Mr Chambers’ house was probably the nicest house that Smee had ever been in – even on the occasions he had burgled or otherwise trespassed in rich men’s houses, they had never been such lovely houses as this one. The house was very large indeed, with sprawling gardens that didn’t even plant anything useful – or, if they did have vegetables and whatnot, they were well-hidden so that you didn’t go away thinking a man so rich couldn’t buy his vegetables and had to grow them himself – and when they went inside, they had a big hall with a staircase that Hook called an entrance hall, because naturally if you were rich you had to have a big room just for people to enter into.
Just having a door, that was for poor sods, wasn’t it?
“Are you alright, Captain?”
“Shut up, Smee,” said Hook on an exhale, but Smee could see that his face was pale and that there was a slight sheen of sweat on the surface of his skin. They’d had to walk up a little hill and through a bit too much garden, really, to get here. Smee reached out, touching the fabric of his belt, but before he could loosen it Hook smacked his hand away. He made a creaking door noise on the next intake of breath, but then stood up straighter as a fat fellow who was a little taller than Smee approached.
“I do apologise for my delay, Captain Hook, Mr Smee,” he said in a lugubrious sort of voice, naturally glum even though he was giving a polite service smile. It had been a young shaver who’d let them in – a footman – and this fellow was a butler, or the butler, as Hook insisted a house could only have one, unless it had an underbutler.
When Smee had asked if they was stacked one on top of the other, Hook had rolled his eyes, which was almost as good as getting a laugh out of him.
“May I take your coats?”
“Why, how much do you think you can get for them?” asked Smee.
The butler didn’t like this, and what’s more, he didn’t seem to understand it – he gave Smee an exceedingly queer look, as though he thought perhaps that Smee belonged in the looney bin, and Hook said, “Of course, thank you.”
Smee helped Hook off with his coat, not letting the butler come close because he didn’t much like the cautious look he shot Hook’s hook, and then the butler helped Smee off with his, which was very strange, as Smee hadn’t had someone help him with his clothes off since he’d last been in a brothel, and that had been decades ago.
She’d been prettier than this lad, too.
They were brought down a corridor and into a finely appointed room where a fire was blazing and all of the furniture looked too expensive to sit on. Smee recognised, of course, Mr Ned Chambers, and his wife, Mrs Eleanor Chambers. Their dog, a burnished red setter with floppy ears, was sprawled on the rug and wagged its tail at the sight of him and Hook, but didn’t get up.
Ned Chambers was of a height with Smee – that was to say, he was short – and balding on the top of the head with what hair remained cropped short as though to make the transition less blunt on the eye, and he was delicate and small and sort of fragile-looking, not because he was especially thin or pale, but merely because he had the proportions more of a painted toy than an actual man, and just looking at him, you thought perhaps he was another man’s double made in miniature.
Eleanor Chambers was also doll-like, but she was doll-like in the way some posh ladies were, and it suited her much better – a little taller than Ned, she had very fine blonde hair, the sort that would be described as flaxen gold or something equally fanciful in one of Mr Starkey’s letters where he said he’d fallen n love again, and she had handsome brown eyes that were very soulful like a Labrador’s, and she had such elegant little hands that you almost expected they really were made of porcelain until she bent the fingers.
There was another woman, a bit taller and a bit plainer than Eleanor, but they shared their doll-like prettiness and their pale little hands – she had hair that was a mousy-brown colour, and her eyes were a duller brown, and Smee supposed based on this resemblance that she was Mrs Chambers’ sister.
“Ah, Captain Hook, what a pleasure it is to see you,” said Ned brightly, shaking Hook by his prosthetic with no hesitation whatsoever – although he did it very vigorously, and Smee could see Hook doing that funny little look he did, lips shifting together and going crooked, restraining himself from raising an eyebrow, that came about when he wanted to make fun of somebody but knew it would be impolite – before he gestured broadly to the room.
“We’re so glad you could join us, Captain, Mr Smee,” said Eleanor, and Hook inclined his head very gracefully, so that his curls moved about his shoulders.
“We are grateful indeed for the invitation, Mrs Chambers.”
“And here, this is Laura Bradley, Mrs Chambers’ sister,” said Ned, and Hook – being Hook – bowed his handsome head and brushed the back of her hand with his lips as soon as she extended it, making her laugh in the breathless, lovely way of a much younger woman. Smee gave her a nod of greeting, and she smiled at him, but with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm as she’d showed for Smee. “And this is Lorelai, our niece.”
