When William has been taken into surgery, Arthur drives Laura to the hotel where she has taken a room. The woman in charge seems kind enough, making clucking sounds over why Laura is arriving at such a time and ushering her upstairs for a lie down, promising to wake her if the hospital should call. Arthur leaves his card in case of emergencies, and then makes the long drive back to the base. His eyes are gritty with lack of sleep but he must get back. When he telephoned from the hospital, Grant was in the middle of a post-mission crash and Childermass was into his second day of being on duty.
He arrives to find Segundus in charge, looking slightly embarrassed to be found behind Arthur’s desk. He gives his report concisely and hands over the files that have been waiting, with a long list of phone calls from people who will only speak to the unit commander.
“Thank you,” Arthur tells him, dropping into his desk chair and eyeing the mountain of paper, most of it thankfully sorted into neat piles “it sounds like the two of you have done an excellent job of managing things.”
“Thank you, sir.” Segundus clears his throat awkwardly. He always looks embarrassed when people give him praise.
“I hate to ask when you’ve been on call, but could you possibly find me some food? And possibly some very strong coffee? I’ll have to get started on this immediately and I haven’t eaten since last night.”
“Of course, sir, I’ll go and find something right away.” Segundus pauses, shifting gently from foot to foot as he hesitates. “If there’s anything else, sir, anything else I can do to help, you have only to ask.”
Arthur looks up at Segundus, who is smiling in a way that manages to convey both kindness and understanding. Bright enough to understand the situation then, but the kind of man to offer help not judgement. The kind of man Arthur would like to have more of in the unit. He adds as item one on his list, as soon as the crisis is over, finding some way of stealing the man permanently from Norrell.
Food materialises shortly after he dismisses Segundus, along with the coffee, but by then Arthur is already ten reports deep in the chaos. When the phone rings in his office several hours later he answers without thinking. “Wellesley speaking.”
“Oh, hello, Mr Wellesley. It’s…”
Before she can say her name he recognises the voice. Laura sounds as though she has been crying and his heart is already beating hard before she says “It’s William.”
He doesn’t hear anything for a moment, only the rush of blood in his ears.
“Mr Wellesley? Arthur? He’s alright. I’m so sorry, I’ve said it all wrong, William is alright. He’s out of surgery and he’s awake. Mr Wellesley, are you there?”
He can breathe again.
“I’m here. I’m glad to hear it.”
“I didn’t mean to worry you. I was just so tired I wasn’t thinking properly how it would sound.”
“No, I’m sorry, I assumed the worst.”
“I should have thought. I just ran out to call you. I thought you’d want to know. They only let me see him for five minutes. He’s very groggy: they still have him sedated, but he did know me. He asked for you again.”
Arthur tries to ignore the small flutter of hope he feels at hearing that. “Will they let you see him again later?”
“Perhaps. They have a number for my hotel and said they would call.”
“Will you let me know how he is, if you do?” It feels like he’s pushing the boundaries of what might be allowed and what might be intrusive.
“Of course I will.” She sounds warm, kind, and he’s grateful for it. “I’ll call you later either way.”
After saying goodbye, Arthur replaces the telephone very carefully, folds his arms on the desk in front of him and rests his head on his arms. He stays there a long time.
Arabella wakes up to a kiss on her forehead and a gentle hand on her shoulder. Jonathan is leaning over her, mug of tea in hand.
“Good morning, Mrs Strange,” he says with a smile. He likes to call her that at times, the novelty of being married not yet worn off even after several years.
“Good morning.” Arabella yawns. After the terror of the night, this morning’s awakening is a gentle one and she feels quite relaxed despite being in borrowed pyjamas in a borrowed bed.
“I thought you would prefer not to go to the mess wearing my pyjamas, so I brought you breakfast in bed.”
“Thank you.” Arabella reaches for the plate. It is laden with toast and jam, more jam than is usual. Jonathan’s attempts to look innocent mean that he must have given up his own portion for her. He notices her noticing and smiles self-consciously, the way he looked at her when they were first engaged. He doesn’t look away as she starts eating, staring at her so seriously that she has to break the mood.
“Jonathan, I hate to tell you so, but you’ve never stared at me so much in my life. Are you afraid I will spill crumbs in the captain’s bed?”
Jonathan shakes his head and keeps watching as though he can’t bear to let her out of his sight or can’t believe she’s real, and she understands the feeling. She can’t quite believe that any of it is real either.
“I suppose I will have to get up soon,” she says with regret, “although I haven’t a thing to wear except the dress I borrowed last night and it really isn’t very warm.”
