The many lights and candles were near blinding as the doors opened and a scene of twirling colours and soft shapes stood out against the stark lighting, his steps faltering as he laid his eyes on the crowding of the room. His breathing hadn’t been exactly calm to begin with, dreading this very moment since the second his feet touched the cool floorboards of his bedchambers when he got up that morning, but now he could feel it growing shallower and coming quicker with each breath he took.
The hand on his arm squeezed insistently as the noise around him seemed to disappear, drowned out until he could only hear his heartbeat, skittering out of control. Again, he felt the squeezing of his arm, shaking him gently.
Sound rushed in all at once, jolting him back into the present. He turned his head to the side, eyebrows knitted into a slight frown of confusion as he regarded the face next to him, to whom the gentle but calloused hand, now enveloped in a white glove, on his arm belonged.
Judging from the deeper frown looking back at him, it hadn’t been the first time he’d been addressed.
Francis’ brogue came in soft, next to his ear. “Are you alright?”
James looked back up towards the doors, now fully swung open and showing the grandness of the room, blinking against the brightness from within and letting his eyes adjust to it. He cleared his throat, which did nothing to hide his voice from breaking on the consonants. “Yes— Yes, I think so.”
“You only need say the words, and we’ll make our excuses.”
He nodded, turning back to face Francis as he attempted a smile that he hoped showed something akin of comfort, or at least reassurance.
He had known there would be no discrete way of entering, no way of slipping into the crowd without being made a fuss of by curious ladies and nosy gentleman — all wishing to know what it was like, wanting to know if it was really so cold and if they met any of the savages that roamed the white nothingness of the land — but the harsh click of his cane against the tile flooring as the lively chatter hushed to a low murmur and heads and pairs of eyes turned their way, announcing them even before the servants could do so, only made it worse.
James winced as he misstepped slightly, putting too much weight on his bad leg as they made their way inside under the scrutinizing gazes following them. He was thankful of Francis’ arm, then, who held him upright and steady, and gave him a reassuring squeeze.
“Steady now,” Francis murmured, too low for anyone but James to hear.
The snapping of the cane came back to life as the silence that loomed in the luxurious looking ballroom lingered, the mahogany doors closing behind them as they stood awkwardly before the crowd. After a moment, someone in the front started clapping, whose example was soon followed by the rest of the esteemed guests, until a roaring applause echoed all around them. From the corner of James’ eye, he saw Francis attempt a small smile, bowing only slightly as his bones still felt incredibly stiff, not quite having thawed from the years of cold they had endured. James only bowed his head slightly, fearing he would lose his balance if he tried for a deeper, more elegant bow as he would usually have done.
There was a brief moment in between when he looked back up and when he knew the crowd would descend upon them, where he could take in the grand room. It really was a fine piece of architecture; swooping arches raised up high above their heads, the walls decorated with tall windows which reflected the golden glow of the light within and the swooping images of coloured dresses twirling about in their dance partners’ arms, the marble floor which echoed with sounds of the clicking of ladies’ heels and men’s dress shoes, and exactly one cane.
James found he couldn’t enjoy a single aspect of it — of the grandeur and luxury, the extravagance and pretence of it all.
The old James would have loved it, would have loved the attention directed at him, would have drank in the praise and told all his greatest tales, only to receive more praise, would have indulged in everyone’s curiosities; but no more. That James was gone, he knew now.
Remembering the hand on his arm and grounding himself with it, he gripped his cane a little tighter and took a deep breath, preparing for what was coming as he pulled on an all too familiar mask for their guests, who expected to see nothing else than just that; James Fitzjames as he had been. He felt like an antelope thrown in front of a pack of hungry lions, except for the fact that he was himself and the lions were high society London and Naval men, waiting to throw themselves onto him and Francis and dissect them with their questions.
When the first group of officers made their way forward to speak with them, James felt Francis’ hand slip from his arm, knowing he would need it to shake hands, and shifted his weight further onto the cane to make up for the lack of support. Everything seemed as though it was wrapped up in a thick fog. He heard the names as they introduced themselves, all these aspiring young men wanting to hear about what it was like, such an adventurous journey into the uncharted, though he registered none of it.
He tried to answer their questions as best as he could, grateful when Francis took the lead whenever he felt he couldn’t respond. He could make do with the lighter questions, joke around a bit; it was the ones concerning their fates that he felt a shudder creep up his back and his lips unable to move.
“Yes, yes it was very cold,” he laughed. Only Francis knew it to be mirthless.
“It really was a tragedy, poor old Neptune,” he smiled ruefully, glancing over at Francis.
“Oh yes, the salted dinners tasted awful after a while,” he grinned.
“Hmm, yes. The beds in a captain’s berth are a little wider, though not by much. But we made do,” he chuckled.
And so on and on and on, answering the same questions over and over again, telling another of so many gilded stories, feeling the energy draining from him with each new group of guests to please. It seemed to go on forever, the endless stream of ladies and gentlemen wanting to mingle and converse with them; it was almost like there was a supply of people being ushered in whenever they’d finally moved on from a group. The muscles in his cheeks ached from keeping the corners of his lips up in an ever-present smile, to the point where he thought they’d simple seize up and remain in place forever. Wouldn’t that be a sight? he thought. Going through life like that, unable to stop smiling.
