Taking the silver basin with him wherever he went had become second nature for Strange in the Peninsula. This was just as well, or he would certainly have forgotten it now. Jeremy always packed for him, as Bell had when he was at home. He must not think of Bell when all his blood was in riot at the prospect of a night with Grant.
On any other expedition he would have told Jeremy to bring the books he needed, but Jeremy was not to come with them. Why not? And how was he supposed to know what books to take when he had no idea what magic he was to perform? He bundled his last clean shirt and his washing-things together, and stuffed A Child’s History of the Raven King into the bundle.
It was absurd, not to know what the mission was, not even to have asked. If he had not been so distracted at the thought that Grant was leaving again, so furious with Wellington for sending him, and then –
“Are you ready, Merlin?” Grant called from outside his tent.
“Yes,” he said, though in truth he had never felt so ill prepared.
“Come on, then,” Grant said.
Strange very much wanted him to come in, so that he could kiss him again. But if he began on that, he would not be able to stop. It was better this way. Hard enough as it was to behave as if nothing had happened between them, to put his bundle into his saddlebag and mount his horse as if this expedition was a thing of every day. As if he was not in a fever of impatience for their journey’s end and what the night could bring.
They were half a mile out of the camp before Strange remembered that he still had not asked about the mission. He could not at first understand what it was that Lord Wellington wished him to do, and when he did understand it he was still baffled. To create an illusion of a remote village, which he must first study and remove, and then cause the illusion to vanish again once the French were inside it – it made no sense.
“Would not any village serve as well, if he intends an ambush?” he asked. He had not thought an army on the march would be so particular.
“The French used this one as their headquarters for some weeks,” Grant said tightly, “so no, it would not.”
“Oh,” said Strange. He looked at Grant’s uniform. “Surely the villagers must be heartily sick of soldiers by now.”
“No doubt,” said Grant, “but we must do our best to make friends with them. I am sure they would like to see some of your magic.”
Strange devoutly hoped his mind would be calmer by then. He was still much distracted by Grant’s proximity, and did not like to think what errors this might cause.
The heat of the sun drove them to seek the shade at midday and they drank gratefully from a clear cold stream. Grant had brought hard-boiled eggs with him, and Strange fell to with enthusiasm.
“I never knew a man with such a passion for eggs,” Grant said, and grinned at him. “I hope the village is well supplied with chickens.”
“I hope the French have not eaten them all,” Strange said, a little wildly. It was very hard not to kiss Grant when he looked at him like that.
Grant flushed, as if he knew what Strange was thinking. Very possibly he did: Strange felt as if it was written all over him.
“Will you rest a while, Merlin? It is still some hours from here, and the sun is too fierce for riding.”
Strange lay back and closed his eyes, listening to the din of crickets on the hillside. Even in the shade, the earth was warm underneath him, and he fell quickly into a dreamless sleep.
Waking, he found that Grant was watching him from a few feet away. There was such unguarded tenderness in his face that it made Strange ache with longing.
“Good,” said Grant, “you are awake.”
“Yes,” Strange said, blinking and dizzy. “Shall we go?”
Grant nodded, and turned away to splash his face and the back of his neck with water from the stream. Strange tried not to stare at the lines of his back and thighs; it would be an uncomfortable ride if he allowed his thoughts to stray in that direction. He splashed his own face and neck with water, and shivered at the cold drops trickling down his back.
There was a constraint between them now, and they travelled for some time without speaking. At last Grant began singing a Spanish song that Strange had not heard before. It sounded cheerful rather than amorous, so he ventured to ask its meaning.
“It is a drinking-song,” Grant said, “about the wine of Spain, which is the best in the world. It is remarkably uncivil about the wine of other countries.”
Strange laughed at that, and the constraint was broken. They rode on, swapping songs and jests back and forth, as if there was nothing between them but comradeship. Strange could not have imagined finding such pleasure in Grant’s company when first they met: it was hard to believe that this was the same man whose haughtiness had stung him so in Lisbon.
“There it is,” said Grant, pointing at the far side of the valley where they now found themselves. “We have made better time than I hoped.”
“I shall be glad to stop,” Strange said, though his heart lurched at the sight of their destination.
“You ride like a soldier now,” Grant said. “I forget you are not used to the terrain.”
“It is only weariness, nothing more,” said Strange. “I should dearly love to wash off the dust, however.”
