Chapter 1: Flawed Hero
A glimpse of Art's point of view.
That actor who looks a bit like Jonathan is on TV again, talking about playing baddies. "People seldom cast themselves as the villain," he says. "They think of themselves as the flawed hero in their own story."
Art wouldn't mind a heavy session in the dungeon with that one. Soon stop him talking. But he's right about the psychology of it.
It's pretty clear Mission Man thinks Art's the villain of the piece, twirling his imaginary moustaches like something out of Victorian melodrama.
To the woods!
No, no, I'll tell the vicar!
To the woods - I *am* the vicar!
Sexual hypocrites in the church, nothing new there. Growing up, he'd had enough grief from Christian homophobes to last a lifetime. He could hardly believe his luck when they saw the Save-A-Soul mission band in Trafalgar Square, right on cue for him to make the bet with Jonathan.
It should have been perfect, either way. If Jonathan failed, he'd have the pleasure of watching him sweat over the task and squirm at the client meeting with Empire. Almost better than the free PR.
And there was always a chance he'd win; J's the kind of man you'd break your rules for. It had taken all of Art's self-control not to break his own rules, after the first time, even though he knew it'd be a disaster. He had to set a test hard enough to justify rewarding J if he passed it, make him earn another night in the dungeon.
This wasn't how things were supposed to turn out at all. Mission Man should be hating himself for giving in, but as far as Art can see - and he's not getting that much of a chance to observe - he's taken to being gay like a duck to water, or like a drake to other drakes. Just Art's bad luck to pick a closet case waiting to break out.
After he sees the pair of them at the club together, he realizes it's worse than he thought: Grant doesn't see him as the villain of the piece, but as the defeated rival.
Written for the Villain challenge at fan_flashworks.
Chapter 2: Squaring Up
Art's had these encounters before with the man in possession.
written for the Square challenge at fan_flashworks; thanks to Owl_by_Night for encouraging me to write this one.
Art's had these encounters before with the man in possession. They always feel they have to show off how happy they are, to send the message He's with me now. He doesn't usually bother sending back I had him first, because it doesn't need saying. He knows he can leave a mark that won't wear out, that what the men who've been through his hands can get from anyone else is never going to be more than a shadow of what he did to them. He's got nothing to prove.
Grant looks surprisingly comfortable in civvies and not even particularly out of place in the club, which is mildly annoying. He rests his hand lightly at the base of Jonathan's spine, and the way Jonathan leans back into the touch gives Art a pang he wasn't expecting. It's for the best that he and Jonathan aren't together - it would have been a car crash - but he never thought to see J looking so contented to be publicly claimed, a sort of simmering happiness.
“I'll get this round,” Jonathan says, and leaves him and Grant face to face.
“Jonathan seems well,” Art says, carefully neutral.
Grant gives him a measuring look, evidently decides he's not taking the piss, and says “Thanks. Yes, he is.”
“It's nice to see him back,” Art says, watching J being charming to Robert, the new barman.
As if in response to his gaze, Jonathan turns and grins. He's getting served remarkably quickly; that much hasn't changed.
“Here you are,” he says, returning with the drinks.
It's neatly done, Art grudgingly admits: an act of service covering up the reality that Grant probably can't afford the prices here on whatever he's doing to make ends meet these days. Nothing like financial inequality to put a strain on a relationship: a few months of that and it won't take much more than a huff and a puff to blow the house down.
“Thank you,” Grant says, and gives J a look that says Good boy so loud, Art half expects to see him drop to his knees then and there. Which is unexpected, and distinctly irritating.
Art’s much too old a hand to let his irritation show. He smiles at William across the dance floor, an invitation for later, and William beams back at him, uncomplicatedly happy. He’s a pleasant distraction, in danger of becoming a habit, but Art can live with that.
This nonsense of Jonathan and Mission Man won’t last for ever; J’s bound to get bored, and when he does he’ll be back. It won’t be the same between them, obviously, after what happened at New Year, but there are still possibilities. If J’s very good, he might invite him to join him and William one evening, remind him what he’s missing. Tie him up and let him watch.
Chapter 3: Strips Nicely
“I bet that one strips nicely,” Art’s godmother had said, staring appreciatively at some well built rugby-player.
written for the Naked challenge at fan_flashworks; this one is for Owl_by_Night, who requested it.
“I bet that one strips nicely,” Art’s godmother had said, staring appreciatively at some well built rugby-player.
“Lizzy!” his mother exclaimed, gesturing Not in front of the children. Comical, really, that she’d thought he still had some innocence left to lose, even at, what, thirteen?
William’s not the best looking man Art’s ever had naked, but he does strip nicely, in both senses. It’s always a pleasure to watch him undress, and the results are always worth waiting for.
He marks easily too, if not quite as easily as Jonathan. It’s a pleasure to stretch him out over the table and lay a pattern of stripes and bruises across his pale freckled skin. To wrap him in an intricate harness of scarlet ropes that leaves him barely able to move.
