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"Will you be joining us today, sir?"

It had been raining steadily for three days straight, a thin, unpleasant drizzle that inevitably slid inside every fold of the uniform coat and dripped down inside the clothing to make the shirts not quite soaked, but uncomfortably humid all day long. The present morning seemed no better; the menacing grey clouds loomed even lower, approaching with worrying speed. But Sunday was Henry's leave day, the first in a fortnight, and rain be damned, he would set foot ashore and have a warm, decent meal and a pint at the nearest ale house. 

"I will, yes," he said, desperate enough for something other than the four walls of his cabin to accept the two midshipmen's invitation - despite how very dull he knew them to be.

No, he was being unfair: Edwards and Weston were not dull. They were only ordinary men, unseasoned, perhaps a little naive. They carried out their duties on HMS Superb day in and day out without a care in the world. They had never heard the roar of hundreds of cannons fired at once, or the raspy whistle of the rockets as they flew high towards their target. They had never seen China, or India, or Africa; in fact, Plymouth was the farthest from London that Edwards had ever been.

I have got to stop thinking about that.

China, India, the Near-East, Africa: those belonged in the past, as did James — despite the weight of his latest letter, safely tucked inside the inner pocket of Henry's coat. I have got to put that away, too. He couldn't bring himself to: for two days straight he had tucked it inside his personal Bible, only to take it out at night with feverish urgency just to be certain it was still there. He should have burned it: he knew he never would. So he kept it in his pocket since then, close to his heart, like a lovesick boy would treasure a letter from his sweetheart. That wasn't right: James no longer deserved that honour. Had he ever deserved it? Henry did not know anymore. He forbade himself to think of this all and threw himself into work: a dull, easy, unexciting job, with no danger, no enemies, no privateers or wild cheetahs. HMS Superb sailed close enough to Devon that he could call on his cousins every so often, and see to his father's affairs that were left pending before the move to Canada. It was a fine, honest job, one that would see him promoted to Commander without much hardship, and Henry would do damned well to consider himself fortunate to have landed it, and made his father proud.

As he sat with his two midshipmen in the darkened ale house, drenched from the brief walk on the docks, Henry felt very far from fortunate, or proud.

The food was faultless, however, and he attacked his roast beef pie with all the enthusiasm he could muster. It was a very fine pie: the potato layer was deep and easily fluffed with the fork. The cook felt generous with the meat portions as well, not just in quantity but in quality: just juicy enough to retain flavour, and not make the bottom crust soggy. The ale tasted decent. This all significantly improved his mood, enough to make the midshipmen's chatter tolerable. 

They were discussing women, it seemed: Weston had a favourite among those frequenting the ale house, and was extolling her skills to Edwards, sparing a cautious glance at Henry whenever his zeal turned too vulgar. Henry never met his gaze, more interested in his pie than in upholding manners. He hoped they would not include him later in whatever their idea of a fun time entailed. Not for lack of want: ever since setting foot in Britain (no, that wasn't right, ever since James had left), Henry had been in the randiest of moods, but he could hardly imagine himself bedding a comely girl in a forgettable room or other. Have you ever stood in the Skewered House in Bombay, he fantasised explaining to his midshipmen, blinded by the colours, transfixed by the music, and dizzy from a thousand scents? And have you ever been told to choose any woman you fancied, any woman at all, only to ignore them all and focus only on your wanton mate who can hardly keep his hands off from you? And have you ever had him pinned under you, teeth bared, hair undone, his gaze a searing fire as he barely holds back his grunts of pleasure, pleasure you brought on?

Enough of that.

Henry rose for a second serving, and most definitely another ale. The publican was a genial fellow, who convinced him to try his wife's stew. It was, he claimed, the best way to avoid a bad cold in this dastardly weather. It was raining cats and dogs, Henry noted as he went back to the table with his new meal and his ale, harder than when they had arrived. All the better: he was in no particular hurry to return to the ship. 

Weston had moved on from talking about women, thankfully, and the topic veered to safer waters, such as where one could purchase the cheapest tobacco in town. The stew tasted as excellent as it smelled, and Henry was only listening with a half-ear when the door to the ale house swung open, letting in a gust of wind and a bit of a spray, along with a cloaked visitor dripping from head to toe. The newcomer pulled his hood back, and Henry let the spoon fall into his plate.

James. 

James, in full uniform, hanging his drenched cloak by the door, his wet dark locks clinging to his forehead. The hair was shorter — certainly shorter than it had been on the Clio, but graceful enough to graze his cheeks. His gaze found Henry's as he took in the ale house patrons, and a smile spread over his lips at once.

"Le Vesconte!" he cried, too loudly in the quiet tavern. 

