Francis is not surprised when the bag goes over his head, and he is jerked into the back seat of a car. He invented this, after all. He always told himself he would fight when his turn came, but he finds he is too tired. He can tell by the grain of the wood under his hands which wharf he’s at. Knows the precise weight of the concrete it takes to sink a man to the bottom. Hopes the sea will take him quick.
But he had expected John Franklin and a bullet between the eyes, not James Fitzjames.
Francis has not met the heir to the Gambier operation before, but knows him by reputation. Fitzjames likes fast cars and pretty boys and spending daddy’s money. Fitzjames crashes cars and fucks who he pleases and licks at the silver spoon in his mouth. Though Francis supposes it’s his spoon to do with as he pleases now that he’s in charge.
He’s leaning against the railing, hair coiffed within an inch of its life, razor-cut suit highlighting the length of his legs that end in perfectly shined shoes. The only thing that gives it all away is his eyes. They’re wild, flashing against the night sky. He’s excited, almost giddy with it.
“Francis Crozier,” Fitzjames says. “I have an offer for you.”
“What do you want?” Francis asks, and Fitzjames raises his eyebrows at his tone.
“I want you to work for me,” he says plainly. “Which I think you’ll do, because we both want the same thing.”
“To take out Franklin,” Fitzjames responds. “He’s been at the top of this game for too long. Oh, please, don’t look so surprised. I know you proposed to the niece. Twice. As if a red-blooded American like Franklin was ever going to let some fresh off the boat Irishman into his family. They’re pilgrim-stock, you know.”
Francis has been in this country since he was twelve years old. It had not mattered to Franklin, who could not help but sneer at the curl of Banbridge around his words. It had not, ultimately, mattered to Sophie either. “What decent job will a man like you ever hold?” she’d asked. “What will you ever do that won’t end in blood, Francis?”
He regards Fitzjames from where he sits on his knees. The wood of the wharf is crude and uneven, biting into his skin through his trousers. “You think this is a game?” he asks finally.
His smile is a knife, Francis thinks. Same shape. Same sharpness. Same glint in the moonlight. But Francis has handled knives before. He has the scarred hands to prove it.
“Everything is a game, Francis. And I play to win.”
Francis does not like Fitzjames. But, he thinks as he shakes the man’s hand, he hates Franklin even more.
Fitzjames does not, Francis quickly realizes, know what he’s doing. He is a child playing dress-up. A collection of gangster films he saw at the pictures on Saturday. No color to his actions, only black and white. A piano behind the screen telling him when to run and when to jump.
“You need to learn this business from the ground up,” Francis grunts from his usual spot one step behind and two to the left of wherever Fitzjames is, “if you plan to do anything but watch it burn.”
He’s being used for personal security, which is laughable but preferable to cold misty mornings by the docks.
“I’ve always found flames to be rather pretty, don’t you think?” Fitzjames asks in response. He bats his eyelashes, and Francis looks away.
“Not when it’s my house that’s on fire.”
“Oh, Francis,” Fitzjames drawls, “that’s the only house worth living in.”
“You’ll call me Crozier.”
The flirting is inconsequential. Francis thinks Fitzjames could sooner stop breathing. Which is a pity. Fitzjames is a looker, no bones about it, but Francis has no use for lightskirts. That’s never been what he’s wanted.
He thinks it will pass, as any fascination with a shiny new toy eventually does, but the touches grow bolder, the looks last longer. “Francis,” Fitzjames always says, “Francis.”
The problem is, Francis starts to look back. The problem is Francis answers.
There is a time in the warehouse one day, waiting for the car to pull around out back. It is only Fitzjames and Francis.
“You don’t drink,” Fitzjames says, not a question. He has picked up a bottle out of the crate meant for shipping that day.
“No man should drink the liquor he makes,” Francis replies, though it took him a long time to learn that particular lesson. Fitzjames uncorks the bottle in answer. That’s money lost.
He saunters over, swinging his hips as he always does. Francis imagines him in a dress that swishes about his knees. He’s got the gams for it. Open back cut low. Beads that shine against his skin. Francis stops imagining it.
