A flash, and Francis found himself deposited out of the sucking-air vacuum of sound speed locomotion, on the corner of a non descriptive back-alley in Whitechapel. It took him less than two seconds to balance himself against the greasy wall at his side, fingers digging in the lime in the cracks between bricks; another half-second to have his stomach to decide that no, after all it didn't feel like puking everything he'd eaten that day (too much tea, too much coffee; biscuits and cold sad meat; the lack of whisky still dismaying). Which, considering the vertigo rippling up his chest and the nasty aftertaste of Hickey's mind's nasty still smeared across his brain, was almost encouraging.
It took him three more seconds to gasp in another lungful of London air – frosty with winter and sooty and thick as cotton – let a pulse of ice flow down his arm, and channel it into a well-calibrated punch of frost aimed at face of James Fitzjames – whose arm still circled his waist, close enough to brush warmth against his coat, and who was still there hovering, his whole body arranged in picture-perfect concern.
No need for alarm; the punch wasn't meant to cause any real damage. It wouldn't have caused any real damage anyway.
These days, after the ice, after the things they had lost and gained in the horrible crucible of the Arctic, few things would be able to hurt Captain Fitzjames.
As expected, James merely held up one white-gloved hand: fire seeping off his palm through the manufactured fabric, melting away Francis’s ice in a wheeze of vapor. The gesture was lighting-fast, a fencer's swirl – a seamless continuation of the hop he landed with.
"Francis, please. Before starting to get upset, let me just check if you're-"
"I'm perfectly fine, Fitzjames," Francis said. Snarled. "And I'm throwing blows made of supernatural ice at you, if you didn't notice. You're supposed to at least pretend to be alarmed."
James, now two steps from him, actually looked cowed at that. He gave his flaming hands a heartbeat-long glance of guilt, not unlike the one he would give his dress uniform boots had they betrayed him and his lady companion during a waltz. Tastelessly, he kept not looking one bit alarmed. The concern was still there, though: etched in the wide soft eyes, giving his youthful face more lines than it ought to have.
Somehow, it made the cold fire at the center of Francis flare even higher.
(Not hotter, no; never hotter. That was one of the things that never made it back from the North.)
"I'm – my apologies, Francis,” James tried again. “I shall –"
"You don't have to apologize for that, you foppish dunderhead!"
Francis had finally managed to climb back to his feet, more or less steadily; the grease of Hickey's thoughts fading away, devoured by the clean light of uncomplicated anger. He went on, loving the thud of blood in his skull, the easy routine of it. His fingers went on prodding at the sturdy gray leather of his gloves, checking for tears and loose stitches, making sure everything was still sealed tight.
"What you should apologize for was waltzing in during my operation like a fancy-clothed meteor, and nearly blowing up half Trafalgar Square just because you thought I couldn't handle that caped fool on my own."
"Well, you did look like you were in a bit of a pickle, Francis. I saw Hickey and those awful thugs of his corner you; I saw you stumble – keel over. " James shook his hair, a glossy fluttering of innocence. "I had to intervene."
Francis felt his vision go briefly white with rage.
"And of course you think me so inadequate a vigilante not to be able to recover from a moment of weakness, right?"
He stabbed James with a glare. He saw him flinch at it, hard – the shudder running down his long, lithe body like light flashing off a blade.
In the months since the American liner docked in London and their mangy string of survivors wobbled down the gangway, stick-thin and skull-eyed and changed more deeply than the flocks of congratulating Londoners could ever be able to understand, Francis had seen the man getting crushed under avalanches of rocks and masonry, set on fire, riddled with bullets by bands of panic-ridden smugglers, and coming out of it in a glory of golden flame every single time, polished and untouched and untouchable. He had never seen him as close to human-like pain as he was now, under the press of Francis's eyes.
Francis caught himself wobbling on the edge of the thought; nearly asking himself why it was so. He pulled himself back from the question with an almost physical lurch.
(There was a way to know for sure, of course. But he would never go for it – never tumble down that particular slope. His hands checked the gloves again, uselessly, methodically, heartrate slowing with each tight stitch rubbing under his fingertips. Everything still sealed; no piece of Francis spilling out, none touching the world unsheltered.)
"You know that's not true," James said. "You know I hold no man in higher esteem. You must know it."
Something in his voice, the quietness of it. Francis ducked his head; closed his eyes for a long moment, defeated, humming with the things he didn't want to tell himself.
Back in the days when he still thought this condition of his could be reversed, that the North hadn’t changed his cells into something as strange and new as the things Mr Darwin was murmured to have found in the Galapagos, Francis had stood under direct sunlight in Ross’s garden, covered in all the layers and blankets sweet Jane could find, waiting for some of that heat to seep in and dislodge the ice stuck under his breastbone; it proved utterly useless, of course.
This – James's face turned fully to him, the full rich caress of his attention wrapped tight around him – was the closest thing to warmth his body still seemed able to feel.
It had the unwelcome side effect of making him less angry, and more tired.
"I do know," he said at last. He did; he didn't. "I do, James. I just – oh, hell. I'm sorry."
Silence. The man before him knew him well enough to be sure he meant it: and that was a kind of pain, too, a tainted pleasure.
“i just – I’m under the impression I cannot read you quite as well as I used to, Francis. I don’t want us to be enemies, not again.”
“We’re not,” Francis said, too fast. “We’re friends. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Really, Francis?” James asked. “Because it most definitely doesn’t feel like it.”
For a moment, he looked so lost and so young Francis found himself hurled back to the colorless plains of Victory Point: James's mittens in his as he asked him what they could be together. It had been so natural back then to hold tight on that hand, fragile with scurvy and starvation, and tell him they could be brothers, and friends, and everything else a human being could be to another. It had felt so easy, so right, to let him come closer and closer in his tent that night, jagged bones pressed against jagged bones, unfolding for him like flowers, like leads in the ice, like not even Sophia had wanted him to.
He wondered why he couldn't tell him any of that now; why he had been clenched tight as a fist for months now, especially around the man who unloosened him in the first place. He wondered, not for the first time, why it was so much harder, here, to be Francis and James, and nothing else.
James shook his head again – urgency in the gesture. He turned to him. He had let go of him after they landed, let Francis fall back into his bubble of solitude, but now was closing the distance, one even step at a time.
"Francis,” he started, “why don't you let us – "
Francis heard echoes in those words: a shared cot, bones against bones. He felt a thrill of a panic so pure he recoiled, spine hitting the wall.
"You bloody well know why we can’t – "
"I didn't mean that," James cut him off, coming to stand in front of him. He was speaking in the closest thing to a roar he let his voice come to, which was an echoing, thunderous, rolling thing vibrating deep into your bones. "I meant, why don't you let us be close in spirit, Francis – be like, yes, like back on the ice. I shared things with you that I would never have thought I would say aloud, not even under torture. There were days when I would look at you, and meet your eyes, and just know you knew exactly what I wanted to say." He gave a rattle of a laugh, mirthless, still beautiful. "Good God, I've never come closer to death than during those miserable, hopeless, lightless days, and yet sometimes I think of the us of those weeks, and miss them so keenly I feel almost sick."
Francis flinched like a man whipped across his back; he felt like one, too. Nearly died, nearly died. His stomach crawled, a different kind of nausea.
Oh no, James: you died. You died in my arms, and I buried you under a pile of stones.
"Don't say those things," he said in a rasp. He didn’t raise his eyes to meet his – kept them on James’s jacket, a dozen bedraggled Francises reflected in the buttons. "Please."
"I haven't said them in months, Francis." James said. Out of instinct, he had reached out for Francis’s arm, awfully close to the delicate point where sleeve met glove and there was always a chance of bare skin peeking through; he had restrained himself just in time. Nevertheless, Francis could still imagine his hand linger there, a hairbreadth over his wrist. "Actually, I have stayed put, and humored your mood swings, and never asked for any explanation at all. But I can't be quiet any longer, I’m afraid. Not when you're dead to the world unless I boss Blanky in dragging you along to the Navy receptions, and you barely speak a word to me for the whole night anyway. Not when you lash out at me for – what? Stealing your scene with that improbable nemesis of yours?"
"That’s not why I got angry." Ah, there – the first glimpse of the truth, the first crack in the ice. (Ha.) “That weasel of a man isn’t my anything – not even my nemesis, no matter what he tells the papers.”
"Then would you care to explain me why you are so crossed with me? Forgive me for being quite so dull."
Crossed; he wasn’t crossed. Francis had gotten angry, yes, but it had already seeped out of him – him, who once could hold on a grudge long enough to have it singe his palms and fill all the empty spaces of his brain. The truth was, he didn’t know how to be angry at James Fitzjames anymore: not like in the beginning, when he would have gladly grabbed him by his mop of trimmed, Byron-esque hair and slammed his head against the meeting room desk under Sir John's scandalized gaze.
James's voice sounded closer – a waft of the citrus note of his cologne mixed with it.
"Speak to me, Francis,” he said. “I'm begging you."
Francis could see James's annoyance increase in degrees of heat: the shape of him an orange-blue afterimage against his eyelids. Francis blinked it away, ran his hands through his hair; took a lungful of pea-souper air and courage.
"It was because it's Hickey we’re talking about, here," he blurted out. "He already killed you. He already killed us all, or brought us to it, and I saw what he's capable of, James, and oh, you're always so bloody reckless – "
James's face shuddered. His cheeks reddened like a careless brushstroke of carmine across a portrait. That was still a regular, angry human flush, though there were preternatural accents around the edges: veins lighting up with molten fire, eyes turning into twin golden suns, the pupil burned away like a stray planet.
The theatrics didn't impress Francis; the unusual sight of James Fitzjames barely able to contain his fury, and the knowledge he was the one who brought him to boiling point, did.
