It’s a funny thing, to remember both everything and nothing.
Take, for example, Thomas’s recollection of his first time.
He remembers watching the crow flying around the window. He remembers the creak of the floorboards. He remembers the nothingness that crept into his head. He does not remember the pain, or the blood, or the fear. He remembers his father giving him a lemon sweet, afterward. A reward in exchange for keeping a secret; a balm for the foul taste in his mouth.
He doesn’t remember how sore he was. He remembers wanting to die.
He does, and does not, remember being six years old. He remembers it being him, and it not being him, this other thing inside himself that this happened to, if it happened at all.
He saw his eyes, his face, his body one day in the glare of a shop window and couldn’t tell if the thing looking back at him was a child inside a monster’s body or a monster inside a child’s body. He hated them both in equal measure.
Well. Best to leave that last thought alone. The important thing, he thinks every day while he cleans the razor, is that the option is always on the table. They will either make it back to England or they won’t. If they don’t, well, that solves his problem for him now doesn’t it? And if the ice thaws and he does make it home to London there are more than enough messes to compensate for his. He keeps the thought tucked safely against him, like a favorite handkerchief in his pocket.
As he got older, his father’s attentions bored Thomas. They were boring in their habitualness, boring in the everyday, boring for the monotonous pain and grief they wrought. Thomas was tired, and hungry, and cold, and his father never used enough spit, and Thomas learned to turn the fear and the agony into a nothingness the same color as the London fog.
His mother doesn’t say it, but Thomas can tell by the look in her eyes that she blames him; blames him for existing in the first place, blames him for growing into a body his father no longer saw any use for.
He doesn’t fault her for this. He would probably feel the same way, if he were in her shoes.
“We are down an income,” she says to him a few nights later, not meeting his eyes. She is trying to quiet his brother, who is too young to know not to cry when he’s hungry. “You’re the man of the house now. It’s time you find steady work.”
Steady employment is hard to find, but Thomas has always known what he’s good at.
Every time someone fucks him, he thinks about killing himself. But there are mouths to feed and sins to atone for.
And that is true. Until it isn't.
Through it all, he loves the sea for its familiarity. He has never known solid ground. He is calmest during a storm.
An hour later Thomas finds himself in the head, retching up his breakfast as quietly as possible.
He chalks it up to a stomach ailment. When his stomach turns every time he sees the young lieutenant, he chalks it up to relearning his sea legs.
It’s quick and easy to reacquaint himself with the eating methods he developed in his youth. Service certainly couldn’t be interrupted, so Thomas eats, and then he makes himself vomit, and then he is able to stand in the same room with Lieutenant Little without the swirling hell of nausea behind the ever-present pit in his stomach.
Eventually the constant bile in the back of his throat recedes, and he feels calmed. The pit in his stomach still sits there, making him feel hot at odd times of the day. On the days it bothers him most he snaps at poor Billy Gibson, who is not nearly as hapless as Thomas wishes he’d be on days like this.
One night a month into their journey the pit bothers him more than usual; his face is flushed and his skin prickles and he feels like his blood has been replaced with the captain’s agitation-laced whisky. He lies in his berth for some time, kicking the blanket to his ankles and hoping for relief from his strange, constant stomach ache.
He wakes up some time during middle watch, rutting into the mattress, dirtying his nightshirt without so much as a hand on himself. In the moments before he spills, between sleeping and waking, he can still feel Lieutenant Little’s chest against his back, feel his mouth against his neck and where his hands had pressed Tom’s palms into the mattress, interlocking their fingers, feel where he had been fucking into Tom so perfectly that Tom felt like he had died and been born anew.
Thomas rolls over, belly covered in his own seed, and throws up on the floor.
“Look at you,” his father had said, hand cupped around his child’s prick. “You want this.”
Thomas smiles wryly to himself. He supposes his father was right.
On the Antarctic expedition Thomas had overheard Crozier say, You know how I feel about gin, to Captain Ross, had watched how Ross had laid a fraternal hand on his shoulder. Crozier had said it with a smirk, but Ross had squeezed lightly and said, Yes, I know, with something deeper than his usual easy, light grace.
A few months beforehand Thomas’s mother had looked at him in a laudanum-induced haze and said, Your father was like my father. Then she laughed, high and girlish. Travels in families, this. See to it you don’t have one of your own. You’ll be just like them.
After breakfast service one morning, Thomas stands near a shaken Lieutenant Little as he makes to exit the wardroom.
He just wants to spit at his mirror, Thomas wants to say, and you are the next best thing.
“It can’t be helped, sir,” he says instead, quiet and low. “It has nothing to do with you.”
The lieutenant looks at him for a long moment.
“Thank you, Mr. Jopson,” he finally says, soft. Thomas wonders if he knows the effect his voice has; if everyone is as undone by the caress of it as Thomas is. “I shall keep that in mind.”
When Thomas looks back at dinner that evening, Little smiles at him.
He doesn’t dream of Edward fucking him that night. He dreams of being pressed into Edward’s side, nosing into the crook of his neck, letting Edward wrap his arms around Thomas tightly even though Thomas knows better, knows the transactional nature of affection. Soon Edward will want something in return: a favor, a lie, a violent ending.
But soon never comes, and Tom only dreams of Edward pressing kisses to his temple and Edward running his fingers through Thomas’s hair.
“I will take you gentlemen to the orchestra,” Hodgson says, his sweet, tipsy smile so wide and alive it looks as if it’ll jump down from his face of its own accord. “Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach . . .”
“Oh, god, anything but Bach, George, please,” Little says.
“Edward! What on earth do you have against Bach?” Hodgson says, outraged.
“If I wanted to fall asleep while listening to music I would simply pay a visit to my parents and ask my mother to sing me a lullaby from my infancy,” Little says. He glances over his teacup at Thomas, a rare, mischievous smile on his face. It is the loveliest Christmas present Thomas has ever received.
“John, are you hearing this?”
Irving looks up at the ceiling. “I would be amenable to some Handel.”
“Of course you would,” Hodgson mutters.
“Handel sounds lovely,” Little says.
“Well, Edward, what will you do once we’re back, hmm? Besides continuing to hold absurd opinions on classical music.”
“I will be in the Regent’s Park, birdwatching.”
“Birdwatching?” Hodgson says, incredulous.
