Harry supposed that once upon a time his current mood would have been ascribed to an excess of “black bile”.
He sighed and sat back in his chair. The blank page of his journal stared up at him like a milky, blinded eye. He’d written the date at the top of the page and a single note: melancholia remains.
He placed his pen down and lifted the page to his last four entries. They were similarly sparse. Besides the maladies and injuries of his fellows, there seemed little to remark upon. They were in the depths of yet another Arctic autumn. The ship creaked in the ice. The men amused themselves the best they could. Sometimes arguments boiled over, as was inevitable when so many people were crammed into a confined space. Crozier sunk deeper into the bottle every week.
He saw little of the Erebus captain.
A sudden well of despair took him by surprise and he had to quickly remove his spectacles to pinch the bridge of his nose. Darkness. Solitude. Loss of life. It was inevitable he should feel depleted. Though of course he was careful not to show it. It was more important for a doctor than perhaps anyone to show optimism. If he despaired, they all despaired. He gave a short, bitter laugh. Not that Stanley had ever allowed such things to temper his unyielding petulance.
The peevishness with which he thought of the doctor startled him a little. Such ungracious thoughts seemed to flourish in the tenebrous mind. Like twisted vines ensnaring a garden. He blinked his eyes a few times before taking his glasses off and placing them on the desk.
It would pass. As all things did.
A soft knock at the cabin door made him look up. He considered pretending to be asleep but thought better of it. It may have been one of the men with a complaint they were reticent to see Stanley about. The man tended to have that effect on people.
“Yes?” He wasn’t able to keep the tiredness from his voice.
The door opened and he started at the sight of Captain Fitzjames. He hastily stood up from his seat.
“Forgive me, sir. I didn’t realise—”
Fitzjames rose a hand to quieten him. “It’s alright, Goodsir." He smiled. "I don't yet expect your considerable abilities to extend to seeing through solid objects."
Harry almost felt himself smiling in return. Well, that was a first for the week.
Fitzjames closed the door behind him. “I apologise for the lateness of the hour. It's difficult to find a moment alone in this... place."
Goodsir nodded and then quickly gestured to the chair at his desk. “Please.”
Fitzjames shook his head. “I won’t intrude upon you long.” He cleared his throat self-consciously. “I suppose I wanted to say that with Francis…” His lips thinned with a flare of his nostrils. “Indisposed. It has been difficult for me to spend all the time I might wish on Erebus." He toyed absently with a button on his coat. "I haven't been able to do many things I might like.”
Harry stared. It could have been his despondent mind beginning to play tricks on him, but it seemed that Fitzjames was… explaining himself. For a captain, that was almost unheard of. And entirely unnecessary in this instance. Harry had nothing but awe for the man who was very nearly singlehandedly captaining both vessels. While dealing with Captain Crozier’s diminishing… health and the disquiet of the crew.
“You’ve been doing wonderfully, sir,” Harry said encouragingly. He thought perhaps he sounded foolish. And hoped he didn’t. Because although the praise only came from a surgeon’s assistant, he doubted any onboard could mean it more earnestly.
Fitzjames beheld him for a moment, brows knitted and eyes searching. Harry fidgeted under his gaze and felt his face redden. He had long felt that being in the direct scrutiny of those eyes was like looking into the sun. Eyes so easily given to mirth and yet sometimes darkened with such pensiveness it was difficult to believe they belonged to the same person.
“I came here with a purpose and now I feel like I’ve forgotten everything since breakfast.” Fitzjames’s laugh was strained. He took a breath and his eyes moved about the room as he seemed to collect himself.
“It’s understandable,” Harry said, with a smile. “You must be exhausted.”
“And you are not exhausted?” Fitzjames countered, his eyes returning to his. “You work tirelessly, until you’re almost dropping where you stand.”
Harry opened his mouth to protest, but couldn't seem to find the words to counter such praise. It didn't help that kind words from Fitzjames had a strange effect on him. Like a muted form of opium.
Fitzjames took a step towards him and then stopped short, seeming to think better of it. Harry thought he seemed almost agitated. “Some of the men have commented…” He shook his head and sighed a small laugh. “That’s a lie. It’s entirely my own observation. I suppose I have noticed that you seem not entirely…” He searched visibly for a word. “Yourself.”
Harry's stomach plummeted. Captain Fitzjames had noticed his state of mind? He felt a rush of shame. He had clearly not been veiling it as well he as he thought. The shame became tinged with panic. If the captain thought it had been affecting his work, if he was disappointed… Harry felt a welling of regret so great he almost couldn’t bear it.
“I didn’t realise.” His voice wavered.
Fitzjames frowned and he stepped towards him. “Goodsir, are you alright?” The thread of genuine concern through his voice was almost too much.
Harry partly shook and partly nodded his head. He sunk down onto his bed and looked waveringly up at Fitzjames with eyes that were suddenly aching at the edges. “I thought I was successful at disguising my thoughts, but clearly that is not so.”
Fitzjames shook his head with wordless disbelief. To Harry’s mingled horror and embarrassment, he came and sat down beside him. There were a sparse couple of inches between them and he was suddenly conscious of every breath he took. He could smell Fitzjames’s cologne and the scent of the wardroom. Ink, paper, wine, someone else’s tobacco.
Fitzjames looked at him with sincerity. Harry hadn’t seen him in such close profile for a lengthy period of time and noted that a few new lines seemed to have appeared on his handsome face. Though every one seemed to just make him even more achingly beautiful. The concoction in his features of masculinity and grace reminded Harry of Michelangelo’s David.
