How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
- elizabeth barrett browning, from sonnet XLIII
Home has been a paltry word for most of Francis’s life. It defines neither house nor city, hardly speaks of family or lovers. Home was always a friendly star in the sky, a familiar drink in his hand, the shared confidence of a rare companion, or the routine set by time at sea.
A home is something that Francis has never truly desired, not even when he vied for the hand of his beloved Sophia. Home was an abstract ideal and a comfort unwelcome by men like him, or so he had begun to believe as age and a stagnating career began to take its toll.
So, it is with reluctance that Francis returns to England, with retirement on his mind and a house purchased in London on an empty, tranquil street. Though the house itself is small, the rooms are airy and bright, and the back garden is surrounded by tall brick walls, each plot of dirt overflowing with roses, lavender, and hollyhocks.
The house — not a home, not yet, not quite — is his gift to Thomas who joins him in his nascent retirement with his usual, unassuming grace.
It is achingly simple to fall into a rhythm with Thomas: brisk morning walks around the corner, afternoon teas in the garden coupled with book-reading and letter-writing, the dreaded social calls during which Thomas happily bolsters Francis’s sociability, and — perhaps Francis’s favorite of all — their intimate dinners, taken only after dismissing the cook and the maid, so that they may sit adjacent one another at the end of the table, close enough that their knees touch while they enjoy their meal in companionable silence.
On such an evening, Francis finds their meal already set on the table but no Thomas in sight. He assumes that Thomas has already been here, however, since he has moved the place settings to their usual spots, one plate at the head of the table, the other to its right.
Propped against the doorframe, Francis spies the ivory-handled cane which he gave Thomas, and that Thomas only begrudgingly uses. He rounds the corner to find Thomas sitting on the steps leading into the garden, chin lifted toward the sky.
Feeling rather like he is interrupting a private meditation, Francis does not raise his voice much as he calls, “Thomas?”
Thomas glances over his shoulder, an easy smile on his face, before returning his attention to the tree branches above his head.
“The birds are out in abundance,” he says, hand tucking his hair behind his ear before he stands.
“Well, it is spring at last,” Francis offers, glancing up at the hazy evening sky, “It smells like a storm is coming.”
A grimace flashes briefly on Thomas’s face as he walks up the steps, but once he is indoors, any trace of the expression vanishes. He kisses Francis on the cheek before retrieving his cane.
“Rain will be good for the flowers.”
Francis tries to not coddle Thomas, much as he knows the man loathes it, but he lets himself cup his hand around Thomas’s elbow and guide him back to the dining room.
The food is steaming on the table, and Thomas ushers Francis into his chair before he spoons up portions of pork and vegetables for the two of them. Despite Francis’s insistence that Thomas is as much master of this house as Francis, some habits are impossible for Thomas to relinquish, and so Francis waits patiently as Thomas gives him the better cut of meat and has his glass full before he sits down.
Conversation is not a strong suit for Francis, even in the presence of one as dear as Thomas, but their silence is comfortable. Neither are fast eaters; Francis for a lack of appetite, and Thomas for an appreciation of food much richer than he would have eaten as a young man.
Thomas savors a bite of sautéed asparagus, his eyes slipping shut in enjoyment. As he watches him, Francis cannot stop himself from reaching for the top of Thomas’s thigh, squeezing the muscle through his trouser leg. Thomas’s eyes open, and he smiles around his fork, setting it down long enough to cover Francis’s hand with his own.
He nods at Francis’s plate, untouched but for a few broken bites and slivers of pork cut ever smaller with his table knife.
“Are you finished?” Thomas asks with a hint of worry.
“I’m not terribly hungry tonight,” Francis says, and with a growing smirk, he pats Thomas’s thigh again before adding, “At least not for pork and potatoes.”
Thomas lets out a rather ungentlemanly snort as he reaches for his drink, his cheeks painted a pretty pink.
“It’s a good thing we spend our evenings alone if that’s what you have in mind.”
It is a reference, of course, to the first day Thomas arrived at the house, his eyes wide at every piece of furniture, every tapestry, every light fixture, and every wallpaper pattern as if in disbelief that he could ever be in possession of such a house.
