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James is lost in his own thoughts, and misses the heavy footsteps outside his door, catches only the creak of the wood as someone hesitates outside. Still, he does not rush—he expects the tap of Bridgen’s knuckles, a moment to collect himself.

What he gets is his door slid aside and an intrusion into his space—that is, he gets the sudden appearance of Francis Crozier in his personal quarters.

James stares at him. Lets go of the right leg of his trousers, presses his foot back into his boot.

“Thought I’d find you in his quarters,” Francis says in a low voice. He smells of whisky, of the ice and cold. Like there should still be snow on his shoulders, but it’s warm enough below deck that it would have melted nearly immediately. “Thought you’d have moved in already.”

James blinks at him. Picks up his glass of gin, his knuckles white. Swirls the glass out of habit, because it was something he picked up from one of the older boys back when he’d first made lieutenant, and it’s muscle memory now, over a decade later. “It’s only been three months,” he mutters at the clear liquid.

Francis shrugs. Pulls the chair from James’ desk with no regard for the noise of the legs on the deck.

James winces.

Francis sits heavily and gracelessly, begins to unbutton his jacket. He must have removed his slops as soon as he got here. Removed his slops, gone first to Sir John’s cabin, and found it empty, untouched as it had been on the day—

Erebus!

—never mind that. James lifts his glass, takes a sip. Puts it back in his lap. Watches Francis undo his buttons. His hands are shaking, just a bit, and James wonders if it’s the drink, or if it’s something else. He’d heard rumours of the Antarctic, the harrowing passage between two icebergs, had heard—

Frustrated, Francis tugs off his fingerless mittens, sets them down on James’ desk. James follows the movement with his eyes, feels his heart freeze over.

The box is still out on the desk.

He’d left the box out on the desk.

He hadn’t been afforded the moment Bridgens would have given him—and that was all it needed to be was a moment, a moment to slip the lid back on the box, to slip the box back into the bottom drawer, to pull his shirts back over them. Even now, the shirts are in a pile by his pillow while he sits next to them with his feet dangling, not quite touching the floor—what must Francis think of him?

“Well?” Francis asks.

“I’d offer you something to drink,” James begins.

“I can smell the gin from here,” Francis says curtly. He reaches inside his jacket, brings out a plain flask. Drinks, and sets it down on James’ desk, next to his mittens, next to the box.

James grimaces. He’s been afforded one chance at secrecy already, dare he hope to be offered a second?

“Damnably cold out there,” Francis says.

“Yes,” James agrees. It is a concerted effort not to look over at the box. “You didn’t come to talk about the weather, though. Not at this hour.”

“I came,” Francis says—and then he stops. Reaches for his flask again, and takes another pull, his lips obscene on the metal neck.

“To berate me for moving into Sir John’s cabin, then,” James says. He cannot help it. It’s like poking at a wound that won’t heal. “Or is there some other mistake I’ve made?” God, they’re close, crammed into his berth like this. He suffers a brief, fleeting moment of wishing he had moved into Sir John’s cabin. At least then there would have been some scant space between the two of them. Seated like this, if James flicks his foot forward, it will touch Francis’ knee.

Hell, if Francis slouches a fraction further into James’ chair, there will be no avoiding it.

“Eager for me to yell, are you?” Francis asks. He seems oddly—diminished, somehow, slumped in James’ chair like this.

Eager for you to get out of my cabin, James thinks, but there’s no bloody point to that, then, either. He stares down at the gin in his glass. It had been a perfectly nice plan for the evening, only he’d gotten started later than he’d intended, and now Francis has…bloody well ruined it, so they just…they might as well talk. He might as well let Francis berate him. There’s nothing good coming from this evening anyway, not now. “You’re quick to find fault with me.”

Francis looks up at him sharply, and James nearly flinches from the depth of hurt he sees there before Francis reaches for his bottle again. When he sets the flask down—closer, this time, to the box, and that’s James’ third chance if he’s going to get one—his face is all shuttered over again.

(James can’t see his other hand, but it doesn’t matter. He knows it will be clenched into a fist, hidden in the shadows between the wall and Francis’ thigh.)

Francis opens his mouth, and James braces himself for the impact of whatever is to come. He won’t be able to deflect the blows, it’s too late in the evening for that, and he’s exhausted. Let them just—have it out like men, all posturing and swagger and bravado, let them yell, let Francis stand and get in his face about it, let their faces be close, let—

“Something significant about tonight?” Francis asks.

James drops his gin.

The glass hits the floor with a clunk, the gin spilling out. James curses under his breath, grabs a cloth from the washstand and, after a moment of hesitation, kneels on his left knee to wipe it up as best he can before it runs underneath the drawers of his bed.

“You could have at least made an effort to catch it,” he gripes. Looks over his shoulder and—Francis is right there. Francis is right there because there’s nowhere else for him to be, because the cabin is cramped. They’re of a similar height, which means both of them are very aware of the places they need to duck as they move about the ship.

(There isn’t really room for two people of their height in this space, but they’re here anyway, and James is finding that he doesn’t quite want Francis to go.)

“Didn’t want to,” Francis says. He offers his flask, his hand between his legs, and the spit-wet metal mouth between his knees, pointing obscenely at James’ face.

James bites his lip, turns up his nose at it. Ignores the sudden rush of knowledge that flashes through his body, the bright-burning belief that he won’t take whisky from Francis’ flask, but he would take it from his lips.

