It was a fool’s mission, arguing with George Little, but as they trudged side-by-side back to the small country house Edward shared with Thomas, he could not bring himself to regret the foolishness.
“What happened?” Thomas demanded sharply as George and Edward made their sorry way up the stone pathway, sopping wet and miserable.
“Fell in the pond,” Edward grunted when George failed to answer, resolutely looking just beyond Thomas’ shoulder. Thomas pursed his lips, and there was a expression on his face that said the matter wasn’t finished. Still, he kept his silence, likely more than aware of the cutting way George was looking at anything but him. Nothing escaped Thomas’ notice, Edward knew that now as he knew back then, confined to the tilting walls of Erebus and Terror. It had been an unspoken rule of the job, the knowing, and so it was too much to expect that Thomas had somehow remained oblivious to the barely-concealed disdain George felt towards him, for all that Edward and Thomas had never spoken of it.
He set his jaw. Breathed in, out. Felt the air leave his body in an angry, clean rush.
“Right then,” Thomas said brusquely, all business as he approached and shepherded them into the house. “I had Nettie start drawing separates baths when I saw you come up. Sir, your jacket,” Thomas said, helping Edward out of the soaked garment with a practiced ease that spoke of years of familiarity. By the way his brother scowled and looked away, Edward knew it had been noted, but he could only clench his jaw further as Thomas discarded the coat for washing and bustled about, all business, standing still as a stone as he worked to control the rage and frustration that bubbled just underneath the surface.
When Thomas tried to approach George, Edward’s older brother all be flinched away from his touch, reading back like a struck animal. A purse of Thomas’ lips and a flash of his eyes was the only sign that he was affected, but he dutifully backed off, and Edward was hardly aware that he himself had tensed up until he felt Thomas’ steadying hand at his elbow, his other hand stealthily working to unclench Edward’s fingers where they had curled into fists at his side.
“Leave him,” Thomas said lowly as Nettie, their part-time maidservant, hastily showed a sopping wet George Little to the bath. Edward, stiff, could only nod, allowing Tom to lead him in the opposite direction towards his room—their room, for all that they could not come out and say it when there were others present in the home.
Safely ensconced beyond closed doors, Edward allowed Thomas to remove his wet clothing with gentle hands, only shivering once as Thomas lead him over to the wash basin in the corner of the room, hanging the clothes up over the divider that separated it from the rest.
“In,” Thomas ordered, and Edward sighed as he slipped under the steaming water, then sighed again as he felt Thomas’ hands immediately sink into his hair, pouring palmfuls of water over his scalp until he was sure he resembled a wet cat.
“Foolish man,” Thomas said. Edward heard the dangerous note lacing the words and felt both frustrated and as contrite as a child being lectured by his mother. His jaw stung where George had struck him. He hoped his elder brother wore the marks Edward had left in return with penitence.
“It’s George,” he said flatly, fingers clenching against his bare thigh as he thought of his older brother. It was explanation enough. Thomas’ fingers stilled, and then he was dumping a small bucket of water over Edward’s head with far too much relish. He said nothing else, but Edward could read Thomas’ own frustration in the silence as he breathed through the rush of waster. When Thomas left and returned with one of the new towels he had purchased earlier that month, Edward rose and left the tub without prompting, trying to suppress a shiver before Thomas wrapped the towel around him, avoiding his gaze when Edward tried to catch it, gently rubbing feeling back into Edward’s hands and arms.
“Thomas,” Edward said lowly. Thomas said nothing, and Edward sighed. “Tom.”
Edward bit back a frustrated half-growl at the cool tone, and when Thomas stepped back he reached out, catching one slender wrist in a firm grip. Thomas could break it if he wanted, Edward would never hold him thus against his will, but Thomas merely stood there, pale eyes trained on the hand at his wrist, that ever-stubborn stray lock of hair falling over his face.
“Talk to me, Tom.”
Thomas’ eyes flicked up. He said nothing, but that was all right; Edward was a patient man and, more to the point, he knew Tom would not speak until he had mulled over and chosen exactly what it was he wanted to say. In the meantime, he gave an experimental tug, and hummed when Thomas allowed himself to be drawn closer, Edward shifting one arm to allow part of the towel to drape over the former steward’s shoulder as Thomas’ hands came up to rest against Edward’s chest, a point of searing heat against flesh that was still chilled, despite the bath.
“Ned,” Thomas said softly, and Edward lowered his head so that their foreheads were pressed together. A trickle of water from his wet hair ran down the side of Thomas’ face. Thomas closed his eyes, and together they stood there breathing softly until Edward closed the distance, gently slotting their mouths together. Thomas shuddered, eyes still closed, but he surged forward like a dam had been broken, hands flying up to frame Edward’s face as the kiss became deeper, more frantic, until Edward took control of it again and gentled it, hands encircling Thomas’ wrists once more.
