Francis Crozier was not a religious man, but on the third day of the most disastrous team building exercise on the face of the planet he found himself hoping for an afterlife specifically so he could earn the right to march right into that throne room, haul God himself up by his lapels and ask Him what the FUCK?
There was no other explanation for this comedy of errors other than whatever the opposite of Divine Providence was, and Francis would have found it hilarious if he was reading it off his phone over his morning coffee and not dragging his departmental chair behind him on a sledge made out of one of their tents along some mountain trail in the middle of nowhere, France. As if an ice shelf collapsing and sending their fearless leader tumbling twenty feet down a rocky slope (along with their only sled and all of its supplies) wasn't trying enough, his fellow professors (who were better suited to a gentle nap in a library chair than a facsimile of a polar expedition) were dropping like flies left and right thanks to food poisoning from their provisions. Crozier didn’t even know MRE’s could go bad, but found he was not surprised at all that Franklin managed to locate the only cache of spoiled packages in all of fucking Europe. Francis, who had been on the butt end of Franklin’s judgement too many times to trust the man as far as he could be thrown, had the foresight to supply himself, and that measly bunch of rations meant to feed one man for a week was not enough for eight for longer than two days, even with strict portions.
Ice hell, Francis thought, as he continued to put one plodding foot in front of another. I’ve actually died and this is hell and it's the ninth circle and I'm going to kick in a frozen Florentine's head any second. He felt that flash of anger again. If he had to travel through hell wasn’t he at least entitled to a guide of some kind? A kind and witty Virgil to lead him through the horrors? Or did his remarkable lack of fortune extend to this, as well?
Unless… Well, as both the assistant departmental chair and the last healthy man among them, he was the one expected to actually lead them out of this icy hell. Oh God. He was neither witty nor kind but he had to face facts: he was their Icy Virgil. He couldn’t fight the harsh laughter that accompanied this particular revelation, and regretted it instantly when his hauling partner turned towards him with an incredulous look.
Oh right. The worst part of all.
James motherfucking Fitzjames was here too.
“Heard you the first time.”
“Something funny?” James stumbled in his footing, disregarding the hand Francis had instinctively thrown out to steady him.
“I think the snow is getting deeper.”
“And that’s funny to you?”
“A bit. What’s wrong, worried it’s going to ruin those fancy boots of yours?” James had, perhaps predictably, shown up for their journey in very shiny, very expensive looking boots and a well fitted parka that probably cost more than Francis made in a month, and he huffed at this dig towards his fashion choices. Good.
“You know this never would have happened if you had just -”
“Ah yes, my favorite game of the whole trip, please tell me again just how I got us off course because you and Franklin went the wrong way. I’m all ears. You want to blame me for the snow while we’re at it?”
“That’s not what I -”
“Because I believe meteorological manipulation might be beyond my abilities, though I’m sure you have a fantastic story to grace us with about -”
“Alright, Francis, enough! Forgive me for trying to actually talk to you. Let’s just go back to hauling in monastic silence.”
Francis expected this tentative promise to die as early a death as all the brothers that had come before it.
At least Franklin had the decency to remain asleep and, therefore, quiet. Small blessings. One voice yammering away in his ear was enough, and if he had to listen to Franklin wax rhapsodic about their hardships even once he was going to throw himself straight off the next ledge to the mercy of the rocks below. (Alright, he wouldn’t actually abandon the rest of them like that, but he’d fantasize it, very strongly.)
Then he almost lost his footing in the snow, and tried to return his concentration to the monotonous task of leading eight history professors who were supposed to be on a four day team building retreat out of the wilderness of the French Alps (and if he felt like cataloguing his failures along the way, who was there to stop him?)
“Francis?” Crozier fought the urge to roll his eyes. James’ silence hadn’t even lasted five fucking minutes.
“I - I don’t think - think I -” His face drained of all color and his arm scrambled uselessly at his side.
Later, Francis would say that it was at the exact moment that James crumpled in a heap beside him that the Beach Boys got stuck in his head.
Well I feel so broke up
I wanna go home
Francis met James three years ago at the first departmental meeting of the term and decided to hate him almost instantly.
To be fair, he’d had time to cultivate this hatred before they even spoke two words to each other, had fed it through long hours of reading James’ lengthy publications on topics he seemed to have naught but a cursory knowledge of. He apparently considered himself quite the historian of South Pole exploration, and though lacking in anything that might approach valid conclusions through the eye of an expert, the articles were written so well, so charmingly, so free of anything that might be distasteful to the reading public that they’d been lauded and praised in the public sphere, with any criticism (specifically Francis’, whose knowledge on the topic was considered second to none) met with a handwave and one searing censure some blogger or another had entitled “Why do some historians just hate fun?” Fitzjames was now planning on writing an entire book on Amundsen and Scott’s expeditions, and Francis had growled out innumerous epithets to the very idea at a picture of Robert Falcon Scott he kept at his desk.
“He wants you to be a hero,” Crozier had yammered to Scott, as he reviewed James’ latest publication, which completely ignored previous analysis of some of Scott's more damning decisions. The Scott in the photo was impassive in his thick coat, one foot on his sled, the South Pole yet in his sights. Francis highlighted yet another treacly passage with particular flair. “No flailings, no missteps, no poor decisions. He’d have you pure as the driven snow he claims was the only reason you and everyone else ended up dead! But we know the truth, don’t we?”
Then Franklin called him into his office and told him through a smile so wide he could hardly speak that James Fitzjames (the James Fitzjames, himself! Isn’t that exciting, Francis?) would be joining the faculty at the beginning of the new term.
Francis had tried to argue, of course, and each word of his might just as well been shouted into the ether for all the good it had done him.
Perhaps Francis would have learned to deal with Fitzjames’ poor interpretation of the facts. Might even have grown to tolerate his braggadocio, or the awful way that everyone seemed to like James without his ever really seeming to try.
Maybe, if it wasn’t for what happened at that meeting.
Because, you see, the most unforgivable part of all was that the traitorous, rebellious heart he thought had shrivelled up and died since he’d been turned down twice by the only woman he’d ever really loved had suddenly sprung to life and given a great leap at the first smile Fitzjames had flashed towards him over stewed tea and crumbly biscuits.
So hoist up the John B’s sail, see how the mainsail sets
Call up the Captain ashore, let me go home
“Are you fucking humming?” Francis shook his head out of his reverie to see Blanky walking beside him. “What the fuck are you humming way out here?” Though Blanky had one of the worst first nights out of all the sick men, he seemed to come out the other side without having lost a drop of his patented dry wit.
“Are men no longer allowed to hum, Blanky?” Francis asked, loftily. He was grateful for the distraction. He was no longer hauling Franklin in all his state, leaving that responsibility instead to Bridgens and Peglar, who had seen similar recoveries to Blanky. Crozier was, however, now dragging their newest patient behind him. After James collapsed there’d been a bit of quick rearranging, and another tent had been cannibalized into a stretcher. Francis wanted to make some rueful, hilarious statement concerning Scott and Amudsen and dragging his rival back to the arms of civilization, but he was just too damn tired to find the words. Easier to rely on Blanky, to whom words came easily no matter his state.
“Oh sure, and what a fine day for a tune it is, can’t imagine why you shouldn’t be skipping down this trail. I could whistle along with you, maybe break out my fife?”
“Might keep the spirits up,” Francis laughed.
“I’d at least be able to whistle out an SOS.”
“And for that you’d be better equipped than our fearless leader over there.” Francis nudged his chin in Franklin’s direction. There was another failure, another thing Crozier should have checked and double checked. Did they have signal flares, first aid kits, a radio, some kind of plan should the worst go wrong? Literally any kind of plan at all? Of course not, because that would have been easy and it would have made sense. Instead, thanks to Franklin's insistence on a “electronics free” journey, they had no cell phones, no way to contact the outside world, bad food, an injured leader, and just thinking about it was causing another headache to start building behind Francis’ eyes.
“Just saying it all out loud, hrm?”
