The unutterably lovely oxoniensis bestowed another round of the Fall Fandom Free-for-All on fandom, and I wanted to write something for her. I decided on her To the Ends of the Earth request: Charles Summers/Edmund Talbot – I'd love to see an AU of the ending (on the boat – being vague, in case anyone is thinking of reading the books/watching the mini-series), so Charles and Edmund get to be friends or more once they're settled in Australia. So it's an AU, but the fire on the ship still happens and both Edmund and Charles are terribly injured. It's kind of a sequel to my earlier Charles-pining-for-Edmund ficlet, but it can stand alone.
Title from Tennyson's gorgeous (and not at all contemporary or really all that appropriate) In Memoriam, specifically XCIII, 13. Great thanks to kate_lear for looking this over and then writing me a lovely email about it.
"Descend, and touch, and enter"
There! Just there, he thought he could see a fine lawn shirtsleeve, shining white through the hellish smoke and flames. He laughed at what his mind could conjure up even now, at this extreme, simply because he'd never breathed a word of his heart to Edmund, lovely boy who by now should have set himself up fine in the governor's service and left all thoughts of the ship and its crew behind. Surely he had a list of improvements he was planning to make once the governorship was his - Charles had never seen anyone so diligent with pen and ink, season in and season out: the scratch of Edmund's pen against thick paper could be heard above the chattering of teeth, couldn't be muffled even by drops of sweat baptising the pages.
There, again! And that was Edmund's very hand, long-fingered, skilful, lovely. How often had he dreamt of the powers and persuasions of those hands in his hair, against his skin, pressing gently at his lower lip?
Charles could not bring a single prayer to mind when Edmund's whole form emerged like a fever-dream from the smoke and flames. He could not hear what Edmund was shouting, though the word those beautiful lips shaped was surely his name. Charles looked his fill at the vision of his beloved and knew he was dying.
He woke with pain blazing down his side. He could not see even his own hand properly, and wondered whether his vision was impaired or if tears of agony were diminishing his faculties. Or? he thought savagely to himself. You were just on a ship that had fire in its bowels and ice dead ahead. It's always and with you, never or, never just one problem at a time.
It was only fitting that he'd been a captain, a proper one with full honours, for less than a week. The triumph of being right about Benét's ridiculous notions duelled angrily in his stomach with the knowledge that it was only on Edmund's say-so that he'd been granted the honour in the first place. Pandora had been his for so fleeting a time. He was a captain without a vessel, a sailor without sharp eyes and two working hands, a man without a home . . . . The very persistence of these unhappy thoughts became somehow soothing in their inevitability, and they rocked him to sleep.
Mother of God, Edmund had caught fire for him. He shouted himself awake as the memory tore through his brain, blinked open bleary eyes to see the truth before him.
It had not been a vision or a waking dream or the effect of smoke and ash and flame. Edmund had sought to rescue him and had ended with his skin peeling off him like paper, his head half-shorn, his left eye - the lovely, narrower one that shone sea-green rather than flame-like blue - no more than a millimetre away from being lost.
Charles would have put out both of his own eyes before allowing any harm to come to his weary king and idol, sitting by his bedside with infinite patience and an unreadable expression on his face, but he could not tame his monstrous desires. He wanted to take hold of one curling flake of shredded skin and pull, strip Edmund pink and new, and prostrate himself before the born-again divinity.
Edmund spoke then, his miraculous voice - that triumph of breeding and brains and inexplicable wondrousness - hoarsened but, please God, not irreparably ruined by the smoke he'd inhaled. "Charles, are you able to hear me? Do you require the surgeon again?"
Charles made some sort of convulsive movement, and Edmund's hand was hovering above his, gently sharing heat without direct touch. "Squeeze my hand if you understand me," Edmund asked kindly, and Charles heard every word, closed his eyes again, and reached up to clasp that long-fingered hand.
Edmund's hair had started to grow in again, a demure brown that looked as soft as moss. His arm moved a bit more freely, too, though it was evidently not up to carrying any significant weight.
It set Charles's heart spinning like a top whipped by an unruly schoolboy to know that Edmund's patient gaze would fall on him at least once a day. His throat was still raw and it was agony even to clear his throat or swallow down the mush left at his bedside, but he would stay mute until the end of time if his silence could keep drawing Edmund to his side. "Dear fellow, dear Charles," Edmund greeted him, a calfskin volume tucked into the makeshift sling hanging across his body. "I thought you might like to hear a story."
He had to be vigilant not to let his eyes speak too eloquently, lest they force Edmund to the realisation that this was all he wanted. He nodded, carefully, and Edmund smiled and settled himself gingerly into the chair next to his bed.
