a Seafort Saga fanfic
Notes: Written for kangeiko in the Yuletide 2010 challenge.
"You look like hell," Tolliver said, as I stalked into the dining hall.
I glared at him.
"You look like hell, sir," he corrected himself.
I rubbed my face. I had washed and shaved, but I could do nothing for my sunken eyes and hollow cheeks. No matter. I was a dead man walking anyway. Only court martial and execution awaited at the end of Victoria's voyage.
"When I want your opinion," I said, "I'll ask. Middy."
A muscle in his jaw twitched. It had been months since I had broken Tolliver from lieutenant for his insubordination, but he would loathe me forever for it, I was sure.
Just one of the many people I had wronged.
I sat down at the Captain's table--Vax's table--and poured a cup of coffee. But my hands shook, and it sloshed over the rim, soaking the white tablecloth. I set down the pot and nearly overturned the cup.
"Let me." Tolliver was at my shoulder, mouth set in a line. Still, he did his duty efficiently, mopping up my spill.
Then he stood and waited, hands behind his back, as I forced breakfast down my throat. His eyes burned questions into my neck.
"For crying out loud, stop hovering."
Tolliver pulled out a chair obediently and sat, but he continued to regard me with curiosity. "Have you slept at all? Sir."
"Stop pretending you have any interest in my welfare," I snapped. "We both know how you really feel."
His expression shut down again.
I pushed my plate away, appetite gone.
* * * * *
I woke in the darkness of my cabin, knowing I was not alone.
By the dim illumination of the bedside clock, I could make out the silhouette of a man at the foot of my bed. I would recognise him anywhere.
I could hardly be surprised. This was Vax's cabin, after all, and this was Vax's ship. I was the interloper here.
He drifted forward, the lines of his face sharpening into focus. He looked as he had in life, even to the anguish that haunted his eyes.
"Why must it be this way, sir?" he whispered.
Almost the final words he had spoken to me.
"I'm sorry," I stumbled. "I didn't want you involved. Stop looking at me with those eyes!"
He said nothing. He only lifted his hand and reached towards me, imploring.
I shrank away.
His hand caught fire.
I screamed, as the flames ignited his entire body, charring his skin to ash. And still he reached for me, like a living inferno--
I sat up in bed, sweat pouring down my face. There was a pounding on the hatch of the cabin.
"What is it?" I shouted.
"Captain!" Tolliver. "Is everything all right?"
I laughed harshly. "What do you think?"
A pause. "May I come in, sir?"
"No!" What had he heard? Maybe I should get the doctor to dose me with sedative each night. "Dismissed." I fell back onto the pillow, staring balefully at the ceiling, unable to scrub from my mind the image of Vax reaching towards me.
"Damn you!" I fumbled for whatever was in reach. The clock on the bedside table. I hurled it at the wall. It smashed into a dozen jangling pieces, which rolled about the floor.
Electronic beeps came from outside. Moments later, the hatch opened and the lights turned on. Tolliver stepped inside.
I winced against the brightness, but my discomfort was rapidly overwhelmed by rage. "How dare you intrude--and disobeying an order--"
"I heard a noise," Tolliver said. "I wanted to check in case you had suffered a fall."
He was a damned liar. "As you can see," I grated, "I'm perfectly fine."
He looked me up and down. I would have reamed him out for insolence, but his expression bore only understanding. He had no right. I looked away, afraid I would break down in front of him.
"Let me clean this up for you," he said, quietly. He knelt, and began gathering up the pieces of the broken clock for disposal. He was careful, even though it was shattered beyond repair.
My throat was oddly tight. What business did he have to follow after me like this, when I had hurt him so terribly? When I threatened punishment at every turn, even though I was the true sinner?
"Enough," I said. Tolliver glanced up in startlement as I flung aside the covers and hopped out of bed. "Leave it. You're coming with me."
I grabbed his arm and practically dragged him bodily out the hatch.
"Sir! Where are we going? You're not dressed--"
I was still in my sleepwear, but I no longer cared. In any case, few people were abroad in the corridors at this hour.
I marched Tolliver to Lieutenant Kahn's cabin. It was his watch, so I knew it would be empty. Without knocking, I entered, releasing Tolliver only once the hatch sealed behind us.
