Before they had even stepped over the threshold and onto the spotlessly scrubbed clean tiling of the entrance hall, the energetic little ball of billowing skirts and colourful bows crashed into him in an embrace with so much force she nearly knocked him over.
“Oh—Alice! Be careful with your uncle!” came his dear brother’s voice, trailing behind in an easy pace and a big grin spread across his face.
“My dear Alice!” James exclaimed, laying a hand on her intricately braided hair. “My, how you’ve grown!”
She looked up at him with sparkling eyes and a big smile from where she’d wrapped her arms tightly around his legs, just above the knee.
“What a lovely surprise,” he said, looking up with a quirked eyebrow, more towards Will than to her.
When Will reached them he brushed a loose strand of hair from Alice’s face back behind her ear. “Why don’t you see if you can find Elizabeth for me, darling?”
“But—Uncle Will!” she moped.
“You’ll have plenty of time with uncle James later, sweetheart.”
James watched as her grip around his legs fell away and she stormed off again just as fast as she’d appeared to find Will’s wife, muttering a soft Oh, alright, and putting on a sad face.
Urged on by James’ inquiring eyebrow that kept rising higher, Will provided, “once Edward got wind of your plans for a visit he suggested she stay here for a time while they’re away on a trip. We all know how she adores you—and you, her.”
James grinned. “You all fraternise far too much.”
“Maybe so,” Will chuckled. The clap of his hand on his shoulder nearly sent James reeling. “My dear brother… How have you been? I hope the journey here was not too tiring.”
Feeling the exhaustion hit him like a wave against the hull of his ship, he smiled weakly as he freed his hands from his gloves. The warmth inside compared to the cold wind that swept over the land did nothing to lessen the fatigue that came over him. He sighed. “I do feel quite worn out, now that you mention it, even though we’ve not done much more than sit, for the most part.”
Even so, his legs felt like they were made of whale blubber, having trouble to keep him upright even with the cane for support. The hobbling of their carriage as they rode over the cobblestone streets towards the Coninghams’ residence had not done the aches in his knee any favours either. He was just glad to finally have arrived, and grateful for the steady ground of the tiles under his feet.
The heels of another’s boots clacked on the polished tiling behind them.
“Ah—Will, may I introduce to you,” James said with an affectionate smile as he turned to look, “Captain Francis Crozier, my First and… the person who knows me best.”
Francis glanced at him with a tight smile playing with his lips, standing a little awkwardly in the doorway with his hands folded neatly in the small of his back with his shoulders pulled straight—standing at attention, as James knew he was always won’t to do when in a new environment.
“I’m sure I have already told you both enough about each other so that we might skip the introductions,” James added.
Will removed his hand from James’ shoulder and held it out for Francis to take, clasping it with both hands as he told him, with a thick voice, “golly… Thank you, sir—for bringing our James back home. We’d never thought we be so lucky as to see him again, let alone in this good of a state.”
“I—merely did what was required of me,” Francis replied with a wavering chuckle. The tightness in his shoulders seemed to lessen a bit, though.
“Will,” James said, smirking, noting the brightness of his brother’s eyes. “Are you—crying?”
“I do no such thing!” Will exclaimed with a scoff that told James he was as he whirled around again. “Come, let’s get you to your rooms so you might freshen up a little before the children storm in to demand your absolute attention and nothing less.”
Right at that moment Alice stormed in with Will’s wife in tow, yelling, “I found her, uncle Will! I found her! Can I play with uncle James now?”
“You little monster!” hollered Will, swooping little Alice up in his arms. “In a bit, darling. Uncle James and Mr. Crozier have had a long trip, so let’s give them a little time to rest their feet, hm?”
“Oh—!” She pouted and crossed her arms, letting Will take her away again as Elizabeth gave them a fond look.
“Distracted by anything and everything, that one,” she sighed good-naturedly as she embraced James and let Francis take her hand in greeting. “The house is big, but we’re certainly not of the highest society circles. I hope you don’t mind, what with Alice staying over and the children recently having separate bedrooms, we’ve only got the one room left as Will mentioned in his letters, but the bed is plenty big enough—though, I suppose you’ll be used to being in such close proximity of each other,” she said as she preceded them on the stairs.
