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Life in the Silent Spaces

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Edward cannot remember the first time he goes and hides in Terror's storeroom; sometime, surely, after the mass of the men moved to Erebus and Diggle stopped sending his boys down all the time. These days, Mr. Diggle only sends Manson to fetch supplies, once a day at a predictable hour, and Edward is absurdly grateful.

There is a nook at the back wall, private and small, with a hot water pipe running behind it connecting the boiler room to the lower deck. The food there kept turning up spoiled until the men finally just moved the lot. If Edward sits down on a crate and presses his back against the thin wood, he feels something like warmth, sitting in the dark with the groaning of the ice and the rustling of the rats all around him.

The first time Jopson finds him there, Edward doesn't know what to say. He stares up at Jopson. Jopson stares down at him. Edward knows he needs to say something, quickly, to dispel any notions such as that what is happening here is that Terror is stuck in the ice and her first lieutenant is hiding behind crates of mock turtle soup, but he can't get his mind to hustle up a plausible story.

Then the moment is gone. Jopson pointedly looks at a spot on the wall three inches to the left of Edward's face and says: “I'm sure I heard lieutenant Irving looking for you, Sir. I'm going to tell him I didn't see you here in the orlop, but he might keep looking.” Without a second glance, Jopson turns on the heel of his well-polished shoes and walks out, the dim light of his whale-oil lamp bobbing for a little while longer in Edward's field of vision.

Edward puts his head in his hands and gives himself a couple minutes to will his heart down to a more moderate beat, before he gets up to be Terror's first lieutenant again.

 

***

 

It's because Jopson walks so softly, Edward thinks, that is the problem. Manson you can hear crashing down the ladder to the orlop from a mile away and the echo of Mr. Honey's rapid, hard steps carries through the wood. Jopson, though not a small man, walks like a cat in comparison, which is why he can walk in on Edward again, with just enough time for Edward to jump to his feet, before he realizes this is no advantage to his situation.

“Mr. Jopson,” he grates out before his mind forsakes him again.

Jopson looks at him almost apologetically. “Doctor MacDonald asked for some samples of the tinned meat.” He gestures softly with the hand holding the lantern and the light wobbles for a moment across the room, over Edward's embarrassed face. “I'll just get on with it, Sir, if that's alright with you.”

“Yes.” Edward says, “Right. Carry on.” Jopson makes a tentative movement in his direction and Edward startles, and then obligingly lets him pass before making a hasty retreat out the door.

It is not that Edward thinks that Jopson will tell the Captain, or that Jopson will tattle of his secrets to his fellow stewards, or that Jopson will wield the knowledge of Edward's weakness like a knife to be put on his throat and wheedle small favors out of his pockets. What he knows of the man is straightforward: Honorable, polite, discreet. Not the kind to take advantage. But the shame of letting himself be caught so compromised stings, makes his cheeks burn and his stomach churn.

Edward promises himself to simply avoid the lower decks in the future altogether, if he can manage at all.

 

***

 

“Sir,” Edward says, and surprises himself with how defiant he sounds.

“Thomas, escort her off Terror. Let her back aboard only if she's screaming for help.”

Across the room, Blanky's eyes meet his and Edward is already shaking his head, no no no no no, don't you dare. Some rational part of him is wondering if this is a mutiny, or if they're relieving an incapacitated captain off duty, or if it even matters if Crozier doesn't choose to cooperate. Out here in the ice, in the dark, with the Empire worlds away.

Only now Crozier is shouting and the girl is shouting, too, the stream of clipped unintelligible sounds doing nothing to mask the anger beneath, and oh god, the door of the great cabin is wide open.

And then Fitzjames storms in, like this is a Greek tragedy, as if the gods have conspired against them to suffer as much as possible, and all hell breaks loose.

 

***

 

“Take it,” Crozier says, voice pressed and eyes a little wild.

Edward has never wanted anything less in his life.

