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A Self Portrait As A Drowned Man

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“You were sent to test me.”

Hickey tilted his head as if he were a hawk surveying a field. John felt preyed upon and took a fortifying step back, moved away from Hickey's reach. “I believe I was sent here to assist in Discovery Service, sir.” He spoke as if he were reaching a simpleton. “You drew me to your side.”

John shifted slightly to let the man pass. Hickey moved only a few steps before he paused and turned, iron in his eyes. “Though, I am certain we were destined to have our paths cross. I being a man of wayward spirit and you, sir, a man of great conviction. We are complementary and alike.”

“We are nothing of the sort. Of this I am dead certain.” John crossed the small distance separating them and let their physical difference become far more apparent. He pushed him to the wall, Hickey's face flashing surprise before slipping into satisfaction. John could no longer temper his anger, his emotions tethered by a frayed rope. His fingers dug into the man's bony shoulders and kept him firmly in place. “Understand that.”

Hickey did not struggle. Rather he allowed John to hold him with a bemused expression. “I cannot abide by that, no. And lest you consider that insubordination, sir, it is a deeply held belief I am unable to separate from my sense of self. I will not share it in present company again.” He squirmed slightly when John's thumb wrenched into the dip above his collarbone. His face shifted into pleasure and John immediately pushed off the man.

“You are depraved,” he whispered. Hickey brought his fingers to where John's pressed. He drew in his lower lip and let his tongue pass along it, a slow journey that spiked something sharp in his chest. Whatever it was melted slick and journeyed along his torso and grew warm in John's pelvis. His face grew heated with understanding and he exhaled.

No.

His legs bent slightly, a gesture of weakness he knew Hickey witnessed. The man was a wolf who did not bother to don a disguise. And John was the rabbit between his teeth, his struggle for naught.

“I see there is a commonality. I am willing to join you in climbing exercises if you must temper your nature.” Hickey adjusted his uniform and stood stock straight, a parody of respect. “Shall I be dismissed?”

John stalked away, cursed the moment that signaled a change within.

)()()(

He avoided the man's path. Deliberately scouted ahead for the whereabouts of Hickey, kept him in the distance physically and attempted to mentally.

“The man vexes,” he muttered to himself in the privacy of his berth. “The man needs to be tamed.”

He fell to his knees and mercifully wrapped himself in the cloak of prayers, stated them clearly so God may hear. His ears were always open to John's voice. Steeled and strengthened John stood and stretched his frame a bit taller. His soul felt lighter as the comfort he sought could only be provided by the Bible, an authority higher than man. He drew back his curtain and the overwhelming warmth of dense bodies packed into one area gave way to a faint chill.

“Sir, you ought to lead the men in sermon,” that slick voice chirped from the side. “The convictions held while on your knees are greater than most men and women.”

John threw Hickey a glance that would melt the ice around them. “What I do in the privacy of my berth is beyond your reach, Mr. Hickey.”

Hickey's face twitched in amusement and he took a slight step forward, enough for him to swallow the dank air from John's space. “I believe that no men is beyond my reach, Lieutenant Irving.” His smile was the slither of the snake that led to the Fall. “We are all Brothers under the mercy of God in Christ and are in need of your steadying hand.”

He nodded and slunk back to the shadows, tool caddy swinging as he moved. The heat returned to John's flesh, pinkening him and flooding his limbs. The man needed more than to be tamed. He needed to force of God and the weight of the Royal Navy pressed into his small body.

)()()(

“Watercolors.”

John jumped a bit at the sudden intrusion into his silent introspection. He faced Hickey with a neutral expression and waited for him to continue.

“You said to focus on watercolors. Does that truly work?” His face held a puzzled expression, but his keen eyes kept focus on John.

“At times it is pleasant to contemplate one's surroundings and reproduce it. It's meditative.” John's lips reflexively curled into a smile. Floral-scented memories of particularly lovely days spent painting with a woman filled with kindness fluttered into mind. For a moment the utter cold became a mild afternoon, a deeply pleasurable experience.

“Have we any supplies then, sir?” Hickey's voice cut into his mind; the man strolled into his grass-lined thoughts dressed for a comfortable afternoon. His frock coat was cut well, but his trousers and shoes were speckled with mud. He settled into the garden with ease and extended a hand in welcome.

John blinked and Hickey smiled broadly. “If you are unwilling to lead us in prayer, then perhaps you can use your assured talents as a watercolorist to distract us from certain predilections.”

Hickey spread that final word in amusement, of that John was certain, yet his face remained sincere. It was better to feed into his prodding with earnestness than fight. “I believe we may, though our environment may not lend itself to inspiration.”

“Lieutenant Irving, if I may be so bold, what inspires you? Beyond God and holding us in the proper order?” Hickey's voice clipped his statements and caught John off-guard. He opened but immediately shut his mouth, unable to find a definitive statement beyond his suggestions.

He defined himself through his Faith and his role in the British Navy, the rigid organizational structures of both suited to his personality. True, all men held motivation, whether by a spirit of adventure or a sense of romance. John never felt either; though he found himself in the middle of the Arctic it was duty that led him to explore the ice. It was a proper way to climb the ladder, but only high enough to perch on a rung or two below the top. Frankly, romance was beyond him since he was too controlled to stray from polite conversation, save for one instance.

“Haven't you anything to do, Mr. Hickey?” He let himself hiss the question as it was the best way for him to vent his frustration without cuffing the man behind the ear.

