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A short bit of fic inspired by asexualscripps wondering about the Peninsula Boys when they were very young. I read a book many years ago where the youngest characters are playing at soldiers while the older characters watch them in secret, so this is also inspired by that.

 

The Boys

The boys are playing at soldiers again. The mothers pause in their companionable chatter over the mending basket and peep over the garden wall to see them pass.

Young Colley has his wooden sword drawn as he leads them in procession to the woods, their leader since Arthur was sent to school. He has his best red jacket on again, a woolen scarf tied around his waist like a sash and a tall hat folded out of paper. “He’s very proud of that coat,” whispers his mother as he goes by, “sometimes I think I’ll never get him out of it even at bedtime.” She’s quietly grateful though, that he minds his clothes more than the most boys and she can trust him to keep an eye on the others.

Jonny is carrying a big silver dish, borrowed without permission from his mother’s dresser, and his pockets are bulging with hard-boiled eggs and apples. “Little rascal,” says his mother fondly. He’s been demanding stories about the Raven King every bedtime for a month and decided to give up soldiering to be a magician (before that he was going to be an explorer, before that a knight). He has his copy of ‘A Child’s History of the Raven King’ tucked under one arm. His mother tried to make him leave it at home, for fear of it being torn or lost or dropped in the mud but he insisted a real magician needed books, even if he hadn’t quite learnt to read them yet.

The dish is too big for Jonny to carry without tripping over his own feet so Jeremy keeps trying to help him with it and offering to carry his book. Poor little Jeremy, his mother thinks but does not say in front of the other mothers, always a little more ragged than the other boys, always following Jonny about like a shadow and wanting to be noticed. He doesn’t have a sword like the others, only a branch from the garden with some of the twigs torn off and no father to make him a better one. It won’t be much good for sword fighting and he will be left out again. She worries about him even though he’s as good a boy as any mother could want. She wishes she had more to give him, so he could be equal to his friends.

Ned jogs along the road, catching up with the others with much puffing and panting. His mother groans quietly, covering her face with her hands while the others laugh, because his breeches are torn across the knee again and his bootlaces are in knots. She loves him so much, but she cannot understand how he can be so hard on all his clothes. Half the mending in the pile is his and Colley’s mother has been quietly alternating between his clothes and Ned’s to help out. He always seems to be running after something, always busy, coming home to announce ‘me boots is broke again’ and shying away from her maternal affection. Her little soldier is growing up already.

At the back of the group, Little William toddles manfully after the others on his chubby infant legs. He’s always been so determined to keep up with the older boys from the moment he could walk. His paper hat drags over one eye and his wooden sword is much too big. He is being left behind already and his dimpled face is all scowls and determination, with his lower lip sticking out. “It’ll end in tears,” his mother says, “it always ends in tears, but I haven’t the heart to stop him going with them.”

The boys turn off the lane and into the woods, their voices fading as they disappear between the trees. The mothers go back to the mending, because growing boys wait for no woman and the work is never done.

A few hours later, a wail is heard from the woods and William’s mother starts up from her bench. “That’s William crying, I know it is!” The other mothers flock with her to the garden gate. The party of little soldiers is coming back in disarray. Ned’s clothes are torn, Jeremy is laden down with sticks and swords and the book and Jonny’s dish has a big dent in the rim that his mother will scold him for later. Colley has a black eye coming and is carrying William. Poor William is the worst of the lot. His face is scratched across the nose and dirty, only clean where his tears have washed it. His knees are grazed and he looks as though he has been rolled in mud.

The boys gather around like a rowdy flock of birds. There was a fight, the mothers learn, with bigger boys from the next village who left them no choice at all but to fight back. Jeremy saved Jonny’s book, even after the other boys knocked him down, and is a hero for it. Jonny doesn’t know if he wants to be a solider or a magician now and wonders if there are any stories about fighting magicians. Ned never meant to tear his shirt across the shoulder, but he knows his Ma will think he did the right thing defending his friends. William was ever so brave for a little lad. Colley feels bad because he should have known what would happen, and kept a better eye on the others, but in the end, it was alright, wasn’t it Mother?

And in the end, all is well, because these are the usual scrapes of young boys and shirts can be sown, dents in dishes can be undone and bruises and scrapes can all be mended with kind hands and kisses. William’s mother shushes his crying and bathes his grazed knees. The soldiers are home safe from the wars and all can be forgotten when they become boys again and are sent in, by their mothers, for tea.

Chapter Text

It is hot and crowded in the coach as it rumbles and sways its way north. Childermass alternately bangs his shoulders against the side of the carriage and his neighbor with every rut in the road. The wall is more painful but he is still glad to have a corner seat and be slightly less overheated. In his younger days, travelling on Mr Norrell’s business, he would never have sat inside. He would have been on the roof in the cheapest seats. There are several young men sitting there today and their raucous voices drift faintly down to the other passengers.

Despite the crush, he’s glad to be sheltered from the rain. He wonders if that means he is getting old and too used to his comforts or if he has just changed from the man he was then. A good many things have changed since Mr Norrell’s time. Childermass would never have bothered to dress so carefully then but Mrs Honeyfoot had bullied him into a new (or newer) coat for his journey to London and had taken it upon herself to improve his shirts at the same time. She says it makes him look respectable. He is still not a gentleman, but he does have a kind of status now, not that he ever looked for it. He is mindful of it for it’s uses even as he feels embarrassed for caring what other men might say of him. Perhaps he can say it is only sensible, to dress well when meeting men from parliament? He eases his tight neckcloth and observes the world through the fogged window. The mist on the glass is gathering into rolling drops that leave small slices of the landscape clear. The humidity does not help the atmosphere inside the coach.

The woman next to Childermass is pink-cheeked and flustered, only recently dissuaded from apologising whenever she jostles him. She has her small son on her lap while her husband sits opposite, holding the bigger boy. The younger child had cried for a while as they left this morning but Childermass had entertained him with the sort of ha’penny magic tricks that Mr Norrell always disdained. Petty they may be, but effective nonetheless. No real magic is required to make a small coin appear behind a child’s ear but sleight of hand was a skill he learned long before he tried real spells. Real magic can make such tricks go further, bending a coin into the shape of a horse or making a tin soldier march. Such a small thing for a quiet journey and Childermass has pennies to spare nowadays.

The father of the boys ventures to make conversation over the snores of the man in the corner. They are travelling back to his wife’s family. He was never one for the city. Exchange of pleasantries becomes the exchange of names and at the mention of the name Childermass, the two scholarly young gentlemen in the far corners fall silent. It is an uncommon name after all and the work of the King’s Reader has been widely reported in academic circles as well as in more dramatic writings in the popular press. The recognition is still very strange to him. Something of his reaction must cross his face because the young woman starts talking again, encouraging her boys to give their own names and ages. Childermass is grateful to her. He wishes he could get away though. There were too many people in London and too many people for one coach. Conversations resume, two on top of each other and Childermass returns to his contemplation of the window. The countryside is beginning to look familiar now. The predictable rise and fall of the land brings comfort and promises the wide, wild open spaces he has missed.

