It has been a long day. Like a map, flat to the touch and yet filled with close-ranked contours, it has taken Francis a few lifetimes to trudge through what was, as the crow flies, only a few hours, each made longer by the feeling of swimming against the current of a river he’d rather not be in.
The worst of it is, that isn’t entirely fair; to further mangle the metaphor, though it had been the Admiralty who had shoved him in the cold water, it had been Francis himself who had taken off his shoes and made noises about the need for someone to take a dip before the next expedition set out. And as Francis is, by now, such an experienced swimmer, it is only sensible that he be attempting to impart advice on the next sorry lot to set their boots on the ice - ice which they’ve never seen outside of the odd chocolate-box frozen pond, and so they dismiss entire glaciers as little more than the sweet crushed ice served with fruit juice by society ladies who keep fires burning year-round for the comfort of their guests. Francis wants to laugh, hysteria bubbling up under the surface and closing his windpipe until he cannot breathe; he wants to shake the young captains until their teeth rattle in their skulls and scream at them that Hickey’s mutineers had started to eat each other! And that wasn’t enough! Because Francis doesn’t even know where their bodies are any more, in that great white waste!
He wants, sometimes, for a few horrible seconds too long, to let them go, inexperienced and cocksure as they are. To sit back, hands folded, and allow them to measure out enough rope to hang them and all their men before they’ve made it a year.
He wants a drink, more often than not.
But more than all this, today he has wanted James at his side to temper his temperament and provide the support of his experience to Francis’ statements, and of his presence to Francis himself. They’ve become unaccustomed to being apart in a way that almost worries him, he and James, more so than the rest of the surviving crew - though if Francis is honest, there are times when he should like his house turned into his ship, with hammocks strung up between the banisters where Francis might, at any time of the night, find each and every one of his precious crew hale, hearty, near at hand, and fast asleep. But James is ever different, of course, and his steady presence at Francis’ shoulder, or with a hand tucked into the crook of his arm when James’ joints are too stiff to hobble easily about their house, or grinning up at him all sweetness and light as he shifts in some utterly sinful way beneath Francis - well, he’d rather not go without it, but nor would he much like to share that with the crew.
The carriage jolts to a halt and Francis, with the practised obedient ease perfected by every teenage boy at sea with his mind not quite constantly on his sums, stops thinking about James arching his back and swearing sweet and breathless, and instead pays the driver and departs for his front door with no obvious sign of ever having thought of anything but the price of a hansom these days.
The house is quiet, but that signifies little; their staff is enjoying a day off and James has been known to spend entire days buried in some silent occupation: a book, a sketch, the perfect letter for William and his wife. It wouldn’t surprise Francis, either, if James were abed, since Francis himself had prescribed rest at home that morning. James hadn’t looked quite himself, pale and distracted, and hadn’t objected when Francis had told him to keep out of the Admiralty meeting - a sure sign of trouble. Francis had pressed his hand to James’ forehead, letting him sway into the contact and flutter his heavy eyes closed; he remembers his mother, long ago, doing the same to his brow when he had been unwell as a child. She must have known what to feel for but never told him, as Francis gleans nothing from the exercise, but it’s all the care he ever learned and so he pours it into James.
They’re all a little jumpy over illness, these days.
Francis abandons his hat and gloves on a side table, shrugging out of his coat and letting that, too, drape absently over some piece of expensive furniture designed for some nobler and more decorative purpose. He wants to see James, half a hundred reasons thrumming under his skin - is he well? has he been reminded, in the hours since his departure, of how well Francis loves him? could he stand another reminder? - but as he starts up the stairs to their rooms (two bedrooms, for propriety and nothing more) there is a flash of movement in the corner of his eye and dread, cold and heavy, sets into him. His gaze chases it even as his feet anchor him in place - if he doesn’t move, if he doesn’t run, if he only keeps him and his men still, then-
Francis blinks and his gaze sharpens, the ghost of what hunted them burning off like sun on the morning mist, and he sees a figure in a long, faded gown racing on light, bare feet along the corridor and vanishing into the bedroom that is, ostensibly, James’.
He blinks again. The figure had been entirely silent, their face obscured, and Francis cannot, in truth, be certain that his mind has not simply replaced one spectre for another; the faded splendour of the dress and stealthy step has his instincts crawling with the ghost stories he had used to tell with his brothers in the dark. Francis has lost his old touchstones and lodestars; he cannot trust his ice-blinded eyes, his dream-beset mind, his past-present memories. And he has done battle with a demon bear - who is he to say that some long-dead lady should rest any easier than he?
But his next step on the stairs creaks terribly, and there is a thud from what could be the direction of James’ room, and a soft curse from what can only be James, and Francis looks upon his situation from without. He is walking into a house which should only contain his lover, and has found within a stranger running into the lover’s chamber and desirous of being hidden from him. James is awake, and must have heard him, and yet no James is here to greet him. Only a fleeing woman, without hat or stockings or shoes, and a curse at his return.
There is another noise, and Francis finds his feet moving almost too fast, charging as if what is happening might stop happening, if only he can reach it in time; but then, at the landing, he stops. Perhaps, after all, he is wrong. He has dreamt whilst waking before, after all: had told James, with quite some confidence, that Jopson had tried to help him shave, again, even though the man is a lieutenant, now - and is in Kent with his family? James had politely, gently inquired, and then had hushed and held and soothed all through Francis seizing up and almost shattering a teacup with the force of his sudden, terrible panic. So he does not march into James’ room and demand explanations, does not throw his possessions and clothes from a window into the street, does not prepare to fight James or the lady or both - he’s seen all these responses and more, lazing in friendly ports on shore leave in Portugal and laughing at his men who, more often than not, were their cause. Instead, he pins his hopes upon his own bedroom door, the one they share, and knocks gently, pushes it open, finds it - empty.