"I'm the one being reckless?" James said in a tight, hot staccato: teeth bared. The soot-choked slush around the soles of his boots had started melting. "Do you really have the pluck to tell me I'm the one rushing into things without thinking? I wasn’t the one who ran headfirst into a blatant, music-hall-worthy farce of a trap, knowing he was both outnumbered and surrounded by enemy minions. I wasn't the one who cared so little about his own well-being he let Hickey, the only man on the surface of the planet able to peer into a man's brain and pretty much tear it apart one shelf at a time, get close enough to touch him and hurt him enough to bring him to his knees – "
"I was going to get things under control – "
"Well, that’s not what I saw, was it?" James bellowed. By now his legs were shrouded in steam; soon, the cobblestones underneath would start grow red and scorching, the weaker ones cracking under the heat. A glow was pulsing under his skin, showing through muscle and flesh, pooling in bright light in his eyes: making a hurricane lamp out of James. "I heard you falter from across the river, Francis – your breathing, your heartbeat, your, your everything. I felt it in the air, in my bones: you, briefly snuffed out of existence.” The flame trapped inside James’s body roared higher, sparks falling off his snarling face, his golden eyes. The radiation was warping the air, making it dance in waves. “Do you have any idea how utterly bloody terrifying that was?"
Francis swallowed; tongue cakes in ash. "I didn't know that," he said, which was an astonishingly inane comment to make, which was the only thing he could bear to say.
James said nothing; for a moment, Francis considered the shudder still trembling across his face, the glimpse of agony in all that inhuman beauty, and expected – not violence, no. But something equally dreadful: horrible words, the kind they would regret forever, the kind he would blurt out in James’s place.
But of course, James wasn’t him. He inhaled deeply, once, and the gleam under his skin guttered like a candlewick pinched between fingertips. The steam hissed to silence around his feet; the golden glare of his blood cooled, rushing back to the hidden core of him.
James's fury wasn't a docile animal, but was a tremendously well-trained one. He took a step back.
"I know you didn't, Francis," he said. His gaze was brown again, dark as coffee. "And I reckon that's part of the problem – "
It happened in half a second, barely the time of a full heartbeat; barely the time for Francis to draw a breath and call his name. One moment, James was giving one of his infamous shrug, annoyance shuddering off him like a flaky chrysalis; the next he was gasping, in pain and shock, and clutching at his left side.
Clutching a the tear in his handsome blue dress uniform both of them had been stupid enough not to see until this moment.
James pressed his fingers there, choked out a cry. His hand came off sleek with red.
Despite everything that happened up North, despite the fire and the power and Francis's own penchant for self-pitying thoughts, James didn't actually run on golden ichor – and still bled the same as all of them.
Francis held out his hands. Ice pinched his fingertips, sharp with his distress.
"James – "
James careened back, and slammed against the opposite wall of the alley. He didn't fall, but folded over, half-crumpling there like a paper lantern. Francis followed him, as if pulled by a thread tied tight under his breastbone.
"I'm – under the impression Mr Hickey did – did get at one of us, after all," wheezed James, who had absolutely no sense whatsoever of the right time to crack a daredevil joke.
" I bloody well figured that out on my own, Fitzjames," Francis barked, softly. (He was a complicated man; he could handle the contradiction.) "Goddamned little ratbag – oh, he won't get away with this, mark my word."
James prodded the gash again – whimpered. The sound cleaned Francis's mind of any trace of vengeance, any trace of Hickey.
"Let me see;” he demanded.
"There is no need, really," gasped James. "My body is less fragile than what it used to be – Goodsir calls it enhanced healing, I think? I shall be as good as ever in a – "
"Let me see."
Astonishingly enough, the stubborn man obeyed. James's hands worked around the gash, at the complicated clips cinching his uniform closed: customized buckets and buttons, the inner lining of the jacket a shade of mustard yellow that would look unbelievably tacky on anyone else, and which would in particular make Francis look like an ill-looking pumpkin. As James pulled them back, the brass buttons flashed with the impression of a flame.
If he didn't feel one step from throwing up out of sheer worry, Francis would roll his eyes hard enough to dislodge his optic nerves. He thought to nag James about it, though: banter their favorite calibration to keep each other in balance. A quip about fancy buttons was just what they needed. He could feel several different sets of comments already tingling on the tip of his tongue.
They all faded back the moment Francis flicked down his gaze, and really took in the wound.
The first thing his eyes caught on was the blue: blue treading James's veins, making them look like roots of a sickly flower. There was a couple of knife-sized gashes directly under his ribs, too, the angle as precise as a surgical cut – but the thing Francis couldn't look away from was the blue tainting his blood, and spreading further with each heartbeat.
Francis reeled back a little; breathed through his nose, once, twice, grasping for his scientist’s mind, for data and odds to choose a course of action from.
He tried to reason like a half-rational human being. James's marvel of a body was indeed already patching the gashes up, muscles knitting themselves back together in a subtle simmer of flame. That wouldn’t be a problem, he thought; and after all, a middle-aged man has to make choices about the things he wants to lose his head over.
And between a clean wound to a super-strong physique and Hickey's corrosive poison wreaking havoc on that same physique, Francis chose the latter to lose his bloody head over.
When he followed Francis’s gaze and saw the expanse of blue-tinted veins, James fell silent; never a good sign with him. Francis suddenly recalled the one other time he had seen him go so quiet, and found himself calling on the ice lodged inside him without meaning too, as if the panic was a physical thing he could freeze mid-motion.
"Christ," he whispered. It sounded uncannily like praying."Jesus Christ."
Among the many wicked gifts the Arctic had bestowed upon Cornelius Hickey – whose name, as he explained to Francis while making him knee in the sad dust of King William's Island, the monstrous echo of the approaching creature thudding in his skull, was not Hickey at all, but who had never bothered choosing a different name – his poisonous touch was perhaps not the subtlest but certainly the showiest, and efficient in its brutality. Small barbs in his hands released it at will, at the slightest touch; the victim growing cold and motionless and paralyzed into its own body until the heart stopped – and the last thing you saw would be Hickey’s ferret-grin as he crouched down, ready to devour the remains.
As a ship boy, Francis had heard stories of puffer fishes and electric eels; of frogs so venomous if you lick at their mucus tears it will your mind apart in a blaze of bliss before burning it away. He felt confident no puffer fish or tropical frog had ever taken the same pleasure in bringing death and madness that rat did.
"He must have – touched me while I was grabbing you," James said, weakly. The utter lack of accusation in his voice; the answering pinch at Francis's heart. "Well, that's unfortunate."
"That's one way to put it," Francis replied, harsher than he would have liked. "Has it ever happened before, James? Your all-mighty body can cope with that swine's nonsense, surely?"
James shook his head. There was a lingering light trapped under his skin, the impression of a sunflare, and it flickered in the air in the wake of his movement.
"Never had the pleasure to test the theory." Something with his neck – his pulse. It throbbed under the starched collar, fluttering. "I – I'm confident it wouldn't kill me, but. Surviving it may not be a pleasant process."
Francis cursed. Under the gloves, the tip of his fingers covered in frost: the patterns of it as twisted and complex as Memo Moira's vast array of Irish expletives. If only he had one of the others here: Jopson and his silvery, healing lightning, or Goodsir, or Blanky at the very least, who had tackled the issue of not having a leg with the minimal amount of fuss and straight-up upgraded to flying. But they were all far away, tragically far away – out in Cornwall and East London and down at the docks, fighting criminals and saving lives, trying to shake off the guilt that had stuck to them like frostbite.
Here, they were alone: James, the Flaming Captain, Champion of Britannia, the hero of every school lad from Dover to York, who was Prometheus to every Londoner but to him would always be just James, and him, Captain Frost, as bitter and useless as piss-soaked snow.
The cold pulsed out of Francis, humming with his heart – with his worry. It gave him pause. It made him think.
Maybe, if a man of fire gets his flame-laced blood tainted with the psychic poison of the caulker's mate you didn't manage to kill for good in the Arctic, then a man of ice could find a way to help.
It was physics, after all. No more and no less than the balance and counterbalance every object in the world was subjected to, the laws that made things fall toward the center of the Earth and the pull of the moon tamper with tides; the splendidly imperfect orbits of magnetic fields, laced tight across the planet. Just science, which had always come easily to him – as easily good anger.
That was what Francis told himself as he moved towards the man slumped against the alley wall – painfully respectful of Francis’s personal space even while fighting to breathe.
It's just physics, he thought, ferociously. Just hard, scientific facts. Cold can slow down circulation, which will in turn slow down poison, and therefore gangrene – the supernaturally-induced kind too. Just physics. He ignored the way his chest squeezed down on his lungs the closer he got, like something new and larger and golden was unfurling from the inside and taking up all the space; he ignored the memories crowding in, of James pressed against him under different circumstances, of James and gangrene and the weight of a bottle of smooth death in his palm.
Instead, he reached out with one arm for James's shoulder, fingers still tingling with – hurting with – frost. He caught a flutter of something flick across James's face at his proximity; he bit down on his lip until any temptation to look more closely dissipated like steam.
He could still hear his voice, though. Close, urgent, brushing at his cheek.
"Francis – "
"Ice slows down infection. If this works, it'll give your improbable metabolism time to eat through Hickey’s stuff before it reaches any organ," Francis cut him off: mechanically, desperately. His glove was nearly touching James's skin, the crosshatch of nasty blueness.
"It's too dangerous," James said, "It's almost direct contact – almost skin-to-skin. If there is any tear in your glove…"
"The gloves are fine. There's no tear. And I'm doing it, Fitzjames, like it or not." Francis knew he would sound more believable if his heart weren’t thundering through every inch of his body. He hoped, hoped James would listen to him. "Just – hold still."