With most men, recording what he does to them is part of the ritual, part of the humiliation. He doesn’t bother to keep the footage; it’s not as if he needs a memento. Somehow he doesn’t get round to deleting the sessions with William, though. There’s quite a sizeable file on his hard drive by the time he comes down with chickenpox and has to spend three weeks in quarantine.
Chapter 4: A Silver Bracelet
The bracelet’s a flat band of silver, engraved with Elvish characters.
written for the Amnesty challenge at fan_flashworks; prompt used was Gift.
thanks to theicescholar for suggesting the bracelet, and to kalypso for the Runesmith connection. This one is for Owl-by-Night, who requested it; thanks to her for prompting my first fic of 2017!
The bracelet’s a flat band of silver, engraved with Elvish characters. There’s no need to spell out what it means – they discovered early on that they both read Tengwar – but Jonathan looks at him so hungrily that Grant relents.
“Do you know what that says?”
Jonathan nods, and croaks out “Yes.”
“Tell me, then,” Grant says, holding his gaze.
“It says –” Jonathan stumbles over the words and tries again. “It says Property of C Grant.”
“Very good,” says Grant. “It’s for you, if you want to wear it.”
They both know he does, after the collar conversation, but Jonathan needs to say it, and Grant needs to hear him.
“Yes,” Jonathan says. “Please, yes, I want to.”
The collar conversation was weeks ago now, coming out of nowhere and taking Grant completely by surprise.
“Would you really like one?” he’d asked, as neutrally as he could manage.
“I don’t know,” Jonathan admitted. “I think so, sometimes. I want something that says I belong to you.”
Putting a collar on your lover sounded more like the kind of thing Art would do. Which was how this had started, with Jonathan’s response to William’s new leather choker and what he thought it meant.
“Do you need a reminder?” Grant asked, tracing a line around Jonathan’s neck with his thumb. “I’d like to think you could remember this.” He leaned close to kiss the notch at the base of Jonathan’s throat, teasing at it with his tongue until Jonathan moaned and surrendered, begging Grant to stop doing that and fuck him right now.
The conversation ended there, but something about it had stayed with him. So when Dave the lampie at the Menier came back from his holidays doing tech at Mancunicon over Easter, sporting a bronze bracelet with Firebrand on it in Elvish, Grant asked who’d made it and did they do commissions, because he’d like to get something made for his partner. Dave, cheeky sod, said he didn’t think Runesmith did cockrings, and Grant said that wouldn’t be necessary.
Jonathan stares at the bracelet in Grant’s hand. He’s so lovely like this: trembling and flushed, his eyes dark with arousal, erection straining against his jeans. Grant briefly considers rubbing the bracelet along that tempting curve, but instead he asks “You’re sure about this?”
“Yes,” Jonathan says. “Please, I want –”
“I want you to put it on me.”
Grant takes his hand and kisses it, first the back and then the palm. He kisses the inside of Jonathan’s wrist, nuzzling at the tender skin there until he whimpers. So deliciously sensitive: he’s been known to come just from Grant kissing and licking him there at the end of a long session of edging.
Not today, though. Grant puts the bracelet on, and kisses him on the mouth, a too-quick teasing kiss that makes Jonathan buck against him and cry out in frustration.
“Undo your jeans and get your cock out,” Grant says.
Jonathan catches his breath, but does as he’s told.
“Very good,” Grant says, caressing him with deliberate lightness.
Jonathan’s cock is so hot and tight already, heavy and flushed dark with blood. He gives a choked cry when Grant brushes his thumb over the wet tip of it.
“Now stroke yourself off,” Grant says. “No edging, fast or slow as you like.”
“Oh god,” Jonathan says. The silver bracelet catches the light as his hand moves, slow at first, then faster and greedier, till he’s panting and shuddering, right on the edge.
“Please,” he says. “Please, can I?”
“Yes,” Grant says. “Come now.”
Jonathan comes with a deep groan that Grant feels from the roots of his hair to the soles of his feet. His own cock is painfully hard now, but he’s not going to rush this. He takes hold of Jonathan’s chin and kisses him, a deep filthy kiss that makes Jonathan moan again.
“You like your present, then?” Grant teases him.
“So much,” Jonathan says. “Fuck.”
“Tell me more,” Grant says with a grin. “Or show me, if you’d rather.”
Jonathan is plainly lost for words, but he drops to his knees and shows Grant exactly how much he likes his gift, to their mutual satisfaction.
Chapter 5: Loss and Change
Grant's new life brings change for Arabella too.
Grant’s never late for his shift at the Mission, no matter how bad the traffic is. By half-past ten on the second of January, Bell’s close to ringing A&E, convinced something must have happened to him, when he finally turns up, dishevelled, apologetic and still in yesterday’s clothes.
“Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t have time to go home for my uniform.”
His hair is tousled, as if he’s just got out of bed, which seems more than likely, and there’s a red mark on his neck that shows above the line of his t-shirt. No need to ask where he’s been for the last twenty-four hours, or what he’s been doing. If you’d asked her to guess how she’d feel, seeing him like that, she’d have said it would disgust her, but what she actually feels is fury. Oh, Colley, you fool. You fool.
