The captain's face is greyish and stark with worry. When he sits, forgetting the broken chair, he looks like a man who can't stand up anymore. It would be selfish to let him stay. "Now you've got nowhere to sit," Tintin says as the captain pushes himself up out of the debris, grumbling, both hands on the edge of Tintin's hospital bed for leverage. "Go and get some sleep. There's no reason you should have a white night on my account."
This argument bounces off the captain like an arrow off rhinoceros hide. "How many times have I got to repeat myself, thick-head? I'm not leaving you alone."
If Tintin's head weren't thick, there might not be much of it left. Tintin can see the moment it occurs to the captain; he scowls through his beard like one of this morning's irritable old mountain bears.
Tintin throws him a honey-tart of reassurance. "I'm all right." In the strict sense, it's true. He's not dying or even seriously injured. The rest--the throbbing head, nausea, vertigo, the way bright light stabs at him--is detail. "Anyway, what would you do if I weren't? Brain surgery?"
"Thunder and lightning, boy, I'm not leaving you!" The captain shoves his hands in his pockets, bracing himself immovably in place. "Have you forgotten there's a saboteur wandering around loose?"
"Certainly not." It's not likely he'll make himself conspicuous by attacking Tintin in the infirmary, however. "But I don't - "
"I'm staying and that's that. I'll sit on the floor if I can't rustle up another chair."
One of the things Tintin has learned from being the captain's friend is how to give in. It's often not easy--more than once he's barely held back from pouring the captain's liquor down the drain--but tonight, if he's honest with himself, it's a bit of a relief. There's something lonely about a hospital, even with Milou's company. Something still lonelier in the thought that he might have died. "No, don't bother the staff for a chair. Come and sit with me, there's room."
"On . . . er, that is . . . " The captain falls silent, fidgeting with the pipe he's drawn out of a pocket.
"The bed's perfectly comfortable. And you can smoke. I don't mind the smell." In fact he likes the smell, which is familiar and sweet, not at all like the bitterness of cigarettes.
"You'll be too crowded."
A little crowding sounds oddly pleasant. "I'll be fine." Tintin pets Milou, who yawns and stretches but keeps his eyes open, as watchful as the captain..
"I . . . all right, if you're sure I won't bother you." The captain switches off the overhead light, then removes his shoes and settles with his back against the headboard, carefully not to shake the bed. The mattress sinks a little under his weight; Tintin finds his head resting, not uncomfortably, against the captain's hip. "Go to sleep now."
Tintin tries, but his mind's a-jangle with secret messages and ventilation shafts, rockets and reactors and space suits and guns. It's not even thought, it's just a mess, like a long bad wide-awake dream. He tries to clear his mind, to relax his muscles, to concentrate on his breathing or the warmth of Milou's head on his knee and the captain's body next to him. He fails. At last he tries counting sheep, but the sheep all have sly, untrustworthy faces and they trot in rhythm to his pounding head.
Above him he hears the cautious unfolding of a tobacco pouch and the striking of a match. The captain inhales, then slowly exhales. Tintin catches only the faintest tobacco scent. He opens his eyes and sees, in the yellow glow of the bedside lamp, that the captain has turned to direct the smoke away from him.
"I told you I don't mind the smell."
"I told you to go to sleep."
"I can't. No, it's not you," he adds at the captain's movement, "it's my headache."
"Should I call a nurse?"
"No, thank you. Some headache's to be expected, the doctor said." Tintin tries to read the captain's expression, but from this angle he's all beard and nose. "Talk to me a little?"
"A bedtime story?" The captain breathes out a weary half-laugh. He really ought to have gone to bed. Tintin thinks about saying so, but then he imagines lying here awake and alone. "Once upon a time there were three little bears - no, that's not right. Three little girls. Or was it pigs? No, it can't have been pigs, there was something about golden hair - "
"Tell me something true?" Tintin says. "Please. About the sea. Or England. I've only been there once, you know, and I didn't see much of it. I've spent more time in China than I have next door."
"I'm not an expert. I only lived there until I was nine."
His neutral voice doesn't hint at what Tintin knows happened next: his mother died while his father was at sea, and he came to live with his paternal grandparents in Tournai. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bring back bad memories."
"No, it's all right." The captain's hand moves as though he's going to ruffle Tintin's hair, then catches himself and brushes Tintin's bandaged head with his fingertips, so lightly Tintin scarcely feels it. "We were in Liverpool, you know. Port city, a bit rough, not exactly the England they put on postcards. No Stonehenge or Tower of London. But fine in its way. Fine people. The neighbors took me in after my mum died, until my father could get home. Mrs. Doherty. She had five kids of her own already, but she was kind to me." The captain takes a long draw of his pipe, and then says briskly, "Anyway, the English weather's as awful as people say. Every winter day I'd walk to school with ice water dripping off my hat and down the back of my raincoat. Looking west from the harbor you couldn't tell the sea from the sky . . . "
Tintin shuts his eyes again, trying to picture the captain as a small boy, beardless, skinny, shivering in rubber boots. It's almost beyond belief, like shrinking a St. Bernard down to a puppy again, all eyes and fluff. He wonders, as he finally eases towards sleep, whether the captain has photographs and whether he could ask to see them.
He's not allowed out of bed for a week; the doctor threatens to have him restrained if he disobeys. It's almost tolerable for the first three days when he feels terrible anyway, but then it becomes a penance worse than anything the Dominican fathers of his school days could have devised. It also makes him wonder whether his wound is more dangerous than he's been told. The doctor brushes off his questions, and all the captain will say is "I don't know, ask the doctor."
