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Stimulus:

1. something that incites to action or exertion or quickens action, feeling, thought, etc.:

2. [physiology, medicine/medical] something that excites an organism or part to functional activity.

 
---


At the plantation, there was no privacy.

Despite the guards' acquiescence in letting them cling to each other as they first reunited, there was no space to breathe within the grounds' boundaries for them.

The barracks were stacked fifteen to a room. James discovered that the inmates had learnt to leave propriety aside, furtive touches under solitary blankets an occurence that no one blinked at. The only time to wring this sort of pleasure from existence was in the hours between being locked in for the night and released in the morning, and there seemed a silent pact among the men to let each other's restless self-comfort go unremarked. He knew what life aboard a ship was like, of course, but that made it no better knowing Thomas had been imprisoned like this for years.

James felt his skin crawl at it; he wondered if Thomas had ever done the same in this room full of dissatisfied, resigned men. He made himself sick thinking if Thomas had done it more often over the span of six years than he had lain in James' arms over the span of one.

It was the utter perversion of Thomas' goal to see humankind free from shame: men stripped of their dignity, to go after their body's needs the way an animal would piss without a care for who watched.

The very first night, James listened to a man panting three beds over, quiet slick sounds skittering across the space between, and he burrowed deeper into the darkness beneath Thomas' jaw. Thomas shifted to rest his chin on top of James' head, beard catching lightly on the short hair.

"You get used to it," Thomas promised.

James didn't want to get used to it.

He wanted to burn this entire place and its wretched, twisted dispassion to the ground.

----

The night they walked away with the smouldering ruins of the plantation behind them, they stumbled into an abandoned hayshed, not far from the road.

The past decade stretched clockwork-monotonous and featureless behind Thomas; the only significant change marked by his transferral to the New World.

Thomas had received nary a kind touch in ten years, and kind was not the only way James touched him now. James' fingertips ate up the vastness of his starved skin. It was like being pushed from a dust-muted confessional into the raucous nightly pleasure gardens, whirled about and turned every which way as he sought to find a point to orient by.

It wasn't for want of care on James' part, far from it. Thomas wanted to weep at the tender concentration with which James moved aside every smoke-soaked layer of clothing on his shaking limbs, the way James gently pushed closer, took hold in each new space that opened to him as Thomas' grasping hands found purchase of their own.

It put Thomas in mind of a fairytale he knew, in which the cursed prince's servant had three iron bands laid around his heart so it wouldn't burst with sorrow. As his master was released from the spell and they returned to the kingdom, the prince asked for his carriage to stop upon hearing a loud cracking sound and presuming it to be a broken wheel—but the servant merely explained that it was the iron bands bursting as his heart swelled with joy.

God, he was so swollen with joy; all of him was, heart and all.

When James finally drew Thomas out of his breeches, his hand met sticky heat, softening flesh. His eyes darted up to catch Thomas' and Thomas whimpered both at how over-much even the tender grasp around his cock was, and at the humiliation of having lasted not even to endure the first touch.

One calloused hand came to cradle Thomas' cheek, the pad of James' thumb catching the moisture threatening to spill from his eyes. With their foreheads resting together, they breathed into the space between them.

"It's fine," James said softly, rubbing the bristles of his shorn head against Thomas' ear, and—oh!—even that touch was still so much. Thomas felt himself twitching weakly in James' hand. A breathy chuckle escaped James. "Don't you think I'm flattered, that even battered and scarred I can still excite a pretty lordling like you in this way? It's fine," he repeated and brought his sticky hand to his mouth.

Their faces were so close that Thomas could smell his own release, thought he could nearly taste it as James pointedly licked his fingers clean. He could feel rumbling in James' chest a groaning sigh of relief, as of a man finding sustenance after years of deprivation. Thomas clawed at the back of James' neck, digging his fingers into the thick muscle, and sealed his mouth over James' to partake.

"You're not yet spent," he gasped when they finally broke apart, and frantically tugged his own breeches down, freeing his legs with the aid of tender hands that were too slow. "Come on—come on, I want—"

They had nothing to use for slick.

Thomas nearly cried after all at the injustice of the world, for even if he had already wasted the first climax they shared after ten years, he could still enjoy being fucked; but there were other ways, and he rolled onto his side hoping for James to slide between his sweat-slick thighs.

When James didn't follow quickly enough for his liking, Thomas threw a hand behind him to pull him close. James groaned in his ear, and it sounded like both laughter and desperation, and Thomas knew he was going to perish were he not given at least the satisfaction of James finding completion held by some kind of willing flesh; anything to let Thomas forget how quickly it had been over for himself. He wanted to know with his whole body, with the entirety of his skin, that he wasn't the only one needing.

"Impatient," James mocked under his breath as he settled against Thomas' back. Thomas took offence at the frankly ridiculous amount of layers between them that prevented him even feeling James' hardness. He reached back but found his hand caught in a tender grasp. It was pinned against the cloak they had spread over the hay, fingers lacing together.

"I won't be blamed for being impatient." Thomas ground back against James and hissed as his tender cock dragged over the wool of the cloak. "For three weeks I've had to listen to other men bringing themselves off while I was in your arms and unable to do anything about it."

Thomas sighed and widened his legs to give James easier access.

James took his sweet time about it. Thomas had always been charmed by how tender James was with him, as if Thomas wasn't taller than him and almost as broad, but today he had no patience for this sort of coyness. Behind him, James was softly huffing and groaning, growing ever more quiet, and still he had not even pushed between Thomas' thighs. Instead his mouth was urgent on the back of Thomas' neck, his hands intermittently roaming over Thomas' body and disappearing to presumably touch himself.

Unseen in the dark, Thomas did not know whether to smile or sigh in frustration as the realisation dawned upon him.

"There is no need to wait for me being ready again." He reached back to grasp James' hip and press himself against his front fully. "You know I like it when I'm still sensitive and—"

He fell silent when the reason for James' reticence finally became obvious. When he reached back, increasingly certain of what he would find, James twitched away from Thomas' questioning hand.

James was entirely soft.

Thomas twisted to try and catch James' eyes, but was met by hands gently but firmly turning him back onto his side, the heat of James' burning face pressing into the nape of his neck.

"I'm sorry," James muttered, arms squeezing tightly around Thomas' middle. "I don't know what—I'm sorry."

Thomas reached back to fit the curve of James' shorn head into his palm.

"It's fine. You're overwhelmed." He chuckled. "And I should know about feeling overwhelmed."

He felt the hot puff of a laugh against his skin. Apologetic kisses were pressed between his shoulderblades through the fabric, and the gentle nip of teeth made Thomas twitch violently, groaning at the sheer—at how much it was.

"Hold me," Thomas said and turned to be nose to nose. James' face—still ashamed of what had, or rather hadn't, transpired—pained him. Thomas soothed it into slackness with pointed kisses to each of his worry lines. "We'll try again some other time."

Despite his reassurances, Thomas could feel the tension in James' arms around him. He had grown attuned to the things that James left unsaid all too often, and felt gratified that he could still read them after all this time. He was less pleased with the silent humiliation he perceived, and James' obvious desire to make up for his supposed failure.

Thomas held him tighter and pressed sleepy kisses to James' collarbone in ever-longer intervals until he drifted off, the scent of fire and smoke still cocooning them to release them into a fresh world the next day.

---

James watched Thomas watch the world.

He watched Thomas rub his hands over the bark of the tree he was leaning against, twist the hems of his clothes between fingers that acted as curious as if they had never touched fabric before. He watched him savour each sip of water as if it were the elixir of life itself.

It was devastating, and it was awe-inspiring.

James watched, and ached, and loved.

Their days were spent trying to get as far as possible from the plantation, walking most of the daylight hours, and at night they curled into each other as tightly as they could, wherever they could fit themselves into abandoned places, or underneath the stars. Better not to leave a trail by being seen and remembered. After three days, a good distance behind them, they slept in a farmer's hay loft in exchange for some hours' work in the farm yard. His wife even slipped them a few coins as they left the next morning, grumbling something good-natured about work that her husband never got around to doing himself.

It was enough to pay for a room when they carefully ventured into a sleepy town.

Thomas walked the streets like a man emerging from the twisting dark turns of the underworld, and James caught him once rubbing at his eyes, whether in disbelief or to conceal tears. Thomas' fingers dipped into the horse trough in front of a tavern. He let one of the horses press her black, velvet-rough muzzle into his hands.

It was the first time since leaving the plantation that they slept in a bed.

Once they had been seen to their room, James went back downstairs to talk the innkeeper into cutting the cost of a bottle of liquor; the good kind. Thankfully, he had sown into his hems a number of pearls from various hauls over the years, always good to have on hand in a difficult situation. He exchanged one of them for coin and liquor, returned upstairs, and stopped in the doorway.

Thomas had stripped down to his smallclothes, and stretched out on the bed. Socks gone, he rubbed his feet over the cool sheets, head pressed blissfully back into the giving plumpness of the pillow. He breathed happy sighs as his fingers alternated between gliding flat over the sheets and curling into them.

James thought at first it must be some sort of display for his benefit; Thomas had never been shy of putting on a bit of a show back in London. But there was an animal lack of self-consciousness about it, as of a horse that rolled with relieved groans in the dust after bridle and saddle had been removed. James had spent one month at the plantation. The bedding had been designed for functionality and longevity, not plushness. He thought of the mornings when he had woken in Miranda's house, twisted in the thick, sleep-warm blankets. He'd pretend for even a moment that he was back at his London lodgings, and that Thomas was going to come knocking any moment.

The open door brought a draught with it, and Thomas stilled. He sat up, sliding a sheepish hand into his hair. James locked the door and waved aside what explanation lay on Thomas' tongue. He sat next to him and removed his boot and socks.

James held the bottle to Thomas' lips, feeling a tightness in his underbelly at the sight of that wet mouth against the glass lip. Thomas moaned obscenely at the burn of the liquor, a little spilling from the corner of his mouth. James caught it with his tongue and retraced its path upwards.

Thomas gave a surprised, punched-out gasp when, not three minutes later, he moved to sit astride James' thigh. James slid a hand into Thomas' breeches, but he already knew what he'd find. Like last time, he sucked his fingers clean demonstratively. Still, Thomas perched flame-faced and unhappy atop him, and James had to press him back into the bed and cover his face in kisses until the frown dissolved into soft, laughing protest. He pushed James off of him, before long.

"I was so looking forward to this," Thomas sighed and bent to pull something out of his coat pocket. A small bottle of oil. At James' questioning gaze he shrugged. "I took it from the farmer's kitchen."

"Is this what I've returned to?" James asked hoarsely, trying to cover with a quip the racket his heart made, trying to pretend as if everything was as it should rightfully be. "The lord I loved has turned into a petty thief of foodstuffs?"

"Hm." Thomas grinned against his mouth as he pressed the oil into James' hand. "We can't all be thieves of Spanish treasure. I have no stomach for sailing." James snorted. "And the lord you loved has graciously elected you to fuck him, but his patience might run out if you don't get started soon."

Thomas surely hadn't intended it, but James' stomach twisted a little. He brushed the feeling aside as best he could, willing his body to do what it should, and concentrated on the task at hand.

The latter wasn't difficult. As Thomas had said that first time in the hayshed, he enjoyed fingers or a tongue or, even better, a good hard cock in him when he was still sensitive from his own release. James grew absorbed in the task, watching with rapt attention as Thomas twitched towards his fingers as much as he shied from them. The push and pull of his body put James in mind of the heaving seas, hungry floods and reticent ebbs by turns. God, the sounds, slick and light and filthy. Thomas' covetous sighs, the small wet noises of his mouth working wordlessly.

He was every last fantasy of James' past decade, poured pliant and warm like sand dunes onto the sheets before him, starved for him, and still James' cock remained resolutely unmoved.

Eventually, Thomas stilled James' hand.

"No more," he pleaded, and rolled onto his side to sit up half-way. Sweat beaded on his forehead. "Please, just—"

He noticed, then, the problem.

"Oh, James."

James' face burnt in humiliation and he made to rise, but Thomas resolutely pushed him back into the sheets. He had always been tall and broadly built, and the action only served to remind James once more how strong he had grown.

"Let me," Thomas said and peppered kisses over James' chin and neck. "Please?"

Unable to deny Thomas at least the attempt, James nodded, though he had to look away when careful fingers wrapped around what lay pillowed against his thigh.