Childermass also thinks of home. This too is a new concept for him. Before, to be in Yorkshire was to be at home and to be surrounded by the county of his birth was to be as much at home as he was anywhere. No room or building had a particular call, no place or view was his alone. Now he longs not only for good Yorkshire air and good Yorkshire soil beneath his boots, but also for his own hearth, his own bed and his own books. Starecross was never meant to be a permanent lodging place but it became home, slowly and without his noticing it. He has earned his room and welcome there, he knows it’s people and is valued by them. Where he used to enjoy his wandering, now he misses Starecross when he is gone.

When the coach drops him at the inn, there is a cart waiting for him. The rain has mostly cleared, leaving a rich autumn smell in the air. The coolness is welcome after the hot coach and Childermass lifts his face up to the sky as the pony sets off at a gentle trot. She knows her working day will be done soon and her stable awaits. When they reach Old George’s farm Childermass gets down from the cart. George protests, for Mr Segundus arranged for him to be brought as far as Starecross and the night is dark but Childermass insists.

“Ah, well, if you’re sure sir. Don’t lose yourself on the way now, happen they’ve missed you up at the house.”

With a last goodnight, Childermass turns to the familiar path to Starecross. A few stars are beginning to show above him and the borrowed lantern lights his way clear enough. Like all good old horses, he knows he way to his stable. The thought makes him smile and walk a little faster.

As he approaches the house he can see the lights at the window of the hall. He pauses, almost on the threshold, appreciating the last moment in the quiet darkness. Inside there will be all the bustle of arriving, of Mrs Hirst fetching him a late supper and people taking his coat and asking after his journey. He welcomes it, but finds this moment, this point of transition between homecoming and home, worthy of savoring. Then a voice cries out from the window, “why, it’s Mr Childermass home at last!” and other voices take up the cry, students peeking from the window and waving into the darkness. Mr Honeyfoot opens the window and calls for him to come in, out of the cold. Segundus throws open the door and suddenly, in one step from darkness to light, Childermass is home.

Chapter Text

“What you need, Merlin, is a drink!”

Later, much later, Jonathan will learn to hear those words from De Lancey and treat them with the caution they deserve. For the present, he is only grateful that someone, anyone is prepared to distract him from the miserable circumstances of being disgraced in the eyes of Lord Wellington.

De Lancey has sufficient rank to merit a room of his own and it is there that they retreat, collecting Grant en route. Grant brings cards and counters with him and De Lancey provides the alcohol. It is, they say, only fair for them to provide the entertainment as Merlin is the one in disgrace. They also let him have the only chair.

“I’m not sure whether to be sorry for you, or glad that he’s got over the loss of the damn canon,” Grant says as he shuffles and deals.

They play for the counters, then pennies, then outlandish invented stakes inspired by Wellington’s recent demands. The wine flows freely and army men, Merlin is learning, are hard drinkers. The card game isn’t one he is familiar with, but it’s easy to pick up even though the rules abruptly change for reasons he cannot fathom.

“You owe me a set of wings Merlin!” Grant crows at him as he throws down his winning cards, “and also sixpence.” He leans back on his stool and props his feet on the bedstead.

“Damn your luck,” De Lancey says, throwing down his own cards unseen and wrestling the cork from another bottle. It proves obstinate, despite judicious application of a lethally sharp knife.

“Well I am quite out of inspiration for what to bet next,” Merlin admits with a sigh. “We have exhausted all his Lordship’s orders.”

“Wellington will never run out of orders! Show him De Lancey.”

“Show me what?”

“De Lancey does a wonderful Wellington. You haven’t seen it yet, have you?”

De Lancey makes a show of demurring, but with a little persuasion rises from the bed and hands the bottle to Grant.

“May I borrow your coat Merlin?” He strips off his uniform red and replaces it with Merlin’s darker jacket. He also flattens his hair down into a more severe style. He faces away from them, but Jonathan can see his shoulders set a little higher, a little squarer, and his body stiffening to rigid attention as he adopts the role. He tucks his chin a little further towards his chest and takes a moment, composing himself.

He spins suddenly to face them and Merlin can’t suppress a snort of laughter, for De Lancey’s face is now so unlike his usual cherubic smile: he is all affronted dignity and severe frowns.

“Merlin!” he barks. The voice isn’t an exact reproduction, but he has the tone perfectly. He advances on Merlin, stalking across the room with his body held in the manner of an outraged owl. The dreadful scowl on De Lancey’s face, combined with the bottles of wine, makes Jonathan lose his composure entirely, giggling helplessly like a schoolboy.

“Merlin, I see no cause for humour! I specifically ordered you to turn Napoleon and all his officers into snails.”

Grant hiccups with laughter at the word snails, suddenly freeing the cork from the bottle and cutting his finger in the process.

“Have mercy, my Lord!” he says around the bleeding digit in his mouth. “And lend me your handkerchief. I am badly wounded!”

“Lend you a handkerchief! Grant, I made it perfectly clear you were to bleed to death only when I did not require you. If, and only if, you return here with four hundred new canon shall I lend you a handkerchief. I am the best dressed man in His Majesty’s Army and I will not sacrifice my wardrobe for anything less!”

Grant fall dramatically to his knees in an absurd gesture of supplication. De Lancey as Wellington glances at him, sniffs and says, “get up Major Grant, you sully the reputation of your regiment. Now Merlin, after you have turned Napoleon and all his officers into snails I want the entire French army turned into ducks. Then they will eat Napoleon and we can eat them.”

“My… my Lord,” Merlin tries to say through his laughter, “it cannot be done! Not with so many men.”

“I expect you to obey me Merlin, and I expect it done by lunchtime! I wish to have roasted duck for my supper” De Lancey’s hold on his character is slipping slightly, but nobody cares. “If you won’t do this simple bit of magic for me, I will punish you for disobedience!”

“No my Lord!” Grant has given up on trying to rise from the floor. It’s possible he’s unable to, having made inroads into the newly opened bottle of wine.

“I say it cannot be done, so how will you punish me, my Lord?” Merlin bows, rising from his chair to look properly contrite.

“I shall… I shall…” De Lancey’s mouth twitches violently with suppressed laughter before he can stop it. “I shall refuse to kiss you!” he announces dramatically.

Grant makes a choking, wheezing noise as Merlin says “But my Lord, I don’t wish to kiss you.”

