Hook rested underneath the blanket that Smee had tossed over him for some time, laid on his side. There was a painful exhaustion settled through everyone of his muscles, sinking deep into his very bones, and his chest ached distantly with every breath he took. He tried to keep his breaths shallow, so that his chest would not pang so much with the pain, but that only left him feeling somewhat light-headed and even foggier than usual.
It was a truly unpleasant balance, and he was grateful indeed that he scarcely had to move. The fire crackled beside him, heat billowing out into the room, and although he had slept for some few hours, he felt as though he had barely slept at all. His fatigue was an uncomfortable, sticky weight over his eyes, making him yawn almost compulsively, but when he tried to close his eyes and slip once more into Elysium, it eluded him deftly.
He considered rising from his place and seeking out a book or the newspaper to read, but his eyes felt tired and despite his boredom the very idea of focusing his eyes upon swimming black text made him inwardly blanch.
But failing all other entertainments, as ever, there was Smee.
It had for many years on the Jolly Roger been Hook’s habit to seek out Smee, wherever he might be found, and avail of his presence.
In times of boredom and inactivity, he and Smee would bite back and forth at one another, bickering and arguing as though from each side of the Irish Sea. Hook would tell anecdotes that Smee would generally pay attention to, but not irregularly lose the thread of; Smee would tell anecdotes so filthy and bawdy and frankly unrealistic that Hook would consider them for weeks. As Smee went on with his work, collecting the rigging, assisting with carpentry, overseeing maintenance tasks, or even sitting at the ship’s sewing machine, Hook would linger beside him, reading a book, or speaking back and forth with him.
In times of high stress, Hook would do much the same, but would not entertain himself: he would, lost in his thoughts, pace back and forth, allow himself to sink into his reverie with Smee’s calm, easy rhythm a soothing balm. Smee always worked in a well-contented way, untroubled by anything in the world, that Hook envied, and now was no exception.
As Hook laid on the sofa beneath his blanket, feeling like the invalid he now was, he watched Smee through half-lidded eyes as Smee went about other work.
Hook watched Smee through the doorway to kitchen, watching his back and the movement of his shoulders as he washed their dishes and then laid them to dry on the rack, saw him move back and forth as he set the plates away.
Smee kept a neat, orderly space, which one might be somewhat surprised at, to look at him – although Smee kept his clothes neatly folded and did not toss his shirts about as some men of their crew did, he could iron them every day and still find them creased as soon as he drew them about himself. Smee creased a shirt merely by looking at it: he was a genial fellow, but not tidy, and his hair and beard were often uncombed, his hat at a jaunty angle, his clothes creased and his trousers almost always drawn up higher on one side of his waist than the other.
These were visuals that could evoke even in the most cold-hearted of men an impossible affection, and did.
For all this messiness about his person, Smee kept his workspace in good order, his tools always neatly set away and carefully maintained, and while exposure to Hook had not rendered in Smee so keen an anxiety as to perfection, he certainly had picked up certain of Hook’s habits, such as sorting things in order of their colour palette, and always picking up blankets and throws to lay them down flat when they became creased or ruched in the course of the day.
Smee did this very thing on the chair, picking up the blanket slung over its back and refolding it before setting it down again, and when he looked down at Hook, Hook met his gaze, albeit sleepily.
“Heard you coughing,” he said. “Heard you stop. Don’t you want for your bed, Captain?”
“I wouldn’t be able to sleep, Smee,” said Hook in a low voice, and Smee bit at his lower lip, worrying it cartoonishly as he looked about. “You needn’t linger at my bedside and hold my hand, Smee.”
“I’ve done my work in the yard as you were sleeping, Captain, and there ain’t no call to be cooking just yet, unless you find yourself hungry.”
“I’d only be sat, then, all idle.”
“Smee, you needn’t make up menial tasks only to bustle for my entertainment,” Hook said dryly – too dryly, in fact, because it made him cough, and he sat up on one elbow, coughing into his other. “Help me off with this, would you, Smee?”
Smee had not removed his hook as he slept, but had took a wine cork and put it on the tip to keep him from cutting himself or tearing at his blanket (this was the reason Smee gave for it, but Hook had no doubt it also gave him some amusement). What bothered Hook was his harness, the leather pressing into his flesh as he laid on the sofa. As Hook unbuttoned his blouse, Smee released his hook from the holster at his wrist, and then reached into his shirt to unbuckle the harness against his shoulder. Smee’s fingers were warm against Hook’s skin.
“Thank you,” Hook murmured as Smee unbuttoned the fastenings at his sleeves and gently pulled the leather harness out from the sleeve, although he did it very smoothly, not pinching the skin whatsoever as he moved.