Thomas whispered tender nothings into his ear. Thomas kissed his flaccid flesh, suckled at the folds of the foreskin, the soft wrinkles covering the shaft. Thomas took the whole pathetic length of it into his mouth without any effort—un-aroused, James thought, his cock wasn't much to look at.

James had to pull him away before too long; his eyes stung at how not even this could rouse him, though the sensation was pleasant enough. He couldn't let Thomas go to all this effort if the fruits of his labour refused to ripen.

For a moment they were silent. Thomas' hand ran up James' shin, drawing goosebumps as it went against the growth of the fine red hair, and back down again.

Finally, Thomas exhaled noisily.

"If it's because of me," he began, halted, tried again. His voice sounded smaller than James had ever heard it. "I know I must be far from what you remember, scarred and rough and beaten. I know that that must take adjusting. I can't pretend our time apart hasn't changed me, and if I simply no longer—"

"It's not you," James interrupted him. It came out more gruffly than intended, but he couldn't make himself say it any other way, not through a tight throat. Now Thomas even blamed himself for his failings.

James turned half away and drew his knees closer, wishing for all the world that he could pretend not to feel Thomas' endlessly patient, impossibly tender eyes on him. He silently cursed the useless thing that lay wet and soft as a slug between his legs.

"Don't worry—" Thomas began.

James couldn't bear it.

"I don't understand," he moaned wretchedly. "I've willed myself through unspeakable things, forced my body through starvation and war and sickness, and now, of all times—"

Thomas hushed him.

"Maybe it's time that you don't force yourself to do anything, for once. Is it any wonder that finally, after ten years of performing at the very limit of what is humanly sufferable, your flesh falters in the face of tenderness? Stop performing," Thomas added softly and drew James' face to him.

James submitted to the kisses readily, and was glad when Thomas let him bring him to orgasm again, using his fingers. It didn't take very long and Thomas buried his face in James' neck afterwards, as if embarrassed by how quickly he had gone off. They had spent so many mornings and nights making unhurried love back in London, fucking lazily for hours to draw out the pleasure, and now the best they could manage was... this.

James' face burned quietly, and he was glad that Thomas couldn't see in the dark.

---

They doubled back towards the coast and found a cottage to stay, some distance from a fishing town and away from prying eyes. Thomas helped with local people's accounts and paperwork. James found work as a carpenter and was, after the initial and expected suspicion of small town people, often called upon to help fix the fishing boats. He didn't go out with the men to fish, but they could tell that he knew what he was about, and let him be.

---

Watching Thomas eat was a fucking delight.

James grew determined to feed Thomas' enthusiasm as best he could—literally. While there were no pigs to spice and glaze, he was an adept cook and secretly sought out recipes to broaden his repertoire, as far as their budget and his skills permitted.

If James had cooked something especially good, Thomas would close his eyes in quiet rapture. He'd hum and moan appreciatively and eagerly lick his fingers to catch every last taste. There was nothing artificial about it—James knew that Thomas could play-act well enough to make lascivious even the most unlikely of things. This was simple disbelieving enjoyment at being allowed to taste again, to experience the world in all its varieties in yet another way after ten years of deprivation.

If Thomas' reaction was wanton, then it was only because he had been wanting for so long.

James was reminded unfailingly of when he had first started working with Thomas, of the dinners and luncheons he had been invited to, and how overwhelmed he had been at first by the courses of lush meals, the tastes of familiar dishes made exciting by a skillful cook, the tastes of new spices and novel ingredients that he had never tried before.

It was a particular kind of wonderful to watch Thomas nibble on his first hot pepper and scrunch his face up. James handed him a glass of water.

"How does it taste?"

"Like when I was but a boy and scraped my knee, and had to walk home with tiny pieces of gravel stuck in the wound."

"Oh."

"Oh, it's good."

Thomas held a pepper for James to bite. The attentive gaze on his mouth made James' skin grow hot in ways that had nothing to do with the food. Considering how uncooperative his body was being, his mind was just as eager as it had been back in London.

"What do you think it tastes like?"

James contemplated a moment. He'd never before thought about it. "Sunburn. And saltspray getting into my eyes."

Thomas laughed and James had to kiss him.

---

After an unsatisfactory attempt to fuck on the evening of their moving in, they had come to the silent agreement to let things be for a while. Or rather, James insisted that he bring Thomas off every once in a while, which Thomas accepted readily—although it barely took more than a few strokes or licks to sent him toppling down that well—while Thomas tried not to pressure James. He was convinced that all it took was for James to settle into their new life, to let things come to him slowly—if only Thomas' body would heed that advice!—and to realise that Thomas expected nothing from him, that there was no shame in failing to live up to what Thomas didn't demand.

"I'll have you any way you're willing to be with me," Thomas assured him one morning. James had burrowed beneath the blankets to suck Thomas, who had woken hard and aching, and it had lasted a mere moment before he toppled backwards into completion.

After, James twisted with grateful sighs under Thomas' hands as they kneaded at the tension in his back, his arms, his thighs. God, James was still so tense.

"The spirit indeed is willing," James mumbled into the pillow. "But the flesh is weak."

Thomas paused in his ministrations. James turned his head to peer up at him.

"Matthew," Thomas observed, and watched a smug grin part James' lips. Thomas willed his blood to cool, because he had not seen James look at him like this in a while, not while they were in bed.

"The Bible does have a verse for every occasion, doesn't it," James said, and Thomas had to bend down and kiss him at that.

Bethlem had removed him from his body at the same time as it had turned it into a prison. His own bones had become the cage that wouldn't permit him to leave the walls of that hellish place. When Thomas had been lightheaded and carved-out after emptying his stomach during a purgative treatment, he had felt distant from his body entirely. There had been nothing to look at, nothing to feel. Oglethorpe's estate had brought a sense of grounding with it, his hands had found a purpose again, his muscles had relearned how to move, his stomach to keep down food. It had only been a small improvement, given that he was still locked away and removed from everything he held dear, but it had returned his body to him.

Or so he had thought.

Lying on top of James, Thomas felt as if for the first time he knew the weight of his flesh again. He pressed his cheek into the back of James' neck, and knew in the touch that it was a skull leaning against a spine. He felt his hipbones pushing inexorably down into James' body, felt the giving flesh beneath the ridges of his pelvis. Thomas pulled James' face back towards him, moved his own head aside to fit their mouths back together. Cartilage, he thought as their noses squashed together, and as he rubbed James' burning ear between his thumb and forefinger.

Thomas grew aware of movement beneath him, and he paused. James was pushing his hips down into the bed; slow, erratic twists of his lower body that made Thomas' heart flutter. He pressed his thumb into James' palm, and James stilled, face flushed.

"Are you...?"

Thomas tried not to sound too hopeful.

"No," James admitted softly.

They were quiet a moment. Then James shifted, and Thomas understood, and rolled off him.

"I'll make breakfast." James made to rise. He let Thomas take his hand and press a kiss to his knuckles, but then he left the room without looking back.

---

At night, Thomas burrowed into James. Back in London he had sprawled in the way only someone could sprawl that had never had to share cramped sleeping quarters with dozens of other sailors, who was used to large luxurious beds. Though their bed was large now, Thomas still curled up.

---

James traded favours with the townspeople, such as small fixes to broken cabinet doors, in exchange for hand-woven blankets and soaps and the occasional advice on cooking, oft delivered with a tap to the side of the nose.

"It does make the loss harder, doesn't it," Mrs Catsmith said knowingly. "Not just the loss of a wife, but a wife's comforts. A good meal."

She eyed him with something like pity, and James thought of Miranda and felt his stomach twist at how terribly wrong, and how terribly right Mrs Catsmith was. She believed him and Thomas to be fellow widowers, and in its own way, it was true.

When he stayed silent Mrs Catsmith's eyes only grew more tender and she patted his unmoving hand and proceeded to pack a bundle of herbs that she swore were just the trick for a good soup. She also insisted he take along an embroidered pillow. He felt silly carrying it home, but the way Thomas, reading, kept rubbing his cheek over the raised texture of the thread was reward enough.

In the warm evenings they sat on the porch. James left most of their small garden to vegetable beds and a small handful of fruit-bearing trees, but he did enjoy the few plants that were merely there to please the senses. Sweet bay magnolia and lilac, an enormous hydrangea, honeysuckle, a small rosebush that clung to a lattice by the back of the house. Thomas' favourite was the fragrant jasmine bush that must have been planted by some previous owner of the cottage.

There was a broad flat stone just under the magnolia, which lay shaded by the leaves in the mornings and warmed by the sun at dusk. Thomas adored stretching out there to bask in the sun like one of the sleek lizards that hushed, silent and swift, through the heat. He'd come back to James glowing and smelling of grass and hot stone.

Following the advice in a housekeeping book he had traded for chopping Old Gran Whitley's fire wood, Thomas kept handfuls of petals in oil-filled jars. James enjoyed rubbing them into Thomas' skin when the nightmares got worse than usual and Thomas couldn't fall asleep again.

They had moved into the cottage in early summer. As the days shortened past the solstice, their house filled slowly.

There were bowls and jars scattered about the rooms, filled with sand and crackling leaves, smooth pebbles and dried seeds that Thomas loved to dip his hands into. When money allowed it, they bought wax candles instead of tallow, and the honey scent filled the rooms, mingling with that of dried herbs they hung in bundles from the ceiling. The bed and couch were besieged by more pillows and blankets than was strictly necessary for comfort or practicality. Some were light and of an airy weave, others knitted, yet others quilted or stuffed with down that was much too hot for the current weather but felt wonderful to sink into.

Their rugs were all of different make, and both James and Thomas loved to walk barefoot, taking in the textures beneath their calloused toes. Sometimes they simply lay down in the middle of the floor, half on some rug or other, half on the wooden boards, to doze or read.

It felt to James as if time had slowed to a syrup trickle, and he wasn't sure that it was going to be enough for the rest of his life, but for now, he took every ounce of pleasure his spilled blood and cruel deeds and crushing losses had earned him.

All of it, he thought bitterly, looking down at himself, but for one.

---

Thomas was late in coming home one evening. He opened the door quietly, took off his boots, treaded lightly. He tended to do most things quietly these days.

It was this that explained how James hadn't heard his approach. Through the open doorway Thomas could see him on their bed, sitting in only his shirt, a hand between his legs. Thomas stopped to watch.

For a moment his heart leapt into his throat at the thought that James had made progress, had felt enough urgency to take matters into his own hands. The thought of James treating himself to this pleasure warmed Thomas' insides.

Then he noticed the frown on James' face, the tension in his tightly curled toes, and the way his flesh drooped in his hands instead of rising to the touch.

James looked up, saw Thomas and froze.

The spell of secrecy broken, Thomas tapped a knuckle against the doorframe. "May I?"

Face burning, James nodded and drew his knees up towards his body, though his hand stayed where it was, maybe to cover himself, maybe unwilling to abandon the attempt. Thomas sat carefully at the foot of the bed.

"You started without me?"

James' throat worked as he swallowed. Thomas wanted to bite his Adam's apple.

"I thought if I tried—maybe by the time you got here, that something..." He trailed off and Thomas felt his eyes soften.

"Show me what you've been doing?"

Another swallow, and James' eyes went half-lidded he began working his limp cock again. He didn't start out gently, patience obviously worn thin by however long he had spent trying, and Thomas saw that his hand remained mostly dry, nary a dribble of anticipatory slick in sight. To Thomas' eyes there wasn't much pleasure to be seen but James looked like he didn't want to be interrupted.

The heave of James' breath grew heavier, his nostrils flared with more force, but none of it in service of enjoyment. His eyes were screwed tightly shut. Thomas winced when what care had been involved dissipated and the tug of James' hand grew punishing. Lips curling back in a soundless snarl, he was tugging furiously to the point that Thomas thought James must be bruising himself.

"James—James, stop."

James' hand lifted off his cock as though, were it possible, he'd have flung it across the room.

Thomas flinched violently when James drove his fist against the headboard, and saw James' face fall when he noticed Thomas' reaction. Thomas forced his shoulders to relax down again and raised a hand against James' oncoming words of contrition.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

James looked away. "No."

"Alright." Thomas inhaled, exhaled.

James peered contritely at him. "Do you want me to... to do something for you?"

Thomas was touched by an odd sort of fond disdain. Anger, too, which he hadn't realised before; as if he had poked around ashes and discovered faintly glowing ambers.

"I don't want you to try and distract," Thomas said. He hesitated, considering his words. "You don't have to tell me. But you can't stop me from being concerned. And I won't stop being concerned just because you offer to—to suck me off, or whatever you were thinking of."

