Summary: Some deals are worth making.
Warnings: Rated NC-17. m/m
It was a popular notion among seamen that Spanish Town was the loveliest pearl of the Caribbean, that nowhere did the moon shine so bright or the scent of gardenias tremble so expectantly in the air as they did in this whitewashed seaside town. Jack has always chalked up the partiality to the fact that rum flows as freely as water here, and after a man has drunk his fill, he has the propensity to see whatever is around him bathed in the rosy glow of his own inebriated delight.
Tonight, though, he thinks perhaps he has done Spanish Town a disservice. As he strolls lazily alongside Stephen back to the Surprise, a fresh evening breeze wafts in from the ocean and fills his lungs, a pleasantly heavy feeling of contentment in his limbs. Truly, he cannot imagine a place closer to paradise than this.
Of course, he reminds himself, gratified vanity can impair a man's judgment as surely as overindulgence in spirits, in which case his opinion is as suspect as any drunken sailor's.
He and Stephen took their evening's entertainment at the home of Mr. Randolph Hamilton, a younger son of a venerable, if untitled, family from the north of England, come to the Americas to make his fortune, as younger sons do. After a long voyage, Jack was more used to trading manly quips and singing sea shanties with his brother officers than making polite drawing room conversation, but it took only a short time in the company of ladies to rekindle his appreciation for the gentler pleasures of life.
The mistress of the house, Kitty Hamilton, a lovely woman with laughing blue eyes and a cascade of golden curls, was widely acknowledged to be the brightest flower of Spanish Town society. She had been married very young and still retained a girlish love for flirtation and romance. Hers was a reckless sort of charm, but Jack found himself attracted to it nonetheless. She entreated him time and again to tell of his naval adventures, and he obliged, spinning tales of high drama and intrigue that she hung on with rapt attention, despite the frequent disapproving glances directed at her by her husband.
"Was not Mrs. Hamilton in high spirits this evening?" Jack muses aloud to his friend. "I found her a most vivacious and pleasing hostess."
"Surely, you are well qualified to speak of her charms. I believe you were often enough their beneficiary this evening."
Jack arches an eyebrow at him. "Is that a note of disapproval I hear in your tone?"
"Suffice it to say that I hold the same opinion of your maneuvers in the drawing room as I often do of your exploits out on the high seas."
Jack laughs heartily. "If I didn't know better, Stephen, I might suspect you of envy."
"Indeed, you would be mistaken," Stephen says in a clipped tone. "I am grateful to Mrs. Hamilton for her hospitality, certainly, but she rouses no other feeling in me."
Jack steals a glance at his friend. Stephen's mouth is a thin, pinched line, the way it only is when he is truly displeased, and that has an instantly sobering effect, clearing away the last of Jack's conceit over the meaningless conquest of Mrs. Hamilton. He searches his mind for a topic of conversation that is more to Stephen's liking, something that will restore the easy fellowship between them. On such an evening as this, his last wish is to feel at odds with his dearest friend.
He is just about to venture an observation on the bougainvillea which seems especially robust this year--no subject is ever so delightful to Stephen as that of a botanical nature--when they are set on without warning by a band of scoundrels wearing dark cloaks and hoods.
Jack dearly wishes his pistol were not back aboard the Surprise, but he brandishes his sword, prepared to defend himself and his unarmed friend. It is a noble intent, but one which the imparity both in numbers and weapons makes difficult to realize. The leader of the band engages him in swordplay, and truly, the man is a master of the art, because Jack is hard pressed to hold his own, much less to gain any advantage. Three hulking ruffians close in on Stephen, and although he does his best to fight back with his fists, they rather easily lay hands on him. Seeing his friend in criminal clutches distracts Jack just long enough for their leader to send his sword sailing and him sprawling into the dust.
He stares up from his disadvantageous position on the ground, looking for some way yet to counterattack, even as the man lifts his sword with an air of finality.
"Jack!" Stephen throws his weight against the arms restraining him, but their strength is too great and he cannot break free of them. "No!"
The leader smiles and says in a cultivated accent that has no place belonging to a criminal, "We merely wish to borrow your doctor, Captain. He will be returned none the worse for wear, I assure you. Since a medical mind distracted by grief is apt to be less keen at its work, I will not dispatch you to the mercy of your Maker as prudence would dictate. But attempt to track us, and you will not find me so generous again."
The last thing Jack sees is a telltale marking on the man's hand as the hilt of the sword comes hurtling toward his head.
When he is roused awake, it is because of a pitiful moaning. He is just thinking that any man worth his salt ought to have more pride than to make sounds like that when he realizes it is from his own lips that these pathetic noises are issuing. He opens his eyes, and everything remains blurred for several long beats of time before his vision clears and he makes out his own cabin. Memory is slower to recover than the ocular function, and he puzzles over the particulars of how he came to be here when the last thing he remembers is walking back to the ship with--
"Stephen!" He sits up quickly, stirred by the urgency of finding his friend, and is rewarded with a stabbing pain in his head. "God!" He clutches at his temples.
