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Vent de Boulet

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"He has been taken."

Jack sat at the desk in the Lively's cabin, examining the crumpled and torn note.

He knew what it said -- the illegible requests, the lines of figures, the desperate Dear J salutation -- but they smeared and smudged before his eyes, blurred as though dipped in water, slipping from the paper to leave it blank and barren.

"He has been tortured," came Maragall's implacable voice, though Jack was alone in his cabin.

And then suddenly he was not, he was in the commandant's house in Port Mahon. In the room where they had found Stephen, the very same, but this Stephen was far bloodier, his wounds far deeper, his eyes blank and empty -- too late, he had been too late, and now Stephen was--

Jack shot awake in his cot, nearly colliding with the swaying lantern above him.

He twisted for a moment, his cot swinging violently, until he found his bearings and lay back. The Surprise. Not the Lively, but his own dear Surprise. Not Port Mahon but Scilly, barely two days out from Portsmouth.

With Stephen sleeping in the gunroom, one deck below.

All's well, all's well, he told his racing heart. But he still felt roused, as if a fierce action was just ending. He knew the feeling and knew sleep would be long in coming again. Pulling on his greatcoat he went up on deck.

It was a fine clear night, with a westerly breeze sending a bit of chill across the deck. Courses struck, tops'ls and t'gallants drawing nicely. Were they truly headed for a battle, he might ask the helm to fall off just a touch, but they were in no rush and in friendly waters. The quiet nighttime life of the ship murmured around him -- the creaking of rigging, the rhythmic wash of the sea against her sides, a faint click as the block for the mizzen topmast backstay gently touched the rail.

The white bow wave was shining brightly with phosphorescence and Jack's heart warmed to see it. A learned gentlemen believed it may come from absurdly small animaculae, as Stephen once attempted to tell him --

Stephen. The thought set his pulse alight once more with the memory of the dream -- surely it was a dream? They had retrieved Stephen from the bowels of hell, he was sure of it -- but was that not the fantasy? He had seen Stephen so little during their brief sojourn ashore, much of it spent in the sponging-house and then in frantic preparations to put to sea. But no, he remembered unstrapping Stephen from the table, he remembered carrying Stephen to the docks -- carrying him on the shutter that usually carried corpses, Stephen's eyes staring up at the sky in such peace --

He swayed, though the ship was rolling far too gently for that. He felt more than saw the officer of the watch step towards him in concern; he straightened and put his hands behind his back, affecting a pose of self-possession. He nodded to Pullings and went below at a sedate pace.

As Jack entered the coach, Stephen's voice came:

"Is there trouble?"

Jack nearly leapt out of his skin. Stephen was sitting at Jack's narrow table, where he'd obviously been smoking and reading. Alive! Of course alive, they had played a duet that very evening after a splendid dinner. Stephen had asked Jack's leave to remain, as the gunroom had not yet finished its evening exuberance, and Jack had retired early in anticipation of raising Brest at dawn. He knew that it all quite clearly. What a cracked and vicious trick his mind had played upon him.

"My dear, are you quite well?" Stephen had put the book aside and was peering at him with attention. He still looked too dreadfully thin -- he was refusing to take the possets Sophie had sent with him, Jack was sure -- but his hands were recovered enough to hold a book without pain. Jack must have passed him on his way on deck, what a bloody fool he was.

"Yes. Yes, do forgive me, Stephen, I merely wished to..." he had not thought of an excuse. "To breathe the air on deck."

"There is no battle? Come, sit, and have a glass of wine. You seem roused, your color is far too high for this hour of night."

How like Stephen, to think a battle may have quietly broken out without his noticing. Fondness swelled in Jack's bosom; to think he could have lost -- but no.

It was shameful, it was absurd -- Jack brushed a hot tear roughly from his cheek. Tears, for all love. What was the matter with him? He had been at sea nearly all his life and at war for most of that time, he had seen far worse bloodshed than the paltry few tablespoons in that thrice-damned infernal butcher shop.

"Drink this, for all love, and tell me what is the matter." A glass of port appeared at Jack's elbow and he drank it gratefully.

Stephen was watching him now with a doctor's attention. "Are you ill? Let me see your tongue."

"My tongue is quite all right, Stephen, as is the rest of me. It was only..." he found himself without the words.

"I'm glad to hear it, joy," Stephen said, sitting back. "So that was went sent you shooting from your cabin as if it had caught fire. A dream, I take it? Of an unpleasant tenure? I have some familiarity with the varying schools of thought regarding dreams. The Greeks of course considered dreams to come from the gods, to be healing or prophetic, while in India--"

"By God, it was as if I were back in Port Mahon, by some miracle of God or the Devil," Jack said, dreadfully rude but unwilling to listen to a discourse on Indian philosophy in his current state of unrest. "I saw it as plain as I see you now. When I woke, I could hardly believe I was not there."

