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'Tis Past, and So Am I

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James Fitzjames dies as Francis cries above him, bleeding out of too-old wounds and thinking if only we had known.

 

(Again,)

He opens his eyes in his cabin.

For a moment, James just lies there staring. Staring and breathing, of all things. He’s breathing. As steadily and naturally as could be expected when he was paying such careful attention. His chest rises and falls and it brings him no pain at all.

How remarkable, that he should dream of Erebus as he dies.

The berth is exactly as he remembers it—the sway of the ship beneath him, the press of his feet against the too-close wall at the end of his mattress, the muffled clamor of men working—but of course it is. It’s his memory that furnishes this dream. If there was something he had forgotten, it would not be here.

Soon enough he will be gone and there will be nothing of him left for remembrance, nor even the chance to forget. He stretches his legs out along the length of the bed and luxuriates in this precious moment of conscious rest.

He would have wished Francis here, if only for the company, but that is clearly not to be. Perhaps there is some sort of rule; he can have the man either at his deathbed or in his dying dreams but never both. Perhaps it is a sign that Francis will live on, and James cannot decently wish it otherwise.

Still. He has Erebus again, worn and loved and whole. That is more than he could have asked for.

A ray of light shines fiercely through the cabin’s tiny window, sparkling across the dust floating through the air and splashing against the far wall. English sunlight flushed people and places and the very world around them with the colors they were made of, saturating them into a vivid reality of what they already were. This is Arctic sunlight, more brightness than illumination—but it is sun and it is shining and that is comfort enough.

The heaviness of his limbs dissipates as he shifts up. His bedding is slightly damp beneath him, clammy in a way that reminds him of sweating through hot summer nights or fire-warmed rooms. Odd, that he should dream himself to sweating when it must be near to freezing where his body truly is. Perhaps it is the wish of his cold-addled subconscious—one last memory of being warm.

A sharp knock rattles his door. James tries to call out in reply but his voice catches in his throat. He feels like he hasn’t had a proper drink in days.

The door opens despite his silence. James stares at the person behind it, completely baffled.

So many men had died on their horrible act of hubris, and every one of their lives had rested heavily on James. Those men had been under his command and it had been his council and his orders that had—at least partially—led to their deaths. There was no lifting that weight. Not even in a dream.

None hung so heavily as those who had burned in his twisted, terrible carnivale.

“Commander,” Doctor Stanley greets flatly from the doorway. “You’re awake.”

“Wh—” James starts, but the rasp of his throat is too much and sends him coughing. Stanley hands him a glass of something and James gulps it down quickly.

“Are you still feeling feverish?”

Feverish? “I—No? A touch warm, perhaps, but…”

“Good,” Stanley says, though his countenance does not appear pleased. “You should be well enough in a few days, sir. Please inform myself or Mr. Goodsir if you are not.” Then he leaves, closing the door with a sharp thud. James stared bewildered at where the doctor had been standing.

It was odd, to think that Stanley might be the last figment of his dying imagination—but odder still was that James had dreamt himself ill, and not of the scurvy he had actually had. Perhaps it was some metaphorical manifestation of his lower consciousness, some emblem of what he had been beneath the surface. But then—why would his consciousness have put him in his berth on Erebus? And what might it have put outside?

James dresses with most of his usual care—if this is his ending, he wants to meet it with dignity, and does not think it vanity to wish so—and exists his cabin.

The Officer’s quarters seem mostly empty; someone might have been sleeping off a late watch, but James cannot sense any signs of movement and there is no one present to witness his awkward uncertainty. Perhaps everyone was on deck going about their duties—or perhaps he had not imagined them into being at all.

But he can hear men at work above him; surely he would not imagine sound without the men to make it? It is a conundrum of the philosophical that James has never felt the need to contemplate, and it leaves him feeling unsettled.

He will go up top, then, and see if he cannot find anyone there. For however long this dying dream lasts, he will spend it with the sun on his face and his fellows around him.

There are a few men slung up in their hammocks and a few at work—chiefly Mr. Wall, baking an endless supply of ship’s biscuits—and though he nods to some in greeting he does not halt. Not until he climbs through the top-most hatch and comes nearly face-to-face with Sir John.

“Ah, James,” the Captain greets. “Good to see you up again!”

James can only gape.

Sir John looks—saintly. Impeccable. Like the perfectly pressed, gleaming image James remembers him as, not the corpse he had become. His hands are crossed behind his back, that kind, fatherly smile affixed upon his face, and James…

James wants nothing more than to embrace him.

To be faced with Sir John again is a blessing James has never contemplated, a situation so impossible it does not dare to be imagined. Sir John is dead. There could be no question of that; James had seen the remnants of his body with his own eyes. And yet—

James is also dead. He died in a canvas tent and has woken back on his ship, with one dead man treating his apparent fever and another greeting him like he had never left.

Could it be that this was heaven, and he has finally caught up?

“James?” Sir John prompts again, brow arched quizzically.

Words fail him in the face of such a miracle, so James says the only thing that comes to mind: “Good to be up, Sir John.”

The Captain nods easily, tucking his spyglass away in his coat. “And with fortuitous timing; we’ve just spotted Lieutenant Gore’s party cresting the ridge. They ought to be here within the hour.”

“Graham?”

“Yes,” Sir John cheerfully confirms. Then he lowers his voice and turns a conspiratorial eye toward James. “Though he must have his face covered, because I cannot pick him out from the others for the life of me.”

“Of course,” James says mechanically, voice lost to the wind.

Graham Gore had died on that sledge party, as James remembers it. It had been the first of a series of tragedies that the beast had wrought, one that precluded Sir John’s death by only a fortnight.

If this was heaven, why would they be sending out doomed sledge parties? Why would Sir John not know of Graham Gore’s terrible fate? And it was only a dream—then why did James?

A creeping hollowness grows inside his chest. It is as if the air has been knocked out of him and, though his lungs are moving, he cannot reclaim his breath. If this is not heaven, and not a dream—then what is it?

Sir John has turned back to watch the party’s progress across the ice. James quietly peels his left glove off, and, stomach twisted into a knot worthy of Gordium, puts his hand against a metal rivet on the rail. He waits two heartbeats, and pulls away.

His knuckle comes away burned.

He barely feels the sting of the wound over the sudden rush of dread within him, coiling hot like boiling tar inside his chest and neck, squeezing at him until he cannot speak or breath or sob. What hell was this that death had put him into? What kind of dream, that aches and pains were somehow real?

He lets out a choked gasp, eyes rivetted to unfocused nothing before him.

“Is something the matter?” James rips his gaze to Sir John’s concerned face.

“I—” Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Something was truly, awfully wrong and fantastically wretched and—and if he told another soul they would think him mad. Completely mad.

“No,” he lies, trying to smile. “Just a little—unsteady, still. I’ll be fine, sir.”

“You had better,” Sir John ordered lightly. “It would be a shame to lose so excellent a Commander.” James can only hope his answering smile is convincing enough.

He—He cannot be certain that his horrifying suspicions are correct. For if this is not a dream, then perhaps what he remembered was. He will wait, until the party returns, and see whether everything fit with what he remembers. If he truly is—somehow, impossibly—reliving this moment, if his memory of what is to come holds true, then—

Then he will worry about the implications later. To do so now will only drive him mad—madder than he might already be.

Erebus waits for Gore’s party to arrive and James waits with them. His hand is tucked back inside its glove and clasped behind his back, and he waits. They have sent a message to Terror—Francis and some men will surely be making their way over now—and made all possible preparations, and James waits.

There is nothing reasonable to do but wait, and he hates every moment of it.

A cheer goes up when the party is close enough to meet on the ice, but James cannot bring himself to join in. There are two bodies on the sledge and a figure in fur running beside the men who pull it.

James’ heart sinks with grief and horror.

“Where’s Graham?” Sir John shouts back at him, but James can only hold his gaze with wide eyes. Graham Gore is nowhere to be seen, even as the party draws closer, but James knows exactly where to find him.

What’s left of him, at least.

The party reaches the Erebites with the horrifying confirmation of Lieutenant Gore’s death. With them is the wounded native man and Lady Silence, her focus mainly on her father but cautiously darting up to scrutinize each of the men surrounding them. Her gaze slips over James when she reaches him, and with it goes a hope he did not know he had that she might also remember.

He swallows thickly as Des Voeux gives a short report and hurries his frozen men inside.

“What is this?” Sir John demands of Mr. Goodsir.

Goodsir shuffles toward them, brow set with certainty. “He was shot accidentally, in the confusion. I must get him inside to where I may be able to save his life.”

Sir John purses his lips and James, unthinkingly used to command, cuts in. “If we do not hurry he will die,” he says, and waves over a few men to assist. Goodsir nods thankfully to him, hustling himself and Lady Silence away after his patient.

“Are we to help save the life of Graham’s killer?” Sir John’s face, when James remembers to look at it, is stony.

James turns back toward him and lowers his voice, shifting his head in a tiny show of deference. “That bullet was lodged in his lung, Sir John. Trust me when I say we will not be saving his life, killer or no.” Sir John remains unconvinced, so James provides the only justification he can think of that might persuade him. “But if we show him kindness it might persuade the girl to cooperate.” He folds his hands together behind his back and hopes Sir John will see reason. “I will drag the man back out myself if you order it, sir.”

It would be a lie to say he had not squirmed under a superior officer’s gaze since he was a boy, unnamed and unskilled, but James surprises himself with the depth of his certainty now. He has made the right decision, or as near to it as he can manage, and nothing Sir John can do to him can be worse than the horrors he has already faced.

He is dead. Life ought to hold no more fear for him.

“Very well,” Sir John eventually agrees. “Let us go and… Assess the situation.”

The air of the sick bay is muggy with the usual cloud of tinctures and musty wood, but the sharp iron scent of fresh blood cuts through. Goodsir is pliers-deep in the man’s chest already—all the better to not debate his treatment again—and Lady Silence is grasping her father’s face. James feels a deep pang of sympathy for the man. He had thought he was going to die when he was shot in China; at least he had been wrong.

The entrance to the sickbay opens and Francis pushes inside, curious bafflement spread across his face.

James’ heart seizes in his chest. It has been barely two hours in his memory since he last saw Francis, but he has missed him all the same.

Francis’ gaze flickers from James to Goodsir to the man on the table; then he turns to Lady Silence, pulling her back with gentle hands. He says a few words in the native language, pointing at a nervous Goodsir, then the dying man, then Goodsir again. Whatever he communicates, it calms Lady Silence down, enough that the surgeon can continue his work with a steady hand.

James can feel the shift of Sir John’s surprise next to him, but he does not spare him the empathetic glance. Instead, he watches Francis and wonders why he is here.

Why is he re-living this moment—for he is living it. He can no more convince himself this is a dream than he can choose to not feel pain. Why has he been sent back to a moment that could have changed everything when he is incapable of changing it?

James is as unable to save Lady Silence’s father as he was the first time. The bullet is too far in, Goodsir says, and it is just as disappointing as before. Even though James knew it would happen, a part of him had hoped that maybe this death—and all the others that followed it—could be averted.

Lady Silence sobs after Francis quietly relays Goodsir’s diagnosis, a high keening sound that cuts through the sickbay in a mournful wail. She flings herself over her father’s body in a desperate embrace of grief and love—and terror, maybe, if she know what this means.

James had been saddened by her cries the first time, when she was but a stranger to him. Now, though he would not pretend to call them friends, he is further moved. These are the cries of a woman losing safety, fearing the future. Knowing even some of what is to come for her only sharpens the sound of her grief.

“She cannot stay on Erebus,” Sir John announces from behind him. A wave of fury crosses James’ face before he can stifle it and turn around. “I will not have her disrupting the men.”

“She may stay on Terror,” Francis offers, surprising even James, and Sir John does not contradict him.

They all make to leave the sick bay, Goodsir wiping his hands of blood in the corner, but James takes the split second of opportunity when everyone else has shuffled out to put a hand on Francis’ shoulder and pull him aside.

It’s the first time they’ve touched since James woke up, and he has to steel himself before he embraces the other man. As much as James might want to, Francis would probably punch him in the face. Again.

“Once she’s—settled, that is, try and ask her why it attacked us.”

Francis stares at him in suspicious bewilderment. It is surprisingly relieving to see something other than exhaustion on his face. “It’s an animal. It wants to eat, same as the rest of us.”

James lifts his hand from Francis’ shoulder and runs it through his hair. “Yes, I—I understand, Francis, but—” A muffled clatter from the deck above interrupts him. “Just—Do it as a favor to me, even if you don’t think I deserve it.”

He waits for Francis’ startled nod then slips out the sick bay and makes for his cabin as quickly and as casually as he can manage. It—He—

He had never hated Francis, though he might have snidely complained about it. The closest he had come had been that awful night when Mr. Blanky lost his leg, and even that was more desperate fury than hate.

At first, James had only wanted Francis to like him. He was secure enough in his self-knowledge to admit his vanity—he wanted most people to like him. It made them less inclined to look too closely at his heritage, but it also made the experience of being stuck on a ship (or two) together a great deal more tolerable. That Francis had proved melancholy was not an obstacle—that he had also proved obstinately unfriendly was.

But then the man had worked a miracle upon himself, and James had given up the tatters of his hauteur, and… There was friendship. There was brotherhood. There was an unexpected, bone-deep certainty that very few people would ever mean as much to him as Francis Crozier.

It was not half so easy to think and assess and plan as when he had Francis by his side, and though they had been making impossible choices James had always felt more secure in his conclusions when Francis was around to contribute. At this, the most bewildering and important time of his… second life, he wants nothing more than to ask Francis’ opinion. To commiserate, at least, about this unbelievable occurrence.

But he cannot. Had anyone—even and especially Francis—approached James the first time around and claimed to have lived this nightmare already, to know the dismal fates of every one of their number, James would have thought them mad beyond salvation. At best, he might have thought it an ill-conceived joke; at worst, a sign of mutinous imaginings. To go to Francis and ask his faith in the impossible when James had no real proof was untenable.

Even knowing this, seeing Francis only makes James want to confess it all.

It is strange, to look at a man he consideres his closest confidant and realize that man knows nothing of him. It was as if the visage of another Francis had overlaid the man’s real face and only James could see it. Here was a man who would grow into the closet thing to hope any of them had, trapped under the thumb of a dead man.

Here was the truth, no matter how much it pains him to admit when a whole, hale, and hearty Sir John is within living reach; this expedition needs a sober Francis Crozier at its helm if it has any hope of surviving, let alone succeeding. Sir John is sober, and Francis is, as ever, Francis, but that the two might work in tandem seems beyond hope.

Much as James loves them both, he knows the truth. And the truth is terrible.

There would be no survival without Francis, and there would be no Francis—the competent, sympathetic, good-hearted man James had so admired—while there was still Sir John. If this repetition held true to the—past, or the first time, or what ever one might call it—then he need only wait, and Sir John would die.

Only eight men dead, and James might have a hope of influencing Francis to make his good choices faster and better. Then one-hundred and twenty-one men might have a hope of surviving.

A hot chain of shame cinches tight around his lungs. These are the kind of mutinous thoughts James never wanted to be thinking, never wanted the chance to consider.

James pushes into his cabin and shuts the door behind him, leaning his head back against the smooth wood. His coat is warm in the small room, still heated by the steam engine, but he makes no effort to remove it.

