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Under your skin

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Francis sat at his writing desk, in the middle of a letter to Ross, when he heard the door to the front room slam. He looked outside as he rose; rain was pelting against the window pane. Somehow, wrapped up in documenting the calm, at-times-boring, schedule that him and Fitzjames were now following after having returned to London, the weather had completely escaped his notice.

“James?” he called out as he walked into their salon, curious to see how the other man had fared with the surprising torrent. “I told you to take…” he started as he turner the corner, but the rest of his words wouldn’t leave his mouth as he stood, frozen, in the doorway.

James, for his part, was soaked through, to be quite honest; his trousers – already a close fit, the vain bastard, though not as tight as they used to be considering the amount of weight he had lost – were clinging to his long, long legs. Worse than that, though, was the way he was currently wrestling himself out of a white shirt. It had gone completely and utterly transparent with moisture, dragging across James’ skin like an eager lover; Francis could sympathise. Were he ever allowed to cover James that way, he would fight tooth and nail before letting go.

The worst part – worse than the obscenely tight trousers and the way James’ shirt clung to his chest, outlining his nipples, even – were the tattoos.

 

For all the things that Francis and James had been through together – for all the things that Francis ; dreamed about routinely, ashamedly, and yearningly – they had never seen each other in any state of undress which would be mentionable. Even when James had doted upon Francis during the time he had been sick while abstaining from drink, Francis had never been in less than his shirtsleeves. (The memories of that time were feverish and hazy, but he remembered Fitzjames’ long fingers in his hair, tenderly raking it back as he wiped his face with a blissfully cool rag. He wished he could remember it much more clearly, and hated himself for it just a bit more.)

He had seen men with tattoos before, of course; Blanky had had some ill-fated, crooked anchors and sails on his chest, and Francis was sure he had heard Little and Jopson talk about the former getting an anchor tattooed on his arm when him and James had visited them the other week.

But those tattoos that James possessed were another matter altogether, and not only because they had found their home on James’ skin.

They were, to say it simply, beautiful. Stretching over his back, his shoulders, down his arms, they stopped just over the crook of his elbow – for means of privacy, Francis guessed. Colourful and striking, some of flowers Francis could never in a thousand years name, some motives more familiar, they matched James perfectly. Francis had only just started dragging his eyes over the large ship on the entirety of the other man’s upper arm when a poignant cough made him stumble back into reality.

“Francis” James exclaimed with a small measure of indignation, though it was mostly amusement that curled around the corners of his mouth. “Are you going deaf, my good man? I have been calling your name for the last minute!”

Francis could feel the heat crawling up his neck into his cheeks – bloody Irish colouring.

“Just…” he gestured at James’ bare torso – when had the other man turned around without him noticing? “Just surprised, that’s all.”

James ducked his head as he smiled, unusually shy, and met Francis’ gaze again. “People don’t tend to expect them” he said, a bit impishly, as he raised his shirt to his hair to squeeze out some of the rainwater. Before Francis could do anything, like offer a towel or stop staring preferably, James had already deposited a blanket on the edge of the sofa closest to the open fire, and settled down there.

Half-naked and fully-soaked, he looked as comfortable as a gentleman in his dress uniform; Francis envied him. Francis adored him, too – the emotions were closely and complicatedly intertwined.

“You seem shocked” James mused as he tried to stroke a piece of hair back from his face before realising that his once-famous curls were no longer there; his hand lingered for a moment at his ear before it dropped back into his lap heavily.

„No!” Francis blurted, feeling very blunt and too-large for this room. “No…they suit you. Very well.”

James smiled, a private, small, lovely smile that Francis wanted to put into his pocket and carry around. He felt foolish even as he thought it. “Thank you, Francis.”

 

As the other man made no move to retire to his own room to change into sometimes less…well, less soaked, Francis settled into the armchair opposite the sofa, barely six feet away. “When…why did you start? And when?”

