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Francis has had enough.

“James, I’ve had enough!” Francis says, sitting on the edge of their bed. He rests his elbows on his knees and cradles his head in his hands. He can feel the bloom of a headache behind his left eye and rubs at his brow in vain.

“What’s happened, dear,” James’s voice comes from the wardrobe. He intones the question with the same flatness he once used to say dramatic opening shot while sitting across from Francis at a long and unforgiving table.

When Francis looks up there is a barely concealed twitch at the corner of James’s mouth, the mouth Francis so dearly loves.

Francis scowls. Tries to scowl. He can tell it isn’t working when the twitch turns into an ear-to-ear grin. From time to time he can hear Sir John’s hard to love in his ear, usually when he’s reading by the firelight in the sitting room, rubbing absentminded circles into James’s arches with his thumb. He pauses his reading to glance down at his belly, which is in a foot race with his heart to see which can grow softest the fastest. He’s in his fifties, for god’s sake. Who becomes spoilt rotten with love in his fifties?

“Another letter, then?” James asks, doing his best imitation of an innocent. “How is our dear Thomas fairing today?”

“As I said, I’ve had enough,” Francis says.

“Mmm,” James demurs, examining a deep-blue waistcoat. “And what new ways did you find to express please take some of the love I have for you and use it to forgive yourself this afternoon?”

Francis sighs.

“Now that you’re retired from the Navy you should write your book of synonyms,” James continues. “I’m sure it’d be a bestseller with every lovesick young man in Her Majesty’s kingdom. You’d put that Roget fellow out of business.” He effortlessly dodges a darned sock thrown at his head.

“Thomas is starting to believe it’s a hopeless cause,” Francis says, putting his head back in his hands.

“Well yes, generally speaking, that’s what being in love is,” James says. “A bloody hopeless cause.”

Francis looks up. “You know what I mean. He’s concerned his letters are going unanswered because his affections are . . . unreturned.”

James snorts. “I suppose between the scurvy and the minor case of lead poisoning he forgot how Lieutenant Little chewed up his food for him for every meal and fed it back to him like he was a sickly newborn robin redbreast?”

Francis waves his hand noncommittally.

“Right,” James says, closing the door to the wardrobe and padding across the room to sit next to Francis on the edge of the bed. “Well, what do you propose we do?”

“I don’t know,” Francis says, taking James’s hand between his own. He traces ambiguous shapes over James’s palm with his fingernail. “Thomas and Edward are two very stubborn men for entirely different reasons.”

“Oh, I meant to tell you earlier,” James says, “but a letter from George came with today’s post. He wants to have us over for a visit soon.”

“Mmm,” Francis says. “Yes, that—” He freezes.

“Francis?” James asks.

“Darling, where does George live?”

“His family’s country home is just outside Dover. Why?”

Francis stares at James. He prefers staring at James to catching his own reflection in a looking-glass, for the way that his slightly deranged expression peers back at him in James’s quirked brow and his deepening dimples and his irises.

“James,” Francis says, bringing James’s palm to his hand and kissing it. “You’re a genius.”

***

Thomas is well-aware of the fact that he is slipping more and more into an unforgivable state of self-pity with every passing hour, but as he watches the twilight summer rain streak the upper panes of the parlor windows, he cannot be arsed enough to care. The self-pity can’t be any uglier than the scabs that dotted his hairline for months out on the shale. Maybe he’s earned some chosen ugliness.

Even as he thinks this he rolls his eyes.

(There was the two of them, alone, in the great cabin. Edward had stared out the window into the dark nothingness and said I miss the rain and Thomas had looked at him and Edward had run his hand through the frost clinging to his beard and said I used to catch cold every summer as a boy because after it rains in the evening the sky turns this purplish-yellow with the light and I’d lie in the grass staring up into it and Thomas had said it sounds quite striking, it must be your favorite color for you to remember it so clearly and Edward had said it’s my second-favorite and had met Thomas’s eyes and then the captain’s hacking had come sharp and sudden from his berth and Thomas had rushed up to tend to him and when he came back Edward was still there, looking at him.)

Thomas looks out the window at Edward’s sky and sighs. Come back to me, you ridiculous, insufferable man, he thinks with no heat.

He hears Crozier and Fitzjames before he sees them, their bickering humming through the halls of the house in Reading like birdsong. Thomas schools his face into the best example of someone who is not moping over a man who loves horses of all things for Christ’s sake, a slight smile playing at the corners of his lips. (He thinks. He tries.)

