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Ghost Stories

Chapter Text

The flat was in a very old house. The rent was suspiciously cheap, but he supposed that it came of the remote location and a probably very dodgy boiler. The young couple who owned the place seemed normal enough over Skype and were willing to write him a short-term lease, which suited his purpose just fine. They’d only recently inherited the ancestral pile—Button House, it was called, because of course it had a name—and seemed a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing. It had come fully-equipped with tenants, some of whom had been there for a long time and were apparently unbothered by the house’s state of general dishabille. Cold showers and questionable DIY didn’t particularly bother him, at this stage in his life. He signed the lease with minimal trepidation and was subsequently texted a photo of the particular flowerpot his keys were stashed under in the event that the couple—Michael and Alison Cooper, he must remember—weren’t at home when he arrived.

Wonderful, thank you, he texted back.

no prob :), came the reply.

*

The appointed day was cold and drizzly, with those odd billowing clouds of fog that clung shyly to whatever they could. He drove down early, his pot plant vibrating in the seat next to him as he found the turnoff and began bumping down the lane. It was lined with trees and the occasional hedgerow; it was hard to say, in the fog, but there seemed to be dog-shaped…well, dogs…frolicking about just beyond his eyesight.

He came around a bend and through a narrow brick-columned gate whose colourful array of paint marks suggested that many a driver had overestimated its width. The house opened up before him: it was a Tudor-era monstrosity, all red brick and swooping wings and what felt like dozens of windows watching him like curious eyes. Ivy clung to the sides and there was a definite air of dilapidation about the place—must watch for woodworm damage and mould, he thought—but it had a certain… something. A wild variety of cars were parked in the drive: a Range Rover sat next to an ancient Morris Minor with a massive dent in the back; a yellow VW Bug was parked far too close to a sensible red Volkswagen. 

It turned out he was being watched, which wasn’t wholly a surprise given the impossibility of a stealthy approach on gravel. The moment he parked, the front door was flung open and an entire cast of characters burst forth; he had a moment of horror that he had read the lease papers all wrong and inadvertently stumbled into some cooperative living situation before sternly reminding himself that he’d read them thrice and was ever-vigilant for delusions.

“It’s the Captain!” came a breathless woman’s voice.

“Not anymore, he isn’t,” said an old woman sourly.

“Oh hush,” said another voice; there was more clamouring as a throng of bodies tried to fit through the door simultaneously. Then the eight of them stood arrayed before him: three women and five men in various stages of smoothing themselves down post-scuffle. Not taking his eyes off them, he bent to retrieve the keys from under the appointed flowerpot and racked his brains trying to remember what Michael and Allison had told him; six flats, was it? Seven?

“Hello!” came a cheery man’s voice. Northern, though southern living was doing its best to beat the accent into submission. Leeds or Halifax, perhaps. There had been a man in his unit, once— “Welcome to Button House! You must be the Captain.”

A derisive noise issued forth from the same pensioner as before, who was revealed to be a woman of middle height who was fond of long, flowing scarves and the sorts of trainers designed to fit bulky orthotics and a lifestyle that unironically contained the word Jazzercise.

“Now, Fanny,” said the Northerner reprovingly. He turned back to the matter at hand. “I’m Pat Butcher! Flat number 6.”

“Pleasure,” the Captain said dryly, shaking Patrick’s proffered hand. The man was fortyish and short—five foot five, at a guess—bearded, blue-eyed, and looking altogether too keen on life. He wore a cosy jumper and sort of jeans that dads wore to children’s football matches of a weekend. He was a bit nasal and a lot Northern but not bad, all things considered.

Patrick turned to the crowd. “Ah, and this lot of hooligans. Let’s see—you’ve already heard from Fanny. She’s in Number 6—that’s the one in the east wing on the first floor. The we’ve got Robin in Number 1 on the ground floor. He and his dogs have been here since the dawn of time—” at the word dogs, a veritable pack of them burst around the side of the house, wet with dew and slobbering furiously. The Captain took a step back instinctively.

“Not fond?” asked Pat as the dogs sat down at Robin’s feet, tails wagging and eyes fixed adoringly on their human. The Captain thought he counted six, but they were moving rather too fast to be sure.

“Ah, just used to them in a working context,” said the Captain mildly, watching them. Robin looked up and grunted a hello. He was either twenty-five or sixty and the Captain didn’t have the faintest clue which it was. It was something to do with the beard and the ratty but sturdy fashion sense.

“Professional dogs, nice,” said Pat congenially. The Captain was beginning to suspect that the man’s mouth ran on autopilot without actually consulting his brain.

“Then we’ve got Kitty and Mary in Number 4, which is the massive one in the west wing—” the breathless woman and her middle-aged, leather-jacket-and-flowing-skirt-wearing flatmate (flatmate? or…hmm. He’d have to check with Patrick)— “Thomas in Number 5”—a wisp of a man in skinny jeans and woolly hat who stared mournfully about him— “Humphrey in Number 2, and, ah—oh dear. Where’s Julian gone off too? He’s in Number 7.”

Robin let out a cough that sounded suspiciously like “Probably wanking.” Humphrey, a goateed sort in rather too much velvet for the time of day, gave him a fist bump.

“Now, Robin,” Patrick admonished, but he left the matter there.

 The Captain’s eyes swept over them all. An incongruent lot, they were—he’d rather expected a house full of pensioners.

“What should we call you?” piped up Katherine. She was young—twenty-two or twenty-three, at a guess—and wearing a very sparkly caftan.

He felt himself smile, just a little quirk of the corner of his mouth. “The Captain will suffice.”

“International man of mystery,” said Pat approvingly at the same moment Humphrey muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “it’s the bloody Sound of Music, innit?” “Shall I give you the tour?” He bounced on his heels and adjusted his glasses.

The Captain tossed the keys from hand to hand and debated the wisdom of telling a future neighbour to sod off and leave him in peace. “Certainly, Patrick. Lead on.”

*

Mercifully, the tour didn’t extend into the actual flats—the Captain’s skin crawled at the thought of his neighbours bursting into his own whenever the whimsy took them. Patrick began on the ground floor. The original foyer had been left intact, as had the parlour surrounding it. It was massive, with green portrait-studded walls, a fireplace, and honest-to-goodness columns holding the ceiling up. It was furnished thoroughly with what the Captain could only assume were the castoffs of six centuries of manorial living. It was eclectic to be sure; the walls were peeling in a vaguely aesthetic way, though he could be doing without the taxidermied dog. The lava lamp was a nice touch, however.

“Right this way,” Patrick chirped, gesturing him past the grand staircase and towards the back of the house. “I thought we’d start with the communal areas.”

There were, it turned out, a lot of them—in wildly varied states of repair and usefulness. Only some of the house could be easily converted to discrete flats; the rest, a veritable Hogwarts of historical fuckery from the Tudor period onward, was left more or less as it was. There was a well-stocked (if out-of-date) library, a drawing room, upstairs and downstairs ballrooms, and a few odd hallways and passages that seemed to lead nowhere in particular. There was so much stuff, too, hundreds of years of residential flotsam. It sat around on stairways and disused bathrooms and was stuffed under disintegrating couches with centuries of bumprints worn into them. The house was a bit gross, in a way that old places are but is permissible because the age of it all makes it charming, somehow. Archaeological rather than dirty, he supposed. He tried to leave mental breadcrumbs to track the various turnings and promptly couldn’t for the life of him figure out where they were.

Patrick took the opportunity of having a captive and completely lost audience to fill him in on all the details: Robin was a groundskeeper at the adjoining estate and also did the upkeep on Button House’s grounds in exchange for a substantial reduction in his rent; Humphrey was a vaguely aristocratic and very sassy sort whose ex-wife had apparently got the manor in the divorce. Katherine was a recent university graduate who was ‘figuring it out’ while working in a café in the village; Mary was a creative type who did something unspecified in television.  

“Is there anything, ah… going on there?” the Captain couldn’t help but ask when they paused in a vast red-walled drawing room on the first floor. The age difference seemed, if not substantial, prone to raising a few eyebrows.

Pat laughed. “Nobody knows, mate. I suspect that relationship defies categorisation, but I think it’s platonic.” He opened another door. “Though there has been speculation about Mary and Robin in the past. They do smoke a lot of weed together, it has to be said. Don’t get Mary started on the subject, though… she’ll give you an earful about natural remedies and how women’s knowledge and wisdom has been subjugated for far too long. Third parlour, that one.” Dustcloth-covered furniture hulked in the dim light. Patrick shut the door behind them and led the Captain back down a narrow corridor whose windows were hung in drapes that slumped like musty velvet snowdrifts over half the floor.

Thomas Thorne was a perpetually-lovelorn graduate student in literature at Cambridge who’d ‘retired to the country to seek his muse.’ Patrick said this with the most aggressive of air quotes and a fair bit of eye-rolling as they thumped down yet another set of stairs of uncertain location. The Captain suspected they were once a service staircase leading to the kitchen; now they were the main means of accessing Humphrey’s and Julian’s flats, which looked out onto the back garden.

“Now Julian,” said Pat as they stepped out into the kitchen garden (the Captain was right about the service staircase, ha!). “Is a bit of a touchy subject.”

“Fawcett?” asked the Captain suddenly. “The sex scandal one?”

“The very same,” said Pat solemnly, then bent down to show the Captain some cherry tomatoes in one of the vast planting beds.

“So he’s out of Parliament, then?”

“Resigned his seat in disgrace,” said Patrick.

“Good lord.” The Captain took the proffered tomato and then held it awkwardly between his thumb and index finger for lack of any better ideas.

“And his wife kicked him out of the house, and it turns out he was a bit broke anyway. He got this on short notice right before Heather Button passed—she wasn’t much up on the news, towards the end, and then there were a few months where we were left to our own devices while the solicitors tracked down the heir. Alison and Mike were of a half a mind to sell this old pile when the solicitor finally found them, but then they came and had a look around and met all of us, and, well…now they live here too.” Patrick grinned broadly, ate his own tomato, and spread his hands as if to indicate the whole of his domain.

“Ah.”

“Greenhouse is just on your left—avoid that back right corner if you’ve delicate sensibilities about certain crops.” Patrick waggled his eyebrows.

“Good lord.”

“Toolshed just ahead, and then around the other side is a massively overgrown tangle of rubbish nobody bothers to go into.”

“Noted.”

“There’s one other flat,” said Patrick in a slightly ominous tone, leaning close. “The basement one. It doesn’t have a number; they just call it Lower.”

“Who’s in that one?”

“A whole flock of engineering students. We’re not sure how many; they seem to come and go. Years ago, they managed to arrange a massively long lease with Heather with the option to switch the master tenant every year and poor Mike and Alison have no choice but to honour it. The place is a tip and they’ve got no sense of hygiene, but they do throw good parties. You won’t see them much otherwise. Back in we go!” He said, leaving the Captain to chew on that one.

They climbed a winding set of stairs in the back of the house that wailed in protest with every step.

“And this is you,” pronounced Patrick, pointing at the door at the top. There was an ‘8’ stencilled at eye height. “Attic. Might be dreadfully cold come winter.”

“I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it,” said the Captain absently, looking down at the keys in his hand. And then he realised that Pat was staring at him expectantly, so he fitted the one for the flat into the lock and turned.

“Got to give it a bit of a hip-check,” said Pat sagely, watching him struggle. The Captain did as advised and tumbled into the room.

It was big. Michael and Alison had given him the dimensions and sent photos, but it had been hard to conceptualise. Even then, he had known the rent was cheap for what he was getting, but now…

“You’ve got a blooming fireplace!” said Patrick enviously.

He had, a monstrous thing set in the narrow wall at what must be the end of the house. His bones practically wept in relief at the thought of not icing over in the winter. Patrick had gone off on a tangent about how the process of making these big old houses into individual flats always shortchanged whichever flat didn’t get the original kitchen on account of difficulties of running gas lines and ensuring appropriate ventilation. As Patrick happily nattered on, the Captain paced the floor, noting the bits that squealed underfoot. He checked the gas in the kitchen area— ‘studio flat’ didn’t quite describe the state of things, but the attic was certainly open-plan; closer to London it would be getting billed as an artisan loft—and the water in the loo. The countertops had been done in a crazy quilt of whatever tile the workmen could get their hands from, likely harvested discreetly from around the house at large. He then walked over to the window and looked down at the grounds as Pat switched into an exhaustive overview of the house’s plumbing system. Apparently this flat was the only one in the attic; the rest of it was given over to storage of six hundred years’ worth of detritus.

“What’s your job, then?” Pat asked, temporarily diverted from the joys of valves.

“Teaching. Geography.”

“Really?”

“Don’t look so surprised. A comprehensive in Battersea lost its teacher to a rather bad scandal and I am to take his place. Year 7 through A-level.”

“I’m not surprised, I just—” Pat spluttered a bit before regaining his composure. “How’d you manage that one?”  

“I had a bit of a head start in knowing I’d be leaving the army. I took it upon myself to… make arrangements for the future. Chief among them a teaching qualification.”

Pat whistled. “Smart man, you are.” He paused. “If you don’t mind me asking why…”

“I do,” said the Captain shortly.

“Right, then,” said Pat. “Well, here’s my number if you run into any trouble or just fancy a chat.” He held out a business card. The Captain took it—Patrick A. Butcher, Civil Engineer, Farnaby & Baynton. There was an office address in Southwark, a work email, a landline, and a mobile number.

“Thank you, Patrick,” said the Captain, pocketing it.

He did not offer his own.

*

Owing to the impossibility of determining who was using what percentage of the utilities, they were included in the rent, as was the Wi-Fi—the existence of which came as a pleasant surprise given that Heather Button had been ninety-nine when she died the previous year. Apparently Robin had many hidden talents where the internet was concerned. All of this meant that the Captain, in spite of having no furniture yet, could sit down on the floor with his laptop and work out how on God’s green earth one teaches A-Level geography. There was a brief break to haul a load of stuff in from his car—primarily things that were breakable and/or important, though also including several changes of clothes on the not-unlikely-chance that the movers managed to dump the rest of his possessions in the Thames. As if to confirm his suspicions, he got a text from the movers at 13:00 saying that they’d be at least another two hours, so he abandoned his laptop and opened his gym bag.  

The Ordnance Survey was his first great love and his point of reference. He’d been known on occasion to trawl charity shops for old ones and was fond enough of his collection that he’d driven the box down with him rather than entrust it to Schrödinger’s moving van. He couldn’t say why he liked them, necessarily. But it was thrilling to add them to the collection: a literal paper trail of the places he’d been and the way that those who came before him navigated. It was a way to build the world around himself. Grounding, he supposed. Literally.

He unfolded the local map and left it lying open on the floor to study while he changed his clothes (with small breaks to, e.g., get his t-shirt over his head without crashing to the floor in a heap). The house was right at the edge of prime hillwalking territory; tracks wended their way all around the area and from the edge of the property, one could go straight up into the North Downs on public rights-of-way alone. This may or may not have been a deciding factor in signing the lease, he had to admit.

He’d sat back down and was halfway through getting his socks on when there was a knock at the door.

“Enter!” he called, rather than disgrace himself by trying to stand and falling over again.

“Hey,” said Michael, sticking his head round the door. “We just got in and the others told us that you’d got here this morning.”

The Captain nodded and finished putting on his socks. “Patrick was kind enough to give me the tour.”

“Oh, great,” said Michael. He was a likely-looking young man, thirtyish and possessed of an enviable air of unbotheredness. He gazed inquisitively around the barren flat, his eyes finally coming to rest on the little island on the floor comprising the Captain, his duffel bag, and his laptop.  

“The movers are delayed,” the Captain said by way of explanation.

“Classic. Well, you’re welcome to sleep anywhere in the house that isn’t someone else’s flat. There’s a really comfy sofa on the first floor in that odd corner room with the telly.”

“Thank you,” said the Captain, who couldn’t think of many things he wanted to do less than sleep in plain view.

“Well, Alison and I are in Heather’s old rooms in the back of the house if you need anything. The door’s unmarked, but it’s that blue one off the parlour with the weird taxidermy in it. If you walk into the huge kitchen with the bush growing through the window, you’ve accidentally stumbled into it.”

“Right, thank you.”

“When do you start work?"

“Tomorrow.”

Tomorrow?” Michael looked around the flat.

“I don’t mind it,” said the Captain, taking his trainers out of his duffel bag.

“I’m beginning to see that,” said Michael. “Well, that’s me off. The lights in the library are going funny, so I’m going to try to fix them.”

“Don’t you need a license for that?”

Michael made an evasive noise and scampered.

*

The grounds were extensive and surprisingly varied—evidently Robin kept busy. There was a meadow and a series of kitchen gardens; a very symmetrical pond and some topiaries vaguely recognisable as bunny rabbits; copses and a series of paths that definitely weren’t on the Ordnance Survey map. Owing perhaps to an act of divine mercy, the grounds were easier to navigate than the house itself; he was already dreading the process of finding his own flat again. He trotted round them at a jog for a while before thinking about striking out towards the village. He crossed a small stream accessed via a rapidly-eroding path, and then—

“Boo!”

He whirled, stopping himself at the last moment from crushing the windpipe of his unexpected company. Robin grinned up at him. There was a huge streak of dirt on his face and he was swinging a brace of dead pheasant.  

“Found the holloway yet?”

“The—sorry, the what?”

Robin beckoned. The Captain, having nothing better to do and genuinely curious to see if this would lead to attempted murder, followed.

It did not lead to attempted murder. It led down a steep embankment into--

“It’s a footpath,” said Robin, who apparently never said two words when one would suffice. “Worn down over a very long time.”

“How long?” asked the Captain. They stood at the centre of it, gazing at the trees arching overhead.

Robin shrugged. “Long.”

The holloway was about the width of a narrow lane and nearly two metres deep. Its sloped sides were held in place by the roots of the trees that lined it. It was a tunnel; it was a cradle, rocked down to its depth by people walking to and fro. It was almost astonishing, to think about the innumerable people that had trod along it over the millennia to wear it down to its current depth.

“Thank you,” he said to Robin. Robin offered him what the Captain believed to be a rare smile; the condition of his teeth wasn’t stellar. “And…er… how do I get back to the house?”

Chapter Text

The Captain came down the stairs early the next morning, coffee flask and toast balanced precariously in one hand, to find—

“The 6:45 for you as well, then?” said Patrick cheerily, carrying his own flask. He was wearing a pair of trainers with his suit and tie, presumably for the same potentially-sludgy trudge down the track to the station that the Captain was about to make.

“Yes,” said the Captain shortly. He could smell Patrick’s cologne, a whiff of shampoo from his still-damp hair, and maybe even the barest note of his deodorant—all the early-morning smells that wore off a person within an hour or two. It felt oddly intimate. He found himself staring down an endless stretch of days containing this exact scenario and wondered if he could start dragging himself out of bed to catch the earlier train.

“Not a morning person, then?” asked Patrick brightly, holding the door open for him.

“No.”

The sky was just barely beginning to take on a blue-purple tinge as Patrick locked the front door behind them. They’d both brought torches, though, and mercifully Patrick kept things fairly quiet as they left the grounds and cut across to a track running off the property. The metal gate wailed disconsolately behind them as they closed it, setting off a flurry of angry honks from the herd of geese somewhere in the darkness by the pond.

“Forgot to mention,” said Patrick in a whisper. “They’re vicious.”

“The geese.”

“Yes.”

“The geese.”

“Don’t underestimate geese, mate. They’ll rip your face off given half the chance. Chased me clean across the lawn once, actually.”

The Captain had to snort at that mental image.

“Just for that, I hope they lock onto your scent and hunt you down, Mr ‘Too Good to Have a Healthy Fear of Geese,’” Patrick muttered.

Patrick led them down the rest of the track, which once they left the property was bordered on either side by hedgerows—the particularly prickly ones, the Captain found out the hard way. The smell of bacon frying drifted over from one house; the other side, unfortunately, seemed to be the domain of some particularly odorous cows.

“Do you really go all the way to Waterloo?” asked the Captain curiously, remembering the address on Patrick’s business card and the train timetable he’d looked up the night before.

Patrick shrugged. “You get used to it. And once I’m there I only have to pop across the road to the office.”

“It’s still very far.”

Patrick looked at him suddenly. “Plenty of people have long commutes. Present company among them. Don't you go all the way to Clapham Junction?”

The Captain grunted noncommittally. 

They came out from the hedgerow into the village hall carpark, then walked down a row of quiet semidetached houses. “There we are,” said Patrick, seemingly in response to the lightening sky—lavender-blue streaked with pink. The birds began to sing sleepily as they trod through the village proper and up the station approach, where the lights of the platform let the Captain see Patrick properly for the first time since they left the house. He looked alarmingly chipper for the time of morning.

There was a moment of awkwardness when they boarded the train over whether they would be parting ways, but Patrick solved that problem by sitting down directly across from the Captain and opening his newspaper. (Where had he managed to get a newspaper? They’d stood on the bloody platform together the entire wait for the train). The sunrise began to stream into the carriage in earnest as they pulled out of Hinchley Wood, making everything glow orange. The Captain had, at this point, had enough coffee to feel nearly human enough to appreciate it.

