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These Small Hours

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“It’ll be Jopson, then,” James says.

“Yes. Thought we could make a bit of a to-do of it. For the officers’ morale, you understand.” Francis leans towards James and braces his clasped hands on his knee.  “Do I have your support in this?”

Without hesitation, James replies, “Wholeheartedly.”

Outside of the tent, the camp is mostly silent. The men sleep like the dead, and would not, in any case, dare to eavesdrop on their captain’s private conversations with his second. Nevertheless, James pitches his voice a bit lower as he carries on, this time mirthfully. “How will you do without him? Shall we now look forward to the sight of you at command meetings still dressed for sleep?”

Francis sits back, a rueful grin sliding into place. “Haven’t held a razor in a few years,” he muses, rubbing a hand along his jaw. “But I suppose I’ll manage.”

“You’d better let me,” James says. “Wouldn’t want you appearing in front of the men with blood on your collar. Sends all the wrong kinds of messages.”

Shaking his head, Francis opens his mouth to protest. Then he closes it again. Seated close to him, James is wearing an old shirt torn up and wound about his neck. It is the most absurd scarf Francis has ever laid eyes on, but he supposes that is why he has only ever seen James wear it in his own company, and never in front of the men.

Sober, Francis is fairly certain he can handle shaving himself—has done it with both shaking and steady hands countless times his life over—but now, he contemplates the sight of James’s long fingers replacing Jopson’s as they wrap around the bone handle of his razor; James’s steady arms and wrists applying its blade to his skin.

“If you wouldn’t mind,” Francis says.

“Not at all.”

 

Night, or as much as can be deemed night in the sunny constancy of an Arctic summer, has scarcely run its course when James wanders back into his tent. Tiredness is an old friend to them both. Their smiles of greeting are laced with it as Francis fetches out his shaving kit from where Jopson has it stowed.

“Where will you have me?” Francis asks, placing it into James’s hands. The man makes a quiet noise of consideration.

“The table, if it’s steady enough.”

It sways, slightly, as Francis lowers his weight onto it, but does not collapse. James fusses over setting the kit out and then comes to stand easily between Francis’s splayed knees. They regard one another at more or less eye level. “Shall we?”

Francis nods.

It is clear that James has never done this for another man. It’s like trying to tie someone else’s cravat: a familiar task, done backwards. Francis finds his lips twitching errantly as James, with brow furrowed, flips the razor this way and that; and before long is grinning outright despite the proximity of the knife to his mouth. 

“Stop that. I can’t work when you do that.”

“When I do what?” Francis asks, tone mild. “I’m only sitting here.”

“Don’t talk, either,” James says.

For the time being, Francis banishes his smile to his eyes and bites his tongue.

It doesn’t take James much longer to summon his naval competency and master the gist of it. With limited water and without proper lather, the entire operation must be undertaken at pains, lest spots be missed or skin burned. Francis does not begrudge the officers who have chosen beards.

James picks up a kind of regularity—his movements are too halting to be termed a rhythm—and the only sound that passes between them becomes that of the razor as it snicks in short strokes across Francis’s skin. Around them, the camp begins to wake. Francis has not slept, insomnia having replaced drink as his bosom companion some months ago. There is a similar darkness beneath James’s eyes and a pallor in his cheeks. Though he would never voice the question, Francis wonders which devil put them there: tiredness, or sickness? Or perhaps both? Yet for all their physical ails, they still both breathe the same cold air—James’s breaths shorter and more labored than his own—and the preternatural stillness of the lifeless island, for once, is balm rather than uneasiness.

Into this calm comes the sudden clang of a clumsy man kicking over a brazier somewhere in the camp. Francis can’t quell his automatic jerk in that direction, and James reaches out to catch him by his knee, stilling him. “Francis,” he growls. He swings the razor in his hand pointedly out and away from Francis’s cheek.

“Apologies,” Francis murmurs. “Captain’s instinct.”

With a hand still at his knee, James steps slightly closer, as though removing any space into which Francis might twitch would be enough to arrest further movement.  If either of them were to inhale too deeply, their heavy knitted sweaters would brush; and James is now close enough that his breath—slightly warmer than the ambient air—ghosts fitfully along the sensitive places where his skin is fresh-shaven.

It is very quickly an active exercise for Francis to keep still. His hands clench and unclench into fists on his thighs. Is it exhaustion—or perhaps lead poisoning at last—that makes the fingers of his right hand long to unfurl towards James’s wrist, still set atop his knee? And surely the only thing spurring the need to tuck himself closer into the warm presence before him, right there before him, is this freezing Arctic morning.

Francis starts a game with himself: each stroke of the razor gets a count, each wipe of the blade on the rag a blink, and each clench of his fist starts the process over. By this metronome he comes to stillness. He stops inhaling as though he were rationing the air and starts to contemplate breaking his vow of silence to say something unwarranted and teasing about James’s technique.

When James lifts the hand from his knee to place three fingers under his chin, tilting his head to a new angle, all his half-formed words fly from his mind. Francis’s eyes flutter helplessly shut. Almost immediately, he forces them open again; driven wide by something that is not so much a fear as a question: a question he cannot be absolutely sure James will answer in the affirmative. If, that is, he has even noticed that such a small touch has unmoored Francis like a debutante at her first ball.

