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Twenty-Three Years

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"After twenty-three years, you'd think I could find a way to let you know somehow, I want to see your smiling face forty-five years from now." -Stan Rogers, "Forty-Five Years"

Captain Little has a woman in Nova Scotia.

That is the scuttlebutt amongst the senior officers of Indomitable. Edward overhears them discussing the subject one evening, as he approaches the wardroom. Eavesdropping is below a man of his position, but he still stops to listen.

“She must be a raven-haired Indian beauty,” Lieutenant Burke-Smith suggests, somewhat dreamily.

“A transplanted Cockney barmaid,” Lieutenant Harris counters with a laugh. “With a bosom like a sixty-eight pounder and thighs like tree trunks.”

“A stunning French mademoiselle,” Burke-Smith responds. Edward had not known him to be so taken with foreign women.

“Another captain's daughter,” Harris says. “Or perhaps another captain's wife.”

“Captain Little would do no such thing.” Edward's serious-minded second, Commander Robert Macleod, breaks in. A Scotsman with a better Etonian accent than Edward's, they have sailed together on three voyages now. Edward is surprised to hear him abiding such a discussion, let alone participating in it. “If such a woman does exist,” Macleod goes on, “she is no doubt a lady of shining intelligence and irreproachable morality.”

Stifling a laugh, Edward makes his presence felt, stepping into the wardroom to a conversation that dies at once. Shining intelligence and irreproachable morality, he repeats to himself, as his men make a show of studying various maps and books and, in Lieutenant Burke-Smith's desperate case, gazing out of the window, brow furrowed as if in deep contemplation of the nothingness beyond. I shall have to remember that one.

Snow falls on Halifax harbour as the Indomitable approaches port. It's the soft, fluffy flakes of February, rather than the wetter, heavier snow they would see in March or April. Edward cannot say he loves snow of any type. He smiles grimly when Macleod says, “Beautiful, isn't it, sir? Just like a painting.”

Indomitable's officers manoeuvre her in seamlessly, and the men put down the gangplanks. Normally, as captain, Edward would oversee the removal of the cargo from the ship himself. In any other port, he would, but Commander Macleod is more than up to the task. Indeed, Edward plans to put him up for promotion when they arrive home, if the Admiralty hasn't already done so. “Allow the men off in shifts once the cargo is clear,” Edward informs him, although Macleod needs no reminder.

“Yes, sir.”

Edward fills his purse with coins, and something else, then stops briefly in the harbour master's office to sign the requisite documents. The snow thickens as he walks away from the harbour, his destination a tavern, but not one normally frequented by sailors.

“I've had enough of them,” the tavern's handsome and charming proprietor once told him. “Gossipy old women that they are. Present company excepted of course, love. I want a nice, quiet life. And I don't want to think about the sea.” The fact that he stayed in Halifax at all is for Edward's benefit. Given his druthers, Edward is certain Thomas Jopson would have moved further inland, where he wouldn't need to see the ocean at all.

Edward understands. He loves the water, still, but he knows too what it is to battle one's own mind, and fight memories one would rather not relive.

Such memories form even as Edward walks along the narrow Haligonian street. It's a far cry from the empty north, of course. The temperature is milder, and there are signs of human civilization on all sides of him. That doesn't prevent Edward from remembering the long, lonely walks to and from Erebus, the endless, pointless miles with no company but his own thoughts. Thoughts which then, as now, focused on one man.

He last saw Thomas seven months ago, when Halifax was in the full bloom of summer. They made love for a final time in Thomas' overwarm bedroom, and, as Thomas dressed him with the precision of a man who never forgot his years as as steward, Edward admitted, “It is more difficult to leave you every time I go.”

Thomas produced a comb. Running it through Edward's greying hair, he said, “You know how to solve that, my love.”

“Soon.” Soon, the love of a good man—a love Edward has been fortunate enough to hold for so very long, without having the slightest inkling how he does so—will be stronger than the lure of the sea, and Edward will come to Halifax to stay.

