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Phosphorescence

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Harry peered over the gunwale, watching dark, nebulous shapes drift through the freezing water below, hoping to catch a glimpse of some elusive Arctic sea creature. When spots began to swim before his eyes, he blinked rapidly and fixed his gaze, instead, on the icebergs looming above the dark sea. Soon, he knew, they would give way to massive ice sheets and their Arctic expedition would truly be underway.

As the Erebus had drawn further north, Harry had been exposed to a marvelous variety of species—some of which he suspected had never before been seen by human eyes, unless perhaps spotted by the Esquimaux. Dr. Stanley had finally grown weary of Harry’s work overtaking the sick bay—floating specimens in bottles competing for space with bottled tinctures, notebooks overflowing with sketches sharing the bookshelf with textbooks of anatomy, his bulky microscope taking up limited table space—and all but threatened to throw his research overboard two months ago. It was only through the interference of Captain Fitzjames that he was able to continue his work as naturalist. Having noticed Harry in agony over whether or not to bottle an interesting specimen of seagrass, he had probed into the matter.

“Is something the matter, Doctor?” he had asked, lips tugging upwards as he joined Harry by the stern. He placed one mittened hand on the gunwale and gazed out over the sea.

Harry had flushed, face burning despite the cold. He hadn’t heard the Captain approaching in his consternation. “No, sir.”

Captain Fitzjames raised an eyebrow. “You look rather like that seaweed has affronted you, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

Harry chuckled, shaking his head. “I was only wondering what to do with it. Dr. St—that is, there is limited space in the sick bay for my specimens.”

“Hm.”

It was the first truly cold day they had encountered, cold enough to snatch one’s breath right out of one’s lungs. Harry remembered feeling giddy when he had first seen the temperature drop below freezing weeks ago. The temperature had risen with the sun, but still it was—Harry thought—a sign. They were well on their way to being pioneers.

“When will we begin to see ice, sir?”

“Weeks, most likely. Months, perhaps. Not more than two.”

“I have hoped to study the white bear,” Harry confided. “I do not think I will mind if we overwinter in the ice.”

“Sir John believes we will find the Northwest Passage this year.”

“Yes.” Harry smiled.

Despite his hopes as a scientist, the Englishman in him could think of nothing more glorious than the completion of the passage, after so many years of work.

Captain Fitzjames then clapped a hand on his arm. “Come with me, Dr. Goodsir, before the both of us freeze. I intend to harass Dr. Stanley until he makes room for your specimens.”

Once the matter was settled, Harry was free to bottle as many specimens as his heart desired. What he had not anticipated, however, was that Captain Fitzjames would from that day on take an astute interest in his work.

The first incident occurred when Harry was studying some sort of animalcule under his microscope while Dr. Stanley lurked in a corner with a book, from time to time looking up and fixing Harry with a disapproving stare. At first, Harry had been horribly embarrassed, but soon enough he found himself learning to ignore it, and then to be amused by it. Truly, Dr. Stanley’s capacity for spite was astounding.

Harry had just been concluding his sketches when there came a knock on the door. Dr. Stanley, who had begun dozing, woke abruptly, eyes flicking open.

“Come in,” said Harry.

It was Captain Fitzjames—Harry noted that he had to stoop to get through the door—bearing one of the tin buckets Harry had often seen men dunking into the sea at the end of a rope and pulling up in hopes of finding something interesting for the ship’s naturalist. Fitzjames greeted Dr. Stanley with a nod before depositing the bucket on a table and turning to Harry. “I thought you might like to take a look at this.”

Harry leaned forward to peer into the bucket. Inside was a jellyfish about as wide in diameter as his hand, tentacles drifting around it. And—to his delight and wonder—it glowed softly with a phosphorescent blue light in the dim room.

“Extraordinary,” he breathed.

Dr. Stanley let out an irritated huff from his corner, which both men ignored.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” said Fitzjames.

They watched it in near silence, mesmerized by its otherworldly movements. How strange to think that such a beautiful and delicate thing could thrive in the midst of the cruel Arctic waters. This was perhaps what Harry found the most fascinating about this cold and brutal place: despite all appearances, it teemed with life, with strange creatures that had found a way to survive.

Both Harry and Fitzjames happened to look up at approximately the same time, and, to Harry’s horror, their foreheads collided. He hadn’t realized how close their heads had been as they leaned over the bucket.

“I’m very sorry, sir.”

James laughed, rubbing his forehead. “Not at all. Fortunately, a bump on the head isn’t lethal, as far as I know.”

