Actions

Work Header

As Long as the Sea-Gull Loved the Sea

Work Text:

James contemplates refusing to get out of his bed ever again. Thesis: it would be absurd to do so, for the bed is warm but the room is cold. Confirmation: autumn rain is tapping on the high windows, and he can see the slumbering embers in the fireplace. The floor must be positively freezing. Elizabeth saw to it that a rich rug greets his naked feet first thing in the morning, but the solace it offers is fleeting: a brisk trek needs to be taken to the washstand. There, he could either have the displeasure of splashing chilly water onto his face, or ring for a maid to heat it—but the bell is even further away than the basin, which would mean a prolonged exposure to the room’s unsatisfactory temperatures in naught but his nightshirt.

To think that he once marched through King William Island.

It only backs his thesis, really. His bones remember the cold, the joints especially. He has made a full recovery from scurvy, or so the doctors told him, but on a bleak morning like this, he is prone to question their expertise. If he learnt one thing in the Arctic, it was this: nature is stronger than him; it would have its will.

He rolls to his back, staring up at the blue canopy while the rain patters away. He wonders idly if it is raining in Dublin; he wonders if Francis is cold; if he thinks of him, too. He pictures him by his side: propped up on an elbow, watching him with bleary eyes and a fond smile, an eyebrow arched. “Slug-a-bed,” he would say. 

James groans in playful protest, and the image morphs into another reverie, one in which he wakes up on Francis’ warm chest, tucked into his embrace. Oh, he would never want to wake: no matter how Francis beseeched, prompted him with pleading kisses on his cheeks and forehead, he would just sink further into the softness of him, hide himself there, and Francis would call him a menace. If he needed to be anywhere, he would demand to be hauled there: Francis would hoist him up and carry him to the washstand as one would a bride, or throw him over a shoulder—

The thought is interrupted by the memory of their ill on boats. How they had to be hauled. Even the boys. So capable when they joined the expedition, hale sailors left unable to even crawl.

He kicks off the blanket thinking of them. Rises, stands, and subjects himself to the crisp air in sympathy as he marches to the basin. He washes like he expected them to wash back on Erebus, except he has a soft flannel and a bar of soap all for himself. He splashes water on his face, his neck, coughing, then strips and rubs himself down roughly, until the flannel chafes and he is shivering. No one would want this from him; if he told Francis of these small rituals of penance, he would chide him softly, voice broken with concern.

He stands there naked, skin prickled and wet, knowing full well that it is pointless to offer such trifle acts of atonement for the dead: there is no God to ask for forgiveness; no requiem will rise to Heaven. These small hours are all he has to remember them, remember them proper, before he rejoins society and flaunts himself about, laughs and pretends that all is well. If Francis was there, right there in these frightful moments, he would wrap him in a towel and remind him, it’s no sin to live, to enjoy it; you would want them to do the same.

He shall dress in a minute; brush his hair and put on a smile, showing false teeth. He shall get through the day, present his family with the old James, the one they so dearly missed, but for now, he lets himself be like no other person has ever seen him, save for Francis: lost, grieving, afraid. Francis would understand; James wants to write to him, talk to him, remember it together, the fog descended and there was a cry in the air.

A year prior, they had been on the other side of the world. Strange, how distance works: there is but three hundred miles between London and Dublin. It feels uncrossable.

*

He gently taps his silver spoon to the soft boiled egg. The shell cracks; he starts peeling off the pieces with no apparent hurry, compelling himself to do it delicately. He has no appetite for it, but with a lack of hunger comes guilt: he cannot let food go to waste. The table is set for a leisurely breakfast, in the grand dining room of the Coningham’s London residence. It can seat twenty guests; but only the family is present, Will, Elizabeth, their children, Billy and Bessie, and himself, not-quite-brother and not-quite-uncle.

Some inventive maid made an attempt to liven up the place with bouquets of flowers, their sweet scent lingering in the chilly air. James finds his senses sharpened by the expedition: he had quite forgotten about the delight flowers could bring; the touch of fine porcelain; the taste of golden egg yolk, which feels just as rich as any Indian dish.

“Eat your pudding, dear,” Elizabeth chides Bessie.

The girl pouts. “We had pudding yesterday,” she complains.

“You will find that it’s an economic household,” Will remarks as he sorts through the morning post between bites of crunchy toast.

“I’m sick and tired of pudding, Papa,” Bessie announces dramatically, and slumps back in her chair, arms crossed.

“Eat your pudding,” Will says, “or Fitzy here will be tempted to steal it.”

Bessie’s eyes round in amazement. “He would never!”

James chuckles to himself, affectionate: Will always paid attention to his stories, demanded details, and prompted him to recount them often. He gives him a warm glance. Will is huddled in scarves, his hair lank with sweat, eyes fever-bright and lips chapped. He has always been sickly; always weathered through it. It has long ceased to trouble James; he habitually enquired after his health in letters, offered his sympathy upon learning that he was as poorly as ever, and when he visited, he gave him the same comfort he would in their childhood: sitting by his bed to entertain him, maybe fetching him a cup of tea, kissing his forehead then sailing away. Elizabeth used to resent him for it; begged him to stay and take better care of his fragile brother.

Indeed, before the expedition, Elizabeth and him had quite the row, wherein he had been accused of being ungrateful by not reciprocating the care he, an adopted child, had received; how those words had smarted! For there had been truth to them: the Coningham’s tutelage was a debt he would never be able to repay—except, he supposed, if he made a name for himself, proved that their faith in him was warranted, and came back to Will with a tale of glory.

He returned without the burden of vanity. He kept vigil by his brother’s sickbed, fed him, washed him, listened to his complaints: in short, did the same Francis had done for him, Francis, who had showed him how to be the best version of himself. While they were frozen in time, the rest of the world progressed: Will’s condition worsened; the children grew up, missing their uncle; Elizabeth’s anger had subdued into desperation. He had duty owing to them. He did not survive to centre the rest of his spared life on himself.

Still: on mornings like this, he cannot help but think of could-have-beens. He heard Mr. Bridgens and Mr. Peglar found a home together; that Lieutenants Little and Jopson had sailed again; and he has been wondering if any of those options would be available to him and Francis, one bright, distant day.

