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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Poldark fic: Almost Home (2/2)

December 9th, 2015 (09:24 pm)
anxious

feeling: anxious

Continued from Part One.



-o-

Surrender is supposed to be easy.

Not so with Dwight Enys around.

The good doctor is dogged in his determination, and by nightfall, he drags Ross along the riverbed until he can go no farther.

Even this defeat is framed as acquiescence, as Dwight clamors amiably about making camp for the night. With Ross propped up on a rock, Dwight collects what supplies he can find, including enough pine needles to make a soft bed that is shielded from the snow. Then he breaks the thinning ice along the river before dipping a flask into it.

“It’s one of the few things I had in my pockets when they woke up,” Dwight says, holding it out to Ross. “Fortunately, it’s entirely utilitarian so they didn’t take it.”

Ross hesitates.

Dwight holds it closer. “Come on,” he says. “You drink it while I make dinner.”

It would take more effort to argue than accept it, although Ross’ fingers are wooden as he holds it. He presses the ice cold spout to his lips, feeling the icy water as it moisten his throat.

For his part, Dwight is back to washing his hands in the river before he pulls out the meager food selection from earlier. He cleans it once more before adding a few nuts to it from his latest foraging venture. He presents it to Ross on a large, flat rock, looking quite pleased with himself.

Ross looks at it, and then he looks at Dwight.

Dwight clearly works not to appear let down. “The nuts will add flavor,” he says. “And protein. Given how far we have to go, we’ll need it.”

Finally, Ross wets his lips. “We’ll need it?”

Dwight nods. “We have a longs to go to get home,” he says, taking a bite of his own mixed vegetation. “And without any meat on our bones, we’re still at risk for falling ill to the cold.”

Ross tries to smile politely, but it feels like a grimace. “I’m not hungry.”

Dwight is visibly crestfallen. “It’s not so bad--”

Ross shakes his head. “It’s not the food.”

“But we need to eat,” Dwight insists.

“I’m not hungry,” Ross says again.

A muscle twitches in Dwight’s jaw. “I’m your doctor, your friend and your travelling companion,” he says. “As much as we’ve been through today, you are hungry.”

Weakly, Ross lifts the rock and puts it on the ground. “The only thing I am right now is exhausted,” he says, scooting gingerly to the bed Dwight has made up for him. “I just want to sleep.”

It’s a simple, earnest plea, and Ross knows it’s one that Dwight will not be able to deny. Not as a doctor, a friend or a travelling companion.

Dejected, Dwight’s shoulders slump. He picks up the flask, which has been refilled, and gives it to Ross. “Promise me you’ll drink at least,” he says.

Ross takes it.

“And rest well,” Dwight advises in the hum of the darkening forest. “We’ll both need it.”

Taking a long drink, Ross settles back. There are no star tonight, and the canopy of trees makes it dark. The water running under the ice is a constant thrum, and Ross closes his eyes.

There’s an owl somewhere deep in the woods, and he can hear Dwight chewing noisily for several moments before they fall into stillness. Ross rubs the tips of his fingers along the ring still wedged onto his little finger.

They fall.

And Ross half hopes they never rise.

-o-

The wind tangles in his hair, blowing hard across the cliff tops. The winter has swept the green, leaving in its wake a faded expanse of brown and gray. The air has turned cold, and the smell of the salt is tight in his throat with every breath he tries to take.

He still sees her, trailing along the edge. The wind takes her hair, blowing her dress behind her as she ambles away. He starts toward her, calling her name.

She doesn’t turn, however, and when he starts to run, she pays him no heed. The faster he runs, the farther away she is. If she’d just look back, he thinks. If she’d just look back.

-o-

It’s a bad dream, he thinks.

It’s a bad dream.

-o-

Dwight has made another meal for the morning, which he offers to Ross with gusto.

“Just another day,” he says, munching on his own helping. “Maybe two.”

Ross stares languidly at the food.

“Then we’ll be on our way,” Dwight says with a nod. “You’ll see.”

Ross sees a rundown house and overgrown fields. He sees the back of Elizabeth’s head.

Her ring is still on his finger, but with the weight he’s lost, it’s almost too big now. It doesn’t fit him anymore.

If it ever did.

“I swear, Ross,” Dwight says. “You will see.”

Ross closes his eyes and doesn’t have the heart to admit that maybe he doesn’t want to.

-o-

Ross eats nothing of breakfast, but drinks enough to appease Dwight. His friend fusses over him, checking his wounds and probing the fresh laceration on his head.

“Does this hurt?” he asks, fingering it gently with the tips of his icy fingers.

“I can’t feel it,” Ross says honestly. It doesn’t not need to be explained, perhaps, that he feels nothing at all.

Dwight sits back with concern. “Do you feel up to moving?” he says. “We don’t have to run, but we do need to get out of this weather eventually. And get a full meal of hot food in our bellies.”

Ross swallows back his nausea.

Dwight chews his lip. “Ross,” he starts, and the emotions play across his face. His brow furrows and he takes a breath. He lets it out with a sigh. He reaches out, pulling Ross to his feet. “We better start moving.”

Ross has no will to fight, no will to resist.

Pulling him along with an awkward gait, Dwight wraps an arm around his waist and guides him forward. “That’s it, now,” he says. “At this rate, we’ll be home in no time.”

-o-

In no time, Dwight says. He cajoles Ross along, coaxing every step more delicately than the last. In no time, he promises, again and again. In no time.

But for Ross, all there is, is time. It stretches endlessly, painful seconds that resound with the dull thumping of his heart as it echoes between his ears. He can feel his own lifeblood, flowing sluggishly through him, churning in his empty stomach with a gnawing tenacity that he no longer has the willpower to acknowledge.

For yes, he is hungry and weak. He is tired and spent. But this only serves to make him crave release. He can eat or rest -- Dwight would grant him both eagerly -- but that wouldn’t fix the things that really mattered. No, the real problems that plague Ross are deeper than that.

