That's all I wanted,
Something special, someone sacred in my life
Just for one moment to be warm and naked at your side.
--- JAMES FITZJAMES ---
Sir John scowled. “’What is it the Bard says: ‘I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my soul’?”
Surely James could charm Sir John. He could charm anyone. “Of course, you are right, Sir John. But Twelfth Night is a sound British holiday, and the men would enjoy a commemoration.”
“Then you DO intend to have spirits? Is that correct, James?”
“The rest of the Empire is celebrating. It will do the men good.”
Sir John winced as he spoke. “The men?”
“Good Lord, as if I could forget those distinctions. You can be assured that the divisions between officers and men will be preserved. Extra grog for the lower orders, but up here, dainty spirits for the exalted lot of us who lead.”
“As you know, James, I am inordinately fond of you, but you do have a rascal’s reputation. Can I trust you to plan a proper celebration, worthy of Queen and crown?”
James eased a little melancholy into his voice. “We can leave the occasion unmarked if that is what you prefer, Sir John.”
That night, word spread quickly through the Erebus and then magically through the Terror. There would be a Twelfth Night ball.
At the dinner table, Lieutenant Gore signaled for another round. “And the fairer sex, James? How can we have a ball without the ladies?”
“Graham,” James said. “What do sailors always do when there are no ladies?”
The whole table burst into laughter.
James opened the costume trunk.
Which outfit would be the most becoming? The red dress? That cotton frock printed with spring blossoms? Or the muslin Empire-era dress?
On impulse, James took off his shirt and, slipping on the muslin, he smoothed its soft contours tight against his body. The bodice was so brief it barely covered the copper coins of his nipples, and, unable to resist, he tugged the top down and began to tease himself with soft pinches.
No. He shook his head. Not now.
He took a deep breath. How would it feel to appear in such a thin shift before the other men? How would they react to his near-nakedness?
James closed his eyes. He knew he should wear thick winter drawers under the skirt, but it would be so much more appealing to wear his own long white stockings with the black garters, the polished opera pumps.
His nipples were growing harder.
The great room of the Erebus was lit with copper lanterns, and somewhere someone was playing a slow melody on the violin.
James was glad to see he was the best-looking man at the ball, his only competition being the angel-eyed John Irving in a lace cape and a lumpy satin skirt. He drained his glass of claret and, hoping to avoid Sir John’s eagle-eyed glare, slowly walked over to the serving table to pour another drink.
Unfortunately an unwelcome face was approaching portside.
Why was Francis Crozier even here?
“I’d like to have met you dockside,” Crozier whispered to him. “After dark.”
The man was insane with intoxication. “Remember yourself, Captain Crozier.”
But Crozier remained his untidy Irish self. He even had the cheek to grab one of the ribbons dangling from James’s dress and stroke it lovingly. “James, don’t be mean.”
James, was it? High talk from Captain Paddy.
“Well, Francis, you look Irish enough for dockside.”
Francis smiled his crooked smile and tilted his head. “Look over there.”
James followed his glance. Francis’ steward and Lieutenant Little were conversing closely. Jopson was in his standard uniform, but Little was wearing gold hoops in his ears and whispering into Jopson’s ear; he looked like a pirate about to lunch upon a maiden.
“To be young again,” Francis whispered.
Then the violin burst into “Auld Lang Syne”.
“May I?” Francis said.
“I didn’t know you danced.”
“It will just be a slow, very drunk hornpipe, and I’ll try not to tread on those pretty shoes.”
James slid his eyes around the room to see if Sir John were watching.
“Don’t fret. Sir John’s departed for the evening.” Francis said and held his arms out.
“Oh, well,” James said and took Francis’ hands.
They bobbed up and down the room in a tight embrace, just as all the other officers were doing. There was a great deal of jolly partner changes (Lieutenant Irving in particular was much sought after), but no one was bold enough to steal the captain’s escort.
Surprisingly, Francis was a deft dancer, and James felt warm in his arms.
On the fourth twirl around the ballroom, Francis grabbed a glass of wine. “Drink deep, my dear James.”
James took the glass. He felt himself being pulled further into Francis’ whiskey-scented waltz. Even when the music ended, Francis wouldn’t let go of his hand. “Shall we refresh ourselves, James?”
Hodgson ambled over to them; he was arm in arm with Irving. “What a splendid affair!” he said.
