Edward approached and retreated from the door three times before he summoned the courage to knock. The instant his hand came away from the wood, he wished fervently nobody was in.
This wish was denied.
“What you want, then?” A woman—and Edward was momentarily surprised it was a woman—opened the door. She was older, short and stout, built like a battleship with a bosom like twenty-four-pound shot and a gut like a rum barrel.
“I'm...” Edward swallowed. I'm terribly sorry to have bothered you, was what he should have said. He should have turned and left, escaped, prayed for forgiveness that he'd even made it this far. He wasn't a particularly religious man, but it was doubtlessly a sin of the gravest magnitude to stand on the doorstep of a bawdy house of this particular stripe. Edward could scarcely believe he was here. Could scarcely believe he took note of this address, when he overheard it spoken in low tones in a pub. “I'm...” Edward couldn't get past the word, couldn't force his mouth to form any other shapes or his voicebox to produce any other noise.
“Come in,” the woman said, at length. Her voice was raspy and rough, likely as a result of the pipe in her hand. “We'll get you sorted.”
The house was less awful than Edward had imagined, and he had spent a great deal of time imagining it. It wasn't a seedy tavern or a smoky opium den. It looked like a proper house, small but tidy, the type of place a family of modest means might live.
Two china dogs stood on the mantelpiece, staring down at Edward in a way he could describe only as judgmental. “I'll make you a cup of tea.” It wasn't a question, for which Edward was grateful. He wouldn't have been able to answer it.
Perched on an armchair, awaiting the woman's return, Edward's heart hammered in time with the ticking of the clock against the wall. He couldn't do this. It was impossible. His eyes flicked to the front door. If he moved quickly, he could sneak out now. It was hopelessly rude, and his mother would have chided him for it, but his mother would have died of a heart attack if she knew he was here, so that point seemed moot.
He was about to stand when the other door, the one through which the woman had disappeared, swung open. It was not she. Rather, it was a man, holding a tray in front of him.
“Good afternoon.” The man smiled, dimples appearing on his cheeks. He was extraordinarily comely, his hair was thick and dark, falling onto his forehead, and his eyes a remarkable shade of blue. “My name's Thomas.” He set the tray on the low table, and sat in the chair across from Edward. The tea set was flowery, the teapot and cups decorated with rosebuds and vines. “What shall I call you?”
“Edward,” Edward replied automatically, then wished he hadn't. He had planned to use an alias, if he was forced to produce any name at all.
“Edward,” Thomas repeated. “It's very nice to meet you. Do you take cream or sugar?” His voice spoke of the mildly upper-class, the accent the country-born Edward himself emulated. Edward could recognize the conscious tone of voice that told him it wasn't this man's natural speech, either.
“Sugar, please. Half a teaspoon.”
Thomas poured and passed the cup over to Edward. “Biscuit?” He pointed to the plate on the tray. Edward shook his head. He doubted he could swallow anything so dry. He took a long sip of tea, hoping Thomas didn't notice the way his shaking hands rattled the cup on its saucer.
Whether he did or he did not, Thomas gave him a look that could only be described as kind. “There's no need to worry, Edward. I'm quite certain nobody knows you've come to visit us. Although I am pleased you are here. I'd love to hear all about you.” Edward had no idea how to respond. He sat in silence until Thomas prompted, “Have you any favourite pastimes?”
Edward couldn't think of a single one. “I read,” he said, at length.
“How wonderful. I do, as well. What sorts of things do you enjoy?”
Edward searched his memory, but his brain refused to offer up any examples. Thomas saved him. “I love tales of travel and adventure myself. Swift, Dumas. Dickens and Austen, when I'm in the mood for drama or romance. Do you enjoy that type of thing?”
“I mostly read memoirs. I'm in the Navy.” Again, Edward bit his tongue a moment too late.
Thomas' eyes lit up. “I've got a good many friends in the Navy. I used to sail myself.”
“Oh, how I loved it. Being on the high seas...there's nothing that makes one feel quite so free, is there?”
From that moment on, Edward's nerves disappeared, swept away in a tidal wave of Thomas' stories of his employ first as an AB then as a steward, his travels in the Orient and the Mediterranean, and, most remarkably, his trip to the Antarctic with Captain Ross and the Discovery Service. “I'd never have left, if I'd had the choice,” Thomas said, the biscuits finished and the tea long drunk.
“Why did you?”
“An old injury was giving me trouble.”
“Nice big scar, right on my thigh. I'll show it to you, if you like.” He winked. Edward felt the blood rushing to his face. “And, unfortunately, my mother is unwell. She needed me closer to home.”
“Oh.” Edward wasn't sure if condolences were in order. “I'm sorry,” he said, in case they were.
“That's kind of you to say. But today, I'm all yours.” He reached across to rest a gentle hand on Edward's knee. “Would you care to go upstairs?”
The nerves returned tenfold, clearly furious at Edward for having forsaken them even for a little while. “Upstairs?”
“Yes.” Thomas' smile didn't dim. “There's a lovely room. You'll find it very comfortable.”
“Is that where the, um, the...” He didn't know the word for it. A woman, he would call a doxy, but was that a word you could apply to a male of the same profession? “The fellow is?” He finished weakly, hoping Thomas caught his drift.
He didn't. “Which fellow?”
It was morally wrong, and terribly, terribly sinful, but Edward wanted it so much. Just once. He would be satisfied, then. “The, ah, the prostitute?”
An expression flew across Thomas' face. Whether it was of amusement or surprise Edward couldn't quite tell. Perhaps it was both, because the next thing he said was:
“Edward, I am the fellow. There is another man here if you would prefer, Billy, but Mrs. Brown thought you and I might make a good pair. And I do like you.”
“You're...” Edward didn't know where to start. “You're not what I expected.” The female doxies he'd seen came in many sizes and races, but all had a certain air about them, an aggressive lasciviousness that seemed to be a common language all over the world. Thomas had nothing of that. He'd made no lewd comments or suggestions. He was dressed like a normal man; he acted and spoke like a normal man.
“Is that a compliment?”
“You were in the Navy.” Unless that was a lie. But, no. Thomas' stories were too detailled to be made up.
“And now I'm here.” Another squeeze, and Thomas removed his hand. “Shall we speak plainly, Edward?” He didn't wait for Edward's answer. “My job is to make men feel good. If I do say so myself, I am excellent at what I do. But I have no desire to force you into anything you might regret.”
Edward would regret it, but he knew he would regret not doing it even more.
“I've never done it before.” The admission seemed oddly shameful, but it was the truth.
“I know,” Thomas replied. He stood, offering a hand to Edward. Edward, unsure whether he was meant to take it or shake it, ignored it until Thomas brought it to rest on his shoulder. “That's why Mrs. Brown sent me.”
The upstairs room, like the rest of the house, did not obviously betray the depravity that took place within. If he had allowed himself to imagine this far, Edward would likely have pictured a stained mattress on the floor, or perhaps no room at all but a filthy alleyway, cluttered with rubbish and rats. Those seemed like the right locations for such act. This room—clean, tidy, cosy, with a neatly made bed and a warm rug on the floor—seemed so normal, so similar to his own bedroom at home, Edward's guilt was momentarily eased. Then Thomas said, “Undress as much as you would like to, Edward,” and it came roaring back.
“How can you do this?” Edward asked, as Thomas began to disrobe himself. Rather than watch him, Edward fixed his eyes on a painting on the wall, a nautical scene of a ship in a storm. “And not be caught, I mean.”
“Oh, I've been caught.” He said it breezily. “But Mrs. Brown keeps very good relations with the police in the area. We shan't be bothered, if that is your concern.” Thomas unfastened the last button of his waistcoat, folding it neatly and placing it atop a chest of drawers.
It did concern him. To be found in this place, even if he wasn't in any compromising position, would mean social ruin, the death by gossip of Edward's promising career. If he were found doing something illegal, the consequences would be even more dire. Yet here you are, he reminded himself, watching from the corner of his eye as Thomas reached for the hem of his own shirt.
“Wait.” Edward broke in. Thomas stopped. Edward licked his lips, suddenly dry enough to feel as if they were cracking. I'm a coward, he thought.
Thomas came closer, close enough to rest his hands on Edward's sides. Even though Edward was still fully clothed, his skin tingled beneath the pressure.
Somebody sobbed. It took Edward a moment to realize it was him. Before Edward could apologize, or flee, or take off his clothes and get on with this already, Thomas said, “Sit down.” It sounded like an order, and Edward automatically followed it, sitting on the edge of the bed. Thomas joined him. Silently, he reached over put his arm around Edward's shoulder, drawing him close. The embrace was so friendly, so familial almost, that Edward leaned into him.
After a moment, Thomas took Edward's face in gentle hands, and looked at him with those extraordinary eyes. “What would you like, Edward?” His voice was so encouraging, so reassuring, Edward heard himself admitting, “A kiss. If you please.”
Thomas smiled. “Of course.”
Edward had kissed before, once or twice, girls who seemed eager at first and disappointed afterwards. Edward couldn't fault them. He'd always felt the same. There was nothing disappointing about Thomas. His kiss was easy and practised—of course it is, Edward thought, ruefully—sweet, with just the right amount of pressure to stoke a fire deep within Edward. When he pulled away, Edward immediately felt the loss.
“How's that, then?” Thomas' smile remained, still kind and still reassuring, but there was something else. Something Edward could only describe as saucy. He bit his lip, and Edward's cock, frightened into submission until this point, permitted itself an interested twitch. “Good?” Edward nodded. “More?” Edward nodded again, and Thomas moved in, this time slipping his tongue past Edward's lips, pressing it lightly against Edward's own.
When Thomas broke away for the second time, Edward was breathless. “Edward...” He began. Edward didn't let him finish. Before he could think twice about it, he lay back on the bed, pulling Thomas atop of him and joining their mouths like his life depended on it.
Lying with Thomas was the worst decision of Edward's life.
Not at the time. At the time, it was indescribably wonderful. He'd spent years imagining what it might feel like to have a mouth around his prick. That it was Thomas' mouth, that Thomas held his hand during the act, and looked up at him from beneath his eyelashes, and swallowed him down when he spent, was so much more than Edward had ever dreamed hope. He felt quite emotional afterwards. Thomas understood that, too, of course. He lay beside Edward, holding him like they were true lovers, until Edward regained his senses.
“You can stay a while,” Thomas offered. Instead, Edward pulled up his trousers, fumbling for his purse. “It's all right if you pay Mrs. Brown on the way out.”
Edward, drowning beneath a sudden wave of shame, ignored him. He pressed a handful of money on Thomas. He didn't know how much, but it was a lot, and certainly more than he could afford. Then, he fled. That had been nearly a fortnight ago, and he had thought of precious little since.
The intelligent, responsible course of action would be to forget the whole damn thing. Edward tried. After more than a year on furlough, there was precious little else with which to occupy his mind, but he did try. He visited a friend, Lieutenant Henry Balderson from Vindictive, at Balderson's club, and shared an afternoon of port and reminiscing. He went to the Admiralty. It never hurt to show one's face there, although he did not hear any news of upcoming expeditions. Edward even spent most of an excruciating day accompanying his sisters Mary and Jane on their social calls. This led to being eyed up, like a prize side of beef, by a great many of their unmarried friends' mothers, although their gaze tended to dim when they learned Edward was a Naval lieutenant who had been on half-pay for months, with no immediate prospects of anything better.
These activities were temporary distractions. They were not cures for what ailed him. When he was inevitably alone again, back in his rented rooms near Regent's Park, Edward's mind flew, rather than drifted, back to Thomas and the shocking acts they had committed together.
