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like salt in the wound

Chapter Text

They were on a ship. She was healthy, strong and solid, cutting a wide swath through the Atlantic ocean.

The water was laid out before them, rich blue green, transparent on the tips of the waves, gauzy froth thrown up against cornflower sky, like something out of a fantasy.

Thankfully, it was no dream.

Her name was Opportunity and it fit like a glove. She had picked them up in a port town earlier that day. Her sails had been full and her paint shining against the flurry and bustle of the dockyards, and James had never seen anything quite so pretty.

Crozier paced beside him in the bold sunlight that seemed to tumble from the heavens, so luxurious and warm that James could feel it like thick honey on his tongue.

Francis made a noise in his throat and pivoted again the other way, pacing in front of where James was leaned up against the railing, back to the sea and the wind.

The gold sunlight didn’t seem to have the same affect on him as it did on James. He was a whirlwind of energy that needed an outlet. He was so used to being in charge, having responsibilities on his shoulders heavy enough to weigh anchor; the whole idea of being on board a ship as a passenger seemed to morally offend him.

Tender affection welled in James, rumbling like a tempest in his chest.

And that was the problem. That feeling. That was what he did his best to keep dodging like bergy bits in the cold sea.

This would be the last they saw of each other.

Even if they were both staying in Her Majesty's employ, the chances of seeing him on a shared journey were low. And the feeling that ignited in James was all consuming.

The ship swayed and gulls screamed and James soaked in the salt and the feeling of effortless movement. The miles skipped under Opportunity, her bow dipping low and raising victorious on the crest of each wave. Port had faded sometime ago, but James hadn't been watching, too entranced with the sun and the sea and with Francis.

For the last time.

Francis stormed by again and James wasn’t even thinking when he grabbed the man’s wrist and pulled him down beside him.

Francis grunted but came along quietly, leaning over the edge and watching the water split for them. James leaned further back and bumped his shoulder to Crozier’s as he gazed up at the mainsail.

It could easily have been the jostling of the boat that threw them together, but if the easing tension in Francis’ shoulders meant anything, they both knew it wasn’t.

They stood like that, leaned against the railing at opposite angles, and were quiet. A bone deep quiet that settled into them like silt on a riverbed.

They stood and they settled and they breathed, and James could almost be content. But knowing this journey would be the end of it… that was too much to bear in silence.

“Francis, after we return, where are you--” His voice broke. Francis knew James now, knew his secrets and his sins. Knew the shadowy past he had so badly wanted to keep hidden. He wouldn’t just hand him that kind of information, not knowing what he did--

“With James Ross.” There was no hesitation in his voice, “I put him up for a few weeks in our youth and he has yet to repay the favour. What better time to cash in then after a final perilous, deadly mission into the arctic.”

James takes this in, lets it settle. James didn’t have a plan in place for where he would stay while looking for more permanent lodgings, but he was sure there was an inn who would have empty rooms, or maybe he could follow Francis’ example and find a friend still living in the city he could ask for a favour--

“James?”

He looked up, surprised. Francis had been speaking to him. “Yes?”

“I asked where it was you’d be staying. I’ll need an address for all of the inevitable years of correspondence.” His smile was warm, private. Like they were sharing a joke that Francis was taking particular joy in.

The boat creaked under James fingers, rough dark wood that would have bitten into James’ hands if they had been as soft as they used to be. But now rough met rough, cracked met cracked, and James held the railing all the tighter.

The longer he was silent, the smaller Francis’ smile became, until he finally asked--

“Do you not yet know? All those weeks in recovery and you didn’t send out any letters?” Francis looked… genuinely concerned.

James shrugged, tore his gaze from Francis and cast his eyes to the sky again. The sails billowed out, catching the winds breath as the last, brave gull wheeled in the air above them, diving and banking joyously, before it too turned back and followed its brothers home.

“My back pay is enough for me to find an inn until a more permanent place is found. I’m not sure how long I’ll be staying anyway.” He hesitated. They hadn’t discussed this, “The admiralty might want me shipping out sooner rather than later, depending.”

James waited, couldn’t meet Francis’ eyes, and instead tried to spot the last fleck of gull on the sweeping, distant horizon. It was long gone.

“The admiralty.” Francis’ voice was dry and tight. “You mean to say you’re-?”

“Of course I am.” He said. “You know what it took to get me here. That won’t all be for naught.”

Francis is silent. Four years ago, he would not have been, but now; the arctic had taught him patience.

“You know they will send you back. Back to that hell- !”

Maybe not that much patience.

“And I will return with my head held high.” James left no room for argument in his tone. He should have known that wouldn’t work with Francis.

“It will kill you-- look at who it’s taken from us! This passage is a death sentence! Even for those much more experienced than you--!”

“We beat it Francis. And I will do so again. As many times as I need to.”

Francis stepped into his sight line, grabbed him roughly at the shoulders, his eyes glinted and the colour was fierce on his cheeks.

“We got lucky . We didn’t beat anything. We got lucky , James. You won’t get this lucky again-- I know this, I feel it as surely as- as the wind at our backs and the ship under our feet. This was no talent on our part-” He hissed, gesturing up to the sails that carried them home, “This was pure chance . And I won't trust your life to chance again. She does not love you that much.”

“A good thing that isn’t your decision to make, then.” Francis stilled, the whirlwind dwindling. “Francis… I-- They wont stop. You’re right. They wont stop . And if I can be of any help to the next batch of young lads chomping at the bit to go and chase their glory-- make their name finding the North-West Passage…. Then I am honorbound. As sure as I feel the wind at our backs and the ship under our feet.”

The next breath Francis took shuddered out of him, and James wanted nothing so much as to gather him up in his arms and hold him near.

All of a sudden they were both exhausted. James knew that expression well on the other man’s face, he had seen all its iterations in the last hard years. Never had it looked quite this powerless.

“I’ll stay in London until I’m ordered out, as long as the money will last me.” James says, soft. “I’ll send letters and--”

“No.” Francis said. The ‘no room for argument’ tone looked much better on him, and was far more effective. “No, you’ll be staying with me-- and Ross and his wife. I’m… I’ll hear no word against it.”

James didn’t have any against it to speak. The silence settled, the sun shone bright, and they were homeward bound.




