It had been a long walk back from the village, and the sun was going down.
Stephen kept an eye on Jack the whole way, keeping pace with his longer, slower strides. They had taken an inland cottage together- they’d had no choice, reduced as they were to enduring the long, miserable wait for a letter from the Admiralty- and summer had long since leaned into autumn. With the changing of the seasons came crisp, cold mornings and warm, foggy nights. Tonight was such a night.
Fog was rising from the damp earth, curling around Stephen’s legs and making him shiver in the damp. The moon, already high, shone bright as a silver penny. The woods were deep, and stirred with the pleasant sounds of nighttime creatures. The road stretched out before them; scarcely a mile now before they would be home. They carried no lanterns, for the moonlight illuminated their steps.
Stephen watched Jack out of the corner of his eye. He walked stiffly, head down, with a miserable slump to his shoulders. Stephen didn’t like to see it. The last smile he’d seen coaxed from that dear face had been almost two miles back, when, as the pastoral farmland gave way to the bushy tangle of the woods, they’d passed a farmhouse on a property fringed with uneven wooden fencing. There had been an apple tree out front, heavy with sweet, sticky autumn apples, and Jack, with a glance of furtive eagerness at the farmhouse window, hopped the fence, scrumped an apple, and bounded back across to Stephen’s side. Having stolen the apple with no apparent motive beyond the childlike joy of doing so, he merely regarded it for a moment as they walked, before offering it to Stephen with a hopeful expression. Stephen, who had been hungry, ate it. Jack looked at him with great affection, but said nothing, and the two of them had continued onward in silence.
It was not like Jack to be so silent. Stephen considered this at length. It was not that the walk had exhausted him; Jack did not tire so easily, even on land. But his face was creased with worry, and on occasion, Stephen caught his lips moving, as though he were puzzling something out in his mind.
Stephen’s brow furrowed. Jack could not be thinking of anything else but the events of three weeks prior. Events that Stephen, too, had worried over, rolling the events round and round his mind until they were worn smooth.
It pained him to see Jack brought so low. It was as though his old friend had not come back at all.
At last, my soul is at rest.
It has been seven long months since I saw JA off, supposing he might do without me for a month or two while I attended to my own business in the city. Seven long months of waiting, longing dearly for the company of my particular friend, while all around me friends and fellows dropped away. They assured me he was lost, his ship sunk, shattered, destroyed beyond all hope of salvage. But patiently I waited, and now my faith has been rewarded.
JA’s triumphant resurrection- so it is called in the papers- is the talk of the city, for he has returned with a ragtag crew of hardened sailors and miscreants, all of them unfamiliar to me, and a chest of treasures worth more than can easily be guessed. To my understanding, he was taken by a crew of pirates, and had been their prisoner for some time- it was only by some great feat of nautical daring entirely beyond my comprehension that he freed himself, and came sailing back to England, and to me.
I cannot account for the passion that overtook me as I saw him for the first time in many months; he had shed perhaps two or three stone, to my great dismay, and he walked with uncommon stiffness. His skin had gone very dark from sun, darker than was usual, and he wore a tightly curled wig under his hat. Upon seeing me I saw a multitude of emotions cross his face unchecked, but we dared not run to each other in the full light of day. All afternoon he endured questions, meetings, and paperwork of the most insidious kind. I saw that he was ill- had perhaps been very ill- but I could not say more than a few words to him at a time before we were again and again dragged apart. Despite this JA proved to be his usual jovial self, buoyant both at sea and in demeanor, and agreeable to a fault. He talked- in point of fact, he boasted- as though several months spent captive in the hands of pirates didn’t signify; yet I knew from his posture and the set of his stride that he had been given the cat.
In time I was able to sequester him in my room at the Grapes. I felt the fever hot in his brow and knew that he’d had no physician’s care, and if he had, it could not have been equal to mine. No sooner had I locked the door behind us when JA threw his arms about my waist and clung to me like a chthamalus stellatus. “Oh, soul,” he said, and not a word more. He pressed his dear face close to my neck and breathed a weary sigh.
