Even Thomas could recognise that he hadn't been his usual chipper self lately, but he felt he had good reason. It was one thing that his home had fallen into the hands of a beguiling new proprietress; it was another to find himself staring down the barrel of a potential corporate takeover.
While he wasn’t quite as invested in conserving Button House as Fanny, or even Mary, he still felt a bond with it that was about as warm as could be expected between a man and his final resting place. Now that their latest crisis had been thwarted, the hoteliers in retreat, he should’ve felt positively euphoric to enter the House on the heels of the others. From the spring in Pat’s step to Kitty’s excited clapping, his fellow ghouls certainly seemed prepared to heave their proverbial sighs of relief.
He couldn’t understand why he wasn’t.
Of course, if he wanted jubilation, he supposed he had to look no further than the Captain. That scoundrel's scheming had saved the day, as he would no doubt describe it for decades to come. Julian seemed to harbour the same suspicion, if the way he was lingering near the doors meant anything. He was directing an unambiguously dubious look at the Captain.
The rogue himself was by the staircase, one foot on its first step while he cast a rather less decipherable smile towards his cohorts.
“I don’t know how you pulled it off,” Julian said, sounding just as wary as he looked, “but I’m humble enough to admit when I’ve underestimated somebody. Everyone tells me I’m a very modest person.”
Fanny issued a scoff. “I’m sure we’ll soon receive the full account of how he did it. Repeatedly.”
“Lay off, guys,” Pat said, as he pushed up against the doorway to let Mike stomp past. “This is actually a debrief I wouldn’t mind hearing.”
While the group conceded a reluctant murmur of agreement, Thomas watched Alison follow Mike around the corner, busy commencing an attempt to console her husband. It occurred to him that he should probably draw a pinch of satisfaction from witnessing trouble in paradise. But it did nothing to soothe the unease in his belly.
“Well?” Julian was saying, when Thomas steered his attention back to the huddle. “Aren’t you going to break your arm?”
The Captain frowned. “Pardon?”
“You know. From patting yourself on the back.”
Robin sniggered, but the Captain didn’t respond with the expected cautionary glare and twitch of his whiskers. In fact, he must’ve been feeling downright charitable, because the next thing he uttered struck Thomas as momentous enough to deserve orchestral backing.
“As it happens, I think I'll give the rundown a miss this time.”
Fanny and Pat glanced blankly at each other. Then Pat said, “Are you sure you don’t want to share with the class?”
“Quite sure. In fact, I intend to bunk down for the evening.” The Captain ascended to the second step, one hand on the bannister while the other positioned his stick beneath his arm. “I’d ask you all not to disturb me, though I suppose none of you were planning on it.”
“Light outside still.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that, Robin. But after today’s exercise in bedlam, I find myself in need of rest.”
Once more, Fanny deferred to Pat, receiving only a noncommittal shrug in return. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, Thomas thought; Pat didn’t wield authority with as much natural love of the stuff as the Captain did.
Still, the group's confusion was trumped by their unwillingness to look a gift horse in the mouth. Pat’s shrug was all the permission they needed to splinter off and embark on the same path as Mike and Alison. Thomas guessed they were going to gawk at the plague pit; mustering the requisite morbid enthusiasm evaded him.
Instead he dawdled at the foot of the stairs and watched the Captain walk up them. The Captain’s posture hardly suggested he was out of sorts. He always walked like that, upright and rigid as though he perpetually lived on the cusp of auditioning for a military parade.
There was likely nothing to it. Maybe he was just tired.
Thomas followed him all the same.
When the last Lady Button had dropped off the mortal coil, Thomas hadn’t quite understood the fuss over her bedchamber. Her room was spacious, certainly, and its garden view made for a pleasant change from the overgrown courtyard—but it was bland, from the crumbling tapestries to the drab sheets on the bed. And this much floral upholstery had been outdated even when Thomas was still alive.
Yet as he watched the Captain stand motionlessly by the window, half-dressed in shadow and indistinguishable from a statue, he supposed he saw the rationale. Digs like this suited the Captain. The presence of an officer in full regalia could inject a touch of poignancy into any miserable hovel; he made the place look less like an octogenarian’s room and more like a damning commentary on the mundanity of war. Thomas almost felt creatively moved.
Then he remembered that he was peeved with the Captain, and his divine inspiration was inelegantly shelved.
