A Trouble with Phantoms

By Alone Dreaming
Rating: Meh, PGish or K+ (because they talk about blood and sailors and guilt)
Characters: Mainly Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin with appearances from just about every other named character in the movie.
Disclaimer: I don't own it. Sometimes I rather wish I did, though…
Warnings: Movie Spoilers? Movieverse? Overabundant amounts of angst with not a moment of catharsis?
Author's Note:Unedited for the moment as I should sleep. Written to address Jack's decision to let the Acheron go. I know, as if I haven't done that a few times?
Dedication: It has been a number of years since I've looked at this fandom, but it still stands that I met a dear friend here, someone who has since introduced me to a vast world of fandoms. So, silenttrainconductor, my boo, this one is for you. Thank you for years of kindness, of friendship, of laughter, of sharing; I do not know where I'd be without you. Here's a story to commemorate OUR visit to the Surprise, to commemorate sitting in Jack's cabin and, thinking, on my part, "Wow." And, not just because I was sitting in the same room Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany had, but because I was sitting there with you.

For having spent a vast amount of his time in the company of robust seamen, Jack Aubrey found it decidedly easy to forget how delicate Stephen Maturin was. His pale skin and slight build alone made him the perfect foil to more than half the men on deck, and his mild manners and quiet disposition set him off from all the rest. He made about the place like a ghost at times, the shadow of perhaps some great sailor of past days, sitting on the deck to read, or maneuvering in the bowels of the ship towards his infirmary. How Jack missed it, he did not know; he marked it down as a distinctive comfort that had developed between the two of them and his own forgetful nature. Sometimes, when an individual sat with you every day amongst others that sat with you every day, that person blurred with the rest, making it unimportant exactly what that person was beyond a comfortable, constant companion.

Even after the shot and the panicked shouts, Jack did not fully comprehend how different it felt to support Stephen in comparison to any other seaman. Stephen pulled open his waistcoat and peered at the injury with the same clinical precision that he looked at any injury. Anyone was pale after such a wound and compared to Jack's own substantial size, anyone could appear small. The vague whisper, "I'm fine, Jack" was the gruff, tough voice of a sailor, not the cultured, delicate voice of a scholar. Even Higgins appearing instead of the ship's surgeon spoke of little except that Stephen was on his way, of course, to tend to whoever ailed.

The realization started with moving his friend below deck. The injury Jack beheld when Stephen raised the shirt up and away would be fatal without surgery but he had seen a deckhand go down, have the bullet removed, and be up and moving within a week. A bad place, the abdomen, to receive a bullet but only deadly if it struck the necessary organs squared away within. His limited knowledge of anatomy assured him that the bullet most likely did not strike liver or kidney or intestines, so surely Stephen, too, would bounce back easily once the bullet was removed. With that denial in his veins, he took Stephen's left side, away from the injury, preparing to bear him down while Mister Howard took his right. At his nod, they rose together, Higgins clearing a pathway through the crowd.

He hazarded a glance at Stephen, even as they gained their feet, and his stomach twisted as he perceived not a soldier, but a grey—and still paling—man who let out a whimpering moan as the wound pulled. In but a few seconds, Stephen went from seriously wounded to deathly injured, strain appearing about his eyes, his lips, in the shudders wracking his form as Jack and Mister Howard transported him to the operating table. Before they reached the stairs, his head lolled alarmingly forward; Jack paused, forcing Howard to follow suit, calling Higgins forward to check Stephen's pulse.

"Keep moving," a bare whisper begged. "Please, Jack. I'm fine."

He hardly believed it this time but signaled that they should continue, now, noting the continued facial spasms and clenched jaw marring otherwise smooth features. Their descent was marked by soft gasps every step which did not cease once they reached the infirmary but grew in sound until Jack could compare it to an almost unperceivable sobbing. He dared not tarry long enough to comfort, instead relinquishing his friend to the table, Padeen and Higgins. Mister Howard retreated further back than he dared, mingling with the growing crowd of men; he wanted them to disperse, wanted to command them back to their duties but his attention, too, hung on the pair tending the pale physician.

