When Doctor Seymour starts using those words – collapse and extreme exhaustion and severe dehydration: the words of what has happened to him the night before – and says that despite all those words he won’t allow him to see Francis just yet, James Fitzjames, Captain of a state-of-art Navy ship which got swallowed up by the Arctic sea along with all its blank screens and sleek dead computers, feels about to implode. Explode. A great wave of heat unfurls in his head, dark and bright: reduced to animal fury, and glad about it.
He erupts. He's still thinner than he has been as a lanky preteen, ribs knifing against the skin around his lungs, his bones half-liquid like tadpole bodies: he wouldn't be able to actually wrestle anyone, not even Nurse Gloria, who is seventy and built like a dried apricot; it isn't much of an eruption at all. But the intention is there, the momentum: the hand curling around the plastic bars running down the bed, like he's a bloody toddler in danger of falling off during his nap; veins bulging as if he's really going to push himself out of the bed and swing a hook at young Seymour and his flock of startled interns. He is going to do all those things, after all: the thought of not even trying, of lack of motion, unbearable. James has become awfully good at tricking his body into thinking it could do things its biology is screaming against. This is nothing; more. It's Francis. Terror.
Nurses fall on him: burly arms, practiced holds which are steel-firm but never bruising. They touch him him only on the stretches of skin where his arms aren't covered in needle bruises or swaddled in gauze. Meager spaces; regions under siege. Mark, one of the nurses, who loves Lawrence Olivier and has been in boyish awe of James's parlor-trick poshness since he was coherent enough to be talked to, tries to meet his eyes while holding him down: apologetic. James contemplates the idea of biting into Mark’s bicep where it bobs before his eyes.
"Mister Fitzjames, I'm not saying I won't let you see the captain," Doctor Seymour is saying, not for the first time. "But as I have already explained you, Mister Crozier was in serious danger for most of the night and is not yet completely out of the woods – while you are yourself barely stable at all. I'd really prefer to follow through with our usual morning protocol before talking of –“
"That won't do," James snaps. He takes no pleasure in seeing Seymour squirm in his white coat under that tone; no pleasure at all. John Seymour is guilty of nothing, after all, but of the fact that he can’t understand anything of what it happening. He can’t understand how it feels to be here, on the opposite side of a makeshift Canadian army hospital from the man you found while losing everything else; the man who sat on the chair at your side only the afternoon before – looking tired, so tired, but there, touchable – and who is now lying in a bed you can't reach, knowing nothing of the place he burrowed into you. He knows nothing of it, his doctor, this boy. James fiercely forbids his heart from breaking.
Seymour clears his throat. "We're just concerned that right now, the emotional and physical labor of a visit would be detrimental to your recovery."
A laugh, clacking in his lungs: more of a cough than anything else. It comes out of James in a burst, burning the throat.
"The emotional labor? Are you under the impression I'm some sort of Gothic novel heroine – to be sheltered because of her delicate sensibilities? Are you afraid I’m going to kick the bucket out of a cerebral fever?"
Doctor Seymour blinks owlishly. Totally impermeable to English Major snark; the shame of it. Francis, even in the early days, the days where they could barely share Sir John's plastic-wood meeting table and his tin of shortbreads without dreaming of knocking the other out with said tin, would have gotten it. Spat at him what a pretentious fop he is, but gotten it.
Mind tumbling backward, in the same direction the thought of Francis always takes it: Sir John; the whiskey-draining misery of the following weeks, the man emerging from it; Francis’s hand against his cheek, begging him to hold on a bit longer – and then the yapping of dogs from the Canadian scouts who found them, the hospital, Doctor Seymour's horrible words. Terror, again.
James makes another go for the bed bars, the hands on him barely able to slow him down. He'll pay for it, his body will make sure of that; he can already feel his breathing failing, the residual mush at the bottom of his chest. He won't stop.
"Please – sir, you're going to hurt yourself if you keep this up.” Doctor Seymour’s face trembles. “I promise I –"
"I may be your patient, doctor, but I'm also an adult man fully in possess of my mental faculties,” James says. Growls. “You won't tell me what I can and cannot endure."
"I assure you Mister Crozier is being thoroughly taken care of–"
"That is absolutely not the point."
The hands around his shoulders (Mark's touch butterfly-light; as if he's trying to be as little here as humanly possible) press him down, gently. The IV line in the crook of his elbow, tucked into the one vein they managed to find not too parched to work, pulls at his skin; a couple of the machines he's still attached too squeal in distress. James resists a moment more, as long as he can endure it, and then sinks back into his pillows, drained and gulping air and rabid about it.