Hickey nodded and adjusted his posture, his tools rattling a bit with the slight movement. “Yes, sir, however your words stuck with me. They often do.”

John felt his stomach drop as Hickey kept himself stock still, his eyes focused intensely on his. The sharpness in his eyes dulled slightly with, if John read him correctly, a sense of concern. The man pitied him. “Get to work, Hickey,” he ordered between gritted teeth. He nodded and shimmered his way to his intended destination. He left John with an overwhelming sense of loss, a feeling of being unmoored.

)()()(

“Here.” John placed the small case beside Hickey. “It's not much, but perhaps you can find some meditation.” John made a move to leave, but Hickey's pleased sound halted him.

“And you yours if you care to join me.” Hickey balanced the case in the crook of his arm and peered at the contents. “There are more than enough supplies for two.”

“Indeed.” John stared at the blocks of pigment and the sets of pristine brushes. Not much demand for art at this leg of their journey. The library and music were far more popular. “Still, I do not believe the endless crystalline ice would bring you to an artistic state.”

“You haven't any idea what brings me to specific states, sir.” Hickey's brows raised as he drew a line along the bristles. They bent under his finger then sprang back in a gentle movement. “You deny I hold Faith and now you question my own sense of creation.”

John's right hand shook slightly and he immediately tucked it behind his back. No, that was not at all his goal. He did not trust Hickey; the man was an aberration, but he was still a Child of God. If he could be shaped under John as easily as the brushes yielded against his finger then the ship would be better for it. Bring him into the fold, bring him closer to be watched.

To be corrected.

“I do not deny you,” John began. He felt oddly tentative as he struggled to find the words. They never came naturally, a sharp contrast to Hickey's silvered tongue. “Beauty exists in all places, even here.”

Hickey nodded and shut the lid. He peered up at John under his lashes and made an agreeing sound, a purr of sorts. Cornelius Hickey was a diminutive man though he never seemed it as he stood in John's shadow. He held his eyes and that serpent smile he often wore became replaced by a warm curve. “I agree, sir.” He made a noise and began to dig into his pockets. “I rolled a cigarette. Would you care for it?”

The question took John by surprise. Though there was an impressive amount of tobacco rationed to each man he understood that such generosity was uncommon. It wasn't selfish for the men to cling to their stock; it was necessary. Everything was carefully rationed within the confines of the ship, from air to their sleeping accomodations. To be offered such a thing by Hickey of all individuals was welcomed and off-putting. “I appreciate the gesture, but it is inappropriate for a man above rank to accept a gift from a subordinate.”

“Of course, sir,” Hickey returned his hand to his side and smiled. “I will see if I can find a bit of motivation, Lieutenant Irving, and I hope you will as well.”

John gave a sharp nod and moved through the corridor. He'd never say it aloud, but he shared the sentiment.

)()()(

John found the emergence of colors across the paper an enjoyable experience. He’d be the first to admit he lacked artistic expression. His brush strokes were hesitant and his reproductions childish, but the medium forgave. They sat together in the shade, her blue cotton skirts draped over his shoe to communicate the slightest hint of intimacy. Oh, she was lovely and eager to correct his clumsy work. At times she braced her hand over his and together they'd improve the line of the tree of the bend of a trellis in the distance.

“May I be bold?” He tried to keep the shake from his voice, but still it clung his words. She placed her brush down and turned to face him. He wondered how it felt to sink into her edges and blur their colors together. “I wish to state my intentions with you.”

Her face remained placid, as calm as the little lake in the park. Yet her brown eyes darkened slightly and she brought a finger to the black curl behind her ear. “Oh, John,” she lowered her voice and he leaned closer. He smelled the perfume button she wore around her throat, lavender and slightly acidic lemon a fresh cloud he longed to taste on her skin. “We share much in common, but I need a constant companion and not a man who shall disappear for stretches of time.” His heart lurched and he shifted away, stiffened, and focused on the grass at his feet. Still she grasped his hand. “Don't John, please don't despise me.”

He held her equally as tight and brought their hands to his forehead. “No, I never could,” he murmured. Only the opposite for a woman like her who respected him enough to share her thoughts so openly. She was honorable and he understood her decision. He shouldn't ask her to devote her life to letters and an empty space in a home with a lodger for a husband. She would never keep him from his duty as he was so firmly entrenched in his position. He was no farmer, no merchant, no educator. He was a member of the Royal Navy. And yet. “We could retire to New South Wales and enjoy pastoral pursuits.” Then she could have John forever.

She dropped all sense of public decorum and stroked his brow. Peppered his other hand with a press of kisses that left him blushing. “And have you sacrifice everything? Never.”

“May we continue to paint together?” He released her hand and reached for his brush. Immediately she produced hers and they worked in comfortable silence.

)()()(

“Will you join me?” Hickey knelt before a box, his brush balanced between two fingers. “I understand you are needed elsewhere at all times, but I'd prefer it if you did.”

“Only for a moment.” John sank to his knees and took the offered supplies. The oil lamps cast a warm glow as they dipped and swiped their lines and swirls across their pages. John drew another stroke of dark green then thinned it with the tiniest drop of water. A pleasing gradient formed, the grass simply expressed, but certainly recognizable.