“Lovely, that,” said Patrick, looking up from his newspaper to point unnecessarily out over the misty fields. The Captain stared at the way the syrupy light caught in the irises of Patrick’s eyes.

“Not bad, certainly,” he said in a strangled voice, watching suburbia thicken outside the window.

Patrick smiled and went back to the Sudoku.

“This is me,” the Captain said at Clapham Junction, rising awkwardly to his feet.

“Ah, right,” said Patrick, folding over the top of the sports section to peer at him. “Well, I suppose I’ll see you when I see you, then. Best of luck on your first day, mate.”

“Goodbye, then,” said the Captain and swung through the door. 

*

“Rough first day?” Patrick asked sagely from his armchair when the Captain limped in the front door that evening.

“It involved a rogue goat, the drama teacher’s secret lover, and industrial quantities of Italian meringue,” said the Captain shortly.

Patrick made a face.

“Quite,” said the Captain, making a move towards the stairs.

“Twister at seven!” Patrick called after him, putting more wood on the fire.

*

He did not go to Twister at seven. He put his head torch on and ran through the squelchy fields for a bit while questioning his life decisions, then took the hottest shower he could handle. The boiler gave up the ghost halfway through, naturally.

*

“Mary won Twister,” said Patrick conversationally as they pushed through the ticket barriers at the station the next day. He seemed to already have a fairly accurate grasp on when it was reasonably safe to address the Captain in the morning. A third of the way through his coffee flask was generally alright, but any less than that and you were running the risk of finding yourself facedown in a ditch.

“Good for Mary,” said the Captain. There was a chill in the air already, though it was barely the first week of October. It had a nasty tendency to creep into his bones.

“Eh, she cheats,” said Patrick regretfully as the train rolled into the station.

*

“School any better today?”

“Someone filled my storage cupboard with glitter and Rollos.”

“Christ, what are they feeding the youth nowadays?”

“I wish I knew.”

“Table tennis at eight?”

“No, thank you.”

*

The house’s inhabitants, the Captain realised in short order, did not keep entirely to themselves the way neighbours living in the same building usually did. They ranged over the house at large; the Captain was startled to stumble upon them in the oddest corners. Robin and Julian had regular chess battles in an upstairs music room; Katherine and Mary were often found sprawled on the sofa in the television room watching a stunning and mystifying range of programs. Thomas moped about the place with a Macbook and coffee, favouring windowseats and dramatic sighs, while Fanny perched on settees with various Brontë works and made disapproving noises in the direction of whoever passed by. The games, organised by Pat, were ever-present and surprisingly popular: the Captain would never have taken Fanny for a Kerplunk fiend, for one, or Thomas for the sort that lived for charades. The Captain supposed he could understand the appeal of the whole arrangement—cheap rent and living quarters that, at least technically, extended well beyond the walls of one’s own flat. The cast of characters lurking around every corner unnerved him a bit, but he took a cautious liking to Fanny merely due to the fact that she didn’t care what he did or how he felt about her. He liked blunt people: you always knew where they stood, and you could be blunt back without the prospect of offending them. He also liked people who liked order, come to think of it. Patrick wasn’t altogether bad in that respect, either.

The days began to rapidly turn colder and he lit his fireplace. It blazed like the sun, flooding firelight into the sloping rafters. He dragged his armchair over to it and sat contentedly, sunning himself like a large and, he admitted, slightly repressed lizard.

*

“How was guiding the youth today, O Captain, my Captain?”

“Chlamydia outbreak.”

For once, Patrick was stunned into silence.

“As the newest faculty member, I had to give the resultant lecture on safe sex practices.”

Patrick nearly fell out of his chair laughing.

*

He had his own bloody fireplace. So why did he keep gravitating downstairs? It was cheerier and more alive than his own spartan flat, certainly; he liked clutter and personality in the spaces of others, just not in his own. He sat with his marking and a cup of tea before the downstairs parlour fire of an evening; it wasn’t long before he began reading the more atrocious essay passages out to whoever was sat nearby.

Globalisation is the process by which the earth becomes more spherical,” he read through gritted teeth.

“Jesus fuck. Were we that bad where we were at school?” Humphrey asked, aghast.

“Probably.” He settled for scrawling a massive question mark over the answer and flipped to the next essay.

Canada’s primary exports are maple syrup and angry people who think they’re French but actually they’re not.

“Ehhh, I’d give them half credit,” said Julian. The Captain glowered at him, which he’d decided was the only appropriate response to the man, who had the disquieting habit of trying to turn everything into a sexual innuendo. This combined with Julian's unfortunate newly-unemployed status meant he seemed to constantly be hanging about saying inappropriate things. Apparently the divorce had got very messy recently.

“Come along, Captain,” wheedled Fanny. “We need a fourth in order to play at all.” She pointed insistently at the Mahjong tiles already laid out on the table.

He looked at her face and broke. “One round only. And you, er, need to teach me the rules.”

*

He stumbled down the stairs one morning at quarter past six to find Patrick wrapped in a dressing gown and leaning heavily on the banister.

“Patrick? What’s wrong?” He bounded down the last few steps. Patrick waved him off feebly.

“Migraine,” he said hoarsely, eyes shut. “Off sick today.”

“Why did you drag yourself all the way down here to tell me?” asked the Captain in a whisper.

“Because you never gave me your mobile number, you prat, and I didn’t want you to miss the train because you were waiting for me even though I wasn’t coming.”

“…oh. I’ll, um. Send you a text. So that you have it.”

“Thanks a lot,” said Patrick, only sounding moderately sarcastic. He really did look like death.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“You can leave,” said Pat, clearly holding onto the last shred of his sanity.

So he left. It was odd, sitting on the train across from a stranger (who ate a tuna sandwich slowly and with great enthusiasm in what clearly was the universe’s way of punishing him). He texted Patrick while the train stopped for an aggravatingly long time somewhere in Wimbledon—don’t seem too desperate, some half-remembered advice from decades past singsonged in his head.

My apologies for this morning. –C

He didn’t get a reply.

*

He awoke that Saturday to the sounds of children’s voices. He nearly fell out of bed in shock, which quickly turned to fine-tuned ire. (He’d had plenty of opportunity to perfect the feeling, thank you very much).

“Didn’t he tell you?” asked Katherine, lying on the settee next to the fire reading a romance novel. “He leads a Scout group. Bushcraft and archery and helping old ladies cross the street, apparently. There are badges and everything. Heather always let him use the grounds for training and Mike and Alison said they’ve no problem with it continuing.”

“Oh.” There was silence.

He steeled himself. In for a penny. “How’s your book?”

“Oh, it’s all right. One of my favourite podcasters did a segment on it last week and I thought I’d give it a try, but the main love interest is actually quite the misogynist. It’s meant to be sexy but it’s really, really not.”

“Pity.” He made to turn away and stopped. “Podcast, did you say?”

“Oh, yes. There are loads of them about romance novels—which can be very interesting social barometers and commentary in their own right, actually.”

“Fascinating.” He felt his bum make contact with an armchair quite of its own volition.

“Have you read many romance novels, Captain?”

“I can’t say I have, Katherine.” 

“Well, most romance novels are targeted towards women who like men.”

“I suspected as much.”

“And the horribly sad thing is, society derides women for reading and enjoying them.”

“Of course.”

“When really, the whole fantasy put forth by romance novels is for women to be loved and cherished by men. It's such a simple thing, and yet it’s so hard to find in our heteropatriarchial society that it seems outlandish in print. So the end result is that women are derided for fantasising about and writing books in which that kind of relationship is real and possible.” She sighed heavily.

“Goodness.” The Captain, an upstanding member of the aforementioned patriarchy—though not the bit about, er. Well. --cleared his throat awkwardly. “What’s your favourite romance novel, Katherine?”

She sat up suddenly, delight crossing her features. “Are you asking for a recommendation?”

“I, er—no, not really, just…erm, making conversation, you see—”

“Let’s see,” Katherine ploughed on obliviously. “It’s so hard to choose a favourite, of course. I must’ve read four hundred at this point, and there have to be thirty I return to over and over, depending on what kind of feeling I’m looking for at the moment. But for you…” She sized him up, biting her lip pensively. He kept his face neutral. “Wait right there!”

He waited, listening to her excited footsteps thumping up the very old and possibly rotted stairs. There was a moment of silence, then the front door groaned open and a gaggle of shouting preteens poured forth.

“Hello, Captain!” said Patrick cheerily, holding the door open for some straggling smaller boys. “We’re popping in for a cuppa and a chat with Mike and Alison in the big kitchen. Scouts, this is the Captain. He used to be in the Army but now he’s a geography teacher. We still call him the Captain, though.”

“Why would you leave the army?” asked one of the taller youths, looking disgusted at the very notion.

“Now, Bradley—” Patrick began to admonish.

“It’s quite alright,” said the Captain, turning stiffly to face the throng. “Mister Bradley, I was in the Army for a very long time, you see. And I was quite experienced and knew the ins and outs of everything: I could command a whole squadron of men, I could disassemble and reassemble a gun in the time it takes a kettle to boil, and I could survive for days in a marsh with only a knife and a tarpaulin. But I felt that I hadn’t quite experienced all that life had to offer. I wanted to try being a civilian, to see what that kind of life held. After all, I had scarcely had a chance to try it before duty called.”

“Oh,” said Bradley, still looking sceptical.

“Captain!” trilled Katherine from the landing. “I couldn’t choose just one so I’ve brought a selection. It’s a sort of charcuterie of love.” She practically skipped the rest of the way down and dumped a small armload of books into the Captain’s lap. Thankfully there were no bodices being ripped on the covers, but everything came in eye-catching candy colours and swirling fonts. He supposed it made sense that the things had modernised since he was a confused and furtive adolescent.

“You?” asked Patrick, stunned. “Really?”

The Captain had no idea which element of the situation had elicited the statement and decided that he was better off not knowing.

“Many thanks, Katherine,” he said stiffly, rising to his feet. Every joint in his body chose that moment to crack like gunfire. “I shall read these forthwith and let you know of my impressions.”

“He gets wordy when he gets uncomfortable,” Kitty stage-whispered traitorously to Patrick.

“I think it’s a class thing,” Patrick stage-whispered traitorously back.

The Captain climbed back up the stairs with as much dignity as he could muster. The fact that he dropped half the books and had to stoop to pick them up probably didn’t help.

Chapter Text

“It’s not a choice.”

“Of course it’s a choice. I could go back into my flat and lock the door and never speak to any of you ever again, and quite possibly be all the better for it.”

“Ooh, he’s stroppy,” said Katherine in delight.

“Now, Kitty,” said Patrick, but he was grinning.

The Captain stared down at them all clustered on the stairs leading to his flat. They looked up expectantly at him.

“Hide-and-seek, though?” he pressed on. “Aren’t we a bit old?”

“Nope!” said Patrick cheerily. “Come on, it’s Kitty’s favourite.”

Katherine batted her eyelashes at him. He made a face at her.

“You’re just scared you’ll lose,” goaded Mary eagerly. 

“I could thoroughly defeat you all in my sleep,” the Captain said dismissively.

“Sure, Bertha,” said Robin with a roll of his eyes. He’d resisted the whole ‘Captain’ thing and instead had taken to calling the Captain random names in varying degrees of outlandishness.

“Then prove it,” said Humphrey, twirling his moustache. The Captain grimaced; he’d thought he and Humphrey to be largely on the same side when it came to these things.

“Fine. I could trounce you all at hide-and-seek and then run a mile,” he said.

“It’s always running with you, innit?” said Patrick.

“Metaphor,” said Robin sagely.

Anyway,” said the Captain. He drew breath; they all looked at him expectantly. “Not it!” He declared.

“Come on,” groaned Michael when he lost handily.

“All right, ground rules,” shouted Patrick over the general din. “First, only public areas within the house are allowed! The attic is also off-limits because, let’s face it, you could lose an elephant in that mess. No going into anyone’s flat, including your own; no leaving the house. That includes the roof, Humphrey.

Humphrey gave a loud, false cough that sounded rather like ‘sore loser!’  

“Michael will count to one hundred, at which point he will shout that he is coming. When he finds you, a visual confirmation is all that is needed. He does not have to physically touch you, and you are NOT allowed to physically touch him, particularly to blindfold him while you make an escape. We’ve had some issues in the past,” he added as an aside to Michael, Alison, and the Captain. “Everyone needs to have a form of timekeeping about their person, whether that be a wristwatch or a mobile phone. Once an hour has passed, the game is over and everyone who has not been found needs to emerge from their hiding places and assemble in the foyer. Yes, we’ve had issues in the past with that, too,” he said, sighing.

“What about changing hiding places mid-game?” the Captain asked.

Everyone looked around at each other.

“I don’t see why not,” said Patrick.

“Right,” said the Captain grimly. “Onward we go.”

“I think we’ve just got a glimpse of what you were like in the military,” said Humphrey wonderingly.

“Scares me off my tits,” said Robin.

One! Two! Three!” began Michael loudly.

They all scampered.

*

By both habit and curiosity, the Captain had been scoping out the house since he first set foot in it. A suitable hiding place had to satisfy three criteria: one, it had to be non-obvious and totally invisible from every angle; two, it had to be easily vacated in the event of suspected discovery, preferably with multiple points of egress; and three, it had to be clever enough to brag loudly about at the game’s conclusion. He had six possible candidates in mind before Michael reached his stroppy “EIGHT!”

“Where are you hiding?” hissed Robin as they all clattered down the stairs.

“Not telling,” he hissed back, mentally removing options three and six. “It utterly defeats the purpose of the game.”
“Does it, though?” asked Patrick, his voice getting high-pitched in the way that it did when he was preparing to get a bit bolshy about something. But then he took an elbow in the solar plexus from Fanny and things got rather shambly for a few minutes.

People began to scatter in earnest when they reached the first floor. Katherine and Humphrey dove for one of the parlours; Fanny sniffed and disappeared into the library. Patrick muttered something about credenzas and raced down the stairs into the foyer.

The Captain got lost a few times on his way to his destination, but he found it eventually. The idea was to guess in advance the order in which Michael would search the rooms and find a hiding place that allowed him to begin in the last place to be searched and then slide into a place that had already been searched as Michael approached, effectively staying a step ahead of pursuit.

This objective was to be achieved via a dumbwaiter shaft, naturally.

The shaft was located behind the washing machine and dryer on the ground floor, in an area of general mess that in the bygone days of the landed gentry used to be the domain of the Help. The washing machine and dryer were themselves set back in a deep recess in the wall and guarded by Venetian doors. The Captain waded through the mess of household and garden bric-a-brac and hoisted himself up on top of the dryer. It quivered alarmingly; he wasn’t as light as he used to be, but the dryer was a front-loader and would handle his weight if it knew what was good for it. With one last look out, he closed the doors behind him.

He slid open the door of the dumbwaiter shaft and looked up into the darkness above.

As had been the case the last time he’d done laundry, the dumbwaiter itself had been removed and the rope long since rotted away. He’d tried to puzzle out where the shaft led to without success—Fanny had asked him why on earth he was wandering around with a laundry basket and accidentally scattering socks all over the house—but unless it was a portal to hell he reckoned he’d be all right. And even then, he could probably manage.

It was dark and dusty; he felt the walls, looking for hand- and footholds. Not much to go on, but enough to be workable. Provided he was still flexible enough, that was.

There were muffled scrapes and shouts from above and then a clatter of feet down the stairs. He faintly heard Michael’s “Seventy-EIGHT,” and then Julian streaked into the room. The Captain peered through the door slats and rolled his eyes in exasperation at the thought of having to share, but mercifully Julian kept going.

“One hundred!” shouted Michael triumphantly. “All right you pricks, here I come!”

From there, it was a matter of staying quiet and still and keeping an ear cocked. He was good at all these things, though sitting on the dryer did make his hamstrings ache a bit. The sun shifted in the sky and sudden strips of light flooded through the Venetian doors, washing over the Captain in streaks. He looked at his watch—twenty minutes elapsed. There was a Thomas-sounding shriek and a thud from overhead, and then ten more minutes of silence.

They’d just entered the thirty-sixth minute when the Captain heard the telltale thump of Michael’s trainers down the hall. (The general babble of those who’d obviously been found already was another good clue). The footsteps drew closer; the floor squealed threateningly.

 “Anybody in here?” Michael asked softly, looking around as half-afraid a ghost would jump out at him. “Anybody at all?”

The Captain smiled to himself.

“All right, then,” said Michael crossly. “Be like that.”

The Captain, sensing that there was no time like the present, hoisted himself off the dryer and into the dumbwaiter shaft, curled up, and closed the door behind him, quieting his breathing.
He heard the Venetian doors squeal open.

“Aha!” Michael shouted triumphantly. “Oh, fuck,” he said in a smaller voice, presumably upon seeing the empty cupboard.

The Captain got his feet under him, braced himself against the wall, and began to inch upwards, ever so slowly. Having never played games with Michael before, he was unsure if the man was the type to leave no stone unturned and decided he’d rather not chance it. It was horrifically dusty in the shaft; he hoped fervently that it was just garden-variety old-house mustiness and not actual asbestos.

“There’s no way, but I suspect you’re a crafty bastard,” said Michael speculatively. The Captain got a wiggle on, pulling himself further up the shaft doubletime. The dryer wailed in protest as Michael tried to hoist himself up on it, beached-whale style. The Captain, groping blindly in the dark, seized the door at the point of egress, wherever it was, and slid it open. Down below, he heard Michael clang the lower door open; with an almighty last shove, the Captain hauled himself through the opening. He heard a distinct “Fuck!” from down below as he did.

“Oh!” said Fanny, sticking her head out from behind the drapes as he tumbled out of the dumbwaiter shaft onto the library rug, coughing. “Heavens!”

“Good lord,” he said, rolling over onto his back and staring at the ceiling. “I’m too old for this shite.” And then he heaved himself to his feet. “Michael knows I came up that shaft. We’ve got to get a move on. With me, Fanny!”

He had to cede the design of their route to Fanny’s superior knowledge of the house. She led him out of the library and down a small flight of stairs into one of the myriad of disused bedrooms. The top of the four-poster bed was half caved in, the faded pink drapes piled at odd angles over the bed.

“He’s already looked in here,” whispered the Captain, gesturing at the pattern of disturbed dust. He climbed into the odd four-poster tent and helped Fanny in after him.

“He got Thomas. Who else has been found?” he whispered once they were secreted away.

“Kitty, Humphrey, and Julian, that I know of. Kitty was found right away behind a coatrack; she’s so dreadful at this game I haven’t the faintest why she loves it so. Julian was under the sofa in the library and I believe Humphrey tried to roll himself up in a rug. But there could be others. Robin is on top of the wardrobe in the next bedroom over, I know that.”

“Crafty,” said the Captain appreciatively. “If uncomfortable and with few points of egress.”

There was a shout from directly below them. “Aaarghh! We’ve got to go over everything again,” Michael wailed.  

“Right.” He looked around. “We’ve got to get out of here; it’s a dead end.” He struggled out of the bed.

Onto the landing, silently. He heard the herd of searchers thumping around on the floor below, shrieking and laughing. What was so blasted amusing, he wondered. This was meant to be serious business.

“Split up!” he whispered to Fanny. “Which way has more potential hiding places?” She pointed left, through the door that led to yet another ballroom and beyond that, the television room. “Go!” he said, gently pushing her towards it. “I’ll take the other passage.”

He slipped down the opposite corridor, peeled flowery wallpaper flapping in his wake. He could have sworn there were more empty bedrooms down here, connected by pocket doors that might be persuaded to slide open. Plus bathroom cabinetry, which could do in a pinch…

“Gotcha!” Michael shouted from down the hall.

“Ah, bollocks,” said Robin. “Help me down? I kicked the chair away once I got up here.” There was a series of crashes. “Never mind.” The herd approached again, now with Robin’s booted footsteps added to the thunder.

“Captain, Fanny, Alison!” trilled Katherine. “We’re coming for you!”

Only the three left. He could do this. Although Alison was far more suited to fitting into narrow spaces…

He flung himself around a corner, nearly clocked his face on a portrait frame, and skidded into a bathroom filled with bolts of cloth and some truly creepy dolls. Seriously, the sheer amount of random shite in this house… He slid behind the open door and held his breath.

“Hello? Anybody home?” said Thomas, poking his head through the door. “Eurgh, dolls.” He crept over to the bolts of cloth and gave them a perfunctory kick, then retreated.

The Captain breathed again. It came out ragged. He looked at his watch. Fifty minutes had elapsed. He supposed that if there were still multiple people successfully hidden at the hour mark, the victory was shared…

He listened intently. Thomas’ footsteps faded away. They could have left a guard, of course, if they knew he was likely to be on the run. They certainly had the numbers for it.

“You’ll never find him,” said Fanny smugly from across the landing, sounding far too superior for someone who had just been flushed out. “He’s a true professional.” God bless Fanny, the crotchety stalwart.

It was just the Captain and Alison now, fighting against the clock. She had a distinct size advantage, but he had a distinct training advantage.

