It was a very warm, balmy morning in the tight grip of summer, and when James Hook heard the quiet shuffle of his boatswain’s feet on his office floor, he had already been awake for some hours.
He did not move from his place on the bed, stripped of his bedclothes and lying fitfully as he was on top of a great many piled and twisted blankets, even as he listened to the shutters click softly as Smee pulled them open, letting light into the room, no doubt.
“Captain?” called Smee.
Hook made no reply, lying on his back and staring up at the dark recesses of his bed canopy, hoping that Smee would go away.
To his left, the curtain twitched, and Hook winced at the flicker of bright sunlight it allowed through, although Smee quickly pulled the curtains ridiculously around his neck and blocked a good deal of the light, leaving only enough that Hook could see the glint of Smee’s gold-framed spectacles.
“You don’t look like you’ve slept,” said Smee.
“I slept,” Hook replied. “For an hour or two, at least.”
Smee looked dismayed. “Is that all?”
“It is hot, Smee.”
“It wouldn’t be, Captain, if you had these curtains open, and didn’t sleep under so many blankets.”
“As you say, Smee,” Hook said tonelessly.
Smee stood there a moment, still draped in Hook’s bed curtains. “Would you like to sleep a while more?”
“I certainly would,” said Hook.
“Right, Captain,” Smee said, and withdrew. As his shoes once more shuffled across the carpet in the direction of the cabin door, Hook lay still in the darkness and counted on his hand the seconds: one, two, three—
Smee’s shuffling steps came to a stop. A beat passed. Smee’s steps retreated, and once more, Smee’s face appeared between his bed curtains.
“Do you think you will sleep more this morning, Captain?” Smee asked.
“No, Smee,” Hook said, and sat up.
“I hope it pleases you to play with a man so early of a morning,” Smee grumbled as he pulled the curtains open, but his tone was good natured, and Hook pulled himself to the edge of the bed, murmuring a thanks as Smee set a jug of hot water on the table beside him.
“A man must have some small pleasures in life, Smee,” said Hook, washing the cloth over the back of his neck and his bare chest. Smee paid no attention to his state of undress, and busied himself with rifling through Hook’s wardrobe, whistling under his breath.
Hook could hardly remember how this particular habit of Smee’s had formed – certainly, he had never asked his boatswain to attend to him like his very own batman, and while he was vaguely of the recollection that Smee had begun these attentions after Hook’s amputation, even then, Hook hadn’t much needed them. He certainly didn’t need them now, and said as much, from time to time, but it didn’t even make Smee falter any longer, and he still appeared in Hook’s quarters every morning.
“What time is it?”
“A little past seven,” said Smee. “You been awake long?”
“Since it was still dark outside.”
“Captain,” Smee scolded him. “You could’ve had something to put you down.”
“Arsenic, perhaps,” Hook mused. “Or a bullet.”
“Or a sleeping draught,” said Smee.
“Or that,” Hook allowed.
“The crew worries, when you don’t sleep.”
“No, they don’t.”
Smee evidently did not have a prepared response for this, because he busied himself with making Hook’s bed as Hook began to dress himself. Once he had his trousers on, Smee helped him on with the harness for his arm, although he tutted at Hook’s stump and accused him of not putting his ointment on it last night – which was true, though Hook denied it – and then set about dusting and airing things out.
The island air, as it so often was in the summer months, was sticky and oppressive, and although he put on his blouse and vest, he declined his coat. His blouse threatened to stick fast and wet to his arms although he had scarcely had time to sweat in it, and he wrinkled his nose, shaking his head as he picked up his hook and slotted it into place on his arm, twisting until he heard it click.
“You needn’t do it so hard,” Smee said.
“It’s steel, Smee, it won’t shatter.”
“You’ll bruise your arm.”
“Oh, hush,” Hook retorted, although this particular comment told him that Smee hadn’t slept well either, though he had made no mention of it – he was always fussier when he hadn’t slept well, and concerned himself with the irrational fear that Hook was due to drop dead at any moment.
He first brushed his hair holding the comb in his right hand, and then, using a comb Smee had fashioned some years ago with a cork base, he affixed it to his hook and brushed out the other side. His reflection in the mirror took him somewhat by surprise, because Smee had moved the mirror yesterday, and he was distantly aware he needed to shave, and that in the bright morning sunshine, dressed in only his shirt sleeves and with his hair half-combed, he did not look so imposing as he would like.
It was the sort of thing he might have balked at, when first he served upon an English vessel as naught more than a clerk for all his officer’s title, seeking soon to make of himself a ship’s accountant, but that was a long, long time past now, and such things were best forgotten.
