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the more i love, the more i drown

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Fitzjames was on watch atop a low ridge just north of their camp when he saw them; a group of people, trekking with a sledge in their direction. However, even with a spyglass, he was unable to make out the figures properly. His left eye was all but useless, and while his right was better, it still wasn’t much help trying to distinguish details at a distance. He thought the approaching group looked like Navy men, but he couldn’t quite tell and, in truth, rescue seemed almost too hopeful now.

If he fired his gun to rouse the camp and the group were Inuit who might be able to help them the sound would scare them off certainly. Not to mention that firing a gun would likely lead the men to thinking that the Tuunbaq had returned; but they hadn’t seen Mr. Teeth and Claws since Mr. Hickey and Sgt. Tozer had been hung. Instead, Fitzjames decided the best way to make himself known to the approaching party was to move towards them. Once he had properly discerned who they were, then he could report back to camp.

As soon as Fitzjames reached the bottom of the ridge several men broke from the group and began running towards him, and Christ in heaven, they were Navy men. Fitzjames could have broken down crying right there. He forced himself to keep walking towards the men, not having the energy to run, and then he recognized the man leading them and stopped dead in his tracks.

Sir James Clark Ross. Fitzjames had only met the man on a handful of occasions, brief meetings at events immediately prior to the expedition setting out, but he recognized him well enough, both from his own memories and the daguerrotype that Francis had of the man.

“Commander Fitzjames,” Ross greeted as he and the men accompanying him drew to a halt.

There was a hesitance to the way Ross said his name that almost sounded like a question, so Fitzjames gave a quickly nod of acknowledgment. “Sir James.”

Ross sagged in open relief. “I cannot tell you how good it is to see you.”

“And I, you,” James forced out. “I must say, I hope you’ve brought plenty of food with you.”

Ross frowned, but didn’t press further at the moment, instead signaling for his men to hurry forward. “Where are you camped?”

“Just beyond the ridge,” Fitzjames said. “I was on watch.”

“Lead on then.”

Fitzjames nodded stiffly, half wondering if this was just a mirage and he would come back to the men thinking him quite mad.

“We found the note you left at Victory Point,” Ross said, “What on earth happened?”

“More than I can tell you now,” Fitzjames replied as they began walking. “I’ll have Commander Little convene an officers meeting for the lieutenants.”

“Commander Little? I suppose this is to do with your loss of officers,” Ross said and James nodded.

“We have two new lieutenants as well,” James said. “Though I imagine only one will be lasting promotion.”

“There are a number of your men who have received promotion in absentia,” Ross said. “So perhaps not.”

A smile grin flickered across James’ face. “As true as that may be, I doubt Thomas Jopson ranks in that number.”

“Jopson? Frank’s steward?”

Fitzjames made to reply, but as they began their way up the ridge, his foot slid on a loose piece of shale and he would have fallen if Ross had not caught his arm. Though that also saw him nearly buckle as pain shot down his arm and up his shoulder from the reopening injury there.

He heard Ross call for a halt, but Fitzjames shook his head, breathing heavily. “We need to keep moving.”

“Are you sure?” Ross asked. “You shouted like I’d struck you.”

Had he? Fitzjames straightened up carefully. “It’s an old injury. It won’t keep me from walking.”

Ross hesitated a moment before signally everyone to start forward again.

“Were you going to say why Jopson of all people was promoted?” Ross asked after several moments of them walking in silence.

“Yes, there were… several incidents that left us both short on officers and in desperate need of people we could trust,” Fitzjames explained. “Lt. Jopson could be trusted and the work he did on a slave busting ship prior to his becoming a steward was in his favor.”

“Incidents?” Ross asked, but Fitzjames shook his head.

“The details will have to come later,” he said, having to stop speaking for several moments to catch his breath. Talking while walking was becoming increasingly strenuous. “Once we’ve had a proper meeting.”

Ross nodded and then he paused, frowning. “And where is Francis in all this?”

The worry was evident in Ross’s voice and Fitzjames had to make an effort to not grimace. “Ill,” he said at last. “Too ill to command. It was his decision to promote Little.”

It had been his last act before he formally handed over command to Fitzjames. The acknowledgment that Francis was no longer healthy enough to command had been horrible enough, but watching him continue to fade while hiding the full extent of his grief was almost to much to bear. With Ross arrived, the burden of command at least would be further eased.

Ross had fallen silent, his face drawn and pensive, and Fitzjames knew that had likely been the last thing Ross had wanted to hear.

“When we arrive have your men prioritize distributing food,” Fitzjames said, steering their conversation back to a topic where they’d have more stable footing. “Our supplies are tainted. The less we have to eat them the better.”

Ross nodded, maintaining his silence, though Fitzjames could see there was something he wanted to say.

Fitzjames leaned in so he could lower his voice, “Once you’ve given your men their orders, I’ll take you to see Francis.”

Ross swallowed and nodded. “Thank you.”

 

Ross felt the knot of fear building in his chest with every step they made towards the survivors’ camp. Already there were shouts and men staggering out to meet them, and as they got closer they got he could see just how needed rescue truly was. He instructed his men to follow Commander Fitzjames’ orders, to give out food and medical attention to those needed.

“Dr. Goodsir will be in the large tent right that way,” Fitzjames said, gesturing to a small cluster of tents at the far edge of the camp.

Ross waited for the last of his men to leave to see to their duties before he turned to Fitzjames. “Is Francis in the medical tent?”

Fitzjames shook his head. “He was given his own tent, for privacy. He’s being seen to by Mr. Bridgens.”

Ross frowned. “Not one of the other doctors?”

“Goodsir is the closest thing to a doctor we have anymore,” Fitzjames said, leading Ross to a small tent a few paces away from the large tent he had indicated before. “We lost doctors Peddie, MacDonald and Stanley before we even started walking.”

“Christ,” Ross muttered. He had read the note left at Victory Point, had it with him, in fact, and so was well aware of their loss of nine officers, but there was something particularly severe in losing all but one of their doctors.

Fitzjames let out a long breath and drew to a halt several feet away from the tent. “May I be honest with you, Sir James?”

Ross nodded, though the look on Fitzjames’ face made his worry mount considerably.

“The reason…” Fitzjames swallowed. “The reason we’d stopped was because he was in too much pain being jostled in a sledge. We’d hoped that stopping would allow him a chance to recover, if game could be found…”

‘We’d hoped…’

‘If game could be found…’

The words wound the knot of fear it Ross’s gut even tighter. “I can have my men aid in hunting game.” The words sounded weak even as he said them.

“I appreciate the offer,” Fitzjames said, “and… not to say it isn’t needed, but I’m not sure…” He paused, worrying his lip for several moments before speaking again, his voice choked. “I fear that Francis may be past the point of help now. His condition has worsened considerably and…”

Fitzjames trailed off, breath hitching. “I’m sorry.”

Ross felt like the ground had dropped out from beneath him. He couldn’t let himself believe that he’d arrived too late to help Francis. The aid they’d brought had to be enough. It had to.

He wiped at his eyes, attempting to keep his tears from spilling over to moderate success. Francis was still alive now… he had to focus on that. As long as he lived there was a chance for recovery, no matter how small.

The stood in silence for a moment more, before Fitzjames gestured Ross toward the tent. “Go sit with him, I should go help with getting the men fed.”

Ross didn’t know what to say. There was something… tacit and almost knowing about the way Fitzjames’ spoke, but there was also no way Fitzjames would know of his feelings for Francis. Particularly considering Francis himself had never known. There was no time to dwell on that thought, however, and Ross ducked inside of the tent to leave Fitzjames to his intended duties.

Despite the cold, the air inside the tent felt stifling, though perhaps the horrid feeling that rushed through Ross upon entering the tent had more to do with the sight that greeted him. Francis, lying bundled in blankets on a cot, looking more dead than alive. He was so pale and gaunt that if Fitzjames hadn’t told Ross that Francis was still alive, he wouldn’t have known.

