“You’re being silly, Lieutenant Little,” said Thomas.
“Am I?” Looking up from where he knelt on the ground, Edward gripped his Welsh wig in his hands. “I feel a bit silly. But I’ve got to, to at least- Thomas, will you-”
“Don’t,” Thomas snapped. “It’s impossible. I can’t. We can’t.”
“You didn’t say that last time,” said Edward.
Thomas blushed. It looked good on him. Most things did, in Edward’s opinion, but it was possible Edward’s opinion was somewhat compromised when it came to Thomas Jopson.
It had been stupid, going to the White Swan. Everyone knew what kind of house it was. God only knew what would have happened if he’d been seen, but he’d known where he was off to when he accepted his commission on Terror, and how lonely the next few years were likely to be. He’d known it for a disorderly house, had gone there with the intention of being disorderly. In that, at least, he had been very successful. A thousand ifs and maybes could have kept him out of that house- maybe if he’d been more self-denying, maybe if he’d had the spare coin to pay for some nameless boy’s time- but fate itself had pointed Edward to that molly house, and into the arms of a tipsy Thomas Jopson.
A real old-fashioned molly house, like they wrote about in the scandal sheets. Men dancing, in each others’ laps, kissing each other right in the open. Men in dresses, even, and nobody paying for anything, except drinks. He’d had a drink, and another, staring at these men he didn’t know but who were like him, at least in this way. One man moved and another turned his head, and it was then that he’d caught his first sight of Thomas, glowing in the low light, and staring right back at him. He’d been blushing then, too.
It had been like gravity, the two of them all but falling towards each other. Strangers, then, but not for long. They’d had a drink together, and they’d talked. When he looked back on it, Edward couldn’t remember anything they’d said; only that blush and those eyes in the lamplight, and how easy it had been to put a hand on his waist and follow him a dim little alcove. How right Tom had felt in his arms.
There’d been a preacher, or a man dressed up as one, who’d been 'marrying' couples. A farce, little more than an excuse for a tumble, though amusing to watch; some of the mollies had dressed up like brides, and someone had brought in a basket of wilted nosegays. He’d looked up from kissing Tom as a couple in breeches were saying their vows, and he’d watched, somewhat distracted by Tom taking the opportunity to suck a bruise onto his collarbone, as the men had kissed, and gone off together to a back room, still holding hands. Silly, but the looks on their faces- soft, happy- made something in Edward’s belly clench in a funny way, like looking through the window of a baker’s shop at a fancy bun you couldn’t afford.
“Want to get married, Tom?” he’d asked, dizzy from the kisses and the feeling of Thomas in his lap.
“Going to make an honest man of me, Ned?” Thomas had replied, nuzzling his nose under his ear. He’d been hard in his trousers, cut tight so the bulge showed, and looked down at Edward with those blue, blue eyes, looking right through him to his tender insides. “Yeah, alright then.”
Of course it was no kind of real wedding, surrounded by drunk, cat-calling strangers and not being obliged to give their full names or sign anything, but the words they’d said had been the ordinary wedding words, and sliding the cheap brass ring onto Thomas’s finger had felt… significant. His own ring had felt heavy on his hand, warming quickly as he and Thomas had kissed, just chastely, to seal their union.
After that, of course, they had retired to one of the back rooms, and had proceeded to be very unchaste.
Some men didn’t much like to kiss other men, especially during the business, but they’d kissed all the way through, and then kissed goodbye when they’d parted. Thomas had left first, tucking his hair behind his ear as he ducked out the door into the night, and Edward followed after a few minutes, hurrying through the dark streets to his temporary digs.
He hadn’t gone back to the Swan. When he woke the next morning and found himself still wearing the ring, which by rights he ought to have returned to the minister, he’d thought about going back. He’d thought about it that night, and the next, and every night between then and the day he was due on the Terror. He’d pretended to himself that he’d been too busy preparing to sail again, but fear had kept him away, not duty; to go back was to chance seeing Tom again, and either having him again, which was a foolish risk, or seeing him had by another, which was… well, none of his business, of course.
Edward had reported to Terror sharp and early, trunk packed neatly, and met his fellow officers and his new captain with only moderately feigned pleasure. She was a fine ship. He liked her, saw every chance of liking his commander, liked the prospect of the cruise. It had all looked to be going very well, until he’d come to the wardroom for the welcome dinner, and seen his Tom- not his Tom, but Tom, the Tom- with a wine decanter in one hand and a tray in the other.
Thomas was a much better actor than those pink cheeks would suggest. When Crozier introduced them, he only bowed, and went out to fetch the soup.
That first dinner had been the worst of it. Thomas (Jopson, god almighty, the captain's steward, small wonder that even aboard a warship he didn't look like a Navy man) was the picture of quiet efficiency, and he hadn't looked at Edward any more or less than at any other officer. Had Edward missed the flash of stark panic in his eyes when he'd first stepped into the wardroom, he'd have thought Tom didn't recognise him at all.
And that had been that. On board ship they were Mister Jopson and Lieutenant Little to one another, and nothing more. If it hurt, well, Edward had known he risked pain in going to that molly house, and here it was.
Long years had passed in this fashion. Much of what had happened, Edward could not explain and more he could hardly remember; fear, like joy, had a way of wiping away irrelevant details. Now they were out on the shale, they’d left the boats behind, and Thomas was a lieutenant too. All the reasons he’d had to keep his distance seemed very small and far away, but Thomas was still as big and as bright in his field of vision as he’d ever been.
“Get up, sir,” said Thomas, casting a glance back at the tent flap.
“Please don’t call me sir just now,” said Edward. “I know we can’t really get married- even if we could, we haven’t a preacher, and I can hardly ask Captain Crozier to perform the ceremony, can I.” A corner of Thomas’s mouth twitched. “But I would, if I thought he’d agree to it. I want to. I didn’t know you, that night, but I know you now. You’re the best man I know, and I wouldn’t have anyone else.”