His stomach felt more unsteady than it ever had, even in illness, and he leaned heavily upon the framework close to him, awaiting the verdict. From his position, he watched Stephen finally lapse into true unconsciousness when Padeen and Higgins removed his shirt. His skin looked waxy, only minutes after the incident, sunken bout his eyes, hollowing out his features until Jack could almost convince himself that this was not a man he knew at all; perhaps just an unfortunate they'd rescued from the sea who would receive the comfort of a warm hammock before the Styx took him away. Perhaps the bullet had nicked an organ after all, causing internal bleeding, which, even at best of times, killed, much less when the patient lay in the hands of a barber in the unsteady innards of a ship.

Higgins nervous manner made the situation sound worse than it already was; look at pictures, as though that was proper procedure in such an incident. His nervous, off-hand comment about being on dry land made the writhing inside of Jack turn to full on twisting and the determined (but unbelievable) assurance that Higgins would prevail eased nothing. In fact, as he scattered the crew and went back into the fresh sea air, he never felt more stifled in his life. The incident marred the rest of the day and the light attitude that had hovered pleasantly around the ship, so when he retired to his cabin for the evening, he felt as though every breath turned his lungs leaden and heavy. And to keep the oppressive weariness on his mind, Stephen's cello sat before him, a light coat of dust already formed on it.

He reached for it, out of habit more than anything else, touched the familiar strings so that they hummed softly. Surely this much dust could not collect over such a short period of time. His mind searched for their last evening together where Stephen would methodically tune first his instrument, then Jack's, the plucking and scraping carrying about the cabin and ship in a comforting cacophony, and then, they would play whatever new music Jack had acquired until the gentle lilt had set them both in a comfortably relaxed state. It did not help that he could not recall the last date being within the month, or even since their spat about the Galapagos; in fact, he did not think they'd even dined together since then, Stephen often excusing himself from the officer's table in order to retire early. The words they'd traded had been few, often short, and rarely informative. Even the simplest, "How are you?" had not been asked and Jack now wondered if he even knew of Stephen's health since the incident beyond their one conversation about water.

And to make it even worse, when he drew the bow over the cello's strings, hoping to hear that comforting bass, the sound warbled flatly, a dark imitation of the albatross still following in their wake.

He spent that night ignoring his supper and tossing restlessly in bed until the dawn crept over the horizon. Making himself presentable, he emerged from his quarters, hat on, uniform carefully pressed, and checked the ship's status as though there had been no incident the day before. In his head, he tried to think of it as a crew injury, as some man taking an accidental bullet, and not a beloved friend. It made it easier to stand next to Bonden and stare out at the ocean as though this day was no different than any other day, that beneath his very feet someone he cared deeply for did not lay on a probable deathbed. Even so, he fell to restless pacing after a quarter of an hour, and, finally, had to excuse himself in order to check Higgins's progress.

The sight did not hearten him. In twelve hours, Stephen's condition had hardly improved, his middle now bound tightly with stained bandages, his expression listless at best. Eyes marred by laudanum flickered uneasily around him, pausing on the darkest of shadows as though he saw something in them. He did greet Jack, vaguely, as though Jack was a dream, but did not answer any questions about how he felt; Jack redirected them to Higgins who gave him a half-hearted assurance that he would solve it, not to worry. But next to the hammock, in a shaking hand, were recorded pulse-rates ending about two hours beforehand; slow, erratic, and failing. For a moment, he felt the urge to stay longer, to take Padeen's place next to Stephen and dab the wet cloth on his forehead.

"Will you need extra hands?" he inquired, instead, backing away.

Higgins grimaced and muttered, and said something like, "No, just steady ground" which he pretended not to hear. Almost fleeing the sick room, he stepped out just in time to hear a call for his presence. Outside the view of the naked eye, right within the center of the eyeglass, lurked his target, a gift from the still following bird, no doubt. All knew not to hunt an albatross, the bad luck brought by threatening it, but he had nothing to worry for; it'd claimed its price already, and, to show its forgiveness, given him a boon. The officers agreed with him, called the ship French, called it their phantom; they might even catch it with the weather gauge on their side, possibly manage to take it if they snuck up on it just right. If the battle went as planned, they could take their prize here, now; finally, his men would have their reward for following him so gallantly on this damned mission.

He turned away, his mind blurred from lack of rest and the pressure of building indecision. Next to him Tom asked, as right he should, if they should beat to quarters, but he had no answer. He walked straight back to his quarters, hardly aware of the men tilting their hats and touching their foreheads, far more interested in finding a quiet place to contemplate what he, Lucky Jack, should do next. The ship was not far enough off for him to wait long, not far enough away for him to ponder every possible maneuver; he had hours at most, maybe even less before the ship noticed them, or, God forbid, Stephen perished and gave him no reason to contemplate at all.

