The Captain

Summary: Captain Nicholls is sent to Downton Abbey to recuperate. The Earl of Grantham finds him intriguing.

Rating: NC-17? Maybe, I don't know how far this will go.

Pairing: Lord Grantham (Robert Crawley) / Captain James (Jim) Nicholls.
Warnings: Slash, cause, yeah... no other pairing was possible.
Notes: I have not read the book War Horse, so the only information I have about Nicholls is from the film, and that's not very much, so most of his back story is my fabrication.

Robert sighed deeply as he watched the wounded being carried or helped inside. Very few of them could manage it without assistance. He freely admitted he had been more than a little skeptical of Downton becoming a convalescence home, but seeing the officers struggling to walk or even just drink some water had made the war come alive, right in his home. It made him ashamed of his earlier misgivings. Had he not wanted to be in the war and shunned the War Office when they had offered him an honorary position? Well, this was their chance to make a difference.

He was not the only one for whom the war had become real - his beloved daughters were now all bustling about and never sitting still. Even Mary was helping, and Edith had a knack for keeping track of things Robert had never noticed before.

True, he did not enjoy the noise and strangers so much, but it was an easy cross to bear.

Two soldiers came through the front door with a man on a stretcher between them. A nurse was ready, checking the tag and directing them to the appropriate bed. Robert only caught a glimpse of him: delicate blond curls and high cheek bones. A feminine beauty in a very masculine face. It was startling, but Robert's glance was brief and he didn't think too much on it. There were many other sights to see that day that would put the young officer far from his mind.

Because of the hustle and bustle of the day with so many new officers coming in, Robert had put off answering a few letters, and he could not go to sleep before he had done them. Cora went up to bed utterly exhausted, but Robert knew she had never slept so soundly as now.

He knew he should go to bed, but he was restless with the house so full of people. He had even sent the servants to bed; he could manage the undressing just this once. After he put away the letters to be sent first thing in the morning, he wandered into the rooms that he used to know every inch of. Now, the old furniture was put away and rows and rows of beds were crammed in. It made the place feel so much bigger for some reason. It was strange, seeing the simple hospital beds lined up in a room with such beautiful tapestry. He wondered if the officers enjoyed looking up at the exquisite moldings on the ceiling, and if they liked to hope they would dream of cherubs, or if they secretly despised it all. None of them had any radical leaning, he was sure, since they were all good, honourable officers who had given their health, if not their lives, for their country. Still, did some of them, seeing the luxury just out of reach, resent them? Or were they thankful for the generosity showed by opening the house to them?

Such thoughts were of no use to him, he knew, but his gaze swept over the officers one last time. They were all sound asleep, and the new arrivals were too exhausted or wounded to even dream, though not all of them.

A small whimper reached Robert, and he saw one officer shifting in his sleep. His bed was by the windows, and the moonlight shone in, illuminating the features of the man he had seen earlier that day. He was even more beautiful now, though some nightmare made his brow furrow. He winced and turned his head this way and that, his whimpers rising in volume.

Robert wondered if he should leave or wake the officer. The decision was made for him when he heard a soft "please... help". He moved as silently as he could and sat down gently on the officer's bed, placing a comforting hand on the man's shoulder.

His eyes were wild under the closed lids and his breathing was very laboured.

'Wake up,' Robert urged. 'Come now, wake up, you're having a nightmare.'

Suddenly, the officer sat up, throwing his arms around Robert's frame and clinging on for dear life. The burst of movement shocked Robert frightfully, and he only just managed to stop himself from crying out. The officer buried his head in the crook of Robert's neck, sobbing quietly.

Instead of finding it distasteful, Robert found himself sighing and returning the embrace as best he could. He had heard reports of the horrors of the war that would make even a veteran like him grow pale. This young man probably didn't even realise he was clinging to the Earl of Grantham like he would his mother.

'There, there, now,' Robert soothed in a whisper. 'It was just a dream. You're quite safe now. You're at Downton Abbey, a convalescence home.' Robert knew soldiers could be very confused after waking from such terrors.

'Joey,' the young man whispered.

'I'm sorry,' Robert replied. 'I don't know who that is.' Perhaps it was a friend. If so, Robert promised himself he would find out what had happened to the lad.

The young man had stopped crying and gone very still. Slowly, he pulled away. He stared at Robert with wide eyes. They were a stunning blue, glittering with tears. Robert did not doubt he had never seen a man quite so beautiful. The expression of confusion, shock and soon embarrassment did not mar his features in the slightest. If anything they caused Robert considerable, and inexplicable, distress.

The young man was in the standard blue striped pyjamas every patient wore, but on him they made him look especially innocent, though the glimpse of pale chest hair, due to the three top buttons being undone, proved he was far from a child.

'Are you all right?' he asked when the man seemed frozen in place. 'What is your name?' This finally produced a reaction in the lad.

