Francis was not a praying man. When Sir John was alive, Francis had tolerated his constipated little Anglican sermons with a snifter of whiskey in hand, his thoughts trained towards the inexorable melancholy of ice and solitude. Decades had passed since Francis’s last confession, since he had last tasted of the body of Christ, since he had believed that God’s grace could cleanse him of sin like lye on a greasy rag.
Now, in Hell, clutching James to his breast with his one free hand, prayer fell from Francis’s lips as easily as the tears from his eyes.
“Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.” His voice cracked, his lips cracked, he raised his face to the heavens in supplication. “Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Pray for us sinners now. Pray for us sinners now.”
And lo, beneath the halo of the Arctic sun, Mary arrived.
A delirium overtook him for days and nights. When Francis was sensate again, he found himself warm and alone in a tent fashioned by Netsilik. He was missing a hand but the dressing around the wound was clean and dry, his pain distant and dull. His eyes saw the truth of his late infirmity, but his mind told him to flex his fingers, to find his hand, to grasp at fantasy. He blinked and blinked until finally he tucked his arm away so he had to see this truth no longer.
He sat up and wiped the sleep and fever from his eyes. His attention landed on a waterskin and he lunged upon it, drinking deep until it was but an empty flap. It was then that he remembered James as he last saw him: parched and wounded, ravaged by infection, gazing up at Francis as he begged him for a cleaner death.
“James.” His voice was a croak, and he cleared his throat. “James! James!”
He lurched to his feet and scrambled out of the tent. He was blasted by the cold, but he braced himself and staggered forward, calling out for James. A large Netsilik man swathed in furs emerged from a nearby igloo and lumbered towards him in no great hurry. Francis supposed it was difficult to be quick in such heavy garments, but for his own part he made haste in the man’s direction, slipping and falling twice on the way.
“You will do yourself injury,” the man said in the Netsilik tongue when Francis arrived huffing for breath before him. “Go back to your tent and rest.”
“My friend,” Francis said, scraping his mind for all the Inuktitut at his disposal. “My friend—sick. Help. Please.”
The Netsilik man reached out and patted Francis on the shoulder.
“Rest now,” he said. “Your friend is resting too.”
Francis almost staggered under the weight of his relief.
“I see him?” he asked.
Francis closed his eyes and tipped his face up. The sun burned still behind his eyelids, and he remembered Lady Silence.
“Woman?” he asked. “A woman was with me, helped me. Where is the woman?”
The Netsilik man shook his head.
“Silna is gone,” he said.
“Silna lost Tuunbaq. Alone is the way for her now.”
“This is the way of things.”
“It was me,” Francis said. “I killed Tuunbaq. I killed Tuunbaq!”
“Tuunbaq was hers to lose.”
“Where will she go? How can she be alone?”
“She accepts this. You must accept this as well. Rest now.”
The Netsilik man turned and lumbered back to his igloo. Around Francis, other Netsilik bustled about their daily chores, and no one would tell him where Silna went. They shook their heads or ignored him altogether. Francis began to feel like a ghost himself.
An old, old woman set aside the hide she was working to take him by the hand and lead him wordlessly back to his tent. Meek as a child at his grandmother’s knee, Francis allowed himself to be led. She stepped inside with him and motioned for him to sit. When he obeyed, she produced a pat of fresh, raw meat in a livid pink, and passed it to him. Seal, most likely. She motioned, hand to mouth, for him to eat. He lifted it in his hand, ducked his head in thanks, and put the meat into his mouth.
It was slick and greasy and briny, this ambrosia bursting across his tongue. His eyes fell shut as he chewed. When he opened them again, the old woman was smiling at him.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”
She took his empty waterskin and replaced it with a fat one, and then she left his tent, lashing the flaps shut behind her. With great restraint lest it all go to waste in vomitus, Francis ate the rest of the seal meat slowly and methodically. His ravening belly told him to swallow it whole, so he chewed for long minutes, and he sipped his water in cautious dribs and drabs. When he was done, he wiped his hand and face on what was left of his muffler and fell into a hard and dreamless sleep.
It happened that Amaruq, the Netsilik man who spoke to Francis of James and Silna, was the leader of his people. Two days after Francis woke, Amaruq finally allowed him into the sick tent. Francis’s heart leapt to see James sitting up comfortably, a deflated waterskin in his lap. He was pale but a blush stood out on his cheeks and his eyes had light in them again. He beamed to comical proportions upon beholding Francis, and the gaps where a tooth or two once were did not diminish him. Francis knelt before him and they each clasped the other’s hand as if they were liable to fall off the edge of the world without an anchor.
“You’ve no idea what a sight you are, Francis,” James said. “None at all.”
“There now,” Francis said. “I’m not so pretty as all that.”
“And yet now you are here I feel as though I could float back to England on a cloud.”
“How is this—” The words were out before Francis could think better of them; the best he could do was swallow the rest. To his chagrin and delight, James let out a loud laugh, the kind of sound that made Francis remember there was yet joy in the world.
“Don’t tell me Captain Francis Crozier’s learned to keep a politic tongue in his head,” James said. “I refuse to believe it.”
“I merely mean you look well, James,” Francis said. “And I wonder what miracle has made it so.”
“Food, warmth, and rest, I imagine,” James said. “Fresh food. Real rest.”
The Netsilik had fed Francis raw seal meat and liver all the days he had been with them. It had shored up his constitution significantly, while for James it seemed to have yanked him back from the very brink of death.
Their hands were still clasped, but they rested now on the nest of furs pooled in James’s lap. Francis looked down at the knot of their hands and turned his palm up. James’s long fingers slotted in perfectly against the sturdy blocks of his own. Forgetting himself, Francis laid the stump of his wrist on top. The smile evaporated from James’s face and his brow grew troubled. Francis tried to pull his stump away, but James held fast.
“Oh, Francis,” he said.
“It is no matter,” Francis said. “A small price to pay.”
Francis shifted to sit on his arse, and wordlessly James lifted a fur in invitation. Francis slid in beside him, and James budged up against him, clasping Francis’s one hand in both of his own without hesitation. Something inside Francis cracked and spilled out a warmth he could not name. He allowed himself to sag into his friend.
“In the depths of your illness, Hickey took you as an enticement for me to follow. He did terrible things, James. Terrible things.”
James was stroking his hand, and Francis found himself comforted.
“In the end, several of us were chained and pulling a sledge when the Tuunbaq came upon us once more. The boat was destroyed and you were fair catapulted from it.”
James snorted, and a pained smile touched Francis’s lips. He gripped James’s hand tighter.
“I crawled to you so I could warm you, but the Tuunbaq began to swallow us whole, one by one on the chain. Hickey attempted to bend it to his will, but it cleaved him in twain before finally going to its death.”
“A noble beast, then,” James said darkly.
The side of Francis’s mouth tipped up.
“Indeed,” he said. “Afterward, I lay chained beside all manner of bodies, unable to move. I dragged you best I could into my lap where I tried to warm you. You were so still, James.” Francis closed his eyes. James leaned into him. His breath touched Francis’s cheek.
“I’m here, Francis,” he said. “I’m well.”
“I prayed,” Francis said. “I prayed for God to save you and Silna arrived.”
“Lady Silence. She’s—gone, now.”
“Do you think God sent Silna?” James asked.
“I—” Francis shook his head. “I dislike the tendency to attribute human accomplishment to the hand of an unseeable, unknowable Almighty,” Francis said. “But I cannot deny that I called upon Him and here we stand, holding each other once more.”
“Here we sit with hardly the strength to stand,” James said. “But yes. Yes.”
“Do you think it was God?” Francis asked.
“I cannot say,” James said. “They tell me God is everywhere, but I have long believed us forgotten, out here in the cold.” He pulled away from Francis enough to gaze into his face. His expression held such a tenderness as Francis had never seen turned upon his person. This was the look he had seen his gran bestow on his grandfather when he was just a boy. This was the look he’d once longed to see on Sophia’s face, but he had never imagined it to be so intoxicating. He was struck, suddenly, by the thought that he had never known what it was to be loved until this moment. Francis’s heart stuttered out an anti-rhythm, and his breath left him in shudders. Surely we are far from the eye of God if I am thinking such things, he thought. “And shouldn’t it be so,” James was saying, “that if He were with us, the lads too green to have yet sinned properly would be here now, and not two old codgers like us?”
Francis laughed like a rusty old door hinge, surprising the both of them. James flushed, eyes gone narrow with smiling. Francis plucked the waterskin from James’s lap and raised it.
“To Silna, then,” he said.
“To Silna,” James said, “who walks the tundra unafraid.”
They sipped of the water, too glad of their good fortune to tear their eyes away from each other.
Francis’s stump healed cleanly, and James regained his strength and fought the infections even as the days grew shorter and the sun set for the final time that year. James had lost a toe on each foot in addition to three teeth, and had regained some of his famed walking grace despite the handicap. Francis, meanwhile, forgot daily he was one hand down, and constantly fumbled his harpoons or cooking accoutrements. He sometimes found the Netsilik women or children watching him with amusement, and even, occasionally, dropped something on purpose to incite their raucous laughter. James merely shook his head, not bothering to hide his grin.