“Why not?” Francis shrugged. “Its not like I ever kept my opinions to myself before, and if we’re going to die out here I’m sure as shit not going to go with my lips clasped firmly over the administration’s ass.”
“You sure you should be talking that way around that boyfriend of yours?” Francis barked a laugh at Blanky’s running joke, which had started as soon as James’ name had appeared in publications and Francis had begun to loudly complain about him to anyone who would listen. (“I’m just saying, Frank, he’s living in your head rent free and I'm tired of hearing about him. Just call him up, take him out for a cup of coffee and talk nerdy to him about South Pole explorer shit until he’ll let you get in his pants and be done with it.”) Francis had never found the joke particularly funny. Blanky, on the other hand, thought it was hysterical.
“Worried he'll run right to Barrow himself?” Blanky rolled his eyes at the mention of Vice - Chancellor Barrow, an old man who had an alphabet soup of accolades listed after his name and acted like it.
Francis chanced a glance behind him. James lay there with his eyes closed, pale, swaddled in blankets, and, to all appearances, fast asleep. He looked smaller than he usually did, vulnerable, even, and Francis turned away as quickly as if he’d seen the man in a state of undress.
“Doesn’t look like he’ll be saying much of anything for a bit.” Blanky gave a grunt of assessment, and they walked in compainable quiet for a while, listening to the crunch of tired boots in thick snow. Peglar tripped, and would have fallen face first into the snow if Bridgens hadn’t caught him. A quiet, grateful smile passed between them, a press of gloved hands, and they were on their way again.
“What a fuck up this is, eh?” Blanky said, and Francis turned back to his oldest friend.
“You’ll have a story for the wife, that’s for sure.”
“Oh aye, let’s see if she lets me set a single foot outside the front gate after this nonsense is all over.”
“You’ll be lucky if you’re allowed outside at all.”
“I tell you, I’m glad about one thing.”
“The old fool didn’t try and take us to Antarctica. Or the North Pole.”
“Please don’t make me imagine that.”
The only thing Francis was glad of were his orders to Jopson to go spend his holiday at home like a sensible person. Francis’ favorite doctoral student had been itching to come along, make no mistake, and had half skipped to Francis' office when Franklin gave his blessing for the students to come along as well. At least Francis had gotten his wish in that regard, at least, going straight over. Franklin's head and demanding that any TAs, Doctoral candidates and everyone else who wasn't on payroll be barred from the trip. He'd used his nicest shouting voice, talked about liabilities, and ensured that Jopson would be spending his time curled around that boyfriend of his instead of tromping through the snow along with the least prepared campers in the history of camping.
Fracis wished, not for the first time or even the ten thousandth, he’d taken his own advice. They’d have gotten out one way or another, and it wasn’t like anyone was going to thank craggy Francis Crozier for his pains in getting them there. Knowing his luck it was Franklin and Fitzjames who would both get bronze busts for the miraculous trip gone wrong that he’d have to walk past every damn day and -
“Right?” said Blanky, clearly the conclusion to a lengthy diatribe for which he wanted confirmation.
“Sorry,” Francis mumbled. “What did you say?”
“Christ Frank, at least my wife pretends to listen. I said it almost makes me wish we had Hickey with us, slippery bastard would have had snuck a phone past Franklin as simple as breathing. Make this whole thing just go away.” Hickey had been a prospective doctoral candidate some years back and impressed everyone with his work ethic and fresh ideas before it was discovered that not only had Hickey somehow been funneling research funds into his own pockets, he’d stolen his entire thesis AND was wanted by the authorities for a list of crimes longer than Francis' arm.
So, you know, par for the fucking course for the department at this point.
“If Hickey were here he'd have slit our throats in our sleep, stolen our wallets and gone back to civilization with tales of how valiantly he tried to save us, if he didn’t go ahead and steal one of our identities first.”
“Nonsense, whose identity here is worth stealing?” Before Francis could come to terms with the first name that tried to cross his lips, the sled became unsteady, and he looked behind him to see James attempting to extract himself from his cocoon.
“Francis?” he called, weakly.
“Yeah?” Crozier called back, not daring to stop pulling. “How’re you feeling?”
“”M alright. I can walk, you don’t have to -”
“No you can’t, Goodsir says you’re running a fever and if you fall down again I’ll be the one who has to put you back in. You’re staying put.”
“But I -”
“Now is not the time to try and drum up a new story of how you walked fifteen miles uphill through the snow with food poisoning. You're staying put.” James groaned in frustration.
“At least have the decency to let me throw up in the woods? I can’t possibly make that sound glorious.”
“Never say never, James.” Whatever. It was time for a break anyway.
Francis called for a halt and most of the men flopped down into the snow, while James staggered out of his sled and wandered off to the tree line. Goodsir went around checking everyone’s vitals, made a distressed face when he came to Franklin (his EMT training had been enough to stabilize the man, but it was obvious to everyone that they needed to reach civilization sooner rather than later). Francis bullied James into drinking a few mouthfuls of water when he reappeared and went back to consulting his map. A day, yet. One more day and they would be back at the road.
“What were you humming?” Francis looked up to see James studying him, and wondered how long he had been doing so.
“Yeah you were.”
“No, I -”
James held up a hand.
“Fine. You weren’t. Nevermind.” James clambered into the sled and pulled the blankets high up around his chin, looking positively miserable.
Something tugged within Francis, though he decided it was merely the thought of being needled by this for the rest of the day while having to drag his Imperial Highness through the snow. Whatever it was, it was enough to give Francis cause to quickly check to ensure that Blanky was out of earshot, before bending down, as if to check the straps on the sled, and muttering “The Beach Boys.”
“No!” James hissed in a whisper.
“Don’t bother telling the rest,” Francis continued. “They’ll never believe you.” James grinned weakly.
“Won’t. It’ll be our secret.”
Instead of responding Francis secured the ropes around himself again, checked that everyone was prepared to move out, and started to pull.
The colorful harmonies of Brian Wilson and company circled around in his head until they made camp.
After smothering the initial reactions of his heart on a strict diet of sleepless nights, research, coffee, and self-deprecation he felt more equipped to deal with Fitzjames’ insufferable smiles, the stupid way he tossed his hair, the irritating way his eyes shone when he was discussing something he found particularly interesting. If Francis noted that their paths seemed to cross at a much higher frequency than with any of his other colleagues, he assumed it was due to their public feud.
While the rest of the department and the students were delighted by James, Francis found himself falling into bitterness, his companion of old, and was fed up with the never ending stories about the one time James went down to McMurdo station within the first month. (He had also had it with the way James would mock Francis with banter that would have been flirtatious were it directed at anyone else, but complaining about it to Blanky had made him sound insane, and never voiced it again.)
Despite all of it, despite the way he’d sneer and scoff at James and make himself into the most disagreeable grouch who ever haunted the university halls, he still got an email from the man one morning in November, with what looked like an initial draft of a new article attached. It read thus:
Since you’ve made your opinions about my work so apparent in the past, I thought I might give you the opportunity to look over this one before it goes to print so you can get a head start on all your opinions. I’d dearly appreciate any notes you have to offer after what I do not doubt will be a through evisceration.
It was as clear an insult as he’d ever seen, and his only response was a terse “You should refer to me by my full title in the future.”
It got ugly, after that.
Before, James had been making attempts at civility, but this quickly devolved into outright war. James promptly threw Francis’ request to be addressed respectfully straight back into his face, as he threw everything back into Francis’ face, and began referring to him as “Professor Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier” every single time they had to address each other in conversation until Francis had almost punched him at a department picnic that following summer. After that, Franklin forced them to go to a conference in Warsaw together to “finally bury all this unpleasantness.” In the typical fashion of John Franklin, there had only been one room booked, and of course no other rooms available when they got to the hotel.
At least their room had two fucking beds.
They ate the last of Francis’ rations around a weak and smoking fire before retreating to their tents for the evening, and Francis was chagrined to realize that since Fitzjames’ tent had been shredded into a sled, he expected to spend the night -
“Oh don’t look so depressed, Francis,” James said when he entered his own tent. “You’ll finally have that opportunity to smother me in my sleep that you always wanted.”
