The sunlight on the windowsill was more depressing than it was bright. Wan and pale, you knew that you would find no warmth there in the light of that cool, indifferent sun, shining on a fate much more dire than even its own fiery glory. August had not been kind to either of you.
The last traces of summer were fading away, and everyone in the hospital knew it. Gone were the summery days when you could wake and catch the glimmer of hope that the sunshine had brought with it, the apple trees in the orchard laden with fruit and the last of the spring's bright blossom on their rich branches, the birds wheeling in the sky as though they could not hear, not far away, the rattle of machine gun fire and the sickening crash of bombs. In those clearer nights, sat upon your windowsill and gazing out at the unending sky, you could almost see the flames leaping from the wreckage of today's attack, the occasional flare shooting up into the sky in a sudden burst of bright green light, casting a lurid glow on the trees and fields below.
And now the cold was seeping in, with its grim promise of longer nights and the worst that was yet to come, and the war was far from over. Sometimes you had to wonder how many men were left, as through the doors to the hospital there came every day the steady flow of men half-dead and some already long since gone, draped in their funeral gowns of stiff brown uniform and the bloom of rich red blood like roses on their unnamed grave. This war would leave no man untouched, and you could see the poison as it crept into the eyes of those who made it out of here, chilling and colder than that false bliss that washed over the still faces of those who weren't so lucky.
It was the same routine as always - waking in the cool morning light to dress in the harsh white uniform and make your way to the dining-rooms for breakfast, eaten in silence in a crowd of sullen, sleepless faces, then working until late in the evening, all night if they needed you, as they did more and more these days. It was getting worse out there, though no one dared to mention it.
It would be an understatement to say that no day at Flanders General Hospital was without a new surprise, still today had to be an exception. Walking into the main ward at 6:00 in the morning, the last thing you expected was for the ward to be filled with bustling crowds of nurses in sharply-starched aprons and men carrying stretchers.
"Qu'est-ce qu'il y a? (What's going on?)" You turned to another nurse as she made her way past you, busying yourself with folding a blanket over the edge of a bed and scanning the room for clues of whatever had happened.
"Il y a eu une explosion dans les tunnels la nuit dernière.. Un gros, clairement. Des hommes de partout. La directrice dit qu'il semble que nous allons courir pendant plusieurs jours. (An explosion in the tunnels last night. Big one, clearly. Men from everywhere. Matron says that it looks like we'll be running around for several days)." she whispered quickly, raising her eyebrows and gesturing wildly at the rows and rows of narrow white beds, already filling with bloodied men. You took in the pained expressions of the wounded men and the frantic ones of the nurses, and all at once you had to fight the urge to run away. You had never seen so many patients at once, and the noise was something that you knew you could never forget. The screams and wails and sobbing drowned all of your senses, and you wondered if Hell could ever sound so bad.
"C'est affreux... Que puis-je faire? Dis-moi que je peux faire quelque chose. (It's awful... What can I do? Tell me I can do something)." You followed her as she set off briskly down the ward, collecting soiled towels from beside the beds.
"Faites tout ce que vous pouvez voir qui doit être fait. Habiller les plaies, nettoyer les lits, transporter l'équipement. Tous sur le pont, vous savez. Ne les laissez pas vous voir rester les bras croisés. (Do whatever you can see that needs doing. Dress wounds, clear beds, carry equipment. All hands on deck, you know. Don't let them see you standing around idly)."
You sent her a quick nod as she ran off with her armful of towels, then turned to the bed beside you, where a man painted with soot and thick red blood was splayed across a bare mattress. Grabbing a basin of warm water from the bedside stand, you set to work scrubbing his tired limbs gently, eyes wandering across the thin and broken form. Reaching up to his face with the now-blackened washcloth, you brushed the heavy mass of matted blonde hair away from his face, swiping at the cracked skin underneath in slow movement. He flinched, tensing up involuntarily, and the eyes that flew open to stare at you were deep and hazel and terrified.
"Tu vas bien, tu vas bien. Je ne vais pas te faire mal. Sûr ... tout est en sécurité maintenant... (You're okay, you're okay. I'm not going to hurt you. Safe... all safe now...)" you murmured to him in your stumbling French, rubbing soft circles on his stained cheek with a shaking fingertip and wetting the washcloth once more. His whole body trembled and his eyes rolled around madly in his head like the eyes of a God forgotten. You wished you would never know what it was like last night.
