While supply problems have plagued the army recently, Wellington and his officers usually eat well enough and for Christmas dinner they eat very well indeed. A hearty roast is brought out for carving and the wine flows freely.
Afterwards they sit back in their chairs, picking over dried fruit and nuts while the port and brandy circulate the table. There is a rather informal, celebratory air to the meal, with a great deal of laughter and exchanging of jests. Merlin allows himself to enjoy the atmosphere, sitting in a state of well-fed contentment with his thigh pressed warmly against Grant's under the table.
The brandy has made several circuits and even Grant is slightly foxed. A little dishevelment is a pleasing look for the Major, in Merlin's eyes at least. His cheeks are a little flushed and his neckcloth a little looser. He smiles more freely and his smile is one of Merlin's weaknesses.
"I wish we had port of this quality every night," announces De Lancey, reaching for the decanter again.
"I should indeed enjoy that," calls one of the other officers, "but for now I'll settle for drinking this one before you finish it!" De Lancey raises his glass to him and passes the decanter on.
"What should you like for Christmas?” De Lancey asks Wellington, who is sitting on his right at the head of the table. “More of the port, or have you another Christmas wish?"
"Two dozen new canon," the Duke replies, swirling the alcohol in his glass and staring thoughtfully into the dark liquid, "and for Napoleon to suffer a case of influenza."
This is greeted with shouts of laughter disproportionate to the humour of the statement and a few drunken toasts to Napoleon's ill health while Wellington smiles a small and private smile.
"What would you wish for gentlemen?" He asks the table at large.
The topic spreads, men calling out their desires for approval or comic effect. A desire for absent wives is a common choice, second only to a desire for the company of beautiful mistresses. Food and drink make similarly frequent appearances. Curses on the French are discussed and elaborated on. One man wishes to see his firstborn son and so must be toasted by the others in congratulations.
It is only later, when Merlin is walking back to his lodgings with Grant, that he realises that Grant himself contributed no Christmas wishes of his own although he discussed the wishes of others readily enough. Emboldened by brandy, Merlin asks him why.
"My wishes are very simple ones Merlin," Grant replies. "I've no wife or mistress, no particular shortage of anything and plenty of port. I merely felt that there was little I could add that other men had not already said."
"There must be something. Surely there is always something you miss when you spend Christmas at war. Even for you it cannot be the same as Christmas at home."
"Well, perhaps I...” Grant shakes his head. “No, it is a foolish notion."
"Will you not tell me anyway? We have heard a great many foolish things tonight and I am sure your wish would be no more foolish than the rest."
"I grew up in Scotland," Grant tells him. "What I chiefly find myself missing is the cold weather. The peninsula is unseasonably warm at present and while I should be grateful that it has finally stopped raining, instead I find myself longing for snow."
"Snow?" Merlin looks thoughtful. "I suppose snow is not so very different to rain, just a little colder." He frowns in concentration.
"What are you talking about, Merlin?"
A chill breeze blows around the two of them and something small and cold lands on Grant's face. Then another and another: he realises that Merlin has summoned a little flurry of snowflakes, falling around the two of them. It only extends as far as the spread of Merlin's out flung arms, and the flakes melt when they touch the ground, but if Grant looks up there's a blizzard above him, dancing against the dark sky. White powder already decorates Merlin's shoulders, the curls of his hair and his long, dark lashes. He looks, Grant thinks in a moment of uncharacteristic fancifulness, halfway between an angel and a boy at play. It must be the fault of the brandy.
"Your Christmas wish," Merlin says with a bow.
"Merlin, I don’t know what to say." Grant holds out a hand to feel the snow fall onto it and melt with the warmth of his skin. It takes him back, back to being a boy again when the first snow of the winter fell and he stood to watch it in expectation of all the fun to be had, of sledging and skating and snowball fights. He always loved the change it made, turning familiar places into a different landscape. He smiles.
"It is only a small magic." Merlin looks pleased nonetheless.