There are some hunger pains that no food can satisfy. There is some weariness that no rest can quench.

There are some nightmares that simply never end.

Step after step, Ross is compelled forward.

His only hope is the bitter, inevitable end.

-o-

Dwight is more resilient than Ross has given him credit for. Not that he’s ever doubted the doctor’s resolve, but his penchant to survive in the face of adversity is nothing short of impressive. He is efficient and direct, moving them along the river at a steady pace, stopping periodically to keep them both refreshed. He talks with sufficient knowledge of their surroundings and more than his due hope for finding resolution to their current situation.

It is admirable, quite honestly, though Ross has no fortitude to provide any gratitude.

Ross has no fortitude for anything.

“Come on,” Dwight says, holding out a scrap of root he’s conjured up from the brush. “You’re wasting away to nothing.”

Ross turns his head away, swallowing back the bile that rises in his throat.

“We can’t lose hope,” Dwight says emphatically.

Hope is a fickle thing, but Ross has not surrendered it. But where he once dreamed of Elizabeth’s smile, he now dreams of nothing.

“You must eat,” Dwight insists.

He’s right, of course, but there is a long list of things Ross must do, and he’s ignored so many for so long that he hardly sees the crime in another one.

Just one more.

-o-

At nightfall, Ross’ legs are numb and when Dwight lowers him to the ground, it is tempting to surrender immediately to sleep. As it is, he dozes lightly while Dwight busies himself around what Ross can only assume is a camp. He tries -- and fails -- to make a fire before pulling together a bed of brush to surround them and sitting Ross up against the riverbank.

Without preface, he starts prodding Ross’ head, and the poking finally pulls Ross from his would be slumber with a mewl of protest.

“Is this really necessary?” he croaks.

Dwight frowns as he looks at the tender spot on Ross’ head. “I didn’t think your head injury to be very severe,” he observes. He sits back. “But considering your change in behavior, I can only think that it’s caused deeper injury than I previously thought.”

Ross winces, pressing his dry lips together. “My head is fine.”

“What about the nausea, then?” Dwight asks.

“What of it?” Ross returns, bundling himself a little closer together in a futile attempt to shield him from the dropping temperatures.

“If you’re too sick to eat, then you must be very sick,” Dwight concludes.

Ross sighs, looking away.

“Well?” Dwight asks. “You have nothing to say?”

“What is there to say?” Ross returns wearily.

Dwight’s pale face goes stark white. “How about a reason why?” he says. “Why you’ve given up?”

Ross has no reply to that.

Dwight huffs in utter frustration. “For weeks, I nursed you back to health. It’s been months since you fell on the battlefield, and I have seen you through every step of your recovery at great personal expense. And I didn’t mind it -- not at all. To the contrary, I enjoyed it. I took pleasure in your company, your recovery, your friendship,” he says, voice hitching. “Because I could see it in you, the will to live. You had something to go home to, and that made all the difference -- for both of us.”

The words clench in his chest with a dull ache. His throat feels tight, and he can’t look Dwight in the eyes.

“I don’t do this for me, no matter what benefit I may gain,” Dwight continues, undaunted. “I do this for you. For the man that I’ve come to care for like a brother. For the home I know you have waiting, for the woman who has your heart.”

Ross can’t help it; he flinches.

“Would you truly give up so easily on her?” Dwight pushes. “Would you truly leave her a widow without making her a bride?”

Ross looks up, eyes flashing with pain. “I already have, though.”

“Your wounds are not fatal,” Dwight says. “We’ll reach a town in no time.”

Ross shakes his head, burning with the adamancy of loss. “You speak of weeks, months,” he says. “Time Elizabeth has spent without me, without hearing so much as a word regarding my condition. News of my regiment will have come back by now -- all wiped out. Even if we are granted passage back to England, how long will that take? And what hope of communication do I have in the meantime? Elizabeth already thinks me dead. She has nothing left to wait for.”

“You don’t know that--”

“Don’t I?” Ross asks. “It is no sin against her. I wouldn’t want her to wait for a ghost, not when she deserves all that is good in this world.”

Dwight’s face twists in frustration. “Even if what you say is true, do you think she is the very meaning of life What of your father’s land? What of the people who depend on your livelihood to support their own?”

“If they have no starved already, what makes you think I will make any difference?” Ross asks.

“Because they’re a part of you,” Dwight says. “I can see it. And if you are so invested in them, I know for a fact that they are equally invested in you. Home may not be the same as when you left it, but it is still and always will be yours.

“And if it is better off without me?” Ross asks.

Dwight’s expression is unwavering. “I know unequivocally that it is not,” he says.

“No one has need for a soldier who lost,” he says. “There is nothing heroic about being the last man standing.”

“And there is nothing heroic about dying as a stranger in a distant land,” Dwight says. “You have the rest of your life to prove your worth, but you have to try. You have to eat.”

Ross sinks back down. “There is only one thing that could have made me fight,” he murmurs, shifting the ring on his finger. He plucks it off, looking at it in the waning light. “And it is gone to me now.”

He drops it between them, turning away before the protests continue to fall from Dwight’s lips. He will sleep now, against the cold of the night.

And maybe, he hopes.

Maybe he will sleep forever.

-o-

His dreams are cold and dark. The chill settles into his bones, and he can feel it from the inside out. Dreams, nightmares: they’re the same now.

They’ve always been the same.

He’s untethered now, like a ship without an anchor in the wind-swept seas. There is no purpose now; there is no point. He is surrounded by all that is familiar and lost all at the same time.

Somehow, the distant sound of Elizabeth’s laugh just makes him colder.

-o-

Sleep is lingering, and morning has no allure. Ross would sleep forever, if he could. A somber, melancholy end, perhaps, but it is effective. It is painless. There is no reason not to, as far as Ross is concerned.

Dwight, however, has other plans.