“Yes,” Little says, face softening, gaze up in the trees somewhere far, far away. “My sisters used to point out birds to me as a boy. There was much excitement in our house when Mr. Audubon debuted his plates. I’d like to make a trip to Cornwall in the fall or spring, perhaps even both. Migratory season is supposed to be spectacular there. I sketch them sometimes, although I’m a rudimentary artist at best. John puts us all to shame. Speaking of which, where will you be off to, John? Church, I presume?”
“Yes,” Irving replies. “If not for service, then for watercolors. It’ll be nice not to rely on memory alone.”
“What will be the first thing you do? Once we’re home?”
Thomas isn’t sure. There’s the razor, obviously. He could procure some laudanum, although something about going out the same way as his mother seems awfully maudlin. He’s seen sailors drown and he’d rather not do that. But that isn’t what the lieutenant is asking, is it.
Thomas smiles politely. “I’m not sure, sir.”
Little smiles back. It breaks Thomas’s heart. “Really? Nowhere you’d like to go? No one you’d like to see?”
There isn’t anyone in London left to say goodbye to, so that won’t be necessary. Maybe a good cup of tea. Yes, that would be nice. And a stroll in the park. He’ll sit on a bench and look for one of Little’s birds, and he’ll pretend that Little is sitting next to him with his hand resting against the inside of Thomas’s elbow. That might be a nice last day. A trick of the light would almost make it seem like a good life.
“Maybe a walk in the park, sir,” he says. “Although I confess I know nothing about birds, other than the fact that there are some whose singing I enjoy.”
“Do you remember anything about their songs? A pattern, a pitch?”
Thomas thinks back to the brown bird he’d seen on the edges of Marylebone sometimes, its song the brightest part of the day. “Only that they talked and talked like they had lots to say, and they were always happy to say it.”
Little’s face softens. “A nightingale. My favorite bird. Their song is unlike any other.”
Thomas smiles at him, heart locked up carefully, always so carefully. Maybe he’ll slash his wrists. Maybe he’ll bleed more than most people. Maybe whoever finds his body will be able to see how much love bled out of him while he was dying.
“It’ll be good to hear one again,” he says.
Little looks at him as if he wants to say something. The moment passes, and he stands from his chair.
“Goodnight, Mr. Jopson. Happy Christmas.”
“Happy Christmas to you too, sir.”
On the page is a drawing of a nightingale.
Thomas tucks himself under the blanket, curling in so he’s facing the slip of paper like a wife curling in toward her husband in a marriage bed.
He looks at it until he drifts off to sleep.
He’s on his way to the captain’s storeroom for a change of linens when he runs into Lieutenant Little in the passageway. The lieutenant frequently has a particular look of melancholy on his face, but the burden of command in the middle of a frozen hell has transformed that melancholy into a bone-deep sadness that makes Thomas’s heart ache for him. Thomas knows what that feeling is like. The thought of Little feeling it as well is too much to bear.
“Oh, Mr. Jopson, there you are,” Little says, coming to a stop. He is close enough that Thomas can see the individual waves in his grown-out hair.
“Were you looking for me, sir?”
Little looks at him, something passing across his face that Thomas cannot discern. The lieutenant doesn’t say anything for a moment.
“Anything I can help you with?” he finally asks.
“That isn’t necessary, sir. You have enough on your plate.”
“Please,” Little says, his voice a plaintive whisper. “Let me help you. Give me a task. Something that needs doing that can be done. A clear beginning and end.”
Well, Thomas thinks. It would begin with my hand on your prick and it would end with your come down my throat.
“I could use an extra set of hands with these crates in the storeroom,” he says instead.
Little follows him dutifully into the storeroom. Thomas watches his strong arms move crates out of the way until he uncovers the one with the spare-spare set of linens Thomas had been searching for. When he looks up he seems a little more at ease than he had been when they first walked in.
“That’s a big help, sir. I can’t thank you enough.”
“Edward,” Little says. “Please. Call me Edward.”
Edward, Thomas thinks, thrilling inside, a bird with a new song. Edward, Edward, Edward. My Edward. My love.
“I’m not sure that’s proper, sir.”
The corner of Edward’s mouth twitches. “I could make it an order.”
Thomas bites down on his lip to keep from grinning. “That won’t be necessary. Edward.”
Something in Edward’s face changes when Thomas speaks his Christian name out loud. Thomas, so used to being half-outside his body, suddenly feels how close he is to the other man. How warm Edward is, how dark and deep and beautiful his eyes are, how his mouth is shaped like a heart. Edward’s eyes flick up and down Thomas’s face. He reaches out and places a hand on Thomas’s shoulder, stroking his thumb over the hidden scar on Thomas’s collarbone.
He doesn’t remember what happens next. One moment he is looking into Edward’s lovely brown eyes and the next he is pressed against the far wall of the cramped storeroom: panting, ears ringing, his vision narrowing like it’s trying to keep him from seeing what’s lurking at the edges and in the corners. Edward is staring at him, mouth slightly open, eyes wide and sad and concerned.
Thomas comes back to himself. A new kind of panic settles in his breastbone.
“I’m—” he starts, trying not to cry. No one has seen him cry in eighteen years and today will be no different. “I’m so sorry, sir, I don’t—”
“Edward,” he says, voice gentle like he’s talking to a spooked horse. “You called me Edward just a minute ago. Please. I liked that.”
“Please forgive me, I’m not sure what came over me.”
“No, please, Mr. Jopson, it is I who owe you an apology. I didn’t mean to cause you offense or harm. It’s the last thing I ever wish to do.”
Maybe Thomas will cry. No, no he won’t.
“You—I know it must not seem that way, but it had nothing to do with you.”
Edward is regarding him with an unreadable expression. “My . . . friend William was in the Battle of First Bar, you know,” he says. “He’s, ah, not too fond of fireworks these days. Perhaps—”
The fog is starting to close in on Thomas again when the distant clamoring of the bell breaks through. Edward stops talking.
“I should return to the captain, sir.”
“Yes, yes. Of course.” Edward opens his mouth, closes it again, before turning around and exiting the storeroom.
Thomas presses the fingernail of his thumb into his wrist and counts to ten before following him out.
He slaps himself across the face—one, two, three times, as hard as he can. The shock of pain gives way to numbness, which is the next best thing to a true calm.