"It is Christmas," says Grant. "Thank you Merlin."
The small snowstorm follows them all the way back to their lodgings. By the time he arrives at his door, Grant's jacket and hair are a little damp with melting snow.
"Will you come in?" he asks.
"I should like to." The smile on Merlin’s face leaves Grant in no doubt as to what his plans are but there is no particular hurry, no need for the desperate rush of undressing that characterised their first encounters. Today, Christmas day, they have the luxury of time.
Grant removes his wet jacket and hangs it to dry. "You should do the same," he says, holding out a hand for Merlin's coat.
Merlin catches him with both hands, tugging him closer. "But my hands are cold."
It has been a long time since Grant came home with hands chilled from the snow and Merlin is colder still, perhaps as a result of the magic. His hands sneak under Grant's waistcoat, warming themselves against his skin, even as he laughs and tries to move away from the cold. Merlin distracts him with kisses.
Grant finds the buttons of Merlin’s coat and begins to make efficient work of undoing them, but Merlin stops him.
“Wait Grant, what else would you wish for at Christmas?”
“Merlin, really, there is nothing else. Unless it be for me to get you out of these damn clothes.” He kneels in front of Merlin and resumes work on the buttons.
“But there must be other things. Snow, certainly, but what about the food, or the music, the decorations.”
Grant looks at him, one eyebrow raised. “Merlin, what has got into you this evening?”
"I merely wished to make things more... I merely wished to please you. It is Christmas after all, even if it is not Christmas at home."
"Merlin..." Grant sighs. "If I were to spend Christmas at home I expect I would be beset by nieces and nephews, running about creating mayhem. I would, no doubt, be caught in conversation with a dozen relatives who wish to ask me about the war without knowing any of the details and another dozen who wish to know when I will give up the life of a soldier and settle down to marry and add to the collection of nieces and nephews running about. I do enjoy the company of my family but I do not miss it as keenly as you. There would be good food and a roaring fire and all the other delights of the season, but I am well fed and well satisfied with the company I have kept and you have granted one of the few wishes I had. Christmas at war is not a deprivation for me: I have what I desire.”
“I suppose it is different for a civilian.” Merlin has an expression on his face that Grant has not seen for a while. He associates it with the times when Merlin has felt most disconcerted by army life and patronised by the soldiers or when his magic has been misunderstood by the Duke and his officers.
“Merlin, you do not understand.” Merlin looks hurt, so Grant modifies his tone. He forgets, sometimes, how accustomed he is to speaking to other army men. “I mean to say, if I were at home now I should be just as contented as I am now, but I should be going to bed alone. I would not exchange all the Christmastide comforts that you could conjure up for having you naked in my bed and time enough to enjoy ourselves. You cannot give me what I desire, because I already have it.”
“I had not thought of it in that light.” Merlin has stopped looking discontented and instead has a gleam in his eye that promises a just reward for Grant’s confession. “To go to bed alone is a dreadful thing.”
Grant stands and strips himself efficiently of his uniform. He lets Merlin look at him: military life has cured him of most innate modesty about being in a state of undress and Merlin is always a visibly appreciative audience. Grant is also learning how best to distract him. He holds out a hand.
“Come, let us not waste any more time on Christmas. I am going to bed and you have agreed I should not got alone.”
Merlin rises, unbuttoning his waistcoat with a great deal too of exaggerated care. Grant has to restrain himself from helping by tearing the buttons off. Perhaps tonight will not be as leisurely an encounter as he first thought.
“The thing is,” Merlin says, rather hesitantly, looking at his buttons rather than Grant, “I had hoped that I could provide you with a Christmas present of sorts, but you have deprived me off the opportunity.”
Grant is about to protest, reminding him of the snow and of the conversation they have just had, when Merlin looks up from his buttons with a face full of wickedness. Apparently it is to be one of those nights.
“Merlin,” Grant says, stretching himself out on the bed, “I believe, if you really put to mind to it, you will find an adequate compensation.”