After that first night, the captain has started sleeping in his own room again, but he comes to the infirmary promptly every morning and stays all day. He only leaves for meals and Milou's brief walks. He brings Tintin all the news about the rocket and all the lack of news about the investigation (there have been no more sabotage attempts, which makes Tintin think perhaps the damage is already done). He reads to Tintin from out-of-date issues of Le Monde and a copy of A Study in Scarlet borrowed from Mr. Baxter, which is wonderful in the captain's good English. When Tintin's appetite fails through inactivity, the captain bullies him kindly with ginger biscuits and tinned fruit salad that he's liberated from the mess. When boredom makes Tintin restless, the captain acquires a deck of cards and teaches him to play belote and tarot; if Tintin loses, he has to eat something, and if the captain loses he has to drink a glass of mineral water. Sometimes, when Tintin's head is bad, the captain sits quietly in his chair, reading or musing until they both doze off. Sometimes, best of all, he talks, describing Calais or Calcutta, the bad currents off Nova Scotia, barrels of fermenting fish in Indochina, his youthful scrapes with his friend Chester, the improvements he means to make at Moulinsart. Talking about the chateau, he looks wistful.
On the fifth day, the captain concludes a chapter of Sherlock Holmes's adventures and says, "We could go home, you know. They'll be letting you out of the infirmary before long, and there's no reason you shouldn't recuperate in comfort. Come and stay at Moulinsart. Fresh country air, that's what you need."
Tintin, who lost an argument with the doctor that morning about sponge baths, is so fed up that for a moment he's tempted. "Thank you," he says. "You're very kind. But the moon! I don't want to miss the chance to walk on the moon just because I've got a little headache."
"I don't understand this mania for going to the moon. It's nothing but rocks and craters. I'd rather walk in my orchard and see the apple trees in flower."
"Apples flower every year," Tintin says. "Anyway, you don't want to be saddled with an invalid, even a temporary one." The captain has been as patient as a most unlikely saint, but Tintin must be wretched company.
"Don't be absurd. You're always welcome. Always." The captain takes his tobacco pouch from his pocket and starts filling his pipe. "In fact, I've been thinking. Why not come and live with - live at the chateau? There's plenty of room. You'd be much more comfortable than in your little flat." As he talks, his hands keep working with economical skill, like well-managed automatons. Or perhaps not so well-managed; he overfills his pipe until there's a hillock of tobacco at the top. "Wretched lump of under-baked swamp mud," the captain mutters to his blameless pipe as he taps the tobacco back into the pouch and starts over.
Concentration and thought have been a struggle since Tintin was shot; watching the captain's hands, he didn't quite follow his words until this pause, during which the captain keeps slowly, slowly refilling his pipe. "Captain, that's . . . that's extraordinarily generous." Moulinsart is beautiful, and he's always sad to leave it. There's a melancholy in every train ride back the city, a little for the apple trees and the fine old paintings, and even more for the miles stretching between him and captain, who used to live a quarter-hour's walk away across the canal.
"It's a big place for one man," the captain says, shrugging off the charge of generosity. "Well, two, there's Tournesol of course. But that's . . . and think how Milou would love having the whole grounds to play in." Milou whines hopefully--perhaps in answer, perhaps just at the sound of his name--and the captain strokes him and scratches behind his ears.
"Wouldn't I put you out? Be in the way? Guests are like fish, they say. After three days - "
"Ten thousand cannonballs! You're not a guest, Tintin, you're . . . I wouldn't have asked if I didn't mean it." At last, he remembers to light his pipe. "It's all right if you don't want to," he adds, almost incomprehensible around the pipe-stem clenched hard between his teeth.
"It's not that. I . . ." Ever since the captain left the city Tintin has struggled under a fluctuating discontent, an unsettledness that's different from the old urge to explore. A . . . should he call it nostalgia, this nagging backwards urge towards Moulinsart? He's never felt that before. What need, when the world's so big and full of mystery? He has always slipped coolly along like a ship through the waves, like a rocket through space, and what he passes has never called him as much as what's ahead. But things are beginning to be different. Perhaps it's that he's not quite a boy any longer. He's seen a lot of the world, and soon perhaps the moon as well. " . . . I . . . let me think about it?"
"Of course," the captain says, and busies himself with gently untangling a knot in Milou's fur. "Take as long as you like. Moulinsart will still be there."
Tintin smiles. Moulinsart has stood since 1630; he can imagine it growing into the landscape like another tree, deep-rooted and sturdy. It's a good place for the captain. It would be a good place to come back to. "About the moon . . . "
"Well, you don't seem to fancy the trip very much. If you'd prefer - "
The captain shakes his head. "If everything goes wrong and we end up drifting through dead space on our way to Alpha Centauri, I want to be there to say I told you so."
"We'll get to the moon," Tintin says. It's not that he doesn't understand the risks--there are so many risks that taken together they're almost likelihoods--but somewhere surer than rationality, he's certain it'll be all right. That certainty has seen him through other adventures, and he trusts it. "And then, well, I'd love to come and stay for a while, at least. We'll miss the apple blossoms but perhaps we'll be in time for the asters."
"Or if all else fails, the apples," the captain says, smiling.
