Jack Aubrey was being mauled by a bear and finding it a very disagreeable experience.
Its low growl rang in his ears as his head was battered by large and oddly soft paws. He tried to lift his arms, to struggle against it, but he seemed unable to move against the endless assault. His breath was short, his chest crushed by a terrible weight. Fur pressed against his mouth, filling his nose with animalic scent. Finally a blow on his nose made him yelp and he managed to get his eyes open to find a round feline face peering intently at him from an inch away with amused green eyes.
After extracting himself from under the highly entertained cat (the monster must have weighed a stone at least), he sat up to find himself in a wide canopy bed, the heavy brocade drapes drawn back so he could see mountains out the window. Soft linen sheets, the walls of a muted dun stone--why, that was right, he remembered of a sudden, he was in Spain, safe at last in Catalonia with Stephen. In Stephen's home.
As though his thought had summoned him, Jack heard a brisk footfall from below, as if climbing a long set of stairs, and a cheerful whistling of the cello line from one of Hummel's minuets. Jack pursed his lips and joined in on the violin part, and the footsteps fit the rhythm as they climbed the stairs until Stephen Maturin stood framed in the doorway, late-morning sunlight silhouetting his wiry form.
"Well, Jack, I see you are awake at last," he said, coming into the room. He was carrying a silver tray with two glasses on it. "I have brought you some fresh-squeezed orange juice, drink it down."
Jack drained the glass to the dregs with a long sigh. "Really, Stephen," he said when he was done, "I think you might have mentioned at some point that you had a castle."
"Oh, it's hardly mine; a family heirloom, a pile of rocks on land better suited for grazing sheep. Ramshackle and hideously drafty, but a convenient place to flee Napoleon to." He sipped his own glass and eyed Jack. "How are you feeling?"
Jack was not altogether sure, but he said, "Well enough, well enough. Pleased to be out of that damnable bearskin, at least." Remembering it--the heat, the chafing--caused his arms and chest to itch once more, and he scratched with a luxurious pleasure in the ability to do so.
"Stop that," snapped Stephen. "You shall tear off the scabs. I recommend you stay in bed for a few more days and--"
"--Nonsense," blustered Jack, "Nonsense, I say. I'll be hanged if I sit about in bed another minute with Boney on the move--"
He flung the sheets off and began to stand up, but the room wavered and tilted sideways, and he found himself back on the pillow, his brow beaded with sweat. The demon cat hooked a paw in his hair and began to knead contentedly.
"As I said," Stephen said, picking up Jack's tormentor and depositing him on the floor with a thump, "You shall need a week at least to recover your strength before we make our way to the sea." He rested a cool hand on Jack's forehead, brushing away sodden hair. "Napoleon will wait for us for one week," he said.
: : :
"I don't care, Stephen, you must let me shave," Jack grumbled. He had tried to be a tractable and biddable patient, and had succeeded mightily well--for a few hours. He rubbed his hand over the dense yellow bristle on his jaw. "I can't bear it."
Stephen was perched on one of the wide stone windowsills, reading a book. The massive gray cat was draped over his lap and purring loud enough to be heard a floor below. "Hold up your hand and keep it steady," he said without looking up from his book. After a minute, he looked up to where Jack was gritting his teeth with the effort to keep his hand from shaking. "I am not letting you near a razor," he said.
"But it itches," Jack said, unable to keep the whine from his voice.
Stephen put the book down on the windowsill with a thwack, glaring at him, and left the room without a word.
The gray cat, dislodged from its preferred seat, cast a disgruntled look at Jack and groomed its own shoulder with furious intensity. "Well, how was I to know he was in such a foul temper?" Jack said peevishly to it. "I'm sure he has more important things to do than sit around and watch me be an invalid, anyway." The light in the room shifted slowly toward late-afternoon gold, and Jack stared at the ceiling. When the cat eventually appeared next to him, he was too dispirited to shoo it away, so he scratched its head absently and evoked a delighted rumble from it.
"Away with you," said Stephen's voice, and Jack startled awake from a drowse to find his friend standing by his bedside, removing the cat once more. "I'm afraid Tomeu is used to having the run of the place," Stephen said apologetically.
"Are those towels and a basin of hot water I see behind you?" Jack asked, hope leaping within him.
"They are," Stephen said, turning to pick up a bowl and whisk a brush through it. A heavenly scent of lavender and good clean soap rose from it.
"Then you've decided to let me shave?"
