Ever since getting back from the Arctic, Edward’s parents have treated him with a kind of distant fragility that he is certain was never a feature of his childhood. Of course, considering how vivid the reports and accounts in the papers had been about what Edward had returned to them from and how he had very nearly not returned at all, one could almost understand why they might give in to an indulging of whims that they would never have stood for five years prior.
Which is why, Edward thinks with a somewhat uncharacteristic lack of guilt, they did not make any protest when he informed them of his intention to host a friend from the expedition for a time, as long as was needed for him to recover from a persistent illness, aided of course by the restorative qualities of the country air that their estate had become quite known for.
“Of course,” his mother had said in return, with no further questions, not even to ask which particular friend of his would be their guest. They did not talk much of the expedition, as a rule.
“He may have any room in the house and he can stay as long as he needs,” she said smoothly, and that was that.
It is not unpleasant, this strange new place he occupies among his family, only it takes some getting used to - like the moment you step off a ship after years at sea and it is the solid land that sways unsteadily underfoot.
The last time the ground had swayed like that beneath Edward’s feet, he had been disembarking the ship that had been their rescue. In those hurried final hours before they went their separate ways, there had been barely enough time for Edward to push at Thomas Jopson a scrap of paper onto which he had scribbled the address of his parents’ estate.
“Write me,” Edward had quite nearly begged. “If you can.”
There had been no reason for Jopson to do so, even for all the duty they’d shared and shouldered together. During the good times they’d regretfully exchanged nothing more than a few good-natured conversations and a few long looks that could mean anything, if Edward’s being honest. And during the bad times - on the ice, overland on the rocks, on the wasteland - when he had been sick and mad enough with despair that he’d proposed the only thing he thought would be their salvation, the looks Jopson gave him turned horrified and disappointed and the conversations came to an end.
Even so, there must have been something that Jopson valued because he had clasped Edward’s hand along with the note and nodded.
And then he had written after all. His handwriting was as meticulous as himself, his tone overly formal and cautious. It had begun:
To Commander Edward Little,
I write to leave you my current address, should you need to contact me for anything at all. I am at the moment living with my mother and sister-in-law, and will inform you of any change in my living arrangements, though I do not foresee that happening any time soon. I hope you and your family are in good health.
And of course Edward had written back almost instantly, as soon as he managed to slow the beat of his heart sufficiently for him to take up his pen and ink-well.
Dear Lieutenant Thomas Jopson,
I thank you for your letter. We are all well here--
He had paused then, suddenly despairing at the stilted dullness of his letter. He looked down at his feet, where his dog lay asleep, her thin flank bellowing out shallowly under patchy fur, and then something had possessed him to add:
...save my poor old dog Ash, who has aged much in the five years since I saw her last. She gave me a good welcome when I returned, but I have since felt her spirit slipping from her. I wonder if she has been waiting for me all this time; if the waiting is all that has kept her going and now she finds herself without cause to continue. My apologies for reporting such miserable affairs. Please do not think me dreary or a bore, whichever is worse. I couldn’t bear it.
He had not expected a reply to that letter, but one had come anyway.
Dear Commander Little,
I send my kindest regards to your faithful Ash, and convey to her my gladness that she may spend her remaining years with you returned to her. When I think of the joy she must have felt seeing your face again, I feel joy myself. Her waiting was well-spent, if I may say so.
There is no need to apologise. No news from you could ever bore me.
Edward does not keep Jopson’s letters with the rest of his correspondence. He keeps them, for reasons he can’t explain to himself yet, in a box by his bed, so he can reread them when he wants to— which turns out to be often. He wonders what Jopson does with his letters, or if Jopson thinks of them at all.
In his letters, in any case, Jopson tells him about London, what it’s like to live in the city, which Edward finds both fascinating and somewhat terrifying. Edward takes his time in composing his replies, labouring over every word, somehow only able to do so late in the night when the house is quiet around him, when there is no risk of disturbance, when he could very well close his eyes and pretend but for the lack of the sway of the waves, that he was back in a cramped cabin aboard Terror, listening to the fall of Jopson’s quiet and sure footsteps outside as he made his way from the Captain’s cabin, past Edward’s, back to his own.
Edward stills the fluttering of his heart and writes.
Dear Thomas Jopson,
I have given Ash an extra long rub and a bone from last night’s dinner and was very clear that it was a gift from a very fine man of my acquaintance, one Lieutenant Thomas Jopson. She has quite perked up. I cannot figure how she knows to smile at your name, or what it means, but she knows it all the same, just as I know not to question a dog’s heart, which is always true. May you be well. Write to us when you can. Your letters, much like your presence on Terror, are so often the brightness of the day.
I remain yours,
Please let us dispense of titles and rank and command. I would so like it if we could regard each other as friends.
In this vein, their correspondence had continued, seemingly as often as either of them could spare, for almost six months before Jopson mentioned his health.
If I may so address you, and if we are sending gifts, then would you do me the kindness of delivering to one Commander Edward Little of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy a pot of tea, on my behalf, courtesy of me? I remember how those trays of tea I brought you cheered you greatly during our days aboard. So many times since then, Edward, have I wished that I had been of better service to you beyond that, with the duties our Captain tasked us with.
I have attached the brewing instructions overleaf. It is as you like it, even if the leaves may not be quite the same as the ones we had aboard.
P.S. Please forgive my forwardness, my doctor has forbidden my return to work for weeks and I find myself at quite a loss with nothing to occupy me.
Edward does not write that the cheer very likely had more to do with the person who had carried those trays of tea to him rather than the tea itself. He tries not to dwell on the memory of those warm welcome trays of tea and of Jopson himself, both waiting for him every time he made the long cold march back from Erebus as Crozier lay indisposed; how Jopson had been there to welcome Edward even as he stood there, frost clinging to his eyebrows and hair, the snow his uniform beginning to melt and steam in the heated warmth of the ship. Neither does he dwell too long on the knowledge that Jopson had been there for so much of the darkness, that he must have heard nearly all his dealings with Captain Crozier and had not said anything that might indicate he thought poorly of Edward for it and how unspeakably grateful Edward is for that.
Instead, Edward writes:
Yes, please do let me be Edward to you - I hope you will agree we have more than earned it.
I am sorry to hear you have been ill. As you are currently unoccupied, and if your doctor believes it would help, would you consider recuperating here in the country? The air here has been much acclaimed for its restorative qualities and we have had many friends come to stay for that exact reason in the past. It would be no trouble at all to us— in fact it would be very good to see you again.
On the day of Jopson’s arrival, Edward goes to the train station to meet him.
He’s had weeks to prepare himself for how Jopson will look - surely, hopefully healthier - since they saw each other last, but that’s still isn’t enough for the wave that hits him when he sees Jopson step off the train. He has always been beautiful - god, does Edward know that - but now, even ill, he seems to glow with a radiance returned since the Arctic had bleached it out of him. His hair is of course trimmed much shorter and neater than it had been, and it only serves to emphasise the fineness of his features.
Edward is so used to looking at Jopson from a distance he quite nearly forgets to greet him, and is almost baffled with disbelief when Jopson spots him and begins walking towards him with a smile.
That smile, directed at him.
At his lowest moments, Edward had felt dull beside him. Large and bumbling, without the sparkle of grace that Jopson always had.
He does not think Jopson falters around him the same way.
Sure enough, Jopson holds a hand out to him in greeting.
It is the first time, Edward realises, that he will feel Jopson’s hands without thick woolen gloves between them. Jopson has such fine hands. Edward has seen them often enough— stared at them, quite honestly, at the dinners as they poured cup after effortless cup, marvelling at their beauty, like something carved from ivory or marble. Edward is reminded of it now, as he marvels anew at the graceful bones, the long fingers, the skin smooth and flush with healthy colour now, free of the frostbite that had plagued them. He wears no rings still, Edward notes absently.
Edward takes Jopson’s hand.
