Jack had been hoping for this. He had been tired of listening to him talk, of hearing things he often didn’t understand or sometimes wished he didn’t. He'd also hoped it might be a good sign, an indication that Stephen was coming further out of the fever. And so at first he felt relief.
But it wasn’t long until he found himself remembering the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” He had not realized that silence could be so oppressive, or that lack of distraction could send his mind to places it did not typically go, spurred on by things he’d heard Stephen say in his delirium.
His mind had wandered occasionally while Stephen was still speaking, during long stretches of Latin or French or Catalan. During early periods he’d thought mostly about the Surprise, about her sails and rigging and other things that could be worried about. But their sailing was smooth, and Jack had eventually found himself unable to worry. His thoughts had then turned to Sophie, and his hopes for the future. But from there, he now ruefully reflected, it was too easy for his thoughts to fall on Diana, as, God willing, they both would be married when this voyage was over. And Diana linked directly to Stephen.
Jack did not desire Diana any more. He hadn’t since she had nearly cost him Stephen. Even back when he had desired her, he hadn’t really been sure if he was jealous of Stephen, whom he knew she had a higher opinion of, or jealous of her.
In the conversation that had driven them apart, he had only dared demand what Stephen would have with Diana, but what he had truly been wondering about was where he stood in Stephen’s heart with her around. And of course, Stephen had dismissed both issues out of hand with one statement on explanations being useless in this matter, a statement Jack had as much as made when he and Stephen had had their first encounter in Spain, but still had not failed to make him savagely angry. He had thought Stephen a coward then, for refusing him clarity on not just the first issue, which could be resolved once Jack knew how his behavior might affect Stephen, but on the second, which might not offer so easy a solution. But he had to admit that if he thought Stephen cowardly, then he had not been the only coward that day, for Jack might have pushed further, but he had been afraid to truly have the explanation he had desired. Before that day, he had known that he loved and wanted Stephen and that Stephen loved and wanted him, and he hadn’t concerned himself with anything further.
And he never had really had that second explanation, but had gone back to that old reassurance when Stephen had taken him below on the Fanciulla, Jack's words of apology stumbling over each other. Though he now knew exactly what Stephen would have with Diana, he supposed, and in far more detail then he would ever have wanted to.
Why did Stephen obsess over her so much? Especially after all she’d done to him? Had Jack been in Stephen’s place, he would have dismissed her out of his mind and been done with it. His own attachment to Stephen aside, Jack very strongly felt that Diana did not deserve to have him as a husband, and that he still loved her so, that she so dominated her heart, seemed to him to be a horrible injustice.
He supposed he ought to put his attachment to Stephen aside if he wanted to be angry. After all, he was intending to be married too. But Sophie was not like Diana, and it did not at all seem to him to be the same thing. Of course he loved Sophie dearly, and being married to her would make him a very happy man. But she did not possess him in the way Diana possessed Stephen, and Stephen need never feel the fear that Jack could not help but feel, and that fueled his jealousy and anger: that he would lose Stephen to Diana completely.
There was even a small part of him, a very small part, that hoped something would happen, and Stephen would not be married to Diana, that she would refuse him, or run off again. He would not put it past her to do either. It was a part of himself he did not acknowledge very often, and he did so now with the deepest shame. For the most part he dreaded this possibility far more. He was not certain he could bear continuing to see Stephen in pain.
Even though suffering had a way of making Stephen so very beautiful.
He’d first seen it after they’d rescued Stephen from Port Mahon. Granted, when they’d first brought Stephen in, he hadn’t been too pretty a sight, before they’d washed and dressed him. But shortly into their journey to Gibralter, Jack had found himself sitting by a cot in which Stephen was wrapped up as comfortable as they could make him, smiling in a laudanum-induced sleep, so oddly still. When they had shared a bed in Spain and elsewhere Stephen often tossed about in his sleep, and when Jack made love to him he wiggled and writhed in his arms. The stillness had seemed wrong.
It was a very vivid memory, watching the lantern light play on Stephen’s face, so very pale. Stephen was not attractive; Jack still didn’t know what had made him develop that first sexual desire for him when they had been staying in Spain, but he was fairly certain the man’s physical appearance had little to do with it. But somehow, settled into a peace after such suffering, so strong, yet so fragile and vulnerable, Stephen’s face and sallow skin had taken on a sort of beauty that Jack could barely comprehend, let alone attach any words to. He could attach feelings to it: agony and tenderness, an indescribable ache in his gut, and altogether the feeling he might die for having seen this terrible beauty.