Shocking, but in a way, not shocking enough. Edward had not undressed at the time, other than to lower his trousers. Thomas had removed his shirt, revealing an expanse of pale skin overlaid with thick dark hair, but he had also remained clothed below the waist. Taking himself in hand in his lonely bed, Edward wondered what could have occurred had he been just a little braver, had he unfastened Thomas' trousers and unwrapped him like a gift.
Edward was not a prideful man, but he was steadfast, possessed of a strong will. It was how he had come as far as he had in his career. Still, he was not made of stone, and eventually, he crumbled.
He had spent the evening with Lieutenant Balderson, celebrating Balderson's recent commission to the Indies aboard the Endeavour. Edward had one or two—or perhaps three or four—more drinks than was wise. When he stumbled into a cab outside the club, rather than direct the driver to his own address, he heard himself give Mrs. Brown's.
It was late when he got there, past eleven. No time for a gentleman to be paying calls, but Edward did not feel like being a gentleman tonight. Only when he had forcefully knocked did it occur to him Thomas might be entertaining someone else.
Mrs. Brown did not answer herself. Rather, a young man came to the door, tall and gaunt, with a tired look in his eyes.
“I would like to see Thomas, if he is available.” To his own ears, his voice sounded sober, more or less. The man sighed heavily, as if it were a great imposition, but he let Edward in.
The sitting room looked different in the dim light of a single oil lamp. All that had seemed so upstanding, so normal, in the light of day—the clock, the furnishings, the china dogs on the mantelpiece—cast dark, almost sinister shadows. I shouldn't be here, Edward thought, but he felt so tired. He would just close his eyes for a moment, rest a little while. Then he would get up and go.
“Edward! I'm so happy you came back.”
Thomas was even more beautiful than Edward remembered. Rather indecently clad in a brown dressing gown and slippers, his hair was nevertheless perfectly coiffed, and he smiled so widely, Edward felt a cad for not having returned earlier.
“Thomas.” Edward bit his lip, as if that might restrain the torrent of emotion he felt merely upon seeing the man.
Thomas looked at him. The dim light cast shadows on his face as well, but rather than seem ominous, it made him look even softer, even more appealing. “Would you like a drink?”
“I...I've had rather a lot of them already.”
Thomas hesitated, just for a moment, then said, “Perhaps another wouldn't hurt.”
The whisky was good. Better than Edward would have expected, if he'd thought about it. “It's Mrs. Brown's personal stock,” Thomas said, pouring two glasses. “We'll be in dreadful trouble if she finds us, so we'd better keep quiet.” The words, spoken by Thomas in an undertone, sent an illicit thrill through Edward.
“I had a captain like that,” Edward said, to cover up this frisson.
“Not quite. Just...possessive of his drink.” If that was the word for it. He marked every bottle on the ship, even those out of reach of all but his steward and his the highest ranking officers. In many ways, he trusted those closest to him less than he trusted the men.
“I had one, as well. A commander. My commander, in fact, when I was a steward. Wonderful man.” The fondness in Thomas' eyes was nearly enough to make Edward jealous. Then he remembered Thomas' current profession, and how utterly pointless such a sentiment was. “But he drank too much. Used to drive our captain to distraction. He was a close friend of the commander's.”
It was purely the drink that prompted Edward, a man not given to innuendo or ribald talk of any kind, to reply, “A close friend?”
Thomas laughed. “Merely a friend, I think. Although I've seen enough men come through here that I make no assumptions about anyone.”
Edward took another drink. “I'm sure you've known a great many men.” It was meant to be conversational. It sounded condemnatory.
Thomas clearly interpreted it that way. His smile faded. “That's not what I meant.”
“I intended no insult.” It would be supremely hypocritical of Edward if he did.
Thomas looked away, focusing his gaze on the shadowy picture across the room. “I need to pay my way, same as anybody. The money here is better than I could make doing anything else.” A blush came to Thomas' cheeks.
“I myself have been on half-pay for over a year,” Edward said, so that Thomas may know he understood the pressure of a lack of funds. Thomas had not found it necessary to justify his profession the last time they met; Edward could not say what was different now.
“Oh?” Thomas' smile returned. “Would you like me to ask Mrs. Brown to offer you a position?” Edward's shock must have shown on his face, because the smile became another lovely laugh. “Perhaps not,” Thomas continued. “I must say, I don't particularly care for that idea.” He shifted closer on the sofa, until their legs were almost touching. “Would it be terribly bad of me to tell you I would much rather have you all to myself?”
Edward's stomach dropped like a stone. It's not real, the part of his brain still clinging to rationality reminded him. He says that to every man he's with. It didn't feel like that. Looking into those astonishing eyes, it felt like Thomas meant every word, that Edward really was special. A good actor. He belongs on the stage. Edward shook his head, effectively shutting up that voice of inconvenient reason, and allowed Thomas to pull him into a kiss.
Edward awoke with the worst headache of his life. He forced his eyes open to find himself in Thomas' bedroom, sunlight streaming painfully through the crack in the curtains. Groaning, Edward dragged himself into a sitting position against the pillows. He was, he found, dressed in his linens, his clothes folded neatly atop the drawers on the other side of the room.
Thomas himself was not present. This gave Edward a moment to delve into his disturbingly blank memory, desperately trying to remember any hint of what they had done the night before, and how much money Edward was likely to owe. Distressingly, it was all a blur. Edward remembered staggering here from Balderson's celebration, drinking with Thomas in the sitting room and then...and then, nothing.
“Good morning, Edward!” Edward looked up as Thomas came in. Fully clothed, he carried a tray in his hands, laden with the same rose-and-vine patterned tea set he'd seen on that first visit, along with a plate of toast and two little pots, one of marmalade, one of strawberry jam. “I thought you might like something to eat.” Edward's stomach twisted at the thought. “Or at least a cup of tea.” He set the tray down at the foot of the bed. “How is your head?”
“Poor dear.” A crease appeared between Thomas' eyebrows as he frowned with sympathy. “Half a teaspoon of sugar, is that right?”
If he'd been in a better humour, Edward would have been astonished Thomas remembered such a negligible detail. As it was, he merely grunted in agreement, and took the cup and saucer when Thomas held it out to him.
Better to be out with it, he thought, and said, “I'm afraid I'm finding my memory is rather faulty today.”
“Oh, yes?” Thomas stirred a much larger spoonful of sugar into his own tea, then added a second.
Edward sighed. “Sadly,” very sadly, “I cannot recall much of last evening.”
A smile, more of a smirk, came to Thomas' lips. “That is unfortunate.”
Edward pushed his pain aside, squaring his shoulders. “I can promise you, Thomas, I will settle my debts...”
“Edward.” Thomas interrupted. “You needn't fret. We did nothing unseemly.”
“I admit, it was rather disappointing, not to mention bruising to my ego, when you fell asleep whilst I was kissing you, but I can blame only myself. You told me you were drunk when you arrived. I should have known better than to push even more drink upon you.”
“Oh.” Edward blinked. “Then, how...”
“Billy helped me bring you upstairs. And that's a favour he will want to call in sooner rather than later, I can tell you, but I could hardly toss you out on the street.” Thomas could easily have done just that.
“Ah. Well. Thank you.” The words felt inadequate. Edward looked at his purse, sitting atop his clothes. “I must still give you something. For your time, if nothing else.”
“I assure you, I want nothing from you.” Thomas' eyes flicked down demurely, then back up to look at Edward. “Well, not quite nothing.”
Edward waited for an elaboration. It did not come. Unsure what else to say, Edward drank his tea in silence, and watched as Thomas ate two pieces of toast, one slathered thickly with jam and the other with marmalade.
“When you're ready to leave,” Thomas said, at last, as he finished his second slice of toast, “I will go downstairs and distract Mrs. Brown. If she sees you, she will expect money, and it is quite costly to spend the night here.”
Shame came, very belatedly, to the game, curling in Edward's gut and making his pounding head ache even more. “Truly, I can offer you compensation, Thomas.” Perhaps not as much as Thomas would usually receive, but Edward was not a man who shirked his duty.
“If you care to do something for me, please return to see me again on another occasion. Preferably when you're sober.”
Edward nodded, properly chastened. His behaviour was not that of a gentleman, to be sure, or of an officer. He had disgraced himself and the Navy twice over, once by virtue of simply being here, and again by treating Thomas so abominably. Thomas must have thought Edward a scoundrel, a blackguard, and rightly so. Thomas' profession, no matter what most might say, did not exclude him from respect, and he had shown Edward such care and concern. Edward was truly...
Thomas put an end to Edward's spiralling thoughts when he climbed onto the bed beside him. “I like you,” he said. He reached out with a gentle hand and rearranged Edward's hair. Edward couldn't begin to imagine what a fright it must look. “Very much. I would wish us to be friends, Edward.”
“Yes,” Edward said, although, as an answer, it seemed far from adequate. Thomas was beautiful, and kind hearted, and thoughtful. Edward would lucky as to count him as a friend. Instead of saying so, he just repeated, “Yes,” and felt his stomach flip at Thomas' renewed smile.
Once he was dressed, Edward sneaked out like a criminal in his stocking feet, his shoes in his hand on Thomas' advisement to avoid creaks on the stairs. Edward had never been so humiliated. Or so he thought, until he paused at the front gate to put on his shoes, and saw two figures approaching the house.
One was the tall, gangly man who had let Edward in the previous evening. The other man was much shorter, with a pointed beard and an air of deviousness about him, although Edward could not have pinpointed exactly what made him think thus. It was this oddly devious man who raised his eyebrows and smirked when they saw Edward, and he who said, “Good morning, sir,” with a heavily significant wink as they passed on the walkway.
Edward grunted a reply and hurried, as fast as was even somewhat dignified, to the next street to find a cab.
Again, Thomas filled Edward's thoughts, and again, Edward could not scrape up the courage to do anything about it. He wanted me to come and visit him, Edward reminded himself, on more than one occasion. It was the only thing, in fact, Thomas had asked of him. Edward owed him that much. And Edward did long to see Thomas in return, but when he thought of actually returning to the house of ill-repute, he felt paralyzed. If only he could see Thomas somewhere else. Invite him out, perhaps, but Edward's financial situation did not permit him to treat Thomas to chess and cigars at Simpson's, and his social standing at the moment was not such he could ask him to some extravagant society ball. Would Thomas wish to attend, even if he did?
The answer when it came was, again, courtesy of Lieutenant Balderson.
“I was meant to accompany Miss Randall to the opera. The Marriage of Figaro or some damn thing, I don't know. But Captain Westerby is having a soiree for the expedition officers that same evening.” It was just the sort of thing the vivacious Balderson was bound to enjoy. Edward, personally, could think of few greater tortures in life than an “officers' soiree.” “Find yourself a nice young lady and take her for an evening out,” Balderson said, passing over the opera tickets.
That would be one of those greater tortures.
Edward did, however, have an alternative solution. He briefly considered inviting one of his sisters, but then he landed on a better idea. After a great deal of mental strain—and a good many wasted pages—he came up with a letter that made him, if not happy, at least satisfied.
Dear Thomas, it began. Familiar, perhaps, but Edward had no concept of the man's surname, so he pressed on. I have been fortunate enough to receive a pair of tickets to The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House. It would give me great joy if you were to accompany me.
Simple, but all attempts at embellishment and explanation had ended up screwed into balls in the wastepaper basket. Edward decided it must suffice. He added the time and date of the performance, and addressed the envelope, again simply to “Thomas”, care of Mrs. Brown since Edward possessed no alternative address. He took it to the post office, where the postmaster assured him it would be delivered by the following evening. Then, Edward waited.