James did. He took a trembling breath, and made himself relax against the grubby wall, against Francis's hovering hand. There was still a ghost of distance between them – the space of a breath, of a snowflake.
Francis knew better than to give himself time to think about it.
Gently, so not to jolt the tender new tissues stretching over the edges of the wound, he pressed his fingers to James's chest.
For a moment, there was nothing alarming about it. Just the hum of the heart deep under the flesh, the shock of direct, real human contact after months of isolation; there was Francis's own power, the strange cold plucked from some deep dark cave inside him, channeled into a ripple down his arm. There was the ice, feathery-soft, like hoarfrost on a winter morning, crackling through the glove and across James's skin, his slight jerk at the sudden chill. Then –
– Then Francis's mind started screaming.
It was thoughts, and swirls of colors, and smells and tastes and tendrils of electricity, all compressed together – so fitting James's brain would work through a madness of colors, an oversaturation of the senses. Francis saw, drank in green leaves against thick tropical light, the scent of oranges cloying enough to eat; saw the flap of an oilskin tent, the sickly purple of dying lungs, and a hand holding on his, all the warmth in the world coalesced into a single point, into the pulsing presence of the man at his side. Fair hair, the face of a wrinkled skull: Francis recognized his face, his own face staring out at him – at James’s dying body – and around it, a glory of warmth, an overwhelming heat. All the light of James Fitzjames, all his fire, pooling there – wrapped snugly around the memory of him.
There was more. Pain tasteless in its enormity; a mother's name stuck in the throat. Anger, and fear, so much fear, a gaping hollowness where a man’s just pride should be. Yet at the center of it all, at the throbbing core of that universe that was vomiting stars and devouring suns, deep under the frozen crust of the Earth, Francis found only heat: pressing on him, to him – to his bones, to his heart.
He fell into it. He – God, oh God – felt it, a sort of warmth, the first in months. He was an empty glass, a china cup, and James's soul and heart were filling him to the brim and spilling and pouring out and there was no room to breathe, no room at all –
Francis came back to himself with a gurgle of breath. He blinked, staring up at the London sky high over his head. The alley's walls, crenelated with chimneys; the drifting clouds; St Paul's bells chiming, somewhere far to the West – they were all spinning wildly, careening like a carnival carousel, real and mundane and blissfully silent in his head.
It made Francis's stomach twitch with nausea. It made him feel like weeping with gratitude.
A voice was calling his name.
"Francis – oh God, oh God, I'm so sorry."
Skittering of boots. A blue blur folded down at his side.
"Are you all right? Francis, talk to me."
That's one bloody stupid question, Francis mused. He hadn’t yet dared move his eyes or his mouth: still relishing the feeling of being momentarily shut out of the world, perfectly contained in himself. The passing thought comforted him, though. If he could still be spiteful and petty, it meant there was still enough of him left to be all of those things.
“Francis – I know I’m a nagging nuisance, but, please. Talk to me.”
James’s voice was back. The tremor in it tugged at the thread tied under Francis’s ribs; made him scramble for something marginally coherent.
"I'm. Here." There must be a madwoman somewhere nearby: rambling on, gurgling incoherently around her words. No, no – there was no woman. That was his voice. Capital.
James's head peered over the edge of his vision.
"I knew I shouldn’t have let you do it – God, I'm so sor – "
"Don't be. I need – just, just a moment.”
“if there is anything at all I can do –“
Francis tasted blood on the tip of his tongue. He must had bit down on it hard enough to cut through it.
James had actually shut up, though he kept fluttering around him like an elegant, concerned swallow fussing over a fox-felled sparrow. Oh, well. If nothing else, it meant Francis's hypothesis had proved valid: it sounded like Fitzjames felt definitely better, so the ice must have stopped Hickey's horrible poison from spreading. It was worth it, then.
Even if it had left him in pieces, it was worth it.
Incidents of this kind had not happened often in the past (thank God for the small mercies), but Francis had still set up a procedure for it; by now, he knew it by heart. He breathed in; forced himself to focus on the cobblestones digging into his back, the snowy slush seeping into his coat, the slight throb in the elbow he must have banged on the ground while falling: he forced himself to ease back into the limits of his own body, of his own mind.
He was Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier; he had been a captain of the Royal Navy of England; he had done his best to bring back home the shipful of men who trusted him with their lives; failed in more ways than one, less horribly than he could have. He ran through the words again and again, letting them trickle into his brain, filling his veins with each careful breath, until James's colors faded away, and there was no one left inside him but Francis. He was no longer a cup, or a glass: he had stopped feeling warm, too.
(That was not entirely true. There were glimmers still – the memory of his own smile, reflected again and again by James's beautify mind; the onslaught of light coming with it, a name for that particular kind of light –)
Francis pulled himself up: on his elbows at first, then sitting properly, like big boys do. The motion was arthritic-slow and gingerly, but James knew better than to offer help after what had just happened. He stood at his side instead, face pinched and focused, jacket still flapping open on his chest. He had curled his hands into fists, as if fearing they would disobey.
When he looked upon James’s face now, though, Francis didn't feel like throwing up. It didn't feel as if being plunged into the sun itself anymore.
"There must have been a tear somewhere on the glove," James said. Did he too sound vaguely hoarse? "I – I didn't see it. I cannot apologize enough, Francis."
"You're not my keeper," Francis replied. Urgency made him sound cold, borderline angry. "I – ah, never mind. How is – did it work? Are you still hurting?"
Before he could stop them, Francis's eyes skimmed over James's body: lingering on the open jacket, the impression of – golden, soft with pink heat, naked – skin underneath. The web of blue poison was still there, but was now rimmed with ice. It was already losing color, losing consistency.
What wasn't losing consistency was James himself: the flesh of him, the muscles shifting with the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest. Francis knew he should look away. He didn’t. He took in the smattering of freckles dotting James's side, the revelation of it less than two steps from him.
He wondered how it would feel to count those freckles under his fingers. He watched James lean forward, the thrum of heat in the air around him, and wondered if James would let him try.
He wondered if, were things different, were his own body not damaged in such a complicated way, he would have the courage to do it.
Perhaps Francis was closer to throwing up than he had thought.
"It's – I’m not, thank you." James's boots scraped at the ground as he shifted his weight. “Not as much as before, at any rate.”
He ran one hand down his jacket, buttoning it up in a blur of practiced motions. Only then did Francis manage to look away.
"I, I praise your quick-thinking, Francis – but I beg you to refrain in the foreseeable future from trying something so savagely foolhardy again."
Disappointment twisted in his guts. Francis's eyes dropped to the ground. He summoned every scrap of control still his body to keep the hurt from showing in his voice.
"Oh. Oh, of course. I suppose no one wants another person rummaging through their head – especially not me.” He laughed, a noise as humorous and pleasant as a dying bird’s call. “In fact, I think I'd be the first to punch the daylights of anyone trying to pull a stunt like that on my mind."
"No, no. That wasn't what I meant at all." James shook his head, hard enough his hair rippled in a wave around his face. His face lit up with something deep and tender and unbearable. "It wasn’t unpleasant for me, Francis. Not at all – but I. I know it was for you.” He hesitated. “I hope. I hope you didn't see anything too upsetting, there."
Francis was still staring at the worn tip of his boots, lazily summoning ice-overs and thaws in the snow between the cobblestones. Still, he felt James give a shaky smile: the pressure of it against his neck. Who knows what James thought Francis could find in his mind that would upset him; if he had a precise idea of the secrets he didn't want him to know. The question made Francis hum like one of the keys in Sophia's piano, echoing in the silence, the timbre of all the possibilities, of infinite implications.
More shuffling. The smile dwindled in James's voice.
Francis realized he had still to answer James’s question. He thought of the mind he had just peered into, the light he'd glimpsed there – no, not glimpsed: been washed over with, in the plentifulness of it – surrounding his own name; the awe every memory of their hands touching was shrouded in. Said the only thing he could think to say, which was the truth.
"No, James – I saw nothing upsetting there. Nothing at all."
He reached for the wall on his right, the purchase of butting bricks; hauled himself to his feet.
"Now c'mon – let’s put that fancy flying trick of yours to good use. Let's go home – my home. That wound still needs looking after."
It was a flimsy sadness of an excuse. Francis didn't care. He couldn't bear the thought of being alone now.
Apparently, neither could James. He took a step forward, and whispered a quiet recommendation to hold tight as he slid one arm around Francis's coat – soft, both the voice and the touch; no less than three layers between their skin.
Then James’s body charged up with fire, and took them up in the sky.
Francis had came into his strange magic the same way all the survivors of the Franklin Expedition came into theirs – so in what he thought of as his last moments on Earth.
Roughly twenty miles from the frozen plain he was lying upon, and about five hours earlier, James Fitzjames had woken up in the grave of carefully chosen pebbles his captain had built for him and burst out in a glory of flames, made golden and new; but Francis didn't know that at the time. He didn't know that that specific portion of the Arctic soil was rived with a mineral – colorless and scentless and completely indistinguishable from the frosty dust they had been trudging through for weeks – charged with energies momentous enough to change the very nature of the things and the people around them. He didn’t know that he and his crew had been exposed to it for months, now, and thus they had been changed too, and that apparently there is no more effective catalyst to such a change than the shock of death.
What Francis knew was that he had lost both his best friends in a matter of hours; that the grave of one of them had been profaned and looted by a ferret-faced bastard – who was currently screaming like a gutted pig somewhere above him, holding the bloody stump the Monster left him with after he offered it his tongue; and that every man under his command – all the brave, loyal, young men who believed his rubbish when he told them he would take them home – were dead, and dead while barely remembering what not being cold felt like.
The Tuunbaq's claws had left gorges, a blindness of pain; the ground dug against his back.