“It is good to see you,” Edward says, the only true thing he can say without embarrassing himself. He cannot quite get his heart under control; it drums a rapid joyous trill all through his veins.
“And you,” Jopson replies earnestly.
Edward might stand there for longer, dazzled from staring at Jopson, real and healthy and smiling before him, if not for the bustle and din of the train station around them.
“Shall we?” Edward asks at last. “We can talk more in the carriage.”
Jopson agrees with a little nod, and they set off. They are a little shy of each other during the walk, all the intimate camaraderie established on paper seeming to evaporate in the light of day and actual physical solidity.
That feeling soon fades, replaced by a gnawing concern. Edward has noticed, and does not like, the way Jopson has to stop to catch his breath after the short walk through the station, or how his shoulders shake with a dry cough as he tries to lift his bags onto the carriage.
Jopson, of course, tries to beg off Edward’s attempt to help until another cough seizes him again.
“Are you well?” Edward tries to keep his voice steady, but even he can hear how tight with concern it is.
“Don't worry, it really is nothing serious, only it seems to come and go all season long. The doctor says the London air’s no good for it.” Jopson grimaces lightly. “And that I’m not getting quite enough rest from work between each episode to clear it off completely.”
“Jopson,” Edward exclaims in dismay, harsher than he’d intended, his voice still sharp with the echoes of his command. He notices Jopson’s widened eyes - looking closer, he can see that they are ringed dark; Jopson is tired - and apologises immediately.
“Forgive me, I was surprised. I would have thought after… after Terror you would have seen the value of a good rest.”
“Yes,” Jopson says slowly, something straining at the edge of his mild-mannered politeness. “If I could. The memory of the lesson does not always induce its practice.”
Edward knows, all too well, that it does not. He too had spent - still spends - nights lying awake in bed, or falling asleep only to jolt awake, remembering fire and ice, and bear-shaped spirits, the eyes of the dead. Edward knows better than anyone.
“I’ll do everything I can so you can rest now,” Edward clarifies hurriedly, pushing away all other thoughts. “And I won’t have it any other way besides.”
“Yes, sir,” Jopson says, lightly teasing.
“Edward,” Edward corrects, a little of the tightness in his chest beginning to unfurl under the warmth of Jopson’s smile and the memory of the gentle new-born intimacy of their letters. “Like we wrote each other.”
Although it was Edward who had first dared to sign off with just his name, it still makes his blood flush hot. And when Jopson had signed his next letter in the same manner, Edward had been unable to read or do anything else for the rest of the day for the sight of those two words next to each other. Yours, Thomas.
“Will you call me Thomas then?”
“I will,” Edward promises, and Jopson’s— Thomas's smile is lovely.
His family is waiting for him when they get back.
Edward introduces him as Lieutenant Thomas Jopson, although he never formally took the examination, and tries not to burn under the look of wonder Thomas gives him.
His sisters blush through their own introductions before withdrawing to titter at his handsomeness. His mother, no doubt thinking the same thing but better mannered to hide it, greets Thomas warmly and smiles at his charm and good manners before his father immediately engages him in a conversation about his naval history.
Edward hangs back, watching the nearly unbelievable scene that is Thomas Jopson here, in his house, talking to his parents. It’s surreal enough his mouth has gone dry. A warm body presses itself against his leg and Edward looks down to see Ash, her tail thumping lightly against the floor.
Noticing the sound, Jopson turns towards the both of them and presumably sees Edward staring.
Edward, unprepared and flustered by Jopson’s clear-eyed regard, looks to Ash to save him.
“This is Ash,” Edward says simply.
To Edward’s delight, Thomas sinks down onto his knees and does not reach out to touch Ash, but instead waits, with his fine hand held out as though for a handshake, for her to come and investigate him, patting her only when Ash nudges her head against his palm approvingly.
“She is glad that you are here,” Edward says. “As am I.”
“As am I,” Thomas repeats, not looking up from Ash.
“Forgive me, this was all the welcome I could give you. Charm was never my strong suit before,” he says, feeling just a little miserable. “Much less now. After... everything.”
“I never thought that,” Thomas says. “And I don’t think that now.”
Edward watches as Thomas goes back to scratching lovingly under Ash’s jaw, as the old dog submits blissfully to Thomas's careful touch, and wonders, foolishly, how it might feel to be Ash.
They have given Thomas the guest room opposite Edward’s own, it turns out, because it gets the best light in the morning, and morning sun is one of the prescriptions Thomas's doctor has scrawled in the note Thomas keeps in his pocket. Morning sun, temperate air, and honeyed tea. Alcohol and excitement to be kept at a minimum.
Edward had read the note, held out to him by a sheepish but smiling Thomas.
“We can do that,” Edward had said, more decisively than he’d felt, as his mind raced through possible reasons for such an illness. Surely it could not be anything too bad if his doctor had approved his trip? He knew not to discount even the mildest of illnesses; after all, Thomas had come out from their expedition much worse than he did, and who knew what lasting effects that may have had on his health?
“I am quite well otherwise,” Thomas had said helpfully, as though he’d noticed the sudden furrow of Edward’s brow, as he always had.
It had been born out of curiosity, innocently enough. He wanted to know more, naturally, about the man who seemed to be as second to Crozier as he was, who had sailed the Antarctic before Edward had ever seen his first iceberg, yet looked as young and pretty in a way navy men usually didn't.
The first time he saw Thomas Jopson, standing discreetly against the wall of the great cabin as Crozier welcomed him and the other officers aboard Terror, he hadn’t quite noticed just how young, and how pretty. It was only the first meal afterwards, when Jopson came forward with the drinks, so quietly confident and competent, so graceful and polite that Edward couldn’t pull his gaze away from him, even long after Jopson had left him to attend to someone else.
The first time their eyes met, Edward had felt paralysed.
Edward, who ordinarily would very happily have dined alone with no need for formality and small talk, had looked forward to every meal and every command meeting with the officers ever since, because Thomas would be there. Each dinner a chance to meet his eyes; or perhaps to feel his warmth by his side and maybe, if he could only be brave enough, strike up a conversation with him after.
He never had been, of course. It was Thomas who approached him first, back then, when they’d still been Mr Jopson and Lieutenant Little to each other. Yes, he remembers: It was that awful night after Blanky fell from the mast, after Crozier summoned them to his cabin to plan his recovery. It was Thomas who had waited for everyone to leave before appearing at Edward’s side, as silently as he would during a dinner service, and said gently, “Sir.”
Edward, still seated and staring dumbly at the floor, still struggling to breathe, his fingers still shaking, Crozier’s gun still laying heavy on the table before him, could barely manage to drag his sight up.
“It’s a no easy thing he’s asked of you,” Thomas had said. He lowered his gaze, as though in apology. “If you ever require any assistance, I hope you know I remain yours as much as his.”
“He has always asked much of you,” he said, knowing Edward would grasp what he was referring to.
Edward had been too stunned, too touched to say or do anything in return except nod dumbly. He doesn’t even know if he’d said thank you, or if he’d managed to convey how grateful he was so that Thomas wouldn’t feel like he’d imposed or overstepped some invisible boundary that kept the Navy charging along. Nobody had ever offered Edward help like that before; nobody had ever noticed they’d needed to.
But Thomas Jopson had.
Edward had spent nights after that, any spare minute he had from worrying about Crozier and the expedition at large, agonising about whether that had just been Jopson offering what help was appropriate in his position. Surely he was this kind to everyone on the ship; there was nothing special about Edward at all.
Still, that had felt like the start of something different between them, even if all that came from it in the days after were just shy smiles in the corridor.
I remain yours, he had said. Yours.
And it seemed to Edward that the smiles he gave to Thomas were something more free and sincere, something maybe meant only for him, if he could only dream—
On the second day of Thomas's stay, Edward realises he is not terribly accustomed to playing host to guests.
His family, on the other hand, are very quickly taken by him, as they would be, as anyone who has ever met Thomas has been. They fill the dining room with cheer and future plans, so easily making room for Thomas at their tables and in their hearts.