There were grey bags under his eyes for lack of sleep, and there were more lines about his eyes and mouth, in recent years, although he had lived out more of a lifetime than he ought have been allotted, taking advantage as he had of Neverland’s strange magics.
“You’re deep in thought this morning, Captain,” said Smee, in the tone of one making an accusation.
“Perhaps you might try it a time, Smee,” was his reply.
“That’s not for the likes of me, sir,” said Smee. “I’ve important things to be getting on with.”
Hook barked out a low laugh, popping his comb off of his hook and setting it aside, and for a moment stood at the window, looking out over the glistening blue waters of the bay, at the bright green of the jungle on the shore.
“No sign of him back?” he asked.
“None yet,” Smee murmured. “I think perhaps he thought he’d killed you, and he didn’t want to come back.”
“No,” Hook murmured, giving a small shake of his head. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the gaping maw of that awful beast in front of him, still recall the resistance and sudden tear of its flesh under his hook as he forced the spike through its brains.
Smee had removed the dressing on the wounds on his chest and shoulder, where the crocodile’s teeth had dug into him, a few days ago, and while the bruises had faded, the actual cuts healed, he still had small imprints where it had bitten. He was lucky indeed to have struck it dead before it rolled him over.
“No?” Smee repeated.
“Pan will be back,” Hook said, and came away from the window, sitting to pull on his shoes. This, Smee assisted with, and Hook didn’t complain, not interested in bothering with the shoehorn this morning. “I know it in my bones.”
“Would you be unhappy, Captain?” asked Smee. “If he didn’t come back?”
“Such queer questions you ask at times, Smee.”
Smee, crouched upon the floor, sat back on his heels, and he looked up at Hook a moment, his eyebrows raised, before he shrugged his shoulders. Smee, of course, had no care for proper dress, and didn’t even wear a vest – he had on a very heavy belt about his round belly, but that was all, and he’d pulled out the ties of his blouse so that it fell open, showing the black and white thatch of curls that covered his chest.
Hook, feeling his fingers twitch, clenched his hand into a loose fist.
“You ask if I would mourn a creature who has been a thorn in my side since first I came to Neverland. I hate him, Smee, as I have never hated another.”
“Exactly,” said Smee.
“Exactly?” Hook heard himself repeat.
“Well, hating him as much as you do,” said Smee idly, getting slowly to his feet with a quiet “oof” and collecting Hook’s gun and rapier from their stand. “It takes up a lot of space, is all I’m saying – I expect the inside of your head would be made suddenly empty, without him. Like a ship without sails.”
Hook could make neither head nor tails of this, and what’s more, he didn’t want to.
“Perhaps we should break our fast, Smee,” said Hook.
“You eat first,” said Smee. “I’ve to tend to the—"
“Have you eaten?”
“You’ve been up how long?”
“An hour or so.”
“Then we shall eat together, Smee.”
Smee gave Hook a small smile, and Hook could see the fatigue in his eyes too, now – he didn’t have the bags Hook had under his, because Smee had an incredibly round, cheerful face that retained cheeriness even in deepest sorrow, but Hook could see in the blankness of his gaze the weight from lack of sleep.
“Nightmares, Smee?” asked Hook softly.
“From time to time, Captain,” was the answer, which was as close to a yes as Hook ever got. “Times are I want to get off this godforsaken island.”
“Do you really?” Hook asked.
“No,” said Smee immediately. “Don’t want the alternative neither.”
“No,” agreed Hook. “Nor I.”
Things had changed, these past months.
There was a feeling in James Hook of being close to a precipice, but what the nature of that precipice was and, indeed, what awaited him after his fall, he had no idea whatsoever. It seemed to him that change was heavy on the air in Neverland as a whole, the very breeze pregnant with opportunity, and it set his teeth on edge.
Even with Pan gone, and seemingly, the most recent of his stolen boys, Hook was left irritable and quickly frustrated, his anxiety simmering underneath his skin.
“Do you ever miss it?” asked Smee as he and Hook stood outside, overseeing the operations as some of the crew set timber aside. Given that they no longer had the accursed crocodile to deal with, they wished to restore one of the old docks that they had been barely using since the creature had appeared, and Hook had given his blessing.
It was good for them to have something to occupy themselves with – long gone were the days when they would sail the Jolly Roger out from Neverland and into earthly waters, that they might take their plunder as they pleased. Times had changed: boats now did not move by wind and sail, and their hulls were made of steel instead of wood, such that canon fire would hardly serve them as once it did.
They still didn’t want to go back, Hook didn’t think – if they did, none of them had ever said it, either amongst themselves where Hook could hear, or to Smee, and whilst the men certainly feared Hook, they often went to Smee with their troubles, and voiced their desires.
