This Night My Soul Laid Bare

by Ashkta

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/54280.html)

Author’s Note: All names, both of individuals and of ships, are entirely fictional to the best of my knowledge.

***

From the personal log of Captain Edmund Burgess, H.M.S. Vigilance —

I write this knowing that I must burn it soon after. Should it be read, there is no doubt that I, and those involved in the detailed events, would be set upon at once by the Admiralty and all the force of the law. I’m certain that they would descend like a swift knife to cut the bulbous tumor from the face of the Service.

So it is not for others that I transcribe this to paper but for myself, so that my mind may be silent of its clamorous thoughts; so that my sins might be laid bare, though the only guilt I feel is that I cannot give myself wholeheartedly to my questionable nature nor influence the object of my affections to do the same. No doubt that makes it all the more sinful, but I cannot regret what I have done, only attempt to keep it hidden.

My obsession began some time ago, at least a year, for it is now close to Christmas and the arrival of my new midshipman came well before that on the previous calendar.

Garrick Davenshire was transferred to the Vigilance when the H.M.S. High Tower was pulled into port, damaged. Most of her crew was reassigned to other vessels as the repairs would take some months to complete, and the men’s skills could be used elsewhere in the meantime. The captain of that ship, a certain Marlow Salsbury, was a friend and crewmate from long ago, before a series of promotions separated us, except for the occasional letter.

And it was just such a letter that arrived to me in the early morning as I entered the Admiralty building, held in the hand of the very midshipman that the letter itself discussed.

My Dear Edmund,

I realize that correspondence between us has been short of late, and, for that, I am deeply apologetic. Distance and the demands of the Service have prevented me from writing for several months, as I’m sure you can understand.

But to the point of this letter: I present to you one Mr. Garrick Davenshire, Midshipman, late of the High Tower. As you have no doubt heard, the mission of the High Tower is currently at a halt thanks to an unfortunate incident for which I must now stand accountable.

Thus it seems that Mr. Davenshire is in need of a new ship and a new captain to serve. I have spoken of you highly to him, and for him I now do the same to you. He has served me well these last three years, and I believe that he would be an asset to your crew. You will find him diligent and able, ready to submit to your commands before you can so much as utter a breath.

As to the rest, I leave that for you to ask, as you may or may not be interested in some parts of his history. Know only that you shall not be disappointed in his service. Should you choose to employ him, I have taken the liberty of altering his information with the Admiralty. Thus, unless you send him back to me with a negative reply, you will find everything in order.

As a matter of one final request, I should mention that Mr. Davenshire has been employed upon my vessel as an Acting Lieutenant for some months. I would ask that you allow him to retain this honor as he is scheduled to take the official lieutenant’s exam during the next period of application. (Yes, I have done my research, dear Edmund, and I know that you have recently lost your most junior lieutenant in a skirmish. Should Mr. Davenshire pass the exam, he would be the perfect candidate to fill your deficiency).

I realize that you may wish to put him through your own tests to discover whether or not he is worthy of being an Acting Lieutenant on board the Vigilance, and I encourage you to do so. But, whatever the case, I vouch for him completely.

I look forward to any message you may send, and I pray that we may see each other soon if circumstances permit.

Your dearest friend,
— M. Salsbury.

I held the letter gently between my fingers, and no doubt I smiled as I read Marlow’s parenthetical address. In fact, it had been far more than a few months since I had heard from him, despite what he had written, and I found that looking at his small but flared handwriting, infused with so much friendly presumption, made me warm immediately to the request that he had made.

I folded the letter, careful to crease it only where it had been originally pressed, and sniffed loudly. I didn’t look at the young man as I addressed him.

“Davenshire, is it? Sounds a bit like a sheep herder’s town.”

There was no response aside from a slight shuffle of feet. When I finally glanced at Mr. Davenshire, I could see that he wanted to say something, but his inability to read my mood prevented him from doing so. Still, I was impressed. Though probably nervous, he didn’t fidget and his gaze remained level, which was more than I could say for any of the midshipmen currently stationed on the Vigilance.

I decided to make things easy, for now. “Oh, it’s all right, Mr. Davenshire. It was a bit of a joke.”

His eyes widened, then he smiled a bit. It was obvious to me that he was still fairly young, but that wasn’t surprising in the least (in fact, had he been older and still a midshipman, I might have worried over his seamanship). I was far more interested in the dark, tea-colored hue of his eyes and the awkward turn of his mouth. Had I been looking at him from a distance, I might have thought him merely a child, someone fair and unused to hard work. His head was covered in curls, jet-black and unkempt; and he had a certain softness about him that was due more to youth than anything else. I expected he would become much leaner as he aged.

But up close, I could see the line across his forehead where he wore his hat, and his skin had a tanned, lightly weathered quality that proved he was often on deck. His uniform looked a little worn, save for a few bits that seemed suspiciously new. I wondered if his shipmates had lent him the items so that he might better present himself to me. Knowing Salsbury as I did, I would not have thought it at all out of character if he had given them to the young man himself.

As much as I wanted to linger over my old friend’s letter and inspect my new midshipman, I had orders to be in a meeting, and I could not allow myself to be held up much longer. I tucked the folded papers away and directed the young man to a seat in the hall. “I’m afraid you’ll have to wait on me, Mr. Davenshire. I’m expected in chambers at the moment, and the Lords of the Admiralty do not like to be kept waiting. If you care to wait I shouldn’t be more than an hour. You’re welcome to ride back to the Vigilance with me when my business here is complete.”

He looked half shocked for a moment, as if I’d presented him with a bizarre but expensive gift. When he caught himself gaping, he offered a stiff nod. “Aye, sir, I’ll be glad to wait. Um, please…. I’ve taken too much of your time already.”

He gestured toward the hall and took a few steps back, moving out of my way. I gave him a brief nod and began my journey through the sprawling building.

The orders that I received are of no importance for this transcription. Indeed, they are written elsewhere and are now a matter of public record as the mission itself has been over for some time. I will not recount that meeting here, and, instead, move on with the ride back to Portsmouth.

