St. James's Square is still in the evening darkness, cold but not unbearably so. It is the stillness that discomforts James, nine months at sea and only six weeks yet on land and he's still not accustomed to the paving stones remaining steady under his feet, the stillness of the air bearing anything but damnation.
The house in front of him does nothing to ease his mind, its tall, narrow façade looming over the street. It makes him feel small and out of place and he hates it: he will, he knows, be feeling small and out of place all evening, and those are two things he avoids feeling at much cost. He wonders, again, why he is even here.
He tells himself that it is to understand the Hamiltons better: to understand them, he can admit to himself, at all. The first time Lord Hamilton had invited him to one of his salons, James had thought it a joke; the second time he had assumed it to be a test. Both were more expected, easier to understand, than what James began to suspect the third time Lord Hamilton had invited him in as many of their meetings: that he might, after all, be quite serious. He could begin to admit then that Lord Hamilton was not at all whom he had expected, not only a performance, an eccentric mantle to throw on and seem different than the rest of his highborn friends, but something much deeper than that. James has spent years, decades now of his life trying to understand the world the Hamiltons live in, to fit into it, if only ever at the edge. He does not understand the world they think that they live in, a world within a world, as if they believe they are so different from the rest.
James doesn't like not understanding, doesn't play games unless he understands the rules perfectly. If he is going to be playing the Hamiltons' game for the next months, he must understand the rules. If he is to understand the rules, he must understand the world. That is why he's here tonight.
He'll admit he also has a certain amount of curiosity, that the Hamiltons have a magnetism that is hard to define and harder to resist. He would have resisted, though, he tells himself. If curiosity was the only thing pulling him here tonight, he would have resisted, and he'd be in his room right now, and the more content for it.
As it is, he is standing in front of the Hamiltons' townhouse; has been standing in front of it too long, the carriage long since pulled away, the chill creeping through the wool of his coat. He shakes himself from his reverie, and walks up to the wide stone steps.
The door opens for him before he reaches the top of the stairs, and it occurs to him, humiliatingly, that someone must have been watching as he stood awkwardly in front of the house. The footman is stone-faced, however, with no indication that he is, without a doubt, judging James rather severely. He merely says, "Sir. Your hat?" and James gives it to him, murmuring "Thank you," with, he hopes, some slight bit of dignity intact.
The front hall opens into a grand, high-ceilinged room, lit brightly with an impossible number of candles. They light the shining oils of the paintings on the walls, the bright silks of the dresses of the women milling around it, the coats of the men beside them. James hesitates just outside the pool of light, wondering yet again, and now with sudden violence, what he is doing here at all.
He'll turn back, he thinks, walk back out the door and hail whatever carriage he can find and return to his room, damn Lord Hamilton and his salons.
He's about to do it, too--his dignity before the footman, he knows, has already been lost--when a voice says, with surprising delight, "Lieutenant McGraw!"
He turns back. Lady Hamilton is coming toward him, positively floating, her smile brighter than all the candles in the room. Her gown is deep red silk, its neckline so low it is saved by only a frill of lace from being positively indecent. James looks down at his hands to avoid staring.
"Lady Hamilton," he says, when she's before him. A beat or two too late, he knows: there is something about her that strikes him dumb, makes him forget his wits entirely. Being around Lord Hamilton makes him feel sharper, faster: around Lady Hamilton he feels taken apart. He's not sure which he prefers.
"I'm so glad you came," she says. "Thomas will be, too, he's been terribly disappointed that you haven't taken up his invitations before now."
"That's very kind, my lady," he murmurs.
"I'm not being kind," she tells him, frank. "It's the truth."
He's not sure what to say to that. She seems to sense this, and she doesn't let the silence sit:
"Come with me," she tells him, and takes his arm. He fingers are pale and delicate against his coatsleeve, bare except for the gold ring on her third finger.
She leads him farther into the room: most of the people there are in small groups, engaged in their own conversations, but several turn to look their way. Their gazes linger, and James battles warring instincts to both pull away from Lady Hamilton and to hold up his chin, staring them in the eye until they are the ones to look away.
Lord Hamilton is speaking with another man before the fireplace; as they draw closer he laughs, bright and loud, his eyes crinkling at the corners. James feels an odd swoop in his stomach he does his very best to ignore.
"Thomas," Lady Hamilton says, and Lord Hamilton looks to them. "Look who I found."
"Lieutenant," Lord Hamilton says, with the same delight in his voice Lady Hamilton had had. James feels the back of neck going warm, and thinks it must be caused by the fire, snapping merrily in the grate. Lord Hamilton's eyes are warm, bright, as he looks at James: James thinks, suddenly, oddly, that he doesn't think he's ever been looked at like that before. "I'm so glad you could come," Lord Hamilton says, but it's soft, earnest, like a secret between them.
James swallows. "It seemed rude not to, my lord," he says dryly.
Lord Hamilton only smiles wider, and Lady Hamilton gives a small laugh. "I've been told my tenacity is one of my more prominent traits," he admits.
"Though not one of your more charming," the second man says, though he's smiling.
Lord Hamilton rolls his eyes, though it seems mostly for show. "Lieutenant, may I introduce the Lord Marbury," he says. "Marbury, Lieutenant James McGraw."
James bows. "My lord."
"So you're who the Admiralty sent over to help Thomas with his harebrained scheme," Lord Marbury says, with a glance to Thomas, as if he had made the comment solely for his benefit. He is a handsome if somewhat sharp-faced man, wearing a dark, unpowdered wig and a fine silk suit, deep gray to Lord Hamilton's silvery coat and pale embroidered waistcoat.
"Yes, my lord," James says. "Though as they bothered to send me, I would think that would indicate they think it something more than a harebrained scheme."
James is surprised at the sharpness in his voice, even more so as he agrees much more with Lord Marbury's assessment of Lord Hamilton's plan than with Lord Hamilton himself. There is a slight motion to his side, as Lady Hamilton ducks her head: she appears to be hiding a smile.
Lord Marbury smiles as well, seeming to take no offense. He looks at James a moment, and James has the uncomfortable feeling of being assessed. "True," he says finally. "Or it would indicate that Hamilton's father could change the flow of the Thames if he so wished it."
James glances at Lord Hamilton; a dark shadow seems to have come over his face. Beside him, Lady Hamilton says smoothly, "Let us hope it's some degree of both. Lord Marbury, would you care for some more wine? There's a port I'd love your opinion on--"
She leads Lord Marbury toward the table of refreshments with grace, but with a backward glance at Lord Hamilton that holds some meaning, though James cannot divine it before she has turned away again.
When he looks back to Lord Hamilton the shadow seems to have passed from over his face. He is looking after Lady Hamilton and Lord Marbury with amusement; when he notices James looking at him, he says, "She hates him, you know."
"Miranda and Edwin," Lord Hamilton explains.
James takes a moment to realize that Edwin must be Lord Marbury. "They seem perfectly cordial," James says, unsure where this conversation is going.
"Don't they?" Lord Hamilton says. "She's hated him for years now--Edwin and I were chambermates at King's, and Miranda and I have known each other since we were both in leading-strings. He knows it, and I know it, and she certainly does, and yet she will ask his opinion on wine she knows is perfectly good because she sees the necessity of it, the value in pretending in front of everyone else here." He looks at James, who is watching him, transfixed. "Few of them would be able to tell if she loved or despised them, much less anyone else, but I can--the virtue of a decade of marriage, I suppose." He pauses, seems to consider James. "So," he says finally, and perhaps with a small smile on his lips, "I happen to know she likes you very much."
A shiver of something runs down James's spine, pools low in his stomach. He can't seem to look away from Lord Hamilton's gaze, which is steady and serious but has a spark of something in it, something, James thinks, quite dangerous.
He looks away, after too long, and clears his throat. It is not--James's mind is playing tricks on him, colored by the half-formed thoughts that he shoves to the back of his mind before they become more than a pull in his throat, a curl of heat in his stomach. He had known it was a bad idea to come tonight.
"That's very kind, my lord," he manages stiffly, looking down at his boots.
Lord Hamilton can't respond, though he looks like he wants to, before someone else is interrupting them, talking to him with barely a glance at James. James takes the opportunity to look away, catch his breath. He doesn't catch the details of what they're saying over the dull pounding in his ears, heart beating too fast.
"Lieutenant?" Lord Hamilton asks, and James's head snaps up: he had missed something. "What do you think?"
"I'm sorry, my lord?" James asks, half confused and half skeptical.
"You're new here," Lord Hamilton; "you should have the opportunity to express your opinion before it is colored with any of our thoughts."
"And what precisely is it you would like me to express my opinion on?" James asks: it comes out sarcastic, bordering on snide. Unbidden, he thinks of Admiral Hennessy's serious expression when he had given him the Hamilton assignment, the way he had clapped James on the shoulder and then said, seriously, don't fuck this up, son.
Lord Hamilton seems unfazed, however. "Lord Hartford tells me they are having a rather contentious discussion on Hobbes across the room," he says. "Tell me, where do you stand on Hobbes?"
The man next to Lord Hamilton, who must be Lord Hartford, gives Lord Hamilton a small, incredulous look. Something about it straightens James's spine, lifts his chin. He says boldly, "I think his ideas quite apt."
"Do you?" Lord Hamilton asks. He seems to be trying for a neutral tone, but James finds himself believing that he rather disagrees.
"Yes, my lord."
"And what about them appeals to you so?" Lord Hamilton asks.
It is a test, of that James is sure. But he is not afraid of tests, and never has been, and so he says plainly, "I believe his insights into human nature allow him to create a theory of government that is workable and just."
