Phantom Pain

by gillianinoz

Off Morant Bay, Jamaica - February 3

My Dearest Sophie,

Well, we are nearing Port Royal at last, beating back in the teeth of the worst storm I have seen in these ten years or more. Most of the hands who could be spared were aloft in the cruelest of North Atlantic winds, removing the ice that forms in the rigging almost before ones eyes, and weighs the poor ship down so cruelly.

Never fear though, my dear. The Bonita is no Surprise, but she's no horrible old Leopard neither. She bore up well enough, considering the size of the blow, but in truth I won't be sorry to let her go to Jameson in Port Royal. I am more than satisfied with the Myron, and I am already itching to get on board and look her over.

It's odd to think, my dear, that Stephen will know her better than her new captain, by the time he has sailed in her from Venezuela. If it were any other man who had been at sea as many years as he has, I would ask her how she sails, what her knees are like, the quality of her crew. I might still ask, but I doubt I will get an answer that's in any way useful to me.

It's been a lonely voyage without old Stephen, I must say. Winter evenings where I fairly longed to make music, to play a hand of whist, or even listen to one of his lectures about narwhals or old world buzzards or some such thing. But I'm not sorry that we left him in Puerto Caballo, to take his ease another month and then sail in the Myron to meet us here. The weather in the North Atlantic at this time of the year would have been the very worst thing for him, still recovering from his illness, and his chest so weak and wheezy. It would have broken your heart to hear him cough, Sophie. You would have had him wrapped and cosseted and no doubt cured the minute you heard him.

Jack sat, his pen still poised, framing the next sentences in his head. He wanted to say again how much he had missed Stephen, more than he had ever imagined he would. It had been the longest voyage he had ever made without him, perhaps the longest time they had gone without seeing each other since the day they met, all those years ago at Port Mahon.

Jack also wanted to say how worried he had been for his friend when he had sailed away from Puerto Caballo without him. Stephen was the finest physician Jack had ever known, in his layman's opinion the finest doctor in the world, but he was most definitely that same world's worst patient. The moment he had begun recovering from his bout of illness he had been as crotchety as a bear, and just as likely to bite a man's hand off.

He had also been angry at being left onshore, expression mulish as Jack explained what a dull voyage it would be in his borrowed ship. Not the chance of an action, not an interesting bird or beast to be seen. That they probably wouldn't even make landfall.

No argument would convince him and Jack could still see his peevish face, skin still pale and much too thin as Stephen had bid him a cool goodbye. Jack would deny being a superstitious man with his last breath and he'd probably knock on wood while he did it. But all the same he had carried an uneasy feeling with him for months, all the more uneasy for the other concerns that were apt to awaken him in the dark of the night and set him to worrying.

Did the crew of the Myron understand that Dr Maturin needed a bosun's chair to ascend to the deck of a ship? Did they realise his head for heights existed only in his head? Did they know how very ill he had been, and that he needed to be kept warm, even through a mild Caribbean winter?

Jack shook his head and put his letter away, snorting at his own thoughts. What a worrier he had become in his old age! Stephen was a brilliant physician who had attended the Duke of Clarence on more than one occasion. He was a well respected member of the Royal Society and had lectured in front of learned men from all over the globe. A linguist, a duelist, a cunning spy. He could certainly take care of himself without Jack Aubrey looking over his shoulder. Stephen would have sailed on the Myron more than a month ago, and even now would be awaiting them in Port Royal, doubtless striding through damp forests and squatting in stinking swamps. No doubt as jolly as a sandboy.

888

Port Royal was bustling as usual, ships bobbing thickly in the harbour, decks swaying as the brisk wintry winds rocked the water below them. The Admiral's flagship cast out her pennants, Captain Report Aboard, and Jack left the Bonita in his lieutenant's hands and bid his bargemen row him across. Admiral Barrington greeted him warmly and congratulated him on coming through the storm in such good order.

"About time I had some good news," he said, pouring himself a stiff glass and offering the bottle to Jack. "Because I have damn bad news, Aubrey, about your next command. I suppose you've heard?"

Jack's heart sunk in his breast as he accepted the bottle. Not another promise broken he thought in dismay. He had so counted on command of the Myron.