Feeling a great profusion of dread I beseeched him to lie in my bed and be still. JA complied in silence, and as I began to undress him he made a curious jerking motion, as though to halt my progress. I told him he might sleep in his clothes, if he so desired, but he must surely remove the wig, and on this point he fought me viciously, looking deeply shamed and unaccountably shy. Upon the wig’s removal, I saw that his hair had been hacked short by a dull blade, and that it had been done by a cruel and careless hand.
I confess the rage I felt at that moment near blinded me; I felt my pulse elevate, my hands shook, my lip began to sweat. I could have killed a man then, a dozen men, and not been satisfied. I thought to hide it from JA lest it trouble him further, but I fear a very black look must have shown in my face, for his own went very white, and he pleaded, “Do not be angry with me, Stephen. Pray, do not be angry,” before falling quite insensible with fatigue.
I cared for him in his illness, though delirium had him fast, and he was not always aware of my presence. More than once he shouted for me in his sleep, and, upon waking, did not recognize me as the one who attended him. “Where is Stephen?” he often cried. “Where is Stephen? God damn his eyes, I shall kill him if he does not come. By God, I shall kill him.”
It grieved me bitterly to see JA in such a state. I frequently plied his face with kisses, telling him that as soon as he was well, he might hold me as he once did, and return my kisses with all his usual affection. This, I think, placated him a little, for he was always quick to fall asleep after. I am not ashamed to admit that I lost sleep in watching over him, and I believe I may have wept, though I no longer remember. Only now, in the early hours of this morning, have I composed myself enough to write of his return.
My long and lonely vigil is at an end. He has returned to my arms once again. My lucky, lucky JA.
“I do wish you wouldn’t look at me like that, Stephen,” Jack muttered reproachfully. “It ain’t quite the thing.”
Stephen hesitated. He watched as Jack rubbed the back of his neck, scratching at the short, bristly hairs just visible under the curl of his wig. “My apologies, joy,” he said. “I was only considering our current situation.”
Our current situation was a cottage in the country, private and warm, but not, perhaps, ideal. Jack could not feel the breath of the sea upon him there. He could not even clearly see the sky, for the trees grew close together, tangling their branches overhead like lovers with their legs entwined. Stephen was quite happy, yes- there was more than enough native fauna to keep him in rapturous fascination for as long as he pleased- but Jack’s happiness was his happiness, and he found himself frequently longing for ways to keep Jack entertained. Music was the thing more often than not, and between music, lovemaking, and cards, they got on tolerably well.
Here, though, on the long moonlit road home, music and cards were quite beyond them. Stephen pursed his lips thoughtfully, thinking of lovemaking, and as he did so Jack said, “Damned long walk, to be sure. We should have taken horses.”
“Such a walk can only be beneficial to a man of your constitution,” said Stephen. He wrapped his arms around himself and began to rub them briskly to massage the warmth back into them. “Though I confess I forgot to take your recent illness into account.”
Jack wore a pained expression. “I do wish you would not say things like that, Stephen,” he mumbled.
Stephen privately cursed himself for his lack of tact. “Forgive me,” he said. “I meant no offense. Surely your fatigue is only a sign that you are yet weak from your ordeal. How is your excrement?”
“If we were back at our cottage, you might look at my excrement as much as you pleased,” said Jack. His voice still bore that unconscionable melancholy, quite unlike his usual tone.
Stephen frowned. He knew that Jack had not felt the great man in some time- not since his return. His playfulness, his infinite generosity of spirit, his lustiness for food and drink . . . all had deserted him in recent days. He was a different man entirely, and wore his years without his customary grace.
Stephen longed to see the spirit back in Jack’s blood. To look into his eyes once more and see them shine with excitement. It would be better if they lived by the coast, for Jack would have the wind and sea and sky, and there was nothing so precisely calculated to cheer him as that.
“We shall be home presently,” said Stephen. “Do not fuss.”
Jack’s brow furrowed, and his cheeks reddened, as they did when he was feeling petulant. “I am cold, Stephen,” he said miserably. His ungloved hands were tucked tightly under his arms. “It is a damned unfortunate night to be out. I saw an owl just then. By God, you are shivering as well.”
“I am not.”