Hickey compared their efforts. “You are talented.” John barely hid his confusion as he looked at the man's work. The majority of the paper was a flat plane of dark blue with the occasional drag of red emerging like blood from a wound. “It is an interpretation,” he offered as if that were explanation enough.

John observed as he slowly included a broad slick of yellow in the corner. “Is that the sun?” John asked. He received a nod.

“And yours is a field, sir, correct?”

John hummed his answer and turned his focus on including some flowers. “It is a place I enjoyed back home. I've found my thoughts straying to this garden before I sleep, my dreams overtaken not by ice or the hull, but this.” He made a slight face at the amount of information he revealed with Hickey. The man was calculating and he knew it would be held as a form of ridicule in some future biting conversation.

“I believe we all walk these corridors thinking we are elsewhere, dream of our ideal homes and some brief joys.” He blew lightly on the paper and placed his brush down. “I think about somewhere pleasantly hot with sandy beaches. I stand along the shore, my bare legs licked by an expanse of ocean that exists for me alone.”

John felt his ears warm at the image, Hickey's thin legs like twin poles jutting from the sand, arms outstretched as he absorbed the rays of the sun. “Perhaps you ought to paint your beach.”

“Maybe, sir. Though my preference is to share it with no one.” A slight reddening spread across Hickey's cheeks that could only be attributed to a flush.

Slowly John spun the brush in the water and made a hesitant statement. “You shared it with me.” He wanted to reach the man and this conversation was a tether that wove itself between them. When John glanced to his side he saw the quirk of his raised brow.

“True. I find myself at ease when with you.” Hickey smiled broadly as if it were a shared reality between them and not a statement that left him utterly confused. They antagonized one another, but here they were confessing their escapes to one another.

“And yet you fight me at every turn.” Correction, restraint, self-reflection: Cornelius Hickey lacked such basics. But he held himself as someone who was aware at all times, a man who knew who he was with the self-confidence that John presented yet lacked.

“If you say so,” Hickey dipped the brush in the water and wiped it dry against his leg. “I believe I cannot add to this further.”

John still saw it as an abstraction, a confused work that screamed emptily its meaning. “I don't understand where you've drawn this from,” John said with a brief gesture to the page. Hickey shrugged. Perhaps some things emerge from the mind fully formed. He looked at his own work, the garden and the expanse of green and found himself centered anew. His was incomplete, but he had time to contemplate and continue.

)()()(

“What inspires you?”

John pressed his bare heels into the grass, wound the aster stem around his forefinger. Cornelius placed his hand along the top of his foot and dragged a path up to his ankle. “You've asked that already.” Cornelius shrugged and adjusted his neck. His eyes were impossibly large and beautiful, ice blue contrasting with the faint orange of his lashes. The man was a painting realized.

They lounged under a tree, shaded from the yellow sunlight that made their skin glow. It was so comfortably warm in this dream. Why he was joined by someone like the caulker's mate he could not piece together. But he enjoyed the company, worked it around his body like a cloak of prayers.

“I am content in admitting that I am not one to fall under the sway of inspiration.” The answer seemed to satisfy the man, but not himself. He had to be more than the whims and beliefs of others. And yet, beyond his religion, mathematics, and affection for his family he had little else.

John watched as Cornelius tore the flower from his fingers. He made a frustrated sound until it was replaced. A red dahlia. No, that wouldn't do at all. He crushed the flower and threw it aside. It was a childish act of frustration that deserved a reprimand. Instead, Cornelius grinned devilishly and crawled up his body. Straddled him then brought his palm to his groin.

Oh.

John reflexively plucked another aster bloom and pulled a match from his pocket. He sparked the flower on fire, but Hickey blew out the flame.

)()()(

He felt him. The thin bone under his thumb he could snap easily. The faint thrum of his pulse, the cool exhalations against his face. So close, so close, he chanted as Hickey drew his palm down John's chest. Brushed along the thick line of hair below his navel.

So close, so close.

Brought his mouth to his throat and held John with a gentleness that he implored to grow firmer.

So close, so close, so-

He woke, heart pounding and his clothing wet with his emissions. A shameful display, an action of a man without control. Hickey was a cancer that infected both mind and flesh.

)()()(

“Do you believe men are evil?”

It was wrong to sit in the green grass under the bright sun with this man. “You ought not be here,” John stated firmly though he made no effort to stand and leave. Why should he? This dream belonged to him.

Cornelius Hickey dragged his fingers in the grass between them, absently twisted a blade until it burst green against his calloused fingers. “I belong here as much as you do. Answer the question.”

“I believe there is a course set for all men, a destiny.” He began to walk his fingers through the grass and relished the prickle as it caught his skin. He wanted to tear through the earth and be embraced by its warmth. He chose to fall backwards and felt the grass bend and break as it caught him. This is where he belonged, pressed to the bosom of Britannia while staring at the endless cloudless sky.

“As do I. Do you believe men are evil?” Cornelius repeated. He pulled up several blades of grass with audible snaps and scattered them across John's chest. John let him then angled his head until all he saw was Cornelius propped up on his elbow, legs stretched.

“Your feet are bare,” John noted. They were filthy, covered in mud and red clay, yet his clothing looked pristine. “You shouldn't be here,” but he did not ask him to leave. No, he reached for his collar and pulled him until his head rested against his chest. The grass tangled in his hair and rooted him in place, bound them together. “All men must deal with Original Sin. We are not evil, but we hold the capacity to make evil decisions.”