Thomas blinked, and reached down to cup Edward’s cheek, fingers dragging through his whiskers. Hardly anyone had touched Edward in so long that the contact made him shiver and turn his face into Thomas’s hand. “I worked very hard to not want you, Ned,” Thomas said.
“Did it work?” asked Edward. When he spoke, his lips brushed the inside of Thomas’s wrist.
“Not at all,” said Thomas, getting down to join Edward on his knees, the shale crunching under him as he moved. “Not for a blasted minute.”
Edward dropped his Welsh wig, and fumbled hurriedly with his cravat. Almost tearing it in his rush to get the knot undone, he reached beneath it, and yanked at a much worn string tied around his throat until the tarnished brass ring strung upon it emerged from his coat. “It’s probably too big,” he said, pulling the string over his head. “And we left the brass polish on the ship, so it’s not- I’d deck you out in a hundred gold rings, Tom, if I had them, but I-”
“You kept it,” said Thomas, breathlessly. "You stupid, stupid man." He leaned in and kissed Edward then, and it didn't matter that his lips were cracked, or that Edward's knees were going numb from kneeling; it felt just like it had all those years ago, kissing Tom. He’d forgotten how perfectly their noses fit alongside one another.
A few minutes of sweet, drugging kisses later, Thomas broke away, gasping. Edward’s hands had slipped beneath his Welsh wig and into Thomas’s hair. “No, stay,” he said, when Thomas shuffled backwards on his knees.
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Thomas, turning away to rummage through his things. He came up smiling, holding out a brass ring of his own. Polished to a shine, of course.
Edward laughed, helpless with delight. He snapped the string his ring had hung on, and put the ring into Thomas’s hand, taking Thomas’s ring in return. “Thomas Jopson,” he said. “Will you marry me?”
“Go on then,” Thomas said, and he was laughing too. It was the best sound Edward could remember hearing; he wanted to hear it every day for the rest of his life, whatever there was left of it. Edward slipped the shiny, impeccably kept ring onto Tom’s finger, and let Tom slip his much more tarnished one onto his. They’d both lost weight, these long, cold winters, and the rings were loose, but it didn’t matter; he was keeping the ring on his finger this time, damn what any man said about it. He was keeping Thomas.
“I’m going to make you so happy, Tom,” he said, clasping their hands together.
“And how do you mean to go about doing that, Lieutenant Little?” Thomas asked, eyes gleaming.
“When we get home, we’ll take a house,” said Edward. He kissed Thomas’s knuckles, letting the ring, warm with the heat of Thomas’s hand and his own body, brush his cheek. “Somewhere warm and quiet. You’ll never want for anything again.”
“Oh, Ned,” said Thomas. He was laughing, still, but the look on his face was soft and affectionate. “You daft git, I was trying to get you into bed.”
Now it was Edward’s turn to look nervously at the tent flap. “It’s the middle of the afternoon.”
“So everyone’s busy,” said Thomas. He kissed Edward again. He could ask Edward for the moon, and Edward would do his level best to get it for him, if kisses like that were his reward.
Afternoon or not, it was still blasted cold; warmer in Edward’s cot, when the two of them were tucked into it together, but too cold to take much off, for all he wanted to see and feel all of Tom right away. They’d no grease but lamp oil, and even through the haze of joy at his good fortune, Edward wasn’t willing to risk too much in daylight. Besides, it hardly felt like a compromise to lie in a bed with Tom, spooned up behind him, prick nudging in between his clenching thighs.
“Jesus, I’d forgotten the feel of you,” said Thomas. “What do they feed you country lads?” Edward’s hand had found Thomas’s hip, the curve of it just right in his palm, and the feeling of it shifting under his hand as they moved together had his head spinning. “It was the first thing I saw, y’know- how big you were, among all those scrawny boys in the Swan.”
“M’not that much bigger than you,” said Edward, embarrassed with pleasure.
“You feel it,” Thomas said. “I love it. Loved you on top of me, that night- thought you were a funny one, but I loved it, face to face, like it was a real wedding night.”
“Wanted to see you,” Edward panted. He slid his hand down to join Thomas’s hand on his slick, straining cock. He’d not last long, with Tom talking like this, and it’d be rude to keep him waiting.
“You going to have me like that again, love? When everyone’s asleep?” They were moving faster, now, the wood of the cot creaking under their weight. “You’ll have to kiss me, or I’ll shout the camp awake- God, you feel so good, please, just like that-”
“Tom,” he said. It was the only word in his head. “Tom, Tom.”
Tom gasped and turned his head, muffling a sound in the pillow, and spent over Edward’s fingers, legs clamping together like a vise. Gripping his hip again, Edward pressed his face to the curve of Thomas’s neck, and fucked the sweet furrow between his legs until he came too, in long, shivering spurts.
Not even capital dirtiness could prevent Thomas Jopson being Thomas Jopson, of course; from out of nowhere, he’d a rag in hand, and was wiping them both clean before Edward had quite gotten his breath back. “It stains like nobody’s business,” he said. He grumbled, but only a little, when Edward kissed him again, and took very little coaxing to lie alongside him, once their clothes were set to rights.
“I could stay here forever,” said Edward, into Thomas’s hair.
“You’re back on watch in an hour,” said Thomas. “And this cot is too small by half.”
“Where’s your sense of romance, Tom?” He had a hand up Thomas’s shirt, and was pleased, but not surprised, by how natural it was to hold him like this; how perfectly their bodies interlocked.
“It’s back in England,” Tom said primly. “Get us home to this little house you mentioned, and it’s all yours.”
All his. He liked that.