He peered around the doorframe. No sentinel that he could see. He decamped hastily before conditions changed. Another tapestry-hung corridor, a short flight of stairs, and then a yawning ballroom to cross. Out in the open, with no cover from enemy fire. He ducked behind a spindly Georgian sofa and waited for a few moments. No sound came, so he changed position to between a large pouf and a massive item that was somehow both lamp and taxidermy. If he could only get round to the dustcover-shrouded piano, he might be able to…

A figure appeared in the doorway as the Captain was mid-scramble. Michael, scanning the room.

The Captain froze, knowing he was as well as caught. Blast. He used to be good at this, dammit.

“Nah, he’s not in here,” said Michael to Robin, looking straight through the Captain. The two of them sauntered through the doorway and stood surveying the room. “Shit, where is he? I thought we’d searched everywhere.”

The Captain looked down at himself, then up at Michael. “I’m right here,” he said. “Right in front of you.”

“Let’s try the fireplaces again,” said Robin.

This must be some sort of prank, a way to get back at him for the dumbwaiter incident.

“Very amusing,” the Captain said irritably. “But I’ll have you know that it’s far from the spirit of fair play to—”

“Yeah, good idea,” said Michael. They turned around and began to mope back across the room.

“Wait!” shouted the Captain, but they didn’t so much as twitch.

He followed Michael and Robin at a near-run. Their route hopscotched across the first floor like a very historical game of Snakes and Ladders.

“Wonder if he was a Royal Marine,” said Michael, craning his neck to look up a chimney in yet another sitting room, this one filled with disused 19th-century household appliances.

“Could be,” said Robin, grabbing a poker and giving it an experimental shove upwards.

“Couldn’t be, thank you very much,” said the Captain grimly. It wasn’t as if they could hear him, anyway. He looked down at his watch. Fifty-four minutes had passed…

“Well, he’s got to come out soon,” said Robin, as if the Captain had acquired the power of suggestion in addition to the vexing invisibility.

“We’re not going to flush him out in the next six minutes,” Michael sighed. “Might as well head back down.”
“One more pass through the music room?” asked Robin. “Give the armoires a good thumping?”

“Sure, why not?” shrugged Michael. They decamped.

The Captain didn’t bother following them this time around. He, after several wrong turnings, found the main staircase and, in a fit of inspiration and insolence, slid down the banister.

It looked dashing, for the record.

The rest of the players were sitting around on the bottom stairs, recapping the game’s highs and lows in an excited babble. The Captain stood in front of them as if addressing a crowd, looking them over.

“Did you see Thomas run across the library? It was like he was on skis!” gushed Katherine.

“It’s a miracle you weren’t caught earlier, Fanny, the drapes are really an amateur mistake,” said Humphrey. “I don’t know why the Captain helped you; the man’s a bloody mystery wrapped in an enigma.”
“Oh, you’re one to talk, Mister ‘I’ll roll myself into a rug, what could go wrong?’” retorted Fanny.

“They got me out eventually! And I had to leave my head sticking out to breathe!”

“You don’t know where Alison’s gone, do you?” asked Thomas.

“Behind the boiler,” said Alison, emerging from god-knew-where covered in dust. “Wouldn’t recommend it.” She coughed and looked at her watch. “Hour’s nearly up. Where’s the Captain?”

“Can’t find him anywhere,” said Michael, thumping down the stairs with Robin in tow.

“Maybe he scarpered.”

“The man loves rules too much. He won’t have scarpered,” put in Humphrey.
“I hope he’s all right,” Katherine fretted.

“Of course I’m all right!” the Captain barked. His watch, which he’d been eyeing, turned neatly over onto the hour. “And you should all love rules as well. They keep us safe.”

“Where the fuck did you come from?” shouted Robin, leaping into Michael’s arms. Everyone sitting on the steps recoiled visibly and shrieked; there were a few inventive swears that the Captain must remember to add to his personal arsenal.

“You saw me,” said the Captain heatedly, pointing at Michael. He realised he must look rather demented, gesturing and shouting while covered in dumbwaiter dust and whatever other house patina he’d picked up along the way. “In that parlour with the awful taxidermy lamp. You looked right at me while you were putty-foosing around—PUSSY! Pussy-footing around.”

Julian made no effort to hide his delighted smirk.

“No,” said Michael. “Can’t be.” But he looked unsure.

“You said, ‘shit, where is he?’ And then, for lack of a better idea given that I was suddenly invisible, apparently, I followed you and Robin around in the hopes that I’d re-emerge onto the mortal plane. It’s very dangerous to be sticking pokers up chimneys where people might be hiding, Robin. And I was not a Royal Marine, by-the-by.”

Jaws dropped.

“Do you really mean to tell me you saw nothing at all?” he asked helplessly into the silence.

“I supposed, now that you mentioned…I did feel like things shifted,” said Michael slowly. “Just a little bit. Sort of half a shimmer at the edges of my vision. I thought it was nothing, and I was so hyped up by the game, but…”

“It’s never done that before,” said Robin. “Not that I know of, and I’ve been here forever.”

“So what was different this time, then?” asked Thomas, and they all turned to look at the Captain.

“Me?” he spluttered indignantly. “I’m not the only one who’s only been here a short while. Look at Michael and Alison, or Julian!”

“Yeah, but they didn’t vanish before my very eyes,” grumped Michael.

“Eh, it’s probably nothing,” said Humphrey breezily. “The Captain wins!” He seized the Captain’s hand and held it aloft as if he were a referee and the Captain a victorious boxer.

“Now run that mile,” said Patrick.

He did it, too. They even stood on the lawn and cheered for him when he came back.

Chapter Text

“Samhain,” said Robin.

“Gesundheit,” said the Captain without looking up from his marking. The Year 8s had gotten dreadfully confused about what a desert was, which was not all that comforting, actually. On this plus side, he himself had remained resoundingly corporeal since the hide-and-seek incident. That he knew of, at least.  

“No, you silly goose,” said Mary, flopping down in the velvet armchair next to the Captain’s. “Samhain is approaching and we must get ourselves in order.”

For the thousandth time, the Captain wondered what it was that Mary really did in the television industry.

“Why not Halloween?” he asked.

Mary and Robin looked pityingly at him. “That’s the watered-down, Christianised version. We’re not interested in that.”

“It’s the hardcore Celtic stuff we’re after,” added Robin.

“…I see.”

“Now, it’s our first Samhain since Alison and Mike inherited the house, so we need to strategise,” Mary ploughed on, undaunted.

“This sounds bad,” said Alison, passing by with a bowl of popcorn. “What do you want to do?”

“Bonfire,” said Robin promptly. “Big old bonfire.”

Alison sighed. “Did Heather just let you do whatever you liked?”

“More or less. She drew the line at human sacrifices.”

“…good to know.”

*

The Captain found Robin in the greenhouse later that afternoon, humming Single Ladies while he pruned.

“What’s all this Samhain business about?” the Captain asked, standing well out of the range of the loppers.

Robin looked speculatively at him. “We do it every year.” Which was quite possibly the biggest non-answer the Captain had heard in his life, and he’d heard a lot of them.

“Who started it?”

“It’s complicated.” Robin snapped off a twig with rather more force than was necessary. “We’re not about to shove you inside the Wicker Man, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

The Captain had been worried about that, actually, but he’d had the sense not to mention it.

An instant later, wet nose in the back of his knee nearly sent him pitching into the broadbeans. A mid-size dog of indeterminate parentage wagged its tail hopefully at him.

“That’s Laz,” said Robin. “Scratch him behind the ears and he’ll love you forever, the tart.”

A second dog trotted up as the Captain was dutifully obeying.

“Matt. He gets jealous.”

The Captain knelt down and managed to scratch both dogs simultaneously. Then Ben showed up and he ran out of hands, and Martha laid down on his feet and horsed around with Simon, and…

“Ah, and that’s old Jim, you’ve got to watch out for him…”

Jim was more of a horse than a dog, grey with spots and streaks of white and an alarmingly prescient expression. He slobbered all over the Captain’s trousers, which Robin said was a sign of deep affection.

*

“You run a lot,” remarked Thomas. He’d been getting into his car (a yellow WV bug with some obscure bumper stickers on it) when the Captain came crunching up the drive. There was no dignified way to run on loose gravel, dammit.

“Yes.”

“Any reason?”

“Because I choose to.”

Thomas rolled his eyes and swung himself into the car.

*

“How were the good youths of Battersea today?”

“Well, there was an incident involving a bucket of parsley, a space hopper, and the entirely of Year 7, if you can believe it. I certainly couldn’t.”

“Fucking tits,” said Humphrey wonderingly.  

*

Because apparently getting spectacularly drunk next to a bonfire with his neighbours was the seasonally-appropriate thing to do, the evening of October 31st found the Captain standing on the edge of the wood with kindling in one hand and a Watney’s the other. (Patrick’s doing, of course; the Captain’s own shit beer of choice was Strongbow). Mary had placed the two of them on fire safety duty, which suited them both just fine. Patrick was in his element, naturally, explaining what he considered to be the only correct configuration of kindling and firewood for an optimal bonfire. There was a brief but fervent disagreement over the matter that was ended by the fact that Patrick had the lighter and the wad of old newspaper and informed the Captain that he’d have to pry them out of his cold, dead hands.

“Stop trying to prove yourself, mate,” whinged Patrick at last, which shut the Captain up.

“How afraid should I be for tonight?” asked the Captain at length, taking Patrick’s empty Watney’s can from his hand and replacing it with a fresh Strongbow. Pat made a face but drank anyway. 

“Only mildly,” said Pat. “Though Mary does like to mix it up from year to year.” He flicked the lighter and the newspaper under the kindling caught, drooping as it burned. “Haul some stumps around the fire, would you? I don’t think we have enough chairs.” He put down his beer to cup both his hands around the little flame as it grew.

*

The temperature plummeted with the sun as the rest of the party began to filter out from the house. The Captain put on his greatcoat—the old army one—and, slightly reluctantly, a woolly hat in Doctor Who colours that had been knitted for him by his old CO.

“Ooh, that’s nifty,” said Pat, looking at the hat appreciatively, which made the Captain seriously consider pitching the thing into the fire.

“Warm,” added Robin, drawing up on his other side. The Captain jumped. Robin chortled and went to help Michael wrap potatoes in foil to put near the fire.

“What is it that we’re actually doing tonight?” Alison asked Mary as the latter set down a slightly-alarming number of carrier bags. (The Captain didn’t think they just contained biscuits and cider, somehow).

“Samhain,” said Mary absently, rooting through a Tesco bag, “Is a night of powerful magic. It marks the beginning of winter in the Celtic calendar. It is the end of the harvest season and the start of the season of darkness and death. The boundary between the living world and the otherworld thins; supernatural spirits and souls of the dead can travel back into our world on this night.”

“…is that a good thing?” Alison asked as a small log exploded in the fire, showering sparks. 

“Depends,” said Mary, pulling a multipack of kitchen roll out of the bag. “On who shows up, and whether they think one of us to be of their number and try to bring us back with them.”

The Captain felt himself stiffen. He picked up the axe and left the circle of the fire to split more wood.

He found Thomas Thorne standing at the edge of the light, staring broodingly at Alison. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on there; the Captain made a noncommittal noise of greeting and trudged onward.

“Captain,” said Thomas suddenly.

The Captain stopped.

“Yes?”

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

The Captain gripped the axe handle. “In what sense?”

Thomas smiled faintly. “Precisely what I wonder. If there are two worlds—that of the living and that of the dead—is it possible to be caught between them, fixed forever in a kind of half-life? I would imagine ghosts to be that, trapped in some sort of nightmarish existence, only able to reach out and touch the souls of the living in the most shadowy and perfunctory manner.”

“Rather over my head, I’m afraid.” The Captain stepped over to the woodpile and started hunting for a likely log. Thomas followed. 

“This thing of Mary’s is all well and good,” Thomas said, clearly having changed tack into the pragmatic. “I do not profess to impugn a tradition and set of beliefs that have deep roots and far-reaching cultural consequences. They live with us regardless of whether we explicitly believe in them or not.”

The Captain took a really good whack at his chosen log.

“But,” Thomas continued, brushing splinters off his sleeve, “I do find it rather lacking in nuance. What, we carouse before the fire and lay out offerings and wear silly costumes and it just means something? That there’s an entire other world whose portals happen to open on this particular night—to say nothing of the differences between the Celtic calendar and the Gregorian—and we can somehow tune into those happenings by jumping about and inviting them onto our own plane? How did we get to that, exactly, and what do we do with it once we’re there?”

“Costumes?” said the Captain faintly. He stooped to pick up the firewood, his knees cracking like gunshots.

“Oh yes,” said Thomas. “She’s got a whole load of them. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the antlers.”

*

Back at the fireside, Mary had laid out a picnic blanket and was arranging food on it. The selection ranged wildly from a whole roast chicken to Jaffa Cakes to rather large quantities of alcohol.

“Who are we expecting?” the Captain asked Alison quietly as Mary hauled a few stumps over to rest next to the blanket.

“I’d think Heather Button,” said Alison. “But it’s a very old house. I’m sure untold numbers of people have died in and around it.”

“No telling who might turn up,” said Michael, turning around to look at the house with faint anxiety.

“Has anyone ever shown up before?” the Captain asked Robin, who’d wandered over to them in hopes of roast chicken of his own.

Robin shrugged. “Hard to say.”

“What do you mean, hard to say?” the Captain asked. “It’s a yes or no question, isn’t it?”

“It is hard to say!” said Kitty earnestly. “Like, you’ll get certain feelings, or feel a chill, or the air smells different somehow—and you might think someone’s there and about to drag you into the otherworld by your ankles, but then the next moment the feeling’s gone and you’re just around a fire with your mates.”

“The excessive volume of booze certainly doesn’t help,” remarked Humphrey dryly.

“Let me see if I have this right,” said the Captain. “Samhain is the night when the veil between the otherworld and our own world thins enough to be penetrated; the souls of the dead and whoever else dwells there can cross over. Some we want with us; some we don’t; there’s the inherent risk of getting kidnapped and taken to the otherworld; and in the morning, we can’t say for sure whether anything came of it. And then we begin the cold, dark, depressing plummet into winter.”

“Just get shitfaced,” advised Humphrey quietly. “It’s what I do. Robin!

Robin grinned and handed Humphrey a frilly and rather mouldy frock in a pink-and-green floral pattern. Knowing this house, it was probably two hundred years old and had been gently decomposing in an attic for one hundred and ninety-five of them.

“Put it on,” said Robin, somewhat dangerously. He himself was in a mouldering top hat and tails. Humphrey, with a series of dramatic eyerolls and muttered comments, stepped into it and pulled it up over his own clothes. It looked ridiculous and hung salaciously off one shoulder, revealing a scandalous bit of cable-knit jumper. The Captain looked over at the rest of the assembled and realised they’d all gotten costumes as well, ranging from fairy wings, a conductor’s hat, and massively oversized corduroy trousers (Julian) to a purple bedsheet cloak and gladiator’s shield (Fanny) to what could only be described as “Robin Hood meets biker gang” (Alison).

“What are you going to give him?” Humphrey asked, jerking his head towards the Captain. “He’s already got that bloody greatcoat on him.”

Robin grinned and produced a set of antlers from behind his back. They weren’t just antlers, though: someone had, probably a very long time ago, managed to attach them to a very stiff and very sizeable leather cap that tied around the chin. The Captain’s neck ached just looking at them.

“Found them in the attic years ago,” he said while the Captain tried vainly to get them on his head without taking off the woolly hat. It could be done, but only just.

“Think they may have been cobbled together by some Victorians, the freaks,” added Humphrey conversationally.

“Nice antlers,” said Patrick behind him. The Captain jumped. Patrick grinned. He was wearing an impressively ample crown of rather faded flowers and what looked suspiciously like a set of priest’s robes. The Captain quirked an eyebrow.

“Don’t read too much into it, mate,” said Patrick a little threateningly. The Captain couldn’t hold back a smile; a soft and ungraceful snort may or may not have escaped him.

They all sat back down for a while in their finery. The Captain, after everyone had had a chance to appreciate/laugh at his antlers, took them off and rested them on his lap. Robin warmed up cider in an honest-to-goodness cauldron over the fire; the Captain accepted his in a “I Got Shitfaced in Llandudno” mug (which, it turned out, had the Welsh translation on the other side). He periodically glanced over at the offerings on the picnic blanket and the empty seats before it. He wasn’t the only one: he caught Katherine’s eye making the same journey a few times.

“Let’s try to guess the Captain’s name!” Mary crowed once the potatoes had been retrieved from the ashes and passed around. Thomas sniffed disinterestedly and went back to writing God-knew-what in his notebook. (The tortured-artist effect was minimised by the fact that he was dressed in a hula skirt, lei, and tricorn hat.)

“No insider trading,” Julian warned Michael and Alison. “We know that you already know.” He sized the Captain up. “Is it Benjamin?”

He shook his head.

“Nathanial,” said Katherine thoughtfully.

“Roger.”

“Lloyd.”

“Andrew.”

“Robert.”

“Patrick?” (This from Patrick himself.)

“Genevieve.” A roar of laughter from those assembled. Robin smiled smugly. One of Robin’s dogs—Matt? Laz? it was always hard to tell—trotted over to the Captain and rested its chin on his thigh. He gave it a tentative scratch behind the ears, feeling the warm, wet breath from its nose on his leg. It wasn’t bad, all things considered. He felt himself begin to relax, infinitesimally (it had only taken, what, several litres of alcohol?). It was just a bonfire with silly costumes and copious booze, and soon they were all going to trudge back into the house, fumble into their darkened flats, and wake up tomorrow morning with spectacular hangovers.

*

At some point, Humphrey brought out the hard liquor and started adding it liberally to everyone’s cider. The Captain was of three-quarters of a mind to say no, but he felt something shifting, breaking apart a bit in him, so he took the mug without commentary. He saw Patrick watching him; he sipped with as casual an air as he could muster (which probably wasn’t very casual, given how eye-wateringly strong the blasted cider was). The firelight flickered in Patrick’s eyes; when he turned his head, the flowers of his crown cast wild, skittering shadows across his face. Mary raked out ashes from the fire and began circling, smudging them on everyone’s cheeks.

“Sorry!” she said when the Captain jerked at her touch. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Wasn’t expecting it, is all.” He raised his cup as boozy explanation. She moved on with a suspicious look at him.

This must have gone a similar way in previous years, because people started to drain their cups and look a bit solemn. The Captain was looking around at everyone trying to assess how seriously each of them took this when Jim the horse-dog sat back on his haunches and let out a long, mournful howl. The other dogs paused their various snuffling and begging for scraps and scampered over to Robin.

“Now comes the tricky bit,” said Humphrey under his breath. “Mind how you go; Fanny twisted an ankle a few years back. Granted, she was dressed as Cleopatra at the time…”
What?”

His question was answered by the sight of Robin and Mary knelt by the bonfire lighting lanterns (scavenged from the attic, no doubt).

“Onward!” cried Mary, lofting her lantern.

The Captain knew where they were going in an instant. “Holloway?” he asked Patrick quietly. They must be right next to it, now that he thought about it.

“The very same.”

They stumbled through the dark brush, giggling and swearing in the wild firelight of the lanterns.

“Ow, that was my foot—”

“Whoever’s treading on my cape needs to stop posthaste--”

“Ah, bollocks!” Patrick pitched sideways into the Captain, who seized him about the shoulders and righted him. “Thanks, mate.”

Without thinking about it, the Captain reached out and adjusted Patrick’s flower crown, which had gone crooked in the ordeal.

“You were lopsided,” he said feebly by way of explanation.

“Cheers.”

The dogs flanked them as they stumbled down the embankment into the holloway. It was really very dark; the lanterns cast wild shadows over the root-studded walls.

“What are you, a blooming cat?” asked Patrick as the Captain grabbed his shoulder seconds before he stepped in a hole. “I’m beginning to suspect you can see in the dark.”

Mary cleared her throat meaningfully and raised her arms to encompass the holloway at large.

“We’re here,” she said loudly out into the void.

The Captain looked sideways at Humphrey, who shrugged. They all arrayed themselves in a loose knot; the dogs ringed them.

“Hi,” said Robin, pointing around them like Elvis.  

They all stood still—well, there was a fair bit of drunken swaying. But relatively still, all things considered.

The dogs began to howl again; a snarl ripped its way out of Jim. The Captain dropped to a crouch and cast wildly around for something to use as a weapon, but Patrick stopped him with a hand on his arm.

“Wait,” he said softly, looking particularly grave for someone wearing a flower crown and a glorified bedsheet. The Captain rose and felt someone grab his hand in the darkness—likely Fanny, from the feel of it—and others cluster in close.

“Oh,” he said, faintly. He couldn’t quite quantify where in his body he felt it, but there was… a tug, almost. A wisp of an embrace that seemed to pull at him, testing the waters.

“Yeah,” whispered Patrick, taking the Captain’s other hand and gripping it.