I have never enjoyed having to hurry to and fro between one part of the country and another, and no doubt Mr. Davenshire could see it in my expression as the post-chaise rumbled over muddy terrain. It had been raining the night before, and the ground had chosen to remain soppy rather than absorb the water. There were footprints on the bottom of the carriage, and my boots continued to slide across the slippery dirt every time the driver hit a heavy bump.

I am not a man who is always capable of withholding the expression of his emotions, though it is often thought of as a captain’s duty to retain a brusque veneer in front of his subordinates. That may well be true, and for the most part I have succeeded, but when alone with one other person for many hours in a carriage, I find it immensely tiring to bother (Marlow used to laugh at me for just that reason and said that he wondered how I ever became a captain when I had so little tolerance for pretense).

And so it was that I began conversing with Mr. Davenshire, though I did open the matter with:

“Mind you, boy, that I’m not going to be so talkative once we’re on the Vigilance. I don’t want you thinking you have special privileges, you understand.”

He looked scandalized at the mere suggestion. “Certainly not, sir. I would never presume.”

“Good.” I nodded and leaned back, looking him over thoughtfully. “Good, then. So tell me about yourself. Who is your father? Certainly not a lord. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a Lord Davenshire before.” I grinned, and he ducked his head slightly, in what appeared to be both embarrassment and acknowledgment.

“No, sir, not a lord. A historian, actually, working with the university in Oxford.”

“Ah, an academic. How is it, then, that you came into the Navy? Certainly your father wouldn’t have approved.”

“He didn’t.”

There was the tiniest pause, in which Davenshire looked uncomfortable about the turn of the conversation. I considered that his home life might have been a tetchy topic, but before I could give him leave to light on a new subject, he continued.

“My grandfather was a Navy man, and I’d always been interested in the stories he would tell. Of course, it’s really a lot more difficult than he made it out to be, but I enjoy what I do all the same. I’m not afraid of hard work.” He cleared his throat and looked up, though his eyes were slightly averted. I frowned, not at all pleased by the look on his face. “Father raved about it a while. He was furious that I wasn’t continuing my education. But in the end, he helped me to enlist. I suppose he thought it was best to be rid of me if I wasn’t going to obey him.”

“Mm.” I touched my lips with the back of my hand and looked out the chaise’s window at the countryside.

At my soft grumble, he became flustered and spoke quickly. “Oh, but I don’t mean to say I’m not obedient, sir. I am, I assure you.”

“Of course you are. Of course.” I waved my hand at him in a gesture of placation, and he settled back into his seat, watching me as if I might suddenly throw him out the door. “I wasn’t implying otherwise. I was only thinking.”

He nodded once but didn’t look at me long. His behaviorisms baffled me somewhat, though I suppose there was nothing strange about them considering I was all he had for company. It was one thing for a young man to appear capable and strong on a completely professional level, but when a captain begins talking to a midshipman as if he’s a person and not just a working cog of the ship, well, it tends to put him out of his comfort area. Not that it was any easier for me. I was all too aware of the distance in our ranks as well as in our ages. I would have guessed him at eighteen or nineteen, which would have made me over fifteen years his senior. Experience had left a chasm between us that simple small talk would not bridge.

All the same, I felt easy in his presence. I certainly would not have been chatting in quite the same way with my first lieutenant, who was a much more serious young man than this Mr. Davenshire. In fact, I was fairly certain that, if I had tried, he would have been struck immediately dumb, which would have done nothing for the conversation or for my patience. So I told myself that whatever propriety I might be breaching by relaxing in front of this young man, at least I wouldn’t be bored.

“How long did you serve on the High Tower, Mr. Davenshire? The letter said—.”

“Three years, sir.”

“Oh, yes. Three years.” I half smiled and rubbed my thumb across my eyebrow, considering this information. “That’s fairly shocking news.”

“How so, sir?”

“Well, it’s only that Captain Salsbury has a tendency to lose his midshipmen within only a few months. If they don’t get killed, then he runs them off with his tyrannical eccentricities.”

That garnered a laugh, and I was glad that Davenshire seemed relaxed. He looked down at his hat, which he’d been clutching in his hands since we’d gotten into the post-chaise, and ran his fingers along the brim. I watched absently. “Well, I can’t say anything as to that, sir. But Captain Salsbury is a fine man. Very fine. Best captain I’ve served under in my six years so far.”

That sounded right. I made a fair show of disapproving Marlow’s methods, but I knew him to be an excellent captain, especially when it came to keeping the morale of his crew. Anyone discontent with his command was probably a brigand and looking to desert no matter the case.

“Well, I hope that you can find similar good things to say about me to your next captain.”

His brown eyes widened as he looked up. “Of course, sir. I’ve no doubt. Captain Salsbury had no end of good to say about you, sir, and I would never doubt his word.”

The smile he gave me, then, began the fairly short process of melting my soul.

I should mention, before I continue, that I’m a married man. My wife, Margaret, is a beautiful creature. She is graceful, loving, and in every way a perfect match for me. Our friends, and even some strangers, so I’ve heard, have remarked that we’re quite a handsome couple. We’re both tall and slender, with dark hair and fair skin (though mine is, still, considerably more tanned than hers, what with my profession). Her eyes are dark while mine are blue, and while we’re sometimes capable of disconcerting even the most stalwart of people, we laugh easily, especially when we’re together.

I never question Margaret’s feelings for me. She misses me when I am gone, but if I cannot see her when I return, she does not get angry or disheartened. She is a proper Naval wife, and I do adore her.

Our daughter’s name is Caroline. She was born shortly after I was made post, and Margaret and I were both thankful for my extra income then. Of course, being a man of thirty-five, I’ve heard it whispered that I should have had two children by now; but my duties keep me away from home, as they do many men, and my wife does not worry so much about that, though she’d probably enjoy another child in the house.

I’ve told her about my tendencies.