“When he’s feeling better, we’ll hold a dinner party for him, won’t we?”
His mother’s offer is taken up with great exclamations of joy that reach deeper than Edward will admit.
He’s never realised how his sisters sparkled and laughed. Or how charming his father could be under the candlelight, how indulgent and kind of a host his mother was, how her eyes danced with genuine interest as she listened to Thomas’s stories.
And how, best of all, Thomas himself shines in the attention and the warm company. How lovely it is, Edward thinks, to see him restored, fed well, happy and content.
Occasionally during these dinners, Thomas will catch his eye and smile at him across the table, a slow small private smile just for him, and Edward’s world narrows to just that: that smile and the space between them. Edward will reflect, with a deep-seated pleasure, on how that smile holds something like a secret, a reminder of shared moments alone, that they’ve both let the other see a side of themselves they aren’t bringing out tonight, because what was shared was only for them.
Edward rejoices too for how, unlike those dinners on Terror, he no longer has to slide his gaze away in shame, but can hold Thomas's eyes with a joy of his own.
Still, he likes it best when it is them alone.
This is when they can talk, as openly and as freely as they can bear, of the expedition.
When Thomas asks, Edward tells him of their rescue on the ice, because Thomas had been so ill by then he remembers nothing between collapsing in camp and waking up in the sickroom of Sir James Ross’ ship weeks later. Edward tells him how Crozier had never left his side and had tended to him as though their roles had been reversed, how he had seen Francis Crozier weep for the first time, and watches as Thomas colours with embarrassment and emotion.
Edward leaves himself out of his stories. He doesn’t tell Thomas of how wretched he had felt in those long, long days before their rescue, though one day his story stumbles to a halt over a sudden compulsion to apologise.
“I am sorry,” Edward chokes out at last. “So dreadfully sorry for the things I said during the march. I would never have left the sick men— I did not think— I was not thinking straight—”
It is still so raw to him, the memory of Thomas's look of open surprise and disdain, the strength in his voice — as though he had been the commander and Edward the third lieutenant - and he had felt like a low criminal. He had felt cowed, ashamed and wretched, as evil as Thomas's condemning gaze had decried him to be.
Yet it is even more testament to the strength and goodness of Thomas's character, for he puts out a hand to still Edward’s apology.
“I am sorry too, for how I treated you after that,” Thomas says, soft and sincere. “I failed to understand then what I do now. I have thought of it many times since, and you must believe me when I say understand now. Back then— that was not the Edward Little I knew. But it was not just you— what you said was not the only terrible thing I heard then. The ice did queer things to us, all of us, and none of us were the men we were. I felt it myself towards the end—the ideas, the madness, I felt it all the same. And I— I carried hardly the weight you did.” Thomas has to pause to force his voice back under control. “I should have said so earlier, and I am sorry.”
Thomas's hand has found its way over to him, and it lies tentatively over his own fist in an uncertain gesture of friendship.
“So please, Edward, don’t torment yourself over it anymore.”
It is no redemption, but it is forgiveness. The tears spring sharply to Edward’s eyes, and he has to turn his head to blink them away.
“God, Thomas,” Edward says, when he thinks his voice may not shake and betray him. “All I ever wanted was for you to think well of me.” It is the truth: Edward has always been careful to keep up appearances with everyone, to be reliable and good in their eyes, but he does not know why he felt it so keenly with Thomas.
Thomas takes it in with kindness and asks instead, gentle as a lamb, “Will you tell me what happened next?”
So Edward tells him of what it was like to crest that ridge of stone and see James Ross’ sails, and that he had been so snow-blind and exhausted their salvation had looked near indistinguishable, as white as the frost-coated rocks and the bleached sky until their movement in the wind revealed them for what they were and Edward had realised that somehow, impossibly, they had been saved.
Edward doesn’t tell him it felt just the same as it had felt seeing Thomas step off that train platform and come towards him. He doesn’t say it feels like the smallest thing in the world compared to seeing Thomas here before him now.
Without consciously trying to, they fall into a kind of rhythm. Most days, they meet first at the breakfast table, and then there is an hour or two on their own to tend to their correspondences or business, and then they meet for lunch - always a packed one that they will take out of doors if the weather is fine, or to the conservatory if not.
Thomas seems to take pleasure in their outdoor lunches, laying out their food precisely and daintily on the rug before them, even doing a clever thing with the napkins so their picnic looks like a more than acceptable dinner service. Edward says as much. There is a new comfort between them now, since Edward’s clumsy attempt at an apology and Thomas's heartfelt acceptance of it.
“You must indulge me,” Thomas smiles now, not pausing in his attention to the tea things. Edward notices with no small degree of fascination that Thomas has kept the leaves wrapped in a small muslin cloth, out of the hot water flask until they’ve settled down, so they will not stew. “I do enjoy doing what I am good at, if you will not think me too proud for saying so. The last few months… I’ve been keeping the books and other odds and ends for my sister-in-law’s shop, you see. It’s honest work but not— not quite what I am best at.”
Thomas undoes his muslin packet and drops the leaves into the flask now, draws out his pocket watch and watches it carefully for a precise amount of time before he pours out two perfect cups of tea, holding one out to Edward with a small measure of pride.
“Clearly not,” Edward says with sincere appreciation, and that wins him a soft laugh from Thomas. He takes the cup and offers Thomas a smile as thanks.
“What’ll it be next?” Edward asks. “Will you stay with the shop?”
“I don’t know, frankly,” Thomas says.
He does not know what makes him prod: “Settle down? Marry a nice girl?”
“No,” Thomas says shortly, and he stills his work for the first time. His gaze is steady as he looks Edward in the eyes. “No, I don’t think that’ll ever happen.”
Edward swallows. “Me neither.”
There is a beat of silence.
“A new expedition then?”
Thomas shakes his head.
“I couldn’t leave my family again. Not for as long as I did, I mean. I had my opportunity and, well,” he pauses, twisting his features into a small grimace. “Well, that’s over now. No, I cannot imagine I will ever serve again.” Thomas looks at Edward then. “Will you?”
“I am considering another commission,” Edward admits with a gnawing dismay. “It will be months, maybe years from now, of course. And not with the Discovery Service; never again. Something easier; there is talk of a voyage to South-Eastern Asia to visit the Straits Settlements. It will be a long voyage and humid, but warm, and they say those are the calmest waters across the Indian Ocean; it would be something to see. We will bring plenty of quinine— They are outfitting the Frolic, last I heard. There will be a naturalist on-board! And the postal routes along the way are well serviced—”
He stops. With a rush of shame and horror, he realises what he’s trying to do. Thomas, thankfully, has the grace to spare him by not saying anything.
“Forgive me, Thomas,” Edward says miserably. “As much as it sounds like it, I would never dream of pressing you back into service.”
Thomas sets the teapot down to look up at Edward with something that might be fondness.
“It is not that I do not wish to go; and you would not need to press me, especially not if it meant a chance to serve on the same ship as you again.”
The sudden leap of tentative joy that fills Edward must make him look at Thomas a little too intently, because Thomas is colouring red. That ground him. Edward knows he’s a good officer and that anyone would be glad to serve alongside him. How foolish he’s become, he thinks bitterly, to put such weight on a commonplace comment about his skills.
“I think the same about you,” Edward blurts. “Hence my over-eagerness. I did not mean to put you in a difficult position.”
“I know you did not,” Thomas is saying. “It was an honour serving alongside you.”
Edward understands now why they say smiles can be warm, because he feels like he is melting under Thomas's.
“You know, I would often find myself thinking that it was you alone that kept our spirits up, Mr Jopson,” Edward admits. “It was hard to feel that we were at the end of days when all one had to do was look up and see you there, with your immaculate clothes, your neat hair, and your smile. Everything about you perfect.”
Yes, it was the training and clinging on to the trappings of civility that kept him going in those days but just as much it was also Thomas, that bright and terrifying spark of possibility, that made everything feel a little less hopeless, like there was still something worth clinging to life for.
