Francis lowered his cup of coffee and fixed Thomas with a pointed look. “Go on then.”
Thomas had been stealing sideways glances at him all week. Sometimes amused, sometimes exasperated. It was obvious what he was thinking, and frankly incredible that he’d managed to keep his mouth shut about it for so long.
Now he just raised his eyebrows at him, with an entirely unconvincing blank expression. “No idea what you’re talking about, Crozier.”
Francis sighed. “It must be giving you an ulcer being this bloody quiet. So just get it off your chest.” He grunted into his cup. “Don’t be like the rest of those gossiping twats in the office.”
Thomas barked a short laugh but nodded in capitulation. “You can’t really blame them for gossiping.”
“Bloody can,” Francis muttered.
“Well, it’s a pretty odd thing,” Thomas said. “All this silence and politeness between the two of you. It’s like you’ve undergone some sort of nightmarish reprogramming.”
Francis snorted. “Why “nightmarish”? I thought you’d be thrilled. You haven’t had to listen to me moan about him all week.”
Thomas sighed and it sounded partly amused and partly pitying. “Awkward silence is hardly an improvement, Frankie. At least when you were at each other’s throats you could fling a few insults to let off steam.”
Francis shrugged and avoided his eye. He had been working up to telling Thomas about what had happened between him and James. But it was embarrassing. Having to admit he’d lost control like that. Been completely blindsided by his own urges.
Not that he hadn’t had plenty of opportunities to relive the experience. He’d run the incident through his head so many times that the memory felt like it was in danger of being worn out. And he’d ended most of his rumination sessions face down on his bed with one hand jammed down the front of his underwear. Panting and rubbing himself against the covers like he was sixteen again.
“Besides,” Thomas said, a knowing glint in his eyes. “I think we both know that only one of two things could have happened to bring about this miraculous new pacifism between the two of you.” He tapped his nose. “If you get my drift.”
Francis was suddenly more alert. “Now what are you going on about?”
“Well,” Thomas looked at him over the rim of his cup, “it seems to me that either you had more to do with that pretty bruise on Fitzjames’s mug than either of you are letting on. Or...” Thomas smirked and trailed off.
“Or?” Francis prompted impatiently.
Thomas leant forward and lowered his voice. “Or you’ve found some other method of letting off steam.”
Francis choked on his coffee. “What?” he managed to splutter through his coughs.
Thomas cackled. “You’re as transparent as glass, Frankie. Fitzjames too mind. Poor lad can barely look in your direction without going red."
“Christ,” Francis huffed. “I really don’t need that theory getting around.” He glowered at Thomas. “John’s already on my case and the last thing I need is for him to hear gossip like that.”
Thomas just smirked wider “So, I’m taking it was the latter?”
Francis still didn’t know if he felt ready to confess the whole mess out loud. But he couldn’t lie to Thomas. Literally. He saw right through him.
"Well, I did punch him as well,” he mumbled finally.
Thomas chuckled in triumph. “O-ho. So he likes to play like that, does he? Typical.”
Francis sent him a withering look. “Hilarious. And look, we didn’t…” he lowered his voice a decibel or two, “shag. We just had a… conversation. It became heated.”
Thomas whistled. “I’ll say. And now the two of you are dancing around each other like you’re at a hoedown.”
“So does the entire office now think I’m fucking James? Brilliant. That’s just what I need.”
Francis groaned and massaged his forehead. Trust James to cause him problems even when they were avoiding each other.
“Nah,” Thomas replied. “I don’t think they have any idea what’s going on. I’m just used to your bizarre methods of attracting a mate.”
Francis scoffed. “It’s not going to happen again. John’s sick of the gossip. He’s told me to smooth things over with James.” He drained the dregs of his coffee and reached for his bag. “And that’s what I’m going to do.”
“Smooth things over how?” Thomas gave a decidedly suggestive quirk of his eyebrows.
Francis ignored him. “James loves pleasing the boss. I’m sure if I tell him I’m on orders from John, he’ll be more than happy to go back to us hating each other in a more normal way.”
He paused and sighed. That was probably him being a bit optimistic. James was certain to still be pissed off about him slugging him in the face, if nothing else. He glanced down at the red bruises still dusted across the knuckles on his right hand and rubbed them absently.
“Well, good luck with that.” His attention snapped back to Thomas gathering his belongings up from the table. “Sounds like nothing could possibly go wrong.”
Francis hurried to catch one of the lifts before the doors closed. He stared at his reflection in the mirrored interior. It would be the first face to face conversation they’d had since the incident in his office. And his heart was beating harder than it should have at the prospect. He just needed to keep calm and not allow James to rile him up. Because once that happened, it could easily escalate to the situation he was attempting to avoid.
