Cherry misunderstands when Atch first asks him.
The pickling process for the eggs dictates the full of his attention, each step though simple also meticulous and repetitive, and important to do right. Good, solid work to cast his mind far outside his body and to steady his nerves against the rhythmic beat of progress. This is Bill’s research, and Cherry wants the results to be something of which Bill could be proud. He and Atch have been at it for hours, silence strung between them like Christmas ribbon, their jumpers rolled to the elbow, busy hands waltzing side by side in time together. He doesn’t hear Atch the first time he asks.
"I said, what will do you when we return home?"
Cherry’s mind presents an image of Cape Evans, buffeted by drifts, milling with thick-booted-seamen and whines of rag-and-bone dogs and smiling windburn faces he doesn’t recognise. The empty bunk next to his, free space crowded with crates and various debris but never again to be adequately filled. The endless amount of work, always waiting, always necessary, the only distraction available and sanctified when it all becomes too much.
"Oh, chores," he says, with a wry press of his lips. "I imagine they’ll be quite cross at our little excursion and won’t offer much of a reprieve. Surely they’ve saved the best tasks for our return."
He expects Atch to agree with him, or otherwise offer a subtle nudge towards the positive, a mention that at least he’ll be useful once again to the greater whole—
But Atch only sports a funny little expression, eyebrows pinched in a line above his nose. "Won’t you have someone to do that for you?"
—and Cherry blinks, and pauses, and realises his cognitive slip a moment too late. "Oh."
He looks out the window, at the lone figure standing in the snow with his back to the hut. Birdie doesn’t swing the thermometer any longer—here no records are required but those one chooses to keep, and in the thick of Antarctica’s summer there will be no temperatures that astound them—but he still spends as much of his time out of doors as possible, until the sun dips to touch the horizon and one of them calls him in for supper. Atch called it mad habit when Cherry asked his opinion, one arm braced against the window ledge and a friendly, exasperated bow to his back. But Cherry, sat by the fire with a book bent open on his lap, thought the word solace and traced the words on the page with his fingertips.
He recites them now to the view of Birdie’s back, mouth moving silently, aware that once he would have gone out and stood shivering in the snow and said the verse in person, if only to see the upturned corners of Birdie’s mouth and the crinkles at his eyes as he tried to identify the poet. Birdie had a horrible mind for poetry, but he had a good memory. He was learning. Cherry never won on the same quote twice.
It will be difficult to continue the game once they leave here. It will be difficult to continue many things. There will be no answers written on Birdie’s back, now or in the future. Home will change much.
"Home," Cherry says, a sigh stealing the wide vowel. With his eyes on the tiny black figure amidst the flat, shifting angles of blue and green and sharp, clean white, he identifies the cause of his confusion, "You meant England. I forgot."
If snow is the crystallised form of water, and they live on a great barrier of ice, and keep views of the rolling Ross Sea, Cherry thinks he may be forgiven for comparing life thus far in Antarctica to the rush of a small raft down a great torrent of rapids. Rarely does one find a moment’s peace.
Cape Royds proves the sole exception. Here life trickles by like the calm streams of the River Lea. In their three months of freedom, he slept the entirety of the first month, and read for much of the second. Now in the third, with Christmas beckoning them back towards Cape Evans and then, with the heavy inevitability Antarctica cherishes, eventually to England, Cherry does as pleases him. He performs his share of the cooking, and looks after Bill’s research, and helps Atch with his experiments when Atch can spare the time to make use of him. He still reads when it suits him, and sleeps when he desires it, and watches the sun circle the earth, round and round, until twilight disappears.
For the last time on the longest day at the farthest place on Earth, he steps outside the door. Snow squeaks beneath his boots, soft and wet, the kind good for sledging and terrible for everything else. He shivers and holds his parcel tight to his breast when the wind whisks over him, sniffing like dog eager to greet its master after a long departure, but the cold hardly ranks as anything impressive. A jumper and one pair of mitts keep him sufficiently warm.
He treks to the bluff overlooking the sea, careful to keep in sight of the window, should Atch wonder after his presence and care to check. Below, whales roll between the waves and spray great streams of water into the air. Birdie doesn’t turn as he approaches, his footsteps loud in the silence, but he does flick a welcoming glance to the green-bound book in Cherry’s arms when Cherry comes to stand besides him.
Antarctica breathes quietly around them, and between them, binding them to their own small perspectives. Below, the whales cry and call to each other, songs echoing up the cliff-face. Cherry waits for Birdie to speak first.
"Come to enjoy the view one final time before we set off tomorrow?"
"Yes," Cherry says. "That is, no. The view can be appreciated through the window of the hut next to which there is a fire. As well as less wind, though sometimes not by much."
Birdie gives him a smile for the humour, though it doesn’t reach his eyes. "Ah! Not the same though, is it? You can’t hear the whales."
