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Envy the Instrument

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Dinner had been brought to the room at a quarter of, rather than at nine as requested, so Jack Aubrey could not really be blamed for tucking in. The man who’d brought it hadn’t understood the order anyway, which was odd, as Jack had made a damned good effort at the language and felt he ought to have been met in the middle. Still, it was an excellent meal of roasted waterfowl and fresh-cut fruit, still dripping, so Jack felt it was not quite the thing to complain.

His absent companion, Stephen Maturin, was not due to arrive until nine o’clock precisely, when he would knock thrice upon the door- like so, Jack, you must commit this to memory- and utter the passphrase. Jack had only to wait until then, working his way through his meal and most of Stephen’s, and enjoying the warm, damp night air rolling in through the open window. He had already done his bit, which is to say, he had gotten himself invited to a party at the home of the governor of the island, and had danced with his daughter, Ms. Amanda Hewlett, for fourteen minutes precisely, before excusing himself and ducking out back through the kitchens. From there he had hustled himself out into the garden, making an effort to appear most inconspicuous, and placed a parcel of papers beneath a likely looking bush- remember, Jack, the hibiscus rosa-sinensis, not the bougainvillea glabra- before retiring straightaway to the address Stephen had provided.

It had not been a difficult job, but Jack was so rarely called upon to assist Stephen in matters of espionage that he was determined to get it right. He allowed that Stephen knew better than he in these matters, and he did not ask questions, not even concerning the room Stephen had insisted they take before sailing for Lisbon.

This was the first molly-house Jack had knowingly set foot in. It was very unlike what he had imagined. The servants had been polite and discreet. The guests chatting in the parlor or playing whist in the back had been in varying states of undress, to be sure, but that was not unusual for the West Indies. There were no lads whatsoever, and that had been a shock- Jack had assumed that molly-houses served mainly as a place of ren-dees-vooz between men and boys. He had told Stephen this directly, whereupon Stephen gently corrected his French and told him that, in fact, this was not such a house, and he had picked it merely for its clandestine nature and commitment to privacy. It was a kind of safe house, and one that Stephen was more than happy to make use of. There, he said, they were sure to be left alone.

Jack called out into the hall for another carafe of wine and began to look about his room, searching for any overt signs of the nature of this place. He could see none. In all respects, it was a perfectly ordinary room, though the curtains were black and uncommon heavy, suggesting that they might be drawn across the window to block out all light from the street below. The bedroom itself, which branched off from the main room and had a lock on the door, had no windows at all.

Jack was not exactly sure what he had expected. He had certainly not expected to fit in, but the other guests took to his boisterous personality and vigorous appetite very well indeed, and had contrived to interrupt his solitude at numerous points in the evening. Mostly they inquired if he should like to come downstairs and play whist with them, and Jack did, very much so, but Stephen was due back at nine and he was rather looking forward to seeing him again. It had been almost the whole day.

Jack was just wondering if he himself could be considered a sodomite- he had loved women all his life and found the thought of personal attentions from any man but Stephen to be frankly distasteful- when he heard the promised three knocks, and a whisper of, “Long we’ve tossed on the rolling main.”

“Ah, Stephen! There you are,” said Jack loudly, rising at once and wiping his mouth on the back of his wrist. He unlocked the door and threw it wide; Stephen shuffled in hurriedly and shut the door again behind him.

“I do wish you wouldn’t shout so,” said Stephen, but he smiled when he said it. Jack helped him out of his coat. “We are endeavoring not to be recognized. I don’t suppose you left my dinner alone?”

“Forgive me, Stephen, but you weren’t here, and it was in danger of growing cold.”

“Always the same sordid excuse. You have not been troubled by the other guests?”

“No, no,” said Jack, with an airy wave of the hand. He sat down again and Stephen sat across from him. “They have all been perfect gentlemen. One might never have known they were sodomites.”

Stephen gave him a pained look, but let the remark pass. He tucked into his remaining meal with a hunger that suggested a long day and a meager breakfast. “I am glad to hear it. I have missed you, joy,” he added, and this last was said with a wistfulness so uncommon for him that Jack felt strangely touched.