The hall was really quite beautiful, with intricate details covering the walls and relatively high ceiling, the colour of the wallpapers complimenting the dark wood of the bannister and stairway that led up to the landing from which each that occupied the house could reach their bedchambers. Various paintings decorated spots among the walls, including one of James—commissioned not long before he’d set out for the Passage—which Francis would later joke of to him.
Much to James’ relief and appreciation, Francis had dutifully taken James’ arm in his as they slowly made their way up. “Oh—” he threw Francis a meaningful look behind her back as he spoke— “most certainly. No need to fret over our accommodations, we’ll make do just fine.”
Their room was indeed spacious, and the bed more than certainly gave them enough room for the both of them to spread out after their long travels. Their luggage already awaited them at the foot-end of the bed, carried upstairs by one of the few servants while they had been talking downstairs.
“We’re so glad to see you again, James dear, and to have you both visit,” Elizabeth said with a smile from her position in the doorway as he and Francis appreciated the room. With a cautious look, she added, “do be gentle on Will, I beg of you. He still hasn’t quite gotten round to having his brother back after we thought you lost for so long.”
Smiling softly, James nodded. “I will. Thank you, Liz.”
“And make yourselves at home, yes?” she said before she left, directed at both of them but especially to Francis, as she gave him a reassuring, welcome smile when she said it.
It was blessedly warm, now—not stiflingly hot or humid, nor was the air too cold or was there a chill breeze to be found. He felt engulfed by it, pleasantly warmed by a blanket thrown around his shoulders or a lover’s embrace, floating on the soft, easy feeling it brought with it.
He was vaguely aware Francis was around, the familiar feeling of it a comforting presence.
“Mmn?” he murmured, hardly registering Francis’ voice. “Oh—”
Slowly blinking his eyes open, his surroundings began to swim into view in splotches and blots of colours and shapes, like seen through a thick, milk-coloured glass. Bit by bit, the fog lifted and the delicate swirls and shapes of the ceiling of their chambers made sense again. He wasn’t wrapped up in a lover’s embrace or a blanket thrown about his shoulders, but with the door and the windows closed the balmy warmth of the air and their privacy had soothed him right off to sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
“I hope I haven’t dozed the whole afternoon away,” he said as he sat up and slung his legs over the edge of the bed with stiff joints. “I had merely meant to rest my eyes for a bit.”
Francis stood with his shoulder leaning against one of the bedposts, a soft expression playing with his features. “It’s not been long. Though, Alice has been asking after you—I told her you were taking your beauty-sleep.”
“Oh, she won’t have been happy with that, then,” James chuckled. Perked on the side of the bed, he pressed the back of his hand to the eye that still gave him trouble. When Francis pushed himself off the bedpost and held out a hand, he took it with their usual ease and reached for the cane he’d left by the nightstand. He felt his knee creak with the movement as he got up. “I must look a fright.”
“Not a hair out of place,” murmured Francis, bringing James’ hand to his lips to kiss it.
They had not nearly entered the drawing room where Alice lay on her back on the large rug in front of the hearth, idly biding her time as she counted the dots and swirls on the ceiling time and time again, before she jumped up with a smile and rushed towards them, taking their hands and tugging them towards the love seat.
“Tell me a story, uncle James! Please?” she blurted out, scrambling up into the small space of cushioned seating between them and onto James’ lap.
“Careful with the knee, now, darling. Here—” he pulled a giggling Alice up and over to his other knee— “sit on this one.”
With Alice’s bubbly laughter and shouts ringing out through the room, soon also came the other two mischievous little characters running in, shouting, “uncle James! Uncle James! Daddy, uncle James is here!” back towards their father as he came trailing in behind them, panting and with a sheen of sweat glistening on his forehead.
“There you are! We thought you’d never wake again,” laughed Will as his daughter and son dropped onto the rug in front of James’ and Francis’ feet.
“My, my! Hello Elizabeth, hello William,” James laughed fondly as he ruffled their hair. Seeing Will’s partly dishevelled state, he laughed even harder. “What have you done to you dear father, then?”
“We were the knights and daddy was a dragon chasing us!” exclaimed little Elizabeth, who was the spitting image of her mother, whom she also borrowed her name from.
