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Heaven or High Water

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The first time they meet it is 1840, and they are Chief Equerry to the Queen of England and the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary.

It all starts with a look, a glance so fleeting across the Queen’s desk that in the years to come they will scarcely remember it. It kindles with nameless warmth when Drummond holds out his tinderbox on a darkened balcony, burning bright at their enchanting smiles.

Alfred has never been certain of attraction until he sees Drummond at the silk weaver’s ball, and then, he knows. There is no mistaking why they are out in the corridor, rather than delighting the damsels.

Years of longing finally culminate one midsummer’s evening in Scotland. It is a relief when Drummond is the one to initiate the kiss. Alfred knows, at last, that he feels as he does. He holds him close at the lakeside and, later that night, in bed.

It is only when they return to England that they truly realise the magnitude of the shift between them. Where before they were content to share glances across the Queen’s desk and a brief moment alone together on the balcony, now they are greedy with the need to see each other. Alfred finds he can barely stand a day not seeing Drummond, and the rare moments where they get to be truly alone are too few and far between.

“We can’t carry on like this,” Alfred murmurs into Drummond’s skin one night, when he’s sure the other man is asleep.

He soon discovers that Drummond may not have been asleep after all, as a week later he is sat across from him at a table in a restaurant and listening with pounding heart and dry throat as Drummond announces his intention to end his engagement. Of all the things he imagined for their future, he had been unable to dream of this, too full of the fear that wanting it too much would make it true and bring them to ruin. And so he tries to cover his true feelings—regretting the words the second they leave his mouth, heartbroken to see Drummond’s hopeful expression crumble in front of him, and yet powerless to prevent him getting up and leaving.

It is long days until he sees Drummond again. There have been no meetings between the Queen and Prime Minister in the wake of the Princess’s illness, and he is almost beginning to despair of having no other option but to resort to banging on the door of Drummond’s rooms and begging for entry, uncaring of who might see him.

Luckily he is spared that course of action, as, after his disastrous appearance at the House, the Prince asks Alfred to ride out with him to meet the Prime Minister. Whilst the Prince and Sir Robert talk, riding back together down the mall, Alfred finds himself next to Drummond for the first time in days. They ride along in silence—Drummond seems to be refusing to say anything until he does, and yet Alfred suddenly finds that he has no idea what to say.

Before he can even get around to offering an apology for his behaviour at the restaurant, the Prince and Sir Robert are bidding each other farewell in companionable understanding, and so Alfred simply raises his hat to Drummond and follows the Prince, too afraid to look back and see whether Drummond looks as bereft as he feels.

Seeing him again has at least put things back into perspective though. Alfred realises now that no matter what, he needs Drummond. In the short ride back to the palace he has composed a letter to Drummond in his head. It is harder to commit to paper—he cannot be entirely open in case of the letter being intercepted—but after long moments of careful consideration, he is happy that the words convey what he wishes them to. He hopes Drummond accepts it for the apology that it is.

He is relieved when a note comes back in reply, hastily scribbled.

Alfred,
There is not much time before I must return to the House, so I apologise for the brevity of this letter.
I must confess it is a relief to hear from you, and know that you feel as I do.
We expect the vote today, but I cannot say when.
I will endeavour to be there tonight.
Yours,
Edward

It is with a renewed lightness of heart that Alfred takes a seat in the restaurant that evening. When Drummond does not turn up, in his rational mind he knows that the simple explanation is that the vote must have overrun. After all, that is why Drummond had returned his note. Yet he cannot help the creeping sense of dread that slowly seeps into his heart as minutes blur into hours.

The next day, when he is told of Drummond’s passing, it does not come as a surprise. Deep down, he already knew.

 


 

In their next life it is 1889, and they work together as telegraph boys for the London postal service. In the eyes of the law their love is still a sin, but they find companionship amongst like-minded people, and a home in each other.