There was a man tending to Francis, who, from Fitzjames’ explanation, Ross could only assume to be Bridgens. The man looked up as Ross entered, the only evidence of surprise being the widening of his eyes.

“How is he?” Ross asked softly. Francis seemed asleep and Ross was loath to wake him from his clearly much needed rest.

Bridgens looked pained by the question. “Not well, sir, but we’re doing everything we can for him.”

“I’m sure you are,” Ross said, finally moving further into the tent and crouching down by Francis’ bedside. “My men have brought further aid, the medical supplies were brought to Dr. Goodsir.”

His mind was fishing for an excuse, anything that might see Bridgens leave so he could have a few moments alone with Francis, but Bridgens beat him to it. “I’ll go see to that then, sir.” And he got up and left without another word.

Ross settled himself into as comfortable a position as sitting upon the hard, rocky ground of King William Land would allow. It pained him that there was nothing he could do until Francis woke and the thought of “what if he didn’t wake?” plagued him like nothing else. “Not well” Bridgens had said, but surely… they’d brought good medicine with them, and whatever ascorbic food could be preserved and transported. Ross had insured that they had prepared for finding the worst, carrying extra medical supplies, food, blankets and warm clothes.

While Ross knew it wasn’t all for naught—men would be helped, men would be saved—a traitorous part of his mind said that all his efforts would be worth nothing if Francis died. He reached out to brush some errant strands of hair from Francis’ forehead and froze when Francis shifted under his touch.

“James?”

His voice was quiet and choked and it pained Ross to hear. “Yes, though likely not the James you’re expecting.”

Francis’ eyes cracked open at that. “James?”

Ross reached over to take Francis’ hand, squeezing it gently. It was utterly freezing. “I’m here, Francis.”

“You can’t be.”

Ross choked back tears. “I am. I brought rescue, we’re going to get you home.”

“I don’t think there’ll be any going home for me, my boy.”

Ross choked on a sob, squeezing Francis’ hand tighter until Francis winced and he relaxed his grip.

A beat of silence passed before Francis spoke again. “You’re really here. You’re not just some wishful figment of a dying man’s imagination.”

“I’m here,” Ross repeated. “And none of this talk of dying, you will get home. I’ll make sure of that.” Although as soon as Ross said it, he realized how hollow that sounded against Francis’ apparent easy acceptance of his death.

Francis shook his head, coughing slightly, and Ross could see the blood on his lips from bleeding gums. “I’ve made my peace, James.”

The words he wanted to say were caught in his chest. If he spoke them, Ross was certain the dam of tears would burst.

“I’m glad to see you here, please don’t think I’m not,” Francis continued. “I love you dearly, and I do not speak of my own death to hurt you.”

Francis’ words were slow and halting, but Ross waited to be sure Francis had finished speaking, rubbing soothing circles into the back of his hand. When he responded, his voice thick with tears. “I know, Frank, I know.”

To hear Francis speak of love was painful, and while Ross had not intended to confess to Francis the realization he’d come to about his feelings for him, there was a part of him now that desperately wanted to and now would likely be the only chance he had, repercussions be damned.

Ross was startled from those thoughts when he realized that Francis had made no response and he immediately feared the worst. But no, Francis still lived, though his eyes had fallen shut again. Ross could hear his shaky, rattling breaths, accompanied by the slight rise and fall of his chest. It was barely a relief to hear Francis struggling for breath, but it was enough, for now, to know he was still alive.

“You are so dear to me Frank,” Ross said eventually, and was met with Francis squeezing his hand ever so lightly. His eyelids fluttered but remained closed.

There was no way of telling what sort of reaction that was, so Ross let himself continue. “I couldn’t say when it started, you’ve been my dearest friend for so many years. It could have been any time, really. Ann thinks…”

He trailed off for a moment, eyes drifting to the medicine chest at the foot of Francis’ cot. “Ann thinks it’s easy to fall in love with more than one person. I think she might have seen my love for you before I did. I was so distraught at the thought I’d never see you again… I didn’t… It never crossed my mind that love, of all things, could factor into it.”

Ross sighed, shutting his eyes briefly and then returning his gaze to Francis. He knew hearing the same from Francis was excessively hopeful, but there was a small part of him that desperately wanted that. What he saw made his stomach drop instead. Francis was still and his face was slack. There was no longer any movement; the rise and fall of his chest, that Ross had seen earlier, had ceased. He’d looked away for only a few short moments.

His breath hitched. Had Francis even heard his confession? Tears started falling quickly and Ross was barely able to keep his composure long enough to lean in and press a kiss to Francis’s forehead, before his sobs started in earnest.

 

Outside, Fitzjames squeezed his eyes shut when he heard the first heart wrenching sob from inside the tent. He didn’t need to step inside to know what it meant, and he certainly wouldn’t worsen things by making Ross fear he’d been overheard. Not that he, or Bridgens for that matter, would act upon such information, but if he walked in now…

He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, truly, he’d just been accosted by Bridgens as he passed the rest of the medical tents to ask that he bring food to Francis, while Bridgens helped Goodsir. It had been easy to say yes, he hated straying far from Francis, even for necessary things. Wiping roughly at his eyes with his sleeve, Fitzjames looked down at the plate of food in his hand, useless now.

He doubled back, heading to the medical tent to relay the news to Goodsir and Bridgens. He’d have to call a proper command meeting now, inform the officers first and then the others… They’d all known this was coming, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. Fitzjames could only console himself with the knowledge that even though he had not been at Francis’ side, Ross had been and Francis would have died knowing how dearly he was loved. Fitzjames’ cheeks were wet with tears before he’d made it three paces. They’d had so little time.

Chapter Text

They’d buried Francis in a makeshift tomb in the rocky wastes of King William Land. It felt horribly unsuitable, but there would have been no good way to bring Francis’s body home. How Ross had made it through the small funeral without tears he wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was because he just felt numb. He wanted to cry, scream, fall apart, but he couldn’t… it was like all his grief was stuck in his chest behind a dam, unable to spill over. It made him feel horribly guilty; wasn’t Francis worth his tears?

Fitzjames, on the other hand, had not suffered any similar affliction. Though he had not openly wept, his eyes had been glassy and he’d paused several times during his short speech to wipe his eyes. The following day, as they began their march North, Ross wondered how their friendship had emerged. Francis had been loathe to speak of Fitzjames in London, had felt slighted as Sir John’s second— and rightly so, Ross had thought. Yet now— Now Fitzjames spoke of Francis as though they had been dear friends. Perhaps the horror of their situation had brought them together, or perhaps (and this was kinder) they’d simply been able to work out their troubles with time.

Ross had never had anything against Fitzjames. He’d thought him too inexperienced in the Arctic to command the expedition, certainly, but in all other regards Fitzjames’ service record was excellent. Ross had very nearly gotten him for the Antarctic expedition, almost a decade earlier. Well, perhaps not nearly. The Admiralty, having just had Fitzjames trained as a gunnery lieutenant and wanting to utilize him in that capacity, had actually been quite adamant about not letting him have Fitzjames for his expedition.

He couldn’t help but wonder if things would have turned out differently if Fitzjames had been able to accompany them. Would it have changed anything? There had already been a good number polar veterans on the expedition, more than Ross and Francis had had going South. It seemed unlikely that the addition of one more would have changed much.

This train of thought brought him back to his largest worry at present; what he didn’t know. It seemed there were a great many things being held back. He’d been told some details: the polar bear that had killed Sir John and apparently followed the men onto King William Land, the lead in the tins, the horrible fire that had broken out before they began their walk. But the men were always reserved in their telling, and even the officers, Fitzjames included, seemed hesitant to speak in any great detail.

