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            “And where will the knife meet me? In my back?”

            “Of course not. The back is only stabbed by men with stealth on their minds. You already know it’s going to happen, even if I catch you unawares. So why would I keep a secret from you? Am I not already wicked enough?”

            “And yet aren’t most murders supposed to be secrets from the victim beforehand?”

            “And are we most people? Have we ever been?”

            “No.” Irving turns his head towards Hickey and watches the lamplight throw an orange shine across his cheeks. “I suppose not.”

            Hickey turns his head to Irving and the light infuses his cheeks with a red glow. Irving lays the back of one finger against Hickey’s jaw. Hickey lets him but doesn’t close his eyes, doesn’t shift his head on the pillow, doesn’t move at all. So Irving turns in Hickey’s arms and watches the light shift warm colored patterns on the tent wall instead. He reaches back for Hickey’s arm and pulls it around himself, spreading Hickey’s fingers across his chest, over his heart.

            “Here, then,” he murmurs, not so much as a question as a musing. “The knife straight through?”

            Hickey scoffs. “What, one plunge and then only the knife handle sticking out of your heart like some bit of amateur theatre?”

            Irving moves a shoulder nonchalantly and laces their fingers together. “It would be an image in a long line of tradition. Theatre – not only amateur – but art as well. Oil paintings of martyrs. Medieval manuscripts of saints dying at the hands of heretics.”

            “I see. You are in a line of tradition. Holy men clinging to their beloved, sentimental imagery, and you’re not immune.”

            “I take it I’m to be denied this method, though. No flaming sword, however much it protrudes.”

            Hickey shakes his hand from Irving’s grasp and leans up swiftly, like a willow branch suddenly being lifted by the wind. He rocks the cot as he straddles Irving, pushing him backwards and pinning his shoulders down with both palms. There’s a callus on one of his palms that Irving especially adores and he sighs as he feels the friction between it and his own bare skin. Hickey doesn’t move all the way down Irving’s body – not surprising as it’s not been twenty minutes since their last round. Instead, he stops at the bottom of where Irving’s heart beats, his hair swinging over to one side of his neck as he slows, and he applies the barest pressure of his tongue against Irving’s rib.

            “If I’m coming straight at you, I’ll probably jab you here quite a few times. But there are many factors to take into consideration. I don’t know them yet, so I can’t give you a precise image. But one thrust into your heart without removing the knife - no, I’m afraid not. I’m terribly sorry to disappoint you.” He lets his tongue linger on this rib and Irving can see his tongue shine in the light before he lifts it. Hickey tilts his head, pouting his mouth slightly and crinkling his eyebrows in a show of solemnity. “You’d linger too long, and a man like me needs to get the job done quickly.” He follows the curve of Irving’s rib with his tongue tip and Irving shivers. The Arctic cold is nothing now. It doesn’t make him shiver anymore. Only the warmth of Hickey’s body can now make his skin shudder as if in a spasm of fire.

            The fundamental condition of their relationship has rested on truth since the moment Irving had unclasped his hands from prayer and clasped them around Hickey’s face instead, fingers crushing into his hair as he’d brought their mouths together, his blood feeling like it was coursing in the wrong direction but still feeling so, so right. “I am doing this because although the Lord outlaws it, I will never know peace until I have you, and if I am not at peace with my actions, I am not truly in my covenant with God. I am sinning but I must do that rather than lie about what desire my heart holds. There is no lying before God.” He’d buried his face in Hickey’s neck while Hickey had taken care of the buttons on both of their trousers.

            “That sounds like the nice, churchly prayer of a queer man,” Hickey had said between breaths as he’d sucked and bitten at the skin of Irving’s shoulder. “You’ll sleep well at night, being at so much peace. And you’ll sleep well because I’m good at exhausting men. You’ll have to pray to your God for renewed strength after each time I’m through with you. Oh - and I’m doing this because catching a pious man like you between my hands feels good and like I’ve beaten a challenge. I’m good at beating challenges but this has pleased me especially. You held out a long time. I had doubts, and I thought days of having those were behind me.”

            Irving’s keening gasps as Hickey had touched his length with the barest of fingertip pressures. “I have this one honor then.”

            “Cherish it.”

            And then the first ravishing of Irving’s life and his desire had not been a lie, and so the truth still managed to remain the bread and butter of his immortal soul.

            Immortality, even if it had been possible, would never have been granted, though.

            “You enjoy this.” Once, while Irving still had his hands splayed on Hickey’s heaving chest, not moving himself off Hickey’s cock, not shaking off Hickey’s hands from his hips. “You really do.”

            “Observant.” Hickey had pushed his thumbs into Irving’s hips, hard. “Am I in for a speech, now?”

            Irving had pushed down onto Hickey’s chest in response to the pressure on his hips. “A brief one. You enjoy me. But we don’t lie to each other. I want this, and I’ll keep wanting it. And you will want it while it lasts. But it will end. As all things do.”

            Hickey had held his eyes steady on Irving’s but one corner of his mouth had twitched. He’d tilted his head on the pillow and trailed a finger through what Irving had spent on his chest, never moving his eyes from Irving’s, as if absorbing a beauty to its fullest and longest before the sight could be extinguished. “And who will end it?”

            Irving had licked his lips. “You.”

            Hickey had raised one eyebrow. “Why?”

            Irving had nodded his head to either side as if in consideration. “I’m expendable.”

            Hickey had closed his eyes finally and moved his chin up. “When?”

            Irving had placed a finger against Hickey’s lips and circled them. “Whenever you decide. Whenever it’s convenient for you.”

            Hickey had bitten at Irving’s finger, holding it between his teeth before releasing it. “Do I need to say, ‘Yes, that’s correct, very good, well done’?”

