"One more part of clarity: In this light
You are not where you were but you have not moved."
Alberto Rios, A Physics of Sudden Light
All substances bear some measure of magnetism. The earth shifts on its poles, magnetic to the core. We move through the air claiming free will. But this is a lie, we've never once escaped a law of earth. The way magnetism pulls on us is faint and pale, unable to be seen outside of a laboratory. Except in certain conditions. Francis Crozier is a man built on conditions and contingencies. Always the back-up plan, ever the second choice.
(Don't think about it.)
He had been nothing. A pile of iron shavings perhaps, drawn to passing attractions. Always pulled in the direction of his want, of something else, never drawing another close to him. When the magnetic force had left (Ross upon a train, flowers in his hand for Ann. Sophia shaking her head, a second no on her lips.) then Francis had always found himself dull again. Just iron again. Scrap metal. Ready to be pulled at and battered again. Metal without a magnet is nothing interesting to speak of.
The light is long in the drawing room. Where it catches on the deep-piled rug, it looks like blood.
Francis holds his hat in his hands, passing the cap to and fro. He watches the clock, the minute hand measuring out the long march of his anticipation. It had started in Greenland. The wind in those long, dark curls. Careful eyes taking the measure of him, long and elegant fingers gripping a pen and book, a bag of Lloyd's intensity instruments over James' shoulder. James' brow had arched then, there had been that damnable and impossible smirk, haughty and always ringing false.
"Waiting on you, Francis," James had said.
"Well," Francis had said, grimacing at the dryness of his throat, "let's get on with the business of it then."
Waiting on you.
How dare you drop out of a cloudy sky? How dare you come out of nowhere, with no warning? How dare you open yourself up and allow me to love you? ( How dare you be human and breakable. Made of blood and bone. I could have lost you. Tell me about yourself, that your body knit itself back together.)
Now, his hands are gnarled and the tips of his ears bright red. There are galaxies of burst blood vessels in his cheeks and nose, souvenirs of the north’s impossible cold. The fire cracks. Catches on the shadows. The line of Francis' shoulders sits tight. What will it be? How will it go? He bites the inside corner of his lip, breathing in and righting himself. It will be careful. Prudent. He will say nothing. Francis shakes himself gently, reminding his Judas Iscariot heart that his memory is failing, that there had been nothing so much as love. Ice does strange things to blood; everything looks stranger in the light of the sundogs. No, you wouldn't want me anyway. Not now. I'll say nothing. Certainly, this will have passed. Certainly, it is only my foolish heart, filling in the blank space where no one had been. Anyone would have felt the same up there. We just wanted to keep warm, to feel a little something there, at the end of it all. (Even Francis knows he is lying to himself. Sometimes little fictions are all we have.)
Once, two ships sailed from Greenhithe. Francis had been certain none of them would make it back. When Sir James Clark Ross had found them, the commander's skin had been cold already, an icebox in Francis' arms. His blood had been scorching and there had been too much of it. James had twitched in his hold, his dark eyes lost in the haze of hypovolemic shock. Later, after James had been taken by the doctors and wrapped in linen bandages, Francis had taken his little bootknife and picked blood and vomit out from beneath his fingernails. The blood had caked into his slops, mixing with sweat and dirt. A secret against his skin, only known by the stiffness of the fabric. Weeks later, as James had sailed back upon the HMS Investigator, weak and pale, the dried blood had scratched at Francis' neck.
A secret. Francis had taken nothing with him of James but his blood.
His wide-fingered hands splay out over the varnished wood of the counter. Pockmarked with scars. The nails clipped short. There's no blood under the nails, not this time. Might have been yours. It was yours for a long time. The early evening light spills through the tall windows and scarlet drapes soak it up. The light is different here. He wonders how things might look differently in this angle of the sun. This part of the world, where Francis had hated James Fitzjames once.
He worries that he's forgotten too much of James. Perhaps his mind has colored in the places he's lost with want instead of the truth. Perhaps he'll make a fool of himself. (Nothing new.) I want you. I shouldn't. You aren't on the menu. You aren't allowed. You are out past fences and beyond warning signs. Keep out. Beware of the dog. No trespassing. I cannot touch you, cannot look at you. You are on the backs of my eyelids, when I fall asleep it is you I see. He tries to remember measurements. How tall is James exactly? If Francis were to walk up to the other man, where would their sight meet? If they were to kiss, as he has imagined every night, how would they fit? He doesn't know.
The door opens. A dark figure, tall and far too lean. The man who walks through it moves slowly. When his voice comes, it has the dry rasp of convalescence.
Francis looks up, mouth parted and his heart drumming a staccato rhythm. What to say? There's so much to say. James. I've missed you. James, you're alive. James, where the devil have you been? James, how dare you leave me here alone. Come to me. Come here. Please. Let me come to you. How far is it? Tell me the miles, the elevation. I wasn't given feet to stay here, to sit on this sofa looking at windows you are not shown through. Studying maps hiding you in longitude and latitude. I wasn't given a mouth to not speak your name and love to you.
