When Grant returns he finds the room empty of everyone except Jonathan. After the conversation he’s just had he’s glad of the solitude and, if he’s honest with himself, a respite from watching Jonathan and Arabella together. They look so at ease with one another: a picture of the perfectly happily married couple. However much he expected it, told himself he was prepared for it, it still stings. He drops into a chair and winces. Being thrown around on the plane has left him with more than his fair share of bruises, even without the broken arm and the cut under his ear that threatens to bleed again whenever he moves his jaw.
“Did you speak to her?” Jonathan asks. Grant nods in reply but doesn’t offer any more. No doubt Jonathan will get to his questions soon enough without encouragement. Human curiosity is a powerful thing.
“I…” Jonathan closes his mouth, thinks and begins again. “I didn’t know that William had a wife.
“I don’t suppose there was any reason for you to know.” It is true enough. Not everyone is as eager as Jonathan to talk about their wives.
“Have they been married long?” Merlin looks as though he is expecting William to have acquired a wife in the last two days they have been in France.
“Since not long after the start of the war.”
“Forgive me for asking this but… does Arthur know?”
“Of course he knows. He’s seen William’s file.”
“Oh.” Jonathan lapses into silence but Grant can see the thoughts flickering over his face.
“Merlin,” Grant sighs, “William was married, then he and Arthur had an affair. Is that really so unusual, particularly during a war? Haven’t you done the same yourself?”
Jonathan shakes his head, runs hands through his already disordered hair and then frowns into middle distance for a while.
“You tried to tell me once, didn’t you?” he says at last. “When I first saw them together. You said I wasn’t the only man who was married, or something like it. Is that… is William the reason you have your rules? About married men?”
“Merlin, I make my rules for my own reasons. I’m not obliged to share my reasons with you. I do not ask anyone else to abide by them.”
“That isn’t what I meant.” Jonathan speaks more tentatively than Grant expected. “I’m not… I’m not trying to pass judgement on your rules or your reasons: I just wanted to understand. You were together once, weren’t you? Did you love him? Are you still in love with him?”
Grant looks up in surprise, “With William? No. No, that’s long over. Besides, it wasn’t a case of being in love; we were friends, more than friends, but never in love. But that… side of our friendship ended when he became engaged. It wasn’t fair to Laura to come between them. Or fair to me.”
“You know I never meant it to be like that with me, or with Arabella. You weren’t between us, a… a secret or… I’m sorry if I gave you the impression that I was asking you to…” Jonathan’s protest ends in awkward silence, apparently not sure of what he’s actually protesting against. Of all the times Grant could have chosen to have this conversation, he would take almost any of them over this. What can he say that would satisfy Jonathan’s curiosity? The truth is painful to dig up again, especially now. He has long accepted that he and William make better friends than lovers, but underneath it still lingers the hurt of knowing that William was going to be married, of hearing him share the news as though it did not matter and knowing that to him, Grant was never enough. Better, surely, to be entirely loved as a friend than half loved as something more?
“Merlin, what happened with William is between him and me. What happened between you and I happened, I suppose, because were looking for someone to take the place of your wife when you were lonely without her. Now you have her safely returned to you. You need no substitute and I have other things to worry about: let us draw a line and move on.”
Merlin, unusually for him, says nothing: Grant wonders if he sounded more severe than he meant to. Arabella’s tap at the door, telling them that the car is ready, is something of a relief.
When they arrive at the hospital, there’s no news for them. The matron they speak to tells them only that William is still alive, but in a critical condition. She herds Emma off in one direction to have her hand dressed properly and directs Grant in the opposite direction to have his arm examined.
Jonathan can hardly bear to leave Arabella so soon, but she kisses his cheek and tells him to go. The crisis isn’t over yet and other, happier things must wait.
He stays with Grant while they prod and poke at him and send him for an X-ray.
Grant suffers through it all without painkillers, saying he needs to keep a clear head no matter how much the doctors frown at him. He’s had worse. He’s been on the phone to the unit half a dozen times, trying to manage the crisis at a distance. Childermass has had to take command with both unit commanders absent. He’s perfectly capable of doing it, but he lacks the rank to deal with the higher ups unless Grant speaks to them first.
