The lamp flickered, its flame shuddered back and forth as James’ breath fell from his lips in a deep sigh. Cold air bit at his fingers, his nose, the tips of his ears… there seemed to be no relief from it. He dipped the pen in the inkwell and tried to straighten his thoughts into some semblance of order.
There had been an incident that evening. James had been shaken by the appearance of the beast the night before. Tensions had risen after Mr Blanky had been brought in and cared for but there had to be some semblance of normality. So they had dined. And James had once again provoked their esteemed Second, sending the man into a small but terrible rage. It hadn’t been over anything in particular, something so slight and ridiculous that James couldn’t even remember what it might have been. Perhaps the man’s drinking habits or his failed efforts at wooing. He had been taken aback when Crozier had all but lunged across the table at him, breath awash with whisky and wine, his eyes afire-
James put his pen back in its holder and rubbed a cold, shaking hand down his face. The rasp of stubble against his fingers made him wince. It seemed so loud in the stark silence of his small cabin. In his mind, he saw Francis, alone and bitter as he nursed his bruised ego. It would have been polite of James, decent of him, to go and apologise for his rude behaviour; if the lie of gentility was to be performed, he needed to act as a gentleman would, and that included apologising for his own mistakes.
With sleep so far away James decided to go to the other man while there was still some courage in his blood. He donned his coat, pressed his hat close to his head (ignoring the slight sting at his scalp) and began the short but lonely journey to the Terror .
Thoughts of his own words began to haunt him. Had he truly said that Francis had lost all joy? It seemed abominable to James that he would have spoken such to a man he had only known for little more than the voyage they were currently undertaking. Francis had shown himself to be a decent and fair captain. He showed favour to his crew, knew his ship like the back of his hand and there was not one man in the service that could say he was a coward.
Francis Crozier was, in a sense, the best of them. And some days it made James feel like more of a fraud than he already was.
The ice crunched under his feet. Lanterns rocked in the wind above him, bright against the cloudy night's sky. James buried his hands deeper into his coat and walked faster, eager to reach warmth and to mend what he had no doubt damaged with his rash and unthinking derision. And, as the Terror loomed above him, James found himself considering what he would do if Francis were to be lost.
He did not know.
The officers on watch welcomed him eagerly, ushering him into the warm with gloved hands. Neptune barked at him, wagged his tail happily as James ran fingers through his thick fur. The dog followed him as he wandered through the ship. James fought the rise of anxiety in his throat and knocked firmly on the door to the great cabin.
As the door opened James was struck with the notion that his apology would be a public one. Sir John, Mr Jopson, Dr McDonald and Lieutenant Little all stood about the table with varied faces of alarm and concern. If he had not been in the infirmary, battling for his life minus one limb, James was certain that Mr Blanky would have been there as well. The only seated man was Francis himself. There was an empty bottle on the table next to one that was full. James suddenly remembered what had truly angered Crozier that evening. It had been the drink . He had somehow implied that had Francis been sober, they might not have seen Mr Blanky injured so badly.
“Ah! James. I think it might be best if we step-” Sir John began, relaxing into decorum with an ease James had never seen in himself.
Francis lifted a hand and sucked in a shaky breath. “No, no it- it is good that you’ve come, James.” Francis looked up at him with watery eyes, red-rimmed and bloodshot. It made something twist in James’ stomach, not quite as unpleasant as being shot but close enough.
“If this is about what I said earlier then please, let me apologise,” he said in a rush.
Francis smiled at him weakly, a glimpse of the tenderness he must have shows Miss Craycroft hidden in the depths of that smile. “It is James, but not in the way you might suspect. You are right . You have been right for some time, only I’ve been too blind to see it. Too dependant on this- this crutch to do my duties to the full.” He looked at the men around the table in turn and the levity of the situation fell on them like lead. “But I must depend on you all a little longer. I am going to be unwell. I don’t know for how long, a week… maybe more. Sir John will no doubt keep calm and order, but I will- I will need you all to care for me. As I won’t be able to care for myself.”
A sweat had broken out on his brow. James felt his own palms become sweaty and fought the urge to rub them on his coat.
“You needn’t worry for a thing,” Jopson uttered, his tone kind and gentle, “Sir.”
Francis smiled at him, a bitterness to it that twisted in James’ gut. “With your permission, Sir John, I would recommend that Fitzjames take over command of the Terror .”
“There will be time for formalities in the morning, Francis. You need rest. Mr Jopson, see that Commander Fitzjames is adequately provisioned as he will be remaining aboard tonight. We will reconvene at eight o’clock to finalise the chain of command;” Sir John placed a well-meaning hand on Francis’ shoulder. “Rest easy, Francis. All will be well.”
The following two weeks was perhaps one of the worst experiences of James’ life. He witnessed Francis’ withdrawal up close. When Jopson, the poor lad, was exhausted or otherwise engaged, James helped Francis with everything he might need - eating, drinking, relieving himself… He held Francis’ hair back as he vomited and stroked a hand up and down his back. To see him in such a state was harrowing. Though they had never truly seen eye to eye, James still considered him one of the greatest men he had ever known. Francis had been proud in a way Sir John was not - he had earned his pride, had fought for it tooth and nail, and defended it fiercely. It was admirable as much as it was infuriating.
One evening, as Jopson lay resting mere rooms away, Francis woke from a fevered dream. He gripped James’ hand and pressed it to his cheek. “James,” he whispered, voice hoarse and dry to the point of breaking, “James... “
“I’m here, Francis, I’m here.”
Francis smiled weakly and rubbed his bristly cheek against the palm of James’ hand. “No; surely an angel sent to watch over me,” he said through chapped lips. “Don’t wing me to my rest just yet, angel, I have men to look after.”
James fought back a gasp. He thought of Sir John, how he had once said their leader loved them more than God did. He had forgotten that Francis, too, had such a capacity for love that it outshone them all.
He cupped Francis’ cheek and gazed at him in awe. A feeling, something new and uncertain, tugged at his gut. Bright eyes looked up at him and James couldn’t stop himself from brushing a thumb over the cut of one cheekbone. The sound of the ice shifting below, men moving about on deck, the muffled conversations that went on outside the captain’s berth all seemed so distant as Francis looked up at him. Long minutes passed and James began to brush the damp hair from Francis’ forehead. He hummed under his breath, some old song his nursemaid had sung. Portuguese, no doubt, considering his dubious background. Francis closed his eyes. He fell asleep, James’ fingers in his hair.
--- --- ---
When Francis was well enough, he asked James about walking out, about rescue from the frozen tundra they were trapped in.
“Do you think it would work?” James asked quietly. “Surely the dangers vastly outweigh the likelihood of rescue-”
“It is our only chance. I promise that, James.” Francis spoke surely, the illness that had consumed him almost a memory. There was colour in his cheeks again and he ate full meals, though he still shook if stood for too long. Each day his strength returned a little more, and each day he needed James less and less. “If we send out a party now, all of nine or ten men, our chances of survival are far better than if we wait for some unforeseeable thaw.”
