Someone has stolen Hickey’s stepstool.
He imagines it might have been Hartnell, seeing it lying unused and requisitioning it eagerly for his efforts to shore up the ship, working alongside Mr. Blanky.
Or perhaps Manson has done it, for no reason other than it was there, and he liked the look of it.
In any case, without it, the hole in the orlop Hickey has been assigned to repair is out of reach. It lies a good yard above him, near where the deck meets the starboard bulkhead.
There are crates nearby he might stand on, if they were in the right position, but they are not. And they’re too heavy to shift by himself, would be even if he weren’t half-crippled by the mess of still-healing lashes across his backside.
It isn’t as if he’s going to grow any taller just by standing there, craning his neck up at the benighted fissure. But the thought of running to that joyless despot Darlington and begging assistance is deeply unappetizing— as is the potential consequence of being reported once more to Lieutenant Irving for grousing.
He’s seconds from giving up, can practically smell the tobacco of the smoke he’ll roll up, that new and fine blend gifted to him under cover of secrecy.
No— he can actually smell it, now. It wafts past him, subtle but insistent.
“D’you need a hand there?”
The call comes from the companionway, down which a broad shape has half-descended, gold buttons glinting.
Sergeant Tozer. The lovely lobster himself.
For he is lovely, in his way: this, Hickey is disappointed in himself for not having noticed earlier in the expedition. But he’s a single-minded type, and for many a month had not found cause to look anywhere else but pretty Billy, let alone towards the red-coats, rough-voiced and clannish in their corner, kept apart by a boundary everyone aboard seemed to naturally treat as eternal and inviolable.
(Hickey isn’t much fond of lines, especially those he’s told he’d best not step across.)
So it was only this summer— with a dead Captain and no leads and a ship growing more crooked in its cage of ice by the day; his usual relief from drudgery absent, too, thanks to Billy determinedly avoiding him at every turn— that Hickey had at last found reason to take his eyes on a turn about the crowded galley.
And there he was.
Nobody would ever take the fetching Solomon Tozer for a Margery: he was all masculine bluster and musketry, married to Brown Bess like a good bit of muck. There were easier targets, to be sure.
But Billy’s betrayal, Lieutenant Irving’s admonishment, their casting of Hickey as a devious seducer had given him an itch to live up to the name. It was a good challenge, if anything. A way to occupy the mind.
There’s a fancy word that Hickey once learned from a magazine. Craquelure. When he’d first read it he’d rolled it around on his tongue, playing with its sound in his mouth. He’d liked what it meant: that even a masterpiece in a gilt frame was, in truth, splintered and fragile.
So he’d aimed to get close to the work of art that was Solomon Tozer, to glimpse the map of minute rifts that made up what, from a distance, could be taken for a faultless whole.
It wasn’t difficult at all for Hickey to find himself in the sergeant’s company a few evenings a week. He had much to offer, after all: a sympathetic ear to Tozer’s mithering, a partner for card games. And a storyteller, when called upon; after two years of the same tales told by the same lads, Tozer was eager as a boy for new ones, and Hickey had plenty on offer, committed to memory from weeklies and pamphlets and told with a practiced, theatrical flair.
Since the creature attacked Private Heather, leaving the man as nothing but a red Goldner’s tin with the lid sawn off, grotesquely glistening insides and all, Hickey had watched Tozer’s bravado grow louder, in clear compensation for the doubt and loneliness that yawed ever wider inside that red coat, underneath all that swagger. A fine combination, in Hickey’s eye. One that would serve his purposes well, given enough time and attention.
And here, then, is his reward. Succor for the lashes on his skin and the throb of his prick. Tozer has sought Hickey out of his own volition, man of action that he is. Surely he’s come with an excuse at hand should he be pressed for one, but Hickey won’t trouble him for it. He’s not one to question gifts when handed over so sweetly.
By way of answer to Tozer’s inquiry, Hickey points up at the damaged deckhead.
“Help a man at it, would you?” he asks.
He expects Tozer to haul one of the crates over, looks forward to watching the sergeant’s arms flex beneath his tailored coat.
But instead the Marine crosses in an easy lope to where Hickey stands, and kneels down, knee against the bulkhead, directly below the problem spot. He lifts his chin, motioning brusquely.
Hickey lets out a laugh, genuinely surprised. “Such gallantry this ship’s never seen,” he says.
In response Tozer merely grunts, extends a hand. Hickey doesn’t hesitate further; he takes Tozer’s hand and steps up gracefully onto the offered ladder-rung.
They must look quite the pair of acrobats, Hickey thinks with a satisfied air; a very fine duo indeed. He stands aloft, feet planted on Tozer’s buttress of an upper leg, and does his duty, hammering in the oakum with his iron and mallet, one layer of stiff fiber after the other.
Conscious of the sergeant’s uniform, less neat these days than he used to keep it in seasons past but still kempt, Hickey tries to keep the pitch from dripping as he applies it over top. Despite his efforts a great deal still splashes down, one thick black drop landing on his boot a mere inch from the wool of Tozer’s trousers.
“For a man in your line of work,” Tozer grumbles, “you don’t seem to have much of an affinity for that stuff.”
“I’d say I know a thing or two more about caulk than you,” Hickey says.
There’s a pause; Hickey waits to see if his double meaning has been taken.
“Do you, now,” says Tozer, and Hickey, face tilted up and away from him, smiles where he can’t see.