"No, sir."

The Admiral took a gulp of his drink. "Went down with all hands off Orangetown. A bad business, Aubrey, a bad business. Captain Lindsay was my wife's cousin you know."

"Went down?" Jack repeated, unable to take it in for a moment. "Myron went down?"

"Foundered in that damnable storm, as did the Philomene, although at least Captain Morris got all his people off and into boats. I must say..." He broke off, looking alarmed. "By God, Aubrey, sit ye down, sit ye down." He rescued the bottle from Jack's grasp and deftly poured him a shot, wrapping Jack's hand around the thick-cut glass and guiding it to his lips.

"I do apologise," The Admiral said kindly. "What a scrub I am, breaking such news like that. You had kin aboard? Close friends."

"My particular friend," Jack said, gulping down the fiery liquid and hardly feeling the burn. "Dr Maturin. Dr Stephen Maturin."

"Ahh," the Admiral said, sitting himself back down. "Dr Maturin, 'pon my word. He helped me enormously back in '08, Aubrey. Dosed me with Peruvian bark and boneset when my own surgeon was still bleating about Ward's pill and James's powder. For a day or so after his dose I thought I would die and I was glad of it. Cursed him to hell and damnation thrice over. But by the second day I was feeling better, and by the third I was spry as a boy."

The Admiral's deliberate chatter gave Jack the chance to recover himself, to swallow his grief with the ease of long practice. "Thank you, sir," he said, laying the glass down on the desk with a careful hand.

"Go back to your ship, Aubrey, while it is still your ship. Get a meal into you and lay your head down for a few hours. All this..." He gestured to the papers and reports on his desk. "All this will wait."

"Thank you, sir," was all Jack could say again.

888

Bonden's anxious face looked up at him from the barge, taking in his Captain's face and shaking his head. "We just heard the news, sir, from the crew like. They're saying the storm blew nigh on three days down by Orangetown, and the old Myron, she didn't stand a chance."

Jack nodded, still unable to speak.

"I'm so sorry, sir," Bonden said sadly. "I esteemed the doctor greatly, as you know. We will miss him."

888

Miss him, Jack thought, days later, sitting in his usual room at Squires, shutters drawn and closed. Those words hardly seemed to sum up the hollow his insides had become. The blank, empty hollow.

Sometimes in the midst of a battle, so much was happening around him that his other senses shut down. Any sailor or soldier who had seen action would tell you how it was. How they had received a sword thrust or a musket ball during the battle that they had not felt until it was all over. How the body could shut out pain that was too great, while the mind was otherwise occupied.

Except no battle was raging with him in its center, solely responsible for the lives of his people and the safety of his ship. Indeed, his mind was perfectly calm and quiet. The room was perfectly calm and quiet, although outside in the street a dog was barking madly and someone was yelling for the bugger to shut up or he'd do him for good and all.

He was just... empty.

Jack had seen death before. As a Naval officer he'd seen men die by the score, not counting those killed by his own hands. He'd waded through blood on his decks, presided over the funerals of his crew, watched body after body sewn into their hammocks from fever or disease. Death was an old, constant companion.

A face flashed into Jack's mind, one he had scarcely thought of for years. His mother. Fair haired and blue eyed, years of fond recollection had softened her memory in his mind's eye, and now she was just a collection of images. White skin, gentle hands, a kiss on his dozing cheek. She had been the first person he had loved with all his heart, and she was the first person he had lost.

And since then? A handful of faces paraded past his closed eyes. Friends, shipmates, men who had been like brothers to him, packed as they were in the close confines between decks. People he had cared about, respected. Mourned.

But not loved. Not as he had loved his mother. Not as he had loved Stephen.

"Stephen," he said aloud in the empty room.

The emptiness had filled him for days now, as he walked through his duties giving orders for the handover of the Bonita to her new captain. He made arrangements for Bonden and Killick and a few hand-picked men to be put up in barracks down by the docks, although he could hardly justify taking any of his people with him, now that he no longer had a ship to take them to. Captain Jamison made no quibble; Jack could see his heart and mind were already taken up with his new ship, and when he did look at Captain Aubrey, it was with a trace of pity in his eyes.