He imagines him by the table, breaking his fast with the family, not as a guest, but as part of it: a world where his presence would not be questioned, for it would be acknowledged that he belongs to James now, and has a place by his side. All he has in his absence is to harbour these sentiments, a secret life lived as Francis’ lawful betrothed. He likes picturing him as a permanent fixture in the life he now leads, how he would play with the children, help nurse Will, look after the estates with James while Will was indisposed—

But Francis has his own family to care for. While they had been hungering in the Arctic, the whole of Ireland was starving with them: the famine is not over yet—the reports in Francis’ letters are blood-chilling. It is clear that Francis’ place is in his motherland, leveraging his influence as a celebrated Arctic veteran to bring attention to the suffering of his people.

Their obligations have a privilege over personal needs and emotions. As a result, he had seen Francis in the past year only five times, from which merely three had been nominally private. It is unthinkable that a man who has been by his side for so long, who had shared his every joy and sorrow, had known his kindred soul, had rescued him, healed him, loved him, could now do nothing but haunt him in reveries amidst the occasional (if memorable) visits. What keeps James from getting up from the breakfast table, thanking his brother for his hospitality, politely taking his leave, then walking and swiming to Dublin just to collapse at Francis’ feet is their regular, some would even say overeager, correspondence.

“Letter for a Mr. Fitzjeames,” Will announces. James’ heart leaps, but he wishes it still: he can show no outward sign of his excitement, for it could endanger their arrangement. He makes a noise of vague inquisition as he slides the soft egg into his mouth; counts how long he should chew on it so he will not appear to be in a hurry to get the letter, and swallows quite calmly, even taking the time to touch the napkin to his lips. Oh, it is agony: if he was in a position to follow his heart’s desire, he would withdraw to his room with the letter; hold  it to his beating heart as he lay on the very bed where Francis had first had him, during his visit. He would bask in the memory as he thumbed the seal open, touch the soft parchment as if a lover’s caress could be felt through the distance.

“I wasn’t expecting a reply,” he says quite honestly, but the easy air of his delivery matches not the exclamations struck in his throat. Already, he wants to cry, already, a response! He  sent his last letter but four days ago; it is improbable it has reached Dublin; therefore Francis must have grabbed a pen in impatience, or maybe, urgency; just let it be good news, he prays as he extends his hand, and involuntarily moves his fingers when Will fails to hand the letter over.

“What curious wax,” Will remarks. James glances at the seal: it bears Francis’ sigil, a busy bee, but the wax is indeed pale—white wax from a common candle, not the red from his letter set, which makes Francis’ importunateness all the more evident. James breaks the seal open before he even settles back in his chair; tosses his hair, a nervous gesture; forces himself to take deep breaths, summon a calm air.

He knows not what he expected: reports on the diminishing stock, or the bear, Terror camp clear, or what else—what could possibly happen, what misfortune they have not already suffered? He skims through the lines—James, my dear—many details keep me in anything but a fit mood for letter writing but I shall attempt again despite not yet receiving—I cannot say much for my health— (here, he nearly crumbles, but the next line is a reassurance)—Dr. Goodsir suggestedLondon—the ninth—if you would accompany—how do I miss you, dearest boy—I often picture to myself your little employments; James’ suspense subdues enough to read the next lines in full, following Francis’ energetic cursive, the rushed letters stomping on each other in their hurry to be written.

I see you lazing in your Bed and think to myself let him rest but a mischief in me would call me to rise you I know. Forgive your old man but I think on kissing your neck & cheeks first thing in the morning I would be tempted to do it tickle you awake. Then I think of brushing your hair and helping you out of nightshirt & All Else. I hope you are eating well and finding your Strength tell me you are walking again I see you in Regent’s & your long strides how could I keep up. When I leave the house which is more often than I prefer terrible weather I half expect walking into you I turn after every tall Gentleman with dark hair hoping it would be you but none measure and you are in England & I long to see you and see you soon so much I am quite sick with it so yours is the blame should I presih. Meet when we may it will be to me a source of heart felt Pleasure but I shall hope you amenable for I want to behold my James soon and look forward to hold you to my breast what else shall not be committed to writing.

Ever yours most affly,
Francis

“How’s the good Captain, then?” Elizabeth asks cordially. The letter shakes in James’ hand; he wills it still. He rushes through the full contents, for what he read so far cannot be reported. He needs to bite on his cheeks and swallow a gasp when he realises just what he has skipped over in his haste.

“He’s coming to London,” he reports, voice raw. “On the ninth; he asks for my company.”

Oh, the thrill of it: he cannot conceive it. He sets the letter aside, as if it no longer interested him, folds it nonchalantly, but his finger traces the broken seal in apology.

“What’s the occasion? Is there to be another fete in your honour?” Will presses on, busy with his own mail. James risks a glance at him, even though he should hide his eyes: no doubt they are burning like dark coal.

“His invitation has a more lamentable connection to the expedition,” he remarks, flipping the letter open as if he needed to check a detail, but he just reads again, the ninth...I think on kissing your neck & cheeks first thing...what else shall not be committed to writing. “His doctor advised him to visit a bath as a remedy to lingering ache in the joints, I’m afraid.”

It feels odd, to say it: odd, to omit Goodsir’s name, because it would mean nothing to his family. He finds the relevant line again, assured that Francis and Goodsir are still in correspondence, that their doctor keeps looking after them. Francis and James had talked about going to Edinburgh for a visit; to escape.

“Baths are quite popular now,” Elizabeth remarks. “One just opened near Euston; I imagine that’s the one Captain Crozier has in mind.”

I often picture to myself your little employments...I think of brushing your hair...

“Oh, you would enjoy them immensely,” Will agrees. “They have lakes inside the buildings for swimming, much like the Romans did.”

“The things I missed,” James says softly.

There’s a lull, and the scraping of silver utensils on fine china.

“Why do I never get letters,” Billy laments at length as he pokes at his pudding.

“I’m sure you just have to ask your Uncle James very nicely,” Will says, “and he will write you the most exquisite letters.”

“Will you kindly write to me, Uncle?” Billy pleads.

James smiles at him; it is fleeting.

Many details keep me in anything but a fit mood…

“I will write to you and send gifts,” he promises.

If only he had the courage to sail again. In all his dreams, he hears the waves, beckoning: he kept hearing it, when the sea froze solid, and he woke up thinking he heard seagulls calling; trekking to the void, he could have sworn he smelled salt, fish, moss and rot.

“Is it true,” Billy ponders, eyebrows knitted, stabbing at his dessert, stab, stab, stab, “is it true that you found the end of the world? Papa said you couldn’t sail on because the world ended and you had to come home.”

James’ fingers curl over the letter. He needs to hold onto it, as a reminder that they made it back.

