At the time, Stephen had wondered at his sudden feelings for Christine Woods. Now he thought it was truly the least of the ways things had changed once Bonaparte had been defeated. It had been a long time since he had had such a strong sense in his life of things ending. First Diana then his work gone, and if Jack had been yellowed, Stephen too would have left the Navy for good. He would have still had Jack, of course, but what state Jack himself would be in could only be foreseen in the darkest of predictions. But even with a likely way to avert that disaster, in some ways he had felt as turned loose as he had when Jack had first found him in Minorca.
And yet when they had heard the news in Gibralter he had felt no despair, but instead a desire to rebuild, redirect. In Christine he could have found an alternate life. Even if he didn’t marry her, she could have been a friend, a constant colleague, perhaps even a mother to Brigid. It bothered him, that he might have been carried so far on what Christine stood for, rather then Christine herself.
Something had changed on the other side of the Horn, though. Jack’s mortal fear of being yellowed had not gripped him as hard, and Stephen had ceased to worry about the possibility at all. And then his future had come clearer to him, and it had not been much different then the way his life had been. And at the same time a longing for Jack had developed, beyound any level of desire or pure lust he had felt for the man in all their years together.
How long had it been since they last kissed? They certainly hadn’t made love since before Diana’s death. At first, of course, Stephen had not wanted to. Jack had been very cautious with him, not wanting to upset, or worse, offend him. Stephen hoped the knowledge of his courting Christine would allow Jack to believe he was open to the resumption of their relations. But at that time Jack had been in the full throes of flag-sickness, with all its accompanying symptoms, including impotence, and when Stephen had thought about it, he remembered that even with full assurances that his marriage to Diana changed nothing between them, Jack had still refrained from so much as kissing him for months.
Still, when he had reclaimed Stephen that time, he had claimed it was on Diana’s behalf, to make sure he did not fall into the arms of any more women such as Laura Fielding. With that justification to make, they had never again hesitated because of their wives when they were away from home. Why now?
In response to that gleam in Jack’s eyes, Stephen walked over to the cabin door and sealed it. He turned his gaze to Jack and was stunned by the relief he saw. Surely, even if he had hesitated, he could not have actually doubted-
“My dearest soul,” Stephen started, but found he could not think of what to say next. In the end he merely crossed over to Jack and they descended onto each other.
Either one or both lost his footing and they lay on the floor, Stephen on top of Jack, hands moving over each other’s bodies like mad, mouths claiming all the skin they could reach. “You still seem so thin,” Jack whispered, his breathing harsh.
“Does that upset you?”
“Not at the moment.” Jack had himself lost perhaps a stone to flag-sickness, but his arms were as big, and they clasped Stephen’s form to him hard, so Stephen could not have escaped had he wanted to. And all Stephen could think was how he had changed, how it had all changed, and yet this had not at all. Jack’s mouth was still almost unbearably hot on his skin, his hands grabbing cloth and touching skin and driving Stephen mad, until by the time his tongue found Stephen’s neck, striving towards his ear, all coherent thought had fled.
Jack’s shirt was off; Stephen’s was coming off, his hands tugging at Jack’s queue, or what was left of it. Then Jack pulled away and pulled off his breeches, wrestling with his boots when they got in the way and yanking off his stockings. He had not put drawers on that day, and completely naked he lay on his belly in front of Stephen, his legs spread in offering.
Stephen was finding breathing difficult at the sight. He leaned over and pressed sweet kisses to Jack’s neck and hair, his hands caressing Jack’s chest. “Turn around, joy,” he whispered, “I want to look at you.”
Jack obeyed, unable to suppress a faint moan of longing as his eyes fixed on Stephen removing boots, stockings, and breeches. As soon as they were off he pulled Stephen to him, kissing him hard and running his hands over his legs.
“My vest pocket,” Stephen managed to say. Jack understood, and they both reached for the vest. Stephen got there first, taking the bottle of sweet oil he had placed in the pocket, knowing it was likely Jack would want this.
He was trembling by this time, and it was hard to apply the oil. Jack took some of it into his own hands and ran them eagerly over Stephen’s prick. Finally he murmured, “Now, Stephen, please,” and covered his mouth with his hand as Stephen drove into him hard.
A second thrust, a third. Jack’s hands fell to his sides, then clutched at Stephen’s arms. Jack’s prick drove itself into Stephen’s belly; Stephen reached down to touch it. Jack moaned as he did, and Stephen placed his mouth over Jack’s to keep him quiet.