“Tom,” he said again, trapping Thomas’ arms between their bodies, aware of the tableau they presented: Thomas fully dressed, vest rumpled and hair falling out of its careful style; Edward, bare as the day he was born, with rivulets of water sliding down his skin, clad in nothing but the towel.
“The fight was about me,” Thomas intoned then. Edward sighed, but didn’t tense. Breathed in, out.
“It doesn’t matter, Tom.”
“It does,” Thomas said grimly. His eyes were fixed on the hollow of Edward’s throat, and he spoke in measured tones, as if trying to detach himself from the words. A hand lifted, skimming the side of Edward’s neck before coming to rest on Edward’s jaw, where George’s fist had landed only moments before Edward had lost his balance and dragged them both into the pond. “I do not wish to be a cause of strife between you and your family, Edward.” Thomas’ mouth was a tight line as he looked away, hand falling away from the darkening bruise. “Nor a cause of regret.”
Edward felt renewed anger at that statement—not towards Thomas, but towards George. He was never a man to speak where actions would work just as well, but he was also a leader of men, and he knew when they were needed.
“I am a man with many regrets, Tom, and a man who has made countless mistakes,” Edward said, letting conviction fuel his voice, “but you are not, nor will you ever be, one of them.”
Thomas’ fingers sliding into his hair were the only warning he got before he was being pulled into another kiss, and from there towards the bed, his hands scrambling furtively on the buttons of Thomas’ vest. They were quiet, had to be, normally would not have even dared attempt such a thing with others in their home, but as Edward buried himself in Thomas’ willing body, swallowing every single gasp as if by doing so he could leech some of the other man’s warmth into his chilled bones, he found he cared not a whit whether or not George heard. His brother knew or at least suspected and did not approve, had made that very clear, as he had made it clear that it would be best for Edward to request that Thomas move elsewhere, but George had not been out there on the ice, had not seen the things they had seen, and would not for love of God believe anything Edward told him anyway.
There were more things on this earth than Heaven and Hell, things not taught even in Irving’s book of scriptures, and they had come out of that place more world-weary for the knowing—an Atlas, each of them, bearing the weight of worlds they could not hope to understand.
Perhaps that was why the fear he would have once felt at the idea of discovery felt so distant, why he—always so practical, serious and pragmatic Lieutenant Little—was so willing to throw caution to the wind just to see the beautiful curve of Thomas’ throat as he arched in time to Edward’s thrusts, to see lovely, perfectly put-together Thomas Jopson messy and human just like him, his. It was a primal thing, those thoughts, but then again, Thomas had always brought out the wildness in him; had always had a knack for stripping aware the veneer of practicality to reveal whatever creature it was that lurked underneath, the ugly thing that Thomas seemed to love anyway.
“Ned,” Thomas hissed, and Edward swallowed that too, breathing him in, shivering at the searing heat of Thomas’ body against his own, every point of contact a delicious burn against his fevering skin. When Thomas came undone at last, Edward could only watch helplessly and tumble after him, as shaky as a foal on its first legs, until he could no longer hold himself up above Thomas’ willing body and slowly lowered himself to rest against his love’s still rapidly-beating heart.
“I speak of love awake,” Edward mumbled against Thomas’ chest, “and in my dreams. To the water, the shadows, the mountains.” He pressed a lingering kiss to the heated skin, glancing up from beneath he wild fringe of his own hair to meet Thomas’ eyes. “To the flowers, the grass, the fountains.” The words were slightly breathy by the end, exhaustion sapping abruptly the strength from his limbs and lips, but Thomas smiled, gently carding a hand through his hair until Edward sighed and rested his ear against the other man’s breast, letting the familiar, loud pounding of Thomas’ heart slow his own.
He had come so close to never hearing it again.
“Will your brother say anything?” Thomas whispered once the candles were doused and the evidence of their activities was wiped from his skin.
“If he suspects,” Edward said, his eyes already feeling heavy, “then he will say nothing. Reputation is key to him. He may disapprove, but no whisper of it will ever make it outside of the family. He wishes me to put you out and accept a commission elsewhere, and that alone will bridle his tongue. No commission for a disgraced officer.”
“And will you, Ned? Accept a commission. We cannot simply hide in the country forever.”
Edward hummed, his thoughts sluggish, oddly so. “Eventually. And when I accept a commission,” he added, “it will be with you by my side, even if I have to challenge Crozier to pistols at dawn for the boon of your company.” The admiralty may have refused to acknowledge Thomas’ promotion, despite the fierce arguments put fourth by himself, Crozier, and Fitzjames, but Thomas had more experience than half the men Edward knew. It was not simply flattery to say Thomas Jopson, with his level-headed mind and calm demeanour, would be a godsend to any expedition he sailed with.