 

***

 

Fitzjames is subdued for once and lets Edward maneuver him off the ship without much of a fuss. Edward smiles at him through gritted teeth. He almost falters only once, when the man takes too long to get into his own goddamn slops. On the way back through the fo'c'sle he keeps his head down, ignores Hodgson's beseeching looks. He stops at the infirmary to inquire after Mr. Blanky and Dr. MacDonald talks to him quietly and Edward leaves before MacDonald can put a kind hand on his arm and search his eyes for hints of his own state of mind. Edward knows he should go to his quarters and get some rest, and not act or make any decisions based on this complete debacle of an evening until after a good night's sleep.

He goes down to the storerooms instead.

Edward spends a blissful half-hour pretending he's back on the Vindictive, in the pacific and off the coast of panama, eyes closed and head tipped back against the wall. He gets to the point where he can almost feel lull of waves rolling the ship beneath his feet and then his ears register a faint creak that is damnably not in his mind and also not from the ice. Edward instinctively knows it is Jopson, but he can't get himself to care.

Jopson is looking perfectly neat and calm. Edward feels an uncharacteristic twinge of annoyance at that, but at least the man's expression is free of pity.

“The Captain's asleep now, Sir,” Jopson says. His usually careful pronunciation slips around the hard sounds of captain and for a moment, he sounds less like the tidy, polite shadow hovering around Crozier and more like the rough side of London's east end. Up close, Edward can see the dark shadows etched beneath his eyes.

Edward nods and then there is an uncomfortable silence as Jopson doesn't leave.

Jopson looks down at him, waiting for God knows what, and Edward looks up, and Edward has had enough of this day, but it's also Jopson, who has never been anything but unfailingly kind to him and Edward has not much resolve left.

“At least sit down,” Edward finally says. He looks down at his feet, because that makes it easier. He shuffles a bit to the side to make space on the crate, concentrating on the way Jopson's polished boots shift softly on the floor as he moves to sit.

The crate isn't really made to accommodate two grown men, especially since Jopson is as tall as him and they're both swaddled in all their layers of clothing at once, now that the point of coal rationing is no longer comfort, but only to stave off their freezing to death for as long as possible. They fit, but barely; It's awkward. Jopson's arm brushes against his. Edward is uncomfortably aware that Jopson has been trained to never touch an officer unless in the line of his duties. He wonders what this qualifies at. Jopson stretches his hands and Edward watches him contemplate his fingers for one long, drawn out moment.

“You must think me weak-minded,” Edward finally says.

Jopson actually snorts, the corners of his mouth turning up wryly, his lines sharper than usual in the flickering lantern-light. “I've seen my share of crazy, and you're not. If that helps. Sir.”

Surprisingly it does. Edward lets his head fall back against the wall. Jopson looks deceivingly innocent, with his girl-pretty eyes and floppy hair, but Edward knows he has a lot more years in the discovery service under his belt than most on the ships, certainly more than Edward himself. Even if just as a steward. He's seen what the unknown does to people.

“What was it like, the antarctic?” he hears himself say, and it feels easier than he remembers it, talking to people.

“We weren't frozen in, if that's what you mean.”

Jopson continues before Edward can say no, that's not what he meant at all: “It makes you feel small.” Jopson is kneading his hands, absentmindedly, and Edward cannot look away. “Because it is so grand. But it also lifts you. We sailed along a mile-high wall of ice for three days and there was still no end to it. But it was beautiful, with the sunlight glinting off it.”

Edward nods. He's heard Crozier talk about their antarctic voyage dozens of times, but when Jopson does it, there's a light to it that he wants to bask in it for as long as possible

“Not like this,” Jopson says suddenly, sharply, “this slow withering away in the dark.” Edward turns to him, surprised, and Jopson looks away fast, clearly embarrassed, appalled at letting his composure slip in front of an officer.

“I'm sorry, Sir,” Jopson says quickly. His cheeks are flushed. “It was a long day. I should retire.” He starts to rise even as he speaks and Edward moves before thinking and puts a hand on his arm, holding him back. Jopson stops mid-rise, his expression already halfway back to professional containment. His face very close. Edward suddenly feels afloat in dangerous waters. He slowly lets go of Jopson's coat and tries not to have it show on his face.

“It was a long day,” he concedes.

Jopson, before he leaves, gives him a small nod of gratitude, or maybe regret. Then Edward is alone again. He tries to recall the feeling of peace he had before, but the solitude of the storeroom is suddenly more oppressive than comforting.