The first time Edward sees Alfred approaching the Cleveland Street property, on a cold January morning, he knows that they share more similarities than just their employment at the General Post Office. Alfred pauses on the steps and gives him an appraising once-over. It is a look far warmer than any man has ever given him before, despite what goes on beyond the doors of the property in front of them.

Alfred is waiting for him afterwards, lounging against the banister of the stairwell. Edward smiles at him, unable to resist returning his glance of earlier and raking his eyes across Alfred’s body.

“Like what you see?” Alfred says cheekily, accompanying the words with a suggestive quirk of his eyebrows.

Edward only smirks at him, moving past Alfred to rest a hand on the doorknob. “We shouldn’t be seen leaving together.”

“Scandalous,” Alfred intones, but Edward can hear the amusement in his voice. Alfred saunters up to him and presses a small folded piece of paper into his free hand before slipping out of the door.

He waits until Alfred has descended the steps and headed down the street before unfurling the note. There is an address scrawled on the paper.

That night, by unspoken agreement, they meet at Alfred’s rooms.

“You came,” Alfred says, when he finds Edward lurking in the darkness, across the street from his building. He stubs out his cigarette against the wall, crushing it into the brick nonchalantly.

“I assume that was the intention of this,” Edward replies, holding out the note.

Alfred grins at him, reaching out to take back the piece of paper, then dares to entwine their fingers. Edward hurriedly looks around them, instinctively, but of course there is no one in sight. Alfred might be bold but he is not stupid.

The darkness shrouds them as they move inside. Alfred’s room is sparsely furnished compared with the chambers they are used to at Cleveland Street, and yet Edward finds that he is far more comfortable here. The room is cold but under the weight of Alfred’s gaze he does not feel the chill.

When Alfred undresses him, it is with careful, gentle fingers—the soft touch of a loving hand. It is different to anything they have ever experienced, too used to the roughness of men who use them only for their own carnal desires.

“This is true?” Alfred mouths into his skin, lips pressed against his collarbone. There is the trace of a question in his voice, as though he cannot help but possess a small seed of doubt.

Edward understands his fear well enough. “This is true,” he murmurs in quiet confirmation.

For tonight, at least, they share their bed with someone who understands them—someone who has longed for the same kind of love.

As must come to pass though, they are separated sooner than either of them would wish. A lifetime together would not be long enough, and yet they are only given a few months.

One morning they are in bed together, planning for their future—blissfully unaware of the tragedy soon to befall them. With the funds they have carefully saved they almost have enough to leave London.

Edward lies next to Alfred, propped up on his elbow, watching the early morning light play across the soft skin of his lover’s face and chest.

“Where would you want to go?” he asks quietly. London is all they have ever known. It will be strange to leave, but they both know that they cannot live like this forever. They need to be free, somewhere away from the smoke and crowds and corruption. Somewhere they can be at peace.

“I don’t care,” Alfred says honestly. “I want you. Nothing more.”

Edward leans down and presses a desperate kiss to Alfred’s lips, tasting coffee and tobacco. It is reassuringly familiar. Alfred is his one still point in the universe—the one constant his life revolves around.

“Tell me we can do this,” he whispers. He’s not sure he could bear it otherwise.

“We can do this,” Alfred promises.

As Edward feared, it is not to be. The next day, he clutches Alfred’s body in his arms as the life drains from him. On the way back from his last-ever round, Alfred fell victim to a street robbery. He had fought valiantly to retain his money, but received a knife to the ribs for his effort. Edward weeps as Alfred presses the blood-soaked coins into his hand, as though he is trying to impart a final plea for Edward to leave this place and be happy.

He spends the money on alcohol and then follows his love to the graveyard, unable to live with his grief and without Alfred.

 


 

In 1903, they meet at boarding school—two young boys separated from their families.

They are not together long enough for love to be realised, but they do find companionship, the kind that sees them sitting up late into the night, whispering quietly to each other from their beds in the dormitory, telling stories about everything and nothing.