“Not even a taste?” Fitzjames holds up the bottle. Francis rolls his eyes, shakes his head. Fitzjames shrugs, turns, and a careless splash of whiskey flies out of the bottle and soaks Francis’s shirt.
“God dammit, Fitzjames!”
The scent is already enough to make Francis heady. Whatever business decisions Fitzjames may make, it can’t be denied that the Gambier hooch is top shelf. He has to get it away from himself, he thinks, and then he is unbuttoning his vest and laying it on the back of the chair, turning to the buttons on his shirt and—
There is a hand on his wrist, stopping him. He never noticed what large hands Fitzjames has before. These are proprietary hands. Hands meant for taking and grasping and pulling the trigger.
“Francis,” Fitzjames says, and Francis understands the game then, knows he fell into this trap eyes closed and headfirst, and yet. He waits for the hand on his wrist to move him.
The hand tightens, and he can only watch as the man’s eyes darken, as he bends his head lower to Francis’s open collar, his whiskey-soaked skin. But at the first touch of Fitzjames’s tongue to his neck the spell is broken, and Francis is thrusting him back. There is that smile. That knife in Francis’s back.
“You’ll be picking up my bill at the cleaners,” Francis tells him, “I’m gonna go have a smoke. Don’t try this shit again.”
James does try it again, months later. He pours whiskey over Francis’s chest. Francis who is tied to the bedpost by James’s best silk ties. Francis who could get out if he wanted to, but he doesn’t, he won’t, he can’t.
James licks it off his skin and feeds it back to him, lets Francis sip at his lips, suck the taste of it off his tongue.
This is the only way Francis will ever taste whiskey again, with James there to measure it, control it, own it. And, anyway, it’s not the whiskey Francis wants. Not anymore. He reaches up and claims James’s lips, kisses him like a drowning man.
“How did you find me?” Francis asks when Fitzjames is busy with the accounts. The only times he seems to give a straight answer is when he has a head full of numbers.
“Ross,” he says and that makes sense.
When they came up together with Parry’s boys it was always Ross they wanted for the job, and Francis was the shadow who trailed after. But he’s been out to pasture for a while now. He and Francis came back together from The Great War and their hands shook the same. But Ross filled his with a wife and a child while Francis can’t seem to drop his gun.
“He told you no?”
“Hm?” Fitzjames mumbles distractedly. He always runs the numbers himself, tallies them up day after day. It is perhaps, Francis thinks, the only respectable thing about him. “Didn’t ask. Only wanted you.”
“Something isn’t right.” The streets are quiet outside. The hour is late. Francis is trying, again, to get Fitzjames to listen. “You’re practically walking down the street with liquor spilling from your pockets, and we haven’t felt a lick of heat in weeks. You’re going to end up full of lead we keep going like this.”
“Francis,” Fitzjames rolls his eyes, “quit being such a flat tire and live a little, will you?”
“Chrissake, Fitzjames, if you aren’t going to listen to me why did you even bring me in?” Francis smacks the desk. Fitzjames, to his credit, doesn’t jump. “I am telling you, someone has dropped a dime on us, and if we don’t figure it out soon we’re about to land in a helluva lot of hot water.”
They’re nose to nose, toe to toe, Francis crowding Fitzjames up against the desk in frustration.
“Kiss me,” Fitzjames laughs. Francis walks away before he does as he’s told and lands the blow. Though the man who would bruise pretty, he thinks.
Three days later Fitzjames watches with bare, open fascination as Francis beats one of Franklin’s men within an inch of his life and Francis thinks, at least he has the stomach for it even if he hasn’t got the head.
The smuggling boat goes up in flames because liquor catches quick. This was not an accident
Francis and Fitzjames watch it burn from the dock for one stunned moment. Then Fitzjames is diving into the black water below, which means Francis is following after. They pull five men out, which means another four are down with the wreckage at the bottom of the sea.
There is a cruel part of Francis that wants to ask Fitzjames if this is still a game. If he still likes the way a fire burns. But he sees the man sitting wet and alone on the dock, and drops down next to him instead. Their hands do not touch, but almost. Almost.
