One might picture any number of fetid waterways, alive with mosquitoes and disease, when one thought of a marsh. Especially a marsh in the middle of Arabia, set between the Tigris and Euphrates - rivers whose biblical pedigree did not change the fact that they were full of river-water, which, in Henry’s experience, always became foul when it neared the ocean.
The sight that met Henry at the end of their careful journey up the Shatt-al-Arab from the Persian Gulf - James navigating Clio through shallow waters she had not been designed for - had soundly defied those expectations in the most delightful of ways.
These waters ran clear and bright in channels that wove between the small islands, where the locals lived in their rather impressive reed houses, and the dense swathes of lush vegetation. The place seemed to be overflowing with it in quite a literal sense; birds of all sorts were everywhere one looked, bobbing on the water or flitting through the air, and white flowers, their honey sweet smell always at its most fragrant in the hot night air, spilled over into the waterways from the dense pockets of towering reeds.
They (the reeds that is) were taller than Henry even when he stood in the stern of the jollyboat; the desert dry breeze - as hot as any bread oven Henry had peered in to - threatening to knock the straw hat from his head as it rustled constantly through the lush, grassy parts of the reeds. They would sway and shake in a rather picturesque manner, and made such a racket of rustling that it even drowned out the splash of the oars, and the low chatter of the sailors as they rowed gingerly through the twilight.
The marshes thinned out at its borders, the waterways widening and the reeds becoming more and more scattered until all was open water between them and the low, elegant silhouette of Clio against the violent, orange sky .
“There we are boys, you’re old hands at these marshes," Henry called, leaning his hip on the tiller to point the bow towards the ship. "We're coming up fast on home now."
He braced himself as the men pulled at the oars with more confidence, crossing the stretch of river with ease.
There seemed to be some rushing about on deck. Judging from the lack of shouting from the boatswain, it seemed nothing to worry about, and he waved his hat at Third Lieutenant Pritchard who was standing at the gunwale, watching their approach.
The midshipman threw up the mooring rope to the deck, and Henry clambered up the ladder, wiping his hands on his trousers before shaking Pritchard’s in greeting.
“Good evening, Le Vesconte,” he boomed, the lilt of his Welsh accent making all he said seem jolly.
“Hello Pritchard. I say,” Henry said, nodding to an AB who tugged his forelock as he passed, “what's all this toing and froing in aid of?”
“Commander Fitzjames returned not two hour ago,” Pritchard said with a smile that Henry could not help but return.
“Ah! Splendid,” Henry clapped his hands together, the news leaving him pleased all the way down to his toes. “Nothing like a returning captain’s keen eye to cause a scramble, eh?” He asked, holding out his hand as Nebet trotted up to him, chirping a greeting. She bumped her head against his palm, Henry scratching his fingers into her fur as she rubbed her powerful, slender body against his leg.
"A phenomenon, indeed,” Pritchard agreed, stepping aside as men began to unload the jollyboat. “I will oversee this, if you wish to see the commander.”
“Ah, decent of you.” he turned and set off aft, throwing, “I shall see you anon, Pritchard,” over his shoulder, waving when a suitable parting was called back to him.
Nebet followed him to the hatch, but demurred to go down, preferring to scamper after the activity on deck over following Henry into the darkness below.
The gunports were left open on Henry’s order. He had wanted to keep fresh air flowing, as the foul miasmas from the slow flowing rivers had brought terrible illnesses to the fleet in China. It was relatively pleasant and bright below decks, the fading day casting wonderful shadows that men appeared from and disappeared into as Henry passed by with rather a spring in his step, greeting him as he went.
He was not quite as excited as a boy about to see his school friend after summer - the day had been far too long and hot for any of that, and the rank of First Lieutenant too stately - but he was still very glad indeed to have James back aboard. The four day journey from Baghdad was hardly a perilous one, especially in the company of a few officers and marines from Clio , and the new British Consul - the sparklingly intelligent Major Rawlinson - who James was delivering to the venerable old city so often mentioned in Arabian Nights. But as the days had ticked by, stretching out into weeks, Henry could not help becoming worried, mind turning over the bullet wounds that James had suffered barely a year past.
