It wasn’t something Edward noticed right away. Fresh off the boat, their wounds still raw, a little flinch or a tightness of face was not out of the ordinary. Even Thomas Jopson, for all his control, could be forgiven a few involuntary reactions, given the long road to recovery that had awaited them all.
He still should have noticed it sooner. Liked to think he would have, had there been more occasion to observe it.
“Tom,” he said, reaching out to gently catch the man’s sleeve as he moved past. He said nothing after that, the necessary words freezing in his throat, as they still often did, and though Thomas smiled in response, the expression did not quite reach his eyes.
“I’ll be but a moment,” he said, but he punctuated the bland statement by flipping his hand in Edward’s grip and briefly squeezing back before slipping from the room, the gesture unseen by Edward’s sister Margaret, who was laughing at something her husband was saying. Edward frowned, and even the antics of his young nephew—playing quietly near the fireplace in the house he and Thomas shared—could not unfurl the knot of worry that had lodged itself in his chest. He tried to pay attention to the conversation around him, though with his mind now largely occupied with thoughts of Thomas, he limited his engagement to monosyllabic responses.
“Really, Edward,” Margaret chided at his lack of attention, though there was no real reproach in her voice. After what was being hailed as their miraculous rescue from the Passage, there were few brave enough to use such a tone with any of them, something that Edward found he was grateful for and loathed in equal measures. He sighed, inclining his head.
Margaret just waved her hand, laughing. From the kitchen, Edward thought he heard the sound of a teacup rattling. His brother-in-law, a gruff, no-nonsense type who reminded him a bit of Blanky when Edward allowed himself to dwell, turned his head incrementally towards the door Thomas had vanished through moments earlier.
Edward forced himself to look away; forced himself to uncurl his fingers from the fists they had formed against his thigh. He felt stuffy suddenly, sitting there alone, without Thomas’ presence filling the room, feeling acutely the time they had lost to the ice, and the wedge it had driven between those who had survived it and those in the outside world who could never hope to understand.
“—I do believe mother’s of half a mind to resurrect that horrible little bride-show practice if you don’t settle soon!”
Margaret’s words had Edward’s wandering mind forcibly slamming back into his body, and he blinked slowly as he digested them before clearing his throat, hoping Margaret wouldn’t notice his sudden change of pallor as he said, “beg pardon?”
Margaret shot him a mischievous look. “Oh, yes. Just yesterday I caught her speaking to Mrs. Willet—you remember her, Edward, don’t you?—about her daughters. ‘My son’s in the navy,’ she said, and oh, you should have seen—”
“Margaret, please,” Edward said, hearing the strain in his own voice. Margaret laughed, bright and loud, as all the women in his family tended to be, and the sound of porcelain shattering had Edward rising to his feet before he’d even registered what it was, his mind suddenly ablaze with worry and Thomas, Thomas, where is—
“Oh dear,” Margaret said, her eyes wide, “I’m sure it’s fine,” but Edward was hardly paying her any mind, already making his way towards the door that led to the kitchen with a brusque, “excuse me.”
“Let him be, Maggie,” his brother-in-law said when Margaret made a noise of protest. The closing of the door muffled anything else that might have been said, and Edward navigated down the short corridor with the grace of a man used to walking on tilted ground.
At its end, he found Thomas, standing silently over the ruins of a cup from the set Fitzjames had sent them for their first Christmas back from the ice. Even from where he stood, he could see the way Thomas’ hands shook; the way the insufficient air he was taking in was making his chest rise and fall in short bursts.
Thomas’ eyes snapped up to him, and he made a noise that might have been a laugh or a sob. Edward didn’t know. “Apologies, s—Edward, I—”
It was the work of a second to cross the room, to take one of Thomas’ faintly shaking hands in his own, to press his mouth gently against the skin there before he drew Thomas against his chest, careful to position himself where he could see if anyone else were to enter the room.
Thomas chuckled without humour, the sound faintly muffled against Edward’s neck. “I dropped the teacup.”
Edward frowned. “Tom.”
“It’s silly, Edward. I promise, it won’t happen again.”
“Tom, for God’s sake, I don’t care about the teacup.” The words came out harsher than he would have liked, and he winced slightly before he drew back, lifting Thomas’ chin with one hand, eyes desperately searching the face of the man he loved for a clue, any clue, as to the cause of the distress he could feel radiating from the former steward’s bones. “Tom, please,” he said, softening his voice. The weight of Thomas’ gaze, so pale as to be unearthly, was heavy on his shoulders, but he would bear it gladly.
He had come too close to never seeing it again.
