“A carnival?” Francis asked.
“To cheer up the men,” James explained, standing at parade rest. “After the news.”
Francis scoffed. He pulled off his boots with some effort. His face contorted. James would have offered his help, but there must have been a reason Francis did not call for Jopson: why he wanted to do this alone. Him in full uniform was still a novel sight; a comforting one.
“At the first sunrise,” James said. “A last hurrah, if you please, before we prepare to walk out.”
“You are aware that our supplies—” Francis cut himself off. Moved his toes in his stockings. James watched them. Thought: why would you let me see you like this?
He expected that Francis would retreat to his brown study after his recovery.
He did not.
“Do what you see best,” he said.
“Have I your blessing, then?”
Francis met his eyes before he set his jackboots aside. “You have my support.”
Lady Silence’s furs were drenched in blackened blood. She came to Erebus on the morning of the festivities: it was evident she had nowhere else to go. This cell, at least, held familiar horrors.
“No Netsilik settlements nearby, then,” James observed as Goodsir helped her to an exam table. She recoiled from it; groaned while clinging to Goodsir’s shirt, the woeful voice bubbling up from her throat, urgent and desperate. “Maybe not the very cot where her father died,” James suggested.
“Oh!” Goodsir blinked behind his spectacles, embarrassed. Held onto her. Something was said in her tongue in a low murmur.
“I don’t suppose Dr. Stanley would welcome her, but there are plenty of empty storerooms where you could set her up,” James mused, lingering a few steps back, arms crossed over his chest. “She’ll live, of course?”
“Her injuries seem self-inflicted,” Goodsir confirmed. “Save for…”
James could see the clawmark on her face, too. Had not taken his eyes off it since she set foot on board.
“Can I trust you to take care of our orphan to-night?”
“Absolutely.” Goodsir helped her to another cot. She did not lie down: sat with her head hanging low, clutching his fingers. “Qaneq, aak? How? Ulu?”
“I shall have an officer guard her.”
“He’d be sorry to miss Carnival. Please don’t trouble yourself, or the men; just lend me a gun, perhaps.”
James looked at his earnest face. The warm eyes. The lips, surprisingly determined.
With a sigh, he handed over his personal pistol.
“Or however you wish to call him,” James said, staring into the fireplace. Francis was right beside him.
“He let her live,” he said. “You needn’t worry. We’ll be armed.”
“I hoped…” James’ words halted. He cleared his throat. “I was hoping Mr. Blanky had chased him off for good.”
“If he didn’t have the strength to murder Lady Silence, it is reasonable to believe him heavily injured—or simply not starved.”
“You think he comes when he’s hungry?”
“As logic would dictate.”
James shook his head, gazing at the flames still.
“What is your theory, then?” Francis prompted.
“He comes when our guard is down.”
“That’s all right, then. I’m never at ease. My misery should keep him at bay.”
James squinted at him. There were shadows all around them. Francis’ eyes were bright and clean, his gold buttons gleaming, boots neatly polished. He was shining in the thick darkness.
“You are telling me not to despair,” James intoned. “How the tides have turned.”
“Not at all. It’s my duty to be fatalistic: yours, to bring cheer. See to it.”
Francis’ shoulder brushed against his as he walked past him.
The Northern lights hung in the night sky, their green glow reflected on the snow. James wished for his watercolours; he had packed them away, of course. They would remain on Erebus and sink with it. Still: he watched the lights carefully, so he would be able to recount them to his brother, to his friends. I never knew they made a sound, he would say. The air chimed. Not with the knell of silver bells. Something ancient, distant, rust-eaten.
He would be fifty, sixty, seventy. Remembering.
And now: he was in a velvet dress, carrying a rifle. He had planned to dress up as Britannia, for she had a helmet, her hairline entirely concealed.
Francis had talked him out of it. “She’s not here. If you wish to see her likeness, you must return to her.”
James wore a mask and a smile plastered on his face. Tried to summon good humour. Everybody around him would think him delighted, even thrilled.
“Funny to think of this place as home, isn't it?” he remembered Sir John saying.
They were leaving the ships, but a safe haven was right in front of them now, put together from sailcloth, tents, rescue boats, timber. He tried to picture houses. It will just be a walk between shelters, he told himself. From one to the next. Don’t let’s dwell on the interim.
He chatted with the men, and thought: this is how I will gossip, back in London.
He got a pint, vowing: this is how I’ll drink.
He stuffed his face full of chocolate. I’ll eat and not have guilt.
He caught Francis’ gaze and curtsied. I will not have this.
Francis bowed to him. He took his hand with grace. They were to dance the quadrille with the officers, four couples in a rectangle: the opening number. He knew the steps, even for the female part: he had twirled around ballrooms countless times, until their elegant décor was a blur, the fashionable gowns, their wearers indistinguishable from each other. His name, scribbled on dance cards for lancers and polka. Most girls would keep the card, show it to their sisters: I’ve danced with the Coningham’s boy, a sailor, a midshipman, a lieutenant, a commander.