“We’re going to fix this,” Fitzjames says. He is staring across the dark Atlantic, eyes hard and mouth set.
“We are,” Francis answers. “What’s the next move?
The next move is Fitzjames consoling widows and holding fatherless children on his knee and giving out money to families like it’s water.
“I can always make more dough,” he says, and for once Francis believes him.
This lasts for a week before he disappears. In his place on his desk is a present for Francis. Files on every man on that boat, files on every man ever walked through the doors of Gambier operations. Breakdowns of money and accounts and who has what fingers in which pies.
You know what to do says a hastily scrawled note. Francis does know. He goes back to the work he was always best at.
But he misses looking over Fitzjames’s shoulder. Misses that deep voice saying his name like a kiss. It is cold on the docks in the morning.
He is just beginning to grow worried when he finally catches Fitzjames on the distillery floor one day, stripped down to his undershirt and suspenders. There’s a damp patch of sweat between his shoulder blades. His arms are corded with muscle.
“What are you doing?” he asks, pulling James aside. Despite his large hands, his wrists are skinny. Francis can wrap his whole hand around one. “Where have you been?”
James smiles, licks at the bead of sweat Francis had been tracking as it ran down his cheek. Pushes the hair off his forehead, shiny and chestnut brown.
“I’m taking your advice,” he says. “I’m learning the business from the ground up. The brewing boys were kind enough to let me lend a hand.”
Something inside of Francis catches fire. He has to leave the building before the whole place goes up.
“It was Stanley who set the fire.” He meant to tell this to Fitzjames earlier, at the distillery, before he had to leave. “Working with the cops. I don’t think he meant to light himself up, too.”
“Better that he did,” Fitzjames says, “before he found out what we’d do to him instead. I hear burning’s quick.”
Francis has seen men burn in the trenches. Fitzjames has seen men burn on a boat. Neither of them would choose it, he thinks.
“But there’s someone else,” Francis says, takes a sip of the coffee grown cold, “slinking in the shadows. This isn’t over.”
“It never is, is it?” Fitzjames asks, and presses his knee against Francis’s under the table.
It is weeks later when Fitzjames asks him to go for a ride. Weeks of Fitzjames spending days on the floor and nights with the books in his study. Weeks of Francis placing a blanket over his shoulders when he falls asleep in a ledger. Weeks of staring at the skin revealed by the open buttons of his shirt collar.
By the end of it, Fitzjames is a master at the craft, and Francis wants him the way he wants a drink. Greedy, constant, and overwhelming.
Summer is bright outside their windows. Francis is nursing a glass of ice and nothing else. A luxury.
“I need you,” Fitzjames says, giving a tug to Francis’s sleeve. When did Francis stop minding that? When did Francis come to expect it? Want it? “We’re running it tonight.”
“We?” Francis asks. “I’m no driver, Fitzjames.”
“I know,” Fitzjames smiles, “you’re a bruiser. Lucky me, I like to be marked.” Francis closes his eyes, counts to three, but Fitzjames has already moved on, practically dashing down the steps to the automobile out back. “Anyways, I don’t know why I’d let you have all the fun.”
Fitzjames slides behind the wheel of the Ford Roadster and Francis into the passenger side and he is not standing two steps behind, they are next to each other.
When the first bullet hits the side of the car, Fitzjames is already pealing out of there.
“They were waiting,” Francis shouts over the roar of the engine and the bumps in the road. He leans out the window and takes a shot. Misses. “They knew.”
“Those boys are fast, aren’t they?” Fitzjames keeps his eyes on the road, but he’s smiling. Fitzjames knew too, Francis realizes. This was all just a confirmation. The car swerves wildly through the trees, Francis hears another bullet hit, and Fitzjames curses under his breath. “Damn, I liked this car.”
Francis fires his gun out the window until it is empty, catches one car in the tire and watches in mute satisfaction as it swerves into a tree. Fitzjames spins a gordian knot through country backwoods, shakes the remaining fuzz and pulls over under a bridge, headlights turned off.