Henry did not quite know how to react. He ought to smile and yet he could not, in spite of the very noticeable jump in his heart at the sight of James. He had no reason to react so tepidly, after all: they hadn't quarreled when they parted. They had simply gone their separate ways, as it should be, as if whatever happened in those marvelous, luminous two years together had meant nothing at all for the rest of their lives. At least, that was what James had let on back then. For Henry, stupidly, embarrassingly, James marked a figurative before and after in his life, never felt as keenly as in this dull ale house surrounded by even duller shipmates: James had been in the room but one minute, and already everything seemed brighter and colourful as he positioned himself at the centre of attention with effortless ease. I told him I loved him, cried a wounded little voice inside of Henry, and he was quick to smother it: his tattered pride could weather no more beatings. 

"Commander Fitzjames," he said at last, and he marveled at how laconic he managed to sound despite his raging agitation. 

"Dundy, old fellow," James went on, unperturbed as he neared their table, "I must say I am delighted to find you here."

Henry could guess the nature of his errand. It was tucked away in his pocket, close to his wildly drumming heart. James was assembling an expedition to the North Pole, and he had asked Henry to come along. That letter he had burnt in a fit of anger. It had been forwarded to him from his cousin, who had received it from London, and it was the first he'd heard from James in months. James had no idea how hard he'd toiled to be assigned to HMS Superb, how his family had rejoiced, how good an offer it was on paper. No: James simply waltzed into his life again, and bid him to sail to the Arctic. Well, Henry might be a fool with too inconvenient a heart but he was no one's boy to command. He replied with the same impulse that made him burn the letter: a terse refusal, impressing upon James that he could not abandon his post in HMS Superb so soon after accepting it. James's answer came with the next day's post: the letter that Henry carried in his inner pocket for safekeeping. 

"Not the best weather to visit Plymouth, I'm afraid," Henry said, wryly.

Only then did he remember his company, out of a violent desire to keep the secrets of James's person all to himself — the likes of Weston and Edwards and the rest of the patrons wholly unworthy of admiring how James's wet clothing marked the lines of his very fine chest, legs, and arse.

"This is Commander James Fitzjames," he told the midshipmen, stifling a sudden need to extol James's numerous wartime exploits, "under whom I sailed with HMS Clio."

Either Henry's odd turn of phrase or Weston's mumbled how-do-ye-do-sir seemed to cast a frost on James's enthusiasm. He pursed his lips as he did when he was displeased by something, very subtly, but Henry noticed it. He nodded in distracted acknowledgement at the midshipmen, then turned to Henry again.

"I am here on the Admiralty's business," he told him, and he next produced a paper out of his coat pocket, a white, folded piece of paper that had not suffered under the rain. Henry swallowed. He could guess what it would be. "Shall we move to another table?"

Henry stared down at his half-eaten stew with a pang of regret. The familiar feeling of being swept away irresistibly, leaving everything upturned, unfinished – he both resented it and cherished it in the same impulse. James surprised him by reaching for his plate and holding it, evidently intending to take it with them to the other table. Henry glanced up at him, vaguely grateful, forgiving him already. 

"Well, lads, the Admiralty calls," he told Weston and Edwards as he rose with his glass of ale. "Don't you run into mischief while I'm gone."

The table James chose for their tête-à-tête stood far from all others in a darkened nook of the ale house. There they could converse undisturbed and unheard, sequestered from the rest of the patrons in plain view. The surreptitious duplicity pleased Henry in spite of himself as he sat down. James handed him the folded paper across the table, his gaze never leaving Henry's.

"I fear it's just a laundry list, old boy," he said, not an ounce of sheepishness in his amused tone.

Henry let out a disbelieving chuckle as he read, indeed, a neat list of shirts, cravats, undergarments, and trousers. James was favouring purple of late, it seemed.

"I should have guessed," he said, making a show of perusing it in case anyone was watching. "A laundress may be of more help than I, in this case."

"Don't you see?" James said, his voice warm and hushed as he explained himself. "I needed a word with you in private."

Unable to tolerate Henry's attention straying away from him, demanding all of his time, all of him, feeling entitled to it – yes, that was very James. 

"Well, here you have me," Henry said, resigned but also flattered, "all to yourself."

He saw relief visibly cross James's face. Henry averted his gaze. For all the good the stew tasted, it no longer interested him as it had. Still, he forced himself to eat two spoonfuls, hoping to convey a nonchalance he was far from feeling.

"I wrote you a letter," James said, his voice strained, pleading almost. "Some two weeks ago. Did you not receive it?"

Henry spun his spoon inside the stew three times, studiously avoiding looking at him. "I received your letter," he said, and resisted the urge to touch his coat where it was resting.

"Oh, Henry! And you did not reply! I did not know you to be cruel."

