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A Trance Sublime and Strange

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[W]hen I gaze on thee / I seem as in a trance sublime and strange / To muse on my own separate phantasy, / My own, my human mind, which passively / Now renders and receives fast influencings, / Holding an unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around . . . - Percy Bysshe Shelley

Before the Isis reaches Oxford, it runs broad and straight through the fields and meadows that seem as unchanged as Oxford itself since the medieval monks built the first colleges and serfs sent their pigs to forage in the commons. In May, the water has receded from the early spring floods, leaving the banks bright green with young grass, dotted with flowers of white and yellow and blue. During Eights Week, the Port Meadow is full of undergraduates and their associated women – and a few girls from St Hilda's and their associated men – until sundown, when the picnickers retreat to the town, ready for games and amusements of a different sort.

Well into the evening, a couple of the more artistic sort of undergraduates, judging by their mode of dress and lack of female companions, came strolling along the bank, heading downstream from Godstow. The one in grey carried a large stuffed bear; both stumbled a bit, either from the uneven ground or from their leisurely dinner. The long rays of the setting sun gave a ruddy hue to the world, turning the closed flowers pink and the boys' faces red.

“Charles,” the boy with the bear called to the other, “I simply must sit down. Aloysius wants a good look at the town.”

But he caught up with Charles, who had been walking slightly further away from the river, and the two collapsed almost in a heap together, breathing heavily as they were not accustomed to walking across country after heavy pub dinners. Charles took to scratching Aloysius the bear behind the ears, as if he were a dog. “Perhaps we should not have left the motor at Godstow.”

“But then we should have missed all of this!” the bear's owner complained, spreading his arms to take in the view. Indeed, the river was at last quiet, the students and their women condensed back within the town, at dinner or preparing for one of the many dances to be given that night. The town itself, rising above the shimmering thread of the river, was gold and red and dark as the sun set.

The boys stared at the view for some time as the sun grew lower. As the shadows spread, Charles' hand abandoned Aloysius for the warmer, more responsive nape of Sebastian's neck. The position was familiar though the location was new, and the delicate boy in grey leaned into the gentle touch, ending in nuzzling Charles rather like a cat. Aloysius saw nothing – he was facing Oxford, where lights were coming on as the evening deepened, oblivious to the humans behind him. They had been in such positions before, usually in Sebastian's rooms after other guests had gone. Such evenings might end with Sebastian at Charles' feet, or the two of them twined on the floor, a decanter of port just out of reach, but never in bed, for the bedroom was too private, an intimacy that belonged to Sebastian alone. If they were in Charles' chambers, they were invariably sitting at the window, beneath which gillyflowers had bloomed all spring. But bedrooms were enclosed, private, little worlds for just those where were invited to share them. Brideshead that afternoon had been like that – the old nursery, at least. Charles had found the public rooms very fine, a very different world to those he had known before, but he had not been invited into them except as a paying guest, as one might on first acquaintance be asked to have a drink at the bar rather than adjourn immediately to a man's rooms. Sebastian had brought him to the nursery, which had felt very much as if Sebastian had brought him into the bedder, an inner sanctum where only Aloysius had been permitted to intrude.

So when Sebastian tilted his head up and kissed him full on the lips, Charles was not surprised. Sebastian had kissed him before, of course, but only quick pecks on the cheek. It was simply part of his charm. But the Brideshead mood had not entirely lifted: the sullenness had finally dissipated over dinner, but the intimacy continued to put a bubble around them both, so that a wide open riverbank felt as close as a ship's cabin.

It was not Charles' first kiss, nor was it Sebastian's. Sebastian had seen more of the world than Charles, yes, had kissed both boys and girls before, had kissed Anthony Blanche before he had known better, but he was struck even more than Charles by his own daring. They had never discussed such things – he had never told Charles that he had kissed Anthony Blanche – but that was a thing that had belonged to Eton, a place and a time too far gone for Charles to understand or share. One traveled a lifetime between school and summer term, after all. Yet with the Brideshead mood upon him, upon them both, a kiss was the most natural act in the world, the only possible act in the deepening shadows that would soon narrow their world even further.

The first kiss was gentle though not hesitant. The second kiss found Charles biting at Sebastian's soft, almost girlish lips, all his old qualms about the sort of company Sebastian kept, the sort of company Sebastian was, lost to the imperatives of the moment. And what had Anthony Blanche been but a lark, when compared to the deep connection Sebastian felt he had made with Charles?

Charles nudged Aloysius over with his foot as he rolled on top of Sebastian. There need be no witnesses to this particular lark, and Aloysius did have a tendency to watch when discretion was warranted. Sebastian burrowed deep into the grass, welcoming the pressure of Charles' weight on top of him. Wiggling his hips to make the long grass give way, he discovered Charles' knee planted between his legs, in delightful proximity to his prick.

Charles soon felt his own excitement – he had not thought kissing a boy would bring these sensations, but Sebastian was unusual in all ways – and the pressure of Sebastian's erection against his thigh. With his free hand, he stroked Sebastian's cheek, where his skin was deliciously soft except where the first prickly hints of beard had begun to push through along his chin. It was perhaps this contrast, between the girlish and masculine, that drove Charles to excitation rather than revulsion. Sebastian knew his business rather better and unbuttoned Charles' trousers. One could learn simply anything from Anthony if one were eager and attractive.