He is…in a compromising position right now, kneeling at the feet of his First, his Captain. He has nowhere to retreat to—he cannot leave his cabin without barging past Francis, he cannot retreat to his bed without his face going hot, he cannot stay here now that he is conscious of the implications of his position.

(A lady would never—)

Fitzjames is no lady, nor will he be recognized as one. He knows this about himself, knows it firmly and deeply in his soul. He needs to gracefully extract himself from the situation. Invite Francis to the great cabin, summon Bridgens, do something, anything—

(Francis’ bare fingertips are touching the edge of the box.)

“They’re not mine,” James says petulantly, and he very nearly claps his hand over his own mouth the moment the words escape, because it’s exactly then that Francis actually puts his fingers on the edge of the box, tugs it closer, and looks.

James has spent countless nights lying in this very berth, hoping for the ice to release them from its horrid embrace, for the ship to slip free and splash back into the water, anything to be able to move again—and this, right now, this infinite moment as Francis turns his pale blue eyes to the contents of the box that James foolishly left open on his desk, is the very first moment when James has actually hoped for the ice to swallow them completely, to crush the ship entirely, pull them down to the bottom, because there will be no coming back from this, not now that his captain has seen exactly the kind of man that James Fitzjames isn’t

“Shame,” Francis says, settling back into James’ chair. His fingers are still touching the side of the box.

“Why,” James asks, cursing the immediacy of his response as the words trip off his tongue.

“They look,” Francis says, “to be precisely your size.”

James freezes in the act of standing up. Realizes once he’s done it that he cannot stop here, that he must commit to either kneeling or standing, and after a moment’s contemplation, he stands. Leans back against the bed. Brings his hand to the knee of his trousers, rubs his thumb along the dampness there, the gin soaked into the wool, uncomfortably cold against his kneecap.

“I don’t know many ladies with feet this broad,” Francis continues.

James braces himself for the insult, presses both his palms flat against the rail of the bed so that he won’t—pick at his nailbeds, or fidget, or do anything other than take the coming insult gracefully.

“They’re lovely stockings, though.”

James exhales, slow. All is not lost, then. Not yet. “Thank you.”

“Rather, it’s a lovely stocking—because it’s just one that’s in this box, isn’t it,” Francis says softly.

James’ fingers drum against the rail of the bed, a sharp staccato that ceases when he forces his palm flat again. “What?”

“There’s only one stocking,” Francis says, “in this box.” And then his hand is in the box, pulling the silk from within.

James very nearly cries out—no, don’t touch it, you’ll ruin it—but he’s never seen Francis’ hands work this delicately before, never seen him touch something with care. Now that he’s looking, he has no choice but to see.

Sir John’s death has aged him. He looks older, now, than he did. More worn down, the habitual scent of whiskey still clinging to him—but why, then, does he handle James’ things so, with careful fingers and tender eyes?

“Show me,” Francis says, his words both plain, and an order. Then he grimaces, sets the stocking down in his lap. “Or dismiss me.”

“You’re my captain,” James says. He feels younger than he should, younger than he is. It’s been a particular skill of Francis’ this whole voyage, the ability to see through all the barriers James has put up, an unerring ability to push pins through his flesh and pierce his heart, the ability to slide a blade between James’ ribs without even needing to look at what he’s doing, the kind of unconscious expertise that James has worked decades for a skill that Francis just has, inherently, and accesses seemingly unconsciously.

“Oh, sod off,” Francis says. He stands, nearly knocking the chair backward with the force of his movement. “If you’re going to pull rank now, of all the times, I’d rather freeze my arse off trudging back on the ice to my own ship.” He reaches for the door behind him.

“Stop,” James says.

Francis looks at him.

“Stay.”

Francis raises an eyebrow at him. “Well,” he says. “Look at you. That very nearly sounded like an order. Been practicing since he died, have you?”

“You’re drunk,” James says, in a low voice. He wants it to hurt, wants it to feel like a slap, wants Francis to come back, contrite, to sit down, to stay and listen.

Francis doesn’t even flinch, just lifts his chin, and says nothing. His hand is still on the door.

(James remembers a clenched fist, tucked behind his back. A brief moment of eye contact before Francis had looked away. He should have discussed it with Sir John then, should have slipped into the cabin in Francis’ wake and made a second request. Maybe then, they could have avoided...everything that came after. Maybe then, they could have saved—)

James sighs. He should apologize. He’s right, and they both know it, but he should apologize. Make an effort, at least. Francis is still here—still standing at the door, still waiting. Still smelling of whisky.

James bends, takes the heel of his right boot in his hand, tugs. Lets his boot fall to the floor. Straightens up again, folds his hands in his lap, and wishes for a glass of gin that is no longer there.

Francis’ eyes fall to James’ foot. His eyebrow rises, and he steps away from the door, comes back and sits down in the chair once more. Raises his eyes to meet James’. “It looks well on you,” he says, low and dark.

“Thank you,” James says. His voice is steady, and he is proud of himself for that. He is, also, proud of the way that he leans forward and swipes Francis’ flask, takes a swig from it, and swallows it back. God, the whisky burns the entire way down his throat, curls unpleasantly in his stomach along with the gin. He swallows, again, reflexively. Nasty stuff, honestly.

“It does the job,” Francis says, and James realizes he’s said the last bit out loud. He can feel his face getting hot, but it doesn’t matter, because Francis is reaching out with his hand, stopping just a moment before actually touching James. “May I?”