At sea, time could stretch like hot tar. On furlough, it was even worse. Edward went for tea with his sisters. He stopped in at the Admiralty, to see if there were any hints of possible commissions—nothing new since last he asked—and he made interminable loops of Regent's Park. It was the dying days of winter, windy and overcast, but the courting couples were nevertheless out en masse, enacting their rituals with as much pomp and decorum as any birds Edward ever espied in exotic lands.
Finally, a reply arrived, in the morning post along with a letter from Edward's elderly Aunt Edith in the country, and one from a friend at sea. He set the latter two aside to tear open, with as much decorum and dignity as possible, the letter addressed simply to “Edward.”
The handwriting was cramped but legible, and the spelling was good.
I received with great pleasure your note of Wednesday last. I am very grateful for your invitation, and very pleased to accept it. I hoped to see you again after our last meeting, and am happy to have the opportunity to do so again soon.
I will meet you at the opera house at the appointed date and time.
Your humble friend,
Jopson. Edward repeated the name to himself, first silently, then aloud into his empty room. It was not one he had heard before, but at once, he could not think of a more perfect surname for Thomas than that.
After much vacillation, Edward decided to wear his dress uniform to the performance. Long enough had passed since the thing had seen the light of day, and even Edward could admit, it was impossible to look anything but dashing in it. Too anxious to eat anything, he drank two strong glasses from his nearly empty bottle of whisky. Rather too quickly, it seemed, as rather than steady his nerves, it made him feel slightly woozy as he headed for the opera house.
Edward was no particular fan of the opera. Music, he loved. The baroque period in particular, although he wouldn't turn up his nose at galant. The caterwauling of shrill sopranos and the groaning of self-satisfied baritones did nothing, he always felt, but obscure the beauty of the music beneath it. He was in the minority with this opinion. As he stood in the foyer, wave after wave of eager patrons descended upon the opera house, chattering excitedly, clearly eager for the performance ahead.
Edward was eager and excited, too, although for a much different reason. He kept his eyes trained on the door, waiting to see a head of dark hair, a pair of stunning blue eyes. As he was beginning to worry something had happened, an accident perhaps, or, worse yet, that Thomas Jopson had simply come to his senses and realized he stood nothing to gain from an evening at the opera with a bore such as Edward, Edward looked past a woman with a truly astonishing feather hat and saw him.
Thomas' jacket was a little too wide for his shoulders, his trousers a little too long for his legs. I should have asked if he had something to wear, Edward thought, immediately feeling a cad for not even having thought of it. Then Thomas' eyes alighted upon Edward, and Thomas' burst into a smile of such magnitude, it washed away Edward's worries like a rough sea wave.
“Edward.” By the time he made his way through the crowd to Edward's side, Thomas was breathless, and a little red in the cheeks. “You look wonderful.” He cast his eye up and down Edward's uniform. “I'd almost forgotten how smart those uniforms are.” His roving gaze came to rest on Edward's newly shaven face. “And, of course, smarter still on such a handsome gentleman as you.”
Edward felt himself flush in return. “That's very kind of you to say.” He cleared his throat. One abiding concern reared its ugly head. Unsure how to phrase it, Edward licked his lips and dove in. “In, ah, terms of, um, payment for this evening...”
He could not have been more grateful when Thomas cut him off. “Let us not speak of that. We're friends, Edward. Are we not?” A glimmer of something, perhaps hurt, came to Thomas' face. He could not identify it precisely, but Edward knew he never wanted to see it on Thomas again.
“Yes,” he assured him hurriedly. “Friends. Of course we are.”
The smile returned. “Good.” Thomas glanced towards the theatre doors. They had been opened with a flourish, and a trickle of people were already filtering their way inside. “Shall we, then? I must admit, I have been looking forward to this.”
“So have I,” Edward agreed, although it seemed an understatement of monumental proportions. Thomas offered his arm. Edward took it, as a friend might, and let him lead them towards the door.
The Marriage of Figaro was as dire as any other opera. The music was good, Edward could give it that, but the singing was, as expected, a distraction, and the story was deathly dull, at least to Edward. It scarcely mattered. During moments that were meant to be thrilling or in some way moving, and there were quite a lot of those, Thomas fell into the habit of reaching over to grasp Edward's thigh, and Edward was as happy as he'd ever been in a theatre.
“Wasn't it wonderful?” Thomas sighed, when the curtain fell for the final time.
“Indeed,” Edward replied, through only sightly gritted teeth.
“I've never been to the opera before,” he went on, as they shuffled their way, along with the mob, towards the outer doors. “Thank you again for asking me.” Carried by the crowd, they streamed out of the auditorium and back into the foyer. Before Edward could say, quite honestly, that the pleasure was all his, Thomas went on, “There's a tavern near my mother's that often has musicians in. It can get a bit rowdy at times. There's one man in particular who tends to throw dead cats if he doesn't care for the performance.”
“But I would be glad to take you there one evening, if you think you would--”
“Jopson!” The voice that broke in was loud, Irish, and unexpectedly close. At once, Thomas' gaze went up, scanning the crowd until he landed on another man in a Naval uniform. Then, he broke into a grin wide enough to send a shimmer of that unreasonable jealousy once again through Edward's person.
Edward knew of the captain, of course. It behooved every lieutenant, particularly one who had gone many months without a commission, to familiarize himself with as many captains as possible. He was unaware of Crozier's depth of feeling for Mr. Thomas Jopson until he threw his arms about the man, right there in the opera house foyer, and cleaved him to his bosom like a long-lost son. Thomas was just as enthusiastic, embracing Crozier in return.
“It's been too long, lad!” Crozier said, finally pulling away. He clapped Thomas on the shoulder. “How's your mother?”
“Much improved, thank you, sir.”
“Are you working?”
A flush came to Thomas' cheeks. “I'm...in service.”
“Oh, yes?” Crozier's sharp, curious gaze went to Little. “Good evening, Lieutenant...”
“Little, sir.” He raised his hand to salute; Crozier extended his for him to shake.
“Little.” He repeated it thoughtfully, looking at Edward's uniform.
“Got a ship?”
“Not at the moment, sir.”
The gaze grew keener still, then returned to Thomas. “I'm here with Ross. You must come with us for a little late supper.”
Thomas brushed a lock of errant hair from his forehead. “That's very kind of you, sir, but I wouldn't want to intrude.”
“Perhaps I could instead join you for tea one afternoon.”
Crozier opened his mouth, as if to reply, but closed it and nodded instead. “Any time, Thomas. You know where I live.”
Crozier nodded at them both. As soon as he'd gone, Thomas turned away, continuing his trajectory towards the door.
“My apologies,” he said, when they at last stepped out into the cool night air. For what, Edward couldn't imagine, until he went on, “I didn't think. You may have wished to make Captain Ross' acquaintance.”
“I did not.” If they'd met at the Admiralty, Edward would have been keen to hear Ross' tales, and felt obliged, for the sake of his career, to try and get himself noticed by the great man, but they were not at the Admiralty. At the moment, his career was the last thing on his mind. “Thomas, do you wish to...” To return to Mrs. Brown's, was the question on his lips. Thomas apparently anticipated it, for he interrupted, “Might we go to your lodgings?”
“My lodgings?” Edward blinked. “I am afraid they are not much to speak of.”
“They are quite certainly an improvement on the ones I share with my mother.”
Of course. They were friends. Mrs. Brown's was Thomas' place of business. “Naturally, you are more than welcome at my home.” Thomas smiled at him, another of those dazzling expressions that made Edward's throat curiously dry, and his knees even more curiously unsteady.
Edward's two rooms near Regent's Park were, of course, impeccably neat, principally because there was very little in them. The paintings on the wall, a portrait of a dour looking old woman and a grey landscape showing windmills in the rain, were there when he arrived, and were not something Edward would ever have chosen. None of the furniture belonged to him. The only item that was, in fact, his own, apart from the clothes in the wardrobe, was his sea trunk, placed in the corner of the sitting room, awaiting the day it might again be put to use.
Edward had never been particularly self-conscious about his home, but then he had never had anyone to visit, save his sisters, and once, his parents. They had offered him money to help sustain him whilst he was on half-pay. Edward declined. A man of his age ought to be able to support himself, no matter his circumstances. It was only now he noticed those circumstances included rather shabby curtains, threadbare patches on the rug, and dingy wallpaper peeling in one corner.
“It's lovely.” Thomas sounded more sincere than Mary and Jane ever did. “Lovely,” he repeated, Edward let the door swing shut, and Thomas stepped forward, his toes all but touching Edward's.
His kiss was gentle, at first. Edward's experience was limited, it was true, but he couldn't imagine there being anyone with lips as soft as Thomas'. When Thomas' teeth caught gently on his bottom lip, it was like lighting a rocket. Desire surged through Edward's body in a great wave. He pulled Thomas to him so roughly, Thomas let out a little squawk. Edward pulled away, ready to issue profound apologies, but Thomas laughed, the sound so happy and carefree Edward couldn't regret it.
“You've got a bed, I imagine?” He kissed Edward again, lightly on the lips, once, then twice, then yet again before Edward could reply, “I do.”
“Come along, then,” Thomas said. Although Edward was the host, it was Thomas who slid his hands down Edward's arms, interlaced their fingers, and pulled him towards the bedroom door.
That room was no more luxurious. The landlady had laid a fire, as she did every night. It crackled in the grate, casting flickering shadows on the wall. The bed was an antique, with heavy damask curtains and a series of apparently deliberate notches on the bedpost that predated Edward's tenancy. He had never thought to ponder them too deeply. Edward hesitated, and Thomas' hands were on his stock.
“Allow me, sir,” Thomas looked up at him through his long, dark lashes. “I am well used to getting officers out of their uniforms.”
Edward laughed, more from nerves than at Thomas' slightly ribald humour. He stood still as Thomas unwound the stock, unfastened the coat, slid his hands beneath the shirt. They were warm and ticklish. Edward flinched involuntarily as Thomas pushed the shirt over his head.
He had very clearly been a steward. Rather than fling them to the floor, Thomas took the time to hang every article of clothing in the wardrobe, even though it left Edward looking on, feeling rather foolish. When he had at last finished, Thomas turned to Edward, his eye appraising.
“Now, then.” He breathed, his face alight. “That is a fine figure of a gentleman.”
Edward had lost some weight since he'd been ashore. His chest and arms were perhaps not as muscular as they normally were. Still, with Thomas staring at him as if he were Adonis incarnate, Edward could not help the bubble of pride that swelled inside him. Nor could he prevent another part of his anatomy from swelling with equal enthusiasm beneath Thomas' scrutiny.
Thomas looked, but he did not speak. Edward was grateful for that; there was nothing, he felt, he could possibly say in reply. Instead, Thomas crossed the small space between them and fell to his knees, one hand on Edward's thigh and the other wrapped carefully about the base of Edward's cock.
It was as sublime as the last time. Thomas' mouth was hot, his tongue skilled as it laved Edward's prick with almost worshipful care. Edward could gladly have spent like that, but he always had been a greedy man.
“Wait,” he said. It was very wrong. Illegal. Immoral. The line that must not be crossed. An act so evil it was specifically forbidden in the Articles, put on par with cowardice and desertion, and Edward wanted it more than he had wanted anything in his life.
“Are you all right?”
Edward felt himself flush. He hoped it was not obvious in the dim light. Thomas himself blushed with regularity, but his colour was fetching, and rather sweet. Edward did not think the same could be said of him. “Might you...” Edward hesitated. “Might you undress yourself?”
Thomas wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “Of course. If that's what you would like.” That answer, spoken in Thomas' warm and sultry tones, hit Edward like a blow.
