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catch-as-catch-can

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Noun

  1. wrestling in which all holds are permitted

Adjective

     2. using whatever methods or materials are available.

 

Marking the faces surrounding him you’d have thought it the dreariest, most dismal day God conspired to create; a kind of depleted, hand-wringing, cloudiness hanging over the men like a pall. 

 

Like being stood on Calvary … Edward thought, walking in and about the ant-like scurry of the crew, nodding at those brave enough to meet his eye and mumble out rather dismal sounding “sirs” when he wasn’t pausing to redirect the way a rope was being lashed, or meticulously inspect how the packing was being achieved. Being it was his endeavor, he was compelled to oversee it down to the last tin. 

 

Truthfully the weather was quite mild for March - some of the best they’d had as of late by his limited meteorological estimations.

 

Edward even dared to feel pleased with the fresh air, and the promise of strong sun and bearable wind. It was a fine opportunity to properly stretch his legs after the cramped and anxious wintering, and the one variable he’d imagined might buoy them just a little despite the rather miserable circumstances of the exercise. At least, for him, being out of doors always brought a bit of clarity - something he would need in great supply over the next few days. 

 

“Lieutenant, sir, where would you have me put these?” 

 

Edward turned to face Chambers. The boy was panting slightly as he spoke,  somehow managing to hold together a very cumbersome armful of tent poles wrapped in canvas with a great amount of effort and adjusting. 

 

“Over here, Georgie,” Tom Hartnell interrupted, calling from a-top one of the sledges. He gestured vaguely to his younger counterpart, pointing over the side. “Bring them over here and you can hand them up to me.” 

 

Chambers blanched, passing Edward a furtive look. They were all in a funny mix, consolidating men and duties between the two ships and sharing authority in a way they had not before, and the confusion on who exactly he answered was evident. 


“Sorry about that, sir,” Hartnell called again, bobbing his head deferentially. “Don’t mean to step on any toes.” 

 

Edward looked in silence as Hartnell took off his wig to pet down his sweat-flattened hair and then replace it, face grave. No doubt he was anticipating a verbal lashing for being insubordinate or some other toothless charge.

 

“Over there, with Hartnell,” Edward finally replied with a jerk of his head, turning back to the boy. “And look smart, George Chambers,” he added, watching Chambers scurry across the narrow path between piles of supplies, the tent poles clunking and slipping and sliding within the circle of his skinny arms. 

 

Edward’s hands moved deeper into the pockets of his greatcoat and he peered out from under the bill of his cap. Chambers came to a huffing stop next to the sledge, Hartnell picking his way across the rowing bench like a tight-rope walker. 

 

Just as he made to turn away once more and resume his patrol he heard it, the wind carrying it to him and tossing the words about his ears. 

 

“Don’t waste time asking silly questions, alright?” Hartnell was saying, his boots thudding down into the belly of the boat. “Lieutenant Little’s got enough to worry about being the first to walk out without worrying about where things go - you need something just come to me or one of the others and we’ll tell you.” 

 

Skull Hill, indeed , he thought, looking at the diamantine glare of white stretching endlessly across the horizon. And I’m Christ...

 

“Right,” Chambers mumbled. The tent poles made a clumsy rattling sound in the continuous shift of the boy’s arms.


“Just pass those up now -”

 

Edward instinctively stopped mid-step, shoulders hunching forward, when the tent poles went clattering loudly onto the snow-dusted ice.


“Sorry Tom!” Chambers bleated, and there was a soft oomph as Hartnell swung over the side of the sledge and began to help gather them up, cheeks splotched red in annoyance at the mess of poles and lacing. 

 

“S’alright,” he grunted listlessly. “Let’s just get a move on it…”

 

Edward cleared his throat, his figure cutting a mean shadow now looming over them. 

 

“Is there a problem, gentlemen?”

 

They both snapped up, nearly knocking their heads together, to find Edward’s eyes picking over the poles spilled out and the gaping bag strung between Chamber’s gloved hands. 