James swallows. “Please.”

Francis’ hand closes around James’ stocking-clad foot, and James shudders, swallows back a whine. God, it’s been so long since anyone has touched him, and having it be Francis feels like sin and destiny at the exact same moment.

Francis rubs his thumb along the arch of James’ foot, along the silk. “Spared no expense with these, did you?”

“That familiar with the make of ladies’ stockings, are you?” James retorts.

Francis’ hand twitches on James’ foot, and James remembers—oh.

Cracroft.

Of course he’s familiar.

It hits him like a rogue wave—the things Francis is familiar with that James has no concept of. There are women out there who have had Francis Crozier’s hand on their stockings, his hand up their skirts, his fingers deep in their cunts, and James burns with envy over it. Francis is an experienced man, a man who has had everything, and for him now to have to be content with this, with what James is offering him, which is—himself, his height, the breadth of his shoulders, dressed in his navy uniform with his right foot clad in a stocking under his trouser leg, and his left with the damn boot still on.

“Not familiar,” Francis says gruffly, “with this particular lady, so don’t get stroppy about it.” He taps the back of his hand against James’ trouser leg. “Why don’t you shift these, and we can see about getting that other stocking on?”

James swallows.

With this particular lady.

Hesitates.

“...when you said…”

Francis peers up at him, one hand still firmly wrapped around James’ foot, while the other slowly strokes his calf through the trousers.

James shifts his jaw. Better to be clear about it. “Lady.”

Francis’ face doesn’t change.

“I’m not,” James says. “And I won’t pretend I am.”

“That’s fine,” Francis says.

“But I would like to be treated…”

“...as though you were?” Francis asks.

James nods. He doesn’t say anything. He wonders, momentarily, if he in fact cannot say anything, if those are exactly as many words as he has been allotted for the evening, and he won’t be able to come up with any more. It’s a foreign feeling—no, not foreign, completely unfamiliar. He’s never been out of words, not even in countries where he didn’t speak the language, but now, he opens his mouth and there’s nothing there.

Then Francis turns, slightly, brings both hands to James’ other boot, and starts to slowly ease it off. James bites down on his lip to stifle a whimper.

“There, there, miss,” Francis says, his voice low, hushed. “I’ve got you.” He bends his head, presses his dry lips against James’ knee, and then breaks the facade a moment to peer up at James, his eyes narrow and suspicious.

“Go on,” James manages, his mouth dry, tongue threatening to stick. “As you were.”

Francis huffs out a breath, sounding annoyed, but he lowers his head back to his task, tugs James’ boot the rest of the way off.

James bites at his lip, torn between the desire to look at the ceiling, so he doesn’t need to watch Francis, and the inability to look away from Francis. It’s all wrong, everything about this is wrong—he’s wearing a thick woolen sock underneath his boot, his foot probably—well, there’s a reason he’d put lavender in the water in his basin, only he just had to get the first stocking on, and now everything is all mismatched and wrong and—

“Stay just like that,” Francis breathes, and then ruins the effect by scowling as he laboriously stands, bracing his hand on his knee.

James opens his mouth. Not to say anything, although goodness knows he should say something. Just to get some air. He still feels the ghost-pressure of Francis’ fingers on his stockinged foot and on his other calf at the same time, as though once Francis Crozier touches him, the sense of it remains. He wonders if it will remain forever. Wonders if he’ll mind, if it does.

“Your water’s gone tepid,” Francis says, and James swallows, starts to argue about it, but that’s when Francis says, “miss,” and James closes his mouth again, the words falling to pieces in his throat.

(He swallows back individual letters and is glad of it.)

The droplets falling back into the basin as Francis wrings out the cloth sound like the gentlest kind of rain, and, oh, how long has it been since they’ve had rain, how long has it been since they’ve had anything but snow and ice in little shards that drive down into their faces like so many sewing needles.

He watches as Francis kneels at his feet again. Hitches the leg of his trousers up, just slightly, to give Francis more space to remove his sock. James fully expects Francis will tug it off from the toe—from the heel if he’s lucky—and he starts when instead Francis wraps his hand around the arch of James’ foot, and then slides his hand up James’ leg, underneath his trousers, until he’s holding James’ bare leg, just under his knee.

James’ breath is coming fast. It shouldn’t be. This is nothing. He’s been touched like this before, in recent memory, even—

—well, perhaps not so recently; not so confidently; not while he’s being looked at, at the same time.

“You’re shaking,” Francis says, and it is neither blunt nor critical, is barely even a factual statement, because there’s a softness to Francis’ voice that he doesn’t recognize, he doesn’t recognize it at all. Certainly, he’s never heard Francis speak like that to anyone before. He’s never heard Francis speak like that to him before.

(Oh, how he wants it. Again, again.)

James takes a deep breath. Exhales. Watches Francis’ hair as he bows his head, carefully eases James’ sock from his foot. Wonders if the pale strands would be just as soft as they look if he were to reach out and touch them. Wonders if Francis would pull back if he just rested his hand, gently, on the back of his head.

(Wonders if...if any woman has ever done that, has ever pulled Francis closer, has directed his mouth between their legs, his tongue to the place where they ache for it. Wonders if he’s good at it, if he has the same quiet confidence with that he does with everything else, because if there’s any mistake James has made, it is not recognizing that competency right from the beginning just because Francis didn’t boast about it. A terrible mistake, as it turns out. One that he hopes won’t be fatal. One that he hopes—)

Francis’ hand tightens on his newly-exposed calf, and James shudders with arousal—and then shudders again, a moment later, as the cold cloth is applied to his foot, and his skin erupts in gooseflesh, his leg twitching in Francis’ grip.

