“You aren’t?” James asked.
“That,” Francis said, “is correct.”
“Lady Jane specifically spoke of you. She requested your presence.”
Francis sniffed and looked back down at the letter he was drafting. He’d lost his place. “The invitation was addressed to you. My name was included as a courtesy; no more. I won’t be missed among her company.”
James’s voice was suddenly nearer. “You would be missed among mine.”
Looking up, Francis found that James had come around to lean against the desk, the invitation clasped lightly in both hands. Francis set down his pen so that he could slide the letter out of James’s grasp and replace it with his fingers. “You and I are always in one another’s company. Is a single dinner without me truly so great a trial?”
“No,” James allowed, “but it will not be an enjoyment, either, if you are not come as well.”
Faced with James’s large and earnest eyes, Francis could do no more than heave a sigh and rise from the chair. He began to mentally inventory all the small things he would now have to put off doing.
“If we must,” he said.
The invitation had claimed to be a small Gathering of Friends, and Francis knew this because he had snatched it away from James’s hands the moment their hansom cab pulled up short, stymied as it was by several others ahead of them and still a street away from the Franklins’ London house. It was stuffy in the cab, and when Francis had finished reading it over for the third time, he turned it into a fan. “Damnable woman,” he said.
“She is a widow, Francis,” James said reasonably. “She must be lonely.”
“She has Sophia,” Francis objected. “And all the fashionable ladies of London society leaving their calling cards meters deep, and, in a few years’ time, there are sure to be gentlemen as well.”
“Francis,” James protested.
Francis fixed him with an even stare, under which James un-crossed and re-crossed his legs. “I fancy I know better than most how these situations can put you off your ease,” he said.
Francis dropped the invitation in his lap and snorted.
“But let us be at peace. We will eat, and we will converse, and we will smile—yes, Francis, you will—and then we will go home.” He leaned forward and tucked a perfectly non-mussed strand of hair back from Francis’s forehead. “You may end up enjoying yourself.”
“I may also drop dead,” Francis muttered.
Lady Jane, by all reports, kept up a splendid table. It was as well, for there was nearly a score of guests milling around the drawing room when they arrived, the women gaudy in jewels and the men looking unbearably satisfied to find themselves in the house of Lady Jane Franklin, widow of the Arctic martyr, deeply in grief for her husband yet hostess of the most desirable parties, etc. etc.
Servants stepped lightly around the guests to turn up the lamps as evening encroached, and in their light, Francis sought out Sophia from the crowd sheer bad habit. Her slight flinch when she caught his eye confirmed Francis’s suspicions: he hadn’t been expected to attend after all. He drew himself up straighter. The collar of his jacket had been over-starched, and it itched if he let his chin drop.
“Francis,” Sophia said, drifting over. “Jane neglected to mention you were coming.”
She looked as if she had swallowed a mouthful of river stones. “I would not have come,” he admitted, “but—” Francis flicked his gaze across the room to where he knew James was huddled in conversation, his presence a constant in his perception, like a compass needle drawn always towards a pole. “The invitation was sent to James, and he mistakenly assumed Lady Jane meant to extend it to myself as well.”
Softly, Sophia said, “I see. I will speak to the butler about having a place set for you.”
Once he might have brushed a hand along her upper arm. No longer. “Thank you,” he said.
Several minutes elapsed before James made his way back over. In that time, Francis was twice forced to refuse an aperitif, and successfully deterred any who tried to approach with the force of his frown.
James settled himself near, but not too near, at Francis’s side. “What did I say about smiling?”
“Give me reason,” Francis said, behind lightly gritted teeth, “and I will.”
There was a glass of sherry dangling, mostly-drunk, between James’s fingers. Francis dropped his chin towards it. “Go easy,” he murmured.
“I am.” James took a sip. They stood in silence for a moment, eyes roving over the room. “You know,” he said, “when I am approached, it is not myself nor the Arctic they wish to hear of.” He relinquished a finger from his glass and pointed toward Francis. “It’s you.”
Francis raised an eyebrow. “Been telling tales out of class, have you?”