Thomas laughed and kissed Edward's nose. “You've been saying 'soon' since we were young men, dear. Since I was a young man in any case.” He grinned cheekily.

Edward could not deny it. It has taken time, perhaps longer than it should have, but “soon” has become “now”, and this time, Edward means it.

Brushing the snow from his hat, Edward crests the final hill and sees, at long last, the warm light of the tavern glowing below. He pauses a moment, to catch his breath and to right his clothing. Then, when he is as well put together as it is possible to be without Thomas' assistance, he begins the final leg of his journey home.

The tavern, named the Roan Calf, is not the highest of class, but nor is it an insalubrious hole. Thomas makes sure of that. It's a good size, with four windows, two paned with glass and two with translucent animal skin. In the middle of the afternoon on a snowy day, the Calf is quiet. A couple of Thomas' regulars sit by the fire, along with his dog, an arthritic old Labrador called Merry. It is she who notices Edward first, giving a pleased woof and ambling over to the doorway, where he stamps the snow from his boots.

“Hello, old girl. Been a long time, hasn't it?” He bends to rub Merry under the chin. She responds with a thump of her tail on the roughly hewn floorboards.

“Captain Little, sir!” Edward looks up. The barmaid, Nancy, smiles at him. She is, as Harris suggested, a transplanted Londoner, from a rookery so close to the one where Thomas grew up they might have been neighbours. She's pretty enough, as far as Edward can judge these things, a young, childless widow who Thomas says has no interest in getting married again. “Mr. Jopson never told me he were expecting you.”

“We picked up a tailwind,” Edward replies, by way of explanation. “Made good time.”

“Well, he won't half be happy you're here. Can I get you a drink?”

Edward shakes his head. “Where is he?”

“Out the back. Chopping wood.”

“I thought you had a man for that type of work.” Edward frowns.

“Bill's poor old mother's taken ill, sir. Mr. Jopson gave him the time off to look after her.” Edward can think of nothing more like Thomas. “I'm sorry, sir. I know Mr. Jopson ain't supposed to do work like that, but...”

“It is not your fault.” Edward squares his shoulders. “May I pass through?”

Nancy steps aside. “Of course, sir.” Merry, sensible dog she is, returns to her place by the fire, and Edward walks through the tavern and back into the snow.

Leaving Thomas for the first time, when he lay dying in the tent on the Arctic shale, was the hardest decision Edward has made in a lifetime of difficult choices. He waited until the last possible moment, until he could hear the men beginning to depart, and Le Vesconte was calling his name with increasing irritability. He pressed his lips to the unconscious Thomas' forehead and said, “Hold on, my love. I'll come back with rescue, I swear it.” A more solemn promise Edward had never made.

He kept it. Three days later, they ran into Sir James Ross and his party. The first words out of Edward's mouth were, “We've got ill men, three days that way.” To his credit, Ross immediately gave Edward a team and told them to bring back any survivors.

They put Edward on a sledge, to keep him from slowing them down, and made the trip in less than two days. Thomas was out of the tent when they arrived. There was no way to tell how long he'd been there, lying face down on the stones. Edward, who could barely walk, ran to Thomas' side, desperately gathering the man into his arms. He could feel Thomas' heartbeat, for which he thanked God, but it was weak and unsteady. Tears sprang to Edward's eyes. No longer caring for appearances, he burst into loud, unapologetic sobs, tears streaming down his cheeks and effluence running from his nose.

“Just like Prince Charming, my love,” Thomas said later, when Edward told him of this. He, naturally, remembered nothing of it. “Although rather than waking me with your kiss, you woke me with your phlegm.”

“I wouldn't say I woke you.” Thomas did not rush back to virility, but he did let out a groan. It was enough to turn Edward's tears to ones of relief.

He is not as relieved to see Thomas standing in the yard behind the Roan Calf, swinging an axe onto a chopping block.

He's dressed for the weather, at least, in a buffalo coat and fox hat, deerskin mittens on his hands and boots laced up to his knees. That, coupled with a surprising beard, makes him look like a real colonist. A real Canadian, Edward should say, given the confederation which occurred between the colonies just weeks before Edward last left.

