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The Art of Ungentlemanly Warfare

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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.”