“I met someone,” Francis said.
From across the Atlantic Ocean, Thomas replied, “Are you taking the piss?”
Grey snowflakes fell heavy and determined toward the airport tarmac. Francis turned from the window and muttered, “Would that I was.”
Thomas’s voice came through the mobile laced with static. “Well, out with her name.”
“His name,” he said, and truly, it was on the tip of his tongue. Nothing kept him from parceling out the entire pathetic tale in the middle of the international terminal at JFK save for the anticipated sting that comes of probing a fresh wound. “I’ll tell you when I see you,” Francis hedged.
"I don’t like that tone.”
“It’s my usual tone.”
“No, it isn’t.”
The snow was thickening. Francis gave a glance to the screen over the gate that listed his flight's boarding time.
“Ach, Francis. Can’t leave you alone five days without everything going to shit. Have you done something you shouldn’t have?”
Above his head, the status ticked from on time to delayed. A great groan rose up among the gathered travelers. Those standing hopefully around the gate now flowed out to find seats in a jerky, undulating rush.
“My flight’s been delayed,” he said to Thomas.
“I thought your flight wasn’t until tomorrow?”
“I moved it up.” He licked his lips. “We’ll talk when I’m back.”
After a brief pause, Thomas countered, “Seems like you have time, now.”
He pictured spending the next hour, or more, as he waited for his flight to board; nothing but his own thoughts and his fellow travelers’ misery to keep him company. He sighed. “Damn you, Thomas.”
“God already has that well enough in hand. It’s five in the morning here. You’ve woken a man up. May as well tell me what’s happened.”
Francis'd picked up the mobile, after all. Some part of him wanted this. He paced a little farther away from the other flyers.
“What was his name?” Thomas asked.
“James Fitzjames,” says the man. He extends a smooth hand. “We’ve met before.”
It’s a bit of a blur, even for Francis. He remembers whiskey. A bar at Heathrow. More whiskey. Snippets of bad conversation exchanged with a stranger who had resembled the man currently trying to shake his hand, which he takes. “Francis Crozier,” he mutters.
Fitzjames stands expectantly in the aisle of the train. A couple of passengers jam up behind him as they wait to take their seats. “B11,” he explains.
“Ah.” Francis hefts himself up so that Fitzjames can slide past into the seat beside his. The usual shuffling ensues as they settle. Francis goes to stow a coat which is no longer on his lap. “Sorry, would you—?” He points.
“Oh. Here.” Fitzjames hands it over and Francis grunts his thanks.
Despite the fact that the train isn't scheduled to depart the station for another fifteen minutes, Francis watches Fitzjames buckle his seatbelt. Only a minute or two of silence has a chance to elapse before, in his periphery, Francis becomes aware that Fitzjames is darting short glances in his direction. He keeps his eyes firmly fixed on the back of his seat,. Francis has neither the stamina for nor the interest in small talk, yet the man either can’t tell, or doesn’t care, because he draws in a telltale breath and remarks, “Long odds, eh?”
Francis gives him a thorough once-over. Long hair, morose mouth, good clothes. “What odds?”
“That we both ended up on the same train.”
“Oh.” Francis sighs. “Look. About the bar. I was—”
Fitzjames waves a blasé hand. Something about it rubs Francis the wrong way—maybe the carelessness of it, or the way it flashes what Francis presumes to be a moderately expensive watch. “Let bygones be bygones,” Fitzjames declares.
“—generous of you.”
A rakish smile. Easygoing. The smile of a man who hasn’t had to put up much of a fight to get his way in the world. Francis will be the exception to that rule, if he can, and hunkers down in his seat to dig out the book he’d brought. After that, anyone who’d ever used public transportation or happened to possess a modicum of common sense would shut their mouth and mind their own—
“Business or pleasure?”
He debates merely ignoring the man for the next five hours. The Adirondack Amtrak makes nineteen stops between New York City and Montreal, but, with his luck, Fitzjames’s will turn out to be the very last. Testily, Francis replies, “Neither.” He gives the polite follow-up from between his teeth. “And yourself?”
Turning awkwardly in his seat, all the better to face Francis, Fitzjames declares, “Pleasure. I’m on holiday. Planning to take up alpine snowboarding, as a matter of fact.” A beat. “Have you ever been?”
“No,” Francis grunts, speaking somewhere in the direction of Fitzjames’s left shoulder. It had been a long flight, and his back is threatening to act up. At least his seat is in the aisle. He can stretch his legs and nip over to the dining car as soon as they’re underway. Discreetly, he checks his watch.
Fitzjames drums soundless fingers against dark jeans. “A little over ten hours to Montreal,” he says, quite casually, “although I’m only going so far as Westport myself.”
Francis closes his eyes. “Headed on to Lake Placid?” he guesses.
“Yes, as a matter of—”
“Staying at the High Peaks Resort?”
That lazy smile is back, though it looks a bit pinched now. “The very same.”
Francis manages a short nod before turning resolutely to his book. “I agree. Long odds.”
In true Adirondack style, the fireplaces in the hotel’s lobby—plural fireplaces—are hung with real pine swags and strings of fresh cranberries. Eight-foot-tall carved wooden bears flank each like totem sentries. Guests lounge in deep leather armchairs with glasses of wine or locally brewed beers in their hands. At the bar, Francis turns occasionally in his seat, scanning their faces. His skin is grimy from travel and his clothes are damp with snow. He hasn’t even brought his bag up to his room yet, but the whiskey and the fire are warm, working divergent ends: the first taking the edge off fourteen hours’ transatlantic travel, and the second allowing certain things he’d rather not consider to seep in at the ragged edges of his exhausted mind.
If Thomas'd had his way, Francis wouldn’t have come. He'd made sure to get soused before calling to say that it was too late; he'd already paid for the ticket. Over the phone, Thomas had called him a sodden bastard, an accusation against which Francis couldn't rightly argue.
“What do you think watching that bitch get married is going to—”
“You’re out of line,” Francis growled.
“You’d call her that, too, if she’d left you with any sense.”
“That was a warning, Thomas.”
"Alright. Alright, you’re right.”
Francis made a noncommittal noise, though he could well imagine the disapproving look lingering in Thomas’s eyes: he was becoming used to seeing it, more often than not of late, whenever the topic of Sophia came up.
"It’s a lot of money and a long way to go just to feel bad about yourself at the holidays. You could do that right here in London, for Christ’s sake.”
“Feed that mangy dog of mine while I’m gone, won’t you?”
"Like talking to a brick wall.”