“You don’t wish to kiss me?” De Lancey looks, if possible, even more outraged. “Merlin, I have it on good authority that everyone wishes to kiss me. Some men in London perhaps, are unaware of the circumstances, but I am me and only I am aware of the truth that everyone wants to kiss me, because nobody has ever refused me.”

“Perhaps he does not know what he is missing, my Lord?” Grant adds from his prone position on the floor, examining his bleeding finger. “Perhaps you should show him what he’s missing.” He blinks at them both, apparently unconcerned when they both stare at him.

“Show him?” De Lancey bears only a passing resemblance to Wellington now.

“Show me?”

“Mmmmm… show him.” Grant, who Merlin had assumed to be a rather serious gentleman at first, has a light in his eyes that can only be described as devilish.

Merlin has only a second to process this, and become worried, before De Lancey lunges for him and plants a kiss square on his mouth. It’s warm and a little wet, tasting of wine, but De Lancey is still skilled despite the drink and Merlin’s noise of protest turns into a noise of… something else. From the floor, Grant applauds.

The following morning Merlin wakes up with a devil of a headache, sandwiched between two very male and very naked bodies in a bed that is far too small to accommodate them. He gently wriggles free so as not to disturb them but the process is rather difficult. He feels a little sore this morning, in addition to the headache and De Lancey apparently has a tendency to bite. He dresses as quietly as he can and debates a note. What does one say? “Thank you for the entertaining evening and thorough debauchery. You have ensured I shall never again look Lord Wellington in the face.”

Grant and De Lancey have moved together in his absence, curled against one another in a way that implies a certain familiarity. De Lancey has his head on Grant’s shoulder. Grant has his hand possessively on De Lancey’s arse.

Merlin abandons thoughts of notes and leaves them to get on with it. He is, after all, very new to the army and this is perhaps a matter for the experts.

Chapter Text

Two men, together. Unclothed in the darkness.

The wind howls and rattles at the windowpanes. Rain drives against the tiles. In the single room of his lodgings, the fire burns low.

“Is it a sin?”

Careful hands lead careful fingers tracing patterns over a bare shoulder. This is the first time they have done this.

“I don’t know, I’m no priest.”

“The Bible says it is a sin, but at school we studied the classics and the Greeks did not think so.”

“I was never much of a scholar.”

“Nor was I, but I liked the stories. Achilles, and Patroclus.”

The wandering hand is caught, held, each finger kissed. It is safe to be tender here.

“Well I do not wish to be Patroclus. Nor do I wish to be Achilles. They came to a sad end, William.”

“They were soldiers, though. Perhaps that’s what happens to men like that. To men like us.”

“Don’t!” A kiss to stop the words. “Don’t.” A kiss on the forehead, a blessing. “Don’t think things like that. I don’t believe that was the moral of their story. They were heroes. How can it be a sin, to do this? How can it be a sin to love you?”

Brown eyes are warm in the firelight. The urge to hold, to cling, close and soft and secret, is too strong to ignore.

“Perhaps we are only meant to love… chastely. To want, but not to touch.”

“Then why give us bodies? Why give us desire? Do you want me to stop?”

He pulls away, retreating.

“No!” His arms are full again. “I don’t want to stop. I never want to stop. I love you.”

He is pinned, trapped by a weight he could move with ease but does not choose to. They shelter for a moment beneath the blankets, cocooned against the storm outside. They were carefree before, lost in happiness. He doesn’t understand why now, with the darkening sky there are darker thoughts intruding. He waits, half hoping to hear, half hoping it will pass of its own accord.

“I had not…. not… with another person. My friends took me to a house once, where you could, could hire a woman for the evening. Only I… I couldn’t. I never could.”

“Oh William.”

He half whispers it into the soft brown hair tucked beneath his chin.

“So, if this is a sin, it is the only thing I am capable of.”

He tries, with hands and kisses, to smooth over the hurt. Is love ever enough to do such a thing?

“But you can love me? Whatever happened before, you were not unwilling and you love me?”

“Yes. You know that.”

“Then I do not think it is a sin at all.”

Chapter Text

Grant appears at breakfast with a whiter than usual face and a pinker than usual nose. He makes a good act of feeling well, smiling when appropriate and sharing the usual conversation over the table, but De Lancey can’t help noticing that he speaks a little hoarsely and neglects to take his usual breakfast. Instead he busily crumbles a piece of toast over his plate so skilfully that the casual observer would never notice that he ate nothing.

By the time Wellington gathers his officers around a map of the lines that afternoon, the act is wearing thin. A sharp, hacking cough has developed and Grant’s forehead is damp. It does not take long before Wellington skewers him with a glance and dismisses him, not to return until he can ‘spend more than five minutes in company without coughing’.

At dinner, Grant does not appear.

“Check on him, would you De Lancey?” Wellington asks him, as casually as if he were asking him to pass the salt, but De Lancey is grateful. He knows that Wellington is capable of a certain kindness and, however much he knows or does not know, he does not comment when William eats his dinner with more speed than politeness and excuses himself.

He finds Grant alone in his room, wrapped in blankets and shivering.

“What are you doing here?” he croaks.

“Checking you are still in the land of the living, as my Lord commands,” De Lancey tells him, dropping a hand to Grant’s forehead with a maternal air. Grant notices and ducks away.

“It’s just a chill!”

“I’m sure it is, but I’d rather be certain. I know you.”

Grant glares at him from under the hand. It would be more impressive if he didn’t look so miserable. His skin is hot, but not so hot as to be alarming, and his hair is slightly damp. It would be unpleasant, De Lancey thinks, if it were anyone else, but Grant is different. Grant has always been different.

“You should go,” he says, “you’ll only get ill yourself and I’m perfectly fine here. I should be much better tomorrow.”

De Lancey very much doubts it but knows that Grant has his pride.

“I’m here on Wellington’s orders, I’m afraid. You’ll have to live with it. Do you have the headache?”

Grant mumbles something which De Lancey translates as ‘yes, but I would sooner die than admit it.’

“I thought so. I have a tea for you to drink. Yes, it probably will be repellent but it’s that or have the surgeon threatening to bleed you.”

Grant winces. He is stoic about wounds in battle but privately rather squeamish about the surgeon. He blows his nose in a way that conveys his sense of ill usage and submits to the tea. He also submits to De Lancey tidying the room around him, lighting a fire, finding him fresh handkerchiefs and plying him with soup until eventually, when De Lancey tries to rearrange the bed linens more comfortably around him, he begs for mercy.

“Please, I know you are trying to be kind, but stop fretting at me! Come here and keep me warm instead.”

