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The Twelve Days of (JSAMN fanfic) Christmas

Chapter Text

“My Lord,” Grant clears his throat, “my Lord, there is something I believe you should see.”

Wellington looks up from his report. He does not look amused. “Major Grant, I believe I told you to find me my magician.”

“Yes, my Lord. I’m afraid I… ouch!”

“Major Grant, what is the matter? Where is Merlin?”

Grant makes no reply, only unfolds his arms from behind his back and deposits something on the Duke’s desk. It is a small, furry something.

“Major Grant. What is this?” Wellington gestures at the creature with his pen.

“We believe it to be a stoat, my Lord.”

“Yes, I can see that. I asked you find me a magician and you have brought me a stoat. I am hoping for an explanation, any explanation, that does not make that my magician.” The stoat, taking exception to being poked at by a feather, pounces on the pen and bites it. Wellington eyes Grant over the remains. “I am waiting.”

“I’m afraid to say, that we believe that is indeed Merlin. He said he was working on further refinements to the magic. When I went to fetch him I found this… creature, sitting in Merlin’s bed.”

“Merlin? If that is you, sir, I suggest you find a way to turn yourself into a human again as soon as possible.”

The stoat tries to burrow under the paper on the Duke’s desk. Wellington reaches for him but Grant calls out a warning, “Careful, my Lord! He bites!”

“He bites?”

Grant holds out his bleeding hand for inspection. The tooth marks are clearly visible. “I’m afraid he bit De Lancey first. He’s gone to find a bandage.”

“Merlin,” The Duke tells the stoat (or as much of the stoat that is visible), “I will not have you biting my officers.”

There’s a squeaking noise from under the paper.

“He appears to be a very young stoat,” Grant observes, “and not altogether aware of what is happening. I will admit the change can be rather… startling, but one usually regains ones sense of who one is rather more quickly. I’m afraid Merlin might have done something to the spell. Perhaps it is a younger Merlin, or perhaps he has been overwhelmed by his instincts.”

“Well then Major, I suggest you take this creature somewhere it will not be observed and we shall both hope that the enchantment will end before anyone enquires after our missing magician. You may tell them that he is busy with magic elsewhere. Do not let anyone hear the truth of the matter: this is something I would not care to share with the French army.”

“Quite so, my Lord. I shall inform you the moment that there is any change.”

“Thank you, Major Grant. Now, if you can remove Merlin from my papers without destroying anything else, I would be obliged to you. That quill was a particularly good one. Oh, and Grant? See that you have that bite cleaned. I’ll not have you succumb to infection because our magician has forgotten his manners.”

 

Some hours later, Grant and De Lancey are sitting side by side in Grant’s tent, observing the contents of a wooden box.

“Are you sure it is Merlin?” De Lancey asks, dropping a little ham into the box.

“Well if it isn’t Merlin, where the devil is he?”

“Do you think he’s frightened?” De Lancey peers in. They dropped some things into the box for Merlin to hide under: the only sign of him is the red uniform sash twitching and a small furry nose whisking the ham out of sight.

“Well he is very small. How long do you think it will take for him to change back? This is not at all how I planned to spend my evening: acting as nursemaid to a magician in stoat form.”

“Perhaps I should change too?”

“De Lancey, Merlin is currently both tiny and a predator with no recollection of who he is. If you turn into a squirrel he’s going to die of fright or try to eat you for his supper. Probably the latter. He’s already bitten you in human form!”

“I don’t suppose he meant it.”

Grant glares at him so he doesn’t suggest the idea again.

“Do you suppose this spell will be useful, if he finds a way to remember who he is?” De Lancey is peering in the box again. There’s a snap of teeth and a tearing of cloth. De Lancey hastily removes his hand.

“I don’t know.” Grant sounds irritated. “He’s rather small for espionage but he has sharp enough teeth. Did you have to give him my uniform to hide under?”

“Well we are in your tent. My spare uniform isn’t here. Maybe we could use him for sabotage? We could get him to bite the French.”

“I rather doubt that Wellington would risk Merlin trying to give the French a few nips.”

“That depends how annoyed he is when Merlin eventually changes back.”

Conversation lags after a while, Grant not being in the mood for idle talk. De Lancey grows bored of feeding Merlin pieces of ham and stretches out on Grant’s bed for a doze. Grant fully intends to keep watch all night but eventually he too drifts gently into sleep.

 

“Grant! Wake up!”

Grant wakes up at De Lancey’s insistent shaking and rubs his eyes. “What’s going on? Is it the French?”

“No! Merlin has escaped!”

“What?”

The two of them go through the box. It is unquestionably empty. This is a far greater sin than losing the Duke’s pretty new artillery. They have lost the magician.

“What if something ate him?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, De Lancey. He’s a natural predator. I’m sure he can’t have gone far.”

They tear the tent apart looking but there is no sign of a be-whiskered face anywhere. De Lancey energetically dismantles the bed down to its component parts and looks in even the most improbable of possible hiding places. Grant is no luckier with his attempt at a systematic search.

“We will have to tell Wellington.” Grant is the first of them to face up to the inevitable, surveying the wreck of his sleeping quarters.

“Perhaps we could look outside the tent again?”

“If Merlin is outside the tent he is long gone. His legs may be rather smaller than usual but he’s still fast. No, I’m afraid we will have to tell my Lord.”

They walk to breakfast slowly, neither of them in a hurry to confess. They have debated who is to make the confession, unable to decide whether De Lancey, with his superior rank, has the right to delegate the task or has the responsibility to do the telling. They flip a coin for it and Grant loses, but he does extract a promise that next time someone needs telling something unpleasant it will be De Lancey’s turn.

“My Lord,” he begins, “I regret…”

“Ah, good morning Major, Colonel. Thank you for looking after me so well yesterday.”

In their rush to tell the Duke, neither of them noticed Strange sitting at the breakfast table. He looks much like his normal self, if a little tired and prone to twitching slightly at any sudden noise.

“You regret, Major?” Wellington, unfortunately, has noticed the beginning of Grant’s speech and is eyeing his two officers in a way that suggests he knows rather more than either of them are comfortable with.

“Nothing, my Lord, I, ah, regret nothing. Glad to see you looking so well Merlin.”

“Indeed.” The Duke adds a wealth of meaning to the single word. “Well gentlemen, I shall leave you to your breakfast. Merlin, I trust you will remain free of fur until after you have moved that river for me.”

“Of course, my Lord.”

Grant and De Lancey watch Wellington’s retreating back in silence. When he is safely out of earshot, they both turn to Merlin, who is calmly helping himself to another slice of toast.

“Merlin! Dear God man, where did you go?” De Lancey is the first to speak. Grant can only take his seat in shocked silence. This he blames on De Lancey making him speak to the Duke first.

“I haven’t the faintest idea. I woke up somewhere by the river, aching all over and with the most abominable taste in my mouth. When I arrived here, I found Wellington under the distinct impression that you had been set to keep a watch on me.”

“I’m sorry Merlin, we did try. What did you think you were doing, playing around with magic like that without telling anyone?” Grant frowns at him very sternly.

“And you bit us. Both of us.” De Lancey holds up his bandaged hand. Merlin has the grace to look slightly ashamed.

“Well then, I shall say that we have all suffered for this experiment. I humbly apologise for the injuries you sustained. I was not aware of what I was doing at the time. Nor did I intend to become what his Lordship assures me was a stoat. I thought to be something more useful.”

“Apology accepted Merlin. We apologise for allowing you to escape.”

Well, then we shall say no more about it. Would you care for some breakfast?”