Thomas shudders, tries to keep his pathetic sobbing silent. It’s okay, a loving voice coos in his head. Only a little while longer, Tommy. It’ll be like when you slap yourself across the face. It’ll hurt, and then there will be nothing. And then you can rest.
A week after the incident in the storeroom, Thomas sits in the great cabin with his pile of mending. The captain is asleep; the ship is quiet; his hands, like Crozier’s, shake less now. He pushes the needle into the linen, pulls it out; pushes it in, pulls it out.
Thomas hears footsteps outside the door a few minutes past four bells. Lieutenant Little opens the door.
“Mr. Jopson,” he says.
“Lieutenant,” Thomas replies. “You’re up late.”
“I can’t sleep,” Edward says, sitting in the chair next to Thomas’s. “I almost asked John if he wanted a night off watch but . . .” Edward trails off, staring into a corner of the room as if he is watching Lieutenant Irving pace back and forth across the upper deck. Thomas wonders if Edward has noticed the barely concealed, anxious look of longing that crosses Irving’s face more frequently these days; if Edward has noticed, Thomas wonders if his relationship with Irving is intimate enough that Edward knows what the source of the anxious longing is. Thomas knows Irving is a pious man, but—god help him—surely he can’t miss the Scottish Presbyterian church that much.
“I will, of course, leave you be, if you do not wish for company,” Edward says, turning his gaze back toward Thomas.
Thomas looks at him over his mending. “I appreciate the company,” he says. “I cut back on tea. Any help staying awake is a blessing.”
Edward smiles at him.
“Maybe reading would help you relax?” Thomas suggests, gesturing toward the bookshelf against the wall.
Edward grimaces. “I’ve had enough of the memoirs.”
“Spoiled for you now, are they?”
“Something like that. Although I didn’t care for most of them in the first place. Spend any time at an Admiralty ball and you’ll find any real talent for storytelling a rare possession indeed.”
“You’re right,” Thomas says mildly. “In all my time in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, I have never met anyone quite like Commander Fitzjames.”
Edward’s mouth twitches before he lets the easy grin spread across his face. Something in Thomas hums, low and pleased.
“What is it you do like to read?” Thomas asks. Edward is quiet a moment; when Thomas looks up again he can see the lieutenant’s ears pinking in the low light.
“You’ll think me a scoundrel,” Edward says.
Thomas is tempted to snort. He doesn’t. “A third of the population of Marylebone is scoundrels, Lieutenant Little. I am not worried as to how your reading habits compare.”
“Ah, well,” Edward says. The pink at his ears deepens and he doesn’t elaborate.
Thomas’s right hand cramps where it’s clutched around the needle and he hisses low as the muscle tightens and freezes.
“What’s wrong?” Edward asks. He watches the way Thomas flexes his hand.
“Nothing,” Thomas says, trying to pick his needle up again. The cramp is stronger this time. He has to cut off the whimper in the back of his throat.
Edward watches him for a moment before opening his mouth and closing it. He moves his chair closer to Tom’s until he’s close enough to touch. He reaches out; pauses; puts his hand down.
Thomas can see the words trying to materialize in Edward’s mind, is endeared to hell and back by it.
“Are you disagreeable to your hands being touched?”
Thomas blinks. Whatever he was expecting Edward to say, that wasn’t it.
“I don’t mind my hands being touched,” he says, cautious.
Edward smiles at him, brief and sweet, and nods, reaching back toward Thomas.
“I know you,” Edward says, low. The pit in Thomas’s stomach turns hot as coal. “And I know no amount of cajoling will get you to put that mending down and rest.” Edward takes the needle out of Thomas’s hand and places it gently on the table before taking Thomas’s right hand in both of his own. “So we need to see to it that this doesn’t get worse.”
Edward digs one of his thumbs into the fleshy part of Thomas’s hand between his thumb and first finger and the dragging ache feels so good that Thomas has to bite back a moan. Edward rubs the flesh slowly in small circular motions before moving to rub under the joints of each knuckle, then ever-so-gently over the calluses that line the pads of Thomas’s fingers. Thomas watches the way Edward’s brow furrows in concentration; catalogs every line in his forehead, every dark eyelash that fans over his elegantly crafted cheekbones. Thomas is going to commit his Edward’s face to memory so that when he’s jerking himself off tonight and tomorrow night and every subsequent night he’s unlucky to be alive he will think about this moment and imagine that Edward always looks like this when he’s working Thomas over, when he’s reducing Tom to nothing but boiling skin.
Tom had learned how to quiet himself a long time ago, to the point that it is almost second nature; but when he thinks about this moment later on, he’ll imagine that it’s safe enough for him to sigh and groan and babble on and on. Edward will hear Tom’s voice and he’ll learn what Tom sounds like and he’ll know Tom. He’ll know Tom.
“How’s that?” Edward asks softly. Thomas doesn’t answer.
Edward looks up, eyes dark. “Mr. Jopson?”
“It’s good,” Thomas says, trying to keep the edge out of his voice. “It’s very good. Edward. Thank you.”
Edward doesn’t drop his hand, his thumb wandering across the lines of Thomas’s palm. “Fanny Hill,” Edward says.
Thomas must be dreaming. “Come again?”
“I don’t recall how many times I’ve read it,” Edward says, eyes dropping from Thomas’s face to their hands. “I stole it from my brother. Cornelius. I’m sure he stole it from James—my other older brother. I read it twice, just before we set sail. Tried to commit it to memory.” Thomas watches Edward bite his lower lip. Thomas isn’t sure if he’s more jealous of the teeth or the flesh.
“Have you . . .” Edward starts to ask.
Thomas has worked in molly houses and on the streets and in the navy. “I’ve read some of it, yes,” he answers, not looking up. “A long time ago.” He pauses, steels himself. “I am not much of a reader, but I . . . enjoyed what I did read.” When he does look up, Edward’s dark eyes flick up and down his face. His thumb has stopped moving. He has not let go of Thomas’s hand.
"Thomas," Edward says softly.
"Say my name again," Thomas says, barely keeping the plea out of his voice. He imagines Edward secreting passages in his bed late at night, prick hard against his belly, hand moving beneath the sheets—
“Thomas,” Edward says, voice rough.
The unmistakable noises of a man retching onto his nightshirt sounds from the captain’s berth. Thomas jerks his hand out of Edward’s grasp, standing so fast he almost falls over.