They will run out of coal for heating in a few months—just as real winter began to set in. He and Francis had set about rationing it as well as they were able, but the time spent trapped and the amount the supply had already been reduced could not be negotiated against. If they had started rationing earlier, maybe, had consolidated the ships when Francis first suggested it—well.

Maybe they would not have been trapped here at all. And James would not be contemplating whether to let Sir John die.

When put in logical, mathematical terms it is a simple enough problem. Sir John might have been worth ten other men on this expedition, but he was not worth one-hundred and twenty-one. It would make James a kind of monster to let him die, but not the worst kind.

It was not as if James would have to do the deed himself. His only action was to not act. Pretend as if he had no knowledge of what was coming. Perhaps he was imagining everything—the repetition, the memories—and he truly did have no idea of what the future held.

To do nothing was to hope he was right; to sentence sir John to his death. James may not be able to live with himself if he does so, but at least the remaining men would have a chance.

And yet, still only a slim chance. Everyone had already died, the first time. What could Sir John’s survival possibly make worse?

James could not kill the beast, not without a greater firepower than they had access to—that, at least, they had learned before he died—but surely he could persuade Sir John to avoid it altogether. He would only convince the Captain to not go out to the blind, and that would erase the beast’s opportunity. Saving his life would be as simple as a conversation.

Or would it? Hadn’t it been waiting for Sir John? They had eventually accepted that the beast was more intelligent than it ought to have been—would it only be satisfied by their leader? Or, deprived of his appearance, might it instead seek him out?

It did not attack on accident; its timing had been far too devastating to be unintentional. The beast had killed Sir John for a reason—because it was angry, because it knew he was their leader, because he had stood by and watched as Lady Silence’s father died, James could not say—and was like to do so again. Not unless they stopped it, the how to which James had never figured out, or—

Or it was given someone else to kill. Some other target that would satisfy any requirements the beast had. Someone in a position of command, an officer, who had been unable to save the Lady’s father and had allowed his body to be disposed in so undignified a manner. Someone to slake its bloodlust without hollowing the men’s morale.

Someone like James.

He pours himself a drink and sits heavily on the side of his mattress. The shallow light of an Arctic evening strains through the tiny window, glittering through the liquid in his glass. Despite everything, it is still beautiful.

The beast had murdered Sir John and then simply up and left, though their bullets were doing it no real harm. It had come to kill him, and left as soon as it was satisfied.

Might it be satisfied with James? And would it be enough—to save Sir John, and the men, and the whole expedition?

He was going to die anyway, if nothing changed—had died, really. So had everyone else, in the end, but if they could not remember it than had it truly happened? It was James alone who knew he was a dead man walking; what did it matter when he died? If the beast killed him, perhaps it would—shake up Francis and Sir John enough that they would learn to work together. To work as Francis and James had done.

He does not want to die, but perhaps—perhaps he has to. Perhaps that is why he is here. Why he remembers. His life does not matter more than the lives of his men, especially not when it would only last another year. He would do well to remind himself of that.

James spends the next fortnight enjoying the company of his friends as much as possible.

He does not care to repeat his stories as often as he used to; instead, he asks for the stories of others, tales of their heroism and embarrassments and loved ones. If he will be dead in two weeks, then he wants to spend his last days in the comfort of brotherhood. In the luxury of human connection.

Henry gives him an odd look, once, when James demurs at recounting his Chinese sniper story again—it is a lot less amusing to tell when he knows the real ending—but he makes a glib reference to his fever and shuffles them along to another topic as soon as possible. He would have told Henry, if he had thought it anything but a terrible idea. He trusts his friend with his life; he will not be so cruel as to burden him with his death.

Francis does not visit Erebus once during those weeks, but James makes his excuses to visit Terror out of a longing desire to see him. The other man may not remember—and perhaps never will—but for a while there, before the end, James had considered them incredibly close. More, even, than one might consider a friend or brother.

The greatest comfort at his deathbed had not been the promised end to his pain, but that Francis was by his side. He is not like to have that again, but he will get a close to it as he is allowed.

“I have not fulfilled your favor,” Francis greets him the first time James gains entrance to Terror’s wardroom. “The men call her Lady Silence, and the name is proving apt.”

“Ah, well.” James does not really think her answer will sway his current path, but at least Francis has the idea in his head for later. “When you have the chance.”

“Is that all you wanted, Fitzjames?”

No. Not even close.

He wants a conversation with Francis, a real one, not a duty-required exchange of facts or an argument barely disguised by sniping. How had he not missed this, the first time? How had he survived through years on the false assumption that Francis was a bore of a man with no aptitude for friendship?

In his blindness he had thrown away years of the other man’s company. Now he only wants a week.

James pauses, tracing his eyes around the wardroom, flitting from map to table to bookshelf. There are the expected volumes of charts and tables, a copy of Hobbes’ Leviathan, and even a memoir of Ross the younger that James knows firsthand includes Francis in a significant role. There are other books he does not recognize, and James skims past a partial row of them before his eyes light upon a very familiar title.

“Are you a Shakespeare man, Francis?” He nods toward the gilded spine of Much Ado About Nothing.

Francis raises an inscrutable eyebrow. “Not particularly.”

Contrary bastard. James traces his fingers over the leather-bond book, thoughts flickering to another play entirely.

“Do you know King Lear?” he asks, turning to fully face Francis.

“The one with the murderous bastard?”

James huffs. “I suppose that’s one way to describe it.”

“I believe I read it, once.” Francis takes a drink of whisky. “A decade or so ago.”

James flounders for something to say. “I—Well—The king is dying, you see, or at least is old enough to start worrying about it, and decides he doesn’t particularly want to do the work of being king anymore. He still wants the title, though, so he decides that he will split his kingdom between his daughters based on which loves him the most—an infallible inheritance system, certainly—and probably expects to divide it more or less evenly amongst the three of them.” James moves his hands in a vague triangle. “Which he does between the first two, once they make flattering claims to love him more than anyone else, but the third daughter—the third daughter only tells him that she loves him as much as she should, and that she will make no great claims.”

A younger James had never quite understood Cordelia’s position—her elder sisters’ flattery was empty and calculated, yes, but if she truly did love her father then why was she so against expressing it as he desired? Was it not better, if you were capable of it, to love someone the way they wanted to be loved?

A younger James was too mired in his own folly to spare a thought for helping others out of theirs.

He takes a deep breath, “Well, as things are wont to, the whole situation gets rather tragically complicated, and eventually Lear realizes that he ought to have listened to the daughter that told him the truth, and not the ones who only flattered him.”

“And everyone dies in the end, I suppose?” Francis takes another drink from his glass. James watches the line of his throat as he swallows and thinks about things he won’t be able to do before he dies.

“It depends on which ending,” he answers, a heartbeat later than he should have. “In the real one, though, yes. They all die.” He blinks. “Well, most of them.”

“Cheery.”

James forces a wry smile. Francis is surely tiring of his company, now—if he hadn’t already been—but he is finding it difficult to leave this cabin and its Captain behind to face the cold trek across the ice. Francis can be grateful for his silence once he’s dead, James decides, but when he goes to speak he finds he cannot think of anything to say.

“I should’ve known you’d have a taste for theatricals,” Francis comments drolly.

James just smiles in response. “I wouldn’t say it’s my preferred play, though it has its moments.”

When my dimensions are as well compact, my mind as generous, and my shape as true as honest madam’s issue

James shakes himself from his reverie and continues. “I suppose I’ve just been thinking about it, lately, though it’s been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of reading it.” Ah. At last, he has stumbled upon a point. “Unfortunately for me, Erebus’ copy seems to have gone missing.”

“I don’t believe I have a spare.”

“Alas,” James laments mildly. Then he shrugs, smirking wryly. “Perhaps I’d best stick to happy endings, in any case.”

He does leave Terror, eventually, and he can almost pretend that Francis doesn’t only look happy to see him go.

(Bridgens, of course, has a copy once James gets around to asking about it. He spends a few days curled up around it and a few more trying not to draw comparisons.)

The next time James visits Terror, Lady Silence is still living up to her name, and Francis doesn’t seem to be in the mood to listen to James ramble. He gives a perfunctory report on the ice that Francis surely already knows, and then lingers awkwardly in the silence until he cannot bear it.

The walk back to Erebus is long and lonely and brings him ever closer to dying. Perhaps it will be for good, this time.

 

James wakes on the 11th of June before what might, on English soil, be considered dawn. The sun still burns in the Arctic sky with all the force they have gotten used to, but James can hear little commotion surrounding his cabin. He is one of the earliest awake, then.

Might as well make the most of what day is left to him.

He dresses and eats, then makes his way to the top deck and spends a good ten minutes staring out in the direction of Terror’s stern.

He will not see Francis again. Not unless the afterlife is far different than he is expecting. It should be little matter—he has already said goodbye to that dearest Francis, the one who shared his confidence and called him brother—but is still stings like the cold wind blowing across his face.

He goes back below.

James finds Sir John and Goodsir just before they’re set to leave. He clears his throat and stands cautiously at attention.

“Ah, James! Come to see us off?”

He shifts and squeezes his hands together behind his back. “Actually, Sir John, I was going to offer to go in your place. No doubt you are needed aboard Erebus, and I—”

“Nonsense, James,” Sir John interrupts. “You have duties to attend to here and, in any case, it would not do for our documentation to be lacking the expedition commander.”

“I understand, sir, but I—”

“Please, James. That is enough.” His tone offers no room for argument.

James cites his cheek through the rest of the conversation, as he follows Sir John and Mr. Goodsir up to the top deck, as he watches them make their way over the ice and beyond the pressure ridge.

James bites until he tastes blood, the iron tang of it almost comforting.

He could have done any number of things to stop Sir John. They would have seen him flogged or hung or worse, but how could that matter, when Sir John would yet live? What good was respect and deference when it meant that he had failed?

But it the split-second after Sir John had stood the line and left for the blind, James had been relieved. What kind of coward did that make him?

One who might be able to fix his mistakes. Sir John would not listen, but that would not stop James from trying to save him.

He whirls around, racing over the deck and down the hatch, seizing the first shotgun he can lay his hands on. Then he runs back up to the top deck and grabs a passing Le Vesconte.

“Gather as many armed men as possible and make haste toward the blind.”

The Lieutenant looks startled beyond belief. “James? What—”

“I need you to trust me, Henry,” he implores, waiting for Le Vesconte’s nod before launching himself over the ship and onto the ice.

James races across the ice, damning the need for sure footholds that slows him down. One step jolts in the wrong direction and he nearly falls, only just managing to swing his momentum into a strange half-jump that moves his feet back under him. A rush of wind across his face stings his eyes; James braces an arm in front of him. He has to keep running. He has to reach the blind. He has to save Sir John—

He hears the beast’s roar before he even crests the pressure ridge.

James curses and puts on an extra burst of speed—too much extra it turns out, and he overbalances. His knee cracks down hard against the slope of the ice. He skids the rest of the way down and lurches desperately to his feet.

A shout rings out from his right. James wrenches himself in that direct, scrambling back up the ridge that—his blood runs cold—leads in the direction of the fire hole.

He runs as fast as he can manage, adrenaline and fear pushing past the stabbing in his knee, scrambling toward a smudge of dark against the whirl of wind and snow. If he can—if he can just—

The smudge resolves itself into a monstrous bear, something sickeningly human hanging from its maw.

James stumbles to a halt and raises his gun toward the beast. It is comically small in comparison to the bear’s hulking form, and likely insignificant. He can only hope Henry and a contingent of men are close behind.

He lines up the barrel, braces his feet against the ice, and fires.

Nothing.

James swears. He is certain he had hit the beast, which means his gun is useless. The only way he can help Sir John is by distracting it. Something very stupid and very dangerous and very likely to get him killed.

He breaks into a run, heart pounding with every footfall. The beast is running again, a graceful movement that belies the enormity of the thing. An animal of its statue should be something that lumbers, not something that runs—but then this is no mere animal.

No matter how fast he sprints, his lungs burning at the exertion, he cannot catch it. Shards of ice skid out from under his boots, the clattering shatters inaudible under the growling of the beast and the ragged sound of his own breathing.

He fires another shot but it flies wildly into the air, missing the beast entirely. James keeps running, desperate to reach it in time—

And then the beast drops the dark shape in its maw and howls. Sir John disappears under the ice.

James fires at its retreating form, blind with fury, before sprinting to the fire hole and dropping to his knees at the edge.

All the rest goes exactly as it had before.

Sir John dies.

Francis appears, bewildered and quickly burdened.

James kneels, freezing in the snow.

 

He is as stricken with guilt as he once was with grief, but he does not protest when Francis orders Lieutenant Fairholme’s sledge party sent out as soon as possible. The extra day might save them from their terrible fate on land—might save them all.

Still, he follows Francis back inside Terror’s wardroom after they send the men off, a burgeoning plan in his head.

Francis pours a drink and lowers himself into a chair before cocking his head at James. “Do you have something to say?”

James does his best to ignore the liquor and sits down across from Francis, folding his hands together in his lap. He takes a deep breath. “What if they don’t come back?”

Francis looks at him. “They’re all competent men,” he says, and then, with the irony of it spreading wryly across his face: “Don’t be so pessimistic, James.”

“I’m not being pessimistic, I’m being practical. Graham Gore was a competent man, and yet—” They were both competent men, but that did not save them from this frozen hell. “What is our plan if they don’t come back? If they don’t make it to Fort Resolution at all?”

I thought you would appreciate practical, he doesn’t say.

Francis swirls the amber liquid in his glass, gaze fixed somewhere on James’ face. James is too discomforted to meet his eye. Instead, he traces his eyes over the line of Francis’ coat, along the gentle slope of his shoulders.

“If Lieutenant Fairholme doesn’t return, and the ice doesn’t thaw”—James makes an unintentional noise at which Francis furrows his brow—“then we do the only thing we can do. We walk.”

We walk.

James thinks of the endless, monotonous struggle of putting one foot before the other, of the unsteadiness of stones beneath his feet, of the hollowing effort of hauling life-preserving, poison-laced food in a vast grey nothingness.

By the time we got to it scurvy was in us.

“We should leave sooner rather than later,” he says.

He can feel the weight of Francis’ gaze on the side of his face, but James stares resolutely down at the map between them. Eight-hundred miles seems almost conquerable in paper and ink, but it stretches into the infinite when every step aches.

Francis interrupts his silence. “You were more against the thought of leaving Erebus a few months ago, if I recall correctly.”

James looks up at him and stares blankly. A few months ago? What had happened months ago—over a year ago, by his memory? It must have been something to do with abandoning Erebus, perhaps after her propeller had bent—

Ah. Now he remembers.

“This was a different expedition then,” he reasons, swallowing dryly, “or so it seemed. And I—” was a stupider man. “I have seen my error.”

Francis does not respond, only watches James with a focus that feels heavy. In another situation—when he is not trying to warn his first of a future he shouldn’t know—James would relish that attention. Right now, it makes him nervous.

“The sooner we leave the sooner we’re out of this blasted place. The walk won’t get shorter and the ice will just crush us tighter. Frozen ships are good shelters but they are not our homes,” he quotes reflexively, then goes still in realization. “Or so I was told, once,” he finishes, the addendum sounding weak to his own ears. “Long ago.”

“By whom?”

