Francis had only just managed to keep his composure as he started to read the letter that had been at the pile of correspondence when he heard a familiar voice call his name.
“Commander Crozier! Commander Crozier!”
Francis looked up from the letter he was half-reading, puzzled as to who would be calling for him in the Admiralty office. He frowned, then smiled gladly when he saw that it was Lieutenant Jopson and that he was hurrying towards him.
Despite the still boyish features and neatly pressed uniform, his time on the ice had marked him. His eyes were a darker water green, and his hair had more grey in it than before. A few lines at the corner of his eyes and the still pink patches of scar tissue were evident. Francis took all of this in a glance and wondered if Jopson would ever go back to the Exploration Service, or if the experience had snuffed out the desire for glory and adventure in him.
He knew that many of the men had stayed in the Navy, fine with a furlough, a promotion and backpay. He had run into Irving and Hodges and Le Visconte in the offices as they waited for postings. None had opted to stay in the Discovery Service.
Blanky had to retire and he was happy so far in Whitby. At least that was what his letters said. Goodsir and Collins had retired as well and had settled in Edinburgh. Both were doing well from the letters that Francis and James had received. He was glad of it, since Collins had one of the closest encounters with the Tuunbaq and for a while, it was unclear if he’d come back to himself.
He didn’t know about Little or Jopson and he hoped that for their sake, they would remain in the Navy or retire.
He knew better than to bluntly ask in such a public place. So he only stuck to the usual topics and made a mental note to ask the next time that he’d send Jopson or Little a letter.
“Jopson! It has been awhile. How have you been faring?” Francis asked as he folded the letter and shoved it in his pocket before shaking his former Steward’s hand.
They hadn’t seen each other since the court-martial had been held a month after they had returned and despite Ross and McClintock’s support, it had been close. Francis had been acquitted. The knighthood for himself and James would be announced soon. He had gotten one of the letters with the seal stating as such and James the other. It was just a matter of timing when it would be the case.
Francis himself didn’t care as long as his men’s promotions were upheld. Which so far had been the case, from the looks of Lt. Jopson’s uniform and his presence in the Admiralty halls.
“Well, Commodore Crozier. I came to see if anything had opened up. I’m waiting for a posting. As is Commander Little.” He added, his pale face colouring somewhat at the mention of Little. It made Francis want to ask if there was anything else there, but refrained himself with little difficulty.
He was all too aware that they all had their secrets and bonds forged out in the ice and they remained, whether society wanted them to or not. So they had to smooth it all over and play their parts. It hadn’t mattered as much on the way home. It was excused and Ross and Crozier turned a blind eye to it all. But in London, they had to be discreet. Especially those that remained in the service.
“Well, I’m glad to hear it. You both deserve new postings. Hopefully somewhere warm instead.” Francis replied, making Jopson smile widely.
“Indeed. One can hope. Hobart is a possibility. And you, sir?”
Francis hid the wince at the mention of Hobart, the memories of Sophia Cracroft coming unbidden like thorns catching an unsuspecting hand. It may have been an uncharitable thought, but it did feel like he had been snagged without warning. He had avoided her for all the months that they had been back well enough that even Ross had started to point out maybe it was time to make a visit to Franklin's house.
Hints that Francis had done his best to ignore. There was still too much at stake and he found himself shying away from Miss Cracroft. His infatuation had finally burnt itself out and was nothing more than cold ash. He didn’t care to be reminded of it at all. It brought up far too many regrets and he wasn’t willing to revisit them again.
He’d spent enough whiskey soaked nights doing so and he was keen to move on.
Besides, it wasn’t going to help James any if he remained stuck in the past, searching through his insides over an impossibility.
“Sir?” Jopson’s voice pulled him back from his ruminations and into the present.
“Sorry, Jopson. Wool gathering for a moment. I’m sure you will enjoy Hobart if you are posted there. I know Sir James and I did.” Francis added, trying to smooth over his memory lapse.
He cleared his throat and looked at Jopson, whose smile was starting to fray at the edges with concern. Just like he used to when Francis had been a little worse for the wear. And Francis couldn’t help his shame at bringing that specter back to Jopson, who no doubt wondered if his distraction had anything to do with his old habits.