“I have never known a man to admit when he is cold,” said Jack, already shimmying out of his coat. It was a heavy, close-knit thing, of a very dark blue, and Jack held it out to Stephen as though offering a sword in surrender. “Pray, take it.”
Stephen frowned. “I will not. It fits me ill.”
“It will warm you.”
“It will extinguish me entirely.”
“Wear it, for all love,” said Jack. He glared at Stephen fiercely. “I shall fight you on this.”
Stephen accepted the gift with a defeated sigh. It did indeed extinguish him, hanging off him like an empty sail, but the ridiculous sight seemed to lift Jack’s mood immeasurably. “There,” he said with a smile, looking proud as Lucifer to see Stephen so dressed. “It suits you well.”
Stephen felt a profound desire to kiss him then, but settled for leaning his head upon Jack’s shoulder as they walked. Jack’s warm, broad hand settled upon his waist, and Stephen felt a great sense of peace. They walked on into the fog, no longer cold, but still somewhat silent and solemn. Jack smelled faintly of the sea, and sweat, and autumn apples.
The familiar smell made Stephen’s belly warm with interest. He had made love to Jack- and been loved by him- many times since their reunion, for the sake of comforting each other and reaffirming their love, but the act had lacked the gaiety and puppyish excitement that Stephen had grown accustomed to. Jack in the throes of passion was typically a man of singular purpose, but in Stephen’s arms he became as red-faced and giggly as a schoolboy, eager both to please and to be pleased, and always seeking to delight Stephen with cheeky kisses and mischievously wandering hands. The act of buggery was one that Stephen, in his youth, had undertaken with the utmost solemnity, but in Jack’s berth the act was a joyful one that never failed to coax Stephen into laughter.
This playful spirit was one that Stephen missed with the whole of his being.
Stephen frowned thoughtfully as an idea took hold of him. He pressed a brief kiss to Jack’s shoulder. “I’ll have you know that I would surely win.”
Jack, who had been gazing off into the middle distance, looked back at Stephen with some surprise. “How’s that?”
“If you were to fight me. We are more than evenly matched.”
Jack looked at him with great astonishment. “In swords and pistols, certainly, but . . . My dear Stephen, I am quite the bigger man.”
Stephen had not forgotten it. Indeed, their relative sizes were at the forefront of his mind, and he felt his skin prickle with interest at the thought. “Ah,” he said with a playful grin, striding forwards and turning so that he walked backwards before Jack, shifting his weight back and forth from foot to foot. “But I am quick, and well-practiced, and I strike true.”
Jack’s eyes were wide, and the corner of his mouth was twitching. “My dear Stephen,” he said again, sounding quite at a loss. “Do put up your hand,” Stephen put up his hand. Jack placed his own flat against it, palm to palm, dwarfing it entirely. “Well, there you are. I mean to say, there you have it.”
“This proves nothing,” said Stephen, when he was again capable of speech. “A smaller man may overpower a larger.”
“I might take your head off your shoulders with one hand if I’d a mind to,” said Jack, not unkindly.
“You would not come anywhere near my head,” said Stephen, with a curious hopping motion from side to side. “I should evade you, like so. I am a veritable mongoose when it comes to the art of fisticuffs.”
Jack covered his mouth with his hand, perhaps to hide his laughter. “My dear, I have known you to slip on a stationary deck.”
Stephen gracefully ignored this comment. “I tell you, I can take you in a fight,” he insisted, giving Jack a narrow-eyed, theatrically serious look over the brim of his glasses.
Jack could hide his laughter no longer. It left him in a great, delighted burst, and such a violent one that he was forced to stop and place his hands upon his knees, gasping. Stephen, a little offended but pleased to endure a little offense if it meant Jack’s good humor was returning, bounced up and down on his heels, waiting for Jack to compose himself.
“On my life, Stephen,” Jack wheezed, drawing himself back up to his full and considerable height. “I have never seen you so playful.”
“Oh, come! I can be very playful, joy,” said Stephen. His voice was teasing now, almost chiding. He took Jack’s hand in his own and kissed his fingers. “Let us play at being enemies. We shall never settle the matter otherwise.”
