Jack lay on the stone floor in a damp patch of seawater leached from his clothes. He would sit up as soon as he gathered his strength.
From his position, he could see the cell door. One by one, the French guards shoved the Cybele's surviving officers through. They stumbled in to lean against the walls or each other, still upright but the worse for wear; one had a sopping uniform coat, the rest shivered in their waistcoats and shirts. They had floated for some time before the French had deigned to pick them up.
Jack remembered pulling his own coat off underwater, letting the heavy wool sink. His boots, too, though bending his wounded leg to reach his foot had been agony. He couldn't remember where his waistcoat had gone...he'd been so busy after that, swimming lopsidedly about, seizing any men he could reach, setting their hands to floating debris, fragments of spars. The Cybele had burned on and on, the surface of the midnight sea frothing with red reflections like a river of blood.
"Are you all right, sir?" said the Cybele's second lieutenant, bending over him.
"Just catching my breath," said Jack. He gritted his teeth and forced his head up, then his shoulders, propping himself on his hands. The room spun sickly around him.
"No blankets in here, I'm afraid, sir. Not even an old sack."
Jack's vision still swam. If he nodded, he feared he might fall over. "No matter, Mr.— Ah—"
"Broomfield, sir," said the man, unruffled. And after all, Jack had hardly seen anything of him during the voyage—the Cybele's captain had planned a dinner in honour of his passengers the day after next, but now thanks to the French it had come to nothing.
"They must be planning an exchange shortly," Jack said. "If they don't have—"
He was interrupted by the heavy wooden door slamming shut. A key turned in the lock with an extended rasping, clanking sound.
Jack blinked hard, squinting, looking as best he could around the room. Nothing but Cybele's officers young and old, and not many of them at that.
"Where is Doctor Maturin?" he asked.
"I'm afraid I don't know, sir."
"I see," said Jack steadily. Presumably then only the commissioned officers were being stored in here, and the warrant officers elsewhere. He hoped Stephen had found something dry to wear—he had no body heat to spare when he got wet, and it never improved his temper.
He was about to ask something else, when his clearing vision showed him what he should have noticed before: no sign of the Cybele's captain. Nor, if he remembered rightly, the first lieutenant. And Mr. Broomfield above him bore a shocked, grieved cast, his amiable round face gone flabby and pale as cheese.
So instead he said, "Don't bother about me, if you please—you have your own duty."
In better times, perhaps Broomfield would have protested. But now he only said a fervent "Thank you, sir," and left Jack alone. Jack lay down again and closed his eyes, breathing in relief as the dizziness abated. He knew Stephen would scold him for lying about in his wet clothes. He rather looked forward to it.
He was roused by the two youngest officers taking him by the arms and helping him across the cell to one of the walls. The stone there was warmed by a single patch of sun, slanting in from a high, barred skylight.
"Care to sit up, sir?" asked one of the men—boys, actually, and the poor lads had a hard pull under Jack's weight.
Jack agreed, so they propped him against the wall in the sun. He soaked up the heat gratefully.
"The Master still has his coat, sir," the older boy said, Adam's apple bobbing in his scrawny neck. "He says once it's a little drier he'd be honoured for you to have it, sir."
"My compliments to the Master, and many thanks for his kindness. But if I get the only sun, I sure as blazes won't need the only coat, will I?"
He smiled at the boys, and while the older one was midshipman enough to keep himself at attention, the younger one smiled weakly back. His round pink face showed smudges of tears under his eyes, and his snub nose needed a handkerchief. A first-voyager, Jack remembered.
"Now off with you," he said gruffly. "I've had enough fussing for today."
He rested there, willing his strength back, his wounded leg stretched out before him. And he could almost have fallen asleep—until he realized. His eyes opened, staring around despite the sun's glare intensifying his headache.
The Master was here, the tall, rangy figure standing respectfully with the second and third lieutenants, his hands behind his back. And that round middle-aged man at a slight distance from the rest, with the distinctively sunburned bald head: wasn't that the purser?
The warrant officers weren't in a separate cell at all.
Jack concentrated hard against the sudden, nauseating clench in his stomach. He remembered the battle. Carrying the gunner to the Cybele's surgeon and raising a hand to Stephen, who said something inaudible under the sound of the broadsides and lifted his bone saw. The explosion. The water. His coat, his leg, the men, the spars. The distinctive noises of drowning. And everywhere the fire, lighting sky and sea, dappling across the small bobbing faces lifted to the heavens.
He had seen Stephen swimming, hadn't he. He had known Stephen would remember how to float, the way Jack had taught him. Feeling sure, he had floundered past, to get about saving as many as he could. After all, he had seen Stephen swimming.
"Mr. Broomfield," he called. His voice, pitched for a burning quarterdeck, boomed through the cell, drawing everyone's attention.
Broomfield came to him. "Is all well, Captain Aubrey?"
Jack forcibly mastered his voice down to a reasonable level. "Perhaps you would do me a kindness."
"Of course, sir, if I can." He sounded anxious, though, fretful, already strained to his limit. Jack might have pitied him if he'd had any thought to spare.
"Find out for me who among your men has seen Doctor Maturin, if you please."
"I'm sure he was in the water with the rest of us," said Jack. "I'm sure they picked him up."
