When John Irving opened his eyes, Edward was staring at him.
It wasn’t the first thing he noticed upon escaping the black grip of unconsciousness. Foremost, of course, there was the pain, and the consuming nature of it. After all, it was what must have woken him. He couldn’t remember much else, and trying to think only made his head hurt and his thoughts swirled in slow circles. He was warm, or as warm as he could possibly be. His hands were chilled numb, while his back felt like it was burning. There was weight across his body: blankets, but no shirt. Mostly, he hurt, in a way that was impossible to ignore or brush aside. His ribs and chest ached and throbbed and prickled like hot thorns pressed into his flesh, from the surface to deep inside. His breath hitched, his arm clenched into rough fabric and his eyes flew open. When the vague blobs of light in front of his face condensed into recognizable shapes, Edward Little was taking up the entire sphere of his vision, brown hair ticked gold by filtered afternoon light through canvas. Nothing beyond that seemed to matter.
“John.” The word was spoken softly, nothing more than a weary whisper, and if he forced his eyes to focus he could see the darkness in Edwards face, the exhaustion dragging at his skin.
He blinked in acknowledgement, unable to muster the energy or will for anything else. He could remember, vaguely, the hunting party and all that had transpired, but it came to him in the form of the barest outlines of a memory, hardly real enough to have actually happened. He didn’t bother to ask about it, or even speak at all.
Edward sighed, shifted a little, and ran a hand over his face. John could see him fraying at the edges, crumbling at the corners. It was almost comforting to know he was not the only one. He saw John watching and cleared his throat. “Can you sleep?”
Somehow, he managed to shake his head. It was true enough. There was no way, not even a possibility that the pain will be kind enough to allow him to sleep. It was like a living beast, furious and restless, coiling around his bones and flesh, running like hot needled fire through his veins. With every breath, it reared its head like a tremor in his skin and becomes excruciating. Each flex of his ribcage, he felt fit to faint, and that, perhaps, would be more merciful than sleep.
“Alright.” Edward whispered. “Alright then.”
The sound of his voice, somehow, was more soothing than whatever Dr. Goodsir had presumably given him that has left an unpleasant haziness in the corners of his mind. He hung on every word like a drowning man. He didn’t want to think, to remember anything, he didn’t want to languish in a pool of pain. He longed to have some small comfort, and Edward was what he has been presented with. In his desperation, he started to speak, to ask Edward to continue, but all that came out of his lips was a pained, gurgly whine.
Edward jerked suddenly, and that was more telling than anything he has said or done thus far. Through a haze of pain, John thought He cares. He’s worried.
“It’s alright, John. It’s alright.” It didn’t sound believable, not even close. In any other setting for this encounter, it would have been the poorest approximation of comfort, but Edward was holding his gaze and his hands were resting on the thin blankets and most of all he was there.
John breathed in his presence and at last he could think of something other than the narrow wounds scattered across his chest and the dreadful exhaustion that has crammed itself into every part of him. It was just Edward and his sad eyes and his too-long hair and his worn uniform and every inch of his imperfect being. Even still, doubt flickered in his mind, growing stronger like a flame on dry tinder.
John was threadbare: nothing more than the thin, cracked shell of a man with nothing left to cling to. Shame wriggled deep, alongside the sharp nails of pain in his chest. God did not exist in this realm-not in the bright sky that had wheeled over his darkening gaze, not in the sharp ground beneath his broken body, and it, least of all, in the cold knife that had so easily cut his skin and flesh. For the longest time, that was all he had to reach out to. He was bone tired, weary of fighting, of convincing himself. What, now, did he cling to?
He didn’t have the energy to even lift his head, much less fight back any urges, sinful or otherwise. A dreadful loneliness dragged at every thought: he could not stand even thinking of being alone, couldn’t stand to let Edward out of his gaze. He knew it was selfish and wrong, he knew he should not want and yet he did. Merely wishing it away would not fix anything, but, it seemed, wishes were all he has.
It was easier, by far, and less painful, to give in. At least then he would have some semblance of comfort. Perhaps, he tried to convince himself rather lately, God had intended for all this to happen: for him and Edward to find each other.
Or maybe, a little voice hissed in reply, this is all a trial, and one he has already failed. Failed to stop Hickey, at the mercy of savages, finally giving in to sinful desires.
