Exhaustion, they said, when Enterprise was three months and several hundred miles from the horrors in which the former crews of Terror and Erebus had been found. Exhaustion, when Francis collapsed while taking a turn about the deck. Exhaustion, when his fellow Captain, Fitzjames, went white with the effort of holding him up without crumpling to the boards himself before having to be escorted to sick bay along with Francis,
Exhaustion from trying to heal his men through sheer force of will, thought James Ross as he stood next to Francis’ bed, watching his friend try to settle while a cavalcade of doctors scuttled about the room, trying to reassure their captain.
“Exhaustion, like I said before - oh! And nerves, certainly nerves -”
“Held together as well as he could - better than any of us could, I daresay.”
“Needs quiet and rest.”
“Will be right as rain before three days' time, mark my words.”
“James?” Francis’ voice was weak, and the men parted like the sea when Ross stepped past them to go to his side. He fixed a merry smile to his face that he did not feel at all, and tried not to think of that gaunt, haunted face Francis had worn when Ross’ crew reached the remains of the Franklin Expedition on King William Land, all too easy to see in the pale lines of his friend’s face.
“It’s alright Francis,” he declared, patting his fellow captain on the shoulder. “You’ve already been awarded second and third opinions on a clean bill of health, provided you get some well-deserved rest.” But while Ross had hoped for cheer (and would have settled for an exasperated smile) the eyes that met his own were nothing if not confused. Francis’ brow furrowed and he shook his head before the light of recognition suddenly sprang into his eyes and he blinked furiously.
“James? But where -”
“You took a spill, Francis, that’s all. I’ve been telling you to get a bit more rest.” This was quite an understatement, as Ross had done everything short of ordering the man to his own berth. But Francis would not be deterred (and if men could be saved by nothing more than the love of their captain, Ross supposed this is why they has managed not to lose a single soul since the rescue.)
“Should be getting up,” Francis muttered. “Too much to do.” He would have made a motion to stir if James’ hand had not stayed him.
“None of that,” he commanded, gently. “You’ve done more than enough, you’ve earned the rest.” Francis shook his head.
“Earned nothing -” he began, but was interrupted by a small commotion at the door.
“Is Fr - is Captain Crozier alright?” a voice, louder than the rest, asked. Ross turned to see Captain Fitzjames being corralled by the doctors in the doorway, and motioned for them to stand down.
“He’s alright, thanks to you,” Ross commended, and although Fitzjames smiled thinly at the praise, it did not reach his eyes. He was too focused on the figure in the bed, and, after a brief pause, Ross stepped aside to allow him access. Yet Fitzjames shifted from foot to foot in the doorway, unsure of his welcome, and Ross was struck by how far removed he seemed from the young, gallant, frivolous officer Ross remembered from so many years ago, until -
Ross turned to the bed, but at the mention of the name Fitzjames took two steps of those long legs of his and was already by Francis’ side.
“Yes, Francis?” he asked, softly. Ross opened his mouth to correct Fitzjames’ error, it was himself Francis had been speaking to, when -
“Are you alright, James?” Francis fought with the blankets, extracted his hand to brace it against Fitzjames’ wrist.
“Me? I’m not the one who tried to test the solidness of the deck with my skull.”
Ah. Well then.
Ross patted Francis’ shoulder again, somehow more awkwardly, this time, and made his way out of the berth. Francis was murmuring small consolations at Fitzjames, who looked so nervous for Crozier’s health as to be afraid to sit on the side of the bed. Ridiculous! Francis was no dainty thing, to need such coddling! Ross fully expected to see the man on deck by tomorrow morning, absolutely against the doctors and his own orders, but he forgave Fitzjames his fussing. (Perhaps he was only trying to repay the innumerable hours Francis had worried about his own state, as he recovered from scurvy, and that brought a small chuckle to Ross’ lips. Fitzjames had hardly a chance of repaying that debt.) Before he could mull over the matter further, Ross was tracked down by one of his lieutenants, who had some matter or another five which wanted tending, and he went about the business of his ship without trying to examine the feelings he left inside his old friend’s sick room.