He went back to the others. Jack sat in his patch of sun, his wounds throbbing dully with the beat of his heart.
Broomfield returned at last with the little midshipman in his wake.
"Mr. Ellendale has a report for you," he said. "Stand at attention, boy. And when you've finished, you'll see if Captain Aubrey needs anything else."
"Aye aye, sir," the child quavered, and stood straight, his dumpling of a chin tucked close to his neck.
Broomfield left them, and Jack said at once, "At ease." The boy relaxed only very slightly. He had wiped his nose since Jack had last seen him, and his neck and ears were flushed as if scrubbed—perhaps a rough going-over by the older midshipman, to bring better credit to the Cybele.
"Now," said Jack. "Report."
"Yes, sir. I mean aye aye, sir. I mean..." He trailed off, looking desperately awestruck.
"You remember Doctor Maturin," Jack said.
Ellendale nodded. And just as Jack was drawing a breath to prompt him, he continued in a rush: "He was very kind to me, sir. Tom Moss give me something to eat he said was a pippin, sir, and dared me, and I ate it and was ever so ill, and I wouldn't have gone to our surgeon for a hundred pound, sir, for he laughs at you something cruel. But Doctor Maturin I remembered was a proper physician, and he give me a tonic and never laughed at all, told me many a man had been laid low by eating as he was dared. Sir."
"You should always listen to Doctor Maturin," Jack said soberly, remembering times he himself had eaten as he was dared. Stephen might occasionally have laughed just a little bit, however.
"So then came the battle," Jack said.
"Yes, sir. My station is Captain's messenger, sir."
"Everything exploded," Ellendale said, faltering. "I thought it was another broadside knocked me down, but the Captain he pulled me up and everything was burning everywhere."
Jack disregarded the missing 'sir', seeing the shock and the blast in the little boy's faraway gaze. "And you saw Doctor Maturin."
"The Captain he takes me by my collar, hands me one of the little match-tubs, he says 'now James Ellendale you hold on to this whatever you do or by God I'll make you smart for it'. And he picks me up and throws me over the rail. And I held on to it just like he ordered."
His big eyes were glassy, wet, and Jack gripped him by the shoulder. "You did your duty," he said firmly.
"So you saw Doctor Maturin in the water," Jack said.
The boy sniffed loudly, seeming to come back to himself. "I did, sir, yes sir."
"He was swimming," Jack said, refusing to accept any other answer.
"Oh yes, sir. Funny way he has—sorry, sir, beg your pardon. But he swum up and says 'Mr. Ellendale what is that you are floating upon', and I says 'it is called a match tub sir and the Captain told me if I let go he'd have my hide', and he says 'Quite right, too' and off he goes flapping his hands in front, sir. It might have looked a little funny to someone not used to it, sir."
"I see," said Jack, almost smiling. "And you saw him picked up by the French."
"Well, no, sir. I told Mr. Broomfield, I don't think I ever saw the doctor after that."
Jack looked at him intently. "But you aren't sure."
"No, sir. That is yes, sir, I was. Or I thought I was." He stared at Jack. "I'm sorry, sir, I'm sure I would have seen, only there was so much in the water. Casks, or parts of the chicken coop. Or great huge tangles of line, sir, and sometimes someone all wrapped in it with just his hand sticking up."
Jack didn't answer, and the boy timidly continued, "One minute I thought I saw Tom Moss right behind me, sir. But then when they're hauling me up aboard a French boat and yanking at my match tub to make me let it go, I looked down and there was Tom caught in a line. His eyes and mouth were open under the water. He was a good swimmer, sir. I wanted to tell him I didn't mind so much about the pippin. I—please, sir, sorry—"
Jack realized he was holding the boy's shoulder tight in his fist, and could practically feel the bones grinding together. He let go at once. "Very good, Mr. Ellendale. A very good report. Dismissed."
The child stepped warily back from him. And then he steeled himself to attention and said, "I was to ask you if you needed anything else, sir."
"No," said Jack. "Thank you."
He sat against the wall as the sunlight slid slowly across him and away. The older midshipman brought him a cup of stagnant water from a corner barrel, the shares carefully overseen by the purser. The Cybele's officers sorted themselves out and sat or lay down. The cell went gray, and then dim, and then finally dark.
Despite having had the only sun, with his clothes well-dried on his body and the stones in his corner thoroughly warmed, Jack began shivering in the night and was unable to stop.
He couldn't curl up properly with his leg so swollen and stiff, but he brought his other leg up and clutched at it. Tiny air currents pricked him like needles, tiny sounds seemed magnified; through the skylight he heard strange crickets rasping on and on.
It was light when he opened his eyes, dizzy, at the feeling of firm hands upon him.
"Stephen," he said on a rush of breath.
"Sorry to wake you, sir," said the tall man at his side in a rich Yorkshire burr. He finished spreading the coat over Jack's body. "Mr. Broomfield believed you're one man in need of a warm, and I'd never argue."
"You should keep your coat for yourself," Jack said, fighting the shivering down. He couldn't remember the Master's name, though he'd been a cheerful, steady presence throughout the battle. "I already have the chimney corner."
"Now then, now then," the Master replied, tucking the coat firmly round, and from him it sounded friendly rather than impertinent. He tugged the collar up under Jack's chin. "Suffer us to do this little bit for you, sir—a goodbye present from the lieutenant."