Thomas was silent, but when Edward gathered him close he did not resist, quiescent in Edward’s arms and radiating not calm, but steadiness. Sleep was a seductive call, and Edward, feeling the weight of the day’s events, found he could no longer fight it. “Rest, my love,” Thomas whispered, pressing a lingering kiss to Edward’s forehead. “All will be well in the morning.”
And Edward, as always, obeyed.
He was tired and sore when he rose the next day, though he attributed that more to the tussle and his and Thomas’ subsequent activities than to anything else. He’d caught Thomas looking at him with a concerned crease in his brow as he’d helped Edward into his clothes that morning, but Edward had brushed off any inquiry, mind focused grimly on the task of dealing with George.
He coughed. Cleared his throat.
Between George’s cold demeanour and the perpetual chill Edward could not seem to shake that morning, he was not sure what the the more unpleasant sensation was, and as he shivered for the fourth time in as many minutes, he found his mind wandering unpleasantly back to the ice and that place of cold and death, where it had seemed for so long like they would never know the meaning of warmth again.
Breathe in. Out.
Thomas placed a warm cup of tea in front of him, and Edward sent him a grateful look, but his hands shook slightly when he lifted the cup, rattling it against the saucer and causing him to frown.
“Sir, are you all right?” Thomas inquired, and though his voice was all professional, for George’s sake, Thomas could hear the underlying concern.
“Perfectly fine,” Edward said, but the words made his throat tickle, and almost immediately he was coughing, another shiver wracking his body. Thomas was immediately on alert, setting the tea tray down and moving to his side. He hesitated only a moment, eyes darting to where George was watching them intently, before he squared his shoulders and, with a perfunctory “with your permission, sir,” reached out to gently rest a hand against Edward’s forehead the moment he received the assenting nod.
“I’m fine, Jopson,” Edward grunted, but Thomas’ mouth had thinned, and his eyes were scanning Edward’s face with acute precision.
“Fever,” Thomas said. The back of his hand went to rest briefly against Edward’s cheek, and he paused only a moment before carefully pressing fingers against Edward’s neck. “Begging your pardon, Commander, but maybe more rest would be best.”
“No point,” Edward protested, muffling the instinctive fear-response with blunt words and tones. Illness on the ice was a death sentence. He and Crozier may have been lucky enough to escape with relative health, but in moments of weakness part of Edward had wished he, too, could have been one of those men lying insensate in the cots. How much easier that would have been, he’d thought despairingly, relieved of the burden of others’ lives. He’d done his best to smother those thoughts, of course, but when Thomas had numbered among them and Edward’s own words had come back to haunt him—
He rose abruptly to his feet, causing Thomas to have to move back swiftly, hand still outstretched before he quickly tucked it away at his side, and perhaps it was the swiftness of the action, but for a moment the room seemed to spin as the blood rushed to his ears, until even George’s brow was creased with concern as Edward stumbled momentarily.
“I’m fine,” Edward said, just in time for the room to spin again and for the floor to decide it was no longer content just lingering under his feet. It was only the swift actions of Thomas that kept Edward from crashing to the floor, and he heard the former steward’s grunt of exertion as he was forced to bear the brunt of Edward’s sudden dead weight.
“Commander? Sir,” Thomas said, his voice still even but as close to frantic as Edward knew he would allow himself. When he tried to answer, the words caught in his throat, and he dissolved into a coughing fit that shook his whole body and left his throat feeling raw. Another presence made itself known at Edward’s side, and then he felt George ducking under his arm and standing, relieving some of the burden on Thomas.
“Where’s the bedroom?” George asked, tone sharp. Thomas, sounding more shaken than Edward had heard in a long time, uttered a quick this way, and then they were moving. One of Edward’s hands had tangled in the front of Thomas’ shirt, rumpling the material, and Thomas had to gently remove his it in order to get him settled on the bed that they had been sleeping in mere hours before.
“Don’t fuss, Jopson,” he muttered.
“It is my job to fuss, as you put it,” came Thomas’ response, and Edward cracked open one eye as Thomas helped him out of the clothing he’d dressed him in earlier that morning.
“I’ll fetch a doctor,” came George’s tight voice. “Might be a few hours out.”
“For God’s sake, George, I’m fine—just a little tired,” Edward said, pushing himself up. He coughed again; grimaced.
“Sir.” Thomas’ voice halted Edward’s attempts, and when he turned to look the former steward was standing near the window, body partially angled away from both him and George, but Edward—who had always watched Thomas more than was wise, from before Thomas was even Thomas, from when Jopson fell more easily from his tongue than Tom—could see the tension in his frame. Thomas did his duty, did it well and with a professional, unflappable demeanour that Edward had always envied—if this voyage had even two more Thomas Jopsons, he’d once remarked to Crozier, trudging across the endless expanse of nothingness, we would be better off for it—but Edward knew better than to think that meant he felt nothing. He remembered those harrying days that Thomas had spent at Crozier’s bedside, always a smile on his face for their insensate captain, no less genuine for how strained and tinged with exhaustion it was, when Edward himself could barely summon more than a flat stare and a lack of expression for even Fitzjames, whom they had all been so intent on lying to before Crozier had made his decision. Saw the familiar lines of tension in Thomas now, in the way he was trying to hold onto the mask, in the way his eyes seemed to plead with Edward where George could not see.