James was back aboard now. All as well, and the extended time away would no doubt be the source of an amusing tale or two; they versions told to Henry always more frank and brutally amusing than those structured for the ears of the wardroom.
He swept off his hat when he looked in on said wardroom after one of the mates grunted a hello, then went to rap his knuckles on the door frame of the great cabin. Henry rocked back on his heels while he waited for ‘come’ to be shouted, then slid the door open and stepped through.
The great cabin would have been quite dark if not for all the lamps that were burning away, giving Henry the impression that had just stepped into a wall of stifling heat, and he moved over to the large windows to push one open. He had kept the great cabin as perfectly neat as James had left it, not a chair or paper or decanter out of place; much as it was now, only the tidy pile of reports on the polished table, and a rustle of fabric coming from the captain's berth, signalled James’ presence.
He was about to announce himself when James poked his head around the door, a smile lighting up his face as soon as he set eyes on Henry. “Ah, Dundy!”
“Good to see you, Jas.” Henry had an answering grin on his face as he met James in the middle of the cabin to shake his hand, the both of them laughing when they gave up on formality and embraced one another.
"You are looking well after your sojourn across the desert," Henry said as he looked over James. His hair was in rather rugged disarray, his freshly shaved face bearing a rich golden tan that went all the way down the open collar of his shirt - as James was, rather surprisingly, lacking both his coat and waistcoat, leaving him in only a freshly pressed shirt and trousers. "Even if you appear to have lost most of your uniform."
"If you had been half an hour earlier, you would have found me half dressed as an Arab."
"I say!" Henry scoffed, not finding it very hard to picture James in an Arab tunic with a dishdash wrapped about his head. "Rather put out I missed that."
"Hardly wise to travel about a desert in wool, old boy," James said, looking about the cabin with a frown on his face before going to shove open the remaining windows. "Bridgens rescued my uniform from my pack, then hovered with intent until I gave in, and gave up reading reports in order to have a wash."
"Well, you have just gone there and back to Baghdad. You were likely in need of one."
James dropped a fist to his hip, brow raised imperiously. "Are you implying that your captain might have smelled abominably?"
"Perish the thought," Henry grinned, stepping back when James moved over to the table and tapped the topmost reports.
“Well, Lieutenant Le Vesconte,” James said in the cool tones of a captain that made Henry strand straighter on instinct. “Are you able to inform me as to the whereabouts of all my rifle ammunition?”
“All?" Henry questioned, feeling slightly abashed. He had been given command while James had been away, and Henry would hate for James to think he had been careless in his conduct.
"Near as dammit, yes," James said without an ounce of unkindness. "Does it have anything to do with all the bacon and salted pork in the stores?"
Henry nodded, tucking his hands behind his back as he gave an account of himself. "There are many fine, fat wild pigs in the marshes, and as long as we do not shoot any of the wild fowl or the water buffalo, the locals are perfectly happy for us to hunt them. I thought it the best way to keep the men entertained, in good health, and give us a store of fresh meats.”
"I see," James said evenly, flicking the report over with a deft move of his long fingers. "And, if the Admiralty were to question it, you were also practising musketry?” he asked purposefully, and Henry agreed, going easily where James led.
“Yes. To keep the men sharp and ready for action.”
James nodded, a gentling about his eyes that had Henry relaxing. “I only wish I had not missed out on it."
"It was rather splendid fun."
James smiled as he turned towards the door, and Henry had a moment to brace himself before James called out in that teeth-rattling quarterdeck voice of his, "Bridgens! Tea if you please."
Henry was not sure if the volume of the asking had an effect, but the tea (and a few raisin biscuits, of course) appeared just as they had taken their seats on the bench beneath the open windows, which was rather rapid even for Bridgens.
“Ah,” Henry sighed after his first sip, slumping back against the bulkhead. He unwound the cravat from about his neck, tipping his head one way and then the other to try and feel the faintly cool breeze against his skin. “Arab tea is very fine and sweet, but the familiar is what is in order after a long day.”
James hummed in agreement, shifting so he was facing Henry, one leg tucked beneath the other. “Where were you anyway? I had begun to worry that you had fallen in.”