'Captain Nicholls,' he gasped. 'Your Lordship, please forgive me.' Clearly, the young officer must have been awake earlier in the day to recognise Robert in the dim light of the moon. Little did he know how luminecent his eyes were with him facing the window.

'Nothing to forgive,' Robert assured him, smiling kindly and touching the officer's shoulder to show his sincerity. Captain Nicholls looked down at the hand as if it was a ghost touching him.

'My Lord,' he whispered, nodding once that he understood. Robert sat back a bit.

'Lie back down now, and go to sleep,' he urged gently. 'Do you need something? A glass of water perhaps?'

'No, no My Lord,' Captain Nicholls said, quite distressed at the offer. Robert urged him back down with a firm hand.

'Easy there, soldier,' Robert said lightly. 'All three of my daughters are practically nurses - and one's even had the training - so I think I can manage to bring a wounded man a glass of water if he needs it.' Finally flat on his back again, Captain Nicholls smiled weakly, but shook his head.

'Thank you, My Lord, but no, I'm fine.'

'Then go back to sleep.' He did not need telling thrice, and Robert watched as Nicholls' eyes drifted shut. He found himself saddened to be left alone without the penetrating gaze. Finally going to bed, he felt very odd: he was calm and glad that he had helped the lad, but his condition - and his beauty - left him disturbed in a way he did not recognise.

XXX

The next day he made an unconscious choice to walk through the dormitory – how strange to refer to it as such without a second thought - where Captain Nicholls' bed was. It was a pleasant surprise to see him sitting up in bed and eating a sandwich. The nurse was hovering over him and he smiled up at her, thanking her for her attention. Officers and young women never mixed well, but Robert could hardly fault the girl for doing her job. Besides, with a smile such as that, the only way to keep the nurses away from the lad was to lock him in the attic.

Amused by his own thoughts, he greeted the other officers absentmindedly as he made his way to Nicholls' bed. The nurse, sensing his presence, curtsied quickly and went about her business. Captain Nicholls' eyes went almost as wide as last night, a small blush creeping up his neck. Robert couldn't help but smile at the young man's pretty embarrassment.

'Lord Grantham,' Nicholls greeted, straightening his spine in an attempt to appear professional. Robert was pleased to note he seemed like a proper, decent gentleman. 'Please, forgive me for last night.' Robert held up a hand before the Captain had finished his sentence.

'As I said last night, there's no need to apologise,' he reassured the young man. 'You've been wounded for King and country.'

'I'm afraid that will become an overused excuse all too soon,' Nicholls sighed. 'But thank you.' Robert returned the nod given to him, studying the man carefully. The comment clearly betrayed bitterness. Wounded soldiers tended to be depressed due to their more permanent afflictions. Nicholls seemed perfectly healthy, if a little pale. But appearances, Robert had learned, were deceiving in times like these. His scrutiny was far from subtle, apparently, and Nicholls shifted uncomfortably.

'It's my legs,' he said, staring at them. 'My horse-...' he swallowed. Robert felt his heart constrict at the young man's obvious pain, which he did not attempt to hide in the slightest. 'Joey, he fell on me. I don't know what's happened to him now.'

'I'm sorry,' Robert said, sincerely. He was very fond of his own mount, and could only imagine the number of horses that had died for a cause they did not understand. Dumb beasts or no, they still gave their lives.

'The doctors are optimistic,' Nicholls said, giving a sniff and blinked away the tears before they could fully form. 'Major Clarkson is confident I will walk again, though my right leg might not regain its full strength. Whatever the outcome, I'm out of the war before I even started.' The bitterness returned, and it was understandable now: Nicholls believed his duty unfulfilled.

'Some would call that lucky,' Robert remarked.

'I am not among them,' Nicholls said, his bitterness very sour. Robert couldn't help but be glad, however, that such a fine young officer would be spared. Perhaps it was a selfish thought, but there it was.

'No one doubts your bravery, if that's what's got you worried,' he told him. 'I'll leave you to eat. Focus on your health and leave the war to the rest of them.' Nicholls thanked him again, and apologised, though for what Robert wasn't sure. He seemed almost too well mannered.

The rest of the day passed much as he was growing accustomed to, though the imagine of Nicholls' wide and sincere gaze lingered always on the outskirts of his mind.

He did not see him again until he passed the training room, as it was now referred to. The Captain was seated in a wheelchair at one end of the two railings that were used to train the wounded to walk. He was trying to lift himself up, and was sweating profusely, his skin red with strain. The nurse stood by, ready to assist should he need it, but he seemed determined to do it on his own. He wore his regimental trousers and shirt, the collar of which was stained with sweat.

Finally, he managed to drag himself up, standing wobbly on his feet and putting almost all of his weight on his arms rather than his legs.