For a man accustomed to doing the necessary thing, to killing other men or firing upon their ships, I have a surprisingly powerful conscience. It is not my place to let it get in the way of my service to His Majesty, but in my service to my wife, I’m afraid it speaks often.

The confession came about after an incident that I will not discuss here. Suffice it to say that I was unfaithful to her for the first time in our marriage, though, at the time it was happening, I did not consider it such. It was only after some thought that I realized what I had done, and once I did, I found that I could not look her in the eye.

I told myself that it was useless to feel guilty, and that she would never know if I kept silent on the matter. But as the day went on, I came to realize that the only way to ease my mind was to tell her the truth. It took the better part of two days before I could summon the courage, and, once I did, I didn’t know how to broach the topic. As usual, Margaret herself gave me the opening that I needed.

Only a man who has admitted to his wife that he finds pleasure in the intimate company of other men will understand me when I say — there was a scene.

For Margaret’s part in the entire matter, I blame her not one bit. I deserved far, far worse than I received, and I merely count myself lucky to have an understanding woman.

She laughed, at first, thinking that what I said was in jest. But then she looked at me again, watched my eyes, and read the signs of nervous guilt that flitted across my face. Her hands began to shake, and she had to set down the glass she had been holding (I interrupted her in the middle of breakfast. No doubt her digestion went badly that morning). Her expression changed from one thing to another, running the gamut of confusion and bemusement, and ending on something that, to me, looked like horror.

“Am I to understand,” she said softly, “that you’ve decided you don’t want me anymore? Is that what you mean to tell me, Edmund?”

I was shocked. “No! No, that’s not what I mean at all.” I walked around to her and knelt by her chair, taking her hand in mine. “I just needed you to know. I needed you to understand the way I am.”

My wife is not prone to fits of sobbing, and even then, though her eyes were full of tears, she didn’t weep. She did, however, jerk her hand from mine and slap me across the face.

There were a number of things that happened after that, most of which were noisy and involved the breaking of our belongings. The servants came to see what was happening, and as soon as they caught sight of our quarrel, they went back the way they had come. Whether or not they heard what our discussion was about, I’ll never know. If they understood anything through Margaret’s yelling and my pleading, then they haven’t said anything about it in the years since.

When she had exhausted herself, I calmly explained that it had always been in my nature to be drawn toward men (though it was clear enough that I had an interest in women as well). It might have been foolish of me to tell her that, but it did make her stop and look at me seriously.

“I’m not sure if I believe you.” She clutched her stomach and stood by the door. The look on her face broke me, but when I tried to take a step forward, she backed away.

“Margaret—”

“Tell me this, Edmund. Do you love me?”

“I do. Of course I do. I would never have married you otherwise.”

“No? Then you do not plan to discard me now?”

“I would never. You and Caroline are my life.”

“Part of it, it would seem, but not all.”

“I swear to you, Margaret. I have never kept anything from you but this.”

“Well.” She half smiled with some small bit of amusement, and part of my heart was hopeful. “This one was quite a big enough secret.”

I stepped forward again, more slowly, and this time she did not back away. She allowed me to touch her face but she would not look at me. “My love, I do not mean to hurt you. Please understand that this changes nothing about how I care for you, nor does it change how I desire you. Nothing could. I only wanted the truth between us.”

She smiled again, and I felt a tear drop against my finger. “Yes. And there it is.”

She walked away from me, and we did not speak again until it was time for me to return to sea. She brought Caroline to the dock to see me off, and before I took the boat back to the Vigilance, I kissed them both.

She looked at me with distant eyes and said, “Take care, Edmund. We’ll be here when you return.”

It was a small reassurance, but its intention was clear enough. I had not lost her, and I should be grateful for that. I hoped that she only needed time to forgive me.

Several months later, after a noticeable lack of letters from my wife, I received one that I have, since, called my pardon.

My Darling Husband,

I have given great consideration to the matter that we discussed before your last departure. I have come to the decision that I am not angry, and I respect greatly that you had the courage to be honest with me in every way.

Your world is foreign to me. I know only what I’ve read and heard, and what you have seen fit to tell me. I have seen how other seamen treat their wives — as if they would not understand or could not handle the information if it were given to them (and, perhaps, they are right to think so). But you have always treated me as an equal and for that I love you more.

These desires of yours are even more foreign still, but if this is part of your life, then so be it. While I may not fully comprehend the reasons or feelings behind it, I trust you to know what’s best for yourself. I ask only that, while you are here, you are with me. And that, when you are away, you at least think of me fondly. As for whatever else may happen during the long stretches of time between, that will be between you and the heavens. Should you choose to speak to me about it, then I will listen and try to understand, and I will try not be jealous provided I know that you still regard me as highly as you did when we first met.

I find this all difficult to understand, but I cannot think ill of you. Perhaps we will discuss it further when you are next home.

As always, I look forward to seeing you again. Write me when you are able.

Your loving and patient wife,
— Margaret.

I did not read her letter again after the day I first received it, nor did I ever find need to take advantage of its magnanimous allowances. I did, however, save it with a number of other personal papers, and it was through these notes that I searched for the letter again not three months after Garrick Davenshire arrived on my ship.

I suppose I wanted reassurance that she would forgive me if I proved weak. I had been watching Mr. Davenshire closely, and I found that I liked him far more than I should, though I took care to conceal my interest.

At first it was merely a bit of favoritism, as my good friend had sent him to me, and he had proved himself more than once to be worthy of Marlow’s high praise. He was fast and efficient. He picked up on the smallest changes in the ship (and, for that matter, in her captain), once he got to know her. He had a knack for making the crew feel appreciated and buoyant; a fact that I attribute largely to his unfailingly positive attitude. But he also knew how to be firm, and his other skills, navigation in particular, seemed to grow each day.

I was certain that he would pass the lieutenant’s exam without difficulty. I told him as much the morning he was scheduled to leave. I had called him into my cabin, and he stood quietly, listening as I reviewed a few of the things that might be wise to remember.

“I suppose that’s all,” I said.

