The first day back
One summer as a boy, William had had the misfortune to visit his cousins on the day before one of them developed mumps. Then, adding insult to injury, he had come down with it himself at the end of the school holiday. Under quarantine, he'd been banned from his usual visit to Grant's family and everything else that had been planned for the summer. He'd spent the time mostly alone, briefly feeling ill enough to want to stay in bed, but more often in bored solitude in the nursery he had grown out of.
As well as the holiday, he had also missed the first two weeks of school. Impatient to go back throughout the two weeks, on the morning of his departure he had suddenly hesitated, standing before the mirror to knot his school tie. To go back at the start of term, with everybody else, was one thing. To go alone, late, to have missed the train journey and sharing the best contents of tuck boxes and summer stories, was a very different thing. He had felt suddenly that his accepted place in school society was not as certain as he had once believed.
Some two decades later, fastening his blue uniform tie before a different glass, that same feeling returns. He is an outsider again. Others have moved on without him and he must find his way to fitting in again. Not as part of a new intake, a new year, a new pilot in training with all the others, but alone.
He hesitates. Even the hesitation is new. Before, he'd never have given going on shift a second thought; he’d just have gone.
Arthur has already promised that no fuss will be made of his return. He will be able to slip back into his new role as quietly as he wants, but even though he trusts Arthur's promise he knows that his going back will be noticed. He doesn’t even get to go back to his usual work: he’ll be doing half shifts, stuck doing deskwork while other men fly. The last time he was doing paperwork it was punishment for getting into a fight with Strange. That feels like a lifetime ago.
At least he knows Grant will be there, as he was when William was a schoolboy: someone to welcome him back. Grant has been to visit him already, coming over the morning after William’s return and wrapping him in a tight hug. They hadn't said anything, hadn’t needed to: they had just gone back to being the same old William and Colley. They’ve been friends too long to do anything else.
Grant and Arthur had been the ones to get William back to himself after he came home. When he'd found himself too tired to do anything except lie in bed, they were the ones who kept him going. Dr Greysteel too had been briskly kind, muttering about the inadequacies of army hospitals, and prescribing rest and sleep. "Nobody rests in a hospital," he had said, "you need a week or two to get over it, and so I'll tell that CO of yours."
Two weeks is what William has had. Two weeks of sleeping for hours at a time until he’s no longer likely to fall asleep mid conversation, two weeks of having Colley to distract him with visits and catching up on the news, and two weeks of Arthur, there whenever he hasn’t been working, quietly taking care of him. William doesn’t know what to make of Arthur. He has been there, every day and most nights, the two of them falling into an absurdly domestic routine of ‘would you like a cup of tea’ and ‘what shall we have for dinner’ and falling asleep together like an old married couple after a goodnight kiss. Arthur doesn’t say anything; he’s just there. Sometimes William wonders if he’s doing it out of guilt. Or if Arthur is just that desperate to have William fit enough to work again. Whatever the reason, it has been a strange way to live. Now though, the rest is over and the time has come to go back. William’s tie is as neat as it ever will be. He's almost the same as he was.
He picks up his walking stick. A pilot who can't fly. What a joke. For a brief moment he would like to knock the mirror clean off the wall and watch it smash. He turns away. He came back here to work, because Arthur wanted him to, and work is what he’ll do.
Arthur tries not to hover too much when William comes back to work. When William arrives, Arthur watches him through his open office door as he stands, awkwardly, on the threshold of the main workroom. Back in uniform, he looks even paler and thinner than usual. He didn’t sleep much last night, apparently lying awake every time Arthur woke up and then waking them both with nightmares in the early hours. Dr Greysteel was of the opinion that it would do him good to get back into the routine of work, but Arthur would rather have spared him for a few more weeks.
William stays there, hovering. A few of the WAAFs are looking at him and whispering. Unlikely to be anything more than curiosity but Arthur can see William notice and flinch from it.
Arthur is contemplating intervening when Merlin appears, Segundus in his wake.