Tone easing, Francis had said, “I’ll be back by Christmas to see you and Esther and the girls.”
“Damn right you will.”
The invitation in his breast pocket, creased and greased by more than just a trip through airport security, reads:
You are happily invited
To the wedding of Sophia Cracroft
(He can’t bear to look at the American’s name. It makes his bile rise.)
on December the 12th
At the High Peaks Resort
Lake Placid, New York, USA
And, at the bottom, a personalized post-script in Sophia’s own crabbed hand:
You were an important part of my life for a long time. Is it selfish of me to ask this? Hope you’ll come.
Which had been the end of it, really. She’d asked him to come. He had. If he still entertains certain frivolous hopes about the whole thing—that they might get a quiet coffee together, sans fiance, and talk about old times; or something of that nature—then that’s his business, and his alone.
He’s drunk enough, now, that his fingers can unhesitatingly dial a number he hasn’t used in a year and a half. It rings through. “You’ve reached Sophia Cracroft. Please leave a message.”
Careful to keep the slur from his words, Francis says, “Sophia. I’ve—I’m in town. I know you’re probably busy, but I’d like to see you, when you can.” Old habits well to the fore. “I—” miss you— “I’ll be speaking with you.” He hangs up. With a practiced motion, he downs the last of his whiskey and signals for another.
The low hubbub of the space around him encroaches on his thoughts with increasing irritation as the hour ticks towards six. Threads of conversation fray in and out of distinction, and Francis listens with half an ear, disgusted with himself for hoping to pick out something familiar. Eventually, he does.
Half-concealed behind a fireplace, one minute bare and the next minute occupied, James Fitzjames is sitting with crossed legs, as unwelcome as a mysterious rash. When Francis cranes on his stool to look, he seems to be holding some kind of court amidst several skier-types with long blonde hair and thick woolen socks. Fitzjames gestures widely with his hands as he talks. His voice, though low, still manages to carry.
Francis drops a curse in sotto voice and turns back around before he’s noticed. On the bar top before him, his mobile is resolutely black. He can’t help but overhear—
“—truly, I swear,” Fitzjames is laughing. “It was about two years ago. I was skiing some backcountry with a friend—neither of us caring that the avalanche conditions were less than ideal, of course, because it meant fresh powder.” He pauses for some knowing laughter from the group. “It caught us entirely by surprise. My friend managed to get out of its path, but I was caught up. Buried under four feet of snow for six minutes. Lucky that I had my rescue beacon with me and that my friend spied where I went under, or, if he hadn’t—”
With morbid curiosity, Francis turns just in time to see Fitzjames purse his lips and shake his head, as if cheating death was on par with having to politely refuse a dinner invitation. No, terribly sorry; today just doesn’t work for me. It is that moment which Fitzjames chooses to wet his lips with the beer in his hand and cast around the room, eyes landing on Francis before he can pretend to not be watching. The man waves. Immediately, Francis busies himself with his blank mobile; to no avail.
Fitzjames makes what look like his excuses and ambles over. Can’t take a bloody hint. “Small world,” he greets, as if the whole situation is something terrible trite.
Thinking of Sophia, Francis says, “Not small enough.”
His mobile vibrates in the nick of time. Ignoring Fitzjames, he snatches it up.
--Seen her yet?
Francis taps out no, and then sets the mobile down. Fitzjames’s eyes follow it. “Are you meeting someone?”
Any moment, Francis expects the man will lose interest and push away from the bar. Yet the flat silence stretches, eventually broken when Fitzjames observes, “You’re not a man who makes friends easily, are you?”
He snorts. “I do just fine.”
“Is that so.” Fitzjames graces him with a measuring glance and raises a set of eyebrows that expertly imply that what he sees is utterly lacking. “Look, we don’t know each other. But I’m having drinks with some acquaintances tomorrow night. There’s supposed to be a decent pub just across the street. You’re welcome to join us.” He pauses. “You look like you could use the company.”
Francis looks at him as if he’s grown a second head.
“Or not.” Fitzjames puts his palms flat on his thighs, and then lifts them; as if to say, no skin off my back. Then he orders another beer.
It’s a poncy, touristy bar. The kind of place that spells craft beer with a k and an umlaut. Francis doesn’t remember how he got there. The place is crowded for a Thursday night, so he’s at a rickety table near the restrooms, and Fitzjames is across from him, breathing the fumes of his cheap red wine into his face.
“You flew three thousand miles,” Fitzjames repeats, voice heavy with disbelief, “to watch your ex-girlfriend get married.”
Ah. Francis remembers, suddenly, why he is where he is. He’d drunk in the hotel lobby until the ridiculously early final call. Gone to his room and found the mini bar inadequate to his needs. Then, dogged by a melancholy he knew from experience would persist no matter how much he drank or how little he slept, and choosing to at least entertain himself while he suffered, he’d carefully walked the slushy hundred yards to the Top of the Park Bar & Grille.
“Ex-fiancée,” Francis slurs. He doesn’t know how much he’s had since getting there. For him, that means it’s a lot.
“I’m not sure if that makes it better, or worse.”
He stares disapprovingly at the glass in Fitzjames’s hand. Between sips, Fitzjames is tapping on it; rolling the base on the table. His voice rises as the level of wine falls.
As though it explains the entire matter, Francis says, “She invited me. Personally.” He digs out the invitation. At least he still has the presence of mind not to set it down somewhere sticky. Fitzjames bends intently over it, hair swinging around his face, prodigious brow wrinkling.
“It’s funny, isn’t it.”
Fitzjames obliges him by asking, “What is?”
“When someone says they love you, and then….” Francis looks vaguely at the ceiling. “They leave.”
It’s good to say it out loud. Even better when Thomas isn’t around to tell him things he doesn’t want to hear. He can take or leave any sort of reply from Fitzjames.
Looking slightly inebriated and highly uncomfortable, Fitzjames ventures, “If you need…someone to talk to….”
“I’ll call a suicide hotline,” Francis retorts, only mildly gratified to watch the speed with which Fitzjames’s long face rearranges itself from pity to genuine concern. How does a man who so greatly resembles a sad dog always manage to come off so self-satisfied?
“Do you mean that?”
“Christ, of course not.” Pointedly, he takes another drink of whiskey. “Not that you give a damn. Don't know you from Adam.”
Fitzjames shifts and swirls his wine. “I’m here. You’re here. I’m drinking; you’re drinking. We’re both strangers in a strange land, so to speak. You know,” Fitzjames says, as if interrupting himself; though carefully, and a bit too eager, “I’ve always enjoyed a good story.”