“We’re all alive here,” said Mary, and the Captain couldn’t say why but he felt it was a rather crucial statement. He held onto Fanny and Patrick’s hands. Silly, he thought, It’s all balderdash, it’s silly, just a game, it’s don’t take me I’m alive I’m here I think I want I—

It was like something passed through him, almost, although that didn’t begin to quite cover it. It was cold desert and hot fire and all of the yearning he’d ever felt in his life, thundering weightlessly down the holloway and begging him to let it sweep him away, off to somewhere else.

No, no you can’t—I want, but I can’t—He felt Patrick and Fanny clutching him. Someone behind him seized his shoulders and held him still, fingers digging agonisingly into his collarbones. He thought he heard Katherine scream and Michael swear.

And then it was gone. The trees rustled overhead; the dogs whined and lay down. He felt a laugh bubble up from somewhere within him, and a wisp of someone departing down the path. He waved goodbye a little, mentally, quite without realising he was doing it. The hands on his shoulders released him and their owner (Robin, apparently) whispered something to Mary.

Patrick and Fanny both turned to stare into the Captain’s face.

“I felt…” began Fanny, then stopped.

“They weren’t sure about you,” said Patrick. The Captain bit his lip and didn’t say anything.

Are you alive?” asked Julian bluntly.

The Captain raised his hands to show that Patrick and Fanny were both holding onto something very corporeal, thank you very much.

“All right, show’s over,” said Robin and they all climbed out of the holloway—Patrick, Katherine, and Fanny all needed a boost, and even the Captain had to grab Robin and Michael’s proffered hands to wrench himself up the bank. The fire burned bright out of the darkness.

“That wasn’t normal, I take it,” said the Captain in an undertone to Humphrey as Katherine passed around bowls of stew.

Humphrey shrugged. “There’s usually a bit of something, to varying degrees. Daley felt something fairly strong one year—oh, he doesn’t live here anymore, he’s up in Scotland. And Patrick said he felt the edges of it too—he was holding onto Daley at the time, you see.”

The Captain took a sip of his stew. “It was… weird. In the Shakespearean sense.”

They both looked over to the picnic blanket and the empty stumps clustered around it.

“Who’s to say?” said Humphrey, gesturing at the untouched food. “Maybe they’ve been here the whole time, watching us and sniggering about what grade-A morons we all are.”

The Captain nearly choked on a piece of carrot. Humphrey very obviously laughed at him and thumped him on the back.

There was more alcohol passed around, more laughter and ribbing as what happened in the holloway receded into the past. Robin knew some incredibly dirty limericks, and the Captain surprised everyone--including himself--by whipping out a selection of the most atrociously filthy jokes he knew. He smiled into his cider as Patrick made a series of indignant squawks about the one with the monk, the rhubarb, and the midnight train to Bradford.

It was gone one in the morning when they began to drift back inside in pairs and groups, as if afraid to go alone (if only for drunkenness reasons). Fanny went back in first, claiming the cold got into her old bones, and Julian went with her, claiming he was freezing his bollocks off. Humphrey and Katherine went next, then Michael, Alison, and Thomas (“Christ,” muttered Robin under his breath, looking at Thomas trailing after the other two with a lovelorn expression on his face).

Then it was just Robin, Mary, Patrick, and the Captain for a while, staring into the flames and not really talking.

“Call it a night?” said Robin to Mary at length, draining his bowl. They stood.

“Leave this lot,” said Mary to Patrick and the Captain, gesturing over the detritus. “In case someone wants it. Also, it’s not supposed to rain tonight and I can’t be arsed.”

“’Night,” said Robin, and the two of them disappeared from the circle of firelight.

Patrick and the Captain sat for a moment.

“Want to tell ghost stories?” asked Patrick.

“I have plenty of my own, thank you.”

“Right.”

Silence reigned once again.

“One more log and one more beer?” asked Patrick at length.

“Anything but Watney’s,” said the Captain, still staring into the fire.

Patrick made a derisive noise but didn’t complain. The Captain tore his gaze away from the flames to go off in search of the log as Patrick went off in search of the alcohol.

“Cheers,” they both said at the same instant as the Captain flung the log on the fire and Patrick offered him a Strongbow.

The Captain sat back down on his stump, taking a swig of his beer. Patrick abandoned his own lawn chair and sat down next to the Captain, close enough that their thighs were nearly touching. It was… unexpected. Not unpleasant, as long as he kept an eye on it.

“I haven’t gotten laid since 2015,” Patrick said suddenly.

“I—oh.”

“Sorry, just… sorry.”

“Don’t be…ah. I’m not sure I know my own name right now, to be perfectly honest.”

“Right. D’you think we’ll remember this in the morning?”
“God, I hope not.”

Patrick snorted. “All right, Ghost Boy.”
“Completely uncalled for,” the Captain retorted, but he could feel himself smiling. He took another sip of beer. “I’ve, ah, got you beat, by the way.”

“Christ, really?”

“2007.”

The intimacy of the revelation was wholly worth the outraged expression on Patrick’s face.

“The Year of our Lord two. thousand. and. seven?” he squawked. “Looking like that?”
“Looking like what?”
“Shut up.”

They lapsed back into silence. Patrick crumpled up his empty beer can and chucked it vaguely in the direction of the others.

“The CO that made me this woolly hat,” the Captain said, tripping over most of the words and then faceplanting in ‘woolly,’ “Was committing gross abuses of power.”

“Shit.”

“I reported him.”

“And?”

“I was told to keep my head down and that it wasn’t in my job description to be bringing that sort of thing to light.”

Fuck.

“That’s more or less what I said at the time.”

“And you still wear the hat? Mate, you’ve got more issues than Vogue.

“No arguing with that.” He finished his beer and pitched the can in roughly the same direction Patrick’s had gone.

Stumblingly, they put out the fire and banked the ashes. The walk back up to the house was a bit sludgy—ah, November—and quiet. The Captain shut the front door behind them with an almighty squeal and the two of them stood in the darkened entrance hall together for a moment.

“What’d’ya think of it all?” asked Patrick softly. He was very close.

“I’m outrageously drunk,” said the Captain carefully.

“So’m I.”

They stood quietly.

“Can you make it up all those stairs?” Patrick whispered.

The Captain snorted. “See you in the morning, Patrick.”

“Oh, bollocks.”

“The 6:45 waits for no man.”

Patrick gave him a wobbly shove and they parted ways.

*

“Why are you so invested in organising house unity?” asked the Captain the next morning as they waited for the train. It came out rather sullener than he meant; in addition to the rather pronounced hangover, Tesco had been out of his preferred brand of coffee and its poor substitute was apparently substantially weaker.

“How do you mean?” asked Patrick, himself looking distinctly worse for wear.

“I mean charades and Twister and Kerplunk and all of it.”

Patrick shrugged. “I like to.”

“But do you like them?”

Patrick eyed him. “You mean our neighbours?”

“Who else would I mean? Unless you and the geese have resolved your blood feud without my knowledge.”

“We were all thrown in it together, weren’t we?” said Patrick.

“You’re not answering the question.”

Patrick sighed. “I don’t know if it can go into a binary categorisation like you want it to. We’ve all known each other for a while now; we’ve all got our own stuff. But it’s…familiar. Happy, I suppose.”
“How long…?”

“Nine years in January, for me. My wife was cheating on me with my best friend Morris. I found them snogging behind a mountain of tinsel on New Years’. I had to find a place to live that was quick and local.”

“Why local?”

“We lived in the village at the time. My son was still in school and I wanted to keep his life as normal as possible. He came to live with me here, in the end.”

“I didn’t know you had a son.”

Patrick shrugged. “He’s at uni now. Scotland. He’s in the phase where he just wants to revise and get blindingly drunk and not talk to his parents more than once a week.”

“What’s his name?”

“Daley.”

“The one who…?”

“Felt something in the woods at Samhain, yeah. Although it was his first time getting shitfaced and it could’ve just been him not recognising how extreme drunkenness faffs about with your perception of things. Oh come off it, he was sixteen,” Patrick said at the Captain’s inquiring look. “I’d rather him do it with adult supervision than while having unprotected sex in a hedge somewhere.”

“You forget that I’m a teacher,” said the Captain mildly. “I’m increasingly hard to shock when it comes to the antics of youth.”

Chapter Text

“Right,” said Michael. “As you all know, the house needs some work.”

There was a series of loud false coughs that sounded suspiciously like “boiler!” “floors!” “parlour windows!” “drains!” and “foundation, probably.”

Michael glared around at them. “Look, Alison and I inherited this mess only six months ago. And we’re trying to fix it, and we know that you lot more than pull your weight around here, but big repairs require big funds.”

“What are you trying to tell us?” asked the Captain, taking off his reading glasses and abandoning his marking. Someone had just drawn a spaceship manned by cats in lieu of actually answering the essay question, after all.  

“There’s going to be a film crew stomping around here for a few weeks,” said Alison.

“Only in the common areas,” said Michael. “And there will be schedules posted about the place so we know when we can and can’t be underfoot.”

“It’s a period piece,” said Alison, as if this sweetened the deal.

Evidently it did, for everyone launched into a highly-choreographed and entirely-silent series of nods and eyebrow-raises by which they apparently agreed to place bets on the period in question. It simultaneously impressed and unnerved the Captain.

“Cap?” said Patrick magnanimously. “First pick as the new guy?”

“Second World War,” he said immediately.

“Ooh, unpopular opinion,” said Robin, throwing in his own lot for Victorian.

“Right,” said Alison once they’d all gone in. “The Captain’s got it.”

Seriously?” said Patrick. “Second World War? Really? Dark horse, that.”

“It’s a low-budget BBC thing on code-breakers, apparently,” said Alison.

“Oh, stop smiling like that,” said Humphrey sourly to the Captain, reaching for his wallet.

*

The film crew arrived in a convoy of lorries, people carriers, and the odd battered-looking sedan, plus an old VW campervan that apparently belonged to a woman named Nadine who worked in the sound department. They set up their own mobile village in the driveway and on the lawn (to Fanny’s horror), a mass of trailers and equipment and swarming humanity.

“Remind you of the army?” asked Patrick as they stood at an upstairs window watching the chaos unfold.

“With about twenty times more women and likely a more robust system for dealing with abuses of power, which is saying appallingly little,” the Captain answered.

Patrick grimaced.

*

Alison had said that discreet lurking was all right, so the first evening of the shoot found them all clustered in the doorway to the downstairs parlour watching the circus. The set dressers had transformed the place into a warren of desks covered in telephones, bits of paper, ashtrays, and what the Captain supposed must be early calculators; period posters reminding the viewers of the dangers of revealing state secrets to Germans littered the walls. The cast was starting to filter in bit by bit wearing scratchy period clothes, while guys with names like Wigsy and Big Ron adjusted the lighting rigs and gaffer-taped cables to the floor. The Captain stood with his back against the wall next to the door and his arms crossed over his chest, watching and half-listening to his housemates’ quiet but pointed commentary. 

“Wonder what the plot is,” said Patrick as a set dresser came past them carrying a box of books.

“I think they’re sort of ripping off the breaking of the Enigma code,” said Mary. “I reckon this place is supposed to be a low-budget Bletchley Park. No offence.” 

“Hey, I’ll take it,” said Michael, showing up in the doorway with one of his never-ending stream of horrible mugs. “Even knockoff Bletchley Park fetches big money.”

“Wasn’t that an Alan Turing thing, cracking the Enigma code?” asked Thomas. “I wonder if they’re going to do anything with his personal…”

But the Captain had stopped listening because a man had come up and leant companionably against the wall next to him. He clearly wasn’t cast, unless fleece jackets and personal radios had been invented a lot earlier than the Captain thought. The man had curly hair and a sharp chin and a rather affecting way of gazing at his surroundings--which at the present happened to include the Captain.

“Adam,” the man said, holding his out hand.

“Pleasure,” said the Captain, shaking it.

“You live here, then?”

“Yes—how did you…?”

“The owners provided us with descriptions of everyone who lives here so we’d know that there weren’t random trespassers lounging about the set.” He surveyed the Captain thoughtfully. “You’re the Captain, aren’t you?”

The Captain nodded shortly, not wanting to know what gave it away. “I am indeed.”

“Tell me,” said Adam. “What’s it really like living here?” He seemed to be inching closer. The Captain tried to discreetly slide away, but he could only go so far before he fell through the doorway.

“Enjoyable, once one knows the lay of the land.”

“Is it haunted?” Adam asked eagerly.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said the Captain. At a warning glance from Alison, he added, “…do you want it to be haunted?”

“It would make sense, wouldn’t it? House as old as this. I don’t even want to think about how many people have died in it.” By his tone, though, he very much did want to think about it, and probably discuss it at length.

“Archaeologists did find a stone-age settlement on the grounds,” said Michael encouragingly.

“Really?” said the Captain and Adam in unison.

“Yeah. They said it was 20,000 years old at least. And on the way down to it they found a medieval village. And, er, a plague pit.”

“Good lord,” said the Captain, thinking of who might still be walking up and down the holloway.

Someone wearing a belt full of different colours of gaffer tape—he hadn’t the foggiest what the chain of command was here or what any of the jobs were bloody called—drew up to them, presumably to pull Adam away to his actual duty.

“Adam, they want to start setup in--” she began, and then stopped, staring the Captain in the face.

“Do I know you?” the Captain asked politely, reckoning it might be better to head this one off at the pass on the off chance it were true.

“No, I just—” she continued to stare at him in seeming amazement. “Wait right there.”

She disappeared into the maze of personnel and equipment.

*

“Why me?” he asked, looking around at the knot of clipboard- and radio-wielding people who’d swarmed into a semi-circle around him. He clutched the wall protectively. 

“You’ve got the look,” said Petra, who was the director. “And Barry’s got horrific mono and we can’t get someone else on such short notice.”

“The look?”

“Some people just have old faces. Not like that—” she hastened to add over the Captain’s spluttering. “They look like they belong to a different era. Not in a bad way—” she said over the renewed spluttering. “And you’ve got the military bearing about you, too. You’d be perfect. We just have to stick you in a uniform and make you some cue cards. The character’s supposed to be stoic anyway, so it’s not like you’d really need to chew the scenery.”

“He was,” said Alison. “Military, that is. Not belonging to a different era. That we know of, although sometimes I have my suspicions.” She narrowed her eyes at him.

“Oh, perfect,” said Petra.        

“No, not perfect,” said the Captain. “I unconditionally refuse.”

“You haven’t even heard what the part is!” wheedled Alison. She looked over at Petra. “What is the part?”

“It’s eleven lines and a bit of action. Maybe six minutes of screen time total, but it’s plot-important and not likely to get cut, if that’ll sway you. In the beginning of the film, the main character arrives at code-breaking headquarters and meets his superior officer—that’d be you—and then they’ve got a thing going on for a tiny bit. But then they get found out and the superior officer takes the fall for it because the main character’s such a genius that the officer knows he’s the only chance to crack the code and defeat the Nazis and therefore can’t get taken out of commission for a bit of homosexuality.”

“Ah, sort of a soap-operafied Alan Turing thing,” said Michael sagely.

Petra hushed him aggressively. “We’re denying any similarity.” She turned to grin at the Captain. “It’s very meaty, but we can walk you through all the bits of the process you’re unfamiliar with. I think you’d be grand, given the military experience you’ll bring.” 

No,” said the Captain. “I cannot believe we are even having this conversation. I cannot and I will not subject myself to such a thing. I’ve paid my dues to this country, over and over again to the point of catastrophe, and I will not undertake this pantomime—”

“Hang on, we need to have a word,” said Alison, seizing the Captain by the back of his jumper and forcibly towing him out of the room. “Mike? A bit of backup, please?”

The Captain and Petra made some very confused eye contact, but then he went around the doorjamb and whacked his elbow on it and she was gone.

“What’s got you so freaked out?” asked Alison once he’d been deposited into a chair in her and Michael’s big kitchen.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Michael put in helpfully from where his head was in the larder hunting for teabags.

“I don’t want to be on camera,” the Captain said stoutly.

“I believe you on that one,” said Alison, pulling out her own chair. “But what I don’t get is the massive freakout. You’re more the type to say, ‘no thanks, not for me’ than to get weird and shouty.”

“Shouty?” he said faintly.

“Yeah, you were a bit, well… full-on shouting,” said Michael with the air of someone who didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news.

There was a knock at the door. “Come in,” Alison called.

“What’s happened?” asked Patrick, stumbling into the room sounding winded.

“Not you too,” groaned the Captain, burying his face in his hands. “For the last time, I don’t need a bloody intervention—”

Michael whacked him gently but smartly upside the head as he set a steaming mug down in front of him. “Mate, it’s okay. Drink your tea.”

Meanwhile, Patrick and Alison appeared to be communicating solely via eye contact and really strange gestures.

“Listen,” said Patrick, sitting down in the chair on the Captain’s other side. “It’s not the Army anymore; you can talk about your feelings.”

“There are no feelings to talk about. A request was made; I categorically refused the request. There’s no point in trying to force me to acquiesce.”

“We’re not forcing you!” Alison half-cried. “Nobody’s forcing you to do anything. There was never any intention of making you play the part.” She buried her face in her hands and muttered something that sounded oddly like you git.

“Then what’s the point of this, then?” He gestured around at the kitchen and all the worried faces.

“This is what normal humans do for other people who are upset,” said Patrick, far too gently. It would have been better if he was shouting, the Captain thought. “We sit them down with tea and pat them on the back and awkwardly ask them if they’re all right and if there’s something they’d like to talk about. Now, I grant you that the British aren’t known for our skills at that sort of thing…”

“I’m fine.

“You’re hyperventilating.”

“I’m—” the Captain held out his hands in front of him. They were trembling and half-numb. “Oh. Right. No, I was just. Er. Taken by surprise.”

“Try again,” said Patrick patiently.

“I was taken by surprise and overreacted.”

Nul points, sister,” said Patrick. “I’m asking you how you feel, right now, and if there’s anything we can do to help you.”

No,” he said hotly. “I’m fine.”

“You’re clearly not,” said Alison. Christ, she had kind eyes, and she looked so worried. It made him feel sick to his stomach.

“I am,” he reassured them. He looked around at them. “Thank you for apprising me of the fact that I had some volume control issues, and for the tea.”

Michael, Alison, and Patrick all stared at his untouched, still-steaming mug. He stood up; his chair fell over.

“Please send my regrets to Petra. Now if you’ll excuse me,” he said, righting it, and departed.

*

He hid himself away in his flat for as much of the remainder of the shoot as possible. He took a photo of the schedule and consulted it with a frequency that bordered on obsessive. He went for long runs in the Downs at odd hours; he stayed late at school marking and, once that was done, practising backthrowing crumpled-up papers into the wastebasket. (It never hurt to keep one’s skills sharp). His students found themselves buried under an unexpected avalanche of practice papers that he marked with great detail and relish. He’d even got new pens for it in a wide range of colours. Early mornings were the safest time to be at large in the house; he and Patrick usually departed together for the train in a blessed silence (save for that one time that the lighting guys had come in early and he had to artistically leap over a pile of boxes and dodge out the back door to avoid them while Patrick rolled his eyes). The house was still littered with the physical reminders of the film crew’s presence, lights and tripods and cables gaffer-taped to the floor. (The Captain definitely didn’t trip over one during his daring escape, and Patrick definitely didn’t smother his laugh). He even had a countdown going on his phone until the blasted affair was over. Twenty days…nineteen, eighteen, seventeen… he hauled himself to Devon for a bit of camping and days fourteen and thirteen floated by, if not peacefully, at least tolerably. Patrick was good enough not to talk about it, though he did keep throwing the Captain off-puttingly concerned looks while they rode the train.

Bits and pieces did filter through to him from various sources, though: apparently Robin’s dogs had got a cameo and were going to show up by name in the end credits and Katherine was head-over-heels for one of the camera operators. Michael had caught two of the principals snogging in a downstairs loo, which had caused Robin to laugh so hard he hit his head on a wall and had to go to A&E to get checked for a concussion. Fanny floated about the place making hemming and hawing noises and had got herself nicknamed The Grey Lady by the slightly freaked-out crew.

The Captain realised one night while he sat alone in his armchair before the fire, that, to his horror, he almost missed everyone. It was a sort of ache that started up in his chest when a snippet of shenanigans made its way to him, almost as if he regretted not being there for it.  

On the Saturday morning that marked four days to go, the Captain pulled up the filming schedule on his phone for approximately the millionth time while he ate his toast. Apparently the production was spending the morning shooting something on a closed set in one of the corner bedrooms on the first floor. He knew enough to know that meant nudity; hopefully everyone would be sufficiently distracted for him to slip out for a run without having to look at anyone who’d witnessed the freakout heard ‘round the world.

He got on his track bottoms and a pullover—it was getting properly cold out, his knees reminded him—and inched down the stairs. He could hear the general babble coming from the ground floor and smell whatever the catering department had been cooking up (tacos, maybe?). As he disembarked the final stair onto the first floor, he thought he caught snatches of Katherine’s voice and Patrick answering in the next room. The volume got louder; he slipped behind the staircase and into the shadows by the wall.

“I just wish I knew what was wrong,” said Patrick in a low voice from just outside the room. “You weren’t there, were you?” He and Katherine came through the doorway, which disgorged the customary sprinkle of paint flakes. The sunlight glittered over the flakes as they fluttered in the air; the brown of Patrick’s hair blazed red in its glow.