Or would that solve it? If Stephen's death would allow him to pursue the Acheron then the sailor in him demanded pushing forward as though the doctor were not ill. Stephen would live or he would die, but orders came first. But the decision was not so simple as he drifted the memory of the storm, sitting below deck with Stephen next to him as the wind howled and admitting, hollowly, that he surpassed his orders long ago. Was this, as Stephen implied, now a matter of pride for a man known as Lucky Jack; had he finally fallen to hubris, believing all he needed was to catch the ship and that his luck could somehow carry their smaller, outgunned vessel to victory? Was continuing forward into battle an ill-advised option?

He knew that his men would go with him anywhere, to Hell and back if he demanded, with little to no questions. Should he raise the signal to engage, they would do so with all their might even if it meant shattering their little world to splinters. But, as their leader, did he have any right to request that sacrifice? Did he have the right to demand they march to their deaths? No, responsibility dictated that he weigh and measure the odds, and if they stood no chance, required him to fall back, even if it pricked him. He leaned heavily against the windows that stared out upon the horizon and water, his decision made, even if he did not like it.

A knock on the door, his own acquiescence for the individual to enter, and Tom stood in his presence, hat off, frowning.

"Sir," Tom began. "Your orders? We're coming up on her, slow and steady. It's almost certain that it's the Acheron."

The words stuck in his mouth but he uttered them anyway, "Even with the weather gauge on our side, our best chance of defeating her would be in a surprise attack. Undoubtedly, in this open water, she'll have spotted us already, and it would be outside our orders to recklessly attempt to take her down." Tom, God bless him, said nothing, but dipped his head. "Set our course towards the Galapagos to restock and then, I think, it is time to head home."

"Are you sure, sir?" Tom asked, already backing out as though he hoped the answer to be yes.

"Certain, Mister Pullings, thank you," he then turned his attention back to the cello, the ocean, and felt a bit of relief starting to wash over him. One of the many pressures building in his limbs lifted, leaving him somewhat lighter and happier than he'd been even an hour previously. Back to the Galapagos, back to rest, then home to warn England of the threat and receive new orders. Let someone else take on the Acheron and let Lucky Jack keep his moniker.

Paperwork waited for him when he could finally move to his desk but the words made little sense to him in his anxiety. Even with water being put between them and his prey, he could not bring his mind away from the empty seat in the corner, with the cello, or the fact he could not recall the last civil conversation he and Stephen had. If they went fast, and that would be difficult, they would still take the better part of a week to make it to the Galapagos. And judging by Stephen's steady decline, he had his reservations about the Doctor lasting that long.

If he were to apologize at this very moment, it would make little difference, an apology made completely from fear and guilt, not true contrition. In his drug and pain induced state, Stephen would not understand him fully anyway; and if he did, his forgiveness would not be made in clear thought and would not be enough. They'd both taken unnecessary offense, been unnecessarily brash, in that argument; and to top it all, they both were viciously stubborn in not addressing it since. He was at fault for not making things comfortable for his friend, for not actively pursuing him so they might discuss things; Stephen was at fault for actively avoiding every situation where they might've traded words. Together, they'd created a horrid mess, one unlikely to get rectified with the Doctor so close to death.

He did feel bad about their faltering friendship, though, and did not balk in the face of apology. He simply did not want it to be construed as something an injury forced him to, but rather, something that he personally wanted but did not realize until the injury shed light upon it. Certainly, Stephen would understand such, he tried to reason, for Stephen was by far one of the most perceptive and intelligent individuals to have ever graced Jack's presence. A rough rub of his face and fifteen minutes of extreme focus only made him irritable and more uncertain.

"But the decision is made," he reminded himself, aloud so he could actually hear it. "We will go home."

The inner turmoil settled to a dull roar by the morrow. He ate his breakfast merely to appease Killick's mutterings, did his duties so as not to alert the crew to his defeat, and did his best to not think any more on the subject. At the same time, he could not bring himself to go down to check on Stephen again, even as he heard whispers amongst the crew about the Doctor doing right poorly. Self-doubt arose by mid-morning and by the time the Sun started a descent towards the horizon, he was questioning the difference between wanting to apologize at the right moment and fearing to admit his fault.

