It was nearly eleven when James shuffled the mass of charts into a neat pile and tucked them away. “Another fine evening working with you, Francis,” he said in an aggrieved tone when Francis did not rouse himself.
“What’s that?” Francis said, curling his lip; he had heard James plain enough. He tipped his glass back and let the whisky slide down his throat, long and slow, relishing the numbing heat that followed. “Something you wish to say to me?” Francis fixed his eyes on the wood panelling on the far side of the room, whose contours had grown hazy, and raised the glass to his mouth again. Empty. He turned and reached toward the credenza, but his fingers were clumsy and unsure in their questing, and the bottle teetered on the edge before he snatched it. James, behind him, was busy proselytizing, but Francis paid him no mind. Let the mollycoddle run his mouth as much as he liked.
“Are you listening to me?” James wore the absurdly affronted expression to which he had lately taken a fancy.
Francis poured three fingers’ worth into his glass. “Not particularly.”
“For God’s sake, man!” James rapped the table with the flat of his palm. “Is our situation amusing to you? Why do you insist on obstinacy? I am making every effort—”
“Oh, be quiet,” Francis scoffed. “Isn’t as though you’re contributing very much. Your navigational aptitude is middling at best, and you’ve certainly no nose for the ice. Can’t even handle a bloody Fox properly, can you?” He took a fortifying drink and looked up.
James’ jaw had set in a hard line, and the left corner of his mouth quivered in its usual manner, which Francis had always considered rather unbecoming of a decorated veteran.
But decoration made a hollow weight upon the chest. Bits of gold to reward shrewd politicking—nothing more. Antarctica had tested Francis’ mettle like no sea or shore assignment he’d seen before. He’d steered Terror through a channel so narrow he thought they’d all be crushed to atoms within moments, weathered storms so fierce and foul his hands had shaken for weeks. James was not cut out for that kind of work. Real sailing—sailing that turned stomachs, deadened nerves, roughened hands. Francis had never spared much scrutiny for James’ hands, though he could envisage their size and span without much difficulty. Surely they were smooth as a child’s, protected by some nature of patronage from the uncountable trials Francis had endured in his Navy career.
Neither was James cut out for what lay ahead of them here. That peacock would be useless baggage on the walk out, Francis knew, and it rankled him immensely.
James set his bag on the chair. “How dare you,” he said, tremulous, barely concealing his fury. It occurred to Francis that James might weep if prodded hard enough. “Your behavior is beyond unseemly. It is wholly repugnant, and were we back in England, I would seek to have you disrated at once.”
“Don’t pin this on me,” Francis said, arcing a brow upward as he took another sip. “It’s about you and your fitness for service. Or lack thereof.”
“Francis, I have sought to meet you on every ground I can: as a friend, a colleague, a second. If you do not wish for my friendship, very well. If you do not wish for my professional acquaintance either, I say very well again. But I cannot carry out my duties as a second if you are determined to impugn my character at every turn.”
“Oh, don’t let it bother you,” Francis said, swiping at his forehead, where sweat had begun to bead. “Just—ah, begone, would you?” Only a splash of whisky remained in the glass. He resolved to savor it, for James would set upon him like an old harridan if he reached for a top-up so soon.
“And how may I do that, precisely? Do you think I have no soul, Francis? No heart that may be punctured by your barbs? You have certainly slipped in my estimation since you started up with this dreadful business.” James indicated, with beleaguered agitation, the glass Francis nursed. “But I have always respected you as a sailor, an explorer. No matter the opinion I may hold of you as a man, I see clear evidence of your expertise, and I shall never seek to discredit it the way you have done my accomplishments. There is simply no defense for the things you say to me.”
James’ eyes glittered wet in the lamplight, and his chest heaved with exertion. His face was flushed—not with the unsightly blotches that colored Francis’ own when he grew livid, but with a rose pink that brought to mind the gentle, suffusive warmth of a Raphael Francis once admired in Florence. He had always conceded, in a snarling sort of way, that James Fitzjames was handsome. But there was a beguiling elegance, too, about his features that could be called beautiful.
Francis swirled the last dregs in his glass and peered into its depths.
His regard had never been worth much to anyone—not friends, lovers, shipmates, commanding officers, or sea lords. James, however, had been preoccupied with him since Greenhithe. He had watched Francis unerringly, and Francis had noticed. How could he not? The attention was a novelty, and rarely an unwelcome one, as much as its architect swiftly proved himself irritating and inconsequential.
Some kind of grim satisfaction had come over Francis. “I’ll tell you what you want to hear,” he said. “For a certain price.” It was foolhardy beyond measure. Damning, even. But Francis found himself bereft of regret as he awaited the inevitable eruption.
Yet James only smiled—an ugly thing, limned with shame. He did not strike Francis, or gape at him, or exclaim, Good Christ, you lech! “Do not toy with me.”
