Thomas shifted in his seat and folded his hands in his lap, stifling the urge to pull at his loose collar. To do would invite the scorn of the patrons that milled about the recital hall seats, exchanging insincere greetings before gracefully taking their places (in one, single fluid motion, Thomas noticed, to practice for later. Even the ladies in their voluminous skirts made a lissome show of it.)
Above him rose a curved gilded ceiling, each little alcove fitted with soft glimmering lights. Light conversation punctuated by polite laughter rose to the top of the domed ceiling, like heat in a poorly ventilated kitchen. The chairs were mahogany, if his guess was right, and plush velvet in a horrible violet that clashed terribly with the faded paisley carpet. The stage rose chest-height, so the quartet might not even see the audience below them as they lost themselves in the music; perhaps they would convince themselves that they were alone on that stage, in that circle of light in a room of inky black. Or so Edward had said.
Edward leaned close, and his sudden proximity took Thomas’ breath away. “I’ve never heard this one!”
“This Mendelssohn quartet. Apparently, he composed it while we were still north, more than a year before we returned home, in fact.”
Thomas didn’t know who that was, only that his work delighted Edward beyond anything he’d ever seen before, so it must justify such devotion.
The recalcitrant itch persisted, despite Thomas’ best efforts to banish it with willpower. He was normally much better about propriety and proper comportment; in these levels of society, he could operate with somewhat more ease than others of his means and birth. Nowadays it took a considerably larger part of his focus, due in no small part to the company he now kept. Edward’s mannerism was completely effortless, without the self-satisfied air that often came with such education; matter of fact as the man himself. Had he not known Edward better he might feel a little jealous, maybe even resentful; always with the memory of the boy who had sat in front of a mirror for hours at a time, picking apart his wide, gawkish accent and reassembling it in a more agreeable shape, something that would fit that world better.
But Edward would never judge him for such a thing; hadn’t he brought Thomas to one of the finest recital halls in all of London, his favorite place, to hear his favorite quartet play his favorite composer? He had been so excited to share this he’d brought it up a few times a day over the last month; rather than grow irritated at the bombardment, Thomas couldn’t help but to be charmed. He would have loved Edward’s music on those terms alone.
Edward was seated next to him, close enough that every now and then their thighs brushed as they shifted in place. Thomas told himself not to see overtures where there were none, a coy glance or an innocuous smile, but it had been pleasant regardless; Edward was finely shaped and best appreciated in excess. When he caught Thomas staring, his lips curved by the slightest amount; the sight of which lifted Thomas’ heart considerably.
He leaned close to whisper in Edward’s ear (and to savor the scent of his hair, the whorl of his ear, and how eagerly did he wish to trace it with his finger …) “Do you think it’ll be much longer?”
“No, it shouldn’t be. In fact,” Edward said, pulling out his pocketwatch and squinting at the time, “they should have started fifteen minutes ago.”
“Are musicians often late for their own performances?”
Edward sighed. “Sometimes. Some are businesslike and barely acknowledge any applause, let alone accede to this ridiculous showmanship. Some prefer to arrive twenty minutes late, no doubt attempting to appear mysterious and interesting, as if they’re so very busy before the recital is supposed to start and they’re barely squeezing us in. It’s tiresome.”
“Not tiresome enough to keep you away, though,” Thomas said, lips curving.
“It would have to be absolutely miserable in every other respect to keep me away.”
The itch grew too maddening to ignore, He wiggled his fingers under the collar and surreptitiously rubbed the fabric rather than scratch openly, which he, at the age of seven had been taught that was the kind of thing grotty gutter children did, not anyone looking to rise. There were many of these stipulations and he remembered all of them, could recall each with pinpoint accuracy. Before the Franklin expedition, before the Terror, he might have had the willpower to ignore all physical discomfort entirely and continue on with his work uninterrupted, but he had a different life now. Different capacity.
Without looking, Edward nudged the side of his knee with his own, a gentle and suggestive gesture all in one. “It won’t be boring, I promise.”
“I never doubted that for a moment.” He hadn’t doubted; only feared that his sensibility wasn’t advanced enough to truly appreciate it.
This earned an actual smile. Edward was unfairly stingy with them, perhaps fearing excess would diminish their impact, or believed they were an indulgence best left to others. He looked down at his hands, a little color rising in his cheeks, and Thomas had to suppress the urge to take that beloved face between his hands and kiss him. He mastered himself only through great effort. “I would not waste your time, especially not –” Edward trailed off, looking away.