Is it sinful? The thought was a bright flash, a hopeful one. If God was not to be found in the barren landscape, then perhaps they had only to look to each other. He didn’t want anything from Edward except companionship, to hold his hand and his gaze, to...well, that wouldn’t do to dwell upon. Was that any different from friendship and brotherhood? He knew it was.
It was his fevered mind, he tried to tell himself. The pain, and laudanum and the blood that had flowed out over the rocks, nothing more. Hunger and hurt could addle any man's mind, even the most resolute. Maybe sometime, before, when he was healthy and strong he could have lied to himself and believed it, convinced himself that there was some logical explanation, that he was not the one who was wrong.
Drawing from some dwindling store of used-up courage, he tried again. Nothing came easy. Not breathing, not thinking, not living. And least of all being a good man. This was just another trial, more difficult, perhaps, but one that he would overcome.
But if this is a trial, he thought, then I don’t want victory. I don’t want to push on, to see this through. I want it to be over. I don’t want this pain.
Edward was too bright and too close and he was too lonely and tired to continue denying his feelings and explaining them away.
The light hurt his eyes, the very air on his wounds hurt. It hurt to breathe in or out, to blink, to swallow, to think. The camp felt distant, the ship too far off to be important. He didn’t even care how he had been raised from the rocks where Hickey had run him through, how he had been drawn back from the brink of death. It didn’t matter.
There were a million excuses for his thoughts, more than a million. Enough excuses that in better times he could use them to plaster over the cracks in himself, but now he had neither the strength nor the energy to hold it all together. Perhaps that is why he spoke the way he did.
“Kiss me, Hardy.” The words slipped from his lips harsh and raw, so quiet they were all but lost in the frigid air. It felt blasphemous the moment he said it, like an idiotic mockery of something far greater. There was nothing courageous, nothing dramatic, just the quietness of weakness and starvation and encompassing, pitiful pain.
“What?” It didn’t surprise John, even as muddled as his mind was. It was, perhaps, the only answer he had.
“Nothing.” Through clenched teeth, it came out more as a strained mumble than an actual word. Edward leaned closer.
“I didn’t catch that.” His hand, surprisingly warm and dry, folded around his own. Not on his chest, but the movement still pulls pain through his muscles. Edward must have seen the pain in his face, and his expression softened further still into a vulnerable look of defeat and pity. He leaned closer. “Please. What did you say?”
He’s pleading, as much as Edward Little ever would.
John swallowed, and that hurt more than he could have ever thought. “You know.” His lips could barely form the words, he couldn't tell if a sound even escaped his mouth.
For a second, Edward looked as if he wants to smile. He sighed and both shoulders dropped a half inch. His thumb rubbed a circle into the back of John’s hand. “Alright.” He whispered, and leaned a little closer. He paused, his gaze flickered to John’s face and away again.
Jon held his breath, out of pain and afraid of every outcome.
The next moment somehow still managed to surprise him. Edward’s soft breath was on his cheek, the warmth of his body rolling off in waves, his face no more than an inch away. He inhaled once and then pressed a small kiss to the corner of John’s mouth. Hot and a little damp, it lasts only a second or two and then Edward pulled away, sat up, adjusted his collar with one hand. His other hand remains in John’s and gave it a little squeeze.
“Rest.” He whispered, as if the one word could make up for a true conversation. Enough had passed between them, in his sorrowful gaze and that single utterance and John simply nodded.
He was utterly drained, helpless to the pain wracking his body and the exhaustion that stole every ounce of his willpower, but Edwards gentle words and the steady pressure of his hand made him want to try to sleep.
He shut his eyes.
The pale world around him faded with each shaky breath. The light flickering through his eyelids danced into nothing. The camp and the tents and endless rock expanse dissolved, and only the grounding touch of the blankets and Edwards hand remained. A hazy, wavering vision crept into his mind, feverish and strange: some distant green place, half-imagined and weak, as temporary as ripples on water. A steady sense of worry pulled at the back of his thoughts, but in his mind's eye a warm unseen presence at his side stole all his attention, and he stared ahead at the dreamlike projections of a garden and listened to the sounds of conversation and far-off tolling bells.