Fuckers , thinks James – who hardly ever swears, more out of spite for the banality of it than out of prudery. Fuckers. This time, the word rises in him white and burning, like a spike of headache: ugly, as it should be. The rage they have summoned in him is ugly, too.
They deserve his banality.
"Mister Fitzjames –"
"It's Captain Fitzjames," he hisses. Teeth clenched tight enough for the sound to ricochet through his jaw, scurvy-purple gums showing, like the baboons he remembers from visiting at the zoo with his school. He sees Seymour recoil at his snarling face, at his voice. He sees Edward Little and Blanky, their pale faces hovering over their pale hospital gowns, as they peer at him from behind their own curtained stalls. They jerk at the sight of him, too – but in recognition. They recognize the man he is channeling now: they recognize the tender, terrible need that is making him so savage. They have felt it. They have cried and survived and crawled across the shingle of King William’s Island because of it.
Doctor Seymour is holding up his hands now: like he is contending with some invisible contagion, or like he's under arrest, the barrel of James's anger la gun trained on his heart. (A better metaphor than the baboon, he muses; he'll keep it.)
"All right, Captain Fitzjames – I am sorry if I offended you, sir," the doctor says. The man has manners, at least. "I understand your concern, but I still cannot allow you to put such undue stress on your phy-"
"I beg your pardon, doctor – but you know bloody nothing.” James is gathering his strength to sit up once more. "And I will see him. Now."
"Captain,” Doctor Seymour says. Bristling, slightly desperate. “I beg you to be reasonable –"
Oh, wrong word: such a profoundly wrong word. He and Francis, newborn parents, had to be so many things out there, for so long – brave, fair even when confronted with tasteless unfairness, big enough to shield everyone else from the brunt of it. And for the whole time, every second since Sir John disappeared in a smear of meat juices on the ice, reasonable. Being reasonable was a necessity: being reasonable meant teetering on the edge of lunacy (of teeth digging into strange flesh and forgetting too much to patch back together even the faintest outline of yourself) instead of plunging head-first into it. It often meant putting up shields, cutting things down. Biting on your tongue to bleeding point in order not to cry, so the cold wouldn't freeze your eyelids together, so the men wouldn't see; it meant waiting to be drowning in the rot of your lungs before taking his hand.
But now they're here, in a place desolate and drab and smelling like sickness, but hot with electricity, with humanity; no tears freezing off your eyes. Being reasonable is optional again. And James is done with it, more or less forever.
"I'm going to see Francis, and I'm going to do it now," James says, very clearly. "Do you really think anything that you can do will stop me?"
He meets the doctor’s gaze. He lets him peer inside: see the ugly rage, his luminous lack of sensibility. He lets the boy glimpse a flash of what James has seen – chewed-on bones, hasty graves cut into the ground: the horror and softness of things so immense they would warp both past and future.
For good measure, James leans in: prepares a brand-new series of epithets to throw at them and then blame on post-trauma confusion. But Doctor Seymour is already stumbling back, sitting down hard on one of the white plastic chairs lining the wall – looking dimmed and slightly green and very young.
Turns out, James has no need to say anything more.
Ten minutes later, they’re taking him to Francis's room: provided with an army-issue lumpy jumper to throw on his gown, a tangle of IVs trailing behind him, and a rickety wheelchair which skids to the left every two steps.
At first, James curtly refused the wheelchair: his skin itching from too much rest, a smear of stupid male pride even the ice has failed to scrub clean. When he tried to pull himself on his feet, though, James felt a sickly fire run through him, the horrible wrongness of his muscles curling off his bones like charred paper. A wash of white, not from the outside but from inside his head. Pulse skittering out of control. He found himself on his knees after five seconds which felt like five hundred years, Edward's raspy voice screaming at the doctor to leave him room to breathe, and promptly threw up everything he's managed to eat that morning, out of pain and out of the relief of still being able to feel pain.
After that, James built himself back into his composed self breath by wheezing breath; croaked an apology to the poo intern whose shoes have found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Accepted the wheelchair, graciously enough, because seeing him while looking like an invalid was still better than not seeing him at all.
Nurse Marlowe is pushing his chair: nice lady, early fifties, a treeful of younger relatives James has already been thoroughly debriefed on. She usually answers to his flaccid attempts at gallantry with a bite he's come to enjoy; calls him and Francis the Captains, which is slightly ridiculous, which is more of a comfort than it should.
She’s quiet now, no quips, no updates on nephews and nieces: she leaves him alone. She lets him curl up in his own head, as they whir past white door after white door; the metal panel on the left side of the archway – Emergency ward – glinting whitely as they move past it.
