When the lights go on again all over the world, and the boys are home again all over the world, and rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above, a kiss won't mean goodbye but hello to love. "When the Lights Go On Again", Vera Lynn
Corporal Jopson is typing when Edward comes in.
It's a pleasing sound. Musical, almost, the steady rhythm of the keys broken only by the regular kachung of the carriage return. The flow continues, uninterrupted, while Jopson glances up and says, “Good morning, Squadron Leader!” with his customary good cheer. “Group Captain's indisposed at the moment, I'm afraid.”
“Oh. I see.” This doesn't surprise Edward, although he and Group Captain Crozier had an appointment scheduled. He learned soon after arriving here that an appointment with Crozier is usually more of a suggestion than an order, unless the Group Captain has a bee in his bonnet. On the eve of a bombing run, he would be forgiven for having an entire hive up there, but apparently that is not the case.
“You might wait, if you like,” Jopson goes on, indicating the two chairs in front of his desk. “If you've nothing else pressing.”
Edward has rather a lot of things pressing. He always does. Still, Edward sits.
The typing continues. If Crozier is unreliable, then his aide is the complete opposite. Edward has never met anyone who exudes a more powerful air of quiet competence. He finds it all too easy to stare at Corporal Jopson, to become mesmerized by his unhurried, unworried demeanour. And that's to say nothing of his handsome face, or his remarkable eyes. The colour of the open sky, Edward would call them, were he the type of man to think such fanciful things. Fanciful or not, they haunt Edward's dreams, in the best and the most alarming way possible.
Jopson pulls the sheet of paper from his typewriter, lays it aside, and rolls a new page into place. Edward racks his brain, trying desperately to think of something suave, or at least interesting, to say. As usual, his mind is an unhelpful void.
“Lovely weather we're having,” he lands upon, then cringes.
If Jopson is irritated by the sheer banality of the statement, he doesn't show it. “Yes, indeed, sir. Beautiful.”
Edward swallows. “You must have missed having Christmas with your family.” Slightly less dull, perhaps, but not exactly a cheerful topic of conversation. Jopson stills his fingers, brushes a strand of hair from his forehead, and fixes that remarkable gaze on Edward.
“I haven't much family to speak of, sir. You?”
“Oh, I've a lot of brothers and sisters. Too many, really. Ha!” A laugh quite unlike his own erupts from God knows where.
“I'm certain they missed you.” From another man, the words might have sounded hollow, insincere. Jopson never sounds anything but genuine.
Edward was always poor at tennis, of both the physical and the verbal varieties. He knows its his turn to volley back, but he can think of nothing more to say. As the pause drags on, Jopson returns to his typing, which feels like a failure on Edward's part.
“Have you a light?” He blurts. “Bloody lighter's out of fuel, and I used up my last match this afternoon. I meant to get more, but then I had the appointment with the Group Captain. I didn't think I had time to stop, but it appears I may have after all.” Jopson saves Edward from this rambling by producing a red matchbook from his pocket. “Thank you, Corporal.” He doesn't just mean for the matches. Edward takes out his cigarette case, then strikes one. He lights the cigarette and returns the matchbook to Jopson. Loose lips can sink ships is printed in white lettering on the back of it. “Good advice, that.”
“Beg pardon, sir?” Edward points at the words, then inhales deeply, sucking as much reassurance from the cigarette as possible. "Oh, yes. I met a very friendly Canadian in town the other day. He gave it to me.” The carriage return kachungs once more.
Before Edward can succumb to irrational, silent jealousy over the thought of Jopson and this no doubt very friendly Canadian, the door behind the desk swings open. Group Captain Crozier makes his appearance, looking rather the worse for wear.
“Little?” He seems vaguely surprised to see Edward, like Edward is someone he once met by chance and didn't expect to see again.
“You have a meeting with the Squadron Leader, sir,” Jopson puts in.
“Oh. Yes. Yes, of course. Come in, Little.” Jopson smiles at Edward as he passes. It's polite, professional. It still makes Edward's heart beat faster as he follows Crozier into his office.
Edward Little's ancestors were Naval officers, almost to a man. Nevertheless, from a young age, Edward's eyes turned to the sky rather than the sea.
