The next time Julian fell ill, they were at Penkellis. It happened on the Feast of St Stephen.
It was worse this time, and it came quickly enough to stop Courtenay’s heart. Julian’s headache at breakfast spiralled into a weakness that reached its breaking point at lunchtime. Wineglass tumbled from hand to air to floor, and shattered loudly enough to silence the entire room.
Radnor helped Courtenay carry Julian's limp frame to bed. Eleanor disappeared to fetch the bottle of tincture she had brought with her, and Standish followed her for something to do. And Georgie Turner, without being asked to do so, bundled a wide-eyed Simon out of the room and began talking comforts to him. Courtenay was too occupied balancing one half of Julian’s weight over his shoulder to say anything, but he noted the debt of kindness and filed it away for later repayment.
This episode lasted four days.
The power that scaffolded Julian’s voice, all the certainty and insouciance of him, decayed from a command to a croak, and then to a soundless whimper. Four days where Julian did little more than turn fitfully and sweat through his bedsheets.
Witnessing it once before did little to ease Courtenay’s distress. The delight he normally took in Julian’ s vulnerability felt near sinful at the sight of him like this, brittled and at the utter mercy of something without a name and face. Courtenay would have traded in his peerage to make the illness a tangible thing, to skewer it with a bullet and rid Julian of its menace forever.
But that would never happen, so Courtenay watched him drift in and out of wakefulness, and between lucidity and delirium. The burden of it sat on his heart like one of Eleanor’s more elaborate paperweights. It tethered him to the chair at Julian’s bedside, motionless and waiting, as if there were ropes around his arms and legs.
He slept in that chair. He read there. He played quiet games of chess and The Mansion of Happiness with Simon, and more or less ignored the meals that were brought to him. The other occupants of Penkellis drifted in an out of the room as if by roster. Indeed, Courtenay wouldn’t have been surprised if there was a roster, or if he had learned that Julian has devised it himself. It was the sort of tricksy, organized thing that Julian would do, to make things easier for everyone in anticipation of falling ill.
Then, in the early hours of the fourth day, Courtenay startled awake at fingers on his knee.
Julian’s skin was still too warm through Courtenay’s buckskins, but it burned with a weaker fire than the last time Courtenay had checked. And he checked often. He pressed the back of his hand to Julian’s cheek and forehead so frequently that he had become fluent in the slightest variations of his temperature.
After a momentary fumble around the small table next to Julian’s bed, he found the box of matches and the candle. It only lit its immediate surrounds, but it was just enough to see the spark of life return behind Julian’s eyes. For the first time in days, he looked like something next to himself.
The bowline knot around Courtenay’s heart loosened, if only by a fraction.
“Water,” Julian managed.
Courtenay filled a glass and shifted to the edge of the bed. He propped another pillow behind Julian and helped him sit up just enough to bring the glass to his lips. Julian’s first sip was a feeble thing, but it gave him the will for the second, and then the third. When he pulled away from the glass, Courtenay replaced it onto the table and couldn’t resist swiping the moisture off Julian’s lips with his thumb.
At the touch, he felt Julian’s lips curve up in a smile. Courtenay’s heart swelled in his chest, momentarily reaching a size that threatened his ability to breathe.
“You’ve been a frightful inconvenience, my love,” He said gently.
“Liar.” Julian said. He sounded spent, but his smile stayed where it was.
He still looked like a shipwreck. Sweat matted his hair into a darker-than-usual colour, and it struck a bold contrast against his flushed skin. Courtenay wanted nothing more than to kiss the fever out of every square inch of it. Seeing Julian in anything less than a perfect state was heart-breaking.
“Four days, you’ve kept me in this chair.” Courtenay complained fondly. “Four whole days.”
“I know that.” Julian teased. “I’ve gotten rather bored of looking at you.”
If Julian had found the road back to his old, scathing tongue, then perhaps he was closer to recovery than Courtenay had dared hope. Perhaps the two of them might even be able to join the rest of their party downstairs, at least for dinner on New Year’s Eve. A bubble of joy rose in Courtenay’s chest and threatened to burst on his lips as laughter. He held it back.
“If you’ve grown bored of my face,” Courtenay said, with a particular twist on the my, “then you’re worse off than we thought.”
Julian might laughed, if his bones hadn’t been wrung dry with the effort of remaining upright. Courtenay was content with the tired smile offered to him in its place.
With effort and a wince, Julian glanced over to the chair. “It certainly looks comfortable."
“Not for anyone other than me, I’m afraid. The upholstery’s rather moulded itself to the shape of my arse.”
The mention of Courtenay’s arse sparked a second flame behind Julian’s expression. He was well on the mend then, the exasperating boy.
“I’ll have to buy the chair off Radnor, in that case.” Julian said. “Perhaps I’ll take it to London.”
Courtenay responded by finding one of Julian’s hands amongst the rumpled bedcovers. He lifted it to his lips and pressed a separate, lingering kiss to each knuckle. It was a thoughtless, hapless gesture; a triumph of reflex over sense, and wholly worth it for the stricken delight it prompted in Julian.
Perhaps a day would come, when Courtenay would grow accustomed to the way Julian received the simplest affections. It would not be today, or any day soon.
“Actually,” Courtenay said fondly, “I was rather looking forward to setting the damn thing on fire.”