“What in God’s name is that?”
James has two martini glasses balanced in his hands, each swilling with a pinkish-orange liquid roughly the colour of a highlighter pen, and garnished with a glacé cherry.
“An Aperol Cherry-Garrard,” says James, raising one glass in a salute, “and a Virgin Cherry-Garrard—” he extends the second glass towards Francis “—which I think is basically a Shirley Temple.”
The bar of the Scott Polar Research Institute is absolutely heaving. James and Francis are crammed in one corner under a potted palm, hemmed in on all sides by the great and good of the University of Cambridge and sundry other institutions of higher learning, who’ve all travelled up on the Monday before the conference starts tomorrow: an ungodly combination of climate scientists, Inuit linguists, glaciologists, and historians. As one of the small selection of the latter, Francis feels rather outnumbered, and is glad to have James at his side.
He sips his drink, which tastes of cherryade and Calpol. “The poor man must be turning in his grave.”
“Sixty degree spin cycle, I should think,” says James, frowning into his glass. “But it’s growing on me, you know.”
The University of Greenhithe contingent is scattered around the room. Graham Gore and Henry Le Vesconte are in their element: grinning like a pair of well-groomed cheetahs, weaving their way among the crowd. Silna and Harry Goodsir are at the bar, holding a rapid one-handed conversation and waving their wine glasses so emphatically that people pass them with a wide berth for fear of getting wet. Harry is wearing his habitual in-the-presence-of-Silna expression: lovestruck and mildly stunned, as though beaten over the head with a Valentine’s bouquet.
Only Edward Little looks remotely how Francis feels, leaning against a distant wall, surgically attached to his phone. Closer to, Alex McDonald bends to let Tom Blanky bellow something into his ear, before leaning back to shout a laugh, each with a half-drunk Guinness in their hands. Francis has a grimy pang of longing for a pint, which is quickly replaced by dread, as he sees Sophia Cracroft’s determined golden head moving through the crowd.
“Fuck.” He drains his glass, regrets it, and prods James in the ribs. “I’m going for a fag.”
“I didn’t know you — oh.” A look of realisation slides across James’ face.
“You are a ridiculous man,” hisses James, but he breaks off his conversation and ushers Francis away, part secret service bodyguard, part exasperated parent.
“We’re more or less the same height, you know,” he remarks once they're safely through a pair of French doors and into a small paved courtyard. “Not exactly suitable for covert operations.”
“Yeah, but my posture’s buggered, whereas yours is all… elegant. And tall.” Francis wishes he really did have a cigarette, just for something to do with his hands.
“I don’t disagree,” says James.
“Like a big flamingo.”
“Right, cheers.” James sticks his hands in his pockets, looking ruffled.
Francis taps him on the arm. “Thanks. Couldn’t deal with that just now.”
James makes a non-committal noise and they lapse into silence. Francis’ face feels hot in the cool night air. The little garden is dotted with smokers, people flirting and networking, lit by glowing cigarette ends and lights set into the floor.
“What did happen between the two of you?” asks James. His eyes are cat-like, narrow.
“You must know,” says Francis. “I thought everyone did.”
“Well, yes. But there’s interdepartmental gossip and then there’s the truth. The two don’t always overlap.”
Francis knows the gossip and, regrettably, it’s more or less correct. Two failed proposals, each as public and embarrassing as the other; a messy breakup which ended in the harddrive containing his manuscript being smashed with a camping mallet; and Francis spending a week sleeping in his car outside Sophia’s flat.
“That’s basically it,” he says. “I was a fuck-up, and she wanted me to deserve her. Needless to say, I didn’t. I can barely remember it, to tell you the truth.”
“Does it bother you?” James gestures at the room behind them. “Being around all this?”
Francis shrugs. “Not really. I’d kill and eat you for a twelve year old single malt, but that’s pretty much always the case.”
“I’m flattered,” says James, smirking. “I was going to get another round, if you—”
“Not another of those poisonous bloody—”
“Just tell me what you want, Francis.”
“Lime and soda. Thanks, James.”
James disappears into the throng. Francis kicks gravel and checks his phone, wondering how soon he can call it a night and sneak away for good.
At long, long last, Francis, James, Blanky and McDonald share a taxi to St Clement’s College, where they’ve all booked student rooms. It’s close enough to walk, except for Tom’s leg and a slightly unsteady James, who’s knocked back one too many badly-named cocktails. He slumps against Francis as the hybrid car slides through the darkened streets, warm and very heavy.
They reach the porters’ lodge and bid Alex and Tom goodnight, but there’s a problem with James and Francis’ room. The singularity is the problem: they were supposed to have two.
“I am sorry, sir,” says the porter, through the waist-height window. “But we’ve a number of conferences on this week. I’m afraid we’re full.”
Francis swears under his breath and James squints at him sideways. “Did you make the booking, or did Thomas?”
“Does that make a difference?” Francis snaps, knowing perfectly well that Thomas Jopson would never make a mistake like this.
“You idiot.” James bumps their shoulders together and almost over-balances, putting out a hand to steady himself against the ivy-covered wall. He’s not just tipsy, Francis realises; he’s extremely drunk and pretending not to be.
“Well, never mind about it now.” Francis turns back to the porter, who gives him a blandly long-suffering look.
They collect the suitcases they left in the luggage room earlier and their keys — well, the same key, in duplicate — and make their way through the quad beyond.
“Keep off the grass,” says James solemnly, pointing to a painted metal sign.
“I know about the bloody grass, James.” Francis is distracted, watching Jamesʼ feet to make sure he doesn’t trip over an uneven cobblestone. “I was at Queen’s, not fucking… Banbridge poly,” he adds under his breath.
The byzantine directions from the porter lead eventually to a winding stone staircase — no fun at all with two suitcases and a weaving James Fitzjames — and a largish bedroom with mullioned windows looking out across the quad. There’s a double bed, for which Francis thanks Christ and St Clement in equal, fervent measure, and a poky but functional ensuite.
“Look familiar?” he asks. James was at an Oxford college, Francis can’t remember which one, but his undergraduate bedroom must have looked much the same: the arched and leaded windows, the slanting ceiling, the dark wood beams. James merely blinks at him, a small crease between his brows.
“Not going to throw up, are you?” asks Francis warily. James shakes his head.
“Right. Great. Let’s have a little sit down.”
He tries to steer James towards the bed, but their feet entangle and somehow they both crash down onto the mattress: Francis flat on his back and winded, and James sprawled across his chest.
“You bloody great lump.”
“You love me really,” says James indistinctly, his face in Francis’ collar. He flops sideways, one leg still heavy between Francis’ thighs. The pressure is not unpleasant; Francis feels a traitorous thickening behind the fly of his jeans.
No. Absolutely not. That is not happening, not ever, and especially not now. He pushes James properly away from him and rises, adjusting himself as he goes. Conveniently for his survival through the night, James is more or less in the recovery position; inconveniently for Francis, he’s perpendicular across the middle of the bed.
Francis knocks his knee against a dangling foot. “Move, James.”
There’s no reply. Francis sighs and bends over with a groan to untie James’ shoes. They’re threaded with narrow laces in a smart but impractical ladder pattern; it’s a fiddly job. He lets them drop to the floor, then takes James’ bony ankles in both hands and drags him into a broadly north-south orientation, albeit some distance from the pillows.
By the time Francis returns from brushing his teeth and changing into the loose boxers and faded Led Zeppelin t-shirt he calls pajamas, James has extricated himself from shirt and trousers and turned to an uncertain shape beneath the sheets. Francis considers picking up the discarded items, but it seems a peculiar intimacy. Instead he puts his phone on charge and climbs gingerly into bed.
James makes a snuffling sound as the mattress is disturbed, and throws out a squid-like arm. Francis is too tired to dislodge him. It’s comforting, in a way.
As he’s drifting off to sleep, he thinks he hears James say his name, a sticky whisper against his upper arm, but decides he must already be dreaming.