Uncaring if any of the staff would see, Thomas had pulled Francis into a tight embrace, his eyes overflowing with tears, muffled thank you’s whispered into the wool of Francis’s coat. They parted in time for the maid to announce that dinner was ready, and never before had Francis spent a meal so distracted and overwhelmed before Thomas finally took initiative. He grabbed Francis by the hand, abandoning their unfinished meal. He pulled Francis up the stairs to the bedroom Francis had saved for him — with gossamer curtains, blue tiles along the fireplace and mantle, and a lovely view of the garden from the window.
Luckily, Thomas had been of a sound enough mind to lock the door before pushing Francis onto the bed, tugging his trousers down, and sitting astride his lap. He sought Francis’s mouth as a man dying of thirst, and they moved together like lovers reunited after years apart — which, in a way, they had been, forced to abstain from one another once they abandoned the ships and were too much in the open, near too many eyes and too many ears.
Heavens know what the maid thought, but by the time Francis had slunk downstairs in shame, he was relieved to find their meal cleared, and their staff gone home for the night.
With a tilt of his head, Francis shrugs, unable to keep the grin from his face.
“I always have something of the sort in mind.”
With someone as beautiful as Thomas at his fingertips every day, how could he not?
A laugh slips from Thomas as he looks down. He laces their fingers together and brings Francis’s hand to his lips, kissing the knuckles before letting go.
“I’ll clean this up, then, if you’re so eager for us to go upstairs.”
When he rises, another grimace passes over his lips as he leans onto the back of the chair, favoring his right leg.
At once, Francis is on his feet, gently pushing Thomas back into his seat.
“Thomas, sit down,” he commands, the heat in his voice lessening as he picks up Thomas’s plate, “You do enough as it is.”
Thomas looks ready to argue, his eyes flashing, mouth twisting enough that the sharp indents in his cheeks stand out like craters. The fire disappears as quickly as it ignites, and with a silent sigh, Thomas sags into his chair.
Francis walks the short distance to their kitchen, tossing the question over his shoulder as he goes.
“Has it been hurting all day?”
He returns in time to see Thomas shake his head. He has propped his leg onto the edge of his seat and is rubbing both sides of his calf.
“No, it’s worse tonight.” He gives Francis a remorseful smile. “It’s the weather, I imagine.”
“Let’s find you somewhere warm, then.”
“I wouldn’t mind a bed, right now,” Thomas says, eyes hooded as he glances at Francis through his eyelashes.
The suggestion is enough to speed up the rest of Francis’s work, as he hurries to clear the rest of the table. He sees Thomas starting to rise again as he rushes to his side and prevents him from moving.
“Bed it is, then,” he declares, hoisting Thomas into his arms with a grunt, ignoring the strain it causes in his back.
Thomas sputters, wiggling in Francis’s arms.
“I can still walk,” he insists, his face growing an ever darker shade of red.
But Francis only tightens his hold, his arm wrapped snugly around Thomas’s back and under his knees, insisting that he stay still.
“I’m not getting any younger,” he reminds Thomas as he carries him toward the stairs. “I don’t want to drop you.”
Thomas finally relents and rests his head on Francis’s shoulder. In the corner of his eye, Francis sees him smiling slightly, the blush blooming bright on his cheeks.
Their destination is not far; up a shallow staircase and through an unlatched door. He deposits Thomas on the bed’s quilt before he goes to the fireplace, placing fresh wood on the grate and reinvigorating the smoldering coals. His efforts are rewarded when a small flame starts to burn, crackling cheerfully. Soon, there is warm glow emanating from the hearth.
He turns to Thomas, who watches him from the bed, propped up on a mound of pillows. Though he no longer rubs his leg, the pain is evident in the tightness of his jaw and the unconscious clenching of his socked foot.
Francis joins him on the bed, sitting close enough to pull Thomas’s legs onto his lap. He pushes his trousers legs up so he may massage the pale skin underneath. A contented hum vibrates in Thomas’s chest as he sinks deeper into the pillows.
The massage continues by Francis removing Thomas’s socks and giving equal attention to his feet, rubbing his thumbs in circles against the arches and along his heel. Once he deems his work sufficiently done, he rubs his hand along Thomas’s calf.
His previous offer of taking Thomas for a quick romp has fled his mind, and he removes his hand from under Thomas’s trousers.
“Would you like to get ready for bed?” he asks.