What is it about Thomas, he wonders, that made it feel so easy?
“How funny you say that, for I thought it was you, Lieutenant Little, who kept us afloat on your broad shoulders alone.”
“Me?” Edward repeats in dumb wonder. “Me, with my hair?”
“You, with your hair,” Thomas agrees pleasantly.
“But surely you must have heard the number of times I was told to put on better cheer. Unknit your brows, they’d say to me.”
“I did,” admits Thomas. Edward can almost imagine that Thomas is thinking of smoothing out his brow with a touch. Thomas, whose eyes had always looked like hope, even throughout the worst of it, even now. “But I saw the weight you carried, Edward. I wouldn’t have wished that on anyone, but at the same time I was glad that of all men, it was you—”
Edward’s heart seems to have migrated up into his throat, for he finds himself barely able to speak.
“Me,” he tries. His hand moves automatically to tug at locks of hair that are no longer there. “And my mess of hair. I looked rather more like Neptune than a man towards the end of it.”
“Oh Neptune,” Thomas sighs. “He was the most handsome dog.”
Neptune had not made it back after all. Thomas looks wistful and sad, and Edward cannot bear it.
“I should have kept my hair long and my razor away then if I knew you missed him so,” Edward says hurriedly, and then hangs his head in a jolt of embarrassment at his boldness.
Thomas looks at him, blinks once or twice, and then all traces of sadness are gone from his face as his eyes crinkle and he laughs a brilliant, bright laugh that Edward realises he’s had scarce opportunity to hear. With barely any hesitation, Thomas puts his hand out to feel Edward’s hair by his ear, where it lies heaviest. He pats it, carding his fingers lightly and tenderly through his hair, much like he might have done with Neptune. He’s still smiling when Edward lifts his eyes to peer at him.
“Thank you, Edward,” Thomas says, his heart in his voice. His fingers feel unspeakably wonderful. “I do remember the resemblance, now that you point it out.”
A handsome dog, Thomas had called Neptune— and Edward flushes hot; he realises again what a ridiculous state he’s been lowered to, now to be glad of being compared to a dog! But Thomas is smiling and laughing and touching him, and every indignity is worth that.
“You may pat me any time,” Edward says thickly, still shy and feeling very much like a clumsy schoolboy. “Though I fear Ash may soon grow jealous.”
Thomas pats the side of his head one more time, then smooths the hair back behind Edward’s ear and regrettably, draws his hand back. Edward has to will himself not to push himself closer to Thomas, to feel his touch again.
“I’ll be sure to wait until we’re out of sight, then,” Thomas grins.
His smile and his promise go straight to Edward’s gut, even as he rejoices in the triumph of lifting his mood.
When the doctor deems it permissible, Edward finally gets to take Thomas on a walk further through the grounds.
They have their lunch packed as usual, tucked safely away in a wicker basket that they carry between them. Thomas takes in the surroundings with a look of unabashed wonder, and Edward takes him in. The weather is lovely and the sun is up, but Thomas has kept his coat on to be safe. It is beautiful, the way he turns his face up to catch the breeze in his hair and the kiss of sunlight on his face.
“Not a lot of sights like this in London,” Thomas says.
“I expect not,” Edward says, smiling.
“Though I must confess this is nothing so new to me,” Thomas turns away from the beauty of the scenery to him, smiling brighter. He’s let a new kind of roughness slide into his voice, something Edward has never heard before, hints of an accent and some remnant from his childhood and so different from his usually tempered, measured speech. Edward loves that Thomas has allowed him to hear it.
“Before we moved to London,” Thomas explains, his voice back to normal. “We grew up in the countryside; nothing quite like this. But I did my fair share of hunting and never lost my knack for it.”
“Explains why you were such a good shot,” Edward says, relishing how they can bring up the past with ease now.
“Indeed,” Thomas smirks with a measure of pride. “We had to know our way around a gun if we wanted to eat. Even us children.”
Edward wants to know everything about him. Wants to know where that accent comes from, how old he’d been when he started hunting, if he ever regrets going into service, why become a steward at all, if he would do so again— but instead he asks:
“What’s the biggest thing you shot?”
Thomas cocks an eyebrow. But before Edward can apologise for the dull childish question, Thomas turns to him with a new shine in his eyes. “The biggest? An old ram with a broken leg. But the best?” He’s grinning; as though they are boys again. “A hawk. Straight out of the air as it was going after the lambs.”
“Goodness,” Edward chuckles. “A man of many talents. Now I see where you got your aim and your courage from.” He pauses. “I always wondered about that. I fear you were much braver at coping than I was— I feel like all I did was worry all the time.” It has always been his way, Edward knows, to see the worst in things. It was only that he had trained himself to respond with action rather than with fear that he was of any use as an officer at all. Nothing like the natural bravery and swift competence Thomas had displayed towards the end of it, when things were the roughest.
“Well,” Thomas says. “It was easy to be brave when I knew you were there to guard against the worst.”
Cheered by the fact Thomas seemed to cough even less after the light exercise, and how much they both enjoyed the walk, Edward and Thomas decide to make a habit of it nearly every afternoon.
They take to slipping books out of the library on their walks, or at least Edward does, while Thomas busies himself in the pantry packing increasingly elaborate picnics for them, which he then unpacks when they reach a suitable spot with great flourish and delight.
With the warming weather, and Ash at their feet, and Edward can’t think of a time in his life when he was happier.
It’s on one of these walks, a week or so after they started, that Edward takes Thomas's arm for the first time.
Without quite meaning to, of course, because Edward is not cunning enough to have designs on Thomas, or at least not intentions so clearly spelt out and planned.
Edward hates how he is brave in all things but this. He doesn’t dare; all he has been able to do over the past week is walk a little closer to Thomas, close enough that their shoulders may brush as they step along in rhythm, close enough that he may place a steadying hand on Thomas's arm as they crest a particularly challenging hillock. When Thomas doesn’t pull away even after they are on safe ground, Edward dares to leave his hand there, so they remain like that, finally touching, all the way home.
Later that night he feels afire, as though the heat and weight of Thomas's body pressed up against his own never left him. For the entire duration of their walk back he’d been able to feel Thomas - they had never been so close before - and had even been able to catch his scent. He could almost identify it now, the nameless longing and keening- why he could not, for the life of him, keep his eyes from straying to Thomas, back then on the water, and even now.
Now he lies awake, his spirit riled up in a way he can’t put a name to. He can think only of Thomas's warmth— and how their clothes had felt like too much of a barrier between them. With that thought, another flush of heat sends his heart racing anew.
He thinks it ironic that there is less distance between them now than there was aboard Terror, cramped as they all were in their tightly-packed cabins.
Now, Thomas sleeps in the room across from his, separated only by the carpeted landing and their bedroom doors. It still feels like an insurmountable distance.
Thomas would be in bed by now, almost certainly, lying between light, cool sheets. The weather remained warm all throughout the day and well into the evening, and it may well be warm enough in his room too, with the amount of sun it gets, to sleep with just a nightshirt or nothing at all. Edward lets his mind drift to thoughts of Thomas, perhaps he might go to him, slip under his sheets and touch his bare skin without their clothes in the way and find him yielding— no, he yanks his thoughts away sharply.
No, he can’t do that, not when Thomas is a guest under his roof and— oh, but what would it be like to have Thomas in his bed and in his arms? How would it feel to lie skin to skin? What might the curve of his neck feel like, or his lips? What would he think of Edward, thinking of him like this?
Under his sheets, Edward shivers. He knows now what it is to want.
It surprises him, how much he wants. He has wanted so much since coming back, more than he has ever wanted anything his whole life. But it’s only ever about Thomas. He has wanted Thomas to forgive him, he has wanted Thomas to write him, he has wanted Thomas to visit him, and now he wants to know Thomas, to make him smile and to touch him.
