He looked different without the glasses, unfamiliar. The pince-nez left pressure indentations on the bridge of his nose – just where one might try to press their fingers into an insistent headache – dark blood rushing into the craters, his eyes young and earnest without the thick lenses guarding them. I had never seen him like that before. Even out in the country, first in the morning, hair still tousled and wrapped in a rumpled robe reading the paper out loud to Camilla over breakfast, the pince-nez sat on his face putting the world into focus. Without them, his gaze was unfocused on mine, clouded and a little off kilter.
My eyes slipped away from his as soon as his hand dipped back into my shirt.
“Francis,” I tried one last time, but the objection died on my lips as his knuckles pressed into my sternum to tease open another button. How I’d done the shirt up inside out in the first place escaped me; I’d practically been trembling with terror at Mona’s: fumbling with my zipper in the dark, desperately trying to shove the tail end of my shirt into my trousers as I clattered down the stairs of her dorm, but I hadn’t missed a single button.
My clothes were still cool and damp from falling headlong into the snow and Francis’ hands were almost scathing under the fabric of my shirt, skating over the chilled skin underneath. It sent a shiver up my spine, gooseflesh crawling up my back in its wake, and I exhaled hard into his ear. His lips found my neck again, nails catching on my flanks, and I thought of Mona: me, kissing sloppily down her body and her, scratching at me in turn. In the disorienting Demerol fog, Francis somehow managed to be both of us at once, and I existed somewhere solely outside my own body.
“You know,” he said in a whisper that stripped his voice of all its gendered depth, “Henry told me not to come.”
“What?” I said. My heartrate had picked up by several paces, the jangle of nerves returning as he spoke.
“When you called, I insisted we should check up on you – you were all alone, after all; Charles and Camilla have one another and I was with Henry, but you … He said it was too risky, that we’re supposed to avoid each other for the rest of the night, but I couldn’t sleep at the thought of you here, alone, quietly going out of your mind.”
“I wasn’t-” I started to say, because there had been Judy and the party and then Mona, but Francis shook his head, lips brushing against my shoulder as he did, and the startled hitch in my breath cut me off. He smiled, devil cat grin tugging at my skin.
I cleared my throat and tried again. “I’m glad you came,” I said evenly like we were still having a normal conversation across the table, composed and far apart even though he was too close for me to make him out in detail – all warmth, wandering hands, and blurred lines.
It was almost easy like this, to forget it was him. In the front seat of Henry’s car only hours before, Francis had cut a sombre, boyish figure: black wool overcoat hanging off him in straight lines, gold rimmed lenses drawing attention to his crooked nose, red hair gelled down neatly to the right of his too deep side part. He wasn’t built like Bunny or Henry, lacked the tackling shoulders of an athlete and the height to tower over me. Instead, he had wet, puffy lips that were trailed my skin in sloppily drawn parabolae and delicate fingers that had never met any harsher labour life than wielding a fountain pen.
Up close, Francis was a soft creature. I thought of the first time he’d tried to kiss me – the two of us out on the lake in a rowboat like two English poets in the ‘20s, his hair aglow in a bright, lukewarm summer afternoon. Then, frozen out in the open like that, the ripples in our reflections vanishing as the water surface smoothed out beneath us with all the world watching with bated breath, the sounds of a forest alive everywhere around us, it had been as easy for me to reject him as it had been for him to recoil genially, to laugh it off and lean away, but this time around was different.
In the dim cocoon of an icy April night – tucked away behind closed curtains in my poorly lit dorm room – pushing him away seemed impossible. The enormous tension surrounding the whole debacle with Bunny had sat heavy in my bones for months; it had sucked the life out of everything until the very moment Bunny went over the cliff and now that he was gone, it all came rushing in in vibrant technicolour, too pretty to resist.
Francis bit at my earlobe, a quick, painful nip that made my leg jerk forward between his thighs. He pressed me into the desk while I was off balance, the edge so insistent against the back of my thighs that I let him tilt me backwards into sitting on it.
The protests flitting nervously around the fringes of my thoughts hadn’t quieted, but no matter how hard I tried to grasp for them, the opioid haze always seemed to swallow them whole before their vague, worrying shapes materialized into anything concrete.
Knowing that if I gave anything we were doing much thought, I wouldn’t be able to go through with it, I chose to distract myself: I tugged Francis back by the hair – his slicked-back strands coming loose between my fingers – and mashed our mouths together experimentally. He tasted of salt this time around, the echo of my own sweaty skin from hours ago.
It was addictive.
His tongue was harsh but pliable, came and went like the tide, pushing in only to be chased out again a moment later when I pushed back. I found keeping my hands in his hair was easy even though the too short strands felt strange – waxy and stiff, constantly slipping from my grasp.
His hands found their way back into my shirt to paw open the remaining few buttons before he tugged the tails of it out of my trousers without warning. The cool air lapping at my skin left me feeling oddly exposed so that I bit my lip and shivered in the wake of his warm fingers dipping into the heat of my waistband.
It was only a thumb, in an inch and gone again at a moment’s notice. Still, it was enough for a horrible keening noise to erupt from the back of my throat, guttural and utterly embarrassing; nothing had taken me by surprise like that since the first time I’d had a mouth on my cock at seventeen.
Francis’ breath came hot and amused against the side of my cheek, not quite a chuckle, but something approaching one. It reminded me of his hidden little smiles in the library when we’d sit doing our Greek after class, everyone but Henry crowded around a too small table, and Bunny would say something idiotic. He used to share those smiles with Camilla when I first met them, but gradually they had begun gravitating towards me – a split second, lopsided mirth that spoke of guilt, delight, and malice at once.