The peace had been broken by a nightmare that laudanum could not keep out; Stephen had thrashed about, Jack helpless to do anything but keep a hold on him. Morning had found Stephen’s head cradled in Jack’s hands, his fingers wiping tears away, his eyes holding back his own tears to see his friend in such a state. Jack hadn’t left Stephen’s side once on that journey, and he’d spent all the time he could there from Gibralter to England.
There wasn’t quite that intensity with this fever, if only because Stephen wasn’t in so nearly as bad a way as he had been, and Jack was certain he would recover; he hadn’t been back then. But there was echoes of it in that nearly white face, in his arms thrown carelessly over the blankets...Jack’s eyes traveled to Stephen’s hands.
He picked them up and ran his fingers along them, marveling at how smooth they were. They might have betrayed him during the duel with Canning, but it was still comfort to hold them in his and feel their improvement. He knew the most intimate details about these hands. He recalled their particular contours and strengths before Stephen’s capture, afterwards, on the Lively, he had held them feeling horror at what they had become, and then from early on in the Surprise, he came to learn them again.
After his initial engagement to Sophie, Jack had been unsure if his carnal relations with Stephen would continue. While it wasn’t a pleasant thing to admit to himself, he knew Stephen was right about him and chastity, he could not manage it. But he would be no Lord Nelson there; he would do nothing that was certain to cause Sophie pain. He knew well there were things that Sophie would not be likely to find out about, but he could not think his relations with Stephen were that safe. Stephen was certainly no whore, and he could not be dismissed out of hand like one.
And so he had made no move on Stephen until the Surprise was well into the Atlantic. But finally one night, after they had struggled through one of their favorite adagios, one which before Stephen’s capture, they could have done easily by heart, Stephen had gone to the door and sealed it. Then without a word he had walked over to Jack and kissed him fiercely, then lowered him to the floor, and Jack had found himself unable to deny him. Stephen had taken him there, touching him everywhere in the process, and Jack had almost cried to feel those hands, once so strong and secure in their grip on him, fumble and flinch with pain.
Even with Stanhope and his entourage so near, the concern for discretion, which had limited their encounters on the Polychrest even before jealousies over Diana had torn them apart, had somehow lessened, given way to need. Though they had still been careful, they had come together in this manner quite often.
Jack had observed many things over those months. Stephen had been like the Surprise, he had become familiar again with what he had once known in and out, and slowly come to an even deeper knowledge of each then he had previously held. He had found the same vulnerability that had killed him so thoroughly off Port Mahon when he had kissed Stephen’s neck, and felt the skin, so soft and delicate, under his lips, and then Stephen’s pulse, which afterwards he would listen to and feel content. And as if he was a ship, Jack had come to spot signs in Stephen’s behavior and recognize their meaning. He registered in Stephen’s breathing how much he was straining himself, noted with pleasure how it became less and less laboured as time went on. And he had noticed especially change in Stephen’s hands, particularly after he had been stranded on the rocks, how they had curled a little more, and then more still, onto his shoulders or arms or around his prick.
The change after the rocks had been enough to consciously register, but otherwise much of this had happened without his noticing, it was only reflecting now that Jack was amazed by how observant he had been. And it was also only now that he finally faced something he should have faced a good while ago: like some star-struck young maiden, he had completely lost his heart to the man sleeping next to him.
“And I have got poor Sophie involved in it too,” he muttered bitterly to himself. “She would look only at me, I would look only at him, and he would look only at Diana. But I will marry her, she will marry him, and he...what will he do?”
He stared long and hard into that face, though he knew there was no answer there, only a sight that would make his heart ache to the end of its days.
Then suddenly Stephen’s eyes opened, and he whispered softly, “Jack?”
Relief overcame Jack, swept away his troubled thoughts. “Stephen, you are well!”
To his dismay, Stephen looked very cross. “Have you been trying to act as my doctor?”
“No, I just...you’ve been delirious, and I wanted...” he trailed off. Stephen was only looked crosser. “I’m sorry, Stephen.”
Stephen’s face softened. “Jack...” he started. “Where are we?”
“I’m not certain. I could go up on deck and check.”
“No!" Stephen shot out his hand and grabbed Jack’s arm. “Stay.”
“Of course, love.” At his strained look, Jack remembered his earlier fears, and before he could stop himself he was asking, “Stephen, where are we? With regards to each other. Please, I must know.”
Stephen looked surprised at him asking. “Why, where we always are, joy. And I hope always will be.”
He leaned forward slightly, which was all the invitation Jack needed to lean forward and kiss him, very softly and gently.
That was enough of an explanation, he told himself. What Stephen offered to Jack, Jack would take, and he could ask for no more.