He remembers that time on the grounds, a few afternoons ago when he had awoken from a nap after one of their picnic lunches. As usual, it had taken him a while to realise where he was, before he recognised that the lace of shadows in his eyes was the dappled shade of a tree, and the figure before him, head bent over a book, was Thomas.
The sun setting behind him had lit him up, gilded his shoulders gold, and Edward had allowed himself to stare unabashedly and unashamedly.
For the first time in his life, Edward had felt like the winds of fortune had finally blown his way. How stunned he had been, unable to believe that he’d woken up and the first thing he gets to see is Thomas Jopson before him. Thomas in a rose garden - in his rose garden - his sleeves rolled up against the sun, crushed grass on the hems of his pants. His jacket is off, folded neatly in his lap along with Edward’s own. Ash had stretched herself out in the space between the both of them, as though to remain as close as possible to either one.
The sight had filled him with something: an aching, yearning thing in his heart.
It had surprised and confused him then, but he thinks he knows what it is now. He wants to wake up with Thomas in his sights every day, and he wants every night to go to bed with Thomas. He wants to wake up next to Thomas, always.
He wants Thomas.
Edward is hard now. He tries to will it away as he usually does but this time, with the sense-memory of Thomas's body against him, he can’t.
Instead, he lets his mind wander again out of his room, across the hallway and into Thomas's room. He slips a hand beneath his bedclothes and closes his eyes. Thomas would be in bed, like he remembers, but his gaze would land on Edward even in the darkness. He would go to Thomas's bed, push the thin fabric up and away to reveal all his skin and all his desire. He would brush his lips against Thomas's. He would, he thinks with heat, find every bruise and scar the Arctic left on his skin and kiss them away. He would lie next to Thomas as Thomas's arms hold fast to him, and trail his kisses down the length of his body to feel the changing textures of Thomas's skin against his lips, and he would move lower; lower still to find him hot, full and erect and then finally, finally take him into his mouth and— Edward spills into his own hand, groaning into the crook of his elbow, praying Thomas doesn’t hear him.
Because above all, he realises as his pulse finally slows, he wants Thomas to be happy, and he’s not sure if he knows how to do that.
He knows only that they did not survive everything they did only for him to ruin Thomas with his own selfishness.
Even so, no matter what Edward has decided about keeping his distance, it all flees his heart in the same moment he is confronted with Thomas again. Because the next time they start out for a walk, Thomas steps up close to him, expectant, and Edward has no choice but to dare to offer his arm to Thomas. Thomas takes it, laying his hand gently on Edward’s arm, and almost against his will, Edward looks into his shy, smiling face with wonder and disbelief.
He’s never seen Thomas look this soft and open and vulnerable, and he still can’t believe it’s him he’s wearing those expressions for. He could almost touch Thomas's face, he is so close.
He does not. Instead, he places his free hand over Thomas's, clutching it against his arm, intimate but fond in the way of friends, and starts them on their walk.
The days pass like that, languid and lovely, until the time finally comes when the doctor pronounces Thomas quite well enough for a dinner party - a small one, mind, no more than ten people if they can manage it - and Edward’s family explodes in a flurry of joyful activity. He’s almost glad for the way it keeps them busy and occupied. They have kept the house quiet, since his return, to aid his recovery and to calm his nerves, and now relish the chance for some life.
Edward generally does not enjoy parties, but he revises that stance when it is a party held in Thomas's honour. They’ve even had the time to get one of his younger brother’s dress suits refitted for Thomas, as much as Thomas had tried to protest. He’d given in at the end, but only on the provision that he be allowed to dress himself-- and what a job he’s done with it, Edward marvels.
He looks like a prince, Edward finds himself thinking dumbly when he walks over to Thomas's room to see him Thomas fully dressed, his dark hair sleek and shining in a way Edward’s own never would, the fine clothes lying beautifully on his trim frame, the silk of his cravat setting off the blue of his eyes, and the colour high on his smooth cheeks.
Or like a king, he thinks, remembering again when those same eyes had alighted on him with such fury and disappointment, full of flint and steel and ice. Edward thinks back on how he had quailed under that look; it was the coldest he’d felt in three years. Thomas had such power over him even then.
But now Thomas is staring openly at him, no steel at all, returning his gaze with his own breathless heat and all Edward’s doubts about the extra care he himself had taken to dress evaporate. He has not managed to put back all the weight he lost on the expedition, but his clothes no longer hang so sadly on his shoulders. He has chosen his best suit and taken pains to brush his hair into something more obedient, and Thomas lights up when he sees him.
“Edward,” Thomas greets him, sounding a little self-conscious. “I could not have dressed you better.”
“You have done a fine job with yourself,” Edward manages, hovering in the doorway like a foolish first-time suitor.
Thomas's answering laugh keeps him frozen. Neither one of them takes the first step to move.
“Well,” Edward says reluctantly, after it feels like they have stared at each other for a time too long to be wholly appropriate. “Shall we go down?”
Barely an hour into the dinner, and Edward finds he still does not enjoy parties. In fact, he cares even less for them now. It is the light, the way the chandelier throws those broken droplets of light over the wall, that makes the phantom smell of smoke and fear rise in his nostrils.
Oddly, it is the one link to the expedition that makes the party bearable— Thomas. Edward seeks him out in the room; it would not do if they stuck together the entire time, a decision that they both agreed on hurriedly on their way down before plunging into the swell of people below.
But now, as though linked by spirit, Thomas's eyes find him across the room.
They don’t need words, only to share a glance and then both of them are slipping across the hall, away from the knot of people and towards each other. Thomas pauses only to lift two glasses of wine off a server’s tray, and Edward, grinning, pilfers an entire bottle, tucking it swiftly under his arm as Thomas spots him and rewards him with a disbelieving but delightful, beautiful, wicked grin.
The air outside is cool as Edward leads Thomas over the courtyard and into a quiet corner of the garden, such familiar sights now glimmering anew with the novel excitement of Thomas's company. Edward makes sure they keep close enough to the house that the music and muffled laughter can still reach them on the breeze. There isn’t much chance to listen to music out in the country, and he thinks it a shame to miss it this time.
“It’s Mozart,” he says, almost as an apology. One of his favourites. The night is still young and lively, and the cheery concerto dances over them.
“By all means,” Thomas says, turning to him with a bright smile. “It is a shame you were not there for the last Antarctic expedition with Sir James Ross. Did you hear how we turned Erebus and Terror into a ballroom at Van Diemen’s Land? You would have looked a sight in your dress uniform on the deck that night; we hung the every surface with mirrors and candles so the whole ship shone like a chandelier.”
Edward pushes away all thoughts of smoke and burning flesh, and finds it is easy to do so with the memory of Thomas's awe-struck voice. He can grimace in good-humoured exaggeration and shake his head emphatically, which tosses his hair around and earns him a fond laugh from Thomas. “Thank heavens I was not.”
“Well,” says Thomas mildly. “I would not have minded seeing you there, dancing the night away.”
“I am not one for dancing,” Edward admits with some regret. “But I do love the music.”
“I fear I don’t know much about music,” Thomas confesses, as though Edward could possibly ever think less of him for it.
“I could teach you about it if you’d like. And then maybe you could teach me to dance in exchange?”
It’s not dark enough that he can’t see the way Thomas's cheeks colour at that.
“Yes,” Thomas says in a much smaller voice. “London’s a good place for dancing, you know.”
London, thinks Edward. He’s never liked the city; there is too much noise and activity for it to be tolerable for more than a few days. But he would go; he would brave it all if it meant he could see Thomas there. Thomas, who made the Arctic bearable, could make London a place to be. Perhaps they could go to the opera, or take a walk through one of its great parks. They could have dinner together, rich and indulgent, in a fine restaurant. He would book a hotel of course, equally fine, and maybe Thomas might follow him there—
Edward shakes his dreams from his head. It is dangerous, with the music and the wine and the festivities. It is too easy to be carried away. And there is something else too; something that charges the air, a humming thickness that makes Edward feel over-aware of everything, his senses heightened and sharpened to a point upon which his composition trembles.