Ross had eventually asked Fitzjames about this, before they’d begun their march back to the Enterprise, and been told that Fitzjames would fill in the gaps in the stories once they’d made it to Ross’s ship. Ross hadn’t questioned it, had been relieved in fact (though he wouldn’t admit it) that he could put off such a weighty discussion. As a command decision it was lacking, Ross knew, yet he also wasn’t sure how much more grief he could take. Thinking about Francis at all left him feeling utterly stricken, and his hands had developed a tremor that refused to go away and worsened the more distraught he became.

Furthermore, there was precious little time to talk as they made the trek back to the Enterprise  and Investigator. The high spirits and somewhat improved health of Franklin’s men would not last if they didn’t make it back to the ships before winter halted them. The only conversations that occurred when they stopped to make camp were for practicals. Food rations were of particular concern. Whenever they stopped to camp Ross sent out men to hunt, but the results were horridly slim, although Commander Little informed him that the few birds Ross’s men had managed to catch were more than they’d even seen since they’d abandoned Erebus and Terror.

 


 

They were a two day trek from Ross’s ships when Fitzjames collapsed. He’d thought he could make it; the pain was awful, but he could bear it, had to bear it, for the sake of his men. Of course, that was before his leg gave out completely and he collapsed in harness.

Fitzjames barely registered Le Vesconte tugging at his clothes and swearing viscously before shouting for Goodsir. His head felt thick and heavy and his whole left side was awash with pain.

“We need to stop and set up camp,” Goodsir was saying to someone. “I can’t see to his injuries out in the open like this.”

This was followed by shouted orders that Fitzjames could not make out, but then Le Vesconte was at his side again, helping him to his feet. He tried to hold at least some of his own weight, but his leg was completely useless and Fitzjames slumped heavily against his friend.

Le Vesconte staggered some under the sudden change of weight, but kept Fitzjames up. “I’ve got you James,” he muttered before saying,  more loudly, “Can someone come take his other side?” 

Someone moved to do so, but as Fitzjames was shifted between the two men white hot pain shot up his spine and he blacked out.

 

When Fitzjames woke he was inside a tent. As the world slowly came back into focus he heard a quiet conversation occurring not far away.

“I did tell him not to haul.” That was Goodsir. “But he insisted.”

“You are a doctor, surely you can persuade him to rest.”

A heavy sigh from Goodsir. “For all the men call me a doctor, I am not one. I am an anatomist. I signed on as a naturalist, my skills are limited.”

Another sigh. “Christ.” Fitzjames recognized the voice, though he couldn’t quite place it.

Finally managing to get his voice to work, Fitzjames croaked out, “I couldn’t do any less than the rest of the men.” He was about to make reference to what Blanky had told him about John Ross, but then he cracked his eyes open and there was James Ross, and Fitzjames held his tongue.

“I think the men would understand their captain not hauling if he could barely stay on his feet,” Ross said, coming to sit on the low stool next to Fitzjames’ cot.

Fitzjames began to push himself into a sitting position despite the pain and Goodsir’s quiet distressed plea for him not to. It wasn’t until Ross reached out to rest a hand on his shoulder that he stopped.

“Rest. You need it,” Ross said. His concern was visible. “It’s no small thing to have your wounds reopen.”

“We should get moving again, the men…”

Ross cut him off. “The men need rest too. The Enterprise is only a few more days away. I’ve dispatched some of my men, who will be able to move more quickly in small numbers, to return to the ships to bring further aid before we undertake the rest of the walk.”

Fitzjames sagged and Ross leaned forward to help him lower himself back onto the cot.

“I admire your willingness to push forward for the sake of your men,” Ross said, letting his hand rest briefly on Fitzjames’ shoulder. “But there is a time and a place for rest as well.”

 

Fitzjames ended up having to be hauled to the Enterprise in a sledge. He hadn’t wanted to be, but despite the extra days of rest he had not recovered himself enough to walk unaided. The doctor that Ross’s forward party had returned with had shared Goodsir’s opinion that trying to walk with his present injuries, particularly the reopened surgical wound on his back where the musket ball had been dug out, could wind up causing more lasting damage than they were prepared to deal with.

The jostling of the sledge had been manageable, Fitzjames was in constant pain, yes, but it would be over before long. He just had to grin and bear it. The situation was helped, in a way, by his companion and fellow invalid in the sledge, Thomas Blanky, who had similarly had to be bullied into not walking.

“It’s not that I mind being sledged along, you understand,” Blanky said, directed at Ross who was walking alongside them as Fitzjames was feigning sleep. “It’s the principle of the thing, I can still walk.”

“Can and should are two different things,” Ross pointed out.

Blanky cackled. “That’s rich coming from you.”

Fitzjames heard Ross chuckle as well.

“In my defense I was a much younger man and we still needed to get back to the Victory. Besides, there’s not much to be done for broken ribs that I couldn’t manage myself. If I’d broken my leg it would have been another matter.”

“Fair enough,” Blanky said. “But I still think I could’ve made it.”

“Well I, for one, am glad we didn’t put it to the test.” Ross’s voice was strained, and he hesitated before continuing. “We’ll be at the ships by the end of the day and you can continue heckle me about not taking care of myself once that stump of yours has been seen to properly.”

 

Once they were on board the Enterprise, recovery became worlds easier for everyone suffering from illness or injury. Fitzjames’ old injuries were healing properly again, though his leg was still causing him great trouble. It was like breaking his leg on the Euphrates expedition all over again, except without the malaria this time. He was released from the sick bay after a week for a cabin of his own that had been prepared for him, but it was another week before he was allowed (begrudgingly) to do more than hobble about in his cabin with the aid of a handily fashioned cane.

Once he had the doctors’ permission to be up and about, it wasn’t long before Ross requested to meet with him in private. Fitzjames assumed it was to speak about the more sinister occurrences of their journey.

Making himself as presentable as he was able in a borrowed uniform, Fitzjames made his way to Ross’s cabin. He knocked, waited for the answering “come in” and pushed the door open.

 


 

“You’re looking considerably better,” Ross said as Fitzjames sat down across from him at the small table in the cabin.

“Not sure I feel it,” Fitzjames replied. “I’m not looking forward to seeing how I fare staying upright once we’re free of the ice and moving again.”

“Well, you could relent to the doctors and continue to rest,” Ross said. It was an attempt at levity, though it felt wholly forced.

Fitzjames gave a wry chuckle. “I could, but I’d rather be up and doing my share, as I can. I owe my men that, as their commander.”

He sighed heavily. “There was a reason, you’ll recall, that Sir John Barrow’s request to have me placed as commander of the expedition was denied.”

Ross was silent at that; what Fitzjames left unsaid spoke volumes. Forced into a position of command he did not want nor felt prepared to shoulder, he had done the best he could, but Ross could only imagine what losing two commanding officers in such a short span would be like. He felt the pain of losing Francis acutely, but he could only imagine the weight of having to shoulder such responsibility when not prepared for it. Fitzjames surely would have felt the weight of his inexperience in the Arctic alongside all that was required of him.

Fitzjames sighed again. “My health is improving, at least, though I still have a ways to go.”

“That’s relieving to hear,” Ross said at last. “And you’ve done a fine job leading your men, given the circumstances that saw you take command.”

There were several beats of silence before Fitzjames spoke, and when he did Ross could hear his voice shake.

I never wanted anything as little as I want this now. That was what Francis said after Sir John died,” Fitzjames swallowed, blinking back tears. “At the time I thought it a selfish thing to say, but I understand now why he said it.” He let out a long shaky breath. “But I doubt you called me here to talk about that.”

“No. Although I must admit, the request I have of you is personal, not on any official business.” Ross paused, unsure for a moment how best to phrase this. “I… would like to know how Francis fared over your time in the Arctic. The last letter he sent me was quite melancholy.”

“He was quite melancholy,” Fitzjames admitted. “And his drinking didn’t help matters.”

Ross felt his stomach twist. “His drinking?”

Fitzjames grimaced.  “There were times he was drunk more often than not,” he said. “But he was eventually able to see when he had gone too far, and he was able to dry out, though he was ill with it for several weeks.”