"Goodbye?" Jack tried to lift his head and regretted it.
"Aye, sir, they came and took him to exchange. On his way out he tried to get the frogs to send in the doctor to you, but they said they'd already exchanged him."
Jack's empty belly clenched as if a cold hand rummaged in his vitals.
"Yes," said Jack. "They exchanged him. Thank God for that."
"Thank God," echoed the Master heartily. "Can I send for some water for you, sir, or the bucket?"
Under his kindly rule, Jack had a cup of water and a comfortable piss, and finally lay shivering beneath the coat waiting for the sunbeam to slant down upon him. The French were exchanging prisoners. Of course they would have exchanged Stephen right away—he was a valuable man.
The sun, when it reached him, did no good. He felt it stinging his face, pounding in his head, but down under both sun and coat was a chill nothing could reach.
In the night, though, Stephen was there. Jack could make out his slender shape in the dark, feel his warmth as he bent close to hear Jack's whisper.
"They said they'd already traded you home," Jack said indignantly. "Damn them all for liars." But he felt better already, with Stephen there. He knew all would be well. He could let go.
But...how dared he rejoice at Stephen's capitivity? And among the French, no less, who had had him in their torture room once already.
"Did they treat you well?" Jack asked, grasping his hand.
Stephen shushed him, felt his forehead. "Feverish, and no surprise. Just look at you."
"They gave me the chimney corner," Jack insisted, feeling the need to defend the Cybeles.
"Better to give you some Peruvian bark," said Stephen. He dosed Jack from a spoon and covered him with a red woolen blanket that Jack recognized from Stephen's quarters. "Lie still now."
Jack obeyed. And while he was thinking of what next to ask Stephen, what next to tell him, he fell asleep.
When he woke, there was no shape next to him, no hand on his brow. No blanket. The very dust on the stones lay undisturbed. The crickets sang loudly through the skylight. He felt hollow and emptied-out, not warm, but hardly able to shiver.
He was glad to know that Stephen was free. That he wasn't trapped here, constantly in danger, forced to minister to Jack like a fretful child with measles. To wish otherwise was purely to wish Stephen to suffer, even to die. And he would never wish that.
Jack pulled the coat over his head.
Toward morning, he shifted his weight and bumped his wounded leg against the wall. The pain made him scream through his teeth. There was a confusion of men around him, discussion he could not follow.
Someone's fists hammered on the door, heavy and hard and urgent. It blended with the thumping in Jack's head.
"Demain," a voice said impatiently. "Tais-toi."
A French boarding party. Jack pushed at the heavy coat over him—he had to find his sword and get up, he had to stop them.
"Calmly," said Stephen. His hand rested on Jack's cheek.
Jack subsided at once. "I dreamed they sent you home."
"Yes. You are suffering from delirium."
"It should have made me happy," Jack said. "But I wanted you here."
"Did you, joy?"
Jack took a fold of Stephen's shabby old coat in his fist and clung to it like an infant. He breathed a long sigh. "Stay with me," he said.
"Of course." Stephen's thumb rubbed Jack's cheekbone, and he sounded amused.
"Lord, I could use some brandy," Jack said, relaxing under his touch.
"Water, sir?" came a thin young voice near him. The light was cold and dim, the crickets singing a dawn chorus. Jack couldn't lift his head very well, and the cup clattered uncomfortably against his teeth. Tepid water slopped into his mouth. He coughed, not quite able to catch his breath.
"Leave it," he rasped. "Stephen will—see to it—"
"Sorry sir," said the voice, frightened. "Sorry."
Jack reached out and tried to pat the little boy's shoulder. "No, no. Just do your duty as the Master tells you."
"He got exchanged, sir."
Jack subsided. He plucked at the coat. "The doctor will be next, I'm sure."
"He is a valuable man."
"It'll be all right once they trade you, Stephen," Jack said.
The boy in the dark said something more, but Jack couldn't hear him any longer. The crickets were speaking so loudly. They argued with one another in gasps and shrieks, and Jack could only say, with great effort, "Stephen—", before he lost his grasp on awareness like his fingers slipping from the wet gunwale of a rescue boat.
He went under.
Everyone around him was speaking in French. And Jack understood it perfectly, it came as second-nature, flowing from their lips and into his mind in long, coherent rivers of sound. This wasn't so hard. He had no idea why Stephen always raised his brows so meaningfully and suggested perhaps some other word might be better.
Stephen smiled at him and laid a hand on his breast, slipping inside his shirt, palm and fingers cool and wide-spread and seeking.
Jack lay still and watched him, his pale, thoughtful face, his spectacles on his nose as he stooped over Jack with scientific interest. Jack always felt safe under Stephen's microscope.
But all at once pain began to rise in the center of his chest, just beneath Stephen's long-fingered hand. Stephen was leaning on him, harder every moment, bringing all his weight to bear. Jack would have asked him to stop, but he couldn't breathe in. The pain tightened inexorably like a knot soaked in seawater.
Stephen looked up at him again, cool and detached. He held up his hand, now bloody to the wrist. Between his fingers squirmed a great black cricket. It sang, its angry voice loud as a bone saw.