“That one doesn’t think so,” Irving said, pointing to Steward Bridgens. “We know where he’d rather be.” He lowered his voice. “Downstairs with young Peglar.”
“Did Sir John say anything before he retired?” James asked. Were they free for the rest of the evening?
“Yes,” Irving said in his pious way. “Sir John said to remind you that tomorrow is not a holiday.”
James felt light-headed. “I must excuse myself to take the seat of ease.”
“Let me follow you,” Francis said. “Liquor runs through me like water through the Liffey.”
James kept his eyes lowered just as a lady would, as they stood together waiting for the privacy door to open. Then, when it did open, Little and Jopson came out.
“Sir,” Jopson said in a surprised way; then both men knuckled their foreheads and walked off.
Francis smiled. “James?”
James turned to face Francis, and there was a moment quiet as ice when their breathing stopped. Then the silence shifted, and James found himself embracing Francis, face to face, lip to lip, tongue to tongue.
“Ay hay hay!” They heard Blanky shout as he came down the passage way. “Who’s ready to go to Terror? A short hop, skip, and jump. Father Franklin won’t chase us there!”
Clearly he hadn’t seen anything.
Francis gave James a keen look. “Let us use the facilities first,” he said. “I expect we’ll do a bit more drinking on this holiday night.” Then he went in.
“I wonder if I should I put my boots on?” James said quietly. He didn’t want to reveal his excitement, but no one said anything.
Francis emerged. “James, you’re definitely coming with us, so don your greatcoat as well.”
He nodded and entered. Finally, he was at the seat of ease, but his ears were ringing and he could barely manage to keep his hands from shaking.
“Jopson! Jopson, help Commander Fitzjames get ready for the trek,” he heard Francis shout.
Indeed Jopson was there with James’ boots and greatcoat when he emerged. While Jopson was fussing, Francis leaned in and touched James’ wrist. “Now you’ll be warm enough.”
James looked around. Was anyone watching? The gesture was so intimate.
But Jopson was finishing his tasks, and Blanky was studying the ice.
James could still feel Francis’ hand on him, and he could smell the liquor. Heavens, Francis was drunk.
“To the Terror, lads,” Francis called.
“Hear, hear,” Blanky shouted.
Blanky, Little, Jopson, and the TerrorMarines were pushing along as if they were on a routine march, as if they had no idea what was unfolding.
Only the dancing stars knew the meaning of that night; they were twirling just as James had done at the ball, and all James could think about was the heat of Francis’ tongue when they had kissed.
But, if he were to whisper the golden word “Francis”, they would all know.
“You’re dismissed, Thomas. James and I are going to continue to enjoy the night.”
Thomas dimpled as he spoke. “Good night, sir.”
As he closed the door, Francis spied a tiny gleam of gold out in the passage way. Clearly Edward Little was hovering in the light of the single lantern.
Francis had only started this flirtation as a spiteful jest, a taunt to mock the Chinese hero, the man who walked over Asia like a striding Colossus. Now that same man was just a . . . molly, a well-dressed molly in Francis’ despised arms. But some sort of miracle seemed to have taken place. James, the belle of the ball and Sir John’s favorite, was now willingly, beautifully alone with Francis in his meager cabin.
Francis had been up and down and through all the chords of intoxication, but he had never felt anything like this. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the vision of James, who was now sitting on the bed. His frock shone like snow against the open greatcoat, his knees were far apart, and Francis could see his white stockings stuffed in those elegantly monogrammed black boots.
“James, show yourself to me,” Francis breathed.
James pulled up the skirts of his frock, and, at the sight of his ruby-colored cock, Francis gasped. The sight was as beautiful as the splendor of the biggest star on a cloudless night, and he knelt before James’ stiff prick and took it in his mouth as if to absorb it into his own body.
James’ warm hand curled around Francis’ neck. “Don’t stop, don’t stop. I want you there, and then you can have me. You can be . . . inside me.”
Francis knelt lower to kiss the entrance of James’ body, the dark hole of James’ white-as-lace body.
“Francis, take me,” James whispered.
“Yes, yes.” Francis pulled James towards him and lifted his legs over his shoulders. It was an awkward position, James’ head propped against the wall behind the bed, but he made no complaint. His skirts were up, and his knees were far apart.
Francis had a good cock, he knew, thick and fat. All the doxies had appreciated it as had Sophia; even Thomas Blanky had applauded it on that demented drunk night when Francis had pulled it out for him. Now, running his palm over his tongue, he made himself ready for James. James was hot and tight, and Francis began to push in carefully.