"Do not agitate yourself, Captain." It is the voice of the assistant surgeon Mr. Higgins. "You have suffered a severe blow."
Jack glances around and finds his officers gathered about, watching him with concern.
"Slade and Plaice were coming back from the tavern when they stumbled upon you in the alleyway that leads down to the docks," Lt. Pullings explains. "You were insensate on the ground, and there were signs of a struggle. They carried you back here straightaway."
"We could find no trace of the doctor, sir," Mr. Blakeney says, unable to keep the worry from his voice. "Was he not also dining at the Hamiltons with you?"
"Yes, he was. We were ambushed on the way back to the ship, and the doctor was taken. The scoundrels used hoods to conceal themselves, but their leader had a tattoo of a rose dripping blood on the back of his hand."
The collective gasp is audible. "Josiah Black, sir?" Mr. Blakeney asks.
"So it would seem," Jack says.
Josiah Black was a legend in this part of the Caribbean, a smuggler of rum and any other merchandise that might fetch a handsome price on the black market, a man so crafty it was said the King could have built a dozen castles with the tax revenues this one scoundrel had cheated the royal coffers of. Black was not violent by rule, but one did not become or remain a master criminal by letting bygones be bygones. When pressed or wronged, he was as ruthless as the most bloodthirsty buccaneer.
"What could he possibly want with Dr. Maturin, sir?" Blakeney asks, with even greater concern.
"I do not know," Jack says, swinging his feet onto the floor, lurching unsteadily up from the bed. "But I certainly intend to find out."
"Not to be the voice of doubt, sir, but how do you rightfully propose to do that?" Mr. Bradley asks. "Anyone privy to any useful knowledge about Black would likely not share it with a commander in the Royal Navy."
"Indeed, Bradley, you make an excellent point. To gain the confidence of the lower element I shall have to represent myself as one of them."
The men direct glances at one another, no doubt remembering the time they passed themselves off as whalers, a ruse that ultimately ended in victory, but at a very high cost.
"You will need assistance, sir," Pullings says. "I volunteer my services. I fancy I would make a right enough henchman for you."
"Indeed, so do I," all the rest chime in.
"We shall be your gang, sir," Blakeney says with more delight than he probably means to show.
Jack holds up his hand. "Heartened as I am by your willingness to undertake this mission, I must deny your petition. Criminals are by nature a suspicious lot, and the black market is a small world by all accounts. They may be convinced that there is an individual engaged in their enterprise whom they have never heard spoken of before, but an entire organization? I fear it would tip our hand."
"This is something I need to do alone, Mr. Pullings," he says, with an inarguable note of finality in his voice. "You have command of the ship while I am gone. I shall endeavor to return within a fortnight. You are to wait here as long as a month. At which time if I have not returned, send word that Dr. Maturin and I have been lost and await instructions. Under no circumstances will you endanger this ship or this crew by coming to look for us. That is an order."
Pullings nods, although it is with obvious hesitation.
The men fall quiet, as if searching for something to say.
Finally Mr. Bradley breaks the silence. "You will need civilian clothes, sir. I will see what we have in the way of suitable outlaw attire."
Jack is not a man without patience. In the heat of battle, he never rushes the game, always waits until the moment is right to strike. But sitting day after day in the foul-smelling grime of The Whale's Spout, a house of ill repute where associates of Josiah Black are rumored to spend their leisure, listening to the drunken boasting of shiftless blowhards would be enough to tax anyone's endurance.
He has established himself as Jack Nash, an Englishmen gone awry of the authorities back home, transplanted to the new world where he has greater liberty to ply his questionable trade. He has been making discreet inquiries of anyone who might be interested in a shipload of South Carolina sourmash, a buyer with the proper connections to get the illegal booty past the local harbormaster, a tall order that only someone of Josiah Black's illicit stature would be able to fill.
The denizens of The Whale's Spout have proven just as wary of outsiders as Jack had feared, and it has taken him this long, a good week, to find someone who will simply hear him out. Even this fellow, a grubby-faced antique know aptly as Old Bill, proves too nervous to discuss the proposition within the walls of the tavern itself.
"Let a quarter of an hour pass," the old codger whispers, his eyes darting about the room. "Then come find me out by Gull's Landing."
Jack finishes his ale, judges that enough time has gone by, and goes to meet him. He wonders if Old Bill will be there when he arrives or will have reconsidered and bolted. But as he rounds the curve in the street that leads to the promontory at Gull's Landing, there stands the old fellow, shifting his weight, possibly even more jumpy than before.
"I see you made it, my good man," Jack says. "Let us get down to business then. As I have told you, I am in a position to make available to the right party a most lucrative opportunity, allowing that such party would have the necessary local connections to make the transaction tenable."
"Yes, sir. I done understood all that, and I rightly do think I can help you."
"Excellent. Now as to this interested party, how shall I go about contacting him?"
The old man scratches his head. "Well, sir. That is the question, ain't it? This gentleman I'm thinking of don't take much with strangers, and what with you being a stranger and all I don't rightly know that I can take you to him, not so long as I hold any value to my own life, which I surely do, I can tell you that, sir."