"Indeed," Lord Hamilton says. "And what insights are those? That he believes people to act as a mindless mob, in need of being ruled by an absolute leader for their own well-being? That he believes them best equated to a beast, unthinking and slow?"
But he does not say it with any malice. He is looking at James, curious, as if he is speaking solely to hear James's response. It is a heady way to be spoken to.
"He does not believe people a mere mob, or a beast, my lord," James says plainly. "He simply acknowledges the need for a system of government that controls man's worse impulses."
"And I in turn acknowledge that that may be necessary," Lord Hamilton says. "But it seems the metaphor requires a dim view of human will, of human individuality and autonomy, don't you agree?"
"I do not, my lord," James says, but even as he says it he finds himself leaning in, the stiff set of his shoulders loosening. "He does not suggest humans are beasts, merely that for a civilization to function they must exist together in the harmony of a living being. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it."
A slow smile finds its way over Lord Hamilton's face. James watches it, captivated: he has forgotten there is anyone else in the room. "That is all well and good," Lord Hamilton says, "but then what of his requirement of an absolute monarch? Would that not defeat the very metaphor?"
"My lord," James says, and realizes it comes out not only shocked, but admonishing. Lord Hartford, still at Lord Hamilton's side, shifts uncomfortably, but Lord Hamilton appears to remain unaffected, looking at James as if he still expects an answer. James looks at him warily. "All bodies must have a head," he says simply.
"That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another?" Lord Hamilton asks, almost carelessly: only his eyes, remaining intent on James's, say otherwise.
Lord Hartford clears his throat, but James finds himself speaking over him, eyes fixed on Lord Hamilton. "Caring for one another does not necessitate complete equality of all parts, my lord," he says.
"Doesn't it?" Lord Hamilton, eyes piercing.
James gapes at him a moment; before he can reply properly, Lord Hartford is getting Lord Hamilton's attention, nodding slightly to the other side of the room, and Lord Hamilton says, "Of course. My apologies, Lieutenant--I'd very much like to continue our conversation." He looks at James, face perfectly serious. "Find me again before the evening is over," he says, and smiles at him; he touches James's arm lightly, fingers brushing over the wool of his sleeve, before he follows Lord Hartford across the room.
James simply stands there for a moment, poleaxed. His mind reels: the skin of his arm burns where he had felt the weight of Lord Hamilton's hand. For all that he had felt clear-headed while speaking with him, in Lord Hamilton's absence he feels caught in a storm.
But he swallows down whatever is roiling within him. He realizes he cannot simply stand in the middle of the room, but knows equally that he cannot insert himself into any of the conversations around him. Steeling himself, dragging his eyes away from where Lord Hamilton is now speaking with a tight circle of people across the room, he makes his way to the long table tucked in a half-moon alcove that forms one end of the room. The walls are hung with intricate tapestries, rich and beautiful, and the table is laden with towers of fruit, bowls of candied nuts and plates of delicate cakes. One end of the table has different types of wine and a glittering forest of glasses to receive it.
James puts a cake and a few orange slices on a plate, and takes a glass of whatever wine is nearest him. He retreats to what seems to be an unobtrusive corner, the small feeling he had anticipated standing outside in the street, but that had remained elusive until now, coming over him in an uncomfortable rush. He breaks off the very edge of one of the cakes and eats it: it is indeed quite fine, but it feels oddly chalky on his tongue, looking around at the scene in front of him, fine silks and jewels bathed in golden candlelight, he so clearly not belonging. He picks up his wine again, and takes a mouthful.
He has begun a plan to extricate himself when Lady Hamilton appears in front of him, holding her own glass of wine. "My lady," he says.
"Lieutenant," she says, smiling at him kindly, always kindly. To his surprise, she holds out her glass of wine to him. "Trade you? This goes much better with the fruit."
He should be embarrassed, he thinks, but the way she says it doesn't make it sound like a criticism or even a correction, merely a suggestion. Not what is right, but what is better.
He nods, and lets her hand him the second glass; she holds out her hand for his first glass, and takes it when he hands it to her, preventing him, he notes, from having to awkwardly hold on to both. She takes a sip from the glass he just handed her, and he watches her lips, painted a red to match her gown, touch the very place he had drunk from. "Hmm," she says. "Not the best, either way. You're much better off with that."
He clears his throat. "Thank you," he says, as only seems polite.
She waves her hand. "Try it, before you thank me," she says. He does, and she asks, "Good?"
"Tell no one," she says, leaning closer to him, the hem of her petticoats brushing over his boots, "but it's French. If they knew, half the people here would refuse to drink it on principle, but I think that's perfectly foolish--we've had a cask of it in the cellar since France was our ally, for heaven's sake."
"It seems you've had it for a while," James remarks dryly, without thinking about it.
But Lady Hamilton only laughs. "Since they were not actively our enemy, then," she concedes. "For my part, I fail to see why a war should affect my dinner-table."
James is not quite sure what to say to that. Lady Hamilton is standing very close to him, and she smells like a kind of flower, light and sweet. He thinks of Lord Hamilton saying, I happen to know she likes you very much.
"Or perhaps you disagree," she says, looking at him shrewdly. "I would suppose an officer in our Navy might have a different opinion on the matter."
James looks at her a moment, watching him expectantly. "I've found practicality always wins over principle," he says, finally.
She smiles at him, and he feels, strangely, as though he's been approved of. "I tend to agree with you, Lieutenant," she says. "Though if you're to be working further with my husband, I should warn you that he does not."
"I've rather gotten that impression, my lady, yes," James says, and his voice comes out dry. Lady Hamilton smiles wider.
"He's not one to hide his convictions, it's true," she says, almost musingly. "But you should know, Lieutenant, that they are not merely for show." She looks at him quite seriously. "He believes in what he says, and this is not mere idle amusement for him."
James looks back at her. "Do you?" he finds himself asking. "Believe in his convictions?"
The way she looks at him then seems somehow searching, as if she is looking inside him, understanding him. "My husband and I agree about many things," she says finally, but that is all she says.
He'd like to ask what that means, but he can, on occasion, prevent himself from being hopelessly rude, so instead he takes another sip of wine. "I see," he says.
She gives him a look, like she understands perfectly that he does not. She doesn't say anything about it, though, only stands next to him and looks out over the room. She is standing very close to him, her wide sleeve brushing his elbow, and he glances around the room, trying to tell whether anyone is watching them. What they might think if they are. He can imagine what Admiral Hennessy would say if he knew he was speaking with Lord Hamilton's wife as familiarly as he just had been: something between disapproval and disappointment, that James has still somehow, after twenty-five years under his tutelage, not learned the ways of behaving in society. He had considered how he would tell Hennessy about this, about coming here tonight. Explain it as he had explained it to himself, that it was simply to understand the Hamiltons better, understand where they were coming from. But there is something about the night so far that makes him reconsider, that makes him think, at least for a moment, of not telling Hennessy about it at all.
He feels Lady Hamilton's eyes on him, and he glances over at her. He is looking at him with a small, contemplative smile on her lips, and he finds himself trying not to smile back. "You know," she says, leaning even closer to him, "there's a back door out through the kitchens. Down the stairs and to the left. Excellent for anyone wishing to make an unobtrusive exit." She looks back out over the room, but the smile is still on her lips.
He considers saying that he is perfectly happy to be here, but he thinks it would be protesting too much, and he has the feeling Lady Hamilton would know the lie. He glances to Lord Hamilton across the room, and considers the other reason he might not want to escape.
He notices Lady Hamilton's gaze following his, and he looks away quickly, not exactly sure why he feels his face heat. Instead he nods to her, says, "My lady."
She nods in return. "Lieutenant."
He sets down his plate and glass, and makes his way to the stairs, and he does not look back to Lord Hamilton once.
"Wait here just a moment," Thomas says; he leaves James in what seems to be a dressing chamber, disappearing through one of the doors that leads from it to yet another chamber beyond. They had been arguing about Bacon, stalling so long in the carriage in front of the Hamiltons' house that the driver had been forced to knock on the door, say apologetically that with the sweat the horses had worked up they could not stand out in the cold like this. Thomas had apologized to him quite sincerely, and invited James into the house: it was early afternoon, much longer than he'd planned to spend with Thomas today, but something had compelled still to say yes.
Now Thomas is searching down his copy of Instauratio Magna, which he had sworn he left beside the bed. It is in pursuit of winning the smallest point, utterly inconsequential: they've found they largely agree on Bacon's works, though Thomas will still argue with him largely, James suspects, for the sake of argument itself. James does not question him on it; he enjoys their conversations too much, the bright spark that seems to light between them when they speak to each other. Speaking with Thomas, speaking with Miranda, is like speaking to no one else he's met: a most lighthearted battle, or a quite serious game.
And that is how he thinks of them now, Thomas and Miranda, though he has not yet relented to Thomas's request to call him by his Christian name. When he speaks they are still Lord and Lady Hamilton, but somehow they have entered his mind, his heart, as Thomas, as Miranda.
It is easy, too easy, to think of them that way: he knows he should find it concerning, how quickly they've stepped into his life as if they've always belonged, catching him up up their whirl of color and sound and light. They have crept into every corner of his life: in his room he has a book sitting beside his bed that Miranda had leant him; there are papers and pamphlets covering his desk that Thomas thought would help them in their project or, increasingly, that he added to the pile because he thought James might enjoy them. It is delightful even as he cannot quite wrap his mind around it: will not try to, for fear of what he might understand if he does.