“Fancy some company?” Thomas asked. Though it made no sound, he knocked against the doorframe for good measure. It was a gesture of decency that the Captain frankly didn’t deserve, but the Captain didn't bother turning to see it anyway—which was him all over, really.
“Absolutely not, but I imagine you'll swan in regardless.”
Thomas did. He crossed the threshold, only to stop; his hesitation came less from a fear of imposing and more from uncertainty about where, exactly, he should go. The room hadn’t changed much since Mike and Alison started their renovations, but some of the furniture was missing. The dresser, for one. And its chair.
There was a pause, until the Captain turned his head. He assumed a faint grimace upon clocking Thomas.
“Just you, is it?”
“Why, were you expecting someone else?”
“I expected nobody at all. That’s generally the result one hopes for when they ask not to be disturbed.”
Thomas sniffed, busying himself by fixing the cuff of one sleeve. “Nothing would please me more than leaving you to your own devices. But given the circumstances, I don’t have that luxury.”
“What do you want, Thorne?”
“I merely want to know why you helped us. Even when we specifically told you not to.”
The Captain frowned, though he didn’t deign to level it at Thomas. He cast it vaguely over his shoulder, which was creeping incrementally closer to his chin.
“Would you rather I hadn’t? The Coopers would be well on their way to some ghastly conurbation by now.”
“But that’s what you wanted,” Thomas said, feeling emboldened to take a stride forward. “You wanted them gone. You said so yourself.”
The Captain stepped away from the window, and not for the first time that fortnight, Thomas wound up on the business end of the officer’s crop. Approximately. The bed remained between he and the Captain, and he was glad of the distance.
“I stood opposed to the majority, Thorne. While it mightn’t be sound strategy on the battlefield, there's occasionally merit to the idea of joining the enemy when unable to beat them.”
“We’re your enemies in this metaphor?”
Out went the Captain’s chest, like a bristling dog. “Well, how else would you explain that collective tantrum last week?”
Thomas laughed. Rather, he let out a facsimile of one, challenging the Captain’s crop by pointing a finger right back. “Oh, I knew it! I knew there had to be a reason you weren't leaping at the chance to cover yourself in glory.”
“Aren’t you clever,” the Captain said—but Thomas suspected it was sarcasm. The sneer upon the Captain's face was his first clue. “Look. We all have to live here. There’s no reason we can’t be amicable.”
“You’d call this amicable, would you? Sulking in your room over a poxy disagreement!”
The Captain stared, the ghost of a scowl disentangling from his features before it slipped away entirely. “Is that what you think I’m doing? Licking my wounds?”
Thomas said nothing. He didn’t think he had to.
Slowly, the Captain smiled—not smugly, as he had outside, and not as superficially as he’d smiled on the staircase. It lay in the middle: comfortably wry and somehow more irksome as a result.
“Don't flatter yourself, Thorne. Your head is big enough as it is.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“You're not the first battalion to turn on me. In life, my men tended to despise me just as much.”
“Don’t be such a dramatist,” Thomas said. He fancied he could hear Fanny distantly squawking about kettles, but he dismissed the thought.
“Surely you saw it for yourself. Whenever they thought I was out of earshot, they had no kind word to say about me.”
Ah. It crossed Thomas's mind that now likely wasn’t the right time to admit he hadn't paid the Captain a blind bit of notice, back when he’d walked the halls of Button House with a heartbeat.
In his own defense, it hadn’t seemed necessary back then. The army had requisitioned the Hall for training, and there had been so many soldiers roaming the grounds that they blurred together, row upon row of green-garbed men loading munitions and telling blue jokes. Thomas, as was his wont, had been mostly preoccupied with finding quiet spaces in which he could hear himself think. After all, he could never predict when a stroke of creative genius was about to hit.
And then the Captain died. As far as Thomas recalled, his surviving subordinates had put in the hours when it came to mourning, but people always did that after a death. Even Byron had sent his condolences to the Thornes.
“If they did,” Thomas said, choosing his words carefully, “I doubt they meant it. You would never have permitted it, for one.”
“Wrong again, Thomas. That’s what leadership means. Do your duty no matter what, all in service of the greater good.” The Captain bounced indignantly on the spot, tipping his head back to peer down at Thomas reproachfully. “Even if your present company doesn’t ruddy well deserve it.”
