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The Bird Hour

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Macdonnell reported that Strange had been insensible since shortly before they had closed the gate at Hougoumont. It was not the case that Macdonnell's own account was really all that coherent; he was spattered in blood still, knee-high with mud, and dazed, and Grant expected that he would shortly require a good deal of brandy if he were to continue functioning. Some of what he said could have been mistaken for raving, but Grant knew that it was not— bodies torn and flung about by ivy strands, a great strangling hand that rose from clay to crush a French sous-lieutenant... "And then," Macdonnell concluded, "we had got the gate closed, and were quite occupied in killing all of the Frenchmen." Grant could still smell the blood. It was very heavy in the air. "To be frank, sir, Mr Strange was— I did not think he had survived."

He had survived, though he was scarcely recognizable as a human creature. He looked like— Grant did not know what he looked like. Like one of those unfortunate Neapolitans, perhaps. Did they qualify as human creatures, after everything? Strange had nothing of their feral persistence, though, the urgency of their will to live. When the Duke had gone, he let Grant propel him once more from the lip of the well, where he had sat with drooped head; but he scarcely spoke, and his hands were like ice.

"Are you injured?" Grant asked him.

Strange stared at him as though he did not comprehend the question.

Grant checked him, rough— head, chest, belly— but there was no blood on his clothing, and only a few visible blue bruises. Grant himself had suffered more serious injury, and he felt bitterly for a moment that Strange's behavior was damned unfair. Grant himself did not have the luxury of being delicate. He would be dead if he were so light-nerved as Strange; so how dare Strange demand—

But it did no good to argue. He towed Strange with him to camp, and they washed from a basin of fresh water. Or: Grant washed, and then washed Strange's hands and face, feeling uncomfortably as though Strange were not even present. Afterwards, he found a fresh coat for Strange, and they went to Wellington's headquarters, which were laid for dinner. They sat with the dead's empty chairs and the ghost-like living. Grant ate little; Strange did not eat anything.

When Strange slipped away, Grant could not stop him. He could not, in front of Wellington, say I'm concerned for this man's life; he ought not to be alone. Even to himself, Grant could not justify this way of thinking, except that Macdonnell had had a particular look when he said, "I did not think he had survived."

Later he went after Strange— who had returned to Hougoumont, Captain Hadley-Bright told him.

At this news, Grant suppressed a sigh.

It was almost dawn when he reached that unfortunate chateau. The sky was all over clouds and eerie with first light. Noise still rose up from the field of battle: long groans and cries, and shouts of the dead-pickers. Lanterns glowed where soldiers had pitched tents in the distance. It smelt of rain and death, and Grant was bone-tired. He felt a kind of desolation, as though the battle had buoyed him, and now without it he sank in a calm dark lake.

Strange was standing in the courtyard, looking at nothing. The bodies were gone. Now only the blood remained, and the ashes from the fire, like grey paper feathers, and the animal stink of smoke and flesh.

Grant said, by way of greeting, "What do you hope to see?"

Strange showed no surprise at his presence. "I don't know."

"So why not sleep, then. Rest."

"I don't think I can—" Strange trailed off. "I make my own skin crawl."

Grant stepped forward, so they were level; turned to face him. "Do you find it so very bad? The slaughter?"

Strange watched him with slow and lustreless eyes. "I..."

"Lord, you must think very little of me." There was that viciousness in him again, coiling up from under: how dare he, how dare he. Not everyone could afford to be so precious. Grant himself had killed men to keep Strange alive.

"No!" Strange's voice was choked. "I don't— that is not what I meant." He raised a hand as though in supplication: Can't you understand? It was shaking.

Grant looked at the tremor; looked at Strange, whose face was a wasteland. What, he thought, must it be like to be so vulnerable to destruction? All men were vulnerable, of course, in the practical sense: it was the egality of war, that no man's skin was thicker than another's, that every man was made up of bones and flesh. But Strange lacked some other, important protection that Grant himself had always had— a kind of spiritual armor that resisted despair. Grant had seen this in the woods in Iberia for the first time. It had provoked from him an unexpected gentleness, and then a sort of terror. He could not afford to be gentle. He could not open expose himself through such tendresse.

He said curtly, "It is frankly miraculous that you have survived this far."