“Thomas!” Crozier says, sweeping into the room with an easy smile on his face. “How are we this evening? Ready for supper?” There is an edge to his voice that sets off an alarm in Thomas. Thomas glances over at Fitzjames—notoriously rotten at hiding so much as a passing feeling—and can see sympathy in his eyes.

“Oh, you must join us tomorrow,” Crozier says, thumbing through a book left out on the sofa. “George has invited us for tea.”

“Sir, doesn’t Lieutenant Hodgson live near Dover?”

“Oh, he does,” Crozier replies, not meeting Thomas’s eyes. “Some sea air will be good for us, I think, even if it is a bit of a trip.”

Thomas thinks of all the letters Crozier has postmarked for him to a Mr. Edward Little in Dover. Thomas’s throat grows thick.

“It’s kind of you to extend the offer, sir, but I’m sure the lieutenant only intended the invitation for you and Captain Fitzjames,” Thomas says, backing away toward the window. “Perhaps it’s best if I stay here, look after things at home.”

“Nonsense,” Crozier says, finally looking up. He has a bizarre smile on his face. Thomas glances over at Fitzjames. He is trying to conceal a manic look in his eyes with all the subtlety of a child who has smashed a tea set.

Thomas frowns.

Thomas is very fortunate to have the captains in his life—they are using the pretense of middle age to strongarm him into what amounts to a Dickensian adult adoption—but it is in his nature to take up as little space as possible and asking Captain Crozier to dictate his pitiful letters these past few months has been an intolerable favor.

Thomas considers, not for the first time, that it is time he learn his letters, but while he is fed and housed by the generosity of Crozier he does not possess sufficient wealth or income to hire a tutor, and he would rather eat Le Vesconte’s leg for a second time than inquire about hiring one.

Perhaps he should become a highwayman. A proper rogue. The most ridiculous incarnation of Robin Hood England would ever see: rob the rich to feed his poor, lovesick heart.

Thomas mentally waves the thought away. Edward has not answered any of the letters Thomas has sent thus far. It’s foolish to think that will change.

“So it’s settled,” Crozier says with the wild look in his eyes. “We leave first thing in the morning.”

+

The train ride had been pleasant enough—Thomas had watched the countryside while Crozier and Fitzjames argued about the Brontȅs—and the ride to Lieutenant Hodgson’s from the train station had also been perfectly fine thus far. Thomas watches the small country house come into view as the carriage heads for the entrance of the long, winding drive. It’s a lovely home.

Thomas catches sight of some stables on the far end of the property. “Captain, you didn’t tell me George kept horses.”

“He doesn’t,” Fitzjames says mildly.

Thomas snaps his head to look at Crozier and Fitzjames, who are looking at him as if he is the next ingredient in their witch’s potion.

“Are we not going to the lieutenant's home?” Thomas asks, fear crawling up his spine.

“Oh, we are,” Crozier says as the carriage comes to a stop. “Well, James and I are going to one lieutenant's home. You, our dear boy, are going to another’s.”

“Sirs, I am not so sure this is a gre—”

“Out with you!” Fitzjames says, singsong, a smile plastered across his face. Before he has his bearings straight Thomas is standing outside the carriage at the foot of the drive and Crozier is beaming. “We’ll be back to check on you tomorrow!” he shouts.

Thomas hears Fitzjames’s wild laughter as the carriage pulls away.

***

It had rained in Dover the night before much the same way it had rained in Reading and Edward had stayed inside. He had dressed for bed and slipped under a flannel blanket softer than anything he had any right to own. He had looked at the open box on his nightstand and performed his nightly ritual: he had thumbed through the letters—they numbered eleven now—and ran his thumb across the return address of each envelope. It was a Monday, so he did not reread one of the letters; rereading was for Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The fifth letter was the next one to be read. That was the first letter in which Thomas called Edward my love. Edward looked forward to reading it again.

Then he had stared at the sea-colored walls of his bedroom until he fell into a restless sleep.

Edward tries to drown out any noise from his mind other than the sound of mud lapping at his boots as he walks across the lawn. He has made three trips around the stables and the dogs are starting to grow tired of following him around.

He eats three meals a day. He bathes every afternoon. At night he falls asleep in a perfectly comfortable bed. He has no shortage of reasons to hate himself, but today he chooses to hate himself for the series of decisions he’s made thus far in his life that have led him to this moment, in which he would give up the meals and the baths and the bed and the relative health to wake up shivering in a bedroll next to a half-lucid man with eyes the color of the sea.

Edward scowls at himself just thinking it.