“It’s silly,” Thomas repeated, though there was something tired and heavy in his voice, and his smile was sad. “Just—memories, is all. Suppose they hit me a little harder today.”
Edward made a soft, considering noise, slowly manoeuvring them so that his own hips rested against the wood stove before he drew Thomas in and tucked the man’s head under his chin. Memories, he could understand. Words were not always his strength, but in situations like this, he had learned—through many a precious blunder—that they weren’t always necessary. When he was upset, when the chill of the ice settled deep into his bones and his sleep became haunted by the men they could not save, the mistakes he had made and almost made, it was Thomas’ voice, low and soothing and speaking of anything and nothing while being everything, that brought him back.
It made sense, Edward thought distantly. Thomas Jopson the steward was a man who always had to control and be in control of his every movement. Not a hair or mannerism or word out of place, lest he shatter the professional air he had worked so hard to achieve and that his station demanded. No action was involuntary, no word spoken without careful forethought, and oh, how many words his Tom knew. Edward had always been privately amazed by just how much the steward heard on board Terror, even keeping abreast of the news on Erebus, and during those harried months during Crozier’s confinement, when their shared secret had brought them even closer together, Thomas had been an anchor for both himself and their ailing captain, always ready with just the right word, always knowing just what to say, and all the more heartfelt for it.
Thomas Jopson knew the power of words and actions, and wielded them accordingly with deadly precision and intent. He knew the power of station and rank and structure, and made serving that his life. It should not have been a surprise to Edward, then, that Thomas responded so well to touch, to another’s action, when Thomas spent so much time trying to control his own, to keep separate for those who would sooner forget his presence than welcome it into social and rank circles that, due to his birth, he was not part of, despite his physical presence. So used to caring for everyone else, so used to seeing to other’s needs above his own in his isolated position, it was no wonder that Thomas responded so strongly to physical touch and affection when he was distressed. Or maybe—
Edward sighed, turning his face into Thomas’ dark hair as he wound one arm around the other man’s slender hips, drawing him even closer. Maybe it was just the act of caring, in whatever form Edward could provide it. The knowledge that someone saw him. That someone out there could stand as pillar for him when he faltered, too, as all mortal men must.
Distantly, he could hear Margaret laugh again. Maybe, had he not been holding Thomas so close, he would have missed the minute shudder that ran through his body, but he was, and he hadn’t. He tightened his arms instinctively, felt Thomas hesitate for only a moment before answering arms wrapped around Edward’s own body, all but melting into him. It took Edward a moment to realize Thomas was speaking, a low murmur that gradually reached a quiet, intimate tone.
“When the captain was ill,” Thomas said, “it was like caring for her, in so many ways. Ways I had forgotten. Or maybe I just wished I had.” He exhaled. Edward felt the warm air against his exposed neck. He voiced none of the questions currently buzzing throughout his mind; chose to wait instead. After a moment, Thomas continued. “I told him I didn’t like to hear a woman laugh. I remember my mother’s, the way it was before the pain, and before the laudanum. Before the days where it was the only thing that brought her any joy, before those days where she would forget to feed us and the nights where we would wake up and the first thing that would hit us was the smell of her bodily expenditures—if I slept enough to wake up at all, when I worried she would stop breathing the moment I closed my eyes. She’d laugh sometimes during that, too. Would stare into space, then snap herself out with a laugh when she needed her next fix. Throughout it all, she still laughed. All her pain was gone, became ours, and still she laughed. And you know what the worst part was, what made it so much more miserable than her laughter before the laudanum?”
Edward made a responding noise, even as he fought to keep his heart from crumbling in his chest. He felt Thomas smile against his neck, and did not need to see the expression to know it was not a happy one.
“It was the exact same laugh.”
A myriad of thoughts ran through Edward’s mind, images of the younger Thomas he had never known intermingling with the man he had met on the ice and the man he held in his arms now. There were questions, so many, posed on the tip of his tongue; observations, even, that he struggled to both give voice and contain. In the end, however, he voiced but one, the most telling of them all: “there are no women at sea.”
Thomas’ hands tightened in the fabric of Edward’s shirt. “Always a clever one, my Lieutenant Little,” he said, the old rank falling familiar from his lips, even as Edward’s mind flickered back to all the times he should have seen, should have known. All the times he had simply attributed Thomas’ minute flinches to the effects of scurvy, or simply the difficulties of readjusting to a society that seemed to not know what to do with him, the steward-turned-third-lieutenant. Those society gatherings where the men and women clustered and clamoured around, plying them for stories they only thought they wanted, the women laughing and Thomas shuddering—
The way Thomas had avoided going out into public spaces ever since they had relocated to the countryside—“fresh country air is good for recovery, I hear”—
The way he always seemed to make himself scarce whenever Margaret or his other sisters visited, but never seemed to do the same when any of Edward’s many brothers came ‘round.