“Steady, now,” Francis says, just the same as he might to anyone under his command, but surely he’s never done this to anyone else, never washed their foot tenderly with lavender-scented water, never carefully washed between each toe, as though James’ foot is a precious and delicate thing, and the horrible part is that James believes it utterly even though he’s just as broad and tall as he’s always been. When this is over, the illusion will shatter. When this is over, he’ll be bereft, he’ll be—

James exhales. To still be breathing, to be doing something so mundane while Francis is touching him like this, carefully washing the sole of his foot, running the wet cloth up his calf too, and the cabin smells of lavender, lavender and the sharp scent of whisky and—and James is aroused, horribly so, and there is nothing he can do about it but press his thighs together, and hope that Francis won’t notice.

“Nearly there,” Francis says, and then the wet cloth is gone, replaced by a handtowel that James hadn’t even noticed Francis picking up, and, oh, would it kill Francis to be rough about something, anything? Would it be a mortal offense for him to just be brusque about this one thing? He rubs the towel in small circles over every inch of James’ foot, and it feels as though James’ entire body is alight, as though this is the first time he has ever been warm on this entire voyage, and he wishes for a smaller cabin, now, something that would necessitate he and Francis pressing together even closer, so close that the two of them could not be separated.

And then James’ foot is dry, and Francis is looking up at him, his hands on his own thighs, waiting.

“I…” James says, but his voice trails off into nothing.

“May I continue, Miss Fitzjames?” Francis asks.

James nods. He has no words. But, then. Maybe he doesn’t need them. Maybe his physical existence is enough. Maybe being here with Francis is—

“Point your toe for me,” Francis says.

James obeys by instinct, feeling the unfamiliar stretch along the top of his calf muscle. He watches silently as Francis dries his hands, carefully removes the stocking from the box, and gathers it together, holding the opening at James’ toe. Oh, James burns with jealousy—for Miss Cracroft, a symbolic stand-in for all the women Francis Crozier has loved, all the women that were there before James, all the women who—

—and then that feeling dissipates entirely as Francis looks up at him.

“James,” he says softly, and then winces. “I’m sorry, would you prefer—would you like me to...”

“Yes,” James says, suddenly hungry for the taste of his given name on Francis’ tongue. “Yes, you may call me James, if you like.”

Francis exhales, heavily. Looks down at his own hands a moment, still holding the second stocking, and then looks up at James. Maintains eye contact as he guides James’ toes into the stocking without needing to look, and then carefully eases the length of the stocking up James’ calf.

Oh, to be touched by Francis Crozier, to have those broad hands encircling his leg, easing the stocking up, higher and higher on his calf, the fabric of his trousers tightening as—

Francis grimaces, withdraws his hands. He stands, glances into the box, and then pulls out a blue ribbon—the matching pair to the one tied around James’ other calf.

“I’m afraid,” Francis says, “that my hands are too broad and your trousers too narrow for me to tie the ribbon round your leg.”

James nods. Reaches for the ribbon so that he can do it himself, even though he preferred—

“Could you—would you like to—” Francis scowls darkly, reaches for his flask again. Takes a deep drink, and then offers it to James, and, oh, James takes it.

(It doesn’t burn as badly the second time.)

“Drop your trousers,” Francis says, then, his face flushed and his eyes skittering away from James’. “Take them off, I’ll tie your ribbons for you, miss.”

James swallows.

His throat makes an audible click.

“I think I’d like another drink,” he rasps, and Francis very nearly shoves the flask at him, whisky sloshing out as the flask tilts, spattering over James’ jacket.

A moment of silence stretches between them, like melted sugar dripping from a wooden spoon.

“I suppose I’ll remove that, then, too, shall I,” James drawls, and a thrill goes through him when it’s Francis who looks taken aback, when it’s Francis who stammers and mumbles and says, for a moment, absolutely nothing.

It’s enough of a hesitation that it gives James the courage to do what he needs to do—to reach under his jacket, unfasten his trousers, and then wriggle them down past his hips so that he can stay seated on his bed, let the trousers slip down his legs. They catch on his feet, and James points his toes, pushes the trousers off until they pool on the floor.

When he looks up, Francis is staring at him. At the length of his legs. At the stockings on his feet, even though the left is slumped down by his ankle again. And then Francis drags his eyes further up, to James’ lap. To James’ hands, folded in his lap.

Francis takes a long, slow breath. Twitches the ribbon between his fingers.

James gives a little kick with his left foot, watches the way Francis’ eyes flash down immediately, the way he tugs the ribbon around his own finger hard enough to make the tip of his finger bloodless.

Francis takes another drink from the flask, the ribbon clenched in his fist next to the metal, and then kneels.

(Oh, how James wants him there.)

He carefully works the stocking up James’ leg, over his knee. Fastens the ribbon on his thigh, of all things, even though the other—

And then Francis’ hand is on the other stocking too, carefully unfastening the ribbon James had put below his knee, and shifting it up to match the other.

“It’s the done thing, now,” Francis says quietly. “Among fashionable young ladies.” He finishes with the second ribbon, puts his palms flat on the top of James’ thighs with the ribbons underneath them, as though he’s pressing them into James’ flesh. “Comfortable?”