Chapter Text

The dining room is no larger than most people at this social standing had, but to James it feels absolutely cavernous. Carpeted with dark hardwoods lurking beneath and this empty yawning space all around the four of them. The only thing that eases the feeling of being very, very small is that, despite all the room, Francis is sitting close enough at his side that James can feel the warmth of him.

 

Even the candles scattered over the tabletop feel too bright. Like someone had unhooked the stars without his permission and brought them down in the guise of candles . He remembered with the smallest smile.

 

The food moves quickly from rich, to decadent, to overwhelming. James puts his ornate silver fork down after three bites, and looks across the shining heavy table at his hosts.

 

They are overflowing with affection and joy and energy, speaking to Francis with such enthusiasm that James is on the way to making the same journey he did with the food.

 

These people-- James and Ann Ross-- they’d had their hardships in life. Ross himself had captained one of their own ill-fated ships in the past, sailing her to Antarctica with Francis by his side. He knew the biting cold, the hunger that ate away at you, the deeply held surety you'd never see the sun again.

 

And yet.

 

Here, now-- it seemed like it had been erased from him. Wiped away like a damp cloth on a chalkboard. He held no patina of the experience on him, and James felt he would never shine again.

 

Francis, shockingly, seemed to be keeping up with the Ross’ just fine. He was even laughing . And what a welcome sight that was. Francis had put much of the weight he lost back on during their recovery period in Rupert’s Land. The boat ride back had food, but nothing like the Ross’ were serving. It had all been transportable and long lasting on board-- although all survivors had refused the canned rations and encouraged the other travellers to stay away as well.

 

Francis looked practically jolly with these fine foods and fine company. James resolved to try harder. This had come so easily to him not five years ago, but now he felt…  Well, He just felt tired.

 

“--And then she said to me-- you’ll love this, Francis-- ‘I’m afraid your presumptions of me are as inflated as your ego. If Icarus would like to pluck his feathers any time soon, I’d be much more inclined to speak with him!’. And then she turned heel and walked off!” Ross reached over and grabbed his wife’s hand, looking at her with joy and a hint of bewilderment. “And while I don’t remember plucking anything, here she is, nonetheless.”

 

Lady Ross did a charming thing then and snorted rather loudly, grinning with every tooth at her disposal. “Well as it turned out, my perceptions were also in need of some shifting.” She turned her gaze to Francis, patting her husband’s hand. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that James is as kind and loving as he is full of himself.”

 

Francis’ eyes flicked to James then. Not Ross, who Lady Ross was very clearly referring to, but to himself. James Fitzjames.

 

They locked eyes for a moment. James’ breath caught. It felt like a very long moment to him.

 

“No you… You don’t need to tell me that.” Francis cleared his throat and dropped his eyes down to his plate, before looking back up at their hosts, grin solidly in place again. “I’m well aware of your husband's shortcomings and achievements both. The numbers of either outweigh most mens.”

 

Across the table Ross laughed heartily, head thrown back, eyes squeezed shut. He and his wife still held hands.

 

James tried to take another bite of food. It was still too much. He swallowed anyway.

 

He didn’t notice how Lady Ross’ eyes lingered on him through it.

 

***

 

It was much later into the evening when the topic of where the men would be staying the night was finally brought up.

 

“Now we have a great many rooms,” Ross says, and somehow says it in a way that doesn’t make James resent him for even a moment. “But quite a few are under construction at the moment. It was a rough winter for the roof, soaked right through in the whole north wing. The south is mostly useable, but they are bigger rooms in general and there’s only two at the moment--”

 

“Including your own you mean?” Francis demands. “You should have told me I would have found another..”

 

Francis’ words fade away, and for a terrifying moment James has to stare down his bald faced, un-shying yearning to share quarters with him. The want is so deep and encompassing it punches straight through him and exits his mouth in a small gasp, which he disguises as a cough.

 

Lady Ross places her small hand to his back, fleeting before pushing the cup of tea toward him.

 

James takes it with two hands, worried the cup would shake without the extra support.

 

He casts his eyes around the smoking room as he sips, richly coloured just like the dining room, jewel tones all clamouring for attention. Knick knacks and pillows are littered about the small space, heavy curtains frame the three tall windows around them, lending the first glimpse of London not through a carriage that James and Francis had seen. James was taking none of the outside world in, just that is was a very calm rainy grey in contrast to the loud room he was sitting in.

 

“No! No, Francis-- we wouldn’t have invited you if we were that short on space! Not counting our bedroom.” The man grinned then, locking eyes with his wife who still was sitting at James’ side on a rich green loveseat. In that moment it was very clear they were still more recently married as Lady Ross let out a little noise at the look-- and then a more admonishing one shortly after. Ross winked at her and James averted his eyes to the pattern of the green couch.

 

James heard Francis shift in the chair beside the loveseat, which was a bright blue, a more airy colour. It was almost too small for Francis, who looked comically out of place plopped on top of the elegant thing, with its honey brown wood carved into sweeping curves.

 

Francis cleared his throat pointedly. Ross straightened up with a laugh and James felt it was safe to look at the man again. He was flushed on the tips of his ears and looked just slightly embarrassed by the whole thing.

 

“Sorry about that.” He adjusted his tall collar, and James was suddenly very sure the next however long would consist of many of these half-meant apologies. “I was only doing the whole wind up to let you both know you’ll have to be staying in adjoining rooms. There’s a door that separates and it does lock but--”

 

“We’ve shared much tighter quarters than that.” James blinked and looked around the room before realizing that it was him who spoke.

 

There’s a moment of silence as everyone registered it at the same time, and then Ross crowed with delight, “O- ho ! So he does speak!”

 

James felt himself flush immediately, and there he found the resentment for Ross that was missing earlier. His fist tightened on his thigh and he’s sharply reminded of the rare dinners when Crozier came over to Erebus. He felt the resentment fade the smallest bit.

 

“Now that isn’t very kind , James.” Lady Ross reprimanded him, before turning to her seatmate. “I’m sorry, he can be completely tactless. You were just very quiet at dinner and well… we did hear you were very fond of telling stories.” Francis shifted in his little chair again. “And we were rather looking forward to hearing some. But ,” She shot her husband a sharp look, “We also agreed we wouldn’t push you on it! Francis mentioned you were not quite…”

 

The hesitation was just long enough to send a million questions through James’ brain at once.