“Just a few years after joining up” James replied with a bit of a spark in his dark eyes, likely remembering tales of the scoundrel he used to be, and the trouble he used to get into. “We were in Liverpool, for a day or two, for some more recruiting and to load up on provisions. All the ship’s boys were going, and I didn’t want to be the odd man out. Not that I was a man then.” He chuckled, and Francis revelled in it; smooth and soft, the register was deep enough for the sound to curl in Francis’ stomach like a purring cat.

“I heard it gets hard to stop after a few” he threw in, if only to keep James talking. There had been days where Francis would have given half his pay or more to shut the other man up. Things were quite different now – a James talking was a James alive, and thus Francis would see to it that he heard his voice as much as would be possible.

“It does” James allowed with a tilted head, as if to arch himself to catch sight of his own back, inked in once-glowing colours, no doubt. The colours were a bit duller now, muted, though they still stood out proudly against James’ pale skin. His spine and his shoulder blades were still a bit too visible, moving below the skin too sharply for Francis’ tastes, but he had regained his health – or as much as he could, anyway. Sometimes Francis watched James laughing open-mouthed at some ridiculous anecdote the Irishman had told, or during their now-gentle ribbing of each other, and then freeze mid-laugh as he snapped his teeth together, fidgeting in his seat. Francis could see the way James’ tongue searched for the hollow spots where once teeth had been, and ached for the other man. The gaps weren’t right in the front, thank goodness, but James was still wildly insecure about them. At least Francis assumed he was; for all that they were closer than before – though not, Francis thought, as close as they had been in that tent, with Francis all but ready to give in to James’ demands, to end his suffering already, when he heard the hollers of Ross’ rescue crew outside – they didn’t talk about those things, as much as he would want to.

 

“Do ladies think they make you look rakish?” Francis asked, in an attempt to lighten the mood, in an attempt to keep James talking. He so enjoyed it, nowadays, to hear James. At the same time, he could have kicked himself for approaching that tender subject; they had been renting rooms together for more than three months now, with James fully healed physically for the last two. Still, Francis had never heard any noise from James’ room that would have pointed one’s mind to some untoward business, and he had never seen James slip back into the house in the early morning, either.

To think that theoretically, James could have bedded the better half of London and Francis would have been none the wiser, smarted quite unbearably in his chest.

James frowned; even while he huffed an amused breath through his nose, he chewed on the inside of his cheek nervously. When he flicked his eyes back up to meet Francis’, they were unusually hesitant and shy.

“I wouldn’t know” he stated simply. That short confession was enough to knock Francis back in his chair, and he could barely catch himself from licking his suddenly-dry lips. He had had his suspicions, of course; James was an unusually tidy and put-together man, after all, with his pretty hair and his spotless clothing…Francis had always put it towards growing up under the strict discipline of a ship’s master, and no small amount of vanity too. Though, truth be told, be also hadn’t allowed himself to think that James’…proclivities might be compatible with his own, for his own sake: Knowing James lay with men, and having him within reach would surely have proven to be too much on the ice.

Francis hummed uncommittedly, desperate to sound accepting but not lecherous, interested but not preying. It was a nerve-wracking line to walk; judging by James’ relieved smile, however, he had done a fine job.

“They all look different” Francis offered in a desperate attempt to steer away from the heavy silence which encompassed their sitting room; even with the soothing crackle of the fire it was too damning to sit together with eyes locked and not speak, especially with James’ whole chest and back exposed. “You got them all in different places, then?”

James hummed. “I did; one in every country I’ve been to, at least, if the time allowed.” He gently touched one big floral piece cupping his left shoulder and smirked at Francis. “This one I got in China.” Francis laughed at the flash of a mischievous spark in James’ eyes, his eyes tracking the way the other man’s long fingers thoughtlessly splayed over the colourful skin, the edge of James’ thumb nudging the sharp line of his collarbone.

“Collecting memories?” he asked curiously, instantly wishing he could take the words back when James’ face shuttered.

