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the sighing sound, the lights around the shore

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 The Black Sea was a flat, featureless thing today, showing no signs of the squalls that came racing up from the Mediterranean. They were vicious, and played havoc with the ships of the blockade encircling the Crimean peninsula in the open sea, but they were little more than a stiff wind on a boating lake compared to the Roaring Forties that Francis had sailed through in the south seas. 

 

 He had not thought such experiences would come in useful outside of exploration, yet Francis had found himself unexpectedly adept at preventing the dozens of ships under his command from becoming wrecked while at anchor or crashing into one another when they found themselves at the mercy of the weather.

 

 Francis shook his head as he turned his face to the overcast sky, the clouds moving as smoothly through the sky as his gig was moving over the water. Who would have thought it, a war depending on the resiliency of himself and his second, Captain Little.

 

 It was a far from glorious command, but one that Francis had been surprised to find himself with. He had thought, as he had no experience of battles, that he would be given something easy to do by the Admiralty who did not like having experienced captains on land while war was being waged. James, who had received his own more explosive command on that same day, had been overjoyed at the news, and confident enough in Francis’ abilities to bolster any doubts he might have had about his suitability. He might not command the prettiest blockade in naval history, but he had prevented the movement of Russian ships well enough over the past two years to hopefully shorten the path to victory.

 

 The singing of the sailors pulling at the oars became drowned out by the sound of waves lapping at the hull of a ship, and Francis dropped his eyes from the grey clouds to the even darker plume of smoke coming from HMS Valorous. She was elegant as paddle frigates went, all long sleek lines primed for speed, sitting low upon the water like a big cat ready to pounce.

 

 The midshipman in the bow of Francis’ gig was transfixed by her, as were several of the sailors who had yet to see a steam ship up close, and missed the jolly boat that was passing some distance from their starboard side. Francis was about to shout down to Mr.Jennings about remembering his duty to call out to the other boat when he caught his own name being bellowed from said boat in a full voiced quarterdeck yell.

 

 “Commodore Crozier!! What ho!”

 

 It took him no time at all to place the fellow in the stern of the jolly boat waving his hat with a vigour that was alarming the Lieutenant sat beside him. Commander Le Vesconte was the only man with such a distinguished head of silver hair who would treat the sea lanes as if he were in his club.

 

“Dundy! How goes it?” he shouted back, smiling at the laughter the nickname brought from the other man.

 

“Shelled Russian defences the other day! Awfully good fun.”

 

“Congratulations,” Francis called back, unsure of what else to say.

 

“Good show on the blockade, sir. Ain’t any Russian’s gettin’ through and ain’t any Russian’s gettin’ out!”

 

“Thank you. Awful dull but the success makes it worth while.”

 

“Rather!” Le Vesconte agreed, finally putting his hat back on his head. “If we’re around tomorrow I’ll come aboard and take a look at it! Goodbye for now, sir!”

 

“Fair weather to you,” Francis shouted, not keeping the smile from his face when he turned back to the interested faces of his crew. 

 

 The presence of Polar explorers amongst the fleet was something of a novelty to ever gossipy sailors, and Francis was usually indulgent enough to tell them just who they had encountered. However the deck of the Valorous had come into clear view, and he would recognise her Captain, silhouetted against the clouds, anywhere. 

 

 Francis had not been able to help his worry when the the combined French and British detachment of well armed ships had sailed northwards to attack Russian coastal forts. Rationally Francis had known that James was not in any real danger; Russian artillery was not up to the standard of the Royal Navy, and as James was to direct the British gunboats he would not land and therefore would be safely be out of range of rifle fire. Yet James was not a man who would ask men to do what he would not, and if something were to go wrong he would jump into action with all his breathless bravery, not an inch less bold or athletic for reaching his forties. 

 

 Despite eagerly reading the dispatches about their successes Francis had found himself unable to be truly free of his anxieties, only feeling them lift in this moment when he set his own eyes upon James. He stood when the gig came alongside the paddle frigate, and was glad that only the dark hull of the ship could see the expression upon his face as he watched James lean - uncaptainlike and yet still dignified - over the gunwale to smile down upon him.  

 

“Permission to come aboard,” Francis shouted up as he gripped the side of the boarding ladder.

 

“Doubly granted! In fact, make it triply so,” James called down, stepping back when Francis reached the top of the ladder and stepped onto the spotless deck. 

 

 James was on him in an instant, clasping his hand in both of his and squeezing tightly as if Francis had been the one fresh from battle. “It’s good to see you Francis, how are you?”

 

“Well. Been doing what I do best, keeping boats afloat and men busy."

 

"And doing it very well, so I've heard," James beamed, giving his hand one last squeeze before finally releasing it. He let his fingers trail over the backs of Francis' hand as he did so, and Francis hoped the chill in the breeze might be taken as the cause for the heat he felt spread over his face.

 

"We shall see," Francis shrugged. "You seem to have been blowing things up with your usual dedication and skill."

 

 James laughed at that, the lines about his eyes deepening as he smiled. It was a far more lovely smile that the one Francis’ mind provided whenever he read James’ letters, little pieces of fine literature that were so suffused with his character and humour. It was always this way when they were reunited, be it after these two months or the greater stretches of time over the past two years, all these little pieces of James outshining the image of him Francis kept in his memory.