"I didn't mean to—"

"I know, James. I know."

Thomas gave him space, gave him time to slow his breathing and draw up the sheets while Thomas fetched the herbal salve they kept for bruising and sore muscles. He set it on the chest at the foot of the bed.

"I'll be making dinner," Thomas said. "Come join me when you're ready."

He kissed the top of James' head and went to take care of the food. When James joined him a while later he stood, hands curling and uncurling, for a moment.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't intend to distract." He halted even before he saw the look on Thomas' face. "No, that's not true. I was hoping you'd leave me be if I offered you something in return. I'm sorry. And I didn't mean to upset you, either." Thomas bit his lip, mind whirring through unhappy images, waiting for the inevitable question. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No."

"Alright."

James hesitated a moment, but when he came to lay a hand on the back of Thomas' neck, half soothing and half apologetic, Thomas noticed that his hands smelled faintly of herbs.

---

Thomas' relationship with God, James gathered, was rather strained these days. He had never been able been able to understand how Thomas could believe in some benevolent Father in the first place, not with the way the world was. James didn't believe in benevolent fathers, period, and given Alfred Hamilton's character, he marveled that Thomas ever could. But if anything, Thomas' faith that refused to be blind to the necessity of man's own responsibility for goodness only made him more admirable to James.

Thomas still prayed some nights. They were calm, informal, one-sided conversations and never lasted long. Brief words of gratitude, of need, of uncertainty. When James asked him one evening about what remained of his faith still, Thomas frowned. He had obviously given the matter a great deal of thought. Of course he had, James thought fondly.

"I don't know," Thomas had said finally, and rested the edge of the plate he was drying against his chin. After a moment, he set the plate aside. "For the longest time, I clung to it because it was the only thing I had to cling to. Then the years passed and you never came for me, I received news of your and Miranda's death, and it all appeared to be some cruel joke, making people believe in hope and goodness if we are then so cruelly punished for seeking happiness. And then," he added, voice thick, and smiled at James, "then you returned to me and now I am free to be—"

He halted and fell silent.

James didn't know what to respond and took his hand. He understood what Thomas did not, could not, make himself say. That they were only as free as they could stay unnoticed by the neighbours, and that it was only James that had returned to him. That their plans to better the world had failed.

"I don't know if anyone is listening," Thomas had finally said, so quiet it was barely audible above the whispering leaves of the trees outside. "But if there is, I want them to know. I want them to feel responsible."

Nevertheless, the occasional prayer seemed to provide Thomas with a measure of much-needed comfort, and James took care to leave him in peace when he knelt by the bedside.

One evening, Thomas had already retired to the bedroom while James elected to give him space by sweeping the kitchen before following. He lingered in the doorway a moment, unnoticed by Thomas, whose eyes were closed, hands clasped against his forehead with his elbows on the bed.

"And for that I want to give praise today," he finished a thought whose beginning James hadn't heard. "And I don't make it a habit to ask much, because I've learned that none of your blessings come without a price. But as you're all-seeing, I am quite certain you must have noticed that there are things James and I are desiring. Many things, frankly, but most of them I know I will not see in this lifetime. If you could help James with his... affliction, that would be appreciated. It must be a small thing to you, Lord, not too much to ask, and I rather do miss it. So does he, I'm sure."

Thomas went quiet for a moment and James thought he must be picturing his wish, releasing his breath noisily before continuing. James had to curl his lips inward to bite back a laugh. He waited until Thomas had finished before entering the room. Thomas took his outstretched hands and James pulled him to his feet before they changed into their night clothes.

James shifted up onto his elbow once they were in bed.

"Small, is it?"

Thomas made a distracted "hm" sound but kept his eyes fixed on his reading.

"You asked God to make my cock hard," James said bluntly and knew his expression must hover somewhere between amusement and disbelief.

Thomas glanced at him and tutted. "Listening in on a man's private conversation with God is very rude, dear."

"You asked God to make my cock hard," James repeated and Thomas rolled his eyes.

"Considering those endless passages of people begetting each other in the Bible, I suppose God may not have much of an objection to a hard cock. I am merely being pragmatic," he added simply, as if that put the debate to an end.

James pulled the book from his hands and made sure to mark the page before putting it aside. Then he draped himself over Thomas' chest, nose to nose.

"You're a scandalous blasphemer, is what you are."

Thomas flashed a wicked smile at him, and sweet mercy, it still made James' knees weak just as it had the first time. Good thing he was lying down already.

"Let God take it up with me if He sees fit," Thomas replied calmly and kissed the side of James' nose. "And let it be known I am more than willing to do unholy things to you, love."

"Maybe it's all this sinning that's the problem," James quipped.

They both fell silent. Slow fingertips traipsed up James' shoulder as Thomas stared at the point between his brows, rather than his eyes. James felt contrition over his words, given how Thomas already fought to make peace with his faith, and how he had never before seemed to struggle with it as it pertained to his romantic inclinations.

"Rather cruel if there was a God and He only brought us back together to make us live a life of unwanted chastity," Thomas said at length. Then he sighed, and James was cautiously relieved to see the frown give way to a wry smile. "Although I'd hardly call it chaste, the way you fall upon me some mornings."

James shrugged. "If the price of my virility is not touching you, I'd rather not have it," he said firmly. "What good is a hard cock if I can't stick it up the arse of the man I love?"

Thomas kissed James' brow. "You always say the sweetest things, dear."

---

"I'm starving," Thomas said. "I'm starving in front of you, James, I pray for sustenance, and what are you doing to feed me?"

James flinched awake. His shaking hand soothed Thomas' rousing head back to sleep before he himself settled down again. He didn't want Thomas to ask, and Thomas wouldn't; would let James keep his nightmares to himself just as James didn't demand to know what made Thomas startle awake some nights.

Still, while it was so fresh, James didn't want Thomas to even wonder, because it was such a humiliating thing.

I'm starving for you. Feed me. I need your flesh. Stuff my mouth. All the while squirming on his knees, and pawing at James' trousers.

It wasn't even a proper nightmare, more like the sort of bawdy spectacle the whores at Nassau's brothel would occasionally put on, where even Eleanor's death sentence had been turned into an erotic scene to peddle more liquor and sex. The basest of desires made play, with not even a pretense at sophistication or greater purpose.

They weren't words that James could picture Thomas saying, either. Not like that, not like the hungry, mewling spectre of his abhorrent dream. It made James want to go and scrub the inside of his skull, that his mind had conjured this single-minded alien lover when the real Thomas, warm and alive and so infinitely, bafflingly real and complex, was lying right beside him.

Carding fingers through Thomas' sleep-warm hair, James ran his other hand across his own face. It wasn't just embarrassing in its crudeness (feed me, I need you, stuff my mouth), it also betrayed... lowliness. That the rising star of the Navy, the great dread pirate, sacker of cities, enemy of civilisation—was not just unable to produce an erection but also fretting over it as any insecure, aging man might.

James had always enjoyed cerebral pleasures: reading, strategy, stimulating debate. He had also acknowledged his carnal urges: a hard fight, food and drink, a good fuck. He had gone after them when his body demanded it and swiftly set them aside when his needs were met. Of course he had learned to revel more fully in some of these things since Thomas had entered his life, but even so Thomas had elevated the pleasure of shared meals and love-making from the fullfillment of basic need.

Being so utterly unable to sate one of those appetites now was humiliating, and so was the fact that it was the most animal of impulses that he was so shamefully forced to fixate upon. James never told Thomas how much he thought about it. A hard cock was supposed to be a man's pride and yet no great matter at all, utterly unremarkable in how it was just... there, when necessary. That he met neither of those requirements lay heavy as a stone in his stomach.

James sighed and pressed closer to Thomas, whose mouth moved with soft wet noises as he mumbled something wordless in his sleep. James wasn't very surprised to find his lover slightly hard. Everything set Thomas off these days, and on the nights when he didn't wake in a cold sweat it was dreams of all sorts of mundane things, or the closeness of James, or even just the heavy comfort of the bedding, that roused his body to readiness.

With a kiss to Thomas' sleep-smooth brow, James resolved to take care of it in the morning. He could do that much at least.

---

One evening Thomas brought home a book; it was a collection of poetry that he and James had read once in London, and he thought it might be enjoyable to read it again.

Appreciating the verses, however, was not the only thing on his mind. James, as he was wont to do, noticed his distraction.

"Am I reading it the wrong way?" James asked wryly and looked down at Thomas whose head was pillowed against his thigh. "Because with all this shifting and sighing I might be led to believe you're not enjoying it."

Thomas smiled sheepishly and reached up to squeeze James' nose between his thumb and forefinger. He laughed as James' eyes crinkled in fond exasperation.

"Not at all," Thomas said. "Your voice, as ever, is sweeter than the nightingale and more soothing than a mellow brook in summer's heat. As dulcet as if your throat was lined with ambrosia, oh wondrous lover of mine."

James snorted—thanks to the pinching fingers it came out more like the honk of a goose—and batted Thomas' hand away. He set the book aside but marked his place with a thumb.

"Then what could possibly have you so restless?"

"I want your cock in my mouth," Thomas said bluntly.

James blinked. Thomas held his gaze firmly, but he could see James' eyes flickering aside; once, twice, three times.

"We've tried that," James said finally, and the quiet resignation in his voice twisted Thomas' heart. "You would just be wasting your time." His thumb moved to brush over Thomas' bottom lip wistfully. "Wish that I could fuck your mouth."

Thomas shook his head.

"You misunderstand," he said. "I know I can't expect that at the moment. I just... I just want you in my mouth. As you are."

James' brows drew together in confusion. "Limp and useless, you mean?"

Thomas sighed. "Tender," he corrected. "Comfortable. We don't have to, of course. But I should like to—if you're amenable." He shrugged hopefully.

James looked down at him for a long moment, thumbing absentmindedly at Thomas' ear. He still seemed dubious.

"You'd really like that?"

"More than anything," Thomas said firmly.

James hesitated a second longer, then something about his eyes settled.

"How did you imagine this would look? Should we move to the bedroom?"

Thomas shook his head and grasped James' hand in his own. "You don't do anything. You just relax. Read some more of the book to me?"

James still looked puzzled, but all he said was, "Alright."

Thomas smiled and sat up to press a quick kiss to James' mouth before sliding off the couch. He took the pillow that James handed him wordlessly and positioned it under his knees.

"Open up," he said and squeezed James' knees so that they parted for him to move in between.

"You open up," James gave back, tapping Thomas' chin with a knuckle, and Thomas flashed him a wide smile. If James could crack jokes like this, he must have regained some of his good mood.

In the end, Thomas took James' trousers off entirely. He intended for this to take a while, and he wanted them both to be comfortable. It was warm enough, and there was no shortage of blankets in case of a chill.

Thomas regarded James' cock, lying soft in its downy nest of curls. It wasn't particularly long, but the swell of it grew wonderfully thick when aroused. Thomas sighed over it, pressing a soft-lipped kiss to the top. He glanced up at James, who was watching him intently.

"I thought you were going to read to me?" Thomas raised his brows. He expected James to roll his eyes, but he only swallowed heavily and raised the book so he could look at it. Thomas nosed at his length a moment longer before taking it into his mouth.

It was a singular experience, Thomas had to admit. He had never just held a man in his mouth like this, without any intention of sucking him properly. He focused on breathing through his nose. Once in a while he exhaled more forcefully, and could see James' stomach jump beneath the hot puff of air. James was ticklish on the underside of his belly, a fact that never ceased to be embarrassing to him, and endearing to Thomas.

James began reading haltingly, clearly uncertain what to do with all of this, but his voice grew steady before long, though it stayed quiet. Thomas felt the hair at the back of his neck rise at the low rumble of it. Before long they fell into a pleasant rhythm, James reading and smoothing his hand over Thomas' head every once in a while, Thomas gently suspended between his love's voice and the careful rise and fall of his own breath.

Thomas could not have said how much time passed, or how many poems. He was lulled into warm comfort by the gentle weight on his tongue, the smell of warm skin and woollen blankets, and the verses read by a voice that had surely been created to be heard reciting.

After a while, when the light had gone from its afternoon gold to a tint of burnished copper, James' thumb pressed gently into the soft flesh of Thomas' cheek. Thomas remembered that James had always loved feeling the hard curve of his own cock there. Thomas gently pulled James' hand away, putting an end to that futile quest. He laced their fingers together on James' stomach instead.

Soon after, James stopped reading upon reaching the end of a poem. Thomas elected to wait for a moment in lieu of releasing James from his mouth.