“I nigh wish to be back on Terror, freezing my arse off under a too thin blanket, rather than another hour spent in this stifling room,” Francis grumbled in hushed tones, startling him from his wandering thoughts.
James chuckled and leaned in close; into Francis’ warmth. “Hear, hear. If I picture it fervently enough, I could almost feel a breeze.” He relished the moments in between, when they could speak frankly with each other, not having to keep up pretences.
Francis snorted inelegantly, which quickly turned to a dour look as he spotted another group in dress uniform stepping towards them. James’ own grin dropped as he turned around and looked up, perhaps a little too quickly, as he felt the room spin for a short moment. “Christ,” he muttered, pressing the back of a hand to his eye, willing his surroundings to settle back down. The numerous glasses of drink that had been pressed into his hands by well-wishers throughout the evening didn’t help to diminish the feeling, either.
He felt a hand quickly come up to rest on his lower back, its warmth seeping into his skin, felt even through the many layers of fabric. “James?” he heard Francis say. “James.”
“I’m fine. Fine.” Though in truth, he didn’t feel it, and Francis seemed to sense the same.
“Perhaps a glass of water is in order, yes?”
He nodded slowly, “Yes— Yes, that would be nice.”
Letting Francis make their excuses to their incoming admirers, James looked back over his shoulder towards the tall windows, which were dark except for the freckled dots that were the stars, a dim shimmer in the night. Expecting the same reflection of colour and dresses and the navy blue and gold from dress uniforms as he cast his gaze downward, James felt the wind getting knocked out of him at what he saw instead. No bright colours or the swoop of dresses this time, but faces, staring right back at him. He knew every single one of those faces, pale and blistered and miserable as they were; staring back at him with empty eyes, managing to look just as mournful and so full of sorrow as they had when they were still walking, even though there seemed to be no expression in them.
He screwed his eyes shut tightly, snaking his arm in between Francis’ again lest he stumble and fall flat on his face, counting the seconds as he tried in vain to even out his breathing. When he opened his eyes next, there was once more the reflection of the room and the people about them, his own pale face amongst them, staring back at him with large eyes.
“I think it’s time we went home, Francis,” he muttered as he held on tightly to his companion’s arm.
It only took one look at him, apparently, as Francis nodded and led them back towards the doors they had come through earlier that evening.
Once they were seated in the carriage, James slumped against Francis, feeling the exhaustion of the evening wash over him in one great wave, impropriety be damned — who was here to begrudge them this, after all? He felt Francis’ hand carefully come up to rest on his thigh, just above the knee.
“Are you alright, James?”
He paused, fiddling with the cane between his legs as he ran a hand through his eyes. “I will be.”
A nod from Francis. They spent the rest of the ride in silence, James’ eyes slowly drooping to a close despite the cobblestone roads shaking them about.
He jolted awake just as the cab came to a halt in front of their doorstep. Francis clambered out first and pressed the promised coin in the cabby’s awaiting hand, helping James to his feet afterwards. He wasn’t quite sure if it was at all possible, but he felt even more tired than when he closed his eyes. Wordlessly, they stepped inside and shook out of their greatcoats, put down their hats.
“I suppose it was nice to be out again.”
Francis merely grunted in response, pausing before he continued. “You can’t possibly think it a nice evening, James. I felt like a corpse being dissected by medical students,” he scoffed.
James said nothing. There wasn’t anything to be said, really, the both of them knew exactly how excruciatingly dreadful the night had been. From the corner of his eye, James saw Francis flexing his fingers as he took off his gloves, trying to ease the stiffness in his joints. Nevertheless, he took James’ arm and helped him up the stairs and over the carpeted landing towards James’ rooms. The floorboards creaked as they stepped inside the darkened room; the curtains weren’t yet drawn, though there were no streetlights on this side of the house to illuminate the dark red wallpaper, dotted with a lighter coloured flower pattern, and the near-black furniture.
Their maid had been dismissed and given the evening off, only just before they had gone out.
James sat down heavily atop the covers of the neatly made bed, as Francis twitched up his trousers and kneeled in front of him to place one foot on his knee, hooking his fingers behind the laces of James’ shoe to loosen them and pull the neatly shined boot off.
Francis often helped James out of his clothing and into a nightshirt at the end of the day. It had started not long after they’d returned and found a suitable place for the both of them to live; they’d had a long day full of Admiralty business and snooping reporters and curious bystanders and neighbours — James was practically falling asleep standing upright by the end of the day, and so Francis had helped him dress for bed under the pretence of it being a one-time thing. Since then, it had become a couple of nights a week, then four, then practically every night. James didn’t mind it one bit, quite enjoyed the gentle way Francis helped him out of his clothes, though he did feel awfully guilty for having… thoughts; often wandering to perhaps wanting something more than just this.
He chewed the inside of his cheek. “…Francis.”
