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Festering

Chapter Text

April 1848

 

    “All wounds fester, in these conditions,” Blanky had warned, but Francis knew it too well. Everything would go down from there, and their only hope was to be too stubborn to die before help came their way.

    Many of his men had wounds. All of them were sick. Morfin had wounds under his skull, James on his chest, LeVesconte on his feet. Francis wounds were… somewhere else. In the making, perhaps. 

 

 He was the captain, it was his job to keep track of all his men at every hour. He had asked for a detailed report from Goodsir, who had done so with a pained look on his face.

    Morfin had been the first one to crack.

    Francis had never been so scared. Not for himself--he already had a gun pointed at him, of course. Ha wasn’t sure if he still wanted to live ( why do you want to die? ) . But this was one of his men, one of his boys, holding a gun and pointing it at the others, pointing it at Harry, at James (before Francis put himself in the line of fire because he’d be damned before his second would be shot--again). His heart seemed to stop when the first shot fired, only to break when the second landed in Morfin’s skull.

    He saw Goodsir fall on his knees, lost and sobbing, but he didn’t move. As a captain, he should have protected him, comforted him--and Morfin too, before things escalated. He should have checked on the food, he should have been sober, he should have done anything so that there was no brain splatter up on the snow like a sinister caricature of a child’s painting.
 

    A hand on his shoulder guided him back into his tent. James, he knew by the pressure of the palm on him. Jopson’ hands were lighter, Blanky would have grabbed his arm, Little wouldn’t have touched him at all. Only James would allow himself to keep contact in such a way.  When Francis turned around, there was no pity in James’s eyes, only recognition - and of course of all people James would be the one to know how he felt. 

He remembered still when James had been the sole captain - the line son his face, the darkness in his eyes. The trembling hands, after carnival my fault, my fault, my fault. James , who had had a gun pointed at him only minutes before.

    Was James hurt? no, he couldn’t be - it was irrational fear now buried deep-bon in his chest. Yet, yet.

 His hand grabbed James’s and turned it over. He let his palm run over his second’s forearms, his arms before cradling his face in the palms of his hands. James’s eyes had a sad intensity to them, something Francis would have never imagined a few years before. James put his hands on the back of Francis’s and gave him a closed-mouthed smile, one of the true ones that made the corner of his eyes soften and his mouth twist upwards. There were sores on his face already, and wounds at the line of his hair.

Scurvy .
 

    Francis wanted to ask him since when did he become sick, why he hadn’t told anyone. If he was ok, if he needed more rest. He wanted to leave the camp right there and now, to walk and walk wand walk without rest because then, maybe, maybe  they’ll arrive in time for James to live, for all of them to live. 

 

    It was strange how much passed between them with a simple look. James always had large, dark eyes that showed every little shift of his emotions. It was ridiculous, but so, so beautiful. Like the makeshift of the Boreal Sky, dancing in the green rays of light. Always changing. Moving like the tides, impetuous like the sea. The open sea .

    “I’m alright, Francis,” James said. He tentatively raised his hand to push back a strand of hair away from Francis’s brow. “We’re alright. The men will be too, you’ll see.” They both knew it was a lie, and yet Francis’s heart seemed to settle a little. He nodded wordlessly and went to settle on their shared cot. 

 

    It was improper for them to share a cot, he knew. But propriety was running away from them with each man down. It was a dangerous thought. That they were so, so far from the civilisation - what would it matter? Who would know? But id no one knew about this, what else could be kept secret?

 

    They would become monsters before the end of this, he knew. He had dreamt it. 

 

    Francis curled up on his side and felt James press himself against his back, giving him warmth and comfort. An arm far too thin came over his waist and James’s fingers drew small, smoothing circles on Francis’s chest, his palm flat against the skin.
 

    “I will leave no man behind,” whispered Francis with a shaky breath. James’s forehead was tucked against the back of Francis’s neck. 

    “I know.”

    “Not the sick, not the dying. No one.”

    “I know.”

    It was a long time before any of them fell asleep. 

 

---

 

    Every wound festers .