They spend weekends together, adventuring in the grounds and surrounding area with the other boys, but it is always Alfred that Edward looks for, their eyes meeting in joy when they discover a new place to explore.

One night in midsummer they sneak from their beds to creep down to an outbuilding where they have carefully been stockpiling sweet treats sent from their parents. They sit, huddled close, talking and laughing, until the sun begins to rise. Edward catches hold of Alfred’s hand as they return to the dormitory, buoyed by their success. Alfred smiles giddily at him, squeezing his fingers as they hurry quietly through the corridors.

Those years are bliss indeed.

On the last day of school, in their final year, they part at the bottom of the driveway, in front of the wrought-iron gates. They are older now, but no less important to each other. When Edward holds out his hand, Alfred takes it. To their parents it appears as a simple goodbye between two friends. They know it is something more.

“Goodbye, Alfred,” Edward murmurs, pressing his fingers as subtly as he can. Alfred’s hand warms in his.

“Goodbye, Edward.”

They are both reluctant to let go, but let go they must.

When war comes, mere years later, neither survives it. In his last moments, Edward swears that the tear of bullets into his skin is far less painful than the feeling of losing Alfred. The note that informed him of his friend’s passing is still tucked into his breast pocket, along with Alfred’s final letter to him, pressed close to his heart.

 


 

The war brings them together again, this time in 1944. They fall for each other amongst olive groves and gunfire.

One night their base comes under attack. Amidst the chaos and explosions, Edward is shot. Alfred drops to his knees next to his body, a frantic litany of murmured stay with me’s on his tongue. He grips Edward’s hand tightly in his own, uncaring of anyone who might notice something more than friendly concern in the touch.

When the onslaught ceases and aid reaches them, Edward is thankfully still breathing, though his eyes are clouded with pain. Alfred goes with him to the convalescent hospital, unable to bear being parted from his side even for a moment.

He does not leave Edward’s bedside for long days, watching the steady rise and fall of his chest, and taking strength in the way colour slowly returns to his cheeks. His torso is heavily bandaged, but the doctors assured Alfred that the bullet that struck him missed any vital parts. Alfred does not allow himself to imagine how he would have coped if the bullet had been mere inches to the left.

Eventually, Edward stirs. Alfred immediately reaches for his hand, where it rests on the bedspread between them, and clasps it gently. Though feeble, Edward’s smile when his eyes fix on Alfred’s is like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. Alfred wants to kiss him in relief.

“You didn’t think you’d get rid of me that easily, did you?” Edward whispers, voice weak and croaky with disuse. Alfred has never heard a more beautiful sound.

He remains at the hospital throughout Edward’s recovery, having convinced his superiors that it will be best for raising the morale of his men, a number of whom had also been seriously injured in the raid.

They spend long weeks in the sun together, enjoying time in each other’s company that is not tainted by fear for their lives. Conversation between them is easy, and even when Edward tells him of his fiancée waiting back home, Alfred does not feel as crushed as he expected. There is something in the way Edward’s eyes sparkle as he looks at him—the enchanting, almost flirty, smile that graces his lips—that tells him Edward feels as he does.

Eventually, the time comes when they have to part. With his injury, Edward is unable to fight and is returning to England. Alfred’s duty means he must remain in Italy. 

Before the company departs, Edward excuses himself from the gathered men and approaches Alfred, who is lingering a little way off. Under the pretence of needing to relieve himself, Edward heads for the trees, engineering a moment alone for them. Alfred follows, and the darkness swallows them, providing much needed privacy.

As soon as they are alone, Edward reaches out to press his arm, fingers gripping with a gentle, but desperate, pressure. Alfred steps close, as though drawn in by an invisible string.

“Is it madness that I don’t want to leave?” Edward asks quietly.

“Some people might think so,” Alfred says.

Edward smiles, catching his eye. “But not you.” It is not a question. Alfred does not need to confirm it.

“I am sure your fiancée will be pleased to see you,” he says instead, fighting to keep his voice carefully neutral.

