The water in the tub looks wonderfully warm.
Francis can see the steam of it from the room’s entrance, can make out the distortion in the air as he and James are held captive at the door by the innkeeper. She is an old, mild-mannered lady, caring and attentive, if a little too curious, and when she apologises for the lack of ample beds James dispenses a cheerful smile.
“It’s no issue, madam,” James assures her. He looks likely to sleep where he stands, and while the innkeeper may think him agreeable for the dearth of lodgings in the Orkneys, Francis knows that James is well and truly grateful.
They have plenty to be thankful for, not the least of which is the lack of excuse to sleep apart. First: the sight of the Enterprise’s masts, tall and hazy in the glaring heat. Second: Ross letting them berth away while the ships repair. Third: their hostess’ parting spell, leaving them at last to their own affairs.
At the clink of the closed door, Francis lets out a sigh of relief. He casts a smile at James and gestures to the bath. “You go ahead,” he offers, “though should you nod off in the water, I’ll leave you there until you prune.”
James snorts haughtily at that, nevertheless he is eager to relieve himself of his sea-stained clothes. Ship washings have been a daily affair, but sailors know that nothing can show itself to the comfort of a full rinse. On the floor, a circle of clothes piles up, a pair of tattered boots forming the center.
James climbs into the tub with boyish anticipation. He dips a foot first, feeling out the heat, and very soon he is submerged in the rose-coloured water. There is a loosening that trails along his body, from his neck to his shoulders, all the way to his toes, like a rope being untethered after a storm. Francis’s heart swells at the sight.
“Are you comfortable, James?” he asks, to which James responds with an indulgent hum. He is the very picture of a distinguished gentleman, relaxing at the end of a hard day’s work, of having talked to his farmers and built his own fences.
Confronted with such a sight, Francis is filled with an overwhelming need to cater to James’s every whim. He has served with many captains before, has seen them hopeless and brought low, but in all Francis’s years as a second he has never longed to tend to someone as much as he does to James at present. He removes his jacket and lets it drop to the floor. His joints cry as he kneels.
“What on earth are you doing?” James is watching him, blinking slowly under the effects of the heat. He is amused at first, until Francis dips a small basin in the water and raises it above James’s head.
“Don’t,” James insists. “You’re not my servant.”
Francis considers the light grip that James has placed on his wrist. “I’m not,” he says. There is an odd softness to his voice. A kind of joy conflated with surrender. “But won’t you let me care for you, James?”
James swallows audibly. “Francis, you’ve been caring for me for the last three thousand miles.”
“Then I’m sure you will no longer be offended by it.”
A mewl escapes James as he submits to Francis’s affections. The water is poured, gentle and tentative, and for a moment James can see nothing but a curtain of water. He feels its warmth sluicing from his scalp down to the curve of his ears, to his neck and chest.
Francis works up a lather and goes about his task like a midshipman on a mission. He makes sure to wash every bit of dirt and grime that has dared to smear James’s crowning glory. His fingers tug at the tangled ends, rubs soap onto the clumps until they part, then gently gathers it all into a bun on James’s head. Francis surveys his handiwork and laughs.
“Does something amuse you?” James asks, and the grin on Francis’s face turns wicked. He teases, “It looks as if your hair has gone properly white.”
For this insolence, Francis is subjected to a well-earned splash of water. James abhors this lingering sign of his infirmity. He has spent countless hours at the looking-glass, has yipped Francis’s ear off about yet another strand turning grey in the night. It is no matter truly, not when with a word Francis can curb these self-elegies.
“You’ve lace on your hair,” he has merely to say. “Like a bride.”
Nothing else makes James blush so prettily.
Francis fills the basin once more and tilts it above James’s head. The bun collapses and water cascades like a wet, white veil, falling over James’s shoulders in a shower of suds and soap. Francis brushes the hair back and carefully untangles the ends, laying it in a neat row on the canvas of James’s skin. His nails gently comb at the scalp.
“Come here,” James says under his breath.
A hand lifts from under the water and timidly tugs at Francis’s sleeve. The fabric soaks. “Come here,” James repeats. “I want to be near you.”