Ross ran a hand over his face. “When you say he was ill with it, do you mean from drinking or… or from the drying out?” He wasn’t sure which answer would feel worse.

“Drying out.” Then Fitzjames paused, and added, “Well, it was both in a sense. When finally realized he was too far gone was… it was nothing short of an ordeal. I received a sock to the jaw for my efforts and then that… that bear got on the ship.”

Ross felt positively stricken and he clenched his hands in a vain attempt to quell their shaking. “Was this when Mr. Blanky lost his leg? He mentioned Francis being… out of sorts, when that occurred.”

Fitzjames nodded. “Afterwords Francis realized that he was no longer able to function as captain, and gave Commander Little command of Terror until he was well again.”

Ross slumped back in his seat, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment. Things had gotten better for Francis, he reminded himself, that wasn’t the end of things.

“What of your relationship with Francis?” Ross asked, trying not to sound as desperate as he felt. It was the question that had been sitting in the back of his mind since they’d started walking. Francis had seemed less than fond of Fitzjames in his letter, but things had clearly changed.

Fitzjames fidgeted with the cuff of his jacket. “We spent the first few years quite at odds,” he said. “I had the odds stacked against me, I think. Sir John played favorites, I was assigned to be in charge of the magnetic readings, despite Francis’s superior skills, and then there was the whole debacle with his tea.”

Ross frowned. Sir John had played favorites with Fitzjames? He remembered Sir John being quite fond of Francis when they were in Van Diemen’s Land. 

“He did write to me about his tea,” Ross said. It was the least charged of the possible topics to ask about.

“That was entirely my fault. I had a whole pile of papers to sign for things shoved my way and I, unfortunately, only skimmed them as I signed and therefore didn’t catch the error in time.” He sighed. “I was able to get most of the tea back to him, save the crate that went overboard as they were hauling everything up to Terror.”

Fitzjames shook his head. “He thought me a bit of a peacock as well, and naive. Although, he wasn’t entirely wrong about the latter.”

“But you still managed to become quite close by the end?” Ross asked. Fitzjames called him Francis, after all, and Ross had to think that was brought on by more than the chain of command falling apart. That Francis had been able to find a friend on this journey.

“Yes, once we realized that we’d both misjudged each other horribly, it was easy to fall into…” Fitzjames trailed off, giving Ross a look that felt almost as if Fitzjames was appraising him.

“Once you got past Francis’s shell, he was incredibly easy to love, wasn’t he?”

Ross tensed, but Fitzjames seemed at ease, and what he’d said incriminated himself just as much as it did Ross. He worried his bottom lip between his teeth for several moments before responding. “You loved him?”

Fitzjames nodded, letting out a long sigh. “I did, it was… I don’t quite know how to describe the relationship we had by the end. It wasn’t until we’d started walking that there was any confession of feelings beyond friendship.”

Ross suddenly felt horribly guilty about his own confession about Francis and something of that must have shown on his face, because Fitzjames next words were:

“Please don’t think that I took offense to your own confession,” Fitzjames said softly. “In truth, Francis loved you long before he loved me.”

Ross’s breath caught in his throat. Not long ago he might have been thrilled to hear that, but now it just felt crushing. “He…”

“Loved you,” Fitzjames finished, wiping at his eyes. “He’d loved you for years, but he also never wanted to come between you and Ann and well… other reasons as well. The reasons that most of us don’t say anything.”

“Saying something could have ruined him,” Ross said, choking on sob. He attempted to calm himself, but once the tears started, he couldn’t get them to stop.

Ross’s tears were enough to push Fitzjames over the edge as well, though he was more able to stifle the hiccuped sobs that bubbled up in his chest. Ross felt utterly choked with grief. Everything that he’d been unable to express after Francis’ death came to a roaring head inside him. It wasn’t until he’d managed to get his breathing under control again that Ross was even able to spare a thought to Fitzjames’ tears, but by then the other man was already wiping at his eyes and Ross made an attempt at collecting himself to do the same.

“The point,” Fitzjames began again, slowly, “that I wanted to make was that Francis…” He paused to take a shaky breath. “Francis knew how loved he was when he died, and I… I have to believe that it meant something to him.”

Ross had just opened his mouth to reply, when the door opened rather quickly without a knock and revealed former Erebus steward John Bridgens. Panic swept through him immediately, with fear that he’d been overheard again.

“Pardon to interrupt sirs, but Commander Little has been looking for Captain Fitzjames. I managed to persuade him to come back later.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bridgens. Is this about the tinned provisions again?” Fitzjames asked, as casual as if they hadn’t just been interrupted talking about things that could ruin the both of their lives.

Ross supposed feigning nonchalance in these situations was a skill to have.

“Yes, sir. Despite reassurances, our men are still hesitant to eat anything from a tin and some are outright refusing,”  Bridgens said.

Fitzjames sighed and turned to Ross. “Would it be too much to ask your cook to increase the amount of salt meats being served? It wouldn’t have to be a permanent change. I feel worries will likely wane with continued proof that your tins aren’t spoiled the way ours were.”

“We can arrange something certainly. It won’t do to have men not eating, especially when they’ve been suffering from a lack of food already,” Ross agreed, beginning to find his footing again.

“Splendid,” Fitzjames said. “Bridgens, you may relay that to Commander Little and let him know that I’ll seek him out just as soon as we’re finished here."

“Of course, sir, is there anything else?” Bridgens asked.

Ross was about to say something to dismiss Bridgens, but Fitzjames beat him to it and asked something Ross hardly expected.

“If you would mind the door for a few more minutes that would be greatly appreciated,” Fitzjames said. “Captain Ross and I won’t be much longer and then I’ll let you get back to your business. I imagine you’ll be wanting to check on Mr. Peglar. How is he faring?”

Bridgens brightened noticeably at the mention of Peglar. “He’s doing much better sir; the doctors say he’ll be up and about soon.”

“That’s heartening to hear,” Fitzjames said. “Give him my regards when you see him.”

“I will, sir.” With that Bridgens gave Fitzjames and Ross a small nod, and exited the cabin.

Ross slumped back in his seat. “Is he…?”

Fitzjames nodded. “There are more us in the Navy than you’d expect given the severity of the offense.”

“That’s all I thought of it, for a long… well all of my life really,” Ross admitted. “The articles made it seem like such a sordid thing, that no respectable person would do, but at the same time… it was easier to try to ignore it than to do a full court martial, as long as no trouble was being caused.”

Fitzjames chuckled, though he hardly sounded amused. “The real difference is that your ‘respectable people’ have friends who can pay to have things covered up and conveniently forgotten.”

“You sound like you’re speaking from experience,” Ross said.

“It’s a story for another time,” Fitzjames replied, shaking his head.

Ross frowned, but didn’t say anything.

“Was there anything else you wanted to ask me?” Fitzjames continued. “I’d be glad to continue this later, but I should likely speak to Edward about the food situation.”

“Yes, that seems wise,” Ross said. “I think I should like some time to myself as well, you’ve given me much to think about.”

Chapter Text

Fitzjames sighed, leaning against the rail of the ship as he watched England grow on the horizon. Returning to England felt like the hardest thing he’d ever done. He hadn’t expected it to feel so unfamiliar. Maybe it was because he’d never truly spent much time there and that it had never really been home in the first place — maybe it had been once, but he’d learned young what his situation meant. And as his career began he could never escape the knowledge that no matter how high he rose, he wasn’t truly English and could easily have his whole life pulled out from under him if the wrong word met the wrong ear.

Even his friends who knew some things didn’t know the full truth. And yet, he’d told Francis everything. Of course, they had been at the end of the world, but Dundy had been there at the end of the world too, and he knew nothing of Fitzjames’ true past. Maybe that was it, maybe it wasn’t just being on land, but rather coming back from the end of the world that made this return feel so daunting. No matter how long he’d been on land during the Euphrates expedition he had never been so isolated and alone as they’d been on King William Land.