The doctors tell Grant to come back tomorrow for a plaster cast once the swelling has reduced, then send him off to the bathroom to get clean. Arthur, it seems, has arrived with changes of clothes. Grant can only be grateful because the clothes they have been wearing are earning them some less than friendly stares.
It’s a relief to finally get out of the German uniform. If it didn’t have the potential to be useful in the future he’d have it burnt. Undressing and washing is difficult to manage with one arm strapped up but he’s too tired to be embarrassed at asking Jonathan to help him. Also too tired to have any awkward reactions to being stripped of his clothes, or the feeling of Jonathan’s hands washing his hair and sliding soap down his back. The relief of rinsing off the persona he’s been carrying makes him more tired than ever. The day, however, is still not done and William’s life still hangs in the balance. There is also Arthur to be dealt with.
They find him standing in the corridor and looking through a window onto the ward. He looks graver than Grant has ever seen him before and older, bowed down under a heavy weight.
“Have they not let him in?” Jonathan asks in an undertone.
Grant shrugs and nods in Arthur’s direction. They join him at the window. Through it they can see a bed. William is lying there but he looks nothing like himself, white faced and still unconscious. By his side is a young woman.
“Is that… her?” Jonathan asks quietly.
“Laura? Yes.” Grant turns to Arthur and says, more loudly, “Is there any news? Have you seen him?”
Arthur shakes his head. The three of them stand in silence for a moment.
“I should go,” Arthur says at last. “There’s nothing to be done here.” He turns away and Grant puts an arm around his shoulder. There’s nothing to say. The claims of a wife outweigh those of an illicit lover and Arthur can do no more without intruding.
“Excuse me?” The voice behind them is a little hesitant. The men turn to see Laura De Lancey standing behind them in the corridor. She smiles at Grant but it’s a smile that speaks more of bravery than happiness. “Colley, I knew you’d be here.”
She holds out her hand and Grant takes it with his left hand, the one not held in a sling. It’s somewhere between an awkward handshake and a gesture of comfort. “I’m sorry to see you again under these circumstances,” he says.
She nods and turns to the other two. “Excuse me for asking, but, is one of you Mr Wellesley?”
Arthur appears to have been struck dumb: he has faced down armies but this small, blonde woman in a green dress has him defeated. Grant performs introductions in his stead.
“I’m glad to meet you,” Laura says. Arthur gives an abrupt nod in return. “My husband,” her voice wavers, “my husband wrote to me about you. Rather a lot actually. I think, given the circumstances, perhaps you should come and see him.”
“Thank you.” Arthur’s voice is rough. Laura smiles at him. She looks as though she might cry.
Jonathan watches Arthur open the door for William’s wife and take a seat at the bedside. Grant, beside him, is silent.
“Do you want to go in?” Jonathan asks.
“No.” Grant shakes his head. “There’s enough people already. I can’t.” He stands at the window a while longer. Eventually the matron, who saw to them when they arrived, bears down on them, dosing Grant with painkillers despite his protests and herding them inexorably off the ward. In the entrance lobby they find Bell in a borrowed nurse’s uniform dress.
“Sir Walter was here,” she tells them, “he took Emma home. He left a car and a driver for us.”
“Shall we go then? Grant?”
Grant says nothing, only follows them to the car in silence and sits in the front seat beside the driver. It’s a reasonably long drive back to their own airfield but the silence is oppressive. Jonathan and Bell don’t feel able to talk; they just sit side-by-side, holding hands as tightly as they can. Jonathan wants to take her in his arms and hold her safe. He’d imagined how it would be to have her back, the reunion they might have, but the joy of her return is numbed by circumstances. He still feels separate from her, separate from everything.
When they get back, Grant speaks for the first time to thank the driver, then goes to his office without another word and shuts the door firmly behind him.
“Jonathan!” Arabella turns her gaze from the locked door to Jonathan, looking unexpectedly rather cross.
“I told you not to break his heart!”
“Bell, I’m sure that he has many things to worry about that have nothing to do with me. His best friend was shot in front of him!”
“Oh Jonathan, you fool! Don’t you realise? This is why I can never leave you alone. You always make such a mess of things.” Her face crumples on the last words and her eyes fill with tears.
“Darling Bell, I’m never letting you out of my sight again.” They cling to one another, Jonathan tucking Bell under his chin. “We’ll go home, we’ll go back to Shropshire, just the two of us. I don’t care. I just want you safe.”