“I’m leaving the Mission,” he says, sounding half-dazed, as if he can’t quite take it in.
Of course he is. It needed only that to put the finishing touch to a horrible morning. The Mission doesn’t encourage particular friendships – a policy that sits oddly with the rule that officers can only marry other officers – and most of the time you’re moved around too much to get close to anyone. But the thought of coming in here every day and not seeing Grant’s friendly face, not being able to talk to him about the latest issues with the drop-in clients or grumble about social services, is a sudden sharp pain under her ribs. She turns away to put the kettle on, not trusting herself to look at him.
“Does Brother Abernathy know you’re going?” she asks coldly.
“Not yet,” he says. “I wanted to tell you first. I’ll miss you.”
It’s as much as she can do to keep from slapping him. He’s throwing his whole life away, and for what? So he can be Jonathan’s latest toy, played with till he gets broken or Jonathan gets bored and moves on to something shiny and new. Which he’s bound to do, sooner or later; she knows what he’s like.
She turns round reluctantly, and sees what she didn’t see at first: a stillness and a certainty in Grant, tired and dishevelled as he is. He looks resolute, but also quietly happy, as happy as she’s ever seen him.
“Where will you go?” she says. “What will you do?”
“My rent’s paid till the end of the month,” he says. “I’ll find somewhere. I’ve saved a bit – not much, but it’ll tide me over. I need to go up to Scotland and see my mother.”
He falls silent, and she doesn’t have to ask what he’s thinking; General Jean Grant is something of a legend, though Bell’s never met her in person. She’s retired now, but still keeps her finger on the pulse of Mission affairs; Colley’s going to have to move fast once he resigns if he wants to tell her the news himself. It takes Bell a moment to catch up with the other implications of what he’s saying.
“You’re not moving in with him then?”
He flinches a little at the edge in her voice, but says steadily, “It’s a bit soon to be talking about that.”
How he can sound so calm and sensible when he’s doing something so stupid and reckless is beyond her.
“I know you don’t like him, Bell, but he’s better than you think he is. And I have thought about this, I promise.”
“Oh, Colley!” She hugs him, half in exasperation, and he hugs her back. They haven’t done this before, and to do it now, when he’s leaving, is almost more than she can bear.
“I don’t want you to go,” she says, knowing that it’s pointless, that she sounds like a child.
“I have to, Bell,” he says, disengaging himself gently from her arms. “I can’t stay here now. They’ll throw me out anyway once they know, and I’m not going to lie about it. At least this way I get to choose how I go.”
“Write to me?” She didn’t know she was going to say it till the words were out of her mouth, but she’s not letting him go that easily.
“Thank you – I’d like that,” he says, with a catch in his voice that makes her want to hug him again. There’s some comfort in knowing they’ll still be in touch, whatever his new life holds.
“Wish me luck,” Grant says, and shoves his hands through his hair.
“Good luck,” she says. He’ll need it.
“I’d better go and see Brother Abernathy now.” He looks like a man about to go into battle, bracing himself for what lies ahead.
“Have some tea first,” she says, pushing the sugar towards him in case he needs fortifying.
Why that simple gesture should make him wince is a mystery she probably doesn’t want to know the answer to. The Bible says you have to forgive seventy times seven, but she’s going to have a hard job forgiving Jonathan Strange for any of this.
written for the New challenge at fan_flashworks.
Chapter 6: Dogs and Sorcerers
Once a Mission General, always a Mission General.
Content advisory: religious bigotry and homophobia
Written for the Dog challenge at fan_flashworks; follows on from Loss and Change.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
File under: things you don’t expect your own mother to say to you. Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.
Once a Mission General, always a Mission General. She’d been grudgingly proud of him when he joined the ranks, though of course she wouldn’t say so. Pride is a sin, after all.
And now he’s shamed her in the sight of her fellow officers, brought disgrace on the name of Grant and on the Mission itself. Abandoned his calling for a life of sin with Jonathan Strange.
She won’t have him under her roof, she says. Since she’s living in the Save-A-Soul Mission Retirement Home, it’s not exactly her roof anyway, but it sounds more impressive than saying she won’t book him into the guest room. They have a brief and stony conversation in the Warden’s office, which is the furthest into the building he’s allowed to go, now that he’s an outcast and an apostate. There’s a moment where he thinks she might cry – from pure rage, he assumes – but it passes.
“You’re no longer my son,” she says, with that flat grey stare that used to scare him.
If only it were that simple.
Grant stays the night with Dougal McCann, who he hasn’t seen since school, but who takes him in anyway, offering him soup and oatcakes and whisky. He says no to the whisky, but he’s warmed by Dougal’s unexpected kindness, and by the feeling of being cared for, as much as by the soup and the blazing log fire.