James bit at a patch of dry skin on his thumb. It stung, the reality of his own situation becoming clearer with each new pain and discomfort. There was a poison in their food it seemed, or at least that was what Goodsir had confided in him. But there was also the dwindling supply of lemon in their reserves to be considered. “How long before we would need to walk out to meet them?”
Francis shrugged, his open shirt collar falling aside and revealing pale skin. It glinted in the lamplight and that strange feeling began to tug at James’ chest, urged his fingers to reach out and touch. Just to see, his mind murmured softly, just to see if he is warm. In his mind, he felt that warmth. It would tingle, he thought. Francis would blush, his body still, as James’ hand pressed to his chest. Would Francis pull back if he sought more contact? Of course he would. You ’ re no Sophia Craycroft.
“We would have a month at best. If we leave enough behind, take only essentials and keep the men’s morale up, it is feasible we could make it to Fort Resolution in good time. All this, of course, if Sir John will allow it;” Francis’ words broke his concentration, a cheeky smirk causing heat to rise on James’ cheeks.
“Of course. I suppose we will have to convince him then.”
Francis frowned at him. “We?”
“Well,” James started, glancing away to keep his mind clear. He would need it for the coming conversation. “I can’t exactly let you try to convince him on your own, can I? Two voices, unified in agreement and sound in their trust of one another is worth far more than one, don’t you agree?”
Light filled Francis’ expression. He began to grin, a laugh bursting from his lips and James was helpless to fight the grin on his own mouth. “James Fitzjames, I declare you are a wonder of a man. If I haven’t done so before, I take back any cruel word I may have said about you.”
James’ smile dropped, a stone forming in his heart. He let the silence linger for a moment before plucking up the courage to speak. “Francis, there’s something I need you to know.”
“What is it?” The man asked him, concern so clear in his voice it was almost painful. “Are you well?”
“It’s not that,” he replied softly. The weight of his past, his origin , began to stifle him. Anxiety became bile in his throat and threatened to suffocate him. He fought with the words that stuck to his windpipe and couldn’t help but feel relieved when a knock sounded at the door.
Edward Little entered a moment later. “Captain, Erebus is signalling. They ask if Commander Fitzjames can be spared.”
Francis looked up at the man with a blank expression. “He cannot be spared, but if he must return to Erebus for any reason, I believe I am well enough to accompany him. Fetch Jopson for me, will you?”
Edward nodded once, seemingly happy that his superior was feeling well again, and left.
Francis turned to him immediately, the concern back on his features. “You were saying?”
James shook his head. “It can wait. Perhaps we might walk back together? I’d much prefer to return to Terror once our business is concluded if Sir John permits it.”
“Of course James,” Francis said with a smile and a hand (a warm hand, strong and large and so warm ) on James’ shoulder. “You’ll always be welcome here.”
The walk to the Erebus was quiet. Two marines escorted them, watching for any signs of the creature Lady Silence seemed to have control of. After the incident that claimed Blanky’s leg it had all but disappeared and for that, they were all grateful. James thought on the confession he had almost made. If he knew Francis at all, and he thought he did, it would be no issue. Francis was no son of the gentry himself, so the unknown origin of James’ own parentage would be no barrier to their friendship, as young as it was. He only hoped the Irishman wouldn’t take offence to his need for secrecy.
Francis glanced at him in the gloom, light playing across the contours of his face, and James’ heart pounded in his chest.
Lord, I hope he is kind.
Sir John welcomed James into the great cabin with a bright and honest smile. “Our prodigal son returns!” He cried, hands clasping at James’ shoulders. “And I see you have brought Francis with you; are you well, Captain?”
At his side, Francis bowed his head respectfully and stepped further into the room. “I am, thank you. I feel more myself again.”
Sir John nodded and smiled, though it seemed strained to James’ eyes. “Well. As we are all together again I suppose it is a good time to discuss our current situation. Mr Bridgens will be in with tea shortly.”
“Captain Crozier and I have come to a similar understanding of things,” James began. He kept his voice firm, level, helped by the warm presence of Francis by his side, and drove forward. “There is little chance, if any, that there will be thaw enough for us to sail out anytime soon. Our best chance of survival would be to send a small group of men around King William Island and towards Fort Resolution - a long journey, but one they could do if given enough provisions.”
“There is a river, Thlewechodyeth , that native people use for fishing. We could follow that inland if necessary,” Francis added. His lips curved about the name with ease, an ease James thought he would never equal. “And, if we follow not too long after, we can meet any possible rescue parties halfway. With adequate provisions and careful sharing of weight, it is our best, if only chance at survival.”
Sir John didn’t speak. He sat, lips pursed, and seemed to consider the words. James reached out under the table and put a hand on Francis’ arm, the need to seek solace in his presence suddenly overwhelming. If they were right, if Francis was right, then Sir John’s refusal might mean death for them all. Wintering where they were just off the coast of King William Island for another year was impractical at best and a death sentence at worst.
He felt Francis reach back, a warm and calloused hand gripped his wrist in a comforting hold.
After what felt like an eternity, Sir John looked up at them both. “I see there is little room for disagreement. May I at least have the rest of the evening to consider?”
Beside him, Francis sagged in relief. The conversation had not truly finished and nothing had been decided, but the lack of refusal was more than they had hoped for.
Bridgens brought in a pot of hot water and a small plate of rations. They ate in near-silence, only interrupted by a brief discussion about the morale of the crew and Francis’ health. James felt the press of Francis’ knee against his own and pressed back.
Whatever had been broken and sore between them had been mended. A new camaraderie had blossomed and it made the dark Arctic nights seem somehow bright. James kept the smile from his lips for the entirety of dinner through some herculean effort. But that just made the warmth in his chest increase minute by minute until he felt as though there was a furnace burning in his lungs - heat suffused into his cheeks, his fingers, even into his nearly perpetually cold toes.
Sir John put his cup down with a slow and deliberate movement. It clinked against the saucer.
“It was a mistake to wait so long, wasn’t it Francis?” He said softly. Francis said nothing. To acknowledge the vulnerability would be fatal. “But if what you suggest is possible, and I believe it is, then it would be much more of a mistake to ignore the advice. We will begin preparations tomorrow - James, if you would be so kind as to stay aboard Terror this evening we can reconvene there tomorrow morning.”
“Thank you, Sir,” he replied, glad he would not need to ask for permission.
“It will take time to organise such a task, but I have an idea for how to stoke morale in the meantime.” Sir John smiled, the self-assured expression relaxing back onto his features. “But please excuse me, gentlemen, it is late and I wish to rest.”