They should see him now, in his velvet dress and the mask. Thoroughly theatrical; the cut, the pattern severely outdated—but still a pretty affair. He wore his boots with it, but the petticoats would conceal his lack of silk slippers. He would not be mistaken for a lady, but it mattered not. He got to be treated like one.
Even with all the jeers and laughter around them, claps and whistles, Francis bowed with a serious, oddly hopeful expression. His own dress was comical, too: the lace ruffles of their grandfathers, a worn waistcoat excessively trimmed with gold, a navy coat, breeches so short they showed off his calves, clad in white stockings—he’d even got hold of heeled shoes. All he was lacking was a white-powder wig. He carried himself with such a serious gait it made the men nearly faint with laughter. He knew that his somber face and austere gait was at odds with his ornate costume: the more grim he looked, the more it delighted the men. It was a stroke of genius; but there was nothing laughable in the way he danced.
James was stunned by the pliancy of his promenade during the first set; by l’Été, the dance of the summer, he was thoroughly impressed. Francis led him with an admirable ease; made him pivot and spin as if he weighed nothing. He knelt for him: the honorable ladies were to hold their partner’s hand and walk around them in a slow circle. Dundy paraded around Irving in a joyous bounce, his bonnet nearly flying off his head; Jopson was more reserved, loitering around Little in the white gown he had fashioned from sailcloth like a lost fairy casting a timid magic circle. Little was still enchanted: he stared at him open-mouthed. Hodgson affected the manner of a pompous matron, fanning himself as he rounded a snickering Dr. McDonald.
James could not think of what character and manner to affect. He was himself; there was no escape from his identity: what could be more natural than James Fitzjames and a man kneeling for him, in cloakrooms, cabins, tents or empty streets? There was nothing extraordinary about it, but that it would be Francis.
He lifted his frock with a gentle hand to ease his steps and contemplated the unfairness of it all. Were he a lady, in flesh and shape, brought up like one, there would be nothing amiss in hoping that Francis would get to peek at his legs. To want his eyes on him as he danced: to be openly admired for the finesse of his movements, the shape of his lean body, the gleam in his eyes behind the mask. Francis would naturally follow him to a backroom—offer the service of his mouth.
Oh, but no: were he a lady, Francis could court him properly. He would be treasured and worshipped indeed. The quadrille made a parody of it: Francis led him around on his arm with pride, pulled him near, as if he really wanted to be close to him.
Their fingers kissed.
Palms pressed together, they danced around in a slow circle. If you could only really see me as a companion, James thought.
It should have been enough to have the promise of his friendship now; but could he not pretend—for a night, for a moment—that there could ever be more between them?
He brushed his thumb over Francis’ fingers, shuddering at the touch of his warm skin. Made no note how his large hand nearly dwarfed Francis’ calloused palm. It’s me, he thought. Miss Fitzjames: a lady with big paws and a big cock. Your girl for to-night, should you ask; yours, now. I know you had your misunderstanding with the Commander. Love me, instead.
He drank, wrestled, raced, made bets. He could not quite shake off the impression that his performance of maleness was lacking at best, and he could only blame so much on the dress. He has never been much good at it, compared to his mates.
“To wives and sweethearts!” Reid proposed a toast.
“May they never meet!” the company echoed.
James did not raise his pint. It would be unfair, with Francis near; it would be unfair in any case.
“Aren’t you going to drink to it, sir?” Tozer asked.
“I’ve no desire for a wife, and haven’t got a sweetheart,” he replied, wondering if his honesty was too plain—if there was danger in it.
“I miss my wife,” Blanky mumbled into his beer, saving him from embarrassment.
“Are you Esther-drunk?” Francis asked, putting a consoling hand on Blanky’s shoulder. Blanky stared ahead, groggy and desolate. It was safe to pretend now it was the alcohol’s effect.
“If you don’t watch out for me, I’ll be kids-drunk,” Blanky said, then paused, only for a moment; groaned: “Oh, I miss my lambs already. A lapful of kids by the fireplace; I wouldn’t get up. My youngest, no bigger than my arm. The smell of her hair. Nothing like that.”
“My son’s a good lad,” Weekes said. “He must be out on the fields now—what time is it, at Lancashire? Is it day?”
“I miss horses,” Hartnell sighed to the merriment of all gathered. “I do,” he insisted. “I cannot remember horses. Bastards used to be everywhere, I cannot remember them.”
“I can picture a horse perfectly,” Irving announced proudly.
Hartnell pointed his drink at him. “You remember an idea of horses. If you were to paint one now, you’d be in trouble. You’d think of other paintings you’ve seen.”
James peered at the lovely drawings the men did to decorate. They did seem rather melancholy, the awkward, half-recalled shapes.
Nostalgia is a symptom of scurvy, he reminded himself. Don’t succumb to it.
“My wife,” Blanky reminisced, unbothered. “I got home early once; she was hanging the clothes to dry. I snuck up to her, hugged her through the sheet. How she laughed, and screamed! And me, I was crying.”
“My wife was beautiful on our wedding day,” Weekes said. “Sunshine in her hair. She smiled at me and I thought, what a lucky bastard you are, John.”