 

 “Now you have mentioned it, I shall have to tell you all about it. But  first,” he placed a hand on Francis’ arm and pressed harder than one might with a fellow officer. “We find ourselves disembarking a passenger at the moment of your arrival. Not that I came on deck for any reason but to look out for you."

 

“Of course,” Francis smiled, unsure of why he would need that reassurance but not about to question it. “Might ask who this passenger is?”

 

“Brace yourself Francis, for it is dire. Truly calamitous. Our guest is a Frenchman.”

 

“Aboard Her Majesties Ship? Most dire,” Francis agreed half in jest and half in earnest. They were allies now, in this war at least, but he as well as many others could remember the wars against Napoleon, and it could not help but be an uneasy alliance at times.

 

“Indeed,” James agreed archly, obviously leaning more towards jest than earnest, then smiled brightly at Francis again. “He is one of the French gunnery officers, put under my command no less, and in the hubbub we ended up giving the fellow a lift home, as it were.”

 

 Francis nodded, clasping his hands behind his back to give him something to do as he looked about the deck. James ran a tidy ship, his men always seeming to be happy and at ease but never lax in their duties, yet the Valorous seemed particularly tidy this afternoon, especially with that funnel putting out all that soot and smoke from the engines.

 

 He was about to ask if their Gallic addition was the cause of the very ship shape nature of the ship, when James dropped his hand to Francis' elbow and stepped close enough that Francis caught the acrid smell of gunpowder clinging to his clothes. He was not daringly close, no more so than one officer might get to another when sharing a private word, yet Francis doubted that James had ever held Dundy's elbow as gently as he was holding his. 

 

"I have missed you. I thought of you all the time. Well, when the bombardment wasn't rattling all other thoughts from my mind of course. Not awfully romantic I know…"

 

"I'm not sure if I am a better or worse thought than Caesar crossing the Rubicon."

 

"You are of infinitely more comfort than some long dead emperor," James assured as he moved smoothly away, tucking his hands securely into the small of his back as a crowd of officers began to bubble up from the hatch.

 

"Ah, Capitaine," was called out over the chatter of the lieutenants coming to greet Francis, a man stepping clear of them and making his way smartly up to James.

 

 His uniform made it clear that this was the Frenchman, but he was not the grizzled, mustachioed, hang-dog looking Frenchman Francis had (uncharitably) been thinking of. He was slim and fair, if not overly tall, with an open, pleasant face and grey eyes that sparkled as he came forward and grasped James by the arms.

 

"Ferdinand," James said warmly. "It's been a pleasure to have you on board."

 

"No, the pleasure is all mine, my dear friend," this Ferdinand said, then set about kissing James three times upon his cheeks in the French way. "Vous avez été le meilleur hôte qu'un homme puisse espérer."

 

"Vous êtes trop gentil," James answered, his tone crisp but not unfriendly as the Frenchman squeezed his arms.

 

"We shall all be sad to see you go, Monsure," one of the young lieutenants spoke up. "Although I have to admit I shall not miss being shown to be so lacking in languages by my Captain," he nodded to James, then turned so say sotto voce to his friend. "For they chatter on with one another like a couple courting."

 

"Oh shut up, Chas," muttered the other lieutenant, shooting Francis a worried glance. 

 

 It was a highly out of order thing to say on its own, let alone in front of superior officers, and Francis gave them both a dire look for it. Judging from the way the lieutenants all shrank back it was far more dire than it needed to be, but he was already feeling rather out of sorts at the way James' arms were still being clasped so tightly, and had not needed that commentary to compound it.

 

"Captain Fitzjames," which was pronounced Feetzjams according to the Frenchman. "Is indeed uncommon in that et de nombreux autres aspects."

 

 Francis did not need to be fluent to understand that, nor had he needed the vaguest inkling of what was said to feel a prickle of ill humour.

 

"And in this moment I am being uncommon rude," James said lightly, finally removing himself from the man's grip and turning towards Francis who hoped his growing displeasure was not showing on his face. "Commandant Bettencourt, may I introduce Commodore Sir Francis Crozier of…"

 

"Say no more, mon bon ami.” Bettencourt smiled broadly, his grey eyes sparkling as he held out a strong hand. "Your name precedes you, sir. May I shake your hand?"

 

"Of course," Francis got out, very relieved that he was not about to be set upon with kisses.

 

"On behalf of the French Navy might I congratulate you in the blockade, and also voice my regrets that you outdid my fellow countryman at the South Pole."

 

"I only wish I could regret that also, but I thank you for your kind words on the blockade."

 

"Captain Feetzjams speaks of you very highly and very warmly. It is a pleasure to meet you finally."

 

"I am sure he will tell me great things about you later," Francis was sure he did not sound sour, but a twitch of James' eyebrow spoke of how he at least heard it.

 

 There was no reason for this burgeoning jealousy. Bettencourt was simply being French after all, florid and forward in a way most British men would never be even with their wives. Or at least that was what Francis told himself as he endeavoured to make what passed as small talk between sailors.

 

 He found himself aware of every one of his years and conscious of his workmanlike build as he stood in front of this handsome and gregarious French officer and his own ever poised and ever handsome Fitzjames. He was unimpressive anyway, and even more so by comparison; he had never been dynamic nor one for acts of daring bravery, and he had barely been taught English before being sent off to sea, let alone enough French to speak so elegantly with a native speaker.