He wakes in Dougal’s spare room, not knowing where he is or why, and has a moment of sheer panic at being adrift in the world, away from everything he’s known for the last eighteen years. There’s a text from Jonathan: Thinking of you. How’s it going? J xxx
Not great, he texts back. Miss you.
I miss you too, Jonathan responds. Wish you were here.
Here probably means bed; it’s still early, barely light this far north. He can’t let himself think about Jonathan in bed, about how much he’d like to be there with him.
Back soon, he texts. Just not yet.
It’s always a hiding to nothing, expecting his mother to change her mind, but Dougal said he’s welcome to stay a few days and he’ll give it that long, so he can say he tried. Then – he doesn’t know what then. Back to London, because he aches with missing Jonathan, even if he’s not ready to live with him. Maybe in a few months, when it’s clearer where this new thing between them is going, they can talk about that. For now, he waits outside the walls with all the other outcasts, with the dogs and the sorcerers, to see what happens next.
Title from Revelations 22 v. 15, King James Version
Chapter 7: Help and Comfort
Jonathan makes a trip to Inverness.
thank you to Owl_by_Night for encouraging me to write this chapter, which has been buzzing in my head since Dogs and Sorcerers, and follows on from it.
Grant looks thinner, tired and strained, which isn’t surprising but still makes Jonathan’s chest hurt.
“It’s good to see you,” he says, hugging Jonathan as if he’s been gone a month or more instead of ten days.
“You too,” Jonathan says, hugging him tightly back.
“Come on,” Grant says, “ I’ll take you to Leakey’s.”
“Wherever you like,” Jonathan says, pulling his scarf tighter around him.
Whatever Leakey’s is, it has to be warmer than Inverness bus station. He knew it would be cold up here, but the sharpness of the air still takes him by surprise.
“This was the Gaelic church,” Grant says, when they get there. “They used it as a hospital after Culloden, and Cumberland’s troops took the wounded outside and shot them against the wall.”
“Christ,” Jonathan says. Everywhere you go in the Highlands it seems there’s some grisly piece of history waiting to ambush you.
“It’s a bookshop now,” Grant says, “best bookshop in Scotland. We used to get the bus over on Saturdays and hang out in the café…”
He trails off, dismayed, looking up at the bookshelves and a scattering of plush armchairs on the mezzanine. No sign of a café anywhere here, though at least the place is warm, with that log fire blazing away in the middle of it.
“Oh,” Grant says. “Sorry – it’s – I should have checked.”
“Don’t be daft,” says Jonathan. “It’s fine. We can come back later and have a browse. Let’s go and see if they know somewhere good round here to eat. I’m starving.”
It’s true that he’s hungry after the journey, but also Grant definitely needs feeding up. He’s too quiet and subdued for Jonathan’s liking. He’d half expected Grant to protest that he didn’t need to come up, that he’d be back soon, that he didn’t need rescuing, but all he’d said to Jonathan’s text about the journey was to ask when he’d arrive, and tell him the time of the bus in from Forres.
The young woman at the till directs them back to a café near the bus station, plainer and simpler than its fancy signage suggests. It’s clean and welcoming, and Grant begins to look a bit more like himself over smoked fish soup and a cheese scone.
“Come back with me,” Jonathan urges, stroking Grant’s hand. “We can get the sleeper tonight and wake up in London. I’m sure your friend could send your things on.”
There’s nothing to stay for here, he wants to say but doesn’t. Grant already knows that the hard way, and he doesn’t want to push him.
Grant’s silent for a long time, and then he says “OK.”
“I’ll come back with you.”
He looks so weary and defeated that Jonathan can hardly bear it. It’s just as well he’s unlikely ever to meet Grant’s mother, because the temptation to shake her and yell at her would be overpowering. No point saying that, though. Instead, he squeezes Grant’s hand and says “Thank you.”
“I missed you so much,” Grant says, in a burst.
“Me too,” says Jonathan. “Let’s get out of here and sort out the tickets, and then walk for a bit.”
It’s even colder by the river, but at least they can stop and kiss now and then. Grant calls his old school friend, Dougal, who offers to drop his stuff at Inverness Station for him. He seems nice enough, and gives Jonathan a hearty, slightly awkward handshake that turns into a hug. They sit and drink in the sleeper lounge until it’s time to go aboard, saying very little. It feels like the aftermath of a battle. Jonathan supposes it is, in a way.
“Lie down with me,” he says, as the train pulls out of the station, and Grant does.
It’s not exactly North by Northwest or Murder on the Orient Express in terms of comfort, and they’re keeping everything but their shoes and coats on, but he doesn’t care. He holds Grant and strokes his back, and kisses him until he stops shaking. It’s all right, he wants to say; but he knows it isn’t, and may not be for a long time yet.
They talk a little as the lights of stations flash past outside the window, about what lies ahead: about Grant’s need to find a new job, and a place to live. He’s agreed to stay a few nights at Jonathan’s, but he’s adamant that’s all he’ll do for now, and Jonathan doesn’t argue. Maybe he’ll change his mind, maybe he won’t. At least they’ll be together for a little while, and Grant can begin to recover.