They’ve gone far enough. He shrugs out of his coat and moves to set it on the grass for them to sit on and notices Thomas's barely contained look of horrified disapproval.
“It’s either this one coat or both our trousers,” Edward says, his coat already half-flung out over the ground, unable to hide his smile.
“Edward Little,” Thomas chides, but takes a seat anyway. And Edward, knowing that Thomas would have never allowed himself to be so candid before this, laughs with delight and settles himself next to him. The night air is so quick and cool that he can feel Thomas's heat radiating off him, even warmer where the sides of their thighs press against each other. It’s like nothing he’s ever felt before, and Edward reaches hurriedly for the wine bottle.
He’s working at the cork when he notices Thomas looking at him, now with something like wonder.
“What is it?” Edward asks, brave with the memory of his laughter and the taste of summer wine on his tongue. It has become easier too, to meet his eyes and hold his gaze.
“No, nothing. Just that… It is nice to see you like this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile so much.”
“My family would say the same,” Edward says, braver still, and he watches the colour bloom across Thomas's cheeks as he grasps the implication. Edward can feel it too, that unfamiliar ache in his cheeks..
“Allow me to serve you tonight, Lieutenant Jopson,” Edward announces, to break the silence more than anything. They’ve emptied their glasses of wine, drinking it along the way, and it sits now as a nice warmth inside Edward.
With a flourish, he takes the bottle in hand and splashes a generous glug into Thomas's glass. He looks to Thomas for approval and to see the grimace he knows Thomas will be making.
“No, I can’t bear it,” Thomas exclaims, laughing so hard that the glass in his hand shakes with it, making Edward’s job look all the more ungraceful. Edward thinks of pointing this out when Thomas sets down the glass and moves for the bottle instead. “Here, let me show you. Please.”
Thomas placed a hand over Edward’s clumsy grip on the neck of the bottle and steadies himself to guide the pour. Edward dares to look at him and is rewarded with a smile and the realisation that Thomas's arm is stretched across Edward’s chest to reach the bottle and he’s colouring pink. Even so, his grip remains sure - no challenge for one accustomed to pouring without spilling a drop on the lull of the waves.
“First, you want to hold it lower,” Thomas says. He slides their combined grip down the neck of the bottle so they’re holding it closer to the body, twisting and bringing their hands round so they don’t obscure the label. Moving the neck over Edward’s glass, Thomas tilts the bottle smoothly to allow for a steady stream of wine to flow out. Even against the back of his hands, Edward can tell Thomas's hands feel as smooth and sure as the day he held them in a handshake on the train station all those weeks ago, and Edward feels giddy in a way the wine can’t explain. His palms itch, wanting to feel Thomas's hands too.
“It’s all in the angle, you see,” Thomas is saying. “And the little twist in the end to catch any drips.”
Just like that, their glasses are filled perfectly even, and Thomas sets the bottle back down on the grass. Edward’s hands feel cold, missing the touch straight away.
“Incredible,” Edward says, earnest.
Thomas huffs a little laugh and touches his glass to Edward’s before taking a sip.
“I’d imagined you’d had time enough to learn from all the dinners I served at,” Thomas says airily. And perhaps the wine has gotten to him as well because he adds: “You were watching me, weren’t you?”
Edward’s pulse speeds up to an almost unbearable rhythm, tempered only by the dismay at being caught out.
“I thought I was doing a decent job of hiding it,” Edward says dolefully.
“You do yourself too little credit,” Thomas replies, barely audible, though his eyes look brighter than Edward has ever seen them. Edward swears they glitter in the dark. “I noticed only because I was looking at you.”
Edward cannot speak, and Thomas is looking at him with a strange intensity in his eyes. Finally, he says: “Do you want to know what I thought when I first saw you?”
Edward nods. He still doesn’t dare to speak, afraid that his clumsy voice will shatter this almost magical veil of something that seems to have settled around them.
“I thought that whoever said that James Ross was the handsomest man in the Navy had never seen you before.”
Could it really be him Thomas is describing? Unremarkable, reliable Edward? For a long moment, he is certain that Thomas must have him confused with someone else.
“And when I first heard you speak,” Thomas continues. “I thought I had never heard such a voice, so strong yet so gentle it was like a comfort; I found myself seeking it out at every dinner, if only to listen to it say one more line.”
“I never knew,” Edward says, when he finds his voice again, that same voice that Thomas is talking about.
“There it is,” Thomas smiles before turning back to gaze out at the garden, so fond and so sincere that Edward cannot breathe.
With each day, the veil - that gossamer thing, that changed air - from the night of the party draws ever stronger around them.
Edward lets it; he is happy for it to continue, even as it settles heavy over him, so thick and hypnotising and perhaps utterly futile.
“I have new orders from the Admiralty,” Edward announces one morning over breakfast because he can’t imagine that any time would be appropriate for such news. He darts a glance, quickly, as though they were seated in Terror’s gun-room again, over at Thomas to gauge his reaction. Thomas is watching him— placidly, to anyone looking, but Edward, who has spent so many hours over so many years observing him, can see the minute drawing together of his brows before his face goes deliberately blank, his expression as smooth and calm and dangerously unknowable as a glacier. Edward looks away.
“It is the South-East Asia voyage. On the Frolic. They wish me to captain it.”
In the midst of all the exclamations and congratulations, Edward sneaks a glance at Thomas again and this time no one could mistake the look on his face: joy, Edward thinks, and a kind of sadness. There is something so very familiar in it, and Edward finds that he has lost his stomach for breakfast.
“Captain Little,” Thomas greets him later that day as they meet for their walk, his smile bright enough that Edward can see it even in the shadows of the entrance hall columns. “It sounds quite right.”
“I have not yet accepted,” Edward mumbles.
“You would be a fine captain.”
Edward nods awkwardly. Thomas seems so radiant with pleasure and pride that it makes everything inside him tremble to see it. But then, as Edward draws nearer, he sees that the smile looks strained, and Thomas walks with none of his usual grace.
“I should be returning to London soon anyway,” Thomas says with strange, forced lightness, as though it is something of little consequence.
It is of immense consequence. Edward feels his heart sink under its weight, something like darkness gathering in the corners of his mind. Of course he is glad Thomas is better - he hasn’t heard him cough in days - but even so—
“You don’t have to go,” he says.
“I can’t stay either,” Thomas replies gently. “I cannot live on your hospitality forever. But you must know how much I treasure my time here— I will treasure it always.”
He knows, of course, that this cannot last forever. Thomas cannot stay here any more than he could go to London and take up residence in his family’s shop. Even so, Edward still wants to tell him to stay. He’s even beginning to think of desperate things: perhaps he could ask Thomas to be his steward or his valet, or even to help run the estate. Thomas would be excellent at either, but would he even want to?
A thousand thoughts race through him, only to be replaced by a thousand more. Edward wishes he could go against his nature and be frivolous, or impetuous and demanding, and keep Thomas here like an artist might keep a muse. But he’s no artist, and Thomas is so much more than that, and no such arrangement could exist between them. No, he should be content with what he had already been allowed to have: Thomas, here with him for however long he can spare.
And what about after? He could still take his commission and if Thomas didn’t want to sail again, he’s sure that the house would need help in his absence— Thomas could do that very nicely, and commute back to London as needed— Or he need not do that at all, Edward has been thinking of buying a house in London anyway and would need someone to care for it while away, surely they would not begrudge him such an arrangement—
Still, Edward knows, somehow, that anything he asks of Thomas will be too much. To make such a great ask now, just because they have enjoyed their conversations and their walks and how they make each other laugh and smile, because of the unspeakable thing that may beat between them, and how they do not forget the horrors of the Arctic but remember—
Indeed, remember. Edward has had days where he has felt like a shadow has lifted from him, that something subtle yet significant has shifted within him somehow, although he can’t place his finger on what that is. But for all that, Edward doesn’t know how to say what he wants without turning it all into an imposition too much for anyone to bear. And from the way Thomas is looking at him, so kindly and yet sad, Edward knows Thomas knows what he’s thinking.
