Grant appears at breakfast with a whiter than usual face and a pinker than usual nose. He makes a good act of feeling well, smiling when appropriate and sharing the usual conversation over the table, but De Lancey can’t help noticing that he speaks a little hoarsely and neglects to take his usual breakfast. Instead he busily crumbles a piece of toast over his plate so skilfully that the casual observer would never notice that he ate nothing.
By the time Wellington gathers his officers around a map of the lines that afternoon, the act is wearing thin. A sharp, hacking cough has developed and Grant’s forehead is damp. It does not take long before Wellington skewers him with a glance and dismisses him, not to return until he can ‘spend more than five minutes in company without coughing’.
At dinner, Grant does not appear.
“Check on him, would you De Lancey?” Wellington asks him, as casually as if he were asking him to pass the salt, but De Lancey is grateful. He knows that Wellington is capable of a certain kindness and, however much he knows or does not know, he does not comment when William eats his dinner with more speed than politeness and excuses himself.
He finds Grant alone in his room, wrapped in blankets and shivering.
“What are you doing here?” he croaks.
“Checking you are still in the land of the living, as my Lord commands,” De Lancey tells him, dropping a hand to Grant’s forehead with a maternal air. Grant notices and ducks away.
“It’s just a chill!”
“I’m sure it is, but I’d rather be certain. I know you.”
Grant glares at him from under the hand. It would be more impressive if he didn’t look so miserable. His skin is hot, but not so hot as to be alarming, and his hair is slightly damp. It would be unpleasant, De Lancey thinks, if it were anyone else, but Grant is different. Grant has always been different.
“You should go,” he says, “you’ll only get ill yourself and I’m perfectly fine here. I should be much better tomorrow.”
De Lancey very much doubts it but knows that Grant has his pride.
“I’m here on Wellington’s orders, I’m afraid. You’ll have to live with it. Do you have the headache?”
Grant mumbles something which De Lancey translates as ‘yes, but I would sooner die than admit it.’
“I thought so. I have a tea for you to drink. Yes, it probably will be repellent but it’s that or have the surgeon threatening to bleed you.”
Grant winces. He is stoic about wounds in battle but privately rather squeamish about the surgeon. He blows his nose in a way that conveys his sense of ill usage and submits to the tea. He also submits to De Lancey tidying the room around him, lighting a fire, finding him fresh handkerchiefs and plying him with soup until eventually, when De Lancey tries to rearrange the bed linens more comfortably around him, he begs for mercy.
“Please, I know you are trying to be kind, but stop fretting at me! Come here and keep me warm instead.”
Grant holds out his arms, looking tired and unhappy. De Lancey feels a little guilty that his enthusiasm for nursing has been misplaced, but he is more than happy to shed his coat and climb into the nest of blankets. Grant does not often initiate this kind of thing. He is rather stiff and awkward at first, holding himself upright like a great aunt at a tea party, but slowly leans towards the extra warmth like a cat. For all his shivering he feels like a furnace and his breathing makes little squeaks and snuffles. He falls asleep like that, only waking occasionally to cough.
In the morning he is not better. When De Lancey goes to wake him, he grumbles and squeezes watering eyes shut against the glare of daylight. He doesn’t even protest when De Lancey fusses over him and changes the bed. William would rather stay and look after him but duty calls and there are meetings to be had and men to drill. The day turns into a rather busy one and although Merlin looks in on Grant at lunchtime for him, De Lancey doesn’t get back until just before the evening meal. He doesn’t have long either, as Wellington expects his officers to be both present and punctual.
Unfortunately, when he does return he finds the surgeon in attendance and De Lancey feels a pang of guilt for leaving Grant alone to face what he particularly hates. The assistant is just leaving with his gruesome basin in hand, which tells him that the surgeon has been as enthusiastic as ever with his treatments. The surgeon himself is applying bandages and lecturing loudly on the effectiveness of such treatment, and the senseless arrogance of those who try to avoid it and therefore prolong their illness.
Grant sends him a look over the man’s head. It’s a look that says ‘get rid of this fool before I strangle him’ so De Lancey does his best to hurry the surgeon along, half flattering him with the urgent need other men must have of his services and half implying private matters to be discussed between senior officers. It requires him to usher the man to the door, but in the end he goes.
“Is he gone?” Grant asks him, still sitting forcibly upright in bed.
“Yes, finally,” De Lancey shuts the door with a bang and turns in time to see Grant flop back against his pillows with relief.
“That man is evil.” Grant observes, “If he comes back, I want you to shoot him.”
He looks much worse than he did earlier, although De Lancey finds it hard to tell if it is illness, or the assistance of the surgeon.
“How do you feel?” he asks.
“I am considering asking you to kill me.” That probably means that he feels dizzy. He frequently does after visits to the surgeon but considers it a shameful weakness that nobody is supposed to know about.
“I take it you won’t be wanting to go to dinner.” De Lancey sits on the bed and rubs a thumb over the back of Grant’s knuckles. “Shall I ask to be excused?”