“Francis.” James sounds pleased to see him, if a little out of breath, and when Francis summons the deadened, numb energy to turn his heavy head upon him he sees that James is wearing underclothes and belting a dressing gown around his waist, as if he has just emerged from bed. His bed, not Francis’. He runs a hand through his hair and offers an almost apologetic smile. “I’ve been in my room. Can’t have you getting whatever it is I’m coming down with.”
There’s an edge in the air. Francis and James both, it seems, are waiting for whatever it is that stops them treading so lightly: for the acknowledgement of unease. James is uncertain, fidgety, and Francis sees an out in it. He doesn’t know, Francis realises, if I know about the woman. We might never speak of this again.
And, coward that he curses himself for being, he takes that out; because he cannot for the life of him say I know what you have done, and yet still I love none so well as you - is that not strange?
Francis offers James a ghost of his own to think about, but this shape of a smile seems to settle James, who senses ignorance in it when he should see deliberate obliviousness. “No,” Francis says, barely a whisper. “You - you might put something warm on, in that case,” he says on a cleared throat, nodding slightly at James’ state of undress.
The edge shows its face again at that, James setting his shoulders a little in defence and tugging the dressing gown tighter about him, but Francis has no desire to press. “Yes. Yes, I will - I could sit with you until dinner, if you like.”
But no edge is equal to a sudden rush of towering fondness at James, who does still look a little peaky even if Francis is no longer certain of the illness’ existence, attempting to look like he would rather sit with a silent and surly Francis than crawl back into bed until he feels better. Francis smiles despite himself, despite the sucking void in his stomach where the bottom has fallen out of the world, despite everything, and shakes his head. “Get you to bed, James. Stir when you are better, and not before.”
James huffs in amusement, cocking an eyebrow at being so caught out. “Do I look so very bad?”
Not to me. Not ever. And oh, God above, have you looked worse - I would have you forever look at least as well as this. “Awful,” Francis tells him, and this earns him a real laugh, those dark eyes shining with mirth and chasing away memories of their fever-brightness.
“Oh, Francis, you are not kind,” James says, allowing himself to be propelled back to his room by sturdy hands on his shoulders. He is wrong - or, perhaps, right: Francis has a right to shout and hurt and be unkind to James and the woman both, and he will not. In so doing, he is unkind only to himself.
He closes the door on James. He does not look at his lover’s confusion at being so abandoned; he does not scan the floor for lost stockings or concealed lovers; he does not allow his eyes to land, not once, upon the unmade bed in the middle of the room.
The room is warm and gently lit, candlelight settling gently over rumpled sheets and kindly neglecting untidy piles of clothing strewn wildly over the floor. Francis hauls on sheets and blankets with ropey, uncooperative arms until the heavy mass is better settled over his shoulder, and then thinks better of the position. James giggles, grin loose and pressed into the muscle between Francis’ shoulder and chest, as he is awkwardly manhandled into lying like a second blanket over his lover. Francis makes a satisfied noise and presses his nose into James’ hair. There.
“Are you content, sir?” James says, voice warmer than sunshine, and Francis basks in it with a satisfied hum. The body atop him shifts and Francis cracks an eye open to see James looking right at him, a little worried something troubling the lines about his eyes. He leans, cat-like, into the uncoordinated palm that Francis sends to stroke the side of his face, and Francis rather wishes James would wait to have his worries until after Francis has recovered the brain cells and motor control that James invariably shags out of him.
“And you, James? Are you quite content?” he rumbles, and James smiles.
“Oh, yes, quite. But you - you do not want for anything? You would not change this, or yourself, or me, or-”
Francis frowns, shifting a thumb to stay the nervous words stumbling from James’ lips with gentle pressure on the kissed-red softness. James quietens, steadies, looks a little embarrassed for having gone on so; Francis sweeps his thumb along the sharp ridge of his cheekbone. “Nothing at all,” he soothes. “If you can put up with me, then I’ll have you however you come.”
James smiles slightly, almost without seeming to notice, and then suddenly flops back into Francis’ chest and hiding his face. “Well. Alright, then.”
Francis should press; should poke and prod until he understands why James might ever feel that Francis is somehow discontented with him. But it’s late, and he’s tired, and James is so endearing that he cannot find it within himself to do aught about it - so he collects James tighter within his arms, bag of joints and angles that he is, and falls asleep with a smile on his face.
The room is dark but for sharp, stabbing angles of blue moonlight, and Francis has grown unaccustomed to sleeping in a large bed without another body in it. For his adult life entire he has slept in a hammock in his two feet of allotted space amongst the crew, or in a bunk not much broader and not much more comfortable, or in this very bed with James curled into his side or sprawled over his chest or pressed into the bracket of his body, head to toe.
Such a vast expanse of cold, empty white sheets is not something Francis finds he especially cares for.
Francis scrubs the heels of his hands into the sockets of his eyes until the darkness spots and swirls like the borealis. He had loved it, at first; had snuck out when he should have been abed just to see it, as if anyone aboard would scold their captain for gazing, siren-struck, at the lights. Then it had become commonplace and then, finally, just another ghost to haunt him. Another beauty dulled, made abhorrent.
What has he missed? What little signs, what glaring errors, what squalls on the horizon did he not see to be so blindsided by this storm? He had thought himself so secure, both in James’ affections and in his knowledge of the man, but perhaps this had only been an act of supreme hubris on his part, rivalling even the Admiralty whelps who so sneer at his advice. What has Francis done wrong, to have and to hold and so terribly to lose? How could he have loved James better - made him happier - done something that would have somehow made Francis enough?
