Author's Note: So this is my very first attempt at a Master and Commander fic, and I'm terrified it's way too wordy, but I'm trying to get a feel for the flow and the characters. The story is still half-baked, but intrigue will be occurring soon, so hopefully you'll stick with me while I figure this out!
Also please excuse any inaccuracies regarding the canon of the books or historical fact. I am trying my best to research but I've only read the first two books + seen the movie and so I really don't know anything.
All these lovely characters are not mine.
The seemingly endless sea off the bow was deceptive, Stephen knew this. Jack had informed him perhaps half an hour ago that they would make port by morning, and the sun was only just beginning to kiss the water in the throes of spectacular passion it always did. Colors danced on the whitecaps but Stephen did not take his eyes off the distant, unseen shore. The sun was behind him. They were sailing east, towards England, towards home.
Of course home was a very loose term for Stephen, who had never particularly attached himself to one place, but he was eager to be back nonetheless. Their shore leave was to be nearly a month long, and in that time he planned to make his way back to Dublin and meet with some old friends. Many had made real lives for themselves after the disastrous attempt at revolution in '98, and Stephen was eager to see where their studies had led, as they had all been educated men. He was also, privately, eager to feel the spirit of his old friends from the United Irishmen when they discussed politics and philosophy. As much as he loved Jack, and he did love the man dearly, there was something far simpler about his thoughts than those of more learned men, and Stephen found himself missing that brand of conversation.
So he and Jack were to spend their shore leave separately, for the most part, meeting up four days before departure and staying together at the Red Lion Inn while they made final arrangements before sailing. Jack seemed quite eager to be back as well, although Stephen had not a notion of what his friend would be doing on land for so long.
The wail of a shearwater distracted the doctor from his thoughts and he searched the skies behind him for the bird, shielding his eyes from the harsh dusk sunlight. The ship was quiet this evening as the waters were smooth and no sails had been spotted for weeks. The place felt like it was waiting, not with any anxiety but with a patient calm for the inevitable end of the journey. Stephen felt nearly too relaxed to search for the bird, but not quite. He wandered down the deck, following the cries and keeping his eyes towards the surface of the water, expecting the specimen to be skimming for dinner at this time. He did not notice his trajectory until he ran right into Captain Jack Aubrey, who had been watching his friend with light amusement.
"Ought to keep your eyes ahead of you, doctor," Jack said with a smile as Stephen stumbled back from the collision. Naturally Jack's solid body had not moved a bit upon impact but Stephen had nearly been toppled.
"I am sorry, Jack," Stephen said absentmindedly, still staring out onto the water, apparently left unfazed. "But I do think it might have been proper for you to have removed yourself from my path…" he craned his neck over the edge of the ship, looking amusingly birdlike himself.
"Oh well perhaps, though I did have a mind to speak with you Stephen," Jack said, taking Stephen suddenly by the collar and gently pulling him away from the boat's edge before the poor doctor tumbled over the rail again. "And I'm beginning to think the only way to gain your ear is for you to run right into me. Or perhaps if I were to change into a pelican?"
Stephen gave a smile, finally looking at his friend. "Rest assured Jack, if you were to change into a pelican you would have my undivided attention." The two men walked side by side to the captain's cabin, Jack leading the doctor gently with a massive hand on the square of his bony back.
"What was it you wanted to speak to me about, joy?" Stephen asked as they made their way, a midshipman pausing with a salute in his rush to get to mess.
"Oh nothing of supreme import," Jack said, "Only that I hoped you would be joining me for dinner. I've missed you these last few nights,"
Stephen noticed something odd in Jack's tone but thought little of it. "Of course, Jack, I would be delighted. I suppose this will be our last night dining together for some time, after all."
"Yes," Jack said, his voice still strange, but as they entered the soft glow of the cabin, where Killick was already setting up the dining table, the captain gave a very familiar grin. "It will be damned good to be home, I suppose."
"And what, pray tell, will you be doing at home, Jack?" Stephen stood patiently waiting for the table to be set, while Jack plopped down onto his chair despite the bustle of his server.
