No rights infringement intended. M/F

No infringement of the following characters and situations is intended.
Title: Before Badajoz
Fandom: Sharpe
Pairing: Harper/Sharpe
Rating: PG
Disclaimer: Not mine, Bernard Cornwell's
Summary: Sharpe eases Harper's flogged back.

Before Badajoz

Best rum, half and half, for a flogging - everyone knew the patent sergeant's remedy, where half the rum went down the victim's throat, and the other half, as an antiseptic, down his beaten back. Dan Hagman had taken care to ensure it was applied to Pat Harper, as soon as the men were fallen out after the punishment detail.

It was rare for a man to walk away unaided from more than twenty-five lashes, but the Irishman had done it, even after 100 laid on heavily, with his head held up, and the grin still pinned across his face, his bravery acknowledged even by the Colonel, who'd tossed him a guinea in tribute.

Richard Sharpe had done his duty, and stood with the other officers to watch the detail, battling down the urge to vomit and schooling his face into impassive lines that hid the fury and distress within. He would a thousand times rather have stood in Pat's place, and the lashes scourged his soul as thoroughly as Harper's back. Another offence to add to Obadiah Hakeswill's tally, Sharpe thought, when the time came to punish him, for he knew the twitching sergeant had selected his victim even more for the hurt it would cause him, than he had in payback for Harper's blows.

Worse even than watching the flogging was to have to stand idly by, while other men ministered to Pat, for he had lost his Company, and he could not be seen to concern himself with the men in it.

Once darkness had fallen though, and the glow of the campfires cast deep shadows just beyond the edge of their light, he knew he would not be seen, and he slipped quietly under the back flap of the tent where Harper lay on his belly, sleeping fitfully. As Sharpe sat on the ground beside him, his eyes flickered open.

"God save Ireland!" the exclamation came in a whisper, "what are you doing here, Sir? 'Tis disaster it'd be if anyone saw you come or go."

"They'll not. But I had to see how you were, lad."

"It hurts like hell" The muttered words as Pat passed him that morning had tumbled around his head all day. Simple ones, obvious ones, those words - banal even, considering the circumstances -- but they described Sharpe's life, right now. The loss of his company and his captaincy, the knowledge that Theresa and his daughter were trapped inside the besieged walls of Badajoz, seeing his chosen men under the orders of another officer and Hakeswill's heel, while he was prevented even from doing any real soldiering with lists, lists and more endless lists, and then the flogging and the pain-soaked eyes that looked at him above the fixed grin. It all hurt like hell. It didn't make sense, but something told him that things would hurt less close to Pat, and that doing something to ease the sergeant's physical pain might be balm for his own spirit.

He peeled off his shirt, and snorted to see the Irishman's expression, eyes widenening and mouth gaping.

"Take that daft bloody look off your face, Pat. I need clean cloths to bathe those stripes, that's all, and while nobody's going to think twice if they see me without a shirt, they might wonder why I was wandering round camp with a spare in me hand."

"You'll not be after destroying a good shirt for my benefit?" Harper seemed more shocked by this idea than the thought that Sharpe had come to him for sex, ignoring his raw and bloody back.

"I can spare it," the officer answered shortly, nicking the hem of the garment with his dagger then swiftly reducing it to rags, with a series of quick tugs. He lifted his canteen, and poured water over one of these and set about gently sponging the furrows that crossed and recrossed the Irishman's flesh.

"Tssssssss!" Harper hissed through clenched teeth at the first contact, but the water was cooling and the touch full of care, so he stifled any other sounds of pain as Sharpe continued, painstakingly cleaning every inch of the gory mess.

"I'm sorry, Pat, but I must get it properly clean if I'm to do you any good" Harper saw that Sharpe winced every time he touched the wounds, as if he could feel an empathetic sting. Belike he could, at that, Pat thought, for often and often they shared the same thoughts.

"You go right ahead, Sir." he said, and then his voice, always pitched low when he and the officer were together in the night, became even quieter. "It does me good just to have you by, so it does."