Hesitating if he should even say anything at all, his tongue wouldn’t move, the words wouldn’t form. He faltered.
“What is it, James?” Francis’ voice, softly, as he looked up at James in the dim light of the lantern next to the bed.
James felt the soft press of Francis’ hand on the back of his calf. He looked back up, owing Francis at least that, and faltered again, changed tactics. “You do know that I’m grateful, for this,” he said, gesturing with his hands to the tableau before him. “Only, I—I do wonder, sometimes. Is it terribly selfish of me, to ask this from you?”
“James…” Francis’ expression softened. “You needn’t fret, I don’t mind it.”
He nodded, dropping his gaze downward, away from Francis’ too-brightly shining eyes. He wouldn’t press it any farther, then.
Francis helped him undress further in relative silence, the only sounds being the rustle of clothing as Francis helped him shuffle out of his trousers and unbutton his waistcoat to pull the shirt off over James’ head.
He watched from his position on the bed, leaning back against the headboard and in a freshly washed linen nightshirt, as Francis went about the room, neatly folding James’ clothing and laying them on the seat of the armchair in the corner, moving on to draw the curtains to a close, shutting out the morning light when it would come some hours later.
“Francis?” James called as he was about to leave the room. Francis turned, hand on the doorknob. Blinking slowly once, twice, James remembered to finish the sentence. “…Thank you.”
Francis nodded. “Just… call, if you need anything.” He turned back around and closed the door behind him, leaving James alone in his rooms, only the small circle of light coming from the lantern next to him to keep him company.
Sleep hadn’t been kind to James for a while now, even though he was always tired — too tired, he felt like. He could fall asleep almost anywhere, nowadays, though he never felt fully rested, no matter how long or how often he slept. It was the longer bouts of sleep in bed that worried him most, more often than not waking up in his sweat-soaked nightshirt, the sheets trampled and pushed down to the end of the bed, or shivering and tangled up in the fabric, pulled up to his chin.
Truthfully, he hadn’t expected tonight to be any different. Startling awake, gasping for air with the image of long-gone faces still on his mind, he groped about him for the packet of matches, fumbling with one to light the lantern. It was still dark outside; no sliver of light shining through the crack in the curtains as of yet.
“Fran—” he started, half-expecting Francis to be laying next to him like they had on their long walk, trying to reach the Company, Back Fish River, anything. Of course he wasn’t, they were back in London; James remembered it now. His surroundings started to make sense again. He wasn’t in their shared sack; he was in his own bed, his own chambers, their own house in London — safe.
He lifted his hand to his face and rubbed the back of it through his eye, willing it to put things into focus as he looked about the room again. He couldn’t help but feel… feel watched, seeing faces — faces he knew — in the creeping darkness that lingered in the corners. A small sound escaped from the back of his throat.
Pulling the covers away and aside, he slung his legs over the edge of the bed and felt for his slippers, waiting for the soft fabric to hit his feet. The feeling didn’t come, and he resigned himself to walking the short distance on bare feet, the cold of the floorboards sending a shiver through him as he planted his feet on the ground. He took the lantern with him as he navigated the hallway, pressing a hand to the wall for support. He felt his knee start to tremble as it bemoaned the absence of his cane.
Not bothering to knock as he reached the door in question, he slowly pushed it open a bit more from its position ajar.
“…James?” came a rough, scratchy voice from inside.
Pushing the door open further so the light shone in, illuminating Francis who was sitting up in bed with a book abandoned next to him, James took a step closer and deposited the lantern on a low dresser to the wall. “Sorry. Did I wake you?”
Francis ran a hand over his face, sighing softly. “No… No not at all.”
He did look awfully tired, the lines about his eyes and face seemingly cutting deeper, the skin under his eyes lightly bruised. James observed all this from his position in the doorway, slumped against the dark framing of it, simply looking.
“Sit down, for heaven’s sake, James,” Francis said hoarsely as he took the book and flung it aside on the bedstand, lifting the covers for James to slide under. “Where did you leave your cane?”
“Next to the bed, most likely,” James groaned as he crawled in next to Francis.
“And why on earth would you not take it with you?”
James stayed silent. He hadn’t a proper answer, anyway. “Have you not slept at all?” he asked instead, though he supposed he already knew, by the look of him.
“Suppose I may have dozed a moment or two, but… no, not exactly.”
James thought back to a different night, much like this one, only thousands of kilometres away in another place much colder. Neither had been able to sleep then, either, huddled together in their shared sack. Francis had kissed him, then, and James had kissed him back. They hadn’t attempted any other fumbling around, both too tired and aching to even try. James would have that again, he thought; that closeness, the relief that washed over him at that moment. Though he supposed now that it was just an opening of the floodgates, a way of coping with the stress and pain of those long days, since it hadn’t happened again after that. There was a closeness, yes, but that was simply what one shared with a brother-in-arms, a comrade.
“James?” Francis startled him from his thoughts, looking at him with that curious gaze of his. “Have what again?”
“What?” He frowned for a brief moment, before feeling his face flush as he realised he’d said it aloud. “Oh— Nothing… nothing much.”
