run.

Their vehicle is moving already, Grant lunges for it, missing. The first enemy guns are turning on them now, surprise turning to shouted orders, bullets rattling off the side of the van. He thinks he won’t make it, isn’t fast enough, but then Emma is there, grabbing at his arms and hauling him into the back. Jonathan must have freed them from the handcuffs. Good man. The sentries are dead, not shot as he expected but killed by magic, caught in grotesque twists of mud. Looking at them, he’s glad he doesn’t have to experience the same death at Merlin’s hands. It’s a rough ride, bouncing down the road at full speed but he keeps firing, picking off pursuers. They will be hunted down eventually.

Grant shouts to the driver, but he already knows what to do, cutting across country and trying to lose their tail. It would be so much easier at night, but this is broad daylight and there’s nowhere to hide.   They head for the cover of some trees so they can ditch the vehicle and flee on foot. They are much too noticeable in a stolen van. The Frenchmen go one way, heading for home, while Grant leads the others to their rendezvous point at a run. It’s a breathless dash, all of them tired but running on adrenaline.

When they get to the farmhouse, Remy is out there, waiting for them with his gun raised. Grant calls to him, not to shoot despite the German uniforms. Remy lowers the weapon slowly but keeps it to hand. He’s an old man, gruff and weather-beaten, but a damn good shot and a good man to have on your side in a crisis.

He herds them all into the farmhouse, no time for explanations, and lets them drop down into the shelter built from an old cellar and hidden from view. The trapdoor bangs shut above them. All they can do is wait.

 

Merlin

It’s pitch black in the cellar where they hide: nothing like the times that Jonathan spent waiting in hiding with Jeremy. Then they had had a small amount of light and been able to play cards, aware of the need for quiet but not under a particular threat. Now, in the suffocating darkness, they are almost afraid to breathe. It’s more of a coal store than a cellar, small and cramped with barely room to stretch. They are trapped here. If they are discovered, there’s nowhere to run.

At least he isn’t there alone in the darkness. Arabella is pressed close against him, his arm around her. He can’t see her face but he can at least hold her hand and stroke her hair. Any way he can think of to convey how glad he is to be with her again. On his other side, his knee rests against Grant’s.

They wait.

There’s no way to tell what time of day it is down here, only when they grow thirsty and hungry and cramped from sitting in such a small space. Above them, they can hear Remy’s family moving around but every creak of the floorboards makes Jonathan worry. Grant passes him a flask with water in it by touch, hands fumbling in the dark. At least they have that much.

There’s a bang above them, like a door being kicked open. Shouting. Heavy footsteps. The water slops cold against Jonathan’s shirt as he jumps.

Jonathan feels Grant flinch next to him, muscles tight as though waiting to spring into action. Arabella is pressed even harder against Jonathan and he can feel her trembling, the wetness of his shirt where she must be crying silently.

There is more angry shouting above them, and a woman’s voice, pleading. Crashes like furniture might be being over turned and the thunder of booted feet. Grant finds Jonathan’s hand with his own and squeezes it, tight. He doesn’t let go.

For an unknown time, Jonathan sits and feels his heart thumping with the fear of it, the expectation of discovery. Surely, in the end they will find them, tear open the trapdoor…

It never comes. The noise of the search ends, the voices leave, and all is silence.

They wait. After a while, Arabella lifts her face from where it is pressed against Jonathan’s shoulder. Grant squeezes his hand again and lets go. Jonathan dares to breathe more freely.

They wait until the small hours of the morning, when Remy returns, knocking to let them know it’s him before he opens the trap door and they stumble out, stiff and aching. He takes them out through the dark fields to where William’s plane is due to land. It’s near to dawn, in the hope that the army will not be expecting a rescue so close to daylight. Low at first, then louder, they hear the engines coming. Then the plane lands and there is William, grinning at them from the cockpit, elated by flying. Jonathan could hug him (despite their previous differences) for being here now that it matters and giving them their route home. Arabella is free and it’s only one short flight until they are safe.

 

Grant

It happens as they fly over the French coast and it happens so fast.

It’s not the first time that Grant has been in a plane that’s being shot at, so he recognises the sound of it as soon as it begins: the impact of bullets on the metal of the plane, sparks and flashes.

Then there’s a scream. He knows immediately that it’s William.

Merlin had been standing in the corridor between the cockpit and the rest of the crew, making amends for his argument and talking nonsense with William over the radio. He is already lunging towards the pilot’s seat. Grant unfastens his belt and stands up, intending to offer help. At the same time, a second rattle of gunfire strikes the plane. There’s a whine and a bang from one engine. Shrapnel clatters through the front part of the plane. Merlin ducks instinctively, going to the floor and wedging himself. It’s the only thing that saves him from becoming another casualty.

Nobody ever knows exactly what happens in the cockpit. Their best guess is that this second burst of enemy fire is when William receives his second wound, shrapnel from the cockpit cutting him across the neck and shoulder. Nobody can be sure if it was him that turned the plane, reaching out to stem the blood or just caught by debris, or if the controls were damaged by the incoming fire. Either way the plane turns sideways and starts to fall.

Grant is thrown across the cabin, landing on one outstretched arm. He can’t hear anything, but he feels the crack of bone. One of the women screams, maybe Emma, she always did hate planes. Grant shouts at Jonathan, to use magic and hold the plane in the air, hoping he can do it in time.

 

Merlin

Jonathan has never had to work so quickly, or while plummeting towards the ground. He grabs for the magic, crude and panicked, not the stately decorum of proper English magic. All he wants is to live.

The wind comes and it holds, catching them and pulling them up. He hopes they are still heading for England. Last time he thought landing and taking off again was difficult with this spell but now he must keep going until they reach home. To let go of the magic now would be to drop down, into the cold sea of the channel. It fights him constantly: he can't move, can't think of anything else.

Emma and Bell have to drag De Lancey over him, out of the cockpit door. Grant, with his broken arm, can’t lift him.

The magic is the first thing in Jonathan’s mind all the way home. Everything else is just... moments, seared into his mind for review in his worst nightmares.

Emma on the radio asking for permission to land in the closest possible airfield and for an ambulance to be waiting for them. Bell and Grant with bloodied hands, attempting first aid. Blood on Bell's cheek. The way Grant keeps talking, all the way home.

De Lancey's eyes are wild and young and scared. He tries to be quiet at first, then can't. There's no engine noise to drown it out. Then, flying in over the English coast, he stops.

That silence is the worst of all.

 

They crash land on an American airbase. No finesse: they just drop and bounce to a standstill. Jonathan is too tired to manage a controlled landing. Ground crew and medics swarm over them, the ambulance leaves at speed and they are left, just the four of them. They know that William is still alive, but no more than that. The man in charge of the airfield, whose name Merlin never discovers, tells them that Wellesley has been contacted, gives them the name of the hospital and promises a car to take them there shortly. His boys are in Germany, giving the Germans something to think about. The casual violence of it makes Merlin feel sick.

Their plane is a write off. She’ll never fly again. Without Merlin she'd have dropped, gone down in pieces. The four of them watch in silence as the ground crew surround her, worried about fires and discussing how best to tow her off the runway before it’s needed when the bomber crews come home.

It’s Bell who speaks first. “Capitaine? Are you alright? Jonathan, we should find somewhere to sit.”

Jonathan turns away from the wreckage to look at Grant. He’s still wearing most of the German uniform, although he gave the jacket to Emma and is shivering in his shirtsleeves. His face is a sickly colour under the bloodstains and his expression is blank.

“It’s the shock,” Emma tells them, “I don’t feel wonderful myself.” Taking in her appearance and Bell’s, Jonathan wonders if he is looking as battered and dishevelled as the rest of them. It seems likely.

Bell takes Grant’s arm, the one that isn’t tied up in a temporary sling, and guides him indoors. She does it so gently that Jonathan yearns to wrap both of them in his arms and protect them, however inappropriate that would be. He finds them space in the deserted officers’ mess and, under Bell’s instructions, goes to borrow a first aid kit.

 

Grant

In some distant part of Grant’s mind, he knows he’s in shock. It’s not the first time it’s happened and he knew when he fell on the plane that the break would catch up with him eventually. He watches rather distantly as Arabella Strange fusses over him, asking questions first in French and then, remembering herself, in English. He answers as best he can over the ringing in his ears and the underwater feeling that keeps him separate from the rest of the world.

He should be doing something. Anything. Not just sitting here.

Someone must have unearthed a first aid kit from somewhere because Arabella is busy proving that she remembers her training. It all looks rather unreal: the unfamiliar room, Emma curled up in a chair with her bandaged hand cradled on her lap, Jonathan shifting from foot to foot as if he wants to help but doesn’t know how.

Arabella starts talking at him about tea, presumably of the hot and sweet variety, but reality is starting to intrude on the daze Grant is in and he remembers that there is one duty that he must still do.

“I need to make a phone call.” He tries to stand up and Bell pushes him back down again.

“You don’t need to do anything. Not until after you’ve been to the hospital.”

“They’ve already contacted Arthur,” Jonathan tells him. “He can do the rest.”

Arthur really can’t, he thinks. Not this. He will have to be the one to do this.

“No, you don’t understand, I have to call Laura. It’s better she hears it from someone she knows. Certainly not Arthur.”

“Laura? Is that his mother? Could I call for you?” Bell is all concern, kneeling in front of him. She’s frowning at him as though he doesn’t make sense and Grant remembers that, of course, they don’t know. Neither of them have any reason to know, but like all secrets it will have to be told eventually. Maybe it won’t even matter soon, if William… if William.,,

“No, I’m the one who has to call. Laura is his wife.”

Grant gently but firmly extracts himself from Arabella’s hands and goes to find a telephone. They watch him go, but nobody says a word.

 

Chapter Text

When Grant returns he finds the room empty of everyone except Jonathan. After the conversation he’s just had he’s glad of the solitude and, if he’s honest with himself, a respite from watching Jonathan and Arabella together. They look so at ease with one another: a picture of the perfectly happily married couple. However much he expected it, told himself he was prepared for it, it still stings. He drops into a chair and winces. Being thrown around on the plane has left him with more than his fair share of bruises, even without the broken arm and the cut under his ear that threatens to bleed again whenever he moves his jaw.  

“Did you speak to her?” Jonathan asks. Grant nods in reply but doesn’t offer any more. No doubt Jonathan will get to his questions soon enough without encouragement. Human curiosity is a powerful thing.

“I…” Jonathan closes his mouth, thinks and begins again. “I didn’t know that William had a wife.

“I don’t suppose there was any reason for you to know.” It is true enough. Not everyone is as eager as Jonathan to talk about their wives.

“Have they been married long?” Merlin looks as though he is expecting William to have acquired a wife in the last two days they have been in France.  

“Since not long after the start of the war.”

“Forgive me for asking this but… does Arthur know?”

“Of course he knows. He’s seen William’s file.”

“Oh.” Jonathan lapses into silence but Grant can see the thoughts flickering over his face.

“Merlin,” Grant sighs, “William was married, then he and Arthur had an affair. Is that really so unusual, particularly during a war? Haven’t you done the same yourself?”

Jonathan shakes his head, runs hands through his already disordered hair and then frowns into middle distance for a while.

“You tried to tell me once, didn’t you?” he says at last. “When I first saw them together. You said I wasn’t the only man who was married, or something like it. Is that… is William the reason you have your rules? About married men?”

“Merlin, I make my rules for my own reasons. I’m not obliged to share my reasons with you. I do not ask anyone else to abide by them.”

“That isn’t what I meant.” Jonathan speaks more tentatively than Grant expected. “I’m not… I’m not trying to pass judgement on your rules or your reasons: I just wanted to understand. You were together once, weren’t you? Did you love him? Are you still in love with him?”

Grant looks up in surprise, “With William? No. No, that’s long over. Besides, it wasn’t a case of being in love; we were friends, more than friends, but never in love. But that… side of our friendship ended when he became engaged. It wasn’t fair to Laura to come between them. Or fair to me.”

“You know I never meant it to be like that with me, or with Arabella. You weren’t between us, a… a secret or… I’m sorry if I gave you the impression that I was asking you to…” Jonathan’s protest ends in awkward silence, apparently not sure of what he’s actually protesting against. Of all the times Grant could have chosen to have this conversation, he would take almost any of them over this. What can he say that would satisfy Jonathan’s curiosity? The truth is painful to dig up again, especially now. He has long accepted that he and William make better friends than lovers, but underneath it still lingers the hurt of knowing that William was going to be married, of hearing him share the news as though it did not matter and knowing that to him, Grant was never enough. Better, surely, to be entirely loved as a friend than half loved as something more?

“Merlin, what happened with William is between him and me. What happened between you and I happened, I suppose, because were looking for someone to take the place of your wife when you were lonely without her. Now you have her safely returned to you. You need no substitute and I have other things to worry about: let us draw a line and move on.”

Merlin, unusually for him, says nothing: Grant wonders if he sounded more severe than he meant to. Arabella’s tap at the door, telling them that the car is ready, is something of a relief.

 

When they arrive at the hospital, there’s no news for them. The matron they speak to tells them only that William is still alive, but in a critical condition. She herds Emma off in one direction to have her hand dressed properly and directs Grant in the opposite direction to have his arm examined.

Jonathan can hardly bear to leave Arabella so soon, but she kisses his cheek and tells him to go. The crisis isn’t over yet and other, happier things must wait.

He stays with Grant while they prod and poke at him and send him for an X-ray.

 

Grant suffers through it all without painkillers, saying he needs to keep a clear head no matter how much the doctors frown at him. He’s had worse. He’s been on the phone to the unit half a dozen times, trying to manage the crisis at a distance. Childermass has had to take command with both unit commanders absent. He’s perfectly capable of doing it, but he lacks the rank to deal with the higher ups unless Grant speaks to them first.

The doctors tell Grant to come back tomorrow for a plaster cast once the swelling has reduced, then send him off to the bathroom to get clean. Arthur, it seems, has arrived with changes of clothes. Grant can only be grateful because the clothes they have been wearing are earning them some less than friendly stares.

It’s a relief to finally get out of the German uniform. If it didn’t have the potential to be useful in the future he’d have it burnt. Undressing and washing is difficult to manage with one arm strapped up but he’s too tired to be embarrassed at asking Jonathan to help him. Also too tired to have any awkward reactions to being stripped of his clothes, or the feeling of Jonathan’s hands washing his hair and sliding soap down his back. The relief of rinsing off the persona he’s been carrying makes him more tired than ever. The day, however, is still not done and William’s life still hangs in the balance. There is also Arthur to be dealt with.

They find him standing in the corridor and looking through a window onto the ward. He looks graver than Grant has ever seen him before and older, bowed down under a heavy weight.

“Have they not let him in?” Jonathan asks in an undertone.

Grant shrugs and nods in Arthur’s direction. They join him at the window. Through it they can see a bed. William is lying there but he looks nothing like himself, white faced and still unconscious. By his side is a young woman.

“Is that… her?” Jonathan asks quietly.

“Laura? Yes.” Grant turns to Arthur and says, more loudly, “Is there any news? Have you seen him?”

Arthur shakes his head. The three of them stand in silence for a moment.

“I should go,” Arthur says at last. “There’s nothing to be done here.” He turns away and Grant puts an arm around his shoulder. There’s nothing to say. The claims of a wife outweigh those of an illicit lover and Arthur can do no more without intruding.

“Excuse me?” The voice behind them is a little hesitant. The men turn to see Laura De Lancey standing behind them in the corridor. She smiles at Grant but it’s a smile that speaks more of bravery than happiness. “Colley, I knew you’d be here.”

She holds out her hand and Grant takes it with his left hand, the one not held in a sling. It’s somewhere between an awkward handshake and a gesture of comfort. “I’m sorry to see you again under these circumstances,” he says.

She nods and turns to the other two. “Excuse me for asking, but, is one of you Mr Wellesley?”

Arthur appears to have been struck dumb: he has faced down armies but this small, blonde woman in a green dress has him defeated. Grant performs introductions in his stead.

“I’m glad to meet you,” Laura says. Arthur gives an abrupt nod in return. “My husband,” her voice wavers, “my husband wrote to me about you. Rather a lot actually. I think, given the circumstances, perhaps you should come and see him.”

“Thank you.” Arthur’s voice is rough. Laura smiles at him. She looks as though she might cry.

 

Jonathan watches Arthur open the door for William’s wife and take a seat at the bedside. Grant, beside him, is silent.  

“Do you want to go in?” Jonathan asks.

“No.” Grant shakes his head. “There’s enough people already. I can’t.” He stands at the window a while longer. Eventually the matron, who saw to them when they arrived, bears down on them, dosing Grant with painkillers despite his protests and herding them inexorably off the ward. In the entrance lobby they find Bell in a borrowed nurse’s uniform dress.

“Sir Walter was here,” she tells them, “he took Emma home. He left a car and a driver for us.”

“Shall we go then? Grant?”

Grant says nothing, only follows them to the car in silence and sits in the front seat beside the driver. It’s a reasonably long drive back to their own airfield but the silence is oppressive. Jonathan and Bell don’t feel able to talk; they just sit side-by-side, holding hands as tightly as they can. Jonathan wants to take her in his arms and hold her safe. He’d imagined how it would be to have her back, the reunion they might have, but the joy of her return is numbed by circumstances. He still feels separate from her, separate from everything.

When they get back, Grant speaks for the first time to thank the driver, then goes to his office without another word and shuts the door firmly behind him.

 

“Jonathan!” Arabella turns her gaze from the locked door to Jonathan, looking unexpectedly rather cross.

“Bell?”

“I told you not to break his heart!”

“Bell, I’m sure that he has many things to worry about that have nothing to do with me. His best friend was shot in front of him!”

“Oh Jonathan, you fool! Don’t you realise? This is why I can never leave you alone. You always make such a mess of things.” Her face crumples on the last words and her eyes fill with tears.

“Darling Bell, I’m never letting you out of my sight again.” They cling to one another, Jonathan tucking Bell under his chin. “We’ll go home, we’ll go back to Shropshire, just the two of us. I don’t care. I just want you safe.”

It’s a fantasy. They both know it, but just for a moment it’s necessary to indulge in it.

“You have to do something about Grant, Jonathan.” Bell looks up at him. She always does have such faith in his capacity to do the right thing in the end.

“I don’t know what to do.”

“Nor do I, but for tonight, I don’t think he should be alone.”

 

It’s not the first time Arthur has been here.

Last time, with Kitty, he was the one closest to the bed, holding her hand. He’d known before he saw her that it was only a matter of time (and how clearly now he can remember the face of the doctor who told him, the shirt he was wearing, his gentleness in asking about sending for the boys). He’d been in Laura’s seat then. Now he is more of a spectator, at the end of the bed. Close enough to touch but not permitted to do so.

One of William’s feet is visible. Arthur would like to cover it, keep it warm, but he doesn’t dare to disturb the blankets and the bandages and whatever else the sheets might cover. Not so long ago those feet, freezing cold, had been warming themselves in Arthur’s bed while Arthur, wincing, had called William a cheeky little sod. Dangerous territory, these thoughts, with William’s wife sitting three feet away: a reminder of the barrier that has always been there whether they acknowledged it or not. It’s hardly the first affair Arthur has had, but he’s never had to do this before, never had to meet the third party in the arrangement. Of course William has to be different. William is always different. Waltzing into his life as a casual fuck, a bit of fun, and then, without looking, turning into someone Arthur cares about. Someone he loves.

The waiting is hard. The uncertainty is a constant tension in the back of his neck. Every slight pause in the regular rise and fall of William’s chest has him on edge. He studies William’s face until he’s sure he’s going to be able to close his eyes any time in the next twenty years and still see it.

He looks around the ward instead. There isn’t much to see in the clinical tidiness: equipment he doesn’t want to think about, a notice telling him he is contravening regulation visiting hours. He doesn’t want to think about that either, what it means when a hospital stops enforcing the rules.

The chair he’s sitting on wasn’t made for comfort. Maybe it’s to help visitors stay awake. He shifts and Laura looks at him.

“They are awfully uncomfortable,” she says with half a smile.

“Yes.”

They lapse back into awkward silence. When he’d first sat down she’d told him what the doctor had said. William had already been through surgery before they got there, just enough to keep him alive. They are worried about the wound to his neck and the blood loss, want to see if he will stabilise further before they carry out a second operation. And, if he survives that, ‘we’ll see where to go from there’. Arthur has seen enough men injured to have a reasonable idea of the odds.

The only real distraction is in watching Laura. He’d never tried to imagine her before, didn’t know what to expect. She’s small, pretty enough but not beautiful. Kitty would probably have called her ‘sweet faced’. One of the good girls: not someone Arthur would have flirted with, not someone who knows the rules of the games he plays. He feels a stab of guilt. He should have talked to William, long ago, when he first saw that things were getting more serious and harder to escape from. He certainly shouldn’t have taken Laura up on her offer to come in here.

He’s torn, knowing he should go but not being able to leave.

 

Grant needs a drink. The bottle in his desk is nearly empty but there must be another bottle somewhere. He goes hunting in the desk drawers, finds a glass. The lid of the bottle won’t cooperate with only his left hand to open it. His hand shakes and whiskey slops onto the desk when he tries to pour it. He swallows a mouthful, appreciates the burn.

William swims before his eyes, pale as a corpse in a hospital bed. It feels so selfish to think it, but if he dies, Grant will be so alone.

His eyes are stinging.

There’s someone at his door, a voice. They can fuck off. He has better things to do. He refills the glass a little higher this time.

“You can’t do that Bell!”

“What would you rather do, break the door down?”

It doesn’t make sense until his office door swings open. They really should stop teaching the recruits to pick locks.

“Captain Grant?” It’s Arabella, perching on his desk. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, on top of the pills.” She takes the empty glass from his hand. He’s too tired to fight her for it, too tired to fight her for anything.

“Grant?” Jonathan’s hand is heavy on his shoulder. They surround him, one on either side, and the world is starting to blur at the edges.

“I think he should be in bed.” How can Arabella sound so concerned about him? He’s supposed to be in charge, looking after everyone else.

“He’s been awake since yesterday, and I’m not sure he slept before then. Come on, up you get.” Jonathan’s arm is warm around him.

Getting to his room is a blur. He thinks maybe Arabella picks the lock of that door too, and then there are just hazy voices and distant hands, plucking away his shoes and belt, undoing buttons. He thinks that maybe Jonathan bends down and kisses him, on the forehead. But his wife is there, so maybe it’s just a dream.

 

William groans. It’s the first sound he’s made since Arthur arrived but now he’d rather not have heard it. There’s no recognition in it, just pain. His arm lifts, reaching for the bandages on his neck and Laura is up in a moment, catching his hand before he can do any damage. He mumbles at her, not quite words.

“Don’t, William, don’t to that.” Laura is bending over him, stroking his hair and holding his hand tight, “Stay still, it’s alright. I’m here. Mr Wellesley? Can you fetch the nurse? Come on William, it’s alright.”

Arthur stumbles to his feet, half numb from sitting too long. He finds the matron outside. It only takes a moment to explain but when he’s done he finds he can’t go back in, can’t go back to William in pain and his caring wife. He walks blindly outside.

It’s cold when he gets there, the evening already drawing in. He breathes in cool air, watches his breath steam. Lights a cigarette. Wonders how much more this is going to hurt, how much more he can stand. It was hard enough with Kitty, hard enough that he said he’d never allow himself to be in the same situation. To do it again, so soon… He shivers, and it’s not just the evening chill.

“Mr Wellesley?” Laura is standing behind him, wearing her coat and carrying his jacket folded over her arm. “Are you alright?”

“Is William?” It’s his first thought, he can’t stop himself asking.

“He’s fine. It’s just the sedatives wearing off. They asked me to give them a while to get him settled.”

“Good, I’m glad.” He stubs out the cigarette so he doesn’t have to meet her eyes.

“Look, Mr Wellesley, I… honestly, I think we ought to have a talk, don’t you? The matron said there was a café where the nurses go to get tea. I could certainly do with a cup.” She holds out his jacket and he takes it. He can’t leave now.

 

The café is quiet at this time, only a couple of men in the far corner and the girl behind the counter. Arthur fetches two cups of tea and takes them to the table.

“Thank you, Mr Wellesley,” Laura says, taking her cup.

“Arthur, please.”

“Then it’s Laura.” She offers a hand to shake. “If you’ll let me speak frankly, you aren’t how I imagined you.”

“Oh.” Arthur has never found it difficult to talk to women. Kitty used to frown at him sometimes, for being too charming and leading them astray. Now, however, he finds himself wordless.

“Did you wonder, about me?”

“I… I don’t…”

“I knew what was going on, you know. William told me. He’s never very good about talking. I suppose you know that by now. He’d rather laugh, pretend it’s all a joke, but he talks to me.”

“He never said much. We weren’t really…” Arthur tries to think of what they weren’t, of some excuse for William, for both of them. We weren’t lovers. We were only having an affair. It’s not true, hasn’t been true for a while.

“We grew up together. I know William well: you don’t have to make excuses for him. He said once that there wasn’t… love, for men like him. That it didn’t work that way but…” she sighs, softly, “I suppose I knew from his letters what he thought about you. I worried you didn’t care, were just the sort of man to have affairs and move on.”

She blushes. Not a girl who’s comfortable with this kind of talk, even in hushed tones in a deserted café. Arthur feels that twinge of guilt again, for being exactly the sort of man who has affairs and moves on. Not that he thinks he was wrong, but he shouldn’t have become mixed up in a relationship like this. His own rule has always been that an affair is fair game so long as nobody gets too invested in it, but his rules aren’t Laura’s rules and his own are already broken.

“You do care though, don’t you?” Laura looks earnestly at him, “You do love him?” She’s so young, maybe even a little younger than William. Too damn young and too damn trusting. The easy lie, the denial, that would let them both walk away from this, dies on his lips unsaid.

She nods at him, as though he has spoken after all. “I thought so. I could see it in your face when you saw him. But I love him too. I always have.”

“I can see that.” How much easier it would be if it weren’t true. “You said you knew each other, growing up?”

“Yes, our fathers were friends. We used to see each other in the school holidays, sometimes with Colley too. I think our families hoped we would make a match of it eventually. It made them so happy when he proposed and with the war… I wanted to get away, do something useful. My father wanted me to stay cooped up at home and look after my mother, but I wanted to join up. William said he wouldn’t stop me. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I’m in the Land Army now.” There is a hint of pride in her voice, for all that farming isn’t the most glamorous of wartime occupations.

“But you said, he told you about…” Arthur can’t find the words. The phrases he usually hears in SOE or the forces are crude or cruel, not suitable for young women discussing their husbands in a public space.

