It was well past eight and raining hard when the front door finally opened and Thomas came inside, brushing the water off his coat as he made to hang it on the rack.
Edward rushed into the foyer and caught Thomas up in so sudden and tight an embrace that the breath left the younger man in a surprised laugh.
“What’s all this?”
“I’ve been worried sick. Where have you been? That note you left was hardly enlightening.” Edward held Thomas’s frost-chilled body hard against him and relaxed his hands, realizing belatedly that he’d been gripping the fabric of Thomas’s jumper. “‘Gone out, back later’?”
“I’m sorry, darling.” Thomas pressed a kiss to Edward’s lips, then one to each temple, by way of apology. “It took longer than I’d expected.”
Slipping out of Edward’s arms without answering, Thomas turned to the small table beside the coat rack and picked up an envelope. “It came just today,” he said, offering the letter to Edward.
Edward recognized the origin of the missive immediately: the fine stationery, the elegant hand that had penned the direction, the seal with which the envelope had been fastened. He pulled out the sheet inside, nearly dropping an enclosed bank draft. It was a pension cheque, and a letter from the Admiralty recognizing that Thomas Jopson, late of Marylebone, now residing in Portsmouth, was no longer in service to Her Majesty’s Navy.
“I’m officially retired,” Thomas said, smiling as Edward looked up at him.
“Are you very sorry, love?”
“Sorry?” Thomas laughed and twined his arms around Edward’s neck. “Yes, awfully. Which is precisely why I’ve been out celebrating.”
“Celebrating?” The word cut strangely into Edward, a cold blade, unexpected and troubling. “Without me?”
“Don’t be cross, dearest, you would have had nothing to do but stand there and watch,” Thomas replied cryptically. “But be sure I was thinking of you. And I did bring you back a souvenir.” Grasping Edward’s hand and grinning, he pulled his lover upstairs.
“Do you remember what the one thing was I couldn’t have, so long as I served as a steward?” Thomas asked when they reached the bedroom. He closed the door behind Edward, who turned with a look of confusion.
“I’m not sure I understand the question.”
“Think, beloved.” Thomas pulled his jumper over his head and, with very un-stewardlike carelessness, threw the garment on the rug. “What disqualified any man from becoming a captain’s steward? I know you’ve read the Rules a dozen times over, at the very least.”
For a moment, Edward seemed too transfixed watching Thomas pull down his braces to give the matter any prolonged thought. Then his eyes narrowed with a tentative realization.
“Do you mean a tattoo?”
Thomas nodded. “As I’m no longer a steward, I’d thought I’d mark the occasion - quite literally.” His smile faded abruptly when he observed Edward’s troubled expression. “What is it, dearest?”
Edward shook his head. “I can’t stand the thought of something piercing you, hurting you. Marring your beautiful skin--"
“Oh, Ned.” Cupping his lover’s face in his hands, Thomas showered him with kisses, returning again and again to his mouth. “It’s only a small tattoo, so there was very little pain, and I’m not planning to cover my arms like some of our able shipmates. But this one was necessary, and very special. Wouldn’t you like to see it?”
His eyes sparkling with delight, Thomas brushed Edward’s expectant mouth with his parted lips and whispered: “Then you’ll have to find it.”
Edward gave a quiet whimper, looking up and down the line of Thomas’s body. He’d doffed his jumper and neckcloth, and toed out of his boots, but the rest of him was still clothed. Running his hands over Thomas’s chest, Edward smirked. “It’s small, you say? Then I will have to undertake a particularly thorough investigation.”
Laughing, Thomas bit softly at Edward’s chin. “Perhaps I should give you a hint, then. Else you will purposefully fail to find it, in order to prolong the search.”
Edward’s hands had worked their way beneath the hem of Thomas’s shirt. “You know me too well.”
“I do.” With another brief kiss to Edward’s lips, Thomas put his mouth against his lover’s ear. “It’s in a special place. The place where I was first bruised, but long before the scurvy, and much more pleasantly. The place my Edward first marked me as his.”
A shiver of excitement coursed over Edward’s skin. The memory was right there, at the forefront of his mind, as if it had happened just yesterday and not almost four years before. His pulse quickened with the same dizzying thrill he had felt then, overcome with a savage need to claim Thomas in some way, to set his mouth to some delicate patch of skin hidden away from the air and the light and the eyes of all other men. Pressed together, with scarce room to move, Edward had slipped beneath the piled blankets, the sound of Thomas’s gasp growing distant and muffled as he’d kissed a path down the steward’s chest and groin. Venturing on, he’d found the shallow dip of Thomas’s pelvic bone, just where it met the crease of his thigh, and it had seemed like hallowed ground, a special, secret place for him to leave a love note, one that would burn in the darkness beneath Thomas’s layers of wool all through the busy hours of his work. And as he served at the captain’s table, as he moved behind the officers’ chairs, only he and Edward would share the knowledge of its existence and the memory of its creation. Pressing his lips to the spot, Edward had blessed it with a kiss, then started to suck, nipping at the skin and laving it with his tongue while Thomas had muffled a cry with the back of his hand.
Smiling, Edward sank down to his knees on the bedroom rug. His fingers trembled slightly as he unfastened Thomas’s trousers, glancing up to catch the bright spark of arousal in his lover’s eyes as he watched. Edward eased the trousers down slowly, then Thomas’s drawers, leaving both garments at mid-thigh. Ordinarily in such a position, his attention would have been focused exclusively on the lovely sight of Thomas’s manhood, its pale length already blushing and stiffening at Edward’s proximity; but on this occasion, Edward’s gaze was fixed on the small circle of ink on the flat of Thomas’s left pelvic bone.
His heart gave a funny little flutter as he looked up from the tattoo, meeting Thomas’s eyes. Thomas’s cheeks were flushed scarlet, and he smiled nervously. “I got it right, didn’t I? I copied it from the Rules. It would be a bit embarrassing to have to go back now and get it amended--"
“It’s right.” Almost timidly, Edward brushed his fingertips over the tattoo and heard Thomas’s breath leave him in a soft sigh of pleasure.
The tattoo was shaped like an epaulette worn on the left shoulder. In the center of the fringe-bordered field was inked the image of a rank badge: a fouled anchor. The symbol of a lieutenant in Her Majesty’s Navy.
“I could have gotten a commander’s crown and anchor, I suppose,” Thomas mused, carding his fingers through Edward’s hair as he watched him. “But it was the lieutenant who first stole my heart.”
“Thomas.” Too overwhelmed to say more, Edward leaned forward, pressing his lips to the tattoo, resting his brow against Thomas’s hip, breathing in the warm familiar smell of his lover’s skin, the musk of arousal blending with the floral scent of soap. His hands moved around from Thomas’s thighs to his backside, cupping both soft curves of flesh against his palms. “Thomas, do you know how much--"
“Yes,” Thomas murmured. “Yes. You gave up the sea for me, turned down a ship of your own to oversee a shipyard; you spend every day watching vessels you’ll never get to command taking shape in dry docks, and all for my sake. That’s why I had to do this for you, my love. I’ll never be able to be a steward again now. And so we’ll stay on dry land together.”