The end of the world unfolds slowly. It starts, more or less, with Tom Hartnell red-eyed and shaking in front of his brother’s grave, and it ends, eventually, in a trail of sun-bleached bones.
For Harry Peglar, the end is a tent that smells of sickness, silent except for the howling wind and his own laboured breathing.
It hurts to cough, even just to breathe, and broken-glass pain arcs up his arm when he reaches out to hold John’s hand. He wants to say something, but he can’t think of anything through the haze. At least he can’t really feel the cold anymore, or focus long enough to dwell on the future; on what he knows John Bridgens will do when he finally dies.
He wishes, dimly, that he could stay awake now that the rest of the crew are giving them privacy. Years of being kept apart, first by the ships and then by the long walk, and now they can’t even enjoy this measure of acceptance. A small injustice on top of the rest of their suffering.
Harry Peglar wants, and drifts, and sleeps.
Unsurprisingly, they meet again in a bookshop. Harry figures he should’ve expected this; the dusty classics section of a used bookstore was exactly the sort of place they haunted before, in that other life.
That lifetime feels more like some kind of persistent daydream during waking hours, faded and fragile and surreal; and yet John Bridgens is standing here in front of him, real and solid as the bookshelves around them and staring at Harry like he can’t bear to look away.
“Harry,” John breathes, half a question. He looks – strange. Not much different from when they first met on the Gannett, maybe, long before the stress and grief of the Franklin expedition had set in, but now Harry’s taken aback by dark hair and an unlined face. His eyes are the same as ever, though, soft and sad, and – and he still has the tattoo, just peeking out from under the rolled-up sleeve of his sweater. Harry wants very badly to touch it.
“John,” Harry says. He doesn’t bother trying to hold back his grin. “Been a while, hasn’t it?” He basks in John’s fond answering smile, the way his eyes dart over Harry’s face like he’s drinking him in.
John’s hands are fluttering at his sides, uncertain, so Harry moves first and embraces him tightly. It’s platonic enough, even with his face tucked into John’s throat, and Harry feels something in his chest ease into place when John’s arms wrap warm and solid around him.
“I’m a librarian,” John explains with a proud little smile. “I thought of being a professor, or something like that, but...well, I prefer the library, as it turns out. It’s bit like old times, helping people with their books and everything.”
“Except there’s nobody as handsome as me, of course,” Harry says, mock severe, and immediately bites the inside of his cheek. He doesn’t even know if John still – his heart skips a beat when John laughs, laughter lines making this younger face abruptly more familiar.
He can’t help but cautiously inch his fingers across the tiny table, not entirely sure where they stand or, more importantly, how John feels about public affection these days. His stomach flips again when John immediately covers Harry’s hand with his own – instinctively, judging by the sheepish look on his face, though he doesn’t pull away – with barely a care for the busy cafe around them. They’re not quite holding hands, but the touch settles him all the same, and John visibly relaxes in his own chair.
Were they like this before, too, even at the end? They’ve only just met this time around, but Harry remembers John better than almost anything else from before. Even now, its feels more like they haven’t seen each other for mere months instead of an entire lifetime. He feels off-balance when he tries to think about it more deeply.
(The Harry Peglar of the past had had strong arms and rough hands and a reckless longing for John Bridgens. For anyone he’d loved, really, but John had been the last and longest and also, frankly, the one kept furthest away from him. He’d loved the rolling sea enough to make up for the hardships of the Navy, and had faced most everything with a kind of level fearlessness – sometimes fake, often not – that Harry, now, can’t entirely comprehend. It’s a lot to live up to.)
“It’s going to be harder this time, isn’t it,” Harry says. It’s not quite a question. He’s decidedly aware of how differently his life has gone, of how these older memories are both his and not. He doesn’t feel all that different, not really, not unless he thinks about it for too long. But he doesn’t know what John sees, whether he’s tallying the discrepancies and comparing them to the Harry Peglar he remembers.
“More complicated, I think, but if nothing else I’ll be quite happy to have your friendship again. I doubt we’ve changed that much.” John pauses, absently rubbing a thumb over Harry’s knuckles. “I’m glad we’ve found each other. Whatever else happens.”
It’s strange how things have both changed and stayed almost exactly the same. Now that they have the words it’s far easier to talk about their old troubles, about Harry’s dyslexia and John’s depression and everything else that seems to have followed them to the present.