 

 He did not start to think ungenerously of James, but he thought he was within his rights to think ungenerously of the man who was letting is gaze linger on him as if he had a right to him. 

 

 There was commotion and chatter as a French jolly boat came alongside, and Francis gladly let himself be swept along to see the damned man off.

 

"Je pense qu'il est difficile pour lui d'oublier que nous ne sommes pas des ennemis," Bettencourt said in a conversational tone, leaning in close enough to let his shoulder slide against James’. Francis resolved to ignore it, and had begun to feel disturbingly like he used to when he would be ignored or whispered about at parties when James’ always correct posture straightened visibly. 

 

"Le capitaine est timide avec des gens qu'il ne connaît pas. Et vous êtes très audacieux," James’ tone had a stiffness to it that was not unfriendly, and Francis wished he could understand what was being said so he might judge James’ mood and to also temper his own.

 

 If James thought little of it, then so would Francis. And if he did not? Well, Francis thought as he watched another round of cheek kisses that came a long with the farewells, then at least the man was off back into the arms of the French Navy.

 

  Francis watched the jolly boat pull off into the wide grey sea with his hands tucked firmly into his pockets, preventing him acting on the niggling desire to take up James’ hand in a hollow and dangerous desire to show just who was allowed to do so. A bitter, unbecoming part of him wanting to remind James of it also.

 

 In England they had little things, tokens and gifts, as private signals and reminders of their commitment to the other that could not exist, even privately, out here in the middle of the fleet. Officers in close quarters became nosy busybodies, even with their captains, and on long evenings an engraving on a pocket watch or a signet ring bearing another’s crest would draw questions and suppositions. None that would touch the truth in any serious way, but it was not a risk Francis was prepared to make with James’ career or good name. Or his own, such as it was. It was a fact that he had not railed against until this moment, and as he descended to the lower deck and allowed himself to be steered towards the Great Cabin Francis found himself struck by a possessiveness he had never experienced before and could not say that he cared for. 

 

“John!” James called as he took off his cap and threw it onto the bench. “If you would so be kind...ah! You have preempted me, good fellow. Tea, Francis?”

 

“Thank you, yes.” Francis took his cap off with a little more care, smiling genuinely when Bridgens came to take it from him. “It’s good to see you, Mr Bridgens.”

 

“And yourself, sir,” the steward said as he slung their overcoats over his still powerful arms. “I trust you have been keeping well?”

 

“Ah, in my fashion. Allow me to ask after Mr.Peglar, as I have heard that he is also on board.”

 

 Bridgens allowed himself a smile, his eyes flicking gratefully to James. On both of his commands since their return James had ensured a place for both men, quietly and without comment, and Francis forgot his mood for a moment as he glanced at James who was obliviously dropping sugar cubes into his tea.

 

"He is in good health, sir,” Bridgens said softly. “On duty at the foremast. I will pass on that you asked after him.”

 

“I should hope to see him before I leave. I hardly believe Mr.Peglar would be owing that much duty.”

 

“Well, I didn’t like to…” Bridgens cleared his throat, expression expertly blank, and moved smartly towards the door. “I shall make sure you are not disturbed, sirs.”

 

“Thank you John,” James said as he came to Francis’ elbow. “Dismiss.”

 

“Were we really so obvious upon Erebus?” Francis asked as he took his tea from James. 

 

“Hmm?"

 

"James."

 

"Oh, you know how Stewards get to know everything," James smiled as he neatened his hair without thought. It still sat in shining waves about his face but was beginning to silver at his temples, finally catching up with the lock of hair at his forehead which had been greying ever since his scalp had stopped bleeding. 

 

 Francis reached up to curl the lock of hair between his indelicate fingers, letting it rest gently against his temple as he dropped his hand to cup James' neck, holding him steady as he leant up to kiss him.

 

 The feeling of James’ absence was not all consuming; being a sailor made one used to tamping down the wish to be with the ones you loved, and the duties of a captain to both his crew and his command -  when fulfilled as they should be - left only scant moments for melancholy. It was a dull feeling, a twinge in the space just under Francis’ heart where James resided, and whenever he was close to him again Francis always felt that ache come on more keenly before fading away again. Yet in this moment, with the abiding smell of gunpowder clinging to James and the image of him stood amidst the din of a naval barrage clear in Francis' mind, there was a sharpness there that made Francis want to cling to him. 

 

“I have missed you,” Francis breathed as he touched James' cheek and pushed up to kiss him again with a little more force. James made a sound of surprise as he grasped Francis' arms, letting his hands slip down to tug at the pockets of Francs’ coat as the kiss lingered. 

 

"I can see that," James smiled, moving to tenderly press his lips against Francis' cheek. "It must have been most dire a sense of absence for a fellow to not even drink his tea before indulging in kisses."

 

"To have you at the mercy of the tides of battle with your constant ability to barely cheat death? I think I have every right to think it dire." Francis watched as the teasing glint to James' smile softened slightly, and cleared his throat. "To a seasoned veteran of naval battles I probably sound rather naive to be so concerned."

 

"Far less naive than I once seemed to a seasoned veteran of Polar expeditions, I’ll wager," James said with a self-deprecating shrug, taking Francis’ hand in his own. “It is no glorious thing to be in a battle. It is all fear and din and violence…” He squeezed Francis’ fingers before letting go and stepping away. “It’s no bad thing that you chose exploration over warfare, and I would not dare call your honest care 'naivety’." He pulled his teacup close as he sat at the table, his pensive expression shifting into a smile as he crossed his legs. "Only a fool would, and I am only sometimes a fool."

