They say the first time one makes a mistake is an accident. The second, fourth, sixth times, however, matter. The way Jopson’s gaze lingers. His eyes are blue like porcelain; his gaze is just as fragile. Edward could break the eye contact to pieces. The slightest tremor of disapproval would be instantly noticed.
The problem is, he doesn’t disapprove of Jopson’s scrutiny. He’s intrigued by it. Pleased.
Gibson, when he attends him, keeps his eyes to the ground. Any steward would. Not Jopson.
Thomas Jopson, handpicked by their captain. An excellent fellow. Diligent. Sees to his duties promptly. He’s gracious, jaunty. But Edward knows men like him. Men who look their fill; who linger by the docks ogling officers, searching for quick coin, fast favours.
If he were off-duty…maybe, maybe. Jopson has a pretty face, a slim frame. Just his taste. But they serve on the same ship. Her Majesty’s. They cannot sully their assignment. Certain rules must be obeyed at sea.
Maybe Edward is mistaken, in any case. It’s wrong of him to accuse Jopson of such things. It’s his own hope; his fantasy. Jopson is honourable. Pure. Has an excellent reputation. Edward won’t take that away from him. Wouldn’t dream of it.
When he dreams, he dreams of London streets. Islington. The red-bricked house with the wisterias. The landlord who doesn’t ask questions. A shilling pressed into white-gloved hands. Third floor. A ready made bed. He would take Jopson there.
He imagines him yielding: not out of boredom, desperation, or lack of better company. Yielding for him. They’re strangers in this fantasy. All Jopson knows of him is their mutual want. His kisses are sweet like honeycomb. Edward takes him leisurely. He has the influence, the means to do so. Jopson’s hands above his head: Edward’s fist, clutching them. The flash of Jopson’s neck. His moans. His tightness.
The dream is too detailed to be safe, but it’s wrapped in silk. It’s unattainable. He wakes up in his narrow berth, aching, helpless. On a good night, he spends in his sleep. Most mornings, he waits until his desire recedes. He keeps waiting for it to go away entirely.
A year. It was summer when they sailed from Greenhithe; they spent the winter anchored by Beechey Island. Jopson uses the first wind of spring to hang laundry between the mizzenmast and the mainmast. The great white sheets are flapping about like the wings of a trapped seagull. Jopson dashes about, his shirtsleeves rolled up. That inch of bare skin foretells Edward’s ruin. He wants to strip him completely. Press a kiss to his wrists.
He doesn’t stop wanting him.
It’s September and he’s bold on wine, after the Erebites dined on Terror. He wonders if this is the night he will break. He’s in his dress uniform. The weight of the epaulettes is like angels sitting on his shoulders: don’t you dare.
He lingers in the passageway while Jopson clears the table. Watches him dart between the wardroom and the galley, burdened with dirty china and crystal glasses. He keeps sliding past Edward, first with a murmured apology, then he becomes more daring as the passageway empties: brushes past, not facing him, close enough that Edward can smell the soap on his skin. He grabs his hips. Jopson stills. Does not pull away.
Edward rubs the jut of bone there. His hands feel big and brutish on Jopson. He wants to be seen like that: crude, coarse; someone to be refused. He presses his groin to the curve of Jopson’s arse. He’s not hard. Not yet. “Is that what you want, then?”
He expects Jopson to deny it. Wants him to say: you misunderstood me.
“Yes, sir,” Jopson says. The glasses on the silver tray tremble. Edward measures their contents. They’re all drained. Jopson might have been expecting some drunk groping. Edward is not the kind of man who would do that.
“Come to me at midwatch’s first bell,” he says. “When I’m sober. I’ll be waiting in my cabin.”
“Very well, sir.”
Edward’s interest starts showing. He releases Jopson’s hips. Jopson stays near.
“If you don’t come,” Edward says, “there will be no consequences. I’ll leave you be and never mention this again.”
He can see Jopson’s profile. The smile that plays at his lips. “Understood, sir.”
“If you do come,” Edward presses, “there’s nothing to be earned. No payment. No favours.”
Jopson turns to face him. His gaze is as direct as ever; the appetite is clear in them. The pupils dilated. The flutter of his eyelashes. He parts his lips to speak, but Mr. Diggle is calling for him. Jopson gives Edward a parting look, a nod, and hurries away. His free arm is tucked behind his back. The tray is balanced on his fingertips. He’s exceptionally trained. It was never a mistake.
Edward splashes cold water to his face. He’s taken a walk on deck. Let the chill of the night rouse him. He washes thoroughly, same as he would any day.
He doubts Jopson will visit.
He half-wishes he wouldn’t.
Lust doesn’t give good advice. Jopson is bright: he might think over the offer, and decide it wouldn’t benefit him. There are too many risks. It’s not right.
But it’s only for a night.
Edward never promised anything more.
The dinner was good. It made him miss London. He wishes to finish with his usual dessert. Just a bite of self-indulgence so his head clears of hazy thoughts, and his ardour ceases to be a distraction. He’s a man: he must have his needs met, every so often, and rentboys are not presently available. He dearly loves to play with them. Always had.
He dresses in a dark sweater and waistcoat to match. Not strictly part of his uniform. He would never do this in navy clothes.
There’s a rasp on the door. His heart beats with it.
“Come in,” he calls, loud and clear, as if there were nothing to hide here.
Jopson enters, a candle in hand. The lamps are still burning: he must’ve thought of his way back. He stands, and waits for his orders. Edward sits down on the berth.
“Come hither,” he says, softer.
Jopson sets the candle down. The light fills the room. It’s strange, that light would be shining on this. Edward nearly tells him to extinguish it, but Jopson is undressing. He’s quick about it; efficient. The shoes, the socks, the trousers. He hangs his coat on Edward’s chair. The waistcoat is neatly folded.
Jopson is a curious man. Edward wonders what came first, his occupation’s required neatness or his tidy nature. Jopson is not here to discuss personal things like that.
He leaves his simple striped shirt on as he approaches Edward. It’s long enough to cover his dignity, but the line of his groin is unmistakable. How it presses against the cotton. Edward wants to ask, why me ? And how did you know ?
He offers his hand to help Jopson straddle his lap. Jopson smiles at him; squeezes his fingers. Edward thinks that maybe this is all Jopson needed to be this bold, to feel reassured: that Edward would offer his hand.
Edward wants to talk to him, but it doesn’t feel appropriate. Not when Jopson is unbuttoning Edward’s trousers. He’s not fully erect yet. He’s getting there.
Jopson handles him like he’s done this before; but of course. Spits in his palm, unashamed. Strokes him.
You could have chosen anybody, Edward thinks. Seduced them properly.
Then again: he didn’t even need to be seduced, did he?
He wants Jopson so much it pains him. Slips a finger under his shirt: laughs to find him wet and prepared.
“Meticulous,” he notes, voice so flat it could be just a remark, not a compliment. Jopson still glows to get it.
“I thought you would appreciate haste, sir,” he says.
“That’s correct,” Edward says, because saying you thought about me, about my needs would be ill-advised rambling. He penetrates him easily; Jopson bites his lips, eyebrows knitted, but doesn’t cry out. Edward watches his face and tries not to think about what he’s doing to him. Just to-night, he thinks. He said he wanted it. Consequences be damned. Be fast. Be quiet .
He’s relentless. It comes from a gentleness: he takes Jopson fast and rough because he doesn’t want to be selfish, to keep him around just for his pleasure, make a demand on his time, risk suspicion.
The noises are unmistakable.
He prays that the walls are thick enough. The way Jopson bounces in his lap, it takes willpower not to yell his pleasure. He keeps his hands on Jopson’s hips, keeps them from wandering. He fucks him promptly and thoroughly; spends within three minutes. He fights the force of his orgasm, which makes him want to clutch at Jopson, sob with relief. Kiss him.
He had what he wanted. They both have. He eases himself out swiftly, tucks himself away. Feels oddly empty. Jopson gets up on trembling feet. Fluid shines on his thighs. His cock is still erect. Edward reaches out, cups it in his hand.
“It’s all right, sir,” Jopson whispers.
It isn’t. Jopson is hot beneath his palm. It must be uncomfortable. He doesn’t deserve an undignified shuffle back to his quarters. A lonely wash by the basin. Edward strokes his cock, hears him whimper, and thinks, if he spends in it, he’ll just have to clean it.
He lifts the shirt wordlessly. Gets it out of the way. Bends forward, still sitting, and laps at Jopson’s length. Hears him whimper again. Smiles to himself, and takes him into his mouth. He really enjoyed when one of his rentboys did this to him. He hopes he remembers it well, so Jopson can relish it, too. Edward likes the taste and the weight of his cock, combs his fingers through the neat hair at the base.
This is not for him. His spent cock gives a twitch, but it’s dismissed for the sake of pleasuring Jopson. To hear him gasp, then taste his release. Watch him dress. Watch him leave.
“Goodnight, sir,” Jopson says. His face is flushed. It becomes him. He’s such a pretty thing.
Edward flops back in his berth, stares upward. Feels accomplished. Like he’s done well.
Last time, he thinks. Never again. Just something to remember.
Content warnings: power imbalance; consent is negotiated / heads up for canon typical gore and horror elements in later chapters, as well as major character death (the Terror being the Terror and all)
Many thanks to @heyktula for their beta work! Check out their fics here.