Without preamble, he sits Ross up, and while Ross is still squinting in the early morning sunlight, the doctor grabs his jaw and shoves something inside. For a moment, Ross gags, but Dwight’s grip is unyielding, and the weariness in Ross’ bones keeps him from putting up a good fight.

He tries to spit, but fails when water is poured into his mouth. Spluttering, there is no option but to swallow. It is bitter and harsh going down, and he looks at Dwight in confusion.

“You need to eat,” Dwight says curtly, pushing another bite of something into his mouth.

Ross tries to push it out with his tongue, but Dwight has already doused him with more water. His throat feels raw from the incursion, and his chest aches dully as he glares at Dwight. “What happened to your bedside manner?”

“I lost it, I suppose,” Dwight says. “About the time you abandoned your will to live.”

The onslaught of food turns his stomach painfully, and he can feel his insides twisting into knots. “I’m not hungry.”

“You seem to think hunger is a state of emotion,” Dwight says. “But, quite literally, it is a biological reality. I have no medicine. I have no equipment. But I am still a doctor. More than that, I consider you my friend. You choose death, but I choose life. If you have objections to that, then you will have to fight me -- to the very end. Is that understood?”

Ross blinks, dumbfounded by grief, weariness and pain. It’s not fair, really. To ask him to fight when all he wants is to surrender. “You would do that to me? You would torture the one you call a friend?”

Dwight’s expression is grim. “To save your life?” he asks with a stolid nod. “In a heartbeat.”

Ross’ heart thuds in his chest, nausea swelling in his stomach.

“Now,” Dwight says, holding up another bite of food. “Are we going to do this the hard way or the easy way?”

-o-

Dwight may be right about many things, Ross will concede, but he is wrong in this.

There is no easy way.

Every option is hard, harder than the last. Surrender, Ross’ last escape, is the most elusive of them all.

-o-

The food sits heavily in Ross’ stomach, and though he has only ingested a few bites, he can feel it like an anvil, dropped down to his guts. He thinks he may be ill, but he has no strength left for it, and when Dwight hauls him to his feet a short time later, there is no need to protest.

“So,” Dwight says, sighing heavily as he wraps his arm around Ross’ waist. “Are you ready to go home?”

“Do I have any choice in the matter?” Ross asks miserably.

“No,” Dwight says as he takes the first step and drags Ross along down the riverbank. “No, you don’t.”

-o-

Progress is slower today. Maybe the events of the last few days are catching up with Dwight; maybe the last several months have finally become a reality to Dwight’s unrelenting optimism.

Ross stumbles again, knees buckling precariously.

It’s also possible, he supposes, that he’s become even more of a burden than he was before. The meal from the morning has strengthened him just enough to know the extent of his weakness, and every sinew of his body protests the onslaught of movement. He’s fought for too hard and too long. Something has to give.

He misses another step, tilting dangerous to the side. It’s all Dwight can do to keep them both upright.

“Home, Ross,” he says. “I can almost picture it.”

Ross’ feet drag as Dwight pulls him another step forward.

“Just as you described it,” he continues, heavy breath coming out in puffs between them. “Tilling the rocky land, working with the men in the village. And the pub -- that sounds nice right now, doesn’t it? Warm soup and cold ale.”

They stumble onward, and Ross feels numb at the memory.

“And the view,” Dwight says. “It’s as spectacular as you say, I’d wager. It must be something, to always see what’s coming.”

But never what’s gone before.

Never what’s lost.

Ross closes his eyes as they straggle onward.

“Yes, Ross,” Dwight says insistently. “Home.”

-o-

The day wanes and the temperature drops. At first, Ross doesn’t quite notice, but it’s impossible to ignore the wet snow as it falls against the drawn skin on his face.

He lifts his head, just enough to look at Dwight.

The doctor’s face is set like stone, white in the flurry of white. He’s scared, Ross knows. He’s not sure if they can do this; maybe he hasn’t been from the start.

That doesn’t stop him, though.

He drags Ross onward, unheeded.

Dwight doesn’t know how to quit, even when he should. He lacks the common sense to do the smart thing in the face of the thing he feels morally compelled to do. It’s a flaw, Ross can see.

Time will tell if it will prove fatal.

For both of them.

-o-

The temperatures continue to fall along with the snow. After another hour, the wind has picked up through the trees and the sweeping gales off the river are colder than ever. Soon, they are both soaked through, and Ross can go no farther. He slumps down, refusing to heed Dwight’s calls.

“Come back to me,” Dwight says, but his voice is lost in the whistle of the wind. “Come back to me!”

It’s a request he’s failed to indulge once.

The second time doesn’t seem as hard.

-o-

When Ross cannot walk, Dwight carries him. They stagger in this manner, a slow pace through the swirls of white. The end of this is inevitable, Ross is certain of this.

It takes another hour before Dwight seems to concede it as well.

They crash to the ground together, and Dwight drags him back to the brush, digging with his bare hands into the mounds of drifted sound. When he’s done, he pulls Ross back, settling him down before rummaging in his pocket.

Ross watches him out of thin slit eyes. He almost wants to laugh when Dwight holds out what is leftover from their morning meal.

“You’re joking,” Ross croaks.

Dwight shakes his head in exhaustion. “This isn’t the end, Ross,” he says. “I don’t know what home will look like for either of us, but I swear to God, we are going to find out.”

Ross exhales heavily, half-blinded by the clumps of snow trying to freeze on his eyelashes.

“So eat,” Dwight says, putting the food past Ross’ parted lips. “And find out for yourself.”

-o-

Ross only manages to swallow a few bites, but Dwight seems satisfied. The roots are soggy from the snow and slide down Ross’ throat with a sickening slick. He focuses on his breathing, in through his nose as he smells the cold snap of the air as the sun continues to set and the snow continues to fall.

If not starvation or exhaustion, the cold will be their demise.