And for how long - for how many days, weeks, months has James been seeking solace with another? How long has Francis sat oblivious, cuckolded and too stupid and slow even to notice? Is this how it has been ever since setting foot on solid, English shores? And James has been trying for months to find a way to escape his captain, too respectful of the chain of command to deny Crozier what had been welcome when trapped on the ice but is unwanted when the offer is offset by tall, darkly delicate ladies. Francis does not need the blue moonlight to light him to know how heavyset, how broad, how gaelic pale he is. James could not have picked more different a lover.
All this should make him burning furious with hurt and shame and pain, and Francis has an idea that he would feel better if it did, but he just can’t quite summon the energy. Perhaps it’s the shock of it, but all Francis feels is a terrible kind of tragic resignation. Plenty of sailors give up onboard connections in favour of the fairer sex as soon as it becomes available - Francis has even been one such, in his time - and he cannot begrudge James a desire for the right kind of love, the one that comes with marriage and children and honesty, rather than the secret, furtive, suspicious thing they have now.
Francis lets out a little gasp into the silent night air, screwing his eyes shut against his own thoughts as if that could squeeze the truth out of them and leave them simply as horrid, empty little lies. Because despite everything Francis is clinging to James’ coattails like a dragging anchor, hauling and possessive, and cannot bring himself to let go. He has been happier here, with James, these past few months than he ever was alone, or even with Miss Cracroft. He likes to wake up with James in his bed, to breakfast with their ankles rubbing under the table and discussing any and all things, to know that, wherever they go in the day, they come back home to each other. He likes, God help him, the secret, furtive, suspicious thing they have built together; he loves the kind of love that has him damned. Francis knows, in a gut-punch of pain, that he’ll not get married. That, for him, it’s James or it’s nothing at all.
A tear rolls hot across his temple, soaking into his hairline. Francis takes in one seething, gritted-teeth breath, and wipes it away, rolls over, and thinks of not of the sweet destruction of James and whiskey and losing himself in either, but of nothing at all.
They tread carefully about one another, afraid of any and every reaction. Francis is fairly sure that James is edgy only because he is; the maid has broken two teacups and the cook has overcooked their dinner three times in the week following James’ brief illness, Francis’ tension permeating the house and creating trouble without good cause. He is aware, too, that this cannot go on. Each day ends with exhaustion, and he can find no comfort in his bed with or without James in it; there is no solace to be found for him anywhere. Worse still, Francis finds himself jealously guarding James’ time and then only making the man miserable with his poor company. He has never been this person before and cannot like himself for it, recognising too late the poor, grasping, suspicious creature he has become.
For instance, now: Francis stands, childishly churlish in the shadows, and watches James. They have been parted by the swirl of the dancefloor and the chop-and-change conversations - oh Francis, you must meet Lord Such-and-such; leave Commander Fitzjames to these ladies, eh? - and he cannot quite bring himself to make the charge and reunite them. The jealous creature curses his cowardice, but some smothering reticence keeps him trapped and glowering on the sidelines. Is it not better, he sneers inwardly at himself, to see oneself proven right?
For James is presently holding court, presiding over a young officer, his wife, and a pretty, dark haired lady who is simpering and blushing very artfully, constantly shifting to draw the eye to the pale expanse of her chest and the trim, periwinkle blue waist of her dress. Christ, James could probably wrap his hands all the way around her middle and lift her clean above his head! Francis has never been so light, so slight, not even starving on the ice. Has never wanted to be, either, only-
James cannot keep his damned eyes off her. His gaze roves over the lines of her shoulder and sleeve, along the low neckline, to her waist and skirts, even over her long white gloves before flickering guiltily back to her face, as if her conversation couldn’t quite hold his attention. She laughs, presses closer, a hand on his arm, and James again is transfixed by her glove on his sleeve and her heavy skirts washing up against his leg at her every move. Francis cannot hear their talk from here and does not want to; it is enough to watch, and seethe, and suppress the desire to lurch forward and rip her hand from him, familiar as that dark hair seems to him. He couldn’t; what would he say? Excuse me, madam, but this young man was in my bed before he was ever in yours. Kindly remove your hand from his arm - please. I want him to want me again.
Francis wrenches his gaze away and attaches it firmly to his own boots. It has been an effort, tonight, to fend off the staff with their trays of drinks, and also to want to do it. He has found it worryingly easy to slide back into his old self upon his return to an unchanged society, as if his new self as forged in frozen desperation will thaw out if he sits too near a well-kept fireplace. The railroads have kept on in his absence and his old place on the track waits for him; to be railroaded is a tempting thought, when drinks are pushed under his nose by well-meaning acquaintances and Miss Cracroft inquires if he’ll visit them soon. But he has no desire to lose control again, after months of a clear head, and little urge to resume whatever it was that he and Sophia were to one another. She had pushed and pulled in equal measure, shifting the ground beneath his feet; they had never been each other’s wisest choices.
But then, James - perhaps Francis is incapable of wisdom in such matters.
Busy with his introspection, James is a surprise when he presents his own shining shoes within Francis’ field of view. He is, when Francis rears his head up, smiling with what (selfishly, jealously) seems to him greater pleasure than James had found with his young lady, and he reaches out to run a friendly hand down Francis’ arm. Their hands, when they meet, subtly entangle entirely upon instinct and, for a moment, quite capture Francis’ attention. Each point of contact, each stubborn callous and rough spot - Francis is aware of them all, and jealous of every other thing James’ fingers have touched. Jealous, too, of the softer, daintier hands of James’ other secret lover. Jealous, jealous, jealous.
“Are you tired, old man?” James asks pleasantly, eyes sparkling with mischief when Francis glowers at him. “By my reckoning, we’ve shown our faces well enough, even if yours has been resolutely grumpy throughout. We could make our excuses and go home, if you like.”