“Yes, yes! And we got his gold!” added William, who was the youngest of the two but no less fiery than his big sister.
“Oh, I see,” James replied with great interest. He loved seeing the children—they had just as much an adventurous spirit as Will and he when they were little. “Say, have I ever introduced you to my dear friend Mr. Crozier? He went with me when I was away to the Arctic.”
He watched as their eyes went big and their jaws went slack, turning to look at Francis with a great gasp. “Really?” they chimed in harmoniously.
Francis shifted a bit in his seat, a bashful grin playing with his lips as he lightly tugged at his waistcoat to set it to rights. “Well, yes. I was a Captain, just like James.”
“Mr. Crozier already told me about it!” Alice enlightened the other children with something of a proud smile. “It’s so exciting!”
James chuckled softly when Francis threw him a nervous look as the children all grew wiggly and excited to hear some stories from Francis as well as opposed to only hearing James’. No matter how often Francis told him he wasn’t any good with children, James loved seeing him with them—often hanging on his every word despite his protests that he wasn’t the sort for telling tales.
“Oh, please! Do tell us!”
“Well, I—Err,” Francis stuttered. “I’ve not a clue what your uncle has already told you.”
“Tell us about the storms!” begged Alice.
“Yes! How big were the waves?” William chimed in.
“Oh, do tell, Francis,” James joined in with a chuckle, receiving an amused glare from Francis.
“I do have a tale of a storm,” Francis conceded after a few seconds. “Though it is not of our journey together.”
He settled down to tell the story of his travels to the other Pole to the sound of the children clapping and chatting excitedly.
After Francis had finished taking them on an intriguing retelling of his adventures with James Ross, they’d all settled down for dinner as the time had flown by, the children miraculously having stayed quiet for the better part of the time. Although James couldn’t help but admit he himself had been quite entranced while Francis spoke even though he had heard some of it before, not to mention his brother and Elizabeth.
Dinner was… enormous. He and Francis hadn’t nearly had as much as Will or his wife, all the while cursing the lasting aftereffects from their journey to the still undiscovered Passage even now as they had to pass on a wide array of wonderful and tasty-looking foods. It had been lovely nonetheless, and they made sure to thank James’ brother and his wife abundantly, and asked them to give their compliments to their staff.
“Won’t you join us for a stroll?” Elizabeth asked from the end of the table, folding her napkin neatly before laying it aside on the polished surface. “Though it is a little cold, the park looks quite nice this time of year—the trees haven’t nearly lost any leaves yet, and we might even be able to catch some of those roasted nuts from that little stand, if we are to leave on time.”
James looked up from his plate just in time to see Francis throw him a concerned look from across the table. He dabbed the edges of his mouth with his napkin and laid it down.
Clearing his throat, he said, “that does sound lovely, thank you, Liz, though I feel I might join you another time.” He gave her a grateful, but tired smile. “I fear my legs may not hold me for much longer, today. I hope you won’t mind if I make my excuses for the night?”
Elizabeth smiled sympathetically in return. “Of course, not at all. We’ll simply go tomorrow or another day, when you feel like it. We’ve time enough.”
James nodded and pushed his chair backwards, his cane in hand when he got up and wished everyone a nice evening. Walking around the table, he let his hand trail over Francis’ shoulder with a soft smile.
Francis’ lips twitched up into a brief smile. “I’ll come up in a moment,” he said.
With a squeeze to Francis’ shoulder, James made his way into the hallway but not directly towards the stairway. Instead, he turned right a corner earlier, into a relatively large room with bookshelves and a various array of colourful books of all sizes and shapes lining most of the walls. He might take one up to read if anything took his fancy, just until Francis would come up and they could get ready for bed.
It felt odd, to leave him downstairs while he himself went up to bed. They’d gotten so accustomed to one another, being near each other more often than not; alike in mind and soul, sensing exactly what the other needed—almost like they’d merged into one being.