It’s an unexpected relief to have John in his life again, with all his gentle affection and sharp intelligence. They smoothly fall back into their old patterns, or something like it, almost as though they’re back in Harry’s old flat just before their last expedition.
The thing is, Harry has spent most of his life unable to remember John specifically. He’d known the rough shape of someone he missed desperately, but the memory of John, as a concrete person he’d loved and who had loved him even through illness and death, had returned much later.
A small mercy, really. He knows John, how he worries away at anything he doesn’t fully understand; those few years before they had found each other again, when he’d hoped John was also alive and well but had no way of knowing, had made him deeply uneasy.
John Bridgens lives in a tiny old house filled to the brim with books and, to Harry’s mild surprise, plants. An eclectic selection of houseplants and herbs crowd the windows and every other flat surface; Harry suspects that John would have fruit trees in his kitchen if he could.
“I didn’t expect the plants,” Harry says, admiring the tiny potted flowers on the kitchen windowsill. He likes it instantly; their old apartment had been cramped and bare, with little room for anything more than shabby furniture and a few books. This is wonderfully comfortable and lived-in and permanent.
“It felt too empty before, and I thought it would keep me busy. Something new.” Something alive. Harry thinks, briefly but vividly, of ghosts hauling sledges over endless bare rocks, and holds back a shudder.
“Not much time for gardening in the Navy,” Harry agrees.
John shows him around with a certain amount of pride, already offering to let him take any books and plants he’d like. Harry can’t help but distract him with a kiss at that, quick and sweet and new enough to make his heart race.
“You remember our apartment?” Harry asks over dinner, later on.
“Unfortunately. Did we ever figure out why your landlady disliked me so much?”
“Thought you were too smart for your own good, I bet. Anyways, what I want to know is how we both managed to fit in the bed. That thing was even smaller than your berth on Erebus.”
“I suppose it was that bad, wasn’t it?” John laughs at his exaggerated grimace. He’s leaning forward, entirely focused on Harry, the rest of his meal forgotten in front of him.
“Your bed now is much better,” Harry says primly, with great certainty despite only getting the briefest glance at John’s bedroom, and makes sure John is watching when he wriggles his eyebrows. John sighs in fond exasperation while Harry laughs.
Harry dreams of the past often. Mostly it’s snatches of better memories that flicker past like faded photographs: playing cards with the other Terrors, the thrill of being up in the masts and climbing the ropes as sure-footed as a dancer. Of stolen kisses in shadowed corners and John sleeping peacefully in his bed.
Sometimes it’s not. At best, he dreams of hauling endlessly into the empty horizon while prickling dread creeps down his spine; he wakes up exhausted and uneasy, but at least nothing happens.
Other times he’s sprawled on the ground, sharp rocks digging into his back, feeling John’s cool hands and the eyes of the crew on his feverish skin. Or it’s John’s fixed blankness after Morfin’s death, the heat and the crushing crowd at Carnivale, the horrible crawling nausea at the sight of the shredded medical tent. There are, after all, plenty of unpleasant memories for his mind to choose from; he figures he’s just lucky that they’re not so vivid during the day.
The quiet dreams are the worst, especially now that he’s found John. In those nightmares – nightmare, really – there is only the two of them in a ragged tent. Harry suffers through this final illness with all the dignity he can muster, but it’s a special kind of agony to see John bowed by heartbreak, grief darkening the lines on his face until he looks like he’s aged a decade. Despair fills the tent like smoke, and dream-John reaches out to trace Harry’s jaw with gentle hands and a touch like dragging needles.
Harry’s barely aware that he’s awake and clinging tightly – too tightly – to John until he twists in his arms with a questioning noise. He’s confused and half-asleep but immediately cradles Harry’s face in his hands, brushing back his hair and murmuring soothingly. Harry leans into the touch and, when that small contact isn’t enough, hauls John down until he’s a solid, comforting weight on top of him.
“Harry? Harry, love, it’s alright. It’s okay.”
John gently brushes tears from his eyes and presses a series of kisses to his temple, concerned and endlessly patient in the half-light. Harry concentrates on John’s touch until his breathing steadies and the seizing fear in his chest loosens a little. He lets John shift until they’re both on their sides, still wrapped around each other.
