Grateful. The word was only the beginning of what Richard Bolitho really felt now that his friend Martyn Dancer was safe with them once more. As the hours passed slowly, marked by the chiming of the grandfather clock downstairs, Bolitho sat a silent vigil at his friend's bedside and pondered over things he did not understand.
When had Martyn Dancer come to mean so much to him?
They had been friends from the moment they had met in the Blue Posts Inn at Portsmouth Point fourteen months earlier. It was Dancer’s good looks, his blonde hair and blue eyes that had first drawn Bolitho, but it was the compassion that Dancer had displayed towards a crippled veteran on that occasion that had won Bolitho's respect and friendship. They'd both been sixteen, but whilst Bolitho had been at sea since he was twelve, Dancer had only three weeks experience. Yet Dancer had shown an understanding for the old seamen that had put others to shame. It said much about sort of young man he was; kind and generous of heart.
During their subsequent months together aboard the Gorgon as midshipmen, they had shared many experiences, growing from boys to men, side by side through blood and battle, laughter and tears, life and death. Bolitho had come to look on Dancer as a brother, but one far closer than his own flesh and blood.
But it was during the last few days, as everyone had worried and fretted over the missing midshipman held to ransom by smugglers, that Bolitho had realised his feelings for Dancer ran even deeper. He struggled to put a name to what he felt, for it was new to him, unfamiliar in its strength and urgency. It surged through him now, stronger than ever as he watched Dancer's sleeping form.
It took all of Bolitho's willpower not to reach out and touch the fair hair where it lay scattered across the bed, aglow in the candlelight. It brought to mind another time when he had found a fair head, bloodied and lifeless and the despair he had felt until he realised it was not his friend.
He pulled the coverlet over Dancer's naked shoulders, hiding the welts and bruises that covered his back. Dancer had been too exhausted to do more than fall into bed, still dressed in only the breeches he had been wearing when found staggering along the road, hands tied, barefoot and blindfolded. There would be time tomorrow to bathe his back and wash his bloodied feet. For now it was enough that Dancer slept safe and secure under Bolitho's watchful gaze.
Bolitho let his fingers rest on the counterpane. So close, so easy to reach out a little further and touch the fair hair or pale skin so different from his own. Bolitho struggled yet again with the strange yearning, knowing he should feel guilt and yet finding only confusion. His faith, his upbringing, even the Navy itself told him that such feelings were a crime punishable by death. But he felt no remorse, no fear, simply a longing for what he could not put into words.
Dancer moaned and turned over, his blue eyes flickering open and blinking in the candle's soft glow.
"Are you still here, Dick? It must be late," he whispered, voice hoarse. A shiver shook his light frame. "I'm cold."
Almost without thinking, Bolitho moved to sit on the bed. His arms encircled his friend's shoulders and he felt Dancer settle closer.
"Thank you. I feel so...undone by everything." Dancer's voice wobbled and a tear escaped down his pale cheek. Bolitho had witnessed Dancer cry only once before. Then it had been for a shipmate, a fellow midshipman, fallen in battle.
"You've been through a lot," Bolitho whispered finally giving in to his urge to touch the fair hair. He doubted his friend would mind. "It's understandable."
"The only thing that gave me courage was thinking of you, Dick," Dancer whispered. "I knew you would look for me, you were my one hope."
Dancer's blind trust left Bolitho feeling inadequate. "Oh Martyn, I felt so useless, so helpless. I was so worried and there was nothing I could do."
A hand reached out to grasp Bolitho's. "But we're still together, that's the main thing." Dancer had spoken almost the very same words to Bolitho once before as they claimed a few minutes respite, side by side beneath the stars, one bloody battle behind them, another only hours away. The words had comforted him then and they did so now.
They sat like that for a time; content to enjoy the physical reassurance they offered each other, neither one wanting to move away from the welcome embrace.
But the night wore on and sleet and rain pelted the window. The room grew steadily colder. It was Bolitho who shivered now, clad as he was, only in his shirt and breeches.
"Get in Dick, you're cold too and we can keep warm together." Dancer pulled the bed covers down in invitation.
Bolitho hesitated. Was it just an innocent request or did Martyn feel this change in their friendship too?
"Go on, it will be all right." The quiet voice was insistent.
Bolitho kicked off his shoes and slid beneath the covers. He was immediately aware of the bare flesh of Dancer’s chest and shoulders as his friend reached out to hold him again. It seemed so natural to return the embrace. Bolitho's strong hands gently touched Dancer’s back, feeling the welts and broken skin, reminding him of the beating his friend had endured.
His name was a hot breathy whisper that caressed his face. He looked up, only to be captured by Dancer's blue eyes. His heart beat faster and his whole body was suddenly alight a different feeling, the beginning of something new and strange. It had little to do with the emotional and much to do with the physical.