"I can't turn the page one-handed," James said finally, moving the book so that his face came back into view, and Thomas huffed through his nose in amusement.

Thomas caught James' eye and pointedly looked down. James nodded. Thomas let him slip from his mouth slowly, making sure to wrap careful fingers around James' length when he had pulled off. The room wasn't cold, but the moist skin would feel sensitive anyway. As he sat back, Thomas let his other hand slide from James' grasp and rubbed it slowly but firmly over James' knee instead.

"How was that?" he asked quietly, unwilling to upset the sunset hush of the room.

Instead of answering, James took his hands and pulled Thomas up beside him, resting a warm, heavy thigh across his legs. He pressed careful kisses to Thomas' mouth, thumbing at his lower lip.

"I'll mark that down as positive, then," Thomas mumbled and kissed the side of James' nose. He felt the nostril flare in an amused huff.

"You have the oddest ideas," James sighed fondly. He ran his hand aimlessly along Thomas' side; he appeared to be turning some matter over in his mind. Finally, he looked at Thomas again. "Why?"

"Because I love every part of you," Thomas said simply and felt the rising heat in James' face so close to his own. "And that isn't dependant on what it can for me. I needed you to know."

Thomas watched James' eyes squeeze shut in emotion, felt that beloved freckled forehead lean against his own as it had so many times before, and relished the exhale that brushed his cheek.

It wasn't until they disentangled themselves from the mess of blankets to go to bed that Thomas realised that he had been hard, and that it had gently disappeared on its own.

---

Thomas asked to repeat their experiment the following week, after giving James enough time to mull over the experience. Thomas felt his cheeks glow as he asked and James was evidently swayed by the sight.

This time James still started out tense, but he relaxed more easily into the sensation. The strain of the day seeped away as the light bled into a cloudy afternoon, storm clouds roiling outside. At some point James stopped reading, but he didn't ask Thomas to leave off—he simply set the book aside and made use of both hands to stroke Thomas' hair.

Then, James nodded at Thomas' lap.

"For how long have you been hard?"

Thomas pulled off and glanced down in surprise. It was true, the front of his breeches was unmistakably bulging.

"A bit, I think."

James smiled.

"Want to do something about it?" he asked with the mischievous air of a schoolboy suggesting something naughty.

Thomas felt a sudden rush of violent affection for James, that he was always so eager to see Thomas satisfied even when his own body denied him the same pleasure. Thomas nodded wordlessly, and met James halfway when he leant down to kiss Thomas, hands coming up to grab at the back of James' head with both hands.

"Easy," James huffed against his lips but Thomas could feel him smile. "If we do this slow enough, we might we able to get you somewhere."

"Mmh." Thomas delayed answering in favour of sucking on James' tongue for a moment. "Get me where, Captain?"

James made a sound that did terrible things to Thomas.

"My breeches?" The higher pitch of James' voice sounded decidedly less suave than before.

"You're not wearing any," Thomas pointed out helpfully.

"All the less work for you."

James kissed him once, twice, thrice more, quick teasing things, before he pulled away despite Thomas' protest. He fished for the oil in the bedside table and crooked a finger at Thomas, reclining with a tilt to his shoulders that was probably meant to be rakish. The effect was somewhat ruined by how he hunched forward, as if his body could not but strain towards Thomas.

Thomas felt his heartbeat thudding in his throat as James guided Thomas' slick fingers between his legs. James' cock was as soft as before, but Thomas was simply grateful that James was asking him to do this to him at all. When pleasuring Thomas these days, which never took much time anyway, James was rather evasive when it came to touches meant to bring himself enjoyment.

James hadn't asked to be fucked until now, given that there would not have been much of a point, what with Thomas' own difficulties. Thomas concentrated as he sought out that spot that—ah, there. James' toes curled reflexively, but he merely ducked his head lower and pressed it into the blankets. One of his hands shot back to pull Thomas away.

"Do it," James grunted and rolled over to shove one of the pillows under his hips, which presented his arse rather nicely to Thomas. Thomas bit his lip sharply to hold his climax at bay—he hadn't managed to draw it out even this long ever since they had been reunited. Thomas stayed James' hand when he made to slick Thomas' cock.

"Not if you want me to actually get inside you," he said hastily. "I wouldn't last. Let me."

James, face pressed into a pillow, watched with one eye as Thomas gave himself two strokes, featherlight, to spread the oil before moving to hover over James.

God, James was tight. They groaned in unison as the head sank in, and Thomas had to pause, one hand braced between James' shoulderblades, to just breathe and think of something unpleasant to calm down. He silently listed politicians he had butted heads with, and stopped after twenty-five. After a few moments of careful stillness, Thomas let himself push further inside, drawing a deep sigh from James, whose head was resting on his crossed arms.

Thomas knew he couldn't last long even with care, feeling the heat of James' skin against him, smelling his hair and his sweat. He managed only two thrusts before James turned his head.

"Thomas, you—"

But Thomas looked down and saw for himself that he had slipped out. It had been more than ten years since he had been inside anyone and he must have pulled out too far without noticing. With an impatient huff, Thomas took himself in hand to put things to rights, tripped over the sensation, and came all over James' arse.

It would have been easier had James not laughed.

It was funny.

It was hilarious.

Even red-faced and humiliated, Thomas couldn't suppress a weak chuckle of his own, which somehow made the thing in his throat stick even more stubbornly.

Before he knew it he had jumped from their nest of blankets and pillows and stood on shaky legs under James' concerned gaze. He felt pathetic, flushed all over, his softening, still-glistening cock bobbing in front of him as if in mockery.

"Thomas—God, I'm so sorry, please—I didn't mean to laugh at you, that was wonderful, I just..." James trailed off and gestured weakly. Thomas rubbed a hand over his face with a groan, which prompted James to sit up straighter. "You did so well, Thomas, I'm sure that if you just give it a little time—"

Thomas grabbed a pillow and flung it as hard as he could across the room. It knocked an unlit candle and a bowl full of dried seeds off a table by the door. The crash and spill was satisfying but didn't truly alleviate his mood.

"I've spent ten years doing nothing but waiting!" He wasn't shouting, but only just. "I'm all waited out! I hate that this is an exercise in patience, that it's like someone telling me—'wait more! Wait harder! You haven't waited enough yet! You haven't learnt your fucking lesson yet! Stop trying to control what's happening to you!'"

Thomas balled his hands into tight fists at his sides. When James rose from the bed and stepped towards him, Thomas wasn't sure whether to back away or fling himself into his arms, and so he stayed rooted to his spot.

"I don't want to fucking wait, James. I want to say what happens with me and when, and I want it now, I want it now!"

James' arms were already open to receive him as Thomas finally did throw himself forward. The smack of skin on sweat-slick skin punctuating Thomas' last words, the sudden solidity of James' chest against his own, the impact of his helpless fist against James' shoulder—they felt like the physical release that he had found but that had never been enough for the past months. James didn't even flinch, just wrapped his hand tightly around Thomas' fist and squeezed until Thomas' knuckles hurt, so utterly reassuring in its strength that Thomas had to take deep gulping breaths.

You can't hurt me, James' hand said. Whatever you bring to me, I can take, it said. We have each of us taken pieces of our hells with us, and whether you need to smother the flames or fan them, you'll never have to do it alone again.

"Yes," James' mouth said.

Thomas dropped his head to James' shoulder and waited until the salt on his cheeks had dried, until his captured hand went tingly from being raised for so long. He wrapped his other arm around James and found his hand slipping in something slick, growing tacky.

He groaned. "I didn't even—I'm sorry, I forgot—let me clean you up, here..."

James stopped his sticky, apologetic hands. "I'll take care of it. You put on your clothes and your shoes."

Thomas' confused look was met with calm determination, and he found himself with no choice but to leave James busying himself by the wash basin while Thomas put on clothes.

James led Thomas out into the heavy press of the evening dark. The storm clouds overhead loitered fat and lazy as cats, rolling leisurely until they would unsheath their lightning claws.

"Where are we going?"

"Somewhere that's not home," was all James said.

Somewhere that's not home turned out to be the sleepy fishing town for whose populace Thomas did paperwork and James acted as a carpenter. The streets were quiet, the windows shuttered. There was light in the inn.

Seated with a mug of ale in front of him, Thomas realised that he had not eaten here since their first days in town, when they had gotten their bearings and found a place to stay. The food was simple, johnny cake and stew and bread and ale, but Thomas ate savouringly. The tastes melted sideways on his tongue. He had grown accustomed to the little habits in how they made their own food, the way James seasoned things, how long he let the stew simmer.

Thomas eyed the sparse clientele, most tables empty. The last time he had eaten in public had been months ago, in this same room. One or two familiar faces nodded at him as they noticed him and he nodded back and returned to his meal.

James was watching him attentively, caught his gaze and held it before he let his eyes slide shut, taking a long draught from his ale. He caught Thomas staring at the column of his throat and smiled knowingly.

In the dark below the table, Thomas felt James' foot slide alongside his own.

He watched James' finger trace the whorls on the tabletop, the tip disappear into James' mouth to suck away a droplet of grease. Thomas wondered what James was playing at, trying—and succeeding—to encourage such private feelings in public like this.

After, James led the way to the shore. Thomas stared at the horizon where the clouds plunged into the dark, heaving sea.

"You could have been a fisherman instead of a carpenter," Thomas said and crouched to trail his fingers through the sand.

"I've spent enough decades at sea. Maybe someday again."

Thomas watched the meagre light dance on the waves. "Why did you bring me here?"

James picked up a broken seashell before he replied.

"A year into my captaincy of the Walrus, I took a ship. I misjudged when to raise the black and the captain of the ship felt cornered, but wouldn't surrender. Besieged him for two days before he blew himself and his men to smithereens, because apparently that was preferable to living and letting me have ship and cargo. To this day, I don't understand why."

James ran his thumb over the jagged edge of the shell. He did it with featherlight delicacy, never in danger of cutting himself, and Thomas shivered, knowing how eagerly those hands could hurt and please.

"I'm watching you backing yourself into a corner," James went on, thumb flicking over and over the shell. "I don't want you to lay siege to yourself. I don't know how to fix this, wish that I did. You know I'd give you the breath from my lungs and the blood from my veins, if it gave you peace. But that's not going to help you, and I thought leaving the ship for a little while might."

Thomas glanced at the land behind them and wished he could be sure no one was watching, so he could kiss James and press him into the warm sand. Instead, he simply stood very close.

"Thank you."

He rolled his lips inward, considered what more he could say, but nothing came forth. Instead he held out his hand and let James carefully, slowly, drag the edge of the broken shell along his open palm. Gooseflesh rose on Thomas' arms and James observed, and didn't speak.

Thunder rumbled in the distance by the time they made their way back home.

As the rising, warm wind breathed up Thomas' sleeves, James tugged him into a copse of trees by the road. Thomas' head spun as he did the first thing that came to mind, which was to bury both hands in James' hair as he was pressed against a tree. It felt like the fullfillment of a secret promise.

"Anyone might come by and see," Thomas hissed, but the dark and the shelter of the shrubs were clearly enough for his body to shrug off any misgivings. He pressed forward against the welcoming heat of James.

"Mh." James cradled one side of Thomas' neck with his broad hand and sucked on the other. "We could go home, of course, whatever you want. Wherever you want. But if you wanted to do something about it now, well, we could, if we were quick about it. I could suck you right here, right now, and no one would ever be the wiser."

Thomas groaned as he realised what James was playing at. James, unconcerned, dropped to his knees.

"Your choice," James said, palming Thomas' swelling cock. "You can have it here or at home or not at all." His eyes grew serious. "I mean it. Not at all is fine. If you don't want to."

And he made to remove his hand, but Thomas grabbed it before it could go anywhere.

"You want it?" There was something incredibly alluring about a man as powerful as James kneeling at Thomas' feet. Thomas might have mused on the subject more had he not been so overcome with sharp want, and frustrated with James' lack of action. "You have to tell me, Thomas. I can't read your mind, you know."

"You can read this," Thomas gasped, pressing his hips forward.

"It's quite dark. I'm not sure I can see—"

"Just suck me."

And James grinned as he leant in to mouth at the skin he revealed with each button he flicked open.

"Quick, remember," he said warningly, mouth a frustrating inch from Thomas' erection. "If you're not done in four minutes, I'll stop. Can't take the risk."

Thomas lasted three.

He thought faintly that it might be nice to come on James' face and went off when the first drops of rain hit his skin. He missed the first stroke of lightning because he was blinded by a brighter flash behind his closed eyelids.