“Of course, Sir,” Francis bowed his head and rose from his seat. James joined him, the two of them leaving the room with brighter spirits than they had entered it.
--- --- ---
The idea, as it turned out, was a Carnivale. Costumes, lights, and as much of the food and drink they could spare that would be dead-weight on their long walk. Sir John left a chest in the Terror ’s cabin and left the details to James. “You have a particular affinity for theatrics, dear boy; it’s about time I let you use those talents.”
His eyes caught the glint of light on satin almost immediately. With a drink in one hand and the skirts of the dress in the other, he admired the way it clung to him and accentuated the curves of his hips and thighs. It was a rather low cut for a dress tailored to a man’s shape, but that didn’t take away from the image. A little ink smudged artfully in the middle and he would have a passable cleavage.
Francis wandered in with a glass of what smelled like a tonic from Bridgen’s own collection. He stopped short when he saw what James was wearing, a bright flush formed on his cheeks and his mouth dropped open.
“For Carnivale, yes,” James interjected quickly, dropping the skirts and rushing to seem at least a little disinterested in the garment. “It was this or Britannia.”
Francis’ gaze travelled over the length of him. “I’m sure either would be stunning on you, James. You have the legs for it.”
The comment, the compliment , caught him off guard. James flushed and tried to make light of it. “I rather think the colour is off… Does nothing for my complexion!”
A snort of laughter and the sound of feet on the floorboards. “Of course. Perhaps you should suggest peach to your tailor when we are next in London.”
They lapsed into laughter, loud and without shame until they each fell into a chair to recover. James felt giggles become trapped in his throat as Francis reached out and patted his hand affectionately. The contact lingered, formed an anchor that brought James to his senses through the haze of the evening.
“Make it a night to remember, James,” Francis said softly, taking his hand and cradling it in his own. “We all need it, I think.”
Silence filled the room. It settled over them like snow, delicate and apt to be disturbed by any careless motion. And yet Francis did move; he laced his fingers through James’ slowly, each digit moving with precision as they filled the gaps left by James’ own. James’ heart beat fast in his chest. He felt it pound, steady and quick, as it pumped his lifeblood towards where Francis’ skin met his.
Words sat on his tongue like stones, his throat felt full with the weight of them and he almost cried out-
“I suppose I’ll see whether you choose Britannia or this dress at the event.”
Francis stood, taking his hand with him. He bid James goodnight and disappeared into the captain’s berth without another word.
James sat in the cabin and stared at the space his friend had been just moments before. Perhaps, he thought, it would be safer to don armour for their next meeting. Or maybe just a pair of gloves.
--- --- ---
The Carnivale was far tamer than James had expected it to be, no doubt due to Sir John’s calming (and sober) presence. The officers talked amiably about the journey ahead, wondering how those who had been sent out first were faring. James wondered about his friend Henry and was impatient to hear what tales he would have when they met again. The men were happy, warm, taking comfort in the meagre but no less appreciated anonymity their costumes gave them.
James was, of course, Britannia. He held his shield between himself and the room as though it would protect him from some unseen assailant, and wondered if the rouge on his lips and cheeks was a touch too much. Sir John had simply laughed and clapped his shoulder - “That’s the spirit!” He had said jovially. James had blushed at the praise and drank a little too much wine in the first hour of the festivities.
The wine had since left him, only the slight haze of it remained as he watched the men calmly leave in small groups. They had taken the news of the long walk well enough. There were concerns, of course, and James would listen to each and every one of them. He knew Francis would to. Concerns about the state of their food stores, what they would do about sleep and guarding one another, how would they transport the water? Would they have enough tents? Would the officers be sharing the load as much as any other sailor? The questions would no doubt be many and would most likely increase as the time to leave drew nearer.
James looked about, searching for Francis among the masked and make-up laden faces. He couldn’t see him and his heart sank. As he left the tent, the almost forgotten sensation of sweat on his skin a pleasant distraction, he saw a lantern approaching.
“I see you chose Britannia?” A voice called, bright and pleased in the dark.
James grinned despite himself. “I did. A little more palatable I thought. Though I’m sorry to deprive you of my suitable legs.”
The comment was followed by a brittle laugh, deep and full of mirth. Francis came into better view with a smile still on his lips. “I’ll be sure to leave that out of my memoirs.”
“I certainly won’t,” James quipped back, taking Francis outstretched hand. Stood beside the captain, Jopson watched the exchange with a small smile of his own. “I trust you are well, Mr Jopson?”
The boy smiled and bowed his head. “I am, sir. Captain Crozier wanted to come sooner but we were delayed.”
“No matter, everyone seemed to have a good time of it. There’ll be more parties when we find our way back home though, I assure you.”
Jopson’s smile faltered and Francis put a fatherly hand on his arm. “Trust us; it’ll all work out fine.”
The three of them walked back to the Terror quietly, James telling his two companions of how Irving had gotten a little too drunk and began to sing some awful hymn with as much tune as a broken harpsichord. When Francis grew weak, James held him up with an arm around his waist. He felt a sense of duty, of pride, being able to support Francis like that. He wondered for a moment what that might mean.
--- --- ---
In the days that followed he hardly had a chance to pause for breath. Stores were counted and counted again. Sailors were put to work packing, storing what was to be left, preparing their bodies and minds for the walk to come.
Sir John spoke to him on several occasions about how the officers were to conduct themselves; they were to be steadfast, prime examples of how well educated and experienced men were to behave. James privately thought any genteel behaviour would go out of the window when any true disaster struck, but it wouldn’t do to start back-chatting now.
Instead, he threw himself wholly into the task - he made sure that he was always seen in a good mood, well groomed, unshaken by the terror of the situation they had found themselves in. He thought of Francis and wondered if he would be able to. Francis was not a man to hide his feelings. He was happy to give his true thoughts on anything; James envied him. To be able to speak plainly, without fear of what reprisal may come, knowing that the men around you couldn’t ruin you or expose some secret a whole family had managed to hide-
But such thoughts were useless. James simply continued his duties with more enthusiasm than he felt. He became what Sir John wanted - an example.
And, soon enough, they were ready.
James felt a pang of hurt lance through his chest as they departed the ships. He caught many of the men glancing back, all of them afraid to leave the shelter they had called home for the past few years.
At the front of their parade, he and Francis were two of the men with ropes about their bodies and dragging the provisions and tents. After the first half an hour they had little breath for conversation but James could scarcely not talk.
“It must have been hard,” he said through gritted teeth, “leaving Terror behind after all this time. You’ve known her longer than any of us.”
Francis huffed, his breath a cloud of vapour that dissipated as quickly as it formed. “That may be the first understatement I’ve heard from you, James. But yes. It was heartbreaking. I’m as much a part of her as she is a part of me at this point.”
The longing in his voice was palpable. James yearned to reach out, to cross the space between them and offer comfort.
