The first time Stephen Maturin woke after the surgery, it was to pain and heat -- so acute that he thought his fever must have remained, though he had removed the bit of fabric that had festered in his abdomen. "Higgins?" he called into the darkness, thrashing on the tight cot. But he suspected that his call would go unheeded, for Higgins had likely gotten drunk in the aftermath of the procedure and would not be roused for hours.
Strong fingers descended upon Stephen's shoulder, and a cool cloth was stroked across his forehead and cheek. A moment later, he felt an arm slide behind his back to lift his head and offer him water. "Tell me what else you would have me do," whispered Jack Aubrey.
The unexpected voice in the night came to Stephen as if from a dream, and he did not wish to speak, and wake; nor could he fathom the sudden ache in his throat, which was surely unrelated to his wound. After he failed to reply, Jack lay him back onto the cot, continuing to brush the damp cloth over his face and neck, until the soothing rhythm overcame the throbbing pain and he slept.
When Stephen woke again, the sides of the tent glowed with the midday sun and quiet voices murmured nearby. "How many days?" he heard Jack's voice demand, then Higgins' stuttering attempts at a reply that would satisfy.
"I don't see how it could be less than a week, sir," young Blakeney interjected. Stephen turned to look at the boy beside him at the same moment as did the captain and surgeon's mate. How daring Blakeney was, Stephen thought, though truly he did not know why this should startle him, given the young midshipman's silent courage as he recovered from the loss of his arm.
Once the captain had noticed that Stephen was awake, however, the conversation was ended, and Jack moved swiftly to his side while the others ducked out of the tent. "How are you feeling?" he asked, touching Stephen's forehead. "They tell me that your fever is gone. Is there nothing that can lessen the pain?"
"The pain is not so very great," Stephen replied, shifting hesitantly to learn whether the stretch would belie his words and pleased to discover that the wound finally seemed to be mending. "Though these bandages need changing. Would you mind fetching Higgins back for me?"
"No, let me do this," Jack replied, drawing Stephen's sweat-soaked shirt away from his skin, and Stephen was more astonished than he had been when Blakeney spoke up to the captain. Though he had asked Jack to stay during the surgery for his own comfort, claiming that he needed another steady hand, Stephen had thought, upon catching a brief glimpse of his friend's face, that Jack might have toppled over at any moment.
Jack was not a faint-hearted man; as he had reminded Stephen before the incision, he had been around wounds all his life. He had helped the doctor bind bloody gashes, set broken bones, even force air into the lungs of a sailor drowning in his own vomit. And he had watched Stephen tend to Jack's own injuries, staring in fascination while Stephen sutured his skin. But watching the physician cut into his own flesh, Jack had looked ill.
"Do you do this out of guilt?" Stephen asked quietly as his friend swabbed away the dried blood on his skin. They had quarreled bitterly when Jack had denied him his promised sojourn in the Galapagos Islands, and indeed Stephen might not have been following an albatross about the deck, heedless of the damned fool marine trying to shoot it down, had he been able to study the flightless cormorants and swimming iguanas spotted from the ship.
Deprived of the harmony of their music and their friendship, Stephen had felt out of sorts well before the gunshot had shattered his intestines -- and, he suspected, Jack's heart, for he knew full well that Jack had broken off the search for the Acheron in order to bring him ashore and save his life.
"Of course not," replied Jack gruffly. "I am doing my duty for my ship's surgeon, for he has already done enough for himself."
Though the infection was clearing, the wound still stank of rot, and Stephen admired Jack's refusal to let it disturb him from a task he could so easily have given to another. "Thank you," he said humbly. Despite the heat, he shivered when Jack's fingers stuttered on his skin, caressing faintly before they returned to his bandages.
That night Stephen woke to music, a haunting air that filled the tent. By the light of a lantern, Jack was playing the violin, its strings singing sweetly and sadly. The Adagio had been written for a quartet, though the two of them often played it together. But without the cello, the violin's high notes sounded lonely.
"I wish I could play with you," Stephen said softly when the piece was finished, making Jack turn to him, and he was surprised to see tears glittering in his friend's eyes before the captain blinked them back and straightened, every inch Lucky Jack again. Carefully the violin and bow were placed against the bottom of the cot before Jack came to kneel at Stephen's side.
"We will play as soon as you are altogether well," Jack promised, clasping his hand. "I shall have your cello brought out."
"But surely, by then, we must be underway..." Stephen began. Jack silenced him with a squeeze of his fingers and a smile.
"Should you not be resting, Doctor?"
Evidently it was not a time for questions. Nodding, Stephen lay back, pressing gingerly at his side as Jack took up the violin and began to play a more cheerful tune. The pain was nearly gone, the makeshift surgical tent seemed transformed by the impromptu concert -- and Jack had brought him to the islands after all.