Apples and autumn leaves, what could be better? And the big fireplace for cold evenings. But I shall keep my flat, Tintin thinks, vaguely shocked at himself for feeling more confident of the moon than of Moulinsart. Just in case you get tired of me. He can't imagine quarrelling with the captain, not seriously, but it's wise to have a backup plan. And there needn't be a quarrel, just a . . . drifting. The captain might take up respectability, run for mayor, decide he doesn't want a notorious demi-journalist hanging around. He might even want to get married. Women probably throw themselves at him; he's not only rich, he's good, and they must see that he'd make the best of husbands. Well, except for the drinking, but that's only an occasional problem. Tintin wouldn't be surprised if some of the younger widows or even the marriageable girls of Moulinsart village pray to St. Agnes that the captain will notice them. One day perhaps he will. Then there'll be no room for Tintin anymore.
It's a hard thought. Tintin only just stops himself from wishing that the captain would stay single forever. Instead he tries to be a true friend and wish that the captain finds whatever will make him happiest.
Yes, Tintin will keep his flat.
Eight days after he was shot, Tintin is allowed to get up and walk around a little. The day after that, he's returned to his own room (in a wheelchair, over his protests) and only has to come in to the infirmary for a daily checkup and bandage change. He's not yet allowed on his feet for long, but even walking to the toilet or getting dressed and sitting in a chair is an exhilarating freedom after a week imprisoned in bed.
The captain still stays with him most of the day. The base bores him nearly as much as the room bores Tintin, and since they're the only two people here without a job to do, they've got to entertain each other. They play chess, now that Tintin can concentrate better, and try to decipher the Syldavian radio news broadcasts using their joint fifty-word vocabulary. The captain knits two pairs of socks ("one for each of us, it'll be cold on the moon") out of coarse wool yarn he scrounged somewhere. It's a little funny to see a big black-bearded man with knitting needles in his hands, but the captain says if Tintin had ever been a sailor he'd have learned to knit too. The captain offers to teach him, in fact, but Tintin knows that once he's better, he'll never have the patience for all that sitting still.
Tintin's eyes don't yet focus well on print--it's beginning to worry him--so the captain continues reading to him. On his second evening out of the infirmary they're partway through another of Baxter's books, Hamlet, by Shakespeare. Neither Tintin's English nor even the captain's is sufficiently good to follow all the speeches, which makes it slow going, not quite lively enough to help Tintin's restlessness and discomfort.
"'You will lose this wager, my lord,'" the captain is intoning, as Tintin turns onto his other side for the hundredth time. "And Hamlet answers 'I do not think so. Since he - ' A thousand cannonballs, Tintin! Have you got St. Vitus' dance? What's the matter with you?"
"Nothing." Tintin tries drawing up one knee, which only shifts the ache higher. "My back hurts, that's all. Too much lying down."
"Do you want to get up again?"
"No, I can't stay up long enough to make a difference. And I'm tired." Glad as he is to be walking again, it exhausts him. This must be what it's like to be old. "I hate this. I just want to be well."
"I know. Patience. Shall I get you one of your tablets?"
"They give me a brain full of fog."
"Isn't that the point? So you can sleep?"
"It's not proper sleep. It's too . . . blank, and I wake up confused." He might have been confused forever, if the bullet had gone through his brain instead of creasing his skull. He might have lived but lost himself. Perhaps he has anyway, perhaps he'll never read again, perhaps he'll have these headaches forever and standing up will always make him dizzy. Fear of it grinds him awake, some nights. He'd better not think about it now, but concentrate on the small and solvable. "The nurses used to rub my back to ease the muscles. Would you mind terribly . . . ?" Tintin starts unbuttoning his pyjama top, self-conscious at the captain's startled look. He tried to keep his top on, the first time, and the nurse laughed and told him not to be silly.
"I'm no nurse, lad. I'd probably flatten the life out of you."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, I'm not a china doll. Anyway, it takes some force to get the knots out. I expect you'd be good at it." He slips the top off and rolls over on his belly. "Here," he says, rubbing his own lower back ineffectually, "that's where it's worst. Long strokes up and down should help."
"I told you, I . . . " There's a slow sigh, and a creak as the captain gets out of his chair. "You're stubborn as a mule."
"So you keep telling me."
"Yes, well - " A hand settles at the center of Tintin's back, big and warm, calling up a warmth in his skin that radiates from the spot. Tintin can imagine how much better he'll feel soon, loose and relaxed, nearly free of pain, contented enough bodily to let go, perhaps, of his worries. He burrows his head a little more snugly into his folded arms and makes an encouraging noise.
Instantly, the captain's hand is gone, the warmth fading away. Tintin shivers.
"I'll get you a nurse," the captain says. "You need someone who knows what they're doing. And cover up now, you'll catch your death, boy."
The door opens and shuts again before Tintin can even turn over. Blast it. He's upset the captain. That's the last thing he wanted, when everything has been so easy between them lately, so comfortable and friendly. He presumed too much from the care the captain's taken with him and started taking his help for granted, treating him like an unpaid nurse. It didn't seem like so much to ask--Tintin would willingly rub the captain's back for him if it was hurting--but it must have been the last straw. Oh, he is a fool.
Regret leaves him cold and lonely. He can only hope the captain isn't so insulted that he won't come back tonight, because he wants to apologize as soon as he can.
The rocket looms ahead of them as the motorcar advances through the dark. In its own sleek way it's as grand as a cathedral. It's a cathedral that really will take you to heaven. A strange icy prickling washes from the back of Tintin's neck down his spine--Germans call it the holy shiver, he's heard--and his awed joy is almost indistinguishable from fear.
"All right?" the captain asks. He still seems grumpy. Tintin has to admit that past midnight isn't the most cheerful hour to start an adventure.
"Oh, yes. Magnificent. It's magnificent. We're going to the moon!"