Edward sighed, shivered, remembering those same eyes pleading with and gently coaching him over the shoulders of the other officers at the tables. The role of a steward was to be invisible, but Thomas had never been fully invisible to him, not really. Edward was not powerless against them—their arguments on the ice were proof of that—but at the moment…
“It is a waste of time,” he said, but it was a concession, and all in the room knew it. His throat felt oddly sticky, and he wondered how that could be when he felt as though he’d trudged across one of the deserts from Fitzjames’ stories.
A few minutes later they heard the sound of George leaving, heard the hoofbeats of the man’s mount as he made his way to the city, and then Thomas was moving again, preparing, organizing.
“Rest, lieutenant,” he said when he caught Edward looking at him, managing a brief smile, the old title a soft endearment—rarely spoken, but familiar, used to put a man at ease. Who Thomas was trying to console Edward could not say.
“I’ll be fine, Tom. I’m sure it’s just a chill,” Edward said, settling back against the cushions with another shiver. He fell asleep to the sound of Thomas’ footsteps, the image of that achingly familiar smile dissolving as he drifted into a gentle slumber.
“How are you feeling?” Thomas asked, carefully setting the lit candle near the washbasin as he settled in his perch next to their bed.
“Tired.” It took him a few attempts to say the word, his voice weak with the effort and his throat and lungs aching, but he managed. Thomas glanced towards the window, then slipped carefully onto the bed next to him, and they shifted and moved until Edward’s head was pillowed in his lap.
“Your brother will return soon, I’d wager. Get some more rest, Ned.”
“Hm,” Edward replied, but was was asleep moments later, wondering why it was suddenly so hard to breathe.
“—monia, I’m afraid,” Edward heard the next time he woke, his body heavy and aching, and for a moment he was back on the ships, in the camp, limbs so stiff and uncooperative he’d briefly envied Blanky the loss of his. The voice was unfamiliar. Edward wondered who it was and why they were in his home, even as he tried to suck air into lungs that did not wish to cooperate.
“That’s ridiculous. I fell into the same pond, and I am perfectly hale and healthy.” George. Ah. He had not left.
“Illnesses do not always strike according to logic or notions of fairness, I’m afraid.” The same voice as before, perfunctory, a chiding note hidden underneath a veneer of politeness.
“What can we do?” Thomas. Edward shifted, tried to open his mouth, but all that came out was a great, hacking cough that immediately launched a flurry of motion in the room. The air in his lungs expelled, he tried to suck more in, and his eyes flew open in a panic when he realized that he could not. He coughed again, tried to take in more air, but all that left him was a horrible gasping, wheezing sound, and he could feel the panic creeping in at the edges of his vision as voices clamoured over one another.
“He can’t breathe!” George.
“Commander Little, you must remain calm—”
A hand took his, and Edward tried to breathe past the blockage in his throat and lungs, horribly aware of the fact that all he could manage was a faint wheeze. “Breathe, sir.” Thomas’ voice, soft and urgent, and Edward rolled bleary, blackening eyes to him, staring intently at the man’s face as he wrangled the panic and attempted to do so. The blockage still felt as though it were there, and his throat felt as though he had swallowed one of Goodsir’s broken medicine bottles, but at last he managed—pitiful, pathetic sound that it was.
Thomas breathed with him, and Edward was distantly aware of George conversing with who he realised must be the doctor. Every sliver of air he dragged into his abused lungs hurt. He wondered if this was what it was to drown.
“‘M fine, don’t fuss,” he tried to say. Thomas cracked that selfsame smile from Terror and passed him a glass of water, which Edward drank slowly from, the cold liquid painful to swallow.
“I shall do my best, sir,” Thomas said. Edward fell asleep to the sensation of Thomas’ hand gripping tightly his own, his smile once again chasing Edward into unconsciousness.
“—it is utterly inappropriate for this to have gone on for so long. He ought to have married long ago, accepted another commission—”
“All grievances best aired at another time, Mr. Little.”
Thomas, standing guard at Crozier’s door, firm and resolute, giving no ground, the one constant in the carefully contained chaos of Terror. Edward tried to reach for him. Wondered where Fitzjames was, and what he would say when he had to make Crozier’s excuses yet again. He dreaded that walk, another sojourn into the biting cold, the air so dry and biting it was like daggers to his lungs. At least this time it would not be to steal Fitzjames’ liquor. Is there something you’re not telling me, Edward? He stopped for a moment. Considered.