“I believe Grant has a plan,” Jonathan says. “I would very much like to stay here, my love, but I’m afraid that duty calls. We are short staffed, and someone needs to drive Grant back to the hospital, which leaves us with even fewer men. Will you be alright?”
Bell knows that if she asks him, he will stay. It’s tempting, to avoid being separated again so soon, but as people so often say nowadays, there is a war on and her desire to pull him into the bed with her and not leave for a week must take a lower priority than the needs of SOE.
“I’ll be quite alright Jonathan, truly.”
He squeezes her hand and she knows he understands.
“My brave Bell. I won’t go far. There’s a girl in the village: her name is Flora Greysteel. Grant asked her to come over with some clothes you might borrow. I should think you were the same size and you’ll feel better with something to wear. He says he’ll have your unit send your things for while you are on leave.”
“That sounds like a perfectly sensible plan. I’ll come and find you later when I’m dressed. Perhaps we could have lunch together, and you could introduce me to people?”
Jonathan kisses her on the forehead again before he hurries off to work and leaves her to wait for the unknown Miss Greysteel. Bell finds herself wishing she hadn’t been quite so brave after all. She’s going to have to find something to do or the solitude will drive her mad.
In the afternoon, after his trip to the hospital, Grant comes to find Arthur. Bleary eyed from paperwork, he gestures at Grant to take a seat.
“How’s the arm?” he asks.
“Bloody painful, actually.” Grant grins at him, ruefully. He’s managed to get his shirt over the cast but he is only wearing his army jacket on one arm, the other side draped over his shoulder. “And it seems Mrs Strange has confiscated my bottle of whiskey.”
Arthur raises an eyebrow at him. “Perhaps that’s for the best, although it begs the question of how Mrs Strange came to be in your office to find the whiskey.”
“She picked the lock.”
Arthur makes an appreciative noise. “And what are we going to do about Mrs Strange?”
“I don’t think she should be sent back to France. Not yet anyway.”
“Really? Is that her preference or because you think Merlin is too much of a risk if we do send her back?”
“It was her own request, although Merlin is a factor we ought to consider. I believe when they were held prisoner,” Grant pauses, “I have the impression that while Emma took the brunt of the physical consequences of the interrogation, Mrs Strange was the one questioned. Having someone else’s life become your responsibility… it is a heavy burden. I think if she wanted to return it would be another matter, but I wouldn’t risk forcing her. No good comes from sending an agent out under those circumstances.”
“No indeed. We’ve both been put in that position and I can’t say it made me eager to return, nor you I imagine. But if she is not being sent out as a field agent, what is her future in SOE? I can make my recommendation to her unit commander but the decision is his.”
“I thought perhaps we could request her transfer here if you think he’s likely to send her out again too soon. She’s had the training and the practical experience, and we need more people in the office who know what it’s like on the ground. If she chooses to go back at a later date, she is already familiar with working with magicians which makes her suitable for our unit.”
“You make a good case but I have to ask, is it going to work? Having her in this unit, with her husband? I don’t want to have trouble further down the line because you and she…” Arthur raises his eyebrows significantly.
“I don’t believe it will be a problem. I think Mrs Strange will be willing to draw a line under recent events. As will I.”
“Grant, I want you to consider this very carefully. I’d rather lose a potential officer and our magician than put your position here at risk. I need you as my second in command. Without you I think the unit might just fall apart. Will you be able to work with them? Bluntly, with both of them here as a couple. These things can be… complicated.”
“I think you can rely on me to be professional, sir.” Grant is sharp when his professionalism is called into question.
“That isn’t what I asked, and you are only one third of the people required to be professional. Strange’s record of professional conduct is not what it should be. Think about it. Mrs Strange is due leave in any case, so we have time. If we decide against her transfer, we will still need new recruits. The last few days have shown us we are seriously short handed, particularly if anything out of the ordinary happens, and I doubt we’ll be any less busy in future. We managed this time but I won’t leave us understaffed like that again.”
“I saw the memo on my desk: you want to keep Segundus? He’d be a good choice, although I don’t imagine Norrell will be very happy about it.”
“No. I’ll talk to Childermass about how best to handle him. After all, he has a vested interest in keeping Segundus...” Arthur’s sentence is cut off abruptly by a yawn.
“You should get some sleep,” Grant tells him, “That’s why I came to find you. I can take over for now if I have someone to do my writing for me. Ned volunteered. Have you slept at all since yesterday?”
“A bit, here and there.”
“Laura was asking after you.”