Thomas swallowed, returning to smoothing down a sleeve. Challenging his wardrobe was a losing game—the unseemly stain on his vest served as testament to that—but he couldn’t bring himself to meet the Captain’s eye. Perhaps he felt slightly sheepish over the way they’d handled matters, if only because the Captain had been of some use for once, and…
No. No. The Captain might’ve found it easy to tie Kitty up in knots, but he was contending with a superior wit now. Thomas was angry; he had every right to be angry. So he reminded himself as he changed tact and folded his arms across his chest.
“You can't blame us for tiring of the incessant tyranny. We’re not children.”
“Aren’t you?” The Captain fixed Thomas with a questioning sneer. “You certainly behave like it. I haven't been called names since I was in shorts and long socks.”
Thomas tried to ignore the prickle of sweat gathering at his nape. The angle at which the Captain had arched a brow was sharp enough to be almost impressive; surely it was only natural to be faintly unnerved by it.
“What exactly has Kitty been telling you?”
The Captain paused. His silence was almost as disconcerting as his third degree, but his expression softened, and it came as a welcome reprieve when he pivoted away from Thomas entirely. His tone was weary when he spoke; the fight had drained right out of him, trickling through the floorboards.
“Don't take it out on her. She didn’t betray your confidence. I simply heard the whole wretched production from the corridor.”
Thomas couldn’t decide if that made it better or worse.
And now it didn’t seem like he’d be getting his answers in a hurry. He’d rarely seen the Captain look this glum—which wasn’t saying much; the Captain barely looked glum now, but he sighed, and it certainly sounded like he was. If there was one thing Thomas understood intimately, it was the language of sorrowful sighs.
His only option appeared to be taking a seat. As there were no longer any seats in the room to take, he sat on the edge of the Captain’s bed.
The Captain must have caught the action from the corner of his eye, because he crinkled his nose disapprovingly in Thomas's direction. “What are you doing?”
“Waiting for your response to my question.”
“You'll be waiting indefinitely. I’d rather like to go to bed.”
“Nothing’s stopping you,” Thomas said, idly brushing his knuckles over the duvet. It was uneven, but plush. “But I’ve no intention of leaving until you tell me why you did what you did.”
The Captain wavered. If he wanted to hide the way his gaze wandered over Thomas’s perching body, he nearly managed, but Thomas could miss nothing when it was only the two of them. Aware of the Captain watching every movement intently, Thomas dragged one leg up onto mattress, sitting ankle-on-knee as the other dangled off the side. He’d never say no to indulging in a spot of posturing.
“It won’t work,” the Captain said, his voice hazardously low. “If you think I won’t just turn in with you in the room, then…”
“Go ahead,” Thomas replied, when the Captain trailed off. He lifted his hands like a priest at the altar, affecting his most convincing display of innocence. “But you really are an old man if you’re retiring for the night at seven o’clock.”
The Captain smiled in spite of himself; it didn’t reach his eyes. “I thought I was an old walrus. One with terrible hygiene.”
Thomas recoiled slightly, clutching at his knees. He’d forgotten about that part of his otherwise spot-on impression.
“You don’t actually smell.” Thomas reassessed. “Not badly. You smell like laundered wool and gunpowder.”
“I note you aren’t retracting the part about resembling an overgrown mole with flippers,” the Captain said. Then he carried on considering Thomas. It lasted only a few seconds, but it gave ample opportunity for Thomas to stop enjoying the scrutiny and grow uncomfortable instead; the Captain had his head cocked slightly, every part of his face tasked with looking as intrigued as possible. “You’re older than me, you know. You died a century before I was born.”
Thomas opened his mouth to object before realising there was nothing to censure. It was easy to forget that a fellow so devoid of whimsy hadn’t come part and parcel with Button House’s oppressive architecture. That he hadn’t simply always been there.
“I was in the moment,” Thomas offered mildly.
The Captain either ignored it or had no rejoinder, moving away from the window towards the bedside table. He set down his stick—curiously, it didn’t fall straight through—then took back his hand. But he didn’t retract it far. It hovered over the table, as though he intended to brandish his constant companion again. As though leaving it rest would mean forfeiting his right to retreat.
“I’m turning in,” he said, watching Thomas side-on. For an informative statement, it sounded like a warning.
The way the Captain expertly avoided making eye contact had Thomas convinced the Captain was going to surrender. He was certain of his victory even as the Captain lowered himself onto the bed; his certainty continued as the Captain swung both his legs onto the mattress; he remained assured right up until the moment the Captain’s head touched the pillow.