To rest in Neverland, after all, meant an immortality of sorts, and it meant that they were permitted a peace without any government or authority coming to arrest them – they lingered in Neverland for the same reason the natives did: peace and sovereignty.
But peace could only serve a man so well: he needed something to occupy him, even in paradise. And this was paradise, Hook was certain of it – enough food to eat, to gather as they walked, and it had been a long time, now, since they’d skirmished with the natives, for they had come to a sort of understanding.
The men would build themselves a dock again, but they hardly had enough people to make a real village.
It was different, for him, as captain, but he knew that surely, the men must want for women, and the natives couldn’t be less interested - which Hook could hardly fault them for, given his crew’s desperate avoidance of cleanliness or class – and yet none of them had ever mentioned even going ashore...
But what woman would allow herself to be spirited away to some strange nether dimension, left amongst pirates?
“Do I miss what, Smee?” asked Hook.
“The world,” said Smee.
“No,” Hook said. “I never liked the people in it.”
“You like the crew,” said Smee. Hook gave him a sideways look, and Smee grinned, his gold teeth shining in amongst the others. “Sometimes.”
“You miss it, I take it,” said Hook.
“Sometimes,” said Smee, putting his hands in his pockets. Here was another sign that Smee was particularly tired today – he ordinarily jumped at the chance to do different carpentry, something new, but now he was hanging back, lingering with Hook. Such idleness would infuriate him, most days. “My da and uncle used to have a carpenter’s, grew up in that shop, became a sailor when they died, was only sixteen. Used to like shore leave, but I don’t think I missed it like the other lads did – that was before I joined Flint’s crew, of course, and even then, he was a hard master, but I didn’t mind it. I like my work.”
“You like everything,” Hook said, with more scorn than he felt, but it was true – Smee was a simple soul, simple as anything, was pleased by everything, and hadn’t the grey matter to hold onto scornful thoughts for any length of time. It cut Hook at times – at others, it filled him to the brim and over with helpless affection.
“I miss people,” Smee said. “Not drinking, not riding – that’s all well and good, sure, but I miss streets, sometimes. Saying hello to people as you walk by, having them say hello back.”
“By God, you are Irish,” muttered Hook.
Hook put his hand over his heart and gave Smee a faux-wounded expression, and Smee sniggered, crossing his arms over his chest and looking out over the men again.
Hook’s father would roll in his grave, seeing his only friend a classless Irishman with more dirt under his fingernails than flesh, but he was probably rolling long before that, on the day Hook stood before a rogue on the bloodied deck of the ship he’d been sailing on, and said he should rather aid a pirate’s coffers than be left to die a navyman.
“I miss sailing,” Hook said, after some silence had passed between them, watching Starkey argue with Hayden, the ship’s carpenter, about some aberration in his sketches. “I know we move abut the island, but it’s hardly the same. I wish the sense of purpose we used to feel, moving from one place to another, finding some quarry to lay upon. There were always new battles to be won, new enemies to defeat. Now we rest on our laurels in our very own tropical Eden, and I am without purpose.”
“You’ve purpose,” Smee argued. “Leading the men. They’d fall to pieces without you as arbiter, tear each other apart.”
“Arbiter is a very complicated word for you,” said Hook.
“You use it a lot,” was the dry response, and Hook inhaled as a new breeze came toward them, but it wasn’t the cooling relief he had hoped for – it was as sticky and hot as the air, and Hook glanced to the crystalline waters of the sea beside them. It had been years since he had swum in those waters without fear – could he swim again, now, and cool himself?
He certainly presided over arguments and petty squabbles when they arose, but he was more of a distant judge at times than a captain – he had been reclusive, of recent, scarce spoke to any of the crew but for Smee, but they preferred that, he expected, as he was less likely to lose his temper and shoot one of them.
Perhaps if he killed one of them, his mood would improve.
The familiar crow-like cry sailed over the water, and Hook heard the sigh leave his mouth before he could even think of it in detail, looking at the green flicker of light on the horizon. There were other bodies on the air, too – more stolen children, like Hamlin’s own.
“Perhaps you should go to bed,” said Smee, scowling in the direction of the flying shadows as they made their way to the other side of the island. “We can after them as you rest, Captain, kill them before they land.”
“Oh, leave them, Smee,” Hook muttered. “They’ll come to us for their deaths, soon enough – and you know Pan always kills them himself, if they last too long.”
It was three days later that one of the crew, a little man by the name of Mikey McGuinness, started to cough. They took him ashore to one of the little huts they’d built at their new dockside, but already, whatever flu he had was spreading through the crew.
They didn’t usually get sick, in Neverland.
