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Eschewing Protocol

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It seemed that Hal and Tom Byrd had formed some sort of strange alliance, and Grey wasn't sure he liked that in the least. If anything, it presented an increased possibility of one of them drugging his tea and placing him on a ship to India the next time he tried something ill-advised.

In any case, Tom's obsessive vigilance was almost certainly due to the muttered conversation he'd had with Hal before the latter had been called away. Grey hadn't been able to discern anything from their hushed, deathbed whispers, but it seemed Hal had put the idea into the valet's head that Grey would be murdered while he slept

He wasn't sure he was willing to go that far. True, he'd recently come to the unsettling conclusion that a not insignificant number of people would be relieved to hear of his death. But any assassin who stepped into Waldesruh would find himself faced with an entirely different hindrance.

The aforementioned hindrance was currently locked in a battle of wills with the aforementioned valet, with no clear victor in sight. Grey watched with dazed interest, rubbing one finger against Gustav the daschund's head; the dog lay comfortingly against his hip, watching the unfolding conflict.

From what Grey could tell, the argument had begun when Stephan had suggested, ever so mildly, that they trade places for a while, and Tom had, equally politely, refused. Grey was tempted to reassure Tom that Gustav would guard him, but Tom would only assume him delirious with pain - and he couldn't say for sure that he wasn't.

Tom and Stephan managed to keep up this vague air of civility until Tom mumbled something about "If something were to happen while I was gone," and Stephan gestured violently with his remaining arm and barked, "Do you see anyone here who would bring harm to him?"

And the argument was more or less won.

After Tom reluctantly excused himself, Stephan snorted, "You don't intend to die while he's gone, do you?"

Grey smiled and shook his head. "If...If I were to die after all of Tom's efforts..." He frowned; talking still made his head spin, but he didn't want to appear the invalid. It hardly mattered that he was an invalid. "...he would wash his hands of me," he finished, wheezing.

Stephan's eyebrows shot up. "Good Lord," he said, "how did you get on his hands in the first place?"

Grey had to bite his lip to keep from laughing, as it would have hurt much more than speaking. Stephan's unparalleled ability to mangle English idioms had somehow become very comforting. "Meaning..." he gasped, and Gustav shifted closer to him, "he would not take responsibility...for whatever happened."

"Ah." Stephan looked as if he still didn't quite get it, but shrugged it off. "You shouldn't be talking if it hurts so much, ja? Your valet will be cross with me."

Grey's pride bristled, but even he recognized that his lungs had enough trouble simply breathing. He would concentrate on that, for the time being.

"I don't blame him for his concern," Stephan sighed, and instead of taking Tom's vacated seat, he sat on the edge of the bed, next to Gustav. The dog looked up, but refused to cede any space for his master. "You could stand to look after yourself better, John."

He nodded vaguely, not quite listening; he was uncomfortably aware of Stephan's proximity, and the rare use of his given name sent a rush of heat to his face. Stephan had always been unabashedly affectionate with him, and until recently, Grey had wondered whether his friend had taken an interest in him, or was just simply very, very foreign.

Thankfully, he had assumed the latter. It was always safer that way. Assuming the latter meant that no one would be court-martialed for sodomy. Oh, Percy, he thought, quite against his will.

But that aside, it seemed he wasn't Stephan's type after all. Judging by his marriage to Princess Louisa, Stephan von Namtzen had a soft spot for the very pretty and the slightly dim. And while Grey's vanity would insist that he was quite handsome, he didn't think he was that dim. He liked to think that he was more or less intelligent.

"I'm glad that they didn't have to take your arm," Stephan continued with a strained smile. "What would they have done with us then?"

Perhaps the two of them could have been tied together, like the competitors of some bizarre three-legged race. Then between them, they could have had two working arms. How would the army feel about that, he wondered? One able-bodied soldier, two sharp brains. It was a plus any way he looked at it.

Grey blinked and shook his head. He was beginning to think that he was delirious with pain.

"Well, no need to think about that," Stephan said, clearly noticing his reaction. "As long as you're here, you can relax. It's not as if..." He paused, and for a brief moment, scowled. "It's not as if there will be any other visitors."

Grey looked up at him sympathetically, and even Gustav let out a low whine. Stephan only smiled wryly, gesturing to his empty sleeve. "I suppose everyone has...what was it again...washed their hands of us?"

He returned the smile in kind. Yes, he supposed they had. But at the very least, Stephan understood English idioms better than he previously thought.

"But I don't think that's entirely bad," Stephan said thoughtfully, sitting up a bit straighter. "It allows some...freedom, doesn't it?"

Grey blinked again. And what, exactly, did he mean by 'freedom?' There was certainly less need for decorum here, in their condition, but it wasn't as if they could throw civility out the window to go live on a tropical island with Tom and Gustav. Granted, Grey had thought longingly of the very same thing earlier that week, but he'd also been in the grip of an opium haze and not thinking entirely straight -

When he snapped out of his daze, Stephan was leaning over Gustav and directly in front of his face, hand cupping Grey's chin to tilt it upwards, one finger stroking his cheek. Grey somehow managed to let out a hoarse "Oh" before Stephan closed the distance and kissed him.

After a long, breathless moment that Grey would never be able to dismiss as "foreign," Stephan pulled back with an annoyed huff. "You," he sighed, "are the densest man I've ever known, John."

Grey only managed a weak smile and told himself that he should have seen this coming. After all, he was well-aware that Stephan von Namtzen had a soft spot for the very pretty and the slightly dim.