Francis needs no further encouragement. He braces himself and rises to his feet, ignoring the crack in his bones that once would have shamed him. He feels like he has reached the peak of a high mountain, like he has conquered the world. Francis slips out of his waistcoat and cannot help but preen under James’s predatory eye. He straightens his stance and puffs up his chest, shifting his jaw just so, and thrills at the sight of James flaring his nostrils.
There is no shyness between them. Perhaps because it has taken them so long to be where they are, and at great cost, that they have leapt past the clumsy beginnings of love and plunged straight into its ecstasies.
James nudges forward so Francis can settle behind him. The tub is scarcely big enough for two men, and Francis has to bend his legs and pop his knees over the water to leave room for James’s spindly limbs. Like this, James’s shoulders are at the mercy of Francis’s worship, and it is not long until he gives in to the temptation.
“Oh.” A flinch, as if stung. James reaches back to cup the rough beard growing on Francis’s cheek. “I should shave you.”
Francis raises an anxious brow. “You said it pleased you.”
“It does,” James assures him, kissing the red-spotted fuzz at Francis’s sideburns. “But this is no way to meet your new title. If we’re to be seen at the palace together, Her Majesty will likely compare; and as I will be appearing shiny as a button she may think you rather beastly.”
“If only that could deter Her from granting the knighthood.” Francis runs his fingers through the thick of his beard. It is denser than he is used to, having reached that state only because James is partial to it—but if his dearest now wishes otherwise then Francis is wont to please him. “I’ll see to myself tomorrow morning. You needn’t bother.”
Slowly, James pulls away and smiles. His features crinkle with amusement, but somehow Francis does not feel it to be at his expense. “I know you can shave yourself, Francis,” he says, “but I want to take care of you.”
With a beam in his eye, James settles back and leans his head on Francis’s shoulder. He employs Francis’s thighs as an armrest, his fingers tapping a jaunty rhythm as if nothing remarkable has just passed.
Francis marvels at how easily this comes to them, this mutual vow of devotion, this promise to share their lives without having to ask. They have portioned up many things between themselves through the years—command, guilt, grief. It seems to Francis that the expedition has only been but a long, dark tunnel, from which he and James have emerged, bound and inseparable.
The future ahead of them is unknown and immense, but one thing is certain: they will face it together.
Francis drags his bristly jaw against James’s temple and asks, “Have you ever attended a knighting?”
The question is all but ignored, with James’s attention held rapt by Francis’s meaty hands running up and down his arms. The motion creates ripples in the water; James is enthralled.
“Captain Ross invited me to his. I thought it would be dull but the ceremony was quick. You kneel on a padded stool and Her Majesty stands before you on a platform.”
Francis laps at the driblets of water at James’s neck. His skin tastes of soap.
Francis can well imagine it. Two pews in the throne room, he and James in their dress uniforms. In front is an officiant, and behind are rows and rows of teary-eyed family and friends. James squirms delectably in his arms.
“Suppose we request that we be knighted at the same time. We can kneel there together, all spruced up and pretty.”
“Will there be a choir?” James whines. His grip on Francis’s thighs tighten, the beds of his nails turning white. “And flowers?” James plants his feet to meet Francis’s thrusts. “And lace?” But the position is too pinched, the surface too smooth. Francis gathers James’s knees and spreads it so both legs are dangling from the sides of the tub. Like this, James is open, gaping, the full weight of his upper body pressed against Francis. “Will you take me as yours?”
“Take you, cherish you, keep you. God, James—”
Francis kisses James with a ferocity that matches his sudden desperation. He wants to crush James’s body unto himself, to pound their pieces against each other like ships to rocky shore, their remains becoming indistinguishable. He remembers the first time he held James’s body, how they undressed him to find him decked with bruises. Tonight he will be mottled blue once again, and Francis will lovingly worry at the marks until James begs him to stop.
They make quick, practiced work. The water undulates at their movement. James chases both the hardness at his back and Francis’s hand at his prick, their joined gasps merging with the warm air.