“I’ll only do it to spare myself your snores.”
“You’re a terrible man, I do not snore. I’ve been told that I’m an impeccable sleeper.”
“Not with Dundy then?”
“Absolutely not, now there’s a man who snores. Blanky can bunk with him -”
“Blanky could sleep through an air raid.”
“As you say,” James’ shoulders were hunched, on the defensive. Crozier found himself unwilling to continue his protests.
“Try not to kick me in the kidneys in the night with those legs of yours.” James rolled his eyes dramatically and bundled himself further into his sleeping bag.
“Professor Crozier?” Goodsir called from outside the tent. When Francis went to greet him, he asked after James (“Insufferable as ever, seems to be feeling a bit better”), his own health (“I’ll be fine after I sleep for a week and get a back replacement”), and finally handed him some medicine with instructions for James to take all of it.
“I know he couldn’t eat much today, so I thought maybe -”
“Are these gummy vitamins, Harry?” Goodsir shrugged, sheepish.
“Some ibuprofen too.” He scratched the back of his head, embarrassed. “I’m afraid it's all we have at the moment.”
“No insult meant,” Crozier softened. “You’re doing fine.”
“I should be doing more but-”
“None of that. We’re all doing the best we can, and we wouldn’t be near as well as we are without you. If you don’t get more funding for your historical linguistics project after this I’ll bring hell down on the administration.”
“I’m sure there’s more valuable things -”
“Nonsense,” Francis barked. The man was too modest by half. “You deserve it. Now go get some sleep.” Goodsir bade him goodnight through a sheepish, grateful smile and headed back towards his own tent.
“Goodsir alright?” James asked, once he had gone.
“Better than the rest of us put together.” He wasn’t talking about the state of the man’s health, and James knew it. Francis handed him the vitamins. “Says these are for you. Better take your medicine, don’t want to end up like your beloved Scott, do you?”
“I do not have scurvy Francis, don’t even-”
“Of course you don’t have fucking scurvy, we’ve been out here three days. I’ll have you back before a single hair can fall from that perfectly coiffed head.”
“Not so perfect now,” James sniffed with a smile. “Left all my product back at the first camp.” Francis laughed.
“The only part that surprises me there is that you even left it behind at all.” Francis paused for a moment, considering. “What I actually don’t get is why you got hit so hard today, and not last night. Everyone else recovered by the morning, but where would be the drama in that, if you were like everyone else?” James looked away quickly, but not quickly enough for Francis to miss the guilty look on his face, and his half joking manner dropped instantly. “Christ, James, what did you do?” James looked up and away, examining the corner of the tent before exhaling and meeting Francis’ gaze.
“I wasn’t so hungry the first night, you remember.” Francis did. James had been so distraught after Franklin’s tumble that Francis had to physically grab him to stop him from jumping down after him, and the twitchy, nervous mood had stayed with James the rest of the day. “So I didn’t eat much, and hardly got sick at all.” He sighed. “You were stretching the food as it was, and I didn’t want to - I thought I could be more useful to you if - and who knows maybe it just didn’t bother me because of, I don’t know genetics or something, but...” James drifted off, but Francis had already put the pieces together.
“So what you’re telling me is that you knowingly ate rotten food on the off chance that you had some sort of immunity?”
“Well when you say it like that it sounds stupid.”
“You said it, not me.”
James laughed, and Francis couldn’t help his stupid, wasted heart from fluttering.
“Go to bed, James. You’ll feel better in the morning.” Francis bundled into his own sleeping bag and closed his eyes. He listened as James turned this way and that, trying to get comfortable on the cold, hard ground, until he finally got up and left the tent in what Francis assumed was supposed to be a quiet, graceful manner, but every single movement of the tent’s zippers rang out like a gunshot in the quiet night. Francis pretended that there wasn't an anxious knot in his chest, that his ears weren’t strained to listen for sounds of a fall, and he felt like a fool when James crawled back in no more than five minutes later.
“Don’t mean to keep you up,” James murmured by way of apology.
“No worse than anyone else.” Francis gave a grunt that he hoped meant something and went back to pretending to be asleep until -
“Francis…” Crozier bit down on snapping for keeping him awake. It was too late and he was too damn tired.
“I’m… I’m glad… that you’re here.” James spoke quietly, hesitantly, as if he were afraid of being stopped at any moment. “If you hadn’t come, or if it had been you on the ice ridge…I don’t know what the rest of us would have done.” Where was this coming from? Where was the dig about his leadership, the pithy comment about how he should have spoken up about their route sooner?
“You’d have figured something out,” he mumbled, trying to find surer ground. “And hey, if I didn’t make it then you’d be able to publish your book without me standing in your way.” It was meant to be a joke, gallow’s humor, but he knew as soon as it left his mouth it would fail, a wrongfooted step in the strange dance between them.
“As drastic as it may seem I don’t consider your death to be an advantage.” Then he softened. “Who could ever assume your surly old mantle?”
“Ah yes, who would take over nagging and scowling and looking wretched at every department meeting?”
“No one could hold a candle to you in the nagging and scowling department,” James agreed. “But if you’re trying to look wretched you’re doing an abysmal job of it.”
“Oh am I?”
“And is that your educated opinion?”
“I have a better eye than you. Always have. I know when something looks good.” He was mocking, poking fun. He couldn’t -
“My god Francis for once in your fucking life would it be such a travesty if someone, somewhere, held a single positive opinion of you?”
“Please James lets not act like we can be nice to each other now, not after we’ve been successfully hating each other for -”
“I never wanted to hate you! I don’t even hate you now!”
“Oh of course, all those little jokes you’ve had at my expense since you got hired all came from a place of brotherhood how could I have been so-”
“I didn’t know what else to do!” James exclaimed. Francis turned over, saw color in his cheeks, eyes that were fever bright. “You made me feel so… so stupid, right from the start! You picked apart everything I wrote like - like you enjoyed tearing my work to shreds, like it was fun to embarrass me! You think I didn’t read every one of your critiques? Do you actually believe I’m such a poor writer I wouldn’t try to improve? Why do you think I sent you my drafts those first few months? I wanted your expertise, I wanted -”
“You wanted to make me feel like an mean, old-”
“I wanted someone who I considered a colleague to help me -”
“Please, next you’ll be telling me you wanted us to be friends.”
“Of course I did! I liked you! I wanted you to like me! But I’m - I’m whatever, incapable of teaching, woefully inadequate in my methods -" he threw his hands around to indicate the general misery around them "obviously not suited to orienteering and whatever else I wanted, well that ship had sailed before I ever even found the gangplank.” He was no longer looking at Francis at all. He stared at the floor of the tent and worried the inside of his cheek. “Just - just forget it. Let’s just go to sleep and when we reach the road in the morning we can just - go back to sniping at each other until one of us dies or quits in a fit of pique.” Just the way you want it. James hadn’t said it, but it hung there, choking the clean mountain air with the bile of all the unpleasantness that had ever passed between them.
“James?” his own voice was distant and strange, wind across an icy plain.
“Do you remember that conference we went to in Warsaw?”
“Francis, I don’t want to talk about Warsaw. Not right now. Possibly not ever again.” Francis breathed a sigh, and felt something loosen in his chest, and he turned to see James staring at him.
“But… were you… At the bar afterwards… were you trying to tell me something?” The pause after his question was so long Francis began to believe that James pretended not to hear him, his eyes with their long lashes would flutter shut and stay that way until the morning.
“I was… I mean, if it - no, it-” James groaned, shifted again in his sleeping bag. “I’m delirious, remember? Can’t trust a thing I say in this state. Go to sleep.” James rolled away from him as far as the small tent would allow, his broad shoulders as inexorably rigid as a wall of ice. Francis watched him for a minute, chewed on his tongue.
What was that last line to the fucking song?