Jack scowls at him. "Then why did you call me out here if you were not in a position to help me make the acquaintance of this party? I am a man of commerce, sir. I do not have time for pointless games."
The man gestures with his hands to calm Jack down. "Sir, sir, it's not going to do to get riled up with Old Bill. I was only saying that I can't rightly take you to the gentleman, but I reckon I can bring the gentleman to you." He grins, showing off missing teeth. "In fact, I believe he done come for you now, sir."
Jack whirls around, too late realizing he has not been sufficiently on his guard, and finds himself surrounded by the same gang who took Stephen.
Their leader shakes his head. "I should think a naval officer such as yourself could have followed a simple order.
"Where you have taken Dr. Maturin?" he barks. "I demand to know."
The man smiles. "Oh, you will find out soon enough, Captain."
The next moments are an exact repetition of the last time they met, the same abrupt lift of the sword, the same fleeting glimpse of the rose tattoo. As Jack fades into unconsciousness with a blinding pain at the back of his skull, he has the fleeting thought that if he has any brains left in his head by the time he finally finds Stephen he will be a lucky man, indeed.
It is some measure of consolation that this time when he regains his senses he is manfully silent, not making pitiful noises. He wakes to find himself cradled in the soft comforts of a goose down mattress, a richly embroidered coverlet pulled over him.
When he tries to sit up, a hand on his chest pushes him back against the pillows. "Even a head such as yours is not hard enough to withstand a repeat of such punishment without ill effect." Cool fingers trail gently along his cheek. "You must give yourself sufficient time to recover."
"Stephen." He lets out his breath in relief. "Where--"
"Sssh. Rest now, joy. All is well, and there will be ample time to interrogate me when you have regained your strength."
"I had the devil's own trouble finding you," he says, words beginning to slur as sleep overtakes him.
"But here you are. And here I will be when you next open your eyes. So sleep now."
It is this reassurance that allows him to give in to slumber with an easy mind.
When he wakes again, he is alone, and for an instant fears he only dreamed Stephen's presence, but the sight of familiar items belonging to his friend on one of the side tables reassures him. He hauls himself to his feet and if his knees are perhaps a bit shaky, they are at least equal to the task of keeping himself aloft. He looks around and sees that he is in a stately bedchamber, the room well-proportioned and airy, the bedstead a heavy carved mahogany hung with red damask curtains, the remainder of the furnishings all of equally good quality.
He goes to the door, opens it and peers out into the hallway. There is no one, but he catches the distant rise and fall of voices, and heads in that direction. The long corridor terminates in a grand set of French doors that one would naturally expect to lead to a drawing room. Jack goes inside and finds Stephen there, along with a balding, gray-haired man, robust of figure, whom Jack can only assume is the master smuggler himself.
The man rises to his feet. "Ah, Captain Aubrey. There you are." He bows as elegantly as any gentleman. "Josiah Black at your service. I dare hope you are feeling better."
Jack makes a sarcastic half bow in reply. "No thanks to you, naturally."
Black smiles. "No, indeed. All thanks belong to your friend. If left to my own devices, I would certainly have kept the promise I made when last we met, but Dr. Maturin and I were able to come to a mutually beneficial agreement. I require the full employment of his medical talents on a matter of great importance to me, and in return, he required assurances of your safety. So here we are."
Jack shoots a look at Stephen. "What have you done?"
Stephen's expression offers no apology. "Only what was necessary to keep you from getting yourself killed."
"Quite right he is, Captain," Black says. "Did you not think it would rouse suspicion, a stranger trying to pass himself off as one of our world, asking questions any true purveyor of the black market would have known better than to ask? I had offers to dispatch you from a good half dozen of my associates. That is why I finally resolved on bringing you here, figuring it was not safe to leave you as you were, saying all the wrong things to all the wrong people."
"And what is Dr. Maturin's part of the bargain?" Jack asks warily, fearing some grave sacrifice of professional ethics or personal honor on his friend's behalf.
Black's voice takes on an odd note of emotion. "Only to do what the good Lord himself would approve, I assure you, Captain." He glances from Jack to Stephen and then declares, "I believe I should leave you to discuss the matter among yourselves. You know where to find me, doctor."
Stephen nods. "Indeed."
Black heads for a set of doors on the opposite side of the room, but turns back around before he leaves. "Oh, Captain Aubrey, I should be remiss if I did not inform you of the particulars of your situation here. I dare say you are even as we speak assessing the vulnerabilities of the drawing room and plotting some daring rescue of your friend. Allow me to save you the effort. If you look out any window, you will see that you are on an island, one that serves as my own private residence. There is nothing and no one in this place that does not belong to me. Further, you will find that there is only one navigable inlet, and nothing and no one leaves this island without my order. A well-armed platoon of guards sees to that, and they have standing instructions to shoot on sight anyone attempting to thwart my authority. I have given Dr. Maturin my word that you will not be harmed, so I should be ever so grateful if you did not make a liar of me by foolishly trying to escape." He makes another polite bow and takes his leave.