It takes a little timing to catch Wellington before dinner, but De Lancey has a certain privilege among the other officers, being one of Wellington’s acknowledged favourites. It gives him room to catch his Lordship’s eye and speak to him semi-privately before anyone sits down to eat.
“Grant doing worse is he?” Wellington can be disturbingly knowing at times.
“Yes, my Lord. Might I be…”
“Excused the meal? Yes, I think you might. I don’t need you for anything else today. Go on.” Wellington nods at him and De Lancey makes good his escape.
De Lancey isn’t expecting to be disturbed later, which is why he gives up on a maintaining propriety and just climbs in to bed next to Grant, who is too tired to bother pretending that he doesn’t want it. He’s exhausted from the constant coughing and the bloodletting, and less ashamed than usual about asking for what he wants: De Lancey’s arm around him, a shoulder to lean on and a place for his cold feet to be warmed. De Lancey has borrowed a book from Merlin (at least the man has some non-magical tomes) and although it only takes a paragraph before Grant starts drifting to sleep, for a long time he wakes up whenever De Lancey stops reading.
Unfortunately the tap on the door comes just as he has finally dropped into a real sleep and cannot be woken. De Lancey shifts out of bed, thankful he still has breeches and shirt on and hoping that whoever it is can be safely sent away with minimal explanations. If it is the surgeon, he will do so with violence if necessary.
Luck is not on his side because the person at the door is Wellington himself, who cannot be sent away so easily and who manages to invite himself in. De Lancey’s heart thumps hard in his chest as he steps away from the door, because there’s no time to hide anything and to anyone with sense, it is painfully obvious how they have spent the evening. Grant is pressed to one side of his bed, fast asleep, and a second hollow in the pillow shows all to clearly where De Lancey has been sitting. There is no chair he might plausibly lay claim to. His state of undress is a condemnation of its own.
He has always wondered what Wellington knew about the closeness of two of his officers, but there is a difference between suspicion that one may turn a blind eye to and enough circumstantial evidence to condemn a man.
“I’m afraid Major Grant is asleep, my Lord” he says as he hovers, wishing he at least had stockings or a waistcoat to lessen his embarrassment. Wellington is, as usual, dressed to perfection.
“Yes, I am aware. I don’t wish to disturb him, only to see if he had improved. I heard the surgeon was here earlier.” Wellington sniffs disapprovingly.
“He was, sir. I believe Major Grant may be a little better.”
“No thanks to the surgeon, I imagine.” Wellington is staring at him, but De Lancey can’t read his expression. “You seem nervous Colonel.”
“No sir.” De Lancey lies valiantly, despite his internal panic.
Grant makes a snuffling, snoring noise in his sleep. Wellington looks at him.
“Please, my Lord…” Grant looks too vulnerable like this, too vulnerable to be put at risk because De Lancey wasn’t quick enough with an excuse to keep the Duke out of the room.
“Major Grant is an excellent officer, as are you, Colonel. If you are wondering, I can see nothing here that I am not meant to see. I trust you understand me.” Wellington looks De Lancey in the eyes and he can’t look away.
“Thank you, my Lord.” He thinks he might be blushing under the scrutiny.
“I came to give you this.” Wellington presents him with a small book. “From my own collection, although I see you have been borrowing from Merlin. I know that Major Grant does not care for the surgeon and I thought this might prove a suitable distraction.”
“Thank you, I appreciate it very much Sir. I’m sure Major Grant would say the same.” De Lancey wonders if this evening can become any more surreal, standing in his bare feet in front of Wellington, discussing books.
“Well, I will not keep you.” Wellington moves towards the door but pauses with his hand on the latch. “Have a care William, not everyone will turn a blind eye as I do, and I have need of both of you.”
He rests his hand, very briefly, on De Lancey’s shoulder.
Three days later, when De Lancey sneezes six times in quick succession while Wellington is talking, he finds himself on the receiving end of a very different look.
“Colonel, if you are ill I suggest you remove yourself at the earliest possible convenience. I will not have this campaign brought to ruin because none of my officers are in good enough health to be of use to me!”
De Lancey withdraws as ordered and is halfway across the courtyard before Wellington says, “Wait! Major Grant, you have already suffered this revolting contagion. I suggest you accompany the Colonel and keep a watch over him. If I find he has so much as sneezed on another officer I shall hold you responsible and I don’t wish to see either of you until you are sure this is under control.”
De Lancey turns to wait for Grant to catch up with him, trying not to walk too fast or too eagerly. The other officers have returned to the table, keen not to be associated with those who have displeased his Lordship. Only Wellington is watching them.
The Duke nods at De Lancey, somewhere between official dismissal and unofficial approval.
De Lancey shakes his head to clear it. He must be imagining things.
“Are you alright?” Grant asks him, risking a touch to his elbow in concern.
“Yes, yes I’m fine. I just thought I saw… well, something that couldn’t have happened.”
“Perhaps you ought to be in bed.”
“Perhaps I should,” De Lancey answers. After all, a Duke does not really wink. Does he?