Jack’s eyes followed the movement of Stephen’s lips. He swallowed, then looked about him at the trees, the mist, and the moonlight. “Here?” he said, with more surprise than trepidation.
“Why not here? There is no one around for miles,” said Stephen. He too looked at the forest closing in on them on either side. Briefly, his mind entertained the image of himself, flushed and breathing heavily, backed up against the trunk of a tree by a passionate and insatiable Jack. It was a pleasing image, and his pleasure must have shown in his face for Jack let out a shaky breath through his teeth.
“It’s just . . .” he said slowly, and Stephen’s heart began to sink. “Well, Stephen, it ain’t quite the thing.”
“Is the idea so very distasteful to you?” said Stephen.
“It is only that you are such a small, wicked-looking fellow,” said Jack, in a tone of apology. “Lean as a polecat, and all. I am liable to snap you in half.”
Stephen’s shoulders slumped in relief, and he smiled at Jack with a look of great affection. “You will not, Jack. Not even on accident. You are always so very gentle with me,” Then, as though remembering himself, he again adopted a confrontational stance. “Even so, you will find me a fierce and formidable opponent, on land and sea, both. I have become quite the amphibian.”
“I do not deny your amphibious nature, Stephen,” said Jack. The corner of his mouth was twitching again.
“I do not like your tone,” said Stephen, but there was no ire in his voice. “Oh, Jack, let us try it. Only in play.”
Jack looked at the ground, his brow furrowed, as though puzzling something out. When he looked back at Stephen it was with a peculiar squint, as though unsure of what he would see. “Would you have me play a part? Should I play at being French?”
“No, no,” said Stephen, who had heard Jack speak French. “You need only play at being yourself, and perhaps . . . perhaps that I am one of your prizes, to be caught and conquered.”
At this, Jack’s face changed. Stephen saw a flush creep up his neck, and his eyes seemed to gleam like sunlight dancing on the water. “Stephen,” he said, in a voice not lacking in desire, and Stephen knew he had him.
“Oh, I intend to lead you on a merry chase, Jack,” Stephen murmured. His felt his skin prickle with gooseflesh at the look Jack now affixed him with. “I confess my blood runs quite hot at the idea. What will you do if you catch me, hmm?”
Jack’s eyes had narrowed, and he looked at Stephen as though studying him, assessing him as a predator assesses its prey. Stephen felt an uncommon thrill at the sensation; he stepped closer, raising his head to meet Jack’s eye. He was not so foolish as to think that Jack would hurt him, even in play- Jack would never do such a thing, not for every prize from here to France- but he saw the gleam of interest in his eyes, the playful spark, the wicked shine where bloodlust met lust for Stephen’s body beneath his own.
“There is no if, soul,” Jack said slowly. His voice was very low. “It would be no great thing to subdue you.”
A chord of excitement shuddered through Stephen then, as though Jack had eased his hand beneath his ribs and stroked the strings of his heart. “I should very much like to be subdued by you,” he said, and his voice trembled. He leaned in to kiss the corner of Jack’s mouth.
He heard Jack’s sharp intake of breath. “For all love,” he breathed. Then he laughed, almost shyly, and Stephen smiled to see how his face and neck had gone very red. “Would that . . . I mean to say, I will not be kept from ravishing you when I catch you.”
Stephen’s mouth had gone terribly dry. He licked his lips and nodded. “I should love it of all things.”
Jack let out a low, shuddering breath. He looked Stephen up and down appreciatively, then looked back up at the road, which stretched away into darkness. The moonlight cast its scattered glow upon the forest floor, and the mist curled up from the leaves in extraordinary patterns, putting Stephen in mind of the pelts of exotic animals.
“We are close to the house, aren’t we, Stephen?” said Jack, with the barest hint of uncertainty.
Stephen nodded. “Very close, sure,” He took Jack by the arm and gestured down the road, where the mist and the darkness met. “The road curves just beyond there, and at the terminus of the curve, there sits our house.”
“Are you quite sure?”
“I am perhaps less sure of the rising and setting sun.”
A relieved smile spread across Jack’s face. His hand found Stephen’s and squeezed it tightly. Then, in one swift movement, he drew his coat down off Stephen’s shoulders and shrugged into it again, smiling delightedly at Stephen’s affronted look. “I regret to say that it would weigh you down,” he said, by way of explanation, “and you shall need all the agility you possess.”