Lorelai was such a shadow of a thing that she almost wasn’t there at all, and Smee hadn’t even seen her behind her mother as they’d come in. She was fourteen or fifteen, he’d guess, and while she’d taken more after her aunt than her mother, there was a sort of fragility to her burgeoning beauty that made him hold his breath. Her skin, which was so pale that it showed pink in places, like an albino rabbit showed its flesh under all the white, almost glowed in the warmth of the evening light, and her blue eyes had a wateriness to them, red-rimmed, although it seemed that this was more because of the fragility and thinness of her skin than because she’d been crying. There was a delicate purple tinge underneath them both, and her lips carried that darkness too: were it not for the fact that he was so used to looking for it in Hook, perhaps Smee would not have noticed the part of her lips, the way the shape of her mouth slightly changed, because she was breathing through it as well as her nose, and doing her best to keep quiet the sound.
“Good evening, Miss Bradley,” said Hook very seriously, with all the solemnity he might afford a visiting duchess, and he leaned and kissed the back of her hand like he had her mother’s. “How do you do?”
“How do you do, Captain?” she replied – she had a voice almost as papery as her skin, quiet and breathless.
“Lorelai isn’t much up to the bustle even of Bispham town,” said Ned – he said it quickly, almost cautiously, and the girl glanced down at the floor, her eyelashes very blonde and catching the light. “We have to bring the excitement home to her.”
“I fear your uncle has misjudged us,” Hook said to the Bradleys, with a sort of secretive smile, playful – and fruity – enough that it made the girls chuckle instead of blush. He always good at straddling that line, when he needed. “We really aren’t exciting at all.”
“Speak for yourself, I’m a firework, I am,” said Smee, and Laura laughed. Lorelai didn’t, but gave a small sigh that almost amounted to laughter.
“Are you in school, Miss Bradley?” asked Hook once they were sat down to dinner together – great admiration had been made, naturally, of Hook’s replacing his hook with a custom-made fork, because while he did have a sort of claw that could be manipulated somewhat for grasping things, he hated very much to rely on it, particularly for such delicate matters as holding a fork at dinner.
“I have a governess who oversees most of my education, and I take my exams here in the house,” said Lorelai quietly. There was a slight, natural wheeze in her voice, and sometimes she paused for longer than sounded natural, as Hook did himself – and Smee had noticed that although she didn’t use a cane, she supported her weight constantly on couches and chairs and that. “Although I visit the schoolhouse now and then, and tutor some of the younger girls.”
“That’s very admirable,” said Hook. “When I was at school, I not infrequently assisted some of the younger boys in their mathematics studies.”
“Threatened to beat ‘em when they got the answers wrong, you mean?” asked Smee, and Hook gave him a wry look even as the others at the table laughed.
“That was more the realm of our schoolmasters. No, it was known I had a penchant for the subject, and naturally boys would make bribes or bring some manner of tribute if they were struggling, and make trade for the value of my particular guidance.”
“Make trade? Posh school you went to, and them lads had to pay a second time for one of the other students to give ‘em their letters?”
“Money can’t buy everything, Smee,” said Hook, “and I gave them their numbers.”
“You two are funny,” said Eleanor, laughing. “You sound just like Mr Chambers and I when we’re alone together.”
“You have my condolences,” said Hook, not missing a beat, and Smee laughed, looking down at his food. Funny that he should be at dinner with Hook – he’d been to fancy dinners years and years ago, with other captains or occasionally with folk on land when they’d yet made port now and then, but Smee would never go, maybe Starkey would, or another gentleman from the crew, not the likes of Smee.
He’d never have wanted to, really, all them rules and etiquette, which even now were swimming before his eyes as he looked out at their place settings and their glasses and all their cutlery, but things were different in the moment. Smee was Hook’s companion, now, not just a member of his crew, like how a lady’s maid was a princess’ companion centuries ago, not the same, exactly, as a master and servant.
Mr Chambers owned several factories, although what exactly any of them made, Smee hadn’t been able to decipher – suffice it to say, a great many numbers passed between him and Hook at the dinner table, with much talk made of percentages and increases and dividends and all that bother.
Smee, not caring for this at all, looked at the ladies – he was slap-bang in the middle of all three of them, owing to this business about seating a table boy-girl, boy-girl, for whatever mad reason they did, except that Hook was sat next to Ned anyway, with Laura on his other side across from Smee, and Lorelai at the end of the table – and said, “So, what do you do?”