Running through the rain, Thomas held James' hand. No one was going to see, in this weather. He felt featherlight.

When they had stripped out of their soaked clothes in front of the hearth, James pulled Thomas to sit in his lap as they dried, chest to back. The cottage felt very small with the dark sky pressing against the windows and the rain drumming on the roof. Not stifling, just snug.

"Do you remember when you took me for a walk at your country estate?" James mouthed at Thomas' ear. His hands were heavy and restful. "It was autumn and you insisted that with my red hair, no one would see me amidst the leaves. When I put my mouth on you—I'd never seen a man come so quickly, and it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, and it lasted a mere moment."

Thomas didn't know what to say to that, how to say that it wasn't the same at all, but that he understood why James said it, and was grateful. Instead of responding, he smoothed his hands over James' thighs, as if to rub the warmth back into his skin, though it wasn't cold at all.

---

"Has there ever been anyone else?"

James could hear the scratch of Thomas' pen on paper stop, but he didn't look up from the dishes he was washing. He wondered if Thomas had heard him properly, if maybe he could still pretend he hadn't said anything, or that he had only been commenting on the weather. But—

Have you been with someone that wasn't me? Haven't you? What do I want you to say? What right do I have to want anything in that regard?

"No," Thomas said. "There was no opportunity at Bethlem, and you've seen what it was like at the plantation."

No opportunity.

James frowned down at a stubborn stain on the plate in his hands.

"Did you want to?"

Thomas was silent for a long time.

"I don't know," he said finally, and James could hear the careful deliberation of his words. "There was nothing very much to... feed that side of me. There was no pleasure, erotic or otherwise. With you and Miranda gone, with myself the way I was, I was starving for a good meal and knew it would taste like dust. I was parched for wine and knew it would be sour. And yes, I thought of fucking another human being again. The body wants things, and sometimes I wanted, but I was wanting all the time. Whenever I looked at myself, I found myself wanting. And had I gotten what I wished for, it still wouldn't have been what I needed. It would just have reminded me of how it was with you."

Do you still think of how it was with me? James thought. Of how it was when I was capable?

He thought of languorous hours spent fucking leisurely, or raucously, or tearfully.

And a voice, low and needful, curled around his spine, and whispered, I'm starving in front of you, and what are you doing to feed me?

Thomas' voice tore him out of his miserable thoughts.

"What about you? You do hear things, about pirate ships and the way they're run."

James snorted. "It's not like in London," he said. "It was permissible, but I wasn't involved with anyone like that. Sometimes Miranda and I—" He halted, swallowed down the thickness in his throat, began anew. "Sometimes we'd do what we could. It could be good, sometimes. Not the same, though."

"No, I suppose not."

James followed his own thoughts down that abyss, let his head fall forward as he blinked frantically. He hoped Thomas wouldn't notice.

"You've been holding that plate for minutes now."

Thomas' quiet voice sounded right behind James. He'd thought Thomas had resumed writing.

"Looks like," James mumbled.

Thomas pressed himself to his back, slipped his arms under James' and took the plate and cloth from his unresisting hands. James could feel the heat of his breath where Thomas peered over his shoulder to see what he was doing.

James didn't move until Thomas had finished the dishes, and the water in the basin had gone murky.

Thomas took the basin and poured the water out in the garden. James heard the splash and imagined the dark, soaked earth and the things that grew in it.

He took a cloth to dry his hands.

---

"Come here," Thomas said one evening, not long after dinner.

James had been washing the dishes while Thomas sat mending a pair of trousers, having to undo misplaced stitches all the time because he couldn't quite concentrate on the task at hand. James finishing his own work was all the excuse Thomas needed to drop his mending and look at James imploringly.

"You seem eager to get out of your chores," James said dryly, but he leant down to rub the bridge of his nose against Thomas' before letting himself fall heavily onto the settee. He noticed Thomas' restless shifting. "Are you going to tell me what this is about before you give yourself a heart attack?"

James' hair, Thomas had decided, needed a brush.

Thomas had loved the velvet-rough scratch of his shorn head, the way it made him shudder just running his hands over or rubbing his cheek against it, but he also enjoyed getting a good handful again. He was looking forward to the day he could tug it more enthusiastically again—if James still enjoyed that. These days, Thomas approached all past pleasures as possibilites, not certainties.

Still, James' hair was getting long enough to require some grooming, and Thomas had bought a soft-bristled brush in town.

"Do you think me unkempt?" James asked when Thomas removed the brush from its hiding place under one of the many pillows, and presented it to him.

"I think you way too far away, over there."

James grinned at him, toothy but soft around the edges, and let Thomas arrange him how he wanted him, slightly diagonal between his legs, back to chest.

"Are you comfortable like this?"

James merely made a quiet sound of assent in response.

It was so easy, all of it. James' warm weight holding Thomas in place, pressing against his thighs. The slow glide of the brush through James' growing hair. The soft exhales that left James' mouth whenever the bristles dragged over the shell of his ear. Thomas felt himself fall into the rhythm of it, the pull of bristle on hair, the lift and replacement for the next stroke.

At first Thomas murmured the occasional question, inquiring after James' comfort or breathing soft nothings, but soon he grew so quiet the crackle of the flames drowned him out, and he let it go then.

Stroke, lift. Stroke, lift. Stroke, lift.

He felt James growing heavier and looser against him, releasing what hesitant tension he had still been holding. Thomas grew aware of every breath that tried to push his ribcage further against James' back, the slow expansion of James' chest before him.

Thomas wanted to ask, Is this good? And, Do you want me to be more careful? And, Is the brush too soft, too hard? How can I give you comfort, love? But he asked none of these things because the answer was self-evident in James' quiet open-mouthed sighs, in the slow rub of his palm over Thomas' knee.

With his mind drifting placid and warm, Thomas' hand slipped; the bristles dragged down past the tips of James' hair along the side of his neck. James twitched.

"I'm sorry," Thomas hastened to say, but was stopped by a swift, gentle hand on his own when he moved to pull the brush away from James' skin. He looked up and caught James' eyes. James' cheeks were growing hot; pupils wide and wanting.

James blinked and lowered his eyes.

"It's fine," he mumbled, pressing Thomas' hand that was holding the brush.

Thomas paused. He very carefully skimmed the bristles over James' skin. James made a bitten-off noise that, while not quite a moan, was definitely born of pleasure. Thomas caught James' eye. Finding what we was looking for, he nodded to himself.

"Let's get you out of these clothes, darling."

It didn't take long at all to peel James' shirt off. Thomas was delighted to see the pebbled peaks of his nipples and just barely resisted flicking his thumb over one. Trousers, small clothes, socks, they all had to go. Thomas laid James out on his back amidst the mess of pillows and blankets on the settle.

"Alright?"

James just nodded.

As he began pulling the brush along James' shoulders, lightly, lightly, Thomas mentally ran through what might disturb his lover's comfort—but no, all windows were closed against draughts or chills, the fire had enough fuel, there were plenty of blankets on hand should James get cold, and the bundles of dried herbs dangling from the ceiling filled the air with their aroma. The burning candles spread honey-scented comfort.

Thomas turned his attention fully to the task at hand.

At first Thomas used the brush so lightly the bristles didn't even touch James' skin, merely dragged at the fine red hair dusting his chest, his lower arms. It was enough to bring on gooseflesh and Thomas had to smile. He moved on to the trail of hair leading from navel to groin and lingered a moment on the wiry growth at its end; but he didn't want to single that area out and continued down James' thighs.

When Thomas finally doled out proper strokes, still gentle but now in contact with James' skin, James began to sigh. Thomas watched his face. The glimpse of teeth just behind the tiny gap between pink lips, the eyes moving beneath closed lids, the flare of those oft-kissed nostrils with every heavier inhale. The tension eased out of James' hands—instead of lying self-consciously flat they curled and uncurled in the blankets, as easy as his pulse or his breath.

Thomas wanted to tell James how beautiful he was, what it twisted inside him to see James so genuinely at ease for the first time in what seemed like forever, as if ice had melted that Thomas hadn't even seen before. He wanted to kiss James' open, open mouth, lay his temple against James' to feel the beating of his blood, wanted to do—oh!—so many things to tell him how loved he was.

He did none of these things. Instead Thomas slowly worked his way up James' body again, allowing him to focus on nothing but this singular sensation. He forbade himself from disrupting that gentle acceptance.

When he reached James' head, Thomas returned to brushing his hair for a while. It felt like neutral ground, pleasurable but nothing out of the ordinary, and he wanted James to have the time to fully process what was happening.

James' eyes had cracked open. Thomas caught his glance, willed him to know, and let it slip away like a blown kiss.

Thomas glanced down again. He saw that James' hand had inched slowly towards his groin; and his heart twisted in gratitude as he saw that what rested in the soft nest of James' russet curls was stirred to greater restlessness than he had seen it since London. Still tender and mostly soft, but there was a gentle rise to it, and it twitched ever so faintly as James noticed the sudden scrutiny Thomas bestowed upon it.

"Yes?"

James didn't answer, just glanced down at himself, and smoothed the supple skin between two fingers along the top of his gently curving cock.

Thomas watched, mesmerized and eager to learn, how James' hand moved on his half-flaccid cock. It started out with nothing but careful, long strokes with flat fingers over the top, almost as one might pet an animal, mindful not to go against the grain of the fur. Root to tip, root to tip. It took a while before James' hand wrapped more confidently around his length, though he was still almost entirely soft.

Short, focused tugs brought forth dribbles of clear liquid. Thomas felt half-starved at the thought of bending down to lick it from James' thick-knuckled fingers, to suck more from the tip, but he banished the thought from his immediate attention; this was not about his gratification.

James' jaw had opened further, allowing tantalising glimpses of the wet, dark depths behind his teeth, and Thomas wanted badly to fill them with his own love-lorn sighs, but he dragged his focus back to James' hand.

Thomas suddenly realised what it was that had his heart so pained even in its joy ever since he had watched James lay careful fingers upon himself. It was the unbearable sweetness of the touch.

James was rarely anything but tender with Thomas. Even in their most raucous love-making there had always been an underlying care with which he had left bruises on Thomas' skin, as if physically incapable of being truly rough with him, no matter how Thomas assured him that it might be welcome at times.

He grew aware that even in London, he had never seen James touch himself with such tenderness.

And then he grew aware that James' head was inclined gently towards him. His eyes were closed, relaxing and squeezing by turns, but he still tilted towards Thomas as a seedling to the light. Thomas pressed his forehead to James', feeling sweat and burning skin where they touched. He didn't say anything, just shared his breath.

I wish you always loved yourself as much as I love you, Thomas thought.

Long, slow minutes passed before Thomas spoke.

"Is there anything I can do?"

The look James gave him through the cracks between his lids was painfully full of yearning and empty of coherent suggestion. Thomas wasn't sure if he dared touch James without ruining things, without knowing what it was he needed, but he laid a grounding hand on James' thigh, which James welcomed with a sigh.

Leaving it there, Thomas simply pressed warm, encouraging kisses to the sides of James' neck and face. James had begun thumbing at the tip of his cock, still drooping, but weeping continuously where the foreskin was pulled over and over the thick head.

James' open-mouthed panting had turned into groans that Thomas could feel rumble in his chest and that pitched at increasing intervals into high keens; ascending to a cliff's edge he could never quite seem to reach. Where the friction between wrist and belly still whispered paper-like as dry skin was wont to, his hand was making the quiet, slick noises of a sticky body chasing selfish pleasure. His other hand found Thomas' on his thigh and Thomas held fast.

He thought James must be close, but he wasn't sure—he hadn't—well, Thomas had never been in this particular situation and wasn't quite sure where it led. If it led anywhere specific at all. James didn't seem to be getting any harder, but he had clearly made some sort of progress going by the greater heaving of his chest, by how his hips had begun pressing forward into his now-certain hand.

And James' eyes were squeezed shut again, and it was this that finally brought tears to Thomas' own—to see his lover so entirely focused on his own satisfaction that he forewent shame over his supposed failures.

Thomas' tears mingled with sweat where they fell onto James' cheek and Thomas couldn't tell if that was what set him off, if the sudden flare of James' nostrils and the harsh, gulping breaths that followed were prompted by the fragrant salt of Thomas' helpless adoration. What he knew for sure was that he couldn't take his eyes off the milky spill of James' cock. The angle at which James held it meant that his seed landed not on his stomach, but his thighs, where it followed the curve of the giving flesh, down, down into the shadow between his legs.