"Nothing of the kind," Stephen said firmly. "If you promise to let no one hear of it--" Stephen was always very sensitive of his status as a physician rather than a lowly barber-surgeon, "--I suppose I am capable of getting you clean-shaven."
"I should be glad to be shaved by the devil himself if it would rid me of this beard," Jack said.
"Well, I have been called that, and worse," Stephen said, picking up a towel, "But let us hope you do not have to resort to the real thing for your shave."
He wrapped the hot towel around Jack's face, then whisked the soap into a good lather. Removing the towel, he began to rub the soap onto Jack's face with quick, economical movements, his pale eyes abstracted and locked on Jack's jaw.
The clean, scented soap felt heavenly, and for a while Jack just enjoyed the sensation. When Stephen began to stroke the razor carefully across his face it was a delicious relief to feel the bristles being cleared away. But after some time Jack became aware of a nagging discomfort--not a physical one, but an emotional one. Having Stephen's face so very close to him, his eyes focused on Jack's mouth, the sensation of the blade sliding across his upper lip: it was all rather discomfiting somehow, and the deep silence all around them only seemed to increase the feeling. "I say, Stephen--"
Stephen's eyes flashed up to his in annoyance. "Keep your mouth shut, Jack. I have no interest in bleeding you right now." He returned to his rapt contemplation of the intricacies of Jack Aubrey's upper lip, frowning in concentration. "The angle is no good," he groused. "And your nose keeps getting in the way. Perhaps if I--yes, that would work better."
With no further ado, he climbed onto the bed and swung his leg over Jack's chest to straddle him.
Jack was glad Stephen was looking only at his mouth and not his eyes at that moment, for he felt his eyebrows shoot toward his hairline. With some effort he composed his face again. Only Stephen, he thought as his erstwhile barber continued to scrape at his face, would be so focused on getting exactly the right angle that he would climb atop someone like a piece of furniture. Jack tried to relax, but it was surprisingly difficult with Stephen's face so close to his and Stephen's eyes fixed on his mouth like that. Long surgeon's fingers brushed across his upper lip, checking for missed spots, and Jack suddenly had to fight a crazy urge to purse his lips against them. He felt dizzy--which was medically unlikely, as he was already flat on his back--
With Stephen on top of him--
He checked that line of thought as brutally as possible, but it appeared not all of him had gotten the memorandum in time. Jack shifted uneasily to keep his nether regions away from contact with the man perched on top of him, eliciting another almost feline hiss from Stephen and an injunction to stop squirming, which didn't help matters greatly. It was a vast relief when Stephen finally pronounced him clean-shaven enough for polite company once more, although Jack did not feel fit for polite company whatsoever.
It was a natural result of so much time in enforced isolation, he told himself later when Stephen went to fetch them something to eat. Weeks trapped within a bearskin with no female companionship--or indeed, any human intercourse besides Stephen--perfectly natural. "I'll find myself a willing Spanish miss for some dalliance, a roll in the hay," he muttered, looking out at the mountains, "and things will be quite back to normal."
But somehow, despite an abundance of dark-eyed, buxom, and very willing maids among the castle's complement, nothing seemed to serve. Instead Jack found himself seeking out Stephen's company more than ever as his strength returned: accompanying him for long rambles on the crumbling parapets, where Stephen would point out kites and kestrels with rapt delight; or tramps around the sun-baked hillsides, where he learned all about the habits of the Pyranean desman, a shy and web-footed sort of mole.
Stephen was a different sort of person here--or maybe it was that people treated him differently, more like. The inhabitants of the castle approached him with a friendly deference rooted not in respect for his medical skill, as with Jack's sailors, but for his family ties. Stephen never seemed cognizant of the shift; he continued in his preoccupied way to urge healthy food on Jack and take copious notes on the fauna, and yet somehow Jack couldn't see him quite the same way. When he found himself watching Stephen sketch the angle of a bird's wing in his notebook and wondering what those hands would be like on his body, he was forced to excuse himself and take a dousing under the pump in the courtyard. "Besides, such thoughts are absurd," he reminded himself, "As I have had his hands on me any number of times before, when injured or ill." But as this line of thought only seemed to make him think of ways he could injure himself just enough to need medical attention, he abandoned it as well and simply gave himself up to studying Stephen as rapturously as Stephen studied his biology.
He had managed to resign himself to a future of unsatisfied and hidden desire when he woke early one morning and stumbled down the winding stairs, stopping when he heard Stephen's unmelodious voice conversing with a woman's in the dining room below. Stung by suspicion, Jack crept down the stairs and peered out from behind a pillar to see Stephen deep in discourse with Isabel, one of the prettier chambermaids. She was holding a chubby, placid toddler in her arms; as Jack watched, she held it up for him to kiss with an intimate smile on her face.