“As for myself, I am not sure, Jopson. There are still a few details up in the air. Nothing concrete. If I am sent out, I will make sure to send a note. At this point, it is tempting to retire and head up to Whitby with Mr. Blanky. Or Edinburgh with Collins and Goodsir”
Jopson allowed himself a small laugh at that. “I’m sure that all of them would welcome you with open arms.”
Francis grinned in return, pleased he had gotten that reaction from the usually serious young man. Jopson needed to smile more. Especially after all that they had gone through. All of them did.
Jopson smiled at that, the worry slipping from his face. “And Captain Fitzjames?”
Francis’ grin faded and the wound that he was starting to think was there permanently started to ache. Right under his breastbone, it hurt the moment that he thought of his James. He rubbed his chest briefly, then dropped his hand when he felt Jopson’s gaze fall on him.
“Retired. It was a...A difficult decision to come to.” Francis sighed heavily and turned to Jopson. “I am afraid that the Passage was the final voyage of Captain Fitzjames. The Court Martial didn’t do him any favours either.”
Jopson winced, then sighed at hearing the news. No doubt he too recalled when James had finally collapsed after the intense questioning, creating a furore while ending the trial as quickly as possible. It had been the talk of London, Crozier found out later, making James’ retirement the obvious course of action.
“I am sorry to hear it, Sir. We had hoped that he would be back in the Navy. He was a good commander and would make an even better captain,” Jopson commented earnestly, making Francis smile and tuck it away to let James know later. He would like that.
“He would be glad to hear it. Thank you, Jopson,” Francis added, making Jopson nod.
James had loved being in the Navy. It had been most of his life and his identity before the expedition. Not anymore. And it had been a terrible blow to James once he had been lucid enough to realise it.
Especially since he had been so adamant he would stand beside Francis no matter what. And yet again, Francis cursed that damned mockey of a trial. If they had let James be, maybe he could have healed and maybe even gained his own command. But now that door was closed and Francis tried not to dwell.
He had done far too much of that at James’ side already.
Instead, he cleared his throat and pushed the memory of those dark days far from his mind.
“He would have, I won’t deny that. But he has his rank, his pension, and honours from the Geographic Society,” Francis paused and gestured to Jopson’s jacket, “And many of you have your promotions, something he had hoped would be upheld.”
Jopson flushed at that, then murmured an agreement. “So some of it was worth it”
Francis exhaled. “Some. Not all.”
Silence fell between them as both men thought of the ones that had been lost to their quest. Many men lost, so many unable to reap the benefits of their hard won efforts. So many still left to lie on that cold, white expanse of the Arctic.
The silence was thankfully brief and broken by Jopson pulling out a pocket watch and sighing at the time.
“I must be away, sir. It was good seeing you again. Please send my regards to Captain Fitzjames when you see him. And tell him we will write soon.”
Francis could only nod, his jaw tight against any words that he may have blurted out. His heart ached, but it was a good ache. Not like the one that was always with him. He was touched that Jopson had remembered.
Most of the world had forgotten James. But not Jopson and his sensitivity towards James’ state touched him. And touched him deeply.
“I will. Thank you.”
It was barely a whisper, but Jopson heard.
“You’re welcome, sir.”
Jopson gave him a last nod before he turned and left Francis watching him go.
Once Jopson had disappeared, Francis pulled out the letter he had been reading earlier.
“ Dear Commodore Crozier, it has been far too long and answers are required…”
Francis sighed and folded it again before leaving the large hall and going to catch a carriage to the Ross house.
He knew it had been far too long. But he still had no real answers to give yet.
“Oh, Commodore Crozier! You’re back! Let me take your coat and hat.” Rose the housemaid, a pretty and small girl, exclaimed as she did just that.
“Thank you, Rose. Are Sir James and Lady Anne here?” Francis asked as Rose put his coat and hat away as he moved further inside, heading to the sitting room.
“They left for a luncheon and will be back for supper. Would you like something to eat sir? I’m sure that Cook can make something up?”
Rose asked as she nervously tucked a loose brown curl behind her ear as she waited for Francis’ reply.