“Looking for home, I think.” He shrugged casually, but his eyes were haunted and dark. Francis recalled the march to Victory Point, James’ words about growing up without a proper family, without a proper connection or a proper place to call his home port. Let me be your anchor, he had wanted to say, but hadn’t dared. Let me be the one thing that keeps you safe and sound.

“It was my way to bind a bit of every place I had been to myself, to remind myself of places – to people – that I might never get to return to.”

 

His smile was brittle as he pushed a shaky hand through his hair. Chopped unevenly at first to treat the open wounds from scurvy, a very dedicated nurse had managed to shape James’ hair into something at least resembling a gentleman’s hairdo again. Needless to say, Francis had been silently seething that entire time – jealous of all the casual touches and comforts she was allowed to bestow upon James while all he could do was to sometimes gently squeeze James’ shoulder in goodbye when he returned to his own cot after reading aloud to James for an hour or two, back when the younger man had been too weak to read himself. Francis had half-expected some joyous news of an engagement to be shared on the day they were cleared to return to London, but James had simply bowed to the lady and thanked her for her care. He left with me, Francis’ thoughts supplied. It’s me he wanted to see every day, me he wanted to stay with. A fool’s thoughts, of course, but Francis decided that those little comforts were quite alright after the Arctic nightmare.

“It’s an unsteady life, as a seaman. Suppose I don’t have to tell you this” he smiled weakly as he nodded at Francis.

Francis hesitated for a long moment before he spoke again, simply holding James’ gaze. “Will you…” his words faded into nothing; suddenly, he felt foolish to ask.

James, however, grasped his meaning. “Have one after this?” he finished his sentence. “I’m not sure. Definitely not an Arctic flower though. Maybe…” His lips twitched, as if in fond recollection, before he seemed to steel himself again, ready to swipe the thought away. Francis, wanting little more than see James with that fond expression on his face, pressed on.

“Yes?”

“Maybe…I might get some heather. Something hardy.”

 

Francis could barely imagine it, such a rough plant on James’ graceful body, every line and curve placed as if by careful artistic inspiration. At the same time, there was a roughness in James, a hidden strength and resilience that he had been too blind to see for so long.

Perhaps not so bad a match, after all.

“There were lovely heather fields behind our family home in Banbridge” he confessed, feeling a bit heartsore as he recalled long summers running through high grass and sleeping in the stables with his siblings when the weather was still mild enough to allow it. “I haven’t been there in decades, but I still remember them.”

James watched him with a curiously soft expression. “I know” he replied quietly, slowly, like he was choosing his words with care. “You told me about them, in the infirmary, when I came down from my fever.”

Francis swallowed. Not only had he told James those stories with half a mind that the other man wouldn’t hear in his haze, but to know that James recalled that flower’s connection to Francis and to still want it carved into his skin…He was powerless against the emotions that flooded into his mind, unquestioned by reason or any other rational thought.

“James…” he started off gently, but the other man shook his head, pressing on.

“You must know, Francis.” His voice was merely a whisper, but his gaze was strong and decisive when he raised it from his intertwined hands in his lap. “After all that’s happened. You have to know that I…”

“I didn’t dare to think it might be true” Francis replied, willing his voice to be steady. He stood slowly, not quite trusting his legs to carry him.

“Are you disgusted?” James exclaimed fearfully as he watched the Irishman stand, like he was afraid he’d leave the room and never return. Francis was quick to move over to the sofa that James occupied, and to lower himself onto the cushions too; still sitting far enough apart to be proper and to not have questions asked should someone enter the room unannounced, but close enough to assure James’ frayed nerves that there wouldn’t be a fight.

“No! Goodness, no” he blurted even while he sank down to sit. “Befuddled, why you would choose me, and regretful that there was so much time wasted, so many occasions for comfort missed out on. But I don’t feel disgusted by you, James. Not ever.” Barely keeping himself from reaching out a hand to touch James, he instead kept them both holding onto each other tightly in his lap.