“Here,” Dwight says, shrugging out of his outer layer. He puts it aside, undoing the buttons to the shirt under that. He slips it off, draping it over Ross hastily. “This will help.”

Ross’ brow furrows. “But you--”

“Have been eating,” Dwight reminds him, pulling back on his soggy coat. “I still have some fat on my bones.”

Ross shakes his head.

“Don’t fight me now, Ross,” Dwight warns. “Not on this.”

“But--” Ross starts, even as his own words fail him.

Dwight smiles tiredly in reply. “Sleep now,” he coaxes, gently now. “Just sleep.”

The protests swell and die, falling back into the empty pit of his stomach. They echo in his mind, lancing down the still tender wound on his face and aching along the scar that he thinks may never fully heal.

It’s ironic, then. That he wants to fight right when Dwight gives him permission to surrender.

The irony doesn’t save him, though.

He slips off to sleep as Dwight huddles close, submitting to the swelling darkness once and for all.

-o-

The darkness swirls, crashing against his consciousness like swells of the ocean. He feels as though he’s standing at the edge of the precipice, poised between the familiarity of home and the churning waves beneath him. It is tempting to look back, to see if anything waits for him yet. But in the growing storm, his vision fails him and there is nothing to see.

And falling, after all, is so much easier.

Ross is a principled man, after all. He craves justice with an intensity that can sometimes overwhelm him. When his best intentions are thwarted -- when there is nothing left for him -- Ross will always take a wild bet.

And fall.

Tipping forward, there’s a rush of cold air as it surrounds him, roaring in his ears as he plunges into the deep. Darker and darker into the cool depths once and for all.

Somewhere, Elizabeth screams.

It’s too late, though.

It’s just too late.

-o-

There’s movement; there’s light. There’s a shaking touch along his face and a trembling voice in his ear. The pain eclipses awareness, and there’s a roar between his ears. There’s a desperate hunger in his stomach and a dryness in his throat.

There’s his father’s gruff laugh and Elizabeth’s soft touch. There’s his uncle’s abrasive stare and Francis’ posturing smile.

There’s Dwight’s steady eyes and unwavering promise.

There’s the fleeting memory of what was.

There’s the lost sense of what could have been.

Mostly, there’s nothing.

There’s nothing.

-o-

“Ross,” Dwight begs. “Ross, please.”

Ross winces, trying to pull away. He’s couched on something soft, though, and he realizes slowly that he’s not cold anymore.

“Ross,” Dwight says again. “Come back to me.”

Ross’ eyes crack open, and the forest is gone. There’s no river, and there’s no snow.

Instead, they’re in a house with a bed.

A warm bed and a crackling fire.

Something smells good, and someone hands Dwight a bowl of something steaming. He puts some on the spoon and looks at Ross expectantly.

Ross takes a shuddering breath, trying to orient himself.

“There, you see,” Dwight tells him, spooning some of the broth into his mouth. Ross swallows out of reflex, feeling the warm spread through his chest and fill his belly. Dwight smiles. “I told you we’re going home.”

-o-

Home, Ross dreams.

Ever elusive, ever desirable.

Along the cliffs, Elizabeth turns back for a moment, smile playing on her lips as she floats upon the wind.

Home, Ross dreams.

Finally, ever closer.

-o-

Ross wakes with his stomach rumbling.

It’s a deep sound, gurgling loud enough to rouse him from his sleep. He props himself up tentatively, surveying the room with slightly more coherent eyes. The fire is still burning, and the blankets are stacked high on top of him, but Ross has no inclination of how or why he ended up in such a state.

“It’s one of the last strongholds,” Dwight informs him before he can muster up the strength to ask the question. “No one could find any record of us, but apparently the troops are in need of good news. And two stragglers in from behind enemy lines warrants some cause for hope, apparently.”

Ross looks at Dwight, feeling somewhat dumbfounded. “And that’s it?”

Dwight draws a breath and lets it out raggedly. “More or less, yes,” he says, clearing his throat with a grimace. “They’ll be some time before they can verify who we are, and I’m fairly certain they are hoping we have some intelligence as to the enemy’s movements in the area. But, as your doctor, I have recommended you be deferred back home. Immediately.

Ross frowns, shaking his head. “But how did we--” he starts, but stops himself. “How did you get us back here?”

Raising his eyebrows, Dwight looks somewhat amused. “I carried you, of course,” he says. “I told you I was getting you home, one way or another.”

To that, Ross isn’t sure what to say. He’s not sure if gratitude is appropriate or even what thanks could possibly be given to the man who saved his life against his will.

Dwight coughs again, a bit louder this time, and he rubs his chest absently as he gets to his feet. “Are you hungry?” he asks, making his way toward the fire. “I can’t say if it’s really good or not, but the food is hot.”

As if prompted, Ross’ stomach grumbles again.

Dwight turns back to him, bowl in hand. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

With Dwight’s help, Ross manages to sit up, and he accepts the bowl gratefully, balancing it against his chest as his fingers struggle with the spoon. The first bite, though, is amazing.

The second is even better.

Within seconds, he’s halfway down, and he looks to Dwight curiously. “Aren’t you going to eat?”

Dwight sits back with a rueful smile. “I think it’s your turn.”

-o-

The rest of the day is surprisingly pleasant.

Now that he is warm, dry and well fed, Ross finds himself recovering quickly. The aches fade and his strength returns. By the day’s end, he is able to get up to relieve himself with minimal assistance from the lady of the house, and he finds his body greatly restored.

His spirits, however, are harder to coax back into health.

With renewed strength, he is keenly aware of what may -- or may not -- wait for him back home. He left home against his will under less than desirable conditions. He’s not sure if his father’s health has lasted or if the land has prospered. There’s no way to know which of his father’s tenants have survived hardships and which have been forced into more poverty with his absence.

And he has no way of knowing if Elizabeth still waits for him. If her request for him to return would still be welcomed.