For the rest of that day, you were rushed off your feet with helping the patients. More and more seemed to flood in from all directions, filling the wards and drawing the nurses in like a swirling cesspit of blood and gore and pain. Grime was washed away, leaving behind faces that were somehow worse, haunting in their shell-shocked horror.
By the time dusk rolled in through the windows high in the stark white walls, the ward was only beginning to quieten, the last of the soldiers carried in almost an hour ago. In a gradual tide of hushed movement, the nurses retreated once more into the dorms and the backrooms of the hospital, the last few remaining to sit by the bedsides and wrap and rewrap the same wounds in the soft glow of candlelight.
Sitting alone on the windowsill of your dorm, you tried again and again to read, your brain dizzying in some other realm of thought that was nowhere near those bleak black letters and the story you'd read before. You'd moved here in a hurry, leaving behind everything you'd known before, and the books were no different. In your carpet-bag when you'd left had been only the three small novels you knew you could never live without, and only enough clothes to last you your journey there and back. You were meant to be home by Christmas, with all the books you could ever hope to read, but as time passed it was becoming increasingly clear that Christmas was going to be a long, long time in coming.
A knock at the door startled you out of your thoughts, making you jump slightly and slam your book shut. You opened the door cautiously, and were met with the sympathetic face of another nurse.
"De quoi avez-vous besoin (What do you need)?"
"La matrone a envoyé pour vous. Il y a un homme dans la salle, anglais. Il est agité, il parle dans son sommeil. Vous êtes anglais, n'est-ce pas? (Matron has sent for you. There's a man in the ward, English. He is restless, he talks in his sleep. You are English, are you not?)".
"Je suis. De quoi a-t-elle besoin pour moi? (I am. What does she need me to do?)"
"Parle lui. Voyez ce qu'il a à dire. Il vaut mieux qu'il parle à voix haute plutôt que de déranger les autres avec son sommeil (Talk to him. See what he has to say. It is better for him to talk aloud than to disturb others with his sleep)."
You sighed, pulling on your apron, wrinkled and creased from the day's hard work, and stepped past the nurse into the corridor. She placed her hand lightly on your arm and gave you a small smile, directing you down to the west ward, where all the British soldiers were lying.
It was not difficult to see which one she was talking about. In the stillness of the ward, one bed was rocking slightly, the patient thrashing wildly in his sleep. His cries echoed throughout the room, piercing through the whimpering and sniffing that hung heavy in the air from all the other beds. A particularly loud wail stopped you in your tracks, and you wanted to throw your hands up to your ears and block out the dreadful noise, but you forced yourself to keep moving towards his bed, biting down on your lip hard enough to taste the hot, metallic blood gathering on the tip of your tongue.
You sat in the chair beside the bed, pulling the curtains tight around the two of you until there was only the bed and you beside it, and in it the man flailing blindly in his horror-stricken fever dream. His hands dropping to his sides to clutch and tear at the bed sheets, you used the opportunity to reach out and stroke his cheek gently, hushing him and pushing the hair back from his sweaty forehead. Over his eyes there was a strip of warm, wet cloth, and you didn't even want to know what would be there should you move it back.
"Who are you." his voice almost made you jump. Low and husky, with a thick Brummie accent, it filled the enclosed space around the two of you like cigarette smoke hanging in the night air. You had not sensed him waking up, but now his breathing was steadying and his body smoothing down against the bed.
"A nurse." you soothed him, still tracing the soft white skin of his face. He made as though to sit up, trying to push up off the bed with unsteady hands, and you pushed him back down lightly, "Shh shhh... Lie down, Mr Shelby. You're weak."
"'M not weak." But his voice was broken and uneven and you could almost hear the smoke in his lungs in the slight wheeze when he breathed.
"Soon, no. But for now let's just let me do the work." He relaxed into your hands, his hands falling back to the bedsheets and you rubbed the back of one of them with your own.
"Where am I?" he croaked.
"General Hospital, Flanders. We found you out by the river, near dead." you spat out the rumour that by now everyone had heard. Five of the men half-drowned, half-suffocated, lying on the riverbank in a pool of soot and blood that seemed to spill from within them, like the war was in their very veins. Five men with no homes to go to and no way to get to them, and four without names. Only Mr Shelby, a name you could swear you had known in some distant lifetime, had been identified, and only he out of the five had survived, although no one was quite sure how.