Francis stayed silent, taking him in with a slight crease lodged between his brows. “If you’re sure.”
James was grateful Francis didn’t ask why he came shuffling into his room at this ungodly hour, grateful for the way Francis accepted that tonight wasn’t a good night, and simply let him be in the comfort of his presence; ready for him when James found he was ready to talk about it, if he so wished.
He looked over to the bedside table upon which Francis had flung the book. “Would you— That is, if you… Would you mind reading to me?”
He counted the breaths in between his question and Francis’ answer as he looked over in the direction James did. “If you’d like. I’m not sure how entertaining a scientific novel about magnetic readings will be for you.”
A grin formed itself on James’ lips. He hadn’t really seen what Francis was reading, just supposed it would be something along the lines of a novel. “Perhaps I should have read that one before we set out for the Passage.”
Francis’ lightly amused look turned grim within a second, and James knew he had made a mistake by making that comment. “You couldn’t have,” Francis spoke before James could open his mouth to apologise. “It published when we were away. In forty-eight, I believe.”
Managing only a small “Oh”, James turned his eyes down to his hands in his lap, picking at the hems of his shirtsleeves. Nevertheless, Francis picked the book back up again and opened it where he had left off, starting to read aloud.
He woke up to the soft rustle of the sheets and movement next to him, vaguely registering a strangled huff of breath. He ran a hand through his eyes and slowly blinked them all the way open until his surroundings were back in focus. “Oh,” he muttered as he realised he was still in Francis’ bed. “I’m sorry. I’ll leave you to sleep in your own bed.”
“No, no. ‘S alright,” Francis grunted softly. It was nearly morning now, judging from the soft glow behind the curtains. He grunted again. “Stay, if you’d like.”
James pushed himself back up some more, regarding Francis’ hunched over posture, sheets thrown aside between them. “Francis?” he asked, a little confused as to what he was doing. “What is it?”
Francis only huffed at first, irritation buried deep, though James expected it wasn’t directed towards him. “Blasted feet,” he mumbled at first, rubbing one of them between his hands furiously. “Cramping up again. Bloody useless, growing cold all the time.”
Ah, James thought, remembering Francis’ recent troubles with his hands and feet, never quite feeling warm and always as stiff as James’ cane. He pushed himself up fully, leaning back against the headboard. “Turn around, then.”
“What?” Francis turned his head to look at him, confused.
“I can hardly warm your feet from over here, now can I?”
“You don’t— James— There’s no need, really.”
“Clearly, there is. Now turn round so I can reach.”
Somewhat hesitantly, Francis did as he was told and turned around, placing his hands behind him on the mattress for support.
Damn him and his gallantry, James thought, never wanting to bother anyone with anything until it’s too late. He pulled Francis’ feet in his lap, letting one warm between his legs while he worked the other, rubbing his thumbs over the top and sole of his foot to stimulate the blood circulation. He pressed Francis’ toes between his hands, too, and rubbed them between his palms to get them warm again, being a little gentler on the sensitive spots where he’d lost a few to frostbite.
“Tell me if I’m being too rough.”
“No,” Francis shook his head, watching as James worked his feet over. “No, ‘s quite nice, actually.”
James looked up at him for a moment, seeing his shoulders relax a little as he warmed his feet and eased the cramps. “You can tell me, Francis. I might do something about it.”
“Bother you every time my feet cramp up? You’d never get any rest,” Francis scoffed.
“You help me get ready for bed every evening, Francis,” James sighed, raising an eyebrow as he moved on to Francis’ other foot. “You care for everyone and everything around you, apart from yourself—” Francis made to protest, but James steadfastly continued “—For Christ’s sake, Francis! You need to let me in close enough to take care of you from time to time. It won’t do to let your hands and feet cramp up like this constantly and not ask for help.”
Francis’ hand twitched by his side, wanting to reach out, but hesitated. “James…” he breathed, barely louder than a whisper.
James halted in his movements, closing his eyes as he felt his cheeks heat up at realising his mistake. “I’ll ready a hot compress,” he murmured, resting Francis’ feet in his lap with an exasperated sigh.
“No, James—” Francis protested again, frowning “—the stairs...”
“I can walk a couple of stairs, Francis,” James snapped. “I’ll take my cane if that puts your mind to rest.”
“Christ’s sake, James! You’re not going down those stairs by yourself!” Francis bellowed. He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Not when you’ve not fully healed,” he pleaded.
“I can’t just bloody sit around either, can I? Good Lord, Francis, I’m not an invalid in need of your constant assistance! Bloody— Ah, Christ—” James hissed, pressing the back of his hand to his eye again.
“God’s sake, James…”
“Well I’m not doing it on purpose, am I?”
Francis shook his head with a sigh, repositioning himself back against the headboard with a grunt. “The eye again?”
“Can you— Can you take a look?” James exhaled shakily, thinking of days past where it had stung similarly and bled through, leaving his world altered and distorted at times. “Is it— …?”
He felt the soft exhale of breath on his hand as Francis gently pulled it away, the soft press of his thumb below the eye and his index finger above it, gingerly lifting the lid. Another soft breath brushed over his cheek as Francis spoke again, extracting his fingers. “There’s nothing— I don’t see any bleeding, James.”
