“No!” he hissed, his voice slicing through the thick darkness of the night. His hands were quick, reprimanding, grasping, checking - finding the information he needed. “What’re y’doing? No.” The skin of his hand slid against warm wetness and gripped, his fingers pressing so tight that that other man gasped. It was his gloved hand that found the razor; he dropped it to the floor, with a metallic click that made his bones ache. He bent close to inspect the cut in the dim light from the nurses’ station’s night lamp. It was deep, purposeful, and he pressed his hand against it again. “What are you doing?” he hissed, swallowing the accent of his surprise, before he became aware of the shaking of bed, the gasp for air - he was crying, the other man. Thomas ignored it, his free hand finding a towel hanging from the nightstand, wrapping it around the wound. Were the others around them awake? Surely someone had noticed the commotion by now, in that place where everyone was aware of every little shift in breath or mood. “What were you thinking?” he asked, before anyone else could come.
Edward said nothing, but then he was upon Thomas, who briefly thought to fight him off, push him away - but he was not fighting, he was sobbing, pressed into the rough wool of Thomas’s uniform jacket, and Thomas suddenly felt very much like crying, too, and cursed his weakness, all his weaknesses. A light flashed at the end of the room, a nurse approached with lit lamp in hand. “Corporal Barrow?” she inquired, and her voice was soft, unsure. It was not Nurse Crawley, and to Thomas’s surprise he wished it were. “What is it?” But even as she asked it, she saw the darkness of the blood on the sheets, on Lieutenant Courtenay’s skin, on Thomas’s hands, and she gasped. “I’ll fetch Major Clarkson.”
She stopped and stared down at Thomas, who was supporting Edward; the injured man had gone silent, head down - maybe fainted, from her perspective, but Thomas could feel him waiting, his breath soft and slow, now, no longer crying.
“There’s no point waking half the hospital,” Thomas said. “It’s not bad. Bring me some bandages and we’ll let Major Clarkson see to him in the morning."
He was her superior; she might not agree with his decision, and he might catch hell for it in the morning, but she obeyed his command, returning quickly with a roll of linen. She hovered as he eased Edward back down, out of his embrace; he wished she wouldn’t. Edward stayed silent, his face averted, as Thomas bound his arm, pulling the linen so tight that he must know that Thomas was enraged by this display, what he did and what he tried to do. When Thomas tucked in the last end of the bandage he let out an instinctive “There, that’ll do,” and the soldier grabbed at him, managed to find a hand, the left, in its glove; he pressed it so hard it hurt, and Thomas bit back a curse.
“You won’t leave me?”
“I won’t,” Thomas replied, gingerly pulling his hand away; Edward let him go. He looked up at the nurse. “You can go. You must have other duties.”
She looked at him a bit askance; it was not his shift, he was meant to be asleep, this was outside his duties, and she was not, he has noticed, the type to understand that sometimes one wants to, or must, work outside one’s assigned tasks. But she could take an order - she would have made an excellent soldier, he thought - and she went, leaving the lamp burning on the nightstand. When she was gone from the ward, Thomas blew the lamp out, then settled on the low stool beside the bed, where he had been sitting, quite often, since the next bed, his old seat, was taken by a man with a bullet in his shoulder a few days before.
“There now,” he said. “We’re alone and you’re patched up. Would you care to tell me what you’re on about?”
Edward snuffled slightly and rubbed at his eyes, not out of sadness, but embarrassment, Thomas thought. Something in the movement, flexing his arm or touching his eyes, hurt Edward, and he grimaced. “I don’t want to go,” he said.
“I know, but that’s no reason -”
There was a silence.
“What did I tell you?” Thomas asked, his voice sharp, harder; sympathy was not working out.
“When I read you the letter about your brother.”
Edward paused. “Not to let them make me a victim.”
“And what,” Thomas spat, keeping his voice low, but not empty of venom. “Could make you more of a victim than letting it kill you?”
“Thomas -” There was a silence. It is the first time Edward had used his Christian name since the day he learned it. Thomas did not correct him - Edward could call him anything he damn well pleased. Edward took a breath before continuing. “I’m not like you. You must see that. I’m not strong. I just -” his breath caught; he was trying not to cry again, and not entirely succeeding. Thomas, without thought, reached out and grasped his hand. It was the first time he had touched Edward without some professional reason to do it, bandages to change, guidance to provide. Edward paused, and sniffled, tears at bay again, for the moment.
