On nights when the cold Arctic air seemed to burrow into his very bones, and even the pile of frozen linens in his berth could no longer keep him warm, John Bridgens would rely on an old, well-worn memory to lull himself into relaxation. Although it had occurred nearly a decade prior, it was still so vivid it caused him to blush hot all over.
It had all started innocently, as a reading lesson on a warm spring afternoon. Henry had come to study with him again in the summer of ‘39. Nearly three years had passed since their shared voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle – three long and rather lonely years – so when a messily-scrawled letter full of misspellings had made its way to John’s door, asking if he might enjoy the company of an old friend, and renew their old tutelage, John had leapt at the chance for reconnection.
One month’s happy companionship had swiftly turned to two, then to four, and then to nearly six before they decided Peglar might as well stay through the spring. No use setting off with only a few months till he’d have to pass this way again.
And all had been well until the afternoon Harry had come home with a small, brown-paper-wrapped parcel in tow.
“D’you fancy reading something new over tea?” he asked as he tore off the paper, looking for all the world like a child who’d just got a new toy. “Saw this in a window last time I went into town. Thought it could be a damn good adventure story.”
Peering over Henry’s shoulder at the table, John was intrigued and then flabbergasted to read the gilded title in print. He had to stare at the cover for several seconds more, even mouthed the words to himself under his breath, to ensure he had not misread anything.
“Can we read it, instead of the geology?” Peglar asked again.
Lord! John did not know whether he was being implicitly tested, or if perhaps there was some form of misunderstanding with the shop clerk, but he felt it would be the cruelest sort of folly to refuse Henry such a simple request, if he had not yet realized the error on his own.
“Why don’t you read the title page,” he said instead, and excused himself to stoke up the fire as Henry began. Perhaps he could distract himself with the tea for several minutes. “Start us out right.”
Peglar beamed at this, and did as he was bade, slowly sounding out each letter the way they’d done in the very beginning. Must’ve been the script that puzzled him. Perhaps the cursive was too angular to be easily understood, or the glint of the gold ink against the dark background had impaired his reading.
“Th – The Law – Laugh-ful Turk. Is that right?”
“Check the middle word again,” John said, still pretending to fuss with cups and saucers. “The first four letters.”
“Well, the ell’s right. And then the – oh. Hang on, that’s a you.”
“But it isn’t – I don’t always pronounce it that way with the ell, do I?”
“No, you do not, in this case. Called a short vowel.”
“Yes, that’s right. I remember that from Chile.”
John looked up just in time to see Henry mime the sound with one hand, dragging the side of his palm along his lower abdomen in an upward-curve, mimicking the shape of the vowel itself on his lithe body as he sounded it out. Another thing John had taught him, to help remember the short vowels. The gesture had not felt so fraught, in the beginning.
His mouth went dry, and he quickly looked back to the tea service. “That’s right.”
“You pronounce those like uh. Because it’s a short you.”
“Correct,” said John, and swallowed hard. “And the, ah, next letter? Trace it with your finger, if it helps.”
Henry did so, bending slightly forward as he touched one fingertip to the delicate pages. “Mmkay. This one’s all swirly like a – ah, right, then. An ess. That’s why it’s not law, ell-ay-double-you. Spells ell-you-ess-tee. Luh – lust.” A pause; his mouth twisted in surprise. “Hang on. Lust?”
He jerked his head up to stare at John, wide-eyed. “D’you mean this is about – ”
“A very amorous Turk, yes.” John gentled his voice, ridding it of any possible derision. “Not one who is amused. Or practices the law.”
“So then I’ve – it’s a – dirty book.”
“Well.” John did not know whether it was excitement or embarrassment colouring his cheeks. “In a literary sense, they call it erotica. Taken from the Latin, Eros.”
“Greek god of erotic love.”
They went quiet for a moment.
“I didn’t know writers could publish on a subject like that,” Henry said in faint surprise. After a few seconds, he began to laugh. “Suppose some people would want to read it, though. More exciting than the damn adventure story, I reckon.”
John felt it was safe to laugh with Henry, now, and relaxed fractionally. Perhaps that was all that had happened. Henry had mixed up his vowel sounds, and had accidentally purchased the wrong book from the shop. It was amusing, and well-meant, but not the fraught sort of personal test he’d initially imagined.
