Francis Crozier is at ease on the ice. He is more comfortable on the pack than at an Admiralty garden party. Though not blessed with the preternatural gift possessed by Thomas Blanky, he understands the ice - where it is thin, where it will take his weight, where he will slip, where he may stand firm.
Which is why it is with a confident step that he descends a small peak on his trek back to Terror, and with an equal confidence the ice below him refuses to bear him. A snap, and the piece below his foot crumbles, gives way, and sends him careening seaward. He lands, hard, on his left foot. As surely as the ice cracks, his ankle buckles under him and he is deposited on his arse in the snow.
He is in pain at once. His backside hurts, as it did when as a boy he was punished for his tongue with a spanking. His ankle shrieks in protest, one of those horrid reminders with which his body provides him all too often. Whenever his knees or his back ache, or he squints when he reads by lamplight, a nagging voice reminds him: you are no longer young.
He complains of this to the only person who cares to listen. "Aye, you're gettin' old, Frank. But pickling yourself with whiskey won't preserve you any," Blanky once pointed out in response, very helpfully.
It's true, of course. Didn't mean Francis hadn't swatted at him and called him a horrid name, though.
Sitting in the snow, Francis wonders if he has damaged anything - anything other than his pride, of course. Damnably frustrating that without a drop of whiskey in him, he would take the sort of tumble that only a drunkard would. Even more maddeningly, that he would do it in front James fucking Fitzjames.
The aforementioned man has been scouting the bergs with him. Francis had set out under the pretense of gathering magnetic readings, wanting to remove himself as far as possible from every living being; somehow, Sir John had heard and made the undeniable suggestion that Fitzjames accompany him.
Francis wasn't sure which one of them was unhappier about this. But this turned Francis's exercise in misanthropy into a two-hour stroll with his least favourite member of the Franklin expedition, including Sir John.
His least favourite member of the expedition has now leapt nimbly down the slope that felled Francis, as graceful as a doe on a riverbank. "I say, Francis," Fitzjames says, in that arch tone that turns his perfectly respectable name into a drawl of Frauncis. "Are you quite all right?"
An expletive, a grunt, followed by a milder expletive: "No, I am bloody well not all right."
"Can you stand?"
A good question. Francis tries. He manages to wedge his good foot under him, and rise on one leg. The moment he puts any weight on the other it refuses to allow the dignity of standing on his own two feet, and sends him right back into the snow.
"Fuck - no."
Fitzjames stands over him. He would be imposing - a broad-shouldered figure, clad in a dark coat - if Francis didn't loathe him. "I suppose you won't be able to walk back to Terror."
The man is an idiot, because that much is obvious. "No. No, I don't think I will."
"We're near home. Ten minutes and I can fetch Dr. Stanley and a cot-"
Francis would rather sit on his arse and freeze to death here, out on the ice, than be carried back to Terror under the sneering gaze of Erebus's surgeon. He snorts in derision, which prompts Fitzjames to make a slightly less hideous suggestion.
"I could support you, instead."
The idea of Fitzjames supporting him in any way, literal or metaphorical, is entertaining enough to prompt another snort, this one of amusement, from Francis. But it's not a terrible idea, and so Francis nods.
Fitzjames extends his hands. Francis takes them, gripping the other man as hard as he dares. Even through their gloves, Fitzjames's grip is strong and his hands warm. Francis thinks, idly, of how little is warm here, of how even that touch puts Fitzjames so at odds with the frigidity around them. Leaning much of his weight into Fitzjames - and finding it borne easily - Francis eases himself onto his foot.
"The ship is righted," Fitzjames remarks. When Francis tests his foot and gives a muted yelp, Fitzjames adds: "Though her timbers groan somewhat."
Francis almost smiles, then thinks better of it. He snaps instead. "Break a mast and your timbers'll groan, too."
"Not broken, surely?" Fitzjames's gaze drops to search Francis's limb for any obvious sign of injury, as if he can discern through Francis's socks, trousers, slops, and boots any sign of harm. The concern - shockingly genuine - is the only thing that prevents Francis from sneering. "But she'll need a tow back to harbour, eh?"