"Is that what you do all day, listen to the whales? That is to say—" Cherry ducks his head when Birdie turns curious, bright eyes on him, fighting back the sensation that he is making a fool of himself. "We never know what you do out here, Atkinson and I," he explains softly. "Why would anyone choose to spend his time outside when we have already done so much, and there is a warm hut to retire to in its stead? Atch calls you mad."
Birdie huffs a laugh. "Maybe I am," he murmurs. Cherry watches him gaze track the horizon, alive and intent and perhaps a bit wistful, as though trying to find the words to say goodbye to a beloved. A bemused smile triggered by surprise creases his face when he catches Cherry staring. "Do you agree with him?"
"No. Well, yes," Cherry corrects.
"You’ve very indecisive today."
"I know; forgive me. My mind is occupied elsewhere. I meant to say, yes, of course I think you’re mad. I’ve sledged with you more than anyone; how could I think otherwise of a man who runs out of the tent in nothing but his socks?" Birdie’s smile morphs into a fully fledged grin, delighted by the return to teasing, and Cherry has to look away before the swell in his heart undermines his mission. He continues more soberly, "But I do not think its madness that keeps you out here."
Birdie makes an inquisitive sound of exclamation. "What then?"
Cherry palms the book, running his hand once over its smooth green cover before he flips open to the marked page and reads,
Tho’ always under alter’d skies
The purple from the distance dies,
My prospect and horizon gone.
No joy the blowing season gives,
The herald melodies of spring,
But in the songs I love to sing
A doubtful gleam of solace lives."
The words die against the wind as he closes the book and cradles it tightly beneath his chin.
Birdie stands quiet for a moment. "Is that Tennyson?" he eventually asks.
"Yes. Right in one. Well done." Cherry hides his small pleased smile against the binding.
"The colour of the cover gave it away," Birdie prevaricates with a shrug, always honest. "Green. I spent a lot of nights staring at it."
His tone is such that the ignorant would never know that this is the book Cherry lent to Bill for the Polar Party, and that Birdie carried back with him, one of the few things, on his one-man march away from death. The grief that rests in the memory, present Cherry knows with the ears of an initiated, lies buried deep beneath the determination to go on.
He does Birdie the favour of not commenting on it, and lets him continue in time.
"I like that Tennyson fellow. I like the way he phrases things."
"I know you do," Cherry says, and rubs his lips against the sharp-smooth press of pages. This is the reason he has come here today, but now that the time has approached, a part of him does not wish to carry through with it. Surely it will give too much away. He drags his mouth one more time across the pages, noting by instinct that they have gone nearly too cold to make out the texture and therefore he shortly must either find a muffler or return inside, and decisively grips the spine. He extends his arm with the book in hand to Birdie. "That is why I want to give this to you before we— Before we go home."
Home is England, he must remind himself. Home is not a hut in Antarctica filled with the presences, not all corporeal, of his dearest friends. Many things will be different back home.
Birdie gazes at the book outstretched in Cherry’s hand but does not reach to take it. "You could give it to me for Christmas once we’re back."
Cherry cannot read his tone and he dares not look closely at Birdie’s face lest his own reveal too much. "It is quite… likely I won’t see you next Christmas. At home. In England,” he emphasises, and only then risks a glance at Birdie’s face. It gratifies him to see that Birdie made the same mistake that he did. “I should like to give it to you now. While there is still time."
Birdie’s head tilts to the side as he reaches to accept the book. His palm curls over Cherry’s fingers as he does, warm even through their mitts, and Cherry’s heart beats hard in the hollow of his throat. It hurts to swallow when he releases the book and takes his hand back, still aching with brief heat, empty of anything.
"Thank you," Birdie says, stilted and soft.
Though he has held a book before he looks as though he has momentarily forgotten how to manage it. He juggles it from hand to hand before his movement quiets and he finds a place for it under his arm. He meets Cherry’s gaze and holds it, offering the sweetest, most sincere smile. Cherry memorises it—its shape and its weight, the way it makes Birdie’s cheeks dimple, deeper on one side than the other, and makes his eyelashes look very long against the shadows of his eyes—and tucks it away in the growing hollow behind his heart, where he keeps all of his final moments.
"I don’t have anything to give you in return."
"That’s all right," Cherry whispers. He stares down at the whales, at the grey water crashing against the cliff, at the blue and purple and green shades of the ice. He catalogues it all, the slow thud of his own heart and Birdie’s shoulder not five centimetres short of his, and places this moment delicately next to Birdie’s smile. "Your company is more than enough."
It is not the last thing he says to Birdie in Antarctica. It is not the last thing he says to Birdie on that day. But it is the truest thing he has said, out here on the ice, the one that strikes closest to what he means.
The ship comes for them at the end of January. It breaks upon Cape Evans suddenly, prow gliding into sight from behind a berg, to the ecstatic shouts of uncivilised, snow-whetted men. A football bounces oblong off a dropped crate.
In the throng of celebratory chaos that erupts Cherry searches for Birdie. But he cannot find him through the gathering crowd.