Grant falls asleep eventually in his arms, and Jonathan lies awake, listening to the small sounds of his breathing and the noise of the train as they travel on south through the night.
Chapter 8: Waves and Storms
Grant finds the CD on a market stall, on the way back from his Saturday morning shift at the care home.
Content notes: brief mention of homophobia
Takes place between Help and Comfort and A Strange Party
Written for the Wave challenge at fan_flashworks; thanks to Owl_by_Night for her encouragement with this one.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Grant finds the CD on a market stall, on the way back from his Saturday morning shift at the care home. The title catches his eye: Angel Tiger. It's from Christopher Smart’s poem about his cat Jeoffry – they’d read it at Grant’s school and bits of it stuck in his head even though he didn’t understand them: “For he is of the tribe of Tiger. For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.” He’d sung the treble solo when the school choir did Rejoice in the Lamb. His mother sat tight-lipped through the performance, and afterwards wrote a letter of complaint to the Head. It was years before the penny dropped for Grant about Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears; in retrospect he’s surprised his mother knew about them. No point in wondering how she did.
Buying the CD’s an extravagance, but almost everything is at the moment. He’s fighting the Mission for his final month’s salary in lieu of notice and patching together a living from grisly cleaning jobs. If Bell hadn’t offered him a room in her house, he’d be struggling even more than he already is. Jonathan would help out if Grant let him. Jonathan doesn’t understand why Grant’s not ready to move in with him. They fight about it, not every time but too often. It’s exhausting.
Not being able to talk to Bell about it makes it worse. The one time he tried, she got so angry with Jonathan that Grant found himself defending him, which didn’t help anything. Talking to Bell was like talking to the part of himself that didn’t trust Jonathan yet, the part that wondered if he was still trying to prove something to Art. And if that was true, if Grant had smashed up his old life for nothing… He couldn’t let himself think about that.
His phone buzzes and there’s a text from Jonathan. I’m sorry. I love you. I miss you. J x. They haven’t spoken for a couple of days: the last row was a bad one. Grant’s throat is tight. He’s not going to cry in the street. He’s going to go back to Bell’s house, put the kettle on, listen to the CD and then work out what he wants to say to Jonathan. Right now he doesn’t know if it’s Same here or I can’t go on like this. Maybe it’s both.
Bell’s in the kitchen, making soup. It smells good, and he realizes he hasn’t eaten today. He’d overslept after another broken night, and had to rush out of the door so he wouldn’t be late to work.
“Sit down, Colley, you look all in,” Bell says. “It’s nearly ready.”
She’s bought the thick oatcakes he likes, and there’s cheese. His stomach clenches and he feels faint.
“I didn’t have breakfast,” he says. It comes out too loud, too sharp.
Bell swears under her breath. “So eat something.”
He breaks off a corner of oatcake, makes himself eat slowly.
“I’m worried about you,” she says.
What is there to say to that? “Yeah, me too.”
“Oh, Colley.” She doesn’t touch him, thank goodness; even the words are almost too much.
“I bought a CD,” he says, to head her off. “Can I put it on?”
Her face lights up when she sees the cover.
“June Tabor! Yes, please.”
The soup helps. He was cold as well as hungry and didn’t know it. Well, it is February, you idiot. Gradually he thaws, and the lump of misery in his chest grows smaller. He missed the first couple of songs, have to go back and try again with those, but now he starts listening properly.
…There are waves, sudden waves over me
There are days when the way that I want is not to be
And I am lost.
Too close to home: it catches him under the heart. The singer’s deep voice is spellbinding, passionate and strong, moving between a hard edge and unexpected lightness. He can’t get up to turn the music off.
… There are storms, sudden storms, when the form of life is lost
There are waves, sudden waves over me
And it’s chance, not design, makes the line my life has crossed
And I may drown
He used to believe in design, in a universe that made sense. These days he’s not so sure.
Bell puts her hand on his, gently, and lets him weep. She doesn’t ask him what’s wrong, or blame Jonathan. She just waits with him, a comforting presence, till he’s all cried out.
The song’s still going but the mood has changed: There are bays, peaceful bays in the harbour of your hand/ Where the waves, sudden waves cannot reach. Grant’s not sure how that metaphor’s supposed to work, but the singer’s yearning is so strong he can almost touch it: There are days when the ways of your words can make dry land/ And I can stay.
He wants that with Jonathan, wants so much to believe it’s possible, though right now it seems out of reach. He scrubs at his face with a handkerchief and Bell gets up to clear the soup-plates.
“Do you want to talk about it?” It’s a careful question, not pressuring him. She knows there’s a reason they haven’t been talking about this.
“Soon,” he says, and means it. “Not just yet. But thank you.”
She gives him a quick hug and kisses the top of his head.
“OK, whenever you like,” she says, and turns away to the sink.