Upon his full recovery, James moved from the sick tent into Francis’s. It was then that a cabal of Netsilik, both men and women, descended upon them to help build them their own igloo. Francis was so moved he could hardly speak for the lump in his throat. Luckily, James had never had trouble with speaking and repeated, over and over until it fell fluently from his lips, the Inuktitut words for “thank you.”
In their home, he helped Francis in and out of his clothes and boots, and gave him such a look of tolerant disbelief when Francis insisted that he would dress himself soon.
“I must learn to be independent,” Francis said, for the thousandth time by the look James sent him. “What if we are separated in some way, and I cannot do this on my own?”
“Then Nanurjuk or Yura will help you, surely.”
“Pah.” Francis would wave a hand as if he could slap the words from the very air. “An awful imposition.”
“No one thinks less of you for needing help buttoning, Francis,” James said.
“I think less of me,” Francis said, inevitably.
James sighed and the subject dropped until the next time.
Francis’s ease with Inuktitut blossomed, and under his instruction as well as the immersive quality of their life among the Netsilik, James came to his own facility with it. The Netsilik were patient with both of them, and children especially wished to converse with them. They wished to know how their hair had got to be that color, why they didn’t yet know how to hunt seal, where they had come from. Francis demurred, preferring to learn Arctic skills to reminiscing about a past that seemed more fantastical with each passing day, but James was ever the storyteller, overjoyed to have an audience.
Enthusiastic but halting, James tried to paint for them a vista of the mind: rolling green hills blanketed by fog, ladies in voluminous dresses every color of the rainbow, tall ships to take him to far-away lands and far-away people. More often than not, his words failed him, and he devolved into broad gestures and odd, invented words that would have the children shrieking with laughter until they inevitably piled upon him like a great mess of newborn pups.
At night, in their house, they huddled together under their furs, knees knocking into knees, and spoke in hushed tones of everything and nothing. The quality of the seal that day. How elegantly Siqiniq fashioned boots from hide and fur. Which child was a bit cheeky at story time.
Rio de Janeiro, half-remembered Portuguese; Banbridge, Irish beaten from the mouth until only English spilled out. A father who never deigned to meet his son’s eye; a father so lost in a bottle of gin, the only way out was by punching. A career growing by leaps and bounds, always dogged by an anxious secret; a career stoppered and thwarted at every turn, no matter the quality of friend or accomplishment. George Barrow’s appetite for lithe young men swathed in richest silks; an indiscretion with Sophia, and the hope it curdled later.
Francis felt himself grow warm in these quiet intimacies, his hand clasped to James’s heart. In his most preposterous fancies, he imagined the head on his shoulder tilting upward, James’s breath mingling with his own.
“Francis,” he imagined James would say in that way he had—low, with a hint of gravel, imploring and weighty with meaning. “Francis,” the impropriety of it, the first presumption of familiarity, the disrespect and then the intimacy. “Francis,” like the touch of heat against his mouth before his lips closed the space between them.
Yes, Francis imagined kissing James. He longed to draw his one good palm, electrified by feeling, over the strength in James’s arms and the velvety silk of his chest. He wished to cup that dear, prickly cheek and look into the eyes he loved so well and say, “Yes, James.” Shamefully and without knowing exactly how such a thing would be possible, he dreamed of pressing himself into the deepest heat of James’s body and swallowing his breath all the while.
He dare not. He suspected James felt the same as he, but in this, Francis was a coward. He could not risk the only happiness he had grasped in years, in decades. He contented himself with the knowledge that having James as his brother was a greater gift than attempting to forge a half life in which neither of them knew where the lines between friend and lover, moral and immoral, wavered.
In James’s arms and out of the sight of God, Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was in love.
Some months into their sojourn with the Netsilik, while their little encampment endured the darkest winter weeks, Francis was permitted to go hunting without a guide.
He had arrived at the igloo his instructor, Nukilik, shared with his family, only to find Nukilik laid low with a chest cold, his children sent to another family's home for their own health.
“He cannot go out on the ice,” Nukilik’s wife, Kanaaq, said, casting a jaundiced eye over Francis as if he might drag Nukilik bodily to their hole in the ice.
“Peace, Kanaaq,” Francis said. “Of course, Nukilik must save his strength.”
Nukilik’s body rattled when he coughed. Francis feared the worst. Kanaaq lifted a waterskin to Nukilik’s lips, and he drank deeply. When he was finished and Kanaaq pulled away, Francis leaned over and clasped the man’s shoulder.
“Rest, friend,” he said. “I will go out on the ice on my own.”
“We have enough food to last us many months,” Nukilik said, his breath labored. “Do not feel you must.”
“Even so,” Francis said. “It is my duty to practice my skills.”
In the swath of furs, Francis saw Nukilik’s mouth quirk in a smile.
“Such as they are,” Nukilik said, or something very like it, in his tongue. Francis chuckled and patted Nukilik’s shoulder.
“I will bring you back the great horn of a narwhal,” Francis said. “Just you wait.”
So, Francis set out on his own. James had early been called upon to work the bones, hides, and sealskins with Siqiniq, and as the months wore on, his stitching had become neater and cleaner, and his blankets and hoods had become fine enough to enter the communal collection. His early efforts, dear, higgledy piggledy rags with uneven, gapping stitches, proved warm despite their aesthetic failures and were kept in their shared house to ward away the cold. He had yet to graduate to more complicated pieces, such as shirts or boots, but he seemed content with his progress, and proud of each item.
Francis knew he was chosen to apprentice to Nukilik because harpooning could be a one-handed job. Certainly the other hand helped to haul in the bounty, but Francis had learned he could brace his handless arm in such a way as to act the lever, missing hand be damned. Theirs was a small community, and other hunters waited for the spring and summer, when they could seek land game and even birds. For the winter, there was only Nukilik, and now Francis. It pleased him to know he was doing his part as a member of the camp. He could put food in James’s belly, and those of these Netsilik, who had done so much for him and James despite all the misfortune they had wrought. Francis was nothing if not a dutiful man. A grateful man.
A careless man too lost in thought to keep watch on his footing.
Down Francis went, and his harpoon with him. He landed on his back whilst the ivory blade of the harpoon embedded itself into his calf. The wind was knocked from his lungs even as the pain dappled his vision. He lay there insensate for long minutes. When he finally caught his breath, he sat up with a groan and groped at his leg to assess the damage. Despite the heavy furs, his harpoon was stuck quite fast, and he dare not extract it himself.
Groaning, he lurched to his feet and stumbled right back down. The injured leg could bear no weight. Francis lay back again to ponder his next moves.
No one would expect him for hours. He could shout, and he would, but he had walked at least a half mile out and could not expect anyone to hear him over the wind and ice formations. He might consider crawling if lying on the ice became unbearable, and if his leg could tolerate the jostling.
James, Amaruq, Nanjuruk—they would search for him before it was time to retire. Well before, hopefully. Even Nukilik or Kanaaq might ask after him. Francis had nothing to fear but the pain and the cold, and the tricks of the mind which whispered insidious cruelties: who would miss you, no one is coming, you are forgotten again, you are not needed or wanted, there is no rescue on the way, there is no rescue on the way, there is no rescue on the way, there is no—
Francis sat up and drew in a deep breath. He blew it all out again, down to the dregs, and then drew one yet deeper. As loud as he could, he shouted.
“James! Amaruq! James! Amaruq!”
Naught but the wind answered him.
“Here!” Francis heard in the Netsilik tongue he knew not how long after he fell. “He’s here!”
And, in English, “Thank God! Francis! We’re here! Francis!”
James fell upon him and grasped his shoulders. In the periphery, Francis could see Amaruq with a lantern and two other men hanging back.
“Francis, my God!” James ran his hands down Francis’s arms, over his chest, and down his hips. “Are you hurt anywhere else? What happened, man?”
“Just the leg,” Francis said, sitting up, “and my own damnable foolishness.”
Despite the consumptive nature of the Arctic darkness, Francis saw a curious thing: James’s whole face split into a smile. James leaned in and clapped his hands over Francis’s cheeks. He let out a whoop and, like a kingfisher plucking its prey from the sea, stole a kiss from Francis’s lips. As Francis sat too dazed to react, he pressed further kisses to Francis’s forehead, his cheeks, his nose of all hideous offenses to the senses, and he laughed all the while.
“Oh, Francis, my mind churned with the worst possible outcomes,” he said, locking Francis in an embrace. “Half-eaten, skull cracked open, fallen through the ice—and here you are, impaled on your own harpoon and telling me it was your own doing!”
“It’s a wonder I survived this long, full stop,” Francis grumbled, but he, too, was smiling.
James pulled back and gazed into his face. The stars were bright above them, but the light in James’s eyes dwarfed them all.
“How glad I am,” James said. “How glad.”
“My arse has frozen so thoroughly I fear it may fall off,” Francis said.
James’s laugh echoed out over the ice. He stood, holding out his hand for Francis to grasp as Amaruq and the others approached. Francis could see now that accompanying Amaruq were Uukkarnit and Taqtu, and that between them they carried a travel cot.