“Excuse me, lieutenant,” Thomas says. He turns toward the captain’s berth. He does not look back.
Whoring himself out on land seemed like the natural progression of things, so it did not bother him. Thomas has been fucked by scores of men. A game, a treat, a way to blow off steam. They fucked him and he went somewhere else in his mind and sometimes he even came. No one had crowded him up against a wall and made him cry in a long time.
But that was nothing like this.
He wants Edward to fuck him with his eyes open. He wants to watch Edward get off, wants to know what his face looks like when he’s desperate, wants to know if the flush at the tips of his ears travels south, wants to know how he likes to be licked and sucked and touched. If he likes kissing. If he’d kiss Thomas. If he’d let Thomas kiss him.
Thomas wants Edward to touch him. Anywhere, really, it doesn't matter; sometimes he gets so worked up in his berth at night that he thinks he’d spill with just Edward’s hand holding his cheek.
Thomas knows what families do to each other. He is not ashamed of what happened to him; he is ashamed of wanting something else. Of wanting to go back to the beginning, and trying to get it right.
I wish you had been in Antarctica with us, he thinks. I wish you had been at the ball. I wish I could’ve snuck a dress out of the trunk and danced with you on the deck. I wish I were a woman. Maybe then my father never would have touched me. Maybe I would run into you in the street. Maybe you’d smile and I’d smile back and maybe you would court me and maybe I would be your wife. Maybe we’d move out to the country and maybe we’d raise a family and maybe at five o’clock on a summer day I’d stand in the back doorway and shield my eyes against the sun and watch you chase our children around the garden. Maybe every night I’d sit in your lap in our marriage bed and I’d whisper “please” and you’d whisper “I love you” against my mouth over and over again while I came apart in your arms.
I want to live, Thomas thinks. Just not this life. And this is the only one I have.
The forward camp is leaving tomorrow. Edward is leaving tomorrow.
There is nothing to be done. About any of it.
This is what he tells himself as he puts one foot in front of the other, walking the passageway of officers’ country. He stands outside a door. Breathes. Waits. Knocks.
When Thomas opens the door Edward is sitting at his writing desk in his shirtsleeves. He stands up, eyes widening.
“Thomas,” Edward says.
Before he loses his nerve—because really, it’s redundant to fear the noose when they’re all as good as dead anyway—he takes the two steps forward in the cramped cabin, wraps his arms around Edward’s neck, and kisses him.
He feels as much as hears the broken sound in the back of Edward’s throat before Edward is kissing him back, wrapping an arm tightly around Thomas’s waist and a hand around the nape of Thomas’s neck, hauling him in closer. His body is so warm and his mouth is impossibly soft for a man whose skin has been rubbed raw time and time again by the arctic wind and god Thomas loves him, Thomas would do anything for him, Thomas would—
“Thomas,” Edward says again between kisses. “Thomas, Thomas, my Thomas.”
“In a week,” Thomas says, feeling his eyes water and doing his best to ignore it, “I will leave this ship, and if I don’t find you alive and well on King William Island a few days afterwards I will never forgive you. Do you hear me?”
Edward cradles Thomas’s face, smoothing the pads of his thumbs over Thomas’s cheekbones. “I’ll be fine,” he says against Thomas’s lips. “You just get to me, alright?”
Thomas nods, breath hitching, and Edward sighs. “Tom, my love,” he says. “My own love.”
Dying is making him sentimental. He hates it; hates it both for how exposed it makes him feel—exposed like the scar on his leg that started leaking last week—and how much time he wasted not being sentimental sooner. His prize for sewing himself up tight for all those years is that he is in love for the first time in his life, here, at the end, heaven and hell intertwined across the landscape. He is in love and his beloved is rewarded with the unenviable task of watching Thomas die.
The irony is not lost on Thomas. Death is what he’s wanted all along, isn’t it? His teeth are rotting out of his skull; little creeks and streams and babbling brooks of blood flow out of the cracks in his skin and his lungs; he is maybe a week or two off from losing his bowels in this foul, death-smelling bedroll he shares with Edward.
Here lies Thomas Jopson: He wants to live.
“Will you be here when I wake up?” Thomas asks. (He asks this every night.) .
Edward kisses his forehead. “Probably not. You get as much rest as you can, sleep in. I’ll come to you when I return.”
“Do you have watch?”
“No,” Edward says, shifting closer to Thomas. “I talked to the captain earlier tonight. We’re trying hunting parties again and I’m taking the first one out. George and Mr. Armitage are coming with me.”
“Not Sergeant Tozer?”
“No, he’ll be on watch here,” Edward says. “I don’t think you can drag him far from the sick tent anyway.”
Thomas considers this for a moment. “How is Lieutenant Irving fairing?”
Edward strokes Thomas’s temple, the skin just above his ear. “Dr. Goodsir says he should be dead. And yet he isn’t. His breathing sounds a little stronger every day.”
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it. He supposes the bible got that one right.
Christ, Thomas thinks. I’m becoming ridiculous.
Well, the ridiculous voice says. Are you really going to let Lieutenant Irving beat you at a match of everlasting love?
What in god’s name are you talking about? Thomas asks the voice.
Irving was stabbed fifteen times. You have a bad cough and some dental problems.
“Lieutenant Irving doesn’t love Sergeant Tozer more than I love you,” Thomas says. Edward’s hand stills on his head.
“What makes you say that?” he asks.
“If Irving lives and I die, I don’t want you to think that I died because I didn’t love you more.” Thomas can tell that he’s starting to sound ridiculous outside his own head, but he hopes Edward won’t hold it against him. “I love you more than anyone has ever loved anyone in the history of people loving each other.”
Thomas feels Edward press a soft kiss to his brow, the low, breathless chuckle that follows. “You’re not going to die,” he whispers.
“Edward, yes I am. I am dying.” At this Edward resumes petting him like the petulant cat that he is.
“I’m not going to let anything happen to you,” he says.
Edward, my love, you’re delusional, Thomas thinks.
You’re the one arguing with yourself, the ridiculous voice says. Maybe you’re the delusional one.
“My sister is like me,” Edward says. “Like us. Charlotte. She lives with her sweetheart and her sweetheart’s husband. Virginia and William. Our parents think she’s the governess for their children. She is essentially their second mother.”