James presses his mouth into a tight line to stop himself from revealing anything more. His eyes flicker down as he stares into a memory. “A man who I trust very much,” he settles on saying, and hopes the truth of it will be enough to dissuade Francis’ inquiry.

Something passes over Francis’ face that James is too tightly wound to comprehend. He does not know why he is making such a mess of convincing Francis of the someone that was, in truth, the man’s own idea.

James leans forward in his seat, resting a forearm against the table and gesturing over the map with his other hand. “It’s already June, Francis, and we’ve seen no indication of a thaw. We could survive another winter in the ice, no doubt, but each day that passes is another bit of strength lost. It’s eight-hundred miles to the Hudson Bay Company and waiting a year won’t make us any better at it.”

Francis shakes his head. “We’ll be caught outside by the weather—or whatever else happens to find us.”

“It’s the 12th of June, now. Even at ten miles a day we’d still make it by mid-September.”

Francis lays a flat hand over the lines of the map James has been tracing. “The men will mutiny if we ask them to leave the ships when that bear’s still on the loose.”

James blinks down at the table and bites the inside of his cheek.

He had forgotten the fear that had followed in the months after the beast’s appearance. By the time they had set out before, everyone had been more afraid of another winter in the ice than the then-distant memory of the beast. There goes the only change James had thought possible. He rubs a hand across his face and determinedly doesn’t give up.

“Well,” he says, more to himself than to Francis. “I suppose we’ll just have to figure out how to kill it.”

“I’m open to any suggestions,” Francis says dryly.

James drums his fingers on the table. “Cannons,” he offers weakly, “or rockets, perhaps.” Neither of those had been enough before, but they had been more effective than anything else. James traces the coast of King William Land one last time before pushing himself up and out of the chair. “I should be heading back to Erebus. Until next time, Francis.”

He’s nearly across the room when Francis calls “James—” He half-turns to look in the Captain’s direction. “It was a good idea.”

James gives a tight smile and turns back to pull the door open. Then he pauses, just long enough to decide it’s worth it.

“You should probably burn that letter you were writing,” he says, and leaves the room.

His walk back to Erebus is edged in dimmed summer twilight, the air around him cold and clear. The chill shifting through his lungs and the stretch of ice to each horizon strike him in a moment of lost wonder. He feels, in an impossibly true sort of way, as if he is the only being on the earth and not at all real.

It is an uncomfortable feeling, but he has had to get used to those lately.

He has had to get used to a lot of uncomfortable things—namely the truth that no matter what he has done, he had not been able to change anything for the better.

He had not been able to save Sir John, nor fend off the beast. Any real evidence of Hickey’s mutiny was months off, and his certainty that the ice would not thaw was now a common worry. What good was foresight if there was nothing he could change? What good was knowledge when knowing something did not help you solve it? The crew’s scurvy had set in not because they were unaware of it, but because their food supply—

James stops dead in his tracks.

The tins.

He returns to Erebus as fast as he can manage, thoughts flitting through his head. If they could catch the spoiling and lead earlier, they might ration to prolong each man’s health. Alone, it would not save them, but when combined with other little changes James might be able to make, it could give them a chance.

It would arouse too much confusion and suspicion for James to discover this himself when he had shown no earlier aptitude for anything vaguely medical. And it would not be right, to take credit for a discovery that Harry Goodsir had made on his own just because James happened to remember.

He would go to Goodsir, then, and guide him toward his discovery all over again—just a bit earlier, this time.

James makes it back onto Erebus before he realizes that it is later in the evening than the weak sunlight implies. He will wait for tomorrow, then, and catch Goodsir when Stanley is not nearby.

As soon as he enters his cabin he is grateful for the delay. There is a tiredness coursing through his body that the fever of planning and hoping had erased from his awareness. Sitting on his berth, that tiredness comes forward in full force. He will sleep, and in the morning he will try to save the men.

 

Goodsir knocks on the wardroom door just after rest of the officers have filed out. James stands and beckons him in.

“You wanted to see me, Commander?”

James nods, buttoning his coat and smiling cheerily in Goodsir’s direction. “Yes, I did. I have a task for the both of us, if you wouldn’t mind accompanying me to the stores.”

“Would you—like me to fetch Doctor Stanley, sir?”

“No need, Harry. You’ll do fine.” James picks up a readied lantern and sets his hand on the door. “Though I trust you know not to share any information you pick up without my say-so? Excepting with Captain Crozier, of course.”

Goodsir looks puzzled, but he nods. James would allay his confusion, but he is certain everything will make sense within ten minutes.

They make their way down to the cold depths of food storage. James lights the lantern to illuminate the dark lower deck, and leads them over to the seemingly-endless mountain of Goldner tins. Sir John had equipped them for five years at full rations and they have only been out for two—the mounds of provisions should be a reassuring sight.

“Some of the men,” James starts, the half-lie spilling easily from his mouth, “have noticed an odd taste to the tinned food. Mr. Wall would prefer it not blamed on his abilities, and I will admit to some degree of suspicion, so we are here to survey the supply and see if anything seems amiss.” He turns back to Goodsir and smiles reassuringly. Let him think James expects nothing from this, if it will set him at ease. “I thought you would be a most helpful partner in this endeavor.”

One of the benefits of command, James has come to realize, is that people don’t tend to question how you know things. If he were a better man he might feel guilt at taking advantage of his men’s trust in him, but James Fitzjames has been lying his entire life; fiddling with the truth to help his men survive does not even register.

Goodsir’s face flushes. “I—Thank you, sir. What exactly are we looking for?”

James shrugs nonchalantly. “Oh, anything unusual. An odd smell, a strange shape, perhaps some rust. Hopefully we will find nothing, of course, but we may as well check.”

They turn to separate sections of the tin stores, and James patiently goes through the motions of shifting and checking tins until, a few minutes later, Goodsir makes a puzzled-sounding noise. James turns to see the other man frowning down at a can that has noticeably swollen.

“It seems my intuition in bringing you was right,” he says mildly, and produces the tin-opener from his coat pocket. Goodsir takes it and carefully opens the tin. They can both smell the second the seal is broken.

“It’s rotting,” Goodsir says, sounding aghast.

“That would explain the taste,” James mutters, holding the lantern between them and peering down at the open tin. The light shines off the rancid meat with a sickly-looking gleam, enough that James can see a slight discoloration of the preserved flesh. “What was this supposed to be?”

“Veal cutlets.”

“I suspect it’s rotted horse, now.” James sighs, turning back toward the pile of tins. There’s something else they must discover, even if the idea of their provisions rotting is harrowing enough.

“They must have sealed the cans improperly, or—not finished the process,” Goodsir muses. Then he straightens abruptly. When he speaks, he sounds horror-struck. “How many must be like this?”

James only hums in response and picks up another tin. There, on one edge of the seam, is the tell-tale bubbling of solder. It had been easy to recognize, once they knew there was something to look for. James had spent a good five minutes, once, just staring at a corrupted tin and knowing he was going to eat it anyway.

Still, it had to be better to know.

“The bits of metal we’ve been picking out of our food,” James starts, meeting Goodsir’s worried gaze. “What might happen if they were ingested?”

The surgeon frowns down as James passes the ruined tin over to him. “Ideally, the particles would pass through a man’s system as inert material. With no particular effect.”

“And if we aren’t working in ideals?”

Goodsir looks up at him in horror.

 

They tell Francis immediately, of course. As soon as they can cross to Terror.

“The tins have been sealed improperly, sir. Captain Fitzjames and I found a number of spoiled cans in just a part of Erebus’ supply—no doubt Terror’s is in a similar condition.”

“And no one managed to catch this before we brought the blasted things aboard?”

We did,” Doctor McDonald speaks up from his seat in the corner of the room. “Captain Fitzjames and I both did,”—James nods at Francis’ questioning glance—“but unfortunately no one with an actual say listened.”

“And you agreed to come aboard a ship with rations you knew to be spoiling?” Francis asks, still looking at James.

“I didn’t know, Francis.” A truth that could have applied to many of the poor decisions he had made in the course of this expedition. “It seemed strange, but I know very little about canning. When the Admiralty gladly supported the Goldner bid I presumed I had been wrong.”

“We both did,” McDonald adds.

“Is there any way we can fix this?” Franks asks, eyebrows raised like he’s already expecting disappointment.

Goodsir nods. “We should avoid the obviously rotting cans, and as for the others, well—we cook them. At a high enough temperature to be sure they aren’t harmful.”

“We’ll have to do a full inventory,” Francis says slowly. “Hopefully we’ve still enough coal between the two ships that we’ll be able to spare some for cooking.” He rubs his face and barks a laugh. The sound is more bitter than humored. “Rotting food in the Arctic. Now there’s a story.”

Goodsir is still eyeing them nervously. James sighs quietly and lays a hand on the table just next to Francis’ arm. “That isn’t all, Francis.”

Francis looks up from his hand, incredulity written across his face. James nods to Goodsir, who steps forward with an improperly-soldered tin and a little dish of metal pellets. Francis stares down at the inoffensive little bits then looks beseechingly at James, who nods at Goodsir. The surgeon clears his throat.

“We’ve been picking these tiny pellets of metal out of our food since this expedition began. At first, it seemed as if they were just a—byproduct, of the canning process. Likely inert and harmless, especially since we weren’t ingesting them.”

“I’m sensing a but, Mr. Goodsir. One I don’t expect to like.”

Goodsir gives his straight, sad smile. “I believe it to be lead, or something similar. When in contact with a neutral substance, such as water, it is perfectly harmless. But when enclosed in an acidic substance”—here Goodsir paused, as if not wanted to complete their condemnation—“such as improperly cooked meat, it may leech into the surrounding material. If then consumed, I believe that it could have adverse effects on the body.”

In the corner, Doctor McDonald is looking pale—likely the man has figured out where this explanation is headed.

“What kind of effects?” Francis asks, sounding as if he would rather not know.

“It’s essentially a poison,” Goodsir says quietly, twisting his hands together. “Slow-building, but eventually deadly.”

The prognosis hangs heavily in the silence between the four of them. James can feel the steady thump of his heart in his chest, can hear the whispers of wind outside the ship. Next to him, Francis sighs wearily.

He shifts in his seat, clasping his hands together in his lap. “What can be done to stop it?”

Goodsir grimaces miserably. “To be quite honest, I don’t know. I’ve only seen the like with bismuth, not lead, and then only in post-mortem dissections.”

“Very little can be done,” McDonald says, stepping toward them. “The only real cure is to stop ingesting it and wait for the body to cleanse itself.”

James watches as Francis closes his eyes, face pained. It is a far more collected reaction than James himself had had, bleeding from his hairline and apparently eating food that would kill him. Had the scurvy not bled him out first.

“Thank you for your report and expertise, Doctors.” Goodsir blushes at the appellation. “Tell no man outside this room of this until such a time as myself and Commander Fitzjames see fit.” Francis lowers his voice insistently. “I think it best to remind you that your medical colleagues are not currently among us.”

Goodsir and McDonald both nod and take their leave, closing the door firmly behind them. James stands to fetch himself a glass of water and think of what to say next.

Francis beats him to it. “So. They eat lead in China now, do they?”

James turns around, tilting his head. “Pardon?”

“If we hadn’t caught this now—” Francis shakes his head. “How could you have possibly known?” he asks, sounding unjustly awed.

James bites his cheek. “Mr. Goodsir did most of the thinking.”

“I do not doubt that, as I do not doubt you prodded him to it.”

James sets his glad on the table and slumps into his chair. “Honestly, Francis? I only had a hunch. It was Harry that proved it right.” Both times, it had been him that had done all the work. James had only been lucky enough to remember. “I only wish I had acted on it before we ever left England.”

“It is only ever too late to act on hindsight,” Francis comforts.

For most people, yes. But not, right now, for James.

His difficulty, rather than the usual constrains of men’s knowledge, was that he knew all the problems that were to befall them but he does not know how to fix them. He might bring spoiled rations and murderous beasts to the light, but he cannot stop the meat from spoiling nor the beast from murdering.

The thought strikes like lightning. He does not know how to stop the beast—but someone might.

He takes his leave of Francis, making an excuse the Captain no doubt does not need to be relieved by James’ going, and set off in as subtle a search of Terror as he can manage.

He will need someone to translate, if he wishes to speak with Lady Silence. To ask Francis would be to risk his scrutiny twice in one day, a pattern James can ill afford if his reputation of sanity is to remain intact. McDonald has men to tend to, and James will not ask him to keep another secret so soon after the last. Mr. Blanky, then, will have to fill the role, and James will have to hope that the man’s friendship with Francis might be briefly overruled by curiosity.

He finds Thomas Blanky on the top deck, staring ever-vigilantly out at the ice.

“Mr. Blanky,” James greets, waiting for the man to lower his spyglass and turn around. “I have need of your skill as a translator.”

Blank blinks. James feels a brief twist of satisfaction at having managed to surprise the man.

“Might I ask why, Commander?”

“I mean to ask Lady Silence a few questions, that is all. If you deem them unsuitable, you may simply neglect to translate them.”

The look Blanky sweeps over him can only be described as suspicious; James cannot blame him. He has never asked such a favor of the man, not before today and not during his first time through this nightmare either. That James is seeking him out is worrying enough on its own—it’s plain to both of them that if he had Francis’ agreement then Blanky’s help would be unnecessary.

James offers a condolence. “If something comes of it, I’ll inform Francis—and if nothing does, I expect you will.”

“For both our sakes, I hope you know what you’re doing,” Blank says, turning toward the hatch.

They head down toward Lady Silence’s make-shift quarters. Blanky picks up a lantern along the way; though the sun has not set for days, the lower decks of each ship are as dark as ever.

He really ought to have conferred with Francis before speaking with Lady Silence—it was his ship, his command, and she was the his—guest, of a sort. They might have provided better quarters for any other guest, but James has seen what had happened last time when she had become the focus of the men. Neither worship nor murder would be helpful out here.

But answers might.

James braces himself and slides the door open. Lady Silence does not look up from her seat curled in the corner, but there can be no doubt she has noticed them. James beckons Blanky inside the cramped space and shuts the door behind them. No part of any ship was truly private, but the attempt would not hurt.

James clears his throat and moves into a crouch before her. “Hello,” he greets, waving his hand awkwardly. “I have some questions for you,” he starts, waiting for Blanky to translate, “if you would be amenable to answering.”

“Maybe don’t use words like amenable if you want this to be a close translation.”

“Willing, then. If she is willing.”

Lady Silence does not respond. James can only hope she is, indeed, willing.

“Your bear friend, out on the ice—Why did it come after us?”

Lady Silence levels a flat look at Blanky when he speaks, responding in a short burst of words.

“Because it wants to kill us,” Blanky translates. James looks up at him, but the other man just raises an eyebrow.

“I meant—why does it want to kill us? What is its motivation?”

Blanky shoots him a look before turning to Lady Silence. It is less of a reaction than James might have feared from a man whose superior officer has just asked whether an animal can have complex motivations. The ice master repeats his question in the Netsilik language, the sounds halting and strange in his voice.

For the first time since they entered the room Lady Silence lifts her gaze and looks James directly in the eyes.

“You killed him,” Blanky translates, “and he could not be found.”

Some sharp twists in James’ gut.