"I know," Strange said. "Only I don't— I'm not—" He stopped. He was breathing hard. He said, "It rather feels like I'm dead. I feel dead; I don't feel like I survived. So I thought, what if I am dead? And I haven't realized it yet; what if I— some kind of— you know, magic—"

Grant recognized the sounds of panic. He took hold of Strange's shoulder and steered him towards a wall, so that Strange would not fall down when he became lightheaded. "Breathe," he said. "You are not dead; dead men do not require breath, as you are demonstrating that you do."

Strange managed a nod. He was gulping air in. The shaking had now spread to other parts of his body. Grant could see him trembling quite clearly in the dawn light. Ivy shivered over his head, as though he had communicated panic to the vines, as though the world around him hummed somehow, sympathetic.

"I'm sorry," Strange said, his voice choked. "You are hurt; I should not—"

Grant said, "It's quite all right." They stood there for some time as Strange struggled for his breath back.

At last Strange said, "I had never taken someone's life by magic."

Grant was silent.

"I held him—" he gestured— "in the palm of my hand, and all I could think was, I want to stay alive. I have never felt such a powerful impulse before. It was a totality of impulse. There was nothing else, only how much I wanted to live."

Grant interwove their fingers, pressing their palms together, so that Strange would not close his hand in a fist. "Is that so wrong? Surely it is the most natural thing in the world."

Strange closed his eyes. "I cannot explain. You will not understand. It is magic. It does not want to— end things." He looked exhausted, and his gaze was drowning when he opened his eyes. Grant felt once more in thrall to him: impelled to protect him, as though Strange were a territory in a country that he had been ordered to defend. Unfair, damned unfair that he should feel so. Strange was not his charge; and yet Grant's body moved to shelter him on instinct, crowding him close against the wall. A defensible position.

"You are allowed to want to live," Grant said. He did not have to speak very loudly. His mouth was nearly pressed against Strange's hair.

Strange drew in a sharp and nervous breath. His hand clenched hard in Grant's. His other hand, groping, found the nape of Grant's neck and tangled itself in the soft hair there. "Can you," Strange said, "can you please just tell me—"

"There is no shame in it. You are allowed to want to live."

There was shame in this, perhaps, Grant reflected, as his body responded to the touch, as his breath caught with arousal at their edgy physical closeness— but only a little. He thought: after all, we are bodies, just like all men are bodies; made up of bones and flesh, like every man is. Indeed, there was a strange exhilaration in feeling Strange's own response— a sign of life, a sign of some capacity for pleasure, a sign that he could be human again.

Strange had shut his eyes and tilted his head to one side. Grant rather forcefully pressed his mouth to his neck, where he himself had scrubbed until the skin was clean. Strange made a soft sound, as though astonished. His pulse was as rapid as a bird's, beating just below his jawline. Grant gently captured it under his lips. Strange tasted very human: of terror and sweat, though there was, too, a strange electric scent not unlike the overtone of lightning. He supposed this was probably magic.

He wanted, he thought, to touch Strange in some place he had not previously touched him, he wanted to expose some new region of skin; so he released Strange's hand to do so. Strange clutched at the framework of ivy, as though he had been held upright only by Grant's grip. The sight made Grant feel at once furious and frantic. He shoved his hand up under Strange's loose shirt, skating his palm across the scaffolding of ribs. Like the ridges of a seashell: so easily crushed. He had not thought Strange would live. When he imagined Strange's head caved in by a sabre, it was as though something in himself were extinguished— some small spark he had not known he still nurtured. He did not want this spark. It terrified him. But he thought he might die if he were to lose it.

"Oh," Strange said, and arched up into the touch. He had sunk his teeth into his lower lip. He liked being touched, Grant thought. It was a revelation. He found it difficult to maneuver, his arm stiff and bandaged, but he managed the button-falls of Strange's breeches, to access that further expanse of skin. Then he could put his hands everywhere, across that warm  terrain he had not asked for, but nevertheless was entrusted with.

Strange responded like a man who has been starved for an aeon and suddenly offered a seat at a banquet. His every movement was clumsy with need. When Grant kissed him on the mouth, he made a shocked, dazed sound— then lurched forwards, leaning into the kiss. In the same instant, rain began to fall. Grant glanced up; Strange said, "No, no, please—" as though unhappy that Grant's attention should be, even for an instant, in any way diverted from him. This, Grant thought, was typical Strange. He could not help a moment's amusement at it. But he too was hungry, and soon he lost himself in the hot press of Strange's body. He scarcely noticed that they both were drenched, aside from marveling at the taste of rain on Strange's bare skin, the way it beaded on his clavicle before Grant licked at it.