In his dreams, as in his waking life, it seemed that Pan was ever out of his reach.
Hook, his feet fleet and graceful beneath him, moved fast over the mast, faster than Pan could even with his child’s speed, but whenever Hook lunged for him with the iron claw that graced one wrist or the rapier he held in his hand, Pan would evaporate from sight. Perhaps, were he to see Pan drop from the mast and lie tauntingly upon the air, or to fly from his grasp, it would not seem so supernatural—
And yet Pan disappeared so swiftly, so completely, as fog under strong sun.
Hook was dizzy as he dodged the ropes on the tall mast or climbed his rigging; he stumbled on the deck, made clumsy with nausea and vertigo alike; when he fell upon the swabbed boards, slipping on a sponge no member of Hook’s crew would dare leave awry, Pan laughed over him, beside him, all around him.
Sitting in the passenger seat of a steam train, the likes of which Hook had not travelled upon since he was a child himself, Pan was sat across from him. Sprawled on the other bench, and acting with the casual air of another boy eating an apple, Hook watched, powerless, as his white pearlescent teeth dug into a heart too big for his child’s hands to gracefully hold, and black tar stained his chin instead of blood. Without looking – for he felt nothing but pain, which was quite natural – Hook knew that his own ribs were broken open, and that the heart the child devoured was his own.
He looked down anyway, and stared into the chasm-like depths of his open chest, felt himself fall into the dark.
Smee was calling him, somewhere far off.
How desperate he sounded.
How strange was this dream.
As a puppet with his strings cut, Hook fell limp upon the ground when he reached the bottom of this tenebrous well, and he felt his head loll. As Pan stood over him, dagger in hand, Hook could not breathe, could not twitch even a muscle to escape, nor even move his lips to cry out, to call for help or to curse the boy—
When the blade was driven into his chest, still gaping as it was, Hook felt a curious certainty – this being that strange certainty of dreams, where the most bizarre of truths seems quite intuitive to one, no matter their unlikelihood – that it was piercing a man other than himself.
He saw a vision of his body as from a spectator’s view, sprawled limp as a marionette on the ground, his curls pooled about his head, his jaw slack, his forget-me-not eyes quite wide. Turning his head away from the sight of his own limp corpse, he looked to Smee instead. As the boatswain clutched at his bleeding chest, he fell to his knees.
Pan was laughing.
Hook knew it though he could not hear him.
* * *
Smee drew back the curtains in the captain’s sickroom, but he left the blinds down.
In the wan morning light, Hook seemed dreadfully pale, tangled on his side beneath his sheets and blankets, and upon his skin there was a horrible, feverish sweat. The Hook Smee had known some months ago, standing tall with colour in his cheeks and a subtle smile upon his lips, seemed to have existed in another lifetime: this was Hook now, laid in sick clothes and always pallid, always drenched with some new fever.
In his sleep, the captain’s face twitched and shifted, his lip curling, his brow furrowing, as though he were in silent argument with the spectres that haunted his dreams. The nightmares were not so bad as they had been at the advent of this horrible pneumonia, at least, for no longer did he cry out or sob in the night.
“Captain,” Smee said gently, picking up the tray of tea he had set aside for Hook on the chest of drawers. “Captain, the morning’s broken now, you must wake.”
In all the time Smee had known him – and that was some hundred years, if one really counted them, although the crew of the Jolly Roger knew never to do so in the presence of their captain – James Hook had been a man of such astoundingly keen ear that he sometimes slept with small plugs in his ears, for elsewise, he couldn’t sleep a wink, and it used to drive Smee half-mad, that the captain needed such complete darkness to get himself to the land of nod, that the tiniest pinprick of light should make him stir.
At times now, it seemed as though cannon fire would not wake him.
Smee set the tray on the end table and touched the captain’s arm: he jolted awake, sitting up straight so that his curls fell all about his face, and launched an attack on Smee with his stump. Smee gently caught him by the base of his forearm – it hurt the captain somewhat to be squeezed even lightly nearer what remained of his wrist – and did not say anything, waiting for the captain’s wild eyes to becalm themselves, and see his face.
It seemed to him, when the captain looked at him, that he saw a clarity in his eyes that he had not witnessed in months, that they had lost the clouded, unfocused look that they had long held, but even an optimist as he was, Smee did not wish to give himself false hope.
“Good morning, Captain,” Smee said softly. “I’ve your breakfast here for you.”
“Smee,” said Hook – this was a promising sign of lucidity, for even on the days he recognised Smee, he did not always recollect his name – by way of morning greeting, and gently shook his head, that his ringlets should not fall over his face, “I had dreams most uncommon strange.”