He looks forlornly at his empty finger where her ring should have been. It seems foolish now, to throw it away without knowing.

Without taking the chance.

Then again, Ross’ luck seems to have run out these days. Perhaps he should take that as a sign.

Ross cannot be sure.

All he knows is that he’s hungry in a way he never has been before in his life.

And he fears no food will ever be enough.

-o-

The next morning, he makes it down for breakfast, and while he finds his hostess amenable, he is perplexed by the lack of company.

“You have no other borders?” Ross asks.

The woman pours more tea. “Just you and the doctor,” she says. “Your superior officer stops in with his men each day, though.”

Ross picks up his biscuit, biting off half of it. “And where is Dr. Enys?”

The woman shrugs. “Haven’t seen him, not since yesterday,” she says. “That was the first night he’d slept in his own room, though. Must be exhausted, good fellow.”

Swallowing, Ross hesitates before taking another bite. “Can you direct me to his room?”

“One right across the hall from yours, of course,” she says. “Insisted on it.”

Ross takes another bite, chewing thoughtfully. When he swallows, he nods to the plate seated next to his own. “I realize it may be a breach of etiquette,” he ventures. “But could I take him up something? As a way to repay his kindness to me.”

She nods readily. “Better for him to eat it hot anyway,” she says.

Ross smiles kindly, stuffing another bite into his mouth as he gathers a plate for Dwight. “Thank you,” he says. “I’m sure he would hate to miss out on your fine cooking.”

-o-

He is still a little unsteady on his feet, but the warm meal has left him rejuvenated. He’s still not certain what the future holds for him, but he does know he owes Dwight more than he could possibly repay. Given how much better he feels, he can only imagine just how dire his condition had been during that last night on the run. It’s hard to imagine, Dwight carrying him the rest of the way, but even if he doubts Dwight’s physicality, he could never doubt his tenacity.

Dwight is, after all, the one who chose life on his behalf. It is a humbling thing, and Ross still does not know if there is anything at home waiting for him, but he can no longer imagine such absolute surrender.

He raps his knuckles on the outside of Dwight’s door. He owes Dwight his life.

He owes Dwight everything.

After a moment of no reply, Ross knocks again. “Dwight? Are you awake?”

Again, there is no reply.

At the silence, Ross tilts his head. He adjusts his stance, knocking again. “Dwight?”

When silence is his only answer, something twinges in his stomach. Dwight is surely exhausted from their journey, and there is no doubt that he kept vigil while Ross recovered, but it’s been a day since he last saw his friend. In all the months since Ross fell on the battlefield, Dwight has been a constant presence. The only reliable truth in his fledgling existence.

More than that, he’s never seen Dwight sleep in. He’s never called for the doctor and had no reply.

“Dwight?” Ross calls again, a bit louder now. His fingers start to sweat on the plate as he knocks more firmly. “Dwight, it’s Ross.”

Leaning close to the door, Ross can hear the smallest of noises. The shifting of sheets and a rasping sound. There’s a deep cough, which tapers off into a wheeze before silence falls once more.

Ross waits another moment, but his concern is stronger than his self control. Something’s wrong.

Something’s wrong.

“Dwight,” he says again, voice dropping seriously. “If you don’t answer me, I’m going to open this door. Do you understand me?”

The only reply is the rasping sound, which hitches beyond the wooden door.

It’s a bit forward, maybe. It’s also somewhat paranoid, but Ross trusts his instincts. He knows his own well honed doubts.

More than that, he knows Dwight.

And his friend would never leave him unrequited.

Not while he was able.

If these past few months have taught Ross anything, it was that there is something more valuable than a warm meal and a comfortable bed.

Friendship.

The door opens easily, and Ross does his best not to charge inside. Instead, he lingers in the doorway, looking through cautiously, hoping somehow that Dwight is just too exhausted by his heroics to respond.

And indeed, Dwight is on the bed, asleep.

He is also exhausted.

And sick.

His complexion is ghastly, the colored all but drained from it save for the bright red flush of fever in his cheeks. Sweat glistens on his face, and his parched lips are open as he labors for air. The rasping noise is more pronounced, and Ross realizes grimly that it’s Dwight’s breathing as he tries to suck air in to obviously congested lungs.

Willing himself to be steady, Ross puts the plate of food down on the dresser, making his way to the side of the bed. It’s clear that Dwight won’t be eating.

No, Dwight won’t be doing anything for himself anytime soon.

Ross chews his lip, running a cautious hand over the doctor’s burning brow.

That just means that Ross will have to do it for him.

-o-

It is a bitter irony, Ross supposes, for a doctor to be ill. A healer in want of healing, yet to be incapable of providing such service for himself. It must be difficult, all things considered, to know acutely what was wrong and how dangerous it was and have no remediation for it.

As it is, Dwight is no help to himself or to Ross at this point. The fever burns through him with a frightening intensity, and no matter how Ross tries to rouse him, he is nothing but incoherent when his glazed eyes do manage to open. Ross calls up the mistress of the house, asking for cool water and cloths, and then he begs her indulgence for the closest doctor to be called.

“Been busy, what with the war,” she says. “Weather ain’t been no help.”

Ross swallows patiently, wringing out a fresh cloth in the basin. “My friend is very ill.”

She lingers in the doorway, face pinched. “I’ll send word to your captain,” she says. “Army might still have one around these parts.”

Leaning over Dwight, Ross lays the damp cloth over his brow. “Fine,” he says, arranging it carefully while Dwight’s face scrunches up in insensate discomfort. “Just do it fast.”

She mumbles some type of acquiescence, and Ross can only hope that she is efficient in her duties. Dwight’s breathing is getting worse, and the intensity of his fever is unnerving. Ross is good at many things, but he has no means for this. He cannot even offer a diagnosis, much less conjure up a cure.

No, Ross is mostly useless, sitting idly by the bedside, changing the tepid cloth and offering a soothing word when the fever racks Dwight’s form with delusions.