“How do she and Virginia manage it? Sneaking around like that?”
“Oh, they aren’t sneaking around. William knows. He and Virginia have been friends their whole lives. They’ve always loved each other, but I don’t think they’ve ever been in love. He’s happy she’s happy. He and Charlotte get on like a house on fire. It’s quite a thing to behold, really.”
Thomas tries to wrap his head around it; of two women, of the indifferent husband, of the children. A happy family.
“Has she always known about you?” Thomas asks.
“Oh, she’s always known everything about me, long before I knew it myself,” Edward says, smirking. “I mean, they don’t hang women for sodomy, so the fear of the noose has never colored her perception of the world. But having her around made things easier for me, I think. I can’t imagine being on my own with it. It would have tortured me into an early grave.” Edward kisses the bridge of his nose; Thomas can feel Edward’s lips tilt into a smile. “And beyond that, I never would have met you.”
“What do you mean?” Thomas asks.
“Darling, how do you think I met Fitzjames?”
Thomas’s jaw drops. “Edward!” he says, scandalized. “You cannot be serious!”
“I am!” Edward says, laughing, his gums the color of scorched earth. “We met in a den of ill repute. Fast friends, we were.”
“Edward Little, don’t you dare tell me you’ve buggered Fitzjames.”
“No, he was too busy buggering Le Vesconte,” Edward replies. “We kissed a bit. It was nothing worth reporting on.”
“And the others before me? Were any of them worth reporting on?”
Edward snorts. “There isn’t much to tell. They were anonymous; I got them off, they got me off. I never loved anyone before you.”
Thomas smiles, eyes growing heavy. “Good.”
“Tell me, love,” Edward says. “About the men before me. About your first. Was he terribly dashing?”
Thomas is falling asleep. He doesn’t think to lie.
“I was six years old,” he says.
Maybe that was the wrong thing to say.
Thomas opens his eyes. Edward looks like he’s been slapped.
“My father,” Thomas continues, too dead for anything other than the truth. He reaches his hand out to stroke Edward’s cheek. “I wish it had been you,” he says, trying to smile, trying to put Edward at ease. “I wish I had waited for you.”
“Tom,” Edward says wretchedly. He kisses Thomas’s nose, Thomas’s cheeks, his eyebrows and his chin and his jawline and around the scabs and the bruises and the dried blood. “Tom,” he says again, resting his temple against Thomas’s, stroking Thomas’s hair, his arms, anything he can reach. He kisses the crown of Thomas’s head.
“I’m sorry,” Thomas says.
“You have nothing to apologize for,” Edward says, a choked sound coming out of his lungs. Thomas loves his lungs. Thomas loves his voice. “You did nothing wrong. Nothing wrong at all. My love.”
Thomas burrows himself into Edward’s chest and Edward wraps his arms tight around him, rubbing circles into his back.
“That’s my regret, I think,” Thomas says. “That I never got to have you. That you never got to have me.” He rests his head against Edward’s collarbone. “I wonder what it would be like,” he says quietly.
“I will take care of you,” Edward says, low, his lips pressed faintly against the shell of Thomas’s ear. Thomas shivers. “You will never have to do anything again, other than spill for me every night.” Edward’s hand moves lower down Thomas’s back; Thomas hasn’t managed a cockstand in months but Edward’s voice is making his belly go warm.
Thomas wonders distantly if perhaps it’s best that he’s going to die before he ever has Edward inside him. For all of Thomas’s desperate fantasizing over the years, he is not sure at the end of the day if he’s cut out for a life more than half-remembered fumbles in molly houses. Maybe it would be disappointing no matter what. Maybe his body had decided long ago it was built to betray him, much like it was betraying him now. He is falling apart in his would-be lover’s arms in all the wrong ways.
“A night not long from now,” Edward continues, “we will be in our bed, and you’ll be under me, and I’ll open you up so well you’ll forget you ever felt anything other than good. That will happen. You will live.” Edward’s voice catches. “Do you hear me, Tom? You will live.”
Thomas can feel the fog pulling him under—whether it’s the fog of sleep or the fog of death, he isn’t so sure. Maybe it’s the same fog no matter what.
“We will live,” Thomas says, nodding against Edward’s shoulder, pressing his mouth to the wool of his coat. He listens to Edward’s breathing until his eyes close.
The second is the shouting.
Thomas hauls himself into a hunched-over sitting position. He reaches out, grasps the canvas of the tent, looks to see what’s causing the commotion.
It’s Edward, walking toward camp, Captain James Clark Ross at his side.
“He sounds like one of your birds,” Thomas says to Edward, who has taken to carrying Thomas on his back whenever possible.
“Do you ever sleep?” Thomas asks around a spoonful of broth one evening.
“I keep having these nightmares,” Edward says by way of explanation. “That we’re still there. That I left you behind to die alone.” He rubs at his face, dark circles under his eyes. “I’m not letting you out of my sight. At least not until I have you properly tucked up in bed at home.”
Something flutters in Thomas’s chest; surely one of Edward’s birds, arranging straw and twigs and mud in Thomas’s rib cage. “Do you intend to keep me, Lieutenant Little?” he whispers.
“As long as you’ll let me,” Edward whispers back.
“Where will we go?” Thomas asks.
“Would you like to return to London?”
For years the only plan Thomas had upon returning to London was to end his life by nearly any means necessary as quickly and efficiently as possible.
“You mentioned Cornwall once,” Thomas says. “What if we went there?”
“Really?” Edward asks, light in his eyes.
“Yes,” Thomas says.
Edward glances up and around the quiet sick bay. The surgeon’s back is turned. Most of the other patients are asleep, save for Irving, who is too focused on whatever it is Sergeant Tozer is murmuring to him to notice Thomas and Edward. Edward picks Thomas’s hand up and presses his lips to his palm.
“We’ll build our nest in Cornwall, then,” Edward says against Thomas’s love line.
In hindsight, Thomas isn’t surprised he reacted to the existence of Edward Little by developing a newfound seasickness all those years ago. Edward is the steadiest thing Thomas has every bore witness to, even through his melancholy and his self-doubt and the notes of panic that flit behind his eyes that he thinks Thomas doesn’t notice. He is steady, steady, steady.
