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a light and cautious tread

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The little touches made the difference between proper, dedicated service and the merely tolerable. It was knowing not to heat the shaving water beyond lukewarm, because the captain was unusually sensitive to heat; it was serving the captain’s tea with a lump of sugar already in it, so that he could pretend that he did not take sugar.

It was most likely possible to make a decent fist of service without being in love with the man one served, but Thomas found it helped; pride in a job well done for its own sake paled in comparison to his pleasure at the captain's satisfaction in finding things just as he liked them. Certainly, none of the other officer’s stewards he had known had seemed to view the work as anything but work, and hardly thrilling work at that.

Had the captain been a regular gentleman and Thomas his ordinary valet, there might have been enough outside the span of their shared world to dilute that pleasure; the civilised noise of England, holidays and outings and friends, would have rendered all these joys less keen. Surely, in a house on land, having made his master’s bed just so would not have been enough to carry him through a morning with a spring in his step.

The Admiralty would not have approved. It might be that the captain- Francis, though he'd never called him that out loud- wouldn't have approved, if he knew what inspired Thomas to perform each task in his service with all the delicacy and attention he could muster. His captain’s life was not always a simple one, and as far as it was in Tom’s power, he wanted things to be nice for him.

On balance, a little heartache was a small price to pay. He was with his beloved, was he not? Hardly a waking hour passed without sight of him, and when Captain Crozier was off about his work on deck or out on the ice with the instruments, the whole of Thomas’s day revolved around him- serving his meals, tending to his clothing, organising his papers. That could be enough.

He might even have been happy, had the captain not taken their situation so hard. Crozier had always had a taste for spirits, though his habits waxed and waned with his personal contentment. In Antarctica, he’d barely gone through half his store, occupied with the work and the company of Captain Ross, and even on this cruise, his consumption had been comparatively moderate before the ice had closed them in. Some, he knew, took his captain’s drinking as evidence of hard-heartedness, but Tom knew better; Crozier felt too much, too keenly, and always had. He turned to the bottle to draw a veil between him and the world.

Maybe that was how love was, too. A veil between a man and his good sense. For all he had fretted over his captain’s declining health, for all he hated the deceptions necessary to maintain his supply of drink, he loved him no less.

That night, after Mister Blanky fell, when the captain brought him into the great cabin with the officers and swore to stop, was the worst of it. He’d heard such speeches before, back at home, many times, and they had never led anywhere but pain. He would, most likely, have carried on loving Crozier even if that had been the case, but he’d loved his mother, too, all the way to the end.

You did not need to love someone to nurse them, either, but God, how Tom loved him now. He was hardly at his most handsome, laid up in his berth, the air thick with unmentionable smells; he would take no drop of anything to ease his shakes even when the doctor advised it, and complained at every personal attention, and Tom loved him so fiercely he could hardly stand to look at him.

“You’re too good to me,” the captain said, as Thomas buttoned up his waistcoat.

Tom allowed himself a tiny smile, aimed down at the buttons. “No better than you deserve,” he said, as lightly as he could. “Captain.”

“Oh, let’s not,” said Crozier. He took Tom’s hands between his, stroking his knuckles when Tom jumped at the touch. “If you’d like to, we can go on pretending you’ve merely done your duty; I’ll not stop you. But I must tell you, Tom, what it’s meant to me.”

Tom tried very hard to school his expression into one of polite neutrality. He could not say how successful he was. “Your gratitude is very kind, sir, but it’s not needed. Taking care of you is my job.”

“Is it?” Crozier sought his gaze, and held it, as he held Tom’s hand. “Is it only duty, Tom?”

It was possible that this was the longest the two of them had looked into one another’s eyes. Tom did his best not to look at him too much, and the captain had never been in the habit of looking at Tom more than he had need to- but, then, perhaps he had looked, while Tom had been looking away. “No, sir,” he said, at last. “Not just duty.”

The captain smiled. Tom loved his smile, all the more precious for its rarity; he loved how the skin around his eyes crinkled, and how it showed the little gap between his front teeth. “I’m glad to hear it,” said Crozier. He stroked Tom’s hand again, more slowly.

“Sir,” said Thomas. A hundred things clamoured to be said, all of them things he had longed to say aloud, some of them for years. “Being in your service is the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.

This got a laugh, albeit a somewhat bitter one. “Even with all the ice, and the murderous bear?”

“Yes, sir,” said Thomas, more vehemently than he had meant to. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

Crozier- he could probably call him Francis in this moment if he dared- brought Tom’s hand up to his mouth, and kissed his knuckles, like a knight in an old story. It ought to have felt silly; it didn’t. “I’d rather have you here with me than anywhere else, too,” he said. “Selfish, I know.”

“It’s not selfish to want things in their proper places, sir,” said Thomas.

The captain brought one of his hands up to touch Thomas’s face. His fingers were cool against Tom’s flushed cheek. He was looking at him again, those cool blue eyes sharp as they’d ever been, and Tom wanted so badly- God, he couldn’t count high enough to number the things he wanted.

There was a knock on the door. “Captain?” came a voice from outside. Thomas couldn’t recognise who it was; one of the ABs? “It’s Captain Fitzjames’s carnival, sir. It’s getting pretty noisy out there.”

“Blast the man,” muttered the captain, and he let go of Tom’s hand with a regretful squeeze. “Thank you, Berry. I’ll be out directly.”

Footsteps clumped away along the corridor. With the two of them standing so close together, Thomas could feel Crozier’s breath; he could smell the tooth powder he’d set out with the wash bowl, and the oil he’d combed into his hair. He wanted… but there wasn’t time just now. He took the captain’s evening cravat from its hook, and wound it about his throat, securing it with the quickest suitable tie.

“How do you do that, Tom,” said Crozier, in the soft, low voice he’d used earlier, telling Tom he was glad he was with him. “I can never get the damn things straight myself- they resist me. But you make it look easy.”

If Tom had his way, Crozier need never tie his own cravat again, so long as Tom drew breath. “That’s what I’m here for, Captain. To make things easy for you.”

Crozier picked up the pullover Thomas had laid out, and put it on; he took the scarf beside it in his hands, ready to go on over his slops. “Alright,” he said. “Let’s make this quick. Even Fitzjames can’t have made too much of a mess of a bloody party.”