Tom could never quite see himself taking a wife. Sure, his mother would talk about it sometimes - how he and Johnny would start their own families soon - and Tom would try imagining it: a woman with long hair, waiting for him at home; a small house; the vague form of a child. He always ended up just imagining his own home, his mother chasing after her sons whenever they got into their childish antics, their father returning home from the docks to bring about some semblance of order. Johnny was always better at imagining that sort of thing than Tom was. Johnny would always say that it was due to his age, no matter that they were only two years apart, and assured their mother that her youngest would settle for a lady other than the sea.
He thinks that his brother knew more than he ever let on, about how the only woman that Tom would ever find beauty in was one he’d never have to marry. They never talked about it before he died. Tom wonders what Johnny would say about Lt. Irving, if he were alive to see them, or if Tom would ever have gotten to know the lieutenant as John without his brother’s death bringing them together on Terror.
Tom isn’t sure when he stopped adding “sir” at the end of his sentences around John. They must have been conducting their weekly bible studies for a few weeks, at least. Maybe two months. He still hadn’t begun calling John by his first name, but their discussions had long since begun drifting to topics beyond scripture, to their lives back home, past voyages, and the like. While the bible was still the center of their meetings - something that Tom found he didn’t mind so much, with John so open to Tom’s bold interpretations and Tom blessed to see the way John’s cheeks would flush or how he’d stare at him near awe, sometimes - they grew closer as time went on.
It was in that first winter on the ice that they began meeting twice a week, with little to do besides keep warm and conduct their duties. John didn’t judge Tom, not like he’d once thought he would, when he first approached him so long ago. Tom doesn’t think that he’s capable of judging John, not really, not when the man has been so patient with him. Not when their hands brush as they trace verses with their fingertips, Tom’s heart skipping a beat each time. Not when Tom asks him to call him by his Christian name and John, quietly, asks him to do the same.
That had been a week before Tom’s lashing. He’d known he should have never gone with Hickey, not when Lady Silence had done nothing to them. He recognized his mistake before they even got back to the ships, when the three of them had taken the screaming and terrified woman by surprise, but it had been too late to fix things. Tom had never been lashed before and neither had Johnny; they’d been lucky, yes, but also not nearly so foolish as to do something like this. It hurt, it burned, his back ached for weeks after, but Tom didn’t scream as he took the punishment.
He remembered turning his head after the eighth strike, biting his tongue so hard he tasted blood. His eyes met John’s, wide and unflinching, and Tom had never felt more ashamed. He didn’t look away as Tom took the last four strokes. As he was untied and sent limping to sick bay, Tom wondered what John saw. A disappointment, maybe. A former friend. Someone he couldn’t recognize anymore, or wasn’t who he thought he was.
Tom didn’t expect John to find him later that night, to take him to his cabin under the pretense of reading scripture. He certainly hadn’t thought that John, so held back and carefully composed, would go to rest a hand on his back before stopping just above where the lashes still bled. To ask, in a very shaky voice, what he might do to help Tom. To make him feel better.
Tom couldn’t understand. “I deserved it, you know I did.”
“I know,” said John, eyes all wide again. His hands were shaking. “I still want to help you.”
“You’re my friend. I care about you, Tom.”
It was the first time John had said such. Tom shook his head, smile bitter. “I’m not the sort of friend you want right now. I did wrong.”
“That doesn’t make you a bad person. The lashing- It’s a chance to start anew. To do better.” The hand still hovering over Tom’s back settled on the nape of his neck. It felt so warm. “You’re a good man.”
“You say that like you’re sure.”
“I am.” John swallowed. He’d taken off his cravat, and they were close enough that Tom could see the bob of his Adam’s apple as he did so. In a very quiet voice, he said, “I know because I believe in you.”
Tom’s hands never shook as much as John’s did, even then. He wasn’t any braver than John - more reckless, maybe, with much less to lose. He didn’t have much more courage, so he’s not sure what fount he pulled strength from to lean in and kiss John, like he’d wanted to for months. Instead of pushing him away as he should have done (as Tom expected him to do), John only grabbed Tom’s arm to pull him closer, and kissed him desperately.
Bible study involved much less reading from that point on.
Tom started the ring after that. The lashing didn’t keep him from his duties - with nearly all of the men transferring to Erebus, he had to pick up some of the slack - but the quiet ship gave him plenty of time to whittle away at the wood. It took a few failed attempts, with Tom nearly slicing his fingers off in the process, but he’d finished the ring before Carnivale rolled around. It was a small and simple thing, smooth as he could get it with just his pocket knife. On the inside he’d carefully inscribed 1 Samuel 18:1-5. It wasn’t John’s favorite verse - that was Corinthians 13:12 - but Tom was fond of it, had memorized it and recited it in his head in the rare moments that he was able to rest his head on John’s chest.
And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul...
The ring survived the fire, as did John. Tom found him later, when he was sober, his angel wings lost in the ashes outside. John’s bed was too small for both of them, but they managed, covered in the thin blanket and John’s greatcoat. It smelled too much of smoke; everything did. In the dark, Tom lay half-atop John and thought, And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David-
Tom never gave John the ring. He’d never fully intended to, really. It fit John’s finger, he was sure, but why would he ever put it on?
They’d never made any promises to each other. They were friends, yes. John cared for him that much. Tom would never presume that his feelings went beyond that, even when he knew that he felt for John, that he still feels for him. That he loves him, as much good as that did them on the ships or the long walk after. He never even bothered thinking about what would happen when they got home. Home these days was a distant thing; when Tom did think of it, he only imagined all the ways his mother would cry with only one son instead of two.
Now, Tom sees home so clearly. Not the one that he’d left in Gillingham, but somewhere else in Kent, maybe even Greenhithe. Not a house - he could never afford that, not with an AB’s half-pay - but a set of rooms, cozy and warm. The washing hangs by the window, blowing gently in the breeze of a lazy Sunday morning. There’s no vague idea of a wife and child, everything in clear focus.
They have a bedroom with just one bed, big enough for two. John’s curled up against him, their legs tangled beneath the sheets, arms wrapped around each other. They’ll get up for church soon, John will insist on it, but for now they lay together like a married couple. Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. Tom is already awake, kissing his jaw, as John smiles in his sleepy state. He’s wearing the ring.
In reality - back in the Arctic, at the end of the world, as far from Kent as he could be - Tom is cold and alone in a tent. He holds the ring in his trembling fingers. John has no left ring finger to wear it. 2 Samuel 1:26, I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. His body is cooling three tents over, fingers cut off, his chest stabbed so many times that Tom would have fallen over at the sight of him even if he hadn’t loved him. Still loves him, so very much.
It’s cruel, that Tom knows exactly what he wants only when it’s gone for good.