A bright blue cover entered his line of sight, capturing his interest and pulling him from his thoughts. He reached out and pulled it from the shelf—a novel. Oh hell, why not? He took it upstairs and settled down on the bed, shoes off and legs crossed at the ankles, feeling his bones creak as the mattress dipped. The weight of the book on his lap was a comfortable, familiar feeling. He hadn’t read much after they’d returned home—all they had at home was what they’d left behind when they departed. He didn’t think he could stomach it for too long or too often; the man that had boarded the ship in early 1845 had not returned, and so had his adventurous, curious spirit been left behind.
He ran a hand over the cover and opened it to the first page. Maybe it was time to discover something new again.
His eyes were just starting to droop when there was a knock on the door that startled him.
“Yes?” he called, looking up to see the door opening a crack. Francis’ head appeared briefly through the opening before he walked in, closing the door behind him.
“Oh, I had thought it might be you,” James smiled softly.
Francis smiled back with a loving look on his face. “How are you feeling? Tired, still?” he asked as he sat down on the edge of the bed, next to James. He laid his hand over James’, rubbing slow circles over the back of his hand with his thumb.
The movement felt more soothing than James thought it should, though he didn’t complain.
After closing the book, he ran his free hand through his eyes and yawned. “Yes, I am rather tired still. I don’t know what has come over me, I’ve not felt so exhausted in quite some time.”
“Well, we did travel a long while, not to mention at what time.”
“I suppose so.” James sighed and looked up at Francis again. He turned his hand over under Francis’ and lifted it to his lips, pressing a kiss to Francis’ knuckles. “You’re alright with going to bed so early?”
“Oh, yes,” Francis said with a huff of a laugh, and stretched his back. A few pops of his spine rang out throughout the room. “I’m more than properly worn-out myself.”
Grinning, James said, “oh, alright.”
Francis gave his hand a squeeze before getting back up on his feet, and with a smile, held out both hands for James to take. “Go on, let’s get you up and ready.”
“How kind of you, good sir,” James jibed as he laid the book aside on the covers, took Francis’ offered hands and pulled himself upright. Francis hummed in response when he pressed a kiss to his cheek.
With stiff but practiced fingers, Francis divested James of his frockcoat and undid the buttons of his waistcoat, with James’ hands warm and steady on his hips. There were no words needed as he pulled the shirt up over his head and folded it neatly to put away, and replaced it with a nightshirt. Nor when James returned the favour and undressed him with nimble fingers, leaving a trail of soft kisses on each patch of skin newly revealed. All that was needed was their closeness, in that moment.
Dropping a kiss to James’ forehead after they were all done, he let James light the candle on his nightstand while he himself went to put away their worn clothes and the book James had picked. He looked at the cover for a moment and smiled before going to draw the curtains, and join James to get into bed.
“You don’t mind, do you?” James asked him softly after a long beat of silence when they’d gotten under the covers. He was laying on his side, looking up at Francis who had been staring at the ceiling up until now.
Francis turned his head and looked back at him in the dim candlelight that illuminated his face but kept James’ in the shadows. “Mind what, James?” His voice was rough when he spoke in such low tones, like a soft fabric catching on a calloused hand.
James felt it settle in his bones with comforting familiarity.
“Coming here,” he elaborated. “You must feel terribly ill at ease, here.”
“No—” Francis turned over on his side to face James as he spoke, the covers shifting as he did so— “no, I don’t mind. Seeing you with Alice and your brother’s children very much pulls at my heartstrings—seeing you so happy. I would go anywhere if it meant being witness to that.”
James kept his gaze trained on Francis’ eyes, searching the gentle blue of his irises for any sign of unease, but found only honesty sparkling there—the honesty and openness he had so come to admire in him. “I cannot help but think I’ve taken you along only to ignore you,” he confessed.
Shaking his head, Francis lifted his hand and brought it to James’ face, and brushed an errant strand of greying hair from his face. His hand remained on his cheek for his thumb to brush over the skin. James turned his head just slightly to press a kiss to his palm.
“My happiness and love for you does not end with a day’s worth of children taking up your attention—nor a week’s, or a month’s.” As if to prove his point, Francis leaned in and pressed a kiss to James’ forehead, then one to each eyelid, then another to his lips. “You were in need of some time away to find an extra spark of joy and the sort of peace that London simply cannot provide, and frankly, so was I. Do not fret, James. I am perfectly content to spend my time here among these lovely people.”
