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And Now with Penguins

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Jopson's laugh is more of a giggle. It's surprisingly unprofessional and Edward immediately wants to hear it again.

“Just, whatever you do, Sir, don't mention penguins in front of the Captain,” Jopson giggles, at a pitch that brings back memories of Edward's nine year-old niece. Edward watches as Jopson valiantly tries to force his features back into a resemblance of professionalism before giving up completely and burying his head in the hollow of his arm to stifle sounds that are somewhere between a squeal and a hiccup.

Edward shoots a glance towards the captain's cabin and prays to whatever god that haunts these frozen lands that Crozier's too drunk to notice the commotion. Next to him on the bench, Jopson's shoulders are silently shaking and Edward has to suppress the urge to give him a sympathetic pat on the back.

“I'm sorry, Sir,” Jopson manages, red spots on his cheeks and tears in his eyes, before he loses his composure again.

Edward has spent years perfecting strategies to avoid having to talk to people. He evades Hodgson's gregarious chattiness with as much skill as Irving's painfully sincere attempts at uplifting conversation. He knows to make a hasty exit when Blanky pulls out his pipe with a nostalgic look in his eyes and he tries to stay clear of doctor MacDonald at all times on principle. It catches him by surprise when he realizes he enjoys talking to Jopson, who has a devilish sense of humor and a surprising repertoire of not-quite-appropriate anecdotes from Terror's earlier antarctic voyage. Edward has a niggling feeling that, as a good lieutenant, he should ignore all and every temptation to indulge in gossip about his superiors, no matter how entertaining, but not niggling enough to keep him from seeking out Jopson's company whenever the opportunity arises.

“The penguins,” Jopson wheezes, his eyes crinkling up into into little crescents. Nothing in Edward's very thorough lieutenant's education has prepared him for crinkly eyes. He gives up and awkwardly pets at Jopson's arm until his laughter subsides a bit.

***

Edward is not a morning person. A long line of superior officers did their best to iron out this flaw in him, but years and years of discipline and increasingly impatient insistence have barely made a dent. Best can be said is that Edward is awake when he must, but his mood rarely rises above grumpy and he is generally not in the mood for nonsense. This earns him a reputation for seriousness and he doesn’t bother to clear up the misunderstanding, because it keeps away futile attempts at conversing over breakfast more effectively than a loaded weapon.

Edward is about to venture into the wardroom, ready to run the gamut of Hodgson's irritating early morning cheer, when Jopson walks out, takes one look at him, says “oh, Sir, your collar” and walks him backwards into his quarters with a determined hand on his chest.

“You really don't want to go in there,” Jopson whispers, once the door to Edward's cabin has clicked shut behind them. His voice is calm, but the corners of his mouth are twitching. “Lieutenant Irving and Mr. Blanky are engaged in a spirited discussion about word choice befitting officers. It‘s nasty.”

“How nasty exactly?” Edward wants to ask, but is interrupted by Blanky's indignant yell of I will fucking talk however I fucking damn please reverberating through the walls.

Edward frowns. “On second consideration, maybe I'll take my breakfast after a refreshing walk on the lower deck.”

“Good choice, Sir,” Jopson says. He hasn't moved his hand from Edward's chest. It’s a spot of warmth right over Edward's heart.

“Right,” Edward says.

“Your collar,” Jopson says lightly. His hands have moved to Edward's neck. He can feel the soft pads of Jopson's fingers ghosting over the skin of his throat. “You really need to stop fiddling with your neckerchief, Sir.”

Edward swallows hard. He hopes Jopson won't notice, even with his long fingers brushing over his skin, skimming his Adam's apple. After what feels like an eternity, Jopson's hands come to rest on his shoulders. It's a light touch, but Edward feels it burning his skin through five layers of linen and wool.

The moment is shattered by the distant sounds of expensive porcelain breaking. Jopson's eyes turn large.”I need to go,” he hisses and is out of the door in an instant. Edward follows him into the passageway and then makes a hasty retreat in the direction of the fo'c'sle before the waves caused by this particular shipwreck can lap around his feet, Hodgson's cries of I say, can't we solve this like civilized people for once following him on his heels.