Grant looks as though he would like to say more about it, possibly on the topic of unnecessary magical risks or the holes in his red uniform sash. De Lancey kicks him under the table.

“If you will pass me the coffee,” says Merlin, “I shall give you this ham. I cannot bear the smell of it this morning and I need something to take the taste out of my mouth. I cannot think of anything to account for it except that I must have gone hunting.” He shudders.

De Lancey opens his mouth to comment on the predatory nature and feeding habits of stoats. Recognising trouble, Grant takes the opportunity to return the favour and kick his ankle in turn.

“I think, gentlemen,” he says, “that as Merlin suggested, it would be wisest to say nothing at all!”

Merlin lifts his cup of coffee in a silent toast.

Chapter Text

Grant and De Lancey are partners in everything at school, whether it be dissecting frogs, picking a team, reciting French verbs to each other or this latest torture of ‘dancing lessons’. There’s a lot of muted grumbling going on among the boys, jostling over who has to be The Girl in each pair. It’s a regrettable consequence of dance classes where there are only boys present, at an age where they are all trying to prove themselves to be as manly as possible. De Lancey can see from the start that he’s going to have trouble with Grant.

While the other boys have done much of their growing already, shooting up into beanstalks with legs and arms too long to know what to do with, Grant remains the shortest boy in their class. William himself returned from the summer vac a whole head taller than his friend. To make matters worse, Grant is afflicted with older brothers and the masters address him as ‘Grant minor’. The other boys find it a hilarious joke with all the cruelty of their age and Grant has already spent a lot of time this year proving that although he is short, he can still give as good as he gets. He and De Lancey have also spent a considerable amount of time in detention. To ask him to be The Girl would be a step too far.

“I’ll go backwards,” William says, conscious of the nobility of his sacrifice. Grant gives him a look of gratitude that makes William’s heart skip a beat. It’s a troubling development, but he has done extensive reading and thinks that the whole thing must be a hideous stage of growing up that will hopefully pass in time. He thinks it’s what grown ups mean when they talk of ‘phases’ that must be grown out of and never, ever indulged in.

Caruthers, the master responsible for teaching them, finally gets all the boys lined up and in hold. He does a slight double take when he gets to Grant and De Lancey, with Grant’s head on a level with De Lancey’s chin, De Lancey’s hand on his shoulder and an expression of grim determination on his face.

As they begin the steps, William makes two discoveries. The first is that moving backwards is harder than it looks. The second is that with all the growing he’s done, his feet are not at all where he thinks they are. Nor are his knees. Shortly afterwards he makes the third discovery that Grant, being shorter, cannot see well enough to steer. They discover it when he backs William into a stack of chairs.

Grant is mortified but stoic; William only more determined not to let his friend bear the brunt of any mockery that might be forthcoming. Fortunately, most of the boys are suffering similar difficulties. They set off again; sweaty hands gripped tightly together. It feels odd, having Grant’s hand on his waist, to rest his own hand on a warm shoulder for so long. Distracted, he neglects to pay attention to his feet and they go down in a sprawl, Grant landing on top of him. Winded, William looks up to see Mr Caruthers hide his snort of laughter with an unconvincing cough.  

 

If it had just been that one lesson it would have been bad enough, but Grant is determined to practise. After several sessions in a deserted classroom, it is becoming obvious that Grant isn’t actually a bad dancer. He is generally more musical than William, or perhaps he just has the advantage of going forwards. William never seems to improve, despite Grant’s perseverance, and then he gets frustrated by the whole thing and won’t stop until he manages it.

They get caught that Christmas by William’s aunt, making their stately way around the deserted nursery to the music Grant is humming. William has a tablecloth wrapped around his legs (to stop him taking such big steps, Grant says) and he’s now more than a head taller than Grant. Fortunately his aunt is rather a brick about the whole thing and, after suppressing her initial howls of laughter, promises never to tell a soul. She offers advice and lets William dance with her so he can see if he’s any better dancing the other way around. He isn’t, but she doesn’t laugh at him for it and dishes out an extra slice of cake each at teatime. Grant says one aunt like that is worth a whole lot of brothers and sisters-in-law and he grins at William over his plate. William thinks that given the circumstances, dancing can wait for another time. For now he has his best friend here and it’s Christmas and in the afternoon they are going to make snowmen.

 

 

Chapter Text

While supply problems have plagued the army recently, Wellington and his officers usually eat well enough and for Christmas dinner they eat very well indeed. A hearty roast is brought out for carving and the wine flows freely.

Afterwards they sit back in their chairs, picking over dried fruit and nuts while the port and brandy circulate the table. There is a rather informal, celebratory air to the meal, with a great deal of laughter and exchanging of jests. Merlin allows himself to enjoy the atmosphere, sitting in a state of well-fed contentment with his thigh pressed warmly against Grant's under the table.

The brandy has made several circuits and even Grant is slightly foxed. A little dishevelment is a pleasing look for the Major, in Merlin's eyes at least. His cheeks are a little flushed and his neckcloth a little looser. He smiles more freely and his smile is one of Merlin's weaknesses.

"I wish we had port of this quality every night," announces De Lancey, reaching for the decanter again.

"I should indeed enjoy that," calls one of the other officers, "but for now I'll settle for drinking this one before you finish it!" De Lancey raises his glass to him and passes the decanter on.

"What should you like for Christmas?” De Lancey asks Wellington, who is sitting on his right at the head of the table. “More of the port, or have you another Christmas wish?"

"Two dozen new canon," the Duke replies, swirling the alcohol in his glass and staring thoughtfully into the dark liquid, "and for Napoleon to suffer a case of influenza."

This is greeted with shouts of laughter disproportionate to the humour of the statement and a few drunken toasts to Napoleon's ill health while Wellington smiles a small and private smile.

"What would you wish for gentlemen?" He asks the table at large.

The topic spreads, men calling out their desires for approval or comic effect. A desire for absent wives is a common choice, second only to a desire for the company of beautiful mistresses. Food and drink make similarly frequent appearances. Curses on the French are discussed and elaborated on. One man wishes to see his firstborn son and so must be toasted by the others in congratulations.

It is only later, when Merlin is walking back to his lodgings with Grant, that he realises that Grant himself contributed no Christmas wishes of his own although he discussed the wishes of others readily enough. Emboldened by brandy, Merlin asks him why.

"My wishes are very simple ones Merlin," Grant replies. "I've no wife or mistress, no particular shortage of anything and plenty of port. I merely felt that there was little I could add that other men had not already said."

"There must be something. Surely there is always something you miss when you spend Christmas at war. Even for you it cannot be the same as Christmas at home."

"Well, perhaps I...” Grant shakes his head. “No, it is a foolish notion."

"Will you not tell me anyway? We have heard a great many foolish things tonight and I am sure your wish would be no more foolish than the rest."

"I grew up in Scotland," Grant tells him. "What I chiefly find myself missing is the cold weather. The peninsula is unseasonably warm at present and while I should be grateful that it has finally stopped raining, instead I find myself longing for snow."

"Snow?" Merlin looks thoughtful. "I suppose snow is not so very different to rain, just a little colder." He frowns in concentration.

"What are you talking about, Merlin?"

A chill breeze blows around the two of them and something small and cold lands on Grant's face. Then another and another: he realises that Merlin has summoned a little flurry of snowflakes, falling around the two of them. It only extends as far as the spread of Merlin's out flung arms, and the flakes melt when they touch the ground, but if Grant looks up there's a blizzard above him, dancing against the dark sky. White powder already decorates Merlin's shoulders, the curls of his hair and his long, dark lashes. He looks, Grant thinks in a moment of uncharacteristic fancifulness, halfway between an angel and a boy at play. It must be the fault of the brandy.