 

“... feeling yourself at the moment-- And, god knows, I remember how James was after coming back from the south and his journey wasn’t nearly as disastrous--”

 

She stopped talking quickly, and the room was deeply silent again. The rain spluttered outside, familiar and foreign all at once.

 

“Well now who’s not being kind, Ann.” Ross demanded, petulant and quiet and suddenly James was laughing. A splutter at first before the great tide of it rose into something loud and real, if slightly hysterical. Lady Ross did her little snort again and then joined him, grinning behind her hand. He could hear Ross snickering along, relief clear in it. James leaned back in the loveseat and looked over at Francis who was gazing at him with the most peculiar expression on his face. James couldn’t help but smile lopsidedly at him, and felt the thing in his chest uncoil completely when Francis, slowly but deliberately, smiled back, big enough to spot the gap in his teeth.

 

Of course he wanted to share quarters with Francis. He was a touchstone, a lodestar, an anchor. The soft good parts of the arctic that followed him back.

 

He turned back to the Ross’ and softly he spoke.

 

“He’s right. I haven’t been myself. Ordinarily, I’m very charming as a guest. You have my apologies for any perceived standoffishness-- I assure you it has nothing to do with you or your home. It’s just been… a long few years. And I’m not sure where ordinary is at the moment.”

 

Lady Ross smiled at him, and he wondered if he’s met anyone with her clear capacity for kindness before.

 

“Time for bed, I believe, James.” Francis said, low and familiar and just as he did all those nights ago on the rocky tundra, and James had the answer to his question.

Chapter Text

James said goodnight to his hosts, who deposited him and Francis in front of the two empty bedrooms before sweeping away, arm in arm toward their own rooms.

“Goodnight, James.” Francis smiled at him, sleep weighing heavy on his features. James felt himself smile in return.

“Goodnight, Francis.”

Francis clamped a brief hand to his shoulder, before walking into the door on the left. James took the right.

His bedroom was large and empty. It was full of things, which might have even meant something to someone, once. But, there was a very clear absence  of something in the room, and it made it feel so lacking.

Its walls were painted a forest green, a plush red carpet under the large bed.

James kept his eyes deliberately away from the dark door set into the right wall, settled himself into bed, and extinguished his lamp as he went.

***

It was quiet in the house the next morning.

Ross had gone to a meeting with the admiralty to discuss another attempt at the passage. He told them this at breakfast, while casually eating his eggs, seemingly completely unaware of what the simple statement would ignite in James and Francis.

Francis had asked quietly when they were thinking of sending out the next sacrificial sheep and Ross had looked up, stern and almost offended at Francis’ words. When Francis didn’t offer an apology or explanation, James answered his question.

“In the next two years time we hope to have a list of men put together and a couple of fine ships.”

James looked down at his breakfast plate, heavy in food. Eggs- scrambled with cheese and herbs from the Ross’ window planter in the kitchen, a few links of sausage, a golden griddle cake dripping with honey. He had only taken a single, slow bite out of one of his sausages. “Smart money is on the captaincy being offered to a person at this very table, in fact.”

Francis’ had stood and left the room without excusing himself.

Ross had sighed and rolled his eyes before he met James’ gaze meaningfully, “I didn’t mean him . He’s already tendered his resignation.”

James’ had felt suddenly very cold and even less hungry. His head had been empty of any words to offer Ross in that moment.

He had choked down the rest of a sausage link after offering a noise of understanding. Ross had preened a little, no doubt sure James was speechless with pride at the prospect of being captain in the north all over again.

So now, the house was quiet in the presence of a ticking clock, which, ironically, was all James could hear echoing around the sitting room that he and Francis were in.

Francis had wandered in about an hour ago and sat himself on the green love seat beside James without saying a word. He had opened a book and started to silently read.

James had sat quietly, waiting for Francis to say something, to reinvigorate that conversation they had begun on the Opportunity .

But Francis sat quietly too, leafing through the pages of some memoir, it didn't seem like he was absorbing it in actuality, but also not opening his mouth.

James went back to his poetry book he had found on the shelf. It was a wine red with an embossed gold rose and something about it had welcomed James, pulled his fingers in before he had even glanced at the title.

 

Can it be right to give what I can give?

To let thee sit beneath the fall of tears

As salt as mine, and hear the sighing years--

 

Francis shifted beside him. The sun was out in bucketfuls, pouring heavy into the room. Dust motes swirled and James was saturated with it. 

He flipped to another poem.

 

I never gave a lock of hair away

To a man, Dearest, except this to thee,

Which now upon my fingers thoughtfully

I ring out to the full brown length and say

“Take it.”  My day of youth went yesterday;

My hair no longer bounds to my foot’s glee,

Nor plant I it from rose- or myrtle-tree--

 

Francis shifted again, and pulled his legs up onto the seat with him, curling around his book all the tighter. It looked as if he was actually reading now, absorbed into the words. His feet were pressed up against the back of the love seat, very close to James’ hips. 

James cleared his throat and tucked some of his hair behind his ear. It was still thinner than it used to be, and he wasn’t sure if it would ever return to its old texture.

He flipped to a new set of sonnets, letting his eyes wander across the pages.

 

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,

Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,

Until the lengthening wings break into fire

At either curvëd point,—what bitter wrong

Can the earth do to us, that we should not long

Be here contented?  Think! In mounting higher,

The angels would press on us and aspire

To drop some golden orb of perfect song

Into our deep, dear silence.  Let us stay

Rather on earth, Belovëd,—where the unfit

Contrarious moods of men recoil away

And isolate pure spirits, and permit

A place to stand and love in for a day,

With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

 

James coughed again, his throat felt tight. 

“Oh, her work is a gem isn’t it?” Ann’s voice asked. James looked up and found the lady of the house in front of them, arms crossed in a smart travel dress and coat.

“Yes, it’s all very… emotive,” James said, watching her grin.

When she didn’t leave he closed his book slowly. “Is there something you needed, Lady Ann?”

“Just Ann, if you please. And yes, there is.” She darted forward and tapped Francis’ shin sharply, “You too, stop pretending to read and pay us proper attention, you brute.”

Francis looked up slowly, raising one of his eyebrows.

Ann just beamed all the brighter, “I have made the decision to welcome you back to London properly with a gift.”