Different from what he expected, his confession was not received warmly. Instead, James looked almost hurt. “Is that what you would have wanted?” he asked flatly. “Comfort, on the ice?”

Francis groaned quietly. “I wish you wouldn’t misunderstand me” he reproached the other man tenderly. He breathed deeply, clutching his own hands. “I would have stayed there, if it hadn’t been for you.”

 

His voice was trembling, damn it to all hell, but still clear enough for James to hear every word. Still, the other man frowned, his eyes dark and wide and wondrous.

“What is your meaning?” he demanded in a strained murmur.

Francis swallowed. Explaining it now, in the comforts of a London home, he felt foolhardy. Still, he knew it would have been his only choice, had fate been different. “I would have concealed myself from Ross, somehow. I would have stayed there, with the Netsilik, if they would have had me, and lived another life.”

James’ face was shock-pale at the admission. “Why?” he breathed.

Go for broke, Francis. “Because there would have been nothing for me in England, or anywhere else in the world” he replied firmly, locking eyes with James and silently begging him to understand what he was really saying. “Because everything – everyone – I held dear would have stayed behind, and I couldn’t bear to part from them once more, even if they were gone.” His cheeks were flaming with vulnerability, he could feel the blood rising underneath his skin, but he did not dare turn his head away from James’ gaze, which grew warmer and more understanding at the second.

“What of Miss Cracroft?” he asked quietly, like he almost regretted asking but couldn’t keep himself from knowing should the information be offered, either.

“Miss Cracroft…” Francis sighed deeply. “Sophia and me had little common ground even before the voyage. I was just too stubborn to see it. And then…being out there, being there with…” He caught James’ name between his teeth before it could escape his mouth, making himself a fool. For now, even if he deeply wished, needed, craved James to understand and to know, it was safer to not be explicit. “It would have been impossible to go back” he ended simply.

 

The other man was silent for a long while, looking into the quietly crackling fire. It was perhaps not yet cool enough for a fire during the afternoon, but Francis would be thrice-damned if he ever saw the slightest hint of gooseflesh on James’ skin in his whole life. In the end, Francis could see how James prepared to speak, how his shoulders tensed, how his jaw worked nervously, how his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. Half-naked in a drawing room with a fully-clothed man right beside him, he should look a laughing stock; instead, Francis wished to cradle him in his arms and soothe away every dark thought that crept up on this magnificent man.

James cleared his throat quietly, gazing down at his lap, at his outstretched fingers like he was mustering their shape and upkeep. “Is that why you would have me?” he asked brokenly, his voice merely an echo. “For someone to be on common ground with you?”

Francis cursed inwardly, and dared to nudge himself a bit closer to the other man. “James…”

“Tell me truthfully, now, and we will never have to speak of it again.” A Commander’s voice, crisp and deep and decisive. All this, however, flickered into a lone man’s uncertainty when James looked into Francis’ eyes again. “But don’t lie to me.”

“James” Francis spoke, like it was a vow, and perhaps it was. “James, I would have you in any way I am allowed. If I had known you a decade ago the way I do now, I would have you just the same.” To think of how they would have been, whole and unbroken and young – younger at least, in Francis’ case. The thought could make him weep were he even more inclined to melancholy, Francis mused; it wasn’t a good thought to linger on, especially not with James, lovely James, looking so fragile and heartbreakingly hopeful next to him.

“Are you certain?” he asked carefully. He tensed up quite terribly when Francis dared to place a calloused hand right on top of James’ lovely fingers, stroking the back of his hand with his thumb, but relaxed into the caress all the same, nearly melting where he sat.

“You asked if we were brothers” Francis mumbled, shifting so close their thighs nearly slotted together; he could feel the heat of James’ skin radiating from his torso even through the thin fabric of his linen shirt. “I spent months after this wondering if you’d allow us to be something else.”

