Actions

Work Header

a bit about penguins

Work Text:

James was lounging on the settee reading through the mail, while Louisa lay on the floor intently drawing with some of James’ spare art supplies. Namely pencils that were too short for him to use comfortably and paper with sketches he’d abandoned.

James set down the letter from William he’d just finished reading and picked up the next. He grimaced when he realized it had an official Admiralty stamp. The letter immediately below it was identical, but addressed to Francis. With a sigh, James opened the letter and then sighed again when he read the notice inside. It was an invitation to an Arctic themed costume ball. Tactless, he thought, as he searched the invitation for a reason why this was happening at all. Of course when he found it, it all made sense. The Admiralty would be announcing another attempt at the Northwest Passage, of course they’d invite the surviving officers of the last expedition, but a costume ball, of all things. James shook his head and tossed the invitation unceremoniously back on the small pile of unread letters.

There was a loud, dramatically exaggerated sigh and James turned to find Louisa watching him. “Papa’s angry.”

“Papa is tired and annoyed,” James said, giving Louisa a small smile. “But everything’s all right. Can I see what you’ve been drawing?”

 

“We are absolutely not going,” Francis declared when James showed him the invitations later. “If it wasn’t a costume party I might consider it…”

“No, you wouldn’t,” James said. “We’ve turned down nearly every invitation that wasn’t a private dinner we’ve gotten since we got back, barring the very first few events which were all but mandatory. I don’t think it would hurt to go, it could be fun.”

“Fun,” Francis deadpanned. “And what would we dress up as James? Polar bears? The Tuunbaq?”

James flinched. “Francis, that was uncalled for.”

“You’re right, forgive me.” Francis sighed. “An Admiralty event has never seemed so distasteful before.”

“And I agree,” James said. “However, our appearance at this event might enable us to get into positions to keep the Admiralty from making the same mistakes that we suffered from or at the very least we could advise the expedition leaders themselves.”

“That is… a very sound reason for attending,” Francis said slowly. “But, not for going in costume.”

“The dressing up is the fun part,” James said. “Besides, there’s nothing saying that we have to dress as something specifically north  Arctic themed. We don’t have to do polar bears or seals or anyone who’s gone North, though I think it could be quite entertaining to go as each other.”

Francis chuckled and shook his head. “I don’t think we could switch uniforms and call that a costume. But I have to argue your first part, the invitation did specifically say Arctic themed.

“Yes, but that doesn’t preclude us dressing as something from the Antarctic, of which you are quite the expert and I’m sure you could find something for the three of us to go as.”

Francis’ eyebrow shot up. “The three of us?”

“Yes, I thought it might be a nice experience for Louisa, and also a convenient excuse to not stay overlong. No one can argue you leaving if you have a child you need to bring home to bed.”

 

“Penguins,” Francis announced, seemingly apropos of nothing at breakfast the following morning.

“Wa’sh pen’gins?” Louisa asked, mouth full of food.

“Penguins are a sort of flightless bird, that live very far south in the Antarctic, where it’s very cold.”

Louisa nodded, clearly hanging on every word and James smiled at the sight. He had worried at first, despite reassurances, that Francis would end up being too irritated by Louisa to like her, but Francis had been just as quickly enraptured with her as James had been when he’d first held her. Louisa, in turn, absolutely adored her uncle Francis, though found the name “Francis” a bit difficult to say. Despite best efforts it usually came out sounding more like “Fancis.”

James couldn’t bring himself to interject with his own thoughts as Francis went on telling Louisa all about the different kinds of penguins he had seen on his trip to the Antarctic.

“I want to meet a pengin,” Louisa declared as Francis finished telling her how some penguins built nests out of small pebbles.

James frowned slightly in thought. “Francis, do you know if the London Society of Zoology has penguins?”

“Not unless they got some while we were gone,” Francis said. “We didn’t bring back any live specimens. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to ask.”

Louisa pouted, but didn’t seem immediately about to burst into tears at the uncertainty about meeting a penguin.

“Well,” James said, “even if you can’t meet a penguin right now, I have a book with pictures of penguins you can see, and, if I’m interpreting Francis’ intentions correctly, you could even dress up as one for a party.”

Louisa perked up, “Party?”

She knew what parties were in the sense that Francis had told her the stories about the various parties that had occurred on the Ross expedition south. The less said about the parties they’d held on the Franklin expedition the better, though the first winter’s party on Beechey Island had not been the disaster that the carnivale had been.

“Yes,” James continued. “Your uncle Francis and I have been invited to a party where we are supposed to come dressed as something relating to the Arctic. So the three of us are going to go as penguins!”