“Nightmare,” he chokes out, as if John hasn’t already guessed, before he has to bury his face in John’s shoulder again. “I was – dying. In the tent.” John goes tense, then forces out a heavy sigh. His hand strokes Harry’s bare side soothingly before worming between their bodies, carefully skirting the scars on his chest, until his palm rests warm and solid over his heart.
Neither of them say anything else for a long time. Harry counts the steady thrum of John’s heartbeat until he almost thinks he could fall asleep.
“What else do you remember?” John asks, so softly Harry nearly doesn’t hear him.
“The sea. London. You, mostly,” Harry says softly, entirely honest. “I think I remember most things, but...not as clearly, I guess. It’s all dreamlike, doesn’t always make sense. Especially anything from the expedition.”
He doesn’t need to ask what his kindhearted John remembers best. It’s obvious in the way John’s so careful with him sometimes, something beyond his usual warmth, and the way he blindly reaches for Harry in the middle of the night.
Harry doesn’t remember the end very well at all; the last few months after Hickey’s mutiny feels like he’s peering through heavy fog. Sometimes he has nightmares that fade as soon as he wakes, leaving behind only vague impressions of exhaustion and pain and the feeling of worn hands cradling his face.
It’s a relief not to know more.
“They found my body, you know. And your journal,” John says quietly after a few long moments, his voice rough but matter-of-fact. Harry startles; John’s considerably less willing to talk about what happened than he is, and he’s very rarely so straightforward. John’s arm around his body is tense and there’s a muscle working in his jaw, but he doesn’t pull away.
“You’ve looked into it?” Harry hasn’t, not really. He had tried, once or twice, if only to find out how it had all looked from the outside. But even the mention of the boys on Beechey Island had made his stomach turn, and he’d given up almost immediately.
John is not like him. John will carefully probe at his own hurt edges until his curiosity is satisfied, for better or worse.
“A little. Not too deeply. Did you know – people know about us? Hypothetically, I suppose. One of the letters we sent between the ships survived.” Well. He had kept a couple of John’s letters, even though they were nothing special. He’d abandoned all of his books except for his battered journal and the small hoard of papers inside it, even when the headaches had kept him from reading or writing.
“Mostly gossip, wasn’t it? Not, you know, fancy poetry or anything.”
“Apparently it enough for some people to suspect. My fault, I imagine,” John says wryly. He pauses again, absently pressing his mouth to the crown of Harry’s head. “In a way – it's not the same as being able to be openly together, obviously, but...”
“It’s still...being seen,” Harry says. An impossible dream at the time, of course, but something that he had desperately wanted. Something more than the pity of dying men.
He’s not entirely sure how he feels about this posthumous recognition of what they were to each other. Uncomfortable, mostly. It’s one thing to remember some kind of past life, and entirely another to realize that there are others trying to look in as well.
“About that. Us, I mean. I’ve been thinking,” Harry says slowly. “I wouldn’t mind a matching one. Of your tattoo.” He traces the lashes of the eye by memory, reveling in the way John pulls him even closer.
“You said that last time, too,” John says. His voice sounds odd.
“Yeah, and I meant it.”
“I know, I mean...I wasn’t sure if it was the tattoo you wanted, specifically.”
“Well, obviously wedding rings would have been better–” Harry’s pretty sure they had discussed that at least twice, so he ignores John’s speechless gaping. “It wasn’t just to be - public about it, John. Well, kind of, but I mostly wanted it for me. For us.” He sneaks a glance at John’s expression. “I’m not asking you to marry me, John, not – erm. Not yet?”
He can feel the heat radiating from his face; shared history aside, they haven’t really been together long enough for this conversation. It feels especially inappropriate now, when they’re only awake because Harry dreamed of his own death. John looks deeply pleased, though, and even in the faint dawn light Harry can see a rare flush spreading across his cheeks.
The nightmare feels as distant as the Arctic itself.
Years later, on a trip down the coast and away from the city:
John stands near the cliff, his long gray hair loose and tangled. He is dwarfed by the endless rolling sea and sky around him, but his shoulders are relaxed and his hands open at his sides. He looks equally likely continue down to the shore as he is to turn back towards Harry with that familiar smile.
Harry watches him for a long time, breathing in ozone and something else that makes his chest feel bright and buoyant. John turns towards him, questioning, and reaches out a hand.
Harry takes it without looking away, and lets John pull him forward.