Especially after everything.
He probably didn’t mean it like that – more likely, he had attempted to offer a piece of hope, that bright kernel of which seemed to propel him through even the worst trials, the most oppressive darkness. Now they had all the time in the world; they were home and safe and, if not perfectly healthy, at least they were alive. More than most, they both knew how quickly what was certain could crumble under your feet like rotten ice, and how little time there truly is to waste. When they'd escaped from Nunavut, he had remained topside for hours, so long that his entire world became the cool air on his skin, the steady shifting of the deck beneath his feet as they sailed on open water; it had taken him a few moments to notice the tears on his cheeks, so consumed was he with relief and the promise of an endless sea.
“Go on,” Thomas urged, in a tone that tolerated no dissembling.
Edward still wouldn’t look at him. “After everything you’ve been through.”
Thomas stared, unable to connect a complete thought from the fragments whirling through his mind. He never thinks about himself, he thought with increasing ire and affection. Not for the first time that evening, he wished to take Edward’s hands between his own, press a kiss to each of his fingers; he knew that they would be cold, and he always had a little warmth to spare for him.
“Where were you during all of this?” he retorted with more heat than he’d intended. “Napping in your cabin? You went through it as well.”
Edward waved him away. “Look, there’s the first violinist.”
The quartet was no closer to starting than they had been the moment they’d arrived – in fact the rest had yet to enter the premises -- but Thomas didn’t press the issue. Edward was notorious for his lack of self-esteem; sometimes it made him perceptive, often it undercut his natural instinct. He could go much farther if he learned to trust them, as Thomas believed all good captains did.
Thomas closed his eyes, letting himself sag into the uncomfortable seat. He hadn’t yet returned to his full weight from before the expedition, and none of his clothes fit anymore. Edward, in a fit of chivalry, had insisted on giving him some of his brother’s, since they were of a size. Thomas had tried to be nonchalant in his gratitude, but his hands had trembled as he clutched the bundle to his chest, heavy with the knowledge that he could feed himself for a week with its cost. Undoubtedly, they were some of the nicest clothes Thomas had ever worn aside from the naval uniform. No fraying threads or frizzing stitches, no holes rubbed through from years of overuse.
His joints ached, and a sick headache squeezed his temples, more insistent with each heartbeat. Sometimes he was sure he could feel his bones scraping against each other, and no matter how he shifted he could never find a properly comfortable place. Each movement reduced to a pressing discomfort he couldn’t shift away with stringent, meditative work, his favorite panacea faced at last with a malady he couldn't ignore or subvert through willpower alone. Yet somehow, Edward had avoided the worst of the scurvy and lead poisoning. It had only taken him a handful of months to mostly recover, and by then he could run almost as fast as he once did, see almost as well. The headaches were almost completely gone. Thomas was glad, yet sometimes he saw a wince twist those beloved features, quickly hidden by an encouraging smile when he noticed his audience. He never wanted Thomas to worry about himself, even when it was necessary. Especially then.
Though, perhaps Thomas deserved it; he didn’t want Edward worrying over his own pain and downplayed it far more than was prudent. There was very little that could be done about it, even after months of unpleasant treatments, and in the meantime, he’d rather not arouse unnecessary unhappiness. Not now, when so many wonderful things had happened since.
He pushed the subject away; there was no room for it in this lovely, golden place, especially not with Edward at his side, nearly hovering above his seat with excitement. As if he’d summoned the gesture through need, idle thoughts of the night before and the feel of him above, inside -- he felt Edward’s finger brush the back of his hand, one fingernail tracing from his wrist to the tip of his index finger; just enough to get away with, before he drew his hand away. Thomas felt a rush of heat color his cheeks, and he stifled the urge to press his palms against them, or the even more insistent impulse to take Edward’s hand and kiss it. “Someone will see,” Thomas warned, though his voice was unsteady.
“You’re right,” Edward whispered, and folded his hands on his lap once again.
Thomas knew he was right; he had thoroughly investigated this room and its inhabitants, to better see if they were anything like previous experiences with this level of society. So far, they seemed to content to rub elbows and ignore the pair of moderately well-dressed gentlemen in the back of the room. But one could never be too careful, not where he’d come from. He may not have been born among these gilded people, but he was just as practiced at navigating the arcana of society as his companion. Perhaps more so, as his education had come with a desperate induction; fit in or starve. He’d learned the particulars late in late in life, and he often had to stop and think what was appropriate before he did so, whereas for Edward etiquette operated as an unconscious process; he was so good at it, so natural, he wouldn’t be able to explain how he managed it.
