“It will not be the same.”
“I should hope not,” says James drily, though his heart is leaping like a netted fish. He turns from the foot of the bed to look back at Francis.
Francis stands to resolute attention, his hands behind his back, his face unreadable. “That is not my meaning, James. I mean to affirm the fact, not regret the difference.”
“I don’t know that I—”
“The circumstances are not the same,” says Francis.
He crosses the bedroom carpet and puts a hand to the nape of James’ neck, curls his fingers in James’ unbound hair; longer now than it used to be, unfashionably so, but James has never regretted his lapse in dandyism less. Francis gives a tug and James lets his head fall backwards, narrows his eyes, bares his throat to Francis’ inscrutable gaze.
“For good or ill,” Francis says, “I am not the man I was before.”
James swallows, and nods, as best he can. “I know, Francis. I understand.”
“Do you? It was you that started this, after all.” The hand tightens in his hair.
James breathes a tepid laugh. “That’s not how I remember it.”
“Oh no?” Francis brings the handle of the cat up to trace James’ face, the leather loop brushing his temple, cheekbone, and jaw in turn. “Perhaps you’d like to tell me, sometime, what it is that you remember?”
“Not just now,” says James lightly. The effect is unconvincing, even to his own ears: he betrays himself in shallowness of breath, in the flush he can feel staining his cheeks, in the hardness that presses against the meat of Francis’ thigh.
“No,” Francis agrees. “Not just now.” He pulls away abruptly, and James sags against the bedstead, feeling weak-kneed and cold.
Back at an authoritative distance across the carpet, Francis adjusts his cuffs and tugs at the front of his waistcoat, shifting the cat from hand to hand as he does so. James follows the dance of the tails with heavy-lidded eyes.
No crude ship’s implement, this, no tarred rope or wicked knots, tied in some dark corner of the orlop by a bosun’s mate with greasy hands. James made a special excursion to Marylebone for it, knocked at a discrete, dark door, and was admitted to a palace of delights. If Le Vesconte could have seen him — picking his way between the entangled pairs and threes as though they were no more diverting than a flock of pigeons in Kensington Gardens — he’d have combusted with envy and frustration on the spot. But James was there for practicality, not fleshly pleasure, and before long he was perusing a tray of esoteric implements, the sloe-eyed proprietrix smiling at his side.
There, for the first time, he wished Francis had come with him. This was for his benefit, after all; it was his hand that would wield the instrument. James tested weights and hefts, let fringe fall through his fingers, poked experimentally at points and prongs. At last, he settled for something plausibly nautical: black kidskin, finely plaited, a pleasing length in James’ long hand. Now it dangles from Francis’ fist, casting strange shadows in the firelight.
“Shall we?” Francis asks, an uncertain grimace pulling at his eyes. A rush of love swells in James throat at the sight, sweet as sherry wine. They are nervous together, then. The thought is a comfort, in its way.
James nods, unbuttons his collar, shucks his shirt over his head and throws it onto the counterpane. He feels vulnerable with so much flesh exposed: his twice-healed scars will never be pretty things, and he cannot be at ease with them, not yet. But he can’t fret about it now, not with the promise of yet more marks to be made on his pierced and pitted skin. He turns his back to Francis, apprehension climbing along his spine.
He would not be tied. They had both agreed. It was unbecoming for an officer, and unnecessary in the first place. This is a willing submission, dictated not by the Articles but by personal inclination and the most private of desires. There is no tattoo of drumming, no wall of watching eyes, no hush of dread and awe: only the quiet crackle of the fire, wind singing in the eaves, the soft pattern of Francis’ breathing.
James’ blood is up once more, his pulse hectic in his throat, his head swimming. He puts his hands to the rail of the bedstead and spreads his feet apart.
“Thirty lashes,” says Francis behind him, his voice steady and stern.
James nods, lifts his head, and waits.
It began a month ago.
They were sitting by the fire, bookends at the hearth in their paired armchairs, James’ stockinged feet in Francis’ lap. Their quiet reading turned inevitably to conversation, and their conversation, as it was wont occasionally to do, turned to the expedition: shaping and reshaping it between them like a piece of well-worn clay. James was not sure how it happened, but they arrived at the subject of Mr Hickey.