“Was she? Is she alright? It’s hard on her.”
“She’s fine. Tired and worried, but as well as can be expected. The matron seems to have taken her under her wing a bit.” He pauses. “Anyone else you want to ask after?”
Arthur sighs and rubs his hands over his face. “Did you see him?”
“Briefly. They aren’t keen on too many visitors at the moment and he was pretty out of it anyway. The doctor I spoke to sounded more hopeful than he did yesterday.”
“Arthur, I hope I can ask you this as a friend, and as William’s friend…”
“And as Laura’s friend? I appreciate that your position is a complicated one. Say what you want to say. We shall keep it entirely off the record.”
“Do you know what you’re going to do? Now that this has happened?”
“I don’t know Grant. Do you really expect me to know?”
“You are going to have to decide some time.” As soon as he’s said it Arthur glares at him and Grant wonders if he will be able to convincingly blame the painkillers.
“I am well aware of that, but what would you do in my place?”
It’s an accusation, not a question but Grant tries to find an answer anyway. He fails. He has no idea what he would do: if Jonathan were any less obviously in love with Bell, could he walk away? Is he really prepared to walk away now?
“I shall take your silence to mean you have no idea either,” says Arthur, “I said after the war I’d let him go, back to her, but I can’t do it. I can’t walk away, but I can hardly ask him to leave his wife either and he’s in no state to decide. I shall wait: see what he wants. I’ll let him decide when he’s ready and whatever he does choose, I’ll keep to. I won’t make things difficult for either of them. Is that good enough for you?”
Grant, to his surprise, finds that it is.
When Grant takes over, Arthur goes walking. He’s too restless to settle, however tired he is. It’s the kind of tiredness that doesn’t lend itself to sleep: too much time in chairs, behind desks, watching and waiting and thinking. The wind is cold as it blows across the fields with nothing to stop its progress from the sea. He hunches into his coat, jams his hands in his pockets and keeps going. One foot in front of the other and blank out the rest. He walks until there’s nobody else to be seen for miles, until he’s tired enough to face returning. When he does go back and to bed it’s for a night broken sleep, constantly half waking in a formless fear that something might have happened, searching for the missing presence in his bed.
Childermass and Segundus, on their own evening walk, watch Arthur as he stalks across the fields and deliberately turn in the opposite direction.
“Poor bastard,” Childermass observes, gazing at his retreating back. “At least when you were in hospital I didn’t have to worry about a wife appearing out of nowhere.”
“We were lucky.” Segundus slips his hand through Childermass’ arm, safe in the knowledge that nobody is close enough to see it. “Sometimes people can be their own worst enemies.”
“That’s true enough.” Childermass lets his next step take him close enough to bump gently against Segundus’ shoulder. “We do alright, don’t we?”
“More than alright, I should think.” Segundus smiles up at him and Childermass is struck by how appealing he looks like this, bundled up with a bright woollen scarf around his neck and his cheeks flushed pink in the wind.
“I shall miss having you here, if you choose to go back to Norrell.”
“They told you they asked me then? I wanted to talk to you about it first.”
“Apparently they needed my advice on breaking the news Norrell. The only advice I have on telling him what he doesn’t want to hear is to do it quickly, from a distance, and then give him time to get over it.”
Segundus laughs. “I’m sure Grant was very pleased to hear you say that. What do you think, though? Should I stay?”
“Well, it’s your decision, but I thought you liked the work here and I didn’t think you objected to my company. Frustrating as it is to sleep in a bunk next to you and no closer.”
“Of course I don’t object to your company! Particularly not if we can have some time alone now and then. And I do enjoy the work. It’s easier here to feel that I’m making a difference, doing something that matters. Before it was all theoretical, at a distance. Now I know the people I’m working with. To have care of an agent, to do work that affects things on the front lines… it scares me, but I’d rather be doing it than not. It’s only, is it wrong to leave the other work unfinished?”
“I don’t think so. Between you and me, the spells to stop air raids never worked properly and besides, the Germans have changed tactics now. Britain doesn’t need you fretting your life away over Norrell’s barrage balloons when you can be getting information that can actually be used.”
“I’m glad you think so. I was worried I was being selfish, staying here because I couldn’t bear to go back to living alone again instead of doing my duty.”
“It sounds like you know what you want to do then.” Childermass pauses at a gap in the hedgerow. “Shall we go back, or is there more you wanted to say? We could go around the next field if you aren’t too cold.”