“It’s strange to see it again, isn’t it,” Ross said, coming up at Fitzjames’ side, jarring him out of his thoughts.

“Yes,” Fitzjames replied, straightening some. Ross seemed fairly at ease, so Fitzjames assumed he wasn’t here to discuss anything official. “Was it like this when you came back from the Antarctic as well?”

“Oddly enough, no, but from the Arctic? Always,” Ross said. “I think it’s likely because in the Antarctic we were able to go in and out, spending the off season in Van Diemen’s Land instead of locked in the ice. It wasn’t England, certainly, but it was civilization and friendly faces. You don’t get that when you go North. The ice simply becomes normal and then you come home.”

Fitzjames nodded. “I’d imagine the longer you’re away makes a difference too.”

“Very much so,” Ross agreed. “Getting home in ’33 with my uncle after four years in the ice was positively disorienting. Of course that’s not to discount how exhausted we were coming home from Antarctica…”

“But you’d been able to keep up with events back home in a way that just isn’t possible in the Arctic,” Fitzjames finished.

“Precisely,” Ross said. “The Inuit we encountered were an incredible reprieve in regard to bolstering our dwindling supplies, but their aid does not change the isolation of the environment.”

A moment of silence passed between them before Ross spoke again. “I do apologize that we haven’t had the time to speak properly again.”

Fitzjames worried his fingers against the ship’s rail. They’d only had the chance for one more conversation about Francis after their first. It had been unfortunately brief, however, and they’d not had the time nor genuine privacy to discuss things openly. It had not helped that they had been interrupted not once, but twice, and the second time by Captain Bird, which effectively ended the conversation. A friend of Francis and Ross he may be, but he was not privy to the more intimate details of their discussions. So when he had arrived, Fitzjames had taken his leave.

“I understand,” Fitzjames said. “Privacy is a limited resource on a ship, particularly one as close packed as this.”

“Indeed,” Ross agreed. “Which, is why I would like to extend an invitation to you to stay with Ann and myself upon our return. Unless you’ve made other plans, of course.”

He hadn’t, really. He had given some thought to staying with William and Elizabeth in Brighton, or even imposing on Charlewood for a time. But he hadn’t thought far enough to begin drafting letters.

“I’d intended to take rooms in London until the court martial was over,” Fitzjames admitted, “I hadn’t thought much farther than that.”

“Ann and I still maintain our house in Blackheath,” Ross said. “Though I don’t imagine we’ll have it much longer. Stay with us there until everything with the Admiralty’s been resolved.”

Fitzjames finally pulled his eyes away from the docks drawing ever closer and turned to look at Ross. He looked more tense than Fitzjames had expected him to. “I wouldn’t want to impose.”

Ross shook his head. “You wouldn’t be, I assure you. I would… appreciate having you there.”

Fitzjames could hear the questions that Ross couldn’t ask in the open. The things that had started to come up in their last aborted conversation, the side of Francis that Ross had never known along with Ross’s own struggles with his newfound knowledge of himself. Fitzjames sympathized deeply with the need for comfort and companionship when it came to understanding oneself. He had had it relatively easy, finding friends of similar inclinations with relative ease. Ross was, in comparison, far more isolated.

“I’d be honored then,” Fitzjames said at last. “I should like to collect my things from my… from my cousin’s home, but he’ll understand that I’ll need to be back in London for the court martial.”

“Then it’s settled,” Ross said, pressing a slip of paper into Fitzjames’ hand. “You’ll collect your things from your family’s, and I’ll have a room prepared and waiting for you.” 

Ross excused himself shortly after, giving Fitzjames a chance to look at the paper. It was Ross’s address at Blackheath.

Fitzjames folded the paper again and slipped it into his pocket. He wondered what Ross would be like at home, he hadn’t gotten to know the man particularly well before they sailed. For a long time it had only been admiration of an accomplished Arctic explorer, whom he came very close to serving under many years before. Fitzjames couldn’t help but wonder if having had the chance to go to the Antarctic with Ross and Francis would have changed anything. At the very least, he and Francis would have started on better footing.

But following this line of thought wouldn’t get him anywhere. Thinking about what could have been different in the past wasn’t going to affect the present, it would just deepen his regret that he had been so dismissive of Francis for so long. If he’d tried to be a better friend, as Sir John had said—if he’d sided with Francis at that dinner so long ago when he’d suggested abandoning Erebus and going for broke. There were so many ‘what ifs’ it didn’t bear contemplating.

Fitzjames stared back out over the water in front of him. They were close enough now that he could see the crowds milling about on the docks at Hull. He let out a long slow breath, trying to pull himself back into the act he had once been so very good at putting on.

 


 

Ross had not returned to Buckinghamshire after making his report to the Admiralty. He had, however, written to Ann immediately, informing her, in brief, of the rescue and asking her to send down a few of their house staff so they could get the Blackheath house opened up again. He’d not named any of the survivors, only mentioning that he himself needed to stay in London for a time. His thought had been to break the news about Francis to Ann in person. It had not been his best thought, but he didn’t know how to put the thoughts to paper either. Nothing he wrote seemed fitting.

Ann, however, knew her husband well enough to know there was something wrong with his letter the moment she first read it. The lack of any mention of Francis alone was more than enough to set alarm bells ringing; so Ann, leaving the children in the ever competent care of their nanny, headed for London.

It was late in the evening when they arrived, and, after directing the maids as to which rooms should be opened up first, Ann began her search for James. She found him in the dining room, drowning himself in a bottle of gin. His eyes were red rimmed from crying and there was a letter clutched in the hand that wasn’t holding his glass. Ann’s heart sank, between the letter and finding James so distraught, it was clear what had happened.

 

James was so lost in his thoughts and drink that he didn’t even notice Ann’s approach until she pulled a chair over to seat herself next to him.

“Ann?” His voice cracked when he spoke and Ann eased his hand away from his glass, grasping it with both of hers.

“I’m here darling,” she said gently.

“You didn’t need to come. I did say in my letter that I would be returning home before long,” James said. “Didn’t I?”

His voice was slurred and it was clear he’d been drinking for a while. The bottle, Ann noticed, was nearly empty.

“Yes, well, your letter worried me greatly,” Ann replied. “I thought you’d be best not left alone.”

James shuddered and choked back a sob. “We were too late. I failed him Ann, I…” He trailed off as his tears overtook him.

“Oh, James,” Ann murmured, her own eyes welling with tears as she pulled him forward into an embrace.

James slumped into Ann, and all the emotion he’d still been trying to hold back came pouring out as he wept into Ann’s shoulder. She stroked his hair tenderly, doing her best to soothe him as he cried great heaving sobs.

Ann remembered vividly the conversation they’d had that prompted James to rally for a rescue expedition. James, trying to talk himself out of his worry for Francis, and Ann, wondering aloud if that worry might not stem from a deeper pool of affection than merely friendship. “It reminds me of how I worried over you when you went South,” she’d said.

James had paled, blustered, and then, when he saw no reproach from Ann, asked quietly if she really thought it was possible for a man to love another man thus.

Ann had replied that, yes, she did believe that, before assuring James that if he thought he harbored such feelings for Francis, she would support whatever choice he made.

James had crumpled then too, for relief and then fear for Francis, but he’d been quick to rally and had joined his uncle in hounding the Admiralty for a rescue to be mounted. He’d sailed so full of hope.

Once James’ tears quieted it was fairly easy for Ann to get him on his feet and usher him off to bed. She’d worried he might be too drunk to move without assistance, but, while he stumbled getting up, he managed to keep his legs under him until Ann got him to their bedroom.

James sat miserably on the edge of their bed as Ann undressed. She’d tried to get him to lie down once she’d helped him undress down to just his shirt, but he’d refused unless she’d lie down with him. So here she was, making quick work of her layers, before slipping into a shift and joining James, finally managing to get him properly ensconced in the blankets.

