It seemed to be a rule that if a man were walking nowhere in particular, he would end up in a pub or bar of some sort eventually—probably because of the warmth and company. Though company was the last thing that Keith was looking for at the moment; it had seemed a good idea to use his shore leave to meet up with friends who were still on civvy street, but now...there was that gap. Of course, this being London, they were no strangers to danger and death and all the rest of it, but it was...different somehow.
The fact that he couldn't put into words as to why it was all so damnably awkward was probably one of the reasons that all conversation had ground painfully to a halt. He had made some patently obvious excuses and left.
One drink, he thought as he opened the door to the lounge bar. It would give him time to think about what on earth he was going to do with himself for the rest of his leave.
He hadn’t been expecting to see Morell sitting alone, looking morosely into a glass of whisky. Not a good sign for a man who had been supposed to be spending his leave with his wife.
Keith walked over to the table and cleared his throat. Morell looked up, and smiled a most unconvincing smile. “Sir–”
“We're on leave, don't 'sir' me. Mind if I–?”
Morell waved him to a chair. Keith sat down, and paused for a moment before saying, “Would it be very undiplomatic to ask–”
Morell half-smiled. “Very undiplomatic indeed.” He sighed and looked at Keith. “Promise me that this conversation goes no further than the two of us.”
“I am the soul of discretion.”
“You're a journalist–”
“Not for the duration I'm not. I'm the soul of discretion until I'm demobbed. I swear on my honour as an officer in His Majesty's Navy.”
Morell picked up his glass and swirled the whisky in it. “You know how we arrived here a day early, and I said I would surprise my wife? I most certainly surprised her. And the chap she was in bed with.”
Morell didn't look up as he said, “The worst of it was, she wasn't even sorry. Said what did I expect, with being at sea for months at a time, all the wives did it, why did I have to go making such a fuss.”
A little knot formed in Keith's stomach, and he very nearly said something before biting his tongue. He was fond of Morell in a way that he had promised himself he wasn't going to be when he got called up for the Navy. It wouldn't do to raise anyone's suspicions by saying something outrageous about Morell's wife.
Morell was still looking at his drink rather than Keith, and didn't seem to have noticed the silence. He sighed deeply again, and said, “So we are now husband and wife in name only. It wouldn't do either of our careers any good to go through with a divorce right now. We’ll keep up the pretence until sometime after this is all over, and then discreetly go our separate ways.”
“I am sorry.”
Morell looked up at him, and smiled, slightly more genuine this time. “You're not the chap she was in bed with.”
Keith grinned. “So you agree that it could have been worse?”
Morell gave a surprised laugh. “I suppose you're right. I could have found her with an admiral. Now that would have harmed my career–”
“Or possibly made it very much more successful.”
There was another silence, before Morell said, “I had intended to drown my sorrows. But I bought myself this drink, and thought–it's not going to make a blind bit of difference. Everything will be the same in the morning, except I'll be poorer and hungover.”
“That's never stopped any sailor on leave in the past. Would it make a difference if I bought the drinks?”
“Hungover and indebted to a senior officer sounds worse than poor and hungover.”
“I promise I would only slightly adjust the duty roster to give you the worst watches, Sub-lieutenant Morell–”
Morell made a face. “Please, we're on leave. Can I be John while I'm on leave?”
“Very well. Call me Keith.”
“Oh, so First Officers do have first names, then?”
“There is a rumour that even the Captain has one.”
Morell tilted his glass, looked at the drink and then back up at Keith. “Please don't feel you have to help me wallow in my sorrows. I'm perfectly capable of wallowing alone, and I'm sure there are much more interesting things that you could be doing–”
“According to my so-called friends, I am now the most dreadful naval bore imaginable. Apparently I'm only fit for the company of sailors.”
“So, shall we soberly discuss naval protocol until I have to find somewhere to stay for the night?”
“Has the flat. Even if she is the one in the wrong, throwing a woman out on the street isn't the done thing.”