Home. It doesn’t have the same appeal, these days; tainted forever by the idea of the other in his house, in his lover’s arms, in his lover’s bed. Perhaps that is why he snaps.
“What of your belle? She should be sorry to see you go.” He gestures vaguely, poisonously, in the direction of the girl now sighing crossly and fussing impatiently with the fingers of her gloves as she waits for James’ return. She even stomps her delicate foot once like a spoilt child when her scan of the room does not reveal her absent charmer.
James’ brow furrows, and then clears. “Oh! Miss - Miss - do you know, I’ve quite forgotten her name. And I’m sure she shan’t miss me too much; I quite bored her with my inattention, but I was looking for someone who would insist upon hiding in the shadows and it took some doing to find him.”
And oh, oh, the gentleman doth protest too much. Forgotten her name - does he think Francis a fool? He’s smiling as if Francis should be pleased, should be himself charmed by the apparent superiority James claims he has, should ignore the evidence of his own damn eyes in favour of pretty words that Fitzjames has always spun to his own advantage. And that’s not fair, given what James has told him about his family and the disadvantages of birth they both share, but Francis is hurting and, like a wounded bear, strikes.
“Perhaps you had better things to do together than exchange names and make conversation,” Francis growls, voice low and dark.
James recoils in pained confusion - oh yes, I know what you’ve done after all, Francis thinks with a twisted punch of triumphant anguish - but his hand remains resolutely wound up in Francis’. He half wishes James would drop it; it might be easier, that way. “Francis, I don’t - I told you, I was looking for you.”
“Oh?” Francis says, all brittle light and sharp surprise, and James winces, bewildered, at his tone. “And did you expect to find me down the front of her bodice?” His voice slides into a snarl before he can quite help it and he has to wrench his hand from James’ before he slides even further down this slippery, vicious slope and bursts into tears. James tries to keep hold of him and even makes an effort to chase his rough fingers, still affecting bewildered pain, but Francis tucks his hands neatly behind his back and straightens into a stance so rigidly professional that Sir John Franklin would have wept for the glory of the nation’s Discovery Service. “I am going home, so you needn’t keep your look-out for me. Don’t keep her waiting, now.” And with that, he turns on his heel and strides across the ballroom and away.
He’s too furious to notice if he attracts attention in his desperate retreat - even to note James’ reaction beyond a dropped jaw and stunned blink. Numb to all things but his terrible, painful rage, Francis doesn’t even take the time to collect his greatcoat or call a cab to take him home and instead stomps out into the cooling night as he is. Winter is encroaching quickly upon them and here he is, in his finest dress uniform - decorative jacket, ornamental boots, bloody useless hat. And this, here, is the dignity of the Service. All they had, at the end, had been the clothes on their backs; loose teeth and bleeding scalps, but they were dying in their smart, shining uniform as if that would make the slightest bit of difference. As if that would somehow bring honour to the shambling, miserable demise of the expedition. Now Francis is walking away from his peers and the love of his thrice-damned life and the shambling, miserable demise of his own happiness after a short and childish argument, but well! At least his gold braid glints in the yellow pools of false sun offered by the streetlamps. It’s a hollow, shallow, shell of a thing, this dignity.
And it’s all he presently has.
The walk from the Rosses’ house to his own is not far, and Francis finds himself on his own doorstep rather sooner than he had expected. He reaches for his key - and then sighs deeply. His key, which is in his greatcoat, which is in the cloakroom almost a mile behind him. The wind picks up suddenly and rips a great shiver from his frame, and he cannot help but hope that James has not followed him, or that he has at least taken his coat. He cannot help but worry about him, even now that they are (they must be) nothing to each other: is this to be how it is now? James, married and well, and Francis fretting unwanted on the sidelines, unable to help worrying if the object of his denied affection is cold.
He groans and slumps, letting his head thud into the door and his eyes fall shut. Francis Crozier has borne many things and will bear this one too, but for now he is locked out of his own home and it’s an effort not to behave in a manner quite unbecoming of his uniform and weep.
“The key is in your coat, I believe.”
Francis cracks open one eye, but the illusion remains: James, with Francis’ coat in his outstretched hand (and neatly, warmly buttoned into his own coat, Francis notes with a kind of absent-minded relief) and a nervous challenge in his eye like a kicked dog. Francis makes no move, however, to take the coat, and James sighs and shifts his weight, unsurprised and yet disappointed. He shakes the heavy wool slightly. “Please, Francis, you’ll get cold.” Perhaps it’s the ice that has them this way, but perhaps something more basic, too. Perhaps, despite everything, once you’ve lain with a man, you can’t help but worry if he gets cold.
“I haven’t turned you out of the house, James,” he says calmly. “You needn’t have chased me back; I shan’t change the locks on you.”
James tips his head back sharply on a deep inhale and breathes it out just as quickly as his head snaps to the side, lips pressed together in frustration and fury. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Francis-”
But whatever he has to say Francis rapidly cuts off by hammering his bare fist against the door beside his head, drowning out James’ muttered swearing. His gloves, too, are tucked in with his key, and the thumping beats blood back into his tingling, pale skin. It feels better, the way that whiskey burn feels better, and it’s an effort to push back from the door in time for the maid to open it. She looks a little startled, a little untidy from sleep, and ordinarily Crozier would chide her for sleeping on watch - but with pleasure-pain blooming in his fist, he just wants her out of the way of whatever spectacular explosion is to follow.
“Thank you, Tilney, you may go home.” Francis pushes in, ignores her little nervous bob of a curtsy and leaves James in the hall to give a calmer dismissal. He props himself up on the sitting room mantel, staring into the licking flames. There is about to be an argument and they both know it; probably even Tilney knows it, now, and is begging James to have tomorrow off and avoid the aftermath. Well, let her have it; let Francis stew in his own misery alone.