Namely, him pushing the prissy little upstart into the nearest wall and making him come off as many times as he had over the past godforsaken week. It’d certainly be a lot more fun for the both of them than carrying out John’s mealy-mouthed “smoothing over” instruction.
There was a sharp ding as he reached his floor. He collected himself and his thoughts. No. There could be no more incidents like that. He had to take the highroad and try and wring out some sort of normal working relationship for the two of them.
The doors sprang open and he made a beeline for James’s door, pretending he didn’t see the curious glances of his colleagues as he passed them.
It had been a week. James thought that by now it would have stopped. That his mind would have stopped. The ruminating and rehashing. It was unbearable. The more he went over what had happened between him and Francis, the less sense he could make of it. And the more wound up he seemed to get.
James leant back at his desk and shoved his laptop away from him. He couldn’t concentrate. He hadn’t truly concentrated for days. Every time the silence fell in his office and he set his mind to whatever task he needed to complete, he’d start remembering. And when the remembering started, it was invariably accompanied by the various garnishes and flourishes of an imagination very prone to exaggeration.
They’d only really shared some fumbling and rutting on top of Francis’s cluttered desk. But his mind filled in the blanks. And posed questions that were very difficult to ignore. How Francis’s broad, slightly coarse hands would feel underneath his shirt. If he would pin his hands above his head when he laid on top of him or bring them up to drape about his shoulders. How thick his—
He shook his head violently. As though being violent with himself had helped banish the intrusive thoughts at all. The more he struggled against the urges he had, the tighter their hold seemed to be on him.
He groaned and buried his face in his hands. Enveloped in darkness, he heard his office door quietly creak open, letting in a brief and intense sweep of noise from outside before it closed again.
“Christ, Tozer.” He threw his head up with an irritated smack of his hands on his desk. “Why is it so difficult to knock—” He closed his mouth, the rebuke dying on his tongue.
Francis had his bag on one shoulder, which he duly dropped to the floor beside him with a thud. James noted the coffee stain on his sleeve and the cowlick in his hair with something like confused despair. His mouth felt too dry to form words.
“Hope I’m not interrupting.” Francis still had that strange, extremely stiff quality to his voice that he’d had all week.
James knew he had been no better. Neither of them knew how to act now. There had been rules before. Guidelines. Now that they had realised that there may be more than just rivalry going on between them, it was like they were a couple of embarrassed teenagers at a school dance. Skirting around each other. Neither of them knowing how to navigate their new dynamic.
“No,” James said, feeling wary. The bruise on his cheek seemed to tingle in sympathy.
He gazed at Francis, willing his brain to find the words from somewhere to create something resembling a conversation. Trust his usually irrepressible ability to talk to fail him when he most needed it.
Francis had shadows under his eyes. James was sure they hadn’t been there a week ago. The five o’ clock shadow was also a shade or two darker than it usually was. He hoped his own state of mind wasn’t written quite so obviously across his face.
Francis took a few steps towards him, hands in his pockets. He was clearly thinking about what he was going to say. James’s heart felt like it was beating so furiously that Francis might see it vibrating through his jacket.
Francis gestured aimlessly. “Look, it’s been a week now and I think it’s probably high time we... sorted things out.”
James was surprised, almost impressed by Francis’s measured tone. And then he was suspicious.
“And what’s brought this on?” he asked. “Not like you to give up a perfectly good grudge.”
Francis’s eyes had fluttered into an eyeroll before he could stop himself. But he quickly smoothed his expression again.
“We're the best the firm has. Makes no sense for us to be at war.” Francis wasn’t really catching his eye. More... skimming over it.
Even without that tell-tale sign, it couldn’t have been clearer that he wasn’t there on his own volition. And that pissed James off. He didn’t exactly know why. He should have been relieved to get back to how things were between them. But there was something deeply irritating that Francis was fobbing him off with someone else’s words and someone else’s intentions.
“Francis, why are you here?” He kept his voice steady. The moment he betrayed his aggravation, it’d start Francis off and it would snowball into a screaming match before either of them had time to think.
Francis looked thrown by the question. He finally looked him in the eye. No more darting about the room like he was some ill-prepared job interviewee. “I think it’s obvious. The whole office knows something’s amiss. It’s a distraction.”
James laughed incredulously. He was itching to stand up and not be sitting there while Francis towered over him. It made him feel like he was at a disadvantage. “And you came to that gracious conclusion all by yourself?”
He knew he was goading him. That he’d lit Francis’s rather short fuse. But he’d spent a week agonising and he wasn’t going to be fed a bunch of platitudes from the world’s most unconvincing amateur diplomat.
Francis threw his head back. “Jesus, James. You don’t make it easy for a guy, do you?”