As though to answer his question, Pullings mentioned, before he retired, "Higgins attempted surgery earlier, today, sir."

"And?" He dared not take in a breath.

"He stopped before going much of anywhere with it," Pullings said. "He was afraid the ship would jerk and he would nick something vital." And he tucked his hands behind his back, unusually restless for a sturdy, well-tried man.

"So, he opts to wait until we reach land?" Jack pressed.

Pullings tilted his head, "Yes, sir. He believes that the Doctor's chances of survival will be higher as such."

He read Tom as easily as a letter or book, "And you disagree?"

"I'm no surgeon, sir," Tom replied, mildly.

"I'm in no mood for games, Tom," he murmured, lowly, drawing them away from the attention they were now garnering. "Speak plainly."

Tom met his eye steadily. "I simply think that those of us close to the Doctor may want to speak with him sooner, rather than later. He's not faring well."

He and Tom had spent many years in service together, and they're relationship had transcended that of the average Captain and Mate. They were friends, a pair who could be upfront and honest when necessary. Tom had acquired the ability to tactfully deliver whatever was on his mind without treading on toes, while Jack, in contrast, never felt the need to sugarcoat his opinions. In turn, both had adapted so they could gracefully accept what the other had to say and, in great seriousness, consider the words, the tone and the meaning. And, in very short order, Jack knew exactly what Tom Pullings was saying to him.

He took his dinner privately, braced himself, and went to the infirmary. Higgins had disappeared, his books still splayed on the chair he sat on. Padeen stayed loyally at the Doctor's side, his food sitting cold and forgotten nearby. His main focus, the man in the hammock, lay quite insensible to his ministrations, eyes flickering beneath his lids in the midst of some opiate induced dream. He'd shrunk into himself yet again, revealing even further how far he was from a sailor. If Stephen gained his feet properly again, it would be slowly, painfully, with consequence; no doubt his health would be substantially more precarious after this.

Padeen noticed him, touched his forehead, but did not pause in his duties. Jack felt decidedly awkward standing there; he knew little of medicine, and that little was the single fact that it cured ills. How it worked or why it worked or, even, how to make it work lay beyond his comprehension. He maneuvered himself in the small space so he could find a seat and settled himself in a corner. It did not seem too difficult, to bathe another's brow; he'd done it on occasion and it took no particular skill, so much as patience and tenderness. Better than idleness, he thought, plucking at the cuff of his sleeve. Better than waiting in oppressive silence.

A gasp startled him, launching him to his feet. Stephen's eyes opened fully, glassy and wild, and he moved as though he had no notion he was in a hammock. Both Padeen and Jack reacted in the same manner, Padeen grasping the physicians shoulder while Jack placed a hand on Stephen's chest and held his forearm with the other. It stopped the worst of the fit but whatever specter haunted Stephen did not depart readily. He trembled fiercely still, his hands groping for some unseen object, chest heaving for air. Jack moved his one hand down so that the searching fingers latched on and held steady; the grip, however, was meager in comparison to Stephen's normal strength and utterly disheartening.

"Fetch Higgins," he commanded, and Padeen who immediately darted off.

Finally, his solitude upon him, and he could not find words. Words would require accepting that beneath this pitiable shell lay Stephen Maturin, naturalist, cellist, linguist, and, most painfully, friend. Denial would do him no good at this point, he reasoned, moving his hand from Stephen's chest for but a moment so he could seize the other flailing hand and hold it. He pressed it over Stephen's heart, fluttering, erratic, threatening to cease its duties any second, and held strong. There was little else he knew to do until Higgins arrived, and provided what crude service was within his skill set. Another jerk caused him to exert more pressure than he intended and elicited a wheezing whimper from his friend's lips.

"Steady," he choked, his tongue unwieldy in his mouth. "Steady, Stephen. Just one minute more, m'dear."

Jesus did not work such miracles as he did with those words. Stephen stilled, slowly, but obviously, blinking rapidly against the visions that held him; his heartbeat slowed to a less frightful pace. Lucidity crept over the doctor's features along with recognition.

"Jack," he whispered, voice hoarse. "I… should think… you have… ghosts to hunt."