When the silence began, and I hadn’t yet dismissed him, he gave me an inquisitive look. I half smiled and moved toward the cabin window, not ready to admit that I had been staring at him.

“I thank you for your help, sir.” He said it softly, and I turned my head to acknowledge him. “I doubt any other captain would have put forth such an effort to help me with my studies.”

“Well, you hardly needed any help.”

“That’s gracious of you to say, sir. But if I pass, it will be because of your tutoring.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. There was no way for me say that my tutoring had been an entirely selfish occupation. “Maybe so. But….” I turned around and gave him a long, appraising look. “If you don’t go now, I expect you’ll be late. The Vigilance will be sorry for your absence, so do hurry back, Mr. Davenshire.”

“I will, sir. And I dare say I’ll miss being here.”

I nodded and would have left it at that, but, for a moment, I thought his eyes held mine for a fraction too long. It put me off balance, in any case, and I found myself stupidly saying, “Yes. I’ll miss you as well.”

I was shocked to hear the words leave my lips, and, because I was watching him, I could see the flicker of surprise on his face as well. But, true to Naval style, we both ignored it.

“Thank you, sir.”

He nodded anxiously, and I quickly dismissed him with a smile and a stuttered farewell.

Three distinct incidents may be pinpointed as the moments directly relating to my downfall. Each involved an act of heroism on the part of Mr. Davenshire. In each case, my concern for his well-being was so overwhelming as to nearly distract me from my duties. Realizing this, I should have done away with him at once; transferred him to another vessel or else risk the Vigilance to a moment of sentiment, but I could not. I told myself that I would be able to withstand my feelings.

The first incident occurred two months after his commission to lieutenant was confirmed, and it would have been a simple enough problem had a storm not been raging around us. Everyone on board was preoccupied with keeping the ship afloat and preventing the sails from being sundered by the wind. The cacophony of the storm deafened us to most everything but the crashing waves and howling bluster, so when the boat tilted and one of the men went careening over the side in a spray of salt water, almost no one noticed.

I had seen it, though barely, but what caught my intention immediately was Mr. Davenshire yelling at those around him and stripping off his jacket. I realized, as I watched them bring a rope to him, what he planned to do. I called out to stop him, but he did not hear me before the rope was tied around his waist, and he threw himself overboard.

I felt a moment of cold terror, and I might not have acted save for my first lieutenant bellowing in my ear. When I came to my senses, I went immediately down to the lower deck. I could not join the men who held Mr. Davenshire’s rope. As much as I wanted to help haul him in, I had to pay attention to the rest of the operations. If I didn’t, then my brave, newly made lieutenant would have no ship to return to.

I funneled my anxiety into my orders, sending everyone out faster and harder than I might ordinarily, and I didn’t stop until I saw two heads rising along the side of the ship, and an arm reaching out over the rail.

“Get those men over the side!”

A rush went past me as three or four other men scrambled to grab hold of Mr. Davenshire and his unlucky crewmate. When they finally hauled them onto the deck, coughing and shivering, I pointed to one of the men who had helped hold the rope steady.

“You. Take these two below and get them warmed up.”

“Sir!” I could barely hear Davenshire over the roar of the storm, but I looked down as he scrambled to his feet. “Sir, please allow me to help. I’m fine.”

“You’ll do as you’re told, Mr. Davenshire. Get below.”

I wheeled around and went back to my original post so that I could oversee all that was happening. I thought I felt the wind dying down, but the weather could be terribly unpredictable.

It wasn’t until much later, when the ship was steady and the rain had slacked to almost nothing, that I called him to my cabin. He still looked soaked, though he’d put on dry clothes. He barely had a chance to walk through the door before I rounded on him, worry tainting my words with an angry edge.

“Did you lose hold of your senses, man? What was that about?” I was glowering, and he stopped dead still in the middle of the floor. “Were you trying to get yourself killed?”

“No, sir.” He was bewildered, that was clear enough. He had saved a man’s life and was being berated for it. “I could see him, sir, in the water. I couldn’t just let him drown.”

“You could see him, could you?” I walked around the table and looked down at him. He was only a couple of inches shorter than me, but it made me feel better, just then, to make a point of it. “Well, that’s a feat, considering I could barely see my own hand for all the rain, but you could see a man several feet down, in a tumultuous ocean. Truly remarkable, Mr. Davenshire. I doubt we’d need telescopes if we had a few more of you.”

“Sir….”

I had never spoken harshly to him before, even when he’d made mistakes (though, admittedly, there had been few enough of those). If anything, he was more curious over my anger than frightened, and he looked back at me with those steady, pale-brown eyes. I felt my emotions drain a little, and, after a few moments, I sighed.

I wanted to say, “forgive me,” but I didn’t. Instead, I gripped the bridge of my nose and took a step back. “You were right, of course. To save him if you could.”

“Thank you, sir.” His voice was soft and just the slightest bit tentative. “I figured, even if I couldn’t reach him in time, they could still pull me up.”

I raised my head. “And what if they hadn’t?”

“Hadn’t, sir?”

“What if they’d lost their grip, or if the rope had lost its knot around your waist? What then, Mr. Davenshire?”

“Then I expect I’d be dead, sir.”

I scoffed. “Are you so glib about your life?”

“Not at all. I value it. But if I was not willing to risk it, I wouldn’t be here at all.”

It was a fair enough answer; the proper answer, in fact. I smiled and sat down, nodding as I did. “Quite right. Well, as it happens, I value your life as well. If I came off abruptly, it is only that I worried for you.”

“Naturally, sir. It’s always difficult to lose an officer.”

It was an easy out, and I would have taken it if I had dismissed him a moment sooner. But I waited too long, letting my thoughts transport my mind elsewhere, to the point where he felt he had to speak up.

“Captain, is there…?” He paused and cleared his throat before continuing. “Not to be presumptuous, sir. I wouldn’t expect you to share your thoughts with a new lieutenant, but I wonder if there’s anything wrong? It might be out of place for me to say so, but you seem troubled.”