"Your Christmas wish," Merlin says with a bow.

"Merlin, I don’t know what to say." Grant holds out a hand to feel the snow fall onto it and melt with the warmth of his skin. It takes him back, back to being a boy again when the first snow of the winter fell and he stood to watch it in expectation of all the fun to be had, of sledging and skating and snowball fights. He always loved the change it made, turning familiar places into a different landscape. He smiles.

"It is only a small magic." Merlin looks pleased nonetheless.

"It is Christmas," says Grant. "Thank you Merlin."

The small snowstorm follows them all the way back to their lodgings. By the time he arrives at his door, Grant's jacket and hair are a little damp with melting snow.

"Will you come in?" he asks.

"I should like to." The smile on Merlin’s face leaves Grant in no doubt as to what his plans are but there is no particular hurry, no need for the desperate rush of undressing that characterised their first encounters. Today, Christmas day, they have the luxury of time.

Grant removes his wet jacket and hangs it to dry. "You should do the same," he says, holding out a hand for Merlin's coat.

Merlin catches him with both hands, tugging him closer. "But my hands are cold."

It has been a long time since Grant came home with hands chilled from the snow and Merlin is colder still, perhaps as a result of the magic. His hands sneak under Grant's waistcoat, warming themselves against his skin, even as he laughs and tries to move away from the cold. Merlin distracts him with kisses.

Grant finds the buttons of Merlin’s coat and begins to make efficient work of undoing them, but Merlin stops him.

“Wait Grant, what else would you wish for at Christmas?”

“Merlin, really, there is nothing else. Unless it be for me to get you out of these damn clothes.” He kneels in front of Merlin and resumes work on the buttons.

“But there must be other things. Snow, certainly, but what about the food, or the music, the decorations.”

Grant looks at him, one eyebrow raised. “Merlin, what has got into you this evening?”

"I merely wished to make things more... I merely wished to please you. It is Christmas after all, even if it is not Christmas at home."

"Merlin..." Grant sighs. "If I were to spend Christmas at home I expect I would be beset by nieces and nephews, running about creating mayhem. I would, no doubt, be caught in conversation with a dozen relatives who wish to ask me about the war without knowing any of the details and another dozen who wish to know when I will give up the life of a soldier and settle down to marry and add to the collection of nieces and nephews running about. I do enjoy the company of my family but I do not miss it as keenly as you. There would be good food and a roaring fire and all the other delights of the season, but I am well fed and well satisfied with the company I have kept and you have granted one of the few wishes I had. Christmas at war is not a deprivation for me: I have what I desire.”

“I suppose it is different for a civilian.” Merlin has an expression on his face that Grant has not seen for a while. He associates it with the times when Merlin has felt most disconcerted by army life and patronised by the soldiers or when his magic has been misunderstood by the Duke and his officers.

“Merlin, you do not understand.” Merlin looks hurt, so Grant modifies his tone. He forgets, sometimes, how accustomed he is to speaking to other army men. “I mean to say, if I were at home now I should be just as contented as I am now, but I should be going to bed alone. I would not exchange all the Christmastide comforts that you could conjure up for having you naked in my bed and time enough to enjoy ourselves. You cannot give me what I desire, because I already have it.”

“I had not thought of it in that light.” Merlin has stopped looking discontented and instead has a gleam in his eye that promises a just reward for Grant’s confession. “To go to bed alone is a dreadful thing.”

“Indeed.”

Grant stands and strips himself efficiently of his uniform. He lets Merlin look at him: military life has cured him of most innate modesty about being in a state of undress and Merlin is always a visibly appreciative audience. Grant is also learning how best to distract him. He holds out a hand.

“Come, let us not waste any more time on Christmas. I am going to bed and you have agreed I should not got alone.”

Merlin rises, unbuttoning his waistcoat with a great deal too of exaggerated care. Grant has to restrain himself from helping by tearing the buttons off. Perhaps tonight will not be as leisurely an encounter as he first thought.

“The thing is,” Merlin says, rather hesitantly, looking at his buttons rather than Grant, “I had hoped that I could provide you with a Christmas present of sorts, but you have deprived me off the opportunity.”

Grant is about to protest, reminding him of the snow and of the conversation they have just had, when Merlin looks up from his buttons with a face full of wickedness. Apparently it is to be one of those nights.

“Merlin,” Grant says, stretching himself out on the bed, “I believe, if you really put to mind to it, you will find an adequate compensation.”

Chapter Text

He’s a little scrap of a thing, born bloodied red and screaming on the coldest day of the year. The storm began last night, turning rain to sleet and then to snow with a fierce wind that howled down the lanes and around the buildings. Joan did her own share of howling in the small hours and then in the morning, with the quietening wind came the miracle. The oldest miracle of all: a new life, taking its first breath.

She’s been so worried for so long, since she first realised she’d got herself into trouble. A baby is an extra mouth to feed, something to stop her working. Old Alice let her stay but it was an unexpected boon, and her patience is soon worn out. At sixteen, or thereabouts, Joan is already getting too old to work as a thief in a pack. She’d hoped, once, that there might be a way out but he promised to return on the solstice and that’s seven days gone already, leaving her alone with this helpless little thing to look after.

“What’ll you name him Joanie?” Thomas looks at her from behind his bedraggled hair. His face is all sharp bones: none of them have eaten well this winter.

“It’s Childermass day.” Old Alice says, out of nowhere, “Born on the day of the Innocents.” She spits, but Joan doesn’t know if that means good luck or bad.

“Childermass.” Joan looks down at the baby. It’s cold in the room and she’s precious little to wrap him in, so she’s got him tucked close, right against her skin. He’s still wrinkled, frowning, suckling at her with a fierce little mouth. When he cries, she can see the curl of his little pink tongue.

She never expected to love him. He’s been a nine month burden, a nine month sorrow and now he’ll be a child and a burden, but he was born screaming and fighting into this world and she loves him for it. If he’ll fight so hard for life, she’ll fight as hard for him.

“He’s named for his Da,” she says, fierce with a mother’s love in the face of Old Alice’s disapproval of the young man who came and went with only a broken promise and a bastard to remember him by. Her boy has a father, whether he’s here or not. “His Da and the day he was born. I’ll name him John Childermass.”

Baby John kicks her, hard. She hopes that means he approves.

Chapter Text

It's the coat.

If William is going to blame anything, he's going to blame the coat. December has been relatively mild up to now but with the sudden cold snap, Arthur has brought out a military greatcoat and started wearing it around the base. It's distracting.

Childermass and Grant both have similar coats (although Childermass looks perpetually disreputable in whatever he wears and Grant has been wearing his for long enough that William is immune). The coat does things to Arthur's shoulders and posture. It makes him look imposing. It makes him look powerful.  It makes William fantasise about being pinned against a wall, under that coat, while Arthur has his way with him.

It's at this point that Grant lobs a scrunched up ball of paper at his head, shocking him out of his imaginings.

"Could you please try to be a little less obvious?" Grant asks him. To be fair, they were supposed to be working on flight plans until William got sidetracked. He thinks Grant disapproves of Arthur, or at least the way he has been carrying on for the last few months. Very few of the women working here are safe from his charms and Grant thinks it's a disaster waiting to happen.

"You know what he's like. You know anything you start with him will last about the length a weekend before he gets bored and moves on." Grant says again. William blinks at him. He's really going to have to remember how to concentrate soon.

