For all William’s good intentions, the first days with the boys are not a resounding success.
For a start, they keep staring at him: two pairs of expectant eyes, watching. It’s frankly alarming. William tries to ignore them. He knows he isn’t good with children. It was awkward enough on the first evening when Arthur introduced the boys and they all ate dinner together before William went on shift. The older boy was mostly silent, answering questions but not saying much, while Charlie talked too much to fill the silence. Even Arthur was awkward, not having seen them for months and working his way back into knowing them.
Now the two boys are sitting at the writing desk in the window, pretending to do something relating to school work, and watching while William lies on the sofa and reads the latest letter from Laura.
He and Laura are writing to one another again now: a first tentative beginning in rebuilding a relationship from the marriage that is over in all but name. It’s hard sometimes, an exercise in staring at blank pages and struggling to know what to say, but it feels worth it if something can be salvaged of the friendship they had when they were younger. She tells him she is happier now the lies are over. A new beginning and a return to ordinary life for both of them is her description. She continues with a long, rambling account of the beginning of the harvest that makes him smile at her enthusiasm.
He looks up to find the boys watching him again. Their stares are giving him a headache. When he stares back, they turn their heads back to their work. He thinks about what he might say in reply to Laura, when he has nothing as safe to talk about as fruit picking and cows, and tries to block out the whispered complaints of boredom.
It’s a relief when Arthur comes home early and takes them out for a walk.
When the boys are in bed Arthur doesn’t say anything about the strained silence he’d come home to, which is also a relief, but William notices that from the following day there is usually someone else about to look after the boys. Even Colley comes visiting: he has a hoard of nieces and nephews and children don’t bother him the way they bother William. He seems to have the knack of knowing what to ask them about, or what to say in reply. For William, any conversation is stilted and hard work, full of awkward silences.
William tries. He tries for Arthur’s sake, even though he’s always got one ear open for them rattling around in the empty house next door or playing in the garden, waiting for them to reappear or somehow injure themselves in a way that will be his responsibility to fix. He hears shouting at one point but it stops quickly enough that he doesn’t have to intervene. They just exist, the three of them, giving each other space and trying not to do anything that might force them to confront the awkwardness.
Segundus seems to do best with them and William looks to his visits with relief. He tells William that he was once a school master, and William finds it easy to believe when he takes over the living room and helps the boys with mathematics and whatever else it is they are meant to be doing. Afterwards, with Arthur safely back at the cottage with the boys and William staying late in the safety of the unit, Segundus comes to find him.
“I think there’s something bothering Artie,” he says, more directly than William is used to. “I know boys, and it’s no good him fretting alone. Someone should talk to him.”
“They aren’t my sons!” William tells him, “It’s not my place to…”
“I know,” Segundus says, firmly, “but you could talk to his father. Couldn’t you?”
William is used to a Segundus who apologises if anyone so much as looks at him. It’s rather shocking to find oneself on the receiving end of a determined and uncomfortably knowing stare. If William didn’t know about Childermass, it would almost be a threat.
“I wouldn’t mention it if I didn’t think it was important. Artie doesn’t talk to his father, does he? It sounds as though the boys have agreed that he is not to be bothered. Perhaps, if you talked to him, or to them?” Segundus loses the strict expression of before and smiles encouragingly. William realises that his bluntness is for the boys’ sakes and can’t help but respect him for it. He finds himself agreeing to do something without even really knowing how. Mentioning the boys to Arthur tends to make him close off, as though he’s waiting for William to say that it’s not working. So he says nothing, and feels guilty.
It doesn’t change until the night the bombers go out. Not from SOE but from their neighbouring airbase (and cover for having planes taking off, although anyone paying the slightest bit of attention can see the difference between single planes on moonlight nights and the organised bombing raids from 'next door'). William was already half expecting them to fly tonight when he hears the engines starting. He can't lose that pilot's awareness of the weather and the flying conditions, and he knows the pattern of a bomber squadron.
As the first rumble of engines begins, he hears a thump and a squeak from above. Boys out of bed then.
He debates for a moment whether he is obliged to go and put them back to bed, or if yelling up the stairs would do the trick. He opens his mouth and closes it again. Arthur would probably know the right few words in the right tone but William doesn't.
The whispers are growing louder and he has a fair idea of what they must be up to. If only they have the sense not to let a light show. Remembering his own exploits at that age, he resigns himself to climbing the stairs. Halfway up (it bothers him that there is a halfway up: stairs should be over in the blink of an eye) there's a louder crash and the twin thuds of two boys hurling themselves back into bed.
William, feeling out of breath from the effort of negotiating the stairs, pushes open their bedroom door.
"I know you aren't asleep. What were you playing at?"
The two very still lumps under the bedding say nothing. The frame holding the blackout curtains is lying on the floor. He shoves it back into place: at least it's light enough to manage.
"If the ARP warden turns up to shout about blackout regulations, I'm not telling your dad. You are."
Still nothing from the boys. William sighs. Fuck knows what he is supposed to say now. Go downstairs probably, but after the difficulty of getting up here, he'd rather not tackle it just yet. There’s the camp bed set up in the other room for Arthur, but he suspects if he sat down on it he’d never be able to get up again.
"Well, you've made me come up here. I'm not going down again until I've sat down. Move your feet."
The larger blanket lump moves, curling towards the top of the bed and William drops down to sit on the end of the mattress.
"I'm sorry, sir," Artie mumbles, finally emerging from under the bedding. "We didn't mean to." He flicks on the torch sitting on his bedside table.
"It's alright,” William says, feeling awkward again. “What were you doing? Watching the planes?"
"Yes. Charlie doesn't like having the blackout curtains up. He likes to know what’s out there when there are planes. To check they aren't German."
"And I like planes," Charlie adds, pulling off his blankets to reveal hair sticking in all directions. The two boys look at him expectantly.
"Are you a pilot?" Charlie asks him, before suddenly looking comically horrified. Artie, with a complete lack of subtlety, kicks his brother under the blanket. It doesn't take William too long to guess that Arthur, in a protective mood, has told them not to ask him about it. Which he appreciates, but also makes him wonder when Arthur forgot so much about being a boy that he didn't realise it would only make them more curious.
"I was once," he says. It stings.
Charlie looks guilty, then thoughtful. "But..." he says, "you still were a pilot? So you must know an awful lot about planes?"
"I suppose so," William replies, with the suspicion that he is being played.
"So, you could help, couldn't you? With watching them?"
"I'm sure you should both be asleep. The only planes out there tonight are ours."
"Please," Charlie says, with an edge of fear to his voice. "How do you know they're ours if you don't look?"
William looks at them both. Artie has a pleading expression.
"He just wants to know they aren't German bombers," Artie says, even as Charlie elbows him in turn.
About to say that it’s damned obvious, because the planes are busy circling but none of them have dropped any bombs yet, William silently berates himself for not thinking. Of course these two boys have every reason to be afraid of German bombers.
