Before the sea, his early life is more feeling than distinct imagery. Creeping abhorrence of the gin on his father’s breath. Crisp, quiet joy in misty mornings when he was the first to wake.
But Francis does remember Miss Mary.
She’s their young teacher at the school in Banbridge. Dark hair, slightly wild. She walks to the school in the mornings and wears sensible boots. She couldn’t have been over five-and-twenty, but in his mind, she's great and wise, and kind as anyone in his life. Even when he stumbles with his letters Miss Mary is patient with him, and generous. He loves her for it. He thinks perhaps he loves her at once.
After lessons, he waits behind until his brothers leave. He's made his clothes neat and washed his face, though unable to budge the freckles all over him, still dark from summer. He asks for Miss Mary's hand with a child’s seriousness. From what he's gathered there is a special way to these things, and he diligently follows all the steps of it he knows.
Once, she had placed her hand on his arm, encouraging, and he knew he would do anything for her. Marriage seems a small thing, by comparison.
Miss Mary must have been kind in this as well; Francis doesn’t remember tears. What he does recall is warmth and safety, her hands cupped around his, folding his token back in his palm. (What did he use for a ring? That detail escapes him, though he surely tormented himself over it. Only the best would have done.)
Her smile. “A proper young gentleman.” She brushes back his hair, which he had combed into submission for her. “You keep this very safe, Mr. Crozier. The perfect sweetheart for you is out there and I know you'll both be glad you waited.”
Miss Mary holds his young face and bestows a kiss to the top of his head.
Hope intact. A sterner rebuff might have saved him some grief.
One may not always call James Clark Ross an easy man but, for Francis, loving him is easy indeed. Call it magnetism, perhaps. Call it providence. Their spirits recognize the shape of one another on sight—it feels like that could be enough.
At the least it’s how, after a decade or so of service later, Francis knows the lament of a sailor’s wife. The Victory perishes, and for an uncertain time it starts to feel like her crew has as well.
And yet Ross returns to him. When they first have a moment alone, Francis embraces him and finds he can’t let go.
“Steady, steady,” Ross says. He holds Francis with tenderness, rubbing his shoulders through his coat. He speaks, excited, as though Francis isn’t wrapped tight around him. “How I did miss you! Fury Beach struck again, and I couldn’t be rid of it sooner. Have you written to Mr Blanky yet, seen him? Oh, the North magnetic pole, Frank! I have so much to tell you—but have a care for my bones, old boy.”
“Not a spot of sense anywhere on you,” Francis says, scowling. He gives Ross a shake. “Is that what you think I want, the new chapters from your memoir? Christ, it's been years. I’d wed you on the spot if it meant we couldn’t be parted again.”
Ross goes still in his arms.
“I…” Francis pulls away, struck by sudden vulnerability. “Only in the sense…”
“Then not a true proposal?” Ross says, relentless. And, softer, “Is it?”
Francis stares at him. Thinks back on that first childish attempt, when he was small, and all that happiness required was his true and earnest devotion. “If it were?” he says, braver than he feels. “Would you have me?”
Ross studies him. Careful, he grips the back of Francis’s head and draws him near. Their brows come together, close as prayers. Francis cannot breathe.
“I am glad of you, beyond measure. Because of that love, I’d spare you the rest of my relations,” Ross says with good humor, so gentle Francis doesn’t mark it as rejection at first. “You are my dearest friend, Frank.”
Ah. It is no, then. As it must be, any fool could see that.
He nods, not trusting himself to speak.
Ross understands. His mouth is warm, briefly, against Francis’s. Not unlike a vow between them: “Forward, then, and let us not be parted.”
Nothing can prepare him for Sophia.
Of course, a piece of his soul remains bound to James—Miss Ross in skirts, swirling under a New Year’s sky. “Would it be vain to say I hoped to fluster you more?” says Miss Ross when they are somewhere quiet.
They’re older. Ross is engaged. Francis acknowledges all with a small smile. He grips Miss Ross’s waist, presses her against Terror’s hull. “Am I so predictable?”
(Neither of them is married yet.)
But his love for Sophia is so different. It ravages him. He is helpless and eager before it. Their secret jokes and touches, their constant dance of wit, hold him in anticipation of warmer days all through his time in Antarctica.
And how can a man dedicate himself to the idea of proposal so long, accept a woman in his mind as his future wife, and still fumble? Naturally, Francis finds a way.