"I'd be happy with that," William says. He would: Arthur looks like he'd know what he was doing and a weekend is better than nothing. Of course, there's no actual guarantee that Arthur would be interested in a man. The only evidence they have is what happened during the never-to-be-revisited incident when Grant had a very successful mission in France and was given rather a lot of the local wine to drink while waiting for his ride home. Arthur had been very pleased with the success of the mission; so effusive in his praise in fact that Grant had responded by drunkenly trying to plant a kiss on him. Grant had been mortified, particularly when Arthur had said "at least do it properly lieutenant" and bent him backwards in a beautifully choreographed kiss. William isn't allowed to mention it again under pain of death but he harbours a lingering jealousy that it wasn't him in Arthur's arms.  

The pen hits him squarely between the eyes. It stings a bit: Grant has very good aim.

"For God's sake William, just bloody ask him! Have a shag and get it out of your system. Then you might actually focus on something for a change."

"And if he wants to have me arrested for soliciting indecent acts?"

"Well he hasn't arrested Childermass yet, so you're probably safe. Just, please, plan this flight and then you can do whatever you need to get it out of your system. And don't feel the need to tell me about it if he does succumb to your charms."

William, suitably chastised, returns to his work for at least five whole minutes.

“Grant?”

“Yes?”

“Do we have any mistletoe?”

The sight of Grant thumping his head against the desk is compensation enough for the thrown objects. Besides, William has a plan now.

Chapter Text

“You’ll need to learn to drive.”

Childermass’ well meaning words send a chill of horror down Segundus’ spine, in the middle of a conversation that is grim enough already. Childermass has received his call up papers, summoning him to army basic training and the two of them have been trying to go through the changes this will mean for them. There are a hundred different things that need to be dealt with. The two of them have fallen into a very comfortable existence, sharing the chores between them but now Segundus must take on everything. Most tasks are perfectly within his capabilities but the fact remains that the village outside Hurtfew Abbey is a remote one, only really achieving village status because of the Abbey church.

“Surely I don’t really need to drive,” Segundus protests, slightly half-heartedly, “I can walk to the Abbey from here.”

“You’d starve to death in a month. Not even you can survive on what the village shop provides and there are others as well. I don’t like to ask anyone else.”

Childermass is referring to his habit of going to the nearest town once a week, with shopping orders from half a dozen villagers without cars of their own. He’s oddly shy of owning up to it. Even Segundus was surprised when he found out where Childermass was sneaking off to once a week.

“But John, I’ve tried to learn to drive. Really I have. It just doesn’t work!”

“Don’t be daft. Anyone can learn to drive. We’ll start this morning.”

 

The car is a huge and temperamental beast of a thing. Childermass refers to it as Brewer, over some long and convoluted joke with Hannah, who works at Hurtfew. Segundus finds it intimidating. It feels wrong to sit in the driver’s seat, with all the muddling apparatus of pedals and levers in front of him. He can’t sit comfortably either: he has to choose between not seeing properly or banging his knees against the… whatever it is that the wheel attaches to.

Childermass explains, with great calm and patience, how he ought to begin. It sounds like something that borders on the understandable, but when Segundus tries it, the car moves forward by about six inches and stalls. Most of the six inches were traversed in a sort of lurching bunny hop.

“Try that again, love.”

Segundus tries, with the exact same result. He is, if nothing else, consistent.

Childermass repeats his explanation and encourages Segundus to try for the third time. Segundus does his best to ignore the way Childermass is gently stroking the dashboard as though in apology. On attempt five he gets the car moving slowly down the lane.

“Stop at the end of the lane and I’ll turn her around. Any time you want. Soon. John! The pedal in the middle!”

They lurch to a rather violent stop. Segundus’ hands are shaking.

“Perhaps,” says Childermass with a remarkably level voice, considering the stone wall a foot from the front bumper, “we should have a break for lunch and try again later.”

 

After lunch they practice starting and stopping over and over again, never going more than a few meters. He can start the car moving at least one time in three, provided that Childermass operates the hand brake, giving him one fewer thing to think about. Coming to a sudden stop is the only thing he can reliably do, but braking gently, rather than doing an ‘emergency stop’ is a bit beyond him. When it starts to get dark, Childermass drives them home.

 

Back in the cottage, Segundus drops heavily on to the sofa and put his head in his hands. Childermass watches him for a moment, then goes to put the kettle on while Segundus contemplates his failings as a driver. At least the government have suspended the requirements for driving tests for the duration of the war, giving him one less hurdle to overcome.

“Here,” Childermass offers a steaming mug of tea, “drink this.”

Segundus hadn’t realised how long he had been staring into the fire in a gloomy daze. Childermass sits heavily next to him and drops a hand onto his knee.

“We’ll figure it out, John. You just need practice.”

“I’m terrible. I must be the worst driver in the world.”

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far.”

Segundus groans and buries his face in the sofa cushions. Childermass doesn’t say anything else, but he cooks dinner that night and makes Segundus’ favourite.

 

“So we’ll set off, as we did yesterday. Then we’ll go down to the end of the lane and turn right.”

Segundus is doing better this morning. It’s about fifty fifty whether he stalls or not and Childermass has been kind enough to tell him it’s an improvement. The braking is still alarming though. He probably has bruises from it.

He sets off, trundling along far more slowly than Childermass would drive, weaving gently along the road and trying to ignore that Childermass is gripping the seat with a slightly white knuckled hand. Segundus isn’t sure whether it’s fear of crashing into a ditch or him suppressing the urge to grab hold of the steering wheel.

The corner looms and Segundus turns the wheel.

Somewhere in the process of turning the wheel, his hands swap over. They are no longer where he expects them to be, and he can’t remember which way he was turning or how far the wheel has turned. Childermass tells him to straighten up, but he can’t remember how. If his hands have crossed over, is he still turning the same way or is it backwards?

They come to a panicked halt with the car resting against the wall. The driver’s door is jammed shut so Childermass has to get out, let Segundus out and then crawl across the seats to get the car free. Not a word is spoken, but Childermass has an expressive face, at least as far as Segundus is concerned, and Segundus can feel his own face flushing red with embarrassment.

In the afternoon, Segundus manages to turn a corner. He also puts two new dents in the car’s bumper and, told to be sure to avoid a gate post, adds a set of scratches to the paintwork by driving into a hedge on the opposite side of the road. Childermass is infinitely patient with him. He very carefully doesn’t say anything that might imply criticism, or even disbelief at how muddled Segundus gets while driving. Unfortunately, it’s what he doesn’t say that speaks volumes: the silence when Segundus starts the windscreen wipers instead of indicating, the stifling of a sigh when he stalls three times in a row.

It’s the fourth afternoon of practising when Segundus finally snaps, at approximately the same time as the lean-to they use for storing firewood takes a hit from the rear bumper and acquires a new and jaunty angle.

“I can’t do it,” he says, not loudly or dramatically, but very firmly. “I won’t waste any more time on it.”

He gets out of the car, slams the door and walks off.

 

Segundus goes down to the river. It’s where he always goes when he wants space and also where Childermass knows to find him. Sure enough, after half an hour or so of quiet, he hears a familiar footstep behind him and Childermass comes to sit beside him on the fallen tree trunk that makes his bench.

“The lean-to’s fixed,” Childermass tells him, “nothing much wrong with it that a bit of brute force couldn’t sort out.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s no matter.”

“I’m useless at driving. I don’t know why I tried.”

“You aren’t useless, and you can drive.”

Segundus looks up at him in disbelief. “I really can’t, John. You’ve seen me try.”