Had there been a strangeness in his friendship with Francis, since the rescue? Perhaps, but it was nothing that Ross would have begrudged, not with the state the crews of Terror and Erebus had been found in. He and Francis had not seen each other for nigh on three years, and so many things had changed - it was only natural he should find camaraderie with his fellow captain, despite the fact that Crozier hadn’t been able to stand Fitzjames from the moment he met him. Ross could recall more than a few japes at the younger officer’s expense between himself and Francis before the expedition left Greenhithe, poking fun at his stories, his fresh pressed Naval polish, his vast overestimation of his own abilities in the ice. Yet Fitzjames, too, had been terribly altered by their ordeal, had he not? He’d certainly matured, added depth to all that flash, and if Francis found him more tolerable, well then, Ross could as well.
All oddities were temporary anyway! They were going home, Francis would be well again, the Enterprise would soon return to England, and there would be a farce of a court martial before a knighthood for Francis and an easy retirement. Though he had not discussed it in so many words with Francis, it was clear that the captains of the Antarctic Expedition should never return to the ice again, and nothing was left but to rest on their laurels and spend the rest of their days growing old in the parlor at Eliot Place, clinking glasses together in between composing their memoirs and complaining about the admiralty and the state of the youth. Francis might even resume his suit to Sophia Cracroft, who surely could find no fault with him now, and Ross would stand by his side at their wedding, all gravity and smiles.
And as for Fitzjames… Well, Fitzjames would be reassigned, of course, continue his meteoric rise within the ranks of the Navy. He would send a suitable number of letters to Francis from somewhere exotic and warm before the draw of newer company turned his thoughts away from the Arctic, and those who came with it.
It would be a nice life. Less daring, of course, but safer, and as he had no wish to again sail halfway around the world to pull his friend from the jaws of certain death, it was a life he would find quite agreeable. That was the balm with which James Ross contented himself those long miles back towards home, through those awkward dinners where Fitzjames and Francis would share an anecdote amusing to only the two of them, an inside joke from the last two years in the ice, mirroring an intimacy that he and Francis had once known, on an Antarctic voyage that seemed a lifetime away, now.
When the call of “Ireland, Ireland!” came from above, Ross sought out Francis at once, and gallantly suppressed a huff of disappointment when he found Francis already standing at the bow, Fitzjames by his side. Fitzjames was clearly using Francis’ body to shield his own from the wind, the two of them standing so close Ross could have sworn an errant tailor had sewn their cuffs together.
“Francis!” he called, as soon as he was close enough to be heard. Francis started for a moment before he stepped away from Fitzjames and turned around.
“James!” Francis replied, and a sense of normalcy settled over Ross at how Francis’ face crinkled into a smile upon spotting him. “Did you hear the call?”
“Of course!” Ross said, with his eyes on the horizon. “Came to find you the moment it went up. Only a few days from home, now!”
“Home for some of us, perhaps,” Francis huffed, good naturedly.
“Will you not return to Bainbridge, then?”
“Not right away. Though I am sure my sisters will require me in some capacity before long.”
“Expecting you to bring daring stories of your adventures back home, I should think.”
“Home,” Francis chuckled at the word. “Terror was more home to me these past decade than I believe Bainbridge ever was.” The mention of the lost ship sent a shudder through him, and a gust of wind pushed Fitzjames’ shoulder against Crozier’s.
“You must come back to Eliot Place while you are in London,” Ross said, blithely, hoping to drive the sadness from his friend’s eyes. “I daresay that Ann will hardly let either of us out of her sight, upon our return.” Francis nodded, but the motion was perfunctory, stiff, nothing like the enthusiastic agreement Ross had anticipated. Fitzjames moved away from them, ostensibly to peer a bit further over the rail, but this was but a thinly veiled effort to give them the privacy they so clearly required.
“I hadn’t thought -”
“Don’t be ridiculous Francis, you must know you always have a home with us. Even if you’re bound for Ireland or the Continent again you’ll have to stay through the inevitable court-martial.” Yes, excellent, Ross thought to himself. Cheer him with thoughts of being dragged up before the admiralty. He cast about for a reason for Francis’ reluctance, settled upon the nearest at hand. “Fitzjames is welcome to stay too, of course,” Ross continued, aware that he was verging on babbling. “All of Erebus and Terror’s captains under one roof, we’ll rival the sun with all the light glinting off the brass!” Well, not all of them. The ghost of Sir John seemed to hover between them, only for an instant, and with it the shade of Sophia Cracroft. But there was no query as to her whereabouts, nor an unfamiliar settle of Francis’ shoulders.
“I will talk to Captain Fitzjames,” Francis promised, and it did not escape Ross how strangely the title was pronounced, as if the full name and title of his fellow captain should be strange to him!