Keith belatedly noticed the suitcase sitting under the table. “You'll have a hard job finding anywhere–”
“I know. I've already tried the usual places. I think I'll have to decide which of my friends is least likely to tell the world and ask them for a bed.”
“You can stay with me.” The offer was out before Keith really thought about it. “My flat's scarcely a flat; one room and a bathroom, but there is a sofa.”
Morell raised an eyebrow. “You do snore, though.”
“Damned lies. I sleep perfectly peacefully. You, on the other hand–”
Morell laughed. “You made the offer.”
Keith smiled. “I did. Shipmates have to stand by each other.”
“Thank you. I...would rather as few people know about my current situation as possible.”
“Sitting in a bar with a packed suitcase isn't doing you any favours.”
“Well, shall we get a bottle of something and go back to my flat? Then you can wallow in your sorrows, and I can be a terrible naval bore without us disturbing anyone else.”
John drained his drink while Keith went to the bar and acquired a bottle of something that claimed to be whisky.
This was a bad idea; alone with someone one was fond of onboard the ship was entirely different to being alone with them in one's own flat. But then, John had said that he didn't want to end up hungover, so there was a good excuse to rein in his own drinking. And it wasn't like he could let the chap sleep on the streets.
Keith walked back to John, took the suitcase out of his hand, and handed him the bottle. “Since we're keeping it on the QT.”
They didn't talk much on their way to his flat. Keith unlocked the door and waved John inside. “Practically its only advantage over a ship's berth is that it doesn't move about as much in rough weather.”
“Shall I be polite and call it snug?”
“Don't bother.” He put the suitcase down at the end of the sofa, which he now realised was considerably shorter than John was tall, and threw his cap in the general direction of the bed. “Make yourself at home.”
He brought two glasses from the cupboard, and settled himself on the sofa next to John, who poured them both generous measures of whisky. Keith took his glass and clinked it against John's. “Toast to the ship? To the Compass Rose?”
John smiled. “To having a roof over my head tonight. And the dear Compass Rose, of course.”
Keith sipped at his whisky. He'd heard the phrase 'companionable silence' before but had never really experienced it. His friends, his old friends from before all this—had he ever really known them? Certainly he felt like he didn't know them in any way like he knew the other officers of his ship.
He wasn't sure how long they sat like that before John said, “I never should have married her.”
Keith looked at him. John glanced down at his drink, then back at Keith. “I loved...I loved the idea of having a beautiful wife. When I first met her, everyone said she was the most beautiful woman in the room. None of the other chaps would dare ask her to dance, so I did. We danced, and before I knew it I'd asked her to marry me.” John looked away, eyes unfocused. “I remember being at the reception, thinking that this should be the happiest day of my life, and feeling like I was watching it all happen to someone else. I should have been in love, I should have been happy and...I didn't feel anything.”
John looked at Keith again. “So it really wasn't her in the wrong. I was never really there, all the time we've been married. She just had the sense to do something about it.”
“You could do something about it as well, if you wanted. Leave your things here, go to a dance, use that dashing naval uniform, and I'm sure you'll have girls falling at your feet.”
John half-smiled. “No. I–I think that perhaps it would be better if I was on my own.”
“Give yourself some time. There'll be someone out there for you.”
John looked into his glass again. “Not for someone like me.”
Keith's heart was in his mouth. John couldn't mean—No, he couldn't. That was just his own wishful thinking topped up with alcohol. “Good-looking chap like you, and an officer to boot? Of course there is.”
John stood up very suddenly, crossed the room, and would have been looking out of the window if Keith had bothered to open the blackout curtains earlier. “You don't understand. I couldn't love her–any girl–I–” He seemed to stop himself and took a large swig of his whisky.
Keith took a deep breath, and tried to keep his voice as calm as possible as he said, “Please sit down, John.” John paused, then came and sat on the sofa again. “I meant it, that I will be the soul of discretion. Nothing will go beyond these four walls.”
“And what if I told you I was a murderer? Or a fifth columnist?”
Keith put his own glass down, and took John's glass from his hand and placed it on the small table as well. “All right then. If you are a fifth columnist, a quisling or any other sort of traitor, I will turn you in. Anything else goes no further.”