Francis closed his eyes, and knew he wouldn't get up, and when the thought broke his heart for one last time, it felt almost like relief.
He sent out an apology, to his beloved Mister Hobbes, for falling back to the same old soup of sentiment just because he was dying; to James and Tom and Edward, for not having believed into that soup enough to succeed. He apologized to Memo Moira, for scorning her when she taught him how to face immortal horrors as a mortal, and then asked her to grant him safe passage in the last sailing. He apologized to the bright blue flame at the center of his chest, which had refused to die all this time, which could be his Sight or his stubbornness or both.
He apologized to James, a second time. The ache in that, the exquisite pain of things lost before they were born, nearly tore a sound out of him; nearly made him tug at the chain hanging from his wrist, open his eyes, and set fire to this desolate nothing, to the whole bloody world, out of spite and love. It was almost enough; but not quite.
I’m sorry – but I’m so tired. And cold. I’m so, so cold.
As he moved through the words, Francis could feel the cold blue flame inside him shift: spreading outwards from the center of his chest, melting with the ice at his back, with the cold, the hurt, until he couldn't say where one started and the other finished.
I’m so cold.
His dumb body was still trying to breathe: tasted air, and in it the tang of blood and frost, a shock like chilled wine down the throat. Absurdly, he had the impression that while the cold was still unbearable and painful, it was now pulsing at the same rhythm of his blood.
Darkness crowded in. He forced himself to focus. He didn't want to go in a flight of fancy; he wanted this to matter. He pieced his last words together painstakingly, choosing them with care.
Wherever he is, I hope James is warm now, Francis thought. And let go.
At some point, in the time beyond time, the dark started receding.
A ghost of awareness had crept back into him. It was unexpected. It was upsetting. Still, Francis didn’t give it much thought. He had too much experience of the death in the Arctic – the gruesome clean affair of it – to put much hope in that flutter. Life is stubborn, but not invincible. No, no: there was a tipping point to come back from this dark, and he was past it.
Francis didn’t hope. Instead, in some hidden fold of himself, as distant and serene as the stars, he ticked off the signs.
He had long since stopped shivering. His blood felt thick and frozen in his veins: heartbeats so scattered it was like they were not there at all. He could feel the ice pull at his eyelashes, and realized his eyelids were caked in it thickly enough to seal them shut. He had seen the same happen to the bodies of Gore's men, the eyes threaded closed by frost, their severed heads blue with cold.
It was undeniably true that was how death by hypothermia happened. It was undeniably true that was what was happening to him – what had happened to him.
It was also undeniably true that a moment later his eyes snapped open, and that James Fitzjames was there, peering down at him with a concern of unfathomable depth on his face, and that he was, undoubtedly, alive.
The fact of his own not-yet definitive mortality took the back seat, though; his head filled with a single note, ringing high.
Francis drew in a startled breath: felt it hurt to the point of agony as it rushed into his frozen lungs. It still felt like the first real breath he had breathed since he cried over a dying man and rubbed his neck to make him swallow.
James was there. James was alive. Still skinny, but standing tall, neatly sheathed in his uniform under the outer slops, cap and comforter and tailored jacket – and yes, even his tall black boots, the monogram on the side coming undone but still there. Somehow, those stupid boots were what brought it home to Francis: comprehension hitting him like a wave of vertigo. Despite the fact he still felt so cold he couldn't unlock his jaw, despite the fact he couldn't feel his blood run and everything hurt so much and there had to be something very wrong with his body and its stark lack of death, Francis Crozier knew a moment of pure, unadulterated bliss, at the simple reality of James Fitzjames standing distressed and real at his side.
Gradually, he grew aware of other things. A blur of faces suspended above him; something which sounded, impossibly, keenly, like Thomas Blanky cursing, the words mangled by the pipe between his teeth.
The cursing voice was asking questions, to him apparently. Francis ignored them. He let himself enjoy the moment – let himself indulge in the luxury of relief, as much as he could. He felt like like a man biting down on his favorite pastry after months of near starvation: the richness of it exploding in his mouth, overwhelming. He felt nearly sick with it.
Yes, yes – this time he wasn't mistaken: it was Tom's voice all right. A flutter in the sunlight pouring from the sky, and here, Tom's head was blotting it out as he crouched over him, looking bushy and craggy and very, very pissed.
"Francis, I swear, if you don't say something in the next five seconds, I'll automatically consider you a Crozier-shaped frozen salmon and bring you back to the camp to cook you on the damned stove. You don’t look particularly scrumptious from what I can see, so – say something."
Tom's words frayed around the edges; by the time he was done, he was biting down on the pipe stem so hard the wood squeaked in protest.
Francis knew he was upsetting him; there was nothing in the world he wanted less than that. But it didn’t make any sense – any sense at all. When he blinked, turning his head towards Blanky, his friend looked exactly like the last time he saw him before sending him off to die: identical down to the last greasy hair, to the sickly rot wafting off his stump.
Something different in his face: a flash of gold a practical man like Blanky would never want in his honest brown eyes – but that was just the glare of the sunlight, probably.
"Are we dead?" Francis asked. All in all, it sounded like a reasonable assumption.
Blanky hesitated for a longer time than he should have.
"No, no," he said at last. "I don't think so, Frank. I think we're all as alive as we can manage."
It was nowhere near a clear, reassuring answer. Francis slowly raised his hands in front of his face, considering the blue fingernails, the threads of frost still gluing the skin to his cuffs, and thought it was an honest one, though.
Noticing his pitiful attempts at sitting up, James took matters into his hands. He lowered himself to the ground with a motion more graceful than a man who had recently died of scurvy and infection should be capable of: that was the first thing crossing Francis’s mind as he watched him. But as James shifted closer, arms extending to chivalrously help him up, he noticed other discrepancies, too.
If Blanky's face flickered with that strange goldness, James's was swathed in it: a buttery, yellow warmth, as if he alone was bathed in the light of a different, gentler sun. And perhaps it was just Francis’s wobbly vision, but James’s fingers seemed to shed sparks as they moved through the air.
When he lifted his head, James stared at him with eyes like golden coins.
Francis blinked, opened his mouth to say something, to scream. But by then James's arm was already easing him off the ground, eyes back to their lovely hazel.
“Here, Francis; lean on me. There is no rush.”
He found himself sitting on the ice; taking in the scene around him for the first time, past the blaze that was James Fitzjames. The big monstrous beast was still there, dead in its vomited darkness: the chain linking them together now lying in pieces on the ground. There was a reddish ring of bodies scattered across the ground; Hickey's blood still soaking up the dust. The man himself – the sniveling, repulsive, treacherous cockroach of a man – was nowhere to be seen.
More importantly, infinitely more important: at Blanky's back, listening closely, were Jopson and Edward, and Goodsir, and Bridgens – the faces and bodies of his regret, all in the same place, all standing and breathing and not lost. Francis felt his heart somersault at each face, in pain and pained love.
"What. What happened?" Francis rasped. It felt as if his vocal chords had frozen over, too: voice shuffling tiredly through his chest, slow as glaciers.
(Still, he was talking, and growing less lethargic by the minute: he should start feeling warmer, too. He wasn't.)
"That's a bloody good question," Blanky replied. "We just – well. Long story short, we’ve waken up when we were pretty sure we weren’t going to, all of us: we found the others at Lieutenant Little’s camp, realized what happened, and tracked you down, to this place and the obvious clusterfuck of sick madness that went down here. And we can – " Tom's eyes flicked to James, to Jopson's silence at his back. " We can do things, now. Remarkable parlor tricks, except they're not. But we'll show you later. How do you feel?"
Francis brushed at his own cheek. A powder of snow fluttered down from his eyelashes. "Cold," he said. "I'm so very, very cold."
Again, Tom's answer came a beat later than expected.
"I bet you do, Frank," he said, softly. Distantly, his words filled Francis with another kind of chill.
When Francis felt sufficiently well to sit on his own – flakes of ice still falling off him, in his lap, and Jesus Christ how could he still be here breathing when his fingers were so blue – James sat back on his haunches, not moving one inch farther than necessary.
He proceeded to unclasp his overcoat and, to Francis’s dull disbelief, pulled it off his shoulders and set it on Francis's back with a superfluous flourish.
"Here," he said; the softness there – excruciating. "For warmth. You're ice-cold, Francis."
Francis started pulling at his glacier-voice again: to tell James he must be cold, too, and that even if the first time didn’t stick, he had no intention to bury him again just because James Fitzjames couldn't pass a chance to be stupidly gallant. Before he could say anything, though, James's hands were adjusting the coat collar around him. His fingers skimmed Francis's neck. Skin touched skin.
The Arctic and the cool white sun and the friends he didn't think he would ever see again disappeared in a burst of light, and Francis Crozier's mind was suddenly somewhere else.
Not a place, not exactly. He was in someone's memories. Not anyone’’s – James’s. He was in James's mind: he was James. Lying on the sickbed in the tent, drowning in the foulness of his own lungs; trying desperately to reach out for the hand pressed to his, because nothing else mattered, no last gesture would be grander. He was James growing ripe with pain, a mere extension of it, and still smiling at his – at Francis's – words at Victory Point; he was James dying, and waking up under the crunch of pebbles, the fire, the heat, tearing him apart inside out.
Francis lost consistency; felt himself free-falling into the feeling, into the dazzle of another heart, airborne, and God God God he was inside his thoughts, inside James’s soul, the soul of the man who cherished him so deeply, who respected him like no other, the man who –
– Francis found himself slammed back into his body. He leaned to the side, and threw up: a flimsy trickle of bile and ice crystals.
Apparently, his insides shimmered like starlight now.