His face ached from the cold.
Much to do on Terror is all, sir.
Softer voices this time, but still angry. Edward grimaced—was there another scrap to break up between the men?
“I would remind you of your place here, Mr. Jopson.”
Edward turned his head, or tried to. Jopson is here? Where’s the Captain?
“And I would remind you, sir, that Edward’s brother or not you are a guest in this house, and I will not have you endangering his health for the sake of your slighted pride, or for loathing of me.”
His brother? His brother was stationed on another ship, somewhere far warmer than this, and George—George—
He tried to breathe, but couldn’t; began to cough, that awful hack, and Terror’s walls dissolved into the familiar facade of the bedroom he shared with—
“Tom,” Edward rasped, reaching out blindly, and instantly the voices ceased. Moments later he felt a hand slip into his own and Thomas’ comforting voice murmuring, “I’m here, sir.”
“Not sir, Tom, not from you, not here,” Edward muttered. There was a sharp intake of breath from somewhere beyond him, and Thomas’ hand tightened briefly on his own as the steward let out a shaky exhale.
It was the expanse of utter nothingness that got to him more than anything else, a barren wasteland unlike anything he had ever experienced. He remembered the harshness of the ground that they had buried John Torrington in, how long and deep the men had dug, the comparative shallowness of Blaine’s, and finally the redoubled efforts for Hartnell’s brother. Remembered standing over Franklin’s grave, over what little there was to bury in the first place.
He remembered thinking it was a bad omen on Beechey Island, losing three men so quickly.
Now, watching the men slowly succumbing to disease and exhaustion and starvation all around him, he realised how much of an understatement that was.
Had he a mirror, he thought he would curse his healthy face, especially when compared to the poor wretches around him. To see a man as proud as Fitzjames brought so low, and to see the startling clarity of Jopson’s eyes cloud over with sickness and pain—
Best take me, then, Edward thought grimly as he trudged on. Best take me and spare the rest. If this is command, I do not wish for it. Not anymore.
He kept walking. Eventually, the nothing gave way to a fog. His lungs burned and he coughed. His boots came down across endless ice. He kept walking.
You are to lead the men forward, Edward. You and the others will live. Let me hear it.
“I understand the order, sir.” The words hurt to say, as they had the first time. Another cough. His chest felt empty, with no air to sustain him. He kept walking. “We will live.” He kept walking.
“Edward?” He paused, coughed again. His throat ached. Perhaps Hickey’s blade had found him after all, for suddenly he could no longer breathe, and he was clutching at his throat, on his knees, the ground harsh and unforgiving beneath them. “Breathe, Edward.” The voice was familiar. Consider it done, sir.
He tried to push back to his feet. The voice was still speaking, closer than ever. Familiar. His chest ached. You are to lead the men forward, Edward. You and the others will live.
What you’re suggesting would be a death sentence for those men.
“Some, surely,” Edward rasped, cold seizing his chest, forcing the rest of the words out before he could reign them back in, each one aching like a thousand knives to his body: “but not for all of us.” To hell with the Captain’s orders.
“Breathe, my love.”
But he couldn’t. There was no air left in his lungs, no strength in his limbs. He stumbled forward, and this time there was no one to catch him, no commiserating eyes from over an officer’s shoulder, not even the anger in those last few moments. The ice cracked, and Edward smiled. It felt familiar.
I never want to feel ice under my boots again, he thought. He fell.
The ice fell with him.
“— though autumn leaves may droop and die, a bud of spring are you,” a voice sang quietly as Edward drifted back into consciousness, a wretched weight in his chest. It took him a moment to recognize it as belonging to Thomas, so scattered were his thoughts, but then, he thought part of him would know Thomas’ voice in any situation, burned into his soul the way it was. “Sing hushabye loo, low loo, low lan. Hushabye loo, low loo.”
“Didn’t know you could sing,” Edward mumbled, words slurred by drowsiness. He regretted them, not because of the way they scratched at his throat, but for the fact that the voice immediately stopped as Thomas took up his hand, pressing a kiss to the wrist.
“Poorly I’m afraid,” he heard Thomas say after a ragged exhale. He felt Thomas’ hand, blessedly cool, against his brow, and blearily tried to lift his own to cover it, frustrated when it felt as though the limb bore the weight of a grown man.
“You are not capable of performing anything poorly, Mr. Jopson,” he said, trying to infuse his earnest belief in that statement into the words. He heard Thomas chuckle, but it was a strained sound, laced with the worry of a loved one who could only sit back and watch as someone they cared for suffered. Instantly Edward was wracked with guilt, remembering another time, in another place. He remembered Thomas run so ragged, with bags under his eyes, the both of them weighed down with the burden of the Captain’s secret but Thomas’ even more so by the weight of his care, and the very idea that Edward could have—that he—
“That I have put you back in this position—” Edward rasped, breaking off with a coughing fit that wracked his whole frame and left him gasping for air, his throat a terrifying combination of both dry and filled with fluid. At his bedside, Thomas passed him a glass of water. A shadow moved somewhere in his periphery.