“Before the wedding. He said he had to tell me, that he was… different. That he didn’t think he could… love me the way that a husband… oh this is too difficult!” She pushes her cup away, frustrated.

“But he married you anyway?” It hurts to think it, given the danger William is in, but Arthur feels like he could have given him a shake, for the foolishness of it all and the mess they find themselves in, and this young woman trying to explain something she doesn’t have words for, to a man she has hardly met.

“Don’t be angry with him.” She’s studying his face again, “He offered to let me break the engagement but I wanted to try. I think, perhaps, he was hoping that he could be the same as everyone if only he tried hard enough and I thought it wouldn’t matter, in the end. If I truly loved him. I thought it would be enough. You must think we were very stupid.”

Arthur shakes his head. He can see all to easily how it happened.

“I suppose,” Laura continues, “I’m hardly the first person to make an ill-advised marriage in a war. Or the first person to have their head turned by a handsome pilot.”

They exchange a sympathetic look across the table: unexpected allies in their mutual foolishness. William is, after all, the living cliché of the handsome pilot.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur tells her, meaning it, “I shouldn’t have done it. I should have ended it.”

Laura doesn’t say anything. She looks at the table, turning a teaspoon over and over in her hand. Arthur notices that her hands are rough and chapped, her nails mud stained, at odds with the rest of her neat appearance. When she speaks, her voice is very soft.

“I tried to talk to him. I knew it wasn’t working. It wasn’t enough, not for me and not for him either. He didn’t want to talk though, on the last leave when he came home. He said…” she puts her hand over her mouth as though holding back the words she doesn’t want to say. “He said it didn’t matter. He thought, being a pilot, he’d be shot down one day and that most of the people he knew had already… I was so angry with him. I thought he was joking, avoiding talking about it by saying it didn’t matter what he did, if it was just for fun while it lasted. He said I’d have his pension and I’d be able to go and marry someone else and… I never thought he meant it. I never thought it would be real.”

Laura buries her face in her hands and her shoulders shake. It hurts to hear it. William always did joke about it, laugh in the face of danger, saying he was snatching what he could before some bastard shot him down. Arthur had always assumed it was a pilot’s bleak sense of humour. He hands Laura a handkerchief and she takes it, wiping her face but still crying. Arthur holds her hand over the table, trying to give comfort where precious little is to be found.

He catches sight of the two of them, reflected in the mirror across the room. He wonders what a passer-by would make of the tableaux: the man and the woman, holding hands while she weeps. The girl behind the counter is a disinterested observer. This close to the hospital she must see so many everyday tragedies.

 

Grant is asleep almost as soon as his head hits the pillow. The poor man must be worn out, and neither she nor Jonathan are much better. There is apparently a room for female agents to sleep in, but Bell has no intention of being separated from Jonathan or of the two of them leaving Grant alone. She watched Jonathan kiss him, almost without realising what he was doing. Arabella can’t deny having thought about watching her husband kiss another man, but she’d always been picturing something rather more… amorous. She certainly never envisaged a day like today, narrowly escaping death and owing her rescue to both of them. Grant doesn’t look like he belongs in someone’s fantasy; the man she admired over dull briefings and dinner with Emma. He looks like he needs someone to keep him away from the whiskey bottle and make sure he eats. She can’t begrudge him the tenderness that Jonathan offered.

Arabella puts her feelings on the matter away to be examined later. It’s something complicated that she will need to take her time with: there’s nothing to be gained from rushing. Some day she will also have to think over how she feels about her time in France too, about the horror of it.

Being back in England is strangely unreal, in the way that any time of crisis divorces itself from normality. She thought she was going to die, but now she’s here, camping out in Grant’s bedroom, waiting to hear news of a man she only met briefly before he nearly gave his life to save hers. There’s no place for serious decisions, only the next moment and the next.

She hasn’t a thing to her name, no possessions or routines to tether her to reality. It’s like a parody of a school midnight feast, sitting there in Jonathan’s pyjamas and one of his jumpers. Much too big for her, they pool around her feet and need rolling up at the sleeves, but they smell like him and it’s a tangible form of comfort. Together, Bell and Jonathan make a space on the floor, wrapped in blankets, and settle to get what sleep they can.

 

Bell wakes them with a scream in the early morning. It’s not the sort of sound Jonathan has ever heard her make before: unrestrained, wild terror. It sets his heart thumping; leaping upwards to deal with whatever threat might have caused her such fear.

Grant is doing the same, reaching for the gun he keeps in his bedside cabinet on instinct and then putting it down when he realises what is going on. He crouches on the floor beside Bell, talking to her in rapid French. Bell is replying in the same language, too fast for Jonathan to follow. Jonathan isn’t sure if she’s more than half awake, but she’s crying so he wraps her up in his arms. She fights away from him for a moment then wakes enough to recognise him and clings tight, switching back to English.

“The man, that awful man Jonathan. We went out, both of us to a club in London but I couldn’t find you. He wanted me to dance with him and I thought he was going to kill you.”

“Bell, my love, you’re safe now. I promise.”

She’s such a small weight, so easy to pull onto his lap. If he had his way, he’d never let her go again.

“I thought I’d never see you again. I was so frightened Jonathan. I know I’ve woken up but I feel like I’m still dreaming.”

“It will pass.” Grant speaks quietly but with certainty. “I’ve been there. It will pass.” Jonathan had half forgotten that he was there, but his confidence is calming, his face sincere.

“Do you promise me?” Arabella trusts him too, apparently.

“Yes. It will take time, but it will be alright. Come on, sitting on the floor won’t help.” He shifts the blackout curtains and pushes the window open, letting in cold night air. It’s bordering on too cold but the room is stuffy with three of them and Arabella’s skin is warm under Jonathan’s hand. With the curtain back in place, Grant switches on the light and sits on the floor in front of Bell.

“The man you dreamt of,” he asks, “was he the one interrogating you?”

“Yes,” Bell shivers, “he was the most awful man. So blond his hair was almost silver and he was so cold. It was as though he wasn’t human.”

“They try to be like that. Did he try to disconcert you? Did you recognise the training?”

“Yes, I did. I kept trying to remember what they taught us. See what he was trying to do.”

“You did well, then. You did well.” Grant smiles reassuringly.

“Emma took the worst of it. She said she would watch over me. They tried to threaten her so I would talk, but she told me not to. I didn’t tell them anything but she was so brave.”

“You both were, and you did right. They did the same to me. They like to use people against you if they can.”

“You taught us that, before we went. Everyone was talking about you, the only man to be captured and escape without being sent to a POW camp first. All the girls thought you were a hero.”

Grant’s expression is disbelieving, self-deprecating. He starts to shake his head, then says, “well if that’s true, the same applies to you and Emma now.”

Jonathan squeezes Bell’s shoulders. His wife: hero of SOE.

“Please don’t make me go back.”

Like cold water down the back of his neck, pride turns to fear. Surely they won’t send her back after this? Surely they cannot. But yet, he knows, they sent Grant. Grant went back on Jonathan’s own request.

“That’s not a decision you have to make now, but neither Arthur nor I would allow an agent to go back if they didn’t feel able to. We would also support your decision with the other section heads.”

“I can’t go back, I can’t do that again. I wish I’d never gone!” Bell is crying again.

“Then, Arabella?” Grant reaches out and takes her hand again, “you don’t have to go back. You have my word.”

He leaves them then, tactfully retreating to speak to Childermass and Segundus. Bell cries a little more, safe in Jonathan’s arms. He doesn’t try to stop her, just holds her and strokes her hair. He cherishes her presence next to him, a gift beyond price after he had almost been ready to accept her loss. When she eventually goes back to sleep, worn out, Jonathan watches over her.

Grant returns shortly afterwards, coming in as quietly as he can and sinking down onto his chair with a sigh. He must still feel groggy from the pills on top of the whiskey and yesterday.

“You should sleep,” Jonathan tells him.

“Yes, I know that Merlin, but unless it has escaped your notice, your wife is asleep in my bed and I’m not about to join her unless you really are seeking to make this even more of a farce than it is already.” Grant doesn’t sound angry when he says it, just resigned.

“I could wake her.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Besides, she shouldn’t be sleeping on the floor. It’s remarkably like sleeping in a cell, you know. A very good way to give yourself nightmares.”

“Will she be alright? I can hardly believe she’s really here, safe, but whatever happened…”

“She will be. It might take her some time, but she has you and that’s something.”

“Did you dream, afterwards?”

“Every night for a while, then it stopped. I do still dream about it sometimes but it’s less overwhelming than it used to be. William used to keep me company when I first got back. When I woke up he’d talk to me. That helped. He talked an enormous amount of nonsense, you know William, but it did help to hear a friendly voice.”

“I can do that.” Jonathan pauses, uncertain of what he should say next. “I’m sorry, for what happened to William.”

“Don’t be. It was a risk he knew he was taking, and if it had been a mission without you on-board he would have crashed. There’d be no hope for him then.”

“Are you? Hopeful, I mean?” Jonathan had been shocked, by the flight home and by William’s appearance in the hospital but he doesn’t have any standard to compare it too.

“Well, I know he’s still alive. Arthur would have phoned if something had happened. If he survives tonight, maybe…” Grant shrugs.

“He’s very lucky to have a friend like you.”

“Oh,” Grant smiles, “it’s not luck. There’s nothing I’d do that he wouldn’t do for me. William’s a brother to me, closer than a brother really.”

“I’m not sure I’d know what that’s like. I don’t have a brother, or a sister for that matter. The closest thing I have is Arabella’s brother and Henry… well, he’s a clergyman and not exactly the sort of person I can imagine saying anything like that about.”

Grant laughs, quietly and then yawns more loudly. He props his arm across his chest and leans back against the wall. It only takes a few minutes for his breathing to shift into the regular pattern of sleep, not quite snoring but close to it. Bell, curled on her side next to Jonathan is also sleeping. Jonathan stays awake, keeping watch.

 

Arthur and Laura keep their watch together all night. Time stretches into new patterns, measured not in hours or minutes but in how long before the chair becomes painful and the pattern of nurses performing checks on the ward. The matron tried to get them to leave when it got late but Arthur intervened, using his reputation and his connection to Sir Walter (who is, after all, a very generous donor to the hospital). It’s not something he’s proud of, but neither of them feels able to leave. As a concession he allows her to shoo the two of them out to find dinner in the same café where they drank tea. This time they are too tired to talk much and neither of them have much appetite. He thinks, wryly, that this is the first time in quite a long time that he has had dinner with an attractive woman without trying to flirt with her.

In the small hours Arthur paces the corridors for exercise or goes out to smoke. The hospital at night is an eerie place, hushed in deference to sleeping patients but never still. He walks the dark and empty corridors, tired but restless. He comes back from one such walk to find Laura sitting on a bench in the corridor. She says, “the nurse is with him” as soon as he appears, as though she knows that his heart sped up at the sight of her, just in case.

“I couldn’t sit on that chair any longer,” she tells him, stretching her legs out in front of her. The bench isn’t much better but it is at least a different height, a change of posture. He feels like he should stay with William all the time but it’s also becoming unbearable in that little room, watching and waiting and ready to worry at every sign of change, real or imagined.

He and Laura sit side by side in silence. Just the two of them, barely knowing each other but united all the same in their common cause.

Laura’s words echo in Arthur’s head. “He didn’t think there was love for men like him, that it didn’t work that way.” Did William really believe that? He can’t imagine William the romantic, all poetry and roses, unless he’s doing it mockingly. Like the way he flirts with Flora Greysteel: both of them enjoying the joke and neither of them taking it seriously. But then, William does want so much to be liked. A friend to everyone except those who cross his friends. Arthur remembers William’s quick defence of Grant in front of Strange, but also his change of heart, his promise to fly to France for them. William is loyal. Arthur has always known it: his loyalty to Grant is legendary. Then there is Laura, who knows him so much better than most, and loves him, fiercely and protectively. Arthur wonders if William assumed no man would love him; that such a domestic form of happiness was beyond his reach except through marriage. Or if it was it how they were, in bed together? Did he think that because of how Arthur behaved he didn’t care, that a rough fuck must always be meaningless? What foolishness did William have tucked away in his mind that could make him brand himself unlovable? It grieves him. He recalls the weekend at the flat, the unexpected ease of it and how pleased William had seemed to be there. He should have had the conversation, made William talk. Arthur remembers the melancholy moments, the uncharacteristic moments of brooding thought beneath William’s habitual easy charm. What was he thinking of then?

Arthur should have told him. Should have told him that he was loved, was lovable. Even if he’d sought it out with someone else, someone different, Arthur still should have told him. He’s always been so surprised by William, by getting to keep him even for a short while, that he forgot that William might have thought the same, that there was more beneath that smiling face. William deserved more. He should have it, whatever it is that he wants. Please don’t let it be too late. Arthur thinks it, over and over, like a prayer. Please don’t let it be too late.

Eventually he feels a weight on his shoulder. Laura’s asleep, sliding sideways to lean against him. Arthur feels protective of her, and old. Too old and tired for this.

He sleeps too, slumped back on the bench with Laura sleeping at his side, woken in the first hours of the morning sunlight by an apologetic surgeon who wants to talk to them both.

 

After the conversation with the surgeon, Laura tucks an imaginary wisp of hair behind her ears and puts the handkerchief she has been crumpling in her fingers back into her handbag. “If you’ll excuse me, I just need a moment outside,” she says. The doctors have decided that William’s best chance is to operate now rather than wait and risk any further deterioration.

“Of course, ma’am.” The army surgeon gives her a kindly smile. “Take a moment if you need it. You can come and see him again briefly before the surgery, then I think you’d best go and take some rest.”

“Perhaps you could stay with him, Mr Wellesley, if you wouldn’t mind?” Laura smiles at him, and Arthur realises what she is doing, how neatly she is giving him a moment alone with William.

“Of course,” he says. He watches her walk out of the ward, conveniently taking the surgeon with her. There’s nothing at all in her posture to suggest she is a woman leaving her husband alone with his lover and he admires her for it in the way he admires his agents.

Arthur has been waiting for hours for this moment, but now that he has the freedom he lacks the words. Perhaps it would be different if William could hear him, could smile at him with that private, knowing smile that he keeps for when they are alone together. Arthur perches on Laura’s discarded chair and takes William’s hand. It’s cooler than his own. He covers it with his other hand, trying to bring the warmth back.

“William?”

William says nothing.

“God, William, I’m so sorry.”

He hadn’t meant to apologise but he feels responsible, for all of this: for letting him fly, for letting the mission go ahead, for never talking about Laura openly, never saying any of the things he should have said. Things that now he still cannot say.

“I never meant for this to happen. I should have trusted you, talked to you.”

There’s nobody around, the ward is quiet. He risks standing, leaning over William to smooth his hair away from his face.

“I should never have let you doubt it.”

He kisses William’s forehead, then pulls back quickly to check that nobody has seen.

“You’d better be alright William. I don’t know what I’ll do if I lose you.”

 

The knock at the door wakes Grant, stiff-necked from sleeping in a chair. For a moment he doesn’t care, someone else can deal with it, and then he remembers William and pushes himself up. On the other side of the door he finds Childermass.

“Arthur rang, sir. William’s still with us, they’re taking him to surgery now but they hope if he gets through it he’s got a chance. Arthur’ll be on his way back now.”

“That’s good news, isn’t it?” Jonathan has come to stand at Grant’s left shoulder.

“Aye, sir, it is.” Childermass smiles. Grant hasn’t said anything yet. “Segundus has everything under control at present. Most of our agents have gone dark until further notice so there’s not much coming in. You can take a longer break if you need it.”

Grant nods. “Perhaps that would be wise. You’ll let me know though, if you hear anything more?”

“Of course, sir.”

Grant shuts the door and leans against it. “At least he’s alive.”

There’s a hand on his shoulder, tugging him back. Grant leans into Jonathan’s warm chest, feels arms coming to circle him. They hold him close, but not tight enough to hurt his arm or bruises. Jonathan, with the habit of a tall man, tries to tuck Grant under his chin.

“I believe he’ll be alright.”

“I hope so.” Grant knows he should pull away, but Jonathan is so comforting and damnit, he’s so tired. He wants to stop fighting, stop doing the right thing and walking away from everything that makes him happy.

“Jonathan?” Arabella’s voice is soft behind them but Grant still flinches at the sound.

“It’s alright, love.” Jonathan’s hand is heavy on the back of Grant’s head, keeping him in place as though he’s afraid that Grant might run at any moment.

There’s a rustle of bedclothes, footsteps, and then a second pair of arms around him. He’s caught again, sheltered between the two of them. Grant knows that this is every kind of complication he has ever tried to avoid, but just for the minute, he isn’t going to care.

 

Chapter Text

When William has been taken into surgery, Arthur drives Laura to the hotel where she has taken a room. The woman in charge seems kind enough, making clucking sounds over why Laura is arriving at such a time and ushering her upstairs for a lie down, promising to wake her if the hospital should call. Arthur leaves his card in case of emergencies, and then makes the long drive back to the base. His eyes are gritty with lack of sleep but he must get back. When he telephoned from the hospital, Grant was in the middle of a post-mission crash and Childermass was into his second day of being on duty.

He arrives to find Segundus in charge, looking slightly embarrassed to be found behind Arthur’s desk. He gives his report concisely and hands over the files that have been waiting, with a long list of phone calls from people who will only speak to the unit commander.

“Thank you,” Arthur tells him, dropping into his desk chair and eyeing the mountain of paper, most of it thankfully sorted into neat piles “it sounds like the two of you have done an excellent job of managing things.”

“Thank you, sir.” Segundus clears his throat awkwardly. He always looks embarrassed when people give him praise.

“I hate to ask when you’ve been on call, but could you possibly find me some food? And possibly some very strong coffee? I’ll have to get started on this immediately and I haven’t eaten since last night.”

“Of course, sir, I’ll go and find something right away.” Segundus pauses, shifting gently from foot to foot as he hesitates. “If there’s anything else, sir, anything else I can do to help, you have only to ask.”

Arthur looks up at Segundus, who is smiling in a way that manages to convey both kindness and understanding. Bright enough to understand the situation then, but the kind of man to offer help not judgement. The kind of man Arthur would like to have more of in the unit. He adds as item one on his list, as soon as the crisis is over, finding some way of stealing the man permanently from Norrell.

Food materialises shortly after he dismisses Segundus, along with the coffee, but by then Arthur is already ten reports deep in the chaos. When the phone rings in his office several hours later he answers without thinking. “Wellesley speaking.”

“Oh, hello, Mr Wellesley. It’s…”

Before she can say her name he recognises the voice. Laura sounds as though she has been crying and his heart is already beating hard before she says “It’s William.”

He doesn’t hear anything for a moment, only the rush of blood in his ears.

“Mr Wellesley? Arthur? He’s alright. I’m so sorry, I’ve said it all wrong, William is alright. He’s out of surgery and he’s awake. Mr Wellesley, are you there?”

He can breathe again.

“I’m here. I’m glad to hear it.”

“I didn’t mean to worry you. I was just so tired I wasn’t thinking properly how it would sound.”

“No, I’m sorry, I assumed the worst.”

“I should have thought. I just ran out to call you. I thought you’d want to know. They only let me see him for five minutes. He’s very groggy: they still have him sedated, but he did know me. He asked for you again.”

Arthur tries to ignore the small flutter of hope he feels at hearing that. “Will they let you see him again later?”

“Perhaps. They have a number for my hotel and said they would call.”

“Will you let me know how he is, if you do?” It feels like he’s pushing the boundaries of what might be allowed and what might be intrusive.

“Of course I will.” She sounds warm, kind, and he’s grateful for it. “I’ll call you later either way.”

After saying goodbye, Arthur replaces the telephone very carefully, folds his arms on the desk in front of him and rests his head on his arms. He stays there a long time.

 

Arabella wakes up to a kiss on her forehead and a gentle hand on her shoulder. Jonathan is leaning over her, mug of tea in hand.

“Good morning, Mrs Strange,” he says with a smile. He likes to call her that at times, the novelty of being married not yet worn off even after several years.

“Good morning.” Arabella yawns. After the terror of the night, this morning’s awakening is a gentle one and she feels quite relaxed despite being in borrowed pyjamas in a borrowed bed.

“I thought you would prefer not to go to the mess wearing my pyjamas, so I brought you breakfast in bed.”

“Thank you.” Arabella reaches for the plate. It is laden with toast and jam, more jam than is usual. Jonathan’s attempts to look innocent mean that he must have given up his own portion for her. He notices her noticing and smiles self-consciously, the way he looked at her when they were first engaged. He doesn’t look away as she starts eating, staring at her so seriously that she has to break the mood.

“Jonathan, I hate to tell you so, but you’ve never stared at me so much in my life. Are you afraid I will spill crumbs in the captain’s bed?”

Jonathan shakes his head and keeps watching as though he can’t bear to let her out of his sight or can’t believe she’s real, and she understands the feeling. She can’t quite believe that any of it is real either.

“I suppose I will have to get up soon,” she says with regret, “although I haven’t a thing to wear except the dress I borrowed last night and it really isn’t very warm.”

“I believe Grant has a plan,” Jonathan says. “I would very much like to stay here, my love, but I’m afraid that duty calls. We are short staffed, and someone needs to drive Grant back to the hospital, which leaves us with even fewer men. Will you be alright?”

Bell knows that if she asks him, he will stay. It’s tempting, to avoid being separated again so soon, but as people so often say nowadays, there is a war on and her desire to pull him into the bed with her and not leave for a week must take a lower priority than the needs of SOE.

“I’ll be quite alright Jonathan, truly.”

He squeezes her hand and she knows he understands.

“My brave Bell. I won’t go far. There’s a girl in the village: her name is Flora Greysteel. Grant asked her to come over with some clothes you might borrow. I should think you were the same size and you’ll feel better with something to wear. He says he’ll have your unit send your things for while you are on leave.”

“That sounds like a perfectly sensible plan. I’ll come and find you later when I’m dressed. Perhaps we could have lunch together, and you could introduce me to people?”

Jonathan kisses her on the forehead again before he hurries off to work and leaves her to wait for the unknown Miss Greysteel. Bell finds herself wishing she hadn’t been quite so brave after all. She’s going to have to find something to do or the solitude will drive her mad.

 

In the afternoon, after his trip to the hospital, Grant comes to find Arthur. Bleary eyed from paperwork, he gestures at Grant to take a seat.

“How’s the arm?” he asks.

“Bloody painful, actually.” Grant grins at him, ruefully. He’s managed to get his shirt over the cast but he is only wearing his army jacket on one arm, the other side draped over his shoulder. “And it seems Mrs Strange has confiscated my bottle of whiskey.”

Arthur raises an eyebrow at him. “Perhaps that’s for the best, although it begs the question of how Mrs Strange came to be in your office to find the whiskey.”

“She picked the lock.”

Arthur makes an appreciative noise. “And what are we going to do about Mrs Strange?”

“I don’t think she should be sent back to France. Not yet anyway.”

“Really? Is that her preference or because you think Merlin is too much of a risk if we do send her back?”

“It was her own request, although Merlin is a factor we ought to consider. I believe when they were held prisoner,” Grant pauses, “I have the impression that while Emma took the brunt of the physical consequences of the interrogation, Mrs Strange was the one questioned. Having someone else’s life become your responsibility… it is a heavy burden. I think if she wanted to return it would be another matter, but I wouldn’t risk forcing her. No good comes from sending an agent out under those circumstances.”

“No indeed. We’ve both been put in that position and I can’t say it made me eager to return, nor you I imagine. But if she is not being sent out as a field agent, what is her future in SOE? I can make my recommendation to her unit commander but the decision is his.”

“I thought perhaps we could request her transfer here if you think he’s likely to send her out again too soon. She’s had the training and the practical experience, and we need more people in the office who know what it’s like on the ground. If she chooses to go back at a later date, she is already familiar with working with magicians which makes her suitable for our unit.”

“You make a good case but I have to ask, is it going to work? Having her in this unit, with her husband? I don’t want to have trouble further down the line because you and she…” Arthur raises his eyebrows significantly.

“I don’t believe it will be a problem. I think Mrs Strange will be willing to draw a line under recent events. As will I.”

“Grant, I want you to consider this very carefully. I’d rather lose a potential officer and our magician than put your position here at risk. I need you as my second in command. Without you I think the unit might just fall apart. Will you be able to work with them? Bluntly, with both of them here as a couple. These things can be… complicated.”

“I think you can rely on me to be professional, sir.” Grant is sharp when his professionalism is called into question.

“That isn’t what I asked, and you are only one third of the people required to be professional. Strange’s record of professional conduct is not what it should be. Think about it. Mrs Strange is due leave in any case, so we have time. If we decide against her transfer, we will still need new recruits. The last few days have shown us we are seriously short handed, particularly if anything out of the ordinary happens, and I doubt we’ll be any less busy in future. We managed this time but I won’t leave us understaffed like that again.”

“I saw the memo on my desk: you want to keep Segundus? He’d be a good choice, although I don’t imagine Norrell will be very happy about it.”

“No. I’ll talk to Childermass about how best to handle him. After all, he has a vested interest in keeping Segundus...” Arthur’s sentence is cut off abruptly by a yawn.

“You should get some sleep,” Grant tells him, “That’s why I came to find you. I can take over for now if I have someone to do my writing for me. Ned volunteered. Have you slept at all since yesterday?”

“A bit, here and there.”

“Laura was asking after you.”

“Was she? Is she alright? It’s hard on her.”

“She’s fine. Tired and worried, but as well as can be expected. The matron seems to have taken her under her wing a bit.” He pauses. “Anyone else you want to ask after?”

Arthur sighs and rubs his hands over his face. “Did you see him?”

“Briefly. They aren’t keen on too many visitors at the moment and he was pretty out of it anyway. The doctor I spoke to sounded more hopeful than he did yesterday.”

“Good, good.”

“Arthur, I hope I can ask you this as a friend, and as William’s friend…”

“And as Laura’s friend? I appreciate that your position is a complicated one. Say what you want to say. We shall keep it entirely off the record.”

“Do you know what you’re going to do? Now that this has happened?”

“I don’t know Grant. Do you really expect me to know?”

“You are going to have to decide some time.” As soon as he’s said it Arthur glares at him and Grant wonders if he will be able to convincingly blame the painkillers.

“I am well aware of that, but what would you do in my place?”

It’s an accusation, not a question but Grant tries to find an answer anyway. He fails. He has no idea what he would do: if Jonathan were any less obviously in love with Bell, could he walk away? Is he really prepared to walk away now?