Lady Silence’s dark eyes shimmer in the light of the lantern; James cannot fathom what it must have been like, to have come across strangers in a wasteland and then watch her father die inside a structure she had likely never seen before. They must have seemed so alien to her. And so imbecilic.

“We killed—” he starts, thoughts stuttering through his mind. “Could not be found? Because—because he died in the ship?”

Blanky translates his question fragments and then they wait, for a moment, in silence.

Lady Silence nods, short and sharp.

“And then we put his body under the ice,” Blanky adds, voice low. “Bet that’s not how her people do it.”

James holds his gaze for a long moment before turning back to Lady Silence. “Ask her if her father could control the beast somehow.” Blanky does; Lady Silence nods. “And can she?”

James waits for her response, but none comes. She does not speak or nod or shake her head—but her gaze flickers down past the fur-covered shapes of her feet. That is answer enough.

He clears his throat and tries a different track. “If—Ask her if—If your father had been laid to rest on land, on the ice, where the beast could find him—would that have helped?”

Blanky asks the question, doubt clear in his tone, but James can only stare at Lady Silence until she raises her eyes to his and nods again.

He lets out the breath he has been holding in a quiet rush of air. Lady Silence holds his gaze with a gravity James cannot bring himself to escape—until she blinks and turns away.

“Well,” he says, pushing himself back up. “Those were all the question I had. Thank you,” he says to Lady Silence, inclining his head in her direction. Blanky says something to her and follows him out.

They are back in open air before the other man speaks. “Are you going to tell me whether that was successful or not?”

The ice stretches out in front of them like a vast, deadly plain. It is awe-inspiring, in the kind of way that acts of God are awe-inspiring even when they are great and terrible. James is not a man searching for awe, anymore. He will accept it where he finds it, but for his own sake he looks for safety and connection.

He is tired of looking forward and only finding ice.

“You can’t change the past, Thomas,” James says, looking back toward the other man. “No matter how much we might wish it.”

“If wishes were horses, Commander. Though I’d settle for a caribou.”

James smiles, relieved humor tugging at the corners of his mouth and the edges of a laugh rumbling through his chest. “Would you give me a half-hour’s lenience before you tell Francis of this? I’d like to eat something before I have to face his wrath.”

Blanky says nothing, just raises a brow and watches as James climbs off the ship and sets out across the ice.

Burying Lady Silence’s father would not have stopped their rations from spoiling, but it might have stopped the beast—and maybe, if they were luckier than James recalled them ever being, it would have spoken of a human decency that some higher power might have rewarded with the possibility of survival. It was a fool’s speculation at this point in time, but if he woke up and found himself in the past again, he might—

He might be able to save them all.

That, then, must be why he is here and not lying dead in the middle of King William Land. When—if, he ought to think in ifs—he dies again, there is a chance this impossibility will repeat itself. A chance he will again be sent back to the day Gore’s sledge party returned. A chance to stave off the beast.

It will not fix everything—much of their downfall was accountable to their own folly and arrogance—but it will certainly help, to not be stalked by a murderous, supernatural bear.

His death is a long way off, if events unfold the same, but that does not bother him. There will be unavoidable stress and pain and misery, but there will be company as well. It was an honor to serve with these men the first time—it is a blessing to do so again.

 

James Fitzjames dies with the weight of Francis’ hand in his, thinking it will be worth it, to save us all from this.

 

(again,)

He opens his eyes to the familiar sight of white-washed beams above him.

James has never felt such pyrrhic relief before, but it is, at the least, still relief. He has been granted another chance; maybe this time it will be enough.

His head is spinning when he leverages himself out of his berth, but James has walked hundreds of miles with rotting wounds in his side. He can get out of bed after a fever.

He has just managed to pull on his trousers, balancing his seated form on the edge of his mattress, when the door opens.

“Good morning Commander—ah! You’re awake!”

The last time he had seen Harry Goodsir—both last times, had been just before the beast attacked and thrice-damned Cornelius Hickey had made off with too many of their remaining men. The surgeon had been as wan and exhausted as any of them and filled with a longing James could only imagine and dread.

In any other instance, James would be glad to see him mostly well.

“What are you doing here?”

Goodsir looks taken aback. “Daily check-up, sir. To assess the progression of your fever.”

“But you should be with the sledge party,” James says, more of a question than a statement.

“We returned about a fortnight ago, sir.” James gapes at him. Goodsir furrows his brow. “Do you not remember?”

“No, no, I—” He has two memories of that party returning, two different reunions that led to the same ending. He does not have a third. “I remember,” he says, swallowing around the growing lump in his throat.

“Well!” Goodsir exclaims after a hesitant silence, eyes narrowed and clearly concerned. “How are you feeling?”

“Well enough,” James lies. “I believe the worst of it has passed.”

“That is good to hear.” Goodsir pauses, fidgeting back and forth. “Another day’s rest and you should be ready to rejoin the crew.”

Unlikely. “Of course,” James says, pulling his legs back onto the mattress and shifting to lean against the wall. “Doctor’s orders.”

The surgeon nods awkwardly and slips out of the cabin.

James had expected—so much as one can expect to wake in the past a second time—to reawake at the same point in time as before. And yet Goodsir’s presence had proved that impossible.

What power was this, that would bring him back to the past but not consistently? And how could James plan for it, when he was never certain how or whether it would happen? It was enough to drive a man mad, if he did not already count as such.

The warmth of his body lingers under the blankets as James stares at his tiny window and contemplates his situation. The usual noises of men at work drift down from the deck above, though the ship must have been stuck in the ice for some time. Likely they are clearing the deck and rigging of ice, or readying themselves for a spell in the hunting blind—

A fortnight. Goodsir had returned a fortnight ago. That meant—then today—

James leaps from his berth and pulls on his boots and coat in the space of three frantic heartbeats, then flings himself out of his cabin and toward the hatch. He scrambles up to the top deck—no doubt disrupting and bewildering all of the men in his way—and pulls himself to a halt as the arctic air hits his face.

James scans the deck. The are only a few men milling about, but he cannot see Sir John anywhere. Surley he is not already gone? Surely fate would not be so cruel as to revive him too late?

He spots Le Vesconte’s back and rushes over, grabbing his shoulder and spinning the man to face him.

“What day is it?” he demands of Henry’s startled face.

“It’s—Friday, I believe.” Le Vesconte pulls his head back in confusion. “James, what on earth are you doing—”

James braces his hands on the other man’s shoulders. “The date, Henry, what’s the date?”

“11th June. But why—”

Good god. James swears, whirling back around in search of Sir John. His gaze darts frantically from figure to figure, curious faces staring back at him and none of them Sir John’s.

He turns back to Henry. “Where is Sir John?”

“Checking on the blind, I believe. Why—”

“Grabs as many men as you can arm and head for the blind,” James orders, not waiting for a reply before hurtling himself over the edge of the ship.

He had allowed Sir John to die both times previous and it had not saved them. He cannot stand to be useless for a third time.

James scrambles across the ice in as close to a dead sprint as he can manage. He does not bother with sure footholds this time; they had not stopped him from falling before and speed is of far more importance than solidity. He need not defeat the beast himself—hadn’t been able to before—but if he can distract it from Sir John for long enough then the men could save them both.

Or whoever was still alive.

He is close to the blind when he hears the beast roar, close enough to feel the sound shaking through his chest. He slows as the reality of what he is throwing himself into flushes fear to the front of his mind, but he recovers quickly, ducking his head against the Arctic wind and barreling toward redemption.

The blind is in ruins, cloth and metal ripped to pieces—though the rat-filled lines of bait are still standing straight and untouched. James nearly hurls at a glimpse of the skull-less corpse splayed out on the ice; but he presses on, eyes scanning the ice and snow until he spots a figure hurrying along the ice ridge toward Erebus. Sir John.

James hurries up the ridge after him, heart climbing thunderously up his throat. He is only four yards from Sir John and there is no sign of the beast.

Three yards, now. James calls to the Captain, but his voice is lost in the wind.

Two yards. He calls again—this time Sir John turns toward him. James can see the disbelieving fear in his face.

He stretches an arm out, frantically yelling for Sir John to run. His fingertips are inches from the wool of Sir John’s coat when—

An inhuman roar tears across the ice, deafening at so close a range. James slams into Sir John, tackling him to the ground; when he rolls to his feet, it is to stare the great monstrous beast in the eye.

For a split second, James is frozen—not from cold, not from fear, but in awe. It is hard feel anything else when staring in the face of the impossible. Then the bear roars again.

James whistles sharply, waving his arms around him and darting sideways. The beast’s head follows him, turning away from Sir John and Erebus. It will attack, soon, and that will give Sir John the time he needs to flee and survive.

The beast rises up until it is towering over them, claws long and deadly. James spares a second for a whirlwind of fleeting memories—the snatches of a half-forgotten lullaby, the feel of warm flesh under his hands, the joy of a man calling him brother—and braces himself.

The next thing is pain.

Claws the size of hunting knives rake across his torso, cutting through his coat and nightshirt and skin like a cloud of London fog. The impact sends him reeling, stumbling backward over the ice. His vision tunnels, blurring out at the edges until all he can see is the shifting fur of the beast as it turns back toward Sir John.

James gapes dumbly. He is still alive. Still standing, even.

He flings himself at the beast’s back.

A moment later and he is crashing to the ground, a fresh wave of pain shrieking from his body. It takes everything in him just to breathe, thick, choking gasps of air that do little to relieve him. He can’t quite feel his fingers. When he tries to move, his legs scramble weakly against the ice.

The only thing he can do is roll his head to the side and watch, vision fading, as the beast drags Sir John under the ice.

 

When he wakes, he half imagines he is back in the tent, bleeding out under Francis’ mournful gaze. But no—there are wooden beams above him and the fuzzy clamor of voices nearby, he must have died and come back again—

The concerned face of Harry Goodsir peers down at him, dark hair haloing around his head. “Commander,” James hears him say, “we’ve got to bandage your wounds and warm you back up, quick as we can. You will probably feel some discomfort.”

“He won’t be awake long enough to notice,” come the emotionless tenor of Doctor Stanley. James frowns loosely, weakly, as Goodsir winces above him.

“In any case, we’ve got to get you sitting up—” The though of moving seems impossible. James tries to shake his head, but even the little shift he can manage sends him spiraling into dizziness.

Two sets of warm hands grab his shoulders and push up. James whines a little from the pain, but there is no strength in him to protest.

“That’s it James, up you go.” The lilting voice on his other side is dearly familiar and impossibly kind, its tone one James would only hope to expect a year from now.

“Francis?” he mutters blearily, and then the world is dark.

 

The next time he is aware, he is lying down again, chest wrapped tightly in clean linen, Goodsir reaching for something above his head. James grabs Goodsir’s cuff between his fingers, eyes struggling to focus on the other man’s face. “Sir—Sir John?” he asks.

Goodsir only shakes his head.

 

A few days later—once he’s at the point where he’s able to stay awake when he means to—Stanley and Goodsir return to examine the progress of his healing. They peel back the bandages and squint at the still-tender lines cut across his shoulder, chest, and back. James tries not to flinch when the air hits his open wounds.

He has failed Sir John. Again.

It is a guilt that weighs down heavy on his being, but it is not what his thoughts linger on as he tries to ignore the doctors’ inspection.

He had woken a fortnight later than the first time. Just late enough that he could not enact another plan to save Sir John’s life, and certainly too late to do as he had been planning since that long-ago—or soon to come?—conversation with Lady Silence.

He had thought to bury her father with dignity and respect, and hope that act might spare them all from the beast’s wrath. It was an unsteady hope, based on assumptions and leaps of logic, but he had imagined it their best hope. His best guess at why he was reliving everything.

And indeed, that impossible power had pulled him back again—but it had woken him too late. What is the point of any of this, if he is too late?

Goodsir is just finishing rewinding his bandages when Francis pushes into the sickbay. His gaze drags over to take in James, covered in enough linen to sew a shirt, an assessing weight that leaves James feeling almost reprimanded. The corner of Francis’ mouth twitches.

James can feel the sting of the beast’s claws and the curdled shame of failure with every breath.

“If I might have a word with the Commander,” Francis says, turning slightly in the doctors’ direction. Stanley nods and exits, Goodsir following in his wake.

There had been no carnival last time—James liked to believe he was not so stupid as the make that mistake twice. Instead, they held a kind of sunrise mass, with speeches and readings and a good half-hour of their voices raised together in song. Francis had slipped over onto Erebus’ deck just as the last few lines had finished, had caught James’ eye and given him the soft, surprised smile he had been missing for months.

No on had burned that night, and James had been deeply, viciously triumphant.

Two months and the terrible effects of illness, beast, and suicide later, Goodsir was again the only doctor left.

Francis pulls the lone chair in the sick bay around to sit in, his head about on level with James’ chest. James tries not to flinch as the other man takes in the newly bandaged wounds scraping across his entire torso.

When Francis speaks, his tone is oddly conversational. Bu then—the first time they had truly spoken after Sir John’s death, James had been wounded with grief and barely coherent; Francis had been firm, but kind. If James had been cognizant enough to have noticed, he might have thought it a nice change from their then-typical bickering.

“You actually did get shot, then.”

James laughs weakly. His old wounds were, of bloody course, some of the few bits of skin left uncovered by bandages. “Excepting the grandiose comparisons, the story’s all true. Absolutely excruciating—until I was completely soused, at which point it all sort of blurs together. The only thing worse was when they—” reopened, he was about to say, but that would only lead to questions.

“The claw marks are a more pertinent annoyance,” he adds lamely. “Though I should hope as heroically dashing.”

“From what I hear there was a lot of dashing,” Francis says drolly. “Out the hatch, across the deck, over the ice. In fact,” he continues, enough faux nonchalance weighing on the words to tell James an uncomfortable conversation is coming, “Le Vesconte tells me that when you learned what day it was you bolted out onto the ice with your coat unbuttoned and made for the blind before anyone else even knew what was happening.” Francis leans back. He sounds begrudgingly impressed. “And yet somehow you survived it all.”

James says nothing.

“It seems a bit odd, that a man should wake from two weeks of fever and immediately seem to know something unimaginable was about to happen.”

“Does it?” James asks weakly.

Francis’ voice is quiet and pointed. “James.”

For all that he’s technically interrogating James, the pleasure of having a real conversation with Francis makes him more comfortable than he has any right to be. Just yesterday—by James’ memory, at least—they had held a solemn conference in the tent that James has now died in twice. He had been in so much pain, but the weight of Francis’ hand in his and the soft lilting of his voice had been nothing but a balm. Everything seemed better, when Francis was at his side.

James hadn’t told him, last time. Maybe that was his mistake.

“It’s going to sound mad,” James finally says, staring down at his hands.

Francis’ clothes rustle as he shifts in his seat. “Less so the more you postpone it, I’m sure.”

How does one explain the impossible? There may be many methods James is unaware of; he choses the one he knows. He tells a story.

“The ice never melted,” he starts, “and we were forced to walk out, to hope we could make it to rescue. But our food was rotting and poisoned, and we had already lost so many men. There was no game to be found, even if we had the strength to catch it, and the scurvy—” He cuts off. “One of our men turned against us and at that point it became undeniable by either of us that no one on our expedition was making it out of here alive.

“A little over a year from now, somewhere on King William Land, I die. Died?” He pauses, then shakes his head. “No matter. The important thing is that after I shut my eyes for the final time, I woke up. In the past. Both of our pasts, now, but especially mine.”