'Very good,' the nurse said. 'But that's enough, the Doctor says it's too early.'

'I can manage a few steps,' Captain Nicholls insisted, trying and failing to shuffle forwards.

Robert's feet carried forwards, his steps alerting Nicholls, who almost faltered at the sight of him, and stopped his attempts at shuffling.

'Your Lordship,' he said, voice as strained as his muscles. 'Forgive me for not greeting you properly.' Robert smiled and shook his head. He noted, for some reason known only to his subconscious, that Nicholls was a tall fellow, though not quite as tall as himself, with perhaps only an inch separating them.

'Understandable, but did I hear the nurse correctly? You shouldn't push yourself too hard.' Nicholls only nodded, too tired to speak, and Robert sensed he was about to fall. He rushed forward just as Nicholls' strength failed him, catching him round the waist, though the railing between them made it slightly awkward. Nicholls grabbed his shoulders much as he had the night before. Their faces ended up very close.

'Easy there,' Robert said, indicating he did not mind giving his assistance.

'Your Lordship,' Nicholls answered, voice sharp with pain, as Robert helped him back to the chair. He wasn't quite as thin as Robert had supposed, and felt quite muscular beneath his clothes. 'Thank you, again,' he breathed. Robert touched his shoulder.

'Think nothing of it,' he told him. 'But listen to Major Clarkson in the future.'

'Yes, My Lord.' Having confirmed the promise, Robert nodded once and left the lad. There was a tingling sensation on his person that lingered all day, but he could not explain it, only note that it had started after Nicholls had touched him.

XXX

Try as he might, he could forget the young officer. The world was clearly working against him as well, since he could not cross the house in any direction without catching a glimpse of him. He seemed well liked by the others, though his bitterness and sadness at being denied serving his country could be seen in the way his gaze sometimes drifted off. Robert had seen him writing several letters, sometimes with a deep frown, and one time with a shaking hand. He wanted to ask him how he was, but could not think of an excuse to favour the young officer above the others. He contented himself with greeting him like he would the others when he made his now customary round in the morning. Nicholls always gave him the sweetest smile, though perhaps he only had that one type. Robert's day was always improved by the sight of it.

On one sunny afternoon, Robert went for a walk to get away from the tension between Cora and Mrs Crawley. He suspected things were going to come to a head very soon, and preferred to be far away from the blast radius.

The grounds were bright and lush with summer. Strange to think of the horrors that lay just beyond the chanal. Downton shone in the sun, its pale yellow colour seemingly made for just this sort of weather. Robert loved her in all seasons of course, but it was on days like these he truly delighted in showing her off. Right now, though, he was content to walk alone, and wandered off his regular round. Solitude would not be his today, it seemed, for when he found himself by the gazebo there stood a wheelchair containing Captain Nicholls. He was wearing his uniform, apart from the cap, and Robert couldn't help but think the sight a bit sad: the solider confined to the wheelchair.

He was approaching the officer from behind, and so the lad did not notice him at first. His head was bowed, but came up now and then to look at Downton in the distance, and Robert realised he must be drawing. The urge to see said drawing became paramount in an instant.

'Have you wheeled yourself here all by yourself?' Robert asked in greeting as he rounded the chair. Nicholls' head snapped up, his smile slightly embarrassed.

'My arms are getting very strong, Your Lordship,' he said. 'I managed it quite easily.' There were several sheets of paper on his lap, and a single pencil in his hand. Robert could not see the drawing very well from the angle.

'Might I see?' he asked, indicating the drawing.

'Oh, it's nothing, a scribble,' Nicholls excused, but dutifully handed it over when Robert held out his hand. It was a beautiful rendering of Downton. She seemed like a lost castle in a fairy tale, with trees obscuring her slightly. Somehow, Nicholls had done more than simply sketched her dimensions exactly; he had captured her essence.

'This is very good,' Robert told him. 'You have a gift.'

'Thank you,' Nicholls said, his blush slight but clearly visible. He gazed up towards the subject of his drawing. 'I find Downton... incredible.' Robert turned slightly to catch a glimpse of her. Yes, incredible was the word. 'I haven't seen many great houses, but I did play often at Highgarden.'

'Really? Of course, Nicholls,' Robert suddenly realised. 'You are related to them?'

'Indeed, I am Lord Elsingham's nephew.' A queer expression passed over Nicholls' face, possibly due to some disturbing memory. 'But Highgarden did not have the same... personality.' Robert was not aware of any gloom that hung over Highgarden. The Earl of Elsingham was known to be a most sensible and kind man, and his family, but one could never be sure. He decided not to press the memory directly.

'And what sort of personality does Downton have?' he asked instead. The smile returned slightly, though Robert was saddened to see it was tempered by lingering memories.