The hour is far from late, but both of them prefer to retire early. Thomas looks half asleep already, but when he stretches on the pillows, his eyes squint open, lips pursing before stretching into a smirk.
“I would,” he answers, voice dropping low, “only if you join me.”
Francis scoots closer to him, and Thomas reaches for the lapels of his waistcoat to pull him down into a kiss. It begins with a dry press of the lips, before Thomas lets out a moan and licks against Francis’s mouth, his fingers digging into the collar of his shirt.
Heat pools in the bottom of Francis’s belly, and his head spins from the anticipation. Still, he has enough sense to push Thomas back.
He leans over him as he asks, “Are you certain you’re up to it?”
Thomas huffs, his eyes flattening to a fond but incredibly unimpressed look. “My leg aches some. I’m not crippled.”
Francis chuckles, pressing his forehead against Thomas’s. Affection swells in his chest when Thomas’s eyes slip shut, another contented sigh leaving him.
“I’ve an idea,” Francis says before he can lose the nerve, “Would you like to try that silken handkerchief tonight?”
The blindfold, in fact, was Thomas’s idea. He had purchased it while on an errand to the tailor. Once he returned, he had presented the handkerchief to Francis with the idea of using it on either of them during one of their amorous evenings together. Francis was unable to muster an answer at the time, his imagination going wild with the possibilities presented before him. Thomas was unbothered by his reaction. He simply put the handkerchief away in his wardrobe, content to wait until Francis was ready to mention it again.
Indeed, Thomas looks a bit surprised when he opens his eyes now. He searches Francis’s face before he smiles and closes his eyes again. He turns his face into Francis’s shoulder, kissing him through the layers of cotton and wool.
“You ask me if I’m up to it,” he murmurs, “and then immediately ask me such an incendiary question?”
Francis retreats, his lips pulling into a lopsided smile, “Well, if you don’t want to—”
His words falter when Thomas turns enough so both his eyes can peer up at him, mischief sparkling in their depths. Thomas hooks the tip of his forefinger into Francis’s collar, the touch enough to send nerves tingling down each of Francis’s arms.
Thomas continues to nuzzle his shoulder, peppering a trail of kisses as he moves from shoulder to neck to jawline. Francis shudders when Thomas’s nose presses against his pulse, followed by the feathery pressure of his lips.
“I did not say anything of the sort, dearest…”
The pet name, more graceful coming from Thomas than they ever are from Francis, makes the heat in Francis’s loins spike stronger than before.
He pushes Thomas against the mound of pillows by the headboard. Thomas’s breathy laugh dissolves into a moan as Francis nibbles and sucks at his lips. Thomas’s hands clasp his shoulders with surprising strength, and he digs his fingers into the thick muscle where his neck connects with his body.
Despite the tight grip of his hands, Thomas remains pliant under him, legs parting to accommodate Francis between his thighs. Francis begins to roll his hips against him, savoring each gasping moan the movement elicits from Thomas. He shifts his attention from Thomas’s sweet mouth to kiss each of his cheeks, his nose, his brow, his eyelids.
Thomas huffs, lips curling into a smile. His hands paw in earnest at the back of Francis’s waistcoat.
“Now, about that handkerchief,” he murmurs in Francis’s ear, “that you so kindly mentioned?”
The words are coy in Thomas’s mouth, but his eyes have grown dark, eyelashes fluttering against his cheek as he squirms beneath Francis.
Unwilling to waste another second, Francis picks himself off of Thomas, and, once he has retrieved an inconspicuous key from the bedside table, he pads over the carpet to the wardrobe. He unlocks the drawer housing their more personal affects.
The drawer contains items that would cause a sense of mortification to most respectable members of society: even Francis himself is astounded by the breadth of Thomas’s ingenuity and the things he finds pleasurable. The acquisitions inside the drawer were small at first, a pair of phalluses crafted from polished whalebone, a chemise of lacy muslin, some feathers borrowed from the writing desk and repurposed for the bedroom, and — of course — a selection of handkerchiefs, of varying sizes, colors, and materials.
From the depths of the drawer, Francis retrieves the one he wants. It is silk, unembroidered, and a deep blue that offsets the pale glint of Thomas’s eyes. The lack of decoration leads Francis to wonder what the intent of the cloth is, perhaps a man’s neck tie.