James drew in a sharp breath at that confession, and Francis wondered if maybe he had overstepped after all. Maybe James wanted something else, something slower, maybe James…

James interrupted his spiralling thoughts. “What if I told you I wanted everything?” he asked shyly, like he wasn’t sure he’d be allowed.

“Then I would match you step for step” Francis assured him boldly, twisting where he sat to place his free hand on the other man’s smooth-shaven cheek. James’ lashes fluttered at the tender caress for a moment, but their gazes didn’t waver from each other.

 

“Lovely James” Francis mused wondrously as his thumb gently moved over James’ cheek. The younger man eased his hands from under the weight of Francis’, letting them drift up Francis’ chest with wickedness and innocence at the same time. Francis couldn’t help but watch the subtle play of smooth muscles under the skin when James slipped one hand to cradle the back of Francis’ neck, gently combing through the short, reddish-blonde strands as he acquainted himself with having the other man in his arms. He, in turn, placed his free hand on Francis’ cheek, mirroring the touch, and pulling himself even closer so their torsos were fully flush with each other. At the feeling of Francis’ soft middle, concealed under a waistcoat and a shirt, pressing against his bare, concave stomach, he shuddered.

“Francis” he breathed into the space between them. “Tell me we can have this.”

“Of course we can” Francis was quick to assure him, even if he wasn’t too sure; neither London’s society nor the Navy were known to be all too welcoming to men of their persuasion. But, he thought as he wrapped his arm around James’ slight middle, relishing in the feeling of smooth, warm skin under his broad palm as he ran it up his back, he would try. “You can have everything you want” he muttered as he leant in, nearly pushing the last words into James’ mouth with his own as he kissed him.

It would be a lie to say Francis had never thought how James Fitzjames might kiss another person, should the opportunity arise – he had thought about it quite often, especially in the last months. However, all of his musings fell very much short to the way that James melted into Francis’ arms with a soft noise, not quite a whimper and not quite a moan. Never could he have predicted the heat of James’ mouth as their tongues met carefully, hesitatingly, before the other man reared up, holding Francis by the back of the head and licking into his mouth with abandon, like this was the last kiss he might ever get and had to make it count. The thought of this was heartbreaking, and it made Francis’ insides twist bitterly even as he cradled James closer in his embrace, as he tried to soothe him with gentle touches sweeping over his back. Too many scars, Francis thought, for such a fine man. His brow furrowed as he felt the fine lines of old scars, the recently-healed puckers of those that had opened in the Arctic. If Ross hadn’t come, or come too late, or…

“Francis” James muttered lowly, mouths touching as he spoke. “Don’t go where I can’t follow you.”

Francis keened, breathlessly scrabbling at James’ back as he curved into the other man’s confusedly-given embrace, holding on for dear life as the hot tears trailed down his cheeks.

“Francis, I beseech you” James urged him, his voice strained and desperate even as he gently ran his fingers through Francis’ hair. “Tell me what it is.”

“You” Francis gasped, shuddering, “you were dying, and there was nothing I could do.” He felt James tremble against him at those words, and condemned himself for making him shiver. Drawing back, wiping his eyes on his shirtsleeve, he met James’ tender gaze.

“You did everything for me” the younger man insisted, his deep voice soothing the newly-opened wounds on Francis’ soul like a balm. “Everything, and more than that. And I will never be able to repay you, or thank you enough.”

“I don’t want you to thank me” Francis replied mulishly. “I just want you to be alive and…well. Happy.”

James smiled wistfully, drawing Francis closer for a short, sweet kiss. “I am happy” he mumbled quietly when they broke apart. “I would dare to say I have never been happier. I don’t want you to grieve, Francis, for me; I am here, near-hale and hearty. All I would like, if you should like that as well, is to be with you, and to live again, properly.”

Francis softened into James’ palm as it cupped his face; he closed his eyes for a short, restful moment before blinking them open again, and meeting James’ gaze. Had there ever been a more wonderful view?

“I would like that very much.”