"Martyn?" Bolitho could tell by the look on Dancer's face that his friend was equally confused by this sudden change of tack, altering the course of their friendship towards uncharted waters.
Suddenly all of Bolitho's hard won knowledge of the sea and sailing seemed useless in the face of what was happening. It had always been Bolitho, an old hand at sailing by the age of 17 who had led the way, teaching Dancer, the newcomer about life aboard ship, showing him the ropes and amazing him with his knowledge of navigation and seamanship. Now Bolitho felt like a novice, an untrained landsman, adrift for the first time in an unknown sea.
It was Dancer who took the helm and navigated through the unknown, Dancer who was a little older and perhaps a little wiser when it came to such things, Dancer who relied on his heart more times than his head. He closed the space between them meeting Bolitho's lips with his own and imparted a small kiss. It was chaste but brought with it the first breaths of a change. It gathered in strength, filling Bolitho's sails and bringing to life a new passion.
"Oh..." Bolitho was unaware that he had spoken for a moment until he saw Dancer smiling. "I've never kissed anyone before," Bolitho confessed shyly.
"I know," Martyn admitted. "That's why I did it. I wanted to be the first." Bolitho was aware that he was blushing under his tan and hoped that the light was too dim for it to show. Inexperience sat so strangely on his shoulders and he found Martyn's newfound sense of accomplishment a little unnerving.
"Have you?" Bolitho asked, trying to find his sea legs. "I mean, have you done that before?"
"Yes, I've kissed a girl once before, but that's all." Martyn licked his lips. "Did you like it?"
Bolitho nodded and to prove his sincerity leaned seeking Dancer's lips again. It lasted longer this time and grew as each kiss gave way to another, a little more eager, a little more confident.
Lips, hesitant at first, growing more certain. A tongue, seeking but to moisten a lip, found its way further into a warm wet mouth only to encounter its mate waiting in welcome.
As mouths melted together, hands began to roam, over shoulders, down arms, across chests and backs, slowly slipping downwards to rest upon waists and hips.
It was Dancer who steered, pulling their bodies together at last, their breeches providing insufficient cover for Bolitho to hide the growing evidence of his passion.
"Oh Martyn, I...I'm sorry...I..." Bolitho pulled away, suddenly afraid of what his friend would think of his all too obvious arousal. It took a moment for him to realise that Dancer had not moved away in disgust but was even now moving closer and pressing his own erection insistently at Bolitho's thigh.
"What's wrong Dick? Don't you like this?" Dancer's voice held a note of disappointment. "Do you want to stop?"
"No!" Bolitho declared vehemently although he spared a fleeting thought for what would happen should they be discovered like this under his Father's roof. But it was late, and the house was in darkness, all souls asleep but for themselves.
"No, I don't want to stop...but I, that is...I don't know what's happening, I have no experience?"
"Let us find out together then, shall we? You and I, what do you say?"
Bolitho didn't need to think about his answer.
Dancer kissed him again, short and sweet, and pulled away before they could lose themselves in the sensation. His hands slipped beneath Bolitho's shirt, exploring, caressing, causing shivers of delight to run across his skin. He took the hem of Bolitho's shirt and pulled it up. Bolitho shrugged it off and Dancer tossed it to the floor, a small grin on his face.
Flesh met flesh, warm and sweaty despite the cold air. Lips slipped down, following the line of jaw, the curve of throat. Hands became more daring, moving to thigh, to arse, to groin.
A moan escaped Bolitho's lips as Dancer's fingers stroked his erection, the touch hot even through the thick linen of his breeches.
"Yes," he hissed as he felt his friend’s fingers fumble with the buttons and ties. His own hands sought Martyn's breeches, desperate now to remove the final barrier between them.
And then they were one, or so it seemed to Bolitho, for Martyn's body felt like an extension of his own. But whereas before he had eased his own need, alone and lonely, now they did so together, to each other, a pleasure shared, loving and loved. They clung to each other as passion claimed them hard and fast and sudden. And finally they rested in each other's arms, a safe harbour that they knew so well, at peace.
Complete. That's what Richard Bolitho had thought the first night as he stood in this room with Martyn Dancer. 'Having you with me makes it feel complete.' Bolitho had meant his homecoming, but Martyn had understood. Understood in that uncanny way that he always did. Bolitho knew his friend would understand now.
"You make me feel complete, Martyn," he whispered nuzzling the soft fair hair.
"And I love you too Dick," was Martyn Dancer's reply.
It was early the next morning when Harriet Bolitho quietly opened the door to the room to check on Dancer's condition. What she found were two young men asleep. Her son reposed beneath the coverlet, his arms around his friend in a loving embrace. 'His Officer's', her older son, Hugh, had called the young men last night. But seeing them here like this, she knew that they were still just boys. Harriet smiled and gently closed the door again.
Such innocence, she thought, as she tiptoed away.