 

  Francis considered him, the tiredness in his dark eyes and the restlessness of his fingers on the table top, and went to sit with him. “If you were not, you would be only charm and handsomeness and therefore be intolerably dull.”

 

 James’ smile became less forced, and he let the toe of his boot tap Francis on his leg. “I shall remember that when you are wishing for me to be more dull.”

 

“You are welcome to,” Francis muttered into his tea. 

 

“You had no need to worry about me,” James said as he rested his fingers on the handle of his cup. “The greatest danger I faced was having to sit aboard a gunboat listening to Dundy chin on about his wife all evening.”

 

“You like her perfectly well, James.”

 

“I know. And it is perfectly natural to think of your loved ones in such situations, yet I thought of you and could not talk for an hour about you.”

 

“I don’t think I am a man to be talked about as if he is someone’s sweetheart,” Francis said with a grimace that matched the face James’ pulled at the word ‘sweetheart’, and went on. “Was Bettencourt- “ Francis made a point of putting a blunt T on the end of the name, and did not miss James’ knowing smile “ - not with you?”

 

 James pulled himself up in his chair, tossing his hair back to say in an obviously affected tone, “Would you like to hear the tale of daring mathematics and abominable noise that was the Siege of Kinburn?”

 

"It was why I came all this way," Francis teased, grinning when James almost smiled while making a motion with his hand as if to say 'but of course.'  

 

"The grand scheme of the story begins with the conjoined fleets encircling the Kinburn peninsula, ready to besiege the Fort and battery set upon it. My story begins with my disembarking from Valorous and coming aboard a gunboat where, on account of the sour seas, an army engineer was being rather ill. Dare I say it, but that fellow might have begun the barrage."

 

"Hero of the hour."

 

"Indeed,"James agreed with a smile. "So, with our newest weapon in full force, we sailed up the peninsula as escorts to the troopships who were to land the soldiers behind the Russian fort, where we would provide protective fire. This was still daylight, and we could just see the Russians watching the soldiers attempting to land in rough weather and doing nothing about it. I think they had seen the sea sick engineer and were violently afeared of us,” he said with a quirk of his eyebrow. “Rear Admiral Stewart had given us the order to hold fire after nightfall, and an hour into Dundy telling me the virtues of his Lottie a boat came from the French detachment with Bettencourt. We discussed the terrain, and then were sent out together to assess the effectiveness of the new exploding canon shells while taking depth soundings. So, off we went for a delightful moonlight punt around the churning black sea…”

 

 Francis listened with interest to the details of the sandbanks and sounding readings - he was a sailor after all - but the story did entertain him, or James' voice soothe him, as much as it usually would. Not because of the danger of the rough seas James had faced, for he was an excellent navigator of shallow waters and a strong swimmer, but the danger of that silent Russian fort watching him move about in the star light. 

 

 Icebergs and the Pack had been Francis’ battles, intolerable cold and disease his enemies - things that were the unintentional dangers of nature not the purposeful harm of man. Francis had always pictured James’ battles in Syria or China as tableaus of dangers passed, but the endless comings and goings of the hospital ships, and of the smoke of battles rising from the land, had brought Francis Crozier’s first war into sharp relief. 

 

 He was not naive enough to think war would not be dangerous, nor was he unprepared for it. Yet the thought of James wading through the shallows and into rifle range, into the most danger he had been in since he nearly bled to death on King William Land, disquieted him. That Bettencourt had been there watching over him, and being the same kind of recklessly brave as James, did not bring him much comfort. 

 

 It was foolish to think their moment as brothers in arms would compare to what James and himself had survived, and yet it was there and Francis did not like that he was entertaining such notions. He was not suspicious, James had his trust, he simply could not make up his mind on if their had been something in the Frenchman’s forward nature with James or if it had all been in his disquieted mind. And if it was, then he should get on with feeling rather guilty about it.

 

"...and then a sea monster leapt from the depths and swallowed the fort whole."

 

"What?"

 

"So you are listening as well as brooding."

 

 Francis pulled on the bottom of his coat. “I have a skill for both, you should know that.”

 

 James had placed his elbow in the table, eyebrow arched and carefully unreadable in that way of his when he wanted to rile Francis. “You think my head so easily turned by a bit of Gallic charm?” 

 

 Francis blinked at him, knowing he was utterly caught. “How in the hell…”

 

“I know you Francis. And I know how forward the man is."

 

 Francis raised his eyebrows and sat back in his chair. "And did you know his charm also?" he asked, fancying he caught a light edge to James' tone and was unsure how it sat with him.

 

"Yes. An unbearable, hollow amount of it. Which I recognised all too well. I ask again, do you think my head so easily turned?"

 

"No," Francis said simply, not feeling the need to hold up the past seven years, with all the struggles and joys and moments of quiet safety, as proof of his trust. “I am sorry James. Here I am being sour and brooding instead of being happy to see you, as I should,” he let out a great sigh, chair scraping on the deck as he angled himself towards James. “We have been apart more often than not these past two years. I know that we are luckier than most, who have only had letters from their loved ones to sustain them while at war, and I will not wish for more than is due to a sailor in this regard. And yet, these last weeks I have been worried for your safety and it has made your absence all the keener. I knew you were safe from the dispatches, but I could not find rest until I saw it for myself. Then I come aboard to see some damned dashing Frenchman all over you.”