"This place is certainly brighter than the hospital ward," Edmund observed. "I had not thought the Navy would concern itself with matters of paint and soft furnishings." Before Charles could sign - somehow, he had no visual language, just clumsiness - that it was the local womenfolk who'd laboured to scrub enough to uncover some cheer, Edmund's face took on a thoughtful cast that well became it. "Though the Pandora was a little world of its own, was it not? Every luxury and convenience fashioned small and neat."
Not a word about how cramped he'd found the ship at first, cracking his head on every beam. Charles felt the heat of love flush his skin again, set it tingling and tender; he wanted to build Edmund a new ship, tall and bright, a cathedral of soaring space where Edmund could stride and declaim and keep the night watch beside him.
But Edmund had both feet on the ground now, secure in the governor's house and office. What did he need with another ship, another journey that would discommode him and take him away from the work he'd been so eager to start? Charles sank further into his pillow and tried to catch hold of the golden rope of Edmund's voice, steadily reading, words imbued with borrowed emotion.
Even a little of Edmund's precious attention was a dangerous thing, and here Charles lay, hours of that steady regard focused on his skin, his breathing, his eyes; he was ripe for a veritable inferno . He turned just enough to catch sight of the spine of Edmund's book, long graceful fingers splayed across the back, pale against the dark leather. The letters were difficult to make out, unfamiliar, and it struck Charles then that Edmund was reading from a page of some foreign tongue, Greek or Latin most likely, given his education, and translating in his head so smoothly that his tongue never faltered. Charles gasped a little at the realisation and Edmund's face appeared above him, like the moon pulling at the seas to create yearning tides. "What is it, old fellow? Some water, perhaps?"
Charles nodded as best he could, willing his body to stay flat in bed instead of straining up to meet Edmund's friendly touch, wanting to erase the concerned frown wrinkling half his brow. "Charles, you mustn't dwell on the . . . conflagration," he said finally, gently supporting Charles's head so he could sip from the cool tumbler held to his lips. Charles averted his gaze, remembering the last time Edmund had used an unfamiliar word, those fox eyes shining in the candlelight, sweat gleaming on his skin; he hadn't known what lethargy meant, but he wanted to because Edmund's sidelong glance included him so neatly into the private joke he was offering up casually and freely.
The book Edmund had left on his chair to minister to Charles overbalanced just then, and they sprang apart. Charles felt the last of the water hit his throat to create a chilly puddle on his skin, and imagined it felt like a kiss.
Edmund had always smelled rather better than their surroundings, Charles recalled, thinking fondly of Edmund's fastidiousness and his crowing delight at being handed salt-water soap and told he could scrub himself and his clothes clean. But now, there was a veritable perfume in the air when Edmund came forth to sit by his bed, and Charles abruptly realised that he could no longer smell his own burnt flesh and hair, and so Edmund's garments filled the air with a sweet scent. Every stitch, from the silk waistcoat and lawn shirt to the personal linen would have been laundered by diligent maids armed with herbs and water and scented soaps.
It was entirely probable that one such maid - or more - had attended to Edmund as well, had looked up, up, all the way up his fine figure from the depths of her curtsey, and seen his shining eyes and mobile mouth and offered herself up. Charles could not even imagine how such a thing might be done, but it happened often enough, and yes, it could certainly -
"Charles? Man, what is it? Shall I fetch someone?" Edmund's voice broke in, and Charles looked up to his face radiating concern, the left side healed but still pulled awkwardly taut by ropy white scars.
"All - is - well," he managed to gasp, his throat agonisingly rough. "Stay." He hoped his voice, weak as it was, would be enough, because nothing could induce him to reach for Edmund with his still-red hand, still bent so it looked more like a claw. "Speak." How often had he heard, ever so faint, Edmund's voice rising from between the boards and beams that made up Mr. Prettiman's cabin, heard Mr. Prettiman's low growls and the higher pitch of his wife's voice, her tones twining around Edmund's in a pleasing harmony? He had never been able to make out any of the words but raging envy had afforded him a selection to choose from.
"You sly boots. You know I cannot resist an audience." Edmund's voice, thank the Lord, was getting stronger, more like itself and not as smoky as it had sounded when he'd been screaming for Charles to jump ship and save his life, if not his livelihood.
Charles smiled and shaped the word with his mouth, knowing Edmund would catch it and perhaps, if he was lucky, would even smile his crooked smile: "Parliament."
The smile flashed out bright as lightning, and a laugh worked its way up Edmund's long throat. "I cannot. You do not inspire me to the heights of pomposity. I shall find some other subject to speak of." He was silent for a long moment. Charles used the time to consider how well Edmund's soft mouth looked from either side, a fresh pink against the faded glow the sun had brought to his face or a darker flush against the network of fine white scars over hurt skin. The barbers who shaved him would always have to take the utmost care over his pitted cheek.