Charlotte Little comes to visit a few days after Thomas is admitted. She has the same serious countenance and the same brown eyes as Edward, although there is something more pronounced about her, like a hidden cliff’s edge. She brings a copy of Jane Eyre, rips out a blank page from the back, and starts making room and furniture and garden and kitchen lists.
“There is, of course, room,” she says, lips pursed in thought, “if you two wish to come stay with Virginia and William and the children and me for a spell.” She looks at Thomas, her mouth quirking. “Although I assume you both have had enough company to last a lifetime. I will find you a house out of earshot of any prying neighbors.”
Edward’s face flushes. Thomas decides he likes Charlotte very much.
For this reason in their first few days there he stands in the hallway, staring at nothing, unsettled. He looks out the window, half-expecting to see his father coming up the path, back to reclaim him. Back to return him to where he belongs.
Thomas looks in the mirror above the wash basin. He’s missing teeth now. His body is hollow, gaunt, a lingering weakness he’s afraid he’ll never shake. He is different now, different than when Edward first saw him. It is not unlike puberty. He wonders if the consequences will be the same this time around; if Edward will one day look at him across their bedroom, stand up, and walk out, never to return.
In the afternoons Thomas sits on the sofa in their sitting room and reads Charlotte’s copy of Jane Eyre. Edward comes in from the garden, settles himself next to Thomas, molding their bodies together. He rests his head in the crook of Thomas’s neck, falls asleep within seconds, breathing evenly and deeply against Thomas’s shoulder. He clings to Thomas like a child.
Thomas breathes in the scent of Edward’s hair until it settles his nerves.
Edward smiles against his lips, reaching down between their bodies. He cups his hand around Thomas’s hard and aching prick, groans.
“Oh, love,” he says. “You want this.”
You want this.
Thomas is eight years old. He is standing in his parents’ bedroom. He hates his father, for instilling this terror in him, this agony, this desperate wish to die—and he is heartbroken, because he is a child, and he loves his father, and his father does not love him in return.
You want this. You want this. You want this.
A distant voice in Thomas’s head reminds him that he is not in a Marylebone slum; he is in Cornwall. He is not eight; he is thirty-one. And this is his Edward above him. Edward is not his father. This will not be a repeat of the captain’s storeroom. He will handle it better this time. Edward doesn’t have to know.
Thomas knows what to do here, a skill he perfected a very long time ago. His mind goes blank, he leaves their soft and safe and loving bed, he goes some place no one can find him. Thomas will scold himself later—scold himself for growing soft, for forgetting, for thinking a different lot in life had magically appeared for him. He knows the score. He’s going to let Edward touch him, fuck him, whatever he wants. Darling, beloved Edward who means him no harm, it’s downright sinister that Thomas has tricked him into affection and care and—
Wait. When did Edward stop touching him?
“Tom, sweetheart, come back to me.”
Edward’s voice cuts through the fog.
“Listen to my voice, Tom, I’m right here.”
Thomas’s eyes focus. He is looking at Edward. Edward is looking at him.
Thomas begins to cry. He wraps his arms around Edward’s neck and buries his face in Edward’s shoulder and he weeps and weeps and weeps while Edward holds him tight and rubs circles into the meat of Thomas’s back.
“I know, love, I know,” he murmurs. “Let it out. It’s alright. I’m here.”
Thomas lies in Edward’s arms—for an hour, a night, a year—hiccuping and sniffling and getting a mortifying amount of snot all over Edward’s nightshirt. When he has cried himself dry, he waits for the exhaustion to rock him into an uneasy sleep, but sleep does not come.
He waits for Edward’s breathing to even out before delicately extricating himself from the other man’s embrace. He takes a folded quilt from the foot of the bed and pads quietly downstairs, before slipping out the back door.
He sits on the back steps and looks up at the night sky. The stars and moon are above him, blurry in their far-off illumination. There are thick clouds in the distance. He unfolds the quilt and drapes it over his shoulders. He’s still awake. He’s still alive.
It’s only a few minutes before Thomas hears Edward’s footsteps in the back hall; before he hears the door open.
Edward sits next to him on the step, their thighs brushing together. Thomas opens the quilt, beckons him closer until their sides are flush.
“Do you remember,” Thomas says quietly, “the night in the storeroom when you touched me?”
Edward lets out a shaky breath. “Yes, I do.”
“There’s a place on my collarbone,” Thomas says. He weaves his fingers through Edward’s. “My father bit me there once. When I was a child. I . . . I’ve tried to avoid touching it as much as possible.”
Edward strokes his thumb over Thomas’s first finger. “I’m sorry I hurt you, Tom,” he says. “I can’t imagine how frightening that must have been. I’ll be careful not to touch that spot again.”
“No,” Thomas says. He turns to look at Edward. “I think . . . I think I want you to touch me there.”
“How?” Edward asks, eyes soft. “How would you like me to touch you?”
“Would you kiss me?”
Edward nods, brushes the open collar of Thomas’s nightshirt out of the way. He leans forward and presses his lips to the jutting edge of Thomas’s collarbone, squeezes Thomas’s hand while he does it.
Edward’s mouth is warm and soft against Thomas’s skin. It feels nothing like that bite all those years ago. It feels good.
“How does that feel?” Edward murmurs against Thomas’s skin.
“Do it again,” Thomas replies.
Edward hums in the back of his throat and works his lips against that cherry-sized battle field that used to turn Thomas into a frightened animal. He focuses on Edward’s lips and the wet point of his tongue and when Edward scrapes his front teeth lightly over the spot Thomas’s hips buck. He wants more.
Thomas clutches Edward’s head to his chest, urging him on, and thinks, This must be how Fitzjames felt when Dr. Stanley dug that musket ball out of him and sewed him back together.
There is the rolling sound of thunder in the near distance and Thomas looks up to see a night sky on the verge of opening up. “Ned,” he says into Edward’s hair, “take me back inside, please.”
Edward’s eyes are just this side of glassy when he pulls back, and he smiles softly at Thomas before gathering him into his arms and carrying him bridal-style back over the threshold of their little home.
Thomas expects Edward to put him down once they’re inside, but Edward holds him close, leading them down the hall past the parlor to the stairs. When he takes the first step up Thomas tightens his arms around Edward’s neck and kisses Edward’s breastbone through the fabric of his shirt.
Edward carries him up the stairs to their bedroom door and stands in front of it, his hands flexing possessively around Tom’s shoulder blade and his knee.