Jack had a desk full of invitations from friends and old shipmates, but he chose to keep to his room, avoiding the sympathetic eyes, the low murmurs, the pats on his shoulder from friends and contemporaries. Or even worse, from those who didn't know him well enough to grasp his loss and commiserated with him instead on the loss of his new command, on the Myron.

Jack spent his days steadily drinking himself through the Squires' wine cellar, and at night he dreamt of shipwreck, of storm-tossed seas, of being submerged, ears pulsing with the dull beat of his own heart. In his nightmare Stephen was below him in the water, hair floating, eyes open in surprise, hand outstretched. Jack strained, stretched, struggled to reach him, then awoke, shivering, ice cold, but unable to weep.

Jack refused dinner from a curious maid servant, appetite still absent. His head hurt from wine, he felt weak and stupid as he squinted at his coat and shrugged into it. Perhaps he would take a walk, find a tavern, try getting drunk on something a little stronger.

There was a bulge in his coat pocket, and Jack fumbled with it, mind blank. He pulled out a rosin and stared, brow crinkling. Now he recalled - he had placed it in his pocket the morning the Bonita had sailed into Port Royal. He had smiled as he did it, fondly anticipating Stephen's usual harangue at finding that his rosin, (purchased from his own meager purse), had migrated to Jack's pocket during their last practice together.

'The same squalid tale,' Stephen would say and Jack could hear the words so clearly in his mind that his heart wrenched.

"Stephen," he whispered aloud again, and he pressed the old rosin to his cheek, it's acidic resin smell drawing forth a host of memories, bitter-sweet with grief. "I'm sorry, he said, voice choked, and then he was weeping at last, a flood of tears that melted the icy shock that had encased him this last week.

888

When the storm had passed he stumbled to his bed and lay back on it, the emptiness completely gone. Instead he was filled with grief, deep and profound. He missed Stephen as he would miss a limb, with an ache of that phantom pain sailors sometimes spoke about. What was he to do now?

Jack knew he should be making plans, writing letters, scheming for a new ship. At the very least he should be looking out a passage home for himself and his men.

But he had no heart for plans, no care for the future. He couldn't give a toss for a ship, or promotion, nor even the comfort of home and family.

He wanted... He wanted Stephen back. He wanted Stephen by his side, scruffy and unshaven, lecturing, complaining, sawing at his 'cello. He wanted to make music with Stephen, long into the night, tossing phrases back and forth between them, so in tune, so in harmony that it was hard to tell where his note left off and Stephen's began.

Jack wrapped empty arms about himself, slower tears coming this time, leaking from the corners of his eyes, soaking the pillow beneath his head. He wanted Stephen, but Stephen was gone, and all that was left him was this lonely sea of grief stretching out before him, and a wake of bittersweet memories trailing behind.

888

Jack looked down at the blank page in front of him. He knew what he had to write, the words at least were clear enough in his mind, but somehow he could not bring himself to put pen to paper. He had an image of Sophie's dear face as she opened his letter. How her eyes would be shining, looking forward to his news and loving enquiries after their home and family. He hated the thought of her dismay and horror over the news, her tears. Little Brigid's tears.

Jack pushed the paper away from him.

He knew from Sophie's last letters that Diana was gone away again, leaving Brigid at Ashgrove, and for the first time in years Jack felt his old bitter dislike of Diana seep back. Had Stephen known his wife had left him again? Had he taken that grief with him to his watery grave? And what of Diana, did she wait somewhere now, for Stephen to once again appear and save her? She would wait in vain.

Jack reached for his glass, then pushed it away as well. Since the night the storm of grief had broken within him he had sobered his habits somewhat. He had allowed Killick to visit with clean clothes and a razor to shave him. He had started eating again, although desultorily, and without pleasure. He supposed he had started living again, but it was a pitiful shadow of his former life, seemingly devoid of colour or even the hope of joy.

Outside in the hall was a thunder of steps and Jack frowned as he answered the insistent, almost indecently insistent knock.

To his amazement he saw it was his coxswain, Bonden, looking very peculiar indeed, eyes wide, face red and flushed. He was sweating and panting, as if he had been running.

"Bonden?" Jack said, caught between surprise and displeasure. "Whatever has happened?"

