Dinner parties are Francis’ nemesis. They are tedious and long and often involve people he can’t really connect to, making him float from group to group, conversation to conversation about things that are beyond his grasp or simply dull.
More than he hates dinner parties however, he hates the dancing. All dancing. Young ladies, probably on the look out for their future husband, trying to coax him into sharing the floor with them in some dance he’d once vaguely heard the steps of. He’s sure he does a decent job at not stepping on their toes, but at the same time, he’s convinced that none of them ever want to dance multiple dances in a row with him.
So when midshipman James Clark Ross — dashing and handsome, if not slightly sweaty and out of breath — runs into their cabin to share the, according to James delightful, news about captain Parry organising a ball to keep morale up, Francis is less than delightful. His groan in dismay, not at all smothered by the pillow, is only a sign of a challenge for James, who promptly offers to teach Francis how to dance.
* * *
“I didn’t know dancing could be—” he pauses, hand waving through the air as he looks for a word not as strong as enjoyable. “—enjoyable.”
James laughs and stretching his hand behind his head to pat Francis’ foot. Francis barely registers James’ reply at first, biting his lip as he recalls the afternoon they shared with James doing a not so amazing job at teaching Francis the beginnings of a quadrille between just the two of them.
It had been nice—comfortable, like he’d known James his entire life. James’ hands were warm and soft, nothing like the sailors’ whose hands he’d felt on him before, reassuring as they wandered to adjust posture and gently slapped Francis’ limbs whenever they messed up and Francis failed to hold back laughter.
He doesn’t read into it that day, or the rest of the voyage, merely making sure that a handsy Miss Ross ends up in the right bed the night of the ball, both of them rosy cheeked and drunk enough to get excused for overstepping any boundaries.
“You like him,” Edward Bird tells him that night, not a hint of a question in his voice, as they’re perched on Francis’ bed, James passed out in his dress on the other. Francis merely leans forwards to pull a blanket further over James’ sleeping form.
* * *
* * *
“Do you remember?” the now-lieutenant Ross asks him one night, the weather having forced Francis to stay aboard fury for the night.
The wardroom is empty beside the two of them and James is not letting the opportunity slide to reminiscence about their previous voyage. Francis can’t deny he misses bunking with James, the dramatic book readings and endless stories. But it’s turned into different ships and different ranks, the sparse moments between them cherished by Francis like a man parched for water.
They dance again that night, without music, bumping into the wardroom’s chairs and laughing like it is three years earlier. James hums some sort of tune that goes off-beat whenever he has to breathe, their steps completely wrong but somehow they manage to not step on each other’s toes.
Francis is barely surprised when James dances him into a corner, breath hot on his cheek as he leans in. Maybe dancing was enjoyable. And maybe Edward had been right.
* * *
* * *
They catch up during a ball, in some corridor away from the festivities, James looking more exhausted than Francis has ever seen him. Francis kisses him on one hollow cheek, then the other, runs his thumbs across the newly grown sideburns as he slowly kisses James’ lips, like the man is going to disappear again if he lets go.
They don’t dance that night. There’s “I’m sorry” and “it’s okay” and James’ hands are still soft like they used to be. Somewhere, maybe, they’d call what they’re doing a dance, swaying awkwardly in full embrace.
“I love you—”
* * *
* * *
It comes to no surprise to him that he ends up meeting Ann Coulman, probably soon to be Ross, at a ball. She whisks him away from her future-husband, something that does surprise Francis, and forces him to lead the both of them through a waltz he’s never heard before.
He had heard of her, though, through James’ letters and James’ inability to simply not talk about the people he missed whilst aboard ships. It turns out, she’d heard of him in return, immediately steering the conversation in the direction she wishes it to go.
“I don’t want to be the one to stand between you two,” she says, barely audible over the loud music and Francis nearly loses his footing at the implication that lies within her words.
Ann turns out to be more perceptive than most people Francis has met, detailing her conversations with James rapidly, the letters gotten from him. She laughs and nearly makes them stumble into a nearby couple as she recalls how James failed at lying when she had asked him about it.
She merely smiles, a soon to be familiar twinkle in her eyes, and kisses him on the cheek, almost hitting the corner of his mouth, when Francis asks how she thinks the future between the three of them will play out.
* * *
* * *
(It’s Ann’s idea to buy a dress for James. It comes to her at a summer party, occupying a garden bench in Francis’ arms. James is off in the distance, entertaining several friends about something neither of them can hear.
(Francis agrees, mostly for selfish reasons, that James would love it.)
* * *
* * *
The execution of the gift had also mostly gone to Ann, though it is Francis that gets to reap most of the benefits as the dress makes it into the antarctic circle with them.
The ball is nothing short of a throwback to twenty-one, James as Miss Ross, the center of attention, Francis love-struck and trying to remember the steps to a quadrille as James’ hands wander towards places they’re not meant to be.
Eventually, thankfully, Edward whisks Miss Ross away and Francis gets to admire James from a distance. He looks perfect, the dress almost too obviously made to fit the man, the cloth floating around him like he was never meant to wear anything else.
Francis tells him that, later, in James’ cabin, satin ribbons falling between his fingers as he helps James back out of the dress. He presses kisses along the exposed freckles and penguin-caused injuries, muttering of all the things they could try involving the dress.
James makes him consider some ideas already that night.
* * *
* * *
Their last dance doesn’t feel like their last dance. To Francis, if anything, it feels like one of their firsts again. A small escape from the upcoming expedition, he wishes nothing but to crawl into James’ skin and never leave him again.
They escape the admiralty’s forced pleasantries, ending up on a secluded balcony, James drawing the curtains across the doorframe to give them some privacy. The music from the band inside still reaches them.
“One last dance?” James offers, his hands around Francis’ neck, lips brushing against skin with every word. “I won’t be there to entertain you during any arctic balls.”
So they dance—slowly, closely, Francis burying his face in James’ neck. The music is ill-fitting but it feels right as they spin slow circles around the balcony, the rest of the party entirely forgotten.
Francis digs his fingers into James’ jacket as the music comes to an end, unwilling to let go. There’s a soft laugh, followed by fingers in his hair. Surely there’s time for another song.
* * *
* * *
(Ann guides James into the garden, away from the entertainment and the people trying to get their attention. She recognises the expression overtaking her husband’s face. “James?”
(Inside a quadrille is happening. “It’s the song I used to teach him how to dance.”)