It had an unusual duality tonight, being directed at me whilst also being at my expense, but I forgot about it the moment I felt his nails scrape against the soft flesh beneath my belly button as he grasped the front of my trousers to undo the button.
Then the sound of the zipper, obscene in the stock-still quiet of Monmouth house this time of night. Francis shoved his hand unceremoniously into my already too tight pants and suddenly I was glad my face was obscured in the crook of his neck, because the shuddering breath that fled my lungs was humiliating enough without having him look at me.
The breath I took was heavy with his cologne. It tingled in my nose, clean and masculine, the complete opposite of the floral wafts I’d been chasing for years. I thought of Mona’s bubble gum lip gloss four hours before, the veil of her vanilla hair floating around me as I struggled with the clasp of her bra.
Francis’ hands in my trousers were large but no less deft for it. One found its way found its way into my briefs while the other travelled back up along my chest, the mere ghost of a touch, far too intimate and reverent for my tastes at the time. I thrust into his hand impatiently, suddenly keen to get things moving, because if we didn’t, my thoughts would catch up with me and whatever this feeling he’d lit in me was would be snuffed out in an instant.
Thankfully, Francis got the hint. His fingers wrapped around me, claustrophobic in the folds of my clothes, but I was aching and too far gone to care. Somewhere in the back of my mind, it registered that he had an erection too and that it was rocking unsteadily into my right thigh. On any other day, that would have been cause for alarm, but Bunny’s murder and the Demerol had left me in a kind of daze where everything was hyperreal and yet far enough removed that none of this was really happening to me .
The warning bells were too disjointed from the pleasure sparking under my skin to register properly, every inch of skin Francis’ fingers roamed over a discrete variable processed, packaged, and shoved into the dark alcoves of my mind in a single moment.
I was about to tell him to get on with it and stop being such a tease – knuckles stroking along the underside of my jaw; fingertips down the column of my neck, dipping into the hollow behind my collarbone with interest – but Francis chose that exact moment to give his other wrist a cruel twist, the palm of his hand sliding up the shaft of my cock fast, and all I managed was a broken: “G-ah!”
He slowed after a few strokes, thumbing torturously over the tip, and my hips stuttered forward on their own account with the sudden sound of papers jerking forward on the desk. I could sense Francis’ self-satisfied smile even without looking at him. We both knew my notes for the week would be ruined.
I couldn’t bring them to Greek class creased and smudged without thinking of him. The mere thought of our eyes meeting across the intimate academic circle filled me premature mortification. I tried to push it away, because the only way I could get through this – and it was too late to stop now – was not to think of Francis as I knew him: sardonic, intelligent, and watchful in a way Henry wasn’t. Angular and ablaze in the early morning light of nine am classes at the start of winter, sober and pragmatic at Henry’s as we parsed through what we would do about Bunny.
I groaned into his shoulder and let my teeth sink into the meat there through the starched white fabric of his shirt. He was dragging me closer and closer towards the edge of a cliff I wasn’t sure I was ready to go over yet, the consequences of a leap like that appearing grave even in my addled state.
“Come on,” he coaxed, voice low and rough, but unmistakably his.
It should have put me off but didn’t. Instead, I felt a tense ripple run up my thigh and worm its way into my abdomen where it curled into a tight fist that throttled the last little bit of reason and restraint I had left.
It was the tell-tale sign – the ocean withdrawing before it inevitably came back, crashing over me in a six-foot wave. I screwed my eyes shut in the face of the orgasm that had started to unfurl and tore its way out of me with a desperate shout. It came in furious, searing shockwaves that knocked the breath right out of me – ἡδονή , my mind supplied kindly. The precipice I’d been perched on gave way to an abyss.
For a moment, my mind flashed to Bunny: his hands scrabbling at the dwindling ground in slow motion and then nothing but his wide-eyed disbelief as he finally slipped and fell, as what we’d done to him dawned on him.
The image shocked me back to my senses, my room gradually filtering in from the edges inwards. I became aware of the socks on the radiator, my coat on the floor, the teacups on the table. Francis was still slowly stroking me, his other hand cupping the back of my neck.
His grip loosened as soon as I took a deep breath, the unspoken agreement that this had never happened arising instantaneously between us.
“Francis, I can’t…” I said, gesturing vaguely at his crotch.
“Oh please, don’t concern yourself with that.” He withdrew his hand and wiped it on my thigh while I made a point of stuffing my cock back into my ruined trousers. I tried to do them up too, as if that would detract from the fact that Francis had just stroked me off, but my hands were trembling too hard.
“I should get going,” Francis said, taking a step back.
“You don’t have to,” I said even though we both knew I didn’t mean it. There weren’t any alternatives; we could hardly sit down for another cup of tea and pretend none of this had taken place.
Francis reached for his pince-nez and said, “Henry might swing by in the morning,” not specifying whether he meant his place or mine, and I didn’t ask.
He put on his socks, back turned to me and leaning on the wall by the radiator. I tried to tuck my shirt back into my pants when he bent down to lace up his shoes and picked my coat off the floor while he put on his. Neither of us said a word until he was ready to leave, and I stood by the door offering Francis his scarf.
“Thank you,” I said.
He merely nodded and wrapped himself tightly in the burgundy wool. “Of course.” He flipped the collar on his coat up to steel himself against the harsh trek back to his through snow swept Hampden. “Try to get some sleep,” Francis said, gloved hand on the doorknob, “and don’t tell Henry I came.”