"Sir," Bonden panted. "I was down on the dock to see the Aquila come in. My cousins husband, John Bigby, is coxon aboard her. And I heard a voice, sir, a voice I never thought to hear again in life. I, he..." Bonden stuttered to a halt as footsteps sounded on the stairs, casting a quick look back over his shoulder. "I ran ahead to tell you, sir, so it wouldn't be such a shock, but I don't know quite how to say it. I brought him straight here."

"Who did you bring?" Jack began, trying to stay his impatience, but then his question was answered and his own eyes widened just as Bonden's had. "Stephen?"

For there he was, in all his rumpled, unshaven glory. His wig was dusty and askew, his linens quite as threadbare as ever, and he had forgotten to button the knees of his breeches. "Stephen," Jack whispered, and then with a bound he was out the door and lifting his friend off his feet, dragging him to his chest and clasping him as close as a second skin. "By god, Stephen!"

"I collect, Jack," came Stephen's muffled voice from between them. "Between your attitude and Bonden's, not to mention the goggle-eyed scully-mots down at the dock, that you're somewhat surprised to see me."

"Surprised?" Jack said, still trying to come to terms with this beautiful truth. With the well-known voice and the feel of Stephen's meager form against his own and most of all that puff of living breath against his throat that denoted life, sweet life. "Surprised?" he repeated, pulling back and staring into Stephen's face, hands holding his shoulders, unable to quite let go. "They told me you were dead, Stephen! The Myron sank, with all hands, off the coast!"

"Did she indeed?" Stephen said, attempting to pull back a little more, but quickly giving up when Jack tightened his hold. "Ah, what a terrible tragedy, poor poor fellows."

"I meant to tell you, sir," Bonden said tearfully, hands clasping his woolen hat tight in front of him. "But all I could think when I saw you was the cap'n here, heartsick and grieving, and I figured to just come here straight off. I knew the cap'n would put it all to rights," he finished, beaming widely. Jack tore his gaze away from his friend's face long enough to take in Bonden's radiant expression and Jack's own throat closed for a moment in remembrance of their shared grief, and the letter he had just been labouring over.

But then he felt Stephen wriggle a little under his clasp and his face cleared, his heart lightened at the enormous burden lifted from it.

Stephen was alive!

"But, Stephen," Jack said, some sense squirming into his happy brain. "How on Earth did you come to be here, safe and sound? Why was you not on the Myron?"

"Well, as to that," Stephen said, coughing and looking a trifle embarrassed. "I was sure I'd be back in time to catch the ship before she sailed, positive of it. And I would have been, but my guide mentioned a Great Barbary Duck he had seen that very morning, and he knew where I could hire a horse, and the time just got away from me. Sure and the ship left early as well, I'm sure they did, the creatures. God bless them," he said hurriedly, looking a trifle grumpy as he always did when he was in the wrong and didn't want to admit it.

"Great Barbary Duck," Jack repeated. The words sunk in, the memories of a hundred ducks or beetles or clawed koalas running through his mind. "Of course it was a duck!" he cried, laughter and joy welling up within him. He couldn't help it, he crushed Stephen back to his chest. "What else but a duck!"

"Jack," Stephen protested loudly, and then more gently, freeing one arm and patting at Jack's broad back. "Jack, my dear, much as I appreciate the warmth of your embrace and the sentiments behind it, you're crushing me."

888

Dinner was arranged and ordered. Bonden, grinning with glee at being the one to spread the news of the doctor's miraculous return, had departed after due exhortations from the captain that their friends be asked not to disturb the doctor until the morning at least.

Dinner had been sumptuous, with the serving girl, and the bar tender, and even the cook carrying dishes in, all casting amazed and curious looks at the newly resurrected. Stephen had taken it all with good grace for a small while, then shooed them all out and locked the door firmly behind them.

"Slack jawed gawkers," he said grumpily.

Jack nodded, heart still so full he felt it might burst. He couldn't take his eyes away from Stephen, couldn't hear enough of his voice. He was gawking himself, but Stephen didn't seem to notice as he repeated his reasons for missing the ship, and mourned his luggage that had already been stowed aboard, although that was nothing to the terrible loss of life, in course.

