Many thanks to April Valentine for beta reading.
The sails of the ship billowed out in the wind, the canvas filling with a snap. Captain Ellison watched them and smiled with satisfaction. A good easterly wind to take the Cascade home again, her hold laden with booty, her men tired, to be sure, some sporting injuries, but none dead. Men who sailed with Captain Ellison lived to tell tall tales.
None dead yet... In the brig a malcontent mutineer awaited his fate, and as it lay solely in Ellison's hands, it was best that the man resign himself to leaving the ship weighed down in chains and struggling as the water closed over his head.
Ellison wouldn't miss him, but it did mean he was short a man who could read and write, skills most of his men had never troubled to acquire. Ellison, whose education befitted his birth, could do both in three languages, but he had little time or patience for it amongst his other duties, and it had been mightily convenient to pass such matters over to the languishing Brackett. Ah, well. Perhaps once they reached the town his ship was named for, he could find someone to fill Brackett's shoes. Cascade was a cesspit, a haven for all manner of rogues, but it was said a man could find anything there -- for a price.
The sails flapped again and he found himself studying them, focusing intently on the coarse weave of the material until it filled his vision, the fibers weaving in and out, in and --
"Captain! In the water! Captain Ellison, sir!"
He became aware of a hand tugging, with insistent daring, at his sleeve, and glanced down into the puzzled, concerned face of young Danny, one of the few people who didn't fear him. Ellison had found him starving in a hovel, his mother's corpse rotting beside him, a scrap of a lad, all dark eyes and courage. Six, he'd been, and he'd tried to attack the tall man who'd entered his home, drawn by the foul stench. Ellison had disarmed him with a sweep of his hand, the knife clattering to the floor, and still the child had fought. Amused and pitying, Ellison had taken the lad on board his ship and Danny had grown up with a hammock to sleep in and a more or less indulgent crew as his family. At twelve, he had yet to be involved in much that was dangerous, but his pleas to be included were fervent and frequent.
Danny pointed. "There, sir. Off the port bow. A small boat with a body in it. Rafe spotted him and -- and I wondered that you had not." There was disappointment in his voice. He idolized Ellison and took a fierce pride in the man's abilities. "You always see land first, or a sail on the horizon."
Ellison ruffled the boy's hair. "I was thinking on something, and fell into a brown study, that's all. And Rafe is on lookout; he is supposed to see first, or he's not doing his job."
Danny pouted. "Even so…"
"Enough." Ellison strode to the rail and shielded his eyes against the glare of the sun on the glassy waves. "Aye, there's someone in there… I think I saw his hand move, so he's not dead yet." He turned and called out to Simon, his second in command. "Banks! Send two men to bring him aboard with whatever he might be carrying. But make sure he's not plague-ridden first; we want no Jonah on board."
Simon, a giant of a man, a gold ring glinting in his ear, richly yellow against his dark skin, called back an acknowledgement and Ellison watched the lowering of a boat with idle curiosity. A castaway could mean a shipwreck and possible pickings if they came across more boats; people tended to take valuables with them in times of crisis, when food and water were the only true treasure. Or, as he feared, it could be a sick man with people too squeamish to kill him outright, but too fond of their own skin to nurse him. Or --
He shook his head. Useless to speculate; if the man was capable of speech, he'd spill his tale soon enough -- and if he tried to lie, well, Ellison had a knack for sniffing out falsehoods.
When the man was brought aboard, he went over to look at him. The poor wretch was dressed in what had once been stylish apparel, with a modish blue waistcoat 'broidered in gold, but his clothes were salt-stained and torn. His hair, unadorned by a wig or powder, hung limp around his face, sticky with brine; thick curls in a pleasing shade of brown shot through with reddish highlights.
Simon pushed him to his back with the toe of his boot and the man groaned, his eyes opening, blue eyes, Ellison noted, blue like the sky above. The man, a decade or so younger than he, licked parched lips and croaked, "Water? Please? Kill me if you must, but in God's name let me drink first."
"No one will kill you," Ellison told him, amused by the spirit he showed even in such a desperate plight. "Not when you could be ransomed or sold."
The man's eyes fluttered closed again. "How comforting."
Ellison gestured at Simon. "Give him water and food and secure him in the brig, in the cell beside Brackett."