“Can you take it, James? How hard can I go?”
“I’m a sailor, and that means I can take it all.”
Francis rammed into James like a cannon ball.
“Christ,” James panted.
Time froze then, the air buzzed as if it were making its own music, and nothing was warmer than James’ blessed body.
“Do you like this? When I pull your skirts up and fuck you?” Francis was in the center of heat. “James, speak to me. Is this good?”
“You’ll turn me inside out if you keep this up,” James growled.
“We’d be one man if I could do that, James.” One hot red man full of boiling blood.
“I’d like that. I’d like that very much, Francis.”
Then they were quiet; the only noise was the sound of their bodies rocking against the wall.
Frances’ thrusting stomach was pressed to James’ strong thighs, and, when James bent his head forward for a kiss, Francis was complete at last.
In the intensity of the kiss, he did not notice that James had moved his hand to his own cock, its tip wet against Francis’ belly. Then he felt the rapid tugging of James between them, and there was a pressure in his ears and James was coming on him, and he poured himself, all of himself, into James.
Francis awoke to a sharp knock at his door.
“Captain Crozier, sir?” It was Jopson. “Commander Fitzjames has been called to the Erebus. I’ve left slops for him outside the door.”
“Thank you, Jopson.” Francis turned to look at James who was just now opening his eyes.
“I must go,” James muttered in his hoarse voice.
Francis didn’t want this to end. He took James’ hand and squeezed it three times. I love you.
James smiled at him.
Late Summer, 1847
After Sir John’s hideous passing, things grew grimmer. Francis’ days were spent improvising survival, and at night only two things kept him steady: the whiskey and the dreams.
He closed his eyes, and he was lying beside James on the warm grass of an English summer. “James, where did you get that shirt?” It was made of a red silk printed with golden characters.
“I had it made in China. Do you like it?”
“Red is an uncommon color for men, but it suits you.” Francis rolled over on his elbow to look at James. Then, to produce a smile, he put James’ straw hat on.
“Silly man,” James said.
“Beautiful man.” Francis leaned in for a sun-warmed kiss.
“Open your shirt,” James begged.
“First you, and then I will follow.”
Then they were chest to chest, warm to warm, and, as they rubbed their bodies against each other, James’ soft moans floated on the breezes.
He invited James to supper with Jopson in attendance. Jopson was his usual attentive self with luminous smile and bright blue eyes, but James would not look at Francis.
“James, can you comment on our current status?” Francis himself wasn’t sure which status he meant.
James’ eyes could turn almost solid black when he was irritated.
“We must discuss this situation, James. It grows more ominous with each passing hour.”
James’ voice was low and inexpressive. “Get Master Blanky and Lieutenants Little and Irving here. They should have some good suggestions.”
But, when the sun never rose and the ice never moved, something brutal moved into Francis’ heart. Flogging the mutineers, especially the sailor who was naked, had been strangely satisfying.
In his dream, the man he was flogging was James.
He imagined James punished as a boy, those delicate hands tied to a cross stave while Francis stood behind him. At first it was Mr. Johnson who did the flogging. Then Francis took over, calling out the numbers with each lash. James’ beautiful back and buttocks were as responsive as a lover to Francis’ whip hand, and small dots of his blood splashed against the serious blue of Francis’ uniform. And, when James wailed, his cries acted on Francis’ like James’ own sweet lips.
Francis opened his eyes. All he wanted was to touch James, and, if he had to beat James to touch him, that would be what he would do.
After Thomas had finished sharpening the blade, Francis leaned his head back to receive his morning shave. Thomas’s hand was delicate and relaxing on his throat, and it pleased Francis to feel those short gentle strokes of the razor.
Then he saw a gleam of something. “Thomas, what is that?”
Thomas backed up a little. “What do you mean, sir?”
“Are you wearing a golden chain around your neck?”
Thomas’s face flared with joy. “Yes, Captain. Lieutenant Little gave it me as a token of our friendship.”
“Splendid! Can I see it?”
Thomas eagerly pulled the chain out of his shirt, revealing a heart-shaped charm made of silver and set with a white stone. “Edward -- I mean -- Lieutenant Little says it means we’ll be friends forever.”
“It’s no less than you deserve.” Francis looked into Thomas’ blue eyes. “When we return to England, I’ll give you a pretty too.” He took Thomas’ elbow. “How would you like it if I had a special medal struck? With a stone, an opal, say, or a pearl? Perhaps a diamond?”