Harry was struck by the warmth in his eyes, that same rich brown as coffee. He knew that Captain Fitzjames was well-liked by the men, and had even many times seen his kindness first-hand, but he had nevertheless found Erebus’s second-in-command intimidating up until that moment, with his austere bearing and proud features.

“Not to my knowledge, either, sir, no,” said Harry, grinning in relief.

“I’m glad to hear that, Doctor.”

Harry lowered his gaze to the tabletop, feeling awkward. The distinction between doctor and surgeon still nagged at him, but the prospect of explaining this technicality to his captain was equally vexing. For better or for worse, Dr. Stanley was more than happy to clarify the matter.

“Captain Fitzjames, Mr. Goodsir, I must retiring to bed. Please excuse me.”

Fitzjames offered a vague nod in Dr. Stanley’s direction.

“Good night, Dr. Stanley,” said Harry out of a sense of loyalty, if nothing else.

Dr. Stanley did not respond.

Fitzjames glanced at Harry with his eyebrows raised and his lips drawn in an expression of disdain that was most probably not befitting a naval captain. Harry ducked his head to hide his smile.

To Harry’s surprise, Captain Fitzjames did not leave even as he set to work examining his new specimen. First, he made a series of rather rough sketches—he was, sadly, no artist—with notes scribbled in the margins of his journal. He then took a sample of the creature’s gelatinous body to study under his microscope. At some point, Fitzjames took out a small journal from his greatcoat pocket and began scribbling busily. When Harry looked askance, he explained that he was completing the day’s journal entry for the admiralty.
“I see no point in lighting a candle in my own quarters when we have a natural source of illumination before us,” he said, gesturing to the specimen in the bucket with the end of his pen.

Harry had not noticed—the solitary candle on the table had long since burnt out, but he did not lack for light. The table was illuminated by an ethereal blue glow.

“I appreciate the company, sir,” said Harry.

“Why, are you suggesting that your find Dr. Stanley’s companionship lacking?”

Harry felt his face reddening. “No, sir, I didn’t mean to—”

“I should think that his warm manner and effervescent personality should be more than enough to sustain you,” said Fitzjames, his face comically grave, and it was only then that Harry realized the captain was teasing him.

“Yes, sir. I have never met a more jovial man,” he said, doing his best to match Fitzjames’ solemn tone.

Fitzjames then cast aside his pen with a smile, and said, “I have been thinking, Dr. Goodsir. There is no sense in keeping your collections in the sick bay when there is abundant space in the officers’ quarters. I myself come in there only to sleep and to write, and would not mind the company of some marine beasts. It may seem like only a nuisance now but if, God forbid, we are beset this winter, we may find our sick bay rather crowded with cases of frostbite, in which case your specimens may pose more of a hazard.”
Harry saw the sense in this, but hesitated at the idea of his own collections spilling into another’s personal quarters. “It would not be an imposition?”

“Not at all. I will pester the other officers if they are recalcitrant, but in the meantime, I fully embrace the reinvention of my cabin as a scientific laboratory.”

The downside of this arrangement, as Harry soon found, was that Dr. Stanley, once hearing of the idea, embraced it fully, and urged Harry to move his research entirely out of the sick bay. As a result, Harry soon found that he spent just as much time in his captain’s quarters as in the sick bay. It was not uncommon to find them writing together in companionable silence, Harry at the narrow desk and Fitzjames seated in a wooden chair, journal on one knee and inkwell balanced precariously on the other. Despite their earlier observations, they relied on a candle for light, rather than the phosphorescent jellyfish. It cast pleasant shadows over the small space, illuminating the copper in Fitzjames’ hair and drawing out the contours of his face. What had once looked impossibly severe now was as familiar to Harry as his own visage. Though its sight did not grow stale with the passing weeks.

From time to time, they would share a few snippets of conversation. The captain, it seemed, was a scientifically-minded man himself, who would watch Harry in rapt attention as he explained the intricacies of aquatic life, and even his theories about the cause of disease—the accepted wisdom was, of course, that illness was spread by miasma, and so Harry had spoken little to the other members of the crew about his theory that animalcules may spread disease. But Captain Fitzjames, far from shocked, took these theories in stride, and even praised them.

Sometimes Fitzjames would ask about family, and Harry would speak at length about his dear brothers, whose absence he felt painfully. Harry would inquire in turn about the captain’s own relations, but Fitzjames was largely silent on the matter.