It is only when he notices Manson staring at him as if he'd grown a bear's fur overnight that Edward realizes he is whistling under his breath.

***

Edward is a good lieutenant. He's solid and dependable, he could run a ship in his sleep and he never, under any circumstances, undercuts his commanding officers. When Fitzjames slips on an icy patch on Erebus' ramp and makes an impressive impromptu somersault before sailing down the rest of the way on his bum, coming to rest with a little flourish in front of Edward's boots, Edward is grace personified. He offers a supportive hand, murmurs words of commiseration and is resolutely prepared to put a tight seal of secrecy over the incident.

“His face,” Edward howls into Jopson's shoulder, “you should have seen his face. He looked so utterly put upon, as if the ice was personally out to get him.”

Jopson makes an amused sound deep in his throat that Edward feels reverberate all over his skin. He realizes with a start how close they are and instinctively steps backwards, stumbling into the shelving lining the walls of the steward's pantry. His elbow jostles a bottle of something-or-other and sends it on its rolling way. Jopson jumps at the sound with the fine-tuned instincts of someone used to handling glassware around Crozier and grabs around Edward to arrest its fall, inadvertently pressing Edward between his long, lean body and the cupboard in the progress.

“Forgive me, Sir,” Jopson says, his face so close that Edward can recognize little flecks of gold in his sea-grey eyes, “this is very awkward.”

Awkwardness notwithstanding, Jopson calmly leans into Edward a little bit more and takes his sweet time to pull the bottle upright again. It‘s an impressive testament to how careful he is in his duties and Edward would be suitably impressed if he'd be able to string more than a few coherent thoughts together. The Lieutenant's Handbook doesn't have to say anything about situations like these. In the absence of clear instructions, Edward resigns himself to his fate and determinedly does not think about Jopson's bright eyes never leaving his face or the sharp, clean smell of Jopson's skin or the way Jopson's leg is slowly wriggling its way in between Edward's own.

“Alright, Sir?” Jopson asks, his voice very soft.

“Splendid,” Edward wants to say, but he finds it comes out more like a groan. Jopson seems to understand nevertheless, because the pressure of his leg intensifies by a minute yet appealing degree and his hand lets go of the bottle to tangle in the soft hair at the base of Edward's neck.

“I do so enjoy it when you tell me things,” Jopson says.

“It’s really no trouble,” Edward wants to say, but is interrupted by Crozier's impatient voice barking Jopson, right outside the door.

“Just a second, Sir,” Jopson calls back, with much too even a voice for someone whose dick is a notable hard line against Edward's thigh. “Just straightening up a couple things in here.” He entangles himself from Edward with a regretful glance and brushes off a couple imaginary pieces of lint before slipping out the door.

Edward slowly sinks down the shelf until he reaches the floor and his shaking legs feel more solid again. He prides himself on always seeing the best in his superiors, working with their strengths instead of fretting over their faults, but he finds he feels the sudden, childish urge to be contrary to Crozier, or kick his leg maybe or deliberately knock over his whiskey.

***

Command meetings are the bane of Edward's existence. Edward is good at getting things done. He's less good with talking. He's even less good with listening to other people endlessly droning on about things they want to do, or did do, or forgot to do and are now very contrite about.

Hodgson is making a report on alternative food sources, that, while technically supposed to assure their survival, is going to kill Edward by means of its meandering length alone. He shoots a beseeching look towards Jopson, who is in charge of the refreshments, and then meaningfully points at his empty cup. It's only ten o'clock and it's Edward's fifth cup of tea already, but desperate times require desperate measures.

“While lead parties have observed the occasional seal, I am forced to conclude that we haven't, so far, been able to catch one. However, I'm positive it can only be a matter of time, although I do have to say, it boggles the mind how sneaky these little buggers can be. Nobody, I'm sure, could have predicted what happened to poor Mr. Pocock, bless his soul.”

There is a short silence, in which everybody contemplates poor Mr. Pocock. Everybody except Edward, who is occupied with thinking about how warm Jopson's body feels as he leans over his shoulder to fill Edward's cup. When Jopson moves away, his fingers brush against Edward's hand, absentmindedly, inconspicuously, but deliberate. The touch sends a tremor through Edward's body. Luckily, judging by Irving's sympathetic glance, it seems to be taken as appropriate shakiness brought on by memory of poor Mr. Pocock. Edward brings the teacup to his lips before anyone can look too closely at his face, and takes a quick, scalding sip.