It’s a fantasy. They both know it, but just for a moment it’s necessary to indulge in it.
“You have to do something about Grant, Jonathan.” Bell looks up at him. She always does have such faith in his capacity to do the right thing in the end.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Nor do I, but for tonight, I don’t think he should be alone.”
It’s not the first time Arthur has been here.
Last time, with Kitty, he was the one closest to the bed, holding her hand. He’d known before he saw her that it was only a matter of time (and how clearly now he can remember the face of the doctor who told him, the shirt he was wearing, his gentleness in asking about sending for the boys). He’d been in Laura’s seat then. Now he is more of a spectator, at the end of the bed. Close enough to touch but not permitted to do so.
One of William’s feet is visible. Arthur would like to cover it, keep it warm, but he doesn’t dare to disturb the blankets and the bandages and whatever else the sheets might cover. Not so long ago those feet, freezing cold, had been warming themselves in Arthur’s bed while Arthur, wincing, had called William a cheeky little sod. Dangerous territory, these thoughts, with William’s wife sitting three feet away: a reminder of the barrier that has always been there whether they acknowledged it or not. It’s hardly the first affair Arthur has had, but he’s never had to do this before, never had to meet the third party in the arrangement. Of course William has to be different. William is always different. Waltzing into his life as a casual fuck, a bit of fun, and then, without looking, turning into someone Arthur cares about. Someone he loves.
The waiting is hard. The uncertainty is a constant tension in the back of his neck. Every slight pause in the regular rise and fall of William’s chest has him on edge. He studies William’s face until he’s sure he’s going to be able to close his eyes any time in the next twenty years and still see it.
He looks around the ward instead. There isn’t much to see in the clinical tidiness: equipment he doesn’t want to think about, a notice telling him he is contravening regulation visiting hours. He doesn’t want to think about that either, what it means when a hospital stops enforcing the rules.
The chair he’s sitting on wasn’t made for comfort. Maybe it’s to help visitors stay awake. He shifts and Laura looks at him.
“They are awfully uncomfortable,” she says with half a smile.
They lapse back into awkward silence. When he’d first sat down she’d told him what the doctor had said. William had already been through surgery before they got there, just enough to keep him alive. They are worried about the wound to his neck and the blood loss, want to see if he will stabilise further before they carry out a second operation. And, if he survives that, ‘we’ll see where to go from there’. Arthur has seen enough men injured to have a reasonable idea of the odds.
The only real distraction is in watching Laura. He’d never tried to imagine her before, didn’t know what to expect. She’s small, pretty enough but not beautiful. Kitty would probably have called her ‘sweet faced’. One of the good girls: not someone Arthur would have flirted with, not someone who knows the rules of the games he plays. He feels a stab of guilt. He should have talked to William, long ago, when he first saw that things were getting more serious and harder to escape from. He certainly shouldn’t have taken Laura up on her offer to come in here.
He’s torn, knowing he should go but not being able to leave.
Grant needs a drink. The bottle in his desk is nearly empty but there must be another bottle somewhere. He goes hunting in the desk drawers, finds a glass. The lid of the bottle won’t cooperate with only his left hand to open it. His hand shakes and whiskey slops onto the desk when he tries to pour it. He swallows a mouthful, appreciates the burn.
William swims before his eyes, pale as a corpse in a hospital bed. It feels so selfish to think it, but if he dies, Grant will be so alone.
His eyes are stinging.
There’s someone at his door, a voice. They can fuck off. He has better things to do. He refills the glass a little higher this time.
“You can’t do that Bell!”
“What would you rather do, break the door down?”
It doesn’t make sense until his office door swings open. They really should stop teaching the recruits to pick locks.
“Captain Grant?” It’s Arabella, perching on his desk. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, on top of the pills.” She takes the empty glass from his hand. He’s too tired to fight her for it, too tired to fight her for anything.
“Grant?” Jonathan’s hand is heavy on his shoulder. They surround him, one on either side, and the world is starting to blur at the edges.
“I think he should be in bed.” How can Arabella sound so concerned about him? He’s supposed to be in charge, looking after everyone else.
“He’s been awake since yesterday, and I’m not sure he slept before then. Come on, up you get.” Jonathan’s arm is warm around him.