Francis groaned so loudly it rumbled through the couch, “God, Ann, not another one of your excursions--”

“Oh, Francis yes ! I’m sure James will enjoy it, and everything purchased will be coming out of the Ross funds this afternoon, so I won’t hear another word of complaint.”

It struck James that, in time, Ann would make a very good mother.

“Forgive me, but what exactly are you two talking about?” James asked.

Together, in highly contrasting tones, they answered his question in harmony.

“Shopping.”

 

***

 

The stores smelled the same. That was what stuck with James as he tried to stay near Francis and Ann in the throngs of people, all seeming intent on making haste and clamour. The three of them had woven from store to store for what felt like hours, but couldn’t have been that long, unless the sun had frozen where she was in the sky.

Finally-- if Anne kept her promise-- they visited a tailoring shop that James used to frequent. He ducked behind a display of cravats to catch a breath and to avoid anyone who used to know him. The silks were all rich with colour, any that he could have imagined-- but James’ eyes were stuck to one in particular.

It was cream. He reached out to touch it, and was shocked at how soft it was. He was expecting coarse, rough, heavy texture that snapped in the wind and slowly began to stink of mildew, even when there was no moisture in the air to be found.

“James?” He started, pulling his hand away sharply, as if burned, burning, burn. Francis’ hand leaped out and caught his elbow. James took a deep breath through his nose, on his exhale, Francis let go. There was no smell of ash or sickness in the tailor shop, just mothballs and fabrics.

“You know I… I thought I’d die with that colour being the last I ever saw.” James said, too softly. Francis heard anyway.

“That and my miserable mug, anyway.” He matched James’ volume and he was so grateful for it the words didn’t register for a moment.

“You were there?"

Francis looked taken aback. “You don’t… remember?”

James shook his head.

“Ah.” Francis’ fingers fiddled with a cravat on the table, a soft blue grey. “Yes, James. I was there. Only left your side when the fur traders were spotted.”

“Thank you.” It was hardly even a whisper, but James meant it more than any words anyone had shouted. Francis smiled at him. “That one,” James said, tapping the cravat Francis had wrinkled and worried beyond refolding, “You should buy that one.”

Francis picked it up and did his best to straighten it. “These for you, then.”

He placed a small open box on the table. It had a pair of cuff-links nestled in it, a glinting gold and brown stone sat in silver settings, which shifted in the light. James picked them up slowly and caught the edge of Francis’ smile in return.

“James… about what Ross said this morning--”

Something flared in him-- frustration with Francis for ruining this moment of shared peace.

“I’m still going.” His voice was tight, too loud in the small space they had created between them.

“I doubt they’ll change the colour of the tents , James. Even for their new, illustrious captain.” The sarcasm was heavy in him, and it caught in James’ throat.

James closed the lid on the cuff-links, put them back on the table and walked out of the store.

Chapter Text

 

Dinner had been a tense and quiet affair. Even the Ross’ flirtatious banter couldn’t breathe life into the heavy air between Francis and James.

 

James had claimed a headache and retired early, begging out of the meal before dessert could even be offered. He made a quick detour to the sitting room before he fully registered what he was doing and locked his gaze on the poetry book he had been reading.

 

The poems had been stirring. Something in them spoke to him, low and unfaltering. A tide of words too full of truth. It sucked the air from James’ lungs. He laid a finger tip-- careful, careful -- on the cover, half convinced something monumental would change in him the instant he did.

 

A clock chimed somewhere deep in the house, a moment later the grandfather clock in the room let his voice be heard, echoing around the room. James could picture the chimes ringing across homes all over London, different tones and patterns, slightly off from one another, but uniting this collection of people who chose to put their roots down in the same place.

 

James lifted his hand off the book and turned to go back to his room.

 

Lady Ann was standing in the doorway, silent. She was wrapped in her silks, a soft seafoam green, her dark hair spun into careful curls, her bright eyes and sharp nose turned and fixed on him.

 

During the shopping that day Lady Ann had been very warm. Speaking with James about the latest fashions he had missed and the most effective ways to capture the right curl in his hair. It had been a comfortable afternoon until it had all started feeling like too much.

 

James cleared his throat.

 

She smiled rather serenely at him and gestured to the green loveseat airly. James knew better than to turn her down.

 

They sat and the chimes in the grandfather clock ran out, leaving them in the new hour of nine. Later than James had imagined. He must have been standing in the sitting room longer than he had thought.

 

There was utter stillness in the house. Ross and Francis must have retired to bed already.

 

Lady Ann primly folded her hands in her lap and said nothing at all.

 

James fidgeted slightly in his seat, achingly aware of how inappropriate this felt.

 

“It’s-- It’s getting rather late, I really should retire--”

 

Lady Ann gave him a steady look. Expectant. Patient. An edge of incredulous eyebrow raising. she expected him to say something.

 

“Francis spoke with you.” James realized, and felt himself deflate.

 

“Indeed, he did.” Lady Ann said, and nothing else.

 

Silence reigned a little longer in the sitting room.

 

“You must know this isn’t your place.” James said, trying for firm and landing somewhere closer to petulant.

 

“Yes, but Francis is a dear friend, and I expect he is quite dear to you also.” James turned his gaze to the dark sky out the tall window in the room. Lights from houses where clocks had chimed shone back at him. “As dear as that man is, he can also be a blundering fool.”

 

James snorted at that, “A small understatement,” he said, before he could think better of it.

 

“He hurt you.”

 

James kept looking out the window. Ann took his silence for what it was and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.

 

“It’s not for me to speak for him, and I don’t intend to-- he can make his own apologies-- but you should know he cares for you. He’s worried for your safety.”

 

James fought the urge to roll his eyes. “Francis cares for everyone, and that is in part why he is always so exhausted and surly.”

 

Lady Ann smiled and lifted her hand from him. “Yes. But he cares for you more than I have seen him care for anyone before.”

 

“Even Sophia Cracroft?”

 

The words smacked of bitterness, even to his own ears. James had done his very best to fight the phantom of this woman for whom Francis would dive deep into the cold, sunless desert with men he knew despised him.

 

“Ah.”

 

It was all Ann said, and James, in turn, knew he had said far too much.

 

James stood quickly, his world peeling apart at the seams. He had worked so hard and so long to keep his proclivities away from common knowledge, and now he had all but spelled it out to a woman who had been kind to him for an afternoon and offered books of poems and unexpectant gentleness. He straightened his collar quickly and began damage control, hoping this woman was as kind as she presented herself.