“I shall take your silence to mean you have no idea either,” says Arthur, “I said after the war I’d let him go, back to her, but I can’t do it. I can’t walk away, but I can hardly ask him to leave his wife either and he’s in no state to decide. I shall wait: see what he wants. I’ll let him decide when he’s ready and whatever he does choose, I’ll keep to. I won’t make things difficult for either of them. Is that good enough for you?”

Grant, to his surprise, finds that it is.

 

When Grant takes over, Arthur goes walking. He’s too restless to settle, however tired he is. It’s the kind of tiredness that doesn’t lend itself to sleep: too much time in chairs, behind desks, watching and waiting and thinking. The wind is cold as it blows across the fields with nothing to stop its progress from the sea. He hunches into his coat, jams his hands in his pockets and keeps going. One foot in front of the other and blank out the rest. He walks until there’s nobody else to be seen for miles, until he’s tired enough to face returning. When he does go back and to bed it’s for a night broken sleep, constantly half waking in a formless fear that something might have happened, searching for the missing presence in his bed.

 

Childermass and Segundus, on their own evening walk, watch Arthur as he stalks across the fields and deliberately turn in the opposite direction.

“Poor bastard,” Childermass observes, gazing at his retreating back. “At least when you were in hospital I didn’t have to worry about a wife appearing out of nowhere.”

“We were lucky.” Segundus slips his hand through Childermass’ arm, safe in the knowledge that nobody is close enough to see it. “Sometimes people can be their own worst enemies.”

“That’s true enough.” Childermass lets his next step take him close enough to bump gently against Segundus’ shoulder. “We do alright, don’t we?”

“More than alright, I should think.” Segundus smiles up at him and Childermass is struck by how appealing he looks like this, bundled up with a bright woollen scarf around his neck and his cheeks flushed pink in the wind.

“I shall miss having you here, if you choose to go back to Norrell.”

“They told you they asked me then? I wanted to talk to you about it first.”

“Apparently they needed my advice on breaking the news Norrell. The only advice I have on telling him what he doesn’t want to hear is to do it quickly, from a distance, and then give him time to get over it.”

Segundus laughs. “I’m sure Grant was very pleased to hear you say that. What do you think, though? Should I stay?”

“Well, it’s your decision, but I thought you liked the work here and I didn’t think you objected to my company. Frustrating as it is to sleep in a bunk next to you and no closer.”

“Of course I don’t object to your company! Particularly not if we can have some time alone now and then. And I do enjoy the work. It’s easier here to feel that I’m making a difference, doing something that matters. Before it was all theoretical, at a distance. Now I know the people I’m working with. To have care of an agent, to do work that affects things on the front lines… it scares me, but I’d rather be doing it than not. It’s only, is it wrong to leave the other work unfinished?”

“I don’t think so. Between you and me, the spells to stop air raids never worked properly and besides, the Germans have changed tactics now. Britain doesn’t need you fretting your life away over Norrell’s barrage balloons when you can be getting information that can actually be used.”

“I’m glad you think so. I was worried I was being selfish, staying here because I couldn’t bear to go back to living alone again instead of doing my duty.”

“It sounds like you know what you want to do then.” Childermass pauses at a gap in the hedgerow. “Shall we go back, or is there more you wanted to say? We could go around the next field if you aren’t too cold.”

“Well, I am cold, but there is still something.” Segundus bites his lip. “We’d have to shut up our cottage for the duration, and I do hate the thought of that. And… there is also the problem of…” He stops, fidgeting with the end of this scarf.

“What is it, love? I know there’s something bothering you.”

“If I am officially part of the unit, not just visiting then…”

“You are a magician and an intelligence officer and I’m just one of the soldiers. You’d outrank me. Did you think I’d mind?”

“Not exactly, but perhaps a little.”

Childermass laughs. “Unless you start thinking yourself too gentlemanly to mix with the likes of me, I don’t think it’ll matter much. We’re hardly a unit that pays attention to rank. You know I’d take orders from you, and no complaints.”

“If only there was a convenient deserted barn around here I’d hold you to that.” Segundus says, as innocently as if he were talking about the weather. Childermass gives him a look. One that suggests he’s thinking of taking him up the offer, barn or no barn.

“No John!” Segundus tells him, “I know what you’re thinking but it’s too cold! But since I’m staying, I’m sure you’ll have other chances.”

“I’ll hold you to that, love. Don’t forget it.”

They take another turn around the field. Despite the weather, both of them are warm enough now.

 

“Jonathan?”

“Yes my love?”

They are curled up together in one of the guest rooms of the village pub. Arthur suggested it as a place they could go, with Arabella officially on her post-mission leave and Jonathan released from his duties because Arthur told him to go and spend time with his wife. They have been awake for a while now, in the middle of the night. Arabella was dreaming again. Hating the enclosed feeling of the blackout curtains, she pulled them open and the moonlight from the window makes silver patterns in her hair. It’s very still and quiet. No planes flying tonight.

“What is it?” Jonathan asks again, leaning down to kiss her forehead. She is lying on his chest so he cannot see her face but he knows her pensive tone means that what she has to say is important.

“I have been thinking about Captain Grant.”

“Bell… perhaps this is not the time. I know we should discuss things but surely not now.” Only an hour ago, Bell was kicking him awake and crying in her sleep. Jonathan would give a great deal not to distress her again, however uneasy the situation with Grant has made him.

“I know you care about him,” Bell says as though reading his mind. “And I don’t want to go back to sleep just yet, I’d rather talk. The Captain is… well, from what you and Emma have said, I don’t think it would be fair to leave him not knowing where he stood.”

“But I don’t know where he stands, my love. I don’t know where I stand. I love you.”

“I know you love me. But we did agree that there might be others, although I never thought you’d be so serious about one of them.”

“I don’t love him Bell. You should know that. He is a… he is an extraordinary man, a good man, certainly a very attractive man, but I don’t love him. Not as I love you and nothing could matter more to me than your happiness.” Jonathan pulls gently at one of the ringlets in her hair.

“But I do know that he has mattered more to you the others.” Bell pushes away enough to be able to look up at him. “I’m not angry with you Jonathan. Well, I wish we’d been able to talk sooner. I’m afraid you’ve both made each other unhappy already, but I’m not angry that you care about him beyond wanting to go to bed with him. So tell me what you really think.”

Jonathan sits for a while, letting his fingers slide through her hair and thinking. He knows she won’t hurry him, and he’s glad, overwhelmingly glad, to have her for his wife and know that he can tell her any thing he needs to.

“It’s true, what I said. I don’t love him. At least, not yet. He is different to the others, not just company or someone to go to bed with. I don’t love him but I think perhaps I could, one day. Does that make sense?”

“It does to me.” Bell reaches up to kiss him gently. “And he is very handsome. I wish I’d known, when I told you about the handsome man who visited our office, that you had already met him.”

“I wish I’d known too.” Jonathan sounds bitter without meaning to. If he had known, if only he had known, he might not have let Arabella walk into danger alone.

“Jonathan, don’t say that. What’s done is done and it was my choice to go. Remember that, please!”

“I’m sorry.” He lets his arms hold her and say what he cannot say out loud: I was afraid, I nearly lost you and I was afraid.

“I’m surprised it’s never happened before,” Bell says, in a forcibly lighter tone, “that we should find the same man attractive. I did try to flirt with him but he was always terribly formal with me. Does he only like men, do you suppose?”

“I haven’t the least idea, but he never gave me much indication of interest either until… well, it was obvious he was interested after all.”

“Would you mind if I…”

“If you what?”

“Well… if I got to know him better, and perhaps if he was amenable to the idea…” Bell reaches up and whispers into Jonathan’s ear. He groans.

“I had forgotten how entirely indecent you are, Mrs Strange.”

Bell laughs and Jonathan has no choice but to kiss her for it.

“But really though, Jonathan, would you mind? I suppose it would complicate matters dreadfully, and I’ve no idea if he would be interested, but perhaps if we talked about it enough, talked to him…” She stops and looks at him uncertainly.

“I think it’s an entirely delightful idea. Now, tell me more about what you would have me watch.” Jonathan rolls her over and Arabella goes willingly.  

 

It’s not until the following day that Arthur is permitted to visit William and the nurse who greets him is disapproving.

“I doubt there is anything so important that it cannot wait until Flight Lieutenant De Lancey is in better health, so if there are any signs that you are hampering his recovery, I have permission to ask you to leave. Is that understood?”

“I believe it is a matter of grave national importance,” he tells her, as seriously as he can, although he can see Laura hiding a smile. This was her idea to get him onto the ward, telling the doctors that her husband had requested the presence of his CO.

“Thank you,” he tells her in an undertone as they enter the ward. “I do appreciate what you’ve done.”

“It’s nothing,” she says, as though her assistance should have been expected. She pauses when they reach the door of the room William is in. “He was asking for you and it seemed the best thing to say to explain it. I’ll wait out here, to dissuade any eavesdroppers. Go on, he’s waiting for you.”

Arthur finds William asleep but, although it might be his hopeful imagination, it looks like a more natural sleep than the day before. He takes the chair by the bedside and waits. Now he’s here there’s no rush. There’s a calmness that comes from having William in front of him, of the certainty that he is there and alive.

It’s not long before William stirs, eyelids fluttering open. “Arthur?” he says, hardly above a whisper. Laura had warned him that William’s throat was raw after the operation.

“I’m here. Do you need water?”

“Please.”

Arthur picks up the glass and holds it so that William can sip without moving his head and disturbing the bandages around his neck and shoulder.

“Didn’t think you’d be here.”

“Laura arranged it. She’d put our agents to shame.”

William’s eyes, drifting shut again, suddenly fly open. “Laura? You’ve met her?”

“It’s alright, we talked. You don’t have to worry about that now.”

“I never meant for this to happen.” William lifts his right hand, reaching for Arthur.

“I know,” Arthur takes William’s hand and squeezes it, “and it doesn’t matter. We can talk about it another time. I’m just glad to see you awake.” Arthur has to clear his throat against the sudden tightness.

“Mostly awake.” William smiles but his eyes are closing again. “I’m sorry. All these drugs, I can’t think.” He squeezes Arthur’s hand. “Glad you’re here.”

“I’m glad too. Sleep if you need to. I’ll stay as long as I can.”

William drifts for a few minutes, wakes and says “glad you’re here” again.  

They don’t speak much more. William is too tired and Arthur is content just to be here, to watch him. He keeps William’s hand caught between his own until Laura comes to tell him that the matron is on the warpath and it’s time for him to go.

 

Grant is the next person to go visiting, persuading Segundus to drive him to the hospital a few days later because he knows that Laura has been called back to the farm where she is working now that William is out of immediate danger.

He returns to report that William was more awake than when they last met, if still tired and liable to fall asleep mid-conversation. He is also bored: bored with the hospital and being stuck in bed with nothing to do, bored with being in pain and subject to a daily round of pills and checks and needles and dressings. Between the damage to his right leg and the wounds to his neck and left shoulder, he’s almost immobile and frustrated by it. It’s not William’s way to be staying still, not doing anything.

Arthur worries about him, constantly and fruitlessly. He blames work and restrictive visiting hours for putting off going back to the hospital even as not going is driving him to distraction. He wants to go, but he hasn’t been asked and that holds him back.

The excuse about work is true enough: Grant is doing what he can but with his right arm in plaster there’s a limit to how much paperwork he can manage. Sir Walter has begun harassing them with new demands. SOE cannot get agents into Germany, but the government is finally seeing the value of magicians and wondering if they might be of use. They want more from him in exchange for the extra personnel he is requesting. He’s short staffed, short of time and, he can admit to himself, short tempered too. He takes great pleasure in letting his anger out at Norrell when he complains endlessly about the loss of Segundus.

It’s Segundus, in Arthur’s office to complete a transfer request form, who eventually offers to work a double shift so that Arthur might visit the hospital.

“I’m sure William must be lonely, sir,” he says, in the hesitant way that Arthur has rapidly learnt not to interpret as uncertainty in his opinion. “I’ve been in hospital before and it’s the dullest place in the world. Company does make rather a difference.”

Arthur manages something non-committal in reply but he does arrange to go. Grant actually looks pleased about it, insisting that they can manage perfectly well without him for the afternoon.

When Arthur arrives he finds that William is no longer on the small surgical ward but has been moved to a larger, communal ward. He looks pale, blending into the sheets except for his hair and the beard he is starting to grow. He looks up at Arthur with wide eyes, but Arthur can’t tell what he’s thinking.

“How are you?” Arthur asks, pulling up one of the visitors’ chairs.

“Bored.” William replies.

“Nothing to do?” It’s a thoughtless thing to say and as soon as Arthur says it, he wishes he could take the words back. William grimaces at him.

“Not particularly. Grant brought books but I can’t really concentrate on them. Or turn the pages. The nurses got fed up with picking them off the floor.”

William gestures at his left arm, which is lying still against the bed propped on a pillow. Nerve damage, the doctor said, from the shrapnel in his neck. They won’t comment on whether it is permanent or not. They talked about ‘spontaneous reversal’ but Arthur doesn’t particularly trust in phrases like that.

They have been silent too long.

“How’s Grant?” William asks.

“He’s… well.” Itching to get rid of the damned cast mostly, but that feels like the wrong thing to say again. “I’m sure he’ll be back when he can.”

“Oh. Yes. I suppose you must be busy.”

“Yes.” Arthur can’t tell him anything, not here on a public ward. The already stilted conversation dies a death. William stares at the wall opposite. A man at the other end of the ward hacks and coughs and spits into a basin. Arthur can see William flinching from the sound.

“William, I…”

“Yes?” There’s more than a hint of desperation in William’s voice.

“I…” The next words in his head aren’t ones he can say. Not here. He wants to hold William’s hand again, the only bit of him that seems safe to touch without causing pain, or stroke his hair, however ridiculous William would think he was being if he did it. He’d like to take him away from the ward full of other patients and the noise of it. He’d like to say something, anything, that might be comforting or at least meaningful. He’d like to say ‘I love you’.

Instead they look at one another, silenced by the weight of the unspoken.

They struggle to keep up a conversation for a little longer, talking of nothing until William says, with a certain amount of bitterness, that he is tired and wants to sleep. Arthur leaves him, walks to the end of the corridor and stops. He wants to go back, to try again, but he still doesn’t know what to say. Perhaps William really is only tired as he says. He paces, indecisive, then bows to the inevitable and drives back to the unit. When Grant next goes visiting, Arthur doesn’t offer to come with him.  

 

The cast is going to drive Grant to drink. It's cumbersome, stopping him holding a pen properly and, if he's honest with himself, only really comfortable if he keeps it tucked in the sling. None of which is helping him with the maps that must be drawn up from half a dozen garbled descriptions and intelligence reports. He shouts for Ned, who appears almost instantly.

"You called, sir?"

"Yes. I need someone who can be trusted with a map. Someone neat. Not you."

Ned grins. He once failed to live up to Grant's exacting cartographic standards and they mutually agreed not to try working together again.

"I'll see who I can rustle up, sir."

Grant returns to his contemplation of the maps until there's a tentative knock on the door.

"Come!"

He looks up curiously: most people in the unit tend to barge in unless there's a meeting going on. In the doorway he finds Arabella, neatly dressed in her WAAF uniform.

"They said you wanted someone to help with maps, sir."

Aware that he is staring at her, he scrambles to find words. "Yes, I did ask, but I… didn't expect it to be you."

"I'm good with maps. You can check my file if you like." She frowns at him.

"That isn't what I meant, forgive me Mrs Strange, I thought you were still on leave."

"I came to collect my things. They were sent over from my old unit. But I am good with maps and if you need someone to help, I'm not busy with anything else. Truth be told, I'm actually a little bored."

"Ah, well, in that case Mrs Strange, if you are sure, your help would be... helpful."

She smiles at him and he feels more awkward than he ought to. Normally he is perfectly capable of being rational in the presence of an attractive woman, but there is something different about Mrs Strange: her relationship with Jonathan if nothing else.

She comes over to the desk to look at the maps.

"It's Arabella, please. Jonathan says nobody stands on formality here. What were you trying to do?"

"This is a copy of the map of our current area of operations. These," he picks up the handful of papers, "are the miscellaneous reports from agents, magicians and pilots, that will hopefully tell us what has changed since we lost our ability to observe the territory by magic. Some things may be the same but others may have altered. Everything must be double-checked. I have been trying to update the map but it was proving more difficult than I thought."

Arabella bends over the map to take a closer look. "I can see the problem."

Grant can too. With his clumsy writing and the contradictory nature of the intelligence, the map is a mess of crossing out and scribbled pencil marks.

"Perhaps it would be best if we started again," he says.

"Perhaps, and then you can explain what you want me to do. What if you read the reports and I try to place them on the map?"

They try it, and it does work much better than before. Grant now has his full attention on the reports so it's easier to keep track of the inconsistencies while Arabella has an almost uncanny knack for translating the information into visual data. She is insightful, intelligent... He watches her quick hands with ruler and pencil, the frown of concentration on her face and thinks it uncommonly unfair for her to have so many attractive qualities. He has always thought her beautiful in an abstract sense, but it's much harder to ignore now that she is joining him in grumbling about agents who can't write clear reports with a pencil tucked into her hair and ink on her hands. He has to remind himself very firmly that there’s nothing illicit about their working together, nothing that he should feel guilt for.

When their first draft is done, she stretches and smiles at him and he can't help smiling back.

"I believe it may be time for lunch,” he says. “Would you like to join me? We've made better progress than I thought we would. Thank you."

"I was happy to help. This needed more than one person."

It turns out to be later than Grant thought, and most people have already been to the canteen. Even Jonathan has already eaten and gone back to his spells, which leaves Grant in the awkward position of eating alone with Arabella with nothing to distract them. It also turns out to be sausages for lunch, which are nearly impossible to cut one handed. Arabella watches him struggle for a while and then says, "Can I help? I'm sure you'd manage, but it might be easier."

Grant relinquishes his plate with thanks, but resents the necessity of it. At least when he came back from France with two bandaged hands William had been there and he is one of the few people Grant has never minded asking for help.

"I broke my arm when I was nine," says Arabella, as though it’s perfectly ordinary for her to be sitting there cutting his lunch into neat pieces, "Jonathan and my brother were climbing trees and I wanted to join in but it wasn't so easy in a dress. They were both so guilty about it, happening just at the start of the summer holiday, that they waited on me hand and foot until it healed. Their help drove me mad after a while."

"I didn't realise you'd known Merlin, Jonathan, from childhood."

"Oh yes, he was my brother's friend first but Henry and I are twins, so we were always rather inseparable."

"William and I met at school," he offers, feeling the need to share something in return.

"Oh, I didn't realise. No wonder you were so worried about him."

"Yes."

Neither of them know what to say for a moment and the canteen is quiet except for the rattle of plates being washed in the kitchen.

"You have a good eye for map making," Grant says to break the silence.

Thank you." She smiles, a quick flash of pleasure at the praise.

"It's rare to find someone who can make a description of the landscape translate into something useful."

"I suppose I have had practice. You know cameras don't work in faerie, or on the King's Roads? When Jonathan was writing his book on mapping the roads he asked me to provide the illustrations. I couldn't see them for myself, I'm no magician, but he was very exacting in what he wanted. I... sorry, this probably isn't very interesting for you. I'm used to the company of magicians now, I forget some people haven't lived for months in the company of an unpublished book!"

"No, it interests me, it's only that I've never read the book. I'm afraid I've not had much time for books of magic, but I do know that Childermass thinks highly of it. He said the illustrations were beautiful."

"That was kind of him. But never mind the roads. Do you draw, when you can? Ned told me that you usually do the map work yourself."

"I do sometimes. It's a useful skill, but I'm no artist. I'd be surprised though if that's all Ned told you."

"Well, he did say you were the most pedantic man he’d worked for and you'd have me drawing things over and over until you were satisfied, but I found you easier to work with than I thought." She smiles and again he finds himself returning it. When she invites him to dinner with her and Jonathan so he can see the original drawings for the book, he finds it impossible to refuse.

 

Nothing goes back to exactly how it was before, but with time things return to a new kind of normality. William’s absence echoes, but Segundus and Arabella both have their transfers to the unit agreed. In France, where things had gone quiet after the destruction of the railway line, SOE’s business is starting to pick up. Arabella and Jonathan, with permission from Arthur because of the lack of suitable accommodation for a married couple, move in to a cottage in the far end of the village, close to the base. Grant is their first guest for dinner.

 

The hospital sends William to a convalescent hospital once they are sure he’s unlikely to suffer a relapse. It’s a gruelling journey there by ambulance despite the painkillers they give him before setting off. Every twist and turn and bump in the road makes him wince. He arrives, exhausted, to find that the hospital has been set up in a converted stately home. He manages a bit of a grin for the orderlies as they carry him inside because at least living in some unknown aristocrat’s country house reminds him of SOE.

He never thought that reminiscing about the SOE training school would be a source of comfort, but then nothing is how he thought it would be any more. Before he left, the doctor told him that the war was over for him. He won’t fly again. A life on the ground is what he has to look forward to: rehabilitation, being told to be patient, waiting and seeing. They manhandle him into bed with a brisk efficiency that is at least better than being fussed over. A nurse takes his pulse and makes a non-committal noise, but given that moving still causes him enough pain to make him dizzy, William assumes she doesn’t mean anything good by it. She doesn’t say anything though, just hands him pills and water.

He’d never even imagined this. He’d assumed the war would kill him, that one day his luck would run out and bring his plane tumbling out of the sky. He’d thought that at least it would be quick. He certainly hadn’t imagined being invalided out, stuck in a hospital in the middle of nowhere. Laura has promised to write, to visit when she can, but it’s a long way from home and travel is always difficult now. Besides, their relationship has changed. Arthur is no longer an abstract concept but a real person that she has met and talked to. Nor, unless the doctors have seriously misjudged his ability to get back in a plane one day, is William likely to die during the war and leave her free to seek what he cannot offer her. He loves her still, but it’s a love that’s tinged with guilt for keeping her trapped. He hasn’t heard from Arthur, not seen him since the awkward visit in the hospital when neither of them had been able to say anything worth saying. He’s not a pilot any more, not useful to the unit. He’s not the young man that Arthur whisked away in his car for a weekend. A cruel voice in the back of his head says that maybe this is it for the two of them: the silent goodbye.

“We’ll have you settled in soon, and then you can get some rest.” The nurse interrupts his thoughts as she lifts his suitcase onto the wooden chair beside his bed. She starts unpacking with ruthless efficiency, stacking clothes into his locker, tucking his shaving kit and other belongings into a drawer. The last item out of the case is a grey woollen jumper. William stares at it as it’s tidied away. He recognises it, but it’s definitely not his.

“Do you know who packed for me?” he asks, trying to sound as though it doesn’t matter.

“No,” the nurse looks confused, “I’m sorry, did they forget something? The hospital arranged for your case to be sent. I’m sure you can write to your unit if there’s anything important you need.”

“No, no it’s fine. Only, there’s nothing else, is there? No note or anything?”

“No, I’ve unpacked everything. Is there a problem?” She frowns at him and he realises that if he says more he will be inviting questions. She’s tired too, looking at him as though daring him to raise a fuss and cause her problems at the end of her long shift. He shakes his head. The nurse gives him a look and leaves, telling him to get some sleep.

He can’t. The jumper in his drawer is Arthur’s jumper. William has worn it a few times before, under his flight suit for the warmth when flying or borrowing it on a cold evening in Arthur’s room. There’s no reason for it to be among his things, and if it is there then Arthur must have put it there. William imagines him packing, folding up his own jumper to send to William. No note, but what could he have said that wouldn’t be incriminating? Ambiguous though it is, a jumper doesn’t feel like a goodbye. William hangs on to that thought, against the loneliness. He feels homesick in a way he hasn’t since he was a boy, starting school.

Unless he has the days muddled, Grant will be taking over from Arthur for the night shift now. Perhaps agents will be going into France. It’s a clear night: good flying for a Lysander. It’s so strange to think that he won’t be part of it any more, to imagine some other pilot making the flight. William would give anything to be there now.

 

Grant bangs on Arthur’s door and opens it.

“Wanted to let you know I’m back on base. Is there anything to hand over for the night shift?”

“We have some rumours of troop movements that HQ want us to take a look at but I’ve already given it to Childermass. He can brief you if you need.”

“Right. I’ll be in my office. You should get out of here.”

“Yes,” Arthur looks at his watch. “Do you think William’s there by now?”

“He should be.”

“I hope he’ll be alright.” Arthur frowns as he gets up from his desk, gathering files and returning them to the locked cabinet.

“It’s William, I’m sure he will be.” Grant says, leaning on the doorframe. “I miss him though. Nobody to argue with me about flight plans or talk me into going to the pub.”

“Quite.”

“I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”

“Thank you.” Arthur locks the cabinet and turns round again, apparently composed. “How was your dinner with the Stranges?”

“It was… pleasant,” Grant grins at him, a schoolboy caught in mischief.

“All strictly professional I assume?”

“Of course, as we agreed.”

Arthur bids him goodnight and goes back to his room. It still feels empty without William there. He sits at his desk and pulls a letter from his pocket. Laura wrote to him, asking if he would go with her to visit William. He reads it again, the cheap paper already wearing soft with repeated folding and unfolding. It’s not from William, and it’s not an answer, but it is something and for now, that’s enough.

 

Chapter Text

Saturday

Arthur comes to fetch her early in the morning. So early in fact that Laura is usually still busy getting the cows out of the milking shed and back into their field. The first time she had felt bad about still being in her muddy dungarees when he arrived, but he’d just smiled and told her not to worry before going to drink tea with Mr Mudge, the elderly farmer, until she was ready.

This morning Mr Mudge greets him with his usual rumble and holds up a mug enquiringly. She’s never sure if Arthur can actually follow what Mr Mudge is saying. It took Laura a long time to get used to his accent, along with everything else that made up life on the farm. Some of the other girls hate the work and wish they’d been sent to factories or the forces but Laura is growing to love it. Perhaps one day she’d like to be a farmer’s wife. She can imagine it sometimes, living in the countryside with a big farm kitchen of her own, chickens scratching outside, a brood of children and a man who’d make the hard work worthwhile. A man who’d look at her in a way that William never has and never will, however much she hopes. It’s a fantasy, of course, but it does show what she’s missing.

While she washes and changes, the other girls tease her about Arthur, because they all say he must have a soft spot for her to be driving her all that way to see William. She wishes she could tell them the truth but she can also imagine the shock, perhaps even the horror, on their faces if she did. Betty, at least, doesn’t laugh. She’s the only one Laura told and swore to secrecy. She had to tell someone. It’s too much for one person to think about alone and she’s glad now that Betty knows to shoo the others out and tell them to stop teasing when Laura can’t do it herself.