“A snake of a man,” said Francis bitterly, “if ever I knew one. I should have seen it sooner.”
“I barely noticed him,” James confessed. “Until there was too much of him to comfortably ignore.”
Francis’ eyebrows lifted towards his hairline, and James ground his heel into Francis’ knee. “I don’t mean that, you reprobate. I was thinking of the business with Lady Silence — his insolence towards you. His presumption.”
It still made James hot to think of it: Hickey’s complacence, his easy candour, his outrageous familiarity. Francis had been practically vibrating at James’ side, the smell of drink pervasive in the stale air, the flat of his hand striking the table so hard it made the navigational instruments rattle on their shelves.
“No seaman deserved his lashing more,” said Francis, pressing his thumb to the underside of James’ foot.
James’ memory was patchy these days — like a book with the pages disarranged — but he closed his eyes and the scene on Terror’s lower deck swam sluggishly to mind. Francis with his teeth bared, Francis leaning forward, Francis’ hands convulsing at the sound of each stinging stroke. Revelation came as light through morning cloud.
“You enjoyed it,” he said.
Francis’ hand went still. “Enjoyed it?”
These were unknown waters, but James plunged on. “Took pleasure in it.”
Francis shook his head. “No, James. I may have been many things during that damnable voyage, but I was never a tyrant.”
“Not a tyrant,” James agreed. “But a man with desires.”
“For Mr Hickey?” Francis half-laughed, incredulous. “Be serious, James.”
“I am,” said James. “I was watching you.”
He had watched Francis, had watched Hickey watching Francis, had watched them watch each other: a queer current of meaning in their glances, wet dark eyes meeting pitiless blue. Punished, as a boy. What purpose could there be in it, James had wondered, except to deepen the humiliation, to make Hickey feel the hurt as keenly within as without, to shame him before the assembled men? Why else insist that every stroke went home, to see that Mr Johnson opened Hickey’s flesh like a splitting peach?
A log fell and snapped in the grate.
“Perhaps,” said Francis slowly, “I had a sense of relief. In punishment ordained and followed through.”
James twitched his mouth. “You might call it satisfaction.”
Francis dug his thumb more deeply into the soft flesh of James’ foot. “I might.”
“Jopson, certainly, was satisfied.” Like a cat, James had thought: flinching at the hiss of the whip through the air but quietly delighted. Why should Jopson triumph except on Francis’ behalf, as proxy, as pressure valve?
Francis sat up so violently that James’ feet fell onto the floor. “What in Christ’s name has Thomas Jopson got to do with this?”
“Francis, that man is your mirror.” James straightened himself and extended a persuasive hand. “If you gave up eating, or took to walking on your hands, he would follow suit.”
Francis said nothing, but sat staring into the fire, hands curled like claws around the arms of his chair. “I felt no better for it,” he said at length. “No catharsis, if that’s what you mean. I went back to my crooked cabin and drank myself into a stupor, just the same.”
James leaned forwards in his chair. “But in the moment, Francis. How did you feel?”
“I can’t say.” Francis scrubbed a fist across his forehead. “Pleased, I suppose. To bring that… creature down a peg or two. To make him—”
James stared at him. This was more than he’d expected; far more. Francis seemed stunned by his own admission, his eyes guileless and wide. He got to his feet, leaned briefly on the mantelpiece, and began a prowling circuit of the room.
“It’s not… unheard of, Francis.” James watched his progress: from window to sofa to bookcase and back again. “It deprives you of no nobility.”
Francis gave no reply, but shook his head like a lion dislodging a cloud of flies, his cheeks flushed and ruddy.
“To be sure, there are easier ways of coming to the knowledge of it,” said James, folding one leg across the other.
But even this did not provoke Francis, who had paused by the window, twitching the curtains apart to look out at the sky. James did not press him, but watched as he resumed his pacing.
“You will wear a mark in our carpet,” he remarked, after another minute had gone by.
Francis sank at last onto the sofa. “Did you suspect me?” he asked miserably. “At the time?”
