“This is not going to pan out well,” Thomas says.
“I promise you,” Edward says, flashing a wolfish grin that circumvents Thomas' brain and goes right to his knees to turn them into putty, “that in 15 years as an officer I have not made a better tactical decision.”
“I'm absolutely positive,” Hodgson says, “that I put the disks right here in this cabinet.”
Edward resolutely keeps his face glued to his book – Ivanhoe, one of the few titles in Terror's extensive library to not feature the word biography in the title and therefore a fought over prize among the wardroom officers – and silently counts to ten.
He gets to seven when Hodgson proclaims, a notch louder this time: “No, seriously, I put them right there.”
A rustle of pages behind him tells Edward that Irving is the first to crack. “Maybe you put them somewhere else and forgot.” Irving's voice, as always, is torn between earnest helpfulness and parental reproach. Hodgson has ten years and rank on him, but Irving sometimes gets a twitch to his eye as if he cannot quite believe this to be the natural order of things. “Why don't you take another look?”
A nasty spot of bad weather has the Captain marooned on Erebus for the night – caught by persistent ice hails while on his way to reconvene with Commander Fitzjames and by now certainly livid, bordering on apoplectic, by the necessary living arrangements – and Thomas uses the uninterrupted stretch of time to do as he pleases or, in other terms, spend a leisurely few hours putting the Captain's things into ship-shape, in a way that is rarely possible when the man is present and keeps saying things like: “Jopson, I do not give a damn what my socks look like, long as they have no holes, now will you stop fussing about in here.”
Thomas very much cares about what socks look like. They're at the end of the world, frozen in, hunted by a thing the men say is a bear and whisper is a demon, but a properly folded sock is a properly folded sock. A properly folded sock is a joy no spell of bad weather, or demon bear, or the occasional existential dread can take away from you. A properly folded sock is reliable and stable and looks very comfortable and friendly in the drawer with all the other properly folded socks.
Thomas squats on the floor of Crozier's cabin and gives the last pair of socks a fond pat before putting them away. His tired back creaks and his muscles are sore from sitting too long in a cramped position but he feels more serene than he has in a long time. By the heavy, silent feel of the ship all around him, first watch must be coming to an end and most of the crew already sound asleep in their hammocks. Thomas stretches his aching muscles and indulges in thoughts of other things a man can do once the corridors are empty and no prying eyes to see which cabin you slip into, when the sharp sound of a drawer clanking shut breaks him from his reveries.
Edward Little is kneeling on the floor in the great cabin, rummaging through one of the cabinets and muttering under his breath.
In the past few months, Thomas has developed an almost unnatural fondness for the man and his moods, and his glum stoicism, and his perpetual frowning face. He tries to not to dwell on it too deeply. Thomas knows he's not immune to a set of fine sad eyes, or a fine proud nose, or broad tense shoulders in a fine dark coat, but it sometimes feels as if whatever happens between them has left the realm of eyes, and noses, and coats and settled in altogether more vulnerable parts.
He watches Edward's wide back shift in a way that sets off a tingle in his stomach. There was a time not long ago when Thomas would have chided himself for the indulgence, reprimanded himself for giving rein to impossible daydreams to the detriment of his duties, but whatever defenses he once had are long gone, eroded by gruff candor and tentative expressions of regard in stumbling words.
Thomas is about to say something and make his presence known, when Edward loudly exclaims a-ha and scrambles up, a pile of slim envelopes clutched to his chest.
“Are these Lieutenant Hodgson's musical disks?” Thomas asks and watches him start, like a thief caught with his hand in a stranger’s pocket.
“They’re not his disks,” Edward says, but his expression is vaguely guilty. “They technically belong to the Navy and therefore, in the captain's absence, depend entirely upon my discretion.”
Since the ships have sailed from Greenhithe one and a half years ago, Thomas has not seen Edward Little use Terror's music machine once; what he has seen is Edward Little make a face, or groan in protest, and on more than one occasion stomp out of the great cabin when Lieutenant Hodgson, who has taken a particular liking to the apparatus, insisted on improving their day with some tunes. Thomas tries to imagine Edward with Hodgson's airy expression on his face, gently swaying to some cheesy ballad with atrociously rhyming lyrics, and fails.
“I didn't realize you were so fond of music.”
“Oh, I am fond of music alright. This, though,” Edward puts down the pile on the table, none too gentle, “is not music. This is an abomination and I will put an end to it.”