Simon shook his head. "'Tis being used by Dr. Wolfe for one of his patients and though he's on the mend, he'll not want to move young Tom. You could put him in with Brackett?"
Ellison grimaced. "Aye, I had forgot Tom lay there. No, I'd not make any man share close quarters with that scum, Brackett." He hesitated. His cabin had a lock and the castaway seemed to be gentry of sorts judging by his cultured voice and his attire… He tossed the cabin key to Simon. "Put him in my cabin, secured so he cannot meddle, and bring me the key."
Ellison watched Simon pick the man up as if he weighed no more than a kitten, and then said abruptly. "What is your name?"
A hand too smooth to belong to a worker sketched an airy wave and then fell as if that small effort had exhausted the man's strength. "Blair Sandburg, at your service, sir. And you are?"
"He's Captain Ellison," Danny said, bridling at the very notion that his hero was unknown. "The one they call Eagle-eye Jim."
Ellison cuffed Danny's head lightly. "They don't do it twice. Of all the ridiculous names…" He met Mr. Sandburg's curious gaze. "James Ellison, captain of the Cascade," he said and bowed his head with ironic courtesy.
Sandburg's eyes widened. "Put me back in my boat," he said and sounded as if he meant it.
"You see?" Ellison smiled down at Danny, showing his teeth. "He knows me." He watched Sandburg struggle weakly in Simon's grasp as he was taken to his cabin. "A pirate has no need of anything but his reputation."
"And a ship," Danny piped up.
Ellison shook his head and stared up at the clouds scudding by in the azure sky. "Daniel, my boy, your wit and intelligence astound me. Now get back to work before I remember that the deck needs scrubbing."
"Aye, aye, Captain!"
Left alone, Ellison bit at his lip. Again. It had happened again. Last time had been in battle and he'd come close to being run through, his attention absorbed by the rhythmic slap of a rope end against a mast, a sound that should have been lost in the mayhem but which had been as clear as if he'd been but a foot away, not many yards. Simon had saved him then, lunging forward to snap the sailor's neck with a brutally effective twist, the crack of bone jolting Ellison free of the strange dream he'd been trapped in.
Brackett had seen… had spoken… had tried to stir the men to revolt, saying their captain was addled, or worse yet, a coward. That was why he lay in chains. Mutiny, as Ellison had cause to know, was the foulest of crimes, even when not a single man on board had lent Brackett a friendly ear.
He watched the sun set a few hours later, spilling scarlet and gold in a gaudy splash across the darkening sea. "You have the helm," he called to Simon, and went to his cabin, feeling the pangs of both hunger and curiosity.
Sandburg was sitting on the floor, with a single blanket to cushion him. He was shackled to Ellison's bed post by one wrist and looking longingly at the meal Danny had laid out on the table. The plate beside him was empty of all but crumbs and the pitcher of water had been drained.
"Do you need to piss?" Ellison asked by way of greeting.
Sandburg shook his head. "The boy who brought your meal allowed me the honor of using your personal chamber pot."
Ellison pursed his lips and put a serious look on his face. "You're correct; that was an honor." He received no reply but a half-hearted smirk and sat down to his meal. In truth, this close to the end of a voyage, it was not much better than the ship's biscuit and rancid cheese he supposed Sandburg had received, but he had a fine burgundy to wash it down with and there was a thin slice of pickled beef and a small apple. He ate in silence, his attention split between his guest and possible buyers for his haul. Acquiring it was the easy part…those spices, now; would they be best off-loaded to a merchant, or should he deal directly with those of the local nobility who viewed him with tolerance as he came bearing luxuries? Hmm…
Sandburg shifted position a few times, clearly uncomfortable, but did not complain, which Ellison was glad of; it would have spoiled his meal and to no point, as he was disinclined to release the man until he knew more about him.
A glass of wine in his hand, he dragged his chair over to his captive and sat down, just out of reach of a lunge or kick. "So."
"You wish to question me."
"I confess to some curiosity which I trust you will satisfy."
Sandburg pushed back his tumbled hair and stared up at him. Sunburned, his full lips chapped by thirst and wind, he was still startlingly handsome, if one's tastes ran that way. Ellison's did, but that was a secret none save Simon knew, and as he'd won Simon a decade earlier in a card game at a brothel where men were the only employees, that was a secret Simon was very happy to keep. Simon had been used as a bodyguard by his owner, who ran the brothel, not as a whore, but that would matter little to most people.