“Is it whatyou would like, Thomas?” Thomas looked at him curiously. Edward, feeling more than slightly stupid, pressed on. “I mean, it's not...” He searched for the words. “We're friends,” he determined at last. “I would...I would wish to please you. As well. Very much so. I would hear what you want, if you would tell me.”
The confession didn't make Thomas smile. He didn't, in fact, do anything but drop his trousers, revealing slender thighs thatched with warm, dark hair and a long, flushed cock, already hard and wet at the tip.
Rather than fold his clothes and place them with Edward's, Thomas left them on the floor. He returned to Edward's side, wrapping his arms about Edward's shoulders and pressing them together, bare chest to bare chest, bare thighs to bare thighs. There was a scar on Thomas' right one. Edward remembered him mentioning it the first time they met. “What would please me, Edward,” he whispered, his lips against the rim of Edward's ear, “would be to have you so deeply inside me, I will feel you for days and days to come.”
“Fuck,” Edward groaned, involuntarily.
“Yes,” Thomas agreed, and all but leapt upon the bed.
Edward had been fortunate enough to travel to a great many places in his life. He'd seen the beaches of Brazil and the cobbled streets of Lisbon; he'd been to the Orient and to all corners of the Mediterranean. But tonight, he realized there was nowhere on Earth he would rather be than kneeling upon his own lumpy mattress, buried to the hilt in the tight heat of Thomas Jopson.
“Edward,” Thomas groaned. The sound was muffled by the pillow on his face, which was doubtlessly a good thing. It was still enough to stoke Edward's personal fire even higher. He thrust with renewed vigour. With every stroke, Thomas met him, pressing back against Edward and driving him even deeper. A bead of sweat rolled down Thomas' spine. Edward's instinct was to lick it; instead, he ran a finger of his free hand up Thomas' back, making him shiver. His other hand, caught tightly in Thomas' grip, squeezed back.
He could, he felt, spend all night doing this. His body unfortunately disagreed. Another thrust and he felt himself on the precipice. “Thomas,” he muttered, meaning it as a warning.
“Yes,” Thomas replied, instead. “Yes, please. Please do it there.”
The request, at once so filthy and so politely worded, was enough. Edward crested the final hill and spent. He'd barely finished when Thomas went off in turn. Edward held him tightly, his softening prick still within him, as Thomas jerked and whimpered through his own climax.
Afterwards, when they'd both collapsed on the bed, Thomas was reluctant to let go. They lay wrapped in one another's arms, ignoring both the cooling sweat and the sticky mess between them.
“You are too darling,” Thomas said, after a long silence. He tilted his head. His face was too close. All Edward could really make out were his big eyes, blinking beautifully, and then the kisses that landed on his cheeks, his chin, his whiskers. “A darling, handsome man.”
Edward shifted, suddenly uncomfortable in both the physical and metaphorical senses. “You don't need to say such things.”
“You doubt they're true?” Edward didn't respond. That, it seemed, was the wrong response. Thomas sat up, slipping from Edward's grasp, although he did keep a hand on Edward's shoulder. “Or do you doubt my sincerity in saying them?” Edward tried to think of how to phrase it so as not to offend. The task was an insurmountable one, but Thomas saved him, again. “I don't make friends of the men I meet in my work, Edward. You're the first.”
That begged an obvious question. “Why me?”
The eyebrows eased a little. “Because you invited me to the opera. You spoke with me about sailing. You fell asleep when we were kissing.” Edward wasn't sure that was any kind of endorsement. “Because,” Thomas went on, a true smile appearing, “you came to a bawdy house and talked with me for hours without noticing I was a prostitute.”
“I was rather discombobulated at the time,” Edward protested. Not that he felt entirely poised at the moment.
Thomas ran a hand through Edward's hair. “Most of the men I meet do not act like gentlemen, even if they claim to be such. They certainly do not treat me as one. You are unique, Edward. And quite special.”
It was nothing anybody had said about him before. It was also, Edward realized, just how he felt about Thomas.
He could not say so. He could not express himself in words the way Thomas could. Instead, he took Thomas back into his arms, happy and grateful when he returned the embrace eagerly.
They made love on two more occasions that night. Edward couldn't stop himself, and Thomas met him happily on each occasion, taking Edward back inside with an ease, evenn an enthusiasm, Edward was not sure he himself could muster for that particular role. Although he could not deny the thought did intrigue him, a little.
They lingered in bed as long as they could, until half-past seven in the morning. Then, regretfully, Edward had to say, “If I don't go down for breakfast, my landlady shall assume I am dead and burst in to rifle my belongings.”
Thomas laughed. It was not a joke, or an exaggeration. “Very well then, my dear.” He kissed Edward softly. Edward could not have said whether it was the kiss or the endearment, but it made him feel warmer than ever. “What is today? Thursday? Might I call on you Sunday afternoon? We could go for a stroll in your park.”
“Hardly my park,” Edward replied, in hopes of hiding the fact Sunday suddenly seemed a very long way off.
“The park, then. And perhaps we might find something to do together afterwards?” Thomas raised his eyebrows. Despite all they had done already, Edward felt a twist of awkward embarrassment at the suggestion rife in Thomas' expression.
“I, I have no doubt.”
Reluctantly, Edward pulled himself out of bed and dressed. Thomas did the same, putting on last night's too-large suit.
“Are you...” Edward's tongue felt curiously heavy. He frowned, and pushed on. “Are you returning to work, then?”
“I am going to visit my mother. I will be back at Mrs. Brown's this evening.” Thomas looked at him. “Are you unhappy about that?”
“It is no affair of mine.” That was the truth. As much as the idea rankled—and it did—he was in no position to be making demands of Thomas. It was not as if Edward could offer him alternative employment.
They kissed again, this time in farewell. Just as Thomas had done for him at Mrs. Brown's, Edward went down to distract Mrs. Currie with idle breakfast chatter so that Thomas might make his getaway.
He missed Thomas almost as soon as he left. Despite that, Edward's usual turn about the park later that afternoon was brighter than normal. The sun was still hidden, but rather than seem dull and grey, Regent's Park brimmed with happiness. Children garbed in bright colours laughed as they tossed breadcrumbs to the ducks, who quacked cheerfully back at them. The courting couples smiled and flirted with one another. The balloon seller and the organ grinder and the young lady with her basket of flowers called out as Edward passed. He would normally have seen them as an irritant, but today, Edward found himself smiling at them in return.
This good humour lasted until he arrived home.
“Lieutenant Little, sir.” Mrs. Currie met him as he came in. Although she was applying polish to the hallway table, she gave the distinct impression of someone who had been loitering in the entryway for some time. “You've a guest.”
“A guest?” Edward's thoughts went at once to Thomas. Those hopes were quickly dashed.
“A naval man, it seems. A captain.” Edward blinked. “I offered to take a message, but he said he was happy to wait. I've put him in the sitting room with a cup of tea.”
“Oh, don't mention it, sir.”
Edward permitted himself a single deep breath. Any more in front of Mrs. Currie would give the impression of uncertainty, and he was well versed in hiding that. He nodded at her, squared his shoulders, and stepped, with immaculate naval bearings, into the sitting room.
Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier stood in Mrs. Currie's drawing room, cup and saucer in hand, peering with interest into her case of stuffed songbirds.
“Ah, Lieutenant. Your landlady has a capital collection of birds.”
“Indeed, sir.” Edward could not say he had ever taken notice of it before. He was relieved when, rather than discuss it further, the captain turned away from the case and instead took a seat on the chaise longue.
“My apologies for stopping by uninvited. I happened to have a free afternoon, and, as we have a friend in common, I thought I might make your acquaintance.”
Edward wasn't quite sure how to answer that. “Yes, sir.”
“Have a seat.” Edward sat. “Mr. Jopson is a remarkable man, is he not?”
Edward had always favoured plain speaking, devoid of hidden meaning or artifice. Crozier had a reputation as a generally good captain, someone often discounted by the naval higher-ups due to his origins, but Edward did not know if he shared the affinity for allusion and implication so beloved by many of his superiors.
“Yes, sir,” Edward replied. He would play it honestly, he decided, but answer no more than was asked.
“I won't inquire how the two of you came to be acquainted. Thomas' appeal has always transcended such boundaries.” Thankfully, the captain continued before Edward had to think of a suitable reply. “I took the liberty of looking into your record, lieutenant. I must say, it is impeccable.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Donegal, Vindictive, Britannia. Very commendable.” His expression, if Edward had to describe it, would be called “inscrutable. “Have you ever considered the Discovery Service?”
“I'm...I'm not certain my temperament is entirely suited to the unknown, sir.”
“Oh, no?” Crozier raised his eyebrows. “I must admit, I know very little of you, but I would not assume you to be a man dedicated to the well-travelled path.” Another pause, just long enough to be meaningful without giving Edward adequate time to decide what that meaning might be. “Sir John Franklin is mounting another expedition to search for the Northwest Passage. We are to set sail in late spring, and I have not yet found a suitable first lieutenant to accompany me.” The thought was not one Edward would have landed on himself, but now that it was presented to him, there was intrigue to it. “Think it over. I know such a decision is not to be made on the spur of the moment. I would be happy to discuss the expedition in further detail with you, if the idea were to be of interest. Here, I'll leave my address.” The captain fumbled in his pockets and produced a card. “Please, give my regards to Jopson. And tell him there's always a position for him on my ship, if ever he tires of being in service.”
“Of course, sir.” That seemed inadequate. “Thank you, sir.”
He accompanied Crozier to the front door. Mrs. Currie was still polishing the same table. She made a show of being startled when they emerged from the sitting room, but acting was no strong suit of hers. “Madam.” Crozier beamed at her. “Thank you again for the tea. You have a lovely home.”
“Oh, thank you, captain, sir.” She simpered in return. With a nod to her, and then to Edward, Crozier departed.
Over the course of the next few days, Edward found his mind returning to Crozier's words, and to the implicit offer in them. He would be lying if he said he had not read the polar accounts of John Franklin, and of John Ross and his nephew James Clark Ross, with interest, and even a modicum of envy. Battling pirates and shipping goods to and from the colonies was all very fine. Edward had made a very worthwhile career out of it. But to explore an uncharted region, to be among the very first men to lay eyes on a heretofore unseen part of God's creation...the thought was not to be dismissed out of hand.
On a less romantic note, this was the closest he'd come to being offered any sort of commission in over a year. If he rejected it, there was no telling when the next chance might come along.
“There really is nothing like the Discovery Service,” Thomas said, when Edward told him of Crozier's suggestion. As Thomas had promised, they were spending an unexpectedly sunny Sunday strolling arm-in-arm in the park. “The voyage to Antarctica was the adventure of a lifetime.”
“The captain would have you on this trip, as well. He speaks very highly of you.”
“He is too kind.” Thomas stopped, his gaze going to the toy boats bobbing on the lake. “What would you think of such a thing?”
“Of the trip?”
“Of being confined on a ship with me for perhaps as many as five years.”
It sounded like a dream, but only until Edward considered the implications. “It would be difficult,” he said, lowering his voice although there were few people in the area. “To be so close to you, and forbidden from touching.”
“Forbidden, in this case, being something of a flexible term.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Secret lovers are as rife as rats on every ship in Her Majesty's Navy. Even as a high-ranking officer,” Thomas' voice took on a teasing, playful quality, “you must be aware of that.”
“Indeed.” Edward, of course, had never counted himself amongst them. He did take the Articles seriously. The thought of lying with Thomas aboard a ship, let alone the thought of being caught at it, was a profoundly disturbing one.
On the other hand, the thought of being on the same ship as Thomas for any length of time without being with him was equally discomfiting.