“You’ve been having them of late, Captain,” Smee reminded him. Their conversation was interrupted by the captain’s cough, which he hid against his knees in absence of a handkerchief, which Smee soon provided him.
With it grasped against the heel of his hand, Hook touched his own chest, tracing the line of his sternum, his fingers touching over his ribs as though counting them. They were horribly visible, in places – never before had the captain been so thin, nor his skin so pallid as to show off his bones. In his eyes there was a pensive look, contemplative and self-searching.
“Have I?” he asked, his voice very soft. “I confess, Smee, I don’t remember. Have we the ship aground, or am I in our new dock instalment? I cannot feel the swell beneath us.”
Stifling the instinct he had to gasp, Smee gestured for Hook to sit up against his pillows as he stacked them up that the captain might do so, and Hook leaned back against them, even as he looked about the room, at the armoire and the chest of drawers, its unfamiliar furnishings. In his face, Smee saw writ confusion and lacking recognition, but this was not in itself a sign that he was entirely lucid – several times in the grasp of a bad fever as of recent, he had decried the foreign state of his surroundings, recognising that he was not in his own cabin, and yet not known Smee by sight.
“Smee,” Hook said. “Are you unwell?”
“Oh, I’m alright, Captain, certainly I am,” Smee said, taking up the tray and setting it in Hook’s lap. Hook had not peeled off his nightshirt, as he did some nights, but it stuck to his sweated flesh and was all but translucent in places, very open at the chest: when Smee put the back of his hand on his forehead to test his temperature, the captain looked at him askance, but did not draw away. “You’ve been ill, sir. How’s your throat?”
“Sore,” Hook said. His voice was very hoarse still, and he began to cough again, this time into his handkerchief. Smee put some more honey in the cup of tea waiting for him. “My chest feels very full, I…” He watched the captain breathe in, trying to fill his lungs, and watched the now-familiar uncertainty in his eyes as he struggled to do so, touching his chest.
He began to cough again, and Smee’s body panged at the savage sound of it, the harsh loudness, the crackle of all that awful poison in his lungs and his throat.
“Smell the tea, sir, there’s mint in it as well as honey,” Smee said plaintively. “It will soothe you some.”
“No, sir, no,” Smee assured him quickly, but the captain still glanced down at his handkerchief for sight of blood, his lips parted. The beard was thick on his face now, and Smee wondered, so one with the world as he was today, if he might be able to entice him to shave, for he ordinarily hated to sport such hair as he did now. He was ever so calm, this morning, and seemed quite put-together – could it be that Smee was to have his captain back?
The hope swelled in him like high tide.
“You had some bad fever, sir, or influenza,” Smee said softly when the captain finally picked up his teacup and sipped from it, drinking it down. “But then it turned to pneumonia, and we were all quite afeared that you would die.”
“Me? Die?” Hook attempted a haughty laugh, but it became a fit of hard coughing. Smee reached out to steady the tray, for he coughed so violently it shuddered in his lap, and it had been hard enough to entice Captain Hook to eat in recent weeks without his dashing his eggs and fried potatoes over the sheets.
For weeks on weeks, the captain had been ill in Neverland.
For months, really, whilst getting no better, and yet he did not die, although he sloughed off his weight as though he were fleeing a hunter, and needed to move fast in the water. He could not eat or sleep for coughing, and any sustenance he managed to swallow down would soon be seen again.
Of the crew, some third of their number had gotten sick with it and gotten well again, but several of them, the captain included, had gotten ill, and simply… Not gotten better. And that was bad in itself, a horrible thing, but none of them would die, neither.
When it had come to a vote, there had been one course of action only – no matter that Captain Hook was a foul and cruel seadog (or, indeed, because that was what he was), no member of the crew wished him dead, and nor indeed did any of them wish that he should lie prone as he was, sick but undying.
They had sailed swift as they could from Neverland, and made their way back to England’s shores for the first time in decades. So many decades, in fact, that none of them knew the way back.
It was worth it.
Smee would burn a thousand Neverlands to cinders, to have Hook alive and well.
When he had stepped out down from the deck as Starkey had taken the helm, and the Roger had set sail, he had moved back into the captain’s quarters. He had seen Pan crouched upon the captain’s bed, his elbows upon his knees, peering down at Hook as, buried in some delirium, the captain had tossed and turned.
Smee had shouted, had clapped his hands as though deterring a bird, and although Pan had flown to the window, he had not laughed as he ordinarily would.
“What is wrong with him?” Pan asked, tilting his head, peering at Smee with his glittering eyes wide, bafflement writ on his face. It was so hard to remember he was not the child he resembled, that he was older by decades than Hook or Smee themselves. “I thought I would kill him, but it seems to me he is half-dead already.”