They have more than enough forewarning at the approach of port in New Zealand. The destination has cluttered up the books for more than three weeks, and the watchmen have eagerly cried land ho for two days. Nothing allows for Cherry to feel as though he has been cracked hard across the skull with a cricket bat from shock.
He prepared himself for the idea of society. Looming architecture constructed from brick and stone rather than wind and ice, and shaped by the clever hand of Man than the whim of God. Seas of people, more people than he has seen in three years, clustered together like a penguin colony, heads bobbing up and down in the dictates of conversation. The clatter of carriages and plod of horse hooves interspersed with the growl of a motor as cars meandered through the streets. Letters and newspapers awaited him. Shoes that did not bind his ankles. Collars instead of a muffler. Bare hands. Soap. Freshly shaven face.
The reality is so much more. It is too much. It overwhelms him and carves deep furrows of exhaustion into his bones.
He now never needs to undergo the experience of electrocution, he comments to Atch as they clear the remainder of their personal effects from the ship. Atch regards him for a long moment with a deep well of understanding in his kind eyes. Too long and it forces Cherry to look away, lest it begin to seem too much like pity.
Atch offers him something for a headache, which Cherry declines, more stiffly than the offer warrants. He then asks Cherry if he has seen Birdie.
Cherry becomes suddenly very interested in the straps on his bag. "Not yet," he admits quietly.
Atch wears one of his very adamant non-expressions, impatience and concern packed tightly to one corner of his eye. Disapproval crooks down the edge of his mouth. "You are aware that he leaves ship-board today?"
Cherry drags a finger over the worn leather. "I'm aware."
All remaining officers of the Terra Nova Expedition are scheduled to depart today before noon. Cherry chose to spend his remaining hour on board hidden in Atch's cabin, theoretically to help him collect and carry the remaining scientific supplies—rather than visit Birdie in his and in practice cart the last of Titus's effects to shore. Birdie took the duty upon himself to bring Titus's last earthly possession to his mother following the return of the Search Party. Cherry has never envied him the position.
"Are you also aware," Atch goes on, "that in three days he sails for London, and the offices of the Royal Marines, to tender the end of his leave and resubmit himself for active duty?"
Cherry's head snaps up. "Would they take him? The frostbite—he has no hearing in that ear. That would mean certain death in bad weather and on first watch. They wouldn't seriously consider him, would they?"
"I can't say," Atch says, honest regret entrenched through his voice. His flicks an eyebrow in a shrug when Cherry stares at him. "If it were any man but Birdie Bowers, I would say partial deafness should strike him from the books without debate. But Birdie has a reputation only increased in gravity by his experience gained on this expedition. In light of recent publishings, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the Navy has taken an interest in him."
They avoid when they can discussion of the reports in the newspapers, but that does not mean the reports go unread or the far-reaching repercussions they may cause unconsidered. Scott and Bill are viewed as heroic tragedies; Titus a heroic martyr. Evans wants to claim the title of Don Juan Triumphant but has yet to establish success. Birdie is the only clear-cut hero thus far identified to an Empire desperate for good news.
Cherry, when he merits mention, is portrayed either as an imbecile, or worse, the villain responsible. They never mention Atkinson at all.
"Nelson captained the British to victory at Trafalgar while missing one eye and an arm," Cherry murmurs, the possible eventualities settling in his chest like a sharp-knife of panic. Atch nods slowly; Cherry can feel the careful examination to which he is being subjected. "He never told me what his intentions would be upon reaching London." Cherry turns a pleading aspect on the cabin at large. "Why did he never tell me?"
Atch shifts his expression to the corner of the opposite eye. Gone are all matters of impatience or exasperation. A kind of quiet remorse, and there, that indeed is pity, fills their place.
"Perhaps," Atch suggests quietly, "he did not want to see the look on your face when you found out."
Cherry bids goodbye to Atch to the side of the gangplank. They arrange to have dinner in the spring when they are both returned to England. Over the course of their friendship, they have spent as many as four months apart, but the time parted has never weighed Cherry's hand so heavily as it does now.
Birdie stands next to him, awaiting his turn, the box of Titus's belongings nestled protectively between his feet. Cherry turns away to give them the only sort of privacy available in Antarctica. He looks back only when Atch claps him on the arm.
"Take care of yourself," Atch instructs. Then he tugs Cherry a step closer to murmur below Birdie's hearing, "There is no victory in pointless suffering, as Bill would say. If you need help, ask for it. Nothing will change if you remain in silence." It is not in Atch to be so inelegant as to throw a pointed glance at Birdie, but as is, the cogency of his reference makes such a gesture redundant.
Cherry swallows around the lump in his throat, and nods, retreating a half step to stand in line with Birdie. With his hand suspended in the air, fingers curling towards his palm in a wave, he watches the familiar line of Atch's back disappear into the crowd of greeters and sailors congesting the docks.