I raised my head and met his half hopeful, half anxious expression. I smiled to ease his worry. “Don’t bother yourself, Mr. Davenshire. I’ve only been a little distracted. There’s a lot that goes on in a captain’s mind every day.”

“Ah.” He visibly relaxed and offered one of those broad, guileless smiles that so captured my attention. “I should have realized.”

“It’s all right.”

I stood up and walked over to him, putting my hand on his arm and turning him toward the door. I saw him glance at me, though I kept my eyes straight ahead, and I tried not to think too very much about the curve of his shoulder beneath the rough wool of his uniform.

The final two incidents happened on the same day, but a few hours apart; had I been more conscientious, I might have avoided the last one altogether, but I can’t say as I’m especially disappointed with its final result.

A scouting party had left with Mr. Davenshire in the early afternoon. They were meant only to go ashore, inspect the area immediately beyond the coast, and return with whatever information they could. While there is always the chance of discovery on such a mission, the prediction was that this one would go smoothly. Thus, when they did not return on time nor for another hour after, I knew right away that something had gone awry.

It was nearing dusk, and I was in the midst of arranging a crew to go after them, when I heard the officer of the watch call that their boat had been sighted. I went topside at once, and when I looked out over the water, I could see that my fears were confirmed. Almost everyone in the boat was injured. A few looked worse than the rest, and one side of Davenshire’s jacket was covered in blood. I didn’t know if it was all his or not, but it was clear that his arm had taken a wound by the way he held it against his side.

I gave orders to send them down to the surgeon at once, and I would speak to them there. By the time I arrived, the doctor was already taking a look at Davenshire’s arm.

“Knife wound,” he said. “Have to stitch it up. I don’t think he’ll be able to talk to you until I’m done, sir.”

I nodded. “Very well.”

He set to work on that immediately, and I stood to the side. Beneath the clink of surgical tools and the moans of the other injured men, I could hear my young lieutenant hissing against the pain. The doctor’s needle slid in beneath the skin of his bicep, and I winced, being all too familiar with that particular brand of pain. Davenshire had gone white and shut his eyes. His jaw was working hard, grinding his teeth together.

I stepped closer to the table and said, “It’s almost over,” as I reached down to take his other hand. He nodded, just barely, but didn’t open his eyes. His hand squeezed mine so hard that, after a few moments, my fingers started going numb.

I glanced at the surgeon, who hadn’t made so much as a sound to acknowledge my attention toward the lieutenant. “Will it be all right?”

He nodded. “So long as it doesn’t get infected, it should heal up fine.”

“Good.”

He was done quickly enough and, after he’d cleaned and wrapped the wound, the doctor left us alone while he attended to someone else. I didn’t prod the boy right away, wanting to give him a moment to recover. I knew when he had begun to relax when his fingers loosened from mine.

“Mr. Davenshire?”

He took a breath and opened his eyes slowly. “Captain.”

“Tell me what happened.”

He frowned. “I’m not sure.” He pulled his hand out of my grip and ran it through his mess of sweaty curls, pushing them away from his forehead. “They came out of nowhere, sir. There was no one there moments before, but just as we were about to return to the boat, they attacked.”

“French troops?”

“Looked like, sir. It was difficult to see clearly in the commotion, and they were dressed as fisherman, but I do believe I caught sight of one in uniform a little further off.”

“No indication of what they were doing there?”

“Not a one, sir. Like I said, no sign of them one moment, and the next….” He frowned. “I’m sorry, sir. I failed the mission and let the men get injured.” He shook his head. His face was stretched with guilt and anxiety.

I reached down and touched his shoulder, pushing him back when he tried to sit up. His skin was clammy. My fingers lingered, but I covered any other thoughts by saying, “Calm yourself. You were ambushed, that’s clear enough.”

“But the men—.”

“Are still alive, injured or no, and the doctor will see that they remain so.”

When he finally looked me in the eye, I felt mildly disconcerted by his gaze. It was unwavering, searching for something, and I didn’t know what. I thought (or, perhaps, hoped) that he was only gauging the sincerity of my pardon and not guessing at anything else. I smiled at him again, both to reassure him and to hide the sudden nervousness that invaded me.

“Rest. We’ll take care of this situation in the morning.”

He nodded, and I patted his shoulder before leaving the sick berth.

It had been evening when I last spoke to him, and it was the dark of night when a pounding on my door woke me. I was out of bed and pulling on my jacket when one of the midshipmen came tumbling through my door. He was out of breath and wide-eyed as he said, “Captain Burgess, sir, we’ve been boarded!”

By the time I reached the deck, the fight had grown to encompass most of the men. I scanned the area and made a quick estimate; we easily outnumbered the enemy, but they had surprised us in the dark and fog. No doubt they had steered boats next to our side and climbed over during a change in the watch.

I shouted orders to those closest to me as I pulled my sword and pistol from my belt to join the fray.

There was nothing more brazen, more insulting, than to have my ship boarded by troops not even in their uniforms. And it was clear enough to me that they were military men if only from their style of fighting. As Davenshire had reported, they were dressed as fishermen; their clothes were dark and their faces smudged, which would have made it more difficult to see them at night. Amidst the lanterns on the deck, they looked like black ghouls, sprung up from the deep.

As lucky as they had been to surprise us, however, I could see that they were falling back. Had they been able to trap men below decks, they might have succeeded easily. But my capable first lieutenant had seen to it that all possible entrances were defended.

I cut my way through three attackers and finished them quickly. They fought well, but I wondered at their experience. Though trained, I could tell they weren’t accustomed to the noisy chaos of a close-quartered struggle.

There was a shout, and I turned. Poised next to the capstan stood a man, gun in hand and aimed for my chest.

My life has been threatened more than once, and in each instance I have survived by some combination of luck and skill. Rarely has anyone been available to help me, simply due the nature of battle; everyone else is quite busy looking after himself.