“And I have missed you,” he said, looking at Stephen with great fondness. “But we are here now. And, and!” He nodded at the bedroom door. “I have brought your dunnage ashore- I thought we might have a little music before retiring?”

“With all my heart,” said Stephen, with a wan smile. He looked about to say something else when they heard someone knock at the door, and his posture stiffened instinctively. He frowned.

“No matter,” sighed Jack. He stood up. “It has been like this all evening. The other guests simply will not leave me be.”

“I thought you said they behaved in a gentlemanly manner,” said Stephen sharply, with an odd edge to his tone.

“They are not animals, to be sure. But they have got it into their heads that they should like to play me at cards, and though I have told them time and again that I am expecting a guest, they do not listen,” said Jack. He gave Stephen an apologetic look and ducked into the hall. A moment later he returned, holding aloft a fresh carafe. “Never mind, it was the wine,” he said cheerily, plunking it down on the table by Stephen’s plate. “I had quite forgotten about it. Drink?”

“Please,” Stephen muttered, and Jack poured them each a glass.

The placement of the table, which seated them close to the open window, afforded them a fine view of the distant harbor. Jack thought of the coarse black sand of the local coastline, and the tide pools that filled the gaps in the rocks like puddles of glass. He ought to ask Stephen to go swimming with him before they leave- sun and sea and Stephen was a wonderful combination, one that gave Jack the utmost pleasure, and he would be happy even just to lie naked on the sand, watching Stephen, in a similar state, perch himself upon the rocks and point out to Jack all the myriad of little animals that might wash up in a tide pool.

“Stephen,” said Jack, his mind occupied by this very pleasing image. “I don’t suppose-”

“Do you think me a ridiculous man?” said Stephen.

Jack looked at him with some surprise. Then he said, very seriously, “No, Stephen, I certainly do not.”

Stephen looked down at his empty plate. “I am grateful for it,” he said. “There are times when I feel very ridiculous indeed.”

“Brought by the lee?” Jack said gently.

The corner of Stephen’s mouth twitched. “Yes. Perhaps so.”

“I am sorry to hear it.”

“I confess, the necessities of my work were not the only reasons why I proposed this address to you,” said Stephen. He looked up from his plate. “If I am to be perfectly candid, it has been some time since our last intimacy. Far, far too long. I had hoped . . .” and here his voice, already halting and uncertain, simply gave out on him, and he fell silent.

Jack reached across the table and took Stephen’s hand in his own. “Forgive me,” he said, feeling very much the scrub. “I had not intended . . . but we have scarcely gone unobserved since we sailed from Portsmouth, and what with one thing and another . . .” He felt a sudden lurch of dread in his stomach. “You do not doubt that I desire you, Stephen?”

“Never in life,” said Stephen quickly.

Jack hesitated, uncertain. “I don’t suppose . . .” He said tentatively. “Has . . . I mean to say, has Diana been . . .”

He wished to say, denying you, but it didn’t seem quite the thing to say it to Stephen’s face. Stephen heard it just the same, however, for his shoulders slumped, and a look of abject misery crossed his face before he could hide it.

Jack swallowed. He could feel an old, familiar anger building up inside of him but he set it aside, lest Stephen mistake it for pity. His friend could not bear to be pitied. Instead, Jack said, “Well, I shan’t, you know. Not ever.”

He saw Stephen’s jaw work as he ground his teeth together. “I will not demand of her what she does not wish to give,” he said, in a low voice. “The so-called duties of a wife-”

“Of course not, brother. You are not that kind of man,” said Jack. He still held Stephen’s hand across the table; he squeezed it now, hoping it was a comfort. “It is only that . . . well, you know she only does it to make you so very low that you will do absolutely anything she asks. You know this.”

For a moment, he wondered if he’d spoken too freely, but after a moment, Stephen squeezed his hand in return. “You said that we might have music,” he said quietly. “I would love that of all things.”

“Then music we shall have,” said Jack, a little of his earlier joy creeping back into his tone. He squeezed Stephen’s hand once more and stood up. “Shall I fetch your cello?”