It doesn’t take her long to be ready to go. There’s not much to do to make herself pretty nowadays: just a clean frock and pinning her hair up, hoping she doesn’t still smell like the cows. Then there’s her wedding ring. She started wearing it on a chain for the farm work, worried about losing is somewhere in a field and never finding it again, but now it feels wrong to put it back on her fourth finger. It feels like she’s wearing a lie.

“Are you going to tell him today?” Betty asks her, watching as she twists the ring in her fingers, and Laura nods. It has to be today. William is so obviously unhappy and so is Arthur and Laura herself. There’s no good in waiting because it’s not something that will get better in time. Prolonging the agony is the phrase in her head this morning. It’s a horrible thing to do, but it has to be done.

Betty hugs her, for luck.

 

The drive to the hospital isn’t bad. She’s starting to genuinely like Arthur and can’t really blame him for the situation they are in. He hasn’t pushed her, or William, even though she knows he still cares from the way he asks her for news and drives all this way in the early morning. Arthur asks her about the farm as they drive, and she likes him for remembering details from what she’s told him before. He doesn’t talk much about himself, but sometimes he’ll talk about his sons, or give her news from Colley. Somehow she hadn’t expected him to have children, but he talks about them like any proud father.

When they arrive she goes in alone, leaving Arthur to wait with the car. She has to report to reception and wait for someone to show her to wherever William is today. It’s an odd place to visit, not like the hospital before. The patients are in various stages of mobility and freedom, some wandering the grounds, others making slow and painful progress along corridors with nurses at their elbows. William always insists that he’s lucky, because some of the other patients have suffered so much worse. She has had to teach herself not to stare, not to look too long at some of the injuries. Aircraft burn, one of the nurses had told her bluntly, when Laura had looked too curiously. She’d stopped, guilty, and then been surprised by how soon is became normal.

Lucky William may be in some ways, but that doesn’t make it easy. Today, at least, she finds him up, sitting in one of the little sitting rooms they have for visits. He’s still in his pyjamas though, with a grey woollen jumper over the top that fits badly and gives him a neglected look.

“Hello, William,” Laura says as she walks in, accepting the offer of tea from the nurse who escorted her there.

“Hello,” he says, smiling in a way that looks almost like his old smile, except for the certainty she feels that it’s been put on for her benefit. She kisses his cheek and it feels rough in patches, as though his experiments in shaving one handed haven’t been entirely successful.

“How are you?” she asks.

He says he’s fine. He’s always fine, if you ask him. The nurses say the same when she asks them; they smile reassuringly and tell her how lucky she is to have a husband who is doing so well, adjusting so quickly. Sometimes Laura feels like she’s the only one who can see that he smile doesn’t reach his eyes, or the way he looks bleak when he thinks nobody is watching. She wonders if, to the nurses, this is normal. If this is what happens to all the men they care for, if the dark shadows under William’s eyes are what they expect, or for him to be always sitting there in pyjamas and a baggy grey jumper when he used to be forever busy with something. Perhaps ‘lucky’ just means something different here.

She manages to make small talk until the tea arrives, knowing that only after that ritual is complete will they be allowed to talk properly.

“Arthur drove me,” she says as she sips her tea, trying to begin gently. “He’s waiting outside. Do you want to see him?”

William shakes his head. He looks out of the window, anywhere but at her. “Not today. Maybe another time.”

His hands are restless in his lap, the fingers of his right hand testing and re-testing the fingers of his left, mapping out the numb places. It’s getting better, Laura knows, but not quickly, and not well enough for him to fly again. He’d be too clumsy with the controls, the doctor had said, although he should do well enough as a civilian. It had made her angry at the time, that he hadn’t appreciated William enough, but now she realises it was only his way of thinking. Every patient is a form to be filled, a box to be ticked: return to active service or medical discharge.

There’s a silence in the little room, William still avoiding meeting her gaze. Laura feels a stab of guilt for what she’s going to say next. She’s known him such a long time: to hurt him is unthinkable. But, oh, this has gone on long enough, and aren’t they hurting each other more now by staying silent?

“William,” she says, “I need to talk to you. Really talk to you.”

He looks at her finally. He looks resigned and sad, as though he knows what she has to say and has been dreading it.

“Does it have to be now?”

She takes his hand, and he clutches it, a little too tight. “I think it does, doesn’t it? We both know this isn’t working. We’ve known it a long time, and we’ve known it isn’t going to change. You do understand that, don’t you?”

William nods, looking down at their joined hands on his lap. “I suppose so. What do you want to do then?”

“I think we have to… to end this. To divorce.” The word feels ugly in her mouth. It rings with her parents’ disapproval, of their comments on the type of woman who leaves her husband. The likely opinion anyone might have about woman who would leave a husband injured in the war.

“There will have to be grounds for it. I can’t, not while I’m here. I don’t want you to be the one who…” William stumbles over it, but she knows what he means and she feels relief that at least he’s thinking of the logistics of it now, not just denying that it needs to happen. The easiest grounds for a divorce would be infidelity, but they can’t mention Arthur unless they want him and William to be arrested. Normally, a man could find a girl willing to be caught with him, and arrange matters that way, but it’s impossible to do from a hospital.

“There’s no rush, is there? We can talk about that. Maybe I’ll have to be the one.” She tries to laugh, but it’s feeble. She knows what her parents’ reaction would be to that.

“You don’t mind waiting? There isn’t,” William looks up at her, as sad as she’s ever seen him, “there isn’t someone else? Someone I’ve stopped you from seeing?”

“No.”

William nods, then stares of the window again. They are still holding hands, and Laura wonders how she can bear to do this when she still loves him. Then she thinks of Arthur, waiting out there in the car, and how she’d felt this morning, when a whole lifetime of living a lie had been an unbearable weight. This is better, better for all of them.

“There’s nobody else for me,” she says, “although I hope there might be, one day. After the war, perhaps.”

“I hope so,” he says, sounding choked. They exchange rather weak smiles.

“William…” she pauses, unsure of how to say it, “there’s someone for you though, isn’t there? Someone I believe loves you very much.”

William says nothing. He only shakes his head.

 

William wonders how it is that the whole world can come crashing down on you in the space of a morning. Since he came here, life has been a blur of trying not to panic and never quite managing. Trying to look cheerful and carry on, trying not to just lie in bed and refuse to get up because carrying on looks insurmountable unless it’s one day at a time, one hour at a time. He hasn’t been able to think about the future. He had to put it out of his mind, replaced by just getting from one moment to another and hoping that somehow it will all turn out alright.

Now, though, now he knows that it won’t be and there’s not one thing he can do about it.

He knows that Laura is upset, that she’s worried about him, but he hasn’t got the words to reassure her. He hasn’t got the words for anything. There’s just the white noise of everything falling apart. He has lost everything. His wife, his job, flying, Arthur…. everything he had that was worth having is gone. However confident Laura sounds about Arthur being there, William doesn’t want to see him like this. Arthur likes the pretty ones, the outgoing ones, the ones who flirt and laugh and have fun. William would rather remember what was than deal with what is now.

When Laura is gone he regrets not asking to see him anyway. It’s too late now, and that last chance has gone. He sits alone in the little sitting room and lights a cigarette. His hands shake.

He stares out at the garden, but he might as well be blind for all he sees of it.

 

Laura gets half way home before she cries. Arthur notices, of course he does when the tears start running down her cheeks and she can’t stop them. He pulls over without a word and hands her a handkerchief. It’s such a kind thing to do that she can’t help telling him everything, sobbing out her worry about William and how he’d looked when she left, how it hurts to hurt him but it needed to be done. He listens to it all without comment, other than the odd word that shows he’s listening. His face is rather carefully blank and she doesn’t want to guess what thoughts are hidden behind it.

“Do you blame me?” she asks eventually, not knowing what else to say when she’s mostly stopped crying.

“Do I… no, I don’t blame you. Did you think I would?” He looks a little kinder now, less forcibly blank.

“I don’t know. Mr Wellesley, I’m scared for him. He hasn’t been himself for weeks, not since the crash really, and the way he looked today… I worry. Promise me you’ll look after him, won’t you? I know he says he won’t see you, but he’s all alone there. I don’t want him to be so alone.”

Arthur is silent for a moment. “Laura, I won’t leave him to be alone, but I won’t impose on him either. It’s William’s choice, not mine.”

“Oh you don’t understand! You’ll wait for him to choose forever, but how is he supposed to know he can choose you?”

Arthur sighs and rubs his hands over his face. “Perhaps this calls for a proper conversation.”

They drive on a way, just long enough for Laura to stop looking quite so much as if she has been crying, and Arthur finds a village pub for them to stop at. He buys her a drink, and they sit outside in the garden. For a moment she feels quite shocked at her own behaviour, sitting here with a man who isn’t her husband and drinking in the middle of the afternoon. A slightly hysterical giggle rises up in her throat when she realises how silly it is to think it, on the day she asked her husband for a divorce. She had best get used to shocking people, and herself.

“So,” Arthur says when she’s had time to empty half her glass and feels more herself, “tell me what’s happening with William, and don’t spare me the details.”

Laura fidgets with her glass, turning it round and round on the table while she thinks how to begin. “It’s not any one thing. The nurses seem to think he’s doing well, that he’s managing, but he’s not… he’s not William. He’s smiling and joking, but he’s so quiet as soon as he stops trying to pretend that everything is perfectly alright. I think he’s lonely, and goodness knows that hospital is an awfully grim place to spend your time. He calls himself lucky, but I don’t think he believes it. I think he thinks he’s lost you, and now I’ve told him that he’s lost me too. I’m rather afraid he’ll give up hope. That he’ll just sit there in that awful grey jumper all the time and never be himself again.”

Arthur flinches slightly when she mentions the jumper. It’s only a small jerk of the hand that holds his glass, but she knows him well enough to understand the significance. She’d known that it had to belong to him. A point scored. Unworthy perhaps, but she is coming to realise that Arthur may need encouraging just as much as William before they both end up desperately unhappy.

“Will you go and see him?” she asks, “even if he says no, please try. I think he worries that you won’t… that you won’t care for him now.” She avoids saying that William fears Arthur won’t want him any more. There’s a limit, in her mind, of how much she can bear to think about it. The not being wanted still hurts. William’s lack of protest at her decision hurts too, even though she’d been relieved by it at the time.

“Do you think he’d want to see me? He hasn’t asked to. I’m not sure that my visiting would do any good.”

“I’m not asking you to force him, but how is he meant to know he can ask to see you if you never tell him why you are waiting?”

“I can’t go tomorrow, or Monday. I can’t tell you why, but it’s impossible. I’ll go on Tuesday, though. Would you like me to write and tell you that I’ve seen him?”

She hadn’t even been thinking of him visiting tomorrow, but she likes him for considering it, and Tuesday is sooner than the next weekend. “That would be kind of you, thank you.”

Arthur nods, and raises his glass to her. It’s not exactly mission accomplished, but it’s a start. One good thing that might come of this awful day. When they go back to the car to drive home, Laura’s heart feels lighter than it has for a while.

 

While Arthur is away visiting, Segundus and Strange are hard at work in their tiny office. It’s a pleasant day for early spring, the sunshine bringing a rare warmth as well as brightness, that is appreciated by everyone who isn’t shut up in a small stuffy room. Jonathan discarded his jacket several hours ago while he and Segundus were focused on the magic. Unfortunately now their earlier progress has slowed to a crawl and the stuffiness is becoming overwhelming. Jonathan would like to keep working, trying to force the magic into obedience, but the back of his neck is prickling in the heat and Segundus is looking flushed, his forehead damp.

“Time for a break, perhaps,” Jonathan says, putting down his pen and marking his page.

“I believe so.” Segundus runs his hands through his hair. “I was sure that this adaptation would work but yet… nothing!” He thumps a book closed with more violence than usual.

Jonathan can understand the frustration, and worse than that, this work is for Grant. Jonathan would give a great deal not to disappoint him. Sir Walter wants eyes on Germany, and Grant was the one to say Jonathan and Segundus could do it, taking them off normal duties despite how busy they’ve been. Jonathan wants the work done, and fast, to prove that Grant’s faith in him was not misplaced. Still, now is perhaps not the time to keep battering their heads against the wall over a spell that isn’t working.

“We might think of something better after a break,” Jonathan says, “that variation was worth testing. Maybe knowing it doesn’t work will show us what will.”

It’s noticeably cooler outside of the office and an immediate relief. They walk together to the canteen in search of a drink and find that the doors have been flung open. Half the people taking breaks are outside, making the most of the sunshine. Jonathan, heading out there with no thought other than finding Bell, is outside and sitting down before he realises that the crowd is mostly female.

“Hello!” Bell greets them both, “isn’t it a lovely day?”

One of the other women giggles. Jonathan has the uncomfortable sensation that he’s missing out on the joke.

“Should I perhaps go inside?”

“Oh no, there’s no need.” Bell smiles at him, but it’s her wicked smile and doesn’t reassure him. “The new recruits are here. Captain Grant is personally overseeing their training.”

Jonathan looks up, following the direction of her gaze and… oh… that certainly explains the crowd outside. Grant is indeed overseeing the training of the new recruits, but he’s doing so dressed in shorts and a tight fitting undershirt.

“I love it when they get it wrong,” observes one of the women.

Jonathan considers asking why and then thinks better of it. He finds out soon enough when the recruits start some new exercise in pairs, apparently trying to wrestle one another to the floor. Grant yells at them, jogging over and Jonathan can’t help but admire the curve of his backside as he runs. When Grant begins manhandling the recruits, showing them exactly how to throw a man to the ground and pin him, Jonathan is extremely glad of the table in front of him.

“Better than the pictures, isn’t it Lynne?” says the woman who was hoping the recruits would get something wrong.

“I like it when he runs,” says her friend, propping her chin on her hands.

“I thought war work was going to be dull,” says a third woman.

“Oh no, never a dull moment here.”

“Maybe I should say I want to be an agent? Then the good Captain could give me private training.” They giggle.

“I’d take that Sergeant Childermass if he’d have me,” says Mary, one of the quietest girls in the unit. Jonathan looks at her in surprise. Segundus chokes on his food.

“You’re stepping out with Davey, girl. Don’t be so greedy!”

“I’m only looking,” says Mary, “I like a Yorkshireman.”

Across the field, Grant is pacing up and down the row of recruits. Jonathan swallows hard.

“We are going to have to do something about this, Jonathan,” Bell says very quietly into his ear. “It’s dreadful that a man like that should be alone and… unappreciated.”

“I asked him Bell, he said no.” She means it kindly, but he’d rather she didn’t.

“And you’re going to just give up? Jonathan! Perhaps you should ask him again?”

“No Bell, he made his opinion quite clear. I’m not going to make a fool of myself by asking again.”

Bell looks at him, her smile gone. She looks worried for him and he knows that his feelings must show on his face, at least to her. Being turned down is never an enjoyable experience and Grant had been very firm about it. Perhaps it would have been easier too if he hadn’t wanted him so much. He looks away from the field. Watching what he can’t have has lost its appeal. Bell slips her hand into his and he squeezes it.

“I’ll leave you to your break,” Jonathan tells her, “I ought to be getting back to work. We’ve got people flying out tonight and I want to be free by then.”

 

Tuesday

When Arthur arrives, the nurse goes willingly enough to find William but she returns a few minutes later with a frown. She tells him, rather apologetically, that Flight Lieutenant De Lancey isn’t feeling well enough for visitors today. At least Arthur had been prepared for this, although it is hardly a pleasant feeling. The nurse is looking at him sympathetically now, and sympathy he can use to his advantage.

“Tell me,” he says, leaning forward over the desk and smiling, “is he really too unwell for visitors or do you think that some company might do him good? I know you must be busy, but perhaps you could take him my card and ask again?” He takes one of the plain cards from his pocket, the ones with nothing more than his name and ‘Inter-Service Research Bureau’. On the back of the card he scribbles ‘it would be ungentlemanly not to meet an old friend – A’. “Are you sure you don’t mind taking him this?”

“Of course, sir.” She looks at him, “Are you a friend of his, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I… yes, I am. Why?”

“Well, sir, I think he’s rather low at the moment. Not uncommon when a pilot has been here for a while. Perhaps you could talk to him? His wife visits of course, but sometimes it’s easier for the men to talk to a friend.”

“I’ll do my best.” Arthur surveys the hospital lobby, a previously grand entrance hall subdued into military regulation neatness. It doesn’t feel like the right place for William: cheerful, messy William who has never yet been subdued into military regulation anything. “How do I go about getting him off the grounds for a bit? Does he need permission to leave?”

“Well you could take a short walk in the gardens, I suppose. I wouldn’t ask him to walk too far just yet.” She looks doubtful.

“I was thinking a bit further afield than the garden. Just for a couple of hours. I have a car so he won’t have to walk.”

“You’d have to talk to the doctor in charge, sir.” Her expression suggests he’s unlikely to have much luck on that front, but then, she doesn’t know Arthur.

“Listen,” he smiles, “if you tell him I’m here, I’ll have a word with the doctor.”

She does give him directions, and goes off to find William. With luck, he will have enough time for the conversation he wants to have before William is up and presentable for going out. Dealing with doctors requires a different tactic to the one he used with the nurse. He knocks smartly at the door and waits for the barked ‘enter!’.

“Yes?” the doctor asks before he can take two steps into the room, “what do you want?”

“My name is Wellesley, I’m here to discuss one of your patients.”

The doctor blinks at him, apparently revising his opinion of the level of attention he needs to give this interruption. He removes his glasses and indicates the chair opposite his desk. “Have a seat Mr Wellesley. You are aware, no doubt, that I am not at liberty to discuss a patient’s details with anyone who walks into my office.”

“Of course,” Arthur nods to acknowledge the point, and offers his Identity Card “I’m Flight Lieutenant De Lancey’s CO. I need to know when he might be fit for duty again.”

The doctor examines his ID. It has the same Inter-Service Research Bureau cover as his card, which should also appear on William’s notes. Not the most plausible place for an RAF pilot to be working perhaps, but so long as the records match it should get Arthur the information he wants.

“I had written a letter to his original squadron, before we were told he had been seconded. Given the nature of his injuries, I’m afraid De Lancey will be looking at medical discharge. You’ll get the relevant paperwork in due course.”

“I’m rather afraid that won’t do. De Lancey needs to stay with the RAF.”

“Mr Wellesley, this decision is based on medical diagnosis, not the whims of the Inter-Service Research Bureau.” He gives the title of the Bureau with disdain. “De Lancey won’t be able to fly a plane again and that’s the cold, hard fact of it. Believe me, I’ve seen enough men come through these doors to know what their prospects are. He’s lucky. He should be able to lead a relatively normal civilian life, but to put him in an aircraft would only endanger him and anyone who flew with him.”

“Fortunately I don’t need him to fly aircraft. I just need him out of here and back on duty. How long do you think?”

“I hope you’ll understand that my primary concern is for my patients. I won’t let them leave until I’m satisfied that they are fit to go, and I won’t let them be pushed into service they aren’t fit for.” He leans back in his chair a little, immovable. Arthur rather admires him for it.

“Believe me, I’ve no wish to hamper his recovery. That must, of course, come first, but if it were not important I wouldn’t ask. I am prepared to do whatever is necessary to assist in his returning to as good a state of health as possible, but I need to know what I must do, and how long it will take. Will you help? So that we might find the best solution possible for De Lancey, and the needs of this country.” It’s a usefully vague phrase, good for implying the importance of Arthur getting his own way without leaving him open to accusations of breaking the Official Secrets Act (the letter of it at least).

“Well…” the doctor puts on his spectacles again and rifles through a filing cabinet for what must be William’s notes, “in the interests of this country is it? In that case I believe we can find a compromise. Have you seen him yet?”

“No, I’m hoping to see him shortly.”

“Ah, good. When you do, you’ll see that he still has issues with mobility at present. I’d like to get him off the crutches before he leaves us, if I can. As he is now, I’d be concerned about his ability to move around independently, but the bones are healing. You’ve seen the letter detailing this, I assume?”

“I have. I think perhaps it would be best to get him up and about before he returns to work.”

“The nerve damage, at least that’s his left hand. Really, it all depends on how much support he’ll have when he leaves here. We were intending him to be sent home to his family, not a barracks environment. It’s a very different situation, and there is the mental aspect to consider, the time needed to adjust. The squadron leaders don’t like to hear it, but accidents like this do require recovery time. No reflection on the individual at all, just a natural part of the healing process.”

He looks severely over his glasses at Arthur. Perhaps he’s seen enough the RAF’s policy on lack of moral fibre.

“I understand, of course. My wish is to see De Lancey back at work, without risking his health.”

“Then, if I may be frank, either leave him here until he’s ready to come back or you will need to ensure that he has help. Can you house him off base? Is his wife nearby? Don’t ask too much of him. I’d give him… say three weeks to be comfortable without the crutches, and then we can discuss it further if you can guarantee he’ll be given light duties.”

“Of course. In the meantime, have I your permission to take him off the grounds for an hour or two? I won’t over tax him, but we have things to discuss.”

The doctor is obviously convinced that something is going on to which he is not party, but fortunately he assumes national security and not the real reason for Arthur’s visit. He agrees, and with a last discussion of the details, Arthur is free to go.

 

William doesn’t particularly want to go to the effort of meeting anyone this morning, but the card the nurse gives him offers little choice. If it is work, he has to go, and if it’s not work, and Arthur is desperate enough to use that excuse…. William doesn’t finish the thought.

The nurse is determined too, insisting that he dresses instead of going down in his pyjamas. Clothes aren’t really so much work, but what William hates is the slowness of it, having to sit down to put his trousers on instead of pulling them on without a thought, half way to the door and ready to go before he’s even got the buttons done up. He doesn’t bother with his uniform: his other clothes are more comfortable. Perversely, he leaves the grey jumper in his locker and wears one of his own.

The walk to the lobby feels endless, still not having got the hang of swinging the crutches forward in his left hand and feeling unstable, never sure if his leg or his shoulder are going to give out first. The nurse who walks with him doesn’t rush him, doing an excellent job of pretending she normally walks this slowly. They have all been kinder to him since the weekend, but instead of being comforted by it, he just feels ashamed that he hasn’t done a better job of hiding how he feels.

 

Seeing Arthur is something of a shock: such a familiar profile in an unexpected place, and such a familiar expression when he turns to look at William for the first time. William stops, halting awkwardly with his crutches sliding, and stares at him until Arthur stands up.

“Good to see you again,” Arthur says, “how are you?”

They shake hands, of all things, while the nurse smiles at them and wished him a good afternoon.

“I thought we’d go out for a bit,” Arthur tells him, as casual as you please. As though William hasn’t been stuck indoors for weeks on end and itching for a reason to escape.

Getting across the gravel to the car is a nightmare. William hasn’t tried walking on gravel before. His only previous excursions outdoors were across the paving in the garden, carefully escorted every step of the way. Arthur does walk at a speed to match him, but at least he doesn’t try to help, keeping his hands tucked in his pockets.

They drive out of gates William hasn’t seen before and it occurs to him that he has become worryingly institutionalised. It feels risky to be out, as though he’s breaking the rules, and however many windows he has looked through, they don’t compare to actually being outside again. Green countryside barrels past them: spring has happened almost without him noticing it. Arthur says nothing, apparently lost in driving, and William half relaxes, knowing there’s a difficult conversation to come but relieved that that moment isn’t here yet.

It comes eventually though, Arthur slowing the car and then parking on the verge. He has chosen the top of a hill so the countryside is laid out in front of them, with a clear view if anyone should approach them: Arthur is ever the spy. He gets out and leans against the bonnet, busying himself with cigarettes and matches until William has managed to get out of the car himself. Looking at Arthur standing there with a cigarette in his hands, it reminds William forcibly of the day he first went to Arthur’s flat, and what a bloody long time ago that seems now.  

“You said it would be Ungentlemanly not to see you. I assume that means this is work,” William says, before Arthur can begin.

“I needed to talk to you. Work was a part of it certainly.” Arthur watches him, and William looks away rather than meet his gaze. He can see Arthur shrug slightly out of the corner of his eye. “The game is changing: there’s new work for the Magicians. Our lords and masters want us focusing on Germany.”

“You can’t get agents into Germany. We all know that: it’s suicide for them.”

“As I know very well, but this isn’t about agents.” Arthur offers him the packet of cigarettes. “You need to know something else, something I wasn’t allowed to tell you before because you didn’t have clearance. We’re breaking German codes. Don’t ask me how because I don’t know, but we’re intercepting their radio traffic and reading it. Place called Station X, if it is one place, and now they’ve got another project. The German High Command are using a different machine to encipher messages and they want help to read that too.”

“We’re doing what?” Arthur doesn’t say anything. “Shit. This is where those unknown sources of information come from, the ‘just trust me’ ones, isn’t it? You’ve known it all along, and you’re only telling me now. Why are you telling me? Who else knows?”

“Grant knows. Nobody else, and nobody else will be told. This is ultra secret.”

“Ultra secret?” William whistles. Everything they do already comes under ‘most secret’, but apparently there’s now a whole class of secrecy higher than that, one he didn’t even know existed until today. “That doesn’t answer why you’ve just told me. Why did you?”

“Because I need you back.”

William laughs incredulously. “Don’t be ridiculous. You know they won’t let me fly again. I’m a grounded pilot and sod all use to anyone. You don’t need me.”

“We do, I’m afraid. Things are getting busier in France and we were already overstretched without this new work in Germany. Long distance espionage where we can’t send agents? It’s new for us. Grant and I can’t do it alone: we need help and we need help we can trust. I told Grant a long time ago I thought you could be more than a pilot one day. Will you do it?”

William shakes his head. “I joined to fly, Arthur, that’s what I do. That’s what I’m good at. To go back now and do some pointless paper-pushing job you’ve made up out of pity? I don’t need that. I know my war is done, and I don’t need you to invent something to keep me busy.”

“It’s not an excuse, it’s real work that needs someone to do it. I don’t trust Strange: he’s a good magician but he isn’t the right man to lead others. I need someone I can trust. I want you.”

“They’re kicking me out the RAF, you know? Pensioning me off.”

“Well I’ll get them on the bloody telephone and tell them they can’t. Or I’ll put you on the SOE payroll.”

William remains unconvinced. Arthur may have plans, but even he has limits to his influence against the RAF. William ignores him in favour of staring out at the countryside. At least it isn’t bloody flat like East Anglia.

