Carnivale was the most vibrant thing George Chambers had seen in years. Blue skies were painted onto the ceiling, walls were covered in murals of green English fields and racing tracks-- George had helped paint those. It wasn’t much, really. He just did the grass and the fields. He said as much to Charles Best when the man had stumbled over to comment on the murals.
“Still brilliant,” had been Charles’ reply, “last thing I drew was awful. Looked more like a purple shrub than a rooster.”
George had laughed. More out of nervousness than anything, really. Charles had that effect on him.
Charles took a gulp of his drink.
“In all seriousness though,” he said, “it looks fantastic.”
Charles had slurred more than he spoke, and he was nearly shouting to be heard over the musicians and the chatter of the crowd, but George blushed nonetheless.
“You think so?”
Charles bobbed his head enthusiastically. “Utterly amazing, that grass. Lots of… green. Very green, that grass. Just like the stuff back home.”
George stared at his shuffling feet in an attempt to hide his smile. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. For a moment the crowd seemed rather far away. He pretended the sudden bright, airy feeling that bubbled in his chest was from the alcohol. A sudden thought flashed across his face as he pursed his lips and turned to Charles.
“How drunk are you?”
Charles scoffed. “I’m not drunk,” he said into his tankard.
George took a moment to look him over. Drowsy-eyed. Blotchy-faced. Gazing around the tent much too contently. The thrumming crowd pressing in on them made Charles pitch and lean like a ship in a gale. If they stayed in here any longer, poor Charles would be knocked right on his face. George sighed and plucked the tankard away from Charles, squeezing through the throng to set it on a table. Someone else would finish it. When he turned back, he had to suppress a laugh at the look of sheer hurt and betrayal on Charles’ face.
“You’re drunk.” George gently took Charles by the arm and tugged him through the crowd. “Let’s get you some air.”
“I don’t want air,” Charles whined, “I want rum.”
George snorted. “Of course you do.”
It took several moments to push through the crowd and weave their way through the maze-- even though he was almost completely sober, George nearly got them lost twice. They shivered when they stepped out of the hot tent and into the wall of frigid black night. George’s ears rang in the silence. Carefully, he began to pull Charles around the outside of the tent savoring each slow, meandering step. It was a while before anyone spoke.
“‘S nice, this,” said Charles, “the quiet.”
“I suppose,” George said quietly, “it’s odd being outside of it all.”
Charles looked at him. George looked back.
“Don’t you give me that look.”
George blinked. “What look?”
“That look,” said Charles, “the one where your eyes do the squinty thing, ‘n your lips get all…” He frowned. “Y’know.”
George blinked again. “What about my lips?”
Charles shook his head and muttered something. He relented when George stopped between the tent and a jutting ice face and gave him a sharp look. (George hoped it was a sharp look. Really it was the same look that his sisters had laughed at when he pulled it on them, but it did the trick with Charles.)
“Pretty,” he said.
George paused. “... Pretty?”
“Oh, you heard me!” Said Charles with a shove. George stumbled and nearly fell into the tent before he righted himself. He stared at Charles.
“You think my lips are pretty?”
“Shut up!” Cried Charles.
He was scowling. George was grinning.
“You think my lips are pretty.” He was laughing now. He barely managed to dodge a snowball from an infuriated Charles when he blurted: “Are there any other parts of me you find pretty?”
Charles froze. George froze. They stared. George’s mouth opened and closed as he scrambled to think of something to say to fix how he’d wildly overstepped some unspoken boundary. Unfortunately for him, all that he managed to get out were several variations of um, uh, and I, that when put together made him sound rather stupid.
“Your face,” murmured Charles, “your whole face is pretty.”
“And your shoulders,” said Charles, “they’re quite nice as well.”
George’s mouth snapped shut. He’d never thought anybody’s shoulders could be pretty, much less his.
“You think so?” He asked softly.