The title is from Lemony Snicket's Dismal Dedications.
Jopson is back the very next evening. Edward was not expecting him: he’s abed, dressed in his nightshirt, although his lamp is still burning. He dared not extinguish it. Not after the wardroom meeting.
“Do you suppose we’ll be beset in ice, sir?” Jopson asks, sliding the door shut.
Edward lowers the book he’s reading. Sir Drake’s memoir.
“Captain Crozier thinks we might,” he says. Sir John’s opposing opinion is left unmentioned. Their eyes meet. Their trust, their loyalties are clear.
“What a dreadful probability,” Jopson remarks, much disturbed, reaching to unfasten his collar. Edward watches him undress.
He didn’t tell him to stay away. Supposed he would. He should clarify his position at once.
The prospect of a ghastly winter lingers. Long, bleak nights; all the worse for knowing they would be solitary. His lamp would be burning past midwatch, and he would be buried in the past just so his mind wouldn’t linger on a horrid future.
Jopson slips under the covers. Edward sets the book aside. Reaches for him. An embrace is what he needs; the heat.
“I neglected to prepare,” Jopson confesses as he settles into his lap, facing away.
Edward’s palm rests on the swell of his belly. He should say: never mind that; let me just hold you fast. If comfort is what’s needed, we shall be like friends. I mustn’t breach your virtue any further.
His palm travels. A caress to the jut of Jopson’s bony hip. Lower. Searching for a soft place to bury himself. Lose his worries to the rapture of pleasure.
“May I use your thighs?” he whispers.
Jopson opens his legs, eager. There’s a scar just above his right knee. Edward traces it, gently, gently.
Six days. They listen to the groan of wood together, Edward lying on his back, Jopson curled over his chest. Edward is knackered from long days picking ice, the heavy swing of the axe; his throat is raw from shouting orders. His seed is cooling on his skin, but the bliss doesn’t linger. It was a glorious flare, over in a blink. Jopson’s soft gasp didn’t drown out the terrible sound of the ice pushing against the ship. Breaking it seems to be in vain: like the hydra, it regrows its wounded parts.
“Shall we go look?” Jopson whispers.
“I dare not,” Edward says. Holds him tighter. Jopson squirms, impatient.
“We could take a look,” he proposes, “and report.”
“Nothing to be done,” Edward says.
The weather won.
Jopson is late. He arrives with a bottle of rum. Edwards gets them glasses.
“To an extraordinary winter holiday,” Jopson proposes.
Edward raises his glass. “Winter.”
They drink in bed, half-dressed.
“Thing about the discovery service,” Edward says with the liquid wisdom of the last drops, “is that you go to places no one has ventured before; once there, you find out exactly why.”
Jopson laughs. It’s a lovely sound. Edward wishes to hear it again. He cannot think of anything entertaining to say, however. Downs his rum in silence.
“Merry Christmas, sir,” Jopson says, unfastening his trousers as he approaches the bed.
“Got something for you.” Edward feels artless and clumsy, holding the little bundle in his palm. Maybe it wasn’t appropriate; but nothing about this is appropriate.
Jopson sits on the bed in the nude. It takes much of Edward’s willpower not to caress the soft hair on his thighs, his chest. Jopson is at his most cuddlesome naked. “A gift?” he beams.
“Just a little something,” Edward clarifies. Makes a futile attempt to right his hair. It’s getting longer than he would prefer, but he trusts no man on board with scissors.
Jopson unwraps the slice of pudding sitting on Edward’s monogrammed handkerchief. “Oh!” he exclaims. “Could it be Lady Jane’s famed Christmas pudding? Ah, it is!”
“Saved you some,” Edward says.
“Even Captain Crozier praised it,” Jopson remarks with wonder, and takes a bite. His face changes; a groan of pleasure erupts from his throat, louder than Edward ever heard it. He clasps his hand over his mouth, and looks at him in awe.
“Hoped you’d find it appetizing,” Edward says shyly.
“It’s positively scrumptious, sir.” Jopson licks his fingers clean of morsels. “No wonder Commander Fitzjames asked for a second serving!”
“Did you see the dark look Captain Crozier gave him?”
Jopson chuckles at the memory. “Cannot fault the Commander: I have never tasted anything more lovely.”
“The man loves his pudding,” Edward says. Jopson hums in agreement. This is where the conversation usually ends: pleasantries exchanged, a bit of gossip, fragments of laughter, then silence, soon to be filled with stifled moans, staccato gasps; then Jopson will be gone. Edward frets with his hands. “What do you eat? Normally?” he blurts, then curses himself. What a tedious question! But Jopson obliges with an answer.
“Salted meats and the tins, same as the men, or whatever Mr. Diggle prepares.”
“At home?” Edward presses on. He wants to know Jopson’s habits, likes, thoughts, fancies. He doesn’t have the language to ask for them. Conversations are harder to navigate than a raging sea.
“I have beer and bread for breakfast,” Jopson lists fondly, “lunch, a second serving of bread, sometimes with a spread of jam; supper, a slice of ham, pickles, cake and cocoa.”
Edward regrets he asked. He thinks of red meat and fresh fruits: surely, they’re not such a rarity? “I reckon on Sunday you feast like a king,” he remarks, half-joking, half-hoping.
Jopson squints at him, conspiring. “On a good Sunday,” he says, “having received my payment, I prepare baked lunch: breadcrumbs, parsley and chopped onion fried in a pan. Tastes far better than whatever I serve for you officers!” He takes a pleased bite from the pudding, then adds thoughtfully, “Save from this , of course.”
Edward is despairing. To think that Jopson would prepare his own dinner: it’s unfathomable. He would be a fool to assume he has a cook, but a female relative? He has more questions now, none of which he can ask: does Jopson have a mother, sisters? Perhaps a wife and children—he never even inquired about that; how selfish, how thoughtless.
He’s so used to seeing Jopson in the wardroom he’s quite forgotten he doesn’t have a place at the table.
“How about you, sir?” Jopson asks. “How looks a lieutenant’s diet?”
“Call me Edward, please,” he answers, voice quite broken.
Jopson’s voice is gentle: “Tell me about supper, Edward.”
“I really miss strawberries and cream.”
Months of stillness. Time to move, now. Look for a way out. Edward supervises stocking the boats. He wears his slops. Overland gear. He isn’t sure he’s ready, but the walk will do him good. Gore and Le Vesconte dash about, Hodgson is looking for his men. There are hats waved, shouts heard. It’s easy to get lost in the bustle. Share a whisper.
“I shall be lonesome,” Jopson says, making a pretence of adjusting Edward’s collar.
“Think of me,” Edward says. “I’ll be thinking of you too; thus, our minds shall be joined.” He wets his lips. He prepared his parting words carefully; they feel stilted, silly. He wishes he could kiss Jopson.
Sir John sees them off with a rousing speech, and Captain Crozier doesn’t. Commander Fitzjames proposes three cheers. Edward watches him with warm esteem. He wishes to be like him: wishes for his boldness, his gusto for life. Edward is far more serious. He excels at giving orders, seeing them followed, but he doubts he could lead. Leaders are cut of a different cloth.
He suspects some similarities between himself and Fitzjames. He’s fairly certain he spotted him once at a molly house in Malta. It was difficult to tell, without the uniform. Without hardly any clothes at all.
There might be hope yet, for their kind. A respectable life.
The ice is treacherous under his feet. It’s solid, but gleams at slippery spots. The boat is heavy, but he takes to hauling easily. He hoped he would see more of the frozen world surrounding them, but with head hanging low, all he sees are the toes of his boots.
By the evening his patience is thin. He wasn’t made for such gloomy climate. Cannot make himself adjust to it. The bite of the cold is a constant nibbling. It chews through his muscles, his bones.
Dear Thomas, he thinks, as if he were composing a letter; although he cannot bring himself to call him by his Christian name, for Jopson using a more private address is to balance the difference of rank between them. Dear Mr. Jopson conveys no emotion. Dear, he muses, shivering in his lonely sack. Darling, dear. What could I say. This is a wretched land. I desperately hope for open waters. Sunshine in your hair. Your lovely skin, tanned. Can you swim, I wonder. I would teach you, once we reach O’ahu.
Twenty-five miles into the void. A sharp turn at a point that is not indiscernible from all the others. It is clear that the ice goes on forever. Twenty-five miles back. Summer, now. The snow glimmers. The sparkles are sharp. They hurt Edward’s eyes.
I would dearly love to kiss you, he thinks. It was wrong of me to part without a good-bye kiss. I would care not who sees us. I will kiss you in front of the entire crew. I do believe we never kissed before. Your skin, I have tasted; your lips, never. Your cherry lips, they an undeserved dessert. I will have the courage to taste them, I promise. Maybe you can taste something on me in turn, something you like.
The snow shines.
They reach Terror and Edward is blind. It feels like he has sand in his eyes. Keeps rubbing at them, until Dr. MacDonald stills his hands.
“You shan’t irritate them any further, sir. I suggest rest in a darkened room and wet compresses.”
Edward’s eyes are open, but the infirmary is veiled in a midnight fog.
“Will I see again?”
