When Len is fourteen, he smuggles himself and his sister on a ship returning to England. It's packed to the wood grain with injured soldiers, but Len's small and his father has forced him into smaller spaces than between cargo. Lisa, seven and freshly cowed by the bandaged wound on her shoulder, trembles but stays silent.
It's an impulsive decision―no, it's a reckless decision. The instinctive fear that his dad would find him no matter what state he ran to is most likely unfounded. But as he holds his sister under his chin and brushes against her wound, the wound that will surely leave an angry scar, he has no regrets. Terror, yes. But no regrets.
The first few days are spend stealing supplies and growing sea legs. Len wishes he could take what they need right from the big crates of cargo, but a little snippet of something missing here and there won't get noticed as fast as a chipped box in the hold. Thieving's left Len with a good sense of balance, though, and he adjusts accordingly. Lisa gets seasick but valiantly downs water and keeps to her corner. She says barely a word.
Stealing bandages on a ship of wounded is far more difficult. Len tries to hold off as long as he can, but his sister needs her bandages changed. A week into the voyage, he whispers to wait for him as he always does and heads to the doctor's room.
He doesn't get far before someone enters the hold. Len ducks behind one of the crates.
It's a boy, younger than Len but older than Lisa, in a blue coat two sizes too big that almost match his eyes. His tufts of blond hair are bleached from the sun and his freckled cheeks are red. In one hand is a lantern. In the other―
"Little girl?" he calls softly.
Len's eyes widen with his racing heart.
"You looked like a little girl, at any rate," the boy adds. "I, ehm, brought some food for you."
He offers the salted pork and tiny water flask. The flask has WL carved sloppily in the leather. Len oughta snatch both and knock him out. But then he might alert the ship, which by some miracle he hasn't already after apparently glimpsing Lisa.
Why hadn't Lisa told him?
Len swallows past the sting and stands. He can tie the boy up, threaten him a little. There's spare rope across from where he and Lisa hide.
Then the boy says, "I'm a stowaway too. Well, of a kind. I ran off to join the Navy." He takes a few cautious steps forward, earnest as anything. "At any rate, I know what it's like to run from home, and while I'm not sure how a lady will fare on her own, I can't very well let you starve."
It's reckless. Stupid.
Len steps in front of the boy anyway.
He starts, gasps, but doesn't scream.
Len gestures to the food. "I'm her brother."
The boy blinks owlishly. "I'd no idea there was anyone else. How did you―"
"If that's really for her, I'll take it over."
The boy gives the supplies. Way too trusting. "I do need that back though. It's the only measure of water I can get."
"Then why're you giving it to a stranger?"
And the boy blinks at him again and says, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world, "Because she needs it."
A pregnant pause follows, 'cause Len needs a moment to process how innocent this kid is. Where he comes from, every brat's a selfish crier, even Lisa sometimes. Children older than this odd boy whine and snitch as much as they breathe.
Just to be sure, Len asks, "Why haven't you told anyone about her?"
Again, the boy seems confused. "She's just a child, and not hurting anyone besides. So long as the soldiers get as much as we can give them, I don't see why she should go hungry. I've enough rations to spare!"
Len almost gapes. "These are your rations?"
The kid nods.
Len's learned how to see through liars the hard way. There's no lie here. Just stupid, amazing honesty.
The boy holds out his hand, straight-backed and proper. "Will Laurence. A pleasure to meet you."
Firm handshake, at least. Fingers growing callouses.
"My sister's injured too," Len says slowly, "I was on my way to take what bandages I could get."
Will grimaces. "Can I ask how she was injured?"
In the following quiet, Will huffs. Len smirks.
"Well," Will says after another beat, "How bad is the wound?"
"It'll scar," Len replies softly.
Will looks almost as hurt as he feels. He scuffs his feet on the floor.
"I could help you, I suppose. But I'm clearly lacking in your stealth."
Reluctantly, Len starts walking back to Lisa, knowing Will will follow. "I could―use a distraction for the doctor. Just long enough for someone to have their back turned at the right time."
Will hums. "Normally I don't speak much to the others"―hard to believe―"but I act as an assistant most days. I can tell you where he keeps most of the bandages, though..." his face twists in disgust, "he will certainly notice if any alcohol went missing."
A boy in the Navy put off by alcohol. Len's starting to think he's hallucinating.
But Lisa cowers when she sees him.
"Oh," Will murmurs, seeing the crusted blood.
Len puts on his big brother smile and kneels before her. "We're gonna get you stuff for your shoulder soon. Hungry?"
Lisa, pale and sallow, cautiously nibbles at the morsel, eyeing Will's devastated face.
"Who did this?" Will hisses.
"Someone far away," Len replies steadily. Despite their half-formed plan, he recalculates and asks, "Can I get the stuff now?"
"Yes," Will says as fiercely as a twelve year old can. "The crew is either sleeping or working above deck. Either that, or they're drunk senseless by now, and the doctor's likely with that rabble."
He leads Len through the maze below deck, legs steadier than Len's. They're both lanky poles of boys, so Will extinguishes the lantern and whispers directions as he guides them between unseen beams, barely illuminated by the port holes.
There's a cramped table of a few crew members and, as Will predicted, the doctor who's supposed to help the bed-ridden soldiers. They're all drinking and cackling at some slurred, half-cocked story. Typical.
When they reach the doctor's station, a few scant, flickering lights hang by some soldiers' beds. A few groan. A few gasp. A few weep as quietly as they can. A few are eerily still.