It was the work of several minutes to lug the damn thing out of the bedroom, but soon enough Stephen had it resting between his knees, and had begun to tune it. Jack waited patiently for him to finish, and when he was ready, he played an old favorite of theirs, one that highlighted the accord between the two instruments without demanding that they be handled the same. It was very good music, and it felt like a sort of homecoming; the worries and cares of mere moments ago seemed to vanish as they played. They found each other, kept pace with each other, let their songs seem to caper round and round each other in the air until they coupled. The voices of both instruments sang out into silence in unison, and Jack flicked his hair back from his forehead with a satisfied sigh, his heart feeling warm with the pleasure of good music. “Come now, what is this?” he said, feigning annoyance as he heard the unmistakable sound of Stephen trying not to laugh. “Is my playing so bad as all that?”

Stephen laughed in earnest then, a rare occurrence. He smiled at Jack with great sincerity. “It is happiness, joy, not derision. I promise you.”

“Upon my word, Stephen, you do have the ugliest laugh.”

Stephen sighed happily and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb. “Then it suits the rest of me, sure.”

Jack scoffed and picked up his fiddle again. “You could not have had beauty to match your brains, soul,” he said, tapping out the time on his knee. “It would have been damned unfair to the rest of us.”

He touched his bow to the strings and played something careless and deceptively complex. Stephen picked up his own bow and joined in, offering a low, rollicking counterpoint, a heartbeat on which Jack might play infinite variations. The hot, damp nighttime air had led Stephen to turn his shirtsleeves up to the elbow, showing Jack the handsome turn of his wrists.

Jack could not argue, even with himself, that Stephen was not very ugly. He had a lean, hungry look to him, and a wolfish face, and his eyes were very pale; yet the sight of his collarbones shining with sweat and bared to the night air, and the movement of his throat as he swallowed, made Jack’s breath catch.

Moreover, there was the matter of height. Jack did not fully understand why Stephen should find his short stature so disagreeable. He was, in Jack’s opinion, an excellent height, for Jack might lean his elbow comfortably upon Stephen’s shoulder, causing him to give Jack such a murderous look as to make him positively glow with satisfaction. No, his height was certainly his second-most attractive quality- third-most, Jack amended, thinking cheerfully of Stephen's prick- and only narrowly exceeded by his hands, which now set aside his bow to reach again for his glass.

Jack played on in the silence. His eyes lingered on Stephen as he sat back in his chair, his posture at a comfortable slouch, his appearance seeming more and more like one of erotic dishevelment. He drank deeply from his cup. Jack’s eyes followed a thin line of wine dripping down his wrist.

They were very good hands, he thought, with a little desperation. Hands with nails so often black from dirt or blood, and fingers still stiff from torture that were yet capable of drawing the lightest sigh of music from the strings of his cello. Hands that knew Jack’s scars and could name every one of them by touch alone. Fingers that had so often tangled in Jack’s hair, slipping between the plaits of his braid to unravel it when Stephen made love to him, his eyes shut tight and his face screwed up in concentration, as though he were playing an adagio on Jack’s person and he wished to commit it to memory.

Jack became aware of Stephen’s eyes upon him. He blushed and lowered his bow. “Damn it all,” he said. “I believe I’ve lost the tune.”

“Then I shall find it again,” said Stephen. He removed his spectacles and beckoned Jack closer.

Jack set his fiddle aside and went to him, helping him set the cello against the far wall before kneeling at his feet. Stephen’s hands, warm and rough and perfectly gentle, caressed Jack’s neck and shoulders; he leaned forward to kiss Jack’s upturned face. “Is it so very odd,” said Jack softly, looking up at Stephen through half-closed eyes, “to envy the instrument that lies between your legs?”

“Which one?” said Stephen with a small smile, and he took Jack’s hand in his and pressed it firmly to the hard bulge in his breeches.

The unexpected wordplay made Jack’s heart shake in his breast; it swelled with such a tremendous glow of love and affection that for a moment he felt struck dumb by it. He must have looked perfectly helpless, for Stephen’s gaze, which had a moment ago been lascivious, softened into a look of fond disbelief. “Jack,” he murmured. “You ought not to look at me so. I did not hang the stars in the sky.”