James doesn’t know whether he’s referring to the ribbons or James himself, but the answer is the same. “Yes.” The whisky and the gin have settled into a puddle of warmth in his stomach, and perhaps a bit lower as well, and Francis’ hands are calloused and broad and somehow exactly how James had imagined they would feel, if James had ever given himself leave to imagine such a thing.

(And perhaps he had, in the early days, from Greenhithe to Disko Bay until he’d realized that there would be no charming Francis Crozier, that Francis Crozier was a man incapable of being charmed. He’s realizing, now, that perhaps he had only gone about it the wrong way.)

“Don’t move,” James says softly, and Francis glances up at him, wounded and vulnerable for a brief moment before he shutters his face, closes it off and sets his mouth into his habitual scowl.

It’s no matter. James brings his fingers to the closure of his jacket, and starts to undo it, before sliding the jacket from his shoulders, and setting it aside at the end of the bed. Next, his neckerchief, which must be loosened at a minimum so that he can breathe, but which he takes off completely when he notices how carefully Francis’ eyes are tracking his fingers. Then his waistcoat, and his face is burning under Francis’ careful scrutiny. And then, finally, he sits there in his shirt and ladies’ stockings. He looks down at the tails of his shirt, fastidiously adjusts them, and then looks up at Francis, well aware that he has not and will never master the trick of looking up through his eyelashes.

Francis stares at him, entranced, his eyes moving in careful sweeps from James’ legs to his hands to his chest, and then to his hair. “Keep this cabin so bloody hot,” he mutters, his eyes fixed on James’ collarbone as he removes his own jacket, but does not budge the waistcoat. Loosens his collar, but does not unbutton his shirt. Rolls back his sleeves to expose thick wrists, a light dusting of hair and freckles on his forearms.

The room is rather warm, now that he’s mentioned it. James carefully points his toe, first the left, and then the right, enjoying the way the silk feels on his skin. He puts his hands on his own thighs, runs his fingers lightly down his bare skin, and then over the ribbon and onto the silk, shivering at the change in texture on his fingertips. It feels...good. It’s possible that this is the best that he’s felt since—well, since everything started to go to hell.

(Since the first time Francis Crozier looked at him, and then scowled and turned away, before the ships had even left the harbour. Before they were frozen in, before the bear, before they lost—)

And then callused fingers touch, lightly, against his own, and James feels something start to unfurl in his chest. He watches as Francis’ hands settle on his knees, his fingertips touching James’ own, listens as the floorboards creak under Francis’ feet as he shifts closer, spreads James’ legs to make space—

—no, be honest. James is spreading his own legs, making space for Francis between them. It’s James who puts his hands atop Francis’, encourages him to stay, stay, stay. James who lifts his chin and sets his jaw, daring Francis to say something about it, daring him to move away.

He doesn’t. Francis sets himself between James’ legs, sturdy and solid and reliable, his callused fingers gripping James’ thighs, just above his knees, and his eyes fixed on the bit of James’ collarbone that is exposed to the air now that the buttons of his shirt are undone.

James is a...person, a person of words and stories and language, of sentences documented for posterity, of letters written truthfully and then encoded so that they cannot be understood. He doesn’t know what the right words are for the situation before him now. He hardly suspected this version of Francis even existed, so entangled was he with the curt phrases and the blunt dismissals, the turn of his mouth into a sneer and the stench of whisky.

(Even the whisky smells sweet now.)

But Francis is a man of action, and no words from James are needed, only the tilt of his neck as he lifts his chin, and then Francis leans in close, smelling the place where James’ hair brushes against his shoulders.

“This vanity suits you,” Francis murmurs into his ear, and then he turns his head and nips at one of the curls, painstakingly put in earlier that morning, and sadly wilted by this time of day, though apparently still appealing to his captain.

“Oh?” James asks, conscious of how warm his skin feels.

“I won’t say it again,” Francis warns, and softens it by pressing his lips to James’ neck. “I’m sure you’ve lovers to compliment you all you like, shower you with praise and rub your feet.”

“No one’s ever put my stockings on for me before,” James says softly. He hesitates, and then barrels forward, because no one has ever accused him of stepping down from a challenge, and he shan’t start now, even though no one would know. “I haven’t ever…”

“...first time out of the box?” Francis’ voice is soft, quiet. Gentle.

“Yes,” James says, and the syllable is hardly voiced at all, a hiss of breath more than anything, his own gin and Francis’ whisky on his tongue. The things he’s worn before, the things he expects to wear in the future—costumes, one and all. Cheap fabrics, replica jewelry, male undergarments, his navy boots under moth-eaten skirts, permanently creased from being stored in a trunk. “I wanted something…” Real, he thinks, and then discards the word for something less vulnerable. “Accurate.”

“I can assure you that these are very...accurate,” Francis says, his voice dropping into a rough, low register as he presses forward between James’ legs again, his breath hot on James’ neck. “Exactly what I would expect to see under a lady’s skirts.” His right hand slides up James’ thigh, onto his bare skin, and then he pinches the hem of James’ shirt, tugs at it. “Skirts themselves are a bit shorter than is proper, though.”

James turns his head, stares at Francis. “Was that a joke?”

Francis smiles—a small, soft thing that flickers onto his face, and then disappears as he clears his throat. “What would you...what were your plans?” His face darkens, and he looks away, brow furrowed and eyes fixed on his flask. “Don’t answer that...I spoke without thought.”

