Ambrose had arrived first, dragging the small trunk that his mother had packed for him with one arm, a basket under the other, filled with the leftover food from his journey and a bouquet of flowers his youngest sister had picked, now wilted from the long trip.
The room was small, but more pleasant than the teenager had expected, with two small windows in one wall, two small cots, two desks, two chairs, a stack of the requisite textbooks for a first-year student at the Naval Academy on each desk. There was a closet to share, along with two small washbasins. Someone had shown him where the washroom was on his way in. He deposited his trunk at the foot of one of the beds, the one next to the windows, and put Katherine's daisies on the nearest desk, kicking his mud-caked boots onto the floor before crawling between the freshly-pressed sheets, travel-filthy clothes and all, and letting himself drift into a light sleep.
He was awakened not too long after by a loud bustle as a whole crowd of people seemed to descend upon him. Ambrose considered pretending to be asleep before he realized that the crowd, the chattering little girls and the purposeful directions coming from what could only be parents, were not his own relations.
He started up from bed, attempting to make himself look presentable by running his hands over his hair and sweat-stained shirt, all too aware that he probably looked more like a drowned rat, particularly to these people, who, from what he could gather, were all singularly beautiful and refined. He tried to stand up straight, hoping his cheeks weren't red, shaking hands and nodding politely, though he was certain every one of their number would leave the room immediately thereafter for a complete scrubbing.
After several long minutes of bustling, the young boy still standing by his bed, feeling mystified and very out of place, nodding and answering questions politely without really thinking about what he was saying, Ambrose found himself left alone in the room, facing its other occupant. Like the others, he was tall, fair-skinned and -haired, and, Ambrose couldn't help but notice, intimidatingly good-looking. The smaller boy suppressed a sigh. He'd been hoping to get stuck with someone sloppy, or chubby, or someone with an incessant skin condition, anything that would make him look the least bit attractive by comparison, but at the rate things were going, he was going to be stuck as a drowned rat forever.
"Jonathan," he mumbled at the floor, for that was the name the other boy had called himself when they had exchanged greetings. "I took-if you want to change beds, or desks, or anything, you can-I mean, I can switch the sheets and-I didn't mean to be asleep when you-" He looked apologetically at the other boy; here he was, already sticking his foot in his mouth, and it was his first day, and his feet still stunk from traveling, so the taste wasn't at all pleasant. And they would have put him in with a Navy brat, a legacy, mind you, someone whose entire family lived and breathed Navy. He would know all the ins and outs, no doubt, and Ambrose would look even more inept than he already knew he would be.
The taller boy shook his head. "No, no, I like it this way, Ambrose," he replied reassuringly, looking around the room. "I'm sorry we woke you up. You must have had a long trip. Where did you say you were from again?"
"Ludlow," Ambrose replied, waiting for the inevitable lack of recognition. "In Shropshire."
He couldn't tell if Jonathan had heard of it or not. "We've a house in London," Jonathan answered. "The whole family has been staying by all week. Who did you say your father was?"
"I didn't," Ambrose answered uncomfortably. "Elwill Trueman. He's a-- he's--" Ambrose sighed, shaking his head. "I'm here on scholarship," he explained, a little abashedly.
His roommate nodded, not looking too taken aback by the admission. "We'll have to make sure you meet all the right people while you're here, Ambrose," he decided after a moment. "I can show you around, as soon as we're settled."
Ambrose smiled uncomfortably at the bigger boy. "Thanks," he murmured.
It was hard to say exactly which part of the first few weeks was the worst. It could have been the homesickness; it would have been the homesickness if nothing else, even if the letters from home had come when Ambrose had expected them. But day after day, while all the other boys received mail, none came from Ludlow. Ambrose told himself that it was better that way. At least he knew the letters had gone missing, because Katherine and Myrtle would have written no matter what, even if Mother and Father had forgotten, and getting letters from the girls and not from Mother and Father would have been harder, he convinced himself, than getting letters from no one at all.
Still, the other boys had letters, and Jon had sweets, which he left out on his desk with frequent invitations for Ambrose to take some, but Ambrose always refused. He didn't have anything to give back in return, and he knew that when he did get letters, there wouldn't be any sweets.
He missed them. He missed Mother and Father, for all their stern ways. He missed Elwill, especially the quiet moments when no one else was around, and he and his elder brother could behave like children again. He missed Myrtle and her teas, and Katherine and her daisy crowns.
He couldn't say, though, if he missed them more when he sat in class, trying to ignore the glares of the other boys, who hadn't even bothered to crack the spines of their required reading, who hadn't outlined the first chapter of Lord Thornburton's Beginner's Etiquette, who hadn't solved the problem sets for mathematics, or after class, when the same boys tried to catch him alone in the halls, sending him tripping into walls, so he had to make his way back to his room with a bloody nose, or a black eye. He had learned very quickly that he had to hide the injury from Jonathan, who would behave quite self-righteously if he noticed that Ambrose was hurt, asking questions like, "who did this to you?" Now, when he was hurt, he simply rushed back to the room, and if Jonathan wasn't yet there, he would crawl into bed, hiding under the covers, pretending to be asleep upon his room-mate's return. If his room-mate was present, he would have to go for a walk, hide in the library, anything so that he wouldn't have to explain another swollen lip or bruised jaw.