James said nothing. He breathed out a little huffily and sat back in his chair, fixing Francis with a steely look. He again resisted the urge to stand. It would seem like he was trying to be intimidating and he didn’t want Francis to puff up with indignation until he’d gotten a straight answer out of him.
“God, you’re a bloody hardcase,” Francis said crossly. “John told me to speak with you, alright? He says everyone in the office can see how off we are.” He snorted. “I mean, you haven’t called me a “washed-up old man” for over a week now. That’s just unheard of.”
James finally got out of his chair. He couldn’t contain the burst of agitation at Francis’s admission. “I knew it,” he hissed. “You’d rather be demoted to intern than apologise to me.”
Francis scoffed and a tell-tale flush of pink appeared in his cheeks. “One of us had to take the highroad.”
James paced out from behind his desk, shaking his head in disbelief and annoyance. “Why would John come to you and not me?”
“For God’s sake.” Francis threw out his arm, blocking his way. “Is that what this is all about? You’re wondering why the boss would come to me and not his little pet?”
James whirled around to face him. “Well, you’re not exactly a born mediator, Francis. I seem to recall the last time we spoke, you punched me in the face.”
Christ, he was getting a headache. And they were talking in circles. Again. Why did his head go to pieces when he was with Francis? Besides the obvious fact that he was infuriating and constantly trying to get under his skin.
But James knew exactly why he went to pieces. It was utterly futile to try and pretend that he didn’t. He wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t blind to his own emotions, his own desires. But pivoting so suddenly from one intense emotion to another was… confusing. And almost completely too much to take.
“We just have to make it work,” Francis said, finally breaking the silence. “For John’s sake. We have to somehow… get back to normal.”
“How exactly?” James snapped.
They were just inches from each other. Like they had been that day a week before, face to face and eye to eye. Francis was still flushed, and his jaw was still subtly working like he was biting back whatever he truly wanted to say.
“I don’t know, James,” Francis retorted. “Maybe I can take a leaf out of your book and pretend you don’t exist.”
That stung. “You hypocrite,” he hissed. “You’ve been giving me the same damn treatment!”
Francis was looking hard into his eyes. It had what seemed like the entirely wrong effect on James. Every hair on his body felt like it was standing on end. “Well, now I’m trying to fix things and you’re being about as fucking difficult as you possibly can.”
“No, you’re here doing John’s dirty work for him,” James snapped. “You couldn’t even bring yourself to come here on your own accord.”
Somewhere in the fog of his anger, he thought he saw Francis’s expression change. But he’d been carried too far by his fury to heed it.
“I can’t believe I’ve been agonising over this all week and all you bloody care about is getting into John’s good books.” He could hear the shrill edge to his voice, but he didn’t feel like he could stop. “And now you’re in here giving me some bullshit about— Mmf!”
A strangled noise, halfway between a gasp and a muted protest burst from his lips briefly before Francis dragged him into an all-consuming kiss. He could feel Francis’s hands grasping both of his arms, pinning them by his sides and pulling him to him. He should have pulled away. He definitely, unquestionably should have pulled away.
“Oh God,” he groaned weakly.
He was frozen. Letting Francis take control of his mouth, letting him hold him there against him so he could feel the ridges of his hips, the softness of his stomach, the buttons on his shirt, the way his knee slid just slightly between his thighs—
And then he wasn’t frozen. His hands flew up to Francis’s face, grasping him, gasping hungrily as he kissed him back. Francis’s hands let go of his arms and moved over his body. He felt fingers on his chest, his waist, his hips. The two of them stumbled back against his desk. The backs of his thighs hit the edge. Francis pressed into him, ardent and insistent. They pawed and tugged at each other’s clothes, playacting at what they truly wanted to do.
James broke away, turning his face away so he could gulp in some air. He felt Francis dip his face to his neck, kissing and panting against his neck, leading a trail up to his jaw. James squirmed underneath him, his legs opening almost instinctively. They rubbed briefly and wildly against each other like they were back in some sticky backseat with the lights out and their knickers around their knees.
Maybe it was that thought or the sudden, shrill sound of someone’s car alarm going off on the street below that brought James rudely back to earth.
With a none-too-gentle shove, he pushed Francis off of him and stumbled away from him. He faced the wall, pushing his hair out of his face. He wouldn’t turn around until Francis was gone. He wouldn’t be seen like that again. Out of control and out of his depth.
“Fuck,” he hissed.
He heard Francis’s quick footsteps and the door rapidly open and close.
Staring unfocusedly out of the nearest tinted window, he tried to order his thoughts. He didn’t know how he was supposed to think about spreadsheets and deadlines for the rest of the day. Smile at his co-workers. Make small-talk in the tea room.
He felt more lost than ever.