Francis has shared a bed with his dog on only three occasions. First, when there were foxes in the garden and Neptune wouldn’t be quiet for love nor biscuits; second when he was miserable and half-comatose with flu, wanting company and too weak to push Neptune onto the floor; third, on the night Sophia left for the final time.
Sharing a bed with nine stone of shaggy-haired Newfoundland is not a dissimilar experience to sharing a bed with James Fitzjames.
Francis hopes it’s just the alcohol, because he can’t deal with four more nights of this. He’s woken at 1:20 by James fidgeting fit to wake the dead, and again at 3:15 in a cold sweat because James is burning like a brazier, having rolled himself up in all their sheets. At four he starts to talk — because of course he does. Not even unconsciousness can stop him telling stories. Francis dances on the edge of sleep all night, and wakes with a jerk at 6:47 when James kicks him in the shin.
He rolls out of bed and into a scalding shower, trying to force himself awake by sheer power of will. When he returns, James is a neat and innocent croissant under the duvet, his face crushed into the pillow.
“Bastard,” Francis whispers.
Still, before he leaves, he digs in his washbag for a box of paracetamol and leaves it on the edge of the sink. He puts a hand on what he thinks is James’ shoulder and shakes, producing an aggrieved miaow.
“I’m going for breakfast. Do you want anything?”
James moans theatrically.
“Don’t oversleep. I’ll see you in the lecture hall.”
Francis walks to the Institute, enjoying the spring sunlight and fresh air, longing for a second coffee. The college dining hall was architecturally interesting but low on caffeine. He buys up a double espresso on the way and dodges earlybird delegates in the foyer, wanting to pick up a name badge and work out where he’s supposed to be.
He grapples with the technology for fifteen minutes or so, wishing Thomas was here instead of covering his seminars back home, but eventually his first slide appears on the projector screen — Crisis in the Air: Nineteenth Century Nationalism and Andrée’s Failed Ascent — with one of Strindberg’s salvaged photographs, the black balloon sagging on the icy ground. He’s proud of this paper; it forms the core of his almost-finished book, rewritten since the Mallet Incident. His research has intersected with Jamesʼ, so they’ve spent a pleasant year passing in and out of each other’s offices, arguing and agreeing by turns.
There’s a bigger audience than he expected, but still no James. Francis is irritated, still feeling his skull rattle from lack of sleep. That must be why, when James does appear, looking faintly grey and holding a reusable coffee cup, Francis stumbles over his words, mixing up the islands of Phippsøya and Parryøya.
Closing his talk after a short Q&A, Francis shuffles his notes and says, “If anyone would like to discuss things further, my esteemed colleague Dr Fitzjames and I will be in the foyer, so do feel free to ask us any questions… er, as loudly as you possibly can,” and looks up in time to see James giving him the finger.
The rest of the morning is a whirlwind. Francis doesn’t see James again until they cross paths at the buffet table; Francis spooning coleslaw onto a paper plate while James picks at the drying sandwiches.
“How are you feeling?” Francis wants to sound sympathetic, conciliatory, but he can’t keep a note of amusement from his voice.
“Fine, thank you,” says James evenly. “Sorry to miss the beginning of your talk. How did you sleep?”
The question catches Francis off-guard, though it’s a perfectly ordinary thing to ask. “Er, fine,” he says, fumbling with a sausage roll. “Grand.”
James gives him a taut smile and drifts away towards the coffee urn.
After Francis’ final lecture, he drags himself to a networking event where, happily, he finds Tom. They weather the thing together, swapping other people’s business cards like kids in the playground, before stopping at an Italian restaurant on the way back to St Clement’s.
Tom waits until Francis has a mouthful of meatball to say, “I heard you’re sleeping with Fitzjames.”
Francis chokes, swallows, and says, “What?”
“Come off it, Frank, we both know you’d like to be doing the real thing.”
“The real thing?”
“Jesus.” Francis darts a nervous look around the restaurant, praying they’re not in the presence of anyone they know.
“There’s no shame in it. He’s a cracking-looking bloke.”
“And you get a daft look in your eye whenever he’s in the room.”
“I do not.”
Tom stabs his lasagne and shovels a forkful into his mouth. “Yeah, you do.”
“We’re barely friends!” Francis protests. “He’s only just stopped hating me.”
“Aye, well I think there was more to that than met the eye, an’ all.”
Francis scowls at him across the table. “What are you talking about?”
“He didn’t hate you, Frank. He was jealous.”
Tom shrugs, and steals Francis’ last piece of garlic bread. “Have it your own way,” he says thickly. “But think on it for five minutes — you’ll see I’m right.”
They stroll slowly back to the college, sluggish and full of food, and Tom peels off to his ground floor room in the modern halls. Francis climbs the spiral stairs and lets himself into his — their — room. James is sitting up against the headboard, reading, a pair of grey-framed glasses at the end of his pointed nose. He’s wearing a charcoal-coloured jumper and pajama trousers, also grey, though a subtly different shade. The effect is one of studied nonchalance, and Francis hates that he finds it so endearing.
“Good day?” says James, looking up.
“Fine — grand.” Francis needs to start expanding his vocabulary.
He shucks off his suit jacket and throws it onto a chair; the only chair, a mottled swivel chair tucked under the plywood desk. He’d give his life savings to sprawl face down on the bed, but it feels like occupied territory with James sitting there. Instead he potters: unpacks his messenger bag, scrolls through his phone, fills the tiny kettle, switches it on for a cup of tea, changes his mind and switches it off again. At last, he goes for a quick shower, changes into pajamas and returns towelling his hair. He still can’t bring himself to sit down next to James, so he hovers by the desk, feeling like an idiot.
James closes his book with a snap. “Francis, for heaven’s sake, come to bed. I don’t bite.”
Francis feels his face go red, and hopes fervently that James mistakes it for a side effect of the steam. “No,” he says diving into the bathroom under the pretext of brushing his teeth, “you just fidget and talk and kick me.”
James appears in the ensuite doorway. “I talk? In my sleep?”
“That’s what you’re worried about?” says Francis around his toothbrush. “Not the physical violence? I’m touched.”
“What did I say?” James looks so concerned that Francis wishes he’d kept it to himself.
“Nothing, James. Nonsense.” Francis rinses out his mouth and wipes his face in the crook of his arm. “Has no one ever told you?” he says, as they pass awkwardly in the space between the bedroom and bathroom doors. James leaves the latter open behind him, and there’s the sound of running water.
“No,” comes the muffled reply, followed by the noise of James brushing his teeth.
Francis says nothing, not wanting to contemplate the implications of this when he’s about to climb into bed with the man. It’s not as though he’s been inundated with offers of his own since Sophia. He drops at last onto the mattress with a groan and is reading a dishevelled paperback when James reappears, smelling of peppermint toothpaste and something else; something botanical, like rosemary crushed between cupped palms.
“What’s that smell?” he asks, watching James pull his jumper over his head, bearing a stripe of skin beneath his t-shirt; the soft curve of stomach and an angled, jutting hip.
“I don’t think that’s a polite question to ask someone coming out of a bathroom, Francis.”
“You know what I mean,” says Francis. “The scent, the — perfume.”
“Just soap.” James drops onto the bed and rubs his eyes.
“What?” Francis closes his book and shuffles down, head on the pillow, turning to look at James.
James rolls over, so they really are face to face. Francis can feel the warmth of his breath as he says softly, “Azadirachta indica — Indian lilac.”
“Smells edible,” says Francis. “Like a herb.”
“It’s mildly toxic in large quantities.” James’ eyes are almost black in the low light.
“I must be careful, then,” says Francis. His heart is thumping in his chest.
James seems to be frowning, though it’s hard to tell with his face half in the pillow. “I suppose so,” he says. “Goodnight, Francis.” He turns away and switches off the bedside light.
“Night.” Francis wants to crack his skull against the headboard. He settles for retrieving his book and reading with it propped up on his chest until his eyes begin to close.
