"Doesn't it ever bother you, Jack?" Stephen asked as he rested his hands on the side of the violoncello, and looked at Jack, who sat across from him, his violin lying on his knees.
"What 'it' in particular would you have me be bothered by, Stephen?" Jack asked, grinning.
"Which nuisance of being aboard a seabound vessel are you referring to? Stale water that tastes so much of salt that you might as well drink the water of the sea? The eternal rats scurrying through the woodwork, keeping us awake at night? Not being able to sleep in a proper bed for months but having to dangle in a hammock instead so we wake up with our backs broken? The all-pervasive cold as we stray into higher latitudes? The oppressive heat when we're marooned in the doldrums?"
He looked down at his violin, idly fingering one of the tuning pegs.
"Or maybe having to tune our instruments every five minutes because of the constantly changing temperature and humidity if we don't want to sound like two tom cats in heat, when in fact we are aiming for the perfect rendition of a Corelli duet?"
He flashed another grin and shouldered his violin, starting the first bars of their favorite musical score.
Stephen sighed and carefully placed his cello against the woodwork, getting up and walking towards the porthole, his back turned towards his friend.
"No, Jack. Actually, I wasn't thinking of something as mundane as that. I was referring to the fact that this very room that is usually used for more or less pleasurable events such as playing music or dining with our fellow officers, is also the stage for dealings of a far more horrific nature. You don't have to take a very deep breath to smell the reek of gunpowder and the stench of blood, even if we haven't been into battle for over four weeks. It's the contradictory nature of this room that bothers me every once in a while. I guess this is one of those occasions." Stephen shrugged. The dark seemed unusually oppressive tonight, full of nightmares and bad memories. He shivered. "It doesn't matter, let it go."
Jack stood up, gently putting his violin on the chair, folding the protective clothing over it and reached for the port, pouring two goblets and handing one to Stephen.
"Ah, I see what you mean, my dear," he said, tasting the port and relishing its rich flavor, "but isn't that inherent in living on a ship? Your own surgeon's quarters double as a room for your extensive study of unknown species of beetles and phasmids and other natural curiosities, - I have never seen a man produce so much writing as you do, Stephen -," Jack grinned, "and yet in the blink of an eye you throw all your work into a corner, not giving it a second thought the moment the wounded and dying are being brought below."
"I guess you're right, Jack, but still it bothers me that a room used for the refinement of the human mind and for heightening his sense of esthetics also serve as a place for wreaking havoc and dealing out destruction.
Stephen was silent as he sipped his port and looked out of the porthole again. Jack sighed softly.
"You have a point, Stephen, but that /is/ what being on a ship amounts to. A ship is a self-contained world, a miniscule one, I grant you, but a complete world after all. A world with its own rules and regulations /and/ with limited supplies. So we make do with what we have, and everything on board doubles as something else. We use the very hammocks of our dead companions that they spent their last night in to wrap them in before we send them to their final resting places. The crew knows how to handle rigging and sails as well as a knife or cutlass in a fight. And you know as well as I do that space is the scarcest commodity on a ship, even on one as superb as the Surprise. Everything on a ship, including my great cabin, is used in as many ways as possible, and I for one think highly of a man who can think up yet another use for limited supplies."
Stephen looked at Jack thoughtfully as his friend continued, more softly this time.
"Take your own hands, for example," Jack said as he put down his goblet and took one of Stephen's hands between his own, his rough thumbs thoughtlessly caressing Stephen's fingers, studying them in earnest, and failing completely to notice the way Stephen had suddenly grown very still, his breath shallow and hitching.
"The most delicate of physician's hands I have ever seen, capable of performing the most intricate of surgeries or minute dissection of the tiniest of animal, and yet so strong that they can wield a sword with ease in the thick of battle. And, my dear Stephen, I can't express often enough how thankful I am that your hands can do all that, since by sword and scalpel you have saved me from certain death innumerable times."
And then without thought Jack brought up Stephen's hand to his face and kissed the palm tenderly.
Stephen let out a shaky breath, the kiss burning a way through his flesh.