Pressing his hand back to his eye, he blinked furiously as he felt it tear up, stinging and dry as it was. “Help a man up, will you?”
“What on earth for?”
“I’m sure you’d like your rooms back to yourself rather than share it with a sickly convalescent.”
“Nonsense, James, don’t act a fool— You’re staying put. I’ll not have you hobble all the way back down the hall because you thought it to be smart not to take your cane.”
James didn’t answer, lips pressed together as he bit the inside of his cheek and fidgeted with the hem of his nightshirt. Just as well, he supposed; wasn’t anything to respond to. He knew Francis was right, of course, it was foolish to try. He thought back to the ball just some hours earlier, to the way just that simple misstep had sent a wave of pain through his leg, nearly buckling his knee and sending him to the ground; to Francis’ unwavering confidence in him, keeping him upright through it all; to how Francis had agreed instantaneously to leave, after…after—
He shook the image from his mind, squeezing his eyes shut. He wouldn’t think of them, not now. Not here; not where they were supposed to be safe.
“Francis, I—” he started, the words sounding scratchy and rough. He cleared his throat, tried again. “I am sorry, truly. I merely wish you would not neglect your own wellbeing, like you so often do.” He hadn’t opened his eyes, not yet, but felt the gentle touch of Francis’ calloused hands come to rest on his own, and waited for him to speak.
It took a long moment, feeling like minutes to James what may really have been only a matter of seconds. “James…”
The grip on his hands tightened ever so lightly.
“James, would you please look at me?”
Reluctantly, fearing for what he would see behind the ever-expressive blue of Francis’ eyes, he looked first at their joined hands, before daring to look up. The gentle concern he saw there nearly made him want to retreat, close his eyes again, retrace his steps all the way back to the arctic circles, for even the cold was more endurable than this.
“I’m afraid it is simply in my nature to put others first, I am an old Captain of Her Royal Majesty’s Navy, after all, and it is my duty to assure the wellbeing of my crew at all times. Even— Even now. And I am also afraid that… you’ve rather grown on me, James Fitzjames, more than I would like to admit.” Francis smiled, a small, gentle thing, as he tore his eyes from James’ face to their hands.
James followed his gaze, noticed Francis’ were shaking. “Are you cold? I can—”
“No, no. James…I— I have to admit I have grown more fond of you than I should have, and for that reason I find it rather difficult to focus on anything else but your health and… and contentment. Your happiness.” Some vowels had started to shake slightly in Francis’ voice as he continued, focussing his attentions on rubbing his thumb back and forth over James’ knuckles. “I think I know, now, what you would have once more. I only ask that you are…” He frowned, worrying at his bottom lip with his teeth, closing his eyes. When he next opened them, their gaze was fixed back on James’, looking oh so very fragile, so frightened for what they might see; for rejection. “That you are gentle,” he continued, “and understanding, as I am not sure I’ve felt this particular way before, and therefore not want to lose it, as I have come so close to losing it once already.”
James found he couldn’t find the right words, other than Francis’ name, repeated over and over in his thoughts. “Francis…” he whispered, his heart racing as Francis lifted his hand and pressed his lips to the knuckles of it, his pale, golden lashes fanning lightly over the skin.
“Every second of each of my days is spent thinking of you, James. Of how you are doing, if you are happy, content, feeling well. And I’ve found I cannot stop these thoughts, no matter how hard I try or what I do, how hard I try to focus on other matters; I only care for your wellbeing.”
He couldn’t breathe. Christ, had the room been this warm the entire time?
“I— Francis—” he stuttered, feeling like his throat was closing up. “Is that truly what you want?”
“What I— Well… yes. Is that not what you had hoped for?” Francis frowned, searching James’ features for an answer.
James was sure he would only see confusion; puzzlement.
“I had thought— That—” he shook his head, why would the words not come? He had been excellent at finding the right words, before; knowing just what to say and what his crowd had wanted to hear. “I only thought that— During the walk— I’d thought— Thought it was merely a… a release, of sorts; of strain and pressure; sharing the load.”
“I had thought of that, yes, during that time,” Francis sighed, taking James’ hands firmly back in his own. “Though I suppose, when the time came… when you—"
He couldn’t finish the sentence, though James supposed he knew perfectly well what he meant as Francis’ breath caught in his throat.
“—I realised then, that it was not merely a… a fumble,” Francis finished, taking a deep breath.
James’ eyelids fluttered closed, exhaling in one long, shaking sigh, what seemed to be all the worries he’d shouldered since boarding their rescuers’ ships. “Why… why did you wait?”
“I wasn’t sure if you would want me, still. An old man like me, of Irish descent and with toes lost and joints cramping up, stiff as the ice that made them so; I don’t have much to offer, James.”
“Christ, Francis. Do you not see? That is exactly why you have so much more to offer than others. You were there, Francis; you know what it does to a man, you’ve seen the despair and horror and—” an image of frozen faces flashed before James’ eyes again, briefly taking his breath away “—and you were there for me, with me, as I took what we both thought were to be my last breaths on this earth. You have everything to offer, Francis; you have a kind heart, and I would not dare turn that away.”