“I’m afraid it might be too early to determine,” Dr. MacDonald says, voice so purposefully reassuring that Edward becomes convinced he’s lost his sight for good.
He lies in his cabin and contemplates how he wasted his seeing days. Hardly a glance at a sunrise. Only looking for patterns on a starry sky. All the unseen art. Jopson’s smile he should have made sure to memorise, the exact shape of it.
Night is indiscernible from day. At one point, Gibson changes his compress and brings him a tin, which he sets down somewhere Edward can’t find. His watch ticks, uselessly: he cannot read the time from it.
A rap on the door startles him. He can’t remember falling asleep. Opens his eyes, and only sees black. Pitch-black like at the bottom of a well.
“Come in,” he says, voice hoarse.
“How are you?” Jopson inquires. His darling voice: Edward’s eyes fill with tears, hearing it. The compress soaks them up.
“I’m rather poorly, I’m afraid,” he says. “I’m so sorry.”
The floor creaking. A dip in the mattress. The warmth of a reassuring hand. “This should have been changed,” Jopson says, chiding, as he lifts the compress. “It’s hardly wet.”
Edward planned to say a thousand things. Planned to—
“I wanted to bring good news to you.”
“Lieutenant Gore’s party is yet to return.”
“Wanted to kiss you in celebration,” Edward adds, defeated. Jopson had been fumbling with something; he stops. Edward can feel him above him. Feel his hand cradling his face, his breath on his lips. A peck: he tastes like tea. A slow lick. The kiss deepening. Jopson doesn’t kiss him with pity. Edward was afraid he wouldn’t want him in this state. Jopson sups from his mouth.
“Let us get you fed,” he says, “let me change the compress, and then, if you wish, I can keep you company; but you should rest still: nothing too taxing.”
“How could I tire of this?” Edward says. “Your kiss is the kiss of life!”
Jopson laughs at his ardent outburst; it’s fond; he kisses him again, and Edward feels invigorated. The shadow of decay fades.
He can discern faint shapes when Jopson returns the next day. Edward lifts the compress to see. The sun is shining. Jopson sits on the bed, soothes the compress back, and tuts with an irritation Edward never heard from him before.
“It’s dry as bones. Tell Mr. Gibson that the compress should be changed every two hours. What a useless boy!”
“What happened?” Edward asks.
Jopson is silent. “News from Erebus,” he says at length. Stands, taking the compress with him to wet it in the wash stand. “I’m afraid,” he adds, “that Lieutenant Gore has passed away.”
“What!” Edward bolts up in bed. The thought alone makes him sick: how could it be? He was young, of robust health, smiling and red-cheeked.
“A party of Inuit have been brought on board.”
“Oh, he was murdered!” Edward searches for his gun, half-blind.
“It was an accident,” Jopson says. “It’s a father and his daughter; he died of his injuries—Sergeant Byrant shot him. Interrogations are ongoing.”
“If that Inuit girl—”
“Inuk,” Jopson corrects gently. Places the compress back over Edward’s eyes, and urges him to lie down. “Inuit is plural.”
“I care not what her people are called,” Edward growls, “she shall be kept under observation!”
“Trust Captain Crozier to see to that,” Jopson says. Arranges the pillow for him. Edward’s heart is beating rapidly, hastened with grief and panic. He feels so useless, bedridden, while savages—
(A girl, he thinks.)
“Where did you learn their language?” he asks begrudgingly.
“I can hardly say I speak it; I merely picked up a few words from Captain Crozier. I suppose we should learn how to say open water and help . Dr. Goodsir says it can be a good thing, that we found people who live here.”
“Sergeant Byrant shot her father,” Edward says.
Jopson is silent for a moment. “Well, there is that, yes.”
Edward closes his eyes. “What a mess of an accident.”
“In your prior engagements with the Esquimaux,” Edward says, not remembering whether Inuk or Inuit is grammatically correct, “did you find them at all...unforgiving, when those they love are wronged? Vengeful, even?”
Captain Crozier busies himself with his cup. “Having never wronged them, I couldn't testify,” he says with an easy air of swift judgement.
Edward tries to be tactful. Knocks on the table. He’s back in his uniform; his sight is restored; he keeps his back to the ports, but it is time he saw to his duties: protecting the men under his command. Protecting all.
“Are we not at all concerned that if that girl can make it all the way back to her people on her own, she may call on them for revenge?”
“Were we to put her down the fire hole as well?” Crozier asks, an eyebrow arched. It smarts; that he would think so little of Edward. He knows better than to take it personally; he knows Crozier has no patience for what he thinks to be negotiations, gossip, meddling. It’s neither: it’s caution, plain and simple. There are protocols that don’t include the unlawful execution of a non-prisoner, but which would still guarantee their now fragile safety, what with the weather, the wild men, the bear.
“The Esquimaux man's tongue was hacked off,” he says, urgent alarm barely concealed. “We don’t know why, say it was punishment. If that's how they punish one of their own, what must they do to—”
A knock interrupts his rising tone, and Jopson’s gentle voice, “Breakfast is ready.”
Jopson catches his gaze. Edward bites his lips; feels almost ashamed: he believes his judgement solid, or at least warranted, but the emotion reveals too much. He wishes to be brave in front of Jopson, but oh, Jopson has heard his whispers in the dark. Felt him clutch him closely. Heard him swear, if anyone should harm you, I—
“You have nothing to fear, Lieutenant,” Blanky says, passing him. “The girl’s people are far too busy staying alive to wage a war.”
Sir John dies not long after. He and Edward weren’t close. Sir John was no man of action. His stability was his best quality. Losing him is like losing his footing on deck, the jostle of the elements unexpected. Experience doesn’t help. Edward is well acquainted with death. The shock of it. How comprehension flees. How he has to keep reminding himself of the finality of Sir John’s absence.
At night, his door is unopened.
He seeks out Jopson after the funeral. He’s laying the table for breakfast, although all of them are too sick to eat.
“How are you faring?” Edward asks him, lingering by the entrance. Jopson’s hand flies up: he wipes his wet cheek. That’s an answer already. It’s Edward’s cue to close the door, step close.
“I had to rearrange the seating,” Jopson says, his voice rougher than usual. “When Lieutenant Gore died, I laid the table for him—a habit, a careless mistake. It shan’t happen again, but God, the menu.” He sniffs. Edward gets hold of his shoulders, rubs them. Jopson eases under his touch.
“What about the menu?” Edward asks. He keeps his eyes on the china in front of them. He feels like a ghost is sitting in Sir John’s seat. Watching.
“I don’t know what’s to be served; I’ve neglected to look up the menu arrangements on occasion of a captain passing—I never thought it would come to this!” Jopson wipes his eyes with his wrists. “I’m failing him at the only thing expected of me.”
“It’s not true,” Edward insists, pulls him into his embrace. “Don’t ever think of it. He’d appreciate your efforts; oh, just look.” Edward points, guiding Jopson’s attention away from grief and guilt. “The preserves: you would know his favourite.”
“Blackcurrant,” Jopson replies readily. “Mr. Hoar tells me it was his daily choice since Erebus had run out of plum.”
“See?” Edward rocks him reassuringly. Jopson opens his mouth to speak, but the door creaks open. He steps away swiftly. A secret look is exchanged. It does not escape Edward’s attention that when Jopson wipes his eyes again, it’s with a handkerchief monogrammed E.L.
His own heart is heavy. He’s distraught the entire day, uneasy. There’s an urgency to things, but nothing to be done: they’re still trapped in ice, now with a beast lurking about. He would suggest hunting parties, if he hadn't seen what the bear did. Best to let it pass in peace.
He finds himself seeking out Jopson’s usual places, to take comfort in the sight of him. It’s entirely selfish. Crozier commands the expedition now: Jopson is busier than ever. Edward watches him dash between the great cabin, the galley, the pantry. He finds him conversing with Mr. Gibson when dusk falls and the distance from him becomes unbearable.
“Soak it in saltwater overnight,” Jopson advises. “Change the water, boil it.”
“I'd always knew it’s been—” Mr. Gibson begins, but noticing Little, cuts off the sentence and greets him.
“Lieutenant Little,” Jopson says primly. “Mr. Gibson is in need of a new set of sheets, and a mattress, probably; may I have the key to the linen storage?”
Edward blinks. He’s not the man to ask. “Certainly,” he says, then with dawning understanding, “follow me.”
They make their way to the orlop deck. Jopson walks a few steps behind Edward. It smarts. If only he could lead him on his arm.
The key is acquired. The linen is stored on rows and rows of shelving. The door slides shut behind them. The only light is from Edward’s lantern.
“Apologies for stealing you away like this,” Jopson says. “I needed you, I’m afraid.”
“I need you too,” Edward says. Lets Jopson come to his arms. His weight presses against Edward’s chest; he can breathe again.
“I cannot get rid of the thought of death,” Jopson whispers into his neck. “It’s like an unpleasant scent that lingers. Sir John would want us to think of Heaven, but I’m not sure I can do that.”
Edward inhales the scent of Jopson’s hair. The closet stinks of naphthalene, but Jopson smells pure, clean.
“It’s suffocating,” Edward says. “Grief is.”
“To die like that.” Jopson grips him tighter. “I struggle to imagine peace after the horror of it.”
