"I don't see why we need attend this evening." James pours water into the basin and pauses, scowling at it. "We're not guests of honour, thank God. The place will be packed to the gunwales, I'm sure no-one would miss us." Tying his cravat at the other glass, Francis doesn't answer; but long habit has made James fluent in his various silences and he looks up suspiciously. "What are you smiling at?"
"I'm not smiling."
"Indeed you are. Your blasted eyebrow is smiling, I can see it from here."
Francis turns back against the dresser and folds his arms, allowing his grin to break. "I was enjoying the irony, James. We seem to have switched roles; I was under the impression that in the area of social engagements, churlishness, grumbling and the wishing of a pox upon the Admiralty were all my duties."
James - as yet unwashed, unshaven, sleeves rolled up and collar undone, disreputable but no less devastating for all that - leans up against the wall and smirks. "And mine?"
Francis pretends to think. "Dandyism," he says decisively. "Dandyism, posturing, tall tales, the flattery of those who don't deserve it and the husbandry of an Irish curmudgeon who might embarrass the Service if left unattended." He stops on something of an intake as James crosses the room; looming close, he reaches out and makes a careful, infinitesimal correction to the knot at Francis' throat. He is smiling, lopsided, but his eyes are very dark.
"Husbandry," he snorts, soft.
They are alone, no other soul beneath this roof. Francis scoops him into his arms and kisses him, squeezing until his ribs creak, James' hand in his hair, time falling away from them like feeble English snow. At last, reluctantly, he disentangles himself. James makes no move whatsoever to assist as Francis peels him loose and shoves him gently towards the wash-stand. "Go on. If you must take on my habits, you still have 'grudging stab at respectability' left to tackle."
"You're vexatiously sociable today," James grouses, dashing water at his face. "I can't account for it. Normally you hate these brocade-wearing junkets."
"Perhaps I'm mellowing." This is so manifestly false that James lets out a bark of derision. Francis turns back to the glass, buttoning his waistcoat. "There are compensations," he muses. "Ross will be there at least, and he says a few of our own men are coming - Terrors and Erebuses. And," he adds slyly, "I have it on good authority that Captain James Fitzjames, Handsomest Man in the British Navy - "
A damp facecloth flies at his head, but he catches it effortlessly.
"- will be in attendance. In full dress uniform, no less."
Francis grins, unrepentant, at James' reflection. "No doubt. But I promise you, James, you will enjoy this evening, however little you expect to."
James' voice, muffled behind a towel, is sceptical. "Idle boast."
The Admiralty reception is lavish, noisy and positively gilded with naval self-satisfaction; having served his time at dozens of them, Francis would have been shocked at anything else. The ballroom is a vast, overheated mirror-box festooned with crystal and hung with bombastic maritime oils that resemble his lived experience about as much as this resembles the fiery ruins of Carnivale; and everywhere inside it mills a sluggish sea of blue wool, gold braid and clinking glasses from which a familiar face occasionally surfaces before being swept back into the braying melee of ship-talk, rank-gossip and carefully polished war stories.
James stoops, lowering his voice beneath the din. "Reassure me that you hate this, or I'll fear you're some sort of changeling who's done in the real Francis Crozier."
Francis smiles. Scanning the room from their vantage by a marble fireplace, he affects the comradely listening pose that allows him a fractional lean into James' warmth. "I hate this," he murmurs. "Are you reassured?"
James says nothing; Francis hears only the gulp as he swallows his brandy. Not for the first time, he represses the urge to lean closer and curses the circumstances that enforce that sliver of distance. But there are compensations. Years ago, Francis would have drifted alone and hard-jawed through these glittering shoals, exiled as much by his natural reserve as by his unembellished roots. Things have changed now, strange unlooked-for succour. James is there, and more than James; amid this welter of anonymous uniforms is seeded a small and cherished fraternity, the almost-secret brotherhood of the Navy's farthest reaches: men who remember each other famished, desperate, gaunt; whose eyes catch each other's with a warm and weary recognition; who smile a little wanly, shake hands a little tightly, stare together through this evening's pomp to bone-hard visions few men here would dream of. James Clark Ross, grasping both their arms as they arrive, his deference nothing short of disconcerting, for he too is a veteran. Edward Little, Commander now, ploughing through the crowd: neat, gleaming in his uniform, his eyes earnest but sombre, his smile diffident and soft. Thomas Blanky, pipe smouldering defiance, hobbling out of nowhere in last year's cut of coat to crush them in his arms, decorum be damned. Henry Le Vesconte, his hair almost completely iron-gray now, but still cuttingly elegant and as wry as ever. And later - "Good God, Jopson!" Francis exclaims.
Thomas Jopson - Lieutenant Jopson, wearing the stiff smart finery to which Francis had consigned him so many months ago in a threadbare tent on King William Island. Sleek-haired, white-gloved, gold-decked, for a moment he is almost unrecognisable and Francis chuckles in delighted disbelief as they clasp hands. Then Jopson glances over his shoulder and rolls his eyes, a look meant only for Francis and James. His shadowy grin is so conspiratorially familiar that for a moment Francis could be back in Terror's wardroom. "How," Jopson mutters out of the corner of his mouth, "how do you tolerate these clothes, sir?"
Francis cackles, his first real laugh of the evening. "With immense resentment, Thomas. You look splendid, I must say."