"Alright," he says. "One quick look. You don’t need long to tell them apart."
He reaches over to switch off the torch and removes the blackout. In the distance, the bombers are circling into formation like dozy black wasps.
"We don't get many planes flying over Grandma's house," Artie tells him.
"Well, you'll see a lot here so you'd better get to know them. Our planes, mostly," he adds as an afterthought. “If the air raid siren isn’t going, they’ll be ours.”
"I can't see properly," Charlie says, wiggling in front of William at the window. He leans against William as they watch, an easy acceptance that William finds mildly disconcerting.
"What did you fly?" Artie asks, when the planes are gone and the three of them are still there, looking out at the stars. You see so more stars now, with the blackout. Especially if you are used to London skies as William is.
"Sorry if I shouldn't ask," Artie says, reminding William that he's been drifting instead of answering. "Dad said we shouldn't bother you."
"It's alright,” he says, and it’s almost true. “I was in Bomber Command, flying Wellington bombers mostly. Then smaller planes, Hudsons…” he stops himself in the interests of national security.
“I don’t know those ones,” Charlie says, “how do you recognise them?”
“Did you ever fly Lancasters?” Artie asks with no less enthusiasm.
William resigns himself to being grilled for every bit of aeronautical knowledge he has. At least it’s easy to talk about.
By the time curiosity is satisfied, Charlie is half asleep already, eyelids drooping.
“Bed,” William says, “and if you hear planes coming back in the night it’ll be the ones from the airfield coming home.”
“Y’ promise?” Charlie mumbles, rolling himself into the blankets.
“Promise,” William says. “If it isn’t, I’ll make sure you know.”
“G’night,” Artie says, “and thank you.”
William pushes himself up from the bed, wincing when his hip protests at sitting still too long. If anyone had told him he’d spend a good hour talking to the boys he’d have laughed.
He eyes the stairs between him and his bed. Going down them seems more daunting than going up and he’d rather not land in a heap at the bottom. The bed in Arthur’s room is looking like the lesser of two evils after all. At least if Arthur finds him there, it’ll be a welcome surprise.
Plans for the future
“Have a seat.” Arthur indicates the chair opposite.
“You don’t have to sound so suspicious Grant. I just want to talk to you about where we go from here. The future of the unit so to speak.”
“This project with Germany, you took the lead on it. It’s really your area. You can work well with the magicians, with the men from Station X. Having eyes on Germany is becoming more important as the war goes on. Once the tide turns, if we start making a real push back onto Germany we’re going to need to know what Hitler is doing. We’ve got intel from Station X, and they tell me they are working on something new, but the more information we can get the better. That’s where we come in, or where you do.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” Grant says.
“I think you do. You aren’t stupid.” Arthur raises an eyebrow at him. “I’d like you to take command of the Germany work. I’ve spoken to the higher ups. They won’t make a separate unit: apparently one group of magicians is more than enough for them, but you’ll command a sub-unit within this one. You’ll still answer to me, but you’ll have more operational control, your own personnel. Your own magician: although I will say now that if you are doing… whatever you are doing, I will trust your judgement but I don’t want any mess in the chain of command. Understood?”
“Think about who you want. You don’t have to give me names yet, but write a list and we’ll go over it. Make sure we have the right people for both teams.”
“That would be good. Although, I think I’d rather take Segundus as a magician if it’s alright with you.”
“Segundus?” Arthur looks at him in surprise.
“Not the choice you were expecting, but he’s already dealt with the Germany work, and I don’t need a field agent. You do.”
“Besides, he’s been in command before, and it would help to have a deputy to run things if I’m off base.”
“Planning your free time already?” Arthur raises one eyebrow. “No, don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.”
“I agree on principle to you working with Segundus. Get the rest of your list to me by the end of the week. You still have to officially report to me, but I trust you to get on with most of it alone. There’ll be a promotion in it, I expect.”
“And the work in France?”
“I’ll still be doing most of that, but with oversight of both groups, I’ll need someone to replace you as my second.” For a fraction of a second, Arthur looks guilty. It’s not hard for Grant to draw the obvious conclusion.
“You mean to ask William?”
“And the potential for ‘mess in the chain of command’?”
Arthur smiles ruefully. “That’s why I didn’t forbid you to work with Strange. It would be hypocritical of me. But I hope there won’t be a problem.”
“I think things appear to be… settled.” Grant rubs the bridge of his nose. “I know Merlin would have problem with authority but William seems to have been coping for some time now, wouldn’t you say?”
“I think perhaps that’s a train of thought you should leave well alone.”
“Of course, Sir. I’d hate to jeopardise my new position before it’s even begun.” Grant allows himself a small smile. Arthur raises an eyebrow in return. Message received and understood.
“You accept the post then? Should I tell them the matter is agreed?”
“I’d be delighted.”
“Well then, what about a drink to celebrate your new position?”
Grant leaves the office in a daze which has nothing to do with the glass of whiskey. His own unit, or sub-unit as they are going to call it. Whatever the title, it's a step up from being Arthur's second in command. He should be delighted but it hasn't quite hit him yet, leaving him only with a sense of the unreality of the situation. He finds himself in need of company. Someone to tell, someone who can shake his hand and say, yes, this is a good thing, well done Grant.
William of course is nowhere to be found. Probably in with Arthur in fact, getting his own share of the good news. The promotion for him will help. Grant knows he needs something to hang on to; something to do that isn’t flying. He had his doubts about Arthur, but in this at least he seems to be doing the right thing.
Grant discovers that Jonathan isn't in the main office either so he heads for the magician's office and finds it empty except for Arabella.
"Captain Grant," she says with a smile, "were you looking for Jonathan? He went out with Segundus. Something about rivers and natural boundaries.”
“Ah. I shall assume they won’t be back for some time then.”
“And soaking wet, both of them, I expect.” She shakes her head. “But what did you want to speak to him about? Can I pass on a message or shall I ask him to find you?”
“No, no, it wasn’t important, just something I was going to mention but…” Grant can feel his face heat. It feels suddenly boastful to have wanted to tell anyone at all, when it’s hardly even confirmed.
“What is it?”
“They’re… um… Arthur’s changing the unit. He wants a group working on Germany. Not that I should be saying that, you understand, I just…”
“And this group, will you be running it?”
Grant nods, aware that he can’t quite bring himself to meet her eyes and probably looks like a disgraced schoolboy. Irritated by himself, he forces his gaze up and meets hers. She’s closer than he was expecting, her eyes warm. She smiles at him and he feels breathless. He wants her, in a way he hasn’t wanted anyone for a long time, except Jonathan.
“I’m proud of you,” she says, putting a cool hand against his cheek. He knows she’s going to kiss him but he doesn’t pull away. She’s kissed him once or twice, but never anything more than that, even when he was sleeping in their bed. It feels like long enough to wait, long enough to be sure. He leans forward first, catching her by surprise and the hitch in her breathing pleases him. He’s spent a long time being pursued by the Stranges and it’s time to take charge. Besides, he has something to prove.
