Nothing had entered Ned’s mind from the moment he’d taken his infinitely more vexing, and more final, leave of Gladys and her ordinary husband but that he must get out and continue in that mode until the dreadful cacophony of his thoughts should be drowned in the harsh tide of his blood. He threw himself down the steps of The Chestnuts in an untidy rush, feeling as if the air had been sucked from his body, shrinking him down to nothing so much as a dancing skeleton. It wasn’t merely that the loss of his hopes had occurred in a misdirected letter, not simply that he could—would no longer have the—a letter! That Gladys should have put it in a letter! Had he been so ill-mannered—he at least would have broken with her to her face, frankly and firmly, like their friendship deserved!
His ire carried him down the hill and almost to the end of the street lamps. At the passing of a taxi, as old-fashioned a hackney as could have been conjured, he thrust out his hand, near blind with—with anger, of course it was anger and—and—with scorn, of course, and said he knew not what to the cabbie, stammering to the beat of his heart, and throwing the entire contents of his pocket at the man. The driver, an old, sandy-haired Cockney, seemed to understand him at any rate, and Ned tossed himself onto the cushioned bench, letting the gallop of the horse jolt him like a lash. Only days before, at supper with Roxton, he had reaffirmed his decision to run only ever forwards, and now he found himself retreating, tail between his legs like a beaten cur. And what a rout it was, to lose irrevocably and yet have never had the chance to plead his case, to…to…
Ned’s chest heaved as if he were the beast propelling the hackney down the streets. He yanked at his tie and collar, loosening the knot, but managing only to loosen the threads from the top button of his shirt. He breathed deeply and felt his reporter’s mind, that ever careful barometer of sense, twitch with shame. Run he might, and for any distance as long as his pocketbook held out, for it was getting on and even an adventurer should not try his luck with London’s more scabrous elements, but in body only. His mind could not deceive itself for long. He pressed his hands to his face, shook his head, and then slammed his palms to the bench on either side of his hips.
No, he had had his chance; he had possessed Gladys’ friendship and wanted more, like a gluttonous child at Christmas dinner, had even sought to decide the manner of her love, to have her fear him, just a little, as if no devotion could live where there was not also distrust. And, he realized now, holding fast as the hackney took a corner, in so doing he had received that distrust he’d thought so essential, but lost the devotion.
He laid his head back against the back stay of the cab. Had it not been for Professor Challenger and his quest, would he have ever truly learned the shame of fear? Would he have felt its foul breath on his neck, so rancid that even now he shied from its memory, and been in turn so desperately glad for companions upon whom he could trust with all his heart? To think, he had wished that depravity on her, whom he claim—whom he had loved, who he still loved, of course.
He sat up, breath pooling in the hollow of his throat, and felt shame take root in all his senses. Gladys had not even welcomed him as a friend. She had urged him away on a preposterous errand, a knight without even the possibility of a windmill in his sights, into a world where the maps had already been coloured in, and not expected him again. She had married for love.
Ned swallowed, heavily, against a rising tide of some feeling, some estranged emotion within that he could not recognize head-on. In Ireland, there had been another cool-handed lady of his acquaintance whom he had admired excessively, yet her brother…her brother had been no less a paragon, and far more apt to friendliness. When he had gone to follow the drum, Ned’s presence at that long ago table had felt like a farce, all his ardour so much gammon, and he had soon quit the field to his mother’s dismay. But Gladys had not that forthright Irish spirit to tell a man she would not marry him and invite him to visit the kennel if he’d not take a civil refusal for answer. Now, here lay the remains of his latest endeavour towards normality, refused to his face and in print. The cab hurtled onwards, the shouts of the driver and the catcalls of unfortunates barely a dim buzzing in Ned’s ears. His mind urged him forward, grasping onto this notion and refusing to let go until he gave it due consideration. Always before, there had been others, someone to give the slip of a shoulder in a dark corner, no names and barely a face, and then out in the light to dance attendance at the Chestnuts. Only now, Gladys had thrown him over, and…he was free from any further obligation. Proofs of his devotion were now rendered quite superfluous, honest conversation, invited confidences; all the gifts of friendship he had clothed in the trappings of courtship had been most permanently rejected.