“You know I haven’t. Except for when I’ve needed to.”
“I know, James,” Francis said, as sincerely as he could. “I meant nothing by it.”
“Of course not. Yet you stand here all by your lonesome, and I am forced to tell all these fine ladies and gentlemen that you are not so boorish as you look to be—”
“Boorish?” Francis interrupted. “Of all the things—”
Above the rim of his glass, James’s eyes danced. “There it is,” he said.
Francis leaned back against a bookcase. “What?” he demanded.
“You’re smiling,” James said.
Not long after, the bell was rung for dinner. Francis’s impromptu place setting had been arranged next to James’s, in break of tradition, and he sent a grateful glance in Sophia’s direction.
A heavy soup was brought in first. James took only a small portion, and Francis the same. Six months back on a full English diet still had not been enough to completely restore his appetite. Various doctors declared it to be ill humour, or the advancement of age; but Francis could not very well explain to them that he spent most of his meals not trying very hard to avoid James’s feet under the table, and that therefore ill humour was not a concern.
As conversation began to drum up, Francis caught himself almost enjoying the dinner. Most of the guests directed their attention towards Lady Franklin, or at Sir Wilmont, who was just back from India, and turned even Francis’s ear in fascination to his tales of heat-wavering hills and cities jostling with people dense as a living sea.
“I could speak of India’s graces until you all detest me for it,” Wilmont declared, “but I, for one, would much rather hear of cold climes than warm. And I think there are several among us who would agree.”
A dozen pairs of eyes, wine-sated and expectant, now turned toward Francis and James—except for Sophia; and Lady Jane, whose smile had gone fixed.
Francis cleared his throat and grimaced. “You flatter me, Sir Wilmont, but I am afraid there is not much to relate. The Arctic has no spice markets, no….” He shrugged lightly. “No exotic animals.”
A flutter of mild protestation went up around the table. Francis glanced at James, too quick to catch his expression, and took a drink of tea as voices began to clamor for a tale or two, you must have some, and I have read memoirs of the Arctic—they are so full of adventure!
“I have a tale,” James said suddenly. “A tale to chill the ladies among us,” he claimed, and paired the declaration with one of his winsome smiles. A different kind of flutter overtook the table: ladies readjusted their napkins and leaned ever so slightly forward; the men took fortifying sips of their claret.
Francis let go a long breath.
“I think it must have been our second winter in The Ice. We had been froze-in for….” James gazed at the chandelier as though grasping for answer Francis knew for a fact he had no trouble recalling. James was settling in to tell a story. One meant to please the public—not the softer versions he had become accustomed to that he would sometimes murmur to Francis as they lay in bed together, in their bachelors’ rooms which were not really bachelors’ rooms at all; James with his hands behind his head on the pillow and Francis staring at the ceiling but seeing only the pictures James’s words painted there.
“Oh, it must have been fourteen months, by then,” James continued. “And we were all a little….” He made a back-and-forth motion with his hand. “Stir-crazy. So to speak.”
The women tittered. A bit laggardly, Francis reminded himself to smile.
“Ships can’t sail without water, and neither can their sailors sail them. It was a constant battle just to keep ourselves entertained. It is hard to imagine, for those who have never seen them, how utterly boring it is to stare at endless fields of white, day after day, until the sky bleeds into the horizon.”
It was an unfamiliar story, but James's tone was light. Francis briefly checked the faces of each guest around the table: all were enraptured. Reminding himself that all was well, he returned his attention to his food, and had just begun to settle in for a long yarn when he felt a hand land on his leg under the table.
Tensing, he glanced sidelong. James was punctuating his trumped-up story with large, one-handed gestures, but the other was now a warm weight splayed across Francis’s trousers. Any minute he expected the hand to slide away. It did not.
If they had been alone, he might have tilted his leg closer. But this was not the place for that. Under the pretense of interest in some exploit of Blanky’s that he was now relating, Francis scrutinized James's face, wondering if he meant it as a comfort, or perhaps an apology; for dredging up memories of their expedition best left alone, no matter how polished. But then Francis felt James’s fingers squeeze around his knee.