Ellison trusted no one more. Simon had saved his life within hours of being won -- and freed -- and when they fought back to back, their swords flashing, they were well nigh invincible.
He raised his eyebrows when there was no response. "Well? Why were you adrift in a boat with no oars?"
Sandburg rattled the chain. "Free me and allow me to sit first? I swear I intend you no harm."
Ellison chuckled. "I swear if you did, I'd not permit it." He shrugged and gave way to a rare merciful impulse. "Why not? There is nowhere for you to run."
"I'm well aware of that." Once the chain had been removed, Sandburg stood, stretched, and sighed with relief. "Thank you."
"A trifle premature. If you cannot be ransomed, then you will be sold, and your fate might make the boat and the open sea seem like Paradise."
"Or you could just let me go," Sandburg suggested and sat down on Ellison's bed. Impudent little… Only the appeal of the picture he made there stayed Ellison's rebuke.
"Can you pay for your passage?"
"My passage? We're a day away from land! How much would such a short journey cost?"
"All you have and a little more." Ellison smiled, not kindly, as Sandburg drew in an outraged breath at such barefaced piracy. "You would have died," he reminded Sandburg. "Your life is surely beyond price?"
"It matters not," Sandburg said frankly. "I have nothing but what I stand up in and no prospects of being ransomed. You'd best work out a convincing sales patter when you sell me. Would you like me to enumerate my skills?"
"I would like you to answer my question." He took a sip of his wine and then, moved by impulse, crossed to the bed and held his glass to Sandburg's lips. "Here. Drink and perhaps your tongue will be loosened." Sandburg glanced up at him, his blue eyes startled and wide. Then he opened his mouth and let Ellison pour the wine past his lips, sip by sip, until the glass was empty. Ellison dragged his thumb over a drop trickling down the lush pout of Sandburg's lower lip just as Sandburg's tongue peeked out to capture it. The fleeting contact as his thumb was licked sent a shiver of lust through him, making him harden an instant later. Sandburg jerked his head back, his face paling beneath the ravages of sun and wind and Ellison turned away, fighting to regain his composure.
"Your tale, sir," he demanded, his voice rough to his ears. He poured himself more wine and sat again, a safe distance away.
"I -- I was hired as tutor to a young boy in, uh, in one of the coastal towns." Ellison let the vagueness pass. If he needed to know the precise location, he would get it. Sandburg spread his hands. "He had a sister, some years older and we -- we formed an attachment."
"I'll wager you did," Ellison said dryly. "Her father caught you, did he?"
"Her father was ready to see me hanged." Sandburg shuddered. "The boy helped me escape, as we had become friends, and I lost my oars and some of my supplies in a storm two days ago. There: a simple story, quickly told. Are you satisfied?"
Discovering that Sandburg's eye, when it roved, lit on a woman was far from satisfying, but Ellison reminded himself that he never indulged his baser appetites on board and so, really, it mattered little. But when he made his way to a certain establishment a few nights hence, he rather thought he would ask for a young man with brown hair and blue eyes, sweet lips and a merry smile.
And then take him until they were both spent and gasping, no words spoken but his soft commands to bend and kneel and not talk, no, so that he could fancy the body he was thrusting into was in truth Sandburg's.
"You must be tired," he said abruptly. "If you're to spend the night in here, you will have to wash first." Sandburg seemed about to protest and Ellison made haste to continue. "You stink," he said, sacrificing politeness for frankness.
"I've no doubt I do," Sandburg replied with some asperity, "but I had a lack of fresh water and soap."
"Whereas my ship made land at a small island two days ago to repair some trifling damage sustained during the same storm that cost you your oars and I kept the men busy in topping up the water barrels, even though we were not far from home." Ellison shrugged. "I've learned not to assume that all will go to plan, and fresh water is a weight I never mind carrying. You can have a bath tonight and there are clean clothes on board for you to wear tomorrow."
"Dead men's clothes," Sandburg said, with a twist of his lips.
Ellison smiled at him. "Some of them, yes, but for the most part, they're merely stolen. Does that assuage your conscience?"
Sandburg shrugged, his eyes heavy with sleep. "I find I cannot give it much thought tonight. To sleep clean would be as much a blessing to me as to your nose and I thank you for the opportunity to do so." Curiosity furrowed his brow. "Do I really smell so vilely?"