“Do you remember rabbits?” Hartnell pressed on. “Foxes? Anything of nature, in detail?”
“I remember flowers, for example,” Irving insisted. “And trees. You don’t forget the trees. I collect leaves.”
“Butterflies, me,” Dr. Peddie said. “Butterflies on pins.”
“Stamps,” Tozer said, flushed.
“Buttons,” Francis added.
“The sea; I miss the sea,” James joined an earlier thread of conversation. “The ship rocking you like a mother. You still feel it, ashore, even in the most comfortable of beds: it seems to jolt you about, with your eyes closed. It takes days to take the sea out of your bones. You walk down the streets and you notice that you’re walking like a sailor. The ladies have their smelling salts; me, if I don’t have the scent of the sea in my nose, I grow faint. I can hardly breathe.”
He stopped short. He heard himself as if he was one of his own listeners, respectful, eager, sympathetic, but divorced from his own being. He was aware of Francis watching: how frustrated he must be, that every heart-to-heart would come to this, James’ voice filling the room and the men rapt. He refused to be embarrassed about it. He had their attention: that was responsibility. Not all of them had wives, children, animals, and clinging to knicknacks would not do. They had the sea in common.
“Imagine,” he said, looking around at everybody gathered, “imagine the swift current of Back’s Fish River, carrying us home. Won’t it be grand, when our boats rock us? We’ll smell fresh water. Drink from our cupped hands. Get bored of eating char.”
“And when we reach the sea,” Hartnell joined in, “seagulls screeching.”
Weekes closed his eyes and held up his face, as if he could already feel the breeze on it. “Bastards won’t shut up,” he muttered.
“I will eat an entire albatross,” Tozer said.
“I will eat a whale,” Blanky countered.
James scoffed, and caught Francis’ gaze. His head was tilted, as if he was observing some novel natural phenomena, or a surprising magnetic reading. James kept on smiling, as did everybody around the table, proposing fantastic meals: no longer thinking of what they have left behind, but what was yet to come. Francis looked at him as if he saw him for the first time.
“Oh, that’s all right,” a rather tipsy Des Voeux bellowed from the stage, “it’s very nice, dancing your gallant ballroom dances, but nobody—” He gestured with his overflowing pint to punctuate the sentence, “not anybody knows how the Irish dance!”
“Except for the Irish,” Francis remarked from a bench. He flinched at the roaring laughter, and hid his confused, taut smile in a cup of tea.
“Sir!” Des Voeux called. “Lesshow ‘em, sir! Flutes! Fiddle! Att-en-tion!”
“I couldn’t possibly—” Francis began; the rest of the sentence was lost to much thumping and abundant cheers as the men beat the table with their glasses. James joined the hullabaloo, clapping and shouting hurrah from Dundy’s lap. Francis looked at their odd duo: two would-be ladies, gal pals from long ago. He set his jaw and got to his feet; was followed by applause as he made his way to the stage, steadfast and resolved.
James bit his lips, watching him. Since he’d sobered up, it was like they had a new captain, capable and strong. His mere presence impressed: how he would not even touch a glass as night bled into dawn and all were woozy with free-flowing beer. Still, the company needed to see him not just as captain, but a man, one of their own. He stepped onto the stage, and James felt the darkness lift, as if a curtain had been pulled back.
“Have you ever attended an Irish dance?” Dundy asked, speaking into his ear directly so James could hear him over the cheerful music.
“I’m afraid not,” James confessed. Shifted to see better; Dundy put a steadying hand on the small of his back. Ever since their service on the HMS Clio in India, they had been like cousins; rank kept them from friendship, but James would never forget how Dundy saved him from a raging cheetah.
In hindsight, employing a cheetah as the ship’s cat was not his brightest ideas as captain. Dundy’s hand rested over her old claw marks. James had read that healed wounds reopened as scurvy worsened; he wondered if he would see those scars reappear.
“Don’t look away,” Dundy said. “Don’t even blink.”
James did not need to be told: Francis’ first movements were arresting. Des Voeux threw himself into the dance with a drunken vengeance; Francis eased his way into it, picking up the rhythm, his grimaces not devoid of self-criticism. Whatever his mind’s turmoil, his feet knew nothing of it. Both dancers kept their upper bodies stiff, arms pressed to their sides—but the legs moved if possessed, the heels knocking a rapid tempo on the hardwood floor. It joined the music like the beat of war drums; the rhythm only ceased when they hopped into the air. A country dance, no doubt: not something one would show off in polite company—but how fascinating: like witnessing a sacred rite of ancient druids, the dance of forgotten warriors under the harvest moon.
“Come on, you useless micks!” Des Voeux yelled. “Mr. Hickey!”
“I’m fine, thank you,” Hickey called from the sides. “Not quite healed, I’m afraid.”
The reminder of his lashing didn’t stop the Irish from getting to their feet, flocking to the stage. They lined up, arms linked: not all of them followed the same variety, some relying more on their toes than heels, but each following the same rhythm, as if it was the beating of their very hearts.
