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Fishing for Stars

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Colquhoun Grant was not a man who enjoyed the chase. To be sure, he thrilled in it when his quarry was of the human variety, and French in particular: singular or plural, soldiers traveling alone or whole army corps moving in vast columns. But chasing an animal until it was cornered in some tangled wood or exhausted by the pursuit of baying hounds gave him no pleasure.

Yet Grant was an active man who loved the outdoors and, in times of fair weather, could not abide spending any free hours cooped up in a narrow tent or a close, airless room in some Portuguese family’s borrowed villa. In his boyhood in Scotland his favorite sport, other than riding horseback over the heather-clad hills or tramping up and down glens on foot, had been casting a line into the streams or lochs in the countryside, angling for trout and pike. He had almost always tossed them back after catching them, watching them wriggle away through the clear, cold waters: the pleasure lay not in the catching but in the skill needed to throw the lure into the right current and the strength and dexterity to reel in the line at the first nibble.

Recalling such carefree boyhood days, and eager to be outside on that mild summer evening after his duties were complete, Grant borrowed rod and reel, line and hook, from the head of the family playing host to Wellington’s headquarters that night and walked out of camp, down to the stream that formed a part of the army’s left wing. It was a still night, warm enough for shirtsleeves but not yet hot. The sun had already set and the expansive sky was clear, shimmering with a multitude of stars. Crickets chirped in the grasses and from the sprawling campsite behind him the crackle of campfires and the hum of conversation blended with the strains of fiddles and pipes, the clang of cooking pots, and the neighing and stamping of horses. A sense of satisfaction seemed to hang over the men – they had marched far and accomplished much – and Grant felt a weight lifted from his shoulders, if just for a time. Here in the fresh air, under the stars, he had some breathing space, a welcome respite from long rides and risky forays behind enemy lines. The stream slid calmly along in its narrow channel, bubbling over stones and snags of twigs and roots, a restful music to his ears. He shed his sash and coat, hanging both over a nearby branch, and then cast his line into the ripple of the current. The weight bobbed in the moonlight and Grant, holding the pole steady, settled himself on the grass to wait.

It was such a serene, peaceful scene that Grant – contrary to his nature – allowed his defenses to slip, his awareness of his surroundings to lapse away. He did not hear the approaching footsteps, boot soles muffled upon the soft earth, until the person to whom they belonged was just a few feet behind him.

“Caught anything?”

Grant smiled. He pulled in his line, preparing to cast it again in a different part of the stream. “It seems I have. A colonel, no less.”

William De Lancey folded his legs neatly beneath him and sat down on the ground at Grant’s side. He put a finger into his mouth and felt around. “Funny,” he muttered, “I don’t feel any hook.”

“Where did you get the idea this particular hook would snag you there?”

De Lancey gave a gasp of feigned shock. “Whatever do you mean, major?” He had untied his sash and was shrugging out of his uniform coat, folding the scarlet garment in his lap. “Nothing untoward, I hope.”

“Figure it out for yourself.” Grant threw his line out again; the weight hit the surface of the water with a soft plunk. “Besides – it would be particularly difficult to get a hook in your mouth, given how constantly you’re moving it.”

“You’ve never complained before.”

Grant laughed quietly. “You have me there, sir. That is true indeed.”

De Lancey had made a pillow of his coat and, laying this in the grass behind him, he lay back, hands beneath his head, legs crossed. “It is a beautiful night.”

“It certainly is.” Grant gave a deep, satisfied sigh. “We all need the rest, I think.”

“Rest? You never rest.”

“I’m resting now. Fishing is restful. Listening to the sound of the flowing water, watching the weight move in the current, waiting for the first pull on the line.” He glanced aside at the prone figure. The moonlight shone on the white fabric of De Lancey’s breeches and waistcoat, glimmered in his open eyes. “Do you fish?”

“On occasion. Not so much anymore as I once did. My father and my uncle used to take me and some cousins when I was a boy. But these days I prefer a more active pursuit.”

“Fox hunting you mean.”

“Mmm. I love the thrill of it: the way my pulse spikes upon spotting that bright red coat. The adrenaline rush of anticipation that floods every vein and muscle as I give chase. The pounding, throbbing of the ride; the sharp cry of the fox when he knows there’s no escape--"

Grant shook his head, grinning. “Are you sure you’re still talking about a fox?”

“Oh indeed. A big, broad-shouldered one. Well-– I say big. Big for a fox. Rather on the short side for a man--"

“How would you like it if I push you in the stream?”

“Very well, if you’ll join me. Only do undress us both first: I’d hate to have to put in requisitions for more new uniforms for us. The Horse Guards may be beginning to wonder what we do to them all.”