By the time he switches off his own light, James’ breathing has grown steady and deep, like the roll of the sea. The heat of his body bleeds between the clammy sheets, and soon Francis can feel James’ presence as surely as if they were twined together, limb to limb.
He turns onto his side, towards James, and stares for a moment at the short hair at the nape of his neck. Under any other circumstances, he would reach out and touch James there; tenderly, softly, soothing James from the edges of his dreams. As it is, he closes his eyes, and tries to think of nothing until he falls asleep.
Francis wakes to find the back of James’ hand pressed against his thigh, the bare-skin space between boxer shorts and knee. James has turned towards him in his sleep, because of how the mattress dips, that’s all. It’s a wonder they haven’t ended up nose to nose before. Francis lies motionless, adjusting to the light, watching how it bleeds along the borders of the curtain.
He checks his phone: it’s barely seven, but he feels well-rested, perfectly awake. James shifts, still fast asleep, and rolls onto his other side. His hand leaves Francis’ thigh, but the warmth lingers for a moment before soaking inexorably away.
Neither Francis nor James have anything to do before Silna’s talk at 11, so they eat a leisurely breakfast in the dining hall, Francis going back for extra toast (and the novelty of the self-service conveyor belt toast-making machine) and James wolfing down a second helping of bacon and scrambled eggs.
Under the table, through the fabric of his trousers, Francis can still feel James’ knuckles against his thigh. Has done, ever since he slunk out of bed that morning. He feels marked, guilty; can’t quite look James in the eye, or watch him skewer mushrooms with his fork.
“How was I, last night?”
Francis looks up to find James staring at him. “What?”
“Any talking?” James smiles. “Did I kick you — sorry about that, by the way.”
“No,” says Francis. “You were fine.”
“Hm. Must have been the cocktails. Blame Cherry-Garrard.” James flicks through a conference itinerary on his phone. “Are you going to the dinner at Pembroke this evening?”
“Christ, no,” says Francis. “Not if I can help it. Are you?”
“Don’t really fancy it. All that small talk.”
“Thought you’d be in your element.”
James looks up at him, mouth quirked to one side. “Is that what you think I am? Some dazzling social butterfly?”
“Well, you are, aren’t you?” says Francis. “You’re good at this stuff — better than I am, anyway.”
“Only because I try. I find it as exhausting as you do, Francis. I’m just better at hiding it.”
“Oh. Right.” Francis swills the dregs of his coffee. “So... what the bloody hell are we doing here, James?”
To his relief, James’ angular face cracks into a grin, which turns to a wheezing laugh. Francis allows himself a chuckle, but he's watching the way James’ face changes in this lighter mood. All the lines that seem so forbidding in repose suddenly make sense: they come from smiling, steadily engrained by the passing of the years. Laughing makes him younger, a fresh postgraduate once more.
But this thought sends a spike of self-loathing through Francis’ insides. When James was a postgrad, Francis had been pushing forty, two professorships and a serious drinking problem under his increasingly tightening belt. Their fifteen year age gap has never been a bar to friendship, or to comradeship under academic fire, but for something more... it makes Francis feel like a lecherous old man, one of those lecturers female students have to warn their friends about.
“Shall we?” says James, sliding his empty plate away.
Francis forces his revulsion down and rises, attempting a smile. “Yeah.”
Silna gives her talk in BSL, with an interpreter relaying it to the hearing audience, and Harry operating the PowerPoint. The slides are only occasionally out of sync, when Harry gets distracted watching Silna pace confidently up and down.
James and Francis share an amused, exasperated look as a strawberry-coloured blush rises above Harry’s beard. Francis turns to find Tom watching them with an equally knowing expression from the row behind, and is forced to retaliate with an obscene gesture behind his chair, where James can’t see. Tom waggles his eyebrows so suggestively that Francis goes even redder than Harry, and James regards him with concern, as though he might be unwell.
When the talk is over and they’ve done their mandated milling about, James sidles up to Francis under the Arctic dome: a circle of ceiling painted with a map of the pole, ringed with explorers’ names in gold and dotted with little ships.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” he says, craning his neck. “Do you think we could get one of our own?”
“On our budget?” scoffs Francis. “I’ll buy a pop-up tent and you can paint it.”
James laughs again, and Francis has to stare determinedly out of the window.
“What are you doing for the rest of the day?”
“Moderating a panel at two, and a roundtable at four,” says Francis. “How about you?”
“Seminars until six,” says James. “But afterwards, do you fancy a walk? Dinner?”
Francis turns to look at him. James is moving his mouth in that unreadable way of his: whether irritation, habit or anxiety, Francis has never been quite sure. “Yes,” he says slowly, knowing he should resist, think of an excuse, not submit to temptation.
“Great,” says James, brightening. “Meet you here about half past?”
“Fine.” Francis manages to restrain himself from adding Grand and opts for “Brilliant!” instead, which seems significantly worse.
They meander through the narrow streets during the last hour of daylight, keeping an easy pace, walking side by side. Cambridge is offensively beautiful at sunset, all its yellow stone lit gold. They cross the river and walk upstream, sighting King’s College Chapel across the fields: magnificent, untouchable. Francis has a gathering sense of gloom, his old inferiority complex rearing its unattractive head.
He cheers up once they're installed in a Chinese restaurant near Magdalene Bridge, the smell of spices in the air and the windows pleasantly steamed.
James waves the laminated drinks menu. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all,” says Francis. “Carry on.”
They talk comfortably as they eat, pushing food between their plates for each other to try, Francis sipping a complimentary green tea and James a bottle of Tsingtao, his long fingers tracing patterns in the condensation at its neck. Francis allows himself to relax as the restaurant fills up with assorted academics: a sea of Dr. Martens, cycle clips, and tote bags overflowing with hardback books.
He feels almost tipsy as they stagger out into the dark, drunk on spending time with James, the intimacy of sharing a meal. He can’t remember the last time he ate with the same person three times in one day; he knows it must have been Sophia, and puts her firmly from his mind. James seems to know roughly where they’re going, and Francis follows as they pass a circular chapel that looks like the turret of a French chateau, then a towering Elizabethan gatehouse in fairytale red and white.
James follows his gaze. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Francis doesn’t reply. The whole place seems designed to show him how badly he doesn’t belong. He feels very Northern Irish, and painfully out of his element: a jumped-up Paddy with ideas above his class. “It’s alright for you, James,” he says with a rueful smile. “All these dreaming spires.”
James frowns. “What do you mean?”
“You must be used to it — having been at Oxford.”
They pause at a junction in the road, a narrow lane of shops broadening into a cobbled square. Cyclists whisk past, head and tail lights blinking, and couples stroll arm in arm; a pack of long-legged girls skitters past in vertiginous heels.
James’ hands are in his pockets, his head cast down. “Brookes,” he says, towards his shoes.
“I was at Oxford Brookes. The former polytechnic.” James’ mouth gives a sarcastic little twist, and Francis wants to kiss the bitterness away, suck it out like venom and spit it onto the ground. “In Oxford,” James continues, “but not at it. No dreaming spires — insomniac brutalist concrete, perhaps.”
“I’ve always thought—”
“Everyone does. It can be useful. I’ve never lied,” James adds fiercely, looking up at last. His face is touched with shadow; hawk-like, proud. “Possibly Sir John was deceived — but unintentionally, I swear. When a man like that wants you to work for him, you don't say no.”
“He was never very good at reading emails,” Francis concedes.
James is watching him in earnest now; if Francis didn’t know better, he’d say James was on the verge of tears. “I’ve never told anyone before,” he says. “I have earned my position, Francis. Just… in the wrong order.”
Francis claps him heartily on the shoulder, but the gesture doesn’t feel quite right. He moves his hand higher, to the open collar of James’ shirt, grips him at the place where muscle soars into the column of his neck, his thumb on James’ collarbone.