Getting to his room is a blur. He thinks maybe Arabella picks the lock of that door too, and then there are just hazy voices and distant hands, plucking away his shoes and belt, undoing buttons. He thinks that maybe Jonathan bends down and kisses him, on the forehead. But his wife is there, so maybe it’s just a dream.
William groans. It’s the first sound he’s made since Arthur arrived but now he’d rather not have heard it. There’s no recognition in it, just pain. His arm lifts, reaching for the bandages on his neck and Laura is up in a moment, catching his hand before he can do any damage. He mumbles at her, not quite words.
“Don’t, William, don’t to that.” Laura is bending over him, stroking his hair and holding his hand tight, “Stay still, it’s alright. I’m here. Mr Wellesley? Can you fetch the nurse? Come on William, it’s alright.”
Arthur stumbles to his feet, half numb from sitting too long. He finds the matron outside. It only takes a moment to explain but when he’s done he finds he can’t go back in, can’t go back to William in pain and his caring wife. He walks blindly outside.
It’s cold when he gets there, the evening already drawing in. He breathes in cool air, watches his breath steam. Lights a cigarette. Wonders how much more this is going to hurt, how much more he can stand. It was hard enough with Kitty, hard enough that he said he’d never allow himself to be in the same situation. To do it again, so soon… He shivers, and it’s not just the evening chill.
“Mr Wellesley?” Laura is standing behind him, wearing her coat and carrying his jacket folded over her arm. “Are you alright?”
“Is William?” It’s his first thought, he can’t stop himself asking.
“He’s fine. It’s just the sedatives wearing off. They asked me to give them a while to get him settled.”
“Good, I’m glad.” He stubs out the cigarette so he doesn’t have to meet her eyes.
“Look, Mr Wellesley, I… honestly, I think we ought to have a talk, don’t you? The matron said there was a café where the nurses go to get tea. I could certainly do with a cup.” She holds out his jacket and he takes it. He can’t leave now.
The café is quiet at this time, only a couple of men in the far corner and the girl behind the counter. Arthur fetches two cups of tea and takes them to the table.
“Thank you, Mr Wellesley,” Laura says, taking her cup.
“Then it’s Laura.” She offers a hand to shake. “If you’ll let me speak frankly, you aren’t how I imagined you.”
“Oh.” Arthur has never found it difficult to talk to women. Kitty used to frown at him sometimes, for being too charming and leading them astray. Now, however, he finds himself wordless.
“Did you wonder, about me?”
“I… I don’t…”
“I knew what was going on, you know. William told me. He’s never very good about talking. I suppose you know that by now. He’d rather laugh, pretend it’s all a joke, but he talks to me.”
“He never said much. We weren’t really…” Arthur tries to think of what they weren’t, of some excuse for William, for both of them. We weren’t lovers. We were only having an affair. It’s not true, hasn’t been true for a while.
“We grew up together. I know William well: you don’t have to make excuses for him. He said once that there wasn’t… love, for men like him. That it didn’t work that way but…” she sighs, softly, “I suppose I knew from his letters what he thought about you. I worried you didn’t care, were just the sort of man to have affairs and move on.”
She blushes. Not a girl who’s comfortable with this kind of talk, even in hushed tones in a deserted café. Arthur feels that twinge of guilt again, for being exactly the sort of man who has affairs and moves on. Not that he thinks he was wrong, but he shouldn’t have become mixed up in a relationship like this. His own rule has always been that an affair is fair game so long as nobody gets too invested in it, but his rules aren’t Laura’s rules and his own are already broken.
“You do care though, don’t you?” Laura looks earnestly at him, “You do love him?” She’s so young, maybe even a little younger than William. Too damn young and too damn trusting. The easy lie, the denial, that would let them both walk away from this, dies on his lips unsaid.
She nods at him, as though he has spoken after all. “I thought so. I could see it in your face when you saw him. But I love him too. I always have.”
“I can see that.” How much easier it would be if it weren’t true. “You said you knew each other, growing up?”
“Yes, our fathers were friends. We used to see each other in the school holidays, sometimes with Colley too. I think our families hoped we would make a match of it eventually. It made them so happy when he proposed and with the war… I wanted to get away, do something useful. My father wanted me to stay cooped up at home and look after my mother, but I wanted to join up. William said he wouldn’t stop me. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I’m in the Land Army now.” There is a hint of pride in her voice, for all that farming isn’t the most glamorous of wartime occupations.