“I, too, hate to think of it. Hunted like prey.”
“He yelled for us. I keep hearing it. We came late. He died alone, not knowing if help was on its way—oh, Edward, to die so forsaken! No one should die like that!”
Jopson trembles in his arms. He’s clutching Edward’s coat so firmly he nearly tears it.
“I ran with all my strength,” Edward says, voice broken. “Slipping on the snow—we ran and ran—”
“I know,” Jopson pulls away to cup his face. He searches his gaze, then kisses him. It feels like absolution.
We ran and ran and did not reach him.
Jopson comes to him when it’s nearly morning. The rattle of the door frightens Edward: he’s locked the door and covered his looking glass. Superstition.
Jopson remarks on it when he’s let in. “Were you afraid of dead man walking?”
“I’m not scared of anything,” Edward mumbles, “provided I can shoot it.”
“Ah. Can’t shoot a ghost.”
“I’m afraid not.”
They idle in the tight space of the cabin, still on their feet: it’s unlike them not to tumble into bed immediately. Edward worries their routine will take a while to recover, now that their lives have been so violently altered.
“I’m yet living,” Jopson says. “Won’t you hold me, and feel it?”
Edward scoops him up into his arms. This is the only place where both of them are safe: in an embrace. Jopson puts his head over his chest, and hums, exhausted.
“I longed to listen to the beat of your heart,” he says. Copies the rhythm with the tap of his fingers. Edward puts his chin on the top of his head, and squeezes his eyes shut for a moment. Tears cling to his eyelashes.
“Where would I be without you, Thomas Jopson?”
November blows in with biting winds, but in the cabin, they’re safe from them. It’s afternoon, but Edward and Jopson are already entwined under the sheets. A stolen hour. There’s a birthday celebration a deck below. No-one’s around.
Edward rolls his hips, slow, just how Jopson favours. They’ve learnt how to make love; to shag; to fuck. They’ve been doing this for countless months, but there’s an endless variety to it, coupled with the comfort of familiarity. Edward slides deep into Jopson’s eager heat; the motion is habitual, the sensation, entirely novel. It feels as if he’s never known bliss before this. He pants into Jopson’s ears openly, lets him hear his grunts, his rough breath.
Jopson’s thighs are trembling, wrapped around his snapping hips, and he’s clawing at his sweat-slick back, feeling out the shift of hard muscles. Edward nuzzles his face, enjoying the burn of Jopson’s whiskers, then kisses his clean-shaven chin, his throat, caresses his chest: the hair is so soft there.
Jopson clenches around his prick when Edward’s hand brushes over a nipple: a reaction that was much anticipated. Edward teases him again, pinches it between two fingers, rolls, tugs until Jopson is squirming underneath him, face flushed and eyelids drooping. The sliver of blue framed by his dark eyelashes: like the dawn reflected on open waters, a clear sky ahead.
“Look at you,” Edward whispers, kisses his eyelids. “My beautiful boy.”
“Never look away,” Jopson pleads breathlessly. “Promise.”
Edward pulls the blanket up, so it covers them like a tent. His feet gets exposed to the chill of the room, but it’s worth it for the privacy of the soft shadows. No-one else can look at Jopson. They’re safe here, in the fortress of their making, as close as two human beings can possibly be.
“You have my word,” Edward says, rocking into him vigorously. He slides a hand under the small of Jopson’s back to lift his hips, change the angle, have him bite back screams. The blanket collapses on them: they end up tangled in a cocoon of softness and heat. Jopson laughs, rolls them around. Straddles Edward’s hips and sinks down his arching prick, Edward bound fast by his own bedding. He grins, makes a futile attempt to wiggle himself free while Jopson rides him tirelessly. How thrilling it is to see him like this: smiling freely, head thrown back, the rise and fall of his chest, the bob of his heavy cock. Edward will need to get his hands unbound, touch Jopson, caress him how he deserves to be pleased.
A violent jolt shakes the room. Jopson falls forward, catching himself on an elbow. Edward’s breath hitches, a gasp of sudden panic. The berth is tilted.
“What on Earth,” Jopson whispers, panting still. “Did you do that?”
“The ice,” Edward says, trying to compose himself. “It’s pushing us up the pressure ridge.”
Jopson blinks. “When will it stop already?”
“No telling that.” Edward worries his lips and gives Jopson an apologetic little jab. “We might have to move to Erebus soon.”
Jopson furrows his brows; he’s not pleased by the thought at all. “How soon?”
“We’d take volunteers first so as not to overtax the flagship; I’ll have to discuss it with the Captain.”
“Do you need to go?”
“That can wait until the meeting, but I better get measurements taken of the ice as soon as possible.” Edward kisses his frowning face, rolls his hips. “Come back to-night; we’ll continue from here.”
Jopson rises to his knees, head hanging mournfully as he lets Edward slip free, both of them still hard and aching. It breaks Edward’s heart to see him go like this. “I could pull you off,” he offers, but Jopson waves it away. He combs his hair back with his fingers, and smiles at Edward, almost bashful.
“Pay it no mind; I can wait. See to your duties, dear.”
“Kiss us good-bye?” Edward begs.
“I will kiss you see-you-soon,” Jopson says, pecks his lips. Edward kisses him deep, and cannot resist gripping his little bum, sliding a finger back inside. Jopson is open and wet for him: how cruel, to leave him like this, his desire unfulfilled!
“To-night,” he whispers against his smiling lips.
He thinks of a way to compensate for Jopson. He thinks about it in detail, so he has to keep his journal in his lap to conceal the effect such thoughts have on him. The lieutenants are assembled in the wardroom. Jopson goes around filling glasses, as if he were trying to summon Crozier, who is late as ever. Jopson looks so smart in his coat. He could leave the coat on, if Edward were to bend him over the desk. Jopson so likes to be taken from behind.
Irving checks his watch rather pointedly, then snaps the lid shut.
“Shall I fetch the Captain, sir?” Jopson offers, polite as ever.
“I wouldn’t want to bother him; he must be otherwise engaged,” Irving says in a tone that sounds as if he’s trying to convince himself. “I just have a rather pressing report on the tins.”
“Pressing how?” Hodgson ask, much concerned. “Do they still turn up spoilt?”
“I’m afraid so; they used some new kind of process on the solders at the factory, you see.”
“Blast it,” Edward contributes to the conversation with a grunt. Jopson’s lips twist, but he conceals his smile swiftly.
“I’ll only be a minute,” he says and bows to the room. Edward likes the way he moves: he walks with great purpose and efficiency, nimble on his feet and silent as a shadow. Edward stops himself from staring after him too obviously.
“Have you felt the ship tilt?” Hodgson chats. “I nearly spilled my tea.”
Edward hums, not willing to share his own experiences.
“But Erebus is steady, yes?” Irving asks.
“Mr. Reid reports it is,” Edward confirms.
“I do not fancy berthing over there, I must confess,” Hodgson muses. “I’m a man of habits. Although logic counters it, I feel safer here.”
“I do wonder if I’d sleep better over there,” Irving says. “Late at night sometimes I hear a berth creaking and muffled groans, like a sick man struggling with nightmares.”
Edward pretends they’re not neighbours.
“It’s probably the ice,” Hodgson suggests. “It makes such eerie noises! It almost sounds human.”
A scream rings in the air.
Edward is on his feet within a blink.
“Stay,” he barks at the lieutenants, and rushes towards the stern. There’s the sound of bullets. It cleans his head. He’s in his element.
He steps on the deck, and walks into a nightmare.
Private Heather’s skull is cracked clean open. Sergeant Tozer kneels by his side. The injury is beyond gruesome.
“Mr. Armitage, what do you report?” Crozier asks, rushing towards them.
“He’s still breathing,” Armitage says.
Edward’s stomach drops. He’s staring at something he cannot comprehend. This was not done by an animal. It looks deliberate.
He’s aware of Jopson’s presence. He wants to shout at him to turn back. Challenge Crozier for bringing him.
It’s snowing. The fresh snow will swallow the creature’s sounds. Visibility is low. The ground is treacherous.
“It’s come onto the ship, Edward,” Crozier says, voice hushed. Of course. Edward needs to take a deep breath, and he cannot even exhale it before there’s another yell, another dead.
“It got Strong! William Strong, sir! It took him! We heard someone yelling for help out on the ice—”
It’s snowing and the world is a blur.
“Go below,” Crozier orders. There’s whisky on his breath. “Get thirty men into slops as quick as you can.”
Edward nods and marches away as fast as his legs will carry him without running. Officers shan’t be seen running in an emergency. It leads to panic.
“Have Mr. Armitage open up the armory. Shotguns to half.”
Edward gets Mr. Edgar, and they move below, heart beating in Edward’s throat. Before they close the hatch, he hears Jopson say, “Maybe it wants us to follow it, sir.”
He’s right. Edward knows it in his heart he’s right. He cannot linger on it. Thirty men. Armory. Shotguns. Those are the orders.
His thoughts are muffled by snow.
It’s come onto the ship, Edward.
Jopson is on the deck. Same as the creature. He must turn back.
Crozier’s with him , he tells himself. Crozier’s drunk. Still drunk, or drunk again, because he was just like this yesterday, he’s—
He’s the captain. He gave us all orders. We must follow them.