Charles had not had another hand on his prick since his nurse had bathed him as a small child. He gasped in shock at the touch, at the firm squeeze of Sebastian's lithe fingers. He should have known it was possible – probable, even – that Sebastian would have experience in this business, and while all his dismal upbringing told him to pull away, to finish the job himself if he would not calm down, the scent of the warm grass as much as the scent and feel of Sebastian drove him to continue. Nothing could be wrong in late spring in the Port Meadow. Sebastian's neck was deliciously white, crying out to be licked and nipped, and what did considerations of wickedness matter in such a position? Sebastian seemed to feel no remorse or shame, and, indeed, he did not. Charles was his friend more than Anthony had ever been, and one must be affectionate with one's true friends. Cara had said something like that once, about affection and true friendship, and he rather thought that she and his father were more friends than in love now, so whatever she had said was true. And, as Charles was his friend, he had to show the strength of his affection, particularly as Charles obviously shared it. The feel of Charles' lips and tongue and teeth along his neck and collarbone was most enjoyable.

But he had his own needs lower down, and to continue in this position would not do at all. He pushed himself to a sitting position, much to Charles' consternation. But when he divested himself of his coat, Charles thought he understood and did the same – after all, movement was freer without the additional layer of dress. Sebastian also removed Charles' tie, already loose, and tossed it to join his own somewhere in the grass. If they never found it again, he had never much liked that tie on Charles anyway.

Charles was about to push him back down, but Sebastian shook his head, his hair falling into his eyes. “Give me your hand,” he murmured. Charles could not think to do other than obey and soon found his hand placed at the fastenings of Sebastian's trousers. Finally understanding that he was meant to reciprocate the attentions Sebastian had been giving him, he fumblingly loosed the bonds and brought out Sebastian's stiff prick. Sebastian leaned into him, and Charles began to stroke the long member.

Performing his own task slightly backwards, and with a dexterity for performing two distinct actions at once, Sebastian nuzzled Charles' shoulder whilst stroking him off. But even this faltered as Charles continued to rub Sebastian's prick, so that they were soon reduced, in the deepening twilight, to hands and pricks and shoulders pressed together.

Charles came first, a shuddering burst staining white Sebastian's hand and the grass and shimmering in the last of the light. He seemed shocked that such a thing had been completed, and Sebastian had to beg him, “You must help me finish.” But he could now pull Sebastian nearly into his lap, between his spread legs, and finish from behind, his face buried in Sebastian's shoulder or neck. Charles' breath was wet and hot on Sebastian's skin, and though Sebastian wanted very much to turn around and kiss him, he held steady and let Charles finish his appointed task. There would be all night for kisses.

Sebastian was not silent in his pleasures – when he did come, it was with a groan rather than a mere exhalation as Charles had done. In the bare few moment since Charles' release, it had grown too dark for the ejaculate to shine in the grass. The river had grown dark, darker than the dark grass, and the town now twinkled with the yellow-white pinpoint lights of evening. They wiped their hands in the grass and moved a little way off, leaving Aloysius to his slumbers for the moment.

Sebastian was taller than Charles, though thinner, and in the night seemed to grow pale as a ghost. His delicate features suddenly seemed less effeminate to Charles, despite what they had just done, perhaps because Sebastian had taken such a knowing lead in what they had just done. Usually he was the one in the girlish position, seeking or giving signs of affection a man might take as understood. But tonight, Charles found himself comfortable in Sebastian's arms.

They did not break the silence, or disturb the birds and insects of evening as night fell across them them. They shunned cigarettes that would mar the darkness and obliterate the smell of the river. They kissed from time to time, and occasionally fondled each other, but the sexual instinct was spent, leaving behind a residue of love. In the end, they watched the stars rise over the town, glittering blue hot high above the dim yellow lights of human endeavour.

Charles at last pulled away – the night was growing cool, and they would have to go in. The drinks and dinner had worn off long ago, and while he did not not regret how they had spent the evening, the sensible aspect of his nature said such things much come to an end. He pulled Sebastian up and kissed him one last time, lingering for a moment. “We must go,” he said. “It's late.”

“I suppose,” Sebastian said with a sigh. It was very tempting to camp out all night, but then Aloysius would be soaked in dew by morning, and that couldn't be nice for the poor thing. “Where is Aloysius?” he wondered aloud, looking around for the bear that had gone astray.

“And where are my coat and tie?” Charles asked.

A search in the dark at last turned up their coats, Sebastian's tie that really belonged to Charles anyway, and Aloysius.

“Face down!” Sebastian complained. “How could you leave him like that?”

“I was most anxious he not see us,” Charles explained, a little embarrassed to have been caught treating the bear more like a toy than like a companion.

“Oh, that was good of you,” Sebastian said to him, giving him a quick peck on the cheek just as he might have done earlier that morning. “He is naughty enough as it is, without learning new mischief from us.”

They walked back into town, not holding hands, but with Charles feeling that they must be terribly careful not to give away that anything had happened that night. It seemed so obvious to him that everything was changed that it must be glaring to anyone they met on the street. Yet no one gave them a second glance, as most of the people who had not met Aloysius were still at the dances or had returned to their hotels. When they parted, Sebastian went up to his rooms and slept soundly, for he was proud that he had not let his family prevent him from making his affections known. Charles, too, slept well in the scent of gillyflowers, for how could something so intimate and sweet be the sort of filth he feared linked with men such as Anthony Blanche. Sebastian was a being apart, and their affection, even their love, was as unique as its object.