"Should have left me there." He stiffened, removing his hand from yours and trying to turn away from you, but his ribs ached and it was all he could do not to cry out aloud at the sudden movement. He made do with turning his head to the other side, and you caught the trail of dried black blood that ran down his neck and disappeared under the stiff collar of the white hospital robe. "Y' don't know what I did." His voice was hard and bitter, sad as you had never heard sadness before, but sad at himself, as though even the war was better than what he saw in the mirror every night.
"And I don't particularly want to know. But I can't just let you die, considering my job." you joked lightly, smiling a little at him to cheer him up and then realising that he couldn't see you anyway, and your smile faded away into the evening gloom of the hospital ward.
"Why don't you go save someone who actually deserves it."
"I am, right now." you persisted, and he didn't know whether to laugh or to scream at you or to break down and cry. There was something about you, know you as little even as he did, that drove him a little insane, listening to you challenge him and contradict him as no one had ever done before, and he thought perhaps he liked it. Liked you, but that was cruel and that was weak, and that was something that Tommy Shelby would never do to another soul.
"If you only knew the things I've done-" he chuckled lowly, bitterly, and you got the feeling he was laughing more at himself than at you.
"If I only had a pound note for every man who's come in saying that, I wouldn't be washing and fixing your filth, now would I." and it was true - war was the cruellest thing you know, and it broke men like nothing else. First their bodies, then their minds, then their very souls themselves. In a job like this, it was very difficult not to think about souls, but you were sure that, somewhere within the prison of his broken body, Thomas Shelby had the most beautiful soul that you had never seen.
"Would that you wouldn't, eh." He almost smirked - almost. His lips settled back into a grimace as he tried to laugh.
"I'd have bought meself a set of uniform and be standing in the trenches as we speak."
"So desperate to get to the front line?" He tilted his head as though studying you, and you had to remind yourself that he couldn't see you from beneath his blindfold, or else you were sure you would have squirmed under his scrutiny.
"So desperate to get away from it?"
"Need a way home. 'S work for me back there, and work must be done."
"Then," you spoke decisively, smoothing out his blankets and straightening his chest onto the mattress, and he wheezed painfully at the action, making you flinch instinctively, "I suppose you ought to lie back and let me help you, else you'll never be out of here." you tapped him on the cheek softly, a motherly thing that you hadn't even thought about but now seemed too close, too patronising and at the same time too affectionate. You stood quickly, anxious to run away before he could react and tell you that you were being unprofessional, but as you turned your back to the bed you heard from behind you a quiet chuckle, breathy and honest, and the shifting of bones beneath weary skin.
"Suppose I ought."
You smiled at that, and walked away.
Early the next morning, they called on you again to make up his bed linen, ladling into your arms the thick reams of bleached fabric and shoving you in the direction of the west ward. As you saw him, lying on his back and grinning at you as you approached, staring into you with those unseeing eyes as though he had known all night that you would be coming back, you couldn't help but smile. You weren't one to pick favourites but this man was really testing your morals.
"You're back." his voice was still monotonous and weak, and his words hung heavy with exhaustion and a bleak, dark emotion that you hoped you would never feel, yet still you caught a hint of amusement. His statement seemed so decisive, like he had wished you back and here you were, just as he had wanted you to be. Even broken in his bed, Thomas Shelby had a curious power over you, and you hesitated to say you didn't like it.
"Are you so disappointed?"
"On the contrary, love. I quite look forward to our little chats."
"And what's on the mind of the great Thomas Shelby today?" you laughed, snaking an arm around his back and lifting his torso off the bed a little, then pausing as he coughed forcefully to cover up the whine of pain that had slipped out.
"Well wouldn't you like to know." he shot you a trembling smile as his body settled back into your arms. A thrill of pity shot through your heart and you pulled him a little closer into you, gazing down thoughtfully into his weary face and covered eyes. Somewhere between today and yesterday, those eyes had become the most important thing in the world to you, the only thing you wished to God you knew. Something deep within you was stirring when you looked at them, trying to make out the shape through the tough white blindfold, and you knew it wasn't good at all. Men like him weren't made for girls like you, and men with pretty eyes were only ever trouble.