John looked him in the eye, almost defiant. “Very well. The reason that I should have never married my wife, that there isn't someone out there for me, is that I am a homosexual. I've always known, and tried my damnedest not to be, but there it is. If you feel that it's your duty to report that to command, then I'll understand.”
Keith's throat was dry and his heart hammering in his chest. “And what if I felt it was my duty to kiss you?”
John's lips parted in surprise, his whole expression softening. Keith leaned forwards, slowly, giving John every opportunity to move away, to laugh the whole thing off and pretend nothing had happened. But he didn't, instead leaning forwards as well, until their lips gently touched. He pressed in, deepening the kiss, stroking John's lips open with his tongue, feeling John respond.
When they eventually parted, it was only by perhaps an inch or two, both of them smiling. Keith said, “Do you want–”
“You didn't let me finish the question.”
“Did I need to?”
Keith chuckled, took John's hand and stood up, pulling John with him. He tumbled John onto the bed and kissed him again, this time lying full flush against him, feeling the warmth of his body even through both their uniforms. They were both getting hard; Keith couldn't resist pressing down as they kissed and was rewarded by the sort of guttural moan that he wouldn't have thought John capable of making.
It had been too damned long since he'd last done this, too damned long behaving himself for the good of the war effort. And he had a damned sight too few uniform trousers for this to go any further while they were still dressed.
“I think we're both rather overdressed for the occasion.”
John gave him an innocent look. “Really?”
Keith smiled and started to undo John's tie. “Oh yes. Not a jacket and tie occasion at all.”
John began undoing the buttons of Keith's jacket. “Rather informal?”
“It's come as you are.”
“I shall ignore that terrible pun.”
Keith had finished with the tie and was starting on John's shirt buttons. “Entirely unintentional, I promise.”
The rest of the undressing was slightly more undignified; he wasn't sure that there was an alluring way of removing one's socks. He turned to John who was lying on the bed naked, erect and beautiful as any Greek sculpture. But also perhaps a little hesitant.
He kissed him again, a little gentler this time, then said, “When you said that you'd tried your damnedest not to be, does that mean you've never...?”
“Never.” Now he looked definitely uncertain.
“Well, I can assure you that it's much easier to get the hang of than anything you've had to learn on board ship.”
Without waiting for any sort of reply, Keith kissed him again, and rolled them so that John was under him. It just took a little adjustment of their position until—oh yes, there, the silky hardness of John's erection pressing against his own. Keith began to move, almost rolling against John like a gentle swell on the ocean. He didn't want to hurry this, but it felt like his body had its own ideas, moving faster, their kissing becoming deeper and more desperate, those moans that seemed to come from somewhere deep inside John's throat sending sparks down his spine and driving him onwards, until John stiffened and pressed up against him, a hot spill against his stomach as he came. Another couple of thrusts and Keith was coming too, before collapsing on top of John.
He rested his head on John's chest, and let his eyes drift closed. He felt John's hand at the nape of his neck, stroking a thumb through his hair.
Keith smiled to himself. “So you're not about to tell me that you regret that.”
He felt, more than heard, John's chuckle. “Not in the slightest.”
“Good. You're too tall to sleep on the sofa anyway.”
“I hope that wasn't your only reason for getting me into your bed.”
Keith propped himself up on one elbow and looked at John. “Handsome chap, and rather dashing in a naval uniform.”
John smiled. “Not half as handsome and dashing as a first officer.”
Keith kissed him. “Flattery will get you everywhere.”
Now with the first flush of urgency taken out of him, he could take his time looking over the man he hadn't even dared hope he'd be this close to. He kissed down John's neck, across the swell of his shoulder, and then gently dragged his teeth over the muscle.
“I hope you have ration stamps for that.”
“Sailors are strictly black market.”
He continued down and flicked his tongue over John's nipple, earning him a shiver and an intake of breath. He continued, using licks and sucks, before going over to the other side of his chest and doing the same to his other nipple. He paused for a moment, then slid lower, swiping his tongue through the mess on John's stomach, which earned him another gasp, before finally taking John's cock into his mouth.