“What do you want, Tom?” he asks.
Thomas leans up and pushes his mouth against Edward’s, biting at his lips and tonguing at his teeth and he scratches at the base of Edward’s neck like a cat in heat clawing at a back door.
“Please,” he says, hearing the rain start to hit the roof. “Please take me, make me yours, do with me what you will, I don’t care, please Ned please please—”
Edward groans into his mouth and moves him the last few steps to their bed, laying Thomas back against the pillows and climbing on top of him. Thomas can feel Edward pressing every bit of muscle and bone and skin against him and he catalogs all of it, peers into the reflection of his mind and says This time we remember everything. This time we forget nothing.
Thomas scrabbles at Edward’s clothes until Edward grins against his mouth, pulling off his nightshirt and Thomas’s nightshirt with it and jesus fucking hell Thomas feels like he’s going mad the way every part of him wants and needs, the way the sight of Edward’s chest hair and his strong, unrestrained arms sends him into a frenzy. He feels like a witch tied to a stake, crying out while burning alive.
“Tell me what you want, sweetheart,” Edward says against his mouth.
The doubt trickles into Thomas’s mind: sudden, unbidden, the old ghost of shame.
“Tom, dearest, my heart,” Edward continues when Thomas doesn’t answer. “You’re safe with me. Anything you want. Please. Let me give it to you. Let me make you feel good.”
“Put your fingers in my mouth,” Thomas says.
Edward immediately pushes his first and middle fingers past the barrier of Thomas’s lips. His eyes flutter shut.
Thomas sucks on the digits, hollowing out his cheeks. He bobs his head, encouraging Edward to move. Edward gently fucks his fingers into Thomas’s mouth and Thomas feels the strain flow out of him. How soothing it is, how grounding it is, how good it feels, how it makes Thomas’s belly hot but cools the rest of him, like a fever starting to break. He was empty his whole life, until he met Edward. Now all he wants is for Edward to fill him up.
Thomas licks up the seam between Edward’s fingers; Edward curses above him. Thomas pulls his mouth off Edward’s fingers, grins up at him. Edward crushes their mouths together, teeth against teeth.
“What now, pet?” he growls.
“I want you inside me,” Thomas says.
Edward hums, kissing Thomas’s mouth open, licking into him, smearing spit on his cupid’s bow and his chin. Thomas loves the feeling of it, of being a mess; he wants to feel Edward’s spit and his come all over him, a mark of affection and devotion, of belonging. Thomas wants to feel it go tacky on him, let it dry on his skin like sea water under the sun on a hot, sandy beach.
Edward reaches over to the table next to the bed, pulling a small bottle of oil out of the drawer. He slicks his fingers up, kissing the tip of Thomas’s nose. He pulls his head back, looking into Thomas’s eyes.
“Hurry up, old man,” Thomas says, rubbing the achingly hard line of his cock against Edward’s thigh. Edward huffs out a husky laugh.
When Edward slips a finger inside him, his eyes do not leave Thomas’s face. He rocks it in slowly, easing up to the knuckle. Thomas pants and gasps and tries to fuck himself on Edward’s finger, but Edward does not give in. He is slow and steady, his mouth slightly open, eyes black as midnight. The storm outside their open window swirls the breeze into their bedroom, nature’s coca wine easing over the lightning bolts of their bodies.
“Please, Edward,” Thomas says, whining. “I need more. I need you. Please.”
Edward pulls his finger out, adds a second one in. This time it’s harder, faster; he hits that spot deep inside Thomas that makes him arch of the bed, keening.
“Yes, love, just like that, just like that,” Thomas says, words slurring together. “Please keep fucking me like that, it feels so good, I need more, please—”
Edward scissors his fingers inside Thomas, pulls them out, slams three in this time.
“The next time we do this, I’m going to suck your cock while my fingers open you up,” Edward says.
“Oh, Jesus fucking Christ Edward—”
“I would do it now,” Edward continues, “but I’m not taking my eyes off you. I’m going to make sure you stay here with me.”
“I’m here, I’m here,” Thomas says, babbling. “Ned please, I need you—”
Edward removes his fingers completely. Thomas bucks his hips up, trying to chase him, but Edward swats his hip, moves to slick his prick up with oil. It’s a lovely prick. Thomas wants to choke on it.
Edward lines himself up, braces himself above Thomas, shielding him with his body. A nest, just for the two of them.
Edward leans forward, presses his lips gently against Thomas’s. A fairytale kiss.
And then Edward’s prick is filling him up, stretching him, that delicious warmth creeping up his spine. Edward groans against his jaw.
“Jesus fuck, Tom,” he says.
Thomas has lost the ability to speak, but he looks into Edward’s eyes and thinks I know, I know, and he can tell by the answering look that Edward hears him, no matter where he is.
Thomas grabs at every bit of skin he can. He wants to treasure this, all of it, forever. He wants to remember what it was like to feel again, to be cleansed from the inside out. He wants to remember what to do the next time his father’s voice creeps into his head. He wants to remember how much Edward rocking into him feels like being lulled into the waves of the sea.
Edward mouths at every bit of flesh on Thomas’s face, fucking up against that spot over and over again, wrapping his hand around Thomas’s prick and oh, Thomas is so close, he’s losing control, and Edward is giving him exactly what he wants and exactly what he needs just like he promised he would. Edward kisses along Thomas’s jaw, down to his chin, across his neck, sweet little agonizing kisses, until his mouth is hovering over Thomas’s collarbone.
“Tom,” he says, full lips against the scar. “Come for me.”
Thomas’s orgasm pushes a wail out of him like it’s been lying dormant his entire life. Edward clutches at his hips and fucks him through it while Thomas writhes against the bed, little hiccuping sobs and incoherent babbled half-words falling out of his mouth as he comes and comes and comes.
Edward starts to pull out and Thomas wraps his legs tight around Edward, growling into his mouth.
“Don’t you fucking dare, Edward Little,” he says, wrapping his arms around Edward’s neck, doing his best to tie himself around his beloved’s body like a bowline knot. “You fuck me until you come inside me.”
Edward moans into his mouth. His thrusts are turning erratic and when Thomas pulls back enough to look into his eyes they are watery and frantic and full of love.
“That’s it, darling,” Thomas says, smoothing his hand over Edward’s wild hair, gone frizzy and fluffy with the humidity from the storm. “Just like that.”
