A/N: So so so sorry for the long wait!! I had about a million essays to write. :( Anyway, here's the long-overdue next chapter...
'I must be frank with you, Miss Brookley,' Dr Swinford told me solemnly, once we were outside. 'Mr Harlock has, quite probably, the worst burns I have seen upon a living man. It is my learned opinion that he shall not continue to survive for very long - and although I have not had much prior experience in dealing with burn-wounds, I would estimate him to have another week or two.'
I pursed my lips, keeping my hands behind my back to still their trembling as I nodded. I had anticipated this, of course – but now that a doctor was confirming it, Harlock's whole predicament became entirely too real to me.
'I understand,' I replied in a quiet tone, averting my eyes to hide my consternation at this.
'I do appreciate the fact that Harlock's request of aid for a written work is deemed of the utmost importance, it being one of his last – but I would advise you, Miss Brookley, to exercise great discretion. The man is enduring the worst fate that can be put upon a man: a slow decline into death. He may be unable to judge when he is making too much effort; it shall be your task to ensure he does not succumb to over-stress. I would suggest you carry out your writing with him when he is of a relaxed humour; after all, it is our duty to ensure that he leaves this world as peacefully as is achievable.'
I felt almost as if he was reproaching me, though I supposed that he was simply giving me a reminder just in case. 'It was never my intention to do otherwise, sir,' I answered. 'I shall take care with him.'
Swinford gave a grumble of approval. 'Very good, then,' he said. 'I shall take my leave now. Good day, Miss Brookley.'
And with that, he left to gather his equipment, leaving me bemused and grim in the corridor.
'He was not too severe with you, I trust?' Mr Harlock asked me from his bed as I entered his room.
I shook my head. 'No, sir.'
He gave a little sigh, resting his head back against his pillows. 'Good, good.' His grey eyes glittered in the semi-gloom as he looked up at me. 'Do take a seat, Rosa, you surely must be tired of standing after your long journey.'
'Thank you, sir.' I came closer to him and perched myself upon the wicker chair at his bedside. Close-to, the unhealthy pallor of his skin was all the more apparent, as was the feverish brightness of his eyes and the heaviness of their lids. For a moment we sat without speaking, the gentle dry sound of his breathing the only sound breaking the silence.
'How was your journey?' Mr Harlock asked me quietly, his voice a low murmur.
'Not altogether unpleasant,' I replied politely. 'The countryside is beautiful.'
'Indeed, indeed,' he agreed, staring off into middle distance. 'Though we have been getting some unusually cold weather lately around these parts...'
He tailed off into silence, and once more we were quiet, unspoken words mounting the tension in the air between us. Soon I could bear it no longer; I raised my head to look at his poor, stricken face, terrible sympathy welling up from deep inside me.
'Mr Harlock, how much does it hurt you?' I asked him, unable to keep the urgent need to know from leaving my lips. 'Seeing you like this makes it unbearable to think about mundane matters...please, I must know, sir!'
He did not look at me, his fine profile all that he showed me. Nevertheless I saw him sigh, saw his eyes fill with weariness. For a moment he gave no answer, but then he spoke:
'I understand your concern, Rosa,' he said. 'It is unfortunate for you to have to see me in such a state. In all honesty, I can tell you that my injuries do hurt me, but deeper wounds give me no significant pains.'
I relaxed slightly. 'That is good – isn't it?'
Mr Harlock sighed, his mouth tightening grimly. 'Not necessarily,' he replied frankly. 'The only reason they do not hurt so terribly is because the damage is so deep the nerves have been burned away.'
I tried not to allow my shock to show, feeling tremendous pity for him.
'Oh, sir,' I whispered.
He turned his head to me at long last, facing me fully. 'Do not dwell on it more than necessary, Rosa; I myself have come to accept my predicament, and so must you,' he told me, his voice unwavering, his commanding tone bearing a familiar note of the proud man he once was. 'I have yet to succumb to listlessness and apathy, and I wish to make the most of this by keeping conversation. Do not fear speaking with me – it is what I desire the most in these strange dark days.'
'I shall bear that in mind at all times, sir,' I replied, somewhat tremulously. I saw him frown slightly in contemplation.
'Tell me, Rosa; are you afraid of me?' he murmured. 'Do I intimidate you?'
I looked up at him. Now that I was closer and could see him in greater detail, I noted for the first time that he was indeed no benign sight. In fact, truth be told, he looked positively wild; his dark hair was growing out of its previous, neat cut, spreading out in feral waves about his head like a gloomy halo. The firm sweep of his jawline was shadowed with stubble, the narrow sidewhiskers that he usually kept closely trimmed now unkempt. Combined with the stormy gaze of his grey eyes beneath his dark brow, he was truly most intimidating.
Despite his severe countenance, I smiled softly at him. 'You are simply in need of a slight trim here and there,' I replied. 'Otherwise you are the same Mr Harlock I remember from so many years ago...'
His eyebrows lifted. 'You are a brave girl, then, Miss Brookley; I wish I could say the same for some of my previous visitors.'
'Why? Were they unkind?'
Mr Harlock sighed. 'No, of course not,' he answered. 'It simply hurt me – worse than any physical pain I endure – to see my old companions so horror-struck and afraid to approach me. Although in a way it was a relief for the good Doctor Swinford to suggest I take leave of visitors - as I found them to seem so traumatised by the sight of me, it did make me feel slightly...alone. As if I...was already dead. They spoke of me so quietly, so sadly...and even when they left, I felt already gone. I cannot lie, Rosa; these past few days were regrettably rather lonely.'
I felt deeply for him, confiding in me so candidly. The poor, poor man...
'Oh, Mr Harlock,' I sighed, then asked tentatively: 'Would you allow me to take your hand?'
Surprise flickered in his sad grey eyes, and he blinked. 'Of...of course, dear girl,' he replied, sounding taken aback by my boldness with him. Hesitantly, half-unsure whether it would suddenly scare me, he raised his nearest hand, his right one, and inched it toward mine. I reached forward and grasped it, uncaring of the missing finger, simply needing to touch him, to comfort him. My touch was still tentative, soothing but still aware of the bandaging around his hand.
'This does not hurt you, does it?' I asked him quietly.
'No,' whispered Mr Harlock, the odd look still in his eyes. 'Not at all.'
I gave him a small, timid smile. His linen-wrapped palm was still warm against mine, though his skin felt dry and his bones pronounced. Mr Harlock's surprise at my action of taking his hand was still apparent in his gaze; he appeared to be contemplating me with new eyes, as if he was reassessing my character. He had obviously thought me to be tolerant at best, but had not expected compassion on this level. I hoped I had not offended him...though the quiet wonderment and the barely perceptible tightening of his remaining fingers around my own bore wordless testimony for his appreciation of my sincerity.
With his hand still in mine, I said to him: 'I shall make sure then, sir, that you know what you truly are – a living, breathing man, and never any less than that!'
(C) 2010 GNW