A/N: I tried uploading this new chapter SO MANY TIMES, but kept getting an error message from FictionPress, so if you are reading this, that means the latest effort was a success.
Anyway, it's been a while since I've updated this story, eh? Well, you're in luck, because to make up for the long wait, you get a long-ass chapter (or part of a chapter).
Lots, lots, lots going on. And more to come.
-City of Fair Winds-
Jeanine leapt out of her seat when Mr. Buchanan entered the drawing room. All through her interview with the farmer's daughter she had eyed the door with fervent frequency, her attentions persistently divided between duty and desire. She bounced her knees, she sweated, she fidgeted. It did not take long for her host to realize she was a distraction, for which Jeanine apologized but could not deny.
Breaking mid-sentence, she ran to her commander, her question ready to lift off the tip of her tongue.
"How is everything here?" Buchanan asked, outpacing her. Jeanine stopped, her teeth dropping with a clack against each other. He looked from the farmer's daughter to her, then back to their host. "Has Mr. Ellison been treating you kindly, Señorita?"
The young woman rose slowly from her seat at the small table she had shared with Jeanine. She smoothed her skirts and lifted her chin.
"Bien, Señor," she replied. Her dark eyes peeked at Jeanine, who read in the look that she would not say anything further. Grateful, Jeanine touched her knuckle to her brow, affecting her version of a short bow to the girl.
"Bien," Buchanan echoed. He smiled and stepped aside to let the farmer's daughter exit. As she passed, he asked her something in Spanish, to which she replied with the hint of a nod and a shallow curtsy. Buchanan closed the door after she left, and Jeanine, at last, found her opening to speak. The words tumbled out of her.
"How was your meeting with Mr. Jarvis?"
"Well enough," Harvey replied, looking about the room. His curtness was accompanied by a grimace. "By which I mean he answered all my questions. Whether he answered them truthfully has yet to be determined."
"Did he tell you how he and the other sailors ended up here?"
"Aye, he did."
She thought he would continue, but Buchanan looked away, a hand rising to rub the back of his neck. Relying on one of her best virtues, Jeanine waited, and while she did, she watched him.
He sighed, smiling as he faced her.
"You could ask instead of staring at me," said he.
"I thought the ask was implicit."
"And here I thought you were simply admiring me."
Jeanine tensed at his teasing, not even fluttering an eyelash. He cleared his throat.
"But we are short on time, aye?" Harvey resumed. "And you ought to know."
He related Colin's account to her, his delivery straight, distant, and unpausing, as if he were reading off a report. Unblinkingly Jeanine followed the tale, rapt in its retelling. At the close, she asked, "Do you believe him?"
Buchanan scoffed, turning away as he paced idly about the room.
"No, which is why I intend to interview every single one of his men for inconsistencies." He frowned, shifting his blue eyes back at her. "But there is… something else."
Suspicion lurked in his hesitation, in the downward arc of his tone, from direct and snappish, to vague and gauzy. Jeanine stepped closer.
"What is it?"
"Jarvis delegated preparations to his second."
She raised an eyebrow, her body tilting back. A division of tasks from a superior officer to his subordinate was not out of the ordinary.
"There is another officer among them?" she inferred.
"Not quite. He's a petty officer, but that's not important. What is important is that I…" He forced a smile, a sheepish one, which somehow did not suit him. "I volunteered you to work with his second to get those arrangements completed," he finished.
"Me? But why? I thought—"
"I know," he interrupted, raising a placating hand, "but the decision had to be made then and you are the only midshipman I have with me. Provided you work well—and I think you will—you'll still have time to ready your own provisions. Besides, I've met Jarvis's second and I think you will enjoy working with him."
Her stare narrowed. The flesh beneath her eyes pinched. Jeanine wanted to comment on the presumptuousness of what Buchanan had done but she was more interested in the reason behind it.
"Shall I meet the right hand of Mr. Jarvis, then?"
"He joined me walking back here. Let me take you to him."
Jeanine's forehead crinkled. Certainly Mr. Buchanan's time would be better spent not playing errand boy, but he had already turned, a buoyancy in his already sprightly gait.
"If you lead, I will follow, sir," she said, and added: "Always."
He opened the door, gesturing for her to exit. The lack of caution worried her, and she dawdled, glancing at him. Buchanan chuckled. He shook his head lightly.
"Ellison, please. After you." He guided her out: a touch behind her elbow, then the butterfly-soft flutter of fingertips along her back.
On their way down the hall, Buchanan explained that he had left Jarvis's second in the parlor. Jeanine wondered over the necessity of keeping him separate. Doing so felt too contrived, as if he were a wild animal to be caged.
"I had to debrief you," Harvey explained. "And while he appears a decent enough fellow—from what I could tell from our short walk here—he is still Jarvis's associate, and I must exercise caution."
And yet, Jeanine wanted to rejoin, shooting him a sidelong glance, You would pair me with him—alone—on an assignment.
Whatever her true feelings, she held her tongue. She directed her eyes to the path ahead, past the princely frame of her commander, and into the stretch of white hallway and its stark décor: dark, empty rural scapes, pale portraits framed in dull, black wood—nothing to tempt her attentions. She folded her arms behind her back, opposite knuckles behind opposite elbows, her skin, even beneath layers of shirt and coat, remembering the phantom patter of fingers not her own.