It is when Francis slides a hand up his chest that James starts to whimper. By now, Francis can find it in his sleep, can determine its precise spot by counting James’s ribs and listening for his tell-tale hitch. Francis teases at the light circle of freshly healed skin. He taps it once, a light prod, then, with the tip of a nail, applies the gentlest of pricks.
James reaches his crisis with a barely contained shout. His left leg shoots out and he slips, his head missing Francis’s by a hairsbreadth.
He lies there, panting and languid, until Francis whines and he takes pity. James blindly reaches back for a fistful of Francis’s hair and pulls. A siren sound rings out, Francis’s alarmed cry, a yelp that morphs into a growl deep into James’s skin, into Francis gasping as James pets his hair.
The floor is miraculously dry despite their exertions. They rise from the bath and acquaint themselves with the bed, whereupon James rifles through the clothes that the innkeeper has lent them. He settles on an overly large nightshirt, and very soon he is hopping around the room as he wrestles with the folds of the garment.
Francis props himself up on the bed and gazes at James lovingly. There is a fluttering in his chest that is threatening to unfurl, like a fledgling peeking out from its nest and raring to fly.
“Sit up, will you?” James says. He has emerged victorious over the shirt and is holding a thick fabric in his hand. Francis obeys and perches on the edge of the bed, where he is soon accosted with a towel obscuring his vision.
“Oi!” he exclaims, along with many half-hearted appeals. James ignores it as he proceeds to rub Francis’s hair dry.
“Keep still, darling,” James says, then he is hastily pulled forward by the thighs and locked in place by Francis’s feet. James retaliates by steering Francis’s head fore and aft, so much so that something jogs in Francis’s memory.
“My sisters used to do this for me,” he recalls. “One or the other, I can’t remember which now, and I would always try to avoid it.”
James chuckles above him. “A regular trump you were, eh? Not fit out for sitting still?”
“No, I wasn’t. I would pull away and be out the door before she could finish calling my name.”
Francis wonders what would have happened had someone done that boy a favor, pulled him aside and told him the truth—that what he was being given was a form of love, that love was not to be shunned or averted, but surrendered to.
“May I tell you something?” Francis says, and there must be a lilt in his voice that makes James halt his motions. “I didn’t think I would come back.”
James sets the towel aside, confused. “Come back… to this inn?”
“No, I mean come back from the expedition. When we set sail from Greenhithe, I thought that I would no longer be in the ship’s company at its return, that I would somehow meet my end along the way.”
Francis had never said it outloud before, but he knew that it had always been there, lingering on the edge of his thoughts. He fully believed then that he would die in the expedition. Whether by illness, injury, or his own hand—the method was no matter because the conclusion was certain.
Above him, James’s expression has turned as blank as the grey landscapes of their nightmares. He has put on one of his many masks, a clear sign of distress, and Francis quickly reassures him by running his thumbs up and down the muscle of James’s thighs. He looks up at James adoringly.
“I was an old schooner with a shattered hull—there was nothing left for me but to sail out and away. By some miracle I am still living, and I can’t help but believe that it’s because I have something yet to do, James, something that binds me to this earth. I think I know now what that is.”
The lump in James’s throat rises and falls, and a ghost of a smile begins to surface. “Will you tell me or must I guess?”
“I have a feeling that you already know, but to ensure that we are in agreement, I must ask: James Fitzjames, will you let me care for you?”
The ensuing pause makes Francis’s breath lodge in his throat. There is no doubt in his heart as to the answer, but still the anticipation threatens to undo him. James has covered his face with his hands, overwhelmed, and without seeing his expression Francis is left to sit in a nervous dither.
All of a sudden, James falls to his knees. His joints meet the floor with a loud thud and Francis worries that he has fainted, that is, until he is set upon by a shower of wet kisses.
“James! Agh!” They topple back onto the bed. “James, my heart…”
The assault ends when James presses a last kiss to the tip of Francis’s nose. His grin is as wide as the sea, his eyes as wet.
“Yes,” he sobs, voice cracking. “My God, yes. You shall care for me and I for you, and we shall burden each other for the rest of our days. We will grow old and fat and lose hair and take as many baths as we like, but most of all, we will live. Isn’t that wonderful, Francis?”
Yes, yes it was.