“William, if you don’t want to come back to work will you at least… would you consider coming back anyway. The Stranges have a cottage now and there’s another one empty next door. It would…”

“It would give me somewhere to go now there’s nowhere else?” The patronising implications of it make him angry. “I suppose Laura told you. I’m not bloody helpless you know, I don’t need your help just because I haven’t got a wife to go home to any more.”

“I know you don’t. That’s not why I’m asking.” Arthur irritably flicks the butt of his cigarette to the ground and grinds it under his shoe.

“Then why are you bloody asking?” William knows he sounds too harsh, but he doesn’t care. He’s teetering on the brink of finally losing it, letting himself be as angry as he’s wanted to be since the day he woke up in hospital and realised he might actually prefer not to have woken at all.

“Do I really have to spell it out? I’ve missed you.” Arthur, damn him, actually looks uncomfortable saying it.

“You missed me? Is that is? You missed me? You could have anyone else you wanted if you’re bored.”

“I don’t want anyone else! Surely you know that. We talked, didn’t we, before? What changed?”

“I changed!”

“William.” Arthur’s calm tone doesn’t help.

“I’m not your fucking flyboy any more!”

“William, please…”

“Fuck you.” William’s hand is shaking and his cigarette falls to the ground. “Fuck you.” He sobs, once, a gasp of indrawn breath. “I, I can’t…”

“Oh you bloody fool!”

Arthur grabs him, holds him, as fierce as he is comforting. William cries. Pressed against Arthur’s chest and shaking with the force of it. He hasn’t cried like this in years, certainly not where anyone else can hear him. He knows that when he stops, he’ll be ashamed of himself: ashamed of the noise he makes, of the dampness of Arthur’s shirt, of the fact that he can’t stop. Arthur just lets him get on with it, rubbing one hand over his back when he cries hard enough to choke.

He stops, eventually, slumped against Arthur and feeling empty of everything. Arthur passes him a handkerchief in silence and tactfully doesn’t watch while William mops his face and blows his nose. At least they are on a deserted part of the road and there’s nobody else here to see.

“Alright?” Arthur asks him. William nods, not trusting himself to speak. Arthur doesn’t say any more either, but he fetches his coat from the back of the car and drapes it around William’s shoulders. It’s not exactly cold, but the coat smells of Arthur and the weight of it around his shoulders helps.

“Apparently I’m not allowed to give you anything stronger,” Arthur tells him, opening a flask. It proves to be full of tea when he pours it, lukewarm but strong and sugary. William levers himself back into the passenger seat and sits there, sipping tea and feeling like a fool.

“Arthur, I’m…”

“It’s alright.” Arthur’s hand squeezes his shoulder. “I should think you were overdue. It’s making you damn miserable, isn’t it?”

William nods. There’s no point pretending otherwise.

“If you want to come back, the job is there, and nobody would doubt your right to do it. Think it over. But I would like you to come back.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Arthur nods and starts the car engine. William looks up at the sound, frowning.

“Do we have to go back already?” He’d rather be anywhere else, and embarrassed as he feels, at least with Arthur he doesn’t have to keep pretending to be alright.

“Not if you don’t want to.”

Arthur drives them around apparently at random, unfazed by the lack of road signs. William stares out at the scenery without saying anything, relieved not to have to make conversation. He dozes a bit, waking with a guilty conscience about using up Arthur’s petrol coupons while he takes a nap, but Arthur just asks him if he’s ready to go back. He is, somehow. It makes a difference, knowing that there is a way out after all.

“Arthur?” he says as the car stops outside the front door, “I’m sorry, about earlier, and… thank you.”

Arthur smiles at him then, and as William watches him drive away, he wonders if that smile meant that Arthur wasn’t lying about missing him after all.

 

 

A Test

The test of the vision spells for Germany is in progress. Bell isn't supposed to know anything about it, but she knows what magic Jonathan has been working on. There's something particular that Grant and Arthur want to see, although none of the rest of them know what it is. What she does know is that whatever is going on behind that closed door will be hard on Jonathan and Segundus.

She waits, hoping to be there when they are done, and is rewarded when the door swings open. Jonathan half staggers out of the room and Grant is there in an instant, a hand under his elbow.

"Don't be ridiculous," Jonathan is saying, "I've not had a nosebleed since I was seventeen." His nose is bleeding though: not much but enough to make Bell worry. Segundus looks ashen.

"We didn't expect quite those levels of spells for secrecy,” he says, “although perhaps we should. It will be better next time, I'm sure."

Childermass is hovering too, looking as though he'd like to insist that the experiment is never repeated again. Unfortunately Arthur looks so smugly pleased with himself that it seems inevitable that it will. He has been in a worryingly good mood since he reported that William would be returning to SOE in a few weeks.

"Excellent, excellent work gentleman," Arthur says, "Grant, I'm going to contact HQ. Do make sure my magicians don't fall over in the meantime."

"Bed, I think, might be the best place for you," says Childermass, over Segundus' protests of being perfectly well.

"It was only the recoil if you understand. A fascinating occurrence: I'm sure I should take notes. It must be possible to reduce the impact of it." Segundus fumbles for a notebook and Childermass stops him, rolling his eyes at Bell. His message is unmistakeable: we understand, don’t we, how hard it is to manage a determined magician.

"Later," Grant says firmly, "you've done good work today. No need to push yourself too far or we'll have worse than nosebleeds to deal with."

"I'm sure the nosebleed is coincidental," Jonathan says without much conviction, wiping the blood away with the back of his hand. Grant looks up at him with what Bell can only call fond exasperation. It's a feeling she knows well where Jonathan is concerned.

"Nonetheless, Merlin," Grant says, handing Jonathan a handkerchief, "a rest is what you'll get. Are you in a fit state to walk home?"

"He isn't," Bell tells him before Jonathan has a chance to deny it.

"Best stay here for a while then. You can put him in my room if you like. I trust you won't need a key." He grins at her, suddenly boyish and shockingly attractive. "Go on now Merlin." Bell watches his face as he says it, turning from smiles to something more serious, a kind of restrained protectiveness.

"I'd hate to bend another hairpin," Bell says lightly, "perhaps a key would be easier?"

He throws them to her willingly enough and lets her take his place at Jonathan's side. Jonathan is unusually docile when she guides him to Grant's room: it has been a long night of magic. He rolls himself into Grant's blankets without a word of protest and is snoring peacefully a moment later.

Bell leaves him to rest and goes back to the main office. The bustle of shift change is over and it's quiet again. Grant is sitting at a desk, bent over a file in total concentration. Bell admires his profile, but also notices the tiredness in his face and the line of pinker skin around his neck where his uniform shirt must rub. She wants to undo the collar and run her fingers over the skin: part comfort and part prelude to something more. She’s getting ahead of herself.

"I've brought your keys back," she says and he looks up at her, blinking as he switches his focus away from the file. "I was going home. Perhaps you'd like to come with me, have a walk. You look like you've been here too long."

"Perhaps." He looks at her slightly doubtfully, as though he might mistrust her motives. He probably should, but he follows her willingly enough, taking the longer path out of the main gates rather than the unofficial shortcut via the fence.

They walk in silence for a while and Arabella watches him covertly out of the corner of her eye. He manages to look smart in his uniform despite working all night and it suits him. There are, she thinks, many things to admire about Captain Grant, not least that he is a good man, but good men have scruples about things and those are what Arabella wants to discuss.

"So what was your reason for this walk?" he asks her before she has had time to decide on her opening sentence. "There must be something, charming as it is to take a walk in the early hours of the morning. You were watching me before you asked."

"You are very observant."

“I’m a spy.” He gives her the boyish grin again.

“I’m sure you shouldn’t say things like that.”

“Perhaps not, but I’m sure my secret is safe with you. Anyway, out with it, whatever it is. Although I warn you, if you want to question my decisions about your husband, the conversation will not be a long one.” Grant has an edge to his voice that reminds her he is a soldier. It could almost be enough to discourage her but the memory of Jonathan’s unhappiness keeps her talking.

“Actually I wanted to talk to you about Jonathan.” She pauses, and Grant makes a noise that she interprets as encouragement to go on. “The first time he ever fell in love with a girl, I was the person he told. She was a girl he met in Weymouth, and he was head over heels with her. By the end of the summer I was ready to strangle him if I heard her name one more time.” She laughs at the memory and Grant laughs with her.

“You must have been very long suffering.”

“Oh I was, but by the time he’d come back from the autumn term at school he had forgotten her. He was at university when he first fell in love with another man. A miserable term that was: he was rather more melodramatic in those days. He swung between despairingly throwing himself into his work and thinking up grand romantic gestures.”

“I’m rather surprised that you ever married him.”

“Because of the men?”

“No, because I’d have been tempted to drown him in the Cam. How did you come to be married?” Grant sounds genuinely curious.

“Well, eventually we realised that however many people he, or I, had wanted, in the end we always came back to each other. We’ve known how it would work since the beginning. I’ve never minded.”

“Mrs Strange, I believe you are working from a false assumption. I am aware of your… arrangement with Merlin. I don’t need you to reassure me of your knowledge of it. I declined your husband’s offer for my own reasons and I would thank you to respect that. I appreciate his friendship, and yours, but I want nothing more than that.”

“I know. Believe me, I do know, and I wouldn’t question you for a moment, but will you forgive me if I say that I don’t trust Jonathan to explain things properly? I do love him dearly but he really is quite hopeless when it comes to falling in love with people.”

“I can believe that.”

“Emma Pole told me you refused to sleep with her.”

Grant swings round to face her, obviously startled. “I beg your pardon?”

“I think she sees you rather in the light of a missed opportunity.”

“Emma is a very good friend of mine but she really does talk too much.”

“She’s also in love with her husband. She’s in London with him now. I had a letter from her: she seems happy.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“Jonathan told me you have rules. You won’t sleep with anyone who loves someone else, will you?”

“Mrs Strange, is it really so unusual for a man to prefer to be more to his partners than a brief amusement? If you have nothing more to do than pry into my affairs I will bid you good morning and return to the base.” He sounds strained. Bell thinks she has about a minute before he actually takes to his heels and runs.

“That’s what Jonathan forgot to tell you. Or what you didn’t hear. Jonathan is normally very good at getting over his love affairs. Only this time he doesn’t seem to be able to.”

“Mrs Strange…” Grant stops walking and holds his hands out helplessly. Bell suppresses the urge to reach out and take them in her own. “What would you have me do?”

“Are you married, Captain Grant?”

“You know that I’m not. I was a soldier even before the war: it wouldn’t have been fair to ask that of someone.”

“That sounds a rather lonely way of looking at life. But if you met a woman, someone who wasn’t attached to anyone else, and you took her out for dinner, or to dance, would you decide then and there whether you loved her enough to marry her? Enough to start a relationship with her?”

“I’m not sure I see how this is relevant.” Grant is running his fingers under his collar as though it is choking him.

“There are no guarantees in love, are there? Dinner doesn’t always have to mean forever. What Jonathan was so ineptly trying to offer was the chance to get to know us. I know you find him attractive. He didn’t mean to offer you an affair: he was trying to ask if you wanted something that meant more. With him, or with both of us.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to, yet. You should think about it. Think about whether you want to get to know us better. The choice is yours, but you should know,” she steps forward, almost close enough to touch, “I think you are a good man, Captain Grant, and I think I could come to like you just as much as Jonathan does.”

He doesn’t step away from her, only waits. The next move is hers. She leans up, not as far as she has to stretch with Jonathan, and kisses him.

He freezes at first, hands still locked at his sides, but she rests her cold hand against his cheek and pulls him gently towards her. He moves then, returning the kiss properly and his hand coming up to rest against her cheek in turn. He knows what he’s doing with a kiss, knows enough to leave her a little breathless. In the end, she’s the one who pulls back first.

“So,” she says, “I’ll let you decide. If you want to, come for dinner tonight. We can talk.”

 

Homecoming

William is quiet on the drive home, first watching the passing scenery and then sleeping, his head falling sideways against the window. Arthur wonders if he should wake him but he looks so tired he decides against it. Awake, William is animated, and it disguises the way the time in hospital has written itself onto his face. He’s paler, but shadowed under his eyes and young as he is, there are lines around his eyes and mouth. Arthur hopes the sleep will do him good. He doesn’t mind the silence while he drives.

He stops half way, mindful of the doctor’s instructions about the need for regular breaks. William is stiff and slow when he gets out of the car, but still quicker than before now that he has exchanged crutches for a walking stick.

They have a quiet lunch. William picks at his food, claiming tiredness. Arthur has to suppress the rising worry at the sight of him crumbling bread between his fingers and letting the crumbs fall to the waiting sparrows who dart around the table. Laura’s words come back to him: he’s not quite himself, not quite William.

Time, the doctor said, was what he needed. Well if that’s what William needs, that’s what Arthur will give him. Time… and love, if William will let him.

 

The weather breaks as they get closer to home, blue skies clouding over into a soft, rolling grey. The first drops of rain start to fall as they enter the village, dropping dark spots onto the dusty bonnet of the car. William groans to himself, because if it's raining he will want to get inside fast and fast is something he can't do right now. He's stiff and aching from the journey and tired, so very tired after doing nothing much at all.

The cottage isn't a bad place to be living. He knows it from his walks to the pub, and Arthur had told him that the Stranges were next door. He does his best to move in a hurry up the garden path but it's the rain that undoes him, slicking the front step and making him stumble. Arthur catches him, settling him back on his feet.

"Steady," he says, "I've got you."

And it's enough. Over the threshold they go, banging the door behind them, and William is being pushed against the wall and kissed as thoroughly as only Arthur knows how. It's a relief somehow, a question answered without having to say the words and William is happy to just let it all go and be kissed. Arthur is warm under his shirt, the cold drops of rain sticking the fabric to his skin as William puts his arms around him and holds on.

They stop, after a while, a mutual need for breath and the fact that William is leaning harder against Arthur, not entirely trusting his legs to hold him up any more.

"You should go and sit down," Arthur says quietly, as they stand there with their foreheads almost touching.

"Sit? I could go straight to lying." He tries to make it sound light hearted, but it's the honest truth and Arthur probably knows it.

"Perhaps you should. It was a long drive."

The bedroom is only at the end of the hall. The cottage's owner had slept downstairs for a few years before she moved in with her daughter: one of the reasons that Arthur had thought of the place. At least it’s not too old lady-ish and it’s definitely better than a bunk in a shared barracks. William sits on the bed and Arthur deposits his suitcase in the corner. He watches as William hesitates with his hand on his top button. This is a rather different kind of undressing to the way he's undressed in front of Arthur before.

"I'll make tea," Arthur announces and leaves him to get on with it alone. William can't decide if he's glad of the privacy or somehow... disappointed. Stupid. Why would he want someone here to watch how slow he is, or see the scars in all their glory across his shoulder?

He's settled in bed by the time Arthur comes back, mugs of tea in hand. "Do you want company?" He asks it almost indifferently but there's a look in his eyes that is at least familiar enough for William to read: Arthur wanting something he isn't prepared to ask for.

"Please."

There's nowhere to sit but on the bed, so Arthur stretches out beside him on top of the quilt. They drink tea and listen to the rain, picking up now so that it rushes down the tiles and rattles on the window. It's a comforting sound, soothing. William is lulled by it until his mug starts to slip and Arthur takes it from him before he can spill the last inch of cold tea.

"You should sleep," he says, a quiet rumble in William's ear. He presses a kiss to William's hairline, almost his forehead. It's an absurdly sentimental gesture from Arthur but it allows William to ask what he wants to.

"Will you stay?"

"Here?"

"Please."

"Of course, just let me get rid of the mugs." That kiss again, and William wishes he were awake enough to ask Arthur means by it. He dozes, dimly aware of Arthur settling next to him again, this time with a book. William means to ask him if he minds, because really he would be alright on his own, but Arthur tells him to sleep, in the gruff voice that brooks no argument. Lulled by the rain, William obeys.

Later, perhaps much later, the rain dies away and it is the absence of it that wakes William. It's growing dark already, only half light in the room. Arthur is asleep beside him, book propped open on his chest. They are holding hands.

Chapter Text

The first day back

One summer as a boy, William had had the misfortune to visit his cousins on the day before one of them developed mumps. Then, adding insult to injury, he had come down with it himself at the end of the school holiday. Under quarantine, he'd been banned from his usual visit to Grant's family and everything else that had been planned for the summer. He'd spent the time mostly alone, briefly feeling ill enough to want to stay in bed, but more often in bored solitude in the nursery he had grown out of.

As well as the holiday, he had also missed the first two weeks of school. Impatient to go back throughout the two weeks, on the morning of his departure he had suddenly hesitated, standing before the mirror to knot his school tie. To go back at the start of term, with everybody else, was one thing. To go alone, late, to have missed the train journey and sharing the best contents of tuck boxes and summer stories, was a very different thing. He had felt suddenly that his accepted place in school society was not as certain as he had once believed.

Some two decades later, fastening his blue uniform tie before a different glass, that same feeling returns. He is an outsider again. Others have moved on without him and he must find his way to fitting in again. Not as part of a new intake, a new year, a new pilot in training with all the others, but alone.

He hesitates. Even the hesitation is new. Before, he'd never have given going on shift a second thought; he’d just have gone.

Arthur has already promised that no fuss will be made of his return. He will be able to slip back into his new role as quietly as he wants, but even though he trusts Arthur's promise he knows that his going back will be noticed. He doesn’t even get to go back to his usual work: he’ll be doing half shifts, stuck doing deskwork while other men fly. The last time he was doing paperwork it was punishment for getting into a fight with Strange. That feels like a lifetime ago.

At least he knows Grant will be there, as he was when William was a schoolboy: someone to welcome him back. Grant has been to visit him already, coming over the morning after William’s return and wrapping him in a tight hug. They hadn't said anything, hadn’t needed to: they had just gone back to being the same old William and Colley. They’ve been friends too long to do anything else.  

Grant and Arthur had been the ones to get William back to himself after he came home. When he'd found himself too tired to do anything except lie in bed, they were the ones who kept him going. Dr Greysteel too had been briskly kind, muttering about the inadequacies of army hospitals, and prescribing rest and sleep. "Nobody rests in a hospital," he had said, "you need a week or two to get over it, and so I'll tell that CO of yours."

Two weeks is what William has had. Two weeks of sleeping for hours at a time until he’s no longer likely to fall asleep mid conversation, two weeks of having Colley to distract him with visits and catching up on the news, and two weeks of Arthur, there whenever he hasn’t been working, quietly taking care of him. William doesn’t know what to make of Arthur. He has been there, every day and most nights, the two of them falling into an absurdly domestic routine of ‘would you like a cup of tea’ and ‘what shall we have for dinner’ and falling asleep together like an old married couple after a goodnight kiss. Arthur doesn’t say anything; he’s just there. Sometimes William wonders if he’s doing it out of guilt. Or if Arthur is just that desperate to have William fit enough to work again. Whatever the reason, it has been a strange way to live. Now though, the rest is over and the time has come to go back. William’s tie is as neat as it ever will be. He's almost the same as he was.

He picks up his walking stick. A pilot who can't fly. What a joke. For a brief moment he would like to knock the mirror clean off the wall and watch it smash. He turns away. He came back here to work, because Arthur wanted him to, and work is what he’ll do.

 

Arthur tries not to hover too much when William comes back to work. When William arrives, Arthur watches him through his open office door as he stands, awkwardly, on the threshold of the main workroom. Back in uniform, he looks even paler and thinner than usual. He didn’t sleep much last night, apparently lying awake every time Arthur woke up and then waking them both with nightmares in the early hours. Dr Greysteel was of the opinion that it would do him good to get back into the routine of work, but Arthur would rather have spared him for a few more weeks.

William stays there, hovering. A few of the WAAFs are looking at him and whispering. Unlikely to be anything more than curiosity but Arthur can see William notice and flinch from it.

Arthur is contemplating intervening when Merlin appears, Segundus in his wake.

“William!” he calls, “good to see you back.” He puts out a hand for William to shake and Arthur is relieved to see him smile. “They tell me you’re getting the broom cupboard next to ours for your office. We’ve just been clearing the books out. Do you want to come and see?”

“Yes, that would be good. I’m sorry you’ve had to move things.”

“Well, it’s probably good for us to have a tidy up. You know how magicians are,” Strange tells him as he shepherds William slowly down the corridor.

Arthur relaxes a little. Merlin may have had his differences with William in the past but he’s a kind enough man. Better he gets William settled in without Arthur getting involved.

A while later Grant comes in, with new shift rotas to be signed off and a file with the morning’s new information to discuss.

“How’s William getting on?” Arthur asks him as he skims through the papers.

“Seems to be holding up alright. I’ll go and take him for a tea break in a while.”

“I’d like to see him later, some time this afternoon.”

“Of course, I’ll let him know.” Grant looks irritatingly knowing. Arthur glares at him, and finds fault with the rota.

 

It’s halfway through the afternoon before William taps at the door, near to the time that he was due to go home.

“Have a seat,” Arthur says, and William sits gingerly. He’s limping more noticeably than he had this morning and he has the strained look that Arthur has come to associate with him being tired or in pain. “Have you taken your pills recently?”

“Oh fuck off, Arthur,” William replies, sounding tired, “you aren’t my nursemaid.”

“I’ll take that as a no. How’s the day been?”

“Fine.”

“Either I’m your nursemaid or I’m your superior officer.” Arthur raises an eyebrow at him and waits.

William presses his mouth together. “Fine, sir. I’ve read a lot of the files. I’d like to finish the rest before I make any suggestions, but I’ve got some ideas.”

“Good. Is the new office working?”

“It’s… well it is a storage cupboard with a desk in it but it works.” There’s a flash of the old William in his expression. Arthur has missed the cheek.

“We do what we can with the resources they have seen fit to give us.” He smiles. “We’ll talk again when you’ve finished with the files. Just come and find me and if I’m not free we’ll arrange a time.”

“Of course.”

“William?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Speaking as your nursemaid,” he allows the absurdity of it to show on his face, “take the damn pills will you? And don’t feel you have to stay until the clock hits four. Go home early if you need to.”

“I’m fine, really.” William looks at him, meeting his eyes, but Arthur still can’t tell if he means it. There’s something closed off about William now. Sometimes he seems to want someone to be there, to look after him, and other times he draws back. He’ll let Arthur sleep next to him, even kiss him, but he always pulls away. Sometimes being this close to William and still unsure of whether he is welcome there makes Arthur’s heart ache.

“Well, if you are certain, I’ll see you at the cottage later.” He has to remind himself not to say ‘at home’. He is still unquestionably a fool.

 

Getting to know each other

Dinner with the Stranges is becoming something of a habit. At first Grant had tried to tell himself it was because the food was better than the canteen, or that it was just for company while William was away, but the excuses had worn thin after the conversation he had had with Arabella. Getting to know each other, she had called it, and bit by bit that is what they have been doing. Conversation roams wide but he knows now about the foolish things Jonathan did when he was young, of the Shropshire countryside where they grew up. He is learning about magic, about Norrell and Jonathan's disagreement with him. He tells them why he went into the army before the war began, and his time in the British Expeditionary Force, going into France at the start of the war. He learns about Arabella's brother, the clergyman, and shares stories of his own brothers. He even talks about his eldest brother, a prisoner of war in Germany, and the brother closest to him in age who was with him at Dunkirk but never came home. Arabella takes his hand when he tells her, holding it between both of hers, and it occurs to him that apart from his friendship with William he has been rather lonely recently. He doesn’t usually talk much about himself, but it’s a relief to mention his brothers and find sympathy, or to talk about his youth and make someone laugh.

The other week there had been a film showing in town, something Arabella had wanted to see but Jonathan had professed his loathing of. In the end, Grant had taken her and then, driving her home again, he had sung her all the songs he could remember from it as she laughed and applauded him. It had been an absurd thing to do, but it also left him feeling light-hearted and content. They are, both of them, making his life more worth enjoying, something more than working and sleeping and working again.

So he finds himself in their cottage once again, stretched out in the armchair that is becoming his. Arabella has put the wireless on although there's nothing particularly worth listening to and Jonathan is occupying most of the table with books and papers, scribbling notes and muttering to himself. Grant relaxes; rather enjoying that there's nothing for him to do except sit. The calm of it lulls him until Arabella puts down her knitting and looks at the clock.

“I have to be on duty soon,” she tells them.

Grant sits up and stretches. “I’ll walk back with you then.”

“You don’t need to,” Arabella tells him. At the table, Jonathan is closing his books and marking his place. “At least, there’s something I have to talk to you about first.”

Grant goes from relaxed to wary in a moment. He finds himself instinctively sitting up a little straighter and squaring his shoulders.

“Bell!” Jonathan laughs, “don’t say things like that. You’ll scare poor Captain Grant until he runs for the hills. It’s nothing so ominous as my wife makes it sound.”

“What, then? If you’d like me to leave, you have only to say the word.”

“I rather thought,” Arabella says with a reassuring calmness, “that I should leave, to go to work, and you two should stay here. Alone.”

They both look at Grant: Jonathan’s face hopeful and Arabella’s encouraging. Grant’s mouth is dry, mind stalling as he tries to comprehend whether they really do mean what he thinks they mean.

“I’m not sure if I understand…”

“I hope you do,” Arabella says. Jonathan comes to stand behind her, hands resting on the back of her chair. The picture they make together, such an attractive couple, makes Grant wonder again why on earth they are interested in him.

“Grant, Bell and I were talking and we agreed that if you wanted, you and I could perhaps move forward a little, beyond dinner and talking.”

“You see, I know you and I are still deciding what we want to do,” say Arabella. “I enjoy having you here, very much, but I know that what you feel for Jonathan is more. Both of you want more. What harm can it do for the pair of you to have some time alone?”

Arabella presents it as the easiest thing in the world. Her argument made, she stands and fetches her uniform jacket and coat. Grant stays where he is, not speaking, until she walks up to him.

“I have to go, but I hope that you have an enjoyable evening.” Her face transforms with a sudden and slightly wicked grin. She kisses him, on the forehead as though bestowing her blessing on him, and leaves. He can hear her saying goodbye to Jonathan in the hallway, a goodbye kiss, and the door closing.

“At some point, you really are going to have to say something,” Jonathan tells him when he returns, “even if you say no and we forget the idea. I’ve a chess set somewhere, and some whiskey, although it’s not a particularly good whiskey…”

“I didn’t say no.” Grant can hear his own voice sounds unusually rough as he speaks. Jonathan turns to look at him, hopeful again in an instant.   Grant wants him, has been offered the chance to have him, and it’s impossible to resist. He’s been thinking about having this for too long.