“Forgive me.” Thomas nudged Edward affectionately. “I should not tease you so. I encourage you to take up the commission, if it interests you. Crozier is a fine man. You could not ask for a better captain.”
“I will be here, missing you.”
“You do not think you...”
He shook his head. “My mother's health has much improved, but she still requires my presence. I could not possibly leave her for five years.” He sighed. “Unfortunately. I should have liked to been able to say I saw both Poles.” He blinked his big eyes, the picture of innocence. “Of course, there is a pole much closer to home that I have found myself growing very fond of, and which might serve to ease my disappointment...” His gaze slid meaningfully down Edward's body. Edward laughed even as he felt his cheeks grow warm. With a spring in his step and his arm linked with Thomas', Edward headed hastily for the boarding house.
Crozier had not exactly promised it to him, but, nevertheless, Edward quickly made up his mind: he was going to decline the commission to the Northwest Passage.
In terms of his career, the move was a risky one. It was even a little disappointing. Part of him would have liked to undertake the voyage, but, if Thomas could not leave his mother, then Edward, he found, could not leave Thomas.
This decision was made for good when Thomas arrived at Edward's lodgings on Wednesday evening with one eye blackened and his lip split like a spoiled strawberry.
“I knew you'd be upset,” he said, as if this was some illogical weakness of Edward's, rather than perfect rationality.
“What happened?” Edward endeavoured to keep his voice even, and not to betray the murderous rage that crested within him at the thought of what he would do to the bastard that dared to lay a finger on Thomas.
“I told you, not all of the gentlemen I see are true gentlemen. But you mustn't worry.” Edward scoffed, and got a frown in return. “I can take care of myself, Edward. And this is why I pay Mrs. Brown. She's got two strapping sons who ensured the gentleman in question will not be returning.”
Edward was quite certain he did not wish to know the details of that. He was also quite sure that he did not want Thomas continuing with his line of work. Now, he had a solid reason, beyond jealousy, to say so. “You must find something else to do,” Edward said, quickly adding, “for your own safety.”
“I am perfectly safe.”
“Your face would indicate otherwise.”
A frown appeared, further marring Thomas' beauty. “What would you have me do, Edward? Go into service and never be allowed to leave the house where I work? Toil all day in a shop or a factory for a pittance? It is not as if this is the occupation I dreamed of as a boy. I do it because it gives me the money I need and the freedom to tend to my mother.”
“Please.” Edward, he found, was not above begging, not in this case. “I'll support you.”
Thomas laughed, but it wasn't unkind. He stepped closer, looping his arms about Edward's waist. “With what, darling? Your half-pay?” He kissed Edward's cheek. “You are very sweet, but there is no need to worry. This,” he raised a hand to his damaged face, “has happened to me many times before.”
“Is that meant to be a comfort?”
“I have no option.”
Perhaps that was true. Perhaps he did not. But Edward did.
It took some thinking, but at last, he came to a conclusion. Edward would leave the Navy. It was not what he had planned, but, having thought it over and worked out the logistics, it was quite possible. He would take a job at a shipyard, or perhaps with some other industry entirely. His experience and education would surely be looked upon favourably, and with excellent references from his past captains, it should not be too difficult to find employ of some sort. Then, once he had built up a small nest egg, he would purchase a house for the two of them, him and Thomas.
This would be seen as bizarre, perhaps. Some members of his family would surely be scandalized at the thought of Edward sharing his home with a friend of such a different background to his own, but Edward had never cared overmuch for the opinions of others. Perhaps Thomas' invalid mother might even come to live with them, so that Thomas could offer her as much care as necessary without having to travel. They would be warm, and well-fed, and most importantly, there would be no more ruffians, no more “ungentlemanly gentlemen.” Thomas would be treated at all times with the respect and courtesy he deserved. Edward would make it his life's work to ensure it.
When Saturday arrived, Edward found himself eager to share this plan with Thomas.
They had arranged to meet at a favourite bench in the park. Thomas was usually the first to arrive. Still, Edward did not worry overmuch when he did not find Thomas there. A quarter of an hour passed. Half an hour. Three-quarters. By the time Edward had been waiting on the bench for a full hour, he knew something was amiss.
Edward did a turn of the park, searching all the while for a glimpse of dark hair, a flash of pale eyes. When he returned to the bench, it was an hour and a half after the appointed meeting time, and there was still no sign of Thomas.
Periodically glancing over his shoulder, just in case Thomas was trying to catch up with him, Edward went back to the boarding house. Mrs. Currie was in the kitchen, rolling out dough.
“Has anyone come to call for me?” Edward asked.
“Not today, sir.” Her gaze came up. “Are you expecting that gallant captain friend of yours back?”
“Oh. That is a pity.”
The reasonable course of action would be to go to Mrs. Brown's, as Edward still knew nothing of the home Thomas shared with his mother. From his reluctance to discuss it, Edward assumed it was in a rookery, some desolate slum that embarrassed him. One more reason, Edward thought, to provide him somewhere more suitable to live.
Edward headed for the door, then hesitated. What if Thomas had a caller with him? What if he had decided he wanted that man's money more than he wanted to keep his appointment with Edward? Perhaps it would be better for Edward to wait here, until Thomas inevitably came rushing in, no doubt full of apologies.
But what if he's in trouble? Edward countered himself. He thought of the bruise, lurid purple and black about Thomas' eye, and the cut in his beautiful soft lips. What if he needs my help?
Edward was not a man who usually travelled about the city armed. Today, he went upstairs and strapped on his officer's sword and scabbard before leaving the house.
Vaguely, Edward remembered the nervous discomfort that had plagued him the first time he stood on Mrs. Brown's doorstep. There was no time for that today. With only a cursory glance about the empty street, he knocked smartly on the door and stepped back.
Mrs. Brown answered the door, chewing on her pipe. “You'll have to leave that with me,” she said, jutting her chin at the sword. “I don't allow no weapons.”
“Is Thomas here?”
Edward didn't think he sounded desperate, at least not as desperate as he felt. Still, Mrs. Brown regarded him with interest bordering on suspicion. “I've got two lads in,” she said, finally. “Billy and Paul. Paul's new. You'll like him, he likes to play posh same as Thomas does.”
“If Thomas is not here, might you provide me with his address?”
Mrs. Brown stared at him. “You the fella what took him to the opera?” She didn't afford him the opportunity to answer. “Thomas is a good lad. Good earner. But I can promise you, there ain't nothing he's told you he ain't told a hundred other men.”
Edward felt the blood rise to his cheeks. “If I could just have his address, madam, I will be on my way.”
“My boys work with me because I protect them.”
“I promise you, I mean him no harm. Much the reverse. I am rather concerned for his well being.”
Mrs. Brown stood, puffing on the pipe, for what seemed an interminable moment. “I'll give you a discount on Paul, 'cause he's new. Twenty percent.” Edward sighed, perhaps too loudly. It put a scowl on her face. “Or I can ask you to take your business elsewhere. Sir.” There was a sound of clattering pots from the kitchen. Edward remembered what Thomas had said about Mrs. Brown's brutish sons. It would serve no one for him to engage in a fight with them now.
“Good day, madam.” Edward put as scornful a spin on the words as possible, given that he felt utterly dejected, and retreated.
He had no idea what his next step should be. This, he reflected, as he stepped back outside, is always the difficulty with me. He could come up with plans, but if he was stymied, he grew quickly disheartened. What would Thomas do? Edward tried to think, but nothing came to mind.
“'Afternoon, sir.” Edward turned. A man he'd seen before—the bearded, strangely devious friend of Thomas' compatriot Billy—stood smoking a cigarette beside the steps. “Care to share your troubles?”
Edward did not care to, not in the least, but no other option was currently presenting itself. “I'm trying to find Thomas Jopson.”
“Thomas what works here?” Edward nodded. “Can't say we're bosom mates, but my mate Billy knows him. Want me to ask what he knows about it?”
“If you wouldn't mind.”
“Not a problem at all, sir. You wait out here. You don't want to be going back inside. That old bat Brown'll charge you for breathin' her air if she catches you in her precious house.”
As Edward watched, the man ground out his cigarette beneath his heel. Quick as lightning, he pulled himself up a drainage pipe on the side of the house, and shimmied into a half-open window on the first floor.
Edward waited, and waited. Just as he became concerned that loitering outside any house, and this house in particular, may not be the wisest move for a gentleman with a reputation to uphold, the man reappeared at the upstairs window and came back down the way he'd gone up.
“Billy ain't seen Thomas in a couple of days,” the man said. Edward's shoulders slumped. “But,” he went on, with a grin, “it just so happens he know where he lives.” He brandished a slip of paper proudly.
“You have Thomas' address?”
“That's what Billy says. And, for all his faults, our Billy ain't a liar.”
Edward reached for the paper, but the man pulled it back. “I know the place. It's a nasty stinking rookery. You won't never find it on your own. Best if I take you there.”
“What will you want me to give you?” Edward asked, because he wasn't stupid. He didn't have much money on him. If the man asked for an exorbitant amount, they would have trouble, but it was so very important Edward obtain the address.
“I beg your pardon?”
“What? You think a fella like me can't be a, what do you call it, a good Samaritan?” The man was mocking Edward. Edward could tell, even though he couldn't put his finger precisely on how.
“I can offer you a little money.”
The man shook his head. “Tell you what, then. If we get there and you find your friend, we'll say you owe me a favour, all right? One good turn deserves another. And if he ain't there, well...” The man shrugs. “We'll call it quits.”
“Fine,” Edward agreed. There was no time to stand about discussing it, not when every minute may very well be of the essence. The man put out a hand, and Edward shook it. “The name's Mr. C., by the way,” the man added.
“I am grateful for your help.” He was, if help it turned out to be.
“Come on, then,” Mr. C. said. “We'd best get a cab, I don't feel like walking halfway across creation.”
The rookery was as bad as Edward had expected. Worse. He'd read in the papers about the dismal living conditions of London's poor. Stories of a dozen people crammed in a room no larger than a larder, of illnesses untreated, of babies left unfed. They brought it upon themselves, of course. Those who wanted to work hard enough, to do whatever it took, like Thomas, could escape. The lazy and the stupid were condemned to stay where they were.
That was what Edward had always been taught, and what he'd always believed. Coming into the rookery, a neighbourhood of falling-down buildings with holes in their roofs, grey washing hanging from interminable lines, and a smell of rubbish and human excrement, Edward couldn't see how anyone could ever hope to rise above such squalor. Edward lagged behind as Mr. C. approached a toothless old woman with a bent back, scrubbing stained linen in black water. “Afternoon, madam. Looking for Jopson.”
“Jopson,” Mr. C. repeated, enunciating the syllables.
“Oh.” The woman said nothing more.
Edward frowned. Mr. C. kicked her bucket, hard enough for a small tidal wave to splash onto her apron. “Do you know where they live or not, you old bitch?” That seemed a little harsh, even given the circumstances. The woman pointed vaguely upwards.
“Come on.” Mr. C. sighed. “That's the problem with these places,” he said, as he walked towards one of the buildings. Edward followed. “Stupid as pig shit, the whole bloody lot of 'em.” He ducked inside the building. Rather than any sort of foyer or entryway, the door led immediately onto a crooked wooden staircase that seemed in very imminent danger of collapsing. Mr. C. headed up. Edward put his hand on the banister, felt a splinter immediately lodge itself in his palm, and went up after him.
The upper floor was dark, the only light coming in from a window occluded by soot. A smell of boiled cabbage permeated the premises. With the most perfunctory of knocks, Mr. C. opened the nearest door and poked his head inside. “Pardon me,” he said, his voice silky, “we're looking for Thomas Jopson.”
