Lieutenant Richard Sharpe settled himself back into a large pile of hay with a tired sigh. He glanced over at his Chosen Men, all curled into various postures of sleep around the dilapidated barn they were using for cover. Boards creaked and shivered in the icy winter wind, and the draft seeped through every opening.
“A right terrible night, Sir,” Sergeant Patrick Harper said, adding fuel to a small fire that tried valiantly to keep the cold away.
Sharpe grunted and shifted his position, trying to find a comfortable placement for his aching posterior. “To end a perfect day.”
“We came through all right,” Harper said. “More than can be said for many.”
“The Frogs made us run,” Sharpe said and threw a bit of stick at the fire, feeling irrationally angry when it landed short. “All of us.”
“Not your fault, Sir. Nor any of ours. We stood and kept it from going all the way against us,” Harper said.
Grunting again, Sharpe rubbed his hands over his face, trying to wipe away the shame with the grime. “We ran.”
“We made an orderly retreat,” Harper countered. “The others ran. Yours didn’t run. You know the difference.” He plunked down a bowl of stew at Sharpe’s knee and said, “Eat now, Sir.”
Sharpe raised his eyes to Harper’s, before nodding slightly and lifting the bowl. He spooned the first bite into his mouth, grateful more for the warmth than the taste. Though it calmed the gnawing in his stomach, as well.
“We’ll get them next time, Sir,” Harper said.
“Take a change in command to have a chance,” Sharpe said, shoveling in his stew. “Your cooking’s improved.”
“You’d starve if I didn’t,” Harper said. “And you know it, Sir.”
Sharpe chuckled ruefully and sighed through his nose. “Dangers of command. Never thought I’d forget a meal, once I had them regular.”
“I’ll make sure you remember, Sir,” Harper said. He set a small bit of bread near Sharpe. “And best I do.”
“Like a nagging wife,” Sharpe grumbled, but ate his bread.
Harper chuckled once and said, “If you like, Sir.” He dug into his own food, watching Sharpe to be sure he finished his own.
“Thanks for it,” Sharpe said after moments of easy silence. His eyes shifted over the sleeping men, the pickets on the far end of the barn, peering into the harsh night for any signs of enemy movement. His mouth quirked, and he said, low and deep, “Guess it’s not so wrong anyway, eh?”
Harper’s laugh deepened, eyes warm and merry as they looked into Sharpe’s. “Oh ho, so that’s how it is then?”
“And well you know,” Sharpe answered, smile increasing in magnitude. “If not for all the men...”
Snorting, Harper spluttered through more stew, licking his mouth clean with a deliberate swipe. “There’ll be time enough, Sir.”
Sharpe growled a little and sat forward. “Don’t call me Sir when we’re talking about this.”
“You’re always my Sir,” Harper countered, “no matter what we may be saying or doing... Sir.”
Shuddering, Sharpe let his chin drop to his chest and took a deep, shuddering breath. “You’ll be the end of me, Sergeant.”
“Nah, not me, Sir,” Harper promised. “The life of ye, maybe, but never the end.”
The fire crackled, and Sharpe laughed softly. “Remember the first time? The way we jumped at every noise?”
“Until we forgot to even be careful,” Harper agreed, voice soft and intimate. “British bastard, knew you’d be no good for me.”
“Me?” Sharpe demanded. “You began this.”
Harper shook his head firmly and said, “My sainted mum says that all the evil in the world started with you, and I’d nay deny her words.”
“Is that what this is, evil?” Sharpe asked, eyes narrowing a little.
Harper seemed to consider a moment and then smiled bright enough to light the barn. “You’re right, Sir, this was my own idea.”
Sharpe’s head fell back on a laugh that startled the pickets and shifted a few men in their sleep. “Ah, you are good for me, Pat.”
“Told you that many times, Sir,” Harper agreed, lit up at seeing his commander relaxed and happy for the first time since their day had taken a downward spiral at the muzzle of Napoleon’s guns. “Just need a little reminding now and then, you do.”
Sharpe shook his head and leaned back into the pile of hay, blowing out a relieved sigh. “When next we have a free, uncrowded moment, you may remind me again.”
“I know, Sir,” Harper said, tidying up the remains of their dinner and fetching a blanket for Sharpe. “You never need fear for that.”
Sharpe opened his eyes and gazed at Harper, as the Sergeant laid the blanket over and tucked it around him. “I’ve not been big on words, Pat.”
“There’s no need, Sir,” Harper assured. “I’ve ne’er needed words where we are concerned. Not even when we were enemies.”
“Our first intimate contact,” Sharpe said wryly, and both men laughed. “Learned then that you had a good grip.”
Harper sat back on his heels and surveyed his commanding officer with approval. “There now, Sir, you’ll be comfortable enough for the night. And you best be getting some sleep. There’ll be little enough rest tomorrow and plenty to marching to be done.”
“Be sure you get some sleep yourself,” Sharpe said sternly, despite drooping eyes. “No sitting up all night again.”
With an innocent smile, Harper said, “I would not dare disobey an order, Sir. But I’ll be making a round or two before I’m ready to rest my head. All the better to serve you, Sir.”
Sharpe sighed again and said, “I best be satisfied with that, then.” He shifted under his blanket, searching for the best position. “When I wake tomorrow, think there will be much changed?”
Harper squeezed one of Sharpe’s feet gently and said, “Just the year, Sir.”
“Huh,” said Sharpe, “wonder what the use of the New Year is then?”
“Something to ponder, Sir. But what’s good in the world shall not be gone, either,” Harper said.
“True ‘nuff,” Sharpe slurred, drifting into sleep with the security of Harper by his side. “Night.”
“Good night, Sir,” Harper said. “May the angels look after you. And may the new year be greeted with victory.” He waited until Sharpe was fast asleep and added softly, “Love you, Sir,” before standing to take one last turn around the barn.