 

 James looked surprised. He tried to hide it by taking an inelegant sip of tea, yet his eyes glinted with mischief over the rim of the cup. "I say, should I have a fit of brooding jealousy that you noticed that he was dashing?"

 

"I have been honest with you and now you are teasing me."

 

"Francis," James soothed, moving to sit on the edge of his chair so he could rest his hands upon Francis’ knees. "Shall I be honest with you in return, even though it might cause a darkening of your mood?"

 

"You shall have to be now, unless my thoughts come up with all sorts of things in my idle moments." 

 

 James' expression softened and he ducked forward to kiss Francis on the corner of his mouth. "Ferdinand is a very personable man, and as I am one of the few on board who speak French well I became his usual companion. He is charming, yes, and I welcomed his company and his conversation as you yourself know how lonely command can become and...to simply have someone to speak to of…” James’ expression shifted in a way Francis very rarely saw. “The Russian garrison had no hope, Francis, and what was worse is that I think they knew it. They had so little chance that the whole thing turned into gunnery practice more than anything - it certainly is a better descriptor than ‘victory’ if truth be told. And as you, who understands me better than myself, were absent, a man who had been there also was all I had to talk to about it."

 

"Now I feel like an arse to have been so ungenerous to a man who has helped you."

 

"Well," James shrugged, squeezing Francis' knees. "He did also make it apparent that he would not mind tumbling me. I of course could not tell him I am as good as married, and...found myself allowing a familiarity I should not have." James hesitated, then reached for one of Francis' hands, tracing the scarred knuckles with his elegant fingers.“I lacked for company and comfort, as we all do in such times, yet not in some nebulous sense that is eased by fleeting company. I lacked them both because I lacked you, who I love dearly. Sentimental I know, especially for a sailor, but there we are. My confession.”

 

“Oh,” Francis breathed, feeling something in himself settle under the admission that was not really an admission at all. It was the suspicion that had made him brood, and feel guilty for doing so, and if anything he simply felt vindicated that his reading of Bettencourt had been correct. He would not, when he had James' love, be jealous of merely a 'familiarity' or he would find himself jealous of half of James' friends, nor would he rail against James for protecting them both by remaining silent about having a connection to another.

 

 If he was a more callous man he might have teased James about how marriage did not stop most people from such dalliances, but that way lay the spectre of James' father, a man who's only example set to his many children was how not to live a life. To apply his behaviour to James would wound him deeply, and Francis would never do such a thing to him. Not even if James had looked Francis in the eye and told him his head had indeed been turned by dashing Gallic charm. 

 

 Not that Francis should ever have thought that he would, James was as steady and loyal in this as he was in all things. Francis squeezed his hand as he watched James’ already tired eyes pinch and is tense shoulders rise in anticipation of what he thought Francis’ reaction would be. On another day he might have blustered about it for a short while, if only to tease, but not when James was letting his frayed edges show, and certainly not when every minute in his company must do the work of a day now they were so often apart. “Age has eased you into a distinguished handsomeness, so I can see why he might try. I myself have never minded tumbling you.”

 

 James’ eyebrows shot up towards his hairline as he spluttered, then barked out a laugh. “And now you tease me! Oh you absolute cad!” James laughed, delighted, and rose just enough from his seat to cup Francis’ face as he kissed him with a passion that took Francis rather off guard. 

 

 “James,” he gasped when he was allowed a breath of air, letting himself be pushed back into the chair when James kissed him again, an edge to it that made him moan and grasp at James. 

 

“It’s true what they say about how battle gets the blood pumping, you know,” he breathed against Francis’ lips. “And I had neither you nor a fine silk gown to calm it.” He smiled, then straightened and strode to the door of the cabin with such suddenness it left Francis blinking at the void where James had once been. 

 

 He listened to James speak to Bridgens about Francis staying for a private dinner, giving instructions on what to do with the men who had rowed Francis over, and wondered at James’ temperament dipping in and out of melancholy. He had been unsettled by the battle, that was obvious, and Francis hoped that his presence had been what lessened his composure and that James had not been in such a way since Kinburn. 

 

 He would not call himself James’ crutch, or none more so than he would call James his. James was a man who had stood on his own two feet since the age of twelve, the same as Francis, and had not come back from the Passage quite so distressed that he had lost his nerve or his fine abilities as a captain. Yet, after a long day on deck guiding the ship through bad weather, if the gunwale or indeed the mast presented itself to be leant upon you would do so to rest but for a moment. It was a strangled, inelegant metaphor, but it suited what they tried to be for one another.

 

"I do not believe that I have shown you my cabin,” James announced as he shut the door and then leant against it.

 

"James, I am too old...."

 

"If I recall, that was not your sentiment when us old comrades shared a shore leave in Constantinople not five months past. Nor the time we were both docked in Varna a good six before that," James cocked his head, that lock of grey hair almost tumbling into his eyes. "You work me like a man half your age, and dare I say better than."

 

"You always do dare," Francis huffed, feeling his face heat. "I was saying that I am too old to be mollified this way.”