Straight as a ramrod, his made his look as sharp as he dared, and watched as James's mouth began to turn up at the corners. Still speaking effortlessly, James’s palm slid, inchwise, up Francis’s thigh, a hot and frustrating weight that Francis could neither react to nor shove away. All eyes were still upon James, and, by extension, himself. He could do nothing but consume the food in front of him, which had gone tasteless, and ignore the faint rushing of blood in his ears.
The rush turned to a roar as James tilted his hand inward, so that his pinky now brushed along his inseam, and then dipped under his leg. He rubbed the pads of his fingers back and forth along the stitching of his trousers with aching slowness.
Francis reached for his tea, and as the cup came away from the saucer with a faint clinking, he realized his hands were shaking. No longer certain he could keep his hand steady, he put his fork down. Now he had no recourse of distraction, for the world was a very far-off and dark place compared to the immediacy of the dangerous jig James’s fingers danced upon his thigh.
Briefly, they stilled, and in the interim of perception this respite allowed, Francis’s eyes landed on James’s empty wineglass. Horror dawned slowly upon him, mingled with loathsome savor, as James moved again, his hand climbing yet higher, so as to dig his index finger into the softest flesh of his thigh and begin massaging hard circles there. With each new circumference, James’s pressure dragged, by agonizing degrees, upwards. And Francis would have to move, would have to get up, because it was untenable—
“Isn’t that right, Francis?”
He had no concept of what James had been saying for the past several minutes. “Yes,” he said, in a small voice; too small for the table at large. “Yes,” he said again, louder; his voice not entirely steady on the word.
All at once, James took his hand away, and his leg felt cold.
Before James could pick up his tale again, Francis declared, “If you will all excuse me.” He looked down the table at Lady Franklin, who nodded graciously, and Francis pushed back his seat as quickly as he could without scraping its legs against the floor.
In the hallway, he was free to close his eyes and clench his fists behind his back, mastering himself: fighting down frustration, among other things. This fight only intensified when the devil himself appeared from the dining room and shut the door quietly behind him.
All of the servants were busy with dinner. For the time being, they were the only ones in the hall. Francis tugged the front of his jacket down by the hem and rounded on James. “Keep your hands from wandering when we are in company, or I will keep mine from doing so when we are in private,” he hissed.
“Oh, come, Francis,” James wheedled. “It was all in good fun. I meant nothing by it.” Slowly, he stepped closer; hands open, as if in supplication. The dark of his pupils betrayed him.
“I understand the draw,” Francis allowed. He stared hard at James; at the way his chestnut hair curled softly around his face in the yellow lamplight, and the belt fastened tight around his trim waist which narrowed his silhouette and led the eye down to his lanky legs.
“The draw of what, Francis?” James prompted.
His gaze flicked back up. “Of the clandestine,” he finished. "That being said—”
“That’s not what this was about.”
“James,” he rasped, impatient.
“Well. Not entirely.” Instead of continuing to come closer, James leaned his shoulder against the wall with a thump. “But look at you.” He made a vague gesture with his hand at hip height and sucked in a breath. “Lord, Francis, do you know what you look like? How it derails me?”
Francis stared. “With all the time we have to ourselves,” he whispered, “and you do this now—”
“Francis, I swear to you—”
Patience already worn to its breaking point, Francis snapped. The roughness with which he shoved James back against the wall was equal parts anger, and fear of being found out, and frustration; and perhaps his own poorly-contained desire to be near James that constantly simmered below the surface of his skin.
Lowly, James warned, “Francis.”
“Fair recompense is owed,” Francis said, blunt nails digging into his arm, “after all you’ve put me through tonight. And I’m not only referring to your antics at the table.” Francis raised his mouth to the underside of James’s chin and let the kiss he pressed there linger. He planted a second, his lips parted, and exhaled against James’s skin, feeling the man’s answering intake of breath. Slowly, Francis moved along his jaw, trailing kisses as he went.