“Perhaps if they made the sashes with better quality silk they wouldn’t tear so easily,” Grant mused.

“Perhaps if you weren’t so rough in the heat of your ardor they wouldn’t tear at all.”

Grant grunted. “Perhaps if you weren’t such an incorrigible tease I would never get worked up into such a state.”

“I don’t know what you’re referring to, major. May a man not stroke another man’s thighs during dinner without him becoming aroused? May a man not let his hand linger on another man’s backside during a staff meeting without eliciting such a reaction?”

“All of those examples are very well and good, but you seem to be forgetting the cause of the particular incident in question. If you were to ask if a man may not unfasten the placket of his breeches and expose himself to another man without putting the other man into a state of excitement, my answer would most assuredly be no.”

“Hmm. I don’t know about that. It would depend upon the man doing the exposing, I should think. In the case of the incident you’re referring to, the man who opened his breeches must have been in possession of quite an extraordinary coc--"

“He flatters himself,” Grant interrupted, barely able to speak for laughing. “I will not deny the beauty of it – it is remarkably lovely – but it’s not nearly so big as his mouth. Nor so filthy.”

Grant could see De Lancey’s smile, bright in the darkness. “Well it’s a very good thing his mouth is that big. He certainly needs it, given the size of his major’s... pole.”

Grant drew in his line again, blushing while he did so. He was both amused and aroused and he shifted his position on the ground, noticing a burgeoning pressure in his groin. “I have never known anyone with a mind as dexterously dirty as yours.”

“I consider that the finest compliment I have ever received.”

“I’m sure you do. It’s a wonder every soldier in this army is clothed and fed, what with the Quartermaster’s Department employing an officer so fixated with such thoughts. How do you ever get any work done?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea, to be honest. Haven’t you heard? Wellington refers to me as the idlest man he’s ever known. If he only knew that I spend my idle time fantasizing about his favorite exploring officer I think he would hardly blame me for my distraction.”

Grant’s cast went askew, the lure and weight landing in the weeds at the edge of the water, and he was forced to concede that his mind was no longer on his business. “Perhaps more work gets done when that exploring officer is in the field, then.”

“On the contrary. Between worry for that officer’s well-being and a particular kind of physical frustration, hardly anything gets done at those times, aside from studying maps, staring at tent walls, and –“ De Lancey paused. "--exercises so vigorous they leave arm and hand aching.” Grant felt his face fill with so much heat he was surprised it wasn’t glowing. “No, much better that that officer should remain close, where his presence might offer a reward for a hard day’s devotion to labor.”

Grant had risen to untangle his hook and line from the weeds and he remained on his feet to cast out again, hoping to get a better angle. “Distraction works both ways, as it happens,” he said, arching his arm smoothly to throw out the line. "If I had a guinea for every time that exploring officer has lapsed into daydream while riding, wishing he was mapping the contours of an assistant quartermaster's body instead of dry Spanish hills, I would be a very rich man indeed."

De Lancey leaned up upon his elbows, grinning. "I am not surprised that these fantasies come upon him when he's in the saddle," he said. "He rides a stallion, does he not? Riding one stallion must remind him strongly of riding another--"

Grant laughed, shaking his head again. "You are utterly shameless."

"Those hot flanks, that constant rocking motion--"

"The incessant neighing."

"You are cruel, major, but I suspect you think the comparison apt. I think you'd quite like to put a bit between my teeth. And I'm quite certain I'd enjoy it."

Grant gave a soft groan. "God knows I'd like to put something between your teeth right now," he said, "if just to get you to stop talking. I came out here to relax and relaxed is very far from what I'm feeling at the moment." It was true: the images De Lancey was putting in his head had the fishing pole trembling in his hands and the fabric at the front of his breeches straining.

"My apologies. I shall say no more." De Lancey settled back down, hands beneath his head, gazing up at the sky. "I shall lay here in perfect silence and contemplate the herdsman driving his oxen toward the plough."

Grant turned in confusion. "I beg your pardon?"

De Lancey stretched out an arm, pointing. "Boötes."

Grant gazed in the direction De Lancey indicated. He saw a cluster of stars in the northern dome of the sky, but they meant little to him. "I've never heard of it."

"Aha!" De Lancey cried triumphantly. "So I have discovered something that the intrepid Scotsman is ignorant about. He may know his rods and reels, his Bonny Prince Charlie and his Spanish dances, but I know about the stars."

"Enlighten me then, professor," Grant said, bemused. "Tell me about this Boötes."

"He is, as I said, a herdsman. Can you not see him? And before him, his oxen, which he is driving towards the Plough - just there."

Grant nodded. "I see it." He turned and pointed to another cluster of stars a little to his right. "And who - or what - is that?"

