As January turns into February, life in the unit returns to normal. William and Jonathan maintain a rather cool relationship, not choosing to spend much time together. The incident in France is never mentioned after the first awkward apology and they don’t fight, don’t even particularly dislike each other, but there’s a reserve that lingers. Other relationships have changed as well. William hasn’t slept in his own bed since Jeremy died. A collective blind eye is turned to his empty bunk and Arthur is growing used to waking up beside him, or coming to bed late after a shift and finding William already curled up, warm beneath the blankets in the borrowed pyjamas he has yet to return.
Grant had had a very serious conversation with Merlin, after his meeting with Arthur, and had told him very firmly that on no account must such a thing happen again. It hasn’t: at least on technical grounds. Do the kisses count? Merlin has frayed Grant’s self-control. Far too often they find flimsy excuses to be alone together so Merlin can press Grant against the wall and kiss him senseless. Every kiss is the last one, never to be repeated and then repeated all too soon.
Merlin is still grounded, less because of the last mission than because they still lack the information they require to break the enchantment completely. He’s put to theoretical research with Segundus, who now looks to be a permanent addition to their number. An improved set of spells for negotiating with forests (and a practice run on home soil that fuels several local legends for years to come) lead to a second mission. Arthur still refuses to send Merlin, but he sends Childermass instead. After much quiet fretting from Segundus, Childermass returns, mission successfully completed. The enchantment over France now wavers, sometimes there and sometimes not, like a flag caught in the wind and billowing. The magicians hypothesise that the fluctuations occur because it is only tethered at two points and now has no defined edges. In some ways it improves matters because they can at least see what is happening for part of the time, but it also has its disadvantages because now that regular intelligence is expected, other unit commanders are frustrated when does not appear. Arthur spends a considerable amount of time on the telephone with them, explaining magical theory until he wants to throw the phone across the room.
Grant calls a meeting and they discuss options but there aren’t many options open to them at this point. Scrying close to the boundary of the anomaly mostly results in blurred visions, frustration and migraines (and Grant has had quite enough of Childermass behaving like a bear with a sore head). Their stock of agents is running low and Sir Walter is reluctant to send more of them without proof that it will do some good, instead of risking lives to hear the same information over and over again.
In the end, it’s Arthur who suggests a reconnaissance flight over the countryside. It’s a distinct change of tune from his previous reluctance to put William into danger, but William’s face lights up at the prospect and while Arthur tries hard to look unmoved, Grant can see the same happiness reflected there. Grant hopes that perhaps some deity will look kindly on him and end the war before that particular mess turns into something that he will have to deal with.
If he’s honest with himself, William will admit that he joined the RAF for the prestige of being a pilot, to be one of the dashing boys in blue. It had the other advantages of not being the army (where Grant was already enlisted, having joined before the war broke out) and not involving water. What he hadn’t expected was to fall in love with flying itself. He never feels freer than when he’s up here, particularly when he flies alone. It’s why he hates the flatness of East Anglia: he’d rather be in the sky than trapped under it.
This isn’t the first time he’s flown a reconnaissance mission over France but it’s the first time he’s done so in daylight. His plane is disguised by one of Merlin’s illusions to look like a German aircraft. With luck it will continue to hold, despite being so far away from the man who cast it, until he has had time to have a proper look at their anomaly. It should then disappear when he’s over the channel so that nobody tries to shoot him out of the sky on the home run. So far the illusion has worked, apart from one sticky moment when ground control in a French airfield tried to radio him. Fortunately, De Lancey’s German passed muster, as did his ‘French with a German accent’. Grant taught him that skill, so William owes him several drinks when he gets back.
The countryside looks rather beautiful from this high up. Distance hides some of the scars of war on the landscape. William has the coordinates for the known edges of the anomaly but even from this bird’s eye view, there’s nothing that seems to point out the corners they were expecting. He circles the space where it’s meant to be. Nothing stands out, no rivers or trees that look obvious. He turns back, to take another look at the first point, following the line of the railway tracks.