The cab came to a back-breaking stop, throwing Ned forward and then driving him back against his seat. He sat there, shaking like a rattle in his own body, until the driver knocked on the roof. Ned shook his head, and then pulled himself to the door of the cab. He shoved the door open, and hopped down to the street, as if movement would free him of his darkening thoughts. He looked up, shivering in the chill, and realized the fog had come up as the night progressed, with all the makings of a London Particular in its damp environs. Above him, loomed the white painted doorway to the Albany.
The Albany, of all places! Surely he’d ordered the cab to his own garret in Marylebone, not Roxton’s home. Ned clenched his fists, and rocked back on his heels. A lock of hair, shaken free of its pomade during the course of the taxi’s mad dash, fell into his eyes; he scrubbed it back from his face.
“What’s the meaning of this, then?” he cried, turning to face the hackney.
The driver stared down at him from his perch, and rubbed his thumb across one bushy eyebrow. “Bless you, sir,” he said, flatly enough that Ned could tell exactly how unblessed he actually was. “I only go where I’m told, don’t I?”
Ned shook his head. “Yes, but surely not here?” he muttered, wincing as his thoughts again favoured truth over prevarication. His dear mother would have taken her hands to his ears for the lies he seemed to have been telling himself this past year.
“I should ask your next bottle, mate,” the driver said, as he snapped his reins and drove on.
Mud splashed up from under the hackney’s wheels, forcing Ned up the front steps to avoid the spray. He glared after the cab, and kicked the dust from the step after it. “I am not drunk!” he called after the cab.
A polite throat-clearing made itself known behind him, and Ned again turned to find himself under the gimlet eye of the Albany doorman.
Ned swallowed deeply and raised his chin. “Good evening, Weathersby.”
He was suddenly greatly conscious of the state of his tie and collar. Weathersby stood framed in the open door of the Albany entranceway, his great coat with its gimcrack epaulets and wide cuffs was buttoned up to the Prussian collar. His boots gleamed in the electric light spilling from the open doorway.
“Good evening, Mr. Malone,” Weathersby responded. “Would you be coming to see Lord Roxton tonight?”
He didn’t wait for Ned to respond, but only stepped aside, blank-faced as a statue, and yet as Ned walked up the steps and passed by, he felt Weathersby’s regard like a weight against his body. He had, perhaps, been too frequent a guest of late, drawn to escape the clamour and press of society in the masculine sanctity of the Albany’s walls. He had lost his taste for the city somewhere in the jungles of South America, and of that great assemblage of iconoclasts to which he had been made party, only Roxton truly seemed to understand.
Ned heard the door shut behind him, and walked down the short hallway to the stairs, leaving Weathersby to his post. It really was so very late, Roxton must surely be asleep. He ran his hand along the rail as he ascended to Roxton’s floor, cramped and dark with barely a candle’s worth of light to guide his path to Roxton’s door. But that was the aristocracy for you; the name was the thing, not the accommodation itself.
His breath trembled in his chest. Gladys was no doubt retired for the night, perhaps with her husband even now, and Roxton lay behind his door, where Ned had left him following a leisurely dinner. They had shaken hands at Roxton’s instigation, and had he imagined—he had trained himself to ignore so many moments that at times it seemed the world was full of gestures to which Ned could merely guess at their meaning. How his editor would raise hell if he knew that what Tarp Henry and Macdona of the press called his ‘ roving Irish eye for trouble’ was really the desperate urge not to be seen staring longer than was seemly at either man or woman. He raised his hand and knocked twice, feeling the weight of his knuckles with each blow. Not a moment later, the door opened.
Roxton had not been asleep, that much was clear. The icy blue of his eyes was unmelted by slumber, his short moustache was neatly combed, and he still wore the crisp white shirt and sharply pressed trousers which he had donned for supper. He stared down at Ned, tall and gaunt in his shirtsleeves, severe as a blade in the light pouring out from his home. Ned felt at his collar, fumbling at his loose tie.