Francis fumbles out his mobile, checking for messages; squinting—mostly because of alcohol, but partly, Francis knows, in the back of his muzzy mind, because of age. There are no new text messages. No missed calls. There is only the stranger sitting across from him, asking for his story, and the alcohol in his veins; and, combined, his reservations dwindle down to nothing. Not that they’d been very high, the past several days, to begin with.
If he and Sophia were a book, the page Francis opens to is dog-eared and yellowed with repeated perusal. “I’ve pictured it,” he murmurs, and the sound barely carries. “Myself, trussed up in a morning coat. Holding her hands. Saying vows.”
There’s a pause, as if Fitzjames is picturing it, too. Francis doesn’t know for certain. He’s looking into the middle distance at things that never were and never will be.
“Does it help?”
“So it doesn’t.”
Francis considers. “It—no.”
“Then maybe you should stop picturing it.”
“You’ll be telling me to stop drinking, next.”
Fitzjames leans forward. “Christ, Francis,” he suddenly exhales, “you should see a therapist or something.”
He stiffens. “I don’t need a therapist.”
“Everyone needs a therapist. The world would be a much better place if we all spoke our innermost deliriums out loud once a week, so we could hear how silly they sounded, and then shook hands with the poor sob who had to listen to them and went home a little less burdened by our own stupidities.”
“Stupidities,” Francis repeats.
The implied insult washes over him. “Is that what you do, hmm?” Francis waits, one eyebrow raised.
“Not recently. But that—it doesn’t matter." Fitzjames bites the inside of his cheek. "My point is that you—” he waves an inebriated finger in Francis’s direction— “really need to get over this woman.”
A muscle jumps in Francis’s jaw. He can’t decide who here is more the fool: himself, for having had any expectation—however fleeting—of sympathy, or Fitzjames, for his sheer presumption. “I suppose you know all about me, now, from half an hours’ conversation in some American pub.”
“I’m learning quickly,” Fitzjames mutters. He scrapes back his chair and rises.
The man isn’t worth it. Francis is content to sink back into this corner, let Fitzjames leave; finish his drink and trudge back across the road to the—
“You’re a pathetic man, Francis Crozier," Fitzjames is saying, looming above him. "Feel free to ignore me as you drink yourself into a stupor. Although I suppose you’d think of it as—” he waves his wineglass, and, somehow, nothing spills— “drowning your sorrows.”
Francis surges upward and blindly slams down his whiskey. Fitzjames has a few inches on him and Francis has a few drinks on him. Unsteady, he steps into the other man’s space.
“Are you going to hit me, Francis?” One long forefinger jabs him in the chest.
Alcohol and serrated anger cloud his veins. The only thing Francis can see is the bastard smirk carving up Fitzjames’s wine-red mouth. Setting his teeth together, Francis shoves him. “Don’t start something you can’t—”
Someone grunts, and hands grab his shoulders from behind. “Woah,” says an unfamiliar man.
“Let go of me,” Francis spits, but whoever has a hold on him is fresh-faced and solidly built—one of Fitzjames’s skier friends—and Fitzjames’s lip curls in satisfaction, kindling something unthinking and aggressive in Francis.
The man holding Francis looks over his shoulder. “James—do you two need to take this outside?”
Fitzjames crosses his arms.
Francis gives a single nod.
It’s damn cold outside.
Squinting against the streetlamps, Francis lands a glancing blow to Fitzjames’s cheek. It makes Fitzjames stumble back—less because of the force of the delivery, and more because of the small patches of black ice scattered on the sidewalk. Fitzjames retaliates with a half-hearted gut punch.
They step back from one another and pant for breath in the throat-searing air. Pedestrians give them a wide berth, muttering. A wave of nausea swells up in Francis. Moments later he’s heaving up four hours’ worth of alcohol behind a frozen-over potted plant. Strangely clear thoughts surface up in his mind: that he’s too old for this. That he should’ve aimed for Fitzjames’s shoes instead of the concrete.
When he can take his hands from his knees and lift his head, he scoops a handful of fresh snow from a railing and chews to wash out his mouth. Fitzjames is still there when he turns around. One hand is gingerly probing his cheekbone.
“It won’t even bruise,” Francis offers.
Fitzjames grunts. “I know.”
Their breath clouds in the air between them.
Bringing his hand down from his face, Fitzjames says, “You’re a real piece of work.”
He nearly laughs. “So you’ve noticed at last.”
In a motion that seems to shrink his frame inside his coat, Fitzjames leans against a street lamp. He’s noticeably shivering as he shoves his hands into his pockets. Vision going in and out of focus, Francis watches him, and, bit by bit, he feels his nausea recede. The freezing air helps it along. Neither of them makes to go back inside.
As though he’s been giving it quite a bit of thought, Fitzjames says, “You must have really loved this woman.” He dips his chin and studies the ground.
What little balance remaining to Francis evaporates after Fitzjames speaks. Now he mirrors Fitzjames’s posture: slumped against a railing opposite, eyeing his shoes for stray spatters of vomit. He wonders if sagaciousness comes naturally to Fitzjames, or if he himself is just extraordinarily transparent. “I did,” he says, wry, and bitter. It’s a surprise to himself when he adds, “I do.”
“I’d drink to that, but I seem to have left my wine back in the bar,” Fitzjames drawls.
The wry grin cements in place. It belongs unequivocally to the lateness of the hour and the absurdity of their tableau—two middle-aged foreigners, piss-drunk, trading school-boy punches in front of a crowded bar.
Crow’s feet pull at the corners of Fitzjames’s eyes when he says, “We should walk back. Although, in your condition, even that’s going to be pushing it.”
The before and the after of fumbling his card into the lock of his room escapes Francis. He wakes up with a disgusting taste in his mouth, foul-smelling clothes, a crick in his neck fit only for a hanged man, and a new entry in his mobile contacts: James Fitzjames.
“I apologize,” Francis says, pacing back and forth in front of his half-open blinds, “for hitting you.”
There’s a clacking sound on the other end of the line, as if from a keyboard. “Don’t worry. It’s my head that hurts more than anything else.”
He raises an eyebrow that Fitzjames can’t see. Under his breath, he says, “Lightweight.”
“What did you just call me?”
"Are you even hungover?”
There’s a slight ache behind his eyes, and the godawful crick. He’s a bit peckish. “Not really, Fitzjames.”
“What, are we still in public school?”
Francis stops his pacing and places himself squarely in front of the windows, squinting out at the mid-morning sun brightly mirrored across the lake. It makes the ache behind his eyes spike. “Old habits,” Francis explains. “I was in the navy.”