 

***

 

The Great Cabin becomes an off-limits zone. Jopson disappears for a week, just occasionally emerging to hurry the Captain's supper back from the stove or to gulp down a can of Goldner's. Jopson's hair is always spit-slick neat, but his eyes are tired. Edwards wants to say something, offer some kind of recognition of their shared misery, but he doesn't know how, so he just bows his head and lets Jopson pass when their paths cross each other in the narrow passageway.

They're sitting in the wardroom around their breakfast, Gibson sullenly serving and Edward spreading a thin layer of their last marmalade on his biscuit, as Jopson rushes in, ruthlessly controlled but with a hint of panic to his eyes. He cursorily acknowledges the lieutenants with a nod of his head before saying: “Gentlemen, I'm very sorry for the intrusion. Mr. Gibson, a hand please.” His voice is more impatiently clipped than Edward has ever heard him before. Jopson dashes out again within the moment, Gibson in tow.

Edward lets his eyes wander back to his plate, staunchly avoiding to look Hodgon or Irving in the eye. He tries to quell all urges to trail after the two stewards into territory where he would certainly not be welcomed. Edward himself is not particularly eager to intrude on Crozier's sickbed and Crozier's temper – or worse: Crozier weepy and vulnerable – but his first natural instinct is to do something. The look in Jopson's eyes burns in his mind.

Gibson gets back by the time Edward is finishing up his coffee. Edward tries to glean something from his demeanor, but Gibson, when not sullen, mainly looks bored.

Hodgon is telling a long-winded tale of him and Le Vesconte shooting pigs in the marshes near Baghdad that Edward has heard before and didn't care for even then. He looks at his cup of coffee, still half-full, and then abruptly pushes back his chair, scraping it over the floor so loudly that Hodgson looks a tad affronted.

Edward almost feels sorry for it, but he doesn't linger long enough to give Hodgson a chance to press an apology out of him. He nods his goodbyes and only stops to think once he's back out in the empty passageway, in front of the Great Cabin's door. He considers knocking for a moment, then lets that thought slide and pushes in.

Jopson, slumped in one of the chairs, startles. He is looking exhausted and messy, his hair out of place and falling over one eye. Edward didn't expect a warm welcome, but he flinches a bit at the flicker of annoyance that crosses Jopson's features before he can compose himself.

“Sir,” Jopson says and scrambles upwards. His hands automatically go to his head to flatten the errand strand. “This is not a good time.” His eyes dart to where the door to Crozier's quarters is closed and then back to Edward's face again. Edward watches the muscles in Jopson's chin work silently and, for a moment, he has the impression that Jopson – mild, gentle, soft-mannered Jopson – is about to bodily tow him out of the Great Cabin.

“Please leave,” Jopson finally says, an edge of pleading to his voice. Edwards feels like the worst kind of person.

“I'm sorry,” he murmurs and then again “I'm sorry” as he realizes he is not about to leave. Jopson watches with a carefully impassive face as Edward draws out a chair and sits to look out of the great bay windows into the darkness that wraps around the ship a little tighter each day. He hears Jopson sigh in defeat and then there is a soft creaking of wood as Jopson leans back in the chair next to him.

“You know,” Edward says after a while, “I really don't give a damn about that passage. It was this or stay on dry land, and I wouldn't have been able to stand that for a second longer.” He doesn't trust his composure enough to look at Jopson, but he feels better for having said it out loud.

For some long minutes there is only the creaking of the ice and the sawing of the wind against the ship's hull.

Jopson says: “I'm glad you told me.”

Then, after another long pause: “I'm glad you did come, even though it's terribly selfish of me.”

Edward lets out a breath he didn't know he was holding. His first instinct, deeply ingrained by years of putting himself last and getting on with things, is to make himself invisible. He doesn't.

Jopson is soft-contoured in the half-dark. His eyes are very light, almost translucent, and they hold steady on Edward's face. Edward is glad that one of them is brave, although he feels a pang of shame that it is not him. It should be him. He should be a great many things, for this ship, in this frozen hellhole, but he doesn't know how to be.