For safety's sake, Edward waits until Thomas lays down the axe before calling, “What the devil makes you think you ought to be undertaking such physical labour, Mr. Jopson?”

If there's one thing Edward will miss, once he and Thomas are permanently reunited, it will be the look of pure joy on the dear man's face each time he sees Edward again. “I suppose I don't need to,” Thomas replies, through a grin bright enough to light the grey, cotton-batting world. “Now there's a manly ship's captain here to do it for me.”

He heads for Edward, who does the same. They meet halfway, throwing their arms about one another. Even without kisses, which are too dangerous even in this relatively private place, it feels inexplicably, indisputably good. The warmth of Thomas. The smell of him. The sensation of Thomas' hands on his back, even through the mittens. Edward has sailed up and down the world, and he's never found anything to remotely compare to this.

“What have we here?” Edward asks, pulling back a little. He strokes gentle fingers through Thomas' beard.

“A little something for the winter. Do you like it?” Thomas furrows his brow. “It came in a little greyer than I expected.”

Edward laughs. “You are an elderly gentleman, my love.” That is an exaggeration. Thomas is in his late forties, a good decade younger than Edward himself, but his age is a subject upon which Thomas receives a good deal of teasing. He accepts it with good grace. Perhaps any mention of age serves as a reminder of just how close he came to not making it past his twenties.

Thomas nudges him playfully, not removing the arm from about Edward's waist. “Are you hungry, darling?”

Even though they are alone, Edward lowers his voice. “For you? Ravenous.”

“How dare you speak so rudely to an 'elderly gentleman'?” But Thomas moves in closer yet, pressing his lean body against Edward's wider one. “Should I let Nancy know you and I shall be discussing business for the next hour or so?”

How much Nancy knows, or suspects, about the true nature of his friendship with Thomas, Edward is uncertain. This is Thomas' territory, and he trusts Thomas to guard their privacy as diligently as is necessary. “Perhaps two hours,” Edward says. The more time he has with Thomas, the better, and, on a practical note, they are no longer young men. Affairs which could once be conducted to mutual satisfaction in less than ten minutes require more patience these days.

“I'll meet you in my room,” Thomas says, and heads for the tavern door.

When they arrived at Fort Resolution with Sir James Ross, it was clear some men were far worse off than others. Thomas was one of the worst. Perhaps the single worst. Edward spent his days at his bedside, praying for him simply to wake up. The day Thomas cracked his bleary eyes open and said, in a raspy whisper, “Just give me a minute, captain, and I'll have your tea ready he way you like it,” was the happiest of Edward's life. He, a man with a reputation for being aloof, even cold, kissed Thomas' hand, over and over until Thomas muttered, “Mother, please!” And pulled away. Edward didn't care. The road ahead was still long and fraught with peril, but at least Thomas was taking the first steps.

The others left the fort as soon as the spring thaw set in. Thomas, who could barely sit up to take in his daily broth, was in no condition to travel.

“I'll stay with him,” Edward said, without hesitation.

“Are you sure?” The Captain asked. Whilst Edward and his team were retrieving Thomas from the camp, Sir James and his men had found Captain Crozier and Sergeant Tozer, nearly bled to death alongside the carcass of Tuunbaq. Hickey's mangled corpse, apparently, had also been at the scene. Edward didn't shed a tear for him. “You should get back to England, for the sake of your career if nothing else. I'll make certain he's not left alone.”

“No. Thank you, sir.” At this point, Edward could no more leave Thomas than he could willingly cut off a limb. “Thomas needs me.” That much was clear. Thomas' memory was still spotty. Edward wasn't sure if he remembered how close they had been before, and it seemed ungentlemanly to mention it. Still, Thomas smiled more brightly—and, more importantly, he ate more—when Edward was the one to bring him his meals, and he held Edward's hand in the few moments of privacy they were able to snatch each evening. “I left him once,” Edward added. “I can't do it again.”