Cornelius scrubbed his cheek against John's shirt an act that exposed his neck enough to John's fingers. He cooed and leaned into the touch. “We don't belong here anymore.”

“Where?” Carefully Cornelius extended his grass-stained fingers to John's mouth. They pushed past his lips and he allowed them to stroke his tongue. That slightly bitter, vegetative taste spread and he sucked eagerly. There was no sin here, there could be none when surrounded by the grass and life of God's creation. “Are we home?” His words came out thick, barely defined as his tongue curled around those thin digits.

Many more questions teased the corner of his mind. It didn't matter. Cornelius's mouth stole all of them.

)()()(

“Enjoying a stroll through the garden, sir?”

John grit his teeth and regretted rounding the corner. Hickey continued to worked his caulking material between the boards. “Do not speak so casually, Mr. Hickey.”

“And you object with such anger and bluntness. I thought we enjoyed the time we spent together painting. I felt a connection beyond any disagreement we've shared.” Hickey set his tools aside and stood, his face confused. But he knew. He always knew. “Perhaps we ought to try those climbing exercises I've mentioned.”

John's mouth curled into a frown and he shook with rage. “How dare you.”

“I do not dare, I only inquire. Our connection exists beyond our ranks and shared proximity on this ship.” Hickey drew his brows together. “Or shall you deny to ponder the matter further and relinquish it to a secret place where even you dare not dwell?”

“You test the patience of saints.” John shoved him aside, but a firm hand grasped his arm and held him back.

“Then I am lucky you are no saint. Sir.”

The honorific was an afterthought another layer of disrespect Hickey worked into the growing gaps of John's resolve. His hand snapped around Hickey's throat and John slammed him into the wall. Hickey didn't even look at him with expected contempt, only understanding. As if he still clung to the idea they were the same. “I can have your hide,” John spat.

“You can have me,” Hickey replied simply. He scrabbled at John's wrist when his airway closed enough, tears leaking from his eyes and spilling onto his cheek. They dripped onto John's wrist and that jolted another reminder of his weakness, blood rushing from his limbs and raising him slightly.

“No,” John gasped. He let him go and both he and Hickey dropped to the floor. The caulker's mate sucked in air, coughing. John held his breath and drew his fingers to his hair. He focused all his attention on a knot in the wood, observed the chips and cracks in the flooring. He was a broken man. Hickey flouted every sense of order and netted himself someone who held nothing but respect for ranks and duty.

“Sir,” Hickey choked. He touched his knee and John didn't move to correct him. He let him rest his hand there as he continued to count the rings on the plank. The age of the tree, one of the countless trees that rooted their feet to something solid. “Sir. Let me soothe you.”

“You will never,” John instinctively replied. He remembered his time on previous ships. Quick propositions here and there, the furtive glances between fellows during extended furloughs as if God turned his back on the open sea. As if he didn't have eyes or ears though he tried to stuff them with his hymnals and the sound of his prayers.

“Then we will continue to tumble with needs unmet,” Hickey whispered. To tumble, to fall, cast off from his place in Heaven. John wished he were a stronger man, but all men were weak. He was the weakest as he let the man's hand rest heavy against his leg, a comfortable dome of heat and pressure. It had been too long, too long since someone touched him in any manner.

“You are the reason for our collapse. I know it's not too late for either of us. You can be cleansed.” John's hands pressed together, a brief gesture that brought him comfort, but here was out of place. He drew his arms to his chest and tucked his fingers into fists.

Hickey adjusted his collar to hide as much of the growing red mark as he could. John's guilt began to overtake him. Why he gave a damn about him, why this person of all left him questioning his sense of self disturbed him. He felt revolted at the implications, but Cornelius Hickey entered his mind and nothing could get him out.

“I believe it will take more than prayer to cleanse our souls. I am here for your release, Lieutenant. Turn to me lest you tear yourself apart.” The hand on his knee slipped behind the hinge and John let him. John let him. John let him run his finger there, following the dip of flesh hidden before slowly pulling back. “When you need I will provide.”

He left John alone longing to say yes, but too frozen to say anything but no.

)()()(

“Were you always lost?”

It was John's turn to ask questions. They have a bed now in the green garden grounds. Bedding blue like the ocean, not like the ice. At times he thought of the ice, but he never felt its chill; it couldn't reach him here. They surrounded themselves with lushness and watched the light scatter through the leafy canopies.

Cornelius curled closer and slid the cotton blanket from John's chest. Let it gather by his waist along with his hand to communicate their intimacy. How this happened John was unsure, but they have a place in the garden. But this was his dream and Cornelius was there. He scattered more red dahlias across his chest.

“Were you always lost?” It was Cornelius's turn to ask questions. He often asked questions, pulling the answers from John's mind as expertly as he performed other tasks. It was maddening to be with someone so assured, cocky. In certain ways it was earned as it was now, his fingers stroking a trail along his hip and over to his-

“Jesus Christ,” he gasped, the blasphemy escaping his lips easily. John watched the as the blanket was shifted down enough to let him watch himself being worked. His movements were delicate, like he was stroking the bristles of a brush and John yielded similarly under the touch. At times the man was too much for him, but he managed just to be held like this.

Cornelius dipped his tongue into his navel, blocking his view slightly. John propped himself up on his elbows because he needed to feel and view both actions. “Were you always lost?” He pinched the base of John's prick and pain mingled with pleasure.