He longed to fly, as high and as frequently as possible. In the Royal Air Force, he got his wish. He was happy there, thriving, rising in the ranks apace and doing what he always wanted to do. Then came the first of September, 1939. Like a great many people, Edward's life was irreversibly changed that day. It changed again the following summer.
"The Battle of Britain", the House of Commons called it. Those in the air just called it hell. Edward's squadron was decimated, and when the dust settled, he was moved here, to fly bombing runs under Group Captain Crozier.
Corporal Thomas Jopson was the first man he met when he arrived at the base. Jopson's smile was like sunshine on an overcast day, but when he said, “You fought in the Battle of Britain,” Edward's heart sank. Everybody Edward met wanted to congratulate him on it, to commend his valour. There was nothing to commend, no congratulations necessary or appropriate. Edward fought because it was his duty. He lived because he was lucky.
Instead, Jopson went on, “That must have been very difficult for you.”
Nobody had said that to him before. “Yes. It was.” Edward lost friends, men he considered brothers. Over four hundred of them. He watched some of their planes spiral to the ground, right in front of his eyes. Others, he didn't see go down. Some, he hadn't even met, but their loss still hurt, so badly that sometimes Edward thought he would go mad from it.
He couldn't say that aloud, of course, not even to this man, the first who'd ever offered him any kind of sympathy. Jopson put a hand on his shoulder. It rested there briefly, then Jopson removed it, continuing his explanation of the Group Captain's schedule and the base routines. It was enough. It cemented the view, already forming in Edward's mind, that Jopson was different, not only from the other men in the Air Force, but from every man he'd ever met.
Not that there's anything Edward can do about that. He fancies, sometimes, that Jopson looks at him with the same interest he holds for Jopson, but it doesn't matter. Edward is not the type of man to act on such interest. He lacks courage, at least of that sort.
Group Captain Francis Crozier is courageous. He is also an enigma. He has a reputation as a drunkard and a misanthrope, but also as a clever leader, a great strategist, a gifted pilot. In the short time they've served together, Edward has realized that, despite the group captain's proclivities, he would always be glad to have Crozier watching his back.
They go over the procedure, again, for the next day's bombing raid. It will be Edward's fourth, and he has hated every one of them. Aerial dogfights are one thing; dropping bombs is something else. They plan as carefully as they can to avoid civilian targets, most of the time, but Edward can never know for certain exactly whom he hits. Will never know for certain.
Still, it is his duty. The plan clarified, he leaves Crozier to his work and probably to his whisky. Outside his door, Jopson is still typing away.
“Are you going to the dance this evening, sir?” He asks, as Edward passes his desk.
“Dance?” He looks back.
“In the village. Wing Commander Fitzjames is organizing it. A new year's celebration.”
Now that he thinks about it, Edward has heard something about some sort of party. “It's the twenty-eighth of December.”
“An early celebration.” He doesn't need to explain why.
“Ah. No. No, I don't think so.” Edward and dances do not mix well. Nor do Edward and galas, or soirees, or any type of social gathering that doesn't involve aeroplanes.
Jopson's forehead creases. “That's a pity, sir. I'm sure every girl in the village would be keen to have a dance with the dashing Squadron Leader Little. I was going to ask you to save one for me.” Edward barely stops his jaw from dropping. He can't keep a wave of heat from rising to his face, turning his cheeks, he's certain, bright scarlet. “A girl, I mean, sir,” Jopson explains, quickly.
“Of course.” Edward's face cools, even as his stomach twists with ridiculous disappointment. He mumbles a vague, confused apology, which probably sounds bizarre and is certainly unbecoming of somebody of his rank, or, indeed, anybody at all. He escapes as quickly as he can.
Edward is a good man. He thinks so, at least. He tries to be. He cares for his men, he does all he can for them, he leads them as well as he's able. But he lacks the social graces of Wing Commander Fitzjames, the breeding of Air Commodore Sir John Franklin, the courage of conviction of Group Captain Crozier. The elements which make a man a true officer. At heart, Edward is just a pilot. Life is so much easier in the air than on the ground.