That was how Francis discovered the second power the soil of King William's Land (Island) had given him. Goodsir tentatively talked of empathy: a matter of moving from one mind to another, sparked by contact. To Francis, it felt uncomfortably like peeling his and another human’s skin off and slamming the things inside together, one smearing onto the other.
The first power was – oh, so very predictable; so very fucking fitting.
It appeared that the ice itself answered to him now: through a series of very awkward experiments Blanky and James encouraged him to undertake, he found he could summon the cold to his fingertips, send it out in showers of hail or powdery snow. It responded nicely, silently, with brusque loyalty. It still left him with his hands tingling and raw, the freezing pulse passing through his body no less pleasant than having slush poured down his collar. It still left him with his joints stiff and hurting from the lack of warmth.
Francis wasn’t lethargic: he could walk, move, think as quickly as before, better even than in the last bedraggled weeks of their march. But there was a slowness in him now, alien and pervasive: as if his pulse, his lungs, his own bloody brain didn’t quite run at the same speed as the rest of mankind. He was an ice-box, on legs.
He saw a grim geometry in it. He had, against all odds, against justice itself, managed to outrun death; now he would never outrun the cold.
Once he had stopped puking snow and Blanky’s last pinch of tobacco had kept him from spiraling out into panic-induced unconsciousness, he also discovered he wasn't special. All of them, all the survivors currently crowded around his sad form sitting on his iced arse, had felt themselves tumble out of life, and said goodbye, and then woken up. Woken up changed: an offness under the skin, gold in their eyes, a body which could do things. Many different kinds of things.
Jopson had discovered he could cure his sick flesh with his own hands, and do the same to anyone he decided to touch. As he told his story, he looked supple, pleasantly healthy: worlds away from the limp gray thing Francis had left in his tent. He still met Francis's eyes with a kind of startled hunger – as if he couldn't quite believe he was there, and was desperate to either crush him to his chest or eat him raw. Francis also noticed Jopson mentioned coming across Lieutenant Little and healing him back to life, but added nothing more, and didn't explain why they weren't together in the first place. When Edward, face bright with his new impenetrable skin, lovely despite the hook marks, tried to catch his gaze, Tom twisted his head to the other side.
Blanky remembered the Tuunbaq running for him as he sat before the (wretched, useless, thrice-damned) Passage, an avalanche of teeth and carrion breath, and pain, and then the pain turning into a tearing sound – which was apparently Thomas Blanky's tether to gravity, because a moment later he was shooting upward, up up into the thin clean air, and the monster below was crooning their strange special song, half-rage, half-mating dance.
Bridgens and Peglar were there, holding hands, too caught up in the marvel of each other's presence to care about anything else; as Francis watched them, he mentally chucked out into the Passage waters the Navy's regulations, and felt nothing but a pulse of envy at the ease of their touching bodies.
Goodsir had woken up on the slab Hickey had left him on, naked and throwing up poison; he stumbled his way to the others, following the silver impressions he could now see fluctuating in the air like the footprints of people’ thoughts. An intuition pulsed across Francis’s mind: thank God Hickey and his mongrels never got around eating the man, or else imagine the horror, waking up like that, waking up when missing –
He stopped thinking the words as soon as he realized what he was doing. He still saw Goodsir flinch as his new brain picked them up through the ether.
James was the one who spent the most time in death, under his cairn; he was therefore the one most generously rewarded. If Blanky could fly like the first pipe-smoking bird known to Western ornithology, so could James; and he was also terrifyingly strong, virtually invulnerable like Edward, quick-healing like Tom. On top of it, his blood was now infused with liquid fire: actual golden, warm flame, that he could call in a blaze and that melted through glass and tin cans, but didn't touch his skin or that of the people around him.
The golden boy of the Navy – making a literal torch out of himself. He was the full form of whatever newly-hatched human stage – homo mirabilis, homo Victorianus – this was supposed to be; the rest of them shadows of the same shape.
They knew there were other changes, too: they felt them carved in their bones. They were stronger than before, more resilient, the hunger and the exhaustion that had plagued them halfway to madness more of a nuisance than anything else. They walked farther, breathed deeper, needing fewer breaths of the thin bright air. They slept less.
They had all died. Then they came back. And they were not what they were before.
(Less, Francis would think in the following weeks – staring at the thick leather gloves he now wore everywhere so no skin would touch his, at the arabesques of frost on them, like the signature of ghosts. I am less than I was.)
Less than a day later, Blanky and James zapped away across the trek that nearly killed the ground-bound among them, and found a clump of Hudson Bay’s Company voyagers scouting the shores of Buck’s River: bewildered, pink-cheeked boys in state-of-the-art Arctic gear, almost obscene in their good health. They asked for help, and rescue. The boys accepted, and later stared wide-eyed at their crew of half-starved Englishmen, who politely showed them their monstrous powers and who looked in need of many things but no saving at all.
It was true enough. If they put their head to it, they could probably make it back to London on their own, certainly to New York: James's fire keeping them warm, Francis forging dainty bridges out of the ice as they hopped across Greenland back to their continent. It didn't matter. They wanted to be rescued; they wanted to need to be rescued, like normal people, like real people.
They never tried to hide they weren't anymore, though. And really, how were you supposed to keep James Fitzjames from giving in to the temptation of falling down from the sky like a gold-veined comet – coat flaring behind him and ice melting under his feet as he went to greet his new, awestruck audience?
You couldn't: and that was why by the time they had been dressed and fed as much as their stomachs could take and a steamship was waiting to take them home, London was already buzzing with the news. Every social circle knew about the Mighty English Men (all of them, of course; James's mixed heritage and Francis's Irish blood burned away by the redeeming quality of having survived something no other man, and especially no Frenchman, had done before) who both bested the Arctic and received from it divine-like powers, all in the service of her Majesty.
Wild rumors popped up; seriously tasteless caricatures that had Francis physically rip a paper into tiny confetti and feed them to the stove. There was talk of receptions and meetings: of names they would have to choose, befitting heroes.
They joked about it, having no idea if they should feel horrified or pleased. James said he couldn't hope for a better reception, a better stage for them to play their part on.
(The truth was more unsettling, of course: and it had to do with the fact that James had died, like all of them, but more. He was the only one who had had to claw his way back to the living world, and could not fool himself into thinking it had really been just a very deep slumber. He was the one who felt more keenly that making a difference, after what he had lost, what he was given, what they all were given, was the only way to pay back the ones who fell and didn't rise again; the only way to prove they were really back.)
"You think we'll see the little fucker again?" Blanky asked Francis one night, the ship slicing through the choppy Atlantic waters under a sleek black sky. They were out on the deck: their bodies still uncomfortable in the decadent heat of the officers' rooms. "Or the big bad bear really gobbled him up like the grubbiest meatloaf ever to exist?"
Francis closed his eyes: let the breeze, salty and chilly and honest, card fingers through his hair. He hadn't changed to come up, and was still in his shirt, the uniform jacket – tailored exquisitely: paid by the Navy, who wanted her martyrs and saints dressed decently, apparently – left unbuttoned. It wasn't as if it made any difference. Ever since he walked into the Company’s headquarters, so smoldering-hot with its oil lamps and burning stoves several of his companions were sick with the heat, he had realized there was something very wrong with his physique, because he couldn't feel any heat at all. He was as cold as he had been out on the ice; the chilled blue flame still spreading through his veins. It was constant. It was bearable. It hurt. He had tried standing beside James as he summoned his fire, as close as he dared without risking direct contact, and his skin had been not one degree closer to thaw. He had had to excuse himself then, and flee both the heat he couldn't feel and James's gaze digging in his scalp.
Now he thought Blanky's words over, and gave a sigh. "I honestly don't know," he said. "If something in the air or the ground of that place pulled this kind of improbable stunt on us, I can't see why…"
"... The same couldn't have happened to Hickey and his thugs. Bloody hell, just what we needed. The Mutant Mutineers."
Francis snorted, eyes flicking back open. "Careful, Thomas. Press could steal that and take all the credit."
"Ah, what can I say. I'm wasted as an ice master – call me the Walter Scott of Whitby. Maybe when we get back I'll try my hand at swashbuckling Gothic fiction. Or I can be your official biographer."
"Mh, I don’t know. I don't want Lady Jane to barge into my room just to further disown me as potential son-in-law after reading it – so I'm touched, but I’m afraid I'll have to decline your kind offer, Mister Blanky."
It was Blanky's time to snort. God, Francis thought, he really was there: he really was there laughing with him – his best friend, one of the few men who thought him worthy of following when there was still a choice about it. He tilted his head down, felt his gaze dragged to the stunt of Tom's leg, the crutches leaning against the railing at their side.
He swayed; shivered under the last two years, the ache and pain and faith of them.
Blanky knew something was wrong without even having to look at him. Francis realized his stupid fingers had grown stuck to the railing in a latticework of ice, as they tended to when he felt upset. Still, he reckoned good old-fashioned knowledge of the behavior the Wild Crozier tipped Thomas off more than his new magic.
He grunted – bumped his shoulder into his, where no direct contact would be even remotely possible.
"How are you, Francis?" he asked. "And don't give me the official horseshit, please. I would never get the stuff out of my ears."
Francis licked his lips. He remembered moving his fingers across James's neck as he helped him die, the sickening double of that scene he had seen while tumbling into his friend's soul; he thought of the dreams he was having now – of different pasts, of different futures, of Hickey's feet tucked into James's boots, a dead man's boots. He thought of the occasional memory of warmth in those dreams, of lips pressed to his, blood running with something less of a berg slowness; that every night he woke up with his eyelids caked with frost, and had started to forget how it felt not to.
"I don't feel much at all, Tom."
Of course, they got press coverage – hacks descending on them scarcely one hour after they shuffled off the train, flapping and clawing like starved seagulls on a beached whale.