"Let's hope." The captain shakes his head, lamenting over all the bad ends he's imagined. At least he doesn't go back to listing them aloud.
"You can still change your mind, you know." Tintin means it as teasing, a fond joke, but any humor falls into the captain's dark silence and disappears.
The captain shakes his head again and hugs his stack of books even closer. "No, I don't think I can."
He doesn't want to go. This isn't his usual token complaining. He truly, genuinely doesn't want to go to the moon. He's afraid, without any bright admixture of joy in it, and if he had his own way he'd have been back home weeks ago.
And yet he's going to the moon, because . . . because Tintin is going. There can be no other reason.
Friendship has its own grandeur, its own holiness. Tintin shivers again at the vastness of everything he's been given. Moulinsart and the moon, and a friend better than any of the stainless heroes Tintin dreamed up during his solitary childhood. "Captain . . . " Feeling roils in him, great tides of it, as chaotic and wordless as the sea.
And they arrive, the motorcar stopping, the rocket before them. "You'll be glad you came, in the end," Tintin says with his hand on the door latch, giving up on better words. "Trust me."
It takes so long opening the airlock--rage and relief have made Tintin shake, and the captain is too drink-blunted to be any use--that for a moment Tintin wonders if they're both going to die after all. Then they're through and Tintin removes his helmet, taking great gulps of ship's air that used to seem thin but is now sweet and plentiful compared to the spacesuit's oxygen system.
The captain stands with his back to the airlock, helmet still on, head hanging. No doubt he can't work the fastenings. It's a wonder he got suited up properly and didn't die of a vacuum leak the instant he stepped out into space. Tintin loosens the seals and lifts the captain's helmet free. The captain looks at him, eyes bloodshot and a little wild. "Tintin - "
"Come on. We've got work to do."
"Tintin, wait, please." The captain catches his suited arm in a gloved hand; it's strange, like two robots quarrelling. Touch without feeling. Tintin pulls free, turns his back on Captain Archibald Dangerous Drunken Fool Haddock, and starts--tries--to walk away. But he can't do it. He gets four steps before he turns around again. There are tears now in the captain's red eyes, and his lower lip is trembling as he says, "I'm sorry."
"You're always sorry once you start to sober up."
The shock on his face, as though Tintin has struck him. Good, let him be shocked. Let him understand what he's done, what he's always doing. His wet eyes brim over and two tears slide with infinite slowness down into his beard. "I didn't mean to - "
"What did you mean, then? We're halfway to the moon, tell me what you meant by getting drunk! Tell me what you meant by walking out of the airlock! You could have got us all killed." Tintin is shaking even harder now, all the fear he didn't have time to feel hitting him at once. A queasy weakness undermines his anger, softening him right down to the marrow of his bones.
The captain sniffles abashedly and looks away. "You didn't have to risk your life for me," he whispers. "Why did you? You could have let me alone. Let me . . . "
"Die? No, you're my friend. I couldn't . . . " Couldn't think of it. Didn't think of it, or of anything but saving him. In the end it was Tintin, not just the captain, who put the ship at risk. Pragmatic Tournesol was ready to let the captain spend eternity as an asteroid's moon. Tintin would never weigh his own life against a friend's, but there are five other lives on this rocket. He never considered them at all. Because the captain is his friend.
Would he have done the same for Wolff or the Dupondts? Tournesol, perhaps. Milou certainly.
All he's done is thoughtlessly protect what he values.
Pure selfishness. It wasn't a good act at all; by a truly objective measure it may even have been a bad one. He ought to be ashamed. He is ashamed, and yet he doesn't regret it, either.
"Tintin." The captain pulls off his gloves, and for an odd moment Tintin thinks he's about to touch him, but he only scrubs at his cheeks and roughly knuckles the tears out of his eyes. "I . . . you mean a lot . . . you mean the bloody world to me, you know." Those stammered words, that crooked and wavering smile: he's still drunk. "I'd do anything. Anything. For you. My . . . my friend. My lad."
There's a terrible ache in Tintin's chest. He can't breathe for a moment. This is what he'd have felt if the rescue maneuver had gone wrong, if he'd drifted out there until he'd run out of oxygen. Then the captain smiles again, his soul in his eyes, and renewed anger rushes through Tintin, as strengthening as cold fresh air. "You'll do anything for me except stop drinking."
"Ah." The captain's whole face goes red, greased with sweat, and Tintin's not sure whether to feel sorry for humiliating him or to push harder, humiliate him once and for all until he can't bear the sight of a bottle. "It's not so easy, that. I hope you never find out how hard it is."
Is that it, then? The limit of their friendship? Will the captain do anything for him, provided it's easy enough?
"I shouldn't have brought alcohol on board," the captain continues, tiptoeing at the edge of Tintin's silence. "I wasn't going to. But then . . . such a long time in this awful little place, like a barracks, and . . . well, never mind why. Oh, thunder and lightning. Maybe you should clap me in irons after all."
"You could have died. You could have died for the sake of a bottle of whisky." Tintin's chest aches again, differently, desolately. "Do you think I'd have cared about the moon then? Do you think anything else would have mattered?"
For a long time, they stand looking at each other. There's something haunted and bleak and strange in the captain's face, as terrible as the desert in Tintin's heart, the ruin he averted but can still feel crumbling inside him. After a while the captain says, quietly, "I'm sorry."
A stillness descends. Tintin thinks of a vibrating guitar string, silenced at a touch. "I know."
"I swear to you - "
"Don't. Just let it go." He reaches up and pats the captain's shoulder, feeling the ache clench his chest again. "There really is a lot of work to do. We'd better get on with it."