“Probably gets a few prurient eyes now and again, yes.” He was going to make a joke now. Something about how he was well glad Henry was not among such audiences. "They can be quite – "
“I should still like to read it,” Henry said, very quiet. When his eyes darted to John’s this time, they were serious indeed. “If – if you would be amenable. Only I’ve never – I didn’t know there were books like this. That talked honestly about intimate matters.”
“Oh,” said John, and flushed hot all over, right down to his toes. “Well. Er. Yes. We can – that – would certainly be all right. Er. Nothing wrong with reading, after all.”
At first, reading from the dirty book was not too strange. It was almost disappointing.
The first two chapters took nearly a week to complete. They were mainly full of what John termed epistolary writing, or a summary of the book’s characters and scenes through letters, detailing the journey of a maid named Emily as told to her friend Sylvia. These first letters described the capture of Emily’s sailing vessel by Moorish pirates, and her later deliverance to a Turk called The Dey, who had a harem in Algiers.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to live in Algiers,” murmured Henry as he finished narrating the details of their journey. “Or how they could capture the ship so quickly. But I suppose that’s not the point of the story.”
John merely nodded; he was not as talkative today as he were usually.
“Anyway. Where was I?” Sitting back on the sofa, Henry took up the pencil in hand again, and let the sharp point slowly pass along each word as he read from the page. “Seating himself, the – the Dey drew me to him and forced me to seat myself upon his k - knees.... directly he had got me thus he th - threw one of his arms round my neck, and drew my lips to his, closing my mouth with his – au - da - ci - ous...”
“Audacious kisses.” All the breath left Henry’s lungs; the back of his neck flushed hot. “Whilst his lips were g - glued to mine, he forced his tongue into my – my mouth in a manner which created a sensation it is quite im – impossible to describe.”
Even here, sitting side by side on the sofa with a small distance between them, Henry felt all too aware of his own body, and John’s poised next to him. He could do nothing save catalog the rapidity of his own breaths and how his heart drummed fast against his throat.
“Should I – keep going?”
“If you like,” said John. Then, softer: “Yes.”
Henry nodded, once, and began to read again. “...having me thus with our lips closely joined, his other hand he su – suddenly thrust under my petticoats… thus with his hand and his l - lips he kept me in the greatest dis - order.”
And then he glanced up, risked a look at John. “What’s disorder?”
“Jumble.” John’s pupils had got so dark; his eyes kept flickering down past Henry’s, tracing over all his features as if he were about to sketch them. “Disheveled. Erm. Mussed up.”
Absently, Henry nodded, and turned back to the book, his tongue darting out to wet his lips before he kept reading. Next to him, he heard John draw in a sharp breath, and had to clench a fist down by his side.
“At last a dizzy sen – sensation seized on every sense. I felt his hand rapidly divide my – my thighs, and quickly one of his fingers – penetrated that place which, God knows, no male hand had ever before touched.”
He was achingly hard, now, unable to separate the thrills of Emily’s ravishment from his own thoughts of John. John had been his teacher and his dear friend for over six years, and they had never before touched as Emily now pleasured The Dey. But now – fuck, at this very second, Henry would give anything to experience the sweet relief of John’s hands on his thighs, his mouth crushing his, his tongue –
“He withdrew his hand from between my thighs, forced me on my back on the couch, and in an instant turned up my clothes above my navel. Thus all my s - secret charms became exposed to his view.”
Henry exhaled shakily, tried not to shift too much in his seat.
“Do you want to keep reading?” John asked, low.
The words prompted a full-bodied shiver. This sudden frisson of energy traveled down Henry’s spine and pooled low in his belly, caused his stones to tighten further in excitement.
By the time he had got to Emily’s first pinnacle of delirium, he could barely keep his eyes focused on the words. All he could think about was John coaxing such overpowering sensations from his own body, John being as seductive and strong and masculine as The Dey, his piercing eyes lined dark with kohl and his bare chest and legs gleaming with fragrant oils, thick muscles rippling in his shoulders as he took Harry into his arms in a bed of silk pillows.
“Even as his daring hand fixed the head of his terrible instrument where his lascivious fingers had so potently assisted… I own I felt it even with pleasure stiffly distending my untouched modesty… kissing me with less violence, he grew by degrees even weaker than myself. Suddenly I felt my thighs overflowed by something warm that spurted in – in t - torrents from his - his instrument.”
Henry actually gasped to see the words in print, his free hand flying to cover John’s, fingers digging into the back of John’s palm with tremulous ardor.
“Oh, god, John, do not leave me in such a wretched state.”