She straightened her spine.
The closed door to the parlor appeared after a turn, but Harvey stopped abruptly before they were within ten feet of it. He spun around, so quickly Jeanine dug her heel into the hallway rug to keep from colliding into him.
"I've been meaning to ask you, Ellison," he began. "Are you happy with your time at sea?"
Jeanine stared at him dumbly, the suddenness of so personal a question stalling cognitive processes. She held her breath, unsure whether she was unnerved or grateful.
Buchanan seemed to have read her mind.
"I hope it's not too strange a question," he elaborated. "Your journey may be ending but you've come a long way. Amid the drills and battles and adventures in port, I hope you've found moments of happiness—among us or otherwise."
The more he spoke, the more Jeanine resented being asked the question. She was unprepared for the sentimentality, for the unanticipated demand to reflect on two years before the mast in an instant—a sure impossibility for her. If she answered—and she certainly had to now—she'd only bumble and blabber before someone who rarely bumbled or blabbered.
"It has not been easy, finding those moments," she mumbled at last. "But they do exist. I can't quite define them, but I know I have felt contentment. But, perhaps, the meaning is not solely in the experience for me, Mr. Buchanan; it is in the people with whom I have shared the life. Mr. O'Hannigan, and Mr. Platt, and Mr. Varley, and my gun crew, and… and yourself, sir. I have a difficult time imagining my life moving forward without you all in it."
For all the pains she took to express herself, Buchanan only shrugged. He glimpsed fleetingly at the floor, a polite smile on his face.
"I think it is safe to assume we feel the same way," he said. The vagueness of his response, uninspired in its imprecision, made her ears hot, embarrassed for her effort and his lack thereof. "It will be an adjustment for all," he went on. "But tell me, Ellison, how is it that I requested happiness and yet you provide me its opposite?"
She scratched her temple, avoiding his stare, sensitive to herself reddening. He was joking, she knew he was joking, but she felt the burn in her cheeks nonetheless. She wished they were outdoors. She could have worn her hat and yanked the brim over her eyes, keeping her safely in its shadows.
"Come, we've tarried," he beckoned her. "'Twas I who saddened you with my question. Let me amend that."
He approached the closed door to the parlor, Jeanine close enough behind him that she could touch the tail of his coat. He grabbed the handle and peeked at her over his shoulder.
"Mr. Ellison," said he, turning the knob. He opened the door, moving with it so as not to obstruct her view.
She looked from him to the room. As if riding on an exhaled breath, the world quieted, like the hush of surf after it broke on the seashore. A young man stood in the middle of the parlor, his back to her but turning at her entry. When his eyes met hers, she jerked backwards. She bumped into the door, which had somehow closed itself. The paneled wood was cold to touch, her fingers sticking to it, fresh sweat cooling on the tips.
Her heartbeat pumped in her throat, thumping with a strength that could choke. She blinked as though facing breezes swept in from the sea, lids fluttering madly, willing focus through the quick movements even while her mind spun. Her blood defied gravity. It abandoned her limbs, numbed them to tingles. She felt like someone had hurled her into the sky and she was falling, solid ground as distant as the stars. But she knew his face like her own reflection; she recognized him in an instant—regardless of the uniform or the beard or the hair. Even in a foreign land, he was and would remain the most familiar thing, and, after her years of estrangement, of living as a stranger among men, he was also the most irresistible.
She would never be able to recall how she ended up in his arms, swung around in his embrace not once, or twice, but three times, his laughter ringing in her ear. He held her tightly, his chest solid as a tree, arms wound around her like roots, suspending her there, keeping her to him. She wept. His embrace contained every sob that shook her, and she was afraid to move, afraid to extend a hand, fearing despite his warmth and the certainty of his presence pressed to hers, he would vanish like mist if she was not careful. But as if to assure her, he grabbed her hands, squeezed them gently, and guided her palms to his face.
The stubble tickled against her skin.
"Jack Hanley," she said. Her mouth missed pronouncing the name. "You have a beard."
He laughed, and joy cracked in his voice.
"My God, Jeanie," he breathed, tracing fingers over the curve of her ear. "Never mind about my beard. What have you done to your hair?"
She sputtered, snot in her nose, the slickness of tears on both their faces. Between hiccups, she mastered a smile. He cradled her face in his hands, every blink of his eyes both too long and too short.
His thumb rubbed her cheek, and as it swept over the flush, his smile trembled, his hand lowered, and the coldness of its removal shocked Jeanine to awareness. The movement was subtle at first, a mere sway of the chin from left to right, but the path lengthened. He shook his head, separating himself from her, and the mouth's laughter turned to heavy, burdened whispers.
"Oh, Jeanie," he said. The way he said her name deflated his lungs. "Please don't tell me you're here on my account. Please don't tell me I'm why you're here."
Jeanine's heart plunged into her stomach, like a chain shot snapped at its weakest link. The elation of seeing him still lingered, still fought against his unfounded sorrow, like sun battling against fog. He shied away from her, head bowed, still shaking his head, still muttering, "No, no, please, no."
Her mouth gaped for words. She reached out to him and he recoiled.