James strained his memory. He had been overwhelmed by the intensity of it all: the smell of sweat and iron, the shine of Hickey’s tears, Francis’ throbbing presence at his side. He had left Terror feeling hollow and ill-at-ease, the walk across the ice seeming to chill him more than it ever had before. After seeing Lady Silence fed and settled, he had brushed Bridgens’ attentions away and fallen into his bunk, fully-clothed, boots and all.
“Not with any clarity,” he said. “But I had a sense of it, I think.”
Francis let his head drop into his hands. James rose stiffly and crossed the room. He put his palm to Francis’ hair, that lovely corn-silk gold, and caressed his head as though offering a benediction.
Francis put his forehead to the pocket of James’ dressing gown. “Why didn’t you say anything?” he groaned.
“Francis, how could I?” James chuckled, and the movement made Francis draw back with a scowl. “We were hardly as close then as we are now.”
Francis huffed. “No, indeed.”
James flopped down beside him. “You were in your cups, besides.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“The small matter of the Tuunbaq, too. The ice pressing us from all sides. Your Terrors cluttering my tidy ship.”
Francis waved a hand. “Yes, yes.” He slumped against the sofa cushions, and James curled into him, seeking warmth. When Francis spoke again, his voice rumbled in his ribs, so that James felt, as much as heard, his words. “‘Not unheard of’, you said. Dare I ask what that might mean?”
James smiled, knowing Francis could not see him. “Well,” he said, “in the Far East—”
“I don’t want to hear about the Far East, James.”
“You like my stories.”
“I like some of your stories, some of the time,” Francis growled. “This is not one of those times.”
“Oh, very well. I shall say, then, that there are any number of men — and women, too — who find their pleasure comes sweeter when it is meted out with pain."
Francis shifted impatiently. “I’m no monk, James. I’ve been at sea these forty years. Besides, there’s a threadbare copy of Fanny Hill on your side of the bed which I’ve taken the liberty to peruse.”
This made James laugh outright. “Then why do you fret, my love? You know the ropes as well as I.”
“I doubt that,” said Francis. “My experience — though I had better say knowledge, lest I give a false account of myself. My knowledge lies all in one direction. That of being… in the subordinate position. It seems more natural — to be receiving pain, rather than inflicting it.”
“Good God, Francis, if Mr Dickens were to write a thumbnail sketch of your character, he could scarce do better than that.”
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you,” said James. “All my experience — and it is experience, as you may have guessed — was gained without the benefit of enlightening conversation.”
“And I’m afraid that, like your knowledge, it goes solely in one direction.”
A girl in Constantinople, that was how he had come to it: pushed into the upper room of a fringed and fragrant den, the cat-calls of his comrades chasing him up a narrow flight of stairs. Not his first dalliance of that kind, to be sure, but the first in which he’d moved too fast, been too forward, and been rewarded with a slap that sent blood southwards. She’d seen, and smiled, and struck him again. Then at Singapore with thrice-damned Barrow, a birch cane, or something like it, before that particular deck of cards came tumbling down. And again in London, a year before the expedition sailed: some shabby house in Whitechapel where a man with the face of a curate and the sly strength of a foretopman had tied him to a bench and beaten the worry and exhaustion from him with a hunting crop.
Francis jerked his head to look at James. “Are we on the same bearing, then?”
“Not quite,” said James. “Different tacks, but with the same destination in mind.”
“You may need to be clearer, James, if we are to continue in this vein.”
“Very well, then.” James sat up, and turned to face Francis. “I would take Mr Hickey’s part,” he said, “in a situation where it might be desired. Though more willingly and, I hope, with rather less pain.”
Francis swept a hand through his untidy hair. “Christ, James.”
“This is no bad thing,” said James, taking Francis’ unoccupied hand. “There is no great shame in it. No more shame, in any case, than we might care to feel already.” When Francis shot him a quizzical look, he added, “As sodomites and failed explorers,” and was relieved that it made Francis bark a laugh.
But Francis’ face shadowed over. “Have you been waiting all this while?” he asked, looking wretched. “Have you been unhappy, James?”