Then he was abruptly aware of the fact he was looking down on the Captain in repose, sitting next to him on a king-sized bed that wasn’t really all that king-sized.
And he had no exit strategy. The only person he knew who might be able to help him formulate one was the very man awkwardly staring at the ceiling beside him. Less a walrus, more a stubborn mule.
“You really aren’t going to tell me,” Thomas said, mostly in awe.
“No,” the Captain replied. Folding his hands neatly over his chest, he awkwardly drummed his fingertips. “I don’t believe I am.”
No matter what Thomas did, it appeared that gracefully taking his leave had ceased to be an option. Now seemed as good a point as any to hop to his feet—but he found he didn’t want to. He was superb at being stubborn, too—so with what he hoped was a believable harrumph, he fell back onto the bed and stretched out over his side of it.
Maybe this was why the Captain had been so adamant about moving in here. It was surprisingly comfortable. As comfortable as a bed could be when furniture was only distantly tactile, anyway.
For the time being, the Captain did not seem to agree. He bolted upright the moment Thomas lay down, scrambling for the stick he’d so painstakingly relinquished before. Then he was looming over his unwanted bedmate in a flash, touching the crop to Thomas’s nose.
“Right! Absolutely not. This won’t do. I want you out of my quarters immediately.”
“No,” Thomas said. In a bid to glare the offending stick away from him, he went fleetingly crossed-eyed. “I told you my terms. I won’t leave until you spill your sordid secrets!”
“Oh, spare me. You couldn’t mount an occupation in Liechtenstein.”
Thomas countered with a huff. The Captain’s look of outrage was effective in holding him down, but it wasn’t sufficient to stop him from seizing the Captain’s wrist.
He’d acted reflexively, without any expectation that it would send a shiver rocketing through him. It might’ve been the way the Captain’s expression traded in displeasure for shock (an oh of surprise, soft and satisfyingly open)—or it might’ve been the fact that while he couldn’t properly feel the bed beneath him, and he still didn’t feel the sense of relief pervasive among the others, he could feel the Captain.
His tunic was scratchy and rough to the touch, though not so much that it distracted from the wiry strength below, muscle and bone leaping in Thomas’s grip as the Captain half-heartedly squirmed a bit. He’d been a serviceman, after all. He was built to grapple with heavy artillery and cumbersome firearms, not resolving petty squabbles between people who didn’t want his aid in the first place.
Thomas knew he should probably let go. He finally had the Captain’s undivided attention and he found that he liked it—to be the only thing currently of any consequence to a man who never noticed anyone, not this closely. The inhabitants of Button House seemed to blur into one gaggle of subordinates, like those rows of green-garbed men.
Well. Sometimes the Captain noticed outsiders, be they directors or contractors. That hadn’t gone over Thomas’s head.
“Unhand me,” the Captain said, with an abundance of hesitation. He could extract himself if he really wanted to, Thomas thought; it had to mean something that he stayed put, opting to hover precariously over his bedmate with a look of bewilderment that bordered on pleading.
“You’re being unreasonable. I only want the answer to a very simple question!”
“This is an absurd way of conducting reconnaissance,” the Captain snapped, narrowing his eyes.
He looked adequately stern, but it was impossible to overlook the fact he was currently all talk and very little action. Meeting surprisingly scant resistance, Thomas reached for the Captain’s stick, plucked it from his grip—and tossed it across the room.
That did it. The Captain advanced on Thomas like he was securing the enemy, pinning his wrists pinned beside his head and straddling him. It didn’t hurt—even when playing the brute, the Captain was a lesson in self-restraint—but Thomas let out an involuntary gasp all the same.
Really, he mused, all this manhandling was wholly unnecessary. Scandalised, he couldn’t contain a grin that wouldn’t have been out of place on Carroll's Cheshire cat.
“By jove! I didn't think you had it in you.”
“I gave you ample warning to bugger off.”
“And that gives you the right to mistreat me, does it?” Thomas wiggled slightly, testing for latitude. It delighted him that the Captain took a sharp intake of breath. “I daresay you’re enjoying this.”
All outrage faded from the Captain’s face, but it wasn’t replaced by any satisfying picture of embarrassment. Rather, he grimaced. Of all the things Thomas might’ve predicted he'd say, the next words out of his mouth hadn’t been one of them.
“Not with my knees, I’m not.”