"...really very bad, as you can see," said someone right above him. A reasonable middle-aged voice, a shopkeeper's voice. The purser? Jack found himself in the middle of pulling in a hard, shallow breath. His throat and chest crackled as if he were being held underwater.
Someone else spoke, but Jack had to cough, so he could not hear.
"Captain Aubrey is a commissioned officer," said the purser in reply. "And the laws of war as I understand them do not permit—"
"Permit?" said the other voice, heavily accented. "Who are you to speak to me of what is permitted?"
Silence. Then humbly, the purser said, "Sir. I ask you to see that Captain Aubrey is exchanged immediately."
"His Imperial Majesty The Emperor does not himself believe in all this exchanging."
"But you've exchanged almost everyone else!"
Feet scuffed on the stone, moving abruptly away.
"Please—" called the purser. "I do beg of you, sir. In the name of God. In the name of humanity."
"I will look into the possibilities," said the Frenchman impatiently.
"Thank you, sir, thank you. And the doctor? May he not—"
"We sent him home."
"If you'll pardon me, sir...that may not be quite right. The guards were remarking on how he tends to their wounded."
"They say he has treated them most dextrously, sir. Even some who they expected to die."
"Thanks to your ship's cannons, if you forget."
"Yes, sir. But he is well?"
The Frenchman laughed. "Oh, yes."
Jack did not like that laugh. With all his might, he forced his eyes open. But that only brought him the ceiling and part of the skylight, the sky outside thick with cloud as grey as the stone.
"Without his help, Captain Aubrey might die."
"It is war," said the Frenchman.
If he could only breathe deeply enough, Jack knew he would be able to sit up at last. He could tell this God-damned whoremaster what he thought of his little emperor, his Corsican dog. With Jack's hands around his throat, the brute might learn.
But Stephen told him kindly not to waste his energy, and to go back to sleep. He could feel that hand still pressed painfully on his chest.
"You ain't—even—here," Jack managed in a surly wheeze.
"You hoped I'd be in prison," said Stephen lightly. "And here I am." He tapped Jack's breastbone with two knuckles, making him cough.
Jack closed his eyes, but the feeling of Stephen's weight upon him remained.
When next Jack came to himself, he opened his eyes to no skylight and no stone. Wooden beams, instead, and a painted ceiling blotched with smoke and soot. He lay propped up on a bedstead, under a blanket, like a human being rather than a beast.
Beside him on a chair sat Stephen, sorting through a box he held on his knee. Stephen's lower lip was swollen and split and his eyes puffy. A dark bruise followed the line of one fine cheekbone. Jack watched him idly, savoring the sight, waiting for him to disappear—to turn into a raven and fly away.
"I wish you were real," Jack said. "I'm sorry. But I do."
Stephen did not react. Of course he wouldn't, would he, being a mere figment.
All at once Jack felt unutterably lonely. But that was foolish, the conduct of a scrub. Stephen was safe and Jack of course would manage without him.
"Why did we ever take passage on that damned ship," he said hoarsely, and closed his eyes. Breathing took an effort, but he could not stop his own words. "I should have known. Launched on a Friday— The men dropping a hatch into the hold—"
He heard a familiar sigh. But he knew that if he opened his eyes, Stephen would be gone again, so he kept them tight shut. At last he spoke his deepest thought, his voice a croak, as hard to spit out as a jagged fish bone: "Without you, I know that I am lost."
At least Stephen wasn't around to hear that. It was the truth, spoken from a dark and empty pit beneath his heart, but it was Jack's rule in extremis always to keep Stephen's spirits up. Jack was naturally a fairly buoyant fellow, in morale and in the water both, but poor old Stephen had such a tendency to sink. Jack gloried in the times he was able to keep him afloat in any sense. Stephen must never know that when pushed to it, Jack would as lief drag Stephen down with him like a weed-choked anchor.
That cool hand was on his brow again, familiar from his time on the stone floor.
"Oh, my dear," said Stephen. He sounded more unguarded than Jack could ever remember the real Stephen sounding. Defenceless. Hearing him speak thus, Jack couldn't help but think that at least this time his fever had brought a sweet dream rather than a bad one.
The hand moved to his chest, again into his shirt. He waited for the pressure and the pain. But instead it rested there, stroking gently. The voice spoke very softly, now, and not in any language Jack could understand.
Jack couldn't help it; he needed just a little longer, pretending Stephen was there. So he covered Stephen's hand with both of his and held it against him. The cool touch of the dream slowly warmed.
After a while, though, he noticed something strange. He moved his fingertips around Stephen's long, angular joints, across his wrist. The skin felt rough there, and as he concentrated, tracing his fingertips back and forth, the hand twitched in his hold.
Jack opened his eyes abruptly. "Stephen," he said. "What is this?"
For the hand on his chest was Stephen's hand, freshly abraded all round the wrist. The eyes meeting his were Stephen's eyes, something he knew he could never fully recreate in dreams. A long moment passed. Jack was still dizzy and weak, still cold, but here in his grasp was something painfully true.
"So you were speaking to me," Stephen said at last. "It has been some time."
"Stephen," Jack insisted. He cradled the wounded wrist carefully. "Did they tie you?"
"Not for too long, soul." His voice was calm again. And then, with a faint and comfortable asperity: "And don't think you will leap up and discuss it with our hosts, either. I have enough trouble without having to lever you up off the floor like a beached Physeter catodon."