“Of course you’ve earned it, James. Twice over, if I’m any judge.”
James’ arm comes up to graze his back, and Francis pulls him into a hug. He can’t help it. Whatever’s going on in Francis’ head, James will always be his friend; perhaps his closest, after Tom. A hug is fine, deniable, plausibly platonic. James’ body is solid against his own, his hands warm through the fabric of Francis’ jacket and shirt. Another cyclist sails past and Francis pats James manfully on the back and steps away, holds him at arm’s length, smiles.
“Come on, James. Let’s go to bed.”
The bedroom is completely dark when Francis wakes: no sunlight through the curtains, no sound of a stirring world. He’s lying on his side, James’ arm slung possessively across his chest. Without thinking, Francis strokes it, and James hums gently in his sleep. Francis lifts James’ arm by the wrist, meaning to return it to its owner, but James clings to him, insistent fingers digging in under Francis’ ribs.
“James,” says Francis, with a sinking sense of certainty. “You’re asleep.”
“No, Francis, I want—” and James’ lips are at the corner of Francis’ jaw, his neck, his throat; not quite kissing but nuzzling, open-mouthed.
Francis can’t believe James wants him, that James would touch him like this. “You don’t mean it, James,” he says. “It’s late, this is stupid—”
But his words are smothered by James’ searching mouth. Francis parts his lips and they seem to bleed together; Francis presses his tongue forwards, touches James’ teeth, the slickness of his palate. He wants more, wants James pressed over and against him, and rolls onto his back, prick stiffening in his boxer shorts.
James comes with him, their arms and legs intertwined. Francis feels the weight of James’ cock and balls through the fabric of his pajamas, and slides a hand between them; wanting James to feel good, feel cherished, desired. But as James rocks against his thigh there’s no growing hardness there, no pump of blood. The motion of James’ hips is mechanical, clumsy, somehow absent.
Francis pulls away and fumbles for the bedside lamp. Squinting in the sudden brightness, he finds James’ face with both his hands and holds it steady.
James’ eyes are closed: not in ecstasy, or shyness, but in sleep.
Francis scrambles upright, nearly falling out of bed. James sags back onto his pillow, face slack save for a small crease between his brows, one arm spread out into Francis’ rumpled, vacated space.
A wave of horror crashes over Francis, and he bolts for the bathroom, feeling shivery and sick. He splashes cold water on his face, stares balefully at his reflection, washed out in the glare of the fluorescent light above the sink. His face is pinkish and puffy. He touches his jaw and the skin around his mouth, where James’ stubble has scraped against his own.
As he closes the bathroom door, James says his name again. Francis can hear the difference now, not in intelligibility, but intent; the meaning behind the word, the clarity of waking thought.
James has raised himself on one elbow, only just awake. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine.” Francis sits on the edge of the bed. He can’t look at James.
“Was I… did I wake you?” James’ hand touches the centre of his back. Francis flinches — he can’t help it — and the hand withdraws.
“It’s nothing, James. Go back to sleep.”
Francis is up, dressed, and out of the room next morning before James is awake. He gets coffee and a croissant in a cafe around the corner, but can only pull the pastry apart, unable to eat it. Today is Thursday. There are two days of the conference left; one more night spent sharing a bed with James.
It’ll be fine. As long as he doesn’t — as long as Francis doesn’t touch him again. He feels nauseous at the thought of it: his palm against James’ stomach, at the hem of his t-shirt, almost— He needs fresh air. He scrapes back his chair and makes a break for the pavement, leaving his espresso unfinished.
Moderating panels is piss-easy; that’s the only reason Francis agrees to do it. He doesn’t have to discuss his research or talk to people. He just has to sit there, say as little as possible, and not have an opinion. Three of his favourite things.
The other edge of that particular sword, however, is that it can be mind-numbingly boring. Some tweed-patched windbag from Durham has been banging on about clouds for ten minutes and Francis finds his attention wandering. He’s been staring at the double doors at the back of the room for a full minute, thinking of nothing, when they open and James comes in.
Francis feels all the blood drop from his face into his chest, burning there so fiercely he’s sure the colour is showing through his shirt. James raises his eyebrows and quirks his mouth into a smile. But it fades as Francis watches, weakens, becomes something closer to a sneer. Francis must be glaring at him, with some awful, shocked expression that he’s had no time to hide. James’ face shutters. He takes a seat in the back row, crosses his legs and folds his arms.
The cloud fanatic has finished his diatribe, and Francis fumbles towards an intelligent question to ask the climate physicist at the far end. The panel limps to a close, Francis avoiding looking any further than the first three rows of chairs. By the time he’s painstakingly repacked his bag, shaken out his jacket and straightened the panellists’ chairs, James has disappeared.
Francis skips the lunch buffet and heads to his next event half an hour early, pretending to be busy on his phone so he can avoid seeing James if he comes in. When he comes in, because the Nansen expedition is one of the intersections of their research, and Francis knows he was planning to attend. The room fills up and it’s not until the last moment that James arrives, sliding into a seat a few rows in front of Francis, slightly to the left.
Francis allows himself to stare, taking in the furrow between the sinews of James’ neck, the uncompromising sharpness of his jaw, his aquiline nose. He’s like a statue at this angle, ought to be on a plinth outside a building somewhere, draped in marble robes. James takes out his glasses, unfolds them with his teeth and puts them on one-handed, crossing his arms again. Francis can’t do this. He can’t sit with James in his eyeline for an hour and hope to stay remotely sane.
As the speaker sidles up to the lectern and experimentally taps the mic, Francis shuffles to the end of his row and makes a break for it, not looking back.
He's halfway back to St Clement’s before deciding he can’t bear to be there either — the scene of the crime, his brain unhelpfully supplies — and panics, ducking through the doorway of a nearby church. A place of worship would never be his first choice of refuge, but pubs are out of the question, and he can’t even take Neptune for a blustery, head-clearing walk.
It seems to be C of E at least, so Francis doesn’t feel in imminent danger of catching fire. The interior is whitewashed and austere, with hanging iron lamps and dark oak pews. He sits down in the nearest and puts his head on the shelf where prayer cards and hymn books would usually go. The wood is cool and smooth and smells of beeswax. At his feet is a tapestry kneeler, but he’s long since lost the art of praying. He only wants to hide, and think.
He wants James. Badly. Has done, for a while. Their new proximity has only made it clearer, agonisingly so.
And it’s not as though it’s out of the question. James is definitely… well, there have been boyfriends, and something unspecified between him and Le Vesconte a few years back. Francis has been belligerently single since Sophia, and he feels too old for labels, but he’s always been an equal opportunities kind of bloke. He’s had nothing serious with a man for years now, and not much passing interest, as it were. Perhaps the campus gossip goes against him; perhaps it’s just his face.
So why hasn’t he done anything sooner? The answer comes as a coil of misery in the pit of his gut: the same old self-loathing, his perpetual sense of not being quite enough. James could have anyone he wanted; Francis must surely be at the bottom of that list. Well, anyway. It’s too late now.
When Francis emerges from the church, he finds Tom Blanky sitting on a flat-topped tombstone, smoking a cigarette. Francis sighs and slumps down beside him, and Tom wordlessly holds out the fag packet.
“What’s wrong, Francis?” Tom roots in his back pocket for a lighter and clicks it into flame.
Francis leans in, lets his cigarette catch, and takes a deep inhale. “How did you know I was here?”
“I was over the road and I saw you go in. Weren’t gonna run and catch you, but thought I’d keep an eye.”
“There’s no need, Tom. I’m fine.”
“Right, well.” Tom puts out his cigarette on the lichened stone and tosses the end away. “I’ve just seen you go voluntarily into a church, Frank, so that’s dog shit, i’nt it?”
Francis rubs his knuckles into his eyes. “I kissed Fitzjames—”
Tom gives a shout of triumph. “Ha! I bloody knew it.”
“—while he was asleep.”