He looks around him, trying not to shift awkwardly. He has never been beyond the ground level of the Hamiltons' house before, and is not entirely sure he should be here now: it's an intimate space, even as the single chamber is larger than what the whole of his grandfather's house had been. There are pairs of clothespresses and dressing tables, fitting for a dressing chamber, but also a card table whose top is covered in green felt, and a small dinner table, a chair at each end, as if they take meals here as well.
There are several paintings hung on the walls, as there are below stairs; as if the Hamiltons truly enjoy seeing them, rather than simply displaying them for show. His eye is drawn to one of the smaller ones on the wall in front of him, and he steps toward it, to look more closely. It is of a woman, wearing a jacket painted in a bright yellow that had caught his eye. She stares out at him, one hand holding a pen poised over a letter. Something in her knowing look reminds him, strangely, of Miranda.
"Do you like it?" Thomas says from behind him.
James turns, straightening his spine. He clears his throat. "Yes," he says, stiffly but, he finds, sincerely. "Very much."
Thomas comes to stand beside him, looking at the painting. James finds himself looking at Thomas instead, at the way he looks at the painting as if were more than oil and pigment and canvas. Like it is a whole story he is reading into the color and light. He is not holding the book, but he seems to have forgotten the argument he had been attempting to win.
"It's by an obscure Dutch artist," Thomas tells him after a moment. "Miranda and I have been looking for another for years now, but we've yet to find one. What he does with light is just incredible, don't you think?"
"Yes," James murmurs, just to reply. He hadn't noticed, but perhaps that's what it is, that makes something of canvas and pigment seem so real.
"Yes," Thomas murmurs as well, "quite incredible." He leans closer to the painting, and by doing so leans in closer to James: James tries not to make his slight intake of breath audible. "I've always wanted to visit the Netherlands--they seem to produce such extraordinary art, I'd like to see what the country itself is like."
"You didn't visit on your Tour?" James says, and it comes out slightly snide; he regrets it immediately, but isn't sure how to take it back. He doesn't seem to be able to control his reaction to Thomas in either direction, never sure when his words will come out sharp or overly soft, never sure, moment to moment, how he feels about Thomas, what his reaction to him will be. Thomas is like a storm he is caught up in, never sure where it will take him next.
Thomas seems unconcerned by his tone, however. "I never made it there," he says. He glances at James, and their gazes catch for just a moment. He seems to be considering something, before he looks back to the painting, and adds: "My elder brother died," saying it calmly, "and I became my father's eldest son and heir." His mouth twists slightly. "There was no longer time for tours of Europe."
James clears his throat, suddenly uncomfortable. "I'm sorry, I didn't intend to--" He gestures, ineffectively.
"It's all right," Thomas says, kindly, and James wonders at that, that he is the one blundering into Thomas's affairs and yet Thomas is still being kind to him. He is, continuously, unexpected.
James looks back to the painting. "I was stationed off Flanders for a few months, in '02," he says, after a few long moments, mostly for something to say, "but I never made it ashore. I never had much desire to--I've always thought of the Dutch as politicians and merchants."
Thomas smiles a little, real this time. "I suppose that would be the Navy's view of them," he says, but he doesn't sound snide. James is not sure he could. "I believe the Hartfords have quite the collection of Dutch painting--we should visit them sometime." James is about to protest, but Thomas doesn't give him a chance to; he walks over to the second door out of the chamber, and knocks upon it perfunctorily before opening it, leaning his shoulder against the doorframe as he asks, "Miranda, is it the Hartfords that have the Dutch painting collection, or the Haverfords?"
"The Haverfords," Miranda answers from inside the second chamber. "The Hartfords have the new Italian painting they've told everyone is a Gentileschi, but I'll have to see it for myself to believe that. They've invited us over to view it--you should invite the lieutenant to join us," she says, sounding amused, as if she realizes James can hear every word.
Thomas looks over to James, smiling a little. "Lieutenant? Are you amenable?"
James walks a few steps toward Thomas and the doorway, feeling somewhat awkward. At this angle he can see into what seems to be a study, Miranda seated at a desk whose back rises up to form a set of shelves, laden with books. She looks at him, eyes warm. Her gown today is a pale blue sink, and it swirls around the her and the chair she's perched on like water. She herself, James thinks, looks like a painting.
He clears his throat. "Would they not question my joining you?"
Miranda waves her hand in a careful, arch motion, as if it is no concern. The both of them posses a concerning disregard for propriety, but Thomas's seems much more natural, somehow, as if he genuinely does not see the boundaries of convention as he steps across them. Miranda's disregard seems more studied, as if she sees the boundaries quite well, and continues to make the decision to scale them anyway.
"The Hartfords left for the country last week," Miranda says; "they've merely invited us to view the painting. They cannot resist showing off, even in absentia." She and Thomas share a look, smirking at each other as if sharing an old joke. Then she looks back at James, and her mouth quirks up at him. "So you needn't worry about their judgement."
James considers protesting that that wasn't, exactly, what he was worried about, though upon second thought he wonders if it truly wasn't. "That's very kind," he says, hesitating.
"Is it?" Miranda asks, almost absently. "We do not invite you along as a kindness, Lieutenant; I believe I speak for both Thomas and I when I say we rather enjoy your company."
James feels his face heat, not unpleasantly, and he looks down at the carpet. Miranda is usually soft and kind, but occasionally she does this, speaks plain and pointed. She and Thomas both do this, push and keep pushing: Thomas seems to do so with curiosity, prodding until he finds something interesting, but Miranda does it as if she had already found the spot she wishes to target, and goes after it relentlessly. James thinks suddenly, and unexpectedly, that she would not make a bad Naval commander.
"So?" Miranda asks him. "What will it be, Lieutenant?"
"All right," James says boldly, looking up. He looks at her, and then at Thomas, who looks surprisingly pleased.
"Good," he says softly, and James doesn't know what to do with that at all.
"How would this afternoon work for you?" Miranda asks, businesslike, opening a small leather-bound book.
"Yes, my lady," James says, and Miranda glances at him, a softer, mischievous smile on her lips.
The three of them take the Hamiltons' carriage to the Hardfords' town house; they are greeted by the house staff, and the butler calls Thomas aside with a message from Lord Hartford. Thomas follows after him with an apologetic backward glance, and Miranda takes James's arm, murmurs, "Come with me." James glances at the footman who remains at the door, but he does not seem to be watching them.
Miranda leads him into a chamber off the front hall, walls draped in richly colored damask, on the far wall a sizeable painting of a naked woman, reclining back on a bed of some kind. James, suddenly uncomfortable, tries not to show it.
He's not sure he would be successful, except Miranda gives a little gasp, and her fingers tighten around James's arm. She says, "Oh, look at that."
She steps forward, but doesn't drop James's arm, and he goes with her, until they are standing a foot from the painting, and Miranda is leaning in closer. "How lovely," she murmurs, seemingly to herself.
James will admit he does not know the first thing about art: books he could borrow or steal or even occasionally buy, but paintings and tapestries and sculpture are mysterious to him. He has never had much desire to, learn more, honestly; the staid portraits and sea scenes hanging in the Admiralty seemed evident in their purpose, with little to interest him beyond the surface. Miranda looks at the painting the same way Thomas had looked at the painting of the woman in their dressing chamber, though, as if she is reading it as she would a book, and James considers that he might want to learn to see paintings that way; that he might want them to teach him.
He tries to pull back the thought as soon as he has it, not sure where it came from or where it was going but sure neither are good. He stares fixedly at the folds of the bed the woman lays upon, and the landscape beyond the painted window frame. Miranda has let go of his arm, the fingers of one hand pressed to her lips as she looks at the painting, and for a moment he is caught looking at her.
"I'd assumed the dealer had lied to them," she says, still only half to James, "but I do truly think this is a Gentileschi." She glances at James. "My father brought me one of her paintings from Italy when I was a girl, and I was captivated by it. The skill, the feeling."
"Her?" James repeats.
"Yes," Miranda says. "Artemisia Gentileschi. Taught by her father, and as good a painter as any man. The painting my father brought back for me was one of her self-portraits--I was fascinated by that, a woman painting herself." She looks contemplative. "Choosing how she is seen by the world."
James looks at her, and thinks of all the stories he's heard about her, before he was assigned to the Hamilton project and after it. The stories about Thomas are snide but the stories about her are malicious; meant not just as gossip, but to ruin a person. That she is not seems less and less remarkable the longer he spends with her, but just for a moment, he wonders if he sees a glimpse of the effort it takes, staying straight-spined under something like that.
Miranda recovers herself quickly, though. Her expression clears; she adds, "She was named after the general, of course. Ἀρτεμισίης δὲ τῆς μάλιστα θῶμα ποιεῦμαι ἐπὶ τὴν Ἑλλάδα στρατευσαμένης γυναικός."
James smiles, unexpected. He doesn't understand spoken Greek as well as he'd like, but he recognizes the passage. "ὑπὸ λήματός τε καὶ ἀνδρηίης ἐστρατεύετο, οὐδεμιῆς οἱ ἐούσης ἀναγκαίης," he quotes back.
They both look to each other, smiling with unexpected delight. James wouldn't have expected this of her; most likely, he thinks, she had not expected it of him.
"I always heard she was a pirate," James says, after a long moment. "Artemisia."
"Fitting, I suppose," Miranda says, with humor. "I don't know. Perhaps she just didn't do what anyone wanted her to."
"And that's what makes a pirate?"
They look at each other a moment. "You sound as if you admire her," James says, halfway to making it a question.