"Well now, let's suppose I do." you pulled back the covers and folded them over the foot of the bed. Looking back at his uncovered form, you couldn't stop your eyes from roaming. From the scars on his legs to the blood that hadn't washed away, to the tired bones that jutted out unnaturally from under withered skin, Thomas Shelby was exhausted, physically as well as mentally. Beautiful, so beautiful, and irreparably fucked up.
You wrapped your free arm under his knees and pulled him into your arms in an awkward bridal position where you could smell the sweet, metallic blood in his skin and on his clothes and he could almost taste the harsh carbolic soap from that awful night before, you kneeling in the water in the darkness, scrubbing the taste of war from your skin again and again until your very soul could bleed white blood and the darkness within you seeped out through every breath into the darkness without.
You almost threw him onto the spare bed that had been cleared beside him.
"If you must. I'm thinking about you." he murmured thoughtfully, as though those words were much deeper than you could ever see, and you longed to see the meaning in his eyes as he stared, unseeing, up at you.
"Nothing too saucy, I hope." you joked, but part of you wondered if you really meant it. You thought perhaps you wouldn't much mind it if he did.
"Never! Get that a lot here?" He tried to gasp in mock indignation, but the breath ended up catching in his throat and he hacked and coughed violently, his eyes stinging with tears at the pain in his chest. Your hand flew out to grab his, and you rubbed small circles on the back of his hand reassuringly, holding him against your chest and rubbing his back with the other hand as he collapsed into you once again.
Once the coughing fit passed you pulled yourself away, trying to ignore as best you could the empty feeling that rushed into your arms in the space he left behind, and the way he tensed up again as soon as you had parted. A trick of the early morning light, and you were beginning to get the feeling that that was a common feature of this man, with all his tricks and secrets.
"Wouldn't be too surprised. Lot of lads missing their gals, and I'm just walking sex appeal. Or so I've been told."
"Bothers you, does it?" there was a cold edge to his voice, protective, possessive even. If you didn't know better, you might say that Thomas Shelby was laying a claim on you.
"Not too much. Flatters my ego, 's all. Got a girl at home, Mr Shelby?" and now it was you that was keeping secrets, trying to control your voice in what you told yourself was a perfectly professional question. Had to know if he had any emergency contacts, that's all there was to it. Still, as he let out a weak laugh and grinned up at you, you could not help but let out a long, shaky breath that you had not known that you were holding. Well, that was one thing cleared up at least, and you thought perhaps you might be happier because of it."
"Tommy." you tested the word, let it roll off your tongue and fill your lungs with its false air, stain your lips and taint the sanctity of that unholy mind. A name you wanted to shout, to scream and to whisper and to plead and to say into the darkness in places you knew were much less professional than this white corner of the hospital ward. It was a name you wanted to keep all to yourself, and it was so much more than just a name. It was a confession, and it was holy. Nah, nothing at home for me but cold and dark and office work."
"None at all." he said far too quickly and you knew not to push it any further. There was trust and there was Thomas, Tommy, Shelby, and something told you that the two didn't coincide much.
"Must be awful lonely." you almost felt bad for him, living all alone in his cold town with his dull work and his tiny little life, and you knew that you and him were not so different after all. For a moment it felt almost like you were lying in the bed beside his, and that these two worlds were somehow one. You felt united, and you understood, because this was a secret the two of you could share, and god, wasn't it domestic?
"I shouldn't say so. Look on the bright side - I'm lying in bed with a pretty girl next to me right now. Not sure I should be so excited to go home just yet." your heart sped up a little with the last statement, aching and leaping at once with the fear of him leaving and the knowledge that while he was here there was nothing you could do but stay by his side. You almost didn't want him to go home at all.
"Aren't you just incorrigible! What must the others all think of me?" you teased, pretending to scold him as you giggled and how long had it been since someone had made you laugh like this?
"Hopefully not what I'm thinking of you, love, else we might have a bit of a fall out." his smooth, easy words and comfortable tone made your smile falter a little despite yourself, and you wondered how many girls he had told the same thing to before.
"Been here too long. Bet you're just itching for a fight."
"Told you I was no good." he said, half-joking and half-sincere, and there was an unnerving depth in his words that really should have made you turn and walk away, back to the others in their little back rooms and the laundry that really did need doing now. But you were right - it had been so long since you had seen the light of a proper day that didn't dawn on the cold grey wards and chambers in a country you had never loved before and now could never stand, and in your bones you longed for a story to take you far away, so against your better judgement you stayed, and all the more thought none the less of yourself for it.