Once in bed, Ann wrapped her arms around James and held him close. He didn’t start crying again, but she could feel he was still shaking and she felt, more than heard, him mumble something against her neck.

“What was that darling?”

“He loved me…” James murmured, voice cracking. “For years…” His breath hitched. “I didn’t know.” 

Ann squeezed her eyes shut, feeling her heart break all over again. Poor Francis, poor James, in love with each other for years and not realizing the other’s feelings until it was too late. The only relief she felt was that at least James had gotten to see Francis again before he passed. At least they had been able to have their small confessional at the end. She pressed a kiss to James’ temple.

“It’s not your fault,” was all she could think to say.

 

The following morning, Ann heard the full story, in fits and starts, as they lay in bed late into the morning. Francis hadn’t been the one to confess his feelings to James, she learned, it had been Captain Fitzjames who had told James about Francis later. How Fitzjames knew, Ann didn’t know, but it wasn’t something that seemed distressing to James, so she left it for now, as James’ has begun telling her about his own confession to Francis.

“I want to think he heard me,” James said, voice thick with tears, and he choked on a sob. “But I can’t be sure. I don’t… I don’t know.

Ann carded her fingers softly through James’ hair as they lay side by side. Her own eyes were wet with tears for both Francis and James. She’d held herself together the night before for James’ sake, but she let herself weep now. “But you were still with him, he knew you cared.”

“Fitzjames said something similar,” James said, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “That he died knowing he was loved… but I…” He sobbed again.

“It’s the not knowing, that hurts,” Ann finished and James nodded, squeezing his eyes shut.

Ann sniffled, as her own tears threatened to overtake her and she pulled herself in close to James. It was such a comfort to feel James’ arms wrap around her waist to hold her securely.

“May I asked how Captain Fitzjames knew about Francis?” Ann asked softly after several moments of silence. “You don’t seem concerned, but that is no small thing.”

James cleared his throat roughly. “Fitzjames loved Francis as well, and… and Francis returned the sentiment.”

That made sense, Ann thought, as to why Francis would have made Fitzjames his confidant. “Are you jealous of him?”

“Yes, horribly,” James admitted, drawing back to wipe at his eyes. “However, Fitzjames has been nothing but kind, and more than willing to speak to me of Francis. The last time, we spoke he…” James hiccuped on a sob and wiped at his eyes again.

Ann took his hand gently, pressing a kiss to his knuckles. “He what?”

James squeezed his eyes shut. “He said that he never faulted my place in Francis’ heart, and… and he knew there would always be part of Francis that loved me.”

Ann felt an overwhelming surge of gratitude to Fitzjames for his support of James, during what could only have been a horrifically painful time for himself as well.

“I’ve… I invited him to stay with us,” James continued, opening his eyes again to look at Ann, seeking out her approval. “He has a long recovery ahead of him and the court martial, and I thought…”

“Shh,” Ann murmured. “There’s no need to explain. I understand.  I’m glad you’ve invited him here.” She brushed a loose curl of hair from James’ forehead. “Having someone else here who knew Francis just as dearly will be a balm to both of us.”

James swallowed heavily, but merely nodded and made no move to speak.

Ann took James’ silence in stride, shifting closer to him once again to draw him into an embrace. And, again, James went easily.

“There’s part of me that worries he won’t come,” he admitted after a time. “We had so little time to speak and there’s so much I want to know.”

Ann ran a soothing hand through James’ hair. “Now, I don’t know Captain Fitzjames, but from what I’ve heard, he’s doesn’t seem the sort of man who would accept an invitation and then decline it without good reason.”

She had already made up her mind to write Fitzjames if they did not hear from him soon.

 


 

In Brighton, Fitzjames was welcomed home by William and Elizabeth with tears and a not insignificant amount of fussing.

“You’re sure I don’t need to call a doctor?” William asked, frowning as he ushered Fitzjames into the parlor.

“Yes, yes,” Fitzjames assured him. “I know I look atrocious, but my health isn’t as fragile as it may appear.”

William frowned, but didn’t comment on it further. “Will you be staying long?”

“I am due back in London,” Fitzjames said with a sigh. “I still need to give what report I can to the Admiralty with what documents were salvaged, and then there’s the court martial.”

“Court martial?” William sounded alarmed. “Surely they won’t…”

Fitzjames waved off William’s worries, with a confidence he didn’t quite feel. “It is likely be a simple formality. It’s required if a captain loses his ship, and I have lost two. But there were many reasons for that, and, for the most part, they were all out of my control. It will hardly be as serious as it sounds.”

The words sounded hollow coming out of his mouth, but Fitzjames forced them out anyway. There was every chance that the Admiralty would be lenient on him, as the blame could be placed at the feet of so many others. Goldner for the tins, a giant vicious polar bear for the loss of Sir John, the ice for keeping their ships locked with no leads for two whole winters. Then there was also the fact that he’d been sponsored by Sir John Barrow, and while the man had passed while they were away, his name still held weight.

Still, Fitzjames worried. He’d been third in command, had been a novice to the Arctic, and their losses had been so catastrophic. He carried the weight of those losses like a cannonball in the pit of his stomach, particularly those from Carnivale, which really were his fault more than any of the others.

“James? James.

Fitzjames jerked out of his thoughts at the sounds of his name. Elizabeth had joined them and had taken his arm in her attempt to get his attention.

“My apologies, I was… elsewhere,” he said, vaguely gesturing toward his head.

Elizabeth frowned. “Perhaps you’d best lie down and get some rest. We made up a room for you as soon as we heard news that Sir James’ ships had been sighted.”

That had been horribly optimistic of them, Fitzjames thought. But they hadn’t known, and would have had every reason to hope that James Ross would bring them all home safely.

“I agree,”  William said, not waiting for a response from Fitzjames. “Rest, food and then we’ll see about getting your things pulled out of storage.”

Chapter Text

Fitzjames remained with the Coninghams for two weeks, mostly at their insistence and only partly from the worry about what the situation living with Ross might be like. What did Lady Ann know? Could they have proper conversations without having to worry about eavesdropping house staff? Those were not things he’d ever had to consider much. In a proper household, such as William’s, Fitzjames would not breath a word of such things, but discussions about “such things” were the driving reason behind Ross’s invitation to stay with them.

Still, this newfound friendship with Ross was not something Fitzjames wanted to lose, and when he realized he’d be delayed for more than a week, he wrote to Ross to let him know to expect him later than they’d initially discussed.

 

“Therefore,” Ann read aloud, seated on the sofa across from James’ armchair. “I will be arriving the following Friday, unless my cousin and his wife make further request of my time, in which case I will be sure to inform you. Yours, Cmdr. Jas. Fitzjames.”

She lowered the letter. “Nothing to worry about then.  He’ll be here by the end of the week.”

James sighed. “Forgive me. You were right when you told me not to worry about Fitzjames coming.”

Ann shook her head. “There’s nothing to forgive, darling. You’ve been through so much of late and you’ve, understandably, become attached to Captain Fitzjames. Will you reply?”

“I don’t think there’s a need,” James said, straightening in his chair. “He’ll likely arrive before the letter.”

 

The first week Fitzjames spent at Blackheath, he felt oddly like an imposter, like he’d been mistaken for someone he wasn’t. When he’d first arrived Ann had greeted him like he was an old friend, even though they’d never been properly introduced before.

Ross’s children too, had treated him like he was a normal part of their household. They had, by complete happenstance, arrived on the same day, Fitzjames coming up from Brighton and the children coming down with their nanny from Ross’s home in Buckinghamshire. In the days leading up to his court martial, Fitzjames was more than happy to be dragged into their games. It was a happy distraction from his worries, though it was also a careful balancing act, he learned quickly, to keep both five-year-old James and three-year-old Anne entertained at the same time.