“Well, I am cold, but there is still something.” Segundus bites his lip. “We’d have to shut up our cottage for the duration, and I do hate the thought of that. And… there is also the problem of…” He stops, fidgeting with the end of this scarf.
“What is it, love? I know there’s something bothering you.”
“If I am officially part of the unit, not just visiting then…”
“You are a magician and an intelligence officer and I’m just one of the soldiers. You’d outrank me. Did you think I’d mind?”
“Not exactly, but perhaps a little.”
Childermass laughs. “Unless you start thinking yourself too gentlemanly to mix with the likes of me, I don’t think it’ll matter much. We’re hardly a unit that pays attention to rank. You know I’d take orders from you, and no complaints.”
“If only there was a convenient deserted barn around here I’d hold you to that.” Segundus says, as innocently as if he were talking about the weather. Childermass gives him a look. One that suggests he’s thinking of taking him up the offer, barn or no barn.
“No John!” Segundus tells him, “I know what you’re thinking but it’s too cold! But since I’m staying, I’m sure you’ll have other chances.”
“I’ll hold you to that, love. Don’t forget it.”
They take another turn around the field. Despite the weather, both of them are warm enough now.
“Yes my love?”
They are curled up together in one of the guest rooms of the village pub. Arthur suggested it as a place they could go, with Arabella officially on her post-mission leave and Jonathan released from his duties because Arthur told him to go and spend time with his wife. They have been awake for a while now, in the middle of the night. Arabella was dreaming again. Hating the enclosed feeling of the blackout curtains, she pulled them open and the moonlight from the window makes silver patterns in her hair. It’s very still and quiet. No planes flying tonight.
“What is it?” Jonathan asks again, leaning down to kiss her forehead. She is lying on his chest so he cannot see her face but he knows her pensive tone means that what she has to say is important.
“I have been thinking about Captain Grant.”
“Bell… perhaps this is not the time. I know we should discuss things but surely not now.” Only an hour ago, Bell was kicking him awake and crying in her sleep. Jonathan would give a great deal not to distress her again, however uneasy the situation with Grant has made him.
“I know you care about him,” Bell says as though reading his mind. “And I don’t want to go back to sleep just yet, I’d rather talk. The Captain is… well, from what you and Emma have said, I don’t think it would be fair to leave him not knowing where he stood.”
“But I don’t know where he stands, my love. I don’t know where I stand. I love you.”
“I know you love me. But we did agree that there might be others, although I never thought you’d be so serious about one of them.”
“I don’t love him Bell. You should know that. He is a… he is an extraordinary man, a good man, certainly a very attractive man, but I don’t love him. Not as I love you and nothing could matter more to me than your happiness.” Jonathan pulls gently at one of the ringlets in her hair.
“But I do know that he has mattered more to you the others.” Bell pushes away enough to be able to look up at him. “I’m not angry with you Jonathan. Well, I wish we’d been able to talk sooner. I’m afraid you’ve both made each other unhappy already, but I’m not angry that you care about him beyond wanting to go to bed with him. So tell me what you really think.”
Jonathan sits for a while, letting his fingers slide through her hair and thinking. He knows she won’t hurry him, and he’s glad, overwhelmingly glad, to have her for his wife and know that he can tell her any thing he needs to.
“It’s true, what I said. I don’t love him. At least, not yet. He is different to the others, not just company or someone to go to bed with. I don’t love him but I think perhaps I could, one day. Does that make sense?”
“It does to me.” Bell reaches up to kiss him gently. “And he is very handsome. I wish I’d known, when I told you about the handsome man who visited our office, that you had already met him.”
“I wish I’d known too.” Jonathan sounds bitter without meaning to. If he had known, if only he had known, he might not have let Arabella walk into danger alone.
“Jonathan, don’t say that. What’s done is done and it was my choice to go. Remember that, please!”
“I’m sorry.” He lets his arms hold her and say what he cannot say out loud: I was afraid, I nearly lost you and I was afraid.
“I’m surprised it’s never happened before,” Bell says, in a forcibly lighter tone, “that we should find the same man attractive. I did try to flirt with him but he was always terribly formal with me. Does he only like men, do you suppose?”
“I haven’t the least idea, but he never gave me much indication of interest either until… well, it was obvious he was interested after all.”
“Would you mind if I…”
“If you what?”
“Well… if I got to know him better, and perhaps if he was amenable to the idea…” Bell reaches up and whispers into Jonathan’s ear. He groans.
“I had forgotten how entirely indecent you are, Mrs Strange.”
Bell laughs and Jonathan has no choice but to kiss her for it.