“I would seem to navigate by you rather more than the stars,” Jack said weakly. He palmed Stephen’s hard prick through his breeches, felt the shudder that ran through him as he unconsciously moved his hips against Jack’s hand. “Oh, Stephen. I am very glad to be alone with you at last.”

“As am I,” said Stephen, in an unsteady voice.

Jack rose and closed the curtains, then returned to his chair by the window. Stephen’s eyes did not leave Jack’s person all the while, and at the invitation of Jack’s open arms, he stood up and went to him swiftly, throwing his arms about his neck.

It did not seem right to seat Stephen upon his knee as though he were some dockyard trollop, but he was kissing Jack with great insistence, all but crawling into his awaiting lap, and Jack did not feel that he could rely upon himself to deny Stephen anything. He shuddered when Stephen had fully seated himself; he seemed to weigh nothing at all, yet his prick pressed hard and insistent against the swell of Jack’s belly, and he squirmed ecstatically, as though he could not get comfortable. Jack felt a great desire to seize him by his hips and hold him down, the better to grind his prick against Jack’s own. Instead he put his arms around him and set about smothering him with messy, puppyish kisses on every part of his face, lingering particularly on the corner of Stephen’s mouth until Stephen let out a low and filthy groan and clung to the front of Jack’s shirt, chasing Jack’s mouth with his own to kiss him properly. Jack hummed appreciatively- being soundly kissed by Stephen was one of his principal joys in life- and let Stephen indulge, feeling thoroughly feasted upon as Stephen’s tongue licked into his mouth, drinking deeply from the wellspring of Jack’s affection.

Jack’s hands pawed clumsily at Stephen’s body. He kneaded the pleasant swell of Stephen’s backside and slapped it playfully, just once. The reaction was immediately and utterly gratifying; Stephen jerked in surprise, gasping sharply into Jack’s mouth. He looked at Jack with such outrage that Jack could not hold back a giggle of laughter, a giggle that became a full-throated laugh as Stephen’s fingers found the place beneath his arm where he was most sensitive. He instinctively drew his arms in to defend himself- Stephen, now grinning wolfishly at the prospect of revenge, did not relent, and Jack, flushed cherry-red and reduced to uncontrollable giggling, was forced to take Stephen’s wrists in both hands and pin them behind his back, keeping him locked tight in Jack’s embrace. He pressed his forehead against Stephen’s shoulder and sighed in happy exhaustion. Stephen, pinned as he was, could do little more than lean down and kiss the top of his head. “My joy,” he murmured. “How you make me smile.”

“May we go to bed now, Stephen?” said Jack hoarsely, between kisses to the soft part of Stephen’s throat. “I will beg, if you ask me to.”

“You need never beg,” said Stephen. “Come here.”

Jack released his hands and Stephen put them on either side of his face, holding him steady as he kissed his mouth. His fingers worked their way into Jack’s hair, untying his ribbon and combing out his hair with great tenderness. He nuzzled his face into Jack’s hair and breathed deeply. He looked as though he wanted to say something, but could not find the words, and Jack, who knew the feeling, kissed him so he would not speak, and eased him up off of his lap. Stephen took Jack’s hands as he stood and grunted theatrically as though hoisting him up, before pulling him close and kissing Jack’s protests into silence. “I cannot keep my mouth off you,” he mumbled, sounding almost sleepy with pleasure. “I feel like a boy again.”

Jack, who dearly loved Stephen’s mouth, felt his neglected prick throb with interest. He began to fuss with his own shirt and breeches but only had them partly undone before Stephen steered him into the bedroom with one hand on the small of his back. “Now, for all love,” he insisted, helping Jack with his buttons. “Even the smell of your hair excites me.”

Jack found himself feeling both thrilled and pained at the sight of Stephen so undone. It aroused him, but he profoundly wished that Stephen had not been so neglected. He could not get out of his clothes fast enough- though he hung them up tidily on a chair in counterpoint to the careless pile Stephen made of his own- and got his arms around Stephen’s lean body once again, sitting upon the edge of the bed and pulling Stephen down atop him. His hands fumbled in his hurry, for he was used to hasty coupling in the early hours of the morning, but Stephen’s hand on his wrist stilled him.