This time, however, help was certainly given, though not in the way I would have hoped. The time that passed between seeing the man and the gun firing was actually quite short…instantaneous almost…though, written on paper, the moment appears quite long enough for me to move out of the way. But it was not, and I remember that very thought crossing my mind in the last second before the bullet should have struck me.

I don’t remember hearing Davenshire call my name, nor do I know in which second he appeared next to me. What I do recall is stumbling backward and catching myself on a rail as someone lurched in front of me, then fell with a heavy thud at my feet. Initially, it didn’t register with me who the man was. I looked down and then up, my eyes looking for the man with the gun, but another member of my crew had already engaged him.

It’s difficult to describe how I felt when I knelt to find that the person who had taken the shot for me was Mr. Davenshire. I had left him in the sick berth, expecting him to stay there. I would never have imagined that he’d come up to fight despite his injury, though I probably should have known.

His breathing was shallow, and I lifted his head carefully from the deck, pulling him from the awkward position in which he had fallen. Shaking my head, I whispered, “You didn’t have to do that.” He did not hear me, and I hadn’t expected him to, but I had to say it all the same.

I called for the surgeon just as the first lieutenant was running toward me. I noticed that the fighting had ceased, and it was when Mr. Balston said, “We’ve taken their leader,” that I knew we were done. It was just as well. I had foolishly allowed Davenshire’s well-being to preoccupy my thoughts. I knew that would end badly one day, but I just hoped it wasn’t that one in particular.

There was no reason to stay with the doctor while he went to work. The boy was unconscious in any case. I could neither thank him nor rebuke him for his actions (and I’m not sure which I would have done first), and it was useless to stand around taking up space when both the doctor and I had more important work to do. So, despite whatever worry threatened to overcome me, I marched my way back to the deck in order to deal with the subject of the prisoners and to see what damage they had caused.

I would not allow myself to visit the sick berth, not even the next morning, though I had spent much of the night wondering. The doctor had worked for hours, I’d heard, and had several other men to attend to before he was finally able to come to my cabin to give me the news.

“Well?” I asked him.

“He should be all right, after a time. I don’t imagine he’ll be able to use that arm much for a while, though, not with the knife wound and then the shot to his shoulder all in the same day. It’s going to hurt something fierce, but I’ll do what I can for that.”

I nodded. I had guessed as much and had already decided to order Davenshire on light duty when he was finally able to get about. “That’s fine, thank you.”

He offered me a short bow and began to leave, but as he opened the door, I added, “Oh, by the way, doctor. When you’re able to move him, I’d like him brought here.”

“Sir?”

“Here, doctor. To my quarters. I’m sure you’ll need the space, and there’s enough room here for one more.”

“Begging your pardon, Captain, but his own quarters should suffice. He’s bunked with Mr. Balston. I imagine that should do if you’re worried that someone should watch over him.”

“I fully understand that, but you’ll do as I ask.” I gave him a steady glare, and he bowed again and backed out the door with a soft, “Aye, Captain.”

When they finally moved him, I was beside myself. It took all of my willpower to keep from fussing, and I forced myself to remain seated at my desk while they strung up his hammock and placed him in it. When they’d all gone, I alternated between writing and staring at the place where he lay sleeping.

Some time later, I finally gave in. I don’t know how often he’d been conscious since the incident, but he was sleeping when I walked over and looked down at his face. He looked softer than he did when he was awake, and he was still pale from all the stresses on his body. A few strands of hair were crossed against his forehead, and I reached over to pick them loose and smooth them back with the rest of his curls.

But when that was done, my hand lingered, as it had been unable to do before when Davenshire was awake. With his eyes closed and his breathing even, I worried less about betraying myself. His skin was slightly hot, and I wondered if I should get a damp cloth, but I didn’t move before I’d let my fingertips trace the curves of his face.

“You shouldn’t be here,” I said softly. “You’ll get me into trouble. You’ve already done it for yourself.” I dared not touch the bandages on his shoulder or arm, but my eyes looked at them, at their rough edges and dingy color, and I hoped that the wounds healed well.

His lashes fluttered, and I jerked my hand back. I turned and began to walk away, not wanting to startle him when he woke, but as I took my first steps, there was a light touch to my sleeve. I stood still, locked in place, and I heard his voice speak in rasping tones.

“I thought it was my imagination.”

I swallowed and glanced over my shoulder. Those tea-brown eyes were on me, though unfocused (I suspected that the doctor had given him laudanum), and I smiled as I tried to hold his gaze without seeming guilty.

“Your imagination?”

“Yes.” His hand still touched my sleeve, but he slowly released me and took a deep breath. “I thought I was making it up. The looks you’ve given me, and all the kindness.”

“Do you suggest that I’m a tyrant toward everyone else?”

“No, sir. Not at all.” He hummed softly, his eyes drifting shut, and he crossed his uninjured arm over his chest. His voice sounded as if he were only half awake. “Forgive me, Captain. I would not speak so if I were in my right mind. I only hoped it wasn’t something that I had made up.”

I could see that he was on the verge of falling asleep, but his last mumbled words had caught my attention, so I stepped forward and spoke firmly to keep him aware. “What do you mean, you hoped?”

“Nothing. It’s only that I’m very fond of you, Captain.”

“Fond of me?” I cleared my throat and tried to appear incurious. “Since when?”

Another deep breath, and I thought he was sleeping, but after a few seconds, he mumbled, “Since I met you.”

I would have laughed except that it felt out of place. Instead, I sighed and told myself I was a fool.

When I touched his face, this time, he opened his eyes, and we both smiled. I suspected that he might not remember this when he was more himself, so I said, “We’ll discuss it when you’re well.” I brushed my fingers across his lips. They parted gently, and his warm breath touched my hand. “Back to sleep, Mr. Davenshire.” As in everything, he obeyed.

He slept for days during that first week and, luckily, we hit no serious trouble during that time. I checked on him frequently and even came to enjoy the soft sound of his breathing when I would return to my cabin. It was pleasant to know there was someone nearby, and I only then realized how lonely I had felt without a close companion.

