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wishful thinking

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Just as Edward suspected, the Captain does not take kindly to the suggestion, and Jopson takes even less kindly - furiously, actually. It had not seemed as heartless as the two of them believe it to be, but maybe Henry and Edward have gone about this wrong; whichever, it is not their way. Does Captain Crozier not share a sack? He leaves, and the three lieutenants sit in sizzling silence.

'I expected better of you,' says Jopson, his accent thick with loathing, 'than to let men die alone because they slow you down?'

'That's not what it meant!' Edward says, and Henry puts a hand on his shoulder -

'That's what it would entail,' Jopson insists, his pale eyes ghostly in the near-constant summer sun, 'given time. Perhaps not now, perhaps not this time, but when everyone left behind dies, the last man dies alone.'

'I -' says Edward, and Henry shakes his head. It's better not to argue.

'Sorry,' he says, eventually, 'for disappointing you.'

'Hm,' says Jopson, not caring, and storms out.

'Uppity shit,' Henry mutters under his breath -

'Stop it!'

'He'd let either of us die alone -'

'Don't, Henry! Stop it!'

'None of us are Philosophers, none of this is - is cerebral, Edward, this is live men or dead men, as our Captain once so eloquently put it -'

'Henry -'

'Nothing we can do will save James now, and if it were me -' he chokes on a sob, and Edward hadn't realised he was even in tears '- I'd rather die alone than resented as a... ball-and-chain of a man.'

'It's out of our hands now,' says Edward, gently, though he doesn't look up from his own battered boots, his gloved hands, imagining the weight of that option lifted from them, leaving red dents in his palms.

-

They make another two miles before Fitzjames is in such agony that the party can no longer move an inch, but it's Bridgens who forces them all to stop in the end. Edward's glad for it, not to hear the terrible cries of another man's pain caused by his own hauling.

They know it's over when Bridgens leaves the tent, sits down on the shale and weeps; it's finished when Captain Crozier does the same.

The service is short, if one can call it that, and Edward stands with the others and watches Hartnell stitch Fitzjames' blanket closed like he were just another man, and not one who'd been so much for so many; not one who'd amazed and frustrated Edward so often, both in turn and in tandem.

'Cover him,' says Captain Crozier, voice cracked and rougher than he's ever heard it, 'hide him in the landscape, Edward. I don't want him found or... pawed.'

'Aye, sir,' says Edward - he's no eye for art, for the natural forms of these ancient rocks, the undulations of the windblown gravel; it's not like building a cairn, or a tomb, or it shouldn't be - any hint of that purposefulness would give him away. Henry's sat down beside the grave now, brushing little pebbles around the end of the blanket where the head - Fitzjames'  head lies in eternal repose, a grey rock halo. Fitting.

-

Six miles, and Mr Peglar is the next to go. They should have noticed: keeping a look for men going faint had been Mr Blanky's job along the convoy for so long that they've forgotten to appoint his successor, and poor Peglar dies as Jopson sees that bird overhead. An omen? Edward's never been superstitious, but he still hopes that Peglar got to see it as he died - or would that be worse? He couldn't say which he'd prefer; to die when hope has been lost or just rekindled.

Seeing the bird unhinges them; three more men faint, one of them dead, and Jopson bends double and vomits after staring at the sky too long. Captain Crozier orders a full camp set up, and with Henry and Edward he puts the sick to bed. Mr Bridgens takes the two bodies to another tent, and must be preparing them for burial, because he's there an awful long time.

It's Bobby Golding, Terror's last Boy, who alerts them -

'Open water, sir!'

There is not open water, but there are men - three of them - a gun on each, already loaded and aimed, and Edward and the Captain, Mister Best and Mister Hartnell are not ready for them.

'Bobby!' says Hartnell; Edward can barely imagine his pain until he spies a tow-head cresting the ridge - George, looking for all the world like an enormous urchin, and he does just as Hartnell did -

'George?'

'Edward!' says George - his voice is filled with something close to joy, and Edward can hardly believe -

'Hodgson!' Des Voeux snaps, taking his sights off of the Captain, 'What part of "Stay by the sledge" don't you understand?'

