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Five Things That Never Happened To Aubrey & Maturin
Jack came around through the garden, creeping quietly with an ashamed, hunted expression. He badly wanted to avoid Killick's notice, for he had fallen twice riding the uncooperative bay, and his brand-new coat, which he had expressly been forbidden to wear on horseback, was quite covered. He meant to slip through the western sitting room and up the servants' staircase to Stephen's dissecting room, where the coat might be hung to dry out of sight until the mud could be brushed away.
But as he slipped very quietly up to the house, he found the French doors ajar, and Sophie's voice floating out, very agitated. "Wretched old -- how dare she make such a vicious -- even hint at such a -- it is pure vile rumormongering."
"For heaven's sake, Sophie, do stop this flying into the boughs," Diana said. "Of course it is perfectly false, old-cattish invention. And even if it were not, men cannot be expected to be saints, you know, at sea for a year and more."
"Oh, how can you speak in such an infamous manner?" Sophie cried. "The very idea is outrageous, wholly beyond anything."
"How absurdly missish you can be," Diana said. "I wonder that of the two of us, you should not wish it of all things. Stephen is not the one like to fall prey to the first designing creature who gets her claws in him, after all."
Jack had already heard enough to be appalled and wish Diana to the devil, along with whichever jealous old creature had apparently accused him of something. Sophie had scarcely forgiven him for his indiscretion with Amanda Smith, and here they were stirring it all up in her head again.
Sophie said, "I am sure that Jack would never, never again --" But she sounded nothing like certain.
"One month and two bottles away from home, Jack would tumble into the arms of the first woman who beckons him, and if you choose to believe otherwise there is nothing to be said," Diana said, very scornfully. "I hope I do not expect heroic measures from Stephen, either, but at least I can be tolerably certain that he will not make an utter fool of himself or of me."
"Then I can scarcely see why you would object to unfaithfulness, although to be sure you have little fear of it," Sophie said, a flash of temper in her voice, and Jack winced away from it uneasily, well aware that in this area he did not bear close comparison to Stephen, and that Sophie likely knew it.
"There is always a risk with such things; the heart may come to be engaged," Diana said. "Indeed, in Stephen's case I should think it likely, if he were to fall, and that I should not care for above half. No; I have quite convinced myself that it would be splendid if they kept one another out of danger; which is a great pity, because you know there is not the slightest likelihood of it ever happening."
"Diana, I would blush for you if I thought you meant a word of this," Sophie said. "Surely you must recall that anything of the sort is wholly forbidden -- why, men are hanged for it!"
Outside, instant clarity, instant horror, followed by a very passionate indignation: only a consciousness of his extremely false position kept Jack from bursting in upon them, and he heard the end of the conversation through a haze of anger and profound embarrassment: Diana abusing Sophie for a fool, as if such things did not go on all the time, as if anyone should object so long as there was no open scandal, as if Stephen and Jack should ever be so foolish as to leave evidence. All absurdly true, and only serving to inflame him still further, and to all of this he was forced to stand and listen, until finally they left the room and he could come inside.
Wanting nothing less than to encounter either of them now, Jack ran up the stairs and flung himself into the small dark workroom almost violently, out of breath and red in the face from emotion. He halted just inside the door: Stephen was at the small table, working on one of his endless skeletons, and he lifted his head and gazed at Jack in surprise at this abrupt entrance. Jack found himself unable to say a word. Stephen, wholly unconscious of his difficulties, set down his tools and came around the table to take his pulse and loosen his neckcloth. "I have warned you a score of times," he said with some severity. "You will surely suffer an apoplexy if you persist in this unregulated sort of exercise. Also, you are chilled through: come to the other room and sit by the fire."
And naturally Stephen led him into his own dressing room, the fire laid and drawing nicely already, and without the slightest hesitation stripped him of his muddy coat, his neckcloth, his breeches, while Jack submitted for lack of courage to object. Stephen's hand on his thigh felt strangely hot. He was pressed back into the warm armchair, and Stephen bent over him with concern, touched his forehead, the side of his face, fingers very close to Jack's lips. The heat of the fire was soaking into his limbs, a strange languid heaviness settling in him; he could not have moved from under Stephen's hand for all love.
There was a quick rap on the door, then Diana opened it and looked inside: she gazed on them a little blankly, while Jack stared back at her in horror and Stephen in mild inquiry. A little color came into her cheeks first, then after a moment her eyes came alight with amusement, her generous mouth twitching slightly. "Forgive me, my dear, I did not mean to intrude," she said, and withdrew.
Thinking nothing of it, Stephen moved away and brought over an afghan, tucking it in around Jack, and rang for the servants to bring him hot tea; all the while Jack only slumped in the chair in misery, unable to conceive how he might repair the situation.
Dinner was an odd and uncomfortable affair. Stephen was the only one of them wholly unconstrained; Sophie kept her eyes fixed directly on her plate when not darting them between him and Jack; Diana was at all times on the verge of laughter; and Jack was so lost in mortification that he was unequal to speech. Stephen was rarely much of a conversationalist, and by the end of the meal he could hardly help but notice the profound silences that fell over the table whenever he was not speaking.