There seemed an easy understanding between them, and Jack felt a red-hot wire twist around his heart. She left the room in a triumphant swish of skirts and Jack slipped back up the stairs to his room.
"Are you still abed?" Stephen's voice at the doorway roused him from his haze of misery some time later. "I've brought you some morning coffee, soul." Jack just grunted, looking out the window. Stephen frowned, putting down the tray. "Are you in pain? You look pale. Perhaps you are having a relapse--"
Jack jerked away from Stephen's hand on his brow. "I'm fine," he muttered, his voice churlish in his ears.
"Well, perhaps a walk will do you good. I saw signs yesterday of a little bustard in the southern glade, maybe if we are lucky--"
"--I don't care if you saw a bustard or a booby," Jack burst out, "I believe I would rather be alone today for a change."
"Very well," Stephen said coldly after an awkward silence. He turned at the door. "But there are unlikely to be any boobies around here, as they are a maritime fowl."
Left alone with his thoughts, Jack was forced to admit that, maritime fowl or not, there could well be a booby in evidence.
: : :
Jack spent the rest of the day sulking and avoiding Stephen, and being avoided in return. Very few in the castle spoke English, and Jack knew no Catalan, so he was isolated. At first he was fiercely glad to be alone, and sat and nursed his resentment. But to his annoyance he kept thinking of things he wanted to say to Stephen. It felt abnormal and odd to not have him in the room, not be able to idly ask him a question or make an observation. The afternoon dragged sullenly, hot and silent, and Jack lay on the bed and stared at the brocaded canopy and tried not to think about Stephen with the pretty maid.
Another maid brought him a tray of fruit and cheese in the early evening, stopping to point to each of the items and say their names in Catalan for Jack to repeat. "Poma, pera, granada," Jack said dutifully, wishing she would go away.
"Raïm," she said, pointing to the grapes.
"Raïm?" he repeated, feeling a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth, the bubbling anticipation of a very good pun. When she nodded, he picked up one of the grapes and said triumphantly, "Well, now I have both raïm and reason!" Chuckling, he looked at her friendly, uncomprehending face; slowly his laughter died out and he sighed and took the plate of food from her with a muttered thanks.
It was intolerable, he thought as he popped the round purple globes into his mouth, that he should find the presence of Stephen so physically painful, but his absence so emotionally agonizing. He wanted to be with Stephen, but at the same time he could hardly bear it. In fact, if he didn't know better, he'd say he sounded like he was in--
Jack stopped dead with his hand halfway to his mouth. After a moment he put the grape back down on the plate. He went to the window and looked out at the ochre mountains, watching a trail of white birds make their way across the dusky sky.
"Well, damn me," he said after a while.
: : :
The next day was worse: Jack paced the room like a caged animal, his thoughts chafing him almost worse than the bear hide had. The huge gray cat watched him from a windowsill for an hour, then gave up in boredom and left him alone. When he glanced out and saw Stephen in the courtyard, wearing a broad straw hat against the sun, he ducked back into the room without thinking. Feeling silly indeed, he peeked out of the window to see Stephen making his way through the courtyard, notebook in hand. He was probably going out to sit under the mimosa tree and watch the hummingbirds again. Jack watched him go, his eyes following him, and when he realized Stephen was about to round a corner and disappear from view he felt a tightness in his throat and realized he had scrambled onto the windowsill to keep him in view.
After that it was just an extra step out onto the orange roof--and then maybe one more, to prolong losing sight of him just a few seconds longer, and then--
The tiles of the roof were hot under his boots as he moved along the ridgepole of the manor, driven only by an obscure but undeniable need to not let Stephen out of his sight. The straw hat was still in view, bright in the sunlight, and Jack was so focused on his quarry that he didn't notice one of the tiles was loose until it turned under his foot and sent him sliding down the roof with an impressive clatter, flailing for purchase, until he found himself bruised but unbroken in a gorse bush with Stephen's quizzical face peering down at him.
"Hello," said Jack weakly.
: : :
"What on earth possessed you to go scrambling about on the roof?" Stephen said, still picking bits of gorse from Jack's clothing. They were back in Jack's room, the shadows of the canopied bed hiding, Jack hoped, the worst of his ferocious embarrassment. The feather-light touches along his arms, legs, and ribcage were not helping matters at all.