Grant finishes his oatcake and sits for a while letting the waves of sound wash over him. He takes out his phone and texts Jonathan: Miss you too. Can I come over? G x
Yes. Please. Now? Jonathan texts back.
On my way, Grant sends him, and gets back a THANK YOU a split second later.
“I’m going over to Jonathan’s,” he says, getting up from the table.
“OK,” Bell says, and for a moment he thinks that’ll be all. Then, with an effort, she says “I hope it goes well.”
“Thank you,” he says and hugs her hard.
“OK if I go on listening to your CD?”
“Sure,” he says. “See you later.”
He’s not planning to stay the night at Jonathan’s, though he’s not working tomorrow, so maybe… Cross that bridge when you come to it.
Walking from the Tube to Jonathan’s flat, he stops for a while in front of the Menier Chocolate Factory. Not a factory any more, and nothing to do with chocolate; it’s a theatre now, with posters up for Funny Girl. He knows it’s partly fear of how things will go with Jonathan today that keeps him standing here, staring at the notice saying Help Wanted. But working in a theatre might be fun, more fun than his cleaning jobs anyway. The door’s open. He takes a deep breath and goes in.
Title from Psalm 42 verse 7, "All thy waves and storms are gone over me".
June Tabor's recording of Sudden Waves is here.
Chapter 9: A Strange Party
If you'd told Bell six months ago that she'd be at a party in Jonathan Strange's flat of her own free will, she'd have laughed in your face.
written for the fan_flashworks Party challenge; thanks to etave, theicescholar and Owl-by-Night for their encouragement with this one and for conversations about party food. I am sorry there is not more food in this fic...
If you’d told Bell six months ago that she’d be at a party in Jonathan Strange’s flat of her own free will, she’d have laughed in your face. But here she is, joining in a chorus of Happy Birthday To You, even though Grant’s birthday was actually last week, with a bunch of people she hardly knows. Friends of Grant’s from the Menier, some of Jonathan’s friends from the club, and there in the middle of it all Colley, pleased and slightly embarrassed, with Jonathan’s arm around his waist, looking ridiculously domestic.
They haven’t said that’s what the party’s really for, but she’s pretty sure it is: Colley finally moving in, after months of living in the shared house with her and Paul and Sasha. She’ll miss having him around; it’s been a good time in spite of the battles she’s had with the Mission about giving him a roof over his head. Would they really have preferred to see him on the streets?
Bell’s used to standing up for what she believes in, but she never expected to end up fighting people she used to think were on the same side as her, about something as fundamental as the meaning of Christian charity. Now Grant’s moved out, she’s getting a lot of soapy forgiveness from Brother Abernathy about the Mission’s willingness to overlook this unfortunate episode. It’s even more intolerable than the finger-wagging lectures about consorting with outcasts and apostates, or the warnings, touch not pitch lest ye be defiled. She’s never been so close to telling a colleague to fuck off, though what she’d actually said was that as far as she was concerned she hadn’t done anything wrong, and she’d do it again tomorrow if she had to.
When she’d first found the Mission, it felt as if all her prayers had been answered, as if the world finally made sense. She’d found her cause and her army. Now it feels increasingly like a straitjacket or a prison, because she can’t see the world their way any more. She can’t see Grant the way they see him, as someone to be shunned because he refuses to abandon the life that he’s chosen, or as a deluded victim of the Evil One’s wiles. He’s not just happy; he’s more himself than she’s ever known him. It’s as if he’d been covered in some sort of dull gauze, and it’s melted away, so that all the colours of his being stand out strong and clear.
The kitchen timer goes off, and Colley detaches himself from Jonathan’s embrace, diving into the kitchen to get his cheese and herb biscuits out of the oven to cool. Benefits of living with a Bake-Off fan, Bell thinks, and grins. Jonathan’s a lucky man, but at least he seems to know that.
She can’t see Jonathan in the same way she used to either. They’ll probably never be best friends, but it’s gone way past the grudging mutual respect and toleration of those first months, as they both tried to support Colley through the fallout of leaving the Mission. He’d had so much to deal with - coming out, the troubles with his mother, finding a new job, making a new life. It astonished her that Jonathan was capable of caring for anyone but himself, but she’d watched him learn how to care for Grant, through all the mistakes and stumbles to what they have now, a bond as strong and good as any she’s known. Like the old words of the marriage service say: the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.
That’s something worth celebrating, even if the Mission can’t see it. She raises her glass to Colley as he comes back from the kitchen and pulls Jonathan into a hug.
Chapter 10: Slow and Easy Man
Some things are too good to rush.
Written for the Rush challenge at fan_flashworks; thanks to Owl_by_Night for requesting this one and for an inspiring conversation about how it might turn out. This is for her.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
William likes it slow, slower than almost any man Art's ever had. His stamina is one of his many good points: how much punishment he can take, how many edges he can do. He complains vociferously about it all while it's happening, of course, unless Art explicitly orders him not to. It's fun to do that sometimes, to watch him struggling to keep quiet with the vibrator on its highest setting, or the milker on slow. William's unabashed pleasure in the contents of the toybox is another of his bonus points. His eyes light up whenever Art gets a new piece of kit and tells him what it's for; he wriggles with excitement, cock already standing to attention, until Art barks at him to keep still or he won't get to come at all.
