The battle had broken Merlin. It had not been immediately obvious, not at first, but the last couple of days had placed it beyond doubt. The pall that hung over the magician still was not a shock of battle that faded with victory, but a much deeper and more grievous sort of wound. One that Major Grant, at least, was visibly beginning to fear would prove permanent.
Wellington knew the cause, too. He had heard from a variety of sources what had taken place inside Hougoumont during the battle, and he knew his magician well enough to know why it had shattered him. He did not tend to take overt interest in the lives of his men, but that did not mean he did not pay attention. He knew full well what had broken Merlin.
The costs of victory, he thought tiredly, while he sat the table and watched his men step carefully around each other. The costs of victory. They were less, hopefully, than the costs of defeat, but sometimes not by very much. Prices were paid to win. He'd learned that in India, at Assaye, and he had never forgotten since. Of all the lessons he had ever learned, he thought that that one had stood to him the longest and the best. Nothing was without cost. Nothing except a battle lost could be half so melancholy as a battle won.
Yet it had been a victory. Waterloo. They had paid the price for it, but they had won, and more than just the battle. Whatever they had been forced to do in order to achieve that, it was finished now and done. They had won the war. They had not spent for naught. That had to matter, or every soldier who had ever fought would all go quite mad.
Yes. Perhaps it was time to broach the subject, before Merlin's malaise withered him or Grant any further. Wounds did not heal for festering.
"Merlin, will you come here?" he said, straightening up in his seat and taking his legs down off the chair beside him. Grant looked up before Merlin did, he noted. Grant even dared to send him a little grimace of negation before he stopped himself, a tiny shake of his head and half a protective step in front of the magician. As though Wellington were a threat to him. As though Grant thought Merlin needed defending from his commanding officer. Oh yes. It was time and past time for some intervention, Wellington could see that very clearly indeed.
Merlin did not. Merlin didn't see much of anything these days. He seemed to have fallen into a sort of waking sleep in the aftermath of the battle. He had taken the news that they were due to ship home soon, nodded, and promptly drifted back into a sort of a daze. The kind Grant had found him in inside the compound. The kind they both knew was the mark of a broken spirit. He tended to stare at his hands a lot, as well. One hand in particular, one that had not stopped shaking since that day. Wellington knew the cause of that, too.
"... My lord?" Merlin said at last. He made an attempt to look lively, or at least awake. That was a good enough start, Wellington supposed. At least he still commanded that much. "Did you need something, sir?"
Plenty, Wellington thought, starting with a drink and a means to stitch up the bleeding hole in your spirit. But we'll take a moment's conversation for a start.
"Come over here for a moment," he said instead. "Both of you, Grant, you can mind him just as well at the table as in the corner. I'd like a word with my magician, before we're all shipped off home and set out to pasture. Provided my magician doesn't object, of course."
Grant at least looked shamefaced. Merlin only blinked for a moment, more confused than distressed, and managed to drift to his feet and come sit down in the vacated chair. He looked better physically than he had a few days ago, at least. Grant had about shoved his head into a wash bucket to get the mud of Hougoumont out of his hair, and had found him a fresh shirt somewhere. The coat was probably a lost cause, though.
"Sorry, sir," Merlin said, and Wellington watched with some mild fascination as he visibly tried to piece himself back together enough to carry a conversation. This was worse than the Neapolitans had been, which was probably why Grant had tactfully disarmed the man as soon as possible, along with anyone likely to be in range of him. No one could take the magic away, though. It wouldn't have mattered before, but it did now. It was the reason this breaking had been worse.
Wellington looked at him thoughtfully for a moment, wondering how to handle this, before deciding that he had never had much talent for beating around the bush. The direct approach might not always be the wisest, but it was all he had at the moment. It would be good enough, damn it anyway. It had better be.
"Do you remember a conversation we once had, Merlin?" he asked brusquely. "Back in the Peninsula. One of our first, I believe. I asked you if a magician could kill a man by magic. Do you remember it?"
Given that the man promptly went whiter than a sheet, and that his hand did not so much shake as jerk in his lap and almost bark itself on the underside of the table, Wellington presumed that Merlin did. He waited until the man nodded, though. This conversation was not going to mean very much unless Merlin was functioning enough to react to it.
"Do you remember how you answered me?" he went on, and though he maintained the briskness of his tone, he could not say that he enjoyed Merlin's flinch of response. He was a bastard. He knew that. Lancing a wound was never pleasant, however, and it had to be done. So many unpleasant things did. That was war for you, even in victory.
It seemed that Merlin was not completely broken in spirit, however. He managed to look Wellington in the eye, to raise his chin and stiffen his spine as he answered. Wellington could not help the little surge of pride in his chest at the sight of it. They were made of stern stuff, his men. They were Englishmen and proud, and even if they broke it was not in the face of the enemy, and it was not all the way.
"I remember, sir," Merlin said quietly, and there was a wealth of quiet grief in it, and a wealth of dignity too. Grant, standing beside him, closed his eyes in sympathy as he remembered too, and reached down to grip Merlin's shoulder. Wellington had lost too many friends and comrades now to feel his heart break at the sight of them, but he could not deny a twinge.