“Right. Some sexless Sleeping Beauty bollocks, then, or—”
“No,” Francis groans. “I thought he was awake, I swear to God, Tom. He said my name. He said he—” But Francis can’t tell Tom the rest.
“He said your name?”
“He talks in his sleep.” It had been funny, the first time, charming. Francis wants to purge the thought from his overheated brain.
“So he knew it was you?”
Francis makes a scoffing noise, incredulous.
“Alright, thought it was you, at any rate,” says Tom.
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“When was the last time you had a dream like that about someone? A real person, mind, I don’t mean waking up piss-proud. Though if you’re aging like I am, that don’t happen so much any more.”
“Tom, fucking Christ.”
“I bet it was Sophia, and if it weren’t Sophia, I’ll lay you a tenner it were James.”
“No bet,” Francis admits. “Rien ne va plus.”
“There you are, then. You like him, he likes you, and I’m getting a migraine.” Tom lights a second cigarette. “You're worse than the kids, the pair of you.”
“How are they?” asks Francis, grasping at the change of subject.
“Aye, they’re thriving. Love your bloody dog.” Tom unlocks his phone and shows Francis a video from Esther. Neptune is spread out like a hearthrug on the Blankys’ kitchen floor, patiently thrashing his tail, while two small girls decorate him in various sparkly articles of fancy dress.
“He’ll never forgive me,” says Francis, smiling.
“Nor will they, unless I can find a Newfoundland puppy by next week.”
“No chance. I need summat I can keep up with.”
“A pomeranian?” suggests Francis mischievously. “A dachshund — no, a corgi.”
Tom gives him a good-natured shove and Francis tips sideways off the tomb and stands, laughing, though his heart sinks irretrievably once more. “Bleeding Jesus, Tom, what am I going to do?”
“I’d suggest you talk to him, but I expect you’re going to ignore me.”
“I’d rather put my finger in a plug socket.”
“Might sort you out, that.” Tom clamps his cigarette between his teeth and clambers upright, shouldering his bag. “I’m off, anyway. You might want to reconsider the talking thing — in a minute or two you won’t have a choice.”
He jerks his head up the street and Francis sees James striding along the pavement towards the church. “Oh, fuck me.”
“If you’re lucky.” Tom grins, slaps Francis on the back and walks away, passing through the iron gate just as James reaches it. They exchange a look, and Francis turns briskly away, unable to watch. He inhales the rest of his cigarette like a man beneath the scaffold and grinds the butt into the ground.
“Somewhat sacreligious, Francis.” James stands at a distance, as if reluctant to approach him. “Can we talk?”
Francis nods, and follows James through the churchyard to the river. A small stone footbridge arcs across it here, the water beneath very smooth and still. James pauses at its apex. Up close, he’s tired and drawn, the skin blue around his eyes. “If I’ve done something, or said something, to upset you,” he says, “to offend you—”
“No, James, never,” says Francis at once. This is dreadful.
“Well it must be something, because you’ve been avoiding me all day.”
Francis can’t find the energy to lie. He looks down into the water, sees a black reflection of himself above the bridge, and looks away.
“We’re not strangers,” says James. “I know you, Francis. You can talk to me.”
Francis, still thinking longingly of the plug socket, says, “I know. I’m sorry.”
“What for? ” James almost shouts, startling a family of moorhens on the riverbank below.
“You kissed me!” Fuck. Francis scrubs his face with both hands. “Or, at least — Christ, I don’t even know if you can kiss someone without meaning to.”
“I kissed you?”
“Yeah.” Francis sags against the parapet. "You were asleep."
James walks across the width of the bridge and leans against the other side.
“I kissed you back,” says Francis quickly. Better to get it all out now, have done with it, so they can go their separate ways. “But I thought you were awake, James, I promise, I never would have—”
“I believe you,” says James quietly.
“You spoke to me. Actual words, not just nonsense.” Mortification is prickling in the small of Francis’ back, heat rising through his cheeks. “I chose to believe it, I was arrogant enough—”
“What did I say?”
“That you… wanted me.” Francis wants to slide into the river and drown. “And then you were on top of me — my doing, not yours. And I nearly — I nearly touched you, James. As if the rest of it wasn’t bad enough.” Francis covers his face with his hands, presses his fingertips into his eyeballs, trying to drive the memory away.
“Francis, I’m so sorry.” Francis looks up. James is pale, his eyes deep and hollow in his face.
“You’re — what?” Francis scowls at him. “Why are you sorry?”
“I should never have let myself — I should have known—”
“How could you possibly have known? You didn’t even know you talked in your sleep until this week, you told me so yourself.”
“But I knew—” James swallows hard. “I knew how I felt about you.”
Francis has forgotten how to breathe. “I used to think you hated me,” he says nonsensically, thinking of what Tom said the night before.
“Not for a long time,” says James. “And never, really. I was in awe of you — or, at least, I would have been if you were—”
“Sober enough to actually do my job?” Francis supplies.
He remembers well enough: hangovers in the staff room, surreptitiously stirring scotch into his instant coffee; passing out behind his desk so that Jopson had to shake him hurriedly awake when his students arrived; Sir John’s simmering disapproval, James sneering at his side.
“More or less,” says James. He looks miserable. Francis wants to close the gap between them; take James’ arm, touch his shoulder.
“And now?” he prompts, gently.
James grimaces. “Don’t make me say it.”
“It’s… humiliating.” James seems to be forcing the words past his teeth.
“Come on, Francis,” says James. “I’m too old for undergraduate crushes — you certainly are.”
“Thanks very much,” says Francis mildly. “But I’m not, you know.”
Francis summons his courage. “Too old,” he says.
Something changes in the air between them; something clears. Francis feels it on the back of his neck, on his arms, the hairs there rising as though attracted by a magnet. James’ gaze seems to crackle with static, intensely green, reflecting the light that spills through the riverside trees.
“James.” Francis pushes off the parapet and goes to him, puts a hand to the sharp edge of his jaw.
“Please don’t,” says James, flinching from his grasp. “Not unless you mean it.”
“I mean it,” says Francis, and before he can overthink about it, he tilts his head and kisses James.
It’s brief; a chaste press of lip to lip. But as they break apart, James lets out a soft, half-stifled moan, and a series of decidedly unchaste thoughts race through Francis’ mind.
James was right: there is very little difference in their heights, not when they’re this close, not when Francis stands up straight and tugs James forward by his lapels. James’ hands are in his hair; he cups Francis’ head and kisses him again, and it’s nothing like the night before. He licks into Francis’ mouth, consuming him, devouring like a man half-starved. Their hips align and there’s that weight again, but this time definite, intentional; the difference between the waking world and dreams.
“Francis—” James’ mouth is at his neck, his ear.
“James, you’re going to kill me…” Francis pulls away; losing the heat of James’ body is like stepping out of the sunlight and into shade.
James narrows his eyes. “In a good way or a bad way?” he says, with menace.
“I have to moderate another panel.”
“What?” James looks personally offended by the idea. “Why, for God’s sake?”
“Well, we’re at an academic conference,” says Francis patiently, unable to resist needling him, even now. “They have these events, and people go to them. They confer.”
“I am going to kill you.”
“Come with me,” says Francis, linking their hands.
“I think I’ll throw myself off this bridge.” James peers over the side. “Though it’s not very high, you might have to give me a push.”
“I’m sure you’ll manage,” says Francis. “It won’t take long.”
James puts his forehead to Francis’ temple, and kisses the corner of his mouth. “You hate these things.”
“Never more than now.” Francis turns his head to meet James’ insistent lips, and it’s a while before either of them can speak again.
The panel is a nightmare. Francis spends it in a state of nervous fury, joggling his leg under the table. James is sitting right in his eyeline, placid and serene, though a flush creeps across his cheeks when Francis looks at him too long. The panellists are unusually argumentative, creating more work than Francis was bargaining for, all the worse for how distracted he is. At last it grinds to a close, James smirking as he joins in with the applause, and Francis crams his notes and laptop back into his bag.