He gives himself a shake. The railway tracks: they connect both of their supposed points of interest, before turning off to a depot at one end and curving away across the countryside at the other. Could it really be as simple as that? Not the two points they have been searching for, but the line between them. It’s not a natural landmark by any means, but neither was the bridge to his mind, no matter what Strange might hypothesise about ancient fords and rights of way. Maybe a fairy road used to run here and the French saw only a conveniently straight track before dumping a railway line on top of it.
He double checks for any other landmarks, but there are none that stand out so clearly. Exultant, this being one point to RAF reconnaissance and nil to the magicians, he turns for home.
With William’s new information and several magicians busy with the task of working out how to break an enchantment on a railway line, Grant finds himself relegated to logistics. According to their calculations of the length of the line and the strength of the original spell, SOE do not have enough field ready magicians to place counterspells and destroy the tracks, even with Merlin taken off probation. They will need, Arthur tells him (as though it is as simple as producing a cup of tea), the cooperation of several French magicians and several groups from the local French resistance to assist them. Fortunately, Grant knows exactly who to ask and rumour has it that she has just returned to England.
His quest for help takes him back to the SOE training school where he briefed their agents for the first investigation of the magical anomaly, where he asks for Emma Wintertowne at reception. As though she has a sixth sense, she appears before he has even finished asking.
“Ça va, capitaine?” She comes up to him to kiss his cheeks in the approved French fashion, cigarette in hand. Her posture is all Gallic nonchalance but her eyes are watchful.
“Bien, ça va?”
She shrugs and suggests they take a walk. As an agent she has no permanent office here and he doesn’t want to make his request official until she has agreed so the grounds are the easiest place to talk without being overheard. Emma is due a rest period before being re-deployed so what Grant is asking is a favour, but they have a long history together and he trusts her without question. There’s nobody he’d rather have on his side.
They stroll around the edge of the artificial lake. It’s a beautiful spot and Grant briefly wonders where the owners are living now, with the building seconded to SOE. Emma lights a second cigarette and offers him the packet but he refuses.
“I forgot,” she says, “you quit after the last mission, didn’t you?”
Grant takes his own turn at the non-committal shrug. “Well, you know how it is. You set fire to your bandages once and it doesn’t encourage you to do it again.”
She laughs, breaking out of her persona and turning into the Emma he knows from parachute jumps and wild nights of running through the French countryside together. They made a good team, once upon a time, reckless but efficient.
“Rumours say you have a problem with your ungentlemanly magicians,” she says, “Tell me about it.”
As he does so she turns grave, yet another side to her. Grant is never sure which one is really Emma. Perhaps they all are. Perhaps they are all an act, to cover up whatever she feels about her estranged husband and dangerous work. Grant doesn’t particularly care. It makes her a gifted spy and he knows the most important thing: that he can trust her with his life.
“Magicians,” Emma makes an unladylike noise, “they’re all lies and deceit. Even the ones supposedly on our side. Particularly the ones supposedly on our side.”
“But you know where to find them,” Grant says, “and I wouldn’t ask you if I wasn’t desperate. Merlin thinks this will get us past the current problem and if it does, it will save lives.”
“Take care he doesn’t lose more than he saves in the process.” Emma frowns at him. She has her reasons for disliking magicians: failed missions and close calls have embittered her to the profession as a whole. Grant feels the urge to defend Merlin, to tell her he’s not like the ones who nearly got them both killed, not like any of the other magicians they have encountered either. He bites his tongue.
Emma studies him for a while, then nods as if satisfied with whatever she has read from his mind. “I’ll do it,” she tells him, “on the condition that you let me choose my team. I want the woman I was working with before. She’s good. You should stay for dinner and I’ll introduce you.”
Grant would rather not stay, would rather go home and eat dinner with Merlin, but he owes it to Emma. Of course, Sod’s Law means that the agent Emma has been working with is the same one who flirted with him at that first briefing. She’s very careful not to be overt about it, but there’s still an invitation in her eyes when they talk. She’s an amusing double act with Emma, recounting tales from their latest outing, which makes for a good evening. Then Emma starts on stories of her time with Grant, which makes him groan and hide his face.