“Francis, no!” James kissed the back of Francis’ hand, his wrist, held his palm against his face. “I’d have lived my life entire in your company, no matter the state of our affairs. Even if you never touched me — even if you never looked at me for the rest of my days.”
“An impossibility, I assure you,” said Francis, drawing closer.
“What we have is more than I ever hoped for,” James said. “Hell’s teeth, Francis, just to be alive is a miracle beyond my understanding. To be—”
His words were cut short by a bruising kiss, Francis’ mouth hot and open on his own. James yielded to him, sinking back against the cushions as Francis spread himself above him, solid and warm and weighty.
“Promise me we’ll discuss this… another time,” he panted, as Francis moved lower, licking the jetty of his jaw, sucking the skin above his collar.
“Yes, James,” said Francis, tugging at cravat and buttons. “We’ll talk. And talk and talk. To your heart’s desire.” James felt Francis grin against his throat.
“Oh, good.” James gasped as Francis’ teeth found his collarbone. “Another time — oh, God, Francis, do that again.”
The first stroke is almost gentle.
The kidskin licks at James’ skin like a match striking, or the far-off crackle of the aurora. But he feels it more keenly with every passing second, a neat stripe from right shoulder to left hip, transversing his spine. His eyes closed tight with the impact, from the shock of the noise, and now he forces them open: stares at the brass of the bedstead, its strange reflections, their well-proportioned bedroom made small and malformed.
Francis does not count aloud. That’s to be part of it. A captain keeps count on deck, but only to himself. The man at the grating should have no conception of how far he has come in proceedings, nor of how much farther there is yet to go.
The second stroke, to the best of James’ perception, falls within a half inch of the first, exactly parallel. The breath leaves his lungs in a rush. Francis is good at this. Something of his navigational exactitude, perhaps: the same precision. James imagines the glint in his eye, the fierce, focused concentration. He knows that look. Under it James becomes a chart spread clean across a cabin table, a channel thick with floating ice, a treeless tundra marked here, and here, with cairns. The thought makes him shiver. He waits again.
The third stroke lands smartly between the second and first, on what must have been a ridge of unpinked skin. But it overlaps its forebears, and James has his first taste of pain: sharp and sweet, like those small spiked fruits he ate aboard the Clio. Just as his mind starts wandering in search of their name, the fourth stroke hits him, and the fifth, and he can think of nothing save his sweating palms, his stitch-tight breath, his stinging back.
After the seventh — or eighth — he loses count. The world blurs.
He’s aware, dimly, of Francis’ footsteps on the creaking floor, of the gaslight growing dimmer, of his prick hanging hot and hard between his thighs.
James groans with every stroke now. He cannot help it. The sounds are wrung from him like water from a sponge, spilling from his slack mouth and into the heated air.
A pause, and Francis’ waistcoat passes his right ear, a flap of cobalt silk, to join James’ shirt on the counterpane. He studies the arcane shape they make — like a wise woman with her tea leaves, as though he might find meaning there — and then all sense is driven from his head by another lash, and then another, intersecting with the first at right angles.
The strokes continue in that fashion, left shoulder to right hip, and grow sloppier: one or more of the cat’s tails reaching round his ribs, catching under his arms, making him twitch and writhe.
James floats above himself, watches from the crosstrees as Francis shifts the cat in his hand, adjusts his grip, raises his arm and brings it down. The arc of leather through the air, the snap like sodden rope as it connects with flesh, James’ own flinching shudder, the bloody saltire of his back. Is he bleeding? He cannot tell. All is hot and hurt and burning.
And through it all, Francis is silent. Or at least, he does not speak. James can hear his breathing, ragged as his own, the occasional wordless noise of a man preoccupied with toil. It’s the thought of Francis — raking his hair from his eyes, standing with hand on weary hip, watching James, hurting James — that makes the tears begin to fall. Francis, who he’d hated and who’d hated him; Francis drunk and drying out; Francis reaching for him on that barren shore; Francis walking at his side, listening, understanding, seeing.
Francis, doing this for James. Doing this for himself.
When the next stroke lands, James all but howls. He hangs his head, tears splashing on the floor, on his feet, darkening the sheets. When he can breathe again he gulps the air like water and lets it out in shallow gasps, each punctuated by a tiny, shameful wail.