Jack moves to the window, more out of a habitual need to judge for himself than any real doubt that what the smuggler says is true, and, indeed, he can see rocky cliffs in the distance and the blue swell of the ocean beyond. He abandons the reconnaissance he had planned and instead paces the drawing room carpet.
It is clear to him that Stephen had no chance of escaping on his own, and Jack would not expect him to defy Black at the risk of his own life unless honor truly demanded it. Still, he cannot help but feel disturbed by the easy compliance his friend seems to pay the smuggler, by the fact that he has bargained not only for his own life but for Jack's, and in so doing, ensured captivity for them both. Did he not trust Jack to handle himself? Did he not realize that Jack would have come for him, would have found a way, sooner or later, just as he always did?
Stephen makes no comment, offers no explanations, just sits tranquilly, waiting for Jack to begin.
"I find it difficult to believe you would agree so readily to this devil's deal," Jack addresses him at last.
Stephen's easy tone only confounds him further. "Do you not feel it compromises integrity to be at the beck and call of a common criminal who makes a mockery of the laws all honest men are duty-bound to uphold?"
"Not under these particular circumstances, no."
"Well, then perhaps you would be good enough to explain these circumstances to me, because I fear I am still in the dark as to your motives."
He and Stephen may be of one heart, but they are rarely, if ever, of like mind. Jack is used to his friend holding different views on the nature of what is right than he himself does. Surely, Stephen finds more importance in the spirit of the law than the letter of it, whereas Jack as an officer in command is by necessity compelled to take a more literal view of such matters. But how his friend can justify giving aid and comfort to an outlaw so persistent and devious he is considered an enemy of the Crown Jack cannot begin to fathom.
Stephen rises to his feet. "It will be simpler to understand if I show you the reason for my actions."
He leads the way out the same set of doors that Josiah Black went, down another long corridor, and into a room near the end of the hall. This chamber is as well appointed as the one in which Jack awoke, with the same finely crafted furniture and rich fabrics, only here the tables are decorated with toy elephants and fighting men, puzzles and picture books, playthings of every description. His eye falls on the bed, tall and four-postered, hung with heavy velvet drapes, and its occupant, a small boy of perhaps seven or eight, his eyes closed, a bandage on his pale forehead.
Black sits at the bedside, holding the child's limp hand. "I fear my little William takes too much after his father with his taste for adventure. I dare say he thought it would be great fun to jump his pony over the tall fence that borders the meadow, even though his papa has warned him time and time against it. Truly, it is one of God's miracles that he ever survived such a fall."
Understanding brings attendant relief for Jack. Of course, Stephen would agree to help the smuggler in such a cause, where the welfare of a child was concerned.
"I am truly sorry for your son's misfortune," Jacks says with heartfelt sympathy.
"Thank you, Captain," Black says, gratefully. "The doctor does seem to think there is cause to hope." He addresses himself to Stephen, seeking assurances.
"He has already survived the worst, and the young are more resilient than we give them credit for. With time and proper care, I am hopeful that he will once again be the happy, energetic boy he was."
Black swallows hard with an emotion Jack can only imagine. "Thank you, doctor." He runs a loving hand over the boy's head, smoothing his hair, before getting to his feet. "I have tried to provide for your needs, Captain. You will find clothes and toilet articles in your room. If you want for anything simply inform my butler Jessop, and he will get it for you."
Jack bows in acknowledgement.
"Will you wish to give him his medicine now?" Black asks Stephen.
"I did so earlier, but I will sit with him a little while to make certain it is sufficient and he is resting comfortably."
He nods. "I will see you both at dinner then."
Black takes his leave, and Stephen settles into the vacated chair at the boy's bedside. He pulls back the blankets and pushes up the boy's nightdress to check his bandages. Jack winces when he sees the angry black and blue marks covering the small body. Stephen readjusts the covers and wrings out a cloth in a basin on the night table. He wipes the feverish sweat from the boy's forehead, his touch light and careful, and Jack watches with a tight feeling in his throat, moved by his friend's gentle compassion for his young patient.
A notion strikes him then. "Are you thinking of the other boy when you tend this one? The one from the whaling ship, that we-- that I sent back. Do you wish to save this child to redeem yourself for failing the other? For how you believe I made you fail him? Because you should know, Stephen, I did make inquiries when we got back home, and Captain Kent has been good to his word. He has adopted the boy and given him the proper life he deserves."
"I made those same inquiries upon our return, Jack, and was greatly heartened by the news. Whatever I felt, whatever disagreement there was between us, has long since been settled. I think only of this boy now. I made the deal with his father because I would not sacrifice a child for his father's misdeeds. Nor would I have you sacrifice yourself in a vain attempt to rescue me from a situation in which I was in no actual danger."
He tilts his head. "You were always certain then, that I would come for you?"
Stephen smiles softly. "I am perhaps less certain that the sun will rise come the morrow."
When they join Josiah Black in the dining room for the evening meal, Jack quickly learns that the smuggler's fine taste in furnishing is equally matched by his epicurean appreciation for food. They are served a veritable feast--artichoke soup delicately laced with black truffles, two fish courses, saddle of mutton turned to perfection, such a bounty of fruits and cheeses and sweets that Jack cannot recall anything to rival it--and the prickly reserve he resolved to practice with their jailor cum host is tested not only by the splendor of the table, but by the liveliness of discussion.