“Perhaps that is why I am reluctant to return to London,” Edward murmurs. His gaze drops to Alfred’s lips, unbidden.

Alfred cannot miss the glance, his own eyes fixed intently on the beloved face in front of him. The quiet confession only emboldens him to take that final step, and he surges forwards to press their lips together. The kiss is an admission of all the feelings that have been building between them these long months. It is daring, and wild, and perfect.

A call from their men draws them reluctantly apart. They both know that this is goodbye.

“Take care,” Edward murmurs, as though the thought of losing Alfred to the war is too much for him to bear. 

“You too,” Alfred says as they walk back to the vehicles, the feeling of the kiss still lingering on their lips.

They live for many years, after the war, but without ever seeing each other again. They are content, but neither forgets those precious moments they spent together under the Italian sun, like a bright spot illuminating the otherwise grey mundanity of their lives.

 


 

At long last, their lives intertwine when a love like theirs is no longer a crime.

In 2012, they meet at University College London, gathered around a circle of desks in the middle of a classroom for the script read-through of the Drama Society’s latest production, a student-written adaptation of The Iliad.

Edward is certain that there is something familiar about the blond-haired guy who sits across from him, but he cannot quite place where he has seen him before. He exudes a quiet sort of confidence, lounging on his chair with a comfortable ease and a relaxed smile gracing his lips. His hair is wild, sticking up at all angles, and his shirt is barely buttoned in a way that could seem pretentious, but somehow, it doesn’t. He just seems so sure, so certain of himself. Edward finds it enchanting.

They go around the table with introductions, a simple name and role, but Edward barely pays attention to the others, waiting for the blond to introduce himself. At last, it is his turn.

“I’m Alfred, and I’m playing Achilles.”

Edward’s heart races. It seems like his usual tactic of avoiding the people he’s attracted to isn’t going to work this time. In gazing at Alfred, the introductions come to him sooner than he expects.

He clears his throat nervously, pressing his fingernails into his palms. “I’m Edward, and I’m playing Patroclus.”

Alfred’s eyes flick to him in interest. Edward feels his heart do a funny sort of leap in his chest, beating heavily against his ribcage, but he finds he cannot look away from those mesmerising blue eyes. Alfred quirks an eyebrow and Edward dimly realises that he has been staring at Alfred since the moment they sat down.

Bashfully, he drops his gaze to the table, seeking out the comfort of the script, but something pulls his eyes back up. Alfred is still looking at him, a small smile playing on his lips. Edward braves the look this time and smiles back, overcoming his nerves slowly.

It almost seems a shame to begin the read-through, but he consoles himself with glancing up from the paper whenever he can to look at Alfred. More often than not Alfred’s eyes are already on him, or if not, they catch his gaze shortly after. Each time this happens they exchange a smile, before quickly looking back down at the script.

Afterwards, the cast heads to the students’ union to mingle and get to know each other. Edward considers sloping quietly away and not joining them, but the memory of Alfred’s blue eyes on his has him following the others—more specifically, the bright figure with blond hair in front of him, loudly leading the way, his arm slung casually over the shoulder of the girl playing Helen.

He is standing in the corner of the bar uncomfortably, not knowing who to approach, and trying to pluck up the courage to just talk to someone, anyone, when Alfred appears out of the crowd, holding two drinks. He passes one to Edward.

“Thanks,” he says, with a small smile, running a hand through his unruly curls distractedly. “I’m Edward.”

“I know,” Alfred says. There is a wry note in his voice, but the way he returns Edward’s smile means he doesn’t feel too much like an idiot for the unnecessary introduction. Thinking of the introductions makes him blush a little, unable to forget Alfred’s eyes on him.

“So, you guys all know each other then?” he asks, trying to cover his distraction.

Alfred smirks as though he recognises the change in conversation for exactly what it is, but nevertheless he replies, “Oh, yes! Well, most of us.” He nudges Edward’s shoulder with his own playfully. “There are a few newbies, like you.”