He risks a glance at Francis. His expression is inscrutable.

“I did warn you,” James says, aiming for light-hearted and missing entirely. He bites the inside of his cheek, then continues, voice soft. “I knew the unimaginable was about to happen because I have lived it before.”

Francis says nothing.

James fidgets in his sickbed. Christ, he’s surely ruined everything. He ought to have held his tongue and said nothing as before. Fitting, that he should spoil this chance with his recurring flaw—that he never knows when to shut his mouth.

“You do not need to believe me,” James breaks the tense silence a little desperately. “We can both pretend this conversation never happened.”

Francis looks off to the side, mouth slightly parted. James watches the rise and fall of his chest, the tiny twitches of his brow and eyes as he thinks through the nonsense James has just claimed as truth. He feels distant urge to smooth out the lines in Francis’ brow with the pad of his thumb; he restrains himself in the silence, waiting for Francis to speak.

When he does, his voice is low and halting. “What you describe is impossible.” He tilts his head, brow furrowed. “And yet, I believe you are neither lying nor mad.”

Something twisted in James’ chest loosens. He takes a deep breath.

“You believe me.” A grin unfurls across his face of its own accord, until James is beaming stupidly in the middle of the sick bay.

Francis blinks at him a few times, then narrows his eyes and points. “I don’t disbelieve you.”

“Honestly, Francis, that’s more than I was expecting.”

Well,” Francis coughs, drumming absentmindedly on his knee. “What do we—do?”

James’ grin falls. “Mostly I’ve been trying—and failing—to fix things. To save us.” He bites his cheek. “The expedition—Francis, it doesn’t end well for any of us. Or at least, it hadn’t by the time I ended.”

“That is—James—”

“I have been trying, Francis, as best as I can figure, but…” He curls as hand under his chin, thumb pressing at his mouth. “Nothing I do seems to work.”

Francis places a tentative hand on the blanket next to James’ leg, fingertips just brushing the outside of his thigh. “We’ll figure it out.”

It says a lot about the depths of his faith in Francis that James almost believes him.

 

It is awhile until he recovers enough to walk between the two ships, but as soon as he is able James goes to visit Lady Silence.

He brings no one with him. There is no knowledge to glean or impart—this is more a courtesy visit than anything, a clearing of his conscience to a woman who cannot remember why he is at fault.

Her room is as cramped as it has ever been, though the men on Terror have not begun the collection of trinkets and offerings that had so perturbed James on Erebus. They have not yet realized what, exactly, stalks them, nor will they ever. Lady Silence is the only one in miles that would know.

But that is not why he is here.

He opens the door and stands in the threshold; he will not impinge upon what little space they have allowed her, though the look on her face implies that she already wishes him gone.

“I am sorry,” James says. She shows no recognition of his meaning, but he did not expect her to. “I could not save your father or—or bury him as he deserved.” His lantern wavers in his grip, sending shadows scurrying around them. “I came back too late, this time, which is—” James cuts off, voice catching in  his throat. “Well. I am sorry, even if it changes nothing.”

Lady Silence only looks at him, her eyes shining.

James spends the rest of the day in Erebus’ wardroom, reading over reports and charts, staring at the oversized map of the known Arctic spread out across the table. He finds himself sketching a new map, a record of all he knows of the land they trudged across and all the places he can remember losing men.

He ought to burn this, when he turns in for the night. He can hold all these memories in his head, and he cannot risk them being discovered. He marks a small cross over his best guess as to his eventual resting place and sloppily initials it before shoving the scrap of paper away.

They had not even found the passage, in the end.

James stands and pours himself another drink.

There is a small portrait of Lady Jane hanging on the wall, a decent enough representation of the subject’s looks and the artist’s skill. He admires it with a lazy eye, less an assessment of skill and more a distraction. Something to do with himself that is not just staring at ink and despairing for doomed men.

There’s a knock on the door. James makes a vaguely allowing noise, assuming it to be Bridgens checking up on his morbing Commander.

“I think it best you leave the brooding to me,” says Francis. James whips his head around to face him.

He is not drunk, though James cannot quite say the same for himself, and he looks—well, as good as any of them can manage in the middle of the Arctic wasteland. There is a certain hint of fondness in Francis’ gaze that James had not been granted so early the first time around and it gladdens his heart to recognize it.

That is one of the few benefits of this maddening repetition of disaster—that he might better Francis’ opinion of him faster and faster.

James gives a wry grin. “Do us a favor and try your hand at being the entertainment for a little while. I’m finding brooding to be a refreshing change of pace.”

Francis scoffs. “The men may revolt. You are certainly the better storyteller,” he says, admirably suppressing the twitching of his lips.

“The better liar, maybe,” James half-mutters into his glass as he brings it to his lips.

He turns back to the portrait. How literary it would be, if he imagined the painted gaze of Lady Jane followed his every move; but it does not. Out here they are entirely unobserved.

“What,” Francis says without even the veneer of surprise. “You mean you didn’t truly think of Nelson’s tragedy after you’d been shot?”

James laughs brittlely. “I was terrified beyond thought when it happened. At least when I was awake enough to be capable of being terrified,” he adds. “But then it healed, and I lived. I think you will find that living through the bullet typically makes it less of a tragedy and more of a grand adventure.”

A clever man would have tried to hide it from him—but more than anything else, James is tired. “That bullet has killed me twice over, now. I should have known it was always going to be a tragedy.”

James can feel Francis’ gaze on him, but he does not look away from the canvas. It is easier, alluding to all this, when he cannot see Francis’ reaction. It makes James feel less like he is mad and more like he is only telling a story.

Francis clears his throat. “How many times have you—that is—”

“This is the third time I will mourn Sir John,” James says in lieu of an answer.

He closes his eyes and takes a breath. “I know you were not fond of him, and knowing what I know now—well, I cannot blame you. He was a proud and foolish man who did not know when to listen.” His gaze flicker briefly to where Francis stands in the edge of his vision. “But though I am many things, I am not a hypocrite.”

“I considered him a friend,” Francis says lowly, “at least until those last few days. Even if he did not.”

James hums thoughtfully. The clink of his fingernails against his glass is loud in the space between them.

“I used to wonder—” he starts, “and please, don’t judge me too harshly or take this as an insult, I think we can both agree that I was a fool when I thought this—but I used to wonder why you did not simply… make yourself more amiable.” The gilt frame of Lady Jane’s portrait glints in the flickering light of the room. What a useless thing to haul across an ocean and simply stare at.

“You can imagine it was quite baffling to my younger self; to a man whose only real skill was making himself likeable, it was irreconcilable to my basic philosophy that some might not even try.” James shakes his head, smiling flatly. “It seemed the whole world and the Royal Navy besides was full of men and women being as charming as possible so they might hope to be respected—and there was Captain Crozier, above all our vanity.” He swirls his glass in a slow circle.

“I want respect the same as any man.”

James flutters his free hand in Francis’ direction. “Yes, of course, but for things that actually matter. Not for titles or deportment or the ability to make empty conversation. Not the things that I clung to; those tricks of society used to convince people you are worthwhile.” He taps a finger against the glass and eyes the hatched lines meant to evoke the pattern of Lady Jane’s dress. “I suppose I did not mind why people liked me, so long as they did.”

The frame was useless, at least. But the portrait may not have been—not to Sir John.

The ice groans outside Erebus, a mournful reminder of where they are. But James is loose-limbed and as warm as one ever got in the Arctic; tonight he will allow himself to brood over something other than the reality of their situation and be content with the comfort that he still can.

The floorboards creak softly under Francis’ boots. “You judge yourself too harshly, James.”

James grins in partial delight. “That is kind of you to say, Francis. But not, I am afraid, true.”

He pushes away from Lady Jane’s portrait and leans against the table. His glass is nearly empty now. Would it be rude to pour another, with Francis—ah. He frowns down at the glimmering crystal. This Francis is not abstaining yet. This is not really his Francis, not yet.

James plasters a vaguely merry look across his face, hoping for levity. “It is no great profundity to say that some men do not know themselves, yes? They think themselves God’s lieutenant, heroic and superior. Or,” he pauses, turning his head away, “they think themselves unlovable and ostracized, incapable of companionship, cursed by others and themselves.”

James takes a drink, emptying his glass.

“I know who I am, Francis. I am a shame-stricken coward, a sycophantic storyteller whose greatest strength is in self-promotion.” He quirks a brow at Francis, grinning loosely. “Why do you think the Admiralty liked me so much? Even as the nothing I am, even knowing I’d never been a particularly spectacular sailor.” He swallows around the growing lump in his throat. “They like me because my existence flatters them. Because I decided to flatter them.”

Francis is looking at him with an expression James does not care to interpret, certain that it is some shade of disappointment or disgust. He cannot expect otherwise, when the worst truths of James Fitzjames are on display—he knows his faults too well for that.

He waves a hand at Francis’ person. “But you, well. You have no patience for lies and flattery. All the Admiralty can see when they look at you is someone who—in spite of their prejudices and accents and social games—is better at their jobs than they ever were.” He grins viciously. “And oh, do they hate it.”

James pushes off the table and walks toward the cabinet. He knows his limit well enough, and he can allow a bit more without veering into irresponsibility.

The decanter clinks against itself as he unstops it; Francis clears his throat. “I think you’ve had enough to drink, James.”

He looks up, blinking. What a sentence to hear from Francis. How unexpected—how delightful. James nods his head in agreement and sets the glass down. He could have more, but perhaps he should not. Drink has never been his weakness, and he’d rather not develop a fondness for it.

He moves to his chair, and indulges his real vice. “Sit, Francis. I have brooded for both of us tonight—now you must be the entertainment.”

 

Francis turns to him now more than he used to.

At first it feels as much a check that James is still sane as anything else; but soon Francis is quietly asking for his thoughts and memories as if they are his most trusted council. It would be gratifying, if James did not quietly feel that his foresight proves less and less useful as time goes on.

So often James can only confirm Francis’ worst fears, the terrible machinations of fate and men that the Captain has already planned for. Had planned for, every time before, and been unable to change any of it.

James can fix his own grave mistakes but once sober, Francis had already been the best commander an expedition could hope for. James’ memories were little more than useless validation.

(“Did I do this last time, too?” Francis asks from his sickbed, a brittle grin stretching across his face.

James smooths a hand over his sweaty brow. “You do this every time, Francis. And I am always in awe.”)

His memory had given him one useful thing, at least—an early acceptance of the fact that he would die, and that the time he had left was not enough. There could never truly be enough time to say goodbye, but he treasures his stolen moments all the same. An extra conversation with Bridgens, an added joke with Henry, another smile from Francis. Not a single one saves the crew, but he is unspeakably glad to have them.

The scurvy comes fast and painful this time, no doubt hastened by the barely-healed claw marks on his chest and back. James is found out earlier, rotting scar-tissue less easy to hide when it covers half his body, and he watches silently as an extra set of worry lines settles into Francis’ face.

James would have spared him this, if he could have. But he cannot deny that it was nice to have someone beside him. To brace him, whenever the pull of the sledge dug further into his wounds. To care for him as death crept up as painfully as possible.

If he had been keeping track, he might have wondered whether his death came earlier than the first time. But it did not matter; it still came.

James Fitzjames dies as Francis mourns, bleeding out of every square inch of skin and thinking I will miss you.

 

(again,)

Once is an impossibility. Twice is a coincidence. Thrice is a damning pattern.

The ceiling of his berth stares back at him, a sight that should be comforting after months in a canvas tent and yet is feeling more and more like a foreboding omen. Despite the superstitious nature of sailors, James has never truly believed in omens, merely joked about the ones that benefitted him and disregarded the ones that didn’t.

He has never believed a man could re-live time before, either.

So why him?

Why not Blanky, who could pass foresight off as knowledge of the ice? Or Goodsir, who would remember all their illnesses and his bond with Lady Silence? Why not—why not Francis, who had known more details of their ill-fated expedition than anyone else, who had been their best hope of survival the first time and would only be better with a second chance?

Why not Francis, who had outlived him by days, at least, even if James could not reasonably hope it was much longer. Even if Francis had died mere minutes after him—an idea he did not wish to consider—he would have been a far better man to change the course of fate than James.

Had Francis died at all? Had this cycle waited until the last man of Franklin’s expedition had perished before it woke James back to life? Or had his death signaled the beginning of this infernal repetition—and after it was nothing at all?

He wishes he could pretend that Francis and whoever was left had made it back to hearth and home—but why would he have been called back, over and over, if there had ever been some partially happy ending to this nightmare?

Perhaps he was truly dreaming, and this memory was just the last, desperate imaginings of a dying man. Did poets and philosophers and other thinking men not say that one saw their entire life flash before them as they died? For all of his stories and claims, perhaps this expedition was the only part of his life important enough to relive.

Or perhaps this was his final, unending punishment, the balanced payment for all his sins; to relive all his mistakes, over and over, too little and too late to save anyone.

Perhaps he might just stay in bed this time.

But—no. It did not matter if this dream was real or not—whether these men were real or not. They were still his men and there was still work to be done. He did not know if these repetition would continue or even if they were real, but he would not risk these men’s lives for a longer rest.

He sits up, and tries again.

 

Sir John is already dead. It seems to have happened just as the first time—no James firing at the beast, no claw marks along his body. He cannot remember attending the funeral, except that he can remember attending three funerals, all so similar as to blur together in his mind.

He is not sure of his own memories, and he likes it even less than when the scurvy had sabotaged his mind.

James goes about his duties as any competent captain should, but his mind is elsewhere, perpetually half-focused on the horrors yet to come and his desperate search for some way to prevent them. He can feel himself becoming distant from the moment he living. James acts as any officer in his position ought when in front of the men—but in private, in the moments of silence between orders and ordeals, he starts to slip further and further away. It feels as if all of this is happening to another man, another James Fitzjames, and he is only borrowing his body and witnessing his actions.

There is one thing that cuts through this unreal fog; they are running out of whisky, and he can gauge the state of their supply by the set of Francis’ scowl.

Watching Francis drink himself to death the first time had been frustrating and infuriating. Now, it is a tragedy. He has seen the man rid himself of this demon thrice-over; James would rather throw himself from the mainmast than call Francis’ capability and will into question.

It is his impetus that leaves a little to be desired. James might save two men’s lives and another’s limb if he can convince Francis to begin his trial before the night the beast attacks. And then Francis might save them all.

(A selfish motivation: he misses the man who had been a bulwark against the frozen storm. He wants to see that man again now, instead of having to wait.)

The crux of this plan is that Francis has to be convinced. And James is never the one who manages it.

It is not until they are walking across the ice together that he can get Thomas Blanky alone.

The wind is low today—not still but not quite a gust, either. It makes for pleasant walking, as pleasant as a hike between to ships frozen in the ice can be, and more importantly for James’ purposes it allows for some level of conversation without the need to holler over the wind.

The other men in their party are a slight way behind them, such that when James quickens his pace to catch up to Blanky they are effectively alone, so long as they keep their volume level. He hopes that will not be an issue.

“Might I have a word, Mr. Blanky?”

The ice master shoots him a glance and then looks pointedly at the wastes around them. James practically hears the do I have a choice Blanky must be thinking.

“Go on then, sir,” is all he actually says.