“I was,” he said while he brushed his fingers through his auburn hair. “You found me.”

His body tensed as he spent. He sank into a formless state, his limbs loose and mind content. Cornelius licked his fingers clean and shimmed up, drew the blue cotton blanket around their bodies. “It's your turn to ask questions,” he informed him. Cornelius smiled and pulled a flower from John's chest and tucked it behind his ear.

Of course; he was a fool. “Were you always lost?”

)()()(

“No, no, no,” he bit into the flesh of his fist. It became a litany as he avoided handling himself. Still he tilted his hips subtly so his erection pressed just so against his clothing. He needed to not handle himself, yet his imagination placed Hickey above him, below him, working him like some doxy.

He hated this torture, the images that flashed in his mind that dared to break him. No, he was already destroyed. Crushed between the ice and the flames of hell, the gates threatening to close upon him. His Bible stared at him, the gold embossed cross illuminated under the faint cast of light.

“Please,” he begged. He could weep, but he reached for himself and roughly grasped his member. He prayed for forgiveness as he thought of Hickey bathing in the Pacific, his skin so hot as he swam to John.

)()()(

The decision was made.

To be cured he must be exposed. Like to end like.

“Tomorrow,” he stated bluntly to the man.

Hickey drew his brows together then let his face relax into a pleased expression. “Where?”

“You will know then.” John did not acknowledge him or their understanding further lest he become overwhelmed by the encroaching scent of brimstone.

)()()(

“I've been here before.” John dipped the brush into the water and drew it across the paint. “I was content though shattered.”

“A contradiction,” Cornelius quipped.

John murmured his agreement. “That is why I am unsure why you are here. To share this place that I hold important confuses me.”

“An inconsistency,” Cornelius stated.

“Yes.” He placed another delicate splash of pink along the petal, let it hug the cluster of yellow. Though his strokes shook, the flower was life-like, filtered through a soft haze and his choice of canvas.

“If you do not wish me here, please tell me. I will make myself scarce.” Cornelius stretched his arms overhead, providing enough movement to warp John's carefully laid pigments and ruin his current placement. He smacked him on the meat of his right buttock and elicited a sharp sound.

“I was satisfied with my effort,” John scolded. He scooted forward on mud-covered knees and braced his hands on the grass. Carefully, he dragged his tongue along the man's lower back, above the swell of his narrow posterior and licked the error away.

When he dipped a little lower, a daring action considering, Cornelius curled his voice into a moan. “Are you certain you wish to be here with me?”

“Is there a door for me to exit? Will you upheave me physically from this sphere of existence?” John's patience and the essence of his desires were being tried by Cornelius. The man responded by sitting up and walking away, his nude body bright with smears of reds and pinks dripping along his spine.

Cornelius shrugged and spun his way into the horizon, dirty feet scraping the grass. “All you have to do is wake up.”

John snapped the forgotten easel underfoot in his haste to follow. “Now why would I want to do that?”

)()()(

“How shall you have me?”

Hickey bent over the box and raised his hips, looked back suggestively. “Like this, sir?” He turned onto his back and spread his thighs with a smile. “Perhaps like this so I can be reminded of who fucks me in numerous ways and means.”

John set his jaw and held firm, his nerve unbroken. He liked the view of Hickey splayed before him, top button of his fly undone. He denied the Spiritual and fell back onto his ways, Cornelius Hickey did. John would make him find God.

“On your knees. I want you on your knees.” Hickey reacted with a quirk of his eyebrows and obeyed. He shimmied forward until his face was inches from John's trousers.

“Shall you say a prayer as I suck your prick?” Hickey sank himself onto his heels and drew his hands across the flats of John's thighs. He resisted shuddering from pleasure and revulsion. He had to hold fast. “Ought I clack my beads with mouth occupied?”

“No. I shall baptize you and you shall repent,” John blasphemed, the words tumbling from his lips with a conviction that frightened him. He shakily undid the buttons and Hickey's hands moved to assist. He parted the fabric and revealed his underclothes.

With that he grasped the finality of this action. To be exposed physically to a man with little regard for others. To allow himself to use the language of what he held so dear in this instant. To yearn to touch and be touched.

It seemed Hickey knew his thoughts. He paused before exposing him and John saw a flicker of triumph cross his face. He was a prize, a notch in the wood. And he relented, he relented so easily. “You must provide the order, sir.”

John slid his fingers along Hickey's jaw and cupped the back of his head. To feel the man like this and allow this intimacy felt correct. The order came; he guided his face to his groin.

“I admire your tenacity,” Hickey chuckled. John sucked air between his teeth when his prick was freed. Soft. It was a matter of tethering the mental to the physical. “It will be instinctual as breathing, as pleasurable as supping.” His reassurance was as foreign to his ears as a man's hand on his genitals.

“You were sent here for a reason,” he muttered as his cock twitched under those circling digits. “You were brought here for me to guide you.”

“With my hand on your prick and my tongue ready to taste what is yours, perhaps I take on that role for you.” John hesitated slightly until a wet mouth enveloped him. He grew inside Hickey, that wicked tongue weighed down, lips plugged around his girth. All prayers escaped his mind, all images of prostitutes he shamefully penetrated were replaced by this wicked man on his knees. Working with an eagerness that was focused entirely on him. John tightened his grip and felt his hips find a rhythm. He stopped when he felt a pinch on his thigh.