“Yes,” he says. “We found where our world ends.”

“Where does it begin?” Bessie chimes in. 

Billy frowns at her with righteous befuddlement. “Pardon?”

“Well if it ends somewhere it has to begin somewhere, doesn't it?”

“It begins here,” James says.

“Ah.” Bessie nods sagely, sitting up straight like a good pupil. “Our Empire.”

“No. Home.” He clears his throat, then gets to his feet, and pockets the letter swiftly. “Please, excuse me.” He bows to the family. Elizabeth takes a pointed look at his half-finished breakfast. “I fancy a walk,” he adds.

“But it’s raining,” Billy says.

“An indisputable observation; however, sailors are waterproof.”

“No, they aren’t,” Bessie cuts back.

“But they are.”

“You are—my pudding!”

James snatches it from her plate, and gives her a wink. He saunters away to the noise of general amusement; he would have stayed to bask in it, a year ago, two, three; things only start to get interesting when people are laughing. Now the attention makes him want to flee: he feels overwarm and the air is stifling. He cannot breathe.

*

He walks under the shadow of the ash trees, which twist and moan in the wind. Once he is confident no one is watching, he breaks into a sprint, gripping his umbrella firmly, and cuts through the grass, so the stones of the path would not grate under his shoes anymore: how he despises their sound! His tophat is knocked off his head: he catches it, but does not put it back. He runs deeper into the line of trees, through flower beds and shrubbery. A mist hangs over Regent’s. The fog descended and there was a cry in the air.

Mr. Collins emerged in a state of frightful confusion.

“We are found,” he said, and laughed and laughed.

They were standing around the gallows, Francis on his box, the rope loose around Mr. Hickey’s throat.

“There,” Mr. Collins said, pointing at the air. “Countrymen.” 

“Here, now,” Dr. Goodsir stepped up to him. “Here, here—what have you taken?”

“We are saved.”

James felt sick to his stomach. The hallucinated hope would have been so easy to cling to, in a grim moment like this. Mr. Collins kept pointing at nothing. He had a flask in his hand. He’s drunk, James told himself, or worse; don’t heed his words.

“Mr. Collins,” Francis said, “who gave you that flask?”

James looked again. The flask was not one he recognised. The metal was gleaming; water sloshed in it as Mr. Collins gestured.

“We are…” he repeated, his voice getting thinner.

A cry in the air, again. James could make out the words this time: Terror, somebody was shouting. Erebus!

“By Jove,” Francis said. “I know that voice.” He turned to James: he would never forget the look on his face.

He touches the letter above his heart. Keeps it warm as the rain soaks through him and the wind screams.

Waves crashed over the deck of Ross’s ship. It looked like they were going to sink. James thought he would not mind it terribly. Life seemed undeserved; the premise of a watery death felt like mercy, after the fire, the cold gales, the dreadful trek through the rocky soil, scurvy worsening; he would have gladly been claimed by the element they all, at least, loved.

“Get back in here,” Francis said, and grabbed his hand, the one that was not in a cast, and pulled him away from the lure of the ocean, back into the crowded quarters; he did not walk him to the sickbay, as he should have, but to the hold, with crates of wine, water, lemon juice, tinned food and salted meats, and there, among the richness of salvation, Francis kissed him. “Don’t leave us,” he said wretchedly. “Don’t ever think of it.”

“Think of me,” James whispers, walk resumed, fingers tapping over the letter. “Promise to think of me.”

He might run into him: it may be a surprise Francis prepared; it is unlike his character, but James clings to the hope nonetheless, and turns after every stranger making a shortcut through the park, walking briskly with their umbrellas. His want should be powerful enough to summon Francis: whisk him away from whatever he is doing, deliver him promptly. James slows his strides, so Francis could match him, were he there.

Francis in London, visiting: the first private moment they could allow themselves, after that kiss on the crowded ship, the court martial, dinners and banquets. They stole away after supper, following Francis’ tactful announcement that he would dearly love to see James’ watercolours, which he kept in his room. When the door closed they could only gaze at each other in marvel: Francis cupped his face and looked his fill, asked him a thousand things, “Are you well, are you sleeping, are you eating, are you living: talk to me.”

James pulled him towards the bed, walking backwards, conscious of every moment wasted not touching Francis: knowing that they would rejoin his family soon, lest suspicion arose. He wanted to give himself over to Francis as a memento, share this secret, so far merely whispered, “I love you more than I ought to say.”

Francis took his time with him: unbuttoned his shirt as if they had all the time in the world, and when James urged him to make haste, he said, earnestly, “I would rather make it worth remembering.”

James remembers each indulgent kiss peppered on his arched chest; Francis’ smile when James was finally naked, how proudly he looked him over; the danger in the excess of his care, when they could have been discovered, how much Francis risked just to have him properly, his oiled fingers curling deep within, close-lipped kisses and then his gasp when James licked his mouth open.

“I’ve been wanting this,” Francis told him, and James thought of occasions missed, years in contempt of one another, then a reluctant allegiance, how they became friends, companions, brothers in arms, twin souls. Francis kissed the scar left by the Chinese sniper and then penetrated him, finally as close as James had felt him recently, just where he needed him to be. He fit into him perfectly; surrounded him completely; James clung onto his round shoulders, reddened in the sun, bright with freckles, and felt the call of living, the life buoyant, as each part of his body tingled with bliss, and he felt like laughing, so laugh he did, embracing Francis and moved to tears.

“I would like to borrow quill and paper,” James announces at the post office, at the end of his wandering, rainwater dripping from his coat, his hair. “It’s rather urgent.”

*

As the day of their date arrives, a terrible realisation comes with it: James cannot leave the house; not in his present state. He has spent over an hour choosing the proper attire, but cannot decide between a black frock coat and a cutaway tailcoat of the same colour. Both fit perfectly, but the latter draws more attention to his slim hips; the other compliments the width of his shoulders better. Which feature would capture Francis’ imagination more? He cannot say. Oh, were he with him already—Francis would make a pick; but he would choose by chance, with no consideration of fashion, only to sooth James’ frenzied mood with a quick decision.

What ails you so? he would ask. James rights the emerald cravat: its colour brings out the hint of green in his hazel eyes. He leans close to the looking glass, and addresses Francis’ reflection in his mind: you fell in love with me when my beauty was fading away, my hair dry and sun-bleached like hay, my old wounds rotting, my skeleton showing. You loved me sick and weak, you loved me when I nearly let hope depart. You loved me at my worst: you deserve only the best now. I haven’t found my strength yet; you would forgive that. You absolve every failure of my character: cherish my flaws, in fact. Let me be beautiful, as a boon. Let me be your beau, when I cannot remember how to be anything else but pretty.