I don’t know, James thinks. I don’t know what I was going to do. What I could have done. What I still might... He swallows. Puts his hand over Francis’, where Francis’ fingers are still pinched on the hem of his shirt. “You have some...experience. With ladies.”

Francis glances at him, blinking. “I have.” The corner of his mouth twitches. “Among other...experience.”

The blood goes to James’ face in a hot rush, and he drops his gaze, watches, instead, Francis’ hand on his thigh.

(The cuticle of his index finger is ragged, but his nails are clean, trimmed short. The skin on the back of his hand is weather-beaten, sun-exposed. Rough under James’ palm, in a way that makes him light-headed and pleasantly woozy.)

“The Antarctic?” James asks.

Francis’ face softens imperceptibly, and it makes him look years younger. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, I...yes.”

James nods, and is struck by a sharp pang in the vicinity of his chest, because he was supposed to be on that expedition, he should have been there, he was—he could have been—

“Is...is that what you’re after?” Francis asks tentatively. “The Antarctic?” His thumb moves in a comforting swipe on James’ bare thigh. “Or...well.” Francis clears his throat, mutters something which sounds like Tasmania. “London,” he says, after a moment. “Or London.”

James takes a deep breath. Exhales. Rubs his foot on the wool of Francis’ trousers. Gently, so as not to pull the silk, but still—he wants to feel him, wants to know he’s there. Just...wants.

“You haven’t answered me,” Francis says, leaning in closer again and nosing at James’ neck, hand tightening on his bare thigh and sliding up to his hip.

James shakes his head, hooks Francis’ leg with his ankle and pulls him closer. “London,” he says, after the silence stretches out like taffy. His voice wavers at the edges, like a mirage on the edge of his vision, prone to fade the moment he blinks. “Please, I want…”

“Of course, Miss Fitzjames,” Francis says roughly. “James,” he adds, after a moment, his hand shaking where it lies on James’ bare hip, just barely under the hem of his shirt. “James, James.” His other hand comes up, touches James’ hair. Tugs at a curl. Cups the side of his face, thumb tracing the line that furrows James’ cheek.

God, to think there was a time when he wasn’t being touched by Francis. To think there was a time that he hadn’t felt Francis’ rough hand at the side of his face. James’ heart is pounding, his blood careening through his body. He doesn’t know what to do with his legs, with his hands, with the rest of his body—but he doesn’t need to know, because Francis is there, Francis is pressing him back into his bunk, Francis is cradling the back of James’ head in his hand, guiding it down into the pillow. Francis is hesitating with his hand firmly on the side of James’ thigh.

(not a lady, but perhaps something in between)

“I wonder,” Francis says, voice low and gruff, “whether you might like to roll over for me, or whether you would prefer to stay on your back.”

James bites his bottom lip, watches the way Francis watches him. The intimacy of it is overwhelming, and James has a sudden desire to hide his face.

“I’ll turn,” he says, just like he always does. He doesn’t know what he’s thinking, only that his face is hot and his skin is warm and the thought of Francis looking him in the eyes while he buggers him with the thick, blunt cock that James has always imagined Francis to have is simply too much for James to bear. The familiarity of burying his face in his arms is precisely that, and all the more comfortable for it.

It’s not until he feels the eddie of an air current over his bare arse that he realizes he has, perhaps, given up too much of an advantage. Clad only in his shirt and the silk stockings, and with Francis’ hand on his thigh but no other contact between them, James feels well and truly naked. He presses his thighs together, hangs his head between his arms. Is now the time, he wonders, should he decide to back out entirely? Is it too late to say that he is not ready to be seen, is it too late to say—wait, there are three years of command meetings and magnetism discussions and Francis’ curled lip and his fingers tapping on the table and barely concealed disdain?

(Wait, he wants to say—I know you now, and that makes everything different.)

“Lovely,” Francis breathes, and all of James’ objections melt in the exact way that the ice won’t.

The berth creaks as Francis clambors up onto the bed behind him, palm smacking against the bulkhead as he sways toward it, braces himself. His callused fingertips rest on James’ shirt, drag down from the fabric onto his arse, and then down his naked thigh, and onto the silk of the stocking, the pressure letting up just enough that James knows he doesn’t need to worry about the stocking snagging because Francis is being, of all things, careful.

James presses his thighs together, bites his lips knowing that Francis cannot see, and then realizes—his face is not all that Francis cannot see. On all fours like this, his thighs together, all Francis sees is his bare legs; the curve of his arse, such as it is; the sway of his back; the length of his hair. Maybe not so different from London at all, he thinks, only dark-haired instead of blonde

Francis must be thinking the same. “A lady like you,” he breathes, and now both his hands are on James, carefully folding his shirt back on itself, as though it is yards of fabric and petticoats, and not merely one sad and well-washed layer of linen. “I shall treat you carefully.”

James opens his mouth to object—I can take it, I can take anything you give to me—and then Francis runs his broad thumb down the cleft of James’ arse, drags it dry over his hole, and James feels a shiver run all the way up his back.

There’s a soft, wet sound from behind him, and James imagines the next time they do this, imagines being on his back, his cock jutting proudly upward, imagines Francis sucking on James’ thumb, before sitting back on his heels and letting James open himself up under Francis’ gaze. But now, this time—it’s Francis’ spit-wet thumb rubbing his hole, encouraging him to open.