Keith was going to make this as drawn-out as possible, so started with the lightest possible pressure, a barely-there touch.
He looked up at John, who said, “Don't think I don't know damn well you're teasing.”
Keith pulled away and said with as much faux-contrition as he could muster, “If you'd rather I stopped–”
John grabbed the pillow next to him and hit Keith with it, and in a moment they were wrestling like schoolboys and laughing like drains. They ended up breathless, tangled in sheets and around each other.
Catching his breath, Keith said, “Did they warn you about this when you joined up?”
“I had heard the rumours about rum, sodomy, and the lash.”
Keith raised an eyebrow. “Would you like to?”
“The lash? Not my cup of tea.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I...” John looked down at the sheets, and then smiled to himself. “I feel like I'm about to sound like an awful romantic heroine. 'Oh, do be gentle with me'.”
Keith untangled himself from the sheets. “It's supposed to be enjoyable.”
“Both of you.” He kissed John. “Both of us?”
“I might let myself be persuaded.”
“Oh, don't put yourself out too much.” He leaned over and opened the bedside cabinet, and took out a jar of vaseline. “Like most things on board ship, it goes better with lubrication.” Then he took John's hand and inspected it.
“What on earth are you looking for?”
“The length and state of your fingernails.”
Keith chuckled, and rolled them so that John was on top of him. He took John's hand again, and sucked his first two fingers deep into his mouth, and then releasing them, opened the vaseline and slicked up John's fingers. “Stretch things out a little first.”
He pushed John's hand between his legs, then guided his index finger inside him. He pushed back against John's finger, and damn, it had been too long since he'd done this. “Your next finger.”
John slid another finger inside him. Keith canted his hips just slightly, and that had John's fingers brushing the spot inside him. “There–oh–yes–like that–oh–you can–another finger–”
“Are you sure?”
Keith stopped moving and looked at John sternly. “Do I sound unsure?”
“If I say what you sound like, you'll probably throw me out of bed.”
Keith was about to say something to that, but John flexed his fingers just slightly, and his thought process was stopped in its tracks, then firmly derailed by John sliding a third finger inside him.
“You can–oh–” Fortunately, John seemed to catch his meaning, as Keith was utterly unable to finish the sentence. John didn't remove his fingers, but instead kept them moving inside Keith as he scooped some vaseline out of the jar with his left hand and slicked it onto his own cock. John removed his fingers, and there was a moment to adjust their positions and—
John was inside him and over him, stock still, hair flopped over his forehead, lips parted and eyes dark—
John was kissing him, any finesse gone now, with a powerful desperation as he began to move his hips and ride Keith hard, now breaking the kiss to grip Keith's hips and move them together—
He was close, and reached down to grip his own cock, but John pulled his hand away and wrapped his own hand around Keith's cock and oh yes—
John's rhythm became erratic, until he pushed deep one last time, then dropped to lie on top of Keith.
Keith looked at the ceiling as the post-coital haze cleared. He was aware that he might have been smiling rather stupidly, but there was no-one looking.
“That wasn't too rough, was it?” asked John.
“That was bloody marvellous. Just don't ask me to move for at least a quarter of an hour.”
Keith woke with a slight feeling of disorientation, and it took him some moments to realise that the bed was wide and the floor unmoving because he was in his own flat. Then another moment to reconstruct the last night's events. John was snoring next to him, so he had a bit of time to think, at least.
He had promised himself that he wouldn't indulge while he was in the service; he had doubly promised that he would not indulge with anyone in the same chain of command.
He hadn't bargained on becoming so attached to someone.
John's breathing changed, and he opened his eyes and looked at Keith.
Keith smiled. “Good morning.”
“Good morning.” John propped himself up on one arm. “I have a feeling that I'm supposed to be filled with guilt and regret.”
“Not at all.”
“Good. I might have taken it personally if you had been.”
“I am wondering if you have anything to eat, though. We did rather skip supper last night.”