He just wishes that his mind, when faced with two attractive and entertaining women, wouldn’t so frequently return to Merlin like a lovesick fool. Anecdotes have a way of becoming things to share with him. Dinner becomes a path to wondering who else is eating with him in the canteen tonight: Merlin has got into the habit of calling for Grant and keeping him company. The ease of the conversation with Emma reminds him of the unexpected ease of talking to Merlin, of their French language practice, of playing as partners in Winespill’s card games, of nights at the pub. None of them are things he can share with Emma and her friend. He fears he probably sounds dull now, stuck behind a desk with all the things that make life worth living hidden behind a veil of secrecy. If so, Emma is kind enough not to say so. She lets Grant sleep on the floor of her room, wrapped in borrowed blankets and in the morning he can leave, reassured by knowing that Emma will be on the ground to coordinate the mission for him.
Sooner than he hoped, the logistics are settled and the date of the mission is known. All that remains is for Grant’s men to fly to France.
Jonathan goes to Grant’s office to collect the borrowed RAF uniform before the mission. He ‘forgot’ to do so earlier but it’s a convenient excuse. When Grant calls for him to come in, he says, all innocence, “I came to collect my uniform.”
Grant isn’t fooled: he frowns and Jonathan can’t resist him when he’s being disapproving. He locks the door and walks over to pin Grant into his chair. Grant makes a noise, half exasperation and half desire, and then lunges up at Jonathan for a kiss.
Bell told him to be careful. She urged restraint, told him not to risk ruining things by seducing his commanding officer. She told him to be careful of breaking Grant’s heart or his own. Jonathan doesn’t want her caution. He wants these illicit kisses, the thrill of having to be quiet and all the wonderful moments when Grant finally gives in and kisses him back. He needs it. Besides, Bell has been too busy to repeat her warnings; too busy to call or write more than the shortest of letters. Jonathan thinks if she knew what it was like, working here, how much the risk of losing someone and being at fault crawls under his skin, she would understand. Grant is safe. He’s always in command, always reliable. After Jeremy, he knew what to say and do to make it bearable. How can Jonathan not fall for him, just a little?
Grant has never allowed it to go further than kissing after that first time, even though the definition of kisses is stretched to the point of Jonathan losing his jacket and two buttons off his shirt.
“Stop! God, Merlin, stop!” Grant pushes his hands between them and Jonathan pulls back. Grant tells him to leave, but trails his hand over the side of Jonathan’s face and Jonathan turns to follow the movement, pushing his head against it to kiss the palm until Grant pulls his hand away, telling him, “you’ll be late.”
One last kiss turns into two and Merlin is very nearly late after all, scrambling into his borrowed uniform practically on his way to the plane and leaving his own jacket behind.
Grant finds himself sitting in his office and watching the clock. He saw the men onto the plane along with the supplies then came back here, already calculating the time. This much time for the flight, this much time to disembark. The mission has been planned with precision: a plane to drop them, a set time to plant the explosives and another plane to fly out and collect them. Until the barrier falls they are working blind. Grant can only hope that they will stick to the plan. The clock ticks slowly.
On the journey to France, time is hurtling forwards at an impossible rate. Childermass insists on going over the plan one last time and then there is the business of dividing up the explosives and detonators. Nobody says anything, but Jonathan does have the wit to see that it’s in case someone dies before they get there, so they don’t lose all the equipment at the same time. It’s not a comforting thought.
He has never worked with French magicians before but he has Childermass’ word that they can be trusted. Childermass himself will carry part of the spell, working at the other end of their section of the line. Because he is responsible for only part of the magic, Jonathan has also been given his share of the explosives to place. Ned gave him a lesson in how to use them safely but however many times he has been told that they are safe until attached to a detonator, they are an uncomfortable weight in his pack. He keeps it to himself while the others talk. It’s the usual mocking banter and Jonathan wonders how long it will take him to feel as though he can face joining in. This is, after all, only his third mission. Childermass must have been on ten times as many.
Grant pours himself a drink. If the plan is still going according to timetable, they will be approaching the drop zone now. He can still remember the rush of it, plummeting into the night sky, hoping to get to the ground without someone shooting at you. It’s a rush: one he misses now he’s tied to a desk. With very little imagination he can still feel the tug of parachute straps against his chest. He worries about Merlin, so inexperienced at this. What if he doesn’t pull the chute in time? Or panics? He squashes the feeling down. To worry this much is a weakness, and not one he can afford. The burn of whiskey helps. The bottle is getting close to empty now despite his ‘emergencies only’ rationing and who knows when he will get another. He’ll have to deal with the problem another way.