Henry flinched. The earnest admonishment stung like a slap – an underserved one.

"Cruel?" he said, glaring up at him. "No, that's more like you, isn't it?"

And James, James had the nerve to look surprised, wounded even! "I am not cruel," he declared. "Not willfully, at least."

"Very well," Henry said, dismissive, and finished his stew with indignant zeal. As James still seemed to demand an elaboration when he looked up, he added, "I stated my position clearly enough in my answer to your first letter. I will not join your Arctic expedition. I cannot abandon my post here on a whim, for no amount of cajoling."

On your whim, he bit back, annoyed that he had to explain himself in the first place.

"Not a terribly exciting post, now, is it?" James said and tilted his head to gesture towards the forgotten midshipmen on the other side of the ale house.

"It's a fine, honest post," Henry argued, mortified that James had seen right through him. 

"And that was hardly cajoling," James went on, ignoring his objection. "I meant every word I wrote in that letter. Never mind the expedition! I said, I wrote... I wrote of delicate matters that deserved an answer from you."

To this Henry could hardly remain indifferent: a warm flush spread on his cheeks, onto the rest of his face, to the tip of his ears. That was the reason he kept the letter in his pocket, so close to his heart. For all that James had shied from Henry's unbridled affection during the last weeks aboard the Clio, in his letter he hinted at feelings he had, he claimed, been unable to profess before. Henry devoured that letter, reading it over and over until he memorised its contents, and was left feeling empty and miserable: it was too late.

"I broached that subject first, not one year ago," he said, perhaps too petulantly, "but back then you did not find it deserving of your consideration. Look, is it not best to let this unwieldy matter rest? It will not do any good to either of us now." 

"Won't it? Harry. I do believe it will do us a world of good. As it once did. It was very good. We were very good. Weren't we?"

How could he answer in the negative when James stared at him so, with rekindled fire in his gaze? How could he ever hope to refuse him, to keep him at bay? Henry would ruin his career, his reputation for a single look like that one.

"We were," he said raspily, afraid that if he put more force into his voice all would shatter into pieces and leave him again with bleeding hands and a broken heart.

"I did not ask you to join me out of professional zeal. My own reasons are terribly selfish, as you may have guessed: I need you there with me. I cannot imagine sailing anywhere without you. Glory, adventure: they would mean nothing if you were not there with me."

Only James could proclaim his selfishness and sound endearing. Henry wiped his mouth with his handkerchief and smirked at him.

"Do you go around saying that to all the Lieutenants you are recruiting?" 

But James chose to ignore the tease and said, earnestly, "No, Dundy. Only to you. Only with you."

Then, with his customary disregard for danger, he reached under the table for Henry's hand, and gave it a soft squeeze. Terrified, thrilled, Henry squeezed back before removing his hand and placing it atop the table - safe. A timorous laugh escaped him, just barely: he had not ridden a horse in a good year or two, but he recognised the exhilaration of galloping recklessly with no true aim or rhyme. Now more at ease, Henry allowed himself to entertain the thought of touching James, of placing a long, wanton kiss on his lips, of raking a hand through his hair and pressing his weight on him against a wall. He reached for his ale to embolden himself further.

"Will you not have a drink?" he asked, looking at James over his glass. "I will gladly buy you one."

"Thank you," James said. "I am not particularly thirsty. But if I were to drink, I would rather do it from your own glass."

Henry managed to gulp down his sip without coughing and then, worldless, he placed the glass back on the table between them and slid it towards James with a nudge of his finger. James considered the gesture briefly and rose to the challenge, deliberately turning the glass to press his lips where Henry's had been a moment before. It should be forbidden to look so enticing when drinking a forgettable ale in an even more forgettable ale house, and yet James did so effortlessly, like an afterthought.

"Thank you," he said again as he set it down, and met Henry's gaze with irresistible intent. "I have taken rooms in an inn nearby. Perhaps we would be more comfortable there."

"Perhaps," Henry said, very aware of his sudden arousal. "But we might drown on the way there with this incessant rain."

"Pah," James huffed. "We've seen worse, you and I. Haven't we?"

They had: they arrived in India looking for Clio just at the start of the monsoon season, which made it no less violent. It rained for days and days, curtains of rain falling from the skies, and the nearby river flooded the land and tore the bridge asunder in its wake as if it were a mere twig. Henry remembered standing outside in the rain, and opening his mouth wide to drink in the cool precipitation as it soaked down his face, and a scantily clad James pressing their lips together immediately after, drinking from him – drinking him

The present rain had nothing remarkable about it, just a good old boring late winter English squall, but the happier memories gave it another edge as Henry hurried behind James in the deserted streets of Plymouth. How happy they were back then! Did they know it, he wondered. Did he know then how brilliantly lucky he was to have James by his side, all to himself, day after day in such a wondrous land? He remembered many quarrels, and just as many reconciliations. It had never been easy. It still was not.