Grant holds out his arms, looking tired and unhappy. De Lancey feels a little guilty that his enthusiasm for nursing has been misplaced, but he is more than happy to shed his coat and climb into the nest of blankets. Grant does not often initiate this kind of thing. He is rather stiff and awkward at first, holding himself upright like a great aunt at a tea party, but slowly leans towards the extra warmth like a cat. For all his shivering he feels like a furnace and his breathing makes little squeaks and snuffles. He falls asleep like that, only waking occasionally to cough.

In the morning he is not better. When De Lancey goes to wake him, he grumbles and squeezes watering eyes shut against the glare of daylight. He doesn’t even protest when De Lancey fusses over him and changes the bed. William would rather stay and look after him but duty calls and there are meetings to be had and men to drill. The day turns into a rather busy one and although Merlin looks in on Grant at lunchtime for him, De Lancey doesn’t get back until just before the evening meal. He doesn’t have long either, as Wellington expects his officers to be both present and punctual.

Unfortunately, when he does return he finds the surgeon in attendance and De Lancey feels a pang of guilt for leaving Grant alone to face what he particularly hates. The assistant is just leaving with his gruesome basin in hand, which tells him that the surgeon has been as enthusiastic as ever with his treatments. The surgeon himself is applying bandages and lecturing loudly on the effectiveness of such treatment, and the senseless arrogance of those who try to avoid it and therefore prolong their illness.

Grant sends him a look over the man’s head. It’s a look that says ‘get rid of this fool before I strangle him’ so De Lancey does his best to hurry the surgeon along, half flattering him with the urgent need other men must have of his services and half implying private matters to be discussed between senior officers. It requires him to usher the man to the door, but in the end he goes.

“Is he gone?” Grant asks him, still sitting forcibly upright in bed.

“Yes, finally,” De Lancey shuts the door with a bang and turns in time to see Grant flop back against his pillows with relief.

“That man is evil.” Grant observes, “If he comes back, I want you to shoot him.”

He looks much worse than he did earlier, although De Lancey finds it hard to tell if it is illness, or the assistance of the surgeon.

“How do you feel?” he asks.

“I am considering asking you to kill me.” That probably means that he feels dizzy. He frequently does after visits to the surgeon but considers it a shameful weakness that nobody is supposed to know about.

“I take it you won’t be wanting to go to dinner.” De Lancey sits on the bed and rubs a thumb over the back of Grant’s knuckles. “Shall I ask to be excused?”

It takes a little timing to catch Wellington before dinner, but De Lancey has a certain privilege among the other officers, being one of Wellington’s acknowledged favourites. It gives him room to catch his Lordship’s eye and speak to him semi-privately before anyone sits down to eat.

“Grant doing worse is he?” Wellington can be disturbingly knowing at times.

“Yes, my Lord. Might I be…”

“Excused the meal? Yes, I think you might. I don’t need you for anything else today. Go on.” Wellington nods at him and De Lancey makes good his escape.

De Lancey isn’t expecting to be disturbed later, which is why he gives up on a maintaining propriety and just climbs in to bed next to Grant, who is too tired to bother pretending that he doesn’t want it. He’s exhausted from the constant coughing and the bloodletting, and less ashamed than usual about asking for what he wants: De Lancey’s arm around him, a shoulder to lean on and a place for his cold feet to be warmed. De Lancey has borrowed a book from Merlin (at least the man has some non-magical tomes) and although it only takes a paragraph before Grant starts drifting to sleep, for a long time he wakes up whenever De Lancey stops reading.

Unfortunately the tap on the door comes just as he has finally dropped into a real sleep and cannot be woken. De Lancey shifts out of bed, thankful he still has breeches and shirt on and hoping that whoever it is can be safely sent away with minimal explanations. If it is the surgeon, he will do so with violence if necessary.

Luck is not on his side because the person at the door is Wellington himself, who cannot be sent away so easily and who manages to invite himself in. De Lancey’s heart thumps hard in his chest as he steps away from the door, because there’s no time to hide anything and to anyone with sense, it is painfully obvious how they have spent the evening. Grant is pressed to one side of his bed, fast asleep, and a second hollow in the pillow shows all to clearly where De Lancey has been sitting. There is no chair he might plausibly lay claim to. His state of undress is a condemnation of its own.

He has always wondered what Wellington knew about the closeness of two of his officers, but there is a difference between suspicion that one may turn a blind eye to and enough circumstantial evidence to condemn a man.

“I’m afraid Major Grant is asleep, my Lord” he says as he hovers, wishing he at least had stockings or a waistcoat to lessen his embarrassment. Wellington is, as usual, dressed to perfection.

“Yes, I am aware. I don’t wish to disturb him, only to see if he had improved. I heard the surgeon was here earlier.” Wellington sniffs disapprovingly.

“He was, sir. I believe Major Grant may be a little better.”

“No thanks to the surgeon, I imagine.” Wellington is staring at him, but De Lancey can’t read his expression. “You seem nervous Colonel.”

“No sir.” De Lancey lies valiantly, despite his internal panic.

“No, sir?”

Grant makes a snuffling, snoring noise in his sleep. Wellington looks at him.

“Please, my Lord…” Grant looks too vulnerable like this, too vulnerable to be put at risk because De Lancey wasn’t quick enough with an excuse to keep the Duke out of the room.

“Major Grant is an excellent officer, as are you, Colonel. If you are wondering, I can see nothing here that I am not meant to see. I trust you understand me.” Wellington looks De Lancey in the eyes and he can’t look away.

“Thank you, my Lord.” He thinks he might be blushing under the scrutiny.

“I came to give you this.” Wellington presents him with a small book. “From my own collection, although I see you have been borrowing from Merlin. I know that Major Grant does not care for the surgeon and I thought this might prove a suitable distraction.”

“Thank you, I appreciate it very much Sir. I’m sure Major Grant would say the same.” De Lancey wonders if this evening can become any more surreal, standing in his bare feet in front of Wellington, discussing books.

“Well, I will not keep you.” Wellington moves towards the door but pauses with his hand on the latch. “Have a care William, not everyone will turn a blind eye as I do, and I have need of both of you.”

He rests his hand, very briefly, on De Lancey’s shoulder.

Three days later, when De Lancey sneezes six times in quick succession while Wellington is talking, he finds himself on the receiving end of a very different look.

“Colonel, if you are ill I suggest you remove yourself at the earliest possible convenience. I will not have this campaign brought to ruin because none of my officers are in good enough health to be of use to me!”

De Lancey withdraws as ordered and is halfway across the courtyard before Wellington says, “Wait! Major Grant, you have already suffered this revolting contagion. I suggest you accompany the Colonel and keep a watch over him. If I find he has so much as sneezed on another officer I shall hold you responsible and I don’t wish to see either of you until you are sure this is under control.”

De Lancey turns to wait for Grant to catch up with him, trying not to walk too fast or too eagerly. The other officers have returned to the table, keen not to be associated with those who have displeased his Lordship. Only Wellington is watching them.