This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on
After the conference in Warsaw concluded, Francis sat at the hotel bar and stared into a glass of sparkling water with lime, both hoping his glare had heretofore hidden fermenting properties and hating himself for the thought. James, who arrived with him, had long since gadded off with some glittering, well dressed group of people to a distant corner of the room, and every few minutes the air was punctuated by a peal of hysterical laughter from the women James was no doubt charming with his stories and his dark eyes and high cheekbones and every single titter made Francus angrier. His fury was all the sharper because even with a gun to his head he couldn't possibly have articulated why.
Francis closed his eyes and sipped from his glass.
Nope. Still sparkling water.
Less than an hour of undirected fuming later (although he had spared some thought for the poor woman at the table behind them, who seemed to be on a date with a man who loved nothing more than to hear himself talk), James almost knocked Francis right off his barstool with a well aimed clap on the shoulder that quickly evolved into a full fledged sag against him.
“Francis! There you are! You should come with me!” He had put a hand on his arm and despite his proclamation, he wasn’t actually going anywhere. All James continued to do was lean into Francis’ side like it was the only thing keeping him upright, and judging by James' slow, stupid smile and the way his eyes couldn’t quite seem to focus on anything, it probably was.
“Shouldn’t you get back to your friends? I’m sure they’re missing your little stories,” Francis sneered, but James was too far gone to take it as the insult it was meant.
“They are!” he declared, face crinkling into a smile. “They asked me if I wanted to go to this club with them but -”
“So go on then!!” Francis hissed, shrugging James’ hand off his arm. “Why are you lagging around here?” The corner’s of James’ mouth sloped downward, ever so slightly, but his eyes still sparkled.
“I…” he began shaking his head, as if trying to recall something. “Don’t you wanna hang out with me?”
“What in the holy hell would make you think that?”
“You keep looking over at me, I tried to catch you but you always turned away before I could - I thought -”
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe you were wrong?” Francis suddenly felt warm all over, knew that a hideous blush was rising into his face. “That perhaps my world doesn’t revolve around the great and wonderful James Fitzjames?” The points of James’ mouth pulled down into a full frown, and he unmoored himself from Francis’ side. Francis, who an instant ago felt that the room was stifling, now prickled at the loss of warmth against his side,
“Why’re you always so mean?” James marveled. “Jus’ forget it.” James tried to head back towards his new friends, but only made it three steps before the woman behind them (fed up with her date an hour too late, in Francis’ estimation) stood up in a rush, causing James to stumble and nearly topple them both into the table. Two glasses became unbalanced and shattered on the floor, sharp as a gunshot, causing the whole of the room to fixate itself on the scene and fall silent, if only for a moment. Francis cursed, because he was fed up with the entire evening, because he could feel every eye in the room on them, because no matter how long he sat down here scowling at a glass of water with lime it wasn’t going to improve and neither would he, and because he wasn’t going to leave James down here to do god knows what in front of a cavalcade of well-established European historians. He whirled around and grabbed James by the arm, heedless of the whispers that followed them.
“Where’r we going?” James mumbled, struggling to keep up with the pace Francis was setting back towards the bay of elevators.
“Back to the room,” Francis, replied, not looking at him. For some reason James thought this was hilarious, and almost doubled over in a fit of giggles.
“Why Professor Crozier, I thought you’d never ask!” Francis bit the inside of his cheek so hard it almost bled. He didn’t need this, this constant taunting, the flaunting of his many deficiencies compared to the man he was herding towards the elevator. He knew what he looked like next to James: stocky, red-faced, with thinning hair and a scowl that could peel the paint of a ship’s deck. If James was going to poke fun at that well - he should just leave James here, wash his hands of him for the night, peel him off the floor in the morning, hand him a few well places I-told-you-sos over breakfast.
“Shut up,” he said, slamming the elevator button with one hand and keeping hold of James with the other. “You’re drunk.”
“No…M’ fine, I-” James hiccuped and tried to stifle something that sounded suspiciously like another. “Let’s stay and have a drink - I mean, you can have a - I mean I can - we can just have water or -”
“Yes, you are drunk, no we are not staying down here to drink water. We’re going back to the room before you make a fool of yourself and me along with you.” The elevator doors opened and Francis practically tossed James inside. He landed against the back wall and tried to slump to the floor, and was well on his way to landing flat on his ass before Francis hauled him up again.
“‘M sorry,” he mumbled. “‘S worse when you stand up.”
“It’s also worse when you drink three shots in as many minutes.”
“I didn’t know what spirytus was,” James whined. “Thought it was -” he hiccuped again “thought it was like vodka.”
“It’s not like vodka.”
“I know that now.”
The elevator dinged and the doors opened onto their floor, despite Francis’ wish for the cable to fucking snap and end this farce of a night once and for all. Instead Francis bundled a hand into the back of James’ shirt and steered them towards their room along a carpet that looked and smelled like it hadn’t been updated since the fall of the Berlin wall.
“‘M sorry,” James moaned again as Francis struggled one handed with the door. “You’re mad at me.”
“Whatever gave you that idea?” The door finally popped open and Francis pushed James inside.
“I messed it all up.”
“Messed what up?”
Instead of answering James fell face first onto the bed and groaned into the pillows. Francis rolled his eyes, grumbled a bit about how he was conducting himself under extreme protest, and then got James a glass of water and some aspirin. The scenario dredged up plenty of guilt on Francis’ part, for friends he had put in similar caretaker roles long before he’d cleaned up and dried out.
“You best turn over,” Francis finally said to James’ back.
“Make me,” the muffled words were said into the pillow, and out of all the emotions they kicked up within Francis he chose to focus on the safest: annoyance.
“Fine.” He came to the side of the bed and reached for James, intending to flip him over on his side so he didn’t choke to death during the night, but the moment he set his hands on James’ arm he found himself tumbled into bed, James’ outrageously long limbs tangled around him.
“Let me go,” Francis said immediately, and hoped his voice wasn’t shaking as much as he thought it was.
“Nope!” James said around a laugh. “You have to stay.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“You’re being grumpy.”
“I’m not -”
“You have to make sure I don’t die. If I die during the night I’ll come back and haunt you.” This at least was able to elicit a small chuckle from Francis, who was still trying to extricate himself from the snarl of James’ arms and legs. How was such a gangly man so strong?
“I’d like to see you try.”
“I could. Can't be that hard, I'd figure it out. Plus if I don’t make it back Franklin will think you murdered me.”
“Can’t have anything happening to his golden boy, eh?” This was supposed to prod, to chafe, to irritate James enough into letting him go. But, true to his nature and contrary as fuck, James just snuggled further into Francis’ shoulder.
“You’re comfy,” he said.
“No, now you shut up. You're comfy, this is comfortable.”
“Maaaaaaaaybe.” Francis let out a long, low exhale. He could keep fighting this, could turn it into a full fledged row if he really wanted too. But...
“I won’t let you hear the end of this tomorrow,” Francis finally conceded, and James lit up like a tree at Christmas.
“That is a problem for tomorrow-James. Tonight-James wants you to stay here and go to sleep.”
“I just hope tomorrow-James doesn’t throw me out of his bed when he realizes what you’ve done.”
“Oh certainly not,” James said into Francis’ shoulder. “I’ve put in a good word for you. He promises to be good if you will.”
“I won’t hold him to it.”
Within minutes James’ breathing had evened out. Francis could wait a few more minutes, then gently make for his own bed on the other side of the room. He would just - it was comfortable, physically, despite the whirlwind of thoughts chasing each other around in his head - just lie there, for another moment or two, feeling… well feeling feelings, at any rate.
Okay fine, so he definitely intended on getting up, but at some point during the night, despite the awkwardness of the angle and the fact that his arm was going numb, Francis must have fallen asleep.(He didn’t mean, too, certainly not.) He woke up with the room bathed in that pale grey light, just before dawn, thinking that James had been right about one thing at least. It was comfortable. Nice, even, and for a total of three seconds after he opened his eyes he allowed himself to indulge in the idea that this was commonplace, that they did this all the time, that Francis was not… as he was, was someone fun, someone handsome, someone James would be -
“Morning,” said a voice beside him. Francis looked down to see James staring up at him. He wore a soft, unguarded smile Francis couldn't ever remember seeing before (not that he’d been cataloguing James’ expressions).