He runs his fingers over the pleats of his shirt, the pearl white waistcoat, the grey trousers with their wide stripes. “Vain again,” he says.

A ghost was wandering over King William Island, with holes in his sweater, his threadbare slops hardly protecting him from the weather, lips chapped, wind-burnt skin flaking. He was free.

But is it vanity, if it is for somebody else’s sake? It feels like he never knew beauty before Francis beheld him; never knew pleasure before Francis caressed him. He came to discover these things in his arms; he learnt to love himself only because Francis’ affinity proved he was worthy. He touches the shirt again; imagines Francis’ palms, and the warmth blossoming beneath them. He drapes the tailcoat over his shoulder; the wool is heavy: it feels like Francis’ embrace. He will choose this.

*

He has no idea what Francis is wearing when he spots him at Euston, beyond the vague impression of a coat and tophat. He rushes to him faster than the train passing by; his heart batters like the great engines. To fly into his arms with the speed of steam—if only! There are far too many people around. If he felt the press of Francis’ body, there would be no stopping him. He offers his hand, instead. Francis clasps it gently in both hands. The way he peers up at him; how he says his name in greeting.

“James.”

Did animals feel like this, when Adam first called their name? They must have, the way the Bible tells it: James feels animated hearing it, as if awakened from some sleepless slumber. There is an affectionate tilt to Francis’ lips; not a smile, not yet—as expression as much of joy as of wonder, his entire face softening. His darling face: oh, to behold it. To kiss it: oh, but he could! The wrinkles around his bright eyes are deeper, their shadows set. It only emphasizes the brilliance of his gaze. A stormy blue like the sea: James submerges in it.

“How good to see you,” he says. Words are not sufficient. Touch, perhaps: but their hands are gloved, butter-soft leather covering James’, while Francis favoured his usual knitwear. “Did you travel well?”

Francis scoffs. “I wouldn’t even call it travel.” He offers his arm: James takes it eagerly.

“Lead the way,”  he remarks, squeezing it close. He gets a whiff of Francis’s scent, his soap, his skin. Arousal is a near thing.

“I’m not entirely sure where the bath house is,” Francis confides him. “Supposed we could find it at our leisure.”

James leans on his shoulder, affectionate, a gesture of silent gratitude: all I want is to spend more time with you. Every second is a joy.

“I would follow you anywhere,” he says, “the undisclosed location of a bath house included.”

“And they say romance is dead,” Francis mumbles, just loud enough for James to hear. He clings to him unabashedly, and thinks, this is where the world begins.

*

Sunlight paves the streets: it gleams wetly, caught in the puddles. There is noise, people talking, hurrying, walking sticks clicking, the thud of horses’ hooves, the rattle of carriages. What lively murmur, softened to a symphony, for Francis is there with him. His breathing, barely audible, is what James listens to while basking in the clamour of living.

The business of London is nearly dizzying, the onslaught of smells, sewage then a parfumer’s, and the buildings popping up in his sight. He is blind in one eye now: his narrow vision holds miracles, the suddenness of houses, and threats: for a moment, he dreads that if they turn the wrong corner, they will see an icy void beyond the buildings, realise that their aimless wandering led back to the Arctic like a labyrinth: that escape was never possible, for they would always just find themselves there. He only needs to squeeze Francis’ arm tighter to reassure himself; feel his caress on the small of his back as Francis guides him to avoid a deeper puddle.

Their conversation is idle: there are a thousand questions, but they enjoy their shared silence more, so familiar now. The intimacy of it is staggering. James could swear he hears Francis talking, that inner monologue no-one else is privy to, for he can guess his thoughts just by the quirk of an eyebrow, the way he wrinkles his nose. James points out a pigeon, a tree, makes a face at a shop window, and Francis nods: I know; I notice the same things you do.

“I enjoy getting lost with you,” James says, when talking feels pleasant, reassured that there is no pressure to keep the conversation going.

“Are we lost?” Francis replies easily. “Have you not made note of our direction, marked every restaurant and hotel?”

“For food and shelter,” James admits, and points to West. “Open water: the Thames flows there.” He draws out its curl in the air, hidden by the houses.

“It’s an Easterly wind,” Francis says. “About seventeen knots; wouldn’t even move the ships.”

“If we had a boat,” James proposes. “With a single mast. Our own handsome sloop.”

“A sloop,” Francis repeats wistfully. “You and me, aye.” 

James smiles at him, but hides it, on an instinct, biting his cheeks. Francis looks stunning when he is lit with dreams, with hope and aspirations. James squints at the steely sky above, the fat clouds: the only ray of sunshine left in the world is Francis.

“Birds flying low,” James says. “It will rain again soon. The streets will be flooded and we might very well need a sloop.”

Francis frowns. “That’s not how we planned to get soaked.”

“Do you suppose one may take his sail with him to the bath? It is technically a lake, and might make for a pleasant trip.”

“This is how we will get sailors banned from baths within only a few years of their opening: you won’t rest until you fit a galleon there, and then where will we be?”

“Is that how we will get banned?” James says, voice dropped lower as his gaze slips to Francis’ mouth. “I can think of a number of things far more scandalous.”

“I never doubted that.” Francis considers his lips as well, then turns, and with an impish smile, adds, “In fact, I hoped that being in the nude might give you a fair amount of disreputable ideas.”

“In the nude?” James asks.

*

The sight of several gentlemen stark naked is unexpected. James had supposed they would be provided with some fashion of bathing suit: it was all right to plunge into a river or the sea with no regard of dignity, but it feels rather bizarre to peel off one’s clothes in an enclosed place, a large room furnished with sturdy benches and rosewood wardrobes. He hangs his clothes, fussing with them far too long, not daring to turn around.

How he will be perceived by others is only a fleeting worry: men of all sizes and shapes pass by him, and he is not even the only one with marks of grievous injuries. But Francis: should he lay eyes on Francis, in the silver light of the day, he might embarass himself in front of all these men, with no trousers to disguise his reaction.

He chances a glance over his shoulder, and catches sight of Francis’ supple buttocks.

Swallows.

They rounded up since he saw them last. The summer left its kiss on them with a blossom of freckles. James’ eyes trace the rolls on Francis’ back, the proud jut of his stomach, his soft shoulders, strong neck, the shell of a pink ear—now getting redder—and his greying hair, mussed up from his battle with his undershirt, which he is currently losing.