"Oh. Well.” A stretch of silence. “So was I. But I’d still prefer James.”
“You should eat something, James,” Francis says, trying and failing to not think too hard about this bit of information. “You’ll feel better.”
“Suppose you’d know.”
A hard note creeps into his voice. “I suppose I would.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“I know what you meant, James.”
“I’m very hungover. If that’s any kind of consolation.”
To think that Francis had called to apologize by way of offering lunch. The suggestion sours on his tongue. He forces it out anyway, if only to avoid having to explain the reason for the call when James inevitably asks. “Enough to say no to lunch,” he flatly inquires, hoping that James will decline; knowing full well he won’t.
“—I think I could scrounge up an appetite.”
Over a plate of rashers and rubbery-looking eggs, James visibly grasps for some kind of conversation. He comes out with, “I skied professionally, in my younger days.”
Warily, Francis looks up and scrutinizes James’s expression. He searches for the exaggeration; the swollen pride. Nothing strikes him save for a note of wistfulness. Half suspicious, half curious, he says, “Really.”
James reaches for his over-large mobile as though he'd been waiting for the excuse. Efficiently, he flicks his finger across the screen, knowing exactly what he wants and where to find it. “Here.” He holds the mobile out over the table and swipes through a photo gallery while Francis cranes forward.
There, indeed, is James, the intervening years betrayed only by the fact that his hair in the photo dusts his shoulders instead of his chin. He’s wearing an official-looking number over ski gear, goggles pushed up his forehead, fingers in an irreverent V. There’s a silver medal around his neck. James’s thumb covers the screen, and then the next picture slides into view: one James had clearly taken of himself, hair matted from snow and sweat, again with a medal. A stereotypical shot of ski boots dangling from a lift follows. Then another of James, grinning broadly and toothily, except there’s a second skier in the frame this time, and he’s kissing James’s cheek.
James flips by quickly. He only goes through a couple more, after that. “Well. You get the gist,” he says, pulling back.
Francis does. He clears his throat. “How long ago were those taken?”
Steepling his fingers, James hangs his head and stares at his plate, as if the answer were written there. “Eleven—no. Must be twelve years ago. Those were from my last season.” He smiles entirely to himself. “My last hurrah. After I re-tore my ACL, the doctors informed me that if I kept on, I’d need a cane by the time I was forty.” He spreads his hands. “But I did another season anyway, and here I am.”
“But only one more,” Francis points out.
James’s mouth twists ruefully. “Yes. Only one more.”
“Fucking hell, Francis. You slept with him, didn’t you?”
On reflex, Francis looked around himself: he’d found a mostly-private corner of the terminal in which to turn tight circles while he talked. Clearly and painfully, he recalled standing too close to James in an elevator; and how, when shirtless, it was apparent that James was going soft around the middle.
Francis had pushed a palm against his stomach and teased, “A professional skier, indeed—”
Indignant, but laughing around the mouth, James squeezed his ass. “Pot calling kettle, much?”
James touching him, like that, had made him feel light and hot in all the right places, and just to think of it again—
He breathed a long, long breath. “Mmmmmm,” he said into the mobile. It was as close to a yes as he could manage.
“Good for you, Francis.”
“No. No, not really.”
A few gates down, another flight status flicked to delayed.
In the evening, Francis's mobile rings. He glances at the time before he answers it, startled to find that two hours and one hundred-fifty pages have passed. "Francis Crozier speaking," he says.
"You answer your mobile like that?"
"It's my business line as well," Francis explains, sinking back into the chair.
"Where are you?"
He hesitates. “My room.”
“Listen—if it’s an imposition, you don’t have to bother. But I’m just finishing up with some friends at Whiteface, and I was wondering if I could get a lift back to the hotel.”
He hesitates some more.
“You’d be saving me another hour’s wait and a fifty-dollar cab fare.”
“How’d you get there?”
“Why not go back the way you came?”
“They’re staying on to finish out the daylight with a few more runs.”
“You’re not going with them?”
“—if you must know, I’m knackered.”
“Your days of professional skiing are long behind you, I’m afraid.” When Francis gets up from the chair, his back creaks; but James doesn’t have to know that. “Where should I meet you?”
James walks up to his rental car wearing a scarf that looks as if it had been knitted in a Tibetan monastery by a blind orangutan. Francis stares long and hard, raises an eyebrow to no-one but himself, and doesn’t ask. He looks at the wheel instead and drives.
Any topic of conversation transcending small talk eludes Francis, and anything more weighty sticks in his throat. He clears it. He tries, “The wedding’s the day after next. I didn’t bring a gift. Do you suppose I should?”
James looks away from the foothills passing by through the windows. “—for your ex-fiancée?”
A nod. Francis keeps firmly to the speed limit and periodically reminds himself that it’s alright to be driving on the wrong side of the road.
“I think etiquette dictates you not show up empty handed,” James says.
Francis hums. It’s a niggling feeling, like something left unchecked on a to-do list at the end of the day. Sophia hasn’t returned the call he left a full two days ago. Francis hasn’t left any more messages, either, although he’s been tempted. The way that scratching at chicken pox only makes the itch worse.
“Although you’re not family. You’re not in the wedding party. And I think if someone made the effort to attend my destination wedding, I might forgive them the omission of a gift.” He thinks a moment. “Perhaps a card, but then again—”
“It’s alright, James. I’ll skip it. Not as if I’ll be staying for the reception.”
Quietly, he says, “You won’t?”
“Never liked her family very much,” Francis says. “Besides. That’s not why I came.”
“You told me you came because she invited you.” James smooths one hand over the glovebox. “Is that really—”
All of Francis’s half-formed fancies rush to the fore of his mind, strikingly silly in the moment: the idea that they’d chat, and reminisce about the old days; that Sophia would look at him with softness in her eyes one more time. “Yes,” he insists. “And no.” He glances aside. James is watching him intently. “It doesn’t matter,” he declares.
“Well. I think it does.”
“Alright,” he rasps, as if ending an argument; except if there’s anything he’s come to know about James, it’s that the man doesn’t know when to let a thing lie. “Look. James.” He doesn’t want to be doing this while at the wheel. His knuckles are already white. For as long as he can look away from the slush-edged tarmac, he holds James’s eye. “I need to see it for myself. It'll be like a viewing. At a funeral.”
“You care too much.”
“I thought I was a piece of work.”
“People can be both,” James says. “Besides. I didn’t say it was a good thing.”