Then James blinked at him, slow and dreamily right before he made a horrified face and promptly threw up all over the bed.
It wasn’t the worst way Francis had ever woken up next to someone. But as James stuttered hungover apologies from the other bed while Francis stripped the soiled sheets, he thought it came pretty damn close.
In the morning Francis was disappointed to find that the past few days were not some horrible nightmare, that his muscles, which had been given to mild protests yesterday, were now in open revolt against him, and that the Beach Boys showed absolutely no signs of dislodging themselves any time in the next ten hours. (Well the poor cook he caught the fits/Threw away all my grits /Then he took and he ate up all of my corn ) He struggled into a seated position, trying to massage cheery harmonies out of his head, his back screaming demands for an eight hour workday, his stomach joining in and bellowing for something to eat. There’s nothing, he told his body. No food until at least tomorrow, so let’s all just quit whining and get through today.
From all available evidence it looked like James had been away from the tent for some time, and Francis found him outside, helping Goodsir and Blanky take down their tents and securing them to the sledge that had carried him yesterday. Good. No having to drag around anymore weight than we have to. James laughed at something Blanky said, and Francis couldn't quite explain the notion of feeling slightly bereft.
Franklin was up, pale but cognizant of the goings-on around him, and Francis assumed that was a good sign for his health, if not for everyone’s mental well-being, because who the fuck wanted a soundtrack of how well they were all doing from the man who damned them in the first place? But even the indomitable Franklin seemed to have been chastened by his fall, and only offered a single empty platitude as the camp around him was packed up.
“It’ll be smooth going now, we’re almost out of it!”
Specifically because Franklin put it that way, it ended up the hardest day of hauling yet, even with frequent breaks and rotations on sled duty. Francis checked the map almost fifteen times before noon, certain they were going the right way but fearful that he had somehow been misled, that they were going to be wandering around this icy wilderness without food for weeks if he didn’t get them back on track. Each time the map confirmed that yes, they were going the right way, yes, the road was indeed less than three miles east, and yes, they would get there before the sun set Francis eyed it suspiciously. Nothing else had gone right. Why should the map be any fucking different? On the off chance that the map was accurate, rescue might even come today, depending on how well trafficked the road was, but at this point Francis wouldn’t be surprised if it was a road to a summer resort that wouldn’t be open until fucking May.
While he wasn’t agonizing over the map he was marching, and because he gave up trying to stop it he hummed his way through the entirety of the Pet Sounds album. James cast an amused look his way every so often, and he dutifully avoided each and every one.
Less avoidable was when Blanky passed him by and started singing the words to “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” in a terrible warble until Francis poked him in the ribs.
The hours seemed to melt into each other, a white haze cut by evergreen trees, a hazy gray sky and rock outcroppings that had ceased to become interesting to everyone but Goodsir, who tutted along about contact metamorphism and uplift at such length Francis wasn’t even sure if the man was aware he was speaking aloud.
At last, just as the sun’s setting rays were slanting through the trees, a shout went up from the front of their line.
“Thank fuckin’ Christ in heaven!” Blanky cried. “It’s the goddamned road.”
The trip had started all smiles on everyone except for Francis and Silna. Silna was Goodsir’s girlfriend and was staying back at a hotel in town with their dog, Tuunbaq, a huge white Newfoundland with a bark that could be heard for miles and a grudge against everything. Goodsir and Silna had met while he was interning at some museum in Canada, and had been nigh inseparable since. People who didn’t know them would call them an odd pairing (but that’s only because they didn’t see the way the two turned to each other as if the sun rose and set in the other’s eyes.)
The morning they left, Silna caught Francis while they were loading up the truck that would bring them to the trailhead, Tuunbaq gently growling at her side. (That wasn’t unusual, as that damn dog hated everyone who wasn’t Silna or Goodsir. He tolerated Blanky, who was in the habit of removing part of his prosthetic leg to play fetch with him at departmental picnics.)
“He’s not used to this kind of thing,” she told Francis, sternly, with a nod in Goodsir’s direction. “I told him he shouldn’t go but…” She shrugged, in the manner of all people forced to watch their partner do something incredibly stupid and knew trying to stop them was futile. “Watch out for him?”
“‘Course,” Francis replied. “I’ll bring him back to you safe and sound.”
“Good. I’ll have to kill Franklin if anything happens to him.” At her side, Tuunbaq barked in agreement. Francis could have sworn the fucking dog was grinning at the thought.
“You understand that’s not much motivation for me?” Silna laughed.
“Yeah, that's fair. Okay, how about I’ll kill James too for not stopping him when he had the chance. That motivation enough for you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Silna’s only response was to roll her eyes and walk away.
An hour’s drive through winding dirt roads later, and they were dropped off at the trail, where James and Franklin practically sprang from the car in their eagerness to get started. They took point, because of course they did, and Crozier took up the much more sensible position of last. Weren’t you a marathon runner, James? he thought. Never shutting up about how many steps you’ve put in, running around in your exercise get ups and you don’t even know where the best walker belongs? He made it almost the whole half of that first day without saying a single off hand comment, though he finally broke around lunch when James began announcing their afternoon plans.
“-and then I’ll lead us through this difficult bit, a bit of an elevation change but then it’ll smooth out and -”
“and then leave the rest of us behind, most like,” Francis mumbled.
“Something add, Francis?” James exaggerated the pronunciation of his name in that dratted posh accent he put on when he felt like being particularly irritating.
“No, James, I didn’t say a thing,” Francis replied, tucking in to his prepackaged meal.
If he hadn’t been smarming over his words, would he have noticed the odd smell coming from everyone elses’ meals? The way Franklin blustered over Goodsir’s questioning? (Impeccable, when I bought them I was assured they’re impeccable, now eat up, we’ve a long day still ahead!)
He realized they were going the wrong way almost immediately after. The hiking path they had plotted and confirmed with the proper authorities was through relatively unchallenging territory, while Franklin and Fitzjames were currently leading them through sharp, twisting trails that climbed higher and higher. He could have said something then, he should have said something then, he had promised Silna that he would take care of Goodsir, and allowing the man to be led in the wrong direction for more than half a day wasn’t it.
But Franics was too busy imagining the look on Fitzjames’ face when he finally realized what he had done, imagined he might have the decency to actually look ashamed for once in his life, and hey, if they were all lucky enough maybe they would all just go the hell home instead of pursuing this stupid venture further.
Francis Crozier should have known better than to count on his luck.
Instead, Francis’ only reward was Franklin’s wide grin transformed into a horrified grimace as the ice gave way beneath him and James’ screams over the wind.
Despite their hope of rescue, Francis’ call to set up the tents before nightfall paid off when darkness slipped in without a single car passing them by. There were uneasy glances back and forth - the road was supposed to be their salvation, not yet another obstacle. Francis hunkered down over his map in the tent, small flashlight in his teeth, tracing the quickest route to civilization. Another day on the road, at minimum, if no cars passed them by.
At least there was water aplenty, and men had been through worse.
Not these particular men, to be sure. Franklin would have considered a single lost meal a travesty, three a crime for which someone should be hanged. The rest would bear it, if nothing else decided to go wrong. Francis chuckled to himself. Food poisoning, injury, frostbite, snow. He ticked off their improbable batch of hindrances on imaginary fingers. What was left to throw at them?
Well, the temperature was dropping, and he sure as shit didn’t want to contend with words like “frostbite” and “hypothermia.” He would have spoken with Goodsir about it, but the man was already sleeping like a stone when he went to find him, and Francis didn’t have the heart to wake him from what were undoubtedly pleasant dreams (or at least more pleasant than their current reality). He went back to his own tent, where James had already bundled himself in his sleeping back and rolled away into the corner.
Francis lay on his back, trying to imagine what possessing even the slightest modicum of luck might feel like, until sleep finally took him.
When he woke up it was still dark - very early morning, maybe - and was cold, much colder than it had been when he’d fallen asleep. At first he thought it was the chill that had awoken him, but there was a strange clicking sound coming from somewhere, and it was a minute before his sleep addled brain could deduce its source.