“Let me,” James says, stepping closer, still holding his trousers. Francis blinks at him; keeps his gaze on his face pointedly while James undoes his cuffs, which Francis had forgotten to do. He is more nervous than he shows.

“Where’s Lieutenant Jopson when he’s needed?” James tuts softly, making quick work of the simple brass buttons.

“Getting buggered in Italy,”  Francis mumbles, shocking a laugh out of him. God, and he used to think Francis’ humour nonexistent. He has that look in his eyes that shows he knows he has made a vulgar remark, but one he is quite proud of.

“My-my, what a brash thing to say,” James says, voice dropped low, nearly lost in the chatter around them, the rustle of clothing. Were they alone: Francis’ dark pupils show what he would want to do.

James eases the shirt off his hands, caressing his wrists in the process, hidden by the flurry of white linen. Francis closes his eyes to collect himself. James wants to touch the deep wrinkles under them, read their lines like hidden poetry.

“Time for some cold water, I think,” Francis proposes. Looks at James’ discarded trousers, thrown over an arm; looks fond. “Hang those well,” he says. “Such comely clothing, you wouldn’t want to crease any of it.”

James beams: Francis noticed. He all but dances back to his allotted wardrobe, arranges his clothes whistling. He has quite forgotten about his state of undress, until he feels Francis’ approving glance on his rear. He flexes it in greeting, and hears Francis cough.

*

They head to the plunge pool with confident steps, James’ towel tied around his hips, Francis’ own thrown over a shoulder. It is a first class establishment, only used by men. Nothing to be ashamed of, James supposes; but he is too used to the company of ladies to attempt such a bold display.

He cannot risk looking at Francis’ cock openly, but oh, he is aware of it, the faded hair around it, kept neat, how divine the press of that shaft feels inside. He forces his eyes upwards.

“Your sisters keep you well fed,” he notes with affection and relief.

Francis smacks his stomach, which jiggles at the contact. “They’re convinced I’ll waste right away unless I’m kept on a constant diet of meat and cheese and sugary treats,” he says. “Charlotte’s bread pudding is an unfathomable consistency. We’re lucky we have anything to eat, but by Jove: it boggles the mind, that thing.”

James chuckles, ever grateful to be allowed these glimpses into Francis’ private life, everyday annoyances. They round a corner, descend a short flight of steps, and there: the hallway opens into a spacious room with a glass ceiling, the water of the plunge pool stretching into all four corners. Old men splash away with young lads and stately gentleman. It is not exactly the Turkish bath of James’ imagination: but it is soothing, to look around at this lively display of society, without a headcount necessary, with no need to mark recent ailments and injuries.

They leave their towels ashore, and James guides Francis to the pool—as if he was in need of assistance: he jumps in like a regular fish, while James is more tentative, sticking in his toes first. The water is tepid. He diminishes the last thought of hot springs: it is impressive enough to get such a large body of water to this temperature in October.

He is aware of Francis looking, so he makes a show of easing his way in: sits down to the pool’s edge first, stretching his long legs, still shapely even after the ravage of scurvy. He kicks around the water a bit while sitting, his long cock laying heavy on his thigh and his torso bent just so, to show his best angles and the regained muscles. He contemplates the ideal fall of his hair, how his head should be tilted to achieve it, when water splashes on his face.

“Tease,” Francis mouths, that wicked thing, and splatters him again when James only stares. He clearly thinks he has the upper hand. James gets up to his feet, then jumps and leaps on Francis.

Water rushes into his nose, but it is worth the headache.

Bubbles rush past as he attempts to wrestle Francis to the bottom; the pool is quite shallow, the water only coming up to a grown man’s shoulders. Francis fights him valiantly: kicks and twists and slips free before James can claim his victory. He breaks the surface, but James grabs his ankle, tugs him back.

They lock gazes underwater.

The ensuing grapple is entirely undignified, and the goal is not clear: up or down matters not, as long as they have hands on each other, momentary touches of slick skin. The water is a deep green, the faint sunlight streaking in. It makes Francis’ skin glow, his hair a radiant halo. They come back up for air; it cannot be ignored that their skylarking brought a bit of attention, although they are far from the only ones fooling around—but the only ones their age, it seems.

“I’m the best swimmer in the service,” James says, bumping into Francis’s shoulder as he pushes past him.

“Tell that to the Barrows,” Francis grumbles; it is good humoured. Their faint smiles mirror each other, the memory of Victory Point tangible, as if they were back there, right before they seemed doomed and got saved.

“You show some skill,” James admits. He floats, waiting for Francis who catches up with him with a few elegant strokes.

“I was fourteen,” Francis says, “serving on the Hamadryad, when I got the order to deliver some pamphlets to the French coast.” He falls silent. James sends an encouraging ripple of water his way.

“Come on,” he urges. “I know the story is not finished: you haven’t got to the bit about swimming yet.”

Francis glances at him bashfully. He still gets embarrassed whenever he thinks his voice takes up too much place when no one cares for his tales. He used to think of accounts of one’s service as boasting: he understood late, he told James, that it was a form of friendly bonding.

The memory of that apology is much cherished.

“Got distracted by your hair,” Francis says.

“You won’t distract me,” James says, even though he combs his fingers through his wet locks. Curses: he ruined the careful updo. Francis does not look at him as if he sees anything ruined. “Tell me what you did with the pamphlets.”

“I delivered them to a flagpost half a mile inland. It was noticed by the gendarmerie, and I was pursued on horseback.”

James’ back knocks against the wall of the pool. He had not noticed they crossed it, so rapt in Francis’ story.

“How did you ever survive it?” he asks, astounded.

Francis sinks a little deeper into the water.

“By the skin of my teeth,” he says. “I threw myself into the sea to avoid the bullets whooshing past my person, and kept only my head up until I reached the boat sent for me from the Hamadryad.”

“That’s a swimming lesson all right,” James admits. “I’m sure your commander was pleased.”

“Quite the opposite: I got called a troublemaker for following orders even when they turned out more perilous than previously thought. At fourteen, I did not find it in me to question the command of a superior.”

“How you changed,” James remarks softly. 

Francis arches a brow at him. “One learns the lessons life teaches him.”

“Pursued on horseback at the tender age of fourteen,” James muses. “That’s a capital story.”