 

“Sir,” Hartnell exhaled, standing up straighter and canting his shoulder in front of Georgie slightly.

“I would hope this isn’t horseplay,” Edward continued, toeing a tent pole where it rocked against the tip of his boot. 

 

He pushed at it gently with a sniff against the chilled air, gauging the motion. 


“No, sir,” Hartnell was quick to say, still blushing but now for a different reason. “Only too much for George to pass up to me. I should have noticed it quicker, sir.” 

 

“Hmm,” was all Edward replied with, drawing the sound out to an almost torturous degree. He inspected Chambers; sufficiently drained of all color and swallowing down a thick lump of embarrassment. 

 

“Since it is too much for you, Mr. Chambers,” he admonished, before swinging his head round to the older lad again. “ And too much for you to properly direct, Mr. Hartnell, then I feel I must take this as a moment of instruction on how one conducts work with such urgent consequences.” He took a pause, hardening his face. “I needn’t remind you of the circumstances.”


The lads were silent. 

 

“Then, let me demonstrate how one does his duties. Quietly and efficiently.

 

The look on Chambers’ face could only be explained as cowed when he passed the canvas sack over to Edward’s waiting hand before knotting his fingers behind his back at attention. 

 

He didn’t say anything, lips pressed obediently together and eyes downcast beneath his hair and wig. If Edward weren’t about to do what he intended to do he would have felt very badly for making him feel such a way. 

 

It was not an agreeable position, Edward understood, to be one of two remaining ship’s boys. Those departed left a considerable and noticeable absence and Chambers and Golding were the sole inheritors of grief as well as the abuse - whatever there was to dole out.

 

Evans, in particular, was much felt. Even without the gruesomeness of his death and the perverse jest made of his remains to soften everyone’s opinions it was an open secret he was coddled. As the days grew longer and darker and more sinister the boy appeared younger and younger before them, his eyes growing wider and more innocent and his curls soft as lambswool where they fell on his ever more babyish forehead. 

 

To look at him and see every childhood friend or brother or cousin or kin looking back was unavoidable, especially with the ghost of David Young looming just behind. The officers were no exception to the spell.


If they nudged him along it was done with more gentleness than they would typically muster for a boy in his place, and they’d kept their praises modest but sincere when looking over his knotwork or the other busy tasks they consigned him to. To Gibson and Diggle’s dismay this often meant he was tripping about underfoot, but better that than unfriendlier chores was the unspoken unanimous decision.  

 

If any of this was ever appreciated Edward could not say; it died with Evans out on the ice. Perhaps it was never enough to begin with. 

 

Now there was only Chambers before him, with whom Edward had even less of a rapport. Terror’s first felt a sneaking suspicion, based on the way Chambers regarded him much the way someone would regard a very large and unpredictable animal, that there were more than a few rumors made at his expense exchanged between ships and the boy’s nervousness was proof of it. 

 

One darling little bird, in particular, gloated while telling him the daring gossip being circulated. Would you know, Lieutenant Edward Little wrestled a Frenchman in his schooldays

 

To wit, Mr. Jopson was quite impressed with the supposed purse. 500 Francs , he reported with a prim, exacting, smile and marvelously sparkling eyes, that buys me quite a bit of gingerbread.

 

(From there the conversation turned to all manners and matters of things one might buy for a man as companionable and dear a friend as Thomas Jopson with 500 Francs, much to the steward’s perceived delight. Quite a bit of gingerbread was the least of these luxuries, Edward could confirm, but the one most strongly desired. Edward, perilously weak to such wishes, had no choice but to agree to the terms.)

 

There was a bean of truth, to be fair. He could on occasion be a fiend for wrestling, but only the unregulated sort one did with their brothers or schoolmates and certainly never for money. 

