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In the Doldrums

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In the Doldrums, every day was the same.

Jack would never have minded so much, if these repeated days were days of success— hope— progress. Of course, if there were any progress, it wouldn't be the Doldrums, would it?

He stood glowering on the quarterdeck, by the weather-rail. Though without any weather at all, with the smallest scraper of a skysail left hanging limp, how could there even be a weather side and a lee side, damn it all? He was far too well-schooled to sigh aloud, at least within earshot of the crew. But God help him, this time it was a near thing.

The biscuit and dried peas still held out; the salt pork, moderately; the beef was down to sour old casks from the depths of the hold that had men grumbling with bellyache and Stephen giving him many meaningful looks. Not enough flour for plum duff of a Sunday, which boded ill. The rum well enough for now, despite Stephen swearing he would give it all for a single net of lemons.

The water was still all right, thank the Lord from whom all blessings and so forth. Rations were reduced, but nothing yet dangerous, and the casks were fresh enough that he did not have to hear lengthy commentaries from Stephen about the breeding grounds of waterbourne amoebae.

See, there, his mind still and always on Stephen. Stephen, entering the great cabin with his sleeves hanging loose and his breeches undone at the knee, perspiration dewing his face and throat, to announce the possible forewhisperings of scurvy in the gums of his oldest sickbay patient. And Jack, backed into a corner in his own ship, eventually forced to ask, what more could he do, was he a bloody sorcerer?

In the Doldrums, they argued.

"Jack?" said Stephen behind him.

He braced himself and turned, dreading another row, wishing there were something he could do. Anything. Could he have turned his fiddle into wind and both epaulettes into lemons, by now he would have done so, and laid it all in Stephen's lap.

Stephen, however, said nothing: no peroration, no tale of the latest case in his sickbay. He only looked long into Jack's face, quiet and solemn and even sad.

At last, he spoke. "I would like permission to take out my little boat, if you will allow it."

He never could learn to call a skiff a skiff, but Jack had known that about him for a long time now. "Of course," he answered, sounding more formal than he wished. "Bonden can go with you and man the oars." He leaned slightly to the side and bellowed past Stephen, "Pass the word for Bonden!"

"Thank you," said Stephen, a bit formal himself, subdued. And then: "But I had hoped you would come along instead."

Jack looked at him, at his face in shadow beneath his straw hat, his eyes pale and searching. It was on Jack's lips to refuse, to let Stephen have some time alone and away as he must be wanting, penned up in this bobbing prison hulk. But even as he opened his mouth to say so, his own expression must have changed, because Stephen's fine brows drew together—not in the sort of anger Jack had seen lately, but in a hesitant worry that was quite unlike him.

"Very well," Jack said instead, and was startled at himself.

Stephen could row his own skiff on ordinary days, when he wanted to capture and study his sea creatures and whatnot, especially when the skiff was fastened to the Surprise with a long line just in case.

But a ship in the Doldrums was nothing fit to row around—up close, she was surrounded by now with a veritable slick of refuse, oil, broken casks, let alone the waste from the head. No current to sweep it away; no wind to carry her past. She was only tolerable aboard, or at a good distance. Jack bent easily to the oars and swept the skiff clear.

Now they floated on the flat mirror of the sea, looking back at poor Surprise, becalmed, even crippled, like a broken-winged bird who must crouch there helpless.

Jack gazed at her, his heart sore and heavy.

"The water seems to be cooling," Stephen observed, one arm dipped in to the elbow. His lopsidedly-rolled sleeve was just brushing the surface, in danger of submersion itself. "Perhaps this is promising."

"Oh, yes," said Jack, though he no longer knew if he believed anything of the kind. He leaned on the oars.

"Cooler out here," continued Stephen, "and nowhere near as revolting. Fit for a swim, do you think?"

"I cannot swim today, Stephen. If the wind should pick up, I must be back aboard like lightning."

Stephen looked at him closely. "You mean you haven't the heart."

Jack shook his head, but he knew he couldn't match that certainty with his voice, so he kept silent.

And so, they floated. No swell to lift and lower them, no current nor ripples nor splashes. As if the sea itself did not know what to say.

Stephen stroked his hand through the water again. Twice, thrice, his hand long and wavering under the surface. His sleeve, drooping, was wet in a moment.

"Jack," he said, his eyes lowered. "I am afraid perhaps I shouted at you."

Given the way their last discussion had ended, Jack had to smile at the perhaps. "I'm not made of straw, you know, a loud voice ain't going to knock me down."

Stephen nodded slowly, still watching his hand moving in the sea. And Jack might have thought there would be an end of it, until Stephen suddenly looked up.

"You know I only shouted at you about it all because I knew God was not listening."

His eyes were sad again. Tired. Worst of all, there was no humour in his voice, no sidelong wry Irishness to the words or to the set of his mouth.

Jack wished he were not burdened with these oars, that he could put his arms around Stephen. More, he wished with painful intensity that they were back in the great cabin, 'cello in Stephen's hands, fiddle in his own, speaking with each other in the one way that had never failed them. Not even when Jack missed a dal segno and Stephen doubled back without him.

He breathed in, uncertain what he would say— and the skiff abruptly lifted and settled, as if on a single swell. Once, and no more.

"Wind?" asked Stephen, even he alert to the sign, when no one would ever call him a seaman.

"No," Jack said at once. Confirming his instant, instinctual knowledge, Surprise and her highest sails sat untouched.

Up the skiff went again, and down. As if the sea—this spot in the sea, only—breathed.

"Volcano?" Jack hazarded wildly; they had seen the results of an underwater eruption before, and he seized the oars, ready to rush back to the ship and put the men to the sweeps, whatever it took to get even a cable's length away.

The skiff had barely moved one stroke, however, before it rose again—and did not lower. The boat sat, slightly tilted, as if it had run aground.

Beneath them was a broad, black, wet expanse of...something. Something dark and gleaming and dotted with barnacles.

Jack was speechless. His tongue lay thick and dry in his mouth; he breathed with difficulty, as if through a wad of oakum. But Stephen looked around them with a huge and dawning delight.

"Oh!" he cried. "Just look at her! The beauty." And he leaned over the side, passing his fingertips along the scarred black back.

"Be careful!" Jack burst out.

But Stephen only smiled at him, a thing of wonder and joy that Jack had not seen since the Doldrums had claimed them. "And her little calf, Jack, look."

Jack followed his gesture to a nearby swirl in the sea, where a smaller bulk turned and rolled, casting a bright, curious eye up at them.

His heartbeat, though still rapid, steadied in his chest. And he even managed a smile of his own, watching Stephen drape himself nearly out of the skiff entire, patting and talking to the whale who held them so still.

But Jack did admit privately to a great relief when the creature's visit was done, and she sank from under them back down into the sea, her calf following along with a flip of its tail.

"Jack," Stephen said simply, his whole being alight, his entire shirt and waistcoat soaked with seawater and smears of whatever adhered to the skin of a great whale.

Jack let out a long whistling sigh, smiling at him.

And at the very top of the mainmast, the skysail fluttered, and began to fill.