Notes: Thank you very much to thehoyden for reading this through, and thank you to astolat for a truly superlative beta. All remaining mistakes are my own.
Stephen squeezed his eyes repeatedly, trying to clear his vision: it was no use. Jack still appeared blurry despite his nearness, and Stephen found it difficult to keep his eyes open regardless. Jack must have seen him stir, though, for he was immediately up and peering into his face.
"How are you feeling?"
Stephen tried to indicate that he was feeling somewhat recovered, but his voice came out a hoarse croak, and the cup of water was instantly brought to his lips.
Jack looked down at him. His face was still drawn and uncharacteristically pale with worry. "Sir," he said seriously, "you are under strict orders not to die."
"Is that an order from a friend or from my captain?" Stephen inquired, his voice thin and cracked from illness.
"That is a direct order from the ship's captain, Doctor."
"I had best get better then." He closed his eyes in an attempt to ward off his rising nausea.
"That's right. I wouldn't want to have to flog a dead man for insubordination."
Jack couldn't resist a chuckle at his own joke, and Stephen forced a feeble smile but could not bring himself to reopen his eyes. His head felt stuffed with cotton. The bed beneath him seemed to sway, but he knew they were not at sea, and in his fevered and cloudy-headed state, he might always have believed that he had imagined the brush of lips across his forehead, except that he sensed Jack's anxious presence lingering by his side and roused himself to reassure. "You needn't worry, Jack. The danger is past, and I should recover fully."
Jack leaned in close by his ear and said, "See that you do," a low, frightened growl that stirred Stephen, clearing some of the fog from his mind and bringing him to greater awareness of his surroundings. The brush of lips, against his cheek this time, felt cool against his fevered skin, and yet it burned so, that in his delirium Stephen worried it might blister and leave a mark. He kept his eyes closed, aware that something important had just passed between them, but too weak to face whatever it might be.
The fever had a way of making time expand and contract. It might have been minutes or it might have been hours before he felt a cool palm press against his forehead, then heard Jack's familiar footfall recede.
The instruments were put away, the last cup of coffee drained and cleared, and the hour was growing late. Try as he might, Stephen was unable to prolong his quiet evening with Jack any further, and he rose at last, as if to retire. Jack rose as well, moving towards the door to see him out. Stephen inhaled deeply in an attempt to calm his racing pulse; he turned to face Jack and said seriously, "I have certain concerns regarding your command which I feel forced to bring to your attention. You ought to reward your subordinates when they follow their orders well, and yet you never mentioned how beautifully I followed your orders not to die: for as you can see, I am quite whole again and in no danger."
Stephen approached Jack, drawing nearer step by step as he spoke. Jack gave him a small bemused and affectionate smile at this teasing; his eyebrows quirked in evident curiosity, but Stephen gave him no chance to respond. "I'll collect my recompense now, I think," he finished. He saw Jack's eyes fly wide, an expression of extreme disbelief on his face, and then he was too close to see and he was only able to hear Jack's startled inhalation and to feel the rasp of Jack's dry lips against his own.
Jack was still for a moment, then he jerked his head back breaking the brief contact, but he did not step away. His hand went to his lips, and Stephen noted Jack's uncharacteristic speechlessness. It didn't last long. "You aren't really my subordinate. Circumstances surrounding your employment make you rather a special case outside regular naval discipline."
"You mistake my meaning. My concerns are wholly unrelated to questions of naval hierarchy." Stephen leaned in again and pressed their lips together with more ferocity this time: scarcely for as long as he wanted, but for as long as he dared.
In a daze Jack's hand returned briefly to his lips; he jerked it down in a sudden, awkward motion, eyeing Stephen with mingled bewilderment and wariness, yet still made no move to widen the distance between them.
His heart beating in his throat, Stephen took the front of Jack's coat in both his fists and pulled him forward. Jack seemed to come alive this time; Stephen's heart leapt as Jack responded and moved with him into the kiss. There was a moment of ecstatic, perfect union, their tongues touched, and then Jack broke away. Eyes wild, he stared at Stephen, both breathing heavily.
Stephen had exhausted his store of boldness for the evening; he regarded Jack in strained silence, uncertain how to break free of the moment. After some time Jack straightened and visibly came back to himself. When he spoke his voice was stern but not angry. "It is growing late, and I need to speak with the bosun before retiring. And I believe you have patients who require a late night physic."
Jack brushed past Stephen as he reached for the door, leaving Stephen with a painful sensation of having been rebuffed. However, he turned to clasp Stephen's shoulder in his strong grip. "I trust that we will have sufficient leisure tomorrow evening to spend it as pleasantly as we have spent this one." A firmer squeeze on Stephen's shoulder, and Jack was gone. But his promise lingered in his wake.
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