Hickey pulled off and gazed at him softly, face innocent as if he were ready to receive the Lord's Grace. His lips were slicked wet and reddened with this sin. “Still your thrusts. Allow me to perform the task, sir.”

John nodded and Hickey drew the tip of his tongue along the bottom of his prick, traced the ridge up to where the head had pulled from his foreskin. Red and blood-hot he let it rest against his lips. He held his eyes on John, parted and pulsed his mouth slowly. As if he relished the performance, like he wanted John to take slow pleasure in an act usually performed with efficiency in mind.

“You will hear my confession?” His breath was hot and John curled his fingers in his hair. He was enveloped by that gifted mouth. His caulking was clumsy, yet passable, but his lashing tongue was suited for another realm. One of arguing and litigating, useless aboard the confines of the ship. Here was another task his mouth excelled at, taking John deeply, nose tickling against his pubic hair. He praised him with a groan and reassuring pressure to his head.

He keened a bit when his cock slipped past Hickey's lips and rested lightly against his chin. “Shall you hear my sins? You'll provide me with the Lord's Supper, but you must hear me speak.” He nodded slowly, a child emphasizing a point.

John did not want this to last as long as it had. The risk of being caught, the chance to be exposed as an aberration before the others sickened him. And yet, to bring him to heel, to his side. To do the work of Grace. “What are your sins?” He barely got the words out.

“I lust and covet. What you hide I chew like meat.” Fingers brushed his length, a slow movement that was maddening. Hickey tilted his head and pressed his cheek to his member. Held him there and John drew his hips slowly. “I am lost. I am painfully uncertain about who I am.” He shut his eyes and sighed. “You see me as I am, sir.”

“And what is that?” John stilled his motions. Hickey never stopped stroking him, his hand working along his prick with care. His heart pounded in his chest from their act and desire for the answer.

“A soul worth saving.”

Those words were enough to bring him to completion. Hickey immediately engulfed him when he saw his balls begin to pull tight and his cock pulse. The strength of his orgasm bent him at the waist and reduced him to formless sounds. When he couldn't spend further, Hickey let him fall from his mouth, trailing effluence past his lips and down his chin.

John’s knees gave out and he sank before him and let their foreheads touch. “You can be saved,” he whispered, his hands cupping his flushed face. Hickey’s eyes grew wet and John believed it was earnest. A man like him deserved to be redeemed through Christ. If not him, then no one could be saved.

“I know,” Hickey’s breath was heavy with his bitter semen and John grew dizzy. It was all too much. He felt Hickey guide his hand to his open trousers. John felt him force his fingers into a grip around his circumcised penis, felt it twitch in his hand. Hickey sighed, dropped his head to his shoulder. “Bring me this, Lieutenant. Share your Redemption.”

John did, their sin shared on the tongue and in hand. Together they started anew and be filled with Grace from Jesus Christ.

Amen.

)()()(

The tray was laden with pyramids of fruits. Thick rind oranges, slivers of lemons, sugared peaches, and candied violets all balanced on mirrored silver.

“What shall we have?” Cornelius traced his hand down the skin of the fruit laid out for them before rounding his palm against an orange. John's mouth watered as deft fingers tore a seam in the rind, a sharp burst of oil releasing its hidden scent.

The action was lewd, him splaying the fruit apart, juice popping from the pips. He let it run down his wrist, push beads along his arm. He held the orange over John's lips and crushed it until the sweet-sour liquid gushed past his lips, dribbled down his neck and chest. To taste something so fresh in such a manner curled his toes, satisfied him more than any compliment. The broken fruit was pushed to his lips and he tongued past the white membranes that held it together. Sucked the mashed pulp until his cheeks and jaw ached with effort. He let Cornelius settle between his thighs, pleasurable noises echoing in his throat as he swallowed.

Such waste, he thought as the spent fruit was tossed to the ground. But a peach was presented before him and John parted his lips, eagerly awaiting the sticky press of flesh only this man provided.

)()()(

“I am weak.”

A part of John wished Hickey commiserated, agree that his actions were performed by a fool. Test and push him fully from his orbit. Hickey firmly shook his head and softly pressed his lips to John’s temple. “Not at all, sir.” He stated it as if he truly meant it, the sir said with respect and a modicum of feeling. Perhaps they were tempering one another, John sighed. “Weakness is denying what you see before you, lying about your true nature. This is no denial. You are strong.”

“No. Weakness is allowing failings to absorb you completely. I once found Grace from striving past obstacles. Here I am allowing my sins to hold me under. Can't you feel the flames of judgment?” He sounded so tired, almost pleading for Hickey to understand how he felt.

“Then I shall take my leave of you. When you find your salvation share it with me.”

John could not bear to be left alone. He had nothing else on board the ship, only the books he slipped from the library and his duties. All his good friends were ashore, away, across the ocean. So when Hickey made a move to stand John ringed his hand tightly around Hickey's wrist. Anchored him tightly and drew him back to the pile of ropes and canvas.

Gently he brought the man's hands to his mouth. Traced the curved line of his palm with his tongue and followed the path to his index finger.

“Shall we take pleasures from one another?” Hickey's pulse spun under John's steadying touch.

“No. May I rest against you?” John brought Hickey's damp hand to his cheek and let out an uneven breath. He lowered his head to the man's lap and attempted to hold steady until the pull of duty lurched him from the moment.

)()()(

“I cannot render you properly.”