“Up you get, old man,” James said. Amaruq set his lantern down, knelt, and slung Francis’s arm over his shoulder and pushed him into James’s arms in a single, powerful motion. Together they eased Francis onto the cot, careful of the harpoon, and carried him homeward, two men in front and two in the back.
“Nukilik will never let me hear the end of this,” Francis said in Inuktitut.
“Perhaps we should assign you to be a tool runner,” Amaruq said, and James, Uukkarnit and Taqtu laughed. Fetching, cleaning, and returning tools was a child’s job.
Francis grinned and craned his head up. James smiled down at him. He reached with his free hand to pat Francis on the chest.
“Don’t worry, Francis,” he said. “You can be my personal tool runner.”
Francis hummed his assent, and allowed his eyes to fall shut for the rest of the journey.
Taqtu, who served his people as nobly as Goodsir had once served the expedition, sterilized a knife by fire and cut, ever so delicately, the skin and tissue of Francis’s calf just enough to remove the business end of Francis’s harpoon. James held his hand through the procedure and blocked his view of it all the while, speaking of the meaningless minutia of his day with Siqiniq and the children.
When it was done, Taqtu heated his knife again. He called for assistance, and it arrived in the form of his half-grown son, Kallik. Kallik held both of Francis’s legs down with all his might. Taqtu placed a bit of rolled-up hide between Francis’s teeth.
“Steady him,” Taqtu said. James met Francis’s eyes in the low firelight and Francis held his gaze like a lifeline. He nodded once. James grasped his hand and braced their arms over Francis’s chest, and then laid all his weight into him.
Taqtu laid the flat of the scorching knife against the wound, and behind the gag, Francis screamed. Tears leaked unbidden from the corners of his eyes. He was aware of only the bright hot pain of his wound and James’s voice, murmuring nonsense and reassurance. When Taqtu and Kallik pulled away, Francis’s strength left him and he slumped back into hides.
“There now,” James said, smoothing his hands over Francis’s hair, his shoulders. “It’s over.” He helped him sit up and lifted a waterskin to his lips. Francis slurped greedily. “You can ill afford to lose more body parts.”
Francis snorted. A glance at his exposed leg proved Taqtu had made short work of cleaning and dressing the wound.
“Thank you, Taqtu,” he said. Behind James, Taqtu waved a hand.
“I will fetch the cot for you,” he said.
“No, please,” Francis said. “James and I can hobble my carcass thirty strides to our house.”
“It is no trouble,” Taqtu said.
“Nor this,” Francis said. “Please, Taqtu.” He did not know how to say spare me my dignity in Inuktitut.
Taqtu looked at James, who nodded.
“I make a fine walking stick,” James said, and Taqtu cracked a smile. He stepped half out of the tent and paused.
“If you both slip and crack your heads together, I shall be too busy laughing at you to heal you.”
“We would expect nothing less,” James said.
In their own igloo, fresh seal meat awaited them, but also a rare treat: dried caribou, which the Netsilik rationed through the long winter. Both Francis and James were uncommonly fond of the caribou jerky, but knew better than to ask for it overmuch. James eased Francis into their bed of furs and passed him a bit of caribou.
“God in Heaven,” Francis said, holding it to his nose. “If this is how their pity manifests, I ought to injure myself more often.”
“Do not jest, Francis,” James said. “You are not funny.”
“Pah.” Francis nudged him with his good foot. “Then why are you always laughing at my jokes?”
“At you, Francis, never with you,” James said, smirking. He closed his eyes to smell his own portion of caribou. He moaned, a positively indecent sound. “As good as any Sunday roast, I daresay.”
James still dreamt of returning to England, then. Francis felt a curious pang in his chest at the realization.
“Who do you suppose we have to thank for this?” he asked. He tore off a modest corner and held it on his tongue to savor. He would have but a taste, and save the rest for afters.
“Siqiniq, I imagine,” James said. “She was with me when my humor turned and I grew anxious for you.”
Francis’s hand dropped into his lap. He stared at James across the igloo, but James was occupied with tearing his caribou into careful bits.
“What was that?” Francis said.
“You grew anxious for me,” Francis said. “I confess I do not know what that means.”
James paused in his task and looked up, brows raised.
“Call it a sailor’s instinct for his captain,” James said. One shoulder rose and fell without consequence.
“When was this?”
“An hour or so after you spoke with Nukilik. Why?”
“Merely curious,” he said. “I must have fallen not long before then.”
James reached down and squeezed Francis’s ankle. His eyes were the warmest brown.
“Then it was a stroke of serendipity,” he said. “How’s that frozen arse of yours?”
Francis shifted in his seat.
“It can be counted amongst the living,” he said.
James huffed out a laugh.
“A miracle indeed,” he said.
It was always in the dead of night, nestled in their furs, that Francis and James could be plain with one another. That evening, they lay facing each other on their sides, James clasping Francis’s one hand in both of his. Francis was content to gaze into his face, eyes drooping, when he felt James’s breath shudder out of him. When he inhaled again, it was of a ragged quality, and he pulled Francis’s hand up to rest his lips against his knuckles.
“Francis?” he whispered.
“I’m here,” Francis said.
“I couldn’t bear it, when I thought the worst.”
“I’m sorry, James. It was careless, setting out alone.”
“It was the most curious and nerve-wracking sensation,” James said. He fluttered a hand over his heart before setting it back on Francis’s own. “Like an anchor set upon my breast. I was trapped, and I could not breathe.” He pushed his lips desperately against Francis’s fingers, and hooked his knee over Francis’s leg. “If you left me here, Francis…”
Francis extracted his hand from James’s grip to open the palm against his cheek. He stroked his thumb over the fine line of James’s cheekbone. James’s breath would not settle, and now Francis’s seemed ready to match it.
“Darling,” he ventured, and James shuddered again, shifting closer to him. The cradle of his pelvis rocked into Francis’s, the knot of heat and desire unmistakable even through their sleep clothes. Francis ground into him helplessly, and James gave a strangled gasp. “My darling,” Francis said, firmer now. “I am here with you, and should never wish to be parted.”
James shifted to cup Francis’s cheeks in both hands, and Francis scarcely had time to savor the sensation before James claimed his lips in a kiss. His kiss was firm and assertive in a way that felt foreign but heady, and when he opened his mouth and swept the tip of his hot tongue on the inside of Francis’s lower lip, Francis knew he was done for. All his restraint, all his fear—James drew it from him like the breath from his lungs and thus exhaled it, an inconsequential waste.
James turned his face away, breathing hard, but he pulled his bed shirt up and yanked at Francis’s as well, so that when he gathered Francis close, they were skin to skin.
“Francis,” James was saying, “oh, Francis, Francis, how I’ve wanted this.”
Francis ducked down to seal his mouth over James’s again. James moaned into him and, careful of Francis’s wound, slung a leg about Francis’s hip and pushed into Francis’s hardness with his own. Francis reached down and freed them both from the confines of their small clothes. He gasped as the sensations of the cold air and the electric spark of intimate contact assailed him in the same moment. His head lolled back when James took them both in hand and frigged them with tight, sure strokes. James took the opportunity to press his open mouth to Francis’s neck, sucking kisses into his pulse point, the hollow of his throat, the softness behind his ear. Francis grunted and thrust into the tightness of of James’s hands.
“I wish I could see you properly,” he said.
“The sun will rise in several weeks’ time,” James panted, “and then I will lay you out in all your glory upon these furs and look my fill.”
Francis rolled onto his back and pulled James atop him. He stuck his poorly leg out so they wouldn’t jostle it, but James propped himself up with one arm and kept the rhythm with the other, displaying the same ease and grace in this as he did in all things bodily and physical. They swallowed their groaning as they pushed and pulled in James’s hand. Francis’s gaze roved between the rhapsody of James’s expression, the elegance of his collarbone, and the shocking hunger of their two cocks, livid and drooling in James’s unrelenting grip.
Francis felt his groin tighten, and he wanted nothing more than to feel as much of James’s skin as possible. He surged up and grasped James’s hair at the base of his skull and plundered his mouth. James answered in kind, groaning into his mouth and allowing himself to collapse bodily into Francis. Francis thrust up, the head of his prick catching against James’s calloused palm, his shaft slick against James’s own, and he was done for. He spent with a strangled gasp, and James lifted himself away to peer down at him in wonder.
“Francis, are you—” His breath hitched, he threw back his head, and through the haze of fading bliss, Francis saw and felt James spend himself over Francis’s own manhood and belly. Francis’s prick twitched again in optimistic sympathy, and then James slid off of him and slumped against his side. Francis groped blindly for his hand and James obliged. Neither cared how soiled this touch was, nor gave thought to the essence drying on their skin.
“Never leave me, Francis,” James murmured into the humid air between them. Francis shifted and turned his head so his lips rested on the soft bed of hair on James’s crown. James pressed his face into the tender flesh between Francis’s chest and his armpit, and Francis laid his handless arm over James’s shoulders.
“Not if I can help it,” he said. “Not for all the wonders of Heaven and Earth.”