Jonathan smiles. “In that case, Captain Grant, would you like to come to bed?”

 

Arabella taps at the cottage door and waits for William to answer. He takes his time, his greeting already defensive when he opens the door.

“Yes?”

“I thought I’d come and let you know I swapped with Mary, so I’ll be working the other half of your shift.”

William leans on the doorframe and looks as though he’s about to ask why she’s bothering to tell him, but then his expression changes to a frown. “Why did you change shifts?”

“Well, Mary wanted to go out with Davy for the evening.”

“And you’re leaving your husband alone?”

“I’ve left him in the company of Captain Grant. I’m sure they will find some way to amuse themselves.”

William frowns at her.

“You don’t approve, do you?” Arabella asks him.

“No, I… Not exactly. Grant’s a friend. I care about him, and he’s very taken with the pair of you, but he’s not like you. He doesn’t have affairs. So no, I don’t approve of you two trying to sweep him off his feet and into your bed.”

Arabella raises an eyebrow. “Well I’d hardly put it like that.”

“How would you put it? You’re already married. What do you see in him besides a bit of fun?”

“Well, that’s a very black and white way of looking at it. This isn’t just to get him into bed.”

William makes a disbelieving noise. “Well just be careful, will you? He’s a good man. Don’t make him unhappy.” He goes to push the door closed but Arabella puts her hand out to stop it.

“William?”

“Yes, Mrs Strange?”

“I can’t say I like you to hear your opinions of what my husband and I choose to do, but I can’t fault you for caring enough to say it. I don’t know what I can say to reassure you, but believe me I have no intention of hurting him.”

“And if this arrangement doesn’t work out?”

“Then we try, somehow, to make sure that nobody is hurt too much. Not all relationships are happy, but I think it better to try than to walk away without ever seeing what might happen. Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.”

William looks at her, but she can’t read his expression. His face is guarded, cautious, but also somehow sad.

“And how do you know, when you should take a leap of faith?” He makes the phrase sound rather ridiculous when he repeats it, and Arabella knows that perhaps it is, but she has none better. How else can she describe how it felt to change what has worked for years and see if a third person can be fitted into their lives without damaging what they already have? Gambling what they have for the chance of future happiness.   Thinking of Jonathan’s hopeful face, of the disbelieving want she saw in Grant: how could she have chosen differently?

“I suppose… I suppose it’s when you care enough about someone else, that you’d risk it to make them happy.”

“You make it sound very easy.”

“Sometimes, it is.”

 

Grant hovers in the doorway of the bedroom. Downstairs it had been easier not to think so much, particularly when Jonathan had been so determined to kiss him senseless. Here, there’s time to reflect. He watches Jonathan drawing the blackout curtains and taking off his watch. Grant is uncomfortably aware that this must be Jonathan’s routine for going to bed, how he undresses every night when he is with Arabella.

Jonathan pulls his jumper over his head and pauses, watching Grant. “I’ve left you behind,” he says. His hair is unruly, a disconcertingly informal look.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t do this, Merlin.”

Jonathan frowns at him. “What’s wrong?” He walks towards Grant, stopping when he is close but not close enough to be an invasion of space. “I thought downstairs that you wanted this, but if you have changed your mind…”

“No, I mean, perhaps this isn’t right. Your wife,” Grant gestures around the bedroom, around this room that belongs to Mr and Mrs Strange and not to him.

“You can call her Arabella,” Merlin says gently. “Bell knows what we are doing. This was her idea.” Merlin puts his hand on Grant’s shoulder, a warm weight that Grant instinctively leans into. “If you have changed your mind, we can stop. You have only to say.”

Grant says nothing. Merlin leans in slowly, giving Grant time to pull away. He can’t. Jonathan is too tempting at such close quarters and his kiss is so gentle that Grant has to lean forwards, seeking something more substantial. Jonathan’s hand slides into Grant’s hair, stroking it where it’s clipped short at the nape of his neck. They’ve kissed many times before, with all the heat of something forbidden, but this is different. This is Jonathan knowing exactly what he wants and knowing that he can have it for the asking.

And somewhere, Arabella Strange knows it too. She must. She must be thinking about it, wondering what they are doing. Grant pushes Jonathan away.

“Grant?” Jonathan is staring at him, a frighteningly gentle expression on his face.

“Your wife, Arabella, she knows, and is out there somewhere thinking about it. About us. Knowing…” Grant feels his face heat with the embarrassment of it. Bad enough to sleep with a married man, it is far worse to sleep with a married man while thinking all the time that his wife might be imagining it.

Merlin laughs, not unkindly. “She does know, and I’m afraid I cannot pretend otherwise, but my dear Grant, I think she will most likely be wishing she was here.” He stops and looks at Grant, considering what to do next. He puts a hand on Grant’s shoulder again, rubbing his thumb against his collarbone. “Never mind. We have all night, there’s no need to rush this. I won’t have you do something you might regret. Once was more than enough.”

He pulls himself away and picks up his jumper again before walking back down the stairs: Grant follows him, not sure what else to do. He doesn’t know what to expect after such an abrupt end to their evening plans, but it certainly isn’t Jonathan going to the kitchen and putting the kettle on.

“Are you making tea?” he asks incredulously, finding himself once more leaning against a doorway and not knowing what else to do with himself.

“I am.” Jonathan rinses the teapot and finds mugs. He looks entirely unconcerned by the change of plans. Grant resists the urge to bang his own head against the doorframe for his stupidity. This is not what he wanted, but since he has no idea what he would prefer, he stays.

“Perhaps I should go.”

“No.” Jonathan turns, waving the teapot at him in an emphatic way. His expression is the determined one he wears when he is arguing a point of magic on which he will not be swayed. “Absolutely not. I’m not having you running away again. We are going to drink tea, and discuss this like civilised human beings.”

Grant can’t help smiling. “Is that what we are doing?”

“Yes, we are, so sit down.” Jonathan waves him towards the kitchen table. It’s a small room, but a cosy one. Not so many hours ago he was watching the two of them cooking, being asked to peel potatoes and taste things. Grant takes a seat.

“I’m sorry,” he says, which feels inadequate for the situation, but he is sorry. Sorry that this is beyond him, sorry that he can’t bring himself to do what they both want.

“Don’t be.” Jonathan brings the teapot to the table and puts it down. He returns with the mugs and takes a seat opposite. “You know, there was one thing that I forgot, when I first discussed this with you. Arabella reminded me of it very forcibly afterwards.”

“Oh?” Grant isn’t sure he likes the idea of the two of them discussing him.

“She reminded me that the stakes were higher for you. If this doesn’t work out, I have Bell and she has me. For you, it’s rather different. I should have considered it but instead I thought about what I wanted, what we might have. I hoped, when you first came to dinner, that perhaps we could work something out. That is could be as easy as wanting it. Then you pulled away from us and I wondered why.” Jonathan stops, apparently waiting for an answer.

“You mean after France? I suppose, coming here and spending time with you… it brought home how married you were. You’ve no idea, have you, how you look to the rest of the world? The two of you have something extraordinary. I’ve seen enough couples, enough people who get on well enough in a marriage. You two are so in love with one another any fool could see it. What was I, in comparison to that? Of course I pulled away, Merlin. What else could I have done?”

“But is it what you wanted?”

Jonathan pours tea, giving him time to think, but there are no easy answers. Grant knows he wants Jonathan, would almost say he would take whatever he was given, although he stops himself. It’s hard to put a price on present satisfaction when weighed up against future heartbreak, and heartbreak would seem to be the end result. Jonathan and Arabella are a pair: that much is unavoidable. The alternative…

“I don’t know what I want.”

“Is that true? Or are you just afraid of what you want?”

“Merlin, I’m not some silly girl worried about having her heart broken.” Grant is not enjoying the way this conversation is heading.

“No, you are not that,” Jonathan says, “but you are afraid.”

“Jonathan.”

“I understand, and if you choose to walk away I will respect that, but I want you.” Jonathan smiles, the sort of smile it would be easy to fall in love with. “I wish you would give us a chance the try.”

“You’re right,” Grant tells him, groaning and running his hands through his hair. “I am afraid. Laugh if you like, but I’d find flying back into France easier than this.”

“So why don’t you do what you do when you have to fly into France?” Jonathan drains the last of the tea in his mug. “Let someone else be in charge for a change, Captain.”

Grant swallows a mouthful of his own tea. Decision time. Oh fuck it, he thinks, what happened to letting myself have what I want? He remembers his parachute instructor saying ‘everyone’s bloody well afraid, any man with sense would be, but what matters is jumping anyway.’

“Then I think I should consider myself under your orders, Mr Strange.”

 

Grant lets himself be guided into the bedroom until he is sitting on the end of the bed. For all he has chosen this, he can’t quite relax, even when Merlin kneels before him. Especially when Merlin kneels before him. Last time it had been Grant on his knees.

“Merlin…”

“Yes?” Merlin leans forward and kisses him again. A short kiss, barely more than a brush of mouths. He bends down to Grant’s shoes and undoes the laces. When Grant tries to protest, he shakes his head and carries on. He kneels up again and works his fingers into Grant’s tie to loosen the knot. His fingers brush against Grant’s chest and make him draw in a breath.

“Grant… no, Colley. May I call you that? Grant is a little too formal for this.”

Grant nods, wordless. He watches, mesmerised, as Merlin slowly unbuttons the front of his jacket and slides it off his shoulders. Merlin removes his tie too, and frowns at him. “Your collar is too tight,” he says, “let me take it off. May I take it off?”

His fingers touch gently at the skin above Grant’s collar. Grant’s eyes close. Shirts are always too tight at the neck, or too long at the sleeves, but now the tightness feels unbearable. The unbuttoning of his collar is a relief and Jonathan’s fingers roam further, unfastening buttons and smoothing over his skin. Kisses follow the fingers, feather light and making Grant’s heart beat faster. He suspects his hands are shaking where they rest against his knees. Nobody has ever undressed him so slowly before.

“Merlin…. Jonathan…”

“I like it when you call me that. Merlin is not a very respectable name for a magician.” He can feel the words and the smile against his skin. “Come here.”

Jonathan stretches out on the bed and opens his arms. Grant rolls into them. The bed smells of Jonathan and the scent he recognises as Arabella, but this time he doesn’t mind. Jonathan is kissing him again, unbuttoning the rest of his shirt at the same time. Grant wants, but it’s not the overwhelming want he felt the last time he went to bed with Jonathan Strange. Last time they had done everything fast to block out their better judgement and then regretted it afterwards. This is a slow dismantling of every thought he has in his head as Jonathan strips him bare. He has seen Merlin at work when he is focused intently upon a piece of magic, but that focus has never been turned so directly onto him. There is no escaping it and he doesn’t want to try.

After a while so he rolls Jonathan over, enjoying the way Jonathan goes, not fighting him, sprawled against the mattress in an unspoken invitation to explore. Jonathan is beautifully responsive; all twitches and sighs under Grant’s hands. It’s dizzying, to have that body entirely his, to have the man under his hands with enough time to do anything they choose.

“What do you want?” Jonathan asks him eventually, pulling Grant on top of him and grabbing his arse. The message is clear: enough teasing for now.

“You.” Grant whispers in his ear, “just you.”

Jonathan groans and pulls Grant harder against him. “As I want you, but I was thinking more specifically.” He rolls them over and Grant instinctively parts his thighs to let Jonathan settle in between them. “Do you want this? I don’t know what you prefer.”

“Either way, for me. It’s been a long time though, not since… oh God… not since before the war.” He leaves unspoken, not since William, and not often then.

“I’ll be gentle with you,” Jonathan smiles at him, a smile with promise in it.

Grant has never liked this part of sex, found it intrusive and not distracting enough to keep him from thinking of the strangeness of it. Then again he has never done this with Merlin, with Jonathan. Jonathan, who distracts him with kisses that are sweet but demanding: months’ worth of kisses perhaps, all the times when Jonathan has held himself back. Grant appreciates that he doesn’t linger too much, trusts him when he says he wants more, and when the discomfort starts to edge out over the enjoyment of it Jonathan is there, biting gently at his lip or letting his thumb slide over the curve of Grant’s ear. Jonathan can read him like an open book. Not that he knows precisely what to do, but Grant can feel himself watched, notices Jonathan noticing whatever gives away that there should be more of this or less of that. It surprises him that he doesn’t feel uncomfortably shy under the scrutiny.

Pleasure begins to win out. He is shameless, bucking against Jonathan’s body and for the first time, Jonathan makes him wait, watching him with hunger as he fucks himself back against Jonathan’s hand. Grant would like to say something intelligent, something biting about being left waiting, but he doesn’t. He turns his head against Jonathan’s arm where he braced, and mouths at it, half kiss, half bite. “Please, please,” he says to the damp skin, tasting salt. Jonathan bends to kiss him again: his mouth, his forehead, the skin beneath his ear.

Jonathan’s face when they fuck is a work of art. His eyes fall shut, teeth biting hard at his lip: he throws his head back like sculpture. His hips jerk hard, too hard, uncontrolled at last. He bends forward in apology, nuzzling his damp forehead into the crook of Grant’s neck. They fuck and kiss, bumping noses, lips never quite touching perfectly and too far gone to care. They are wound tight, on the verge of too much.

There isn’t a thought in Grant’s head. All he wants is this, right here and now, with the overwhelming slide of Jonathan’s cock inside him and his own hand stroking himself. He’s brazen, letting Merlin watch, enjoying the way he groans at the sight and lets his hips thrust wild again as though he cannot help himself.

It is too much for it to last for long. Grant can’t stop himself falling towards it, tumbling over with Jonathan’s breathing harsh in his ear, his groans muffled in Grant’s neck as he comes, hot and wet. Jonathan’s weight falls onto him a moment later, on the border of too much but blanking out everything except this: the thump of his own heart and the comforting silence in his own mind.

Afterwards Jonathan rolls them both over, sliding his body behind Grant’s and letting his leg fall over Grant’s ankle. He folds him in his arms for good measure, leaving Grant cocooned with the heat of Jonathan against his back. Grant drifts, body warm and heavy. He can’t remember the last time he felt this content.

When Jonathan pulls the covers over him, he knows that sleep is inevitable but can’t bring himself to care. To hell with work, with wondering if he ought to stay or not, with the feeling of sweat and stickiness that would normally have him getting up to wash and dress and leave. He will take his moment, this glorious, hazy moment of lying here feeling wanted and satisfied, and savour it to the last second. The last things he remembers are Jonathan’s hands, moving warm against his chest and Jonathan’s breath stirring gently against the hairs on the back of his neck.

 

Grant wakes in the middle of the night. The creak of an unfamiliar door rouses him perhaps, or steps on the stairs when he has been used to living in barracks without them. Jonathan stirs behind him, pressing a kiss to his shoulder.

“Stay,” Jonathan whispers, “go back to sleep.”

Something about being in Jonathan’s bed must had affected him, because he does drift again, losing his usual alertness in the soft mattress and the warmth under the covers that only comes from sharing a bed. The next thing he is aware of is a whispered conversation from the doorway. Arabella, he thinks at last, working a half shift with William and home early.

“I should go,” he says, and then again louder when they don’t hear him, “I’m sorry, I’ll leave now.”

They turn to face him: Jonathan naked, his hair wild and a bruise rising vividly on his neck, and Arabella in her neat uniform. Grant fights down the sudden panic that rises up from the pit of his stomach: the feeling of being caught out. He was invited. There is no need to run. But still, he feels every kiss and fingerprint that Jonathan has left on his body. He is naked, dishevelled, in Arabella’s bed.

“You don’t have to go,” she says. She looks at him, assessing, appraising. He feared judgement but this looks more like admiration.

“Do you want me to stay?”

Arabella doesn’t answer, she just crosses the room and perches on the bed beside him. She studies him, eyes roaming over his bare chest and shoulders. He suppresses the urge to pull the cover up to his neck

“Yes, I would,” she says when she is done scrutinising him. She leans forward and kisses him. It’s different to kissing Jonathan, but no less enjoyable. Grant brings his hands up to her waist, feeling the curve of her hips under her uniform skirt. It’s not a fantasy he’d ever considered before, but there’s a certain something to being entirely naked and kissing a woman in uniform.

Jonathan makes a soft, almost longing sound from where he is watching them. Arabella gives Grant one last kiss and reaches under the covers. He flinches away from her without thinking, and then laughs with her when she produces a pair of blue striped pyjamas from under the pillows.

“If you’ll excuse me, I need to go and change.”

“Of course.”

She leaves and Jonathan follows her, leaving Grant alone in their bed. He wonders if he ought to go anyway. After all, Arabella is back. He can hardly kick her out of her husband’s bed because he got into it first. He’s trying to summon up the energy to move out from under the warm covers when Jonathan reappears, carrying a glass of water. He offers it to Grant, who takes it and downs it, glad of the coolness. Jonathan stretches out beside him, running a careless hand down Grant’s body, more a caress rather than anything with intent.

“Shall I go?” Grant asks him. “I don’t mind. It has been a very good evening, but I understand if it’s easier.”

“I don’t want you to go. The bed is big enough for three.”

Grant raises an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re happy allowing an army captain to share a bed with your wife?”

“And why would that be?” Jonathan moves his hands further down Grant’s body. “Because of this?”

“Oh, you bastard!”

“Perhaps I’d better tire you out before she comes to bed.”

Jonathan smirks and disappears under the covers. Grant can’t find any reasonable arguments to stop him. By the time Jonathan is finished with him, he’s half asleep already, barely aware of Arabella getting into the bed, of whispering voices saying not to wake him, or the sound of a kiss. He rolls over, surrounded by warmth, and falls asleep.

 

In the morning Jonathan wakes to an entirely wonderful sight. Grant is lying next to him, still sleeping soundly and more relaxed that Jonathan has ever seen him when awake. Jonathan takes the time to study him, to learn the way he breathes, the faint creases on his face. He has one bare arm slung over Bell and the sight of the two of them together makes something catch in Jonathan’s throat.

The alarm clock by the bedside is close to ringing and he stops it. Arabella should have more sleep and there are better ways to wake Grant. His name, spoken softly to his ear, and a kiss to his shoulder does the trick, then a real kiss for good measure when Grant turns.

“Good morning,” Jonathan says, aware that he has a rather foolish smile on his face.

“Good morning.” Grant brushes the sleep from his eyes and looks up at Jonathan. The expression on his face is warm, and Jonathan can’t help but kiss him again.

“We should get up,” Jonathan says reluctantly, “our shift starts soon.”

“What about Mrs… Arabella?” Grant turns to look at her where she is sleeping. There’s a fond expression on his face as he watches her. Jonathan had wondered if Grant would have regrets in the morning, or be uncomfortable at least, but he seems entirely relaxed.

“We should let her sleep.”

“Best get up then.” Grant smiles broadly up at him and Jonathan feels quite ridiculously happy. They gather their clothes from the bedroom floor. Grant is unfazed by his own nakedness and Jonathan admires him as he bends down to pick up his discarded shirt.

Jonathan leaves Grant and their clothes in the small second bedroom and goes down to the cold kitchen in his pyjamas to boil a kettle. He takes the hot water up to Grant for washing and shaving, tries not to watch too obviously as Grant runs a wet flannel over his skin and frowns into the mirror in concentration as he shaves. Watching Grant button up his shirt, Jonathan swallows hard. It is going to be difficult to think about anything else this morning.

“Thank you,” Grant says, running his hands through his hair to tidy it.

Jonathan struggles to remember what he was going to say. “There’s bread, in the kitchen, if you’d like something to eat or, if… I won’t be long.”

“I’ll wait.”

Jonathan washes and dresses at speed, feeling that too much of a delay might mean coming downstairs to an empty kitchen. In fact he comes downstairs to find Grant pouring tea.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he says, “I thought you might want a cup. The milk’s turned though.”

Jonathan accepts the cup. Grant is watching him.

“You don’t, you don’t regret what happened?” Jonathan asks “Last night, I mean?”

“Merlin,” Grant looks up at him, “Jonathan. I have wanted this, wanted you, for a very long time. I’m not going to change my mind. Not now. Not unless you regret…”

“No, not for a moment.” Jonathan reaches out across the table to touch Grant’s hand. “I just… had to check.” He smiles ruefully at Grant, who doesn’t laugh, but looks at him quite seriously.

“This has to stay professional, at work.”

“Of course. As we agreed.”

“Then, no regrets.” Grant shrugs, and just like that, the world is set on a new and, so Jonathan hopes, happier course. They sit together in silence and drink their tea as soon as it’s cool enough, the ticking of the kitchen clock a reminder that work is calling them.

“It will be difficult,” Jonathan says as he takes the mugs to the sink.

“What will?”

“Not to do this.” Jonathan pulls Grant to him and gives him one last kiss. The kind of kiss that says exactly how much he would like to take Grant back upstairs, take off all his clothes and to hell with work.

Grant pulls back, and the look in his brown eyes promises Jonathan more than he might have bargained for. “Behave, Merlin,” he says, “and I’ll make it up to you later.”

 

 

Chapter Text

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.”

“Merlin…”

“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.

“I’m sorry.”

“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.

"All done?"

"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."

"Mmmm..."

"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.”

 

Conflict

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.”

“I’m sorry.”

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.”

“Arthur…”

“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.  

“Fuck!”

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…”

“But what?”

“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.

 

Beginning again

“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?”

“William…”

“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’s boys

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?”

“Yes.”

“Right then. You boys finish your tea and we’ll go and meet him.”

 

 

Chapter Text

For all William’s good intentions, the first days with the boys are not a resounding success. 

For a start, they keep staring at him: two pairs of expectant eyes, watching.  It’s frankly alarming.  William tries to ignore them.  He knows he isn’t good with children.  It was awkward enough on the first evening when Arthur introduced the boys and they all ate dinner together before William went on shift.  The older boy was mostly silent, answering questions but not saying much, while Charlie talked too much to fill the silence.  Even Arthur was awkward, not having seen them for months and working his way back into knowing them. 

Now the two boys are sitting at the writing desk in the window, pretending to do something relating to school work, and watching while William lies on the sofa and reads the latest letter from Laura. 

He and Laura are writing to one another again now: a first tentative beginning in rebuilding a relationship from the marriage that is over in all but name.  It’s hard sometimes, an exercise in staring at blank pages and struggling to know what to say, but it feels worth it if something can be salvaged of the friendship they had when they were younger.  She tells him she is happier now the lies are over.  A new beginning and a return to ordinary life for both of them is her description.  She continues with a long, rambling account of the beginning of the harvest that makes him smile at her enthusiasm. 

He looks up to find the boys watching him again.  Their stares are giving him a headache.  When he stares back, they turn their heads back to their work.  He thinks about what he might say in reply to Laura, when he has nothing as safe to talk about as fruit picking and cows, and tries to block out the whispered complaints of boredom. 

It’s a relief when Arthur comes home early and takes them out for a walk. 

When the boys are in bed Arthur doesn’t say anything about the strained silence he’d come home to, which is also a relief, but William notices that from the following day there is usually someone else about to look after the boys.  Even Colley comes visiting: he has a hoard of nieces and nephews and children don’t bother him the way they bother William.  He seems to have the knack of knowing what to ask them about, or what to say in reply.  For William, any conversation is stilted and hard work, full of awkward silences. 

William tries.  He tries for Arthur’s sake, even though he’s always got one ear open for them rattling around in the empty house next door or playing in the garden, waiting for them to reappear or somehow injure themselves in a way that will be his responsibility to fix.  He hears shouting at one point but it stops quickly enough that he doesn’t have to intervene.  They just exist, the three of them, giving each other space and trying not to do anything that might force them to confront the awkwardness. 

Segundus seems to do best with them and William looks to his visits with relief.  He tells William that he was once a school master, and William finds it easy to believe when he takes over the living room and helps the boys with mathematics and whatever else it is they are meant to be doing.  Afterwards, with Arthur safely back at the cottage with the boys and William staying late in the safety of the unit, Segundus comes to find him. 

“I think there’s something bothering Artie,” he says, more directly than William is used to.  “I know boys, and it’s no good him fretting alone.  Someone should talk to him.” 

“They aren’t my sons!” William tells him, “It’s not my place to…”

“I know,” Segundus says, firmly, “but you could talk to his father.  Couldn’t you?” 

William is used to a Segundus who apologises if anyone so much as looks at him.  It’s rather shocking to find oneself on the receiving end of a determined and uncomfortably knowing stare.  If William didn’t know about Childermass, it would almost be a threat. 

“I wouldn’t mention it if I didn’t think it was important.  Artie doesn’t talk to his father, does he?  It sounds as though the boys have agreed that he is not to be bothered.  Perhaps, if you talked to him, or to them?”  Segundus loses the strict expression of before and smiles encouragingly.  William realises that his bluntness is for the boys’ sakes and can’t help but respect him for it.  He finds himself agreeing to do something without even really knowing how.  Mentioning the boys to Arthur tends to make him close off, as though he’s waiting for William to say that it’s not working.  So he says nothing, and feels guilty. 

 

It doesn’t change until the night the bombers go out. Not from SOE but from their neighbouring airbase (and cover for having planes taking off, although anyone paying the slightest bit of attention can see the difference between single planes on moonlight nights and the organised bombing raids from 'next door'). William was already half expecting them to fly tonight when he hears the engines starting. He can't lose that pilot's awareness of the weather and the flying conditions, and he knows the pattern of a bomber squadron.

As the first rumble of engines begins, he hears a thump and a squeak from above. Boys out of bed then.

He debates for a moment whether he is obliged to go and put them back to bed, or if yelling up the stairs would do the trick. He opens his mouth and closes it again. Arthur would probably know the right few words in the right tone but William doesn't.  

The whispers are growing louder and he has a fair idea of what they must be up to. If only they have the sense not to let a light show. Remembering his own exploits at that age, he resigns himself to climbing the stairs. Halfway up (it bothers him that there is a halfway up: stairs should be over in the blink of an eye) there's a louder crash and the twin thuds of two boys hurling themselves back into bed.

William, feeling out of breath from the effort of negotiating the stairs, pushes open their bedroom door.

"I know you aren't asleep. What were you playing at?"

The two very still lumps under the bedding say nothing. The frame holding the blackout curtains is lying on the floor. He shoves it back into place: at least it's light enough to manage.

"If the ARP warden turns up to shout about blackout regulations, I'm not telling your dad. You are." 

Still nothing from the boys. William sighs. Fuck knows what he is supposed to say now. Go downstairs probably, but after the difficulty of getting up here, he'd rather not tackle it just yet.  There’s the camp bed set up in the other room for Arthur, but he suspects if he sat down on it he’d never be able to get up again. 