'Sorry!' says George, 'Sorry!' he sounds like an entirely different person, and puts his hands up.

'Lower your weapons.' says Captain Crozier, in a voice that should brook no argument -

'Come with us, Mister Crozier,' says Des Voeux, 'and the rest of you can go -'

'Lower. Your. Weapons.' says Captain Crozier again.

Hartnell adjusts the rifle in his hands, looking pleadingly at his old friends up on the shale bank, 'Magnus,' he says, 'Bobby, this isn't -'

- and he's silenced by the terrible rapport of Des Voeux's gun, sprawling backward, and as the Captain hollers oaths at them Edward's vision narrows onto their three armed enemies, and doesn't know who to aim for. Poor Hartnell sobs and wheezes in his last moments, and when the Captain stands he's full of determination. Des Voeux almost looks afraid.

'I'll come with you,' he says, 'and you'll let these men go.'

'We'll take your arms, too,' says Des Voeux, still gesturing with the hot barrels of his rifle; Edward whips his aim from Manson toward him before the Captain stands in its path and puts his hand to the cool metal.

'Edward.'

Edward's gaze shifts; from him to Des Voeux to Manson to Golding to George, still surrendering uselessly, and realises, maybe for the first time, that he is scared; that they're all scared - the Captain curls his hand around the barrel of Edward's gun, and slings it to Des Voeux.

'Go on, Edward,' he says, 'I'll follow if I can - get Henry, come back for Hartnell... and Live.'

'Sir -' says Edward, and it feels like a goodbye.

'You and the other men will Live,' says Captain Crozier, 'let me hear you say it.'

'We will live,' Edward recites, and the Captain, with one final firm nod, starts climbing up the shallow bank to the rest of the mutiny party. Des Voeux fumbles with the pistol, and George slinks back into the landscape, and Edward walks away from them.

'Oh Christ,' says Best, as they walk what feels like the world's longest mile back to where the men have camped out, 'what are we going to tell Lieutenant Le Vesconte, or Lieutenant Jopson?'

'Don't,' says Edward, and Best doesn't - the hard wind around them whistles like the pipes of hell. He'd forgotten the hope they'd left behind until Henry runs up to meet them before stopping short at the number -

'The creature -' he starts, and Edward shakes his head.

'Hickey's group. Mister Des Voeux - Golding led us into a trap.'

'Dead?' Henry asks, keeping his voice low -

'Hartnell. They've got the Captain -'

'No -' Henry breathes -

'I'm sorry -'

'No,' says Henry again, 'God, Christ - I don't blame you, Edward, Mister Best -'

'Henry,' says Edward, feeling the despair rise up from his chest -

'Get some sleep, Edward, I'll man the camp tonight. We'll discuss it in the morning.'

The threat of a morning discussion weighs heavy as Edward pulls himself to bed; if he can call it bed, but he must have been exhausted, because he sleeps long and very hard, wakes up disoriented and alone in the tent. It must be halfway through the morning already; the men outside potter about, though seem to slink away when he looks at them. He catches a glimpse of a tattered red coat returning from beyond the perimeter -

'Private Hammond!'

'Aye, sir?'

'You've been keeping an eye on Hickey's group?'

'Yessir. They've not moved. I've spotted a dozen or so different fellers, by my reckoning.'

'Is there anything we could use to ambush them?'

Hammond thinks this over, 'Not especially, sir, but there are more of us. If we can get a weapon to the Captain, or Lieutenant Hodgson too, they'd be completely overwhelmed.'

'Hm,' says Edward, and then, 'and... Hartnell?'

'Hartnell, sir?'

'His body. Have... have we buried him?'

Hammond looks miserable, 'I - he wasn't there, sir.'

'Ah,' says Edward. 'was it.. an animal?'

'I don't think so, sir.'

Edward breathes out hard through his nose, and nods Private Hammond away - he needs to plan an attack, though he can't find enough of the men to call to arms, and his throat is too sore to holler.