“It's a shame there is so little birdlife in these parts,” Hodgson continues. “No species of gull seems to migrate so far up north and unlike on that other icy continent, there doesn't seem to exist some sort of penguin in the arctic. More's the pity.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Edward sees Crozier's expression snap shut. At the same time, he feels Jopson behind him go completely rigid. Edward winces. He loosens his grip on the teacup for one ill-considered second and winces again as hot tea spills all over his lap.

“This meeting,” Crozier snaps, a thunderstorm brewing between his eyebrows, “is over.”

Hodgson seems taken aback by the outburst, but Blanky and Irving, who are generally quicker on the uptake, are already jumping up and drawing back their chairs to clear their escape routes.

“Sir!” Hodgson tries. Edward is continually amazed at the man's lack of survival instinct. “I don’t understand -”

“Out.” Edward could swear there's steam coming off Crozier's head. “All of you. That includes you, Jopson.”

Edward not only is a capable officer, but also a very considerate friend. He shushes a spluttering Hodgson out of his chair and herds him out the door before the situation can venture any further into the unexplored territory of Crozier's more dangerous moods.

“What did I do?” Hodgson fixes his woeful gaze on Edward once they're safe, out in the companionway. “I merely observed the absence of penguins -”

The rest of his sentence is drowned out by the crashing noise of splintering wood from behind closed doors. It sounds like one of their good chairs made an intimate connection with the table, or maybe a wall. Hodgson turns pale. Edward puts on his best Reassuring-Superior-Officer face and claps a confident hand on his shoulder: “Better not to occupy our minds with things beyond our comprehension, eh? Carry on, there, there, that’s a good lieutenant.”

Hodgson shuffles off, muttering under his breath. Edward leans back against the door to his quarters and closes his eyes to let out a long-suffering breath.

“You have tea on your coat,” Jopson says. Edward startles. His head bumps against the doorframe. “Let me help you with that, Sir.”

Jopson is leaning against the wall next to him, standing much too close to even pretend to be appropriate. Edward eyes him warily. “Shouldn't you rather be looking after the captain?”

Jopson shrugs. “In a mood like this, he'll not want to see me for the rest of the morning. I'm sure there are better ways to spend my time than try to take care of a man who doesn't appreciate it.“ He adds a suggestive rise of his eyebrows. Edward swallows, but he lets Jopson's careful hands coax him away from the door and then into his cabin.

Edward has a moment of panic as Jopson works open the first couple of buttons of his coat. “What are we doing here?”

“I'm getting you out of your wet coat,” Jopson says evenly, but he stops his fussing at Edward's chest to look Edward in the eye. “Do you want me to stop?”

Edward has faced pirates and smugglers and warships and demon bears, but he has never felt as lost as this. The Navy is very much in favor of pirates and smugglers and warships, or rather the proper fighting thereof, and he's sure someone in Whitehall would be enthusiastically in favor of demon bears as well, or rather the proper vanquishing thereof, as long as they didn't have to it themselves. A symbol of the dominion of the Empire. Or something.

What the Navy is decisively not in favor of is sharing confidences with your captain's steward, or stealing surreptitious looks of your captain's steward when no one's looking, or getting weak knees at the thought of your captain's steward pressing his whole body against you until you're out of breath. Edward never wanted anything else except be a lieutenant. For a time, he thought he might even be a captain, one day, but the idea has rapidly lost appeal during their year in the ice. His whole life he's worked his way towards the epaulets on his shoulders and never once let his eyes stray from the narrow path. Stepping off it feels like stepping off a cliff: Insane, dangerous, but also a little bit exhilarating.

Edward takes a breath. “I don’t think so.” He flinches at the weakness in his voice.

Jopson's smile is kind. He lifts his hand to Edward's face and brushes a few errand strands off his brow. “Focus on my voice,” he says. His other hand is slowly working its way back to Edward's buttons. Edward concentrates on not hyperventilating. He doesn't dare look Jopson in the eye, for fear of losing what's left of his courage.