"Well, you've made me come up here. I'm not going down again until I've sat down. Move your feet." 

The larger blanket lump moves, curling towards the top of the bed and William drops down to sit on the end of the mattress.

"I'm sorry, sir," Artie mumbles, finally emerging from under the bedding. "We didn't mean to." He flicks on the torch sitting on his bedside table. 

"It's alright,” William says, feeling awkward again.  “What were you doing? Watching the planes?"

"Yes. Charlie doesn't like having the blackout curtains up. He likes to know what’s out there when there are planes.  To check they aren't German." 

"And I like planes," Charlie adds, pulling off his blankets to reveal hair sticking in all directions. The two boys look at him expectantly.

"Are you a pilot?" Charlie asks him, before suddenly looking comically horrified. Artie, with a complete lack of subtlety, kicks his brother under the blanket. It doesn't take William too long to guess that Arthur, in a protective mood, has told them not to ask him about it. Which he appreciates, but also makes him wonder when Arthur forgot so much about being a boy that he didn't realise it would only make them more curious.

"I was once," he says. It stings.

Charlie looks guilty, then thoughtful. "But..." he says, "you still were a pilot? So you must know an awful lot about planes?"

"I suppose so," William replies, with the suspicion that he is being played.

"So, you could help, couldn't you? With watching them?" 

"I'm sure you should both be asleep. The only planes out there tonight are ours." 

"Please," Charlie says, with an edge of fear to his voice. "How do you know they're ours if you don't look?" 

William looks at them both. Artie has a pleading expression.

"He just wants to know they aren't German bombers," Artie says, even as Charlie elbows him in turn. 

About to say that it’s damned obvious, because the planes are busy circling but none of them have dropped any bombs yet, William silently berates himself for not thinking. Of course these two boys have every reason to be afraid of German bombers.  

"Alright," he says. "One quick look.  You don’t need long to tell them apart." 

He reaches over to switch off the torch and removes the blackout. In the distance, the bombers are circling into formation like dozy black wasps.

"We don't get many planes flying over Grandma's house," Artie tells him.

"Well, you'll see a lot here so you'd better get to know them.  Our planes, mostly," he adds as an afterthought.   “If the air raid siren isn’t going, they’ll be ours.”

"I can't see properly," Charlie says, wiggling in front of William at the window. He leans against William as they watch, an easy acceptance that William finds mildly disconcerting.

"What did you fly?" Artie asks, when the planes are gone and the three of them are still there, looking out at the stars. You see so more stars now, with the blackout. Especially if you are used to London skies as William is.

"Sorry if I shouldn't ask," Artie says, reminding William that he's been drifting instead of answering. "Dad said we shouldn't bother you." 

"It's alright,” he says, and it’s almost true.  “I was in Bomber Command, flying Wellington bombers mostly.  Then smaller planes, Hudsons…” he stops himself in the interests of national security. 

“I don’t know those ones,” Charlie says, “how do you recognise them?” 

“Did you ever fly Lancasters?” Artie asks with no less enthusiasm. 

William resigns himself to being grilled for every bit of aeronautical knowledge he has.  At least it’s easy to talk about. 

By the time curiosity is satisfied, Charlie is half asleep already, eyelids drooping. 

“Bed,” William says, “and if you hear planes coming back in the night it’ll be the ones from the airfield coming home.” 

“Y’ promise?” Charlie mumbles, rolling himself into the blankets. 

“Promise,” William says.  “If it isn’t, I’ll make sure you know.” 

“G’night,” Artie says, “and thank you.” 

William pushes himself up from the bed, wincing when his hip protests at sitting still too long.  If anyone had told him he’d spend a good hour talking to the boys he’d have laughed. 

He eyes the stairs between him and his bed.  Going down them seems more daunting than going up and he’d rather not land in a heap at the bottom.  The bed in Arthur’s room is looking like the lesser of two evils after all.  At least if Arthur finds him there, it’ll be a welcome surprise. 

 

Plans for the future

“Have a seat.”  Arthur indicates the chair opposite. 

“Sir.”

“You don’t have to sound so suspicious Grant.  I just want to talk to you about where we go from here.  The future of the unit so to speak.”

“Of course.”

“This project with Germany, you took the lead on it.  It’s really your area.  You can work well with the magicians, with the men from Station X.  Having eyes on Germany is becoming more important as the war goes on.  Once the tide turns, if we start making a real push back onto Germany we’re going to need to know what Hitler is doing.  We’ve got intel from Station X, and they tell me they are working on something new, but the more information we can get the better.  That’s where we come in, or where you do.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” Grant says.  

“I think you do.  You aren’t stupid.”  Arthur raises an eyebrow at him.  “I’d like you to take command of the Germany work.  I’ve spoken to the higher ups.  They won’t make a separate unit: apparently one group of magicians is more than enough for them, but you’ll command a sub-unit within this one.  You’ll still answer to me, but you’ll have more operational control, your own personnel.  Your own magician: although I will say now that if you are doing… whatever you are doing, I will trust your judgement but I don’t want any mess in the chain of command.  Understood?”

“Perfectly.”

“Think about who you want.  You don’t have to give me names yet, but write a list and we’ll go over it.  Make sure we have the right people for both teams.” 

“That would be good.  Although, I think I’d rather take Segundus as a magician if it’s alright with you.” 

“Segundus?” Arthur looks at him in surprise.

“Not the choice you were expecting, but he’s already dealt with the Germany work, and I don’t need a field agent.  You do.”

“True.” 

“Besides, he’s been in command before, and it would help to have a deputy to run things if I’m off base.” 

“Planning your free time already?”  Arthur raises one eyebrow.  “No, don’t answer that.  I don’t want to know.” 

“Sir.” 

“I agree on principle to you working with Segundus.  Get the rest of your list to me by the end of the week.  You still have to officially report to me, but I trust you to get on with most of it alone.  There’ll be a promotion in it, I expect.”

“And the work in France?”

“I’ll still be doing most of that, but with oversight of both groups, I’ll need someone to replace you as my second.”  For a fraction of a second, Arthur looks guilty.  It’s not hard for Grant to draw the obvious conclusion. 

“You mean to ask William?”

Arthur nods. 

“And the potential for ‘mess in the chain of command’?”

Arthur smiles ruefully.  “That’s why I didn’t forbid you to work with Strange.  It would be hypocritical of me.  But I hope there won’t be a problem.”

“I think things appear to be… settled.”  Grant rubs the bridge of his nose.  “I know Merlin would have problem with authority but William seems to have been coping for some time now, wouldn’t you say?”

“I think perhaps that’s a train of thought you should leave well alone.” 

“Of course, Sir. I’d hate to jeopardise my new position before it’s even begun.”  Grant allows himself a small smile.  Arthur raises an eyebrow in return.  Message received and understood. 

“You accept the post then?  Should I tell them the matter is agreed?”

“I’d be delighted.”

“Well then, what about a drink to celebrate your new position?”

 

Grant leaves the office in a daze which has nothing to do with the glass of whiskey. His own unit, or sub-unit as they are going to call it. Whatever the title, it's a step up from being Arthur's second in command. He should be delighted but it hasn't quite hit him yet, leaving him only with a sense of the unreality of the situation. He finds himself in need of company. Someone to tell, someone who can shake his hand and say, yes, this is a good thing, well done Grant. 

William of course is nowhere to be found. Probably in with Arthur in fact, getting his own share of the good news. The promotion for him will help. Grant knows he needs something to hang on to; something to do that isn’t flying. He had his doubts about Arthur, but in this at least he seems to be doing the right thing. 

Grant discovers that Jonathan isn't in the main office either so he heads for the magician's office and finds it empty except for Arabella.

"Captain Grant," she says with a smile, "were you looking for Jonathan? He went out with Segundus.  Something about rivers and natural boundaries.” 

“Ah.  I shall assume they won’t be back for some time then.”

“And soaking wet, both of them, I expect.”  She shakes her head.  “But what did you want to speak to him about?  Can I pass on a message or shall I ask him to find you?”

“No, no, it wasn’t important, just something I was going to mention but…” Grant can feel his face heat.  It feels suddenly boastful to have wanted to tell anyone at all, when it’s hardly even confirmed. 

“What is it?” 

“They’re… um… Arthur’s changing the unit.  He wants a group working on Germany.  Not that I should be saying that, you understand, I just…”

“And this group, will you be running it?” 

Grant nods, aware that he can’t quite bring himself to meet her eyes and probably looks like a disgraced schoolboy.  Irritated by himself, he forces his gaze up and meets hers.  She’s closer than he was expecting, her eyes warm.  She smiles at him and he feels breathless.  He wants her, in a way he hasn’t wanted anyone for a long time, except Jonathan. 

“I’m proud of you,” she says, putting a cool hand against his cheek.  He knows she’s going to kiss him but he doesn’t pull away.  She’s kissed him once or twice, but never anything more than that, even when he was sleeping in their bed.  It feels like long enough to wait, long enough to be sure.   He leans forward first, catching her by surprise and the hitch in her breathing pleases him.  He’s spent a long time being pursued by the Stranges and it’s time to take charge.  Besides, he has something to prove. 

He kisses her the way he’s been imagining kissing her since that first night in Jonathan’s bed.  Different to kissing Merlin of course, leaning down not up, her face smoother against his own and her hair is softer against his fingers but twisted tightly into a roll on the back of her head.  She gives as good as she gets, cupping the side of his face with one hand and then sliding the other under his jacket, tugging at his shirt.  In retaliation he lets one hand drift downwards, learning the curve of her arse.  He smiles into the kiss.  He’s been wanting to do that for a while.

“You are very bold today.” 

“Should I not be?”

“No, I rather think I like it.” 

It feels like permission.  He turns them, pushing her back against the wall and she goes willingly.  Perhaps he should be shocked at treating her like this, but there she is, hiking her skirt higher so she can hook a leg around his and he puts the shock aside in favour of sliding a hand up her thigh.  She’s wearing stockings today, silky against her legs and slipping under his fingers as he moves his hand up further, under the rough fabric of her uniform skirt, finding the point where the stockings end and he can feel warm skin.  Arabella makes an appreciative noise and unfastens the collar of his shirt.  He wonders if, madly, his first time sleeping with the woman he is falling in love with will be up against the wall in her husband’s office. 

“Fuck!”

The yelp from the doorway has them flying apart as if scalded, even as the door bangs shut. 

“For fuck’s sake Colley, can’t you learn to lock the fucking door?”

Some of the adrenaline dissipates as he realises it’s William’s voice from the other side of the door. 

“Can’t you learn not to barge into a room without knocking?” he yells back. 

“I did!  You obviously didn’t hear me!”  William opens the door again and sidles through, one hand clamped ostentatiously over his eyes.  “Are you decent?” 

He peeks sideways from behind his palm. 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Grant tells him, refastening his shirt and adjusting his trousers.  Arabella is shaking with suppressed laughter.  At least he hopes it’s laughter.  If it isn’t, he’s going to murder William. 

William drops his hand at last.  His face turns pink when he looks at Arabella. 

“Well I’m sorry to interrupt you,” he says at speed, “but Arthur wanted to see you.  Call from London, apparently.  I’m sorry to disturb you.” 

He leaves, with a last too-loud whisper to Grant not to get distracted again. 

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that,” Grant says, feeling the urge to bang his head against the nearest desk.  Everything about his behaviour has been inappropriate.  Too forward.  Too Arthur

Arabella just laughs.  “Yes you should.  But poor William!  I’m not sure who was more shocked.” 

“He won’t say anything.”

“I know. I warn you though, Jonathan will probably find it hilarious.” 

“Oh God, Jonathan.”  Grant has the horrified realisation that he’s somehow going to have to tell Jonathan that he got carried away with his wife and nearly got caught into the bargain.  He sits behind the desk and buries his face in his hands. 

“Don’t worry.  I think he’ll take it as a promising sign.” 

“A promising sign of what?”

“That you might say yes to us,” she says, suddenly more serious.  “I hoped you would, in the end.  We were hoping.” 

“So was I.  There just never seemed to be the right moment to ask.” 

“Well then, let us take you out to dinner to celebrate your promotion…”

“It’s not official yet.”

“So,” she says in the fondly exasperated tone she uses on Jonathan, “when it is official, let us take you out for dinner.  And then I hope you’ll come home with us.”

“For the night?”

“For the first of many nights, I hope!  Now go, or you’ll have Arthur through the door wondering where you’ve got to.”  With that dire threat in mind, Grant goes. 

 

The problem with Artie

When Arthur walks home, he’s aware of a growing tightness across his shoulders.  It’s a familiar sensation from walking into enemy territory, and the fact that going home has now become the cause makes him worry even further.  There were no baby sitters today: he’d needed Grant and Segundus at work, and Flora had to leave at lunchtime to go to town with her aunt.  The boys have been with William most of the afternoon. 

Arthur isn’t blind.  He knows things haven’t exactly been easy with William and the boys.  The rabbit in the headlights look William gets when he has to talk to them isn’t as well hidden as he probably thinks it is.  Then there was the other evening, when he came home to find William upstairs and refusing to say why, which he can only assume means the boys were up to no good.  He appreciates that William has been trying, but it doesn’t make coming home to awkward silence and bored boys any easier. 

The sound of raised voices when he pushes open the door make him wince, until he realises that the raised voice is Artie’s, saying “just because you have four train stations!” and William laughs.   

Arthur pushes open the living room door and William looks up, still laughing, his face suddenly so transparently pleased to see Arthur that for a moment Arthur can’t see anything else.  It’s been a long time since William looked like that, or laughed like that.  Arthur almost misses Charlie saying, “I’m winning Dad, look!”

“Are you really?” he says, “let me see then.” 

There’s a Monopoly board on the table, set for three players, and Charlie does seem to have the most money although William isn’t far behind him. 

“Charlie keeps throwing sixes,” Artie tells him.  It’s a frequent complaint when Charlie and board games are involved.  Arthur ruffles Charlie’s hair. 

“Well done you.  Good afternoon then boys?”

“Yeah!” Charlies says, reaching for the dice. 

“You would say that,” William replies, “do try to avoid Piccadilly.  I want it.” 

 Charlie counts the squares between car and Piccadilly, then shakes the dice earnestly. 

“I’ll leave you to it then, and do something about dinner.”

“We already cooked,” Charlie tells him, frowning down at the dice which have, traitorously, landed him on Coventry Street. 

“William cooked,” Artie corrects him. 

“We helped!”

“They did,” William says, with a smile for Arthur, “fish pie, although it’s mostly potatoes.  Only one injury to report and nothing serious.”  He holds up his hand with its bandaged ring finger.  “The boys were very helpful.  Now then Charlie, what do you owe me for Coventry Street?” 

Arthur sits down, slightly dazed.  This is a different William.  The one who cooked mostly carrot stew and asked about the boys at Christmas, the one who laughs and gets caught up in everything from ridiculous bets to playing children’s games.  It’s good to have him back. 

“Do you want to play next Dad?” Charlie asks him, “after I’ve won?” 

Artie lobs a cushion at his brother.

“Don’t count your chickens,” Arthur tells him. 

William says nothing, but he lands on Picadilly with a triumphant smirk. 

 

A short while later, they take a break from the game for dinner and Arthur rescues the pie from the oven.  Whatever it might be made of, it smells good. 

“Did they really help?”

“Yes,” William says, gathering cutlery, “and with the shopping.  I’m not sure I’d trust Charlie with anything sharp in the kitchen but Artie’s sensible.”

“And you’re alright?” 

“What?  Oh, yes, it’s only a small cut.”  William examines his hand again.  “I’ll be more careful next time.” 

Arthur hadn’t meant his hand.  He’d actually meant with all of it: the shopping, and going out instead of staying in the cottage all day, the cooking and the noisy boys playing monopoly.  He decides that the promise of next time probably answers it anyway. 

“Monopoly was a good idea,” he says instead. 

“You mentioned it once and it’s easier, having something to do.” 

Something must show in Arthur’s face because William gives him a look and says, “I do know I’m not good with children, you know.  This is me trying.” 

“I think you’re doing fine.  I’m their father, and half the time I don’t know what I’m doing with them either.” 

 

His words turn out to be regrettably prophetic.  After the fish pie, and watching Artie finally losing all his money, Charlie brings up the topic of the end of the holiday. 

“I don’t want to go,” he says, frowning at his property cards, “can’t we stay here?” 

“You have to go and see Grandma and Grandad,” Arthur tells him.  “Don’t you want to see them?  You haven’t seen them since the last holiday.” 

Charlie shrugs, then asks for a hotel for Bond Street.  William grumbles something inaudible as he hands it over and Charlie lets the very tip of his tongue poke through his teeth. 

“Charlie,” Arthur says in a warning tone. The innocent look he gets in return fools nobody. 

“I don’t know why you mind us not seeing them so much.  You haven’t seen us in forever,” Artie says suddenly, voice too loud and too sharp. 

“You know why that is.  It’s difficult, with work.”  The excuse sounds weak, even to his own ears.  Artie kicks at the sofa with his foot. 

“Are we going to see you at Christmas?”

“I don’t know.  I hope so, but you and Charlie will be a different schools by then.  I’ll see what I can do when we know when both your terms end.” 

“I don’t want to go to a different school.” 

“Don’t be ridiculous Artie, you’re eleven.  You have to go to a different school: or would you really rather repeat the year with all the boys in the year below?” 

“I do if it means you don’t make excuses not to see us.”  Artie’s face is mutinous, and the sting of truth makes Arthur snap. 

“I’m not making excuses.  I want to see more of both of you, but the war doesn’t stop just because you two are on holiday.” 

“That’s not true.  You only ever cared about work.  You don’t even care about… I’m not going back to school!”  Artie flings his book down on the sofa and stands up. 

“Yes, you are, now sit down and stop spoiling the evening.” 

Charlie is watching the two of them nervously, chewing one of his nails.

“I’m not!  You spoilt it.” Artie shouts at him, voice cracking.  “And I’m not going back.  I’ll run away if you make me!” 

“No you won’t.  Now sit down!”  Arthur stands too and Artie flinches from him.  It hurts to see. 

“No!”

“Artie!”

“I… I hate you.  You never listen and you don’t care!”

Arthur takes a step forward and Artie goes, the door slamming behind him.  His running footsteps fade into the distance.  Arthur sighs and looks to William, who shrugs and tilts his head in the direction of the kitchen.  Arthur takes the suggestion and William follows him. 

“Where the hell did that come from?” Arthur asks, rubbing his hands over his face. “And more importantly, what the hell am I supposed to do with him now?” 

"Talk to him?” William suggests, leaning against the table, “Something’s been bothering him.  So if you want to know what it is, you'd better follow him.”

Arthur sighs.  This isn’t his forte. 

“And If you don't want to talk to him,” William continues, “at least let him come home in his own time. I doubt he'll come to any harm." 

"And should I talk to him?" 

William shrugs again. "Well I can't say I ever particularly enjoyed talking to my father, but then I'm not sure I particularly like my father. Just... if you're going to go, don't bother talking if you won't hear what he's got to say." 

"Wise advice. Have you been spending much time talking to Segundus?  He told me something similar." 

William gives him an unimpressed look. "Go if you're going, or don't. I've seen you deal with government men. One boy shouldn't be too difficult for you.  I'm going to find Charlie. My honour is at stake and I’ve got houses to build."  He flashes Arthur a very boyish grin, only half joking about the competitiveness. 

Arthur stands irresolute.  He could let Artie work it out alone, maybe talk to him when he returns, but the idea of him, off on his own and upset, brings Kitty's disapproval to mind. She'd told him off once when he'd had words with Artie over a broken vase: told him to take more care of the boys, not to hurt them by being too hard.

He walks slowly down the lane, at least giving the boy time to get over the first upset. Where would he have gone, if he'd been Artie’s age and just had a row?  Up a tree usually, the one at the bottom of the garden. It'll be hard to find Artie if he's done the same, and there are enough trees around here to tempt a boy.

"Good evening, Mr Wellesley."

The voice makes him look up to see one of the women from the village, looking at him over her low garden wall with secateurs in hand. He knows her by sight, but not her name.

"Good evening, um, Mrs..." 

"Mrs Titchmarsh, but everyone calls me Beatie."  She smiles at him. "Would you be looking for your son?" 

"Yes, we ah... we had words earlier. Have you seen him?" 

"I thought as much. He went down that way.  I'd say he's probably gone towards the pond." 

"Thank you." 

"Any time. He seems like a good lad, and I heard you lost his mother. It can't be easy."  She smiles sympathetically, one parent to another.  There’s a boy of her own playing in the garden behind her and a pram by the kitchen door. 

"He is, but as you say, it's not always easy.  If you'll excuse me?" 

"Of course.  Good luck!"  She returns to dead heading rose bushes and Arthur walks on. At the end of the lane he can see that her guess was right. A small figure in grey shorts and blue shirt is sitting huddled on the wooden bench beside the pond. A couple of ducks are taking an evening paddle.

Arthur walks up to the bench and hesitates.

"May I sit here?" He asks. Artie flinches from his voice and Arthur holds up a hand. "Don't run off.  I just want to have a talk." 

"Are you going to yell at me?" 

"No." 

Artie looks up at him in disbelief.

"I mean it. May I sit down?" 

"Yeah," Artie says with a jerky nod. His eyes are red rimmed, as if they have been roughly wiped after shedding a few tears.

"So, are you going to tell me what this is all about?"

Artie says nothing, picking at a scab on his knee, and Arthur watches the ducks for a moment, wishing Kitty were here to do the talking, or at least tell him what to say.

“Something’s been bothering you, hasn’t it?  Can’t you tell me what it is?” 

Artie shakes his head. 

“Well… can you tell me why not?” 

He thinks perhaps this won’t work either, and is casting round for the next thing to say when Artie finally speaks. 

“Mum said not to.  About stuff like this.” 

“Stuff like what?” 

Artie sniffs again.  A tear rolls down his nose and splashes dark against his grey shorts.  Arthur sighs. 

“It’s not been easy, has it?  Since your Mum died.” 

Artie shakes his head. 

“I miss her,” he says in a small voice. 

“I do too.”  Arthur digs his handkerchief out of his pocket.  “Come on, blow your nose and let’s talk about this.  I know you always used to talk to your Mum, but somehow you need to try talking to me.  And I’ll do what I can to help.  That alright?” 

“Mum always said we shouldn’t bother you.  She said you were too busy.” 

Arthur knows she said it, however much he wishes she hadn’t.  Always trying to protect the boys, or protect him, always trying to keep the peace: it doesn’t work well for any of them now. 

“I know, and I should have said long ago that it wasn’t true.  Please, tell me what’s wrong or I can’t do anything to fix it.  I know it’s not like you to get angry, not without a reason.” 

“I don’t think you can.” 

“Is it about Christmas?  Or going to see Grandma and Grandad?”

Artie shakes his head and Arthur resists the urge to snap at him to spit it out.  He hasn’t the patience for guessing games.  He can’t think what else set him off except the different holidays…

“Is this about school?” he asks, and Artie huddles into a tighter ball.  “Artie, you have to go to school.  I’m sure it will be alright.  It’s normal to be worried about going, but you managed when you went the first time.” 

Artie looks away and Arthur knows that somehow he has said the wrong thing again. 

“But I won’t have Charlie!” 

“I know, but you went to school without him when he was too young to go.  Tell me why it’s bothering you now.” 

“Last time you and Mum and Charlie were all at home.  Now you’ll be here and Charlie will be at prep school and I’ll be all on my own.  At least at school I know Charlie’s alright, and I get to see him.  If I go somewhere else I won’t see any of you.” 

“You’ll see us in the holidays, and I’m sure once you get there you’ll be so busy with school you’ll hardly notice.” 

“George’s brother says it’s awful.” 

“I’m sure it won’t be.” 

“Did you like school?”

“It was…”

Arthur means to say something non-committal but Artie looks up at him, young and accusing and somehow so very like Arthur himself.  Arthur laughs, without meaning to.  “Oh Artie, I hated it!  I just hoped it would be different for you. Your Mum and I chose this school because we hoped you’d do well there.  We wanted you to have a good future.  However far away that seems now, I want you to have options when you’re older.  School is just... something you have to get through.” 

“But why Dad?  Why does it have to be awful?  Why can’t I just live with you and go to the school here?  At least then if it was awful I wouldn’t be there all the time.”

“You know that won’t work.  I’d like to see you more, but you know it’s been difficult just this week.  I’m at work a lot: more than this usually.  And I want something more for you than the village school.” 

Artie looks downcast and Arthur can see Kitty in him.  She used to look the same when he disappointed her. 

“What is it?  There’s something else, isn’t there?” 

“It’s just… when you’re away, we don’t know anything.  Sometimes… sometimes the headmaster comes in, and I always think he’s going to call me, that he’s going to tell me something’s happened.  Like he did with Mum, when I was half way through Geography and I didn’t even think that was why he wanted to talk to me.  At least now I know Charlie’s alright, because he’s there, but if I have to go away I’ll be waiting for it to be him as well as you or Grandma or Grandad.  And I hate it.”  His voice breaks and he presses his face against his knees. 

Arthur puts a hand on his shoulder, and when Artie doesn’t pull away, leans forward to hug him properly.  Artie turns, wet face pressed to his father’s shirt, and hugs back. 

“I’ll fix it,” Arthur finds himself saying, “it’ll be alright.”  He doesn’t know how, but he will. 

 

A pre-war connection

Of all the things Segundus was expecting when he was called into Arthur Wellesley’s office, a promotion and a plea for help were the last things on the list.  However much work he’d done with Germany, he’d always assumed he was filling a gap or being the temporary solution to a problem.  Even when everyone else in charge had been away, leaving him to deal with things, he’d known they would come back and take over again.  Discovering that Captain Grant apparently thinks highly enough of him to request that he work for him directly leaves him rather speechless. 

It helps, then, that Wellesley looks just as awkward as he turns the conversation away from work.  Segundus likes the Wellesley boys.  They are the sort of pupils he’d liked to have in his class: bright, and outgoing enough to be entertaining characters in the classroom without being unmanageable, and Artie at least is more thoughtful than most.  Segundus had known he was worried about school.  He’s seen enough boys go through it.  In fact he remembers it rather clearly himself.  Going from being the eldest to the youngest is difficult, but even more so when there are other things to consider. 

He’s glad that Artie has someone he can talk to after all, and Arthur looks so out of his depth that Segundus feels for him.  Almost without meaning to do it he finds himself suggesting Starecross, confessing to knowing the headmistress, and Arthur is gratifyingly pleased with the suggestion. 