“I promise Ann will only set out the best silver.”
“We’ll need it if Captain Fitzjames accepts.”
“In case he gets into one of his stories,” Francis explained.
“How should the silver aid us in such a dire situation?”
“Either to stab him or ourselves, no quicker escape than that is possible.”
“What are you two laughing about?” Fitzjames asked, turning from the bow, his face bitten red by the wind. Beside Ross, Francis stilled the moment James caught his eye, afraid to be caught out, most like.
“Nothing at all, James,” Francis said, and Ross would have been deaf not to hear the smile in the words.
“Well, laugh about nothing a bit further along the deck. Some of us are trying to make out some land among all this fog.”
“You’ll be all day at that task.” Francis replied.
“It seems I shall. You should speak to your birthplace about its tendency towards hiding.”
“How else should we defend ourselves from the English?”
Ross stepped away, and left them to their banter.
Three days. Just three days, and they would be back home.
The court-martial was, as Ross expected, a dreadfully drawn out formality, where each and every one of the admirals had to drag out their most dour expressions and high minded head shakes and loftily condemn the loss of men and ships without actually blaming anyone (especially not themselves). But it was a hot afternoon in the chambers, with sweat pooling in the small of everyone’s back and shirts sticking to skin, and such environments are not conducive to well reasoned arguments nor the maintenance of cooled heads. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Barrow, who, so on the decline that the other admirals would often feign a coughing fit to avoid having to witness his wandering diatribes which too often meandered into rants, was in rare form. What should have taken no longer than perhaps an hour rapidly dragged on into two, as every few minutes Barrow had something else to add on to the pile of failures the commander-turned-captain of the Franklin expedition should be held responsible for. Those trapped in the smothering heat of the room with him stopped just short of frustrated sighs and embarrassed coughs, though the man on trial, who had the most cause to speak, was unusually silent. Fitzjames, whose loquacious tongue it seemed could not be stopped even when he was brushed by the cold hand of death (as Ross had been taught through innumerable dinners on Enterprise), met each accusation that fell from that ancient face with a stoic set of his lip and a pair of tired eyes. Beside him stood Francis, and the dichotomy between the two could not be more apparent. Francis had donned an impassive mask throughout his own court-martial, yet now was turning a rather unbelievable shade of red with each muddled phrase to fall from Barrow’s withered throat.
“Could have repaired the Fury,” Barrow shouted abruptly, in the middle of the reading of Fitzjames’ acquittal, his fifth interruption in as many minutes. A bead of sweat ran down Ross’ temple and settled in his sideburns. “Could have saved one ship rather than losing two.” There was a moment of blustering from the other admirals, of pinched smiles and raised eyebrows, before the proceedings resumed.
“Captain Fitzjames, by order of -”
“Boy, do you heed?” Barrow said again, almost shouting. “About the Fury -”
“The Fury was wrecked twenty years ago, Admiral.” Ross’ eyes widened to hear Crozier’s gruff tones, Crozier, who had hardly a word to say in his own defense and had stared at all of them throughout his own hearing with a sort of bemused contempt before accepting a knighthood and a forced retirement. “You may have forgotten. Perhaps you misunderstood the damage. I have not forgotten. I was there.” Barrow, unused to ever being interrupted by anyone, was shocked into silence long enough for the acquittal to be read, and the subsequent adjournment was so rapid that Ross found himself outside in the blazing son before he quite knew what was happening. He spotted Francis quickly enough, at the center of a knot blue wool and brass, and waited until they had moved on to congratulate Fitzjames before approaching.
“Bold move,” Ross complimented. “Risking one of Barrow’s countless invectives to try and silence him.”
“If they ordered me back to the Arctic, it would almost be worth it, to never have to hear that man blather on again,” Francis remarked, with a glance over at Fitzjames to, Ross assumed, ensure the man was out of earshot.
“Nonsense, just interrupt him during another one of his sermons and he’ll go off and have a heart attack over the whole thing, nor more Arctic or blathering, all in one fell swoop.”
“Surprised it didn’t happen this time.”
“I must admit, I didn’t expect you to be so adamant. I assumed your next step was pistols at dawn.”
“Never!” Francis spat. “That man deserves a dreadful, perfectly ordinary death in his bed.” Ross was on the cusp of a very witty remark about Francis defending Fitzjames’ honor when the man himself bounded up to them.
