Still he had held off, basking in the glorious relief of the typhoon and the certainty of Fox’s death, until Jack had accompanied him on a hunting trip, his intent obvious. He had to have been wondering by then why Stephen had made no move to resume their physical relations, when on the darker nights the tent provided cover enough. And so Stephen had told him why, when they had been out of the crew’s earshot, and Jack hadn’t lost his stunned expression until they had laid apart in the tent and he had fallen asleep.
Stephen was still awake, listening to Jack snore. He would have liked to think it was only the snores that were keeping him awake.
The whole incident made him much angrier then it should have. He supposed it should have made him angry enough, but even now thinking about it caused a heated, churning feeling in the pit of his stomach which ought not to have still been so strong.
It had started well enough, aside from some misgivings on Stephen’s part about making love in the brothel in Pulo Prabang. Jack had had no misgivings; he was convinced that noone would enter the doctor’s rooms besides Bonden or Stephen’s sleeping partner. There was no harm in the former knowing, and Stephen admitted a word would be enough to keep the latter silent. And once Jack came on strong enough, Stephen knew all attempts to resist on his part were useless, especially after Jack’s desires ignited his own. He had come on very strong from the start in the brothel. His restoration to the lists has increased all his spirits, including his more animal ones, and they had held off on the Diane on account of Fox and his envoys.
It had not been a voyage without longing on Stephen’s part either, and he should afterwards have been able to savour the memory of laying Jack face-down across the bed and taking him hungrily. How he had gasped and moaned with pleasure, and how he had pleaded so softly, clutching Stephen’s left hand with his own left and gripping the sheets with his right. They had both made some effort to keep quiet, but not nearly the effort they would have aboard ship, and perhaps that had been their undoing. For the memories were hopelessly marred by what had happened the moment after Stephen had found his release. He had looked up, and seen Fox standing there, watching them avidly, his breeches open and his hand on his prick.
His fists still clenched at the thought of what had happened next. Fox had looked at him, looked at Jack with his face down and his eyes screwed shut, and smiled. Four things had immediately become clear to Stephen. The first was that Jack had no idea Fox was there. The second was that Stephen had best keep it that way, or Jack might do something reckless, with likely disastrous results. The third was that Fox knew both of these things, and knew he had Stephen in his power. The fourth was that he wanted Stephen to bring Jack off for his viewing pleasure.
There had been had no choice. Stephen's hand had already been on Jack’s prick; he moved it, as fast as he could, sucking the back of Jack’s neck as he did so in an effort to keep his head down, while he kept his eyes on Fox. He had made no attempt to disguise his rage, like that off a trapped beast, but Fox only seemed to take more pleasure in his being able to force Stephen to do this. And Jack, poor innocent Jack, had moaned and thrashed away, and Fox’s grin at him had said his thoughts perfectly: that Jack was a perfect whore, and that anyone could enjoy him if they wanted to.
Yet Stephen thought the final triumph there had been his. Jack had not come until after Fox, and in the moments before he had cried out Stephen’s name, and Stephen remembered how he had drawn Jack’s left hand in, so as to wrap an arm around him, raised his head and clearly mouthed at Fox, his breeches buttoned back up, the word mine. And Fox had fled.
Stephen could only recall the possessive feeling that had risen in him then having done so once before: on the night before Jack’s wedding to Sophie, when he had claimed Jack for himself. Jack had confessed to him that night that he had denied Diana passage on the Surprise. He’d feared the confession would cost him Stephen’s friendship, but of course Stephen had forgiven him; he’d had too; Jack was all he’d had left. Desperation had sunk its claws into him.
He had pulled Jack to his bed and taken him almost brutally, whispering words of possession, feeling his control slip away and being in already too much of a mad frenzy to care. He still felt a guilty thrill when he thought of how he had told Jack to come for him, like he supposed Fox would have done had he been able, and how Jack had obeyed so willingly. To this day some base part of Stephen still clutched to the reassurance that Jack was indeed his. It did not even matter that he went home to Sophie, and nor would it matter if he slept with a thousand whores; Jack Aubrey was still his.