Black proves himself remarkably knowledgeable on a wide variety of subjects for someone of the criminal persuasion. He and Stephen compare notes on their respective journeys to the Galapagos and all the marvels they observed there, while he and Jack trade anecdotes of their rather more raucous adventures in Rio. They all find a shared preference for Coleridge over Byron, and Black recites stanzas from the volume most recently published, his pronunciation expressive and pleasing.
After dinner, they repair to the drawing room for cigars and brandy, and Black addresses himself to Jack, "Captain Aubrey, Dr. Maturin has been good enough to indulge my musical vanity these past evenings. I hope it will not inconvenience you too greatly if I take a turn at the piano? My talent is modest, but my love of performing for a captive audience prodigious."
"Do not believe it, Jack. Mr. Black plays with great skill and feeling."
"I would be honored if you would favor us with a selection," Jack tells him.
Black settles at the piano, Jack and Stephen into comfortable chairs by the fire, and the music begins. Whatever Jack expected from the performance, it is certainly not Beethoven's Piano Sonata Number Eight, flawlessly executed, passionately conveyed. They listen enrapt until the last strains fade and then immediately besiege the pianist with pleas for more. Black obliges them with Mozart and Bach and Haydn. It is very late when they finally retire.
"Let me see you to your chamber," Black offers. He leads them down the hall and throws open the door to the same room in which Jack had awoken earlier in the day. "Here you are, Captain."
"I believe this is in fact Stephen's room," Jack says tactfully. "Those are his belongings, I am quite certain." He gestures toward the night table.
"Indeed. I thought it would be more to your comfort if you share. This way, you can see to your doctor's safety personally." He claps Jack on the back and has a hearty laugh. "Goodnight." He nods to each of them in turn and leaves.
Jack frowns. "Do you not find this a strange arrangement, Stephen?"
"He has an odd sense of humor, I think. Or perhaps it is simply easier this way to keep watch over us. We have been in closer quarters than this. Remember the time in Marrakech?"
Jack laughs. A misunderstanding with the local constabulary had landed them in jail, in a cell not as commodious as most broom closets, with only one narrow straw pallet between them.
"It shouldn't be awkward for us, should it, joy?" Stephen asks, almost hesitantly.
Jack smiles. "As long as there are no rats the size of small horses as there were in Marrakech I think we shall be most comfortable."
Stephen laughs. They change into their nightclothes and turn in for the night. It has been a long, eventful day for Jack, and he is barely conscious of the pillow beneath his head before he is insensible to everything.
Their days on the island soon fall into a regular pattern. They rise early, breakfast, and Stephen goes to tend his patient. Josiah Black has hired a veritable army of nurses to assist him, but even in the times when Stephen's presence is not required at the bedside, he prefers to stay close enough at hand that he can respond at once should there be any sudden deterioration in the boy's condition. Josiah Black has graciously put the library at his disposal, and Stephen spends many contented hours there reading.
"I am quite certain I have never seen such an impressive collection in my life," he tells Jack. "Not only in the sheer number of volumes, but in the broad range of topics covered. Simply remarkable."
Jack joins him in the library the first few days after his arrival. He peruses volumes of naval history and pastoral poetry. Still, he is not a man formed for study, and by mid-morning, he is restless and in need of a more active occupation. Josiah Black takes pity on him and extends the use of his stables.
It is not often that Jack has the pleasure of spending time on horseback, and he devotes hours to riding, travailing the island in its entirety. At first, this if for tactical purposes, to survey the geography and see for himself if there is not some way off the island contrary to their host's assurances otherwise. It is a fanciful pursuit at best, since he knows in his heart that Stephen will refuse to go before the boy is out of danger and he himself will not leave without Stephen. When his reconnoitering confirms all of Josiah Black's claims, he gives up the thought of escape and spends his rides admiring the scenery, enjoying the rush of wind in his face as he urges his steed into a canter, savoring the illusion of liberty if the real thing is to be denied him.
In the afternoons, Black invites him out onto the veranda for refreshment, and they inevitably fall into heated discussion. Jack marvels that a man can be so well informed and yet hold the most insupportable opinions on every conceivable political subject, from the Irish question to the Corn Laws. His rather epic disagreements with Stephen seem almost mild by comparison.
Becoming better acquainted with Josiah Black's character and habits does serve to convince Jack that the smuggler will honor his end of their bargain just so long as they honor theirs. Assured of their safety, the days pass comfortably enough. It adds to everyone's peace of mind that Stephen is able to report exceptional progress in the boy's condition. He is awake now for longer and longer periods of time, able to move his legs and recognize his papa.
"All our hopes for recovery are being realized," Stephen tells them with great satisfaction.
