Stalking across the ice toward Erebus and casting a quick glare at the hunting blind silhouetted a half-mile past the ships, Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier cursed his own luck. Of course he’d have to go mind all the goddamned idiots in the flagship wardroom just because Sir John thought he could shoot a damn polar bear.
Unlike the rest of their men, Francis had actually seen Sir John go shooting once, on a short-lived outing in Van Diemen’s Land. Given how disastrous that performance had been, it would be a miracle if their esteemed leader hit anything apart from an errant berg, or at worst poor Doctor Goodsir.
By the time he arrived on the orlop, shaking the sleet from his slops as Gibson and Hoar attended him, Francis had decided to curse and glower his way through the entire afternoon, in order to make every man on the ship regret crossing his path. Not starting with the stewards, obviously — he might be foul-tempered, but he was not fool enough to infuriate the petty officers on this ship who held ultimate power over his food and drink.
Perhaps he might strike dread into the heart of a particular Commander instead.
With this thought now buoying his spirits, Francis strode to the Great Cabin, imagining a myriad of ways in which he could assign duty owing to Fitzjames. Perhaps his hair was too long—those stupid ringlet curls had to go past his collar by now. Perhaps he had a hangnail, or had worn too much cologne. Perhaps his boots were too tall for the uniform.
Smirking to himself over various scenarios in which James had to complete reams of paperwork or holystone the deck in the Great Cabin, Francis failed to notice that the lamps in the Great Cabin were still lit, and that a familiar greatcoat hung over the back of a chair at the Captain’s table. He strode toward Sir John’s berth in search of a paper and an inkwell, but when he reached the open door, what he saw inside made him stop short.
Sitting in Sir John’s desk chair with his shirt slightly open, his trousers unbuttoned, and both hands down the front of his breeches, Fitzjames’ back was arched, his mouth was open, and he was — he was — Jesus fucking Christ on a fucking tricycle!
James was pleasuring himself.
Normally, Francis would have slammed the door open and thundered down a hailstorm of curses upon anyone stupid enough to commit such lewd acts while he was meant to be on duty — especially when that officer was a ranking member of the wardroom. But when he opened his mouth to voice this typhoon command, James shifted in the chair with a bitten-back moan, and Francis’s voice hitched in his throat.
“Er,” he whispered first, which nearly sounded like a groan of pleasure in kind. Wincing, he bit the inside of his cheek, and summoned all his strength.
It came out hoarse and quavery, but at least it was audible this time; Fitzjames startled upright with a cry, yanking his hands from his trousers with a rushed, “Good Christ!”
Quickly, Fitzjames rose, buttoned his flies, and made himself as presentable as possible, although it was impossible for Francis to reconcile this slightly mussed image of the Commander with the man he had just glimpsed.
Full of desire. Wanton and unashamed.
“Captain Crozier—” Fitzjames was still attempting to speak, though what he might possibly say by way of explanation was unclear. His face was ruddy with color. “I—I thought you were still on Terror. ”
“I thought the cabin was empty,” retorted Francis.
Pressing his mouth into a thin line, Fitzjames seemed not to know what to do with his hands, and so he went to the basin first; Francis tried not to watch too closely as the Commander rinsed and dried his fingers.
“Fitzjames, you cannot mean to—have you no—?”
Decency , he meant to shout, only it was at that precise moment Francis realized James was not the only one in a state of indecency.
His own cock had filled and was straining against his breeches.
Glancing down to confirm this, Francis bit back a curse when he saw he was fully hard, and squeezed his eyes closed, taking a deep breath.
“Francis?” asked Fitzjames, soft.
Opening his eyes to scowl at the other man, Francis spun on his heel and went back into the outer cabin, hoping the chill of the room would force his body to cooperate.
It did not. The damn tumescence remained.
“Francis, you really ought to, erm….” ventured Fitzjames again.
“Shut up!” Francis’s eyes fluttered closed as his treacherous cock twitched against his buttons. “A moment, damn you!”
Sir John shouting at you. Sir John shouting at you. Ross’s uncle, that time at the opera. Memo Moira’s funeral clothes. Papist Mass. Papist Mass —
“Er. You—may find it easier simply to—”
“Good god, James, I’m not wanking off in the middle of the room with you watching! ” snapped Francis, though this was clearly the wrong comment to make; Fitzjames turned scarlet, and had to adjust his waistband with one hand, while Francis himself was now struck by a vision of precisely that; James sitting in Francis’s own berth on Terror , watching eagerly as Francis tugged at his bare cock with long, slow strokes.