James is silent for the next few steps. When he speaks, his words and breaths are jumbled. “I think it would be fair to say, Mr. Blanky—that is, there can be no argument that, on this expedition at least—though I cannot claim to know the inner workings of you or Francis right now, never mind when you are both ashore—”

“Is this this going somewhere?” Blanky asks, eyes flicking toward the distant shape of Terror.

James catches his breath and checks behind them. No one seems to be taking note of their conversation. He lows his voice as far as he thinks can still be heard and braces himself. “We are going to run out of whisky,” he says. Blanky tenses. “It’s not a question of if but of when. I imagine we both know the state a man can reach when such an aid is taken from him—a state we might time better if we had a plan for when to incite it.”

The other man’s muffler hides most of his expression when James glances over, but the shift from raised brows to narrowed eyes is impossible to miss.

“We both know,” James continues, the frequency of his breaths increasing from nerves and exertion, “that he could be a phenomenal commander if it weren’t for this one vice.”

Could be?” Blanky mutters, just loud enough to hear.

“If we are to survive this nightmare, then we all need to be at our best, and that does include Francis—"

“I think you’ve got the wrong man for this conversation, Commander.” The acknowledgement of rank is pointedly insincere. “You might try it with the man himself, if you’re so concerned. I’ll be sure to speak real pretty at your funeral.”

“Don’t you think I’ve tried?” James exclaims, then glances worriedly behind them. No reaction, thank Christ. “But come off it, Thomas, if you think he wouldn’t rather cut off his own ears than listen to me.” He forces himself to take a deep breath, cold air flooding his lungs. “That’s why I’m asking you.”

“Is it, now.”

“You—” James pauses for breath. “You can’t deny the truth, Thomas. And we both know this to be the truth.”

In the quiet of Blanky’s pause, James listens to the crunch of ice beneath their feet and the shuffling sounds of the men behind them.

“If the Captain is in any way remiss it is not mine to critique him.”

James closes his eyes and breathes. He wills himself forward.

“Your loyalty becomes you. He is lucky to have such a friend.” Terror looms before them like a solid shadow. James fixes his gaze upon it and struggles for an explanation. “I’m not—trying to cast some moral judgement. Or malign Francis’ abilities. God knows he’s a better commander when drunk than most of the Royal Navy, including and especially me.” The increasing wind carries his fleeting laugh off into nothingness. “But we’re in an impossible situation, Thomas, and we need our absolute best chances if we’re to survive.”

“The first step of which is surviving that conversation.” Blanky shakes his head. “It will do us no good to raise this topic.”

“Perhaps not,” James allows in desperation. “But it might do the men around us every good.” He pauses, then makes his last argument. “It would do him good. Much good.”

Blanky says nothing.

The wind picks up, blowing scattered snowfall into their legs. “I—” James sighs. “I can see you will not bend.” Terror is now near enough that he can make out the shapes on men along her deck. “If you may permit me one last piece of advice, though it may seem obvious—if you ever see that thing on this ship, run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. There is little gain in not doing, if you have the chance.”

The rest of the walk is silent.

Later that night, when no one is awake but the few men on watch, James pours each one of his remaining bottles of whisky out onto the ice. He will not do the same to the main stores, but he feels he might preemptively tear his hair out if he does nothing. This, at least, is a change he is capable of—even if it is small, and useless.

 

“Sixteen bottles, sir,” Collins reports. James thanks him and starts counting down the hour.

He must give Little enough time to return to Terror, enough time for the Lieutenant and Mr. Blanky to assemble in Francis’ wardroom. Both men must witness what is going to happen—they must, for the outcome to be worth it. So James, who would once have said his greatest balm was Francis’ company, waits for all the pieces to align in such a way to ruin him. Then he starts walking.

It feels like mutiny, heading to Terror with the intent to—effectively—undermine his commander. There is little comfort in the knowledge that it must be done, that a remembering Francis would surely agree. He slits his eyes against the wind and tries to forget that a necessary evil is still something awful.

It is abjectly awful that this will risk Thomas Blanky’s life.

Because it isn’t ever James’ confrontation that convinces Francis of what needs to be done—it is always that realization that he has directly caused his friend a grievous injury. The anger James incites is what pushes Blanky into the beast’s path, but it is guilt—guilt and shame—that cause Francis’ breakthrough.

James dreads the thought of a repetition where Francis does not reach sobriety. He will live with the guilt of causing Blanky to lose his leg if it means the man might keep his life.

He can think of no other way.

James climbs aboard Terror, nodding at the few men on watch as he makes his way down to the wardroom. When he stops just outside, to steel himself and take a breath, he can hear a female voice—Lady Silence—arguing in words he cannot understand. Everything is in place, then.

Jopson stands just inside the doorway, wide-eyed at James’ presence. The steward opens his mouth to announce his entrance, but James shakes his head pushes past him into the room.

“She asked you, ‘Why do you want to die?’” Blanky states.

In front of him is Lady Silence, glaring defiantly across the table. Goodsir is next to him, and Little off against the wall, but James spares only a glance for each of them before focusing on Francis. He looks abysmal, and furiously annoyed.

“Oh, God, get off my ship,” Francis spits, flicking a hand at him.

James’ catches Little’s discomfited flinch at his side, then sets his jaw. “No.”

Lady Silence’s tirade catches Francis’ attention for a few beats, but then he turns on James, furious. “No?” he repeats, looking apoplectic. “I am your commanding officer and the captain of this ship. If I want you off it, you’ll get off—”

“You stole sixteen bottles of spirits from my ship.”

The room falls deathly silent. James’ gaze flickers to Blanky, who looks, more than anything, resigned. They both knew this day would come. James is only sorry it must be so public.

“I did no such thing!” Francis protests.

James clenches his fists at his sides. Much as he tries, he cannot keep the hint of desperation out of his voice. “Then why does no one in this room believe you?” He jabs a finger at the other man, blood thrumming hot in his ears. “You are driving yourself headfirst in the ground—and the rest of us with you. You want to be a commander, Francis? Then command. Measure up to the man you could be. Or—” James breathes out and plants his feet. “Or are you determined to be the worst kind of first as well?”

Francis turns to the side. James forces his hands to stay lowered; this is a blow that needs to land.

That doesn’t make it hurt any less.

Francis’ fist collides with his cheek with a vicious crack. For all his bracing, James still stumbles at the blow. Jopson reaches out to steady him while Blanky and Little shove Francis into the corner; James lays a hand on the steward’s shoulder in thanks and turns back just in time to hear “Or what happened to Jon Ross at Fury Beach will happen to you.”

“Everyone out,” Francis growls.

“Francis—”

“Oh go smoke a pipe, Thomas,” Francis sneers. “Or better yet, go stare at the ice. I want a full report in an hour. That’s an order.”

“Thomas,” James cautions.

Blanky turns to look at him, jaw tight with tension. James holds his gaze, feeling the weight of everyone else’s eyes on them. No doubt they have realized that if Thomas turns to him it will only take Edward’s agreement to cut Francis from command entirely.

But James has been the acting commander of some version of this expedition for three separate months, now, and hated every minute of it. He cannot lead them. Not the way they need.

Blanky nods, a tiny movement he would have missed at any other time, and turns back to Francis. “Captain,” he bids, and goes to leave the room.

James grabs his arm just before the door, pulling him close enough to whisper “Be on alert, out there. Be safe.” The he lets go and watches Blanky leave.

They stand in dismal silence for a long moment. James’ cheek throbs in time with his heartbeat, and the inside of his sternum burns with guilty resignation. The others glance around, eyes wide and nervous, Francis a dark shadow in the corner, but James just stands and waits. It will only be a moment, and then—

The beast roars. And then everything goes to hell, exactly as expected.

 

Blanky corners James on Erebus two weeks after Francis takes to his sickbed. He can’t remember this happening before, so his surprise is all real when the man lingers after James calls the command meeting to a close.

“Mr. Blanky, is there something you need?”

The man shifts his weight in his chair, leaning his head toward James. “A word in private, if I might.”

James nods the stewards out of the room, turning fully toward Blanky once the door is shut. “News from Terror, is it?”

“You knew this way going to happen.”

James freezes. “I—Pardon?”

Blanky rest an arm on the table and looks at James intently. “The Captain’s illness. The fact that it needed to happen. And,” he knocks his knuckles on his wooden knee, “this. You knew about all of it.”

Oh, God in heaven.

James shakes his head with a brittle laugh. “You’re speaking of fantasy, Mr. Blanky, perhaps—”

“Stop me if this sounds familiar,” Blanky drawls, crossing his arms over his chest. “The last week at Fury Beach felt like years. Like I kept waking up in the same place, to the same problems, over and over and over again.” He raises an eyebrow and continues. “Felt like I died a hundred time in that blasted place before we finally made it out.”

James wets his lips. His heart beats wildly in his chest. “This place can do—strange things to men’s minds, but—”

“That it can. Make a man think things he shouldn’t, do things he wouldn’t have done—speak of things to come like they’ve already happened.”

James stares at him for a long moment. Something like relief settles in his chest.

And yet—“The last week?” he asks, leaning forward onto the table. “Only the last week?”

Blanky frowns. “Yes.”

“And at—at the same point each time? The same morning?”

“Yes,” Blanky answers slowly. Horror dawns over his face. “Do you—not?”

James shakes his head. “The first time I woke up a year before. And then the next, a year minus two weeks. I’m never quite certain when I’ll—” His breath hitches in his chest.

Blanky drops his hands to the arms of his chair. “Jesus Christ,” he mutters, blinking up at James.

“How did you stop it?” James aks, hope coiled tightly in his throat. “What did you… fix?”

Blanky smiles flatly. “Morale.”

James thinks of his first attempt to boost morale, and the pit of hell he had created.

“If you think it useful, I’ll believe you whenever you tell me,” Blanky says. “Though I generally found that the more times I tried to explain it, the more guilt I felt about sharing a future I hoped to avoid.”

“Yes,” sighs James, thinking of the state of Blanky’s leg and the terrible fate of Sir John. “I can see how that might be the case.”

 

He visits Francis once the worst of his illness has passed. He would’ve gone earlier, would’ve set up vigil at the man’s side and left only to attend to their men as Francis had done—or would do—for him, but he knows the other man cannot yet think so fondly of him as to want to be witnessed in such a state. As much as it may pain him to sit aside while his friend suffers, he must admit the truth—he cannot make Francis want him near.

James throws himself into the command he has been trusted with so that Francis need not worry when he wakes, and waits. He waits through Little’s comprehensive reports, through Blanky’s assessing gaze, through the darkest nights of winter and the endless groaning of the ice. He waits until Francis is conscious for reliable stretches of time, and then he makes the long, cold walk in search of warmth.

Jopson lets him into the wardroom with an expression so filtered by fatigue James is uncertain it can still be called a smile. Hopefully Jopson will take advantage of James’ watch to get some sleep—he’ll need his strength for what’s to come.

James knocks lightly on the door to Francis’ cabin. When no response comes, he pushes it quietly open; lamp-light spills in to illuminate Francis’ blanketed body, curled toward the wall. Sleeping, James hopes, so he settles in the nearby chair and pulls out his sketchbook to pass the time.

A little less than an hour has passed when Francis jolts awake, breathing heavily, and jerks up from his repose. James nearly grabs for the nearby bucket, the man’s face is so pale—but then fever-bright eyes lock with his and it is shock, not sickness, on Francis’ face.

“James,” he gasps, and—lord, has he been crying in his sleep?—“You’re alive.”

James stares back it him, utterly thrown. Has Francis—has he remembered?

He stammers in his haste to respond. “I—yes, yes I am, Francis, do you—”

Francis blinks rapidly, then jerks his gaze away to stare down at his blanket. “I had a dream as if—as if we have done this all before.”

James’ heart beats rapidly in his chest. “Oh?” he asks with a too-high voice and bated breath.

Francis is quiet for a long while; then he shakes his head as if to clear it, frowning. “It was only a dream,” he mutters, leaning back against the wall and closing his eyes. “Christ knows I’ve been having too many of those.”

James cannot speak.

Francis opens his eyes part-way and glances at James. He clears his throat, though his voice is still rough when he speaks. “How—how are the men?”

James wills himself back to normalcy. “As well as can be expected,” he starts slowly, taking a deep breath. “We might benefit from arranging some kind of—entertainment, to bolster morale.” He stifles a grimace. “Not a party, I don’t think, but something.”

“Well,” Francis rasps, “if anyone here knows entertainment, it’s you.”

James forces the barest smile onto his face, watching the flicker of the lamp flame.

Francis’ breathing hitches and stutters and his body begins to shake. James jolts forward and braces him through the spasm, Francis’ back shaking under his hands. The fit subsides after a moment and, once certain it has passed, James settles back in his chair.

Francis sighs heavily. “Organize something, James. For sunrise, perhaps.” He closes his eyes, leaning his head back against the wall. “‘This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.’”

James jerks his head up to stare at Francis. I believe I read it once—the absolute bastard. He had let James make a fool of himself rambling on about Lear and said nothing.

“James?” Francis peers up at him from one open eye. He must have been silent overlong.

James shakes his head, smiling. “Ah, nothing.” He clasps a hand on Francis’ shoulder and stands, carefully tucking his sketchbook away. “Sunrise, then, Francis, and may you be well enough to join us.”

 

James Fitzjames dies with Francis at his side.

 

(again,)

He wakes in darkness.

James has now lived through a number of last sunsets and first sunrises. He wants each one to feel like a momentous, all-important occasion signifying something meaningful—but that is an unfulfilled desire. At a certain point the same sunrises and sunsets start to blur together; they are still awe-inspiring, breathtakingly beautiful, but they mean nothing more than the current length of day. James counts each one where the world does not burn down around him as a success.

There’s a sort of immortality from knowing how you will die and another sort entirely from expecting to wake up again. It is strange to feel one and bizarre to feel both.

In theory the repetitions and repeats ought to have driven him mad—to know that he has lived each day before, and before, and before. Luckily for his sanity, reality proves different. Most days as the captain of a ship trapped in ice were more or less the same; and so most days he cannot really tell the difference.

Every repetition saw James in Terror’s tilted wardroom, planning the details of their oncoming trek across the Arctic. He knows these counts and calculations practically by heart, now, and the drudging task of trying to find hope where there is none is only made easier by the pleasure of Francis’ company.

James sets down the inventory he’s been reading and taps a finger on one line. “The true tragedy here,” he starts, catching Francis’ eye when the other man looks up curiously, “is that we’re going to run out of tea.”

Francis looks at him for a moment—then he laughs, wiping a hand across his face. “You fucking English and your fucking tea.”

“Don’t pretend that you’re above it, we both know that’s a lie.”

“Fine,” Francis huffs, grinning. “You fucking English and your tendency to take things that aren’t fucking yours.”

James affects an air of mock superiority. “God grants his gifts to those who are loudest to lay claim.”

“Bullshit.”

“That’s the spirit of English empire you’re insulting,” James dramatically protests. “I’m offended and I’m not even really English.”

Francis snorts. “Don’t be daft. You’re the walking exemplar of an English toff.”

“Overcompensating,” James says, dropping the act. “I was born in Brazil—Rio de Janeiro. My mother was from Portugal, or so I believe.” He nods lightly at Francis, trying to keep his tone unaffected. “You were more accurate than you knew whenever you called me a bastard, as it turns out.”