How many men are weapons trained? How many men do they have total, now? How much powder can we spare - for a moment he allows himself the fantasy of talking it over with his officers - his real officers, John and George, who would suggest something sedate or brazen respectively. He rubs his eyes, and mouths the words to himself, a one-man roleplay -

'A half-dozen guns on their side...'

'A dozen of us,' George would say, and John would say -

'A score, to be safe.'

George would roll his eyes and remind them that he had the most land combat experience, - he always said 'most', even though they all knew it meant 'only' - and John would puff up, flustered - 'I just think we ought to overwhelm them with numbers.'

'More men,' says George, 'more likelihood of injury, more noise - we should take in as swiftly as possible, with mixed weapons, our best marksmen and our strongest otherwise, and surprise them with two parties of six.'

'We should send a couple of our Marines to scout them out.'

'Marvellous idea, Johnny!'

'The sooner the better?' Edward says -

'Oh, certainly. They think we're on the back foot -'

'Quite right,' says Edward, decided, then -

'And - George?'

'Yes, sir?' says Georgie Chambers, and Edward curses himself: the odd, occasional slackness of his mind -

'George,' says Edward again, as though he had meant to address Chambers, rather than a phantom friend, 'I need you to collect the men. All of the Marines, Lieutenant Le Vesconte, Mister Jopson if he's well enough -'

'Yessir! says Georgie, as brightly as he can. Poor Chambers, the only boy left - though, he'd been the only boy on Erebus for a longer time, so perhaps he doesn't feel it as keenly. Edward stands alone and tries not to look at John and George out of the corner of his eye, shimmering like the mirages they are.

'The men you asked for are assembled, sir!' says Chambers, running over with his cap in his hands, 'Everyone - almost everyone -'

'Lead the way,' says Edward, and he regrets it.

-

'I can't believe you,' Edward hisses, outside of the tent, 'our Captain is out there, with those - those -'

Henry's sympathetic face goes suddenly hard - 'I admire Captain Crozier a great deal, but he is not my Captain.'

'He's -'

'My Captain is sown into a blanket, under shale ten miles back. That is where my loyalty lies, Edward, not with the Expedition, not with Sir John, not even with Captain Crozier, but in a shallow grave on King William. I gave up a posting on the Mediterranian for James Fitzjames, and I should like to see her again.'

'Oh God,' says Edward, and Henry gives him an agreeing nod.

'I am sorry,' he says, 'but you understand me, yes? We agreed not three days ago -'

'I know,' says Edward, 'I know - but Captain Crozier said -'

'Men will die attacking Hickey's camp - our sick may die even as we argue where they should do it.'

'I know!' says Edward, desperately, the tears that have been prickling at his eyes all day stinging - 'I don't know what - what's right -'

'That's why I organised that vote -'

'Did Jopson?'

'What?'

'Vote, did Jopson vote?'

Henry looks down.

'He didn't. He's - he's nearly gone. It's unfair to drag a man along -'

'The Captain - the Captains promoted him for a reason.'

'In April.'

'Henry -'

'In April - it was a different world, Edward. If Jopson is not dead this time tomorrow I'll buy you all the tea in China. Some friend you'd be, to tell him so.'

Edward scratches his beard. When he does speak, his mouth is so dry that all that comes out is a hoarse whisper -

'When do you plan on leaving?' No man looks at his watch any longer. Edward's shadow is maybe half a foot long.

'Noon,' says Henry.

-

They move quickly without the dying men, covering the same amount of ground that would have taken four days with them, and they only stop when Edward finally gives the order he'd been expecting Henry to make. The camaraderie of the earlier camps has long gone, and when Edward cracks open a tin of ox-tail soup he can no longer recall Mister Blanky's funny name for it.

'George was there,' says Edward, 'when we lost the Captain.'

'Huh,' says Henry, 'is he... is he alright?'

'He - his hair looks a complete state.'

'Same as ever, then?' says Henry, and when Edward looks up at him he's almost sparkling with mirth.

'Shhh -' says Edward, struggling to keep his own laughter smothered, '- the men are -'

Henry snorts, and then Edward can't help himself, and they're both laughing so hard Edward thinks he might die, and before he realises what's happened he's crying.