Birdie jostles his side as he rises, hefting Titus's things in the cradle of his arms. The sense of déjà vu rolls over Cherry in waves of increasing strength: Birdie, in his braces and his cotton shirt, his hair recently trimmed at one of the shops, with a crate propped against his hip. The memory conflates with reality so strongly for one moment that Cherry experiences the giddy rush of relief and excitement, so long vacant, that he had that day in London when he was awarded a place on the expedition. It feels like a dream to remember the man who lived those distant days.
Birdie turns a serene smile on him when he catches him staring. "What?"
"N-nothing," Cherry stutters, the bubble of the dream bursting. "You look—when I first met you—in Scott's office—" He flicks an indication to Birdie's face, the lines of it well-memorised, then retracts his fingers and presses his knuckles to his mouth. "Only that you looked much like this, you see."
Birdie looks down at himself, as if he will see the striking similarity to which Cherry refers, and then transfers his study to Cherry, his gaze starting at Cherry's feet and slowly drawing itself up his length, finishing with an intense survey of his face. Fingers of heat creep up Cherry's face; he wills himself not to blush.
"Your tie was a different colour," Birdie summarises finally, and the fact that Birdie is renown for his catalogue-like memory does not dim the flattery Cherry feels that Birdie should remember that detail. "And your hair was shorter. And you smiled," Birdie adds, wide grin illuminating his face as if that particular memory for some reason especially enchants him.
"I had just been informed that I would be allowed to accompany the expedition," Cherry hedges, anxious that the tight heat forming in his gut should not show in his expression. "I was quite pleased."
"Aye," Birdie delights. "You were—when I asked Bill who you were, he said—" Birdie stares at the contents of Titus's box, smiling quietly at though he has a secret.
Birdie lifts that smile to the air; it grows bashful at the corners. "He said you were a fine gentleman from the country, I think were his words, well-educated and keen to learn and work-hard. And you were, Cherry. You were…" Birdie looks down again and gives a jerky one-shoulder shrug. He seems to be struggling for words. When he looks up again, his expression has gone sober, sincere and filled with a strangely gentle, brittle emotion Cherry will not let himself name. "You're my best pal, Cherry; my very best pal. This wouldn't have been the same without you."
The lump in Cherry's throat expands even as the heat in his stomach contracts. "Birdie, I… It's returned, of course. The sentiment. You know that."
"Aye, I know. I know." Birdie tosses a look over his shoulder. The crate shifts in his arms. He shuffles his feet. The meaning of his actions enfolds Cherry only a second before Birdie says the words. "I'm terrible at goodbyes," Birdie sniffs. He flashes another smile at Cherry, sudden, too hard and bright to be natural. "Comes from a life of saying them too much, I reckon."
When he extends his hand, slow, gesture replete with officiousness, Cherry nearly wants to balk and refuse to clasp it. He can't bear the idea of it ending like this. But he knows he would bear much more poorly the reality—that Birdie walked away from him on the parting knowledge that Cherry would not shake the hand of his dearest friend goodbye.
He slides his fingers along Birdie's palm, meticulous in his movements, and folds his thumb over Birdie's hand. Birdie immediately gives his hand a good, firm squeeze, as though he's congratulating Cherry for the bravery it took to arrive at this position.
The muscle in Birdie's jaw jumps. "I'll miss you, then."
Cherry's stomach plummets to his feet, taking the twisting heat with it. His skin suddenly feels too large for his bones, as if he shrunk to no bigger than what fits into the hollow of his ribs. A sharp edge of desperation slips into his voice. "Birdie…"
"Take care of yourself, as Atch said."
"I'm really glad I met you," Birdie says, resplendent with genuineness, and the wistful gaze from whale-watching, and his hand sliding from Cherry's grasp, possibly for the last time, if Birdie reenlists, if Birdie does what Birdie does best and presses on, if Birdie dies and Cherry never told him, never said the words, never allowed himself that sense of personal peace—
—Cherry panics and grips Birdie's hand fiercely, hard enough to hurt. "I sail for Plymouth but not till the end of the week; would you have dinner with me once more for old time's sake; would you—" He takes a large breath and counts the rapid palpitations of his heart. He holds Birdie's eyes for an extended, solid beat. "I would appreciate it more than words can say if you would do me the honour of having dinner with me."
It comes out more formal than he intended, but he would not take the words back now if given the chance. He means every one of them.
Birdie's face remains blank for a moment, eyes wide and very blue, and then a small, shy smile curls up one corner of his mouth. "I. All right," Birdie says on a blink. His knee kicks up to bump the crate higher in his arm but he does not ask for his hand back. He stares at it instead, the tips of Cherry's long fingers stretched to fit against the inside of his wrist, just against his pulse. "I would be…" Birdie manages diffidently, words coming only after obvious contemplation, "very glad… to have the honour be mine as well."
Wild relief crashes through Cherry. His knees go weak from the force of it; he locks them to prevent himself from collapsing. He can feel his face stretching into a smile, his chin tucking into his neck at he regards Birdie, and for once he does not care what shows on his face. Birdie's eyes flicker awkwardly between his expression, and several points over his shoulder. The shell of Birdie's undamaged ear acquires a slightly pink tint. Cherry notices but as he cannot fathom a rational interpretation soon lets it go.