Francis looks at him for a long moment. “Well,” he says, voice soft and low, “you won’t hear me complaining about someone not being English.”

James nods in grateful acknowledgement.

There’s a pause as both admission and acceptance settle in. James smiles down at the table, tracing the lines of the inventory with his fingertips. All is comfortably still—until Francis lifts his head in a sharp movement. James matches his gaze with curiosity.

“Rio, you say?” Francis asks, voice sounding strangely strangled.

“1813,” James confirms.

Francis stares at him for a heartbeat, then groans and buries his face in his hand. “Christ above, James, I was there. In Rio. In 1813.” He shakes his head. “You’re a bloody child,” he whines.

James leans back in his chair, propping his elbow on the arm and his head on his fist. “I feel quite a few years older than thirty-four, if that’s any consolation.” Even if it was the same year, over and over. Age was in the living, not the passage of time—or something like that.

Thirty-four,” Francis moans faintly into his palm. James cannot help but grin.

They lapse into comfortable silence for a few minutes. James picks his inventory back up, though he is only paying it half his attention at most. There are more interesting things in his head by far, and he is perfectly content to peruse them instead. The scope of what lies before him. The chances that could be coming. The fear of being known and the comfort of acceptance.

“You know, James—” Francis says, breaking the silence, “not that I want you to suffer, but I’m glad you’re here. With me.”

It is shock that surges through James first, at such an unexpected admission. Then the warm glow of happiness, that Francis might say such a thing so honestly, and then—mortifyingly—a sob.

The first tear rolls down his face alone, hot and wet; and then the lead has opened, and he is fully sobbing.

“Oh, Christ,” James swears, turning his face away, burying his eyes in the wool of his sleeve. “God, I’m sorry, just—”

He must sound ridiculous, voice breaking on every other word, high-pitched and reedy. There’s a hollow aching in his chest that he cannot smother no matter how evenly he tries to breath, how tightly he closes his eyes. He cannot stem this tide—only hope he washes ashore before all his dignity is gone.

A light pressure settles high on his back; Francis has laid a hand on him. “James,” he says, voice soft and hesitant, “I…”

James muffles a sob, then tries to clear his throat. “You wouldn’t happen to have a spare handkerchief, would you?”

Francis produce one and holds it out. “Jopson never lets me go without.”

“I can’t blame Bridgens, I used the damn thing earlier and forgot to replace it. Thank you.” James takes the proffered cloth and wipes his eyes. It does little good. “I’ll be fine in a moment, just—could you talk about something?” The request sounds like a pitiful whine in his own ears.

“I—I don’t know what to…”

“Anything, Francis. A daring childhood escaped. A glowing review of your favorite novel. Or—amuse me with your scathing judgement of Admiralty functions and how miserable they make you.” He presses his lips together and tries for a jovial tone, though the effect must be ruined by the hitching of his breath. “Only sobbing in awkward silence is a somewhat pitiful experience and I’d really rather not.”

He wipes at his streaming eyes and tries not to feel ashamed.

Francis’ coat rustles in the quiet of the wardroom. “I once met the Handsomest Man in the Royal Navy,” he says, the uppercase letters clear in his enunciation. “At an Admiralty function, that is.”

James laughs. The release feels cathartic. “I should hope you’ve met him, you sat in the man’s opera box for those dreadfully boring tableaus.”

“Wh—I would’ve thought you be a fan, what with your affinity for posing.”

He makes a face above the handkerchief. “I vastly prefer theatricals.”

Francis chuckles. “Should have guessed you’d need some ludicrously dramatic story to be entertained.” He drums his finger on the table. “In any case, I wasn’t talking about James Ross. Everyone knows he lost the moniker when he married Ann.”

“Glad tidings for all us bachelors, “James replies drolly. His voice only wavers a little. “Go on then, enlighten me as to the gaps in my knowledge of Navy gossip.”

Francis huffs. “Are you going to keep interrupting me or will I actually be allowed to speak?”

James looks up at his wry expression sheepishly and gestures for him to go on.

Francis settles back in his chair, crossing on leg atop the other. All he needs now is a lit pipe, James thinks, to complete the image of a benevolent narrator. “The thing I hate most about those blasted parties isn’t the posturing or the watered-down wine or even the endless chattering—though all will feature in whatever hell I end up in—it’s that I always end up having to talk to Sir John Ross.”

James snorts. Having met the man, he can empathize.

“Ross isn’t overly fond of his uncle, you see, and as I’m usually the nearest crochety bastard that James is capable of manipulating, I’m often cajoled into blocking the old bastard’s path and stopping him from ruining some young debutante’s evening.” Francis grins sharply; James feels the mirror of it spread across his own face. “Or his standing with the Admiralty.”

Francis folds an arm across his chest. The other stays free to punctuate his story with sharp little gestures. “James usually makes a point of showing up before his uncle for this exact reason. One evening, however, a rather nasty carriage incident blocking the streets pushed us past acceptably late and firmly into just late. When we did finally make it, John Ross positively beelined for us the moment we were in the door, looking as close to gleeful as the old bastard can manage.

“You can imagine,” Francis continues, holding a finger in the air, “that this was a rather worrying sight. The last time I had seen Ross the elder that delighted had been after a screaming match with Barrow that nearly cost James his command. Fortunately, that was not the case.”

Francis shifts his shoulders, adopting a fairly impressive imitation of a Scottish brogue for his next sentence. “‘Terrible news, Jamie,’ he said, ‘you’ve been supplanted. Seems they gave the new Commander your title with his promotion.’”

Something ominously familiar clicks in James’ memory. “Francis, you don’t mean—”

“None of us had the slightest clue what he was talking about and said as much,” Francis goes on as if James has said nothing, face surprisingly animated. “‘Oh, you haven’t heard?’ he said, and—looking positively hideous with joy—gestured over his should and said: ‘Meet Commander James Fitzjames, the new Handsomest Man in the Navy.’”

James resists the urge to choke. “Oh, hilarious Francis, you’ve truly proven your imagination. I revoke all critiques to your storytelling ability.”

“Cross my heart, it’s the truth,” Francis protests, grinning devastatingly wide. “James grieved, you know. For at least a minute.”

“I suppose I did say anything, so I can’t complain if you’ve decide to mock me.”

“It isn’t a joke, James.” Francis knocks James’ arm with his hand. “Well, it is, but that doesn’t make it any less true. ‘Many a true word hath been spoken in jest’ and all that—”

“Did you just quote Lear at me, you absolute—”

“You really didn’t know?” Francis interrupts, head tilted.

James sputters, throwing his hand into the air. “Ross was only just married, I hadn’t though to ask anyone if he’d fallen from favor so quickly! Besides, it’s not exactly the kind of thing people call you to your face.”

“I mocked him for it endlessly.”

“Well, had I the pleasure of your friendship then, Francis, I’m sure you would have kept me well informed.” He wipes the last of the tears from his face, dropping the handkerchief into a pile on the table. “This must have been the party with that tragic lemon jelly,” he adds when Francis starts looking morose.

“Looked like it was swimming in a puddle of its own piss,” Francis recalls bluntly. “You’d think they’d bother to spring for something that would last until dessert without melting.”

“It was obviously an artistic statement.” James waves his hand in lazy circles. “As we are ships in the ocean, so too was that jelly in—in—”

“A puddle of its own piss?”

James bursts into gasping laughter. Francis joins in with him shortly, and then the two of them are giggling like schoolboys and James is near tears again.

“For what it’s worth,” he starts once their laughter has died down and he can breathe evenly again, “I would have welcomed your friendship. Even then.”

Francis smiles sadly. “You’ll forgive me if I didn’t believe that then. There were very few people in that room that would have welcomed my company.”

“Fools,” James says, smiling through red eyes and dried tear-tracks, “the lot of them.”

 

James Fitzjames dies as Francis cries above him, thinking I love

 

(again,)

John Morfin always dies, no matter what James does.

Most often he is shot by Sergeant Tozer, regardless of how loudly James orders no one to move when the lantern by his feet shatters. Sometimes, Morfin manages to shoot himself before any of them can stop him—James loses a finger, once, trying to wrench the barrel away from Morfin’s skull.

(“What in the bleeding Christ were you thinking?” Francis hisses, fuming, as James sits in the sick tent after Goodsir has stitched and wrapped his mangled hand and plied him with something for the pain. “Did you think your bloody fingers would be enough to stop a bullet? Or were you planning to swap his skull with yours?”

“I was thinking I am sick of death, Francis,” the words feeling heavy and liquid as he says them, “and I should not like to see another if it was easily preventable.”

“It is not easily preventable if it costs me you,” Francis spits, then stalks out of the tent, the canvas flap fluttering in his wake.)

Once, just once, Francis manages to resolve the whole affair with no violence, no ghastly splatter of red across white stones, no terrible moment of watching a man lose his mind and his life in short order.

That time, John Morfin passes quietly in his sleep. A mercy, James thinks, to more than just Morfin.

James Fitzjames dies but does not sleep.

 

(again,)

“You’re awake!”

James stares above him. “Yes, I know.”

James Fitzjames dies and he is so very tired.

 

(again,)

Eventually he gives up on over-analyzing every choice and detail and tries to accept that there are things he cannot predict. He could not hold every possible outcome in his mind when he was at his best—the waxes and wanes of his memory make an impossible task even harder.

So he focuses on the current moment as much as he is able, using his memories as a foundation for better reasoning and understanding, hoping against hope and pattern that each time will be the time they survive.

It never is.

James Fitzjames dies, and so, it seems, does everyone else.

 

(again,)

They are walking back from the cairn, stones clattering beneath their feet, a comfortable silence surrounding them.

James has written the news of Sir John’s death more times than he can count. The letters come as easily to him as his own signature, or near enough, and this time he had almost appended his own death at the end. It is as sure as fact, now, and might have been helpful for the Admiralty to know.

He knows from the short glances the other man keeps sending him that Francis has sensed his downturned mood. No doubt he thinks it due to remembering Sir John’s death, but James does not know how explain the real cause.

The land stretches out in front of them, flat and bleached and desolate. The horizon is a thin grey line, separating frozen earth from freezing air. It is beautiful, in a terrible kind of way.

“I am going to die, you know.”

Francis stops in his tracks and frowns. “James—”

James turns back to face him and raises his hands. “Peace, Francis. We can pretend it will be of old age in England if that will soothe you.” He plants his feet in the ground and hitches the gun strap up his shoulder. “But my point is that one day I am going to die”—and not wake up again—“and I haven’t the faintest idea what will come afterward.”

Francis is quiet, his brow wrinkled, but he starts walking again. James falls into place beside him and waits a few moments before speaking. “I wish I were of such willful fortitude that it did not bother me, but…” he trails off, gaze set on the horizon before them. “I am afraid. That one day I will close my eyes and there will be nothing there.”

Francis’ shoulder knocks softly into James’ arm.

“But I am growing equally concerned that there will be something. And that it will never truly end. ‘Is wretchedness deprived of that benefit, to end itself by death’—ah.” He swallows thickly and tries to lighten his tone. “Forgive my maudlin thoughts; they needed saying, or at least I need them said, but I require no response. I just—”

He takes a deep, shuddering breath. “Sometimes, Francis, I feel as if James Fitzjames died when we were frozen in, and that a different man entirely is here now. One who is still called James Fitzjames, if he is called anything, but I… cannot pretend to be the man I was before.”

The container of ink tucked close to James’ chest is a smooth, constant presence. He had almost been surprised, when they had reached the cairn, that he had enough body heat left to keep it from freezing.

“I am not a man made for philosophy,” Francis breaks the silence between them with a soft voice, “but I know that whatever man—whichever James Fitzjames is here now, I am glad to walk beside him.”

James’ face prickles with the promise of unshed tears. Francis’ eyes, when he looks at them, are very blue and very warm. “Thank you, Francis. Thank truly means a lot.”

“Perhaps what comes after death is simply life, again,” Francis offers with a tentative smile.

James’ blood runs cold. Colder than the air around them. He bites his cheek and looks away.

“What if you”—he starts haltingly—“died, were absolutely sure of it, but you still woke up?” The words catch in his throat, sticking to the back of his tongue. “To—to something you had already lived?”

He can feel Francis staring at him.

“I’d say it was a blessing. To have—more time.”

James closes his eyes. “A blessing and a curse,” he mutters. “More time with those you love and more time to fail them.”

The hand on his shoulder, somehow warm even through layers of fabric, stops him. James turns his head to see Francis looking at him earnestly. “You have failed no man here, James. Nor any man who is with us no longer. Life and fate failed them, not you.”

James’ mouth quirks into the semblance of a smile. “I could say the same to you, Francis.”

The other man nods in acknowledgement of their shared tendency toward guilt. “This is our responsibility,” he says, “but it is not our fault. We did not trap them here.”

James Fitzjames dies and he almost wishes he won’t wake up.

 

(again,)

For all that he pretends to learn from his mistakes, it takes James too many repetitions before he decides to just talk to Cornelius Hickey.

Here is the difficulty: Hickey is a murderer and a mutineer, but he isn’t either one yet. James cannot punish a man for a crime he has not committed—but if he does not, men will die. Men have died, in past repetitions, because James acted or did not act, because he dragged Hickey’s words of mutiny to the light too early or because he allowed the rot to fester in the hopes it would consume itself.

The outcome is the same no matter what James does, and he is tired of death.

He corners Hickey while the man is supplementing the watch, shuffling outside the camp’s perimeter with his hands tucked inside his coat. The man nods his head when James draws near, stopping a few feet away.

“Might I have a word, Mr. Hickey?”

“Of course, sir,” Hickey smiles, the picture of affability. James thinks of the deaths this man will cause and tries to be patient.

“It is an understatement, I think, to say that any man here is displeased with our current situation. I myself would rather be in an English drawing room than”—he gestures around them—“here. I’m sure you agree.

Hickey shuffles next to him, sending stones clattering softly against each other.

“It has come to my attention, however, that some of the men have taken this displeasure to an… unfortunate conclusion.”

Hickey stills.

James folds his hands together behind his back. “Now, Mr. Hickey—it is not my intention to discomfort you, nor do I have any real proof at this time. Consider this interview more of an—intellectual curiosity.” He turns his head, focusing intently on the other man’s furrowed brow and narrowed eyes. “I want to understand why, Mr. Hickey. Anger? Power lust? Fear?” James pauses and lets the question settle. “Curiosity?”

Hickey tilts his head, a cold smile stretching across his mouth, “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re alluding to, Commander.”

James shifts his weight forward. “Pretend you do.”

Hickey does not respond—James can understand why.

“What’s your plan to get out of this place, then? After—” he waves his hand back toward the camp. “If you think you’ve got a better one, I’m listening.”

Again, Hickey says nothing. Telling, given that in James’ experience the man is usually happy to talk.

That is that, then. He will get nothing more from standing here in silence. “Thank you for the conversation, Mr. Hickey. I’ll leave you to your watch.” James turns back toward the camp, stones scattering under his feet. He makes it three steps before Hickey interrupts him.

“I was promised one year,” Hickey says. James turns back to see him glaring. “One year on that boat, and then China and a tropical paradise. The far more hospitable corners of the world. And instead, three years later, I am freezing and starving and dying.” Hickey grins, a sardonic thing that speaks of more anger than any other expression the man has made. “Bit of a false advertisement, hm?”

