illustration by X
story by shalott
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Five weeks out of Valparaiso with the Horn looming again and the summer solstice days away, the sun scarcely crept over the horizon, and slid down again straightaway. The ship's mood was quiet and contented, so far as the usual high seas below the forties would allow, the crew settled and knowing their work. Those below slept or sat together in companionable huddles, telling over their prize-money and their plans for ridding themselves of it, while those above moved surely about their tasks, the largely unnecessary orders given in ordinary voices instead of shouts.

The cabin now grew quite dark long before dinnertime: Jack and Stephen gave up sight-reading and played by candlelight and memory. After supper even Killick deserted them, and long into the endless nights they might have almost been alone aboard the ship, alone in all the world, and when they paused they spoke in low voices, as if neither wished to shatter the illusion.

"If this weather continues, we shall make our turn in another week," Jack said, rewinding his A string; the violin had been somewhat battered in the fight, and one of the replacement pins was an awkwardly-whittled thing that would keep slipping out every time the violin was set into its case. "Water and resupply in Rio, then we catch the trades for home."

"I suppose there is not the slightest hope of putting in at Cape St. Roque again?" Stephen asked, a little wistfully but with no great hope. "I still remember the extraordinary magnificence of the place; a trove of natural treasure."

"No, Stephen, you must let me cry off. The men would riot if I tried to keep them from home a moment longer than necessary, with such a thumping great prize at their tail and nearly a year at sea already." Jack was apologetic; but there was not that anxious sideways glance that he might have shown a few weeks before.

Stephen sighed but did not press the point nor look downcast, and he turned to the toasted cheese with a whole heart and appetite. They licked the crumbs from their fingers with no pretense at ceremony, saw Killick off with the empty silver dish, and set to tuning.

Having gone through all their old favorites, known by heart, they had turned to their old game again, each in turn beginning with an improvisation upon a theme from some composer's work, until the other recognized the style, joined in and then proposed his own variation. It had always provided them with great pleasure, sometimes for hours on end; now with the steady practice they had reached new heights of skill at catching each other's themes, at proposing new ones.

This night from the beginning proved something else entirely. They carried on from theme to theme without a break, extending each one until a particularly graceful opportunity for transition presented itself, signaling each other with nothing more than a quick glance. By silent agreement neither offered too great a challenge to the other, so that neither violin or cello fell silent for more than a few minutes at a time, if indeed they did not simply continue on together through the changes by what even in them was an extraordinary degree of sympathy, as if they had abruptly been endowed with the ability to look into each other's thoughts.

It was exhilarating, exalting, and before they had closed the first hour they were both flushed and shining with delight, very nearly out of breath, scarcely halting to so much as take a sip of wine as they played on, glowing at each other in silent communion. Pleasure gave them energy beyond even what they normally could have commanded, and they continued long past their usual limit, until a variation on their beloved old Boccherini led naturally into so rousing, so glorious a climax, that without a word said they swept their bows off with a triumphant flourish, both at the same time, and so came to a close.

They were both heaving for breath, and yet they laughed aloud for very joy and rose from their chairs to embrace spontaneously, in a fair way to being giddy with happiness.

"Never, never anything like it," Jack said, toasting Stephen enthusiastically with the port. "My very dear love to you, Stephen; I hope we may ever play so well again."

"And to you, joy; sure, I doubt it will ever come again; some very god of music was with us tonight."

They drank more than their usual portion and that more quickly than their wont, thirsty from their work. Then the decanter was empty and their glasses also, and still they stood close together, unwilling to let the moment in all its glory pass, recalling to each other the most particularly splendid passages.

There was no temptation to begin again; such a perfect work could only be ruined; but Jack took up the violin again and played over a few passages to bring them back to mind. Stephen watched him play intently, hand resting upon the cabin wall against the slight roll of the sea. A slow flush crept upon Jack's face under his gaze, lips parting for breath, and his eyes lowered, heavy-lidded. The sympathy was still with them: it seemed only the most natural course of the world that Stephen should reach out and take the bow away, that Jack should lower the violin, that their lips should meet.

The bow was set aside with care, also the fiddle: they did not hurry. Jack made the cabin door fast while Stephen placed the cello back in its case; they brought their cots out of the sleeping cabins and lay them together on the floor. For a long, slow time they kissed, taking it in turn to remove each other's clothing one article at a time, until at last they slipped naked beneath the mingled covers.

"Handsomely, joy," Stephen murmured to Jack's eager grasp, and gently drew him close, so their limbs entwined. His hands ranged along Jack's sides and to the back, slid further, down, down.

"Stephen," Jack said after a moment, his voice oddly hoarse and thickened for all that it was low; his eyes were watering; it was permission. Stephen kissed him again and took him slowly, slowly, pressing a single long sigh out of him. No furious movement but a steady irresistible pace, and Jack no longer trembling but wholly, deliciously relaxed, though his breath still came out of him with each thrust. And now the final moment, both of them close to tears and straining to the utmost, hands interlaced against the floor over Jack's head, and shuddering together at the last, the composition brought to a close.

- End -