“Do you think anyone will find them?”
“Perhaps. When the ice thaws and more ships can get through. Though I doubt that will be high on the Admiralty's priorities,” Francis laughed bitterly and adjusted his yoke. “Can’t say it’s particularly high on mine at the moment though. I’ll just be grateful if we survive.”
They stopped and changed pullers after a good stretch. James felt a renewed sympathy for work animals and silently vowed never to use a carriage if he could help it when they ( if they) returned home.
After two more changes, the company of men stopped to make camp. Three men were put under Doctor McDonald’s care, two under Doctor Stanley’s. They were exhausted and showed signs of scurvy. One showed signs of something more frightening, and Goodsir had been tasked with caring for him.
To save on weight, and to provide more warmth for them all, Francis had suggested sleeping in groups. Officers had to share with fewer men of course, with Sir John sleeping alone but close to the others. James and Francis slept side by side. For the first night, James’ mind was frantic with thought - he kept having to keep himself from reaching out for his own comfort, had to tell himself that of course he was shaking and that it was due to the cold. The blood on his scalp, the brittle and painful feeling that lingered at his nail beds and somewhere in his gums suggested otherwise but-
Sir John’s order came back to him. He had to be an example.
“James,” a tired voice said from beside him, “you’re thinking too loud.”
He jolted, pain throbbing in his side where the old gunshot wound had started to chafe and itch. “Sorry, I’m sorry-”
“Talk to me. What’s keeping you awake?” James faltered. Francis seemed to sense his hesitance. He watched as the man shifted, turned on his side and faced James in the gloom. “Is it about that thing you conveniently forgot to bring up again?”
It wasn’t, but even that topic was safer than the growing and bursting affection in his stomach. So, to avoid confronting what was truly haunting him, James began to talk about himself.
He told Francis about his name, the sheer joke his birth and baptism had been. He told Francis about growing up with William and the Connignhams, how they cared for him and encouraged him, how he had loved them like a true family. He told Francis about his escape into the Navy, his attempt to become someone of worth who would be seen by all and loved for it.
“I’m a fake , Francis. I was born out of an affair, I’m not even fully English! And so all those stories you would have my biographer tally as courage - it’s all vanity. And here we are… at the end of vanity.”
In the dark, he saw Francis reach out. A hand, warm from body heat and wrapped in coarse fingerless gloves, caressed his cheek. “Then you are free ,” Francis uttered. His thumb brushed a tear from James’ cheek. He hadn’t even realised he was crying. “Mine your courage from a different load now. Friendship. Brotherhood. Be who you are now and not who you think you should have been.”
“Are we brothers, Francis?” He asked breathlessly. James felt his throat become dry, felt it tighten around the words to the point of pain. “I would like that very much.”
It wasn’t necessarily true but it wasn’t false either. If it was the extent of their relationship it would have to suffice. Any semblance of connection to Francis would sustain him, he thought. He sucked in a shuddering breath, tasted the fresh cold of it on his tongue and pressed his cheek to Francis’ palm. He didn’t see the concern on Francis’ face as the man’s fingers carded through his hair and came away wet. The Irishman shuffled closer, the roll of his makeshift bed soon connected with James’ and their beds connected.
With a tenderness unrivalled by any on Earth, he pulled James to his chest and let him weep.
He fell asleep with Francis’ arms around him, warmth suffused into his skin through the simple contact. For once, he did not dream.
--- --- ---
James collapsed on the tenth day. Goodsir, his pulling partner, quickly called for a rest and sat James in a hastily erected tent.
“Is it what we feared?” James asked under his breath, or what little breath he had left.
Goodsir shook his head, his curly hair falling in his eyes. “No. It’s scurvy though, and I can’t alleviate the symptoms as much as I’d like. All I can do is keep you from pulling the boats and give you something to help you sleep. Thank you for trusting me with this, but I fear I cannot do more but tell you to rest.”
He smiled at his friend and held on to his hand. “Bless you, Harry. There’s no one I’d trust more.”
“I doubt that, but thank you.” Goodsir gave him a gentle smile and left him alone.
Francis hovered by his side that evening, checking that the blankets were thick enough and he had been properly cared for. James hushed him, took his hand and begged him to calm down. Francis squeezed his hand gently and sat at his side, worry forming deep lines on his forehead and beside his lips. “You should have said something, James,” he said.”If not to me then to someone .”
“There’s already so much on your shoulders. I had to spare you this.”
“Then promise me something,” Francis squeezed his hand again and leaned in close. James could feel the puff of warm air against his face as the man spoke. “If anything changes, if you feel worse or better; tell me .”
James nodded, transfixed by the sincere concern on Francis’ features. “I promise.”
There was a commotion from outside the tent. Graham Gore stuck his head in, a grin split across his lips and a flush high on his cheeks. “You better come quick, Sir. Lieutenant Irving is back - he’s with a Netsilik family.”
Francis leapt to his feet and rushed from the tent, leaving a spectre of warmth behind him.
--- --- ---
Rescue came swiftly on the heels of their meeting with the native people. They were treated to food, dried meat that was like heaven on the tongues of all the stranded men, and fresh water. Francis and Mr Blanky conversed in Inuktitut as best they could with the family, and from what James could gather there was only good news.
Francis was in high spirits, as were the other officers. Sir John held a special mass to commemorate their meeting with the Netsilik family - it was rather a cliche in James’ own opinion but he held his tongue, simply happy to know that all was not lost. The family themselves stayed apart, not being Christians or understanding English themselves. James watched from his place sat on one of the boats they had dragged for so many miles and watched as the officers stood silently in prayer or simply waited for the service to end.
Afterwards, a small party was taken out with one of the hunters. They returned later with fresh meat.
They journeyed on after two days and were at Fort Resolution within what seemed a most reasonable amount of time. The men were exhausted, but they were alive. The inhabitants of the fort welcomed them with cheers, bringing them in from the wilderness and tending to every need they could. Word was sent to the Admiralty in England of their survival and all that was left to do was wait for passage home.
James spent much of the time between arriving in Fort Resolution and leaving it asleep. Each day he was given fresh and preserved vegetables, and each day he ate a little more. The pain that had become simply a part of him began to retreat. His skin gained healthy colour, his gums stopped bleeding (though he had lost three teeth), his legs no longer ached and the wound in his side healed again. As time passed he felt more like himself.
Francis came to him often, sat with him and talked about what news there was from the people of the fort. He comforted James when he was in pain and reassured him when things seemed dim, as he had been doing for the past months.
During their long walk from the abandoned ships, Francis had been at his side almost every night. Each night he would lay down, dragging the bedrolls closer together and letting James cling to him for warmth and comfort. He sang softly under his breath, old songs and wordless tunes, the steadily growing beard on his chin scratching at James’ skin. It had stung but he would not have traded that sting for the world. To have Francis so close, to lay beside him in a world so dark and cold - it was a bliss he had never thought possible. Then, at Fort Resolution, Francis came one night in three. Tending to the men and communicating with locals became a large part of his life. James waited and regained his strength, eagerly listening to any tale that Francis would tell him during their nights together.