After a few days, he began to wake more frequently. I knew that was a good sign, and the surgeon affirmed my opinion by telling me that his wounds were healing well. Of course, it took some coaxing to convince Davenshire that his presence in my quarters did not bother me, nor did he need to jump to attention every time I entered the room.

On the subject of our interest in one another, we initially said nothing. Whether he thought that our previous conversation had been a dream or not, I did not know, and I didn’t want to rush into anything when he might have changed his mind on the matter. Instead, I gradually began engaging him in discussions of other topics. We began with the ship itself, since he was worried that his convalescence had kept him away from his duties. I reassured him that nothing important had happened of late that might have needed his attention.

Eventually we worked into more personal subjects. I asked about his family, and he told me a little about his life before enlisting. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t care much for his father, and neither did he. He was only interested in his family at all because of his mother, who was apparently a kind soul but often ill. In return, I told him about my wife and daughter, as well as a few anecdotes about myself and Captain Salsbury, which he found extremely amusing.

“So, the two of you served much of your time together, then?” he asked. He was seated at a chair near my desk, and his uniform jacket was draped lightly over his shoulders. He was smiling and eager, and I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Oh, yes. We were inseparable for quite some time. Marlow, of course, had seniority on me. He became a lieutenant before I finished my final required year as midshipman. We had a fight or two when ranks clashed with friendship, but we managed our way out of them. Usually after an apology of some kind from me.”

“Yes, Captain Salsbury has a way of inspiring people to admit they were wrong.”

“Mm, indeed.” I smirked and made that thoughtful grumbling sound which had become such a habit. “Often with a bit of lashing and tossing about.”

When Davenshire blinked, looking at me with the bemused expression that he alone could manage, I realized that, perhaps, I’d spoken a little too freely (although, only someone whose mind already leaned in that direction would have interpreted my words the way I feared Mr. Davenshire had).

I made a point of reaching over the table for a drink I had poured some time ago. I’d gotten distracted with our conversation and forgotten it, but now I used it to cover a moment of slight embarrassment. As I sipped it, I heard Davenshire clear his throat.

“This might be, well, impertinent of me, sir.” He laughed and pushed a few strands of hair away from his face, but he didn’t look away from me. He always had a steady gaze. “Would it be correct for me to assume that you and Captain Salsbury were…well, I suppose I mean to say more than just shipmates?”

I swallowed my drink, failing to so much as note the flavor, but I nodded all the same. “You could say that.” I tried to discern his reaction, but my own curiosity was coloring my interpretation. “Does knowing that bother you?”

“Bother me? No, sir.” He laughed and shrugged, and this time he did look away. “I suppose it makes me a bit jealous, though.”

Whatever response I had planned seemed inadequate just then, and I sat there, trying to decide how best to take advantage of the moment. It was the first time we’d broached the topic, and I didn’t want the opportunity to escape me, but I didn’t know how best to proceed. I finally decided that, since there seemed no better option, I should simply drive into it.

I leaned back in the chair, chuckling at myself, and rubbed my eyebrow with my thumb as I began to speak very quickly. “Mr. Davenshire, I wonder if I might inquire as to whether or not you have any interest in me?” I cleared my throat quickly. “That is to say, interest of a more intimate nature, because, as it happens, I’ve been taken with you for some time. I only wish to know if that’s all right with you, or if I should cease thinking about it.”

The look on his face confirmed that I had surprised him, if only with the suddenness of the confession. His lips moved slowly, and he took a breath to speak, but his will gave out and he shrugged. “Well, sir, I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to—”

“No, none of that, now. Speak plainly. You’ve had no trouble doing it before. Don’t stop now.”

He nodded, and I was glad that the rebuke had brought him back from the moment of hesitation. “I admit it, yes. I suppose I hoped that you might say something to that effect, or else make some overture….” He glanced at me and laughed. “Though of course you wouldn’t without asking first. I expect you’d consider it inappropriate.”

“Mostly likely. Though I’ve had occasion to be inappropriate in the past.”

We both smiled, and I felt the air around us relaxing. The truth was finally confessed (without the aid of injury or drugs), and all that was left was to decide what was to be done about it.

That was largely left up to me, as there was little chance that Davenshire would presume to have control over the situation (though he did, in fact, but I was unlikely to tell him so). I leaned forward, my elbows against my knees, and said, “I realize that what I’m asking is difficult. A ship is not the best location for carrying on a….”

“An affair?”

I laughed. “Just so.” I lowered my voice and spoke softly, shrugging as I did. “But I feel very much myself in your presence, and I should like to have a more intimate companionship, if it’s something you might enjoy as well.”

“Oh…oh, yes. I mean, of course, I would. But, sir, I wonder about your wife?”

“No need. She and I will have to talk, but she knows this might happen. I’ve no intention of leaving her, you understand.”

“Of course not. I would never—”

I raised my hand, and he was silent. “I know. I also expect you understand that this, in no way, changes our official positions on the Vigilance. The moment I see that it’s interfering with our duties, I’ll have to put a stop to it, whether I wish to or not. You know what it would mean for one of us to neglect our work or to be discovered.”

He nodded. I waited to see if he had something further to say, but he did not.

We did very little but converse occasionally for a week or two, as a number of other things pulled at my attention. I also refused to proceed before Davenshire’s wounds were fully healed. Part of that was my concern for him while the rest of a method of stalling. I wanted to get to know him more, to understand who he was and what he might like or dislike. We had only been speaking openly for a short time, and I wanted to give us both time to consider things.

But nothing changed over the next couple of weeks. Certainly my interest didn’t wan, and I could tell that he was as silently eager as ever. So it was finally decided that we might move beyond merely talking and into something a little more…extensive. Of course, finding time for such things was quite a challenge. There was never any guarantee that an hour or two set aside for solitude and quiet would not be interrupted. In fact, the odds were that it certainly would be, and in a situation such as I was contemplating, that would have been more than a little unfortunate.

We hoped for the best, and I invited him to my quarters one evening after his watch was complete.