Even so, Segundus feels nervous as he waits for the operator to connect the call. For all his earlier bravado about knowing the headmistress, actually calling her and requesting a favour he has no real right to ask leaves him with damp palms and an anxious frown to his face.

"Starecross Academy, this is Mrs Lennox speaking."

"Ah, yes, good afternoon, this is Mr Segundus, John Segundus."

There is a pause, where he briefly wonders if she has remembered him at all or if this has been a horrible mistake. Then she makes a soft 'ah' of recognition and says, "of course, Mr Segundus, the best teacher of magic I failed to recruit."

"I'm sorry ma'am, if it hadn't been for the war..."

"Don't worry, Mr Segundus, I understand perfectly. The war requires us to do many things we would rather not. I do hope though, that when the war is over, you will come back to us and teach. I am keeping your place open for you if you choose to take it." 

"I... I would be honoured," he says, clumsy tongued. Despite his interview, and the subsequent correspondence between them, he hadn't quite expected to be offered the job again.

"Good, I shall hold you to that. Now, why were you calling me?  Pleasant as it is to hear from you again, I'm sure you must have a reason. Let us discuss that first and then I want your opinion on Mr Norrell's latest publication. Utter drivel that shows he's never tried to educate anyone in his life of course, but I want to know what you think."

Segundus smiles at that. Her rich, upper class tones add something to the condemnation and he's been wanting to argue it out with someone for a long time. Strange may be a magician, but he is also not a teacher and magical education bores him.

"I look forward to it. But there was a reason. I have a friend with two sons. He was widowed two years ago and the boys have been at school." 

"I think I see where this is going."

"I'm sorry, I know it is quite a thing to ask, but the older boy is leaving his prep school and doesn't want to be parted from his brother. He asked for my help and I thought..."

"Of a school with pupils of all ages and a good reputation. I should be flattered. The boys lost their mother two years ago? Understandable perhaps that they prefer not to be parted."

"Yes." Segundus waits while she considers it. There is a tapping sound, as though she were knocking a pen against something while she thinks.

"I'll need to interview the boys, and their father."

"Of course, thank you. The boys are very bright, both of them."

"I'm sure you'd not have suggested Starecross otherwise. Their father is aware that we teach girls as well as boys?"

"Yes. He doesn't object, and the school would be closer than their previous one." 

"You make a good argument, Mr Segundus. Give me an address and I'll write to him. No promises mind you, but if they are bright as you say I think arrangements can be made."

Segundus breathes a quiet sigh of relief.  This has been far easier than he was anticipating.  "Thank you, I'm very grateful to you and I'm sure Mr Wellesley will be too."

"Yes, yes. If you're that grateful, promise to come back after the war.  Now, about Norrell's program of study for the novice magician..."

 

After a long and pleasing discussion, Segundus puts down the telephone and smiles. It's been a long time since he was free to indulge in a discussion of magical theory and it feels good to have solved a problem and renewed an acquaintance at the same time. And then, even better, is the promise of 'after the war'.

It's not something he gives much thought to generally. It's easier to just carry on, or else the war not being over yet begins to feel suffocating. Better to just accept it as a fact of life and not look too far ahead: if he has a job he enjoys and Childermass beside him, what else does he need? But now the idea is in his head. After the war. After the war, when he might be able to leave all this perilous work and go back to what he enjoys, back to teaching. A room full of pupils, good pupils if he goes to Starecross, and the ordered rhythm of the school year.

"You look happy," John says to him when he makes his way to the canteen for a cup of tea. He says it gruffly, but Segundus easily reads it as affection.

"I had a very good conversation with Mrs Lennox."

"Aye? And what did she have to say?" Childermass fetches him a mug automatically and adds the required amount of milk.

"We talked about Norrell and his publication."

"That thing you've been ranting about for weeks?  I know it. Did she agree with you?" 

"She did," Segundus says, accepting the tea. "Shall we drink this outside?"

Childermass agrees, but looks at Segundus warily.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with the details of what she said about Norrell, but there was something else she mentioned."

"Which was?" Childermass settles onto one of the benches with a sigh of contentment. The bench he has chosen is half in the sunshine and half in the shade.  Segundus sits down on the shady half. 

"She wants me to go back. After the war, I mean. To teach."

Childermass, who has been turning his face to the sun, opens his eyes and looks at him. "And this surprised you?"

"It doesn't surprise you? I turned the job down, and that was before the war. Four years is a long time.  I thought she'd have forgotten."

"She was keen enough to have you teach there. That much was plain as day. And why should you not go back after the war? That's what we'll all do, I suppose, go back to our work and our lives."

Segundus sips his tea and considers it.  All this over, if they win of course, and life goes back to how it was.  No more night shifts and canteen food.  No more feeling like one wrong move will cause catastrophe.  No more nights sleeping in bunk beds with Childermass snoring just across the room.  Even so, there will be things he misses. 

“What about us?” he asks.  “If I go off to teach.  Starecross isn’t in London any more, and I doubt it will ever go back to Yorkshire now.” 

Childermass shrugs, with his usual comfortable acceptance of fate.  “I doubt I’ll work for Norrell again.  It’ll have to be something new for me, after the war.  Will you mind it, if the disreputable soldier you made friends with in the war comes to live with you while he gets settled?  You’ve been my lodger: perhaps it will be time for me to be yours.” 

It’s a comforting thought.  A plausible reason for the two of them to stay together, even after the war.  Segundus drinks more tea and imagines coming home from school, to a cottage somewhere and Childermass putting the kettle on. 

“That could work,” he says, “I think that could work.” 

 

Farewell to the boys

Arthur takes the two boys to the train on Saturday morning.  William, on the night shift, had said goodbye to them the night before.  He’d said he didn’t want to intrude, and Arthur is pleased to be able to believe him rather than thinking his departure from work was an escape. 

Breakfast is a quiet meal.  Even Charlie’s usual enthusiasm somewhat suppressed by clock watching.  An hour to go, then half an hour. 

Charlie asks if they can take the Monopoly set with them and Arthur has to refuse, despite protests.  Unfortunately, since William had liberated it from the SOE stores (maps and files thankfully removed) it will have to go back.  Arthur finds himself promising to find them a new set when they come back. 

Actually getting to the station is a rush of late buses and buying tickets, before the three of them find themselves standing on the platform with only a minute to say goodbye. 

“Be good, both of you,” he tells them.  “Let me know you’re there safely.” 

“Of course,” Artie says, “and I’ll look after Charlie on the train.” 

The boys look up at him and he wants nothing more than to tell them to forget the train and stay.  He swings Charlie up to hug him. 

“I’ll see you both soon: before term starts.  If you’re both still sure you want to go to Starecross.” 

Yes, Dad.”  Charlie has been enthusiastic about the idea since he first heard it.  Arthur wonders if he was ever that certain of himself as a boy. 

“Alright then.  In the train, both of you.” 

Charlie, with one last hug, scrambles up the steps and into the carriage.  Artie hovers.  The guard asks all passengers to board the train.

“Come on, you don’t want to be left on the platform.” 

Artie nods, then flings his arms around Arthur.  He mumbles, “love you, Dad” and then hops back to get into the train with a shy grin.  Arthur can’t stop himself from smiling. 

“Love you too, both of you.” 

He waves to the train as it leaves, even when he knows they won’t be able to see him anymore.  Then he watches until the last puff of smoke disappears into the distance.  He wonders why, knowing they will be back soon, it seems harder than ever to let them go. 

 

Major Grant

On the day that Arthur tells him his promotion to Major is assured, Grant goes over to the Strange’s cottage in a car ‘borrowed’ from SOE to collect them for dinner.  He finds Arabella in the living room, already dressed for the evening and reading letters.  She waves one at him as he comes in. 

“This is from Emma,” she says, “she sent you her love.” 

“Is she still in London?”  He sits next to her on the sofa and she leans against him in a comfortably easy way that makes him smile foolishly. 

“No, she’s back with SOE.  Well, she’ll be back in France by now.  She wrote this just before she left.” 

“I hadn’t heard.  No doubt I’ll hear reports of whatever she gets up to when she’s there.” 

“Demolition probably,” Arabella says as she folds the letter away.  “Do you ever wish you were going back?” 

Grant considers it for a moment.  The thrill of going still appeals: the night-time jump into the dark, the adrenaline rush of doing what you can against the clock and against the odds, and knowing you were making a difference, however small.  But he can also see the difference he makes now, and the fear he had last time, knowing that if he were caught he knew too much and what a blow it would be for the Allied cause.  He asked to be killed rather than captured that time: it’s hard to know if he’d be brave enough to ask for that again. 

“I suppose I miss some things,” he says slowly, “but I’ve realised that my days of being a field agent are over.  Certainly now I know more of what’s going on.  I think I can live with it.” 

“I wonder sometimes,” she says, leaning her head against his shoulder, “if one day I’ll change my mind and want to go back.” 

Grant has to suppress the instinctive urge to say no, but manages it.  He has no right to say no to her.  Even Jonathan doesn’t have the right. 

“Then it’s still your choice, if you want it.” 

Her smile tells him it was the right answer to give. 

“Maybe one day then, but not now.  I’ve got things to keep me here.  Important things.”  She shifts closer, one hand on his knee and her mouth pressing gently against his jaw.  She kisses a line towards his mouth. 

“Starting without me?”  Jonathan says from the doorway.  “I thought we were going out?”  He is freshly shaved and his hair combed back more neatly than usual. 

“I don’t mind staying in,” Grant says without thinking.  Arabella laughs at him. 

“No, we said we’d go out to celebrate.  We can stay in any night.”  She stands and smooths out the skirt of her blue dress.  It must be something from before the war, because the skirt flares out over her hips more than current clothing coupons would allow.  He hasn’t seen her wear anything like it before: a different kind of beautiful to the way she looks in uniform. 

“You look beautiful,” Jonathan says before Grant has a chance, “both of you.” 

In some ways, it’s a miracle they get to the car.  There’s so much promise in the air this evening.  The need to focus on driving helps, as does dinner.  Heads turn to watch their table: Grant thinks that perhaps Jonathan and Arabella are used to being noticed.  It’s a glimpse into what their life must have been like before the war, when Jonathan was England’s second most famous magician and firmly established in London society.  Not that anyone here seems to notice who they are, but they make an attractive couple and it draws attention. 

Afterwards they go dancing in a club Jonathan knows.  Grant has only been there once before with William, but it wasn’t quite the same then.  Last time the two of them had stuck to the bar, rarely dancing, but this time he finds himself drawn onto the dancefloor whether he likes it or not.  Partners change frequently: he finds himself more popular than he expected which might be the company he’s in.  No matter how many attractive women ask him to dance, nothing compares to having Arabella in his arms.  He’d like to be able to dance with Jonathan too, but watching Jonathan watching him as he spins Bell is still worth something. 

The music swells around him, bordering on overloud.  He drinks more than he means to.  They make toasts to ‘Major Grant’, a rank he hardly feels belongs to him yet.  Hazy with the drink and the atmosphere, he lets Jonathan twirl Arabella into his arms as the band strike up a slower number.  She’s warm where she presses against him, and soft, so soft and so close.  They cross the dance floor in lazy circles, drawing closer, until it’s the two of them, swaying gently in time to the music with Arabella’s head in the crook of his neck. 

“Let us take you home,” she says, sweet with promise, “please, let’s go now.” 

They stumble outside, the cold a shock.  He feels more sober now, away from the heat and the noise.  Jonathan is driving them, and while he fumbles to unlock the car with only a blackout torch to help him, Grant wraps Bell in his jacket and then his arms.  The street is dark and there’s nobody to see. 

The journey back is long: the road winding and the headlights very dim.  Jonathan is driving so that Grant could drink to celebrate, which leaves Grant in the back seat with Arabella and her roaming hands.  Time passes rather quickly as a result. 

When they arrive back, there’s a desperate tumble for the door, Jonathan pouncing on Grant as soon as it closes behind them. 

“I’ve been waiting to do this all night,” he says, pushing Grant’s jacket off his shoulders and letting it fall. 

“Upstairs,” Bell says, tugging at both of them.  They leave a trail of clothing behind them: Bell’s shoes on the stairs and Jonathan’s tie on the landing.  None of them can bear to let go of the others.  Grant finds himself in their bedroom again, half stripped and dazed.  He wants them, wants them both so badly he can’t quite believe that it might really be happening. 

Arabella wriggles out of her dress and sits on the bed to take off her stockings.  The sight of her makes Grant giddy but he freezes, waiting. 

“Go on,” Jonathan says in his ear, “we want you, we both want you.”  He gives Grant a push so that he drops, kneeling, between Arabella’s legs and she bends forward to kiss him thoroughly.  She doesn’t stop, even as Jonathan circles behind him to unfasten Grant’s trousers and stroke his cock. 

Grant lets himself be manhandled onto the bed, lying on his back with Arabella above him.  It’s been so long since he had a woman in his arms like this, longer still since he’d thought himself in love.  He presses his face against her breasts, finding her nipples with his mouth to suck at them until she makes little helpless noises above him and Jonathan is babbling nonsense about watching them, how lovely they both are. 

“Colley,” Arabella says breathlessly, “if he’s going to talk like that we should give him something worth watching, don’t you think?” 

He nods.  Whatever she has in mind, he wants, and it turns out that what she does have planned is something he wants very much indeed.  She shifts forward, kneeling over his shoulders.  The view, looking up, makes him draw in a deep breath.  God, it’s been a long time since he’s done this, and he’s missed it.  He loves it, loves the feeling of the world narrowing down to focus on this and only this.   

He puts his hands on her hips to guide her down in reach of his tongue, to lick and taste and lose himself in her.  She gives a shocked little ‘oh!’ when he does and he smiles against her.  He could die happy, like this, with a beautiful woman rocking against him.  He reaches up to cup her breasts and she looks down at him, biting her lip hard between her teeth, flushed, dishevelled and gorgeous. 

Jonathan, of course, is not one to be ignored for long, and perhaps he feels the need to prove that Grant is not the only one who knows how to use his mouth.  He knows Grant by know: an unfair advantage when Grant is only just getting to learn what Arabella likes.  His mouth is hot and demanding on Grant’s cock, taking him deep and making him buck upwards.  His fingers, slick and insistent, provide a counter rhythm to his mouth.  How strange, Grant thinks, that until recently he hadn’t even liked that part of sex, but now Merlin is fucking him with his fingers and all Grant wants is more. 

The two of them have him trapped, overwhelmed in the best of ways.  His jaw is aching, his chin wet, and his control fraying at the edges, but Jonathan’s mouth is perfect and Bell is making tiny, hard thrusts against his mouth, pleading for him not to stop, and what can he do but obey them, both of them, tipping over the edge into orgasm even as he feels Bell do the same, muscles fluttering against his tongue. 

They roll away from him to let him breathe after a moment and he lies there, head spinning.  He’s never been so thoroughly fucked in his life.  It’s only the sounds from Jonathan that break through the fog in his head and he forces his eyes open to see the two of them kissing while Bell wraps a hand around Jonathan’s cock.  Jonathan must taste of him, he thinks, and the idea of them sharing that would make him hard again if it were possible.  

Jonathan whimpers, the only word for it, and looks pleadingly at Grant. 

“Do you want him?” Arabella asks, “or are you too tired?” 

Grant tries to think.  He wants Jonathan, of course he does, but he’s worn out and already been given the promise that this won’t be the only time, that he can have later what he doesn’t have today. 

“I want to watch you,” he says, trying not to slur the words together, “you two together.” 

Jonathan’s cock twitches.  Ever the exhibitionist, Grant wants to say, but he ends up smiling foolishly instead as Bell rolls backwards, spreading her legs and beckoning Jonathan forward.  He goes, sinking into her with a groan.  He has been patient, after all.    

Grant lies there listening to them for a moment, the way they sigh together and the wet sounds between them.  It’s not enough to watch from the other side of the bed, not enough only to see Jonathan’s face.  He rolls over for a better view. 

Jonathan is frowning, focused and desperate, strong arms braced on either side of Bell.  She smiles at Grant, and holds out a hand.  He takes it and she pulls his hand to her mouth, sucking at his fingers in a way that makes Jonathan swear.  Next time, Grant thinks, thank God there’s a next time.  One night could never be enough. 

He uses his initiative and put his mouth to good use again: open mouthed kisses against Bell’s salt skin, licking at her breasts so that Jonathan can watch him do it.  Bell tugs his hand down, pushing his wet fingers between her legs and down, down where Jonathan is sliding into her.  His fingers stroke of the slick skin of Jonathan’s cock, shockingly intimate.  Jonathan makes a shocked sound, a sharp inhale of breath, and his hips stutter. 

Arabella wraps an arm around Grant’s shoulder and pulls him closer, arranging him where she wants him with his mouth at her breast and his hand between them, allowed and encouraged to touch them however he wants.  He feels wanted, included, loved.  He doesn’t say it, not when he watches them come, or when Jonathan calls Arabella darling, or when the two of them wrap themselves on either side of him and hold him close.  But he thinks it, and he hopes they think it too. 

 

The morning after, Grant wakes up with heavy limbs and a mouth like sandpaper. It's a familiar feeling: one he associates with slightly too much to drink the night before. What is less familiar is waking up with Arabella Strange looking down at him.

"Morning," he says with smile.

"Morning," she says with a smile in reply and a kiss to his temple before she folds herself into his arms. "How are you feeling this morning?"

"Better now," he says, tightening his hold on her and pressing his face into the soft hair at the nape of her neck. She laughs, soft and warm, and smells of their bed. 

"Jonathan's making tea."

"Mm-hm?"

He dozes for a little. Moving seems unimportant.

"Hey sleepy head," Arabella says after a while, "your tea's getting cold."

Grant realises with a start that he's been asleep again. He pushes himself up, wincing a bit at the headache threatening when he moves, and Jonathan hands him a mug of tea. It helps to clear the foggy feeling a bit.

"What time is it?" he asks when the tea is nearly gone. He doesn't want real life to intrude into this, but he knows that he will have to go to work soon enough. 

“Nearly time for me to get ready for work,” Arabella tells him, “but not time for you to go.  Arthur told me you were allowed to turn up late today.” 

Grant should probably be insisting on turning up on time anyway, but he’s in an unusually lazy mood this morning.  It feels easy to be here, with both of them, drinking his tea and not worrying about if it’s the right thing to be doing, or if he ought to be elsewhere. 

After a second cup, Arabella goes to wash and change and Jonathan takes her place beside Grant in bed, wrapping his arms tight around Grant and leaning his chin in Grant’s hair. 

“I’m not going to run away,” Grant tells him, as drily as he can manage given how prone he is to ridiculous smiles this morning. 

"I know, but I want to hold on to you. I want proof that I really am lucky enough to have you."

Grant smiles again, because he's used to thinking that he's the lucky one, not Jonathan. 

“I’m not going anywhere. Particularly not if you promise me more nights like last night, and more tea in the morning.” 

Jonathan kisses him, soft and slow, the way Grant has seen him kiss Arabella. 

“I’ll hold you to that.  If I could make every night like last night I would.” 

“I’ll settle for more ordinary nights too.” 

“Will you?  What about tonight?  Dinner at home and early to bed?” 

“Tonight, any night.”  He looks Jonathan in the eye.  “I’m yours, if you’ll have me.” 

He still doesn’t say it.  He doesn’t need to. 

 

Grant had wondered if he'd be able to get anything done today, when he finally got to the unit, but work is a familiar pattern to fall into and there is plenty to keep him busy. German maps have come in by courier, and thick reports stamped Ultra Secret. His old files on France need to be handed over to William too. A fresh start and a clean slate. He catches himself whistling as he works, flicking through the contents of the filing cabinet. He finds the almost empty bottle of whiskey too and puts it aside. No doubt there will be some days when he needs it but they seem further off this morning. 

William's face is comically horrified when he sees the quantity of files he is now responsible for but he also takes it in his stride in a way that Grant wouldn't have thought possible a few months ago. William is different to how he was a year ago, a little quieter, a little more settled. It's not exactly a bad thing, but Grant feels the loss of some of his previous exuberance. And then William gets himself mixed up in a stupid prank (involving Ned and Childermass' tobacco, always a risky thing to muck about with) and Grant thinks that perhaps the old William is still there, under the surface. 

By the end of the shift, he's got lost in the paperwork again.  Station X are making good progress with their plans and he’s beginning to form ideas of how they might be able to work together.  In the middle of making notes, a knock at the door disturbs him.

"Enter!" he shouts.

Jonathan sticks his head around the door. 

“Still here?” he asks.  “The shift’s over already and you said you’d be there for dinner.” 

Grant sighs.  Even the best of interruptions is still an interruption. 

"Just let me finish this one file," he says, "just this one and then I'll come and find you."

"You promise? I know you and work." 

“It needs doing.” 

“It needs doing some time.  Not now.”  Jonathan perches on the edge of Grant’s desk.  Grant looks between him and the file. 

“You’ll be no good to anyone if you kill yourself with overwork,” Jonathan says when he notices the hesitation.  “Arabella would say the same.” 

Grant opens his mouth to protest and Jonathan kisses him.  It’s unprofessional perhaps, but he lets that win the argument. 

 

Summer’s end

Arthur walks home in the golden sunshine of late summer. The fields are stubble now, waiting to be ploughed back for winter crops, and the sun is still warm enough to make putting his jacket back on seem foolish, just for the short journey home. He pauses, wondering when he started thinking ‘home’ when he means the cottage, but it's too warm a day to give it more than a passing thought.

The cottage is empty when he gets there: William has taken up a spot in the sun trap of a garden. Having stood empty before they requisitioned it, the cottage is one of very few where the garden hasn't been turned over to vegetables and it’s a tangle of grass and brambles along the back fence. 

William sitting on the bench, barefoot and with his shirt unbuttoned. His nose has been burnt red by the sun. He flicks through a flying manual, pen in mouth and ink on his fingers.

"Are you trying to scandalise the neighbours," Arthur asks him in lieu of a greeting.

William grins up at him unrepentantly. "The only neighbours near enough to see into the garden are the Stranges and I think they have better things to do than look out of the window.  Colley was over all afternoon until shift change."   

"Don't tell me, I don't want to know." 

William looks at him enquiringly.

"If I know, I have to do something about the abuse of the chain of command, to say nothing of the moral implications. And I've no idea what I’d do, given the situation I don't know about, so on the whole I’d prefer to officially know nothing." 

"Fair." William says, "but what would you hypothetically do about a man sleeping with..."

Arthur puts a hand firmly over William's mouth. William licks his fingers.

"Do not let this get out of hand. Find some other reason for me to distract you if that's what you want." He removes the hand.

"I'm sure I'll think of something by bedtime," William says.

"Good." Arthur takes a seat beside him on the wooden bench and rolls up his sleeves. "Grant's happy though?" he asks after a pause.

"Far as I know," William mumbles around the pen back in his mouth.

"Good." Arthur watches for a while as William scribbles notes. "What are you up to? I saw you disappearing off to the hangar this morning."  It had worried him, at the time, in case William was brooding over flying, but he seems happy enough now.

"Met up with Ned and Jonathan: looking at the planes.  You know, there’s no official protocol for flying with a magician.  Only what we came up with on the spur of the moment, with Jonathan actually in the plane.  Which works if I’m the one flying, but isn’t going to work for anyone else doing it.  So I’ve drafted something and now I’ve got this to look through.”  He waves the book. 

"To look through because?" Arthur prompts him.

"It needs tidying up: putting in official language.  And it needs to work with the rest of the protocols in case of emergencies.  I thought perhaps when it was done I could help train some of the other pilots since I’ve done it before.”  William looks up at him with hopeful eyes. "I'm not saying I definitely could, or that I could right now, and I doubt the RAF would like it, but..."

"One day?" Arthur says.

"One day. It'd be good to get back in the air.  Even if it’s just a training flight."   

"Ah my flyboy." Arthur slides his hand into the hair at the nape of William's neck.

"Mmm... definitely yours."

William closes his eyes and turns his face up to the sun. 

"Is it easier, now?"

William says nothing for a while. Arthur lets him think.

"Yes, I suppose so. Not all the time but... there are compensations."

"Oh?" 

"Yes. Being here, the work, the cottage... us. It's a forever kind of thing now, isn't it? Whatever happens with the war or after, and the boys." 

"Well I've no intention of letting you go."

"Good."

They sit side by side in the sunshine. William returning to his book and Arthur lazily admiring the red of William’s hair and the new crop of freckles. His unbuttoned shirt shows some of the scars. It feels like progress.

To the scratch of William's pen and the drone of bees in the flowers, Arthur closes his eyes. He is content, for the moment, to not think very much at all.

 

Chapter Text

At the end of a very long shift, Grant finds De Lancey asleep in his office.  He’s pushed the chair back against the wall so he can lean on it more comfortably and has his legs stretched out in front of him.  Grant lets a heavy stack of reports thud down on the desk to wake him. 

“I know we’ve been busy William, but couldn’t you find anywhere else to sleep?”

William stretches cautiously and groans.  “You need a better chair.” 

“I’ve been saying that for years, but I doubt there are chairs to spare.  Were you here for a reason?  Or is your office chair worse?”

“Yes, actually and your office is warmer too, but I was waiting for you.  Did you realise that Merlin will have been here for a year next week?”

“I hadn’t, no.  Although I suppose I should have realised now that autumn is on the way.  What does it have to do with anything?” 

“Well I thought perhaps we could mark the occasion somehow.  It might be good for morale after the time we’ve had of it recently.”

“I suppose that has some merit.”  Grant eyes William sceptically.  “What did you have in mind?  Nothing too grand I hope; we do still have to keep things running here.”

“Only the pub,” William says with a grin, “no wild parties.  Something very informal.  We could run it over the shift change if you like and give more people a chance to attend without getting in the way of work.”

“Well I can’t see a reason why not. Merlin has made a difference since he started here and people could do with a chance to let off steam.  You’ll have to run it by Arthur though.”

“I will.  I don’t know when he’s getting back from London but he said he’d call tonight.”  William smiles, the contented, settled smile of a man who knows he is loved. 

“Happiness suits you Will.”  Grant can’t help but say it, the words spoken before he has a chance to think.  The truth of it is so evident in front of him. 

William looks startled for a moment and then grins.  “You too Colley.”

At first Grant wonders if he is being teased, but William’s smile isn’t a mocking one and it is, after all, completely true.  He is happy.  Despite the war and the burden of work, he’s happy. 

He reaches for the bottle of whiskey in his desk and pours two glasses. 

“To happiness then,” he says, “now drink up and get out of my office.  We’ve got a war to win.”