His lips twisted and he squeezed both of Stephen's hands. "I'm afraid I have discovered a trouble with phantoms, m'dear." Stephen tensed, returning his grip. A whimper escaped him. "Steady, steady. Tell me what I can do."

"W-what trouble?" Stephen whispered, voice unsteady.

"It seems even if you happen upon a phantom, it will slip through your fingers," he answered, not liking how even Stephen's lips were pale. "They're less substantial than even the faintest dream."

"Ah…" Stephen closed his eyes and took in a fast, insubstantial gasp. "But even… the faintest dream… can be captured… with the right amount of effort."

How long could it possibly take to find Higgins and bring him forth? "Some dreams are not worth the cost."

"I…find that… difficult to… believe…" A tiny sigh escaped him. He attempted to pull free of Jack's grip, his hand drifting towards the tight bindings, stained with fresh blood. "H-he's… butchered… me, hasn't he?"

Jack shook his head, then recalled that Stephen could not see him. He easily kept Stephen's hand away. "No… no, despite his best efforts, you still have a bullet in you and most of your skin on your person… easy, m'dear, courage. Tell me what to do that will help."

"Stay… but a moment… please," Stephen replied, despite Jack's hope that the answer would involve something to relieve the pain. But he held tight, stood hunched over the hammock and squeezed whenever a particularly violent tremor took the doctor. The skin beneath his fingers felt overly warm, damp, growing hotter as time passed. "I… am sorry…"

He nearly asked why but bit his tongue as another whimper stole its way from his friend's throat. "Surely there is something more that I can do for you."

If there was, Stephen never clarified. The shaking ceased abruptly, along with the noise, so fast that Jack believed the end had come to pass. Trying not to appear as frantic as he felt, he sought out a pulse, his fingers clumsy and nearly as shaky as Stephen's had been. Finding nothing but refusing to accept it, he felt for breath about the cooling face and was rewarded with a light exhale and equally light inhale. His relief barely set in when Higgins rushed in, sweaty, red-faced, and utterly useless. He stood at the foot of the hammock, plucking at his hands, looking every bit the part of a fool.

"I was informed he was worsening?" he all but squeaked.

Jack, drained by both fear and concern, could not muster the strength for anger. "He did. I think he rests now but I cannot be sure. Perhaps it would be prudent for you to stay closer, should it happen again."

"Yes, yes," Higgins muttered, taking a place on the other side of the patient. He hovered for a moment as though he did not know what to do next. Jack stepped back, relinquishing his grasp, in order to allow the other man to concentrate.

A few feet away, Blakeney quietly observed with Padeen, his face, very young but very sharp, shadowed. He stood with them as Higgins checked, administered and, eventually, excused himself to continue his studies. Padeen advanced then, ever reliable, and settled in next to Stephen for the duration, leaving Jack and Blakeney to themselves.

"He'll make it until the Galapagos, won't he, sir?" Blakeney asked. "He's had worse, I mean, and pulled through."

He made it his duty to not lie to his crew, even under the worst of conditions. If they asked, he told the truth, and when they didn't ask, he boosted morale . "The Doctor is one of the strongest men I've ever had the pleasure of knowing, Mister Blakeney," he said, unable to answer directly. "If you will excuse me."

He initially thought his feet would carry him back to his room where he would brood for the remainder of the evening until once again, a new day began. However, they had another notion. Forward he went, back to where he stood before. Again, he found his locker and settled upon it. Padeen saluted him, as before, but gave him a strange look before returning to Stephen. Perhaps it was surprising, him staying, but the more he thought on it, the more he realized he had no other place to be, no other companion who needed his attention more.

"Padeen, perhaps the Captain can take over for you," Blakeney suggested. "You've earned a rest."

Padeen nodded, saluted again and the pair of them silently left Jack to Stephen and his own thoughts. Around him, his wooden world creaked and moaned, its own phantoms tearing at its wood and ropes, tearing at its Captain, threatening to break it apart at the seams. All illusions had departed now, and Jack Aubrey found himself a man defeated, a man caring for someone who never intended on being a civil servant, a man who needed guidance, and a man who had lost all rights to it. Tentatively, he picked up the rag that Padeen had used and dipped it in the tepid water. The water sounded loud as it dripped back into the bowl, rippled out and lapped the sides as much as a wake upon timbers.

And distantly, he heard the soft croak of a bird above deck.