“Not a scrap in the place, I'm afraid.”
John made a face. “So we shall have to get dressed.”
Keith grinned. “You can share my two inches of bathwater before we do.”
A woefully underfilled bath was much less dispiriting when one had someone to share it with. And it did mean that their bathtime activities didn't splash the whole of the bathroom.
There was, unfortunately, only one towel. Trying to dry the both of them together ended up with them falling out of the bathroom onto the bed in a laughing mess. Then, of course, he forgot all about the business of getting dressed again in favour of kissing John again.
After a few moments John pushed him away, “Look, if you carry on we’re going to need another bath.”
Keith grinned. “It’s fine. I didn’t pull the plug.”
“Breakfast. How on earth can you not be hungry?”
“I am, but I keep,” he kissed one side of John’s neck, “getting,” he kissed the other, “distracted.”
John pushed him off with a laugh, and started looking through the discarded clothes on the floor. Getting dressed was a much more efficient business than getting undressed, because for all the distraction on offer here, Keith really was hungry. Looking respectable, they headed for the nearest cafe.
The food wasn't bad, considering, but there was a part of him that suspected with a missed meal and a good amount of exercise, even cooked shoe leather would have gone down well..
“What were you planning on doing with the rest of your leave?” asked John.
“I meant it when I said my friends think I'm a bore.” He shrugged. “I'm at a loose end.”
He knew without asking that he could get John back into his bed this morning if he wanted to. But however enticing that prospect was, it seemed almost a waste of three days of shore leave to only spend it doing one thing. “Well then. Things we can't do on board ship—a walk in some greenery, and a film.”
“That sounds excellent.”
It was a bright, fresh day, and the park was full of people taking advantage of the weather.
“You've cheered up.” said Keith.
John smiled. “Entirely down to you.” His smile faded. “But I suspect we need to talk–”
“But not here, and not now. No reason to spoil a lovely day.”
It was strange to think that you could miss something as simple as walking under trees, but there it was. And the everydayness of a trip to the cinema suddenly became like the forbidden fruit after months away. (Although could one call it an everyday trip to the cinema, when, as soon as the lights were down, his hand crept under the armrest to find John's hand, and they watched the whole thing with their hands entwined?)
And back at his flat, with the door locked and the blackout curtains closed, his world could narrow until it was just the two of them, and touch and pleasure and sensation, and then a contented—
The air raid siren started up its familiar howl.
Keith poked him in the ribs. “Up and dressed. If we get ourselves killed in an air raid, the Captain will hunt us down in the afterlife for shirking our duty.”
If one could sleep in a ship's berth during a North Atlantic storm, one should have been able to sleep through an air-raid in a public shelter. This, though, reckoned without screaming babies (and shouldn't they all have been evacuated to the countryside anyway?). There was something particularly piercing about the wailing that sliced through sleep in a way that storms and bombs failed to do.
So it was a rather grumpy and tired pair of naval officers who emerged from the shelter the next morning, though fortunately for their good humour, Keith's flat was still standing. They did the only reasonable thing, which was flopping back into bed and going to sleep.
There was always something terribly decadent about waking up after midday. The blackout curtains did their job well, but there was a tiny chink of sunlight that told him other people were out and about their daily business, helping the war effort. He turned over and curled round John, who slid his own arm around Keith. Yes, the world was outside doing its duty, and he was happily and snugly in bed in the middle of a day with another chap.
All in all, he thought, the pair of them bloody well deserved it.
“What time is it?” asked John.
Keith looked at the clock. “Just past two.”
“The train leaves at six.”
“I know.” He stroked his fingers through John's hair. “When we’re back on board you know we can't–”
“I know.” John smiled. “And even if we could, I don't think it would be physically possible to get two people into one of our bunks.”
Keith grinned, “If we could, I'd be prepared to make a damned good try.” He paused. “Next time we have shore leave together...?”
“Heaven knows when that might be, but yes. As long as we can find somewhere with a locked door and a bed bigger than our bunks, I'm yours.” There was a pause before John said, “Do you ever feel guilty?”