James was a foot and a half away, shivering in the cold, and Francis had been awakened by the sound of his teeth clacking together.
Francis turned on his back. He couldn’t see them, but he knew that there, just past the silver canvas of the tent, was the night sky, and its hundreds of silently glittering stars. He thought about Amundsen and Scott, the Antarctic sky above them absent of starlight, the hash whiteness of the incessant summer sun. Racing for the South Pole, Amundsen, going for the glory of being first, traveling light, relying on his dogs, Scott with all his mistakes, his broken down tractors, the ponies he ended up shooting, the dogs he sent back to camp, the grueling, backbreaking work of trying to haul sledges on foot, all the while collecting data that would outlive them. The men were two halves of the same coin, goading each other, pushing each other past their limits -
Until one of them broke.
Francis could roll away to the other side of the tent. Pretend he hadn’t heard, wake up the next morning and go on with his life, put this unbelievably shitty trip behind him, crack jokes about it with Blanky for the next five years, snipe at James over departmental meetings because it was easier than yanking him across the table and kissing him (and infinitely less complicated to explain in a report to HR).
Nothing would change, nothing had to change.
But you know what?
“James?” There was a sharp intake of breath from the other side of the tent, and then a moment of stilled silence before -
“No, Francis, it's only ten below outside, why on Earth would I be cold?” James snapped and rolled over to face him. “I'm positively roasting.”
“Your teeth are chattering.”
“Oh, of course, I’m keeping you up! Well forgive me my lapse of human weakness, O great and powerful Francis Crozier, who cannot be felled by anything as low and boorish as the weather.”
“Are you done?”
“No.” He sounded bone tired, voice like boots dragged over gravel, and so unlike himself Francis became irrationally furious at the cold, just for a moment, for making him sound so.
“We could… We could do some rearranging. If you wanted?” Francis closed his eyes in mortification at his own words. God, he was fifty fucking years old, why did he sound like some idiot teenager trying to put his arm around a date at the movies?
“What - What do you -” Francis raised his arm in a clear invitation. James looked from his hand to his face like he was waiting to be slapped and becoming more distressed the longer it took for the blow to come. “Are you sick?” he finally blurted out. “You have to tell me if you’re sick, I’ll - I’ll get Goodsir or -”
“Fine then,” Francis dropped his arm, feeling like seven different kinds of stupid. “Forget it.”
“No - no - I mean -” James let out an exaggerated groan and before Francis could ask him what that was supposed to mean James had already rolled across the tent, his knees butting into Francis’ shins, even through their clothes and two layers of sleeping bags.
“It’s fine just -” James tried to rearrange again, and Francis caught an elbow in the ribs.
“Stop!” James froze in place, and Francis took advantage of the lack of flying limbs to unzip their sleeping bags, roll James' underneath and throw his over them. After folding in the sides (James referred to it as “burritoing” them, to which Francis gave him A Look) there wasn’t much more for Francis to do but pull James’ back flush against his chest, his bottom arm awkwardly trapped beneath him while the hand on top flitted against his side, unsure of itself.
At least it was warm.
“Thanks,” James muttered, after his teeth had stopped chattering. “For - eh, for everything. And sorry I elbowed you in the ribs.” Francis shrugged.
“It's fine. I've got enough to be sorry about myself.”
“What are you sorry for?” Francis exhaled, and felt a bit of his guilt go along with it.
“I knew you were going the wrong way, I knew almost from the start, and I should have said something sooner, maybe I could have-”
“I knew that,” James said. “I could tell by the look on your face. But honestly… Franklin may not have listened to you, anyway. Hell, I might not have either. It’s all my fault, I should have realized and he would have - if I had just…”
“No it’s not - I just wanted to see the look on your face, to know that - know that you fucked up, just once. Maybe… I don’t know, you’re always so bloody confident and sure of yourself. I know how it sounds but-” But beside him James was shaking with silent laughter.
“If this was any other day I’d never let you hear the end of it. My bloody confidence.” He spit the words, cherry stones in his mouth. “Francis, don't you know?”
“You don’t -” James shook his head. “The reason - the only reason I'm here, the only reason I've any attention at all is Barrow. Scott is his great great uncle or some such nonsense and he's bent on historical redemption- it was - I know what my research is like, I know my methods are lacking! I just wanted to - I just wanted to write something that would, I don’t know, make history seem fun, or… accessible, maybe. I loved reading about Scott and Amundsen as a kid, I planned a trip to the Antarctic at five and would have gotten away with it if I realized the pond outside of town wasn’t quite the gateway to the ocean I assumed it was.” He tittered, breathless. “But then Barrow calls me up and - he wants to offer me a job, give my work ‘an air of legitimacy’ because it couldn’t just stand on its own, not without his glorious university behind it.” Acid dripped from those words, as if speaking them aloud were painful to him. ”I knew my work wasn’t - that I wasn’t - I know I don't belong. I just wanted to have fun, write about what I liked, maybe get some other people to enjoy it too! But then it was a thing and there you were every single day just - judging everything I wrote or did, like you knew everything, could see right through me, could tell what a fraud I was.” He paused. “I made a joke to Dundy, once. Said you made me feel like a window. Thought after Warsaw that you might break me like one, too.”
“I didn't know any of that,” Francis said, gently. James laughed in an unpleasant, almost hysterical way, and Francis couldn't help himself - he reached out, to pat James on the shoulder, or to push the hair back that had fallen over his face, perhaps, and instead wrapped his arm around him as James turned over and burrowed his face into Francis’ chest.
“It's not so bad as all that. You’re a good writer, James, and I'm just… I'm just a bitter old man.” Francis heard himself saying, even more surprised to find that it was something he had always known. “You have all your accolades because of that, because people like the stories you tell. All your students love you, the faculty too, and beside them I'm only a - an old, cranky history professor who's fifty years old and has nothing to show for it except a line of publications on the South Pole and a fancy teaching position. I didn’t… I didn’t know that I…” I didn’t know my opinion mattered. I didn’t know I mattered, not to you.
“Francis, you're not - I mean yeah, you're a grump sometimes but your work is…” James mumbled into Francis' coat. “You're a monolith. I was stupid for thinking -”
“You're not,” Francis interrupted. “I could have helped you, should have, but - I thought…” Francis teetered on the edge of a precipice, then stepped off. “I thought you were mocking me, asking me to help you. I thought you were always teasing, in a way.”
“I never teased you,” James declared, and then winced. “Well. Maybe I did tease you, a little, just to get a rise out of you. Prove to myself I wasn’t completely invisible. But I liked you. I do like you.” James flicked his eyes up towards Francis'. Oh but their faces had gotten rather close, hadn't they? “Probably more than I should.”
“I felt - feel -” Francis felt that emotional catharsis was fucking exhausting, especially when you were trying not to stare at the lips of a coworker you'd found attractive since day one. No wonder he’d kept up a strict practice of keeping all his feelings buried deep in his chest for the last fifty years. It has been safe, quiet.
But it hadn’t been very happy.
“I just-” He groaned. “I thought that if… I don’t know, that if we… started getting along, or-” he waved his hand. “Then it would be worse when you… moved on. I mean look at me, and… look at you.” James blinked at him several times in quick succession, Francis could practically hear the gears grinding in his head as he tried to work out just what on earth he was trying to say. But then there was a spark in his eye, and his face broke into a slow smile.
“Francis are you trying to tell me that you were so afraid of me pushing you away that you shoved first?”
“It sounds stupid when you say it like that,” Francis said with a grin, echoing James’ sentiments the previous evening.
“You said it, not me,” James replied as he tucked his head underneath Francis' chin. They lay in companionable silence for a moment, letting the dust settle between them, only it didn’t feel like dust, to Francis.
It felt a bit more like starlight.
“It's been a long few days.”
“It's been a long few years.”
“When I got the offer for the job,” James said, very softly, like a secret, “I was… excited? I had hoped…That we… could collaborate on a few articles together? I thought between my turn of phrase and your research we might actually make a good team.” Francis could feel the warmth of his breath on his neck, even though his clothes.