Thomas laughed, the genuine article this time. “What were you saying about your age?"
The Captain groaned in surrender. Unceremoniously, he rolled off Thomas and flopped down next to him, back arching as though possessed with discomfort. Thomas was almost disappointed at the loss of him, of being enveloped by a weight that was both warm and curiously familiar.
“If you must know, Thorne,” the Captain said with a wince, piquing Thomas’s interest, “if you really must know, I simply decided it would be prudent to stick with the devil I knew. My operation had little to do with anyone else.”
“Aha. So it had something to do with us.”
“Yes, well. None of us want to be here, but we are, so we might as well make the best of it.”
Thomas reflected, or tried to. The Captain’s flustered profile made for fascinating viewing, but it was a terrible distraction as a result. His throat bobbed in the wake of a thick swallow, and the silver hairs at his temple appeared to glow in the light of the setting sun outside. The temptation to touch him again was tempered only by Thomas’s concerns about inviting further assault.
“I was under the impression you didn’t like our company very much.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.” The Captain loosened the knot around his neck. “And being the pariah for eternity sounds like an awfully grim prospect.”
A discussion they’d had a month or so prior came to mind, when Thomas had been rightfully despondent and the Captain had proved less than satisfactory as a sympathetic ear. The same thought apparently occurred to the Captain, because now he was watching Thomas, cheek pressed to his pillow. There was an air of provocation about him—but when Thomas couldn’t follow through, he did the honours anyway.
“You said it to me yourself. Being alone in a crowd beats just being alone.”
“That isn’t exactly what I meant,” Thomas said. “One isn’t better than the other. One is just… less quiet.”
The Captain kept mum. All he did was stare again, studying Thomas with a furrowed brow that intimated some presence of bemusement. The intensity was no longer unwelcome. In fact, Thomas stretched out slowly, like a contented cat.
What part, he wondered, couldn't the Captain comprehend? That there was someone lying with him? If he’d rarely had occasion to entertain bedfellows in life, Thomas couldn’t feign an inability to empathise.
There were so many things he’d fallen short of accomplishing outside Button House. Things he’d never get to do now. He had not compiled an anthology respected by Europe's intelligentsia; he had not mastered fluency in Classical Greek; he had not taken a spouse and made a home with them in some fashionable district of London. But that wasn’t to say dying had meant the death of new experiences.
He’d never once socialised with a common soldier before meeting the Captain.
A delegation of stars had no doubt aligned purely to make it possible; the powers-that-be had arranged them on his behalf. Thomas refused to believe there wasn’t some meaning behind his continuing residence at Button House, around people he would've dismissed in life without a second thought. Sometimes, it was the most comforting notion he had in his arsenal.
He considered sharing it with the Captain. He wanted to, but couldn’t find the words; eloquence always fled from him when he needed it most. Maybe it was for the best. They were still technically quarreling, even if Thomas was growing less and less wedded to the underlying rationale, so he settled on saying the first thing to cross his mind.
“You know, Pat isn’t a very charismatic leader.”
The Captain snorted. “I could’ve told you that much.”
“Perhaps, if you wanted to resume command for the next emergency—it would not be disagreeable.”
“Mm. I knew you’d crawl back eventually.”
“Hardly,” Thomas stated with a scoff. “You might scrub up well for cannon fodder, but I’m still not taking orders from a workhorse.”
It took Thomas by surprise that the Captain laughed. He watched in awe as it rumbled in the Captain’s throat and shook through him, body trembling from a half-realised effort to suppress it. Thomas astutely decided that no good could come from pointing out how much he sounded like a barking seal.
It finally seemed like an acceptable time to depart, but now that the moment had arrived, Thomas felt unwilling to move. He reminded himself that the bed here was comfortable, which had no doubt played a large role in rendering him so docile—and it wasn't horrible, being in such close proximity to another person. Even if that person happened to be the Captain. By employing his imagination, Thomas could almost pretend it was Alison, or some other woman from his misspent youth; maybe he wouldn't bother expending the energy, though. Just because it would be difficult to attribute that scent of gunpowder to a fair maiden. Up close, it could be mistaken for a respectable musk.
So he let his lids flutter shut, blocking out the reproachful eyes evaluating them from the tapestries. The sound of the Captain's laughter washed over him—laughter he'd annoyingly earned by saving the day, like he always did. Apparently always would.
At last, Thomas allowed himself peace.