“I’ve called a cab,” he announced, mostly to Francis, with hardly more than a nod in Ross’ direction.
“I’ll be along in a moment,” Francis said, patting him on the arm with brotherly affection. Fitzjames flashed one of his trademark grins and flounced off to rejoin some of the younger officers still gathered on the steps outside.
“You are returning home, then?” Ross asked, in a manner he hoped was quite casual. Captains Crozier and Fitzjames had stayed but two weeks at Eliot Place before taking rooms of their own. ‘It'll be a bit quieter,’ Francis claimed at the time, but Ross knew it had something to do with Fitzjames, and the vague notion he had once had on the Enterprise that Ftizjames did not care for him was rapidly blossoming into a fully fledged concept.
“I expect so. He… Well, you remember how it was, when we came back from the South. Any crowd larger than a ship’s crew -”
“Made us feel like we were about to ‘be crushed by the miserable press of a dangerous crowd,’ was the way you so generously put it, at a ball in… 43?” Crozier chuckled and shrugged.
“Could have been. Won’t be too many of them now, I expect.” Ross nodded. Fitzjames might have been able to reclaim his place as the darling of the admiralty, had he still the political mind for it. Ross had expected it, even, had been waiting for Fitzjames to don the easy personality Ross remembered from three years ago. But though the man smiled in company and acted the part, he had failed to lose the strange, haunted look in his eyes. Though he had but to reach out and ask for a command, he would take none, claimed the state of his health, and in defiance of all Ross had expected, wanted nothing more than to share in Francis' retirement! So Fitzjames would not go to sea again, and spoiled all the Navy’s once bright hopes for their dashing young officer.
“One less excuse to leave the house and bear the natterings of society,” Ross replied, and would have added more, if their carriage had not arrived and Fitzjames appeared at Francis’ side, expectantly.
“Plenty of time now for those suppers we promised each other,” Francis said by way of goodbye, shaking his hand.
“Indeed! I’ll expect you no later than four on Thursday.”
“I shan't disappoint.” James watched his friend and his friend’s Fitzjames vanish into the darkness of the coach’s interior, and though he held up a hand in farewell, there was no response from the window.
The note arrived just as Ross was donning his dinner jacket.
Francis would not be coming.
Fitzjames had “taken ill,” apparently, and Francis begged his pardon to cancel on such short notice.
Ross tapped the note against the chair, against the bedpost, unbuttoned his jacket and then put it on again.
It was of no consequence! Ross thought, quite cheerily, for he had decided to be utterly undeterred. If Francis could not join him at Eliot Place, he would go instead to Francis and Fitzjames’ little abode, sit with Francis for a cup of tea, perhaps, for he knew Francis would take nothing stronger. Ann kissed him on the cheek and sent him off along with her love, and filled with this sense of purpose, he was not put out by the rain, the unruly swaying of his cab, nor the willowy young housekeeper who met him at the door and attempted to arrest his proceeding into the house.
“I’m very sorry Sir, but Captain Fitzjames is ill and -”
“Oh I know all about that,” James said, brushing past the housekeeper with a smile. “I’ve only come to -”
“James?” Ross looked up to see Francis marveling at him in confusion from the stairs, and Ross was struck by his pallor. Was it not Fitzjames who was supposed to have been taken ill? “I thought - did I send a note?”
“You did, old man, no fear there! I only thought I might come along anyway, see if there’s anything I could do for the two of you. You’ve both been rather, well, the two of you have been sequestered here for some time, and I thought a friendly face might be well received.”
“That’s very kind of you, James,” Francis said, and James was gratified to see a minute relaxation in the lines of his face.
“Francis?” Fitzjames’ voice called from within, and Francis turned towards it instantly. James Ross motioned for him to attend to his fellow Captain, though why Francis should be on call instead of a doctor or a housekeeper, Ross could not say. Francis gave him a grateful look, and Ross followed, perhaps hoping to wish Fitzjames well, or spend at least thirty seconds altogether in his friend’s presence. If that was to be the only way they could now meet was with Fitzjames within arm’s length then so be it!
Without a glance back, Francis vanished into a room from which there emitted a great deal of coughing, and took the fact that the door had been left open as an invitation to enter.