Francis supposes that would explain why the inside of his chest feels like a rotting snowdrift, melted and re-frozen too many times, liable to crumble away at any moment. He’s overcome with the need to talk about something that isn’t Sophia, and the banalities he’d passed over earlier suddenly seem far more appealing. “Your accent,” he asks. “From London?”
James takes the conversational turn in stride. “Mostly. I was raised abroad.”
“Abroad,” he confirms. “But it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call London my hometown. It’s where I fly out of most often.” He takes a breath, as if to keep talking about himself, but stops. He chews his cheek. He stretches his legs out into the footwell. “Francis, I’ve been wondering. Do you really not remember our meeting in Heathrow?”
Francis takes his eyes from the road to turn a brief, quizzical look at him.
Francis wracks his brain. There is something there, on the edges of his recollection: an ill feeling. James’s face. Nothing more. Too much whiskey intervenes. He’d been too consumed with trepidation, anyway, to think of much else besides Sophia. He shakes his head.
This seems to satisfy James.
“How long are you in New York for?” Francis continues.
“You’ll laugh,” James warns.
James pretends to be enjoying the scenery. With a low chuckle, face towards the window, he says, “My ticket was one-way. Someone once told me that New York was the place to go to find myself, and I wasn’t sure how long it’d take.”
A smile tugs up the corners of Francis’s mouth. It is not unkind—not mocking, as it would have been when he hadn’t known a thing about the man besides his name and his annoying penchant for conversation. And Francis isn’t really in a position to give critiques on unrealistic expectations at the moment. Gently, he needles, “I think they were referring to the city.”
James gives an infinitesimal nod. “Maybe.”
In the lobby, James unwinds the scarf from around his neck. His cheeks are still cold-bitten and his nose is a clownish shade of red. “Damn, I’m froze through. I think something to warm the cockles is necessary.”
Francis spreads out his arm. “Lead the way.”
With a smile, James starts on his gloves, and the sight of pale fingers freed from fabric makes Francis’s throat go dry. “Wait,” he says. Licks his lips. Doesn't continue. Too much rushes through his mind for any of it to resolve into something so distinct as words.
Like a spaniel, James tilts his head, waiting.
There’s no mistaking the swoop in Francis's stomach for anything else. He lets his eyes speak where his words can’t, and drops his gaze to James’s mouth.
James stills in the act of shoving the gloves into his pockets. They’re interrupting the flow of foot traffic where they stand, so James takes him gently by the shoulderblade and leads him, unresisting, off to one side. His thumb rubs hard enough to be felt through Francis’s sweater, shirt, and coat combined. Cold radiates from James’s clothes as they stand in one another's space. “Come up to my room,” he offers.
It’s been a while since Francis last had sex. But more than that—more than the vague craving for physicality born of long restraint—he wants this; and some of the reasons why he does aren’t things he wants to examine too closely. He opens his mouth. Closes it again. Lifts a hand to rest fleetingly at the center of James’s back, and then slides it lower.
In the flash of moment it takes for the electronic lock on James’s door to blink from red to green, James tosses a careless, wild smile over his shoulder, and it makes Francis—hovering impatiently at his elbow—want to slough his jacket immediately. When the door is shut behind them, he anchors a hand at James's hip beneath his coat and has him pressed against a wall in three seconds dead.
Against the shell of his ear, James breathes, “What do you like, Francis?”
He likes this. He likes taking, and James giving; and him giving, and James taking. “I’d like to kiss you,” he says, when the feeling of being pressed flush to a warm, beautiful human being has ceased to steal the breath from him.
Something complicated passes over James’s face. It does nothing to stop his eyes from growing dark and his mouth from going slack. A low growl rumbles up in his throat, which Francis swallows by sealing their lips together.
From there, it’s extraordinarily easy to wrap up in one another: to sway and rock and kiss, and suck and kiss and kiss. Fast, then slow, then fast again. A moan or two. James hitches one knee around his hip and grinds. Scrabbling at his back, Francis shudders. “Do you have a condom?”
“Christ.” James sucks in a dazed breath. “I don’t think so.”
Francis can’t remember the last time he was so desperate. He fastens his mouth to James’s neck in a place he knows will give James a hell of a good reason to wear that hideous scarf tomorrow. “We’ll make do,” he manages.
A large family wandered over his way. They were complaining, loudly, about the delays.
“Just a moment,” Francis said to Thomas. He pressed the mobile to his chest and eavesdropped.
“Nothing until the storm clears—”
“—money back, this is ridiculous; their customer service is a joke.”
“Mom, can I have a granola bar?”
Francis brought the mobile back to his ear. “No flights till the storm clears,” he griped.
Thought you were flying back tomorrow.”
“I said I moved it.” Francis ground his teeth loudly enough to pretend he couldn't hear Thomas’s follow-up. “Did you feed Neptune, like I asked?”
"Yes, I fed your damned dog.” Static. The connection was getting steadily worse. “Why, Francis?” Thomas asked again.
He wasn’t talking about Neptune. Francis allowed himself a laugh. “I’m afraid I’ve wasted a trip, Thomas.”
"What about this James fellow of yours?”
“He’s just—some man I met on holiday.”
“Just a man,” Thomas echoed quietly.
Fiercely, he said, “Yes.”
There was a long pause. “Alright. It’s none of my business.”
The damned airport was beginning to make him feel claustrophobic. One glance out the window was enough to remind Francis forcibly of just how useless it was to wish to be elsewhere. For lack of anything better to do, and because Thomas hadn’t hung up yet, Francis asked, “Why do people keep leaving me, Thomas?”
“Oh, bollocks,” Thomas said. "For one, you’re an arse. For two, I happen to know you and Sophia were always arguing—”
“We didn’t argue,” he snapped. “We disagreed.”
“Because you never saw eye to eye.”
“Love isn’t predicated upon agreement.”
“It had better not be, else I don’t know how you and I have stuck together this long. But there’s a balance to be struck. A give and a take. You only ever gave.”
“She gave, too," he softly said.
There were memories that would always dog him: a slant of light strewn with specks of dust through which traveled a short-fingered, white hand. The tender way she’d say his name when she wanted Francis on top. Laying side by side, panting in tandem. Francis propped up on one elbow so he could smooth a hand easily down Sophia’s arm and ask, “What are you thinking, darling?”
She’d turn her head towards him with a smile that was sad, for a moment, before becoming lovely. “Nothing, Francis.” She’d cover his petting hand with her own, stilling it. “Go to sleep.”
Francis had always found that you couldn’t look at self-doubt directly. Regardless, it was always there: forever appearing out of the corner of your eye just when you were trying to examine something else.