“About this? I was always better at the Classics than Religious Education at school. And Achilles needs his Patroclus, and Alexander his Hephaistion. When I got called up I told myself that I wouldn't, not while the war was on, because if they found out I'd be out of the Navy. Duty before pleasure and all that. But–” He kissed John, “you're awfully easy to be fond of.”
“I–” John smiled. “I can't think of a damned thing to say to that which doesn't make me sound like a romantic idiot.”
“No. I refuse. It's beneath my dignity.”
Keith kissed John again, rolled him so he was pinned under him. “I want you to.”
John looked at him defiantly. “You're a damned fine officer, and a gentleman.”
“That's not what you were going to say.”
John theatrically shut his mouth.
Keith kissed him at his jawline, then started kissing down his neck, taking John's cock into his hand. “Say what you were going to say.”
Keith firmed his grip on his cock, and ran his other hand down his chest, thumb playing at his nipple. That earned a little moan from John.
“Oh–I–You—you're the handsomest thing in a naval uniform, you make me feel things that I didn't think I could, and you don't bloody play fair in bed.”
Keith chuckled and looked up at John. “Fair's fair. I'll do what you want, now I've made you say that.”
“You could carry on in the direction you were going in.”
Keith grinned and did just that.
The train guard blew his whistle just as the two of them sprinted onto the platform. Keith reached the nearest door just before the train began to move, wrenched it open, and jumped on board, closely followed by John. He was about to close the door behind them when he realised that there was someone else running onto the platform, then realised it was Sub-lieutenant Ferraby.
He yelled, “Ferraby!” just as the train started to get up some speed.
The man put on a burst of speed and practically threw himself and his case at the door. Keith and John caught him, and pulled him onto the train, then shut the door behind him.
Ferraby took a moment to catch his breath before saying, “Thanks.”
Keith patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t mention it. Good leave, then?”
Ferraby grinned. “Oh yes.” He looked past Keith and John. “Doesn’t look like there are any seats, does it?”
The train was full almost to bursting, with people standing in the corridor all along the carriage. The space that the three of them had jumped into looked like it had been practically the last standing room on the train.
“I’m sure we can grin and bear it,” said John.
“So, how was your leave?” asked Ferraby.
Keith couldn’t look at John, and he hoped that John wasn’t looking at him. He thought he remained acceptably casual and neutral as he said, “Caught up with some friends, saw a film, went for a walk. Very pedestrian, I’m afraid, but enjoyable all the same.”
John said, “Some time with my wife, but then she was busy at work some of the time, so some sunshine as well.”
He risked a glance at John, and their eyes met, just for a moment.
This would work. They would make it work.
He felt like there were parts of himself that he left on shore. Or maybe it was as if perhaps Keith grew some sort of salt-shell at sea that made him harsher, but tougher. The soft parts of him, the parts that loved and hurt and all those other emotions, were still there, but somehow inaccessible.
That shell made it easy to go back to treating John as Morell, a junior officer, a friend, but nothing more. To share only as much with him as he would with Ferraby, or any other officer.
And if it was a shell, it could crack; not break, but just show a little of what was inside. Like staggering back into the officers' berth after a watch in a storm to find John sleeping peacefully, laid on his side. Even in his exhaustion, Keith stopped dead and just for a moment watched him, a warmth in the centre of his chest.
And after that moment he fell into his own bunk and went to sleep, and in the morning the salt-shell was as firm as ever.
The Compass Rose was at the bottom of the ocean, and they couldn’t talk about it. Oh, they had given their reports, said inane things to each other over cups of tea as they tried to keep out of the way of the crew of the ship that had picked them up. But the handful of them who had survived, they avoided anything important.
That continued all the way back home; when they arrived in port, half of them ended up in the hospital, and the rest of them—reports and debriefing and paperwork and a hundred other things to stop them actually thinking.
Now they had leave, and he, Morell, and the Captain were on a packed train to London. The Captain was sitting opposite him, apparently reading a newspaper. Morell had the window seat and was looking out, chin in his hand. They were so close that he could feel the warmth of his body all down his left side, but they couldn’t talk. Not here.