After it had passed he had felt regret, which was completely absent from his more recent experience. He had wondered if Jack had let him do what he had done out of guilt. And he had asked Jack’s forgiveness for making use of him in such a manner.
He would remember Jack’s response to his dying day. Jack had seized Stephen’s face in his hands, looked straight into his eyes, and said, “I don’t care. I would that I possessed your heart, so that noone could ever break it again, but if all you can find from me is a brief relief, so be it; use me all you need, and I. Don’t. Care. I love you.”
The words had sounded as if they had torn themselves from Jack’s throat, his eyes looked as if they were about to tear up. It was the first time either of them had spoken of any feeling of the sort. Love between them before that had been surmised as something between friends or brothers who happened to indulge in rather un-brotherlike behavior, not this mad passion that had separately taken them both, but to this day Stephen still found himself unable to express aloud.
He hadn’t discussed his emotions with Jack in the woods earlier either, merely explaining how he had feared Jack might do something to ruin his career and thus had been forced to let Fox watch them, but that Fox had been smart enough to leave before Jack might see him. Jack, on the other hand, had let Stephen know exactly what he thought about that, especially as he was promptly convinced Fox had been watching Stephen as much as he had been watching Jack, which Stephen conceded was a possibility.
Indeed, now that Jack had thought about it, he hadn’t at all liked the way Fox had looked at Stephen, especially after they’d left Pulo Prabang. Of course he hadn’t been blind to the sailors’ reactions to Article 29 being read in front of Fox after their departure, and he really should have realized that Fox was leering after Stephen sooner. To be sure, he passed no judgement on the man’s inclinations, Stephen understood; he wouldn’t want to even if that wouldn’t be hypocritical of him, but doing what he’d done was something Jack had no qualms about condemning whatsoever.
But as sick and angry as Fox’s behavior had made Stephen, he at first thought it could keep him and Jack safe. He had gone to Fox and given him a reminder that if Fox could get them hung, Stephen could drop a few words about Fox to ruin his career, and had soon won an agreement of the two men keeping each other’s secrets. Had Fox remained sane, Stephen wouldn’t have worried further.
But he hadn’t. And as Stephen had explained to Jack, while he had mentioned neither Stephen’s spy work nor his having caught him and Jack in flagrante delicto in the letter he had left behind, had he reached Java safely, his resentment and anger would have pushed all remaining logic in his brain aside eventually, and Jack and Stephen could very well have found themselves facing a court-martial in short order. He had admitted that he had been considering killing the man.
But on hearing that Stephen couldn’t even kill him in a duel, because arranging for one would give him time to talk, which he would if he had nothing left to lose, Jack had pointed out that if Stephen wasn’t careful, he might find himself hanging anyway, for murder. Stephen’s response had been very simple, “But you wouldn’t.”
That either of them would willingly die for the other was for the most part an unspoken matter of fact. Facing the fact that Stephen was willing to die for him wasn’t something Jack liked doing, as he declared readily. He insisted to Stephen it would be no good, that he wasn’t entirely sure, if it came down to it, that he could live without Stephen anyway, and Stephen could think him a sentimental old woman if he wanted to, but that was how it was and he couldn’t change it. And he would tell Stephen what it was, if, God Almighty forbid, but if, it came down to court-martial, he’d prefer it if he be hanged and Stephen merely dismissed the service, if that was at all possible, though he supposed it wasn’t. Because he was no fool; he knew Stephen didn’t really have very much an attachment to the Navy, and he would rather Stephen not die, but for his part, he would sooner die than live dismissed the service again.
The only response Stephen could manage to that was that Jack should not think him that unattached to the service; he admitted he could live without it, but it would be harder blow then Jack thought, especially of course without Jack. What he had left unsaid was that he had no more desire to live without Jack then Jack did to live without him.