Stephen, who had put it quite out of his power to complain about the loss by complaining about the acquisition in the first place, gave Jack a flinty-eyed look. He began to roll up his sleeves with neat, practiced movements. “I warn you,” he said, “I will not go easy on you. I'll fight like hellfire before I’ll let you take me.”
“Oh, do,” said Jack, and Stephen felt a private thrill of delight at the barely-contained excitement in his voice. “I should like to see what you call hellfire.”
Stephen, quite unable to restrain himself, put his hands on either side of Jack’s face and kissed him soundly. He then touched his forehead to Jack's, and neither man spoke for several moments. Then Stephen shoved Jack hard with both hands, causing him to stumble back, and sprinted past him into the trees.
For a moment he merely ran through the darkness, relying on the moonlight to guide him, but in time the tangle of foliage grew more open, and Stephen dropped down to shimmy under a low-hanging tree. He crouched beneath the branches, listening to the nighttime whispers of the forest- the crickets alive with song, the rustling of rodents, the low, warbling creak of the owls. He heard the unmistakable sound of Jack following slowly behind him, unable or unwilling to move as fleetly as Stephen had, and Stephen grinned a wicked grin to himself and crawled out from beneath the tree.
He brushed the muddy leaves from his clothes and set off at once, going first this way, then that, ducking behind trees and lurking in the shadows under rocks and hedges, listening. He could no longer hear Jack in pursuit, which both relieved and frightened him, and his stomach fluttered with pleasurable fear. Never before had he felt such excitement in being cornered. He wanted Jack desperately, yet he was equally eager to fight him off, and to show him no quarter.
A branch snapped not far from him and Stephen spooked like a startled animal, running off in a random direction and paying no heed to the branches tearing at his clothes and skin. His heart was in his throat, his pulse rang deafeningly in his ears. He found himself capable of feats of athletics he had thought were beyond him; scrambling over tree trunks and the like, leaping with great speed and ease over furrows in the earth. Soon he found a great moss-covered boulder by a tree, almost hidden beneath a carpet of dead leaves, and he pressed his back against it, breathing great gulps of cold nighttime air. A private part of Stephen yearned to be caught, but there was an equal if not greater part of himself that gloried in the pursuit.
A fox caught his eye for a moment, distracting him; it peered at him with two small, shiny eyes like brass buttons. Stephen looked steadily back at it with great admiration. Vulpes vulpes, he thought pleasantly, observing the orange fur and the dusting of white fuzz around the muzzle. Several dead leaves fluttered down on Stephen from above, but he paid them no mind. Several more followed, and Stephen, looking away from the fox with great reluctance, glanced up in irritation, and that was when Jack fell upon him.
Stephen yelped in surprise, all the wind knocked out of him by the force of the impact. He had forgotten, entirely forgotten, that Jack was a prodigious great climber despite his extraordinary size. Jack let out a great whoop of laughter and grabbed at him, and for a moment they tussled violently in the leaves. Jack was flush with his apparent victory, positively glowing with amorous excitement as he made to pin Stephen's hands. He had lost his wig in the chase, and seemed to have entirely forgotten the state of his hair for the first time since his return to England.
Stephen fought like a feral animal, baring his teeth and snarling, and only wriggled free by divesting himself of his shabby waistcoat, leaving it in Jack’s hands as he ran back into the forest in his shirtsleeves. His heart beat hard in his chest, and he felt fear and desire warring inside him. He laughed out loud, and when he heard Jack crashing through the brush behind him, he pushed himself to run all the faster. Stephen came to a tree and ducked behind it; he and Jack darted around it ludicrously for a moment, each mimicking the other, and when Stephen attempted to break away Jack caught him up around the waist and threw him down hard on his back in the leaves.
Stephen dragged himself backward on his elbows, his breath coming in ragged gasps. Jack stood above him, terrible and beautiful with his scarred face and mangled ear, and Stephen saw him flick his head back out of habit, tossing back long hair that was no longer there. He crouched over Stephen and planted both hands firmly on the forest floor on either side of him, showing his teeth in a playful grin. Stephen felt an absurd urge to bare his neck, to give over completely, but the desire to play the unwilling mate was still hot in his blood, so he rolled over and began to scramble out from under him.