“Do?” repeated Eleanor, tilting her head slightly. Across from her, Hook was nodding seriously and talking about interest rates, which seemed to Smee to be ill-named, because he couldn’t imagine anything less interesting.
“You know,” said Smee, but it was apparent from her and her sister’s faces that they didn’t. “With your time, I mean. I don’t know what women do, never had cause to meet any afore except—“ He hastily cleared his throat. “Well, you know, er. Fisherwomen. Women in ports.”
“Didn’t your mother do anything?” asked Lorelai, seeming amused for reasons Smee couldn’t grasp at.
“Well, she shouted a fair bit,” said Smee, “’Course, I think that was as a side effect of me rather than ‘cause it was a natural instinct of hers.”
Lorelai stifled her laugh behind her hand.
“She was an homemaker, and a laundress,” said Smee, “but we were a big family, all of us working, you know. We never had servants or that.”
“How big?” asked Mrs Bradley.
“Oh, well, I had seven brothers, and two sisters,” said Smee, “and we often had cousins hanging about the place, you know.”
“Ten children?” repeated Eleanor, looking and sounding quite astonished.
Smee watched with amusement at the way Hook stumbled slightly in conversation, his head tilting slightly toward them – normally he’d make some comment about Smee being a Catholic, or Irish, or his mother being a whore, or all three, but he was evidently biting back this instinct as a result of their being in polite company.
“Ten that survived,” Smee said cheerfully. “But that’s what I mean, see, all them people in the house all the time, wasn’t like you could be bored if you tried.”
“Well, we all sew, naturally,” said Eleanor.
“Oh, I sew a bit,” said Smee. “I tailor all the captain’s clothes, of course, but I’m a dab hand with a sewing machine, and I can put things together with patterns. Half of what he and I wear, I made.”
“Oh,” said Laura, looking at him in surprise. “I don’t know that I’ve met many men that can use a sewing machine.”
“Well, we had one on the ship,” said Smee. “No women, of course. Had to be someone’s job.”
“Do you embroider, Mr Smee?” asked Lorelai, and Smee laughed.
“Sure, if someone’s got a stain or rip and I’m trying to cover it up,” he said, and when all three of them looked at him funny – although the girl, at least, looked more like she found it funny rather than him – he said, “Er, can’t embroider anything nice, not the display things I see hung up with the words and nice pictures and that. You do it with them hoops, don’t you? Perhaps I could learn.”
“It’s not really a hobby for gentlemen,” said Eleanor gently.
Smee opened his mouth, but one of Hook’s feet – he’d know them shiny sharp-toed things anywhere, having polished them himself this afternoon – kicked him in the ankle, although Hook never for a moment looked away from Ned’s scintillating speech about… whatever it was about. Banks or something.
Smee was about to say that he wasn’t a gentleman, so it didn’t much matter, but Hook evidently disapproved of this (it was natural that Hook should predict what Smee was going to say before he could say it, and he didn’t for a moment consider that perhaps Hook had estimated wrong), so he didn’t.
“I’ve taken up a bit of knitting,” he said instead, and evidently this was even more wrong, because Hook closed his eyes and did a sort of wince, and all the women’s funny looks got funnier.
“Have you indeed?” asked Laura.
“Well, not as any big thing, just as the winter comes in, you know,” said Smee, and then, hurrying a bit with it, “I’ll not have much time, once we start work building the shop.”
“Oh, yes, Mr Chambers was saying that you’re going to build a workshop,” said Eleanor, with the sort of praising voice on a dog who had started pissing on your carpet but thought better of it once you gave it a look. “You’re to be a carpenter, Mr Smee?”
“Aye, aye, exactly,” said Smee. “I’ve always been a man happy with a length of wood in my hands.”
Hook kicked him very hard for that, and gave him a subtle glare for good measure, but the women didn’t seem to notice. Smee did his best not to show the pain on his face as the next course was brought out by the butler and two footmen, which was right to have, he supposed – a pair – but was more than he’d want in his house.
“Were you a carpenter when you were sailing?”
“I was boatswain,” said Smee. “But I helped the carpenters, of course – I was raised in carpentry, see, before I went to sea.”
“Do you know,” said Laura, “I think I’ve heard of a boatswain many times before, and yet I’ve not the slightest idea what one does.”