He wondered what those scars would look like to someone who did not owe their life to their bearer. No maidservant, nor the Prettimans, nor anyone else would ever love them as he did; none of them could boast of Edmund, lifelong, wearing the marks of his esteem for them. Edmund's face and his heart, both scored irreparably, matched.
The night air felt cool on his face, lifting the ends of the hair he no longer tamed with a comb and water. Beside him, Edmund wore the look he had when he'd just stopped smiling, his face turned up in wonder. "Do you know, Charles, I still remember every word you said on the subject of the stars?"
Edmund's throat was bared; he had not bothered with a jacket or cravat, both of which were only steps away in Charles's cheery lodgings. Charles had been bundled into a cotton blanket light enough not to irritate his healing skin; Edmund had clearly been recalling the steps his nurse or mother had taken when he was ill.
"I wonder if I shall ever see Castor and Pollux again." Edmund said softly, bringing his head slowly down so that Charles could read, not delight, but a more sober solemnity animating his features. "You will, though. The next time you cross the line -" Charles wondered, from the way Edmund stopped abruptly and looked up again, if thoughts of Reverend Colley still haunted him, "- they will hove into view, and they will be yours to look upon."
Charles felt a shiver run down his neck at the thought of being so inescapably parted from Edmund, by seas and land and time. He still could not speak as well as he wanted, though he practiced, when Edmund was busy with his duties for the governor, in the relative privacy of his room, and stuttered to a stop whenever he heard the rough croak his voice had become. Shouldn't you like to sail with me? he wanted to ask. To England, to India, to America? To anywhere you wanted to see? He summoned his courage to set his fingertips on Edmund's arm.
Edmund swung round to look at him, still unsmiling, but he did not dislodge Charles's hand. "I wonder if I shall see George and Albert again." He seemed to know the tenor of Charles's question, for he answered without being asked. "My brothers. Twins as well. Fully nine years my junior, just outgrowing the nursery when I left. They were never very interesting until I was about to leave, and then I could not cease watching them, the way they spoke silently with each other; the way they shrieked as they ran across the lawns, pestering the gamekeeper; the way they used to sit, one next to the other, elbows always touching, and frowning as they tried to work the sums old Dob - Miss Dobson - set." He glanced at Charles, still dumb, still curling his fingers into the fine fabric of Edmund's shirtsleeve. "I would have liked to teach them astronomy, as you did me."
Charles, unable to keep himself wholly from hungering for Edmund alive and responsive to his touch under the cloak of a starlit night, dropped his hand and nodded.
Charles set himself the task of reciting the names of all the constellations he knew, unwilling to malinger any longer. Without regular work, he had no appetite save for whatever Edmund insisted he eat, and his body was diminishing as surely as his voice had. He would only recover a place in the lists if he regained his health. And he would have the pleasure of celebrating each stop in Australia as a homecoming, a chance to thrill Edmund with news of the world, an opportunity to embrace him tightly as became two fast friends.
He wondered, as he often did, what Edmund was doing at that moment. Was he bent over a document, the careful strokes of his pen setting down law that would justly bind the colony and her people? Or was he in his private apartment within the governor's house, singing as he dressed for the evening meal, perhaps planning to stroll down to Charles's lodgings at his leisure later that night?
Aside from the Prettimans, with whom he could not have associated or corresponded as long as he was part of the government, Edmund had everything he had had on Pandora and more besides; if he had sang then as he dressed for a ball, he had every reason to sing now as he fulfilled the wishes of his family with honourable service. Perhaps he would even have a letter from his mother, with a postscript from his brothers, to gloat over and share.
In imagination, if nothing else, he conceived the notion of landing on England's shores and finding Edmund's estate, welcomed by a mother anxious for direct news of her son, with letters and mementoes to carry back with him to Australia to lay before Edmund's astonished eyes.
There was a letter peeping out from Edmund's waistcoat pocket, though remarkably thin - it looked like only a few lines on a single sheet of paper, the kind of letter the mother of a voluminous correspondent like Edmund would never deem sufficient. He had felt it when Edmund embraced him, a laughing smile on his face, after Charles had managed to speak a few words of greeting in his unremarkable voice.
"I had wondered, Charles, if I would be privileged to hear your voice again. It would have been a pity for the people here if they had been deprived of hearing the soft Scottish accent." Charles ducked his head against Edmund's teasing praise, and heard a full laugh emerge from his friend. "Soon you will be sailing around the world again, Charles, while I stay behind and draft documents that are of no interest to any person other than the governor and myself." He quieted, and Charles cocked his head, curious about what his next words might be. "You could bring me treasure from India, if you were so inclined. The greatest treasure I could imagine." Charles saw his slim hand steal to his pocket, though Edmund seemed not to have realised he had moved.
"What treasure shall that be?" he asked, careful to keep his voice moderate so as to alleviate the strain of exercise. "Rubies, sapphires, diamonds? Silks? Spices?" He was miserable at pretending there was a limit to what he would steal for Edmund.