Thomas cast a quick glance across the room, studying faces, parsing voices. So he wouldn’t feel chastened, Thomas took the hand resting atop Edward’s knee and gave it a slow, suggestive squeeze, letting his fingers linger in the center of Edward’s palm. In a few hours, he would press his lips to each place he’d marked, each tease. “Though, if I could do what I wish with my hands right this moment, this would be a different sort of conversation.”
Edward’s blush achieved concerning intensity. “Thomas,” he said, groping for propriety; he probably meant it as a chide, but his voice was breathless. Despite his best efforts, he could not keep his expression free of anticipation, or force himself to stop speculating as to what Thomas had in mind for him, if the slightly unfocused look in his eyes was any indication (and by now, Thomas had learned it was).
It was one of the things he liked best about Edward; his utter lack of guile, and how easy it was to know what he was thinking, even if he never said a word. Thomas had never met worse liar in his life: Edward would flush, look away, stumble over his words, fall back into a defensive posture; he so hated to do it, his entire body rebelled against the process, shouted out the truth for anyone with eyes to see.
Thomas leaned close. “Shall I share with you my plans?”
“I believe I have an idea.” Edward remained very still, though Thomas could tell the effort strained him.
“But you’re so uncreative. It is undoubtedly wildly inaccurate.”
Edward turned to face him, frowning. His brows knitted low over his beautiful eyes. “Even if I was keen enough to guess what you had in mind, you would change it by the time we returned home.”
The word home gave him a little thrill. “That would be unsporting of me.”
“It would be, wouldn’t it?” Before Thomas could retort, Edward held his gaze with steady intensity, pinning Thomas to his seat. He was no longer on the defensive; piercing intention had replaced it. “Instead I invite you to speculate on my plans.”
Another hot lance of feeling shot down his stomach, and he shifted in seat. “Something improper, I hope?”
“You’re the one who brought it up, you have to give me a hint, at least,” Thomas demanded.
“It’s only fair.” And Thomas knew how important that was to Edward.
Edward was quiet for a long moment, holding Thomas’ eyes with firm resolution, mingled with tender appreciation; Thomas thought he meant to turn him down gently when he leaned close, cupping his hand around his mouth as if to impart a secret. Thomas’ nerves thrilled, they always did when he drew so close, when he could smell the soap he used, the spicy scent of his clothes, and the slightest gap in his cravat, behind which lay pale skin. To any outsider, they could have been friends exchanging sensitive information, but behind those cupped hands was need, desperate and fierce. Edward said nothing. Instead he pressed his lips to the shell of Thomas’ ear, light as a whisper, tracing its whorls with his nose, a trail of risen flesh chasing the warmth of his breath.
It was always too much, they were risking so much; this time it was Thomas who pulled away. “Now that was unsporting.” He never should have taught Edward that particular trick.
Edward looked entirely too satisfied with himself, despite the color rising in his cheeks. “Speculate away.”
With a long-suffering look, Thomas turned away to the stage once more. He wouldn’t let Edward know that such a little gesture had the power to distract him for the rest of the evening, and that speculation he invited was more tempting than he could understand. It was very likely that he’d spend the whole night thinking of the warmth of his words pressed against his ear, the way his flesh thrilled at the feel of his breath, the touch of his lips, his fingers tracing the whorls of his ear, the lines of his neck, before sliding down, down ... He could only force the rush of need that nearly overcame him behind such a stoic countenance – would be it be enough to last the night? Suddenly he wanted nothing more to be someplace dark and quiet, anywhere would do.
Finally, the rest of the quartet ambled on stage. The one carrying the biggest instrument held it loosely by its neck, so that the body swung with his every step. The sight distressed Thomas so intensely that his first instinct was offering to handle the instrument while its owner found his seat and got settled, the old steward’s impulse. Though it was unlikely he’d be given anything but scathing laughter.
Edward noticed his dismay, as he always seemed to. Others preferred to take him at face value, but Edward had always wanted to see beneath, to what was true. “What is it?”
Thomas nodded up to the stage. “The man with the big instrument. He’s going to drop it.”
