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pink like the lid of your eye

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“I thought you were a pencil man,” said Francis, glancing over James’s shoulder.

“Oh, primarily, but I found the box in the crates from Erebus, and thought I’d have a crack at them,” said James. “Keeping the water from freezing is the very devil, but the effect can be striking.”

On the page, the aurora flowed in ribbons of pale violet and green. Francis was thoroughly sick of the aurora, himself, but James had rendered it beautifully. “Nice view,” he offered.

James paused. “Thank you,” he said, softly.

Francis ambled around the great cabin. Kind of Ross to let him and James doss down in here; even with all the men they’d lost before the rescue had come, Enterprise was fairly bursting at the mainstays with her crew and the survivors aboard, and Francis wouldn’t turn a man out of his berth. James had been offered one, and he and Francis had come near to blows over James’s refusal- he was still sick, and needed rest, not to be cheek by jowl with an old fusspot like Francis while he was trying to get well again.

It was good that he was occupying himself. Francis, never much given to hobbies, felt very much at a loose end. Ross, bless him, wouldn’t let him do a lick of work worth doing, so when he wasn’t out on deck, watching the sea, he was following James around, watching him sketch or write or, now, paint.

The watercolours didn’t really suit James. Too- oh, blast, it was probably a pun- wishy washy. Regardless, he’d turned out any number of Arctic views, like a maiden aunt memorialising a walking tour through the Lakes District. Francis could not bring himself to like them. Very pretty, to be sure, but too pretty- too clean. The Admiralty were probably going to exhibit the bloody things, when they got home.

James was working in the new sketchbook, cadged from one of the Enterprise officers of a similarly artistic bent. His previous lay on the table behind his elbow. Idly, Francis flipped it open. The early pages were all pencil sketches, such as he’d seen James do before; a few charcoals, in the middle, which were getting awfully smudged. Towards the back were the paintings. Here was the Terror, wedged skew-whiff in the ice. Here was an ice shelf in layers of green and blue. Here were the tents out on the shale in their orderly rows. Francis flicked by these, nauseous with memories of all they did not show.

A splash of vibrant pink was visible on the edge of a page which stuck out a little from the others. Francis turned to it, and stopped still.

Quite a lot of pink, was his first thought. Nothing they’d seen out on the pack had been that pink. The details of the painting came to him slowly, one by one. Here was a leg, and there an arm, and a thatch of straw-coloured hair on a round head. He turned the page again. Another pink and tan study, this one posed in a narrow bunk, like a ship’s berth. The shapes around the very pink central image were vague, but Francis thought he could make out shelves very like those in his own berth on Terror.

The next page was similar. About a dozen were, in fact, similar. All nudes, all in shades of pink from pale rose to vivid strawberry, and all of Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, R.N., in attitudes he might reasonably have struck, albeit typically more thoroughly clothed.

Had he ever looked like this? Francis had been in the habit of avoiding looking-glasses for most of his adult life, finding gazing upon his own visage more a chore than anything else. He knew he went red at the slightest provocation, which he had long taken as something of a weakness, but the man in these paintings did not look weak; he looked strong, vital, and more at ease than he’d ever felt in himself.

This was how James saw him. The thought was a thunderclap. After all they’d been to each other, after all the ways Francis had failed to keep him safe, this was the figure of him James saw behind his eyes. He’d heard the term ‘lovingly rendered’ before; perhaps that was what this was.

James coughed.

“You’ll run out of pink, at this rate,” said Francis.

James blinked up at him. On the open page of his new book, he’d added tints of vivid, gas-flame blue. “Watercolours are quite economical,” he said, diffidently, though the story his face told was not one of diffidence at all.

Francis turned back a page, to the one of himself posed in the copper bathtub, with a leg slung over the side. The painted Francis’s head was tipped back, eyes closed, his modesty preserved by delicate wisps of steam. “I do not recall sitting for these,” Francis said.

“When one looks at a man long enough, even fully dressed, it is possible to obtain a reasonable idea of his shape,” said James. He looked right at Francis as he said it, right at his eyes, as if to make sure Francis took his meaning.

Francis did. “Well you may say,” he said. “But I’m afraid you’ve let your imagination carry you away, my lad. I’ve not shown a leg like that since I was a middy.”

James gave him one of those long, searching looks, from his face down to the toes of his boots, and back up again. “For accuracy, it is better to have a living model,” he said.

“I’m not taking my clothes off in Ross’s great cabin in the middle of the afternoon,” said Francis. “A man likes to be warm. I warrant I’ll not lose so much as my neckerchief without a roaring fire and a cup of tea on standby.”

The smile that played around James’s mouth was a small thing, fragile, but lovely; much lovelier, in Francis’s eyes, than a hundred paintings of ice shelves, and it warmed him through, so that he might have gone on deck in naught but a fig leaf and not minded it. “My brother’s house in Brighton has a guest wing with some very nice fireplaces, I’m told,” James said.

Francis put a hand on James’s shoulder, and James reached up to clasp it. Alive, alive, and there were fireplaces waiting for them, back over the Greenland sea. “And the cup of tea, mind,” he said.