His tone is quite different than the one Francis had used: it marks the shift between them, and they both notice the implications of the gentle jab. James becomes aware of their nakedness, the scant distance between them, and his pressing need to kiss Francis; the impossibility of it.

*

“Ah, that was a lark,” James remarks through the chatter of his teeth. Francis wraps him up in a towel, rubs his back as they stand by the pool’s edge.

“You should’ve told me you were cold,” he chides.

James shrugs. “I’m always cold.”

“Let’s get you warmed up,” Francis says with a glint in his eyes. He steps out and James hurries to catch up, holding the towel around his shoulders like a pathetic cape, his manhood swaying. He misses his trousers dearly. He supposes they shall bundle up now and head out to catch the fading beams of sunlight. He so loves to see Francis bask in the rays dripping from the glass ceiling, clinging to his naked skin like honey. James wants to lick up the light, taste its warmth. 

Francis is lazy with the gleam of the day. He walks like some pampered tomcat, soft on his feet, self-assured. Part of his hair is fluffy from having rubbed it with the towel, but some sections are still wet. It clings to his nape fetchingly. James could caress him there, if they were in private. He will bring him home. Wait well past the hour the family retires before he will grab a candle, steal through the corridor. A secret knock: and he will be let in—Francis will wait abed, eyes alert and smile fond, I came all this way to hold you.

Ireland.

The Arctic.

Now I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.

James takes Francis’ hand when they reach the stairs. Francis helps him navigate them, which can be quite a challenge with his skewed perception of depth. James feels dainty, being led like this, like some respected lady, or a ball’s beloved belle. He makes a show of fluttering his eyelashes and fanning himself with a hand.

“My gallant gentleman,” he whispers. Francis grunts in answer, and James can tell that his buttocks would be smacked if they had no onlookers. He beams to himself, trots after Francis, incorrigibly manly. Frowns when they pass the changing room; but if Francis has lost his direction, he will not alert him. Let that be petty revenge for the day Francis let Sir John and him sail the wrong way.

Dear Sir John; were he here. I can explain, James thinks at his spirit. You told me to cherish him.

Francis stops by a door, scowls at it, then gingerly pushes it open. He peers in; looks relieved. He has such an expressive face. It made him easy to despise once: everything can be read on it plainly; but to love him now is effortless, as James no longer presumes to read his own failures in the lines around his scowl.

“Ho, what’s this?” he exclaims, following dear Francis. Halts with half a step in. A little room is revealed, with tasteful tapestry and a hardwood floor, barely furnished save for a bench, a little desk with towels and flowers, and a copper tub—bigger than any James had seen. The room is warm, but something else is responsible for the heat that coils in James’ belly.

This is a room of their own.

Francis locks the door tactfully. He arches an eyebrow at James, who is upon him in a blink, towel dropped, as well as all pretences. He grabs Francis’ face and kisses him soundly, a big smack on his smiling lips.

“You clever thing,” he whispers. Francis tastes of the lake. James has never had a more refreshing sip of water.

“They charge by half an hour,” Francis mutters. “And I’m on half-pay.”

“We shall make the most of it,” James says, cradling his face still. He looks intently to commit the moment to memory; notices Francis squirm under his gaze. How could such a man be still uncertain of his graces? He kisses him again, longer, deeper, spelling out his desire with each leisurely pass of his tongue. Francis responds in kind, hands shamelessly splayed over James’ arse, which he clutches and kneads.

“God, you’re cold like a fish,” he mutters. “To the bath with you, before the water cools.”

“I resent that simile,” James complains. “Say that I’m a dolphin.”

Francis looks at him seriously. “You are far from those chittery bastards.”

“What have they ever done to wrong you?” James muses as he climbs into the tub. The water is fragrant, balmy; certainly worth their money. Francis sits on the tub’s brim and reaches for a bar of soap on the table. “Won’t you join me?”

“I wish to pamper you.”

“I would be much pampered if you were closer.”

“I wouldn’t fit.”

“Codswallop.” James pulls up his knees; admittedly, there is but little space, no matter how he folds himself.

“Be still,” Francis says. “I’ve dreamt of washing your hair.”

“Only give me a moment.” James manages to sink lower and throw his legs over the tub’s edge. “There!” he exclaims, triumphant.

“Your flexibility stuns me.”

“Have you not dreamt of my—flexibility?”

Francis makes a non-committal sound as he climbs in humbly, taking his rightful place between James’ eagerly spread legs—with his back to him, but ah, it is a promising start.

“Have you not dreamt,” James goes on, voice dropping lower, “of arranging me this way and that to suit your pleasure? Do you ever think of me on my hands and knees, trembling for your prick?”

“Christ,” Francis mutters and wets his lips. Gives him a look over his shoulder. “This won’t do; I have no hope to reach you.”

“Let me pamper you, then,” James offers. “Just this once.”

Francis huffs, as if the mere idea was ludicrous. It is a challenge now. James steals the bar of soap from him, wets it lazily. He enjoys seeing Francis bracketed by his thighs. He will foam him up well; rub him all over.

Francis is oddly silent as James sets about his task, but it is not worrysome. It is in his manner to ponder: a thoughtful man, always measured. James admires his composure. He massages his shoulders, slides his hands under his arms. Francis yelps in surprise. Encouraged, James slides his hands further, fondles his soft chest. The deep hum of gratification is unexpected.

“Does this please you?” James asks, rolling his thumbs over Francis’ nipples. Francis has devoted much attention to James’; what a selfish lover he has been, never to return the attention! Francis’ bosom is exquisite, with just enough fat to squeeze and cup.

“It’s—most unusual,” Francis notes, then clears his throat. “You will have to let me replicate the favour.”

“Why, I’ve learnt this from you.”

“I refuse to believe that your past lovers never—” Here, Francis falls silent.

James pinches him in encouragement. “Come now; finish the sentence.”

“The very minute we leave polite society, you’d have me say absolute filth.”

“I’d dearly love to hear your filth, please; your letter was most inspired.”

Francis passes a hand over his face. The only disadvantage of their position is that James cannot see his expressions. Just an arc of Francis’ profile; his cock stirs, still. His body recognises this man in his lap, remembers him well, every touch ever shared.

“I refuse to believe that your past lovers never played with your tits,” Francis says in an angry rush that makes it sound like an accusation—as if his accusation was aimed at those sorry rentboys and doxies for missing out on such an opportunity. James chuckles as he keeps pawing at Francis’ chest. He could move lower; explore the exquisite softness of that belly, make his acquaintance with that majestic prick again, measure its thickness on the roll of his fingers.