It was him who got the call, this morning: the hour ungodly as only divine messengers and calls from Europe require. He got it on his iPhone, the phone James was not supposed to keep with him and for which he's had a charger smuggled in: the fact of it still chirping to life despite the web of cracks marring its screen nothing short of touching. He heard the vibration humming through the pillows, and jerked awake; heart spiraling in his chest at the London number. For a wild moment, he felt weak with the hope it was John, the man he buried a single stump of in the ice, and that nothing so vile and awful as that ever happened. But no, no: another voice answered, a real one. Young, hushed. Female.
James faltered at the sound of her, but only for a heartbeat; only for the time required to remember the fair person he’s trying to be.
Oh – oh, Sophia. Uh. Ehy.
James wanted to slap himself, hard. He wondered if the scurvy did get to his head after all; made some still-undiscovered charm muscle shrivel and fall away like a dead leaf. Ehy. Good grief, where did that come from?
She didn’t make a joke to dispel the tension, but she didn’t remark upon it either; he appreciated that. It was not the first time they talked after the rescue – they have been allowed phone calls, of course, and being John’s niece, she was the first person they heard of from England after the Admiralty and the Home Office. And it would be cheap to pretend James didn’t know who had been calling Francis for several days in a row, at the white landline phone just around the corner of his corridor. Still, the intimacy of an early-morning call left him a little marooned.
They go a long way back, he and Sophia: but it’s the kind of awkward acquaintance you build from moving in the same circles, half a dozen London events when you get introduced to each other again and again by people fashionable enough to instantly forget about your existence. They have been allies during dull Navy conferences and casual-chic art openings, sitting side by side as they checked their Instagram feed and pretended not to be bored out of their minds. Shared a fag, occasionally – in side-alleys and back gardens soggy with spring rains, grateful for the chance of not having to be brilliant for ten whole minutes. But they have never moved past that; he has never heard her like that – unwound; not unraveled, but open raw. He suspected it was not he who was making her so. He suspected it had a lot more to do with another man, the one pressed in the space between them even now, equally alive in both their minds, and with the fact she was calling James and not him, and all the reasons beyond it.
James pulled himself up, back pressed against the plastic headboard: there are conversations which require a man to at least look like he could get up on his own. James stared into the dark, at the blue promise of light seeping through the shutters from the East. He listened as she breathed on the other end of the line, licked her lips, found her way back to words. Choosing carefully the ones she can say.
I – is everything okay over there?
He can see her clutch the phone closer, the sleek case of it crackling under the pressure. James is pretty sure he is doing the same.
I called earlier, and they – they told me I couldn’t talk with him. Couldn't get anything else out of them. More breathing. A pause, humming, like her entire body was a struck chord. James, is he okay?
James blinked. He felt the heaviness of a sleep fall upon him in one hard whoosh. Again, he could see her: standing, as she has always hit him as more of a stander than a brooding slumper like Francis, eyes fixed on the rows of books on her City study bookcase while not seeing a single title. Purple lipstick perfectly applied except where she kept biting her lip; the smudge for once going unfixed. Chipped nail polish. The whole of her made warm by the trembling in her voice, coruscating against the blue of his room.
In their history of half-hour encounters, in their shared cigarettes and mutual scrolling sessions, James felt positive he has learned one thing about Sophia Cracroft – because it's the one thing in which they are one and the same. She too is a creature of ambition; She too learned how to use glamour and charm to move through the world without getting hurt too badly, the complicated armor you get from making an exhibition out of yourself. People like them would never allow their voices to hiccup in the ear of a near stranger; never let the smudges stay. This felt different. This went off-script. Vulnerability: for the likes of them, it was borderline blasphemy.
I – I know I have no bloody right to know anything, but. I. I really, really need this. You understand that, right?
He did. God Almightly, he did. James wondered. How alive the things that Francis made her feel must still be, how much more deep than Francis himself ever thought, to make her risk so much – to make her confide in him because she can’t stand the silence.
James knew that he should probably feel jealous, considering his own feelings in the matter; knew he couldn’t bring himself to do that. She's not the only one ready to come apart for that particular man, committing blasphemies for him. She's not the one who told him to let her go and go on living while dying in his arms, and meant every word.
He couldn’t blame her for any of that; especially not for that love. Instead, he felt himself expand under the pressure, grow stronger and larger than himself. He realized this may be something like selflessness: when you come to love someone so deeply, you can't really resent any proof of them being cherished.