Miranda seems to consider this a moment, still looking at the painting, but also, somehow, beyond it. "I think freedom is in every case hard-won, and even harder to give up once you have it." She looks to James, gaze clever, steady. "You asked me, weeks ago, if I believe in what my husband believes. That is my answer."
James catches up for a moment. "You believe your husband's plans to be foolish."
Miranda looks away, shaking her head, a slight smile on her lips. James feels as if he has somehow missed the point entirely. "No," Miranda says after a moment. "I may not believe in my husband's plans, but I do believe in him, very much so." She looks back to James. "Do you understand?"
James is not sure he does, but he's not sure he should confess it, not sure he can ask her to explain. Instead, he looks back to the painting, before remembering that he had been trying to avoid looking at it too closely in the first place. He is not sure if he finds it more or less uncomfortable, now that he knows it was a woman painted the pink skin and soft curves of the woman.
When Thomas comes up behind them, James glances over his shoulder at him. Thomas is looking at the painting, but he seems to be able to tell when James is looking at him, and looks back. There is a smile in his eyes. "So," he asks James, voice low, glancing at Miranda, who is still standing enraptured: "what is the verdict? A Gentileschi?"
"Lady Hamilton believes so," James tells him.
"And you?" Thomas asks him.
"I haven't the slightest, my lord," James says dryly. Thomas laughs, quiet, and even Miranda, still absorbed in the painting, smiles.
"Honestly, neither have I," Thomas tells him. "Miranda is the true expert. It is rather fine, though," he adds, leaning closer, surveying it as unabashedly as Miranda is. His shoulder brushes against James's, and James has to resist doing something foolish, like flinching away, or leaning into him.
He looks at Thomas as Thomas looks at the painting, and thinks about what he had told him earlier: My elder brother died, and I became my father's eldest son and heir. He wonders if this is why Thomas seems so spectacularly unsuited to his role, why he seems so different than any titled man James had ever met before: that he was somehow untrained for it, grew around instead of through it. James knows that it's a ridiculous thought, but he can't help it, can't help trying to puzzle Thomas out like worrying a broken nail or fidgeting at a coatsleeve. Trying to understand him, fit in each new piece of him that he seems to give to James freely, unencumbered by what James had always thought was an instinctive reticence that all people held.
Thomas turns to him then, smiles not with any intent, but as if it is as natural as breathing. James does not, he thinks, after the time they have spent with each other, the pieces of himself Thomas has given over to him, understand him at all.
Thomas looks back to the painting and James looks at both of them, their faces mirrors of each other as they look at it. He wonders if this is what Miranda was saying, something in the way their faces, outwardly different, can hold the same expression, their eyes see out the same.
He does not understand it, but, looking at them, he thinks he'd like to.
After the day in the carriage, after James reaches to take Miranda's hand and she kisses him like he's never imagined someone could be kissed, they begin to fuck everywhere. James's room and the carriage again and the box at the theatre and the library of Lord and Lady Havisham, during what Miranda terms a particularly terrible harpsichord performance and what James hadn't been listening to at all, distracted by the curve of her shoulder and the deep neckline of her gown and the slight skeptical frown between her eyes as she listened. James can't ever remember wanting a woman like this, has never had the opportunity or the desire to fuck anyone more than a few hurried times. It is heady, all his sense fleeing from his mind whenever she touches him, even the slightest brush of her fingertips over his shoulder or the back of his hand; even when she so much as looks at him.
The rest of the time, he has too much sense: he thinks about it endlessly, tries to untangle the moral threads of this affair. He is betraying Thomas, he knows, in some fundamentally understood way. Miranda had assured him that Thomas doesn't care--more than that, that he would approve in some way that is evidently understood between the two of them but that leaves James at a loss. She has even suggested that Thomas does know, in specifics, about her and James, but James cannot fathom that, and does not like to think on it, when thinking on it twists something low and dark in his stomach. She is trying to put him at ease, and that he appreciates. But Thomas, however much he is better than other men, somehow above them, is still, at the end of it, a man, and James knows that if he truly knew he would be livid. He has seen Thomas angry only a very few times, and then only at phantoms, at ideas and beliefs: he does not like to think what he'd be like with that anger pointed at James.
But he does not do anything to stop this thing between him and Miranda. He might think to accuse her of some witchcraft, of an intoxication she holds in the sweet, filthy way she kisses him, in the way she smooths his hair back from his forehead after she has tugged it from its queue and the way she looks at him like she knows everything about him, even the parts he has never himself understood.
But in truth, he knows, it is only him, and his instinct for his own destruction. If he is given the choice, he will always choose wrong; if he is given the opportunity, he will always throw the punch, always spit the insult, always reach out and touch what, whom he should not. That is what he is most afraid of in himself: not the capacity, but his inability to restrain himself from enacting it. His own mind, his own heart, have always been mysterious to him.
So he lets Miranda escort him to whatever beautiful thing she has found this week, and they are all beautiful, and none of them are as beautiful as her. So he pulls her into whatever dark corner or empty room or deserted garden he can find, and kisses her until he loses all sense, until sense itself becomes unwanted. So he fucks her, or she fucks him, and he doesn't think about Thomas through any of it, he doesn't, not once.
So when she says, in the carriage outside the Hamiltons' house after a day spent at Vauxhall with no opportunity for more than a fleeting touch to her arm, "You should come in," he hesitates only long enough for her to add, "Thomas is away for the day," before he says, "All right."
She has barely led him into the dressing chamber before he is kissing her, or she is kissing him; she plucks his hat off his head, tosses it onto the settee, and he works open the clasp of the cloak that rests in the hollow of her throat. She helps him pull off his coat and it crumples onto the rug. She pulls away just long enough to give him a wicked smile, pulling him through the doorway that connects the dressing with the bed chamber.
It is then that James realizes he hadn't thought about this: the part of this that meant he and Miranda would be fucking in her and Thomas's bed. An idiotic thing not to have thought about, he curses himself, and he calls it surprise, calls it anger at himself, when he feels a deep pull of something in his stomach.
He has frozen just a moment, but Miranda has noticed. She doesn't say anything, and James doesn't wait to find out if she will: he presses his mouth against hers again, open and fierce.
She gets him out of his belt and waistcoat with quick fingers, and he glances again at the bed. It's huge, with lavish velvet hangings; it is too easy to imagine Thomas and Miranda in it, together, and his mind seems to black out for a moment at the thought.
"James," Miranda says, her hand on his cheek: he looks back to her, and can feel his face heat under the cool press of her fingers. He reaches for the lacings at the back of her gown, begins loosening them, and kisses her again.
She slips out of her gown as soon as it is loosened enough, and he unties her petticoats to pile with it on the carpet. They pull apart and he sits gingerly on the edge of the bed to pull off his boots; she begins to work at getting herself out of her stays, and once he has his boots off she comes to stand in front of him, facing away, and he helps her out of them the rest of the way. She had taught him to do this, the first time they had taken long enough to fuck that they had managed to get out of their clothes: he remembers her explaining how to undo the lacing in a low voice, his fingers clumsy with lust. He had been embarrassed, wondering if this is something that most men knew, should know. She was never impatient or exasperated, though, never suggested that she suspected something of him. Now neither of them have to say anything: James wonders if that means something, that they have done this enough to create a routine for it.
He finishes unlacing her, and they quickly shed the rest of their clothes: it is Miranda who pushes back the counterpane, pulling James with her onto the white sheets. He follows, helpless not to, despite the fact that every particle of him feels aware that this is Thomas and Miranda's bed, where they sleep together and fuck each other, where perhaps they sit up and read or talk late into the night. There is a whole life in this bed he is being pulled into, despite the fact that he feels he could not, he should not belong.
He wants to, though. When he is being kind to himself he thinks maybe this is why he followed Miranda so willingly into this affair: he wants to become a part of the life she and Thomas have together, despite that this is the very opposite of the way to do that, despite that it is this that is most likely to get him thrown out forever from what he craves of them so fiercely. He wants to be drawn into their life as easily as Miranda has drawn him into their bed, despite that he knows he cannot be, not the way he wishes.
But still, he follows Miranda into the bed, lays back against the crisp sheets despite that he is aware of every place his skin touches them. Miranda climbs on top of him, hair still pinned up atop her head, one perfect curl resting along the side of her neck. He hasn't yet seen her hair completely undone, and he thinks it would be lovely.
She rolls her hips and James can feel her press against his stomach, warm and already so wet. He catches a moan in his throat and reaches between her legs, feels her: lets two fingers slip inside her. She hums with pleasure, a low, throaty sound, and as he begins to move his fingers inside her her eyes fall closed, her mouth open slightly in a gasp and then in a smile. She is the only person he's ever fucked who smiles during it: sometimes she laughs, a helpless giggle of pleasure that he finds delightful. She seems to enjoy having sex more than anyone he's ever met, more than he himself ever considered sex to be enjoyable: he has spent his life viewing it as something between a necessity and an inexpertly rigged bomb, something he must handle gingerly less it destroy him. Something about the pleasure Miranda gets from it makes him enjoy it more, though: he finds himself hiding a smile against her shoulder sometimes, listening to the sounds she makes when he's inside her, small gasps and musical laughs.
She slides off his fingers, wraps her own fingers around the base of his cock and holds herself steady with her other hand splayed on his chest as she lowers herself down onto it. He grips her waist, holding them both steady; she makes a sound low in her throat, and he bites his lip, feeling her warm wetness around him.