“Well, damn me, young fella,” Roxton said, leaning back so that for a moment the door wavered in his grip. “I can’t say I thought to see you again tonight, what? Seen to your Gladys and departed, have you? And they say the ardour of the Irish knows no bounds. I should work on that if I were you.”
Ned flinched. “I suppose I just wanted an early scoop on the meeting you’ve called for tomorrow morning,” he said, and dropped his gaze in time to see Roxton’s left hand clenching and unclenching by his side.
He looked up, but no trace of tension showed in that thin face. For a wild breath, Ned’s own hands twitched towards those spasming fingers, the thought even occurred to smooth the muscles from their cramped position, but before he could take action, Roxton ushered him across the threshold, and into the apartment. Roxton closed the door behind him, and knocked his hand against Ned’s shoulder, pushing him further down the hall.
“It’s late, I know,” Ned said, pushing his hair back from his forehead.
“No matter, my lad, no harm done,” Roxton said. “I’ll go bail that a man afraid to open his door at night might as well seal up his own tomb, don’t you know?”
Ned walked into the sitting room, feeling the constriction at his throat and in between his shoulders lessening with each step. The pink-tinged lights were out in force, gilding the sturdily framed pictures and polished tables in warmth.
“Sit down,” Roxton said, briskly, striding past him to pick up a decanter half-full of some dark liquor and two tumblers. “Drink Scotch whiskey?”
“Prefer it,” Ned said, sitting down on the leather couch facing the lit fire. “But don’t tell anyone I said so.”
“Your betrayal is safe with me,” Roxton said, and poured out a generous measure for them both, without stopping for soda.
He returned, a glass in either hand, and settled on the couch with Ned, leaning his thin body against the opposite armrest, and sticking his legs out over the rug. The low fire cast ruddy shadows up his body, and Ned swallowed. Roxton held out a glass, and Ned took it from him; their fingers brushed.
“They tell me water draws out the flavour,” Roxton said, clearing his throat. “But I say if the product ain’t pure to begin with, dilutin’ it with fizz won’t save it, what? Puts me in mind of the ruin they drink down in Argentina—Ginebra the locals call it—where they cut the goods with rue to—”
“She’s married,” Ned said, too loudly.
He licked his lips. The words seemed to hang in the air between them, coated in some tart substance that stung the back of Ned’s throat as they departed his mouth. He tightened his grip around his tumbler, and sloshed the whiskey in a circle.
“Damn me,” Roxton said, sitting up in a rustle of leather. “Gave you the mitten, did she? Your own Doctor Illingworth, is that it?”
Ned swallowed a chuckle with his mouthful of whiskey, and smothered it. “Nothing so incendiary as a person ‘so devoted to von Humboldt’s unity of nature, he no doubt has plans to become one with the man himself,’” he said, quoting Summerlee’s most exhaustive tirade, the one time the man’s caustic eloquence had eclipsed even Challenger’s poetical disgust.
A moment of silence dropped between them then, as sudden as it was deep, and Ned found himself caught by the measuring gleam of Roxton’s eyes. Lord John’s mouth was firm, no joking twist to betray his thoughts as it had during their travels, jesting in a manner Ned could never bring himself to report on. How often had he been tested in this room, and during their arduous adventure, and spent his idle moments judging his arbiter in return? From the first moment of their acquaintance, Ned had felt it his duty to expose the truth behind the famous Lord Roxton’s exploits, to capture the man behind the adventurer. And, for his pains, how often had he turned to find Roxton’s own questioning eyes upon him, seeking recompense for each revelation?
“He’s a bank clerk,” Ned said, framing the words to hang crookedly before him.
“Ain’t exactly a bête noir worthy of the name,” Roxton said, sipping from his own glass.
The weight of Roxton’s stare grew overpowering; so might one of the many mounted heads upon the walls surrounding them have felt, seconds before the fatal shot. Ned turned his eyes down, focusing on the steady curl of Roxton’s fingers around his glass, those hardened, tanned digits which he had seen tear leather to strips in order to construct a travois, and cradle the most delicate of blooms for pressing in their comrades’ specimen books.