Strange lands with a thump and a roll and begins the familiar task of freeing himself from his parachute. The first time he landed in France, Jeremy helped him. Now he must do it alone.
“Quickly everyone, we have a timetable!” Childermass is in command tonight. He gathers them together and leads them at a brisk trot to meet their contact at the tracks. Jonathan can barely see anyone in the darkness but he can hear them, or perhaps sense them, running around along the line. The men scatter along the length of it and drop low, flattening themselves to the bank.
The arrival of the train is a shock of noise and light, roaring its way to the depot. It does at least confirm that they are on schedule. They have forty-five minutes to manage the whole operation before another train tries to pass. Jonathan reaches for the magic to lift the enchantment on the rails. This time he has forsaken his notes: every piece of war magic he does feels easier.
Grant has taken up pacing the floor. Arthur came to find him earlier, as the shifts changed, and asked Grant if he wanted to eat before Arthur went off shift. He didn’t. He envies Arthur his calm. William flew the plane out to France this evening. He will be back soon, for a night’s sleep in Arthur’s bed. Grant envies him the luxury of it.
They are between trains now. If the spells have been placed as they should have been, the explosives should be going down. Henri is their demolitions expert tonight and will be handling the detonation. If the spells work, if breaking the line works, if, if, if…
Grant has Segundus on watch over a silver dish in the main office. If the enchantment breaks as it should, he will inform Grant immediately.
Grant looks at the clock once more. Perhaps it would be better to wait out there with the others, or perhaps it would be better for the others not to see him in such a state? He could call Segundus in here.
He walks to the door but pauses: Strange’s jacket is still lying on the floor; incriminating evidence of what they were doing earlier. Grant picks it up. He cannot hide it, but he can at least make it look less obviously out of place.
Jonathan, spells finished, is crawling along the tracks in the dark with the explosives in his hands. They are a new kind apparently, that can be bent like putty around the rails. He has one more to go, just one more, but time is short. He fumbles, dropping the detonator he was attaching.
“Here, I’ve got it.” The woman next to him is in shadow; he has barely spared her a glance but that voice…
She holds out the detonator and everything stops.
In England, Grant folds Merlin’s jacket to place it over the back of a chair and a square of paper falls from the pocket.
As soon as he picks it up he knows what he has done, how badly he has miscalculated. The woman in the photograph, one he recognises by code name only, the agent he almost recruited, the agent who flirts at briefings, his agent… is Arabella Strange.
He calls it out instinctively, even though he shouldn’t. It’s out of his mouth before his mind has time to stop it. She stares at him in shock.
There isn’t a moment to process it. Into the silence of their mutual surprise comes a cacophony of noise: shouting from all directions.
English voices. “Move back! Everybody move back! Get off the line!”
Then, from the shadows, “Arrêtez!”
French voices shout: commands to stop, to freeze, to drop weapons. The scene is floodlit from the trees, blinding them as they try to run. Jonathan and Bell run in the opposite directions in the panic. Soldiers with guns raised surround them in the bright, white light. It’s too late though, too late to warn Henri further down the track with his detonators and his timetable. The track explodes, blazing up between them and sending Jonathan flying backwards to land, winded, on the bank with his eyebrows singed and his up flung hands scorched. Mud covers him, thrown up by the blast. In the confusion of smoke, he sees men struggling up and shouting, uniforms mud spattered and dirty. People flee in all directions. He can see Bell, hauling herself up out of the dirt with Emilie helping her.
“Bell!” he shouts, “Bell, this way!”
He can see the danger before she sees it herself: the man behind her reaching out. She shouts, screams, but Jonathan can’t hear her properly over the ringing in his ears. The men drag her away and there’s nothing he can do. He tries to get up, to follow, but someone behind him drags him backwards, forcing him further away.
Bell still struggles, kicking out. Jonathan watches through blurred eyes as one of the men hits her, hard against the side of her head. She goes still. As he’s dragged away, Jonathan can’t even be sure if she’s still alive.