“Next door. You 'ere about his poor mother, then?” A male voice asked.
“We're friends,” Mr. C. replied smoothly. He pulled his head out again and looked at Edward. “There you have it, then. I'll wait here, just make sure it really is your man.”
My man. Edward would hardly term Thomas such. Still, the thought of seeing him created a tremor deep in his stomach, a feeling that was not at all unpleasant despite the neighbour's ominous words about Mrs. Jopson.
Edward rapped on the door. Unable to barge in the way Mr. C. had, he waited until a familiar voice, sodden with emotion, said, “Who is it?”
There was a moment's hesitation, but the moment was very brief. “Come in,” Thomas said. Edward looked over his shoulder, gave Mr. C. a nod, and opened the door.
If Edward's rooms were shabby, then Thomas' were positively dismal. Edward had steeled himself for this, but it was still hard to see it. Thomas deserved nothing but the best. A villa, a manor house, a castle, if Edward could provide him one. Certainly better than this.
The room was spotlessly tidy, but the bareness of it broke Edward's heart. There were two beds, both narrow and fitted with faded counterpanes, two wooden ladder-back chairs, and a scarred table barely big enough for two. That was all. No sofas, no soft furnishings, no rugs. Nothing that spoke of warmth or comfort. There was not even a hearth. Edward did not want to imagine what it might feel like in the depths of winter.
“Edward!” Thomas' bruise had faded, only to be replaced by the unmistakable puffy redness of tears. He wiped his eyes on the back of his hand as he said. “I'm so sorry. We were meant to meet today.”
“Don't give it a thought.”
“However did you find me?”
The story of Mrs. Brown and Billy and Billy's friend Mr. C. seemed inconsequential at the moment. “What's wrong, Thomas?” That was Edward's most urgent concern. “What's the matter?”
Thomas flung himself into Edward's arms, burying his face in Edward's shoulder as he clung ferociously. Instinctively, Edward embraced him in return, holding on just as tightly. After a long moment, there was a shuddering sob, and Thomas raised his face to look at him.
“My mother is dead.”
The normal platitudes—I'm so dreadfully sorry to hear it, my most sincere condolences, my deepest sympathies—sprang to Edward's mind, but all felt hollow. Instead, Edward moved to the edge of the nearest bed, sitting beside Thomas and taking both hands in his.
“How did it happen?” In a place such as this, Edward could imagine any one of dozens of maladies striking a person down, and Thomas mentioned his mother had been ill for some time.
Thomas freed one of his hands to wipe at his face again. Reaching into his pocket, Edward produced a handkerchief. Thomas took it, with a grateful squeeze of his other hand, and dabbed at his poor swollen eyes.
“She jumped from Blackfriars Bridge,” was not the answer Edward expected to hear, but he was taken aback only for a moment. He set his shock aside to bring Thomas closer, curling one arm around his shoulders and intertwining their fingers in Edward's lap.
Thomas told him the tragic story of his mother's accident, her injury, her ensnarement by the demon laudanum.
“Most of the time, she hated me for trying to make her give it up,” Thomas said. He kept hold of Edward. Edward certainly had no inclination to pull away. “But when she was herself, she wanted to be free. She succeeded, once or twice, but it seemed almost as soon as she reached the top of the mountain, she slid back down again.” He shook his head. “I haven't been spending as much time with her as I should have been. I didn't know how low she was feeling. It's my fault she's dead.”
“Certainly not.” Edward couldn't pretend to understand much of this topic, but on that, he was perfectly clear. “It seems to me as though your unfortunate mother was killed by that initial accident. It simply took longer for death to find her than one might have expected.”
Thomas looked at him for a long, silent moment. So long and so silent that Edward said, "My apologies. I don't know what to say at the best of times, and...”
“It seems to me you know exactly what to say, Edward.” Thomas raised their joined hands to his lips, pressing a kiss to Edward's knuckles. “Unlike me. I haven't even told my brother yet. I don't know how I'm going to break the news.”
“He lives with you?” Edward had been thinking the room was extraordinarily cramped for just Thomas and his mother.
Thomas nodded. “He works at the docks. He hasn't been home since last night. It's going to break his heart. And of course we'll have to try and convince the parish priest to conduct a funeral under the circumstances, and there's no question of being able to afford a headstone...”
“You needn't worry about that. I'll see to it.” Edward didn't have the money, but he could obtain it from his parents. Lie about needing it for himself. Some story of gambling debts, perhaps, accompanied by a suitably contrite demeanour and promises never to do it again. Edward was not much of a liar, but he could be persuasive when necessary, and his parents would give him the money, he was sure of it. There would be caveats, no doubt, and strings attached, but Edward would deal with them as they arose.
“You should rest,” he told Thomas. “You seem as though you need it.”
He expected an argument, but instead, Thomas lay down on the bed. He urged Edward to do the same, tugging at his sleeve and manoeuvring until they lay side-by-side, Thomas' head on Edward's chest and Thomas' arm across his waist. Thomas fell asleep gratifyingly quickly. Edward held him and stared at the cracked ceiling,
He couldn't say how much time passed. There was no timepiece in the room, and he was not about to pull out his pocket watch and risk disturbing Thomas' sleep. It felt as though it was some considerable time later when the door banged open and footsteps approached.
Edward sat up. A man who might almost have been Thomas' double stood before him. His hair was a little shorter than Thomas', his clothing like that of any dock worker Edward had ever encountered. The man scoffed when he saw Edward, and when he spoke, it was in the broad local accent.
“Tommy's up to his old tricks, I see. I'll come back in an hour.”
Edward disengaged himself from Thomas and stood. The motion made Thomas stir, but he did not jump to wakefulness. “Please don't go!” Edward said. The man stopped. “Thomas has important information for you.” Information it was not Edward's place to impart. In the man's position, he thought, he would want to hear the news from his own brother, rather than from a stranger.
“That right?” Thomas' brother hesitated.
“Jimmy.” Thomas sat up, his expression bleary. “It's mother.” Jimmy didn't wait for Thomas to finish. It seemed he didn't have to. In an instant, he was on the bed beside him, their arms flung about one another, clinging tightly.
Edward shifted in place, suddenly uncomfortable. “I should leave you be.”
Thomas looked over Jimmy's shoulder. “You don't have to, Edward.”
“No, I...I really ought to go.”
“I'll come to you, then. Later on.”
It was only when he was down on the ground, back in the heart of the rookery, that he realized he was not at all certain where he was, or how to get home.
Still, Edward was not as hopeless as all that. The key, he'd always found, was to look as though you belonged wherever it is you were. He squelched purposefully through the mud, avoiding eye contact with those who stared at him. Ignoring the squealing of rats, the clucking of chickens, and what sounded a good deal like the grunting of a pig, he followed a narrow alleyway out to what was at last a main street, and fell upon the first hansom cab he saw.
He meant to give his own address to the driver. That would, of course, be the sensible thing to do. Instead, he remembered the card he had on his table at home, the one given to him by Captain Crozier. That was the address he spoke, sitting back with relief as the cabbie whipped his horse and they trotted away from Thomas' neighbourhood.
The captain inhabited a very different sphere than Thomas. It was not quite Belgravia or Knightsbridge, he was a naval captain on half-pay, after all, but Crozier's home was a neat, cream-coloured house with green trim, in the middle of a row of many such houses.
A footman answered the door. He was an older man with a crooked back, hobbling so slowly and with such evident pain, Edward felt a twinge of guilt at having disturbed him. “Captain Crozier's not available at the moment, sir.”
Edward didn't know what else he had expected. He had made no appointment, nor announced his visit in any way. Crozier was doubtlessly a very busy man. “In that case,” Edward began, with a view to leaving his details and asking Crozier to contact him forthwith. He was interrupted by the slurring voice of the captain himself.
“Who's that, Parker?”
“Lieutenant Little,” Edward informed Parker.
“Lieutenant Little, sir.”
“Little? Come in, come in.”
Parker pursed his lips, but stepped aside to let Edward into the house.
Crozier was in the drawing room, his face red and his collar unfastened. He was clearly in no state to see anyone. Edward ought to have left at once, to preserve the captain's dignity, but the captain waved him towards a sofa, and Edward sat.
“Nice to see you, my boy. Drink?” He held up a decanter, nearly empty. Without waiting for a reply, he poured two generous portions and passed one to Edward. It was whisky, and strong. “You ever been to India?”
“Yes, sir. I...”
“Beautiful place, India. Lovely people. Very cons..cont...consc...very kind.” He sat down heavily, sloshing his drink onto his sleeve. Edward felt himself flush with humiliation for the man.
“I've come about Jopson.” And he was beginning to think it had been a mistake.
“Jopson?” Crozier's expression turned keen. “I saw you with him, didn't I? At the symphony? No, the opera. That was it. Lovely opera.” Crozier began to hum no melody Edward had ever heard.
“Mr. Jopson's mother has passed away, sir. I thought you ought to know it.” Although he was no longer quite sure why he had been so certain of this fact. Thomas had spoken at length about his former captain, and clearly held him in great esteem, but Crozier could just as easily have been informed of the news by letter.
“His mother? Poor lad. You have a mother, Little?”
“I am fortunate that she still lives--”
“Hell of a thing. And they were so close. Here.” He staggered to his feet, and went over to the sideboard. After some vague muttering, the captain produced a purse, which he tossed at Edward. Edward caught it, the weight surprising him. “Tell Jopson it's for his mother's funeral. I know the family's not got a pot to piss in.”
Edward shifted in his seat. “Sir, I'm certain he would not accept...”
“Then convince him. Least I can do for the lad. He's a good boy, Lieutenant. I surely do not need to tell you that.” An expression that could be described only as knowing came to the captain's eye.
Edward's flush burned hotter. “I will repay it on his behalf. I promise you that, sir.” Edward didn't know how, but he would find a way.
To Edward's horror, Crozier grew misty-eyed, even going so far as to let out a sniff. “I'm glad to know he's got a friend like you.” The captain yawned once, then again. He resettled himself in his chair, hunkering down until his eyelids drooped. Almost immediately, Edward heard snoring.
“If you don't mind, sir.” Like magic, Parker reappeared. “I do believe the captain is rather tired.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” Setting his nearly untouched drink on the table, Edward stood. He hesitated, just for a moment. He should put the purse back, as well. He felt like a common-or-garden thief to take it. But the captain was quite clear about his intentions, Edward thought. And he and Thomas are obviously fond of one another. If Edward had approached him whilst sober, might not the captain have done exactly the same thing?
I will repay him, Edward vowed, and left, purse in hand.
Sarah Jopson's funeral was on a dark and dreary Thursday morning. Captain Crozier did not attend, but sent a wreath. It sat in the draughty church, ruffled by the continual breeze, as the vicar said his piece in front of Thomas, Jimmy, Edward, and a handful of Mrs. Jopson's friends. He didn't mention her cause of death, but it was evident in his clipped tones and in the uneasiness Edward sensed in the congregation.
Due to the way she died, Mrs. Jopson was buried at the very edge of the cemetery, where there was no danger of anyone inadvertently crossing her grave. Before, Edward had no particular feeling about this tradition. As a sailor, prone to superstition, he may even have supported it. Now, it seemed nothing but groundless disrespect.
“It's fine,” was all Thomas said, when Edward expressed his displeasure. “Don't concern yourself. I'm happy we have a headstone for her.”
Thanks to Captain Crozier's money, they did. It was small, just her name, her dates of birth and death, and the words “Beloved Wife and Mother”, but Thomas and his brother seemed overjoyed with it, if such a word could be used in conjunction with a tombstone.
“When our father died,” Thomas explained, “all he got was a wooden cross in the ground. It's long gone. At least now, we'll be able to come and visit her.”
