After the shakes had stopped, and the fever had gone, and Francis could finally walk to the head without feeling woozy and wobbly-legged, he began dreading the next time he’d see Tom Blanky.
Not, he thought as he poked glumly at his dinner tray with a fork, that anyone else had noticed his apprehension. Jopson had been leaving Francis more and more now that he no longer required constant care. He seemed to feel Francis just needed time to himself, per their usual routine. And given that the rest of the men still believed he was recovering from Arctic malaria or whatever the hell James had told them, it was only natural he would be left alone so long by the rest of the ship. None of the wardroom officers wanted to be ill, never mind the common sailors.
Unfortunately, Tom was likely keeping his distance for a different reason.
You’re sick with it now, Frank!
As drunk as Francis had been that fateful day, it was impossible to forget those words. Or his vile behavior. Christ, he had been sickening. Sending his best friend out onto the quarterdeck so Tom might lose a finger or a toe or worse in the bitter sharp cold. It was no way to repay a man for twenty years of friendship — camaraderie — genuine fucking warmth.
No wonder Tom hadn’t come to him since that night. Francis had tossed over one of his dearest friends in a fit of fucking spite. It would be a miracle if the man didn’t cleave him in half with a boat axe after this, let alone give him a polite greeting among the ship’s company.
Sighing, Francis pushed his nearly-full tray toward the empty seat next to him. He wasn’t hungry. Jopson would certainly complain about the remains of the untouched dinner when he came to collect the dishes.
Behind him, the cabin door creaked open; Francis did not even glance over before he spoke. “Don’t glare at me, Jopson. I did try. ”
“Well, you’ll fuckin’ starve to death if that’s all you’ve et for supper,” came a raspy voice. Not Jopson’s.
The outer door creaked closed. Only now Francis heard the slight thump of a crutch catching wood, as well as the breathless catch of Blanky’s voice behind it. “‘Eyup, Cap’n.”
Captain. Francis winced at the use of his title.
Blanky, as usual, missed nothing. “All right?”
“No.” Francis could not lie to Tom Blanky even under the best circumstances; finding he was too terrified and exhausted to pretend ignorance now, he abandoned all pretenses. “Sodding Christ. Let’s hear it, then. I’ll not keep you.”
“Keep me from what?” Tom crutched forward till he could balance himself against the tabletop with one hand. “Eh?”
“Telling me to fuck off.” Francis stared down at the table’s edge, and the small rivulet of ice that had formed there, near his braced hands. A tiny stalactite dripped down toward the floor next to his left leg. He refused to let his voice waver. “Knockin’ me in the nose.”
“And prithee why in the bloody hell would I want to do summat like tha’?”
“You know why.” Francis’s throat tightened and his stomach clenched in a dyspeptic way; he swallowed by reflex. “Just—go on, now. I’ll not fault you for it.”
“Damn well should, and you will.” Francis set his jaw against the noise that threatened to escape his throat, and sat up as tall as he could, though even this made the atrophied muscles of his lower back twitch in agony. “Come on.”
“Hit me, goddamn it!” Francis struck the table with an open palm; the gesture was as feeble as it was useless, and only made the heel of his hand sore. He could hardly raise his voice above a conversational talking volume. “I deserve it!”
With a sigh, Blanky shuffled forward until he stood directly in front of Francis’s blanket-covered knees, still keeping his left hand braced against the table. Curling his fingers into a loose fist, he brought his right hand up to the level of Francis’s eyes. “You’re certain?”
“I am.” Francis gave his friend a curt nod. “Go on now, Thomas.”
“All right, Francis.”
He drew his fist back; Francis set his jaw, steeling himself for the blow — the pain — the insults which would certainly follow.
Slowly, almost unbearably so, Blanky lifted the back of his curled fingers to Francis’s face, and stroked a tiny path from the apple of his cheek, where the shadow of his whiskers scratched against the pillow every night, all the way down to the hinge of his jaw. Here, Blanky’s fingertips shook against the flushed skin.
“Reckon ye’ve suffered enough for the pair of us, eh?”
“Thomas.” Francis choked over the name as Blanky’s curled fingers extended, now cupping Francis’s cheek in one palm. Francis had to close his eyes to keep from weeping. His mouth was all water as he tried to talk. “I—I’ve been—”
“Easy on, duck.” Thomas did not stop touching him, just stepped closer until Francis could smell tobacco and wet wool. “You’re not shoved of me jus’ yet.” A heavy sigh. “And ye look like a fuckin’ ghost, mind, so dry your eyes, stop blubberin’, and I’ll take ye to bed.”
“Y-you don’t want that.” Francis shoved at his other cheek with the back of his hand. “Not after all I’ve done.”