"You can't be here because of me, Jeanie," he repeated. His voice was thin, each word spoken like the squeal of a bow against string—taut, stretched, on the verge of tearing.
She steadied herself against the illogic of his question, or rather, his insistence.
"How can you say that, Jack?" she replied. "When we found out you were pressed—"
He unleashed an oath, startling her, and he spun around, pressing a forearm over his eyes.
"I was never pressed, Jeanie," he said.
His eyes homed in on her, unforgiving in their cold hue. The iciness hooked into her skin, tethered her to the spot where she stood. It was her turn to shudder and wag her head.
"B-But Sophie waited for you and you did not show. She waited for you and you did not show! She ran into the street looking for you! She ran and she searched until her very legs gave beneath her! Mr. Jarvis found her and took her home. He said you were pressed!"
A familiar ache burned in her throat. She remembered the night Jarvis had pinned her against a wall, his sneering lips telling her Jack had been pressed, that he had already been sent away, that he was unreachable. Saltwater leaked out of her eyes.
"Mr. Jarvis lied," Jack said calmly.
"And why would Mr. Jarvis lie?" she cried. She hated how he was involved, hated how his lying came as no surprise but somehow carried the deepest wound.
"Because I asked him to."
The simplicity of his explanation gutted her, as if she were stupid to suppose it could be any more difficult, as if Jarvis would ever willingly do someone's bidding, let alone the bidding of a stablehand.
"No," she said, and her denial was absolute. It seemed borne from her stomach, carved out from her core. "No, that can't be true. That isn't true!"
"It is!" Jack's voice was pure, strong and strident like a church bell, its echoes traveling under the skin, raising goose flesh. "I was never pressed, Jeanie. I volunteered. Only Mr. Jarvis knew, so I asked him to lie."
He mouthed the word back at her, as though testing it through his mouth, unsure it was even real.
"Why? Because of the way you're lookin' at me now. You think coming to that decision was easy? To leave everything behind, to leave the love of my life behind? I couldn't bear it. I couldn't confess the truth to you or Sophie. I'd never leave if I did. So, here I am. A coward. I lied."
He reached for her, somehow, ludicrously feeling entitled to her acceptance, and she evaded him as if he were a bullet—not smoothly, not with any agility, but like a drunk, her steps uneasy, her feet unsure. The room had shrunk, trapping her within its tighter walls, its stuffier air. Her heart banged against her ribcage, as if it were a fist on a door, screaming to be free.
"No, that can't be. This isn't true. Please tell me this isn't true! You're lying!"
His body read rueful but resigned, a stance she should have adopted herself, but her brain cleaved.
"It's the truth I should have told you from the start," said Jack. "I'm really sorry, Jeanie. I am, really, I am."
She uttered the denial like a desperate prayer, one that would save her. The room had turned prison, and she scanned the blurring walls for an exit. Where was her commander? Her breaths shortened. She pinched her eyes shut, hoping the darkness would settle the chaos, calm the nausea creeping up her nose, but the blackness was as deep and isolating as the sea. She rocked her head in her hands.
"You don't know…" she wept. "Everything I've been through, what I've suffered… You don't know what I've done, Jack! And you mean to tell me it was all for a lie?"
His face contorted, taking on a shape she did not recognize, one of disgust, of anger—at her.
"I never asked you to come find me, Jeanie."
Her face blanked as if she had been slapped, pain shucked clean, but the sting of it did not dissolve. It boiled over.
"As if you could mean so little!" she shouted. She glared at him, her eyes hot, the tears scalding. "To me! To Sophia! To my family!"
"Jeanie, please." He held his hands out to her, but she shoved them away. "There's no need for any of that. Please."
Everything in that instant hurt, her body imbibed in ache, a thousand splinters in the veins, worse than the wound she suffered during battle, worse than any pain she had felt prior.
"No." It was the only word she could say, pushed free from trembling lips.
"Jeanie, please," he continued to plead.
She couldn't look at him. She refused. Blinded with tears and fury, she sped past him, fumbling for the door, and, when freed, swung it wide open and ran out.
Jack only got as far as the threshold before he gave up chase. He stood lamely in the parlor entry, shoulders humped, too ashamed to even watch Jeanine flee. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a figure standing right by the door, and his mortification compounded.
He tapped his knuckle to his brow, keeping his gaze low.
"I'm… um… I'm sorry you had to hear all that, sir," Jack murmured to Mr. Buchanan. He avoided eye contact.
"Hear what?" Buchanan replied.
Jack raised his eyes, an eyebrow bent. He'd bet all his earnings that the young commander had heard his contretemps with Jeanine, and yet he would insist on ignorance.
"Mr. Hanley," said Mr. Buchanan, sighing, "you are not the first, and, I'm fairly certain, you will not be the last person to upset Mr. Ellison."
"All respect, sir, but just 'cause that may be don't mean it still doesn't hurt. Hurts like hell, this."
He rubbed a spot in the center of his chest, as if the figurative heartache had turned literal. How was it that he had felt lighter when he held her, but heavier in her absence, as if his arms and feet had turned to dummy appendages, bags of lead? He groaned and rubbed his face. Maybe his chest felt like it was sodden with saltwater, like a drowning man's, because his heart was a black and rusted anchor, built to sink and drag everyone else down with him.