Harry had, however, noticed the framed portrait of a young woman over Fitzjames’ bed, and suspected that it might provide some clue into the matter.

“Is she your wife?” Harry asked, once, of the portrait. “Or your sweetheart?”

Fitzjames laughed at this. “She is my dear brother’s wife—my sister. Of wives and sweethearts, I have none and desire none.”

“Oh,” said Harry. The thought made him somehow relieved.

“What of you, Dr. Goodsir?”

Harry blinked, then shook his head. “Oh, no. To be honest, sir, the thought of marriage never appealed.”

A thoughtful silence fell between them then, and no more was said of wives or sweethearts.

Weeks passed, and the air grew colder. Harry saw his first iceberg, and was in ecstasies. It was a formidable sight, jagged and strangely blue. Though it was a safe distance away, it was clearly massive, larger than Harry had ever suspected. They might fit an entire Erebus atop it, if they had the means of hoisting the ship, and, of course, any possible motive.

The chill air seemed to have an enlivening effect on all of the men. Lieutenants Gore and Des Voeux delivered more samples than Harry knew what to do with, and when he was not studying his specimens in either the sick bay, or, more frequently, Captain Fitzjames’ cabin, he took exercise on deck, pointing out the occasional walrus and identifying the packs of whales that sometimes swam alongside them. The bottlenose were his favorite, for their delightful antics and their cheerful faces.

This energizing spirit that so infected him also lead to his working long hours into the night. It seemed that Captain Fitzjames simply did not sleep, and they spent many happy hours working late into the night. Fitzjames expressed an interest in learning the tools of Harry’s humble trade, and spent long hours at the microscope.

All was well. That was, until Harry awoke one morning in Captain Fitzjames’ bunk.

He looked around, horrified, face burning. His glasses were thoughtfully placed atop his notebook, a bookmark between the pages where he had left off in his work. There were two pillows propped under his head and fine cotton sheets beneath him, which smelled faintly of sweat and damp wood. This was, he realized, the scent of Captain Fitzjames.
On the floor beside him was the captain himself, fully dressed in his greatcoat and Welsh wig, softly snoring on the floor without so much as a blanket to cover him—all of the blankets and quilts were piled atop Harry with great care.

Harry had never been so embarrassed in his life. He must have fallen asleep at the desk, and been moved here by the Captain Fitzjames. It was one thing to steal a superior officer’s desk; to take his bunk from him was far worse yet.

In his panic, Harry had not noticed Fitzjames waking.

“I am deeply sorry, Captain, I did not mean to impose. I am very embarrassed to have burdened you in such a way—”

Fitzjames rubbed his eyes, running a hand through his hair. His voice was heavy with sleep. “Not at all, Harry. You forget that I am a navy man. I have slept in places that would make me weep with joy at the prospect of sleeping on a sturdy wood floor in a cool and quiet place. When you have woken all but covered head to toe with mosquitoes in the damp heat of Mesopotamia, all other things seem like luxury.”

Harry swallowed. He did not recall Fitzjames ever referring to him as something other than Dr. Goodsir. “All the same, sir…”

“Don’t think of it, please.” Fitzjames grunted as sat up, eyelids drooping with sleepiness so that his eyelashes nearly brushes his cheeks. I can imagine worse bedfellows than you.”
Harry did not mention that they had not, technically, been bedfellows. That opened a rather uncomfortable line of thought, one that he had no wish to pursue. All the same, he returned to his own quarters with warm cheeks and a dry mouth.

It seemed wisest to avoid Captain Fitzjames from that point forward. There was no conscious aspect to Harry’s decision; he merely felt a predisposition towards being places that the captain was not. For example, behind a pile of crates when he heard his familiar footsteps resounding across the deck. Or barricaded in his own cabin when he heard rumor that the captain was in the sick bay for a nasty strain of cold.

It was toward the end of the first day of this self-imposed house arrest that Harry was startled by a knock on his door.

“Come in.”

It was Dr. Stanley. “There is a patient in sick bay. You may watch over him, if so inclined, while I am asleep. Although I suppose I may call Dr. MacDonald over from the Terror if you would prefer to neglect your duty.”

Harry all but dropped his copy of The Vicar of Wakefield onto his lap. “I apologize, Dr. Stanley, but I think I may be ill. I wouldn’t like to endanger the patients.”

Dr. Stanley’s face was impassive. “You think you may be ill,” he said. “And yet you have the presence of mind to read that modern drivel.” He sighed. “Do your job, please, Mr. Goodsir.”