The front door closes and Francis counts James’ careful steps into the sitting room. He can hear him settle, the old house creaking under his nervous, shifting feet, and the fire crackles gently under the weight of Francis’ gaze. It is quiet.
“The Rosses-” James begins, abrupt and too loud. “Sir James was very understanding about our leaving early,” he says, quieter, gentle, like Francis is a dog who bites at loud noises.
“Sir James is a very understanding man,” Francis says mechanically, almost on instinct. They have not yet moved; the fight has not yet begun.
James hums his agreement, and the battle brews behind Francis’ teeth. Is Francis not an understanding man? Is he to be compared to James Clarke Ross and found wanting in his forgiveness because he cannot bear James’ infidelity? He begins to turn towards James, but the first shot is not his own; is not, in truth, much of a shot across his bows at all.
“I am sorry, Francis, but I have not his understanding - I have done something to hurt you and I cannot fathom what it is I have done.”
Francis staggers back, weight back on the mantelpiece. James is wringing his hands white with every appearance of sincerity, his eyes bright with what Francis very much fears are tears, and the sight is a gut punch. It hurts to hurt James. “How can you not know?” he whispers into the quiet. “How can you not know that it would hurt me?”
James shakes his head, mouth pulling into a mask of hurt and fear. “Francis, I do not know what you are accusing me of.”
So he must say it. Francis closes his eyes and picks his words slowly, and with care. “You are not faithful to me, James.”
The silence echoes and resounds. It fills Francis, numbing him from his heart to his fingertips. He opens his eyes. James looks horrified - not caught out, not guilty, but genuinely upset by the very idea - and Francis briefly wonders, not for the first time, if the statement that must be fact is not, in reality, quite impossible. “No,” James breathes, like Francis has punched the air from his lungs. “No, Francis, never.”
“No?” Francis replies, just as soft. “You were not, this very evening, paying the prettiest attentions to a young lady? So captivated by her curves that you didn’t listen to a word she said? You never spent the night looking down her dress, acting quite the gallant rogue?” His voice has risen steadily in volume, fury pouring like bloody bile from his mouth in an uncontrollable stream, and James is just standing there stunned. Francis wishes he would move, speak, do anything - even thump him. He could really go for a fight, just now. A real brawl. “Christ, James, do you think I’m bloody blind?”
But James doesn’t throw a punch. He doesn’t even raise his voice. “I told you, Francis, I don’t even know her name,” he says weakly.
“You brought her into my home and fucked her!”
Francis breathes heavily in the wake of that roar, ripped from deep within his chest and leaving a bloody mess behind it. James has actually been knocked back a step, propping his stunned self up on a side table and apparently quite unable to do anything at all. Francis’ fists clench and unclench at his sides, but the roar has pulled a lot of the fight out with it. He’s just tired, now; it is what it is. No amount of shouting can undo it. Francis shakes his head, face contorting into a smile full of devastation. “My home, James. Our home. You had her, here, when I made you stay at home because you looked unwell and spent the whole day missing you. And she was so careless that I saw her, James, running barefoot into your room. Did you not care that I might return?”
“Of - of course I cared,” James murmurs after a moment, the confusion clearing from his gaze as he treads closer with great care. His hands are spread before him as if he is gentling a wild animal and Francis allows his gaze to rest there. They are familiar, unchanged, and do not pose difficult questions. James’ eyes are, just at present, like the sun; Francis cannot look at them directly. “Very much - only, not for the reason you suppose.” Francis scoffs, looking away, and James uses this opportunity to catch Francis’ hands up in his own and hold them there, between them. “Francis, I was careless. I had thought to be changed and abed long before your return - I lost track of the time, I was a fool, I only-”
Francis, finally, looks at James’ face. His eyes are screwed tight shut but the words are pouring from him, bursting free and overflowing like long-bottled champagne. James is clinging to Francis’ hands like a lifeline, and as Francis runs a thumb over his knuckles the pieces slot neatly into place. “I saw you in the dress,” he murmurs in wonderment. There was no other woman.
James lets out a sobbing gasp, breathing heavily and tightening his grip on Francis’ hands. “Oh, God. Francis, I’m so sorry, I’ll not- I understand this will - end things between us but I couldn’t have you thinking- I would not hurt you, Francis-”
“I have been the most colossal, consummate fool,” Francis says, horror dawning like ice water pouring slowly down his spine. What he had done - what he had believed, and of James! “And a cruel bastard to boot. Oh, God, James - the things I’ve said, what I’ve done to you - I should have known better.”
“You were - ultimately justified,” James says, managing to school his tone into something level. His eyes are still squeezed resolutely closed and Francis feels a sudden stab of panic deep within him that he might never see James’ dancing dark eyes again.
He picks up one of their joined hands and brushes their knuckles ever so softly down the side of James’ face. Startled seemingly by the gentleness (and oh, how that hurts Francis deep in his protective fury) James blinks his eyes open, transfixed by Francis’ gentle, sorrowful smile. “No, James,” he says, and watches the words sink in past walls of certainty and confusion and pain. “No, I wasn’t. Not at all. I should have trusted you, and I did not; it is inexcusable, but I beg your forgiveness with every inch of my sorry self.”
James’ breath stutters through his open, astonished lips. “Forgiven,” he whispers, and Francis shakes his head.
“You don’t have to, James - you are quite safe, I promise. I don’t deserve-”
And then James’ lips are on his, and despite Francis’ horrible, sucking guilt he cannot help but accept this compassion; he has missed James, in his self-imposed and needless exile. “Forgiven,” James murmurs against his lips. “If - if you’ll still have me.”
Francis shakes his head minutely, gathering James to his chest and allowing his lover to bury his face in the cradle of his neck and shoulder. “However you come, my beloved James.”