His gaze strays to an unexplored spot, hidden by Francis’ buttocks.

“Do you like my tits?” he asks, distracted.

“I shouldn’t talk like this; you’re a man.”

“Oh, but you know it excites me. What difference is there, anyway? Tits are tits and a hole’s a hole—”

Francis barks a laugh, shocked and amused to hear such brash talk from his haughty lover; James knew he would enjoy it. “Your mouth!” 

“Like a sailor’s,” James grumbles as he pulls Francis closer by his chest, straightening up so he can whisper into his ear with his enunciation ever so clear, “I want to fuck your little hole.”

Francis stills. Arches his neck to look at him, but the tub is too narrow to turn bodily. “Now,” he says. “Don’t let’s jest.”

James slumps back, splashing water everywhere. He raises his shoulders in a gesture of nonchalance, then lets his arms dangle over the edge. “I want to fuck your hole,” he repeats, matter-of-factly; a touch of insolence creeps in.

“How would you even go about it, pray?” Francis says; it does not sound dismissive—patronizing, maybe.

James scowls and bumps his knee against Francis. “I’ll have you know I have fucked many a hole—”

“It’s not a very sensual word, is it?”

“Cunt,” James says. “Arse.”

Francis sighs. “Sounds like you have something to prove,” he notes with cadence.

“You would enjoy it,” James insists. “I had excellent feedback.”

“I had no doubt in my mind.”  Francis frowns. “Suppose I would indulge you.”

“You never had—your most delicate features explored, then, I wager?”

“I’ve never known men like I know you.”

That word is ever so sweet: to know; to let Francis into the secrets of his body, explore his. To learn him; James touches him like he was reviewing his alphabet, tracing each letter with a finger to memorise their shape from vertebra to vertebra until he locates the soft flesh, the O of muscle.

“Will you let me know you?” he asks.

“I will never deny you that,” Francis responds and braces himself; he grabs the tub’s edge as if he was preparing a task far more perilous than getting penetrated.

“You must stop me if you don’t like it,” James says. “If it hurts, or causes you any distress.”

“As if I wouldn’t curse and yelp,” Francis grumbles. “Get to it, then; I’ll voice my opinion dully.”

James arches an eyebrow and inserts a digit. Francis refuses to comment on it. The water makes everything slippery, but it is not nearly enough to make the passage pleasant. James glances at the little table with the flowers and oils.

“Can you make out those labels?” he asks.

“Get the green one.” 

“Damn my bad eye,” James sighs as he grabs the bottle with his free hand, uncorks it with his teeth.

“I’ll be your eye,” Francis says. “What do you want to see?”

“Your face.”

Francis wiggles a bit. James’ finger slips deeper, and he tenses for a moment. “Can you tell me,” he says, strained, “as an apparent expert, if there’s such a position that would make that possible?”

“We may experiment later; for now, describe it to me,” James pleads, caressing him within. Francis feels exquisite; why did they never think to do this? For all the scant opportunities, they had thousand dreams:  why is it that James never had him like this?

“I am looking...respectable,” Francis says.

“A sovereign man getting buggered,” James supplies.

“You call that buggering? Don’t just wiggle about, I can certainly take more.”

James scoffs, pulls his hand back and pours the oil over it, watches it drip. “I’m wondering if you’re biting your lip.”

There is a beat of silence.

“Why?” Francis asks suspiciously.

“I’ve noticed you do it when we get intimate; an endearing habit. Lets me admire your teeth.”

“My teeth?”

James hums, dips two slick fingers inside. Francis flinches, but does not pull away. James placates him with a deep stroke. “That little gap,” he says, “has been mystifying me.”

“There’s no mystery in it: it’s the reason for my lisp.”

“I love your lisp,” James whispers hotly and curls his fingers, forgetting himself. Francis cries out, shocked and pleased; James was going to save that trick for later, but Francis’ reaction is far too rewarding. He teases the spot again, and feels him tremble. “Describe your features.”

“Lord, you are vexing me.”

“I believe you must’ve crunched your nose.”

A sniff indicates Francis adjusts his face. “I’ve received your onslaught with grace.”

“Onslaught?” James teases, curling his fingers again.

“Like battering the gates of a city under siege.”

“Should I retreat?”

“That wasn’t my meaning; I’m merely wondering at the capability—oh—of those fingers of yours, their force; for the innocent observer would only take in their elegance.”

“Been observing my hands a lot? Innocently, of course.”

Francis surprises him with clenching around his fingers rather deliberately. “Napkin ring” is all he says before he hoists himself up a tad higher, only to drop back on James’ fingers. James moans wretchedly.

“Look at me,” he begs.

The turn is inelegant. Francis needs to slip free, then scramble his way around, the water splashing everywhere. James minds it not: he keeps his eyes on his lover, the mischievous tilt of his eyebrows, and thinks what a fool he had been in those early years with his frustrated attempts at seduction, daring Francis to refuse, shattering when it seemed he had not even noticed.

“None of my stories of valour impressed you,” he says, “but you’d mark my nervous fidgeting!”

“Big hands, I thought,” Francis recounts, searching out James’ fingers and guiding them back between his thick thighs. “Lucky ladies.”

“You still thought I had no interest in your own sex?”

“Entertaining such thoughts would’ve been far too dangerous. How I moaned about you: pretty thing, James is; only worth his uniform because he looks so fetching in it.”

James chuckles; finds his mirth returned in Francis’ gaze. “I hope,” he says, “to make you moan yet.”

He grasps Francis’ hips and guides him to his liking. Francis comes willingly, the colour high on his face. How he hates to blush; but James always thought it charming. He cannot resist a kiss as he inserts the head of his cock, just a teasing poke that makes Francis groan.

“I so love the noises you make,” James says, “when we’re together; and I shall hope you make them when we’re apart.” He slides in deeper. “Do you think of me, touching yourself?”

Francis’ flush is up to his hairline now. The warm water compares not to the heat of his skin, his flesh. He welcomes James keenly, even though his face is puzzled, brows furrowed.

“I was never in the habit of self-abuse,” Francis confesses, “it’d been trained out of me early enough, but you have made me inclined—”

“Oh, it’s my fault?”

“Because I do think of you.” He frowns, then presses his forehead to James’, catching his breath as he gets accustomed to the stretch.

James caresses the small of his back, thrilled, leaving little whirlpools as he moves his hand, pictures Francis in Dublin, abed, the rustle of sheet and his strained breath. He moves Francis closer so his cockstand rubs against James' skin underwater, slick and perfect; whispers into his ear, “Tell me how it feels.”