Jack's jaw clenched. "And who is that when he's at home."
"A very graceful and powerful fellow in his native element, sure, though not perhaps at his best on land."
He smiled wryly at Jack with his split lip, and Jack was able to breathe in and let him go.
Stephen touched the pulse point at Jack's throat. "Your system is still much deranged. We will put other matters aside until you are stronger."
"Nonsense!" Jack said shortly. "I'm perfectly—" But then he had to cough, so the rest of his finely-worded objection had to go unsaid. Stephen stood and leaned Jack forward, thumping his back firmly with each cough.
Eventually Jack spat into a proffered handkerchief and rested on his bolster, sighing deeply at the release of the pressure in his chest.
"Yes," said Stephen. "Perfectly." He inspected the contents of the handkerchief while Jack glowered at him.
Stephen proceeded to peer into Jack's throat, coax Jack to urinate into a basin, discuss with Jack in far too much detail the colour and consistency of said urine, and make Jack drink a bitter brew of some kind out of a tin cup. Then he sat beside the bed making copious notes with pencil and paper, muttering happily to himself. Despite the strange whirl of outrage and shame in Jack's breast, despite the urgency to discuss their plans and make their escape, Jack found himself exhausted at the end of all that, and closed his eyes for just a moment to gather his thoughts.
A pain in his leg woke him; nothing to make him scream this time, however. "What is it," he said groggily.
Stephen, in his shirtsleeves, had Jack's bare leg across his knees, pressing and touching in arcane patterns. "The swelling is much improved," he said.
"Is it a bad break?"
Stephen did not answer. He slipped from beneath Jack's leg and went to the door, where some apparatus sat on a table with a cooking pot atop it. A steady flame glowed beneath the pot and wisps of vapor floated up. Stephen fiddled with it.
Once it was bubbling noisily, warming the room with medicinal-smelling steam, Stephen sat on the side of the bed. "That should do," he said quietly. "This room is not designed to be a cell, so anyone watching us must peer through the keyhole or listen at doors."
Jack nodded, eyeing the rattling, bubbling pot.
"There is no fracture at all," Stephen said. "It was a dislocation, successfully reduced. Not as far as the French are concerned, however."
"Capital," Jack said. "As soon as I can use it well enough, I'll be ready for us to run."
Stephen shook his head.
"Had you seen the population of these barracks, you would understand my lack of enthusiasm."
"Well," said Jack, "have you a plan?"
"Of course," said Stephen, sounding slightly offended. "The plan next is to sponge you with tepid vinegar. And rosemary, too, since their stores stretch so far."
Stephen went to the table and busied himself with sponge and bottles; Jack had to wait until he was close again. "I meant an actual plan," he muttered, feeling useless.
"Tepid vinegar," repeated Stephen firmly, wringing out the sponge. He unfastened Jack's shirt and eased it off over his head. Then looking at Jack's face, he relented, and said softly, "First we shall get you well. And then we shall make you very, very sick."
His mouth did not move to smile, but his eyes sparked with a wickedness that made Jack feel the best he had in days.
Jack slept heavily under another bitter dose from the tin cup. He coughed and spat a great deal upon waking, but afterward he found his breathing altogether deeper and clearer.
Stephen kept the pot bubbling, though. And he had at Jack with the basin of vinegar again, from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet and every nook between.
"Sometimes I think I could get used to this," Jack said into the bolster as he lay on his belly. Stephen swabbed along his back in long, sure strokes.
"Their assistance does not run to a mercurial thermometer," Stephen said, pitched for his ear alone. "But I know the fever is on the wane."
His sponge reached a rather ticklish spot. Jack said, to keep his mind off it, "It's good to feel clean again. I miss my swims." He thought for a moment. "Well, not that last one."
"You would have applauded me," said Stephen complacently. "I navigated in spectacular fashion, above and below the surface of the waves. A veritable porpoise."
Without intending it, Jack saw in his mind's eye poor Tom Moss, caught in the tangled line. A good swimmer, Tom. He hadn't realized he'd shivered until Stephen suddenly stopped sponging.
"It's nothing," Jack said, and ducked his head into his arms. "Don't forget the left-hand toes, there's a good fellow."
"Left-hand toes, forsooth," muttered Stephen. But he was careful and thorough with his sponge, and eventually Jack lay wrapped up snugly, with a fresh mustard plaster steaming away upon his chest almost too hot to bear.
"I shall make a long face," murmured Stephen as he bent over him, tucking the blanket tightly. "Nothing seems to be working; I have grave suspicions."
Jack yawned hugely. And he hadn't even had his terrible draft yet from the tin cup. Perhaps this time they could do without—
"Open," said Stephen. So Jack sighed, and did.
He woke to the quiet simmering of the pot, one night-candle floating in a bowl of water at the bedside, and no Stephen.
He was warm. Truly warm, from the inside out, for the first time since he'd hit the water beneath the burning Cybele. He was sweating freely and comfortably, and his muscles had all relaxed. No more hunching against that bone-deep chill. No more shivering.
No more Stephen, either, however. He frowned, blinking, trying clear the sleep from his head. It was so difficult, though... Being warm at long last, all his body wanted to do was give in.
