The grumbling awareness of Stephen's discontent behind the bulkhead was at first a prop to Jack's anger. He considered that he was entirely in the right, and besides that entirely in command; and it suited him to let Stephen dwell on it. The exuberance of the gunroom bolstered him in a pleasing confirmation of his own convictions.
The wind was good, the Acheron was full in their sights, an achievable goal instead of a fantasy or a phantasm. Stephen's grumbling mood had abated into a stubborn withdrawal that Jack found he could bear very easily, when the sea and the men were falling in line.
The thrill of the hunt could be a damnable thing in man.
Blood up, chase on, of course Mr Howard was full eager to find something to shoot. And Stephen, deprived of his pretty birds, his swimming lizards, clambering about the ship like an ape –
Jack was moving before Stephen had hit the deck, the connection between them sharp with pain and bright with surprise. Stephen's blood was hot over Jack's hands, and his body heavy- Stephen was always heavy, oddly so, made him sink in the water like a lead sounding- and he rolled his head back, looking for Jack's face, while Jack gave him what smiles he could, and Higgins and Padeen bustled around them.
Stephen's soul spoke as his lips did, honest and evasive by turns. Imprecations, assessments, frustration, distorted images of wound and surgery beat in a flurry of winged thoughts between them- and then, as the first jolting impact gave way to the deeper, bodily shock of injury, Stephen seemed to pull further into himself, and grew increasing quiet.
Jack misliked the quiet intensely.
For Jack, Stephen's soul sounded as a low note, a cello's base line, a beating heart. He heard it first at the breakfast table in Port Mahon, and thought it then something in the city itself, a welcome strangeness that accented his pleasure in being made captain of his own command. He had laughed under the gaze of Stephen's strange pale eyes, and basked in happiness, and invited a stranger to share his bunk and be his surgeon on the strength of a good meal and a feeling.
Jack Aubrey had grown up at sea. He could feel the wind, and the lee shore, and he knew when the sails had caught full and the currents were in his favor. And watching his odd new friend attempting to secrete a meat-filled handkerchief in his coat pocket, he felt nothing but happy. The world had righted itself.
He didn't know how Stephen thought of them, exactly what that scientific mind made of the connection of souls. There was no need to speak of what was so clear, so very present- save once, in the darkness, when Stephen had lain in Jack's arms. It was in the wake of Port Mahon, that last time, and Stephen's capture; when that city of music and bright mornings and agreeable company had become a hell of locked doors and stretched racks. "I heard the waves. I knew it for dreaming, since we were far enough inland. But I can hear it still. Water music, Jack, my dear. So beautiful. Do you hear it?" And Jack had murmured his assent, though he heard instead Stephen's heavy, beating spirit.
And now Jack sat up again, though his arms were empty. The cabin ached around him, Stephen's cello too silent against his chair, the deep harmony note of him in Jack's soul more quiet still.
He had met his orders. He had exceeded them. There would be other chances, and other prizes.
There was no other brother, no other soul but Stephen.
The heartbeat of him seemed to steady the moment they stepped foot on solid ground. Was it cruel to keep so landed a creature at sea? Was it cruel for God to make them so matched, and so different? Jack could not wish it otherwise.
It was hard, so hard to see Stephen hurt, and almost worse still to watch him so steady, to feel that steadiness, despite the pain, down to the soul. Jack kept his hand on Stephen's belly, though the twist of metal seemed to reach inside his own guts.
But it was clear. Out. Stephen would be well.
And in truth there was no hardship in taking a week to reprovision what they could, or to take on fresh water. Landfall was welcome to all of them, after so long shipboard- but none so much as Stephen! He was a different creature on land, under the sun, as though he would soak up every ray of it to heal. Wandering afield brought him so much pleasure despite the pain, how could Jack gainsay him? And with such result!
Exultant, Jack caught Stephen up where he stumbled, ungainly, down from Padeen's back, and engulfed him. "I stand corrected entirely, my dear, you've found a wondrous specimen indeed. Shall you be well enough to help us put a pin through it?"
Stephen's laugh was a creaky, unpolished thing. "I shall do well enough. Go to your hunting."
And Jack did so with full joy in it. How perfect a stroke, to be a phasmid! How very perfect indeed, Stephen's creatures were to be prized, Stephen was to be prized, Stephen was well and the Acheron was in sight, and Surprise's guns were true. No phantoms now, no devils, no Jonahs, Jack could feel the wind full in his favor, and the conviction had spread through all the Surprise, to a man.
It was joy indeed to return to his cabin at close of day and find it inhabited, to find long, weary fingers unlimbering themselves in low notes that blended with the song inside Jack, hovering and vibrating low behind his ribs. Jack breathed it in, felt the pleasant familiar dissonance of it against the roll of the ship.
Jack reached for his violin, chasing that thought. "Do you know, brother, you said once that I sounded like the sea. Do you think it likely you might be mixing things up?"
Stephen's look of enquiry held just enough of a glare as to make Jack grin. There was a joke in it, he was sure. Let it sit, he'd find the thing out- but what a thought, that Stephen was so poor a judge of the water because he was paying attention to a different ocean-soul entirely.
Jack patted Stephen's knee, and raised his violin happily as Stephen huffed and reached for his bow. The music was there, and they would play, and the world was as it should be.