“William!” he calls, “good to see you back.” He puts out a hand for William to shake and Arthur is relieved to see him smile. “They tell me you’re getting the broom cupboard next to ours for your office. We’ve just been clearing the books out. Do you want to come and see?”
“Yes, that would be good. I’m sorry you’ve had to move things.”
“Well, it’s probably good for us to have a tidy up. You know how magicians are,” Strange tells him as he shepherds William slowly down the corridor.
Arthur relaxes a little. Merlin may have had his differences with William in the past but he’s a kind enough man. Better he gets William settled in without Arthur getting involved.
A while later Grant comes in, with new shift rotas to be signed off and a file with the morning’s new information to discuss.
“How’s William getting on?” Arthur asks him as he skims through the papers.
“Seems to be holding up alright. I’ll go and take him for a tea break in a while.”
“I’d like to see him later, some time this afternoon.”
“Of course, I’ll let him know.” Grant looks irritatingly knowing. Arthur glares at him, and finds fault with the rota.
It’s halfway through the afternoon before William taps at the door, near to the time that he was due to go home.
“Have a seat,” Arthur says, and William sits gingerly. He’s limping more noticeably than he had this morning and he has the strained look that Arthur has come to associate with him being tired or in pain. “Have you taken your pills recently?”
“Oh fuck off, Arthur,” William replies, sounding tired, “you aren’t my nursemaid.”
“I’ll take that as a no. How’s the day been?”
“Either I’m your nursemaid or I’m your superior officer.” Arthur raises an eyebrow at him and waits.
William presses his mouth together. “Fine, sir. I’ve read a lot of the files. I’d like to finish the rest before I make any suggestions, but I’ve got some ideas.”
“Good. Is the new office working?”
“It’s… well it is a storage cupboard with a desk in it but it works.” There’s a flash of the old William in his expression. Arthur has missed the cheek.
“We do what we can with the resources they have seen fit to give us.” He smiles. “We’ll talk again when you’ve finished with the files. Just come and find me and if I’m not free we’ll arrange a time.”
“Speaking as your nursemaid,” he allows the absurdity of it to show on his face, “take the damn pills will you? And don’t feel you have to stay until the clock hits four. Go home early if you need to.”
“I’m fine, really.” William looks at him, meeting his eyes, but Arthur still can’t tell if he means it. There’s something closed off about William now. Sometimes he seems to want someone to be there, to look after him, and other times he draws back. He’ll let Arthur sleep next to him, even kiss him, but he always pulls away. Sometimes being this close to William and still unsure of whether he is welcome there makes Arthur’s heart ache.
“Well, if you are certain, I’ll see you at the cottage later.” He has to remind himself not to say ‘at home’. He is still unquestionably a fool.
Getting to know each other
Dinner with the Stranges is becoming something of a habit. At first Grant had tried to tell himself it was because the food was better than the canteen, or that it was just for company while William was away, but the excuses had worn thin after the conversation he had had with Arabella. Getting to know each other, she had called it, and bit by bit that is what they have been doing. Conversation roams wide but he knows now about the foolish things Jonathan did when he was young, of the Shropshire countryside where they grew up. He is learning about magic, about Norrell and Jonathan's disagreement with him. He tells them why he went into the army before the war began, and his time in the British Expeditionary Force, going into France at the start of the war. He learns about Arabella's brother, the clergyman, and shares stories of his own brothers. He even talks about his eldest brother, a prisoner of war in Germany, and the brother closest to him in age who was with him at Dunkirk but never came home. Arabella takes his hand when he tells her, holding it between both of hers, and it occurs to him that apart from his friendship with William he has been rather lonely recently. He doesn’t usually talk much about himself, but it’s a relief to mention his brothers and find sympathy, or to talk about his youth and make someone laugh.
The other week there had been a film showing in town, something Arabella had wanted to see but Jonathan had professed his loathing of. In the end, Grant had taken her and then, driving her home again, he had sung her all the songs he could remember from it as she laughed and applauded him. It had been an absurd thing to do, but it also left him feeling light-hearted and content. They are, both of them, making his life more worth enjoying, something more than working and sleeping and working again.