“No, I wasn’t,” said Katherine. She’d apparently been mooning over the camera operator by the catering truck at the time.

“I wasn’t either, but according to Mike and Alison it was like he’d seen a ghost. Went all shouty and shaken. I haven’t a clue as to why.”

Katherine failed to speculate, bless her. The Captain wondered if he should send her a fruit basket.

“You see him every morning on the train, don’t you?” Fanny’s voice came. She joined Patrick and Katherine at the foot of the stairs.

“Aye,” said Patrick.

“And he hasn’t said anything…?”

“Not a word.”

“Well, he was in the Army for a terribly long time. I shudder to think what he’s seen,” said Fanny magnanimously.

The trio peered up the stairs at the closed door of the Captain’s flat.

Fanny sighed. “I do worry about that boy. I hope he’ll be all right.”

“I don’t think we have to worry about him being all right. I think the problem is that he’s been all right for too long, in situations that would call for one being, well, not alright.”

Patrick. The Captain pressed further back into the shadows.

“Do you suppose they’ve finished with the coitus?” Fanny asked. The Captain had to slap his hand over his mouth to stop himself from snorting with laughter.

“Nah, Petra said it was going to take ages,” said Katherine, sounding very happy about it all.

“Scrabble in my flat?” asked Patrick.

“That sounds agreeable,” said Fanny.

They exited stage left. The Captain breathed a sigh and disentangled himself from the shadows.

*

He went down the back way—or what he suspected was the back way, at any rate; the warren of rooms was slowly making itself less foreign to him, but he still managed to get lost on a regular basis. He began to tiptoe towards the door into the kitchen garden, but there was some sort of props department tête-á-tête happening by the greenhouse, so he doubled back, hoping he could scamper out the front door unnoticed.

They must be filming directly above the drawing room: they’d had to put up bright-yellow struts braced between the floor and the ceiling, presumably because of heavy equipment and a rather lot of bodies stomping about on floorboards that possibly predated the restoration of the monarchy. He wove between the struts, stepping over boxes and half-eaten sandwiches. Another ten paces and he was there…

There was a squeal of floorboards, a horrible crack of splintering wood, and a shout, and then suddenly a man’s lower body was flailing wildly through a newly-ripped hole in the ceiling. The Captain, on instinct, leapt over and shouted, “Hang on!” He seized the figure’s thighs, which, to their owner’s credit, stopped thrashing in the interest of not kicking him in the face.

“Let go,” he commanded once he realised the man definitely wasn’t going to be able to go back the way he game. The man did as ordered, releasing his grip on something as he did, and the power went out.

Everything was dark: the sun had gone behind a cloud and the watery light did little to nothing to illuminate the figure who came crashing down on top of him. There was another series of cracks, but whether they were from the floor, the ceiling, or one of their bodies was unclear.

“Barry!” came the shout from above. “Are you all right?”

Barry. The Captain helped the man scramble off of him and sat up himself, rubbing his wailing ribs and staring at…

“Are you the bloke they tried to tap to do this role?” asked Barry conversationally, picking bits of wood out of his hair. He was very shirtless.

“Er,” said the Captain. “Yes.”

*

There was a slightly mortifying trip to A&E to confirm that yes, he had cracked a few ribs (well, Barry and the floor had worked together to crack them) and got himself the makings of some spectacular bruises. Then there was a really mortifying crew-wide debrief back at the house in which the Captain tried not to make eye contact with anyone. Barry was effusively thankful—perhaps he’d seen the way the Captain hobbled back in the door ahead of Alison, who was carrying the massive bag of painkillers he’d been issued. Or perhaps Barry was merely relieved that the Captain had not stolen his cinematic glory.

“Not a problem, really,” the Captain gritted out into his tea, wondering whether it was time for more painkillers yet. He was pretty sure at least half his housemates were actively laughing at him.

*

“How are the ribs?” Patrick asked in the foyer the next morning.

“Fine.”

“You keep using that word. I do not think that word means what you think it means,” said Patrick in a credible Inigo Montoya impression.

The Captain settled for a glower. He had enough trouble sleeping as it was; the addition of the ache from his ribs meant that he’d mostly dozed fitfully in his armchair.

On the train, Patrick gave him a sly look and pulled out a slightly-squashed packet from his coat. “I made you brownies.”

“Brownies?” said the Captain, confused. The addition of painkillers meant that he needed closer to three-quarters of a flask of coffee to feel somewhat like a functioning human, and he wasn’t nearly there yet.  

“Brownies. You know, for eating.”

“Yes, I know what they’re for—hold on. They’re not… they’re not special brownies, are they?”

“Heaven above, no,” Patrick chortled, opening the packet. “Although I think a few of those would do you some good.” He held it out to the Captain.

The Captain took a brownie. But only because it was the polite thing to do, you understand. And if he found himself smiling when he opened his satchel in the classroom to find Patrick had sneakily stowed the rest of the packet in with the Year 10s’ practice papers, well. It was probably the painkillers.

Many thanks, he texted Patrick, with a photo of a brownie sitting on his desk next to a steaming mug of tea.

*

“Is your name Shirley?”

“No, Robin, it is not.”

“Fred.”

“No.”

“Xavier.”

“No.”

“Agatha.”

“No.”

“Dick.”

“…very funny.”

“… is it Dick?”

“No.”

*

“Katherine!” said the Captain one deceptively warm November day, catching Katherine as she came in the door from work. (He may or may not have been lying in wait by the fire). “I’ve finished the romance novels you lent me.” He held them out to her in a Tesco bag.

“Oh, marvellous!” She took the bag from him, her own ‘Save the Bees’ tote falling to the floor. “What did you think?”

And then she honest-to-goodness took his hand and led him back over to the fireplace.

“Well,” he said, shifting his bum about uncomfortably on the settee and trying frantically to think, “The prose in Speechless in Bombay was far superior to that of any of the others, though the plot of Many Chances was quite sophisticated.”

“And?”

“I found the characterisation to be weak in Sojourn by Moonlight but the pacing to be excellent.”

And?

He squinted at her. “And…?”

“The romances! What did you think of the romances? You know, the parts where people fall in love.”

He looked at her, long and thoughtful. His heart had begun to race, his legs aching with the adrenaline his brain was proactively flooding through his system.

“Katherine, it has been a very long while since I’ve even thought about such things.”

She nodded solemnly.

“They were…comforting to read. Knowing that it would all work out in the end, and that the writers were telling stories about people who would, eventually, be cherished by one another. I…very much understand the appeal. They are quite affecting.”

She beamed at him. “Exactly!”

“But I—I--I’m… unable to enjoy them in the same way that I believe you do.”

“Yes, because you’re gay.”

He choked on nothing at all.

“Oh God, your face, Captain—it’s all right! Please breathe! I won’t tell anyone!” She waved her hands in a panic. “Please don’t die.”

“I’m not—I’m not dying, I’m just…” He coughed and tried to fill his lungs, broken ribs screaming. “Taken by surprise.”

“It was just a suspicion, I promise,” Katherine hastened to add. “It’s all in where your eyes go—I really do read a lot of romances, I just notice these things.”

“My eyes?—no, wait, I’ve decided I don’t want to know.” He buried his face in his hands. “Yes, Katherine, you are correct,” he said, muffled. He picked his head up, eyes watering from his apparent near-death experience. “It is a little-known fact, though, so I would much appreciate it if you’d keep it to yourself.”

“Oh, of course!” she said breathlessly. “I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone.” She smiled a little conspiratorially. “It’ll be our secret.”

“Many thanks, Katherine.”

“…can I set you up on dates? There’s this bloke who works at the café--”

No.

“Fine,” she sighed. “Shame, though. I bet you turn all sorts of heads and don’t even know it.” 

“Our secret,” he reminded her sternly.

“Our secret,” she promised. She stood, retrieved her bags, and flounced off up the stairs. He stared after her, feeling his heart thrash in his ears.

There was another secret, after all: he’d never admitted the first secret to anyone before.

Chapter Text

Thanks to Button House’s fundamental structural-integrity issues (and Barry), coping with life via running was out of the question for the near future. In its stead, the Captain took to stalking along the lane leading to the house with a litter picker and a bin bag. His housemates found this hilarious, of course, and took every opportunity to heckle him while he was in pursuit of the odd stray crisp bag or once, horrifically, a condom. 

“How the bally hell could you possibly want someone badly enough to do it in a hedge, for God’s sake?” he groused, putting the blasted thing gingerly into his bin bag.

“Eh, I’ve done worse,” said Patrick, but did not elaborate.

“Same,” said Mary, and did elaborate.

“Well, then,” said Patrick once she’d finished, turning a faint shade of pink.

“Points for creativity, I suppose,” said the Captain, looking everywhere but Mary.

“Thanks, lads,” she said, and went on her merry way down the lane.

The Captain was giving spirited pursuit to a Curly Wurly wrapper one day when he heard an unfamiliar voice behind him proclaim, “How civic-minded of you, my good sir.”

The Captain turned, wrapper successfully pincered in the litter picker, to behold a red-faced, tweed-clad, balding old man. He’d heard profanity-laden tell of the neighbours, but he hadn’t yet had the displeasure of their acquaintance. That phase of blissful ignorance was apparently coming to a rather abrupt end.

“Hello,” said the Captain, depositing the wrapper crisply into the bin bag and leaning the litter picker against his leg.

“Barclay Beg-Chetwynde, how do you do,” the man said, pumping the Captain’s hand vigorously. “Oh, terribly sorry,” he said insincerely at the Captain’s wince.

“Quite alright, Mr Beg-Chetwynde. I’ve a few cracked ribs, is all.”

“Good Lord, how did you manage to do that?”

“A fall.”

Beg-Chetwynde peered at him but made no move to press the issue. “And who might you be?”

“I’m the newest tenant at Button House. The others call me the Captain.”

Ooh, a military man,” crowed Beg-Chetwynde, eyebrows flying up in intrigue.

“Not anymore, although that’s fairly recent development.”

“Oh, I see. Gone and jumped ship, so to speak. Although I suppose that would be the Navy, now wouldn’t it?” He chortled enthusiastically at his own great wit.

The Captain nodded and pointedly did not provide comment. Unfortunately, Barclay Beg-Chetwynde did not seem to be a man to be discouraged.

“And what do you do for a living now, my good Captain?” he pressed on.

“I teach geography at a comprehensive in Battersea.”

“How generous of you.” Beg-Chetwynde clapped him on the shoulder. “Extraordinary.”

“I presume you live nearby?” said the Captain, trying to change course before Beg-Chetwynde said something appallingly classist and/or racist.  

“Ah, yes. My good lady wife Bunny and I live about a mile distant in another old pile. Not quite as old as yours, mind you, but still a lovely bit of kit, as it were. Do you know the village?”

“I’m quite familiar.”

“Yes, I own that.”

“…I see.”

“Tell me, my dear fellow, what’s au courant in Button House? It’s been a dreadfully long time since I’ve had a proper powwow with Annabelle and Michael.”

The Captain had a few guesses as to why, starting with ‘Annabelle.’

“As a matter of fact, the house is getting treated for woodworm in a few days,” he volunteered gingerly.

“Oh, how frightful. It is always a risk with these old places, of course, and dear Heather was so frail, at the end, that the upkeep was rather behind her. Good to see Michael and Annabelle are trying to put the house to rights after all these years.”

“The tenants did what they could,” said the Captain, just managing to stay this side of terse.

“Oh, undoubtedly. What a charmingly ragtag bunch they all are. Tell me, where will you all go while the fumigation is ongoing?”

“I think a few of us were planning to camp out or sleep in the greenhouse, and others were going to stay with friends or workmates.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! Chez Beg-Chetwynde would be more than delighted to host all of you.”

“There are eleven of us, Mr Beg-Chetwynde. I would hate to impose—”

“Fret not, my good man. We certainly have the room. Granted, you’ll have to double up, but I’m sure there are at least a few couples among your number anyway.”

“Er, no. Not as such, apart from Michael and Alison.”

“Really? Good lord. When I was in my prime, those sorts of numbers would be unthinkable. We all paired off quite young. Oxbridge and then wedded bliss, you know how it is.”

He did not know how it was. “Ah. Well. There are all sorts, nowadays.”

“Indeed there are.” Beg-Chetwynde scrutinised him. “A likely fellow like yourself, single, though? It’s nearly unthinkable.”

“I was in the military for a long time, Mr Beg-Chetwynde.”

“Please, call me Barclay.”

The Captain nodded and then most emphatically did not call him Barclay.

“A spot of local knowledge for you, old chap,” Barclay ploughed on. “As a matter of fact, about twenty feet of your drive belongs to me. Now, it doesn't really affect your grounds inside the gates, but the path outside the gates is on my deed, so, technically, you have to cross a strip of my land every time you enter your house. Now, we’ve always granted right-of-way to the inhabitants of Button House, of course…” he trailed off.

“That’s very kind of you.” The man was marking his territory, the Captain could feel it, and his territory unfortunately happened to surround the Captain’s own territory. Best to be diplomatic, then, considering he was well hemmed in. “I shall consult with the rest of them about the fumigation plans and keep you appraised.” He shouldered the bin bag and turned to go.

“Jolly good! We’d be pleased as punch to have you all. And one more interesting titbit for you,” said Beg-Chetwynde conspiratorially. “There’s long been hearsay in these parts that Button House is haunted.”

“Is that so?” The Captain did not turn around.

“Oh, yes. The place is absolutely riddled with ghosts. Hard not to be, what with as much history as it has.”

“I haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary.”

“Well, keep an eye out, my good Captain. It’s probably all tosh and piffle, but one can never be too careful. Particularly down in that holloway of yours.” He sighed longingly. “The thing borders my land, you know. I’ve coveted it from afar for decades now. What a magnificent archaeological resource. I would never have presumed to divide the estate while dear Heather was alive, but perhaps Alison and Michael have a less sentimental relationship with it and would be prepared to part with a small sliver…”

“I think they have a very strong connection to the place, Mr Beg-Chetwynde.”

And with that, the Captain departed. He may or may not have tripped slightly over his litter picker in the process.

*

“You mean every time we come in and out of our own land, we’re crossing over the property of that posh fucker?” said Michael indignantly.

“Evidently.” The Captain stood at attention. “In light of that fact, it seemed a wise course of action to offer him something of an olive branch.”

“Oh god, what?” asked Alison, putting her head down on her arms.

“He and his, er, good lady wife Bunny want to host us during the woodworm treatment. The offer seemed to be born less of generosity than of a desire to assert dominance.”

“I know the sort,” Julian drawled.

“You are the sort,” retorted the Captain.

“Ugh, poshos,” groaned Alison into her arms. 

“Still,” said Michael thoughtfully. “We can scope out their house. And at least you nutters—” he pointed at the Captain and Patrick— “Won’t freeze to death sleeping in a tent in November.”

“I think I’ll bring my tent just in case,” said Patrick.

“Good man,” said the Captain.

*

“Do you lot always move in packs?” the Captain asked. Or tried to, at any rate. He was one too-abrupt stop away from braining himself with his own knees, which rather constricted his ability to breathe.

“Not always,” said Katherine from his left.

“More than is likely normal or healthy, though,” said Thomas from his right. 

“You’re one to talk about normal and healthy,” said Alison from the passenger seat. How the Captain had wound up in the middle seat was a mystery even to himself. 

“Ooh, burn,” said Mary absently, putting the car into gear. “Humans are pack animals, you know. Individualism is a very recent invention, historically-speaking.” She waved the other two cars out ahead of them—Robin had piled Michael and the six dogs into his own battered truck while Patrick had Katherine, Humphrey, Julian, and Fanny wedged into his Volkswagen. Mary cheerily put on a song that included the perplexing lyrics ‘she got a booty like a Cadillac, but I can send you into overdrive’ and tore out of the drive. They all bumped down the lane, then missed the turning about six times--Robin didn’t work on the grounds of the Beg-Chetwynde abode and as generations of Button House tenants had avoided the place like the plague, they had little knowledge to go on.

The house itself, like Button House, was a Tudor monstrosity, though it was about a century younger. It was brick, with towering chimneys and large, long mullioned windows threaded with lead cames. It was also in noticeably better repair than their own house. Even at this time of year, the leafless trees and empty planting beds seemed to stand at strict attention.

The door was flung open as their caravan pulled into the drive and the inhabitants of Chez Beg-Chetwynde stepped out onto the stoop to greet their quarry.

“Welcome, welcome!” said Beg-Chetwynde, spreading his arms magnanimously. Bunny, twinsetted and noticeably inebriated, wobbled off the threshold to meet them. “You’re just in time for dinner."

“Oh, we’ve all brought our own food,” said Alison; everyone hefted their hampers in illustration. The Captain had brought enough sandwiches to feed half of Surrey on the grounds that it was good to be prepared. “We don’t want to impose.”

Nonsense,” said Beg-Chetwynde, sounding personally affronted. “You must dine with Bunny and myself. Heaven knows we seldom get a chance to use the whole vast length of the dining room table.”

“Somebody’s compensating for something,” said Michael under his breath as they all filed in the door and piled their baggage in the entryway. The Captain fought a smile as Beg-Chetwynde took his coat rather forcefully.

After a lengthy tour of the house in which there were four separate pileups in narrow corridors and even Patrick’s eyes glazed over, their party was at last ushered into the dining room. It was a severe affair with portrait-hung wood-panelled walls and an enormous fireplace blazing at one end.

The table was already laid for thirteen. The majority of the Button House set looked at each other in a panic upon noticing the baffling array of forks at each place.

“Just watch me and do what I do,” said Humphrey under his breath. “It’s not that hard.”

“Speak for yourself, you twat,” said Robin, slightly too loudly.

“Please,” said Beg-Chetwynde, gesturing grandiosely at the table. There was a brief scuffle over the seating arrangements—the chief objective being to get as far away from Beg-Chetwynde as possible—after which the Captain found himself midway down the table between Mary and Robin, with Patrick directly across. Michael and Alison had been given the dubious honour of sitting on Beg-Chetwynde’s right and left hands as he presided smugly over the head of the table. Bunny was wedged between a visibly-confused Thomas and a visibly-resigned Humphrey.

“What lovely curls you have,” Bunny slurred to Thomas, reaching out unsteadily to let one run through her fingers. “You’re the poet, aren’t you? Maybe you could recite me a little something.”

“Erk,” said Thomas, looking around wildly for help that definitely wasn’t coming.

“Was it just in Harry Potter, or is the ‘when thirteen dine, the first to rise will be the first to die’ bit from Prisoner of Azkaban a real thing?” Katherine asked Patrick, counting heads.

“I dunno,” said Patrick, looking around at their numbers. “It’s hogwash either way.” 

“And J.K. Rowling is a TERF anyway,” said Robin, which seemed to astonish all present.

A young woman came in with a carafe of table wine and began pouring without meeting anybody’s eyes.

“That’s Lauren. She Does for us,” said Beg-Chetwynde. The capitalisation came across even in speech.

“Ah,” said Alison, suddenly becoming very interested in her hands. Humphrey, realising with clear dread that he was to be the evening’s designated posho-whisperer, turned to Beg-Chetwynde and said something to do with polo, to which Beg-Chetwynde responded with great enthusiasm.

Salad followed, then soup; each was summarily cleared away, at which point Lauren came around dispensing the main course.

“Pheasant?” Katherine mouthed at Humphrey, who nodded.

Mary was looking down at her pheasant in slight consternation.

“Vegetarian?” the Captain asked under his breath. Mary nodded. The Captain waited until the Beg-Chetwyndes were distracted with a fresh carafe of table wine, then tipped his potatoes and green beans onto her plate. She smiled at him in thanks and hoisted her own pheasant onto his.

He looked up to see Patrick watching the exchange with a very odd expression on his face. The Captain cocked his head in silent question; Patrick shook his head ruefully and turned to Thomas to receive the carafe.

“Could I trouble you for the location of the facilities, Mr Beg-Chetwynde?” asked the Captain, rising to his feet.

The first to rise…” whispered Katherine; Mary looked at her in exasperation.

“Ah, of course,” said Beg-Chetwynde, and gave the Captain a series of unbelievably convoluted directions involving tapestries, rococo chairs, and a portrait of a beloved hunting dog. It took three wrong turnings to find the place, one of which involved nearly smacking his face on a suit of armour. He finally found the wretched thing—the door was half behind a tapestry, naturally—and shut himself in gratefully.

He felt… odd. He stood absolutely still while he relieved himself, staring at the wall and trying to catalogue the feeling. It didn’t work, so he stared at himself in the mirror instead while he washed his hands as if the answers were therein. It was as if a stranger were staring back at him, but that was par for the course. His hair had greyed nearly a decade ago in a rapid cascade that took place over the course of less two years, though he’d barely noticed it at the time. More recently, he’d got rid of his moustache after overhearing one too many underlings referring to his facial hair as a ‘pornstache.’ It still caught him by surprise, sometimes, being clean-shaven. Tonight, in the absence of any better ideas, he’d decided to bid on neutrality and worn a black jumper and the sort of trousers that cheekily toed the line between casual and professional. (He wore them to school often; the pupils’ propensity for sticky explosions meant it was best not to enter the breach wearing any clothing to which one was emotionally attached). He tried to catalogue the feeling of oddness again, to no avail. He shook his head at his reflection, dried his hands, and made the labyrinthine journey back to the dining room.

