It was an unspoken truth between them, that should the situation ever occur, they would die for each other, would blindly hold themselves between death and their dear heart.
But when Jack turned in time to catch him, he paused. Shocked. Stephen's weight thrown back against his chest as his mind played a game of furious catch up. He hadn't seen him up on the deck, his eyes constantly flickering from pointed gun to flashing blade, a thousand fleeting images as he turned and parried.
He would have seen him.
Should have seen him.
Yet there was no doubt this was Stephen, heavy and slumping as Jack dropped his sword, his hands grasping him around his waist as they stumbled to the floor.
The fight had been at its end, fierce and bloody, much more destructive than he had realised if it had prompted their surgeon and his assistants to break from their duties and take arms.
They landed awkwardly, Stephen sliding down his chest, laying in his lap as the air left his lungs in a pained and hurried gasp.
"Stephen." His name felt broken against his numbed lips, and he barely trusted himself to hide the blind panic in his voice as he called out for Higgins, his normally rough and commanding timbre suddenly frail as he watched the rush of blood that flowed dark and free from beneath the cloth that wrapped Stephens's throat.
His pale eyes seemed to dim, fixed upon Jack's face as he drew in a painful breath, the tension it caused lining his face with grief and agony.
Only moments had passed, but it was time enough for an unnatural silence to fall upon the deck, a hundred eyes suddenly trained on them, preceded by the shout and flash of powder that had thrown the doctor so forcefully against him. Even now the gun lay smoking at the assailant's feet as his victorious cry was cut from his throat.
"Jack." Stephen tried to speak, but there was no voice to be heard, just the arrangement of air, harsh and raw beneath the sickly sound of blood in his mouth.
"Hush dear." Jack freed his hand, trembling with force as he pushed down on the torn hole on the white cotton, his fingers slick as he cradled Stephen's neck. "Don't speak. Don't speak."
He knew exactly what the doctor would say, maudlin sentimentalities or stark truths that Jack had never been willing to entertain.
The cry for Higgins ran through the ship, echoing from voice to voice, each with a more insistent sense of urgency that only spurred on the sickening sensation that had begun to claw at Jack's throat.
"Why?" The softness of his eyes blurring the ragged edge of his demand.
And without thought for his pain, Stephen smiled, pure and blindingly beautiful amongst the blood. "I saw what you did not." His words only heard as sibilant movements, a rearrangement of smoke filled air. "It never occurred to me not to."
Jack gritted his teeth against the insurmountable wave of guilt that rushed through him with a heady abandon. He was a perfect fool, couldn't Stephen see that he would rather and welcome his own demise than see a single day without him by his side. "You shouldn't have." A pointless statement, predictable in both its sentiment and the reaction it would cause.
"You would have done the same." A tremor racked through him, clenching his eyes shut as Jacks fingers slipped through the slick heat at his neck.
Of course he would, but that was different. Because he loved Stephen, far more than he should, more than he had ever loved his wife. And he had never said, had hidden it behind affectionate names and comfortable silences.
Higgins fell to his knees beside them, the thunder of his heavy set body felt in the boards beneath them. But not even his fumbling hands or the muttered exclamations could draw Jack's eyes from Stephen's, holding his pained gaze fiercely and unwavering as a fresh pulse of blood washed through his fingers.
He would be fine. A convenient lie to tell his fractured mind. He'd have to be fine. Because the very thought of his absence from his life was blasphemy.
So jack held him tightly, only moving his hand to clutch at his chest, to feel the slow and thready beat of his heart beneath his frantic hold as Higgins worked around them. He spoke low and soothing words, his voice trembling at every pained flicker that creased his eyes.
The air felt charged, filled with the weight and static of a hundred fixed stares, no noise amongst the gathered men as they stared with a horrified perversion at their captain, watching his every action as he wiped the pained tears from the corners of his dying friend's eyes, a thick crimson line smudging against his ivory pale skin.
Stephen coughed, dark flecks of blood staining his lips as he sucked in a ragged breath, the sound of blood thick in his throat as Jack dropped his face, resting his forehead against his, trying desperately to keep Stephen's focus, his silent prayers taking on a more fervent tone, suddenly offering up anything that was his to lose in sacrifice. Anything to keep him.
Stephen's touch was light and trembling against his arm, his eyes staring straight up with a devastating hurt darkening his gaze, his lips forming words that he couldn't hear until he tipped his head, his ear close to Stephen's lips so that the broken fragments were made suddenly and heartbreakingly clear. "With all my heart. I love you, my dear Joy."
Jack would often think back to that day. Remembering the heat that settled with a physical weight against his back, the smell of blood and gunpowder permeating every fibre of his being. He would recall the truth and sorrow of those words, the agonising pain of time lost to them. Sometimes he wondered if it would have been easier had Stephen never told him. That maybe he would have been able to live his life without knowing just how his dear friend had felt, that they both loved each other with a burning, dying love, so consuming and overwhelming that they had never considered the fact that neither of them knew how the other felt.
Surely it would have made it easier going to his wife, to his children. It would have made the pitying glances of his men all the more bearable.
But he would never change a thing, he had embraced the harrowing difficulty of loving another man with both hands, clutching the feeling to his chest and claiming the emotion as his own.
At length he would stand from his desk, his long forgotten paperwork left for the morning. He would head to bed, shrugging off his clothes as he stared morosely at the cot. He'd fight with the sheets for a moment, pulling them around himself as he tried to get comfortable in the tight space afforded to him. He would sigh softly, pushing away those thoughts that had kept him awake as he pressed a kiss to Stephen's neck, his lips catching the edge of the scar, a permanent reminder at how close he had come to losing everything.
No, he'd never change a thing. Because to go back and quiet him would mean that he wouldn't be here now, wouldn't be able to smile as Stephen turned in his sleep, pressing his face against Jack's throat, his breath warm and comforting against his skin as they lay contented in the swaying confines of their private world.