So he finds himself in their cottage once again, stretched out in the armchair that is becoming his. Arabella has put the wireless on although there's nothing particularly worth listening to and Jonathan is occupying most of the table with books and papers, scribbling notes and muttering to himself. Grant relaxes; rather enjoying that there's nothing for him to do except sit. The calm of it lulls him until Arabella puts down her knitting and looks at the clock.
“I have to be on duty soon,” she tells them.
Grant sits up and stretches. “I’ll walk back with you then.”
“You don’t need to,” Arabella tells him. At the table, Jonathan is closing his books and marking his place. “At least, there’s something I have to talk to you about first.”
Grant goes from relaxed to wary in a moment. He finds himself instinctively sitting up a little straighter and squaring his shoulders.
“Bell!” Jonathan laughs, “don’t say things like that. You’ll scare poor Captain Grant until he runs for the hills. It’s nothing so ominous as my wife makes it sound.”
“What, then? If you’d like me to leave, you have only to say the word.”
“I rather thought,” Arabella says with a reassuring calmness, “that I should leave, to go to work, and you two should stay here. Alone.”
They both look at Grant: Jonathan’s face hopeful and Arabella’s encouraging. Grant’s mouth is dry, mind stalling as he tries to comprehend whether they really do mean what he thinks they mean.
“I’m not sure if I understand…”
“I hope you do,” Arabella says. Jonathan comes to stand behind her, hands resting on the back of her chair. The picture they make together, such an attractive couple, makes Grant wonder again why on earth they are interested in him.
“Grant, Bell and I were talking and we agreed that if you wanted, you and I could perhaps move forward a little, beyond dinner and talking.”
“You see, I know you and I are still deciding what we want to do,” say Arabella. “I enjoy having you here, very much, but I know that what you feel for Jonathan is more. Both of you want more. What harm can it do for the pair of you to have some time alone?”
Arabella presents it as the easiest thing in the world. Her argument made, she stands and fetches her uniform jacket and coat. Grant stays where he is, not speaking, until she walks up to him.
“I have to go, but I hope that you have an enjoyable evening.” Her face transforms with a sudden and slightly wicked grin. She kisses him, on the forehead as though bestowing her blessing on him, and leaves. He can hear her saying goodbye to Jonathan in the hallway, a goodbye kiss, and the door closing.
“At some point, you really are going to have to say something,” Jonathan tells him when he returns, “even if you say no and we forget the idea. I’ve a chess set somewhere, and some whiskey, although it’s not a particularly good whiskey…”
“I didn’t say no.” Grant can hear his own voice sounds unusually rough as he speaks. Jonathan turns to look at him, hopeful again in an instant. Grant wants him, has been offered the chance to have him, and it’s impossible to resist. He’s been thinking about having this for too long.
Jonathan smiles. “In that case, Captain Grant, would you like to come to bed?”
Arabella taps at the cottage door and waits for William to answer. He takes his time, his greeting already defensive when he opens the door.
“I thought I’d come and let you know I swapped with Mary, so I’ll be working the other half of your shift.”
William leans on the doorframe and looks as though he’s about to ask why she’s bothering to tell him, but then his expression changes to a frown. “Why did you change shifts?”
“Well, Mary wanted to go out with Davy for the evening.”
“And you’re leaving your husband alone?”
“I’ve left him in the company of Captain Grant. I’m sure they will find some way to amuse themselves.”
William frowns at her.
“You don’t approve, do you?” Arabella asks him.
“No, I… Not exactly. Grant’s a friend. I care about him, and he’s very taken with the pair of you, but he’s not like you. He doesn’t have affairs. So no, I don’t approve of you two trying to sweep him off his feet and into your bed.”
Arabella raises an eyebrow. “Well I’d hardly put it like that.”
“How would you put it? You’re already married. What do you see in him besides a bit of fun?”
“Well, that’s a very black and white way of looking at it. This isn’t just to get him into bed.”
William makes a disbelieving noise. “Well just be careful, will you? He’s a good man. Don’t make him unhappy.” He goes to push the door closed but Arabella puts her hand out to stop it.
