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Wild Mountain Thyme

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Francis wakes in a buoyant mood, earlier than usual, to the sound of Thomas humming. Peeking through his cracked berth door, he sees Thomas standing at the head of his hammock, which he’s slung up at a diagonal from the bookshelf to the cabin table just for the duration of the captain’s drying out. Craning his neck to see into a small mirror he’s hung from a nail, he’s humming in little snatches as he shaves.

“That melody,” Francis says. “I almost recognize it.”

“ ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, sir. I didn’t know you were up.” He blushes slightly, either because of the honorific, which still slips out instinctively despite the recent change in their relationship, or because he’s been caught in what may feel to such a private man like an intimate act.

“It has words, if I recall?”

“It does. It’s ... sort of pastoral courtship song. But mother used to sing it as a lullaby.” He pauses in his shaving to flash one of those smiles Francis loves, at once glad and shy and his whole face radiant. “I’ll not sing it for you, though.”

“‘Tis enough to hear you humming.” He’s heard him humming before, at work behind the closed door. Sweet, old-fashioned airs, flowing and pausing with the rhythm of his work. Off-key just so. And he’d always stop when the door opened. It would feel, for a moment, like walking into an empty room. But this morning—Francis’ blood spins and sings like he himself is a boy again—Thomas looks at him smilingly a few moments longer then resumes.

Francis lies in bed for a few minutes more, listening to the snatches of humming and the low, rhythmic scraping of the blade, before he says, “Do you know what I’d like, Jopson?”

“Sir?” He’s just finished toweling off his face and gazes at Francis intently. The tone of his cheeks and jaw is beautifully ruddy after shaving; his hair is damp.

“I would like a good, complete freshening up. Top to toe.”

“Of course. A capital idea.” A certain sly levity in his tone indicates he is still enthusiastic—perhaps inappropriately so—about fulfilling his duties as steward. As soon as he is done shaving, he runs to boil water and gathers every hygienic implement he possesses, even ones Francis has never seen before.

“What’s this?” the captain asks, examining a small, oval, stiff-bristled brush with a handle on its back.

“A nail brush, sir. For your nails.”

“My nails get their very own brush?” His eyebrow arches up.

“Their very own, sir. But first, a bath. Hopefully, this water won’t cool too quickly. We must be thorough, after all.”

Thomas helps Francis strip to pajama bottoms then wraps him chest-down in a blanket. The steam rises from the soapy rag and Francis gasps as it touches his skin. “Jesus,” he hisses. “That feels divine.”

“That’s the plan, sir. For you to enjoy this...” he pauses to dip the rag in the steaming, basin, the water within nearly too scalding and frothed at the edge with soap-foam, “before we enjoy each other.” His tone is composed, genial, as though he were briefing him on workaday ship’s business.

Francis feels himself go red in the cheeks and swallows thickly. Thomas, seeing this, smiles softly and begins once again his idle humming. Both men luxuriate in the slow, sensual cleaning—Francis in the warmth and the strength of the hands working rag or knuckle into each knotted muscle, a deft and delicious alternation of brute, kneading pressure and feathery glides of the fingertips; Thomas in the grunts and gasps his ministrations elicit. Whenever a specific spot coaxes from the older man’s lips a particularly lewd sound, such as the low, helpless moan he gives as Thomas’ rolls the soapy cloth down the padded sweep of his ribcage toward his belly, Thomas notes it. It’s a map, he thinks to himself, pleased, as he notes how Francis sucks in his breath and hisses it out again as the rag traces a crooked path of lather across his thighs. A map of fine, unexplored country.

Francis’ haircut and shave take agonizingly long, and he can’t help but notice Thomas’ breathing seems a little more labored than usual. This amuses him. And when Thomas drops the scissors with a clatter, Francis can’t help but tease, “something on your mind, lad?”

Thomas’ only answer is a cheeky, boyish smile. “You’ve no idea,” Francis continues, “how hard it is to sit here, keeping my hands to myself, while you fuss over me like—like a little doll.”

“Your fortitude is commendable, sir.” The chill of the scissors’ blade kisses Francis’ ear as Thomas makes one last snip. “But mine, regrettably, fails me.” He sweeps the chopped slips of pale red hair from Francis’ bare, lightly freckled shoulders before straddling him.

Francis cups Thomas’ head in his hand and makes as if to kiss him, but instead strokes his hair. Thomas leans into the caress of his cupped hand, eyes closed, as, in a low voice, stiff from disuse, Francis begins to sing:

o I’ll build me love a bower
by yon cool crystal fountain
and round it I will pile
all the flowers of the mountain,
will ye go, laddie, go?

Though his voice is rough and the melody is not quite right, his burr twines around the sweetness of the words; his eyes closed, Thomas can almost imagine summer on his skin. Almost. He clings on tighter, listening—it is a new song now, one he’s never heard: a familiar lullaby transfigured into something vast, awesome. The simple melody like dark hills before dawn.

When he hums it now, humming being the way all his heart’s small and secret joys peep out at the world, this will be the version that rises to his throat. And it will be Francis’ voice he will hear in his blood for the rest of his days, Francis’ lilting brogue and how aboard this dark, beset ship he could almost conjure June. Its light, its illimitable promise. He breathes deep and feels for once at rest.