May drifts into June, and the full burnish of summer brings an even greater lushness to the island. Hibiscus and oleanders flower in the garden. Flocks of terns and sandpipers take flight in elegant arcs across the sky. So idyllic are the days it is difficult to accept that they are real and not the product of some master artist's epic imagination. If not for the nights and the turmoil they brew, Jack would be perfectly easy of mind.
Maybe it is the loneliness his life at sea has bred in him or the comfortable familiarity of his dearest friend that causes his body to seek out the consolation of touch during his sleep, but each morning he awakes more intimately entwined with Stephen than the last. His friend never seems to think anything of it, just matter-of-factly disentangles himself and yawns good morning as he goes off to wash at the basin.
Jack has resolved to treat the subject with similar lightness, to banish from memory the sensation of Stephen's weight pressed against him, the stir of his breath, tangle of their limbs. Despite his most determined efforts, though, there are moments of awareness in Stephen's presence that take him by surprise, flashes of how it felt when they were last lying together, and the sharp pang of longing he experiences in these moments leaves such an empty, aching place in his chest that is hard to dismiss it as nothing.
Still, the belief that he is alone in such feelings schools him to silence. It is only one afternoon, when he goes to look for Stephen in the library to relate a particularly spirited debate he has had with Josiah Black, that he begins to question this assessment.
He finds his friend immersed in a volume of natural history and cheerfully interrupts him. "You must hear what our host has to say of Boney."
"He speaks warmly of the Frenchman as a leader and military mind, casts him as a veritable hero, in fact."
"Such is the popular opinion in France, I believe."
"Black is no Frenchman! And it is insupportable that any Englishman, especially one who has had the obvious benefit of education, should find anything to admire about the French tyrant." He lets out his breath in exasperation.
Stephen does not even try to hide the smile this provokes in him. "I do believe you have a grudging admiration for our host. Otherwise, his appreciation for your enemy's talents would not trouble you so."
"Nonsense. Black is a scoundrel and a criminal. If I ever encountered him on the seas, I would be duty-bound to take him into custody."
"For running rum and depriving his Majesty's coffers of a few more crowns, while those who traffic in human flesh are left unharassed just so long as they pay their fair share in taxes."
"There are times when I fear you have no regard for the law at all, Stephen."
Stephen fixes him with a look, his expression most grave. "There are some laws that do not merit respect. I will not pretend to pay them a regard they do not deserve."
The seriousness of his tone suggests that it is no longer Josiah Black he is speaking of, but something else entirely, something of a far greater personal interest. They hold one another's gaze, and it is a moment of import, when questions might be asked, declarations made, but they both remain silent and the moment slips away.
Stephen glances back down at the page of his book. "Perhaps if I am lucky, Mr. Black will favor us with a reprise of his opinions on the French general this evening at dinner. I should be most interested to hear what he has to say on the subject."
Jack considers how he might call back the conversation, reclaim that lost moment, but he is not so certain of the interpretation he has put on Stephen's word to risk giving offense. He settles for simply replying, "Indeed." And wishes it were so much more.
By the time a month has gone by, young William Black has recovered sufficiently to spend his days sitting up in bed, so well mended that the greatest challenge now is to keep him entertained. They all take turns in this service--his father giving the boy daily lessons at chess, Jack recounting the thrilling victories of Admiral Nelson and his own personal acquaintance with the great man, and Stephen, perhaps best able to capture the boy's imagination, bringing in specimens from the out-of-doors, a branch from a flowering bush one day, a jar of brilliantly colored butterflies another, showing him how to observe with a scientist's attention to detail.
Stephen has resolved not to leave until the boy is walking, and Jack has given no argument. They have seen the matter though this far. It would not do to leave before it is finished. If there is any more self-interested reason for his assent to remaining on the island, he prefers not to dwell on it.
Now that the boy is out of danger, Stephen is at greater liberty to stray from the house, and Jack goes with him as he takes his turn exploring the island. They revisit all the same places that Jack's ramblings have taken him before, and yet it is as if everything is new, seeing it through his friend's eyes.
By an overturned tree stump, Stephen spots a lizard the color of spring grass, eyes like bright red jewels and puts a finger to his lips to warn Jack against making noise that might startle it away. He carefully uncaps one of the specimen jars he has brought along for just such purpose, moves with silent stealth and springs, managing to capture the lizard with the sureness of much practice.
"There," Stephens says with evident satisfaction, holding up the jar for Jack to admire. "William will be most pleased with this, do you not think?"
"Indeed," Jack agrees. He can well picture the look of delight on the boy's face when he lays eyes on this latest prize. "You should have a family of your own," he says with quiet conviction. "You would make a fine father."
Stephen looks thoughtfully into the distance. "A nature such as mine does not lend itself to that manner of domestic happiness, I think."
Jack watches his friend closely, and this time, feels certain of his meaning, although he remains at a loss to know what to do with such information.
The days burn hotter as summer comes full on, and Jack and Stephen forego their daily walks in favor of the more indolent pleasures of the seaside. Jessop provides them with fishing tackle and a picnic lunch. They try their hand at catching perch in the morning and at midday eat their sandwiches in the shade of palm trees. In the afternoon, they give up even the pretense of useful occupation and loll on the sand, bathing under the white-gold sun.