Jack had heavy recourse to the bottle by way of making the evening bearable. Diana watched him with a certain secret amusement, and began to ply Sophie with wine also, which she, scarcely paying attention, drank more quickly than usual. By the time they left Jack and Stephen to the port, she was bright-eyed and flushed, and Diana had to discreetly help her from the room.
Jack did not meet Stephen's eyes, but he still felt their frowning weight. To escape the risk of being asked for an explanation, he very shortly proposed rejoining the women, and they moved to the drawing room to find Sophie and Diana laughing together behind their hands, Sophie looking scandalized and fascinated at once. Jack watched them uneasily through the haze of wine and port, wishing too late that he had not drunk quite so much: his head felt very light.
Stephen looked steadily in turn at him, at Diana and Sophie, then crossed to them and bore Diana off to a corner of the room. Thus abandoned, Jack had little choice but to join Sophie upon the couch, where she continued to avoid looking directly at him. Her manner had changed, however; she appeared more embarrassed or even ashamed than shocked, and when she did venture to glance his way, there was an oddly speculative quality to her looks.
Across the room, Diana laughed up at Stephen and kissed him very passionately, and as she did she loosened her hair, letting it tumble down freely as she wound her arms around his neck. Jack stared and blushed: the four of them were not wont to stand on ceremony together, but this was scarcely conduct he expected to see in his drawing-room. He was strangely discomfited by seeing Stephen in an embrace, his hand tangled in Diana's black hair and the other on her waist, an intensity in his face that he ordinarily showed only in battle.
Sophie made a small sound, watching them with equal surprise, her lips parted a little: she licked them as he watched, and he found himself leaning towards her, murmuring her name urgently. She shivered in his arms, yielding, and let him press her back against the cushions, responding to his kisses almost feverishly. He scarcely remembered their circumstances until he heard the key turn in the lock: Diana was at the door, and Stephen was taking off his neckcloth and coat and laying them over the back of a chair.
The thick rug before the fireplace was large enough for all of them, and they heaped it with cushions. Sophie blushed and looked anxious when Jack began to unfasten her gown, until Diana knelt beside her, murmured something to her that made her laugh, and coaxed her along. "Here, joy," Stephen said in his ear, and helped Jack with his coat before they unbuckled each other's breeches. Greatly daring, he slid his hands beneath Stephen's shirt and drew it off over his head, lingering on his skin; Stephen made no protest but took his face in his hands, and Jack had only a moment to draw breath before he was being comprehensively kissed.
He was nearly dizzy from wine and lack of breath when Stephen freed his lips again; lying back naked with the heat of the fire playing along his side, his thigh, he looked at Sophie and Diana watching curled together beneath an afghan, and Stephen stretched out beside him and held out his hand.
It seemed to Jack languid and drawn-out, this slow exploration of one another; he was burning almost at once, but Stephen's hand on his led him through slow tracery of designs upon Sophie's skin, on Diana's, and into the heated damp between their legs. Stephen put his mouth on Sophie, his tongue sliding over Jack's fingers to reach in, and she shuddered wildly in Diana's arms and cried out, low shattered cries he had never heard from her, both hands pressed over her mouth to close them in while Diana kissed tears away from her face.
Stephen withdrew and urged him into place; Jack panted in short, quick breaths under his hands as Stephen guided him into Sophie: she was so very wet and open, and she arched into him so welcomingly. He sought her mouth; Stephen's fingers were sliding into him, and he could not bear to meet Diana's eyes: she was watching his face avidly, and he knew every stroke was written on his face. "Steady now, my dear," Stephen murmured, and Jack struggled not to cry out aloud as he was breached.
Diana leaned forward, kissed him, and drew Sophie's hands up to his chest. Together they stroked him, teasing gently, while Stephen began to move upon him. Sophie's hands slid away and her head fell back onto Diana's shoulder; she was weeping softly again, and the deep clenching of her body around him echoed his own shudders. Stephen shifted within him: a sharp, stabbing pleasure coursed through him, very nearly pain, and he spent at once, Stephen's harsh gasping against his skin.
His arms were straining under his weight and Stephen's, and his shoulders burned. Sophie was half-fainting beneath him; Diana helped her away to the couch, so Jack could finally let himself down, every limb trembling, and sprawl over the rug in animal exhaustion. Stephen kissed the side of his throat tenderly and withdrew: a strange empty sensation, not unpleasant, and he put his head down and fell instantly asleep.
When he woke, Stephen was still there, stretched out on the floor beside him and reading a book by the firelight; the candles were gone out and an afghan was draped lightly over their legs. He put down his book when Jack raised his head, and watched him with quiet affection.
"Diana has seen Sophie to bed, and dismissed the servants for the night," he said, when Jack had sat up and cleared the sleep from his eyes.
Jack nodded drowsily and let Stephen draw him up. His whole body was glowing with well-being and satisfaction, despite the few lingering aches; the soft cotton of his shirt felt delicious against his skin. Stephen's mouth was very warm and tender, kissing him goodnight at the head of the stairs, and Sophie murmured in her sleep and cuddled up to him as he climbed into bed. He heard Diana's low pleased laughter, down the hall, and fell asleep smiling.
- End -