They arrange plans in short order. The docks remain crowded from the off-loading of their supplies and departing crew members, and space is a precious commodity for foot traffic. It is not the best location to linger over debates of detail.
Birdie agrees to meet Cherry at his hotel on the next night, to patron whichever restaurant Cherry thinks fit. Cherry squeezes his hand once more before they part, reassuring both himself and Birdie that he is looking forward to it and that nothing will happen between now and then to threaten their meeting time.
As he walks towards a waiting cab to take him to the hotel, Cherry restricts the urge to glance back over his shoulder for one more sight of Birdie. Now that he no longer has his company to distract him, he can't avoid the building pressure in his chest that he should have said it then. For better or worse, he should have said it. The likelihood that he will ever surmount the courage to do so now is limited, and then Birdie shall still leave, and Cherry will be left nothing but his memories and the feel of Birdie's once smile snug against his heart.
The hour of their meeting approaches with the same slow, steady weight as the ice shifting against the Barrier. The hours taken altogether seem too lumbering and large for something as fleeting as patience to divide. Cherry distracts himself with the business of fiddly chores and personal grooming—his suit pressed, a new shirt delivered, arrangements with the hotel for their meal; hair combed but not cut because he likes the quality of the wisps and curls just above his collar that the length gives him. And soon, like the great sheets of ice, an hour breaks into halves, and then into minutes, and then dissolves fully into seconds against the immovable influence of time.
Cherry stands in front of the mirror, checking his appearance, as the clock chimes eight times. Crisp clean lines of the suit appear foreign on him, his reflection unfamiliar. He looks like his father, his thinks. Or the lad who felt the obligation to become his father and only ever lost himself behind the rich black wool and cool linen. His own cowardliness suddenly sickens him. A retreat from Antarctica he had no power to prevent but a retreat from the man he has become? There is nothing—certainly not Birdie—dictating that he give that sacrifice.
Birdie is due at any moment, so Cherry hurries to change. His hair fluffs with the violence with which he yanks the shirt over his head. He does not bother to fix it. Birdie has seen him in the fits of hypothermia and scurvy, half-dead from exhaustion; sweaty and smudged and covered with grease burns from the ship engines. It is more representative of his true self now, he thinks.
He interrupts his manic ministrations only once, to allow them to bring the food into the room. When he finishes, he admires himself in the mirror. The hotel room is not a hut in Antarctica. It hides its wooden walls, and the floors possess plush carpet rather than sawdust. But Cherry himself looks much like he stepped right off the Barrier. His trousers do not contain hastily patched holes, but they are brown, and comfortable, and rub rough against his skin when he wipes his sweaty palms on his thighs. The jumper he wears is clean, but wrinkled, and the shirt beneath that new, though he keeps the top three buttons unclasped. He wears no collar and no cuffs. He will not even make an exception for a jacket, if they mean to stay in the hotel as he planned. With one more swipe at his hair and an adjustment of his specs, he heads down to meet Birdie in the lobby.
It takes him what feels like an age to identify Birdie. Littered with diners and drinkers, the lobby is crowded—or it is crowded to one who has spent three years in the company of no more than twenty men, and frequently less, at one time—but the footpaths are clear and it should not be impossible to spot a single man. Cherry still passes his eyes over Birdie four times before he recognises him. Once he does, the reason for his struggle becomes clear.
Birdie—perhaps fuelled by the same urge at Cherry to present well, perhaps labouring under the misapprehension that so formal an invitation required suitably formal attire—has worn a suit, replete with trimmings. The fabric isn't the best quality, and it does not flatter his line as much as it could, particularly around the middle; his slender waist beggars for a bespoken waistcoat to turn it trim and elegant against the width of his shoulders. The chain of the pocket watch which hangs against his ribs is obviously forged from a cheaper, brittle metal, clearly tarnished even at ten paces.
Cherry notices all the imperfections with the pretentious eye of the landed gentry, trained into instinct from a young age, and then discards them all with the flick of a thought. His breath stops for a full ten seconds in his chest, rushing suddenly in with a quiet inhale and a flip to his heart.
Birdie is handsome. More than that, Birdie is beautiful. His hair has been parted and slicked to one side, sharpening his profile. As Cherry watches from afar, he fidgets with his cuffs, tempered restlessness still searching for an outlet, and shifts from one foot to the next. He watches people enter and exit the hotel with the curious, quiet air Cherry loves so much about him. Cherry could watch him all evening and consider his time well spent.
When Birdie tugs at his collar a second time, Adam's apple bobbing, and the clock strikes the half-hour, Cherry finally finds the impetus to move. His dawdling has made him cruelly late.
"Oh hullo," he greets, choosing to approach Birdie from an angle not easily adaptable to Birdie's sightline. Birdie smells like cigarette smoke and graphite, familiar even without the stench of pemmican to flavour it.