"When I was a boy," the captain says, giving the crate's corner a shove with his foot, "if someone had asked me what I thought I'd be doing at my age, I promise you my answer would not have been 'building a tank on the moon.'"
"If only we were building it. It'll be tomorrow before we can start, at this rate." The hold was packed for stability and an even weight distribution, with little attention to what was in the crates and when they'd need to be unloaded. Tintin and Haddock have been in the hold for hours, shifting things that aren't light even in one-sixth gravity, and then shifting them again and again, ferreting out the tank components one crate at a time. It's like a life-sized Chinese puzzle box.
"At least in here we've got oxygen. Steady there, Tintin, mind your fingers. Come the actual building, it'll be the void for us. Helmets and gloves. My God, I hope they did a test assembly that way."
"I'm sure they did." One last heave--Tintin pinches his fingers and ignores the captain's rolled eyes--and they've freed a long, awkward crate of exterior metal panels. "You know how thorough they are."
The captain grunts skeptically and straightens up, panting. He wipes his forehead on his arm, uselessly since his arms are sweaty too. For hard work in this tight-packed space he has stripped down to his vest; Tintin likes the heat, but even he's taken his sweater off. "Oof, I need a breather," the captain says. He sits on the crate and wipes his forehead again, this time with the bottom edge of his vest.
Tintin hoists himself up onto a tall crate they've been maneuvering around and tucks his feet underneath him. "Good idea."
The vest has left a streak of dust on the captain's face. Tintin wonders if it could be moon dust, or just ordinary dust that's travelled with them. He holds out a clean handkerchief, but the captain waves it away. "No point, I'm all over filth already." He grins. "And you're not much better. We'll stink like the devil himself before we get back to earth." Their water is rationed as carefully as air and food, with only a little reserved for the most necessary washing. Surprisingly, the captain hasn't grumbled about it; he's said it reminds him of sailing.
Thinking of water makes Tintin thirsty; he takes a swallow from his bottle and hands it over to the captain, who drinks with the gusto he normally shows for whisky. He swipes the back of his hand over his lips and then rubs his face, spreading the moisture around and smearing the dust even more. Then he scratches briskly at his beard and says, "For the first time in my life, I'm inclined to shave. I'd look like a plucked chicken, but with this itching it might be worth it."
"You could borrow my electric razor," Tintin says, although the captain without his beard would be almost a stranger. He'd look like . . . like anyone.
"Generous of you, thanks. But this thicket would ruin the blades for your soft face."
Tintin knows from the captain's smile that although he may be thinking that Tintin's slow-growing wisps of beard hardly merit owning an electric razor, let alone bringing it along to the moon, he's thinking it without any scorn in his amusement.
The captain takes another drink of water and passes the bottle back. Tintin allows himself one more swallow. They've already emptied the captain's ration, and they've only got half a bottle to last them until the dinner shift. "So what would you have answered?"
"Eh? Answered who?"
"If someone had asked you what you thought you'd be doing."
The captain looks surprised at the question. Tintin has always enjoyed the captain's reminiscences but never asked him much until recently, when he was stuck in the infirmary with little to do but talk. Now he finds that the more he hears, the more curious he grows.
"Well, sailing, naturally. That's what I always wanted. One of the first things I remember is waving my father's ship out of port and wishing I could go with him." There's a pause, in which Tintin feels a great deep gulf of sorrow, and then the captain says, "I love the sea, but it was . . . a disappointment in a way. The great days of sailing were over before I was born. Before my father was born. Now it's steel cargo ships with diesel engines and sonar and marine radio. No grandeur."
"You don't miss it?" Since they met, the captain has only gone to sea to help with Tintin's projects, and that once when he was called up. When he talks about sailing, it's with a mild warmth, the embers of burned-down enthusiasm.
"Not really. I'm settling in my old age."
"You're not old." Immediately Tintin feels a fool. It's the sort of thing salesclerks say to ladies--old ladies--to get them to buy perfume. But he means it. The captain isn't old. People, Tintin thinks, have an age they were meant to be, an age that suits them. The captain was meant to be as he is now, solid, well-defined, comfortable in his own small eccentricities. Sometimes Tintin worries that he himself was meant to be a boy and that he's almost at the end of it, that he'll be a decaying boy from now on, the wreckage of a boy, and not a man.
"Well, I'm not young. I was young when I went to sea, too young to understand what home is. All I wanted was to get away. You know what that's like, I expect."
Tintin thinks of his school, silent and orderly, and the house he was a child in, more silent and more orderly. Having a thought was naughtiness, voicing one was nearly wicked. He came to journalism because he was as bursting with questions as a pomegranate with seeds, and although people still got angry at him for asking them, at least they didn't pretend it was for his own good.
The captain is watching him with his own questions in his eyes. It might be unburdening to answer them, warming to be known through and through. If only the captain would ask and give him that much excuse. But they've always been a little formal with each other. "In any case," the captain says after a moment, "I've got my own place now where I can live as I like. I'm happy at Moulinsart. In the intervals between being dragged off to the moon."
"I'm happy at Moulinsart, too." Tintin is perfectly content in his flat, so tidy, so perfectly suitable and manageable. But when it comes to happiness, Moulinsart has the edge.
The captain looks at him with a kind of hesitant intensity. "My offer still stands."
Tintin nods. He wants to go. He's almost sure he wants to go. But . . .
"Well," the captain says, in a changed, hearty voice. "Back to work." He stands, frowns, and rubs at the small of his back, stretching this way and that.