“But you said, he told you about…” Arthur can’t find the words. The phrases he usually hears in SOE or the forces are crude or cruel, not suitable for young women discussing their husbands in a public space.
“Before the wedding. He said he had to tell me, that he was… different. That he didn’t think he could… love me the way that a husband… oh this is too difficult!” She pushes her cup away, frustrated.
“But he married you anyway?” It hurts to think it, given the danger William is in, but Arthur feels like he could have given him a shake, for the foolishness of it all and the mess they find themselves in, and this young woman trying to explain something she doesn’t have words for, to a man she has hardly met.
“Don’t be angry with him.” She’s studying his face again, “He offered to let me break the engagement but I wanted to try. I think, perhaps, he was hoping that he could be the same as everyone if only he tried hard enough and I thought it wouldn’t matter, in the end. If I truly loved him. I thought it would be enough. You must think we were very stupid.”
Arthur shakes his head. He can see all to easily how it happened.
“I suppose,” Laura continues, “I’m hardly the first person to make an ill-advised marriage in a war. Or the first person to have their head turned by a handsome pilot.”
They exchange a sympathetic look across the table: unexpected allies in their mutual foolishness. William is, after all, the living cliché of the handsome pilot.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur tells her, meaning it, “I shouldn’t have done it. I should have ended it.”
Laura doesn’t say anything. She looks at the table, turning a teaspoon over and over in her hand. Arthur notices that her hands are rough and chapped, her nails mud stained, at odds with the rest of her neat appearance. When she speaks, her voice is very soft.
“I tried to talk to him. I knew it wasn’t working. It wasn’t enough, not for me and not for him either. He didn’t want to talk though, on the last leave when he came home. He said…” she puts her hand over her mouth as though holding back the words she doesn’t want to say. “He said it didn’t matter. He thought, being a pilot, he’d be shot down one day and that most of the people he knew had already… I was so angry with him. I thought he was joking, avoiding talking about it by saying it didn’t matter what he did, if it was just for fun while it lasted. He said I’d have his pension and I’d be able to go and marry someone else and… I never thought he meant it. I never thought it would be real.”
Laura buries her face in her hands and her shoulders shake. It hurts to hear it. William always did joke about it, laugh in the face of danger, saying he was snatching what he could before some bastard shot him down. Arthur had always assumed it was a pilot’s bleak sense of humour. He hands Laura a handkerchief and she takes it, wiping her face but still crying. Arthur holds her hand over the table, trying to give comfort where precious little is to be found.
He catches sight of the two of them, reflected in the mirror across the room. He wonders what a passer-by would make of the tableaux: the man and the woman, holding hands while she weeps. The girl behind the counter is a disinterested observer. This close to the hospital she must see so many everyday tragedies.
Grant is asleep almost as soon as his head hits the pillow. The poor man must be worn out, and neither she nor Jonathan are much better. There is apparently a room for female agents to sleep in, but Bell has no intention of being separated from Jonathan or of the two of them leaving Grant alone. She watched Jonathan kiss him, almost without realising what he was doing. Arabella can’t deny having thought about watching her husband kiss another man, but she’d always been picturing something rather more… amorous. She certainly never envisaged a day like today, narrowly escaping death and owing her rescue to both of them. Grant doesn’t look like he belongs in someone’s fantasy; the man she admired over dull briefings and dinner with Emma. He looks like he needs someone to keep him away from the whiskey bottle and make sure he eats. She can’t begrudge him the tenderness that Jonathan offered.
Arabella puts her feelings on the matter away to be examined later. It’s something complicated that she will need to take her time with: there’s nothing to be gained from rushing. Some day she will also have to think over how she feels about her time in France too, about the horror of it.
Being back in England is strangely unreal, in the way that any time of crisis divorces itself from normality. She thought she was going to die, but now she’s here, camping out in Grant’s bedroom, waiting to hear news of a man she only met briefly before he nearly gave his life to save hers. There’s no place for serious decisions, only the next moment and the next.
She hasn’t a thing to her name, no possessions or routines to tether her to reality. It’s like a parody of a school midnight feast, sitting there in Jonathan’s pyjamas and one of his jumpers. Much too big for her, they pool around her feet and need rolling up at the sleeves, but they smell like him and it’s a tangible form of comfort. Together, Bell and Jonathan make a space on the floor, wrapped in blankets, and settle to get what sleep they can.