Birdie startles and turns to him, face illuminating on a smile as he tilts his head back to meet Cherry's eyes. "You did come." He sighs, pleased, as if he had a bet with someone on the subject. Were Titus still among them, Cherry would almost worry that he had.
"I'm sorry to keep you waiting." Cherry looks him up and down. He wishes he had something to hold; he has no idea what to do with his hands. He curls his fingers into his palms to keep them from twisting together and places them firmly at his side. "You look— You needn't have gone through any trouble on my account."
"Oh." Birdie rocks his shoulders from side to side, his movements spasmodic. It seems to have only just occurred to him that Cherry is not similarly attired. He tugs at his cuff again as he tries to rectify that realisation. "I didn't. It wasn't." Birdie rolls into a deprecating smile, all the sweeter for his obvious exasperation with his speech. "I thought. It might. Be nice," he says in breaks and pauses, words precise, staring at Cherry's shoes. "A change. For once."
He peeks at Cherry through his eyelashes. "For you."
Pressure balloons behind Cherry's chest, swelling as if it will never stop, as if he will combust from it. A racing sensation of fear that isn't fear moderated by a heady awareness of humility. It strikes down to the very core of him. It feels very much like grace, like honour.
"Thank you," Cherry whispers, and impressively does not stutter. "I have dinner waiting in my room. If you care to join me?"
Despite Cherry's silent anxieties, conversation during dinner does not lag. Though he has spent more time with Birdie than alone over the course of the last three years, there was never much time for extended conversation. Work beckoned, ever present, and if not work, sleep. Sledging, the activity that forms the strongest bonds between men, was often done in silence, the concentration necessary to perform opposing many forms of speech. If it was not that, it was the wind.
But Birdie is no more difficult to talk to for three hours than he is for one. Interesting and interested, he never reneges on his responsibility to keep the conversation active. Cherry discovers to his pleasure that Birdie can bounce from topic to topic with the same enthusiasm he showed for miserably steep, sandy drifts. Or he can subsist into a comfortable silence, enjoying his meal, presenting Cherry with sweet little half-smiles whenever Cherry catches his eyes.
It is a lovely night, one of the best in his memory since those early days at Hut Point. Birdie's presence fills the room with reminiscence, providing the good over the bad. It eases a permanent ache in the back of Cherry's skull that he did not know he still carried since the return of the Search Party. It seems a tragedy to spoil it with the introduction of an unhappy subject.
But Cherry still has to ask.
"Atkinson mentioned something to me." Cherry slips his knife over the dish in completion and returns his hands to his lap. He smoothes the napkin on his lap several times. "I wanted your opinion on it."
Birdie takes a sip of the wine. Already his face has gained the faint flush of alcohol. "Did he tell you that the Navy has given him only two weeks to arrange 'personal matters' and then wants him to report to the Dardanelles?" Birdie swallows his last bite of food, and grins, thrilled by the implications. "Harsh master, the Navy. As if two weeks of inactivity wouldn't bore a man to tears after Antarctica."
"Yes, well." Cherry clears his throat. Though he has spent enough time with Naval officers and seamen to be aware of some of the complexities within the system, he by no means knows all. Nor does he feel qualified to speak on such matters. To anyone but Birdie, two weeks reprieve at the very least would be mandatory.
"Anyone who takes the bet that we're not headed towards a war in the region is a fool," Birdie goes on, warming to his topic. "In a year, two at the outset, but no more than that. What do you reckon?"
Cherry plucks at the napkin, wrinkling it, then straightening it out again. "I really couldn't say, but I imagine you're right."
The subdued quality of his voice piques Birdie's concern. He cocks his head and makes a gently inquiring murmur. "But that's not what you wished to ask me about?"
"No. Well, yes. Well, no. Partially. Oh, I—"
"You're being indecisive again," Birdie teases.
It's that more than anything—the attentive tilt to Birdie's head, his eyes glittering with warmth and amusement, his smile that smile that Cherry adores so much, that Cherry keeps tucked close to him at all times, the smile that coils everything in him around the immovable knowledge that I love you, I love you, I have no concept of a life without you to share it with me. The truth that he feels every day like a stone in his chest, compressing his lungs, but has never been able to bring himself to say.
In a fit of temper and self-directed frustration, he throws the napkin onto table and snaps out, "Confound it, Birdie! This is serious! Do you intend to join up or not?"
The silence that follows seems impossibly loud, Cherry's words echoing back to him as if from a long hollow ice cave. Birdie watches him, expression shuttered blank with surprise, and then a prickly wariness Cherry has never seen before. When Birdie turns away under his gaze, Cherry understands why: never before has there been cause for Birdie to look guilty at his charge.
Cherry's heart sinks with failure, and a terrible, trembling certainty, even as Birdie rasps, "He had no right to tell you that."
Cherry braces himself against the sharp prick of hurt, but still it slips through his defences. He never had them when it comes to Birdie. "I should think," he comments softly, "that if you care for my regard as much as you profess to that you would have told me yourself."