Tintin almost offers to try and massage out the soreness, but he remembers that night in his room at the base, the captain's hand on him for a moment and then gone. The words tangle in his throat. Embarrassment scours him raw, and with it another feeling, flat and balked, like disappointment.
He watches the captain twist back and forth at the waist, and it's like the ghost of a touch, this awareness of the captain's strength, of his heavy muscles and the solidity of his shoulders and chest. It's a pleasure to work beside him, to see him work. Tintin's no weakling, but he'll never be a big man like the captain. In a way the captain's body is a mysterious thing, as exotic as his stories.
Tintin wants, so sharply and viscerally that he can feel the blood rush to his face, to hug him. To hear him say that he'll always be Tintin's friend, that they'll never be parted.
"What's the matter, lad?" the captain asks. His concern makes Tintin feel absurd. Of course the captain is his friend. Where's this emotionalism coming from? Tintin has never considered himself the sentimental, excessive type.
"Nothing." Tintin manages to smile. "Nothing at all."
Tintin tries, again, to force his pillow into a comfortable shape and to find restful positions for his arms. He tugs the blanket slightly off one shoulder, hoping that this time he'll strike the right balance of warmth and ventilation.
It's not working. Although he's tired, his mind spins as unstoppably as the earth on its axis and his body gets tenser and twitchier.
The real discomfort, he knows, isn't the bed or the temperature. It's the ache in his groin, the need he can't satisfy in these close quarters. Even the toilet doesn't feel private enough, especially since they all discovered on the first day that it's anything but soundproof.
He hadn't thought this would be a problem. Two weeks. He's done without for longer than that when he's been busy. But here he is just days into the mission, burning.
In the bunk above him, the captain turns over (again) and thwacks his pillow with a whispered curse. Perhaps he's burning too. Perhaps all of them, even the Dupondts, regret the lack of privacy. Are grown men prey to the same boyish temptations? The desire will ease as you get older, Father Christophe always told his students. But perhaps he meant when they got married, when they could scratch the itch and not let it build. This is a ship of bachelors, of course. What married man could go to the moon? So perhaps they're all lying awake, thinking of girls they've wanted or even girls they had but didn't keep.
Tintin's never wanted one. He pretended when he was younger, so that other boys wouldn't think he was odd and the monks wouldn't think he might have a vocation. He's looked at girls and tried to want them, itemizing the things men talk about (their round breasts, their legs in silk stockings, their plump red lips and long shiny hair, the smell of their perfumes) but feeling nothing. True, he needs release sometimes--his body's the same as any other man's, even if his mind isn't--but it's a separate thing. He can't imagine kissing a girl, let alone doing that to her. It doesn't worry him the way it used to; it's a kind of freedom. He'll never have to give up adventure for the sake of a wife and children. He needs nothing but his own hand.
Oh, he'd like to do it now. Everything, even the weight of the blanket on his body, even the sound of the captain's restless movements, stokes the urge.
Ah, well. Fatigue will solve this problem for him eventually. He turns again, pulling the pillow to his chest and resting his arm along it. That's better, even though his head's at an awkward angle now. He sighs, and above him the captain sighs too. It's a pity they can't keep each other company, since they're both awake. It would be nice to talk to him, read to him perhaps or be read to, but that would disturb the others.
Tintin closes his eyes again and, searching for peace, thinks of Moulinsart. The apple orchard, lying under a tree on a warm afternoon, drowsing, Milou at his side. So quiet. The quiet after a long conversation, his voice and the captain's--yes, the captain should be there too, sitting nearby and smoking a pipe--having fallen contentedly silent. They should idle there under a vault of branches, under the green fruits just turning red, with the whole world dipped in honeyed sunlight and the smell of roses carrying to them when the breeze comes in low from the north. Later there should be a good country dinner and a long game of chess. No hurry at all, no need for Tintin to catch a train back to the city.
He can just hear the captain's breathing above him. He holds to it, weaves it into his daydream, and finally begins to relax a little. The desire in him is as strong as ever, but it hurts less under the trees. It feels almost as though it belongs.
Raise the right arm. So slowly, too slowly, his left arm cramping from the strain of his weight. Grasp the rope, close the fingers. Close them hard, look at them, make sure he's really holding the rope, since his hands are numb except where they're burning. Hold the rope.
Raise the left arm.
Raise the left arm.
He can't raise his left arm. He can only hang on. For a little longer, as Milou whines and the rope twists him in circles and the captain pleads over the suit-to-suit radio, "Hold on, Tintin, hold on, hold on, for God's sake hold on, lad. Are you tied at the waist? Did you tie the line like I told you to? Hold on."
And somehow, he is rising. A jerk and a lift, a pause, then another. The captain's voice again. "Just a little longer, please, I know you can do it, we can do this, Tintin." The captain grows breathless and he starts to curse, crudely, without his usual rough invention. "Fuck, fuck, fucking buggering stinking hell, heave, Haddock, you imbecile, heave this fucking rope, get him out of this shithole of a cave, off this shithole of a moon, fucking put your back into it, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck."
Soon even those words decay down to wheezing breaths. Tintin holds on, barely remembering why, until his hand brushes the edge of the drop and he manages somehow to reach up one frozen arm. He's caught, he's over, he's safe, the ground under his belly, the front of his helmet in the blessed dust as the captain frees Milou and unties the rope that was, in fact, around Tintin's waist.
The captain's voice growls in his ear again, a comforting yet anxious noise that resolves into "Tintin, can you hear me? Answer me! Are you hurt?" Tintin is rolled onto his back with fumbling gentleness, and opens his eyes to see the captain kneeling over him.