 

“Who said anything about my mollifying you? I have not only survived a battle, but I have witnessed a rare flare of your jealousy. And all brought on by a damned Frenchman !" James stepped forward, tugging his cravat open, and came to stand in front of Francis, a raw, almost vulnerable look in his eyes. "Would you leave me wanting?" he whispered. "Leave me still numb under my skin from the din of a battle?”

 

 Francis knew he should protest the early hour with the ship was still so busy, and to risk such a thing on a warship was foolish beyond belief. Yet Bridgens was outside the door, and James was so very lovely, the kind of lovely that had driven better men than Francis to more foolish actions than the one he was about to embark on.

 

 He stood and removed his coat, coming up to James to pull the cravat from about his neck and tuck it into his pocket. He pushed the collar of his shirt open, feeling James' pulse kick against his fingers, and curled his hand around the back of his neck, smoothing his thumb over his jaw.

 

 James' lashes fluttered, his eyes becoming darker than molasses when Francis tipped his chin up so he could scrape his teeth against the hinge of his jaw. It was not a mark that would last but it still made James gasp, gripping onto the back of Francis' waistcoat when he kissed the bob of James’ Adam's apple.

 

 James leant into him, pressing his thigh against Francis' prick as he ducked his head to lick into Francis' mouth. He ran his hands down James' arms then over his back, brushing over the curve of his rump before smoothing one back up to cup his face again. He stepped closer to James, his other hand slipping under James' coat to push beneath the waistband of James' trousers to touch the dip at the base of his spine.

 

"Oh," James' gasped, hauling out the tails of Francis' shirt so he could smooth his rough, slightly cool hands over his sides. "I want you to make me feel it. I want... Francis."

 

"Well then," Francis murmured as he let his fingers dig into the firm muscle of James' backside. "I think it's best if you show me your cabin now.'

 

 James laughed breathlessly, his eyes glinting as they untangled from one another just enough to not make a racket as they stumbled across the Great Cabin, shedding coats and waistcoats and throwing braces off shoulders as they slid kisses against one another's mouths.

 

 Francis sat to toe off his boots while James kicked his across the narrow cabin, and when he straightened Francis leant back against the desk to watch James push his trousers and linens down his long, shapely legs. The shadow of his body was just visible through the fine material of his shirt, and Francis allowed himself to look his fill at the strength across his chest and the smooth lines of his torso leading to his still trim waist, at the shape of his hips and heaviness of his cock pressing against the shirt tails. All together an image of such beauty Francis did not know what he wanted more, to simply look or to work him until he spilled. 

 

 James did not notice Francis’ eyes on him until he went to lay his trousers over the chair Francis was sat upon. He pulled up short, eyes dropping to where Francis' legs were open and his own cock was fighting the constraint of his uniform trousers.

 

 "Oh," he breathed, eyes darkening. He cast his trousers aside and hesitated, glancing at the door, before nearly throwing himself at Francis. He tried to haul him to his feet and no doubt over to his bunk but Francis lent away from his strength, instead dragging James down into his lap.

 

"Francis," he pleaded, skittish hands running over Francis' chest and shoulders, still enamoured by the breadth of him that Francis had always thought ungainly, and down his front, pressing into his stomach before letting one hand drop to the buttons of his trousers.

 

"You want me to have you?" Francis asked, digging his fingers into the muscle of James' backside hard enough that he yelped.

 

 They froze, ears straining for an approaching sound, before catching one another's eye and giggling like boys hiding their mischief.

 

"To think I was about to ask if you could be quiet,” Francis murmured, smoothing his hand up and down Jame’s bare thigh.

 

"An impossibility," James sad with a rakish grin, reaching across Francis to swipe a bottle from beside his wash basin. "But we know I like to challenge myself."

 

 He pulled the stopper out with his teeth and Francis was hit by the smell of makassar oil, the scent finally overpowering the lingering burn of gunpowder as James poured some into his hand. Francis let himself be nuzzled into a kiss once the bottle was safely set aside, warming the oil between his fingers while James hiked up the back of his shirt. Long fingers cupped his hand once that was done and James lead it behind himself, but Francis did no more than brush over his goal as he became distracted by dropping kisses to the exposed curve of James’ collar bone.

 

"By God, do not think to tease me," James gasped, first grabbing Francis' arm as if to - literally - force his hand, then set about Francis' shirt buttons, shoving it open. "Push 'em in me, you know I - ah ."

 

"You are greedy," Francis accused, smiling all the same as he worked two fingers into James’ heat and twisted.

 

"For you, my love," James rumbled against Francis' neck as he pulled his cock from his linens.

 

 Francis hissed at the feeling of his strong hand, the first other than his own to touch him in months. He opened his legs wider to allow James more room, a shudder racing through him when James pressed in closer and licked at a tendon in his throat, blowing on the wet skin before laying sucking kisses all the way up to his ear. 

 

 He felt James take in a breath to no doubt say something filthy, and worked him harder so it became a moan instead. "I think we are both ready for you to be put to another use.”

 

"Devil," James growled, tangling his fingers into Francis’ hair to pull him into a sloppy kiss, breath hitching when Francis slipped his fingers from him and urged James to stand before following him.

 

 Trousers removed and shirt in disarray from James’ wandering hands, Francis ran his fingers down the bumps of James’ spine, smiling to himself when James bowed into the action like a cat.