"Yes," he said heavily. "I can see that you do. I heard what happened at Hougoumont, Merlin. I rather thought you might remember that conversation, if I asked."
Merlin bowed his head. His face twisted, the comforting daze beginning to break more fully apart, and a multitude of things crossed his expression. Anger, grief. Shame. Most particularly shame. His hands knotted into fists in his lap. Wellington watched them. The right fist shook, even still. It trembled violently in front of him.
"... May I tell you something, Mr Strange?" he said after a long moment, and both their heads came up to stare at him for his use of the name. Merlin's expression even blanked a little in wonder, as if he thought Wellington had forgotten his name entirely. A foolish notion, that, though he supposed he couldn't blame the man. "You came to us as a magician, not a soldier, so it occurred to me that you might not know. Not until now. Will you hear it?"
Merlin blinked, and nodded slowly. Cautiously, too. Well at least he still had some degree of sense. Wellington shook his head, and picked up a letter opener from the table to toy with it absently. He had explained this sort of thing before, but usually to idiots, not men he valued. He had to think for a moment how to frame it less combatively.
"There are no gentlemen on the field of battle," he said at last, slow and firm enough that Merlin visibly stifled his first instinctive denial. Wellington nodded approval and carried on. "There are gentlemen before, and there are gentlemen afterwards. War has rules, and those rules are guarded by gentlemen, and that is as it should be. On the field, however, in the mud and the blood, those gentlemen are not gentlemen any longer. They are soldiers, Merlin, and a soldier's duty is not to be gentlemanly in the fight. His duty is to obey his orders, to march or to stand, to do what must be done to win the battle. His duty is to kill the enemy before the enemy kills him, and to use whatever he has to hand to do so. Because if he doesn't, rest assured that the enemy will be more than happy to."
Merlin's lips were white, when he looked back up. They were pressed together so firmly that all colour had fled from them, and there was something between fury and denial in his eyes. He knew what Wellington was saying. He had heard it before, perhaps. He did not wish to believe it, however. He did not want to accept the reasoning that was offered to him, even if doing so would excuse him for what he had done.
That was too bad, Wellington thought. Gentleman or no gentleman, magician or no magician, war was what it was, and it always would be. Magic might change the shape of it, but not its nature. When a man is trying his damnedest to kill you, you don't have time to be picky about how you make him stop.
"You killed a man by magic," he said, baldly and quietly, and Merlin snapped his head away, stared blindly out past Wellington. Towards a battlefield, maybe, hidden from view by walls and distance. There might have been tears sprung to his eyes, but Wellington did not comment on them. Neither did Grant, although his grip on Merlin's shoulder tightened enough that it had to be painful, and his eyes were very bleak. Wellington ignored that too. He had to, or he'd never finish this. "Sous-Lieutenant Legros, I'm told. The man who broke the gate at Hougoumont, and the man who killed Colonel De Lancey. A man who was doing his best to kill you. You regret that, I see, or at least the means of it. I hope you understand why I do not."
"Sir," Grant interrupted, though it was more a plea than an expression of censure. He'd moved directly behind Merlin, taken both the man's shoulders in his hands and pulled him protectively back against his chest. Wellington felt his own hands fist, looking at them. He ploughed onwards anyway. One did not retreat once battle was joined.
"The man needed to die, Merlin," he said coldly. "To keep you alive, if nothing else. What you did was no more than any soldier would have done. I do not care how you accomplished it. I know you feel that you have betrayed something. Magic, or yourself. Maybe you have, I don't know. But listen to me, and let me tell you who you have not betrayed."
He stood up. Grant watched him, a raw, naked expression on his face. Wellington moved to stand in front of them, to look fiercely down at Merlin until the man finally raised his eyes and looked back at him. He felt his gut tighten at the sight of tears tracking silently across that face, but there was fire still in Merlin's eyes, strength and fierceness still, and Wellington clung to those instead. He held Merlin's eyes, and for a moment let something of his own feelings soften his expression. It was not a vulnerability he allowed often, and it did have an effect.
"You did not betray Colonel De Lancey," he told his magician quietly, with a hitch in his voice that he would not have allowed many to hear. Raw anguish flooded Merlin's face in answer, and he bore through it. He swallowed, and he carried on. "Whatever else you may have betrayed, Merlin, you did not betray him. You did not betray those who fought and died around you. You did not betray your fellow soldiers. You did not betray Major Grant, and you did not betray me. I do not know what that might mean to a gentleman or a magician. I think I do, however, know very well what it means to us."
Merlin made a noise. It was not a word, not any sound that those who had not seen war would understand could come from a human throat. Wellington understood it just fine. So did Major Grant, who stooped to cross one arm across Merlin's chest and embrace him desperately from behind. It wasn't Grant that Merlin reached for, however. Maybe that should not have surprised Wellington, but it did. When that still-shaking hand caught his, it did surprise him.