He dare not elicit an answering promise from James. It was enough to lie with him here, warm and flush with his affections. The silken locks of James’s hair tickled his wrist. He stroked through it until his breath came deep and slow, and he let a sated sleep take him.
With the sunrise and the springtime came the thaw they had so hoped for when they were still occupying the ships. The Netsilik celebrated with a feast and drumming and a sort of guttural singing Francis had never heard before. A few proficients tried to teach Francis and James the technique, but their attempts merely resulted in laughter all around.
They would be able to fish properly soon, and hunting parties would be sent out for caribou in just a few weeks. Breath no longer hung in the air like an afterthought. Even children ran about without their hoods and mitts. Francis took to leaving his overcoat open and his muffler—a new one made by James’s hand—at home.
They would also have to leave their igloo soon. The Netsilik would follow the animals, and the summer would find their people living in hide tents. Francis hated the idea of abandoning the home that the Netsilik had built them out of ice and kindness, the home that had seen them through the winter and the end of their physical ailments, the home where he and James had become something far greater than friend or brother. But that was the way of these people who had opened their community and their hearts to them. The igloo would melt, and they would trail the game.
It was a time of refreshment and renewal, contentment in Francis’s heart and on James’s face—and Francis found that, quite without his volition, his mind turned to the Hudson Bay Company.
On the third day of sunshine, Amaruq sent Francis and James to check the perimeter for evidence of wolves.
“Christ,” James said. “Not a peep about wolves all winter, and suddenly we have to keep an eye out for wolves?”
“We may be too far north for wolves yet,” he said. “But with the thaw…”
“And if we should find tracks?”
“I’m sure Amaruq is well-prepared for the possibility,” Francis said. “Besides, what did you think those ivory and bone blades you were carving all winter were for?”
“Making new harpoons!” James said. He reached back for Francis’s hand when the melting snow made his footing unsteady. Francis caught James’s arm and his own balance.
“As it happens, harpoons are quite fatal to all manner of beasts,” he said, panting. James locked their fingers together.
“Don’t remind me,” he muttered, sending a significant glance towards Francis’s leg.
“Oh, hush,” Francis said. “It was dark and I was thinking of how noble I was, not having my way with you.”
“Ah, so,” James said with a barely contained smirk. “The fault lies with me, then.”
“Truly a burden,” Francis said.
They ambled along hand in hand, investigating every suspicious mark in the snow, but what they found was mostly melt, and nothing to report. Francis then led them out farther still to a constellation of fishing holes to see if anything besides their own party had disturbed them, and indeed, something had.
“Not too close,” he said, setting a quelling hand on James’s chest. James froze in place. “The holes are widening.”
Francis yanked at the collar of his sealskin shirt. It may have been his imagination, but he fancied he saw steam rise from the gap between shirt and skin.
“I’m hot, James,” he said. “Unfathomable even a week ago.”
James tipped his face up, eyes sliding shut.
“At home, I suppose the gardens are in bloom.”
Francis felt his heart grown leaden and fall into the deepest pit of his stomach. He cast his gaze out over the ice. Where once he saw only a barren hell, he now saw sunshine, water flow, a peaceful, simple life. There would be birds soon, and fish, and caribou. And, if his eyes did not deceive him in the camp, babies.
What did James see?
Francis passed his hand over his face. James belonged in England, among the finery of the latest fashions, flanked by admirers, fêted at banquets, studded with every medal the Admiralty could find, feasting on duck and fruit and sweets. Not grateful for a bit of raw seal. Not covetous over dried caribou. Not lashed to a handless old Irishman with no good name or fortune.
Francis drew a clean breath. James would never get this kind of air in London, his mind murmured like a snake in a garden. Francis shook his head to cast away the thought.
He stalked away to inspect some indentations in the crusts of leftover snow. James dithered some twenty feet behind him, opining on hyacinths and English roses. If Francis closed his eyes, he could see James in his mind’s eye, taking a turn about the grounds of a stately country manor, admiring each bloom and finely wrought leaf. And he could not imagine himself at his side. There would be more suitable companions for him once he reached the shores of his home.
Francis knew well enough by now that James would not choose to marry upon his return to England; women did not move him. But Francis was a pragmatist and a realist: James was young and hale and terribly handsome. The wasting of the scurvy was behind him and the lost teeth were but another dashing tale to tell to a rapt audience. He would be a decorated officer rewarded with glamorous new expeditions, this time as a first. He would make his promises to Francis, who would likely be discharged in disgrace, but he would sail away and find someone younger, as handsome as he, and never return to Francis’s arms. Francis could not even find it in himself to blame him, but here under cover of the Arctic sky, where a man could be alone with his heaviest thoughts, he could nurse his hurt.
He would get James back to England, even if it destroyed him.
They would need supplies. Food, their compasses, a harpoon, a tent, blankets, knives, extra clothing and outerwear, all the things to make a fire, something in which to drag everything. Francis ran a tally in his mind, but dread limned its edges and he felt harassed by the sense that he was forgetting something.
“Francis!” James jogged up to Francis’s position. “Have you seen something?” He had a flush in his face and excitement in his eyes.
“Nothing yet,” Francis said. “Do you want there to be wolves, James?”
“Hardly!” James said. “But wouldn’t it be something?”
“Something damned dangerous,” Francis snapped. “I’m surprised you didn’t bring a bow and quiver of arrows to defend against a ravening pack.”
“What’s got into you then?”
Francis whipped around and stomped back down the melt.
“I am trying to get through this assignment,” he said. “So we can return and start putting our plans together.”
“What bloody plans?”
Francis cursed James’s long-legged strides; he was no match for them.
“The thaw is upon us,” he said.
“A fact as plain as day, Francis, and?”
“And we must consider our options!”
“Speak plain, man, for God’s sake!”
“If we’re going to go,” Francis said, choosing each word with care. James pivoted toward him with wide, disbelieving eyes. Francis cleared his throat. “If we’re going to head for the Company, we should do it soon, to give ourselves as much time as possible. Tomorrow, if we can gather the supplies.”
James turned to face him fully. He planted his feet wide, as he might once have done when the two of them were sailors, captains, men with something to prove. He drew himself to his full height, shoulders back, chest puffed out.
“And just what do you mean by that, Francis?”
“We have our strength and the winter has passed,” Francis said. “This is the time to set out.”
“And what? Walk seven hundred miles just the two of us, dragging a kayak of supplies?”
“I thought you were the best walker in the navy.”
“Do you want to go home, James?” Francis demanded. “Do you want to see England again? Because this is our last chance for another year—if the thaw deigns to come again!”
“Is this what you’ve been planning all this time?” James said, voice raised. “While those people clothed and fed us, built us a home and jested with us, taught us their skills and kept us company, you were, what? Counting down the days ’til you could leave? And raid their stores while you were at it?”
“I planned no such thing!”
“I thought you were happy here!”
“I bloody well am!” Francis bellowed. “It is you who will grow weary of this place, you who will grow weary of the tedium of our every days, you who will grow weary of me!”
James’s jaw clacked shut. His fists clenched at his side, but he visibly calmed himself even as a fire blazed in his eyes.
“How could you think that, Francis?” he ground out. “How could you think so little of me, after all this time?”
Francis shook his head.
“I think only of your happiness, James,” he said, exhausted. “That is all I want: your happiness.”
“And you think dragging me away from our hard-won peace, our—our—” James gestured at the space between them. “—is going to give me that?”
Francis’s stout determination wavered along with the beat of his heart.
“I thought to give you the option of—”
“We’re never going to see England again, Francis,” James said abruptly. “Nor Ireland, nor Brazil, nor China, nor India, nor Antarctica. If we set out on our own, we will die. If we leave the Netsilik, we will die. What is my happiness, Francis, but to be safe and alive with you?” He spread his arms out and then dropped them, shoulders slumped as if defeated. “What is my happiness but something I thought I had, in uncommon abundance?”
“I love you, Francis,” James blurted, and Francis’s heart stopped. “And God has not struck me down for it. Instead He has allowed it to grow and grow in my heart, unfettered. I cannot be sorry for it. If you do not feel the same, I—”
Seized by a tide of feeling, Francis strode towards him with purpose until they were toe to toe, and he placed the tips of his fingers on James’s working lips.
“Hush, now,” he said. “It was only for love of you that the notion took hold. Do not trouble yourself with thoughts of inconstancy, like this foolish old man.”
James’s breath left him in a rush and he inhaled sharply before tangling his hands in the hair at the base of Francis’s skull and crushing his lips to his own.
Francis moaned and clutched James round the neck. James thrust his tongue into Francis’s mouth and sent a frisson of electricity down his spine and into his balls. Francis pressed himself bodily against James, who allowed himself to stumble backward until his back hit an outcropping of ice. Francis took the opportunity to kiss him deeper, press in closer. James bunched his cold hands into Francis’s shirt and hauled him closer still.
“Take me, Francis,” James said, voice harsh. “Here, now. I must have you.” He pushed off Francis’s overcoat and shrugged out of his own. They pooled huge at their feet. Hot and dazed, Francis let him yank the shirt over his head and the trousers down his arse, let him drag him bodily into the furs and rub himself into Francis, skin to skin. The cool of the air and the heat of James’s finely-hewn body was a dizzying shock of sensation in which Francis wished to lose himself entirely.