The Duke nods at De Lancey, somewhere between official dismissal and unofficial approval.

He winks.

De Lancey shakes his head to clear it. He must be imagining things.

“Are you alright?” Grant asks him, risking a touch to his elbow in concern.

“Yes, yes I’m fine. I just thought I saw… well, something that couldn’t have happened.”

“Perhaps you ought to be in bed.”

“Perhaps I should,” De Lancey answers. After all, a Duke does not really wink. Does he?

Chapter Text

William had planned to propose first thing, the ring a first present with their morning cup of tea, but then Colley… distracted him.  It is, after all, the first Christmas where they haven’t had to be awake and out of bed on someone else’s timetable, woken up by exuberant nieces and nephews demanding that they go downstairs so the presents can be unwrapped.  Then afterwards, Colley got in that mood of his where he wants everything done yesterday and half dragged William out of bed because there were potatoes to peel and turkey to put in the oven and yes, they really did have to have sprouts, it’s traditional.  

Somewhere along the way William forgot about it, in the fun of making dinner, just the two of them, and making their own traditions for the day.  Carols on the radio while they cook (or rather, while Colley cooks, and William chops and peels as he’s told), Wallace and Gromit afterwards and a bit of a nap.  Then it’s getting late and they still haven’t got to the presents, which is so weird because Colley is usually the one under the tree, dishing out presents to the kids and getting covered in wrapping paper.  Apparently everything is different with just the two of them.  The box with the ring is still upstairs though, and William doesn’t have time to fetch it before Colley starts throwing parcels at him and getting caught up in the usual games of ‘what did your mother send me this year?’ and ‘has Emma’s present buying improved yet?’  Maybe it’s shyness, or maybe it’s just the wrong moment. It just seems wrong to present him with a ring in the middle of opening gifts of socks and pyjamas from his mum.  

William is just thinking about making a dash upstairs to fetch it anyway when the phone rings. It’s Colley’s parents, wanting to set up the Skype call they promised.  It’s a muddle of a call with all the assembled relations talking over one another and the kids trying to show them every single present while Colley’s mum grills them about whether they ate properly.  Sophie, Colley’s sister-in-law, wants to see Emma’s latest present.  This year’s apron is white and decorated with a pattern of pink, green and yellow flowers. Colley models it for them; clearly appreciating the laughter it produces.  William finds himself missing the Grant family, even though they are going down to see them in a couple of days, even though it’s not his family to miss. 

Of course, just as he’s getting nostalgic for Christmases with Colley’s family, his own parents phone to make their inevitable call of festive awkwardness.  Colley leaves him to it, ducking out into the kitchen to start on the washing up.  He usually finds a reason to be elsewhere when William talks to his family, perhaps not wanting to make it any more awkward.  It leaves William alone and doubtful afterwards, sitting there worrying that actually he’s done it all wrong.  He meant to propose before the family calls, so they could get telling them over with, but now he’s missed his moment and Colley is busy with the washing up which is the least romantic thing to be doing.  Maybe New Year is a better time to propose anyway, with Colley’s family there.  But then again, he had wanted to make it private, just the two of them.  

“Are you still on the phone?”  Colley calls quietly from the kitchen, not loudly enough to be overheard if William was still talking. 

William goes to find him, intending to say nothing and just help with drying dishes. 

“Hey,” Colley’s voice is all concern as soon as he sees William, “what’s up?  Did they say something?  Please tell me they didn’t say something stupid, today of all days.”

He really must look miserable then.  

“No, it’s not that, it’s not them. Sorry, I… it’s nothing.”  He tries to force a smile and grabs a tea towel to start drying plates.  

“It’s not nothing if it’s got you down on Christmas day.  Hey,” Colley hugs him, despite the wet apron he’s wearing, “you can tell me.”

Oh shit.  It’s now or never, isn’t it?  Unless he thinks of something else to say, but there’s nothing coming to mind.  Only this isn’t at all how he meant to do it, in the kitchen, with Colley elbow deep in soapsuds and worrying about him.  

“No, no everything’s fine. I promise!”

“You don’t look fine.” 

“No I am, I just… oh God I’m doing this all wrong!  I wanted to say something early, only I didn’t and now it’s not how I wanted to and I don’t even… I don’t have the… I…”

“At some point, you’re going to have to actually breathe and then tell me what it is.  You can tell me anything.  You know I just want you to be happy!”

“Well that’s just it. I know you would that’s why I’m…. look, can we not do this in the kitchen?”

“Will, I’m covered in soap, can it wait five minutes?  Or you could just tell me now.  Are you sure this isn’t about your parents?  Whatever they said it’s probably rubbish.”  

“No, it really wasn’t them.”

“Then what?  Do I need to be worried?”  Colley is frowning at him and God only knows what he’s thinking now. What if he thinks William doesn’t want to be there, or is regretting moving in or…

“No, you don’t need to be worried.  Of course not I,” William takes a deep breath and then another for good measure. “I wanted to ask you to marry me.  Only, I had a speech and a ring, and I was going to do it properly and I’ve ruined it because I couldn’t find the right moment and, are you laughing at me? Seriously?”

Colley is laughing, trying to smother it with his hand but definitely laughing all the same.  He’s no good at hiding it when he finds something funny.  

“Will, I thought you were going to tell me something awful! You idiot!”

“I’m sorry.”

“Hey!”  Colley has wrapped him up in a hug again.  “You don’t have to be sorry, and I’m still saying yes if you meant it.”

“Of course I meant it!  I love you, I want to marry you.”

“Well then, yes.  I’ll marry you, you idiot.”

Colley proves it with a kiss.  A very good kiss that goes on a long time.  

“I can propose again, properly,” Will says when they are standing folded into each other’s arms and leaning on the kitchen counter.  “At New Year, or afterwards.  I could take you out to dinner or something.”

“You don’t need to.”

“I had a speech.”  

“Tell me another time, I already said yes.”

“I haven’t given you a ring yet.”

“Doesn’t matter.  You asked me, and I said yes.  You don’t get to back out now and do it again.  I’m not going to be un-engaged for the sake of a speech and a ring.”

“You don’t mind, that I didn’t do it right?”

“You asked me.  That’s all that matters.  Idiot.” Colley ruffles a hand through William’s hair.  

“I love you too.”

“I’m reliably informed that that’s all that matters.  Mum told me so.  Apparently it’s the being married that counts, not the getting married.”

“Are we going to have to tell your parents?”

“Later.  We can leave it until later.”

“Mmmm.  Good plan.”

Later is for speeches, for the opening of boxes and admiring of rings. Later is for phone calls and a few tears.  Later is for testing whether engaged sex is better than living together sex and deciding more research is required.  Later is for falling asleep together, holding hands, to feel the new weight of metal, binding and holding, strange and comforting.  