It was hours later, and night had descended when Jack, without any clear plan or intention, leaned over and pressed his lips to Stephen's.

Jack stopped him in full flow of his lecture about the Margay, the spotted native cat of Venezuela, so quickly he smothered the words 'opposable hind paws' with his lips and gently touched his tongue to Stephen's before withdrawing. Then he leaned back in his chair and waited for the verdict, whatever it would be.

There was a kind of freedom in this moment that Jack had never felt before. His entire adult life had involved risking everything on the toss of a coin. His career, his wealth, his prospects and future happiness. Every toss had been a gamble, most calculated, some foolish, the occasional throw a disaster beyond all imagining.

But this time he knew with the utmost certainty that he was not gambling. No matter what Stephen decided here, and Jack could see him now, touching his own tongue to recently kissed lips, eyes thoughtful and speculative as he turned the matter over in his mind. No matter what he decided, Jack knew he would lose nothing. Even if Stephen rejected his offer, he would continue to be his friend. Even if he was kind as he carefully listed the reasons why such a thing was impossible between them, absurd, ridiculous, he would continue to stay by Jack's side. Even if nothing worked out the way Jack hoped and dreamed now, Stephen would still love him. So a toss where a man has nothing to lose could hardly be called a gamble.

Stephen did none of those things.

"Hmm," he said. Then he leaned closer, tilted his head back, and waited.

Jack smothered his own grin this time with the press of lips to eager lips.

888

After that it was somewhat of a battle, or a dance, as Jack tried with fingers suddenly clumsy to loosen Stephen's cravat, and Stephen's fingers, usually so clever, struggled with buttons and good, strong broadcloth.

"Just let me..." Jack panted, lips on cheek and chin and throat.

"If you'd just lean back, for all love," Stephen muttered, tilting his head, fingers suddenly going slack. "Oh, that feels..."

"How, how does it feel?" Jack said eagerly, finally leaning back, and then swooping forward as Stephen staggered, deprived of the powerful arms holding him upright.

"This is not going to work," Stephen said, pulling back huffily and grabbing at his trailing cravat. "Without some definite maneuvers."

"Maneuvers, ey?" Jack said thoughtfully.

"That is your forte," Stephen reminded him, shrugging off his coat and laying it over the back of his chair. "And now that I think on it, did we lock the door?" Long fingers eased open his buttons and Jack swallowed hard, his easy joy giving away to a shocking arousal.

"You did," he said, voice strangely strangled, and then, with an easy action, muscles of his big arms flexing, he lifted Stephen and flung him over his shoulder.

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," Stephen swore, scrabbling at Jack's back from his upside down position. Struggling and blaspheming shockingly, he was carried to the wide bed and slung down. "It's a beast you've become, Jack Aubrey, passions inflamed by grief and excess of emotion. No doubt I should draw blood before we engage in any vigorous activity."

"No doubt," Jack said, his mind briefly toying with some clever witticism about what else Stephen could draw from him, but he was too distracted by his prick to quite form the words, and besides he was busy making short work of his own clothes, tossing them aside to fall where they may.

Stephen lifted himself up on his elbows and surveyed him with narrowed eyes. "I'm thinking I should ask what you have in mind here," he said.

"I should of thought that perfectly obvious," Jack said, stepping out of his breeches with a kick. Stephen's eyes dropped to Jack's arousal.

"I meant," he said with a pointed glare back at Jack's face. "What your specific intentions are towards my person, with your wanton picking up and flinging a fellow about. I'm not some dockyard strumpet to be mauled and tumbled, Jack."

"I never thought you were." Jack leaned over and tugged at the laces of Stephen's breeches. "For heaven's sake, Stephen," he panted. "At this point I don't care if all we do is roll about and spatter on each other like boys, just take this off, will you?"

Stephen obliged, wriggling and stripping while Jack flung himself down next to him on the rumpled covers and stroked a calloused hand down his side.

Stephen arched like a cat at the caress, breath coming fast as he finally flung the last of his clothing away and rolled onto his side to face his lover.

Then they were kissing again, wildly, and it looked as if Jack's prediction would come true and they would both be brought to their conclusions thus, when Stephen reached down and grabbed at Jack's sturdy buttocks, squeezing hard and pressing his cock up into the cradle of Jack's thighs.