“I doubt there is a bath-house, though I will happily enquire,” Grant said with a grin.
“I should hardly know what to do with such a luxury, after all this time,” said Strange.
The only lodging to be had was one room above a grocer's shop, but the bed was broad enough for two. Strange cast a longing glance at it, and at Grant, as they washed hastily.
“We should set to work,” said Grant, with a regretful glance of his own. “At least we will have some comfort tonight.”
Comfort was not the word uppermost in Strange’s mind, but he knew he must not give in to distracting thoughts now.
“Very well,” he said, taking up his silver basin with a sigh. “Let us see what a little table magic can do.”
The news that the strangers were sworn enemies of the French softened their initially unfriendly reception. Grant's charm and good humour evidently had an effect even in a foreign tongue, and his drinking-song was a great success; the company joined in with a will, adding several new verses to his store. Dancing succeeded to singing, and Strange was astonished to see Grant capering as expertly as if he had known the steps all his life.
“There,” Grant said, panting, as the dance ended. “Now it is your turn.”
Strange’s Spanish was good enough to understand Grant’s announcement that his friend would now perform feats of English magic for their amusement. Much like the fashionable guests he had met at dinner-parties in London, the Spanish villagers were unimaginative in their demands, and he patiently showed them their relations on the other side of the valley having dinner or drinking wine and smoking tobacco. The children were more interested in the English magician’s indoor fireworks, and squealed excitedly when a small heap of breadcrumbs in the middle of the table turned into a fiery serpent that hissed and darted its head about before crumbling back into ash.
It was late when they returned to their lodgings, tired from their exertions but satisfied with the results. The stairs to their room creaked so loud that Strange half expected the grocer to rise up from his bed to complain of the noise. Grant set down the lamp and lit the candles, placing them on the shelf above the empty fireplace. The very thought of a fire on such a warm night was enough to make a man sweat, and it was a relief to take off their coats and boots.
“More wine?” Grant said. The landlord of the inn had pressed a flask on them at parting, possibly in the hope of encouraging further custom.
“Thank you,” said Strange. His throat was dry.
He had wanted this time alone with Grant so much that he did not know how to enjoy it now, or how to begin. What he should not have said, in all probability, was the next thing out of his mouth: “Does Lord Wellington know, do you think?”
“Know what?” Grant asked, startled, and spilt some of the wine on the floor.
“About – this,” Strange said, gesturing to the bed.
Grant looked very uncomfortable. “I hope not,” he said. “I do not think so.”
“Does he know about you and Colonel De Lancey?” Strange said, and could have bitten his tongue with vexation for the words.
“If he does, he has never said so,” Grant replied. “That is a different thing, in any case.”
“Because De Lancey is a soldier too?” Strange asked, unable to stop himself.
Grant gazed at him steadily, and Strange felt the hot colour rise in his face.
“Because De Lancey and I are friends.”
“And you and I are not?” Strange said, stung.
“Not in the modern sense,” Grant said, with a wry smile.
Achilles and Patroclus, Strange thought. Had that been in Grant’s mind too?
“Merlin, you know I cannot talk so well about these things,” Grant said. “I don’t know what you would have me say.”
“Neither do I,” Strange admitted.
It was rare to see Grant so awkward and at a loss, and it unmanned him again as it had done before – the more so after witnessing the easy charm of his performance for the villagers. They were silent for a time, drinking their wine. This would not do at all, he thought; at this rate they would waste half the night with their shyness and making sheep’s-eyes at one another.
“Will you sing me something?” Strange asked.
“Any thing you wish,” Grant said, brightening. “But it must be softly, not to wake our host. What’s your pleasure?”
Strange still could not think of a song, though this vexed him less now than it once had. “Choose for me,” he said.
Grant thought for a moment, and then grinned at him. “Choose for you, eh? Very well.” He moved closer to Strange, and began to sing, soft and low:
“I sowed the seeds of love
And I sowed them in the spring
I gathered them up in the morning so clear
When small birds they do sing,
When small birds they do sing.
My garden was planted well
With flowers everywhere,
But I had not the liberty to choose for myself
Of the flowers that I love so dear,
Of the flowers that I love so dear.
The gardener was standing by
And I asked him to choose for me.
He chose for me the violet, the lily and the pink,
But those I refused all three,
But those I refused all three.
