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Silver-green lanterns tossing among windy branches:

So an old man thinks

Of the loves of his youth.

— Amy Lowell, ‘Ephemera’

 

At night, the noise of the ship is routine. John is accustomed to the thud of feet on deck, the creak of hammock-rope in the forecastle, the toll of the bell for every hour. He also has a keen ear for the chatter of rats below the deck or the guarded conversations between officers in their mess or the low murmur in the cabin beside him as the mate prays out-loud every evening.

It is these lived-in noises of Erebus that lull John into a light sleep every night. Here in the far North, they must replace the sounds he misses most on ship: the lapping of waves or the shrieking of seabirds. While they are a poor substitute, he clings to the comfort they provide.

He closes his eyes and listens as he undresses for bed in the dim glow of his lamp. Even the darkness itself seems to hum once he extinguishes his lamp and has lain down in his bunk, and he is nearly on the cusp of sleep when something unusual piques his attention.

There is the softest patter of feet shuffling toward his cabin. While it is not the familiar trudge of an officer or AB, his throat catches with aching intimacy.

He knows that step.

His suspicions are confirmed when the man stops, pausing a second before inching his door open and slipping inside. He closes the door behind him without a sound.

John turns his head, imagining that he can see his shape in the darkness, but truly, the cabin is pitch black; every lamp and candle below deck extinguished to save the diminishing supply of oil and wax.

The man at his door does not move, as though waiting for permission from John to come near. Apprehension and affection alike grip John — for how precious it is that he should remember the unspoken rule that they never meet like this on ship, the risk of it too great, yet how it adds such vigor to their passionate reunions on land — but how can he refuse his beloved this minor lapse, when John also misses his touch like air?

John lifts his hand, even though he cannot see it.

“Henry,” he breathes.

The darkness shifts, and in an instant, Henry is upon him. His mouth meets John’s with such desperation as to have both of them gasping once he pulls away. John cups both sides of his face as their foreheads press together, their chests heaving. Henry’s hands tremble where they curl into the collar of John’s nightshirt.

“I’m sorry,” Henry murmurs, his lips brushing against John’s mouth and chin. “I know that… I know this isn’t…”

John interrupts him with a kiss.

“Don’t be.”

“John—”

“It’s all right.”

“I've missed you.”

“I know.”

Henry stands long enough to tug his trousers down his legs and pull his sweater over his head. John lifts the corner of his blanket, cool air nipping at his skin, and welcomes Henry beside him. Warmth rapidly overpowers the chill, only the cotton of their shirts separating them, as Henry lies on top of him and kisses him.

They will need to be quick, as much as John wants to luxuriate in the heat of Henry’s body or how much he longs to indulge in the sweetness of each kiss.

Henry also senses the urgency as he licks into his mouth, his hands pawing at John’s hips. He’s impatient to shove their shirts up and grind their hips together. Henry is hard already, and when John feels the jut of his prick rubbing into his hip, he exhales sharply through his nose, his head tipping back against the wall.  

They will have to be quiet. Both of them know this. Henry muffles his mouth by biting at John’s shoulder, the fabric of his shirt enough to swallow each of the precious noises he makes. John nudges his thigh between Henry’s legs to give him better friction, and Henry arches against him as he humps his leg faster.

John’s cock takes longer to rise, but Henry’s eagerness never fails to arouse him. He rubs the flat of his palm against himself as Henry pleasures himself on his leg.

As much as John is content to finish like this, Henry sits up onto his knees. He positions himself higher on John, hovering over his stomach. John bites back a groan when he feels his prick brush against Henry’s taint.

Henry drags his tongue in a line up John’s neck, ending at his ear where he whispers, “Inside.”

The single word makes his cock jump, but the sensible side of John wants to argue. They don’t have the time, the necessary items to ease his entry.

The next words are almost lost when Henry murmurs into his hair. “Please, John.”

Normally, John prefers to speak with his lover through the process, but they risk being caught should they be foolish enough to talk more than they must. As it is, every noise they make seems overly loud to John’s ears.

Though the longer he has Henry in his arms, the more his resistance falls away, and he pushes caution to the side, however mindful he may be of the added crewmembers aboard tonight.