“I’ve seen you drive. Or what else were you doing, in the car, getting her from one end of the lane to this other?”

“That isn’t driving! I can’t steer properly. I crash into things. I’m a liability!”

“It is driving. The rest is just… practice.”

Segundus glares at him.

“No,” Childermass continues, “I’m not making fun of you. You can get in the car and drive it. You just need a bit more time.”

Segundus says nothing. He stares at the river as it rushes by.

“Love,” Childermass’ voice is very low and gentle. “You know I have to go. They need magicians and they need men, more than Norrell needs someone to keep an eye on his pheasants and collect the rent.”

“I know that,” Segundus is indignant. “When have I ever said you shouldn’t go?”

“Never,” Childermass sighs. “And you’ll be alright, when I’m gone. You’ll manage.”

“Well I don’t feel as though I’m managing! I’m staying here, demolishing your cottage around your ears and letting down all the people who rely on you. I can’t do it!”

“You aren’t going to let them down.” Childermass ignores the disbelieving noise Segundus makes. “I’ve just been rushing you, trying to get you to drive morning, noon and night before I go away. I’ll talk to Mr Honeyfoot tonight, ask him if he’d mind helping you practice when I’m away. You and I can practice driving a bit before I go, but perhaps we’ll have time for other things: other more important things.”

“Other things? I think I like the sound of that.”

Childermass laughs. “I thought you might. Come on, we’ll try one more circuit of the lanes and then stop. By the time I get back from training, you’ll be driving well enough to pick me up from the station.”

Childermass goes to basic training a scruffy, disreputable estate manager and comes back a soldier. It's a transformation so shocking that Segundus freezes on the platform like an idiot. He doesn't know what to say. Childermass has always worn battered cord trousers and woollen jumpers (sometimes with holes) that look at least twenty years old and when he's out he wears his ancient poaching coat. Now he is head to toe in khaki uniform and big heavy boots. They've cropped his hair too. He'd written about it in his letters but Segundus had never been able to imagine it. The Childermass in his head had remained unchanged.

“Don’t worry, it is still me,” John says, smiling his crooked smile in a way that is so familiar that Segundus suddenly recognizes him all over again.

“I’ve changed too,” Segundus tells him, as they stand a foot away from each other on the platform and smile with all the things they can’t say in public. “I’m a driver now.” It’s worth all the hours of frustrated practice (and a few more dents in Brewer’s bodywork if he’s honest) to see the way that Childermass looks at him, surprised and proud.

He makes Segundus pose for a photograph by the car, smiling bashfully, not quite able to look directly at the camera. It’s the photograph Childermass takes with him, tucked into his wallet, when he goes to war. It reminds him what he’s fighting to come home to.

Chapter Text

"William!"

Grant calls up the stairs but there's no answer.

"William, how long can it possibly take you to find a bag of tinsel?"

Still no answer: Grant goes to investigate. In the spare room, William is hidden behind a mountain of cardboard boxes. Perhaps they haven't been quite so successful in unpacking as they hoped, but this is their first Christmas in their own house and decorations have taken priority (including the enormous Christmas tree that William insisted on, still requiring tinsel).

"William, did you hear me? You've been up here for ages."

William looks up guiltily from the depths of a box. He’s still in the torn jeans he was wearing for moving furniture around and there’s no sign of the tinsel. "Sorry, I got distracted. Look what I found."

He passes over a set of photographs and Grant skims through them: college gardens in the snow, a badly built snowman, Jonathan trying to put a snowball down Arabella's neck, Jonathan white from head to toe after Arabella's revenge and finally a photo that makes him catch his breath. He and William are sitting in a cafe, damp with melted snow and their arms around each other. They smile the identical, disbelieving smiles of first love: is this real? Can it be? How am I so lucky?

"Was this our first winter together? We look so young!"

Grant turns over more pictures of the two of them: in suits at the Michaelmas ball, on the way to a carol service, the last picture he took on the train station before William left for home with five whole weeks of miserable separation stretching before them. He remembers all the late night phone calls and the argument with his Mum over the phone bill. They've come a long way since then.

"There's a lot more in here." William offers up a handful and Grant sinks to the floor, making space among the towering boxes. These pictures are from William's year in France. The two of them stand in front of the Eiffel Tower, playing at being tourists. Here William sits at a table in a Parisian cafe, not aware of being photographed (the next one is of his look of protest and in the one after that he hides with his hands over his face).

Soon there's a whole relationship spread out on the floor in front of them and they are going through more recent pictures of Jonathan and Arabella's wedding. Grant turns the pages of the album while William curls up beside him, his head on Grant's shoulder. The chime of the front door bell is a surprise to both of them. It's a different noise to the bell in their old flat and they have entirely lost track of time.

"Shit!" William scrambles up, "I never found the tinsel!"

"You never changed either," Grant tells him. "I'll get the door and make your excuses. It's probably just Jon and Bell. They said they'd come early." The hordes are descending later for a joint Christmas party and housewarming, but the Stranges have volunteered to help set up and cater for the occasion.

William makes a dash for their bedroom and Grant heads downstairs to get the door. Bell greets him with a hug, a kiss and two large bags that smell promising. "Merry Christmas! I bring food, as promised. The house looks lovely. You must have been busy!"

"We have rather.” He smiles at her. “William's upstairs, he'll be down in a minute. I'm afraid we're a bit behind schedule." He leads them into the kitchen, which is at least passably tidy now that the appliances are in and most of their stuff has been bundled into cupboards.

"Don't worry," Jonathan tells him as he begins unloading the bags, "we came early so you could put us to work. Besides, it got me out of a meeting with Norrell. You'd think the man had never heard of Christmas."

"Enough, Jonathan, please! I've heard about Norrell all the way here in the car and I don't want to hear another word!"

“Well it’s true, the man is a workaholic, book bound idiot. I don’t think he even understands why a man might want to be anywhere other than work. When I said I was going to a party I thought he was going to lock me in his office until February.”

"You must be talking about Norrell again." William comes into the kitchen in smarter jeans and a soft sweater that makes Grant want to hug him. He's run water through his hair to tidy it too, so it's damp against Grant's cheek when he leans close, propping himself against the kitchen counter. "What's he done this time?"

"We are not talking about him.” Bell waves a roll of kitchen foil at him threateningly. “There is a Norrell ban from this moment onwards!" Jonathan looks sulky and Bell pats his cheek. "Please, love, try to forget about him for now. It is Christmas."

"Tell me later" mouths William. Grant thinks he actually enjoys the ranting, probably because as a member of a different faculty, he rarely has to deal with Norrell's quirks in person.

"Is that tinsel?" Arabella asks, gesturing to the bag William still has looped around his wrist.

"Yes, I'm afraid the tree isn't done yet.”

Someone got distracted by old photographs."

"You did too! Look, Bell, remember this?" William hands her a photograph of Jonathan in the most hideous of Christmas jumpers.

"Oh God! I'd finally forgotten that thing! What were you thinking, love?"

"I was very fond of that jumper. I wish I still had it."

"We don't!" Grant and Bell say at the same time and William snorts with laughter at Jonathan's expression.

"Moving on," Jonathan says loudly, "shall we do something about the tree?"

"Yes please,” says Grant, “Will, could you get the last boxes upstairs? I don't think it matters where you put them, so long as it isn't the living room floor. Can I get anyone a drink? It's not too early to open a bottle of wine, is it?"

"Oh... um... I might have something else actually." Arabella looks slightly awkward.