The smile Francis gave him was such an earnest, loving thing, James could not help but let a smile of his own wash over him, together with a sense of relief. Francis had always been good at reassuring him, whether it were a simpler thing like this or in greater times of despair—Francis was always there. When he was lost and couldn’t remember the way back by memory alone, Francis was the map he could pull out and take a look at, and let him guide him back home—to him.
As James pressed close and tucked his head under Francis’ chin, Francis told him, “rest, James,” and wrapped a strong arm around him. Finally, James felt the stiffness in his muscles diminish and relaxed in the warmth of Francis’ arms.
He woke up with his face pressed to Francis’ neck, tucked comfortably against his side with an arm wrapped around him, and the muted sounds of the household coming alive around them. They would no doubt soon have to disentangle themselves and make their way downstairs for a finely arranged breakfast, but right now, they could enjoy the peace and domesticity of the moment for a while longer. It was nice, waking up like this: slow and easy, warm and comfortable—a quiet moment to be cherished.
With the curtains drawn, it was still dark in the room apart from a sliver of weak morning light shining through a crack, softly illuminating the foot-end of their bed. James could just about make out the contours of Francis’ face—he was awake as well. The birds were tweeting outside as he pressed closer, sneaking an arm around Francis’ waist and nosing a kiss to the hinge of his jaw.
“H’llo, you,” James murmured.
Francis acknowledged the little kiss and soft-spoken words with a, Mmn, and a sigh, and wrapped his other arm around James, pulling him flush against the softness of his stomach. Their legs tangled together almost of their own, without need of conscious thought. James sighed—this was heavenly.
He started nosing slow, lazy kisses to the hinge of Francis’ jaw, expanding his course to the side of his neck and the softness below his chin.
“How have you slept?” he murmured softly against his neck, his nose brushing over the skin.
The light squeeze of Francis holding him a tad tighter didn’t go unnoticed, as he pressed closer to James’ side.
“Francis?” James probed gingerly. He rubbed his hand over his side just lightly, like he knew did him good. His voice was tinged just a little with panic, fearing Francis had changed his mind after all—perhaps they shouldn’t have come; Francis needed stability more than anything else. “What is the matter?”
Seemingly hearing the concern in James’ voice, Francis gave him a reassuring squeeze.
“Nothing so dire, James,” he rumbled in a low, thick-with-sleep tone. The Irish brogue laid heavy on his tongue in the mornings. “I am an old and tired man—I would merely like to hold you a while longer.”
“Oh, my dear.” Pressing a kiss to Francis’ temple, James felt the tightness in his chest ease, making room for a different concern—a familiar worry that hovered on the surface; always present, but never quite so alarming. He moved his hand lower to rub gently over his hip, warming the skin below the fabric. “Is it your joints again?”
For a moment, the only sounds in the room were their breathing, joined in rhythm by their chests pressed together. After a pause, Francis made a soft noise of acknowledgement.
“Yes… yes, that as well,” he admitted. “It makes me feel quite old, if I were to be honest.”
“Nonsense, Francis. It merely makes you weathered—but no, not old.”
Francis looked up at him with bright blue eyes that always shone just a little too fiercely nowadays, the corners of his lips downturned with an old familiarity. “I feel it, though—in my bones. It is not merely the ice, now, that hinders me.”
His gaze pierced through James like the bow of Terror had broken through ice. Bringing a hand up to cup Francis’ cheek, James brushed his thumb over the ruddy skin, and brought their lips together in a chaste kiss.
“No matter if it is the ice or our age—and perhaps we are nearing a certain age,” James says softly, a gentle, loving smile on his lips, “but that does not diminish anything about us, and certainly not of you. I would not love you any less, and neither would the others.”
Watching as Francis considered this for a moment with inquisitive eyes and nodded, James knew his sentiments had been felt. Their remaining crew thought the world of Francis, especially those closest to them; Jopson, Edward, Thomas Blanky, Dundy—whenever they laid their eyes upon Francis, whether seen or unseen by the man himself, there was always a hint of their gratefulness and respect for him.
“It will be a little while before we are called down for breakfast, still,” James stated. “If you feel it might do you some good, I can see if I can’t rub some warmth into these old bones of yours—” he jibed with a soft poke to Francis’ side— “and perhaps you could lay in for a while longer, let me bring up some breakfast after we’re all done downstairs.”