"And I told you that was bullshit." you chastened him softly, lifting him back into your arms and returning him to his now-made bed. You laid down his limbs carefully, straightening out his arms and legs and smoothing down his hair against the pillow as he sighed into the crook of your neck, thick, hot air that burned like kisses down your jaw.
"You should really watch you're mouth while you're working."
"Why don't you watch it for me?"
"Take this bloody thing off my eyes and maybe I will." he grinned, but this time there was an earnest, almost pleading note in it that had your hands already reaching up to his face, and to the cruel blindfold that had so robbed you of the truest beauty that you had ever wished to know.
With soft, tentative movements you peeled off the strips of adhesive that held the cloth in place, pushing aside the blindfold and, cupping his jaw with the other hand, tilting his head to look at you. Those closed, scarred eyelids, and suddenly they were twitching and fluttering, lifting heavily as he forced his eyes to open. And there they were - such bright blue stars that burned your blood and sent your heart to frenzy. And time had stopped around you, arrested in their brilliance, blinded by their light, and a bolder girl than you might say that this was all that there would ever be, for he was here and so were you and didn't it seem a lot like fate?
"Beautiful. Nurse (Y/LN), you've been holding out on me." he almost gasped, holding your hand to his lips and pressing a small kiss against the back, his eyes on you like you were all that he'd been waiting for and you wished, you wished, you were.
"Mr Shelby..." you blushed against your better judgement, and he hated himself for doing this to you. He wasn't entirely sure how it had happened, but somehow and so suddenly he was holding the hand of the most beautiful girl he had seen in a very long time, and she wasn't trying to run away. This was the most afraid that Tommy Shelby had been in his life.
"Tommy." he chided gently, and your smile widened.
Your faces were closer than you knew you should be, the hospital far away and all around and you wondered if the others were watching you two now, pressed together and so close and still too far away. It was all you could do not to bridge the gap and kiss him, and in another world perhaps you would because then perhaps there was a chance that this could be something more than just a week in a crowded hospital in the grim hell of war. But as it was, you pulled away, closing your eyes so as not to see the light in his flicker and dim as you parted, a thousand times the worse to want his light.
"I should-" you choked out, and his eyes were large and pleading and Tommy had no idea what was going on but he knew that this was the worst that he had ever felt and he could feel his very heart splitting in two a little as you stood to leave.
"Or you could stay."
"I really shouldn't."
"Please." he whispered, and you wished and wished, and you began to walk away again, bed linen under your arm.
"Sleep. I'll be back tomorrow."
It was not for him to know that, later that night when the other nurses had retired to their chambers and the dimly-lit backrooms of the darkened hospital, you crept once more out of the nurses quarters and down to the west-wing, where he lay, for once, asleep. Sitting by his bedside in the gloom, you longed to reach out and touch him, and knew that you wouldn't wake him for the world. He looked so peaceful while he slept, and you ached for him as you had for no other, wished that life would bring him rest like this again as you could not seem to bring him health no matter how hard he tried. Even now, in the purplish shadows of evening, he looked so small and thin, a ghost among his fellow men. He looked a world away from when he'd boarded his train to the front line, know that man as you did not. Something in him whispered that, just as it whispered that you should leave, and just the same you pushed it back and sighed into the palms of your hands, drunk with your bittersweet melancholy and the fear with which you loved him endlessly.
And of course it would not mean anything that, when he stirred in his sleep, early in the morning and you still beside him, and began to shake and sob, you rested your hand on his shoulder gently and, for the first time since this bloody war began, you let yourself sing quietly to him. Snapshots of memories from a lifetime that had come before, softening in the blurred blue darkness and painting the world around the two of you, and for a moment you could almost believe that there were only the two of you in all the world, playing at games of war and house that were too old and too dull to tie you down. You could almost spread your wings and fly away to greener gardens where days were meant for living and nights for dreaming dreams that did not wake you colder than you began.
To the sisters who would ask the next morning, when they caught you half-asleep in the chair beside his bed, you were afraid that he would have another nightmare and disturb the other patients, but even you knew that that was not the case. You were there because you wanted to be, and you wanted to be there because he was there, and there was no where else on Earth that you could breathe as freely as you did when by his side.
But you didn't need to tell him that, because he was Tommy Shelby, and it seemed he had problems enough on his own.