There was no real explanation for it, nothing rational at least.
Perhaps it was long months spent at sea. Perhaps it was that even though he had been married for nearly five years he still didn't truly know his wife, not in the way he knew him, knew what time was best to find him on deck, eyes scanning the skies as he listened placidly to Bonden as he read. Or exactly when to pause in his playing, pretending to tune his instrument and looking the other way as he stretched his hand, relieving the tightness that seized it and changed the tremor of bow upon string.
Perhaps it was knowing exactly what he looked like when he slept.
Perhaps it was all these things and more that caused the tension in his chest, the dull fierce ache that took hold of him when he chose to spend time ashore instead of on the ship, taking every opportunity to cast off the constraints of the navy, his willing prodigy and assistant eager to follow him anywhere.
Perhaps it was the way he always smelt of the earth despite so many months at sea.
Or maybe it was the way he could feel his stare, a point of heat on his face, on his neck, forcing himself not to meet his eye as he regaled the men at the table, knowing that as soon as he would turn those cool eyes would casually flicker to another point of interest, leaving him cold and somewhat bereft.
It was almost certainly the accidental touch, the light pressure of his hand upon his back, burning through the cotton of his shirt as he had leant forward, the heat of his body close against his side, the ghost of his breath against his neck inciting a shocking pulse of arousal to shudder up his spine. One moment in which his breath stood still, his heart pausing. And it was gone, he'd retrieved exactly what he needed from the desk, that hand that had pressed so gloriously against him now caressed the creamy pages of sheet music, fingers running over the notes like a lovers caress. He hated those pages.
All these things and more.
He'd long since stopped his inclusion of article twenty nine. 'It seems unnecessary' he would say.
Sometimes Stephen would ask him if he felt at all ill, that he had become quiet and somewhat withdrawn. And what else could he say in reply other than he worried on their state of affairs, if the weather would hold or perhaps how things were faring back in England. He couldn't possibly tell him that he spent more time in his own head than focused on his work, or how when they stood side by side against the rail he trembled from the force of will he put upon himself to gaze out at the dying sun, rather than the way the light played against his face, reflecting in his eyes and turning them a burnished shade of gold. He could never reveal just how undone he was when he took his rounds in the sick bay, looking in on his men, pretending to listen to their words when really he was trying with all his might not to notice just how close he stood behind him, one arm braced against the beams above their heads as he casually looked over his shoulder, the gentle rocking of the ship causing them both to sway and every other moment he revelled in the sweet unadulterated thrill of friction as they brushed together.
No. He could never say, could never admit at just how far and deep his affections went. How every sail on the horizon prompted thoughts of his safety, how every call of 'man overboard' sent his heart into a state of frenzy. He would never confess that some evenings the thought of picking up his violin made his head ache, but the notion of sitting alone in his cabin, his thoughts free to run as they will, made parts of him ache all the more forcefully. So he kept up his nightly invitations, kept on playing the same duets over and over until they became an element of muscle memory, his fingers moving on the strings just like his hands did on the rigging.
He would never speak of the agony of it all.
"You think too much." Stephen said softly, placing his bow on his lap as he rubbed one hand within the other.
Jack looked up, his violin slipping from its hold beneath his chin. He held off a moment longer, knowing that if he waited just a fraction of a second Stephen would relent. "There was scarcely an ounce of emotion in that piece." He raised his eyes, fixing Jack with a long and cool stare, coldly assessing him.
"The day has been a long one." He replied, not even convincing himself with his excuse. His throat felt unnaturally tight.
He turned to pack away his violin, taking his time to wrap it carefully as he listened to the same movements behind him, hating the way his fingers felt clumsy as they folded the cloth around the polished wood.
He turned, hands planting against his hips for want of anything to do, his fingers clenching through the material as he was caught once again in that pervading stare. He was sure the beat of his heart could be heard in the stuffy confines of the cabin. He cleared his throat, taking in the way Stephen held his gaze, the strength of his stance, barely affected by the pitch and roll of the ship.
"Just tell me, Jack." Those words, so softly spoken barely reached his ears. His distracted mind unable to read the undercurrent, to distinguish between contempt or resignation.
He swallowed thickly, a thousand fleeting words hovered uncertainly on his lips, none of them forming any sort of cohesive sentiment. He hoped the look on his face was anything but guilt. "Whatever do you mean Stephen?"