It hardly matters now, he reminds himself as he pulls the silken cloth through his hands, savoring the sensation as they catch on the callouses of his palm.
He clears his throat, in a poor attempt to assuage his unexpected anxiety.
“Is there anything else you require, Mr Jopson?” he asks with clumsy humor, trying to mimic the steward whom he now serves.
Thomas’s voice is strained when he answers, “No. Nothing more than the man.”
Francis turns to find Thomas stretched out on the bed. His waistcoat lies open, and he has pulled the shirttails from his trousers, enough to give Francis a tantalizing glimpse of skin and a dusting of black hair across his belly. He has splayed his thighs, the knee on his good leg bent and his foot tucked against his rear.
One of his hands lies idly on his chest while the other rubs a trail down his belly to his groin, edging along the seam of his trousers.
He props himself up on an elbow, his hair falling charmingly over his eyes. He beckons Francis forward with his hand.
“Please,” he whispers.
The single-word longing urges Francis to move, and he makes quick work of shedding his own necktie and waistcoat at the side of the bed.
Thomas meets him on the edge of the bed, where Francis cups his face and kisses him. The handkerchief is still in his hands, and he takes the opportunity to slide the soft material along Thomas’s cheek and neck.
Sighing at the sensation, Thomas tugs at Francis’s trousers, enough that he may slip his hands past the waistband onto bare skin. Francis untangles himself long enough to remove his shirt, and Thomas mirrors him, lying back onto the pillows once he is bare-chested.
Thomas’s body retains scars from their times at sea. Rather than marring his beauty, they add a somber dignity to his appearance, of a life well-lived and of disasters averted.
There is the ragged scar splitting the side of Thomas’s calf; acquired when Thomas was an AB, years before he met Francis. He has told Francis the story of how a massive splinter broke from the hull during an altercation with privateers, and how he nearly lost his leg to infection.
Higher on his body are the ravages of scurvy and starvation, discoloring patches of skin and accentuating the sharp rise of his hips and ribcage. Even his face has acquired a number more wrinkles, and there are faded scars where ice burns had left patches of his cheeks blistering and raw.
Even with added blemishes and traces of gray hair at his temples, Thomas continues to steal Francis’s breath away with his poise and elegance.
“How did I become so lucky,” the words bumble from Francis’s lips before he can curb the wave of sentiment, “to have someone as perfect as this?”
Thomas shakes his head, though he cannot stop a delighted smile from blooming on his face.
“The luck is all mine.”
The desire to have the length of Thomas’s body pressed against him springs Francis into action. He tosses the silk handkerchief onto the bed as he strips off his slippers, socks, trousers, and underclothes — with enough visible desperation that Thomas laughs from where he lies.
“Impatient, are we?” Thomas licks his lips, spreading his fingers wide across his belly. “Sir?”
The sir hits its intended mark, heat racing straight to Francis’s cock. He kneels beside Thomas on the bed with a sly smile as he lifts Thomas’s hips enough to slide his trousers down his thighs.
“For you, patience is nonexistent.” Francis kisses his hip once he has Thomas fully naked beneath him. “I must make up for all the time we lost.”
Thomas sighs happily as Francis pulls him into an embrace. Any chill in the room disappears with the heat of their bodies intermingling, their feet bumping together, heartbeats drumming in a dual rhythm.
They kiss again, luxuriating in the seemingly endless time they have together.
Francis sits back onto his heels, grabbing the handkerchief. He pauses, gaze falling onto the quilt. He feels a shyness with which he doesn’t quite know what to do.
He starts slow, as though testing the waters. He dangles the edge of the cloth along Thomas’s thigh, drawing a tight gasp from Thomas. When the handkerchief reaches the bottom of his belly, Francis traces the skin along Thomas’s navel and then up the center of his chest, pausing at the dip of his throat. Thomas has shut his eyes, his head tipped back. His hands rest on Francis’s belly, scratching lightly at the blonde hairs.
Francis drapes the cloth across his eyes.
“Lift your head,” he instructs.
Thomas does as he is told, and he saves Francis from having to secure the handkerchief as he reaches behind himself to tie it. Once it is fastened in place, Thomas arches beneath Francis, lifting his hands above his head. He hisses quietly, as Francis shifts his weight on top of him. Immediately, Francis stills.