Bell wakes them with a scream in the early morning. It’s not the sort of sound Jonathan has ever heard her make before: unrestrained, wild terror. It sets his heart thumping; leaping upwards to deal with whatever threat might have caused her such fear.
Grant is doing the same, reaching for the gun he keeps in his bedside cabinet on instinct and then putting it down when he realises what is going on. He crouches on the floor beside Bell, talking to her in rapid French. Bell is replying in the same language, too fast for Jonathan to follow. Jonathan isn’t sure if she’s more than half awake, but she’s crying so he wraps her up in his arms. She fights away from him for a moment then wakes enough to recognise him and clings tight, switching back to English.
“The man, that awful man Jonathan. We went out, both of us to a club in London but I couldn’t find you. He wanted me to dance with him and I thought he was going to kill you.”
“Bell, my love, you’re safe now. I promise.”
She’s such a small weight, so easy to pull onto his lap. If he had his way, he’d never let her go again.
“I thought I’d never see you again. I was so frightened Jonathan. I know I’ve woken up but I feel like I’m still dreaming.”
“It will pass.” Grant speaks quietly but with certainty. “I’ve been there. It will pass.” Jonathan had half forgotten that he was there, but his confidence is calming, his face sincere.
“Do you promise me?” Arabella trusts him too, apparently.
“Yes. It will take time, but it will be alright. Come on, sitting on the floor won’t help.” He shifts the blackout curtains and pushes the window open, letting in cold night air. It’s bordering on too cold but the room is stuffy with three of them and Arabella’s skin is warm under Jonathan’s hand. With the curtain back in place, Grant switches on the light and sits on the floor in front of Bell.
“The man you dreamt of,” he asks, “was he the one interrogating you?”
“Yes,” Bell shivers, “he was the most awful man. So blond his hair was almost silver and he was so cold. It was as though he wasn’t human.”
“They try to be like that. Did he try to disconcert you? Did you recognise the training?”
“Yes, I did. I kept trying to remember what they taught us. See what he was trying to do.”
“You did well, then. You did well.” Grant smiles reassuringly.
“Emma took the worst of it. She said she would watch over me. They tried to threaten her so I would talk, but she told me not to. I didn’t tell them anything but she was so brave.”
“You both were, and you did right. They did the same to me. They like to use people against you if they can.”
“You taught us that, before we went. Everyone was talking about you, the only man to be captured and escape without being sent to a POW camp first. All the girls thought you were a hero.”
Grant’s expression is disbelieving, self-deprecating. He starts to shake his head, then says, “well if that’s true, the same applies to you and Emma now.”
Jonathan squeezes Bell’s shoulders. His wife: hero of SOE.
“Please don’t make me go back.”
Like cold water down the back of his neck, pride turns to fear. Surely they won’t send her back after this? Surely they cannot. But yet, he knows, they sent Grant. Grant went back on Jonathan’s own request.
“That’s not a decision you have to make now, but neither Arthur nor I would allow an agent to go back if they didn’t feel able to. We would also support your decision with the other section heads.”
“I can’t go back, I can’t do that again. I wish I’d never gone!” Bell is crying again.
“Then, Arabella?” Grant reaches out and takes her hand again, “you don’t have to go back. You have my word.”
He leaves them then, tactfully retreating to speak to Childermass and Segundus. Bell cries a little more, safe in Jonathan’s arms. He doesn’t try to stop her, just holds her and strokes her hair. He cherishes her presence next to him, a gift beyond price after he had almost been ready to accept her loss. When she eventually goes back to sleep, worn out, Jonathan watches over her.
Grant returns shortly afterwards, coming in as quietly as he can and sinking down onto his chair with a sigh. He must still feel groggy from the pills on top of the whiskey and yesterday.
“You should sleep,” Jonathan tells him.
“Yes, I know that Merlin, but unless it has escaped your notice, your wife is asleep in my bed and I’m not about to join her unless you really are seeking to make this even more of a farce than it is already.” Grant doesn’t sound angry when he says it, just resigned.
“I could wake her.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Besides, she shouldn’t be sleeping on the floor. It’s remarkably like sleeping in a cell, you know. A very good way to give yourself nightmares.”
“Will she be alright? I can hardly believe she’s really here, safe, but whatever happened…”
“She will be. It might take her some time, but she has you and that’s something.”