The room was charmingly done in a cacophony of patterns. Fitzjames sat propped up on an ungodly amount pillows in the center of a tall, four poster bed, the pile so high that one had spilled out the side and lay beside him. Ross took in the bits and bobs of the bedroom while Francis mumbled some words of comfort, and his room, too, seemed to be a constant contradiction, a mirror of the man himself. The curling tongs and collection of combs at a vanity in the corner was expected, the pair of glasses on the far nightstand were not. A fresh bouquet of flowers bloomed from the vase on the dresser, and a blue waistcoat hung off the back of a chair which had been drawn beside the bed, where Francis sat and patted his fellow captain’s hand.
“Francis - who -” Fitzjames sputtered, fever bright eyes riveted on the intruder at the threshold. Ross scoffed in indignity. Fitzjames might not care for him, but was he not owed the merest cordiality that was due an acquaintance? He was not some nightmarish apparition, surely there was no need for such theatrics!
“James?” Francis turned towards the James in the bed, took in the horrified expression on his face, before turning around to see the James framed in the doorway. All hope that they might resume their friendship as it had been died in that moment, as Francis turned towards him with a look that matched Fitzjames, a look that bordered on the - the horrified.
“What are you -”
“I’m terribly sorry Francis,” Ross backed out of the room in bewilderment at the look Francis gave him, stuttering apologies. “I can see my presence here is unneeded and perhaps more than a bit unwanted.” Well, there was a hint of bitterness there, but he felt he did a fairly good job covering for it. “I shall - I shall return home, and send a note, perhaps we can reschedule -”
“James - James, I didn’t mean - please don’t think -”
“Don’t be silly, I should never have come, knowing Fitzjames’ illness.” He was halfway down the stairs, could see the housekeeper waiting in the entryway with his coat and his hat, as if all the denizens of the household were intent on seeing him go. Perhaps even the door itself was opening prematurely in anticipation of his departure.
Francis said something else at his back, but he took no heed, and was out on the pavement, returning to his cab before he could attempt to make out what had been said. Something by way of an apology, he was certain.
Ross ordered himself back to Eliot Place before sitting back against the seat of the carriage and closed his eyes. The strange way Francis had looked at him! Like he was terrified of James, like James was a stranger who would scorn him to catch him caring for a sick friend! Or perhaps Fitzjames’ distaste for him had seeped into Francis, like wood rot, and now Francis could no longer stand his presence either.
But no, he was being unfair, allowed his hurt to get the better of him. There must have been something else, something he had missed, or said, or done, and James shook his head, replaying the conversation in his head, trying to work out where the misstep had been. Yet though he considered the events in their context again and again, it was clear there had been no mistake! He merely followed Francis into Fitzjames’ bedroom - an impropriety, perhaps, but not one which should have horrified two grown men used to the close quarters aboard ship! Yes, he had gone in, seen Fitzjames set back against a high wall of pillows, and though it was not kind of him he could not help but be reminded of the histrionics of his late Aunt Mathilde, whom one of his uncles had brought back from France, and who was given to feeling ill often, and ensured she should have all the trappings.
Yet - there must have been something! No other reason for Francis to turn with such a look in his eyes - such - was it fear? Whyever should Francis Crozier have fear of him? Was there something in the room he should not have seen? It was merely Fitzjames’ room, tastefully appointed, as was to be expected from the man - embroidered curtains, silken pillowcases for the pillows which held him up and the pillow next to him, a mirror that was polished to a high shine -
The pillow next to him.
There had been a pillow next to Fitzjames’ head, the only which had not been employed in supporting his not inconsiderable upper half. He thought it had merely fallen from its place, yet… Ross thought again about the room. There had been a blue waistcoat thrown over a chair, hadn’t there? But Fitzjames never wore blue, was a fan of far more ostentatious colors, “I’ve been far too long in blue,” he laughed, when Ann asked him about it, when they were still living at Eliot Place. And on the further nightstand from the door, the one closest to the line pillow, a pair of glasses, so like the kind Francis wore when he -
So like the kind Francis wore.
Ross sat there, London gently sliding past the window, as certain events and comments over the last few months began to form a clearer picture. The way Francis fussed over Fitzjames until he was out of danger when they were first found, Fitzjames’ reaction when Francis took ill on Enterprise, the way Francis hesitated to accept the invitation to Eliot Place and quick to remove himself, his outburst at Fitzjames’ hearing, and, finally, the moment of terror on his face when he realized how close Ross had been to discovering Francis’ secret.