“She…she sent me a letter, following me to Para,” he said.
Roxton sucked air through his teeth, and Ned glanced up from his glass to find his companion sitting straight as a man on horseback, feet firmly planted and long limbs akimbo. He stared across at Ned as if upon a field of battle. Ned’s heart beat a little faster.
“But you never said.”
Ned took an injudicious sip again, and leaned away; the whiskey burned through the cold, shaken core of him. “I never knew.”
“Come now, young fellow my lad,” Roxton said, causing Ned’s mouth to curl with momentary humour. “Come now, as much as you bent our ears about the delights of your pert miss and you never once thought to ask if any mail had come your way?”
“I…” Ned spread his hands, sloshing the whiskey in his glass.
He brought his hands back to his person, and looked into the ruddy stack of logs of the fire. His hair fell into his eyes, dark and starting to fluff at the ends. The fire grate was solid brass in its frame, but curiously delicate in its interior, with wire cranes bending to sup from mesh pools. Ned wet his lips. On his own hook, he hadn’t thought to ask for mail, no, nor had he thought to send any, besides the missives to his paper. McArdle might have been his sweetheart for all the attention he’d shown the man. He had…surely, he had not thought that Gladys—the woman who had lived in his head, if not in the world—would content herself with news of his progress through the papers.
“I…” he spouted again, trailing away.
“Well, spit it out, man,” Roxton said. “Or have you been saving all your words for your next column?”
Ned tipped back his whiskey, excellent though it was, in two solid gulps, wincing through the burn of the liquor. He set the glass on the small round table next to the arm of the couch, and sighed, falling back against the leather cushioning.
“I don’t believe the real Gladys was in my mind at all,” he said finally, and turned his head along the back of the couch towards Roxton.
How strange that he should be here, and how even more bizarre it was that Roxton should allow it. Ned swallowed. Their experiences together in Maple White Land had bound them in unbreakable links, forging intimacies the like of which Ned hadn’t experienced since he was a boy, but nothing of that said that Roxton should open his home to Ned at all hours, or even seek his company as often as both he and Ned had fallen into the habit of doing. Beside him on the couch, Roxton finished his own whiskey, and settled the empty glass into his lap, ever watchful.
Ned chewed his lower lip. He knew the sounds that Roxton made in his sleep, the deep, even breaths that shortened as the sun came over the tent. The manner in which Roxton ate and drank and bathed had all been revealed to him in unmatched familiarity, and yet the same could be said of Professors Challenger and Summerlee, the latter of whom was not to be approached before his first cup of tea. He should not feel as he did; surely no other man in his position would take such absurd risks on home soil. Science and progress, the biggest wonders of the modern age had lain before him on their journey, his thoughts should have been—his thoughts had been on their exposure, and the revelation of his comrades’ triumphs. Yet nothing had stirred in him of Gladys, not while he had been in Roxton’s company, unless it had been a recitation of her charms, doled out on cue when—when Roxton had prompted him during their many conversations. He had encouraged their listing, sometimes changing the subject in mid-debate.
“Why did you urge me to see Mrs. Potts?” Ned asked.
Roxton’s moustache twitched. “Potts,” he said. “Is that the name now?”
“Yes,” Ned said, rubbing his hand along the buttons of his waistcoat. “Gladys Potts. She tells me they live on terms of perfect honesty. I think I should like that. Certainly one must live in honesty, even if the world, perhaps, has no notion of it.”
For once, Ned saw the great hunter waver, the flesh of his cheeks quivered, beset by emotion as sudden as it was electric. An abnormality fit for this most abnormal of situations, and his reporter’s instinct awoke with a roar. Ned sat up, and leant forward, placing his arm down to the leather cushion in between them for balance. Roxton’s face stilled, and he twisted in place.
“Happy ending,” he said, setting his empty glass down on his own side table with a sharp click. “Got to have ‘em, Malone. I know you literary coves always have to send your readers off with a smile.”