After the service, when the gravediggers had begun to pile dirt atop Mrs. Jopson's roughly hewn coffin and Thomas was speaking to the vicar, Edward was surprised to see Jimmy approach him. Thomas' brother hadn't said much to anybody. “The quiet type,” Thomas called him. “Not like me.”
“You Tommy's fancy man, then?” Jimmy asked, eyes narrowed.
Edward was not at all sure how to answer that question. “I...” He glanced anxiously in the direction of Mrs. Jopson's friends, out of earshot but not by much.
“We ain't none of us fools, sir. Why else would you be here? You paid for all that, I imagine?”
“In actual fact, it was...”
“Tommy will do what he wants. I know that. I don't like it, but I'm still his brother. I get wind of you knocking him about or anything like that, and I will get wind of it, I won't be happy. You see what I mean, sir?”
Edward blinked. “I believe I understand completely.”
Jimmy nodded, then smiled. “Good.” He seemed about to say something else, but Thomas approached. “I've got work,” Jimmy said to him, turning his back to Edward.
“All right.” Thomas embraced him as they said their good-byes. Edward fancied he could feel Jimmy's eyes upon him as he walked off. Which was good, Edward thought, even if it was discomfiting. He was pleased to know Thomas had somebody who loved him. Somebody else.
“Might we take a walk?” Thomas asked, when his brother had gone. “I know the day is not ideal for it.”
“Of course. Here?” The streets surrounding the church were less than picturesque.
Thomas shook his head. “I want to go to your park."
Thanks to the weather, Regent's Park was nearly empty. Thomas put his arm through Edward's, as any friends might, and they strolled around the lake. The lake was devoid of boats, but the wind whipped up little waves, which put Edward in mind of a miniature sea.
“I've decided not to return to Mrs. Brown's.”
“Oh, yes?” Edward tried not betray the ecstasy that announcement brought him. “How will she feel about that?”
“Not pleased, but that's no concern of mine. I told you, I was only doing the job for the money to help my mother.” Thomas' gaze came up. “Didn't you believe me?”
“Of course I did.”
Thomas looked fractious, as if this conversation could easily slide into an argument. In the end, his features resolved themselves, and he went on, “I've still got to do something, of course.”
Edward hesitated. He had mentioned nothing to Thomas about his plan to leave the Navy and support the two of them, in a home of their own. “Thomas...” He began, but Thomas cut him off.
“I thought I might return to sea.”
“I only left it for my mother's sake. I'm quite certain Captain Crozier would have me back, if I asked.”
“I'm quite certain he would.” A little tremor of guilt passed through Edward at the mention of Crozier.
“He would have you, too, from the sounds of it.” Thomas stopped. “What do you think of it? The two of us, seeking out the Northwest Passage together?”
“I...” Edward hesitated. It would be an adventure, certainly. The adventure of a lifetime. To live it with Thomas by his side would be greater still. They were still young men, or relatively so. The job at the shipyard and the cosy little home could wait.
And he did owe Captain Crozier a debt.
“Perhaps I could meet with the captain about it,” Edward said. It was the right answer. Thomas smiled, the first real smile Edward had seen since the passing of his mother.
“That sounds a wonderful idea.” He shivered in the cold. Edward's instinct was to put an arm about him, but, whilst the park was quiet, it was not quiet enough for such an overt display.
“Let us return to my lodgings for tea,” Edward suggested instead.
“Yes.” Thomas' gaze met Edward's again, this time with a hint of sauciness Edward had come to recognize, and admire. “For tea,” Thomas repeated, smirking, and squeezed Edward's arm.
Thomas was well-practised at dressing officers.
“You mustn't be nervous,” he said, as he slid Edward's epaulette onto his coat. “Captain Crozier loves you already. He told me so himself.”
“You've spoken to him about me?”
“I had to mention you were interested in joining the expedition. You know how competitive these things can get. It's helpful to press any advantage one can.”
“What did he say?”
“That he visited you here at your home. Your discussion was brief, but he was very impressed with your bearing.” Thomas turned Edward to face him, casting a critical eye the length of his uniform.
“That was...that was all?”
“And that your landlady has a wonderful collection of stuffed birds. There.” Thomas brushed his coat, top to bottom, then leaned over to drop a kiss on Edward's lips. Edward's arms came up of their own accord, to embrace him, but Thomas laughed and stepped away. “Don't crush your coat. There'll be plenty of time for that later. When you come home to tell me Crozier and Sir John Franklin and all the rest of them love you as much as I do. Well,” Thomas wrinkled his nose, an adorable gesture that did nothing to quell Edward's desire. “Hopefully not quite that much.” He kissed Edward again, this time on the cheek. “All luck, my love. I'll be waiting for you.”
Despite Thomas' assurances, nerves plagued Edward as he left the house for the Admiralty. His mind was full of the upcoming meeting, of the types of questions Sir John might ask and of the best answers Edward might give in return. He was so preoccupied, he didn't notice a man just behind him until a voice said, “Good afternoon, Lieutenant, sir.”
“Mr. C.”, as he'd called himself, looked exactly as he did the last time Edward encountered him. He cast an eye, as critical as Thomas' had been, up and down Edward. “You do look bang up to the elephant, sir, if you don't mind me saying. Off somewhere posh?”
“I've a meeting at the Admiralty.”
“Right. Right. Well, I shan't keep you.” Whilst he could not have explained it precisely, as Mr. C. had never been anything but helpful to him, Edward felt a wave of relief at that. A wave which flattened at once when Mr. C. went on, “Just so happens I'm heading up that way. We can share a cab.”
“Billy tells me your Thomas don't come around Mrs. Brown's anymore,” Mr. C. said, as the cab tripped down the street. “I hope that's a good sign, then?” Edward didn't know what to say. It didn't matter. Mr. C. didn't give him chance to say anything. “Don't you worry, sir, I can keep a secret. Silent as the grave, I am. It did get me to thinking, though, about that favour you owe me.” Mr. C. looked over. “I'm sure you remember, sir?”
Edward pursed his lips, but Mr. C. was in the right. “I remember.”
“So I'll just tell you what it is, then. I want you to get me on that voyage to find the Northwest Passage.”
“What?” Edward would not have been more shocked if he had asked for a sultan's fortune.
“The Northwest Passage,” Mr. C. repeated, cheerfully. “Billy said Thomas once told him you might be a part of it. And you're going to the Admiralty now, ain't you?”
“I have no involvement in selecting the crew." He had not even secured the commission himself yet. "Why don't you simply join up?” The crews of the Discovery Service voyages were never pressed. Edward was sure they would be glad of a man eager to lend a hand.
“See, I thought of that. But it's not like they have to give me my first choice, you see what I mean? I don't want to end up on the other end of a Chinaman's gun in old Cathay. That's not the plan at all.”
“Your plan is to go north?”
“My plan is to get the Sandwich Islands.” Mr. C. looked at him. “But the details are neither here nor there. I don't recall asking you too many questions about your friend.” There was an edge to his voice now. The tone was not precisely threatening, but it felt as though it could easily turn that way. Edward stiffened. Debt or no, he would not suffer to be threatened by anybody, least of all a man like this. “Now, I know you're a gentleman, sir,” Mr. C. continued. “Sadly, I'm not sure the Admiralty would feel the same, if they knew what kind of amusements you enjoy in your private life.”
It was worse than threats, then. “You are blackmailing me.”
Mr. C. shrugged. “If you want to term it so. I prefer 'encouragement.'” This man was a true villain. Edward cursed himself for not having seen it at once, for not having found some other way to obtain Thomas' address. “Think on it, sir.” Mr. C. smiled. It was more of a leer. “I'll speak with you soon.” He tapped the roof of the cab with his cane. It pulled over, and he alighted, disappearing into the crowd like a wraith.
When Edward returned late that afternoon, Thomas was waiting in his rooms.
“How was it?”
“Sir John Franklin is a formidable presence.” To put it lightly. His second, Commander James Fitzjames, was no less remarkable. Although they were meant to be quizzing Edward, Fitzjames had monopolized the conversation. Still, he did it in so charming a manner, Edward scarcely minded. Not that he minded the attention being off him in any case.
“I knew you would impress them. What of Crozier?”
“He was quiet, until the end.” The captain had looked at Edward as if he had no recollection of the money that had passed between them. It didn't matter. As soon as he was able to, when he got his advance pay for this expedition if possible, Edward was going to pay Crozier back. He needed only to think of a way to do it that would not humiliate the captain entirely.
“And then?” Thomas' eyes were so bright, his expression so eager, even the stalwart Edward could not contain himself.
“He said,” Edward said, putting his arms about Thomas and drawing him near, “that they would count themselves fortunate if I were to be the first lieutenant aboard Terror.”
“Oh, Edward!” Thomas grasped him in return, raining joyful kisses across his face. Edward felt his greatcoat pushed from his shoulders; it landed on the floor as Thomas began at once to deftly unfasten the buttons of his jacket. “Didn't I tell you they would love you? Come.” With one hand in Edward's, Thomas led him towards the bedroom.
He should stop him, he knew. He should tell him about the encounter with Mr. C. The man and Thomas had a friend in common, Billy. Perhaps that might be the key to resolving this issue. It would be responsible to come up with a course of action before anyone went any further, but, after several hours' worth of conversation with the Admiralty, Edward found he had no inclination to talk.
Instead, he grabbed Thomas' other arm, all but tossing him onto the bed. “Edward!” Thomas' voice was breathlessly gleeful as he hurried to undress himself. Edward didn't allow him to do so. Instead, he lowered himself atop Thomas, kissing him softly, at first, then with more vigour.“You are full of surprises, dear,” Thomas gasped. It was the last complete sentence Edward allowed him to speak for some time.
After spending so long ashore, Edward was happy to throw himself body and mind into the preparations for the new voyage. As well as his work, he read all he could about polar exploration, poring over memoirs and biographies—some he had read before, some new—and talking to Thomas about his trip to the far south.
“The doctors,” Thomas told him, burrowing close, his naked body pressed tightly against Edward's beneath a mountain of blankets, “were always most insistent on the importance of body heat.” He kissed Edward's collarbone, then his chin.
As the date neared when they would have to leave London for Greenhithe, Edward had left his lodgings with Mrs. Currie. He and Thomas now shared a room in a run-down inn, where shouting matches beneath the window were the norm every night, but where nobody asked any questions. Edward was grateful for that. The privacy of a locked door and the comfort of a real bed were not luxuries they could waste. They did not have much time left to enjoy them.
Edward felt the lack of time, as well, when it came to the problem of Mr. C. When Thomas told him, with pleased surprise, that Billy had secured a position as a subordinate officers' steward—“He and I often spoke of our Naval experiences, but I had no idea he was planning to rejoin”—Edward hoped he might somehow be able to arrange something for his friend, but it seemed not.
“I'm still waiting,” Mr. C. told him, his manner becoming more impatient with every one of their encounters. These always came as a most unpleasant surprise to Edward, as he left the Admiralty or walked in the park or even as he emerged from his new lodgings, although Edward had no idea how Mr. C. may have found out where those were. He had left no forwarding address with Mrs. Currie. “If it's worrying you, sir,” he said, “I'm not a greedy man. Not the type to keep coming back with more and more demands. No, you have my word. Once you get me what I want, your little secret will disappear down the hole of my memory. That's a deep, dark hole, sir. Ain't nothing that comes out of there.” Mr. C's eyes narrowed even as he smiled, his eye teeth practically gleaming in the light of the streetlamp. “But you need to get me what I want first.”