“Have you oil?” Francis asks in a low voice.

James nods, fumbles underneath his pillow, and passes a small tin of grease back. When their hands touch, there is a jolt of pleasure that goes through James, and he lets his hand linger there a moment before dropping it back to the bed. It’s not until he rests his forehead on his arm that he realizes—he has received no criticism for having it close at hand, no commentary about his choice, nothing other than a ragged-sounding breath from Francis, and then the press of his broad thumb against James, and then in.

He’d expected—well. He’d expected that if this ever came to pass, it would be James on his knees, choking on Francis’ cock, that they would not speak, that his hair would be pulled so hard it brought tears to his eyes, that he would be summarily evicted from Terror immediately thereafter, with the taste of Francis’ spend still clinging to the back of his throat.

He had not prepared for this—Francis, tender and soft, carefully working James open with well-greased fingers, circling his thumb around James’ rim before pressing in with one finger, and then two. He had neither prepared nor even dared to hope for any other physical contact, but here is Francis’ other hand, flat on James’ lower back, thumb rubbing a soft caress into flesh.

“I’m ready,” James murmurs, and when Francis doesn’t respond, he glances back over his shoulder. What he sees arrests him completely.

Francis’ brow is furrowed, his mouth slightly open, his attention entirely focused on James’ arse.

No, not his arse—on his own fingers, sliding in and out, and on the soft slick sound that they make as they go. He’s looking at James like James is a wonder, he’s looking at James with a soft intensity that is completely foreign on his face, and, oh, it makes him look like an entirely changed man. In this moment, Francis is—

James swallows audibly as he realizes, and Francis looks up.

There’s no mistaking it. Not now that he’s seen it.

Francis is beautiful. It’s in the delicate strands of his hair, the weather-beaten skin of his face, the wrinkles around his eyes, his thin lips. It’s in the way that his skin reddens when he sees that James is looking at him, the scowl that twists his mouth and distorts his smile into something painfully vulnerable.

“Put your head back down, James,” he says, and it’s not an order, it’s a plea. “For the love of God, put your head back down.”

James does. He drops to his elbows, arches his back. Buries his face into the pillow, twists the sheet between his fingers as Francis presses into him.

(He thought when it happened it would be a competition, it would be James refusing to give any quarter, it would be Francis fucking him with his short, squat cock, brutal and unforgiving. Instead, it is Francis gently twisting his fingers from side to side, and James thankful for the ability to hide in his pillow, because he is near tears, and has no idea why.)

“How do you like your lovers to fuck you, miss?” Francis rasps, his voice raw and uneven and ragged on the edges. He presses his fingers apart in the tight clutch of James’ arse, and James’ breath catches in his chest. “Do you ask them to go slow, and mind the stretch of their cocks? Or do you like them to have at you like a doxy, fast and hard, put you away wet afterwards?”

James shivers, and reaches between his legs to palm himself, conscious that Francis can see the movement of his hand, but unwilling to play at disaffection. (He may perish for want of this man.) “I tell them,” he says, his voice cracking with honesty and shattering into something new, and as-of-yet unexposed to the world, “I tell them to do what they like with me.”

It is true, and it isn’t.

It is true because it’s what he thinks, and what he means, what he says wordlessly when he cants his hips toward another man in the dark, when he reaches for belts and buttons. It isn’t, because the exact phrase has never left his lips until just this moment, because James communicates in the significance of looks and traded glances that linger just a bit too long, hands lingering on knees and in the small of someone’s back, rushed liaisons in dark corners of ships, neither party saying more than a few words—yes and here and quiet, they’ll hear us and thank you when it is over, though the latter remains mostly unvoiced.

There’s a silence, punctuated by the steady creak of the ship underneath them, and then a long exhalation, the whisper of Francis’ breath ghosting over James’ flesh like a caress. “You’ll tell me, then,” Francis murmurs. “You’ll tell me if this is too much. You’ll tell me what you like when I give it to you.”

He hadn’t thought Francis was the giving sort, and he’s very nearly opening his mouth to offer an apology for it, for how wrong he’s been, when Francis shifts his hand to James’ hip, twists his fingers inside James’ arse. James’ entire body lights up, bow to stern, like the shock of diving into cold water, that moment when all the air rushes out of his lungs, and his heart goes staccato in his chest, a quick stutter and a hesitation before all the feeling rushes back in.

James gasps in a breath, tips his head so that he’s looking back between his legs, at his hand working on himself. When he shifts, he can see Francis’ thick thigh, still clad in his uniform trousers, between his own bare legs. Were he in more control of himself, he would want to study the contrast between the navy wool on Francis, and the silk and ribbon on himself, but he is subordinate to his own pleasure, and thinks of nothing but the stretch of Francis’ fingers.

“More,” he gasps, and Francis obliges him, speeds his pace, punctuating each thrust with a twist of his fingers.

(He’d thought it a fiction, the claims that women could be given so much pleasure that their legs would shake, passed all the tales off as exaggerations, and rolled his eyes at the recountings, but it is only Francis’ hand on his hip that keeps him steady right now, and if James were called upon to stand upright at this moment, he knows his knees would go out from under him.)

“The stockings look very fine on you,” Francis says in a low voice, holding James in place, and keeping him tethered to the bed by the grip of five fingers, and the thrust of two—or is it three? James can hardly tell, only that it is a steady stretch that feels not like a punishment, but a reward. “You’ve very fetching legs. I tell you, when I saw that box open on your desk tonight.” He exhales, ragged. “James, dear…”

His fingers still, and James glances back. Francis’ face is writ with consternation, and the moment he catches James’ eye, he looks away.