“Not here for a quick fuck, you auld bastard,” sighed Thomas, brushing away more tears from Francis’s heated face. “Makin’ peace is all.”
“Nah. Slipped him an ounce of tobacco and some lanolin oil I’d kept back, case he wants to mend his hands and not your fucking drawers.”
Francis raised an eyebrow. “Did you?”
“Oh, aye.” Thomas’ craggy face split into a grin. “Poor lad’s well flagging. Surprised he’s not swooned on the wardroom floor for lack of sleep. Now ‘ackle thissen up, eh?”
Nodding, swiping at his raw nose with the back of his hand, Francis got up from the table and shuffled back toward the berth, Blanky’s rope-rough hand at his back. He sighed in relief once the door had been shut and locked behind them. Although he was tired of seeing the same four walls morning, noon and night, it was a far sight better than any he deserved.
Jopson had even changed the linens earlier; although the air stank of sweat and wet wool, overall the place was far tidier than it had been in weeks.
“Shove over for us, love,” said Thomas, once Francis had stopped shivering. Perhaps he was running a small fever, then. “Got to hop up from the rail-side now.”
As naturally as if he’d done it all his life, Thomas took the chair from the desk and placed it sideways in front of the berth, where he sat down and unstrapped the wooden leg, and took off his lone boot from the other foot. Reaching out, he lay the fake leg on the desk, and took off his coat. Then he sat up, balanced on the seat of the chair using only the strength of his arms, and rose effortlessly into a kneeling position by drawing his leg up under his body. Seconds later, he sat back against the rail, and leveraged himself over it, swinging his legs left before he lay backwards.
Francis watched every movement in awe. Even though his head was currently nestled against his pillow, the sight of Tom maneuvering his lean, rangy body all across the berth with only the power of his arms was impressive. “You look like a damn German gymnast.”
“Heh.” Although Tom laughed, he was close enough now that Francis could feel the slight hitch of breath as his friend shifted closer on the mattress. “Nearly how Cap’n Fitzjames described it, mind.”
“Jesus Christ . I’ve never sounded like Fitzjames .” There was no real heat to this complaint, only poorly-feigned outrage.
Turning inward, slow and gingerly, Tom slipped an arm between Francis’s neck and the pillow. His other hand came up to play around the collar of Francis’s nightshirt. “Ah, you’d be surprised, duck. Handsomest fellow in the Navy he may well be, but our James is a right wit. Mite like those whose faces common folk’d flee from, and make no mistake.”
“Glad you’re such true fucking friends now,” growled Francis, averting his eyes to the ceiling. “Perhaps you can sledge next to him the whole walk back.”
Tom flicked him on the neck; it was barely touch enough to tickle. “Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, hold thy bloody tongue.”
“You remember all my middle names?”
Francis did not know whether to be surprised or horrified. Tom had been proudly mangling them since their first voyage together.
“Aye, you absolute loon, not that tha’ knows any of mine in return—” This attempted tirade was quieted by Francis pulling a long lock of Tom’s hair. “Oi! Look who’s all hoity-toity ‘cause he’s named after some great fuckin’ earl.”
Francis giggled like a schoolgirl at a country dance, and Tom wheezed out a laugh that was sure to grow into the great booming cackle Francis loved—except he shifted his weight on the bed and likely jostled his leg.
Immediately, he stiffened against Francis’s front with a sharp inhale, and clenched his jaw to keep any other sound from escaping. After several seconds, eyes still squeezed closed, he pressed his screwed-up face into Francis’s shirtfront, exhaling deeply. A few silent tears wet the straw-colored linen.
Francis had no words for this—could not force a thought past his lips—and so he looped an arm around Tom’s back in kind, fingers carefully curling against his friend’s shoulder.
Nearly a minute later, Tom relaxed, let out a breath, and moved away. “Well.” He cleared his throat. “Kept most of the leg, plus the feelin’ in it. Could be worse, eh?”
“Yes.” The tight, heated feeling was building behind Francis’ eyes again; he tucked a stray piece of hair behind Tom’s ear, gently this time. “If you despised me.”
“Eh, if I’d’ve frozen stone dead, more like.”
Francis recoiled, and his chin quivered; he turned his face away into the pillow.
“Ah, Frank.” One of Tom’s work-worn hands slid up through his messy hair, then down his jaw, tilting his head left then tracing idly around his chin and mouth with both hands. Francis was suddenly very glad Jopson had insisted on shaving and washing him all the way through his illness. “All the world over, and there’s nowt so tender as thy ruddy face.”
Leaning up, he slotted his mouth over Francis’s.
Francis shuddered, delighted; he hadn’t been expecting anything more. Not tonight. “Tom, I—”
“‘S all right, love. We’re all right now.”