The morning the rest of them moved on, the captain spent a long time at Thomas' bedside. Edward hovered on the periphery, wanting to give them their privacy at the same time he ached when he was too far from Thomas. Finally, the captain kissed Thomas on the forehead, the way Edward had when he left him on the shale, and stood.

“Look after my boy,” Crozier said, coming over to where Edward waited. “Love him well, Edward. He deserves it.”

“Yes, sir.” Edward could feel himself blushing, but he was sincere. “We shall see you in England.” That second part never came to pass. They did see Captain Crozier again, on several occasions, but always in Thomas' chosen home of Halifax.

There, Thomas lives in a set of rooms above his tavern. These rooms are chilly at this time of year, although it is nothing compared to the last days on Terror. And there is a mountain of furs and striped Hudson Bay blankets on Thomas' bed higher than Edward has ever seen.

Edward undresses, placing his uniform carefully on the clotheshorse because Thomas will scold him if he does not. He puts his purse atop Thomas' chest of drawers, then gets into bed.

It was mid-summer when the two of them finally left Fort Resolution. They considered spending another winter there. Edward had a job, of sorts, as a man-of-all-work, and Thomas was improving by the day. But they decided, in the end, that Fort Resolution could never be home, and they too moved on.

What followed next was the adventure of a lifetime, again, and Edward wouldn't have wanted to undertake it with anybody else. They travelled from fort to fort, crossing the immense Northwest Territories. In the spring, they arrived at the bigger towns and cities of Upper and Lower Canada. Montreal, a metropolis of fifty thousand, came as a particular shock. A fraction of the size of London, it was still the largest accumulation of souls they had seen in years. They might have found passage from there back to England, but Thomas said, “I want to see the rest of it.”

“The rest of what?”

“We've come so far. Why not go all the way to Halifax?”

There were plenty of reasons why not. Edward was tired of travelling overland. He missed being on the open sea. Too many years had passed since waves swelled beneath his feet; it was time to feel them again. “Are you sure that's what you want?” He asked. Thomas nodded, and Edward had no choice but to carry on.

Now, in the room above Thomas' tavern, Thomas' blankets are so warm, his bed so comfortable, that Edward is nearly asleep when Thomas arrives upstairs.

“You dozy old man.” Thomas smiles fondly as he begins to divest himself of his layers. “You'll have plenty of time to sleep afterwards.”

“You spoke with Nancy?”

“She knows we will be deeply involved in affairs of business for the foreseeable future.” He hangs his coat beside Edward's, and sits on the chair to unlace his boots. Thomas has put on a little weight, Edward notices happily. Even after all these years, the poor man's illness dogs him. Any sign of good health is to be celebrated.

When he is at last nude, Thomas slips beneath the covers beside Edward. “Hello, love,” he says, and kisses him softly, sweetly, just as he does in Edward's fondest memories. Then, Thomas growls deep in his throat, rolls atop Edward, and the kissing becomes more the stuff of Edward's private fantasies.

“Jesus, Thomas.” Edward pants, as Thomas runs eager, even desperate, hands up Edward's arms, then downwards, raking through the hair on his chest until he arrives at his still-slumbering cock. “I've missed you.”

“I know.” Thomas' mouth follows the trail laid out by his fingers, planting open-mouthed kisses to skin that hasn't been touched in seven long months. The beard is an interesting addition. Edward savours the sensation against the sensitive skin of his inner thighs as Thomas rubs against him. “I've missed you, too.”

He plants a kiss to Edward's cock, which, rather embarrassingly, refuses to take notice. “Come on, Thomas." Edward attempts to pull him up. “You first.” Making Thomas spend never fails to arouse him. Rather than put his cock in reach of Edward's hand or his mouth, however, Thomas stays stubbornly where he is.

“I would rather greet my old friend, thank you." Another kiss; still no reaction. "Perhaps a story would wake him.”

“A story?” He looks down. Thomas meets his gaze with a saucy smile.

“I could tell him how I pass these cold winter nights, all alone, thinking about you.” Another kiss, this time to Edward's thigh. “Or I could remind him of the time you debauched an innocent young Naval steward in the middle of his washing.”