Francis blinked owlishly as James retrieved his hands from Francis’ and cupped his face, stroking his thumbs over his ruddy cheeks.
“So, yes,” James concluded with a gentle smile. “That is what I had hoped for.”
The same sense of relief he had felt in that moment in their tent when Francis had kissed him washed over James again as Francis kissed him again now, feeling like the rope around his neck had loosened and fallen away, set him free to finally love this man as he had hoped to do since that first kiss.
It was the briefest of kisses, though James felt like he’d just run three laps around Hyde Park.
Francis’ shaking fingers fleetingly brushed over James’ cheek to push a loose strand of hair back, resting there behind his ear. “If we are going to do this,” Francis whispered, “we must be careful. It may be a bright new age in all manner of aspects, but I fear it is not in this one.”
James nodded and pressed their foreheads together, closing his eyes as Francis cupped the back of his neck. “Let us worry about that when morning comes, yes? For now, let’s just share this moment of peace and quiet. I wish nothing more than that.”
He let Francis guide him back down onto the pillows until they lay on their sides, face to face, with Francis’ sturdy arm wrapped loosely around the dip in his still too-thin waist. With the sheets pulled up to their chests, he felt his eyelids grow heavy once more until sleep claimed him, embraced in the comfortable warmth of Francis’ steady breath brushing over his collarbones, exposed by the undone triangle of his nightshirt.
“Francis, darling! Dare I ask what you’ve been up to, wandering around town for so long?”
James was seated in one of the armchairs by the fire, a heavy quilt thrown over his long legs extended in front of him and crossed at the ankles in a leisurely manner, the book he was reading turned over on his lap, when he heard Francis come bustling through the door, shucking his coat to hand over to their maid.
The sky had grown dark some thirty minutes ago, and so the curtains in the room had already been drawn, letting the many candles and the fire illuminate the walls and bathe the room in a warm air.
A scowl was fixed on his face as he emerged through the doorway, looking near drenched as he left a trail of wet footsteps across the rug.
“Good lord,” James murmured as he took a good look at him. “Did you walk all the way back here through that storm? I’d thought you’d taken shelter from the rain, or at least hailed a cab.”
“Everything was perfectly fine until some damned fop wanting a go at polar exploration held me standing in the streets, insisting I talk to him of how it had been,” Francis grumbled. “One would think the frenzy surrounding our return would have died out by now. Six bloody months— And still!”
“Lizzie?” James called, looking past Francis towards the doorway where their maid came bustling in, her fair hands folded neatly in front of her skirt. “Would you be so kind as to get a dry shirt and some trousers from captain Crozier’s rooms?”
With a quick nod and curtsy, she swiftly left the room, her skirts billowing up behind her.
“Now you,” James said, raising his eyebrows, “are going to sit down. You’re absolutely drenched and trembling like a leaf.” He folded the quilt back and pushed himself up with a grunt by use of the chair and his cane, gesturing for Francis to take the seat.
“There’s a second chair, you know.”
Francis quirked an eyebrow as he sat down heavily in the spot James had just occupied, throwing his head back as he sighed and grumbled, “Is it too much to ask for a little anonymity when walking the streets?”
“One can wish, but that does not mean that wish is granted,” James murmured as he grabbed a pillow and laid it on the floor, to Francis’ surprise and confusion. He grunted again as his knees protested when he lowered himself down carefully on his knees and on top of the pillow in front of Francis.
“What are you—"
“Give me your leg,” James interrupted, holding out a hand as he laid his cane on the floor with his other.
Francis made a confused noise as he did so. “James, you shouldn’t put that much strain on your knees. The wound—”
Placing Francis’ booted foot on his lap, he began to unlace it as he threw Francis a meaningful look, telling him not to argue. Silently, he carefully loosened the boots and lifted them off Francis’ feet, revealing the thick, knitted socks Francis always wore these days in an attempt at keeping his feet warm. Even those were wet and cold.
Their maid came in just as James was taking the socks off Francis’ ice-cold feet, depositing the shirt and trousers he asked for on the hearth’s mantelpiece and disappeared, probably back to the kitchen, without a word. She was used to their closeness and untraditional ways by now.
Nodding for Francis to change his clothes, James remained seated on the small pillow in front of the now empty armchair as he watched Francis unbutton his waistcoat by the hearth with stiff fingers.
“I’d help if I had any hopes of lowering myself back onto the floor a second time,” James said softly.
“I know,” Francis murmured, turning around to find James watching him with a soft, slightly worried look in his eyes. He nodded towards James and the pillow he was kneeling on. “I can’t fathom why you put yourself through that, troubling yourself with my ailments.”
James raised a knowing eyebrow. “For exactly the same reason you trouble yourself with mine. Don’t pretend to feign ignorance, Francis.”
Watching as Francis stripped himself of his clothes with slow, precise movements — even as his hands were shaking — James felt the tension in his shoulders ease as Francis pulled on the dry shirt and trousers and sat back down on the chair’s cushioned seat.