Without quite knowing how it happened Jack was on his back and Stephen was on top of him, rocking in between his spread legs, biting at his arched neck, rubbing ribbons of sensation down into Jack's belly at the scratch of beard on sun-browned skin.

Jack could only grab at Stephen's rib cage and hold on, arching again, wrapping strong thighs around Stephen and squeezing his eyes shut at the tide that was washing over him.

"Stephen," he ground out, and then he shouted as he came, fast and hard, the best feeling he could remember in his entire life. "Stephen!"

Stephen didn't speak, he was still moving, his face intent, his eyes narrowed and hawk-like, and Jack, still trembling with the aftershocks of ecstasy, smoothed his hands up and down his lover's narrow back. Stephen thrust once, twice, thrice more, and then he was stiffening, panting, pulsing against Jack before collapsing like a snapped line.

Tenderly Jack cradled him close, savouring the warm lassitude of his limbs, the meager weight of Stephen on his chest, even the twitching of their spent cocks as they nuzzled together in the space between them.

"Maneuvers, I said," Stephen muttered into his throat. "What kind of maneuvers do you call those, I ask you?"

"Never mind maneuvers," Jack said sleepily. "Go straight at 'em." Then Stephen was shaking atop him as Jack's chest swelled with chuckles. Chuckles that quickly graduated to full blown laughter. "Go straight at 'em!" he choked and Stephen rolled off him and surveyed him fondly.

"The best thing I've ever come up with," Jack said, wiping at his eyes as he finally calmed down. "And I can't tell a soul."

"Never mind," Stephen said, laying back and letting Jack gather him to his broad side. "It's a fact that a man's wit is seldom appreciated in his own lifetime."

888

Deep in the dark of the night Jack awoke with tears on his face and Stephen's lips on his wet cheek. He turned with a low sob into the comfort of his embrace, pouring out an incoherent account of the last weeks, the terrible emptiness that had engulfed him, and the even more appalling moment he had finally succumbed to his grief, leaving him broken and lonely, grieving to his core.

"Acushla," Stephen murmured, stroking Jack's long hair back from his brow. "Never take on so, I beg. For all men are mortal, and my time will come one day. Indeed, I have cheated Death so many times already, I'm sure he's looking forward with great anticipation to my finally succumbing to his blandishments."

"Well, but," Jack said stubbornly. "I've cheated it right alongside you, ain't I? When our number's up it should be up together, don't you see? Not us miles and months apart. That was what tore at me so, Stephen. That you were afraid and in pain and I wasn't there to help you. That you called out for me, and I was far away, playing my lonely music to the stars and never knowing you were..."

"Hush, hush," Stephen said, when Jack's voice trailed off thickly. "Sure and here I am, safe and warm in your arms, after all these years. A place I never thought I'd ever be, truth be told."

Jack sniffled and smiled, damply, against Stephen's meager hair. "I can't say I thought it myself, if it comes to that," he admitted.

Stephen drew back and gazed up at him through the moonlight. "Then what on Earth possessed you, joy? To pick me up and fling me onto your bed?"

Jack gazed back at him, still drinking in that beloved face, even more bearded now, pale eyes curious and wondering. "I don't know," Jack said. "I just didn't want to let you go, ever again. I wanted to kiss you, and hold you close to me." He flushed, his own words stirring his senses and his cock.

Stephen's brow rose and he glanced down significantly. "And you being yourself, Jack Aubrey, that turned into bed-flinging, did it? I should have known, indeed I should have. We're both victims of your base, animal passions."

"Yes, Stephen," Jack said meekly, rolling onto his side and giving Stephen the full benefit of his base, animal passion with a firm thrust of his loins. To his intense gratification, Stephen's own passion answered. "Do you mind very much?"

"T'would be all the same if I did," Stephen said severely, pushing at his broad shoulders until Jack was on his back again, then pressing him into the bed with a series of lush, slow kisses. He drew away, sallow skin flushed with high colour, pale eyes gleaming. "Once loosed, such animal passions are not so easily put aside. Sure and Lucretius himself wrote about it, in his master work, De Rerum Natura."