The next night, they go up to Francis’s room instead. It’s exactly the same layout as James’s, only different: in his own room, with his own suitcase tucked in the corner and his own toiletries cluttering the minuscule bathroom counter, it’s easier for Francis to splay out on his back, curiosity and caution and desire undisguised on his face as James traces his inner thighs with haphazard kisses. Easier to gasp when a heavy hand casually presses Francis’s cock to his stomach, and to thrust lube and a condom at James without words or shame.
James goes slow and groans the entire time. At the start, the noises make Francis’s brow furrow with annoyance. But by the end, they make Francis’s toes curl, and the deep grunt that unspools from James’s throat when he spends causes Francis to visibly twitch.
There’s precome on Francis’s stomach from his leaking cock. It’s a mess, really, but James doesn’t hesitate to drag two fingers through it and tug him off, slick, gentle, and fast. The look on his face as he does is fond. Satisfaction burns fierce in Francis’s chest even before his back arches and his mouth falls open.
In the damp and boneless aftermath, Francis gingerly rolls onto his side and says, “James. Get a cloth or something, won’t you?”
James is still a little out of breath. Francis can hear it when his chuckle hitches. “You’ve clearly never heard of enjoying the afterglow.”
“Not when I’m this sticky.”
In the manner of an endearment, James declares, “Obdurate man.”
The ruffling of James sliding out of bed is magnified by the quiet of the room. In the space where James’s shoulder had been, Francis can see fat snowflakes tumbling down against the grey of the street lamps outside. A light clicks on in the bathroom and the tap starts running.
He’s already asleep by the time it shuts off.
Later, at an hour indeterminate, the vibration of his mobile wakes him. He wipes at his eyes when he recognizes the number and does a double-take. “Sophia?” he answers.
“Did I wake you?”
Snug as he is with the warmth of another body beside him, it takes Francis a moment to shift the duvet and sit up. “Yes, but it’s fine.” Voice craggy with sleep, he says, “I’m glad you called.”
“I know it’s late. I haven’t had a moment’s rest since flying in. Jane wants everything just so, and I’m meeting half my fiancé’s family for the very first time.” She says it all in a quiet rush, and Francis finds himself smiling softly as her voice washes over him; half-forgotten, but still a comfort. “How are you, Francis?”
“Ah—” He darts a look at James. “Just a moment.” Carefully, he pads out into the hall, leaving the door an inch ajar so as not to have to dig in his wallet for the key card. “I’m good,” Francis enthuses. “Really good.”
“How’s work been?”
"Are you seeing anyone?”
He peers through the crack in the door. The mound of James’s sleeping form rises and falls soundlessly. He lowers his voice. “I had hoped I might see you,” he murmurs.
On her end, Sophia whispers, too. “Would that be a good idea?”
Though she isn’t there to see, he puts on a face of confusion; brow furrowing. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
"We’ll see each other at the reception.”
A mote of unease curls in Francis’s stomach. He pictures her, resplendent in white, surrounded by her family—John Franklin, whom Francis would rather see dead than smiling patronizingly at his niece—and her bloody husband. “That’s not what I meant,” he says.
“I know it isn’t.”
Annoyed and impatient and bare-footed, he puts his back to the lintel and brings the mobile closer to his mouth. “You asked me, specifically, to come. I’ve done that for you. Taken time off work and dipped into my savings to be here.” The things he omits are a pit in his stomach. He speaks all the more firmly to cover for their silence. If he speaks loudly enough, perhaps he can forget how wretched it feels to know he'll never have them.
“I thought that enough time had passed that we could be friends.” Sophia’s voice has gone small, and Francis is immediately sorry. “And, if not, I thought it might give you closure.”
Francis squeezes his eyes shut. “We can. It will. Let me see you. I can walk over—now, if you’re alone.”
He knows the tone of those words, and dreads it; but no force on the continent could make him put the mobile down.
“—when we were the people that we were, we were good for one another. I don’t want you to ever think that we weren’t. But sometimes people stop fitting together. I had hoped, by now, you might have realized that.”
It’s the tone she'd used when she left him. Calmly informing him that they wanted different things, and that she was going. So steady, as if her world wasn’t falling to pieces; as if the fact that his was buckling had to be some kind of mistake on his part. Understanding and patient; except if she’d understood, it wouldn’t have been happening; and if she’d been more patient, perhaps he could have fixed things.
He wants to ask why, except he knows the explanation is no longer his to demand.
Sophia takes his silence as something else. “I’ve got to go, Francis. I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed you. I truly am.”
The mobile beeps, and the call ends. He counts to ten in his head. He does it again, and a few more times after that; one hand massaging the back of his neck. Then he steels himself against his churning stomach and steps back into the room.
James is out of bed and getting dressed.
“James.” He blinks slowly. “What time is it?”
“I don’t know.” In the dark, James blindly pulls on his jeans.
Francis peers at the alarm clock. 1am. The thought that James doesn’t want to spend the night makes him feel even more vulnerable and empty than he already does, but they’re both grown men. Francis can handle it, if that’s what this is.
The way that James stalks around the room, picking up his discarded clothing as quickly as he can, tells him that it isn’t.
Francis turns on a lamp. Yellow floods the room, making them both look haggard. “Can we talk?” he asks quietly.
“No,” James bites. He’s tugging his shirt on, and he pauses, briefly, as the neck snugs over his face. “There’s nothing to talk about. This was a mistake.”
James looks up and shakes his head. “I’m not going to wait around for you to figure out what you want. Christ, I’m too old for this.” He shoves his arms through the sleeves of his button-down.
“Are you leaving?” Francis sets down his mobile on the dresser, far away from himself, and steps towards James.
In the chilly room, Francis shivers. Snow still falls outside. James must have overheard his conversation with—but then, Francis refuses to believe he’d said anything damning— yet his stomach knots up with something very sick, like guilt. “You at least owe me an explanation,” he tries.
James shoots him a vicious look before ducking down to hunt for something on the floor. “Figure it out. You’re not a moron.”
“Can we talk about—”
Frustrated, James stands and throws up his hands. There’s a sock held in one. “I’m a human being, Francis. Couldn’t help that if I tried. I’m only a man, and you’re only a man, and she’s only a woman.” Under his breath, he adds, “And we’re all just people, after all.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
James is starting on his shoes, silently, and Francis grasps for something, anything, that will extend this argument; delay the open and shut of the door to the room. “I don’t give a damn about—about—” Francis chokes on the ending.