Thomas shook his head. “No, nothing, sir. Just the opportunity to serve you.”
“Pfft,” Francis let go of him. “Think about it. Dismissed.”
When Thomas was gone, Francis put his head into his hands. He hadn’t offered to make a garnet medal for Thomas, because garnets were red, and that was the color he had dedicated in his heart to James.
A garnet ring in gold, to set off James’ coloring, with cloisonné designs around the edges of the stone.
A strange chill came over him. Was it over? They were never alone, their meetings were always full staff meetings, and now James, with the larger crew, was number one.
Still, Francis forgave him. Their night in his cabin had been the truest of nights. If they could get out of this blasted ice, then he and James could be together again.
Early April 1848
Bridgens showed Captain Crozier into Captain Fitzjames’ great room. “I’ll take my leave of you gentlemen.”
“No, Bridgens, stay. Fix us tea.”
It was a serious meeting; they needed to talk about abandoning the ships, the stores, the munitions. And the thing between him and James.
When Bridgens brought the tea, Francis asked, “Bridgens, is there any scuttlebutt we need to be aware of?”
Bridgens shook his shaggy head. “No, sir, nothing new. May I be excused, sir?”
“Of course,” James said.
“I’ll be right outside the door if you need me.”
So Bridgens knew and was guarding the door.
Francis and James looked at each other. Five minutes ticked past before they embraced, as if in one of Francis’ dreams.
“Let me undo my trousers,” James whispered. “Just a quick touch so we can remember.”
Both men grabbed the naked other and jerked anxiously together until they were spent.
Afterwards, Francis looked at James’ flushed face. “Why have you come to me now?”
Tears came to James’ eyes. “We’re at the end of our time, Francis. We both know that. We must matter to each other.”
Late April 1848
They abandoned ships, which meant sleeping in tents after a full day of hauling.
But sharing a wolf skin bag and sleeping with his arm around James’ slender ribs was a solace and a pleasure. James was no longer as fragrant as he once had been but he was still dear to Francis.
He and James were hunting a herd of caribou. They were using long rifles, and James was a good shot. When he fired, the biggest buck collapsed.
James reached to the fallen carcass first and used his long knife to cut the beast’s throat. Then, with all civilization gone, Francis scooped the pooled blood before it froze and held out a handful to James, who threw his face into Francis’ palm to drink it.
Francis and the man who had walked through Asia were truly brothers.
“Here, let me get a slice of loin for you,” James said.
Francis could taste the iron and the salt in the meat he received.
In the tent, under the wolf skin, James was shivering now. Francis pulled him closer and took his hand, pressing it three times. I love you.
And somewhere out of the ice and the disaster and the doom, James pressed back. Four times: I love you too.
The day came when James stumbled in harness.
He wanted to continue to haul, but Francis forbade it and made the men place the screaming James in the boat.
When they had reassembled in the tent, Francis watched James twist in pain. The seed of this catastrophe had been there at Greenhithe, and Francis was now too tired to think of how he could have stopped it from happening. All he wanted was to keep touching James.
Bridgens was standing behind Francis.
“Use my body. Feed the men,” James’s voice was uneven. “Feed the men.”
Bridgens touched Francis’ shoulder. “Surrender to the truth, sir. It’s time to let Captain Fitzjames sleep.”
That night in his dreams, Francis became King Francis, King of the End of the World.
Enthroned on a high cliff of ice and surrounded by boys, Francis rested his left hand on Jopson’s sweet hair and caressed Little’s neck with his right, while at his feet Harry Goodsir read from mystic scrolls.
Meanwhile, sailors, alive and dead, floated by, all of them sanctified angels.
And somehow James appeared, his face purified of pain and the marks of disease. He had always been a remarkable walker, and now he had walked up the cliff to Francis’ throne. But he stopped when he saw Francis with his harem, and he closed his eyes. No one could look as sad as James when he was sad.
Did James think Francis had already mated?
He could not have been more wrong.
“James, I want you for my consort, my empress, my eternal Cleopatra on a frozen barge.”
James smiled; he ran to kiss his lover so hard that he melted entirely into Francis’s soul. Now he would live forever in Francis’ big beating heart.
Then the air around them dissolved into icy mariner hosannas, wedding songs filled with chiming bells, and the distant sound of the sea beating the sand.