“You are strong,” Thomas said. “I know it’s hard and it’s lonely and it’s sad but you are. And you’re going to to go off to convalesce - no, you are, I don’t want them to send you away any more than you want to go, but they will send you, there’s no helping that - but you will be strong and get stronger, and then you’ll go home and give that brother of yours what for, won’t you? Because men like him, like Major Clarkson,” like Carson and the Earl of Grantham and all the rest, “they can’t win, can they? We can’t let them win.”
Edward shook his head, but then nodded, and gripped Thomas’s hand harder. “I’ve been happy here, sometimes,” he said. “I’m not often happy.”
Thomas could tell that. Even without that night, he could tell that. “Nor am I,” he answered. Another silence fell, and Thomas shifted on the stool. “It will make me glad,” he said slowly, trying the words in his mind as he found them, “If I can know that you’ll leave this place determined to be happier.”
“No one can promise that.”
“No, but one can try.”
Edward was quiet, but then he nodded. “I owe it to you, and Nurse Crawley, don’t I.”
“You don’t owe anyone anything.”
“No… but I can want to.” He squeezed Thomas’s hand again; Thomas had forgotten they were holding hands, and although the warmth of it and the knowledge of it gave him a soft sort of happiness, after he squeezed back he took his hand away. Even in the protection of the dark, that was not a good thing to do, not the sort of thing to let anyone see. “And you?” Edward asked.
“And me what?”
“What will you do? After this. If there is ever an after this.”
Thomas shook his head. “I don’t know. But I do know it will be better.”
“It’s always something better with you, isn’t it?”
“It is. It can be for anyone, if they’d not let themselves be stepped on.”
Edward nodded again, but said nothing for quite some time. He seemed tired, and rightfully so, Thomas thought. He would be exhausted in the morning when the transport came for him and the other convalescents, and his arm would hurt him something awful for a while. But that was better than being dead. When Edward yawned, Thomas blinked, coming back into his mind, his duties.
“Lie down,” Thomas said. “You should sleep.”
Edward nodded and lay down, but started, almost up to sitting, when Thomas grabbed his shoulder, grasping at it with a sudden violence that was so unlike his usual, studied motion.
“Promise me you’ll not do it again.”
Edward took a gulp of air; Thomas had frightened him, but he wasn’t sorry, not after what Edward had done. “Thomas -”
“No. Swear it.”
“I swear, I swear - oh, God, I’m so sorry-” Thomas relaxed his grip, then touched the young man’s back, moving so quickly from anger to comfort, relaxing his body towards the other man’s, hovering close, but not embracing him, no matter how much he wanted to.
“None of that. Just - don’t do it again.” If he did, Thomas wouldn’t be there to save him. If he hadn’t wanted so desperately, so sentimentally, so foolishly to say goodbye, he wouldn’t have been there this time, either. He released Edward’s hand. “Go to sleep. I’ll stay here.” He’d be in trouble for it in the morning, but damn the rules, damn the matron and Major Clarkson, damn them all to hell.
In the morning the transport came, and everything was as it should have been, and Thomas was there to help Edward in with the rest of the ambulatory men. Edward clutched at his hand as he guided him into the van, then leaned so close that his curling hair brushed against Thomas’s temple. “Thank you, Thomas,” he said, and squeezed the uniformed arm the supported him.
“You’re welcome, sir,” Thomas replied, as though he was only being thanked for a moment of aid.
When the transport pulled away, Thomas stood and watched from the hospital gate. He wasn’t alone, several of the nurses clustered there, too, but his were the eyes trained on that one form, the bowed head and quiet stillness of Lieutenant Courtenay. He had looked so insignificant, sat there with the other men, awash in khaki, clutching his stick and his little bag of things, which Thomas had packed very carefully early that morning.
From a distance, he had looked unscathed. The bandages on his arm were hidden by the cuff of his uniform, which he had buttoned with such purposeful fingers, an edge of grim determination, tugging at the fabric until weakness, the desperate all-consuming sadness, of the night before was as well hidden as its effects. His eyes did not even look clouded from afar, just as they did not look blue, unless you were close, close enough for hands to brush or whispers to be heard. Even the blistering of his skin faded to nothingness within a few paces, and as the van pulled away, he was whole in Thomas’s eyes, nothing to distinguish him, just another soldier among the multitudes, and that, truly, was the strangest, most painful thing of the last day. He was perfect. Thomas did not expect he would ever see him again.