“Harry,” Fitzjames said and he jumped at the use of his Christian name. “I have not come to scold you for not being your usual, irrepressibly incandescent self. Even Jesus knocked over a few tables in his lifetime.”
Harry gave a bark of unhappy laughter. “You are not disappointed?”
James’s expression was mingled exasperation and wonder. “I could not be less disappointed if you had sprouted wings and personally flown me to the northwest passage.”
Harry somehow felt terrible and tremulously overjoyed at the same time. Terrible that he was betraying such feelings in front of someone he so keenly respected. Overjoyed that James was close to him and telling him he wasn’t disappointed with him. They were still friends. He still trusted him.
“As your captain,” James seemed to waver a moment as he looked at him. His eyes flared with something that Harry hardly had time to glimpse. Regret? Longing? “As your friend. I would know what it is that ails you. If I cannot help, then at least I can ease the burden of brooding alone. That is Francis’s favoured pastime and we can all see how it has benefited him.”
Harry was silent. He wanted nothing more than to tell him about what was weighing on his heart. Oh God, to tell him… It would be akin to an exorcism of the spirit. But caution weighed on him.
Fitzjames cocked his head to the side. “Misery loves company?” he suggested.
Harry looked down and worried his bed’s blanket with his fingers. “It’s foolishness, sir. It’s just the oppressiveness of the ice around the boat. The creaking and rocking. It lulls the mind into darkness.”
James didn’t speak. Harry could see his outline out of the corner of his eye, watching him. Waiting for him to speak the truth. He sighed and let his shoulders drop in defeat.
“It will be my birthday in November.” He kept his eyes down on his hands. To look at James and see possible derision or scepticism would be too cruel a blow. “I will be twenty-eight.”
James said nothing.
“And… Well. I was struck by the thought that I have not done all that I wish I had. Not my… career, you understand.” He looked waveringly up into James’s face. “I am honoured to serve, of course.”
“But there are other things you feel you have… delayed?” James said. His body seemed poised tensely where he sat, as though there were anxiety beneath the surface.
“Marriage seems… improbable.” Harry laughed. “And I must admit, I had quite accepted that I must not possess the talents for such things as courtship. But… The heart longs all the same.”
“You wish to be married?” James seemed crestfallen. Harry wondered at it.
He blinked, startled. “No. But there are aspects of courtship which set the heart longing when alone and in silence. It is human nature, I suppose.”
“Which aspects?” James’s eyes were sharp and bright. He had relaxed visibly at Harry’s answer, but there was still a sort of electric tension in his body, his limbs.
“I have… never kissed another.” Harry gripped the blankets as though trying to channel away his embarrassment into them. “I had never wanted to until…”
He started in sudden realisation. The words should have been “of late”. But the words that had quite nearly spilled from his lips had been… “until I met you”. Those were the right words. Although they were mad, inconceivable. Could hardly be right. Why then was every muscle in his body of a sudden alight?
“Harry, please,” James panted abruptly. Harry hadn't noticed until then that they had at some point become so close that they almost touching. “Tell me to go and I will. Tell me that I am mad for what I wish to do.”
Harry found his breathing was suddenly coming from somewhere high and shallow in his chest. His captain's face was a breath from his and every glorious inch was revealed to him. Oh, but he was so beautiful. What mad thoughts had come over him? But he felt more lucid than he had in his entire life and it was frightening. This was no grip of delirium.
“What do you wish to do?” Harry breathed, his body already moving to close that last breath between them.
A hand with softly calloused fingertips touched his neck and the other settled on his waist. He melted into his captain’s arms like it had been preordained. And their bodies melded together with such ease that it could not be anything but providence.
Harry felt dizzy when James’s lips found his. Kiss. His first kiss. His mind was giddy with such a confusion of emotions that he could only grasp onto James and hope he would catch him if he fell.
Some things came naturally, such as closing his eyes. Others he could feel he was clumsy at, but James was as much in control here as everywhere else. His hands grasped him, pulled him into him, pushed inside of his mouth with gentle and insistent touches.
The kiss transmuted into something more passionate. Harry clung to James’s shoulders, drank of him like he was a man dying of thirst. He was insistently pressed down onto his back on the bedcovers and then his body was underneath James’s.
If this is not heaven then keep it. His thoughts felt drugged. Dazed. He spread his thighs and James pressed down on him. He gasped against James’s mouth when he felt the bulk that was between his legs.
Mouths reddened and eyes hazy, they broke apart for air. James panted softly above him, staring down at him with a kind of fierce, almost wistful longing.
“That was…” Harry laughed breathlessly. “I feel I have fallen into a dream.”
James smiled. “Then I am glad you took me with you.”
At length, they both sat upright again. Harry watched James straighten his clothes and hair. He had a flushed stripe from his cheekbone to his chin. Harry could hardly believe that this wasn’t some waking dream. He had had… such longing. He had never understood it. Never understood the fierceness of his need. He had barely known himself at all.
He walked with James to the door. Before he opened it and allowed the many, many eyes of the open world back in, James kissed him once more. Fierce, deep and possessive. As though leaving something for him to cling to in the moments when they were apart and could not reach each other.
They broke apart and James surveyed him for a moment, one hand resting against his jaw. “Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged," he murmured, almost to himself.
He broke away and opened the door. Harry wanted to speak, but he couldn’t find a word in a million words that felt worthy. James gave him one last, lingering look and disappeared.
When he was gone, Harry was still for a long moment looking at where he had stood.