“Off with you,” Smee had snapped, mad with the fear that Pan might have killed his foe, and done so easily. “It is no concern of yours.”
Perplexed, Pan had fallen from the window, and Smee had locked the shutters again with some prejudice. When Hook had cried Smee’s name in his sleep, he had rushed to hold his hand, and Hook had not slapped him away but held him fast.
With a shaking hand, Hook picked up his fork, and Smee slowly sat upon the edge of the bed, watching him as he ate. Although he trembled, and was ever so pale, he ate with his posh boy’s grace and delicate manner, and Smee sat quietly.
“Where are we, then?” Hook asked. “On one of the old ships run aground upon the isle?”
“No, sir,” Smee said. “We’re in a village, sir, Bispham-with-Norbreck. The Black Pool stands to our south.”
Hook stared at him, and even in his shock, he did not part his lips to look at Smee agape, for he thought such things to be very impolite. His lips remained pursed loosely together, and beneath the beard, which was getting to be somewhat a mess again, although Smee attempted to keep it trimmed although he could not shave it, Smee knew that his lips were very handsome, and that his jaw was very handsome too. Almost every part of Hook was handsome. It was a fact he had used to his advantage since boyhood, for even the sternest of schoolmasters permitted a handsome child some misdemeanours.
“England?” Hook asked, and he did not look angry, but profoundly grieved. “Smee… I do not recall the way home, you know.”
“No,” Smee said quietly. “Nor me – and nor does the rest of the crew. But we put it to a vote, sir, being as you had been ill so very long, as to what we should do. First, we asked the Indian Chief to look at you, but she was certain you would soon die, for though she gave you medicines of their conjuring, they took no effect. She was regretful, too, ‘cause she thought we might well think she was lying or such forth, being as weren’t getting better.”
“She probably was,” Hook said, and Smee pinched his thigh through the sheets, making him let out a sharp hiss.
“You mustn’t be ungrateful, Captain,” Smee said. “She had no reason to be kind to you or to any of us, and she was anyways. She wanted to take you back to their village, but I said no, in case you got all them as sick as we were. It was one of his boys brought this back to Neverland, you know – they call it the Spanish Influenza, and it made in your lungs a pneumonia.”
“Anyway,” Hook corrected him. “Not anyways.” He coughed, afterward, but Smee never thought he’d be so pleased for a snip like that.
Smee felt he could weep for the relief. He’d almost forgotten what it was like to speak to the captain, with his fussy corrections and his nastiness. He had missed it desperately – he had ached the whole time, and felt quite hollow for the loss of a man who was laid beside him.
“And,” Smee said, once the coughing fit had finished, and Hook had fallen back on the pillows, rubbing at the side of his temple, “when she could not help you, we sailed here to England. Mikey, you remember he got sick, first, he and Liam Dodd died ‘fore we landed, but Grey Peter and Jorge and John Boggs, they’re all getting better, too. I don’t know that the doctors did here was any better than what medicine she knew, or if it was leaving Neverland, but you are better, sir, and it has been months – longer’n any of the others took.”
Hook was silent a long moment. “Months?” he repeated.
“I’ve not had so long a conversation with you in all that time, sir,” Smee said quietly. “Either you would be delirious, hallucinating and forgetting things in turns, or all but comatose.”
Wheezing slightly, out of breath simply having eaten his eggs, Hook searched the blank air before him, as though he might read some answer there. “I don’t remember,” he murmured, after some moments of this. “I am— Smee, forgive me, I am exhausted.”
“I’d forgive you of everything a priest wouldn’t, Captain,” Smee said.
Hook laughed softly, and Smee never knew a sound like that could be such a comfort. “Smee, you are as sentimental as you are Catholic.”
“I’m full Catholic, sir,” Smee said severely, not willing to be mistaken in this arena. “Though my cousin Eddie had a mixed marriage.”
Fatigued as he was, the captain gave him a half smile. Despite that curve at his mouth, however, there was a distracted look in his eyes, far away and marked in its concern. “Aren’t you called Ed, Smee?”
“Edmund, sir, not Edward.”
“Of course,” Hook said, chuckling. His eyes did not lose that worried look before they closed, and he fell back on the pillows—
Then the next coughing fit started, and Smee hid his wince as he took the tray away.
Hook could not shave himself.
His hand trembled so very badly that he dropped the razor twice into the bowl before he called for Smee – for whom he did not really need to call, for since he had begun to recover his wits, Smee had scarcely left his side except to fetch one thing or another.
It was comforting, not to be left alone.
Smee was comforting.