            Irving had slid his finger back in Hickey’s mouth, then put it in his own mouth and sucked on it briefly. “No.”

            Hickey had licked the finger he’d been trailing around his own chest. “Good. I’m tired.”

            “I wore you out?”

            “No. I could go again in a few minutes. I mean I’ve been tired of waiting for this conversation.”

            “Then why didn’t you raise the subject before?”

            “Isn’t it better that you did? Don’t the words ring truer when you bring them to the surface of your own accord, without prompting?”

            Irving had finally lifted himself off Hickey and lain down on his side, his back flush with Hickey’s chest. Hickey had wrapped his fingers around the skin near Irving’s shoulder, but the gesture had felt more like reassurance than possessiveness. “Yes,” Irving had finally said, the word coming out like a breath, like something natural. “I chose this when I chose you.” And he had fallen silent, smiling softly, until Hickey had lifted his head.

            “Do you have another speech?” Hickey had sounded genuinely curious, and there was a note in his voice that nearly wavered, if Irving judged it correctly, and he knew he had.

            “About my choice?” Irving had laughed, a genuine one, no calculation. “No. I only wanted to find you off your guard. I chose this because I can’t think of a better way to go. Freezing to death, starving to death, falling ill. All bitter tonics. So much better to choose a lover who will do the job but give you so much pleasure first.” And he’d laughed again as Hickey’s fingers had weakened their grip on his shoulder before clenching it again. He’d felt as if he’d managed to hold water within the cup of his hands without it dripping away.

            Now, Hickey tongues a line up Irving’s ribs to the center of his heart. “You figured out the game very fast, if I recall.” He licks Irving’s nipple until it’s hard and then sucks on it, not quite gently but not quite roughly either. Somewhere in between, like the somewhere-in-between, not black or white, not light grey or dark grey, not quite definable-at-all world that Cornelius Hickey seems inhabit. Irving strokes between the waves of Hickey’s hair as he feels himself stirring again.

            “It wasn’t just a game. It was your game. I moved myself onto the board when you weren’t looking. You thought you were looking. But you weren’t. Mmph.” One of his knees rises as Hickey runs a fingertip around the inside of his thigh while still licking around his nipple. “I beat you at this without ever lying to you. I’ll always be proud of that.”

            Hickey lifts his head up and props his chin on Irving’s chest, still stroking his thigh. “It’s interesting how you reckon that you’ve beaten me. I doubt most people would see it that way. I feel that an ‘I’m the spider and you’re the fly’ metaphor would be readily applied to us by them.”

            “It’s likely.” Irving curls a lock of Hickey’s hair between his fingers and holds it, relishing the softness. “I can hear it. ‘Poor, poor John Irving. It’s not his fault he was seduced. That deviant, lowly Hickey caught him in his web when the poor lieutenant was at his weakest: cold, hungry, tired, prone to illness, close to death and so closer to God than he knew.’ Something like that? Oh,” he breathes as Hickey squeezes his thigh with all his fingers. “I am close to God, it’s true. He’s given me fortitude. In the face of this journey, and in the face of you.” Another squeeze, a little harder. “And I-I, oh. Alright. If we’re doing this.” He bats Hickey’s hand away, shoves Hickey off him, pins him onto his back.

            It’s quite delightful, knowing that he can diminish Hickey’s coherent powers of speech by using his own mouth and tongue without words. Although he had no experience before Hickey, he’s become perfectly adept at sucking him in such a way that Hickey’s knuckles go nearly white as he grasps Irving’s shoulders. It’s especially satisfying when he makes Hickey far gone enough that Hickey bucks helplessly into Irving’s mouth, that lying still on his back isn’t enough, that he needs his cock so far down Irving’s throat that he’s willing to work for the pleasure, to move his hips as much and as wildly as possible to achieve the task. It’s similarly satisfying when he arches his back as Irving pushes one finger into him, then two, then three and then Hickey’s spitting on his own hand and guiding Irving inside himself. Their mutual loss of control is at its height while Irving thrusts inside him, Hickey digging his nails into Irving’s shoulder blades, Irving bucking as fast as he can until his whole universe is ecstasy. No stars, no planets, no revolutions around the sun. Only bodily joy.

And then Irving ponders the concept of control occasionally after they’ve spent themselves, sometimes while he’s even still inside Hickey, Hickey holding the cheeks of his arse in place to make sure Irving doesn’t pull out.

When they lay like that, Irving having experienced the peak of earthly pleasure even while Hickey always has a knife somewhere, Irving thinks that control, in whatever entity it exists, must be frightened of both of them. Control watches them break bread together but never eat, each man giving the other his own portion, then taking it back, then giving it again for all eternity. Control doesn’t like this, doesn’t like any scale it can’t make to balance with one side weighing the other down. It doesn’t like bargains that are actually pacts.

When Hickey dresses to leave for his own tent for the night, Irving leans back on his elbows on the cot and watches him like a show. He watches each movement of Hickey’s hands, nimble and delicate fingers tying ties and buttoning buttons, then rough pinches of fingertips adjusting boots and collars. Hands that have known every single part of Irving’s body and will introduce a knife to it one day when Irving leans the wrong way on Hickey’s path. Maybe Control will make a verdict on that day. It certainly can’t now, not when Hickey uses both his hands to hold Irving’s face up to his own to kiss him lightly, rougher, lightly again. It must be a beautiful sight. It’s a beautiful feeling, and Irving holds on to it long after Hickey has left and the lamplight is gone. The knife will come and however long Irving lives to experience the rest of his tomorrows, he’ll end the day drinking wine with God in this life or the next, the chalice free of poison.