“I was at supper with the local headman, minding my raja’s and shukraan’s like you told me to. I gave them some spare oars on behalf of Her Majesty, as wood is scarce in these parts, which they seemed happy with,” Henry explained, turning his face towards the open window to catch the faint, thick scent of the marsh flowers that laced the night air. “And if I had fallen in, you needn’t have cause for concern. I am considered rather buoyant, don’t you know.”
James laughed, a lock of hair, curled in the heat, falling against his cheek only for him to shake it away.
Henry kicked off his shoes as he finished his tea, twisting to set the cup carefully on the floor before reaching for a biscuit. "So," Henry began, glancing over at James who was watching him mildly, looking very louche in that way Henry had thought was reserved for people in paintings until he had come to know James Fitzjames. "How did you find Baghdad? Did it live up to the tales of Scheherazade ?" he tapped James on the knee. "Do you have a thousand and one tales to tell?"
James smiled. "One thousand and two."
"Good lord. More than enough to seduce a sultan," he declared, and James scoffed.
"Shall I ask Bridgens to ready my chiffon and jewels?"
Henry opened his mouth, closing it again when an image swam into his mind's eye, then said, "I refuse to believe you have come to own jewels on a lieutenant's pay."
"I never claimed they were genuine," James grinned, eyes sparkling in the lamplight as he tried not to laugh.
"Yet another facet to your five day visit that shall rock the salons of Arabia for the next year," Henry declared.
"We paid a visit to Karbala and Babylon on the return journey, so I have rocked Baghdad in only four days."
"Ah. Paid a call to good ol’ Nebuchadnezzar, did you?"
James laughed brightly, Henry feeling a great swell of fondness for him as James reached out, running his hand down over Henry’s shoulder to grasp his forearm. "It was a fine adventure, but would have been finer still if you had been with me."
“We must indulge in some duty on this merry jaunt, must we not?” Henry placed his hand over the one on his arm, squeezing gently. "I must admit, I am pleased that the delights of this ancient land were not a compelling distraction to my absence.”
"Never," James murmured, thumb pressing into the side of Henry's arm. "Nothing in the world is so charming as to do that."
"Heaven forfend such hyperbole," Henry tutted, tilting his head to meet James' direct gaze despite how it always made him flush.
James could never ask, or hint, for anything beyond a friendly action. A request from a ship's captain was as good as an order to the ears of his officers and crew, and James was far too noble to cross such a line even with Henry, who would never refuse him. Which was why, when aboard Clio at least, Henry had to be the one asking for a spot on the dance card, as it were.
It had led to some awful stilted moments in India - truly the worst sort of clumsy exchanges - but now Henry simply took a hold of James’ hand, turning it to stroke the soft skin on the inside of his wrist.
“The door,” Henry said even as he pulled James closer.
“Bridgen’s would not disturb us unless the worst occurs,” James blushed as he said it; the implication enough to make Henry incredulous if James had not hooked an ankle over his.
“Ah, well then,” Henry murmured, smoothing his hand up from James’ knee to rest at the very top of his thigh, twisting to kiss him firmly on the mouth. An indulgence too far in most cases such as this, Henry thought, but James was a man who should be kissed.
The angle was awkward and ungainly, a thing James would never tolerate. He forced Henry to tip his head back as he pushed himself up, perching with one knee on the bench and the other planted on the floor, holding Henry's face as he kissed him with great fondness.
Having all of James' height and lissom strength curled over one's person was quite a thing. Henry felt himself stir in his trousers as he ran his hand down over James' back, the linen faintly damp with sweat, brushing over the fine swell of his rump, and grasped the back of his thigh. A little squeezing of the shapely muscle was enough to have James swing his leg over Henry’s lap; the movement tipping Henry’s head so far back it thunked gently against the windowpane.
“I’m all right,” Henry whispered as James cupped the back of his head. “Not a great deal to damage.”
