"What is that racket?"
"It's the latest thing from Europe, John. It's called music."
Francis Crozier was at his wit’s end.
“It’s been a week, he should have come up with something ,” he muttered, coming up the narrow alley behind Edward Little’s sublet.
“Francis, don’t you think you’re being a bit harsh,” James tried to say, hurrying after him with the umbrella in an attempt to keep it over both of them. Even with both of them knowing where Edward lived, having spent a few awkward cramped meetings-slash-cocktail parties with the rest of the logistics team, St. John’s winding old-world style streets and perpetual misting port-side weather made everything look vaguely the same and they’d managed to get lost a few times.
“ He’s the one who has locked himself up like a hermit, barely responding to any emails,” Francis snapped, taking the time to stop and turn on his heel so he could point an accusing finger at James, allowing the taller man to catch up, nearly bumping into him.
“Well, Francis,” James said, forever the diplomat, “that might have something to do with, oh, I don’t know,” -
James paused to look skyward - “you forcing him to agree to re-run our entire FMEA and processes in a week, bypassing me and asking in front of his team so he couldn’t refuse.”
Francis narrowed his eyes at James.
“Edward knew when he signed up what this was going to be. He can’t go radio silent now just because I’ve put a bit of pressure on him...”
“You denied his third request for time off, Frank. Edward is a museum of tolerance but I think you’ve finally gotten to him. The man is liable to combust if you’re not careful.”
“He’s being dramatic,” Francis grunted, stalking to the base of the rickety stairs that led up to the second-story flat. Francis had been sure to send Edward several texts in advance, so there was no way that the man couldn’t tell they were coming.
James huffed a short, discontented sigh, but continued to follow him up nonetheless.
Francis would rather be caught dead than admit it, but it was a comfort to have James there to referee the standoff between him and his now surly systems engineer and architect. His taller, more charismatic, generally more socially competent, project partner turned impromptu human resources department was - as usual - loathfully correct.
James had been the one to offer Edward’s resume when they’d taken up their endeavor, but nearly a year on Francis knew he had something special going and he could not jeopardize it.
After years of Francis’ incessant campaigning and James’ award-winning schmoozing (once James was properly on board) they’d finally been able to wheedle the actual grant money they needed out of the university. So everything had to be perfect to guarantee the two-year research expedition being laid out farther north went on without a hitch.
It was the reason Francis begged Edward to formally quit his cushy private sector career and come over to Canada in the first place. Sure, ten months was a bit longer than he’d anticipated, and the pay was nowhere near his old salary, and they’d had to renegotiate his contract terms a few times, but Edward had to understand that he was the only one Francis could trust with the culmination of his life’s work. This was a bigger picture.
For years and years he’d been taking bureaucratic bullshit and nepotism from the department solidly on the chin, and other, more personal, blows, but beyond that the very work was important. Crucial. The programs and systems they’d designed would be able to open up whole other metrics to evaluate the impacts of climate change on the poles and it was becoming a desperate race against the clock.
If success came at the cost of a few harsh words to get this thing finally off the ground, so be it.
“ Leave me the fuck alone, Frank!” were the harsh words, specifically, that Edward said, snatching the reports out of his hands. For any other person the issuance would feel laughably melodramatic, but coming from Ed it sent even Frank Crozier’s blood running a little cold.
Unfortunately for Edward, he was the most mind-numbingly meticulous reliability expert Crozier had ever come across and Crozier planned to hold onto him with both hands. Besides, he was getting his stipend and St. John’s was a lovely little town, and this work would get them the fucking Nobel if it went off as planned. He couldn’t find a reason for complaint, honestly.
“Edward!” Francis barked, rapping on the door.
“Maybe he’s asleep,” James said, peering over the railing at the old converted two-flat’s back window. The shades and blinds were pulled, revealing nothing but darkness beyond.
“He’s awake,” Francis grit, knocking again, louder. He’d been left on read since 7am. “Edward! I know you’re in there! Open up or I’m calling the police for a well-check!”