“Francis?”

Francis looks back. His eyes are wet. “Fitzjames,” he breathes. He shifts his fingers again. “James.” Another slow thrust, with a twist at the end. “Jamie.” This time, he curls his fingers, and there it is—true north, the center of James’ pleasure, the place Francis has been seeking and has now found.

“There,” James says, in a voice gone raw and vulnerable, all vanity stripped away and replaced with nothing but the physical expression of his joy. “Right there, Francis.”

Francis nods. Starts to move his fingers to and fro inside of James’ body, rubbing against that spot with the pads of his fingers, and, oh, James is overtaken completely. He is sensation, he is every square inch of skin on his body come alive, he is breath catching in his lungs and toes curling in expensive silk stockings, made exactly for someone with feet just the size of his own. James pants into his own arm, into his pillow which smells ever so faintly of cedar, presses his hips back against Francis. Francis’ fingers are absolutely unyielding, and as he slides his other hand down James’ thigh, James shudders, and palms himself, and feels as though he’s going to shatter, as though he’s being pressed between Francis’ hand on his thigh and Francis’ fingers inside him, constricted as if by ice.

“There you are, Jamie,” Francis says, voice low, and the pace of his fingers insistent. “Come, now. Fall apart for me. Let yourself go. Need to be coaxed into it, do you? Do you need to be told how lovely you are?” He inhales, like there is more to say, and then he shifts his hand lower down, squeezes James’ thigh right above his knee, where he’d so carefully fastened the stockings. “Look at you, silk and blue ribbons,” he says roughly. “You look well like this. Never would have thought this of you, but god, what a wonder you are, Jamie.”

“Am I?” James asks, and his voice cracks; he feels as though he might swoon, as though Francis’ fingers inside him will undo him completely.

“James Fitzjames,” Francis says reverently, and he squeezes James’ thigh, rubs his thumb along the silk stockings, and curls his fingers, steadily fucking that spot inside. “Christ, I could look at you forever.”

The inevitable destruction feels like a victory, and as Francis fucks him through an orgasm that rolls through his body in waves, James lets go of all pretense and false impressions, lets go of his own vanity and self-importance. He thrusts himself back on his commander’s fingers, and gasps wetly into his arm as he shudders and falls apart, and trusts that Francis will guide him through it.

 


 

“I’ll, uh. Send Bridgens by, shall I?” Francis asks, looking at a spot over James’ shoulder.

James follows Francis’ gaze to the mess they’d made of his sheets, the remnants of his crisis still glistening in the lantern-light where it hadn’t quite soaked into the fabric. “Shockingly,” he drawls, tugging his silk robe back up over his shoulder, “I do actually know how to change my own sheets.”

Francis’ mouth twists. “Of course,” he says, looking away.

James catches the sleeve of his jacket, sadly back on his person, and buttoned up to Francis’ neck. “Are you certain...there’s nothing more I can do for you?”

Francis hesitates.

“Anything,” James says. He looks to the box on his desk, into which Francis had tenderly placed the stockings after removing them from James’ legs one-handed, his other hand rubbing soothing circles on James’ bare thigh.

“There is…” Francis starts. He looks at James, he looks away.

He looks back, sets his jaw as though he expects to be denied, and James smiles at him, trying to be encouraging.

“Do you kiss, Miss Fitzjames?” Francis asks. His breath smells faintly of whisky, warm on the side of James’ face.

“...oh.” James steps closer, and answers with his mouth. Kisses the stubble on Francis’ cheek, the corner of his thin lips, and then, when he turns his face just slightly and waits, he is rewarded with Francis’ lips on his own.

Francis is shockingly tender, a softness that James did not expect before tonight, and finds now that he craves. Prior to tonight, these lips had given nothing but criticism and harsh words; now, it’s like James is meeting him for the first time. As Francis gently coaxes James’ lips apart, his tongue just barely brushing James’ lower lip, it’s like the last contentious years haven’t happened. It’s like they have another chance. It’s like they can start over.

(He doesn’t kiss, not usually. It’s not generally that sort of an arrangement. The fact, though, that this could be? Oh, it sends shivers down his spine.)

And then Francis pulls away, and straightens his jacket.

“Is that all?” James asks, cursing the way the words come out, the soft lift at the end of the sentence—but it doesn’t matter, because Francis smiles at him, puts his hand on James’ arm.

“That’s all for tonight, Jamie,” he says, his mouth twisting in a rueful smile. “I’ll see you in the morning on Terror?”

“Of course,” James says. He adjusts his robe again. “Perhaps…”

Francis cocks his eyebrow, waits.

“Perhaps I could stay behind afterwards.”

“Oh?”

“Well,” he says, adjusting his robe again and deliberately letting the shoulder of it slip, revelling in the way that Francis’ eyes slide immediately to his collarbone. “I believe we’ve made a start on London, as it were. But I’ve seen naught of your Antarctica experience, and I believe you’ve forgotten something.”

“Pray tell,” Francis says dryly, “what I could possibly have forgotten.”

“I’ve been to Greece,” James offers, before dragging his eyes down the length and breadth of Francis’ body, lingering, and then glancing back up.

Francis Crozier, as it turns out,  is still irreparably beautiful even when he’s blushing.