The violet I did not like
Because it bloomed so soon.
The lily and the pink I do really overthink;
So I vowed that I’d stay till June,
So I vowed that I’d stay till June.
In June there was a red rose-bud
And that’s the flower for me
I oftentimes have pluck’d that red rose-bud
Till I gained the willow tree,
Till I gained the willow tree.”
Strange was smiling now in anticipation; he could not help it.
“The willow tree will twist,” sang Grant,
“And the willow tree will twine,
I oftentimes have wished that I was in that young man’s arms
Who once had the heart of mine,
Who once had the heart of mine.”
“They say the willow tree will grant your wish, if you ask it aright,” Strange said. He could not now remember where he had read this; he did not think it was in any of Norrell’s books.
“And the young man, will he do likewise?” Grant asked, with a soft look that made Strange feel hot and dizzy.
“Try him and see,” Strange said, rather breathlessly.
“Merlin,” Grant began, “will you –”
“Yes,” Strange said, reckless with want, and kissed him.
Dear god, he had missed this: the shock of pleasure after such long deprivation was so violent that it made him stagger and lurch against Grant, knocking him onto the bed.
“Oof,” Grant said, and pulled him down on top of him.
Strange kissed him again and again, and could not stop, fierce devouring kisses with all the months of longing behind them. All the things he had wanted to say, all the things he had dreamt of doing with Grant, and could not wait to do now. Grant kissed him back with a hunger as fierce as his own. His hands were in Strange's hair and then pulling at his clothes, god, Grant's hands pushing up under his shirt and caressing his back, tugging his breeches down and cupping his arse to pull him closer. Grant's tongue in his mouth, tasting of wine, the wine of Spain is the best in the world, Strange thought wildly, and nearly choked with laughter. Grant's strong compact body hot and hard underneath him, meeting him thrust for thrust as Strange gasped and cried out and spent.
“I hope you have a spell for laundry,” Grant said ruefully after a while, dabbing at his breeches with a corner of the sheet.
“You are laughing at me,” Strange said accusingly.
“Not a bit of it,” said Grant, but he was smiling.
“At what then?”
“It seems too good to be true,” Grant said. “Dear god, Merlin, if you knew how much I have wanted you like this -”
Strange kissed him, slow and insistent, until Grant was trembling underneath him and breathing hard. He pulled off Grant's shirt and kissed his chest, licking and sucking at his nipples. He had never done this to a man, but Grant writhed and cursed so deliciously that the strangeness of it melted away, leaving only the shivers and sparks of desire. Grant's prick was hard against his thigh; he groaned when Strange pressed his hand against it through his breeches.
“Please,” he said, and if Strange had not spent before, he would have done so at that.
“Christ,” Strange muttered, and fumbled with the fastenings of Grant's breeches. The feel of Grant’s prick, hot and stiff in his hand, made his breath come short again, and he set about eagerly to bring him off.
Grant made a sound more of protest than pleasure, and gripped Strange's wrist. “Not - made of iron,” he said, with some difficulty.
“Oh,” Strange said. He had thought Grant would like it the same way he did, which on reflection was perhaps a foolish assumption. “Show me, then.”
Grant gave another groan at that, but wrapped his hand around Strange's and moved it as he wished. There was a curious pleasure in being so used; Strange could not help imagining how Grant’s hand would feel bringing him off. He marvelled that Grant could hold out so long, though he was evidently approaching his crisis, shuddering and thrusting up into Strange's fist.
“Yes,” Strange said, caressing the tip of his prick with his thumb, “yes, come on.”
Grant gave a choked cry and spent over Strange's hand and his own. To see him so helpless, beside himself with ecstasy, gave Strange a fierce delight. He kissed him again, until Grant moaned and held him away.
“Dear god, Merlin, you'll be the death of me.”
“Will I?” Strange was not sure he liked the sound of that.
Grant stared at him blearily and then laughed. “Ass,” he said fondly. “Not like that.”
“Just a little death, then?” Strange teased him.
Grant slapped his arse, a surprisingly agreeable sensation.
“A lovely one,” he said, and hugged Strange tight.
“Mm,” Strange said, burying his nose in the damp crook of Grant's neck.
It was delicious to lie like this, with Grant's fingers playing in his hair, and stroking his neck and his back. It would be easy to fall asleep, only that his prick was stirring once more in response to Grant's caresses. Strange pressed insinuatingly against his hip.