When James had spent himself and the spurts were reduced to the last thick drops, squeezed carefully from the tip, Thomas watched his face, watched his lungs working like bellows in that powerful chest.

James' breathing slowed until it was just heavier than usual. His hand still squeezed Thomas' so hard Thomas' knuckles were painfully pressed together, but the discomfort was barely noticable and ceased when James loosened his grip and looked with heavy-lidded eyes at Thomas. Thomas wasn't sure how to react, whether praise would bring on embarrassment or pleasure, but his covetous glances seemed to speak well enough. James raised his sticky hand and Thomas received the fingers with eyes closed in gratitude. Salt and bitterness mingled on his tongue. Eventually the fingers slipped from his mouth, dragged twin streaks of wetness along his cheek and slid into his hair.

Thomas wasn't sure what to say and said nothing.

Finally, an exhausted smile spread across James' face. It slipped between Thomas' ribs like the finest of blades, so thin he barely felt it until his heart's blood spilled out of him. James must have noticed, and patted Thomas' cheek tenderly.

"What's all this?" His voice was rough and warm and it touched Thomas all over, like a cat's tongue. "What are you crying about, you silly man? Did I make for such a pathetic picture?"

And James' voice was low and affectionate and teasing, but Thomas could detect the edge underneath, the unspoken concern that it had been pathetic. A sad aging man pulling on his sad soft cock, Thomas could almost hear him say. It made him furious with indignation and with love.

"Not at all," he said. "I'm so glad, James. You did so well."

James ducked his head beneath Thomas' jaw.

---

Though encouraged by achieving climax recently, James didn't quite ask Thomas for a repeat. Instead Thomas found the brush laid out on their bed the next night, and was happy to oblige.

James stayed soft.

"You did so well yesterday," Thomas reminded him. "Don't worry about it, I'm sure it'll sort itself out."

James lowered his eyes, though he looked aside, not down at where his cock lay unresponsive between his legs.

"What use is this if I can't even get properly hard, at least long enough for you to enjoy it too?"

"What use—James, your body is not just a tool for my benefit, you... That's the problem, isn't it?"

James smoothed his hand over his own thigh, again, again.

"Before meeting you I lived without real purpose. I meant to improve myself, climbed the ranks, but there was no greater impetus behind it. Nothing that sustained me when I wasn't James McGraw, the lieutenant. James McGraw, the private man, was... adrift." His eyes turned to Thomas, oddly nervous and certain at the same time. "Then we met and things changed. And for ten years, that purpose has been you. I don't mean to change that now."

James refused to meet his eyes and Thomas' heart clenched.

I wish you always loved yourself as much as I love you, Thomas thought again.

"I wish you always loved yourself as much as I love you," he said aloud.

Whatever James had expected, it had obviously not been this. His eyes darted, his hands twitched, and finally he pulled Thomas up onto the settee with him and buried his face in Thomas' neck.

Thomas felt wet heat on his skin and wrapped his arms tightly around James' head and sighed confessions into his hair.

---

The third time it was James himself who inquired if Thomas might feel like taking him in his mouth again. He was unable to hold Thomas' gaze as he asked, but Thomas felt his heart swell, and complied eagerly.

It was good, even though James managed not even the most modest of erections.

James had turned up in dire need of homely comforts after a long day's hard work and bad weather. Thomas arranged them in bed and held James in his mouth until they both dozed off, soft as a sigh, between one blink and the next. Thomas woke in the morning with James' thigh haphazardly thrown over his head and James' cock flopped over his nose, and feeling peacefully content as he couldn't remember being in a decade.

---

"The wind is getting chillier."

The observation left Thomas' mouth on a sigh and James turned from his cooking to look at him across the room.

"It's not going to get properly cold around here," he said.

Thomas took a contemplative sip from his tea.

"Still colder than the Bahamas, I wager." A mischievous glint flashed in his eye. "I'll have to make sure to keep you properly warm, make sure you don't freeze to death overnight, what with all that tropical sun spoiling you for years."

James snorted. "A little less sunburn isn't that bad of a thing."

Thomas' eyes followed James' fingers as they prepared a glaze. A proper roast, even if it was only Saturday. Knowing Thomas' sweet tooth, James dipped a spoon into the honey and leant across the table to hold it out to him. James felt himself grow warmer at the sight of this kindest of invasions into Thomas' eager mouth.

There was an odd set about Thomas' eyes when he sat back, licking his sticky lips. James wasn't sure how to interpret it, but it was vulnerable, like an egg whose shell had started to crack. He let it go unremarked and watched Thomas with even more attention than usual.

While they waited for the food to be done cooking they settled in a mess of blankets and pillows pulled from the settee to the floor. Thomas lay with one foot on the bare floorboards, the other on a rug, and steadily rubbed the soles of his feet over the different textures. He always basked in these little things, but especially so today. Maybe there was some need for comfort following the realisation that the lazy lingering warmth of early autumn wasn't going to last forever, even if it wouldn't get cold as such. James thought maybe he should lay Thomas out on the bed later to rub some of those scented oils into his skin. He'd have to wash the sheets again after; but the way Thomas went boneless and content everytime was more than justification enough.

James was shaken out of these thoughts when Thomas took his hand and pulled it to his nose. His fingers, James knew, were still a little sticky from the basting, and redolent of spices and honey. He expected the swipe of Thomas' tongue on his skin, but instead Thomas just held James' hand in place and breathed the remnants of preparation, the promise of being sated soon.

"Don't stick it up your nose," James said. "The pepper burns."

And Thomas laughed, and kept laughing until he cried, and then he kept crying.

James felt like the ground had dropped away beneath him.

"What's wrong? God, Thomas, I—talk to me, please—"

Thomas needed another moment to compose himself before he answered.

"It's so much."

James' brows drew together. "If you need space—"

"No," Thomas interrupted. "No, not you. I mean, yes, you, but that's not..." He trailed off and pressed his forehead to James' wrist, which he was clutching with both hands. His knees had pulled up to curl his body into itself protectively. "All of it. Life was barren for years, I was barren, everything turned to ashes in my mouth, to dust before my eyes. I felt like I was meant to never enjoy a thing again. And now it's all..."

"Much," James said.

"Yes." Thomas heaved a shuddering sigh. "The burn of liquor, the softness of a rug, the scent of the jasmine, you. It's wonderful, it's more than I ever hoped to know again, but I feel... humbled. I feel the need to fall to my knees and give thanks for every good thing that comes to me, and it feels as if I shall never be able to express my gratitude enough for what I have been given, and... It becomes overwhelming. I'm unmanned by the blessings bestowed upon me."

"Bloody stupid is what you are."

Thomas made a choked-off sound and James took his chin firmly in hand.

"You shouldn't have to feel indebted for finally receiving what should have been yours all along," James said, willing Thomas not to look away. He didn't. "You've bought this with more than anyone should ever pay for a simple, good life. It's yours by right. It's all yours. Take it with both hands, have it, and don't ever question whether you've done enough to give thanks. You've given too much."

James could see Thomas' features working through slow, complicated things, like the shifting of waves indicating the deep currents beneath. James let him, quietly wondering whether he had said too little, but he didn't know what to add other than a reassuring squeeze of Thomas' hand.

"Yes," was all Thomas said, finally. He glanced over at the hearth.

James declared dinner done, and Thomas laid plates out on the floor. They sat in constant motion, never quite settled—sitting hunched one moment, lying on their sides or stomachs the next, holding out morsels for each other to taste, getting crumbs on the blankets and passing the remnants of rich flavours back and forth in unhurried kisses.

"What about dessert?" Thomas asked, stretching languidly amidst the mess of pillows and dishes.

"Aren't you full?" James licked grease from his thumb.

"Never. And you said whatever I want is mine."

"I'm certain I didn't phrase it quite like that. Close your eyes."

James fetched the honey and let Thomas take his fingers in his mouth after dipping them in the jar.

---

"I'll be..." Thomas gestured at the bedroom door.

"Join you in a bit," James said and set aside the book he had been trying unsuccessfully to mend. It had taken an unfortunate fall and the cover had partially separated from the binding. He gave it another apologetic look—damaged books were a painful sight, to him as well as Thomas, but James had seen volumes in worse condition while raiding captain's cabins for them.

He moved his things to a shelf and grimaced at the pop of his joints when he stretched. His joints had always done that, but he imagined that it sounded particularly loud these days.

Dismissing the thought, James followed Thomas.

Thomas was praying.

James stood, indecisive, in the doorway for a minute. Then he padded over in silent, stockinged feet and knelt, folding his hands but resting them on the bed instead of against his forehead like Thomas. Realising what was happening Thomas faltered in his appeals, saw James wordlessly nod at him and resumed.

There was no God, James had long ago decided, or not much of one he cared to know. Just about everything could be explained by either nature, or the many forms of human cruelty and kindness.

He wasn't sure he liked all this kneeling and bowing of heads either.

Thomas' voice was low and lovely beside him. James allowed himself to be carried along on its rise and fall. It washed straight through him, like calm waves throwing froth across a shallow cove. He recogised bits and pieces, Thomas recounting small things from their day—James couldn't quite make out the pattern, why Thomas mentioned the well-oiled hinges of the door that had worked as well as they did every day, and the dog that had stolen his apple in town, Mrs Catsmith's advice on taking care of the beetles trying to eat their cabbages, and the book that had taken its unfortunate plunge. Thomas kept mentioning James, too. It was always we, us, ours. And when it wasn't, it was him. As if Thomas mentioned James often enough that bringing up his name in a conversation with God was superfluent.

James' fingers, interlaced on the coverlet, twitched.

"And for that I give thanks today," Thomas concluded beside him. James thought there must be some more formal closure, perhaps the pater noster to be recited, but it also filled him with pride how fearlessly his lover spoke to God.

Lucky Him, to have Thomas' attention when Thomas has an entire mortal world to pay attention to.

There was a moment of silence before James realised that Thomas was really quite finished, and waiting for him to say something. He probably thought it rude to rise without letting James speak.

James said the only thing he could think of.

"Make my cock hard." And after a brief pause, feeling that a modicum of courtesy might help, he added, "Please."

Thomas made a valiant effort to stifle his laughter and failed miserably. James unclasped his hands and then he unclasped Thomas' and pinned them to the bed instead on either side of him, kneeling between Thomas' legs.

"It's very rude to laugh at a man's private conversation with God," he mocked and pressed his thumbs into Thomas' palms, where he knew Thomas was ticklish. Thomas squirmed, panting something that sounded faintly like "unfair" before he stilled again, fingers curling and uncurling around James' determined thumbs.

"I'd hardly call it private if you join the conversation I had already begun."

James laughed.

Thomas shifted his weight back against the side of the bed more fully and used the new position to wrap a leg around James' hips. How he managed not to topple sideways, James wasn't sure.

"So," Thomas said, rubbing lazily against James. "Has your wish been granted yet?"

James felt pleasure coursing unhurriedly through his veins. Even if he didn't manage to get hard, it didn't stop him from enjoying the closeness, the tease and the play. He took a moment to assess his own state. Not the slightest twitch.

Something flitted across Thomas' face, obviously coming to the same realisation and feeling regret for having asked, given the sore spot it was. James saw him closing off, saw him set aside the ease of the taunt quickly, and James didn't like it one bit.

"It was worth the attempt," he said simply and let go of one of Thomas' hands to grab his arse instead, both to steady him and to pull them closer together. Thomas made a noise in his throat and resumed the movement of his hips, rutting forward with more purpose this time. "How do you feel about this? Would you like some of this?"

James had been more careful to ask Thomas his opinions of late—not that he hadn't before, he had never wanted less than enthusiastic participation from their coupling, but he said it out loud more often now. Do you want this, would you like this, are you ready to move on with this. Anything that would allow Thomas to finish with the sense that he had actively decided to.

Once, Thomas had shaken his head violently, had felt overwhelmed by what was going on. They had ended up curled up next to each other, connected only by their intertwined hands, and Thomas had fallen asleep still half-hard. They'd woken tangled in each other.

Tonight, Thomas nodded frantically.

James felt rather smug when Thomas spent himself untouched in his breeches not two minutes later, pressing gasping little kisses to James' neck all the while.

"Well," James said once he had flung Thomas' soiled clothes in the direction of the door. "Unsuccessful heavenly pleas aside, I dare admit that seeing you on your knees does have its appeal."

Thomas pinched his toe.

It was later, when James was in only his nightshirt and barely awake, that Thomas stirred beside him.

