He does not kiss Jim in the bar itself, although there is one point—when they’ve just bloody met, when Jim has his fingers running all around the rim of a bottle, looking at George and not the beautiful woman who’s just propositioned him—when he thinks that it could have happened and he would not have managed to care, not in the red-faced, drunken moment of public indecency and not afterward when examining the damage to his or Jim’s careers.
George congratulates himself out loud on waiting until they hit the beach before grabbing Jim’s ass, and Jim’s smirk in response is brilliant. He tosses his empty beer bottle onto the sand and reaches back for George, pulling him in close in the humid air lingering after the earlier rain. They fall one on top of the other, kicking up gobbets of damp sand into their hair and George’s mouth, and George spits, laughing at the dribble of grit down his chin that Jim wipes away with a thumb he then traces up to George’s mouth.
It’s thus Jim’s fingers—hard and deft, bracing points of contact along George’s face—that he first kisses, tasting sweat and beer and further sand, a few fine grains he swallows. The imaginative part of George’s brain, the bit that loves turning Fitzgerald phrases over and over in his head, wants to add fear to that—fear of discovery, fear of commitment, all the things one is supposed to feel when embarking on an illegal tryst in a public area—but, then, one cannot taste what is not there. Jim has shown rather a lot in the past hour, leaning in across the bar to whisper in George’s ear under cover of the general noise, but he does not tremble.
That emotion is left to George, who, in the dark with only the whispering, spitting ocean for a witness, vibrates and laughs, high-pitched and perilously close to a giggle, as Jim runs fingers along the curve of his ear.
“Something funny, old man?”
Jim’s voice is a puff of air against George’s neck that he chases with his lips, a warm sting of alcohol and the tip of a tongue.
“I feel dafter than a sixteen-year-old trading pulls in the closet with the boy from history.”
“Mmm.” Jim transfers his mouth to George’s nose, and George’s heart drops down to his prick, a sweet, numb throbbing all through his lower abdomen. “That is a uniquely British experience.”
“And that coming from a naval officer.”
“Oh, I’ve practiced, all my life, not that I need it.” Jim touches the edge of his teeth to George’s neck, and George digs his fingers into Jim’s pristine uniform. “I have a proposition for you.”
“Give me one kiss. Just one. And if you like it—”
George fights down three or four interruptions that seem, in this new world where his latest pick-up will kiss his nose before his prick, sharp and untoward. Jim’s cheeks, inches away from his own, are violently red and overwarm, and there is a little quiver in his fingers where they still rest on George’s chin. George attempts his best encouraging grin.
“I’ll like it.”
“—If you like it,” Jim continues, his voice so determined as to betray the fundamental uncertainty of his words, “let’s go somewhere better for the rest.”
Jim’s lips taste only faintly of beer, far less salty and sandy than his fingers and far softer, too. He tilts his head, slotting his nose alongside George’s with a minimum of fuss, and George hates the dispassionate, observing part of him that notes this and approves of it, like a not terrible paragraph in a student’s essay, when he has a warm body and a wicked smile right in front of him.
“I’ll go anywhere.” George wraps his fingers around Jim’s wrist. “But why, if I may ask?”
“Why do I want privacy?” Jim’s grin is too happy to be called feral, and yet the desire in it threatens to short George’s brain, presses down on some bruise in his heart until he’s forced to look away. “My dear fellow—” his put-on British accent is chokingly awful, and George laughs “—if you don’t know, perhaps you are not old enough for this sort of behavior.”
“I have always been old enough for it, even when I was young and sweet enough to know better, as my father would say,” George says, meeting Jim’s eyes again, which twinkle as his mouth opens in sympathetic recognition.
They can blessedly ignore further talk of proclivities that night, the dogged, if subdued, certainty that drives George to seek his happiness in other men when he is able. (Why should they speak of the obvious, when Jim, breathtaking in his martial white and tan beauty, is even surer in himself and what he wants?) They are lost instead in body heat and the scratchiness of the old throw rug on George’s floor, and when Jim, rugburned, leaves, address and phone number scrawled on the back of a grocery receipt on the kitchen counter, George falls asleep on the couch. He wakes shortly before dawn to a heart that will not stop pounding and the realization that he is infatuated with a navy man he will almost certainly never see again, and he begs out of classes for the day to drink a bottle of wine, play “You Go to My Head” again and again until he can hear the grooves in the vinyl protesting, and, after a dinner of greasy fries from down the street, compose a dreadfully heartfelt letter describing how pleasant he found the evening before.
George picks up the phone four days later to hear Jim’s voice on the other end of the line and misses his opening words in a rush of pain that bursts, as sweet as strawberries, across his chest.