“Yes, you do,” James snaps. “But I can guarantee she doesn’t give a damn about you.”
Now fully clothed, James straightens, face flushed and feet planted wide. Wearing only boxers and a sleep shirt, Francis says, “You’re wrong.” It’s out of his mouth before he can think better of it.
“You’re a miserable, lonely man, Francis. You’re going to waste your life moping after a married woman, and you don’t even care. It’s pathetic.”
“That’s how you see me?” His voice is strained. He wishes he were dressed. On reflex, he tucks his hands behind his back, pulling his shoulders straight. An old naval habit.
"It is," James says.
“Go on, then,” Francis rasps. “Get out.”
Nothing changes in James’s eyes, but his mouth goes flat, and, for an eternity that lasts approximately eight seconds, he stands before Francis as still as a deer in headlights. Then he grabs his wallet and shoves past Francis. “Enjoy the wedding,” he says, and the door slams behind him.
The need for whiskey itches unrelenting at the fore of his mind. Not even the liquor stores will be open this late—or early—and his body doesn’t feel capable of anything but sitting heavily on the side of the mattress, all intent sucked from him like marrow from a bone. Tendons snipped and body hobbled.
Here it is, come back round again: the sickeningly familiar pain he’s been chasing with a bottle for a year and a half, but never quite been able to outrun. The one that comes with waking up in an empty bed, except Francis hasn’t gone back to sleep.
There are memories that he knows will dog him for a long time. Fingers fluffing out hair flattened by a hat. A nervous, tapping foot. The low groan that accompanies a tight grip around a heavy wrist. And now this, too—the broken look of hatred on James’s face as he’d flung accusations across a bed still mussed from their lovemaking, and left.
His back begins to ache. Francis lays himself out so he’s staring at the ceiling, carefully not touching the side where James had lain. Afraid he’ll find it still warm. Afraid he’ll find it cold. Afraid, mostly, of facing what James has left him with: a douse of cold water and an emptiness in the place where a small and fervent hope had, incredibly, begun to form.
The terminal was slowly emptying out. It was gone midnight, and most travelers were throwing in the towel and taking advantage of complimentary hotel rooms.
"You missed Hannah’s birthday.”
“I’ll buy her a doll when I get back. Something lovely. For Christmas.”
On the other end, Francis heard Esther’s voice saying this or that. Thomas’s response was muffled. It rose in pitch, then fell. “I’m here, Francis,” he said.
It was only a matter of time before it all welled up out of him.
“Christ, Thomas.” He covered his eyes with his hand. “I didn’t deserve either of them.”
She’s getting ready in an antechamber just off the reception hall. The lilt and lull of her bridesmaids' voices can be heard through the door. Just before he knocks, Francis catches the tail end of her laughter. In a few hours, she’ll be married.
“Auntie, is that you?” Sophia calls.
“It’s me,” he says.
There’s a fluttering of movement behind the door. It opens. Bridesmaids file out. He recognizes a few, but doesn’t acknowledge any of them directly. Sophia’s friends had never really been his.
She stands from her seat in front of a borrowed vanity and crosses her arms. She’s half made-up, hair in a ponytail and clutching a hastily-tied robe around herself. “What is it, Francis?” she asks.
Once, he would have heard only the infinite patience in her voice. Now, Francis can hear what the patience hides. He gingerly eases the door shut. “You look beautiful,” he says, and means it.
Sophia rolls her eyes, slightly; but her shoulders relax. She knows he means it, too.
“And I love you too much for my own good,” Francis says, his voice cracking apart on the too much, and flinching when Sophia uncrosses her arms. “Congratulations.” He can’t bring himself to say anything approaching the word goodbye, but that’s what he's aiming his best for.
Softly, she asks, “Will you at least stay for the ceremony?”
Sadness wells up like a heavy hand over his throat. It muffles. It chokes. “No,” he says.
“Love you too, Francis.”
His smile is forced and watery.
He goes back up to his room, carpet blurring beneath his feet, and makes it to the station just ahead of the day’s train.
Thomas breathed out harshly against the receiver. “She chose someone else. You can’t change that.”
It was heavy. Francis wanted to set it down. Pathetic, and not caring, he said, “’s not fair, Thomas.”
“Life’s a bitch, and then you die,” Thomas rejoined immediately, tinny and ironic. His favorite saying. “Doesn’t mean you have to go quietly.”
A man slides into the seat next to him. At nearly midnight, the overpriced Heathrow bar isn’t very crowded. There are a lot of empty stools. Eight shots deep on an empty stomach and still an hour away from boarding his flight to New York, Francis slides Sophia's invitation back into his pocket, reluctantly un-hunches from his whiskey, and looks over at his neighbor, tugged by a curiosity he hasn’t the will to staunch.
“Whatever’s on tap,” the man says, neatly folding his hands on the counter.
The man is—handsome. Brown hair framing a strong jaw. Eyes of a deer in the face of a hunter. He tilts his head and intercepts Francis’s regard, as smoothly as if he’s been expecting it. When he smiles, he reveals charmingly crooked teeth. “Leaving, or passing through?” he asks.
The bartender slides a pilsner next to his elbow, and the man looks away to dig out a fiver.
“Leaving,” Francis mutters, clearing his throat. “And yourself?”
“Also leaving.” Over the rim of his beer, the man appraises him through dark, half-lidded eyes. There’s something purposeful and sly in the look. Warmth slides into Francis’s chest, and not from the whiskey.
Intent clear, the stranger asks, “Are you from around here?”
It’s on the tip of Francis's tongue to make some response—the man is handsome; and he’ll never see him again, anyway, but—
Francis’s hand clenches around his drink and brings it closer. He can’t remember the last time someone made a pass at him, and he half-wonders if there must be something wrong with this man for even trying. Francis knows that he reeks of desperation from six miles out. Even if, somehow, this good-looking stranger wasn’t turned off by Francis's surly, mop-haired, tending-to-fat exterior, he knows the far uglier truth of what lies beneath: a wreck of a man, worth absolutely nothing to no-one.
He would like to smile at this stranger and ask him his name. Instead, Francis lifts his head and sneers, “None of your damned business.”
The man’s open expression scatters like leaves in a gust of wind. Francis feels a swell of cruel pride. This is what he deserves. This is what the both of them deserve. He feels lightheaded. He’s drunk.
“I’m sorry if I—”
“Shove it. I’m not interested.”
There is a pregnant silence. The man takes in a breath, as if to say something else, but instead, he downs his half-drunk beer, and Francis looks away, so as not to have to watch the obscene bob of his Adam’s apple through the pale skin of his throat.