Ross actually laughed a high, ridiculous sort of laugh when he realized the extent of his error, the extent of Francis and Fitzjames' feelings towards each other. How could he have missed it? It seemed so obvious now, the naked affection there in each gesture, each glance between them!
But was a secret, was it not? And one that Ross was now privy to. He could easily discern the shape of Francis and Fitzjames’ fears now, why they had insisted on sequestering themselves away from the world. This knowledge was damning in the right hands, and Ross shuddered to think what the admiralty should have to say about it, should such a thing come to light. Ross steeled his shoulders. It wouldn’t. Here was a way he could protect his friend, here was vocation, a quest he could fulfill to earn back his friends good graces, and he must start with an apology to both of them for his boorish intrusion.
Despite his conviction, it was a week before he mustered up the courage to return, a week of running through conversations in his head, of weighing the possible responses, planning for a retreat, a parry. Yet all of these carefully chosen and anticipated paths of conversation were abandoned immediately upon arriving to find Francis already gone, and Fitzjames in his stead. Not the most ideal mode of resolution, but he could be civil with the man at the very least, sit with him for a tense few minutes until Francis returned, could he not?
“F - Captain Crozier has gone out,” Fitzjames said, rising from a chair by the fire as Ross was shown into the room. His face still had a sickly pallor, but it was clear the fever which laid him low the previous week had passed. “I expect his return in due time, if you’d like to wait I’m sure I can have a tea service brought in -” He made to call for the housekeeper, and suddenly Ross realized that this would never do. He could not sit with Fitzjames and sip tepid tea while discussing the - the weather, or the rumblings of another expedition, or the - the fucking state of the roses in the small garden in the front of the house. It was so formal, so polite, and Ross was too exhausted with their endless dance to bear continuing.
“None of that,” Ross blurted. Fitzjames’ brows drew together in seeming confusion, but it would be a fool who couldn’t recognize the wariness behind the eyes, the soft twitch of a knee. “Let’s have this out between us and be done with it.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you -”
“I know you care for him.” Fitzjames’ eyes went wide, and Ross could see a cavalcade of denials forming in the other man’s, and held out his hand to stop them before they could begin. He had no desire for untruths, not now. “It - it is no use denying it. I am a married man. I know the signs.” Indeed, Ross did, though it had taken him damnably long to see them. He knew well the lingering look of a lover, how the eye was drawn to a certain curve, the delicate length of a well apportioned limb, the catch of breath upon seeing a beloved face. All of these he had seen in Fitzjames’ glances to Francis, and also seen them returned, now that he could recognize them for what they were.
“What will you do?” Fitzjames asked, with an imperious toss of his head, a man sneering before his firing squad. “Francis is retired, and I shall never return to the sea, there is no danger there.” Ross shook his head.
“Have no fear. Your secret is safe.” Though he and Fitzjames hardly knew each other, there must have been something in his face, or his tone to soothe his anxieties, and the line in Fitzjames’ shoulders eased by infinitesimal measures.
“Then… If nothing is to come of it, as you say, what is it you wish to discuss?” Why bring it up at all? Ross heard in his words. What do you want from me? Ross hesitates, and Fitzjames’ face turned fierce.
“If you’ve come to tell me that I’m - I’m ruining him or - or whatever else you can -”
“No!” Ross interjected, before Fitzjames could continue. “I’ve come to do no such thing. I have no wish to - to part the two of you, or anything of that nature. It’s merely -” Ross twisted his lip, searching for the words. “Francis and I were great friends once, and since you have returned - since you both have been trying to hide yourselves away - it’s -” He shook his head. This was no way for a veteran of the ice to behave, dancing around his words like a debutant with an impertinent suitor! “I feel like such an outsider, in a sphere where I was once most welcome.” There. Stated plain and simple. Fitzjames’ mouth pressed into a thin line, as he considered what was clearly an unexpected bit of information.
“Francis,” he began, slowly. “Has been neglectful of your friendship, it is true. And I fear I am the cause, though that was not my intention. Well, not I, but us.”
“I had a good long laugh at my own expense in the carriage the day after I visited last week. I felt like quite the fool for not realizing earlier. I have seen Francis in love before, you know, I am quite well acquainted with the signs.” Fitzjames tried in vain to hide a pleased sort of smile.
“Are you then?”
“I thought he would never recover from Sophia, and wondered why he hadn’t renewed his suit the moment we returned.”
“She wonders the same, I fear,” said Fitzjames with a sigh.