“Rally the crew, mostly,” said Smee. “If you think of the officers, they give the important orders, all that lofty sh— Things. Where to navigate, all that – me, I’m a sort of foreman, I coordinate crew, schedule daily and regular duties, all the maintenance of the ship, you know. The stuff as keeps the ship running – swab the deck, maintain ropes and sails, store cargo. Make sure everything’s in order, make sure everyone’s in order too, of the general crew.”
He felt he was not being wholly understood when the two older women looked at him sort of quizzically, and Lorelai was looking at him with her lips pressed loosely together.
“Where were you in the chain of command?” she asked, and Smee raised his eyebrows, surprised to be asked such a question.
“Er, well,” he said. “Fourth, I suppose. It’d be Captain Hook, then Mr Wells, he was our quartermaster, and then Mr Starkey, and then me. Why’d you ask?”
“You just don’t seem like the sort to give orders,” said Lorelai. She was a little bit out of breath from eating, and he did his best not to show the way he wanted to wince in sympathy, knowing that Hook didn’t care for it, expecting her to like it even less. “You aren’t offended?”
Smee shrugged. “Why should I be? Were you hoping to offend, Miss?”
“No, Mr Smee, not at all,” said Lorelai softly, but she did a little smile, and when Smee looked to his captain, he could see the other man was smiling wryly.
“Mr Smee is a man who appears to be quite modest, Miss Bradley,” said Hook quietly. “In appearance, in personality, even in intelligence. Don’t let yourself be deceived by it.”
“I don’t care for that sort of aspersion on my character, sir,” said Smee good-naturedly. “I’m precisely as plain, dull, and stupid as I seem.”
“That is the sort of thing a deceptive man would say, Mr Smee,” said Lorelai, almost apologetically, and he laughed even as her mother scolded her and said to say such things was impolite.
Hook took command of the table from there, telling some fine tale of when he was a young sailor, the sort of thing that was exciting enough to catch everyone’s attention but not bawdy or violent enough to scandalise, and the night ticked on.
They were nice people, really – it was exciting for them to have Captain Hook at their table, which was only fair, as it seemed to Smee they had no other excitement whatsoever. Ned had his numbers and his factories, but he had yet to ascertain just what the Hell the other three did all day – you couldn’t fill a whole day with schoolwork and sewing, but none of the ladies played any sports nor many games, and they didn’t seem to go nowhere, nor make any sort of trade or business beyond what Ned brought home.
“What do you want to be when you grow up then?” asked Smee an hour or so later, when Hook was on his feet regaling everyone with a tale, and Smee was sitting down beside the fire, cheerfully scratching the cheeks of the setter, whose name was Champion.
Hook was flagging, had excused himself to take his atomiser before they went out to drink something, but he was still talking, still gesticulating with his hand and his hook as he went on, and he was laughing.
It was nice to see him in front of an audience again, if not the ones he was truly meant for.
Lorelai wasn’t hiding her sickness as well as Hook was – she was sitting in the chair across from him, her hands delicately rested on her knees, her body tilted in the chair to be closer to the fire – Smee had attempted to offer her a shawl from the back of it, but she’d shook her head and refused.
“I really don’t know, Mr Smee,” said Lorelai.
“Didn’t expect to get this far, eh?”
Lorelai stared at him, and Smee shrugged his shoulders, sipping from the glass of lemonade he’d asked for – it was for Lorelai more than for him, but he didn’t care for wine, no matter that it was the proper thing to drink, nor sherry or port.
“Ain’t no shame in that,” said Smee. “Many’s the lad or lass your age who’s been sick all their lives, or just melancholy, and expected to die ‘fore they reached their majority. Used to be the case more when I was growing up than you, but still happens. The influenza, was it?”
“I’ve always been a sickly sort. When I got ill I really didn’t expect to survive it when it killed a lot of children a lot haler than me – I don’t think any of us expected me to make it through.”
“Sure, it was that influenza that forced the captain into retirement, made us come back to England,” said Smee. “All that wheezing you hear, how tired he is now. He’ll sleep for days now, and maybe get a cough out of all this.”
“He and I both, Mr Smee,” said Lorelai quietly.
“So? What of it? Want to sew, to go to sea, paint, sing?”
“I’ll have to wait and see what comes of life, I think,” said Lorelai, and Smee looked down at Champion, who was leaning the full weight of his head into Smee’s palm and looking up at him dolefully. “Did you always want to be a sailor?”