“So why were you looking at her?”
James hums in inattentive query, peeling his slightly sweat-sticky face from Francis’ arm and blinking absently as he fathoms out the question. The sun has almost reached its zenith in the sky, filling Francis’ bedroom with light and chasing away the edge of the autumn chill; a late hour, but Francis hadn’t slept well in a week and James had, as expected, given Tilney the day off. Leaving the bed had not been their first priority upon waking. Francis smiles and brushes a loose lock away from James’ forehead and is rewarded with a blinding little glow and a cat-like press into the contact. It doesn’t seem to help James focus on the question, but it had been quite irresistible and entirely worthwhile.
James wrangles his mind into shape and visibly wakes up a little. “Oh, the girl. No - nothing.” Francis frowns as James battens some internal hatch, apparently quite on instinct, and tenses up slightly in Francis’ arms. And then James sighs deeply and goes boneless again. It’s an effort, Francis can see that; he recognises it from his own efforts to unlearn the habit of entering a room and heading straight for the decanter. “Did you see what she was wearing?” James says conversationally.
Not as well as you did, sneers the jealous monster. Francis kicks the thought away and runs a hand up and down James’ boney spine - no need for that, now. “A little.”
“I did not much care for the colour,” James hedges, fussing with a fingernail and not quite looking Francis in the eye. “But it had this - this low neckline, straight across…” He traces the line of it across his own chest, seemingly without awareness of having done so, and Francis avidly tracks the slow drag of his fingertip with hungry eyes.
He swallows, throat dry. “I noticed,” Francis says, when it seems like James might just lie there lost in thought and tracing lines over his own body.
That has his attention, and James’ eyes flick in mischief to Francis. “Oh, did you?” he says, teasing and only further amused by Francis’ eye roll. “Ought I be jealous?”
Francis fixes his hands about James’ waist and rolls them, bearing his giggling lover down into the mattress with his weight. “No,” he growls, and dips his head to press an urgent kiss to James’ sternum, just where the imagined neckline had been traced. James’ giggles dissolve into a sigh, head tipped back to expose his throat, and Francis is briefly really quite distracted.
“It was so - pretty - I’ve never-” James appears to be struggling somewhat to keep his own thoughts in line and Francis smiles against his neck before continuing to litter kisses across the pale expanse. “Francis, I’m trying to answer your bloody question, man,” James huffs at last, pushing gently at his head until Francis pulls back and assumes a suitable I’m listening and not being at all distracting expression. James swats the back of his head and he gathers he was not quite successful. But James is still smiling, just about: that little twisted corner that contains his hidden amusement, and so Francis settles to listen. He does want to know, after all; this is a whole area of his lover’s life that Francis has known nothing about, and though he has already promised James twice not to ever stop him dressing as he pleases, Francis has a lot to prove, now.
“So. Low cut,” Francis prompts, and James settles back into his nerves like a well-worn boot.
“And - the skirts. They’ve got bigger, since we were away - did you know that? All the ladies look so small inside them, so delicate.” James fixes his gaze somewhere over Francis’ shoulder, eyes filled with confusion and embarrassment, just barely drowned out by absolutely devastating longing.
Francis props himself up on one elbow, jaw in his palm, and traces one blunt nail along the ghost of the neckline. James shivers under his touch and Francis can feel the weight of his gaze upon him, but he is treading out into uncharted territory; his words must be chosen with care. “And - is that what you seek, James? To be - delicate?”
“Yes,” James breathes, like it’s the greatest relief in the world, and now Francis can meet his gaze. His eyes are wide, lips parted, and Francis cannot resist the briefest press of his lips to James’ temple. “Her gown was so pretty , Francis, and I wanted it so terribly. Skirts to swirl about in, just for the sake of it - to be dainty and desirable and hang off your arm. Christ, I know I shouldn’t want it - know it’s wro-”
“Will you show me?” Francis interrupts, voice low and gentle despite his desperation to stop these words, these worries. James blinks up at him, wrongfooted, and Francis leans in to brush a kiss to the rise of his cheekbone. “Show me your dress, James,” he murmurs, and James makes a tiny, desperate sound in the back of his throat, and Francis finds his mouth otherwise engaged.
“This is much easier. Francis, you’re hired as my maid.” He can see, in the long mirror before them, his own smile over James’ shoulder, as well as the slightly nervous one on James’ face. But as well as all that, he can see the long, faded gown reaching from shoulders to mid-shin, with its embroidery and once-red velvet all care-worn and wearied. It’s an old dress, even Francis can see that; the skirts are not so full, the bodice not so pointed, and the fabric is showing its age. However, despite all this, it is bearing the years well. Francis suspects an abundance of care taken by someone for whom such a garment, even one so old as this, is unfathomably precious. James’ hands are folded nervously over his stomach, still edgy about showing himself to another, but Francis can see him running the side of his thumb ever so gently up and down the soft fabric.
“I wouldn’t,” he says, trying to keep the air light and teasing so that James doesn’t spook. “These buttons have lasted me ‘til i’m old and wisened.”
As expected, James’ grin broadens and he settles a little easier in his skin. “You were already old and wisened, Francis.”
He finishes the last button and prods James none too gently in the side, finger bouncing harmlessly off the corset that has James’ waist cinched. Only slightly; Francis had been rather nervous about lacing it too tightly. But the shape is different and he lets his fingers glance over James’ ribs and settle lightly at the unfamiliar curve. Despite the added layers of fabric, the barrier of the skirts, James’ own unassailable height, Francis rather sees what he means about becoming dainty; Francis’ broad hands spread over James’ hips look so much larger now. And James holds himself differently, too, in some subtle way that Francis cannot quite pinpoint. As if he is somehow lighter upon his feet, and Francis could grasp him by the waist and lift him away.