 

    It was the first thought that crossed his mind when he saw Cornelius Hickey fall in front of the walking path. The man had been talking about- whatever, to make the ship boy’ laugh. 

 

Solomon Tozer was the first one to react. He almost ran to take Hickey in his arms and went to put the small man on the boat. But he suddenly stopped.

 Francis heard the beginning of a fight and quickly walked towards the edge of the boat.

    “What’s happening?” he asked, and immediately the men grew silent. Little looked at him from under his hat, apologetic as only he knew how to be. It was startling how he still managed to keep an air of propriety between everything else.  “There’s too many sick men today, Captain. There’s no room for more in the boats.”

 

    “We can’t just leave him here!” cried Tozer. The man looked like he was ready to use his gun to make his point, and Francis knew this could escalate quickly. There was no time, and the men didn’t have the strength to move the material out of the boats to make camp right now. Anger and resentment were a wound as much as everything else, only no doctor could help on this.

    “I see. His wounds are on his back?”

 

    Tozer’s eyes widened. Francis saw his feet shift, as if pondering his answer. “Yes, Sir , ” he said finally.

    Francis looked down only to catch Hickey staring at him. Cocky as ever. Francis swallow the urge to talk the man down. IT wasn’t the moment - nor the place. He didn’t really think he had the right. 

 

 Despite everything, he was one of his boys. And he would leave none of them behind. He also couldn’t ignore the burning sting of guilt-- I did this and yet I knew the risks-- but he crushed it down. They were at the beginning of this. He had to endure. Mr Hickey was the one in pein, not he.

    “I’ll carry him, then.” he declared. 

 

    “Sir?”

 

    “He cannot go in the boats. I’ll carry him. Now come and help me.”

    He didn’t need to say more before the men rushed to help Hickey onto the Captain’s back. The caulker’s mate was small, and lightened both by starvation and exhaustion. When he was sure that his arms were properly hooked over his shoulders, he pushed himself against the boat to get back on his feet.

    Hickey’s head fell on his shoulder bonelessly and Francis felt him tense slightly, even if he didn’t make a noise. He didn’t ask Hickey if he was hurting him--considering everything, he probably was , and the man didn’t need further humiliation. 

   
    The walk started anew.

    Hickey was uncharacteristically silent. The man was after all known - by Crozier, that is - for his running mouth and even more running morals. Francis knew the man had things to say, things to ask. He could feel it in the way his shoulders tensed. It was only after hours in the Arctic’s constant sun that Hickey finally spoke. 

 

    “Why?” he whispered so low that Francis was probably the only one that heard him. There was no question of what Hickey meant -- they were both smart men and Francis knew he had to respect that.

    “No matter what happens, Mr Hickey, you’re one of us. You will not be abandoned.”

 

    “Even after what I did?”

 

    There was a silence, and Francis was all too aware of bothe James’ eyes on him and the importance of his answer. 

 

    “You were punished for what you did.” he started, and he could already feel what a pitiful excuse it was. Almost a justification.  “It doesn’t matter. Your rank doesn’t matter, your birth doesn’t matter.” 

There was a pregnant pose. Now, he was pretty sure everyone was listening to him. In for a penny - “ 

 

You’re one of us, not because of something you did or didn’t do. Because you’re here, with us. That’s all.”

    He didn’t hear an answer, but felt Hickey put his brow back on his shoulder and his breathing even out. He had fallen asleep. 

   

    When he turned towards James, his second noded in approbation. The pride that swelled in Francis was probably a little overdone.

 

---

 

    More and more men were sick, but most of them managed to stay on their feet. It was a relief for Francis and James both, even if it would probably be short lived. The gums blackened, as did the fingers and toes. 

 

    Their eyes had become sunken. Their hair was falling, their beards growing, their stomach growling.

    Despite everything, and all the prognosis, Hickey would be walking again. Goodsir had said so, with a benevolent smile but a small, familiar twitch of his brow. Francis suspected that if the good doctor could morally force Hickey on bed rest indefinitely, he would do so gladly. The man had, after all, tried to kill Lady Silence. Among other offences.

