The Captain hadn’t heard the turning of the handle, nor the creak of the door, nor the squeak of boots. But the greeting, soft like the glow of an oil lamp, permeated the exposed skin at the back of his neck and settled itself at the base of his skull. He hadn’t realised that the office had grown cold until he felt the warmth begin to spread, first up his jaw, then to his cheekbones and finally to his lips, which spread themselves into a small smile as he began to unfold himself from the blueprints in front of him.
“No Havers, it isn’t,” he said against the sandpaper lining his dormant vocal cords, pinching the bridge of his nose. He glanced to his left at the carriage clock on the mantelpiece. It read 3:42 and he was tired enough to feel that it had something of an accusatory expression on the face it didn’t have.
“No.” Havers’ fingers were closed around a mug. Not a handle, a mug, a remnant spectre of nights spent crouched in Parisian mud while the devil’s choir screamed a cathedral hymn overhead. The Captain remembered nights like that, closing your eyes and blowing onto tea to make the steam touch your cheeks like warm hands. He remembered it in the way he remembered falling off his bike as a child – he remembered the bandage, not the fall and the steam, not the cold.
Havers turned the mug in his hand and moved to set it down. The Captain’s eyes widened and he sprung up like a coiled spring.
“Mind the –“
“Yes, yes…” The words were dusted with exasperation and – as perhaps a more foolish man than The Captain might say – fondness. He set the mug down on the corner of the desk and gathered the blueprints into an orderly pile, then set them aside. He cleared his throat rather pointedly. “Sir.”
The Captain’s shoulders relaxed. “…thank you.” He closed his hand around the body of the mug. His fingertips and their callouses alike searched for the barbed-wire boundary between the heat of the tea and the heat from Havers’ touch. They found nothing, but they were warmer. He took a sip and it was a little too sweet, but The Captain had been awake for thirty-five hours and would have forgiven him high treason. Havers stood at ease while he drank and the fog that had begun to settle over his vision slowly cleared.
“The bally hell are you doing up?” he asked, once the mug was half empty, reclining in his chair.
Havers picked a thread off the bottom of his jacket. He closed it in his hand, then folded the other over it and shrugged sheepishly. “It’s a… beautiful night, Sir.”
The Captain blinked. He hadn’t even properly, wholly registered that it was night, although he knew the time. All his mind was capable of registering were pencil marks and numbers (and voices the colour of oil lamps and eyes like pools of treacle) and equations and trajectories. That there was a world beyond seemed utterly inconceivable.
He turned his gaze towards the window and the absence-deep black of the sky was freckled with stars. The moon was high and full and clear and – ah, yes, very good, - it was indeed night and it was indeed beautiful.
“So it is,” he said softly, then drained the mug.
Havers looked at the floor.
“A little uh…” He shuffled his feet. “A little fresh air might do you good, Sir. Grey cells… ticking over and all that.”
The Captain’s mouth quirked up and his brow furrowed, his face an amalgamation of two opposing theatrical masks – anticipation and suspicion. “Fresh air, Havers?”
Havers shrugged again. “Beautiful night, Sir.” He pointed out the window while a self-conscious huff sounded at the back of his throat. “Big hill, Sir.”
The Captain looked at window and then back at Havers, then repeated the action twice.
Then he said, “Oh.”
And then more quietly he said, “Yes, alright.”
“Know anything about stars, Havers?”
Havers chuckled. “Not a bloody thing I’m afraid, sir.” His cheekbones were shining against the moon, the skin above glowing a gentle pink. “I know that they’re there and they’re bright and they’re beautiful.
There and bright and beautiful, the Captain thought, watching Havers’ eyes follow the light-spotted flora field of the sky. There and bright and beautiful.”
“How about you, sir? Any expertise you can astound me with?”
He huffed a chuckle too, then looked at the ground. “I can’t claim to be multi-faceted I’m afraid. Rather a uh… one track mind.” He paused and rocked on the balls of his feet, and then to hammer the point home, mimed shooting a rifle and said, “Pom Pom.”
Havers smiled and shook his head, eyelashes interlocking as he gently slid his eyes shut. “No Sir, there’s far more to you than that.”
A beat, and then he opened his eyes and squinted pensively into the low light.
“More than you could possibly imagine.”
He turned to look at the Captain and he looked sad.
“And I fear, more than I shall ever find out.”
And just like that, the sky shuddered and every one of the billion stars fell. They were colder than The Captain thought they’d be and didn’t warm his feet. He straightened his tie, then cleared his throat.
“Come Havers, you know I’d tell you anything,” he whispered, in case the breeze was listening.
Havers looked at him for a long moment. There was a pile of stars at his feet and it was illuminating every one of his excruciating, wonderful cells.
“Yes, I think you would.”
There are three words that The Captain would say, right then.
“And I would, likewise.”
The Captain swallowed and tilted his head up towards the night.
He listened to Havers breathing beside him.
Perhaps not quite a one-track mind.
The sun came up before the Captain had finished putting the stars back up.
He took a break to sleep.
He was in his chair and his cheek was against the desk.
And he was not alone in the room.
There was a blanket around his shoulders and fingertips on the curve of his upper back.
He was still mostly asleep.
In fact, he must have been entirely asleep.
He must have been entirely asleep, because he could have sworn he heard a whisper, felt its warmth on the skin behind his ear.
A three word whisper, fated to be trapped inside a would.
He must have been asleep, because otherwise, the words were really there.
There and bright and beautiful.