The door opened a crack and a bleary, bloodshot, brown eye stared out of it.
“Edward,” Francis said, as amiable as possible, clearing his throat and smiling thinly. “It’s good to see you’re alive -,” The door closed loudly in his face. Thankfully, the rattle of the lock chain came a moment later as did the distant noise of Edward retreating further into the apartment.
“I think he’s saying let yourself in,” James said from behind him. Frank squared his shoulders and did just that.
The first few times Frank saw Edward’s flat he’d noted that Edward’s efficient one-bedroom apartment was a little comfortably cluttered, but this was impressive.
A basket of laundry sat unfolded on the couch and just beyond the small kitchen was a mess of discarded takeaway containers and pots piled in the sink. The air smelled of stale, strong, coffee. Francis hummed, looking around, opening the door wider so that James could come in as well, shaking the water off his umbrella and velcroing it shut.
“I’ll just be making myself comfortable, then,” Francis said, shrugging his jacket off and hanging it on the back of one of the kitchenette chairs. Edward said nothing. He was sitting on the other side of the room at his L -shaped computer desk, his three monitors the only real light coming from anywhere save for the television, which was frozen on a frame of a woman with a gray witch-lock looking concernedly at a box of cheez-its.
“Edward,” Francis said, clearing his throat and walking across the creaky wooden floor, feet scuffing on the edge of the second-hand rugs Edward laid down under the equally second-hand temporary furniture filling it. A bottle of Finnish vodka stood on the coffee table, and an empty water glass had left a ring under it.
“I wanted to - er,” he stepped around some kind of remote control or gaming controller, on his way to Edward’s desk. Through the doorway near it Edward’s bed was a lump of untucked sheets and duvet and two thin pillows.
Edward suddenly swiveled in his chair, fixing Francis with an impenetrable stare. With the three monitors glaring behind him he looked like some kind of unkempt bond villain. He was stoic as usual, with his hair a wild untidy mane and his typical stubble growing out into a full beard. Edward scratched at his chest. He was wearing a hoodie with missing strings and a t-shirt and most incredibly of all, basketball shorts.
“I wanted to check and see how the work was coming along.”
Edward made a soft tsk , swinging back around to his desk.
It was laden with printouts and piles of other extraneous paper. Thick manuals were open and thumbed through and sticky notes clouded everywhere else. Excel and several other programs were open across the monitors, including CAD, which was probably why his dusty tower was humming so loudly, and Edward had an extra fan going on his ThinkPad.
He plucked something out of the mess that was underneath an empty plate and turned around again, offering it solemnly for Francis to take.
Francis took it and started scanning the figures -
“Where’s the rest?” he demanded, brow pinched.
Edward raised his hands from his middle, gesturing behind him at the desk and the shredder underneath which was clogged near to spilling over. He rocked the chair this way and that and then looked up at him with a shit-eating smile as if to say if you’re so smart figure it out for yourself.
“This is unlike you, Edward,” Francis muttered. He glared at him but handed the report back with a sigh. Edward crumpled it in front of his face and then three-point-shot it into a bin in the corner. He missed.
Francis fought the urge to smack him upside the head like a misbehaving teenager.
“I’ve let you have your fun pitching this fit, but I hope that James and I can be some encouragement to you.”
Edward blinked, the bruises under his eyes saying he was unconvinced.
“Right, James, give him that motivational spiel you do,” Francis said, folding his arms across his chest. There was no response.
“I think he’s asleep,” Edward said, tipping his head in James’ direction. Francis whirled, seeing James had let himself fall backwards against the couch, legs hooked over the edge.
“Jesus Christ,” Francis seethed. “Do I have to do everything my goddamn self? Wake up, you lousy bastard.” He walked over and kicked the side of the couch. James took a sharp breath, eyes flying open.
“Frank, your voice really is so grating,” he said with a frown, rubbing an eye, and Edward laughed, tipping his head on the headrest, the chair squeaking with the movement.