He reaches out, squeezing Dwight’s arm. “It’s your turn,” he says. “Your turn to come back.”

Dwight whimpers, turning his head away.

“Please, Dwight,” he says solemnly. “Come back to me.”

-o-

Dwight does not come back to him, but the captain does. He’s sober upon his visit, and the dour looking man he has in tow identifies himself as a doctor. Ross, to be sure, has his reservations, but the captain assures Ross that he is the best in the county.

“Present company excluded,” Ross murmurs.

“I’m sorry, what?” the captain asks.

Ross nods toward Dwight, where the doctor is unpacking his bag next to the bed. “Dr. Enys,” he says. “Your doctor is the best with present company excluded.”

A small smile plays on the captain’s lips, as though he is humoring Ross. “I’m sure Dr. Enys is capable, but there is little evidence--”

“I’m still here,” Ross says abruptly, squaring his shoulders and refusing to back down. “When every other captain and doctor would have left me for dead, Dr. Enys stayed. When I myself gave up on the very prospect of life, Dr. Enys continued on my care with unabated intensity.”

The captain blinks in surprise, too off guard to speak.

Ross rocks back on his heels, clearing his throat as he looks back toward Dwight. “That, my friend, is more than evidence enough.”

-o-

Ross may question the new doctor’s competency, but somehow he cannot doubt the diagnosis.

“Pneumonia, I’m afraid,” he says, adjusting his glasses primly. “Not contagious, at the very least, but the congestion has settled deep in his chest.”

Ross swallows hard, looking past the doctor toward Dwight in the bed. “So what can we do?”

The doctor shrugs. “Leeches might help drain it,” he muses. “Blood letting--”

Ross makes a face. “No medicines?”

“Nothing that would be effective,” he replies.

“So, what, then?” Ross asks, his hackles starting to rise. “We do nothing?”

“You can try to control the fever as best you can,” the doctor says. “But if the fever doesn’t kill him, the wet in his chest very well could. This weather has been difficult for many. I’ve seen many perish from prolonged exposure to the cold and damp, many with less severe symptoms than him.”

Ross gives an incredulous snort. “And you would resign him so quickly to death?”

“Medicine is not a precise science,” the doctor argues. “There are no guarantees--”

“And no effort apparently,” Ross shoots back.

The captain, who has been respectfully quiet, steps between them diplomatically. “The doctor merely wishes to keep you informed,” he says. “I assure you, there is no servant of the king that we would abandon, especially not now.”

Ross is not so quickly mollified this time. He does recognize, however, the futility of a fight right now. He is in no condition, and the doctor is not his enemy. No, it is not the doctor’s fault that Dwight is in this condition.

There is only one person to blame: Ross himself.

“So there is nothing you can do?” he finally asks, voice almost breaking on desperation.

“If you don’t want the leeches--”

Ross shakes his head.

“Then hope,” the doctor says, buttoning his coat shut. “The last refuge of those in need.”

-o-

Ross cannot conjure up enough energy to be polite, and the doctor sees himself out. Sulking in the doorway to Dwight’s room, the captain hedges.

“It is a pity, this turn of events,” the captain says. “My superior officers were quite keen on keeping the two of you for intelligence purposes.”

Ross casts him a dark glare. “I would hate to think we were no longer useful.

The captain reddens a little, hands clasped behind him. “Yes, well, it requires a little negotiation, but I was here when Dr. Enys brought you in. You’ve fought your war. You deserve to go home.”

Ross’ frown deepens in confusion.

The captain produces an envelope from his pocket and holds it out. “I secured passage for both of you on a ship home,” he says. “Tomorrow.”

Blankly, Ross stares at the envelope, reaching for it with numb hands. He opens it, scanning the words. “Tomorrow?”

“That was, of course, before Dr. Enys’ fell ill,” the captain says apologetically. “But there is still room for you.”

Ross inhales sharply in disbelief. “But Dwight--”

“Will still receive the care and attention he needs,” the captain says.

Ross shakes his head. “I cannot leave him.”

The captain draws his brows together in consternation. “Your loyalty is admirable,” he says. “But please, understand, that this is a limited offer. If you are not on that ship tomorrow, I can make no promise as to when you will be able to return home. I, myself, am to be transferred by the end of the week. The officer who replaces me may have other interests for you before clearing your discharge.”

It’s all happening too fast. It was only yesterday, after all, that Ross himself returned from the brink of death. The idea of home is still ever elusive to him, foreign and strange and hard to understand. As much as he wants it, he is terrified of it.

None of which matters anyway. He knows the promise Dwight made, and the sacrifices he made to ensure it came to fruition. Ross could not, in good conscience, leave his friend with strangers and a pittance of hope.

No, Dwight stayed for Ross.

And Ross will stay for Dwight.

He draws a steady breath, looking the captain in the eyes. “That is a risk I am willing to take,” he says.

The captain nods, smiling faintly. “He’s lucky, you know,” he says. “To have a friend like you.”

Ross turns his gaze to Dwight, shaking his head. “That is where you are wrong,” he murmurs. “For I know beyond all doubt that I am the lucky one.”

The captain gives a perfunctory nod, clasping Ross on the shoulder. “Let me know if you need anything,” he says. “And best of luck.”

Ross nods gratefully, watching as the other man retreats down the hall toward the stairs. He looks back to Dwight and sighs.

“I’m afraid we’re going to need a whole lot more than luck,” Ross says, making his way back to the bed and settling down for the long wait to come.

-o-

For most of the day, Dwight sleeps. Periods are filled with stillness, but as the fever waxes and wanes, Dwight is restless in turns. Even when he wakes, his eyes are dulled and vacant, and when he speaks, Ross can scarcely make sense of any of it. It is all Ross can do to keep the cloth cool on his head, easing the frantic ruminations when they become too dire to ignore.