 

 “I might purr, if you stroke me well enough,” James threw over his shoulder with a grin, and Francis thought it best to bite his lip to stop any more loose thoughts slipping free. He shoved the tails of James’ shirt up and out of the way, revealing James’ pert backside to his eyes and to his hands which squeezed the flesh until James made a sound. Francis knocked his legs further apart as he curled his hand around James’ hip, allowing him to get his hold on the rail of his bunk before he pushed into him in one long, well practised slide. 

 

 “Yes,” James sighed beautifully when Francis was seated in him, breath catching when Francis rocked out and slid back in with a grunt. He pulled down the back of James’ collar just enough to plant a kiss to the top of his spine, an assurance of his tender feelings, before gripping James’ hips hard with both hands and buggering him as hard as he knew he could take.

 

 James’s ragged breathing seemed to echo around the small cabin, overwhelmed by the base sounds of their coupling that sent heat curling up Francis’ spine.

 

 “Oh... oh good Christ,” James gasped, pulling one hand from the rail to brace himself further on the bulkhead as he began rocking back into Francis’ thrusts. He threw his head back and let out a cry that he quickly cut off, dropping his chin to his chest so the sounds Francis was pushing out of him would be muffled.

 

 He had heard such sounds many times before; as a midshipman who only vaguely knew what was going on in the hold and then as a lieutenant who knew full well and made enough noise to disperse those who had been going about it. It was obvious what the man doing the sodomising was getting out of it, and despite what others said Francis had supposed that the one being buggered must find some pleasure in it also, or else they would not submit to it. Even so, he had once been surprised by the pleasure James took, not submitted to, in a way that others might find distasteful, and might even hate him for.

 

 It was the trust that James had in Francis that allowed it, and had allowed him to ask Francis to bend him over and work him like a doxy. A thing that Francis, despite how good having James with abandon could not help being, did not find himself wanting. Over the past two years they had spent no longer than a few days together at a time, and here Francis was looking at the back of James’ head while he buggered him harshly. 

 

 He ignored the sounds of protest when he slowed and pulled away, scooping James up to dump him bodily over the rail of the bunk. James had been manhandled by Francis on all sorts of occasions so he took it well, flopping out on his neatly made bed with his tanned cheeks flushing brightly and his eyes dark as he gave Francis a beautifully outraged look, blowing that silvered lock of hair off of his face. “What in the devil…”

 

“You object to me wanting to look at you?” Francis asked as he climbed up after him, James letting his legs part to accommodate his body as he held himself over him. "You would leave me wanting for loveliness?"

 

 James flushed darkly, his delicate throat bobbing as he clutched at Francis with trembling fingers. "Honeyed words," he accused softly, his voice catching when Francis covered him and pushed him into the bed.

 

 They made love slower but with no less force, Francis planting his forearms on the pillow to bracket James' head as he thrust into him, dipping his spine so his stomach rubbed against James' wonderfully hard cock. "That's it. I half forget how beautiful you are and…" Francis pressed his face into James' cheek to muffle his grunt of pleasure, kissing the lines there, then nuzzled into his hair as James started to make soft, muted sounds. "How lovely you take it."

 

 He could feel James trembling against him, every swallowed down sigh and moan loud in his ear as James gripped at his arms or smoothed his hands under his shirt to touch Francis' waist and back. "How lovely you give it, Francis ."

 

 Francis hooked his hand under one of James' knees to move his leg over his waist, giving him more room, and James gasped loudly and went rigid. He shuddered, the sheen of sweat at his temples and at the base of his throat catching delightfully in the lamp light, and turned his face to press into Francis's arm. His warm breath filtered through the linen of his sleeve and sent a pleasant thrill through Francis who pushed harder, causing James' eyes to open wide and wonderfully dark as he gasped too loudly.

 

"Good God," James hiccuped, pushing down against Francis' cock, and Francis quickly covered his mouth with his hand as James tried to buck. He tipped his head back, his hair fanning out on the pillow as his trapped prick twitched and wetness seeped through Francis' rucked up shirt.

 

 It did not take long for Francis to reach an equal paroxysm. He muffled his own grunts of pleasure in James' neck, the pooling warmth he was revelling in turning suddenly cold when he felt a sob rack through James. 

 

 He pulled back, his alarm only growing when he saw tears on James's cheeks. "James," he breathed, taking James' face in his hands.

 

"It's...I'm not…"

 

"By God, if I have hurt you," Francis rumbled, feeling sick to his very stomach.

 

"No," James said surely, folding his hand over the one cupping his cheek. "No you have not. Only I find myself overcome by...by things that have been sitting on my chest these past weeks. These past years. I...I am glad you are here. Not only in the physical sense, but here," he moved their conjoined hands to his chest where his heart was beating. "I love you so very much."

 

"Oh James," Francis whispered, kissing one of the tears that was making its way through the fine lines by his eye. "I love you," he brushed his fingers through James' hair, mingling the silver with the rich mahogany brown, and kissed his trembling mouth. "Let me clean us, and we will lay together."

 

 The water in the basin was warmed, a kindness from Mr.Bridgens, and James had managed to get himself under control by the time Francis had cleaned the mess from his smooth skin. He directed Francis to where his shirts were, slipping into a clean one and insisting Francis borrow one of his - "I will not have you going around with leavings on your clothing like a dockside molly," then, with a glimmer of a smile. "Also you look very well in my shirts."