He kisses her the way he’s been imagining kissing her since that first night in Jonathan’s bed. Different to kissing Merlin of course, leaning down not up, her face smoother against his own and her hair is softer against his fingers but twisted tightly into a roll on the back of her head. She gives as good as she gets, cupping the side of his face with one hand and then sliding the other under his jacket, tugging at his shirt. In retaliation he lets one hand drift downwards, learning the curve of her arse. He smiles into the kiss. He’s been wanting to do that for a while.
“You are very bold today.”
“Should I not be?”
“No, I rather think I like it.”
It feels like permission. He turns them, pushing her back against the wall and she goes willingly. Perhaps he should be shocked at treating her like this, but there she is, hiking her skirt higher so she can hook a leg around his and he puts the shock aside in favour of sliding a hand up her thigh. She’s wearing stockings today, silky against her legs and slipping under his fingers as he moves his hand up further, under the rough fabric of her uniform skirt, finding the point where the stockings end and he can feel warm skin. Arabella makes an appreciative noise and unfastens the collar of his shirt. He wonders if, madly, his first time sleeping with the woman he is falling in love with will be up against the wall in her husband’s office.
The yelp from the doorway has them flying apart as if scalded, even as the door bangs shut.
“For fuck’s sake Colley, can’t you learn to lock the fucking door?”
Some of the adrenaline dissipates as he realises it’s William’s voice from the other side of the door.
“Can’t you learn not to barge into a room without knocking?” he yells back.
“I did! You obviously didn’t hear me!” William opens the door again and sidles through, one hand clamped ostentatiously over his eyes. “Are you decent?”
He peeks sideways from behind his palm.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Grant tells him, refastening his shirt and adjusting his trousers. Arabella is shaking with suppressed laughter. At least he hopes it’s laughter. If it isn’t, he’s going to murder William.
William drops his hand at last. His face turns pink when he looks at Arabella.
“Well I’m sorry to interrupt you,” he says at speed, “but Arthur wanted to see you. Call from London, apparently. I’m sorry to disturb you.”
He leaves, with a last too-loud whisper to Grant not to get distracted again.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that,” Grant says, feeling the urge to bang his head against the nearest desk. Everything about his behaviour has been inappropriate. Too forward. Too Arthur.
Arabella just laughs. “Yes you should. But poor William! I’m not sure who was more shocked.”
“He won’t say anything.”
“I know. I warn you though, Jonathan will probably find it hilarious.”
“Oh God, Jonathan.” Grant has the horrified realisation that he’s somehow going to have to tell Jonathan that he got carried away with his wife and nearly got caught into the bargain. He sits behind the desk and buries his face in his hands.
“Don’t worry. I think he’ll take it as a promising sign.”
“A promising sign of what?”
“That you might say yes to us,” she says, suddenly more serious. “I hoped you would, in the end. We were hoping.”
“So was I. There just never seemed to be the right moment to ask.”
“Well then, let us take you out to dinner to celebrate your promotion…”
“It’s not official yet.”
“So,” she says in the fondly exasperated tone she uses on Jonathan, “when it is official, let us take you out for dinner. And then I hope you’ll come home with us.”
“For the night?”
“For the first of many nights, I hope! Now go, or you’ll have Arthur through the door wondering where you’ve got to.” With that dire threat in mind, Grant goes.
The problem with Artie
When Arthur walks home, he’s aware of a growing tightness across his shoulders. It’s a familiar sensation from walking into enemy territory, and the fact that going home has now become the cause makes him worry even further. There were no baby sitters today: he’d needed Grant and Segundus at work, and Flora had to leave at lunchtime to go to town with her aunt. The boys have been with William most of the afternoon.
Arthur isn’t blind. He knows things haven’t exactly been easy with William and the boys. The rabbit in the headlights look William gets when he has to talk to them isn’t as well hidden as he probably thinks it is. Then there was the other evening, when he came home to find William upstairs and refusing to say why, which he can only assume means the boys were up to no good. He appreciates that William has been trying, but it doesn’t make coming home to awkward silence and bored boys any easier.
The sound of raised voices when he pushes open the door make him wince, until he realises that the raised voice is Artie’s, saying “just because you have four train stations!” and William laughs.
Arthur pushes open the living room door and William looks up, still laughing, his face suddenly so transparently pleased to see Arthur that for a moment Arthur can’t see anything else. It’s been a long time since William looked like that, or laughed like that. Arthur almost misses Charlie saying, “I’m winning Dad, look!”
“Are you really?” he says, “let me see then.”
There’s a Monopoly board on the table, set for three players, and Charlie does seem to have the most money although William isn’t far behind him.
“Charlie keeps throwing sixes,” Artie tells him. It’s a frequent complaint when Charlie and board games are involved. Arthur ruffles Charlie’s hair.
“Well done you. Good afternoon then boys?”
“Yeah!” Charlies says, reaching for the dice.
“You would say that,” William replies, “do try to avoid Piccadilly. I want it.”
Charlie counts the squares between car and Piccadilly, then shakes the dice earnestly.
“I’ll leave you to it then, and do something about dinner.”
“We already cooked,” Charlie tells him, frowning down at the dice which have, traitorously, landed him on Coventry Street.
“William cooked,” Artie corrects him.
“They did,” William says, with a smile for Arthur, “fish pie, although it’s mostly potatoes. Only one injury to report and nothing serious.” He holds up his hand with its bandaged ring finger. “The boys were very helpful. Now then Charlie, what do you owe me for Coventry Street?”
Arthur sits down, slightly dazed. This is a different William. The one who cooked mostly carrot stew and asked about the boys at Christmas, the one who laughs and gets caught up in everything from ridiculous bets to playing children’s games. It’s good to have him back.
“Do you want to play next Dad?” Charlie asks him, “after I’ve won?”
Artie lobs a cushion at his brother.
“Don’t count your chickens,” Arthur tells him.
William says nothing, but he lands on Picadilly with a triumphant smirk.
A short while later, they take a break from the game for dinner and Arthur rescues the pie from the oven. Whatever it might be made of, it smells good.
“Did they really help?”
“Yes,” William says, gathering cutlery, “and with the shopping. I’m not sure I’d trust Charlie with anything sharp in the kitchen but Artie’s sensible.”
“And you’re alright?”
“What? Oh, yes, it’s only a small cut.” William examines his hand again. “I’ll be more careful next time.”
Arthur hadn’t meant his hand. He’d actually meant with all of it: the shopping, and going out instead of staying in the cottage all day, the cooking and the noisy boys playing monopoly. He decides that the promise of next time probably answers it anyway.
“Monopoly was a good idea,” he says instead.
“You mentioned it once and it’s easier, having something to do.”
Something must show in Arthur’s face because William gives him a look and says, “I do know I’m not good with children, you know. This is me trying.”
“I think you’re doing fine. I’m their father, and half the time I don’t know what I’m doing with them either.”