James did not pay due attention to the performance. He only had eyes for Francis, flushed and livid, dressed in English finery but dancing a defiant dance of his scorned people. He was a wild thing; James’ blood pulsed with the music as he watched, mouth quite dry.
How wrong he’d been in all his prejudice. Nobody joyless could dance like this; nobody heartless could smile like Francis smiled at him, just for a moment, faint, almost apologetic: this is rather silly, isn’t it?
James wanted to argue with him, wordlessly: you fascinate me. He had been bewitched, more absorbed than any opera or ballet could ever capture his attention. The bravery of it; the cheek; James would not even confess his origins to a living soul—and here was Francis, speaking of his ancestors in more than words, breathless and beautiful.
“You call that dancing!” Gregory cried, good-humoured, and jumped upon a table. “Fetch me Mr. Osmer, Mr. Couch and Dr. Stanley!”
“Dr. Stanley stayed on Erebus,” Dr. McDonald yelled back.
Gregory pointed vaguely in his direction. He must have been seeing double. “That’s sabotage,” he said.
James was only relieved that Lady Silence’s name had not been uttered: her sudden appearance left Dr. Stanley without a stand-in. It had not been the only bad omen: Jacko had met an unfortunate end that afternoon. James was hiding the corpse in a storeroom until Goodsir could see to it.
With his mind on the dead and injured, he almost missed the applause the Irishmen got when they stopped to watch their challengers. James tapped his fingers to the back of his hand, soft and elegant, when all he wanted was to jump to his feet and roar hooray. Francis was still watching him, his shoulders rising and sinking, fair hair in disarray. James wanted to comb it back from his clever forehead, swipe his glistening sweat; congratulate him—perhaps with a chaste kiss; he could pretend it was in jest.
He did not follow his thoughts further. Ruin lay that way. He got up, as discreetly as possible, and left the tent on silent feet. He did not hear Francis follow him.
One of the tents opened to South. He stopped by the exit, not tied in: the burst of Arctic gale shocked a gasp out of him. With the fires roaring, he has been overheated. The cold stung like the bite of a thousand beetles. He staggered back, keeping his eyes on the stars. Their way home was written there. As long as he saw stars, he was not directionless.
There was a bench beside the cloak rack: he collapsed there, and took off the mask. He was sweating underneath it. He turned it in his hands, marveling at the painted blush and eyelashes. His face for to-night; what mask of bravery would he find for what was to come?
“I don’t mean to intrude,” Francis said, jostling him out of his reverie. He was lingering by the shadowy labyrinth that led back to the main tent. Music was in the air; loud shouts, stomping and laughter. James scooted over, offering a little space in his solitary corner. He summoned a smile to his lips. While Francis took his seat next to him, he stealthily adjusted the dress: it was not the right fit, and too much of his chest had become exposed.
“Did you need some air after the performance?” he chatted easily. “Congratulations are in order, I should think; you dance most capably.”
“I came to see you,” Francis said. This was the matter with him: the utter lack of tact in his honesty.
“I needed some air,” James remarked, eyes trained on his mask.
“You will enjoy sleeping in tents, then,” Francis replied.
James chuckled, rather helpless. He’d hoped the dance had taken Francis’ mind off their trek to come—a vain wish. The only reason the rest of the company could let go off their worry was exactly because they knew Francis was always on the lookout for trouble. Of course he would see the unrest in James, barely concealed. James always felt naked in his gaze.
He peered at Francis, wondering if he could follow his method of deduction: really look. As irony would have it, Francis appeared more ragged healthy than when he was affected by spirits. Abstinence made him sickly pale and hollow, the circles under his eyes more pronounced. To Jopson’s credit, his hair was neat; to Francis’, he was handsome still, the battered look becoming him. Only his gaze was arresting: his usually alert eyes heavy, the eyelids drooping, even after the vigorous dance.
“I don’t think any one of us is sleeping; least of all you,” James noted, not unkindly.
Francis scoffed, and rubbed his face, skin reddening. “Our world as we know it is ending. You must excuse me for feeling apocalyptic. When I’m like this, I’d rather not dream.”
“You don’t show it,” James noted. “Our very own watchdog. You used to cause such awful noise before any of us saw danger intruding. Now you’re a proper pet; a comfort to all. What was it that tamed you so?”
Some colour remained in Francis’ cheeks as he said, voice raspy and earnest, “A friend got hurt; another friend told me to stop morbing about.”
James set the mask aside with a heavy heart, and turned to Francis, facing him fully. He could not tell if Francis would see blood dripping on his forehead; he would definitely be aware that James was wearing a dress. If he was to be accepted, he should be accepted like this, a doomed man trespassing. “Are we friends, Francis?” he asked, hoarse. He felt the line of his lips tighten: don’t spare me; if my hope is pathetic, kill it.
Francis cupped his face. There was something unbearably urgent in his gaze. His touch was sure, but grew tentative as his thumb ghosted over a sore spot. “It’s my own fault you should question it still,” he said. “I shouldn’t have hit you.”