"Not . . . not hurt."
"Thank Christ. Milou, you wretched beast," the captain says, his voice thick, his eyes not leaving Tintin's face, "I've got words to say to you later." He squeezes Tintin's shoulders. "Come on, let's get out of here."
With the captain half lifting him, Tintin gets to his knees, gets a foot under himself, sways and stumbles, finds a tentative balance leaning on the captain's arm, and takes two steps on elastic-band legs before he falls. It's disgraceful. "I - "
"Be quiet. You're exhausted, don't waste your strength." The captain cradles the clear plastic of Tintin's helmet until Tintin meets his gaze. "I'll get you out of here."
Milou has lain down by Tintin's chest. How nice it would be to be back in the ship, so that he could stroke Milou's fur and feel the warmth of the captain's hands on his face. Or even just back in the tank. The tank . . . "Wolff," Tintin says. "Help."
The captain leans close, examining the oxygen gauge on Tintin's suit. "No time, lad. Not to worry, I can manage you. Especially now that your foolish great lump of a dog can walk on his own four paws. Here, put your arms round my neck."
For the second time he's lifted, hearing the captain's strained breath and the occasional grunt of effort. But this time he's not dangling, he's safe, braced against a chest that feels as wide and unshakable as the ground, with solid arms under his back and knees. He holds on as tightly as he can, knowing he doesn't need to.
Tintin tries to remember how many times the captain has saved his life, but he loses track. You save me, he thinks, and I save you. He'd tell the captain so--it seems important--but the words slip away from him, weightless floating fragments like water drops in zero gravity.
There was a time when no one saved Tintin but himself. Well, himself and a lot of luck, if he's honest. He was proud to rely on no one. It seems another life now, scarcely recognizable, perhaps unreal. His memories of those days feel like watching a film about a boy called Tintin, who shares little with him but a name.
"We're almost there," the captain says. Ahead of them, light glows from the cave entrance. Beautiful light. Tintin imagines for a second that they will step through and be at Moulinsart. But no. There's the tank, and Wolff, and the rocket, and earth is 384,000 kilometers away.
When they're almost to the cave mouth, Tintin says, "I want . . . let me walk, please."
The captain stops, panting. "Can you?"
"I think so."
The captain makes a huffing noise that isn't quite a laugh. "All right, then," he says, bending to set Tintin on his feet but keeping a good grip on his waist. "I suppose it wouldn't do to have you carried like a . . . like a parcel." The captain shrugs hugely, almost unbalancing Tintin. "Or a little kiddie who's worn himself out at a carnival."
It wasn't, Tintin thinks, like that at all.
He walks out of the cave on his feet, but only just. He leans on the captain, and before they're halfway to the tank he's staggering, his vision narrowed to a tunnel in blurred emptiness.
"Come on, my boy, not much farther. That's it, good. Left and right like a brave soldier. Another few steps, my little hero, there we go, just a few more."
Through a grey haze Tintin knows that the captain has misunderstood him entirely. He's not ashamed of needing help, of being carried. The boy he used to be might have been ashamed, but that's gone. It's only that he needs to keep the feeling of it close for a little while. Private, not secret. He needs to gnaw at it like Milou with a bone, savoring the dark weary peace of it, the safety and the fear. He needs to make it part of himself.
"Thank you," he whispers.
Not until he hears a muttered "Bah, don't be ridiculous" does he know the captain heard him. Heard his words, which are worth nothing. Tintin hates words. They're as common as coins, worn from overuse, and there's no way to say what he means.
Tintin waits. The room is white, functional. Tintin's mind projects memories onto its blank walls. The captain blue-lipped on the stretcher. The captain waking up, drinking whisky and laughing, whole, well, saved. The captain going white and falling onto the hard-baked dirt of the landing field.
dying dying he is dying perhaps he's dead perhaps they're coming out to tell me he's dead and gone and I will never see him again never
He looks at the clock. Two minutes have passed. He stands, walks from wall to wall, one hand clapped to his mouth as though he's trying to stop himself from screaming.
never never talk to him never see that ridiculous monocle never again hear the story about the octopus never smell his pipe his sweater the cologne he wears on Sundays the whisky on his breath the whisky why did he have to keep drinking he promised me he'd stop he'll never keep that promise now never never never
Milou walks with him, silent, a shadow. Milou leans on his leg when he sits down again. It's almost no comfort at all.
never sit under a tree with him at Moulinsart never spend Christmas with him never read together by the fire never walk with him and see the apple trees in bloom never hear his voice hear him laugh hear him swear when he bangs his head on something never see him pet his cat write a letter tie a knot such clever hands ruined because he is dying he is dying he is dying he is dying
Tintin sits, hands clenched on his knees. He is too well brought up to find a dark corner and curl in a ball.
worn out heart the doctor said nonsense strongest man I've ever known shoulders like oak beams chest like a barrel the drink wore him down rotted him he promised me he'd stop
I asked and asked he didn't listen never listened I didn't listen he said leave them behind he said not enough oxygen he said you'll regret it Jorgen and Wolff breathing our air his air there wasn't enough air my fault my choice I had to play the hero just like he said and he let me why did he let me give away his air kill him I killed him and he is dead and never
never never never never his hands his smile come to Moulinsart he said afraid he was afraid I'd say no I made him afraid he was so strong except for me
waited for me waited followed me to the moon come and live with me he said and I didn't understand his house his life his shoulders his hands the smell of him his voice everything and I never I never I never never never never never
Tintin sits. His eyes hurt. He does not cry.