His words turn out to be regrettably prophetic. After the fish pie, and watching Artie finally losing all his money, Charlie brings up the topic of the end of the holiday.
“I don’t want to go,” he says, frowning at his property cards, “can’t we stay here?”
“You have to go and see Grandma and Grandad,” Arthur tells him. “Don’t you want to see them? You haven’t seen them since the last holiday.”
Charlie shrugs, then asks for a hotel for Bond Street. William grumbles something inaudible as he hands it over and Charlie lets the very tip of his tongue poke through his teeth.
“Charlie,” Arthur says in a warning tone. The innocent look he gets in return fools nobody.
“I don’t know why you mind us not seeing them so much. You haven’t seen us in forever,” Artie says suddenly, voice too loud and too sharp.
“You know why that is. It’s difficult, with work.” The excuse sounds weak, even to his own ears. Artie kicks at the sofa with his foot.
“Are we going to see you at Christmas?”
“I don’t know. I hope so, but you and Charlie will be a different schools by then. I’ll see what I can do when we know when both your terms end.”
“I don’t want to go to a different school.”
“Don’t be ridiculous Artie, you’re eleven. You have to go to a different school: or would you really rather repeat the year with all the boys in the year below?”
“I do if it means you don’t make excuses not to see us.” Artie’s face is mutinous, and the sting of truth makes Arthur snap.
“I’m not making excuses. I want to see more of both of you, but the war doesn’t stop just because you two are on holiday.”
“That’s not true. You only ever cared about work. You don’t even care about… I’m not going back to school!” Artie flings his book down on the sofa and stands up.
“Yes, you are, now sit down and stop spoiling the evening.”
Charlie is watching the two of them nervously, chewing one of his nails.
“I’m not! You spoilt it.” Artie shouts at him, voice cracking. “And I’m not going back. I’ll run away if you make me!”
“No you won’t. Now sit down!” Arthur stands too and Artie flinches from him. It hurts to see.
“I… I hate you. You never listen and you don’t care!”
Arthur takes a step forward and Artie goes, the door slamming behind him. His running footsteps fade into the distance. Arthur sighs and looks to William, who shrugs and tilts his head in the direction of the kitchen. Arthur takes the suggestion and William follows him.
“Where the hell did that come from?” Arthur asks, rubbing his hands over his face. “And more importantly, what the hell am I supposed to do with him now?”
"Talk to him?” William suggests, leaning against the table, “Something’s been bothering him. So if you want to know what it is, you'd better follow him.”
Arthur sighs. This isn’t his forte.
“And If you don't want to talk to him,” William continues, “at least let him come home in his own time. I doubt he'll come to any harm."
"And should I talk to him?"
William shrugs again. "Well I can't say I ever particularly enjoyed talking to my father, but then I'm not sure I particularly like my father. Just... if you're going to go, don't bother talking if you won't hear what he's got to say."
"Wise advice. Have you been spending much time talking to Segundus? He told me something similar."
William gives him an unimpressed look. "Go if you're going, or don't. I've seen you deal with government men. One boy shouldn't be too difficult for you. I'm going to find Charlie. My honour is at stake and I’ve got houses to build." He flashes Arthur a very boyish grin, only half joking about the competitiveness.
Arthur stands irresolute. He could let Artie work it out alone, maybe talk to him when he returns, but the idea of him, off on his own and upset, brings Kitty's disapproval to mind. She'd told him off once when he'd had words with Artie over a broken vase: told him to take more care of the boys, not to hurt them by being too hard.
He walks slowly down the lane, at least giving the boy time to get over the first upset. Where would he have gone, if he'd been Artie’s age and just had a row? Up a tree usually, the one at the bottom of the garden. It'll be hard to find Artie if he's done the same, and there are enough trees around here to tempt a boy.
"Good evening, Mr Wellesley."
The voice makes him look up to see one of the women from the village, looking at him over her low garden wall with secateurs in hand. He knows her by sight, but not her name.
"Good evening, um, Mrs..."
"Mrs Titchmarsh, but everyone calls me Beatie." She smiles at him. "Would you be looking for your son?"
"Yes, we ah... we had words earlier. Have you seen him?"
"I thought as much. He went down that way. I'd say he's probably gone towards the pond."
"Any time. He seems like a good lad, and I heard you lost his mother. It can't be easy." She smiles sympathetically, one parent to another. There’s a boy of her own playing in the garden behind her and a pram by the kitchen door.
"He is, but as you say, it's not always easy. If you'll excuse me?"
"Of course. Good luck!" She returns to dead heading rose bushes and Arthur walks on. At the end of the lane he can see that her guess was right. A small figure in grey shorts and blue shirt is sitting huddled on the wooden bench beside the pond. A couple of ducks are taking an evening paddle.
Arthur walks up to the bench and hesitates.
"May I sit here?" He asks. Artie flinches from his voice and Arthur holds up a hand. "Don't run off. I just want to have a talk."
"Are you going to yell at me?"
Artie looks up at him in disbelief.
"I mean it. May I sit down?"
"Yeah," Artie says with a jerky nod. His eyes are red rimmed, as if they have been roughly wiped after shedding a few tears.
"So, are you going to tell me what this is all about?"
Artie says nothing, picking at a scab on his knee, and Arthur watches the ducks for a moment, wishing Kitty were here to do the talking, or at least tell him what to say.
“Something’s been bothering you, hasn’t it? Can’t you tell me what it is?”
Artie shakes his head.
“Well… can you tell me why not?”
He thinks perhaps this won’t work either, and is casting round for the next thing to say when Artie finally speaks.
“Mum said not to. About stuff like this.”
“Stuff like what?”
Artie sniffs again. A tear rolls down his nose and splashes dark against his grey shorts. Arthur sighs.
“It’s not been easy, has it? Since your Mum died.”
Artie shakes his head.
“I miss her,” he says in a small voice.
“I do too.” Arthur digs his handkerchief out of his pocket. “Come on, blow your nose and let’s talk about this. I know you always used to talk to your Mum, but somehow you need to try talking to me. And I’ll do what I can to help. That alright?”
“Mum always said we shouldn’t bother you. She said you were too busy.”
Arthur knows she said it, however much he wishes she hadn’t. Always trying to protect the boys, or protect him, always trying to keep the peace: it doesn’t work well for any of them now.
“I know, and I should have said long ago that it wasn’t true. Please, tell me what’s wrong or I can’t do anything to fix it. I know it’s not like you to get angry, not without a reason.”
“I don’t think you can.”
“Is it about Christmas? Or going to see Grandma and Grandad?”
Artie shakes his head and Arthur resists the urge to snap at him to spit it out. He hasn’t the patience for guessing games. He can’t think what else set him off except the different holidays…
“Is this about school?” he asks, and Artie huddles into a tighter ball. “Artie, you have to go to school. I’m sure it will be alright. It’s normal to be worried about going, but you managed when you went the first time.”