"l think we've got juice somewhere, maybe coke." Grant goes to hunt in the cupboard for soft drinks. It’s a complete guess whether it’s the right cupboard or not.  

"Bell?" William is staring at her and Jonathan, the way they both look a little secretive, a little pleased. "Is there something you want to tell us?"

The two of them exchange a look. Grant turns and catches them at it.

"Oh? Oh! Really?"

"Colley! You weren't supposed to guess. We aren't telling anyone yet, but I should have known I couldn't keep it a secret from you two." Bell is trying hard to look cross with them, but the delighted expression wins out.

"Oh my God! Congratulations, both of you!" Grant pulls her into a bear hug, while William shakes Jonathan by the hand. Jonathan looks slightly embarrassed.

"Don't tell anyone else, please!" Bell pulls away from Grant’s hug, red faced.

"Of course not! The secret's safe with us."

"I can't believe it!" William is grinning from ear to ear. He points to the photo on the counter, of the four of them all together as students, "Look at us there, so young and foolish, and now look. Us with a house, you two... well... When did we all get so old?"

"William!" Bell hits him with the bag of tinsel. "We are not old!"

"Save me!" He dives behind Grant and hides there, his arms around Grant’s waist and his chin on Grant's shoulder.

"It's your own fault. Besides, if this is getting older, there are some compensations, aren't there?"

The soft look in Grant’s eyes asks for a kiss, even if it's a quick one, pressed into the softness of his hair. William thinks of the little jewellery box upstairs, wrapped in Christmas paper. They've talked about it before, even joked about it, but now, on this first Christmas together in their own home, it feels like the right time to ask. And if, on Christmas morning, Colley says yes, then William will happily concede that there are advantages after all.

 

Chapter Text

"They say they sang it in the trenches."

"Sorry?" Grant has been staring into middle distance for a while. It’s a quiet night, just the two of them, after too much drinking and dancing the night before.

"Silent night," De Lancey explains, "you’ve been humming it. They sang it at the Christmas truce in the last war if you believe the propaganda." He's on crash leave after bailing out into the sea on his last flight and has come up to London to stay with Grant on his way back from a few days at home.

"In English and German, I remember.” Grant says, “Could you sing it?"

"In German? Yes, I suppose. Doesn't seem very patriotic though."

"I don't know. It's Christmas in wartime now, just as it was for them. Humour me. Quietly though or my landlady will be reporting me to the authorities."

William switches off the wireless and takes a breath. He hasn't sung much recently. Tentatively he begins the first line and a beat later Grant joins in with the English version. They finish the carol together. Grant is the better singer but William isn't bad and the combined German and English, sung unaccompanied, has a certain haunting quality to it. When they finish, Grant looks thoughtful.

"Your German's not bad is it? What about French?"

"Passable. Why? You aren't going to accuse me of being a spy are you?"

"No," Grant looks amused, "listen, old chap, I've got a proposition for you. How do you fancy getting out of your squadron for a bit?"

"And away from the wing-co before he drowns us all in the channel?"

"Quite. Might use your brains a bit more too. I know you have them."

De Lancey looks affronted: he might be tempted to say something but Grant frowns a little and says, "You know I've been on secondment?"

"Yes, that’s why you’re here and not overseas, isn’t it? Lucky for me or I’d have had nowhere to go for New Year except spending the evening with my parents! It’s something terribly hush hush, isn't it?"

Grant nods. "Do you remember Wellesley?"

"Wellesley? You mean Arthur Wellesley, the grim looking one? Did I meet him at one of your brother's ghastly get-togethers? It was rather a long time ago but I think I remember."

"Yes, that's him. I think you should meet him again. Have you got time before you go back?"

"I've got a day or two longer. I suppose you can't tell me any more?"

Grant shakes his head. "Just come with me to the office tomorrow and we'll talk to Wellesley."

"Second Christmas of the War already," William says thoughtfully. "We're in for the long haul again, aren't we?"

Grant, who has more reason than most to know that this is likely, only refills the glasses.

"Perhaps."

"We'd best make the most of this one then."

They toast each other, clicking the glasses together. Outside, in the blackout, the cold, dark city is silent under the stars.

Chapter Text

The gossips tell her, with astonishing detail, every thing that her husband did to bring her back. There are rumours of bloody rituals, of deals and bargains with unsavoury characters, whispers of murder and second wives and the madness he drove himself to in Venice. Bell wonders if they expect her to condemn him, to be shocked at the lengths he would go to. She wonders why nobody ever considers that had the roles been reversed, had she any magical power at her disposal, she would have done the same.

The roles are reversed now.

Under any other circumstances she would have gone to Norrell and begged for his help (not with any great anticipation of success, but she would have done it all the same). Now her options are more limited. She writes to John Segundus from Venice, knowing that he kept up a correspondence with Jonathan and that he has a magical school at his disposal. She writes to Sir Walter, to Major Grant and to the Duke of Wellington. The military men are staunch allies in her cause and where the Duke leads, other men will follow. Their first task is to clear Jonathan’s reputation, to reinvent the story so that others will see the benefit of bringing back England’s greatest magicians. Segundus begins his biography, stirring up interest as he goes. He is a kind man and a good friend and Bell is glad to have him on her side.

Major Grant regretfully informs her that from a tactical standpoint, they should also endeavour to give a little polish to Mr Norrell’s reputation. It’s a hard task, for Bell would much rather have a few choice words with Mr Norrell and the opportunity to deliver them than sing his praises to society, but if it will aid her in getting her husband home again, there are no lengths to which she will not go.

She meets Childermass and Vinculus at Starecross, where Vinculus eats an alarming quantity of cake during the course of the meeting and says absolutely nothing of any use. In his opinion, her husband was just a spell, a means to the Raven King’s end. She leaves, not a little angry and only more determined to succeed. Spell or no spell, Raven King or no Raven King, Jonathan is her husband and her responsibility and she will have him back. ‘Do not be a widow’ he told her, as though she would calmly accept the situation and move on. Jonathan is a dear man, but so very foolish at times. She is not a widow. A widow has no choices to make, no alternatives to the inevitable but Bell has both. Besides, Jonathan is a fine one to talk about moving on.

Not that she isn’t grateful for being rescued: the alternative still wakes her in the night, shuddering with half remembered dreams. Bell only wishes that the foolish man had found a way to rescue himself as well. That brief kiss was too brief. She should have fought harder to stay with him, come hell or high water.

They had so many plans, so many dreams: the house at Ashfair, just beginning to become a home, their hopes for a child. Jonathan was just becoming the sort of man she always knew he would be. A comfortable, domestic life would have suited them both. It would never have been dull, no life could ever be dull with Jonathan, and she would have loved to have seen him become a father. He spent so long in his father’s shadow, could so easily have become cruel in turn to protect himself, but his nature has never allowed it. She would have liked to have been able to show him how different to his own father he had become.

Bell will not give up her dreams of Jonathan returning home. How can she, when so much of the joy of life is in sharing it with him? Magical scholars may not be able to assist her and the gossips may wag their tongues, but Jonathan fought for her and she will fight for him in turn. Love, Bell believes, is stronger than any spell, and besides, she always has been in the habit of saving him.

 

 

Chapter Text

It begins with the phone call from his Mum. He should have known she was leading up to something from the first ‘hello’ but she distracted him, asking him how his work was going and whether he was eating properly.   Then, after a meandering tour of the family news, she finally arrives at her point.