 

It wasn’t the first time he’d been the subject of a ship boy’s exaggerating imagination or a seaman’s tittle-tattle and he, strangely, distantly, in the watery light of hope, prayed it would not be the last. 

 

Which was why he decided it was as good a time as any to unveil a quite real and private talent.

 

Leaning over he began to pick up the poles one by one, or two at a time if it were simpler. He piled them in his arms like firewood, grunting now and then as the weight increased and the things jutted out at increasingly precarious angles. 

 

“Sir -,” Hartnell said meekly. “Please,” but he let his mouth close when he saw the warning look Edward shot him. 

 

“Now, then,” Edward said in the most serious of tones, facing the two sheepish lads with his hands very full of tent poles. He set his jaw and squared his shoulders. He took a step - 

 

“Lieutenant!” Chambers all but shouted, the word erupting in a strangled voice. From such a vantage, flat on his back on the frozen ground, he could just see Hartnell pitching forward with his hands out, mouth a round o of surprise, eyes bulging. 

 

Edward stared up at the blue sky for a moment, their boots crunching in the snowfall and skittering about between the poles that were now scattered once more on the ground like a child’s game of pick-up-sticks.

 

“Sir,” Hartnell managed to say, crouching down and squeezing at Edward’s arm. “Sir, are you alright? Georgie - fetch his cap - here, sir, please let me help you up.”

“I must have slipped,” Edward muttered, keeping his face bowed while grasping Thomas’ forearm and letting the boy help heave him up onto his feet once more. 


“You must have, Sir - I do it all the time going up and down that ramp,” Hartnell was quick to empathize. “Can happen to any of us.”

 

“Here!” Georgie Chambers sounded, having retrieved his cap. Edward took it wordlessly and screwed it onto his head, looking around at the ground and patting the powder from his sleeves.


“Lieutenant, please,” Hartnell pleaded over the dull smack smack of Edward’s gloved hands on his arms, hovering close as though he were going to simply collapse right on the spot. “George and I can manage it. Won’t you sit, be sure you’re alright after that sort of spill -,”

 

“No,” Edward said, making a fair play at getting his breath back, nostrils flaring. “No. It’s important,” his eyes ticked between the two of them, severe. It was a secret pleasure he felt that some color had risen in Chambers’ face. “To finish what you begin.” 

 

With a curt nod he surveyed the damage. Poles everywhere. The canvas bag twisted up at his feet. Lacing clumped in the spaces like hanks of gray horsehair. He mapped it silently, taking his time to give the appearance of intense thought. The boys looked on the verge of panic, but they’d not gotten too excited yet. This was only the first act - an overture , even, Edward tittered to himself. It hadn’t drawn much attention yet either, the noise bleeding in with the rest of the sounds around them and carried off on the brisk wind.

 

It didn’t take too long for their bristling to wear off, watching Edward proceed with the task he set about. He was pleased to find them more animated, the sluggish somberness they’d worn previously traded for something more suited for boys their ages. They started worrying at their gloves and sleeves, backed against the side of the sledge to view the impromptu lesson, shifting nervously to keep warm and twitching into stillness when Edward’s knowing eye caught them fidgeting. 

 

Edward was sure to put on a very good show of it. He planted his boots surely, even going so far as to take his time stacking the poles far more neatly than the previous attempt. 

 

He waited just until Chambers snuck a swipe at his dripping nose, relishing the jolting gasp of shock when he saw the executive officer sprawled once more on his side on the ice, tent poles shooting out in all directions like a spray of surf.

 

Tom Hartnell was scowling in a dazed sort of way, utterly dumbstruck, unable to compute what he was now witnessing. For certainly there could be no way that sturdy stoic, first Lieutenant Edward Little, a man of few words and even fewer leisures, who was known to grow cross over any number of things for the sake of duty, could be prey to so slapstick a situation. 

 

“Sir?” Hartnell said after a moment, shaking himself loose from whatever momentary bewilderment overtook him.