“But really though, Jonathan, would you mind? I suppose it would complicate matters dreadfully, and I’ve no idea if he would be interested, but perhaps if we talked about it enough, talked to him…” She stops and looks at him uncertainly.
“I think it’s an entirely delightful idea. Now, tell me more about what you would have me watch.” Jonathan rolls her over and Arabella goes willingly.
It’s not until the following day that Arthur is permitted to visit William and the nurse who greets him is disapproving.
“I doubt there is anything so important that it cannot wait until Flight Lieutenant De Lancey is in better health, so if there are any signs that you are hampering his recovery, I have permission to ask you to leave. Is that understood?”
“I believe it is a matter of grave national importance,” he tells her, as seriously as he can, although he can see Laura hiding a smile. This was her idea to get him onto the ward, telling the doctors that her husband had requested the presence of his CO.
“Thank you,” he tells her in an undertone as they enter the ward. “I do appreciate what you’ve done.”
“It’s nothing,” she says, as though her assistance should have been expected. She pauses when they reach the door of the room William is in. “He was asking for you and it seemed the best thing to say to explain it. I’ll wait out here, to dissuade any eavesdroppers. Go on, he’s waiting for you.”
Arthur finds William asleep but, although it might be his hopeful imagination, it looks like a more natural sleep than the day before. He takes the chair by the bedside and waits. Now he’s here there’s no rush. There’s a calmness that comes from having William in front of him, of the certainty that he is there and alive.
It’s not long before William stirs, eyelids fluttering open. “Arthur?” he says, hardly above a whisper. Laura had warned him that William’s throat was raw after the operation.
“I’m here. Do you need water?”
Arthur picks up the glass and holds it so that William can sip without moving his head and disturbing the bandages around his neck and shoulder.
“Didn’t think you’d be here.”
“Laura arranged it. She’d put our agents to shame.”
William’s eyes, drifting shut again, suddenly fly open. “Laura? You’ve met her?”
“It’s alright, we talked. You don’t have to worry about that now.”
“I never meant for this to happen.” William lifts his right hand, reaching for Arthur.
“I know,” Arthur takes William’s hand and squeezes it, “and it doesn’t matter. We can talk about it another time. I’m just glad to see you awake.” Arthur has to clear his throat against the sudden tightness.
“Mostly awake.” William smiles but his eyes are closing again. “I’m sorry. All these drugs, I can’t think.” He squeezes Arthur’s hand. “Glad you’re here.”
“I’m glad too. Sleep if you need to. I’ll stay as long as I can.”
William drifts for a few minutes, wakes and says “glad you’re here” again.
They don’t speak much more. William is too tired and Arthur is content just to be here, to watch him. He keeps William’s hand caught between his own until Laura comes to tell him that the matron is on the warpath and it’s time for him to go.
Grant is the next person to go visiting, persuading Segundus to drive him to the hospital a few days later because he knows that Laura has been called back to the farm where she is working now that William is out of immediate danger.
He returns to report that William was more awake than when they last met, if still tired and liable to fall asleep mid-conversation. He is also bored: bored with the hospital and being stuck in bed with nothing to do, bored with being in pain and subject to a daily round of pills and checks and needles and dressings. Between the damage to his right leg and the wounds to his neck and left shoulder, he’s almost immobile and frustrated by it. It’s not William’s way to be staying still, not doing anything.
Arthur worries about him, constantly and fruitlessly. He blames work and restrictive visiting hours for putting off going back to the hospital even as not going is driving him to distraction. He wants to go, but he hasn’t been asked and that holds him back.
The excuse about work is true enough: Grant is doing what he can but with his right arm in plaster there’s a limit to how much paperwork he can manage. Sir Walter has begun harassing them with new demands. SOE cannot get agents into Germany, but the government is finally seeing the value of magicians and wondering if they might be of use. They want more from him in exchange for the extra personnel he is requesting. He’s short staffed, short of time and, he can admit to himself, short tempered too. He takes great pleasure in letting his anger out at Norrell when he complains endlessly about the loss of Segundus.
It’s Segundus, in Arthur’s office to complete a transfer request form, who eventually offers to work a double shift so that Arthur might visit the hospital.
“I’m sure William must be lonely, sir,” he says, in the hesitant way that Arthur has rapidly learnt not to interpret as uncertainty in his opinion. “I’ve been in hospital before and it’s the dullest place in the world. Company does make rather a difference.”
Arthur manages something non-committal in reply but he does arrange to go. Grant actually looks pleased about it, insisting that they can manage perfectly well without him for the afternoon.