'God,' he says, miserably, 'I could have wept with joy when I saw that he was scared - what is wrong with me?'

'Probably nothing,' says Henry, 'he's their prisoner, or something close to it, but a prisoner can be freed - while a turncoat...'

'For a while,' says Edward, 'I forgot that was even a possibility. God.'

He hangs his head.

'The Captain -'

'Don't start on that again.'

'He... maybe he'll catch up to us. He said he would.'

'Do you suppose Hickey let him live?'

'Hickey's obsessed with him. So long as Hickey's alive, the Captain will be alive too.'

'Cold comfort that is,' says Henry, but he doesn't deny him; he must believe it too.

-

A command tent is far too big for two, so it is jettisoned - as are crates full of crockery, stacks of bibles and novels. Edward weighs a wineglass in his hand for the first time in months, and lets it drop to the ground.

'Why do we have these?'

Henry shrugs, and lifts another glass from the straw. 'Morale?' he says.

'I am sick and tired of Morale,' says Edward, digging through the crate to find a beautiful blue-and-white plate.

'Ironic,' says Henry.

Edward says nothing, lets his fingers trace the painted gabled rooftops and still waters, the little birds in the tree.

'Awful,' he says, then spins the plate out like the discus competition at school, watches it fly and land and burst, and when it's done so they both laugh with a kind of cathartis.

'Watch this,' says Henry, shot-putting a cut glass out into the void, which Edward follows with a cricket bowl that almost pulls his arm from its socket - plates and glasses follow suit until there's just an empty crate, some straw, and the two of them, laughing breathlessly.

Henry says, 'We have thirty-four cans left.'

'Thirty-four,' Edward repeats, turning the stem of the last wineglass in his hand.

'Yes,' says Henry, redundantly.

'Do we have boots?'

'A few pairs,' says Henry, 'and we still have these books -'

'Books!? Good Christ, Henry -'

'Shall we continue to dance around it?' asks Henry, 'We are in command. You are in command. Our men starve and -'

Edward breathes so deeply his coat seams creak - 'Wh - I don't know where to start - we can't...'

'Ask me honestly,' says Henry, 'and I will answer you as honestly as I can.'

Edward looks at his hands.

'We left Sinclair a mile back.'

'Yes,' says Henry.

'Should we... it seems...'

'We make a decision, here and now. Do we wait for all of our food to run out, so that we can watch one another like vultures, and pounce upon a dead man before he's cold -'

'Or eat Sinclair with tea? Perhaps spread him on a biscuit like pemmican?'

'Those are our options,' says Henry, and for a moment his toughened facade cracks, his chin wobbles - 'I didn't take my exam for this, Edward. Neither of us did.'

Edward nods, 'We'll go back together, then.'

A wineglass shatters on the rock.

-

Henry has near-enough crawled the last mile - when they stop for the evening, he's not even able to get his boot off of his left foot.

'Would you?' he asks, the two of them alone in the tent as the twilight hits - 'like Hardy did?'

Edward clasps his hand around Henry's - Henry's return grip hasn't any strength, so Edward doubles, then triples his until he can't tell.

'We'll feel a right pair when morning comes,' he says, 'you wouldn't -'

'If I'm alive come morning I doubt I'd even remember to feel a fool. You must remember not to take my left - it's rotten to the knee -'

'Henry!'

'We laughed at gunnery school about him, about Hardy - but I understand it now, I do. A little comfort... to know you're loved -'

'Henry -'

'Edward,' Henry says, and gives what might be a wheezing breath or a rush of a laugh, 'don't make me do the line.'

'Give me the line.'

'Kiss me, Little,' says Henry, and Edward does - a chaste kiss to Henry's chapped, frozen temple, and another to his scabbed cheekbone, and Henry gives the smallest sigh, leans back, and closes his eyes. His breathing is shallow and quiet, but rhythmic enough to lull Edward to sleep. When he awakes, Henry is stone cold. Private Hammond is in the tent flap, framed in light.

'Is he -'

'Yes,' says Edward -

Hammond makes an awkward motion - he has his arm hidden behind his back, and Edward knows he has a carpenter's saw in hand.

'- Not the left.'