“Did you know that when we first got to van Diemen's land, back in '39, we called it birdshit island?” Jopson says. His voice is light and unassuming, as if he's talking to Edward over a cup of tea. He thumbs open the last of the buttons and gently slips the coat off Edward's shoulders. “It's a funny coincidence. I don't know if anyone ever told Commander Fitzjames.”

Jopson's fastidious hands have moved on to work on Edward's waistcoat. “There was a penguin colony counting more than 5000 individuals. The stench was indescribable.” He slips one hand beneath the waistcoat, beneath Edward's shirt and presses his hot palm against the flat of Edward's stomach. Edward draws a sharp breath. “Commander Ross was a great naturalist. He made us stay for a week, wading through shit to get him the best specimen.”

Edward feels lightheaded as Jopson's hands come to rest on his hips. His breath comes so fast that it looks like he's shivering, his eyes resolutely focused on a spot of rough grain on the ceiling.

“Look at me,” Jopson says. Edward looks at him. Jopson's eyes are luminous in his face, almost too bright to look at.

“Would it be alright if I kissed you?” Jopson asks. His hands are drawing slow, patient patterns at Edward's waist. Edward feels each little change in their position race along his skin like lightening.

It takes all of Edward's courage to say yes. The sound comes out incredibly rough, more like a grunt. But Jopson leans in and presses his soft lips against Edward's mouth, presses his slick tongue inside and cradles Edward's head with his hands to keep him from shaking.

***

“Did you know,” Jopson says, from his vantage point of mouthing a hot trail along Edward's inner thigh, “that penguins mate for life?”

“Nnngh,” Edward says.

“It's all very fascinating,” Jopson adds, before doing something interesting with his tongue that has Edward arch his back of his bunk.

***

Edward is 17, on shore leave in Portugal with the Sussex, when a couple of the older midshipmen take him along to a whorehouse, ostensibly to loosen him up. It’s certainly pleasant, and the girls are friendly, and one even makes him a nice cup of tea afterwards, but Edward really doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. Later, his mother keeps introducing neighborhood girls — of which there seems to be a surprisingly large number, considering they’re somewhere in the remote Middlesex countryside — and Edward makes polite chitchat to Bessy, and dances with Caroline, and carries Eleanor’s books. He’s secretly relieved when he gets a posting on the Dauntless and he can get to sea, where all that’s expected of him is to work hard, and sleep little, and no dancing is required. While his fellow crew mates get into trouble for drinking and sneaking girls, Edward gets promoted. He just figures he’s not the romantic kind.

In retrospect, Edward figures he was just really, really dense, as he comes all over Jopson’s hand and stomach.

Jopson’s face beneath him is flushed. He makes an impatient noise as Edward’s arms give out, effectively trapping Jopson’s hand, Jopson’s hard dick, beneath his weight.

“Sorry, sorry,” Edward murmurs, still dazed, and rolls off in one sticky, sliding motion. He’s pretty sure Jopson doesn’t mind the mess, because he makes a pleased sound at the friction and his eyes roll shut as he finally gets his hand moving. The long line of his throat curves with a sigh.

“You’re so beautiful,” Edward blurts. Jopson’s eyes snap open again. To Edward’s surprise he actually blushes. It’s a bit late to get self-conscious now, but Edward feels a responding flush creep up his neck. “I used to watch you all the time,” he shyly admits, “in the great cabin, in the wardroom. I must have been really obvious.”

“Yes,” Jopson hisses through clenched teeth, “you were.” His blush, improbably, deepens even more. “I saw you following me with your eyes from the moment we left Greenhithe. I thought you were one of those officers, at first.”

“Which kind?” Edward frowns, confused, but Jopson just paws at his arm with his free hand and says: “Nevermind, nevermind, would you just look at me, please.”

Edward is only too happy to oblige. Jopson has never looked more beautiful than this, all messed up and panting with lips bitten red. Edward’s not sure what to do with his hands, so he lightly pets at Jopson‘s shoulder, Jopson’s arm, Jopson’s chest. Jopson’s eyes never leave his face. It’s somehow more intimate than his hand on Edward’s dick had been.