They find a rhythm--easier now that he is less hesitant, that they have learned how to work with one another. She leans down over him, and he feels her breath on his cheek; he lets go of her waist with one hand but then hesitates, hand hovering in the air. She finds it with hers, guides it to her breast. She smiles as he makes tight circles with his thumb, bites her lip and looks at him with warm dark eyes.
His mouth falls open a little as she grinds back on him, and she smiles more sharply. Her hips begin to roll more quickly, and he keeps pace; her fingers curl on his chest, digging her fingernails into his skin. He tries not to arch up into the sensation, tries not to dig his own fingers into her hard enough to make a mark. This, at least, he can keep his head about; it had not been one of her rules that she had laid out clearly and unabashedly when they first began this, but he knows it as a rule nonetheless, that he cannot leave evidence on her that Thomas might see.
He shuts his eyes tight--don't think of Thomas, he tells himself, not right now, Christ--and only opens them again when he feels Miranda's hand on his face, her thumb brushing over his cheekbone. Her eyes are glazed slightly with pleasure, but the way she looks at him makes him not want to close his eyes again, wants to continue to watch her watching him.
She stills above him, hand falling to his shoulder as if to steady herself. He feels her clench down around him and she cries out, breathless, but through a smile. Another wave seems to hit her, and she tosses her head back, giving another, higher-pitched cry. He watches her, transfixed, and she when she looks back down at him she is still smiling, looking at him in that way again.
She leans down to kiss him and he arches his neck, lifting his head to meet her. After a few moments she eases off him, and his mouth opens further against hers; she wraps her fingers around his cock and he makes the smallest noise into her mouth. She breaks the kiss, pulling back just enough to watch him as she strokes his cock: he feels exposed, as he always does, but it is not as unpleasant a feeling as he would expect it to be. It makes something squirm low in his stomach, pleased and aroused and embarrassed; he wraps his fingers around hers, giving himself some kind of control, however much in his own head.
It doesn't take long before he feels the hook in his stomach, before he comes, throwing his head back on the pillow and biting down hard on his lip to keep himself from making a sound. When he comes back to himself, still in a haze, he reaches for Miranda, crushes his mouth to hers. She lets him, mouth staying soft against his, guiding him into something less desperate, less wild.
He follows her, until they are kissing with something close to sweetness. He falls into it until he begins to think about it, thinks about them kissing like this in her and Thomas's bed. This, right now, does not feel like an affair: this feels deeper than that, but he knows, he knows it cannot be. He is angry, then, in a short sharp flash: with her but mostly with himself, the part of him that wants this too badly, wants too much, always.
He pulls back, and she lets him go. She climbs off him, settles against his side: close enough that he could stay, but letting him go if he wants. He rolls over, away from her, swinging his legs off the bed.
He pauses there for a moment, a moment of sudden regret at leaving her. But it is better, he thinks, if he goes. Or if not better, than clearer; easier to understand.
He stands, gathers his shirt from the floor and pulls it over his head without looking back at her. The languid feeling still in his bones has not gone yet, but this at least he is used to, sudden alertness bolting through the heavy pleasant feeling he gets after sex. He pulls on his breeches, buttoning them at the fly and the knees, and pulls his stockings out from under the folds of one of Miranda's petticoats.
When he's nearly finished dressing he looks around for his coat, remembers that they had left it with his hat rather unceremoniously in the dressing chamber. He finishes buckling his belt over his waistcoat, and the goes back over to the bed, where Miranda is still lying naked, unabashedly watching him dress. She reaches out, hooks two fingers between the buttons of his waistcoat, but doesn't do anything further: it is him who leans in, finds her mouth with his. Kisses her perhaps too hard, but she does not try to temper him this time.
"Goodbye, James," she says; he nods a little, and walks to the door, steps out to the dressing chamber and closing the door behind him.
He remembers Miranda pushing his coat off his shoulders, remembers where she had tossed his hat to the settee. Neither are where he remembers them, and he looks at the spots in confusion for a moment, before he looks up, and realizes he is not alone in the room.
Thomas is standing at the table, a sheaf of papers in his hand and more in front of him, as if he were just looking for something. He looks at James absolutely mildly, a perfect opposite to the way it feels as if James has swallowed ice, freezing out his stomach, his lungs. Even the panic feels dulled, blossoming in his stomach with excruciating slowness.
"Hello," Thomas says, just as mild, as if he did not just catch James walking out of his wife's bedchamber--out of his bedchamber--as if it is not clear that Miranda is still inside, lying naked in the bed, and James wonders suddenly, panic sharpening, just how long Thomas had been out here, just how thick the door between the chambers is.
James cannot say anything, cannot move. Christ, he thinks, he still smells of her.
After a moment, Thomas picks up what James realizes is his coat, folded over the back of one of the chairs, his hat perched neatly atop it. "You might be needing these," Thomas says.
James makes himself take a step forward, then another. He feels strangely as if he is in a dream, everything around him tinged with unreality. Thomas hands him his coat and hat, and he takes them, fingers feeling wooden.
For a moment, just a moment, he searches Thomas's face for the anger that he knows must be there. But he still finds nothing; nothing at all but the familiar kind lines of Thomas's face that James has come to know so well over the past few months. There is, James thinks, the slightest bit of amusement in his eye, but then James looks away, and he thinks, he must've been mistaken.
He hesitates for another moment, too-long, some part of him giving Thomas the opportunity to rail at him, to throw him from the house. For he must: there is no way to misconstrue this situation, and not even Thomas, so determined to see only what he wants to in the world, could not possibly mistake it for anything but what it is.
But Thomas says nothing, does not shout or rage. He looks at James as if he in turn is waiting for James to say something, to do something, but James cannot possibly imagine what it might be.
Finally, James's instincts seem to recover him: his eyes look away from Thomas's gaze, and his feet move him forward, toward the door. He does not look back as he steps out into the hall, not once, but he can feel Thomas's gaze on him until he shuts the door.
And then Thomas kisses him, and James's whole world upends itself.
For a few drawn moments all he can do is stand there and let it happen to him, as if Thomas truly is the force of nature James has always known him to be. James kisses him back helplessly, reflexively, as if he cannot think to do anything else, and truly, he thinks, he cannot. Thomas's mouth is soft and his palm is a weight on James's shoulder, steady, as it feels as if James is about to shake apart. Kissing Miranda feels like forgetting but kissing Thomas feels like to opposite, like everything has been sharpened, colors made brighter and everything come into focus.
They pull apart so slowly, but it still aches, to be separated from Thomas even the slightest amount. Thomas rests their foreheads together, and James can see he is smiling.
James glances to the side, and remembers suddenly that Miranda has been here this whole time, has seen all of this. He feels his face heat slightly, but she is looking at them, and she looks like she understands it all. He has the sudden urge to ask her what exactly is happening, in this room, to him: like she will be able to explain it in a way that will allow him to make sense of it all.
She walks around the end of the table, to them. She puts her hand on Thomas's elbow, and she says, "Everyone will be here soon."
Thomas nods, his forehead knocking slightly against James's. James watches her fingers at Thomas's elbow tighten for a moment, a slight squeeze before she sweeps out of the room, her skirts rustling.
James swallows. "We should." He stops. "We should prepare what you're going to say."
"Yes," Thomas says.
There is a moment, a caught pause, and then James does not know which of them leans in again first but they are kissing again, hungry, starved for each other. There is a singing in James's chest, a giddy expansive feeling that threatens to choke him, to take him over completely. He holds tighter to Thomas's coat, wanting to get somehow closer to him and yet unsure exactly how, unsure exactly what this is. All he knows is that he wants to stay here, exactly here: cannot imagine himself outside this moment.
And now it is weeks later, he and Thomas and Miranda sat around the table in the study. They are, for once, quiet; they have spent hours now debating and discussing the next steps of the plan for Nassau, and the sky has gone dark outside. Candlelight wavers over the papers strewn on the table, glints off the empty places they'd eaten supper from.
Miranda didn't used to join them for these long discussions, though she often seemed to be a presence nonetheless: so many of Thomas's sentences began Miranda thinks-- or Miranda says-- or Miranda mentioned-- that she became the third point in their debates long before now.
Now, though, she joins them in the library to provide her points in person. James is not sure exactly how the shift came about, exactly what it means now that he is fucking Thomas but still sometimes fucking Miranda and sitting with them both in their library debating fine points of ethics and policy as if this all is perfectly normal. He doesn't know what any of it means, caught up entirely in their tempest; but more than the confusion, more than the fear it creates in him, he has began to lean into it, let himself try to understand this, all of this, beyond logic or convention or what he used to understand to be true. To say that he feels somehow safe would be ridiculous: Thomas and Miranda scare him more than anyone he has ever met, and being with them has always felt like walking along the edge of a cliff, exhilarating but so close to disaster. And still, nonetheless, that is the best way he can find to describe it: he feels safe with them.
And: He had found himself sitting up in bed a few nights ago, arms around his knees, when he'd thought Thomas was asleep beside him. Turning everything over in his head, trying to fit the pieces of everything into a whole. Thomas had rolled toward him, wrapped his fingers around James's ankle and rubbed his thumb over the knob of bone, back and forth. Tell me what you're thinking, he'd said.
James had thought how to reply. I don't know, he'd said, finally, and hoped that Thomas understood that it was not an evasion.
Thomas had squeezed his ankle, and James had looked down at him. Thomas's eyes were clear, looking up at him like he could look at James for the rest of his life. James had looked at him, really looked at him: Thomas's eyes were so bright and his hair was disheveled and the was a red mark at the base of his throat that James still can't believe he'd made, still can't believe the sounds Thomas had made as he did. Are you happy? Thomas asked him.