“Yes, Mrs Strange?”
“I can’t say I like you to hear your opinions of what my husband and I choose to do, but I can’t fault you for caring enough to say it. I don’t know what I can say to reassure you, but believe me I have no intention of hurting him.”
“And if this arrangement doesn’t work out?”
“Then we try, somehow, to make sure that nobody is hurt too much. Not all relationships are happy, but I think it better to try than to walk away without ever seeing what might happen. Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.”
William looks at her, but she can’t read his expression. His face is guarded, cautious, but also somehow sad.
“And how do you know, when you should take a leap of faith?” He makes the phrase sound rather ridiculous when he repeats it, and Arabella knows that perhaps it is, but she has none better. How else can she describe how it felt to change what has worked for years and see if a third person can be fitted into their lives without damaging what they already have? Gambling what they have for the chance of future happiness. Thinking of Jonathan’s hopeful face, of the disbelieving want she saw in Grant: how could she have chosen differently?
“I suppose… I suppose it’s when you care enough about someone else, that you’d risk it to make them happy.”
“You make it sound very easy.”
“Sometimes, it is.”
Grant hovers in the doorway of the bedroom. Downstairs it had been easier not to think so much, particularly when Jonathan had been so determined to kiss him senseless. Here, there’s time to reflect. He watches Jonathan drawing the blackout curtains and taking off his watch. Grant is uncomfortably aware that this must be Jonathan’s routine for going to bed, how he undresses every night when he is with Arabella.
Jonathan pulls his jumper over his head and pauses, watching Grant. “I’ve left you behind,” he says. His hair is unruly, a disconcertingly informal look.
“Perhaps we shouldn’t do this, Merlin.”
Jonathan frowns at him. “What’s wrong?” He walks towards Grant, stopping when he is close but not close enough to be an invasion of space. “I thought downstairs that you wanted this, but if you have changed your mind…”
“No, I mean, perhaps this isn’t right. Your wife,” Grant gestures around the bedroom, around this room that belongs to Mr and Mrs Strange and not to him.
“You can call her Arabella,” Merlin says gently. “Bell knows what we are doing. This was her idea.” Merlin puts his hand on Grant’s shoulder, a warm weight that Grant instinctively leans into. “If you have changed your mind, we can stop. You have only to say.”
Grant says nothing. Merlin leans in slowly, giving Grant time to pull away. He can’t. Jonathan is too tempting at such close quarters and his kiss is so gentle that Grant has to lean forwards, seeking something more substantial. Jonathan’s hand slides into Grant’s hair, stroking it where it’s clipped short at the nape of his neck. They’ve kissed many times before, with all the heat of something forbidden, but this is different. This is Jonathan knowing exactly what he wants and knowing that he can have it for the asking.
And somewhere, Arabella Strange knows it too. She must. She must be thinking about it, wondering what they are doing. Grant pushes Jonathan away.
“Grant?” Jonathan is staring at him, a frighteningly gentle expression on his face.
“Your wife, Arabella, she knows, and is out there somewhere thinking about it. About us. Knowing…” Grant feels his face heat with the embarrassment of it. Bad enough to sleep with a married man, it is far worse to sleep with a married man while thinking all the time that his wife might be imagining it.
Merlin laughs, not unkindly. “She does know, and I’m afraid I cannot pretend otherwise, but my dear Grant, I think she will most likely be wishing she was here.” He stops and looks at Grant, considering what to do next. He puts a hand on Grant’s shoulder again, rubbing his thumb against his collarbone. “Never mind. We have all night, there’s no need to rush this. I won’t have you do something you might regret. Once was more than enough.”
He pulls himself away and picks up his jumper again before walking back down the stairs: Grant follows him, not sure what else to do. He doesn’t know what to expect after such an abrupt end to their evening plans, but it certainly isn’t Jonathan going to the kitchen and putting the kettle on.
“Are you making tea?” he asks incredulously, finding himself once more leaning against a doorway and not knowing what else to do with himself.