“The three of us,” Francis said, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh come now Francis, you can’t very well suggest we go as penguins and then count yourself exempt.” James teased. “What do you think Louisa, should uncle Francis be a penguin with us?”

“Uncle Fancis be a pengin!” Louisa exclaimed and James laughed.

Francis sighed, defeated, but also not trying particularly hard to hide his own smile. “Very well, the lady of the house has spoken. I shall be a penguin for this silly Arctic party.”

Louisa giggled.

 

“Did you know that it’s the male emperor penguins that take care of the eggs until they hatch?” Francis said.

They were in the parlor, Francis seated on the settee with James draped next to him, his head in Francis’ lap. The drapes of the windows  that faced out to the street were tightly drawn. Louisa had just been put to bed and they finally had a few moments to themselves.

“Really? That’s fascinating,” James said. “Is that why you picked them for our costumes?” It was an endearing thought and it made James feel warm that there was a more significant meaning behind Francis’ idea.

“In part,” Francis said. “It also makes for a simple costume, easy to move in and not uncomfortable. I already have all the clothing I need for mine, save the mask.”

James chuckled. “Always practical, you are. I’ll need to get a new vest. I quite like that corseted waistcoat you got me, I find my back aches less when I wear it and if I’m to be spending a long evening out that support will be much needed.”

His current corseted waistcoat was a lovely green, but he’d need a white one to look the part of a proper emperor penguin, along with a nice yellow cravat, which he was quite certain he didn’t have. 

“How would we dress Louisa? That book of yours doesn’t show what the baby emperor penguins look like.”

“If memory serves, the emperor penguin chicks are just balls of white and grey fluff,” Francis said. “So a puffy grey dress should do.” 

“I’ll take her to the dressmaker tomorrow,” James said. “Beyond the costume, she’s mostly outgrown the last set of things I got her. Do children always grow so fast?”

“You ask me as if I’m any more knowledgeable about children than you,” Francis teased, running his fingers through James’ hair.

James sighed contentedly. “That’s true. Still, it’s hard to believe that she was once this tiny little thing that couldn’t do anything and now she’s this ball of energy who’d spend all day running around the house if you’d let her.”

Francis grinned. “If you wanted to raise a calm child, perhaps you shouldn’t be filling her head with stories of your adventures. She’ll wind up an explorer.”

“Francis, you cannot place all the blame on me, you tell her just as many stories as I do. This morning proves my point quite nicely.”

“Well, she’s a better audience than most.”

 

Louisa was thrilled to be taken out the following day. She always loved being taken on excursions with James or Francis, but today she was more excited that usual. She was excited about the upcoming party, because it was fun and new, but she was more excited about penguins. After breakfast, she had insisted on looking at the “pengin book” again and would have insisted on hearing more stories about penguin’s from Francis if James hadn’t suggested they go out to place the order for her penguin dress.

Louisa spent the entire time she was being measured for clothes telling the dressmaker about penguins and all the different kinds she’d learned about. James had needed to remind her multiple times that she needed to hold still. Of course, telling an excited and energetic child they needed to hold still was… mostly ineffective. As they left James requested that the clothing be made just a bit big so that there would be room to grow before the inevitable return to the dressmaker for new clothes.

The next stop was James’ own tailor to purchase two yellow cravats and to place an order for a new corseted waistcoat, while Louisa again regaled the staff with her new found knowledge of penguins. James had intended to inquire about obtaining masks as well, but by the time he had been remeasured for his waistcoat (the last time he’d been measured properly was not long after their return and he was considerably closer to his pre-expedition proportions now), Louisa was complaining of being hungry, so it was time to head for home.

 

The days and weeks leading up to the event were…  James wouldn’t call them chaotic, but they were outside of the normal range of messy. It was difficult to get Louisa to focus on anything but the event. She’d been quite upset when she’d been told she couldn’t wear her costume before the party. James had tried to placate her saying that she could wear it as often as she liked after the party, but that did little to solve the problem of her wanting to wear the dress now. There was a part of James that wanted to cave and allow it, but he knew the chance of the dress being torn or stained would be quite high, especially if she took to wearing it every day like she was wont to do with favored articles of clothing.

She was, however, relatively easily distracted if Francis’ started telling one of his stories from the Antarctic or if James encouraged her to draw something, that something usually being penguins. It was a relief when the evening of the party finally rolled around and Louisa finally got to put on her little grey penguin dress.