Edward finds himself grinning in return. “Not that innocent, I think.”

“Then you recall the occasion.”

“How could I forget?” It had been during the early months on their ice, when their affair was still new and Edward burned to touch Thomas every moment of the day and night. Opportunities to actually do so, of course, were few and far between. Being apart from Thomas all this time, with Thomas in Halifax and Edward at sea, has been torture. Equally, if not more, painful were the days when Thomas was so close, when Edward could see him and smell him at all hours, but was forced to keep his feelings hidden.

Sometimes, they burst out. One such occasion was that day in the hold. Edward had gone there on a legitimate mission, something to do with provisions or supplies most likely. It seemed as though he spent most of his time in the ice counting and organizing and reorganizing supplies. This time, he went down late, after most of the crew were abed, and found Thomas bent over his wash basin, sleeves rolled up on his strong forearms, scrubbing the captain's clothes.

It seemed a task beneath his dignity. So many of Thomas' duties were, although Thomas himself purported not to mind them, even to enjoy them. “We all have our jobs to do,” he told Edward. “And somebody's got to do these.”

By that point, he and Thomas had been engaging in their secret liaisons for several weeks. Edward usually let Thomas take the lead, to instruct him on what he would like them to do, and how. It was the easiest way. Edward loved doing a great many things he was categorically unable to talk about. Thomas had no problem talking about everything.

That night, Edward was equally reluctant to talk, but his body knew just what it wanted. He came up behind Thomas, wrapped an arm about his waist, and kissed him on the neck.

“Jesus, Ned!” Thomas whispered, clever enough to keep quiet even in surprise. He leaned back into the kiss, perfunctorily drying one soapy hand on his trousers and reaching to pat at Edward's thigh. Edward's cock, which had been at half-mast since he watched Thomas bend over to pick up an errant fork at dinner, leaped into play. Shamelessly, Edward rubbed himself against the delectable curve of Thomas' backside.

They had yet to commit The Act, although their reticence was not out of fear of punishment. That line was already crossed. Edward doubted anybody would pause to split hairs should they be discovered with their cocks down one another's throats. But Thomas had not requested to take or be taken, and Edward, when he imagined such a scenario, always pictured doing it for the first time somewhere better than the orlop or the storeroom or Edward's narrow berth. Thomas deserved better.

Still, at that moment, Edward was possessed of an intense need. His tongue in Thomas' ear, he reached around to unfasten the buttons of his trousers. “Edward!” Thomas gasped, as his hand gripped Thomas' cock. He made no move to stop him.

Taking that as assent, Edward pushed Thomas' trousers and drawers to his knees. He would have preferred him entirely bare, but even in this crazed state, Edward retained some sense. As he worked his own prick free of his clothing, his eyes fell on a tin of wool grease lying amid Thomas' washing paraphernalia.

“I thought you were going to bugger me,” Thomas admits now, moving back to lie atop Edward again in his warm colonial—Canadian—bed. “I was expecting it.”

“I lost my nerve,” Edward admits. He had not done it for years, and then only with men he cared nothing for and never saw again. He did not want to hurt Thomas in any way, and, as he remembered, it hurt quite a bit, unless extensive preparations were undertaken. Preparations for which they had neither the time nor, in Edward's case, the immediate inclination.

That night in Terror's hold, Edward slicked Thomas' inner thighs with the grease and thrust between them. It was artless. Unrefined. But it did the job. Edward spilled with Thomas' thighs clamped around his cock and the sound of Thomas' laboured breathing in his ears, then frigged Thomas to a quick and happy conclusion of his own.

Today, Thomas does the honours. Leaning over the edge of his wide bed, Thomas comes back with a jar of some sort of ointment in hand. He quirks an eyebrow. “Do you remember your Greek, Captain Little?”

Edward flushed. “I rather think it's your turn to give the lecture.”

“You needn't ask me twice.” Thomas' eyes gleamed. The ointment, whatever it is, feels cold to the touch. Thomas quickly warms it up, rubbing generous amounts between Edward's thighs, over his stones, even onto his prick. It twitches, finally, when Thomas gives it a squeeze.