Finally, almost at the last minute, the opportunity arose for Edward to fulfill his repugnant demands without impugning too much on his own sense of honour. Looking at the ship's manifest, Edward retrieved the names of three men who had signed on for unskilled positions. He presented this, along with their addresses, to Mr. C.
“One of them might permit you to pay him to abandon his post,” Edward suggested. “If you arrive on the dockside as the ship is about to depart, there will be no time for lengthy consideration. You have a very good chance of being accepted into that man's role just because you are there and he is not.” Edward knew ships; he knew the flurry of activity that descended upon them in the final hours before departure. Worse things had happened than taking on a new man at the last moment.
Mr. C. peered at the names Edward presented to him. At last, he reached forward and slapped Edward on the shoulder. “Well done, my friend. And you can be sure I will keep my end of the bargain. You and I have never laid eyes upon one another.” He winked. It was discomfiting in the extreme.
I have done nothing wrong, Edward told himself. At least, it was a very small wrong. Everybody won. Mr. C. would get what he wanted, someone who was meant to sail with them would receive an unexpected payment instead, and Edward's secret, not to mention Thomas', would be safe. Everybody wins, he repeated silently, offering himself congratulations for finding such an elegant solution to an inelegant situation.
It was not the only one he had enacted.
“It's the oddest thing,” Thomas said in their room later that evening, after he'd kissed Edward in greeting. “Captain Crozier received an anonymous package this morning.”
Edward cleared his throat and attempted to sound innocent. “Oh, yes?”
“There was money in it! Quite a tidy sum.” Enough, in fact, to repay that which the captain had given Edward. “He was dreadfully insulted.”
“He assumes it's from Sir John. Some kind of compensation for discouraging Miss Cracroft from accepting his suit. If it is, the timing is terrible. The captain has fewer fond feelings for Sir John now than ever.”
Edward felt stricken. “He, he, he has no proof, though. That Sir John sent the money.”
“No. He does not.” Thomas gave him a curious look. He was keenly intelligent. Edward waited for him to admit he somehow knew the truth. Instead, he sat on the edge of the bed. “I know we will have to be most circumspect whilst on ship,” he said, “but I am very happy we will soon be sailing together. The thought of leaving you behind, or of being left behind myself, is a dreadful one.”
“Yes,” Edward agreed, vaguely. Was there some way he could reveal the package was not from Sir John without revealing its origins? An anonymous note? Would that cause more problems than it solved?
Thomas held out a hand. The wheels of his mind still turning, Edward took it, and allowed himself to be tugged down beside Thomas. “We have few nights like this left,” Thomas said. “With time and space and comfort. I thought we might make the most of this one.”
As usual, the first kiss was soft, sweet, Thomas' fingers entwined with Edward's. The second kiss was a little rougher, as Thomas' free hand came to the side of Edward's face. On the third, Edward swept Thomas into his arms, clinging closely in a way that had become second nature.
Usually at this point in the proceedings, Thomas would allow himself to be lowered onto the bed. Instead, he sat firm. “Something different tonight, I think,” he murmured, his lips against Edward's. “If you are game to try it?”
“Yes. Yes, of course. Whatever you like.” Perhaps, Edward thought, I might pass comment on Crozier's anonymous package in Sir John's presence. Then he would surely deny being its sender...
“Stop me if you care to,” Thomas told him. He pulled his shirt over his head, tossing it onto the floor with an abandon that was not at all usual. He shimmied out of his trousers and undergarments. Edward stared like a fool, all thoughts of packages and Captain Crozier and Sir John flitting from his mind like so many mayflies, until Thomas grinned at him and said, “You too, dear.”
“Sorry.” Edward got to work, his fingers working buttons which had suddenly become remarkably stubborn.
When Thomas had him lying face-down on the bed, Edward's head pillowed on his own folded arms, Thomas began his leisurely downward journey. He pressed light kisses to Edward's shoulders, then dropped them—like breadcrumbs in a fairy story, Edward thought fancifully—down his spine. And down, and down. Edward's prick took notice, twitching where it was pressed against the mattress.
When Thomas reached Edward's lower back, Edward assumed he would stop. He did not. Instead, he shifted ever further southwards, squeezing Edward's waist with his hands as he pressed his lips first to one buttock, then to the other. It was not something Edward had experienced before. He found himself shifting, his ever-hardening prick becoming uncomfortable where it was trapped.
“All right, dear?” Thomas asked. Edward found words had escaped him. He made a noise Thomas took, rightfully, as agreement. Thomas kissed him again, this time right in the centre of his backside, and gently, very gently, eased him apart.
Edward could not say he had never considered the act. Each time he took Thomas, Thomas always seemed thrilled by it. Ecstatic, even. Still, it was not something with which he was experienced. Edward looked over his shoulder with a view to reminding Thomas of this, only to see Thomas' head dip lower. A wet tongue licked where Edward had never thought a tongue could go.
With a yelp, Edward jerked away. Thomas raised his head. “Too much?”
“I...” Edward could not rightfully say. The sensation was so foreign, so completely unlike anything he ever expected, pure shock had overridden all other sensations.
“Shall I try it again?”
Edward hesitated. The act was a filthy one. Vile. Not something any man should expect of another, and certainly not of a man as beloved as Thomas.
“Once more?” Thomas suggested.
“If you so desire.” Thomas' desires were always of paramount importance, but he didn't reply with words. Instead, he answered with an action.
This time, the tongue lingered. It flickered against an aperture that was clearly not sure what to make of it. Then it pressed, long and hard, and Edward felt something within him shift, just a little. A spike of lust, made all the stronger by the truly deviant nature of the act, shot straight to the core of him. His prick sprang to full attention, and he heard Thomas chuckle.
“Just stay there a moment.” He kissed Edward again, on the back. The mattress shifted. Without looking, Edward knew he had been abandoned. He reached for his cock, giving it a quick pull. It was nowhere near enough. He wanted to stroke it in earnest. His body cried out for it, but he was restrained. Moments later, Thomas was back, the little jar of oil that Edward had often used on him—that he had taught Edward how to use on him—in hand.
Thomas didn't speak. For that, Edward was grateful. He wanted this very much, of that he was certain, but he was just as certain he could not speak the words aloud, even to Thomas. Thomas seemed to know that. He rested a hand on Edward's shoulder and squeezed. The next sensation was of warm oil, dribbling down into that previously untouched place, followed by one slick fingertip.
Like the kiss, Edward's body was at first unsure what to make of this intrusion. Thomas was patient. The fingertip moved in and out, pushing a little deeper each time. Discomfort eased, slowly, at first into something bearable, and then, after what seemed like hours, into pleasure.
It was only a spark, there and gone in a flash, but it was quickly reignited when Thomas added a second finger. This time, the pleasure lasted longer. Edward let out a long breath he had been unaware he was holding, and along with it, a groan.
“That's right. You're doing very well.” Thomas' voice was low, and sounded distracted. When he moved, his cock, just as full and wanting as Edward's, brushed against the back of Edward's leg. At once, Edward wanted it.
“Please,” he mumbled, hoping that was enough of a direction for Thomas to understand.
“Not yet.” But Thomas breathing was ragged. He slid the two fingers back into place. This time, rather than lie motionless, Edward took part in the action, pushing himself back as Thomas moved forward. That seemed to increase the pleasure tenfold. It certainly increased Thomas' breathing, which grew to sound more like panting as he picked up the pace. “You will let me know,” he said, finally, “if it is too much.”
“Yes,” Edward replied quickly, although he was not at all certain he would. Suddenly, "too much" sounded like just what Edward wanted. He went willingly, happily, as Thomas pulled him up onto his hands and knees, his head hanging down between his arms.
The sensation was very different. The breath left Edward's body when he felt the tip of Thomas' cock breach his body. One of Thomas' hands gripped Edward's hip, while the other buried itself in Edward's hair. Edward found that gesture oddly comforting. It was enough for him to ignore the pain, and to welcome more of Thomas as he moved, at a glacial pace, a little further inside.
As he did so, the hand on Edward's hip snaked around, to take Edward's cock in hand. The sensation of being surrounded by Thomas inside and out, enveloped by him, banked the fire within Edward even higher. Edward heard himself groan, so loudly that he was shocked at himself, but the shock didn't last long. Another squeeze, another thrust, and Edward spent with a shudder and a cry, more restrained this time but no less heartfelt for it.
As Edward softened, Thomas pulled back. “No,” Edward declared. His mind was fuzzy, still wrapped in a post-orgasmic daze, but he knew enough to stop him. He remembered what Thomas had said to him, the first time he took Thomas in this manner, and the request Thomas had made. Now, Edward very much wanted the same thing, “Inside.”
It ought to have been a humiliating request. Everything Edward had ever learned—at school, from the church, in the Navy—had taught him to believe it, but Edward did not feel humiliated, either by the asking or by the sound of Thomas gasping, followed by the wetness of his essence spilling into Edward's body. Rather the reverse. He felt stronger, more content, more complete than ever before.
Thomas lay atop him, his chest pressed to Edward's back, for a long moment that was still far too short. When he got up again, Edward at once felt the loss of him. He murmured in protest, but Thomas returned mere moments later, a cloth in hand.
Thomas liked to talk, usually, but today he said nothing. Edward kept quiet as well. Lying there, with Thomas' head on his shoulder and Thomas' arm about his waist, he felt as though words were unnecessary, that they had transcended the need for them. Instead, Edward kissed Thomas on the forehead and stroked his hair until he heard him snoring lightly beside him.
Terror and Erebus left port in a flurry of pageantry. Flags flew; the crowd gathered on the docks let up a roaring cheer. Standing at attention on the deck with the rest of the officers and the men, Edward let his eye roam to Thomas, several rows away, looking charming in his steward's uniform. Edward quite liked him in it, they had recently discovered, a fact which was not going to make the next five years any easier.
A few days earlier, as Edward was installing himself in his new cabin, a very familiar voice had said, “Do you require any assistance, Lieutenant Little, sir?”
He looked over his shoulder to smile at Thomas. “Just putting my books away.” It felt good to have the sea chest out again, to be unpacking his meagre belongings into the small space provided him. “Is the captain settled?”
“As much as possible, for now. There's still his private liquor stores to get aboard.” Thomas offered no further comment on that, so neither did Edward. “It's certainly less room than we had ashore." Thomas cast a critical eye on Edward's narrow bunk. “But it'll make things all the more exciting.” He smiled. “I must say, I'm glad I'm not meeting you for the first time just now.”
“Why is that?”
“The amount of energy I would expend trying to have you notice me would be a distraction indeed.”
“I would notice you.” Edward was sure of it. “And I would never have the courage to do a thing about it.”
“You're very courageous. I've thought that since you showed up at Mrs. Brown's.”
It seemed a very long time ago now. “I was scared out of my wits to be there.”
“But you came. That's what is important, Edward. And it was the very best day of my life when you did.”
The ship was nearly entirely empty. Edward had met one of the other lieutenants, Irving, coming in, but had seen no one else. Still, it was better to begin as they meant to go on, and not to tempt fate at the first opportunity. Rather than embrace him as he longed to do, Edward said, “Thank you for your offer, Mr. Jopson. I believe I have everything in hand.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” A flicker of disappointment crossed Thomas' face, but it was fleeting. “I'll see you this evening.”
He did. They made love in their boarding house, then shared a bottle of wine, raising their glasses to their ship, and to love, and to adventure. "And to the only man," Thomas added, leaning in to press a kiss to Edward's face, "I can imagine sharing any of it with."
Edward thought so, too. Instead of saying it, he kissed Thomas again. As he did so, he silently and solemnly vowed to make it his mission to keep Thomas happy, not only on this upcoming journey, but forever. Happy, and safe, and secure, for good. No matter what.