The instrumentalist in question had taken a rough seat and tossed his sheet music onto the stand, where it landed in helpless disarray. “He’s just preening,” Edward said, with a roll of his eyes. “They project an image just as thoroughly as they perform the music.”
Thomas found he could commiserate only somewhat, for this musician wasn’t donning a mask for survival, but to make himself look like more than he was. “What image is this? ‘I’m unacceptably careless with a priceless treasure?’ Are we supposed to dislike him before he plays a note?”
“You would dislike someone for being careless,” Edward said, amused. “They may act a certain way, but I know for certain that off-stage they are even more paranoid about the condition of their instruments than any of us could manage.”
“It’s true. Once some of my family went to examine this new concert hall, as my father knew the proprietor. We arrived early enough for the night’s entertainment to see some of the musicians unloading their instruments from a carriage. One of the footmen dropped the case right in the street and its owner actually burst into tears.”
Thomas could see it clearly; artistic types always kept their hearts close to the quick. “Well. … if it were something I worked with for hours a day, for years and years with no other options, I might get attached, myself.”
“And they’re somewhat expensive,” Edward added. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these were hundreds of years old.”
Edward nodded. “There is a violin, a masterwork crafted in Italy, that’s almost three hundred years old. I spoke to one of the ensembles passing through once, before we left for the Arctic, and the first violinist coveted it fiercely. To be candid, I believe he is waiting for the current owner to die so he can make his claim. But there are stories like this all over. Musicians can be quite particular about their instruments, and in some cases, more than a little mad.”
Thomas stared, completely agog; he couldn’t even begin to imagine how much such a treasure would cost. More than his family had seen in ten generations, no doubt. Suddenly, the musicians’ panic over the quality of their instruments seemed prudent, not performative.
“That man’s instrument must not be very old,” Thomas said as an aside. “If he’s swinging it around by the neck. I wouldn’t risk dropping an heirloom on my life.”
And there it was, the real treasure. Edward laughed, not a chortle or snicker or guffaw of abandon that would have fit on any other man, but laughter that was half breath, nearly silent, covered behind his hands as if he feared disrupting a more important conversation. It was the only sound truly incomplete without the picture of his crinkle-eyed smile and the slight gap in his teeth. He was more beautiful than any music. “That’s a fair conclusion,” he said, with a sideways smile at Thomas from behind his hands, and Thomas loved him all over again.
Thomas had been about to ask Edward more about his favorite composer when sound from the stage drew them away from each other. The musicians dragged their long sticks over the strings pulled taught over a flat board. He understood instantly – the further forward they press their fingers, the higher the resulting note. He was proud to have figured it out on his own, and that there had been an overlap between his experience and those adjusting the sound of their treasures, worth more than his life.
As he watched, the musicians matched a thin, insubstantial sound amongst each other, only progressing to the next string when the note no longer wobbled between them, and instead folded into sound pure and cutting as the Arctic sea. Thomas leaned over to Edward, a little desperate, cursing himself for failing to ask when they’d had time for thorough answers (but he could never help winding Edward up, nothing delighted him more, and then they’d become a bit preoccupied, which wasn’t his fault, exactly). “What’s the long stick?” he whispered frantically.
“The –? Oh, that’s a bow. The horsehair and resin produce the sound on the string.”
“And uh – the big one. The one that careless man has between his legs.”
Edward bit his lip, undoubtedly attempting to outrun the suggestion. “That’s a cello, it has the deepest sound. There are two violins also, and an instrument that looks like a violin but sounds more like a higher version of the cello – that’s the viola. You’ll see.” Edward’s eyes widened in realization, and he held up his hands. “Also, don’t applaud until after the musicians stand.”
Thomas nodded; he would almost certainly have made that mistake, eager as he was to encourage. “I won’t be able to pick any of them out,” he whispered, clutching the sleeve of Edward’s fine coat. Suddenly, this was no romantic excursion but another test he was bound to fail; he would speak with the wrong voice, say the wrong thing, or some other unforgivable infraction, he would humiliate Edward with his lack, with the fact that none of his affect had come to him by any natural means.
“You don’t have to pick out individual threads,” Edward whispered back. His expression became unbearably tender. “There’s no right or wrong way to listen, Thomas.”
Thomas flushed. “I’m being ridiculous.”