"The treasure the Alcyone sailed off with. Miss Marion Chumley."
Edmund lashing him about the head with a rope's end could not have caught Charles more by surprise. The Alcyone! He had stayed on Pandora the night of the ball, having never mastered the gentleman's art of proper dancing, and had soothed his soul with the knowledge that Pandora had at least one officer on her through the long hours of merriment on the other vessel. But he had heard the whispers as the crew trickled back, that there were was a fine lady married to the captain and a young girl no thicker than a rope on the other ship, and some of the ladies who'd been on board Pandora were fine figures of women when they wore such dresses and took such pains with their appearance.
At last he had a name to go with that picture - Miss Marion Chumley! That wisp, that slip of a girl, who had required no more than a few hours to charm Edmund's wits out of his head. She had done it so quickly, he recalled, that Edmund had returned from his first meal aboard Alcyone insisting that he would abandon his cabin to a new passenger transferring from the other ship.
"Has the lady written to you?" he asked, fists clenched behind his back.
"Not since I lay unconscious as our ships parted," Edmund answered readily, though his already sombre face dimmed. "We did not find a harbour together then."
It was too much, to hear Edmund speak of harbours and homecomings when describing his infatuation with a girl he could not hope to meet again. "Perhaps the lady is still travelling, or has taken on new duties which do not allow her to write?"
That wiped the last vestiges of happiness from Edmund's face. "Perhaps," he allowed, and pushed the letter back down into his pocket.
Charles walked to the harbour whenever a ship came in, anxious to cut a fine figure for any captains who might be searching for a replacement. The day was bright and clear, and he breathed in salt and smiled at the sting. He did not concern himself with the name of the ship coming in, but stopped a few poor labourers busily arranging for the cargo's transportation to ask where the ship had originated. Their answers, prompt and courteous, indicated that it had been bound for India but had been required to find harbour. Charles nodded and let them return to their labours.
Of a sudden, the pleasing hum of work was broken by the thundering slap of boots against wood. He turned and saw Edmund, rapturous eyes incapable of seeing anything but what he sought, and Charles went sick and dizzy like a stripling sailor enduring his first bout of mal de mer when he realised that Edmund's treasure must have been brought to him by a power more infinite than Charles could command.
Edmund had come so close to him that their shoulders had actually brushed, but his utter indifference chilled Charles past the point where the sun beating down on his neck could warm him. And then Edmund stood perfectly still as if he did not dare even to breathe, and Charles followed his gaze to a girl in a white gown, holding a parasol against the light, its tassels and the folds of her dress buffeted by the stiff breeze. Her face was unremarkable, and what hair had escaped from her bonnet appeared to be light. But Edmund came back to himself with a smile that grew past anything Charles had seen, as if he had waited all his life for this very moment, and Charles turned on his heel and left.
"Charles, dear fellow," Edmund said, walking with a spring in his step, "I have a very great favour to beg of you."
Name it, he would once have answered. But Miss Marion Chumley was the one with the power to grant Edmund's wishes, evidently, and he would be damned before he would overstep. He put down his book - a volume of fairy tales half-familiar and filled with echoes - and inclined his head as graciously as he'd seen Edmund do when the others still called him "Lord Talbot," not in tones of admiration.
"Stand up with me when I marry Marion?"
It was too much, to have to bear witness to Edmund pledging his life and love to a girl he had known from a few hours' conversation in what amounted to a floating drawing room. Charles was fumbling for words - he was not elevated enough to stand as witness, Marion Chumley surely had friends or relatives who would protest a common seaman's inclusion, the governor would undoubtedly expect to fill that role.
"Be my brother," Edmund asked, and Charles felt a wave of grief crash through him. Brother, as though he had not adored every inch of Edmund, had not lost hours in contemplation of the sweetness of his skin, the lustre of his eyes, the nobility of his character. As though Charles was a small child to be placated, a proxy for Albert and George, with no spark of his own.
Edmund's hand closed over his. "My dear Charles," he begged, and Charles did not want to hear the plea in that commanding voice. That voice that was so unlike his own, but that Edmund wanted raised with his, the two of them speaking in harmony.
Men in fairy stories might choose to mate with wild creatures, strange fae. A lover could be utterly alien, so deeply different as to be unknowable. Marion Chumley, in her white bridal gown, face veiled by a trembling nosegay, was such a creature. But a brother, he thought, standing next to Edmund so that they could feel the warmth of each other near, was kin, of a kind, at heart very much the same. Charles was humbled by Edmund's declaration.
If he was to be like Edmund, there could be no more accommodation for fear. Captain Charles Summers was at His Majesty's service once more, a letter from Edmund to his mother and brothers packed along with his personal belongings, a good wind at his back.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.