Ross wonders if this is what it was like for him, if he spent days lost in his own mind. What things had Dwight learned about him then? And what value had the doctor seen to make him think the wait was worth it? Was it possible that Dwight had seen something in him, something from the very start? Some goodness, some value, some thing that justified all the weeks and months that followed?

It is a strange thing, after all, to see a man stripped of his senses and his pride. It is an uncomfortable vulnerability that Ross does not enjoy and does not wish to witness. It makes him feel responsible, not just for Dwight being in this state, but for seeing him through to the other side. This isn’t about guilt anymore.

This is about recognizing the value of a person and staying with them, no matter what.

This is about friendship, the kind that eclipses brotherhood.

This is about Dwight and Ross, and the tepid realization that war is not about who you fight against, but who you’re fighting with.

And God help them both, this war isn’t over yet.

Ross sits idly by the bedside as he watches Dwight sleep.

It’s not even close.

-o-

At night, Ross eats dinner in Dwight’s room. By the candlelight, Dwight’s fever rises and his breathing grows ragged. He labors uselessly for air, and Ross has to turn him on his side in a vain attempt to soothe his struggles. Desperate, he trickles water between Dwight’s parted lips, willing him to hold on.

“You still have to keep that promise,” Ross reminds him. “So don’t give up on me now.”

-o-

The next dawn is worse.

Dwight’s lips are dusky, and each breath is stunted and wet. He trembles, whimpering from time to time now that words are too hard for his weak body to form. His breathing stutters and stops from time to time, and Ross fears the worse. But by nightfall, Dwight is still clinging to life, though his face is ashen and his body racked.

When the fever sends him into convulsions, Ross strips the bed of the linens and removes Dwight’s outer garments. He soaks Dwight with water, patiently washing the sweat from his brow and his torso and on down his legs.

He feels useless, sitting there. He feels worse when he dozes off. He wants to do more.

He wants this to be enough.

For both of them, he needs this to be enough.

-o-

The night fares poorly for both of them. By dawn, Ross is exhausted and sore, and Dwight can hardly breathe. While this has left Ross harried, it has left Dwight completely stricken. He does not move on the bed, breathing thinly through wet, halting gasps. He has not been conscious, and even his delirium has left him. His languid form is failing, and there is nothing Ross can do.

The hostess clucks her tongue when she brings Ross his breakfast. “Poor dear,” she says. “He’s wasting away, right in front of us. Even if he could survive the fever, he’ll starve to death.”

Ross sighs wearily, running a hand through his unruly hair. “At this point, I fear that may be the kinder thing.”

She offers a pitying look. “Let me know if you need anything,” she says before nodding at Dwight. “Or if….”

Ross gathers a terse breath. “Thank you,” he says, refusing to let her finish. “That will be all.”

-o-

Tired as he is, Ross’ temper is short. It is all he can do not to lash out at the woman, though he knows it’s not her fault. More than that, he knows she’s right. There are too many variables at play; too many ways for Dwight to die and not nearly enough to let him live.

There’s an inevitability about it that Ross hates with every fiber of his being.

And that he cannot deny.

So far, Dwight has taken him, and it is Ross’ job to sit idly and watch a good man die.

Frustrated, he takes to pacing.

There has to be something. If not to save his life, then to make amends. This is no way to die, on a foreign shore so far from home. If Ross cannot bring Dwight home alive, then he must do it by any means possible.

Therein lies the problem, though. Ross knows little of Dwight’s home. For all the time that they had spent together, Ross is suddenly aware just how much was centered on himself. Dwight had made no qualms about that, though. He’d been a doctor first, after all, and Ross could only suspect he’d always been more interested in saving Ross’ life than worrying about his own.

Now that their roles were reversed, Ross had no healing to offer but closure he could possibly provide.

He had to provide.

Chewing on his lip, Ross hesitates for a moment. He casts a guilty look at Dwight, but turns toward his things anyway. Given the conditions of their travel, neither of them had had a chance to bring much in the way of personal belongings, but Ross goes through Dwight’s clothes anyway. There has to be something -- some type of letter or momento. Something to suggest where Dwight was from and what mattered to him back in England.

There is frustratingly little, though, and Ross is about to give up entirely when his fingers brush against the small object tucked snugly in Dwight’s pocket. He pulls it out, hopeful for a clue.

And nearly drops it in shock.

It is a momento, that much is certain.
But it is not Dwight’s.

No, it is Ross’. It’s the ring. The ring Elizabeth had given him. The one Ross had worn all through the war. The one he’d abandoned back in the forest when death had seemed like the better option.

The ring Dwight must have picked up and held for him, keeping it safe until Ross was ready to pick it back up again.

It’s too much.

The ring alone is a weight he does not know how to bear, and the memory of Elizabeth might save him as much as it will kill him. But the fact that Dwight carried it for him, carried it when he would not--

Ross cannot even begin to understand.

Because it’s more than a ring. It’s the promise behind it. It’s the promise before it.

Come back to me, Ross. Come back to me.

Ross would have broken that promise, if not for Dwight.

He looks back to his friend, feeling bereft. He owes Dwight more than his life. He owes him everything. All that he is and all that he could be. There is no way to know what is waiting for him back home, but that’s not the point.

Not when there’s something right in front of him worth living for.

Worth fighting for.

Ross forces air through his tight throat as he makes up his mind.

This isn’t over.

Not if Ross has anything to do with it.

If Dwight cannot fight any longer.

Then Ross shall simply have to do it for him.

-o-

Breakfast is still sitting on the dresser, and Ross grabs it, scooting his chair as close as he can to the edge of the bed. He is careful as he props Dwight up, soothing him as best he can when he mumbles in protest. It is not an easy thing, getting the food into Dwight’s mouth, and it is harder still to make him chew. After several tries, he learns to make the bites as small as possible, coaxing Dwight to swallow with water trickling down his throat.

