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After travelling with the monks for three days, they reach a village from which it's possible to take a coach to Kathmandu the next morning. It's not a metropolis by any means: there's only one inn, for one thing, where they'll be sleeping in a dorm with about thirty other people. "Tourists like yourselves, sirs," says the innkeeper, smiling. None of them bothers to correct him.

Haddock dumps his backpack on the bed closest to the wall, not waiting to see which beds the others are choosing. He examines his pockets, relieved to see there's still some tobacco left, and declines coming with Tintin and Chang to 'have a look around the town'. He's seen enough strange places by now, thank you, and the boys can very much do without him.

After they've left, he takes his tobacco with him and goes outside, to the back of the inn, where there's a bench standing by a low brick wall, and a rather stunning view of the valley. Now that Haddock's life is no longer in immediate danger, he can grudgingly acknowledge that the landscape is magnificent. It's a terrible sort of beauty, though, all loneliness and cold. The ocean is lonely too, but never dead: even on the quiet days, there's life all around you and under you.

Haddock rests his head against the wall and looks at the valley stretching out ahead, at the layers of houses along the mountainside, at the tall peaks against the afternoon sky. Noises from the village drift in and out of his consciousness: yelling children, barking dogs, and once the growl of a car.

He's bone-tired, not as happy as he should be. Oh, he's certainly grateful that the whole thing succeeded; that he survived; that - more importantly - Tintin survived as well. But what happened in the mountains is still haunting him, and though he's been pushing it away so far, he has to face it now, alone with nothing between him and the silence.

The pipe is still empty in his hand. Haddock starts filling it, almost automatically. He imagines, once again, dangling off the cliff, realising what it entailed for the both of them.

Tintin refusing to cut the rope.

Haddock's hands tremble a bit, but he manages to light his pipe on the second try. The smoke is calming; he inhales heavily, picturing himself in Tintin's place. It's a horrible thought. Not because he'd have cut the rope - he might as well die - but because the idea of losing Tintin fills him, as always, with icy dread.

And yet, Haddock thinks, it might still happen. Though not to a certain death in the mountains, which is a relief in itself. But to a bond older and quite possibly healthier than the one that Tintin refused to cut. And if - or when - that happens, Haddock would be a fool to try to stop it.

It's no more than Fate turning the tables once again. Fate giveth and Fate taketh away. Fate falls into your cabin and bowls you over. Fate throws you into headless danger, drags you across the world like a puppet on a string. And once you think yourself the richest man on Earth, you find yourself falling off the precipice.

Sudden footsteps behind him shake him out of his thoughts; he turns slightly, expecting it to be one of the other patrons, or perhaps the innkeeper. He's wrong.

"May I sit down?" Chang asks.

Surprised, Haddock shuffles to give him room. "Of course, if you don't mind the smoke."

Chang shakes his head, and sits down next to him. There's a moment of silence before Haddock's curiosity gets the better of him.

"Where is Tintin?" he asks. "I thought you two were going for a walk?"

"We were," Chang says. "But I still get tired easily, so I thought I'd go back early. And besides..." He looks at Haddock sideways. "I wanted to talk to you for a moment, Captain."

"What for?" asks Haddock, wincing at how gruffly the words come out.

He wonders exactly how much Chang knows, or suspects, about the relationship between himself and Tintin. The boy's young - no more than 16 or 17 - and unlike Haddock, he hasn't spent his adolescence at sea. Quite innocent, he seems, though Haddock has no idea how openly the Chinese talk about such things.

Though it hardly matters, he thinks, turning to look at the vast landscape once more. As far as the world is concerned, he is only Tintin's friend, a middle-aged sea captain with too much money on his hands. No one in their right mind would begrudge Tintin a younger companion, someone less inclined to drinking and cursing and putting himself in danger.

Didn't he always know, deep down, that it might come to this?

"I wanted to thank you," says Chang.

Haddock raises his eyebrows. "You already have."

He likes Chang; it's impossible not to. The boy is calm, gentle, patient. It's not difficult to see why Tintin is so fond of him. Or, for that matter, why the Yeti wanted to keep him: Chang is one of those people who practically shine with goodness, making others want to better themselves, to be as pure as him.

Haddock thinks, not for the first time, that Tintin does deserve someone pure.

"Don't mention it, really," he says, aiming for a light tone of voice. "I've risked my life so many times after getting to know that lad, it's become par for the course. Telepathic visions and abominable snowmen is nothing out of the ordinary these days. Of course, we were just lucky to get there in time..."

Chang shakes his head, smiling a bit. "You have my gratitude," he says. "Always and forever. But not only for saving my life."

Haddock feels thirsty all of a sudden, thinking longingly of the last bottle of whisky that the Yeti stole, of the imported rum he glimpsed on one of the innkeeper's shelves, of the rakshi in the shop across the street. He's not sure he wants to hear what Chang has to say.

He takes out his pipe, busying himself refilling it. He can feel Chang's eyes on his face. The sun is setting, a piercing red colouring the western sky.

"What is it, then?" he asks, when he can't stand the silence any longer.

Chang places a hand on his arm, so that Haddock is forced to look at him. The boy's eyes are completely earnest, soft with kindness.

Haddock remembers Tintin's tears - the stubborn insistence his friend was not dead, his joy upon finding him alive - and stays quiet, bracing himself for whatever comes next.

"I wanted to thank you, Captain," Chang finally says, "for being what you are to Tintin."

Haddock is completely taken aback; the pipe drops from his hands, rolling under the bench. "I beg your pardon?" he manages at last.

"I'm sorry for being blunt," Chang says. "But it's obvious how much you mean to him. When I knew him, before - there was always such restlessness, as if he had to keep moving or he'd die. But it seems to me that he's learned how to rest, with you. He's told me about your life at Marlinspike. The way he talks about it, and you... He seems so obviously happy."

Haddock looks at him, feeling incredibly shameful and foolish and grateful all at once. Chang smiles.

"I'm glad you have each other," he says, giving Haddock's arm a gentle squeeze. "You deserve him."

 

~

 

Only clouds are visible from the plane's window, no sign of the Himalaya they've left behind. Haddock leans back in his seat, thinking of the garden at Marlinspike, of his cat, of the gooseberries that soon will be ripe. He thinks of the silence of the mountains; of Chang in the cave; of the Yeti, up there all alone in the dead cold. Of Tintin, in the seat next to him, warm and healthy and there and alive.

He glances at Chang, quietly asleep across the aisle. Then he presses his right knee to Tintin's left, just a slight nudge, impossible for anyone else to see. Tintin looks up from his book, smiles, presses back.

They've survived. They're going home.

Haddock closes his eyes, lets his head fall back and falls asleep, as safe as he's ever been.