He made to take his hand back; James grasped it, and pulled it to his chest. Far too bold a gesture; but he could not help it—he wanted to comfort Francis most desperately.
“It’s far from the worse I’ve ever received,” he told him. “My old captain beat me so savagely I considered quitting the Navy altogether.”
He intended it as reassurance, but Francis’ face fell. Disgust twisted his lips; his eyes clouded over. He squeezed James’ hand, and asked, voice the rumble of thunder, “Who was it?”
“Hardly matters—I was young.”
He realised too late it did not quite improve his admission. He wanted to explain it away: remind Francis that it was far from extraordinary; if one’s captain did not mistreat him, his fellows would rough him up still.
“And here I thought you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth,” Francis said.
James had to laugh at that. The circumstances of his birth would haunt him to his grave; it was only fitting. “You get that spoon knocked out with your teeth. Remember my tale of Chinkiang?”
“How could I possibly forget?” Francis’ tone was dry, but he was still holding James’ hand.
James closed his eyes as he recalled, “Like Caesar crossing the Rubicon—I thought of that—and a moment later, my mate’s head exploded clean off his shoulders. A single bullet. His blood, the fragments of his skull, brain matter splattered over my face. I could taste it. After that, my mind was empty. No thought of glory.”
The silence was heavy. The noises from Carnival seemed far away. James could hear his own blood thud. It happened when he thought of Chinkiang, beyond the story he had made of it, the smell and the screams: the pace of his heart would pick up; his skin would be chilled.
He would be afraid.
“You asked me why I was here on this expedition,” Francis said slowly. “I didn’t ask your reason; I supposed I knew. Prestige. Splendour. A promotion.” He squeezed his hand again as James hung his head. “For Christ’s sake, James, why are you here?”
James watched their interlaced fingers. His vision was somewhat blurred. “I just thought an Arctic expedition sounded terribly exciting,” he confessed. Francis uttered a mild curse. James brought his hand to his lips, apologetic, then let go of him. “I planned to walk home, you know. Through Russia. Reach England before you do.”
“You may yet walk,” Francis blurted; a toneless reassurance.
James shook his head. “I’m afraid—I think I'm contending with scurvy.”
He hated how the word tasted, scurvy. He rolled it around in his mouth; there: he’d said it now.
Francis pulled him into his arms. James buried himself into the cordial embrace, as if he could hide from his admission. Francis held him fast; he needed to be held; he was a doomed man, the blood on his forehead like the mark of Cain.
“You’re a brave man for admitting that,” Francis said. James made a sound of protest; he never felt more fragile. If Francis were not there with him, he would have just crumbled to pieces. “It takes courage to face your ailment,” Francis insisted. “You are a brave man, and you make a handsome lass.”
James giggled into Francis’ chest, his voice quite broken. He was grateful for the jest; as long as there was humour in his situation, it did not seem quite so harrowing. Francis’ grip eased: he would let him go, but James was not pulling away. There was nowhere else he would rather be than near Francis, basking in his warmth. He huddled close like some frightened thing in need of shelter and protection.
“Would I were a lady,” he said with sullen yearning. “Oh, I’m told it’s limiting: a bore and a chagrin. I had sweethearts and friends confide in me, swearing it. And yet I covet the tedium of embroidering handkerchiefs as one sits on the windowsill, talking of idle topics. Would I were a caged bird, my sole purpose to be admired: I would fill my days with chatter, music and poetry, kept away from war, politics, discovery. ”
“No one could bar you from curiosity,” Francis countered, stroking his shoulder. “You’d be a traveller. A proper adventuress.”
James peered up at him in defiance. “Won’t you allot me the easy life of a belle just for a daydream?”
“You’d hike up your petticoats and walk across all borders,” Francis said with a fond smile playing on his lips, his caresses never stilling. “If they told you ladies can’t walk unchaperoned, you’d run from them. They’d have you keep your voice down, but your tall tales would fill the parlour. You wouldn’t sit modestly: you’d stomp about the room, inserting yourself into conversation. Miss Fitzjames, they would say; such a nuisance—but what amazing spirit!”
“Would you fall in love with me?” James teased, grinning at him. Francis met his gaze; they were too close, just a breath away.
“Madly,” Francis rasped.
James surged to kiss him. Francis allowed it: just a warm press of lips—good friends would kiss like this. It was playful, brief, but with the aftertaste of sacrilege. James looked at him, half thrilled, half afraid. It was like when he first kissed a man: bursting joy for a moment, then crushing doubt: do you feel the gravity of what just happened? Do you feel as I feel? Am I alone in this?
He touched Francis’ lips, apologetic, searching. Brushed a thumb over them, as if he could wipe away his crime. Sin, he did not believe in: but were they to be spotted, they would be destroyed.
Francis was unafraid. He pressed a kiss to his fingertips: a small kiss, playful still; but if it was a game, the rules should be shared.
“Would you kiss me again, as one would a girl?” James asked quite seriously, heart thudding as if it were trying to escape the confines of his ribs.
