Stephen Maturin lay in his cot, his eyes closed, breathing steadily. His hands rested on the blanket, the white bandages spotted red against the olive drab.
Jack Aubrey paced back and forth through the cabin, restlessly. Now and then his eye would alight upon Stephen, then wince away. ”By my soul, Stephen,” he heard himself murmur. ”I was nearly relieved when that monster who tortured you jumped to his death, for it saved me from a terrible sin.” He took a deep breath. ”For in faith, I rather hoped he would refuse to write that letter so that I could have the pleasure of strapping him to the machine he used on you.” He shuddered as he remembered the fire in his brain, the scarlet need to do violence to those who had hurt his friend.
He collapsed into the chair beside the bed, feeling an almost unbearable yearning to lift those broken hands in his own and press his lips to them. Only the knowledge that he would thus give Stephen pain halted him. ”Oh, Stephen,” he said. ”Thank God I have not lost you.” He wiped his eyes and rested his face in his hand, lost once more in the memory of that moment. ”I could not bear it. When I feared we would not find you in time—”
“…knew you would,” he heard Stephen’s voice, a wisp of its usual querulous self. He looked up to see Stephen’s face turned toward him, the faintest of smiles on his face. ”Always knew.” His eyes drifted closed again, his breath growing even once more.
Jack pulled the chair up closer to the bed and let his hand rest on Stephen’s shoulder, let the lie (for lie it must be, as Stephen was no optimist and no fool) comfort him for just a moment. It didn’t signify anyway: they were together again.