Not bothering to take the blade away from contact with Francis’s jaw, James stills in his work. His eyes wander slowly upwards. Francis wonders if the question on his face is as naked as he feels it is. At last, James murmurs, impossibly quietly, “Relax, Francis.”

All the pent-up breath leaves his lungs. His exhale ruffles a few strands of James’s hair. Gradually, Francis forces himself to unclench his fists, and, by degrees, he lets his eyes fall closed. Only once they are completely shut does the razor move again. Without sight, sensations that could only have lasted a minute feel like a small hour—and if Francis is not mistaken, these strokes are even slower; even smaller.

James shifts to Francis’s neck by sliding his fingers over his Adam's apple and dipping down into his collar. They spread, moving the fabric out of the way with oddly exploratory movements. Francis stays still. He remains unmoving when James uses an index finger, calloused and scratchy from the weather, to nudge his chin up for better access.  It is only when James splays his palm flat against the back of his neck, holding him firmly as he angles to begin on stroking the razor up his neck, that Francis is unable to push down a guttural noise in the back of his throat, nor refrain from gently pressing back into his palm.

A faint smirk greets him when Francis cracks his eyes open. Just like that, he’s in danger himself of another grin. He tamps it down viciously. Instead, he closes his eyes again and dares to shift his knees so that the fabric of their trousers barely whispers against one another. This makes it so that, when James leans to the side to wipe the blade, their thighs make full and warm contact.

Francis strains to pick up any noise—any tell—from James. There are no choked off sounds or stuttered breaths. Instead, one of the fingers at the back of his neck has begun to move in small, imperceptible circles against the skin. He would not have felt the movement if he were not concentrating so desperately on it. Francis sighs.

There, with heat between his thighs and warmth taunting inches from his chest, is how they stay, until it gradually becomes clear that James has taken the stubble from every plausible inch of his face. James sets the razor down with a clink and the hand leaves the back of his neck. Cold air rushes to meet his skin, and then, as suddenly as they had left, four fingertips return to rest gently against Francis’s cheekbones, travelling in light twin trails down his throat and back up again, checking for missed spots in a prolonged act of agony under which James cannot fail to miss the spasmodic movement of Francis’s throat as he swallows.

As long as possible, Francis keeps his eyes closed. As long as he can stand it. As long as he thinks James will not ask. He feels a warm breath near his ear, and his heart constricts with a wild and unfounded wanting.

“Finished, now,” James says, and then the breath is gone.

Francis at last has to open his eyes. Not trusting his voice, he clears his throat, reaching around himself for the mirror. James has not yet shifted from his place.

A perfectly clean-shaven reflection greets him. He runs his fingers against the grain of his jawbone. “You’ve done a fine job,” he declares.

“Did you expect any less?”

“Not from you,” says Francis. 

James’s mouth twists: a frown and a smile and something else all at once. Their gaze holds, and neither move. Francis ought to get down from the table and sweep up his things in a clear gesture of dismissal. There is no longer any reason that they should be standing this close, or in this manner; no reason that James’s fingers should be twitching at his side, or that the very thought of sending him away brings a disappointment as strong as any felt thus far on the expedition into Francis’s lungs, constricting them utterly.

With eyes wide open, James raises a shaky hand to firmly press the pad of his thumb into the cleft of Francis’s chin. 

The rest of the world drains away. Men walking by outside no longer cast footfalls. Sunshine is something that happens to other people. Shoals are silent, and the only thing Francis hears is the blood rushing in his own ears.

Lips slightly parted, James’s eyes rake over his face, with breath gone as uneven as if he’d just sprinted fifty yards.  And if his thumb were to exert any pressure, any at all; Francis would willingly let his mouth fall open, and then—and then. As it is, some internal indecision seems to confine James to a staccato series of glances from his lips, to his eyes, and back.  There is nothing for Francis to do, no clear impulse he can summon but to issue the invitation himself by leaning forward with a hand outstretched to catch in his shirt.

Light floods the tent as the flap is drawn aside. Jopson enters, taking two steps before half-stumbling, half-halting in his tracks at the tableau before him.

James steps hastily out of the bracket of Francis’s thighs, rubbing the back of his neck with eyes cast down. Francis draws his legs together and sits up straight, clearing his throat. “Yes, Jopson?” he asks. 

“Pardon, sir.” Jopson’s eyes wander to James. “Sirs. But I was wondering if you would be needing anything this morning.”

“No, Jopson,” Francis says tiredly. “You may go. No—wait. Round up the officers for a meeting, would you?” He darts a glance at James. “Ten minutes.”

“Yes, sir.” Jopson turns smartly on his heel and ducks out.

An ugly silence reigns in the tent now that its occupancy is newly returned to two.

“I’ll, uh—meet you there, then, Francis,” James says. Haltingly, he puts a hand on his shoulder, letting it slide down his arm as he moves past. Francis watches him go, gazing fixedly at the tent flap once it has fallen back into place, hoping to see it stir under movement of something other than a breeze. It doesn’t.

Francis steps down from the table and sits heavily on the stool, contemplating the shaving kit still spread out before him. He moves aside the implements with his elbows and then rests his head in his hands, eyes closed tight, imagining, for a brief instant, what heaven or hell it would have been had they had another moment to themselves.

It would have been a heaven, he is sure.