“We still could,” Francis said, voice thicker than he intended. “When we get back.”
“If we get back.”
“That road is ten feet away. We haven’t seen any cars but it’s dark yet, things will be different in the morning.”
“Are you sure?”
“Unless a freak blizzard buries us in our tents.” Francis felt James grin against him and tightened his hold.
“I can think of a worse way to spend a day.”
“What, shut up in here with a grouchy old man?”
“No, you idiot, curled up all warm and soft in here. You know.” James looked up at him, almost shyly, and whatever he was searching for in Francis' face, he must have found it. “With you.”
Like lovers, Francis thought. At least he was fairly certain he had thought it. James was giving him a funny look, like he'd seen the aurora borealis for the first time, or a particularly magnificent sunrise.
“Francis… about Warsaw…”
“I was trying to tell you something.”
“Oh?” Francis couldn't help it. He was smiling.
“I was trying to work up the courage to quite literally snog the pants off of you.”
“Is that all you wanted?” Francis asked, wryly.
“No. I quite intended on being rather generous and greedy with the rest of the evening.”
“Yeah, I figured that out about five minutes ago.” Francis spared a brief thought for a wasted trip, the wasted year before that, the wasted years since. “I don’t mean to be so stupid.”
“S’okay. I like you anyway.”
“Oi,” came a gruff voice outside the tent. Blanky. “If you two arseholes are finally going to fuck just shut up and do it already! It’s two in the fucking morning, some of us are trying to sleep!”
Getting down to where Franklin fell had been the hardest part.
Francis repairing the sled with part of someone's tent, Franklin being placed upon it after as thorough an examination by Goodsir as was possible with his training and under the circumstances, even Blanky throwing up from spoiled food somewhere in the woods behind them, all of that was easy, by comparison. Now that was all done, and those who weren't turning green and joining Blanky behind the trees were looking at Francis, relying on him to figure out what the next steps would be.
Staying put was out of the question. They weren't lost (Francis could point to exactly where they were on the map), and while the report from Goodsir regarding Franklin's state wasn’t as grim as he'd originally feared, it wasn't something that could wait.
Of course, thanks to the thorough checking of bags by Franklin himself, there wasn’t a single way to contact the outside world.
When the first snowflake hit his nose, Francis was startled that his fury at the general disarray of everything hadn’t burned it up in an instant.
He gathered the men together when most of them had emptied their bellies of everything but bile, and informed them of his decision.
“Thanks to our going the wrong way for half a day, no one knows we’re here. By the time they realize we’re missing and bust out the rescue it could be more than a week. His wounds cannot wait, and I’m not leaving any of you out here as you are.
”We can't get back up to the ridge, and there's also no guarantee that there will be anyone at the trailhead, especially considering the snow that's moving in. There is a road within a two days' hike, and that is our best chance to get everyone out of here as safely and quickly as possible. It'll be a hard two days, but I'd rather that then wait here for worse.” When there was no rebuttal to his statement, merely a handful of determined nods, he showed them the route he'd plotted on the map (thankful he'd at least thought to bring a compass) and within a few minutes they all made ready to move out. Francis strung ropes around himself which were connected to Franklin's sled, and even if no one pulled alongside him it shouldn't be -
“You know, that speech of yours was almost inspirational,” James said as he loaded himself into the second harness. Fan-fucking-tastic.
“Don’t worry, I won’t let it go to my head.”
“No, no truly, I wish I had a recording.”
“You can dress it up when we get back. Give it to yourself, if you’d like. Only let’s get going now, yes?” James smirked and pitched his hand forward.
“Onward, fearless leader!”
Francis noted two things upon waking.
The first was that there wasn’t a single song stuck in his head, Beach Boys or otherwise.
The second was that for the second time in his life, Francis Crozier woke up with James Fitzjames in his arms. Blanky’s interruption had been more effective than a cold shower towards anything further than a laugh or two before they fell into an easy slumber, back to chest, although sometime during the night James had turned around and was resting in the crook of Francis’s shoulder.
“Morning,” James mumbled, when he realized Francis was awake. “Sorry for using you as a pillow. ‘S better than the ground.”
“I don’t mind,” Francis whispered.
He looked down, and he saw something in James’ eyes he recognized from the night before, something that made him glide his palm along James’ spine just to see if he could make him shiver from something other than the cold.
“Francis?” James’ voice was choked, like something was lodged in his throat. “I don’t just want to collaberate on an article together.”
“I... I gathered that.”
“...Oh?” There was hope in the sardonic twist of James' smile, and Francis wanted to know what it tasted like.
He was fairly sure he was about to find out. There was a small exhale from one of them, the mingling of breath between them. Francis laid his hand softly against James' cheek, leaning in, their noses just touching before -
A dog was barking.
James stilled beside him.
“Did you hear -”
The barks came again, so close now that Francis started, half expecting the side of their tent to be plowed in by eighty pounds of yapping white fur, because he knew that bark, had heard it seventeen thousand times at ever departmental gathering since -
“It's Silna,” said James. “Silna's found us.”
“What timing, eh?” Francis mumbled as they scrambled for their boots, trying and failing not to sound as disappointed as he felt.
“None of that!” James suddenly leaned in and planted a small kiss on his cheek, so quickly that he was halfway across the tent and yanking on his gloves before Francis even realized he moved. “Don't you dare think this is over, Francis Crozier.” James winked and unzipped the tent just in time to hear Goodsir shouting something over the snow. A woman’s voice, unmistakably Silna, was shouting back at him, and they emerged from the tent just in time to see a white blur race towards Blanky, who was standing in the middle of their camp and laughing like he'd just heard the funniest joke in the whole damn world.
“What in the name of God took you so fucking long?” he shouted at the dog bearing down on him.
Tuunbaq dove on top of Blanky and toppled him into the snow to lick his face, and they became a riotous tangle of man and dog and barks and laughter.
“I told you to watch out for him,” Silna chastised, as the men fell on Silna's stores of granola bars like they were manna from heaven. There was no bite in her words, just a sad slow shake of her head that seemed to convey something about men which Francis couldn't quite grasp.
“I'll try and do better the next time this happens,” Francis replied with a sideways grin. Silna snorted at the very idea that there would be a next time.
With that marvel of technological achievement known as Silna's battered Nokia, help arrived quickly. Franklin was loaded onto a stretcher and fussed over by licensed professionals. He was cognizant enough to be laughing about what his wife might have to say about their little adventure and too dense to realize that absolutely no one else was laughing along with him.
Silna packed those that couldn't fit in the ambulance into the back of her Land Rover and followed to the hospital, where they learned they could all be expected to be discharged after a night of observation and a warm meal or three.
Francis, who was exempted from this course of treatment (except the warm meals, of course), should have gone back to the hotel like a sensible person. But he wasn't family, and the doctors hadn't told him anything, so instead Francis had worried like a nursemaid, haranguing doctors and nurses at all hours of the day (all of whom made apologies in French and scurried away) and scowling from a seat in the waiting area, a cup of coffee perpetually at his side. Finally, at around dinnertime, a doctor approached him with a firm handshake and a grin.
“Here’s the man I wanted to see!” The doctor had clapped Francis on the shoulder as if they were old football mates. “Everyone’s telling me they have you to thank, not even a single case of frostbite or a mild hypothermia!” Francis felt this praise was highly unwarranted, after all -
“It was barely four days,” he emphasized.
“Nonsense, you should be proud! One of your friends won’t shut up about you. Just keeps going on and on - although you didn’t actually haul three men through the snow on your own, correct?”
“That’ll be James.” Francis found he had no desire to suppress the smile that came to his face unbidden as he said the man's name.
“Well,” the doctor continued, calmly ploughing straight past Francis' reaction. “Feel free to see any of them you like, now.”
“They're going to call it a miracle!” Franklin exclaimed the moment Francis walked into the room, and he fought the urge to walk straight out again. “All of us, delivered from the jaws of death by the grace of God himself!”