 

“Not a word,” Edward barked, rolling bodily over with a not entirely false wince of pain. He glared around at the offending tent poles, grabbing one and then the next, sweeping them on his lap as he sat upright. Silently he began to try and get off the ground, every move sending a pole or two jumping from his arms or slipping away only to be rescued clumsily. 

 

Soon he was sliding and tripping about on the ice, cursing under his breath. It was when he purposefully got himself tangled in the lacing that a squawk of laughter punched out of Tom Hartnell’s mouth. He slapped his hand over his face, horrified, but Edward took great pains to ignore him - shakily standing and looking determinedly at the sledge before he seemed to remember something. His face warm from the exertion and his hair starting to cling to his  whiskers and the back of his collar in little curls, he cast his gaze about and then looked up where his hat should be. 

 

Turning in place so quickly he nearly threw himself off balance all over again he located the hat and stepped towards it, only succeeding in kicking it off even further so that it skipped across the ice a great distance, one even he was admittedly a bit impressed with. 

 

The effort to conceal their laughter was admirable, and with his back turned he allowed them a few moments of it before whipping around and bullying between them.

 

With a sneer he wrestled the poles messily into the canvas but made a point not to close it so that when he tossed the whole bundle over the side of the boat, Hartnell and Chambers gaping at him, the tent poles having all sprung free and raining down all over the inside of the sledge.

 

Tom Hartnell seemed to sink, a hand on his knee, his ears a bright flaming red when he tore off his wig in an attempt to hide his face. 

 

“I’ll be damned, Chambers,” Edward said loudly, panting, with his fist on his waist. He shook his head at the boy who was suddenly smiling at him. “Heaviest tent poles I’ve ever lifted - and slippery as an eel.”

 

He reached out and clapped a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

 

“Run, and fetch my cap again. It has a habit of getting away.”

 

Chambers took off, hissing like a kettle with laughter, nearly slamming into Mr. Blanky who hobbled around the far end of Terror and narrowly escaped the collision with a quick pivot. 


“Bloody hell, watch where you’re going!” he groused, staggering only to plant his cane solidly in the snow and right himself once more. He watched, confusedly, as Chambers raced and skidded slightly on his heels to retrieve what appeared to be an officer’s cap. 

 

There was a sudden shout of laughter following and while Blanky certainly saw its source, he could not make sense of it for several seconds. Thomas Hartnell was cackling little hiccuping giggles as he tried to brace himself against the side of a sledge, Lieutenant Edward Little apparently using the boy’s shoulder as a make-shift footstool. 

 

“And what is all this?” Blanky barked, Chambers zooming back onto the scene, waving the hat over his head. 

 

“The Lieutenant’s trying to get the poles!” Chambers called back, Hartnell laughing harder when he saw Edward’s boot flailing in his dramatic and valiant effort to get into the sledge. 

 

“Poles?” Blanky boggled, watching Edward’s dark blue uniform go clunking down over the side. “Should rightly know by now that you’re sitting on top of the fucking thing, Lieutenant.”

 

“No, tentpoles - they’ve gone all over, Sir,” Chambers giggled wildly, grinning around the words. “Keep springing up -.” 

 

“Well done Chambers,” Edward said evenly, emerging triumphantly for a moment before he seemed to lose his balance and go teetering backward. He righted himself and then foolishly rocked forward to try to reach for the cap, only to rock back again. Chambers could barely hold the thing up for laughing so. 

 

“Oh, fuck off !” Blanky cried, watching the Lieutenant list back and forth like the boat under his boots was in terrific motion. “Have you lost your fuckin’ mind, man?!”

 

Blanky was beginning to feel like he was losing his as a laugh began to somersault out of his throat. 

 

*

 

“Quiet -” 

 

Fitzjames paused, cup hanging in the air before his mouth, Crozier’s chair scraping on the floor as he got to his feet and made the ungainly lurch to the gallery windows. He rubbed the sleeve of his jacket on a pane and peered out into the glittering day, craning his head. 