Now is for the two of them, arm in arm, forehead to forehead, in the kitchen. In love.  

Chapter Text

Childermass knows he’s in trouble when he finds Segundus looking at photographs of babies in little knitted cardigans and matching hats. He’s got Annie asleep on one shoulder and is bouncing her gently while he scrolls through pages of patterns: this one a hat made to look like a strawberry, this one with tassels, this one a hooded jumper with ears on the hood.  

“What are you looking at?” Childermass asks warily, walking up to kiss the top of Annie’s head and Segundus’ cheek.  

“Just knitting, you know, for the winter.”  Segundus lets Childermass take Annie from him. Segundus, as a teacher, gets to spend all day at home with Annie during the summer but when Childermass gets back from work he needs his cuddles.  He misses Annie during the day. 

“She already has knitted things.  She’s got a whole drawer full of cardigans and… things.” Childermass has found baby clothes a steep learning curve.  Who knew that babies could need so many types of baby-gro and frocks and tights and those towel things with hoods for after bath times?  The amount of washing required has been a shock too.  

“Yes, but none of them were made for her,” Segundus says, clicking on a pattern for little woolen mittens.  “Other children have things knitted for them.  Think of those beautiful little shawls the twins had when they were born.”

Childermass doesn’t actually remember any such garment, although if he tries hard he can remember them being wrapped in white knitted stuff.  He was too busy noticing the size of the twins, so tiny and wrinkled, and the way they had dozed so trustingly on his lap.  He’d started wondering then, if maybe it was something they’d do one day, him and John together.  He looks down at Annie now, her beautiful little face so calm in sleep and rocks from foot to foot to keep her that way: love her as he does, he knows how loud she can be if woken too soon.  

“Wouldn’t she look sweet,” Segundus says again, “in a little knitted hat?”

“I suppose she would,” Childermass says, “but you forget that you can’t knit.  These patterns look like a lot of fuss and she’s too little to remember having them anyway.”

Segundus makes a non-committal noise and closes the laptop but Childermass knows him well enough by now to be sure that this isn’t the end of it.  Sure enough, two weeks later, knitting needles and wool begin to colonize the corner of the living room.  Previously quiet evenings become fraught with the clack of needles and muffled swearing. Segundus mumbles to himself, a constant low soundtrack of ‘knit two, purl one, knit two, purl three’.  Childermass keeps quiet and plays with Annie.  

Segundus’ attempts are not successful.  For a start, August is a bad time to begin knitting. The hot weather makes it uncomfortable to work with wool, particularly if one is sensitive to the heat and the itchiness of wool in hot weather, however soft it seems to be at first.  There’s also the small matter of Segundus having no experience at knitting.  He reads patterns wrong, mistakes the sizing and changes the tension as he goes.  The most basic of scarves wobble into zigzags of changing widths.  The simplest hat he could find turns out so small it wouldn’t fit a doll.  His attempts at a blanket begin unraveling with dropped stitches.  When Katie finally steals it and drags the thing into her basket, Segundus gives up. At least, he gives up on doing the knitting himself but does not give up the idea of Annie having things knitted for her.  Childermass finds this worrying.  

Unfortunately Bell, who can knit, is entirely wrapped up in looking after Meg and the twins because, even with Grant cutting back his hours to help, the three children are a handful.  Segundus’ mother has never been one for knitting either: all John’s knitted clothes had come from his grandmother.  Segundus’ gaze, somewhat inevitably, turns to Childermass.  

“John,” he says, “I have been thinking.”

“No.”

“You don’t know what I’m going to ask.”

“I do.  You want me to do some foolish knitting project.”

Segundus looks at him with pleading eyes.  It’s unfair.  “Just one or two things, for winter.  Think of the photographs.”

Childermass looks down at Annie. She waves her toy bunny at him and gurgles.  It’s true that she would look sweet, but Childermass has a secret and it’s one he intends to keep.

“I’m sure it wouldn’t take long for you to learn. You’re always better at this sort of thing than I am.”

Childermass feels an uncomfortable prickle down the back of his neck, the way he always does when he contemplates lying to his husband. How can he say now that it won’t take him long at all, because he already knows how to knit?  He just… chooses not to.  

Segundus sighs resignedly.  “I suppose you won’t then.  I’m going to phone Joan and ask her if she knows anyone.”

He’s gone before Childermass can stop him.  

“Daddy is going to be in trouble,” he tells Annie. “So much trouble.”

She blows a bubble at him and sucks the ear of her bunny. He rather envies her the simplicity of her life.  

“One day, petal, you are going to be old enough to know what it means when Daddy looks at you like that and then you’ll understand why your Dad is such a fool.”  He lets Annie kick out at his hands and grab his hair to tug at it.  At least someone will still love him.  

“John Childermass!”

Retribution, it seems, will be swift.  

“John Childermass, your mother has just told me that you know perfectly well how to knit.  And you sat and watched me struggle all this time!”

The first ball of wool to the head he definitely deserves.  He’s not sure about the second or third, defenseless as he is trying to shield Annie from bouncing wool and Katie’s enthusiastic assumption that this is a game of fetch.  

“You, you horrible excuse for a husband, are knitting your daughter at least five things before the winter or so help me you are banned from every bath time and bedtime until Christmas.”

Childermass winces.  He is, after all, very fond of bath time and bedtime stories.  Annie likes baths, with her duckies in the water and the chance to do lots of splashing.  She smells good too, like warm skin and lavender baby soap, and at bedtime she watches him so seriously when he reads to her.  

And this is why all autumn Segundus plays with Annie in the evenings and one by one Childermass knits a soft fluffy blanket to go in her pram, a jumper with a duck on the front, a jacket with a hood and tassels, a stripy little hat and one that’s shaped like a strawberry.  He also knits a scarf for Segundus, in warm red wool. It doesn’t hurt to ensure husbandly forgiveness.  

Chapter Text

“Stay where you are, I am coming.”

It’s such a short note, hastily scrawled. It wasn’t even delivered until after Strange disappeared along with Norrell and their houses. The post from Italy not being the most reliable, particularly when the city it was sent from was reduced to uproar after the appearance of a pillar of darkness in its midst.

John Segundus carefully files the note with the other letters he has received from Strange. He has valued their correspondence over the years, appreciated the kindness shown to him by one of England’s magicians as the other did nothing but place obstacles in his way.

Segundus values his friends. He knows the price of friendship, how easy it can be for others to turn away. Strange, ever affable, has always been a man to go one step further or reach out a little more. He does not forget his friends, and Segundus values that too. Even in the middle of what is widely reported to be madness and enchantment, after the death of his wife, he had taken the time to read Segundus’ letter and reply. A short reply, but one that promised help in the face of all Segundus’ worries about the Lady Pole. In the end, Segundus had broken the enchantment alone and Strange had not needed his help, but yet he had still replied.