Meals were bad, too. The food wasn't anything like the food at home, and the bigger boys pushed and shoved. It was bad enough when Jonathan wasn't there, and the same boys who picked on him in and out of class would make him forfeit the best part of his meals, or worse, simply dumped his plate before he could eat. But when the bigger boy accompanied him, Jonathan made him carry on conversations, introduced him to the other boys, encouraged him to talk to other people and not just his food. He tried to remember what he'd learned in Beginner's Etiquette, but no matter how many exams he received perfect marks for, he couldn't manage to do it in public.
He might have missed them most at night, when he slipped into bed late, well after curfew, his homework all complete and checked-over for the next day, and pulled the covers over his head, sobbing silently. He hoped he was sobbing silently, anyhow. It was shameful enough-here he was, eighteen years old and crying himself to sleep like a baby. The first few times, he hadn't been silent enough, he had learned, when Jonathan had sat up in bed, and finally crossed the room, poking him lightly to find out what was the matter. That had been entirely too humiliating-so much so that the smaller boy couldn't speak, but just shook his head and curled up more tightly under the covers. He was going to be a naval officer, and here he was, three weeks out of his parents house and crying. He was sure that not a single other boy in the history of the Naval Academy had ever cried. Jonathan surely hadn't cried a tear in his life. They would probably send him home any day now.
Ambrose had been crying, earlier, when Jonathan came in one evening, and the boy hastily brought the book he was studying up to hide his face, so his roommate wouldn't suspect. He had explained away his last bout of homesickness with a stomachache, which had been more or less honest-he had been nauseated, after all. But he still didn't really feel up to excusing away tearstained eyes on a regular basis, certainly not to someone like Jonathan.
"Good evening, Ambrose. What are you doing?" the blond boy asked, dropping his own load of books down onto the foot of his bed before plopping down, uninvited, on the side of Ambrose's.
The smaller boy grunted into his book, gesturing to the binding, which was printed with the words, "On Formal Courtship: By Lord Sylvester Thornburton."
"Just fine, Ambrose," Jonathan replied, "thank you so much for asking, and how are you?" He smiled sheepishly at the older boy, reaching over to tug gently at the book. "Still studying?" he asked. "Aren't you going to come down to the mess?"
"Busy," the dark-haired boy answered, tugging back on his book with both hands, burying his too-large nose within the spine.
"Busy studying courtship?" Jonathan asked, with a light chuckle. "Ambrose, how are you ever going to get top marks on a courtship exam without any practice?"
This question drew Ambrose's head out from the chapter he had been poring over at random, and he raised an eyebrow at the bigger boy. "It's a written exam," he pointed out reasonably. "I don't need practice."
"Let's see," Jonathan retorted, snatching the book out of Ambrose's reach. He looked down at the chapter heading, laughing lightly as he read it aloud. "To Kiss The Hand," he proclaimed, deliberately deepening his voice. "Hmm, at Which point during the Evening is it most apt for the Gentleman to Kiss the Hand of the Lady?" he asked, emphasizing all the words that the book's author had chosen to capitalize. "Answer that one, Ambrose."
Ambrose snorted, rolling his eyes at the bigger boy. "Anytime after you're certain she doesn't have the coughing sickness," he answered. "Jon, it's not funny; give me my book back," he pleaded, reaching out for the volume.
The taller boy stood, holding the book up high. "Is is Ever apt to Kiss a Lady on the Mouth whilst in the midst of the Courtship Ritual?"
"Of course," Ambrose answered dryly, "right after I show her my tailfeathers and honk like a loon." He buried his face in his pillow.
"Like I said," Jonathan retorted, giving the older boy his book back as he took his seat on the bed beside him, "you need practice, Ambrose. No self-respecting gentleman uses tailfeathers, anymore."
"Of course," Ambrose agreed curtly, propping his pillow up in his lap. "My Dear Lady," he said to the pillow in a lofty tone, "Your downy figure and lily-white complexion make my knees tremble, and I am terribly afraid that I shall have to break all custom for I cannot contain myself when you are near." He lunged at the pillow, making loud smacking noises as he kissed it messily.
Jonathan crossed his arms, shaking his head at Ambrose's attempt. "You're doing it wrong," he informed him generously.
"Oh?" asked Ambrose, laying the pillow across his lap. "Well, pardon me. How am I supposed to do it?" he asked.
Jonathan leaned toward him, shutting his eyes as he encircled the smaller boy with both arms. "Like this," he answered.
After a long moment-too long a moment, Ambrose finally pushed the other boy away, running the back of his hand over his mouth with a look of utter disbelief. "What are you doing, Jon?!" he cried, sliding back on his bed, away from the bigger boy.
Jonathan sat there for a moment, blinking, mouth agape, before color rushed to his cheeks, and he pulled himself up from Ambrose's bed. "Nothing, Ambrose, I was just-just practicing," he replied weakly, turning back to his own books, to rifle through them busily. "I'm sorry."
The dark-haired boy still looked aghast as he turned away, curling up on his bed. He opened his book, then sighed, shoving it away to try to find something less romantic. "It wasn't funny, Jon," he replied awkwardly.
His heart was still fluttering.