“I suppose you find this all very funny. I’ll have you know, Edward, I haven’t had a break either during this, nor James,” Francis scolded. “The whole bloody earth was made in a week, and you’ve had ten months,” he went on, under his breath.
Edward let his head fall against his shoulder, regarding Francis.
“Well, you would know, Frank,” he said placidly and James snorted. Francis grit his teeth.
“Fuck off,” he growled.
“I tried to,” Edward said lowly. “Three fucking times.”
“Alright boys,” James said, finally engaged. “Easy does it, alright chaps, remember we’re all friends -,”
Just as Francis tried to ready another searing remark, the apartment’s front door handle began to jiggle and all three of them nearly snapped their necks to look.
“What in God’s name?” James cried, the intruder hurriedly trying again with the old doorknob, this time succeeding. It must have been left unlocked when they came in.
With a grunt, the door was bodied open and a young man nearly tripped inside, stopping just short of the small doormat to stare at Fitzjames and then Crozier with slow, disoriented blinks.
He was obviously jet-lagged, a too-heavy-for-the-season winter coat falling off of his shoulders and a beanie covering most of his hair, save for a few rain-damp pieces that were sticking to his forehead.
“Are you lost ?” James said loudly, rising off the sofa, brandishing the folded umbrella like he was about to start swinging. The stranger ignored him, eyes tracking to the corner where Edward was still sitting, and froze
Crozier looked to Edward: his brown eyes were deer-in-the-headlights wide and his whole demeanor was morphing from harried, begrudging employee to someone who appeared to be having a kind of intense religious experience.
Crozier groaned inwardly, scrubbing his hand over his face. Fuck him. Fuck his mam , was it tonight? He’d completely lost track of time in this mess.
“What in the hell -?” James said loudly, advancing a step.
In the space of half a second, before Crozier could reach out to swat at James to shut the fuck up, the stranger slipped his duffle off his shoulder with a loud thud and then, quite literally, flew across the small room.
“What the fuck is going on?” James yelled, but there was no answer.
Edward stood so fast in the effort to catch the young man as he leapt on him that the cheap roller chair he was sitting in tipped over and its four castor wheels were still spinning in the air.
Then, bearing the full weight of the man with his legs now wound around his waist, Edward staggered back against his desk and crashed hard into the far wall, knocking his wireless keyboard to the floor and snagging the cord for his headphones on his leg. The jostle sent a mug of coffee to the floor where it cracked neatly, day-old sludge oozing out of it onto the wood.
“Edward!” James sputtered breathless, his mouth agape as he pointed in surprise. “Edward! Who - Francis, who is that ?”
“His fiancé,” Francis said flatly, deliberately turning away. James did a dramatic double take.
“His what ?”
“Well, it better bloody be!” Francis snapped, daring a look back at Edward and his supposed fiancé.
The younger man had finally put his feet back on the floor, but was far too interested in kissing Edward while simultaneously trying to worm his way into Edward’s hoodie to notice they had an audience.
Francis quickly looked elsewhere, eyes bouncing to the ceiling and then to James’ pale and shocked face.
“I flew him in,” he said, clearing his throat, feigning calm.
James’ astonishment deepened with an incredible blush.
“ You flew him in?” he hissed and Francis scoffed.
“Well - it’s… it’s a problem that needs sorting out,” he muttered under his breath. “I figure the quicker it does,” he rolled his eyes in their direction. “The quicker we can get ours solved,” he snipped, petting awkwardly at the back of his hair.
James blinked, eyes bulging.
“I can’t take all credit,” Francis rushed to clarify. “Hodgson… he. Uh. Implied that Mr… Jopson... might be a, er. A compromise to sending him back to England. Though I didn’t imagine it like this .”
“Francis, you dog.” James suddenly smiled, his eyes lit up in mischief and something else that made Frank’s stomach clench. “I didn’t know you had it in you…”
A voice that belonged to neither of them gave a startled laugh and Crozier and James both could not help but look. Edward was squeezing the young man so hard he looked like he was about to break the poor fellow’s spine.
“Edward,” James called. “Edward - my lord, won’t you at least stop and introduce us! The damn door is still open!”