“Your boots, Francis,” James said.
“James, the camp—”
“Is a mile away and not likely to send anyone fishing just now.”
James ducked down to make short work of both pairs of boots himself. When they were cast away, he set his wicked mouth and dextrous tongue against Francis’s ankle.
Surprise belted a grunt out of him, and a hissed curse. The sensation of it was almost that of being tickled, if tickling were as fingers reaching deep into the blood to harass all that stirred him.
“James,” he panted, “please.”
James showed him no quarter, but roved his sucking kisses up Francis’s calf and over his healed wound, behind his knee and up the inside of his thigh, only to land on the crease where his leg became his body, and Francis jerked half upward at the touch of that delicious tongue. He stroked his fingers through James’s hair, but James reached up and closed his hand over Francis’s and pushed.
“God,” Francis said, casting his gaze Heavenward. The sky was endless, punctuated by friendly clouds like candy floss. Light beamed around them like a blessing. Perhaps God was with them, even in this. “God, James.”
He gripped James by the hair, just the way he knew he wanted, and James moaned loudly, without a care to who might hear. He sucked Francis’s prick down, sure to tongue the slit with generous abandon, and Francis cried out. James bobbed over his cock with vigor and enthusiasm as Francis kept hold of his hair. He had not the heart to push as he suspected James might long for, but he steadied him there and held fast.
Francis propped himself up on his stump and gave himself leave to gaze down at James, whose dark lashes made a fan against the high blush on his cheeks. He loved the sight of it almost as much as he loved the sensation: the suck and the heat, the pulse of James’s tongue, the stretch of his lips around Francis’s girth, James’s heady and obvious enjoyment.
“You’re so good, James,” Francis said, and James’s eyes fluttered open. Francis moaned. He had never seen James eyes like this before, hooded with desire and lit by the sun. James groaned and swallowed him yet deeper. “Yes, you’re so good to me, aren’t you, darling,” Francis said.
He stroked through James’s hair, down the strong line of his neck, over his shoulders and down his back. He was pale, paler than he should be, but his skin was pristine, the richest cream. Francis’s eyes fell shut and his head lolled backward. He let out a long moan. He kept stroking down, down, down until he reached the sweet downy crests of James’s arse cheeks. James whimpered and pressed up into the contact. Francis tucked his fingertips into the crease of James’s arse and rubbed firmly, unerringly, against James’s furrowed hole.
James had confessed this desire to Francis in hushed tones in their igloo, as if Francis should think the less of him for it when it was the very act which had preoccupied Francis’s mind for long months. Francis confessed in turn that he had no experience with such delights, and, abashed, told James that he had assumed “fucking arse,” as sailors were wont to jape, involved laying one’s codger into the crease of the arse and pressing the cheeks tight against it. James laughed and laughed, and kissed him into a delirium, and taught him just how to touch him, to open him, to slide inside and find both his own ecstasy and James’s.
James was mewling around his mouthful of cock, grinding backward into Francis’s touch. Francis pulled back and his prick popped from James mouth. James blinked at him in a daze, his face slick, and Francis felt such a rush of tenderness. He cupped James’s face and rubbed his thumb over the swell of James’s lower lip.
“Lie back,” he said. “I want to see you—as you are.”
James leaned in to kiss him, and Francis obliged. He bore James down until he lay supine among the furs. He knelt above him, bracketing his hips with his knees, and looked his fill. James’s blush spilled from his cheeks and down his neck to spread, mottled, across his chest. His hair pooled, soft and shiny, behind his head. His mouth was red and indecent. His prick was hard and leaking, a heavy column lolling against his belly, the color of fine wine. Francis set his hand and his stump on either of James’s flanks and stroked upward until he could rub roughly the tight nubs of James’s nipples. James moaned, splaying his own hands over the sparse puff of Francis’s chest hair, and spread his legs. Francis rearranged himself to kneel between them, eyes trained on James’s as he hooked his knees in both hands and spread himself wide for Francis’s perusal. Francis’s tongue darted out to wet his lips, and James’s blush deepened. His eyes slipped shut even as he tilted his hips upward, and Francis shoved his knees under his arse to hold him up.
Francis rubbed down James’s belly, skirted the hard line of his cock and swept down to cup the swell of one cheek. Sunlight spilled into the crease of James’s arse, where a smattering of dark hair framed the winking hole. Francis drew his fingers down over it lovingly.
“Lovely, you are,” Francis said, voice gone rough. “I should like you in the sun always, James.”
“Francis, I need you,” James said.
Francis hummed and pressed firm circles around James’s hole until he whimpered and his cock twitched out a steady stream of clear fluid. Francis gathered it to slick over James’s hole, and James began to beg.
“Please, Francis,” he said. “Have mercy. I need it, I need you, Francis, please.”
And so on.
Francis pulled away just long enough to dig through the furs and find in his coat pocket a tiny waterskin with whale blubber inside. The blubber had many uses out on the ice, including as an unguent against wind, water, and cold, but he and James had found it singular in its capacity to ease the way in their unification. Francis drew out a generous dollop and spread it over James’s hole.
“God, Francis, yes,” he gasped.
Francis pressed in with circular motions, first one finger and then a second. James cried out and rocked up into him, the muscles of his arse as hungry and grasping as any starving mouth. Francis shuffled closer, his own aching prick budged up against James’s arse, but he worked in a third finger until James shouted. He rolled his knuckles in a tight half moon against the smooth walls of James’s arse and ducked his head to suck James’s cock into his mouth.
James’s cry echoed down the ice formations. He tightened around Francis’s fingers even as he thrust up into Francis’s mouth. Francis loved this—his fingers buried inside James, James buried in his mouth, the head of his prick a perfect swell against his palate. He curled his fingers against the firm gland inside and was rewarded with a pulse of salt against his tongue.
James was pleading now.
“Francis, please, I can’t take it. Please, take me, I need you, have mercy, Francis, Francis.”
Carefully Francis extracted his fingers and lined up his cock. He met James’s gaze—nothing between themselves and the sky, no clothes, no shame, no illusions. The sunlight on their naked bodies, their union before God and ice, felt like a kind of absolution. Francis slid inside with a single stroke. James’s head fell back into the furs, his mouth open and gasping even as he locked his legs about Francis’s hips.
Francis let his rhythm build until he was pumping into James with all the force of a steamboat engine. James was keening, arse squeezing relentlessly as his own hand flew over his straining prick. Francis couldn’t tear his eyes from James’s face, twisted in elation. Francis told him he was the most beautiful sight he’d ever beheld. Francis told him they would never be parted. Francis told him he cherished him.
James seized up around Francis’s cock and choking breaths stuttered out of him. He clamped his free hand around the back of Francis’s neck, and hauled him down with admirable strength.
“Fuck, James, yes,” Francis gasped into his mouth. James’s arse strangled his cock, he squeezed his eyes shut, and he spent all over his hand and belly. A great grunt punctuated his climax, and Francis fucked him through the aftershocks, his arse fluttering around Francis’s cock all the while.
“Spend in me Francis,” James murmured into his ear, because he knew Francis had a weakness for such talk. His hands roamed gently over Francis’s back. “I want to be full of you, I want to feel you drip from me all day.”
“God,” Francis said, his thrusts stuttering. “God, James.”
James clamped down on Francis’s cock and sucked the skin behind his ear, and with a cry Francis slammed in as deep as he could manage and spent himself helplessly, ecstatically into James’s body.
When Francis regained his senses, he was nestled comfortably in James’s embrace, one of their greatcoats slung over their nudity. He squinted up to find James studying the sky, brow free of troubles.
“That cloud looks like nothing much at all, wouldn’t you say, Francis?”
“I used to lie out in my aunt’s—in Mrs. Coningham’s garden, and discern all manner of shapes from the clouds. Now I’ve found I’ve quite lost the knack.”
Francis shifted to lie on his back. Indeed, the cloud looked like naught but a cloud, floating happily above all the ills of the Earth.
“I’m afraid I was never fanciful enough of a lad to get into the habit, myself,” Francis said.
“Perhaps you were always meant to find your way by the stars instead.”
Francis turned his head to press his lips against James’s bare shoulder.
“We should head back,” he said. “They’ll wonder where we’ve gone off to.”
“They’ll send a search party,” James said, a smile on his lips. “Ready the sick tent.”
Francis tweaked a nipple and James yelped.
“Dirty pool,” James said.
“All’s fair,” Francis replied, and with a grunt he staggered to his feet.
Without the heat of desire, Francis felt sheepish to be nude in the open, but James looked like grace incarnate, as natural as if he were born to wear nothing but sunlight. And, wonder of wonders, he cast an admiring gaze over Francis’s person.
“I knew it,” James said.
“That you would be devastating like this,” James said, setting a hand over Francis’s heart. “In the light and open air. My Francis.”
Francis gathered him in an embrace. Their skin was cool now, the gooseflesh raised. They would have to get dressed. They would have to walk into the encampment having let go each other’s hand, and trying not to look as though they were desperately in love. But for now, they could stand naked in the sun before God and all Creation, and be happy.
