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An Ill Wind

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"Bunter, you're sick." Lord Peter Wimsey raised his monocle, scrutinising his servant.

Bunter turned from the window, tucking a folded white handkerchief away guiltily. "Not at all, my lord. I am quite well, as you see." The man's nose was red, his grey-blue eyes puffy. A faint odour of menthol surrounded him like an aura.

"I see nothing of the kind." Peter came forward, laying a hand on Bunter's shoulder and shaking gently. "Come, Sergeant. How many times have you warned me that a day in bed when one first begins to feel under the weather saves a week abed later?"

A visible twinge crossed Bunter's face. "I assure your lordship I shall not require a week-- That is to say, I am perfectly well. With your permission, I'll go about my duties."

"Oh Bunter, my Bunter. This will never do. I cannot have you disregard your own advice, you know."

"The cases were different," Bunter said with a hint of desperation.

Peter gave a short laugh. "A polite way of saying I belonged in a straitjacket? Well, Bunter, I know it."

Bunter drew himself up, shaking off Wimsey's restraining hand. "I did not mean that, my lord," he said stiffly. "I merely hesitated to compare a slight cold in the head to the illnesses I have had the privilege of nursing your lordship through."

Wimsey raised his hands. "Let be, Bunter, let be! I cry pardon. But still," he said reflectively, "I withhold my permission. You shall not go about your duties, you know. You will, though you may not wish it, go to bed, and I will order for you--what is that excellent broth you always procure for me when I'm under the weather, what?"

Bunter swallowed hard. "There is not the least need for anything of the kind."

But in the end, Bunter had gone to his bed. Reluctantly, not because he felt well--he didn't, truth be told, he felt damnable--but because the idea of leaving his master to fend for himself was utterly foreign, not to say repugnant.

Peter was well recovered, now, from the shell-shock, with nothing but murderers left to set him off. And there were none of those on the horizon; and even that Miss Vane who periodically plunged his lordship into fits of despair had disappeared. Bunter caught himself hoping that that could be a permanent state of affairs, and gave himself a shake. It was not his place to hope anything of the kind.

"Here, Bunter. Cook assures me this is the recipe." Peter entered in his shirt sleeves, bearing a tray proudly like a small boy bringing tea to his mother. On the tray reposed a steaming bowl, whose contents slopped alarmingly.

Peter placed the tray on the nightstand and gave the soup an experimental stir. "I suppose it is all right?" he said apologetically. "It's always seemed more appetizing when you've brought it to me in the past, dont you know."

Bunter reflected that that was hardly surprising. When Peter was sick, Bunter prepared every morsel Peter ate with his own hands. The cook was all well and good, but she was a woman, when all was said and done, with no understanding of the needs of a man like the Major. But all he said was, "I will do very well, my lord. May I say how much I appreciate your lordship's kindness. Now if you would only consent to me getting out of this bed--"

"No, I won't do that." Peter gave him an enigmatic smile. "Have a rest, ol' chap. I might wander down to the Egotists' for an hour or two."

"As your lordship wishes." Bunter inclined his head. "I trust you will have a pleasant afternoon."

***

Bunter drank a little of the soup--appetising enough, but he could find no appetite, not for it nor for anything else. The headcold was an annoyance, nothing more, but having let the Major see his weakness was another thing entirely. Eventually he put his bowl aside and lay back against his pillows.

There'd been hard times overseas, times when how he'd felt now would have been a welcome relief. He remembered the Major's feet blistered and bloody, remembered them both frozen beyond feeling, huddled beneath a single blanket in a shelter barely worthy of the name. Not so long after, Peter's fair skin burnt nearly raw by the sun, the pack he'd insisted on carrying chafing him bloody.

And those... Bunter allowed himself a small smile. Those had been the good times. The shells, the mud, the stink of fearful death, that had overshadowed all else. Try as he might, he couldn't protect the Major from the whole damn war. That... that had been the hardest lesson of all.

The day they'd dug Peter out and carried him away--still breathing, sweet lord, still breathing--had been the best and worst day of Bunter's life, rolled into one. The time after, so empty, the knowledge of the Major somewhere behind sheltering walls, surrounded by strangers who didn't know...

Grand houses, cold women, shallow, smiling men. The Polite World, struggling to find its feet again, and in it, Peter Wimsey, carrying the gaping wounds of war. Bunter lifted a hand to his face and rubbed his unaccountably wet eyes. He'd found his wounded Major and carried him away to this safe haven where none could come, where, at last, the broken soldier could find peace and perhaps, one day, be whole.

There was the sound of someone apologetically clearing their throat. Bunter's eyes flew open.

In the big wing chair by the window, with the sun falling full on his face, turning his hair into a cloud of gold, sat Lord Peter Wimsey. He had a book on his lap, and an expression on his face like a small boy caught in the larder.

"My lord!" Bunter struggled to a sitting position. "Is everything--that is, may I be of any assistance?"

"No, Bunter." Peter's guilty expression intensified. "The Egotists is really rather a bore. If it didn't come in so useful for cases, what--but a man must have clubs. Anyhow, I toddled on home, and I found the flat awfully empty. I came in to see if you needed anything." Peter made a halfhearted gesture then touched the book on his lap. "The light's good in here."

Bunter lay back down slowly. "I have always found it so, my lord." His heart was beating fast. Was the Major closer to a flashback than he'd imagined?

"I should push off, I expect." Peter made a movement that might have been a precursor to getting up, and Bunter saw the loneliness in his master's face. He thought of a thousand billets, man and master sharing the same fare, the same couch, the same bed. Sharing experiences, friendship. Sharing parts of themselves no other would ever see.

"If it would please your lordship," Bunter murmured, and closed his eyes, "I would be honored if you would read to me."

Peter breathed in sharply, then gave a short laugh that became a cough. Bunter kept his eyes closed. It was not always necessary for him to see Peter's tears.

"It would please me very much, my Bunter." Peter sighed. "Where the hell would I be without you?" He began to read.

I never stoop'd so low, as they
Which on an eye, cheek, lip, can prey ;
Seldom to them which soar no higher
Than virtue, or the mind to admire.
For sense and understanding may
Know what gives fuel to their fire ;
My love, though silly, is more brave ;
For may I miss, whene'er I crave,
If I know yet what I would have.

If that be simply perfectest,
Which can by no way be express'd
But negatives, my love is so.
To all, which all love, I say no.
If any who deciphers best,
What we know not--ourselves--can know,
Let him teach me that nothing. This
As yet my ease and comfort is,
Though I speed not, I cannot miss.

~ John Donne