James had gotten Louisa dressed first. In her grey dress, white stockings, black shoes and little black domino mask, James was certain she would be the cutest penguin there. Once she was dressed and James finished tying up her hair with a black satin bow, he sent her off to Francis so that he could get dressed himself.

James and Francis were in almost matching costumes.  James was dressed in a white shirt, waistcoat and trousers, with a black jacket and boots and a yellow cravat, and Francis was in much the same except for a black cravat and brown boots.

Francis had insisted that James and Louisa should be a pair of emperor penguins and no matter how James had tried to encourage him to be one as well, Francis had insisted on being a different kind of penguin, or at least he’d tried to.

“I’m an Adélie penguin,” Francis explained to Louisa, when she asked why he wasn’t dressed just the same as James. “And you and your father are emperor penguins.”

Louisa pouted, clearly not satisfied with that answer.

“We’re still all penguins,” Francis tried, but Louisa still wasn’t swayed.

James sighed, dramatically and in a way that made it clear he was up to something. “I suppose there’s nothing for it then Francis, you’ll  just have to put on your old black boots and wear the second yellow cravat I purchased.” He grinned. “We shouldn’t start the evening with an argument.”

“James you know my concerns,” Francis began, but James cut him off.

“You can tell everyone that Louisa insisted we all be emperor penguins. I would challenge anyone to find fault with that.”

 

“You planned this,” Francis hissed in James’ ear as they climbed into the cab they’d hired.

“I don’t know what you mean,” James said, hefting Louisa up to Francis before climbing in himself.

“You knew I didn’t have a yellow cravat,” Francis replied as Louisa slid off his lap to sit in between him and James. “Therefore you had to know I was intending to go as a different sort of penguin.”

“I might have guessed,” James teased. “Or maybe I just didn’t remember if you had one or not.”

“You’re horrible,” Francis muttered, but James just grinned.

It was obvious Francis wasn’t actually upset about this, a bit antsy perhaps, but if he’d been truly worried about them being caught out because they were both dressed as the same sort of penguin, he would have actually brought the matter up to James before this.

 

They had almost arrived when Louisa decided that she didn’t want to wear her penguin mask anymore.

“It’s too itchy,” she said, rubbing her face once James had removed the offending article and tucked it into his pocked.

James had wound up sewing all of their masks, after deciding it would be easier to achieve the exact penguin look he wanted by doing it himself instead of describing them to a seamstress. They were essentially domino masks, but with an added nose bit, to look like a penguins beak. Both James and Francis had debated whether or not they wanted to include masks in their costumes, but then they’d realized that if they wore masks fewer people might recognize them and rope them into undesirable conversations. Of course once Louisa had realized that Francis and James were going to wear masks, she’d wanted one too. Apparently the idea had been better in theory than in practice.

They managed to get inside the hall for the most part unaccosted and with Louisa being surprisingly quiet as James carried her. He was sure she would be full of questions before long, but right now she just seemed intent on just taking everything in.

Once inside they were spotted almost immediately by James Ross, who was in standard full dress uniform. The only indication that he was in costume at all was that he’d powdered his hair white.

“Frank! James! I wasn’t sure you two would come,” Ross said, clapping Francis on the shoulder. “And I see young Miss Fitzjames is here as well. I must say I admire your ability to take care of her on your own James, I don’t know what Ann and I would do without our nanny. Now tell me, who’s idea was it for you to come as penguins?”

“It was actually Francis if you’d believe it,” James replied, grinning conspiratorially. “But then Louisa’s become absolutely obsessed with penguins and at that point there were no other options.”

“I’m a pengin!” Louisa declared.

“That you are,” James said. “A little emperor penguin.”

“And what, pray tell, are you?” Francis asked. “I had thought with certainty that James and my costumes would be the most simplistic here.”

“You can’t guess?” Ross said, laughing. "I’m you, old man!”

Francis groaned. “Oh good lord.”

“Oh that is excellent,” James said, laughing himself. “Louisa, do you think Sir James looks like uncle Francis?”

Louisa thought silently for a moment before shaking her head and saying, “No, he’s too pretty.”

Francis couldn’t help but chuckle himself at that. “This is what I get for being friends with the handsomest man in the navy.” 

“I don’t think I hold that title anymore,” Ross said. “But I will take the complement, and the criticism from Miss Fitzjames, perhaps if I do this again I should draw some added wrinkles on my face.”

“You will not be doing this again if I have anything to say about it,” Francis muttered and Ross laughed.

Ross left them not long after to rejoin his wife, who, he’d told them, was dressed as “the most splendid iceberg, just like the one that knocked the Terror over on top Erebus back in ’43.”