"You know I don't care," he said, low and earnest in the dark. "Don't you? If you can't—I want you to, of course, I do. I do care. But were we for some reason prevented from ever lying together again, it would make no difference to my feelings. There's nothing your flesh could provide that your love doesn't provide in greater measure."

James wasn't surprised to hear himself say, "I know."

He was surprised to realise he believed it.

---

The next morning, James sighed into Thomas' hair and shifted against him. The friction of their lazy bodies on a Sunday morning was a treat James had never resisted indulging in. Even without the sexual aspect, he and Thomas loved the slow rub of fabric between their skins, the aimless shift that enticed but didn't have to lead to more, though it often did. He dozed off again for a while.

When James drifted awake once more it was to the realisation that his spine was still curling and uncurling slowly, dragging his hips over and over the sheets. Each repetition pulled muted pleasure along his nerves. He continued for some minutes before his mind caught up to his body, and his honey-thick thoughts stuttered to a halt.

Moving carefully, as if not to startle it away, James rolled his hips to the side far enough to look down at himself.

He went very still.

Squeezed his eyes shut. Looked again.

Sticking out from beneath his rumpled nightshirt, stiff and heavy with blood, was his cock.

When his mind had stopped reeling, James darted a glance at Thomas. He was fast asleep, bent slightly towards James.

The thought sprang to mind to wake Thomas immediately, to share the joyous discovery with him.

To put his body to use.

After a moment's consideration James turned his attention downwards again and took himself carefully in hand. A good handful. More than a handful, really. He gave it a squeeze, noted the slick this brought from the tip. James dragged his fingertips back up until they cradled the plump head, and slipped them over and over the ridge where it rose from the shaft.

He hadn't much thought about how the veins quite disappeared from sight when not aroused. He traced the thickest with his thumb, trailing moisture along the length. He gave himself a few long, slow pumps.

It wasn't that James hadn't appreciated it before now, for obvious reasons, but he thought for the first time that out of the number of cocks he had encountered in his life, his own wasn't quite bad. It fit his hand nicely. It had a tendency to ooze rather a lot, which James reflected wasn't always the case, and which he did like. Its girth and modest upward curve were pleasing enough. He enjoyed how it felt to pull the foreskin up and over the head. In fact, it felt fantastic. He did it a few more times for good measure, feeling his buttocks clench in response, trying to press himself further into his own hand.

Supported on one elbow, hunched somewhat awkwardly, James considered his erection and thought for the first time that it was... rather good.

The thought was somehow both startling and unsurprising, as if he had tapped himself on the shoulder for attention.

He glanced up at Thomas' lowered lashes, his loosely-curled fingers. The open mouth.

His cock jumped in his hand.

There was enough of the Navy man left in James for him to know when to take an order.

Thomas mumbled when James nudged his shoulder, but didn't react further. James gently shoved again until Thomas rolled onto his back and James could straddle his chest.

Thomas tilted his face to be kissed—he was used by now to James' early-morning eagerness to see him provided for in matters of the flesh, and it seemed the flesh was wanting some providing indeed. It usually did. To be fair, James was always pointedly encouraging it.

A frown creased Thomas' brow when no kisses came forth, and instead James' crooked finger tilted his chin up.

"James, what—"

But Thomas fell silent when he saw what. James was indescribably charmed by his sleep-drunk confusion that resolved into a slightly cross-eyed squint at what was presented so proudly to him. He blinked the haze from his eyes and James couldn't suppress a smile at the way Thomas' gaze kept darting between his face and his groin.

Thomas' tongue wetted his lips. Blue eyes, grey in the warm dawn light, asked silent permission before Thomas reached up. He drew the head of James' cock down with a fingertip and watched it bob up and down when he let go. James snorted and Thomas did it again.

"Rude," James said through his grin and twisted his hips to send his erection wagging left and right. A delighted laugh left Thomas' mouth and it struck James what a silly thing a cock was, how ridiculously it bounced even when fully stiff.

"Careful," Thomas said. "You might take an eye out with that thing."

James pressed a hand over his face to try and stifle his laughter, until he remembered he didn't have to.

Thomas made pleading eyes and James took himself in hand to offer, but Thomas tilted his head away. James would have been wounded if not for Thomas' hasty words.

"No—no, James, please—won't you stand for me, love?"

James thought Thomas should have known by now he could never deny him, but by way of an answer he merely drew Thomas up by his hands. Thomas pressed a kiss to his mouth before he knelt.

"It's so big," he sighed and rubbed the shaft pointedly with both hands. James' knees twitched beneath him. "Has it always been this big? This seems like quite a challenge, dear, I wonder if I'll be up to it."

James tilted his brow at Thomas' ridiculous teasing.

"I have full confidence you're already up to it." He glanced meaningfully at Thomas' own hardness and Thomas smiled blindingly and kept smiling as he took the tip of James' cock in his mouth.

James' hand found its way to the back of his head immediately, the other clutching at Thomas' shoulder. They were firm but didn't push Thomas closer, ready to release him at a moment's notice.

Retreat seemed to be the last thing on Thomas' mind as he breathed a row of kisses along the shaft, minding the hopeful forward press of James' hips.

And as he watched Thomas' eyes fall close in quiet rapture, James understood the need for him to be on his knees. Something in James' stomach tightened as he recognised the prayerful calm in Thomas.

James slipped a thumb behind Thomas' ear and circled. It was a favourite spot and Thomas' mouth fell open as he basked in the feeling. James' cock dropped from his lips, trailing a string of saliva over his chin. James couldn't help but think of watching his own release fall in warm streaks across Thomas' face.

Thomas ducked down to cover the head all over with brief licks. He had sucked away all the wetness, but James was already leaking again. It left glistening trails on Thomas' face as he nuzzled James' cock, rubbing his cheek against it when it fell from his mouth, kissing his way down the length to suckle near the base, trailing his tongue back up to the head. The room was hushed but for the wet noises of Thomas' mouth and the wanton moans that rose from his throat. James' eyes threatened to close at the pleasure, but he kept them wide open to watch.

Staring down at Thomas, kneeling at his feet to lavish devotion on him, James felt his head spin. He had reached a point, he thought, where he was less easily unsettled by these things, where he measured himself less by them. But if his lack of an erection had unmanned him before, Thomas' pious earnestness, the grateful stretch of his hungry mouth around James' cock, threatened to do the same.

Thomas looked up through his lashes—a sight that turned James' knees to jelly—angled his head and stilled before reaching for James' hand. It took a moment for James to understand, then he inhaled sharply when Thomas pressed James' fingertips to his cheek, letting him feel the curve of his cock through the flesh.

James kept his hand where it was, twined the other in Thomas' hair again and, after asking permission with his eyes, began rolling his hips forward. The sounds Thomas made were obscene.

For a second James was overwhelmed by the thought of coming in Thomas' mouth, of watching Thomas receive it like benediction.

Teetering on the precipice of orgasm, he tugged on Thomas' hair, getting him to pull off.

"Don't you want to...?" Thomas began, indicating his mouth.

"Don't you want to...?" James said at the same time, tilting his chin at the bed.

They laughed, and James' cock bumped into Thomas' chin, and once James had pulled Thomas up by his hands they toppled back into bed together, not bothering to drag the sheets back up from the floor. The foot end was piled with plenty more blankets. Their feet tangled in the fabric and in each other as they rolled aimlessly around, unable to release each other from their arms, and James thought not for the first time how wonderfully strong Thomas was. He also thought that Thomas was still hard, even after all this. He didn't mention it. Thomas pulled James' shirt over his head.

"So." James laid a hand on Thomas' arse, careful not to squeeze. He didn't want to startle Thomas' orgasm out of him before he was ready. "Do you want to?"

Instead of answering Thomas dragged himself across the bed to fumble for the oil in the bedside drawer. It smelled of something from their garden, generously diluted to be sure. As he inhaled the scent, James' mind immediately offered memories of long dark hours of them rubbing the oil into each others' skins, of Thomas collecting blossoms, of watching him strain the oils, long fingers deft and slick and fragrant.

"I'll do it," Thomas said when James reached for the bottle. "Just so I won't..."

James nodded. He wasn't sure if his fingers weren't too clumsy with eagerness not to do too much. He watched Thomas kneel over him. It had to be less comfortable than reclining to do it, and that was probably the point. It certainly offered James an enticing view.

Before long Thomas was sighing while bearing down on his hand and the slide of his slick fingers in the grasp of his own flesh set James to groaning. Thomas, noticing, smiled at him, but there was an edge of frustration to his eyes.

"What's wrong?" James moved up onto an elbow but refrained from touching Thomas for now.

"A bit much." Thomas bit his lip, face scrunched in an expression of desperate arousal. "I don't—I don't want to—"

He pulled his fingers out with a frustrated sob and a filthy sound that made James' cock blurt a string of slick onto his stomach.

It was the hardest thing James had ever done not to put his hands on his lover to offer comfort. He offered an upturned palm instead, which Thomas took after a moment. James' heart jumped at how warm and slippery Thomas' fingers still were, squeezing around his own.

"Thomas." James waited for Thomas to return his gaze. "You always liked taking it once you'd finished, do you remember?" Thomas moaned and nodded so hard James could feel the motion reverberate all the way down his body to where he perched on James' stomach. "How do you feel about—if you decided to come soon, we might... just carry on? When you're all sensitive and wrung-out and..."

He trailed off, hoping that the filthy pictures his words had put in his own mind had a similar effect on Thomas.

"Yes," Thomas said then. "Yes, let's do that."

It took another few minutes for Thomas to decide that they could proceed, but then he rose to his knees with a determined set to his face. James wanted to watch his expression, wanted to monitor what was happening, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from his own cock where Thomas guided it into his body. The initial resistance, the sudden give of the muscle, how the blunt head slipped inside. How Thomas was snug and welcoming around him, the tight furl of his entrance drawn wide to accomodate James' girth.

It struck James like a blow to the head: that he hadn't been inside another man for a decade; that he hadn't experienced this sort of all-consuming pleasure at all. The mind-numbing realisation of how shamelessly wonderful this act could be when performed with this unabashed focus, back when Thomas had shown him in London that there was more than a tug or a quick upright in some back-alley to be had between two men. It wasn't that it was the sole pinnacle of sexual pleasures, but the way it was transgressive and intimate, and illicit in the eyes of those who'd hurt them, heightened the thrill immeasurably.

Sliding into Thomas felt like new and like home.

Thomas twisted and sighed on top of him, hands braced on James' heaving chest. When he caught James staring at him adoringly he grinned and pulled his shoulders back, trying to make a prettier picture. James thought there was no need.

"I take it you're not feeling too challenged, then?"

Thomas laughed in delight before he lowered his lashes coquettishly.

"I'm just about managing," he assured James with the earnestness of one accomplishing a very hard thing indeed, and he ground down in a slow, deliberate circle that had James' toes curling. "God, it's big. I have to say, I haven't had such a nice cock in oh, a decade?"

A brief flash of uncertainty went through James before he relaxed into the good-natured tease it had been intended to be. He pushed his hips up without much force behind it, but Thomas gasped anyway.

"What, this old thing?" James raised a brow.

Thomas' face twisted deliciously. "Mh, there's something to be said for an experienced man."

"Even if the novelty has worn off?"

"Has it?" Thomas snickered. "I've never been fucked by a pirate before. Although I'm not quite convinced yet, I don't feel particularly plundered. What's this huge cannon for, then?"

James groaned at the terrible joke, then shifted upright to better let gravity pull Thomas down onto his cock as he set a rhythm. It had been so long, but some careful shifting—guided by Thomas' vocal responses—helped James find the right angle. His palms were sweating and they slipped and caught by turns on Thomas' heated skin.

They fell silent for a bit, Thomas' quips dissolving into sighs and gasps and James concentrating on the sensation of dragging his swollen cock through the gripping heat of Thomas' body. He tried to make it good without hitting the more intense places too much, leaving space for Thomas to decide when. He could tell that Thomas was close, taut as a bowstring. James was impressed he had lasted this long at all.

"Mmh." Thomas bit his lip, brows drawn together. "I think—now, I want to...?"

"Yes," James gasped, suddenly overwhelmed by his own desire to see Thomas finish. He let himself fall back and Thomas looked at him, puzzled. "Go on," James said. "Take it, if you want it."

Realisation crossed Thomas' face, followed by eagerness, and he guided James' hands to his hips before he began riding James firmly, though not quickly, eyes drifting shut. James kneaded gently at his thighs.

"Nearly there?" he asked, making his voice as breezy as possible.