“I'm glad you're here as well.” It costs him an effort just to say it. Jopson's face shines with a radiance that comes from within and Edward is not used to have such light directed at him. But Jopson is brave and he can be brave, too.

He watches the light shift on Jopson's features and then suddenly Jopson laughs, softly, but clear and sweet. Edward has never heard a more beautiful sound in his life.

“Look at us two.”

Jopson doesn't say what it is about them. His laugh keeps dissolving into a giggle. Edwards feels a giddiness rise up in his belly and huffs a couple times, roughly, until Jopson shoots a worried glance towards the captain's cabin and, stifling his own laughter with a hand to his mouth, hushes him.

Edward ducks his head, but he hasn't felt this light in years.

“Stay for a while longer,” Jopson says. There's a little rise to the end of it, almost like a question.

They stare out into the night again, this time in companionable silence. Jopson hums under his breath. After a while, he reaches over and takes Edward's hand. His fingers are warm and Edward squeezes back, folding the warmth into the space between their palms.

 

***

 

It unfurls in Edward slowly, like a flower.

The steps he takes on the deck are the same, but they mean something different now. He holds the realization to his chest with trembling fingers and doesn't dare to look at it too closely, for fear that scrutiny might startle it.

To his surprise, Jopson likes to hear him talk. To Edward, who secretly has always considered himself to be exceedingly dull, it is a new and wondrous experience.

Edward has never talked so much about so many things of so little consequence. He has to work through the habits of a lifetime to put his mind into words, but at Jopson's gentle insistence he dutifully dregs up memories of long summer nights as a midshipman in the Mediterranean, or the taste of coconuts, or the pranks he played on his crew mates when he was still young enough to allow himself such liberties.

Jopson is never interested in the whys and wherefores, but he listens to Edward's recollection of the songs sung by a blind beggar in a dingy cantina in Spain as if Edward is holding the secret to the universe in the hollow of his palm.

He brings Jopson a teacake one time – from his own cache of secretly hoarded sweets – and Jopson seems mainly amused by it, but later he takes Edward's hand in his again and softly tells him a story of when he was a boy and stole potatoes from Mr. Hardy, the grocer's.

 

***

 

And then Carnivale.

Edward walks on snow that is coal-black and the incongruity chafes at his mind. For the first time in months, the pale arctic sun has passed the horizon and Edward wants nothing more than for the harsh light to turn away from their desolation.

The moment of light is short, but it feels like forever. When the darkness swallows them back, the world paradoxically seems less bleak. Edward figures they've been stumbling along in the dark for so long that finally seeing where it took them hurts all the more. Next to him, Crozier pulls out an antler-adorned hat from the rubble, stares at it, frowns, and gingerly puts it back on the ground.

Edward puts his best lieutenant face back on and concentrates on his next step, and then the one after that, and then the next, until Irving arrives with fresh men to relieve him off duty, looking pale and drawn and uncomfortably young.

On his walk back to Terror, Edward tries not to think about blackened faces, or the smell of smoke, or the sounds good men make when they die. Instead, he focuses in on a memory of Jopson's calm face, of Jopson's warm hands, Jopson's soft thumb brushing over Edward's calloused palm. He curls around the thought in his mind, warms his frozen limbs with its heat.

It's not enough, it's not nearly enough. Edward's teeth chatter. The snow slips beneath his feet. Edward goes back to the beginning, back to Jopson's hand, turns the memory this way and that to get at the best angle and then the Jopson in his mind does something he has not done before, lets his hand slip inside the sleeve of Edward's coat, underneath his shirt, to brush over the soft skin of his wrists, over the frantic beat of Edward's pulse. Oh.

Edward, alone in the frozen wasteland between the two ships, frost clinging to his whiskers and smoke clinging to his coat, has a moment of absolute clarity.

There is an irony in it that Edward had to get to the edge of the world, as far away from who he thought he should be, to see himself clearly for the very first time.

In his mind, Jopson's eyes are very blue and they're focused directly at him.

 

***

 

The infirmary has spilled out onto the fo'c'sle and Edward walks around and across men he knows he should know, but who are unrecognizable under layers of blood and soot. Some part of him is scared to find Jopson's pale eyes among the wretched faces, even though Edward has seen Crozier send off a perfectly fine and healthy Jopson early on, along with a group of injured.

