Sometimes it seemed to Thomas as if he’d spent his whole life folding and unfolding things.
Pressing linens and laying out clothes; buttoning buttons and unbuttoning them. Carrying valises and steamer trunks and stacks of freshly ironed shirts. Packing and unpacking; stowing away and smoothing out.
He’d thought life as a medical orderly would be different. But it wasn’t. The things he carried from the battlefields seemed more like bundles of poorly folded laundry than wounded men. Bandages were no different than any other kind of linen, for all they were soaked in blood. A uniform with a dead body inside it was simply heavier than a uniform on its own.
Or perhaps it was just that thinking about things this way helped tamp down the rage that always threatened to boil up inside him. At Downton, he’d been constantly on guard, ready to injure others before they injured him, determined to retaliate against each slight or oversight before it even happened. He’d thought the larger world would be an escape from that. But the war was just Downton writ large. The Haves surviving on privilege and bullying; the Have-Nots expected to go like sheep to the slaughter.
Could anyone blame him for getting out of that?
Back at the Downton Cottage Hospital, he tried to treat the wounded officers as the expensive bundles of clothes they were: smooth, tuck, fold, arrange to hide the mend.
For the most part, he succeeded.
“You don’t have to do this, Thomas,” Courtenay said. Lieutenant Courtenay. Edward. Even in his own mind, Thomas wasn’t sure what to call him.
“It’s no trouble, sir,” Thomas told him. He settled himself on the edge of the bed, found the end of the bandages around Courtenay’s eyes and began to unwind them. The linen was warm in his hands, slightly damp. “Give the sisters a bit of a break.”
It seemed a better thing to say than the shape of your mouth is a burr under my skin; the hollow of your throat, your wrists crossed on the blanket, they trouble my sleep.
And in truth, the nurse had seemed pleased enough when he’d offered to take on the task—not “Nurse Crawley,” she held onto her chores like they were bits of the true cross—one of the older gals. Not her first war, that one, and she knew the value of delegating a task or two.
Besides, Thomas would never admit it, but it gave him a queer kind of thrill to see the pieces of Courtenay’s face emerge one by one as the bandages came off: the skin of his wide brow, pale and thin as a girl’s; the elegant arc of his cheekbones; the proud sweep of his nose. It was like unwrapping the Christmas silver at Downton, except that instead of a lifeless treasure, a fragile, breathing beauty came to light.
He went slow, coiling the crumpled linen into a neat ball as he unwound it, though it was destined only for the boiling vats of the laundry room.
When he got down to the heart of the matter, the dressings over Courtenay’s ruined eyes, he found that the cloth had stuck a bit to the flesh. He tugged at it gently.
Courtenay pulled his full lower lip between his teeth, bit down. A shiver went through Thomas at the sight, and he had to stop his hands for a moment, lest he pull too hard.
“There now, sir,” he said. “It’ll be done in a moment.”
Courtenay nodded. A flush sprung up at the base of his throat, as if he were embarrassed to be caught succumbing to the pain. Or as if he knew how Thomas was looking at him.
Thomas ran a finger around his own collar, which suddenly felt too tight. He cleared his throat. “Not so bad today,” he said, pleased to hear his voice stay level.
There wasn’t much they could do for gas burns, except keep them clean and try to stave off infection. In Courtenay’s case, though, that seemed to be working. The blisters along his cheek were drying up, were becoming a mere spider web of scars, and he’d escaped much involvement in his lungs.
His eyes—and Thomas tried very hard not to think of what those eyes must once have been—were still red and enflamed, oozing some kind of discharge at the corners. Thomas winced a bit in sympathy, glad Courtney couldn’t see his face.
“Let’s get you cleaned up, then, shall we?” he said.
He dipped a cloth in the basin he had brought and began to lave away the day’s residue of sweat and grime. Courtenay made a sound between a sigh and a hiss as the water hit his skin.
“Not too cold, is it, sir?”
Courtenay shook his head, arranged his face into a stoic mask.
Thomas twisted another cloth into a point and began trying to dislodge the crust of pus or snot or tears that clung to Courtenay’s lids and lashes. It was delicate, painstaking work, and couldn’t have been comfortable. Thomas had to lean in so close he could feel the ragged stutter of Courtenay’s breath against his own cheek. At one point a bony hand gripped his knee tightly for an instant, and then withdrew.
“I don’t want to hurt you, sir.”
“You’re not. You’re a neater hand at this than most of the nurses, to tell the truth.” Courtenay said, voice determinedly cheerful. “I’m just sorry anybody has to deal with this wretched mess.”