“She's looking good, sir,” Senior Aircraftman Blanky says, when Edward arrives in the hangar. “All set for tomorrow night.” His plane sits in front of them, beautiful as always. A fighter-bomber Spitfire, with a polar bear baring its claws painted on the tail. Why a polar bear, not even Edward knows. He does know better than to interfere with a squadron's mascot, incomprehensible as it may be.
“Can I take her up, Mr. Blanky?”
“Right now, sir?”
Edward nods. Blanky hesitates, glancing over to where two of his mechanics are working on another plane.
“Just a short one.” Edward is already reaching for his helmet.
“Don't do any damage!” Blanky calls after him.
“I wouldn't dream of it,” Edward replies, and he straps on his oxygen mask.
When Edward was fifteen years old, he took his first flight. The pilot was a friend of his father's, a man who'd flown Sopwith Camels in the Great War. At once, Edward knew he never wanted to do anything else.
In the air, Edward is a different man. Everything he worries about, all of the things that plague him on Earth, fall away. His awkwardness, his incertitude, his anxiousness. His childish pash on Corporal Jopson. The wounds this war has inflicted upon him, which nobody can see and which he can never mention for fear of being deemed weak. Beyond the clouds, none of that matters. Here, Edward is free.
If he had his way, he would fly forever. As it is, Blanky is already chewing his pipe fretfully when Edward returns to the airstrip, barely half an hour later. Reluctantly, Edward allows Blanky's men to take the plane, although Edward would gladly sleep in it if given the opportunity.
It's evening, now, and dark. It's about even odds that Crozier will be insensate, but Edward returns to his office in any case, for a final review of the plans he knows by heart. When he gets there, he finds Jopson drawing the heavy blackout curtains over the single window.
“Off to the dance?” Edward says, when Jopson, as usual, smiles at him. He's quite proud of himself. It's coherent, friendly, even jaunty.
“Afraid not, sir. I don't think I'm going to attend after all.”
“No?” Edward frowns. Jopson mentioned the improbable possibility of Edward's popularity, but Jopson is more likely to be the one every woman wishes to dance with. Edward feels an aching sympathy for them.
“I've a lot of work to do.”
“How unfortunate.” He should ask if Crozier is in. That is, after all, the purpose of this visit. He doesn't, though. Jopson isn't looking at him. He's fussing with the curtains, but still, Edward feels a curious fluttering in his chest. It's the same way he feels when he's in the cockpit, on the airfield, about to take off.
Trying desperately to settle himself, Edward pulls out his cigarette case. “Could I trouble you once again for a light?” He really does need to replenish his own supply of matches.
“No trouble at all, sir.” Now, Jopson turns to face Edward. It settles him not at all. “I might have a cigarette myself, now that you mention it.”
Going over to his desk, Jopson produces the Canadian's matchbook and his own box of cigarettes, lighting one and inhaling in a way Edward refuses to consider the least bit alluring. Edward props his unlit cigarette in his mouth, waiting for Jopson to pass him the matchbook. Instead, an unusual look comes to Jopson's eyes. “Step over here, sir,” he says, around his cigarette. “I'll gladly give you a light.”
Edward is a squadron leader; Jopson, a corporal. Edward couldn't have disobeyed his order if he'd wanted to. He joins Jopson at the desk, half-expecting the other man to strike a match and light Edward's cigarette himself. He doesn't. Instead, Jopson steadies the cigarette in his mouth with his hand. Without removing it, and without looking away, he touches the end of his cigarette to the one between Edward's lips.
It's nothing that would get them arrested. At the same time, it's the most erotic moment Edward has ever experienced. Edward's stomach soars as he instinctively inhales. The cigarette catches. For a moment, Jopson's eyes slide shut, a small smile on his face. It's not the bright, professional smile he gives Edward every time he sees him. It's quieter, more private. And it pushes Edward, already teetering on the brink, clean over the edge.
“Jopson.” He sounds like someone who knows what he's doing. He isn't.
“It's Tommy, Squadron Leader.”
“Edward,” Edward says, in turn. He takes the cigarette from his mouth, exhaling a lungful of smoke into the room.
Slowly, very slowly, Tommy raises his hand, first to Edward's shoulder, and then, when Edward makes no complaint, to the side of his face. His touch is light, his fingers gentler than Edward would have dreamed, had he allowed himself to dream anything of this sort.