Francis leant in slightly as a way of answering, but James kept his fingers over his lips. “I’d kiss you even as one would a man,” Francis said. James’ fingers trailed to his chin; he held him up, inspecting his reaction closely.
“What if I’m both man and woman?” he urged. “What if I’m neither? What if I’m confusion itself?”
“Are you certain in your confusion?”
“Then that’s who you are. Nothing to be ashamed of. I’ve been to sea longer than you have, and nobody would make an honest man out of me ashore; I’ve had all sorts of—communion.”
James’ eyebrows arched up. Had he the right to be surprised by Francis’ wealth of experience? That was not so shocking if he thought about it—but the promise that he would be accepted, seen: that was entirely foreign.
“Have you ever known somebody like me?”
“I’ve never known anyone like you,” Francis said with something akin to wonder, grasping his shoulder again. “How you vex me! Have some pity, James.”
James pressed into his touch urgently. “This isn’t pity; how could it be? I want you to want me. I’m just stunned you would, really.”
Francis scoffed. “Dressed like this, on a night like this: you look like I’m free to pursue my hope. If I should ever express my fancy for you, now is the time. How shall I convince you of my desire?”
“Show me,” James said quite simply, and touched Francis’ lips. He expected another kiss, riled and hungry; but Francis sucked his fingers into his mouth, eyes fluttering shut. He lapped at the digits with abandon, provoking James’ breath to hitch. His head was swimming; the buoyant music washed away. All he could hear were his own laboured gasps, then the wet sound as he pulled his fingers halfway out, only to penetrate Francis’ mouth anew.
Francis looked at him, his tired eyes bright with a new flame. James had seen sparks of it before: irritation, a particular frustration; later, the glint of tenderness; his regard and care; the unique way he would hold James’ gaze, always. James shivered at the intensity it, how flickers of conflicting emotion united into an inferno of want: dormant embers rekindled into something so far unnoticed.
He slid his fingers out of Francis’ mouth to kiss him proper, a slick pointer positioned under his chin to invite him deeper in. Francis kissed like a man making an argument: there was a rhetoric to it, how he pressed imploring lips against James’, then licked into his mouth insistently, proving his appetite with each new stroke of his tongue.
James pressed against him bodily, his free hand sliding down the front of Francis’ cream-coloured breeches. Francis’ legs fell open: James cupped his swelling cock, pressing down with his wrist. He was claiming it. There would be no denial possible after this. He made himself touch the fire, but it did not burn, only warmed him.
Flushed and invigorated, he pulled back for a breath. His chest was heaving: Francis was staring at it, then at James’ hand, splayed over his hard prick.
“Let’s take this somewhere safe,” he said.
“Is there still such a place on Earth?”
“It’s my duty to find it.” Francis put a hand on his own thigh, palm up; James slid his grasping hand into his, and let Francis pull him to his feet.
Standing thus, he became acutely aware of the few scant inches he had on Francis: he felt taller than ever, no desire to slouch his shoulders, duck his head.
“Proper ladies don’t get ravished by the coat rack,” Francis noted, and looked around the tent, still holding James’ hand.
“I should think proper ladies don’t get ravished at all.”
“Then you don’t know many proper ladies, I’m afraid.” Francis glanced at him sideways. “I’ve been wondering why no tales of conquest ever graced our dinner table.”
“Please, Francis; I’m a gentleman.” James let go of his hand, and righted his dress: the neckline had sunk too low again.
Francis watched his every movement. “I assumed you just didn’t prefer the company of women.”
James’ hand stilled for a moment, then he continued adjusting the bodice. “You knew?”
“Well, I tried; but I’m afraid I failed to be what they expected me to be.”
“Couldn’t rise to the occasion?” Francis said, impish; he headed for something he noticed beside the lanterns.
James gasped, mock-offended. It was a giddy thrill, how easily they slid back to banter. James tried to look self-righteous as he shook his hair out of his face, but a fond smile tugged at his lips. “I left no companion unsatisfied, thank you very much; only—” He halted, and went on addressing the ground. “Well. I came to find that when you hold a lady’s tender bosom in your roguish hands, they don’t expect you to remark how much you’d like to have breasts too.”
“Oh, they don’t?” Francis remarked in a conversational tone. He managed to wrestle a roll of sailcloth free, and walked up to James with a spring in his steps, carrying his bounty.
“Do you plan to erect a tent?”
“Let’s not yet dwell on tents,” Francis said, and offered his free hand. Dubious, James accepted it, and let himself be led into the labyrinth, steering back to the main hall. “You were telling me about your breasts.”
“Or lack of thereof,” James grumbled; planned to remark that they really should not plan to get any closer to the company as they already were, but Francis guided him to the other side of the labyrinth’s wall, unlit and remote. Rough ice creaked under their heels; the glow of torches was just enough to see by, the painted park on the tent’s canvas dim and distant. They stopped under an ornate swan fashioned from nets. The wall was sturdier. Francis pushed James against it and claimed his lips. It felt like he hungered for him: like the few minutes spent apart only made him starve. James kissed back, emboldened by the darkness. He felt Francis paw at his chest with one hand; felt it slip under the dress’ neckline.