“It is the medium,” Cornelius stated with certainty.

No, it wasn't though the way the colors floated and held the page did not assist matters. It was the man himself. John could describe the features, feel them and sculpt them from air. His fingers touched and lips kissed them enough. The sharp point of his nose, the curve of his brow, the thin lips that sloped into a smirk; those miracles he's experienced countless times. But to translate it to the page was impossible. Where eyes needed to be placed only a dull imprint of sockets. His nose a shadow, his lips a press of the lightest pink with no definition.

John resisted the urge to toss the brush to the ground. Still, he placed it with force enough to rock the easel. Cornelius would surely reward him for the petulant action as he took pleasure in those little breaks. His satisfaction’s became his, a cycle he never wanted to end.

“Let me be the final judge of my face.” Cornelius crouched beside John. He always made his physical presence known, his arm resting on John's knee. He took no joy in the contact this time, his skin rippling enough to make him want to flee. “I think it looks rather like me. You've captured the faint patch of blond on my beard.” He pointed to the blank space where it should have been. John's stomach turned to lead, a shot he wished to expel with violence.

“You see it, don't you? How you've captured my very soul, my essence with such a careful touch.” Cornelius pillowed his head on John's thigh. He must have felt how John squirmed, attempted to shy away. His jaw set and his eyes grew icy.

“Who are you?” John didn't stammer the question, didn't hesitate. Still, the sheer confidence of his words caught him off-guard. But not Cornelius. The man didn't twitch at his words, instead he looked prepared with understanding such a phrase would be spoken at some time. He was prepared, the man was always numerous steps ahead. Even here in the dream John controlled. He offered no reply, his head tilted and his gaze steady, never faltering.

John broke the contact first, standing quickly. The easel collapsed to the ground, the portrait landing with a soft sound. His filthy feet, his mud-stained trousers disgusted him. He longed for the ocean to wash in, to be birthed anew in its temperate waters. But there was none to be found, only ice. It's creaking and sharp jagged formations threatened to crack the green grass that blanketed this world. He marched forward through wildflower speckled grass.

He paused at a large red field that was not supposed to be here. Much like Cornelius Hickey. He yanked a handful of red dahlias and tossed them aside, his fingers itching to tear it apart blossom by blossom.

“John?” The name came from everywhere and nowhere. He felt a tug in his chest and he turned and followed the only open path he knew, back to Cornelius.

)()()(

He cornered the man, separated him from his work. Heart pounding, nerves thrumming, his muscles shook with tiny tremors as if he were frightened. Reduced to this. A man desperate for bodily connections, weak to the ache of his flesh. John descended upon Hickey, his limbs certain of what he wanted. He propelled forward with lust until their bodies were flush.

It was as instinctual as breathing, their hips moving in tandem, cocks held between their bodies by fabric and buttons. When Hickey made an indication to undo their flies John twisted his wrist away and continued his actions. A very ill part of him, the one that grew with intensity when near him wanted Hickey to walk around in his own release, to feel it cool and dry. Remember it was John who forced him to such a state. John alone pulled those filthy sounds from his mouth.

He cupped his ass, spread his through his pants enough to part him. Expose him wickedly in their minds. Witness my actions and how you react, he urged. Remember who you worship above all others. After they ejaculated, ruined themselves completely John let his mouth slide into a smirk and left the man panting.

Wanting.

)()()(

“More.”

Cornelius demanded and John was willing. He enjoyed this, his fingers sticky with honey and sugars. They long abandoned the spoons, tossed the forks and used their hands and mouths to feast on the desserts like beasts. He pinched from the wedge of sweet sponge and fed him, let his pointed tongue lick the cream that hid between his fingers. Sugar and berries played on Cornelius's lips and John licked him clean.

“The honey next,” John insisted. He brought the comb to his mouth and let it grow messy. He didn’t care that beads became trapped in his mustache. He had paradise beneath him and a bit of chaos bothered him no longer. “Open.”

Cornelius obeyed. John sucked the honey from its tiny structures, let it warm a bit. Brought their lips together and the honey flowed like nectar.

“You are debauched,” Cornelius laughed, lips shiny with saliva. Honeyed kisses continued and John felt transformed into a being of light communing with a world larger than himself. No God here, a small voice whispered. No God, only me.

Cornelius held him tight between his palms so he could not escape.

“More.”

Insatiable, but they had everything they desired within reach. Why deny their nature now? John pulled a plump berry from the top of the cake and chewed it greedily. He reached for a silver bowl topped with cream and scooped into it with his fingers. He licked the quivering mass as if it were attached to another body, tongue teasing around his nails and sucking, sucking.

“You’ll be the end of me,” John groaned, his stomach still empty and mouth occupied.

Cornelius blinked innocently and crushed a pomegranate aril between his teeth.

)()()(

They were alone. Tonight Hickey held watch and John joined to supervise. Provide some company during the dull, cold spaces of night. They made an odd pairing, but there was no reason to question a bit of friendly conversation in such a lonesome place.

“I dreamt of you, Lieutenant.” Hickey drew his Welsh cap down tighter and stamped some feeling into his feet. “You and I embraced on the ice, protected from the elements. The ice melted below us and became the ocean. We formed the beach that I shared with you, our limbs outstretched as the sun blessed us.”