“Did you dream, afterwards?”
“Every night for a while, then it stopped. I do still dream about it sometimes but it’s less overwhelming than it used to be. William used to keep me company when I first got back. When I woke up he’d talk to me. That helped. He talked an enormous amount of nonsense, you know William, but it did help to hear a friendly voice.”
“I can do that.” Jonathan pauses, uncertain of what he should say next. “I’m sorry, for what happened to William.”
“Don’t be. It was a risk he knew he was taking, and if it had been a mission without you on-board he would have crashed. There’d be no hope for him then.”
“Are you? Hopeful, I mean?” Jonathan had been shocked, by the flight home and by William’s appearance in the hospital but he doesn’t have any standard to compare it too.
“Well, I know he’s still alive. Arthur would have phoned if something had happened. If he survives tonight, maybe…” Grant shrugs.
“He’s very lucky to have a friend like you.”
“Oh,” Grant smiles, “it’s not luck. There’s nothing I’d do that he wouldn’t do for me. William’s a brother to me, closer than a brother really.”
“I’m not sure I’d know what that’s like. I don’t have a brother, or a sister for that matter. The closest thing I have is Arabella’s brother and Henry… well, he’s a clergyman and not exactly the sort of person I can imagine saying anything like that about.”
Grant laughs, quietly and then yawns more loudly. He props his arm across his chest and leans back against the wall. It only takes a few minutes for his breathing to shift into the regular pattern of sleep, not quite snoring but close to it. Bell, curled on her side next to Jonathan is also sleeping. Jonathan stays awake, keeping watch.
Arthur and Laura keep their watch together all night. Time stretches into new patterns, measured not in hours or minutes but in how long before the chair becomes painful and the pattern of nurses performing checks on the ward. The matron tried to get them to leave when it got late but Arthur intervened, using his reputation and his connection to Sir Walter (who is, after all, a very generous donor to the hospital). It’s not something he’s proud of, but neither of them feels able to leave. As a concession he allows her to shoo the two of them out to find dinner in the same café where they drank tea. This time they are too tired to talk much and neither of them have much appetite. He thinks, wryly, that this is the first time in quite a long time that he has had dinner with an attractive woman without trying to flirt with her.
In the small hours Arthur paces the corridors for exercise or goes out to smoke. The hospital at night is an eerie place, hushed in deference to sleeping patients but never still. He walks the dark and empty corridors, tired but restless. He comes back from one such walk to find Laura sitting on a bench in the corridor. She says, “the nurse is with him” as soon as he appears, as though she knows that his heart sped up at the sight of her, just in case.
“I couldn’t sit on that chair any longer,” she tells him, stretching her legs out in front of her. The bench isn’t much better but it is at least a different height, a change of posture. He feels like he should stay with William all the time but it’s also becoming unbearable in that little room, watching and waiting and ready to worry at every sign of change, real or imagined.
He and Laura sit side by side in silence. Just the two of them, barely knowing each other but united all the same in their common cause.
Laura’s words echo in Arthur’s head. “He didn’t think there was love for men like him, that it didn’t work that way.” Did William really believe that? He can’t imagine William the romantic, all poetry and roses, unless he’s doing it mockingly. Like the way he flirts with Flora Greysteel: both of them enjoying the joke and neither of them taking it seriously. But then, William does want so much to be liked. A friend to everyone except those who cross his friends. Arthur remembers William’s quick defence of Grant in front of Strange, but also his change of heart, his promise to fly to France for them. William is loyal. Arthur has always known it: his loyalty to Grant is legendary. Then there is Laura, who knows him so much better than most, and loves him, fiercely and protectively. Arthur wonders if William assumed no man would love him; that such a domestic form of happiness was beyond his reach except through marriage. Or if it was it how they were, in bed together? Did he think that because of how Arthur behaved he didn’t care, that a rough fuck must always be meaningless? What foolishness did William have tucked away in his mind that could make him brand himself unlovable? It grieves him. He recalls the weekend at the flat, the unexpected ease of it and how pleased William had seemed to be there. He should have had the conversation, made William talk. Arthur remembers the melancholy moments, the uncharacteristic moments of brooding thought beneath William’s habitual easy charm. What was he thinking of then?