“Yes. That would be lovely. And a pot of tea as well, thank you Rose.” Francis replied as he moved over to the side table to see what correspondence had arrived for him. Or for James.
“Certainly sir.” Rose replied, sketching a quick curtsey before she went to her task.
Only three letters had arrived for them. Goodsir and Collins had written one, Le Visconte and Blanky the others and Francis breathed a sigh of relief. These were trusted men and not a strain to write back. They didn’t demand anything more serious than a quick greeting and an exchange of news.
Not like other letters that demanded their time and their appearance simply for the cachet of having the Franklin survivors. He had hated those balls and gatherings before. Once he had returned, he hated them even more and was glad to be able to simply say no. Or have Ross intervene on their behalf.
Maybe with more time? Francis shook his head at the thought. No. Even if James was healthy enough, he doubted he would ever be ready to go back to that mindless kind of socialising again.
He took the letters and put them in his pocket when the door opened and Rose bustled in.
“Here you are, sir. Just like you asked.” Rose placed the tray down with the food and the tea all ready for him.
“Thank you Rose. One last thing. How is Captain Fitzjames today?”
Rose paused. “Morag is with him and she said that he is well. Resting after having a bit to eat.”
Francis nodded. “Thank you. That will be all Rose.”
Rose bobbed her head and departed the room, off to do other duties no doubt. He watched her go before pouring himself some tea and milk.
After he ate he would go and see James. Maybe bring him some tea and those biscuits he liked and talk if he was awake and able.
Francis stirred some sugar into his tea and took a sip. That was what he would do.
Morag, the Scottish nurse Ross had hired, was reading when Francis appeared at the doorway of the pale blue and gold decorated room, a cup of milky sweet tea in hand. Her brow was furrowed and her lips moving quietly as she read by the light of the window. Tendrils of her dark hair were sticking to her cheek and neck as she bent over the book, her dark brows furrowed as she worked to make sense of the printed text.
The pale blue curtains weren’t fully drawn, making Francis give a soft sigh of disappointment. He had hoped that James would be up and waiting for him, but if Morag had drawn the curtains only half-way, James was either resting or asleep.
And if Morag was taking a bit of time to read for herself, then James had been sleeping for awhile.He wondered if he even should bother coming in and disturbing both of them. Morag was kept busy with James and helping out in the house when necessary. It wasn’t often she got time to read for herself. He wanted to see James, but if he was resting, he didn’t want to wake him.
James needed all of the rest that he could get and Francis was loath to cut into that rest. Even though he knew James wouldn’t mind and would fight sleep to spend time with him, Francis didn’t want to wake him. Not when his health was still so fragile. He wouldn’t risk James again. Not when he had done it in the Arctic and during the court martial. He didn’t dare do it again.
He loved him too much to lose him and he didn’t think he could truly be happy if James wasn’t with him.
And for that to happen, he needed to let James heal.
Having made up his mind, he turned to go, only to be stopped by James crying out.
“Francis? Francis! FRANCIS!”
It was enough to have Francis dash past Morag and hastily shove the cup and saucer onto the side table before carefully pulling James into his arms and holding him tightly. James clung to him, his breathing rapid pants as he fought to extricate himself from his nightmare. He gasped and cried, while Francis let him.
“I’m here, James. I’m here. I’m here. Everything is well. Everything is well.” He kept repeating the litany, smoothing James’ hair back until the trembling had subsided.
Finally, finally, James was able to shift enough so that his good eye was fixed on Francis’ face. He stared at Francis for several seconds before he sighed and pressed his forehead against Francis’ own.
They stayed like that for minutes, breathing slowly until James was able to sit up on his own.
“Was it the ice again?” Francis asked, helping James sit up against the pillows propping him up in his bed.
James nodded. “The last days. Right before we got rescued.”
Francis swallowed at that, and looked away, catching a hovering Morag’s eye.
She caught the hint and picked up the discarded saucer and cup.
“I’ll get some tea, shall I?” Morag asked, leaving before anyone could say anything else.
“I could use some tea. She’s good at that. Knowing when we need tea” James murmured, shifting in bed as Francis composed himself before turning back to James.