"I have a sensitive nose," Ellison said shortly. On board the ship, it was often assailed by the stench but there was always the deck, with the clean winds blowing when he felt overwhelmed.
"And you are known for being able to see farther than most…" Sandburg mused.
Ellison strode to the door and called for water to be brought. He had no wish to continue the conversation, one he'd had before with tedious results at best, but he had the feeling that his wishes meant little to this bedraggled piece of flotsam.
When the bath was ready, steaming slightly, as the crew, assuming the bath was for the captain, had considerately heated some of the buckets that had been used to fill the tall, wooden tub, Ellison threw the lock on his door.
Sandburg, half asleep now, blinked at him.
"Strip. Bathe," Ellison said curtly and walked back to stand by his chair. He should, perhaps, have granted the man privacy, but he rather thought that he'd given him enough for one day.
Sandburg studied him for a moment and then shrugged and began to strip, his salt-stained clothing falling to the cabin floor like tattered autumn leaves. Ellison watched him in silence, his breath harsh in his ears, his heart pounding. He held onto the back of the chair, his knuckles white, but allowed nothing to show on his face of the emotions that tore at him.
The body revealed to his eyes was wide-shouldered and strong, even if Sandburg did not share Ellison's own stature, standing a full head shorter. Dark hair, a soft cloud of it, spread across the broad chest and lower down, leading Ellison's gaze to where it framed a generously sized cock, at rest now, a soft curl of flesh.
There was something undeniably erotic about the sight of the young man, here, in his cabin, a place which had seen him sleep restlessly, alone, his dreams plagued by longing, his hand clasped ruthlessly around the all too solid evidence of his frustration, working it until he climaxed, his cries stifled by his hand or the thin pillow. Erotic… but plainly only to his eyes. Sandburg's body was un-aroused, his eyes hazy with no more than fatigue as he climbed into the tub.
Although his moan of pleasure as the water lapped around him was enough to make Ellison's gut clench with an ache of desire.
He busied himself getting ready for sleep and tidying his cabin, a task he entrusted to none save himself. He sighed and set aside some papers he'd not had time to deal with; those who thought a pirate had no need to keep accounts were innocent souls, indeed. On an impulse, he turned to Sandburg. "You must write a fair hand --" he began and then the words died on his lips. Sandburg stood, water coursing down his body in rivulets, outlining muscles and taking paths Ellison would have liked to follow with more than his gaze. Wet and clean, Sandburg's hair hung heavy and as he squeezed it dry, his body swayed invitingly.
And he was to sleep beside the man and keep his hands to himself? Ellison bit his lip, assailed by doubt. Then Sandburg stepped out of the tub, revealing a tantalizing glimpse of his inner thigh, where the skin was smooth and quick to mark, the heavy swell of his balls calling to be cupped and caressed. He planted his foot on the wooden floor and brought his other to join it. Ellison was never quite sure what was responsible for what transpired; a lurch as the ship breasted the ocean, or perhaps the floor was wet and treacherous, but Sandburg slipped and would have fallen.
He moved without thought and caught him, supporting the bare, wet body in his arms, blue eyes meeting his gaze with a startled warmth and a question he feared his expression answered.
Yes, I want you. Yes.
Reason, caution, all his care to keep a façade of normality in place to shield him from a censorious world; all lost in the space of a moment. He pulled Sandburg closer and bent his head to take a kiss from the lips already parting to welcome him.
The rough, wind-chapped mouth held a promise of heat and, his senses afire, he groaned and let his tongue slide into Sandburg's mouth, teasing himself as much as the man he held, with the delicacy of his touch. All he desired was to take, possess, but he held back, still not quite certain his advances were not being endured by a pragmatic man -- and Sandburg seemed eminently so -- or if this was some trick to trap him. Not that the rumors weren't already flying, no matter how careful he'd been… No matter how large his fortune or how impeccable his lineage, polite society was closed to him.
All he had was his ship, her crew, and an all but certain fate, dangling at the end of a rope.
It wasn't enough. If his life had been ruined for needing this from men like Sandburg, then by God, he was going to take it, just this once, here on his own vessel, and the hell with the consequences.
But only if Sandburg was willing.
He took his mouth away from Sandburg's, relishing the disappointed sound that followed. "I want you," he said. "If you do not wish it, say so now, and you can find some place to sleep, I daresay."