Tommy says nothing, but he looks into Edward's eyes. It feels as though he's looking into Edward's soul. Like he sees everything, all the bits of himself Edward has been hiding, some of it for years. Much of it since the Battle of Britain. Edward doesn't mind him seeing. Not at all.
“Edward.” This time, it's a statement. Tommy's gaze flicks down, then up again, and he kisses him.
The stubbled skin of his face is pleasingly rough against Edward's. At once, Edward knows he will never get enough of it. His arms come around Tommy, quite of their own accord, while Tommy's hands land on his chest. Thomas presses the tip of his tongue delicately against Edward's lips, and Edward hears himself groan.
“Mm,” Tommy murmurs happily in return, then pulls away just a little to glance over his shoulder. Realization hits Edward like an SC1000.
“Crozier's in there?” He releases Tommy like the poor man's on fire, and steps back as if he has the plague.
“You needn't...” Tommy does something rather interesting, but not particularly reassuring, with his eyebrows. “You needn't worry about the Group Captain on this account. We can trust him.” He smiles, but it's not as definite as usual. Not as sure of itself. “What would you like, Edward?”
A lot of things. An end to the bloody war, for one. Dinner with Tommy, alone. Maybe a film, a long drive in the country, a picnic. A chance to get to know him. None of that is possible, not in a world where New Year's Eve is celebrated on the twenty-eighth of December because many people won't make it another three days. “More time,” Edward replies, taking another drag on his neglected cigarette. “With you.”
Tommy reaches out, catching Edward's hand in his. His skin is soft, Edward notices, but his grip is strong. “I can't give you that. Not yet. But I can make what we have worth remembering.”
Edward doesn't doubt that for a moment.
He's not a man who takes the lead in matters like this. Not that there have been many matters like this. Certainly none with a man as lovely as Tommy. Edward taps his cigarette on the side of the glass tray on Tommy's desk, sending a column of ash cascading into the bowl. Then, leaving the cigarette where it is, Edward twists his free hand in the front of Tommy's uniform and gently pulls him closer.
He can feel Tommy's heart pounding against his chest as he kisses him. When he moves back, Tommy is, to Edward's immense satisfaction, as breathless as Edward himself. “The Queen's Arms,” Tommy gasps, blushing hard. “In the village. They've got rooms to rent.” A matching flush comes to Edward's face, a little late in the game, as he realizes what Tommy is getting at. “Give me half an hour to get something sorted,” he goes on, “and go up the back stairs.” His inflection rises at the end. It's a question, not a demand. Edward can say no.
He would be a fool to. “Half an hour,” Edward repeats, as if reviewing orders. He can barely keep himself from adding, “Yes, sir.”
Half an hour is not long enough to do anything meaningful. It is, however, more than enough time for a person—for Edward, at least—to begin to doubt himself. This is a terrible idea, he thinks, as he makes his way towards the village. Whatever he's expecting, he'll be disappointed. I'll be a disappointment.
The village is eerily dark. Even the village hall, where the Wing Commander is hosting his party, is as black as night, curtained off from the world. For the first time, Edward climbs the back stairs to the floor above the pub. Three closed doors greet him. Edward blinks at this development. Before he's forced to knock at random, one of the doors opens.
“In here.” Tommy is already dressed down to his singlet and trousers, his braces pushed off his shoulders and hanging loose on his hips. He doesn't smile, but he doesn't have to. The fluttering in Edward's chest returns, harder and stronger than ever, displacing any nerves. Just like flying, Edward thinks, and he steps inside, pushing the door shut behind him.
Afterwards, Edward lies on his back, watching the commingled smoke from their cigarettes drift to the ceiling. He wondered, at first, whether Tommy would want him to leave as soon as the business was done, but from the way he clung to Edward then—the way he clings to him now—Edward assumed he prefers he stay.
“Edward,” Tommy says. His head is on Edward's sweat-slicked chest, his voice reverberating through Edward's happily sated body. “Here.” He reaches up, pressing something into Edward's hand. Edward looks down to see the matchbook. Loose lips can sink ships. “Keep it. A good luck charm, maybe. At least you'll have matches.”
“Can I ask something of you?”