James shook his head, adjusting his knees on the bench so he could settle in Henry’s lap. He was heavy, and warm; too warm to be comfortable when the atmosphere was so close, Henry’s skin prickling with sweat beneath his coat and waistcoat. But James was also laying soft kisses to the line of his jaw, his cock rubbing against Henry’s stomach; the clean, salt sweat on his skin and the faint smell of the distant flowers combining into such a heady mix that Henry hardly thought twice about bearing the discomfort.
He pressed his face into James’ hair, smoothing a hand over his thigh to press against the firm line of his cock, rubbing his palm against the jutting head. James sat back with a gasp, tilting his hips against Henry’s hand as he raked his hair off of his flushed face in such a careless, raffish manner that Henry felt a swell of bright desire go through him.
Henry set about James’ trousers at once, hauling his shirt out of the way with one hand as he spat into the other. James let out a soft, aborted sound when Henry grasped him, his fingers fumbling over Henry’s buttons that were temporarily abandoned when he twisted his fist over the heated, tender skin of James' prick.
"There," James grunted when he finally had Henry exposed to the heated air between them. He stroked his fingertips lightly down the sweaty skin of Henry's stomach, an action that almost tickled him, then trailed them lightly up the side of Henry’s twitching stand; James glancing a kiss off his cheek as he finally took him in hand.
There was never a rush with James. He hardly took his time - such a thing was a terrible risk to take aboard ship - but it never felt like James was hurrying you to your end. Which Henry was most glad of, for if one were to yield to such a desire, then one might at least enjoy it. Which he was, immensely. James pressed the pad of his thumb under the sensitive head on every up stroke, his nails scratching lightly against Henry’s scalp where he was still cupping the back of his head. It sent a delightful prickle down his neck, and clenching heat to his belly; causing Henry to gasp against the smooth skin of James’ throat, or his jaw, or his hot, giving mouth.
The only noises were their hitching breaths and the faint music from the fo’c’sle, the filthy sound of skin on skin and the wet click of the messy, open mouthed kisses they shared. Sweat was sitting heavily at Henry’s hairline, the back of his shirt sticking to his skin as James pulled him closer and closer to his end. He finished with a grunt that he muffled in James’ shoulder, pulling him close despite the unbearable humidity, sighing when James kept stroking him lightly, almost tenderly, peppering light kisses to his temple.
He pushed a hand under James’ shirt to touch his back, feeling the smooth flex muscle under his damp skin as James began rock his hips into Henry’s grip. The action was almost unconscious at first, but grew in boldness when Henry began squeezing his prick, watching the flush of heat on James’ cheeks bloom darker as he chased his own pleasure up and over the cliff, spilling hotly over Henry’s hand and belly.
They sagged together after the crisis had passed, Henry gladly bearing James’ weight in the moments before it simply became too sweltering to be so close, and James righted himself.
He smiled at Henry, going easily when Henry tugged at his braces to pull him into one last kiss. “I am very glad to be back,” James said quietly, sliding off Henry’s lap before he could answer, crossing the cabin on unsteady, coltish legs to fetch the wash basin.
Cleaned up, and tucked away, wet fingers passed through hair to get it presentable once more, they seated themselves at the table; James pouring them a cup of now tepid tea as he regaled Henry with a tale about a dinner he had attended at the British Residency in Baghdad.
“...it was the picture of pleasantness, of course. And then dessert was presented to us,” James said as a scratch at the door forced him to rise and open it to let Nebet in. “Which was as fine an array of jellies as any might see in London.”
“Jellies! In Arabia?” Henry scoffed, envisioning a sad, liquid mess on the fine linen tablecloths.
“That was my thought exactly,” James placed his hands on his hips, watching Nebet circle on the rug before flopping out on her side. “Dundy, when I say to you that they had been set to such an extent so as not to melt in the thick heat, picture something so opaque and solid so as to be inedible.”
“Oh no, Jas,” Henry said mournfully, placing a dramatic hand over his heart. “You are wounding me.”
“The terrible truth,” James grinned as he flopped back into his seat. “Politeness forced it down, but I found myself wishing like never before for hardtack and jam.”
Henry shook his head, taking a grim sip of tea. “No wonder it is only one thousand and one Arabian tales, for this one is too wretched to countenance Jas, really.”