“The thing is, darling, we’ve got the Christmas market coming up and the WI stall has had a bit of a crisis. I told you about poor Alice, didn’t I? And then Irene is going on holiday to see her son and the new baby. Sue is in hospital still after that fall and I can’t ask Jenny. Nobody has the heart to tell her, but her cakes just aren’t up to standard. I said I’d handle it, but really, it’s all a bit much. I know you only have a student kitchen, but I know you bake. You said so, when you first moved in. Just a few things, darling, and I’ll send your Dad to pick them up tomorrow.”

Colley listens with mounting horror. There is, after all, no saying ‘no’ to his Mum. None of his brothers have ever dared to and he isn’t going to start trying to be braver than them now. Particularly not when the honour of the WI is at stake.

Of course, as soon as he has put down the phone and written a list of things he needs to buy, he gets a text from Jon, asking him if he wants to go out tonight. Colley lived opposite Jon in halls in first year and they chatted a bit, but now Jon has a girlfriend who brings with her a gang of other friends and Colley has started getting roped in to their wild nights out. Bell lives with her best friend Emma and two boys: Art the ‘token postgrad’ as they have taken to calling him and Will, the irritatingly clever languages student. He’s headed for a first, has more money than the rest of them (courtesy of Daddy, as far as Colley can tell), is unfairly, annoyingly attractive and honestly the main draw of going out on evenings like this. Colley is clearly a glutton for punishment, because Will shows no sign of knowing that Colley exists, other than once laughing at his name.

Another text arrives. “Will’s coming too ;-)” Well that answers his question about whether he’ll be able to get over his crush with his dignity intact.

He dithers over the reply and eventually sends ‘sorry mate, want to be there but can’t tonight. Maybe next time?’ then pointedly ignores his phone in favour of persuading one of his flatmates to drive him to Tesco. She’s the only one with a car and it costs him another cake, but there’s no way he can carry all the ingredients on his bike.

After dinner, he gets the kitchen to himself to start baking. He’s glad, because he feels less guilty about hogging every available work surface and if his flatmates are gone as long as usual on their girls night out, he will have plenty of time to finish the cakes and clean up before they get home and invade the kitchen in search of food before bed. It also means that he can use their one and only apron without fear of the photos turning up on facebook. It’s a hideous object: pink and frilly. Emma bought it for them as a housewarming gift when they first moved in, a comment on his choosing to live in a house where all the other inhabitants are women. Her sense of humour is like that. It’s actually a good apron, but he’d die before he admitted it anywhere in Emma’s hearing.

He gets into the rhythm of things after a while, cooking in batches, and he’s half distracted when the doorbell goes. He assumes it’s one of the girls, back early or after some forgotten item, so he just goes to open it without thinking who might be on the other side and whether he might want them to see him dressed like this.

On the other side of the door is Will.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Colley says it before he has time to stop himself.

“What the fuck are you doing in that pinny?” Will is dressed for a night out, in a t-shirt that clings and impeccably drawn eyeliner. It makes Grant glad of the voluminous nature of the apron. It also makes him conscious of the ridiculous picture he makes, standing in the doorway in an apron and clutching a wooden spoon.

“I’m baking a cake. So I’m not going out, if that’s what you’re here for. Have your laugh if you want and piss off. I’m busy.” He goes to shut the door again, not sure if he can face the mockery that is sure to follow.

“Hey!” Will jams his foot in the door, “I’m not here to laugh.” He sounds irritatingly sincere.

“Then why are you here?” Grant folds his arms.

“I… uh…” Will looks uncertain, which is an unusual look for him. “Jon said you couldn’t make it tonight. I thought maybe you were ill or something. So I came to see if you were ok.” He scrubs a hand awkwardly through his ginger hair, making it stick up in spikes. It’s not what Colley expected him to say. It’s not even on the same planet as what Colley expected.

“I’m fine,” he says, and then kicks himself for sounding like a prat. “Do you want to come in? I was going to make tea.”

His traitorous mouth is determined to get him in trouble tonight. Will doesn’t come in for a cup of tea. Will doesn’t even drink tea. Will lives off expensive coffee and cheap booze.

“Yeah, um, that’d be great.”

Shit. Fuck. Colley does not believe this is happening. Somehow Will is in his kitchen, leaning on the counter and watching him make tea.

“That’s a lot of cake,” Will says, apparently desperate to break the silence while they wait for the kettle to boil.

“Yeah,” Colley blushes to the roots of his hair. He probably clashes with the apron. “My Mum. It’s kind of embarrassing. My Mum had a crisis with a WI cake stall and she asked me to help out.”

“Is your baking really that good? Like, WI good?” Will is all surprises tonight. Normally he wouldn’t let a chance like that go by without teasing, or making some kind of idiotic ‘your mum’ joke.

“You can try a bit, if you like.”

“That’d be nice.”

Colley tries not to scream. Will doesn’t say ‘nice’. He wants to shake Will by the shoulders and demand an explanation for what the hell he’s doing in Colley’s kitchen, making polite conversation about WI cakes. In lieu of screaming, he makes the tea, properly, in a teapot instead of in the mug.

“How many more have you got to do?”

“A lot. I’m not going to be going out at all, if you’re waiting. You should go and find Jon, if you want to.”

“It’s ok. I said I wasn’t going.”

Colley checks the window for signs of a pig flypast. Will never, ever skips a night out.

“I thought you might be ill,” Will mumbles into his mug. He’s actually pink around the cheeks. Colley has never seen him blush before but apparently tonight is a night for firsts. “I thought you might need someone to look after you.”

“Oh.”

“It’s not the same, when you don’t come with us.”

They look up at the same moment, eyes meeting and then darting away again. Colley can feel his heart thumping under the pink apron. It’s the oven timer that saves him, giving him a reason to turn away. He’s clumsy though, fumbling the cake tins until one of them catches him on the side of his wrist. He yelps, dropping the tin onto the counter.

“Are you ok?” Will is in his space immediately, pulling him to the sink and holding his wrist under the cold tap despite his protests. It stings like hell, so Colley tries to move away but Will keeps him there, holding hands under the flow of water. He’s pressed up against Colley so all he can smell is Will’s shampoo and aftershave, or whatever expensive thing it is that he smells of on a night out.

“Are you ok?” Will asks him again. He’s taller than Colley, who never really noticed it before.

“Yeah, it’s ok. It’s not that bad.”

Will smiles at him, hesitant but genuine. It’s positively unfair of him to be that attractive.

“I can help you with the rest of them, you know.”

 

Colley learns several things about Will that evening. Firstly that he does drink tea and knows how to make it too, when he makes another pot to ‘counteract the shock’. He has gentle hands, fixing a dressing to Colley’s burnt wrist. He does make cakes, at least under Colley’s tuition, carefully measuring and mixing with a little frown of concentration on his forehead. He tells jokes too, sillier than the humour he uses when they go out and more self-deprecating. He’s quieter, kinder, less interested in showing off. He likes cake batter, licked from the spoon in a way that makes Colley’s face red. He’s still gorgeous, even with flour on his black t-shirt and icing sugar on his cheek. When Colley wipes the icing off with his thumb, he looks vulnerable, saying “can I kiss you?” so quietly that Colley kisses him.

He knows how to kiss. He knows how to kiss sweetly, backing Colley against the fridge door and kissing him dizzy, then resting there with their foreheads together, not wanting to move apart.

 

On their first date Will brings flowers and an apron with broad blue stripes. It’s not to replace the pink one, he says, but for use if Colley ever wants help in the kitchen again. Colley wonders if it’s too soon to say he’s in love.

Chapter Text

Afterwards, Grant goes to her in Venice.