Heat crawled up Francis’s face and down his spine at the obscene image, pooling in his belly. He was forced to close his eyes a second time, taking a deep breath before meeting Fitzjames’s flushed, curiously-open gaze. “Er. I—obviously I don’t—would never—”
Commander Fitzjames was still staring at him, lips parted slightly, pupils blown dark with desire.
“Well, you shouldn’t be here,” Francis finished gruffly, at barely a third of his intended volume. “Not your berth.”
Neither should you, Fitzjames’s raised eyebrows now seemed to say, but it was at that moment they heard Sir John’s voice in the corridor, and jumped into action; Fitzjames seized his greatcoat and donned it in haste, while Francis turned in a small circle and managed to do nothing save jam both hands into his pockets, pinning his gaze to the brazier as if he were merely here waiting for their expedition leader. They had barely enough time to glance at each other before Sir John entered, laughing at some comment Hoar had made just prior.
“My goodness,” Sir John exclaimed upon seeing them, his mouth drawing into a pursed moue. “Have I misplaced your calling card, Captain Crozier?”
“No, no,” assured Francis at once, clearing his throat. Wouldn’t do for the man to think anything improper — or to believe that he and Fitzjames were at odds. “No.”
“Not at all, Sir John,” echoed Fitzjames, with a sidelong look at Francis, who stared resolutely forward as Hoar removed Sir John’s slops. “We thought you might want to discuss conditions in the stores once you returned.”
If James’s cheeks still burned a faint, telltale pink, then that was merely a coincidence. Perhaps the man was cold.
In the wardroom, later that night, James could hardly sit still.
Francis sat at his right hand and Sir John sat at the head of the table on his left, and together the proximity of his senior officers was driving James absolutely mad. He’d been dribbling in his smallclothes for hours ever since Francis had caught him out. He was going to perish with lust before the evening meal was done.
Across the table, Le Vesconte kept shooting him puzzled looks, trying to catch his eye or mouth errant questions about the sudden change in seating arrangements.
James said not a word, just shook his head slightly, as if the entire affair was far beyond his control. In truth, it nearly was. He could not concentrate on his food; kept dropping his silverware. His hands kept shaking around his fork and he had not said more than two words in perhaps thirty minutes.
Crozier had not immediately drawn him up on charges of dirtiness, nor uttered a single word about duty owing. He had neither shouted nor raged nor threatened punishment at all. He had — Christ above. When he saw James’ disheveled state, Crozier had grown hard as iron, and blushed more than a maid at her first country ball.
Was this the reason he had avoided Erebus , all these long months?
Perhaps he had needled and mocked and lashed out at James for inspiring such impassioned feelings. Perhaps he was angry at himself for reacting bodily to such temptations.
(But when had James ever knowingly tempted him?? And why should he not have noticed such unusual feelings sooner?)
“Commander Fitzjames? Thoughts?”
Startling, James turned to look at the head of the table, where Sir John was staring at him, clearly awaiting a positive reply.
“Well, Sir John, I, ah — forgive me, I must confess I did not — ”
Shockingly, the man who came to his aid was none other than Crozier himself, who merely snorted as if this were the greatest joke in the world, and gave Sir John a knowing look.
“Seems the HMS Say Again? has rung again.”
“Ah.” Sir John’s annoyed expression smoothed into benign surprise, and then became a great deal more amused. “Oh, I see! My dear Commander, you really ought to have said something all these months ago! Very well; I shall speak loud and clear to you henceforth!”
Nearly shouting, now.
The wardroom roared with laughter. Francis leaned in under the guise of giving James a polite word of encouragement, and clapped a hand to Fitzjames’ knee in the midst of the raucous mirth; only Fitzjames could hear the rasp of his lilting voice as he muttered:
Come to Terror, after.
And brushed one thumb across his knee.
James could not help the involuntary jerk of his hips as Francis pulled his hand away.
Jopson met Francis and Fitzjames at the door of Terror ’s Great Cabin, appearing first pleased and then puzzled to see both officers entering the room.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Commander Fitzjames.” Casting a sidelong look at Francis. “I put out the Captain’s whiskey per usual, but I do not know if you — that is, would you care for —?”
“We’ll take care of the rest, Jopson,” said Francis firmly, even as he clasped the young steward’s shoulder in a kind, nearly protective manner. James tried not to shift on his feet as the motion drew attention back to his aching cock. “See that we’re not disturbed.”