With that, he closed the door, and Harry was left with no option but to follow Dr. Stanley’s orders. Perhaps Captain Fitzjames would be delirious with fever, and would not even recognize him. Perhaps he would sleep through the night and never know Harry was there. Perhaps…

Harry dressed with a sick feeling in his stomach. As much trepidation as he felt, he also felt shame for his cowardice and for shunning his duty as surgeon. And, he thought, he felt worry. If nothing else, Captain Fitzjames was his dear friend, and he hoped to find him in as good health as could be expected. The thought of him suffering was difficult to bear.

When he arrived at sick bay, he found it empty save for Fitzjames. The lantern rattled with the ship’s steady movement, and his precious bottles of specimens clattered together as the ship listed sharply to one side, but Harry found that he thought of nothing else but Fitzjames. His face was white and beaded with sweat, his hairline damp. The rise and fall of his chest was rapid. But his eyes were open and they were bright, and he smiled when he saw Harry enter.

“Dr. Goodsir,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically soft. “I would almost have thought you were avoiding me.”

Harry was not sure how to respond to this, so he avoided the unsaid question altogether. “Call me Harry, please,” he said with a tentative smile. “I think you did, once before.”
Fitzjames began to say something but was interrupted by a coughing fit. Harry rushed to his side, gripping his hand and holding a glass of water to his lips as the coughing subsided. When Fitzjames’ breathing steadied, Harry thought to release his hand, but to his surprise, his captain did not loosen his grip. His hand was clammy but his grip was strong, and as Fitzjames moved their hands to rest on his heart, Harry felt his own heart flutter in the most disconcerting way.

“Tell me if I’m making a fool of myself,” said Fitzjames, “and then forget all about it. Blame it on my—on my fever consuming my good sense.”

Harry shook his head, feeling dizzy. He was aware of his own pulse, of the cold that prickled his scalp and numbed his toes, of the warmth, not quite feverish, that radiated off the captain. “You seem very lucid to me, sir.”

James—he struggled to think of him as Captain Fitzjames, in this moment, try as he might—smiled. “Do I? I—I often feel otherwise. When around you, that is.”

Emboldened, Harry inched closer. “That sounds like a serious ailment, sir,” he said, teasingly.

“Is it? Why, is there a cure?”

The theatrical seriousness in James’s voice was too much for Harry to bear, and he felt his own mock-grave visage collapse into a grin. James joined him in breathless laughter until he succumbed to another coughing fit, which made something in Harry’s stomach tighten in a much less pleasant way.

Chest impossibly tight, Harry leaned forward to press his lips against James’s lined forehead. James captured him by the wrist before Harry could duck away and hide somewhere in a fit of embarrassment, his hand then rising to cradle Harry’s jaw. His lips were incredibly close, and Harry’s throat bobbed as he swallowed in nervousness.

“I’m not sure…” he began, and James’s face fell. “That is—my understanding is that these animalcules may be spread by water vapor expelled from the lungs or nasal passages, as in a cough or sneeze. It would seem that these microscopic beings could be similarly spread through, ah, saliva, thus leading to the development of illness in the uninfected party.” He paused, feeling very warm indeed. “Although, in the interest of science, perhaps it would be wise to test that hypothesis? There is great precedent for eminent scientists conducting research upon themselves, even to the extent of physical harm. And, of course, in this case, the harm is not so great, particularly given that one weighs to benefits against the...”

James was looking at him with a peculiar softness in his eyes. “Harry,” he said, his voice rough.

Harry was acutely aware of the sensation of James’s fingertips curling in his hair, brushing against the bare skin of his temple, the electrifying warmth of his body but inches away from his own.

“Ah,” was all that Harry managed to produce. “Yes, alright.”

Before he could embarrass himself further, he leaned in to close the gap between them, animalcules be damned.

In his very limited experience with kissing, he had never been in quite so awkward a position. He had to crane his neck to align his lips with James’s, and he was unsure what to do with his hands. One was still entangled with that of James, but the other was of dangling limply somewhere or other until he had the good sense to rest it on James’s shoulder and forget about it.

It was slow, and soft, as gentle as the mother sea that rocked Erebus. James tasted faintly and pleasantly of brine. Seeming to sense Harry’s hesitancy, he did nothing more obscene than briefly run the tip of his tongue over Harry’s lip and, even then, Harry faltered, pulling back with a burning face.

“Don’t stop,” said Harry quickly before James could play the gentleman and pull away.