Something else Thomas has not seen in one and a half years confined to this ship is the devious look on Edward's face. Impassive? Yes. Dejected, sullen, agitated? Certainly, absolutely and definitely. Lately, some new and more private expressions have been added to the list. But this nervous shifting of his eyes and the wicked curve of his mouth is new, and not entirely unattractive.
Edward gives the disks a calculating glance. “I wonder what will happen if they should slip off the table by accident.”
“No, no, no, no, no. I know I put them next to the astrolabe. The astrolabe is right here.”
“What do you intend to imply, sir?” Irving's voice rises in a way that Edward knows from experience mirrors his eyebrows. Irving is a good lad but sometimes he reminds Edward entirely too much of his mother. “That someone on this ship is going around stealing musical disks that will be no use to them without the hand organ standing there by your elbow?” Edward chances a glance over Ivanhoe's spine just in time to see Hodgson's hackles rise in response.
Hodgson's face sports a wounded expression, as if he has never implied anything in his life and is offended at the mere suggestion. “My dear colleague, I would never imply such a thing. I am merely saying that I put it there two days ago and now it is gone.”
“Maybe someone put it somewhere else then.”
“Maybe someone should not muck around with other people's property.”
“Do not touch them,” Thomas says.
Despite their differences in rank, despite their different stations in life, despite Edward's every right to act as he pleases and not mind a steward's word, he has always been curiously pliant to Thomas' wishes when alone. It never fails to give Thomas a little thrill deep in his belly. Even now, Edward's hand halts to a stop, inches away from the disks, and his sad eyes turn to Thomas with a mournful expression in them.
“Mr. Jopson, if I should have to suffer another second of The Rose of the Cotswolds I shall perish. I beg you, my life is in your hands.”
Thomas tries his best to not have the doleful eyes or the unusual playfulness affect him and feels himself failing miserably. “I am sure there are better ways than to destroy them,” he ventures. “What if things shall become so dull that we are grateful even for this kind of entertainment?”
Edward huffs and says: “If you think that, then you, my dear Mr. Jopson, have not suffered enough.” He abruptly moves into Thomas' space and crowds him into the table, putting one hand to his left and one to his right, fencing him in.
Thomas feels himself molding to the press of Edward's body instinctively, hands moving to shoulders and legs opening up. He doesn't expect Edward to lean in and start crooning into his ear, in an utterly crooked and tone-deaf imitation of a paltry tune that Thomas has heard sound far too often through the ship in the last couple of months.
“Fair as the river, you make my heart quiver,” Edward endeavors in what is likely meant to be singing but comes out more like a series of disharmonious grunts. He tightens his hold on Thomas as he attempts to wriggle free, his whiskers tickling at Thomas' ears. “Oh do not withhold,” a kiss on Thomas' temple, “your heart good as gold,” and another one, “my fair rose of the ‘wolds.”
“Dear God,” Thomas says, and feebly pats at Edward's shoulders. “I am losing my will to live.”
“And yet,” Edward says, and plants a wet smack on Thomas' cheek, “you would have me listen to this drivel every time Hodgson gets in one of his moods.”
Thomas, who himself is quite taken with the unusually animated mood night-time larceny seems to evoke in usually stoic lieutenants, considers mentioning that it is not so much the making the disks disappear and more the wanton destruction of Navy property that bothers him. He does reconsider as Edward's lips continue their way to move across his neck and the press of his body intensifies. There is a time and place to insist on the letter of the law, but maybe not while another lawless act burns on your mind with such immediacy. He does not protest as Edward lifts him onto the table, and he does not protest as Edward's hands move under his coat. He does lose his balance as Edward pushes him down onto the tabletop and he flails a bit, and this is when it is happens: The back of his hand connects with the pile of disks and sends an avalanche of terrible music sledging over the edge to shatter in a cacophonous symphony on the floor.
In the deafening silence that follows, Thomas hears the blood rush loudly in his ears. Both he and Edward freeze in anticipation of inquisitive, damning, steps in the hallway. Some small part of his mind takes notice of Edward's hand which, improbably, still appears to be down his trousers. The tableau they make will require more than a simple explanation of late night dusting gone awry, but Thomas finds he cannot even move one single muscle to rectify the situation.
“Well,” Edward finally says, after some time has passed and no curious knock on the door has materialized, “that settles it then.”
Thomas lets his head fall back against the table with a thud. “You turn me into a horrible person.”