“I’m a reporter.” Ned dug his thumbnail into his topmost button. “My readers often learn unhappy news from my pen, even if it wasn’t, perhaps, the worst news I have ever been late to receive.”
“Not the same when it’s the bonds of matrimony, though, is it? I’ve had my fair share of convenients, but it ain’t the thing to put in the papers.”
Roxton turned around slowly, and looked towards the fire. He’d lit it himself after their post-dinner cigars, for he kept no man and shifted for himself, saving the charwoman provided by the Albany. Ned moved closer on the couch, feeling a trifle light-headed.
“A fellow wants something to come back to of a night,” Roxton said, rattling out the words like beats of a drum. “You mark me, by George! It’s not the days that bring you low, Malone, it’s the parts where you behold the wonders of the day, and look to find there’s no one shares your interest, not even to seek its name in the study atlas. A love of sport and the gun only takes you so far.”
“No doubt as far as the love of a good story.”
At that, Roxton chuckled and glanced over; Ned froze where he sat, now markedly closer than before. Close enough to see the way Roxton swallowed, and the thin point of his tongue as it swiped out from between his lips. Ned inhaled deeply, and smelled the lingering tobacco smoke hanging in the air, the dry spice of Roxton’s foreign pomade, and saw the twitch of Roxton’s fingers along his trouser seams. It had long been his practice, honed in coal shafts and gambling halls, to wait for the pristine moment, the silence that spoke of confidences held back by the thinnest of barriers; most people wanted to speak, it was only the most damaged who found they could not. Such a time was nigh, he could feel it, it only wanted the opportunity. Ned leaned forward, carefully putting their heads close together.
“Why did you let me in at such an hour as this?” he asked, quietly, unable to raise his voice.
Roxton looked at him, face still and eyes quiet, as serene as the statue worshipped by a lost tribe. The shadows cast by the dim, pink lights lengthened along his cheekbones, and softened the ruddiness of his skin to a deep tan. Ned’s heart gained momentum, stumbling into full bolt beneath the cage of his ribs. He swallowed, and took another breath for luck under Roxton’s eyes.
Roxton’s left hand came up and around the back of Ned’s neck, quick as a snake, and towed him inwards, crashing their lips together. Ned fell forward, catching himself on the couch with his hands on either side of Roxton’s body. He moaned.
“John,” Roxton murmured, wonderingly, pulling away only to drive forward once again, nipping Ned’s lower lip between his own. “Say it, say it again, my lad, my beautiful lad.”
“John,” Ned laughed, suddenly awash in relief. He knelt up on the couch for stability. “John,” he said between kisses. “John, John, John…”
John urged him closer, and then back, kissing his mouth and the corner of his lips and the bow beneath his nose, a kiss for every iteration. He wrapped his right arm around Ned’s waist, and urged them both up and off the couch, stumbling for balance. They rocked together, fumbling for handholds, and Ned’s breath caught in his chest. He felt John’s prick against his thigh, hard and long. His own cock pressed most insistently along the juncture of his flies.
Ned brought his hand to the side of John’s face, cupping the line of his jaw, and pulled out of their embrace. “A bed,” he said, breath like a bellows. “Can we—I mean to say, I know it’s not the done thing, but oh…”
And there was the iron nerve come to shore him as it had so many times during their expedition. John’s eyes sparked, lit from within in a manner Ned had seen only in promising glimmers, in the seconds upon waking, when his watch had passed to Roxton’s. John pulled him close; his eyelids lowered at the meeting of their bodies, and kissed Ned again. He drew him back through the morass of papers and maps, and undressed him as ably as any valet.
Ned lost his waistcoat at the turn of the couch, his shirt by the well-stocked racks of long guns, and in his fumbling turn set to work on the tiny buttons decorating John’s shirt. John’s hands were sure in all their movements, but Ned could feel the erratic passage of his breath on his skin. Their mouths parted, skipped apart and Ned’s head fell back as John pressed the point of his nose into Ned’s neck. He surged closer, and let himself be guided from the front room and down the short hall, unbuttoning John’s shirt and opening the panels. He slid the full spans of his hands along the soft cotton of John’s undershirt to his lower back, dragging up the material from his trousers with quick handfuls.