It is, he believes, what Merlin would have wanted him to do. She may even have news of what happened and news, bad or good, would be a blessing. The newspapers are full of contradictory accounts of black towers and spells and the return of magic. None of them confirm whether England’s magicians are alive or dead.

Half buried beneath his excuses of news and his duty to a comrade’s wife, there lingers the desire to be with someone who knew Merlin and loved him too. The chance to talk with someone who knew Jonathan Strange the man, not the magician.

In appearances at least Arabella is unchanged. He finds her still staying with her friends, the Greysteels, who seem to be kind enough although wary of Grant. He’s glad that she has such staunch defenders against public curiosity.

Arabella welcomes him warmly, beautifully dressed and beautifully poised as she asks him to take a seat and offers tea. Grant finds there is a new gravity about her, a quiet dignity born of sorrow. She is not so free with her smiles or her anger as she used to be, but something about her draws him in. He begs her pardon for intruding, asks after her health, and wonders how on Earth to pose the question of Merlin.

She takes pity on him in the end and asks him to escort her on a walk. They walk, politely side-by-side in public view, for the sake of propriety but finally able to speak without being overheard. She has seen Jonathan and spoken to him. Grant finds himself half in hope knowing that Merlin is alive, and half in sorrow that there is no chance to speak to Merlin himself.  

“He cared for you a great deal,” Arabella says with a calm face, looking out over the canal like any disinterested visitor, “and I believe you cared for him too. I do not… that is, I cannot pretend to understand how it is between men, in the war.” She frowns a little. “I was not angry when he told me. I think I was glad, to know that he was loved even when I was not there. Jonathan has always needed to be loved.”

He clears his throat. “He loves you a great deal ma’am. He spoke of you often.”

She laughs a little, but not as happily as she used to. “Oh I do not doubt that he loves me, Major, but Jonathan could never have only one love! I have shared him with magic for many years and I am quite reconciled to sharing him with you. It was kind of you to say though.”

The natural chaos of Venice swells behind them, suddenly louder, and they return their gazes to the water. The unspeakable has now been spoken. This is not England, which was Arabella’s territory, nor the war, which was his. Here, on neutral ground they must come to new terms.

Chapter Text

There’s something wrong with Merlin.

De Lancey isn’t sure why nobody else has noticed. Perhaps nobody else spends as much time watching the magician. Grant has been out on another of his missions for Wellington and the Duke himself has been too busy to notice anything that isn’t directly related to the logistics of battle. So long as the magic is done, he has no more attention to spare for his magician, and the magic is being done: the situation is not so simple as Merlin failing to carry out his duties. De Lancey, however, has been engaged in a very pleasant liaison with Merlin for some time and they were friends before that. He knows enough of the man’s quirks by now to know that there is something wrong, above and beyond the usual stress of being at war. He could make a complex plan to discover the cause (in the way that Grant or his Lordship might) but De Lancey finds that a bottle of good brandy and a deck of cards work just as well to announce the presence of a listening ear. Thus armed, he goes to find himself a magician.

“Merlin! There you are!”

“Ah, Colonel.” Merlin tries to sound like himself, but the delivery is oddly flat.

“Are you busy? I’ve got a bottle here and it’s devilish quiet with Grant away. Don’t tell him that I said that, mind. What say we liven up the evening with a game?”

“Oh, I, that is…” Merlin is too distracted to come up with a decent excuse, so De Lancey takes his opportunity and pulls him up from his seat, slinging an arm around his shoulders.

“Come now Merlin. Just share a glass by way of a nightcap if you’ve no desire to play.”

They walk together to De Lancey’s tent where he pours them both a glass.

“Forgive me, I am not in the mood for cards,” Merlin says, but he takes a sip nonetheless.

“I thought not. Tell me, Merlin, what has you so blue-devilled? Is it Wellington? I know he can be a hard task master at times.”

Merlin looks at him a little warily. “I thought I was achieving as much as was possible of my Lord’s orders. If he has some complaint…”

“No, no! Don’t look like that, man. But something is wrong, isn’t it?”

Merlin reluctantly holds up one hand. It is shaking.

“Since… since Jeremy died, my hands have shaken like that. I am afraid. I have no… no books, no guidance. No word from home. I find I cannot sleep: at night I lie awake and I cannot stop thinking.”

His hand remains held out between them, still trembling. De Lancey reaches out and holds it. Merlin is a man who needs physical comfort at times. After his manservant died, what Merlin needed most was an embrace, a shoulder to cry on, not only words. It’s something De Lancey can understand.

“Yours are not the first hands to shake in wartime, Merlin.” De Lancey says it as kindly as he can. He knows that because he looks young and has an honest face, he can perhaps say things that steer closer to the truth without his listener assuming mockery. “There’s no shame in it. Sometimes it means you are afraid, certainly, but we’d be fools if we were never afraid. Sometimes I think it means that you have some great task ahead of you and are just… waiting to begin. My own hands have shaken before a battle.”

“You are very kind.” Merlin sounds as though the kindness might choke him.

“Not kind, Merlin, true.” He squeezes Merlin’s hand. The trembling is a little less noticeable now. “As for the rest of it, I’m no magical scholar but you seem to be doing well enough. A man must sleep though. Perhaps I can help.”

“I have tried all the usual methods, as much as I am able, when I must sleep in a tent and have soldiers tramping about all over the place.” Merlin is perpetually irritated by the discomforts of military life. It is perhaps his way of holding himself apart from the others, of remembering that he is supposed to be respectable.

“Well then, let us try the more unusual methods and see if they are more effective. Drink up and finish that glass, then rid yourself of those boots.”

“This is your tent. I cannot stay here. I do not wish others to know…” Merlin trails off. De Lancey isn’t sure whether he means he wishes to keep secret what they sometimes do in bed together or the fact that he cannot sleep, but it does not particularly matter either way.

“Nonsense. Just this once we can be two friends who stayed up too late over a card game. The other officers saw my invitation and I have a reputation when it comes to cards.” He does, also one for late nights, parties, and generally having a social stamina far exceeding other men. It has its advantages.

Merlin still looks uncertain so De Lancey hands him back the glass and kneels to tug off his boots. The brandy disappears with reasonable speed and when the glass is drained, De Lancey strips Merlin of his coat, waistcoat and cravat. It’s as close to undressing as anyone is prepared to get here, where the threat of leaving one’s tent in a hurry is ever present.

De Lancey pushes Merlin back onto the bed and kisses him until he’s distracted, forgetful of fear and doubt and whatever magical theory he has been turning over in his head. When he can be made to forget himself, Merlin is a joy to have as a bed partner, a pleasant mixture of willingness and desperation. He is reluctant to stop kissing when De Lancey moves away but his quiet protests are silenced when De Lancey unbuttons his breeches. This particular act is a favourite of William’s, no matter whether his partner is male or female. It is, in some circles at least, another part of his reputation. He likes to give pleasure, to learn how best to please a partner and watch their faces when he does so. Merlin, in torment, looks so serious: frowning and biting his lip. It’s the face he wears when he does great and powerful magic and there’s an appeal to being responsible for creating that same look with only a willing mouth and eager tongue.

Afterwards Merlin is sleepy and sated, just as De Lancey hoped.

“I should…” Merlin puts a hand out to him, too tired for coordination but still generous enough to offer reciprocation. His hand does not shake.

“Another time, Merlin. You should sleep.”

It’s a narrow bed for two grown men, but the closeness is a comfort and Merlin has no objection to it. He sleeps, the immediate and heavy sleep of the overburdened now at rest.

De Lancey, ever the soldier, keeps watch.