Edward whines, rests his forehead against Thomas’s.
“I didn’t think you were out there,” he whispers. He sounds like he’s breaking open, like he’s about to cry. “Did you know that? Do you know how long I looked for you?”
Thomas kisses him, returns that fairytale kiss, and that is what undoes Edward. Thomas keeps kissing him through it, murmuring sweet nonsense while Edward shudders and whimpers, his body gradually going limp until he’s draped over Thomas. Edward tucks his head into the crook of Thomas’s neck, his shallow breaths warm against Thomas’s ear. Thomas memorizes the smell of their room, their bed, their bodies: the sweat, the musk, the come, every delightful, mildly disgusting detail. He kisses Edward’s shoulder.
“Christ,” Edward says, pulling back. He sniffles a bit. “Let me clean us up,” he says, kissing Thomas’s nose.
Thomas sprawls out against the pillows while Edward gets up and pads across the room. He feels dreamy, like he’s floating on a cloud. He wiggles his fingers and toes. All present and accounted for. Nothing is amiss; all of him is here.
Edward returns with a wet cloth and gently wipes away the mess on Thomas’s chest, his prick, his hole. He unceremoniously throws it across the room, ignoring the glare Thomas sends his way. When he looks back at him that watery look is still on his face. Thomas opens his arms wide.
“Come here, sweetheart,” he says.
Edward wraps his body around Thomas like a cat. He drapes his leg across his waist and his arm across his chest and rests his temple against Thomas’s jaw. Thomas can feel him shaking, even now; he pulls the blankets up around them and wraps his arms tight around Edward. He runs his fingers up and down Edward’s spine; turns his head enough to kiss his forehead.
Edward inhales wetly. A sob escapes his throat.
“It’s okay, love,” Thomas whispers against his skin. “You found me. It’s okay.”
The rain lulls them to sleep.
Thomas picks his head up, runs his fingers through Edward’s hair. His sweetheart, his love, who finds as much solace in Thomas as Thomas finds in him.
Edward opens his eyes, the contented smile of the properly rested easing over his face.
“Good morning,” he says, rubbing Thomas’s back. “What would you like to do today?”
Thomas strokes a thumb over Edward’s throat.
“I want you to bend me over the dresser and fuck me in front of the mirror.”
“If you just lie flat on the dresser—” Edward says. He has slicked up his cock no fewer than three times.
“Then I can’t see you in the mirror!” Thomas says. “That’s the whole point!” Edward keeps slipping out of him; when he tries to stand on his tiptoes, he gets a cramp in his calf. There is a crick in Thomas’s neck from the way he is trying to bend his body.
Edward soothes a hand over Thomas’s hip. “Wait, no, can you just—lean forward just a little more—”
“Edward, I am going to fold in on myself like a sail if I lean anymore.”
“Dearest, it is not my fault I’m shorter than you.”
“Well then whose fault is it?” Thomas says, indignant.
Edward snorts into Thomas’s shoulder and that’s the thing that undoes him.
His arms are outstretched, hands clasped like he’s praying, and Edward is grinning at him in the mirror and there is no way in hell that this position is going to work, and the giggles tumble out of Thomas’s throat until he is laughing so hard he cannot breathe, and when he looks back into the mirror Edward is pulling out of him, wrapping his arms around Thomas’s chest, laughing silently against his neck, and Thomas is smiling, the spaces in his mouth making his remaining teeth look like stars in the night sky.
“Charlotte is wondering if we are amenable to company,” Edward says, frowning slightly at the letter in his hands. “William is on the continent on business, but she would like to bring Virginia and the children. Mary and Simon.”
“Why not,” Thomas says, tilting his chin up to the sky, the sun warming his face. “Let’s fill the house up.”
“I’ve never seen him this happy,” she says, gesturing to where Edward is chasing Mary and Simon around the garden. “Our mother said he didn’t cry when he was born, you know, just looked around with a sad expression on his face. Like he didn’t want to be here.” Charlotte looks up at the oak tree above their heads. “He and I had that in common. It’s why we’ve always been so close.”
“Did he ever . . . ever attempt . . .” Thomas says, words dying in his throat.
“Oh no, nothing like that,” Charlotte says. “I don’t think it ever crossed his mind.”
“Did it ever cross yours?” Thomas asks quietly.
Charlotte turns to look at him. “Yes,” she says. “Many times.” He can tell by the set of her mouth and the gaze of her brown eyes that she knows, that she understands—much the same way people like them have always known and understood.
“Why didn’t you do it?”
To his surprise, Charlotte laughs. Her deep, throaty chuckle reminds him of Edward’s. It sounds nothing like his mother’s laugh. Nothing at all.
“I got very close to it,” she says, eyes trailing back across the yard to where Virginia sits in the grass. “I was so lonely. Edward was my only friend for most of my life and he was on a ship in the Mediterranean. I hadn’t seen him in a year. I was crossing the street one day—it wasn’t even a particularly bad day—and I saw a carriage coming and I thought to myself, What if I just walked in front of it?”
“Did you?” Thomas asks.
“I did,” Charlotte says, smiling. “When I woke up I had a pounding headache and mud on my dress and Virginia was standing over me. She looked like a frightened dove. I was delirious and thought she was an angel.” Her gaze softens. “Well, I suppose that never changed.”
She motions for Thomas to hand the tin back over. She takes another two biscuits. “She and William insisted I stay with them while I recuperated from my accident. I was in love with her by the end of the day. She was in love with me by supper the next evening.”
“What is William like?” Thomas asks. “With the children?”
“He adores them and they adore him. Simon follows him all around the house. Says he wants to be just like his daddy when he grows up.”
“That’s good,” Thomas says, voice thick. “That’s very good.”
Charlotte smiles at him.
“Uncle Ned! Is that a kingfisher?”
Thomas steps out of the kitchen and into the back hall. The gold of the sun touches every bit of earth on their little plot of land, as if all of god’s kingdom exists in their backyard. He sees Edward crouch down next to Mary, who is pointing at a bird perched on a branch of the silver birch that hangs over the stream.
“Would you look at that,” Edward says, smiling. “It certainly is. You have a great eye, Mary.”
Edward turns his head, smile widening when he sees Thomas. He glows in the sun.
Thomas stands in the doorway and looks his fill.