Edward looked over his shoulder, scanning the room; when he was satisfied that no eyes or ears were trained on them, he quickly took Thomas’ hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. “You’re not performing for anyone here. You don’t have to speak to anyone if you would prefer not to. Just listen.”
He had meant to be comforting, and for the most part Thomas was, but that nagging fear remained, that he was too uncultured and stupid to appreciate something Edward loved without reservation. He was better on ships; that was a world he knew, not this gilded room full of gilded people with their china painted smiles and conversations delicate as crystal. Disquiet clenched his heart into a miserable fist, but he squeezed Edward’s hand in return and managed the most convincing smile he could.
Suddenly, the room was alive with sound.
It started with the cello; the man drew his bow across the string, dredging up a brutal, powerful note from within its yielding depths before fading into a shimmering, whispering sound, to let the viola take his turn in the next breath. The two violins joined in, a shivering melody that lifted and fell as if borne along by an unfeeling storm, caught in its merciless swells, increasing, increasing– until finally, the first violin stepped atop the undulating sound his fellows had built for him and cried out the most plaintive melody Thomas had ever heard. When he closed his eyes for a moment, he could nearly see the squall line on the horizon, feel the stiff wind on his cheeks, hear the leaves of the trees hissing in the gale.
He’d worried for nothing. It wasn’t the examination he’d feared, for no one was looking at him; he was not nearly interesting enough to hold their attention when real magic was being conjured before their eyes. Their gazes were affixed to the stage before them, hypnotized by the furious skill of the musicians as they spun their web of silvered sound. At times the music itself seemed to breathe; one moment invoking a melody of such aching melancholy that a lump rose in his throat and his eyes burned, the next on a furious, frenetic ascent, circling above the deepening cello, the fretting of the 2nd violin and viola caught desperately between.
It was fascinating, endlessly unfolding; one moment the violin sang above, its piercing cry rising above the increasingly anxious middle parts, before passing the same melody to the cello, completely unbroken. It could have come from the same voice and no one would have known the wiser, so complete was their mastery. He couldn’t stop watching their hands; the right held their bows by the very tips of their fingers, with a loose wrist that seemed barely connected to the forearm; so seemingly careless that he feared they’d drop one at any moment, but not once did their control falter. The left was another beast altogether; each finger striking the board so decisively that it made a little noise punctuating the melody above it. But then the speed increased, and their fingers were flying too swiftly to mark; the only evidence that remained was a vague blur hovering over their fingerboards, and the soft tuck tuck tuck accompanying.
He hadn’t come to this recital unhappy, but the music was so achingly sorrowful and full of anguish that it settled into his heart, like sediment at the bottom of a river. Whoever this Mendelssohn was, he must have suffered deeply to have created something so poignant, with such keen knowledge of despair, threaded every now and again with strains of light, pensive hope, before sinking back into its grief. There was something to be said for an emotion dredged up by music, rather than active pain; it allowed certain remove from circumstances without dulling the core of feeling. From this distance, he could let it sit with him awhile; he could allow himself to think of his own grief that would fit inside Mendelssohn’s.
It wasn’t until the third movement that Thomas remembered to sneak a glance at Edward; the spell of the music had transfixed him so completely that he’d almost forgotten anyone else was in the room. He expected Edward to be similarly riveted – this had been his idea, after all. While they had been frozen in the Arctic for three years, he couldn’t go more than two weeks without mentioning his favorite pieces, the best ensembles, even old scraps of gossip between performers that he pretended not to care about. Thomas expected him to be watching with rapt attention, maybe even wearing the smallest smile as the quartet spun for them a story without words. But with a hard jolt that sent his heart wheeling to the furious tempo of the music, he realized Edward was watching him.
Thomas couldn’t help his incredulity at Edward’s hopeful expression, lifted brows, the barest suggestion of an eager smile. And tender, so tender; a look that was half a kiss, half caress. How long had Edward been looking forward to another recital? How many times had he mentioned it in an achingly wistful tone, shared that light on his horizon, when it seemed nothing else remained? Slowly it dawned on him that Edward cared more about his reaction than the music itself, more about Thomas’ happiness than something he’d needed for years. In the hierarchy of things and people in his life, Thomas Jopson stood ahead of a lifelong passion.
He no longer cared if anyone was watching; how could they look away from the illusionists weaving their web of sound, conjuring that beautiful storm? Carefully, thrilling at his audacity, he reached across the shrinking breach between them and took Edward's hand in his own, and squeezed three times.