As far as Francis was concerned, God had fuck all to do with it, but he gritted his teeth and listened to Franklin prattle on (the man was ill, after all) until a nurse came in to check his vitals and he was able to make his excuses.
He visited everyone in turn, laughed at Blanky’s ridiculous jokes, caught mock daggers from Silna’s eyes as she sat beside Harry, opened the door to Bridgens and Peglar's room only to stammer apologies at them and leave and got a cheerful rant from Dundy about how everyone and their grandmother was clamoring to him for his daring escapades.
The only one left to visit… well.
Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier had been through enough hardship in his fifty or so years to know what it was like to laugh about the pain once he’d gotten through. Knowing that there was some semblance of peace on the other side of some grief or another, his goal was to rush headlong into a new enterprise until the ache was gone, until he could laugh about it in hindsight. He had been through the wilderness, everyone was safe, nothing had happened.
Why, then, did he feel as if he were truly walking into the belly of the beast as he stepped into James’ room?
“There’s the man of the hour!” James said when Francis gently knocked on his door. “Still got all your fingers and toes?”
“As far as I know. How are you feeling?”
“They’ve been poking and prodding me with every needle known to man and I’ve just about had it, but other than that I feel fine.”
“Any word from the university?”
“Oh - loads, and don’t worry, I didn’t take all the credit for myself, I carved out a healthy place in the story for you.”
“Who on earth have you already told about -”
“Now let me see, Barrow, his secretary, Barrow again, Ross, his nephew - who asked after you in particular because of course he did-” Francis has no time to parse what that was supposed to mean before James continued on “Oh and the Gazette wanted to do a full interview but I said no, not until Captain Crozier - oh, by the way, that’s what the Gazette is dubbing you.”
“Fucking hell -”
“It was quite a week, wasn’t it? Eh? Captain Crozier?”
“Please do not call me that.”
“Oh I’m afraid it’s far too late. The university gazette is already raising funds for a monument.”
“They are not.”
“They will be after we all get back with this story.” Francis made a face.
“With the way everything’s been going I wouldn’t be surprised if Franklin gets the credit.”
“He won’t, not after I make perfectly clear to Barrow with what happened out there.”
“Going to tell the truth, then?’
“Some version of it, at least.” James’s face turned thoughtful. “I'm going to advocate to Barrow that Franklin be… encouraged, to retire, after this."
“You what?” To all appearances James adored Franklin, and why shouldn’t he? He’d gotten some of the best sections to teach, his pick of offices -
“Stop being so bloody thick, we would have died out here because of him, and this is just the sauce on top of an entire buffet of terrible decisions he’s made in the past few years.”
“How does a man expect to stay in the chancellor’s good graces, talking like that, taking stances?”
“Francis this week has been hard enough without you suddenly echoing the administration,” James scoffed. “I haven't been garnering all this political capital to not spend it when it's needed.” He waved a hand, and in that dismissive gesture Francis felt a yawning chasm opening in the pit of his stomach. Why would James want Franklin gone? Why, to step into the old man’s shoes, of course! He could see it already, James becoming the chair of the department with the blessing of Barrow and the rest, Francis thrown to the wolves (“Why didn’t you stop Franklin from doing something so stupid!” “He was your responsibility!” “We hope you do a better job under Departmental Chair Fitzjames’ direction.”)
Francis’ hands balled into fists. He knew he'd been completely wrong. There was nothing between the two of them. There had never been anything between them, not from James' side anyway. It was all the ice and the cold - none of it meant anything, Francis didn't mean anything, it was all just pretty words and -
“Going to aim for the position yourself, then?” He couldn't hide the bitterness in his voice, but James looked at him like he’d just said the most unbelievably idiotic thing he’d ever heard.
“Are you being serious right now? Please tell me this is an act, if I’ve been fancying someone this dense for three years I’ll never forgive myself.”
If James didn't want to take over the department himself, then else who would he -
“No!” Francis exclaimed when he realized James meant for him to take up the post. “I'm not…” He wanted to say that he was no leader, that he wasn't political, that - “Wait, did you say fancying?”
“You’ve got some sharp edges that need a bit of sanding, to be sure,” James said, ignoring the latter part of Francis’ outburst completely. “Good thing your new assistant chair is so good at getting the administration to be very agreeable.”
“Oh, you're my assistant, are you?”
“Who else wants the responsibility? Blanky? He'll punch you if you so much as suggest it, and he's the only other one you’d bother to ask.”
“And I’d bother to ask you?”
“Nah, you wouldn’t,” James shook his head. “I’d have to charm you into it.”
“Your usual charms don’t work on me, James Fitzjames.”
“Mmm, that’s true. I’ll have to come up with some new methods, won’t I?”
“And those would be?”
“Thought I'd try honesty, for once.”
“Mhm. I can start right now, if you'd like.”
“I would indeed.”
“Thought so.” James sighed, as if this was a very great burden. “Very well. Yes, the word I used earlier was fancying. I fancied you. You are fancyable. Although now that I think of it, it was a bit longer than three years.”
“Really?” James shrugged.
“I’d been reading your work since undergrad. And, you know, your author photo, the one at the back of your second book, with the black turtleneck?” His eyes flicked away. “I thought you looked quite well.” Fancis considered this for a moment, even opened his mouth once or twice, though no sound came out.
“Are you actually speechless?” James chuckled, but there was no mistaking the awed delight in his eyes, now that Francis knew where to look. “If this is what a compliment does, I can't imagine what a kiss would -”
Francis shut him up with one.
James was frozen for a moment, and Francis panicked that he'd done it all wrong, that it had been too long, he'd been alone too long and didn’t know how anything worked anymore, but James was only surprised, and after a moment’s shock he sighed happily into the kiss. He fisted his hand into the fabric of Francis' shirt when Francis felt daring enough to run his fingers through that long, luxurious hair that had been taunting him with its softness for three years. Then Francis slid his tongue gently along James' bottom lip, begging entry, and James made a pleased, eager noise in the back of his throat before he rushed to comply. Their mouths slotted together as if they had always been destined to be pressed alongside each other.
Francis had expected it to be good - great, even - the times he had allowed himself to fantasize what kissing James Fitzjames might be like. But he had never anticipated the shyness, the kisses soft as butterflies wings pressed against his smiling lip like quiet questions, the way James' hands flitted about Francis' back and shoulders until Francis cradled his face in his palms and James covered Francis’ hands with his own.
A door banged somewhere in the hall, footsteps approached the room. Francis tried to spring back before a nurse walked in, and found instead that James had refused to relinquish his hand to him. The nurse made the usual hellos, but when she noticed their intertwined fingers, Francis thought he saw her face flash with disappointment. (Perhaps it was real, perhaps it was projection, but either way, Francis' heart did stupid, flipfloppy things.) He half listened as James bantered with her, ignored her questions about Francis, and stoked a gentle bonfire at the base of his spine as James ran his thumb along the knuckles of Francis’ right hand again and again and again.
James' eyes were bright as soon as she departed, and his gaze focused on Francis' lips before flicking back up to meet his eyes.
“So about the article you wanted to collaborate on?”
“I was thinking Friday at seven?” Francis chuckled.
“Odd time to begin writing an article, don’t you think?”
“I thought maybe we could, you know, keep working on it. Maybe into Saturday? If we feel like?”
James Fitzjames was going to be the death of him, and a happier death no man ever had.
“Better make it eight,” Francis said, gravely, and James' face fell.
“I must be losing my touch! Alas, the flower of my beauty has withered! Time was, I'd have a man falling all over himself just to see me an hour sooner.”
“Don't be daft, you're as beautiful as ever.” James preened like a peacock at this crumb of praise, and Francis filed that away for later perusal.“I’ll need time to fix up the house. It's a bit of a mess.”
“The entire house? My, someone’s ambitious, I would have contented myself with just the bedroom.” Francis arched an eyebrow at him. “Oh no, you’ll hear no complaints from me. I look forward to our… collaboration, as it were.” Francis laughed, and pulled James towards him.
Out of a tinny speaker in a room down the hall, a song began to play.
I may not always love you,
But long as there are stars above you...