Mr. Buchanan shifted a few feet behind him, and Jack was reminded he had an audience, and that, maybe, it was not the best idea to have a cry in front of his new captain. Briefly, he wondered why the young commander had waited outside the parlor. "Mr. Ellison," he had said, and Jack spun around, the truth of the arrangement dawning on him with alarm, why he was told to stay in the parlor, why Buchanan had had to be the one to fetch her.
The lieutenant offered a smile and approached calmly, hands behind his back.
"I haven't known longer than you might think," he said. "Hers is a recent revelation."
"But how'd you know about me?" asked Jack.
Buchanan frowned faintly, his upper lip stiffening.
"You're the reason she's here," he said. "How could I not?"
Jack returned the frown, meeting his commander's consternation with his own.
"I didn't ask for none o' that," Jack replied, aware he was answering a question that hadn't been asked. "I didn't tell her to do this. I never needed to be rescued."
Mr. Buchanan did not say anything, and his silence was more vexing than any spoken response would have been. Jack had anticipated lecture, but instead was left to simmer in his own regret, which was punishment in and of itself.
"What I am I going to do?" he asked, desperate for guidance. He and Jeanie had fallen out before—over Mr. Hammond of all reasons—but this felt different. Those mismatched eyes of hers were the same—a pallid green and a watery blue, but he knew when he stared into them that the person they belonged to had changed.
Mr. Buchanan thought for a moment, rocking lightly on the balls of his feet.
"There is distraction in duty, Mr. Hanley." He spoke with such surety that Jack resented him for it. "Why don't you reconvene with Mr. Jarvis, get some clearer direction on what you and your men need for the journey across the Atlantic, and then wait by the horses tied in front of the farmhouse?"
Jack looked at him, his brow creased, his lips turned south at the corners, doubting even in the face of the direction he had been hoping for.
"But what of—"
"Leave Mr. Ellison to me."
Mr. Buchanan silenced him with a look, and while cowed, Jack could not help his impertinence. All his life he had been Jeanine's champion, sensitive to her pain and ready to defend her from those who caused it—an odd honor now to uphold, given that he had been the one to hurt her.
"You're sure about that, sir?"
Mr. Buchanan smirked, and Jack did not know how to interpret the display of confidence, which could have easily been read for arrogance. Buchanan didn't know Jeanie like he did. After a fight like that, Jack knew she'd need space, but the young lieutenant before him seemed to believe interruption was the solution.
"There is one thing I have that you do not, Mr. Hanley," Buchanan explained, "and it is what gives me an advantage."
He began his exit, leaving Jack by the parlor as he walked down the hallway.
Jack called after him, fists clenched at his sides, at the mercy of his own helplessness.
Buchanan walked with purpose and determination despite thinking of no set destination. He surprised himself with his singularity of mind, as if he were following a song only he could hear, an intuition unique to him and him alone.
Before long, he found himself in the dim stables on the farm grounds.
He paused, acclimating to its shadows, the smarminess of its smell, and in his focus heard someone crying. Biding his time, absorbing each peal, he passed slowly by the stalls, sometimes stopping to pet the snout of one of the horses. The wailing intensified as he made his way down, and when at last he approached her stall, he prepared himself to intrude. He perfected his posture, he hardened his mouth, he squared his shoulders. Any outsider would think he was braving a foe instead of a crying woman.
"Ellison," he said. Her name had no effect. She continued to cry, balled and huddled in the dark corner of the empty stall, like some whipped and sooty street urchin. Buchanan parted the gate, stepping gingerly into the gloom.
"Ellison," he repeated. "Look at me."
She did not answer. Her sobs had punched her lungs flat, leaving her gasping for breath, shaking.
"I wish…" She hissed, and he had to wonder if her crying had agitated her injury. "I w-wish to b-b-be a-alone," she blubbered.
Harvey did not move despite her request, hoping, in his quiet disobedience, she'd realize he would not be leaving her. Her green eye peeked at him, glazed and bloodshot.
"H-How did y-you e-even f-find me?"
"Well," Buchanan began. He blinked at the dusty ground, kicking aside some scattered blades of straw, unsure what to tell her. "All I had to do was follow the sounds of coarse sobbing."
Even with half her face shielded in the crooks of her arms, he could see her scowl, or rather, feel it, as if it warped the air.
"This i-isn't funny," she wept. "Is all of th-this just a l-lark to y-you?"
"You're right," he ceded, feeling wretched. He passed a hand through his hair, palm lingering against the curve of his skull, reminding his brain to exercise intelligence and tact and to be God damn useful. "That was inappropriate," he admitted. "An unfortunate reflex of mine." She said nothing, and he was certain she didn't because he had evaded an apology. She tucked her head back into the folds of her arms, muffling the cries that continued to leave her.
"Ellison, look at me," he repeated.
"I d-don't want to," she muttered. She didn't lift her head.
Harvey flexed his hands, but his feet would not bring him closer. Despite his position, as commander with final authority, the agency to do whatever he wanted and when, he could not summon the words off his tongue: "That was not a request." Confronted with her sadness, he couldn't even think them.
"I know you're hurting, Ellison," he said.
A minute passed, and Harvey could feel the seconds of the day slipping by, like droplets of rain running down his neck. Another minute came and went, and with it, a rigidness took hold of her, a hunch in the shoulders as the shivering lessened.