When he’s finished, he hands the last of his tools down, and Tozer sets them on the deck.
At that very moment, the ice makes its presence known with a harsh scream; in one violent jerk, the ship cants a few degrees further to port and Hickey loses his balance, sliding down the bulkhead, and then landing, solidly and neatly, astride Tozer’s leg.
The pain from his wounds is a mere suggestion, a distant insistence that is easy to ignore in the face of this unexpected positioning: Tozer’s sturdy, warm thigh underneath him a most inviting seat, and Tozer’s handsome face quite close to his now, mostly in shadow but the lamp picking out flecks of gold in his beard and hair. Gold to match his buttons, and the buckles on his shoulders. Such a dear, valuable thing, Hickey thinks. A thing he means to possess.
They stay like that a moment. Hickey makes no move to lift himself and Tozer makes no move to do it for him.
Experimentally, Hickey shifts his weight atop Tozer’s knee, bears down just a fraction.
“Getting comfortable?” Tozer says, a low, rumbling appeal.
In response Hickey raises his left knee, pushes it forward experimentally against Tozer’s prick, gives it a gentle motion, up and then down. Tozer sucks in a deep breath, leans into the pressure, exhales in a soft groan.
“Are you?” Hickey replies. He runs his hands down Tozer’s chest, hands playing lightly over his buttons; he draws one hand up in order to slip a finger inside Tozer’s collar, run it gently along the join of his neck and shoulder. His pulse is jumping there like a hare. Doesn’t he know Hickey means to do him no harm? Precisely the opposite, in fact?
With the hand still on his chest, Hickey gives Tozer a gentle shove. “Lie back,” he says.
Tozer does as he’s bid. He gets his strong hands on Hickey’s waist and carries them both down to the deck, stretching his legs out with one of Hickey’s still trapped between them.
It’s wonderful to have such a barrier between him and the cold planks beneath; Tozer makes a marvelous mattress indeed, a layer of healthy muscle for Hickey to splay comfortably over. He makes himself at home atop the Marine’s body, fitting Tozer’s prick to his own through their trousers. It’s a handsome match, Hickey can tell; it feels tremendously good, even occluded by the layers of wool between.
The Marine’s eyes are closed, his hands thrown round Hickey’s back and clutched there in the cheap fabric of his second-hand jacket as they rut against each other. Tozer’s mussed hair reveals the shell of his ear; a reddened curve that Hickey would dearly like to give a licking to, before murmuring something soft and sinful right inside.
Billy hadn’t minded much how Hickey liked to talk, liked to whisper of all the things he was doing, had done, wished to do.
But Hickey’s not looking to scare Tozer off now, which he figures his usual chat might have the effect of doing. Might make it all too real, to spell it out.
This can be a dream, if Tozer likes. Nothing but a dream.
Tozer’s hips buck up as Hickey grinds himself closer; Hickey hears one of the Marine’s boots kick the tin of pitch over onto the deck, but Hickey hardly cares, not for the mess it’s made nor how he’ll have to account for it later.
He’s busy delighting in how Tozer’s found his rhythm, how they’re moving together now as one. Tozer’s prick is straining hard against the hindrance of his garments, begging for something it won’t be getting, a hand or a mouth or a hole to fuck.
Hickey brings a hand up to Tozer’s face, beard scraping pleasantly at his palm; he wishes, idly, that the man would look him in the eyes, but all in time, all in time.
The ship lurches again in the ice, a minor movement this time but enough for Hickey’s hand to lose purchase slightly, the very tip of his thumb slipping just between the edge of Tozer’s lips.
And without prompting Tozer takes Hickey’s thumb like it’s a meal, sucks at it so pretty Hickey can’t help but take it right out again only in order to plunge two long fingers back in, his fore and his middle, tucking them into Tozer’s cheek, working them around his hot, hungry tongue.
He’d honestly meant to follow Tozer’s silent lead, limit himself to naught but breath and gasp, but now he can’t help himself.
“This what you get up to, with your men?” he says. “Keep them in order with this mouth of yours in more ways than one? Line them up, suck them off, wouldn’t catch you getting tired until you’ve drunk every last one dry—”
Tozer’s eyes fly open, and he spits Hickey’s fingers out like they’ve gone rancid. The very sight of his humiliated, mutinous expression sends a hot, urgent flush through Hickey, brings him swiftly to the edge. The prettiest picture, not despite but because of the great rift in it, revealing the rawness below.
With one last great animal heave, Hickey reaches his crisis. He collapses against Tozer, that warm place to land, and some moments later as his prick subsides he feels Tozer levering an arm in between them, digging around in his trousers to finish himself off.
He comes quickly and angrily, with a shudder into his hand and a wordless grunt, and then falls still.
Face hidden in the crook of Tozer’s neck, Hickey smiles. The longer they lie together there in the cold belly of the ship, the longer Tozer breathes beneath him without shoving him off onto the deck, the wider his private Cheshire-cat grin becomes.
That’s the thing about lobsters. There’s a special way to prepare them: a most cruel and beautiful way. Hickey has seen it done, just the once, in the kitchen of a sprawling country house where he had no business being at all. He’d watched the process with a keen eye; closely enough to recall it vividly and often for years to come.
Tozer had been dropped into the water months ago, the first time Hickey had turned to him with bright, questing eyes, and received a welcoming nod in response.
The poor man probably still doesn’t realize he’s been boiled alive.