From the moment an agent is taken captive, the clock begins to tick. Nobody knows how long it will take until they break under interrogation, or when their interrogators will decide, having no further use for the prisoner, to kill them. When an urgent dispatch from Station X arrives, telling them that a request has been sent to Germany to arrange transfer of two ‘valuable assets’ thought to be in possession of information pertaining to British activity on French soil, Grant knows that the clock is running out. There is a window of opportunity, however brief and if he is going to act it must be now.
Grant takes the German uniform out of the cupboard where it has been kept since his return from France the last time. The clothes are heavy on the hanger. A dead man’s uniform. The enemy’s uniform. It feels wrong to wear it but it is, regrettably, necessary.
William, who promised Grant that he’d be there to fly them out no matter how stupid a plan he thought it was, cuts his hair for him. It has been getting longer recently, growing out of the regulation army cut because nobody in SOE really cares. Freshly cut, cropped close at the sides and slicked down on top, it changes his face so he looks like a stranger in the mirror. Grant dresses slowly, carefully, making sure that no detail is out of place, nothing that might give him away. When he goes out to the pre-mission briefing the others look differently at him: an instinctive flinch away from the uniform and the man within it.
On the flight into Germany, Grant says nothing even though there are only two of them on this mission. Childermass offered to come with them but Grant refused: it’s a high-risk mission. Better that they arrive and leave with minimal personnel to account for. They are flying in at night and meeting allies from the resistance on the ground in the morning.
He sits at the far end of the plane, away from Merlin. It’s no good dressing the part of an enemy officer if he can’t act the part and he needs to forget himself for the time being. To pack the real Grant away until needed. He presses his hands over his face to shut out the world. When the pilot gives the word, he stands up like a different man. Colder, sterner: the man he might have been if he’d be born in a different country, had to join a different army.
If they are to replace of the German officer and his men arriving to collect the prisoners, they must first remove the original men and relieve them of their documents.
Jonathan has seen men killed before, saw Jeremy die in front of him, but he’s never watched it done with such cold efficiency. Nor has he seen it done by his own side: it has always been the Germans or the French and he has been able to call them the enemy for it. Now he has to stand by the side of the road, keeping lookout and watching as his allies kill the German soldiers in cold blood. Watching Grant is the worst. Jonathan tells him he shouldn’t feel such horror, that he always knew Grant was a soldier. But still, it shocks him to see the man be so merciless.
The grim work must be done quickly, cleanly, leaving no mess in the vehicle and minimising the time spent exposed on the road. If they are discovered too soon, there will be no chance of a rescue. They patch together uniforms for Jonathan and the two Frenchmen coming with them. Only Grant has a uniform that looks as though it were made for him, but as he will be the focus of the deception the deficiencies in the rest of their disguises will hopefully be overlooked.
Grant is calm as they drive through the security gates. The man posing as his driver chats to the guards as they check through the paperwork. Jonathan is under orders not to say anything: neither his French nor his German are good enough to sound convincing.
Grant greets the man in charge with an exchange of salutes and navigates the examination of the paperwork with ease. He calls Jonathan, the most convincingly dressed of their group, to follow him when it is time to collect the prisoners. Going down to the cells makes Jonathan’s skin crawl. When the door swings open and he sees Arabella he has to fight with himself not to run forward. Emma, gifted agent that she is, leaps up in front of Bell, shouting that she won’t go with them. She swears at Grant in French and spits at him. In the brief tussle to restrain her, nobody watches Bell, and by the time Emma is in handcuffs, she has schooled her face into such complete blankness Jonathan could believe that she has no idea who he is at all.
It’s remarkably easy to push the two women in front of him, down the corridor, up the steps and out towards the prison vehicle. Almost too easy, perhaps so it comes as no surprise to him when it suddenly goes wrong.
“Sir!” Calls one of the soldiers, “Leutnant Werner asked if you could spare him a moment.”
Grant calmly turns to face the man. “Leutnant Werner?”
“Yes sir, he said you trained together.”
“Certainly, a pleasure to see him again. I shall just get the prisoners secured.” He smiles, like a man genuinely pleased to see an old friend and turns to Merlin.
“Get those women inside,” he barks for the ears of the men around them. Then he moves closer, casually and says in a quiet voice, “Tell our driver. On my word, get out of here, full speed. You must kill the sentries on the gate. If I’m not in the vehicle, kill me too.” Jonathan opens his mouth to protest but Grant continues in the same quiet voice, “no, no arguments. Follow orders and don’t give our friends here a reason to be suspicious.” He smiles and makes a show of checking the documents Merlin is holding. When Jonathan goes back to sit with the driver and tell him the plan, Grant makes idle conversation with the man who came to fetch them. He feels very calm.
A door opens in the barracks. A man calls out the name of his assumed identity. Grant turns, as though to greet him.
“Now!” he calls, in English. He hits out at the man he was talking to, takes his gun. He’s been rehearsing it while they talked. No mistakes. Target down and take the weapon. Run.