 

“What is it, Francis?” James blinked, leaning back from the map they were going over and setting his teacup gingerly on the saucer near it. 

 

“Sounds like something,” Francis said quietly, turning with a wide-eyed look. “I cannot see from this view. Do you hear it -?”

 

They were interrupted by yet another strange moan of noise from outside, their eyes meeting over the table.  Within moments Crozier was shouting for Jopson who appeared at the doorway in no time flat, hurrying them both into their coats and doing his best to say that he had no real idea what was going on. 

 

The three of them burst up onto the deck from the hatch, greeted first by a cluster of men clamoring at the gunwale and John Irving who was standing a way back, having come up himself only moments before. 

 

“John, give me that,” Crozier demanded, reaching instinctively for the spyglass curled in John’s gloved hand.

 

“Is it the creature?” James asked at roughly the same time, and to both their disappointments John only shook his head and raised his eyebrows questioningly. 

 

“It is not that perilous, Captains,” he began, then tried to compose the strange smile gracing his lips. “I - At least, it doesn’t appear to be. It’s Edward.”

 

“Edward?” Crozier blanched, automatically looking to Fitzjames who shook his head blankly in response. 

 

“Yes, sir, he seems to have gone on a bit of a - a lark .”

 

Edward ,” Fitzjames repeated back to John who couldn’t offer more of an explanation beyond a stiff shrug. Jopson, sensing someone needed to do something, muscled between the men at the gunwale and peered off below with his hand shielding his brow. 


He turned around, eyebrows raised. 


“It’s Lieutenant Little, sir and Lieutenant Hodgson!”

 

A cheer rose up - or not a cheer. It was anticipatory; a growing “oooh” sound that began to get louder and more intense by the second. There was banging being made in time. It wasn’t easy to explain - especially now that Neptune was full-on barking down on the ice, his shaggy black form pacing and racing about in ecstasy at the commotion. 


“Francis,” James said lowly, and Crozier remembered the spyglass, his mouth dropping open instantly, pulling the spyglass away from his eye and then looking at it with astonishment before replacing it. 


“They appear to be fencing,” he said incredulously, a sudden crooked smile beginning to take residence on his face. “Edward and George.”

 

Each other ?” James said, quite loudly. Francis turned to him, still smiling, brow furrowed. 

 

“Yes ,” he croaked, a dry chuckle rattling from his mouth before he was able to stop it. 

 

*

 

“Good God, there’s Dundy - certainly explains this bedlam,” James said as they came to a stop at the edge of the circle of men that had formed on the ice. Someone - perhaps even one of the officers residing therein - had dragged their boot around the snow to make the ring and it was bordered on all sides by enthusiastic spectators. 

 

“I hate to correct you, sir, but all credit due to our own Little,” Blanky said, stepping out to regard them and come closer. He grinned wildly at the two of them and Jopson as they drew closer to the scene, the men so otherwise occupied they could not even be startled into recognizing the Captains at their backs. Crozier marked Le Vesconte off to the side, holding up his pocket watch, serving as the obvious referee. George and Edward were returning to their starting points, circling each other a bit in the interim, both of them looking more than a little mad for it, but in somehow the best of ways. 

 

En garde! Êtes-vous prêts ?” Le Vesconte said in a jumble of what could possibly count for heavily accented French and James laughed outright, shaking his head.

 

Oui !” George said, swishing his tentpole through the air and adopting the preferred posture. Little did the same, but while George presented an air of at least some formal education on the matter Edward seemed more like a bull about to run horn through a matador’s cape. 

 

Allez !”


“Good God ,” James repeated, breathlessly this time, equal parts dismayed and helplessly amused. “Did you hear that? Atrocious, Dundy! You forgot to make them bow !” he shouted, cupping a hand about his mouth, and Le Vesconte flashed a grin, the men turning and shouting some kind of recognition before returning their eyes to the swordplay. 