He feels like he’s moving through a blizzard.
Maybe it wants us to follow it.
It uses dead things for bait. Same as hunters. There’s a method to it. The killings are staged.
A trail of blood led to a tunnel in the ice.
Time to go down the firehole.
Thirty men, and him.
Shotguns. They might need silver bullets.
The lights paint the snow green. They make an awful sound, like dead birds whistling. Edward sets out with his search party, feeling like they’re made to walk on the moon’s surface. The landscape is hostile, foreign. Their lanterns reveal bizarre shapes. Nothing is moving. The sky sings its terrible requiem.
The creature is nowhere.
Edward keeps his finger off the trigger. They’ve murdered the Inuk man. They might’ve brought this curse upon themselves. If something stirs, he shan’t fire. He’ll have to look first.
That’s what he dreads: the looking.
He would rather not know what it is.
The marines, Gore’s party, all said it’s a bear.
Edward has hunted bears.
They’re not silent. Not subtle.
There’s no way of knowing if Jopson is safe back on the ship, if this thing just quietly creeps.
Edward mustn’t ever sleep again.
The watch will need to be doubled. Tripled.
He tenses every time somebody so much as coughs. He anticipates each noise, each stir to be a dying scream.
They walk around for hours and find nothing. He keeps circling the ship. He wants to shoot the thing. Wants to see if it can be shot. Too late. It escaped. It knows where they live. Where it can find fresh meat.
It doesn’t eat its victims.
What does it eat?
Jopson is pouring the re-heated contents of the tins onto plates, to be served to Crozier and Fitzjames. Edward sits by the stove, soaking up the warmth. He’s not the only one with this idea. There are men all around. Still, he speaks: addressing the room, knowing Jopson will hear it.
“Do you know why this ship is called Terror?” he asks. “She’s strong, and she has strong men in her service. There’s nothing to fear. She’s the most frightful thing you’ll ever see.”
There are grunts of aye , a few cheers, nods, relief. Edward sits hugging his knees, so nobody can see he’s trembling. He’s in full uniform. He’s armed. He’s ready.
Some Erebites came over to Terror to visit. Doctors, most importantly. Fitzjames. If he could talk some sense into Crozier—
Well: no need for that. The tragedy is this: Crozier is the most capable sailor among them, he’s sensible, pragmatic, rational. Edward always respected him, unquestioningly. It’s clear now that his leadership could have saved them all. But now—
Jopson got three bottles of whisky from the pantry. Edward watches the dull glint of their glass as Jopson struggles to arrange them on a tray. Heavy drink, whisky is. Edward used to like it. Now the scent just makes him sick.
He wishes he could keep dinner down. He’s sorry to waste it, considering Irving’s report on the tins, but it goes down his seat of ease, and he cannot help it.
He covers the looking glass again and brushes his teeth.
He shan’t let nerves get the best of him.
He’s not a man of nervous disposition.
It’s just that he spent eighteen months on half-pay before the expedition, the better half of it in a nice house by the sea owned by his family with a discreet female relative who told him that everything was all right and gave him morphine until he stopped talking of the dead sailors who followed him home.
In that house, Edward had become convinced that he was never meant to look at such thing as, say, a man cut in half whom Mr. Hickey discovered on his watch, and whom Edward is now called to help carry, except the man’s guts are spilling so Edward has to go and fetch a stretcher. Edward was made to look at birds there, and squirrels, until he got fed up with them, and fed up with morphine, how dull it made him, and went back to London to visit concerts and pick up rentboys from Picadilly, pay them well and fuck them well, and there was tobacco and whisky, too much of it, and then the threat of another nervous episode, simply because he was bored, and he missed the sea wretchedly and hated being so useless and idle, a burden to society and himself.
Dr. MacDonald tells them that Mr. Strong wasn’t cut in half after all, because the lower part is Mr. Evans. Right then Edward is glad he got rid of dinner already. Bile rises in his throat just the same.
Suggestions are made to interrogate the Inuk girl, who might have more insight into the matter. Such matters, it bears remembering, as what goes around in these lands cutting men clean in half with its claw and building a new corpse from the bodies. Edward has read a similar novel, but he is not going to mention fiction. He needs to believe they’re still operating by the rules of reality.
He talks of the footprints instead. None human. Just a bear with enough craft and cunning to kill them one by one in an increasingly creative fashion. If he had a moment to collect himself: that’s when he would crumble. A moment to think, and his sanity would flee.
So he does not think.
He follows orders.
He follows Crozier when there’s shouting heard from the forecastle and it’s discovered that Mr. Hartnell, Mr. Mason and Mr. Hickey took it upon themselves to complete Edward’s mission and collect Lady Silence. Chaos like that makes sense. Disobedience. The Articles of War broken.
Edward is present at the interrogation, and sees to it that proper protocol is followed, because nothing else makes sense right now. His hands are curled into tight fists. His fingers twitch. His head hurts, vaguely.
“I do not believe it’s an animal we battle,” Mr. Hickey says.
“Yes, Mr. Hickey,” Crozier replies, exasperated. “We know.”
This is the worst day of his life. An endless night.
He and Jopson should go to the house by the coast, overlooking a liquid sea. Live there in an utter, complete ignorance of geography.
He’s sent to inform Mr. Johnson about the punishment. Sidesteps the men holystoning the deck. Jopson is, of course, not among them.
All hands are assembled to witness the lashing. Mr. Mason and Mr. Hartnell, he feels for. It’s clear who was the main conspirator. He has no sympathy for Mr. Hickey. A new crime is added to his wrongdoings. Edward stands at attention. Doesn’t stir.
He understands why Crozier does it. Insubordination didn’t disturb Mr. Hickey. Pride like that must be thwarted.
Mr. Hickey makes a face at that. He looks betrayed.
He’s stripped of his underwear, bent over the bench. The cat o’nine hits his flesh. Edward doesn’t flinch.
He’s not like me, he thinks. He’s nothing like me.
Jopson is staring at the ground. Edward cannot read his expression. That’s good. They shouldn’t be looking at each other, but Edward wants to say, to promise, there’s nothing to fear.
Order is restored here.
He stands with his cap under his arm. What time is it? Late at dawn.
Mr. Hickey tries to breathe through the pain. It’s in vain.
Edward doesn’t feel present in his body.
Fitzjames glances at Crozier with worry. “Again,” the captain says. The captain’s word is sacred. There’s nothing else to rely on anymore.
Fitzjames’ eyes are pleading. Crozier doesn’t look at him.
Mr. Hickey’s not like us, Edward thinks, and struggles to explain why not. There’s the question of rank.
He glances at Jopson again, and sees him tied to the bench.
He knocks on the frame of Jopson’s door. He doesn’t come here, usually. It would be too suspicious, to seek out the captain’s steward in person. After the day they had, he’s certain nobody will question it. Jopson is part of the crew. Part of the system. News must be exchanged. If anyone should doubt his reputation, he’ll say—
Oh, God. When did he start telling lies?
He pulls apart the curtain. Jopson is making his berth. He looks exhausted. Edward wants to brush the shadows away from his face. He steps inside; he feels too big for this narrow place. He locks gazes with Jopson. Crozier is right next door. He’s just getting reports.
“Should somebody find out,” Edward whispers, so softly he’s not sure Jopson can hear him, “if they do, say I’ve threatened you.”
“Edward,” Jopson scoffs. Steps closer, says in an urgent whisper, “Nobody would believe that. You’re a good man.”
“Tell them I made you,” Edward insists. “I’ll confess to it.”
Jopson takes his hand in his, squeezes it. Nods, gently.
“All but ten volunteered to berth on Erebus. Terror will be empty soon. Fewer witnesses, but movement will be far more noticeable. We’ll have to be cautious; on alert, with every step.”
Jopson nods again. Edward presses his forehead to his. Cradles his nape. He’d love to kiss him, but his mouth tastes bitter and awful. He nuzzles his face instead. Says, “I know I promised to take care of you to-night.”
“It’s quite all right,” Jopson says. “Later.” His accent is more prominent when he’s tired. Deep, gluttal. He’s North; Edward is East; strange, that they could ever meet.
“I have a house by the sea,” he tells him. “Birds sing every morning. There are little creatures there, hedgehogs, squirrels, no...wild beasts. There’s sunlight. When this is over, I’d like to take you there.”
Jopson hums, eyes closed. They rock together, as if all this was a lullaby.
Dream with me, Edward pleads wordlessly. Please, I need it.
“Strawberry and cream, every morning,” Jopson says. “Butter on bread. Sugar in our tea. You and me.”
“I’ll take you there,” Edward says. “Whatever comes next, this is how it ends.”
Content warnings: temporary loss of sight / period typical racism / brief mention of vomiting / canon typical gore
Chapter 3 will be published next Thursday! See you then 💖
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The bottles clink together in the trunk, a shameful ring that makes Edward quicken his steps through the ice. Sixteen bottles, not so much requested as stolen from Erebus. Edward tries to tell himself they aren’t the sole justification of their perilous visit. It’s minus fifty-two degrees; the sun hasn’t risen in three weeks; if they undertook this mission for alcohol alone, he shall burst into tears. He hopes Captain Crozier will take interest in the welfare of former Terrors; that he’ll be eager to hear the ice report of Mr. Reid; if all else fails to interest him, there’s a surprise on the way.