Their vehicle is moving already, Grant lunges for it, missing. The first enemy guns are turning on them now, surprise turning to shouted orders, bullets rattling off the side of the van. He thinks he won’t make it, isn’t fast enough, but then Emma is there, grabbing at his arms and hauling him into the back. Jonathan must have freed them from the handcuffs. Good man. The sentries are dead, not shot as he expected but killed by magic, caught in grotesque twists of mud. Looking at them, he’s glad he doesn’t have to experience the same death at Merlin’s hands. It’s a rough ride, bouncing down the road at full speed but he keeps firing, picking off pursuers. They will be hunted down eventually.
Grant shouts to the driver, but he already knows what to do, cutting across country and trying to lose their tail. It would be so much easier at night, but this is broad daylight and there’s nowhere to hide. They head for the cover of some trees so they can ditch the vehicle and flee on foot. They are much too noticeable in a stolen van. The Frenchmen go one way, heading for home, while Grant leads the others to their rendezvous point at a run. It’s a breathless dash, all of them tired but running on adrenaline.
When they get to the farmhouse, Remy is out there, waiting for them with his gun raised. Grant calls to him, not to shoot despite the German uniforms. Remy lowers the weapon slowly but keeps it to hand. He’s an old man, gruff and weather-beaten, but a damn good shot and a good man to have on your side in a crisis.
He herds them all into the farmhouse, no time for explanations, and lets them drop down into the shelter built from an old cellar and hidden from view. The trapdoor bangs shut above them. All they can do is wait.
It’s pitch black in the cellar where they hide: nothing like the times that Jonathan spent waiting in hiding with Jeremy. Then they had had a small amount of light and been able to play cards, aware of the need for quiet but not under a particular threat. Now, in the suffocating darkness, they are almost afraid to breathe. It’s more of a coal store than a cellar, small and cramped with barely room to stretch. They are trapped here. If they are discovered, there’s nowhere to run.
At least he isn’t there alone in the darkness. Arabella is pressed close against him, his arm around her. He can’t see her face but he can at least hold her hand and stroke her hair. Any way he can think of to convey how glad he is to be with her again. On his other side, his knee rests against Grant’s.
There’s no way to tell what time of day it is down here, only when they grow thirsty and hungry and cramped from sitting in such a small space. Above them, they can hear Remy’s family moving around but every creak of the floorboards makes Jonathan worry. Grant passes him a flask with water in it by touch, hands fumbling in the dark. At least they have that much.
There’s a bang above them, like a door being kicked open. Shouting. Heavy footsteps. The water slops cold against Jonathan’s shirt as he jumps.
Jonathan feels Grant flinch next to him, muscles tight as though waiting to spring into action. Arabella is pressed even harder against Jonathan and he can feel her trembling, the wetness of his shirt where she must be crying silently.
There is more angry shouting above them, and a woman’s voice, pleading. Crashes like furniture might be being over turned and the thunder of booted feet. Grant finds Jonathan’s hand with his own and squeezes it, tight. He doesn’t let go.
For an unknown time, Jonathan sits and feels his heart thumping with the fear of it, the expectation of discovery. Surely, in the end they will find them, tear open the trapdoor…
It never comes. The noise of the search ends, the voices leave, and all is silence.
They wait. After a while, Arabella lifts her face from where it is pressed against Jonathan’s shoulder. Grant squeezes his hand again and lets go. Jonathan dares to breathe more freely.
They wait until the small hours of the morning, when Remy returns, knocking to let them know it’s him before he opens the trap door and they stumble out, stiff and aching. He takes them out through the dark fields to where William’s plane is due to land. It’s near to dawn, in the hope that the army will not be expecting a rescue so close to daylight. Low at first, then louder, they hear the engines coming. Then the plane lands and there is William, grinning at them from the cockpit, elated by flying. Jonathan could hug him (despite their previous differences) for being here now that it matters and giving them their route home. Arabella is free and it’s only one short flight until they are safe.
It happens as they fly over the French coast and it happens so fast.
It’s not the first time that Grant has been in a plane that’s being shot at, so he recognises the sound of it as soon as it begins: the impact of bullets on the metal of the plane, sparks and flashes.
Then there’s a scream. He knows immediately that it’s William.
Merlin had been standing in the corridor between the cockpit and the rest of the crew, making amends for his argument and talking nonsense with William over the radio. He is already lunging towards the pilot’s seat. Grant unfastens his belt and stands up, intending to offer help. At the same time, a second rattle of gunfire strikes the plane. There’s a whine and a bang from one engine. Shrapnel clatters through the front part of the plane. Merlin ducks instinctively, going to the floor and wedging himself. It’s the only thing that saves him from becoming another casualty.