The following spring delivered a less dramatic thaw, and Amaruq staid his hand on the order to move out. So it was that one evening in the early spring, everyone was gathered round a fire singing songs and telling stories when a lone figure crested over the ice and approached the encampment from the sou’west.
A group of English might feel a ripple of unease, but one of the things Francis most admired about the Netsilik was that, when confronted with a stranger, their first reaction was not how can we defend? but how can we help? Amaruq, sat beside him, smacked a big hand against Francis’s shoulder and met James’s eye over Francis’s head before he rose.
“Taqtu and I will go greet them,” he said. “Ready a meal for our visitor.”
Francis nodded and stood to follow the order, but he needn’t have gone to the trouble—food passed from hand to hand around the fire until he and James had a heap so large they could not hold it all in their hands. Francis looked at James, whose expression was soft in the firelight. Francis’s heart swelled.
Of the two of them, James was the first to discern her face. Francis saw his eyes widen and his mouth fall open. When Francis frowned, James nodded to indicate Amaruq and Taqtu behind him, returning to camp.
“Look, Francis,” he said, and Francis turned around.
The visitor was Silna, and lashed to her back was an infant, barely more than a year old, naught but a set of eyes swathed in furs.
“My God, Silna,” Francis said, and rushed to her. He was grinning ear to ear, and he squeezed her biceps in his excitement. In the Netsilik tongue he said, “What a gift it is to see you again.”
Silna patted his arms back in greeting and graced him with a soft smile. Behind him, James lurked until Francis stepped aside.
“I never got the chance to thank you, before,” James said. If she was surprised that he spoke with such fluency, her face did not show it. “I am grateful beyond measure for my life—for Francis’s life.” He seized one of her hands in both of his and squeezed. “Thank you, Silna.” He, too, earned a tremulous smile. “Your child is beautiful,” James said, and the smile disappeared.
“The child is not hers,” Amaruq said. “It is a foundling, left too long on the ice. A decision must be made. Bring the food.”
Taqtu returned to his family by the fire, but Amaruq beckoned Francis and James to follow him to his igloo.
Inside, Silna freed the child from its swaddling, and Francis could see that it was female, with big eyes and big cheeks and soft hair that listed upwards. Silna offered her fresh seal. She squealed and grabbed at it with chubby fingers.
“Whose child is she?” James ventured.
Amaraq shook his head, and Silna did not look up from her task. After several more bites, Amaruq lifted the child into his lap.
“Child,” he intoned. “What is your name?”
Those luminous eyes blinked up at him.
“Your name, child,” Amaruq said.
“Tulimaq,” she said, and Amaruq smiled, smoothed her hair. That sealed it: she could not have been alone with Silna all her life.
“Tulimaq is a strong name for a strong girl,” he said.
Silna swiped at her eyes. Francis touched her arm. She turned her face to the wall.
Francis and James looked up at their names. Amaruq’s mouth was a hard line.
“Tulimaq needs a home,” Amaruq said. “She cannot stay with Silna.”
“But—” Francis glanced at Silna again, who had turned her whole body away, lest they see her tears. “She loves her.”
“She loves her enough to leave her among those who would feed her, and clothe her, and protect her, and educate her, and speak to her.” Amaruq punctuated his pronouncement with a fist on his thigh. “She has done all she can for her, but the girl needs family. She needs community. She needs other children.”
“Silna should stay, then,” Francis said.
“Francis,” James said.
“She should be able to stay!”
James laid an arm against Francis’s chest and held him fast.
“This is the way of things,” James said. “Peace, Francis.”
“She knows what is right even if you do not,” Amaruq said.
“How can this be right?” Francis demanded. “How can it be right to turn a woman out into the cold? Tear a child from the arms of the only mother she’s known?”
“Francis, Silna is giving us the child,” James said. “She is trusting us to love her as she loves her.”
Francis shook his head.
“I have never even held a baby!” Francis said.
“It is not difficult,” Amaruq said.
Francis cast about for something to say on this impossible request. He had once desired children with Sophia, it was true, but his thoughts around it were rosy and vague—the beatific mother, the pride of creation, a father’s duty ending at marbles on the parlor floor. Not this—a black-eyed, half-frozen foundling, skinny and hungry and speaking already, needing things from him to keep her alive. No mother, no wet nurse, no nappy or nanny or governess. Who could possibly think him up to the task?
“Surely—surely a girl needs a mother,” he sputtered.
“You will be mother and father to her,” Amaruq said. “As will Iqiak. This is a blessing, Aglooka.”
“The other families—”
“Their homes are full, Francis,” James said.
“This is a blessing,” Amaruq said again. “You are as married now.”
“We have no idea how to take care of a child!” Francis said, and then froze. He glanced at James, who was wide eyed and blinking. “We’re what?”
“You have been blessed with a child,” Amaruq said. “Now you are a family. These are glad tidings.” Amaruq patted them both on the shoulder, and then lifted Talimaq under the armpits and presented her to them.
“I—Amaruq, I do not understand.”
“This is how their people marry, Francis,” James said in English.
“Yes, thank you for your insight, James!”
“They know, Francis. They know and they don’t mind.”
Francis’s breath left him in a rush.
Had they been so obvious? Francis’s mind raced along with his heart. They must have been. Love was many things, but discreet was rarely one of them. He felt a fool—a fool who had played a dangerous game without ever knowing. It was only luck that this band of Netsilik did not think them vile, unnatural men who should be cast from the bosom of their friendship.
“Stop shouting, for God’s sake!” James hissed. “You’re scaring her.”
James took Tulimaq from Amaruq’s hands just as her lip began to tremble.
“There now,” he said to her in her own tongue. He bounced her on his knee. “There’s a good girl. You’re home. You’re home.”
Amaruq looked pleased. Silna slipped out of the igloo, and Amaruq stopped Francis from following. Francis subsided, and cast his gaze upon James, who was charming Tulimaq into giving him a big grin full of tiny white teeth. She babbled nonsense. Even in the dark, Francis could see James’s joy.
Amaruq reached out and squeezed Francis’s shoulders.
“Congratulations, Aglooka,” he said. “We will prepare a feast.” Amaruq left the igloo.
James looked up from making Tulimaq giggle. The corner of his mouth quirked upward. Something in Francis’s chest settled and broke open, warming him from the inside. Surely, with James by his side, he could do anything.
Marriage. Family. Acceptance. All the things he’d ever wanted, Providence—and Silna—had provided, only in ways he’d never dreamt. Or perhaps he was under the eye of the Netsilik gods now. That comforted him in a way the empty rituals of his childhood never had, even as his mind remained a muddle. Everything had changed in a moment, and he had no map to consult going forward.
Francis shifted closer. Gingerly, he placed his good hand on Tulimaq’s head and slung his other arm around James’s neck. He held them close. He breathed them deep.
James was uncommonly good with the child. Francis should have expected it, the way he charmed and occupied the children of the camp with his tall tales and little games, but he had never thought there was anything behind it. As the weeks wore on, it became obvious: James was a born parent.
Francis, on the other hand, was drowning.
James knew what all her different cries meant—this one for hunger, that one for sleep, this one for piss and that one for shit. There was also anger and fright and cold and hot and hurt and God only knew what else, but to Francis it all sounded like scraping on his eardrums and the erosion of his sanity. Even her happiness was shrill and her babbling tedious.
He missed James. He missed talking about something other than the child. He missed walking with him out beyond the camp, discussing the past and the present and the future and what the ice was doing and rhetorical philosophy and the nature of God. He missed having him right there under the open sky. He missed reaching for him in the night and finding the swell of his arse inviting his touch. He missed the weight of James’s prick on his tongue, James’s hands grasping at his hips, James saying his name like a prayer when he was about to spend.
He couldn’t even hold the girl properly. She wriggled from his grip with fractious discontent. Likewise, he had not found ease in the company of the other men and women raising children and trading off watching them the way James had.
Between them in the dark, Tulimaq squirmed and whimpered. Francis rolled onto his side, facing away from her. She kicked him in the kidney. He huffed and scooted closer to the wall. The blanket fell away from him, and he huffed again.
Slowly, he eased the blanket back over him, only to cringe when Tulimaq belted out a blood-curdling shriek.
“All right, all right,” he said. “Jaysus.”
He turned and arranged the fur over her again, but she would not be appeased. She was awake now, screaming and flailing. James only groaned and turned over.
“There there,” Francis whispered, patting her through the blanket. “Hush now. It’s sleepy time.”
She only shrieked louder. She reached her thin arms out at him, her hands squeezing shut and open and shut again, rhythmic. She made a sound like “ma,” and Francis’s frazzled nerves and heavy heart tore at him.
“I don’t know where your ma is,” he whispered. “You’ll just have to make do with us.”
“Francis, I need to sleep,” James said, and of course he did; Francis could hear the exhaustion in his voice. “Just pick her up and rock her, for God’s sake.”
“She hates me!”
“She doesn’t hate you.” He was peevish, now. Wonderful. “Please, Francis, let me sleep.”