“I don’t know what I’ll do without you when we get back,” he said one evening at the fort, exhausted but bolstered by the full meal in his belly. “Having been so far removed from society and it’s traps… What is there for us in England?”
Francis paused and settled the blanket more firmly around James’ hips. “There is warmth, for one. Family, friends, the innumerable admirers you are bound to have-”
James cut him off with a groan. “I cannot express how much the idea of admirers terrifies me!” He said with a strained grin. “But don’t sell yourself short; perhaps your Sophia will answer your question more favourably now.”
Another pause, this time longer. Francis tugged at a frayed corner of the blanket with chipped nails, his expression pensive. “I won’t be renewing my sentiments.”
There was a strange discomfort on his face, as though he was holding something sharp inside him. James wanted to pry. He wanted to ask what it was that had changed Francis’ mind so decisively about the woman he had, seemingly until recently, wanted to marry. She had commanded his heart for years and he was ready to simply let that go? It was ridiculous, but it sparked something within James’ chest that refused to die down.
A thought, dangerous and intoxicating, filled his mind.
Is it because of me?
The beat of his heart became a roar in his ears. Heat built in his chest, a flood of warmth that made it almost impossible to concentrate on the world around him. That Francis might have harboured some sort of emotion for him, something beyond the brotherhood he had alluded to out on the ice was too much for James to bear.
He swallowed thickly and twisted his hands into the sheets, hidden below the blanket Francis had draped over him so carefully.
“Though I loved her, still do love her, I feel my heart has found a different course,” Francis continued. He glanced at James, his eyes flitted from James’ face to the place where his hands lay on the narrow cot. “I think I will be happy in life without her as a wife.”
“And you don’t long for companionship?” He asked under his breath. The air felt too warm in his lungs, too warm as Francis’ hand rested on the blanket mere inches from the curve of his hip. It felt as though he would burst into flames at the slightest touch.
“I long for-” Francis took in a deep and shuddering breath that rattled through the dimly lit room. “I don’t know what I long for, but it isn’t something Sophia can give me, nor any woman I may once have held a torch for. Perhaps our time here has changed me, or maybe it was simply within me all along, but- I am no longer inclined to take a wife.”
They sat in a long and deep silence. Outside the wind howled, fresh snow falling on the fort in heavy sheets. The night rolled on regardless of the turmoil, anxiety and hope and longing all warring within James’ chest as Francis’ words settled like the snow outside.
Eventually, Francis climbed into the spare cot he usually inhabited on those nights. It was less than a foot from James’ own, within touching distance, and James watched with quiet wonder as Francis turned to face him and simply looked at him.
“We are both changed, Francis,” he mumbled, “not entirely for the better but changed nonetheless. Perhaps we ought to chase what our hearts desire for as long as God has granted us time on this earth.”
He reached out and took Francis’ hand, marvelling at the difference in shape and size, at how they fit together with ease and familiarity.
Francis did not pull away.
--- --- ---
Two ships were commandeered to bring the expedition back to England. In the first, the sick and wounded were carried. James found himself in the company of men he had not had a chance to speak to personally before, as well as one Thomas Blanky. Mister Blanky took it upon himself to tell any and every embarrassing story about their mutual friend as he could. He kept James entertained on the long voyage and reminded him of all the things they had done right before the ice had trapped them. He even had a theory as to where the North Passage truly lay.
“Well,” James told him, “if you wish to lay claim to it I suggest you start campaigning as soon as we get back.”
Blanky had barked out harsh laughter and smacked him playfully on the shoulder. “My wife would kill me if I did that. But, give it a year or so and perhaps I shall.”
They arrived in England a full three weeks before the second ship carrying Sir John, Francis, and the healthier members of their crew were sighted off the coast.
They were welcomed home with crowds of families and admirers, the streets of Greenhithe teeming with shouts and thrown tokens of affection. The sailors were escorted to London and James found himself truly alone for the first time since they had set off on the expedition. It felt like a lifetime ago.
The rooms he had been gifted by the Admiralty were sparse but comfortable, and warm . He wandered about for the first few days wrapped in a blanket, sitting at the window to look out at the London skyline. Part of him was waiting, he thought, for some reminder of the time he had spent out in the wilderness. Part of him was waiting for familiarity. His mind began to drift during the day, his sleep plagued by nightmares of pain and darkness.
The day Francis knocked on his door, that waiting ended.
He tugged the man into a tight embrace, crushing their bodies together and burying his face in the crook of Francis’ neck. He inhaled deeply, took the scent of the man who had carried him for so long, who had redeemed him somehow and felt the melancholy lift from his shoulders. What surprised him most was the urgency with which Francis held him back. The man’s arms tightened around him and he felt the shudder of his breath. Fingers gripped at his nightshirt so tightly that they were visibly stiff when the embrace ended.
They parted reluctantly, and James watched as Francis massaged life back into his fingers. James welcomed the man into his new home, bade him sit down so they could talk . How long had it been since they had last talked?
“Too long,” Francis said in a low and tired voice. “Though I doubt I’ve been pleasant company these past few weeks. I’ve missed you, James, more than I thought I would.”
His heart pounded in his chest with joy at the words. “You’ll never need to miss me again if you do not wish to.”
An expression of wonder, of hope , came over Francis’ face. His jaw dropped slightly and his eyes widened.
James continued, lest he be revealed so soon. Hope was not strictly romantic in nature. “There is a second room here. The linen is clean, and no one would object-”
The expression on Francis’ face fell ever so slightly, but a smile graced his lips nonetheless. “Thank you, James,” he said, so softly it was almost inaudible, “I would like that. I would like that very much.”
Francis didn’t have much in terms of belongings , much as James didn’t after their time at sea and lost in the Arctic. But, over the course of two quiet weeks, they bought small trinkets from markets and second-hand storefronts. Francis urged James to walk with him in London, to keep his strength up and to at least be seen in society. In the evenings, James would read from the ridiculous books they bought just to hear Francis scoff and laugh. When night drew in and the world became dark they would retire to their separate beds, only for one to rise and join the other but an hour later.
Sleeping alone had become nigh intolerable.
However, there was an unexpected side effect. Being beside Francis again stirred a memory he had once thought a dream.
Back on the ice, not long after he had collapsed, he had found himself roused to hardness by another body so close after so long. He had tried to ignore it, tried to get back to sleep, trying to will it away with what little of his mind was present when an arm had draped over him and warm breath had whispered in his ear - “let me help, please.” Fingers, too dextrous to be asleep or dreaming, had unfastened his thick uniform and wrapped themselves around his cock.