“Oh, no,” Jack growled, a little of his quarterdeck voice creeping in. He gripped Stephen by the hips and dragged him back beneath him. “Belay that.”
Stephen made to elbow Jack in the face, but Jack batted the blow aside with ease. The carelessness of the action inflamed Stephen with lust; he clawed at Jack’s back, tore at his clothes. He struck Jack hard in the chest, not once but twice, and both times Jack merely grunted and endured the blows unfazed. “Brute,” Stephen gasped, and Jack kissed him hard, pressing him into the earth. Stephen bit at his lip and Jack only kissed him harder, licking into his mouth with a hunger that suggested a starving animal.
“Seems I’ve come out the man on top, eh, old Stephen?” Jack said into his mouth, grinning as Stephen tried to heave him off in response. He took Stephen’s wrists in his hands and pinned them to the earth, nipping fondly at Stephen’s throat as he did so. His delight in the face of Stephen's apparent rage was maddening, intoxicating, erotic beyond all reason. “I’ve caught you like a fox.”
Stephen shuddered; he could feel Jack's prick pressing insistently against him. “And what will you do with me?” he groaned, still struggling against the prison of Jack’s grip. His weight was upon him now, his full sixteen stone, and Stephen felt exquisitely suffocated under his bulk.
“What indeed,” Jack murmured fondly against Stephen’s neck. He kissed him soundly once more before easing his weight off him, but before Stephen could seize the opportunity to wriggle out of his grasp, Jack got his arms around him and in one swift movement flung him up and over his shoulder.
For a moment, Stephen merely hung there, too shocked to struggle. Then embarrassment came at him all at once, and he clawed at Jack’s back, kicking his legs. “Sir,” he croaked, and at once his embarrassment deepened, and with it came a renewed rush of arousal.
Jack laughed, and caressed Stephen in a most unseemly way. “I have you,” he said, by way of explanation, as he set off through the forest at a leisurely stride, “and I’ll bugger you if I like, so no more of this damned fuss.”
Stephen made an embarrassing noise in the back of his throat. He attempted to twist himself to see over Jack’s shoulder, and saw the trees began to part, and the squat, dark shape of their cottage sitting silently by the road. He squirmed in Jack’s grip and relished the feeling of being held in place, made to hold still. It satisfied something long left unsatisfied inside him. Again he felt Jack’s hand caressing him, moving up his legs to knead between them in a pleasantly proprietary way. Stephen whimpered, and he felt Jack vibrate with silent mirth.
There was a brief moment of puzzle-solving as Jack eased himself through the front door- Stephen lay flat against him, ducking his head so that it did not strike the doorframe, and they shared a mutual smile of relief- before they remembered themselves, and Stephen renewed his futile attempts to get away. Jack navigated the interior of their cottage with even greater ease than he had the forest, and when they came to the bedroom, Stephen felt his stomach swoop with unexpected motion as Jack threw him roughly down on the bed they had been sharing since they took up residence. Stephen bounced slightly upon the mattress; the fur bedspread felt exquisitely soft against his skin, though he knew at once that they would dirty it with clothes filthy from the forest floor.
It was necessary for Jack to light the lamp on the dressing-table, and while he was preoccupied in doing so, Stephen attempted to escape across the bed. No sooner had the attempt been made when Jack had him by the leg and threw him down again, leaning the whole of his weight down upon him in a way that made Stephen groan long and low. He writhed and strained against Jack’s grasp, succeeding only in rolling onto his belly, and it was the work of a moment for Jack to have his arms pinned behind him, and his knee planted firmly in the small of Stephen’s back. Stephen’s face was pressed against the soft fur of their bedspread; Jack’s hand found his chin, turned his head so that he might kiss Stephen’s cheek, his neck, the bristled hair along his jaw. “Oh, Stephen,” he groaned, his voice quite hoarse. “You are willing, ain’t you? It is all in play?”