James remembered Miranda asking him the same thing, in this same room, and how utterly mystified he had been by the question then. He was no longer mystified, but that very lack was itself a mystery to him: he had set up his life within strict parameters of success and failure, simply a more abstracted version of the edge of survival and death he had lived on as a boy. All he wanted had been success within the Navy, an easily defined want, hard-edged, that he could use to push out all the others.
Happiness had occurred to him, perhaps, but only as a far-off dream, something that would come along if he was made admiral someday, maybe, if he was lucky; if he lived that long. Something he could find temporarily in a particularly good book, in an elegantly expressed idea or a clever turn of phrase. The way Miranda had asked it, the way Thomas asked it, happiness as a state of being he could attain now, here: he had never truly considered that.
But he had begun to consider it, increasingly. And perhaps most mystifying of all, he thought he knew the answer, and it was not what he had expected at all. I think so, he'd told Thomas, not quite managing to look at him. I think I am.
He'd glanced at Thomas then, and Thomas looked at him like he understood that James's hesitation was not at what he felt, but at the very fact of his feeling it, the wonder of it. But it was true, and it is true still, sitting here in the library with both of them, all three of them tired and frustrated but even that together.
There are papers and books strewn across the table between them, leaves of paper covered in a tangle of their handwriting, Thomas's bold elegant hand and Miranda's slender subtler copperplate and James's own, starting off perfectly looped and proportioned and then devolving into something messier and heavier. Thomas has his elbows on the table, head in his hands and a pen still in his fingers, his fingers shoved through his hair; Miranda is slumped down in her chair at an odd angle, trying, James now knows, to keep her stays from digging into her.
"Ultimately," Miranda says, pulling them all back from their reveries, pressing her fingertips to her temple, "ultimately, we don't actually need Alfred to agree."
Thomas makes a sound in his throat, an incredulous, exhausted noise. "Really."
She looks to James. "If we could get someone in the Navy, someone with a measure of control, someone Alfred would not care to displease, could it not become the Navy's project, with Alfred and the rest of the Lords Proprietor's blessing?"
"You know that I don't have even a fraction of that kind of influence," James says tiredly. He'd thought about it, of course, but he cannot see a way, even with both him and Hennessy petitioning, to see it through. "And besides, there's a war going on--the Admiralty doesn't want to hear anything but when their next budget is voted by Parliament."
"Yes," Miranda says, musingly. Thomas has lifted his head from his hands to watch them. "But Alfred hasn't tried to remove you yet--it seems he has some hope left in the endeavor, perhaps--" She looks at James, who realizes he must've made a face he hadn't intended. "James?"
James shifts slightly, uncomfortable. "Actually," he says. "He's been--" He glances at Thomas, who is suddenly sitting straighter in his seat, gaze sharp. "He's been attempting to reassign me."
"Damn him. Fuck him," Thomas bursts out. He throws the pen down on the desk, where it flutters uselessly. "Christ."
"And you didn't think to tell us this?" Miranda asks, one eyebrow raised.
James looks down at his hands. "I only heard of it recently. Evidently he's gone straight to the Lords Admiral, even Hennessy didn't know."
Thomas looks like he has a few more choice things to say about his father, but Miranda interrupts before he can. "Actually," she says, looking contemplative, "this might be--not a good thing, and please don't get yourself reassigned to a warship or something, dear, we'd miss you terribly--but it might help us."
"Help us?" James repeats skeptically, doing his best to ignore the flip in his stomach at her words.
"It tells us Alfred has neither given up on the project, nor has he given up on the Navy as an ally," Miranda says, leaning forward. "More importantly, it says the Navy itself has a stake in this plan now, and is unwilling to disrupt it even for Alfred's desires."
Thomas is sitting up straighter now. "What did my father tell the Navy to get them to cooperate with his plan in the first place?" he asks, going on too quickly to be looking for them to answer. "As you say, James, there is a war on. Why would the Navy give up one of its most able lieutenants to what might appear, to my own admittance, as a mere nobleman's fancy?"
James leans forward as well, understanding exactly what Thomas is saying. "He said it would help the war," he says. "If England cannot retain control of the Bahama Islands, they become irresistible to Spain, and the last thing England wants right now is for Spain to gain more territory in the West Indies."
"Of course," Miranda says. "The Navy is already dedicated to this plan, to such an extent that they appear to believe it is their plan, more than Alfred's and certainly more that yours," she tells Thomas. "And they seem to have some measure of faith in you, James, given that we have not yet heard from them of your removal."
"We needn't convince my father of anything," Thomas says, looking as if a dagger has just been removed from above his head. "We speak directly with the Admiralty, perhaps the Lords Admiral themselves, and work with them."
"That is not necessarily going to be easy," James says warningly. "The Navy is not very amenable to meddling from those outside it, even those sitting in the House of Lords."
"I believe that's why we have you," Miranda tells him, the corner of her mouth quirked up.
James tips his head, acknowledging, but says, "Even Hennessy does not have the kind of influence--"
"I'm not sure that's entirely true," Miranda says, "and even if it is, I dare say Thomas and I have enough influence together to more than make up for it." James must looks skeptical, as she raises her eyebrows challengingly, says, "Do you know how many Full Admirals' wives I drink tea with? How many Full Admirals themselves find me quite charming, particularly when I attempt to speak of politics with them, particularly if they feel they have a chance to find their way to my bed?"
James isn't quite sure how to respond to that, though he can feel the back of his neck heat slightly. She looks less challenging at his look, more amused. It is Thomas, though, who says, "I've often rued the day I realized my wife is better-liked than I am." He is smiling at her, though, a soft fond thing that has always made James feel as if he should look away from them, and yet never quite allows to him to. "Not to mention more influential."
"To be fair," Miranda points out, smiling back at him, "you very much brought it upon yourself."
"The idea of being the House of Lords's charming eccentric turned out to be much more romantic than the reality of it, it's true."
James can feel a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth; all three of them are nearly giddy with the idea that they might truly do this, that there is a path forward. There is so much unresolved, or at least paused--there is a way that the past weeks have felt like a hesitation, even as they have fought their way through what bars them from progress in the Bahamas project, even as he and Thomas have been near-inseparable as they revel in this thing between them, bright and new. Something about the three of them, right here, feels like it is different: a breath being let out, a step being taken forward. James looks at both of them, and he thinks, for perhaps the first time, that this might truly work.
The dressing chamber feels smaller now than it had when James first stepped inside it; the whole house has begun to feel smaller as he has spent more time here. Now, the night dark outside the windows, the brightness of the lamps creating a pool of light around the table where the three of them sit, it feels even smaller, in the best way: a world inhabited only by the three of them.
When James is here they had begun as a matter of habit to take supper in the library, eating around their papers and books and discussion. Tonight, however, Miranda had insisted they move to the table set in their dressing chamber, to have a meal where for once they could actually enjoy their food, and not come away with a single grease-spot on a single document. Thomas and James had agreed, somewhat chagrined, and James is glad of it; they have had for the first time in what feels like an age a conversation that had nothing to do with the West Indies, the Navy, or Thomas's father.
But now it is later than it should be, and James gathers the will to take his leave of them. It's become more difficult, he's found, as he spends more and more time with them: the inverse of becoming tired with one another, he finds himself less and less willing to leave them after entire days spent in their company.
But there seems to be a kind of unspoken agreement between them that he does not stay with either of them on night like these, but that he is only with Thomas when Miranda is not there, with Miranda only when Thomas is absent. So he thinks of the long carriage ride back to his room, and looks at the lamplight plays on Thomas's hair, on the jewel at Miranda's throat, but he still says, as the conversation lulls for a moment: "I really should be going."
Thomas and Miranda share a look, one of their looks whereby they understand each other perfectly, the kind of look James is still unsure how to read.
"Actually," Thomas says, looking to James. "We were wondering if you'd like to stay the night."
James glances between him and Miranda.
"With both of us," Thomas clarifies, as if he can see the gears turning in James's head. "We'd like to take you to bed, James. Together." He looks a bit amused. "Really, at this point it seems only sensible."
He has the tone of voice he uses whenever he is explaining an idea that he finds quite simple, and expects that you will as well, just as soon as you've caught up. That he is using it here, now, that he has just said what he said so plainly and easily, gives James the odd and slightly breathless urge to laugh.
He's thought about it--of course he's thought about it--but only ever as a vague, blurry-edged fantasy: Thomas and Miranda have so many rules and accords between them, unspoken but nonetheless clearly understood by them both, and James had assumed this was one of them. That Thomas could fuck him and Miranda could fuck him and they could, he presumes, fuck each other, but that none of this ever happened with the third person present, a triangle with all points connected, not filled in. He had been perfectly all right with it; more than all right. He had, for the most part, put it out of his mind.
But now Thomas is looking at him earnestly across the table; he glances at Miranda, and she is looking at him the same. And he thinks about it, and he can feel his face heat, his stomach twist pleasantly: he looks down at his plate, suddenly unable to look either of them in the eye.
"You don't have to give an answer now," Miranda tells him, "if you wouldn't like to. Think about it for awhile."
That, he wants to point out, seems even more torturous: now that he has begun to think about it, as a very real possibility, he is unsure he'll be able to stop.
And, truthfully, he knows his answer, knew it as soon as Thomas had made the suggestion, perhaps even before. But he's not sure he can say it, not sure he can respond to the way they both keep giving him everything he wants, without his even knowing that it is what he wants: how that can be somehow terrifying.