His body had convulsed at the touch, a reedy sigh fell from his lips as Francis’ hand tugged at his prick. Lips had pressed to his ear and warm breath had cascaded down the sweat-damp skin of his throat. “That’s it. Let go, James, let me take care of you. There you go…”
He had finished quickly with a low and desperate moan. Francis had wiped the evidence away and fastened his breeches. Neither of them had made mention of the event again.
James had thought it a dream until he woke one night in their semi-shared bed to Francis’ quick breath beside him. He felt the bed shift, heard the rhythmic movement of a hand under the sheets, felt fingers graze through his hair. With his eyes kept firmly shut, James turned his head to face the sound. There was a sharp intake of breath as the sound of Francis’ hand paused, then a slow exhale as the hand began its motions again. James parted his lips, arched his body just so in Francis’ direction, and sighed. He felt the fingers in his hair graze against his cheek and licked his lips. Francis let out a sharp hiss of breath.
James used one hand, well out of sight, to pull the covers from his shoulders. He heard the sound of Francis’ hand get faster, heard his breath quicken as le petit mort drew closer. James wanted to open his eyes and feast on the sight it must have been- Francis with his skin pink and flushed, his hand wrapped about his own cock as he gazed down at James’ body, desire blazing in his eyes. He wanted to reach out and touch for himself. He wanted to touch, to taste , to make Francis say his name-
A groan, so soft that it might have been the wind. All sound ceased except the frantic beating of his own heart. The fingers in his hair retreated, but not before they brushed feather-light over the bow of his lips.
Then Francis had risen from the bed and did not return for an hour.
Again, neither of them spoke of what happened the next day. But at least James knew his memory had been just that; a memory and not a dream conjured by his sick mind. James' stomach twisted hotly whenever he remembered the actions his friend had taken beside him.
--- --- ---
They each received invitations to a celebratory ball a few days after that night. Francis had answered the knock at the door and taken the invitations from the steward, returning with a darkened expression.
“What is it?” James asked.
Francis sighed heavily and threw the invitations down on the table. “Invitations…” He said glumly. “To a ball . Sir John has been invited and has expressed his fondest wish that we are there as well.”
James felt anxiety prick at his skin and settle unhappily in his stomach. “I suppose we have to go, don't we?” He asked, rising from his seat with a well-hidden grimace. Across from him, Francis made an irritated sound and began to pace.
His footfalls were heavy, the set of his jaw like stone mountains.
“Francis,” James muttered, crossing the room to touch his friend's arm. “ Francis ,” he said more insistently, “it will be alright. We need only stay for an hour or so and then make our excuses.”
They looked at one another, eyes meeting across such a small distance that James' heart began to hammer in his chest. His hand tightened around the curve of Francis’ shoulder. Francis’ breath hitched, his lips parted and his expression softened even as James took a step closer.
He wanted to kiss Francis desperately at that moment; he wanted to cup the curve of his jaw and taste the sweetness of his lips, wanted to run his fingers through the man’s hair and feel the thrum of his heartbeat at his throat.
He wanted Francis, more than he may have wanted anyone before in his life.
But to say so would be too much. He didn't know if he was ready, not yet, not for the magnitude of the statement.
That night they went to bed as usual. And that evening it was James who rose in the early hours before dawn’s first light and slipped in beside Francis. He reached out across the tundra of stark-white sheets and took Francis’ hand, drew the man close, curled around him like some giant cat. He felt the warmth of Francis’ body against him and sighed. The heat of the man nearly drove him mad, but its comfort was too beautiful to resist. He grew hard but did not press against Francis’ backside to find relief. The need in his blood was a low simmer of desire and he knew he could resist that at least.
When he woke, James found himself hard once more. Out on the ice when he was ill, his prick scarcely worked at all - it seemed to be making up for lost time. If he turned his head he could smell Francis on the sheets. The man himself was somewhere outside the bed, though James couldn’t hear him. He rolled his hips, grinding down into the sheets just to feel the delicious friction between his thighs as he did. In his mind he saw Francis is he might have been that previous night; his skin flushed, hand wrapped around his cock as he brought himself off to the sight of James resting beside him. Perhaps his hair had been damp, curling at the tips? James imagined how he might have looked and forgot to swallow the moan that dripped from his lips and into the linen. He rolled his hips again, fingers curling into the quickly cooling space where Francis had been what must have been moments before. The name he had ached to say filled the space between his mouth and the pillow, the throbbing of desire in his blood rising to a near frenzy.
There was a quiet movement across the room. Just a shift of fabric, but enough to signify that he wasn’t alone.
James turned onto his back with a quiet whine and reached between his thighs with a greedy hand. He gripped his cock, stroking it slowly until his toes began to curl. The sheets shivered and moved with him as he moved his fist faster, faster, faster-
He heard the faintest intake of breath and came with a shudder, a gentle moan falling from his parted lips as he spilt into his breeches and over his fist.
When he dared to open his eyes, the room was empty. An almost deliberate cacophony of sound came from the living rooms and James wondered if he had pushed too far.
--- --- ---
They still had ceremonial uniforms - epaulettes and chains and hats and tails, boots shined enough to reflect delicate starlight as they stepped from the carriage into the street.
James felt himself stumble. He was caught by a strong hand at his back and threw Francis a thankful glance. The heat of it through his jacket was both comforting and exhilarating. Walking side by side, they entered the large and ornate banquet hall of some ridiculous estate outside of London. Sir James Ross greeted them warmly, dragging Francis into a crushing embrace and shaking James’ hand just a little too hard.
James ignored the tug of rising panic, swept it aside with some difficulty as they were paraded around the room and introduced to patrons of the Royal Society, nobles of dubious origin, and retired members of the Admiralty who had come out specifically for this occasion. Francis bristled at mentions of his heritage and became flustered at any genuine praise.
At some point during the evening, Francis was forced to engage in conversation with three young women who had been encouraged to single him out. James had carefully stamped out the jealousy that had threatened to rise in his throat. He wanted, for a moment, to tug Francis back to his side and lay claim to him with hissed words and feral glares.
As James sipped punch and Francis drank tea, they scarcely left one another’s side. The only time they were parted was when James left to get a little air. He drifted out onto a lavish veranda looking over the city, lace curtains separating him from the bustle of the party behind him. Cool air filled his lungs and settled the nerves in his stomach. It was a beautiful view, in spite of the fog and cloud-laden sky. James let the stillness of the world beyond take him away from his mind.
Behind him came laughter, the tittering of gossips at work. A woman gasped. “Surely you jest! Not that Gambier! The Admiralty wouldn’t have even let him be a lieutenant if that were the case, even with a Vice Admiral for a grandfather.”
James’ heart stopped. He gripped the railing with two shaking hands.