 

“I’m sorry Lady Ross, I fear I have taken advantage of your hospitality for long enough-- I will remain tonight but in the morning I will be looking for new lodgings--”

 

“Sit down , James.” For a moment she had sounded very like Francis. “How many times must I say it-- call me Ann.”

 

Slowly, carefully, and slightly weak-kneed James sat.

 

Lady Ann held out one expectant hand and James-- carefully, carefully-- laid his own in it. She met his eyes, determined in her softness.

 

“Firstly-- know I will never use anything you say this, or any other night against you. I’m as good at keeping secrets as my husband is atrocious.”

 

He stayed quiet, and perhaps she could sense just how overwhelmed he felt by his own words and he his accidental revelations. She began to speak a little more slowly.

 

“Secondly, you will not go looking for new lodgings unless you become absolutely rife with the need. You are welcome here for as long as you enjoy it.”

 

James nodded-- carefully, carefully .

 

“Third, and lastly, I would so enjoy being closer with you. We haven’t spoken much but if Francis holds you as dear as it seems he does I know it’s for a reason.”

 

James said nothing to this.

 

“Now go and rest, James. I’m sure Francis will want to speak tomorrow. He is not one for putting things like this off. If you like we can speak more on this later.”

 

James nodded and was in the hallway before he realized Ann had slipped the book of poetry into his hands, and he was clutching it like a lifeline.

 

****

 

James changed in a daze and attended to his nightly rituals without bothering to light any candles, knowing he’d just have to put them all out again. He climbed into bed, exhausted by the day.

 

He tossed and turned, unable to find comfort in the plush bed and heavy blankets until finally, in repositioning himself, he realized there was an edge digging into his side.

 

He reached under himself and drew out a small velvet box. Inside were the gem cufflinks from that afternoon.

 

Somewhere in the house, a clock chimed.

Chapter Text

The door between James and Francis loomed over him the whole night. No matter how tired he had felt before, a glance at it dent the draziness from his body.

 

It’s late , he reminded himself, futilely, even if Francis was awake it would be a bad time to speak .

 

He woke several times anyway, blurry and hazy, at one point taking too many steps toward the door between them. The night passed very slowly.

 

Finally he gave in and lit the candles at his beside, and held the small box in his hands, running his finger over the dark blue velvet. The whorls and ridges of his finger caught against the rich texture. He pried the box open and admired the stones, glinting in the firelight, rich and golden. Frozen in place where they shifted, caught in time.

 

He waited until the sun rose and the bird song built into a crescendo. He stood, put on a house coat, and knocked and Francis’ door.

 

The reply was instant.

 

“It’s unlocked.”

 

There was no trace of sleep in Francis’ voice.

 

James turned the knob and entered the room.

 

Francis looked up from his place at a desk by the window. James’ hadn’t been in this room before, but he couldn’t pry his eyes from Francis’ to look around. He stood in the doorway and they gazed at each other, silent and unsure.

 

James fingers tightened around the jewelry box-- he hadn’t realized he brought it in with him.

 

Francis was poised with his fingers wrapped around a pen, which now dripped on a half full sheet of writing. It was criss-crossed with lines, words scratched out with clear frustration. James’ eyes flicked back up to Francis’.

 

“What are you writing?” He asked. His voice cracked from the early morning. Francis’ window was swung open, bird song filtering in just as it had in James’ room.

 

“A letter to you.” Francis said, “Just in case you didn’t come.”

 

“I did.” James said, erroneously. Obviously he had.

 

Obviously.

 

“You did,” Francis parroted back, not moving from his spot at the desk.

 

“What's in it then?” James leaned on the desk beside Francis, hip to shoulder, scant inches between them. Their positions mimicked the way they stood not so long ago on the decks of Opportunity . facing two directions but anchored in the same place.

 

“You said you don’t remember.”

 

James looked across the room. There was a clock here too. Squat and broad on the mantel. “Yes.”

 

“I was unsure of just how much you remembered. I was… writing to offer to tell you.”

 

James was quiet. the second hand clunked across the room. The birds had quieted down. there weren't many birds in London, but the sound of them was overwhelmingly louder than the sound of birds on the arctic tundra.

 

“It isn't a pleasant story.” Francis’ warm weight shifted beside him. The chair under him creaked. Old wood.

 

“I wasn't expecting it to lull me to sleep.”

 

Francis made a small noise that was pretending to be a laugh, but was too sharp, too wounded to be.

 

“Tell me, Francis.” James whispered as he spotted the cravat wrapped around Francis’ neck. Steel blue. “Tell me how I died.”

 

“Almost,” Francis corrected, tone steady and wrapped in warmth, bone lurking under fine velvet. “How you almost died.”

 

And so, Francis spoke. James was shocked by just how much he had forgotten; the fever, the time in the sledge, the tent, Bridgens caring for him until he was ordered to leave-- staying long enough to give a small speech. When Francis started to speak about James conveying his last wish James had to raise his hand for a break.

 

Francis seemed glad of it, rising to his feet and taking a turn about the room-- working out his cramping legs. James stayed seated where he was, leaned against the desk.

 

The day had sprung to life outside, temperate and mild, not a cloud in sight, the day absent of London’s usual grays.

 

“I’m glad it would have been you, Francis.”

 

The other man stilled his steps. He stood in the middle of the room,

 

“I would not have been.” James looked up at him, Francis deliberately met his eyes for the first time since the story started, “I would have carried that weight, that burden Atlas would have shirked, for every hour of the rest of my life. I would know intimately the last expression your face made, and I would also know I put it there.”

 

Silence in the room, then, softly rising ever so slowly, “And although it didn’t come to pass… I still do, James. To know it would have been me to… to snuff you out. Like some kind of, of candle outliving its usefulness-!”

 

Francis whirled, ready to start his pacing with renewed energy.

 

James stood then. He took his place in front of Francis, stayed the man’s manic energy, said nothing, but couldn’t stop his hand reaching out, holding fast to Francis’ cuff. The dressing gown was light and smooth under his fingertips. The fabric twisted and bunched under the tension.

 

“That colour. It haunts me too, James.” They stood close. As close as they might have been on the day in the arctic that had stamped itself into their souls in matching places. Branded and twisted them in a warped unison, worn and scarred in matching places.

