Dedication: This story is dedicated to Lenore in recognition of her effective prodding.
Notes: Thank you very much to Lenore and Jacyn for beta.
Jack Aubrey surveyed the motionless sea and empty horizon with a look of supreme dissatisfaction. Drifting off the coast of Africa the trifling morning breeze had abandoned them yet again with still no sign of the south-east trades. The ship’s log told their pathetic story: 12º15’N., 30º22’W today; 12º10’N, 30º14’W the day before. Admittedly, there was precious little to do in this dead calm, but Jack remarked a disturbing tenor of general listlessness about the men; and despite his prejudice against having a parson aboard, since he had been saddled with one he wondered if a sermon might not be just the thing. He would speak to Mr. White directly about including injunctions to hard work and duty in his Sunday sermon. This put Jack in mind of Stephen’s most unflattering, not to mention raucous and undignified, amusement at Jack’s expense when he had proposed to give a sermon upon the Lively. A prick of annoyance clouded his brow at the memory, deepening to a darker emotion as he considered that he had not seen such mirth from his friend since that time, certainly not since Port Mahon.
Jack made his way to Stephen’s cabin, turning over in his mind a few well-stored clever phrases he’d been jealously saving for the right moment. Jack was still musing on how best to induce Stephen to mention lions when he found him; Stephen was attempting and failing to light a lantern with awkward, trembling hands. “Allow me,” Jack said as he reached for the tinder.
“Your soul to the devil, Jack Aubrey!” Stephen cried without the least trace of humor. He scowled and looked most fearsome as he snatched his hands away. Jack felt himself stung to the quick; he had grown accustomed, of course, to Stephen’s foul humor and refusal of aid, yet this instance, coming when he had been of a particular mind to please the man, Jack found especially hard to bear.
Jack looked quickly down at the floor, attempting to hide his wounded expression and check his tongue from making some sharp recrimination. He spoke at last with as much measured calm as he could muster: “You might moderate your tone, sir, at the very least recalling that I am your very great friend and not your enemy.”
Silence reigned between them for quite some time; whatever expressions of dismay or regret passed over Stephen’s features Jack did not remark as he continued to focus his gaze upon his own feet.
When Stephen spoke it was in a cool, clipped tone, “I fear I have been an ungrateful wretch. I apologize. I shall be more conscious from here on out of the immense debt that I owe you. You have recalled to me that I owe you my employment, my place in the world, as well as my very life.”
Jack was greatly distressed, both by Stephen’s words and their delivery. “Have you forgotten the many times you’ve sewn me up, man? My great illness in Spain which you tirelessly saw me through?”
“That was no more than medical ethics required of me, and I’d have done the same for any poor unfortunate brute who came under my care. What is more, I risked nothing in caring for you in this manner whereas you risked everything for me.”
A sharp dismay engulfed Jack. Could Stephen truly believe Jack intended to lord the circumstances of his escape over him in this coarse manner, or was this a deliberate misunderstanding, another example of Stephen’s obstinance? “Stephen, you have mistaken my meaning so entirely I know scarcely how to make it plain. This talk of you being in my debt is stuff and nonsense; you must abandon such ridiculous notions at once. If you simply endeavored to be a sight less bloody minded—” Jack paused and began again for that had come out all wrong— “I mean to say, if you could accept my willing, my most abundantly willing, aid from time to time, it would do me a great service, for it is only in this manner that I ease my conscience, and it is I who ought to bear up better under your deserved anger, coming so late as I did.” Perhaps in the rush of words and sentiment Jack had said more than he intended, but it was all most true. Indeed, until this point Jack had been almost grateful for Stephen’s foul humor, swallowing the black looks and verbal assaults with the relieved air of a sinner doing penance. For, ever since Mahon the thought had reverberated in Jack’s head that he should have known, should have known, should have known. Stephen had been sharp with everyone, to be sure, but most sharp with Jack, unerringly foul tempered toward any and all attempts made to see to his comfort, but Jack had felt it well deserved, for he should have arrived sooner. He should have known.
They stood silently in the semi-darkness for a time, each man lost in his own thoughts; and Jack—sensing regretfully that Stephen had no intention of favoring him with a similarly intimate confession—readied himself to take his leave.
“Jack,” Stephen’s call checked his departure. He spoke so softly that Jack scarcely wanted to draw breath lest he drown out the sound, “I do not know—that is to say, there is some concern—rather, perhaps you ought to begin practicing the Corelli sonata in F major you’re so fond of; I fear you may have a career ahead of you as a soloist.”