Francis snorted and James immediately pressed Francis to tell the whole story.

“You’ve been telling Louisa all sorts of stories from your time in Antartica for week and yet failed to mention this?”

“I thought it might be a more frightening than fun story,” Francis admitted. “Besides I wasn’t sure if bringing up Terror and Erebus was advisable.” 

“What’s all this about Erebus and Terror?” A familiar voice asked from behind and James and Francis turned to see a very colorfully dressed Thomas Jopson.

“Jopson!” James exclaimed, “How are you? Francis was just about to tell about the time the Terror tipped over on top of the Erebus when he took her south with Ross. Oh, but you were there two weren’t you, perhaps you can lend your point of view.”

“I was not and he will not,” Francis said, but he was smiling. “It is very good to see you again Jopson, I take your presence here to mean you’ve passed the lieutenants exam?”

Jopson frowned momentarily. “I did sir, with flying colors. I sent you a letter just after, I suppose it must not have arrived.”

“It most certainly didn’t,” Francis said. “I would have written back immediately if it had and I definitely would have mentioned it in my last letter. Congratulations, you deserve it.”

That seemed to relieve Jopson and he grinned. “Thank you very much.”

Jopson, they learned, was currently sharing rooms with Edward Little, who was also here somewhere, though not in costume. Jopson had come as the aurora, which James thought was exceedingly clever.

“I offered to make him a costume,” Jopson said. “But he was very insistent that he would ‘rather not make a fool of himself.’ Frankly sir, I’m surprised to see you in costume.”

“Francis tried to wiggle out of coming in costume,” James replied. “But Louisa wasn’t having it. After Francis suggested penguins, that was the end of the discussion as far as she was concerned.”

“We’re emp’rer pengins!” Louisa declared.

“You mostly certainly are,” Jopson said. “I suppose this is the result of her hearing your expedition tales?”

“She requests them for bedtime stories,” James said. “Though, in an odd turnabout, she requests Francis’ stories over mine. His expeditions have proved the favorites.”

“Oh, your child has favorite expeditions,” Jopson said, grinning.

“Mostly just one,” Francis replied at the same time as James said to Louisa: “Why don’t you tell Lt. Jopson what your favorite expedition is.”

“The Ross and Fancis esspedishin!”

Jopson laughed. “That certainly explains the penguins.”

“Oh the penguins came first,” Francis said. “She hadn’t been overly interested until I got out the zoology book published upon our return to show her the pictures and, well…”

Jopson turned to speak to Louisa. “Did you know that I was on that expedition too?”

“You were?”

Jopson nodded. “I was. I served as Francis’ steward, which means I helped him keep himself presentable and able to do his job.”

Francis chuckled.

“Did you see pengins?” Louisa asked.

“I did. I saw a great many penguins.”

Louisa pouted. “I wanna see pengins.” 

Jopson looked to Francis, “Didn’t we bring one back to be stuffed?”

“We did, but it’s not on public display I’m afraid.”

 

The evening turned out to be not completely horrible. James found himself approached by far more women who wanted to coo over Louisa than men who wanted to drag him into conversations about the Franklin expedition.

James just sat down on a lounge with Louisa, when Henry Le Vesconte sidled up and dropped into a chair across from him. “Who would have thought that having a child would make you even more of a hit with the ladies.”

James laughed. “It would be better if all the ladies weren’t already married. It’s good to see you Dundy, Now, tell me why all my letters to you have been getting returned?”

“I’ve been in Canada, the livable parts mind you, my family decided to move while we were gone,” Le Vesconte said, “Just got back yesterday, it’s why my costume doesn’t actually look like much of anything.”

“I can’t tell if you’re making that up or not,” James replied with a grin, looking Le Vesconte over. He was dressed in mostly black and grey and James couldn’t tell for the life of him what Dundy was trying to be.

“It’s true, I assure you,” Le Vesconte said. “And I’m supposed to be seal, if that’s what you’re wondering. Like I said, I don’t really look like anything. Now how is the little lady? She’s gotten so big since I last saw her.”

“Well, the last time you saw here she was only a few months old.”

Le Vesconte leaned forward to speak to Louisa herself. “And how old is the little lady now?”

“Two!” She said. “And I’ll be three soon!”

“Ah,” Le Vesconte nodded. “So practically all grown up then.”

Louisa giggled. “Not grown up yet.”

Le Vesconte chuckled himself and then leaned back in his seat. “I thought I saw you with Francis earlier.”

“Yes, he went to get us drinks. I needed to sit down, I’ve been carrying Louisa all evening and my back’s acting up something awful.”

