“Why don’t you ask for more?”
Grant turned, a look of genuine surprise widening his eyes. “I beg your pardon, Merlin? More of what?”
Strange lifted his hands from his thighs in a helpless gesture. “More magic. I hardly feel I’m earning my keep here, I’ve done so little. It’s been two months since I was last called upon to make a road, three weeks since I was last asked to use my dish to look for anything--"
“I thought you said such magic was imprecise and impractical?”
“Well, yes! Yes, indeed, it is! But-- I would rather be asked to do something imprecise and impractical rather than sit around camp doing nothing and being absolutely useless.”
“Now, now, Merlin, you are being entirely too hard on yourself! Nobody here would deem you useless! When you got lost in the woods yesterday you drew the French fire quite admirably. And just between us, De Lancey has far too many pairs of boots so you did him a great service earlier this week when you accidentally knocked that spare pair into the campfire.”
Grant said all of this in a loud, cheerful voice, his characteristic wide grin lighting up his features. But his good humor had gone amiss. The look that Strange gave him, raising up his downcast head, was one of pure misery.
“I feel like a fool.”
Grant sighed, regretting his light and teasing words but too proud to walk them back. He put his hands on his hips, paced a few steps in one direction, and turned on his heel to face the magician.
“Merlin-- Mr. Strange,” he began, “you are not a soldier, so--" Grant paused, shook his head. “No, I do not mean to dwell on your lack of military expertise. It is, in fact, immaterial. All that I mean to say is that we - the Army, I mean - we are in a period of regrouping, if you will. Of making plans, strategies. This must be done from time to time: armies must pause to assess what has been accomplished and what must still be done. Generals must consult maps, quartermasters must requisition new supplies. And none of this work requires magic, so therefore there is nothing that is required of you. Which is not to say that a request may not come again at any moment, and certainly will as soon as Lord Wellington orders us again to the march.”
Strange nodded but his expression was still dour. “So I am, in fact, an encumbrance without value at the moment. A piece of useless baggage, like some malfunctioning cannon that can’t be fixed right now but must be hauled around nonetheless.”
Grant sighed again, louder this time, exasperated. “Mr. Strange-- do you really believe that?”
“Yes I do.”
“You really believe that you have no value here?”
“At the moment? Yes.”
“You do not consider that you may, in fact, be providing a very real and important service to us at this very moment?”
“I do not--" Strange looked up suddenly, bewildered. “Sorry?”
Grant paused for a moment, then went and sat down on the cot beside Strange. He did not look at the magician: like a good soldier he kept his gaze focused forward, his tone even and matter-of-fact.
“Soldiers are, Mr. Strange – on the whole – a very odd set of fellows. The things that normal, sensible people run away from – gunfire, cannon fire, bayonets pointed at one’s head, lines of galloping horses, death itself – we run towards. Or, rather, we march towards, in brightly colored uniforms and perfectly symmetrical lines. It is, I suppose, a form of madness to seek out the possibility of one’s own destruction every day, and in quieter moments the reality of that-- well, it can wear awfully upon a man’s mind. People who are not soldiers can never truly understand how much their own occupations and interests, their conversation, their very presence can aid a soldier in distracting his thoughts away from the realization of how present - and how fragile – is his own mortality. It is comforting, Mr. Strange, to poor soldiers to have such people – such happy distractions - at hand. It is like a breath of fresh air to a man on a dry, dusty march.”
Grant’s voice trailed off and Strange turned his head to study the man. “Are you-- are you saying that I give you comfort, Major Grant?”
Grant still did not meet the magician’s gaze. Instead, he merely reached down and grasped the edge of the cot, letting the side of his hand brush the side of Strange’s. “That, Merlin, is exactly what I’m saying.”