James swallowed; this was not going to be easy, easy at all. He recalled the moment, the night before, when he was the one asking the same questions – the stomach-lurching vertigo of the answer he got, like an unexpected tumble down a flight of stairs. Now he had to tell her (she wouldn’t let go otherwise, he had no doubt about that). He still loathed the idea, because to tell it, to use those words, meant to make it real again. There was little James wanted less.
Sorry – I’m here, yes. And he is, he. Something happened.
With the firmest voice he could muster (firm enough, but reedy around the edges) he told her everything he knew, which wasn’t much. Francis was not okay: a collapse, while he was talking with Edward little – nothing specific, nothing gruesome, more of a shut-down of a whole body; the doctors refusing to tell them anything until three or four in the morning; how James was not going to let a single minute of their shifts go without making an utter nuisance of himself, until they let him see him.
Sophia listened to his story in silence, punctuating it with sharp mh-mhs of acknowledgment: never breaking into sobs while fighting them for the whole time, which sounded both worse and better than a total breakdown. By the end of their call, James's voice hushed and muffled so not to wake up the others, the Sophia in his mind was still standing tall, but with red-rimmed eyes. The tears would smear her mascara; she wouldn’t care at all.
Her last words to him, as dawn broke over the snow-gleaming mountains outside his window, as James's phone chirruped its need for more rest and James heartily related, were the very last ones he expected.
Take care of him , Sophia said: not knowing anything, suspecting everything. Just – take care of him, James. Please.
It sounded like a plea. It sounds like an order, a demand. It could be both and it could be neither and it didn’t really matter.
James pulls himself out of the memory; sinks back into the moment – the slight jolt of the chair wheels running up his bones, the smoothness of white tiles stretching before them. The hospital is too small to have wards, but there is a line between the glorified warehouse James and the others are currently housed in and the couple of corridors for the truly serious cases: the place where people have to be actively kept alive, or have just resumed doing so for themselves, a border between the fully on-the-mend and the still half-dead. James is well-acquainted with it, having been a resident until not five days ago; but the change is palpable. As he and Marlowe roll on, the lights studding the ceiling grow a dimmer blue; the scent of disinfectant not hiding completely the smells underneath, blood and flesh and sweat, the earthier smells of struggling bodies. They're sinking into a deeper kind of silence, alive the whirring and chirping of secret wars. A flash from the past – the cold of the stainless steel stable and the scent of lemon liquid soap mixed with the tang of charred skin from Doctor Stanley’s burned body, as vivid as if James is still stumbling out of their Carnival and none of the things that happened after that moment were even remotely real. The image so vivid, as usual, kicking him in the teeth; stomach briefly lurching, in shock, in doubt.
He's done with throwing up on nurses' shoes for the day, though. James grabs at the hems of his new jumper, clutching at it until his knuckles bleach to white and he doesn’t feel so sick anymore. But the smells, the sounds, they really are the same of the sickbay: the people too, mostly. Thomas Jopson is here, whittled down to mummy-yellow by starvation: James recalls the way he ate the pink-frosted cupcake Francis and Edward have begged out of the hospital kitchen for his belated birthday – with fierce intensity and probably not tasting one bite of it. Peglar lies half-buried in thermal blankets and monitors, the humming of them matched by Bridgens's voice as it rolls through Jude the Obscure, a choice English enough to make all of them ferociously sentimental.
And Francis – Francis is here, too.
He's not in life danger; if he were, James would have never accepted to wait this long to see him - would have crawled to him if necessary, dragging his bony, sorry carcass across each strip of checkered tiles all the way to the room they were keeping him in. But still, he is here: with the half-dead, on the wrong side of the border. (The side James is not on anymore.)
Every time he closes his eyes, blazing against the black space there: the afternoon before, the last time he saw Francis standing and almost well. The jumper and the corduroy pants some well-meaning officer from the Base has scared up for him, mismatched and slightly too small but still better of arse-exposing gowns – 'privilege of the not ailing', as he calls them. Francis sitting on the side of his bed, in the triangle of free space James leaves especially for him, made by the bent crook of his legs: the easy closeness of him, the warmth of one body brushing into the other's. He wonders if there was already something wrong with him then, if there were tells he could have spotted had he looked a bit harder. A smile a bit forced around the edges; a sickly undertone to that pale skin of his. If, while holding his Styrofoam cup of Earl Grey (lemon-scented and vile, but steaming hot; the marvel of it against their palms a miracle none of them is anywhere close to get used to), Francis’s hands were shaking any worse than usual.
James can hear the Francis in his mind, who is acting more and more as his conscience-voice, telling him to drop it: that that’s enough, Fitzjames – and anyway it's not your job to fuss and fret over me, you not being an overbearing Irish grandmother as far as he can tell . He kindly tells his inner Francis to shut it.