“Leave you… ?”
Unable to say it yet, still trembling, and flushed hot with potent desire of his own, Henry drew that same gentle, callused hand up to the front of his trousers, where he was rock-hard and now dribbling against his smallclothes, as he had been for the past quarter of an hour.
“Please,” begged Henry in a breathless way, fingertips scrabbling for purchase against John’s wrist. “Take me.”
John let out a ragged sort of groan. Pulled forward as he was by the extension of his right arm, his forehead was now pressed to Henry’s neck.
“Are you – Henry, are you certain – ”
“Fucking hell, just ravish me,” Henry wheezed, and was rewarded by John’s hand squeezing that most intimate part of him; he groaned aloud, and his hips jerked forward of their own volition. “Now.”
Quickly, John moved their bodies closer together, so that his left arm was the one wrapped around Henry’s middle, fingers gently playing over the hard ridge of Henry’s cock, while his right hand slowly mapped the centimeter of bare skin between his rucked-up shirttails and the waistband of his trousers.
“John.” Henry could not catch his breath, could repeat no other words save for his dear friend’s name. “John. John.”
“Yes, Henry. Hold on.”
He kissed Henry’s neck, letting his mouth stay hot and open against the tender skin, then laved at it with his tongue, sending Henry lolling sideways with a shock of pleasure. The movement of his left hand did not cease, merely increased, and before long Henry was sitting astride John’s legs, his back flush to John's chest. His trousers were pushed down around one ankle as John stroked over his bare arousal with spit-slicked fingers, and kissed him more hungrily than The Dey could ever have dreamed.
“Please, John,” Henry bucked up into those beautiful hands as he groaned against his lover’s mouth, nearly undone. “Lay me down. Come on me. Let me see you. I don’t care, I don’t care, I just need you to – ”
Nearly sobbing in dismay as John removed his hands without warning, this cry turned into a sigh of pleasure as Henry found himself hoisted up into John’s arms like a bride being carried across a threshold. Then, softly and with the greatest tenderness, Henry was placed in a supine position across the cushions. John’s hand cradled the back of his head and the small of his back as he lay Henry down against the soft, worn cotton.
“Shh,” he said, and slowly settled his weight down onto his knees, sitting astride Henry’s thighs as he removed his vest and shirt. “Shh, my love. I’ll take care of you.”
Nodding mutely, too overcome with his pent-up desires to speak, Henry could do nothing but succumb to the delight John offered; arching back into the sofa cushions as a now-anointed hand grasped him, touched him, the sweet friction of those rugged palms drawing Henry ever closer to the precipice until he could no longer contain himself – he flooded over John’s fist with a heady, broken cry, trembling all over.
No sooner had John worked him through it than his shaking fingers retreated and flew to his own trousers – undid his buttons and clumsily yanked at the strings of his smallclothes till he could free his own arousal, bring himself some measure of relief. The blissful happiness on his face after he had done this, as he began to sate his basest urges, left Henry nearly beyond speech, though he wanted to write a thousand poems.
“John, you look beautiful.” Another word. He needed a better word, what the hell was the word? “Exquisite.”
“‘Cause of you. Oh, dear one.” John flushed redder than before, already breathing heavy as they locked eyes, and he took his cock in hand. “Won’t take long.”
With that, he saw to himself, shyly and slowly at first, with tentative touches and his eyes squeezed closed, then far bolder, till he pulled at his cock with great hard strokes, panting in delight, his mouth open and his weight now balanced against one extended hand as well as atop Henry’s lap. His eyes were open, and locked to Henry’s fierce gaze.
“That’s it, John. Can’t wait for you to split me, spill in me, spill all over me. Oh, god, don’t stop.”
“Don’t stop.” Henry was already touching himself a second time, frenzied; was he really going to reach the peak again? “Don’t stop.”
With a grunt, John stiffened and then bucked forward, spilling hotly all over Henry’s legs and stomach just as Henry felt the familiar pull behind his stones, and came for the second time in ten minutes, with a couple of small dribbling spurts.
Boneless, John collapsed down against Henry’s body and held him fast as they both caught their breath.
They said nothing else for several minutes.
“I still want to find out what else happens to Emily,” Henry finally murmured, which made John giggle like a schoolgirl, shaking their joined bodies all over. Once his laughter had subsided, he bent forward and kissed the side of Henry’s neck with a very loud smack!
“Think we can manage that, dear one.”