"And would this double function on a ship include matters of a less material nature, Jack?" he said softly, his hand sliding upward almost of its own volition, touching Jack's face, expecting Jack to flinch from his touch. Jack looked at Stephen, somewhat taken aback by the nature of the question and Stephen's gesture.
"Friendship doubling as love."
Jack let go of Stephen's hand and he looked at him. "Ah, Stephen, you know how the Navy looks upon dealings of an amourous nature between crew members, and as the ship's captain I must adhere to that rule, even if I do not always see the wisdom of the rules the Navy bestows upon us. But in private I say that if given the choice between either two men having formed a deep and lasting friendship, and expressing that connection in a more physical way than society would normally allow, or these men, being barred from pursuing this way of showing their feelings for each other, becoming sullen and unfit for work and a general nuisance to the rest of the crew, one should choose the lesser of two evils, provided they keep their tryst away from the eyes and ears of other men."
Stephen hesitated, realising that what would be said now would change things between them forever, for bad or for good. And yet, he had to speak the words that burned inside him, threatening to engulf him and consume him if he did not let them out.
"And what about two ranking officers?"
Jack's answer was thoughtful, his eyes straying towards the dark that was so close and only kept at bay by the candles in the room as he answered Stephen's question.
"I suppose the same would go for them, only they should be even more careful than members of the crew thus inclined, and I could think of instances where it would be most unwise of them to give in to their feelings. On the other hand, I believe it is human nature to seek love out anywhere it can and that love can surpass duty if that love is strong enough."
Jack froze, realizing what he had just said, and as memories - Stephen's hands on him, tending his wounds, enjoying how they felt on his skin even through a haze of pain, late nights spent in each other's company, the room light by a single candle, the world no larger than the little circle of light - flooded his mind and he knew with complete certainty that there had never been a man as thick and insensible to his own feelings as he had been. Somewhere along the lines their easy friendship had evolved into something else; something he had always taken for granted, always there, to use as he pleased, certain that the supply was unending. Jack turned his head towards Stephen and he stood there, poised between fighting or running away, and as he closed his eyes he knew that there was a third choice, and that he had just made it. He felt Stephen's lips on his own then, the sensation sending a powerful charge through his body, and he opened his lips, inviting Stephen in, closing the final gap between them forever.
When they finally broke the kiss, slightly breathless, Stephen asked, with a sly smile playing around his lips, as he stepped back just a little, his hands resting on Jack's hips, "And do you think more highly of me now, Jack, now that I have found another way to use a valuable commodity?"
Jack laughed aloud, his fingers teasing a lock of Stephen's hair.
"There is no way I could think more highly of you than I have ever done, Stephen. Well, perhaps if you brought back a man from the dead, but one can safely assume that even /you/ will not be able to perform such a feat. Although, in a way, I guess you can say you have done just that just now."
They fell silent, sharing a certainty that whatever had happened would not end here, yet unsure how to proceed.
Stephen broke the awkward silence as he took Jack's hand and kissed the tips of his fingers lovingly before he turned and reached for his cello.
"You know, Jack, there is /one/ thing a on a ship that everyone on board, including ourselves, has in endless supply and which we can use only once."
Jack looked at Stephen, a question in his eyes.
"What's that, Stephen?"
Stephen grinned. "Time, Jack. We have all the time in the world. And do not forget the music." He sat down and positioned his cello before him, taking his bow, amusement lighting his eyes.
"What say you, Jack? Shall we surprise the crew tonight? You know they never cease to complain about our choice in music, saying they couldn't dance to it if the Devil came in person to lead them? Shall we double the pleasure of our music making and regale the crew with some tunes they'll enjoy as well?"
"An excellent idea, Stephen," Jack exclaimed and he picked up his violin, joining his friend in a merry jig, their mingled voices adding the words to the tune they were playing, their eyes never leaving each other's face.
The merry music drifted upwards to the deck, where Lord Blakeney stood first watch, bringing a smile to his face. It floated down below decks, to the cramped crew's quarters where the men looked up in surprise from their handiworks and games of cards and dice.
"I'll be damned," muttered Killick in surprise as Nagle put down his whittling knife and the piece of wood he'd been carving and clambered to his feet, grinning, "them's finally playing a tune a fellow can wrap his mind around and move his feet to. Maybe they's a bit like us after all."