The boatswain’s hand – although Hook supposed he wasn’t a boatswain any longer, any more than Hook was to be a captain – was steady as he slid the blade against Hook’s skin, shaving away the hair that grew in disgusting thatch across his cheeks. He hated the very sensation of it, and it was a relief indeed, to have the skin bared to the air again, as Smee sculpted the hair on his face to allow only for his moustaches.
“I half thought it’d be in ringlets by now,” Smee said idly.
“A horrifying thought, Smee, thank you.”
“Wasn’t horrifying as I saw it, Captain,” Smee said cheerfully. “It was sweet, in a humorous way – like a highland sheep.”
“I have never in all my years wished to resemble any livestock, Smee.”
“Alright,” Smee murmured, but he was smiling. He had been smiling a great deal, these past days.
A few scant memories of the past few weeks had filtered back to him. He recalled clutching at Smee’s hand one evening after vivid dreams, sobbing as though he were a child; he recalled gentle hands in his hair as he bent over a pot, stomach roiling as he retched between coughs; he recalled Smee speaking softly to him, reading from a book as Hook lay ill with fever. He had stumbled over every other word.
Smee had seen him in a great many undignified positions in his lifetime: these past months had served to multiply those occasions beyond measure, and yet Smee, so full to the brim as he was with the philosophy of Good Form without even knowing he exhibited such a thing, had made no mention of it.
Hook had been in a confounded state for much of it, and his memories were hazy, confused – hallucination mingled with reality, and in some places, he was not confident he could separate one from the other.
He still felt, frankly, somewhat out of himself – he was at times slow, and he struggled to remember something from one moment to the next; at times, he lost his place in conversation, or struggled to follow what Smee was saying. It was as though a fog had descended upon his brain, but copious rest was helping.
“I thought we might go for a walk, you and I,” Smee suggested. “Being as you’re feeling so well, of late, I thought a short walk might do you good – only five minutes, Captain, to the end of the walkway and back. Would you?”
“I think I should manage such a journey, Mr Smee,” Hook said quietly, and reached for his blouse, pulling it onto his shoulders as Smee fetched his hook. The leather strap that held it was polished to a shine, and the metal of the claw gleamed in the light: Smee took good care of the thing as though it were his very own, and Hook was so very consumed with gratitude for the having of him that he was quite overwhelmed with it, and knew not what to say.
A thank you hardly sufficed at this juncture.
And here they were, aground in England, away from Neverland – long had passed the days where piracy could form a man’s occupation, and although the doctor had said his condition was much improved, he had doubted that Hook’s lungs would ever return to that which they had been. Gone was his immortality – functional as it was – and his good health with it.
And yet remained Smee.
“The crew have sold much of the treasure we had on the Jolly Roger, I suppose,” he said as Smee held his hook in his place, letting Hook strap it into place, a tight, snug fit that felt comfortable, satisfying. A touch of a hand often ached, made the scarred skin thrum with discomfort – the leather strap of his hook did not.
“Oh no, Captain,” Smee said. “Mr Starkey said we mustn’t do such a thing, that you’ve always said it is a matter of good accountancy to keep as much wealth as one might, for emergencies’ sake.”
“I did not know Mr Starkey listened so keenly when I spoke,” Hook said, raising his arms so that Smee could tie his belt around his waist. “Coming to a strange land with no papers to speak of, no family, no connections… None of that, I suppose, amounts to an emergency?”
“Well,” Smee said, pulling the belt tight, and Hook gasped, then wheezed, tapping his hand. Smee let out a horrified sound, leaning back, and Hook loosened the belt by a few notches, until it felt comfortable, and barely served as a belt at all, but merely a band of leather fastened loosely around his waist. He leaned back against the door jamb to catch his breath, trying to fill his lungs to what limited capacity he might, and Smee waved mint leaves under his nose until Hook pushed him bodily away, though it did help, he thought.
“Well, you said. You were going to tell me about Mr Starkey and the crew.”
“Oh!” Smee said, clapping his plump hands together, and Hook gripped very tightly at the stair’s bannister as he began to descend it, leaning one shoulder heavily against the wall. He had been downstairs twice in the past few weeks, and each time, it had exhausted him. Even now, he felt very fatigued, and his breathing was slightly more laboured, although he hoped very much that the fresh sea air would do him good. “Well, Mr Jukes was caught in the street by some fellow who suggested he join the circus, being as he has so many tattoos, and it gave him the idea that they should do tours of the Jolly Roger.”
Hook felt his lips twist into a tight frown. “Tours, Smee?”