"It's not that I want ..." Merlin whispered, the tremors from his hand running up Wellington's arm and settling themselves, perhaps irrevocably, in his chest. "I don't want to betray you. I didn't want to betray anyone. My lord ..."
"You didn't," Wellington answered him, with absolute certainty. He hesitated a second, and then went smoothly to one knee in front of them, the better to meet Merlin on a level. The war was over. Heaven knew what would be done with the three of them now, but the war was over, and just this moment Wellington did not care to be their commander. They had fought for him, they had survived, and others had not. Just this once, he did not wish to stand above them. "You did not betray us, Merlin. You didn't betray anyone. It was just ... what had to be done."
He met Grant's eyes, across Merlin's shoulder. There was grief in the man's eyes, of course there was, he had lost his friend and stood to lose another if they could not lance this wound, but what surprised Wellington was that there was sympathy also. Not only for Merlin, but for him. There was an echo of a battlefield in Grant's eyes, of the three of them as they stood together to look out across it, and for a moment Wellington fancied that it was not only Merlin Grant wished to wrap his arm around and protect.
It was a strange feeling. It was not perhaps an unpleasant one, however.
"Forgive me, my lord," Merlin said suddenly. Wellington blinked, belatedly realising himself lost in Major Grant's eyes, and turned to look at their damaged magician once again. He found Merlin watching them both, found a wild, fierce darkness in the magician's eyes, and something between terror and desperate determination. He shook his head, having lost track of things a bit, and then ... then Merlin touched his cheek. It was not his shaking hand, that was still caught in Wellington's own, but this one was trembling now too. "I'm sorry," he said, and in the next moment Wellington understood why.
Merlin kissed him. He darted forward, Grant's arm falling from his chest in shock, and pressed white, shaking lips to Wellington's own. They tasted of salt, Wellington thought inanely. He was too stunned to do much else. Merlin's kiss tasted of tears, and the touch of his shaking hand reminded of an old, familiar desperation. Grief, and longing, and the need to drown it out. They were a soldier's old companions.
Merlin drew away, a moment later. He bowed his head as he did so, closing his eyes in grief and maybe shame, maybe a knowledge of wrongness. He curved in on himself, waiting to be told in no uncertain terms just how far he had trespassed on forbidden ground. Major Grant caught him, tugged him back into the shield of his arms once more. The Major was not entirely surprised, Wellington thought. Shocked, but not surprised. And maybe, when he thought about it, neither was he.
"... Merlin," he started, and then stopped again as the man looked at him. The magician. His magician, who had fought beside them despite having never been a soldier, who had shattered his own heart and betrayed his own principles to avenge one of their own. A man who had been asleep for days, rather than think on what he'd done, and who was awake now to feel only those soldier companions. Grief, and shame, and longing. Whatever Wellington had meant to say died in his throat. He shook his head, and gripped the hand he still held more tightly.
"I'm glad you didn't get yourself killed," he said at last, rather wryly, and something of the absurdity of it seemed to catch Merlin. He gave a little snort of laughter, thick and startled, and leaned his head back into Grant's chest tiredly. Grant leaned down to press a kiss into his hair, Merlin's eyes closing and something close to peace passing across his tear-stained face, and Wellington shook his head at them both.
God, he did love them. It did not mean much, maybe. It wouldn't last very long. Such things, those gasps of love and longing in the wake of grief and battle, rarely did. For now, though, for this moment, he loved the battered men he held before him. The war was done, the three of them were all that was left, and he truly did love them.
"Come on," he said, standing slowly and stiffly to his feet, taking Merlin's hand with him as he went. They looked up at him, shattered and in pieces still, but stronger seeming than they had been before they'd started this conversation. He smiled tiredly at them, and tugged lightly on Merlin's hand. "If that's the conversation you want to have, Merlin, I think it's one better had behind locked doors. Don't you?"
Merlin blinked, that bemused wonder all over again, and then he smiled too. Exhaustedly, but contentedly. Grant, beside him, shook his head and looked up at Wellington with nothing but gratitude in his eyes. Well. Maybe a touch of hope and longing, too. He steered Merlin unsteadily to his feet, and wrapped one arm around his shoulders the better to follow Wellington wherever he might lead. That was a gratifying thing, Wellington could not help but think. That would never not be a pleasure to witness.
"Lead on, sir," Grant said, with that faint smile of his and that echo of a battlefield in his eyes, and Merlin's head cradled against his shoulder. "Lean on, and we'll be right behind you."
For the last time, Wellington thought. They were due home soon. They would be gentlemen again, now that the war was done. This might well be the last time these two men would follow him anywhere. Maybe that was all right, though. Maybe that was just fine. They were here now. They were soldiers still, not gentlemen yet, and they might have one last taste of a soldier's companionship. For their own sake, and for the sake of those they had lost, they could taste a little of what it meant to be alive. It was no bad thing, that.
Greater love hath no man, he thought. Every soldier knew that. In the end, no matter how briefly it would last, greater love hath no man than this.
Otherwise, how could it be worth breaking for?