"That is Aquila. The Eagle. Who snatched up Ganymede in his talons and delivered him to the gods on Mount Olympus." De Lancey jabbed his finger at various parts of the sky. "And that is Auriga. And there is Scorpio..."

"And beyond the Plough, that is the Northern Cross," Grant stated proudly, casting his line again. "You see, I do know something of the night sky."

"You know enough to steer by, true," De Lancey replied. "But that is not all the use of stars. Did you think God hung them just to give you a marker by which to turn back towards Portugal or avoid riding towards the Pyrenees? There is romance in them, Grant: do you know anything of that?"

"Of romance?" Grant smiled. "I like to think so."

"That's not what I meant. The Northern Cross, for instance. It is a part of Cygnus, the Swan. And beside it is Lyra. Do you know why that is significant?"

"I confess, I do not."

"When Orpheus was killed, he was turned into a swan and placed in the sky beside his instrument, the lute."

"Indeed?" Grant was genuinely impressed. "I had no idea you were an astronomer. Tell me more."

And so, as Grant continued to cast out and reel in, De Lancey talked of stars and constellations, relating the epic tales behind their names. Eventually he confessed that he had come to the end of his knowledge - or, at least, what he could currently remember of it - and he begged for a moment to consider whether he could recall any more. As he lapsed into silence, Grant admitted defeat and pulled in his line for the final time. The fish in Portugal were not biting that night.

"I wonder that you didn't get a commission in the Navy with all this knowledge," Grant said as he untied the hook and disassembled the rod. "You might have been standing tonight on the deck of a frigate, steering her by the stars. You might have made captain by now and had your own flagship. But I suppose you thought red was more becoming to your figure and complexion than blue, am I right?"

There was no answer. De Lancey's breathing was slow and steady and, as Grant peered at him in the moonlight, he noticed that the colonel's eyes had closed. He smiled.

Slipping off his boots, Grant crept softly through the grass to De Lancey's side. He lowered himself to the ground slowly, leaning down upon hip and elbow, gazing into De Lancey's peaceful, dreaming face. He always loved to watch him sleep. In such moments, with all thought and care and mischief erased from his features, De Lancey looked incredibly young, like an ensign fresh from the barracks, all thick auburn hair and pale pink cheeks. The pout of his full lips was particularly fetching and Grant felt his manhood begin to swell into stiffness again as he traced the contour of that mouth with his glance. Unable to help himself, Grant leaned forward carefully, intending to press his lips to De Lancey's, when suddenly the colonel began to laugh.

"Look who's reeled in a major," he said, smirking, starlight glistening in his wide-open eyes.

"You-- bastard," Grant cried, playfully cuffing him on the arm. "You've been awake all this time?"

"Of course I have. I knew if I feigned sleep I'd get you over here. Who's the best fisherman now?"

Cupping the edge of De Lancey's jaw with one hand, Grant leaned down and kissed those self-satisfied lips, drawing a soft moan from his superior officer. "You have me: hook, line, and sinker."

As Grant nuzzled his face against the side of De Lancey's head, breathing in his scent and nibbling at the edge of his ear, De Lancey pointed again at the sky. "Sagittarius. I forgot about that one. Merlin was telling me something of Sagittarius the other day, though I've quite forgotten what. Something he pulled from one of his magic books, something about Other Lands and the Raven King and a kingdom on the far side of Hell..."

At any other time Grant might have been intrigued to hear something of a place on the other side of Hell. But right at that moment he didn't give a fig for Hell or magic or all the stars in the broad dome of heaven. He kissed along the line of De Lancey's jaw until he reached his mouth and, after their tongues had tangled for awhile, he pulled away and pointed to a cluster of stars directly overhead.

"What's that one called?"

"Ah." De Lancey smiled and nodded sagely. "That is one of the biggest of all the constellations. And my particular favorite."

Grant waited. "Well? What's it's name?"

De Lancey's lips twitched. "According to a very ancient legend here in the Peninsula, it is referred to as The Major's Cock. You can always see it rising on mild summer nights like this one, and what a sight it is to behold."

"You--" Grant shook his head, caught between grinning and laughing. He stopped De Lancey's innuendo with his mouth, rolling against him. "What am I going to do with you?"

"Well, seeing as how I'm so interested in heavenly bodies, perhaps you could help me take a closer look at one." De Lancey bit his lip playfully, his hand already sneaking down the front of Grant's waistcoat. "Starting with that last constellation I mentioned."

"Perhaps," Grant said, "though you've awakened my own interest in astronomy and there are a number of constellations I'd like to map." He meant, of course, constellations of freckles dusted across De Lancey's skin, and as he began to unbutton the colonel's waistcoat, Grant thrilled at the prospect of his explorations.