John felt the scene come to life, how his body became weighty like the beach, their limbs a tangle. His thoughts strayed to his Lord, the sole master of Creation, but He no longer guided these images. He felt an emptiness, but no sense of loss as a rush of sand filled the spot. It heated him through.

When had he lost himself completely? The Lord’s eyes reached even here, but he prayed he turned while their bodies held firm. He sought his penance after, copied scriptures in his leather book, but they were gestures, mere reflexes because his thoughts floated to Hickey and his honeyed smile. The one that could deny the Fall.

“Wear proper gloves lest you lose a layer of skin.” John pulled Hickey’s bare fingertips to his and rubbed a bit of color back into the cold, pale digits.

Hickey sank into a comfortable posture and let John manipulate his fingers to warmth. “Perhaps I do it on purpose to receive such ministrations. But I will heed your advice.” They shared a secret smile, a mirror of curved lips that held more meaning the the vast libraries held within the bowels of the ships.

“I prefer you to be whole so you can paint without issue.” John swept his gaze around him, ensured they were alone before puffing a cloud of breath against Hickey’s hand.

“Ah, yes. Isn’t that what led us to this path?” Hickey pulled his hands back and tucked them into his armpits. Held the heat that John massaged into them.

Yes, they painted together. That felt so far away. “Perhaps we can sit and find our creativity in another physical medium.” He wanted to feel the brush bend, smell the clean pulp of the paper. Create the beach for Hickey. He saw it rendered in soft browns and fleshy pinks, ocean a brilliant blue with elements of warmth, not the cruel cold of ice.

“I’ve come to reason that I am not an artist. We are suited to other physical tasks in our small ark, Lieutenant. I believe we’ve proven that time and again.” Hickey leaned against the railing, peered over the side.

John followed suit, curled a bit into himself, the chill suddenly threatening to pierce his well-layered clothing. “We are more than that.”

“Are you certain?”

The ice screeched suddenly and John flinched. It was as if the world around them was telling them to leave, turn back, turn back. He wanted to return home, dig his feet into the grass and see life, not the pale expanse that was spread before them. “I am uncertain now. You vex me.”

Hickey shrugged and rested his fabric covered palms against the rail. If he slipped slightly his skin would freeze fast and tear into bloody strips. But the man knew that. Hickey seemed to know all, but understood nothing. Always testing, always pushing boundaries, even ones existing for their own safety. “I know. I told you all men were not beyond my reach. I wish you could see the world as I do.”

“I am glad I cannot. I have enough trouble understanding what is before me now.” John sniffed, the air a sharp rush into his head. It seared his nasal passages and he wished he had brought his muffler. He turned and took a step forward with the intention of taking his leave. “Please wear your gloves, Mr. Hickey.”

He disappeared below deck, the ice that burned his nose and lungs cutting shards into his chest.

)()()(

Cornelius stood with arms extended, head tossed back to catch the sun. John worshipped him, his face rubbing along his stomach like he was a cat. Marked him with the faintest scratch of beard against his cool, tender skin. His fingers trailed along the notches of his ribs, moved to stroke his flanks with the flats of his palms. He was as pale as a statue, a decoration in their private little garden, surrounded by birds and trees and brilliant blue butterflies.

“Why me?” John choked on the words and peered up at him, the light turning his skin to quicksilver. He snaked his arms around his torso and held him tight. Why pervade yourself wholly within me, he mouthed into his navel.

Cornelius’s body vibrated with laughter and John felt the thudding of his pulse, but he felt so cold. The blood rushed through the expanse of veins and arteries, but none carried heat. He must warm him, he needed to hold him safe. “If you must ask the question, John, then perhaps I have not demonstrated the actions properly.”

“Impossible.” He gave himself up willing to John in every sense of the term. Bodily and spiritually, allowed all aspects of himself to be filled with God’s Radiance, His Grace. John’s love. And yet a hum still haunted the center of his mind where his Faith emerged, the once steady beat guiding all his actions. He reached for it, clung to it like a drowning man.

“‘I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I.’” Cornelius’s hand pressed his mouth and he tilted his head birdlike, his hair catching the sunlight and engulfing him in a halo.

“Only I hear your voice, John.” But John didn’t stop mouthing the prayer into his rough palm. He fell silent when Cornelius guided his face to his groin and pressed his tongue with something heavy and demanding his attention.

)()()(

“Here.”

The page was pulled from John’s hand and studied. “Thank you.”

He glanced at the page and marveled at how the garden flowed so easily to the beach, the red flowers studding the landscape like blood drops. His technique suffered, but his creativity was unlocked. He felt content with his progress, but he knew he could do better. Whether he desired to continue, he was uncertain.

“You asked what inspired me, Mr. Hickey. I believe I have your answer.” Hickey watched him with familiar intensity and John refrained from dropping his gaze, focused on his face. Tried to memorize his lashes, the curve of his cheek, the thin sweep of his lips. “I am inspired by the mysteries of what is beyond us. We shall cut through the ice and stand triumphant gazing at the passage our community of men carved for others. I would be honored if you stood by my side when we reach that place.”

“I will be with you to the end, Lieutenant.” He extended a hand and John reached for it, fingers curling with the desire to not let go. To hold him fast and draw him closer until their edges shifted and all they knew was one another. But he knew it was time to close the case and set the paints back onto the shelf.

He gave him a final nod and walked down the corridor to his berth, to his sanctuary. To a future he felt as easily as the heat of the ship and the cold of the ice surrounding them.