“Well, we’re all but a dead breed now, sir, we being pirates, I mean,” Smee said, “sailors all have these— these steam ships, and what-not. But the Jolly Roger is an authentic pirate ship – three masts, full sails, and all that. People are paying a good amount to step on deck, sir, and more to look below, at all our flags and bones and such. The crew’ve been sending a stipend up to us, sir, being as you were on your sickbed. They keep sending letters asking word, wanting that you’re back on your feet.”
This sat ill with James Hook.
Every man on his crew feared him – they had seen him kill and slaughter, had seen him rule with his iron claw, so much more effective than an iron fist, and they knew him to be cold, and commanding.
“They shall be disappointed, I suppose,” Hook said lowly. “That I yet live.”
“No, sir, I don’t believe so,” Smee said quietly, his brows furrowing. “Mr Noodler cried, when Mr Mason suggested, when landed we on the coast, that we should be better finding a priest than a doctor.”
“You got both, I suppose?”
“That’s neither here nor there, sir,” Smee said quickly, and Hook exhaled through his nose, taking Smee’s arm when he offered it. Smee’s arm was warm and solid under his grip, and although Hook wished he could resist the need to, he leaned somewhat on his boatswain’s strength. His legs were as yet somewhat weak, and he knew that he was trembling, although the spring air was warm.
“And what of you, Smee?”
“What of me?”
“You don’t wish to be part of this pirates’ circus?”
“Oh, no, sir,” Smee said stoutly. “I shan’t be going anywhere you ain’t.”
Smee pronounced the fact with the certainty that was typical of him, and Hook did not allow himself to smile, but it pleased him so well that it was a struggle to retain a sense of neutrality in his expression. He inhaled as deeply as he could, and once the ensuing fit of coughing had passed, they walked down the path of the house.
They were on the Fylde, and Hook glanced back at the house once they were a ways off from it.
He had seen very little of it, had primarily seen the inside of his own bedroom and glimpsed the dining room downstairs, but it was a modest country house, with three bedrooms, not including the servants’ dormitory. In all truth, it was rather over-large for himself and Smee, but Smee had made some noise when Hook had pointed this out, saying that he wished to have space that others of the crew could visit them, and that the rent was very modest.
They were near enough to the coast, and looking out over the plains, Hook could see the horizon and the choppy break upon the waters, even as he leaned very heavily on Smee’s arm. The fresh sea air was a balm for the soul, but did little to help his lungs, and after they had walked scarce more than thirty feet down the path, Hook pressed on Smee’s shoulder with the curve of his hook, bidding that they should stop.
“It’s alright, Captain,” Smee said, although it was not alright at all, and Hook could hear the whistled sound to his own inhalations, his head bowed slightly forward. “The doctor said that it will be like this time for some time longer.”
Hook felt so tired his flesh felt heavy upon his bones, his cheeks throbbing, and when he leaned further into Smee, he put a steadying hand on Hook’s other side, helping keep him upright more than Hook might like to admit.
“Shall I carry you back to the house, sir?”
“Smee, if you even think of carrying me,” Hook said between wheezed breaths, “I shall gut you here and now.”
“I wouldn’t do that, sir,” Smee said seriously. “Even if you kept upright without me stood here beside you, you’d be liable to slip in the mess.”
Smee was so earnest in imparting this advice that Hook laughed, which only made him cough, and this made him wheeze all the harder. “Don’t make me laugh, Smee,” he choked out, and Smee responded only by pulling a handful of heavily abused mint leaves out of a pocket, holding them to Hook’s face. The smell was as much, Hook could only suspect, some manner of placebo as it was a real cure, but he did fancy that the strong fragrance cleared his nose and throat some tiny bit, and he focused on his breaths as they stood thus on the road, trying to fill his lungs to their fullest.
It was like attempting full sails with one’s rigging tangled.
“If I could give you one of my lungs, Captain, I would,” Smee said quietly.
“As charming,” Hook said, and took a few moments to breathe, before he went on, “as that… mawkish offer… is, Smee… Hell’s bells.” This episode of coughing went on for some time, and he struggled to take in breaths between hard, chest-racking coughs. His vision dimmed at its edges and he grasped tightly at Smee with his hand to keep from fainting ‘til it passed.
They stood like that, Smee stalwart under his weight, until he finally managed to say, only slightly breathless between words, “As charming as that… mawkish offer is, Smee, it is ultimately… ultimately useless.”
“I mean it, though,” Smee murmured to Hook’s chest.
Hook, embarrassed, knew not what to say to that, and so he said, “Let us back. I need to sit.”
It took a long time.
For such a short distance, on his unsteady feet, it took what seemed like hours to walk between the path and the house, and once they were inside, Hook tipped readily onto the plush couch beside the fire, shivering, grateful for the heat, and Smee fetched him blankets from upstairs.
He slept for a time, and woke himself up for coughing.