"I mean whatever it is that keeps you silent." He stepped forward, out of the gentle glow of the sconce and into the patch of shadow that stood between them, an uncharacteristically grave expression on his normally placid face. "What it is that you are unable to speak of, even to me. Don't think I haven't noticed your growing lack of exuberance." He said quietly, "You rarely smile, you don't sing, your music has become a sombre measure of practice."
Jack had the good grace to drop his gaze as Stephen hit upon a point. He was an idiot to think that Stephen would not notice. "I fear that maybe you have read into something that is not there." He spoke to the floor, unable to bring himself to meet his eye and lie to his face.
"Perhaps. But I'm very rarely wrong on these matters." He was so much closer than a moment ago, his steps had gone unheard beneath the thundering rush of blood that pounded in his ears. "Something is weighing on your mind."
Jack felt a shudder rock him, a faint tremble that sapped at the strength in his legs as he looked up, pale eyes capturing his in an unbreakable gaze. Any semblance of a denial dying on his lips.
"Something that disturbs you." Those ghostly eyes flickered over his face, reading the tension as well as a much loved and dog eared book.
He probably should have shook his head, taken a step backwards even, but he was caught in the trappings of his stare, pervading and encompassing, the weight of it sinking deep within him and fixing him neatly to the creaking boards beneath his feet.
Suddenly his breath held no air, his heart beat far too fast, his chest aching under the pressure.
A cool touch against his cheek, the slow and gentle slide of his fingers along the line of his jaw as he continued to stare at him as though a prize beneath his glass. He was considerably proud that he had held his gaze, had refused to let his eyes flicker and close as he had wanted. He hadn't even seen him move. But he saw him now, the heated space between them closing in, inch by glorious inch until he could barely focus on those darkening eyes.
His heart skipped and paused, clenching painfully as he held his breath.
"Just tell me." Barely breathed against his lips, a hairs breadth between them, those delicate fingers trailing idly down the length of his throat, tracing the wild beat of his heart.
His eyes closed on their own, sliding shut so he could gain some semblance of focus, to soak in the feel of his touch against his skin, no accident or circumstance. He felt the words on the edge of his tongue, pressing against his teeth as he fought and debated with himself, still somehow believing that any moment he should find himself at the mercy of the trickery of his own mind, that there was every possibility that when his eyes opened he would see himself still stood, the cool polished wood of his violin pressed against his cheek, but the words rushed out unbidden. Three damning words that he should never have the right to say to any other than his wife.
But there was no time for regret, his recriminating thoughts extinguished by the fire of his kiss, pressing against him, hand raking into his hair to hold him. Jack gasped against his lips, surprised at the furious desire that burnt him at every point they touched, his hands flying to Stephen's waist, clenching and holding fast to his shirt and effectively dragging him full body up against him. He breathed his name, hot and heavy as they kissed.
Two steps and Jack's back pressed against the wooden wall of his cabin, a breathless noise escaping him as he allowed his hands to release their painful hold, slipping beneath Stephen's shirt to slide over the gentle curve of his back, his skin soft and heated beneath his hands.
Even his most desirable fantasies had not even hinted at the exquisite perfection of having Stephen in his arms.
A knock on the door, hard and heavy enough to shatter the comfortable silence. Stephen recovered just a moment before jack, stepping back neatly and turning his face to the reflections cast in the window, hiding the flush that sat high on his cheeks.
Killick barely waited before cracking open the door, the worst of his habits, something that Jack would no doubt bring up in the immediate future. His frustration of having been interrupted schooling his face into an expression of vexation, as though heated words and not expressions of desire had just taken place. He rubbed a hand across his brow, casting his eyes to the floor.
"Beggin' you're pardon Sir, which I bin sent to ask fer the doctor." He nodded his acquiescence, beady eyes flickering back and forth between the two men until Stephen turned, already rolling up his sleeves.
Jack felt the weight of his gaze rest on him briefly. "Thank you Killick." Jack dismissed him, waiting for the click of the door falling in its latch to release his sigh, the moments stretching out forever under the weight of his stare.
The tension was almost unbearable, and Jack wondered if he looked as troubled as Stephen did.
"How long have you known?" His voice no more than a whisper, broken and somehow hopeful.
The corner of Stephen's mouth twitched, the smallest hint of a smile lighting his face momentarily as he reclaimed the distance between them, capturing Jack's lips in a brief and gentle kiss. "I've always known."
Jack sat alone in his cabin long after he'd left, his fingers tracing the curve of his lips in the dark and reliving the thrill that chased his desire at the promising look that glittered in Stephen's eyes.