Grant snorted with laughter.
“What?” said Strange, though he was laughing too.
Grant put his mouth close to Strange's ear and sang, very softly:
“Come, all you false young men,
Do not leave me here to complain,
For the grass that hath oftentimes been trampled under foot,
Give it time, it will rise up again,
Give it time, it will rise up again.”
“Ha,” Strange said. He thought of Grant singing Robin Adair on the hillside, that morning that seemed so long ago now. “When did you begin?”
“I wanted you the first time I saw you,” Grant said. “I thought you were an interloper and a mountebank, but I would have had you up against the wall.”
“Fuck,” Strange groaned, and pressed closer.
“I did not know it was any thing more, until –” Grant cleared his throat.
“There was a day when the letters came, and there was nothing again for you.”
A sharp pang went through him. “Go on.”
“And I thought – forgive me, Merlin,” Grant said, “I thought how often and how kindly I would have written to you, if you were mine.”
“You do not know my wife,” Strange said, bristling. “You have no right to judge –”
“I know,” said Grant. “And I had no right to think of you so. It stole on me before I was aware, and then I could not help wishing, though I knew I should not.”
They lay in silence for a time, Grant's breath stirring his hair. Strange felt he should be angry with him, but there was something irresistible in knowing himself to be loved in that way.
“Were you thinking of me, when you sang?” he asked, remembering the yearning in Grant's voice.
“Always,” Grant said.
Strange could not help kissing him at that, pushing his tongue between Grant's lips and clutching at his hair. The kiss made him ache to come off again, and he moaned, hooking his leg around Grant's and rubbing his prick against his thigh. Grant took him in hand and stroked him, slow and sure, the pleasure so piercingly sweet that he almost wept when he spent. He clung to Grant for dear life, breathing him in, and Grant held him and stroked his hair.
“When we go back –” Strange said, and stopped.
Grant went very still, as if bracing himself for what would come next. “What then?”
“I don’t know,” said Strange, and kissed him hard. “But I want more than one night with you.”
“It will not be easy,” Grant warned.
“You and De Lancey found a way,” Strange said.
“Oh, Merlin. You cannot still be jealous of him.”
“Can’t I?” said Strange, knowing he was being unreasonable. “I do not wish to share you.”
“You do not have to,” Grant said, turning pale. “And I must count myself fortunate if I have the chance of sharing you.”
Oh. Strange had not stopped to consider what would happen between him and Grant if they lived through this war. He still wanted more than any thing to return to London and take up his life with Bell again, but the thought of giving up this closeness with Grant was more than he could bear. He attempted, not very coherently, to say something of this.
“And your wife?” Grant said, as if the question was wrenched from him against his will. “What would she say to that?”
“I wish I knew,” said Strange. “I hope she would understand.”
“It would be a miracle if she did,” said Grant, with a grimace. “Any wife would surely resent being asked to make room for her husband’s army bedfellow.”
It is more than that, Strange wanted to say; you are more than that. He kissed Grant again, more tenderly this time, as if the kiss could speak for him. Grant returned the kiss, gently at first and then more ardently, embracing Strange as if he would never let him go.
Strange had a tune in his head again; he could not at once put a name to it, and then he knew. He remembered the expression on Grant’s face as he sang to him, that first morning on the hillside. He had not looked to find love in the middle of a war: he had been taken by surprise, by his own feelings as well as Grant’s. What would become of them now, he did not know, but it was foolish to waste the hours in wondering about the future when their time together might be so short. If this one night was all the fates would allow them, they should make the most of it.
He kissed Grant’s neck and slid his hand between his thighs, drawing a groan of pleasure from him. He put his lips to Grant’s ear, and sang softly:
“Where there is no place
For the glow-worm to lie,
Where there is no space
For receipt of a fly,
Where the midge dare not venture
Lest herself fast she lay,
If love come, he will enter
And will find out the way.”
Grant squirmed and gave a huff of laughter. “You are impossible, Merlin.”
“I hope not,” Strange said, with a grin. “I think not.”
“I used to dream of having you sing to me like this,” Grant said, and sighed. “It is as sweet as I thought it would be.”
“I am glad to hear it,” said Strange, caressing him shamelessly. “Give me a kiss and I’ll sing you another song.”