“Can I touch your hair?” Edward asks and watches Jopson’s eyes go wide, his mouth slack. For a moment, Edward doesn’t know what’s happening and then Jopson makes a small, hiccuping sound and grasps at Edward’s hand as he spills.

***

Crozier resurfaces in the early afternoon, nonchalantly calm and smelling of whiskey, and, after some insistent briefing of Hodgson to not mention any kind of flightless fowl under any circumstances whatsoever, the meeting neatly continues.

“As for the great white bears,” Hodgson says and flicks an apprehensive glance towards Crozier, “we’ve tracked a female and her cubs, but we lost them in a snow storm and the cold forced us to retreat.”

Edward, who cannot remember what cold feels like, whose skin is alight with the burning memory of Jopson’s touch, his face burning with the scandalousness of it, buries deeper in his chair. Hodgson’s nervous eyes come to rest on him for a moment and Edward shifts to try and exude an air of supreme confidence in his second’s abilities. Edward is never sure he’s doing these things right, but at least Hodgson resumes his monologue and diverges into a tangent on the feeding habits of Grizzly bears in Alaska. Which has very little value for their situation, really, but which, Edward knows, is something a French trapper once told Hodgson in a tavern in Edinburgh and Hodgson likes to insert into conversations because he thinks it makes him look knowledgeable. It brings back memories of the time when Hodgson, drunk off his butt, had a Cambridge fellow convince him that the stuffed platypus in the halls of the Royal Society was a hack job achieved by sewing together pieces of a duck and a beaver, and Hodgson spent weeks trying to convince everyone he met of a “platypus conspiracy”, until Edward had to take him aside and tell him in no uncertain terms that people were beginning to think him strange. He makes a mental note to tell the story to Jopson later. His body perks up at the thought and an insistent heat pools low in his belly.

Hodgson must remember the platypus, too, because he stops his elaborations on the fauna and flora of the north-American continent and gravely intones: “I have this on good confidence. One must be careful with the information one receives. Just imagine, someone once tried to convince me of the existence of the ridiculous fraud called a platypus, but I am not as easily gulled as that.”

Edward’s mind is busy on a tangent of its own, occupied with delicious thoughts of how exactly he is going to impart the story to Jopson and which body parts might be involved, when his officer’s instincts kick in and direct his attention towards Crozier, who is rapidly taking on a peculiar shade of crimson.

In the absence of ideas himself, Edward searches for Jopson’s eye. Jopson’s face is the picture of wide-eyed confusion, which, Edward cannot but notice, is a rather fetching look on him, but he just shakes his head and shrugs imperceptibly.

“Can you imagine,” Hodgson goes on, visibly more confident now that he senses the room’s full attention on him, “an animal with a beaver’s tail and duck’s beak that supposedly lays eggs. How naive do these people think we are?” Judging by Crozier’s expression, naive is not exactly the particular term he has in mind.

“Thank you Mr. Hodgson, for your fascinating elaborations,” Edward loudly interjects, already drawing back his chair, at the same time as Jopson attempts: “Sirs, how negligent of me, it is already time for tea.”

In the ensuing confusion, Edward manages to get Hodgson up and out the door, before the expedition has to mourn the loss of yet another lieutenant. Secretly, Edward has always believed Hodgson to be the kind of dunce that would be better off remaining on dry land, but it’s not as if they have any spare lieutenants stowed away in the hull. Also, and Edward is more sketchy on this part, he uncomfortably feels like something of a friend.

Edward stops in the door for a moment and throws a look back. Jopson’s lean frame is bowed over the captain and he’s talking, low and insistent. That one stubborn lock of his hair has come loose and Edward watches Jopson tuck it back behind his ear in one unconscious, elegant motion. The gesture makes something in Edward constrict sharply. He has to hold on to the door frame for a moment. Maybe he also makes a sound, because Jopson looks up and their eyes meet across the room. Then Jopson smiles, genuine and sweet, just for a second, before he turns his attention back to the captain.

Edward ducks his head. He feels inexplicably light, as if the horrors of the past few months had been nothing but a heavy coat that Jopson’s clever fingers slipped off his shoulders with one swift motion.

As Edward turns towards the crew’s quarters, he’s surprised to find the urge to whistle coming on.