Art's mostly used toys for decades now. It began as a necessity, safer sex in the dark times of the 80s and 90s, then became a habit. Just occasionally, though, he likes to change it up, to surprise a man with a good old-fashioned fucking. William's eyes go wide as he watches him roll the condom on and slick it up. The session's lasted several hours already; William's wrecked and dripping with sweat, very close to his limit. He's never safeworded yet, but there's a first time for everything. Art fingers him, careful and insistent, till William jerks his hips and whimpers. Christ, he's like a furnace as Art pushes into him, inch by slow inch.
“Fuck,” William says, “oh fuck, Art, please. God.” He's still got the cockring on, so he can't come yet.
“You know what to say,” Art says, and moves his hips, teasing him with slow, shallow thrusts. “If you want me to stop, that is.”
“No,” William says, and grits his teeth. “Oh, fuck.”
Art pushes deeper, still at that torturous slow pace, till he's all the way in. Infinitesimal movements now, William shuddering under him.
“Please, please, Art, I can't, I've got to -” William clenches helplessly around his cock.
“Not yet,” Art says, fighting his own desire to speed up. Some things are too good to rush.
He keeps his rhythm steady, holding back until William's cries grow sharper, wordless. So close now: he jerks his hips up to meet every slow push from Art, unable to control himself any more, thighs quivering and taut with the need to come. Art pulls back, drawing a desperate wail of protest from William. But he's not going to leave him hanging, not this time. He takes the ring off William's cock and starts to stroke him, fast and greedy, pushing him all the way to the edge. And then he moves again, thrusting hard and deep, fucking through William's orgasm and into his own. He can't remember the last time he came this hard.
William falls sound asleep almost at once afterwards, which is hardly surprising. Art doesn't have the heart to wake him. He's surprised, watching the video footage back when William's gone, to see how long he must have left the camera running.
It's sod's law that William finds him watching that particular video a few weeks later, when he comes round after work to check on Art, confined to bed with chickenpox. Emma had said she'd given him the spare keys, but thought he was going to look in over the weekend. If Art had known he was going to turn up today, he'd have chosen something else to distract himself with, obviously. Too late now: William's doubled up with laughter, gleeful at catching him in the act.
“I was bored, OK?” Art snaps.
“Aww, you kept it!” William teases him. “That's sweet; I didn't know you cared.”
Art's “Quiet, you cheeky young pup!” comes just a fraction too late.
They stare at each other in consternation. Oh, fuck.
“You're lucky I'm too ill to chastise you,” Art says, but it rings hollow.
There's too much truth in that joke of William's. It's a game-changer, and they both know it. If they're not going to call the whole thing off - and William's brief look of panic says he knows Art's thinking about that - then everything has to be renegotiated. This stopped being just another casual arrangement some time ago, for both of them, Art realizes, though they've been managing to ignore that till now. They're going to have to talk about it, feelings and all. Christ.
“Well, shit,” William says. He sits down hard on the bedside chair and pushes his hands through his hair. “What the fuck do we do now?”
“Put the kettle on, would you?” Art says wearily. “This is a conversation that calls for a very strong pot of tea.”
Title from Ida Cox's song One Hour Mama
Chapter 11: Where Love Is
It feels strange, this Christmas, so different from last year’s, and not just because Grant’s not at the Mission any more.
Grant sits on the sofa between Jonathan and Bell after Christmas lunch, so tired he could almost fall asleep right here. Bell leans against his shoulder and sighs: she’s tired too, for similar reasons. However well they thought they were adjusting to civilian life, this first Christmas away from the Mission has been strange for both of them. Jonathan does his best to understand, but he doesn’t really get it – nobody does, Grant thinks, unless they’ve been there themselves. Still, it’s been a good day so far – better than he could have imagined, this time last year. Better than he could have hoped for, in almost every way.
Jonathan had wanted to spoil Grant today, give him a proper day off after the mad busy fortnight he’d had at the Menier with all the Christmas parties on top of the regular shows. He’d told Grant to sit still and not lift a finger because he was going to do everything. Grant had to explain to him gently but firmly that it felt weird and wrong not to be doing any of the work, and he’d actually be happier if Jonathan let him take a turn in the kitchen. Mercifully Jonathan knows enough by now to understand when he doesn’t understand, and to back off when Grant’s obviously uncomfortable about something. So they’d worked together harmoniously, preparing everything that could be prepared ahead, and then Grant had taken him to bed and shown his appreciation with proper thoroughness before Bell arrived.