When the heat grows too intense, Jack stirs at last. "The water looks inviting, does it not?" he murmurs to Stephen.
"It does indeed," Stephen concurs.
They skim out of their clothes and cut through the waves with sure strokes. It is not the first time they have been swimming together, certainly not the first time Jack has been privy to the sight of Stephen's body, but never before has either been accompanied by the coiled heat that now burns low in his belly.
The water is a clear window, giving them a view into the world beneath, the colorful fish and swaying sea plants and shells that line the sandy bottom. Some playful impulse comes over Stephen, and he catches Jack unawares as he observes a seahorse, coming in close to splash him before beating a hasty retreat. A surprise attack at sea is not to be taken lightly, and Jack gives chase, sending Stephen dunking under the waves when he lays hands on him. The hostilities escalate from there, and they are soon clenched together, laughing as each tries to gain some advantage and force the other beneath the surf.
Jack is not even certain who goes still with awareness first, himself or Stephen, but in an instant, playfulness is gone, replaced by the hard press of desire. Their gazes lock, intent and questioning, need simmering in the air between them.
It is Stephen who breaks the spell, lowering his eyes, taking a step back. "Perhaps we should return to the house. The sun is at a low meridian, and dinner cannot be so far away. It would be most impolite to keep our host waiting."
He makes his way back to the beach and begins to dress. Jack lingers in the water just a little longer, not yet ready to return to the hard shore where Stephen seems so hopelessly far away.
That evening, the breeze shifts direction, blowing out from land to sea, and the house begins to swelter. After dinner, they take their brandy on the veranda instead of the stifling drawing room, although the outdoors offers little relief.
"This generally does not happen until later in the season," Black says in a tone of apology, making a halfhearted effort to fan himself with his napkin. "I should not think it will last very long, though."
"Indeed," Jack says with as much optimism as he can muster. "The wind is most changeable at this time of year."
"Jack is quite knowledgeable in such matters," Stephen says.
"Hopefully, your words will prove prophetic then, Captain." Black stirs languidly. "Forgive me for failing in my duties as host, but I fear I shall have to retire early this evening. The heat robs me of my strength."
Jack and Stephen both offer assurances that they are perfectly contented, and Black rises, bidding them goodnight.
They smoke and savor the last of their brandy in companionable quiet. When both are done, there is a moment of indecision, and it is Jack who suggests, "Would it not be wise if we also retire?"
"No doubt," Stephen agrees.
In their room, they change for bed and lie down, but the lingering scorch of the day does not make for easy rest. The nightshirt Jack wears is simple cotton, but on such a night as this, even the lightest clothing feels as unwelcome to the skin as a woolen blanket. He shifts position, trying not to think of the heat, hoping his restlessness will not disturb Stephen.
But Stephen, apparently, cannot sleep either. "Does it not seem sensible that we should do what we can to make this heat bearable?"
"It does," Jack answers, his heart already beating too hard within his chest.
Stephen slips from the bed, pulls his nightshirt up over his head and neatly folds it on a nearby chair. When he returns, Jack has dispensed with his own garment, and they lie with the sheet throw back, letting whatever stray breeze may come their way waft over bare skin.
Not even in the midst of raging battle have Jack's senses ever been so alive, registering even the most minute details: the rush of Stephen's breath, the heat of his skin, his scent as wholesome as the sun and the sea. Jack's sex stirs, and this time he cannot be content to let the moment pass him by.
There are words--ugly descriptions--he could put to what he is about to do, but they might cause him to retreat, and words have never seemed more dispensable. He turns on his side and Stephen does, and Jack lets the ache in his body drive him forward. The first touch of their lips is more discovery than passion, light and tentative, finding their way in unexplored territory. Whatever sense of unfamiliarity there is vanishes soon enough though, because this is affection, and that is nothing alien between them. The lightness of their first kisses quickly gives way to demand, to hunger, leaving them both gasping and shuddering with the desire for more, as if there can never be enough now that they have tasted of each other.
Jack is a man trained to conquest, to possession, but when he rolls on top of Stephen, it is not with any desire to dominate. Stephen's body is solid beneath his, hard angle of bone, firm press of muscle, and touching him is so very different from any previous pleasure Jack has experienced, a thought that does not make him hesitate, only to wonder why he has waited so long.
He moves against Stephen, and Stephen gasps, "Jack!"
Jack instantly stills, lest this be an injunction to stop rather than an expression of ecstasy. He searches Stephen's face for permission to continue. Though the moonlight is bright, Stephen's features are half obscured by shadows, and yet, Jack can make him out more clearly than he ever has before. He sees that Stephen's waiting has gone on far longer than his own, understands now the casual wounds he has inflicted on his friend over the likes of Kitty Hamilton. He knows with utter certainty that Stephen would never have pressed him, that they would not be engaged as they are if he himself had not been the one to urge them on.
"Oh, Stephen. Stephen," he whispers.
His friend places a light finger to his lips. "Shh, joy. We are a world apart. Nothing can touch us here. Nothing else matters."