He’s stupidly nervous about going over to James, something skittering in the pit of his stomach as he circles the table, peering through the thinning crowd.
It’s Sophia, in a silk shirt the colour of lapis, blinding against her hair. If she was in the audience, Francis hadn’t noticed, too busy eyeing James.
“Nicely done,” she says. “Not an easy lot.”
“No,” Francis agrees, tightening his mouth into a smile. He still finds it moderately painful to be in her presence, to smell her perfume, catch the timbre of her voice; the smile is closer to a grimace. “How are you, Sophie?”
“Ready to go home,” she says with a sigh, scanning the emptying room. “And you?”
“Oh, fine. Good.” Francis spots James, lingering against a side wall, watching them, but pretending to be busy on his phone. “Fantastic,” he says, remembering the taste of James’ mouth, the promise in the press of his hips.
“That’s wonderful,” Sophia beams. “I am glad to see you, Francis. Looking so well.” She touches his elbow, an easy, familiar gesture, and Francis leans into it, puts a hand in the small of her back.
“Let’s go for a — well, a coffee,” she says. “Next month?”
“Yeah. I’d like that.” He’s fond of Sophia, always will be. Frightened, too, but that’s nothing new.
“I’ll drop you an email.” She grins, showing small sharp teeth, and hurries to catch up with a friend. Francis watches her go, and when he turns around, he can't see James.
Shit. Francis replays his interaction with Sophia in his mind, sees it from an outside point of view.
He squeezes through the cluster of people at the door, but they’re coming in for the next event, and he’s going against the tide. By the time he fights his way through, James isn’t in the foyer, or under either polar dome. Francis sticks his head into the bar, which is deserted, and dashes out through the main doors and into the street.
There, just turning the next corner. James. Francis sets off as fast as his dignity and creaking knees allow, cursing James’ long legs and equine gait. He keeps pace for a while, dodging tourists and trying to avoid silent death by cyclist, but James draws steadily ahead. Finally, smothering his pride, Francis breaks into a miserable little trot, hoisting his bag higher up his back.
They’ve reached St Clement’s porters’ lodge. James has heard him, judging by the new rigidity in his shoulders, but he doesn’t slow down, passing through the archway into the quad beyond.
“Please don’t make me run,” pleads Francis, out of breath, as James reaches the far side of the grass. “I’m wearing corduroy, I’ll set myself on fire.”
James turns, his face like stone. “What do you want?”
“No,” says James. “I’m not.”
“Me and Sophia, we’re just—” Francis can’t say friends. They're not friends. He doesn’t know what they are. “You’ve nothing to worry about. Nothing to be jealous—”
“I’m not jealous,” James spits, stalking towards him like a predatory cat. “Let’s be absolutely clear on that.”
“Well, what then?”
“I’ve known men like you before, Francis,” says James bitterly. His whole posture speaks of pride and pain. “Men who want a change, a bit of excitement, something interesting. Something taboo.”
“James, I’m not—”
“And if you’re just fucking around, if this is some kind of—”
“Don’t say midlife crisis,” Francis growls.
“—midlife crisis,” says James through gritted teeth, “then I’m not interested. I like you far too much for that. I like myself too much.”
There’s a long pause. The tops of the buildings above their heads are lit with sunset, the sky a square of fading blue. James’ chest falls and rises as he breathes, his nostrils flared. Francis drops his bag onto the ground. He wants to stand before James unaugmented; for them to see each other as they are. Something softens in James’ face, his shoulders, in the set of his jaw. Something thaws.
“Don’t… say my name like that.”
“Like you’re spelling it wrong in your head.”
“What shall I call you, then?”
“I’d prefer you not address me at the moment, Professor Crozier.”
Francis grins, and makes a little bow. “Very well, Doctor Fitzjames.”
“Christ, that’s just as bad.”
“Serves you right for having such an unoriginal second name.”
“It’s made up,” says James, so matter-of-factly that Francis isn’t sure he’s heard him right.
“For the registry office,” says James. “I grew up in foster care.”
Francis stares at him. “I never knew that.”
“No reason why you should.”
“I want to know everything about you, James.”
James’ lips twitch. “There you go again.”
“I can’t help it. Jeames.”
“I want to kiss you,” Francis says.
“Do you indeed?” says James archly.
“I want to do lots of things to you.”
“If I must.”
“Against university bylaws, you know,” says James. His voice has dropped an octave, resonating in his chest.
“What?” says Francis. “Buggering eminent historians on the sacred grass?”
James goes pink, and twists a corner of his mouth. “A beheading, at the very least.”
“It’d be worth it.” Francis closes the space between them, and puts a hand around James’ wrist. “I’m not messing you about. I promise. And, if it matters, you’re not the first man I’ve been with — not even the first infuriating James.”
A look of mild surprise crosses James’ face. “Curiouser and curiouser.”
“I’m a man of hidden shallows.”
“Hm.” James slides a hand to the back of Francis’ neck, and holds him there a moment, looking into his face.
Francis can imagine what he sees: the cratered skin, the gap between his teeth, the years lost to desperation and to drink. But James smiles, a true smile, no sardonic twist of lips. He leans in and kisses Francis, tentative at first and then with purpose; a promise made with tongue and teeth.
Francis clings to him, fists clenched under his jacket, crumpling his shirt. He wants to drown like this: pinned open, transfixed by James’ relentless mouth. They break apart, and James rubs a thumb along his jaw, looking down at Francis like he’s some precious artefact, unearthed intact and gleaming.
They make it precisely halfway up the spiral staircase when James says, “Have you got protection?”
“No,” says Francis. “You?”
James shakes his head.
“Fuck.” Francis eyes the surrounding student rooms. “Can’t we just… you know? Ask someone?”
“No,” says James. “Absolutely not.”
“Fine. Hold this.” Francis shoves his bag into James’ chest, pats his pockets to check his wallet is there, and stumps back down the stairs. He returns to the room ten minutes later, hot and harassed, carrying a flapping Bag for Life.
“Tesco was rammed,” he says, tipping a packet of Durex and an alarmingly large bottle of lube onto the bed. “Bloody fucking students doing pre-lash.”
James is reclining on the duvet, like a Roman in smart-casual trousers and a spotless shirt. He glances at the empty bag and the lube with an eloquent eyebrow.
“It was all they had,” says Francis hotly. “And I wasn’t going to stroll down the street with it sticking out of my pocket, was I?”
“I’m sure you’d look perfectly rakish,” says James. He moves to the edge of the bed and hooks his hands around the backs of Francis’ thighs. “Dashing.”
Francis sinks his fingers into James’ hair, close-cropped and soft as fur.
“I used to have it long,” says James. “Do you remember?”
“I do,” says Francis. “I hated it.”
James draws back. “Excuse me?”
“Well, I wasn't very fond of you at the time,” says Francis. “In retrospect, I probably wanted it wrapped around my fist.”
James shudders in his grip, eyes gone black and wide. Francis tightens his hand on the nape of James’ neck, tilts his head back, thumbs the crease that runs from cheek to chin. James turns and takes the thumb into his mouth, and Francis feels the strength go out of his knees.
James wriggles back onto the bed, loosening his tie as he goes. Francis crawls after him, tugging off his jacket; puts his knee on the lube, swears, and swats James’ thigh as he starts to laugh. He climbs up the lean length of James’ body and applies himself to the collar of his shirt.
“This fucking… tie,” Francis snarls, as the knot tightens like a vice.
“You’re doing it wrong.” James pushes his hands away.
Francis sits back, straddling James’ hips, marvelling at being so close to him; wanting to be closer still. James tosses his ruined tie onto the floor and Francis lurches down to tear his collar apart. He kisses James’ neck, biting the ridge of his collarbones, licking the well at the base of his throat.
“Francis. Francis.” James’ hands are at his waistband, fumbling on his belt. Long, hot fingers slide over Francis’ boxers and find his rapidly hardening cock.