“I thought I might read to you, Captain,” said Smee. “If you don’t mind.”
“Why would I mind, Smee?”
“Well, you’d complain of the sun shining at times,” said Smee, and Hook harrumphed, not willing to laugh lest it crumple into coughing again. He pulled his blouse up to his chest again, and sank back onto the cushions, the blanket over his shoulder.
Smee didn’t read extremely well – he knew his letters, had learned them as a young man, but he had never read literature, history, or science before he began his service on the Jolly Roger, and even now, he had a great affection for ghost stories and mysteries, and often despaired that Hook could read some mathematics journal so contentedly, being as the subject matter was so dry.
Smee read stuntedly, often stumbling over words and sentences as he read, or starting over a paragraph entirely to perform a different, equally ridiculous accent to voice a character he hadn’t realised was speaking, and he mispronounced words with regularity – when he found a phrase in Latin or French or some other language, he would not even hazard a guess, and would shove the page toward Hook to read it for him instead.
It was the sort of thing Hook ought have found infuriating – invariably, it was endearing, as Smee pursued his reading with the cheerful enthusiasm he pursued everything.
Now, he said, “What about Mr Doyle, Captain?”
“What about him, Smee?”
“I’ve The Strand’s latest issue, Captain, there waiting on the table,” said Smee with enthusiasm. “Tis from Mr Holmes’ latest adventures.”
“I would remind you, Smee, as I so often do, that Holmes and Watson are not real people.”
“That don’t matter,” was the stout retort. “It’s the feelings, ain’t it?”
“I might complain, Smee,” said Hook exhaustedly, his face sinking back into the pillow, “but I would never stop you reading to me. There is not a schoolboy on this earth who reads with such amateur theatrics as you do.”
This was evidently too indulgent a compliment, because Smee put one hand over his chest and beamed at Hook, looking flattered beyond measure. “You really think so, Captain?” he said.
“Get your magazine, Smee,” growled Hook, and Smee laughed to himself as he walked away to take it from the table.
The rent on the house had been so agreeable in large part because it hadn’t been rented to anybody for a good few years, and had been before Smee had arrived in a state of some disrepair.
The roof had needed retiling, a few beams – though not load-bearing ones – in the attic requiring removal and replacement, and about the house had been a handful of problem spots where the wall needed to be spackled or the bricks set back into their places.
In exchange for a most reasonable rent, Smee had advised their landlady, an elderly woman by the name of Cratchett who lived in a bungalow on the other side of the village, not only would he repair what damage had been done to the house already by its lacking tenants and the wear of the elements, but he would keep it in good repair once it had been set to rights.
She had even agreed, most happily, that he should build on the land adjoining the old house a good barn from which he might pursue his carpentry again, although this had come with the included requirement that he might do some carpentry for her and her elderly husband, from time to time.
Her husband, she had said, had been bedridden for some years, and therefore she understood that Smee wanted a good place to settle himself and his captain, and that it was good indeed of him, that he should want to care for the man with the two of them now retiring from sea.
That had been some weeks ago – as Hook had laid in his sickbed on the Roger, Smee, Noodler, Mason, and Hayden had gotten the house together again in short order, and even hoed out the garden a bit, that it should be neater and tidier.
Mrs Cratchett had grown up in the house, so she’d said to Smee – it was a big enough place, with three bedrooms upstairs and an attic nursery, all made up with a playroom for the children, and downstairs, along with the big kitchen and dining room, there was a servants’ quarters, and half a wine cellar.
Smee had been very impressed that as well as a great bath, the house had a flushing toilet with a chain, but when he had expressed admiration for this, Mrs Cratchett had given him a very queer look, and he had kept his further enthusiasm to himself.
Of the rooms upstairs, Smee had installed Captain Hook in the master bedroom, in a four-poster bed the like that Captain Hook had always been drawn to, for he was very sensitive to light and sound and fared better with a curtain than without. It was a pleasant room that held the heat very well and had its own fireplace. It was big enough to host not only the wardrobe and a good chest of drawers, and a writing desk too, but also an armchair which Smee had set beside the fire when first he and the boys had been furnishing the room, and had then dragged up close to Hook’s bed, that he might be closer to the captain as he slept. Not irregularly, he fell asleep in this chair, for it was tremendously plush, and smelled of Hook’s cologne because Smee had spilled the bottle on it.
Hook couldn’t wear it, anymore. He had tried, had daubed a little of it on his wrists and the sides of his jaw, but it had made his lungs act up something awful, and he had coughed for an hour before he had begun to wheeze.