“I am.” Jonathan rinses the teapot and finds mugs. He looks entirely unconcerned by the change of plans. Grant resists the urge to bang his own head against the doorframe for his stupidity. This is not what he wanted, but since he has no idea what he would prefer, he stays.
“Perhaps I should go.”
“No.” Jonathan turns, waving the teapot at him in an emphatic way. His expression is the determined one he wears when he is arguing a point of magic on which he will not be swayed. “Absolutely not. I’m not having you running away again. We are going to drink tea, and discuss this like civilised human beings.”
Grant can’t help smiling. “Is that what we are doing?”
“Yes, we are, so sit down.” Jonathan waves him towards the kitchen table. It’s a small room, but a cosy one. Not so many hours ago he was watching the two of them cooking, being asked to peel potatoes and taste things. Grant takes a seat.
“I’m sorry,” he says, which feels inadequate for the situation, but he is sorry. Sorry that this is beyond him, sorry that he can’t bring himself to do what they both want.
“Don’t be.” Jonathan brings the teapot to the table and puts it down. He returns with the mugs and takes a seat opposite. “You know, there was one thing that I forgot, when I first discussed this with you. Arabella reminded me of it very forcibly afterwards.”
“Oh?” Grant isn’t sure he likes the idea of the two of them discussing him.
“She reminded me that the stakes were higher for you. If this doesn’t work out, I have Bell and she has me. For you, it’s rather different. I should have considered it but instead I thought about what I wanted, what we might have. I hoped, when you first came to dinner, that perhaps we could work something out. That is could be as easy as wanting it. Then you pulled away from us and I wondered why.” Jonathan stops, apparently waiting for an answer.
“You mean after France? I suppose, coming here and spending time with you… it brought home how married you were. You’ve no idea, have you, how you look to the rest of the world? The two of you have something extraordinary. I’ve seen enough couples, enough people who get on well enough in a marriage. You two are so in love with one another any fool could see it. What was I, in comparison to that? Of course I pulled away, Merlin. What else could I have done?”
“But is it what you wanted?”
Jonathan pours tea, giving him time to think, but there are no easy answers. Grant knows he wants Jonathan, would almost say he would take whatever he was given, although he stops himself. It’s hard to put a price on present satisfaction when weighed up against future heartbreak, and heartbreak would seem to be the end result. Jonathan and Arabella are a pair: that much is unavoidable. The alternative…
“I don’t know what I want.”
“Is that true? Or are you just afraid of what you want?”
“Merlin, I’m not some silly girl worried about having her heart broken.” Grant is not enjoying the way this conversation is heading.
“No, you are not that,” Jonathan says, “but you are afraid.”
“I understand, and if you choose to walk away I will respect that, but I want you.” Jonathan smiles, the sort of smile it would be easy to fall in love with. “I wish you would give us a chance the try.”
“You’re right,” Grant tells him, groaning and running his hands through his hair. “I am afraid. Laugh if you like, but I’d find flying back into France easier than this.”
“So why don’t you do what you do when you have to fly into France?” Jonathan drains the last of the tea in his mug. “Let someone else be in charge for a change, Captain.”
Grant swallows a mouthful of his own tea. Decision time. Oh fuck it, he thinks, what happened to letting myself have what I want? He remembers his parachute instructor saying ‘everyone’s bloody well afraid, any man with sense would be, but what matters is jumping anyway.’
“Then I think I should consider myself under your orders, Mr Strange.”
Grant lets himself be guided into the bedroom until he is sitting on the end of the bed. For all he has chosen this, he can’t quite relax, even when Merlin kneels before him. Especially when Merlin kneels before him. Last time it had been Grant on his knees.
“Yes?” Merlin leans forward and kisses him again. A short kiss, barely more than a brush of mouths. He bends down to Grant’s shoes and undoes the laces. When Grant tries to protest, he shakes his head and carries on. He kneels up again and works his fingers into Grant’s tie to loosen the knot. His fingers brush against Grant’s chest and make him draw in a breath.
“Grant… no, Colley. May I call you that? Grant is a little too formal for this.”