“I do not toy.” Francis had never been so brash. Even Sophia, before whom he had prostrated himself ceaselessly, had been spared his basest instincts. But it signified nothing now; there would be no coming back from this. And after two winters on the ice, in any case, he felt certain he had the shape of James. “Perhaps my opinion of you would be improved from—well. Another angle.” Unthinking, Francis smoothed a hand down the front of his trousers, under which the first stirrings of intent had made themselves known.
James stared at him. “I see,” he said. “On my knees, you mean.”
Francis shrugged. “If that is what you desire.”
“What I desire!” A strident bark of laughter leapt from James’ mouth. “I will not stand for this, Francis. You are drunk.”
Francis lifted his gaze and held James’. Illuminated in fragments by the dimming lamplight, James resembled some ancient figure sculptured out of marble. Hallowed, hardened, unyielding—all things Francis knew James was not. “But you are no stranger to it,” he said, tucking his lip behind his teeth as his cock twitched. How many lithe young men had James bedded aboard ship, cloaked in the dank and the dark?
James’ face had gone pale; no blush bloomed there any longer. “Why do you mock me?” he said in a scraping whisper, as though all the air had been battered out of him in a single blow.
“I don’t,” Francis said, then knocked back the final shot in his glass. “I have made my offer. Do what you like with it.” He could take another drink. Two, three more, even, to feel properly unencumbered. It was an itch that crawled under his skin, that ever-present impulse to reach for the bottle. But he would give in only if James did not. “Well?”
James drew in a lengthy breath through his nose. His eyes darted around the great cabin, until finally they came to rest again on Francis, wide and pleading. “And you will—” He paused, abashed, looking fairly sick with it. “Speak in a—ah, a certain manner toward me?”
“Christ.” Francis leaned his head on one fist atop the table, then shut his eyes against the vertiginous sensation that quickly descended upon him. Perhaps he was sick with it, too. Perhaps he ought to sleep it off. “Did say that, didn’t I?”
Francis heard faint footsteps, then an unaccountable rustling. When he opened his eyes, he jolted in his chair.
James had knelt before him. He was close—so close he could have laid his head in Francis’ lap.
All the slights Francis had suffered in his wretched life could be borne for this. He had done it. Francis Crozier, ever the pitiful, grasping suitor, had brought another to their knees. “Look at you, James,” he breathed. “So easily persuaded, hm?” James’ lower lip gleamed in the half-shadow, inviting Francis to brush his thumb across it, catalogue its texture and pliancy.
“I accept your terms,” James said, rocking back on his heels. His fingers drifted toward Francis’ waist, the flies of his trousers.
Francis slapped James away and applied his own fingers to the fastenings. “None of that. Though you’ll have to feed me my lines.” When James’ eyebrows creased together in surprise, he added, “This is for your benefit, not mine. How should I know what you’d like?”
James shook his head. “God damn me for this,” he said. “And God damn you, Francis.”
Francis shoved the flap of his trousers down and tugged up his shirt, finding his cock already half-hard from James’ easy compliance. “Go on.”
“Tell me—” Some sad, mournful sound halfway between a laugh and a sob wrested itself from James’ throat. “Christ. This is humiliation of the highest order.”
“Come now, James, you are not one for shyness. Let me hear it,” Francis said, mock-solicitous. He wrapped his fingers around his cock and began to stroke.
The rosy tip of James’ tongue emerged from his mouth, and he exhaled querulously, as if at great cost to himself. “Tell me I am a good second. That you are glad to have me.”
Pathetic, Francis almost said, though he caught the words before they escaped him. Begging for scraps of praise like a filthy pup. “You are a good second, and I am glad to have you,” he said, quickening his strokes when James’ shoulders quivered and he emitted a feeble little sound. “Very glad, James. Now, here.” Francis gestured toward his cock, stiff and drooling.
James leaned forward and parted his lips, which sparked a spasm of arousal so sharp Francis nearly bucked out of his chair, then gave the head of Francis’ cock a dainty lick. “Tell me I am a dab hand at the dipping needle. That my observations are sound. That the Fox was a rotten affair palmed off on me by the Admiralty.” His breath blew hot across Francis’ skin, and he studied Francis’ face, expectant.
“Your observations are sound, and you have the makings of an excellent scientist. Perhaps you shall be elected to the Astronomical Society when we return home.”
Francis remembered James’ interminable carping over the Fox back in ’45—a prevarication if he’d ever seen one—and the falsehood chafed at him. No matter that he had agreed to this for the sheer ecstasy of seeing James brought low—James’ ineptitude was a disgrace to their profession. Francis had achieved too much to tender his good opinion as though it were mere coin.