 

“These must be new regulati on épée ! ” Hodgson said, his voice rising over the roar of laughter that followed, lunging forward into a rhythm that traded back and forth with his opponent. Edward merely laughed a brusque Hah in response and parried rather well for a man far less experienced.

 

“How long have they been at this?” Crozier said, still blinking in reverie at the sight. The men were beside themselves, whooping and drawing their own bets on who would win, some beating and drumming on the crates and sledges as a means to encourage their prizefighter. 

 

“This?” Blanky said, cocking his head. “Oh, only a few bouts. Earlier they were trying to stack as many crates as they could on your first Lieutenant to see how many he could hold.”

 

“If I weren’t seeing this before me I’d say you were putting me the fuck on you old crow,” Crozier said under his breath, unable to temper the profanity, Blanky cackling in reply. They resumed watching the two Lieutenants resume their match. 

 

“He could hold nearly ten, all told, by the way,” Blanky said, leaning over to Francis who could not help his own laughter at the thought, hand pawing at his brow.

 

“Bloody Christ,” Jopson gasped when suddenly Little slid back against another lunge with a crazed sound of his own, not in anyway cowering from the cumbersome makeshift saber. A tentpole was far more unwieldy a weapon than a foil, but they were managing not to clock each other so far.  “They’re going to knock each other’s eyes out with those things,” he rushed, clenching his fist anxiously.

 

“They better not, I’ve got a guinea riding on this,” Blanky said thoughtfully, tamping his cane into the ice. 

 

“On who?” James said, just as Dundy called out another point. There were approximately 20 seconds left and as George managed to prod at Edward several times in quick succession, victory written on his face with each one. 

 

After a moment of wobbling, Edward found the footing to respond; with a rush of movement, he threw the pole aside altogether to the ice. Then, taking advantage of the surprise and the confusion on George’s face he pitched forward and grabbed him at his middle in a low tackle that sent them both tumbling.

 

“Little, of course,” Blanky grinned as the men fell into hysterics watching the two men grapple on the ice. It was like witnessing the animation of figures on a Greek urn, Little pulling Hodgson easily into a hold, laughing incredibly hard as he did so because George was vainly flopping about as a fish spilled on a dock. After a few more triumphant moves from Little he was able to pin him and Le Vesconte dropped to his own knee, calling the tap which Hodgson gave up very, very quickly. 

 

*

 

The reprimanding in the Great Cabin was inevitable, but of an exasperated, fatherly sort and nearly a farce all on its own merit. 

 

“For the sake of slaking my own desperate curiosity,” Crozier said, folding his arms and looking at Edward where he stood centered in front of him. “I will let you fully explain yourself and the scene you caused. Not to mention abuse of Naval property.”

 

Hodgson and Irving and even Fitzjames hovered near, just as expectant to hear the answer.  

 

Edward, cleared his throat, composing himself and gently pushing Neptune’s dripping face away where he tried to impress his bulk against his leg and throw him off balance. 

 

He took a deep breath and then gave in, patting the dog and looking up resolutely at the men eager for the answer. 

 

“I do not wish to be condemned before I have left, sir,” Edward said plainly, scratching lovingly at Neptune’s ear before regarding the Captain. “To see the men’s faces around me today it was as solemn as attending my own funeral,” he went on.

The energy in the room shifted. Hodgson took a little breath and glanced at the floor with a pained grimace and Irving blinked in thought. Fitzjames glanced to Crozier, whose gaze fixated on Edward even more. 


“I see,” he replied on an exhale, with a soft nod and an even softer expression. 

 

“Over these years you have all gotten a sense for my charms,” Edward continued, surprising them all with his willingness to go on. There was a brightness in his eyes that they had not seen before, and the flush was still on his cheeks. He was in proper disarray to the point that it made maintaining a straight face quite difficult for the fellows gathered near him. “Or my lack there of.” He shrugged and they all gave up little sighing laughs. 