"Oh, I plan on seeing a few old friends from my days as midshipman, catching up you know." He fiddled with his Post Captain's insignia and Stephen knew that he was hoping none of his old friends now outranked him.
"And you are off to Ireland then, are you?" Jack asked, and Stephen found his seat as Killick bustled off to get the silverware.
"Ah, yes, although to be quite frank Jack I would rather that information not circulate," he said in a low voice. "For professional reasons, you understand. The situation in Dublin is still rather dicey…"
"Yes, yes of course," Jack waved his hand as if that would wave away Stephen's concerns. There was a knock on the door and Jack called for the visitors to enter. The room was soon filled with the usual dinner guests, all of whom, as usual, ended the night red faced and under threat of apoplexy, as their clothing strained to contain their gluttony. And as usual Stephen observed the scene with a semi-sober disgust. More than ever now he longed to speak to the old United Irishmen's crowd, as the navy officer began spouting some conservative nonsense about the evils of abolition. Progressive and independent thought were not widely renowned on Her Majesty's ships.
Stephen waited as one by one the guests staggered from the cabin, squeezing through the doorframe, pink and slobbering. Jack had by then sobered quite a bit and Stephen had hoped they could get some last playing in before bed, but Jack was looking at him oddly.
"Why do you think I ought not to mention Ireland, Stephen?" He asked. He seemed somewhat distracted, even fidgety.
"I simply think it's a contentious issue that I have the misfortune of having a…past with," Stephen said. "I don't wish to raise undue suspicions from our employers."
"They are undue, aren't they though?" Jack asked earnestly. Stephen chose to ignore the grammatical stumble.
"I don't know what you are asking," he said calmly. "Are you implying that I have sympathies towards the revolution?"
"No, no no certainly not, Stephen but of course, one must be careful," his voice betrayed his lingering drunkenness. "I only want to be sure that you are safe, and that you do not make rash decisions, that you think before acting is all, Stephen," he hiccupped. "And do not find yourself in compromising positions! It would be a great sadness to me if you were unable to return to the ship-"
"Jack," Stephen was impatient by now, and had given up hope of a peaceful duet. "I still can't understand what you are implying but I am not going to Dublin in order to join some secret society. The era of real Irish progress is over," he hoped Jack would not sense the bitterness in his tone. "All that's left are radicals and militants. I hope you wouldn't think that of me, Jack."
Jack seemed to slump in relief, his broad shoulders releasing all the tension they had carried moments before.
"Of course not, Stephen," he clapped his friend on the back somewhat more violently than usual. "You're a very good fellow,"
"You as well, Jack."
A silence followed, which culminated in a very awkward eye contact.
Jack stared into Stephen's pale blue eyes searchingly, looking, Stephen supposed, for a trace of rebellion.
"I'm a damned fool, Stephen," Jack said quietly. Without explanation he stood and, with lumbering movements, hobbled over to his cot. Stephen walked over to the sleeping captain, taking his pulse for good measure; a man of his heaviness who has indulged as much as he that night had done was in danger of a sudden stopping of the heart. But the pulse seemed steady, if slightly elevated, and Stephen decided not to worry overmuch about the captain's odd behavior that night. Jack had never previously expressed interest in Stephen's Irish past, and certainly not his Irish future. But the doctor had not been a liar; he was not going to participate in the movement any longer. It had been changed.
Wandering back to his own tiny cabin, Stephen cast one last glance east, where still no land could be seen through the inky blackness. There was something ominously obscure about the horizon they were sailing towards, and Stephen found an all too easy analogy with the future they were embarking on. Something dark and hazy was about to engulf him and his beloved captain, of this he had little doubt. Though he did not consider himself a superstitious man, there were some signs worth noting. This moonless night seemed to be one of them, and as north Atlantic air chilled him he felt the shiver deep in his spine. He crawled down below and into his cot, pulling the blanket over his slight frame and taking a swig of laudanum so he would not dream of the darkness they were floating into.