"And if I do wish it?" Sandburg said, the words clear even through the pounding of blood in Ellison's ears. "No consequences, no tales told? Agreed?"
Another who had learned caution… Ellison nodded. A thought struck him. "It was not the boy's sister you tumbled, was it?"
A conscious flush rose in Sandburg's cheeks. "A gardener," he said, with a small smile. "He escaped, with my employer seeing no more than his bare backside, but I was not so fortunate."
Ellison chuckled. "Unlucky," he commiserated. Cool drops of water fell against his hand as it caressed Sandburg's arm, and he glanced at them, diamonds glittering in the candlelight against pale skin, drawing him in, sparkle and flash and --
He felt his senses sharpen and focus, all else fading away, felt it with a pang of despair, but even as he fell, a warm hand stroked his face and a soft, compelling voice murmured his name. "Stay with me," Sandburg told him. "Stay here, with me."
He gazed, all wonder, at the man. "What did you do?"
Sandburg's full mouth pursed. "I called you back. You were rapt, staring, but at what, I do not know. Does that happen often?"
Arousal lost, he turned away, walking to where a towel had been left and tossing the thin piece of cloth over to Sandburg. "Often enough." Lying was simply too much effort. "I am plagued by it. Some -- some illness, no doctor has been able to fathom. Oh, do not fear!" he added as Sandburg took an involuntary step backward. "I do not think it contagious."
"I know it is not," Sandburg replied, idly rubbing the towel over his hair, still half-hard, though, like Ellison, he seemed willing to be distracted for the moment. "Tell me; when did it begin?"
A little taken aback by the ready acceptance of his assurance, Ellison shrugged. "Soon after I spent some time -- unwillingly -- on a remote island." He poured himself some more wine and found a dusty beaker for Sandburg to use, cleaning it as best he could. "I will tell you the tale, if you've a mind to hear it?" he offered, surprising himself.
"I would like nothing better." Sandburg took the wine after wrapping the damp towel around his waist, where it clung most distractingly to what lay beneath. He joined Ellison in sitting on the bed, close enough to touch, although Ellison was careful to keep a short distance between them. Too tempting, much too tempting…
"I am from a well-to-do family in England. I was born in Sussex, where smuggling is a way of life and as a boy, I often helped the smugglers in the village, although my father, had he known, would have disowned me." He laughed shortly. "Well, he did in the end… I got a taste for the sea and what I naively saw as a life of freedom and excitement. No such thing, of course, but still. In time, I joined the navy and all was going well, and I had been given the captaincy of a ship, when, a short month later, like you, I was caught with my breeches down. The men mutinied; already restive from the brutal treatment they'd received at the hands of my predecessor and with no reason to trust me as yet. My…lover, the ship's doctor, and I were left on an island with some scant supplies and I watched my ship sail away, half out of my head with the effects of the beating I had received."
"My God," Sandburg said, his voice filled with a quick sympathy. "And he -- your partner? What of him?"
Ellison shook his head. "Dead within days from his injuries," he said dully. "He never woke. I buried him, and then for eighteen long months, survived as best I could. Small game was plentiful enough, and I had water; I suspect had they known that, I would have not been left there. I expected the navy to come for me, if only to hang me properly, but as I discovered later, the ship sank before it ever reached shore, with all hands -- including me -- supposed lost."
"How was it that you escaped the island, then?"
Sandburg made a most excellent audience, Ellison reflected. There was no pity in his eyes, but instead a shared understanding and empathy that soothed without making him feel overly melancholy. Insensibly, his mood lifted. "I found treasure, my dear sir."
"Treasure!" The blue eyes lit with excitement. "Some buccaneer's hoard?"
Ellison nodded. "He'd buried it in a small chest near the spring I drank from and one day a storm washed away enough of the bank to expose a corner of it. Having nothing else to occupy my time with, I dug it free and found jewels enough to render me wealthy -- had I but a place to spend my wealth." He shrugged. "It left me depressed, rather than jubilant, to tell truth. Such irony! Such a bittersweet discovery! And atop of that, I was starting to fancy myself in danger of losing my mind. The enforced solitude, the loneliness… I was starting at the tiniest of sounds, I could fancy I saw objects far distant…"
Sandburg nodded, his expression eager. "And taste, too?" he inquired. "Your other senses? Were they, too, enhanced beyond belief?"