"Of course I care about you," Birdie responds, without thought, as if it is too ingrained in the construct of the universe to merit doubt. But that is all he says for some time. His mouth trembles around what looks like wants to be a scowl, if only he did not forbid its existence on his face. He marshals together a considerate look instead, directing it at Cherry. The lines of his face remain apologetic. "I'm sorry. I didn't tell you because... I-I was ashamed. If it had come to pass—if there had been a chance of it—" He gives Cherry his profile again; the muscle in his jaw jumps. "I would have told you if it had happened," he swears, a plead alive in his eyes when he fixes them on Cherry.
Cherry wishes it were in his heart to stay cross with Birdie, but it isn't. It never will be. "I accept," he murmurs, in regards to the apology. He regrets his earlier outburst now; all it has done has left him feeling deeply tired. With a sigh, he slumps back in the chair only to bolt up again when a trick of Birdie's speech returns to him. "Wait—had: have you already spoken to them?"
"No," Birdie sighs. He scrubs at his forehead. It seems as though the subject strains him as well, a fact for which Cherry cannot help but feel pettily grateful. "At least, no more than a letter arranging my appointment. But I have served on ships since I was fourteen. And I know when my expectations surpass reality."
Birdie swirls his finger in the air next to his wrecked ear, the scarred plane of his cheek and jaw. His falling wrist hits the table with a depleted thud. The smile he sports is full of sad things, regret and disappointment, and most shocking of all, a flicker of bitter self-incrimination. It keeps Cherry from offering the obvious statement that Birdie forgot to display that hidden talent in Antarctica. If Birdie knows his chances of acceptance are slim, it must makes them triply-so to any other man. Cherry knows the amount of selfish pleasure he achieves at that realisation reflects poorly on his character.
But he is not wholly selfish. Birdie's grief is palpable. "I'm sorry," he offers, trying to communicate the depth of sympathy that sits next to the fissure of relief.
"Don't be," Birdie says. He seems to be recovering himself. "It'll be all right. I've had near four months to grow used to the idea. Even if they don't…" Birdie shakes his head and Cherry thinks of long days spent in enforced solitude on the cliffs of Antarctica, faced turned to a silent sky in the hope it will bring answers. "It'll be all right. But I still have to try." He stares at the table with a befuddled, intense look; some strong emotion carves a rough edge to his voice. "It's been my whole life. It's the only one I know. If I can't—. If they don't take me, I have no where else to go," he finishes quietly.
The beat of Cherry's heart doubles, and expands, and echoes uncomfortably in the hollows of his body. His throat, his wrists, the pit of his stomach. The room lurches with the magnitude of what he means to say. "You might," he starts awkwardly. His fingers trail over the handle of the spoon as he gathers the shredded strands of his courage. They grind painfully against his nerves. "You might come s-stay with me. At my house. At Lamer."
"Cherry," Birdie chides. Cherry can't bear to think of it as a rejection. "I couldn't. That's too…"
Whatever expression Cherry shows on his face brings Birdie to trail to a stop. He isn't hiding anything. He is sure the entire whole of his heart, and all of his fears, and all of his desires read tortured and transparent in the lines of his face.
Birdie sits quiet for a moment. When he speaks, his voice is hushed, strained with a reverence for an answer Cherry imagines they both already know. "Do you really wish it that much?"
"Very." Cherry clears his throat. "Very much, yes." He cannot bring himself to risk a glance at Birdie's face.
Never before this moment has Cherry thought Birdie capable of purposeful cruelty. It startles him to find he was wrong. His head snaps up and he stares at Birdie, silently pleading with him to retract the question. Birdie does not. Cherry draws in a shuddering, timid breath, and looks away again.
"I am not a brave man, Birdie," he says. He hates that his voice shakes. "You cannot ask that of me."
"Yes, you are," Birdie encourages softly. "You are, Cherry. Braver than me. Answer the question. Please? Please."
That one words carries so much longing in it, rings out as a plea for relief clearer than a ship's dinner bell. Cherry glances at Birdie over the rims of his spectacles. Birdie looks neither bewildered nor appalled, but very like Birdie always does: patient and understanding and content. He holds Cherry's eyes with a quiet steadiness that Cherry finds hard to withstand.
There is only one thing left for it.
"I would like you stay with me, to live with me, because I fear I may have— I fear I might be—" The traditional words suddenly seem too empty to be said, at once both too momentous and too plain. Cherry cradles his knuckles and squeezes shut his eyes. He puts every ounce of courage and terror and devotion he learned in Antarctica into the forefront of his mind. "I love you," he says in a rush. "I'm in love with you. I have been for quite some time."
Silence greets him. A swinging, rotating silence, as heavy as a pendulum and as deadly as one too. Cherry's heart gives a lurch in his chest, painful, like knuckles scraping the inside of his breastbone. He fears for one moment that he will have a stroke if Birdie does not say something quick.
"If there's no hope of reciprocation, please just tell me. I can't bear the silence. Birdie, please. Have a heart."
