Above decks it was as cold and bitter as ever, but below it was warm and humid. In the sick bay nestled in Terror’s very bow the temperatures were not quite so tropical as they in the mess right above the boilers, but the stuffy V-shaped room was still airless and oppressive. Not a terribly inducive atmosphere for healing, thought Doctor McDonald: it would have been pleasant to have some air flowing through, what with the spectre of consumption constantly lurking about. But it was still better than the icy temperatures outside.
A rap on the doorframe got his attention and he looked up to see Thomas Blanky standing just beyond the border of the medical domain, a wide grin on his face and a bottle in his hand.
Blanky had an assortment of smiles, ranging from unsettling to maniacal. The one currently wreathing his face was appropriately infectious, and McDonald couldn’t help but return it.
“Evening there, Doctor,” said Blanky, jovially. “Hard at work?”
“Oh no, not at all.” McDonald pushed himself back from the table where he had been sorting through his medicine chest. “Fussing, mostly. When there is nothing else to do, I reorganise what has been reorganised at least a hundred times before.”
“Have a mind for some company? I’ve brought us a friend along.” Blanky lifted the bottle. Gin, McDonald noted. Always gin whenever Blanky wended his way forward, although he drank whiskey on preference and did so whenever he conferred with the captain. McDonald knew why Blanky chose to remove only gin from the sanctum of the great cabin and to leave the whiskey alone. He had never spoken the reason aloud, to Blanky or anyone else, but would have been a poor man of medicine indeed had he not been able to piece together the signs. Bottles of whiskey were in greater need elsewhere than the sick bay. At least for the present.
But dwelling on future worries and ills was hardly the attractive option when in the present Thomas Blanky was standing in front of him with a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eye, so McDonald pushed the darker musings away and instead gestured for Blanky to enter. “I think you know me well enough not to need an answer to that.”
Blanky did as he was invited and slid the door closed behind him, which was a promising sign of his intentions. The sick bay was blessedly empty for once. It had been far too frequently occupied of late, McDonald still loath to let even the smallest ills such as badly frost-nipped fingers or toes go through the night unattended even as their number crawled steadily upwards. But that perhaps over-zealous attention did mean that any personal company had to wait until he was tucked back into his own cabin, or be simply put off for the time.
Despite this there was no sense of urgency as McDonald put away his work and turned his attention to his somewhat unkempt but inviting guest. They were both too old for all that, and both enjoyed their idle chatter besides. So it wasn’t until a healthy volume of the gin had been drunk and the stifling air had taken on a sense of the cosy and intimate that Blanky’s braying laugh took a turn for the gentle. “Come on with you, then,” he said quietly, and scraped his chair forward to kiss McDonald.
McDonald thought -only a passing wonder, a glimmer of a notion- that beneath the gin on Blanky’s tongue a gasp of whiskey might be detected. A ship of cares, they were. With many worries being folded beneath blankets and into sea chests to be dwelt on at a later date. Not something he could recommend from a medical standpoint, but he had just done the same himself. With the very same worry, if that memory of whiskey could be extrapolated into a portrait of what the start of Blanky’s evening had looked like. Blanky hid his hurts well. And there were far too many things that had to be buried away on Terror. That bridge would be crossed eventually, whether they liked it or not.
More encouragingly, Blanky could often be used as a weathervane for the captain’s state of being: if he had left Crozier morose and sinking, he would have been more boisterous and eager for close company. He had been warm and quiet tonight, and McDonald was selfish enough to not want to pry any deeper than that.
“Your cabin?” Blanky said, whiskers scratching pleasantly against McDonald’s neck as he nipped at the soft skin under his ear. “Or shall we drag some sea chests together and you can lay me down over the top of ‘em, like a proper old navy surgeon about to whip off a limb?”
“Hm, as titillating as the scenario you present sounds-”
“I thought you’d like that. Always pinned you for a wrong ‘un.”
“Best not to tempt fate and leave the gruesome fantasies for another day,” McDonald finished, amused. “My cabin?”
“Oh, if you like.”
It was a splendid thing, to be able to fall into bed with someone who liked to laugh. Blanky was a raucous lover at the best of times. Once, near the beginning of their dalliance, McDonald had tripped over the blankets in his haste to drop trousers and Blanky had been almost incoherent for a good five minutes. He was laughing now, as McDonald swore at his tin of grease that refused to open.
“You could offer to help, if you’re finding this so amusing.”
“I’m finding it amusing just because I’m not going to offer help. Try twisting the other way.”
“I have- you’re terrible.”
“You want to come over here and show me just how terrible I am?”
It was also a splendid thing to fall into bed with someone who was enthusiastic of kissing away any annoyance, even superficial ones. The stubborn tin was forgotten for some minutes. Which perhaps made the difference: when it was called on again, it opened with only a single meek wail of rusted metal.
“Ah, Alex,” Blanky sighed when he finally sank inside, “that’s it. There you are.”
“Been here all evening,” McDonald couldn’t help but say. It would have been more effective as a retort if he hadn’t sounded so blasted infatuated. He had never been one for dissembling. He wouldn’t have wanted to be: Blanky grinned at him all soft and knowing and kissed him sweetly. McDonald wouldn’t have thought to find this sort of companionable understanding before they’d set out. Spending the long months and years alone had been the expectation, although he hadn’t permitted himself to dwell on it over-long. But Blanky had presented himself in all his cheer and cheek and excellent vitality and McDonald felt almost unbearably grateful to have him.
“I’m glad to be with you,” he said, figuring that it was well to put words to what he felt, although the magnitude rang a bit hollow once vocalised.
Blanky raised a sardonic eyebrow. “That’s a minimum.”
“Alright, I’m simply silly for you. Roger me senseless?”
“More the result I like to see,” said Blanky, and set about doing precisely that.
Once the sweat had cooled somewhat and the less pleasant fluids cleaned away (“You mean you don’t want this token of my affection all over you?” “No, it’s repellent.” “That’s not what you were saying a moment ago-” “Just fetch the cloth, you insufferable man,”) McDonald found his mind pleasantly cleared, and his limbs even more pleasantly heavy. It was a state far preferable to fretting.
They wriggled about to find the right configuration in which to settle as comfortably as two grown men could on a narrow bunk barely enough for one. “You’ve only taken up with me because we can both just about fit in the bed,” Blanky said with mock accusation. “You’d be traipsing about with that Doctor Stanley off Erebus if he weren’t as tall as the main mast.”
“Oh, quiet.” A pause. “Traipsing?”
Blanky chuckled into the back of McDonald’s neck. “Hm. Larking all over the ship.”
“Is that what we’re doing?”
“And some more besides.” Blanky craned his neck to kiss McDonald on the cheek.
“Sweet-talker. Now hush and get some sleep. Who knows what fresh nonsense we’ll be struggling with tomorrow.”
“Is that your medical advice?” Blanky teased, but obligingly snuggled closer. McDonald could hear his breathing even out after only a few minutes: Blanky had the sailor’s talent of dropping off instantly into a deep slumber, although any change in the ship’s course would wake him as though from only a doze. Well, there was no danger of that. Terror was as caught as a nut between-
No. None of that. He pushed the thought away, down with all the other grimmer musings from the evening. There would be time enough for them all later. Later when he wasn’t wrapped all cosily in a bear hug from Thomas Blanky. Later.