“What did I tell you?” Thomas says, a touch smugly, as Edward goes to his hands and knees. “I haven't forgotten how to knock him up.”

Now that they have “been together”, as Thomas coyly and sweetly terms it, many times over many years, this should feel like a poor substitute for the act. It doesn't. The feel of Thomas' prick so near—but not near enough—to his hole is tantalizing, exciting. On every stroke, it abuts his own cock, and Edward hears himself groan as it rubs back and forth.

“You like that, captain?” Thomas pants behind him. “You want my hand?” Edward squeezes his thighs harder, wringing a string of curses from Thomas. “Do that, darling Ned, and I am sure not to last.”

“Doesn't matter.” Edward is ashore for three days. They have time, now.

With a grunt, Thomas reaches around. His grasp on Edward's cock is not gentle. He strokes the length of it, from the wiry hairs at the base to the tip, once and then again. Just like that, Edward is as hard as he ever was in the days of his youth.

“Thomas.” He says. Then, again. “Christ, Thomas.”

A huff of laughter. Edward expects a joke, but instead Thomas groans more loudly than they could ever get away with aboard Terror—so loudly, Edward worries fleetingly that they might be heard downstairs—and spills. His hand doesn't waver, and in fact redoubles its efforts on Edward's prick.

“I love you.” The words come easily from Edward's mouth as he, too, spends onto the bedclothes.

***

Shortly after they arrived in Halifax for the first time, Thomas sat on the edge of one of the beds in their lodgings, took Edward's hand in both of his, and said, very calmly and with complete lucidity, “I'm not going back to England.”

“What?”

“You have to, love. You must return to sea. I know you miss it terribly.” He did, and Crozier couldn't placate the Navy forever about where, exactly, Edward was. “But I'm too ill to ever sail again.”

“You're getting better! Given the journey we've just made, of course you're tired, but...”

“I haven't any family in England, not really. Just my brother, and we were never close. There's no reason for me to return.” He sighed. “Where would I live? Marylebone?”

“I would be happy to provide a home for you.” Edward longed to do so.

“You are my home.” Thomas looked up, his eyes meeting Edward's. “I can wait for you here as easily as I can there. I will wait, Ned. Make no mistake about that. Always. For as long and as often as you wish.” His gaze slid away, to focus on the fireplace grate. “Of course, I would never ask such a thing of you. I know it's not how these things typically are between men, particularly those who meet on ship.”

“Are you mad?” The words slipped out before Edward could consider them. He carried on, hoping Thomas didn't notice, or at least didn't take offence. “I haven't looked at anybody else since I first saw you.”

“You must admit, dear, options were somewhat limited for most of that time.”

Edward searched for the right words. For once, they came. “You said I'm your home. That is what you are to me. And if you're certain you wish to remain here, then soon I will come back to you.”

Thomas laughed, a true, joyful laugh. Edward couldn't remember the last time he heard it. Before they walked out, maybe. “Does this mean we are married?” He asked. It was a joke, clearly, but Edward, as always, replied with the utmost seriousness.

“If you'll have me.”

Tears welled in Thomas' eyes. Fortunately, before Edward was forced to address them—or, worse yet, succumb himself—Thomas threw his arms about Edward's neck and kissed him until they lost their balance and tumbled backwards onto the mattress.

Edward has kept his word. He has come back to Halifax, over and over again. Back to Thomas. This time, snow continues to fall against the window as Edward and Thomas linger in his bed above the Roan Calf.

“I have a gift for you,” Edward remembers, when his brain is once again able to form coherent thoughts. Thomas grumbles when he raises the bedclothes and lets in the cold air, but sits up when Edward returns to the bed, his purse in hand.

“You don't need to offer me money,” Thomas says, cheeky as always. “You've already bought me this place.”

“Years ago. And that was mostly paid by Crozier.” This gift, as well, owes a great deal to their former captain. “Close your eyes,” he bids Thomas, wanting to make this moment as exciting to Thomas as it is for him. The poor man's waited long enough for it to arrive.