Stephen made a guttural noise in his throat and thrust his hips against the bed, the only movement permitted him in this state. “Oh, yes,” he groaned into the bedspread. “Oh, Jack . . . my dear, dear Jack . . .”
Jack’s hands, exquisitely rough and calloused, pawed freely at Stephen’s body; Stephen shuddered and arched his back, relishing the feeling of Jack’s breath hot and damp on the back of his neck. He twisted in Jack’s grip, his mouth seeking Jack’s, and when he found it, Jack groaned into his mouth and flipped him over onto his back.
Stephen looked up at him, and for a moment they simply stared at each other, chests heaving, breathing hard. Then Jack leaned down and kissed him with great tenderness, his hand moving to cup the back of Stephen’s head, and Stephen let himself be kissed.
He wrapped his arms around Jack’s body and found that his hands did not meet at the other side; the thought made his prick throb with arousal. Together they made quick work of Stephen’s clothes, and Jack’s after; they’d had the presence of mind on other nights to keep the oil in a chest by the bed, and it was the work of a moment to retrieve it. Jack looked almost on the verge of speaking, but he could not find the words, and instead cradled Stephen close in his arms, penetrating him with the greatest care, and with a look of absolute adoration on his face.
The sensation of being claimed with such gentleness after so violent a capture made tears spring unbidden to Stephen's eyes. He kissed Jack’s face and stroked his hands through his short and bristly hair. “They told me you were dead,” he whispered, and his voice hitched, for he had promised himself he would not tell him. “They told me . . . but I did not believe them, my dear, I could not believe them . . . I waited so very long . . .”
Jack buried his face in Stephen’s neck. “Oh, Stephen,” he croaked. “You will think me very much the scrub, but . . . I was afraid. Forgive me, Stephen, but I was . . . I so wished that you had been there . . .”
Stephen shuddered with pleasure, aching with love for Jack and the desire to be conquered by him. “You are not a scrub . . . oh, you are beautiful, joy,” and here he caressed Jack’s face, his neck, his scarred ear. “Beyond beautiful.”
Jack gave him a pleading look. “Even now, for all love?”
“Yes, yes, even now,” said Stephen desperately. He held Jack close and let his hands roam Jack’s body, glorying in his broad back, his arms, the strength of his thighs. “Upon my word and honor, even now.”
Jack made a helpless sound and clung tightly to Stephen, rolling his hips against him in a stuttering, uneven rhythm, chasing his pleasure. His skin was sticky with the sweat of exertion. “Oh, soul . . . as long as I have you, I know all shall be well . . . and I have you, Stephen . . . oh, Stephen, tell me I have you . . .”
“You have me,” Stephen breathed. He had never before felt so unmanned, though they had made love many times before. “You have won me.”
Jack shuddered against him, and Stephen heard a low, choked sob as he spent himself. Stephen held him close as he breathed, murmuring endearments in his ear, and in the blissful stillness of the aftermath, Jack’s hand found its way to Stephen’s prick, stroking it lovingly until Stephen was coaxed, trembling, to release.
They lay in one another’s arms for a long moment, not talking. At last they became aware of the chill of the bedroom air, for they had lit no fire, and together they crawled beneath the bedspread and again curled themselves around one another. Stephen tucked his head beneath Jack’s chin and breathed deeply, comforted by the familiar smell of him. His tears continued to fall, and Jack held him through it, with his nose pressed to the top of Stephen’s head. “A happy moment, soul?” he said, very gently.
Stephen wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Very happy,” he murmured back. “Be so good as to hold me, joy, with the whole of your person upon me. I should love it of all things.”
Jack shifted his position, the better to lie across Stephen and hold him in his arms. “It is very gratifying to see you like this, Stephen,” he said, nuzzling against Stephen’s neck. “It makes me feel like very much the great man.”
Stephen smiled. He kissed the corner of Jack’s mouth. “May God bless and keep you, Jack. God set a flower on your head.”
Jack hummed in appreciation, his eyes already falling closed. “Old Stephen,” he murmured, and that was all he said before sweet exhaustion claimed him. Stephen watched him for a long moment, his eyes shining with fondness. Then he kissed him one more time, at the place where his hair met his brow, and settled into sleep.