The hands of the clock move like glaciers.
After an ice age, the doctor comes in, unsmiling. Tintin stands up, as though he can fight this or run from it.
"He's asking for you," the doctor says.
"He's . . . " That is the only one of the doctor's words that Tintin comprehends.
"Awake. Bad-tempered. Asking for you."
"He's . . . "
"Sit down for a minute, Monsieur Tintin, you look worse than he does."
Tintin looks down, finds a chair, holds carefully onto the arm and sits. "He's not . . . "
"He's well enough. Exhausted, been under a lot of strain for too long. He needs a few months of rest, so try not to lure him off to Mars or the South Pole anytime soon, all right? His heart's not quite all it should be. Peace, rest, light exercise, not too much drinking, that'll make a difference." The doctor directs a professional scowl at Tintin that bores through him like a diamond-tipped drill. "And knowing you're all right. Go on, he's fretting himself halfway to another faint. We've told him you're fine but he won't believe it until he sees you."
Tintin runs. Down the corridor there's a door where a nurse is standing, the one who was kindest to him when he was here, and she is smiling, stepping aside, and there is the captain pale as his pillow but open-eyed.
"Captain . . . "
Behind him the door shuts quietly.
"You're a sight for sore eyes, lad. Now if only they'd let me have my pipe I'd be as good as new." There are beeping machines around the bed. The captain's pyjama top is unbuttoned because of the electrodes taped to his chest.
"I thought you were - "
"Shh, it's all right, I didn't mean to give you a scare. I take a deal of killing, trust me. Shh, don't cry, Tintin, please, you'll get me started and we'll be snivelling away like a couple of babies."
"I thought you were dead. I - "
"You were wrong, for once." A smile wavers across the captain's face. His eyes are glistening. He pats Tintin's hand.
Tintin bends, shaking, and kisses him. Clumsily, dripping tears onto the captain's face, but the captain's lips are warm with life and there will be time now to learn kissing.
The captain pushes him away. "Don't. Tintin, don't." His hands are fierce on Tintin's shoulders. "I know that you . . . so innocent, you don't understand . . . but I . . . " His eyes well over. "Don't do this to me, I can't bear it." He wipes at his face, getting nowhere against the rivers of tears he can't seem to hold back, and rests his forearm over his eyes. "I never meant for you to know. I'm sor- "
"I do understand." Tintin takes the captain's wrist and pulls his arm down, trying to be gentle, but the captain must look at him, he must. "I didn't, but I do."
"How can you?" The captain looks past him, speaking to the far wall. "You're only a boy. Too young, much too young, I know that but I forget sometimes . . . "
"I don't want to be a boy anymore." Tintin takes the captain's hand; the captain flinches away like he's burnt. The burnt child dreads the fire. How many times has Tintin hurt him, all in ignorance, in so-called innocence? "You were right. I was playing. Playing the boy, playing the hero."
"I was angry when I said that, don't take it to heart. I was certainly not right."
"I - " Blast it, he's started crying again. He drags his sleeve across his eyes, then wonders why he's bothering. Perhaps heroes don't cry, but he's not a hero. "I don't know if I could have done it. Left Jorgen and Wolff behind. But I thought you were dead because of that, because of me, and I wished I had."
"Tintin . . . "
"You mean the world to me. More than the world. More than the moon. I want to live at Moulinsart with you and I don't care if I go anywhere else ever again." The captain takes his hand at last, fingers curling slowly, cautiously, around Tintin's. Tintin claps his other hand over them and squeezes. "Tell me you still want me there."
"Of course I do. But are you sure . . . you don't have to . . . your company, that's enough for me, just to - "
"I don't want to be a boy anymore. I want to kiss you, and - and everything, and I'm sorry I didn't know it sooner. But now that I know, don't tell me I can't, please, please don't."
The captain takes a choked breath and draws him roughly down, rocking him with convulsive little movements. Tintin grabs a handful of his pyjamas, another of his hair, rubs his wet cheek against the captain's prickly-soft beard, tries to get the smell of him but can only sniffle through his clogged nose. It's all right. They're here, alive, it's not too late, and it's going to be all right. All those nevers were wrong.
After a while, as his crying stops and he can think again, it occurs to him to perch a hip on the bed and lean in less awkwardly. "Yes," the captain says, shifting to make room and hooking an arm across his back, urging but not pulling him. "Lie next to me for a while."
They'll be quite a sight if someone comes in. Tintin decides it doesn't matter. Or not as much as his head on the captain's shoulder and the captain's fingers interlaced with his.
This is the same room that Tintin had a few weeks earlier. The same bed, too. This is what he wanted then, if he'd known enough to ask for it properly without half-measures. Without tormenting the poor captain. He reaches up and touches the captain's cheek, the soft weathered skin above his beard, wordlessly asking forgiveness. From the turn of the captain's head, the quick press of lips against his palm, he knows wordlessly that it's already been given him. There was never a time when he didn't have it.
He can see the pulse beating in the captain's throat, quick but steady. Don't stop, he thinks. Not for a hundred years.
With a patient doggy sigh, Milou springs up onto the bed and lies at their feet. Tintin feels the captain's silent laugh as a swelling of the chest under his hand, a press of buttons from the captain's pyjama top. Touching him is strange and mysterious, the most foreign of foreign countries. And it's right and simple, as homely as apple trees. "Kiss me," he says.
The captain kisses his forehead, mussing the quiff of Tintin's hair with great deliberation.
"Very funny." Tintin raises his head. The captain is looking at him solemnly. Waiting.
Tintin kisses him.