Their hips touched, and then broke apart. John crushed him against the wall, knocking Ned’s elbow into a long mirror frame, and stepped between Ned’s legs. He thrust once, hard, and Ned wrapped his right calf behind John’s knee. He pushed back, grabbing John by the arse and holding him in place, grinding against him until John’s mouth fell to Ned’s shoulder and bit down. He shuddered, sure that he was marked now, indelibly, and that the wound was certain to be obvious. Why else would he feel so split open, and yet so free? John’s moustache tickled his skin.
He bent his head, twisting his neck, and banged his forehead into John’s shoulder. He murmured sounds, possibly simply John’s name, which had led to such delightful rewards so recently. Their bodies rocked together, as primal as the rude creature they’d smuggled from Maple White Land, but it was John who pulled back first, and John who regained some measure of speech.
“Now—now then, I say,” he cleared his throat. “Lo—lad, my dear boy, it was a bed you were calling for a second ago now, sure as I’m standing here.”
Ned blinked at him, licking at the swollen heat of his lips to cool them. John’s eyes sharpened, if it were possible. Ned swallowed, and managed a nod. He shifted his hold to John’s hips.
“Better for the back, I’m told,” he said, eying the bob of John’s throat. “Our man of science at the paper positively extols on the subject.”
“Does he now?” John murmured. “He sounds something by way of being an authority, then.”
“Never catch him sleeping on anything but,” Ned said, and came off the wall, realigning their mouths and pressing close.
The air felt cold, tingling with frost everywhere he wasn’t covered by John’s hands or body, and yet a furnace pumped beneath Ned’s skin, as white-hot as any foundry. He broke free only to prompt John’s shirts up and over his head, drawing the careful brown waves of his hair into disarray. John propelled them over a threshold, and across an empty floor, sucking kisses along the tops of Ned’s collarbones like they were a necklace of roses, each one more firmly budded than the last.
A step further and Ned felt a mattress’ edge behind his knees. He yanked hard on the waistband of John’s trousers, and fell backwards. They bounced together and then apart. Laughter bubbled out of Ned’s much abused throat, and he let it free, turning towards John amid the pillows. John watched him, a wild grin below his hawkish gaze, and reached out both hands. Ned crawled back atop John, hands busy at John’s flies and the buttons of his underwear. Every instinct screamed at him to keep going, to overwhelm and claim, to make good on the promise of those lonely, bewildering nights they’d spent together. John let him cover him with his body, pulling Ned free of his own clothes with all the easy skill of an old campaigner, and tangled them together like two vines.
From there, John rolled them, pressing Ned deeply into the soft counterpane and rocking between his legs. Their cocks slid together; the springs chimed to their movements. Ned ran his hands up John’s back, stumbling over scars he’d only seen in dim morning camp baths and ached to know more intimately. If he could not write, then he must touch. He traced their shapes now, memorizing it as he did the sound of John panting against him. He bit down on the meat of John’s shoulder, and slid his left hand in between their heaving bodies, gathering their pricks together. John’s cock was thick and hot to the touch. He moaned, bending his back, and pounded into Ned’s fist, clenching his hands around the back of Ned’s neck.
Ned felt his lips pressing against the curve of his ear; the feverish pulse of his heart beat in tune with John’s bolting exhalations. Ned arched upwards against the bed, digging his heels into the mattress, and licked the sweat from John’s neck. He whined; a thin, high wail of little breath and overwhelming need. It felt like an age since he’d been touched, and never by anyone who wanted a bed, nor a name, never as good as this lithe body thrusting against his own. He tightened his grip on their cocks, wishing for the patience to have this feeling wrapped around his prick, to be inside the coiled power of John’s frame.
John’s hands dragged from the back of his neck to his shoulders, blunt nails digging in firmly. “Want to—oh, you’ll be in this bed an age, you--Ned!” he cried, and froze in place.