“You’re wonderful with them,” Ann told him one afternoon after their nanny had ushered the two eldest Ross children off for their afternoon nap.

She seated herself on the settee, and Fitzjames hauled himself up off the floor to join her, with no small amount of protesting from his joints.

“My cousin, William, has several children of his own,” he said. “I always did envy the ease with which he was able to have a family.”

“Is that…” Ann hesitated, and Fitzjames knew immediately what she was going to ask. “Is that something to do with what you discussed with James?”

“Something,” Fitzjames admitted, surprised, but also somewhat relieved to learn that Ross had already discussed this with Ann, and that this was not something that would have to be kept hidden from her. “It’s much more complicated than just that, but it certainly played no small part.”

“Of course,” Ann said. “I certainly didn’t mean to pry, but I know such things have been weighing on James recently, among other things. From what he’s told me, I gather you’re… well you’ve known this about yourself much longer than James has, to say the least.”

“Yes,” Fitzjames said, frowning slightly in thought. “It wasn’t long after I joined the Navy, I think, that I started to realize that I found men just as, if not more, attractive than women. Of course it wasn’t merely that simple… knowing something about yourself is not being comfortable with it, after all… that took a bit longer and the help of a friend.”

He didn’t mention how the anxiety about his background being discovered, as well as the instability of his career, had played heavily into how staunchly he had ignored this part of himself until he’d met Edward.

Ann sighed, smoothing her hands over her skirts, in what appeared to Fitzjames to be an anxious gesture. “I don’t mean to speak for my husband, but I think he might benefit from the ‘help a friend.’ It seems to me great comfort and companionship can be found among those of similar experience.”

“I would be glad to be that friend for your husband,” Fitzjames said, though he had  to admit that he was a bit surprised to hear the request  coming so directly from Ann. “Can I assume he has told you what we already discussed, about Francis?”

“Yes,” Ann replied with a small nod. “I’ve been his confidant since he came to this realization. I hope it was no overstep.”

Fitzjames shook his head. “Not at all. I will admit to having worried, however, so I am glad you thought to speak with me.”

“I really hadn’t intended too,” Ann admitted. “But James has been awfully concerned about… about… well, about a good many things. But one of the things that’s weighed on his mind since our very first discussions has been about him being unfaithful to me. I know he loves me dearly, just as he loved Francis, and there was nothing sordid about that as many would think. I believe, though he hasn’t mentioned this, he’s concerned about the types of places such men as yourself might frequent,” Ann said. “All you hear in the newspapers is about arrests and brothels, but… there must be happier places, surely?”

“There are,” Fitzjames assured her. “But they may not be the sort of places you’d expect.”

Ann frowned and Fitzjames rushed to continue. “I would not take Sir James anywhere disreputable, but entering those circles at all poses an inherent danger and will be considered disreputable merely for the sort of people they hold. Even if we were to attend a private social event, there is no guarantee we would be completely safe, though there are certainly places that are safer than others, particularly for men of your husband’s standing.”

“You must count yourself in that number as well,” Ann added, still not appearing entirely at ease. “James told me he expects to see you knighted.”

Fitzjames gave an embarrassed chuckle. “I’m afraid I don’t have your husband’s confidence in that matter.”

“Well, don’t discount my husband’s familiarity with seeing men knighted for just about anything returning from the Arctic,” Ann said. “You discovered the Passage, the Admiralty won’t turn their nose up at that.” 

Ann paused another moment, and then continued, “But you can turn it down, if you don’t want it. The first time James was offered a knighthood he turned them down in favor of demanding that the Admiralty promote Francis.”

“I hadn’t known that,” Fitzjames said softly. “Francis was very selective with what he told me about himself and Sir James, part of me wonders if he worried I’d be jealous.”

“Would you have been?” Ann asked.

“Perhaps,” James admitted. “But I don’t think it would have reared its head until we’d returned. I’ve long been anxious of my place in other people’s lives, but I also like to think it would have resolved itself.”

It felt like a lot to reveal, but Ann and Sir James knew one of his potentially career ending secrets already, and would, he knew, keep it safely. Perhaps given time, he might divulge to them that which he’d told to Francis.

In Fitzjames’ silence Ann got to her feet, catching his attention with a gentle touch to his shoulder. “I must go check on Charlotte, but once your court martial is over and done with, seek out James to talk. He’s… I only… I worry. This is all so different from what I imagined.”

“And what did you imagine?” Fitzjames asked, rising as well.

Ann sighed. “I don’t know, I like to fancy myself well informed…”

“It’s difficult to be informed on things polite society makes a point to avoid explicit mention of.” 

Ann relaxed visibly. “Yes, exactly.”

“I won’t say you don’t need to worry for Sir James, a small amount of worry is entirely warranted,” Fitzjames said. “But there’s no need to let it overwhelm you. While there is danger, there is comfort and safety as well.”

Ann smiled. “Thank you.”

 

Ross was not intentionally avoiding Fitzjames, except that he was… a little bit. It was excruciatingly difficult to find the words for any of this; his feelings for Francis, his feelings about himself. He’d invited Fitzjames to stay with him so that they could discuss this and Ross felt rather guilty that they hadn’t, but every time he’d been in a position to discuss things with Fitzjames there had always been something or other that he’d found as a suitable excuse not to.

He had told Ann that his hesitation was from not wanting to overburden Fitzjames while he was preparing for a court martial he had made clear he was worried about. Ann, of course, had not believed him for an instant, but all she’d said then was that she would talk to Fitzjames, and he supposed she must have.

For his part, Ross had spent long hours thinking over the limited conversations he and Fitzjames had already had. He’d filled several journals with his thoughts, which he had burned almost immediately upon finishing. He was burning one now, in fact.

He prodded the fire with the poker watching the flames lick at the ink covered paper as the book slowly curled apart. The last entry had been a long list of things he’d garnered from the papers over the years about sodomy and various trials and such and how much did and didn’t line up with what he knew from his time in the Navy and what Fitzjames had told him thus far, and also what he still had no answer for. Now it was nothing but ash, or would be soon.

Ross heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Fitzjames enter, still in his new made dress uniform, and drop heavily into the armchair next to where Ross was crouched by the fire. “Burning a manuscript, are we?”

“Private journal,” Ross said, easing himself up and into the armchair across from Fitzjames. “I thought it best not to leave such explicit thoughts lying around.”

Fitzjames nodded. “A wise choice. I rarely catalogued any of my escapades and when I did it was with care. Though I’ve also known men who preferred to detail everything.”

“That seems incredibly risky,” Ross said, frowning.

“It can be, yes, if you aren’t careful, but we still have to write letters, don’t we?” Fitzjames pointed out. “There are discrete ways of writing to get your intent across without incriminating yourself over much. Of course, I personally would still burn such letters, but I suppose if someone were romantically inclined, they might keep them.”

Ross was quiet for several moments. He knew that Ann still had some of their early letters, but the idea of sending and keeping such letters from a man seemed entirely too dangerous. But then his mind turned to all the letters he’d received from Francis over the years; knowing what he did now, what things might he find if he read between the lines? His stomach twisted. He still had a box of them somewhere.

“I don’t think I’d risk it,” Ross said, eventually, “but, enough about that. How went the court martial?”

Fitzjames grimaced, and for a moment Ross worried he’d horribly misjudged the decisions the Admiralty would make, but then the moment passed and Fitzjames relaxed visibly.

“As well as you’d inferred,” Fitzjames said. “I’ve been promoted to captain and a knighthood is likely imminent.” He paused, still looking less than happy. “They tried to place the blame for the disaster entirely on Francis.”

“What?” Ross was utterly baffled. “They should be laying the blame at their own feet for the expedition’s poor provisioning if anything.”

“I didn’t go quite that far in my accusations, but I told them, if they were going to place blame on Francis then they needed to place it on Sir John in equal measure, as he had ignored advice from his fellow Arctic veterans that could well have allowed us to keep our ships clear of the pack, and that I myself had not heeded that advice either.”