Edward doesn't even take off his slops.

Edward checks the infirmary; Edward checks the Great Cabin, and Crozier's quarters for good measure; Edward checks the wardroom and is about to close the door again when he registers a small noise from the adjacent pantry.

Jopson is crouched in front of a chest, pulling out linens and tablecloths. Edward has to hold onto the door frame for a moment, afraid his legs might give out from the pure relief crashing through his veins.

Jopson awkwardly turns and smiles up at him and Edward, aware that he must look like a madman, drops to his knees beside him.

Jopson's face is kind, and so young, and blessedly whole. It's the most beautiful thing Edward has ever seen. Edward doesn't know what to say, so he says “I'm sorry” as he threads his fingers through Jopson's hair, “I'm sorry” as he wraps an arm around Jopson's waist, “I'm sorry” as he buries his face in the curve of Jopson's neck.

Jopson stills for a moment and then Edward's whole world shifts as Jopson leans into the embrace and curls one arm around him to draw him closer. Edward is still repeating “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry”, like a litany, like a prayer, when Jopson draws back and silences him with his mouth.

 

***

 

“We need to get you out of these wet slops,” Jopson says.

“Yes,” Edward murmurs, against Jopson's hot mouth. He leans their foreheads together and doesn't move an inch.

 

***

 

Edward Little is a boy who likes ships.

Edward doesn't shirk hard work and is good at keeping his head down and captains like him because he goes and does and forgets to judge their mishaps because he is too busy. His tendency to throw himself first at any frontline makes up for his awkwardness at giving orders. Edward doesn't play cards, drinks moderately, and – after a couple of clumsy encounters at a whorehouse – doesn't let chasing skirts distract him from his duties. The admiralty mistakes his discomfort around people for stoicism and his eagerness to please for ambition and Edward is a first lieutenant before he knows it.

He doesn't particularly want to go to the arctic and he doesn't care about the Northwest Passage one trifle, but after 18 months landlocked on half pay he is glad Ommanney recommends his name and Edward is eager to do anything, and go anywhere, just to get his feet on the planks of a deck again.

 

***

 

Edward Little is 36 years old when he kisses a boy, on his knees, on a lost ship in the arctic, and realizes he wants to live, with a desperation that claws its way out of him.

 

***

 

“Help me carry these to doctor Goodsir?” Jopson asks.

“Yes,” Edward says, and breathes. Yes.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and again yes.

 

***

 

After all the injured are cared for, wounds wrapped in officers' linens and tablecloths because the infirmary runs out of bandages; After Crozier comes back from the ice and puts a calm hand on Edward's shoulder to quietly talk to him about advance parties and Edward is just desperately glad to have his captain back, sane and alive and there with him; After the surviving crew huddles together on the lower deck and no one sings a song or tells a tale; Edward goes down to the storerooms and waits.

Jopson, when he comes, just stands there for a second, in an eerie imitation of a moment that feels a lifetime ago. Then he slowly sinks to his knees in front of Edward, puts his hands on Edward's thighs. Edward's mouth is very dry. He swallows.

“We're likely going to die,” Jopson says. He looks Edward straight in the the eye. And alright, there's that.

Jopson continues: “But I am glad to be here with you. If it takes this to be here with you, in this moment, I'll take it.”

Edward wants to say a lot of things: they're young, they're strong; he trusts Crozier; others have walked before and survived; they can't let that ice break them.

Jopson's hands brush soft circles over Edward's legs, smoothing the wrinkles in the fabric of his trousers.

Edward thinks: he wants to take Jopson to the countryside, kiss him beneath a canopy of leaves, rent a set of rooms in the city, cheap and cozy and with only one bed, wake up with his nose pressed to Jopson's hair until they're both gray and tottery-kneed.

Edward says: “Thomas.”

Some terribly complicated emotion flickers over Jopson's face, a thing halfway between a smile and a sob. Then he laughs, shakes his head, looks up at Edward through long lashes.

“There I go all morose again.”

Edward thinks we will get through this, we'll get back to England with our whole long lives spread out in front of us. He leans down and closes the distance between them.