 

James breathed deep of this closeness now, where neither was dying nor even hurt, and savoured the aftertaste of it. The flavour of what had brought them tripping and stumbling into eachothers tides. His lips were so dry. So dry he could detect the slight moisture on the air where Francis’ breath fanned from him. His heart staggered in him, he felt it in his jaw and his fingertips-- which were still twisted in Francis’ sleeve.

 

“Then we-- perhaps we endeavour to avoid it.” James’ was hoarse and Francis’ face lit up.

 

“How committed to this endeavor are you?” James could feel the hopes trembling on the edge of the question, they also brushed against his lips. Francis’ so badly wanted him to stay, and James’ was only now seeing just how deep the compulsion went. It warmed him in places he hadn’t realized were still cold.

 

There was a sharp knock on the door and, with no pause for an invitation, James Ross came tumbling in. Francis was across the room in a blink.

 

Even the smooth fabric had left a small friction burn on James’ fingers, nothing that left a mark, but enough to feel a buzz of tingling heat that lingered there as Ross went on about a dance the had managed to secure invitations for James and Francis to attend with him and his wife. Ross didn’t even notice James stood awkwardly in the room until he was about to makes his leave, ensuring Francis would be attending. He showed no outward reaction to James in Francis’ rooms in his nightclothes. He just insisted James also give an answer, and, knowing it would get him to leave with less of a fuss, James agreed to go.

 

Ross waved a jaunty farewell after making sure they knew lunch would be served soon, and closed the door surprisingly softly behind him.

 

The moment between them hung in the air where it had been shattered. James could almost see it shimmering there, just above their heads.

 

“The most I can promise you… is that I’ll think about it.”

 

Francis didn’t ask ‘about what’. He must have seen the moments remains as well.

 

“I’ll see you for lunch then, James.” Francis’ accent curled warmly around James’ vowels and he wanted no one else to ever say his name.

 

He went back to his rooms, dressed, put on his new cufflinks, and went downstairs for lunch, shards of their shared moment still stuck in his teeth and finger tips.

Chapter Text

Over the following week James had feigned sickness three times. Mainly, to get out of more shopping excursions that Ann had insisted were all absolutely mandatory for the event to which they had been invited. 

 

James was regretting this now. He was staring down the barrel of the night in question, just a few hours away; and if Francis heard of him taking ill one more time, he was sure to call a doctor.

 

Unfortunately for James, Ann was very wealthy, beloved by shopkeepers, and very tenacious. She had brought home a huge selection of silks and jackets and shoes for James to try in the comfort of his own bedroom during the short days before the dance. They were all fine selections, but almost nothing she had brought or sent to him was something he would have picked for himself. Bright, rich colours, pastels and silks, the dark navy of his dress uniform nowhere in sight.

 

There was a knock at his door and James straightened his dressing gown quickly, arranging himself in his chair before calling out.

 

“Come in.”

 

The door opened and in came Francis, holding a light blue box under his arm. He smiled at James in greeting and went about unpacking the box Ann had sent with him.

 

The sight of him like this wasn't unusual at this point in the week. Francis had waltzed into his rooms a number of times, sent with packages from Ann, trays from the kitchens, books from the library. At one point he had come in just to show James a hatched robin’s egg he had found outside under the tree that stood beneath their windows. 

 

But it seemed to be the shopping Francis was most invested in, dutifully delivering packages, asking if there was anything in particular James would prefer-- colours or cuts he could write down and bring to Ann.

 

In fact, he seemed almost positive about the whole thing, James mused, despite being an in-between for Ann, whom he was growing increasingly sure was punishing him for faking his illness. 

 

Francis struggled with the ribbons holding this box together and spoke.

 

“Ann said she knows you already selected a vest for tonight, but she really thinks this one will go better with the shoes she bought you yesterday.” Francis turned to face James, said vest hanging from his hand. James stared at it from where he was perched at his desk before meeting Francis’ eyes, and giving him a look.

 

“Something…. something about the undertones in the browns clashing offensively with the bronze buttons?” Francis waved a dismissive hand in the air, looking a little like he was swatting at flies. “I won't lie to you James, I started fading about halfway through her speech about it.”

 

“I’m surprised you made it that far,” James said, lowly, affectionately. The week had been fleeting and he had spent most of the fast hours side by side with Francis, reading and writing letters and working very hard to just enjoy his company and not fall into any other arguments about the future.

 

Francis shrugged his wide shoulders and muttered something to the side of the room, eyes sliding from where they had fixed with James’.

 

“Pardon?” He couldn’t help the teasing tone; it was so rare for Francis to be in any way bashful. James couldn’t help himself.

 

“I just said--” Francis took a breath, steadying himself before meeting James again from across the room, “I just said I know this is important to you. So.”

 

Breath stumbled in James’ throat, which he cleared promptly, glancing out the window with a flick of his eyes. Golden afternoon sun pooled over his desk past the green curtains and warmed his hands where they clutched at an unused pen. He fiddled with it a moment before placing it slowly down onto the desk, ensuring it wouldn't roll. “I see.”

 

Francis walked over and placed the carefully folded vest onto the desk beside James’ empty hands. The rich fabric brushed up against his last knuckle and James could feel it reverberate through his whole body.

 

“James I… I don’t pretend to understand why you’ve been faking ill these last few days--” His face pinched around the mouth, just enough to be noticed. “But I know your image is important to you. And will be important to you after you’ve… you’ve adjusted.”

 

“What if--” James broke off. Francis tilted his head, waiting for James to finish his thought. “What if I don’t adjust, Francis. What if I don’t come back to myself-- what if everything that mattered and that I worked for, bled for, starved for, almost died for...” He covered his mouth, breath shaking out against his palm, hot and wet.

 

Francis leaned against the desk, facing out toward the room. He laid his hand down casually, like it might have been an accident when it landed so perfectly across James’ fingers. Like the way his thumb rolled over the strong tendons and fine bones, there was a mistake anyone could make.

 

James had to close his eyes. 

 

Francis said, low and easy, like it was the simplest thing in the world, “Then you’d still be James.”

 

The moment glimmered, caught the light, twisted and shined and polished. James was so caught up in the sentiment that he didn’t notice Francis fighting against more words until they came spilling out of him, tumbling and rushing, cool and clear.