Unknit your brows, he can imagine Thomas saying. How much easier, he wonders treacherously, might their lives be if they were not both men? How terrible, he thinks, and how cruel that this is the world they live in, the same world only in which they could have ever met.
“Tell me about the Frolic, will you? Now that you know more?” Thomas's voice, kind and fond and so wonderfully familiar now, pulls him gently to the surface.
So Edward does. He allows himself to be carried away by the calm steady comfort of outlining the details of the upcoming voyage: the ship, the crew, the route, how they might see those ancient rainforests from the coast, the naturalist - a Mr Wallace, he’d said his name was - that Edward would be opening his cabin to.
“You shall be away for long, then,” Thomas says simply, softly.
“Yes,” Edward admits, and watches Thomas sweep his gaze quickly away. “It would not be for a year or a year and a half more at least. And there is always the post—”
“I would not dare put to paper the things I wish to say to you.”
Edward’s mind grinds to a scrabbling halt. Not for the first time, he wonders at the weight of this nameless thing blooming between them, and if Thomas feels it at all too. He must, Edward thinks desperately, he must, or he would not say such things—
“Then I need not take the commission at all,” he says.
Thomas's head comes up whip fast as he turns to look at Edward with a disbelieving stare. “You can’t possibly think of turning down a captaincy. What would you do?”
“Stay here. Run the estate. I could go down to London to see you.” Even as he says it, Edward suspects even that would not be enough.
“Would that be enough?” Thomas asks, too kind and too sweet to say that it wouldn’t be. He pauses for a long moment. “We have the Frolic. A captain needs a steward, after all.”
Edward feels the air flee from his lungs. What Thomas was suggesting— If they were to sail together, on a safe voyage, in a ship under Edward’s command, with a crew he would fill from the ranks of men he could trust— It would be months and months together at sea, on safe calm waters, with all the privacy and intimacy afforded a captain and his steward— And if they were to buy a house together, as the Captains Crozier and Fitzjames did, to live together for the ease of it between voyages, then who would bat an eye at that— And then they could be together always, at sea and on land— It would be a dream.
Yet Edward knows dreams can never take precedence over reality. Real life, the Arctic has taught him, has nothing to do with dreams.
“But your family—” he points out reluctantly.
“They do want me to go,” Thomas admits at last. “It is only I— I am the reluctant one. My mother is much recovered, you see, my sister-in-law has been a wonder for her. If there was such an offer, I know they would want me to take it; they would want me to go, and not stay hidden away in their shop.”
“You mustn’t do anything you don’t want to. But do you...?” Edward doesn’t dare breathe.
“They would want me to go,” is all he says again.
“What do you want?”
Thomas can’t answer. He shakes his head, shrugs, and looks away miserably.
Edward feels terrible, ashamed to have his greedy daydreams while Thomas was so clearly conflicted. Returning to sea was a big ask, and not many men would have already gone through so much hardship, to both ends of the world, at such a young age as Thomas had. So he pushes no further and makes no offer, but leaves Thomas with this:
“Whatever you decide, whatever you want to do, I would not stand in your way. You— you need only say it.”
They say nothing of it any more for the rest of the walk.
There is yet another dinner party that night, even larger than the last. His family is in fine form once again - he smiles to see them so delighted - and they toast Edward repeatedly on his promotion.
It would be a grand night, only it is Thomas who is more silent than usual. He still puts on a strong show, polite and charming as always, but Edward knows. Edward knows him, and there is something so wonderful and terrifying about that.
Before he can be trapped in another round of toasts, Edward manages to catch Thomas's eye and once again signals for them to step out. Thomas nods gratefully.
“Come with me, will you?” Edward whispers low into his ear when they find themselves, wine glasses in hand but no pilfered bottle this time, together by the doors.
Edward draws Thomas into the closed-off library and Thomas comes willingly. He closes the door behind them, but the music can still reach their ears. Edward recognises it from the opening notes immediately. It’s Schubert. They are playing it for the last dances. Edward lets it wash over him for only a minute before he steels his nerves and turns to Thomas beside him.
“I wondered if you might like to dance? With me, I mean. Just for a while.”
There was nothing wrong with a dance; after all, men danced together plenty of times— he himself had once or twice during the festivities aboard— but this is something different, he knows.
So here, now, comes the danger. They have hidden their touches under the safe pretence of missing Neptune, of innocent friendship and common standards during their walks. Now Edward is asking that they touch, that they dance, for no reason other than he wants to feel Thomas's closeness, now that they are confronted with the end of their time together, because he wants to touch Thomas, and he believes that Thomas wants that too. Thomas could say no and they could leave this without another word, without only the minimum amount of awkwardness.
But of course Thomas does not.
Thomas does not say no.
Thomas steps into his arms, slips a hand into Edward’s open one. For once, Edward does not try to think of an excuse should anyone stumble upon them. He cannot. Not when Thomas is in his arms, holding him, and that is more than anything he has ever hoped for.
He has never danced with someone so close to him in height - in fact, Thomas is perhaps a hair taller than him, it is easy to forget only because he is so graceful in his movements and so slim next to Edward’s clumsily looming bulk - so he isn’t prepared for how close their faces will be. It is a dizzying enough sensation, to feel such closeness to someone he has admired and adored for so long - because that is what it is: adoration; he adores Thomas - and he feels his heart tremble in his throat; he knows there is danger indeed and he should step back.
Instead, he places a hand on the small of Thomas's back, takes his other hand, and bends his head closer to Thomas. They are so close now that Edward can catch his scent: clean and refined and somehow familiar. Thomas relaxes into their nearness as the music lifts them into the first slow steps of their dance.
From over Thomas's shoulder, Edward can see their wine glasses abandoned on the side table, both only half full, and Edward’s heart aches at the sight of it, the easy mundane intimacy of the debris of a life together.
I wish we could be married, he thinks in a sudden bitter rush; a stupid, foolish, ignorant and impulsive thought that makes the tears stand hot in his eyes because of how patently impossible it is, so large and mocking in its desire - because even if they were both not men, there could be nothing of the sort between them. Because this is the world they live in-- a world he’s been to the very ends of and found still no place for him. He’s been through all that and what was left?
Thomas in his arms.
And the knowledge that he can no longer imagine sharing his life with anybody else.
The sweet strains of the music tremble alongside them. They are too far to hear the lyrics, but Edward knows them by heart.
“You are my peace,” he recites, low and quiet by Thomas's ear.
He feels Thomas go rigid in his arms, the hand in his tightening their grip ever so slightly.
“You are longing, and what stills it.”
His name sounds like a beautiful thing in Thomas's voice. The lyrics continue to run themselves in his mind and he readjusts his desire.
I wish we could be like this always, he thinks instead. Married or not. Thomas sighs soft and content against him, his smooth hand warm and dry in his own, and the ache in Edward’s heart swells with a kind of elation. Always.
And if what they’re doing looks less like a dance than an embrace in the night, long after the music has stopped, who would have anything to say about it?
Thomas's head hangs down on his lovely neck, bowed so close as though to rest his forehead on Edward’s shoulder. He looks up and holds Edward’s gaze with glassy eyes.
“You asked me earlier what I would like to do,” he says, his voice perfectly steady and measured. “You must tell me first what I can ask, please.”
Edward has never meant anything more in his life than when he says, “Anything.”
There is nothing, he realises, that Thomas could ask of him and be denied. He would give Thomas anything, because it is the least he deserves. A place here, a home in London, a cabin on the Frolic, even a life free of him, if he were only to ask.
“Anything,” Thomas repeats.
“I have nightmares still,” Edward says abruptly, before Thomas can say anything more, like it’s any explanation for what he said. Edward swallows and looks back down at the wonder that is Thomas's hand in his.