“I’m glad you are here. I don’t think I could have faced it alone as well.” James murmured, his eyes half-closing as he spoke.
“I’m glad I am here so you did not face it alone either.” Francis replied warmly. “In fact, I was bringing you some tea. But I am afraid I did mostly spill it.”
He explained when both of them turned to look at the spot where the cup and saucer had recently rested. Francis shrugged, turning back to James.
“Can’t be helped really. Morag will bring some more soon. Tell me, where did you go today?”
James asked, plucking at Francis’ uniform that he hadn’t changed out of since he had returned.
“The Admiralty office. My presence was requested. And I ran into Jopson, who sent his regards. He’s going to be shipping out soon.” Francis replied, secretly pleased at the small smile that Jopson’s wishes brought to James’ face.
“That must be wonderful. Did he say the place in particular?” James queried eagerly as he moved to sit up, wincing as his bad arm buckled.
“Nothing has been decided. But he’s hoping for Hobart.” Francis replied, smoothly catching James and lifting him up enough to sit up. Once he was in position, he shoved pillows behind James.
But once he had done that, he realised that they were quite close. Almost embracing again and he wasn’t the only one to see it. Francis could pinpoint the exact moment when James realised it, his eyes going wide when it finally hit him.
They were so close that if Francis leaned over and tilted his head just so, he would be able to kiss James. Maybe just a soft brush of their lips. He was building up to it, but the sound of footsteps in the hall was enough to make the decision for him.
Francis tamped down the disappointment that welled up in him over the situation. They hadn’t many chances to be alone and to shower each other with affection. Ever since James’ collapse, privacy had been thin on the ground. And they tried to take advantage of the times they were alone. But sometimes, even they were not enough.
He moved to get off the bed, eliciting a small whine from James, making him stay put.
“Are you sure? It might be awkward once the tea arrives.” Francis asked quietly.
Although Morag was discreet and didn’t seem to mind, Francis found it hard to break the habits of having to sneak around in order to show his beloved affection.
“Still. I’m sure. At least until tea. I just...I just feel better with you near. Hearing about the others is better with you right beside me,” James looked up and smiled weakly, “Is that too much...Or?”
Francis shook his head. “Not at all. It never will be. You know that. Please don’t think it otherwise. Not now or ever James.”
James’ mouth trembled for a few moments before he took a deep breath and nodded.
“Right. Right then. Tell me more about Jopson. What else did he say?”
Francis smiled and continued, drawing out the somewhat brief meeting for James’ pleasure, since he wasn’t able to get out of bed, never mind out into the city. His health was still precarious from the relapse and he lived vicariously through Francis and the Rosses. As well as though the letters that came from their friends.
James soaked it all in, still listening eagerly when Morag appeared to drop off a tray and excuse herself to have her own supper.
Once she had left, Francis recalled the letters that were in his pocket and pulled them out to show James.
“Oh! Will you read them, Francis?” James asked, his expression brightening at the sight of the letters.
“Of course. Let’s get some tea first though,” Francis replied. James nodded his agreement and once Francis had poured them cups and they had drank their fill did he pick up a letter.
“Let’s see what Dundy has to say about being on furlough, shall we?” Francis asked as he snapped the wax seal, unfolded the letter and began to read.
They both chuckled over the way that Dundy detailed his exploits, despite them being his dealings with the Admiralty and his family as he waited out his furlough and hoping for a post in The Bahamas.
“I don’t blame him. I’d like to go there too if I had the chance. I’m done with the Arctic, “ James commented as Francis folded the letter and put it away.
“I’m sure we could manage it. Maybe Portugal for a start?” Francis suggested, making James smile.
“I’d like that. Once I get better. One day.”
Francis reached out and took James’ hand. The one that was weak and shook, and kissed it.
“One day soon. I’m sure of it. We will go. Now would you like to hear what Goodsir and Collins have to say?”
James nodded and Francis settled in to read the next letter, James’ hand still in his.
The day would come, he was sure of it. James would be well again and they would go out together.
But for now, Francis’ excursions to the outside and letters from their men were enough to make James’ sickroom much more bearable to deal with.