It was raining again. Cold sheets of water lashed the grey twilight, whipping against the walls of the buildings of the town and sweeping the population from the streets into their houses leaving them dark, lifeless and damp. Well, almost lifeless.
“Bloody hell! Why’s it always raining? It rained yesterday, bet it’ll rain tomorrow… Noah’s Ark ain’t in it!”
“A shame; I would have liked to have seen a giraffe,” said Fredrickson, shielding his tinderbox from the rain as he struck a light, drawing on the end of a cigar.
“Watch out an’ you’ll be bound to see a couple hurrying past afore the Flood. Anyone got a boat? We’ll be swimmin’ afore long.”
“You may wish to, sir, but I think I would rather not.” Fredrickson looked consideringly up at the sky. “Had I wished to swim, I would have joined the Navy.”
“They’ve got boats. Don’t need to swim, do they?” Sharpe was soaked through, as they all were, and wondered why he’d been so stupid as to end up in a position that meant he’d be outside in the pouring rain. “Bet all them rich bastards are tucked up nice in bed!”
“All but one. Two,” Sharpe amended himself rapidly. “What does the General want now?”
Captain Sanders, youngest officer on Wellington’s staff, was taken slightly aback by the Major’s tone. He had not been happy to be sent out on this filthy night for such a petty errand in the first place, and although he could understand Sharpe’s apparent foul mood (the man appeared to be soaked to the skin), he did not appreciate being on the receiving end of it.
“Lord Wellington’s compliments, sir, and he requires you to attend upon him at Headquarters.”
Like Sharpe hadn’t figured that out when he saw the ADC. He sighed. “Try using a cartridge on it, Bill. The powder’ll catch, unless it’s wet too, and then you’ve got no hope.”
He picked up his rifle, cramming his shako on his head and heading into the pouring rain yet again, Sanders leading the way. Headquarters was not that far from where the major and his riflemen had been posted; one of the larger town houses, formerly the property of some minor aristocrat now long gone from this small backwater, and the captain hurried up the steps, not even sparing a glance for the sopping wet sentries standing either side of the door. Once inside he removed his raincloak, shaking droplets of cold water all over the dull marble floor, scuffed by the coming and going of countless boots and hobnailed shoes.
“You know the way I’m sure, sir,” Sanders said offhand, not caring whether Sharpe remembered the way or not, and disappeared into the dining room – there to find a warming drink by the fire and chase the night’s chill from his bones.
“Bastard,” Sharpe muttered, heading up the stairs to Wellington’s lair, dripping water as he went. He knocked and entered the small room which served the General as both an office and a bedroom. “The Ark’s comin’ on fast, sir, and we’re trying to find a pair of giraffes for you. No luck so far. Sorry, sir.”
“Stop being flippant, Sharpe, and sit down,” Wellington said gruffly, indicating a vacant chair near the fireplace.
Sharpe sat in the indicated chair, feeling soggy.
“It’s either that or go mad, sir. Been raining for three days straight. Someone should tell the Commissary we’d like some sunshine for once.”
Wellington arched one well-shaped eyebrow.
“Had the Commissary any sunshine to bestow it would probably only come at a premium,” he said dismissively. “And take your clothes off; you’re dripping water all over the carpet.”
“Oh? And freezing to death’s goin’ to help you how? ‘Sides, I notice you’re still dressed.”
“Not for much longer,” the General said, an amused smile playing at his lips now all pretence of formality had gone. He tossed Sharpe a towel from his washstand, before making to remove his waistcoat, stock and boots. “Dry yourself off on that; I have a spare dressing gown you can put on.”
“Thanks,” Sharpe said, stripping off his jacket which he left in a heap on the floor. His shirt was sticking to him, the jacket was so sodden it could hold no more. “Do you always tell your officers to strip off when they come to see you?” This last was accompanied by a grin as he bent to remove his boots.
“Only that ones I like,” Wellington said, moving over to the sideboard and pouring out two glasses of sherry. “But they don’t always oblige.”
“Well, mebbe the ones that do like you back,” Sharpe said, peeling off his shirt and trousers. They joined his jacket as he slipped on Wellington’s second-best dressing gown and began toasting himself in front of the fire.
“Or just hoping for further patronage.” Wellington brought Sharpe’s glass over to him, his hand casually brushing through the Rifles officer’s sodden hair. “Personally I would not give them the time of day!”
“Dunno why you would give me the time o’ day, but I ain’t complainin’.” Sharpe took the glass. “Had a good day, then? Despite the weather?”
“Absolutely vile. I do not need to tell you the problems rain causes – the supply wagons are late for a start.” Wellington took a sip from his glass, his hand unconsciously moving lower to stroke the nape of Sharpe’s neck. “But I shan’t bore you with details; I’ve had enough of them myself today.”
“At least you get to stay dry, you know. Me, I’m soaked through from one bloody patrol that proved what we knew; that the French have been sensible and stayed indoors!”
The General snorted, but continued the caress.
“Well, I’ve brought you in from the rain now, so I hope you are suitably grateful.”
“Bloody grateful, my lord.”
He turned and kissed the General, tangling his free hand in Wellington’s hair. Wellington was glad to hear it, and returned the kiss, feeling the warm dampness of Sharpe’s skin against his own.
“Good,” he said, when eventually they parted, ruffling the other officer’s hair affectionately. “Now, finish drying yourself and then get into bed. You’ll be warmer between the sheets.”
“I’m warmer already,” Sharpe said, finding a towel and dropping the dressing gown before rapidly rubbing himself down. He then cast the towel aside and lay on top of the bedclothes, grinning. Wellington rolled his eyes in mock disgust.
“Well, at least I’m good for something,” he murmured testily as he removed his shirt and remaining clothes, carrying his glass to the bedside cabinet and slid in between the covers next to Sharpe. “Move over a little, would you? You’re trapping the eiderdown.”
Sharpe poked his tongue out at Wellington before rolling onto his stomach and folding his arms on the pillow. Somehow he suspected that he should at this moment be feeling the tiniest bit guilty for leaving Fredrickson and his men out in the rain whilst he lounged here in the warm – but in truth he could not bring himself to be. He rested his head on his arms and looked at the older man, his green eyes bright.
“Oops,” he said. “Didn’t mean to.”
Wellington frowned and gave him a jab in the ribs with his finger.
“As if I could ever believe that! Now are you going to get into bed or are you planning to lie on top like that all night?”
“Aw, you’re no fun,” Sharpe said, wriggling under the covers and assuming the same position. “Better now?”
“Undoubtedly.” Wellington pulled Sharpe into his arms, pressing their bodies close together and brushed a fleeting kiss across the rifleman’s lips. “After all, it is no night to be outside, my dear.”
“Too right it ain’t,” Sharpe said, snuggling up to his lover and drifting off.