Of course, they got monikers.
Francis had hoped that particular side effect of fame would die down by the time they docked in London; he was, as he had been about many things in his life, extremely wrong.
"What's even the point of pseudonyms if everyone already knows who we are?" he asked during one of the meetings where they tried to figure out the specifics and technicalities of their new status. He aimed the question at no one in particular, glaring in the general direction of the semi-circle of men scattered across the living room, as he already knew no one would give him the answer he wanted.
"Because people love monikers, Frank. As they love costumes – especially when they're trying to wrap their heads around the fact some of the men they imagined cheerfully gnawed on by polar bears are back home and have learned how to fly."
"Well said, Mister Blanky," James peeped in, saucer perfectly perched on his pure-white uniform breeches.
Francis grumbled, shot a betrayed look at both of them, and took a gulp of tea, instantly and unpleasantly lukewarm on his tongue.
As personal Pyrrhic victory, they got to choose their battle names. James was, naturally, the first to come up with something: scarcely a week after their return, the engravings of him already shimmered up from the pages of every paper, the Gothic lettering beneath it spelling out Prometheus, Champion of Britannia!. A God of the old, harbinger of intellectual fire and noble sacrifice, elegantly classical. It was intolerably perfect.
Blanky went for The Aereonaut, which was straightforward enough to gain Francis's begrudging approval. Jopson got saddled with the moniker Doctor J, "oh-so-quick with his miraculous hands" – and when Blanky read that particular line from the Illustrated London News, Francis watched his steward crack himself into a frenzy of giggling as he met the eyes of a brutally blushing Little. It was the first time they looked at each other since they made it back from the dead.
Francis's name-choosing process proved as awkward as he had expected.
He had originally been leaning towards Discontent's Winter, which would fit both the nature of his powers and the dominant mood of his character. Everyone had begged him to refrain from it. (No one wants a bloody vigilante sounding both brooding and pretentious, Frank.)
James Ross, who had graciously offered his city mansion as headquarters for their brainstorming sessions, suggested not so graciously the moniker Krampus – prompting a hooting of laughter from Blanky and James. Francis felt properly vanquished when the three of them bit down on their scones, and nearly broke a tooth when they found them deep-frozen on their plates.
It was James who came up with the right idea: Captain Frost. Clean-cut, straight to the point, catchy to the ear, and not as completely ridiculous as other options.
I'm not a captain anymore, Francis protested, always ready when it came to point out his own shortcomings, either in chronological or alphabetical order.
Of course you are. You'll always be, Francis.
At that, Francis said nothing, and let the name stick. You don't argue with a young God of fire telling your you're worthy of his consideration, after all; not even if your name is Francis Crozier.
They had names, and an ember of fame; now they needed a mission. That proved a sore point. No one seemed quite sure what Her Majesty's illuminated government should do with them and their pretty names – besides parading them around every scientific institution in England and making them attend an ungodly amount of receptions. In an age of science and reason, a cluster of magically-gifted Arctic explorers felt dangerously close to a social faux-pas.
The answer provided itself a month later, when a bank robbery in central London was achieved by the gruesome ploy of having the director open the safe and then break his own head against the brick walls of the room. The bobbies who ran to the scene were found with a clean red-rimmed hole where they shot themselves in the head.
The answer was Mister Hickey, who was much less dead than they all had hoped.
It stood to reason; Francis and Thomas, specialists in foreboding, had known it since they discussed it on the ship deck. Hickey, or whoever he really was, had been exposed to the miraculous agent in the Arctic ground as much as all of them, and had already shown an unnerving ability to weasel his way out of death and ruination.
Of course he survived; of course he brought back something from the North, Francis mused, when a green-faced Head Constable called them to the bank. He looked at the grit under the director's fingernails, where he had grasped at the wall plaster to stop himself from smashing his own skull. No more and no less than all of them.
The only difference was that, obviously, Mister Hickey had far bigger plans for his new skills than any of them.
More of his exploits followed; the lines of him, the limits and expanse of his power, growing clearer. He could enter people' mind, and turn their own thoughts against them; he didn't act alone, and in the haze of minions he prowled the streets with some of them recognized Sergeant Tozer's face, meaty and dead-eyed. He came to be known as as Mister Hickey, which they supposed was camouflage enough.
None of the might of modern England could do much against a man who could inoculate poison like a snake and warp the mind of his victims. No human being could fight him, or stop his band.
No normal human being, that is.
Francis started grunting in the back of his throat a good ten seconds before James actually uttered his fanciful, idiotic, heroic proposal – so attuned he was to the inner fabric of that impossible man.
He hated the idea, instantly: he hated that they would be constantly in the spotlight of London's curiosity, that they would all be in danger, again – and Francis was so fucking tired of losing friends, of burying dear bodies under cairns of pebbles. He wanted quiet, and anonymity: he wanted a hole to burrow in and forget the world for a while.
But when James announced his demented plan, the faces around Ross’s coffee table flickered with something different: in various shades and degrees, they were all running with a kind of newborn energy, a kind of sudden light. A purpose: the thing they had lacked ever since they woke up on the ice.
With a wrench to the heart, Francis saw Goodsir flash the first real smile in months, Edward Little's face grow pink with excitement despite the crystal armor of it and his scars. He couldn't take it from them. He couldn't. To his eyes, they had never looked younger: never bolder. He had never felt older, either.
When they asked him if he agreed, Francis said yes.
That was how he found himself delicately lowered to the ground by a flaming man in a frockcoat in front of James Ross's door, and why he was supporting said flaming man up the stairs, to the ridiculously expansive set of rooms his old friend had insisted to offer him after his return. At Francis’s protestations, the new lord Ross had argued he had no choice: that if left to his own devices, Francis would probably use the generous wages the Navy was still paying him to dwell in self-imposed, monachal frugality in some dingy rented room.
(It was a somewhat accurate prediction, but it didn’t stop Francis from glaring and pouting at Ross for two whole days before giving in. He was just fated to be driven mad by Jameses, apparently.)
Francis, James and the others had split the city in sectors: each of them patrolling his part on the off chance Hickey would show his ferret face there, and trying to be generally helpful when he didn't. Blanky tracked down lost travelers in the countryside by scouring for them from the sky; Goodsir and Jopson worked at hospitals and workhouses; the rest of them stopped pickpockets and murderers and old-fashioned, classical robberies. Considering the brutally vivacious, seething underworld of London’s felonious activities, they weren't particularly worried they would ever run out of work.
That day, Francis had been the one finding Hickey; he had gotten distracted, enough to let the annoying bastard burrow into his mind. As he climbed the stairs of James Clark Ross’s home, the spare parts of his brain keeping up a constant stream of reassurances that no, James, you're not too heavy, it's not a problem at all, and if you ask me about it once more I'll actually shove you down the stairs, Francis tried hard not to think of the lingering feeling of Hickey's touch all over his thought; of the way he grabbed at the most painful core of his memories, the pulsing grief nowhere near healing, and twisted, bringing it closer to the surface, making it brighter and brighter, disgustingly so. He had forced Francis to see the very things he had most wanted to never see again: James's eyes growing glassy with death, Sir John's knee like a mutton leg in an ice-box – Bridgens's hand around Peglar's, when he knew he wouldn't hold anyone's hand ever again, never be warm again.
He had felt Hickey's predatory glee then, as he kept him firmly under the paws of his mind; his smile, intimate as lips against the inside of his skull.
You killed him, Captain Crozier. You killed them all, with your booze and your pride and your useless mercy, he was saying, tongueless and still talking so clearly in the hollows of his mind. I offered you to join me, and you refused, and they will all die for that.
Francis had wanted to spit at him and at his music-hall threats: but Hickey’s claws were tightening around him, squeezing, squeezing –
Then James had rushed to him, and Francis had gotten brutally sucked back into his body: in its cumbersome affair of bones and skin and muscles. He had barely been able not to crumple down when he fell on his knees. Instead, he had watched helplessly as James slammed into Hickey, and sent him fleeing under the raging inferno of his flames.
He was still grateful about not throwing up his guts at any point of the ordeal.
"You really are being too kind, Francis." Fitzjames was, apparently, going at it again, unaware of the direction of Francis’s private brooding. "I don't want to impose, though. It must have been a distressing day for you and – "
"Being too kind is perhaps one of the very few things I've never been accused of. And in case you're wondering, yes, that was a convoluted way to tell you to stop nagging us both with your social concerns. You've been poisoned, stabbed, and then had to fly all the way here carrying a remarkable extra weight –"
James made a snort of protestation under his breath. "Well, not that remarkable – "
"Gallant of you to say, but my point stands James. You're going to rest, and let me help you take care of that wound before you daintily hops out of my window into the sky. Is this clear?"
James made another belligerent sound; a definitely a weaker one, though. He was walking mostly on his own, but the hand clutching at the handrail as they ascended the stairs had its knuckles bleached white; shudders ran down his spine at arrhythmic intervals, ricocheting into Francis's body where their carefully-clothed chests touched. He supposed that, were he an average, warm-blooded person, he would feel like he was pressing himself against an unprotected stove.
"You're the most stubborn man I've ever met."
"That is something I've been accused of plenty of times."
They were at the landing of his rooms. Francis pushed the door open with one hand, and only let James take his arm off his shoulder when he felt reasonably sure his friend wouldn't topple over face-first into the hardwood flooring.
He didn't. Francis walked in, signaling to James to do the same – and felt suddenly overwhelmed with awkwardness.
He got stuck to the spot: air squeezed out of his lungs, legs rubbery. It was like all the times an unfortunate sailor touched a frozen railing with his naked palm and couldn't peel it off without leaving a good layer of skin stuck there, in tribute to the ice and his own stupidity.