Jim does not meet Charley for some months. George has told Charley exactly one thing about Jim—that he exists—but she knows; he can tell by the sharpening of her smile when Jim looks away, how it fades into a frown she does not bother to hide when she catches George watching her. Their bizarre relationship—her subsumed lust, the embers of which will not entirely die; his self-disgusted need for a link back to the island that spawned them both and set them adrift in these urbane wilds—is something he does not know how to describe, not in any way that doesn’t sound like complete horseshit.
He has to admire Jim’s brazenness, to bring up Charley when they are both drunk on sex and beer and alone amongst rock and sky. The sun is blinding, giving Jim a spectral halo that makes it easier for George to explain, and he knocks his feet into George’s, tap tap tap, and massages the top of George’s foot with his toes, blackened with dirt from their time outdoors. The smudges are still there when George strips for him that night, taking his turn in being exuberantly, vulnerably naked while Jim sits on George’s couch—their couch, increasingly—and watches with sketchbook and pencil in hand.
“This is awful practice for when the firm opens,” George remarks as Jim scrutinizes the heft of his prick between his legs, spread wide across the carpet. “What, pray tell, is architectural about my cock?”
“That can’t be comfortable,” Jim tells him, his voice low and soothing. “Lie down and breathe. Quit griping for a bit.”
George obeys with a grunt, back flat against the floor, and closes his eyes as Jim’s snicker twists its way up his spine.
“Not a goddamned word.”
“Me?” Everything about Jim’s voice—its bright edge, the warmth underneath, the fact that George knows it so well already—makes George’s breathing sharper, more fragile. “Why would I tease, when you’re right where I need you?”
“At your mercy?”
There is silence for a few moments, just short sweeps of pencil across paper.
“In my head. About to be on my paper. Forever.”
“So romantic,” George murmurs, his usual tease, but Jim does not jape back, and in the darkness of his closed eyes, George falls asleep to Jim’s light breathing and the scratching of his sketching. He wakes to a naked Jim pressing his mouth to his navel.
“I hope you’re ready for mercy, Mr. Falconer.”
“Professor,” George corrects, shifting and shivering as Jim brushes one of his hipbones. “I want to grouse at you for being so sappy and uncouth, but it’s actually making me happy.”
Jim’s tongue flits down, stopping an inch above his prick.
“And here you are, being sweet while I’m about to put my mouth all over your—what should I call them, here?—your unmentionables.”
George whimpers, floating above his own head, as Jim sucks him nearly to completion and then—before George can do more than moan his displeasure—pulls off to tease his rim with a vaseline-coated finger. George comes-to with a jolt and reaches for Jim’s own cock.
“Christ, you can go again, too, can’t you? Sorry, here—”
“I don’t need to, love.” Jim stills George’s groping with a kiss to his knee. “Do you want my fingers?”
George’s prick throbs, and he bends to capture Jim’s lips with his own. The taste of precome lingers on his tongue as Jim works him up to three fingers, deliciously full, and cradled, ass and balls, in Jim’s hands, and he comes with Jim’s mouth planting warm, damp kisses along his inner thighs.
“I haven’t come on fingers since I was but a university toff.”
“So, last week?”
George pulls lightly at Jim’s hair. “Wretch.”
Jim stretches out alongside George on the carpet. “You sound like a little terror, when you talk about your time at college. Is Britain always so lecherous, all you boys crammed together?”
“God only knows what it’s like now.”
“Well, about to lose half the empire.”
“Good riddance.” George massages Jim’s scalp, picks at a section of thinning strands. “You’d best be careful; I think hanging around me is starting to cost you your hair.”
Jim raises an eyebrow and brushes locks from George’s eyes, leans in to kiss his nose. George swallows around the lump growing at the back of his throat.
“A worthy trade, wouldn’t you say?”
“England for you?” George kisses the top of Jim’s head. “I would do it twice every hour.”
“But would you go back? With me?”
“To show you my old stomping ground, with Charley? Ah, why the hell not?” A flicker crosses Jim’s face, and George feels a swoop of something distinctly less pleasant in his stomach. “Christ, Jim, I’m sorry. I just meant—”
“You fell in love with me, that’s what you said this morning?”
“I don’t really get the whole sleep-with-a-woman thing,” Jim whispers, and George twitches. “But God knows how it was in the Stone Age. We all have our sins, and we do what we must, and all that.”
“Jim, I really am—”
“Enough, old man.”
He sucks, gently, at George’s chin, kissing five o’clock shadow and rubbing George’s shoulders and side before taking his head in his hands and transferring his mouth to George’s. George blinks moisture from his eyes and presses his forehead into Jim’s. He has no further thoughts, no ironic comments or distance from the situation, just a fluttering calm that begins in his chest and spreads throughout his body, a soothing stillness spread further by Jim’s thumbs massaging his cheeks.