    But Francis knew the quiet, icy resolve in Hickey’s eyes, just like he knows Hickey recognises it in his. It was what made him show more kindness than he ought to. Self-preservation, in a sense. What Hickey was doing, that type of behaviour only appeared when the worst happened to you time and time again. A double-edged sword that allows you to survive the next day. Of course, it didn’t make the man faultless, far from it, but it made him useful .

    The thing was, they needed food, and they needed it quick. For that, every man mattered; well, some a little bit more than others.

 

 “Because it is needed, and because it is deserved, I’m making a promotion this morning,” Francis said, taking out paper and quill. “An emergency measure, if you will. But one that is wholly sincere.”

    He waited until all the eyes around him were bright with curiosity. He could almost feel James’s smile at his little trick--he had learnt dramatics from the best, after all. “To my knowledge, this has never been done, but then much of what we are doing has never been done, so I don’t want any confusion over this,” he said as he signed the document and passed it to James. They shared a look.

“Someone on this expedition has earned our trust, respect and confidence in a way that absolutely merits a place at this table,” he said as James rose from his seat. He pretended to go out of the tent when Jopson was right there, before stopping already halfway out.

 

“Well, gentlemen, we have a new lieutenant to welcome this morning,” he said cheerfully. 


    “James.” Francis chided, only to receive a false scornful glare. James winked at him and turned abruptly. He held out the document to Thomas. The new lieutenant’s eyes widened as he sought Crozier’s gaze. Francis only smiled at him and nodded in acknowledgement.

“Let me clarify, Jopson, I mean a third lieutenant. There is some modicum of protocol that must be observed, even here.” he joked, if only to allow poor Jopson a moment ot compose himself. 

 

The other officers looked delighted. Something warm spread in Francis’s chest. It had been a very long time since he had seen his boys’ faces lit up by smiles. Thomas was still staring incredulously from Crozier to his new fellow lieutenants, but there was something proud in the way he squared up his shoulders, in the way he held the document. Little kept patting him on the shoulder while Irving almost jumped from foot to foot in excitement.

“It’s a good thing--what you did,” said James once the officers went out. His face was soft, and open like Francis had rarely seen it. Francis smiled and put his own hand on his second’s, squeezing it lightly. “I’ll make my round at the infirmary and we will go,” he said.

 

The sicks grew more numerous by the day. Francis took time to talk to all the ones that could and hold the hand of the ones that couldn’t. He owed it to these men. 

They had put their faith in him and were dying all the same.

Rotting on their feet.

 

Goodsir only gave him one of the painful smiles that were the only ones gracing his face these days, and left the tent. Taking care of the ill was a thankless task. The whole place smelled like salt, death and decay. Francis wasn’t sure anyone could actually get out of here alive. As the days passed, the infirmary looked more like a quiet place to die, sheltered from the unending wind. 

 

James may have been the first confirmed case of scurvy, but many of the men now showed the symptomes. Including Jopson.

He felt a heavy gaze on his neck. Cornelius Hickey was staring at him. His eyes were still bright from the fever. He had been laid on his belly, with his face turned to the side so as not to bother his wounds. 

 

Francis sighed and went to sit next to him.

“How are you, Mr Hickey?” he asked. The small man looked at him for a moment, as if waiting for some form of derision or mockery. Finding none, he gave the captain his polite, unhappy smile. It was strange, Francis thought, how none of the man’s smiles came from any form of happiness.

“As well as I can be, Sir.”

 

“Doctor Goodsir assured me that you will be up in no time. It is a strange thing--a good thing, Mr Hickey, you don’t seem to have lost weight in our travel.”

 

A pause. 

 

“I’ve been starved before, Captain.”

 

“Yes, I had guessed,” he sighed softly. “ We all have at some point, ” he added in Irish. Surely a bit of home in this gigantic tundra would cheer him up. Something to make him remember that there was an outside of here. 

 

“I’m sorry, what did you say Captain?”