Cold air and drizzle was still slanting into the room and speckling the fiancé’s forgotten travel bag.
Nothing. No response. They were kissing again.
James looked expectantly at Crozier who, face hot, half canted towards the couple.
“Uh - I’m, I’m Francis Crozier, and this is James Fitzjames.”
“PHD!” James threw in and Francis grimaced.
“Yes, PHD as well… and you must be Thomas Jopson.” He waited for a reply, but Thomas Jopson was occupied with running his hands through Edward’s beard with great interest. “Edward, he is Thomas Jopson isn’t he?” Crozier said unevenly, momentarily panicked. He’d never actually seen him, just exchanged a few emails about the itinerary.
“Do you like it?” Edward said, voice rough, but not to answer any of their questions. He clearly had eyes only for one thing in the entire world.
Crozier and James watched, both holding their breath, as Thomas Jopson nodded his head slowly once, then twice.
“It’s so much better in person,” he whispered, the little ragged edge to his tone sending a shiver up and down Crozier’s back.
Edward Little, resident statue, seemed to come alive right before their eyes. He grinned , dark eyes sparking.
Francis’ poor old heart couldn’t take it; he wondered if he was about to have a stroke. One of the most rigidly polite and routine men he’d ever met in his life acting in such a manner - his mouth was unbearably dry but his palms were sweating so hard he had to wipe them on his trousers.
“Edward, are you serious!” Francis exclaimed, voice thin and dumbfounded. “Did you forget I’m your boss?”
Thomas’ beanie was on the floor and his coat was quickly following.
“Frank, I think we ought to go,” James interjected, voice cracking around a mad little giggle. He snatched Francis’ elbow, grabbed up his umbrella and then hauled them both out into the rain.
“Wait!” Francis cried, James near dragging him down the back stairs with great tromping steps. “James - bloody wait , will you! My jacket - and - the! The door is still open!!”
James paused on the landing, both of them looking up together. As if on cue there was a rough kick of the duffle bag obviously being moved out of the way and then the door itself slammed shut. There was the audible clack of the lock turning.
“Would you like to go ask for it?”
Francis looked down at James’ wretched smirk, mouth opening and closing. Despite the cold mist now starting to dribble onto them, Francis’ whole head felt on fire. As well as other things. He was mortified by the realization dawning on him. His whole body felt weak.
“In,” he started, gulping. “In the middle of the day ? N-Now?”
James threw back his head to howl a laugh, hair falling over his forehead and ears as he shook with the force of it. He laughed so hard he took to leaning for support on the railing of the narrow steps just to keep upright.
“It isn’t funny!” Francis croaked, James still in the throes. “It’s inappropriate ! He should have - I planned for us all to go to dinner!”
“Oh, Francis,” James squeaked, and it was then that Francis realized, with new horror, that he and James had been holding hands and he’d been squeezing James’ fingers impossibly hard. He had to let go to let James wipe the rain and tears of unadulterated joy (at Francis’ expense, naturally) off of his face.
“Francis,” James sniffed, composing himself with a little shaky breath. He set his elbow on the railing and schooled his features as best he could.
“I don’t think our man Ed gives a damn about you, or your dinner plans,” he twinkled. “I think his appetite is only for Mr. Jopson.”
“Didn’t you see it?” James nodded at him, and twirled the handle of the umbrella so it swung up and the end poked at Francis’ shoulder before pointing up at the little apartment. “They’re a bit stupid in love, doctor.”
“Even more-so then, if you’re s-serious about someone,” he went on, brushing off the umbrella to James’ infinite amusement. The way he said doctor was making his ears ring.
“He could have at least -” he trailed off, helpless, his imagination getting the better of him. Edward Little ? That’s what had gotten him so sour suddenly?
James stared at him with far too knowing a smile that was putting him too much on the spot.
“It’s romantic .” James prodded at his chest with the umbrella.
“It’s rude,” Francis countered, cross. “And stop jabbing at me with that!”
