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Interludes in the Dark

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Smell came to him first: wet wool, perspiration, and Stephen's damn cigars, but only old smoke clinging to his clothes. The ocean had a staleness to it also, the smell of confinement and damp not of honest sea air.

He didn't remember falling, but the bare second before—when his foot'd slipped, and Stephen had clutched his sleeve to steady him, though he himself had been precariously balanced, and panic had flown up as Jack knew that they were lost—that he remembered.

Jack had lied, though to himself alone; the first thing to which he'd awoken had been pain.

~oO0Oo~

"Hush, my dear."

He could feel a cool hand against his brow, and supposed that the lumpish sort of softness under his head was Stephen's bony thigh. Jack's head hurt like the dickens, a pain too blazing to locate precisely, and his leg troubled him still worse. He tried to blink through it but could see nothing.

Something stuck into his back, a rock probably, but he couldn't shift without a tear of pain up his leg. He stifled a gasp, but Stephen must have noticed.

"Jack, if you persist in squirming, I'll need to have it off."

Jack froze.

~oO0Oo~

"Stephen?"

"Yes, my dear?"

"Why can't I see?"

"I expect it's because we've lost the lanterns."

"We're in the dark, then?"

"Naturally."

"Oh. Good."

"Jack?"

"Yes, Stephen."

"Have you forgotten that we fell?"

"I remember."

"Can you tell me where we are?"

"I... the Gulf of Panama."

"I had been looking for more precision, but it's a joy to hear that you recall that much."

"Brother..."

"I was showing you the sea caves, the wondrous assortment of Alcidae—of auks and guillemots, if you will—and cormorants as well, but, I'm sorry, Jack, the rock has come down behind us."

~oO0Oo~

Neither time nor familiarity lightened the pain in his leg. Jack found that while a strict attendance to the drawing in and letting out of each breath did little or nothing to lessen it, making a prize of each inhalation saved him from crying bitterly. Stephen had fallen silent since his admission, leaving Jack to the broken silence of the cave. Water dripped further back, splattering on stone, and distantly forward, beyond the fallen rock, surf rumbled against the cliffs, almost drowned by Jack's own gasps for air. He reached up, and Stephen took his hand, his grip like steel.

~oO0Oo~

"Jack?"

"Mmmm?"

"You have, in years past, informed me of the workings of the tide."

"Mmmm."

"Your man of the sea seems to order his life to the whims of that creature, yet I never have been able to pay any mind to its comings and goings."

"I've noticed."

"Well, I've been wondering, in a hypothetical fashion, if you happened to know whether the seas were currently advancing or retreating."

"How... how long have we been here?"

"Three hours, perhaps?"

"Advancing then."

"Ah."

"Stephen?"

"I don't wish to cause anxiety, my dear, but I fear we may face some difficulty."

~oO0Oo~

"Handsomely, Jack."

Jack bit his lip and tried to hold his breath against the pain. Stephen had slid from under his head and crawled down to brace his leg against the rising, mercifully warm water.

It splashed and tricked through the rockfall, and Jack wondered how high it would climb. He tried to remember any waterlines, but they hadn't seen this part of the cave. His heart faltered, and he asked, "Where are your birds, Stephen?"

"Oh, there don't appear to be any this far back."

Or down, Jack thought, but said nothing, and let the water lift him up.

~oO0Oo~

They heard them first: Bonden yelling, and not long after Tom's steady orders overlaying the creak of rope and squeak of pulleys. Thundering rocks obscured the substance of Stephen's murmured prayer, which was Latin in any case.

First the reflected sunset, then a wavelet jolting his leg blinded Jack, but he closed his eyes and let himself himself rely on the hands lifting him onto a litter and the familiar voices surrounding them.

Stephen, made churlish by fear, was snapping at his own rescuers, not noticing the sea birds that cried overhead, and never once letting go of Jack's hand.