Grant nods, wordless. He watches, mesmerised, as Merlin slowly unbuttons the front of his jacket and slides it off his shoulders. Merlin removes his tie too, and frowns at him. “Your collar is too tight,” he says, “let me take it off. May I take it off?”
His fingers touch gently at the skin above Grant’s collar. Grant’s eyes close. Shirts are always too tight at the neck, or too long at the sleeves, but now the tightness feels unbearable. The unbuttoning of his collar is a relief and Jonathan’s fingers roam further, unfastening buttons and smoothing over his skin. Kisses follow the fingers, feather light and making Grant’s heart beat faster. He suspects his hands are shaking where they rest against his knees. Nobody has ever undressed him so slowly before.
“I like it when you call me that. Merlin is not a very respectable name for a magician.” He can feel the words and the smile against his skin. “Come here.”
Jonathan stretches out on the bed and opens his arms. Grant rolls into them. The bed smells of Jonathan and the scent he recognises as Arabella, but this time he doesn’t mind. Jonathan is kissing him again, unbuttoning the rest of his shirt at the same time. Grant wants, but it’s not the overwhelming want he felt the last time he went to bed with Jonathan Strange. Last time they had done everything fast to block out their better judgement and then regretted it afterwards. This is a slow dismantling of every thought he has in his head as Jonathan strips him bare. He has seen Merlin at work when he is focused intently upon a piece of magic, but that focus has never been turned so directly onto him. There is no escaping it and he doesn’t want to try.
After a while so he rolls Jonathan over, enjoying the way Jonathan goes, not fighting him, sprawled against the mattress in an unspoken invitation to explore. Jonathan is beautifully responsive; all twitches and sighs under Grant’s hands. It’s dizzying, to have that body entirely his, to have the man under his hands with enough time to do anything they choose.
“What do you want?” Jonathan asks him eventually, pulling Grant on top of him and grabbing his arse. The message is clear: enough teasing for now.
“You.” Grant whispers in his ear, “just you.”
Jonathan groans and pulls Grant harder against him. “As I want you, but I was thinking more specifically.” He rolls them over and Grant instinctively parts his thighs to let Jonathan settle in between them. “Do you want this? I don’t know what you prefer.”
“Either way, for me. It’s been a long time though, not since… oh God… not since before the war.” He leaves unspoken, not since William, and not often then.
“I’ll be gentle with you,” Jonathan smiles at him, a smile with promise in it.
Grant has never liked this part of sex, found it intrusive and not distracting enough to keep him from thinking of the strangeness of it. Then again he has never done this with Merlin, with Jonathan. Jonathan, who distracts him with kisses that are sweet but demanding: months’ worth of kisses perhaps, all the times when Jonathan has held himself back. Grant appreciates that he doesn’t linger too much, trusts him when he says he wants more, and when the discomfort starts to edge out over the enjoyment of it Jonathan is there, biting gently at his lip or letting his thumb slide over the curve of Grant’s ear. Jonathan can read him like an open book. Not that he knows precisely what to do, but Grant can feel himself watched, notices Jonathan noticing whatever gives away that there should be more of this or less of that. It surprises him that he doesn’t feel uncomfortably shy under the scrutiny.
Pleasure begins to win out. He is shameless, bucking against Jonathan’s body and for the first time, Jonathan makes him wait, watching him with hunger as he fucks himself back against Jonathan’s hand. Grant would like to say something intelligent, something biting about being left waiting, but he doesn’t. He turns his head against Jonathan’s arm where he braced, and mouths at it, half kiss, half bite. “Please, please,” he says to the damp skin, tasting salt. Jonathan bends to kiss him again: his mouth, his forehead, the skin beneath his ear.
Jonathan’s face when they fuck is a work of art. His eyes fall shut, teeth biting hard at his lip: he throws his head back like sculpture. His hips jerk hard, too hard, uncontrolled at last. He bends forward in apology, nuzzling his damp forehead into the crook of Grant’s neck. They fuck and kiss, bumping noses, lips never quite touching perfectly and too far gone to care. They are wound tight, on the verge of too much.