Naturally, Fitzjames is incapable of making the suggestion as a normal man would - he must couch his offer to help Francis limp back to Terror in metaphor, as if Francis is in danger of forgetting that this is Commander James Fitzjames of the H.M.S. Erebus, hero of fucking Zhenjiang-
Francis realizes, in horror, that he has merely been glowering at the ice, saying nothing, lost in thought.
"I heard you."
Fitzjames stoops, reminding Francis again that the other man is taller than he. Francis lifts an arm, expecting to throw it over Fitzjames's broad shoulder so that he may hobble on his good foot. What happens instead is that one of James's arms snakes around Francis's back, and the other under his knees. In a swift motion - surely practised by how effortless it seems to Fitzjames - Francis finds himself hoisted into the air and pressed firmly against James's chest.
He is not being supported like an injured comrade; he is being carried like a blushing bride. "This," he tells Fitzjames, "is absurd."
His face is only an inch from Fitzjames's, so he can see the man fighting a grin. His lips curl at the corners and the lines on his face deepen.
Francis is rarely so close to another human being. There are only three who have dared come this close in recent memory: Jospon, in his duty, Blanky, when they huddle together on deck to smoke and watch the stars and reminisce, and Sophia, when she allows him to kiss her.
A blush at realizing how often he has pulled Sophia into his arms to steal a kiss in an eerily similar manner to the way Fitzjames has drawn him close.
"Would you prefer to hop to Terror, Francis?" Fitzjames asks. He turns his head and now they are nose to nose. His long hair tickles Francis's cheek, smelling of cologne and the winter air. The man's eyes flicker to Francis's lips. Does Francis imagine it, or does Fitzjames wet his own with his tongue?
"Of course not," he returns. Of course not, you great bloody mincing idiot, is what he wants to say. But so close to the other man, he has noticed that Fitzjames's eyes are deeply brown, and flecked with green. Any biting remark he could make melts away on his tongue, like ice in the summer sun.
Francis hates him. He hates this peacock of a man with his idiot smiles and his broad shoulders and his shining hair and his sweet eyes-
Sodding Christ, 'sweet eyes?'
"Then perhaps you'd prefer me to carry you over my shoulder?" Fitzjames suggests. His tone is mild, which makes Francis's teeth itch with how much he wants to strike him. He knows Fitzjames bold enough to mock him before Sir John and the officers - why not mock him openly now? Why the pretense of politesse? Does he feel the need to give a gallant show of chivalry, just because he is carrying him as a knight would a maiden?
But at the suggestion, an image comes to mind; Francis, draped over Fitzjames's shoulder, his arse in the air - his arse pressed up against Fitzjames's face. He imagines how the men will howl with laughter upon seeing him carried back to Terror like a side of beef slung over a butcher's shoulder. He knows how he is derided on Erebus already. Though the men do not dare to scorn him to his face, he knows that he is branded the boorish, sullen Irishman in Erebus's wardroom. He will not open himself to further embarrassment. Let Fitzjames carry him like a proud bridegroom, then - better a bride than a piece of meat.
Francis grumbles. Fitzjames waits.
"Oh, as you will," snaps Francis.
"As I will? This is for your benefit. I can put you down, you know," Fitzjames points out. He is quickly approaching insubordination. His friendship with Sir John makes him bold. How ridiculous, then, that of the two of them it is Francis who is considered the upstart.
Francis has had more than a lifetime's allotment of being humiliated by those connected to Sir John. He is sick to his very soul of bowing and scraping before Sir John, weathering the resentment of his wife, and pleading to be granted the magnanimous pleasure of a rejection from his niece. He will not beg of James Fitzjames to be carried like a swooning woman, just to be mocked for it later.
What emerges from him is a growl, bitter and heartsick: "Very well, then. Put me down. I'd rather crawl like a beast than beg for-"
"Heavens above, man. I'm not asking you to beg. I'm pleased to help you," says Fitzjames. There is something near contrition in his tone. "Will you allow me, then?"
Francis nods. As they set off, something occurs to Francis.
"Will you be able to carry me so far?"
God above, what a ridiculous thing to have to ask. But Francis is, after all, not a light man.
Fitzjames chuckles. Francis feels his laughter humming in his chest. "We're five minutes from Terror, perhaps less. And you are not so heavy."