It clicked. Francis didn’t know what had taken him so long, but suddenly, everything seemed clearer. 


    “Don’t mind me, Mr Hickey. Do rest, now,” he said, and with a small pat on the man’s shoulder, he went out. 

 

The cold wind bit into his flesh as soon as he was out of the tent. The never-ending daylight didn’t bring much warmth in this part of the globe, and none of them were dressed for it. The Admiralty had, in their great wisdom, decided that sea travel didn’t need warm clothes for land travel.

 

Of course.
---

 

They walked side by side until they reached the monticule of rocks and ice that marked the barrier between the pack ice and King Wiilliam Land, But James seemed unsteady on his feet. Even if Francis would never say so, he was half-afraid the man would fall on the rocks and break his skull. Francis held out his hand and James took it as the Captain helped him up the monticule. Once up, they stood still in front of the endless land, hands still clasped together.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He could only feel the cold of the wind against his face and the warmth of James through the woolen mitten. He felt empty, in front of the rocks of the Land, as if the buzzing of his own thoughts had been lost somewhere behind him.

A dark lock of hair laying on dirty sheets--hard breaths through cracked lips--  

God wants you to live--

I’m not christ--

Deadened eyes, staring in pain--

Take my body and feed the men--

Francis startled when his eyes opened again on the tundra. Nothing had moved, James’s hand was still in his. Nothing. Nothing. 

 

Francis shook his head. “We should go--I don’t like to let the boys unsupervised for long. God only knows what they’re up to.”

James huffed a laugh as they went down from their little perch. “I can’t imagine how they will survive in London without your watchful eye. Have you decided how candid we are to be? My thought was to avoid any mention of the creature.”

 

“In trying to warn good people, we'd only excite foolish ones.”

 

“Can you imagine the bounty the Admiralty would place on a creature like ours? Oh, I'd happily live in a world with a few less foolish people in it,” teased James with a twisted smile. “Every whaling ship in Baffin Bay would head this way led by grubbing captains, but with good men in their crews,” reminded Francis. 


    James squeezed his hand. 

 

“We can't risk that.” he said, and there it was again, the steely determination. 

“Our creature, you said?” It was weird. “Our creature,” like it was some sort of rabid dog they kept in their house. Like the entire island was their home--it was not. Could never be. Yet, Francis wasn’t sure England would ever be their home again.

 

“Whether we've earned him or not.”

 

“Well, you've decided it's a ‘he,’ then?”

 

“It is most definitely a ‘he.’” I know no kind but male to be so brutal.”

 

Francis sighed. “You know that by the end of this there will probably be much more things than the creature we will have to hide.”

They had arrived at the Cairn and started to take out some of the stones. “Well,” said James, his brow furrowed. “We’ll just… line up our stories once we’re saved. So to say.” Francis made no notice of James’s half-eaten words.

Finally, the report was out of the Cairn. All is well , it said, and the irony made bile rise in Francis’s throat. "Graham died that very day,” whispered James. Francis stepped closer to his second, but said nothing.

“Do you know, after the war, I asked permission to walk home to London from Nanking, through Tibet and Russia. I wanted to try my hand at being an overland spy. I was the best walker in the Service. I told Sir John Barrow that once without blushing.” James said with a huff. His humor had taken a tone Francis didn’t really like, but he let the man talk.  “I was quick to want the world rid of its fools an hour ago. I forget sometimes how much an exemplar I am among them.” 

 

That made the Captain stop. “That's not how I see you.”

“Francis, do you know how I was appointed to this expedition?” asked his second, raising his hands in the air in self-depreciation. “I saved Sir John Barrow's son from a scandal . By chance, in Singapore. I paid to have a very base matter settled that would have blackened the Barrows's name, and the Admiralty's by association. As soon as I returned to London, I was promoted to commander. When the Admiralty announced there would be another attempt at the Passage, well, I only had to say the word.”

“That only makes you a man.”

 

“Does it?”

For a moment, Francis didn’t quite know how to answer. He wanted to scream, to shake James out of this, whatever it was. His second, his James, the wildest man in the fucking navy was looking down at his feet like a scolded child. It was wrong.