So he nods, still looking down at his plate. And then, easy as anything, Miranda says something about a new theatre being built and Thomas about a new Italian play coming over the summer and then they are back to having a perfectly normal conversation, as if they had not just suggested what they had suggested, as if James's mind is not still reeling from it.
He lingers a bit longer and then James truly makes to leave, the same as usual: neither Thomas or Miranda mention anything about it as they stand up, as James finds his hat, and he feels a strange disappointment. He wishes they would stop him, say, are you certain? wouldn't you like to stay? And he thinks about it, and he thinks about going back to his room in Wapping and having to think about it when thinking about it makes his stomach drop, makes the tips of his fingers want to reach out and touch.
They are all three of them standing at the door of the dressing chamber: this is usually when Miranda will kiss each of their cheeks and retreat back to her office, or Thomas with kiss them both on the forehead and excuse himself, and then the other will kiss James for real and he will walk down the stairs, walk out the door, and try to keep the smile from his face, try to manage, somehow, the expansive, glowing feeling in his chest.
He thinks about that feeling, and stalls at the doorway. Thinks about the way he wants them to stop him, and thinks to himself, godammit, for once just--
"Yes," he says. He's not quite looking at either of them, but he says it to Miranda: it seems easier, somehow, than facing Thomas. "That is my answer. Yes."
Thomas is close enough to him that James can hear his intake of breath. Miranda says, "James," softly.
Before he can lose his nerve, he leans forward, kissing her. Hoping that says all he needs to be said, and that he won't have to speak anymore, try to form words around what he barely understands.
Miranda kisses him back, soft, bringing a hand to his cheek; it makes him pause, go slowly, keep him from forging ahead blind the way a part of him wants.
Then he feels Thomas's mouth against the back of his neck, his fingers sweeping James's hair out of the way as he mouths over the knob of James's spine. James gasps into Miranda's mouth, forgetting for a moment what he is doing as he feels the sweep of Thomas's tongue over his skin. Miranda pulls back, but keeps her hand on his cheek, presses their foreheads together. He turns his head to press his mouth to her palm, and Thomas takes the opportunity to kiss the corner of his jaw, the side of his throat. James takes a shaking breath.
"Are you certain?" Thomas murmurs into his ear, lips brushing the shell of James's ear. James shivers, and thinks: it is a foolish question.
He twists his neck, tipping his head to find Thomas's mouth. He kisses him deeply: his answer, certain and sure.
Miranda kisses along the line of his jaw, light, feathery touches of her lips, and James opens his mouth under Thomas's. Her hand has slipped to the back of his neck, and Thomas has his hand on James's hip, steadying him. Even now, barely begun, it is overwhelming.
Moving to the bedchamber is a slightly awkward affair, none of them wanting to stop touching the other two; they trip over their feet several times, and James feels Miranda shaking against him as she laughs silently, watches Thomas's face break into a sudden smile. It is Miranda who thinks to light the lamps in the bedchamber; "After all," she says slyly, "we do want to see you." James feels his face heat slightly, not unpleasantly; Thomas smiles into his hair.
By the time they get to the bedchamber Thomas and James are half out of their waistcoats, cravats undone; Miranda disentangles from them to unpin her gown, slipping it off her shoulders. Once Thomas has tossed both his and James's waistcoats onto a side chair, he goes to help Miranda out of her stays. James focuses on pulling off his boots and unbuckling his garters, unbuttoning the knees of his breeches and rolling off his stockings, glad of all the small movements, glad of something to do with his hands; but he sneaks glances at the two of them, not sure exactly why he is being furtive about it. Miranda catches him, her eyes meeting his as Thomas unlaces her stays, his mouth to the skin behind her ear. She has untied her petticoats and kicked off her shoes, but even in only her stockings and shift, the way she is looking at him, looking at her makes his mouth go dry.
Then Thomas looks at him over Miranda's shoulder, and James swallows hard. Thomas pulls the last length of lacing out from the stays, and unwraps them from around Miranda's body; James can see her breasts through the light fabric of her shift, peaked, nipples hard. She leans back against Thomas, and he leans down, puts his mouth to the point just under the curve of her jaw. Neither of them look away from James.
Miranda raises a hand, beckons him closer. He goes, helpless not to, until he is standing in front of them, trying not to look at the place Thomas's mouth meets Miranda's skin and failing terribly. Miranda untucks his shirt from his breeches, and he helps her pull it over his head; then she unbuttons the front of his breeches, working open each button with, he thinks, excruciating slowness, her fingers brushing his cock that's hard and aching against the fabric. James is very aware of Thomas watching them, mouth still working at Miranda's throat, doing something at intervals to make her hum, pleased.
Thomas rutches Miranda's shift up to her hip, and James watches her skin being bared, her leg, the slightest sliver of her stomach. Miranda finishes unbuttoning his fly, but leaves him to remove his breeches himself; he hesitates, instead watching her allow Thomas to help her out of her shift.
James sits at the edge of the bed, and keeps watching, the way they turn in towards each other even as Thomas leans back enough to pull his shirt over his head in a smooth movement. James watches the long line of his back, the curve of it: knows exactly what the knobs of his spine feel like under James's fingers, knows how his shoulderblades feel under his hands.
They are both glancing at him: not staring, but checking. They both shed their stockings and then it is Thomas who comes to stand in front of James, between his legs, that James spreads a little for him without hardly realizing it. He can feel heat creep along the back of his neck when he does realize, but then Thomas is in front of him, and Thomas is too overwhelming in his very presence for James to think of anything else but him.
Thomas leans down, takes James's face between his hands. "Good?" he asks, eyes serious.
James nods, without having the think about it more than a moment. "Good," he says, and he's surprised his voice comes out as anything at all.
"Good," Thomas says again, softly, and then he leans down farther, kisses James. His mouth is warm and soft against James's and James doesn't think he'll ever get used to this, never quite remembers how good it is to be kissed by Thomas until it happens again.
He hears Miranda crawl onto the bed behind them, the whisper of the sheets as she pushes them back. When he and Thomas break apart he ducks his head to the side, watches her sit back against the pillows, completely naked. Thomas kisses his forehead, kisses his hair, small fleeting things; James wonders, with a sudden giddy feeling he tries to suppress, how he is going to survive anything more than this, just this.
Thomas pulls away only enough to shed his breeches, crawl onto the bed as well. James kicks his own breeches onto the floor and follows. For a moment he hesitates: is he meant to do something now, he wonders, meant to make a move, to choose.
But it is only a moment; Miranda leans in, her fingers, cool and dry, resting on the back of his neck. James follows her as she leans back again, bracing one hand on the mattress; he can feel Thomas's eyes on them, and his stomach does something odd, half arousal and half worry that Thomas will somehow realize, now that he truly sees James and Miranda together, that he does not truly want this at all.
When he glances at Thomas, though, Thomas has a warm look in his eye, the smallest of smiles around his mouth. James looks back to Miranda, and she is looking at him the same. He has the urge to look away, not sure how to do this, not sure how to handle this at all.
He leans his forehead against her shoulder, kisses the sharp line of her collarbone. Kisses, hesitantly, the pink mark Thomas had made behind her ear; she shivers, pulling him closer, and he grips her hip, pressing his thumb to the bone. He kisses the hollow of her throat, between her breasts, the curve of her stomach. He is nearly shaking, not sure if what he feels is nerves or excitement, or some combination of both: he can feel both Thomas and Miranda watching him and their gazes seem to burn against his skin. It is not an unpleasant feeling at all.
He kisses the hollow between her hip and stomach and then he puts his mouth to her, the strong, sweet taste of her on his tongue. She makes the smallest of sounds, a little catch of breath; she sinks her fingers into his hair, palm curving around the back of his head, guiding him.
He hears Thomas make a sound beside them, and then a hand rests, warm and solid, on his back, between his shoulder blades. James feels himself arching against it, feels Thomas's palm press against his spine. He runs his hand slow down James's back, and then up it again, like he is soothing him, and James finds that it works. He licks over Miranda's cunt the way she had taught him to, tasting her on his tongue, and feels her throb against him. There is so much, he thinks, so much happening, Thomas's hand on his back and Miranda's in his hair and his face buried between her legs, and it is too much, having both of them like this, but at the same time that it feels good, so indescribably good, that he never wants to stop.
He holds onto her thigh, bent up to give him better access, steadying himself as he continues to work his mouth on her. Her fingers tighten in his hair as she gets closer, and Thomas's hand presses against the small of his back, and his cock, trapped between his stomach and the bedclothes, throbs. Miranda's hips begin to stutter, and she says, voice thin, "James?" and James pulls back just enough to nod. When he presses his mouth to her again she rolls her hips up to meet him, and he moves with her, letting her fuck her hips up against his face.
He knows when she's about to come, her voice forming breathless little laughs, little half-words, oh--oh-- before making a sound that is almost a scream as it washes over her. Thomas's hand stills on James's back, and James holds onto her until her breathing slows.
He is loath to sit up, displace Thomas's hand, but he pulls back slightly. Miranda is lying back, languid, smiling at both him and Thomas in a way that never fails to stir something unexpected in James's chest. He cannot quite look at Thomas yet, but his hand stays steady and James risk sitting up, pulling his legs under him. Thomas's hand stays, between his shoulderblades; his other hand is on Miranda's knee, thumb tracing small circles on her skin. James wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, suddenly uncertain again.