When Arthur arrives he finds that William is no longer on the small surgical ward but has been moved to a larger, communal ward. He looks pale, blending into the sheets except for his hair and the beard he is starting to grow. He looks up at Arthur with wide eyes, but Arthur can’t tell what he’s thinking.
“How are you?” Arthur asks, pulling up one of the visitors’ chairs.
“Bored.” William replies.
“Nothing to do?” It’s a thoughtless thing to say and as soon as Arthur says it, he wishes he could take the words back. William grimaces at him.
“Not particularly. Grant brought books but I can’t really concentrate on them. Or turn the pages. The nurses got fed up with picking them off the floor.”
William gestures at his left arm, which is lying still against the bed propped on a pillow. Nerve damage, the doctor said, from the shrapnel in his neck. They won’t comment on whether it is permanent or not. They talked about ‘spontaneous reversal’ but Arthur doesn’t particularly trust in phrases like that.
They have been silent too long.
“How’s Grant?” William asks.
“He’s… well.” Itching to get rid of the damned cast mostly, but that feels like the wrong thing to say again. “I’m sure he’ll be back when he can.”
“Oh. Yes. I suppose you must be busy.”
“Yes.” Arthur can’t tell him anything, not here on a public ward. The already stilted conversation dies a death. William stares at the wall opposite. A man at the other end of the ward hacks and coughs and spits into a basin. Arthur can see William flinching from the sound.
“Yes?” There’s more than a hint of desperation in William’s voice.
“I…” The next words in his head aren’t ones he can say. Not here. He wants to hold William’s hand again, the only bit of him that seems safe to touch without causing pain, or stroke his hair, however ridiculous William would think he was being if he did it. He’d like to take him away from the ward full of other patients and the noise of it. He’d like to say something, anything, that might be comforting or at least meaningful. He’d like to say ‘I love you’.
Instead they look at one another, silenced by the weight of the unspoken.
They struggle to keep up a conversation for a little longer, talking of nothing until William says, with a certain amount of bitterness, that he is tired and wants to sleep. Arthur leaves him, walks to the end of the corridor and stops. He wants to go back, to try again, but he still doesn’t know what to say. Perhaps William really is only tired as he says. He paces, indecisive, then bows to the inevitable and drives back to the unit. When Grant next goes visiting, Arthur doesn’t offer to come with him.
The cast is going to drive Grant to drink. It's cumbersome, stopping him holding a pen properly and, if he's honest with himself, only really comfortable if he keeps it tucked in the sling. None of which is helping him with the maps that must be drawn up from half a dozen garbled descriptions and intelligence reports. He shouts for Ned, who appears almost instantly.
"You called, sir?"
"Yes. I need someone who can be trusted with a map. Someone neat. Not you."
Ned grins. He once failed to live up to Grant's exacting cartographic standards and they mutually agreed not to try working together again.
"I'll see who I can rustle up, sir."
Grant returns to his contemplation of the maps until there's a tentative knock on the door.
He looks up curiously: most people in the unit tend to barge in unless there's a meeting going on. In the doorway he finds Arabella, neatly dressed in her WAAF uniform.
"They said you wanted someone to help with maps, sir."
Aware that he is staring at her, he scrambles to find words. "Yes, I did ask, but I… didn't expect it to be you."
"I'm good with maps. You can check my file if you like." She frowns at him.
"That isn't what I meant, forgive me Mrs Strange, I thought you were still on leave."
"I came to collect my things. They were sent over from my old unit. But I am good with maps and if you need someone to help, I'm not busy with anything else. Truth be told, I'm actually a little bored."
"Ah, well, in that case Mrs Strange, if you are sure, your help would be... helpful."
She smiles at him and he feels more awkward than he ought to. Normally he is perfectly capable of being rational in the presence of an attractive woman, but there is something different about Mrs Strange: her relationship with Jonathan if nothing else.
She comes over to the desk to look at the maps.
"It's Arabella, please. Jonathan says nobody stands on formality here. What were you trying to do?"
"This is a copy of the map of our current area of operations. These," he picks up the handful of papers, "are the miscellaneous reports from agents, magicians and pilots, that will hopefully tell us what has changed since we lost our ability to observe the territory by magic. Some things may be the same but others may have altered. Everything must be double-checked. I have been trying to update the map but it was proving more difficult than I thought."
Arabella bends over the map to take a closer look. "I can see the problem."
Grant can too. With his clumsy writing and the contradictory nature of the intelligence, the map is a mess of crossing out and scribbled pencil marks.