“I fall in love with men,” Jim says when they break apart, rubbing fingers across George’s temples. “And I fell in love with you.” When George opens his mouth to speak, Jim kisses him again. “With your wit—” George exhales, attempting to focus on Jim’s words through the long buzzing tunnel he’s found himself at the bottom of “—and whatever wanderlust brought you here and drives you to teach these absurd students. And how sure of yourself you are, just like you said of me. Because there’s something in you that is so very certain.”
“The bloody queer poof in me is the only thing I’m certain of anymore.” George kisses Jim’s neck, the lightest, most reverent brush. “Even with Charley I knew at least a part of me would never go that way.”
“Well, thank you for coming my way. Thank my friends they couldn’t be bothered to show up to the Starboard Side on time.”
“A religious man would call it fate,” George says, draping an arm over Jim’s. “For me, I still sometimes think this whole little world within a world we seem to be making is a dream.”
“Take me to England,” Jim murmurs, tickling George’s toes with his own until they’re both laughing, softly, melting against each other, lips against skin, loose and free with what George decides to classify as both sex and the relief of something more tender and sure. “I won’t be a dream there.”
“You are too damned insistent to be a dream.” George mouths his way down Jim’s stomach, kisses the soft head of his prick. It tastes faintly bitter, and the weight of it in his mouth is blessedly steady. “And thank God for that.”
He drowns himself, all his unmoored emotions both sweet and sour, in the taste of Jim.
They do not usually host Charley, let alone anyone else, but the new house and dog mean that she willingly comes to them, carrying her own bottle of gin.
“We've enough of that already, darling,” Jim tells her as he takes her shawl and wraps it around his own neck. Charley giggles; George, entrusted with the bottle, looks at him over the top of her pile of hair. Jim winks. “But thank you.”
“This is such a lovely place,” Charley declares over drinks, her bare feet curled up under her and her face an ebullient shade of red. “I love the glass.”
“That's my favorite as well.” Jim, seated next to George on the couch, pinches his thigh out of Charley’s range of vision, and George registers the pain mostly as an impetus, poorly subdued, to smile. “A lot of light, a lot of warmth. George wanted a bit more cover at first, but I think some drapes are all we need.”
“Privacy is always lovely,” George says, pinching back, a neat nip across the top of Jim’s ass. “If you don’t know that—” Jim, there in his memory and alongside him, his past and his present, is already laughing, his body shaking where it touches George’s “—well, I suppose you’re not yet old enough for homeownership, my boy.”
When Jim takes the dog out after dinner, George is left with gin and Charley, who comes to sit next to him, kicking her feet up into his lap as she did a thousand times in Britain. George, dozy with food and alcohol, his eyes periodically tracing Jim’s shoulders as he chases the dog across the backyard, massages her toes.
“He seems to have liked that old island very much.”
“He was so charmed by London I thought I might be chaperoning a schoolboy with a particularly strong taste for beer.” George tickles the ball of one foot, and Charley’s titters float up to the ceiling. “He needed that.”
“Oh, Jim needed it, Geo, but never you, of course not.” Charley flexes, supple and warm in his grasp, as Jim reenters the house, the dog barking happily as he rushes around the three of them to deposit himself on the rug by George’s feet, and a bubble blossoms behind George’s sternum. “Jim, dear, will you tell George that it’s okay to miss Old Blighty once in a damned blue moon?”
“He knows,” Jim says, pulling up his chair closer to them and depositing his own feet in George’s lap. As his legs slide alongside Charley’s, they exchange smiles, some conspiratorial mirth that unspools into chatter. George listens to none of it, focused as he is on Jim’s collarbone where it glows, strong and bronze, against the white of his partially opened shirt.
“Yes, he’s getting very domestic, now, with the house and the dog.” Charley’s smile is vivid, white and red, and as George starts back to attention she chucks him under the chin. She turns to Jim and cups his shoulder, loosely, capaciously, as Jim kisses her cheek. “Thank you.”
Later, wrapped in sheets still smooth in their newness, George presses kisses to Jim’s back as he stretches out across George’s side of the bed.
“I do miss it, sometimes.”
Jim flexes in response, one eye open, dragging a hand up to cup George’s cheek.
“Marsh and fen, the dreadful, bracing buzz of London. Well, it’s worth it again, with you.” He kisses Jim’s hand. “And I’ll feel better for some proper drapes in the living room, if only so I can ravish you properly in there without every damned neighbor watching.”
“Might take a few weeks,” Jim murmurs. “Won’t stop me in the meantime. Better take me back to England until then to save your reputation.”
“Yes, well.” George curls in, kisses him on the mouth. “I suppose that’s for the best. We’ll stay here and raise hell together, thanks much.”
Jim’s smile against his steadies George’s heartbeat until he can fall into the softest of sleep.