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A Night at Sea

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It is an easy night, the sea gently rocking under a black clear sky. Killick has long since retired, leaving Jack and Stephen to their music. Hours, long into the night they play, the violin and 'cello expressing the emotions they will not expose and the phrases they cannot speak: joining, twining, rising and surging together before the slow peaceful fall that lingers, softens, is reborn in variation, repeated again but never the same, until at last with a final note held by 'cello, the expression becomes silence. It is a small illusory silence spanning the distance between them, for around them are bells, creaks, calls, waves, the groaning of the Surprise's hull, and the conversations of the men. No privacy here -- not the privacy of Jack's room at the club, Stephen's room at the Grapes, a room at a wayside inn, the hayloft of a neglected barn, a secluded glen in the shelter of trees, or, as during one madly impatient ravenous night, a tall hedge at the far corner of a lush moist field along an empty stretch of road.

With a meaningful look at Stephen Jack sets down the violin and opens the door to the sleeping cabin they share. Stephen replaces the 'cello in its case and rises, goes to him where he stands. No words are needed for their hearts are known, their desires shared, and their regrets understood.

Stephen takes the ribbon first, plucking at the knot until it unwinds in his fingers and Jack's hair falls free in a thick wave, a darkening yellow, sadly coarse after so many months of salt-water bathing, but still a temptation. Casting the ribbon aside Stephen comes round, running his fingers through Jack's hair, untangling it and combing it loose and wild. He touches the ugly scar on Jack's ear and pauses. Jack's eyes are a blue both dark and brilliant, watching him. Stephen returns the look with a slight tilt of his head and runs his hands from Jack's shoulders to his chest then to his waist: the thin fabric warm beneath his palms. He tugs at the shirttails until they tumble from Jack's breeches and gathering them in his fists he pulls them up, dragging the shirt from Jack's chest and arms and head.

Jack breathes deeply -- the rise and fall of his broad, dark, scarred chest. His fingers twitch at his sides, restless. Stephen smiles and takes one round, strong hand in his. He lifts it to skim his lips over each cracked and rough knuckle. He blows and disturbs the lines of hairs along Jack's wrist, and Jack extends one finger, draws it along Stephen's lower lip, barely pushing.

Stephen lets go, dropping the shirt, and rests his fingertips on Jack's belly where it moves back and out above his breeches. Warm skin, damp, sweaty. He glides his fingers up, rubs one soft nipple and the growth of hair around it. Jack's look doesn't waver, but he swallows, and the smooth flesh of his neck, the hollow of his throat, are too tantalising. Stephen resists, drawing a deep breath, but all before him now is temptation: Jack's lips and jaw and throat and the bare expanse of his shoulders and chest. Stephen drops to his knees and seizes Jack's boot.

Could that be a chuckle, a smug and wicked stifled chuckle, now? he thinks, but it is not: Jack has released a drawn, suspended breath. There is high colour in his cheeks; he licks his lips. Stephen works the thick tough boot from the heel and yanks it off as Jack steadies himself by grasping a deck beam. Pulls the other off: sets them aside. He unbuckles Jack's breeches at the knees and runs his hands up inside, over powerful thighs to reach the bands of Jack's stockings. Down he rolls them, down muscular, surprisingly shapely legs. He pats Jack's feet and, stockings discarded, rises and moves behind.

The desire is quick, raw, startling. Jack's back before him: the line and curve of his spine, the shadows of his shoulder blades, the outlines of his muscles, the grey smudges of scars, the sheen of sweat on his skin. To grab Jack now -- to take him, fill him, satisfy him; to watch that back writhe and twist before him; to clutch him, dig his fingernails into his skin, bite his back -- it is too much to bear. Almost. Stephen marshals control, with some effort, and lifts a barely trembling finger and runs it down the length of Jack's spine to the small of his back.