“Think nothing of it,” Thomas said firmly, but his voice, so beloved, seemed to be coming from such a great distance that Edward ached at the thought of having to cross it. He would, though. For Thomas he would sail the Passage again if it meant he would see those pale eyes waiting for him on the other side, and God in heaven he thought he could almost feel the chill of it, the ice seeping back into his veins until he could do naught but close his eyes and shiver uncontrollably as another cough wracked him—
“Ssh, Edward, my Edward,” Thomas crooned, blessedly close. Something damp was pressed against his forehead, and he shivered again. Distantly, he noticed that the room seemed darker, or perhaps that was just the fever talking, but then he felt Thomas’ hand stroking gently his hair, and he allowed that to steady him, calm him, even as the guilt for needing to do so ate at him.
“Sing for me again, Tom?” he asked. The words hurt to speak. Thomas paused in his ministrations, but a moment later Edward heard a shaky laugh; felt equally shaky lips against his brow, like that night before the fever had taken his hold. He felt tired, like his bones were filled with lead; tired like he had felt hauling those great sleds across the unending ice and the unforgiving, desolate land. The presence at his bedside—Thomas, oh Tom, I promised I would return—shifted. Then, in a language Edward had not heard save for in passing ports, a soft croon:
“Peis dinogat e vreith vreith.” A brief hitch of breath. “O grwyn balaot ban wreith.” A hand smoothing over his brow. Uneven, like the voice. Pausing in places. Beautiful. Edward let himself drift to it. “Chwit chwit chwidogeith, gochanwn gochenyn wythgeith.” A hand at his face—another hand? Two. Soft and familiar, a steward’s hands, Edward did not think he had seen a more beautiful sight that Crozier’s steward, and those were dangerous thoughts, best kept quiet—
“Pan elei dy dat ty e helya, llath ar y ysgwyd llory eny law: ‘giff gaff dhaly dhaly dhwg dhwg. Ssh, ssh… Ef lledi bysc yng corwc.”
He let himself slip to the sound of the voice, let himself drift away. The burden on his shoulders suddenly felt lighter, his cares distant, drowned by the memory of eyes as pale as the ice, hands as firm and steady as the sturdiest of hulls. He drifted more, let the song wash over him, as calming as the ocean’s call, and just as captivating.
“Nyt anghei oll ny vei oradein. Rest, my Ned.”
At last, he did.
It was the sound of voices that roused Edward from his slumber next, and even half-asleep and with every inch of his body groaning in pain he was aware enough to recognize that Thomas was no longer in the room. A wiser man might have stayed abed, but the part of Edward’s mind that still whispered of stillness and death had him slowly rising, reaching for the dressing robe—Tom’s—that was nearest to him. His mouth tasted foul, and when he ran a cursory hand through his hair he could not help but grimace, but he made his way forward anyway, inching his way out of the bedroom and down the hall, until he stood at the top of the stairwell, gazing into the foyer below.
“—has broken,” a man was saying, portly and pinched. A doctor. Edward squinted, comparing him to MacDonald, to Goodsir. Wishing at least one of them had come back from the arctic.
He felt tired again, and grimaced as he propped himself up against the wall. He stifled a cough. Besides the doctor, he could see George’s back and Thomas’ side profile. Thomas’ mouth was pressed into a grim, determined line, and George’s shoulders were so tight Edward worried a breeze from the open window might snap him in half.
“He will likely sleep for a few more hours, and will be weak for several days, but he is young and will recover. I daresay he has dealt with worse than a little pneumonia.”
Edward’s own lips thinned as he watched Thomas’ face tighten, but Thomas was perfectly calm when he uttered a perfunctory “thank you, Dr. Malbec.” George still looked stiff when he pressed payment into the doctor’s hands, though Edward could not see his face. Moments later, Malbec was out the door, Thomas closing it firmly behind him. The familiar lock of hair had fallen from his normal style. Edward itched to push it back into place
“Mr. Little,” Thomas said coolly, and Edward had just pushed himself away from the wall, intent on making it back to the bedroom before Thomas could see him out of it, when George reached out, stopping just short of grabbing Thomas’ arm.
“Mr. Jopson—” Edward’s brother began, retracting the limb. There was a pause, strained, and Edward was about ready to attempt the stairs, exhaustion be damned, when George said, unexpectedly, “I hope you will accept my apologies.”
“Sir?” Edward heard Thomas say, the old honorific slipping off his tongue in the way that it did when he was caught off guard and needed time to process and respond. George was silent for a moment, audibly struggling. Edward leaned back against the wall, folded his arms, and listened. Watched.