He placed one of Francis’ cold feet back in his lap to warm up, taking the other in his hands as he began to methodically rub the blood back into the pale skin, careful of the sensitive patches of scar tissue where some of his toes should have been. “Tell me if it hurts and I’ll stop.”
“Mmn,” Francis murmured absent-mindedly, looking distant as he looked over James’ shoulder into the fire.
James figured the pinched expression between Francis’ brows wasn’t due to the stiffness in his joints or the cold lingering in his bones, this time. Since their return, there hadn’t been much of peace and quiet to be found, except in their own home — and sometimes not even then. It had indeed been nearly half a year since their miraculous return to England, and the same since they’d not been recognised at least once a day in the streets. Francis was right; a little anonymity would be nice, at times.
He knew Francis had never been a man particularly keen to be recognised, though this was new. Whoever he met in the streets must have triggered something specific in him, for James hadn’t seen Francis this melancholic in at least a month.
Settling the foot he was warming back in his lap and resting his hand on top of it, he gently nudged Francis from his fixed stare. “What has you in such low spirits, Francis? Was it that stickler in the streets?”
Francis cast his gaze down towards his hands, worrying at the intricate edges of the chair’s armrests. He nodded once.
“Would you care to tell me about it?” James prodded gently.
Taking a deep breath, Francis looked back up to meet James’ eyes — James couldn’t read this particular expression, it was closed off; doubting and frightened all at once — before he spoke again. “I’m not quite certain if I can.”
“I don’t mind, Francis. You needn’t hold back because of my own troubles.”
“No, it’s— It’s not that,” Francis mumbled, worrying at his bottom lip with his teeth. “It’s… Ah— It’s my own troubles it concerns,” he smiled ruefully.
Frowning, James gently squeezed Francis’ ankle in reassurance. “When you’re ready, then. Whether that may be in a moment or not at all, I don’t wish to force you.”
James cursed whoever stuck their noses so deeply in another man’s business. He understood the public’s curiosity to a certain degree, understood that, having been thought long dead and gone, it must have been quite the sensation to pop back up on England’s shores one day. However, what he did not understand, was how far people were willing to prod and poke in their personal business without permission and no respect for their wellbeing.
He remembered the way the crowds had pushed forward and reporters stuck the too-bright, flashing lightbulbs of cameras in their faces as Francis helped him down the gangplank; as Edward Little had near carried Thomas Jopson as he could barely stand; as John Bridgens had needed to shield Henry Peglar from the cameras as he’d been so close to fainting, overwhelmed by it all.
The images of their crew — unwell and near dying, and the ones that had died — flashed before his mind’s eye once more as he took up Francis’ other foot, rubbing the remaining toes between his palms to warm them.
Francis startled the images from his mind when he spoke again.
“He kept asking… asking about—” Francis gulped, screwing his eyes shut tightly as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “I brushed him off several times, yet he kept… kept harassing me with the same questions, only worded differently.”
James watched him silently as he looked back over to the fire, propping his chin up on his fist, his gaze growing distant again as he no doubt thought about the same things James just had.
“I went out to post a letter, for Christ’s sake…” he mumbled, barely audible.
“I shan’t pretend to know exactly what you’re thinking, or what he asked, though I think I can make an educated guess,” James started softly, “but I do know that this is our life now, and we cannot do better than try and come to terms with that. It will take a long time, perhaps even longer than the time we have left yet to spend, in fact I’m quite sure of that, but we can try.” He put Francis’ feet back in his lap, rubbing a hand up over his ankle and under the hem of Francis’ trouser leg, thumbing gently over the skin.
“I nearly hit the man, James, just so he would stop talking and leave me be.” Francis winced as he said it.
“And I don’t doubt he deserved it,” James said, raising his eyebrows. He picked up his cane and Francis’ socks and slowly, carefully, pushed himself back up to his feet, steadying himself on the back of the armchair before he placed the socks by the fire to let them dry. “It has been a long six months, Francis, and it will be even longer before things start to settle down again surrounding our return. But until then, remember we have this—” he gestured between the two of them “—we have each other, and a place we can call home and feel safe, and hide from the world for as long as we need and be ourselves without pretence.”
He took the quilt from its place between Francis’ clothed thigh and the armrest, unfolding it to drape it over Francis’ lap and tuck it in to the sides. Smoothing Francis’ unruly hair down, he pressed a kiss to his forehead.
“Try to remember that, despite all our hardships, we are still alive.”
Francis looked up at him, regarding him with eyes that seemed to shine too bright, pushing forth the blue of his irises. “Oh, James…” he murmured as he let his eyes flutter closed, feeling James’ thumb brush over his cheek.
James felt the gentle pressure of Francis’ calloused hand on his own as Francis lifted it towards his lips, pressing a kiss to each of his knuckles. Turning James’ hand over, he pressed a kiss to the pad of each finger, and a final one to the centre of his palm, sending a shiver down James’ spine.
“Forgive me, James, I did not mean to brood upon entering.”
“Francis—” James protested.