“Of the Arctic?”
Edward nods. The memories slice through him like ice. He allows himself to brush his thumb over the soft web of skin between Thomas's thumb and finger. “Sometimes I dream that we never made it out, that we’re still there bleaching away on those godforsaken rocks, our names forgotten or etched on marble somewhere,” He swallows, feeling his heart begin to race with conviction. “And then sometimes I dream that we never went at all. That I never met you.”
“Edward,” Thomas says, soft and impossibly tender. His eyes, when Edward raises his own to meet them, are bright and a little wet. “You can’t mean that.”
“I do mean it,” Edward replies, as he feels the tears threaten to start again in his own eyes. That nightmare feels all too close now, only worse, because they have met and may yet still be parted and Edward would have to live with knowing that, always. Always. Edward forces down the lump in his throat and speaks. “So you may ask me anything. Anything at all, Thomas, and I will obey.”
Thomas takes a breath; Edward can feel him brace himself. And then, sure enough, Thomas draws his other hand from its place on Edward’s shoulder and puts it over their conjoined hands, as though to hide it, or to bless it.
“Then I confess, Edward. If I really could choose, I would want something that would let me remain close to you. If it is to be another voyage, then I would go— if you would have me. As your steward or— or as anything, really, if it meant I could be with you.”
Edward does not think of how to make it work; he is too stunned to think that Thomas wants it to work at all. He very nearly can’t breathe; he can’t believe that their wants would have aligned so perfectly, that Thomas might want him the same way he wants Thomas. He is too stunned to say anything until Thomas pulls his hands away and says wretchedly, “Have I misspoken?”
Stirred finally into action, Edward catches Thomas's hand immediately. “No,” Edward says. His tongue feels thick and sodden with stupidity in his mouth. “No, not at all. The opposite, in fact. Only you’ve made me so happy, I don't know what to do. You truly would— wish to stay with me? By my side?”
Thomas nods and Edward knows he must be honest with him. He must be sure.
“But do you— do you know how fond I am of you? More than comrades, or friends, more even than brothers. Do you understand? More than any of that, Thomas; and I think you must not accept any position with me unless you know. I think—” Edward catches himself. Squares his shoulders and wills his heart, still obedient after years of training, to stop its frantic gallop. “No, I know. I know I am in love with you.”
In his arms, Thomas is perfectly still.
“I will not hold you to anything if you find it untoward,” Edward adds quickly, although it makes him feel sick at heart to do so.
For a few terrifying moments, he cannot read Thomas's face, and then it collapses with emotion.
“It is all I have hoped for,” Thomas says at long last, in a great heaving breath. “I didn’t dare to believe— I just never thought—” His voice wavers and breaks for the first time. “When I first saw you on Terror, I thought it would be enough just watching you from afar. But now I couldn’t— we can’t—”
Edward reaches for Thomas's face— the bravest thing he’s ever done, he thinks, and it is that realisation that stills his trembling. As if on cue, nearly half a decade of buried feelings surge to the surface, demanding their time in the sun, but Thomas shies away from it, looking at him with eyes so wide and wary.
“You mustn’t do what you can’t take back,” he warns. “You are a commander— no, a captain — and a gentleman, and I am— I would not be a point of regret for you.”
When Edward finally speaks, he manages to keep his voice calm and steady. This is the time for truth, he knows, and he will deliver it in the way Thomas deserves.
“You are a lieutenant, and even if you weren’t, I wouldn’t love you any less because it isn’t for any of that that I love you, but for everything that you are.”
“But we are both men, and not even the same kind of men, at that.”
Edward’s heart feels like it is breaking.
“After everything,” Edward tries, finding his conviction as he speaks. “After everything we went through, the rules of men seem hardly a thing to stop us, don’t they?”
Thomas nods then, slowly and carefully, as though he's taking his time to savour Edward’s touch while he can. “Yes,” he confesses. “That is why I even dared come here in the first place...”
It takes a while for Edward to comprehend that. There is a trickle of wetness in his hand. He looks down and sees that Thomas has closed his eyes against the tears, in a sad attempt to try to stem them. Edward strokes his face where he can, gently comforting until Thomas blinks up at him again.
“How I love you, Edward,” he sighs.
Edward - who has been chased by a man-eating spirit monster, has been shot at, has nearly drowned, frozen, and starved to death - has never felt shorter of breath or thought his heart could beat so hard.
“I feared that if you knew how much I desired you, you would despise me,” Thomas says.
“I could never,” The idea of him feeling anything other than love for Thomas is so unthinkable, Edward very nearly sobs. “Not when I desire you just as much.”
“I just never thought it possible. I did not think I was allowed. But I have always longed to know you,” Thomas whispers.
“Always?” He can’t keep himself from asking. Edward is not good at masking the emotions, never quite got the turn of it. And he knows his heart is showing clear on his face now, because Thomas is looking at him and his eyes have grown dark.
“Since I saw you. I have longed to know you since I saw you. I couldn’t tell you why. And now that I know you, I love you.”
Nobody else, Edward realises with a sob rising in his throat, has seen him so low, has seen his lapses of judgement and his dressing-downs at the officers’ table. Thomas has seen that all and could still want him. He doesn’t understand, yet his heart feels ready to sing an aria. And perhaps one day in the future he may look back and remember how Thomas gazed at him with such soft eyes and said, “I wonder if you ever noticed how I looked at you?” But for now, all Edward can think of is to apologise.
“Oh, Thomas— if I had known— I’m sorry I could not meet your eyes— I didn’t feel worthy.”
“Speaking of eyes, Edward, your eyes,” Thomas sighs, lips curved in a smile, fondness writ across his features. “If you knew of the esteem I hold you in— yes, the esteem. And the affection.” He laughs then. “I was stupid with it, my feelings for you, all the way to the end. Even now.”
“I thought you were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I didn’t know how I would manage, being so close to you for the entirety of the voyage. But you are here now, and now you- you must know how dear you are to me,” Edward stammers. “I love you more than anything.”
“I know now,” Thomas nearly whispers. “May I ask you for one more thing?”
“Anything,” Edward says again.
“A kiss.” Edward will never forget how brave and beautiful Thomas looks in that moment. “If you want to. I think you do.”
Edward nods. He does. He wants. He has for so long.
Thomas steps up and boldly puts his hands on Edward’s hips just as Edward brings his own hands up to hold Thomas's face. Thomas meets his eyes, sweetly expectant.
He has never felt the crossing of a line with such gravity until now. It is uncharted territory. How strange and funny it is, that they have tiptoed and danced around this for so long and now that it has been acknowledged, they fall into it as though pulled by a magnetic force.
How soft his lips are! It is nothing like anything his fevered imaginings could have ever conjured up. He could never have known how soft and receptive Thomas would be, how lovely he is— Edward pushes in a little greedily, eager for the warmth and wetness within. Thomas opens to him just as eagerly, just as greedily. He tastes salt and the faint sweet heat of sherry against the impossible softness of Thomas's lips.
Even as they pull apart, something slides into place within him, like the combination to a vault, like a lead opening up in the ice, like the sun breaking out over the horizon. Edward has sailed to the end of the world, to what should have been the end of his life; for hundreds of those dark bleak nights alone he had listened to the roar of the winds and the waves on their way to the shore, where they have roared always and would go on roaring for the centuries to come. What was his life but a whisper among that, so transient and inconsequential? Why should he not, in the face of that smallness, live for the happiness he knows he wants and damn everything else? And now that he knows it is what they both want—?
Thomas's grip on him is bruising, equally protective and possessive, like they are both the only thing keeping the other upright in some invisible storm, and in the strength of that grip, Edward knows. Whatever comes next can come. Whether it is to be at sea or on land, Edward knows they will be together.
Edward looks at Thomas, at the shy easy smile he’s wearing, at the high colour in his cheeks, at the way his hand rests easy in Edward’s own. Edward looks at it all and smiles in reply.
He thinks he feels the winds change.