James's inn was thankfully not located far from the docks, though that made little difference in how soaked they got on the way there. The establishment, far from a luxurious venue, was run by an old rubicond woman who raised a considerable fuss about wetting the flooring on the way to the room. Bemused, herded around, they ended up removing boots, coats, vests and trousers in the inn kitchen, leaving two large puddles in their wake. "Now I'll have these dried for you in no time, go along," she told them, and James and Henry climbed up the stairs to James's room in a scandalous state of undress. 

Having grown up with many brothers, then public school, then the Navy, on top of his peculiar sexual appetites, should ensure Henry would never feel shy being around other men in only his undergarments. And least of all with James, who in the past three years had become intimately acquainted with every inch of his body, in every possible filthy configuration. And yet Henry stood in the middle of the room in his wet shirt, wet drawers, and wet socks not quite knowing what to do with himself. The room was spartan in decorations, and James's lone travel bag lay still unopened on a chair. It seemed he hardly had been in this room.

"When did you arrive?" Henry asked.

"About two hours ago," James said, not looking at him. "From London."

"How on Earth did you know where to find me?"

James seemed amused at this, and curse him, too proud. "I know my Dundy," he said, turning away. "I know he likes dining well if he is on leave."

The lone stove of the room promised little for warmth, yet James approached it and raked the dying embers with unmovable optimism. 

"Are you not going to undress?" he asked, not looking at Henry while he tried to revive the fire.

"Are you?" Henry countered.

"I have no great need to stand around in my wet undergarments," said James, and laughed under his breath. 

A bit piqued by then, Henry removed his socks and his shirt, but kept his drawers on as he moved closer to the stove. James's own wet underthings left little to the imagination, revealing his bare arse most distractingly, and Henry keenly felt that the sudden warmth in the room was not only on account of the fire. He stepped closer to James, standing behind him without touching him, but very much longing to. He cleared his throat to let him know he was there, but James did not turn around.

"I thought we were through, you and I," Henry said, his voice a little hoarse.

"Were we?" James was unbuttoning his shirt. "I do not recall ever saying anything to that effect."

"It was implied," Henry insisted. "I certainly took it that way."

James turned around at last, facing him in the faint glow of his fire. He had that wanton look in his eyes that had landed them into so much trouble in the past.

"I don't know that l will ever be through with you, Henry," he said.

No, they wouldn't be, would they? All it took was a pretty letter and a look from James and Henry would rush back in his arms – figuratively, but he was quick to remedy that in the literal sense: he took one more step to close the distance between them and grabbed James's face with both hands. The kiss he pressed to his lips was hesitant at first, but when he felt him responding eagerly, hungrily, Henry slipped his tongue inside his mouth and kissed him with abandon. James let out this needy sound at once, not quite a moan but a whimper, and that was all Henry needed to hear to embrace him, to wrap his arms around him and run his hands on his bare back still cool from the rain.

The wet drawers left little to the imagination; the more savagely they kissed, the more James's arousal became evident against Henry's underclothes: a growing warmth pressing insistently to his thigh. Instead of giving in to that, he reached down to cup James's arse with one hand, giving it a firm squeeze and pulling him closer. It was immensely gratifying how pliantly James arched up against him, surrendering to him.

"I was going mad without you," James said against his lips. "Mad, mad, mad. I wanted you."

He laughed a little, but Henry crushed their mouths together again as if to devour the laughter and claim it as his. He took a few steps to force him backwards until they found the wall of the room, and there Henry pressed himself to him, rubbing his hardening prick along James's groin as he trapped him in place.

"Me too," he said, belatedly. "I was going utterly mad. Don't leave me again, James."

"Never," James said, against his neck. "Never."

The bed groaned under their combined weights when they stumbled onto it and more so when Henry got on all fours in it to rid himself of his drawers. A noisy bed would certainly be a damper on their passions, but he shrugged that worry off, hoping the innkeeper and the other hosts were otherwise occupied. Henry's prick had stiffened to full hardness, and he bit back a cry when James stroked him up and down, smearing the droplet that had appeared on the tip down the shaft.

"Does this mean you will come to the Arctic with me?" James asked in a casual manner as he handled his prick with tried briskness.

Henry gasped, or rather, groaned in disbelief. "Good God," he panted, bucking against the hand, desperate for more. "Are you trying to seduce me into saying yes?"

"Is it working?" James asked with a smirk.

"Fuck you," Henry said, and laughed. "l will follow you to the ends of the Earth to bugger you silly."