“Be careful tomorrow.” Tomorrow. Edward had almost succeeded in putting it out of his mind.
“I'm always careful.”
Tommy laughs softly. “I know pilots, darling.” Darling. A simple word, but it sends a renewed shock of lust, and something softer, coursing through Edward. “I mean be really careful.”
“I will be, Tommy. I swear it.”
Tommy shifts, propping himself up on one elbow. Before Edward can mourn the loss of his warmth, he replaces his head with his hand, fondling the hair on Edward's chest. “And something else. When all this is over, will you take me for a ride in your aeroplane?”
“I'd love to.” There's nothing that would make Edward happier.
Below the window, a cacophony of noise breaks out. Edward glances at the clock beside the bed, which reads midnight. A second later, the noise evolves into an off-key, off-tempo Auld Lang Syne.
Tommy grins. “Happy twenty-ninth of December, darling.”
Words have never been Edward's friends. At the moment, they desert him completely. Rather than speak, he rolls over, draping himself over Tommy as if that could keep him safe, kissing him as if that might possibly convey the depth of his feelings.
“I'm having second thoughts.” Tommy's anxious voice is projected through his radio into Edward's helmet. It feels like having him right inside Edward's head, which is fitting enough, Edward supposes. It's exactly where he's resided for the past five years, even during those times when the war kept them apart. Right there inside him, encouraging Edward when he's unsure, reassuring Edward when he feels down, loving Edward when he needs it most.
“I'll go easy on you,” Edward replies, conscious that their connection is not private. He hopes Tommy remembers as well.
It seems that he does. Instead of saying something like, “Isn't that what I said to you last night?”, he merely groans as Edward moves the aeroplane forward.
The war wasn't easy on either of them. War isn't. They survived. Edward appreciates that for the gift that it is. He appreciates as well that, despite it all, he still loves to fly.
As they climb higher, Edward hears a gasp from the man seated behind him. “Wonderful, isn't it?” Edward smiles. He's waited five years for this moment. Five years to bring the two great loves of his life together.
A crackle of static, and Tommy says, “It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.”
Edward hadn't known he was nervous until he hears the words. He was, he realizes then. Worried Tommy wouldn't appreciate this, wouldn't love it like Edward, but of course he does. He's Tommy. He's perfect.
Edward wishes he could reach back and touch him. Instead, he swoops down, showing off a little, but not enough to make Tommy sick into his mask. He doesn't want Tommy's first flight to also be his last.
Tommy isn't an Air Force man, not really. He has yet to decide what he wishes to be. Now the war is over, he has been demobbed back to civilian life. That would mean going back home to London, normally, to the job he had in service. But the London Tommy knew is gone, and he has, he told Edward, no desire to serve anybody.
“Unless it's you, of course, darling. You, I'm ready to serve for the rest of my life.”
Edward agrees, with all his heart.
“I want to stay up here all day,” Tommy sighs behind Edward. “I want to live here. You can sort that out for me, can't you, Group Captain Little?”
Edward smiles. “Only if you want to miss Crozier and Fitzjames' party.” Edward wouldn't mind it, personally, but Tommy has been looking forward to it for weeks. It's a real New Year's party this time, on the actual New Year's Eve, at the home of two men who astonished everybody by moving into the same house during Crozier's drying out period, immediately after the war. Astonished most people, in any case. Tommy didn't seem surprised.
He didn't seem surprised, either, when he informed Edward the two of them, he and Tommy, were invited to stay the night after the New Year's party. In the same guest bedroom. In the same bed.
Edward's not sure how he feels about being so shameless, even if it's only in front of Crozier and Fitzjames, but he's not about to turn down the chance to spend a night with Tommy. That will never lose its novelty.
“Damn,” Tommy replies. “Well, you'll just have to promise to bring me up again, then. Over and over.”
“Whenever you like.” Edward means it, as surely as he meant the promises he made that first night, long ago. He has been careful, and that matchbook is still in his breast pocket, exactly where it's been for the past five years. Loose lips can sink ships. Not anymore. “We have the time.”
Edward is not the man he was before the war. His life will never be what it was before the first of September, 1939. But that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it, he reminds himself, pulling back on the yoke and flying Tommy above the clouds and far into the deep blue sky.