“My uncle and da got murdered,” said Smee, “and I was left in the carpenter’s alone, couldn’t keep up with it, owed debts. All I could do was sell up and go to sea. Sixteen, I was – same age as you.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said, abruptly seeming profoundly aggrieved – he forgot that people could be so sentimental about things like this, especially young girls, it seemed.
“It was a very long time ago now,” said Smee. “Do you not dream of anything?”
“Dream of anything?” repeated Lorelai.
“Well,” said Smee. “There’s girls who, er. Want to be mothers, I s’pose, but to be… pirates. Sailors. Whor— Er. Fisherwomen. Dancers.”
“Do you know a great many woman sailors, Mr Smee?”
“Not any longer,” said Smee quietly. “I did, once upon a time.”
In pirate crews, anyway.
“Best to concentrate on your schooling for now,” he amended, albeit doubtfully. “But it’s natural someone should want for adventure, at your age.” He imagined Peter Pan appearing, insinuating himself on her windowsill like the queer little vampire he was, spiriting her away such that she should choke to death from an asthma attack in Neverland, wheezing out her last breaths with Smee’s sword piercing her lung. “Of course, it has been said that adventure’s overrated.”
“Smee, are you going to bother that dog the whole evening?” asked Hook – he was gesturing toward the door, and Smee gave Lorelai a smile, getting slowly to his feet.
“They were a nice lot,” he said on the walk home. Ned had offered to have their chauffeur drive them home, but before Smee could accept the offer for Hook’s sake, Hook had roundly refused.
“Very,” Hook said, a little breathlessly. He was leaning heavily on Smee’s shoulder, their arms entwined, and Smee squeezed his lower arm. They walked the rest of the way home in silence, stopping for a bit of a break in the middle, and as Smee had predicted, Hook was unwell for the week that came after.
* * *
They were building Smee’s shop adjoining the main house, so that the two would be separate, but close together. It was really nothing very impressive, just a high-ceilinged space with enough room for some worktables and what-not, and big barn doors that he should be able to ease furniture directly onto the back of a cart when it was to be shipped off.
Already, a few people in the village had delightedly asked if it was true that he was a carpenter, and he had said yes, of course, and they had asked if he could do some repairs on bits and pieces here and there, or if he might craft some shelves to go in their salon – what a salon was, Smee didn’t know, but he didn’t suppose it was his business – and he had said yes, of course to that, too.
The captain had shown some interest in Smee returning to carpentry thus far, but not much. He really hadn’t missed it, in all these decades – he had very much enjoyed the work as he’d pursued it as a young man, and he’d done carpentry with the lads on the Roger, of course, had built every furnishing in the captain’s cabin from scratch himself, so that it was fit for his specifications, but…
Was it odd, that a man should miss rigging?
Smee rather did.
He’d rather meandered sketching out the pulley system for moving big pieces in the workshop, and had spent so long deliberating over the rope he would use in the shop that the gentleman at the counter had asked, in a queer sort of way, if he needed help picking. His look had got all the queerer when Smee had gotten into a lather about the whole thing.
He felt exhausted when he came back into the house after working all day with the building crew, like all his bones ached, but really, it was just his heart that ached, and he hadn’t done all that much work at all. He felt quite glum and maudlin, and as unaccustomed as he was to the mood, it settled over him in a very heavy cloud indeed.
The captain was asleep when Smee came inside.
He stopped short in the sitting room, looking down at him, sprawled out as he was before the fire. He’d complained at some length about the fashion of clothes these days yesterday evening, but Smee thought they suited him very fine: the captain was dressed in a pair of grey trousers, his jacket set aside so that he was only in his shirt sleeves, and he wore a waistcoat the dark colour of a plum’s skin, with ruffles still on it. Smee thought it was a shame that trousers were so loose and so long in their cut these days, for the captain had always been very proud of his calves and now they weren’t on display at all, but he liked how short the vests were, that they stopped at the waist instead of the thigh – he had never been so aware of Hook’s hips.
In sleep, the captain looked quite peaceful, his cheek rested loosely on the pillow, his hook dangling off the side of the sofa, his hand resting on his own cheek. His hair was a mess of lovely, black ringlets around his face. Pinned beneath his elbow, his book was held precariously on the edge of the sofa cushion, but threatened to tip away at any moment, and Smee delicately extricated it without pulling his elbow free, so that he could keep sleeping.