They make an unusual pair, these people in the mirror. Francis, broader and fairer with his chin hooked over James’ shoulder and his hands smoothing possessively over James’ hips, does not seem to quite match James - James, who is tall and dark and slender, chin up like some proud princess of antiquity and more perfectly astonishing than any society lady, than anything at all, that Francis has ever seen. But his eyes, when they meet Francis’ in the glass, are sharpened by challenging bluff and deep with anxious nerves.
“You’re taking this very well,” James notes, as if commenting on nothing so interesting as the weather. And yes, Francis supposes he is; only, theirs is hardly a conventional relationship anyway. He has never taken the time to differentiate men and women in his affections and James has only ever really concerned himself with the bearded sex, Francis now knows, and society has them damned for that already. Francis shrugs. What should he care how James dresses? He cannot presently think of one good reason why James shouldn’t wear whatever best pleases him, or why Francis might ever try to stop him.
Francis tugs gently at James’ hipbones, pulling their bodies flush against one another. His hands slide over the smooth panels of the gown and settle, wrapping tight around James and tangling with his nervous, grasping fingers. Francis breaks his gaze from the mirror and presses a slow, firm kiss to the join of James’ neck and shoulder. The vast stretch of bared skin, usually so buttoned up behind shirt and cravat and waistcoat and jacket, is intoxicating; Francis could litter this blank page with kisses, branding marks into James’ skin that only they two would ever see. He could trace his fingers along the neckline as James had earlier, could dip his fingers under the fabric to the soft skin beneath, could loosen the top lacing enough to kiss James with his entire hand down James’ dress like an enthusiastic teenager. But Francis has visions, too, of resting a hand under James’ collarbone before a roaring fire of an evening: James sprawled over the sofa with his head in Francis’ lap, as they often end the day, only now draped and delicate in satins and chiffon and reading his book like this is nothing unusual, like it’s nothing at all.
Like it isn’t precisely the comfort Francis wishes for them both, forever.
“How did I ever get so lucky?” he mumbles absently against James’ skin, and the man trembles under his lips.
“Francis-” he begins, closing his eyes and shaking his head slightly.
“I mean it, James.” At every word, James relaxes into his grip until their heads are leaning together. “So beautiful.”
James twists in his arms and presses a determined kiss to his lips. Francis is almost tempted to deepen it, to bear him back to bed and get a hand up James’ skirts - but dressing so is something James does for himself, not for Francis’ pleasure. Perhaps, someday, if James is willing. It is miles more important that James knows that his acceptance is not dependant on anything else. So he follows where James leads, and when that leads to James’ head buried in Francis’ shoulder and his arms wrapped about him as tight as could be, Francis counts himself amongst the luckiest men on the Earth.
In two weeks, on Tilney’s next day off, a parcel arrives unexpectedly for James and Francis does a terrible job of pretending he doesn’t know what it is.
“Who could have bought something for me?” James says, tapping his fingers against the lid of the box with a grin.
“Open it and find out,” Francis says gruffly, fussing awkwardly on the opposite side of the room with the pens on his desk. “I’m sure I don’t know.”
James laughs and removes the lid at last. “After all, I talked to so many people about wanting new paper for sketches… Francis,” he says in triumph, plucking a sheet of curling letters and numbers from atop the gossamer-thin tissue paper and brandishing it in Francis’ direction, “your name is on the bill; really, your subterfuge is-”
Francis turns away from his desk after a moment and into the sudden silence. The bill still hangs from James’ fingers but only because he appears to have frozen quite completely, gaze locked on the contents of the box, now unconcealed by packaging. It is impossible to read, in this drawn-out moment, the expression upon James’ face, and Francis begins to regret every single event in his life that led him here, up to and including joining the navy at thirteen. Still, he can’t help a little smugness: how’s my subterfuge now, James?
James lays the bill upon the table with undeserved care and lifts the new gown from the box with fingertips inclined somewhat to tremble. Francis had agonised over every detail and spent hours comparing colours and running fabrics through his fingers as if he knew the slightest thing about such matters, but he has to admit to a certain pride in his final choice. The dress is a deep plum colour with short, flouncing sleeves, the prerequisite half mile of crinolines and a straight neckline, as low as Francis had dared request. The silk shifts and shines in the light as if it’s a living, breathing thing showing off its fine features, and beneath it in the box lie matching slippers and a pair of stockings so thin Francis almost mistakes them for the tissue paper.
But James is still, after a long, long minute, yet to say anything and dread begins to sink in. “I had to guess at the sizing. And the cut,” Francis says, throat dry and uncooperative. He sighs, closes his eyes and lets his head fall back as he runs through his litany of further potential mistakes. “And the colour, and fabric, and style, and whether you would even want-”
There is a rustling noise by the table and then quick footsteps, and Francis imagines the dress cast aside and James storming out at this unwelcome reminder of his secret - and then his eyes startle open as James wraps his hands around the back of Francis’ head to better guide him into a sudden, crushing kiss. There is little gentleness here, more desperation; James is kissing him like he wants to climb between his teeth and occupy him inside and out. Francis’ attempts to gentle the urgency away are quickly abandoned in favour of simply keeping up with James’ desperate, fervent adoration until, at last, James slows. He presses their foreheads together, gasping into the same few inches of space for the same breath, with his eyes closed. Francis waits. James collects himself up into something resembling his usual self. He opens his eyes. Smiles.
“Purple?” James says, and Francis shrugs. “Didn’t I buy you a waistcoat in that shade in February?”
He tries to pretend he hadn’t thought of such a thing; hadn’t searched every corner of their lives for some indication of how this gift might be made exactly right and fretted endlessly about it not being just so - but this is a useless endeavour. James knows him well enough, now, to see the truth in his nerves.