“I don’t really have any family,” Alison was saying to Beg-Chetwynde when the Captain slipped back into his chair. “It’s a strange feeling, suddenly having a massive house that speaks to connections I never thought I had, stretching back hundreds of years.”

“Oh, I can only imagine. What about you lot?” asked Beg-Chetwynde, peering down the table. The Captain moved his hand to shield his bonus pheasant from view. “How did you all end up all by your lonesomes in that old pile, anyway?”

They were, by the Captain’s reckoning, a motley mix of divorcees, free spirits, and the otherwise nuclear-family-disinclined, but he wasn’t about to say it out loud.

“We’re hardly by our lonesomes,” said Patrick. “We have each other.”

“No family, though?” pressed Beg-Chetwynde. “Surely each of you must have some relatives. Come, now, family is the most important thing in all of our lives.”

“My family died in a car crash ten years ago,” said Mary suddenly.

“My parents are dead, my ex-wife cheated on me with my best friend, and my son is at uni,” said Patrick.

“I was an illegitimate child raised in a deeply racist and abusive white family,” said Katherine.

“My family is just garden-variety awful,” said Robin.

They all looked at Julian.

“Yes, yes,” Julian sighed. “I imploded my own family through my voracious sexual appetite and utter lack of morals and/or self-control.”

“Blood isn’t everything, Mr Beg-Chetwynde,” said the Captain mildly into the stunned silence.

“Never said it was, old boy,” said Beg-Chetwynde, but he looked suitably appalled.   

Dinner finished with merely what the Captain gauged to be a minor diplomatic incident (and a really lovely lemon tart), their party was instructed to retire to ‘the cosy little parlour.’ This turned out to be a tapestry-and-taxidermy-enclosed collection of furniture that one was afraid to sit on for fear of ruining it. The Captain found himself sharing an odd pink pouf next the fire with Patrick and accepting yet another glass of wine from Lauren. He wondered if it was strategically advantageous for her to keep the entire household at a certain level of sloshed. Julian and Beg-Chetwynde, upon receiving their own glasses, immediately launched into a spirited windbag-off. The rest of them sat quietly talking amongst themselves.

“The tent’s in the car boot,” said Patrick under his breath. “We could still do a runner. Piling Robin’s dogs on top of us to keep warm ought to work.”

“Tempting. There’s fire and alcohol in here, though.”

“Fair point,” said Patrick, and turned slightly to strike up a conversation with Robin on the best usages of various knots and hitches. The Captain stared into the fire, playing the stem of his empty wine glass between his fingers and trying to ignore the Tory wankfast happening off to his left. He felt less odd than he had in the dining room; perhaps he was adjusting to being in enemy territory.

“Knickers!” Bunny proclaimed loudly, pointing. They all startled.

An enormous fluffy white cat slunk around the doorframe, surveyed the room disdainfully, and leapt up onto the Captain’s lap.

“Hello, Knickers,” he said dutifully, deciding that he probably really didn’t want to know how she got her name. She raised a paw and gently prodded his chest. He obligingly began petting her, trying not to think about the snowdrifts of white fur being deposited onto his clothes.

“Very intelligent, cats,” said Beg-Chetwynde, seeming to search for something in the Captain’s face. “Quite astute. They can sense things about people.” He did not elaborate on what these alleged things were. Robin, evidently a dog person to the core, appeared to be trying to become one with the tapestry behind him.

“Hi, little love,” said Patrick to Knickers. “Aren’t you sweet?” He reached out and scratched her behind the ears, his arm brushing the Captain’s as he did. Knickers tilted her head back; Patrick took the hint and moved the scratching action to under her chin.

Perhaps the Captain had had too much wine, but there was something shockingly intimate about the moment, Patrick close, focused, and murmuring endearments in his general direction. Granted, the endearments were directed at the cat and mostly consisted of variations on ‘what a beautiful fluffy darling you are,’ but something about the moment was… well, it was.

“Poker, anyone?” asked Beg-Chetwynde to the room at large. Without waiting for an answer, he set a deck of cards and a box of poker chips down at a table near the Captain, Patrick, and Knickers and looked about eagerly. There was silence in which a number of people took the opportunity to drink deeply of their wine and look intently at the nearest tapestry.

“Come, now,” said Beg-Chetwynde, grinning vaguely maniacally. “What’s a little game between friends?”

“Don’t play poker with someone who can afford to lose,” Julian murmured.

“Let’s not be crass and play for dosh, though,” continued Beg-Chetwynde. The ‘you can’t afford it anyway’ was heavily implied.

“I’m in,” said the Captain decisively. It was hard to look threatening while sat on a pink pouf with a lapful of fluffy cat, but he tried mightily. Julian’s eye roll was nearly audible.

“Excellent!” crowed Beg-Chetwynde, clasping his hands together. “You seem the type to take things seriously. What shall we play for, old boy?”

There was a moment of silence. The Captain looked sideways at Humphrey, who evidently had abdicated his posho-whispering duties and was avoiding all eye contact with the rest of them, and then around at the manorial opulence of a life and a time very different to theirs.

“The right-of-way,” said the Captain suddenly. “If a representative of Button House wins, Michael and Alison get the right-of-way access free of cost, no strings attached. Legally-documented and binding, of course.”

There was a ringing silence.

“Oh, very interesting,” said Beg-Chetwynde, looming over him. “And if you lose?”

“The holloway. Well, the piece of land containing it. The entire thing, signed over to you.” He looked aside at Alison and Michael, both of whom were staring openmouthed. “If Alison and Michael agree, of course.”

“Uh,” said Alison faintly, looking searchingly at the Captain for some sign that he hadn’t completely lost his mind. He inclined his head nearly imperceptibly at her. “Sure. Yes.”

“Yeah, all right,” said Michael, who had yet to close his mouth.

“Bunny shall be my second, of course,” said Beg-Chetwynde. “Who is yours, my dear Captain?”

The Captain looked around. “Any takers?” It didn’t particularly matter, since he intended to be the undisputed victor, but politeness seemed to dictate it.  

Fine,” sighed Humphrey, getting to his feet. Good man, returning to his posho-whispering duties in a time of great need. He was wearing a smoking jacket, after all.

Knickers would not be dislodged from the Captain’s lap, so he picked her up and carried her over to the table. She sat back down as an indignant white loaf, tail flicking in his face.

“Hope you know what you’re doing,” said Humphrey in an undertone as they scootched their chairs in. “Because I certainly don’t.” The Captain waved a hand irritably in his direction. 

Beg-Chetwynde dealt them in while Humphrey distributed the chips. The Captain briefly entertained a wild thought that Knickers was going to peer at his cards and communicate their contents to the Beg-Chetwyndes, then pushed that thought out of his mind where it belonged. He blanked his face and picked up his cards.

“Here we go,” sighed Humphrey, sliding a chip into the middle of the table.

Poker was a sequence, and the Captain liked sequences. Raise, turn, hold. Check, check. Eyes up, read, and read again. He liked doing the maths; he liked staying one step ahead of his quarry through the sequence of cards. Preflop, flop, turn, river. Like a tarot, almost, a progression of ever-shifting signs. You didn’t need bluster or bravado in this game; you just needed nerve and steadiness. He couldn’t hear anything but the tidal rush of blood in his ears, couldn’t feel anything but the cards in his hand and Knickers making contented biscuits on his thigh. This made sense, unlike, well… seemingly everything else in his life at the moment. 

Until suddenly the tidal sound in his ears went out, vanished into the sea, and suddenly he could hear everything.

“Do you have any idea what’s going on?” Thomas asked sotto voce.

“Well, he’ll likely have a strategy,” said Mary, sounding doubtful.

“I bet he loves bluffing,” said Julian.

“Poker is far less about bluffing than most people think it is, you know. Most of it is knowing what your chances are and playing the hand you’re dealt rather than the one you want,” said Patrick.

The Captain looked up, past Beg-Chetwynde, and met Patrick’s eyes. Patrick winked, then looked slightly stunned at his own audacity.

“There seem to be loads of experts here considering that none of you would come to the table,” the Captain remarked, turning over a community card and winking back. Patrick turned red and nearly fell off the pouf in shock. It made the Captain feel warm inside; not uncomfortably so, just a gentle sort of glow.

“You’ve got this, Captain,” said Katherine eagerly.

It was an odd cheering squad they made, considering that they were all throwing their full-hearted support behind him despite knowing fuck-all about poker. But it was soothing, almost, the bonkers-ness of it: he’d been cheered on before, of course, namely while doing the sorts of muddy obstacle courses that the military was so fond of, but that had been a sort of enforced camaraderie.

“Get ‘em, tiger!”

“Come on, mate!”

“Give him hell, Captain!” said Fanny robustly, apparently rather deep into her cups. The Captain felt himself smile even as he folded on a shite hand and Beg-Chetwynde pulled his haul of chips into his chest.

Bunny was knocked out early, unsurprisingly, and then, at length, Humphrey.

“Just you and me,” said Beg-Chetwynde. The man was like a low-budget, gilet-wearing Bond villain, albeit one whose fluffy white cat had chosen to defect to the other side.

“Right then,” said Captain, and proceeded, over the course of a decisive few minutes, to win handily.

“That was carnage,” said Humphrey in awe, patting him on the back.

“I believe that concludes the matter,” said the Captain blithely, holding out his hand.

Beg-Chetwynde, stunned, shook it.

“Aaaaand I think it’s time for bed,” said Alison.

Chapter Text

“Right!” Beg-Chetwynde stood and clapped his hands together, blissfully in his element for someone who had just lost both part of his estate and an opportunity to carve an archaeological resource out from his neighbours’ land. The Captain began to tidy up the poker things. “We’ve got seven bedrooms to spare in our humble abode. I assume Michael and Alison will want their own—” he waggled his eyebrows in a way that made the Captain’s pheasant consider making an encore appearance—“And Robin and his hounds will share, I presume.”

The Captain, who had begun to fear that his fate was to spend the night under a pile of snoring dogs, felt distinct relief. The rest of the Button House set seemed to be doing intent mental maths regarding the dwindling number of bedrooms. It didn’t seem to be anyone’s strong suit, judging by the collective looks of consternation. This most certainly included the Captain, who taught geography for a reason.

“Alas, there appear to be three ladies remaining,” began Beg-Chetwynde. “If one of you were willing—”

“A lady never—” began Fanny hotly, but whatever she was about to say regarding the unforgivable scandalousness of co-ed sleeping arrangements was mercifully cut off by Katherine interjecting, “Mary and I will share, and Fanny can have her own if that’s all right with the rest of you.”

“Capital! That leaves one gentleman who doesn’t have to bunk down with a neighbour.”

Everyone pointed instantly at Julian.

“Quite,” said Beg-Chetwynde grimly. “Bun, would you take these fine young lads down to their wing of the house?”

Evidently a fine young lad for the purposes of tonight’s sleeping arrangements, the Captain picked up his duffel bag and followed Bunny, Humphrey, Patrick, and Thomas up the stairs and down a narrow corridor lit by sconces.

“Number one,” Bunny said, pushing a door open. “The Foxglove Room. Or something like that.” Thomas and Humphrey shrugged at each other and shouldered their way inside. The Captain caught a glimpse of lavender bed hangings and a massive chaise lounge patterned with pansies.

“Night, all,” said Humphrey with a wave and shut the door.

The Captain and Patrick looked at each other.

“Just us chickens, then,” said Patrick hesitantly.

“Just us chickens,” repeated the Captain, and then they had to go like the clappers to follow Bunny’s wild sway down the corridor.

“Here we are,” said Bunny, opening another door. “This one is called The Nightingale. Or the Sparrow. No idea.”

Patrick instantly began singing ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.’ He had a surprisingly nice voice. Bunny grinned at Patrick and went in for a very long cheek kiss, which interrupted his flow a fair bit, and then departed without giving the Captain one. Fair enough, he supposed, considering he’d just thrashed her husband at poker and hadn’t sung to her.

And it was just the two of them.

“After you,” said Patrick, gesturing theatrically.

The Captain shouldered his way inside. The room must be in a gable: the walls were sloping in a sort of architectural embrace. The walls were wattle and daub crossed with massive timbers and a few crap paintings hung up on it. The space was dominated by an enormous four-poster bed; the hangings were a sort of mustardy colour and the coverlet depicted what appeared to be a fox hunting scene.

“Didn’t take you for a card shark,” said Patrick once he’d shut the door behind them and set his bag down. “But that was very noble of you, do that for Mike and Alison.”

The Captain shrugged and busied himself unzipping his own bag. “I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t get a fair bit of personal satisfaction out of it.” He turned round with pyjamas and toothbrush in hand just as Patrick rose to his feet holding his own.

Which then presented them with the issue of how they were going to change for bed.

“I’ll turn around first,” said Patrick, dutifully revolving to face the wall.

“Right.” The Captain stared at his back, feeling distinctly off-kilter. “Excellent.”

He was caught suddenly by an odd current of…looking, for lack of a better word. It wasn’t often he got to look at Patrick without the potential for being looked back at, after all. Patrick was small and a bit soft; his hair was edging into ‘really starting to need a haircut’ territory and he seemed incapable of standing still, bouncing on his heels and swaying a bit as he waited. He was wearing a ridiculous shirt patterned with sunflowers. (Clearly, the two of them had very different sartorial responses to the threat of poshos.) The whole picture was, well…

You’re allowed to find things endearing, now, the Captain reminded himself. He was just out of practice. Vastly and wildly out of practice.

He worked his way out of his clothes, nearly clocking his head on the radiator in the process because, unbelievably, he couldn’t quite take his eyes off Patrick. He was oddly aware of his own body, the air on his bare skin. To his astonishment, he found himself wondering hazily what Patrick would think of it.

You’re allowed. He swallowed with difficulty, not believing it for a nanosecond.

Taking his pants off felt a step too far, so he kept them on. Like with his dinner ensemble, he’d gone for sartorial neutrality in his nightwear as well: a long-sleeved t-shirt and the most boring pyjama bottoms M&S had to offer. Socks, too, because his feet were never not freezing, but in a moment of attempted personal development he’d packed the ones with zebras on them.

He put his clothes away in his bag, cleared his throat awkwardly, and turned to face the wall. “Erm. Your turn, Patrick.”

There were a few beats of quiet before Patrick began to rustle around.

“I suppose you’re used seeing other blokes in the buff,” said Patrick amid the sounds of stripping off his shirt.

“Beg pardon?” the Captain asked, staring at a tragically awful pastel drawing of pastoral scene as if he could make it burst into flames by sheer willpower alone.

“Being in the military, and all,” amended Patrick hastily. There was the sound of him shifting around the contents of his duffel bag.
“Oh. Yes.”

Patrick’s belt hit the floor. The Captain found himself craning to hear every little sound, cataloguing them. That was Patrick putting on pyjama pants; that was Patrick shaking out a folded shirt. There was a bit of silence at the end of the process—was he taking off his watch? Hunting for socks?

“You can turn round now,” said Patrick at length.

The Captain did. Patrick stood before him in a battered Leeds United t-shirt and maroon pyjama bottoms with little stars on them.

“Zebras,” said Patrick, looking at the Captain’s feet.

“Zebras,” said the Captain, looking at his own feet.

There was a washbasin in the corner of the room. They took turns brushing their teeth; the Captain couldn’t quite bear to look at Patrick, who dealt with the silence by reciting all the English monarchs from memory. It took a while; the Captain couldn’t decide whether it was mercy or punishment. And then, tentatively, into the silence that followed he found himself pouring out a robust (if off-key) rendition of ‘I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,’ which seemed to tickle Patrick greatly (once he’d stopped appearing to expire of shock, that is).

In spite of the fact that they had each made a sincere offering to the gods of awkwardness, silence fell again.

The Captain noted absently—toothbrush still in hand—that it was always Patrick was always the one who went first. He was the one who reached out, whether that was in conversation on the train or in invitations to play Scrabble or in any of the myriad other little ways they intersected.

What would happen if he himself went first? He’d just had his turn, of course, and it was by rights Patrick’s turn, but what if…

“I don’t suppose you’ve seen these,” the Captain said carefully, setting his toothbrush down on the edge of the basin. He pulled up his sleeve and twisted his right arm around so that Patrick could see the jagged scatter plot of scars working its way down the outside of his arm. They were largely concentrated on his forearm, but some gashed their way up past his elbow in ugly white runnels.

“Whoa. Somebody got you good,” said Patrick. The Captain pulled aside the collar of his vest to show Patrick the wide scar slicing across his collarbone and the meat of his shoulder. You could even see the faint flecks of white along the edges from where they’d stitched him up in the field.

“Gosh,” said Patrick, staring.

It was quiet, broken only by a stray bark or two—Robin and his dogs must be right below them. Patrick was looking at the Captain’s arm and shoulder with his head cocked to the side, trying to put together the puzzle pieces. Helpfully, the Captain raised his arm up and bent it so that he was shielding his face with his forearm.

“Ah,” said Patrick as the dots all connected. “You put your arm up to shield your face, so your forearm and shoulder caught the brunt of the...”

“Shrapnel,” supplied the Captain. “I…” He shook his head and rolled up the other sleeve.

“You didn’t bring that arm up to your face,” said Patrick, looking at the flecked scars along the inside of the Captain’s left arm. He raised his eyes up to meet the Captain’s. The Captain nodded and extended his arm out, reaching for something invisible. He brought his right arm back up to shield his face, reenacting. One arm shielding himself, one arm outstretched. The moment of the blast was written on his body, still.

“I’m sorry, Cap,” said Patrick. The Captain lowered his arms and rolled his shirtsleeves back down. “I can’t imagine how horrific it must have been.”

“The fatigues I was wearing were a dead loss, of course. It looked like Jackson Pollock had had a go at them by the time they cut me out of them.” He mimed an explosion with his hands. “I, er… right.”

“Thank you,” said Patrick softly. The Captain could feel the adrenaline ache in his legs.

“You’re welcome.” The Captain looked over at the bed, realising that perhaps he should’ve chosen a less-horrific subject of conversation than nearly getting blown up. Pillow talk had never been his strong suit. In fact, it had taken him well into his thirties to realise that it wasn’t a reference to having a chat with one’s pillow. He’d never heard the end of it from his unit. “Shall we?”

“Do you have a side preference?” Patrick asked magnanimously, gesturing at the bed.

“Nearest the door.”

“Right you are.” Patrick touched the coverlet speculatively. “We’re both sensible men. I don’t see the need for a pillow barricade down the middle.”

“I quite agree.”

“Good.”

“Good.”

They slid into their respective sides of the bed, eyeing each other. Patrick had to jump a bit to make it onto the mattress.

“Lights, camera, action?” said Patrick, hovering his hand near the lamp.

“Proceed.”

Patrick clicked the lights off and they were plunged into darkness. A strip of searing moonlight fell through the break in the curtains and across the middle of the bed.

“Goodnight, Patrick,” the Captain managed.

“Goodnight, Captain,” said Patrick. It was soft. “Sweet dreams.”

The Captain did not have sweet dreams. Patrick, who could evidently sleep anywhere at any time, twitched faintly a few times and then went under. The Captain, meanwhile, lay awake and stared at the bit of floor illuminated by the moonlight and tried not to think about anything at all. It didn’t work in the slightest. He could hear Patrick’s breathing, feel his body heat. Occasionally Patrick made soft, speculative noises in his sleep, shifting around minutely as if tugged about by his dreams.

The Captain hadn’t shared a bed with anyone in a very long time; everything felt amplified, nervewracking. It had been a good while since he’d woken up on the floor after a nightmare, but goodness knew how he might thrash around or shout or tremble uncontrollably tonight. Faintly, he heard the grandfather clock in the foyer chime once and fall silent. He groaned internally and rubbed at his face.

He’d finally and mercifully just began to drift a bit when his bladder decided that this was a capital moment to advocate for a piss. He swore very quietly, rolled to his feet, shrugged on his jumper, and padded out the door. It wasn’t until he’d reached the corridor that it occurred to him that he hadn’t a clue where the loo was.

He picked a direction at random. The floorboards wailed under his feet as he trod hither and yon looking for the blasted thing. Searching for the bathrooms in this place was to be the death of him, evidently. He wasn’t sure whether he should just try and find the one downstairs again at the risk of crashing into the suit of armour.

“Are you lost?” said a voice from the darkness.

The Captain jumped about a foot in the air, then bent over with his hands on his knees, trying to remember how to breathe. “What are you doing here?” he hissed to Thomas once he’d stopped wondering if he was having a heart attack.

“Pursing my muse. Also, Humphrey snores and it was keeping me up.” Thomas’ jimjams of choice were a flowery silk dressing gown over an old Rage Against the Machine t-shirt and boxer shorts. The Captain found this utterly unsurprising, somehow.