If he were a braver man, there would be an easier way out of this. He would take the train to Reading, hire a carriage to bring him to the little residence Crozier and Fitzjames maintain. Knock on the door. Appear as a gentleman deserving of love; a man worthy of courting the loveliest Thomas Jopson in the world.

But that was not the man who had come home from King William Island. The man who had come home had almost left Thomas Jopson to die alone on the shale. The man who had come home still had holes in his face where the chains had hung. The man who had come home was, above all else, a burden to others, and the most good Edward could do after causing so much harm, after failing so many men (after failing one man), was to stay away from all of them for good. Edward permitted himself one extravagance of human sentimentality, and upon returning to England and moving into the cottage he had painted the walls of his bedroom the same sea-blue-green as Thomas’s eyes, and on his good days Edward could trick himself into believing that was enough.

Edward is so preoccupied with his daily ritual of starting arguments with himself that he fails to notice the figure coming up the drive. When movement crosses his peripheral vision Edward startles. He turns, ready to accost whoever it is who’s come to give him a hard time, except.

Except.

Thomas Jopson is standing five feet in front of him, and Edward feels as if his heart is about to bleed out of his eyes.

“Hello, Edward,” Thomas says, an apprehensive smile haunting the still-too-thin, still-too-beautiful lines of his darling, beloved face.

“Tom?” Edward asks.

Thomas’s eyes are watery. “I was wondering if you received any of the letters I’d sent.”

***

“Oh you must hear the Goldberg Variations,” George is saying, teacup practically levitating in its saucer as he stands up to walk over to the bookcase, “my niece is a marvelous player, perhaps she could play for us soon, let me see if I have the sheet music lying around here somewhere . . .”

“James I cannot, cannot, hear the clavier again after tonight,” Francis hisses. “You know how I feel about Bach.”

“This is a small price to pay to never have to write another love letter, you pettish old man,” James says, the picture of politeness.

“I’m not so sure I feel the same way now,” Francis says, pouting.

“Then I should’ve thrown you out of the carriage much the same way I was going to throw Thomas out if he did not go willingly,” James says, his smile growing thinner. “Would you rather be in the middle of whatever Austen novel is happening on the grounds of that country house?”

Francis shudders. “No, dear, you’re right.”

“Of course I’m right,” James says. “Drink your tea.”

***

Thomas glances around Edward’s room as much as he can from where he is cocooned against the other man’s chest. They are lying mostly clothed on Edward’s bed. Edward has an arm wrapped around Thomas’s shoulders and a hand folded against the hair at the nape of Thomas’s neck.

“You never did tell me what your favorite color is,” Thomas says, nuzzling the point of his nose against Edward’s jaw. “Is it this shade of blue you have on the walls? It’s quite lovely.”

Edward stills next to him, groans softly.

“What?” Thomas asks.

Edward presses his mouth to Thomas’s shoulder and lets out a muffled string of words.

“Sorry love, you’ll have to repeat that.”

Edward picks his head up and sighs.

“Yes, it’s my favorite color,” he says, looking at Thomas. Edward learns forward. He kisses Thomas, softer than anything, once under his left eye and once under his right. He rests the pad of his thumb in the corner, minutely stroking the wrinkles Thomas hates.

“Oh,” Thomas says, feeling himself pink. “Oh.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Edward says. He’s smiling.

Thomas kisses him.

***

“Francis!” James calls up the stairs, holding the post in his right hand. “There’s a letter!”

“What?” Francis shouts back.

“A letter!”

“You let who?”

James rolls his eyes and climbs the stairs. He finds Francis shaving over the wash basin and catches his eye in the mirror. Francis grins at him.

“What were you yelling about?” Francis asks, scraping the edge of the razor against his left cheek.

“There is a letter,” James says, summoning all the patience worn-in love can bring. “From Edward.”

Francis drops the razor into the basin. “Well why didn’t you bloody say so!”

Francis leans over James’s shoulder, patting his face dry with a towel as James reads Edward’s letter out loud to him. James watches Francis’s face, catalogs the way light fills his blue eyes over Thomas talks of you all the time and we’d love to have you for a visit and how about in a fortnight and I apologize but I did tell George we would pay him a visit and Captain Crozier I promise you will never hear a clavier in our home and Mr. Bridgens says Thomas is one of the brightest pupils he’s ever had and thank you, from the bottom of my heart, thank you, both of you. James watches the way Francis sucks in a breath, how the smile splits his face and the tears fill his eyes as he gets to the bottom of the page where a note is scrawled in shaky, newly formed handwriting:

Thank you, Francis.
Love,
Tom.