The wheelchair swivels again: buckling under Marlowe’s grasp, like the headstrong colts in the Western novels James had to trudge through for his American Literature classes. It slows down; stops before one of the doors. Peeling white paint, a tongue of bluish light slipping past the doorjamb. Nothing about it setting it apart from the six doors they have already passed.
James licks his lips; knots his hands in his lap, pressing hard, disciplining his heart. Then Marlowe is touching his shoulder, leaning over the back of the chair.
"We're here, honey," she says, close enough to whisper in his ear, close enough for him to smell her old-lady rose perfume, the menthol cigarettes on her tongue. "You want me to stay?"
James trembles under that kindness. He trembles under the crack of bluish light, the hum of monitors from the inside.
"No – no, thank you Marlowe. I'll, take it from here."
He gives her a smile. He knows his smiles these days are not much to look at – blood still seeping occasionally into his left eye, hair shaved one inch from his head, after being deemed too tangled up to be saved. Still, she deserves at least a genuine attempt.
Marlowe rolls her eyes. "Don't waste the charming routine on me, Captain Handsome." She tilts her head towards the door. "I'm sure he will appreciate it more than an old wrinkly lady like me. He must care an awful lot for it, with all the time he has spent visiting you."
James's shoulders coil up at that. His first thought, flaring like the sweep of a lighthouse beam – she knows. Which is silly, as there is nothing to know, or not yet: everything between him and Francis inchoate, still tracing its contours. Yet. James has grown fond of that word, carries it around against his skin, the burden and possibility of it.
So, no, Marlowe knows nothing; but she can suspect. James waits for the blush rushing up his neck, blood he can't really spare wasted on awkwardness; he waits for the squirming and fretting that always come from feeling certain yets for a colleague, and a colleague working for an institution which used to hang the people like him. He waits, but none of it comes. No wasted blood; no squirming. Just the terrible, splendid realization you have at some point moved past certain modern kinds of bullshit, or found the person to move past them with.
Then – a second thought, a second lighthouse sweep. S o it shows. So he cares, too, and it shows.
Something in his face makes Marlowe chuckle.
"I'll leave you boys alone, then," she says. Neither of them qualifies as a boy anymore, not even in the age of fifty-are-the-new-thirty; and yet, in a way, they both are. (Fumbling; clashing until something fits.) "I'll be in the break room with Jocelyn, just around the corner. I'll come around in ten minutes and see if you need anything, okay?"
James likes that too about Marlowe. There’s a straightforwardness to her orders, like a good petty officer’s. He nods, says he understands; pushes himself up, carefully. His arms shake like windswept twigs as he eases himself off the chair, skin wobbling where it hangs limply around his bones – but then, he's on his feet. He’s one step closer to him.
Marlowe pushes the door open. She offers him her elbow to hold on.
James braces himself with one final breath before looking into the room.
He is suddenly grateful for the elbow.
In the room, Francis lies in a bed, as uncomfortably undersized and caged in plastic bars as James's: sheets pulled up all the way to his chin. Skin almost as pale as the pillow, marble-white in the dimness; eyes rimmed with the same shadows James has nagged him about for weeks, blossomed into full-blown bruises now that they're closed. Oxygen tube under the nose; a tapestry of monitors at his back, the ones James has heard murmur through the door. The green fissure of the EKG, pulsing across the screen in slow sudden mountains.
James shivers again; feels a small wet sound blurb out of him. He thinks of the Sophia conjured out of their phone call, her discreet unraveling. He finds himself thinking he almost wants her here, because no one else in the whole world would understand what he’s feeling the way she would.
That morning, after James’s outburst and the sequence of sheepish apologies that followed, Doctor Seymour told him there is nothing fundamentally wrong with Francis’s physique. If there was, they would have noticed before: they would have seen it, when the Canadian rangers brought in him and his meager crew of famished sailors and half-mad scientists – most of them sick as soon as they were walked into the hospital, overwhelmed by the artificial warmth of central heating, the richness of the energy bars they were given. If they suspected there was something this worrisome about Francis’s conditions, they would not have let him shrug off medical assistance scarcely half an hour after his arrival. They would not have let him wander among the pale, drowsy bodies of his men, handing out soft-spoken encouragements and jokes and holding cups of tea to the lips of those who didn't have the strength to do that themselves; looking so sure and steady even nurses and doctors were tricked into thinking that was the logical place to be for a man just rescued from months of bleak horrors.