He flexed his wounded leg. Even there, the inner warmth had settled in and loosened the sinews. If he were to get out of bed, would Stephen mind?
Well. Of course he would mind. Should they survive, Jack suspected he would never hear the last of it. But if Stephen were caught up with the French in some way he hadn't expected, Jack had to go and help him. That was all.
He gradually wriggled free of the tight blanket and picked at the edges of the linen strips encasing the mustard plaster until he could peel it all off. The skin of his chest was reddened and shiny, but no harm done.
Then he climbed from the bed and stood naked in the weak and flickering light of the floating candle-stub. His leg held him. He stretched his arms up and took a deep, deep breath—only then did he cough, and marveled at how long he had gone without.
Stephen's box of French medical supplies didn't hold much in the way of weaponry, so Jack contented himself with a sharp little utensil probably used for bleeding. He twirled it in his fingers and let himself savor the idea of drawing a different kind of blood.
No clothes! Not even his shirt, which made him wonder. In the end, he hauled the blanket from the bed and wound it over his shoulder and round himself as a sort of Roman dress. The crew back on the dear Surprise had contrived something of this sort in their rendition of Selected Scenes from Julius Caesar, which Stephen had seemed to enjoy, judging from his many suppressed laughs.
He tucked his hair behind his ears as best he could to keep it out of his face, then took up his weapon and slowly, cautiously, tried the doorhandle. It was unlocked, to Jack's pleased surprise. He eased it open a crack and peered out.
The hallway was empty. But over the sound of his heartbeat in his ears, he heard someone approaching, speaking French. Jack clenched his hand on the knife, readying his striking arm. At last, Jack Aubrey, Royal Navy, would be able to do something more useful for Stephen than swoon and bleat.
He stood just behind the door, his weight on the balls of his feet. The instant the man came in, he would kill him. Perhaps his clothes might fit Jack—his breeches or trousers at the very least. The ancient Romans went about stabbing each other all the time, Jack knew, but he was damned if he could understand quite how they managed it.
And so he waited.
Upon the door beginning its inward swing, several things happened at once, all seemingly in a moment:
Jack heard Stephen replying to the Frenchman, his voice casually impatient and sharp.
Jack woke, as it were, and saw himself as he was: a big sweating Englishman dressed in a blanket, brandishing a knife so tiny he was in danger of engulfing it in his fist.
Jack bethought himself of their original plan, and knew that if the Frenchman saw his leg working and his fever broken it would be much the worse for them.
And thus he flung himself to the floor in a heap, knocking hard against the bedside table, which toppled. The candle bowl and the water jug splashed down on him. There was a surprised silence. Jack looked up through his hair.
The Frenchman was middle sized, but rather stocky; Jack thought he might perhaps have managed the trousers after all, with a slit cut at the waistband. He held a lantern in one hand and was reaching for his sword with the other.
Stephen was pale and stern. He pressed his lips together hard; his eyes spoke volumes that Jack did not currently want to hear.
Jack moaned, reaching out for the Frenchman's boot. The man scrambled backward and held his sword before him, speaking rapidly to Stephen.
Stephen answered just as quickly in the same language, stepping out before the Frenchman, spreading his arms in a wary gesture of reassurance.
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in ourselves...but in our something else," Jack said weakly, and coughed. He hoped that sounded delirious enough, because he couldn't remember any of the other speeches at the moment. Stephen scooped him up with great difficulty, as the wounded leg persisted in buckling. He called to the Frenchman, but the fellow only replied with a high-pitched torrent of words, so Stephen laboriously manoeuvred Jack onto the bed in a heap.
From his position tangled in his blanket-garment, Jack listened hard. But the argument was so quick and fierce that all he could pick out were the curses, mostly from Stephen. Except eventually for a name: Christy-Pallière, their kind friend who captained a French ship—and at that, Jack couldn't help peering round, carefully containing his eagerness.
But guarded expression or no, somehow the Frenchman saw his interest and spoke earnestly to Stephen, who refused and refused again. Jack hadn't realised Stephen knew that many different ways to gesture. The set-to only ended when the Frenchman set down the lantern and sidled out the door, smiling in insincere sympathy, muttering reassurances to Stephen all the way.
Stephen silently put the table on its legs again and carried the lantern about the room to gather up the scattered objects. He refilled the water jug from a cask against the wall, topped up the steam pot, turned up the pot's flame until it reached a noisy boil, and stalked to the bedside.
"Captain Aubrey," he said glacially. In one hand he held the little blade.
"Well, but Stephen," Jack said. He felt very reasonable, but the rest of the words wouldn't come.
"I presume you had some ultimate goal for my lancet other than chipping the point?"
"Oh, did I break it? A thousand pardons, I wouldn't have hurt it for the world."
"When it comes time to bleed you I should have them bring me a fleam from the stables."
"Now, Stephen," Jack said.
"The kind one strikes with a stick."
Jack flinched despite himself. "That shouldn't be necessary, should it? Here—" and he seized Stephen's hand and put it to his brow.
Stephen, still thunderous, nevertheless laid his palm across Jack's forehead, then used both hands to feel his cheeks, his neck, and beneath his arms. He bent swiftly to put his ear against Jack's bare chest, the cropped hair on the side of his head brushing soft as a feather.