"Perhaps it would be best if we started again," he says.
"Perhaps, and then you can explain what you want me to do. What if you read the reports and I try to place them on the map?"
They try it, and it does work much better than before. Grant now has his full attention on the reports so it's easier to keep track of the inconsistencies while Arabella has an almost uncanny knack for translating the information into visual data. She is insightful, intelligent... He watches her quick hands with ruler and pencil, the frown of concentration on her face and thinks it uncommonly unfair for her to have so many attractive qualities. He has always thought her beautiful in an abstract sense, but it's much harder to ignore now that she is joining him in grumbling about agents who can't write clear reports with a pencil tucked into her hair and ink on her hands. He has to remind himself very firmly that there’s nothing illicit about their working together, nothing that he should feel guilt for.
When their first draft is done, she stretches and smiles at him and he can't help smiling back.
"I believe it may be time for lunch,” he says. “Would you like to join me? We've made better progress than I thought we would. Thank you."
"I was happy to help. This needed more than one person."
It turns out to be later than Grant thought, and most people have already been to the canteen. Even Jonathan has already eaten and gone back to his spells, which leaves Grant in the awkward position of eating alone with Arabella with nothing to distract them. It also turns out to be sausages for lunch, which are nearly impossible to cut one handed. Arabella watches him struggle for a while and then says, "Can I help? I'm sure you'd manage, but it might be easier."
Grant relinquishes his plate with thanks, but resents the necessity of it. At least when he came back from France with two bandaged hands William had been there and he is one of the few people Grant has never minded asking for help.
"I broke my arm when I was nine," says Arabella, as though it’s perfectly ordinary for her to be sitting there cutting his lunch into neat pieces, "Jonathan and my brother were climbing trees and I wanted to join in but it wasn't so easy in a dress. They were both so guilty about it, happening just at the start of the summer holiday, that they waited on me hand and foot until it healed. Their help drove me mad after a while."
"I didn't realise you'd known Merlin, Jonathan, from childhood."
"Oh yes, he was my brother's friend first but Henry and I are twins, so we were always rather inseparable."
"William and I met at school," he offers, feeling the need to share something in return.
"Oh, I didn't realise. No wonder you were so worried about him."
Neither of them know what to say for a moment and the canteen is quiet except for the rattle of plates being washed in the kitchen.
"You have a good eye for map making," Grant says to break the silence.
Thank you." She smiles, a quick flash of pleasure at the praise.
"It's rare to find someone who can make a description of the landscape translate into something useful."
"I suppose I have had practice. You know cameras don't work in faerie, or on the King's Roads? When Jonathan was writing his book on mapping the roads he asked me to provide the illustrations. I couldn't see them for myself, I'm no magician, but he was very exacting in what he wanted. I... sorry, this probably isn't very interesting for you. I'm used to the company of magicians now, I forget some people haven't lived for months in the company of an unpublished book!"
"No, it interests me, it's only that I've never read the book. I'm afraid I've not had much time for books of magic, but I do know that Childermass thinks highly of it. He said the illustrations were beautiful."
"That was kind of him. But never mind the roads. Do you draw, when you can? Ned told me that you usually do the map work yourself."
"I do sometimes. It's a useful skill, but I'm no artist. I'd be surprised though if that's all Ned told you."
"Well, he did say you were the most pedantic man he’d worked for and you'd have me drawing things over and over until you were satisfied, but I found you easier to work with than I thought." She smiles and again he finds himself returning it. When she invites him to dinner with her and Jonathan so he can see the original drawings for the book, he finds it impossible to refuse.
Nothing goes back to exactly how it was before, but with time things return to a new kind of normality. William’s absence echoes, but Segundus and Arabella both have their transfers to the unit agreed. In France, where things had gone quiet after the destruction of the railway line, SOE’s business is starting to pick up. Arabella and Jonathan, with permission from Arthur because of the lack of suitable accommodation for a married couple, move in to a cottage in the far end of the village, close to the base. Grant is their first guest for dinner.
The hospital sends William to a convalescent hospital once they are sure he’s unlikely to suffer a relapse. It’s a gruelling journey there by ambulance despite the painkillers they give him before setting off. Every twist and turn and bump in the road makes him wince. He arrives, exhausted, to find that the hospital has been set up in a converted stately home. He manages a bit of a grin for the orderlies as they carry him inside because at least living in some unknown aristocrat’s country house reminds him of SOE.