Stephen’s hands roamed the scarred expanse of Jack’s chest, and he looked down at Jack with a look of utmost tenderness. He kissed Jack’s neck, and his breast just over his heart, and the line of pale blond hair leading downward from his naval. His mouth found Jack’s prick and began to lavish attention upon it, suckling at it with great intensity and fondness, and Jack felt a wonderfully warm, languid sense of pleasure shudder through him, as though he were melting onto Stephen’s tongue. “Stephen,” he groaned, feeling an unconscionable desire to stretch himself out like a tremendous cat. “You are too good to me, soul.”

Stephen responded by drawing the full flat of his tongue up the soft, wrinkled sack of Jack’s stones. Jack’s whole body trembled with sudden tension; he bit his own knuckles hard to stifle his cry. He felt abruptly aware of his exposure, the most vulnerable part of himself open to Stephen’s whims, but instead of the feared nip of teeth he felt only the warm, wet attentions of Stephen’s tongue, and the occasional soft sucking sensation that made Jack feel faint with pleasure.

Jack managed a weak croaking noise that might have been an attempt at Stephen’s name as Stephen’s hands found his thighs and gripped them hard, digging into the muscle. His clever tongue continued to attend to Jack’s pleasure as he mouthed at his stones, and as he moved still lower Jack heard him groan long and low in his throat before sucking a wet, messy kiss to the center of Jack’s entrance.

Jack’s hands fisted in the bedsheets and he gasped in shock and pleasure both; he closed his legs instinctively, without thinking, but far from being smothered Stephen let out a muffled groan and clutched at Jack’s thighs, encouraging him. Jack felt unmanned, completely undone- he had never been so thoroughly attended to, not in this way, and the idea had frankly not occurred to him. With a great effort he relinquished the sheets with one hand and cupped the back of Stephen’s head. It seemed the thing to do, and he was enormously gratified when Stephen let out another throaty sigh and licked deeper, hungrily preparing Jack for what was to come. Jack heard an actual slurp that made him blush scarlet from his face all down to his chest, and he dropped his head back against the bed, unable to do anything more than look at the ceiling and feel Stephen draw him, trembling, to the very cusp of release. “Oh, Stephen,” His voice cracked when he said it. “Stephen, soul, my soul, you must- ah- I would have you, Stephen, if you please . . . you said I need not beg . . . you did say . . .”

He felt Stephen’s shuddering exhale as he leaned his forehead against Jack’s thigh, eyes closed and breathing hard, seeming to come back to himself as he remembered what they were about. His lips were red and swollen from hard use and Jack felt certain, looking at him, that he had never seen anything so erotic in the whole of his life. Stephen’s eyes opened; he affixed Jack with a look dark with lust, and Jack felt a thrill of affectionate excitement flood through him as he beckoned Stephen up, up, to lie atop him and be held in Jack’s arms while they made love.

Stephen crawled up and lay flat against him, his hands braced against the bed as he allowed Jack to envelop him in his embrace. He pressed his face against Jack’s neck as he penetrated him, slowly at first, but Jack felt his sharp intake of breath and the tremble that passed through his body; he stroked his hands down Stephen’s back, murmuring nonsense and sweet encouragements, and Stephen let out a broken noise and seated himself fully within his lover.

The pleasure of their coupling was ecstatic, and Jack held him closer, urging him onwards. They had made love like this many times before, and Jack never tired of observing Stephen in the act. There was an intensity to his silence in these moments that filled Jack with wonder; his jaw was set, his eyes squeezed tightly shut as he pressed Jack close to him, blindly struggling to force himself deeper, deeper. He was not altogether human when he was like this, and Jack reveled in it, gloried in Stephen’s harsh and panting breaths, the bruising clutch of his hands, and a particularly passionate thrust into his body made him cry out just as someone pounded on the hall door so hard it rattled in its frame.

Stephen slammed his hand down on the head of the bed and squeezed it till the veins stood out in his arm; only by doing this, it seemed, could he restrain himself from continuing. They lay in an agonizing stillness, both of them breathing hard and sweating profusely. There was a wild look in Stephen’s eyes. His jaw was tightly clenched.