No blows fall. No comfort either.
James sobs, clinging to the clammy rail. He wanted this. He asked for it. He wanted to be broken at the end of a rope, to weep for it, to be brought to this. He’s a snivelling midshipman, a bastard with a made-up name, a boy without a home.
The next stroke comes as a relief. Francis is here. Francis is with him. Francis will help him out of it.
And, at last, Francis speaks. “You’re doing so well, James. So well. My lovely boy.”
James feels something in him shatter and mend again. He sags where he stands, heaving a great, shuddering gasp. The cat cracks once more and he convulses, but the pain is a bright, beautiful thing: the measure of Francis’ love, laid down in inches. Suddenly James wants him, to be in him and around him, to scent his sweat and hair, to take his cock into his mouth and drink him dry.
But there’s no time. Francis quickens his pace, his blows erratic, unrhythmic, so that James can’t catch his breath. He snorts, and splutters, and weeps again, and all is mingled with mounting desire: the swell of his prick, the knife-twist in his guts, the lightning sparking through his limbs as though he’s lit with St Elmo’s fire.
He’s coming unstitched. He’s a torn sail, shredded in a squall and left hanging from the spar.
He could reach his peak like this, untouched but for the lash of the cat. It’s knowing Francis holds the farther end, directs its course, points them home.
The pain deepens, and he whimpers, wanting more.
But there is no more.
“James.” Francis’ voice is in his ear, Francis’ warm hand on his shaking shoulder.
“Don’t stop.” James’ head lolls and the words come as a whine. “Why have you stopped?”
“You’re bleeding, James.”
“I don’t care, I don’t—”
“I care,” says Francis firmly. “I’ll not see you bleed, James. Not here.”
“Please,” James keens, arching back into Francis’ arms, heedless of the pain, the rasp of Francis’ shirtfront against his ruined skin.
But Francis fends him off, steers him to the side of the bed, holds him at a distance. James can feel Francis’ breath dance across his back.
“Sit,” says Francis, and James crumples sideways onto the mattress. Careful fingers prod his tender skin. One spot on his shoulder blade is a searing pain among the wider sharpness. Francis crosses to the washstand, pours water, soaks a bath sponge.
“What?” Francis returns, frowning.
“How many lashes?” James wants so badly to have done well, to have done right for Francis.
“Enough. Plenty.” Francis cups James’ cheek with a wet hand, and puts the sponge to his back so that water runs down in little rills, soaking the waistband of his trousers.
James starts and hisses, but the water is warm. No sickroom salt for these wounds. He puts his face to Francis’ belly, mouthing the fabric of his shirt; finds a smear of blood over Francis’ breast and latches onto it, wants to suck it clean.
“A moment, James,” says Francis, trying vainly to attend to him, but James is palming the front of his trousers, seeking the hardness he knows he’ll find there. “James, Christ — let me fix you first.”
“I’ve lived through worse,” James says, stretching backwards across the bed and dragging Francis with him, but he groans as his back hits the bedding, and has to curl defensively onto his side, a fist in the counterpane.
Francis comes to rest beside him, strokes his hair, his upper arm. “You were so brave, James. So brave. So good for me.”
That knife twists again, and James is on him: pinning Francis to the mattress, pawing at him, kissing him, their mouths open and obscene. He splays his knees over Francis’ hips, their swollen pricks crushed together through layers of cotton and wool.
“You’ve marked me, Francis,” he pants. “You’ve bled me. Now have me.”
Francis growls and surges upwards. His fingers rake James’ heated back, and then his nails, so that James cries aloud, the sound smothered at once by Francis’ mouth. Between them, they divest themselves of trousers and underclothes; James tears Francis’ shirt in his eagerness to tug it over his head; there’s a fumbling in the bedside drawer, a stack of books sent tumbling; the smell of lanolin and cloves, the deft press of Francis’ fingers to James’ opening.
When Francis is hard and slick beneath him, James straddles him again, braces himself on Francis’ knees and opens, yields, sinks until he’s seated. Francis lets out an animal sound, his head tipped backwards in the sheets, his hair a wild gold halo.
