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just shy of sure

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Some faces are born grim, and some have grimness thrust upon them. Edward Little fell squarely into the latter camp, Fitzjames had always thought, and it did not become the man at all. 

There was an elegance to Little’s looks, a fine-boned English handsomeness Fitzjames could not help feeling jealous of even as he admired it for its balance, its unity and grace of feature. 

But it was, fundamentally, a face built for sunny days in green fields; made for reddening after a hot day on the seashore, instead of a long, freezing watch on the quarterdeck.

Fitzjames was always happy to be seated beside him when he came to Terror or, more rarely, when Crozier brought his lieutenants to Erebus, because Little could always be relied upon to interject with improving additions at the proper times, to smile at Fitzjames’s newest bit of drollery.

Those smiles, rare to start, had become yet more scarce. The current indisposition of Little’s own captain, and the additional responsibilities he had been shouldered with as consequence, did nothing whatsoever to relieve the dourness of his countenance, and in fact deepened the lines on his brow, dulled his amber eyes even further. 

Fitzjames had thought that perhaps with the news of the Carnivale, the lieutenant might have cause to brighten at last. But each time they’d met, he’d seemed more downtrodden than ever. 

“Come,” said Fitzjames at the knock on the door of Erebus’ s Great Cabin. He was standing in his shirtsleeves and braces, waistcoat and gansey discarded as he considered the costumes hanging before him.  

Bridgens’ silver head appeared. “Lieutenant Little here to see you, sir.”

“Ah, show him in,” replied Fitzjames. “Perhaps he can help me decide what to wear. I can only narrow it down so far.”

“Sir,” Little said, upon entering; and then upon taking in Fitzjames’s state of deshabille, “...sir?”

Fitzjames knew well he was a sight to see, and Little knew it too, judging by the way the lieutenant's eyes ranged lawlessly up and down Fitzjames's body before finding their manners again. 

“What is it you require, Lieutenant?” 

“The cooks have asked me whether some seamen might be spared to assist them in shifts throughout the night, so that they too can participate in the festivities.” 

“Of course, of course,” he said with a wave of a hand. “See if any ABs are up to volunteer, and if not, refer to the duty list, and assign from there.” 

“Very well,” said Little. “Is there… anything else you need, sir?” 

“Indeed there is. Come here, Edward. Tell me, which of these disguises do you think would suit me best tonight?” 

There were the dresses, of course, their ribbons shining in the lamplight, and Fitzjames watched with deep satisfaction as Little inspected them, mouth hanging slightly open, surely as he pictured Fitzjames in each of them in turn. Then there was a maid's outfit, the mere sight of which gave Little cause to clear his throat, draw his coat tighter about him. 

At length, Little pointed to the last costume in the row, and certainly the most modest one: a draped white toga, with a breastplate and matching helmet sitting above. “That one, I suppose.”

“Yes,” said Fitzjames, “yes, you’re quite right. Britannia it is.” 

"You shall wear it well, sir," murmured Little, and then started, as if the words had come from somewhere other than his own windblown lips. Fitzjames regarded him approvingly. 

His affection for the lieutenant was not an altogether particular one; borne out of nothing more or less than a lifelong appreciation for beauty, such a rarity in this harsh land. He knew hardly anything of Little’s own preferences, of his background, of who he was out of uniform— in both senses of the phrase, for he did not believe he’d ever seen any skin of Little’s other than his hands and face.   

But just as Blanky’s suggestion had brought forth from James a part of himself he believed lost since Sir John’s death— that high-spirited eagerness to bring others joy— so too had his closer relations with the lieutenant over the past week stirred him, brought his blood up, nearer to the surface than he’d found it in years. 

It reminded him nothing so much as his closeness with Dundy, the youthful ease in which they’d taken up together on the Clio. The natural interplay one found between just-made commanders and their seconds oceans over, which in their case had come to its natural end, as such things do; Fitzjames had not missed it much, and had thought himself far grown out of it. 

Apparently not, given the way Little’s company was making him feel, even now.  

“We have only an hour before we are due to open the Carnivale,” Fitzjames said. His voice had dropped to a low, enticing rumble. “Do you really plan to attend in the costume of a first lieutenant? It is an accurate one, mind you, and becomes you as finely as it ever has, but perhaps not the most creative.”  

“Oh,” said Little, looking down at his uniform, as if he’d forgotten he wore it. “No, sir. I have, ah... a hat.” 

“A hat?!” Fitzjames allowed himself an expansive laugh, and tried not to be disappointed when it did not spread to the other man. “Come, Edward. You may have your pick of my spares, then, here.”  

He gently prodded Little’s chest, a friendly poke, and then once more again, but this time letting his hand linger, running down the collar of Little’s coat, bringing his other hand up to tug at Little’s scarf. “We must make you into a beauty, fit for the ball,” he murmured. Little's long-lashed doe eyes blinked up at him, almost beseeching. An astonishing shade of amber.  

And then Little choked, stammered, "I— ah—" He was already red from the wind and the cold, but somehow had managed to get redder. “Sir, do you mean to— I don’t think I—”  

Of course he dare not reject a superior officer outright. But his tone was clear, and he’d gone stiff underneath Fitzjames’s touch, and he looked, more than ever, as if he’d rather be anywhere than here. 

Fitzjames released Little’s lapels immediately, raising his own hands in a casual, easy gesture of surrender as he stepped back. “Oh, no, no,” he said, “you mistake me, Edward!” He laughed, and hope it did not ring false in the stuffy air of the cabin. 

Relief mingled with regret in the lines on Little’s fair features. For a single shining moment Fitzjames believed the lieutenant might move forward, seize him in an uncharacteristic frenzy, lock him in an urgent embrace. 

But the fantasy faded in an instant. Fitzjames had let nostalgia and need get the better of him. He should have known that a slow defrost would become this fellow far more than such a hot, forthright proposal. 

Once, Fitzjames would have thrilled at a challenge like that, would have risen to it with enthusiasm. There was not time, though. And Fitzjames was at the helm of an entire expedition now, not a 16-gun brig. 

Besides— Carnivale was nigh, and for just one night, he would be free. Someone would catch his eye from behind a mask, and he would take their hand, and find his needs met before the sun rose. He had confidence in that, at least. 

“Will that be all, Captain Fitzjames?” Little said, visibly desperate to leave.

“No. You may go,” Fitzjames said. “I look forward to seeing your… hat. I’m sure it will suit marvelously.”