Francis assumes he is lying in some gentlemanly attempt to spare Francis's feelings - though such a thing would surely be out of character for the man - but even after a minute, Fitzjames shows no sign of tiring. He paces happily with the even stride of a walking horse. His breath comes and goes in a pant, but not the exhausted heaving of a burdened man. His cheeks are rosy with the cold and his breath fogs in the air. He looks perfectly content.
Pressed into Fitzjames's chest, Francis is not perfectly content. He is in pain. He is being carried by another man, and his entire crew will see this. He is growing uncomfortably warm.
Shocking, to be warm in April above the Arctic Circle. But he is swaddled close to Fitzjames's breast, wrapped into the heat of the man's body. Even in what passes for the arctic summer, sitting inches from a stoked brazier, he could not be warmer than he is now.
Then Fitzjames's hair tickles Francis's face again, and he hears something over the muted sigh of the wind.
"Are you humming?"
"Oh - I suppose I was. What was it?"
Francis hums his best imitation of the tune.
Fitzjames smiles. "Don Giovanni," he explains. "The opera. Mozart."
Oh, good Christ, is this man unbearable.
By the time they reach the ship, Fitzjames has begun to pant in earnest. Still he denies that he is tired, and his grip is firm. When Lt. Little comes rushing down the gangway to offer assistance, Fitzjames shrugs him off. Rather than helping, the men crowd about, parting just enough to allow Fitzjames passage onto the deck.
"Hope I won't have any violence on my hands for bringing your captain back wounded, eh, men?" he asks. The man is in his element, crowing to his audience. How Fitzjames loves to play the dashing naval hero - and now it is at Francis's expense. He is sure that he looks perfectly ridiculous, scowling and red-faced in Fitzjames's arms.
And Francis's crew, brigands that they are, laugh at Fitzjames's humour.
Reaching the hatch, Fitzjames sets Francis down at the top of the ladder. He descends first, and then Francis tries to go below.
Immediately, Francis slips on the ladder, nearly careening downwards and breaking what undamaged parts of him still remain. What prevents his sure demise are Fitzjames's strong arms, flung out and holding him steady. As he conveys him down the ladder, he hushes all Francis's protests of won't he even be allowed to walk on his own ship, that he isn't a child, that good God, will he not-
"Francis," he says. Frauncis. "I won't do for me to have hauled you all the way back over the ice just for you to break your neck on the ladder."
Francis grumbles. Fitzjames clucks like a hen, tosses back his mane of hair, and collects Francis once more. Jopson, suddenly appeared, hovers at Fitzjames's elbow.
"Are you hurt, sir?" asks Jopson - good, loyal Jopson. The only man watching Francis with something other than amusement. The boy even has the audacity to look somewhat angry with Fitzjames, as if he blames the latter for bringing back his captain in a state of disrepair.
Francis is about to answer, but Fitzjames speaks for him. "Not terribly, I should think. Captain Crozier had a dust-up with the ice. Ask Dr. McDonald to attend on him in his berth, will you?"
This seems to be where Fitzjames is taking Francis. As they go, Jopson immediately scurries for Dr. McDonald.
They pass Thomas, who is staring at Francis with a grin that suggests he will never forget the day James Fitzjames carried Francis Crozier off to his berth like a goddamned bridegroom whisking his new wife off to the marital bed.
As they enter the great cabin: "Just there is fine," Francis says, gesturing to a chair at the table.
Fitzjames pretends not to have heard him, waltzing into Francis's berth. Without bothering to ask, Fitzjames sets Francis down gently on his bunk. Not since he was a boy has another person put him to bed like this. He half expects Fitzjames to finish the job and pull the blankets up over him and tuck them in. In an attempt to wipe the smug smile from Fitzjames's face, Francis speaks.
"Won't you kiss my forehead and tell me goodnight?" he snipes.
At the suggestion of a kiss, Francis flushes a deep red. He does not imagine it - a pink blush, not just the product of the cold air nipping at his face, appears on Fitzjames's high cheeks, too.
"Next time, Francis," says Fitzjames, and then he has the audacity to wink.
Francis loathes him.