Sharpe smiled then, a warm smile that put light back in his dulled hazel eyes. "And me, to be here, lad." he glanced at Harper's battered back again. It was no prettier a sight with the extraneous blood washed away. "Christ but this is a mess! Still this should help." he held up a small pot.

"What'd that be then?"

"Wolfsbane and spearmint, in best beeswax. Should ease the pain and protect you against any infection." He dipped three fingertips into the ointment. "It'll sting a bit when it first goes on, I warn you, Pat, but that won't last long."

Sting a bit? It burned like powder in the pan at first, but Harper buried his face in the rolled blanket that supported his head, since he could not have borne it covering him that night, biting down on any expression of hurt - not in pride, as he had bitten down on the leather earlier, but in concern that he might distress Sharpe.

As the roughened, but gentle, fingers worked the ointment into the welts, tenderly as any mother might, the pain slowly died back to a dull throbbing and finally a kind of warm numbness. The scent of mint was fresh and sweet on the air chasing out the stink of rum and sweat and clearing the minds of officer and sergeant both, and both were silent, apart from the calm sound of regular breathing.

Eventually, Harper spoke. "God save you, Sir, but that's soothing, so it is."

Sharpe neither replied, nor stopped his ministrations, his fingers gliding smoothly on the greasy beeswax surface of the ointment, so Harper turned his head and looked up at the officer. His expression was distant, his face grave, and a single tear slid unnoticed from the corner of his right eye, making a track of white down his dust-stained cheek.

"Sir?" The sergeant reached out a big hand and touched Sharpe's knee lightly.

The contact recalled Sharpe from a reverie of leading the Forlorn. He'd been storming the walls of Badajoz, this man by his side, because he couldn't imagine, any longer, going into battle without Pat's reassuring bulk supporting him. They'd been engaged on all sides, struggling wildly to break through and find Teresa and Sharpe's daughter, to protect them from marauders, and the vision had been a mixture of fear, guilt and confidence. Fear that he would die, without seeing his child, guilt in the knowledge that he would sacrifice Harper, if he had to, in order to save his family - though not willingly, he thought, never willingly - and confidence that one of the two of them would make it through to the house by the cathedral, and if it was Pat, the big Irishman would stand as firm as he himself between Teresa and harm.

He looked down into Harper's dark, questioning eyes, and realised that for the first time in his life he had come to rely on somebody who wasn't himself, which was good for him, certainly, but might be very bad for the sergeant. "I'm sorry, Pat," he murmured "I..."

"Whist, now. Sure, and you've no reason for apologies, Sir. We'll soon be back where we belong, the both of us, and Miss Teresa too, and all this forgotten."Sharpe shook his head, a small smile on his face, as his heart lightened. It was impossible, he found, to be around this man's calm optimism without being buoyed by it. He let his fingers come to a slow halt.

"You're a bloody marvel, Patrick Harper, d'you know that?" His voice was full of affection and his smile widened as the ready grin spread itself across Harper's features.

"That's a heap of shite. A bloody mess is what I am right now, but I'll be on me feet before you know it, and when I am, I'll kill that bastard Hakeswill, so I will."

"You'll not then, lad. I'm long before you on that. But I'll do it slowly y'can have no fear."

"Oh well, and I'll not be spoiling your fun then. But I'd thank you if you'd be letting me watch."

Sharpe had to stifle a laugh at the murderous gleam of anticipation in the sergeant's eye.

"Aye, I can do that." His face grew serious again, and he laid his hand on a small unmarked patch of skin on Harper's shoulder.

"I have to go, Pat, before the watch changes. I'll leave the ointment here, and y'can have one of the lads put some on in the morning. Try to sleep now, lad." He bent and brushed the lightest of kisses on the Irishman's cheek.

"Aye. I'll sleep like a babe, so I will, Sir, after all your care. Thanks for coming, 'twas grand of you. Now you get away to your rest."

"I wanted to be here. I'd stay, if I could. Goodnight, Pat. Rest well."

Sharpe slipped away, as stealthily as he had come, unnoticed, but he left behind a sergeant who slept easy and a good part of his own burden of worry, in the spearmint-scented silence.

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