Edward huffs and puffs a bit, but he doesn't seem entirely unhappy at the thought of corrupting innocent young stewards.
Thomas sighs and turns his head to look at where a couple of lone surviving disks are spread at his side. The one on top he recognizes as a collection of arias from opera buffas, a favorite of Lieutenant Hodgson's on quiet Sunday mornings. Navy property or not, Thomas has to fight the sudden urge to give it a premeditated little shove and save them all from yet another repetition of siam navi all'onde algenti before breakfast.
“They are not your disks,” Irving mutters, at the same time as Hodgson yells: “Mr. Jopson, a moment please!”
Jopson is straight-backed and even-faced as he enters the great cabin and stands to attention. His perfunctory gaze skims the room and lingers on Edward only for an instant too long, utterly inconspicuous, except Edward feels it sneak under his clothes and brush over his skin in a way that is entirely indecent.
“Mr. Jopson,” Hodgson intones and points at the offending cupboard, “did you by any chance rearrange things in here? Because I cannot seem to find my musical disks.”
“Oh, look,” Edward says, “it's The Magic Flute.”
Thomas turns his head in time to see Edward put his elbow on it and push. The poor disk resists for a second and then splinters with a pitiful crunching noise.
“‘Hell's vengeance boils in my heart' this, George.”
Jopson's voice is smooth and unassuming as he says: “I'm sorry, sir, I wouldn't rearrange officer's things without the captain's explicit permission. Are you sure you didn't put them somewhere else?” He even manages to insert a note of honest regret at his inability to be of assistance.
“Then how can it be,” Hodgson exclaims, with a pathos that would have Drury Lane's best actors blanche with envy, “that my disks, which I know I put in there, are suddenly nowhere to be found?”
Thomas feebly attempts to grab at the last disk – Schubert's Die Forelle – as it slowly slips off the table and shatters on the floor, a victim of a careless sweep of Edward's arm.
“Good riddance,” Edward mutters, and turns his attention back to getting Thomas out of his waistcoat.
“Good God,” Irving says, “will you leave poor Mr. Jopson alone. Edward, sir, would you please tell Lieutenant Hodgson to let this thing rest.”
All eyes swivel towards Edward, who would rather tell them to all go to hell, except for how his authority as senior officer somehow requires him to be the responsible one. He considers for a moment pretending to be deaf, but is saved from amateur theatrics by a knock on the door.
Giles McBean, whose immaculate timing immediately makes him Edward's favorite second master in the history of second masters, stands awkwardly in the door.
“Lieutenant Little, sir, there is an issue with some loose ice on the mizzenmast. We need you up on deck, sir.”
Edward nods gravely and rises before any of the other lieutenants present can get the idea into his head that he would prioritize Hodgson's unfortunate case of mislaid musical torture instruments over the safety of his ship. He avoids Hodgson's eye as good as he can and approximates it'll take eight seconds to get safely out the door, if he manages to get into his coat fast enough.
It takes three seconds, and only one arm in a sleeve, before Hodgson says: “Mr. McBean, would you believe it, someone seems to have stolen my musical disks.”
Edward speeds up another notch and gets a second arm into his coat, when McBean says: “You too, sir? Just yesterday I left my copy of Ivanhoe on the table in the wardroom and now it's disappeared. What is happening here?”
“Gentlemen,” Edward says, and inconspicuously gives the cushion at the back of his chair a strategic push so that it falls onto a book that he definitely didn't confiscate from the wardroom table earlier, “would you please focus, our lives are at stake here. I should very much hope your leisurely pursuits pale in comparison.”
Both Hodgson and McBean hang their heads in a slightly sheepish rendition of shame. Irving makes a sound as if he very much approves of this mood shift back to law and order; It gives Edward a warm satisfactory feeling of lieutenanting done well. Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees Jopson subtly rolling his eyes.
Edward is up on deck, staring at the ice crusted mizzenmast, nose freezing in the wind, when he realizes he is humming The Rose of the Cotswolds under his breath.
“I promise you” Edward says, and bites back on a moan, “once we're out of here, I'm taking you to a proper concert, with some real music.”
Thomas, who is quite distracted indeed from thinking about things like later, or life outside this cabin, or what it might imply that Edward Little thinks about his future in a way that includes Thomas Jopson, just nods his head, frantically yes yes yes, before Edward might get the idea to stop what he's doing, and pulls him closer.