Ned groaned, kissing up and down the side of John’s neck, feeling his hand and stomach grow slick. John exhaled sharply, hands clenching and unclenching on Ned’s shoulders. He loosed a sound, shaky with air, when Ned unclasped his hand from his spent prick, but held position. Ned wrapped his legs around John’s hips, and rocked upwards into him, letting the last burst of energy carry him over, riding the thin groove above John’s thigh to completion.
They folded in on each other then, and Ned followed John onto his side, transferring his grip to John’s waist, loathe to free him. Their foreheads touched and held together. The air felt cool against Ned’s skin, and John was rubbing circles into his biceps with his thumb. They watched each other, and Ned felt a corner of his mouth curve tightly.
“Will there be another Grand National winner to rush now?” he asked.
“Should think not.” John’s tufted eyebrows rose and fell just as quickly. “As mighty serious a thing as this business is, I can’t say I want anyone else up to their necks in it.”
Ned swallowed, and clenched his hands where they’d fallen on John’s body. John nudged forward, and kissed him. Ned’s eyes shut. He breathed in the spice of John’s pomade once more.
“As serious as all that,” he said.
“As honest as all that,” John said. “If that’s what you’re truly wanting.”
Ned opened his eyes, and threw away that awful Irish imagination, that had caused him such grief before the fact. Here was honesty, here was forward into whatever dangers lay ahead, even to ruin, if possible, and it was honest. As true as the heated glory of John’s regard.
“It is,” Ned said, sticking up his chin, and John laughed.
Together, they cleaned up in the small basin on John’s dresser, wiping sweat and semen from their bodies. John took the washrag from him, declaring the sight an unnecessary provocation, and puttered about, taking off the one stubborn sock that had refused to remove itself. Ned waited until John had turned down the counterpane before joining him.
“Been talking with my man of business,” John said, settling back into the bed. “Let the scientific set wrangle themselves out for a bit, I’ve got a line on something that might make the difference come morning.”
“The morning?” Ned asked, looking up. “The meeting with the others. My dear editor, Mr. McArdle, wants to know what you’re about, by the way. He thinks it might make for a popular feature.”
John raised his tufted eyebrows, but nodded. He lifted an errant strand of hair from Ned’s forehead and smoothed it back along his scalp, drawing Ned’s head forward. He kissed him, sure and smooth, as if they had done this a thousand times before, or as if his kiss were the promise of a thousand more like it.
“You’ll see, young fellow my lad,” he said, reclining back enough to smile against Ned’s lips. “Professor Challenger might have his bones, and Summerlee his bugs, but I’ve got an eye for rocks, don’t you know, it’s in the name and everything.”
“Rocks?” Ned repeated, leaning back a little to stare Roxton in the eye. “What do rocks have to do with anything?”
“Tomorrow,” John reminded him, with a twinkle in his diamond-hard eyes. “If I’ve learned anythin’ from this expedition, it’s the pleasure of the reveal.”
Ned groaned, and dropped his head down to the pillow. Roxton’s hand fell to the nape of his neck, warm and steady, but rather than feeling confined by its pressure; Ned instead became conscious of a thrum of contentment rising up from within. The weight was nothing, but the strength behind it had settled something too long devoted to cowardice.
“I had better get a printable word or twenty from your reveal,” Ned muttered, pulling the bedclothes up to their shoulders.
“I’d wager you get at least a hundred,” John said, yawning. “Damn me, you Irish, do you always prattle on in bed when a man wants his pillow and lawful blanket?”
Ned opened his eyes. He stared over at John, and tilted his head, loosening, but not freeing himself from John’s grip. John cracked one eye, and stared back, only a slight quickening of the breath to show his composure wasn’t quite that expected of a former Flail of the Lord. Deliberately, without breaking that measured gaze, Ned reached out and drew the blanket over both their heads.
For reasons owing to a distinct lack of sleep in the accustomed hours, the following morning featured an unseemly, but soon discovered to be habitual, haste.