“I don’t jest, Marianne, you know that. Besides; I have it on good authority his parentage is muddy at best. Did you not think it odd how he has no family connections here in London? His father is a disgraced consul and he himself is an imposter.” A man whispered.
“But what about the Conninghams? If his mother was some Brazilian nobody- ”
“A cover, a family chosen to give him some semblance of breeding and education.”
The voices drifted away, leaving James to stand alone in the dark with fire prickling behind his eyes. He stands there for what feels like an hour, his mind racing as his past was dragged out for strangers to see. The only people who knew about his situation were those present at his baptism, himself, the Conningham’s and-
“James?” A voice called, low and filled with worry.
He watched as the man ducked through the curtains and sighed with relief at the sight of James.
“ James, there you are! I thought you’d left me to these jackals,” he said with amusement. His eyes searched James’ face and he began to frown. “What is it? You’re white as a sheet.”
He fought the overwhelming feeling of betrayal that threatened to consume him. It couldn't be Francis, could it? The man he had grown to trust, the man he was almost certain he was beginning to love couldn't have betrayed his trust in such a vile manner, could he?
He didn't want to believe it, but a small voice in his mind begged him to ask, to know for sure.
“I've just overheard something,” he said under his breath. “Two people were talking. They were talking about me .”
Francis’ brows furrowed and a look of confusion spread across his face. “About you? Well, of course they were, tonight is about us-”
“ No Francis,” he interrupted with a hiss. “They were talking about my history . The past I have shared only with a handful of living souls, most of those already aware due to their own parts in it!” His breath began to come in pants, a flush of anger lighting his cheeks and spreading down his neck. He could feel it even as he balled his fists and tried to focus on the bite of his nails against his palm. “I cannot bring myself to believe you would say anything to anyone, but I can not- I cant-”
Francis reached out to touch him and offer comfort, his face a mix of sadness and longing that James could scarcely bear to see. “ James ,” the man said so softly it might have been the wind, “I would never, never , betray your trust in such a way. What was spoken to me in confidence will follow me to the grave, no matter what.”
The earnest look in Francis’ eyes was all the convincing James needed. Francis had never lied to him, never treated him falsely even when they were nearly enemies. James nearly sobbed with the relief that flooded through him, and he fell against the man who had become like a lifeline to him. He pressed his face into the space between Francis’ neck and shoulder, breathed in the calming scent of him as his heartbeat began to slow. Arms settled about his waist, held him close and he heard a whisper in his ear.
“I never want to hurt you,” Francis said, “you are far too precious to me. If I hurt you, I hurt myself.”
James drew back at the words. “Francis?” He whispered, the space between them so small it might as well have been imagined.
He considered for a moment the levity of what he was about to do. It would change things, it would change everything, forever. The future seemed unclear as he lifted a hand to touch Francis’ on the shoulder. He squeezed, let his hand drift up to the cut of Francis’ jaw and felt the slight rasp of stubble where Francis had neglected to shave before they left for the evening.
“I want-” he whispered. “I want to kiss you. Is that wrong of me?”
Francis shook his head. He gazed up at James with wide eyes, a vulnerability in his face James had never seen before.
Their lips met slowly, a gentle press of warm skin that sent flashes of lightning down James’ spine. It was though God had sent a summer storm to course through him, setting his body alight with electricity as Francis began to kiss him back. He groaned as hands reached up to hold his back, the grip of fingers on his shoulder blades driving that storm further into his gut. Francis parted his lips, met James’ tongue with his own and the storm became a cyclone.
James gasped and held onto Francis with a white-knuckled grip as the kiss deepened. He felt Francis’ breath on his cheeks and the press of the man’s body against his own.
The kiss ended and James sighed. Their foreheads touched, a gentle contact that grounded James more than any tonic or medicine ever could.
“Shall we go home?”
Home . He had a home, it seemed, with Francis. One that could not be taken from them as the ships in the ice was. He thought of the two beds, rarely both occupied for more than a scant couple of hours at a time, and smiled.
“I think we should.”
--- --- ---
After making their excuses they climb into a carriage, darkness enfolding them as the driver encourages the horses to begin the journey. In the shadow-shroud of the carriage, James took Francis’ hand and held it gently in his own. Their fingers twined together and James grinned. A moment later he felt Francis break the contact, only to feel a hand on his knee. Fire rushed through him as fingers massaged his thigh, his legs parting almost on instinct as the hand moved higher.
He pressed a hand to Francis’, rolled his hips against the air as the pressure just below where he wanted it made his cock harden in his breeches. In an effort to try and reciprocate, he leaned to the side and pressed his lips to Francis’ neck, kissing and mouthing at the warm column of skin and can’t help the moan that fell from his mouth as Francis arched against him.
“James-” he whispered, his voice hoarse.
James nipped at his ear and moaned as the hand on his thigh reached the hardness between his thighs. He tried to contain the sound, fearful of the driver discovering what was happening in his carriage, but the sensation of Francis finally touching him was too good. He rocked his hips into the contact and lifted one hand to tangle his fingers into Francis’ hair.
“Want you,” he uttered in a breathless voice. He felt Francis shudder beside him, felt the hand on his crotch rub and cup him. “Want you more than I’ve ever wanted anyone before, oh Francis. ”
Francis made a pained sound and dragged him into a kiss. It was inexperienced, rushed, their noses bumping and the slight clack of teeth, but James felt the rush of lust fill him all the same. To know it wasn’t just him in this state, that Francis too was overcome, made his heart soar in his chest.
The carriage pulled up to their shared rooms and stopped with a judder. The two men pulled apart with shared gasps, no doubt flushed but presentable for the most part. James straightened his jacket and felt Francis adjust his own beside him.
Walking into the building was nearly torture. They stood apart, wary of the people still awake and wandering about in the cool evening air. Francis strode up the stairs before him with long and impatient steps. James followed behind almost the same. When they reached the door, Francis nearly broke it down as he fought with the lock.
“Blasted door, we really need to get it oiled-”
The door fell open and James all but pushed Francis over the threshold. They stumbled in, the door shutting with a final click as James found himself pushed against it. He gasped, arched into the body suddenly against his, and opened his mouth to the hard kiss Francis placed on his lips.
They kissed openly, wetly, the slide of tongues sending frissons of heat to James’ hardening cock. James let out a huff of frustration as his fingers failed to unbutton either of their jackets, the clumsy attempt joined and succeeded by Francis’ own fingers. Garment by garment they stripped, a trail of clothing followed them to James’ bedroom and when he turned around again, he saw Francis naked, no bedclothes or uniform, for the first time.
Francis was heavier than him, a soft layer of fat around his middle, and James knew that there was muscle and strength beneath. He shucked off his shirt and laid himself out on the bed for Francis to see, hoping that he too would enjoy the sight.
Francis clambered up onto the bed with clumsy limbs, a nervous excitement exuding from him as he reached out to touch James’ bare skin.