“Damn you,” James muttered, haltingly; as though the pieces of the words were being shaken out of him against his will. He swore again, but the sound was choked off as Francis tugged James’s cravat and collar downwards with a finger so as to suck a hard, hidden bruise into the skin there.
James tried to push away from the wall, but Francis held him fast, hand moving from his forearm to press against his stomach, low enough to be a threat. Francis nosed upwards and scraped his teeth along James’s ridiculous jawbone, from his chin to its hinge; an endurance test that had James struggling to breathe evenly. And just at the softest part—where bone and muscle didn’t quite meet below his ear, leaving a small hollow—Francis sealed his lips to skin and bit down.
James moaned long and low. Francis had known he would; but they were not in their bedchamber: they were standing in Lady Franklin’s deserted hallway, and the sound echoed far too loud in the space. James clapped a hand almost immediately across his mouth.
It should have been Francis’s cue to stop. He had done what he’d set out to do—give James a taste of his own medicine—and he ought to draw away; or at least listen hard for telltale footsteps. But he could feel the echo of that sound tugging his sternum, urging him to turn his head aside from James’s jaw and instead plant open-mouthed kisses against the knuckles which now covered his lips. Each lingered longer, and more wetly, than the last. When James groaned again—though muffled, this time—Francis swallowed down the reverberations into his own mouth.
By now his breaths were coming rather shallow himself. James had a hand clenched around his wrist like a vice, and Francis realized he was tilting his weight into it; pressing himself all along James’s left side. Being so close, Francis was able to catch the sound—muffled, but unmistakable—
“Please,” James moaned, low and rough and broken.
Francis's eyes shuttered. He knew, as strongly as he knew he shouldn’t, that he would: that he would move the hand on James’s stomach aside, to his hip; that he would make his other its mirror, and then press his knee between James’s legs.
Their movements became slow, heavy, and laborious. They were encumbered by evening clothes and their awkward position against the wall. James slid down to shift his weight forward onto Francis’s thigh, and Francis’s breaths turned thready and high, though no other sound left his lips. Before long, James was forced to bite down hard on Francis’s shoulder to muffle his regular grunts.
Stopping themselves would quickly become impossible, and as that precipice neared, the fear of being discovered rose once again; even through the heady haze of what they were engaged in doing. Francis knew they had better finish—and finish quickly—and the telltale weakness behind his kneecaps was already there, warning him that he hadn’t much longer left to last. It was at this point that they both heard the sound of a door opening and closing somewhere down the hall.
Francis swore violently. He forced himself to stillness against James’s front, hardly able to catch his breath yet simultaneously straining to make no noise. Both their necks craned in the direction of the sound, but there was no further sound, and no figure advanced through the lamplight.
He wrenched away all at once from James’s desperate grasp on him, wondering at himself for even having the wherewithal to do it. James swayed forward into the space he had just occupied. His legs trembled visibly, and he ran a likewise-shaking hand through his long hair, the other grasping blindly for the support of the side table absent Francis’s weight to pin him upright.
“Christ, James,” Francis swore, halfway between despising him and loving him for what he’d nearly been driven to do. “Jesus Christ.”
Haltingly, James said, “We shouldn’t have—”
“It’s a bit late in the day for shouldn’t’s, isn’t it?” Belatedly, he realized he hadn’t modulated his voice. He winced and cast around himself for sounds or movement. Both stood silent for agonizing minutes, their ragged breathing the only thing audible. Francis steadied himself by bracing a hand against the wall behind him and putting the entire width of the hallway between himself and James. “We will return to the dining room. We will eat. We will smile,” he said, “and then we will make our excuses at the earliest opportunity.”
James sucked in a breath and held his gaze. Then, his lips began to twitch into a smile; climbing into his eyes and wrinkling them up into slits.
“Christ, James,” Francis said again, only this time there was something akin to wistfulness in his tone. “James. James.”
“Francis,” James murmured, in the same vein.
The look they shared was soft. Then, they shook themselves; rearranging clothes and straightening hair.
“I’ll go in first,” Francis said, and, before James could tempt him further, he turned on his heel and reentered the dining room.