Jopson did as he was told, but placed a second, empty, glass beside the first before departing. And all of the sudden, James and Francis were alone in the Great Cabin.
Francis moved first; he stepped forward, took up his glass from the table, and drained two fingers of whiskey as if he were toasting some great victory.
“N - none for me,” murmured James, trying and failing to still his shaking hands. “I just need—”
He bit down the deluge of words that rose in his throat.
Touch me. Kiss me. Take me.
“As it happens, I’m aware of what it is that you need,” said Francis, conversationally, as if they were merely discussing a mixup by the ship’s bursar or the comptroller of victualling. “Since you did not achieve it earlier.”
“No,” whispered James.
This was the moment, perhaps. Here lay the occasion on which he would be lectured, humiliated, or privately scorned, and would thus be marked for the remainder of their voyage.
Leaning back in his chair, Francis steepled his hands over his middle, and cocked a knowing eyebrow.
James could not help staring at the expanse of muscle and stomach this revealed. And then he registered the words at last.
“You—” He could hardly draw air into his lungs. “You wish me to—?”
“Show me,” repeated Francis, low and soft. His blue eyes had darkened in the dim light of the Great Cabin. If James were reading him correctly, this gaze now pinned him in place, even as it opened him up from neck to knees. “Please.”
“Oh, god,” whispered James, pressing the heel of one hand against his buttons before he could fully register the movement of his limbs.
He had never heard Francis ask for anything before, and could not help the full-body shudder this response provoked. His face seared with heat and his knees trembled at the sensation of thick Admiralty-issue wool under his palm, paired with the insistent twitch of his cock beneath all those layers. His eyes fluttered closed.
“Fitzjames,” came Francis’s voice again. “Look at me.”
James startled and gasped, unable to stop a fierce blush from spreading down his collar and into his chest. Trembling harder, he shook his head no. “I—I can’t.”
“You can, and you will.”
The soft moan that escaped from James’ lips was involuntary, but the movement of his hand was not; slowly, as if in a dream, he lifted his hand and set a rhythm, rubbing the flat of one palm over himself with long broad strokes. After another moment, he forced his eyes open; saw Francis staring at him, wild-eyed and hungry, the tip of his tongue just wetting his lips.
“Oh, god,” James said again, mouth falling open. “Francis, please touch me.”
Blotches of pink had already bloomed across Crozier’s face and neck, but still he shook his head no, and moved one hand to his own knee, clearly teasing.
Would he touch himself, also?
“I will if you will,” James blurted out, needing to encourage him. The pressure of his palm was no longer enough; he broke eye contact long enough to fumble with his laces, get them open. When he got one hand down the front of his breeches, his knees wobbled under him, and he sucked in a sharp breath. “Francis, I—”
“Shhhh.” Francis put an index finger to his own lips, even as his free hand moved slowly up his inner thigh. “Quiet, now.”
James had to bite his lip to oblige; he felt lightheaded already, like a ship’s boy who might cock off too soon. And although it was difficult to keep his eyes open, to keep regarding Crozier so brazenly, his reward for achieving it was glimpsing the second the Terror Captain gripped himself in hand through those trousers. All at once, Francis’s face changed, making him so altered James might not even have known him in a brightly-lit room. His once-dour mouth straightened, then upturned, then fell slightly open; forever-disapproving eyes widened and relaxed, showcasing how blue his irises were, how handsome he now looked under the low light of the Preston Patent Illuminators.
“Faster,” whispered Francis as he got his own laces open.
James’ hips stuttered up into his fist. He wanted to close his eyes, to look away, to remain unseen, but this urge to hide made him only want to move closer to Francis, bury himself in the lapels of that greatcoat and lie flush against his solid, warm body.
“Francis,” he hissed, shivering at the sight of Francis’ heated cheeks, stroking himself faster as he imagined putting that blush there — getting on his knees and sucking Francis’s thick lovely prick till he was pink all the way down his chest, until Francis was arcing and twitching under him. His mouth watered just thinking about it — having his Captain at his mercy that way. Having Francis watch him that way.
“Fuck,” growled Francis, now tugging at himself in hard quick strokes, his mouth slack with delight. “James, you—you can’t say things like—you’ll get me—”
“Good Christ.” James didn’t remember saying any of that out loud, but it didn’t matter now, not when Francis’ tongue was darting out to wet full, flushed lips and he was panting so beautifully as he worked himself over. Not when he was saying James’s name in that gruff gravelly rasp. “‘M close.”