He went quicker, unable to hold back, burying himself as deep into Jack as he could go, Jack shoving himself back against him. They spent almost simultaneously, the feeling of Jack’s release around him triggering Stephen’s.
They lay on the floor a long while, neither speaking. Stephen was aware they probably should get up and dress themselves, but he found it difficult to bring himself to move. Finally Jack muttered something about cleaning, and they groped for their clothes.
Minutes later they were cleaned, dressed, and sitting together on the locker bench, not yet feeling the need to speak. But after a period of comfortable silence Jack said, “How will this go after you marry Mrs. Woods?”
“I may not marry her.” Stephen reminded him. “She may not accept my proposal.”
“But if she does? Are you certain you want a wife whom you would have to deceive? It is not always easy.”
Stephen hadn’t thought of that. He hadn’t though of it back when he had hoped to marry Diana, until he had felt the blessed relief that she could know, and accept. He could not have just expected that, and he certainly couldn’t expect it from Christine. “I am afraid I have no choice.” He lowered his head. “Perhaps I should not have proposed so rashly. Now if she accepts I am honour-bound to marry her.”
“Then you would not give me up for her?”
Stephen looked up sharply. “Of course not. What would ever make you think I would?”
There was the oddest expression on Jack’s face. He still had doubts, and a great amount of gratification. “Jack, I am amazed.” Stephen said. “Surely, after all these years, you cannot think you are of such little significance to me, that I have such little attachment to you.”
“As a friend I do not doubt your attachment, and I have not since...but as a lover, it don’t work so simply, when you’re talking about marrying someone else.”
Stephen still could not believe what he was hearing. Of course he knew Jack did not automatically know such things, often did not give them thought. And now that he reflected, he knew he had never spoken of his feelings to Jack. Speaking such words had been too difficult. At some point, he didn’t remember when anymore, he had just assumed Jack had known. How could he not?
But he had not. He had never been sure. Knowing Jack, it was unlikely he had concerned himself with it much, but recently, with a new person in the picture, he could not ignore it.
“Forgive me, my love. I think I have caused you great pain which could have been easily avoided. You know already of how dearly I love you. At least, I hope you know.” Jack nodded, and Stephen was very relieved that this, at least, Jack did not doubt. “There has never been anyone in my life as important to me as you have been, Jack.”
Jack had not known, Stephen realized, how much he had longed to hear this until now. “Not even Diana?” he asked, his voice hoarse.
“Not even her. And I was far more attached to her, and am to Brigid, then I think I ever will be to Christine Woods. You, Jack, have been the longest presence in my life, and the one I have relied on the most. You have kept me from death in my darkest hours, you have brought me to feel happiness when it would otherwise have stood just out of my reach. Jack, if we had not met in Port Mahon so long ago, if you had not taken me to sea with you, I do not think I would have lived much longer. You have been the one thing that makes me feel safe in this world, the one home I have left now. It shocks me to think you have not comprehended this.”
He felt very undone, as undone as Jack looked. “Would you stay always by my side? Never leave me? Ever?”
Stephen placed a hand on Jack’s, looked in his eyes, and said, “Jack, I promise you, I swear by the Holy Cross, nothing but death will part me from you, or put anyone before you in my eyes.”
Jack might not comprehend the full extent of the oath, but he perceived enough of it. Stephen himself was still awed by the force of the emotion behind it, the utter certainty which was new to him. Perhaps it was just as well he had waited so long to speak; he did not think he could have sworn such a thing not too long ago. Only now could he make such a promise, either before Jack or before God.
Jack’s fingers crept over Stephen’s, and a single tear escaped his eyes. It touched his lips even as he brought them to Stephen, Stephen’s tongue licked it away. “I do not think I have ever felt such joy as this, love.” his whispered, his voice choking.
“Shhhh,” Stephen leaned into Jack’s arms, those strong arms, which had held him so many times, loved him so much, and asked so little in return. “How can any man be unhappy, when he is loved as much as I am, or you?”
Silence again, until Jack asked, “Shall we have some music?”
“With all my heart.”
They brought the violin and cello out, and set to tuning, Stephen demanding his rosin back from Jack, who had taken it again. Then they were both ready, and at a nod from Stephen Jack drew his bow across the violin; a moment later Stephen had joined him, drawing a deep and satisfied harmony for Jack’s merry fiddle. The beat went quick, quick, Stephen keeping pace easily with Jack, following him deeper into the music, each responding to the other, knowing how it went. An old communion, but one no less strong or satisfying then the first time they had reached it.