"Then let me hurt," she grumbled. She raised her head, her eyes meeting his, a simmering flicker of anger shining beneath the tears. "I know you're here to bring me out of it. To remember my duty. But can't I have one moment to myself and use it to despair?"
For all his military training, Harvey sank under the weight of her emotional burdens, as if he were porous to her ache, drenched in it. He glanced at his feet, willing the solidness of the earth beneath his toes to fortify him.
"I am sorry to be the one to say it, Ellison," he began, shaking his head. "But as long as you wear that uniform, I cannot support that behavior. There is…"
He paused to breathe as his decision coalesced in his brain. Their stares met again. Fresh saltwater leaked from her eyes, which were pierced with the wisdom of knowing she had already lost and lost deeply.
"There is work to be done," he finished, finding his resolve, "and our mission cannot be further delayed."
She did not blink, the sheen of tears on her eyes broken and scattered, the way sunlight danced off water, dizzying and pointed. Her lips curled up.
"Then I surrender my commission now," she countered. She stood and tore off her naval coat. "Take this horrid jacket and its vocation from me!" She threw it to the ground, dust rising as it hit dirt with a thud. "It is worth nothing!" she cried. "Just like the tailor said. Beyond repair. Too stained, too battered, too worn. A shame to the institution. A shame…"
She retreated, stumbling back into the dark, the sobs creeping back up her chest. Once her shoulder bumped into the back of the stall, she slunk down into the form he had found her, curled into herself.
"I am a fool, Mr. Buchanan," she wept. She covered her head with her arms, fingers picking at her shorn hair. "The utmost fool. All this time I thought I was doing the noble, gallant thing. I was rescuing him. I was saving him. Everything I've done, sprung from a lie."
Her confession discomfited him, as if he were staring at her naked, her vulnerability absolute. But the words had been said and she was drowning in them. Her sobs seized her, each one scraped out of her throat, a raw and reverberating ache that Harvey could feel in his bones.
"You did not know that at the time," he said. He feared his words would pass emptily, too kind to be sincere. "You cannot blame yourself."
"I don't care about blame or fault!"
She spoke with such fierceness she was moved to rise, though she kept a hand on the stall siding, as if she were one word away from collapse. "When everything I have done is because of a lie, what sort of shadow does that cast over my memories? My experiences?"
Her glare was on him, unwavering, impatient for his answer. He stepped closer to her, his throat tight, unwilling to speak until his brain chanced upon the right words.
"The same as if what you believed were to be true," he said, "which is to say, no shadow at all."
Her discolored eyes widened, sharp and daring, bright even in the shade.
"How do you mean?" she demanded.
He smiled feebly, not knowing why her question amused him.
"Ellison, you said it yourself to me." He came nearer but stayed out of her reach, not wanting to corner her. "What you have achieved as Jonathan Robert Ellison is yours and yours alone, regardless of the deception, regardless of the reason that brought you to where you are, and regardless of that reason's truth. They exist outside all of that."
She flinched as if his encouraging words had had the opposite effect, backhanding her across the cheek. She drew her arm in, placed a fist over her heart. Her stare hardened, chilled like a winter's bleak, icy sea.
"But without that reason, I would not even be here. That is why it matters, Mr. Buchanan."
She faced him resolutely, bravely, but what she was defending was ludicrous, absurd. His jaw tensed, the ache breaching into his teeth.
"Then what matters more?" he challenged.
Instinct pushed him closer. Their thoughts had gone asunder, dismantled and disparate, and he could no longer abide the fracture in understanding. He would close the schism the only way he knew, with nearness. An extension of his fingers and he'd be able to feel her heartbeat in the space that separated them, recognizing it as the line he could not cross. A spark glinted in her eyes.
"What matters more?" he repeated at a whisper. "The lie or its outcomes? You said you have felt happiness out here, at sea. Tell me. Does the lie change that?"
He studied her face, watched her mouth, waited for her lips to move, but he only heard blood beating in his ears, a saturated, portentous thump growing heavier with each moment that passed. The silence condemned her. She said nothing. Her answer was a tremble in the lip, a blink that freed her from his gaze, and then she turned away.
Her movement sent a waft of cold air into his face, gentle but nonetheless abrasive—not so much a swat as a light push. His chest sank. He grimaced, sighing, his face flushed. Her naval jacket lay in a heap between their feet. He picked it up, dusted it lightly, and hung it over the stall gate. He turned once to look at her. She did not return his glances.
"I will let you have your moment, Ellison," Harvey declared, surrendering. He had made his argument. Hopefully, it was enough. "I expect you at the front of the house with the horses when you are ready. Jack Hanley will be waiting." He set a hand on the gate. "I will not."
He left afterwards, eager to put his failure behind him. He would never know the instant he parted the gate that Jeanine had peeked over her shoulder, that she had watched him leave, that reflex alone would have had her sprinting after him, but she denied herself the impulse. She scowled at the grubby floor, rubbed the heel of her palm over her eyes, mixing dirt and tears until her eyelids itched.
With a heavy heart, she stepped toward the gate. Her legs were flaccid, her arms jittery. She picked up her jacket, and with a shuddering sigh, slipped her arm through one sleeve, then the other. With one final sniff, she lifted her chin, blinked the salt from her eyes, and exited the stall.