The conversation had ended with Jack’s assurance that Fox had to be dead, and while he would never take pleasure purely because a man was dead, they could both be relieved for it.
Perhaps Jack would never take pleasure purely because a man was dead, but in the past weeks, Stephen had twice.
More then once he had pictured in his head, as he did now, Fox as he realized he was dead, as the storm tore the boat apart and as he desperately thrashed about, knowing it was in vain. Every time he felt himself filled with hard satisfaction. This was troubling enough, but it wasn’t the worst of it; the worst of it was the first death, where for the first time since he had first shot a man in a duel as a hot-blooded youth, he had taken pleasure in taking a life, in looking into his eyes as he shot him, when Andrew Wray in fact hadn't needed to see his face.
He had only caught a glimpse, before Stephen had fired the rifle. Ledward had seen nothing. Stephen had planned to shoot them both quickly, before either of them could realize what was going on. But after Ledward had fallen, a mad malicious impulse had taken Stephen, and he had very delibrately let Wray see him. Had something happened and Wray survived, the consequences would have been very ill.
Certainly his killing them was part of his work; he wouldn't have otherwise. But he had to admit, he had wanted Wray to know just who his assailant was. Wanted Wray to know it was he, Stephen Maturin, who was killing him. And pulling the trigger had given him a thrill, and a very grim pleasure had come from seeing the look of terror on Wray’s face, and on seeing him fall. Had Wray lived a moment longer, Stephen wondered if he would have seen the fear replaced by hatred, and if he would have taken pleasure in that too.
The rush of pleasure had faded by the time he had brought the bodies to Van Buren for dissection, and at first he had tried to think it of no consequence, and that in time this killing would join all the others in his memory as unfortunate but necessary, done, and not to be dwelt on any further. He should have known better. He was still unable to look at the rifle without the memory rushing back. Gazing at it now, his fingers twitched in the memory of pulling the trigger.
That he had felt shallower pleasures as a youth had not bothered him. He had not fully understood the enormity of the deed the first time he had done it, and once he had understood, he had felt properly ashamed for how he had been. But now, that he fully understood, and found it gave him no shame, but only a deeper and much blacker delight, terrified him.
Jack snorted loudly in his sleep, jarring Stephen from his thoughts. Then he resumed his snoring. There was a more peaceful expression on his face, but Stephen thought Jack might not desire him for some time, nor he Jack. Fox had been too close a call, too strong a reminder of the risk they took. They would stay chaste at least until they were back in the Surprise, and perhaps longer. Perhaps Jack might momentarily think of stopping all together. But that could never happen; sooner or later Jack’s desires would grow to the point where the risk would once again seem acceptable. Stephen would have to watch Jack closely, and likely prepare to seduce Jack before he waited too long and broke, possibly at an inopportune moment.
Jack was right when he spoke about never taking pleasure purely at another man being dead. He wasn’t like Stephen in that way, and he never would be. Perhaps under certain circumstances he might take pleasure in the act itself, but when it was done, he would never feel joy. And for that Stephen thanked God.
The truth was, for the most part when he thought about Wray-Ledward also, but Wray had been the one with the grudge against Jack, the one who had hurt Stephen separately with Diana, and the one who seemed more personally the enemy-he thought of Jack looking almost lifeless in the prison cell at Marshalsea, at the severe sound of his violin that night, and of him afterwards, going through the motions of life, sometimes aggressively so, but not truly alive.
Stephen had felt this almost overwhelming protectiveness before, strong enough at that moment that it moved him across the ground to wrap his arms around as much of Jack as they would go. He knew Jack had protective feelings for him; they had aggravated him on numerous occasions. But Jack probably did not know the same was true vice versa, or that Stephen had killed a man and felt a vicious thrill for it, because that man had hurt Jack.
Were I given the opportunity to kill Bonaparte, of course I would do it, but I wouldn’t enjoy it. But if I find Fox alive in Java, by God, I will rend him to pieces.