 

A moment passed and Edward took another breath, steadying some internal mechanism invisible to them.


“If I am to walk out first and it is the last we may see of each other, then it is my motive to not be remembered as despairing. There lies too much a burden in that for either side. I’d much prefer to be remembered as a fool if that were the case. I am only sorry if it gave anyone too much a shock.”

 

He smiled warmly at Crozier who returned it, understanding passing between them. 

 

“I am not afraid. And I would do it for any of you,” he continued, glancing at them in turn. “I want it plain that I bear no resentment being asked. I hope you would not resent me for wanting to these final days to be pleasant.”

 

They remained silent, honoring the request, it seemed, with their own meditation. 

 

“The younger boys deserved a laugh, as well,” he conceded, quieter. “I admit I am captive to their audience. I used to pretend to fall down the staircase at our house and send my brothers into fits.”

 

“I will make personally certain, we all shall,” Crozier said when he sensed Little was finished, his eyes ticking about the men in the room. “That you are remembered for nothing but what you are, Edward. All your charms intact. But that will not be needed, as we will see you again. Most certainly.”


Edward bowed his head slightly. 

 

“What then? Shall we send the young man to bed without supper?” Fitzjames teased before things could grow too quiet once more, his eyes were brimming with mirth and clear sincerity. 

 

“Of course not,” Crozier chuckled along with the lot of them, thumbing at his forehead and huffing again to himself with a low satisfied sound following. “No, tell Jopson to make certain you are given an extra portion this evening. You will be needing it for what’s ahead, and all that energy you’ve expended this afternoon certainly has not helped.  Though what you have given us is something that will amuse for many, many miles. Of that I have no doubt."

 

He did tell Mr. Jopson as hed was instructed but neglected to tell the Captain that Mr. Jopson had already been seeing to such things for at least a week in a very obvious secret attempt to fatten him up on whatever was left to scrounge together. It was unnecessary, Edward pleaded and made him embarrassed to take away from the others, but Thomas was too stern to refuse.

 

There were simply ways in which Thomas outranked everyone, at times.


Such as now, when he was playing the part of surgeon to Edward’s less than willing patient. 

 

Edward hissed, jerking away from Thomas was now applying wool grease liberally over the bruise on his shoulder, humming disagreeably as he did so. It was late, and Edward was feeling the exhaustion of his efforts, but bruise was rather large and shone gruesomely with the ointment in the low light of his berth and Thomas made him stay up so that he could attend to it when the night quieted and allowed them.

 

“You’ll regret this in a few days when you have to slip that harness over your head,” he tutted, Edward gritting his teeth down as Thomas pressed on the knot forming underneath with the pad of his thumb, rubbing at the grainy muscle. “That strap is going to fall right over it...”

 

There was another one he could feel aching on his side that he was reluctant to expose for fear of Thomas’ retribution. 


“You say as though I’m not regretting it now,” he exhaled, breathing through the pain and dropping his head lower. Thomas made some soft reproving noise but rubbed his shoulder less aggressively. Edward could see his head shaking side to side with a flicker of his shadow on the wall. He sighed again, moving his hand to squeeze Edward’s arm gently after a few more soft circles.

 

“Alright, lift up.” 

 

Edward did as he was bid with an uncomfortable grunt and Thomas padded the nasty bruise with a few strips and then pinned it into place so it wouldn’t move too much while he slept. He was quiet as he did this, which was not uncommon these days. He couldn’t afford his old chattiness the way he used to, tiring easily. Usually, Edward did not mind it at all and such an atmosphere was calm and comfortable and remarkably familiar; as warm and inviting as a quilt drawn up around him. 

 

Tonight it was prickled, and Edward sensed that Thomas’ temper was pacing about in his berth like a little cat.