There isn’t a thought in Grant’s head. All he wants is this, right here and now, with the overwhelming slide of Jonathan’s cock inside him and his own hand stroking himself. He’s brazen, letting Merlin watch, enjoying the way he groans at the sight and lets his hips thrust wild again as though he cannot help himself.
It is too much for it to last for long. Grant can’t stop himself falling towards it, tumbling over with Jonathan’s breathing harsh in his ear, his groans muffled in Grant’s neck as he comes, hot and wet. Jonathan’s weight falls onto him a moment later, on the border of too much but blanking out everything except this: the thump of his own heart and the comforting silence in his own mind.
Afterwards Jonathan rolls them both over, sliding his body behind Grant’s and letting his leg fall over Grant’s ankle. He folds him in his arms for good measure, leaving Grant cocooned with the heat of Jonathan against his back. Grant drifts, body warm and heavy. He can’t remember the last time he felt this content.
When Jonathan pulls the covers over him, he knows that sleep is inevitable but can’t bring himself to care. To hell with work, with wondering if he ought to stay or not, with the feeling of sweat and stickiness that would normally have him getting up to wash and dress and leave. He will take his moment, this glorious, hazy moment of lying here feeling wanted and satisfied, and savour it to the last second. The last things he remembers are Jonathan’s hands, moving warm against his chest and Jonathan’s breath stirring gently against the hairs on the back of his neck.
Grant wakes in the middle of the night. The creak of an unfamiliar door rouses him perhaps, or steps on the stairs when he has been used to living in barracks without them. Jonathan stirs behind him, pressing a kiss to his shoulder.
“Stay,” Jonathan whispers, “go back to sleep.”
Something about being in Jonathan’s bed must had affected him, because he does drift again, losing his usual alertness in the soft mattress and the warmth under the covers that only comes from sharing a bed. The next thing he is aware of is a whispered conversation from the doorway. Arabella, he thinks at last, working a half shift with William and home early.
“I should go,” he says, and then again louder when they don’t hear him, “I’m sorry, I’ll leave now.”
They turn to face him: Jonathan naked, his hair wild and a bruise rising vividly on his neck, and Arabella in her neat uniform. Grant fights down the sudden panic that rises up from the pit of his stomach: the feeling of being caught out. He was invited. There is no need to run. But still, he feels every kiss and fingerprint that Jonathan has left on his body. He is naked, dishevelled, in Arabella’s bed.
“You don’t have to go,” she says. She looks at him, assessing, appraising. He feared judgement but this looks more like admiration.
“Do you want me to stay?”
Arabella doesn’t answer, she just crosses the room and perches on the bed beside him. She studies him, eyes roaming over his bare chest and shoulders. He suppresses the urge to pull the cover up to his neck
“Yes, I would,” she says when she is done scrutinising him. She leans forward and kisses him. It’s different to kissing Jonathan, but no less enjoyable. Grant brings his hands up to her waist, feeling the curve of her hips under her uniform skirt. It’s not a fantasy he’d ever considered before, but there’s a certain something to being entirely naked and kissing a woman in uniform.
Jonathan makes a soft, almost longing sound from where he is watching them. Arabella gives Grant one last kiss and reaches under the covers. He flinches away from her without thinking, and then laughs with her when she produces a pair of blue striped pyjamas from under the pillows.
“If you’ll excuse me, I need to go and change.”
She leaves and Jonathan follows her, leaving Grant alone in their bed. He wonders if he ought to go anyway. After all, Arabella is back. He can hardly kick her out of her husband’s bed because he got into it first. He’s trying to summon up the energy to move out from under the warm covers when Jonathan reappears, carrying a glass of water. He offers it to Grant, who takes it and downs it, glad of the coolness. Jonathan stretches out beside him, running a careless hand down Grant’s body, more a caress rather than anything with intent.
“Shall I go?” Grant asks him. “I don’t mind. It has been a very good evening, but I understand if it’s easier.”
“I don’t want you to go. The bed is big enough for three.”