The knocking came again and Stephen snarled, actually snarled through his teeth, and removed himself from Jack so roughly that Jack felt a sudden pain at the loss. The sight of Stephen’s prick standing hard and unsatisfied between his legs, still wet from their coupling, made Jack’s mouth go dry. He watched Stephen wrestle himself into his breeches with shaking hands before staggering out of the bedroom, slamming the door so hard that the walls shook.

Jack felt an unconscionable urge to cover his face; he did so, and his whole body began to shake with repressed mirth. He felt at once aroused and mortified, two wildly differing sensations that were only enhanced by the sound of Stephen’s muffled shouting beyond the door. Jack could not understand the language, but he did not need to. He felt a kind of hysterical pity for whatever young gentleman had come to the door hoping to see him, only to be given an unexpected lesson in who, precisely, had a standing claim on Jack’s person.

After a moment he heard a second door slam, and then Stephen was fumbling with the bedroom door. He wrenched it open so violently that Jack actually quailed. He sat up in bed and looked Stephen up and down. “By God,” he said weakly, trying and failing to keep a straight face as he took in Stephen’s flushed face and heaving chest. “I do hope you didn’t kill him.”

“Lie down and let me have you,” said Stephen.

This extraordinary pronouncement brooked no argument, and Jack fell back upon the bed. Stephen climbed upon him at once, settling into his place between Jack’s legs, and thrust his prick hard into him without ceremony. Jack’s entrance made an embarrassingly wet sound at the intrusion and both men groaned in appreciation.

Stephen sank in to the hilt, looking the very picture of ecstasy. A guttural sigh escaped him as he finally took his pleasure, rutting into Jack with needy, insistent thrusts. Jack made a soft, choked noise and fisted his hands in the bedsheets. “Ah, that’s it,” he mumbled, feeling delirious with pleasure. “That’s the way.”

At first Stephen broke his silence only with the occasional grunt of profanity, but soon his hands were again in Jack’s hair, and he was whispering Jack’s name again and again with terrible earnestness. “Jack,” he murmured, “Jack, Jack,” and Jack held him tightly as he came shuddering to his release, kissing his face and neck and promising him more nights like this, a hundred nights. His own release came only moments after as he stroked his prick, his other hand caressing the length of Stephen’s back.

They lay limp in one another’s arms after, feeling wrung-out and spent. Stephen lay atop him still, but his weight was nothing at all to Jack, and if it pleased Stephen to use him as a pillow then Jack was more than happy to oblige. The silence was profoundly peaceful. Jack found one of Stephen’s hands and brought it to his lips, kissing his calloused palm. “We will not sail until late tomorrow,” he said quietly, hopefully. “Might we do this again, Stephen? Promise me?”

“Upon my word,” murmured Stephen. He pressed a kiss to the place just over Jack’s heart. “Yes, yes.”

“You didn’t go too hard on the poor fellow, I hope.”

He felt, rather than saw, Stephen's smile. “I’m afraid I did, joy. I was rather cruel.”

“I heard you through the door,” Jack said fondly. He kissed the top of Stephen’s head. “I expect you taught him a lesson he won’t soon forget.”

“I should hope so,” said Stephen. He stretched himself out with a low groan and leaned his bony elbows upon Jack's chest, making him wince. “I believe I could fall asleep like this.”

“On no account. I am already smothered,” said Jack, utterly failing to keep a serious look on his face.

“Nonsense, I am quite thin.”

“But profoundly well-formed. Your weight is intolerable. Remove yourself at once.”

“I would,” said Stephen warmly, “if you would only remove your arms from about my person.”

“What a puzzle this is,” Jack murmured, and kissed him again. “Unsolvable, I’d say.”

“Byzantine in its complexity.”

“My dear,” said Jack, “would it be very ridiculous to tell you I love you?”

“Yes,” said Stephen, “but I would hear it anyway.”

“I will say it as many times as you please,” said Jack, and he whispered it in Stephen’s ear with the utmost gentleness, until he knew that Stephen had gone to sleep. Only then did he close his eyes, still holding Stephen in his arms, and the last thought he had before sleep took him was that it had been a very, very good evening, and he hoped that the morning to follow would be even better.