James holds his gaze. “Every man was warned of the possible dangers when they signed up for this expedition. We all knew what could happen.” That was the bargain one made when they joined a discovery service expedition—the unknown, whether it was pleasant or not. “You may have been promised an easier trip, Mr. Hickey, but consider—so was I. So were we all.”

And here he is, over a decade of memories later, trapped in the ice with no hint of a way out.

He catches Lieutenant Irving watching as he makes his way back to camp. James only nods in passing—he’d rather search for Francis than pretend he doesn’t know why Irving is unnerved. He has only empty reassurances for the man, and that will help neither of them.

Hickey spends the next few days eyeing James with a sort of wary curiosity, a piercing stare that might, on anyone else, look like respect.

(It does not last, of course, but he did not expect it to.)

When they send out hunting parties, James makes a point of separating Hickey and Lieutenant Irving. It is the only way Irving survives the day, and James has pressed for it ever since he realized. Sometimes they find natives, sometimes they do not—but Irving and Farr survive, even if only for another week.

They do not find any natives this time, but finding them has never saved them in the past. James is not sure what can save them, at this point, but surely there is something. There must be, or every effort they make will be for naught.

James Fitzjames dies, but there is little he can do to change that anymore.

 

(again,)

It’s always the scurvy that kills him. It’s always him and Francis, alone in a tent and James asking for the only choice he has left. Every time, he expects to close his eyes and never open them again—expects whatever this thing is, neither luck nor curse nor blessing, to have run out.

And every time, he opens his eyes later than the last.

James Fitzjames dies and he keeps waking up.

 

(again, again,)

“I’m running out of time,” James rasps, gripping Francis’ fingers like they alone can save him.

Francis shakes his head and tries to comfort him, but the truth has been building for a long time and James is powerless to stop it. “I was always going to run out of time, I think. It was never—I was never—” Thick, wet tears run down his face, and the shallow gasps that he can manage are wobbling, wretched things. “I’m so sorry, Francis. I’m so sorry.”

James Fitzjames dies with an apology on his lips and poison in his mouth.

 

(again, again, againagainagain—)

James gasps awake a week before he dies and promptly winces, pressing a weakend hand over the festering wound in his side.

He doesn’t know it’s the week before until Bridgens comes in to—carefully, patiently, like the saint that he is—help him into some semblance of respectability. The man’s hands are cool and careful where they fleetingly pass James’ skin.

John Bridgens is one of many men who do not deserve to die and who James can never save. The care the man takes in attending him is only a reminder that James has not done enough. That he is not enough.

The week is dull and painful and ever longer for the fact that James has just lived through it. As his waking has moved later and later each repetition blurs more and more, an endless fog of barren land and yellowing canvas and constant pain.

Knowing that there will be an end to it is not as reassuring as James might hope. He had not thought to consider what would happen if he ran out—of repetitions, of time, of second chances. James had been so certain that foresight and careful planning would eventually work, but now the only certainty he has is that he will die, and that he is running out of time.

And yet the knowledge that death will bring him closer to—something is never enough to stop it from coming.

“Are you certain, James?” Francis asks, like he asks every time and every time James is certain of nothing in the world except that he will die and that not dying like this might risk not waking up again, might risk one last chance to try again.

It never works, he wants to say, I just die and it never works, I never fix it, I wake up and I’m just closer to failure than before and I can never save you and I’m so completely sorry—

He just nods.

James Fitzjames dies and he dies and he dies and he dies and he—

 

(again,)

He wakes up in a tent, Francis hunched near him, eyes closed and face impossibly tired.

Ah.

So this is it, then. He will die today, and he cannot wake up any later than his own death.

“Francis—” he chokes out around the stiffness in his throat.

The man jolts, eyes opening to stare down concernedly at him, hand hovering tentatively over his chest. “James? What is it?”

“You back,” he croaks. “Must be killing you.”

Francis gives a weak laugh, shaking his head. “It’s fine. I’ll be fine.”

Liar.

James makes to call him out on it, but the sandpaper feeling of his throat proves too much, and he starts coughing instead. Francis reaches over him and holds a little water to his lips; James manages a tiny swallow before he sinks back down onto his make-shift sickbed.

He works his throat thickly until he thinks he can manage to speak. “Do you remember—that terrible party, with… with the jelly.”

“You’ve just described every dinner party I’ve had the misfortune of attending,” Francis jokes weakly, eyes flicking over James’ face.

The tiny smile comes to James’ mouth unbidden. “The one where we—” he raises a hand to gesture weakly between them—“met.”

“Ah, yes,” Francis says with a huff that sounds more like a sob. “The bloody melting jelly.”

“Was a good party,” James says, earning a watery laugh from Francis. “In the end.” He drags his eyes to catch Francis’, straining to hold his gaze. “Glad to have met you. Honor to—to know you.”

Francis’ face crumples. His choked-off sob is loud in the quiet dark of the tent. James lifts a shakng hand to the side of his face and wipes at a stray tear with his thumb.

“I love you, Francis,” he says, voice a whisper of air in his throat. “Please don’t—think less of me.”

Francis covers James’ hand with his own, skin calloused and warm, the only living being in the world.

“I don’t,” he sobs quietly. “I couldn’t.”

James smiles faintly and rubs his thumb across Francis’ cheek once more before his arm drops back to his side. “Read to me?” he asks, one last, indulgent request.

“I’ve nothing to read, James, I—”

“A story, then.” He coughs, throat spasming. “Anything, Francis. Please.”

The wind roars dully against the canvas of the tent. Outside, there are men he has failed countless times over. Further out, a woman whose father he could not save. Before him, a man he desperately wants to live.

Francis nods jerkily and clears his throat, gently enfolding James’ hands in his. “I met—” he starts, voice wavering but true. “I met the best man in the Royal Navy at a truly awful party. The Rosses and I were late, you see, and worried…”

I know this one, James thinks, and closes his eyes to the comforting sound of Francis’ voice.

James Fitzjames dies.

 

(and again.)

He wakes up in his cabin.

James stares blankly at the ceiling for a dozen thunderous heartbeats before there’s a knock at the door. He turns his head to face it as the door opens to reveal a smiling Harry Goodsir.

“Ah, Commander Fitzjames!” he greets. “I was just coming to check on you. It’s good to see you’re awake.”

James tries to speak, but his throat is parched to ruins and he has to swallow a few times before he can form any words. “When—” he rasps. “When is it?”

If Goodsir thinks this a strange question, he does not show it. “Mid-September. You’ve been feverish for quite a while.”

September? Of what year?

“It’s just as well you’ve woken up,” Goodsir continues, handing a glass of water over to James. “I believe Sir John is planning a command meeting shortly.”

Sir John—A command meeting—

Realization hits James like a bullet to the chest.

This was the choice that doomed them, wasn’t it? That has been the whole point of this endless reliving. No matter what he does—what anyone does—they cannot set it right after this point.

Two paths; to continue on with a damaged ship in open sea and hope the God and winter would find them in safe waters—a good plan, if God cared—or consolidate on Terror, head east, and live to sail another day. Overly cautious, perhaps, if you did not believe you could die.

James had mocked Francis for his caution and they had frozen in the ice seven days later.

If they follow Sir John’s plan they die. No matter what. It’s simple, now that he’s seen every possibility. Their only hope is Francis’ plan—sensible and safe. Sir John had refused to be persuaded.

But if James lent his support…

He goes to push himself out of bed but the movement sends his head spinning so James leans against the wall at the foot of his berth and steadies himself. As dizzy as he feels, it is far preferable to bleeding out.

James dresses slowly, careful to abide by the standard he had cultivated so long ago. Showing up looking half-ill will do him no favors in persuading Sir John, the method of which is something he must carefully consider. Francis being right does none of them any good if he cannot convince Sir John; that has been made abundantly clear to James. He will have to find some other argument to support this plan—and hope that Francis understands.

The light shining through his window is unusually full for mid-September. James splays a hand through the streaming ray, the sunlight on his skin feeling like something close to warmth. He can avert this nightmare. He will.

The feeling of cheer that sweeps through him when he exits his cabin is a delicious balm to his frazzled nerves. It has been an age since James has been aboard a ship that is mostly working well, and it gladdens his heart to hear the sounds of men at work.

“Are you just going to stand there?”

James braces himself and turns.

Not an hour ago he had died with Francis’ hands around his, had confessed his love and gotten reassurances in return. And here is the same man, over a year from that moment, standing grumpily in front of him. James would weep, if it would not cause alarm.

Francis frowns. “You’re not still ill, are you? You’re looking rather pale.”

James chokes on his response. “I’m fine,” he says. “Just—lost in thought.” He smiles, hoping amiability will erase all suspicion. “Shall we, then? Mustn’t be late to hear God’s next plan to save us.”

Francis raise a brow. James nearly bites his tongue off, trying to take it back.

“That is—I—er—”

“‘This is the excellent foppery of the world,’” Francis says lowly, glancing toward the wardroom door.

James laughs with weak relief. “We fools by heavenly compulsion,” he murmurs, gratified by the smirk that comes to Francis’ face. He should—he should tell him, shouldn’t he? Let him know that James stands firmly by his side? “Francis—”

Lieutenant Little and the other Terrors clatter down behind Francis and James shuts his mouth with a snap. “We’d best be going in,” he covers, though by the look on Francis’ face he is not completely convinced.

He was always best as seeing through James’ falsity.

James doesn’t say much during the meeting, just traces the wooden grain on the table and concentrates on breathing.

He has a chance to save them all. To set them away from the nightmare sure to come. Sir John, Graham, Morfin, Blanky, Goodsir, Henry—Francis.

He loves Francis, has loved him through a dozen versions of this nightmare and themselves. Loves him enough that he’d rather Francis survive than remember him.

There will be a year, still, and enough opportunities for overtures of friendship that maybe, just maybe, they can build something like they had without the crucible of disaster. He won’t push too hard—not at first, not while they are so imbalanced in their knowledge of what kind of man the other is. Whatever kind of man James is, it had been enough for friendship that first time and the many times after. Maybe it will be enough one last, crucial time.

But even the possibility of maybe not cannot turn him from this new path. Not when the cost was so great.

His comes back to the conversation just as Sir John announces, “it isn’t but another two-hundred miles before we can pick up the western charts and draw in this final piece of the puzzle once and for all.”

The map on the table is the same one it has always been but James cannot help but see it differently. There is a great expanse of nothing drawn where they struggled across the land. A blank spot over the place where James has died so many times.

“Our situation is more dire than you may understand,” Francis starts, resting an arm on the table and leaning toward Sir John. “That is not just ice ahead. It is the pack. And you are proposing that we cross it, in September. Even with leads, it could take us weeks of picking our way through it. We may not have weeks.”

Francis shifts in his seat and turns to Lieutenant Gore at the end of the table. “You’ve seen the sun dogs, Graham. How many have there been now?”

Graham hesitates, then says “Three.”

Francis splays a hand, point made. “It’s already colder than last year.”

“I’ve been to the Arctic, Francis.” Sir John’s tone is edging on annoyed. James taps his thumb restlessly against the tabletop.

Francis smiles flatly. “On foot. And you nearly starved.” James’ head snaps up in horror. “Not all your men returned.” Francis raises his hands belated deference. “I say this with all due honor.”

“Francis,” James cautions. Insulting Sir John will not convince him, though heaven knows why Francis needs to be reminded.

Sir John waves him off, though his brow is furrowed when his gaze flickers toward him. James turns his head an inch away and makes a fist under the table.

“What would you propose instead? Wait out the winter here?”

“No,” Francis answers, clearing his throat. “The exact shape of King William Land is unknown. As we discovered with Cornwallis Land, it could be King William Island, with a chance to sail around its eastern shore.” He traces the proposed path into the unfinished section of the map.

Sir john purses his lips. “Yes, but east would add miles. We might not be out this year after all.”

James nails are digging into his skin. He forces himself to flex his hand before he draws blood.

“But only because Erebus is lame,” Francis says intently, the crux of his proposal finally at hand. “If we consolidate all our coal on the less-damaged ship, we’d have enough to go for broke and get east of King William Land—possibly around it—before winter. It’s our best, and probably only, chance.”

Blanky nods in agreement. “Yes. We should go for broke.”

James had been incredulous at the thought of leaving Erebus, the first time. Now, he has abandoned his ship more times than he can count. Now, he says nothing.

Francis’ eyes flicker over to him, clearly expecting some quip and startled to hear none. James quirks his mouth and gives a tiny nod. Let Francis know he is on his side, if that will help at all.

“If it is a dead end,” Francis continues after a confused look at James, “we can over-winter in complete safety out of the pack in some sheltered harbor.” He drags a finger back across the map, gaze intent on Sir John. “We retrace our steps come spring—tired of one another, no doubt, but alive.”

Sir John pauses. Even without his memory, James can tell he is going to demur. He cuts in before the Captain can.

“Consider, Sir John, the benefits of this proposal.” James leans forward toward the head of the table, studiously ignoring Francis’ stare burning into the side of his face. “Even if, in going east, we do not find the passage, no doubt there will be other geographical features to discover. We will have filled in more sections of the Arctic atlas than ever before.” He taps a finger on the blank regions of the map in front of them, watching Sir John’s gaze flicker to the uncharted possibilities. “By consolidating our supply, we will come aboard Terror with full stores. I will mourn Erebus as much as anyone—but will we not honor her sacrifice with the success of our expedition?”

Sir John is looking thoughtful—that, at least, is a good sign. Le Vesconte tries to catch his eye, but James shies away. Henry, of all people, will be able to sense the change in him. He cannot risk confusion before Sir John has claimed this plan as his own.

James shifts back in his chair and adopts an air of contemplation, steepling his hands in front of him. “Perhaps we are at a crossroads, Sir John, placed in front of us by some—greater power. Do we take what we believe to be the easy way out, and have our hubris prove deadly; or do we have faith that the slow, diligent path will see us through?”

All are silent while Sir John considers. James’ will breaks and he chances a glance at Francis. The other man is frowning, but he blinks when James catches his gaze and give the slightest nod.

Sir John’s mouth clicks open. “It is the charge of an expedition commander to make the difficult decisions that are nonetheless necessary for success.” He purses his lips, then nods decisively. “Very well. We will consolidate on Terror and set a course east. May God, in all his mercy, see us through.”

James lingers until the rest of the officers have shuffled out and then turns back to Sir Jon, head tilted in deference. “An impossible decision, Sir John, but one made well. May we all be grateful you were here to guide us.”

The other man only nods, looking perturbed. James does not wait around to discover why.

Francis corners him as he reaches the top deck; James draws to a stop and offers a tentative smile.

“Thank you, James,” Francis says low and uncertain. He hesitates, then adds “I didn’t expect you to take my side.”

James shifts uncomfortably. He is undeserving of this moment of regard; he had not taken Francis’ side before, and all the foresight in the world won’t allow him to forgive himself.

“It is easy to do when you’re right,” James says. “This place wants us dead, or so I’ve been told. I’d rather not help it.”

There is more shock in Francis’ face than he was expecting—but it melts into an odd kind of fondness that has James feeling wounded and warm.

Well,” Francis coughs, the hint of a smile creeping across his face. “I’d best be getting back to Terror, then. Much to do.” James smiles and nods his goodbye; Francis makes his way over the deck to the edge of the ship.

James watches him go. There is more future ahead of them now than there has been in a long time.

Francis looks back.