Had he accidentally iced himself to the floor? God, that would be a whole new level of idiocy. But no, no, his feet were fine. Certainly way more than his head.
Francis had not had guests since he came back – no one except for Ross, who dropped by to check on him like he would do with a beloved consumptive brother, and Blanky, who had never been enough off a ship to give a single dime about lodgings. But James was a different matter: James was well-bred, exquisitely fashionable, made for fine things. There was a sore lack of those in Francis's rooms. The wallpaper still sported the discolored squares from the paintings Ross took off and he never replaced with his own; the tools for his magnetic readings propped up on the desk were the only polished thing in sight. He was suddenly overly-aware of the drabness of the walls, of the hearth he never bothered to have lit – because really, what was the point? – of the sad shape of him against that place, grimness against grimness.
James seemed to catch on the change of atmosphere; still turned one of his trademark smiles to Francis, golden and lovely and sending Francis's pulse skittering in a frenzy for half a heartbeat.
"You were right," James said, "I do feel better now that I'm at home. Or at the home of a dear friend, at least."
Jesus Christ almighty.
"Ah, err – aye," Francis replied eloquently. "You are, welcome. Just, uh, make yourself comfortable."
James nodded. He turned to inspect one of his two sextants, jewel-bright in the light pouring through the window.
Francis lingered by the table lining the parlor wall. In what he hoped was a lightning-quick, discreet leap, Francis grabbed one of the pieces of paper resting on it and slid it under the latest letter Ross's publisher sent him, pleading-threatening for his memoir.
The slip of paper was a clipping from an illustrated magazine, one of the less cringe-worthy ones, with a full-page rendition of Prometheus in his pressed uniform and shining ceremonial sword. It didn’t show the colors, of course: but Francis could easily paint it with the right point of royal blue, the deep warm brown of his hair.
They had, admittedly, chosen a rather flattering angle.
"Tea?" Francis squeaked. Even in the blur of panic, he immediately wanted to slap himself. As he watched James look over his shoulder, he hoped his paper-swapping move was lost to him despite all his enhanced-senses nonsense.
James, hand still pressed in the folds of his shirts against his wound, Hickey's venom still thrumming under his skin, beamed like Francis had just suggested something shockingly astute.
"Thank you – but later, perhaps. I'd like to – fix this little problem of ours now, if it's no trouble."
"Christ, of course – I mean, no, it’s no trouble at all," Francis added, sheepishly. He couldn't stop shifting his weight like a schoolboy. He couldn't settle down into his own skin. "You just – just wait here. I'll get bandages and something to clean the wound, then. Or you want me to ring for the maid?"
"No," James said, too fast. "No, please. I think we can manage without upsetting the staff with the effects of Mister Hickey's malarkey." His smile crumpled around the edges, just a bit. "Moreover, I’ve found people tend to… grow nervous around me." He gave a shrug.
Something in the shrug, in the diminished slant of his smile, rubbed Francis the wrong way.
"You mean the same people who squabble – literally: I saw them – in the streets over your autographed daguerreotypes?" he said, without bitterness. "Practically every girl above fourteen wants to marry you or be saved by you from some penny dreadful villains; every lad above six wants to be you. They're planning to make you a statue in Waterloo Place, James."
"Yes; yes, they do that I guess. But when they spend time with me, actual time, like people do, they…" James looked away from Francis's face, fixing those lovely golden eyes on the slush-soaked, curled corner of the carpet. "They start – staring. They grow restless.” He shook his head, something tender flashing in the slice of his face Francis could see, utterly vulnerable. “I make them uneasy; they can tell that I am not one of them. I've tried to please people all my life – I know when they're not."
Francis very nearly reeled, stunned; the chime of the pendulum clock filling the silence with its great mechanical heartbeat. He found himself speechless, both at the casual lucidity with which James had just belittled his own character, and at the implications of what he said.
He had caught the occasional white-showing glance thrown his way: the newsboy nearly dropping his coin because he was too busy gawking at Francis, as if he half-expected him to instantly lose his temper and freeze over half of London because he was discontent with the Government's handling of Corn Laws. But he had supposed it had more to do with his Crozierness than with the way the Arctic changed the basic outline of it. Now, he wondered if he had been wrong; if the rest of them – the remains of his men, or as the papers had unfortunately started dubbing them, his team – had been feared and pointed and ogled at, like the exotic, miserable beasts shuddering with cold in their Regent’s Zoo cages. And James, too: especially James, golden-eyed and fire-blooded, so very obviously, handsomely inhuman.
Francis had not been able to touch anyone without a layer of fabric between them for six months – peppered with several unfortunate slips involving Ross and Blanky and Francis’s ungraceful tumbling into their minds. It proved a feat relatively easy to accomplish in Victorian London, with its fretful disdain of human contact, but lonely. Still, for one newsboy being one step from poking him and asking him to shoot icicles out of his eyes, there was a generous amount of Londoners who had been treating Francis no differently from before; families and gentlemen not sparing him a single glance in the streets, and even the occasional lady patting him on the shoulder and congratulating him for the 'capital work you and your friends are doing, lad.'
He mused if, for this whole time, James had actually been experiencing a rather nastier brand of loneliness.
"James…" The thought was making him furious, and tender, and tightening the knot in his throat. He swallowed, trying to wrestle his emotions under some kind of order, finding them riotous as always.
"It's quite all right, Francis," James said, voice so soft. "At least I have you. All of you, I mean."
James's correction had come scarcely a second after his slip. Francis's slush-blood still gave a thrill at it.
He cleared his throat. "You – you do. You do have us. And I, I better get you some bandages now."
Francis scurried out of the room as fast as he could without it qualifying as actual scuttling. James's gaze thrummed against his spine, like fingers.
Whatever deity presided over this world showed him mercy: Francis found both clean bandages and a bottle of carbolic acid solution, in the chest of possessions he had never bothered to properly unpack. He checked they were still in good condition, and pocketed them; slipped on a new pair of gloves, thanking his efficient pessimism for having made him order three pairs of the things.
James had set himself on the fainting couch in the middle of the drawing room – a relic from the previous guest-room status of the place, of course. It was testament to how tired he really was that he hadn't waited for explicit permission before sitting down.
Of bloody course, Francis didn't mind. Instead, he pulled one of the dainty upholstered chairs lining the wall to the sofa, settled down in it, and set to work. James didn't try to shrug off the help; merely pulled back the layers, the jacket and the waistcoat and the shirt and the wool underneath, until there was a clean triangle of white smooth skin exposed to the winter air. The sight, the delicate pinkness of it, made Francis's head briefly swim. It was a shiver; it had nothing to do with the one he felt as he skimmed his gloved fingers on the wound, and braced for another soul-sucking fall into another heart.
The fall didn't come: the glove held. They both released the breath they hadn't told each other they were holding.
The wound, still encrusted in the delicate lace of Francis's ice, looked already on the mend; the process of bandaging still felt excruciatingly-slow, and quiet, and uncomfortable. It wasn't a lack of intimacy: despite Francis's formidable ability to keep others away, there was still the old easiness in the way he and James leaned into each other, in the way they expected the other's body and mind to move. It wasn't James's very, very partial nudity, either, considering back on the ice (the smell of rotting flesh, of oozing bullet wounds: Francis's stomach flipping under his ribs) he had helped Goodsir changing the dressing on James's weakening body countless times. Yet, by the time James's side was thoroughly cleaned and the gauze firmly in place, Francis's blood was thudding dully in his skull; keeping his hands from shaking a conscious effort.
It was the weight, he decided: it was the weight of all the things they had done to each other, all those they couldn't do anymore.
He averted his eyes – focused every ounce of his attention on the pattern of thin purple flowers on the sofa, the silk thread of a stem loosened by his own nervous picking. He had to get up. He had to put some distance between them, now, now.
"I – I think I'll call for that tea, now," he blurted out. Or something like that: he could barely hear what he was saying as he shot up on his feet, nearly tripped in the chair's legs. "Or – yes, that would be better – I'll go down in the kitchens and order it myself. Yes, yes, I think I’ll do just that."
He smiled: a rictus-y thing like a dead man's grin. He glimpsed James's face scrunching itself up, his molten-metal eyes flicking with alarm, but couldn't stop; couldn't even begin to explain.
He turned to the door – thinking of running all the way to the backdoor, the clean cold of the gardens, clinically dead blessedly solitary in this season.
He felt the rustle of fabric as James stood up behind him.
"Francis – "
"I'll be back in a minute, James," he said. He tried hard to keep any note of plea from threading into his voice. "In a minute."
Footsteps. A gentle creak of wood.
Francis stopped trying to open the door; of course he stopped. James Fitzjames had been like the rising sun since long before his heart stopped and charged up with fire. He operated in the world silently, warmly: being perfectly inescapable because of it.
And like a fucking sunflower, Francis followed the sun every single time.
"I wanted to apologize again for what happened back in the alley," James said. "For having forced you to that contact – For. For the things you must have seen in the throes of it."
"I'm fine," Francis said. He felt so high-strung his nerves morphed into ice: covered the door knob with a crosshatch of hoarfrost.
The floor creaked again. Another step. "Of course, of course – I know you are. But I was wondering if during the, ah, the episode, you saw something disturbing in my thoughts, or sentiments. If something there upset you."
James's voice sounded like a study in smoothness: slippery, revealing absolutely nothing. Still Francis realized, with a whoop of vacuum to the stomach, that he knew exactly what he was talking about.
He remembered a day when he was sixteen, and way cockier than he was agile; a tumble from the mast rigging all the way to the water below – the airborne eternity, the slap of air, the terrible lightness of it all.
"I told you already. There was nothing that upset me there, James," he said in the end, which was a lie. "Nothing you should apologize for," he added, which was the truth.