Grant raises an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re happy allowing an army captain to share a bed with your wife?”
“And why would that be?” Jonathan moves his hands further down Grant’s body. “Because of this?”
“Oh, you bastard!”
“Perhaps I’d better tire you out before she comes to bed.”
Jonathan smirks and disappears under the covers. Grant can’t find any reasonable arguments to stop him. By the time Jonathan is finished with him, he’s half asleep already, barely aware of Arabella getting into the bed, of whispering voices saying not to wake him, or the sound of a kiss. He rolls over, surrounded by warmth, and falls asleep.
In the morning Jonathan wakes to an entirely wonderful sight. Grant is lying next to him, still sleeping soundly and more relaxed that Jonathan has ever seen him when awake. Jonathan takes the time to study him, to learn the way he breathes, the faint creases on his face. He has one bare arm slung over Bell and the sight of the two of them together makes something catch in Jonathan’s throat.
The alarm clock by the bedside is close to ringing and he stops it. Arabella should have more sleep and there are better ways to wake Grant. His name, spoken softly to his ear, and a kiss to his shoulder does the trick, then a real kiss for good measure when Grant turns.
“Good morning,” Jonathan says, aware that he has a rather foolish smile on his face.
“Good morning.” Grant brushes the sleep from his eyes and looks up at Jonathan. The expression on his face is warm, and Jonathan can’t help but kiss him again.
“We should get up,” Jonathan says reluctantly, “our shift starts soon.”
“What about Mrs… Arabella?” Grant turns to look at her where she is sleeping. There’s a fond expression on his face as he watches her. Jonathan had wondered if Grant would have regrets in the morning, or be uncomfortable at least, but he seems entirely relaxed.
“We should let her sleep.”
“Best get up then.” Grant smiles broadly up at him and Jonathan feels quite ridiculously happy. They gather their clothes from the bedroom floor. Grant is unfazed by his own nakedness and Jonathan admires him as he bends down to pick up his discarded shirt.
Jonathan leaves Grant and their clothes in the small second bedroom and goes down to the cold kitchen in his pyjamas to boil a kettle. He takes the hot water up to Grant for washing and shaving, tries not to watch too obviously as Grant runs a wet flannel over his skin and frowns into the mirror in concentration as he shaves. Watching Grant button up his shirt, Jonathan swallows hard. It is going to be difficult to think about anything else this morning.
“Thank you,” Grant says, running his hands through his hair to tidy it.
Jonathan struggles to remember what he was going to say. “There’s bread, in the kitchen, if you’d like something to eat or, if… I won’t be long.”
Jonathan washes and dresses at speed, feeling that too much of a delay might mean coming downstairs to an empty kitchen. In fact he comes downstairs to find Grant pouring tea.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he says, “I thought you might want a cup. The milk’s turned though.”
Jonathan accepts the cup. Grant is watching him.
“You don’t, you don’t regret what happened?” Jonathan asks “Last night, I mean?”
“Merlin,” Grant looks up at him, “Jonathan. I have wanted this, wanted you, for a very long time. I’m not going to change my mind. Not now. Not unless you regret…”
“No, not for a moment.” Jonathan reaches out across the table to touch Grant’s hand. “I just… had to check.” He smiles ruefully at Grant, who doesn’t laugh, but looks at him quite seriously.
“This has to stay professional, at work.”
“Of course. As we agreed.”
“Then, no regrets.” Grant shrugs, and just like that, the world is set on a new and, so Jonathan hopes, happier course. They sit together in silence and drink their tea as soon as it’s cool enough, the ticking of the kitchen clock a reminder that work is calling them.
“It will be difficult,” Jonathan says as he takes the mugs to the sink.
“Not to do this.” Jonathan pulls Grant to him and gives him one last kiss. The kind of kiss that says exactly how much he would like to take Grant back upstairs, take off all his clothes and to hell with work.
Grant pulls back, and the look in his brown eyes promises Jonathan more than he might have bargained for. “Behave, Merlin,” he says, “and I’ll make it up to you later.”