On his knee in the Franklin’s garden, he must pause his suit to assist Sophia through a fit of coughing.
“You—good God, Francis.” She holds herself stiff and away as she recovers. Francis hovers with his hands, fretting. “You cannot think to propose marriage, can you?”
Oh, he sees it then, everything he might have been blind to for years of secretly loving her. The confusion in her eyes, verging on dread if his panicked imagination has any say in it. He finds that he is frozen. What training is there for this, what experience can assist him in finding the way forward?
“Sophy,” he tries.
“Commander Crozier,” she says, and it strikes him like a shot.
“You must know,” he says, feeling blindly. “I know you do, of the intensity of my feelings toward you.” He clears his throat. He may choke next. “If you could see yourself finding reciprocal feelings, Miss Cracroft, if you are sympathetic to my aim—”
“There is nothing reciprocal in being left on shore, at the mercy of admirals and tides beyond your control. Am I to be kept company solely by the satisfaction of being a commander’s wife?” Sophia says. She shakes her head and does not look at him. “You are wiser than that.”
Sophia presses his hands, a final kindness or cruelty, and leaves him in the garden. When he finds the strength to stand, his best uniform is smudged with dirt, as if he fell to his knee roughly rather than taking it at will.
She will not marry a commander, Francis thinks, and a last ember of hope fails to burn off entirely in his heart.
Francis suspects he’s asked Thomas Blanky more than once. The attempts coincide with an excess of merriment and, one can only presumes when sober, Blanky has declined all of them.
The very last time it happens:
Chill air bites at their cheeks and they’ve been drinking. The thought comes upon Francis suddenly, as grand notions do when he’s in his cups (so much more than he used to; was it after Sophia, or before?). He lacks a proper token or pretty speech. Somehow, with Thomas, it does not seem so important.
“I mean to say,” he presses onward in the wake of Blanky’s mild astonishment, “I do adore you. No one I’d rather have at my side going into this.”
Yes, he is well and truly drunk.
Blanky raises his own drink, rather solemn. “With all the regret in my heart, sir, I must decline.”
A pause. Blanky swirls his drink. Before Francis can entirely submerge into doubt and self-loathing, Blanky adds, casual-like, “Surprised you never asked Ross.”
Francis grimaces. “He’s married,” he says, waving that away. As if he wasn’t the best man at the damned wedding. Parted at last, and with his own participation.
“Frank,” says Blanky, “I’m married.”
That stops him short. Francis’s eyes widen, alarmed. He grabs for Blanky’s hand, turning it until light catches on the ring.
“So you are,” he concedes. They trade looks and, in a moment, both collapse into laughter. Francis hides his face, cheeks red as tomatoes and not only from drink. Blanky falls against his side, grinning into his shoulder.
“Oh, God,” Francis says.
“Now, if you’d asked back in, what, ’27?” says Blanky, still chuckling. “Handsome young thing like you, I would’ve had to think about it.”
“Shove off, Mr. Blanky. Run away with any random midshipman, would you?”
“There’s nowt random about it.” Blanky’s contented sigh against his face. “God love you, Francis. I certainly do.”
If any one cares to think on Francis Crozier, they might imagine his most harrowing moments taking place at sea. To be sure, he’s had many a close call with Death, ordeals of such horror that men would sink to their knees afterwards, shaking and sobbing on deck.
An unexpected contender, and rather high in Francis’s estimation: on asking Sophia a second time, he turns to face Lady Jane without flinching or giving ground.
Dear, good woman, he called her in Van Dieman’s Land. They fast companions, discussing all topics from her personal museum to, on occasion, James Ross. She had failed to escape Ross’s charms, as everyone did, and Francis was pleased to indulge in the topic. When he and Ross sailed away once more, it was with small pots of her jam in hand.
Francis straightens his shoulders, heartbroken and resolute. They stand a world apart from those companionable moments, and Lady Jane does not blink.
“Nothing else will do,” he says.
Her gaze pierces him. “Then this will be the great tragedy of your life, Francis.”
This alone? he doesn’t say.
With a word about dinner and Sophia’s nod in return, Lady Jane leaves them. Sophia does not follow at once, but—
Neither did she contradict her aunt.
Her rejection is kinder this time, it’s true. A no befitting his rank, he will think later when he’s at his most uncharitable.
(When he sees Sir John through the doorway, it is with such perfect terrible clarity. He has heard, and it confirms everything Francis ever suspected of himself, of others. Why his own life feels shut off to himself, always close and always out of reach.)