“Not everyone is from Banbridge, Frank,” James teased with a silly shrug and a roll of his eyes, bringing the umbrella obediently back to his side.
Francis made an indignant sound and went shouldering past him, realizing that they were still standing on the staircase like a couple of vagrants.
“Come on!” he shouted, the sound echoing around the narrow alley, hunching his shoulders against the chill. James came trotting down the last few steps and paused at the bottom to open the umbrella.
“Christ, James, I’m getting older by the second,” Francis said impatiently, feeling very exposed despite the lack of anyone else around. He dug his hands in his pockets, shaking his head in honest dismay.
James turned, gave the apartment a mock salute, and then came to his side looking all too pleased. As they walked Francis sighed and James continued to smother laughter into the back of his hand.
“Well,” Francis sighed, the two of them spilling back out onto the street. “Would you still like to get dinner with me?” His head followed a few slow cars going by before he looked back up at James.
The man was giving him a strained look, all raised his eyebrows and parted lips.
“It’s just dinner,” Francis said with a light self-deprecating chuckle turning towards him more when he felt the odd silence overtake the two of them. Rain was beginning to come down harder on the umbrella with little taps and Fitzjames suddenly moved it from hand to the other. “Although you will have to listen to me talk, unfortunately.”
“Oh, Frank,” James breathed, and Francis squinted at him uncertainly. James was no longer acting like the jaunty fool happy to make fun of him anymore, which was his usual attitude. He looked… well, Francis wasn’t quite sure, exactly. Why was everyone acting so bloody insane?
“I wish you’d have said something sooner about it - I, well, I have a rendevouz with Dundy, you see,” James was saying, rather quickly. He was blushing.
“That’s alright,” Francis said peaceably, putting a hand on his arm and giving it an understanding squeeze. “No harm. I was only asking.”
“I am very sorry,” James said, looking down and adjusting the umbrella again for some reason. “Truly, Francis I -,” he stopped himself, staring at him. “I just mean to say, if you were to ask me some other time...”
“Of course, you’re always welcome,” Francis said, giving his arm a warm, friendly pat and then nodding down the sidewalk. “I’m headed that way.”
“I see,” James said, seeming deflated for some reason.
“James, don’t worry, I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” Francis said, brow furrowing. He looked back down the alley at the apartment and felt awed all over again. “I’ll meet you back here, say,” - he glanced at his watch - “0900…”
,” James tutted. Francis scowled.
“They should very well be done by then!”
“ Francis! ” James stressed, with a laugh. Francis kept his relief at hearing it to himself. “Please, try to imagine, for a moment, that you have not seen the person you love for ten very long, celibate, months...”
“Ten, then,” Francis grumbled. He didn’t exactly need to imagine it. He had lived through it. Several times before. But after years of trying to make such a tired song and dance work Sophia finally told him enough. His heart panged just to think of it - the hurt he’d put her through, too up his own arse to see it.
“Noon,” James said, his crooked smile returning to his face, eyes soft. Francis wiggled his jaw, consternated.
“Eleven thirty. That’s plenty of - of time -.”
“ Noon ,” James insisted, and then he suddenly swooped down, took Francis’ arm, and propping the umbrella in his own elbow, set the alarm on his wrist watch for him.
Francis was stupefied, watching his clever fingers trying to make sense of the buttons, his tongue poking out of his teeth, rain slanting down on both of them.
“There, noon,” James said when it beeped in acknowledgement. He waved Francis’ own hand in his startled face triumphantly. “Sleep in for once in your life - bollocks, I’m going to be late,” he broke off, looking closer at the watch face again (so close, Francis could feel the little snort of warm air out of his nose) before releasing Francis’ wrist and stepping away.
“Cheers!” he called, giving a wave, foot splashing in a shallow puddle on the pave stone, leaving Francis stood there, watching him go.
He remained there for he didn’t know how long before time caught up and he finally felt a retort come to mind, but it was too late, and all he could do was bring his wrist up to stare stupidly at his watch, wiping droplets off of it to see the numbers.