He never thought that reminiscing about the SOE training school would be a source of comfort, but then nothing is how he thought it would be any more. Before he left, the doctor told him that the war was over for him. He won’t fly again. A life on the ground is what he has to look forward to: rehabilitation, being told to be patient, waiting and seeing. They manhandle him into bed with a brisk efficiency that is at least better than being fussed over. A nurse takes his pulse and makes a non-committal noise, but given that moving still causes him enough pain to make him dizzy, William assumes she doesn’t mean anything good by it. She doesn’t say anything though, just hands him pills and water.
He’d never even imagined this. He’d assumed the war would kill him, that one day his luck would run out and bring his plane tumbling out of the sky. He’d thought that at least it would be quick. He certainly hadn’t imagined being invalided out, stuck in a hospital in the middle of nowhere. Laura has promised to write, to visit when she can, but it’s a long way from home and travel is always difficult now. Besides, their relationship has changed. Arthur is no longer an abstract concept but a real person that she has met and talked to. Nor, unless the doctors have seriously misjudged his ability to get back in a plane one day, is William likely to die during the war and leave her free to seek what he cannot offer her. He loves her still, but it’s a love that’s tinged with guilt for keeping her trapped. He hasn’t heard from Arthur, not seen him since the awkward visit in the hospital when neither of them had been able to say anything worth saying. He’s not a pilot any more, not useful to the unit. He’s not the young man that Arthur whisked away in his car for a weekend. A cruel voice in the back of his head says that maybe this is it for the two of them: the silent goodbye.
“We’ll have you settled in soon, and then you can get some rest.” The nurse interrupts his thoughts as she lifts his suitcase onto the wooden chair beside his bed. She starts unpacking with ruthless efficiency, stacking clothes into his locker, tucking his shaving kit and other belongings into a drawer. The last item out of the case is a grey woollen jumper. William stares at it as it’s tidied away. He recognises it, but it’s definitely not his.
“Do you know who packed for me?” he asks, trying to sound as though it doesn’t matter.
“No,” the nurse looks confused, “I’m sorry, did they forget something? The hospital arranged for your case to be sent. I’m sure you can write to your unit if there’s anything important you need.”
“No, no it’s fine. Only, there’s nothing else, is there? No note or anything?”
“No, I’ve unpacked everything. Is there a problem?” She frowns at him and he realises that if he says more he will be inviting questions. She’s tired too, looking at him as though daring him to raise a fuss and cause her problems at the end of her long shift. He shakes his head. The nurse gives him a look and leaves, telling him to get some sleep.
He can’t. The jumper in his drawer is Arthur’s jumper. William has worn it a few times before, under his flight suit for the warmth when flying or borrowing it on a cold evening in Arthur’s room. There’s no reason for it to be among his things, and if it is there then Arthur must have put it there. William imagines him packing, folding up his own jumper to send to William. No note, but what could he have said that wouldn’t be incriminating? Ambiguous though it is, a jumper doesn’t feel like a goodbye. William hangs on to that thought, against the loneliness. He feels homesick in a way he hasn’t since he was a boy, starting school.
Unless he has the days muddled, Grant will be taking over from Arthur for the night shift now. Perhaps agents will be going into France. It’s a clear night: good flying for a Lysander. It’s so strange to think that he won’t be part of it any more, to imagine some other pilot making the flight. William would give anything to be there now.
Grant bangs on Arthur’s door and opens it.
“Wanted to let you know I’m back on base. Is there anything to hand over for the night shift?”
“We have some rumours of troop movements that HQ want us to take a look at but I’ve already given it to Childermass. He can brief you if you need.”
“Right. I’ll be in my office. You should get out of here.”
“Yes,” Arthur looks at his watch. “Do you think William’s there by now?”
“He should be.”
“I hope he’ll be alright.” Arthur frowns as he gets up from his desk, gathering files and returning them to the locked cabinet.
“It’s William, I’m sure he will be.” Grant says, leaning on the doorframe. “I miss him though. Nobody to argue with me about flight plans or talk me into going to the pub.”
“I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”
“Thank you.” Arthur locks the cabinet and turns round again, apparently composed. “How was your dinner with the Stranges?”
“It was… pleasant,” Grant grins at him, a schoolboy caught in mischief.
“All strictly professional I assume?”
“Of course, as we agreed.”
Arthur bids him goodnight and goes back to his room. It still feels empty without William there. He sits at his desk and pulls a letter from his pocket. Laura wrote to him, asking if he would go with her to visit William. He reads it again, the cheap paper already wearing soft with repeated folding and unfolding. It’s not from William, and it’s not an answer, but it is something and for now, that’s enough.