James listened to Seymour’s little speech with remarkable, well-composed politesse: then, with the same very Oxbridge, scorching politesse, he asked him to explain why, if he was so bloody fine, his captain (a good name for what Francis is; a good starting point) had collapsed into Edward Little's startled arms and had to be rushed away in a thunder of screaming nurses and squealing beeps just the night before.
This is what Doctor Seymour told him: that not always we humans shrivel and wither because of the things gone wrong in genes or cells. That there are kinds of exhaustion rooting themselves so deep and hard inside people that when the adrenaline finally runs out, the body has forgotten how to function without it. That the body endures, and recovers, but it also remembers – the things it lost; the ones it was forced to do.
The explanation the good young doctor gave him was more scientific in nature, filled with figures and statistics and mentions of chemical imbalance, but that was James took from it. The body, so tired, dragged down by a heavy heart; Francis's worn smile as he plays cards with James on his breakfast folding tray, superimposed with the Francis from Goodsir's tent – voice a crushed thing as he asked James if he really wanted him to kill him: the solace of one image not mending the cracks left by the other.
But he's stable now, James tells himself now, in Francis’s room: concentrating on the steady chirps of the machines, the zigzag of green light, because the other option is drowning. He’s stable. He’s not gone.
Marlowe's elbow, firm under his fingers. Her other hand is brushing at his back. He's aware his stubby nails are digging into her skin, painfully, but can't help it.
"You okay there, Captain?"
James shakes his head. Pulls them both forward before she can advise to give up and try later – setting the pace, closing the distance between him and the man in the bed, the rupture and pleasure of this moment. Walking still feels like running on broken glass. His legs still feels made out of wet paper. James is sure, preternaturally so, that he would walk all the way to England on foot, if it was the only way to reach that bed.
He sinks into the plastic chair by the nightstand: ignores the way the room briefly swims at the edge of his vision, keeping his eyes firmly on Francis's colorless face until things coalesce back into their shapes. He senses more than hears as Marlowe reminds him she'll be just around the corner, as she drifts back to the door; too wise to ask him again if he's okay. The door is pulled behind her: not quite closed, still far enough from them to pretend privacy.
He listens to Marlowe's rubber shoes clacking away down the corridor. Abruptly, he’s alone. They are alone. James blinks: the effort of keeping a certain amount of tiredness, a certain amount of heartache off his face falling at his feet like pencil shavings. He feels his eyes prickle; his throat is a steel-trap of muscle.
For the first time since he entered the room he scans it with care, devouring everything. He notices the cell phone, chunky and cracked beyond repair, scavenged from Francis's old clothes and now resting on the nightstand; a thumbprint in blood on its bottom left corner. He takes stock of every machine, every IV pushing in and out of Francis's arm; traces the lines on his face. Blinking furiously at tears, breathing in gulps, he allows himself to make a map out of him.
Another small wet sound finds its way out. It takes the shape of Francis's name.
He gets no answer. Francis’s eyes stay sealed shut, and there is no hiccup in the chirping of the things around them. With a frisson, James realizes he's never seen him quite so still. Even when he was purging himself of every drop of whiskey in his body, in the miserable weeks of sweat-soaked misery and Jopson’s devoted patrolling, Francis was always shifting and whispering and struggling: withdrawal a real battle, to wrestle with more than to endure. Now, now there is none of that: no battle going on under the surface. Francis simply lies there, a rag doll of himself.
James lets trembling fingers brush at his hair (still soft), trailing down to his cheek, his jaw; starts at the cold coming off it. An old fear: one he and Thomas Blanky have talked about without exchanging a single word. That their captain endured so much because he had a mission to complete, because it had never been only about himself; that now that it is over, that those who could be saved are saved, their favorite struck match will finally run out of fire.
No. James feels the word filling his head, a dark, bright thing. No, not like this. He wants to crack himself open, further open; he wants to be split in two, and in that split to grow large enough to wrap himself around that man, pressing him to his heart, the membrane of James shielding him from the blue of Arctic light, the cold outside, all the harmful things of the world. It is another kind of terror. It is another border he's passing, only him and Francis on this side.
He leans over, shoulder blades pushing out like bird wings: joints on fire from the ten steps he took, ready to spring.
If he doesn't want to fight, I'll do the fighting.
He's not sure how long he stays there: aching in his achy bones, keeping watch. The sun blazes on through the shutters; he watches the light fade, minute by minute, turning the air inside in the soft blue of boys' bedrooms. In it, Francis starts moving.
He takes a deeper breath; chest rising under the hospital gown. James watches his eyes flutter open like one witnessing a miracle.