Jack sighs very quietly, and the sound is steadying, reassuring. Yearning mastered -- or nearly so -- Stephen strokes his back down from the solid line of shoulder muscles to his hips. He unties the band at the back of Jack's breeches and reaches forward to unbutton them. Stephen guides them down Jack's legs, to the deck, and Jack steps from his clothes, breathing heavily. The loose light cover of his underclothes don't conceal his nascent arousal; the scent of his musk and sweat is spellbinding and drug-like.

They face each other, Jack holding Stephen's hands, and stand for a long moment. Understood and known: memories of hunger and passion, the promise of future delights and pleasure. They are alone in the easy night, but for the world around them: bells soft on the westerly breeze, men's voices and movement, the decks' creaking as the ship rolls with the sea, a steady five knots.

Jack starts with Stephen's hands, holding the long, nimble, healed fingers and rubbing from fingernail to knuckle. Stephen watches, and his eyes are pale but warm, full of invitation. Jack lifts one hand and kisses it, palm down, and Stephen gives him a rueful smile. Jack lifts the other, palm up, and kisses the centre: hot, slightly salty. Stephen's fingertips twitch and touch Jack's lips.

Jack releases Stephen's hands and reaches for his neckcloth. The knot is obstinate, resists, finally yields and gives way and the cloth flutters to the deck. Jack opens Stephen's collar, exposing the dip of his throat, shadowy skin. He touches his thumb to the hollow, feels Stephen quiver subtly. His fingers slide to the top button of Stephen's waistcoat and push it free. Slowly each button is undone while Jack watches Stephen's lips, remembers their taste, longs for their touch. Stephen takes a breath, his lips parted: a strong temptation. Jack curls his fingers in the thick embroidered cloth of Stephen's waistcoat and pauses, moving his gaze away to watch the rise and fall of Stephen's chest beneath his shirt. Stephen strokes a wayward lock of hair from Jack's face in a patient, soothing gesture. Jack eases his grip on the cloth, runs his hands under the waistcoat to Stephen's shoulders and slips it down so it falls to Stephen's elbows, wrists, then to the floor.

He kneels and slides Stephen's feet from his flat, worn shoes. He rests his hands on Stephen's bony ankles and runs his palms up Stephen's legs: spare but strong, the shape of his calves a sensuous curve. The knees of Stephen's breeches are already unbuckled; Jack moves his hands over them in a smooth caress up Stephen's lean thighs, very warm, to his waist. He pulls the breeches buttons from their holes and rubs down Stephen's legs, bringing the breeches and stockings down with his hands.

Now before him are Stephen's bare legs and feet: still somewhat pale. Stephen's shirt hangs loose and low, but Jack can feel the heat centred beneath it, knows the scent and taste so well that his mouth waters. The memory is on his tongue: a smooth heavy hot glide to the back of his throat; Stephen's body taut and tense before shuddering quickly in succession; thickly swallowing. Jack bites the tip of his tongue, lets the memory recede, and rises. Stephen looks at him, steadying his breath.

Moving behind, Jack lifts Stephen's shirt from the tails and draws it up and over Stephen's head and arms. Allure too overwhelming, Jack wraps his arms around Stephen's middle and holds him, just barely pressing. He touches his lips to the straight wide line of Stephen's shoulders, Stephen breathes out a soft sigh, and a moment later Jack lets go, his fingers straying to the small scar on Stephen's belly: now old and harmless, once the spot of uncertain life and death.

Jack faces him, brushes Stephen's wispy side-whiskers with his finger, and looks into his eyes. Stephen rests his hand on Jack's cheek. They are alone, but for the world around him. Gently they move apart, Jack bending to pick up the clothes and leave them on a chest, Stephen fetching their nightshirts. He helps Jack into his, and Jack guides Stephen into the other. He clasps Stephen's hand as Stephen steps into his sleeping cot, then goes about the cabin to blow out the candles. Bare feet following the well-known grooves and warps in the deck's planking, Jack makes his way to the sleeping cabin and to his cot swaying next to Stephen's. He climbs in and arranges the blanket, aware of Stephen's breath and warmth and scent in the dark.

Stephen says, "Good night, my dear," and Jack says, "Good night."

(the end)