This is what James wanted, what he needed as he sagged at the end of the bed: to be flush with Francis, to be filled, to feel Francis’ blood beat against his own. The gentle ache of it, the pull of muscle, the familiar searing stretch.
Francis has his broad hands around James’ waist, just gracing the cat strikes that strayed and stung his sides. He stares up at James with ice-bright eyes, his lips pink and parted. “I have you, James,” he says. “I have you.”
James whines again, frustrated, wanting to lift himself and sink again, but finds all the strength has left his limbs. So he flattens, collapsing onto Francis and kissing him again, his cock caught between their bodies as they build a clumsy rhythm, their hips moving in frenetic time. Francis scratches him again, cruel longitudinal lines from shoulder blade to spine, and James is helpless, a fixed point of coalescing pleasure and pain.
They rut like this, breathing together, arms entwined; James arousal building like a head of steam. But suddenly, desperately, he needs more. He falls sideways, sliding out of Francis’ sweat-slick embrace, feels Francis’ cock slip from within him as he goes.
“What are you—” Francis sounds drunk with lust, loose-tongued, dazed.
“Like this,” says James, rolling onto his back. “Please.”
Francis, for once, makes no complaint. He comes to rest between James’ open thighs, holds his sturdy, red-tipped cock in a steady hand, and pushes in again. James locks his ankles at the small of Francis’ back, holds him closer, skin to skin, each thrust bringing tears back into James’ eyes as the burn of his skin becomes a blaze. He fancies he can feel each stroke once more, every stinging line, could almost count them. Francis has his hands in James’ hair, his mouth to James’ temple, the side of his jaw. James’ prick twitches, but he cannot reach to grasp it, can do nothing but clutch Francis’ shoulders, half-sobbing again, entirely overwrought.
In a haze of pain, his eyesight blurred, James comes apart. For a moment he drifts — feels nothing, sees nothing — and then returns to himself, convulsing, racked with agony and bliss. Francis fucks him through it, heedless of the spreading wetness on their skin, until with a spasm and a groan he’s laid out on James’s chest like a dead man, his cock still pulsing deep within.
James has no words to protest when Francis tries to draw away, but clings to him, binds him with arms and legs, keeps him close, inside. He becomes gradually aware of Francis petting his hair, smoothing it back from his sweaty face, kissing the skin there. And he’s speaking softly, sighing words that James can’t quite hear. He shifts his head, and the sound resolves into meaning.
“I’m sorry,” Francis is saying. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” and James knows, in some deeper part of his being, that it’s for more than the blood and the beating and the tears.
It’s for their animosity, their mutual distrust, that drunken glancing blow; for holding James at Victory Point but not embracing him entire, as James so wished he would; for denying his last, most desperate wish, for pushing Bridgens’ hand away; for waiting, for wanting James to live. No apology is needed for this last, not now, but James hears it all the same: hears it and forgives.
Tears well in his eyes again — he’s distantly surprised he has any left to cry — and he holds Francis tighter, soothes him, hushes him. He still can’t speak, but noses Francis’ face, finds his mouth, kisses the words away.
At last, Francis pulls back, and James gives a petulant moan as his warmth and weight is lifted, as Francis’ softened length slides from inside him. Francis puts his hands on James, pushes and coaxes, rolls him over.
“Let me see,” he says.
James, with his face in the rumpled sheets, feels again those careful fingers, the exquisite pin-prick on one shoulder blade, the dampness of the sponge. Francis cleans him: swipes tepid water along his back, the cleft of his arse, between his thighs. James twists onto his side and drags Francis into a lazy embrace, tangles their legs together, rests his head on Francis’ gold-furred chest.
For a while they merely breathe. Francis has an arm around James’ shoulders, James a hand on Francis’ ribs. James is half-asleep when he feels Francis' thumb graze his cheekbone.
“I’d not thought to see you cry, James,” he says, sounding thoughtful rather than forbidding. “Is it always thus?”
James thinks back to the girl at Constantinople, the whorehouse in Singapore, the London club. He remembers ecstasy, certainly: catharsis, release, a kind of light-headed emptiness that soothed him in a way he could not understand. But no tears beyond those of pain, and the relief of pain coming to an end.