 

“And I’d still be Francis, and we would still be ourselves, you understand--? We shift and change and want things-- new things, different things than what we wanted before. But that doesn’t mean we are different people, it just means our self has shifted-- our souls… our souls, James. They… They-- ‘stand erect and strong’ --” James knew he was quoting something here, something he knew, but he couldn't quite wrap his brain around everything that was happening all at once. Fast and brief but so, so full of meaning and intent and frustration. It was a flood, a giant wave crashing over his taffrails, the temperature taking his breath away; hot or cold, he could not tell. 

 

He must have let out some noise, because Francis’ words ceased. He didn't trickle out, his words didn't flow slower, the natural uprush and backflow of waves breaking. He just stopped.

 

Slowly, in the quicksnap of silence that echoed in James’ chest, Francis pulled his hand back to himself, and looked to the wall.

 

James waited for words to come to him, and they did not. His fingers were cold, but he didn't draw them back from where they lay on the desk. He found himself still hoping.

 

Too much hoping.

 

“Thank you, Francis.” His voice rasped over his tongue. “Thank you.”

 

Francis nodded, his shoulders easing, “I’ll leave you to get dressed for tonight.”

 

His voice had become soft again, and James longed for his passion.

 

Francis left and James discovered the waistcoat matched his cufflinks perfectly.

Chapter Text

James was dressed. His clothes were fine; smooth and rich fabrics his fingers were slowly starting to recognize again. His hands still had their calluses from the bright winterweight that hung at his back even still. 

He stood in his room, still but for those calloused fingers, distracted from their shaking by exploring the fabrics, again and again. They would be leaving in an hour. The clock on his bedside ticked down, impassive to how James wished linear time would flow.

The waistcoat was deep brown. Flowers were carefully embroidered in a honey coloured thread on the front panels. The thread was raised just enough to feel the difference with his fingertips, but only if he closed his eyes and thought of nothing else. Just the sensation rolling slowly over his thin skin. His breath in and out like slowly swelling waves or the fastest of tides.

His brow furrowed and he looked down. His left pocket had something in it, folded up and sticking out, just enough for his fingers to have bumped it.

To James was scrawled on the front, in Francis’ less professional handwriting. It was more stunted, stiff quick downstrokes, shaky on the upswing. 

Only after he opened it did he remember the letter Francis had been writing him the morning he came into his room a week ago.

James folded it up again and put it on his pillow.

It sat there, innocent on the white pillow case, the subtle contrast between the yellowed paper and the fabric, much brighter on the black ink of his own name in Francis’ hand.

He smoothed down his waistcoat once more and his fingers tripped over the brass buttons. He hadn’t noticed before, but they were embossed. He worried them slightly in his fingers, seeing the messy way they were attached, and he frowned, looking more closely. Pressed onto them was the well-remembered shape of a compass rose. A warm brown thread, just off colour enough to notice, held them in place, wound round and round the fastenings, loose threads sticking out here and there. 

Clearly the buttons had been sewn by an amateur’s hand. A baby robin chirped outside his window, hungry for its next meal. James’ eyes flitted to the letter once more, and he sat down to read it.

James, 

I remember those arctic nights and the size of you fits in my palm and is so warm

I miss

Somehow, you feel gone from me

I have decided I am finished with crossing out. You may read this, you may not; but I am presenting my uncensored self. Take it all as you wish. If you decide you want nothing more to do with what is written here, simply do not mention these words to me. I will, as always, trust your lead, James.

You have been reading a book since the day after we first arrived. Something in it called to you. I confess, I read some trying to understand you. What was happening inside that you didn’t know how to share. Perhaps didn’t want to.

Is that invasive? Trying to understand what is so intimate and sheltered in you? I am unsure. I know I feel closer to you on the sea. I know something has wedged itself between us since England caught and held us these last few weeks. Its weight feels insurmountable now, interrupting us while we pick out cravats and cufflinks. 

Against all odds I long for the cold nothing. I knew you there. You told me who you were there. I miss you. I miss not needing to read your books to know what is painted across your archboard. Why is it easier to die at your side then to live by it in England?

 

Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear

Too calm and sad a face in front of thine;

For we two look two ways, and cannot shine

With the same sunlight on our brow and hair.

On me thou lookest with no doubting care,

As on a bee shut in a crystalline;

Since sorrow hath shut me safe in love’s divine,

And to spread wing and fly in the outer air

Were most impossible failure, if I strove

To fail so.  But I look on thee—on thee—

Beholding, besides love, the end of love,

Hearing oblivion beyond memory;

As one who sits and gazes from above,

Over the rivers to the bitter sea.

 

When I read this, I wonder how you exist within it. I wonder where the words strike you, if they ring in the same places with the same tone-- if our bells would harmonize if we were to read together.

I wonder what to tell you about your almost final night. Your fading moments on the precipice and how you tottered there for far too long after the traders took us in. Swept us up in their furs and carried us home. Home? The road back to where we began. It was the longest of nights, James.

Absolutely the longest.

If you ask I will tell you. If you asked I’d tell you everything.

Yours,

Francis

 

How could one sheet of paper bear so much weight? So many words that edge along an almost, confess everything and nothing all at once. James tottered once more: rip the letter to pieces or tuck it as close to his heart as he can without blood and skin and muscle and bone parting way.

He laid it softly on his pillow and a knock at his door echoed, Ann’s voice telling him the carriage had been readied.

He stood to go, arrived at the door, turned back at the last second and snatched the letter back up, folding it tighter and tighter, smaller and smaller, in and in and in on itself until it was half the size of his thumb. He slid it under his collar. Could feel it press to his jugular, where his lifeblood beat, hale but unsteady.

It will stay with him, he thought, as the sun set at his window. Settled down into the earth at the same time it had been settling for days now, so routine you could set your watch to it. The walls were bathed in oranges and pinks and the romance of the light sunk in through his skin and settled its weight around his hollow bones.

He took flight.

 

Chapter Text

The air was hot and heavy, trying to force itself down into James’ lungs in the guise of breath.

He wanted to run, so he did. He turned on his heel in unison with the dancers and swept his way out onto a balcony. (There was always a balcony at a party like this.)

He stood under the stars and gulped. The air was still warm, but fresher; the spring had sunk into it out here. James could taste it in the back of his throat. The wet earth, the tender leaves. No salt on the air, but he ached for it. He burned for cold air that would get stuck in your lungs, eat at you inside out, rip your air from you quick and biting. He gulped again.