Smee had taken for himself the smallest of the other bedrooms, which had a door that adjoined Hook’s, and as well as having the benefit of being so close to Hook’s own, also took a lot of the heat that came from his fireplace, so that the bedroom was warm even when Smee did sleep in his own bed.
The sun shone right inside when it rose up in the morning, and Smee liked it very much, to be greeted with the morning sun, but it wasn’t nothing like the sun in Neverland – here, in England, the sun was wan and cold and shone like it was behind a film of something, as a candle behind lantern paper.
He almost hadn’t expected Hook to ever get better.
He half-thought he’d be in that waking coma, coughing and spluttering and beset with those horrible nightmares, for months more, for years, and when he’d finally woken, he’d almost not believed it. He’d made up the house trying to tell himself that if he made the house up nice, if he made it lovely, then maybe Hook wouldn’t die in it—
And then Hook had woken up, and it had seemed like more than he ever could have hoped for.
Hook spent most days, in the coming weeks, resting in bed.
This was not out of indolence – most days he would stand up from bed and go to the tiny upstairs bathroom, which was little more than a cupboard with a johnny and yet was fierce cold for all that, wash his face in the sink, and even that would leave him exhausted and light-headed.
He wanted to dress himself, but his hand shook very badly, and twice he got his blouse on and then fell onto the mattress exhausted – and if he were only tired, that would be bad but not so terrible, but he would wheeze so loudly too, and Smee winced to hear him breathe at times, there was such painful labour in it.
Smee ordered books for Hook, the sort of things he liked – he got a few newspapers and magazines, serious broadsheets that talked very seriously and saw no humour in the world, and extremely heavy works of literature with words printed very fine and small, and books of mathematics and the like, which were so dry Smee thought they should spit out dust when Hook cracked their pages.
The crew sent things along from town, too – they’d send up parcels with funny postcards and letters in bad handwriting hoping that Captain Hook was recovering well and that the sea air was doing him good and saying they’d been having a lot of business and that they hoped he should visit them soon or send word that they should visit him, and they’d send books, too, which were admittedly more for Smee’s liking – they’d be funny things, illustrated and bawdy and silly.
Hook wouldn’t think so – or, he wouldn’t say so, but he would smile in that half visible, sly way he did sometimes, when he thought something was funny but he oughtn’t to encourage it, or when he thought it was funny but not for the likes of proper men such as he.
He was bored, Smee thought.
As more time passed, as the captain ate proper food every day and did what exercise he could, he did recover somewhat – he was able to walk more around his room, and didn’t need to sleep quite so much in the day.
In the beginning, in the first few weeks since coming to himself from the pneumonia, he still slept for good portions of the way – it was almost worse for him, Smee thought, when he was well enough to be awake, but not well enough to go down to go wherever Smee was, working in the attic or the yard. Smee did his best to keep with Hook as much he could, to linger in his bedroom and sit with his own books or write letters to the crew, but even then, Hook didn’t speak much, didn’t make conversation, but would be lost in his own reverie.
It wasn’t unusual for the captain, but it felt different, in these times.
“You’re a most stalwart companion, Smee,” said Hook when Smee slowly came to himself, blinking slowly awake in the armchair beside Hook’s bed. He had fallen asleep after a heavy lunch, although he hadn’t meant to, and now that he was coming to himself, he saw that Hook was dressed and on his feet, and brushing out his hair.
It made Smee’s heart give a little flutter, to see the captain brush his hair like that, so easy.
But for the fact that he could hear Hook’s breathing, creaking quietly on the intake as it dragged on an edge in his throat, and that he could not feel the familiar flow of Neverland’s crystal waters beneath them, they were almost back to normal.
“Shall we go somewhere, Smee?” asked Hook softly, in a tone that rather forced its way into the casual.
“Oh, yes, Captain,” Smee said, sitting up, although he looked at Hook cautiously as he did so. He liked to encourage him, certainly, to move where he could, but Hook was so often not cognizant of his limits, and as much as Smee was happy to peel him off the carpet or the furniture when his fatigue got the better of him and he fell down, he didn’t like how embarrassed Hook got afterward. “Where to?”
“The end of the path,” Hook said. “I don’t actually want to walk anywhere, Smee – if you would put out a chair for me, I would merely sit outside a while. I miss the sun.”
“It’s not the same, you know,” said Smee as he knelt to help Hook on with his shoes, and Hook released a low, harrumphed noise that only wheezed somewhat. “As Neverland, I mean.”