"Are you quite certain of that?" James was closer now: the long shadow of him cast over the door in front of Francis, over him, cut out neatly by the lamp he lit to work and left on the table by the sofa. "Was there no, no image there that disturbed you? No – unpleasant thought?" James's voice dropped low. "No unpleasant feeling?"
Francis clasped his lips together. He wasn't fast enough to keep himself from sucking in a mouthful of air, fragrant with James's cologne.
His fingers were still skimming the doorknob. Memories that weren’t his shimmered to life.
That night in the tent, his own face hovering over the bed, a pulse of goodness in all that dark. And warmth, warmth beyond compare – and Francis at the center of it.
"If you ask me that question," he said, very softly, "then you bloody well know what I saw."
With an effort that felt absolutely excruciating, Francis peeled himself away from the knob; peeled his eyes off the door, the safety of it. He twisted around, tilting his chin up the inch necessary to meet James's gaze when they were pressed this close.
"It doesn't matter what I saw, James," he said. "You must know that. It doesn't matter what we may feel."
Francis realized the tactical mistake the instant it left his lips. You, we. He saw James's eyes light up at the whiff of it, excited and golden as a leopard on the hunt.
"Was it an unwelcome thing to feel for you?" he asked. "I just want to know that. I just need to know that."
Silence. The grandfather clock, far beneath their feet, in the prettily-cluttered drawing room where Lady Ross was probably taking her tea, chimed gently.
"No," Francis said, "it wasn't."
There was a permission snagged on that answer; Francis knew it. So did James. He didn't touch him – not on the clothes, not on his gloves – but slid closer, enough to share the same space, to distinguish the pinker shade of his jaw where the razor passed that morning.
"Then it matters. And as strange at it may sound coming from my mouth, I don't care what others have to say about it."
Francis shook his head. "What I saw – "
"It's true, Francis," James said. "All you felt while in my mind, all you think you understood of it – I swear to God, it's all true. It's been true for the longest time."
James's smooth tones were gone. Fire showed through now – a soft kind of annoyance. No, not annoyance: urgency. There was urgency in his voice, the fact of James Fitzjames wanting something stark and clear in the air.
Francis wondered what he might be wanting so much, so hard, and the thought sloshed like liquor in his brain.
"You can't mean it," said Captain Crozier, who could disagree on everything, especially matters of the heart. He balled his fists hard enough to make the leather of the gloves squeak. "I'm the man who buried you under a pile of stones and left you for dead, James. I'm the man who killed you."
"You didn't," James said, gently. His face leaned closer: the whole shape of him closing in around the two of them, around the tight safe space between them.
Francis made a sound deep in his throat, half growl and half whimper.
"I did," he said. "There was so much more I could have done for you, for that damnable mess I brought us in. So many other options – "
"There was no other option," James said, sounding angry for the first time. "And you know it – we both know it. I was in a world of pain and halfway gone, yes, but I was perfectly aware of what I was asking for when I said yes. If this didn't happen," he tapped at his chest, the pulsing heat of it, the healing skin under Francis’s dressing, "if we weren't meant to come back as we did, that would have been the best way to go: with my mind intact, my heart whole, and you as the last thing I would see of the world. I thought so back then, and I still stand by it now."
He meant it; God, he really meant it. Francis recoiled, putting space between them again. He sank his hands into his hair as he pivoted and walked back into the room, fleeing James's soft eyes.
"What do you want from me, Fitzjames?" he asked. He didn't care if it came off as harsher than he meant. He couldn't breathe – couldn't stop clenching his teeth. He couldn't make himself care for that, too, or he would explode, melt off in the haze of James’s glow, of what he was suggesting, and he couldn't breathe.
Francis stopped by the wall. He stared at the sad empty squares on it as he listened to James's approaching steps. He nearly bubbled with a fit of hysteria – here he was, caught in his shadow again.
He didn't turn.
"From you? Nothing," James said. "Nothing you don't want to give me. What I want is the chance to use this – me, every part of me, old and new, every scrap of James Fitzjames you helped keeping alive, Francis – to protect and cherish the things I am most fond of, and find most worthy in this world."
Francis unhooked his fingers from the tender skin of his scalp: the nails coming odd with a frisson of pain. He swallowed through mazes of glaciers, through the sludge of Arctic soil still clogging his lungs.
"You already protect the whole of London,” he says.
"But I'm not protecting you."
James moved closer – until there was no room for a single step between them, and his chest brushed at Francis's back every time he took a breath. The words rang out through him, exact as church bells.
James went on the moment he felt a protestation moving out of Francis’s mouth.
"You're not letting me protect you," he said, his lips – his lips – shaping the space against Francis’s ear, their heights perfectly matched to let him perform that specific dirty trick, "whereas you are most definitely the thing I'm most fond of and find more admirable in this terrifying world of ours."
"I don't need protection," replied Francis, gasping for air.
"Companionship, then," James said. "Devotion, tenderness." Tentatively, oh so tentatively, his long fingers inched closer to Francis's shoulders. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw him aiming at the safest spots, where no less than two sturdy layers of outer clothing protected the skin. He also saw him waiting until he didn't give any sign of unwelcoming the touch.
(He hated the man for knowing him so well, didn't hate him at all.)
"Long ago, when we were both perhaps even more foolish than we are now, Sir John told me I should have cherished you." James's hands made contact; his voice grew tight again. "What I am asking now is, very simply, to have to do so, Captain Crozier."
Francis exhaled a breath tingling with ice; twisted around in the gentle hold of James before realizing it. He couldn't help it: he was glaciers, he was a sunflower, sliding toward this man on long-fixed paths.
As he looked upon James's face for the first time in minutes, what he saw there made him wonder if he was the only one being a sunflower, trapped by the routes of inevitable yearning.
"It's impossible," he heard himself say. He didn't sound particularly convincing. "We are – we are both men, in case you didn't notice. The Navy prescribe flogging those like us – used to hung them, for Christ's sake."
James shook his head: for a moment, he seems to glow brighter, grow coruscating.
"We are not Navy men anymore," he said. "And we are not like the other men either, Francis. The ice took so much from us. It's only fair it gives us something in return."
James's hands were still pressed delicately against his shoulders; it looked much more like an embrace, now that they were facing each other. Francis felt himself shiver under it, under the power of James's conviction. Shivering, yes – but not overwhelmed, never overwhelmed.
"I can't even touch you, James," he said; fast, desperately. "I can't fucking touch anyone without getting sucked into their brain and seeing all the rubbish they want to keep safely stuffed inside of them. Have you considered that in this little plan of yours?"
"I have." The pressure on Francis's shoulders shifted as James leaned forward; his thumb skimming across the collar of his shirt, directly over his collarbone. "And if you agree, I reckon we can find a solution to that particular issue, too."
Francis frowned. His pulse was beating at a human pace – quick, animal, alive – after six months of slush.
"What are you talking about?"
"I can endure having you in my soul, Francis," James went on. "I can learn how to welcome you in – how to dull the impact. I doubt there is anything I don't want you to see in my soul, any ugliness you've not at least glimpsed in passage during our time together; and as for the parts of me I'd like to keep private, I wouldn't trust any other man to be as respectful as them as I know you'd be."
Francis spluttered. "Damned – damned, crazy fop – my respectfulness isn't the issue. I do not know how to control it, James. I wouldn't nearly empty my stomach every time it happens if I could."
"Which only happens because you're still not used to it. You simply need practice. A safe environment to practice in."
"That's not how it works," Francis said. His heartbeat was growing so loud it drowned the sound of his voice.
"Is it not?" James arched an eyebrow. "Has it ever been done before?"
Francis felt his blood thud with the answer.
No. No, it has not been done before. Not this, not their death and their rebirth, not them.
Nothing of this.
They were free. He was free. Before the ice, the whole world had wanted Francis Crozier to fail, and stay down, quiet and dull and dependable as a dog. When they came back, it had wanted him to live in the cold – to carry the Arctic inside and out, desolation spreading around him, in his uncared-for rooms and thick gloves, because there could be no different future for a man half-made of snow. But James didn't want that for him.
Maybe, just maybe, he didn't have to want that for himself either.
James seemed to recognize his capitulation before Francis himself confessed it to himself. He sucked through his teeth – a sigh, reedy with anticipation.
Francis tilted his head up, just an inch. Leaned into his touch, just a little.
"Would you melt me, Fitzjames?" he asked, curving his lips into the most terrified smile of his life. "The man of fire melting off the man of ice, the saddest snowman to ever be made – it would make sense, wouldn't it?"
James lifted one hand to Francis's cheek; brushed it with a gloved finger.
"Never," he said, without smiling. "If it is in my power to prevent it, no part of me will ever hurt you, Francis. I promise."
Francis breathed in, out. What can you say after a man like this, a man who lost his innocence and his hope through the slaughter of his friends, who died in your arms and came out of death in a glorious burst of fire, a star being made, told you such words, his fingers skimming you gently, as if in awe of the miracle he's holding in his arms?
What can you do, even if your name is Francis Crozier?
You can only do this: loosen your shoulder, arch your spine towards the man pressed against you, the gravity pull of him. Let him card one hand in your hair, bringing your mouths closer, closer. Feel the texture of his lips as they touch yours, and swim through the shock of light coming after it, the wild waves and thunderous brightness of entering another soul: the sight of your face embedded at the center of another heart, the excruciating love surrounding it. You can only let it wash over you instead of fighting it off – let it enter your pores and your bones and the ice still lodged there inside the complicated fabric of you.
This is what you do; this is what Francis was doing, kissing James Fitzjames, kissing Prometheus, the man of flame. And he wasn't falling. He wasn't losing himself. He wasn't melting.
Instead, he was feeling warm.