“I was—cruel, to him. And to you.” Edward raised an eyebrow. Down below, he saw Thomas blink slowly. He said nothing, which was just as well, as George was barrelling forward in the classic Little way soon enough, deliberately looking anywhere but at Thomas. “I almost lost Ned to the ice, and then again to my own actions. The first was out of my control, but the latter was not. Is not. And I suspect there are things that occurred out there that I’ll never know. That no one knows, and that we don’t want to know.” He took in a steadying breath and squared his shoulders. Edward thought he looked remarkably like their mother, when she was bearing up. He remembered, absently, that George had always been the more perceptive of his siblings. “This isn’t approval,” George said, his voice severe, “and it is not my protection, or my condoning of whatever the nature of your arrangement is. But it is my silence, and my promise to continue it. For his sake, and for yours. From this moment forth, I shall never mention it again, except to warn you that the longer you stay here uninterrupted… we have a large family, Mr. Jopson. And they like nothing more than to talk.”
George lifted his head at last, and Edward could see the way he struggled to hold Thomas’ steady gaze. He managed. Edward, who had felt the weight of that unwavering stare before, the surprising force of it, could summon enough energy to pity his brother its intensity.
“Consider your words received, sir.”
George nodded, Thomas inclined his head, and Edward slipped from the shadows of the hallway, exhausted on more than one front and determined to make it back to the bed before Thomas discovered him missing.
By the time Thomas came in a few minutes later, he was already asleep.
George left the next day with a stiff farewell to Edward as he lay propped up in bed in his dressing robe, a familiar book in hand. He gave no indication of the conversation Edward had overheard, and so Edward merely inclined his head. He wouldn’t have trusted his throat to let him speak anyway.
Halfway out the door, George paused. Edward waited, patient.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better, Ned. I’m sure all will be well.” Then he was gone.
Edward went back to his book.
“Thomas,” Edward growled, watching Thomas’ back arch deliciously as he moved his hips so that Edward could only grunt and hold tight, fingers digging into flesh. Thomas was in top form, but there was a franticness to his movements, even as he did his best to temper and control them, mindful of Edward’s still-healing lungs. When Edward had snagged him by the waist and tugged him into the bed with a hungry kiss, however, that control had snapped, and a flurry of movements had found them here, Thomas’ mouth hungry against his own, the heat of his body engulfing Edward thoroughly.
It was overwhelming, in the best possible way, the fevered haze of his mind for once a pleasured one, but that did not mean Edward missed the glassy sheen to Thomas’ eyes when the man fell forward, bracing his hands against Edward’s chest and panting after their mutual release.
Slowly, Edward reached up, thumb reaching to brush one of the tears that had managed to escape—unbidden, if Thomas’ gasp of surprise were any indication.
“Tom,” Edward murmured, and Thomas let out a tremulous laugh, crushing their mouths together until all Edward could see, taste, breathe was Thomas Jopson. “Tom,” Edward said again between kisses as Thomas laughed, a heart-wrenching sound. “Tom.”
Thomas kissed him harder. Edward succumbed.
“I hear you’ve made a splendid recovery.” Crozier’s letter, read aloud by Thomas, said. Edward, reading in the living room after Dr. Malbec’s final check—“good to see you up and about, Commander Little”—let out a sigh, one that left a slight rattle in his chest. Thomas raised both eyebrows, but continued reading, “Fitzjames is on about…”
Edward let Thomas’ voice wash over him, conscious of another penned letter sitting on the desk next to him, and let the afternoon pass them by.
“Canada?” Thomas said as he gracefully sunk to the ground next to Edward, peering at the piece of paper Edward held gingerly in his left hand. “Hardly the Mediterranean.”
Edward shrugged. “Not much to be said for the oppressive heat of the Mediterranean when you’re confined to damp wooden walls. As you’re well aware, Mr. Jopson.”
Thomas flashed him a mischievous smile, bordering on coy. “I know the kind of heat that I prefer, Commander Little,” he said with false primness, before placing a quick kiss to the corner of Edward’s mouth. “It will be good to see Crozier again, at any rate, once they have the Harbinger up to par.”
“I’m sure Fitzjames is frothing at the mouth,” Edward said dryly. Fitzjames, still recovering from old wounds, had grumbled in his own letter, but had wished them well, and bid them to take care of the Captain. Edward had taken the whole exchange with a grain of salt. Thomas had simply promised that they would.
Thomas hummed, and for awhile they just sat there, gazing idly over the pond that Edward and George had fallen into. Gradually, he felt Thomas lean against him, until the steward’s head was pillowed against his shoulder, the surface softened by the wool coat Edward wore to keep out the chill of the autumn wind.