“What you describe is a surplus of political luck. Not a dearth of courage,” Francis said, grasping both shoulders as tightly as he dared. 

 

“I am a fake.”

 

“I challenge any biographer to tally up your acts of valour and then call you a fake.”

 

“Francis, a man like me will do amazing things to be seen. My--my father... My father was a ridiculous man. Ruined himself with debts. He was a consul general in Brazil, and he and his wife would mix with the wealthy Portuguese families in exile there. My mother was probably from one of those families. I was never told more. I was born out of an affair. And my father's cousins had to find people to raise me. My name--even my name was made up, for my baptism. James Fitzjames. Like a bad pun. I'm not even fully English.”

“I didn't know any of that.”

 

“I've never said it out loud before now. I always felt I deserved more. So I went to sea aged twelve, and I began to build myself a great gilded life that didn't humiliate me to live. And so all of those stories that you would have my biographer tally as courage--it's all vanity. It always has been. And we are at the end of vanity.”

    The end of me , Francis heard out loud. He didn’t want it, but the simple idea made something dark twist itself in his stomach, feeding on the lead and the starvation. Something he didn’t care to look at.

“Then you are free. Mine your courage from a different lode now. Friendship. Brotherhood. James--” Francis put his fingers under James’s chin to force him to look up, “Do you think I, a lowborn Irish nobody, will care that you’re not of pure English descent?”

 

“You said this in earnest, Francis?”

    Both of Francis’s hands clasped themselves around James’s face, pulling it so close to his that he could feel the man’s warm breath on his skin. “Don’t you know yet?” he said fiercely--and he knew his grip was just a touch too brutal--James’s eyes were wide and open. “Don’t you know how much you’re worth, James? You are the most important one here. You matter more than anything, for fuck’s sake!”

    James made a sound that was half-way between a sob and a laugh. 

   

“Alright?” asked Francis, still holding him tightly.

   

“Alright.”

   

“Good.”

    Francis didn’t know who kissed the other first. All he knew was that their lips touched in the faintest brush, a complete opposite to the grip of his palms against James’s face. Yet, neither of them tried to deepen the kiss, for fear of tasting blood or something even more ominous. They stood there, brow against brow, Francis’s hands falling in a soft caress on James's neck. They shared a breath or two.

    “We have to go back.”

   

When they arrived, the marines were running.

    ---

   

It was Irving who was stirring the camp. That alone made Francis and James share a worried look. 

   

“I found a Netsilik family!” said the lieutenant eagerly. “They gave me food!”

   

Something rushed out of Francis’s chest in an oof and before the lieutenant had time to add anything, he found himself tucked in a crushing embrace. 

 

    “Go on, kid, show me where they are,” Crozier said gruffly when he heard James snort behind him. 

 

    The family didn’t have much--just enough meat to give to their sick ones, and some moss that Goodsir gave in tea and soup in a vain attempt to slow down the scurvy. Francis still thanked them profusely, not really knowing the right words for it. We are starving, he said, You saved my sons for a few more days

 

Crozier pointedly ignored the look Blanky gave him. The Ice Master clasped him on the shoulder as they went back to the Terror Camp. Francis left the meal for most of the men and brought some moss with him into his and James’s shared tent. Reverently, he prepared the dedoction as best as he could before giving it to James.

His second looked at him wearily. “I’m not yet an invalid, Francis. You should give it to the men.” There was anger flaring behind those eyes, and somehow, it pleased Francis. Anger required energy, that was good news. “You were one of the first to show the symptoms. Don’t lie to me, I know you asked Bridgens not to tell me. I’m not an idiot, James. Now drink this.”

James opened his mouth, only to close it again. Finally, he put his hands over Francis’s around the metallic mug and took it to his cracked lips. His face crumpled in distaste, and Francis couldn’t help laughing. A few seconds later, James laughed too. He laughed with a closed mouth, so as not to show the bleeding teeth.

Neptune was barking slightly too much. 

 

There was a roar somewhere outside.