This world is too hot.

His fingers scrambled out, caught at the stone railing, and clung. He focused on the slight damp chill of the stone, welcomed it, threw open his doors and pulled the cool in deep. He flung his eyes to the stars and landed on Polaris. Spotted Mirfak after that, and Aldebaran was quick to follow. Procyon and Sirius. The pairs and the followers, linked and swirling, caught in their dance, pinned to the glass orb above James.

He still ached, but the feeling had shifted. He closed his eyes and blotted out the stars. The star snipped forever is quiet. If he kept his eyes closed the dancing had stopped.

He pushed his forehead to the balustrade and breathed only from his mouth.

When he stood back up, he found Alphard and breathed. He didn’t look, but Francis was there beside him. James wondered if he was looking at the same star, or one of the pairs.

The damp lingered on the skin of his fingers, just enough for the temperature difference to register. 

“Sort of feels like we just… went in a big circle.”

James glanced at him, flicked his eyes over Francis in twilight. “Not really.” 

Words so quiet they hardly shifted the air around them. Francis paused, leaned on the railing and looked out over the gardens, a sea of dark greens and topiaries cresting, catching moonlight in their thick leaves.

“Alright, not really.”

James leaned beside him, cast his eyes out over the flowerbeds. In the light they all looked purple. James wondered how they would look in the sun. A cacophony of clashing colours, all reaching for the same sunlight, greedily drinking down water and shooting their roots deep into shared earth, jostling and jockeying for position. James could almost hear it. The flowers surviving against each other, drinking and sinking and spreading.

“Sometimes I almost miss it.” James didn’t know he was going to say it before he did, but. There it was.

“Is that why you want to go back?”

“I told you why I want to go back, Francis.” A pause, a soft breeze. Too soft, like chiffon blowing across his skin. He longed for the bite of arctic air and hated himself for it. “Sometimes I can’t stand it here. It’s just so…”

“Crowded.” Francis finished for him. There was no judgement in his tone. James leaned into him, drawing a warm line between the two of them, from wrist to elbow to shoulder. He thrummed.

“Yes,” James breathed. “Crowded.”

“And loud. And warm. And full of expectation.” Francis let out a low breath, saying soft as anything, “There’s a simplicity to old snow that I didn’t appreciate before.”

“There’s so much to everything here Francis… The people, the power… the weight. I can’t-- I can’t stay . It doesn’t make sense anymore. “

“I can’t either.”

“What-- make sense of it, Francis?” Something swept up in James, helping him to tease, “Darling, you never could .”

Francis grinned at him, rueful and bright and honest. Conversation was so easy when one was saying what they meant.

“While that is true ; I did mean stay.” The night stopped mid-sway.

“You… Are you going to come with --?”

“No, James. Not that.” He shuddered. “Never that.”

He turned from where he had been facing out. He now was looking in, at James and the heart he had left wide open between them.

“Ah. Yes, I see.”

One of the pitfalls to saying what you meant, it seemed. It echoed in him. ‘Never that’ .

The heart between them stuttered, and Francis must have seen it.

“Not… Not because of you James. Because…” He took a moment to gather up his pieces, affix them into phrase, into words. “Because no matter how that place may feel looking back on it… It wasn’t calmer. It was simple because we had one goal: to survive. And that’s--” Francis looked up at the sky, and James tried to track where he went. There were too many to tell. 

Francis’ gaze fell back to earth. This time it was easy to tell where he was fixed. James couldn’t look away.

“I want more than that now.” It was honest. The whole honest conversation was knocking the breath out of James again and again. Like playing sports when he was a kid, over and over it had tackled from him. Over and over he wrestled it back, only to lose it again.

“Oh.” 

“And I... I want you there, too. You know that-- don’t you, James?”

“Sometimes I think I was meant to die there.”

“What about where you are meant to live?

The answer to that was becoming glaringly, achingly obvious. By Francis’ side. With him. In this ‘more’ he so badly wanted and deserved. Deserving it right beside him.

James still couldn’t say it. Couldn’t let the words come out.

“Where?” He said, hoping the world’s axis wouldn’t tilt if his answer went unsaid, if his meaning had backdoors built into it, secret passageways laced through it.

“The country.” It was light, meaning just as little and just as much as James’ question.

“Will…” Now this. This question could be a nail in James’ coffin. But if he didn’t ask, what was the point of any of this? What was the point of just surviving? “Will Miss Craycroft be amenable to such a move?”

Francis broke into an aching smile. Understanding washed up against their banks, flooded them over.

“I don’t think Miss Craycroft has any say in the matter of where we live.” 

James couldn’t help but smile back, lopsided and real. He felt a little like his compass was no longer whirling. In some capacity, Francis wanted him. It was something to be placed on the scales, and it held rather a lot of weight.

“You still know me here, Francis.” James said, reaching to touch the paper under his clothes, drew it out, held it reverently. Francis glanced at the page, just long enough to assure himself he knew what it was. “You still know more of me than any other. No matter where we are.”

“And you me, James. Really and truly.”

Above them, the stars followed their course, drawn along by the pull of the universe, swelling and rolling across the cosmos in predictable patterns. Observed and known enough to navigate sure and true around the overwhelming speck they both called home. 

Neither looked up.

***

Inside the ballroom Ann surreptitiously drew the curtains leading to the balcony. She was glad James and Francis had finally sorted themselves out, but thought some privacy was in order. The lovesick expressions on their faces were charming, yes, but would give them away to anyone who glanced over for longer than a second.

Anne swanned over to her husband, pale mint dress sweeping over the floor, and drew him away from the boring clutches of some of the members of the admiralty with a coy smile.

James swept her up in his arms with a smile so wide his eyes shut. Ann huffed a laugh, rubbing a thumb over his pink cheek. 

“Darling I was wondering..”

James tilted his head as he twirled her to the violins, arms secure around her waist. “Yes?"

“It’s just… our summer house. Do you really think we need that much space? The London house is plenty big for us, you know… I was wondering how you would feel about selling?” 

“The one in Norfolk? Darling, your garden --” 

Ann patted his shoulder comfortingly, “I know, dear. But I have some buyers in mind that would enjoy it rather more…” Her she grinned, hopeful and joyful at her husband. “I do think they’d let us visit.”