Arthur should have told him. Should have told him that he was loved, was lovable. Even if he’d sought it out with someone else, someone different, Arthur still should have told him. He’s always been so surprised by William, by getting to keep him even for a short while, that he forgot that William might have thought the same, that there was more beneath that smiling face. William deserved more. He should have it, whatever it is that he wants. Please don’t let it be too late. Arthur thinks it, over and over, like a prayer. Please don’t let it be too late.
Eventually he feels a weight on his shoulder. Laura’s asleep, sliding sideways to lean against him. Arthur feels protective of her, and old. Too old and tired for this.
He sleeps too, slumped back on the bench with Laura sleeping at his side, woken in the first hours of the morning sunlight by an apologetic surgeon who wants to talk to them both.
After the conversation with the surgeon, Laura tucks an imaginary wisp of hair behind her ears and puts the handkerchief she has been crumpling in her fingers back into her handbag. “If you’ll excuse me, I just need a moment outside,” she says. The doctors have decided that William’s best chance is to operate now rather than wait and risk any further deterioration.
“Of course, ma’am.” The army surgeon gives her a kindly smile. “Take a moment if you need it. You can come and see him again briefly before the surgery, then I think you’d best go and take some rest.”
“Perhaps you could stay with him, Mr Wellesley, if you wouldn’t mind?” Laura smiles at him, and Arthur realises what she is doing, how neatly she is giving him a moment alone with William.
“Of course,” he says. He watches her walk out of the ward, conveniently taking the surgeon with her. There’s nothing at all in her posture to suggest she is a woman leaving her husband alone with his lover and he admires her for it in the way he admires his agents.
Arthur has been waiting for hours for this moment, but now that he has the freedom he lacks the words. Perhaps it would be different if William could hear him, could smile at him with that private, knowing smile that he keeps for when they are alone together. Arthur perches on Laura’s discarded chair and takes William’s hand. It’s cooler than his own. He covers it with his other hand, trying to bring the warmth back.
William says nothing.
“God, William, I’m so sorry.”
He hadn’t meant to apologise but he feels responsible, for all of this: for letting him fly, for letting the mission go ahead, for never talking about Laura openly, never saying any of the things he should have said. Things that now he still cannot say.
“I never meant for this to happen. I should have trusted you, talked to you.”
There’s nobody around, the ward is quiet. He risks standing, leaning over William to smooth his hair away from his face.
“I should never have let you doubt it.”
He kisses William’s forehead, then pulls back quickly to check that nobody has seen.
“You’d better be alright William. I don’t know what I’ll do if I lose you.”
The knock at the door wakes Grant, stiff-necked from sleeping in a chair. For a moment he doesn’t care, someone else can deal with it, and then he remembers William and pushes himself up. On the other side of the door he finds Childermass.
“Arthur rang, sir. William’s still with us, they’re taking him to surgery now but they hope if he gets through it he’s got a chance. Arthur’ll be on his way back now.”
“That’s good news, isn’t it?” Jonathan has come to stand at Grant’s left shoulder.
“Aye, sir, it is.” Childermass smiles. Grant hasn’t said anything yet. “Segundus has everything under control at present. Most of our agents have gone dark until further notice so there’s not much coming in. You can take a longer break if you need it.”
Grant nods. “Perhaps that would be wise. You’ll let me know though, if you hear anything more?”
“Of course, sir.”
Grant shuts the door and leans against it. “At least he’s alive.”
There’s a hand on his shoulder, tugging him back. Grant leans into Jonathan’s warm chest, feels arms coming to circle him. They hold him close, but not tight enough to hurt his arm or bruises. Jonathan, with the habit of a tall man, tries to tuck Grant under his chin.
“I believe he’ll be alright.”
“I hope so.” Grant knows he should pull away, but Jonathan is so comforting and damnit, he’s so tired. He wants to stop fighting, stop doing the right thing and walking away from everything that makes him happy.
“Jonathan?” Arabella’s voice is soft behind them but Grant still flinches at the sound.
“It’s alright, love.” Jonathan’s hand is heavy on the back of Grant’s head, keeping him in place as though he’s afraid that Grant might run at any moment.
There’s a rustle of bedclothes, footsteps, and then a second pair of arms around him. He’s caught again, sheltered between the two of them. Grant knows that this is every kind of complication he has ever tried to avoid, but just for the minute, he isn’t going to care.