Hook’s sleep was interrupted, of late – even now, Smee could hear the slight hitch in his breath, where it got turned around on the path between mouth and lungs, too uncomfortable a sound to really be a snore. In a few minutes, it would get a bit worse, and then, he would wake up coughing.
He liked for the captain to sleep where he could.
The shadows under his eyes were a constant part of his features, now, rather than the occasional evidence of a night spent plotting, and in so maudlin a mood as he already was, the idea made Smee’s heart pang, although to watch the captain sleeping had brought him peace in other respects.
“Smee,” Hook said, not opening his eyes. How did he do that? It was remarkable, how the captain could wake up oftentimes without ever letting on, and how easily he knew Smee was in the room with him, even when Smee tried to tiptoe about – and trying that usually meant the captain asking what it was he was playing at.
“You’re watching me sleep again, Smee.”
“I’m not going to die in my sleep, Smee. I don’t need you keeping vigil.”
“I ain’t keeping no vigil, Captain. Just looking is all.”
“Kindly look elsewhere.”
Smee smiled slightly, unable to stop himself, and softly asked, “Tea, Captain?”
The captain opened his eyes, and Smee met his gaze, looked into the astonishing blue he found there, that charming shade of forget-me-not flowers could only aspire to. It warmed the heart, it really did, no matter that it was a cold colour. “Very kind of you, Smee,” Hook said lowly. His voice rumbled with sleep. “Yes, please.”
As he stepped to the kitchen, Smee heard the sofa creak softly as the captain raised himself up, and he watched in the reflection of the kitchen’s window glass as he stretched out his neck, rolling his shoulders.
“You oughtn’t sleep on that sofa so,” Smee said. “It must do your back no good.”
“At times, Smee, the feeling of pain, however mild, is superior to the feeling of nothing at all.”
Captain Hook said a great many strange things like that. In all the time they had known one another, Smee had known this to be true, for the captain was prone to strange moods – moving beyond the maudlin, he often slipped into the melancholy, and Smee had learned to carefully measure the dangerous tipping points, where they might be found, and they were not at the moment too close to any of them.
“Perhaps, Captain,” Smee said cheerfully, “but why have pain, when there’s pleasure and that, hm? What about the book you’re reading?”
“It’s a poor printing, rife with misprints,” Hook said. “And badly written, besides.”
Ned Chambers had recommended it, saying that as a rule he did not care for fiction, but that this was a serious-minded novel for serious-minded people. Smee had not felt this was a good sign, and he was fairly certain that Hook hadn’t either, but it had only been polite to accept, and so accept, Hook had.
He was very focused on politeness, and yet it was Smee that had written their thank-you note for dinner.
“Oh. Well. It has a very fine cover.”
“If you say so, Smee.”
“It being very poor would be why you fell asleep, I suppose?”
“I imagine there is a correlation, yes.”
“A book you’d write would be far more exciting.”
Hook glanced at him, frowning slightly. His voice was toneless when he said, “I suppose.”
“You might give it a try.”
“Smee,” Hook muttered. It was scarcely a real deterrent – sometimes, it seemed to Smee that Hook scolded him merely for the sake of saying something. Sometimes, it made Smee feel rather at home.
“I’d like to read your books, sir, if you’d only write them.”
Hook didn’t say anything in response to that, but he took the mug from Smee’s hand when he held it out, and before Smee could step away, he hooked the loop of Smee’s belt and tugged him closer, gesturing for him to sit down with a nod of his head, his curls bouncing on his shoulders.
Smee sank heavily down onto the sofa beside him, and reached out to tug at a tangle in Hook’s curls, lightening his touch when Hook winced. His breathing was somewhat laboured, as if he’d been running, and he was sitting hunched over until Smee slid his hand lower and pressed on his lower back. No corded muscle stood out rough under his fingers – instead, he could feel Hook’s ribs and then the soft, thin flesh either side of his all-too-obvious spine.
Hook straightened. It made next to no difference to the noise he made as he breathed, but Smee saw something in his face slacken.
“Will you put me out of my misery, Smee?”
“… You should breathe in more of the steam, Captain.”
“As you say, Smee,” Hook said, and inhaled.
“If you will forgive me for saying so, Captain,” Smee said, “it occurs to me that you seem melancholy today.”
“You wish to bring a touch of levity to my mood, Smee?”
“Yes, Captain, if I can.”
Smee opened his mouth. Concentrated. Closed it. “No, Captain.”