He does not have long to be. Thomas leans down, kisses the inside of Miranda's thigh; they look at each other for a long moment, and then Thomas is leaning into James, kissing under his jaw, the corner of his mouth, nudging him into looking at Thomas. When he does, Thomas leans in farther, and kisses him deep and filthy, licking the taste of Miranda from the inside of James's mouth. James clutches at him, making a sound that feels pulled from deep in his throat.
When they pull back James is breathing hard, and Thomas is not much better. Thomas looks to Miranda, but James is not sure he can, buries his face against Thomas's shoulder instead. He presses his mouth against the bone there, then against the side of Thomas's neck; Thomas's hand on his back holds him tighter, and Thomas shivers, though it feels like James's own skin is on fire. He is still not used to the way Thomas reacts to him, doesn't think he'll ever manage to get used to it.
Thomas pulls James toward him; Miranda disentangles her legs from them, and, one hand on James's hip, Thomas twists them, pushes James down onto the the bed. James makes a small sound he can't keep in, arches his back off the mattress; next to him, he hear Miranda make a small, appreciative sound. She has rolled onto her side to face them, head propped up on her hand.
Thomas is leaning over James to reach the bedside table, pushing aside the stacks of books and papers to reach a small bottle of oil. He sits back, watching James as he uncorks it: making his intentions clear, letting James stop him if he wants. James doesn't want to stop him, though, watches Thomas dip one finger into the bottle with baited breath. It is not cold, exactly, when Thomas touches him, but James resists the urge to squirm: it is still an unexpected sensation, an unexpected angle. They haven't done this much yet, and certainly not like this, Thomas looking into his eyes and James helpless not to look back. He is still not sure exactly how he feels about it, a twist of shame in his stomach when he thinks about it too hard, that only twists sharper when he thinks of how much he enjoys it. They've only actually fucked like this a couple of times: usually, with a hand on his cock, James comes with only Thomas's fingers inside him. Thomas doesn't seem to mind at all, whispering impossibly sweet, impossibly filthy things in James's ear as he takes him apart with his fingers.
Thomas pushes one finger inside him, and James makes a small, broken sound he can't seem to control. He wraps his fingers around Thomas's upper arm, desperate for something to hold onto; when he pushes in farther James digs his nails into his skin.
When he pulls out just enough to add a second finger, James lets out a breath like he's been punched. He unclenches his fingers from the bedclothes, reaches blindly for Thomas: it is too much and he needs more of him, the kind of paradox that Thomas inspires in him constantly. His fingers scrabble for purchase in Thomas's short, fine hair, pulling him closer, and Thomas comes to him willingly. James isn't sure he has enough coordination right now to kiss him, as Thomas pushes his fingers inside him another fraction of an inch and James can feel a cry caught in his throat: he presses their foreheads together, feels Thomas's staggered breathing on his lips, brushes their mouths together in a kind of almost-kiss.
After a moment, he glances to the side, Thomas's lips brushing over the corner of his mouth, his cheek. Miranda is watching them, propped up on her elbow, eyes bright and her lower lip caught between her teeth. When James looks at her she meets his eyes, smiles a little.
He knows she knows: she had watched Thomas kiss him in the dining room, and he is certain that she knows enough of sex to know what two men do together. Besides that, James is equally certain that she and Thomas talk about things that anyone else, even married couples, would be embarrassed to discuss, and that Thomas has told her what he and James do together just as surely as she has told him what she and James do. That abstract he is fine with; he even, possibly, likes it. But here, now, knowing that she is watching as Thomas twists his fingers inside him, he is not sure what he feels. They had done things together that had barely occurred to him as things you could do, but he had never let her do this to him: it felt too much, too close to what he was trying to avoid. He wonders now, too, if he hadn't wanted her to know what it would do to him, worried that she would think less of him.
That all seems perfectly futile now, but that worry, tenacious and infective, remains. Even as she is looking at him, eyes warm and dark; he has the same worry about Thomas even as Thomas is the one with his fingers inside him. He doesn't know what to do with it, doesn't know how to banish it from his heart except ignore it, best he can, let the warm pleasure he feels right now, in their bed, Thomas on top of him and Miranda beside him, try to banish it.
Thomas pushes his fingers in farther and James gasps, open-mouthed. Letting himself move in blind instinct he wraps his fingers around his cock, begins to bring himself off as Thomas pulls his fingers out slightly only to push them back in again, farther. James makes a sound he hardly even recognizes, and it only takes a few more strokes before he is coming, so hard his vision seem to dim for a moment.
When he comes back to himself Thomas is still looking down at him, easing his fingers out of him. James gasps a little at the loss; he feels oversensitive, every nerve raw. Thomas goes slow, lets James dig his fingernails into his arm; when he's eased his fingers all the way out he leans in, kisses James as he reaches blindly for something on the table beside the bed, coming away with a linen towel to wipe his fingers on.
It occurs to James in that moment that they had planned this, that they had prepared for the eventuality that James might say yes. It creates an odd little flip in his stomach, thinking about them talking about this, about him, about what this night might entail.
They break the kiss, and Thomas kisses the corner of his mouth, the line of his jaw; he murmurs in his ear, "What would you like now?"
James doesn't know how to respond for a moment, not used to being asked something like that, so straightforward; not sure, exactly, what he does want, everything so much and so good. But then it occurs to him, sudden and fully-formed, from some barely-acknowledged corner of his mind. He swallows, and Thomas pulls back enough to look him in the eye. James can feel Miranda's gaze on them, and his mouth feels suddenly dry.
"I'd like to--watch," he says, and he's impressed he gets the words out at all: his entire face feels as if it's on fire. He swallows again. "If that's all right."
He can't quite look at either them as he says it, and he appreciates that there is some irony in that. But then Miranda says, "Of course," and James looks up just enough to gauge Thomas's reaction. Thomas is looking at both of them like he finds them wondrous.
James looks away again, but then Thomas is leaning back in to kiss him, short and sure, and he feels Miranda's fingers trail over his shoulder. Then Thomas is sitting up, and Miranda is crawling toward him across the bed; they are looking at each other with a playful look in their eyes as Miranda climbs onto his lap, knees sinking into the mattress. James sits up, kneels on the bed.
Thomas brings his hands to her waist, and she arches up into his grip, bringing her arms around his neck; he ducks his head, laving his tongue over the peak of her breast. She makes a little pleased sound, smiling at him, and then she turns, looks at James with the same smile. Thomas looks up, following her gaze, and he is smiling, too, the same: sharp and clever and playful still, like they can see right through James in all the best ways. James takes a breath, unsteady: part of him wants to look away but he can't, not now. He doesn't want to.
Thomas uses his hands at Miranda's waist to guide her down onto his cock, and they both gasp a little, together, Thomas leaning in to press his temple to her cheek. They have both closed their eyes, but once they establish a rhythm, hips rolling in coordination, they open them again. James feels pinned in place by their gaze, steady but with a glint in both their eyes, watching James watch them. James is transfixed; he knows he won't be able to get hard again but his body wants to, and he wonders if, perhaps, they might do this again when he could.
Then he realizes he is already thinking about next-times, about a future for whatever this is, and he feels a different kind of pull in his stomach. There is a spiraling feeling he gets around Thomas and Miranda that only seems to intensify right here, right now, next to them in their bed: he wants to be here, always.
Thomas murmurs something in Miranda's ear, and she nods, rapidly. He changes the angle slightly, wraps his arm around her back and reaches his other hand between them. It isn't long before Miranda begins to make the small, breathy sounds that James knows means she is close to coming, changing to small, rhythmic cries before her thighs tighten around Thomas, and she cries out, head thrown back and her whole body going still as she comes. He fucks her through it, and she clutches at him, fingers threading through his hair, making little gasping sounds.
Thomas rests his head on Miranda's shoulder, looking at James as he thrusts up into her. His eyes are soft, and warm, and dark, and James feels caught by them.
Then Thomas's eyes close, his mouth opening in a quiet gasp. His fingertips press into Miranda's back, holding her tighter, and then he reaches out, hand finding James's leg where he in knelt next to them. His fingers hold tight, just above James's knee, and slowly, cautiously, James puts his hand over Thomas's. Holds onto him as he holds onto James, and feels his fingers tighten under James's as he comes, with a cry that's muffled against Miranda's shoulder.
As his breathing evens out, he turns his hand over under James's, laces their fingers together. Miranda's hand is still in Thomas's hair, and James watches her fingers card through it, slow small movements. She rests her head on top of Thomas's, and the way they are both looking at him is--incredible, he thinks, asking a question and yet secure it whatever the answer might be. James has the feeling he could get up now, put his clothes back on and leave and they would never have to talk about any of this ever again. It is perhaps that knowledge that makes him so absolutely certain that that is exactly what he does not want to do: for once he has a way out and does not want to take it, a way to turn away that he does not want to follow. His own heart, so often obscure to him, has become somehow clear.
Some of that must show on his face: it must, the wonder of it near overwhelming him. Thomas squeezes his hand, and James squeezes back. Miranda climbs off Thomas and leans in, kisses James's hair before lying back on the bed, gazing at the both with a smile tucked into the corners of her mouth. She holds out a hand, and James senses Thomas at his side; he looks up at James from under his eyelashes and then kisses his shoulder, nudging him forward.
He looks back to Miranda, and crawls to her across the bed, towards her outstretched hand. Thomas follows him, lying down on his other side, eyes already half-closed. He wraps his fingers around James's wrist, though, tugs him gently down, and James does, lies down between them with his head pillowed on Miranda's arm, Thomas's fingers still around his wrist. They are both looking at him, smiling softly. He looks back at them, and he does not look away.