Harry pauses and looks around before slipping into the cabin and closing the door.
It’s not a good idea really. He knows it comes with risk. But it is dark and cold and the ship is crowded enough that he is sure – well, sure enough – that nobody will miss him. The few that might will probably have a decent idea of where he might have gone and they will understand and cover for him if necessary.
John is not back. Harry toys with a playful thought of undressing and tucking himself naked into that bunk, enjoys envisioning a few steamy results of that action but decides to stick with a more sensible reality of simply waiting with a book in hand. It would be most unlikely for John to return with anybody for any reason – but also the kind of cursed thing the universe might do if Harry tried it.
He’ll have to remember to whisper it to John later though. He thinks John will like the idea, as an idea. John often likes to listen to his ideas. He sits and smiles but never in an unpleasant way, always just in that lovely way that means he is listening. John is always wonderful at listening. It is one of the things Harry first liked about him. The feeling that someone was paying attention to what he was saying and hearing it, not just letting Harry’s words go by and forgetting them straight away. Harry wasn’t that used to being listened to, not then. He was just little Harry Peglar, nobody important. Kind of an idiot really, a man who couldn’t read or understand things. Not worthy of attention.
John had seem him differently. Still sees him differently. John had taught him the magic of words, helped him see how they worked, encouraged him to put his own thoughts onto paper, told him that there was nothing wrong with seeing the world in a strange way and putting it down like that, even if it wasn’t the way everybody else did.
“People do. All people do, in some way. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to make note of it, that’s all. You write your thoughts down, however little they might seem and one day, one day they just might make everyone take notice.”
Harry doubts any of his own little words will draw the attention of future souls but there is something wondrous about being able to record what’s in his head on a bit of paper. Sometimes, it doesn’t come out how he hoped but that’s all right. John said that would happen to.
Sometimes, it amazes Harry that John knows so much. He’s so comfortable with all his knowledge too, he never makes Harry feel stupid. He just passes on what he knows, lets you take it in and feel better with it.
Perhaps it’s one of the reasons it was so easy to fall in love with him. Harry had never loved a man before him. It just arrived on him, an unexpected moment of looking at John’s face and thinking Oh, I’ve fallen in love with you. It wasn’t disturbing or distressing. Just something he suddenly knew and couldn’t mind about. John had minded far more than him, although he had tried very hard not to make that clear. He’d been afraid that he was taking advantage of Harry’s age, his inexperience. He’d been afraid that Harry was wasting time on him because of those things. When Harry had told him not to be silly, John had told him firmly that it had to be discussed. That some things were too important just to allow to happen without comment.
“This will change your life, Harry. I can’t just let you give me that without being sure it’s truly what you want. Promise me you’ll think about it.”
He had thought about it. Briefly. But he had known what he wanted. Known loving John would make his world bigger, larger, better. And when he’d told John that, John had kissed him and Harry had almost felt the world grow around them. And since then, since loving John, he has felt himself grow and change. Become better himself, somehow.
“That’s love,” John had told him once when he’d tried to say it. “It makes you grow. Loving you has made me better too.”
“Don’t be silly!” Harry had laughed in return. “How could I make you better?”
“Just by being with me,” John had said simply and then he had kissed him.
The door opens. Harry looks up, smiles as John looks in at him. John blinks, then smiles back. He closes the door.
“Did you come for a book?” he murmurs.
“Something like that.”
John doesn’t tell him to go away. Doesn’t tell him that this is a bad idea, that they will be punished if they are caught. He trusts now that Harry has already thought all these things, has weighed the risks and decided to take them anyway. He believes in Harry.
John walks over to him. Puts one of his gentle hands on Harry’s face, strokes his cheek. His hands are wonderful, they are always wonderful. They are a wonderful mix of rough and smooth, of solid and gentle. He does not say We have to be quiet, he does not say We’re taking a risk. He sits on the bunk beside Harry and puts their foreheads together, gentle, intimate as any kiss.
“I’ve missed you,” Harry whispers. “Really missed you.”
They have found reasons, excuses, to cross the ice and see each other but never enough and never for long enough either. They have to be careful, always. Harry is sure that some men will have guessed what lies between them but that doesn’t justify carelessness.
He has recently seen what carelessness can do to you.
“Was it terrible?” John asks quietly, as though sensing what he is thinking of.
He nods. It is not the first lashing he has seen, of course not, he isn’t green. And Manson and Hartnell, it had been unpleasant but normal, the usual sort. But Hickey, bent over that table like that, split like that ... but even that had not been the worst of it, somehow. It had been the feel of the whole thing, the atmosphere, the looks. Harry isn’t sure that he could explain any of it to John – but then, he doesn’t think he needs to. John will understand without words. He always can. There was something poisonous about that lashing and even though Hickey doubtless deserved it, Harry can’t help feeling that what might come out of it will be more poisonous still.
John gently pulls back from him, smiles and gestures for him to stand up. Harry obeys, wondering briefly if John is going to send him on his way. But John doesn’t. Instead, he begins to quietly undress Harry, as though Harry is one of the officers to be served. Harry is tempted to laugh but he doesn’t. He moves carefully instead, letting John slowly remove his clothes, watching John fold them, as though they are expensive, not just the dull things that Harry owns.
He’s not embarrassed being naked in front of John, even though John is still fully clothed. In fact, it’s rather nice. John smiles at him, then gestures for him to get into bed, so Harry does and watches as John begins to undress himself, his clothes coming off, revealing his body. Harry loves to see it. He doesn’t think of any of it as old so much as simply ... different. He traces John’s movement with his eyes, smiles at seeing the tattoos that he has tried to commit to memory so many times and paper more than once. He wishes he could draw better. He would like to draw all of John, put him on paper as he is, not just a silly imitation of him.
Perhaps one day he can learn to draw. Once, he’d thought simple words were beyond him, but now though, now he knows so much more than he ever could have imagined. Perhaps one day, he can capture everything John is and make others see it too.
John climbs into bed with him. Pulls him close. Kisses him with all the passion that he’s held back until this moment, all the passion that he has and only Harry gets to see. Harry kisses back, wrapping his arms tightly around John’s neck. They can’t do everything he would like. It’s a tiny bunk and there are men all around them, more men than ever now almost everyone is on one ship. But that’s all right. One day, they will be able to be as loud as they like, one day, they won’t have to worry about fitting into tiny spaces to be together. They will have space. They will simply be able to be.
“I love you,” he whispers and John smiles at him with such wonderful delight, as though for some reason, he is surprised to be loved.
“I love you too,” he says, very softly and then ducks down for another kiss and they do not need to speak again, not with words at least. With hands, yes, hands and mouths and perfectly matched movement, both knowing exactly what the other wants and where the other needs them to be for it to work. Warm and familiar, despite them never, ever being able to do it enough.
“Can I stay?” he whispers after, fitted snugly against John’s body, head on a pillow, luxuriating in being in a real bed again. Hammocks are fine but it’s nice to feel boards under his back.
“Just for a while,” John tells him. “We shouldn’t push our luck.”
Harry knows he’s right. Knows that soon, he’ll dress, return to his place and they will be apart again. But for now, he can stay cuddled, even doze a little and know he is loved and is able to love with everything he has in return.