“There is every need, Francis,” James interrupted gently with a hand to Francis’ chest. “No one will mind. They know why we are here, and they understand.”
Francis smiles softly. “Oh James… Jamie...”
The love that shone so plainly in Francis’ eyes was nearly enough for James to feel like he was on the verge of overflowing, yet he couldn’t get enough of it. Just a bit more—one more drop won’t hurt.
“Hush, hm? Relax, loosen your muscles—it will help.”
With a tired, but no less loving smile, Francis gave himself over to James’ hands completely.
Closing the door behind him with a soft thud, James tugged on his waistcoat to straighten it and ran his hand lightly over the wine-red cravat Francis had neatly tied around his neck and collar. He smiled softly at the domesticity of it and the gentle smile that had tugged at Francis’ lips.
There was a sweet smell hanging in the air that led him towards the top of the stairs, the tiles of the hallway below neatly polished and gleaming in the light that shone through the windows. His cane clicked softly on the wooden steps, and then louder on the black and white tiling as he followed the scents towards the dining room, the sound hardly echoing through the hallway—for which he was grateful. As much as he’d gotten used to needing it to get around—it was almost like a fifth limb, at this point—he’d never grown particularly fond of the looks it earned him, the attention it drew; the way it alerted others to his presence before he’d even entered the room.
“Ah, hello! James, my old boy!” Will greeted him when he peeked his head around the corner of the doorway, in search of the dining room. He’d gotten the right one, apparently.
“Will, my good man,” James greeted in return.
His brother was seated at the head of the table, the other end of it still vacant—reserved for Will’s wife, of course. James walked around the back of Will’s chair and clapped him heartily on the shoulder before taking his seat at the side corner of the long, mahogany table, next to Will.
Will looked back towards the doorway, and then back at James. He raised an inquiring eyebrow. “Is Francis not joining us?”
“Oh, no.” James felt his cheeks flush at the mention of him, though why, he couldn’t say. He felt almost like a schoolboy caught in the act of necking another boy. “He’ll—He’ll stay in a bit longer, if you don’t mind.”
Hearing this, Will sat up straighter in his chair. “My—Is he alright?”
“Oh—Nothing quite so distressing, I assure you. Merely the…” Here, James paused, weighing the words on his tongue to see which was right, which fit best. How did one describe that which plagued them most in gruesome ways, but in a way so as not to disturb the innocent souls who were not affected by them, and could not know how much it pained them—he did not wish it upon them to know, either.
“…the backwash of certain things we have had the privilege of carrying with us, since returning to England’s shores,” he concluded with a smile tinged with sadness he tried his best to conceal, glancing down at his hands before he caught himself, and looked back up.
“Oh, of course—” Will nodded, looking grave but sympathetic— “I understand.”
James doubted he did, but what else was there to say when confronted with such a thing one had no understanding of? Funny—James reckoned he did understand that.
He nodded. “I said I would take something up for him, later. I hope that’s alright with you.”
“Of course! Of course. We can’t have our guests grow hungry, now, can’t we?” Will smiled.
Reaching out, James took his brother’s hand and gave it a light squeeze. “Thank you,” he whispered.
Laying his other hand on top of James’, Will smiled reassuringly. “You care an awful lot about him,” he said softly.
“I do.” James’ eyes shone with a sparkle as he said it. “Very much so. I owe him my life—more than that, even.”
Nodding, Will’s eyes almost seemed to overflow. “That, you do, brother. That you do… As do we all.”
A mere moment later, a small flock of children flooded into the room with Elizabeth in tow, ushering them to their seats along the table before taking her own place at the end. An array of happy greetings from the kids was heard next, returned by James and Will, and followed by Elizabeth’s.
“Francis won’t be joining us for breakfast today,” she declared to her husband.
“Yes, James just told me—hold on,” Will said, narrowing his eyes at her without any malice. “How do you know?”
Elizabeth shrugged, a light smile playing with her lips. “I merely had a feeling. I went to check on your room—” she nodded towards James as she said it, but meant the both of them— “and my feeling was proven to be correct. Francis told me he was staying in for a bit longer.”