Artie looks away and Arthur knows that somehow he has said the wrong thing again.
“But I won’t have Charlie!”
“I know, but you went to school without him when he was too young to go. Tell me why it’s bothering you now.”
“Last time you and Mum and Charlie were all at home. Now you’ll be here and Charlie will be at prep school and I’ll be all on my own. At least at school I know Charlie’s alright, and I get to see him. If I go somewhere else I won’t see any of you.”
“You’ll see us in the holidays, and I’m sure once you get there you’ll be so busy with school you’ll hardly notice.”
“George’s brother says it’s awful.”
“I’m sure it won’t be.”
“Did you like school?”
Arthur means to say something non-committal but Artie looks up at him, young and accusing and somehow so very like Arthur himself. Arthur laughs, without meaning to. “Oh Artie, I hated it! I just hoped it would be different for you. Your Mum and I chose this school because we hoped you’d do well there. We wanted you to have a good future. However far away that seems now, I want you to have options when you’re older. School is just... something you have to get through.”
“But why Dad? Why does it have to be awful? Why can’t I just live with you and go to the school here? At least then if it was awful I wouldn’t be there all the time.”
“You know that won’t work. I’d like to see you more, but you know it’s been difficult just this week. I’m at work a lot: more than this usually. And I want something more for you than the village school.”
Artie looks downcast and Arthur can see Kitty in him. She used to look the same when he disappointed her.
“What is it? There’s something else, isn’t there?”
“It’s just… when you’re away, we don’t know anything. Sometimes… sometimes the headmaster comes in, and I always think he’s going to call me, that he’s going to tell me something’s happened. Like he did with Mum, when I was half way through Geography and I didn’t even think that was why he wanted to talk to me. At least now I know Charlie’s alright, because he’s there, but if I have to go away I’ll be waiting for it to be him as well as you or Grandma or Grandad. And I hate it.” His voice breaks and he presses his face against his knees.
Arthur puts a hand on his shoulder, and when Artie doesn’t pull away, leans forward to hug him properly. Artie turns, wet face pressed to his father’s shirt, and hugs back.
“I’ll fix it,” Arthur finds himself saying, “it’ll be alright.” He doesn’t know how, but he will.
A pre-war connection
Of all the things Segundus was expecting when he was called into Arthur Wellesley’s office, a promotion and a plea for help were the last things on the list. However much work he’d done with Germany, he’d always assumed he was filling a gap or being the temporary solution to a problem. Even when everyone else in charge had been away, leaving him to deal with things, he’d known they would come back and take over again. Discovering that Captain Grant apparently thinks highly enough of him to request that he work for him directly leaves him rather speechless.
It helps, then, that Wellesley looks just as awkward as he turns the conversation away from work. Segundus likes the Wellesley boys. They are the sort of pupils he’d liked to have in his class: bright, and outgoing enough to be entertaining characters in the classroom without being unmanageable, and Artie at least is more thoughtful than most. Segundus had known he was worried about school. He’s seen enough boys go through it. In fact he remembers it rather clearly himself. Going from being the eldest to the youngest is difficult, but even more so when there are other things to consider.
He’s glad that Artie has someone he can talk to after all, and Arthur looks so out of his depth that Segundus feels for him. Almost without meaning to do it he finds himself suggesting Starecross, confessing to knowing the headmistress, and Arthur is gratifyingly pleased with the suggestion.
Even so, Segundus feels nervous as he waits for the operator to connect the call. For all his earlier bravado about knowing the headmistress, actually calling her and requesting a favour he has no real right to ask leaves him with damp palms and an anxious frown to his face.
"Starecross Academy, this is Mrs Lennox speaking."
"Ah, yes, good afternoon, this is Mr Segundus, John Segundus."
There is a pause, where he briefly wonders if she has remembered him at all or if this has been a horrible mistake. Then she makes a soft 'ah' of recognition and says, "of course, Mr Segundus, the best teacher of magic I failed to recruit."
"I'm sorry ma'am, if it hadn't been for the war..."
"Don't worry, Mr Segundus, I understand perfectly. The war requires us to do many things we would rather not. I do hope though, that when the war is over, you will come back to us and teach. I am keeping your place open for you if you choose to take it."
"I... I would be honoured," he says, clumsy tongued. Despite his interview, and the subsequent correspondence between them, he hadn't quite expected to be offered the job again.
"Good, I shall hold you to that. Now, why were you calling me? Pleasant as it is to hear from you again, I'm sure you must have a reason. Let us discuss that first and then I want your opinion on Mr Norrell's latest publication. Utter drivel that shows he's never tried to educate anyone in his life of course, but I want to know what you think."
Segundus smiles at that. Her rich, upper class tones add something to the condemnation and he's been wanting to argue it out with someone for a long time. Strange may be a magician, but he is also not a teacher and magical education bores him.
"I look forward to it. But there was a reason. I have a friend with two sons. He was widowed two years ago and the boys have been at school."
"I think I see where this is going."
"I'm sorry, I know it is quite a thing to ask, but the older boy is leaving his prep school and doesn't want to be parted from his brother. He asked for my help and I thought..."
"Of a school with pupils of all ages and a good reputation. I should be flattered. The boys lost their mother two years ago? Understandable perhaps that they prefer not to be parted."
"Yes." Segundus waits while she considers it. There is a tapping sound, as though she were knocking a pen against something while she thinks.
"I'll need to interview the boys, and their father."
"Of course, thank you. The boys are very bright, both of them."
"I'm sure you'd not have suggested Starecross otherwise. Their father is aware that we teach girls as well as boys?"
"Yes. He doesn't object, and the school would be closer than their previous one."
"You make a good argument, Mr Segundus. Give me an address and I'll write to him. No promises mind you, but if they are bright as you say I think arrangements can be made."
Segundus breathes a quiet sigh of relief. This has been far easier than he was anticipating. "Thank you, I'm very grateful to you and I'm sure Mr Wellesley will be too."
"Yes, yes. If you're that grateful, promise to come back after the war. Now, about Norrell's program of study for the novice magician..."
After a long and pleasing discussion, Segundus puts down the telephone and smiles. It's been a long time since he was free to indulge in a discussion of magical theory and it feels good to have solved a problem and renewed an acquaintance at the same time. And then, even better, is the promise of 'after the war'.
It's not something he gives much thought to generally. It's easier to just carry on, or else the war not being over yet begins to feel suffocating. Better to just accept it as a fact of life and not look too far ahead: if he has a job he enjoys and Childermass beside him, what else does he need? But now the idea is in his head. After the war. After the war, when he might be able to leave all this perilous work and go back to what he enjoys, back to teaching. A room full of pupils, good pupils if he goes to Starecross, and the ordered rhythm of the school year.
"You look happy," John says to him when he makes his way to the canteen for a cup of tea. He says it gruffly, but Segundus easily reads it as affection.
"I had a very good conversation with Mrs Lennox."
"Aye? And what did she have to say?" Childermass fetches him a mug automatically and adds the required amount of milk.