“Yeah, I haven’t done anything like this before,” Edward finds himself explaining. “But, the ‘uni experience’, you know?” he shrugs, placing finger quotes around the words.

Alfred grins. “Absolutely,” he enthuses. “I joined last term. I have rather a flair for amateur dramatics.” He wiggles his eyebrow suggestively and Edward cannot help but laugh. “I’m considering becoming an actor full-time so the whole world can be treated to seeing my dashing good looks.”

“Talking of,” Edward says, trying to ignore Alfred’s grin at the clumsy conversation shift and lack of denial about the truth of his statement. “I’ve seen you around before, haven’t I?” he asks, the thought still nagging in his head.

“Perhaps you remember me from my career-defining turn as Buttons in last term’s Christmas pantomime,” Alfred jokes. Edward huffs a laugh. “Kidding. You do the French module too, right?”

Edward suddenly feels stupid for having not being able to place it before, but the memory finally twigs. “Sorry, yes! You don’t do Politics though, do you?” He’s fairly certain he would have noticed if Alfred was in all of his classes.

“Nope, History,” Alfred smiles. “I love it. Particularly the parts on Ancient History.”

“This must be a dream role for you then,” Edward smiles, and Alfred nods, seeming pleased that he caught the meaning.

“Very much so. I certainly prefer the Greeks.”

“And the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus must be one of the greatest in history,” Edward says, unable to resist pressing a little bit, testing the waters.

“Or Alexander and Hephaestion,” Alfred suggests.

“I believe they made that comparison themselves.”

Alfred seems impressed, giving him an appraising once-over. “You certainly have the knowledge.”

Edward takes a careful sip of his drink, suddenly needing Dutch-courage as he dares to say, “I think everyone like us knows those stories.”

Alfred smiles and does not dispute it, his blue eyes sparkling.

Before Edward can think of anything else to say, his phone buzzes in his pocket, and suddenly he remembers that he’d promised to meet his friend at the library after rehearsals. “Shit, sorry, I’ve gotta go.”

“Hot date?”

“I wish,” Edward laughs, and his eyes flick down to Alfred’s lips unconsciously.

Alfred’s eyebrow raises in interest. Edward feels his cheeks warm, but isn’t entirely sorry about it if it means Alfred realises how he feels.

“I’m sorry I didn’t recognise you earlier,” he murmurs, looking down at his feet in embarrassment.

“I might get over the offence eventually,” Alfred says, but when Edward looks up again he is smiling brightly, eyes twinkling at him.

“You’ve noticed me though?” Edward blushes, wishing he could keep his mouth shut. He’s well aware that flirting isn’t his strong suit.

“Of course I have,” Alfred says, but there is a seriousness to his voice as well as the flirty smile gracing his face.

“That’s good,” Edward murmurs quietly, hoping Alfred catches his meaning. He is reluctant to say goodbye, now that it has come to it. His phone buzzes again and then a thought hits him. “Wait, do you know someone called Albert? He does History too, but German rather than French?”

“Yeah, I’ve seen him around. He has very distinctive facial hair. Hard to miss.” Alfred blushes. “Sorry, is he a friend of yours?”

Edward laughs. “No, my friend Robert is constantly talking about this guy he likes in his German class. Drives me nuts.”

Alfred joins in with the laughter. “Well, your friend definitely has interesting taste, but he could do a lot worse. Albert’s pretty clever, very interested in civil rights. Seems like a good guy.”

“I’ll be sure to pass on the message,” Edward grins.

“See you at first rehearsal then,” Alfred smiles and Edward tries to ignore the way his stomach flips at the thought of spending so much time with him. “Try not to fall in love with me, yeah?” he says, as though it wasn’t a foregone conclusion from the start.

“I’ll try not to,” Edward grins. “Gotta stay professional.”

“Always,” Alfred says, his smile belying the words.