It was good to have the afterglow of bed to see him through the call with his mother. The only thing you could say for that conversation was that it didn’t take long: she’d hung up on him again, after a brief venomous outburst. He’d cried a bit afterwards, out of weariness and exhaustion as much as unhappiness. As always, the lingering hope that something else could be possible made it worse. He should know by now that there’s no point even trying; there’s turning the other cheek and then there’s laying yourself open to abuse, right? He’s pretty sure Jonathan thinks it’s a lost cause, but he never says so. He’d held Grant and let him cry, told him how much he loved him, kissed him and stroked his back until the worst of the tension went out of him.
By the time Bell arrived Grant was feeling almost human again, though she could see he’d been crying. Once she’d have assumed it was Jonathan’s fault; now she said “Rough call with your mother?”
He nodded, and she hugged him indignantly. “That woman strains my Christian charity.”
Jonathan laughed, not unkindly. “Drink, Bell?”
“Coffee, please, if you’re making it. Oh, and I’ve brought this for mulling.”
She’d brought the oranges and spices as well as a good bottle of red, and she set about preparing it all, as matter-of-factly as she’d have done in the Mission kitchen. Except there it’d have been fruit juice, not wine.
“What else can I do?” she asked, as the smell of warming wine and spices filled the kitchen.
“You could just sit and drink your coffee,” Jonathan suggested. “But if you’re pining for a job you can do the sprouts.”
Almost like old times, working side by side with her, except for all the ways it wasn’t. Changes for the better, for both of them: Bell’s happy at art school, doing brilliantly as anyone could have told you she would, and Grant’s happier with Jonathan than he ever imagined he could be with a partner. The Menier’s great, too; he knows he’s found a good place, people he likes and respects and who value him and appreciate what he does. He wouldn’t go back to the Mission even if they’d have him, and nor would she. But it leaves a mark on you, in ways that nobody who hasn’t lived that life can really understand. He and Bell would be friends anyway, always, he hopes; but they cling to each other the more because each of them understands something about the other that nobody else can or ever will, no matter how much they love them.
It feels strange, this Christmas, so different from last year’s, and not just because he’s not at the Mission any more. Impossible not to remember how his heart leapt, getting that Christmas morning text from Jonathan that broke the angry silence between them after the row about Art’s New Year’s Eve invitation. He couldn’t have foreseen the unhappiness that lay ahead, or that so much of what he’d hoped for with Jonathan would come to pass afterwards. Strange times. A week from today will be their first anniversary: something to celebrate, for sure, but there’s still pain in the memory of that day. He knows Jonathan’s thinking about all that too, and that he’s more than usually tender with Grant because of it. It’s been good to be busy at work, not to have too much chance to think this time last year.
Some of the memories were uncomplicatedly happy, of course. They’d watched The Force Awakens again in preparation for seeing Rogue One, and he’d discovered just how little of the plot Jonathan had taken in when they saw it together in the cinema, and why. Grant enjoyed teasing him about that, holding his hand and stroking it until Jonathan groaned and hit the pause button for the DVD. They’d taken four hours to get through the rewatch, between one interruption and another, and Jonathan still probably wouldn’t pass a test on the storyline…
“What?” Jonathan says, catching the look on his face now.
“Nothing,” Grant lies unconvincingly.
Jonathan hauls him close for a lingering kiss, and it’s only Bell’s prompt action that saves the gravy from burning. She’s also the one who remembers to keep the water topped up for steaming the pudding, which is just as well; nobody wants buckled saucepans, scorched cloth and blaring smoke alarms on Christmas Day. The three of them make a good team in the kitchen, Grant thinks, and even if there are a few narrow squeaks everything turns out well.
Christmas lunch used to be his mother’s triumph, the high point of her culinary year, but it was a triumph that came at a cost in frayed tempers and high stress levels. Everything had to be perfect, including the family’s behaviour, or the day was spoiled. The Mission Christmas lunches were easier, even when the food wasn’t great. Looking after people was its own justification and reward. But this – this is different again. He could get used to this.
“That’s the nicest Christmas lunch I’ve ever had,” Bell says, as if in echo of his thought. She puts down her pudding spoon with a happy sigh.
Jonathan’s obviously on the point of making a crack about the Mission’s cooking, and possibly also the Woodhopes’, but thinks better of it. “Thank you very much,” he says, and sketches a slight bow that makes his paper hat go crooked. “You can come again.”
Bell laughs and blows a squeaker at him.
“I hope you will,” says Grant, and raises his glass to her. “It’s good to have you here.”
“It’s good to be here,” she says, a little misty-eyed.
Nobody suggests a toast to absent friends: the friends who matter most are right here in this room.
There’s a minor scuffle about who’s doing the dishes, which is what happens when you have a surfeit of volunteers, two of them ex-Mission types, but they get the table cleared and the dishwasher on, and the tea and coffee made, and settle down on the sofa, all three of them drowsy with food and wine and contentment. Grant puts an arm around each of them and holds them close, the two people he loves best in the world. He doesn’t know what the coming year will bring, but right here, right now, life feels good.
Title from Proverbs 15: 17 "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith."
My thanks to Kalypso for prompting me to think about Bell and Grant both having their first post-Mission Christmas.