"We talked about Norrell and his publication."
"That thing you've been ranting about for weeks? I know it. Did she agree with you?"
"She did," Segundus says, accepting the tea. "Shall we drink this outside?"
Childermass agrees, but looks at Segundus warily.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with the details of what she said about Norrell, but there was something else she mentioned."
"Which was?" Childermass settles onto one of the benches with a sigh of contentment. The bench he has chosen is half in the sunshine and half in the shade. Segundus sits down on the shady half.
"She wants me to go back. After the war, I mean. To teach."
Childermass, who has been turning his face to the sun, opens his eyes and looks at him. "And this surprised you?"
"It doesn't surprise you? I turned the job down, and that was before the war. Four years is a long time. I thought she'd have forgotten."
"She was keen enough to have you teach there. That much was plain as day. And why should you not go back after the war? That's what we'll all do, I suppose, go back to our work and our lives."
Segundus sips his tea and considers it. All this over, if they win of course, and life goes back to how it was. No more night shifts and canteen food. No more feeling like one wrong move will cause catastrophe. No more nights sleeping in bunk beds with Childermass snoring just across the room. Even so, there will be things he misses.
“What about us?” he asks. “If I go off to teach. Starecross isn’t in London any more, and I doubt it will ever go back to Yorkshire now.”
Childermass shrugs, with his usual comfortable acceptance of fate. “I doubt I’ll work for Norrell again. It’ll have to be something new for me, after the war. Will you mind it, if the disreputable soldier you made friends with in the war comes to live with you while he gets settled? You’ve been my lodger: perhaps it will be time for me to be yours.”
It’s a comforting thought. A plausible reason for the two of them to stay together, even after the war. Segundus drinks more tea and imagines coming home from school, to a cottage somewhere and Childermass putting the kettle on.
“That could work,” he says, “I think that could work.”
Farewell to the boys
Arthur takes the two boys to the train on Saturday morning. William, on the night shift, had said goodbye to them the night before. He’d said he didn’t want to intrude, and Arthur is pleased to be able to believe him rather than thinking his departure from work was an escape.
Breakfast is a quiet meal. Even Charlie’s usual enthusiasm somewhat suppressed by clock watching. An hour to go, then half an hour.
Charlie asks if they can take the Monopoly set with them and Arthur has to refuse, despite protests. Unfortunately, since William had liberated it from the SOE stores (maps and files thankfully removed) it will have to go back. Arthur finds himself promising to find them a new set when they come back.
Actually getting to the station is a rush of late buses and buying tickets, before the three of them find themselves standing on the platform with only a minute to say goodbye.
“Be good, both of you,” he tells them. “Let me know you’re there safely.”
“Of course,” Artie says, “and I’ll look after Charlie on the train.”
The boys look up at him and he wants nothing more than to tell them to forget the train and stay. He swings Charlie up to hug him.
“I’ll see you both soon: before term starts. If you’re both still sure you want to go to Starecross.”
“Yes, Dad.” Charlie has been enthusiastic about the idea since he first heard it. Arthur wonders if he was ever that certain of himself as a boy.
“Alright then. In the train, both of you.”
Charlie, with one last hug, scrambles up the steps and into the carriage. Artie hovers. The guard asks all passengers to board the train.
“Come on, you don’t want to be left on the platform.”
Artie nods, then flings his arms around Arthur. He mumbles, “love you, Dad” and then hops back to get into the train with a shy grin. Arthur can’t stop himself from smiling.
“Love you too, both of you.”
He waves to the train as it leaves, even when he knows they won’t be able to see him anymore. Then he watches until the last puff of smoke disappears into the distance. He wonders why, knowing they will be back soon, it seems harder than ever to let them go.
On the day that Arthur tells him his promotion to Major is assured, Grant goes over to the Strange’s cottage in a car ‘borrowed’ from SOE to collect them for dinner. He finds Arabella in the living room, already dressed for the evening and reading letters. She waves one at him as he comes in.
“This is from Emma,” she says, “she sent you her love.”
“Is she still in London?” He sits next to her on the sofa and she leans against him in a comfortably easy way that makes him smile foolishly.
“No, she’s back with SOE. Well, she’ll be back in France by now. She wrote this just before she left.”
“I hadn’t heard. No doubt I’ll hear reports of whatever she gets up to when she’s there.”
“Demolition probably,” Arabella says as she folds the letter away. “Do you ever wish you were going back?”
Grant considers it for a moment. The thrill of going still appeals: the night-time jump into the dark, the adrenaline rush of doing what you can against the clock and against the odds, and knowing you were making a difference, however small. But he can also see the difference he makes now, and the fear he had last time, knowing that if he were caught he knew too much and what a blow it would be for the Allied cause. He asked to be killed rather than captured that time: it’s hard to know if he’d be brave enough to ask for that again.
“I suppose I miss some things,” he says slowly, “but I’ve realised that my days of being a field agent are over. Certainly now I know more of what’s going on. I think I can live with it.”
“I wonder sometimes,” she says, leaning her head against his shoulder, “if one day I’ll change my mind and want to go back.”
Grant has to suppress the instinctive urge to say no, but manages it. He has no right to say no to her. Even Jonathan doesn’t have the right.
“Then it’s still your choice, if you want it.”
Her smile tells him it was the right answer to give.
“Maybe one day then, but not now. I’ve got things to keep me here. Important things.” She shifts closer, one hand on his knee and her mouth pressing gently against his jaw. She kisses a line towards his mouth.
“Starting without me?” Jonathan says from the doorway. “I thought we were going out?” He is freshly shaved and his hair combed back more neatly than usual.
“I don’t mind staying in,” Grant says without thinking. Arabella laughs at him.
“No, we said we’d go out to celebrate. We can stay in any night.” She stands and smooths out the skirt of her blue dress. It must be something from before the war, because the skirt flares out over her hips more than current clothing coupons would allow. He hasn’t seen her wear anything like it before: a different kind of beautiful to the way she looks in uniform.
“You look beautiful,” Jonathan says before Grant has a chance, “both of you.”
In some ways, it’s a miracle they get to the car. There’s so much promise in the air this evening. The need to focus on driving helps, as does dinner. Heads turn to watch their table: Grant thinks that perhaps Jonathan and Arabella are used to being noticed. It’s a glimpse into what their life must have been like before the war, when Jonathan was England’s second most famous magician and firmly established in London society. Not that anyone here seems to notice who they are, but they make an attractive couple and it draws attention.
Afterwards they go dancing in a club Jonathan knows. Grant has only been there once before with William, but it wasn’t quite the same then. Last time the two of them had stuck to the bar, rarely dancing, but this time he finds himself drawn onto the dancefloor whether he likes it or not. Partners change frequently: he finds himself more popular than he expected which might be the company he’s in. No matter how many attractive women ask him to dance, nothing compares to having Arabella in his arms. He’d like to be able to dance with Jonathan too, but watching Jonathan watching him as he spins Bell is still worth something.