'She is a home, first and foremost,' Nicholls explained. 'You can feel the warmth in her walls.' When Nicholls spoke in such a deep tone, with clear reverence, Robert found the sound incredibly pleasing. The lad had a lilt to his voice that made him sound older and wiser, in stark contrast to his beautiful and youthful face. His eyes alone seemed to connect the two extremes, with some sadness always hiding in their depths.

'There aren't many who would describe Downton thus,' Robert admitted. 'I thank you for it.' Nicholls was evidently pleased at having pleased the Lord of the Manor, and his smile bloomed fully, causing no little tingling in Robert's gut. He coughed to cover his reaction. 'I always found Highgarden a very serene place, though I probably haven't been there since before you were born.'

'Oh, I hope I am not that young, My Lord,' Nicholls smiled, and Robert was flattered that he had not hinted at the other possibility; that he was old enough to have visited often long before the young officer's birth. 'I have not been there for many years myself.' The darkness crept back into his face, but he shook it off. 'I believe it is a convalescence home now as well.'

'Really? I had not heard. Why did you not use that as an excuse to go there? I could make inquiries to have you relocated.' Even as he said the words, he vowed he could never do so: he could never send this young man away from himself willingly. The feeling was so certain and powerful that Robert simply could not examine it for fear something would show on his face. The gods were gentle that day, however, for Nicholls shook his head.

'Thank you, My Lord, but I would much rather stay here.' He bowed his head. 'I did not leave on the best of terms.'

'I will not press you for details,' Robert assured him, absolutely certain the matter was simply a misunderstanding. 'You are welcome at Downton for as long as you need.'

'Thank you, My Lord,' Nicholls said. As Robert handed him back the drawing, Nicholls' hand brushed his own. It was only the barest of touches, but Robert couldn't help but catalog the smooth skin and the large hands. Was nothing about the man less than beautiful?

'I must get inside for luncheon,' he told the lad. 'I'll send the nurse out to help you part of the way. You can't be wheeling yourself all the way back.'

'I'm sure I'll manage.'

'And I am sure Major Clarkson would have something to say about it?' Robert raised an eyebrow in mock threat, and Nicholls smiled and nodded.

'Yes, sir,' he said, and gave a very good salute for someone seated. Robert smiled and returned it, walking the direct route back to the house. He told the nurse to hurry; he did not want Nicholls to overtax himself.

XXX

'Lord Elsingham's nephew?' Cora repeated. 'Have we met him before?'

'No, but we are related to the Nicholls I'm sure,' Robert told her as he ate his lamb. It was very good. All food tasted sweeter in relation to its scarcity, and Robert would not feel guilty about enjoying it. His mother leaned forwards to address Cora.

'Lord Elsingham has more nephews and cousins than is healthy,' she informed them. 'I scarce say this Captain Nicholls is probably considered more of a distant relative.'

'Like Cousin Matthew was to us?' Robert asked, though he regretted it the moment he had. The Lady Dowager huffed.

'Not even,' she said. 'He does not have a chance to inherit. Lord Elsingham has two grown sons, both engaged, and who knows how many older nephews there are.'

'I'm surprised you don't know them all,' Cora muttered. The Dowager ignored her.

'His sons are in France, if I remember,' Robert pointed out.

'Even the eldest, what was his name, Master William?' Cora asked.

'Indeed, the Nicholls have always thought very highly of their duty,' Robert answered with great admiration.

'Well, I am sure they are far from the fighting,' the Lady Dowager insisted. 'Lord Elsingham would not risk both his sons.'

'Perhaps we should invite Captain Nicholls to dine with us when he is recovered? Before he goes home,' Edith suggested.

'Don't be ridiculous,' the Lady Dowager huffed. 'We can't dine with every officer we have a connection to. We would have guests every evening from now till a year after the war's end.'

'I think Edith is quite taken with him, relation or not,' Mary said, only quietly enough that the rest of them could ignore it and not chide her for it. Mary and her exchanged a sour glance.

'This is what happens when we are invaded by officers,' the Dowager sighed as if it was a great tragedy.

'For once I agree with you,' Cora half-whispered. She looked to Edith. 'He's most likely not got a penny to his name.'

'He's a Captain,' Edith argued.

'And that's the only advantage of his relation to Lord Elsingham, I'd wager,' Cora said archly. Edith sagged a bit in her chair when it was clear her suggestion would not be heard.

'The relation isn't very distant though, is it?' Robert mused, thinking there might be a close enough connection. Finally, an excuse to spend some time with the lad and learn more. He was far too intrigued for his own good, but he needed the lad's diverting presence now and then, he reasoned with himself. 'I believe Lord Elsingham's aunt married my cousin, or something like that.'

'Forth or fifth, maybe,' the Dowager dismissed, but Robert was not so sure. He made a note to look into it at his earliest moment of leisure.