Francis sighed voluminously and pushed the blankets away from himself. He shrugged into his overcoat. He plucked the girl up by her armpits and held her away from himself as he left the tent. She wailed ceaselessly as Francis made his way quickly away from the camp. They went past an overcropping of ice, now slowly melting, and were confronted with the vast expanse of the land, peeking out brown between patches of stubborn snow. The stars glittered above them, indifferent. Tulimaq wailed.
Rock her, James had said. Francis swung her side to side. She kept screaming.
“Come on, come on,” Francis said. His stump was about to fail him, so he braced her against his chest and started bouncing. “What do you need? A song? I only know dirty sailors’ songs.”
From his memory rose a cradle song, its tune and lyrics indistinct. His mother, or perhaps his sisters, must have sung it to him, more than half a century ago. He cast his eyes up to the heavens and began to hum. In his arms, Tulimaq ceased her fidgeting, but her cries persisted. He twisted to and fro at the hips and bounced. Long-forgotten words in a long-forgotten tongue began to creep into his humming, but he dare not sing in earnest; his singing was liable to make her ears bleed, and he’d never get a wink of rest again.
It spoke to his exhaustion that he did not hear the footsteps approaching, and was startled to hear a voice besides his own.
“Are you trying to soothe her, or punish her?”
Francis whipped around to find Siqiniq leaning against an ice formation some twenty feet away, hands stuck in the pockets of her overcoat.
“Did we wake you?” Francis asked. “My apologies.”
“I was not asleep,” she said. She pushed off the ice and trudged towards them. She stood toe to toe with Francis, and reached out. He thought to pass Tulimaq over, but Siqiniq only rearranged his hold on her so she was closer to his chest and his grip more sure. Siqiniq stepped back. “Like this,” she said, and held her arms out to mime him, and then swung them, and her body, gently back and forth.
Francis tried, gingerly.
“Make your movements flow like water,” Siqiniq said. She demonstrated, as effortless as tall grass bending in the breeze. She looked like she was dancing. Francis hated to dance. He only tolerated balls and banquets because his commission and his suit of Sophia made it necessary. He was stiff and mockable on the dance floor. He hated people looking at him, especially with pity, but here, there was only the ice and the sky and Siqiniq and the weeping of his would-be daughter. And Siqiniq was an elder who had seen worse things than Francis Crozier’s dancing. He leaned into it and began to sway. Siqiniq’s eyes crinkled, and she nodded to the child in his arms.
Francis looked down. Tulimaq’s eyes were wide and clear, the tears glistening on her lashes. Her fingers were clutched in the furs of Francis’s coat. Her mouth was pursed and slick with spit and tears, but blessedly shut. She stared up at him, the stars reflected in the black pools of her irises. She let go of her coat and reach up to squeeze Francis’s cheek. Francis’s heart hammered.
“Oh,” he said.
She was in there, he realized. A whole person. She had things she liked and things she hated and things she tolerated. She liked James’s voice and the faces he made and the rattle she was given and the soft buttery hides her shirts were made of. She hated whale blubber and sealskin and Uukkarnit’s singing. She tolerated Francis. She was going to grow and learn and listen to their stories and be defiant and stumble and hurt herself and take down caribou and walrus and narwhal and row away in a kayak and present them with babies and repeat her fathers’ stories and see them through their dotage and cry when they were gone and Francis wanted that. He wanted all of it.
“Hello,” he said. “Hello, Tulimaq.”
Francis kept swaying, even when he sat against the outcropping of ice. Siqiniq took a seat beside him and produced a bit of dried caribou. She held some out to him. He shook his head, and she drew back, tore some off, put it in her mouth and ground away at it like an old sailor with a bag of chewing tobacco.
“You have none of your own, back home?” she asked.
Francis glanced at her. Her gaze was trained on a distant point.
“I’m afraid I was…a late thaw,” Francis said.
“It is a lucky thing,” she said, “to thaw at all.” She tore off more caribou with her teeth.
“Do you have children?” Francis asked. Most of the Netsilik did, but not all.
Siqiniq said nothing, and Francis turned his attentions back to Tulimaq, who had taken to patting his cheek with increasing force. He caught her hand and held on. After a long while, Siqiniq spoke.
“My children are dead, and so is my wife.”
Francis felt a fierce and curious grief grip him quite suddenly.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I mourn with you.”
“It was a long time ago,” she said. “A long, long time.”
“Some hurts do not heal,” Francis said. He tightened Tulimaq in his embrace. She mewled and he released her. She climbed into his lap and burrowed her face under his coat. He closed his arms around her and set himself swaying again.
“When our first was yet to be born, I was wild for want of him,” Siqiniq said. “I wished to meet him and know him and speak to him. It was different for my wife, who did not carry him. She was confounded by my bond with him, resentful even, until he was born. Then it was as if he was all she could look at. He needed my milk to survive, and yet I felt as though it was she whom he looked to for comfort, for songs, for smiles. It was as though I were nothing but a meal.”
“You were jealous.”
“Of whom, I wonder?” she said, giving him a sidelong glance and a smirk.
“Both of them,” Francis murmured. Shame suffused him, but Siqiniq nodded. “How did you overcome this?” he asked.
“I was not myself with my son,” she said. “I was nervous and tense, as if he were someone to impress. Yuka—my wife—was so natural. It was so easy for her. What was my lack, I wondered? What was so wrong with me that my own son could not find comfort with me? But then, on a night much like this one, when Yuka had gone out on the hunt, I was alone with Alornerk and I could not bear to weep over him any longer. What do you want from me? I demanded. Foolish, I know—he was but an infant.”
“No,” Francis said. “You were at your wit’s end.”
“He laughed,” Siqiniq said. “I was shouting at him and he laughed. He laughed like a little fox—eheheheheheh. I blew on his belly and he laughed until he was shrieking, and then I was laughing too. I laughed until my stomach hurt. I laughed until I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes, I still think of him and laugh.”
Francis found himself grinning at her, and she caught his eye and cracked a smile.
“Yuka told me later if it had gone on much longer, she was going to shake me until the stupid parts fell out.”
“She sounds like—” There was no word for firecracker that he could think of. “—a spark,” he said.
“Hm. Spark. I like that. That’s what she was, a spark in the darkness. A spark on the ice. A spark in our igloo.” Siqiniq cackled, and Francis barked out a laugh himself that reverberated over the ice.
“How did you—” Francis’s face flamed, and he looked away. Siqiniq peered at him with curiosity. He pitched his voice low. “How did you make marital time?”
Siqiniq guffawed and Francis was reminded quite forcibly of Thomas Blanky. The ache of his absence persisted, but Francis ventured a sideways glance at Siqiniq and was soothed by the smirk on her face.
“Very quietly,” she said.
“You just—” Francis cleared his throat. “Right there beside them?”
“When they’re young, they sleep hard,” she said. “When they’re older, you just tell them to go away.” She laughed heartily and slapped her thigh.
Francis chuckled and gazed upon Tulimaq’s face. She was asleep. Francis touched a thumb to her cheek—an impossible softness, greater than any rose petal.
Siqiniq squinted at him, and then reached for Tulimaq.
“There is also the time-honored tradition of leaving Baby with Grandmother,” she said.
Francis wanted to. He wanted to hand Tulimaq over and slip into his tent and wake James by sealing his mouth over his cock, but he couldn’t tear his eyes from Tulimaq’s face. He drew his thumb over her eyebrow, around the shell of her ear, down her cheek, over her little rosebud mouth and along the strong line of her chin. Before him, all the stars of the galaxy shimmered their light, but all he could see was her.
“Perhaps tomorrow,” he murmured.
The next morning, to James’s astonishment, Francis swept Tulimaq from his arms and marched her to Siqiniq’s tent. He caught up with James, still hopping into one boot, halfway back after he had deposited the girl.
“What’s all this then?” James said.
“I’m taking a turn round the room with the best walker in Her Majesty’s Naval Service.”
Francis grinned at him and linked their arms. James had a befuddled look on his face that only made him dearer.
“It’s positively balmy out, darling,” Francis said. “Off we go.”
“Is with Siqiniq, and not likely to die from it.”
“Let me get my coat,” James said, and hurried back to duck into their tent.
“Fetch a fur as well,” Francis called out.
They set out dead west, a blanket draped around James’s neck.
“What’s got into you?” James asked twenty paces in. “Not that I object, mind.”
“I spoke to your Siqiniq last night,” Francis said. “She’s—” He paused, searching for an apt descriptor for someone who delivered, like a blow to the head, his own capacity to love when he thought it lost to sleeplessness and envy. “—quite extraordinary.”
“You should open yourself to the company of others more often, Francis,” James said. “You might find yourself in possession of friends.”
Francis grunted. James laughed and slapped his back before taking his hand. Francis gave his fingers a squeeze.
“I suppose we’ve needed this,” James said. “I just hated the idea of leaving her. What if she thinks we’re gone forever, like her parents, or Silna?” He shook his head. “I couldn’t bear the thought.”