-

Now he knows that Alfred is in his French class, Edward finds he cannot stop noticing him. Sure, Alfred’s hair is tamed into a calmer style, and his shirt mostly buttoned, but those mesmerising blue eyes are impossible to miss. Alfred seems to make a habit of catching his eye and smiling, causing that now-familiar feeling of butterflies in his stomach to take flight.

Robert takes to teasing him as often as possible, especially when Edward forgets what he is doing and starts daydreaming about Alfred during their study sessions. He at least manages to get his own back when Robert loses track of what he’s saying to stare at Albert as he passes by their desk at the library, more often than not accompanied by Wilhelmina, who is playing Andromache. Wilhelmina, being in the same German class, had been brought into the inner circle to help with Operation Matchmaker, as Alfred coined it.

Edward finds that rehearsals are quickly becoming the highlight of his week, not least because he treasures every moment he gets to spend in Alfred’s company. It’s made even better by the fact he can be open and unguarded with his adoring looks, as everyone chalks it up to him playing his part well. They don’t need to know that it is Edward admiring Alfred, not Patroclus adoring his Achilles. He hopes that Alfred’s affection for him isn’t just dictated by his part. Somehow, he doesn’t think it is.

At last, opening night arrives. Edward stands in the wings, already dressed in the armour of his costume, watching people filter into the theatre. Soft footfalls sound behind him, then Alfred is at his side.

“O, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms?” he murmurs, and Edward turns to admire the sight of him in his costume.

“Please don’t,” Edward says with a wry smile. “Keats was pretty much the bane of my English GCSE.”

“You mean you couldn’t even be swayed by ‘The Beautiful Lady’?” The smile on Alfred’s face suggests he intended the double entendre in his words.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been swayed by that,” Edward grins, looking back out to the theatre in time to see Robert and Albert enter and sit down together in the middle row. “They’re here!” he tells Alfred excitedly.

Alfred presses closer to him in an attempt to see where he’s pointing. “And?”

“Sat next to each other! He told me it wasn’t a date, but look...” He shifts out of the way so Alfred can peer out of the wings.

“It’s definitely a date,” Alfred confirms, throwing an arm around Edward’s shoulders in delight. He tries to ignore the way his heart leaps in its customary way whenever Alfred is near.

“What are you boys up to?” Wilhelmina asks, approaching them. Alfred does not pull away.

“Celebrating the success of Operation Matchmaker,” he grins, moving them both out of the way so Wilhelmina can see.

“Oh, brilliant,” she smiles, a romantic at heart. “Come on boys, we’ve got a play to do.”

-

As the curtain falls on their final performance, Alfred takes his hand and doesn’t let go.

The rest of the cast doesn’t bat an eyelid, not even when Alfred pulls him into the wings and kisses him senseless in full view of everyone. Someone, probably Ernest, wolf-whistles good-naturedly.

“And here I thought I was being subtle,” Edward murmurs when they part for breath, pulling back far enough to catch Alfred’s eye.

“You might have been,” Alfred grins, curling his fingers around the back of Edward’s neck, “but I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen about how much I fancy you.”

Edward laughs delightedly, pulling Alfred in for another kiss. This one is sweet and slow, and everything he knew kissing Alfred would be.

“I’ve wanted to do that for months,” he confesses, nudging Alfred’s nose with his own.

“Me too,” Alfred says. “If all else failed I was gonna seduce you in Paris, but third year seemed too long to wait.”

He pulls back in surprise, and Alfred laughs at the expression on his face. “You can still do that, if you want. I certainly won’t refuse being wooed in the city of love.” He presses another soft kiss to Alfred’s lips. “But yes, perhaps let’s not wait that long.”

Alfred presses his forehead against his. “Come back to mine tonight?”

“Of course,” he murmurs, entwining their hands once more.

With that, they move to join the others backstage, unable to stop smiling.

They may not know it, but the peace they feel is not just the result of being together in this moment. They have finally found the one their souls have been searching for, life after life, at last free to love as they were always destined to.