James coaxed him back into the kiss, rubbing circles on his hand with his thumb, and Harry resisted the urge to hold his breath before plunging it.

There was a world within a kiss, he thought, something as frightening and as exhilarating as the world beneath the Arctic ice, or within the confines of the human body. Something both terrifying and tantalizing. A kiss was rather—and Harry chided himself for being so dreadfully unromantic as soon as the thought occurred to him—like plunging a net over the gunwale of a ship in gleeful anticipation of the unknown.

“What are you thinking of?” asked James as they broke for air. Harry felt a flicker of concern as he saw the way James labored for air, more so than even himself, as out of practice as he was with these sorts of things.

“Fishing nets,” answered Harry in the spirit of honestly.

James let out a wheezing laugh. “I might be insulted, had I not expected something to that effect from you."

“What would you have me be thinking of?” Harry raised his eyebrows. He did not consider himself someone skilled at the art of flirtation, and likely he never would be, but he found that he enjoyed nothing so much as being cheeky with James.

“Something more indecorous,” admitted James.

Harry thought he detected a hint of a blush on James’s cheeks, although it was no question that there was one on his own, and in full bloom.
(He vowed to grown out his facial hair to its fullest extent, if only to hide the fact that he would most likely turn the color of a cherry whenever he was in the same room as James from this moment forward.)

James seemed to notice, but responded only with a smile that gave way to a yawn.

“You ought to sleep,” said Harry, suddenly recalling his duties as a surgeon. “Has Dr. Stanley given you are Dover’s powder?”

In the hurried minutes that passed, Harry might have believed that nothing of note had happened, but for the trace of salt that lingered on his lips. He fell asleep some hours later in his chair with a book of anatomy on his lap, comforted by the sound of James’s steady breathing.

And when he woke with a slight sniffle, he declared it a victory for English medicine, though one that he could not publish in any scientific journal.

And so, four days later, Harry found himself on the deck of the Erebus observing the ice around him, thinking of the coming of winter and of the dreadful cough that was beginning to affect him.

It seemed that they might make the passage in a single year. Perhaps they would, and perhaps they would be beset in the ice for a winter, maybe two. Harry did not believe he would be displeased if that was the case. There was much work yet to be done, and much to be discovered, before he could return home in good conscience.

He could not say what would become of him and James, once they returned to England. There was a sense, in the midst of the sea, that civilization was very much distant. That perhaps their home, and the rules that governed it, were merely fairy tales that they made up to amuse themselves with. That there was nothing but the friendly creaking of the ship, and the familiar faces and voices of the men aboard it, and the endless black of the icy sea.

But for the moment, he did not think of the future. There was a flurry of cheers behind him, and Harry turned, heart fluttering, to see James ascending to the deck for the first time since his illness, greeting the men who flocked to him like some long-lost prophet. He laughed and joked and clapped men on the shoulder, and Harry was forced to turn away, feeling a jealous pang in his chest. Shielded by one of the great piles of crates that formed a maze on the deck, he watched the ocean beyond in relative privacy.

Until he felt a hand on his shoulder. “I thought I saw you hiding away here. Avoiding me again, love?”

“Waiting,” said Harry with a shy smile. Love. He felt foolish for doubting James, for doubting himself.

“I’m sure you much prefer the company of walruses to me, don’t you?” James let out a pitiable sigh. Harry might have called it lovelorn.

“Do you know that walruses can withstand temperatures of nearly thirty degrees below zero? I have heard, in fact, that the are said to slow the own beating of their heart to endure the frigid temperatures.”

“If only man could do the same,” said James, looking down ruefully at the many layers that obscured his form.

“What I mean to say, Captain,” said Harry, glancing at James out of the corner of his eyes, “is that you simply cannot compete.”

James snorted, taken aback. “A formidable rival,” he said. “Do you mean to say, Doctor, that I must duel this walrus for your affections?”

Harry laughed. “That is not at all what I meant to suggest. I am not sure, actually, what I intended to—” he shook his head, helpless. “I would very much like to see it, though, sir—James.”

They watched the water in companionable silence, their shoulders nearly touching. Though Harry was freezing from his toes to the tip of his nose, he felt a great warmth in him. Especially so when James removed his bulky mitten and slid his gloved hand into Harry’s mitten, intertwining their fingers.

This was, Harry felt, akin to wading. He felt the press of the unknown against him, like the lap of cold, black water against his legs. But however far he might go into the deep and the dark, he would not do so alone. Of this he was sure.