“All right?” Francis whispered against his lips. James nodded his consent; the roll of sailcloth was dropped unceremoniously, the heavy thud swallowed by the blast of song and music.
Francis bowed his head and pressed a kiss to a taut nipple. James felt it even through the thick fabric. Francis closed his lips around it, and sucked eagerly, his hand seeking out its twin. He kneaded at James’ chest, who was astounded at how good it felt. No lover had paid much attention to that area of his body. The chill had made his nipples sensitive: he had no undershirt on, and they were rather far from the fire. He shivered at Francis’ attention: his laps soaked the velvet through, making it cling to his chest.
He felt weightless, delicate; nothing was expected of him but to enjoy the sensation, let himself be extolled by Francis’ lips. His cock stiffened as Francis fondled his chest, his breast: the duality of his sex made sense as he arched to demand more of Francis’ hands and lips, while his erection probed at the velvet skirt. Francis must’ve noticed it: he shoved a thigh between James’ legs, pinched at his nipple while James’ head rolled back, long throat exposed. His neck: pretty enough for a girl to envy, but the Adam’s apple, the hint of stubble unmistakable. No collar or ascot hid it; he was exposed, just for Francis, letting him see everything.
He had half a mind to tear off the dress: but his manhood would be too evident. It felt good to obscure it, even as he rubbed against Francis’ offered leg—he had the frock to hide his insistent erection. Francis’ stiff prick dig into him on every upward tilt: he was wanted; he had made Francis Crozier hard for him; he had him at his mercy, desperate to please him, laving at his chest with broad, flat strokes of his tireless tongue. James combed his fingers through Francis’ thin hair, gripped it to guide him ever closer. Even in a dress, James would not just lie back and think of England. He felt more powerful than in full uniform firing Congreves, in fact.
His gaze dropped, taking in what he could see of Francis: his broad back, his twitching hips, the roll of sailcloth by his stocking-clad legs.
James toed at it. “What’s that for, anyway?”
Francis looked up at him, but did not straighten. He nuzzled James’ chest as he said, “For me to kneel.”
An urge of lust overpowered James. “I should like you to kneel,” he heard himself say, the rush of his blood deafening. Francis arched an eyebrow at him: an expression James came to like and envy—one he had tried by the looking glass, imitating Francis’ mannerisms.
He would never have been able to mimic the prudent amazement on Francis’ face as he kissed his way down James’ body; could never fathom the caress of his lips, ghosting over chest, navel, groin, knee; how keenly he would yank up frock and petticoat—and then his laugh: how rare, how beautiful it was to hear Francis laugh!
“Aren’t they hideous?” James asked, standing there in his wool long johns and boots, the pretty dress hiked up. “I was reluctant to order them, though Sir John insisted I make underthings part of my uniform—but the mere idea of wearing two trousers at once, and one so ungainly at that—I could hardly bear the embarrassment, I hid them deep in my trunk, folded up and out of sight. Now they’re the first thing I reach for in the morning to warm my buttocks, numb with cold.”
“We shall warm up your poor buttocks,” Francis said, voice still bubbling with laughter. He made James turn around, and remarked, “These are not the sort of things you expect a lady to hide under her frock.”
“Neither is a cock.”
“That can be a welcome surprise.” Francis’ hand brushed over James’ straining prick while he pulled his long johns down, as if to prove a point. James heard some fumbling: the sailcloth rolled out as Francis prepared to take his place. James opened his legs as wide as the pooling underthings would let him, caught around his boots. He was holding his skirts up in a bundle pressed to his stomach, just about to remark that he was facing the wrong way, when he felt Francis’ breath over his skin, rough palms spreading his cheeks. James’ breath hitched as Francis kneaded them; a gasp escaped as Francis licked into the crack.
“Well, I never!” James remarked, taking the act to be a teasing little taste before Francis prepared him for penetration: but Francis carried on, lapping at the tight ring of muscle no partner had ever graced with their lips. James was astonished, but not dismayed: he stared at the sky painted above them, focusing on the foreign sensation. Francis’ breath tickled; his tongue tantalised; James felt himself loosen around the ardent ministrations. “You are in luck that I cleaned myself rather thoroughly this evening,” James said, voice raw with forging feeling.
“I was counting on your exceptional hygiene,” Francis mumbled. James shivered: the praise was hardly a sonnet, but precious in its honesty. His hand found his cock amidst the petticoats, and stroked it in time with the caresses of Francis’ tongue.
“I take pride in it.”
To hear Francis admit it: to imply he had taken note of his freshly shaven face each morning, his curled hair, nails immaculate; that it was worth it to melt ice water each day to bathe by the basin, and that he may not be faulted for adding a bar of lavender soap to his trekking pack.
He would carry his own weight in soap if it caught Francis’ attention.