Thomas whined and looked down at James. "I want you to—"

He couldn't finish the request, but his nails in James' wrists rather spoke for themselves. James braced his feet on the bed and thrust up, not quite getting the angle right on the first try—he did it again, and the next thing he knew was Thomas' flailing hand smacking him in the chest with a resounding slap.

James' arms broke into gooseflesh at the sound Thomas made, a sound low in his throat that broke into keening through his nose. James wondered how he managed to even observe all this, distracted as he was by the harsh squeeze of Thomas' body around him and the sensation of his warm, wet release between their bellies. Shaken by the thought that this was all it had taken, that his cock had been all it needed to do this, it was all James could do not to be swept along as well, holding onto his promise to draw it out longer.

Thomas was panting harshly into James' sternum, sprawled over his chest like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and James wiped a thumb over the sweat beading his brow. Thomas pressed his face into James' palm and they stayed like that a moment.

Then, Thomas heaved a shuddering sigh.

"I think that was the first time it didn't... didn't feel like falling," he mumbled into James' skin. "In a long time."

James smoothed his thumb over Thomas' cheek. "What did it feel like?"

"Like jumping."

James didn't know how to say in words how proud and awfully in love he was, so he simply kept petting Thomas. When he pulled a blanket over them to prevent Thomas' damp skin from cooling too much, Thomas squirmed above him.

"You promised we'd keep going."

"Hm, I did, didn't I?" James punctuated his words with a gentle thrust. Thomas yelped.

James slid his spread-fingered hand down Thomas' spine, into the gathering heat beneath the blanket. Without thinking he continued down to feel the swell of himself where he stretched Thomas wide. Thomas groaned and pushed back against James' cock and fingers both, and James thought that maybe they should revisit that idea in the future. For now, he simply rubbed the pads of his first and second fingers along Thomas' rim.

"Oh," Thomas made. "Yes, James, oh."

James felt suddenly and violently compelled to roll them over, to get Thomas beneath him and pin his hands to the bed beside his head, thumbs pushing hard into Thomas' palms. Thomas' legs were around him in an instant.

His own weight helped James thrust down and he was rewarded with Thomas twisting, overstimulated and overheated, under him. Encouraged, James pulled out further and pushed in harder, and the impact sent the bedframe knocking into the wall with a loud thud.

They stilled, staring at each other.

Then Thomas grinned, so wide and blinding James couldn't help but grin back, and he gasped when Thomas tightened around him as they laughed, sweaty and dazed, belly to quivering belly.

They'd been intimate all this time, but James couldn't remember the last time force had been a part of how their bodies loved each other.

"Do that again," Thomas said.

James couldn't take his eyes off Thomas' as he resumed his thrusts. Where before he had been focused, he suddenly felt wild and joyous, letting his body rut forward how it wanted. He was spurred on by the slap of their sweat-slick skins, the rhythmic knocking of the bed against the wall; and James thought that there was no one to hear them, that there was no shame to be found in this house, and he fucked into Thomas with hearty abandon.

It felt like conquest and like concord.

Thomas was scrambling to get his arms and legs around James as tightly as possible, blunt nails trying to bring him closer, and he sobbed at the onslaught on his oversensitive body. James tried to swallow this litany of hungry, thankful sounds with kisses, but their faces kept sliding past each other and it didn't matter, he was—

"I'm going to—"

"Don't pull out," Thomas gasped and that was it, the firmness of that demand, that resolute determination to have and not be denied, that drove James hard into Thomas another few times as he began to spill. Light flooded the space behind his eyes, blind relief and helpless adoration his chest.

Thomas' heels pressed into James' buttocks to hold him in place while he emptied himself with a groan. It took a long time. James might have felt faintly embarrassed, hadn't he been delirious with sensation and triumph both.

When James came to again he found himself tightly wrapped in Thomas' arms, nose buried in the sweat-dark hair behind Thomas' ear.

Thomas sighed. James could feel the rise and fall of his broad chest.

"That was a lot," he mumbled, nuzzling James' moist temple. "I'm all full."

James had to press his burning face into Thomas' shoulder and Thomas laughed, carding his fingers through James' hair. James tilted his head to be kissed, which he was, thoroughly and languidly.

"Stay a bit," Thomas requested and James was happy to, even though it wasn't long before he slipped out with a gentle trickle of seed as he went soft.

Thomas made a displeased sound at being suddenly left empty, and James reached down to burrow his hand into the heat between Thomas' back and the bedding. He could feel the slick warmth of oil and seed between Thomas' legs, thrilling on a level that was animal and raw and better left unexamined. James felt his belly tighten, even though he knew he wasn't capable of more active arousal again. Thomas mouthed wetly at James' ear, making low noises at the probing fingers.

As their brows cooled James reached into the mess of blankets and pulled an unexamined number to cover them. They busied themselves with the steady exchange of shallow, unhurried kisses.

Finally, James sighed and sat up to swing his legs over the side of the bed.

"Where are you going?"

James raised a brow. "I thought a wet cloth—"

"You think too much," Thomas said. "You'll stay right here and be sticky and disgusting with me. And then we'll have a bath later. It's Sunday."

James ducked back into their over-warm nest and was immediately held fast by determined hands.

"That's going to be a lot of water to fetch," James said.

"Sorry, I don't think I'll be any help."

"How so?"

"I have been ravished by a pirate, and am currently feeling quite plundered."

James snorted into Thomas' neck, which set Thomas off in turn.

When he had calmed down, Thomas stretched and made a noise of surprise. James raised his brows and looked when Thomas pointed at the wall. There was a mark where the headboard had knocked into it.

"I say," was all Thomas commented and rolled them to sit on top of James, which served well to allow kisses, and the kisses were necessary to stifle James' renewed laughter. James groaned when he felt something warm ooze onto his stomach. He should probably have been less single-minded about it, but he did not give much of a fuck about should anymore. He shrugged to himself and sank a finger into the slick heat between Thomas' cheeks.

"You know," Thomas moaned and squirmed around the intrusion. "You should pray with me again tonight. Give thanks."

"You think it's because I joined in last night that this happened?"

"Well, you asked very directly, and here we are."

"Maybe you should consider not praying."

Thomas frowned. "How so?"

"Worked when it was me asking, didn't it? All evidence suggests God likes you on your knees before me, not Him."

"You're unbelievable."

James twisted and gasped and laughed when Thomas attacked his sides with relentless fingers, and they stayed in bed until well after noon, kissing and dozing by turns while the first leaves were edged with gold in their garden.

---

Thomas was unwilling to let James out of his sight or his arms the entire rest of the day. It was rather silly, he supposed, given that their love hadn't been lacking before, but something about that bout of long-awaited buggery made Thomas particularly desirous of knowing himself both owner and owned. Fortunately, James seemed to feel the same and sought out contact like an oversized, amorous cat.

It was wonderful seeing him so at ease, Thomas thought. James shouldn't have felt such grief over his affliction, of course, but it was easy to see why he had. Thomas made sure to intersperse his usual adoration with sly looks and pointed remarks of how thoroughly he had been taken care of, and observed with delight how James became flustered or joined in the silly play-acting by turns.

Later that day, Thomas was writing at the table and watched James saunter past with more swagger in his step than strictly necessary to go check on the food.

"James, will you please stop walking like that? It's not that big."

"I distinctly recall someone telling me recently that it is. Quite emphatetically. I remember something along the lines of challenging. Huge, even."

"Well, that's up for debate."

"You know what else is up?"

Thomas raised his brows, fingers curling on the tabletop. "Really?"

".... No."

That night they discovered that a repetition of the morning's events wasn't going to happen just now.

"It's fine," James said and sighed into Thomas' ear. He'd stopped rubbing up against Thomas' hip. "It's alright."

And Thomas was surprised, and grateful, to realise that by all evidence, James was fine. Was alright.

Summer was over and they were alright.

---

Thomas woke alone.

He frowned into the pillow and shifted to find the warm body he was accustomed to waking besides.

He didn't have to wonder for long, because the door opened with a creak.

Thomas smiled without bothering to open his eyes. The scent of food wafted into the room along with the sound of familiar footsteps.

"I know you're awake. Move over."

"That's no way to wake your beloved," Thomas complained and opened his eyes as James set the tray down on the only patch not smothered in blankets.

"Wasn't waking you," James grumbled good-naturedly and slipped back under the covers with a huff.

Thomas was about to reply when his eyes fell on the tray. In between the cups and plates lay a small scattering of flowers, with delicate blue blossoms of pointed petals.

"Already?"

"Mhm." James pressed his forehead to Thomas' temple. "Earliest ones I've found. I don't know what they're called."

"I'm sure we can find out," Thomas said, entranced by the newborn smoothness of the stems and leaves between his fingers. "Someone in town will know."

Breakfast was spent in comfortable silence. It was never truly cold in Georgia, even through the winter, but Thomas could see the peaks of James' nipples press against his shirt, possibly because Thomas made a show of kissing imagined crumbs off his fingertips.

"You have something..."

James gestured at the side of Thomas' neck. Thomas was rather certain he hadn't managed to smear butter there, but he tilted his head invitingly anyway.

Their impatient hands were soon too busy to be spared from caressing each other, so they simply kicked the tray off the bed, paying no attention to the crash of the dishes. Thomas sucked James' milk-splashed fingers into his mouth, thinking of how he'd sucked James the night prior, and the lewd symbolism made him snort so hard he bit James.

A calloused hand closed around Thomas' cock. He groaned into James' mouth, bucking up into his grip, and was pleased to hear the bedpost knock into what was by now a somewhat battered-looking patch of wall. James laughed and pulled Thomas closer by his arse, doing so with enough force to occasion another thud or two, crushing blue blossoms beneath them.

Sometimes they were slow, sometimes hurried.

Today spring ran in their veins and made them hungry and urgent like growing, young things.

James rolled them so he could slide half off the bed, upsetting the mess of fallen pillows and cracked dishes. He shoved them aside with an impatient knee, ignoring the tinkle of earthenware on wood, and pinned Thomas to the bed with a heavy forearm across his stomach. Thomas squirmed to push his erection closer to James' face and caught sight of a breathless grin before James pulled him closer by the hips, dragging him forward over the sheets, and descended upon him like a starving man.

Thomas thought that things were going quite nicely, fingers twined in James' growing hair and thrusting shallowly into his mouth, when James rubbed a sensitive spot on his knee and Thomas tumbled into orgasm.

James moved to lie next to Thomas, licking his lips. There was a speck of white at the corner of his mouth that Thomas kissed away.

"One of those days?" James breathed into Thomas' ear, making Thomas twitch when his beard brushed over his cheek.

"Looks like." Thomas snuck a hand between them. It spent a little while down there.

"Sorry," James mumbled. He didn't have to look away from Thomas' face anymore, though his cheeks still reddened.

"It's fine," Thomas sighed against his mouth. "I'm still sore from yesterday anyway. Although I was hoping to fuck you. Come here, let me..." When he had James firmly ensconced in his embrace he kissed the top of his head. "Do you want to do something yourself? I wouldn't mind watching."

"I'm fine." James exhaled against Thomas' collarbone.

"Or maybe...?"

James sucked in his breath when Thomas' fingertips slipped into the top of his cleft and stilled to wait politely for a reaction.

"Yeah." James squirmed towards Thomas' hand. "Some of that."

And Thomas smiled, foregoing further teasing in favour of letting James have what he wanted. He kept his eyes firmly on James' face, noted the easy enjoyment there. No strain for an unattainable climax to be seen.

When Thomas carefully pulled out his oiled fingers a good while later, James curled into him, to give comfort or to seek it, and it was all the same either way.

"We'll have to clean up the mess." Thomas sighed. "And maybe buy new dishes."

"Hm." James twisted closer, eyes firmly closed in resolute bliss. "Worth it. I love when you get like that. Spring suits you."

Thomas laughed and kissed James' ear, which was still glowing from the unhurried pleasure he'd been chasing at Thomas' hands for the past half hour. He realised that it would be the first spring they shared as lovers, and after a brief twinge of painful memories, Thomas soothed himself with the prospect of seeing James with pollen in his hair.

Then he shifted and plucked something from the sheets twisted around them.

It was one of the crushed flowers. It looked decidedly less fresh.

"Oh."

James cracked open an eye to peer at the new subject of Thomas' attention, and huffed.

"No matter," he said and plucked the blossom from Thomas' fingers to drop it over the side of the bed. It landed in the puddle of milk and tea with a quiet splash. "Plenty more where that came from. And there'll be others—it's spring."

"It's spring," Thomas agreed.