 

“I can tell when you’re vexed, you know,” Edward said softly, turning his head slightly over his shoulder to eye him. The movement made him wince, but not as much as when Thomas began righting his nightshirt, helping him draw his arm through the sleeve and pull the collar it into place. He remained wordless, replacing the cap on the wool grease and setting it on the desk. 

 

“You should have seen George Chambers,” Edward whispered, ignoring the fact that Thomas was ignoring him. “He was terrified at first, and then it was like I’d brought Christmas morning with me.” His mouth flinched into a smile at the memory. “He’s a good lad. Hartnell as well...”

 

Thomas made a humming sound in agreement. Edward blinked slowly, fighting the urge to yawn. 

 

“Dick and Freddie used to fall to pieces when I’d do tricks like that. It would make my mother nearly faint but then she got wise,” he went on, rubbing at the back of his neck. Thomas pushed his hand away and took up the task himself with a brush of Edward's hair to the side, settling on the edge of the mattress more comfortably next to him. Edward bit off a groan and tipped his head to let him have more access, eyes falling shut. He leaned back into Thomas slightly for a blessed moment before Thomas pushed him away, but only so he could get slightly more leverage as he worked. 


Edward couldn’t help the little huffs of laughter that came forward, at the strange satisfying pain in the soreness of his neck and the glowing memory of his family’s faces when he’d pull such stupid pranks. 


“Once,” he said, trying to distract himself from the discomfort. “I scared our new maid so badly tipping myself over the banister she quit the very same day. My father was livid - but when I showed him the trick he was too confounded to be angry any longer and let me off on a warning.” 

 

Thomas puffed a little warm sigh, ruffling his hair. 

 

“You could have very well killed yourself,” he tried to scold, but Edward could hear the smile in his voice and it made him laugh a little more.

 

“I couldn’t have been more than ten when I began,” he chuckled, stretching his neck into the knead of Thomas’ thumbs. “I never was one for jokes, but I lived to make them laugh, and I knew how to fall off of horses without hurting myself.” he took a sharp breath as Thomas struck a nerve. “You’re lucky I’ve been confined here or I’d have done the same to you long ago...”

 

“That’s not so, you surprise me all the time,” Thomas muttered, still massaging at his stiff neck. “The way you make me jump when I’m not expecting you someplace,” he went on and Edward smiled to himself recounting all those times, whether accidental or by design. 

 

“You’ll finally have a bit of peace then, with me out of your hair.”

 

He’d sincerely meant it to be lighthearted, but Thomas’ fingers began to lose their focus and then suddenly he was wrapping his arms around Edward’s chest instead, his face finding his shoulder. He pressed a shaky kiss to the place where it was still aching, but not as bad as before.

 

“What's all this now, little boy blue,” Edward murmured, rubbing his hands briskly where they were knotted against him. He could feel the hot dampness of Thomas’ face where it stuck slightly to the fabric of his clothes and his skin.  “I've told you. It isn’t worth the grief. Not yet - .”

 

“If it’s anything to do with you, then it is worth the grief,” Thomas interrupted, his voice wet. He sniffed and raised his head to kiss the back of Edward’s neck and then his hair once or twice. “Ridiculous man,” he said in his ear, combing through his unruly waves after worming one hand free. “You should be more careful, you know. Hodgson could have knocked your head clear off your shoulders. What would I have done then?”


Edward kept hold of his other hand as he tried to draw it away as well.

“Well my angel,” he sighed, dropping a kiss to his wrist. His fingers were still glossed and soft from the wool grease and he rubbed his own against them till they were the same. “I suppose in that case George would have made par and you should congratulate him, as the polite thing to do."

 

There was a beat of still silence and then Thomas scoffed. Then, after a moment Edward felt his chest jumping against his back. Soon it was too much and he was forced to hide his laugh in Edward’s collar, despite himself, coming close enough that Edward could press his cheek to his hair and feel the way it vibrated through him. 

 

The sound, as far as Edward was concerned, was worth more to him than 500 francs real or imagined.