“Terror,” Lady Silence says and points to the faint lights blinking in the distance, a ghost ship that Edward came to think of as home.
“She’s in a rather sorry state, isn’t she?” Dr. Goodsir chats.
Lady Silence points at the ship they just left. “Terror.”
“Oh, no. See, that’s Erebus.”
Lady Silence is clearly displeased with the answer.
“She’s very talkative,” Edward notes through the chatter of his aching teeth. “Considering.”
It hurts to breathe.
“Terror, Erebus,” Goodsir says, gesturing ahead and back. “Goodsir, Little.”
“Leave me out of it, please.”
Lady Silence’s frown deepens. “Little?” she asks.
A chill runs up Edward’s spine. She indicates his height.
“When did you teach her my name?”
“I’m just trying to explain that Terror and Erebus are not words, but names—oh dear, I made it confusing.”
“Little,” Lady Silence says and pokes Goodsir in the chest.
“Yes, I am; Lieutenant Little is rather big and tall, however. I understand your problem.”
They behave like children. They’re giggling and pointing and talking their secret language, as if they were not being marched through a dark ice field by armed marines. Edward has the urge to call for appropriately solemn behaviour, but who is he to damper their mood? He hasn’t heard laughter save for his own and Jopson’s in over a month.
“I’m relieved you came with her,” he tells Goodsir.
“It’s my pleasure, really.”
“She’ll be glad of it.”
He thinks of the sickening love tokens the men left her, despite Fitzjames’ threats of discipline. Will Crozier be able to offer the protection a lady visitor deserves, in his present taste? Sixteen bottles. Hard liquor.
They’re all doomed.
The conversation between Lady Silence and Goodsir shifts to her own language, then dissipates. They walk in silence for a while. There’s just the sound the ice makes. Edward listens for the creature, roars and heavy steps.
There’s a soft thud instead.
Mr. Hornby’s heart has stopped.
“Put a bullet in my head before I drink gin!” Crozier snarls, takes a swig of the last of his whisky. Edward nods softly, accepting his fate. They carried the cargo in vain. He’ll have to lead the men back through that deadly weather, risk their very lives just to slake the captain’s thirst. Orders are orders.
He catches Jopson’s eye before he enters, quickly averts his gaze. Jopson knocks on the doorframe wordlessly, walks in balancing a tray of tea. The china is shaking ever so slightly, but the tremor of his hands is not visible, not yet.
“Ah, Jopson!” Crozier greets him with surprised joy, as if he’s quite forgotten he called for him, even though it hasn’t been a minute. Jopson doesn’t reflect his dizzy cheer: he all but slams the tray down.
“Mr. Hornby’s dead,” Crozier slurs. “As Mr. Helpman is on Erebus, would you be so kind as to collect Mr. Hornby’s personal things and put them in store for his family? Find out who his best mate was and give that man Mr. Hornby’s tobacco.”
This is the most horrific aspect of Crozier’s ailment: he still gives competent orders. There’s the sliver of something thoughtful, caring, a glimpse of the man they were so ready to follow into the unknown, but his capability is a mere mirage now. He sways on his feet, frets and grins, half-dressed and sweating. There’s something obscene in the way he carries on: men with lesser responsibilities would hide away in shame.
“Consider it done, sir,” Jopson says smoothly, stepping up to stand near Edward, just out of reach. Edward wants to hold onto him. They’re the closest to Crozier, and so they suffer his moods the worst. Jopson heads out to see to his duties, as if their little command team still had a chance to run this ship, but Crozier calls after him.
“Would you recall how much whisky is left in my stores?”
“Two bottles, sir.”
“Bring them up.”
Edward worries his lips, keeps his gaze fixed on nothing. Two bottles only: Crozier blazed through the stores like a forest fire. Edward is not prepared to see what happens once all the whisky is gone.
“That's your clock,” Crozier says, fixing him with a stern glance as he steps closer. “See it doesn't run out.”
Edward nearly chokes on Crozier’s fumes; he did nothing to be treated so.
“Yes, sir,” he says, sharp and sullen. Crozier doesn’t even comment on his flippancy. Edward is ought to be reprimanded for using that tone with his commanding officer, making faces; he should very well be slapped, but Crozier doesn’t even care for appearances any longer. Nobody can respect him any less than he respects himself.
Edward is heartsick for him. He wants nothing more than to welcome him back in his esteem. He would forgive everything. Every day, he dreams of stepping into the great cabin and finding Crozier busy and neat, clear-eyed and pale-faced; he lingers by the doorstep, hoping, but then he steps into reality.
He traces Jopson’s way to Crozier’s stores. It’s forbidden territory: no-one but the captain’s steward is allowed access. Crossing the threshold feels like sacrilege, but Crozier had given up his privileges: Edward should be forgiven this small act of trespassing, when the captain himself has no regard of rules or decorum.
“He scares me,” he tells Jopson, who’s tugging a crate out from under the shelving.
“He’s not being himself,” Jopson says softly. Edward bites his lips, leans against the closed door. Stripes of light stream through its lattice window, and nothing more: the cramped place looks and feels like a confessional.
“Is it not true,” Edward speaks slowly, “that alcohol reveals a man’s true character?”
Jopson smiles at him, gets to his feet. There’s dust on his shins and knees.
“It’s not who he is,” he repeats.
“I wish I had your faith,” Edward says. “I do want to believe in him, desperately.”
“He’ll come to his senses,” Jopson says with confidence, cradles the crate. The two bottles left in it clang together. More dust smears over his jacket.
Edward takes the crate from his gloved hands. “I’m to fetch the Lady Silence for questioning at tea, then I’m back to Erebus,” he says, sets the whisky aside on an empty shelf. Makes an attempt to pat the dust off Jopson’s clothes.
“I don’t think you should be sent out in this horrid weather,” Jopson says, much upset. “I heard word Lieutenant Le Vesconte lost his toes, and there are men who lost more.”
Edward scoffs and squats to dab at Jopson’s knees, mindful of the old injury. “I’ll bundle up,” he promises.
“It struck Mr. Hornby down, didn’t it? The cold.”
Edward’s hands still. “Yes.”
“Oh, Ned, please don’t go,” Jopson begs. His voice is broken: he’s all too aware that his request is futile. Edward buries his face between his knees.
“Can’t pick which orders I follow.”
“Just delay it. Sometimes he forgets what he asked.”
“Won’t forget his whisky.”
“Does he want to—borrow from Captain Fitzjames’ stores?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Captain Fitzjames may yet intervene.”
Edward groans. Jopson bends down to pet his hair in reassurance. Edward kisses the inseam of his trousers. “Wouldn’t do to conspire,” he mumbles. “I promise to take care.”
God, he misses him. He misses his scent, his heat, his company. As the ship emptied, so did their bed. There had been scarcely any opportunity to be together. A few brushes of hands, stolen kisses, memorable tumbles in a shadowy corner. Edward is thinking of writing love letters again, but this time, he would deliver them. The danger, however, is far too present. He nuzzles Jopson’s crotch, licks at it. Jopson’s hand in his hair tightens into a fist.
“You’ll have to be very provident for me, Ned,” he says softly. “I would like to dress you myself, if we find the opportunity.”
“We’re at odds, then. I’d like to get you naked.” Edward laps at his cock again through the thick layers.
Jopson yanks at his lank locks, guides him closer. “I’m expected,” he whispers even as he rubs himself over Edward’s face.
“Then we better hurry.” He unbuttons Jopson’s trousers, unfastens the braces: the motions are swift, practiced. He could do it in complete darkness. He marvels at the stripes of light crossing over Jopson’s heaving stomach, his bony hips and pink cock, revealed. Edward breathes on it, sorry to expose such a delicate thing to the chill of the storeroom. It’s half-erect already. He takes it into his mouth, sucks on it until it grows fully hard on the roll of his tongue.
Jopson is panting softly above him, pushing his knuckles into his mouth to silence himself, the little hitches of breath all the encouragement Edward can get: he, who used to make Jopson moan and plead. He’s yearning for those noises, but won’t gamble with their secret. He’s listening for footsteps as he bobs his head, Jopson’s hand clutching his hair.
“Want you inside,” Jopson whispers, winded.
Edward lets his cock slip free, spit-wet and heavy against his tingling lips. “Your absence will be noticed,” he says hoarsely.
“Please,” Jopson says. “We’ll be quick, won’t we, I just—it’s not the same when I do it to myself, wishing you to be there; please, just fill me up, Ned, let me feel you again.”
Edward palms himself through the uniform’s tight trousers, ears ringing as he thinks of Jopson, alone in his berth, slick fingers working his arse open.
“You had my prick in you just five days ago,” he teases with affected self-assurance as he rises to his feet.
“Five days: an eternity,” Jopson complains. “And ten before that, don’t forget.”
“Are you lonesome?”
“Poor Tom.” Edward turns him towards the shelves and unbuttons his trousers. Jopson braces himself, pushing his bum out. He’s become shameless: Edward loves to see his need, loves to indulge it. He spits into his hand, slides in a finger. “In our little house by the sea,” he murmurs into Jopson’s ear, “you will wake next to your Ned each morning, and you can have your fill right away, before your breakfast beer.”