Francis is afraid of blinking. Afraid of closing his eyes, as if, like looking backward, James might disappear from before him. In the end, he says nothing. What needs to be said? Nothing. He stands, pulling himself up. His hands shake. James watches with wide, dark eyes, swallowing slowly. This moment. This long moment stretches as Francis walks closer, pulled close as if bound by hoops of steel. His hands held out before him and shivering in the warm air.
James' chest rises and falls with a deep breath. His curls fall around his shoulders as he tracks Francis' movement, their sweep at his collar unfashionably long.
Where have you been? Away, far away. Francis reaches for him. Where did you go? To the other side of the map. Francis had stared at the name of the town where James was and he was not, brushing fingers over the black text. Where have you been? Not below, not beneath. Francis has never stopped thinking of the flecks of blood on James' chapped lips, the seep of the wound at his side, run through like Christ.
He should not reach up, should not ghost his hands over James’ clean-shaven chin, his too-thin cheeks, his sturdy black brows. James leans into the touch, inhaling as he does and his eyes drifting closed. Breathe. Mark this, where we are on the map. Where I found you. You. You’re safe. You’re alive. You’re here.
Let us quiet the fear. Go by each sense. Touch then, the feel of James’ skin at his fingertips, the warmth penetrating through the silk waistcoat, the wool of his jacket. The ghost touch of his hair. Smell. Breathe in, inhale and ground yourself. Francis is suddenly against James, pressed chest to chest, closing his eyes and taking in the scent of salt and sweat, the floral notes of macassar oil. A whisper of charcoal. Sound. Do you hear what I hear? Breath, constant and unlabored. James’ own hands have come up and wrapped around Francis’ questing ones, brushing over the veins on the underside, checking Francis’ own pulse, the selfsame steady beat. You’re here, you’re real, thank god in heaven.
There's still this brief hesitation, the ancient worry of attraction. (Are his hands clean enough? He worries about the color of his trousers, he worries about the softness of his neck, the grey in his hair. He worries about the sound of his voice, the telltale brogue. His brass bed, is it wide enough? Will you stay?) James is too much and he cannot look away, his own eyes searching James' for any give, any invitation. He blames magnets for this, blames gravity. He wants to look away. He does not look away.
Still searching dark eyes for permission.
Are you certain? Tell me you are certain. Before this, before the point of touch. Kissing is an epoch, we cannot come back from that. There is the moment before a kiss, there is after. We can go on like this forever, you know, leaning against opposite walls at a party. You will only know I love you by the smile I bite back, by the hiccup of my breath. We write lying rules about love. Don’t go off just falling in love with anyone. There are people who are off-limits. But hearts don’t speak in legal terms. The only law, if you fall in love with someone you shouldn’t, is to not talk about it.
James has never been good with rules. He knots one long-fingered hand into Francis' coat and pulls him close, finally bringing them together in a kiss.
Francis has always tried to imagine how it might go. James' fingers pull at his coat and his chin is rough against Francis' own. There is a quiet gasp and well-shut eyes. Francis opens one eye slightly, just to see if James has his shut too, to make sure that the same blush colors James' nose. that the moan is coming from his throat. Francis' hands grip at James' upper arms. He doesn't know what this is, this grappling. Desperate as a beached fish trying to breathe. When he finally does breathe, he wonders how he has ever managed before.
"Good Christ," Francis breathes. They have pulled apart, Francis leaning his forehead on James'. A wicked and warm smile pulls at James' mouth. Please do it again. Kiss me. Now, always. Don't ever stop. Don't you dare ever stop.
"I did mean to begin with hello," James murmurs, amusement deepening his voice further.
"By God, James, you - you - " Francis shakes his head, the blush growing stronger on his cheekbones, and gives into the bubbling laugh in his chest.
He kisses James again.
There are two men kissing. A maid pulls the doors to the drawing room closed, sealing them off from the wider world and curious eyes. This isn't for the world. This isn't for history. This is for no one but two shattered pieces of glass. Two polarized bits of iron, drawing themselves back together.
The history books will pick and choose what to keep, what to pass on. They will remember that once, in 1845, two ships sailed from Greenhithe. They will keep a list of the dead, memories of red-painted cans soldered with lead. They will talk of pot-polished bones and dissolving scar tissue. They will remember that there were eleven Preston Patent Illuminators and that Terror carried twelve-hundred books aboard. Some things will be forgotten. They will forget the few survivors, picked out of the permafrost by Ross and his pale fingers. They will not mention the six months Francis had spent after, still looking up and down Back’s Fish River, praying that there might be one more man. One more soul. That the butcher’s bill of this voyage might not be so long. While James had returned to England on the Investigator, each minute of those six months had ticked like a bomb in Francis’ heart, praying that their chapter might not yet be over.
This, this private moment will be forgotten. Perhaps the maid will remember it fondly, decades later, and write of the strange tenderness between broken things. But that too will get lost in the back pages. Eventually, no one will keep it but they. There is much to say but words can wait, they've said enough for now. (I love you, I love you, stay with me, don't you dare ever leave me here alone.)
Things look different in new light. Sometimes, they even look brighter. Let the history books have what they will. This is their own to keep; no one ever remembers the one about the quiet sea.