"Did he indeed?" Jack said, seizing the moment to do some pushing of his own, rolling Stephen onto his back and boarding him before he could complain about it.

"He did," Stephen confirmed, voice a little less sure now. "In fact he had much to say... oh, Jack, yes... on the subject of, of... venus, amor, voluptas... right there, love, right there... Oh!"

"How very interesting," Jack murmured. "Pray, tell me more."

Epilogue

Jack sat and watched Stephen sip at his morning coffee, as he had done a thousand times before. And as he had done nearly as many times, he wondered what his friend was thinking behind that habitually closed expression. They had awoken entangled in each other's arms, and, as if they had not paused for sleep they immediately resumed their congress, rubbing up against one another and coming most satisfactorily.

And then they had arisen, and washed and dressed, ordered breakfast and accepted a steaming pot of coffee while they waited for it. In all this time they had barely spoken, although this was more than likely because neither of them were quite human until they had polished off a pot between them.

Jack found himself wondering about Diana, Stephens wife. About adultery, fidelity, friendship. He knew Stephen had very firm ideas on fidelity, and although he had once suspected Stephen of committing adultery, his friend had later hinted broadly that Jack had misread the situation. Did Stephen indeed know Diana had left him, and did he then absolve himself of the charge of adultery, on the grounds that Diana seemed to have such a fluid view of the married state herself?

Jack's own conscience smote him not all. Sophie was his wife, the mother of his children; her place in his life was unassailable, absolute. He loved her, missed her, highly esteemed her. But he had long known she didn't fill the places in his heart Stephen did. If Jack had been a more introspective man he might have wondered at his easy acceptance of that fact, but he wasn't, so this new aspect of his relationship with Stephen was wonderfully uncomplicated.

"Sure, and that's a serious face, brother," Stephen said, coming back to life after his third cup. "Is it not early in the morning for such deep thoughts?"

Jack squinted at the window. "I doubt anyone would consider this early," he said, and finished his own third cup with a sigh.

"I suppose I should show my face to the world, although I must admit, I dread it. A man come back from the dead, a Lazarus if you will, must surely be considered a nine day wonder. I will be gawked at, I know it."

"Your friends can only be glad," Jack said. "And you have very many friends, Stephen. You have no idea how many."

"Don't sound so surprised, for all love."

Breakfast arrived and they feasted on fried eggs and ham, on a platter of bacon and tiny sausages. Jack was ravenous and he indulged himself until he was forced to push away from the table and lean back in his chair. Stephen ate in a manner hearty for him and Jack watched his friend curiously. Stephen was not giving away what he was feeling, and perhaps he never would. Jack would never ask. It was the way things were between them, and for a moment Jack wished it were otherwise.

Then he recalled the night before, Stephen's strong hands holding him close, whispered words of love and reassurance in his ear, and the wish melted away.

"Now," Stephen said, tossing his napkin on his bare plate. "I know that look of old. Gloating doesn't suit the very corpulent, Jack. It gives them a porcine look that is wholly unbecoming."

"Gloating?" Jack objected. "Never in life. Perhaps you don't know me as well as you think you do, Stephen."

Stephen smiled, his rare, happy smile, usually only seen around such objects as the Pale-Headed Brush Finch, or Podacanthus Typon, and Jack smiled back, entranced. "Oh, but I do know you, Jack, and others do too, though none so well. You must school your face, my dear, or you will be giving us away, to shame and scorn and ignominy."

"Nonsense. Nonsense! I'm happy to see my friend alive, and everyone will know it. How much more suspicious would it be, were I to go all po-faced and solemn, ey?"

Stephen considered him. "Is it becoming wise in your old age, Jack?"

Jack laid a finger alongside his nose and winked, broadly. "I can be as close as the next man, Stephen, when I have to be. No one will smoke us, I promise. But, er..." he fiddled with his napkin. "Does that mean we will be... continuing?"

"For my part, yes," Stephen said. "Is it not your wish, Jack?"

"Oh, yes!" Jack burst out. "Yes, very much. With all my heart." He broke off, chuckled a little at himself, then reached across the table and took Stephen's hand in his. "With all my heart."

Stephen squeezed his hand, his returning answer in his eyes.

Fin