They were on a ship. She was healthy, strong and solid, cutting a wide swath through the Atlantic ocean.
The water was laid out before them, rich blue green, transparent on the tips of the waves, gauzy froth thrown up against cornflower sky, like something out of a fantasy.
Thankfully, it was no dream.
Her name was Opportunity and it fit like a glove. She had picked them up in a port town earlier that day. Her sails had been full and her paint shining against the flurry and bustle of the dockyards, and James had never seen anything quite so pretty.
Crozier paced beside him in the bold sunlight that seemed to tumble from the heavens, so luxurious and warm that James could feel it like thick honey on his tongue.
Francis made a noise in his throat and pivoted again the other way, pacing in front of where James was leaned up against the railing, back to the sea and the wind.
The gold sunlight didn’t seem to have the same affect on him as it did on James. He was a whirlwind of energy that needed an outlet. He was so used to being in charge, having responsibilities on his shoulders heavy enough to weigh anchor; the whole idea of being on board a ship as a passenger seemed to morally offend him.
Tender affection welled in James, rumbling like a tempest in his chest.
And that was the problem. That feeling. That was what he did his best to keep dodging like bergy bits in the cold sea.
This would be the last they saw of each other.
Even if they were both staying in Her Majesty's employ, the chances of seeing him on a shared journey were low. And the feeling that ignited in James was all consuming.
The ship swayed and gulls screamed and James soaked in the salt and the feeling of effortless movement. The miles skipped under Opportunity, her bow dipping low and raising victorious on the crest of each wave. Port had faded sometime ago, but James hadn't been watching, too entranced with the sun and the sea and with Francis.
For the last time.
Francis stormed by again and James wasn’t even thinking when he grabbed the man’s wrist and pulled him down beside him.
Francis grunted but came along quietly, leaning over the edge and watching the water split for them. James leaned further back and bumped his shoulder to Crozier’s as he gazed up at the mainsail.
It could easily have been the jostling of the boat that threw them together, but if the easing tension in Francis’ shoulders meant anything, they both knew it wasn’t.
They stood like that, leaned against the railing at opposite angles, and were quiet. A bone deep quiet that settled into them like silt on a riverbed.
They stood and they settled and they breathed, and James could almost be content. But knowing this journey would be the end of it… that was too much to bear in silence.
“Francis, after we return, where are you--” His voice broke. Francis knew James now, knew his secrets and his sins. Knew the shadowy past he had so badly wanted to keep hidden. He wouldn’t just hand him that kind of information, not knowing what he did--
“With James Ross.” There was no hesitation in his voice, “I put him up for a few weeks in our youth and he has yet to repay the favour. What better time to cash in then after a final perilous, deadly mission into the arctic.”
James takes this in, lets it settle. James didn’t have a plan in place for where he would stay while looking for more permanent lodgings, but he was sure there was an inn who would have empty rooms, or maybe he could follow Francis’ example and find a friend still living in the city he could ask for a favour--
He looked up, surprised. Francis had been speaking to him. “Yes?”
“I asked where it was you’d be staying. I’ll need an address for all of the inevitable years of correspondence.” His smile was warm, private. Like they were sharing a joke that Francis was taking particular joy in.
The boat creaked under James fingers, rough dark wood that would have bitten into James’ hands if they had been as soft as they used to be. But now rough met rough, cracked met cracked, and James held the railing all the tighter.
The longer he was silent, the smaller Francis’ smile became, until he finally asked--
“Do you not yet know? All those weeks in recovery and you didn’t send out any letters?” Francis looked… genuinely concerned.
James shrugged, tore his gaze from Francis and cast his eyes to the sky again. The sails billowed out, catching the winds breath as the last, brave gull wheeled in the air above them, diving and banking joyously, before it too turned back and followed its brothers home.
“My back pay is enough for me to find an inn until a more permanent place is found. I’m not sure how long I’ll be staying anyway.” He hesitated. They hadn’t discussed this, “The admiralty might want me shipping out sooner rather than later, depending.”
James waited, couldn’t meet Francis’ eyes, and instead tried to spot the last fleck of gull on the sweeping, distant horizon. It was long gone.
“The admiralty.” Francis’ voice was dry and tight. “You mean to say you’re-?”
“Of course I am.” He said. “You know what it took to get me here. That won’t all be for naught.”
Francis is silent. Four years ago, he would not have been, but now; the arctic had taught him patience.
“You know they will send you back. Back to that hell- !”
Maybe not that much patience.
“And I will return with my head held high.” James left no room for argument in his tone. He should have known that wouldn’t work with Francis.
“It will kill you-- look at who it’s taken from us! This passage is a death sentence! Even for those much more experienced than you--!”
“We beat it Francis. And I will do so again. As many times as I need to.”
Francis stepped into his sight line, grabbed him roughly at the shoulders, his eyes glinted and the colour was fierce on his cheeks.
“We got lucky . We didn’t beat anything. We got lucky , James. You won’t get this lucky again-- I know this, I feel it as surely as- as the wind at our backs and the ship under our feet. This was no talent on our part-” He hissed, gesturing up to the sails that carried them home, “This was pure chance . And I won't trust your life to chance again. She does not love you that much.”
“A good thing that isn’t your decision to make, then.” Francis stilled, the whirlwind dwindling. “Francis… I-- They wont stop. You’re right. They wont stop . And if I can be of any help to the next batch of young lads chomping at the bit to go and chase their glory-- make their name finding the North-West Passage…. Then I am honorbound. As sure as I feel the wind at our backs and the ship under our feet.”
The next breath Francis took shuddered out of him, and James wanted nothing so much as to gather him up in his arms and hold him near.
All of a sudden they were both exhausted. James knew that expression well on the other man’s face, he had seen all its iterations in the last hard years. Never had it looked quite this powerless.
“I’ll stay in London until I’m ordered out, as long as the money will last me.” James says, soft. “I’ll send letters and--”
“No.” Francis said. The ‘no room for argument’ tone looked much better on him, and was far more effective. “No, you’ll be staying with me-- and Ross and his wife. I’m… I’ll hear no word against it.”
James didn’t have any against it to speak. The silence settled, the sun shone bright, and they were homeward bound.