“Well, not quite.” Said Charles. “Pretty’s not the right word. More like…”
Charles paused to roll his lips between his teeth, like he did when he was thinking. George had seen it do it a million times before-- he always watched his pale lips and teeth when he noticed him doing it-- and sometimes, when Charles was thinking far too much, he’d chew on his lip till it was pink and swollen, and when it got like that George could never tear his eyes away for how soft they looked. George was rather surprised to find that was how they looked now, like they’d been wonderfully worried at for hours. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t notice earlier.
“Handsome.” Said Charles finally. “They’re very handsome.
Handsome. George had been called handsome before by his mother, in that tone that made him frown and look away. Hearing it from Charles, in his voice-- it sparked a feeling in him, something that fluttered and made him feel warmer than he had in years.
Charles pursed his lips.
“Your arms are handsome, too.” He continued. “I saw ‘em when we first sailed and you kept your sleeves rolled up. Didn’t think much at first, but…” He gnawed at his lips again. George couldn’t get past just how pink they were. “Then you started rollin’ ‘em up again when everyone moved to Erebus. God. I can’t stop starin’.”
George’s breath was shaky. He hesitated, then took a careful step closer.
“You can look, if you like,” he said softly, “I don’t mind.”
Charles let out a heavy breath and met him halfway.
“I’d like that,” he replied, “to keep looking.”
They were barely inches apart.
The sky overhead was filled to bursting with stars; they glinted like silver specks of sand. The Aurora Borealis hung from the sky like some great, green, dancing chandelier. George didn’t care about any of it. Not when the light spilling from between the seams of the tent danced in Charles’ eyes, making them look like a pair of shimmering black pools. George wanted to lean in for a closer look, so he did. Charles didn’t turn away. He watched George with those dark eyes. Then, they glanced down at George’s mouth. Charles rolled his lip between his teeth.
“George,” he murmured.
“Will you kiss me?”
George stopped. His heart sank. His breath came quick and shallow. His hands began to shake. He stared down at the snow.
“You’re more drunk than I thought.”
Charles stepped forward, looking very sober and very serious.
“I’m not that drunk.” He said. “George. Look at me.”
He did. Charles was staring at him. He lifted a calloused hand to cup George’s cheek. George had watched his hands often-- strong, slender, pale and thick skinned. Just as skilled at card tricks as hauling lines. Now, George found those skilled hands caressing his cheek with such ardor it made him shiver. He leaned into Charles’ touch and sighed.
“I want to kiss you.”
“Then why don’t you?”
Charles was right. Here, outside the tent, pressed between canvas, an ice wall, and neat stacks of crates, they had more privacy than any other time in the last two years. No one would be entering or exiting this way. If someone decided to look for them, they’d hear their steps in the snow before they saw them. It could be the only chance he got.
George raised his hand to cover Charles’. He spoke softly, as if scared to shatter the blanket of quiet that had drifted over them.
“Promise me that I won’t regret it if I do.”
George gave a shaky breath. “I need to hear it.”
Charles brought up his other hand to cradle George’s jaw. His eyes were soft and utterly open.
Suddenly, George was kissing him. He didn’t recall leaning in or the initial touch of it, but it must have happened. After all, Charles was kissing him. It was not what he’d imagined, either; not that he imagined this often, but there had been occasions on lonelier nights where he remembered the girls he’d kissed before, and imagined who else he would one day kiss. He wasn’t too ashamed to admit he’d thought of kissing Charles. In his mind he was always a bit rough, one hand firm on the back of his neck and the other pulling at his waist. This was not the Charles he was kissing in reality. Here, Charles was soft, and sweet, and slow, and cradled his face between his hands with such tenderness it filled his heart to bursting.
George found himself kissing Charles back. It was so much better than he’d imagined. After a moment, Charles pulled back. They watched each other with misty eyes.
“You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that,” he murmured.
George laughed. “Would you believe me if I told you the same?”
Charles made a small noise of protest and leaned forward. “No more talking. Kiss me again?”
George smiled and was about to say something clever, but Charles’ mouth cut him off. He closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around Charles’ waist, running his hands up and down his sides. It was good. He was happy; Charles made him happy. He hoped he made Charles happy, too.