But then James’ eyes fluttered shut as he took Francis’ cock into the wet warmth of his mouth, and all at once Francis could not find it in himself to care any longer. He was weak, he knew. Weak for a pretty face who could be bought for pretty words—could be persuaded, indeed, to flatter a lubber like himself. It was a weakness that too often rendered Francis hungry and stupid, made him set his heart on impossible things when he scented the faintest whiff of interest.
And now he had resorted to collecting his own paltry scraps.
He rested a hand on the crown of James’ head, twined his fingers in those shining waves, and tightened his grip when James shivered. James’ hair was softer than he’d imagined, silken against the calloused pads of his fingertips. “That’s it,” Francis murmured. God, it was good. James was good, tremendously good at this, and Francis had not been touched in so, so long. He settled back into the pleasure, as though it were a favored armchair, letting James suck noisily at him for a spell. It was only when James withdrew and looked up that Francis recalled the precise terms of their transaction.
“I am a capable leader of men, and Sir John would—” James swallowed hard. He was unfairly alluring in his debasement: lips spit-slick, temples damp with sweat, collar hopelessly askew. “Sir John would be proud of me.”
“Sir John would be proud of you,” Francis sneered, “for you are a fine captain, and the men all look to you as a leader.”
James’ eagerness was astonishing. He nodded in affirmation and muttered something frantic and indistinct—Francis could make out a faint, “Yes, good, thank you, yes”—then grasped the base of Francis’ cock and licked up a leisurely stripe from root to tip before swallowing him down again.
“Anything else?” Francis said, anticipating his impending crisis. The muscles in his thighs had already begun to tense. James did not reply, only slowly bent lower and lower, by minute fractions, until the whole of Francis’ cock was enveloped. Francis cast his mind about for some fiction he could toss at James’ feet, grunting when James’ throat contracted around him. “You have earned my respect,” he supplied, running his fingers along James’ cheek to feel the swell of his cock.
James moaned plaintively; Francis’ toes curled in his boots.
James retreated instantly. “Wait, wait,” he said, breathless. “A moment. Please.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
The ache between Francis’ legs was intolerable. “Jesus, James, get on with it.”
But James did not return to his task, merely brushed his lips against Francis’ cock—a tease, a bit of coquetry—and met Francis’ gaze. His eyes did not roam or scour. They were proud and knowing, and Francis shrank back from their judgment. “Tell me you want me.”
“Go to hell,” Francis said, furious, as he shoved James down on his cock, pleased to hear James let out a strangled moan. Good. He would not be laughed at. “You God-damned harlot.” With curls of James’ hair wrapped tight around his hand, Francis pulled harder and harder until the indignity gave way to a clean and violent pleasure—until, finally, he went rigid in his chair and struck the table so hard he feared Jopson might come running. “Fucking Christ.” He watched James’ throat work at a frenzied pace. “Take all of it,” he spat, thrilling at the thought of James full up with his spend.
James mewled miserably. A white rivulet leaked from the corner of his mouth. He pitched forward, catching himself with both hands on Francis’ thighs, and shuddered once, twice, before Francis understood.
“A regular Miss Nancy, aren’t you? Just from sucking my prick?”
“Oh, God, oh, God,” James said, squeezing his eyes shut. “I—ah, I loathe you; fuck—” He curled in on himself, then fell silent, panting.
“Look at you, soiling your trousers like a ship’s boy,” Francis said. He prayed James did not notice the way his cock jerked where it lay, slackening, against his leg.
Once he had regained his breath, James raised his head and huffed out a laugh that was all acid. “You fancy yourself unmoved, Francis, but I see it, you know. We are the same in this.” Francis made to push him away, but James held fast. “Hear me, Francis. I may never earn your regard, but I shall content myself with this morsel, meager as it is. The way you look at me—it’s unmistakable to our sort.”
“Our sort? And what sort is that?” Francis asked, though there was no puzzle in it. He knew well enough what he was, what vile, unnatural desires had sunk their claws into him. Another red mark on a ledger already besmirched by Irish, impolitic, middle-bred, skeptic. Now degenerate. The calculus left him unfit for much of anything—not Sophia, not a full command, neither accolades nor glory.
James unfolded his limbs with a rippling grace and rose. “The sort who would invite another man to suck him off, Francis. Don’t be silly, now, hm?” He retrieved his coat and shrugged it on, then slung his bag over his shoulder. “I’ve known from the start. Surmised as much from those errant glances you toss at me over dinner.”
“But you’ll remember this,” Francis said steadily, even as he felt his face flame. “The next time we dine—next week; tomorrow, even—you’ll remember the taste of my cock as you sit there eating your mutton, wishing you could gag on it again. Now sod off.”
When James had cleared the room—when he was no more than a memory, a faint impression of handprints on Francis’ thigh—Francis permitted himself to uncork the bottle and pour another three fingers into his glass. He raised it to his lips and drank, thinking only of dark eyes and a soft mouth. The whisky was sour on his tongue.