“Well, then,” the man says. “Have a good flight.”
Between one second and the next, the man is there, and then he isn’t. His cologne doesn’t linger past a minute.
Francis burns his nostrils on the whiskey fumes until his flight takes off.
The same close and pressing heat from the fireplaces greets him, magnified by the contrast of the cold outside. Guests, repetitive in their anonymity, fill the space; though none he recognizes. The bartender he does. “Whiskey,” Francis demands.
He digs out his wallet. His fingers hesitate over the billfold. “Nevermind,” he says.
There’s a blank moment—a prelude to despair—when he briefly can’t recall James’s room number. It’s possible that he’ll knock and find another face at the door. It’s possible he’s not in: that he’s skiing, or trying his hand at snowboarding, or out to dinner, or any number of things.
It’s possible that James will take one look through the peephole and decide to lock the door. Christ knows Francis isn’t a very welcoming sight: trailing his stupid suitcase behind him like a child dragging their favorite stuffed animal and wearing a pair of day-old jeans with a shirt whose cuffs are still damp from where he’d used them to discreetly wipe at his eyes on the long train ride back north again to Lake Placid.
He knocks anyway. The sound of the deadbolt scraping back runs through him like an electric pulse.
James stands in the doorway in a baggy blue sweatshirt and a pair of ridiculous running shorts. After a moment, he silently steps aside. “Forget something?” he asks. Flat. Disinterested.
He’s beautiful—in an abstract sense; in an utterly human manner. It’s an effort for Francis to tear his eyes away and take in the room. There’s an open bottle on James’s nightstand, and the bed is unmade. Several books are scattered on the floor near his open suitcase. “Leaving?” he asks, in lieu of answer.
James carefully slides the deadbolt home. “Tomorrow.”
Francis puts his hands behind his back to hide his sleeves. “I, uh.” He thinks to roll them up, but it’s far too late for that. Words escape him. He gnaws his lip.
“What are you doing here, Francis?” James poses the question like a telemarketer or a cashier: as if he doesn’t give a damn about the answer.
“She married him.” Francis checks his watch. “About three hours ago.”
“And you were there?”
He shakes his head.
A one-shouldered shrug. “Then where?”
“On the train. Coming back from Kennedy.” Francis looks down at himself and chuckles without any mirth. “Go on,” he says. He raises his chin, as if preparing to take a blow.
It isn’t until James has retrieved the bottle, taken a long sip, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand that he asks, “What?”
“I know what you must think of me. I know, James—” his name sounds good in his mouth, and he can’t help but savor it— “that I’m a fool. So call me one.”
“You’re a goddamn fool.”
Francis searches James’s face for any crack or crevice which might suggest something salvageable still exists between them. That the thing which had nearly taken flight has not yet lost its feathers. All James does is drink again. There is no fondness in his eyes, but there hadn’t been the last time they’d seen each other, either; so Francis supposes there’s nothing left to lose.
Tired, and raw, and unable to defend himself, he closes his eyes. Maybe he’ll get his own drink at the bar, after all, when he goes back down. He’ll have to stay another night in Lake Placid. There are other hotels. He’ll find one. “Alright, then.” Francis sucks in a wet breath and licks at his upper lip. There’s salt there. “I’ll be going. It was a pleasure to know you, James, however briefly,” he says, because it’s true, and this is his last chance to say it.
To his credit, Francis pivots without a hitch and heads for the door. It’s only James jerking him back round by the arm that stops him, and the demand that follows, no longer absent of feeling: “What the hell are you doing here, Francis?”
“Missed you,” Francis says. “Needed to say sorry.”
James lets drop his grip on Francis, lips pressing together, carving the lines beside his mouth deeply into his face. He pitches backwards precariously until he hits up against the wall with a dull thunk. He threads a hand through his hair.
Gaining confidence, Francis says, “I want to take you out to dinner back in England, if you’ll let me. And I want to make a proper go of it. No one between us this time.” He laughs, regardless of its miserable sound. “Though Christ knows that’s hardly my only shortcoming. Please, James,” Francis says. “I don’t want to stay the way I was.”
James pulls his fingers from his hair and hooks them into the neckline of Francis’s shirt. He tugs, bringing Francis stumbling forward, and then his arm goes around Francis’s shoulder, crushing them together fiercely. He buries his face into the side of Francis’s neck.
“Missed you,” Francis says again, breath pushed back hotly by James’s sweatshirt.
James holds tight. “This is a bad idea,” he whispers. “But alright. Alright.”
The curious whiteness of a winter dawn filled the room. Francis had very quietly gotten up and opened the blinds before slipping back into bed, hoping that the sun might gently induce James—who was snoring obliviously, mouth slightly open—to wake. It did not. Such obstinacy was almost charming. “James,” he whispered.
Clamping down on a grin, Francis pressed his ice-cold feet to the backs of James’s calves.
The man woke with a grunt like a bear. “—Jesus, Francis, what—”
Francis splayed his toes inelegantly against warm skin.
“Your feet are freezing,” James griped.
“It’s nine in the morning.”
Blearily, James stared at him. Francis raised a meaningful eyebrow.
“It’s Saturday,” James said. “Isn’t it?”
With another mighty groan, James turned over. “Don’t wake me until at least ten. Jesus Christ. Staying over yours was clearly a mistake.”
It was only a joke, but something in it made Francis pause; thoughtful. He nosed through the hair at James’s nape and kissed him there. Against his skin, he asked, “Well, why the hell did you, then?”
James turned over in his arms. Francis had to wriggle back to avoid being elbowed by James’s lankiness. He really did look tired: his eyes were puffy and his mouth was tight. They’d been up late with one another. Had a proper dinner date. Watched, and then necked through, a movie; until James turned the TV off and attempted to push Francis down to the couch and have him right there and then; and Francis had insisted that they retire to the bedroom and do things in a way which wouldn’t put his back out.
Instead of responding, James splayed a hand over Francis’s sternum, where it served as an anchor while he leaned over for a sweet and lingering kiss. “You smell fantastic,” James grunted. One finger tapped firmly against bone. Absentminded. Knowing.
There was a knot in Francis’s throat—tight, but not necessarily unpleasant. He let his gaze skitter across James’s face. It caught on his dark eyelashes and meandered circles around his severely pointed nose.
After a while, in a voice so quiet he was scarcely mouthing the words, James said, “I’m going to sleep a bit more.” He reached up to thumb across Francis’s collarbone, letting his pinky trail over skin as he went. “Will you stay?”
Francis kissed his shoulder, just because.