He does not stay for dinner.
Francis sits in the hall outside the offices of the Admiralty. He’s out of uniform and has no meeting scheduled. But he is not waiting for himself.
On arriving to England, the remaining officers from the expedition were questioned and given time to offer their accounts, all quietly done behind the public triumph of their return. This is James Fitzjames’s—court-martial perhaps, though some minutes in Francis catches the sound of laughter from inside. He can only shake his head, fond in a way that would have been impossible years ago. James has not lost his touch for charming old sailors, it appears.
He hasn’t felt this far away from James since their rescue, when he was forced to surrender James to the new ship’s doctor. Not a single reason he could object, and yet he wanted to. The thought of him slipping away just out of reach, dying without Francis there…Well, if a ship-less captain refuses to abandon his men, is it not noble?
At last, the sound of opening doors. Francis shakes himself free of memory. With some alarm he turns to see James on the staircase, alone, looking more exhausted, more lost, than he has since early days of recovery. No hint of the joyful storyteller here.
Francis stands, reaching for him.
His concern grows as James struggles for words. “Will you walk with me, Francis?”
“Anywhere,” he says. From the look he gets, he knows James takes his meaning. It’s worth it to see his haunted air give way to warmth and a touch of wry humor.
They stroll until they near a park. Color trickles back to James’s face. “The performance of it weighs on me now. Never used to.” James shakes his head. “Or it did, and I’ve only lost the knack for not minding it hurts.”
“It went well, from what I could hear.” He takes James’s arm and they support each other across the park lawn. Truly, how many lives has he lived since this began, that he can say it without a drop of resentment? “I suspect you could ask for anything and receive it right now, James.”
They claim a park bench, grateful exhales from both when they sit. James props his walking stick by his side. “We’ll see how that goodwill lasts if they promote me without offering you the same. By God, Francis, a knighthood at least.”
Francis lifts his brow. “James,” he says.
“Lady Jane feels as I do.” He’s stern, but not at Francis. “You must know that. I believe the Admiralty fears her more than either of us.”
“Uncommonly sensible of them,” Francis agrees.
Before them, the park is sunshine. Ribbons and hats and parasols as far as the tree-line. Sticky-fingered children and parents play near the pond. Suitors and their beloveds in Sunday clothes, sipping lemonade in the shade, all for the pure pleasure of it.
Francis watches at a distance. He's waiting for a curtain to fall between himself and this green place of sunlight and laughter. A tableau he may witness yet never partake in, always merely close.
On Enterprise, Francis had remained by James’ side when he was deemed well enough to move to a cabin. Days of guarding his rest, soothing hurts and fearful dreams. The first time James woke with clarity in his eyes he said “Francis?” in the hoarsest whisper, and Francis had kissed his hand, his knuckles, his open palm—silently begging forgiveness and giving thanks in every gesture.
“Glad you waited,” James had said, and Francis could only bow his head over their clasped hands, lest James see everything on his face.
And here and now they are alive. Everything is strange and delightful in equal measure. The line between life and the miraculous, smudged beyond all recovery. James is here beside him. The air smells of flowers.
Francis lets his hand fall to the bench between them, and James turns his own palm up, lacing their fingers together. Natural as anything, as though there’s always been a place for him there. Francis may be smiling. He may not be able to stop. How remarkable.
From the edge of his vision, he sees James navigating a similar crisis.
“I have a question for you later,” Francis says.
“If it’s regarding one of those lemonades, I think you know my answer is yes.”
“Well, that also.”
“Is it a question of some good news?”
He gives James’s hand a squeeze. “I hope so.”
Something in that gets his attention. James turns to him sharply. His gaze is searching, open, and completely lovely. Francis smiles back, giving nothing away. Or giving everything away—satisfied with whatever he sees, James gathers Francis’s hand onto his lap, covering it with his own.
“I think you know,” James says, “that my answer is still yes?”
The uncertain note nearly undoes him. How can he wait even a second longer, when James sounds like that? It takes Francis a moment to realize the hand over his has been gently stroking one of his fingers in particular. He feels the caress on his heart. Doubtless he’s flushing in a splotchy unpleasant manner, and James will adore him regardless and have no pity at all.
“But you’ll hear me out?” Francis says.
“Yes, Francis. Always yes.” In profile, James is smiling so fiercely his face is taken over by it. Happiness writ in deep clear lines. “Of course I will.”