Sounds of shuffling reach his ears. Cherry panics that Birdie may be preparing to leave, and when Birdie continues to give no response, the panic crests into blind terror. Cherry forces opens his eyes.
A familiar green-bound book greets him, emerging from one of the out-turned pockets of Birdie's jacket.
Prying the book open on his lap, Bertie recites shakily, "'Heart, are you great enough? F-for a love…that never tires? O-ohh, heart. Are you great enough for love? I… have heard. Of thorns and-and briers—"
Understanding overtakes him suddenly, alive and electric. It makes his hands shake on the table. "Birdie," Cherry breathes, full of awe.
"—o-over the meadow and stiles. Over the world to the end of it. Flash for a million miles.'" Birdie glances up, eyes huge and the deepest blue Cherry remembers only from Antarctic twilights. In response, his mouth tumbles in the beginnings of a smile; he fears once he starts he may never stop grinning. "There's more; I can find…" Birdie rifles through the pages, ending after a moment at the opposite end of the book.
Cherry wonders if he has memorized the entire thing. It wouldn't be that surprising, knowing Birdie—loving Birdie—as he does.
In babble and revel and wine',"
For one that will never be thine?
But mine, but mine,' so I sware to the rose,
'For ever and ever, mine.'
"Forever and ever," he repeats, a driving desperation to be clear written on his face. It's heartbreaking to behold. Cherry suffers a wince of sympathy, and deeper than that, in a hardened bitter part of his soul, a flush of forgiveness the all the times that Birdie too stayed silent on the subject of his affections. They are a well-matched pair in that regard. Birdie closes the books quietly, staring down at it, hair obscuring his eyes. "Forever and ever mine, Cherry."
"Birdie." Cherry lays a hand on his arm before he can burst forth with another verse or frantic turn of the page in the search for one. "Birdie, stop. It's really—it isn't necessary."
Birdie lifts his head, his mouth stretching sweetly, and a little regretful, not quite a smile but an adamant wish for one. "I don't have the words for this sort of thing," he murmurs. "Not the sort that—that you deserves. That says what I…" He rummages through the book again, drawing his finger halfway down the pages. "'Words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within.'" He slams the book closed once more and leans into the table. "Do you understand what I mean? I can't—but Tennyson, he has the words. I like his words."
"I know you do," Cherry says softly, soothingly, touched beyond reckoning. Tennyson is a terrible choice for love poetry, but the fumbling attempt only makes it that much sweeter. He covers Birdie's hand with his, then slides their fingers together when Birdie turns his palm. "I love you very much," he says again, because he can now.
"I—" Birdie shuts his mouth and shakes his head. He stares pensively at the butter dish, lower lip caught between his teeth. He turns back to Cherry with a decisive gleam to his eyes, nostrils flaring. He stands to walk around the table, not releasing Cherry's hand, and comes to rest next to Cherry's chair. Cherry regards him, baffled by the direction of his intentions but always willing to follow Birdie's lead when the darkness creeps forth. Birdie sinks to his knees, as if supplicant before the Divine, or else in the midst of a proposal.
"I'm not very good with words," Birdie prefaces, "but oh, aye, I can do action."
His hand slides up to cup the back of Cherry's neck, thumb lining against his temple. Cherry swallows, not expecting this, and returns Birdie's questioning smile with one of his own. He allows Birdie to pull his head down for a lush, sweet kiss. Cherry returns it to the best of his ability, graceless with surprise, and the rush of heat through his limbs. But when Birdie's tongue teases against his lower lip in request, Cherry opens his mouth, as natural as breathing, and shivers a little from the ease of it.
Despite the shiver, for the first time in three years he isn't cold.
They both sleep through Birdie's ship-boarding for London the next day. Stretched next to Birdie with the late afternoon sun dappling the curtains orange and gold, Cherry makes no effort to hide his pleasure at that fact. Birdie grins, hair rumpled from activity and eyes soft from sleep, and bats him in the face with a pillow. A moan soon swallows his buoyant laughter when Cherry rolls over and presses close to him, skin to skin, nothing dividing them.
Far and away, Antarctica sings her songs. Penguins gather beneath a purple autumn twilight. Whales play amongst the waves.
In the following days, when they eventually make time to find a telegraph office, Cherry wires Atch:
RE FINAL MATTER DEVELOPED AND LEFT UNRESOLVED IN ANTARCTICA NOW OFFICIALLY RESOLVED TO THE SATISFACTION OF BOTH PARTIES PLEASE POST FUTURE COMMUNICATION BOWERS AT LAMER AC-G.
A reply awaits them when they arrive six weeks later at Lamer:
CHERRY BIRDIE MATTER DOES NOT CONCERN ME HAVE NO INTEREST PLEAD NO KNOWLEDGE IN ANY CASE VERY HAPPY FOR YOU BOTH P.S. TITUS NOW OWES ME DINNER I EXPECT COMPENSATION IN HIS STEAD BOWERS FAITHFULLY YOURS ETC ATKINSON.