The music swells around him, bordering on overloud. He drinks more than he means to. They make toasts to ‘Major Grant’, a rank he hardly feels belongs to him yet. Hazy with the drink and the atmosphere, he lets Jonathan twirl Arabella into his arms as the band strike up a slower number. She’s warm where she presses against him, and soft, so soft and so close. They cross the dance floor in lazy circles, drawing closer, until it’s the two of them, swaying gently in time to the music with Arabella’s head in the crook of his neck.
“Let us take you home,” she says, sweet with promise, “please, let’s go now.”
They stumble outside, the cold a shock. He feels more sober now, away from the heat and the noise. Jonathan is driving them, and while he fumbles to unlock the car with only a blackout torch to help him, Grant wraps Bell in his jacket and then his arms. The street is dark and there’s nobody to see.
The journey back is long: the road winding and the headlights very dim. Jonathan is driving so that Grant could drink to celebrate, which leaves Grant in the back seat with Arabella and her roaming hands. Time passes rather quickly as a result.
When they arrive back, there’s a desperate tumble for the door, Jonathan pouncing on Grant as soon as it closes behind them.
“I’ve been waiting to do this all night,” he says, pushing Grant’s jacket off his shoulders and letting it fall.
“Upstairs,” Bell says, tugging at both of them. They leave a trail of clothing behind them: Bell’s shoes on the stairs and Jonathan’s tie on the landing. None of them can bear to let go of the others. Grant finds himself in their bedroom again, half stripped and dazed. He wants them, wants them both so badly he can’t quite believe that it might really be happening.
Arabella wriggles out of her dress and sits on the bed to take off her stockings. The sight of her makes Grant giddy but he freezes, waiting.
“Go on,” Jonathan says in his ear, “we want you, we both want you.” He gives Grant a push so that he drops, kneeling, between Arabella’s legs and she bends forward to kiss him thoroughly. She doesn’t stop, even as Jonathan circles behind him to unfasten Grant’s trousers and stroke his cock.
Grant lets himself be manhandled onto the bed, lying on his back with Arabella above him. It’s been so long since he had a woman in his arms like this, longer still since he’d thought himself in love. He presses his face against her breasts, finding her nipples with his mouth to suck at them until she makes little helpless noises above him and Jonathan is babbling nonsense about watching them, how lovely they both are.
“Colley,” Arabella says breathlessly, “if he’s going to talk like that we should give him something worth watching, don’t you think?”
He nods. Whatever she has in mind, he wants, and it turns out that what she does have planned is something he wants very much indeed. She shifts forward, kneeling over his shoulders. The view, looking up, makes him draw in a deep breath. God, it’s been a long time since he’s done this, and he’s missed it. He loves it, loves the feeling of the world narrowing down to focus on this and only this.
He puts his hands on her hips to guide her down in reach of his tongue, to lick and taste and lose himself in her. She gives a shocked little ‘oh!’ when he does and he smiles against her. He could die happy, like this, with a beautiful woman rocking against him. He reaches up to cup her breasts and she looks down at him, biting her lip hard between her teeth, flushed, dishevelled and gorgeous.
Jonathan, of course, is not one to be ignored for long, and perhaps he feels the need to prove that Grant is not the only one who knows how to use his mouth. He knows Grant by know: an unfair advantage when Grant is only just getting to learn what Arabella likes. His mouth is hot and demanding on Grant’s cock, taking him deep and making him buck upwards. His fingers, slick and insistent, provide a counter rhythm to his mouth. How strange, Grant thinks, that until recently he hadn’t even liked that part of sex, but now Merlin is fucking him with his fingers and all Grant wants is more.
The two of them have him trapped, overwhelmed in the best of ways. His jaw is aching, his chin wet, and his control fraying at the edges, but Jonathan’s mouth is perfect and Bell is making tiny, hard thrusts against his mouth, pleading for him not to stop, and what can he do but obey them, both of them, tipping over the edge into orgasm even as he feels Bell do the same, muscles fluttering against his tongue.
They roll away from him to let him breathe after a moment and he lies there, head spinning. He’s never been so thoroughly fucked in his life. It’s only the sounds from Jonathan that break through the fog in his head and he forces his eyes open to see the two of them kissing while Bell wraps a hand around Jonathan’s cock. Jonathan must taste of him, he thinks, and the idea of them sharing that would make him hard again if it were possible.
Jonathan whimpers, the only word for it, and looks pleadingly at Grant.
“Do you want him?” Arabella asks, “or are you too tired?”
Grant tries to think. He wants Jonathan, of course he does, but he’s worn out and already been given the promise that this won’t be the only time, that he can have later what he doesn’t have today.
“I want to watch you,” he says, trying not to slur the words together, “you two together.”
Jonathan’s cock twitches. Ever the exhibitionist, Grant wants to say, but he ends up smiling foolishly instead as Bell rolls backwards, spreading her legs and beckoning Jonathan forward. He goes, sinking into her with a groan. He has been patient, after all.
Grant lies there listening to them for a moment, the way they sigh together and the wet sounds between them. It’s not enough to watch from the other side of the bed, not enough only to see Jonathan’s face. He rolls over for a better view.
Jonathan is frowning, focused and desperate, strong arms braced on either side of Bell. She smiles at Grant, and holds out a hand. He takes it and she pulls his hand to her mouth, sucking at his fingers in a way that makes Jonathan swear. Next time, Grant thinks, thank God there’s a next time. One night could never be enough.
He uses his initiative and put his mouth to good use again: open mouthed kisses against Bell’s salt skin, licking at her breasts so that Jonathan can watch him do it. Bell tugs his hand down, pushing his wet fingers between her legs and down, down where Jonathan is sliding into her. His fingers stroke of the slick skin of Jonathan’s cock, shockingly intimate. Jonathan makes a shocked sound, a sharp inhale of breath, and his hips stutter.
Arabella wraps an arm around Grant’s shoulder and pulls him closer, arranging him where she wants him with his mouth at her breast and his hand between them, allowed and encouraged to touch them however he wants. He feels wanted, included, loved. He doesn’t say it, not when he watches them come, or when Jonathan calls Arabella darling, or when the two of them wrap themselves on either side of him and hold him close. But he thinks it, and he hopes they think it too.
The morning after, Grant wakes up with heavy limbs and a mouth like sandpaper. It's a familiar feeling: one he associates with slightly too much to drink the night before. What is less familiar is waking up with Arabella Strange looking down at him.
"Morning," he says with smile.
"Morning," she says with a smile in reply and a kiss to his temple before she folds herself into his arms. "How are you feeling this morning?"
"Better now," he says, tightening his hold on her and pressing his face into the soft hair at the nape of her neck. She laughs, soft and warm, and smells of their bed.
"Jonathan's making tea."
He dozes for a little. Moving seems unimportant.
"Hey sleepy head," Arabella says after a while, "your tea's getting cold."