“Ah, Christ.” Francis drops his face to James’ shoulder, breathes damp against his shirt-clad skin.
“What do you usually…?” says James in his ear.
“There’s no usually,” says Francis, fighting not to come right then and there, from the merest brush of James’ hand. “What about you?”
“I want you to fuck me,” says James, as he gets a proper grip on Francis’ prick. “Oh, I really want you to fuck me.”
Francis has to think with a concerted effort about unmarked essays and the abandoned bag of salad in the bottom of his fridge; about anything except James’ voice and the wickedness of his probing hands, the prospect of sinking into his body, surrounded and enclosed in warmth.
He rocks back onto his heels, away from danger, unbuttoning his shirt. Beneath him, James shucks out of trousers and underwear at once, revealing sallow thighs and a lovely, pink-tipped cock. Even his knees are beautiful. Francis bends and kisses one, and feels the cartilage shift as James twitches, ticklish. He kisses higher, nosing towards where James is stiff and straining; takes James’ balls into his mouth and wets them one by one. James hisses and makes a fist in Francis’ thinning hair.
Francis pulls off to nibble at his hip, the narrow curve of bone, smelling soap again; it tastes like salt, or seafoam. “You smell unbelievable,” he says, to the furrow at the top of James’ thigh. “I want to eat you.”
James groans and shifts his hips impatiently.
“Did you—” There’s a faint dampness to James’ skin, to his curls of pubic hair. “Shower? And get dressed again?”
“I wanted to be… clean. For you.”
The words send a flash of desire sparking through Francis’ veins, followed swiftly by amusement. “You put your tie back on,” he says, propping himself on an elbow and staring up at James. “Your hair was dry!”
“God, Francis.” James has a dramatic arm thrown across his eyes. “Let me be mysterious.”
“Oh, you’re very mysterious, James,” says Francis, returning to the task at hand. After a few calculated false starts, which make James thrash and howl, he gets his mouth around James’ cock and sucks him down.
God, he’s wanted this. He’s wanted this for years and never known it; wanted James to thicken on his tongue, the stretch of him, the weight.
James has finally gone quiet. It’s such a novelty that Francis looks up along the length of him, sees James’ head tipped back into the pillow, teeth fastened on one forearm, other hand knotted in the sheets.
Francis dips his head again, feeling a sacred sense of calm descend. He used to be good at this, enjoyed it: the comfort of an object in his mouth, the taste, the closeness. It’s messy and unpractised — what won’t fit in his mouth is circled with his hand, drenched with dripping spit — but he wants it to be good for James, to spoil him, to treat him well.
James bucks his hips, involuntarily, and Francis lets the head of his cock slide back into his throat; holds it there, pulsating, while above him James lets out a smothered shout. When Francis pulls off him with a gasp, James’ hands are on his face, his neck, snatching at his hair.
“Francis, fuck — God.” James looks unravelled, wrecked.
Francis interlocks their fingers, holds their clasped hands firmly down across James’ hips, and lowers his head once more. James’ skin is velvet-soft, taut and flushed with blood. Heʼs almost sobbing when Francis takes him in his mouth again, swallowing him whole.
Long minutes pass, with nothing but the slippery sounds of Francisʼ mouth and Jamesʼ whimpers; he seems too overwhelmed to speak. Francis works doggedly, following the cues of Jamesʼ urgent breaths, until he starts to shake, the muscles in his thighs quivering like plucked strings. He makes an abortive clutch at Francisʼ hair, lets out a shuddering groan, and comes in a rush down Francisʼ throat.
Francis unsticks their entwined hands, gentling James with strokes to thigh and belly. “Alright?”
“Yes,” says James eventually. The word is small and muffled in the pillow. Francis crawls up towards him, kissing his shoulder through his sweat-damp shirt. Francis peels it off him, James having acquired the tensile strength of a well-wrung sponge.
“How did you get this?” There’s a scar on James’ ribcage, perfectly round, about the size of a thumbprint, or a two pound coin. “You look like you’ve been shot.”
“Rebar,” says James ruefully. He lifts his arm, and Francis sees two matching scars above the elbow, one on either side. “I was young and very stupid. Dundy was involved.”
“Of course,” says Francis, attempting a smile, but he hates the thought of James speared and pinned; the crush of metal and breakable limbs.
James pulls him closer, turning his face to be kissed. Francis obliges, feeling somewhat suffocated in his clothes. His cock is increasingly painful where it presses against Jamesʼ hip. He shifts experimentally and James chuckles.
“Your turn,” he says, plucking at Francisʼ waistband, at the open placket of his shirt.
Francis rises with a grunt and hops idiotically, disentangling his trouser legs, while James watches, long and decadent, spread across the bed.
“Donʼt,” says Francis, self-conscious as he strips his boxers, feeling a flush creep down his neck and across his chest.
“What?” says James. “Admire you?”
“Not much to admire.” Francis climbs under the sheets, resisting the urge to pull them up under his chin.
“Let me look at you.” James is kneeling, pulling the bedclothes determinedly out of Francisʼ grip.
“Do as youʼre told.”
Francis does as heʼs told. James climbs over him, legs splayed across his sturdy waist. He runs his fingers through the sparse gold hair at Francisʼ chest, thumbs an embarrassingly responsive nipple.
“I've been living on scraps of you,” he says, which Francis can make no sense of, until James lifts one of his hands and folds it around his face, pressing a kiss into the palm. “Storing them away.”
Francis lies pliant, staring up at James, hanging on his words.
“Watching how your wrist moves when you hold a pen.” James puts his teeth against the skin there, against the veins where Francisʼ blood beats, unseen. “How you go red, here, when you’re angry or upset.” James licks a stripe down Francisʼ neck. “Your sleeves rolled up in the summer term.” James kisses his inner forearm, the crook of his elbow, and Francis feels entirely defenceless, like a snail without its shell. “I wanted you for so long,” he says.
“You have me,” Francis says, when he’s remembered how to speak. All of me, he thinks; as much as James wants, for as long as he wants. Forever, if James will have him. Francis hopes this shows in his face, because he’s beyond words now: outside the realm of language as James reaches backwards and takes hold of his cock.
He could finish like this; could die, right here in Jamesʼ unyielding hand. But James is leaning sideways for the lube, tearing off the plastic seal and snapping off the lid.
“Oh, for Godʼs sake.” James holds up the bottle, a sickly scent filling the air.
Francis squints. The gel is absurdly pink, and the label shows a shiny pair of cherries. “It was all they had!” he says again, while above him James begins to laugh.
When he’s recovered his composure, though a small smile still lingers on his lips, James slicks his fingers and rises slightly on his knees. Francis’ mouth goes dry at the sight. James works himself open the same way he does everything else: exacting and determined, with a haughty, coltish grace.
Francis can do nothing but lie back and watch him, occasionally passing a soothing hand across his thighs and his still-wet, twitching prick; watching the drag of muscles under his skin, the way his lower lip is caught between his teeth. Jamesʼ body is composed entirely of straight lines, but arranged in such a way as to suggest curves, like a complicated piece of engineering. Heʼs a marvel; a wonder of this bedroom world.
James grabs a condom and reaches back once more, rolls it deftly on. Their fingers meet on Francisʼ cock: James’ hand is slippery with lube, and Francis’ with a clammy, flop-house sweat. James looks down at him, and keeps looking, as he guides Francis into seeking, urgent heat.
Francis can’t believe how good it feels; how encompassing James’ body is, how tight. His heart feels like it’s beating on the outside of his chest, flapping like a bird snared in a trap. But James leans down against him, his hands on Francis’ face, and they seem to melt together, the three of them: two bodies and a single, frantic heart.
For a long moment, Francis can only paw at the muscles of James’ back, breathing hot into his hair. James is making tiny, desperate noises somewhere near his ear, but Francis holds still, too scared to move; afraid this fragile thing between them will break apart, be shattered, impossible to put together again.