“You’re beautiful ,” the Irishman said softly. He traced a finger from James’ sternum to the dip of his navel, eyes following the movement until they met the proud rise of James’ cock between his thighs. A sudden stillness filled him, his body stiffened by what seemed to be fear.
“Francis?” He asked. “Are you alright? Is it too much?”
Francis took a deep breath and met James’ gaze. “I’ve never- I’m not accustomed to touching men,” he admitted with a frown. Again, James saw the vulnerability that Francis had hidden so well from the outside world.
He sat up and gently held out his hands, drawing Francis to him and stroking warm hands down his sides. “You touched me before, remember? Out on the ice. You were gentle with me, but you knew what you were doing.”
Francis blinked owlishly at him as they shared the memory. He flushed a bright pink and nodded. “I remember.
Slowly, careful of his own sharp edges, he lay Francis down on the bed. Surrounded by bright linen he looked almost angelic, a hastily lit lantern shining on his red-blond hair. James lay next to him and pressed gentle kisses to his cheeks, his neck, the jut of one round shoulder and down to the curve of his chest. He rested there for a moment and kissed a nipple, grinning at the sudden gasp from Francis above him. Again, he pressed his lips to the hardened nub, lapping with his tongue and sucking until Francis wound fingers into his hair. He heard his name gasped breathlessly and moved to let his mouth drift lower.
Francis’ fingers let go of his hair as he descended, favouring the sheets instead. James saw the way Francis grasped at them, twisting the fabric in his fists as thought it would stop him from floating from the bed. When James’ chin bumped the head of his cock, Francis jumped. James ran a soothing hand up to his side and murmured softly, “it’s alright.”
“Tell me if it gets to be too much,” he said quickly, fingers wrapped around Francis’ prick as he lowered his head.
Francis tasted clean, tasted like any other cock he had taken in his mouth, but the knowledge it was Francis he was sucking made his own cock twitch. He heard the shaky breath from above him and moaned, let the skill of his tongue work it’s own forbidden magic as he bobbed his head. He went slowly, not wishing to overwhelm his lover.
The word ached in his chest like a leaden weight as he took Francis to the root and paused, let the weight on his tongue and the absence of breath go to his head like wine.
“Sweet lord, James!” Francis cried out, his fingers once again finding James’ hair and gripping.
He lifted his mouth, sucked on the head and swirled his tongue, let his hand wander down to tug and play with Francis’ balls. The man’s hips rocked up into his mouth and James artfully let his throat relax. He knew the tricks, had learned them with both considerate and inconsiderate lovers alike. He bobbed his head in time with the shallow thrusts and let Francis set the pace, confident in his own skill should it get out of hand.
Quickly, he pulled away to wet a finger, carefully spreading Francis’ legs further to lay more comfortably between them. He put his hand between the man’s thick thighs and pressed the tip of his finger to Francis’ entrance, not pushing in but resting, stroking, teasing the sensitive skin and swallowing a moan as Francis cried out again.
The man lifted one knee and made a choked sound. “Please,” he whispered, his voice cracked as James sank the tip of his finger into him.
The whisper became a whimper as James eased his finger deeper, pausing to make sure it was wet enough before continuing. He wrapped his lips around Francis’ cock again and felt his own prick harden at the idea of sinking himself in that tight passage. But he knew that would be too much for the man now. Instead, he focused on giving what pleasure he knew would be enough.
Francis rolled his hips down against the finger inside him, a delightful blush spread over the length of his body. James’ senses were filled with him; the sound of his harsh breaths and soft moans, the scent of his sweat, the taste of his cock and the feel of his warm skin. It all seemed to want to drive James mad. He thrust his finger and crooked it, rubbing Francis from the inside and marvelled at the reedy cry that tumbled from the man’s lips.
“James, James I’m going to-”
Francis didn’t even finish the sentence. He spilt on James’ tongue with a lilting moan that sent a shiver down James’ spine. Warm seed flooded his mouth and he swallowed greedily, unashamed of the act and only hoping it would happen again.
He slowly removed his finger and pressed a lingering kiss to the tip of Francis’ softening cock. The man all but mewled as he crawled up the bed and lay beside him, and it was his turn to gasp as Francis leaned up to kiss him. Strong, calloused hands carded through his hair and James melted into the touch. It had been an age since he had been intimate with someone, anyone , and every touch was like food to his starving body.
He whispered his lover’s name and encouraged him softly. Francis’ hands began to wander, taking greedy handfuls of his chest, his hips, reaching over to grasp at his backside and rock James’ hips against him. James rocked his hips again, rolled against Francis like a ship cresting waves. Francis used the hand on James’ backside to encourage the motion, pulling James against him in a steady rhythm that quickly brought James to the brink.
The pounding of his heart became a roar in his ears, the realisation of what was happening, what had happened , instilling some form of euphoria in James’ body he had never felt before. He moaned loud and unabashed as Francis kissed his throat and release rushed towards him. The rhythm of his hips faltered, broke, as he came against Francis’ hip. They kissed again, the heat of the moment dwindling from a roaring fire to a low burn, their passion now spent.
James tried to calm his breathing and rolled onto his back. He felt Francis move beside him, the man rising from the bed and disappearing for a moment before returning with a damp cloth. Carefully, with a gentleness James could remember vividly from their time on the ice together, Francis cleaned the spend from James’ body and his own. The cool cloth was a balm against the still hot flush of his skin.
After a moment, Francis stilled. He reached out and ran his fingers through James’ hair.
“This will change things,” he said softly.
James hummed in agreement. It would change everything . He knew that, had considered it that very evening.
“We are nothing if not adaptable, Francis,” he replied.
Francis laughed at that, the sound bright in the slowly darkening room. They had forgotten to change the oil in the lamps. “Adaptable…” Francis looked at him with warm eyes, a tired smile played across his lips. “Yes. Adaptable is as good a word as any.”
“Will you stay then? Here, tonight,” he asked in a low voice. Just the thought of Francis leaving brought an unpleasant taste to his mouth.
“You’d be hard pressed to get me to leave this bed again if you stayed in it.”
This time it was James who laughed. He rolled over and lay over Francis, drew him into a long and lazy kiss. The warmth that pooled in his belly was calm, not the insistent lust that had fueled him before.
Soon they began to tire; the kisses became slower, their eyelids heavier, and Francis was the first to yawn. James coaxed him onto his side and curled up behind him, his chest pressed against Francis’ back and an arm draped over his middle. He smiled to himself as Francis wriggled to press back against him, their bodies as close as possible as James pulled the blankets up around them.
He drifted off into sleep with that smile still on his face.
They had endured much, more than most in the country could claim to have endured. It had changed them in ways that they could not truly define. But, in the end, the struggles that they had faced had come to define a new chapter in their lives - a chapter they would write together.