There was distraction in duty.
Jack idled in front of the farmhouse, standing a lazy guard by the remaining horse. Mr. Buchanan had taken the other one and had left without saying a word, leaving Jack to wonder if their cocksure commander had been no match for a young woman and her tears. All Jeanine needed to calm down was to be held. Jack knew. He had done it before. Strange that Mr. Buchanan, for all his charm, was unable to figure that out.
The rustle of grass behind him drew his attentions back to the present, and he leapt back slightly at the sight of Jeanine approaching. The sunlight was harsh, casting not a soft, angelic aura about her, but highlighting a glare and accentuating shadows, as if she were all hard angles, from the point of her nose to her bony ankles.
"Mr. Hanley," she greeted, before he could say anything else. Her voice was low, gruff—the voice, Jack presumed, she had taken on for her male persona.
"Let me be clear this once, before we begin," she interrupted. She kept her hands behind her back, her red-rimmed eyes fixed on him, her lips pale and chapped, like a line in the sand. "There are only two acceptable ways to address me, and to which I will respond: 'Mr. Ellison' or 'sir.' Any other name will be effectively ignored. Is that clear?"
Jack gaped for words, stunned at the lecture. A beat pulsed against his temple, and as it passed, he nodded and murmured, "Aye, sir."
Her glare lowered as she strode past him towards the horse, which stood blissfully ignorant of the surrounding human drama. Jack's eyes followed her movement, as if his gaze were tied to her with a string, hoping to find in her gestures clues to the thoughts in her mind.
Only when she laid hands on the cantle did Jack realize what she was about to perform.
"What are you doing?" he blurted.
Her leg had already lifted, prepared to shove boot toe through the stirrup, but she set it down, her discolored eyes darting toward him.
"I am getting ready for our departure, Mr. Hanley."
"But you don't know how to ride a regular saddle," he replied, moving beside her to grab the reins. "Shouldn't I—"
She intercepted him, her arm blocking his reach.
"Considering you have not been part of my life these past two years," she cut in, pushing his arm aside, "and have absolutely no knowledge of what I have learned or felt in that time, I find your presumption at the very least misplaced, and at the most, insulting."
Jack fell into old habits, his nervousness reversing whatever orders had been given him.
"It is Mr. Ellison," she corrected, interrupting him a third time, and it felt like being stabbed in the neck. "I will lead the horse; you will sit on the saddle behind me. There will be no further discussion. Is that understood, Mr. Hanley?"
Again her name was on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed it down, recognizing that saying it no longer brought the same felicity or lightness. He nodded.
Jeanine, with some apparent difficulty, raised herself up on the saddle and swung her leg over. Jack checked the urge to reach up and steady her. With how things were progressing, he was certain if he touched her, she'd kick him in the chest, even though he already felt like she had. After getting adjusted, she righted her posture, sitting tall like a gentleman. Jack climbed up effortlessly behind her.
"Begging your pardon, sir," he muttered as he set his hands on her waist. Despite their friendship collapsing within a matter of hours, Jack had humility enough to know he'd still have to hold her if he was to survive the ride back.
She said nothing, didn't even so much as flinch at his touch, and squeezed her heels into the ribs of their horse. Jack hung his head as they trotted forward, willing his eyes and mind to focus on anything else other than Jeanie's anger, which seemed to emanate from her like a fume.
He settled for her naval jacket, the fabric of which was coarse, dirty, and frayed—and, as he peered closer, spattered with blood.
They rode in silence, which, over time, Jack found increasingly unbearable. He would peek at Jeanine, every glimpse of the back of her shorn head or her pallid profile sending waves of guilt through his gut.
The blood on her clothes haunted him. In his time at sea, he had only experienced one sea battle, which was already one too many; but the wear on Jeanine's uniform told stories of repeated cannon fire, torrents of splinters, miasmas of smoke, and blasts of thunder so loud they could fill even the smallest void hidden in a man—all, to think, in pursuit of him.
He shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting the reflex to vomit. He was disgusted and ashamed of the lengths she had gone to find him. He didn't ask for any of this. He would never have put her through such suffering. He could not be held responsible. He would not.
So, then, why did he feel like he was?
With a cross between a sigh and a grunt, he dropped his hand and reached over, seized the reins, and jerked the horse to a halt.
"This has to stop," he said, ignoring the glower she shot him. "I can't work with you like this. This isn't you, Jeanie. This isn't you. You must let me explain. I can't bear it."
"Mr. Hanley," said she, her teeth clenched. She yanked on the reins, but Jack held fast. "Need I remind you—"
"For Christ's sake!" he shouted, cutting her short. He dismounted, heat in his cheeks, and took a moment to pace beside the horse. He tempered his breathing, fists on hips, teeth worrying his lower lip.
"Can we please just talk about this?" he bleated. "Nothing will get accomplished if we keep acting as though nothing has happened, or nothing has changed, when, obviously, it has."
He looked up at her pleadingly, still determined to find the girl he had befriended all those years ago in the face that looked on at him in equal measures anger and apathy.
Jeanine did not dismount.