“Don’t say that, sir. It’s nothing to what I saw in France. And besides—“
And besides, Thomas wanted to say, you’re still beautiful. You’ve got a face that could stop a person dead in their tracks. Everybody’s got their scars these days, so if you think yours make any difference, you’re a bloody fool.
But he couldn’t say that.
“And besides, you’re getting better every day.”
Courtenay snorted. “Now I know you’re lying.”
Thomas bathed his face again and patted it dry. A stray drop of something—water, or a tear—evaded his cloth, and without thinking, he reached out his left hand to brush it away.
Courtenay furrowed his brow at the touch. “Thomas,” he said, “Are you wearing gloves?”
“Only on the one hand, sir. Because of the injury. People don’t like to see it.”
Courtenay blanched, and Thomas could have sawn his own tongue out. Of all the stupid things to say.
Courtenay recovered first. “I didn’t know you’d been injured,” he said.
“’Course I was, sir. Why else would I be here and not at the front?”
“Yes, of course, silly me.”
They fell silent again. Thomas busied himself readying the fresh dressings.
“Thomas—“ Courtenay sounded tentative, awkward. “Would you--. I mean, could you take off your glove? I’d like to--. That is, I can’t see, and I’d like to—“ he trailed off.
It was garbled, but Thomas thought he knew what he meant. What’s more, he found he didn’t mind. The crowded ward buzzed and clattered around them, and he wondered briefly if the nurses would think such a thing improper. Not that he cared—let them think what they liked.
He undid the buttons on the black leather glove, slipped it off, and laid his left hand on Courtenay’s right.
Courtenay kept his head down, but his face took on an intent seriousness as he began to explore Thomas’s hand with his fingers. For the first time, Thomas could picture the Oxford student he had once been.
Thomas forced himself to relax. It was strange to be handled in this way by a gentleman. No urgency, no rough, shamefaced desire, just curiosity, concern.
They were strong fingers—bred to hold a hunting rifle, the reins of a spirited horse, a salmon rod—but soft still, uncallused, for all Courtenay’s time in France. Thomas tried hard for a moment to hate them—to hate them for not bearing the scars of wayward kitchen knives and darning needles, the marks of long-ago spatters of hot grease, the swollen knuckles left over from boyhood fights. But he couldn’t. Even if he hadn’t wanted Courtenay so desperately, he didn’t think he could hate anyone who touched him with such tenderness.
He steeled himself as Courtenay traced over the healed bullet hole. Everyone knew what such wounds meant, and it had taken all of Thomas’s wits to invent a story for the Review Board. He waited now for the inevitable condemnation.
It didn’t come. Instead, Courtenay bent his head so closely over Thomas’s hand that for a wild minute Thomas thought he meant to continue his investigation with his mouth. But all he did was cradle the hand between his palms, and whisper, almost too low to be heard,
“So we are the same, then, we two.”
Thomas’s heart crashed against his ribs. His pulse hammered so hard he was sure Courtenay would be able to feel it leaping under the skin of his palm.
“The same, sir?” please he thought, please let me make you happy.
“Ruined, Thomas. Out of the fight for good.”
He felt just a little of it, then—the hate, the old fury. It gave him the strength to pull his hand away.
“You’re tired, sir.” Thomas schooled his voice to rectitude, subservience. He drew the black glove over his fingers, buttoned it. “I’ve kept you sitting up too long.”
And he did seem weary, or at least he sat passively while Thomas placed fresh dressings over his eyes. Thomas bound the dressings with fresh white strips of linen, passing them around Courtenay’s head, careful to leave his ears free. Courtenay’s wide, intelligent forehead disappeared again, the bird’s wing curve of his cheekbones, the tangle of his lashes.
Bandages are just like any linen, Thomas told himself. The human form is just another parcel to be wrapped. The only art is in making things tidy and secure.
It didn’t work. Courtenay leaned into Thomas’s hands as he worked—too exhausted to support his own head, perhaps, or simply reluctant to let the encounter end. In either case, the brush of Courtenay’s jaw against his wrists, the tickle of his wiry hair, dissolved Thomas’s anger like the sun on a stubborn fog. This is a living being, he thought—a soul, he would have said, if he’d been a praying man. A man my heart and body yearn towards.
As he tied off the end of the bandages, he couldn’t resist laying a hand on the top of Courtenay’s head, just for a moment, just long enough to feel the rise and fall of his breath.
“That’ll do you, sir,” he said, and began to collect his things.
“Thank you, Thomas.”
Without warning, Courtenay took his gloved hand. Then, so briefly Thomas was never sure afterwards if he hadn’t imagined it, he pressed the scarred knuckles to his lips.