“But-” James shifts in his arms to look back at the table, eyes filled with longing as they fall upon the dress. Francis frowns slightly. He need not long for it - the dress is his own. “Francis, that’s good silk. That must have - you shouldn’t have spent so much money!”
Francis tightens his arms around James and holds firm as he tries to get another look at the bill. “I shall spend my money as I please, James.”
“No, James.” Something in his tone marks this as the sticking point and James stops attempting to fight free. Francis reaches up to stroke James’ hair out of his eye, tracing gently down the line of his face. It’s a well-loved face, and one Francis has become accustomed to seeing - so much so, that the minute increase of ease in its features over the past few weeks is as glaring and delightful to Francis as an arctic year’s first sunrise. He cannot pretend to be the sole and entire cause of James’ newfound comfort, but if just a little light conversation will earn him such delight then what can he buy with an armful of silk and a pair of pumps? “Think of it - as an investment,” he says, a tiny soft smile tugging at the side of his mouth as James cocks his head like an inquisitive bird. “In your future health and happiness. Mine, too.”
James scans his face for insincerity and finds none. His own smile creeps out into a pretty mirror of Francis’ own and he shakes his head slightly in incredulous delight. “God love you, Francis,” he murmurs. “And so do I.”
Francis is sitting with a book open in one hand, and is ignoring it entirely to think about dignity.
He is slumped into the corner of his settee, legs stretched out onto the rug and crossed at the ankles, with the book-holding hand propped up on the arm of the sofa and the other palm feeling James’ slow, thudding pulse beat steadily out. James is occupying the rest of the sofa, lying on his back with his head in Francis’ lap and his eyes closed, although Francis suspects he is not sleeping. Francis’ hand is spread over the smooth, thin skin of his sternum, rising and falling with each regular breath, and every so often James shifts and silk rustles like leaves on the breeze, like a whisper, like a secret. One of his stockings has slid down as far as his ankle, and that feels like a secret, too, that Francis is so very lucky to be let in on.
They had danced together, quite badly, and without any music to keep them in time. James had struggled to remember whether or not he was leading or being led, and Francis had been so afraid to plant his sturdy boot on James’ delicate slipper that he had been reluctant to move at all, and the resulting waltz had been unsteady and awkward and frequently entirely stationary. But James had been absolutely delighted with them throughout, insisting upon being spun and swirled just to watch the silks and petticoats turn and turn. And his long, pale, bared arms had lain atop Francis’ sleeve, and Francis had spent an hour with his lover in his arms, and James had just been so damned happy about it all that Francis had tolerated his own poor dancing and unshakeable self-consciousness for the sake of it.
It hadn’t hurt, either, that James had continually run his long fingers over Francis’ matching waistcoat: sometimes with maddening intent, and sometimes with the absent instinct that belies subconscious desires and is more maddening than ever. To match, subtly and sweetly, as if they were made for each other and could declare it to the world. It seems James likes the idea as well as Francis does.
Only they cannot declare it, and it is this that has Francis staring blankly at the page before him and absently drawing shapes with a blunt fingertip onto the thin skin of James’ chest. There is a dignity in clothing, Francis finds: a pride in one’s presentation. To have a smart appearance seems to imply similar internal quality, as if putting Mr Hickey in James’ boots and poor Irving’s coat would have made him somehow worthy of the men he led away. As if clinging to their uniform regulations out on the ice had retained their humanity and made them better people, as if it would have given their deaths some kind of honour. Francis had remained in his uniform, a captain to the last, holding fast to the only honours he had been given - and for what? More gold braid on his cap upon his return? Had he really been rewarded for the blind stoicism so favoured by the Admiralty?
The suspected sadness of it is that, very likely, fifty men washing up on the shores of the Back River looking like Netsilik seal hunters would be less delightful to the Empire’s propaganda machine than ten men in complete uniform surviving the trek, or possibly even no survivors at all, so long as they died with well-shined boots on their feet and Rule Britannia on their lips. And James is a bloody hero, and if anyone at all knew that Fitzjames and Crozier spend their afternoons dressed up as they are to curl up together on the sofa then his scurvy-ridden trek across the arctic, bleeding from decades-old bullet wounds and yet still going, would be-
“You’re thinking too much,” James says, eyes still closed. Francis shuts his thumb in his book and looks down at him. The wave of righteous fondness hits like a wall, but he rides it out with practised ease. They’re neither of them so ambitious, now. To protect one more expedition from their fate, to sit here before the fire, to keep a small garden - these things are good enough. And so, what of it if the world cannot see James’ dignity? Perhaps this is Francis’ reward: this view past James’ facade, exposed only in complete security. To be that security. To love everything he finds there.
And, looking down at James stretched out in comfort and delicate beauty, Francis cannot say that there is no dignity here. Not only is the man a delight to the eye in his swathes of fabric and embroidery, but he is also at his ease in his own skin. James has, at last, wrested ownership of himself away from the Admiralty and his uniform and he is no longer the Commander Fitzjames best designed to please his superiors, but James Fitzjames, and no more. No more, as if it were not easily more than enough.
Is there not greater dignity, after all, in being not the person that one is supposed to be, but the person that one is?
Francis finds that a smile has spread wide across his face without his noticing. “I love you,” he says, voice gravelly with the previous quiet and the weight of some undefined emotion that he can’t quite fathom out.
James cracks an eye open and frowns up at him. “Good Lord, Francis, I hope you weren’t spending all that time deciding on that.”
But then he’s grinning, and his heartbeat picks up and dances under Francis’ palm, and as Francis laughs James presses his nose into the waistcoat that matches his dress. If the clothes maketh the man, Francis thinks to himself as he returns to his book, then we ought to go well together for a while yet.