"What is there to discuss, Jack?" she asked, though her tone was haggard, annoyed. Her usual and genuine curiosity had been supplanted with vanity, the type reserved only for people who mistakenly believed they had seen all the world had to offer.
"Everything!" he burst. "You have to know I would never have left unless I had a good reason to. Please, just let me explain. That's all I ask. And once I do, you can do with it as you please, but I need this chance. Just this once. Please."
He craved her attention, to touch but one part of her. He'd settle for the sole of her boot, so long as he had re-established some sort of connection with her, but he feared the contact all the same. The looks exchanged were intense enough, tweaking his heart.
After what seemed the longest blink of his life, Jeanine turned and got off the horse. She faced him squarely, the lines of her countenance softening by degrees, like frost melting with the dawn. Her eyebrows knitted, and he wanted to run his thumb over the fine hairs, smoothing them to complaisance.
"Then explain," she said.
Jack did not reply instantaneously. His insistence suggested as much, but now, invited to share his story, he was stammering for a way to begin. More than once he had opened his mouth, a breath taken in, only for his lips to shut at the last moment. His failure to talk had Jeanine wondering if she had made the wrong decision to listen to him, but she knew her change of heart was forthcoming no matter what Jack did or said. She knew the instant she fled from him she'd find her way back.
"Do you…" His voice surfaced her from her thoughts. "Do you remember the day I was to elope with Sophia, when you confronted me in the barn and asked me—one last time—to reconsider?"
The memory was as fresh in her mind as the day's turn of events. The tears shed that day were not so different from the ones she had shed an hour ago. They were a product of the same heartbreak: betrayal.
She blinked absently down the road.
"Well," Jack resumed, correctly reading her silence as acknowledgement, "Mr. Jarvis heard us. He heard our entire argument."
Under different circumstances, she might have dared a snippy remark about how Colin Jarvis eavesdropped more often than he breathed, but the revelation that her entire two years at sea had been for naught still left her feeling raw, as if someone had skinned her. Talking took effort, and she decided before they departed to ration whatever energy she had left.
"But he said there was a solution to my predicament, Jeanie," said Jack. "And, Lord." He winced, rubbing his forehead. "I was in such a sorry state—of course I didn't want to ruin our friendship or betray your father, but I loved Sophie, too—that any hope of a solution, I welcomed. He bought me a drink in town. We talked."
Despite the brevity of his last sentence, it rang the most loudly in Jeanine's skull. Talking with Jarvis was what brought her to where she was. Talking to Jarvis was how he picked her apart, probing with surgical precision until he got to the pith of her desire. Talking with Jarvis was, perhaps, the most dangerous act in which anyone could have engaged. Her shame at having been so easily duped by Colin made her hide her face from Jack. She turned toward the horse, occupying herself with petting its mane.
"What did he tell you?" she asked.
"If you think he started touting all the benefits of being a navy man, then you'd be wrong. Really, the very first thing he asked me was what my dreams were. He said, 'Jack, what do you want most out of life? What hopes do you have for yourself?'"
Jeanine's hand slowed to a stop as it passed through the horse's coarse strands of hair. Her throat constricted, as if the blood had been sucked dry from the surrounding veins, parching her vocal cords to wispy fibers. In any other context, such questions would have been received warmly, but veiled in their seemingly good intentions was a dark, repeated theme Jeanine saw too clearly in herself—the appeal to one's pride.
As much as she fought the reflex, she veered her eyes to Jack, the glistening of her glare too easily mistaken for a rapt attention instead of the flare of caution.
Jack went on, smiling in the recollection of his bemusement.
"Lord, Jeanine, I was stunned. I don't think anyone had ever asked me what he had. I hadn't even asked them of myself. I guess I just thought I'd always be a servant. Even when Sophia and I made plans to elope, we didn't have a plan for what came after—stupid, really."
Jeanine's shoulders twitched. Her nose itched. She had begged and pleaded with Jack then to see reason, but it took a stranger—and a depraved one at that—for her best friend to at last see his folly. The insult stung, and she had to look away as the surge of tears pressed against her eyeballs. Her nails dug back into the horse's mane.
"And what did you tell him?" she asked, trying to distract herself.
"What could I tell him?" She imagined him shrugging. "I didn't have anything to say. I hadn't thought about my future like that. I hadn't really thought about, well, me. And he picked up on that. He asked me if I had always been a servant, if I had always been an orphan. I said no. I had had parents. I had lived in a house. I had been all set to attend school, books and uniform and everything until me mum and dad fell ill. I had almost forgotten about that life until he inquired. I had allowed one catastrophe to redefine who I was, but he reminded me, Jeanie, he reminded me that I was still the son of a gentleman and a lady, that I could still make something of myself."
The zeal with which he spoke both troubled and inspired her, their conflict cramping her stomach. She wanted to unhear what he had said. His revelations had been seduced out him by a snake, but at the same time her mind devoured every word, lured by his passion.
"And that is where he began talking to you about the opportunities in the navy," she surmised.
"Aye." Jack nodded. "He let me know it wasn't the most lucrative—less lucrative than the army, but a man like me—literate—could easily work his way up if he was determined and dedicated. He told me stories of men with pasts worse than mine working their way up the ranks, getting recognition and renown, a sizable income. But he was never unrealistic about it, Jeanie. He reminded me of the risks. That we are, of course, at war; that I could die from battle or disease; that none of the examples of success he told me were promises. They were simply possibilities."