"Yes," he declares, pressing kisses to the sweet curve of Stephen's neck.
Their bodies begin to move again in sensual abandon, skin to skin, and the heat that seemed so unendurable before only serves to feed their desires now that it is something created between them.
Stephen's fingers dig in at his shoulder, at his hip, and Jack cups his face in his hand, kissing him deeply as their mutual pleasure builds to trembling crescendo. When they reach their fulfillment, it is with words of devotion on their lips.
Afterwards, they lie in each other's arms, weak with satisfaction, and Jack drifts off to sleep, Stephen's sweet weight pressed to his side lending comfort to his dreams.
Come the next morning, though, their delight is not so mutual as it had been the night before.
Stephen jolts awake, and when Jack reaches for him, he slides from the bed, pacing uneasily at its side, running a hand through his hair. "I fear we have rather gravely overstepped the bounds of propriety."
"Stephen--" Jack means to call him back to bed, but Stephen will not hear him out.
"It is not so heavy a matter for me, perhaps, but for a man in your position, Jack, I fear--"
"Stephen." The firmness of his voice at last halts his friend's nervous pacing. "Come here."
Stephen obliges, after some brief hesitation, and Jack pulls him down onto the bed and plies him with kisses until the tension at last drains from his body. "We are a world apart, remember?"
"But that will not always be the case."
Jack silences doubt with a kiss. "Then we should wait until that time comes before worrying ourselves." He brushes his lips along Stephen's neck and down to his chest, making him shiver.
"I begin to see the advantage of such a philosophy," he says, his breath coming in increasingly uneven gasps.
Jack laughs. "Let us delay going down to breakfast, and I will see if I cannot give you further evidence of its benefits."
Now that their stay on the island is winding to a close, the days pass too quickly, although the passage of time does bring some rewards. After close to two months as an invalid, William is at last well enough to rise from his bed and take a few unsteady steps on thin, trembling legs.
"Wonderful!" Stephen praises him. "But that is enough for one day. Your strength must be allowed to return slowly."
Indeed, the boy's face is pinched with exhaustion by the time he regains his bed, but his eyes sparkle with anticipation.
"It should not be long now, should it, Doctor Maturin? Until I am completely well once more."
Stephen ruffles his hair affectionately. "It will not be long at all, William."
He and Jack exchange a glance at that. They do not have to speak the words to know what this means for them.
They make the best advantage of the days they have left, retiring earlier than is usual in the evenings. Perhaps their host's smile has a hint of knowledge it in when he bids them goodnight, but there is no judgment in his eyes, and even if there were, Jack is not so certain it would alter his determination to have Stephen to himself.
The moment they are inside their room and the door is closed, Jack sets on him, pushing him back against the wall, pulling at his clothes.
"Jack!" Stephen moans, and they are both quickly lost to their desires.
Each night, they explore greater intimacies. If anyone had ever dared to suggest that Jack would enjoy the feeling of another man's shaft on his tongue, the taste of his completion in his mouth, he would have taken it as an insult to honor and demanded satisfaction. To his surprise, there is nothing that he does with Stephen that makes him feel weak or less of a man, not even the ultimate act, which Stephen allows him first and he returns with an initial trepidation that is quickly replaced by ecstasy.
William continues his rapid progress, his legs soon growing steadier, his endurance greater. He walks across the room into his father's waiting arms one day and down the stairs to the drawing room the next. The day he comes charging across the lawn to show Stephen a dragonfly he has collected himself, they both know there can be no more excuse for delaying their departure.
Josiah Black gives no argument when they announce their intention to leave. He simply bows. "You have kept your end of our bargain better than I even dared to hope, Dr. Maturin. You have earned my enduring gratitude." He turns to Jack and smiles. "And you, Captain Aubrey, have been a far more valuable guest than I would have expected from a naval officer."
Jack returns the bow with a smile of his own. "And you, Mr. Black, are a surprisingly genial host for a criminal."
On the day they are to leave, both the elder and younger Black see them down to the dock. William clings to them both and wishes in a teary voice that they didn't have to go.
"There, there now," his father tells him, stroking the top of his head. "Where have your manners gone? You must wish Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin a good journey."
"Good journey," he says dutifully, even as he continues to sniffle.
The servants load their baggage into the dingy that will take them out to a larger ship standing at the ready to return them to Spanish Town. Stephen is first into the boat, and as Jack is about to follow, Josiah Black puts a hand on his elbow.
He says quietly enough that only Jack can hear him. "Bear this in mind, Captain, should you ever feel the temptation to inform your comrades of the location of this place. So long as my secret remains safe so shall yours."
He smiles, stands back to let Jack pass, and waves as they depart from the dock. Jack casts a last sarcastic glance in the smuggler's direction, finding himself unwittingly locked into a devil's deal of his own.
They board the ship, and the vessel's captain sets sail. He and Stephen stand at the rail and watch the island recede into the distance. They do not speak, fearing the ears of the crew, or perhaps simply because it is not necessary. There will be many questions about how to proceed, risks that must be foreseen and planned for, but they will find those answers together. Of that, they can both be certain.