"I thought I saw a--one of your hummingbirds," Jack blustered.
"You picked an odd time to develop a naturalist's fervor," said Stephen, plucking a twig from Jack's hair. "Rest here, my dear, and I shall fetch us some lemonade." He left, and Jack closed his eyes against the mixed relief and pain of hearing Stephen call him "dear." Wondering vaguely if he could pretend to have sprained his ankle in the fall, he drowsed a little until he heard Stephen approaching once more.
He opened his eyes to find Stephen standing in the door with the pretty maid he had been speaking to the morning before. Jack scrambled to his feet, acutely aware of his rumpled and be-gorsed appearance, and bowed slightly.
"Isabel made us some food as well," Stephen said, putting down the pitcher and taking the plate from her. He thanked Isabel and patted her on the cheek; she winked at him and flounced away.
"Charming girl," Jack muttered around a mouthful of pear, trying to sound gracious.
Stephen shot him a sharp glance. "She is indeed, but she is married. Not to mention my cousin."
Jack almost choked on his pear. "Your cousin?"
"Indeed. My uncle was not exactly a temperate man," Stephen said, pouring a glass of lemonade and sitting down next to the bed. "She was never officially recognized, unlike myself, but it was always understood. We didn't meet until I was a young man, but she is rather like a sister to me," he said with a significantly discouraging look at Jack.
"So the little boy I saw her with--" Jack stammered, "I mean, yesterday morning, I saw the two of you--with a--"
Stephen's pale eyes narrowed and went cold. "Are you implying--" He didn't finish the sentence, and after a moment of awkward silence, he said carefully, "I would think, Jack, that you know me well enough to know that I would not abandon a child and its mother."
Jack swallowed hard. "I know that," he said miserably. "It's just--I didn't think--"
"--Well, perhaps you should, for a change," Stephen snapped. "What in heaven's name has come over you, Jack? Were you hoping to make a conquest of Isabel? Are you jealous of me?"
Jack looked away from his angry eyes. "Not of you," he muttered. There was another long silence that stretched until Jack could bear it no longer. "Damn it, Stephen," he said, still looking away, "I don't know what to say. I'm a damn fool, and--it's always been like this, when I'm on at land I'm all at sea. Ha ha, that's not bad," he said absently, "All at sea when I'm on land. But anyway, everything's been upside down since I got here to your--your castle, and it's like you're some kind of prince here, like a fairy tale, but I've been beastly, I know it," he finished in a rush, "I'm the beast, and I'm--I'm sorry."
After a while, Jack said, "Stephen?" and turned to find his friend's face just a few inches from his. He recoiled, startled, and realized Stephen was--not exactly smiling, but his eyes no longer had that dangerous reptilian look to them.
"Perhaps your time in that bearskin had an adverse effect on your personality," Stephen observed. "I have observed a distinctly ursine peevishness about you, indeed. According to the story," he continued, "There was only one way to break the spell and turn the beast back to his true princely self, was there not?"
"Ah," said Jack, suddenly unable to come up with any badinage at all. "Yes. So I've heard."
Stephen's mouth was cool and tasted of lemons, and for a moment Jack thought surely he had died in his fall from the castle rooftop, as that was the only way to explain this kind of bliss. The kiss was not the least bit clinical or perfunctory, and when Stephen pulled back Jack made a small, hungry sound of disappointment.
Stephen was definitely smiling now. "Alas, you are still a beast," he announced, slapping Jack's belly. "There is no making a prince out of you, most excellent Jack."
His senses still reeling, his body clamoring for more contact, Jack lunged at him with a laughing growl and pinned him to the bed--or tried to, but Stephen was shockingly agile and able to weasel out of the most resolute holds. They grappled until Jack caught hold of Stephen's collar and pulled; the sound of tearing linen filled the air. "Ah, you brute," cried Stephen, "You're determined to ravish me."
"God, yes," groaned Jack, planting a sloppy kiss on his exposed collarbone. "If you'll let me, Stephen."
"If I give permission, it's hardly a ravishing, is it now," Stephen said thoughtfully, unbuttoning Jack's shirt without looking at it, his hands as deft and sure as if they had imagined doing this countless times.
"Stephen, Stephen," Jack said as Stephen finished with his shirt and moved on to his breeches (the buttons straining over taut fabric), "Be serious, for all love."
Stephen's busy fingers stopped a moment and he cupped Jack's face in his hands, his smile wry and gentle.
"I am most serious, Jack," he said, "For all love."