He doesn't bother to smile. He simply pulls himself even closer, chair skittering across the tiles. Francis's eyes – yes, they are as he remembers them. Still blue, so subtle a hue you miss it if you don't pay attention. (James does.) Still perfectly alert. After the pitiful things he has seen hunger and madness turn his friends into, James is so relieved he’s happy he's already sitting.
"James?" Francis croaks out. James hears himself answer like they're on the Terror deck, at morning call.
"Right here, Francis."
Francis blinks. Slowly, his head twists to face him. "Are you all right?"
James wants to laugh. He wants to pinch him on the arm, schoolyard-hard. Of course. Of course he would ask that – Francis's worry always running outward, never the other way.
"Since I'm not the one currently lying horizontal on a bed, yes, I am," he snaps, with no real bite behind the words. "And since I am not the one who collapsed in the middle of a corridor, either."
Francis scrunches his eyes shut for a moment: his eyelashes a blond nothing in this light. For the first time since they met, James sees him as he will look like as an old man, realizes it will not take long for him to be one. It makes him nearly too angry to think.
"Collapse?" Francis says. "No, I… I just closed my eyes for a moment." A pause. One hand rising to rub at his face, trembling the whole time. "I think. I think I –"
"Well, you think wrong, Crozier." James fights the urge to flinch. Snarky last-name-calling has never worked well on his tongue. "Edward Little was half out of his mind when he told us. Christ, he told me he saw your eyes rolling back into your head. That you were talking about what the Admiralty board said, and how you meant to handle it, and about where exactly Barrow could shove his ‘heartfelt condolences”, and then you just – just stopped."
"Edward?" Francis starts shuffling, pushing on his elbows. With a lurch of disbelieving horror, James realizes he’s trying to sit up. "Right, I was talking with him, and then – Christ. Is he all right?"
James shoves him back with a strength he doesn’t have.
"He is fine – good grief, man. Stay down. Do you really think Edward’s the issue here?" Other words Doctor Seymour said, the ghosts of things that could have happened, hum inside James’s skull, pushing to get out:pneumonia; heart failure, brain damage; a body, too heavy for itself. "They say you were so dehydrated they couldn't find a vein for the bloody IVs. That they have no idea how you managed to function for so long in these conditions. You should have told me how tired you were."
James bites into the inside of his cheek, nearly breaking the skin. He feels the slip a moment after it leaves his mouth, like a thumbtack tingling to the ground, silvery and irretrievable.
"I mean – I mean someone. You should have told someone. You should have slowed down and let the doctors do their jobs and take care of you. We know you're a tough bastard, we’ve had ample proof of that – so stop pretending you haven’t been constantly on the verge of total breakdown for two years like the rest of us."
Francis rubs at his face again. He dares look tragically drained. "Are we really going to do it right now?"
James, still choking on his own anger, on the dark glittering thing struck in his throat, wrestles his breathing back under control.
"Yes," he says, "yes, we're doing this now. You know that's how it works with us."
"Ha-ha. Fighting while sitting at each other’s deathbed. Sounds fitting."
"You're not on your deathbed," James says, immediately. He barely recognizes his voice. "You heard me? You are not. You –“
Enough. He stops talking; pulls the plug on that strange voice coming out of him. It still roars in his temples, like blood.
He doesn’t answer. If he does, there’s a chance he’ll just start screaming and never stop.
"James," Francis says. He sounds so soft. "I'm sorry. I mean it, okay?"
James avoids his gaze: flicking his eyes away from Francis's face, to the pile of pillows stacked behind him, the plastic cup on the nightstand, the red thumbprint smearing his phone screen. Away from him, yes – but not far; never far.
"You don't need to apologize,” he says.
"Yes, I do. And anyway, I want to."
A movement catches James's attention: a blur from this side of the bed, a whiteness raising from another whiteness. Francis's hand, reaching for him.
James folds it in his in the same breath he sees it moving, like catching a bird mid-fly. As usual, it feels cool against his: callused without being hard. If he ignores the bulk of the pulse-oximeter, if he ignores the privilege of being able to touch each other without your skin peeled back by the cold, he can almost pretend they're still out on the ice.
"Okay,” he says, quietly. “Okay; if you are so hellbent on it, you may apologize.”
“Oh, woah – thanks a lot, Fitzjames. How very gracious of you.”
They fall silent: companionably, as it is often the case with them. James, a hater of silences, who would be ready to do virtually anything from telling jokes to try his hand at juggling to escape it, sloshes comfortably in Francis's brand of wordlessness. Maybe because it always feels anything but empty: teeming with live things just out of sight.
"How long have I slept?" Francis asks after a while. Francis’s silences are usually times of mulling, too.