“Were you—” Francis swallowed his words. In the periphery of his vision, he saw James glance at him, only to turn back to the wide expanse of land and its constellation of snow drifts. Francis castigated himself. Of course James felt keenly the absence of his parents, of his history.
“The Coninghams were good to me,” James said. The breeze had knocked free long hanks of his hair, which blew round his head now like a demented halo. He tried to smooth it back with his free hand, but it was in vain. “They loved me, they provided for me, I was as a brother to their son. I hope I have not given you the impression otherwise.”
They never let you forget your origins, Francis thought. They never let you call them Mother and Father.
“You were as a brother to their son,” Francis said, gripping James’s hand tight. “But were you as a son to them?”
James’s mouth bent into a dire arch.
“It is no matter now,” he said. “It was better than any other bastard with no name could have dreamt.”
“James. You have a name.”
James slid him a rueful smile. He lifted their tangled hands.
“If I do, it is yours,” he said. “Out here, I can have a name.”
Francis’s throat tightened. He stopped and set his stump on James’s hip, his hand on James’s cheek. He leaned his forehead against James’s.
“My name and everything else,” he said, gruff. “All I am and all I will be, James.”
James kissed him with such ferocity that their noses collided. Francis felt devoured, overtaken, swept away. It had been so long, he couldn’t help but groan into James’s mouth. He threaded his fingers into James’s hair and held tight. James moaned right back but tore himself away.
“Not here,” he said, panting. “A little farther.”
He grabbed Francis’s hand again and resumed their walk with renewed purpose.
“We’ll be packing up to follow the herd soon,” Francis said after some minutes of charged silence.
“Yes,” James said. “I—I think I want to go on the hunt at least once, to see how it is. If you can abide some days alone with Tulimaq?”
He sounded apologetic, and Francis was perplexed until he realized James took that tone because Francis himself would never go out on a hunting party. The Netsilik caught caribou with bow and arrow, and Francis, lame as he was, was not fit for the task. He wasn’t fussed about it. He had his harpoon, and his sea mammals, and a daughter, now. He’d rather hear James narrate his adventures taking down the mighty beasts than have one of his own.
“It’s no bother, James,” he said. “You should go. Don’t trouble yourself.”
“If I’d said ‘alone with Tulimaq’ just yesterday, you’d have looked as if your soul left your body.”
“I’ve had my perspective on the subject suitably adjusted.”
“What frightened you so, Francis?” James asked. “I know you wanted to be a father, once upon a time.”
Unbidden, an image of his father rose in Francis’s mind. Red-faced, sweating, mouth twisted into a permanent sneer, hand a permanent fist. Forty years on and thousands of miles away, Francis could have sworn he caught a whiff of gin. Something small and wounded clawed at the confines of his chest. Ah, he thought. Some hurts never heal, indeed.
“My father—” Francis swallowed convulsively. “My father was a gin man, free with his fists and sharp with his tongue. We lived in utter fear of him all our days. When I returned from my first voyage, he had finally drunk himself to death, and though my mam said the proper things a widow should say of her husband, the truth was, all any of us were was relieved.”
“You’re not like him, Francis.”
“No,” Francis said, and let out a shaky breath. “No, I swore I never would be.”
“Even when you were deep in the drink,” James said. “You would never have done what he did.”
Francis turned a wan smile on him and pulled James’s hand up to press his lips reverently against the prominent knuckles.
“I am glad one of us has faith in me,” he said.
“Always, Francis,” James said. “You aren’t the only one out of his depth, here.”
“You’re a natural with her,” Francis said. “As if you were born to have her land in your lap.”
“I’m as at sea as you are,” James said, and then paused. “Perhaps there is a better metaphor for two old sailors, but the sentiment stands. Other than the occasional piece of advice from Kanaaq or Taqtu, I’m making it up as I go along.”
“Then what is your philosophy on it all?” Francis asked. “What is it that drives you when you make this choice or that? If it’s all a muddle, how can you know what’s best?”
They trudged along in silence, approaching a leftover hill of snow and ice, now melting and soiled by dirt. When they arrived and laid their blanket out on the flat ground behind it, James turned to him, a furrow in his brow but a smile on his lips.
“I want to be soft, Francis,” he said. “I want to be soft, and warm: a home for her. A man whose constancy she need never doubt. A father of whom she need not be afraid, whose affections she need never seek to earn because she knows she has them already. It’s all I have, but I think—I think it’s enough.”
Francis smiled and with it he felt all the pain of his father’s memory dissipate like so much steam. It rose into the wide, wide sky and broke, never to harass him again.
“Yes, I think it is,” he said.
They met again in a kiss, gentler this time but building in its passion. James divested Francis of his clothing and made short work of his own, and then bore him down onto the blanket, straddling his hips. Reverently, Francis stroked the long lines of James’s body, savored the sweep of his tongue, and gave himself over completely to the sensation of James sinking down upon his length.
Head thrown back against the light of the sun, mouth open in ecstasy, James looked like nothing so much as Francis’s deepest desires made flesh. Love had made him so. Love had delivered Francis from the cold, from solitude, from the depths of his own melancholic disposition. James was the love light that shone through all the darkness of his life.
James’s breath hitched and his body clamped down on Francis’s prick. His arse pulsed and with a grunt, he spent over Francis’s belly. He collapsed onto Francis and Francis clasped his hips to thrust desperately upward. He opened his mouth against the rapid heartbeat in James’s neck. He murmured his devotions, more earnest than any prayer. James turned his head to kiss him deeply, hands buried in his hair. James squeezed him from the inside and rocked sharply into his hips, and light burst behind Francis’s eyelids like a sun dog. He spent himself deep into James’s body with a ragged gasp. James soothed him through the shocks and slid away from him when Francis subsided, exhausted, into the furs.
When he came back to himself, Francis blinked a bleary eye and groped a clumsy hand to find his lover. James caught his hand and held fast. He was dazed and glistening in the sunlight, whose beams cast upon him a golden glow. He was love made manifest.
So much tragedy and misfortune had seen them here. They had defied death at every turn and come out whole and alive and together. They had a family, they had a future. That was no small thing. Whether by luck or accident, Francis could not be sure. Francis was not a praying man, but he was a thankful one.
God wants us to live, Francis thought.
The spring Tulimaq was four years old, the thaw was late and scouts returned to the encampment with reports of a ship and a troop of white men searching for Aglooka. Kallik ran to where Francis stood brushing out all his family’s blankets and told him the news, breathless.
Francis thanked him and scanned the camp for Tulimaq. She was playing a tagging game with Nanurjuk’s grandchildren. Francis left his furs on the line and navigated the tents until he found James, coatless, tanning a hide and spinning a yarn near Siqiniq’s workshop. He was lovely in motion, the very picture of masculine beauty—strong, lashed with lean muscle. His hair had grown long and luxurious down his back. Grey touched it at the temples; Francis’s own hair, he was given to understand, had gone silver entirely. He counted himself lucky to have any left at all.
Francis took the moment to admire James in his element: under the blue sky, creating something useful with his hands, telling a tall tale—Raven tricking Wolf—to the gaggle of children gathered round him. Francis loved him fiercely.
James looked up and caught Francis’s gaze. Francis’s answering smile was sad, and James set down his tools and excused himself to a chorus of disappointed whining.
“That’s a dire look,” James said when they ducked into their own tent.
“They’re here, James,” Francis said. “Sir James Clark Ross and his rescue—they’ve arrived at last.”
James reeled back. Francis reached out and bracketed James’s hips with hand and stump as if his touch could stay James’s racing thoughts.
“You can’t imagine we’ll go,” James said. “Tulimaq—”
“Belongs with her people,” Francis said firmly. “And with her fathers.”
James’s back relaxed and he stepped into Francis’s space. He set his forehead against his.
“We have a good life here, Francis,” James said. “One where we don’t have to hide. I don’t want any other.”
“I know, love.”
James drew back to search his eyes.
“Then what should we do when they come?” he asked. “I know Sir James was—is your dearest friend, and you should like to speak with him—”
“We cannot risk it,” Francis said. His heart quailed at the thought of deceiving his old friend this way. In days past, Sir James had often been the only man Francis had in his corner. It was a cruelty, and a betrayal, but one which paled in comparison to the cruelty and betrayal to James, to Tulimaq, if Francis were to uproot them and return to England, where they would be forever hiding and lying, where shame would rule their days, where Tulimaq would be jeered at and picked apart and ogled like a curio unto her death. No, they could not risk it. “We will put on our furs and make ourselves scarce. They cannot stay long, and none here would betray us.”
James drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He cradled Francis’s face in both hands.
“It is a strange thing to think of, after all that got us here, but, Francis, I would not change a thing.”
Francis kissed him because there were no better words for how thoroughly he agreed.
When they stepped out of the tent, Amaruq was waiting for them.
Tell them we are gone. Dead and gone.
Francis and James exchanged a glance. They pulled up their hoods and set out wordlessly towards the fishing holes. Tulimaq bounded up to them and grabbed their hands.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“To catch something good for supper, my love,” James said.
With the ease of practice, they gripped her hands and lifted her up to swing her between them like a pendulum. She shrieked her delight, and her joy echoed down the ice.