"And you believed him."
"Don't think me so soft." Jack scoffed. His face darkened for a blink, the shadow of anger vanishing as he turned his head. "I did think about it," he resumed, his voice softer.
Jeanine recognized the tone. Having lived among men for two years, subject to the arguments offered by her peers, by her commander, she knew its cadences. The strain of vulnerability carried with each word too easily mistook mere, selfish defense for tenderness, for a plea for understanding. Jack went on.
"He told me to think of Sophia. How would I support her? How would I take care of her? We hadn't thought any of that through. We just wanted to be married, that was it. I had nothing to offer her—and I wanted to be a man who could. And I know how that sounds, Jeanie. I trust and listen to Jarvis but not to you, my best friend?" His eyes sought her, and she was calm enough in heart and mind not to be startled by the shift in his attention. She looked on steadily, uneager for the rest of his explanation—not because she anticipated what he would say, but because she feared it. "But you never asked me those questions. You never asked me to think about me. You asked me to think about you, your father, your family. You made me feel… indebted."
Jeanine froze mid-blink, her eyes trapped in a hooded state, her stare struggling to lift, to face him in the wake of such a charged word. Her teeth set in her jaw, vibrating infinitesimally in her constraint.
"But Jarvis didn't make me feel like that," continued Jack. "He made me feel like I had an option—one that could make me a better person, the person who would be worthy of Sophia's love and hand in marriage, the person who would be worthy of your father's acceptance and forgiveness, the person who would be worthy of your care and friendship."
Jeanine inhaled, using the breath to loosen her lips open, trusting in her impeccable composure to keep her frustration in check.
"You don't realize it, do you?" she said, matching the gentleness in his voice. "You were always that person to us. Why did you need Mr. Jarvis to tell you that?"
Jack looked at her, the somberness in his face dissolving, breaking the way a pebble tossed in water scattered ripples across the placid surface. He smiled a fake and feeble smile, a tear threatening to spill onto his cheek.
"You're still doing it, don't you see?" he cried. "I am telling you how I feel and you are insisting that what I'm feeling is not what I should be feeling! That I should be grateful for you! But is it too much to ask, to dream, to want something for myself, to make something of myself, to reclaim even a tiny bit of the life stolen from me when my parents died?" He stamped his foot on the ground, raised a fist at the sky. "That is why I'm here, Jeanie! I am learning to be my own man, so I can give back to the world that made me! But you'll never see past that, will you? I will always be the orphan boy, the servant boy, the one deserving of your pity and your affection because of my misfortunes. But I don't want to be pitied, least of all by you."
He crammed distance between them, back turning to her as he stuffed fists into his trouser pockets. He sniffed as he paced the grass underfoot. Jeanine watched him silently, the cool flow of wind in her ears, mind and mouth muted by his confession, troubled by her own lack of astonishment at the feelings he had harbored in secret.
She knew Jarvis's design, knew how he worked, how he planted ideas in the brain and then dressed them as original to their host. What had happened with Jack had to have been no different, and as resistant as she was to sympathizing with Jack at that hour, after what he had done, she could not deny the familiarity in their plights nor resist the comfort in knowing she was not alone. Had she not fought herself for the right to stay? To pursue dreams of her own? To sustain the freedom her guise granted her?
"Jack," she said—declared, more like. He turned brusquely. She had used her officer's voice.
"What?" he retorted.
"I do not pity you."
He blew air out of his cheeks, his frown returning.
"Oh, come off it," he replied, embittered. "I don't b—"
"Why do you think I am still here?" she interrupted. They stood apart, staring each other down. Jack shrugged, his face expressionless, unwilling to exert even the effort to furrow his brow in thought. Jeanine sighed and walked up to him.
"I don't know," he blabbered. "Because of me."
She grimaced, saddened and amused by the narrowness of his perception.
"You think I do not understand the beauty or allure of the freedom offered with this life?"
She took a moment to glance at their surroundings, reminded, as she often was, that she was a far way from home. Two years ago, home was all she knew, her entire world, and now, standing on foreign soil, a veteran of war, stabbed and beaten and bloodied, home seemed as small as a point on a map, its comforts cold and distant.
The question Mr. Buchanan had asked her earlier returned with heart-bubbling intensity. Are you happy with your time at sea?
She closed her eyes and inhaled slowly, the cool air washing her throat, her lungs, her tongue tasting the salt of the sea in her breath. When her eyelids fluttered open, she turned her mismatched eyes and looked into the face of the boy she had crossed oceans for. She smiled wanly.
"Jack Hanley, you may be the reason I went out to sea, but you are not the only reason I've stayed."
A/N: Bit of an off-the-cuff ending, but I needed to end this really long chapter somehow, somewhere. Also, quite certain I could have split this chapter in two, but this whole segment is turning into a saga in and of itself and I couldn't do it. That, and I wanted to resolve Jeanie/Jack issues before moving on to the next bit, which gets even more complicated.
Anyway, thanks so much for reading! Would love to hear your thoughts on Jack's rationale for leaving and if he's justified or if you want to bop Jeanie on the head for ever liking him and tell her to run off into the sunset with literally anyone else.