His knees buckled at a particularly clever twist of Francis’ tongue; he hissed, gripping his cock with a firmer hand. It felt exquisite, to be laved at while he took care of himself. He could indulge in being a lady with a particularly attentive lover; he could enjoy the gift of his manhood; like Fadladinida, who got to keep two husbands, he relished in the dual pleasure unpunished. Francis had made him hard and wet, groped at his arse with the same vigour he had touched his chest. James’ head fell forward, his hair cascading around his flushed face.
“If you continue so,” he said, hoarse, “I won’t be able to impress you with my, ah, youthful stamina.”
“Would you like me to stop?”
“Not for the world. Not for the bleeding North-West Passage.”
Francis chuckled softly and nuzzled at him, his nose poking at James’ tailbone. A curious gesture of affection, as perplexing and endearing as the man himself. He dipped his tongue into James, who nearly cried out, besieged by bliss.
“You know,” he panted, “there were, ah, days in the wardroom when I looked at you and said to myself, kiss my arse—never thought you’d take up on the offer!”
“Don’t you think you should be serviced exactly like this?” Francis whispered against his saliva-slick skin. “When I see you, I feel like you know. As if you were demanding it.” He rewarded him with a quick lick. “Please me, Francis,” he said, imitating James’ accent, voice dropped lower: another lick followed. “I’m made to be indulged.”
“I don’t sound like that,” James protested, getting weaker; his climax was close, but he fought against it—he wanted more of Francis.
“You don’t need words to say it.” Francis eased a thick finger inside him; James squeezed around it, pulling it deeper still as his mouth fell slack and his eyes rolled back. He arched to get more of it, fist tight around his twitching cock. Francis tapped against a sweet spot, and said, “Your body sings to me.”
James moaned, low and long, the chorus of that secret song. With his left, he scratched at his own chest, head thrown back; his fingers curled around his neck, then tore into his hair. He was helpless: was free to be so vulnerable, with Francis there, coming undone by his gentle hand. He spilled, spurt after spurt, trembling with it. Francis held him, kissed the small of his back, the cleft of his arse again. Eased his clever finger out only once James was quite finished. His petticoats fell back down around his ankles; his chest was near exposed, the neckline askew.
He turned, awkward in the entrapments of underwear, and went to his knees quite willingly, joining Francis on the roll of sailcloth. Cupped his flushed face; took in his dark pupils; leant to kiss him. Francis ducked away, pecking his cheek.
“No,” James said. “Allow me: it’s only fair, isn’t it?”
Francis let him taste his lips, then lick into his mouth, exploring. James made a face. “Lavender,” he muttered.
“What did you expect?” Francis asked, adjusting James’ dress. “Of course a delicate lady such as yourself would taste of flowers.”
“What do comely sea captains taste like?” James said as he reached for the front of Francis’ breeches. He touched wetness.
“No youthful stamina here,” Francis mumbled. James caressed him anyway, enjoying the shape and feel of Francis’ softening cock; how unabashedly he arched into his hand.
“I made you spill without ever laying a hand on you,” he bragged.
“Don’t let that get into your head: I’m perfectly capable of palming myself.”
“Such a shame to ruin your fetching costume.” James crawled over Francis, straddling his hips; hissed as his naked hand touched the ice through the sailcloth. “Damn, it’s cold!”
Francis looked at him, unimpressed, even though James’ right palm was still cupped over his spent cock. “Ice is cold,” he said.
“I’m well aware, I merely remarked—”
“I know you are no Arctic veteran, but it’s time you familiarised yourself with the relative temperature of—”
“—ice and snow.”
“I’m a veteran now,” James insisted as he attempted to kick off his long johns. Francis was warm and solid beneath him: offered a lovely sight, besides, with his hair tousled and face flushed.
“Ready to have your official portrait painted?” Francis teased as James tossed his underthings away, and settled back between Francis’ spread legs.
James propped his head up on Francis’ chest, and mused, “Might as well. Will the Royal Academy join us on the ice, then?”
“They shall arrive any minute.”
“I would settle for Lieutenant Fairholme’s rescue party. Wouldn’t it be something, getting found like this?”
They both stopped to listen, for a fanciful second. The entertainment had turned from dancing to whaling songs and sea shanties. The men sang safe and sound at home again, let the waters roar; it was, of course, not interrupted by the arrival of a welcome guest. James smiled at Francis, feeling a tad desperate and silly, but too sated to mind it terribly. Whatever the future should bring, he was sure of this: he would see the first sunrise of the year shining on Francis’ darling, frowning face. No doubt he would deliver some grim warning about how brief and cold spring would be; but then he would turn to James, and quirk an eyebrow at him, affable; maybe even squeeze his shoulder: we shall face it all together.
Warmth spread in James’ chest as he ducked to nip at Francis’ nose, and hummed to him, don’t forget your old shipmate.
“Never,” Francis mouthed. James kissed the promise from his lips, and was pulled closer, Francis’ hands caressing his back, the heat of his body yielding to James, and he thought, you’re summer and dawn and clear water. He closed his eyes, and for a bit, with the shanty blasting and the rise and fall of Francis’ breath, he felt like he was on a ship sailing through the rolling sea, at the white edge of a map.
Here be dragons.
Here be wonders.
Anything was possible.