He was already shoving his trousers down, letting Francis see the quickening of his hand beneath his linens, his fingers caterpillars under silk, gauze over velvet.
“‘S good,” Francis sighed, his gaze fixed on James’s half-open linens as he shuddered in his chair. His eyes rolled back in his head and slipped closed as he whispered, “Fuck.”
Whimpering, James came, thrusting just a few more times into his messy fist as his legs shook and his muscles tensed. When he finally had some semblance of his wits again, he staggered backwards, leaning his weight against the table for support as he gasped for breath.
Across the room, Francis was not far behind; his legs kept twitching together and his breathing came in short, quick bursts. James drank in this sight as if guzzling down an ancient nectar, groaning in appreciation as Francis worked himself harder.
“Don’t stop, Francis.” His pulse thudded in his hands and chest, making his palms shake. He knew talking so much was dangerous, even keeping his voice low, but he couldn’t help himself. “Don’t stop, just come for me, Francis, come all over my—”
Francis bucked up and stiffened, grunting and shaking.
James knew he wasn’t supposed to offer more than words, but his legs had other ideas. Before he could reconsider his actions, he had crossed the gulf of space between their chairs, leaning down to capture Francis’s mouth with his own as the Terror Captain trembled through his peak. One hand rested gently on Francis’s wrist, rubbing a gentle path into the sliver of skin exposed between the taut waistband of his linens and the back of his palm. He felt Francis’s muffled cry of pleasure reverberate through his core, and a swipe of wet heat as that caustic tongue slid against his.
And then, in the next instant, Francis pulled back, panting.
“Sorry,” James mumbled, and withdrew his hand. He was still leaning over Francis’ chair, and quickly straightened up, now searching his pockets for a handkerchief. “Erm. Should have asked if—only I thought you might like—”
“Course,” murmured Francis, casting him a darkly amused look that had probably begun life as a glare. In his current state, the man looked too breathless to pull off any sort of temper. “‘S fine.”
His head lolled back against the headrest, and he blushed even redder.
“Fine.” James stopped his search and glanced up so he could meet this tepid declaration with raised eyebrows. “Fine?”
Francis refused to meet his gaze, instead blinking at the embers that glowed in the brazier. “Fucking Christ, Fitzjames, ’m not bloody—my head’s all— shush. ”
They cleaned themselves up without further comment, so it was not until James had re-dressed and was finally presentable again that he spoke again.
“Thank you for not, erm. Telling tales out of school, as it were.”
Francis rolled his eyes, although for the first time there appeared to be no animosity in the irritated gesture, merely an acknowledgement of the words if not an endorsement of the sentiment behind them. “What does it matter now?”
“Well.” James bolted one shoulder in a shrug. “You could have done plenty with such knowledge, and you did not, and I suppose….” He could not utter the first thought that sprung to mind: now I know how poor George Barrow felt. “I am merely glad you approached me first.”
Francis was staring at him.
“I mean, grateful. That we could resolve this matter, erm, with—without resorting to—”
“God in heaven.” Francis now appeared to be careening back toward his usual dour mood. “Either make your meaning plain or stop talking. We’re not politicking among the goddamned wardroom.”
James straightened his spine, and gathered his courage. “Very well. We should go a second round. If you are amenable.”
All traces of frustration vanished from Francis’s face. He appeared as stunned as if James had attempted to dance a reel atop the Captain’s table. “What — right now?!”
“Don’t become alarmed. Merely speaking in generalities.” James waved one hand through the air in a lackadaisical way, even as his heart sped up. In for a penny, in for a pound. “You have options as to whom you favor with your intimate company, obviously, but I thought given recent, er, events...that perhaps you might appreciate...”
When Francis did not immediately speak up to confirm this theory, James let the sentence fade into nothing, his cheeks flushing hot. Perhaps he had misread the situation. Perhaps Francis had wanted a single encounter, and nothing more.
The silence between them had stretched out to near-unbearable limits when Francis spoke again, clipped and quiet. He had already got to his feet to pour more whiskey.
“I’m told Sir John is eager to return to the hunting blind,” he said, more to the waves of whiskey in his glass than to James himself.
“He told you that?” asked James.
“So you would—” James cleared his throat. “I mean, might you—come to Erebus ? While—while he is—?”
Francis lifted his eyes from his glass. For once, his eyes were clear.
“Yes,” he finally said, the corners of his mouth quirking up. “I might.”