“No,” he says. “That was on your account, I think.” He cranes to look at Francis. “It did not distress you?”
“Distress me?” Francis huffs a laugh through his nose. “Not when you do it so beautifully.”
The words send arousal trickling through James’ exhausted body. There’s no urgency to it, but he pockets the feeling to be examined later, when he’s more awake.
Francis’ hand finds a patch of burning skin somewhere under James’ left arm. “Iodine,” he says, “and arnica. This will hurt a while yet, James.”
“I mean it to,” says James. “I want to think of you when I dress, or when I lean back in a chair. When someone bumps into me in the Burlington Arcade.”
“You'll have to abandon that waistcoat of yours a while — the hunter green. The buttons barely close as things are.”
James laughs, and gives Francis an ineffectual shove.
“Not to mention your… other attire,” Francis muses. “Though I admit I’ve a fancy to see you laced and squirming.”
The image quickens James’ breath. Oh, that would hurt indeed, the stiff edge of a corset against his stinging skin. Another idea to be filed away for another time. He slides into drowsiness again, sees blood spilled on taffeta and watered silk, on fine satins and dainty muslin.
But a question strikes him, and he finds he can’t live with it unanswered. Never one to leave a scab unpicked, as Dundy used to say.
“Was it because of Hickey?” He feels Francis go taut beneath him, but presses on regardless. “The blood,” he says. “The reason you would not go on.”
If James remembers it so clearly — the smell, the open wounds, the flinging specks of crimson — how must Francis feel? They began with Hickey, to James’ profound regret, but he’d hoped they would dislodge him as they went along. He should have known better: a man like that lingers in the mind.
There’s a long pause.
“No, James,” says Francis at last, and the words come strangely thick into the air. “It was because of these.” He touches James’ scars: the twin poles of healed tissue bracketing his arm, then slides from under James, sets James’ head back against the sheets with infinite care.
“And this,” he says, kissing James’ hairline. “And this,” he whispers to the thin skin below James’ eyes.
With an ache in his throat, James lies back and lets Francis perform this sacred office. Dry lips brush the borders of his mouth, the globe of his left eyelid, the ragged circle etched below his heart. James feels as though he’s spread upon an altar, a St Sebastian with fewer holes, a sacrament for Francis’ worship and devotion.
“I enjoyed it, James,” he says, somewhere in the vicinity of James’ ribs. “I took pleasure in it. But there’s no joy for me in the sight of you bleeding. Not again. Not ever.”
James strokes his hair, holds his head in both hands. “I know, Francis. I know.”
Two days later, James is standing at the window in the morning room, looking down at the street. Spring has arrived, soft and quiet, and the magnolia tree in the gated garden across the way is in pink and furry bloom.
Francis appears at his side, and puts a hand to the small of James’ back. “A walk, James?”
The question is all innocence, but Francis begins to rub careful, inexorable circles that feel to James like the press of a flat iron against his skin. He has been burning all this while, a steady, gentle pain that neither disrupts his sleep nor distresses him, but serves as both reminder and promise: a phantom of what is passed and what may yet come to be.
“Perhaps,” James says, leaning back into Francis’ ambivalent embrace. “I thought of the Burlington Arcade.”
“Indeed?” There’s a smile in Francis’ voice as he smooths his hand across James’ shoulders, finds the small scabbed weal through the fabric of his shirt and pauses, apparently thoughtful.
“It was lately pointed out to me that I need a new waistcoat,” says James idly. “Something green. What do you think?”
At this, Francis tugs him away from the casement, spins him in an inelegant dance, and crowds him up against the wall. They are out of sight of the road, screened by the swag of curtains. James’ head comes to rest between a stormy seascape and a sketch of Alice Charlewood done in charcoal. Francis kisses him soundly, one hand at his waist and another in his hair. James makes a soft noise in his throat as Francis pushes him firmly into the wall.
Francis draws back, a flinty glitter in his eyes. “Is anything the matter, James?”
“You devil,” says James, and he lowers his head to be kissed again.