Segundus cannot know where Strange is now. Childermass has his theories and so does Vinculus. The Society of Magicians can spend an entire evening debating the topic until Segundus’ head aches. To him, Strange’s location does not seem as important as his work before he disappeared, or what might be done to bring him back. The other scholars can argue over the Raven King’s spells and the rights and wrongs of deals with faeries. All Segundus knows is that if Strange ever needs a friend, he will be there.

Chapter Text

Sir Walter spends two months in London, trying to recreate his life as it used to be before the magic.  It does not make him happy.  In fact, he cannot remember when he last was happy.  The past few years have been a heavy fog of doubt, worry and disappointment.  He feels like a man who is suddenly able to stand up and look about him for the first time in a very long time indeed.  

He sits alone in his library and tries to remember when last he felt joy.  It was, perhaps, some time in the first few weeks of his marriage.  Emma had been so vivacious, so shockingly attractive once her illness was over.  He had expected a marriage of convenience with an invalid and been given a laughing, joyful wife who wanted nothing more than to dance with him, who had seemed set to become a great favourite in society, and who had been unexpectedly enthusiastic about the matter of the marital bed.  He had been proud to take her out to a dinner or a ball, knowing that the assembled company were admiring his pretty, young bride, knowing that she would dance with him and that people were talking of how good a match they had made. 

Yes, that had been the last time he was happy.  

When the magic came, Emma had been so different and so distanced from him.  He had cared for her, but his care had been overshadowed by worry and his own helplessness.  Afterwards she had been so determined, with such a strong sense of herself that he had been intimidated by her and by the sudden strength she possessed.  His joy at seeing her restored to health had had to be suppressed.  He had, after all, played no part in saving her.  

He hadn’t dared to say a word against her going when she left.  He had felt there was no point: he could not have helped her in her new cause but he realizes now that he should have said something, should at least have gone with her.  It was the least a husband could do.  

Would she have allowed him to go?

He books a passage to Italy almost without giving it conscious thought.  He arranges for his house to be shut up and, with hardly a moment to reflect, he goes. The only thing that seems to matter is the answer to his question – if he had offered, would she have let him go with her?

The trials of being an Englishman abroad might have given him pause, had he been who he was before, but now he finds himself unexpectedly released from the constraints of English society.  He feels younger, bolder.  He takes rooms and changes the cut of his coat and then, only when he considers himself presentable, does he make enquiries as to the whereabouts of Lady Pole. He would not, after all, present himself to her with less care than he would have done when he was courting her. He owes her that much.  

Emma is living with Arabella Strange and the Greysteels and he intends to make his introduction by paying a very correct, fifteen-minute morning call. Fate, however, has other plans.  Taking an afternoon stroll to learn the city he finds himself walking past a shop as Emma is leaving it.  

She is arm in arm with Mrs Strange but stops abruptly when she sees him. 

“Emma, my dear,” says Mrs Strange, putting a hand on her shoulder.  

“No, no, it’s quite alright,” Emma says, gently pushing the hand aside.  “Sir Walter, I had not thought to see you here.”  She takes a step towards him and he towards her.  

“I was going to call, I had intended to leave a card. I did not wish to intrude…”

“No, Sir Walter, that is not what I meant.  I was surprised to see you here, in Italy.  I did not think you would leave England.”

“I…” he notices, with gratitude, that the rest of the party have moved on to allow them a small degree of privacy, “I came to Italy to see you, to speak to you.  I regretted our parting, that I did not offer to go with you as a husband should.  I hoped to find you well.”

“I did not think that you would offer go.  I certainly did not think that you would come here to look for me.”  She smiles at him.  It’s not the quick smile of the early days of their marriage, but there is no mockery in it. “Will you be in Italy for long, Sir Walter?”

“I do not know,” he says, spreading his arms wide in hopeless admission, “I had no plans beyond speaking to you.  My career in politics is over.  I took rooms…” he trails into silence.  That he will stay as long she permits him to remains unspoken. 

“Mrs Strange was walking to see where Jonathan Strange was living before the darkness,” says Emma, “but perhaps Flora is company enough.”

“I don’t wish to intrude.”

“No, but I should like to talk to you, now that you are here.”

She goes to speak with her companions.  Miss Greysteel frowns severely in his direction and Sir Walter endeavors to look as though he has not noticed.  After a few moments, Emma walks towards him and he offers her arm. She takes it, as graceful ever, and tilts her parasol away from him to shield her face from the sun.  Her hair is grey-streaked now but it suits her, as does the gravity of her expression.  Sir Walter is conscious that she is no longer the girl he married, but a woman grown and the gap between their ages seems less relevant than it did before.  He suppresses his first inclination to lead her in the direction he had intended and instead asks her where she wishes to go.  

She takes him to a part of Venice he has not seen before and they walk slowly as she points out the landmarks and her favourite places. He tells her a little of the news from London and she tells him of Mrs Strange.  They keep the conversation light, inconsequential almost.  He walks her home afterwards and takes his leave, happy in the possession of an invitation to dine with them tomorrow night. 

He goes to dinner and finds himself unexpectedly alone with Emma.  Mrs Strange, it seems, had spoken to her husband the previous day and has since been unable to receive visitors or come down to dine.    

“I feel for her,” Emma says, “being separated from the husband she loves.”

“It is very hard indeed, to be separated from someone one cares about.” Sir Walter says, speaking a truth he had not realised he knew until now.  “Particularly when there is no hope of a reunion.”

Emma watches him, her head a little to one side.  “Do you not believe there is hope, Sir Walter?”

“I don’t know.  If there is so much distance between two people, how can it ever be overcome?”  

“I think, if an Englishman can cross the sea and live in Italy, just to spend an evening with his wife, there is a great deal more hope than you give credit for.  So I do not believe I will give up on Jonathan Strange just yet.”

“And what hope is there,” Sir Walter asks her quietly, “for a man who would travel to Italy to see his wife?”

“I don’t know,” she tells him, “I don’t suppose anyone can know, but the distance between two houses in Italy is surely less than between Italy and faerie.”

They go out walking again after dinner.  An unconventional time for a stroll perhaps, but there are enough people in the streets making their way to evening entertainments that their lack of destination is overlooked.  The sun is drawing down to the horizon, turning the sky a red-streaked violet and there’s a breeze from the water that is pleasant at this time of day.  Neither of them speak much but the silence is a friendly one.  It has been a long time since Sir Walter could walk out with his wife on his arm.  She is wearing perfume, a faint scent that he doesn’t recognize but likes.  It suits her, as she is now, more than the rosewater scent she used to wear.  