Nobody ever knows exactly what happens in the cockpit. Their best guess is that this second burst of enemy fire is when William receives his second wound, shrapnel from the cockpit cutting him across the neck and shoulder. Nobody can be sure if it was him that turned the plane, reaching out to stem the blood or just caught by debris, or if the controls were damaged by the incoming fire. Either way the plane turns sideways and starts to fall.
Grant is thrown across the cabin, landing on one outstretched arm. He can’t hear anything, but he feels the crack of bone. One of the women screams, maybe Emma, she always did hate planes. Grant shouts at Jonathan, to use magic and hold the plane in the air, hoping he can do it in time.
Jonathan has never had to work so quickly, or while plummeting towards the ground. He grabs for the magic, crude and panicked, not the stately decorum of proper English magic. All he wants is to live.
The wind comes and it holds, catching them and pulling them up. He hopes they are still heading for England. Last time he thought landing and taking off again was difficult with this spell but now he must keep going until they reach home. To let go of the magic now would be to drop down, into the cold sea of the channel. It fights him constantly: he can't move, can't think of anything else.
Emma and Bell have to drag De Lancey over him, out of the cockpit door. Grant, with his broken arm, can’t lift him.
The magic is the first thing in Jonathan’s mind all the way home. Everything else is just... moments, seared into his mind for review in his worst nightmares.
Emma on the radio asking for permission to land in the closest possible airfield and for an ambulance to be waiting for them. Bell and Grant with bloodied hands, attempting first aid. Blood on Bell's cheek. The way Grant keeps talking, all the way home.
De Lancey's eyes are wild and young and scared. He tries to be quiet at first, then can't. There's no engine noise to drown it out. Then, flying in over the English coast, he stops.
That silence is the worst of all.
They crash land on an American airbase. No finesse: they just drop and bounce to a standstill. Jonathan is too tired to manage a controlled landing. Ground crew and medics swarm over them, the ambulance leaves at speed and they are left, just the four of them. They know that William is still alive, but no more than that. The man in charge of the airfield, whose name Merlin never discovers, tells them that Wellesley has been contacted, gives them the name of the hospital and promises a car to take them there shortly. His boys are in Germany, giving the Germans something to think about. The casual violence of it makes Merlin feel sick.
Their plane is a write off. She’ll never fly again. Without Merlin she'd have dropped, gone down in pieces. The four of them watch in silence as the ground crew surround her, worried about fires and discussing how best to tow her off the runway before it’s needed when the bomber crews come home.
It’s Bell who speaks first. “Capitaine? Are you alright? Jonathan, we should find somewhere to sit.”
Jonathan turns away from the wreckage to look at Grant. He’s still wearing most of the German uniform, although he gave the jacket to Emma and is shivering in his shirtsleeves. His face is a sickly colour under the bloodstains and his expression is blank.
“It’s the shock,” Emma tells them, “I don’t feel wonderful myself.” Taking in her appearance and Bell’s, Jonathan wonders if he is looking as battered and dishevelled as the rest of them. It seems likely.
Bell takes Grant’s arm, the one that isn’t tied up in a temporary sling, and guides him indoors. She does it so gently that Jonathan yearns to wrap both of them in his arms and protect them, however inappropriate that would be. He finds them space in the deserted officers’ mess and, under Bell’s instructions, goes to borrow a first aid kit.
In some distant part of Grant’s mind, he knows he’s in shock. It’s not the first time it’s happened and he knew when he fell on the plane that the break would catch up with him eventually. He watches rather distantly as Arabella Strange fusses over him, asking questions first in French and then, remembering herself, in English. He answers as best he can over the ringing in his ears and the underwater feeling that keeps him separate from the rest of the world.
He should be doing something. Anything. Not just sitting here.
Someone must have unearthed a first aid kit from somewhere because Arabella is busy proving that she remembers her training. It all looks rather unreal: the unfamiliar room, Emma curled up in a chair with her bandaged hand cradled on her lap, Jonathan shifting from foot to foot as if he wants to help but doesn’t know how.
Arabella starts talking at him about tea, presumably of the hot and sweet variety, but reality is starting to intrude on the daze Grant is in and he remembers that there is one duty that he must still do.
“I need to make a phone call.” He tries to stand up and Bell pushes him back down again.
“You don’t need to do anything. Not until after you’ve been to the hospital.”
“They’ve already contacted Arthur,” Jonathan tells him. “He can do the rest.”
Arthur really can’t, he thinks. Not this. He will have to be the one to do this.
“No, you don’t understand, I have to call Laura. It’s better she hears it from someone she knows. Certainly not Arthur.”
“Laura? Is that his mother? Could I call for you?” Bell is all concern, kneeling in front of him. She’s frowning at him as though he doesn’t make sense and Grant remembers that, of course, they don’t know. Neither of them have any reason to know, but like all secrets it will have to be told eventually. Maybe it won’t even matter soon, if William… if William.,,
“No, I’m the one who has to call. Laura is his wife.”
Grant gently but firmly extracts himself from Arabella’s hands and goes to find a telephone. They watch him go, but nobody says a word.