“I think I shall quit drinking,” Jopson says, gripping the shelf tighter. “Once I served rose lemonade: it was so sweet, ah, I still remember the taste—I’ll have that, and have you, every morn. What a treat that will be!” He gasps again; it’s more pleased than pained, but Edward wouldn’t dream to harm him even a trifle. He looks around on the shelves, spots a bottle of oil.
He shouldn’t. It’s the captain’s.
Then again: he’s already knuckles-deep in the captain’s property.
He gets the oil, removes the cork with his teeth. His gums ache, faintly. He pours a generous amount over his fingers, wets his prick with it. Jopson is wiggling impatiently: his keen little dance is a familiar sight—he does this when he cannot wait to be breached, arching his back and offering his wanton arse. Edward gets a good grip of his hip, guides him onto his hard prick until Jopson is sated. He feels him ease, sigh with gratitude, relief.
Edward drives into him, grinding in deep, rutting up into his heat. He goes to his tiptoes for leverage, puts his whole weight into it. The shelves shake. He needs to grab one with an unoccupied hand, his palm covering Jopson’s whitening knuckles, their fingers intertwined.
He kisses Jopson’s nape. A possessive urge tells him to bite it. He fights the instinct, but the desire is far too overwhelming.
This is what fucking the captain’s daughter must feel like. His son. Any sailor’s most degraded but most precious ambition. Jopson is not his to keep. He’s claiming him anyway. Jopson wants him. Jopson will come and live with him, once they escape this hell. They have a life ahead, to be shared. They have a future.
Edward pulls out, overwhelmed.
“Don’t,” Jopson says. “I want your seed in me.”
“It’s going to be a long day,” Edward warns him weakly.
Jopson looks over his shoulder, blue-green eyes blown black. “May I have it, please?”
How could Edward resist? He’s not to blame: Jopson knows exactly he cannot say no, when he’s asked so prettily. Jopson has better manners than anyone aboard, than many gentlemen Edward has met: it is but a matter of circumstance and blood he’s not part of polite society, for he has such excellent bearing. Edward bites his nape and spends inside, a ruffian himself, his breeding wasted in the face of Jopson’s gentle request.
He drops to his knees, down in the dirt, his uniform sullied, and pries apart Jopson’s cheeks. He laps at the fluids, making him writhe.
“Oh my!” Jopson gasps, grasping his bobbing cock.
He twists and pulls in time with the swirls of Edward’s tongue, who whispers against his wet skin, “Just cleaning you up.” He blows at his reddened hole, kisses it deep. Jopson’s breath catches as he climaxes, trembling all over. Edward gives a satisfied smack to his arse, then gets a handkerchief to tidy him up properly.
“I made a mess,” Jopson whispers, awed that he would have such power.
There’s a bounce in Edward’s step as he goes to fetch their guest. The bear could be with her, and Edward would defeat it bare-handed.
He delivers her late: Dr. Goodsir is already in the great cabin, but no one remarks on the delay. Jopson looks masterfully presentable, the pretty blush of his cheeks indistinguishable from the frostbite marking it. His face is a serious mask as he offers tea to Lady Silence, bowing deep, hands held most elegantly. He doesn’t flinch when she refuses with the polite headshake of a woman who would rather sip arsenic. Edward briefly wonders what the Inuit drink, then he thinks of rose lemonade and has to swallow a smile.
His good mood lasts until Crozier sets down his empty cup and glares at him sharply. There must have been whisky in it: Edward’s clock is ticking, his mission for the bottles far from forgotten. He hangs his weary head, regretting that he won’t be able to oblige Jopson and stay safely put; but he supposed it would be so. His presence is required for the questioning, even though he doesn’t speak the Inuit language. He’ll have to set out late. It’s colder in the evenings. He cannot imagine anything colder than minus fifty-two degrees.
Crozier begins the interrogation: to the point, motioning a stalking predator. There’s some confusion over Lady Silence’s answer: she names the monster. The ice groans and they all shiver.
“Do you know the word, Mr. Blanky?” Edward asks carefully.
“It’s similar to a Yupik word I know from Russian America,” Mr. Blanky says. “‘Tuunraq.’ A spirit.”
“Spirit?” Edward repeats.
Blast it to hell. At least he was allocated some fleeting happiness before he learnt that ghosts were indeed real. The knowledge is too dreadful: his mind refuses to process it.
“That may not be her meaning,” Crozier rushes to say, alerted by the expression on Edward’s face.
Mr. Blanky adds, “A spirit that dresses as an animal.”
It comes to the ship again as if called; as if it can sense the violence, the dissonance between their captains, the insults exchanged and Crozier’s punch, catching Fitzjames square in the jaw.
If it’s a spirit, it cannot be harmed. Edward knows this as he mans the gunroom, distributes rifles. But it wears the meat of a bear. Maybe it can be hunted. It’s their best chance.
He storms the deck with the others. There’s a blizzard blowing. They hide under a canvas, slowly advancing, listening to Mr. Blanky’s scream and the creature roaring. Edward knows not where to point his gun, until a mass of shadows light up. The creature’s fur. It does burn. He sees nothing of its form, but the size of it alone makes him ill.
The cannon is fired, and it hits their fiend. Edward grabs a lantern, is the first to rush after it. He needs to see its deady body. The spirit leaving it.
There’s blood on the snow. Red like his own. The creature ran off.
Jopson pours the last bottle of whisky over the pool of blood, as requested. The liquid is room temperature: it melts the snow.
“Poetic,” Jopson notes vaguely. He looks gutted under his bundle of scarfs, and Edward feels the same way. Crozier’s pistol is heavy in the holster under his arm, pressing against his panicked heart. An insistent nudge to step up, assume command.
“I can’t do this,” he mumbles into the collar of his slops.
Jopson hears him anyway. “You’ve been a lieutenant for about a decade now, and first lieutenant since forty-six,” he says to brace him.
“Exactly: I don’t know how to be anything else; I wasn’t made to command a ship lost at sea, and in such unimaginable peril.”
“Captain Crozier is still here,” Jopson says. “He’ll advise you, surely.”
“If you restore him to his former self, I shall ask for your hand in marriage.”
“Aren’t we wedded already?”
Edward considers this. Peers at Jopson: only his eyes are visible, huge and a bluish grey, reflecting the ice back.
“How is it to be a second’s husband?”
“C’mere, Mr. Jopson-Little.” He puts an arm around his shoulder, pulls him into a kiss: just a press of lips through Jopson’s scarf, for the weather is not ideal. “Give us that bottle.”
Jopson hands it over. Edward tests its weight, then turns sharply and smashes it over Terror’s hull. Shards explode everywhere, and his bitterness with them: Crozier’s addiction, Mr. Blanky’s lost leg, the escaped creature, his own ineptness.
“Much better,” he says, and reaches for Jopson’s hand. He leads him back to Terror; only lets go of him once they reach the forward hatch.
He’s proving to be a far more capable leader than expected. Fitzjames’ secretive, precautious initiatives are easy enough to follow. Irving is a godsend with calculus and accounting; Hodgson is fastidious as ever, dolting about with a journal and a self-important frown. Edward suspects that all three of them rather enjoy being kept busy. He hopes, vainly, that Fitzjames may only have ordered preparations for a walkout just to give them something to do. The final say will be Crozier’s. The ice will have to be read. There may be thaws yet. It’s the darkest part of winter: it’s important to believe in thaws, and believe that Fitzjames is merely practicing caution.
Eight-hundred miles is no walk in the park.
“It’s not eight-hundred,” Irving explains. They gathered on the orlop deck to check the provisions once more. “Fairholme’s party are on their way back already. Let’s say they walk six point twenty-five miles a day—”
“John,” Hodgson begs. “Please, do spare us the arithmetics”
“We’ll round it down to six,” Irving says reassuringly.
“They’ll be slower,” Edward mumbles into his can of cold soup, which started out as breakfast, but is lunch now. He’s quite surprised to capture Irving’s attention, who turns to him imploringly. This is the thing he cannot get used to: being looked at with such expectations, as if a fortnight had made him any more adept than he was. He clears his throat, and adds, “They’ll be exhausted. Possibly sick.”
“Let’s say three miles a day then,” Irving says, then considers it. “Two point five.”
“Here we go,” Hodgson mumbles, and settles himself down on a crate of veal cutlet tomato.
“Calculating with such speed, the journey in full would take three-hundred and twenty days, not counting potential days of rest, if our current location—”
“Three hundred,” Edward interrupts him, chilled.
“And twenty,” Irving reminds him ever so helpfully, with a proud smile on his lips.
Edward blinks. “Almost a year.”
“We’ll meet them halfway,” Hodgson waves it away, and reaches for his journal.
“Quarter, I’d suggest,” Irving says, but before he could prove his theorem, Le Vesconte enters. There's snow in his hair and a smile on his lips, no doubt pleased with his surprise visit.
"Lieutenant Little," he says, oddly cerebral, "I bring news from Captain Fitzjames, which must be announced posthaste."
It finally happened. The lingering taste of tomato soup turns sour in Edward’s mouth; his stomach drops, heavy like an anchor. We're leaving, he thinks. Blast it: I'll carry Tom Jopson on my back if I have to.