"I feel like I'm wearing a tomb."
James grins. "Yes, that's it exactly. The burden of an officer."
"You need a steward," Francis says sagely. "Someone to help you get the damn things on."
"A steward, sir?" Jopson's face is perfectly straight. "I'm not familiar with the role, you'll have to explain the details."
Lights in the darkness, every one of them, sparks of hope and absolution for Francis' ravaged Captain's soul. But there's one more light to come, he thinks; not for himself this time, but for James. He props his arm atop the mantlepiece, surveying the crowd, searching for faces he has only seen rendered in daguerrotypes. In the process he glimpses Edward again, this time speaking with Jopson. The look on Edward's face makes him snort. "Look at him. Anyone would think he'd never seen a lieutenant's dress uniform before."
James laughs, his voice wisely low. "Don't be disingenuous, Francis. You know perfectly well why he's staring."
Francis returns to his haphazard scanning of the room. Ross had sounded quite certain they would be here; he hopes it wasn't wishful thinking, or just a desire to please. The place is too full, that's the trouble. "Walk with me, James."
"Now you're mingling." James shakes his head. "Definitely not Francis."
They thread their way around the room, pausing every so often to greet or be greeted. Francis is so preoccupied by his search that he forgets to be surly, and James warms to his theme of Francis' probable abduction and replacement. They are navigating towards the far corner of the room when three things happen simultaneously. Ross, lounging at another mantle, catches Francis' eye and swivels his gaze meaningfully to the side; a great joyous full-throated laugh rises up from the place he is indicating; and James' drawl splutters into silence as he stops dead. When he speaks again his voice is a whisper. "Oh my God."
Francis suppresses a grin, craning to catch a glimpse through the press of uniforms. The laugh has subsided but he can still hear the speaker: a grand hearty voice, full of vigor and amusement and a fair measure of liquid cheer, cracked just a little with age. Another voice answers - querulous, flint-sharp, dry as a bunch of twigs and proudly Irish. James clearly has a better view but he is standing as still as if poleaxed, so Francis - his own curiosity more than piqued - edges closer to the corner, tugging James along with him. Then someone moves aside and he sees them both: two men in their seventies, the first in naval uniform, the second in genteel but noticeably scruffy civilian dress. The naval gentleman is tall and broad and barrel-chested, leaning on a stout cane, stooping to close the considerable height gap with his companion as he talks, and Francis sees a creased red merry face under a mass of white hair tied carelessly back. The other could not be more different: a small taut wire of a man with a stiff brush of steel-grey hair and a shrewd, wizened, bespectacled face that breaks into a wolfish grin as Francis watches. A few guests stand round them, clearly paying their respects.
"That's…" James' voice is almost strangled. "That's Jack Aubrey!"
"Who?" asks Francis, mildly.
"Jack Aubrey! And Stephen Maturin! Good Christ, Francis, you must recall me talking about them!"
"You may have mentioned them once or twice."
"Once or twice? Francis, Jack Aubrey is the man who captured the Cacafuego with nothing but a fourteen-gun sloop! You cannot possibly have missed that - even you - and it's practically the least of his achievements! And Maturin - it's common knowledge now that he was one of our best spies for decades - an absolute master. And an outstanding naturalist, too - Good Lord, Harry Goodsir will never believe this." James is veritably stuttering, his eyes as round as marbles; it is frankly adorable, and worth a hundred gaudy deaths by glory such as this evening.
"I suppose you've heard that adage about never meeting one's heroes," Francis murmurs.
"Oh yes," James says vaguely, still staring like a schoolboy.
"Never believed it, myself." And with that, Francis fastens his hand around James' wrist and starts walking, towing James firmly behind him.
"Francis!" James hisses. He tries to tug free, but years spent forging through typhoon weather upon canted, heaving decks will give a man a certain mass and implacability when he requires it. They arrive at the edge of the little group, and Francis clears his throat and bows.
"Admiral Aubrey, I presume?"
Later, fighting off the usual temptation to doze in the swaying carriage, Francis thinks to himself that his plan fell out even better than he'd hoped. Quite aside from the charm of watching James chatter like a starstruck midshipman, he himself has passed a very pleasant evening; the Admiral and his friend were both less exalted and more engaging than their fame would have led him to expect, their experiences and conversation far ahead of the usual Navy performance: impressive uncommon men, rather intriguingly ill-matched (almost as much, Francis thinks ruefully, as he and James). Somewhat to Francis' surprise, they had both followed the fortunes of the Expedition closely and were full of gratifyingly well-informed questions - although Francis and James were hard-pressed to meet the barrage of Doctor Maturin's keen interest in polar bears, their size and ferocity. They have come away from the evening with cordial invitations on both sides to meet again, and a note of introduction from the Doctor that will floor Harry Goodsir, whose writings on Arctic fauna have been read with admiration.
Francis alerts to the sudden silence in the carriage, and prizes his eyes open to find James watching him. In the passing streetlamps, Francis sees a measuring smile.
"You knew, didn't you? You knew they would be there. It's why you insisted we go."
Francis' grin slips his hold as he nods. "I did. Ross told me."
James laughs, low, shaking his head. Then he reaches out, and in the dark between one light and the next he lifts Francis' hand up and kisses it. "Thank you."