Thomas does as he's told, holding out his hand. Edward presses the object into it. “You can look now,” he says, and watches Thomas' face as he studies his gift.

“It's...” Thomas blinks at the circle of brilliant gold on the royal blue ribbon, as if unsure what he's seeing. “Is it...”

“An officer's medal,” Edward fills in. “From the expedition.” They all had them, all the survivors. All except Lieutenant Jopson.

“They told me I wasn't eligible.” Because he wasn't "really" an officer. Edward knows. It came as more of a blow to Edward than to Thomas when Thomas was given the lesser, duller medal awarded to the surviving men, although both had expected that might happen.

“They changed their minds.”

“After all this time?”

Edward shrugs. “Captain Crozier has had little else to do in his retirement but press your case.” In truth, Edward suspects the Admiralty finally agreed to the medal to rid themselves of him. It scarcely matters. At long last, Thomas has what he deserves.

“Thank you.” Thomas leans over to kiss him. “And I shall have to write to thank Captain Crozier as well. You will take a letter back to him for me?”

“Of course.”

Edward smiles as he watches Thomas admire his beautiful shining gold medal. Being Thomas, he'd said, of course, that he didn't care at all for such things, but Edward knows him better than he thinks he does. Better even than he knows himself, at times. “There's something else,” Edward says. “That's been a long time coming.”

“Oh, yes? What's that?”

Nerves appear in the pit of Edward's stomach, unbidden and, he's certain, entirely unnecessary. He still finds himself twining the blanket in his hands like an anxious child as he says, “Indomitable's next voyage is back to England. Once there, I shall be turning her over to a new captain.” He holds up his other hand, before Thomas can interrupt. “Then, I will be settling my affairs and booking passage on a ship to Halifax.”

“Halifax?” A smile plays uncertainly on Thomas' lips, the medal apparently forgotten for now. “What do you plan to do there?”

“Purchase a house. Preferably close to my favourite tavern.” Very close. Edward has had enough of walking through winter weather.

Thomas' smile is pure sunshine on a snowy day. “Oh, yes? And do you anticipate being in need of a lodger, in this house of yours?”

“No.” Edward releases his hold on the blanket. “I anticipate being in need of a...” Even now, the word feels foreign, in his mind and in his mouth. Not unwanted, just foreign. “Of a husband.”

The look on Thomas' face is not one he has seen before, not in all the years they have known one another. He doesn't kiss Edward, as Edward expects. Rather, Thomas puts his arms around him and embraces him tightly, his bearded cheek pressed to Edward's smoother one, for what feels like a lifetime.

It's not. While Edward could have gladly stayed in that position forever, Thomas has to at some point return to work.

“You're sure your men won't gossip if you spend the night off the ship?” Thomas asks, getting up to dress. Edward will do so as well, eventually, and go downstairs to finish chopping that wood before Thomas gets a mind to do it himself.

“They already do. They believe I have a woman here.”

Thomas laughs. “Is that so? What do they say about her?”

“Speculation varies.” Edward recalls the words he overheard. “Commander Macleod thinks she must be a lady of 'shining intelligence and irreproachable morality.'”

“Promote that man at once.” Thomas sits on the bed. He puts on his shoes rather than his boots, indicating he's going downstairs rather than back outside. Edward approves.

“I intend to.”

“We have rather a lot of plans to make ourselves.” Thomas looks at him. “Perhaps in the morning, you and I might take a walk in the snow and discuss them.” Edward hesitates. “Or,” Thomas goes on, “we might lie in bed and do the same.”

“I much prefer that option.”

“I know.” Thomas darts forward to kiss him quickly, then lingers, his face close. “Say what you like about my morality,” he murmurs, rubbing his nose against Edward's, “but my intelligence shines like bloody gold.”

Edward can't argue with that. “Shines like your medal,” he agrees. Thomas laughs, again, and kisses him again. Then he goes, leaving Edward to imagine what it will be like when this is their bed, in their house, and they can do this every day for the rest of their lives.