Grant realises with a start that he's been asleep again. He pushes himself up, wincing a bit at the headache threatening when he moves, and Jonathan hands him a mug of tea. It helps to clear the foggy feeling a bit.
"What time is it?" he asks when the tea is nearly gone. He doesn't want real life to intrude into this, but he knows that he will have to go to work soon enough.
“Nearly time for me to get ready for work,” Arabella tells him, “but not time for you to go. Arthur told me you were allowed to turn up late today.”
Grant should probably be insisting on turning up on time anyway, but he’s in an unusually lazy mood this morning. It feels easy to be here, with both of them, drinking his tea and not worrying about if it’s the right thing to be doing, or if he ought to be elsewhere.
After a second cup, Arabella goes to wash and change and Jonathan takes her place beside Grant in bed, wrapping his arms tight around Grant and leaning his chin in Grant’s hair.
“I’m not going to run away,” Grant tells him, as drily as he can manage given how prone he is to ridiculous smiles this morning.
"I know, but I want to hold on to you. I want proof that I really am lucky enough to have you."
Grant smiles again, because he's used to thinking that he's the lucky one, not Jonathan.
“I’m not going anywhere. Particularly not if you promise me more nights like last night, and more tea in the morning.”
Jonathan kisses him, soft and slow, the way Grant has seen him kiss Arabella.
“I’ll hold you to that. If I could make every night like last night I would.”
“I’ll settle for more ordinary nights too.”
“Will you? What about tonight? Dinner at home and early to bed?”
“Tonight, any night.” He looks Jonathan in the eye. “I’m yours, if you’ll have me.”
He still doesn’t say it. He doesn’t need to.
Grant had wondered if he'd be able to get anything done today, when he finally got to the unit, but work is a familiar pattern to fall into and there is plenty to keep him busy. German maps have come in by courier, and thick reports stamped Ultra Secret. His old files on France need to be handed over to William too. A fresh start and a clean slate. He catches himself whistling as he works, flicking through the contents of the filing cabinet. He finds the almost empty bottle of whiskey too and puts it aside. No doubt there will be some days when he needs it but they seem further off this morning.
William's face is comically horrified when he sees the quantity of files he is now responsible for but he also takes it in his stride in a way that Grant wouldn't have thought possible a few months ago. William is different to how he was a year ago, a little quieter, a little more settled. It's not exactly a bad thing, but Grant feels the loss of some of his previous exuberance. And then William gets himself mixed up in a stupid prank (involving Ned and Childermass' tobacco, always a risky thing to muck about with) and Grant thinks that perhaps the old William is still there, under the surface.
By the end of the shift, he's got lost in the paperwork again. Station X are making good progress with their plans and he’s beginning to form ideas of how they might be able to work together. In the middle of making notes, a knock at the door disturbs him.
"Enter!" he shouts.
Jonathan sticks his head around the door.
“Still here?” he asks. “The shift’s over already and you said you’d be there for dinner.”
Grant sighs. Even the best of interruptions is still an interruption.
"Just let me finish this one file," he says, "just this one and then I'll come and find you."
"You promise? I know you and work."
“It needs doing.”
“It needs doing some time. Not now.” Jonathan perches on the edge of Grant’s desk. Grant looks between him and the file.
“You’ll be no good to anyone if you kill yourself with overwork,” Jonathan says when he notices the hesitation. “Arabella would say the same.”
Grant opens his mouth to protest and Jonathan kisses him. It’s unprofessional perhaps, but he lets that win the argument.
Arthur walks home in the golden sunshine of late summer. The fields are stubble now, waiting to be ploughed back for winter crops, and the sun is still warm enough to make putting his jacket back on seem foolish, just for the short journey home. He pauses, wondering when he started thinking ‘home’ when he means the cottage, but it's too warm a day to give it more than a passing thought.
The cottage is empty when he gets there: William has taken up a spot in the sun trap of a garden. Having stood empty before they requisitioned it, the cottage is one of very few where the garden hasn't been turned over to vegetables and it’s a tangle of grass and brambles along the back fence.
William sitting on the bench, barefoot and with his shirt unbuttoned. His nose has been burnt red by the sun. He flicks through a flying manual, pen in mouth and ink on his fingers.
"Are you trying to scandalise the neighbours," Arthur asks him in lieu of a greeting.
William grins up at him unrepentantly. "The only neighbours near enough to see into the garden are the Stranges and I think they have better things to do than look out of the window. Colley was over all afternoon until shift change."
"Don't tell me, I don't want to know."
William looks at him enquiringly.
"If I know, I have to do something about the abuse of the chain of command, to say nothing of the moral implications. And I've no idea what I’d do, given the situation I don't know about, so on the whole I’d prefer to officially know nothing."
"Fair." William says, "but what would you hypothetically do about a man sleeping with..."
Arthur puts a hand firmly over William's mouth. William licks his fingers.
"Do not let this get out of hand. Find some other reason for me to distract you if that's what you want." He removes the hand.
"I'm sure I'll think of something by bedtime," William says.
"Good." Arthur takes a seat beside him on the wooden bench and rolls up his sleeves. "Grant's happy though?" he asks after a pause.
"Far as I know," William mumbles around the pen back in his mouth.
"Good." Arthur watches for a while as William scribbles notes. "What are you up to? I saw you disappearing off to the hangar this morning." It had worried him, at the time, in case William was brooding over flying, but he seems happy enough now.
"Met up with Ned and Jonathan: looking at the planes. You know, there’s no official protocol for flying with a magician. Only what we came up with on the spur of the moment, with Jonathan actually in the plane. Which works if I’m the one flying, but isn’t going to work for anyone else doing it. So I’ve drafted something and now I’ve got this to look through.” He waves the book.
"To look through because?" Arthur prompts him.
"It needs tidying up: putting in official language. And it needs to work with the rest of the protocols in case of emergencies. I thought perhaps when it was done I could help train some of the other pilots since I’ve done it before.” William looks up at him with hopeful eyes. "I'm not saying I definitely could, or that I could right now, and I doubt the RAF would like it, but..."
"One day?" Arthur says.
"One day. It'd be good to get back in the air. Even if it’s just a training flight."
"Ah my flyboy." Arthur slides his hand into the hair at the nape of William's neck.
"Mmm... definitely yours."
William closes his eyes and turns his face up to the sun.
"Is it easier, now?"
William says nothing for a while. Arthur lets him think.
"Yes, I suppose so. Not all the time but... there are compensations."
"Yes. Being here, the work, the cottage... us. It's a forever kind of thing now, isn't it? Whatever happens with the war or after, and the boys."
"Well I've no intention of letting you go."
They sit side by side in the sunshine. William returning to his book and Arthur lazily admiring the red of William’s hair and the new crop of freckles. His unbuttoned shirt shows some of the scars. It feels like progress.
To the scratch of William's pen and the drone of bees in the flowers, Arthur closes his eyes. He is content, for the moment, to not think very much at all.