“Fair enough. You don’t happen to know where the bog is, I suppose?”

“No idea. I’ll help you look, though.”

“I don’t imagine your muse is hiding in there.”

Thomas shrugged. “It wouldn’t surprise me at this point. Also, now that you’ve mentioned it, I could do with a wee.”

They finally found one wedged into a corner at the far end of the corridor. The Captain had to wedge himself in as well; he hit himself in the arse with the door while groping around the four-hundred-year-old timbers for the light switch. There was a decorative plate with stoats wearing party hats on it hung at eye level above the toilet. It wasn’t the oddest thing the Captain had ever stared at while having a piss, but then again he’d seen some very odd things in his life.

He and Thomas swapped places with only a minimum of awkward chest-to-chest contact. Thomas really was waifish, but in a prepossessing sort of way.

“That stoat plate is…quite an ordeal,” said Thomas upon egress.

“I wonder which Beg-Chetwynde is responsible for the preponderance of tat in this house.”

“Barclay, but he doubtless blames Bunny,” said Thomas at once.

“Yes, I suppose you have a case there.”

Thomas suddenly pointed out the mullioned window behind the Captain. “Look!”

“What am I looking at?” said the Captain once he’d restrained himself from hitting the deck and finding something heavy with which to twat the hypothetical threat. Lord above, why was he so edgy tonight?

“It’s a full moon,” said Thomas wistfully, pressing a fingertip to the glass.

“So it is.” It was huge and glowing an icy white, the faint shadows of its craters visible from even here. The possibility that the Captain was in an odd mood because he’d somehow gotten turned into a werewolf flitted briefly through his mind.

“Let’s go outside and look at it!” said Thomas suddenly.

“Why would I go out there and freeze my bollocks off when I can see it fine from here?” said the Captain.

“But don’t you want to feel alive?”

The Captain fixed him with his severest look. “I feel plenty alive, thank you.”

“I think Button House’s resident ghosts would beg to differ.”

“What?”

“Come onnnn,” Thomas said petulantly, honest-to-goodness taking the Captain’s hand in both of his. “Let’s have a flight of whimsy. You can’t seriously not know what a romantic figure you are.”

“Capital-R Romantic, I presume.”
Thomas shrugged. “Whatever you like.”

The Captain paused. He supposed he had left his old life behind in order to embrace something resembling whimsy.

“Fine. But I reserve the right to make tracks right back inside if it’s too cold.”

“Fair enough,” said Thomas, who already looked half-frozen in his boxer shorts.

They retrieved their shoes and crept down the darkened stairs amid the fulsome ticking of the grandfather clock. Patches of moonlight shone across the carpet.

“Where do you reckon Beg-Chetwynde put our coats?” asked the Captain in an undertone once he’d stepped off the last stair and neatly caught Thomas, who’d misjudged the dismount and nearly toppled over.

“I have absolutely no idea. Maybe it’s part of his master plan to imprison us here forever so he can stuff us and put us on the wall with his other hunting trophies.”
The Captain snorted quietly.

“Come on, we don’t need coats,” said Thomas, trying to open the door discreetly. It screeched in protest.

“That might be a bit too much whimsy for my taste—” began the Captain, but he was stopped

by a brush of fur against his leg and a white streak vanishing into the darkness.

“Was that the cat?” he asked, dread rising in his chest.

“That was the cat,” Thomas said slowly.

“Well. Erm.”

“I strongly suspect that Knickers is strictly an indoor cat,” said Thomas.

“Bugger.”

They looked at each other.

“Barclay could still probably walk back the right-of-way cession,” said Thomas. “Since the papers haven’t been drawn up yet and all.”

“Ah. Fuck.”

“Yup.”

As one, they took off running after the blasted thing. Fortunately, she blazed white like anything by the light of the full moon as she streaked down the drive.

“Whimsy enough for you?” asked the Captain as they skidded across the lawn. Thomas merely wheezed in response, dressing gown flapping about him.

“She’s vanished,” said the Captain, clutching his ribs. He’d already been pushing his luck doing the rounds with the litter-picker; this was veritably playing with fire.

“This way, I think,” said Thomas, striking out towards the fence dividing the grounds from the adjacent fields. The Captain hopped it and gave Thomas a hand over and then they were off across the cold, moonlight-drenched ground. They crossed the field and ducked into a small wood.

“Fairy ring,” said Thomas quietly, pointing at a circle of half-frozen mushrooms. “Loads of them around here. Lore says it’s where fairies dance. Human interlopers are punished harshly by the fae.”

“I don’t know if now is quite the time for a mythology lesson, Thorne.”

And then the blasted cat ran directly through the circle of mushrooms and vanished into the trees.

“Fuck,” said Thomas distinctly, and they crashed on through the fallen leaves. One more field and one more copse of trees and they came out through the hedgerow onto the lane, the moon shining on it like a river. They had time for one frantic look at one another before Captain pulled Thomas back into the hedge with an almighty yank.

“Ouch!” Thomas hissed. “What are you playing at?”

The Captain merely pointed out through the hedge.

An unmarked white van was cruising slowly down the lane with its headlights off. It passed within a metre of where they crouched in the hedge and slid off into the moonlight.

“There’s only one house down that way,” said the Captain slowly.

“Maybe the woodworm men forgot something?” said Thomas, sounding doubtful. “Or it’s doggers.”

“Eurgh,” said the Captain.

They shrank back from the lane and pulled themselves out of the hedge in the field on the other side. Thomas’ dressing gown got dreadfully snagged.

“It’s not doggers, is it?” sighed Thomas mournfully, disentangling himself.

“The first order of business is to call the police,” said the Captain. “Even on the slim chance that it’s merely, erm, nighttime revellers, it’s far better to be safe than sorry.”

“…I haven’t got my mobile on me.”

“Well, I haven’t either.”

“Shit.”

This is why whimsy was a bad idea!”

There was a loud, insistent meow from foot level.

“Knickers?” asked Thomas in astonishment.

Knickers wailed again and began pawing at the Captain’s shin.

“Thought better of your little sojourn, have you?” the Captain asked, bending to scoop her up. She immediately tried to work her way inside his jumper. It was a rather stabby experience.

“I suppose we’d better follow them and see what they’re up to,” said Thomas.

They jogged across the moonlit, fallow fields, hopping over stiles and swerving around piles of half-frozen cow manure. The Captain wound up slinging a complaining Knickers over his shoulder. His ribs were aching dully; he suspected it was only a matter of time before they began to scream in earnest.

“This way,” he murmured to Thomas, slipping into a thicket of pine trees. He covered Knickers’ face with one hand to protect her from the needles, which obviously thrilled her to no end. His late-night runs around the Button House grounds served them well; they cut a swath around the side of the house under the cover of the trees. Knickers took advantage of the slower pace to crawl out of the Captain’s jumper and perch on his shoulder.

The van was parked out front. It could only seat two, maybe three; barring a surprise bootful of accomplices, the numbers weren’t entirely unfavourable. The robbers—for they must be robbers, unless they were axe-murderers, which was statistically far less likely but not out of the question—had apparently already vacated, because the front door of the house was ajar.

Button House’s security, it had to be said, was woefully lacking.

The Captain took stock: he was chasing down some would-be robbers in his pyjamas with broken ribs and a giant white cat perched on his shoulder like a particularly stroppy familiar. Not to mention the poetry nymph in a dressing gown and pants and the full moon glowing brightly in the sky. It wasn’t the most outgunned he’d ever been, but it probably cracked the top ten.

“Let’s disable the van first,” he said. “Then we can formulate the rest of the plan.”

“I’m on it,” said Thomas.

You?”

“Poetry doesn’t make one inept, you know.”

“Eh, agree to disagree.”

Thomas Thorne, wonder of wonders, slipped across the drive, popped the van’s hood, and rifled around in its guts for a moment. He came back with black smudges on his hands and a smile on his face.

“Didn’t take you for a grease monkey,” said the Captain.

“How long until the fumigation stops being toxic?” asked Thomas, staring thoughtfully at the front door. “Maybe they’ll smoke themselves out. Or maybe the ghosts will twat them for us.”

Are the ghosts capable of twatting anyone?”

“Well, maybe you can twat them,” said Thomas earnestly.

“Is that what you think I did in the Army?”

“Twat people? Yes. All the livelong day, methinks.”

“Christ above.” The Captain peered out through the trees again.

“What’s next, Captain?” Thomas asked, almost eagerly.

When this sort of thing happened to the Captain, it was like an explosion in his mind: he saw it first, the blinding flash, and then he had an agonising split second to dread the arrival of the roiling shockwave that he was powerless to stop. And then it hit, a low sonic boom of the kind that scrambled your organs, vibrated your skull, snuffed the life right out of you like a small, guttering candle before a flung-open door.

He’d stared down secret danger with an earnest, waifish young man once, and…

“Captain,” hissed Thomas, gripping his shoulder. “Captain, are you all right?”

The ground was very close to his face. When had that happened?

“Capital,” he said, heaving air into his lungs. “Sorry, just a moment of—er.” He was on his hands and knees in the dead leaves with Knickers sat on his back in what felt like a protective loaf. “I can’t let you go in there. The danger is too great.”

“But we could—” said Thomas in half a whine.

“Could what, gents?” said a voice from the darkness,

They had left a lookout, dammit.

The Captain did indeed twat him because, really, what choice did he have?

“Fuck,” said the unfortunate burglar once the Captain had him pinned facedown on the ground with his arms twisted behind his back. The Captain freed a hand and flung it across the man’s mouth to stop him calling out to his colleagues. Every breath the Captain took was like a knife sinking between his ribs; he was breathing so shallowly to skirt the pain that white blotches were appearing in his vision. The man—a regrettably burly sort—was thrashing like a fish, trying to throw him off.

“Thomas, my ribs—I can’t--” the Captain hissed with as much calm as he could muster. Thomas, who weighed nine stone soaking wet and was probably actually made of candyfloss, sat down ineffectually on the man’s flailing legs. “He’ll have big friends inside too, I think.”

He’d gotten them into this situation, him, in a horrific failure of leadership—it was only a matter of time before the burglar threw him off and unless the Captain and Thomas could outrun them, he and his thieving mates would do… what, to them? The scenarios flooded his mind, each grimmer than the last.

“Oh, what have I done,” he murmured, bracing himself against the building avalanche of pain. “Thomas—go get help, I can’t run like this anyway—”

“He might throw you off, if I get up,” moaned Thomas. “I can’t leave you to—”

An almighty howl split the sky and a writhing, barking mass of fur and slobber crashed through the gate, spraying pebbles everywhere. Once the dogs entered the drive, they split off as if on a pre-arranged set of missions, barks slamming off the sides of the house in sharp echoes. Big Jim skidded to a halt right in front of their trio, squared up with the writhing man beneath them, and let off a growl as the Captain had never heard from him before: deep and guttural and, if the sudden wetness and warmth coming from underneath him were anything to go by, designed to make the recipient piss themselves. The others ringed the house, howling and snarling. The Captain got a glimpse for a moment of the terror that the people on the knife-edge of canine domestication must have felt as glowing, wolfish eyes approached their fires.

He counted five—who was missing?

And then there was a faint, low set of barks and the wail of sirens in the distance and he realised—

“They sent one for help,” he said in disbelief.

We couldn’t even manage that,” said Thomas. The burglar underneath them moaned pitifully as his comrades sprinted out the front door and threw themselves into the van, which, to Thomas’ glee, would not start not matter how much they frantically thumped the dashboard. It was but a few minutes before the red and blue flashes of light began to strobe wildly across the darkened trees and the first police car misjudged the turn into the driveway and crunched its fender gently into the brick pillar.

The dogs turned tail—literally--and jogged happily back across the fields. Big Jim looked at the approaching constables, gazed into the Captain’s eyes sombrely and far too wisely for comfort, and left the humans to deal with the fuzz.

*

The sky was beginning to turn from black to a deep predawn blue when the two of them trudged back up the walk to the front door of Chez Beg-Chetwynde, Knickers purring in the Captain’s arms and occasionally kneading contentedly at his aching ribs. He’d waved off the cops’ offer to take him to A&E, though he knew that a significant portion of the pain was still being masked by the flood of adrenaline. He and Thomas had also requested that the fuzz drop them off a safe distance from the house. Better to explain the night’s drama on their own terms, preferably while everyone was enjoying Robin’s bumper crop of marijuana and a cup of tea.

Thomas was, improbably, smiling.

“What’s that for?” asked the Captain as they crunched over the frost. The birds were beginning to sing; Knickers looked about with interest.

“We had to tell the police that we stumbled upon a robbery in our own house because we were chasing a clairvoyant cat named Knickers across the countryside. And that a dog with apparent ESP alerted them to our predicament,” said Thomas.

“What else would we have told them? That the local ghosts probably have all the domestic animals within a square mile on speed dial and it was possibly a grand supernatural conspiracy? We’re going to be the laughingstock of the nick. I shan’t be able to look Sergeant Floyd in the face ever again.”

Thomas stopped walking and turned to face him. “Doesn’t it make you… feel?” he implored. “Like you’ve touched the edge of the divine. Or something resembling it, at any rate.”

“Erm.”

“How flat our lives would be if they weren’t dappled with light and shade, certainty and uncertainty.”

“Are you taking the piss? We charged foolishly into danger and it was all my fault. We escaped narrowly and through no merit of our own.”

Not all your fault,” said Thomas emphatically. “I was there too, you know. And I’m only taking the piss sometimes.”

“Good to know.”

Thomas gave him a small smile. “A night like this reminds me of something I wrote recently about trying to capture this very feeling. I should be so lucky…lucky, lucky, lucky…I should be so lucky in love.”

“That’s Kylie Minogue.”

Thomas looked stricken. “Oh, no.

The Captain laughed.

“I submitted that to a literary magazine.

The Captain laughed harder and clapped him on the shoulder. “Unlucky, that.”

They slipped in through the front door and climbed the stairs, pausing to let Knickers off at a seemingly-random location of her choosing. There were rather more holes in the Captain’s jumper than there had been at the start of the evening. They stopped outside of Thomas’ room; Humphrey was indeed snoring loudly enough to rattle the door hinges.

“Goodnight, Thorne,” whispered the Captain.

“Can I hug you?” asked Thomas.

“You what?”

“Hug. It’s when two people put their arms around each other—”

“Blast it, Thorne, I know what a hug is.” He considered. “You may. Watch the ribs, though.”

Thomas wrapped his arms around the Captain and hooked his chin over his shoulder. “You can hug me back,” he whispered at length. The Captain raised his arms and attempted to hold Thomas in roughly a normal way. It was an approximation at best, and only partially because of the rib thing.

Thomas gave him a final gentle squeeze and released him.

“How was that?” he asked, looking expectantly at the Captain.

“It might be something I could grow to like,” said the Captain cautiously.

Thomas smiled. “Excellent.”

Thomas entrusted to the tender mercies of Humphrey’s snoring, the Captain slipped into his blue-swathed bedroom as quietly as possible and insinuated himself under the covers. It was blissfully warm—Patrick was a veritable furnace of a man.

“Where did you go off to?” Patrick murmured sleepily, rolling onto his side to face the Captain.

“Just the loo.”

“Bollocks. You smell like a Christmas tree and you’re freezing,” whispered Patrick, only sounding marginally more awake. He reached out seemingly on instinct, hands searching for the Captain as if to pull him in close. His fingertips brushed the Captain’s shoulder and he seemed to remember himself with a start. He withdrew.

“Get some sleep, would you?” sighed Patrick, rolling back over.

“Mmmphf,” said the Captain, already half gone.

Chapter Text

On days where he managed to leave school at a reasonable hour, the Captain took to calling in on Katherine at the café in the village where she worked. The establishment was crowded with books, rugs, and overflowing notice boards; the furniture was deeply mismatched but the houseplants were verdant. He wedged himself into a corner next to a massive spider plant and Katherine brought him scones and cups of coffee and dispensed gossip in an undertone.

“Every café has a cryptid, Captain. It’s usually a weird old white man who tries to talk to everyone. Usually about conspiracy theories. Ours is Bill. Don’t make eye contact,” she murmured while foisting another scone upon him.

He did accidentally make eye contact with Bill the Café Cryptid, who unfortunately took it as an invitation to pull up a chair and launch into a rant that began with “Everyone thinks they know the story of Dick Turpin’s highway glory."

(Admittedly, though, the Captain did learn a lot.)

He even let Katherine persuade him to read a romance novel about two men, though he did try to hide it behind both the newspaper and the spider plant.

And then one day he and Patrick wound up in the same carriage on the same train home and Patrick followed him almost shyly to the café. This seemed to delight Katherine, who insisted they share the most ridiculous and fluffy piece of cake the Captain had ever seen. The two of them sat quietly, the Captain with his lecture notes and Patrick with a series of incomprehensible diagrams of drains. If the Captain’s stomach swooped at the sight of Patrick pressing his knuckles to his cheek in thought or at the feeling of their hands brushing over the enormous slab of cake…well. It was probably the fact that the coffee was weapons-grade.

It was…cosy. Easy, almost.

(Less pleasantly, however, he let Robin drag him to something called ‘hot yoga,’ which turned out to be a fiendishly eviland sweaty enterprise wherein he threw his back out and swore never to return. The sight of Robin calmly putting his foot behind his head while wearing tight purple leggings was seared into his memory forever.)

*

“Twister!” cried Patrick delightedly as Alison came into the room shaking the box. “Excellent.”

“I was sixth-form champion, just so you know,” said Michael smugly. “Prepare to be owned.”

“Can’t, sorry, broken ribs,” said the Captain, pointing at his side in illustration. Michael rolled his eyes.

“Are they really still broken?” asked Patrick shrewdly. “It’s been a while.”

“He’s healed enough to start running again,” said Robin, unfurling the Twister mat. “I can tell because he’s a total berk when he can’t run, but the total berkhood has cleared up in the last week. It’s like a rash or something.”

“Well, they ache in the cold. And there are still bruises,” said the Captain in a small voice. There were, but said bruises were to the stage of healing where they were colours only found in cat sick.

“You’re on the bracket, mate,” said Michael, who was already scrawling on a notepad. “Let’s go!”

Since there were nine players (Fanny and Thomas demurred, apparently too dignified for such frivolity), Michael divided them into three heats of three each, which would be followed by a championship round. If nothing else, the Captain had to appreciate the orderliness of the thing. Michael, Alison, and Mary led off; the Captain deftly claimed the spinner and the best spot on the sofa while they arrayed themselves about the mat.

“Right foot green!” he said in his best command voice.

The combatants complied, already throwing each other dirty looks.

“Right hand yellow!”

And they were off, with no shortage of scuffling. Alison complained at length about the lack of common decency, Mary cheated with great frequency, and Michael was preternaturally good at this—how did the man get so flexible?

“Left foot blue!”

Patrick sat down on the sofa next to him and cheekily leaned over and flicked the spinner wheel while the Captain was distracted by Michael’s hitherto-unseen ability to do the splits.

“I see what you mean about Mary cheating,” the Captain said to Patrick in an undertone. “But I’ve no idea how she’s doing it.”

“Join the club. I’ve been trying to work it out for years,” Patrick murmured back as Alison definitely tried tickle Michael into falling. It seemed to backfire: Alison was the next to go down, right in the middle of reaching her left foot for a tricky blue dot. Michael and Mary proceeded to battle it out with the help of a lot of very creative invective.

“May thine feet turn into limp lettuce! Or similarly unfootlike vegetation,” Mary hissed at Michael, who sensibly looked absolutely terrified.

“Right foot red,” said the Captain meekly.

“No way!” yelled Michael as he crashed down onto the mat. In the course of things he’d somehow worked an arm across and underneath his body and the resultant tumble wasn’t a pretty sight. He nearly took out a large flowery urn, for one.

“Aha!” said Mary. “Gotcha, fair and square.”

“I don’t think licking someone counts as fair and square,” Fanny interjected.

“All righty,” said Patrick, rising to his feet. “Heat two!” The Captain immediately and viscerally missed the warmth at his side, even though the fire was blazing. (Come to think of it, perhaps they all shouldn’t be practically wrestling so close to an open flame, especially since the fireplace screen was apparently reliably dated to the Regency).

Humphrey took off his blazer and straightened his cuffs; Katherine bounced happily on the spot in anticipation.

“Let’s throw down!” said Patrick eagerly, toeing off his shoes to reveal rainbow-striped socks.

“Christ above, never say that again,” Humphrey groaned, rolling his eyes.

“Fair enough.”

“Be civil, now,” said Alison, giving the wheel a vigorous spin. “Right hand yellow.”

Humphrey stuck out his tongue at Patrick as the three of them leaned over the mat.

“I said civil,” groused Alison, spinning the wheel again. “Right foot blue.”

The contortions began in earnest over the next few spins. Katherine was surprisingly graceful on the Twister mat; two moves later, however, Humphrey fell on his arse and nearly kneed Patrick in the groin on his way down.

“Could we not!” shouted Alison as Patrick used his free hand to shove Humphrey in retaliation. “Are there yellow cards in Twister?”

“Sure, why not?” said Michael, who’d gotten popcorn from somewhere and was eating it while watching avidly.