Will casts a sorrowful look at them all. "The bandages are just over there. I...I'm going to see if any of them require anything. Unless you need me to take you back?"
Len shakes his head. Will scampers off, as if his skinny slip can help these grown, haunted men.
Len wishes, foolishly, that he could help too. But his sister always comes first.
Will comes by when he can, usually in the dead of night. Len starts to see how tired and thin he is, but it never seems to matter. After giving his ration, he sits a careful distance away so as not to scare Lisa overmuch and carries their conversation.
He talks about his older brother, his distant father, and his caring mother. How he could never imagine life in the clergy, how the sea always called to him. Then he turns around and talks about honor and obedience to his country, how someday he will captain his own ship and make sure that soldiers put under his care will never know a drunk doctor's care.
"Why don't you tell the captain?" Len asks.
Will shakes his head. "I'm just a boy. What can I do?"
Plenty, Len wants to say. But he's pretty sure he's not in a position to argue the point.
"No," Will goes on, "Until I rise in the ranks, I can only do what I'm able with what little I have."
That, at least, is something they share.
"When I return home, my father will be proud," Will says another night, smiling wistfully. "He is a hard man to please, you know. George of course, being the eldest, is his favorite. But when I face him with a rank, I will shake his hand."
"What?" Will snaps, affronted.
"Nothing. Just." Len shrugs. "Don't kill yourself over it. Sometimes..." he glances at Lisa. "Sometimes parents don't want to be pleased."
Will looks at his lap, clenching his fists. "I'm sure he does," he whispers.
"All the same."
"It isn't like I'm joining the Aerial Corps! I'm getting an honorable commission!"
Lisa shrinks under the loud voice. Will slumps, cowed, and apologizes. He leaves shortly after.
The night before the voyage ends, Will shakes Len's hand one more time and wishes both of them luck.
"Y'know," Len says, "you're a strange one."
Will laughs. "I'll take that as a compliment, Leonard."
Will merely laughs again and bids them good night.
Len smuggles Lisa into London.
Len tries taking odd jobs to support him and Lisa. He's put to the docks once, where the only other boy close to his age is a big Irish lad who takes one look at him and says in a gruff voice, "Won't last a day."
Len naturally takes that as a challenge.
The heavy lifting leaves him sore and bone tired, with terrible wages. But Lisa gets to eat something when the money he'd taken from his father runs low, and he can tell the Irish boy, "A day, huh?" every morning.
The Irish boy goes from grunting indifferently to rolling his eyes to flicking his ear. Then one day he says, "Since you're stickin' around, might 's well know your name."
Len, feeling more playful than he's been in years, gives his nickname in a cheeky voice.
The boy snorts. "Mick Rory."
His handshake rattles Len's still-growing muscle, nothing like the firm propriety of Will. (Len wonders how he's doing.)
Mick Rory's a rough sort and doesn't often think ahead, mostly because his life's shaped him that way. Occasionally, Len'll catch him staring at the flickering fires in lamps with dreadful hunger Len's only seen in pictures of dragons. He drinks with his father and the other men and stinks of it for days at a time.
He also shares Len's dry humor and has a blunt, uncaring variant of Will Laurence's honesty. He somehow knows whenever Len needs help and fills the empty space at his back. His laugh is infectious and wild. When Len flinches from his touch, he learns how to adapt. When he's tipsy, he tells Len he wants to learn how to read, wants to travel the world and own a big house like his mother always wanted for him.
Len knows how he could make it better for Lisa and Mick.
He's tried the honest way. It's clearly not working.
Eight months into his work at the docks, he pulls Mick's ear to his lips and tells him he's going to snatch a visiting noble's jewels.
Mick's eyes shine with greed. He asks when.
It's a fucking disaster. Len hadn't accounted for an emergency guard change, and all they managed to swipe was some worthless ring.
"Plan was good though," Mick says, like it matters. "Next time you'll get it."
Len gives him a slow once-over. "You'd do this again with me?"
Mick shrugs. "Helluva lot more fun than bein' a pack mule. And I like yah, Lenny."
He smiles and bumps their shoulders. Tentatively, Len tries smiling back.
"Keep the ring. A reminder for your next plan."
Slowly, Lisa starts talking again.
She asks if they'll see Will again. Len says he doesn't think so.
"He was nice," she says quietly.
"...I met another nice one," Len replies, "Not like Will. He's a―bit rough around the edges."
"Is he the one who makes you smile?"
Len's brow furrows. "What'd'you mean?"
Lisa shrugs, fingering the tattered hem of her dress. "You smile more when you come home."
He hadn't noticed. Lisa looks happy about it.
"I guess so," he says. "His name's Mick. He's Irish."
Lisa leans against him. She's done for now.
"Hey, Lise. Wanna get a new dress?"
Next plan works like a dream.
"I'm gonna leave my da behind," Mick says, fingering the coins, "'E can rot in that damn wharf an' I'll be livin' like a king."
Len holds out his hand. "To shit fathers."
Mick nearly crushes his fingers and Len wonders if this is what having a friend is like.
"Damn right. I'm stickin' with you, Lenny."
Yes, Len thinks, it is.
Lisa gets a new dress. She smiles like the dawn.
Can't say Len hadn't tried the honest route. Not his fault the law makes it easier for thieves to form.
He breathes in London's smog and thinks he could make somethin' outta this.