"The fever is broken," he said in a carefully low voice, standing upright. "The lungs much improved. And a laudable perspiration, as well. How was the leg, before your little...performance?"
"Excellent, Stephen, upon my honour. I stood and walked about on it, and even when I..." He let that enthusiastic report die away, however, at Stephen's look. "See how it bends," he offered instead.
Stephen took the leg in his hands, flexed it, felt all round the knee joint most carefully. Then he hummed under his breath and retrieved his pencil and paper, scribbling for what felt like a long time. At last, he looked up and let out a long sigh.
"I'm sorry," muttered Jack, before he knew what he meant to say. "I know it was foolish."
Stephen tilted his head, his eyes pale and clinical. "Good. More proof your delirium has entirely passed, then."
"It's only..." said Jack. His face and ears felt warm, but not from fever. "It's only that I'm of no use to you, Stephen."
The way that Stephen sat and blinked at him, like an owl in daylight, made Jack feel queer. He missed his sense of safety under that microscope.
Then Stephen rose and poured a cup of water, and mixed something into it. "Perhaps," he said over his work, "something of your delirium remains after all."
Jack frowned. "D'you think so?"
Stephen held out the dose. "It must be," he said softly. "If ever you could imagine you are useless to me." His voice was open, defenceless, as when Jack had thought him only a fleeting dream.
Jack took the cup and cradled it. He wished it were a good hot cup of coffee, and Stephen looking at him like that across their breakfast table.
"Thank you," he said, and it was not for the draught.
"Drink," replied Stephen.
"Must I?" Jack asked, though he smiled.
Stephen nodded, and Jack drank it down.
He didn't feel quite so drowsy this time, however, and was able to keep awake while Stephen sponged the sweat from his skin.
"What of good old Christy-Pallière, then?" Jack eventually asked.
"They broached the idea of selling us to him."
"I hope you said yes," Jack yawned.
"Of course not." Stephen paused. "Head back down, if you please, that I may finish the nape of your neck."
Stephen hushed him impatiently and held his head down with one hand while swabbing his neck and ears with the other.
Once Jack could hear again, Stephen said, "The more eagerness I show for Christy-Pallière, the less likely they will be to go through with it."
Jack thought this over. "Very well, very well. But why would they trade you if you resist them entirely? I saw you waving your arms about, you know."
"As a punishment." He trickled vinegar into Jack's hair and massaged it with his fingers, raising a delightful prickle down Jack's spine.
"They already did that, didn't they," Jack growled. He hadn't forgotten the feeling of Stephen's raw wrist.
"Punishment for Christy-Pallière." Stephen rubbed Jack's head with a coarse bit of towelling. "They hate him, you know. He is an aristocrat, and there are old grudges."
"Why the Devil would we be punishment for him?" said Jack from inside the towel.
"My dear Jack, because you have developed a putrid fever, most infectious. And ideally you will carry it to Christy-Pallière and his entire household."
"Oh yes," said Jack. He stretched comfortably. "Terrible."
Stephen didn't reply, only taking Jack's pulse at the throat and then writing on his paper.
"But—" Jack said after a while, from within a mounting wave of sleepiness. "They'll sell you along with me, won't they? They won't be tempted to keep you?"
"No, no," said Stephen absently.
But it wasn't reassuring. And from the very brink of dreaming, a new thought had seized Jack: "They won't trade you to someone else, will they? Like those spies back in Mahon...damn their black souls..."
Stephen hmmed over the scratch of his pencil.
"Forgive me, Stephen, I didn't mean to talk about that." He was almost unconscious now, and his mouth seemed to operate all on its own. "I know I shouldn't. It's this damned draught of yours...has me all ahoo."
Before he could explain himself, he fell asleep.
He woke hungry this time, his belly healthy and awake and roaring.
"Much more of this," he said, "and I truly will be at death's door."
Stephen—who, granted, had not been fed to Jack's knowledge either—paid him no attention, but only continued to dab and smudge him with various concoctions contrived from his box. Mid-morning, someone had shouted through the door—locked now—and drawn Stephen into an extended argument, Stephen spitting his French like grapeshot. He had struggled and striven but lost the fight, and turned away from the door to meet Jack's eyes in triumph.
"I told them," Stephen had said in prim reproof, "by now I must carry the contagion as well. It is not safe for poor Captain Christy-Pallière."
Jack would have answered in the same vein, but Stephen peremptorily tucked a little knot of herbs beneath his tongue and closed his mouth with two fingers beneath his chin. "Do not chew."
So Jack was forced to subside and wait, as ever, with Stephen fussing over him like the crew of the Surprise on a painting day. It was a small comfort to see Stephen eventually working to dishevel himself as well, including a thumbs'-worth of herbs tucked into his cheek.
And finally, they waited. Jack was wrapped up too warmly, pungent steam billowing, the blanket too tight, another mustard plaster stinging his chest. He sweated, and instead of fresh and cooling, it mixed with Stephen's oils and powders and grew thick and sticky. His hair hung in lank strands. He stank. It was all to the purpose, he knew, but oh how he missed his vinegar swab, and Stephen's hands so firm and easy with the sponge.