“Yellow card, Patrick!”

The Captain could see Patrick trembling with the effort of staying upright; it was oddly affecting. Patrick was gazing up at Alison and laughing through the tremors. As if he felt the Captain’s eyes on him, though, his gaze shifted.

The Captain couldn’t quite read the look on his face: there was something there he couldn’t seem to grasp. Patrick often looked tenderly at people; it was sort of his thing, after all, being a pillar of society and a beacon of occasionally-annoying warmth. Maybe it was just the shock of seeing the expression directed at him while the man himself was trembling in a rather vulnerable position.

“Holding up alright?” the Captain asked, hoping the breathlessness would be attributed to generalised mirth. (Doubtful, though, given his… everything).

“Peachy,” Patrick panted back. They held each other’s eyes, searching—

“Oh no,” wailed Katherine, collapsing. Patrick scrambled to his feet, shouted “Top of the pops!”, and launched into a gleeful victory dance that unfortunately included some regrettable air-shagging. Katherine sighed from where she’d fallen to the mat; her eyes flicked from Patrick’s very questionable dance moves to the Captain, who hastily became very interested in staring his own feet.

“Heat three, let’s go!” crowed Michael, snatching up the spinner.

Robin, Julian, and the Captain all stood and proceeded to the Twister mat, which was getting rather rumpled. The Captain glowered at Julian, who grinned and hummed ‘I’ll Make Love to You’ while swaying his hips seductively. Robin grinned evilly from across the way.

“This is going to be carnage,” breathed Katherine.

“Just so we’re clear, I will not be driving any of you lot to A&E if someone ends up bleeding,” warned Alison, leaning over and giving the wheel a vigorous spin. “Left foot green.”

The Captain and Julian had a brief but spirited tussle over their favoured green dot. The Captain won handily, but even he admitted it felt rather like punching down.

“Off to a nice civilised start, I see,” groused Fanny.

“Right foot blue,” sighed Alison.

The Captain reminded himself to breathe. Was he contorted into a ludicrous position? Absolutely. Did he wish he’d taken his socks off beforehand for better purchase on the mat? Certainly. Did being so close to other humans in a playful context both unnerve and fascinate him? Undoubtedly. But was he going to let any of that stop him?

“Why is there so much scuffling?” asked Katherine in bafflement.

“Testosterone,” said Alison, flicking the wheel. “NO headlocks, Robin!”

“Play on, please,” the Captain said in the sternest voice possible for someone whose head had just gotten rather more acquainted with the inside of Robin’s elbow than was medically advisable.

Things intensified. He hadn’t realised Twister could be a contact sport, but he, Julian, and Robin all seemed determined to fight dirty. Within the span of minutes, he wound up nearly sprawled on the mat, two feet on green and a hand all the way across the mat on red. Robin, sprawled catty-corner in the other direction, had his knee dangerously close to the Captain’s groin. Was there always this much threat of testicular trauma in this game?

“Oh dear,” sighed Patrick from the armchair, surveying the carnage before him. The Captain looked up at him, breathing heavily. Patrick gave him a small smile and a thumbs up. He hadn’t put his shoes on; his stripey-socked feet were tucked underneath him as he watched the game avidly.

“You’re doing brilliantly,” Patrick said, holding eye contact for far longer than could easily be explained by social custom, and the Captain almost collapsed then and there.

Shite.

It was a fact universally acknowledged that the Captain had long been a stranger to his own desires. It wasn’t that he was entirely incapable of admitting that he wanted something; rather, it was that the sentiment itself was so deeply buried that he wasn’t often aware that it existed in the first place. And even if it managed to fight its way to the surface, well… it was a difficult time convincing himself that he was allowed to want anything at all. Add in a strange and earnest little engineer in stripey socks dispensing outright praise and, well--

“Okay, bum touching is definitely against the rules,” said Michael, agog. Robin sheepishly removed his hand from Julian’s rear.

Julian was knocked out by a particularly tricky reach of their right hands to red dots; the Captain attributed it to his centre of gravity being higher and therefore more unwieldy than Robin’s and his own. This fact didn’t stop him from gloating, however.

“Just you and me,” said Robin menacingly. The Captain didn’t fancy his chances, given what he’d seen of Robin’s prowess at yoga.

“You seem awfully confident,” said the Captain, smartly swatting Robin’s hand out of the way as they lunged for the same blue dot. A horrible burning had taken up residence in his thighs. “Easy peasy, squeeze the lemon.”

Patrick outright barked a laugh. The Captain flushed.

“Namaste,” grinned Robin, gracefully doing a move that made the Captain grunt and fear for his hamstrings in his own execution of it.

“Oh, this is going to be good,” said Thomas delightedly.

“Battle of the fit ones,” agreed Katherine.

“Right,” said the Captain grimly, lunging for yellow. The world narrowed down to the task and moment before him. It was the same as that night when he bested Barclay Beg-Chetwynde at poker: a sensible sequence laid out before him, a series of decisions to be made, a resounding smackdown to be delivered. But there was something else at the edge of his consciousness, a presence sidling into view…

Patrick had evidently elbowed his way into the Captain’s current view of the world.

Right, he thought grimly. Might as well make the man’s presence useful. If the Captain’s blasted subconscious so desperately wanted to demonstrate his Twister prowess to Patrick, well… so much the better if such a desire increased his chances of winning. He didn’t have to examine the thing too closely, merely use it as a tool.

So use it as a tool he did. He tidily got Robin on the run; their insults got progressively more disturbing until Alison put a moratorium on speaking and they were breathing too heavily to say much anyway.

“Holy shit,” said Mary.

“Wow,” said Patrick, giving a low whistle.

“Gosh,” breathed Katherine, who was definitely filming this on her phone.

Robin collapsed with a shouted “fuck!” and kneed the Captain hard in the groin. The Captain went down swearing; the room exploded in hysterical laughter that nearly drowned out the few voices of concern. He curled up on his side, protecting his internal organs from further assault…

Patrick. Patrick kneeling next to him, rubbing his back and doing his utmost to stifle his laughter.

“If it’s any consolation,” Patrick said soothingly, “Since Robin went down before you, you’ve advanced to the final.”

“Fabulous,” gritted out the Captain. “Could we delay that for, ugh, five minutes?”

“I’ll allow it,” said Alison, tapping the spinner pensively against her thigh. “Do you want some ice?”

“No, thank you,” he said, still refusing to open his eyes in the hope that it would encourage Patrick to keep petting his back, which felt, in spite of the searing groin pain, divine. “Just let me die, please.”

Once he was done dying and had wrenched himself onto the sofa with no small bit of help from Patrick, Mary put down the popcorn and grinned evilly at them.

“Ready for the final?” she said, cracking her knuckles menacingly.

“I was born ready,” said Patrick, standing and stripping off his jumper. It left him in only a t-shirt. The Captain did the same; he’d gotten oddly sweaty, and he suspected it wasn’t only from the exertion. It hadn’t entirely sunk in that he and Patrick were about to be in extreme physical proximity; the realisation now hit him like a lorry full of bricks and he stared at the Twister mat in horror. Alison handed off the spinner to Fanny, who surveyed the situation with disdain.

“Play nice,” said Fanny, glaring particularly at Mary.

It was not nice. There was a great deal of shoving and no shortage of muffled threats; Mary’s were worrisomely inventive and involved an odd amount of root vegetables. By the time they’d all worked up a sweat, Alison had yellow-carded them each at least two times but had stopped trying not to laugh. Everyone else was gathered around more or less heckling them all at great volume. The Captain was practically vibrating; it was all too much, somehow, his mind and body scrambling around desperately trying and failing to get in sync. Time was out of joint; he could feel Patrick’s breathing, which shouldn’t be allowed. The multicoloured dots of the Twister mat swirled in his vision like a demented disco ball.

“Come on, Captain, my nan’s more flexible than that!” crowed Thomas, throwing popcorn at him.

“For an engineer, Pat, your structural integrity is seriously lacking,” said Humphrey.

“Looking a little shaky there, oh Captain, my Captain,” said Julian smarmily.

“In your own time,” the Captain said irritably to Fanny, who had paused to sip her tea.

“Fine, right foot red,” she said, setting down the cup primly on its saucer.

Somehow in the progression of things the Captain had worked his way underneath Patrick—the way this game bent the laws of physics never ceased to astound him—who was busy glaring daggers at Mary. This suited the Captain fine, as it let him try to cope with the situation in mortified peace.

He was really very close to Patrick. He could feel the warmth of his body through his t-shirt, the rapid kick of his lungs in and out as he breathed. Patrick smelled wonderful, somehow—pheromones, the Captain’s brain supplied dimly, some sort of evolutionary mechanism, surely—and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to---

To what, exactly? His brain hadn’t exactly let itself get that far. He found himself staring at the oddest places on the man—the soft, vulnerable insides of Patrick’s elbows; the stripes of his socks; the blue blaze of his eyes as he gazed solemnly at the Captain in the lamplight. The Captain felt something cracking in him, unfamiliar sentiment beginning to pour out…

Could a knee to the groin lead to brain trauma? It certainly would explain his current predicament.

“Left hand green,” announced Fanny, which somehow brought the Captain and Patrick even closer to one another.

“Getting tired?” said the Captain menacingly to distract himself from the way his heartbeats were blurring together.

“You wish,” said Patrick. And then, in an undertone. “Is everyone staring? I feel like everyone is staring.”

“Yep,” said Mary, who was definitely staring.

“Think we could knock her out if we kissed?” whispered Patrick conspiratorially.

Which promptly made Mary fall over.

“Aha!” crowed the Captain, grinning beatifically at her so he didn’t have to look at Patrick.

“Cheaters,” accused Mary.

“And then there were two!” yelled Michael.

There was more space to spread out now that Mary was gone. The Captain couldn’t quite work out how he felt about that.

“This isn’t fair,” wheezed Patrick. “You run a million bloody miles all the time. And you probably do push-ups in your lair.”

“My lair?”

“Yeah, your lair.” They both wrenched their right hands over to red dots on Fanny’s orders. “You in your attic, scheming and getting fit.”

“What do I scheme about, dear Patrick?”

“Oh, all sorts. Whether you can run all the way to Dartmoor, probably, and how to weasel out of chaperoning the Year 9 disco, and if you can get away with being secretive about your mysterious past forever.” Patrick sounded oddly indignant, but that could be the exertion. And then he flung a leg over the Captain’s, which was technically legal as he had to reach across for the green dot, but was incredibly distracting.

“I mean, sometimes ending up like this is the whole point of the game, but I get the feeling that isn’t the case here,” said Alison at length, cocking her head at them. Somehow they had wound up half-embracing with the Captain’s hand braced underneath Patrick and Patrick’s bum firmly against the Captain’s thigh. He could feel Patrick’s wild heartbeat and his body shivering from exertion. It was wrenchingly and overwhelmingly intimate.

“This probably counts as sex in some jurisdictions,” remarked Julian.

The collapse was instant, simultaneous, and very dramatic. It was hard to say who went down first; Patrick was on the bottom, but perhaps the Captain’s arm had given way and brought them both crashing to the ground. Either way, Patrick squawked and clutched at the Captain, who grabbed Patrick around the waist and rolled them to the side before Patrick joined the ‘cracked ribs from getting fallen on’ club. It was an exclusive but painful club, as the Captain could attest from recent experience.

“Thanks,” said Patrick once things had more or less stilled, panting and outright straddling the Captain.

“Not a problem. You’re a fair bit smaller than I am. Didn’t want to squash you.” The Captain dropped his hands to the floor and looked up at him. Patrick looked similar to how he felt—rumpled and wild-eyed.

“I should probably…” Patrick looked around at their current position.

“Considering that you are in my lap and we are being very avidly watched, yes, Patrick, perhaps you should.”

Patrick got off him; the Captain sat up and rubbed at his ribs and tried to wrangle his face back to neutrality.

“We’ll call it a draw,” said Alison, setting the spinner down very carefully.

*

“Cap, wait,” Patrick said, staggering panting into the foyer. It rather ruined the Captain’s tactically-perfect retreat up the stairs.

“Yes?” he said, heart hammering. The gathering in the drawing room was breaking up; from the sounds of it, the bulk of it was moving into Alison and Michael’s kitchen.

Patrick climbed the stairs until he was stood two below the Captain. “Are we all right?” He looked oddly…soulful? Nervous? It was hard to tell.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Patrick. Why wouldn’t we be all right?”

“I was all up in your business.”

“And I yours. Such are the rules of engagement.”

“Yes, but…” Patrick sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I… never mind. Good night.”

“Good night, Patrick,” said the Captain, and turned to finish the journey to his lair.

*

“Why can’t they just text like normal people?” Michael groaned, staring out at something on the lawn. The Captain came up next to him and peered out the window.

“Party in three days’ time,” said Michael, pointing at a vaguely-anthropomorphic figure made entirely out of—

“Good lord.”

“Yup. The little engineering fuckers downstairs make a weird scarecrow out of inflated condoms. Which is remarkable considering how little any of them must get laid, ever.”

“What are you and Alison going to do?”

“Remind them to keep it confined to the basement,” said Michael. “If it weren’t a massive fire hazard, I’d pile up furniture in front of the door leading to the rest of the house to keep them out.” He paused. “Apparently it’s always implied that we’re all invited as well, for what it’s worth.”

“No, thank you,” sniffed the Captain, who would probably rather go back to doing training manoeuvrers in the freezing mud than rub shoulders with drunken undergraduates.

“Figured,” said Michael, and went to try to fix the boiler. Again.

*

That evening, they were all congregated in the television room watching Friends. The Captain curled up in the windowsill, mostly staring out at the grounds. The others wedged onto the sofa and sat cross-legged on the floor. Robin was giving out what were apparently phenomenal shoulder massages; Fanny made a snide comment every so often about the degenerate state of youth today (“it was twenty years ago, Fanny!” the rest chorused periodically); Thomas took copious notes, presumably for his magnum opus; and Patrick grinned at the television the entire time and occasionally mouthed along to the lines. The Captain hadn’t seen that one coming, to be completely honest: the eponymous friends were hardly friends at all, with how often they sabotaged and verbally abused one another. He himself was periodically ransacking the images on the screen in an attempt to complete his mental picture of the early 2000s, which was an era that he’d lived through on paper but not, he rather felt, entirely in the world.

It was just as Chandler Bing crowed, “MISS Chanandler Bong!” that the Captain startled hard enough to whack his knee into the wall. They all turned and stared at him.

“Are you all right? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” asked Thomas, looking hopeful.

“Yes, I—I’m just feeling rather tired, I might turn in for the night.” The Captain slid out of the windowsill with as much nonchalance as he could muster.

Patrick eyed him but made no move to stop him. Such was the power of Friends, evidently.

Out of the room. Back to his flat. Torch, keys, mobile phone. Greatcoat, slung over his shoulders as he descended the stairs. The foyer was empty and dark; he flitted past it in favour of one of the back doors—he didn’t want to be seen from the television room. The door squealed alarmingly; he grimaced but ploughed on.

Through the planting beds, now fallow; past the greenhouse, inside of whose grimy walls Robin had been trying to coax some things into life. Across a scraggly bit of lawn and past the goose pond—he couldn’t help but think of Patrick every time he saw the wretched things. They hissed sleepily at him and he hissed back. Past the place where they’d had the bonfire on Samhain and the well-stocked woodpile, then down the steep embankment into the holloway.

He stood in the middle, holding the torch but not turning it on. The dry, empty branches clicked and rubbed in the wind above his head.

“Havers?” he whispered, feeling monumentally foolish. “Was that you?”

The branches rustled. He felt something flit at the edge of his consciousness—a word, a warmth. Havers in Afghanistan, grinning under the scalding sun and swatting the Captain with a book (Lord of the Rings, the screaming nerd). Havers, all soft eyes and unbelievably good aim. Havers, only a human-shaped figure made of gauze and IV lines and blood amid the roar of the medevac helicopter’s rotors. The Captain had fought his way aboard through the swaying IV bags and shouting medical personnel. He himself was bleeding too, soaked and sticky and dizzy as he held what part of Havers’ hand he could find beneath the monitors and the hastily-taped IV lines. Havers’ eyes fluttered open and closed, unable to track.

“Lieutenant,” said the Captain sternly, holding Havers’ hand in both of his. “We’re doing everything we can for you.”

A flutter of fingertips against his own hand. “You’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty, and for that the unit thanks you,” he continued, fighting for purchase on the blood-slippery floor as the helicopter lifted off, the desert falling away below them in great billowing clouds of dust.

He stopped, unsure of how much he should say. He looked up at the medics. They were looking at each other and shaking their heads. A monitor’s frantic beeping had increased to a scream.

“Havers,” he said at last. “I’m proud of you. And I shall miss you.”

The wind was whipping now in the holloway.

“Havers,” the Captain whispered. He wanted badly to cry; he found he couldn’t, still.

There was a crunch of leaves behind him.

“You might as well make yourself known,” he said sternly.

“Who are you waiting for?” said the voice from the darkness.

The Captain sighed. “A long-dead subordinate.”

Julian Fawcett came up alongside him. “Heard me coming, did you?”

The Captain nodded curtly.

“Didn’t think I was his ghost?”

“You don’t walk like him. Even if ghosts walk like we do, which…” He shrugged.

Julian made a noise of assent.

They stood in silence. The Captain suspected Havers would have taken an instant and virulent dislike to Julian, so he didn’t blame him for keeping his distance. If he was indeed there at all, of course.

“Who are you waiting for, then?” the Captain asked.

“No one.”

“So you just came down here because you fancied a walk, did you?”

“Isn’t it enough to want to go where untold thousands of feet have trod and left their imprint on the earth? To seek a little comfort from the knowledge that you’re just one part of a long, long stream of travellers?”

“Bollocks,” said the Captain automatically.

Julian snorted derisively. “What do the children you teach call you?”

“What do you mean?”

“They’re hardly going to call you ‘Captain,’ the insolent little buggers. ‘Sir,’ occasionally, I’ll give you.”

“They call me by my surname,” the Captain said tartly.

“So the snarky, pubescent youth of Battersea’s finest comprehensive know more about you than your housemates.”

“Neighbours,” said the Captain firmly. “My neighbours.”

“Potato, potahto,” Julian shrugged.

“Why does it matter to you so much? And don’t do that thing you MP types do where you just answer the question with more questions while wearing a smug look on your face.”

“Do you dislike me because I’m a Tory? Your type are such a toss-up, sometimes.”

“I dislike you because you’re a grade-A git who has the self-awareness of a lobster,” said the Captain stoutly. “The Tory thing may not even crack the top 10 reasons.”

“Whateverrrr,” trilled Julian, making a ‘W’ with his thumbs and pointer fingers and showing it emphatically to the Captain.

“That went out of fashion in the 90s,” the Captain reminded him, and they parted.

He had just gotten to the greenhouse—by the looks of it, Robin had a bumper crop of marijuana going in spite of the cold temperatures; the Captain wondered idly if there was ghostly intervention in that, too—when he heard a relieved, exasperated, and very Northern, “Oh, there you are, you muppet.”

“What’s all this, then?” asked the Captain as he came fully around the corner of the greenhouse and they both extinguished their torches.

“You ran out of the room like you’d seen a ghost,” said Patrick accusingly.

“I—” the Captain shook his head. “Fancied a bit of night air.”

Nul points, sister,” said Patrick, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Why does this sort of thing matter so much to you?” asked the Captain hotly. “We’re both fully grown adults who’ve managed to arrive at this stage in our lives without getting ourselves killed, so why on God’s green earth do you chase me down whenever I leave your sight unexpectedly?”

“I’m not—” Patrick flung his hands up in seeming despair. “Are you mad? It’s because I care about you. We all care about you, and clearly you’ve got stuff going on and that’s fine and you can cope however you want. But because we care, it frightens us when you go haring off or shouting or anything that suggests you’re not all right.”

The Captain shook his head, politely disregarding the hot shame threatening to well up inside of him. “I appreciate your concern, Patrick, but I’m quite well.”
Patrick was very close all of a sudden, looking up at him with something unreadable in his gaze. He reached up a hand very slowly and, holding the Captain’s eyes and telegraphing the gesture like mad, gently pressed his fingertips to the Captain’s coat, right over his heart.

You’re allowed, said the part of the Captain’s brain that had diligently taken notes during his sessions with the very nice therapist he’d been directed to during his massive midlife career change. You’re allowed, for Christ’s sake. This isn’t something that other people can have but you can’t. You can, damn it.

He put his hand over Patrick’s and held it to his heart, letting Patrick feel its incessant hammer. The night-shrouded world throbbed gently around him, a soft expansion and contraction around the edges of his vision.

“Would you like to…?” said Patrick quietly, and trailed off.

You’re allowed. You can like and you can want and--

The Captain dropped Patrick’s hand and stepped back.

“I need to go and, er. Check,” he said, tripping over the words, “I may have left the hob on. Yes. Quite dangerous really, with the way the gas is in this old house. So I shall, er. Decamp at once. Goodnight, Patrick.”

And he turned on his heel and left Patrick standing alone by the greenhouse in the moonlight.