He entered the room, and I smiled. I could tell that we were both a little nervous, and to break the silence I said, “Care for a glass of port?”

“Please.”

He looked around, curious as always, and I tried to pour drinks for the both of us without becoming too distracted. It was difficult. My mind had already skipped ahead, and I wanted to go to him, but I found it more difficult than I had anticipated.

I believe he saw my distress (by then he bad become very good at reading me), though, if he did, he said nothing. In fact, we stood separate from each other, as we always did, as if our meeting was nothing more than a common interview. Yet, his eyes were on me, fixed, and I found myself averting my own.

“There you are,” I said. “It’s rather strong. I hope you don’t mind.”

“I don’t.”

His voice sounded deeper, and a little strange. When I looked up, he was standing much closer to me than he had been a moment ago. In fact, he was getting closer still, and I realized that he was bridging the gap caused by my lingering hesitation. He raised his hands and placed them on my chest. His head tilted up at the most tempting angle, and no matter how I willed myself not to do it, I leaned forward to kiss his welcoming lips.

He smelled faintly of salt and smoke, and I forgot about our drinks entirely as I wrapped my arms around him. His mouth was soft, and his curls offered no resistance when I ran my fingers through his hair. I loosened the tie binding it, and it spilled over my hands in gentle waves.

“Forgive me,” he whispered. “It’s only that I’ve wanted to….” He paused, regained his composure, and then lost it again just as quickly. His hands dug into my uniform, holding the fabric tightly. “I’ve wanted to kiss you for so long.”

His hands were insistent on the back of my neck, pulling me down, and I obliged him by pressing harder against his mouth, drawing my teeth against his lips as I slipped my tongue past them. I decided that it was best not to clutter the moment with useless talking, so I said nothing in response and let my actions speak for me.

Though I wished we had the option of being more comfortable, with a proper bed and quiet lodgings, we did our best with what was available. I took my time peeling him out of his uniform, unfastening buttons and knots with the ease of practice. With each new bit of skin revealed to me, I paused to explore, kissing my way across his body.

I told him that we must be quiet, and the sounds he made were soft, but they excited me nevertheless. I pushed him back, forcing him to lean against the table, and then knelt in front of him. My hands slipped over his hips, pushing cloth off of his legs and steadying myself all at the same time. He inhaled sharply, and I looked up. His wide eyes were staring down at me through a shroud of messy blackness.

His voice wavered when he spoke, and his fingers paused against my cheek. “I wouldn’t ask you to….”

“You don’t have to.”

“But wouldn’t it be more appropriate if I were the one—?”

I raised my hand to hush him and then brought it down against his stomach. I watched his face carefully, and he bit his lip just as my hand covered his stiff erection. “I can’t imagine why you would think that.”

His cock was full and hot in my mouth, and when I moaned, my hands squeezed his thighs. I could feel his heavy breathing and his body tilting forward over me. His soft gasps became gradually louder as I sucked hard against him, and he put one hand on my head and tightened it in my hair. When his hips began to rock, I made way for the movement, accepting his participation with a sort of self-satisfied pleasure.

I didn’t expect him to last nearly as long as he did, and when he finally spilled into my mouth, I was surprised. I finished him off quickly because I was eager to stand, to look him in the eye, and when I did I couldn’t help but smile at his panting and his weakened appearance.

He grinned and laughed self-consciously, and his arms moved to hold my waist loosely. There was something he wanted to say, but he hesitated, and I didn’t try to force it out of him.

“Was that all right?” I asked.

“What? Yes, more than all right. I….” He paused and then seemed to remember something. “But I should help you in turn.”

His hand dropped between my legs and pressed firmly. I inhaled, my eyes closing immediately, and enjoyed the touch for a few moments. But then I put my hand over his and held it steady.

“Not yet,” I said. “No need to rush things.” I pulled him around, dropping myself into the closest chair and dragging him down on top of me. “Just let me enjoy you for a while.”

As I pulled him down for a kiss, I hoped that the night would be a quiet one.

Our time together felt like days, though it was little more than an hour that we spent wrapped around one another’s bodies. There were things that I wanted to do, and things he wanted me to do, but which I could not then due to the uncertain nature of our privacy.

All the same, I accomplished what I had wanted to that night, which was to become familiar with his body. I tested boundaries and touched him in sensitive places to learn how he would respond and what sounds I could pull from him. He was delightfully eager, and I commented on his beauty often between kisses and caresses. His skin was soft against my hands, especially his back, which I took great care to explore, one inch at a time.

He allowed me to do as I pleased, and when it was time for us to part, we did so with great hesitation.

He moaned as I kissed him fervently, gripping his face between my hands. When he came up for breath, he said, “Captain…. I haven’t had the chance to do much for you. I’d like to please you.”

“You will.” I smiled and passed my fingers through his hair. Though he was dressed now, he had not yet retied it. “Next time, you will. And I promise that will be soon.”

If he was dissatisfied with that response, he did not show it. His eyes were fixed on me, as always, and if I saw anything in them, it was only his longing to stay. “Soon?”

“Yes. Very.”

He took a deep breath and stepped backward toward the door. I let him go, brushing his lips with my fingers as he moved outside of my reach, and watched him leave my room.

Our time together since then feels as though it hasn’t been enough, but we have enjoyed each other’s company as often as we are able. I find myself taken more and more with Garrick Davenshire as the days progress, and sometimes I wonder if Marlow knew what he was doing when he sent this particular young man to me. It would not be outside the realm of possibility for me to think it true.

I end this for now as I wait for him yet again. He should arrive soon, and I wish to be ready when he does. He grows more confident with each meeting (not that he was ever especially naive), and I remain curious as to how our relations will progress.

When the night is over, I know that I shall write to Margaret. There are things I need to tell her, and things I need to ask. Part of me fears what she will say, but something tells me that she will be tolerant, at least. If it were not within her ability to be so, she would never have pardoned me when I first admitted to her the truth.

My pen must stop. There is a knock on the door.

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