There are bullet holes in the windshield. There is Fitzjames hunched over in his seat.
“James!” Francis yells, hands reaching out. But James straightens up, pulls a shard of glass out of his arm, tosses it out the window and laughs. He is whole and alive and a crazy fucking bastard. Francis stares.
“Oh, c’mon, Francis,” he has wild eyes and a steady hand and a laugh like a bell, “live a little.”
“You know,” says Francis, curling his hands around James’s suspenders, “I think I will,” and he hauls James into his lap, kisses him quiet.
He tastes like gun smoke and night air and whiskey.
“You’re a beauty,” James says before lowering his mouth onto Francis’s cock.
They get back to the warehouse in the morning.
The heat of the summer seems to be trapped between them well into the winter, passion hazy and thick like humidity. Morning, noon, and night they can’t seem to stop. Francis doesn’t want to stop.
He fucks James with his cock his fingers his tongue. He has him up against the wall of the warehouse and on the couch in the back room of the distillery and while sitting in the thick wooden chair in James’s office. His lips feel wrong when not pressed to James’s.
“Oh, my darling,” James sings sweetly, hands in Francis’s hair, “oh, my dear,” he sighs dreamily, ankles locked around Francis’s back.
Francis’s body is a weapon. He has always known this. He has arms for swinging and teeth for tearing and fists for beating. He is a bullet in a gun, and what he has been looking for is someone who knows how to aim.
But sometimes when his hands wrap around James’s waist (careful careful) when his fingers curl in James’s hair (soft soft) when he pets James’s thighs (gentle gentle) and James comes down his throat with a “Francis, Francis, Francis,” his body does not feel like a weapon. He is something new and remade.
He is a man. He is in love.
“My father was a bit screwy,” James tells him one night. They’re out on the boat. The moon is full. They have nowhere to be but with each other. “He couldn’t imagine a life on the straight and narrow, so he had me. Three real children born for soft lives with soft hands, one hardened bastard created to run the business.”
“I did not know this,” Francis says, though of course he does. Everyone knows the history of James Fitzjames, heir to the business because he couldn’t be heir to anything else.
James smiles, leans forward and bites Francis’s ear. Pulls.
“Don’t lie,” he says, and licks at the offended skin. “But what you don’t know is they’re all wrong. I was born for the better life too. I was given to a kind family, who sent me to good schools and who taught me right from wrong and who loved me well. But you see…” James pushes Francis flat onto the deck, kneeling above him. “I was born different. Born wild. Couldn’t shake it no matter how hard I tried. So one day I stopped trying.”
Francis reaches up, presses his hand against James’s beating heart, then curls it around James’s neck and pulls him down, chest to chest.
“I got this business,” James murmurs, give a quick, biting kiss to Francis’s lips, “because I’m the one who has the devil in me.”
Francis can’t tell him no because it’s true. Francis can’t tell him no because he has the devil in him, too. But when James shakes in arms and comes on his cock Francis tells him “good boy, good boy.”
James’s smile is a knife and it is the sweetest thing for Francis to accept it into his chest. He guides it between his ribs and into his heart and he sings as he bleeds.
They find the rat because Francis is good at his job. And now, James is good at his, too.
There is a bullet between Cornelius Hickey’s swollen black eyes and Francis’s knuckles are split and bloody. He doesn’t use the engraved brass knuckles James gave him alongside the ring he wears on a chain around his neck. They’re too beautiful, too precious. They don’t the deserve the blood of scum like this.
“Oh, my darling,” James says and lays a kiss to Francis’s bruised and torn skin. He has blood on his lips when he pulls away. “I want the whole world for us.”
Francis leans in and kisses the blood away. He thinks of how they dance alone in their room, him in socked feet and James in trousers or a dress. He thinks of the club they’ll open one day where they can dance out in the open. He thinks of James’s smile in the moonlight and in the sunlight and James’s hair between his fingers and James’s teeth on his skin and he thinks of James, James, James like whiskey in his veins.
Francis knows of no reason why James should not get everything he wants. And he tells him so.