Fitzjames sighed. “They stopped that line of inquiry there, preferring to talk up my promotion and teasing the idea of a knighthood.”

“Will you accept?” Ross asked.

“Yes, though I’ve made my acceptance conditional, to ensure that Jopson’s promotion will be upheld, among other things,” Fitzjames sighed. “You know they may have agreed to allow for him to keep his promotion because they didn’t realize he wasn’t one of the mates. I had gotten them rather flustered at that point and had only mentioned that he hadn’t taken the lieutenant’s exam, not his precise rank.”

Ross chuckled softly. “It is untraditional, but he seems well suited for the role.” Jopson had seemed highly competent as a lieutenant and it had been easy to see why Francis had promoted him. “What was his service record prior? You mentioned he’d done work on a slave busting ship.”

“Yes, he served on the Racer under Captain James Hope,” Fitzjames said. “The agreement we came to was that Jopson will of course have to sit for the lieutenants exam, but once he passes, he can return to service as a lieutenant.” He paused a moment before continuing. “This is provided he wants to do that. I wouldn’t fault any man on that expedition for not wanting to return to sea.”

As he finished speaking, Fitzjames slumped back in his chair, suddenly looking utterly exhausted. Which was quite understandable, Ross thought.

“Go get out of that uniform,” Ross said, ending the conversation. “I’ll have Sarah bring some tea. Once you’ve had a chance to relax we can discuss things further.”

Fitzjames fixed Ross with a peculiar stare, but then his face relaxed again. “I think I will, thank you.”

“I also have something I’ve been meaning to give you,” Fitzjames continued as he rose to his feet. “I’ll fetch that as well.”

Ross frowned to himself as he watched Fitzjames leave the room, as he tried to think of what it might be. The way Fitzjames had said it made it seem rather serious, but Ross couldn’t think of anything of import that Fitzjames might have to give him. He would just have to wait.

 

Fitzjames took his time changing out of his dress uniform, and it was such a relief to be free of the constricting garment. He could feel the tension leaving him as he redressed in civilian clothes and then folded his uniform and tucked it in the far back of a dresser drawer. Out of sight, out of mind… for now.

Before he closed the drawer, he pulled out a small cloth-wrapped parcel that he’d had nestled between two shirts. It was the daguerreotype portrait of Ross that Francis had brought with him to the Arctic and then carried with him on their long walk on King William Land. It had, somehow or another, ended up among Fitzjames’ things instead of buried with Francis and left to decay. It seemed appropriate to return it to Ross.

 

When Fitzjames returned, Ross had moved away from the fire to the sofa, in front of which there sat a tray of tea on a small table.

As he seated himself next to Ross, Fitzjames held out the cloth-wrapped daguerreotype. “It belonged to Francis,” he added, when Ross gave him a curious look.

Ross made no reply other than to extend his hand to take the parcel, but Fitzjames heard the hitch in his breath and when Ross withdrew his hand the tremor was more prominent than it had been before.

“It feels foolish to be afraid of unwrapping this,”  Ross said quietly. “It’s the daguerreotype, isn’t it? The one I gave him.”

Fitzjames nodded. “Yes. Francis and I shared a tent on our walk, before he…” He paused a moment before continuing.  “It wound up mixed in with my things by mistake. I certainly can’t say I remember when that might have been.”

As Fitzjames spoke Ross unwrapped the picture, his face a tightly held mask of grief and his hands were shaking so much Fitzjames feared that he’d drop it.

“It’s an odd thing,” Ross said at length. “To be returned a portrait of oneself, though it does give me some comfort, I suppose, to know he carried this with him. ”

Ross carefully set the bare plate down on the table. “What happened to the frame?”

“I don’t know,” Fitzjames admitted. “I don’t know why Francis should have discarded it, perhaps it was damaged. He kept it on his person most of the time.”

Ross nodded slowly, clenching his fist against his leg. His face was tight and drawn. “Will you tell me about him? I… everything you’ve told me… it feels like such an awfully large thing to not have known about him. He was my dearest friend… How much of him didn’t I know?”

Fitzjames understood that desire to know, he did, and he regretted that what he had to tell Ross was vastly limited. “I think you likely knew more of him than anyone else. Much of what he told me about himself revolved almost entirely around you.”

Ross shut his eyes tightly, but it wasn’t quite enough to hold back the tears. 

“Is there anything in particular you’d like to hear?”

Ross let out a shuddering breath before returning his gaze to Fitzjames. “I don’t even know where to begin. There’s so much I want to know…”

“Why don’t I start from the beginning of what I know?” Fitzjames offered. “And you can ask questions as they become relevant.” 

Ross nodded, and Fitzjames began.

 

As Francis had told it to him, Francis had realized his feelings while Sir James had been North with his uncle on the Victory. It had been the slow mounting worry of the fate of the expedition that had left Francis questioning whether or not his feelings for Ross might extend beyond simple friendship. The mounting fear for Ross, Francis had told him, had been so much greater than for the other friends he had on that same expedition.

Fitzjames realized the horrible irony of the situation as the words were coming out of his mouth. It was the same situation Ross had found himself in when he decided to mount a rescue expedition. So worried for Francis that he’d come out of retirement just to try to get him home safely.

Ross choked back a sob. “All these years… and I never knew.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Fitzjames said. “From what I understand, Francis took pains to keep it from you. All that nonsense about being able to identify sodomites by  appearance alone, is just… well, nonsense. There are recognizable things, certainly, discrete ways of knowing, but for the most part, I could point to more men than just us who don’t appear that way in the slightest.”

Ross was silent for several moments, attempting to recover himself before he spoke again. “I don’t suppose you’d know if Francis was…” he paused again. “If he frequented any particular places.”

Fitzjames shook his head, setting down his half finished tea. “I’m afraid I don’t. What Francis told me about his life was fairly limited, much of it you likely already know. I was told a fair bit about your time in the Antarctic. But as to Francis’ other involvements… he may have been involved in some club, but if he was he did not tell me, and knowing what I do about him, I find it fairly unlikely.”

“Yes,” Ross agreed. “He wasn’t exactly the most at ease at social events, even less so when left alone.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t think to ask,” Fitzjames said, quietly.

“I can’t fault you for that,” Ross said, though he sounded resigned. “I don’t imagine you thought you’d ever be asked such questions.”

Fitzjames chuckled softly. “That is true. I hardly expected this turn of events. It’s not entirely a bad one though.”

“No certainly not,” Ross said. “Having lost Francis, I…”

He had to pause to gather himself before he continued. “Having lost Francis, I… I am unspeakably glad to have you as a confidant, and I hope that I can be the same for you.”

Fitzjames was beginning to feel choked himself, the pressure of tears beginning to build behind his eyes. “I would be glad for that. I’m sorry that I can’t give you more insight into Francis’ life, although… I suppose I could tell you the rest of the stories he told me. You know them, no doubt, but hearing them from Francis’ perspective, how he saw you…”

Ross let out a shaky breath. “Yes… yes, I would like to hear those stories.”

They spent the rest of the afternoon talking. Fitzjames telling various stories of Francis’ private feelings about particular moments in his and Ross’s shared past. Ross had not minded Fitzjames’ halting manner of telling these, though Fitzjames had apologized. He’d prided himself on being an engaging storyteller, but it was much harder to tell incredibly personal stories of someone else, particularly to one who knew the details of those stories better.

Ross, for his part, simply took Fitzjames’ hesitations and pauses to fill in further details that Fitzjames had been unsure of, or simply hadn’t known. Eventually, when Fitzjames had run out of Francis’ stories to retell, it simply turned into the both of them sharing stories about Francis, starting with Ross’s elaboration on how Francis had released penguins in his cabin, and then how he’d gotten back at Francis for it, and there were tears and laughter both by the time Ann appeared in the parlor to tell them that supper was waiting on them.