James couldn’t help but splutter out a laugh. “How did he look? Shocked and red as a tomato?”
“I believe I did startle him a bit, yes,” Elizabeth chuckled in return. “For which I apologise—but in my defence, you really should have told him how I am.”
“Oh, believe me when I tell you I have told him. It’s just how he is,” James said lovingly. After a few seconds, he added, with a smile, “he’s easy to fluster.”
“Who is?” asked little Elizabeth, who hadn’t been following the conversation at all, apart from the last bit.
“Captain Crozier, love,” James told her conspiratorially. He gave her a wink to go with it. “But don’t tell him I said that.”
She giggled excitedly at that and sealed her lips with a finger, swallowing an invisible key for good measure.
“That goes for all of you, now that I mention it,” James said with a grin and looked around the table, raising an eyebrow. Now all the children were giggling, including Will—his brother, that is, not the little one—who couldn’t help but hide his snickering behind a fist.
As everyone quieted down, a wide array of foodstuffs for breakfast was brought in and served, which, even with his appetite not entirely back to normal, James enjoyed tremendously, as well as all the others. The children making a right old mess in which James very much recognised Will and himself when they were just two small boys, trampling through mud with sticks between their legs that acted as well-bred horses, going on all sorts of adventures in the backyard.
And that was precisely what the children invited him to after having finished breakfast—only indoors instead of outdoors, seeing as it was dreadful weather, what with the cold and all—playing a lengthy game of hide and seek in which James, according to the children, won a suspicious amount of times, after which followed a voyage on a stormy sea in which all who were not seated on the rug in the drawing room would drown, and finally a short game of who could tickle who best.
“Uncle James always wins!” Alice laughed as she caught her breath from being tickled.
“Oh, hardly!” James exclaimed with a big grin. “You’re far better at tickling than I am!”
Crossing her arms, Alice frowned at him with an unbelieving but amused look on her face, until James threw his hands up in the air in surrender.
“What do we do next?” little William asked excitedly, his face still red from exertion.
“Well, I am going to see how our beloved captain Crozier is doing,” James said as he slowly pushed himself back up to his feet and found his cane leaning against the side of the settee. “But you kids have fun for me, yes?”
There was a loud, united Naaaww! from the children after he announced his departure for the moment, all of them sad to hear their partner-in-tickling-and-adventurous-crimes was leaving.
“I’ll hardly be gone the rest of the day,” he chuckled as he watched them all cross their arms in dismay. “Besides, we won’t be going back home until at least the end of the week—you’ll all have plenty of time to ask me or Captain Crozier for another story or playdate, I promise you that.”
With a kiss to each little head of hair and an apologetic smile, James made his exit and went to find either the kitchen or Will and his wife.
The plates, cutlery and glass rattled on the tray as James ascended the stairway, holding the tray firmly in one hand and pressed against his side so it wouldn’t tip, and gripping the bannister tightly with the other with his cane hooked over his arm. The tip of his tongue peeking out just slightly between his lips in concentration. Francis would murder him if he saw him climbing the stairs like this.
No—assist first, then murder him.
He wasn’t feeble, but he was grateful when he reached the top and set his feet on the levelled flooring of the landing, and able to use his trusty cane again. He’d hated it, in the beginning, but the truth was: it was a sturdy thing, and it kept him on his feet. And for that, he was grateful.
There was no answer when he knocked on the dark wooden door. Letting himself in, he closed the door behind him and lingered there for a moment, his eyes taking a little longer than most people’s to adjust to the darkness. It wasn’t until he softly called, Francis, that there was some movement in the bed in the front of him, and a soft grunt in response.
“Oh, James,” Francis’ scruffy voice sounded softly throughout their room.
James stepped closer and set the tray down on the nightstand at his side of the bed. “Were you sleeping?” The mattress dipped upon bearing his weight.
In the dimmed light, he saw Francis run a hand over his face and through his hair, which now glimmered silver in some places when the light hit it just right.
“I must have,” Francis answered. He heaved a heavy sigh and rubbed through his eyes. “What’s the hour?”