And even if they could, what could he say? I’m awfully glad you’re still alive?
In London, the Captain said he wanted to meet Keith the next day and then left.
He turned to look at Morell, and the words wouldn’t come. He smiled tautly, inclined his head, and they walked out of the station together and towards his flat.
Once the door was shut and locked behind them, he looked at John for the longest time with no idea what to say or do, before John hesitantly reached out a hand. Keith took it and found himself pulled into the fiercest hug he’d ever received. It only took a moment before he was hugging John back with the same intensity, because he was here, he was alive, and…
The tears he hadn’t shed because he had a job to do, because he had men to keep alive, because he couldn’t afford to think about what they’d lost, welled up all at once. Once they started, he couldn’t stop, couldn’t do a thing to pull himself together until he’d cried himself to some sort of stop.
Keith didn’t let go of John as he said, “I’m making an awful mess of your uniform jacket.”
“It’s all right. I’m making an awful mess of yours,” said John in an equally tear-clogged voice.
He smiled into John’s shoulder. “We make quite a pair, don’t we?”
Neither of them broke the embrace. After a long pause, John said, “I…I thought you weren’t real. I kept…I kept telling myself that you must be on the other raft, that you must be alive. And when I saw the other raft, and saw you on it, I suddenly thought that you weren’t there, that I’d been thinking about it for so long that I’d ended up hallucinating you.”
Keith swallowed. He couldn’t tell John that he hadn’t thought about him at all, or at least no more than any of the other men, as the ship went down. Some sort of ruthless sense of duty, or maybe just survival, had kept him from thinking about anything other than practicalities. It was only now that he could allow himself to feel anything, and feel it so hard that there was a pain in his chest.
“I’m real. And so are you.”
“I’m not so far gone that I doubted my own existence, thank you.”
Keith chuckled and pulled back to look at John, who was smiling but had eyes red from crying. He kissed him, then said, “I’m…glad that you’re here.”
That was nothing like what he was feeling, but what words were?
Well, actions were supposed to speak louder than words, weren’t they? He pulled John towards the bed.
He found a seat in the bar where he was going to meet the Captain. John had, in his own words, gone “to break the news to my wife that she is not yet a widow,” and he just regretted that he couldn’t be a fly on the wall for that conversation.
The Captain greeted him, took a seat, and told Keith about his promotion—both their promotions.
“It’ll mean a new ship. They tell me that I can have a Lieutenant Commander as my first officer. I would like to have you as my first officer. But at that rank you can have your own command, and you’re not going to get one if you stay a first officer.”
Keith was about to open his mouth to start trying to answer, but the Captain continued. “I don’t need your decision now. Think about it.”
“I… thank you.”
The captain took a sip of his gin, and looked at Keith. “There is one thing I want you to know. I understand if you don’t answer, and it doesn’t change my offer. I have noticed that you and Morell are…close. Very close indeed. Am I right?”
Keith swallowed. He owed the Captain too much to lie to him. “Off the record? Yes.”
“He is a married man.”
“I know sir. His wife has…other interests. Which predate this.”
“I see.” The Captain paused. “I wouldn’t want as my first officer any man who showed favouritism towards any crew members, and you never have. I would need that to continue. And for every naval rule and regulation to be followed while onboard ship, and nothing…indiscreet on shore.”
“Of course, sir.”
“If you take your own command, you can of course choose your first officer. But if you were to become my first officer, I would welcome your input on choice of more junior officers.”
Keith couldn’t help but grin. “Tell me about our new ship, sir.”
As soon as he was back in his flat, he flopped onto his bed. Now he was over the initial shock that the Captain knew, that he apparently was turning a blind eye, and intended to keep doing so, Keith was trying to work out—how on earth did he know?
He lay on the bed, looking at the ceiling. They’d never so much as touched onboard ship, not exchanged a word that they wouldn’t have been happy for someone else to overhear. He’d thought that it had been the perfect deception, and obviously it hadn’t.