Francis searches his gaze, squeezes around him experimentally. Licks his lips. Blinks. “Feels like I really need to take a shit,” he says plainly.

James nearly chokes on the laughter that erupts from him; Francis has to cover his mouth, and James kisses his palm eagerly; oh, he would kiss him silly! He starts moving in earnest, with happy little twitches of his hips, gripping Francis, his dearest Francis with his delightful vulgarity. To hear a decorated captain mention such subjects: it might meet harsher judgement than the other indecency they are engaged in. James keeps snickering like someone caught in mischief; Francis smiles at him with gappy teeth.

“Wasn’t that funny,” he says. “You laugh at my misery.”

“Are you miserable, then?” James thrusts in deeper, watches Francis’ breath catch.

“A miserable partner in conversation, I suppose,” he forces out, then shakes his head, trying to recentre himself.

James does everything in his power to make him fail: he guides him into a rocking motion, like a gentle gallop, until they make the water splash. James closes his eyes for a moment; imagines the sea, the lapping of waves.

“Christ,” Francis grunts. “I see your point now.”

James peers up at him lazily. “Mm, do you?”

“The burn of it,” Francis says, then dips in for a kiss, as if to hide the rest he was going to say under James’ tongue. James can taste that the unsaid words would have been delicious; Francis’ entire body sings with pleasure.

James luxuriates in his softness as he caresses his trembling thighs, his sides, all the while sucking on his tongue. What a rare thrill it is, to find his bliss in Francis like this: to please him, for Francis is not a man accustomed to indulgence. James aims to spoil him completely, and he feels him give in, succumb to ecstasy. Francis moves of his own accord now, rising up and down, back and forward, like he has done it countless times.

“Chase it,” James encourages him, “chase the falling star of pleasure, catch it in your palms—”

Francis smiles at his words; as far as James is concerned, it is practical advice. Francis links their fingers together, makes the pace more frantic, his heavy cock bobbing. “Is this how it feels for you?” he asks, breath ragged. “When we do this?”

“Oh, yes,” James says with confidence. For they are one body now: he fancies he can feel exactly what Francis feels, share his breath and heartbeat and share this too, the rapture.

“Forgive me then,” Francis whispers, and it is so desolate James has to kiss him again, cup his face and claim his lips. The angle shifts and Francis grunts with it.

“What would I ever need to forgive?” James says, kisses him again.

“That we can’t be like this always.” Francis presses closer, renouncing the distance: how could they ever be apart again, when they should be joined thus always? James clings to him, still hearing the echo of waves in the lapping of bathwater, and he recognises it as once: the Celtic Sea, far-away and emerald green, that tears their lands asunder. There should be no countries; no islands; no continents; just one mass of nameless earth, and the rest, endless sea.

“Come to me,” James prays, burying himself in Francis, “I’m your home, take refuge; be with me; never leave!” 

“Never did,” Francis breathes; “don’t you know that I’m always with you? If man has a soul, mine’s merged with yours, like our bodies are.”

James is a man of science: religion never compelled; but this, he understands, for here is the evidence: Francis and him share breath, rhythm, heartbeat, pleasure and heat.

“You’re always here,” he says, and claims him: spills to give all he has to Francis in a brilliant climax.

There is a moment of silence after, as James searches for him, captures his lips with his and grabs his cock to pull him off. A gesture practiced to the point of banality, but he has never known a greater ritual of devotion. Francis pants into his mouth and James tastes his sweet breath, eager, for the very air around them shall be fused. He swallows his final groan and laughs when Francis collapses atop him, a boneless heap, and sends the water splashing.

“Here you are,” James says, and runs his fingers through his damp hair, adjusting that wayward forelock that always seeks to escape Francis’ disciplined coiffure. Francis peers up at him and James welcomes his gaze, smiling. He used to have an instinct of hiding after sex, half-ashamed for showing so much of himself; but Francis’ gaze does not make him feel exposed: he is known.

“Bloody hell,” Francis says. “Old man like me, I shouldn’t be allowed.”

“On the contrary: in your retirement I expect you to do nothing but this.”

“You’ll put me in an early grave.”

“We cheated death once,” James muses, “we will be fine.”

Francis grumbles, settles himself, the tension drained from his shoulders. The water is getting tepid, but the warmth radiating from Francis more than makes up for it. James presses a kiss to the top of his head, his muscles still spasming and his heart battering. Oh, but Francis makes him feel alive.

“Are you still up for tea?” James asks, making Francis scoff.

“Am I up for tea!” he exclaims. Maybe such an invitation has never been extended in similar circumstances, but James is eager to know how much time they have left. He caresses Francis’ back, feels him melt.

“You never formally accepted the invitation in my letter.”

“I rushed to see you! I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to observe what outfit you choose for the occasion; I suspect you will change for dinner after, then rush to your wardrobe before I can light my pipe.”

“I have four changes planned,” James confesses meekly, but his pride shows when he adds in a teasing  tone, “a fifth, just for you, if I manage to sneak into your rooms.”

Francis raises an eyebrow in interest. “A nightgown, I wager.”

“With lace and ruffles and bows to boot,” James brags. “Makes me look like a cake.”

“I long wished to fuck a cake,” Francis deadpans.

James splashes water into his face. “You won’t be able to resist.”

“Dead of night,” Francis muses, “you, a cake; I’ll steal you away. Hoist you over my shoulder, climb out the window.”

“Where will you take me?”

“To our sloop, of course.”

“Our sloop,” James says, brightening. He can just imagine the little boat; only half-recalls how to rig the jib, but he is confident that between the two of them, they could make it fly on water. “We’d sail around England,” he says. “Up to the Hebrides. Will you take me to Ireland?”

“Just say the words,” Francis promises. If only it was as easy as that.

James gathers him closer. “How will we call her? Must we name her after dread, or the gates of hell again?”

“Paradise,” Francis says.

James ponders that. Their poor girls, Terror, Erebus: widows of war and now wives of ice; have they sunk to the bottom by now? James cannot even fathom a thaw. In his mind’s eyes, he sees their abandoned ships as permanent, dreadful monuments, sculptures of frost warning away all future visitors, creaking still, we were never meant to be here.

Paradise’s fate will be different. They will bring her to gentle waters; no lives risked, but their own; and the wind shall always blow; the sun shall always shine; and they will sail together, safe and sound, for the rest of their lives.