It was another piece of the puzzle that was Thomas Jopson falling into place. Edward did not love him any less for however imperfect some of those pieces were.
He turned his head, pressing an open-mouthed kiss to Thomas’ hair. “I’m sorry,” he said, for it was all he could say. He could not take the memories from Thomas, nor could he or anyone else remove the bitter associations. It was something Thomas would simply have to live with always, but the reality of that did not prevent Edward from wishing it wasn’t so; from wishing there was more he could do.
“You’ve nothing to be sorry for,” Thomas said, impossibly soft. Edward sighed, pressing their foreheads together, resting a hand against the nape of Thomas’ neck, content to simply breathe the other man’s air for a moment; to bask in the distinctive scent that he had learned to associate with Thomas since the first time he got close enough to discern it.
Thomas drew back, and the smile on his face was a genuine one, even tinged with a lingering, old hurt that no words or platitudes could soothe. “Oh, Edward,” he said, bringing one hand to rest against Edward’s cheek, thumb stroking the whiskered skin. Whatever he saw in Edward’s face made his eyes soften. “My Edward.”
Edward kissed him then, gentle and slow, a familiar thrill unfurling in his chest at the noise Thomas made as he pressed back into the gesture, greedy and searching and Edward’s. The light trill of a child’s laughter drifted to them from down the hallway, followed by Margaret’s distinctive boom and her husband’s more subdued tones, and slowly, reluctantly, they drew away from each other, though they remained locked in the circle of each other’s arms, Edward absently pressing his thumb into Thomas hip the way he had learned, long ago, the other man liked. It wasn’t until Thomas took a step back that they remembered the broken teacup, both of them wincing as one of the delicate pieces was further crushed under the heel of Tom’s boot.
Thomas sighed. “There's no fixing this now. Fitzjames will be cross, I’ll wager,” he said, and the return of his humour, however subdued, made Edward huff out a laugh of his own, more unguarded than he let himself be even among his blood-family.
Thomas just smiled, reaching up to stroke Edward’s arm briefly before he knelt on the floor and began gathering the pieces. “You should head back out,” he said. “I will handle this.”
It was on the tip of Edward’s tongue to agree, but the memory of Thomas heavy against him, shuddering, was still so fresh, and for a moment he remembered Thomas as he had been during those years on the ice, kneeling by Crozier’s bedside, cleaning and taking care, so selfless in his love it had made Edward feel almost ashamed of himself.
He felt none of that shame now, only a deep, aching fondness, and so he said nothing as he reached down to pick up one of the pieces, twirling it between his fingers a moment before he dropped it to the ground and carefully stepped on it with his own booted foot.
“Now Fitzjames can be cross with us both,” he said simply before kneeling down next to Thomas to begin harvesting fragments, and the startled laughter that burst forth from Thomas, lighting his face and illuminating his eyes, was worth the loss of the now-beyond-repair china.
“Ridiculous man,” Thomas tutted, but he smiled softly, privately, when Edward reached out to cover a hand with his own, fingers brushing deliberately against the ring on his right index finger that was the twin to the one Edward wore on his own.
“I like your laugh,” Edward murmured, then immediately felt his face flush somewhat. Thomas’ smile grew even softer. In that moment, Edward wanted nothing more than to know this man, always, and his breath caught in his throat as he thought that he had the rest of his life to do so, to learn every single thing that made up the man Thomas Jopson. He could not take away the pain entirely, and Thomas could not do the same for him, however much they sometimes wished they could, but he could soothe it, and where that was possible, he would. It was another piece of Thomas to hold tight to, the way he had promised he would, trapped in the ice all those still-too-few years ago.
With fondness aching in his breast, Edward reached out, brushing aside the errant strand of hair that, try as he might, Thomas could never tame entirely. Then, he trailed his hand down to Thomas’ chin, lifting it slightly, concealing a smile of his own when Thomas leaned up for another brief kiss, his hand coming up to grasp lightly at Edward’s own where it cradled his jaw. “I would have you laugh, often,” Edward said, forcing the words out. For Thomas, he would always try. “I am—I would like to be the source of it, and your happiness, always.”
“Edward,” Thomas said. He pressed a finger against the ring, and they knelt there, the two of them, together on the impeccably swept floor, surrounded by the remnant’s of James Fitzjames’ finest china set, impossibly alive and happy, despite it all. “My steadfast commander. You already are.”