“Still morning, no need to fret.” Smiling softly, James laid a hand on Francis’ arm and squeezed lightly. “I’m sorry to have woken you, you could use the rest, no doubt. However, I did promise to bring some food up.”
“Oh—” the covers shifted as Francis sat up straighter, puffing the pillow up behind him and against the headboard— “you’re awfully kind to an old man, James. I hope your brother and Elizabeth weren’t bothered too much by my absence.”
“Nonsense, Francis—stop your worrying. And you are far from old.” A playful smirk danced across James’ lips. “Aging, perhaps, but not old.”
That earned him a scoff from Francis and a shove at his side.
“You’ve just told me how awfully kind I was!” James spluttered, laughing.
“I retract my statement,” Francis grumbled good-naturedly.
“Here, you old grump,” James chuckled, passing the tray onto Francis’ lap. “Your breakfast, your majesty.”
Francis chuckled. “Leave off, will you? You’ve teased me enough for the remainder of the day.”
“Alright, alright,” James hummed affectionately.
He looked on with a fond look on his face as Francis silently nibbled on the toast and sipped at the water he’d brought up. Francis ducked his head more than once to hide an earnest, shy smile whenever he caught James looking at him like that, his cheeks colouring a light pink discernible even in the dimmed lighting each time he did. James loved that look on him—he wanted to see it more often.
It was a good look, especially after seeing him so down this morning. Francis was always the tough and rough one, quite different compared to how shy and gentle he could be with James. It was hard, seeing him fall into moods on mornings like these when things didn’t all feel quite so shipshape, which made James cherish the moments when things turned around and he could spot a smile on Francis’ lips again.
With Francis seemingly feeling a bit better, James leaned back against his own pillow and sighed, content.
“I’ve half a mind to crawl back in bed a bit longer myself,” he mused.
Francis quirked a concerned eyebrow and swallowed around a mouthful of toast. “Is something the matter, then? Are you not feeling well?”
James laughed softly. “No, no—it’s not that. As much as I love those children, they can be quite the handful.”
“Oh,” Francis huffed, a small, relieved grin pulling at the corners of his lips.
“Though, I must confess, part of the reason is that you look terribly comfortable to curl up to, as well,” James added.
“Oh,” Francis whispered, this time.
There was a short pause as Francis seemed transfixed in staring at James as if he was mad for saying such a thing.
“You’ll ruin your clothes, and that cravat I so neatly tied for you—you’ll have to change,” he added in another, softer whisper—if that was at all possible.
“Oh, bugger my clothes. I want to spend more time with the man I love most.” James reached up to lay his palm to Francis’ ruddy cheek, smiling softly as he brushed the pad of his thumb over the skin. “After all, we came here for rest, did we not?”
“Shouldn’t you let William know, then?”
“I have a feeling he knows, like he always does. Apart from you, he is the person that knows me best.” James chuckled when he next said, “you both have the gift of telling precisely how tired I am with one look at me. Something I have prided myself in hiding for others, and especially the Admiralty and my crew, I’ll have you know—The both of you, ruining my reputation.”
“James,” Francis scolded, but not without a smile. “Go on, then, you horrible flatterer, but divest yourself of your waistcoat and braces at least before you climb in. I’ll never hear the end of it otherwise.”
“Now, now,” James tutted, getting up with creaking knees. He put the now empty tray aside on the bedside table again. “I’m not nearly as decrepit as you to gripe about my backaches.”
Francis looked on with a fond look as he started to shed his clothes, layer by layer.
“Oh, are you now?” Francis smirked. “If my memory serves me right, I seem to remember just that on multiple occasions.”
“Horrid man,” James snorted as he folded his cravat and put it on top of his frockcoat, waistcoat and braces, and slid in under the covers in his shirtsleeves, pressing up next to Francis. “I despise you entirely.”
Scooting back down onto the mattress, Francis wrapped a sturdy arm around him. “Mmn, I’m sure you do.”
James only snickered softly as he pressed closer still. “I also heard Elizabeth gave you quite the fright.”
“Oh, Christ,” Francis groaned, slapping a hand over his reddening face. “You’re all conspiring against me.”
Barking out a laugh, James nudged his shin with a foot and hugged him close, and didn’t let go.
“I love you, old man.”
“I love you too, you brute.”