In the corner stood the barrel that was the first lieutenant's charge. I swept up the cane that rested upon it and stalked towards Tolliver.
He stepped back in alarm. "I warned you," he said hoarsely, "if you ever--"
"Not you." I shoved the cane into his hands. "Me."
He drew in a sharp breath. "You're insane."
"I don't deserve to be Captain. I deserve this."
Tolliver let the cane fall. "It's a capital offence to strike a superior officer," he said flatly. "As you have reminded me before."
"I order it, middy!"
He folded his arms. "And I refuse. What will you do, demote me to cadet?"
For a moment, I was tempted. Were there no depths to which I would not sink?
The pit was bottomless.
All the rage leaked out of me like a balloon. "I can't sleep, Tolliver. I see his face every night."
No need to ask who. "It wasn't your fault, sir."
"Then whose?" I whispered. I stood there, fists clenched, shaking. The truth seared my soul.
"Vax was--" I said, and could not go on. Rival, subordinate, comrade, friend. He had trusted me and I had betrayed him. But in the end, he chose to die in my place. Because he loved me.
"I know he was," Tolliver said.
A long moment of silence.
Then Tolliver picked up the cane. Absolutely expressionless. "Mr Seafort."
That was all he needed to say.
I bent over the barrel, closing my eyes in anticipation of the first blow. It had been years since I had been disciplined this way, not since I was a midshipman myself. Back then, it had been an ordeal to be dreaded. How our torments changed shape.
"One." A red hot flare of pain, like a whip lash across my thighs. I gritted my teeth. This was not even close to punishment enough for my sins.
"Two." Across the exact same spot. I couldn't help but let out a cry, to my shame. The pain was nothing to the agony of burning up in the fires of a nuclear explosion.
"Three." No less brutal than the first two. Tolliver was not going easy on me. He had his own demons to conquer, and one of them was me.
* * * * *
I opened my eyes to Tolliver's tense expression. I lay on the floor of the cabin, cradled in his arms. "What happened?"
"You passed out, sir." His face went neutral.
As awareness returned, so did sensation. I sucked in a pained breath.
"I'm sorry, sir. I should never--" Tolliver shook his head. "You need medical attention."
"My cabin," I said, and he nodded. This was not a scenario either of us would care to explain to sickbay.
Tolliver draped his jacket across my shoulders and helped me hobble out to the corridor. The walk back seemed interminable, but we made it unchallenged.
As soon as we entered the cabin, I fell upon the bed, mind numb, body afire.
Tolliver rummaged in the drawers until he found a jar of salve. "May I?" he said, with perfect courtesy.
I didn't have the energy to deny him. I only nodded.
He slid my clothing aside, gently, and massaged the salve into the raw red welts. His touch was cool and soothing; hands that were used to giving comfort as well as chastisement. Soon, the pain eased to a dull ache, like a fading dream.
"Stay," I said, before I knew it.
He paused, looking at me in puzzlement.
"It's not an order. But I'd like it if you stayed. Just for a little while." Perhaps it would keep the ghosts at bay.
"Yes, sir." Tolliver settled on the edge of the bed, his weight dipping the mattress. "So, do you feel better, after that little exercise?"
I grimaced. "Do you?"
"I think I was out of my mind, to let you convince me." He regarded me with something like compassion. "You can't take on the sins of the world as your own."
"Why not?" My eyes locked on his.
"Because you're only human."
He reached out a hand to me. Like Vax had. But this time I did not flinch away. I grasped hold, like Tolliver was a lifeline, and drew him down towards me.
* * * * *
"Why do you stay, Edgar?" I said, afterwards.
"You asked me to."
"No." I propped myself up on an elbow. "Why do you stay?"
"I have no idea." Tolliver turned towards me. "Sometimes I want to throttle you. And sometimes--" He traced my cheek lightly.
Tolliver smiled, and let his hand fall. "Sometimes I don't."
"I'm sorry about the clock," I said, ashamed at my tantrum.
"Better the clock than my head," Tolliver said. Before I could apologise again, he added, "I'll get you a new one, tomorrow. Perhaps one that will put up with being thrown at walls."
"Tomorrow," I sighed. His shoulder was warm. I could almost hear his heartbeat, steady and constant.
- fin -