"Why… yes, yes, they were." Bewildered, Ellison frowned. "Is this damnable condition of mine known to you?"
"In a manner of speaking," Sandburg said cautiously. "Will you not finish your tale first?"
He hunched one shoulder irritably. 'There's little else to tell. I finally fashioned a boat of sorts -- a sad wreck of a thing, but it sufficed -- and managed to reach the mainland. There, I invested my wealth, and returned home -- and discovered that my father was well pleased to have had me safely dead, having been aware that he would get no heirs from me. My younger brother was heir in my stead and I -- well, I left him in possession of all that had been mine, with no regrets." He smiled sourly. "My fortune is larger; I am free."
"This ship?" Sandburg questioned. He chuckled. "You are somewhat behind the times, sir; the day of the pirate is long since gone; I suspect you to be more of a smuggler, am I correct? With your fearsome reputation more for show?"
Ellison smiled unwillingly. "Aye, you've hit it. But they'll still hang me, an I get caught, so it matters little what name I bear. Enough! You must know I will not sell you -- although I'd have buyers enough, given your looks. Once we dock, you're free to leave and I'll ask no more payment than perhaps, if you are willing, some assistance with some trifling arrears of paperwork, but tell me what you know of my curse."
Sandburg had smiled at Ellison's reassurance, but his face settled into graver lines as he took their wine glasses and walked with them to the table, staggering slightly with the motion of the ship.
"It is no curse," he began as he sat once more, "but rather a natural ability some men have. In you, each sense has developed prodigiously, a God-given ability usually bestowed upon a watchman of a tribe, one who protects his fellows by sensing the approach of enemies from afar; a sentinel, if you like."
"A what?" Ellison frowned. "I have never heard of such. Tribes? What folly is this?"
"Patience." Sandburg laid his hand on Ellison's leg. "My maternal grandfather traveled extensively and he came across tribes in certain primitive regions who had these sentinels, prized and valued members of the community. I'm not sure why we no longer have them in our civilized world, but it may be that we have forgotten much --"
"I am not a primitive!" Ellison said indignantly. "I am an Ellison, of Ellison Hall, and I warrant you, sir, I have nothing in me of the savage!"
"I did not mean to imply --" Sandburg rose to his feet, his hands extended appealingly, his brow knitted with concern.
Ellison rose, too, anger filling him. "No! Enough! I thought you could help me, but you are just like all of the quacks who spoke so earnestly and took my gold for worthless nostrums that did naught but sicken me." He caught Sandburg by the arms and shook him, needing to express his rage physically, for all that he felt a sickening shame at using the man thus, hidden under his ire. "You fake, you fraud -- you --"
"I am no such thing!" Sandburg's finger stabbed at his chest, imperious and indignant. "I can help, I will --"
His vision swam, the clean musky scent of the man surrounding him, well-nigh tangible. "Oh, God --"
Helpless, caught, he tasted that lush mouth again and this time the kiss continued, words forgotten, recriminations abandoned. They fell, entwined, on the bed, Ellison struggling to rid himself of his shirt and breeches, Sandburg already bare as the day he was born, all hot skin and demanding hands.
Once stripped, they lay in each other's embrace, bodies pressed tightly together, their mutual desire building, but even this enough for Ellison for now; the bliss of another's hand exploring his body in tentative forays that became bolder as they were not repulsed, the broken sighs as his own hands discovered places to touch gently, or fondle roughly, the eager arch of Sandburg's body against his guiding him.
Sandburg's cock held snug in his hand, hard, throbbing, wet spurts leaving it as Sandburg bucked against him, his mouth an 'oh' of pleasure; his own effusion following shortly after as Sandburg reached down and firmly, sweetly, brought him off… The encounter may have been soon over, its resolution reached with almost embarrassing speed, but Ellison was breathless with the intensity of his release.
"Oh God," Sandburg said, the words close to a sob. "Oh, you -- never -- it has never been like that --"
He silenced him with his fingertips, laying them lightly against the mouth he couldn't stop kissing. "I know," he said. "For me, also."
Sandburg nuzzled his shoulder and was still for a long, sweet time.