He poured himself another glass of port, willing it more than allowing it to bring calm to his body and to his heart. "I could hardly believe you had not died there."

Ah, Stephen thought, there it is. Vent de boulet. He had read Pinel, of course, and the various treatises on this specific melancholia prone to soldiers -- not a reaction to injury, as one might surmise, but a reaction to the nearness of death, the whistle of a cannonball as it passes one's head. The touch of death upon a companion, Pinel had observed, may yield effects equal in intensity, a curious referral of danger.

Stephen had felt the twinges himself, watching Jack fling himself into one ridiculous and violent situation after another, fierce and unflinching, while Stephen sewed half-dead men back together and wondered if the next sailor in the sawdust would be Jack. He'd sewn Jack back together himself, many a time; the feel of Jack's blood on his hands was familiar but had lost none of its horror.

A slight shuffle caught Stephen's attention. Jack had stood and moved away, back towards his cabin as if in retreat.

Stephen, with a start, came back to himself. "Do forgive me, soul, I was lost in... I should say, I was recalling similar events of my own experience."

To Stephen's surprise, Jack's face did not lose its shamed and hunted cast. Instead it merely transformed its grief into horror, more shame, deep apology.

"Oh Stephen, I should have thought -- I should not have burdened you with this. You should never be reminded of that -- that Inquisitional chamber, not ever for a moment. Let it pass, it was only a dream. Pray forgive me."

Stephen sensed a shifting of ground beneath his feet -- metaphorically, of course, though the wood of the deck beneath him did rock gently. Jack was drawing away, hoping to conceal his heartache as he would conceal a splinter he did not want pulled. And why, because he thought Stephen too damaged to tend any wound not his own?

"No, for the love of God, no more of your cossetting!" Stephen cried. "I was there as well, Jack, I should not ever forget. But it does not weigh on my mind nor oppress my dreams. You have done me no harm and if you ever again treat me like a silk-wearing faint-hearted milksop too dainty to hear a tale of sharp action, I shall -- I shall hurl your violin at your head."

That coaxed a sickly shadow of Jack's usual booming laugh from him. "But not your cello, I beg of you my dear."

"Only if you continue to be so utterly ridiculous. In any case, I did not refer to that Unfortunate Incident when I mentioned my familiarity with your situation. No indeed. I have not dreamed since my return to England, but in Spain my sleep was troubled heartily."

Jack returned to his seat, confusion and concern now dominating his plain, open face. "But whatever for? We thrashed the Spanish at our last engagement, came home with three prizes at our tail and hardly a scratch on the Lively. You did not suffer some secret injury?"

"No. But you did, at Chaulieu." Even now the memory was difficult to dwell upon. He had watched Jack launch himself once again into danger, this time with bitter words between them. He had waited for long hours with the thought that Jack should die thinking them enemies, that Jack should die believing Stephen would have welcomed it, that Jack should die, that Jack should die.

Then Jack returned, bloodied and barely standing, collapsing upon the deck of the Polychrest as if to taunt Stephen with the cruel possibility of forgiveness, swiftly drawn away. Stephen had sat at his bedside -- had wept -- had prayed to the Holy Mother and all the saints of healing. Through the grace of some angel Jack had lived and had forgiven Stephen, but Stephen carried with him the sure and certain knowledge that it was not due to any skills or deserts of his own.

He voiced aloud the less painful aftermath. "It had been so long, you away on the blockade and myself at work in Catalonia. I would -- I would wake at the small hours of the night, convinced that you had indeed died at Chaulieu, that I had lost something more precious to me than -- " with that his throat closed, despite all the self-mastery Stephen could bring to bear.

"Oh, Stephen," Jack said, appalled. "It would take more than a shallow cut off a cheap French saber to put an end to me! Or a knock on the head for that matter. To put yourself to all this worry, really, it is absurd."

"I may make an accusation in your direction as well, my dear," Stephen said with a smile in his croaking voice. "I am alive and if not unharmed, I am improving by the day. You saved my life, Jack. A peaceful night's sleep is the least of what I would wish to give you, if I could. Give me your hand."

Jack held out his hand, meek as he always was beneath Stephen's medicinal officiousness. Stephen took it, turned it over, felt his pulse, examined the color and quality of his nails and the warm, rough skin of his palm. Hearty as always, despite his abrupt awakening -- Jack at sea held a natural vitality that warmed Stephen's own cold and aching fibres.

Stephen turned Jack's hand back over and clasped it, hoping to impart some of his own solidity in return. "Come, we are both alive! It is a fine night. I dare say our mainsails are full, the wind is at our back, we have the weather-gauge! Or some other nautical augury of good fortune, I'm sure."

"You will find the wind on our starboard beam, I believe, and the sails--" Jack broke off. "Of course, Stephen. And the watch is changing; dawn will be breaking before long. Shall we have a duet, do you think? After breakfast, of course."

"With all my heart."

~~~~~