Through his painful awareness of Stephen’s grief, which so added to his own, Jack was scarcely conscious of his actions; the imperative to give comfort thoroughly commanded him, and it seemed one instant he was standing some feet apart from Stephen and the next he was nearly on top of him, gently taking Stephen’s hands in his, brushing the nail-less fingertips across his lips. Nor did Jack realize his eyes were closed until he opened them to find Stephen’s face so very close, their noses practically touching. Though to be certain they had found themselves in such proximity before, Jack could not recall his breath coming so short on those occasions or feeling quite so exposed by Stephen’s piercing gaze.
Perfect inanities passed through his head. He thought, “Stephen has been eating onions,” and then, “I wonder was it his mother or his father gave him that curious eye color,” and finally, “I should move away.” The last repeated in his mind, more forceful: “I must move away this instant.” But instead he opened his mouth to speak, “Stephen I—”
Stephen’s kisses were salty and fiercer than any woman’s. After the first few moments they took on a passionate desperation Jack could never have imagined lurked beneath Stephen’s chaste exterior. “We are breaking the law,” Jack thought, bringing his arms up to engulf Stephen’s slighter form and clasping him close.
More kisses, a flurry of kisses that could scarcely keep pace with Jack’s swiftly mounting desire. A fumbling sort of dance backwards to Stephen’s sleeping cot wherein Jack removed Stephen’s waistcoat as well as his own and unfastened Stephen’s breeches. He surprised himself with his own precipitate haste, his sudden burning need.
“Jack, Jack,” Stephen whispered breathlessly as Jack settled over him, “I haven’t the slightest notion of how it is done.” Jack quieted him with a kiss. A firm hand round Stephen’s straining shaft eliminated any need of further conversation; the simple language of Stephen’s gasps and low, bitten-off moans filled the cabin. Jack wanted to memorize every sound, swallow every particular of the experience to hold within himself forever—the solid warm feel of Stephen in his hand, the salty taste of the sweat that gathered in the hollow of Stephen’s throat, the bright intensity of Stephen’s eyes—every detail of the moment was precious to him.
Jack had never before taken such satisfaction in the sight of another’s pleasure as he did now watching Stephen, so much so that he felt close to the brink himself when at last the moment of climax arrived, and Stephen threw his head back, mouth gaping wide open as he released soft, pulsing cries, spilling hot and slippery into Jack’s hand. Jack felt a profound tenderness, overwhelming in its intensity. He indulged his desire to curl around Stephen and clasp him close, wanting to be a shield between Stephen and the rest of the world. Jack had never known another man could inspire such delicate sentiments, but in truth, almost from the day he’d met Stephen he had felt this desire to shelter and protect him.
Stephen lay still in Jack’s embrace for a time, then began stroking his hand along the rise in Jack’s breeches. The light touch was sufficient to further ignite Jack’s desire but provided no relief. Impatient, Jack freed himself and took himself in hand, stroking hard and fast while Stephen held him and kissed his brow, caressing his back and buttocks. At last that freeing moment of sweet release came, and Jack buried his face against Stephen’s neck to stifle his cries. He lay there for a long time, letting Stephen’s gentle fingers in his hair soothe him until he was able to collect himself.
As one they moved to wash and straighten up, and then to sit side by side on the cot. The silence between them felt companionable and unstrained. They seemed to have found harmony as quickly in this new circumstance as they had in all others, and Jack reflected that although this passion between them had come up quite sudden, he could not claim to be surprised by it. His impression was that Stephen felt much the same way, and when he reached to hold Stephen’s hand, he met no resistance.
“My dear,” Stephen said very seriously, touching Jack’s face to bring their gazes level, “you are to cease this useless melancholy and self-recrimination at once. Had I my wits fully about me, I would have suspected that your emotional, British nature had led you to such folly and reassured you much sooner. There is nothing to be gained from this type of gloomy rumination, and indeed, as your physician, I warn you it can only have a negative effect upon your humors, a debilitating consumptive effect most dangerous in a man of your constitution. You arrived at exactly the right moment, joy; you carried the day. You must leave off these dramatic notions forthwith.”
Jack conceded at least to attempt to follow Stephen’s admonishment, though privately he doubted he’d be free of his guilt for quite some time, and felt that this entitled him to extract a promise of his own. “Stephen, no more talk of your—” he did not wish to be indelicate— “my musical career. You have it all wrong, don’t you see? For so long as I’ve you at my side I’ll never be so low. Ha, ha! D’you smoke it? I won’t be so low? Ha, ha, ha.”
Stephen grimaced and made some disparaging remarks about the intellect and character of one who would stoop to such low puns, but his smile fighting to break free robbed the harsh words of their conviction, and in time, as Jack’s round, hearty merriment continued to ring out, beneath it could be heard the higher-pitched, squeaking sounds of Stephen’s helpless laughter.
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