It was all so good— he felt disarmed by want— unable to clearly think— and the taste of lightning-strikes grew vaguely stronger when he pushed Strange's trousers off of his hips, and Strange said "Oh," shaky-voiced, his whole body shivering slightly and then in the same unsteady voice, pleaded, "Tell me, tell me—"

For a moment, Grant didn't remember, and then he thought he couldn't express it, how much he wanted Strange to live. Every exhale became a chant, an invocation. "Live," he breathed, mouthing along Strange's jawline; thrusting against him, face buried in his shoulder: "live; Merlin, you have to live." Strange's hands were still tangled in the ivy, and Grant had the oddest sense that ivy was growing from them— that all across the wall, the ivy had grown wilder, seized by an astonishing efflorescence, and furthermore that it continued to grow before his eyes. This was troubling, and he chose not to focus on it.

Instead, feeling himself very close to the crux of desire, he brought his hands up to grasp at Strange's face. For a curious moment, his grip turned violent. He kissed Strange with force. Strange flinched and gasped, his eyes gone wide and black; Grant's fingertips dug into his cheekbones as he came to the edge.

He was conscious that Strange had also finished, though he was not conscious of much more. He was aware that there was sheeting rain, which washed away the stench of death; after a while it slowed, and the air grew warm. Grant rested his head on Strange's shoulder and smelled only summer: a smell of sunlight, rivers, stones, and moors. After an indeterminate time, Strange lowered his arms carefully and draped them over Grant's back. Neither of them seemed very eager to move.

"I'm very much afraid—" Strange began at last. His voice was rough, but there was a note of laughter in it.

"What," Grant said to Strange's shoulder.

"There may have been some unintended— erm, that is—"

Grant lifted his head and peered blearily around. The courtyard at Hougoumont, so lately reduced by soldiers to a desolate space of churned-up mud, was now full to overflowing with summer wildflowers. They were thick on the ground everywhere one turned. The wall behind Strange could barely be seen behind ivy: a thick lush curtain of rustling green, studded here and there with what looked to be honeysuckle. Bees hung in the air; birds were in the burnt-out chateau, darting through the windows and trilling brightly. There was no sign at all of the previous day's battle. A hundred years might have passed in an instant, a hundred years of life accreting day on day, reasserting itself from amongst the wreckage.

Grant meant to ask, What on earth have you done, but instead he said nothing. He did not quite trust himself to speak.

Strange eyed him uncertainly. Eventually he said tentatively, "You were not careful with my trousers."

Grant looked at him. He lifted his hand and touched Strange's cheek: just a very gentle brush of his thumb. "No," he agreed.

In fact, Strange's trousers were in the mud around his ankles. He glanced down at them ruefully. "Perhaps I may say that I fell into a ditch."

"I dare say you shall not need to explain. Or rather: you shall need to explain a great deal more."

Strange said, "They will not care. No one cares if I do wonderful things. All they're interested in is— you know." He shrugged, but his eyes slid away.

"Yes," Grant said. "I know."

"Perhaps I shall attempt something similar in Shropshire." Strange had begun dressing himself haphazardly. "Though I do not think my wife would approve; she has very particular ideas about gardens. And anyway, I've no idea what happened, in fact; things rather... got away from me." He flushed. "I'm sorry if I alarmed you. I did not mean to."

Grant said, "There are times when alarm bells serve their purpose."

"That is an uncomfortably insightful thing for you to say. I shall worry that you are losing your light demeanour."

"Never fear. It will be good as new, by the time we reach London."

"... Yes," Strange said, unreadable. "I rather thought it would be."

Grant had the disorienting sense that these remarks had encompassed an entire conversation. Wait, he wanted to say; there was something I meant to tell you! Perhaps he had said it already. Perhaps it was the sort of thing one couldn't really tell other people; you had to gesture at it or point from a long way away. Still, he had the sense that he had skipped something important.

Later, the conversation would haunt him. That was the moment, he would think; I could have said something. Like throwing a pebble in a pond: all the ripples spreading out, till at last they form a wave of consequence. Then again, perhaps that was the utmost arrogance: to think he meant so much to Jonathan Strange. To think he could have so altered the course of English magic. But he entertained such thoughts, and sometimes he dreamed that he walked in the garden at Hougoumont again. He saw that all the bones of the dead were transubstantiated into flowers, and the bees were making honey out of them, so that all their buried sweetness returned in seasons, and no matter the loss that the earth had suffered, there could be no lasting violence in it.