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I Let Him Down

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“Did you... did you know him well, sir? Billy Orren?”

It was the middle of the night and they were alone in the mate's mess room. Collins couldn’t sleep; he probably hadn't slept since the incident, when Erebus' propeller had caught on the ice. Gore, needing to stretch his legs, had fully expected to go back to his berth and sleep for another couple of hours, but the soft, muffled noises of the man crying in had stopped him and he’d sat down at the table, setting a hopefully comforting hand on Collins’ shoulder, waiting for the tears to subside.

Had Gore known Orren well? Not really. Perhaps not as well as other men did, but he had known him as a good lieutenant should: Able Seaman William Orren was a competent, capable man, willing to learn and ready for action. He told Collins as such, and the other man laughed weakly, the sound even more heart-rending than the sobbing from before.

“Yeah, he was that, of course.” He wiped his nose and took a shuddering breath. “He was - Billy was a good man. We’d never sailed together before, but it felt like we did. And... he looked up to me, I think.”

There was silence after that, as much as a ship filled with men - live men - could be. Someone, Gore thought it was Fairholme, snored loudly on the other side of the paper-thin wall. Water heavy with ice sloshed against the sides of the ship, more and more slowly as time passed. This worried Gore, somewhere at the back of his mind, the way the ice seemed to take over with every passing hour; but the ice was outside, still distant for the moment, so he forced his attention on the man in front of him - distressed - no, anguished, and mourning so intensely the loss of someone who was quite obviously very special to him.

“I’m sorry, Henry,” he said, urging Collins to look up. “I know he was your friend. I’m sure your friendship was a great comfort to him.”

Gore had intended his words to be comforting, but they had the opposite effect: at the word friend, Collins' heavy brows scrunched up, his dark red-rimmed eyes filling with tears again. He looked down at his hands, biting his bottom lip until it turned white.

"Henry," Gore tried again, carefully.

"But it wasn't," Collins mumbled.

"What... do you mean?"

"I wasn't a comfort to him," Collins said, the words low and pained, like they had been stuck in his throat. "He shouldn't have been... it was my fault."

"Henry, that doesn't make any sense," Gore said, forcing a pinch of authority in his voice. When Collins didn't answer, he continued, squeezing the other man's shoulder. "Erebus was injured, and we were all taken by surprise - even Doctor Stanley stumbled and hit his head on a beam, if you can picture it, it was - It wasn't anyone's fault, just the ice's."

"I ordered him up there," Collins sobbed. The tears were coming in earnest again, and Gore cursed himself and his apparent inability to find the right thing to say to help. "I told him to to go up, and he went, and he loved me, he trusted me - and I couldn't - I couldn't do anything - I let him down."

He shuddered suddenly, so violently Gore thought he might be thrown off the chair - so he instinctively wrapped both of his arms around Collins to keep him from crumpling to the floor. Almost immediately, Collins' hands gripped his shoulders and he began to sob against Gore's neck, hard and so loud Gore was afraid they'd wake the other officers.

But he could still pick up Fairholme's snores between the sobs, and no impatient footsteps in the corridor behind him, so he held Collins, pressing his body close against his own, and let him cry for what he had just lost.