He palms the curve of Henry’s backside, his fingers sliding along the cleft. Henry shudders against him, and John cups his chin so he may kiss the noise from his lips.

Time is against them, so John wastes no more of it as he wets two of his fingers with his own spit. When he first prods Henry’s entrance, it is firm, but Henry presses down against his hand until each finger pushes inside. John pauses when he can, conscious of how Henry’s thighs are trembling, how his hands dig into his shoulders.

He waits until Henry presses an open-mouthed kiss at his cheek to continue, and Henry pants as he begins to shallowly thrust his fingers into him. Soon, Henry stops John’s hand with his own, and again, he puts his lips to John’s ear.

“More,” he whines, “now, John, please.”

It is never John’s desire to hurt Henry, so he lets his lover take control as he removes his hand and Henry balances his hips over his cock. A moan almost slips from him when he feels Henry’s fingers wrap around him to angle him better, and John bites the back of his wrist to keep himself silent. Henry’s hand is smaller than his but just as calloused. The dry, rough texture of his palm against the sensitive skin is always enough to undo John.

He feels the tip of his cock press against Henry’s entrance, and he forces himself to lie still. Henry pushes down, his flesh resisting before yielding all at once, the intensity of it nearly enough to make John immediately spill. Slowly, Henry sinks onto him, never stopping even as he shakes. Once he is fully seated, John bends his legs up so that Henry may lean back.

Oh, how John longs to see Henry, though his imagination provides him with plenty.

The image of Henry sitting on top of him, his pale thighs clenched on either side of his hips, his lithe chest arched as he begins to move, his kiss-bruised mouth hanging open as his head tips back, eyes closed as he loses himself to everything but the sensation of John’s cock inside him — John could drown himself in the decadence of it. All the loves of his past melt away. Never would John have believed that a gift as sweet as Henry would share his confidence and his bed during the twilight of his life.

John keeps his wrist pressed against his mouth; he doesn’t trust himself to stay quiet by self-control alone; not as Henry speeds up, not as the heat coils tighter and tighter in his belly. Blindly, he reaches his other hand to Henry’s chest. He rubs small circles on his sternum, wishing they were somewhere warmer so that there would be no clothing to hinder his enjoyment of Henry’s body.

(another time, he promises himself, always looking to the future, to rooms tucked away on land where he may undress henry as slowly as he pleases and have henry stretched beneath him, naked and lovely and warm, on a sun-dappled bedspread, where henry may gasp and cry and moan as loudly as he – and john – desires.)

Henry is trembling so violently now that he would shake the bed were the bunk not nestled into the side of the ship. John urges him to lie against him, and once Henry is cradled against his chest, his face burrowed again in John’s shoulder, John slips his hand between them to help guide Henry to his peak.

John can feel the sting of Henry’s teeth through his shirt as he alternates between bucking into John’s hand and grinding down onto his cock. A mighty tremor courses through him, traveling from his teeth to his knees where his thighs convulse against John’s legs. His seed is warm where it spills onto John’s fingers and belly, and John switches his hands so he may taste Henry on his tongue as he thrusts once more, twice —

He bites down on his fingers hard enough that he tastes copper mixed with salt as his release crashes over him in a wave.

Beside him, Henry sighs and kisses his neck.

 

***

 

Henry redresses first and hands John the cloth from his washbasin once he is finished with it. John nurses the bite mark on his hand. The sting will be his pleasant reminder of Henry for the following week; the shared secret of their hurried, covetous lovemaking.

Fumbling in the dark, Henry feels for his face. He runs his fingers through John’s beard before leaning over him with one knee on the bed. He bumps their noses together with a soft huff and kisses him, both of them reluctant to move.

There is the heavy thud of footsteps outside as the watch changes shifts. They grow still, holding their breath as they wait for the men to pass. 

When it is quiet once more, Henry kisses his forehead and stands. He goes to door and pauses a moment, listening. The door slides open and shut so quickly that John hardly sees him go, but already he misses the way Henry’s presence filled the cold, dark corners of his cabin.

Discarding the cloth onto the bedside table, he fixes his nightshirt and pulls the woolen covers to his chin, in an attempt to seek the same warmth Henry provided him.

Again, he nurses the bite on his hand, quite grateful that stewards wear gloves.