“The admiralty is talking of financing another expedition to the Passage,” Thomas said suddenly. Edward didn’t ask how Thomas knew. His own thoughts strayed to the paper held still in his hand, and his appointment as Commander under Captain Crozier for an expedition the government was mounting to begin chartering Hudson’s Bay; an effort to further facilitate trade in the region. He breathed in slowly, steadily. A slight hitch. At his side, Thomas stiffened.
“S’pose we didn’t take very good notes up there,” Edward said.
“Evidently not.” Thomas shivered against him. He paused. Lifted a hand and pressed it against the front of Edward’s coat. Then, softer: “I had hoped you and I might sail together again.” After a moment, Edward wrapped an arm around his waist, drawing him closer. He’d been surprised by the swiftness of the admiralty’s response, but not overly so. They had been dogging his footsteps since his return from the Passage as one of the more hale men, but Edward had been unwilling to leave Thomas, who had been so weak from the scurvy that had ravaged his body. He had left him once, and he had promised, in those frenzied, uncertain days at Fort Resolution, that he would not do so again. Not if Thomas wanted him there.
With Thomas in agreement, however, he had at last written, and now the results of that were in his hand. George had been right about one thing, he supposed: they could not remain in the countryside forever. He would miss the privacy, but they would not be separated, and it would put distance between them and wagging tongues. The admiralty would still not honour Thomas’ promotion, but Crozier was as determined as Edward was bullheaded, and it had been nothing to get him appointed as the captain’s steward once more.
There was a slight thrill in his breast at the idea of being on the open sea again, despite it all. As he let his head fall to rest atop Thomas’, he was sure the other man felt the same.
That night, with Thomas dozing tucked tight against him—a habit born of close quarters, and one Edward was in no rush to break—Edward’s thoughts turned the ice, and to the waters they would once again sail. You are to lead the men forward, Edward. He closed his eyes to the echo of the order. Breathed in deeply, just to see if he could. Out. The rattle in his chest was gone, but behind closed eyes, the barren wasteland remained. He wondered if he was making a fool decision to sail back to it.
Against his chest, Thomas shifted, and Edward felt a hand settle against his breast, checking, always checking. Without saying anything, Edward breathed in again, slow and steady, and he heard Thomas exhale sharply when there was no rattle, no cough that got caught up in his throat.
“To have survived that place,” Thomas murmured. He left the thought unfinished, but Edward did not need the words to hear the rest of it: to have survived that place only to be brought down here, where it was supposed to be safe. Perhaps it was that that had fuelled their mutual decision to write the admiralty. Edward did not know. They spoke little of his illness, even though he could see the shadow of it in Thomas’ eyes whenever Edward so much as breathed improperly. Just another thing they had survived. Another ghost to hover above them in a sea of spirits.
So many times they had almost been lost, and yet God, or something, had seen fit to preserve them. Edward recalled Irving, and wished he had even a modicum of the man’s faith, but he was not sure he ever could, not now, not after everything. He breathed in again and felt Thomas’ fingers curl slightly against his breast. He exhaled. They relaxed.
Aboard the Harbinger, they would have to forgo this closeness. Crozier would say nothing, but he could not bridle the tongues of gossipy petty officers and able seamen. Still, they would manage. It would be enough to have Thomas close.
Edward closed his eyes. Be careful how you use that word, close, said the ghost of things that had not come to pass.
“Ned,” Thomas whispered. Edward gently stroked Thomas’ back once, twice, revelling in the feeling of bare skin: a reminder that Thomas was here, as he was. I’m the worst kind of sorry, sir. He thought of ships trapped in ice, of walking across the nothingness, of sleds racing against time, bearing their impossible burdens. He thought of Thomas onboard Terror, of words spoken and unspoken, of impossible situations and the burden of command. He felt ill-prepared for it, but he would shoulder it again. Would have shouldered it even without Thomas, but with Thomas, with their strengths combined—
All will be well, sir. You can count on me, sir.
He was a pragmatic man, but he thought they stood a good chance of coming out of this one a sight better than they had the last.
A gust of wind blew in from the open window. This time, it was Thomas who shivered, and Edward hummed, settling his arm along the other man’s shoulders, holding him as close as he dared. Another breath in. Thomas’ hand applying the faintest of pressures, a mirror of the way Edward had done to him at Fort Resolution in what seemed like another life.
Edward held him closer, and felt the press of lips against his sternum in turn. The hand remained at his breast, but it, too, softened. Thomas was drifting, and Edward could feel sleep’s arms reaching for him as well. I speak of love awake, and in my dreams. To the water, the shadows, the mountains. He looked down at Thomas. To the flowers, the grass, the fountains.
“Rest,” Edward said, turning his face into Thomas’ dark hair and breathing in the clean scent of him. “All will be well in the morning.”
You and the others will live. Let me hear it.
We will live.
He closed his eyes, and breathed.