“Is it your leg?” he asks, careful to keep his weight off Thomas’s lower body.
Thomas hesitates, then nods.
“A bit,” he confesses, “It’s nothing terrible.”
“Nonsense,” Francis says against Thomas’s lips before kissing him. “I’ll take care of it.”
He leans back and pulls Thomas’s bad leg onto his lap. He massages his palms over the bone of Thomas’s ankle before moving to the calf. He is ginger with the scar, dragging the heel of his palm along the tender skin until it blooms warm under his hand.
Francis listens to Thomas as carefully, letting each exhale guide him where to touch, every moan instruct him how much pressure to apply. He kisses the scar before he moves higher up the leg, giving Thomas’s thigh the same amount of attention, rubbing and massaging until the limb is like putty beneath his hands.
When he reaches Thomas’s hips, he parts Thomas’s legs enough so that he may kiss and nibble along the sensitive skin leading to his groin. He bites hard enough that Thomas bucks his hips, a strangled moan leaving him.
Francis looks up, satisfied to see Thomas’s chest heaving, his mouth hanging open, and his hands scrabbling against the headboard.
He kisses where the skin is red from the bite before he pats Thomas’s hip, ignoring the bob of Thomas’s cock when he tells him to roll over.
There is almost a whine of dissent, and Francis watches the struggle in Thomas’s face before he obeys.
He lies facedown onto his belly, his arms hugging the pillow cushioning his head. He is pliant as Francis bends one knee up, to give himself room when he stations himself behind Thomas. The massage continues at Thomas’s lower back, Francis taking special care to dig his thumbs into the tense muscles there. Thomas’s hips buck again when Francis’s hand strays along the swell of his rear, and Francis gives it a swat in return.
“Now, who’s impatient,” he asks, grinning when Thomas answers with a ragged moan.
He is not too unkind, however, as he trains his attention next on Thomas’s lovely backside. He enjoys the soft give of muscle as he massages the pale skin. When he drags one thumb down the cleft, brushing over Thomas’s entrance, Francis is better prepared for his reaction. He uses one wide palm to keep Thomas pinned, his hips unable to move.
“Francis,” Thomas keens, the noise music to Francis’s ear.
Francis rubs against his entrance one more time, before he kisses the top of one hamstring and removes his hand. Another gasp leaves Thomas, but Francis turns his attention now to his shoulder blades and upper back.
It is harder to ignore his own arousal, however, now that his hips rest at the back of Thomas’s thighs. Every squirm from Thomas shoots pleasure through his belly. He has to pause, pressing his forehead against the nape of Thomas’s neck. His chest is pressed flush against Thomas’s back, and he can feel a quake travel through Thomas.
“Please,” Thomas whispers again, one of his hands groping for Francis’s side, “Oh, please. Touch me.”
The plea makes Francis grit his teeth, grinding his hips harder against Thomas’s thighs, the friction near enough to make him spill prematurely.
“Am I not, already?” he asks, his voice haggard enough to undermine any attempt at humor.
Thomas growls, his hand digging into the skin beside Francis’s belly.
Francis doesn’t make him beg more, his desire overriding any gratification he gets from drawing out Thomas’s pleasure.
He removes himself to retrieve the oil from the bedside table as well as another handkerchief from the wardrobe. Thomas rolls onto his back, both hands returning above his head.
Francis touches Thomas’s wrist with the extra handkerchief, trying to make his meaning known as the question falters on his tongue.
“Would you like—?”
Thomas bites his bottom lip, nodding. He lifts his hands closer to the bedpost so that Francis may tie his wrists in place. Once the knot is secured, Francis kisses the inside of one palm, drawing one of Thomas’s fingers into his mouth and sucking. Thomas’s lips part with an uneven exhale, and Francis gives the finger a gentle bite before returning his attention to Thomas’s body.
Francis runs his hand down the center of Thomas’s chest, fingers passing over a peaked nipple before slipping down his belly and pausing above his groin. He nudges his knee between Thomas’s legs, spreading them wider. Once he warms a few drops of oil between his fingers, he reaches and palms Thomas’s stones, his blood warming at the sight of Thomas’s head tipping back, his breaths coming faster.