"I can help you, you know," he said some time later, when, the evidence of their abilities sponged away, they lay in bed again, hands idly roving over new territory, exchanging kisses at intervals. "My grandfather's notes mentioned that each sentinel had a partner, to watch over him when his body could not balance the senses. Imagine it; one moment you hear an ant bite down on a leaf -- aye, a sentinel could hear that, 'tis no lie -- why do you smile? Oh! Scoundrel."
"I crave pardon." Ellison bestowed a conciliatory kiss on Sandburg's head; all he could reach, as Sandburg had buried his head against Ellison's chest. "But he spoke no more than the truth. You were saying?"
"It fascinates me," Sandburg admitted readily. "I could say so much… if only I had his journal to hand, but it lies safe with my mother -- well, if one can define safe and Naomi in the same breath." At Ellison's inquiring look, he explained, "She travels constantly and in the most perilous lands, yet always seems to emerge unscathed from her adventures."
"As does her son," Ellison remarked. "You keep wandering far from the point, sir. If you were in a schoolroom and I your tutor, I fear I would be forced to chastise you for such a lack of application." He pushed Sandburg to his back and bit down on one flat brown nipple, tearing a cry, all passion, from Sandburg as it hardened to a point against his lapping tongue.
"With -- with punishments such as that, where is the inducement to virtue?" Sandburg managed to say as Ellison's mouth continued to inflict the most loving of torments. "Do you wish to know more or not?"
"Not," Ellison decided, and slid down the bed in search of the most delightful morsel imaginable, growing under his fond regard and most certainly under the slow drag of his fingers from root to tip. "Not, not, not…" he chanted as he licked and sucked at the ruddy tip, tasting a fresh tang against his tongue and winning more of the shuddering sighs he was learning to prize.
"No one has ever -- are you sure you wish to do this?"
Ellison paused and glanced up. The candles had mostly burned out, and in the flickering shadows, with the moonlight on the sea spilling through the portholes, he fancied he was mostly hidden by the darkness. Sandburg, though -- ah, he was clearly visible to Ellison's eyes, and for once he blessed his strange, unsought abilities. Sandburg's face was screwed up in a mixture of excitement and concern, his lips kiss-swollen, his eyes bright, his hair, dry now, a tangled, silky cloud of curls around his face. Delectable, desirable… He leaned forward and let his mouth answer for him, but not with words.
The next morning, he woke in a blaze of sunlight, his eyes watering painfully. "God -- so bright --"
"It is barely dawn," Sandburg murmured sleepily beside him. "Half-dark, still, in fact."
"No." Ellison dragged the covers over his face. "The light blinds me, I swear it --" The sheets scraped against his face as if tiny thorns were woven in with the threads. "What have you done to me?"
"I?" The sheets were pulled away and he stared blearily up into Sandburg's face, sleep-creased and infuriated, as the man straddled him. Heavy, to be sure, but at least, he was blocking the light somewhat… "I have done nothing," Sandburg told him. "Your senses are unbalanced, as I tried to tell you last night, when sating your ardor was more important to you that aught else."
"And to you," Ellison reminded him.
"Be that as it may --" Sandburg began, "you must strive to regulate them so that no one sense gains ground over its fellows and the information does not flood your brain."
"How?" Ellison demanded. "How can I think when I am all but blind?"
"Close your eyes. Breath, Relax."
"You are insane," Ellison said with conviction. He swiped irritably at tear-wet eyes and then, under Sandburg's unwavering regard, sighed in resignation and obeyed.
"Now imagine your senses as stones you are juggling; each must be the same weight, or your task is that much harder. Make them so. At this moment, your sense of sight is a boulder, weighing you down. Picture it shrinking, smaller, smaller, until it is but the size of an orange…"
Brackett was dead and gone, his eyes filled with a cold defiance until the end, and Sandburg… well, somehow he had never left the ship when she docked, save in Ellison's company, pressed close to his side, his eyes curious, his smile ready.
If the crew suspected the true nature of Sandburg's position, they said nothing -- and Ellison would have known had they dared. No whisper was too low for his ears. They were well-paid, and his abilities, honed by Sandburg's patient teaching in the months that followed, kept them safe; it seemed that was enough for them. Sandburg was given Brackett's cabin, but most nights slipped into Ellison's, close by, where, the door locked safely, they pursued happiness with a most laudable determination.
And as to whether their story ended happily, with long lives for them both and death coming as a welcome friend after many adventures had been had… let us say that it did, for if many deserved it more, they were men adept at achieving what they desired.
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