 

 They had become expert on navigating one anothers limbs as they laid together, and soon Francis was butted up against the bulkhead with James' bony ankle hooked over his leg, his back pressed to the rail so he might lay his head on the pillow next to Francis. There was still a redness to his eyes from the tears, and Francis curled his arm around James' shoulders to wipe at the salt stain one had left on his cheekbone.

 

"You lose pieces of yourself in battle," James said quietly. "As easily as you might lose a toe or a finger to the arctic wind. I am glad you were not jealous when we came to bed, I would have welcomed the fire but now I would have regretted it," he admitted, fiddling with the pearl buttons at Francis' throat. "I simply needed you to remind myself of...of what I am. That I am not the dispassionate man who see’s men fall, or men in agony, both English and those we are sent to fight, and thinks only of orders and what must be done...Or who feels not an ounce of fear, not an ounce of anything, when all about is abominable. I feel and I love, and am still someone worthy of you."

 

 "Worthy of me? Do not think in such terms James. Please," Francis murmured into his hair, holding him tighter. "I will not pretend to know what such things are like, but I know fear, and I know the hard choices a commander - a good commander - must make, and you have always been a fine one. Even if you choose to befriend Frenchmen."

 

 James laughed, the sound still a little clogged, and pushed himself up onto an elbow, tossing his hair out of his eyes as he trailed his fingers over the shape of Francis's face with such tenderness it made him feel as if he had a tide within him, rushing and bubbling cheerily against the rocky places in his soul.

 

"It was good to have someone to talk to about the new armaments and such things. The technology is fascinating even if used for dire purposes. Things I do not think above you," he added quickly. "And I know you would listen with interest, I enjoy it very much when you do, yet…"

 

"Yet sometimes I will speak to other fellows of the Geographical Society about magnetism and such things not because I find you lacking, but simply because they share the interest."

 

"Indeed," James smiled, kissed Francis's forehead, then flopped next to him. "The exploding shells are marvellous you know, they are like my rockets but...well, but made with the industry of England." 

 

 He was silent for a long moment and Francis turned his head to find himself being watched.

 

 Francis smiled, making it clear he had caught onto James' scheme, and said in affected tone. "Oh James, won't you show me?"

 

***

 

 There had been a fine exhibition of gunnery that afternoon, taken up by several of the other ships of the fleet in response to the deft display from the crew of the Valorous. They had jumped to the order for practice with enthusiasm and without lagging, seemingly eager to make a good impression on Francis. 

 

 He was not sure if Polar explorers were really the ones to look to for approval in these matters, but he had stood beside James and watched his neat and good humoured crew go through their drill with easy efficiency. James spoke the whole time, voice raising calmly above the blasts of the canon that seemed to thump right through Francis' chest as he explained range of shot and trajectories with an ease that made it all sound deceptively simple.

 

  The explosion of the shells over the water was a pretty show, even if a highly daunting prospect to face, but Francis had found James making the greatest impression upon him, as always: commanding and intelligent but not overbearing, tall and poised and as striking as he had ever been. The smile on his face when they finally parted company impressing enough warmth and affection that Francis still felt it even as he sat in the Great Cabin of his own ship listening to Jopson's report of the day.

 

 It was a comfort he was glad to have brought with him, along with the new memories of James that were as fresh and bright and vital as he, but he was not so glad of the stink of gunpowder and smoke that had followed him from Valorous.

 

"Captain…" Lieutenant Jopson started when Francis slipped off his coat, pulling up short and abashed when Francis shot him a look.

 

"Now, if the then Lieutenant Little had tried to take my coat you'd have given him hell. Expect the same from Mr.Davis."

 

"Old habits sir," Jopson said softly, and still went to open one of the cabin windows to aid the airing out of his coat.

 

 “Well, now you have that out of your system you may go about your business, Thomas. You ran the ship well today.”

 

“Thank you, sir. Goodnight, sir.”

 

“Goodnight Thomas,” Francis smiled, watching Jopson slip out of the door before going to write his log.

 

 Francis adjusted his waistcoat as he sat at the desk in his cabin, then tugged back the cuffs of his shirt as he reached for the dip pen. A brightness caught his eye and he turned his wrist, smiling when he saw the glittering pearl buttons there. He set the pen down and ran his fingers over them, sewn on with Bridgen’s delicate and secure needlework, then over the neat cuffs which sat a little further down his wrist than usual. 

 

 He ran his hand up the sleeve to the shoulder seem that hung differently from his own shirts, feeling the slightly thicker linen James preferred, and caught himself blushing at the thought of how he had come to recognise the feel of it. He sat with his arm across his chest, hand gripping his opposite shoulder, breathing in the faint scent of the lavender Bridgen’s always tucked in with James’ linen, and the even more faint scent, so delicate it might have been his imagination, of James himself. 

 

 Francis waited for the bite of being parted from James to come, and it did, but not as painfully as he feared it might. He thought for a moment of James smiling at him across the table at dinner earlier that evening, extolling the virtues of the pudding to comedic effect, then of all the other times James had done so. How lamplight always darkened his eyes and lit his finely made features, the easy jokes and flirtations that fell from his mouth that was always eager to give kisses and affection. 

 

 He sighed, letting his hands fall to his desk, and heard James’ voice in his ear saying “No sighs for me, dear man, only smiles”. He shook his head, letting a smile pull at his lips as he reached for his pen and bent to his log.