"Ten hours and twenty minutes,” James says. He wonders if he should tell him about Sophia’s call, about the barrage of texts his phone is going to be clogged up with as they manage to jury-rig back to life. Later, he promises himself; begs of himself. Later. Let me have this for a bit longer. Let her be on the other end of the ocean a bit longer.
"Oh," says Francis. He's whispering, which is unusual for him. "Oh. I'm sorry."
"Don't be." James gives a shrug which pulls at every stitch criss-crossing his abdomen. “Not for that."
“Was it bad?”
“Do you really need to ask?”
James feels the hand in his tremble a bit; the jagged green line of the EKG chirping, slightly out of tune. He considers Francis’s silence, the hesitant quality of it. He wonders if finally, bloody finally, the idiot is feeling some concern for his own mortality; for himself. The thought leaves a bittersweet taste in his mouth. It is in no way different from what James has wanted for the past year or so, and yet he instantly loathes the very concept of it.
Apparently, he doesn't like the idea of Francis Crozier being afraid at all: not even of the things it is wise to be scared of.
Gently, with his fingers moving into place without asking his brain for any kind of direction, he starts rubbing circles on Francis's wrist: as if smoothing away the worry. Francis shifts under the caress, relaxing back against his pillows. James’s heart clenches and unfurls in quick succession at how perfectly right his hand feels there.
"Francis…" James flounders, looking for the right words, for once not waiting readily at the tip of his tongue. He wishes they were all contained in his name, without the need to add anything.
(It is indeed all in his name. Francis: if you think your mission is done, you are wrong. I am still here. I am not done. I am not done with you , and with the fact that I’ve never pronounced the name of anyone, not even of my mother, the way I do with yours – the way I'd do with a prayer.
Francis, the body remembers, but not only the pain. It knows what it lost; it also knows what it still wants .)
James bites down on the inside of his cheek, hard. Maybe this is the right time: maybe this is the day to tell him, to find a name for the thing between them, invisible but breathable like good cologne. But – no, no.
James considers Francis's eyes, alert but puffy with sleep; the hand in his, fingertips so cold, as if the Arctic hasn't quite let go of him yet. He reminds himself there is still time, an unexpected abundance of it. Still, Francis is waiting for an answer; and James will never be able to give him anything but the truth, or at least a piece of it.
"Will you be okay with me staying here for a bit? Maybe…" he gestures at the bed, the three or four inches of it he can squeeze onto. "... maybe while, while you grab some sleep?"
A second, two: he counts the seconds between beeps, the creases of the green line on the monitor. Then –
"Yes." Francis starts shuffling under the sheets: scooting to the side, quietly cursing at the IVs and their coils like they've been explicitly designed to annoy him. "Yes, of course. Come here."
James obeys readily: sick with comfort at the mess Francis is making of his linen, that horrible stillness bleeding out of him.
The process is swift, if awkward: their aching bodies struggling to fall into place beside each other, James forced to inelegantly flop himself over the bed railing like a beached dolphin. But he manages: lies down his narrow strip of empty bed, his own IV squeaking across the floor in his wake. Francis waits for him to settle comfortably down and then presses himself against him, eyes closed, falling towards James like a sleepwalker. He knows he fits nicely against James's shoulder; James knows he likes to have his back rubbed while falling asleep. It is not the first time they do it. It's not the third, nor the tenth, but a higher number where things have started to melt into muscle memory.
The nurses are not going to be happy about it. The doctors are not going to be happy about it; will try to explain to James what a breach of medical protocol is to let another patient sleep in this room, this bed, how bad it will be for James’s back; they will try to make him let go. Well, he wishes them good luck with that. The sunlight seeping from the outside is still the one he nearly died in, heatless and perpetual; the bones of so many friends will bleach under it. As he's already told everyone, James is quite done with being reasonable.
In order not to leave this bed, not to let go, he's more than ready to curl up around Francis and snarl in the face of anyone coming too close. Like a baboon.
"What are you thinking about, Fitzjames?" Francis gives a cough. Cracks one eye open to peer at him. "I can feel your teeth gnashing from here."
"Nothing." James runs one hand down his spine, genteeling him back towards sleep. He feels the soft breathing against his throat even out; Francis’s fingers still firmly wrapped in his, protected from all the harmful things of the world. "Nothing at all."
"Mh. How convincing,” Francis says. Growing quiet. Shivering, but only a little. "I'm glad you're here, James."
James breathes himself through the surge of hope zapping through him: the blessed ambiguity of those words. He passes his tongue across his teeth, ready for battle.
"Me too, Francis."