“You don’t say,” Hook said darkly, and Smee looked up at the bright shine of his forget-me-not eyes, at the slight quirk of his lips beneath the hair of his moustaches.
Hook leaned very heavily on the bannister as they descended the stair – in two months, he had descended them only a handful of times, and not actually passed out of doors since their first small jaunt to the end of the path and back – and although Smee did not like how unsteady he was on his feet, he did not look so painfully thin as he had some weeks before. He was thin, but no longer gaunt, and although he remained pale, his skin had lost the chalky note it had carried for some long while.
Hook sat down in a deck chair, leaning back and closing his eyes. It was a warm day, but Hook did not complain when Smee set a blanket over his knees, and Smee fancied that while the slight wheeze to Hook’s breathing did not entirely fade away, it did quieten somewhat the longer he lay in the shine of the sun, his eyes closed.
Not having two hands to fold over his belly, he loosely gripped his hook with his fingers and rested it on his stomach instead, and looked quite contented.
The captain dozed like a housecat, and Smee felt himself happy in that moment beyond measure.
“Hullo, Mr Smee!” said the bright voice of Harriet Aspen, who was the daughter of the innkeeper in the village. She had a caught rabbit hanging from her grip by its ears, and although she didn’t step through the gate, she leaned right against it with her chin on its frame, and stared at Hook, who glanced to her with surprise.
“Hullo, Miss Aspen,” said Smee. “This is Miss Aspen, Captain – she’s the daughter of Dick and Daisy Aspen, in the Egg and Swan.”
“The public house,” said Hook slowly, and nodded his head.
“Mr Smee says you were a ship captain,” said Harriet Aspen excitedly. “Mr Smee says you’re the only man Captain Flint ever feared, he being the only man Blackbeard ever feared.”
Hook glared at Smee.
“What?” asked Smee. “S’true, ain’t it?”
“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Aspen,” Hook said, and then added pointedly, “I’m sure we might have an illuminating conversation at some later juncture.”
Smee looked to Harriet, who visibly had little idea what this was supposed to mean, and was looking askance at Smee.
“He means go away,” said Smee. “But polite.”
“Oh,” said Harriet Aspen, and nodded her head in that affable way children did, when you told them to go away and they had no real reason to linger. “My mam says to ask if you’d like a leg of lamb, ‘cause our uncle’s butchered one of his being as it fell over, and it’s an awful lot of lamb to eat at once.”
“Oh, we’d eat that, yes, wouldn’t we, Captain?” said Smee.
Hook, who had closed his eyes, said nothing.
“The Captain has very good manners,” said Smee pointedly. “Says it’s good form.”
Hook’s eyes opened, and he gave Smee an incredibly foul, very frosty look that made Smee almost feel as though winter had come many months early, before he pushed himself up in his chair, and turned to regard young Harriet Aspen.
“It is very kind indeed of your mother to extend such a gracious offer to us, Miss Aspen,” Hook said, and Smee could sound that he was a little out of breath, and wondered if this was why he had tried to avoid speaking, and then felt a bit guilty. “We should be glad indeed to accept – thank you for going to the effort of coming out our way to ask us, and please do extend our thanks to your mother for thinking of us. If there is anything at all we might offer in return, please, do let us know.”
“Mr Smee says you’re a racketer of some repute,” said Harriet Aspen. “You could tell a story in the pub.”
Smee watched Hook’s lips move as he silently repeated the word “racketer”, uncomprehending, and then say, slowly, “Raconteur, young lady. And… And yes, maybe. Perhaps.”
Bracing his hook against his belly, Hook closed his eyes a moment and inhaled, although the breath caught in his throat, and it took him a few tries to inhale it in one go. Smee and Harriet both waited a few moments for him to go back to it, but Hook had a furrow between his brows, his head leaned forward as he tried to catch his breath back, and Smee knew he’d be coughing again soon enough.
“Best be off, Harry,” Smee said in a whisper. “Thanks.”
She nodded her head, giving Smee a grin that was missing a few teeth, and waved enthusiastically at the both of them before she took off at a run down the path, toward the village proper.
“Tea, Captain?” asked Smee. What he meant by this, of course, was, Do you want some privacy for a minute, and I’ll leave you to it while I putter in the kitchen?
Hook, after wheezing a few more times, gave a nod, and said, “Thank you, Smee,” in a breathless whisper, “good form.”
When he came back outdoors, Hook had brought his lungs more under control again, and after drinking some of the tea, he sat back in his chair and fell asleep to the sound of Smee pulling up weeds and cutting back unruly hedges.
It wasn’t for long, of course – the captain woke up coughing within an hour.
But it was a nice sort of peace, for a while.