Le Vesconte grimaced. “I thought that was getting better?”

“It comes and goes,” James said. “Louisa’s much heavier than she was, I can’t carry her for quite as long I as used to.” 

“Are you planning to stay for the announcements about the expedition?”

James shook his head. “I’m not sure. It will depend entirely on Louisa and how tired she is by then.” He wrapped an arm around Louisa as she sat pressed against his side.

“A good escape plan,” Le Vesconte said. “If I wasn’t considering joining it I might duck out early myself.”

James frowned. “Dundy, you can’t be serious.”

“I did say considering,” Le Vesconte replied. “But rumor has it the Admiralty wants Commander Little for captain.”

“Of the whole expedition?”

“The rumor wasn’t particularly clear, but I’d say it’s more realistic that they’re eyeing him for second.”

James shook his head. “I don’t know whether to feel pleased or sorry for him.”

“If he is asked and agrees, my thinking was it would be good to have other people who know what it’s actually like up there as well. Not that we’re the only ones, but I’d wager we’re the only one who dealt with  that.

Nodding, James said, “Francis and I had thought to offer our expertise to the Admiralty in an advisory capacity to make sure the expedition was equipped better than we were, but when we broached the subject with the few members who approached us, they assured us that our reports had already been taken into account.”

Le Vesconte snorted. “That’s why I was considering volunteering.”

“I don’t think I could bring myself to even if I was physically able,” James admitted. “I feel horrid for saying it, but after what we saw I really don’t think I could go back.”

They’re interrupted but a soft snuffle from Louisa and James looked down to find her all but asleep. “I must say, that was sooner than I expected,” he said. “She probably tired herself out running around earlier in the day.”

“That seems likely,” Francis said, walking up holding two glasses of what was presumably water. “Hello, Henry.”

Le Vesconte nodded in return. “Sir Francis.”

Francis grunted and James couldn’t help the small laugh that escaped him. “He’s not gotten used to being called ‘Sir.’”

“It’s more than ‘not gotten used to’ James, the title is wholly undeserved.”

“I would object to that,” Le Vesconte said. “And I dare say a good many other men would as well. We made it back alive because of you, at least tolerate us Erebites and Terrors calling you ‘Sir’ if no one else.”

Francis sighed, it was difficult to argue against it, when it was presented in such a way. “Very well, but I reserve the right to complain about the official Admiralty cited reasons.”

“Of course, we wouldn’t dream of taking all your reasons to complain away,” James teased. “But all that aside, I do believe its time for us to leave. Dundy, I’ll be very upset if you don’t come visit soon and I’m sure Louisa will be as well.”

Louisa made a small noise and lifted her head blearily at the mention of her name.

 

They bid Le Vesconte a final farewell and headed out not long after with Francis carrying Louisa.

“My back is feeling better,” James muttered as they climbed into a cab to head home.

“And it will feel worse again if you tried to pick her up,” Francis replied.

James couldn’t fault that assessment. If his back was at all irritated, carrying Louisa was one of the worst things he could do.

Francis made to set Louisa down on the seat between himself and James, but Louisa clung to Francis like a limpet.

“No, papa,” she whined and it was all James could do to stifle a laugh so he wouldn’t wake her any further.

Francis sighed and settled back into the seat. “Well, I suppose that’s settled.”

James reached over to tuck a loose curl behind Louisa’s ear.

They rode in silence for the rest of the way home.

 

“Aren’t you going to mention that Louisa called you ‘papa’?” James asked, once Francis joined him in the kitchen after putting Louisa to bed upstairs.

Francis huffed. “There’s nothing to say, she thought you were the one holding her.”

“That could be,” James said. “But she’s also very perceptive. She knows there’s a difference between her uncle William and her uncle Francis.”

Francis sat down at the kitchen table and poured himself a cup from the pot of tea James had made. “Even if that’s true, it’s a dangerous thing to allow.” 

“Come now, Francis, she’s a small child being raised by a single father, who happens to live with a close friend who’s as good as the child’s uncle. A small slip up in what she calls you won’t be the end of us. My brother’s son had several months when he was about two years old where he called their butler ‘uncle.’”

Francis let out a long sigh. “I suppose I can live with that.”

James took Francis’ hand as he said. “I know we can’t ever say it properly, but you are Louisa’s other parent and I would like to think, especially given her little slip up tonight, that Louisa thinks so too.”

“You’ll have to forgive my worrying,” Francis replied, squeezing James’ hand lightly in return.

James smiled, raising their entwined hands to kiss Francis’ knuckles. “You know I always do.”