It’s not an easy thing, not for the pride and self reliance between them. It is hard to think about Dwight doing this for him.

But it is harder still to imagine not giving Dwight this chance to hold on.

“To save your life,” Ross says. “In a heartbeat.”

-o-

The days linger. Dwight gets no worse, but he fares no better either. Each night he struggles to breathe, and every morning, Ross feeds him just enough to keep his body from withering away. Ross passes the afternoons changing the cool cloth on his head, telling Dwight of all the things of home.

He tells him of the cliffs over the water, and the green grass in the summer. He talks of the cold winter winds and the frozen brown earth before it is covered with snow. He goes on about the people, about his father’s uneven leadership and his uncle’s gruff success. He talks about his cousin’s well intentioned awkwardness, and how dear Verity is the only one among them with any common sense, long suffering as she is.

And he talks of the people in the village, who are poor but loyal. He talks about how hard they work and what they will do for those who will do to them. He talks about exploring the mines, hoping for treasure, and working the fields, eating fresh vegetables from the garden while his father is not looking.

He tells of Elizabeth, and how she is all that is good and right. It is not just that she is beautiful, because while she is indeed that, it is that she smart and just. She seeks to wrong no one, and Ross sees the way she treats people, each with kindness in turn. She believes people, and she sees the good of who they are, not the bad. And she is loyal, beyond all hope.

“If anyone would wait, it would be her,” Ross says, smiling to himself. He draws a breath, faltering somewhat. “But I am no fool. I would never want her to waste her youth on a promise I fail to keep. She is the best of what I left behind, but she is not the only thing.”

Dwight labors for air on the bed, the fever still leaving him in a stupor.

“Because I have traveled to this land, which is not my own, and I have nearly lost my mind, body and soul to it,” he continues stiffly. “That might have been easier, but it would not have been better.”

Dwight’s railing inhalations continue.

Ross swallows thickly, nodding his head soberly. “Home, Dwight,” he says. “Someday, I’ll show it to you, and then you’ll understand.”

Dwight lets out a rattling exhalation as Ross changes the cloth on his forehead.

“Then you’ll see,” Ross promises, more resolute than ever. “Why I will always be thankful, not just for saving my face, but for giving me back my life.”

Dwight shudder, lapsing back into stillness.

“And I promise, no matter what awaits me. Whether Elizabeth has married someone else or my father has passed on. Whether my land is in ruins or the village is decimated,” he says. “I’ll do whatever is necessary to make the most of whatever is left.”

-o-

The doctor checks in on them later that week and suggests that Ross is perhaps wasting his time. The captain bids him farewell, but looks at them both with pity. Their hostess only brings one plate up for each meal, which Ross diligently splits between them.

Everyone thinks this is a lost cause, he knows.

For all Ross knows, they could be right.

Failure is forgivable.

Quitting, however, is not.

-o-

When he sleeps, propped up in a chair next to Dwight’s bed, Ross still dreams of home.

But he doesn’t just look for Elizabeth or his father. He doesn’t look for the people in the village or the workers in the mine. He turns back instead, nodding toward Dwight.

“You’ll fit right in,” he promises. “Come and see.”

Dwight hesitates, hedging for a moment, but before Ross wakes up, he takes a step forward.

-o-

Then, one night, something changes.

Dwight’s body trembles, and his breathing is harrowing. The gasps come intermittently, and the fever climbs higher and higher through the night. Ross strips the blankets off the bed, pouring water straight onto the other man in desperation. For a week, they have fought hard together.

Tonight, though.

Tonight everything may end.

The illness is taking its toll on Dwight, and his body has wasted away. His bones poke through his papery skin, and the thick of the untended beard only serves to make him look more gaunt. Ross has done his best, but it may not be enough.

He has nothing left, after all. He has no more tricks, no more options.

Instead, he pulls the chair up close and takes Dwight’s hand in his own.

“Come back to me,” he asks, plaintive and true. “Come back to me.”

-o-

When Dwight wakes up the next morning, Ross is not surprised.

Relieved, exhaustion, overjoyed -- but not surprised.

With bleary eyes, Dwight is clearly confused. He blinks in confusion, and for a moment, Ross thinks his friend is going to slip back into sleep. But when Ross reaches out to feel his brow, it is noticeably cooler.

The fever has broken.

Grinning, Ross pulls his hand away, just to find Dwight still looking at him.

After a week of being an invalid, Dwight is too weak to move. Indeed, the meager action of blinking his eyes seems to take a dramatic toll on his, and when he opens his mouth, all he can do is cough. Ross coaxes him onto his side, holding him steady while the railing hacking comes to an end, before settling him back gently on the soiled sheets.

With effort, Dwight wets his lips, taking a few stuttering breaths as he tries to find his voice. Even then, his voice is broken and rough, barely audible in the stillness. “Ross,” he croaks, chest heaving as he tries to continue.

Gently, Ross puts a soothing hand on his arm. “Just take it easy.”

Dwight, though, is adamant. He shakes his head, a miniscule motion that is outmatched by the intensity of his tired blue eyes. “Ross, please--”

He cuts off without another cough, and Ross reaches for some water.

Dwight turns his head away, swallowing hard and holding Ross’ gaze with purpose. “Ross,” he tries again. “Are we -- are we -- home yet?”

It’s a simple question, and yet it is the most complicated question of all. After all, what is home to them? Two abandoned soldiers on the shores of a lost foreign war? What waits for them? What home do they have? Will they be welcomed with open arms? Or will they close their fists to fight for every scrap of what they left behind?

Home is an idea; home is the essence of hope.

Home could be a person, a field, a mine. It could be a house, a father, a lover.

It could be a profession, a study.

A best friend.

Home is whatever you make of it.

Ross smiles, ignoring the pinch of tears in his own tired eyes. He nods, squeezing Dwight’s shoulder once more. “Almost, my friend,” he says. “We’re almost home.”