In the end, Jack was grateful for the acrid pulpy mass beneath his tongue. For he was just about to try making a remark to Stephen, when with no warning the lock clanked and the door opened—just far enough for someone to shove a rough wooden litter through, the handles splintery and the cloth frayed. It clattered onto the floor. Someone in the hall barked orders, and in stepped Captain Christy-Pallière: in uniform, big and broad and resplendent as ever, but with his jolly face drawn in grave concern.
"Dear Doctor! What is this I hear of our friend Aubrey—!"
Stephen climbed to his feet like an old man. He spoke to Christy-Pallière urgently in French, obviously warning him to keep away. But of course Christy would not. Jack's heart swelled at the sight of him matter-of-factly brushing away all of Stephen's objections, with the compassion of a lamb and the courage of a lion.
Jack longed to reach out to him, speak to him, shake his hands. But Stephen had given the direst warnings for Jack not to interact at all, with anyone. He had even dismissed Jack's idea for a grand delirious speech, and without even considering it fairly.
So Jack lay still on the bed, a most disgusting object, coughing weakly at the foul taste of the herb mash beneath his tongue.
It took a long time, but eventually Christy-Pallière wore Stephen down, and wrung his hand in reassuring amity. Then he himself took up the litter—would those devils not even go so far as to send stretcher-bearers?—and assisted Stephen in rolling Jack's carcass aboard.
Despite everything, it was still very hard to keep quiet and do nothing. He drew a deep breath at one point, perhaps to groan or call out, but Stephen rolled a hard eye upon him and he bit his tongue.
They carried him at last out through the door, his body swathed in the terrible old blanket. The hallways were deserted, the other barrack doors all shut.
At last, into the open air! Jack felt like a sodden old rope fished from the depths of the bilge and laid on a grating in the sun to dry. He saw several French officers standing well away, saluting in respectful farewell, but exchanging sidelong looks among themselves. His pulse was galloping in his chest and his head; he gripped the sides of the litter and kept quiet.
"My poor friends," said Christy-Pallière, as his coachman helped to slide Jack's litter into his carriage. "Do not worry! I will take you to the house I use by the seaside, when I must be close at hand for my ship. The sea air, the sunshine, the good water, it will all put you right. And after all—" he ushered Stephen in to sit close by Jack, gently supporting his elbow— "now I may see you to my heart's content, and you will soon be well enough to drink and to talk and to dine with me. As my Christy cousins always say, it is an ill wind that blows no one away."
He closed the carriage door, and in moments he could be heard on high commanding the coachman, in that fine voice intended for battle and storm.
When Jack's pulse had at last calmed to a reasonable speed, he was able to breathe again. He looked up at Stephen, who had pulled out a handkerchief and was tidying his own face with it in short, delicate passes like a cat cleaning its whiskers.
"I don't suppose I can sit up yet?"
"To make room for you, we would have to throw the litter overboard, and you must admit that would not be prudent."
Jack admitted that was so. He gazed out the window as best he could, though he mostly got glimpses of sky and trees flying by in a blur. The carriage was moving rapidly; the horses had a long, well-matched stride. He looked forward to asking Christy-Pallière about them over many bottles of wine.
Stephen refolded the handkerchief and began cleaning Jack's face.
"Stephen," Jack said. "I am sorry about all that, you know."
"Spit," said Stephen, and Jack ejected the little wad of wet herbs into his palm. Stephen flung it out the window and continued his work, laboring over Jack like a carpenter's mate gilding the figurehead.
"You did wonders, and I shall never forget it," Jack went on. "But I'm sorry you ever had to be there in the first place."
"Well," said Stephen, passing firm thumbs beneath Jack's eyes to wipe away the hollow smudging he had put there. "If you must be, then you must. But I am not." He rubbed his fingertips on the handkerchief and dove for his breeches pocket, pulling out a crackling sheaf of papers. "Just look at my notes!" he exulted. "The febrile applications of vinegar, including a discussion on the efficacy of rosemary. The relation of pulse and pneumoniac respiration to the humidity of the sickroom, though I confess that is a bit scant with no hygrometer on hand." He shuffled to another page. "The reduction of patellar dislocation from the supine position. With diagrams!"
Stephen looked into Jack's face again, practically glowing. Normally Jack only saw him that uncomplicatedly pleased and wondering upon the discovery of some brand new larva or other, most likely one that would end up eating holes in Jack's winter woolens. But here it was, directed at him, and Jack savoured it.
Perhaps other men would not understand. But for Jack it was the best gift he could have had, to take away the taste and the memory—the stone floor, the loss of hope, the pain of wanting Stephen in the pit with him regardless, it was all already receding. In its place he had Stephen's sweet gloating pleasure like a hen on an egg, his willingness to toss all the irrelevancies aside in the face of what he truly found important.
"Well done, old Stephen," he said, smiling. "If all my carrying on has done you any good, then I say God bless it."
"Not an ideal situation," said Stephen, busily refolding his treasure into his pocket. "Could I perhaps have wished for better instruments? More light? Of course."
"Oh yes," said Jack agreeably.
"But would I have sooner waited elsewhere—safe at home on Surprise, God forbid, watching your violin go even further out of tune on the A?"
He peered at Jack, prompting him.
"No, Stephen," said Jack.
"No I would not."
Stephen nodded to himself and leaned upon Jack's stretcher, his arm resting comfortably along Jack's side.
The carriage took them smoothly toward the sea.