He was still like that when John came in.
“I say, are you all right?”
“I’ve been promoted.”
“And so you’ve taken to your bed in shock?” John sat on the bed next to him.
Keith rolled on his side and propped himself up on one elbow. “The Captain has worked out about us.”
John’s face fell. “Oh.”
“But he has no intention of telling other people as long as we remain discreet and professional.”
“Oh. I—that’s awfully good of him.”
“I’m not sure if it’s awfully good of him or reflective of a dire manpower shortage.”
“Does it matter?”
“I suppose not.”
“So why have you taken to your bed?”
“Because I can’t for the life of me work out how he knew. I thought—I thought that outside these four walls, neither of us did a damn thing that would have raised an ounce of suspicion. But we obviously have, and now—what if other people work it out? We can’t stop doing whatever it is we’re doing to make ourselves known if we don’t know what it is we’re doing.”
John looked at the bed rather than at Keith. “When you see couples, arm in arm in the street, you think to yourself what sort of couple they are. Even though they’re all arm in arm, with some of them you can just see that they dote on each other, and with others that they can barely stand each other. And they don’t think they’re doing anything different.”
Keith pulled him down for a kiss, then said, “The Captain says I can have a say in who our officers are. I was wondering if you would do me the honour—”
“Yes. Without a doubt. And–Perhaps I do have how I feel written all over my face, and perhaps that’s going to get me–us–into trouble. But I’d rather have that, and the risks of that, than not feel like this.”
What else could he do but kiss the man?
Keith was lying on his bunk reading as Hobbs dressed for going on watch, when John ducked into the room, grinning widely.
“Oh, so someone had a good shore leave,” said Hobbs.
John threw his case onto his bunk. “Well, if we can manage to time ourselves so my wife happens to be in town and at a loose end, I will.”
Hobbs made a face. “All right for some. The rest of us have to work.” And with that he ducked out.
John sat on his bunk, and Keith raised an eyebrow at him.
John leaned forwards and said quietly, “I wasn’t lying. It seems that now we’re not trying to be some sort of loving couple, we’re getting on much better. Play our parts in public, which when one knows one is play-acting can be quite enjoyable, and the both of us get to look respectable.”
Keith smiled and said equally quietly, “I feel eminently reassured.”
John opened his case and started to unpack; Keith went back to his book.
A minute later John said, “Oh! I nearly forgot. I have a present for you.”
Keith looked up just in time to catch the bundle that John threw at him. He pulled aside the string and found he was holding not one, but three, large chocolate bars. “Do I even want to know where you got these from?”
John glanced towards the door, then said in a low voice, “My wife has apparently acquired an American paramour, who seems to think that English women subsist entirely on chocolate and silk stockings. She’s quite happy with the stockings, but she has to watch her figure. Said that since I spent all my time out in cold weather, I needed it more than her.” He smiled. “And you’ve got far more of a sweet tooth than I have.”
“I don’t know if I should thank you or her.”
John just smiled and went back to his unpacking.
Keith looked at the chocolate in his hands. Had the world always been this ludicrous and he’d never noticed, or had the war really turned everything upside down?
He stood next to the Captain on the bridge, watching the U-Boats slowly making their way in front of him—more U-Boats and German sailors than he’d seen for the whole of the war.
It was all over. Keith didn’t know when they’d be demobbed, but whatever happened next, it was unlikely that the Navy would need them.
He looked at the Captain. “What are you going to do, sir? After all this.”
“Back to what I was doing before. Back to only worrying about the weather and if you’re going to make your scheduled times.” The Captain looked at him. “And you?”
“I have no idea. Which probably means I’ll end up trying to get my old job back when I can’t think of anything else.”
“And apart from work?”
He caught the Captain’s meaning immediately, and said carefully, “I don’t see that relationships should end just because the war has.”
“You’re not making things easy for yourself.”
“No.” He smiled. “But I feel like after doing this for five years, anything else is going to feel easy.”
That almost earned Keith a smile. “I hope for both your sakes that you’re right.”