Francis kisses the tip of Thomas’s cock and begins to take him inch by inch into his mouth. He slides his tongue along the underside of his cock, as his slick fingers rub against the space between Thomas’s legs, prodding and pressing until Thomas is relaxed enough that one slides into his hole. Thomas bucks into him with a whimper, his arms straining against knots keeping him in place.
Francis bobs his head faster, trying to take Thomas deeper, as his finger stays shallow, rubbing where Thomas is most sensitive.
Thomas drapes one of his legs high onto Francis’s back. He is panting hard, whispering that he is close.
“Francis,” he groans, his voice going hoarse, “I want you against me. I want to feel you.”
Francis complies with his wishes, slotting his body against him, fitting their cocks together. With added slick from the oil, they move together with ease. Thomas’s mouth is hot where he sighs and moans against Francis’s cheek. When he comes, he goes rigid in Francis’s arms, his thighs squeezing hard around Francis.
Once he is lax again, Francis kisses his temple, where ink-dark strands of hair cling to the sweaty skin. After running a hand down both of Thomas’s thighs, Francis unties the blindfold. Thomas’s eyes remain shut as Francis sets the blindfold aside and begins to undo the knots around his wrists, as well. A sleepy smile graces his features, and once his hands are free, he blindly reaches for Francis, pulling him into a loose embrace against him.
They kiss lazily with open mouths, Thomas pulling Francis’s lip between his teeth before licking against the swollen skin. When Francis pulls away, Thomas’s eyes squint open. He scrunches his nose when Francis presses another kiss between his brow before he pulls away, starting to sit up.
Thomas watches him with a frown.
“What about you?”
Francis slaps his hand away when Thomas reaches for his already flagging erection. Thomas starts to argue, looking more embarrassed than worried, so Francis takes his chin between his thumb and forefinger, silencing him with another kiss.
“Do not worry about me tonight, Thomas.” He raises a brow and fixes Thomas with a look befitting a stern captain. “Let me take care of you for once.”
The fight disappears from Thomas, and Francis resumes his task of fetching Thomas a clean cloth and a fresh nightshirt. Thomas folds both handkerchiefs into neat squares, and Francis trades them for the damp cloth and clean clothes. Thomas busies himself with wiping off his stomach and legs while Francis returns the handkerchiefs to their drawer.
By the time Francis returns to Thomas’s side, he has tugged the nightshirt over his head, sitting on the quilt with his legs tucked to the side. Francis begins to retrieve his clothes from where they are strewn about the floor, but when he realizes that Thomas is waiting expectantly for him, he stops to give him a quick peck of the lips.
Thomas hums happily, returning the kiss in full, before he lets Francis go. He crawls under the cover of his quilt, watching as Francis dresses just enough for the short walk to his own bedroom.
Even though Thomas looks on the verge of sleep, he wraps a single finger around the edge of Francis’s hand.
“Stay a while, please?”
He says it like a question, one that Francis is utterly unable to refuse.
“Of course, Thomas.”
Francis settles on top of the quilt beside him, and Thomas presses close against Francis’s legs, eyes slipping shut as he turns his face into his pillow.
The fire burns low in the grate, and Francis makes a note to stoke the coals once more before he leaves for the evening, to the separate bedroom he keeps for propriety’s sake alone. He indulges the fantasy of how lovely it would be that they should one day have a home so remote that he could sleep alongside Thomas, to have his love be the final thing he sees before sleep and the first upon waking.
He nearly poses the question to Thomas now. He knows that Thomas is accustomed to the streets of London, but it is a lovely thought: an ivy-covered house surrounded only by pastures and trees, no company but their own and the air and the birds and the sky. It is almost as tantalizing a vision as the first time Francis set foot on a ship, bound for the endless horizon.
When he glances down, however, Thomas has fallen into slumber, his breaths even and deep. One of his hands has curled into a loose fist against Francis’s trousers, and Francis moves it as he bends over Thomas, fixing that ever-errant strand of hair to press a kiss along his brow.
Even in sleep, Thomas sighs and leans into the contact, and it takes every ounce of Francis’s willpower to make himself leave.
He is as quiet as he can be when he stands. He stops by the fireplace to rouse the coals before he extinguishes each lamp in the room and makes a stealthy exit.
He will ask Thomas about a home in the country tomorrow.