Hook laughed. It was a low, dark, rich sound, heavy as a cocoa bean, but there was little mirth in it, and Smee ached, reaching out and gently stroking over Hook’s shoulders. They’d been strong, before, had rippled with muscle – they felt strangely light, now, and bony. He was gaining a bit of the weight back, but it was slow-going.
“What is the point of it all, Smee?” he asked softly, staring into the middle distance, his lovely eyes very distant. “We are men of a bygone era, stranded in a strange land – and what will come of it? Love? Happiness? Wealth? No. I shall simply cough until my heart hits my handkerchief, and blessedly lie dead, and you will make tables.”
Smee considered this. “No one’s asked me to make a table yet, sir,” he said. “Only shelves, and a cabinet, and a writing desk. And we’re quite wealthy, I think, in as we have ourselves an house that we are warm in, and we’ve enough food to eat, which is more than I had as a lad, and I’m more than happy when I’m with you, Captain.”
“I find you quite unbearable, Smee.”
“Evidence would point to the contrary, Captain.”
Hook tilted his head slightly, his dark brows furrowing, and when he turned to Smee, Smee was very pleased indeed to see an actual smile twisting his handsome lips. “Smee,” said Hook.
“Captain,” said Smee.
“Am I wrong in presuming that was a quotation from my own body of sayings?”
“I have a right not to self-inseminate, sir,” Smee said.
The captain went a very funny colour, his lips darkening to a plummy shade of red, and after a moment of thought, his upper teeth digging so hard into his lower lip that they left an imprint on the flesh, and made it bounce back quite readily, he said, with some unfamiliar strain in his voice, “Smee… Is it possible that you mean to self-incriminate?”
“I don’t, sir,” Smee said, reminded of Hook telling everyone he wasn’t so stupid as he seemed the other night, and stifling his smile. “I just said I’ve the right not to.”
“Reluctantly, I cede to your will, Smee,” Hook said softly. “You are levity personified.”
“Kind of you to say, sir.”
Smee’s hand stilled where it had been rubbing idle circles on Hook’s back, and he wondered what it would be like, for a moment, to really reach out and touch him. He had never embraced the captain before, as a man – he had helped him on and off with his clothes, and measured him, and carried him, and occasionally that all that sort of thing meant putting his arms about him, but he’d never hugged the captain, pressed his face against Hook’s chest, and had the captain hug him back, let alone embrace as lovers might.
He imagined what that might be like, from time to time.
Sometimes, he wondered what it might be like to have Captain Hook lay his head in Smee’s lap and sleep there, that Smee should be allowed to stroke through his curls as though he were a cat.
Smee would very much like a cat also.
Both would be nice.
“Can we have a cat?” Smee asked.
“A cat. You know. Four legs. Whiskers.”
“Where would you get one?”
“Oh… That’s a question, ain’t it?” Smee said, scratching his beard.
“I would like one,” Hook said impulsively. “Smee.”
“I would like a cat, Smee.”
“Me too, sir.”
“We ought ask in the village,” Hook said. “Perhaps someone’s own cat might have littered recently.”
Hook hesitated. Smee watched the movement of his chest as he breathed, listened to the horrible sound of it, the thickness in his breaths. The captain, reluctantly, shook his head.
“Let’s take you up to bed, sir,” Smee suggested quietly. “I’ll read to you.”
Hook, to his relief, gave a nod of assent, and they rose to go.
“Smee,” said Hook on the stair, when he had taken a pause halfway up, for he was very out of breath, and looked quite chalky and pale. Smee would carry him, if Hook would only let him. “I am a very cold and black-hearted man, Smee. I would not have you be my nurse when you might go elsewhere.”
“Don’t talk such rot, Captain, there ain’t no elsewhere.”
“You ought have let me die, Smee.”
“Don’t say things like that, Captain,” Smee muttered, discomfited. “It ain’t right to strike a sick man, but I’ll do it if I’m pressed.”
Hook sighed, long and hard, and then he coughed. The sound was painful, the coughs coming right from his very chest, tearing from his ailing lungs, and when he raised his head, there was sweat on his face, and he began to stumble up the stairs again.
“Good form, Smee,” Hook intoned hoarsely. “Good form.”
“Have you ever been in love, Captain?”
“What in the Seven Hells are you going on about, Smee?”
Smee smiled to himself, following the other man up the stairs, putting out his arm to support him twice when he stumbled, and again when he leaned heavily on the stair wall, catching back his breath.
“Nothing, sir, nothing. Only idle thought, is all.”