“Does she?” Ross had not seen Miss Cracroft in society since their return, and wondered when she and Fitzjames had become acquainted.
“She made a few visits, when we first took rooms,” James replied, slowly, understanding the nature of Ross’ questioning look. “I think - I fear we may not have been as discreet as we believed.”
“Did she remark as much?”
“Not in so many words, though her visits have all but ceased, and Francis misses - her friendship, at the very least.”
“And when I blustered in -”
“He feared he had lost your friendship as well.”
“Well that’s preposterous!” Ross exclaimed, shaking his head. “We were frozen in for two years together, shared dozens of voyages before that! I know all his terrible secrets. You know he snores to beat the devil himself? Ah, what am I talking about, of course you know. Kept me up every night we slung our hammocks together as middies. Came this close to strangling him with his own cravat.”
“The way Francis tells it you were the one who kept him up with your incessant sleep-babbling.”
“Lies and slander!” Ross declared. “I’ll have him court martialed again by the end of the week, you’ll stand as my witness.”
The two men laughed and shared a tentative grin, and perhaps another log dropped into the fire for how well thawed the room felt in that instant.
“I have been keeping Francis to myself far too much,” Fitzjames admitted, after a moment. “I suppose I could part with him for an afternoon here and there.”
“Oh could you?” Ross asked, with a raised eyebrow. But before Fitzjames could reply, the front door slammed open.
“James!” A voice called cheerily from the foyer, and Ross allowed himself no more than a second's pause, a moment’s farewell for the way Francis would never call that name in such a tone for himself again.
“In here!” Fitzjames called back, and Ross wondered how blinded he should have been, not to see the pink tinge of the man’s cheeks, the small, secret little smile.
A strange noise followed Francis’ footsteps through the house - my god was the man whistling? - and upon arrival in the sitting room flourished a fresh bouquet of flowers before him.
“James I was down at the-” he began, the merriment in his eyes dying and rapidly reanimating itself as sheer panic the moment his eyes fell upon Ross. “Oh!” Francis exclaimed. “I didn’t - I -”
“Francis, it’s alright,” Fitzjames rose from the sofa, gently took the flowers, which Francis had been belatedly trying to hide behind his back, from him. “Captain Ross and I were having a little chat, and it’s all alright now. I was about to insist he stay for supper.”
“You - you were?” Francis sputtered, and Ross nodded fervently when turned to for an explanation. “That’s - that’s good then, only -”
“Nonsense, Francis,” Fitzjames directed him to the chair before the fire and patted the back of his hand. The public intimacy of the gesture was not lost on either Ross or Francis: the former smirked as the latter devolved further into abject confusion. “We’ve been far too neglectful of your dearest friend, and I intend to remedy that at once. “Now you two talk about Antarctica or daring escapes from the ice or - or penguin bites while I find something to do with these.” Fitzjames vanished into the kitchen, and James and Francis were left to stare at each other across a carpet Ross knew Francis never would have purchased for himself.
“I’ll have you know I’m quite cross with you,” Ross began, in a manner which suggested that he wasn’t at all. This did not prevent Francis from visibly starting.
“I’ve asked you three times about Miss Cracroft since your return. You should at least have the decency to tell me that another now held away in your affections. I feel absolutely ridiculous.” Francis blinked at him a few times, opened his mouth to say one thing, then changed his mind and grinned instead.
“Next time I’ll be sure to give a more detailed report.”
“There shan’t be a next time, Francis!” Fitzjames called from the kitchen. “I’m afraid I'll be keeping you for the foreseeable future.”
“I thought you were looking for a vase!” Francis grumbled back.
“Nothing will suit, I’m afraid. I’ll have to leave you gentleman to it and run out for a fitting vessel for such a fine display.”
“You’re insufferable,” Francis said, and could smiles shine Ross certainly would have been blinded by the grin his friend gave his Fitzjames when the man poked his head into the room.
“You boys play nice. I’ll be back in a bit.” He winked at Francis and rewarded Ross with a mock salute before flouncing down the corridor and out the front door.
“So what are our odds on escaping the Chinese sniper story this evening?” Ross asked conspiratorially as soon as Fitzjames was out of earshot. Francis chuckled, as if nothing had changed, nothing at all. Ross smiled, and as Francis began to tell a halting, delightful story about a long ago dinner on Terror, something in Ross' heart, a knot, perhaps, found itself undone.