She tells him about the work she wants to do: publicising her enchantment, preventing magicians from having so much unquestioned power.  He finds himself unexpectedly offering his help.  He does, after all, know how to make speeches to men in power, how to gain influence.  He feels their roles reversed: no longer the politician, but a supporter of his more political wife.  Old friends of his might have laughed, will laugh, but he is drawn into her orbit, caught by the passion with which he speaks.  

When he returns her to the door of the Greysteel’s house, she smiles at him and thanks him for his company.  Then, impulsively, she kisses his cheek. 

“Will I see you again tomorrow, Sir Walter?” she asks him, and he bows low over her hand.  

“If you wish it.”

As he walks home, Sir Walter is conscious of a new feeling of lightness.  It is, he realizes as his brisk steps take him up the stairs to his rooms two at a time, the feeling of happiness that he has been missing so long.

Chapter Text

This is madness.  

Jonathan has been driving him to distraction since the first rehearsal: argumentative, opinionated, turning up late, turning up drunk, flirting with Arabella despite her best efforts to dissuade him. He’s constantly had Grant wondering whether to reach for pills for his Jonathan-induced headache or just go straight to drowning his sorrows in alcohol. All on top of an already stressful production.  Grant said he’d be happy if he never saw Jonathan again after this.

But now, now it’s opening night and he’s behind the stage in the interval with his arms full of Jonathan.  Jonathan, who is kissing him like his life depends on it.  Maybe it does: if he’s doing this for a laugh Grant is actually going to kill him.  

It smells of stale dust and paint back here, and Jonathan, all stage make up and sweat, kissing him until Grant’s head thumps back against the bare brick work and his legs shake.  They must make a ridiculous picture: Jonathan in doublet and hose and Grant in his torn jeans and ratty t-shirt with paint still on his arms from a last minute set crisis.  Anyone could walk past them, anyone at all, but Grant doesn’t care.  He just wants to kiss and be kissed by this wonderful, infuriating man, who spent Act One making the whole audience (and Grant) fall in love with him.  

Of course Jonathan has to ruin the moment with an ill-advised, innuendo-laden comment about swords.  Grant smacks him with his copy of the script and the moment is over.  The sounds of the scenery being moved come back to them, and the realization that Act Two will be beginning soon.  They stand, frozen, with half an inch of space between them.  

“You have a play to finish,” Grant tells him.  

“Yes.” Jonathan looks serious under the make up, a face that Grant doesn’t usually see. Not for a laugh then.  He can work with that.  

“Afterwards though, come and find me afterwards.  Promise?”

“I’ll come to you when the curtain falls,” Jonathan says, which Grant thinks might be a slightly messed up reference to Moulin Rouge, because no way is Grant the Duke in this scenario.  If anyone is the Duke in this scenario it’s Arthur, with his ridiculous on/off relationship with William that caused endless drama and threatened to unravel the whole production.  Still, a promise is a promise, and he’ll take what he can get.  

He watches Jonathan swagger back to the wings, already dropping into character again. He is gorgeous like this.  Grant holds his copy of the script strategically at crotch height.  He’s only human after all, and he defies anyone to be kissed like that and not react. 

“Someone’s star struck,” William comments, sarcastic as always but without his usual bite. Grant makes a rude gesture in his direction, because William hasn’t got a leg to stand on when it comes to romance, and goes back to work.  After all, the show must go on.

Chapter Text

Emma is restless this evening. She paces the drawing room after dinner, never sitting still for more than a minute at a time, picking up books and sewing and setting them down immediately. The Greysteels keep up the pretense of nothing being wrong, Flora filling Emma’s distracted silences with a busy chatter and her Aunt catching Emma on her circuits of the room and asking for her opinion of her embroidery, as though giving her wandering a purpose will make it less noticeable. Mrs Strange follows Emma worriedly with her eyes. 

Sir Walter, perched on sopha with his cup of tea, wonders if perhaps he has done something wrong or outstayed his welcome.  His relationship with Emma has been so cordial of late that perhaps he has taken it too much for granted or been too familiar.  As painful as it is to contemplate, perhaps a little distance is needed.  Earlier than his usual hour he makes his excuses and bids his hosts goodnight. 

“I’ll come down,” Emma says when he goes to kiss her hand in farewell.  

It surprises him, but the only polite response he can give is to say, “of course."  

She walks beside him silently as the two of them descend the staircase and still says nothing as the butler fetches his coat and hat. Walter can see thoughts flitting across her face, almost on the point of speaking and then silencing herself. The butler, observing them with an impassive face, hands over his coat and makes a dignified retreat. 

"I’m afraid I’ve not been good company this evening,” Emma says at last. “Don’t deny it, Sir Walter, I know it is true."  

Walter silences the denial he had been about to make.  He is growing used to her frankness.  "I thought perhaps I had… said something I should not.  Or stayed too long."  

"No."  Emma looks sad. "It is just how I have been, some days. I feel as though… as though everything might dissolve around me. As though I might find myself trapped in Lost Hope again if I dare to stop moving for a moment. I feel as though I am still trapped, still enchanted. I will be better presently."  

"Emma…” Once again, he finds that all the eloquence of a politician and all the schooling he has received in gentlemanly behavior have left him singularly unprepared for conversing with his wife.  "My dear, I am so sorry.  So sorry that I let you… that I didn’t know. That I let you become lost and couldn’t see…“  He falls silent from the inadequacy of the words.  

"I was not the only one to be enchanted."  

Sir Walter remembers, then, the panic of being blinded by the fairy. The terror of it, and how unpleasantly familiar it had been.  How later, he had wondered how long he had been living with that same blindness and not known.  

"You see,” Emma says quietly, “it is not a feeling it is easy to be rid of."  She puts one hand lightly on his arm. 

"It was only a moment for me, for you it was so much longer."  

"Yes."  

"Emma?” He puts a hand on her shoulder. A question. 

She nods stiffly and steps half a step closer to him. He takes it as permission and wraps his arms around her, not too tightly he hopes. It has been a long time since he did this. She feels so fragile against him, so small and yet he knows how strong she is. Her hair is soft against his cheek. 

He can feel her trembling, like a trapped bird. Then her head tips forward, tentatively coming to rest in the curve of his neck. He finds himself hardly daring to breathe. 

With one thumb, he strokes gently across the soft skin at the back of her neck. 

They stay there a minute or two, silently leaning on one another, and then he feels Emma pulling back. Walter lets her go. She straightens, visibly coming back to her usual poised elegance.  

“Good night, Emma.”  

“You will come again tomorrow?” she asks quickly.  He wonders if he’s imagining the hopefulness.  

“Of course, if it would make you happy.”  

She smiles at him, like sunshine crossing her face.  For the sake of seeing her smile like that, wild horses could not keep him away tomorrow.