“Sit with me for a moment?” Francis interrupted, nudging James onto his lap.
“Now listen here, Francis, I know I am not nearly back to my former weight, but this—"
“Trust me when I say it is no trouble, James. I would merely like to keep you close for a moment longer.”
James sighed as he gave Francis a cross look, reluctantly settling on his lap as Francis held the quilt up, wrapping it around their joined waists and legs. Francis had a tendency of changing topics when it concerned his melancholy or his troubles, James knew.
“I wish you wouldn’t divert the topic from your own troubles so often.”
“I will be alright, James.”
“Still, I wish you would talk about them more often with me. We have laid our eyes upon much the same scenes, after all.”
Francis’ thumb rubbed slow circles into James’ hip, through the layers of clothing and the quilt, as he took him in with a thoughtful expression. Even though Francis’ complaints of cold or often numb hands, James could feel the heat of his fingers even like this.
“I suppose you are right. I shall try better, in the future, if that puts your mind to rest.”
“I only ask so it would put your own at ease, as well,” James murmured, raising an eyebrow as he brushed Francis’ unruly forelock back in place.
Closing his eyes, Francis nodded. “Still, I did not intend to burst into the room brooding. I had thought we might spend the evening by the fire, together.”
James chuckled. “Well, you’ve succeeded at that at any rate.”
“Suppose that’s true,” Francis laughed softly.
As he rubbed a hand through his eyes, James noticed the dark circles under Francis’ eyes. Francis hardly slept at all these days, James knew that much, but the discolouration was much darker than usual. Trauma and sleeplessness would do that to you, he supposed.
“I should let you rest,” James murmured thoughtfully, smoothing Francis’ hair down once more to press a kiss to it. “I could read to you, if you’d like.”
“As long as it’s not one of Le Vesconte’s dreadfully long letters,” Francis grinned, amused.
“You devil,” James laughed, giving Francis a light shove as he scrambled back off his lap. “No. The book I was reading when you came in. You most likely won’t remember a word I said, anyway.”
“Mmn, you know me too well.”
“Only because you let me, dear.”
He picked up the book from the little wooden table next to Francis’ chair, swooping it up in an elegant manner as he lowered himself back down in the opposite armchair, opening it back up where he left off.
He startled awake with an endless white still burning behind his retinas and a feeling of dread settling in his stomach as he looked about the dark room. His gaze lingered on the still smouldering embers of the fire, staring at it as he took a deep couple of breaths. The house; he was back at the house.
Sagging back against the soft cushioning of the chair, James sighed, running a hand over his face.
“Francis?” he called softly to where the other armchair and its occupant should be.
No response. He blinked a few times as his eyes adjusted to the lack of light, the shape of the empty armchair slowly swimming into view. He must’ve gone up to their rooms already, then.
James made a soft, disgruntled noise as he pushed himself up and unfolded from the chair’s depth, reaching for the cane next to him. He made his way up the stairs and over the carpeted landing slowly, carefully, with measured steps and aching legs and joints. He didn’t knock on the bedchamber’s door, pushing it open just enough to feel his way through, stepping onto the creaking floorboards.
“Sorry,” he breathed. “Did the creaking floorboards give me away, or was it the incessant clicking of that damnable cane?”
“Both. I heard you come up the stairs.”
“I didn’t wake you, then?”
“You rarely ever do, James.”
“Right…” James sighed as he closed the door behind him and felt his way towards the bed, his cane clicking against the wood as it bumped against the side of it, and sat down on the mattress. “Why didn’t you wake me? I would’ve gone up with you.”
“You seemed as though you could use some more rest,” Francis murmured softly, a hint of a sweetness behind his voice that indicated the gentle upward slope of his lips as he no doubt looked at James. “You looked… peaceful. More so than I’ve seen you in the previous months. I hadn’t the heart to disturb that.”
A soft noise escaped from James’ lips as he shucked his waistcoat, dropping it blindly to the floor. He felt Francis’ fingers brush lightly over his back before they gently undid James’ braces from his trousers, pressing his lips softly to the back of James’ neck.
Not bothering to undress any further, James grunted softly as he laid down on the mattress in his shirtsleeves and trousers, letting himself get lost in the warmth and gentleness of Francis’ embrace that enveloped him as soon as his head hit the pillow.
“I wonder, sometimes…” James started after a while of contemplative, but comfortable silence.
“Mmn?” came Francis’ voice, soft and rough with a light drowsiness.
“I wonder… How did it come to be us?”
Though Francis was silent for a long while, he didn’t need to explain himself any further. He knew Francis knew just what he’d meant.
“I’ve no clue, James. All I know is that… we’ve been given an opportunity, and I have no intention of wasting said opportunity. Not with you.” He tightened his embrace just for a moment, and pressed his nose to James’ neck, where his soft, warm breath lingered for the rest of the night.
James knew then, that this was all he needed. He didn’t care for the demons that haunted his near-every waking moment — and his sleep and dreams, too — but if he had Francis by his side, he felt he could take anything.
Some day, he knew, they would rid themselves of their demons, even if that day was not today.