At last, James rolls his hips and Francis can’t help but rise to follow, chasing the motion of James’ body with his own. James cries out and holds him tighter, one arm curled entirely around Francis’ head. The grip of his arse is inexorable, irresistible. Francis never wants to be let go. They rock together in imperfect rhythm, gasping into each other’s mouths, James’ forehead creased with concentration, sweat beading on his face.
When James lurches upwards, bracing himself on Francis’ belly and one knee, he’s incandescent. Francis can barely stand to look at him: the tanned wrists and arms that turn to milky shoulders, the small softness of his stomach. James tosses his head, an odd gesture until Francis remembers his hair as it used to be, the chin-length curls he longed to hold.
Suddenly Francis wants that hair again, undone and falling to James’ shoulders, tangled prettily around his face. “So beautiful, James,” he whispers, hardly knowing what he’s saying. “So lovely.”
At this, James quivers, colour rushing up into his cheeks. He looks like a minor deity, icon-bright against the ceiling. Francis gazes up in supplication, sees James shake, feels him tighten; his head arched back, a beatific expression on his austere, exquisite face. He cries out, clutches Francis’ hands, and comes with a shudder over Francis’ chest.
Like a better happier St Sebastian. The words drift stupidly across Francisʼ mind, and then the room goes black at its edges. He must shout out as he comes, surging upwards into James, because he feels the reverberation in his throat, but all around is nameless noise; blank and broad as the roar of the sea.
When Francis returns to himself, James is laid out across his body, weighty and immovable as a recently-felled tree. Francis’ softening cock is still inside him, starting to be uncomfortable, but Francis can’t think of moving. Not just now.
“You great lump,” he says, kissing what he can reach of James, which seems to be his ear.
“You love me really.” James is almost incoherent, slurring like a drunken man.
There’s a gentle pain in Francis’ chest, the tender sweetness of a bruise. “I do,” he says. “I really do.”
Francis wakes curled on his right side, naked under the sheets, and extraordinarily comfortable. The first thing he sees when he opens his eyes is James, sitting up against the headboard, tapping away on his MacBook. Francis shifts slightly and kisses the nearest patch of skin: James’ hip, the crease at the apex of his thigh.
A hand lands gently in his hair. “Did I wake you?”
“No.” Francis drags himself upright and hooks his chin over James’ bare shoulder. “What are you doing?”
“My presentation. Wanted to take a last look.” James clicks back to the first slide. Blearily, Francis reads, These rugged bosoms: Shipboard Masculinities in the Arctic Canon.
“Sounds very… clever,” Francis says, too sleepy to entirely parse what it means. “What time is it?”
“Early. Go back to sleep.”
“Kiss me first,” says Francis. “Your glasses are irresistible.”
James looks at him over the frames. “I haven’t brushed my teeth.”
“Neither have I. Kiss me anyway.”
James smiles and brings their mouths together, kissing Francis lazily, a hand stealing back into his hair. Francis wants days of this, hours of unfettered time to spare. He falls asleep again with his head against James’ shoulder, wildly uncomfortable, but too tired and content to care.
The next morning — the actual morning, with proper daylight and with clothes on — they wander back to the Institute in a daze. Or, at least, Francis does, staring sideways at James with such rapt attention that he keeps drifting off the pavement and into the path of passing bikes. It’s a miracle just to look at him, the beauty of his profile against so much ancient stone.
Once they arrive, James turns quiet and focused and Francis stays out of the way; makes supportive noises, fetches coffee. The talk is brilliant. At least, he’s pretty sure it is. He’s struggling to listen, distracted by staring at James.
He fights his way to the front as the room empties, and hooks a finger behind James’ tie. “That was great,” he says. “I loved it.”
James quirks an eyebrow. “Really? I thought you looked a bit… glazed.”
“You’re off-puttingly handsome,” says Francis. “I could hardly see the slides.” He pulls James closer by his tie and into a fervent kiss; feels James moan against him, fingers spread possessively across his jaw.
When they emerge into the foyer, their Greenhithe colleagues are grouped around a table, deep in conversation. Ed Little, standing on the far side, looks uncharacteristically delighted; actually smiling at Francis as he and James draw near.
“Alright, Graham had during spring term and Alex had some time before Easter,” Tom is saying, “but Ed said April, which means—”
“What are you doing?”
“Morning Frank — James.” Tom shoots them a wicked grin. “Congrats.”
Everyone is looking at them, faces lit with various shades of amusement and glee. Francis feels a beetroot blush creep up into his hair, hardly helped by James’ hand under his jacket, rubbing gently at the small of his back.
“How did you know?” he says weakly.
“Well you did just snog at the front of a public lecture hall,” says Le Vesconte, giving James a sly, sidelong glance that blooms into a smile.
“Anyway,” says Tom, “if we say Ed’s closest, but split the difference between Alex and Graham—” He shuffles a handful of cash and starts passing it out.
“Silna had the polar conference,” says Harry, eyes flicking to Silna’s furiously moving hands. “Specifically. She has receipts.” He frowns at her. “I don’t know what that means.”
Silna pulls out her phone, scrolls to a message, and holds it out for everyone to see.
“Aye, fair enough — pay up, lad.” Tom gives Ed a conciliatory pat on the back.
“I didn’t get that message,” Francis says, perplexed.
“You’re not in the chat,” says Tom briskly. “Well, it would corrupt the results, wouldn’t it?” he adds, catching Francis’ furious stare.
“So you have,” Francis growls, “not just a sweepstake running on me and James — but a specific group chat about it?”
“It started for general complaining,” says Graham cheerfully. “Sorry. To stop us collectively losing our minds.”
“Back when you couldn’t stand each other,” says Le Vesconte. “The departmental civil war.”
“We’re all very happy for you both!” Harry beams.
“Twenty quid, Harry, give it here,” says Alex, and Harry’s face somewhat falls.
“This is unbelievable,” says Francis. He turns beseechingly to James. “This is unbelievable!”
But James’ expression is ecstatic, watching money changing hands. “What?” he says, tearing his eyes away. “Oh, yes, unbelievable. Terrible. Bad.”
Silna is steadily gathering a little stack of banknotes, which she stuffs into her bag. “Thank you,” she signs at Francis, her smile satisfied and very wide.
Francis rolls his eyes and signs, “You’re welcome,” hoping the sarcasm is implied.
It’s Friday, and the conference finishes at midday. James and Francis wander out into the city, quite at their ease, bags safe with the St Clement’s porters until the London train at two. Francis wants a pub lunch: a nice table by the river, in the shade. James has suggested punting, which sounds abominable, but Francis has agreed to it as long as he can sit down.
“If you fall in, I’m not coming after you.”
“I’m not going to fall in,” says James.
They’re passing King’s College Chapel from the eastern end. It looks smaller at this angle, almost provincial, less imposing.
“Why don’t we stay?” says James. “I like it here.”
“Permanently? We have jobs, James. I have a dog, you have a—”
“Cat,” says James, with mock despair. “Our relationship is doomed.”
The word relationship makes Francis’ heart do a giddy little leap. James’ eyes flash in the saffron-coloured sun.
“I only meant for the weekend,” he says. “We could find a nice hotel. With a big bed — and thick walls.”
Francis stops abruptly on the pavement. “Why didn’t we do that in the first place?”
James looks round, finds himself alone, and turns back to frown at Francis. “What?”
“After the first night. Find a hotel room — two hotel rooms.”
“I thought about it,” said James. “I assumed you’d looked and couldn’t find anywhere.”
“It didn’t even cross my mind,” says Francis.
James retraces his steps and takes Francis’ head in his hands. “You are an idiot,” he says, lovingly.
“Oh, I know,” says Francis.
But he’s content to be an idiot if it means a kiss like this: James’ mouth open on his own, his fingers making creases in James’ shirt, and a clamour of bells in the cloudless sky.