Le Vesconte keeps on beaming. It's strange, that anybody would be happy about the walkout. An escape—but by what means? It's selfish of him, but the first thing he considers is the utter lack of privacy, the loss of Jopson's kisses, which are rare enough as it is. They have settled into their new norm of chance rendezvous; to have circumstance upset it—he’d rather winter here eternally.
A terrible sentiment: but this is how he feels; there’s something wild in him that wants to wipe off Le Vesconte's grin. Veto a Captain's decision. Bark an order: we are to remain here forever.
I'm miserable, but also the happiest.
Le Vesconte watches him, and he realises it’s his turn to speak. His tongue feels too big for his mouth, and it turns slowly when he says, “Do share,” tortured by mourned losses.
“Captain Fitzjames has proposed a Carnivale,” Le Vesconte announces.
Irving claps and cheers, Hodgson exclaims joyfully; Edward is slower to catch on, still upset by the imagined bad news; his disquiet reverberates through the excited conversation.
“Just what we need,” Irving says. “Song and dance—oh, do say there will be a dance!”
Le Vesconte bows with flourish. “Anything you can possibly imagine.”
“I think if they put their mind to it,” Hodgson muses, “our cooks could bake a cake. Such occasion calls for a cake, surely? We have chocolate for years.”
“I supposed you’d want to share the news,” Le Vesconte addresses Edward, “might as well, since Captain Crozier is still indisposed.”
The slight jab at his authority is not unnoticed. Maybe it’s only his sombre mood that makes Edward detect a veiled insult there. With Le Vesconte, one can never be certain.
“A Carnivale,” Edward says, considering. “With costumes and such?”
“You needn’t even think of a costume: you already look like Neptune.”
Laughter erupts at Le Vesconte’s remark. His smile is too smug, too sharp for Edward’s liking. He could cut himself on this man’s sympathies.
“Are you calling me a dog?”
The laughter stops. He aimed for a jesting tone. Not many people understand his humour.
Le Vesconte puts his hand over his heart. A true Erebite. Always so theatrical. “Far it be from me; I'm calling you a beloved pet. Trim your whiskers and I shall take the joke back.”
Edward frowns, lips twitching up to a forced smile. He’s still undecided whether Le Vesconte likes him, or quite the opposite. He did nothing to lose his fondness. Nothing to earn it, either. Unless his advanced responsibilities are being considered.
“Neptune is a good boy,” Irving remarks when Edward fails to reply to Le Vesconte’s taunt. Le Vesconte makes a face at him.
“Are you calling Lieutenant Little a good boy?” he asks, shocked.
“Not at all!”
“Are you calling him naughty?” he grins, the joke revealed for what it is. Irving laughs. It sounds pained.
“Let’s tell the men,” Edward proposes. Heads to the ladder without waiting for an answer. Le Vesconte has to jog to catch up with him. There’s some joy in it.
He touches his whiskers fleetingly. Is Le Vesconte right? Are they getting too fluffy? Jopson hasn’t said anything; but maybe it was only to spare his feelings.
Edward buries his face in his green scarf, inhales its scent. It’s new. A Christmas gift from Jopson. Smells like his linen box, where he stored it. He made it himself. Bartered the yarn. The thought of Jopson’s loving effort provides more warmth to Edward than the soft wool. It helps him be a better commander. When his obligations would overwhelm him, he just steals a whiff. It’s his secret trick.
He spots Jopson as if summoned, wolfing down cold Irish stew directly from the tin. Poor darling. Edward dares not acknowledge him in such a public place, with Le Vesconte on his tail, but he touches the scarf, and Jopson (eyes glazed over, the perfect act) adjusts his sweater. That was Edward’s gift; it felt fitting, that they would both think to gift each other with soft, warm things. The comfort of them.
Le Vesconte relays the news, which is met with such applause Edward considers it again. A Carnivale; both ships’ crew off-duty; sentimental songs and ale; possibly dancing. Would Jopson like to partake? He turns over his shoulder instinctively, catches his eye. Lord above: he’d like to take him to Carnivale.
Crozier’s bell rings. Jopson swallows the last bite inelegantly, hurries past Edward, brushes against him on pretence of setting down his tin, then turns and hurries away, not even looking at him.
Edward is staring.
Mr. Hickey ferrets his way to him, says something, but it’s not registering. Something about Crozier’s sickness. How Hickey knows better. As if Edward cares.
He’s looking after Jopson, overcome with longing for his company: more than glances, accidental brushes, even more than gifts and trysts. To sit at Edward’s frequented club in London, comfortable in leather chairs, leafing through the newspaper, remarks shared, and drinks, and cigarettes; a stroll in Regent’s after, a concert, the theatre. He imagined all this before, but never supposed to get something similar quite so soon. Carnivale would be the closest they can get to a future that seems far too distant, unreachable. He might be able to have Jopson for a dance, without anyone remarking on it. A proper quadrille to lively music, not just the occasional sway to a song hummed into Jopson’s ear. A dance to express Edward’s affinity. One that would show his genteel qualities, his refined training so far unknown to Jopson. He wants to share this aspect of his life, the ballroom, the pub, the races; wants to know this side of Jopson, too. He’s never seen him having fun in company. Ever.
There’s also the matter that if Jopson won’t be accompanying him, Edward would sooner shoot himself in the leg than dance with anybody else. Making a lone effort to be sociable perfectly describes all of Edward’s most troubling nightmares. The ones not involving spirit bears. If Jopson cannot come, maybe Edward will be allowed to stand guard for the monster. That sounds far more pleasurable than rubbing shoulders.
The opportunity to ask doesn’t arise. Edward keeps waiting for them to cross paths, but Jopson has taken to living in Crozier’s cabin. Edward needs to be brave if he wants him. Oh, how he wants him.
A gentle tap on the door. It takes great effort. Crozier’s answering groan, pained and provoked, nearly scares him off; but Jopson looks up from his seat, and that glint in his eyes calls to him. Guiding stars. To your best purpose. Forward.
“Sir,” he says, “may I borrow Mr. Jopson for a moment?”
The tone is practiced. He needed to make the request sound blasé, but not so much it would irritate. He cannot read Crozier’s face. The coarse blanket is pulled up to his nose. A mop of faded hair is visible, perfectly combed.
“Just don’t take him too far,” Crozier mutters. Apparently, he’s too weak to question Edward’s purpose. Edward had prepared excuses. He’s glad he doesn’t have to say them. Lies still don’t sit well on his tongue. Pretending he doesn’t rejoice over his wish being granted is dishonesty enough. Hiding the thrill as Jopson stands up, comes to be with him. He’s light on his feet. Slides the cabin’s door half-shut.
“I shall keep an eye on the captain,” he says. Edward’s fingers twitch to caress him. Jopson’s loyalty is exemplary; his selfless service. Edward wishes he was half the man Jopson is. His request now sounds silly. “How may I assist you, sir?”
“I, um,” Edward says. Jopson’s darling face is so earnest. “I was wondering.” Would you like to attend Carnivale with me—no, he shan’t say that. Not even in hushed tones. It’s too easy to overhear. He was planning on taking Jopson to his own cabin. Make it a proper request, with pleading kisses. Jopson tilts his head. “Could you,” Edward says, the excuse rushing out, “could you perhaps trim my whiskers, please?”
Jopson blinks. Crozier sighs deeply, overhearing. Edward is prepared for Jopson to be called back, himself to be reprimanded. He had a much better excuse, which would involve taking Jopson to his cabin to give his expert opinion on a damaged tabletop, but he cannot take him. He’s not allowed to have him.
“Certainly,” Jopson says. “Please be seated, sir.”
“It’s been remarked,” Edward blabbers as he takes his usual chair by the grand cabin’s desk, “that its appearance has ceased to be respectable or indeed, acceptable. I’m afraid I don’t trust Mr. Gibson too much with scissors.”
His new position is out of Crozier’s line of sight. Jopson must notice it too: he rounds him in a way which would be unobserved by the captain. Strokes Edward’s nape as he passes him, who arches into his touch eagerly.
“Understandable, sir,” Jopson chats. “A razor is much better fitted for the purpose.”
“This is why I came to you,” Edward says. He presses this ever so slightly, as if it was a trip of his tongue, but he grabs Jopson’s wrist when he puts an old sheet around shoulders. “I must look decent for the event,” he says, not even daring to name Carnivale, then adds with a nonchalant air, “will you be able to attend?”
He rubs his thumb over Jopson’s pulse. His heart is beating fast. He’s drawn to Edward, standing too close.
“I don’t yet know, sir,” Jopson says, apologetic. “Depends on the speed of Captain Crozier’s recovery.” He produces a razor: his own. He cannot leave Crozier long enough to shave.
“Your place is with him,” Edward says softly. He understands it; admires it. Still, as he bares his throat, he wishes for the stars to align. They rarely do, for him; but all he wants is to have Jopson by his side. Even if just for an hour. Just for a pint. For a quick plunge in that hot tub he heard rumoured.
Jopson works silently, deft fingers caressing his cheeks. His attention is stirring Edward’s greedy cravings. He wants more of this. The stolen touches and the kiss of the blade make him roused; bold.
“If you came,” he says softly, “I could find you in the crowd even in the most cunning disguises.”
A dangerous thing to say. If Crozier hears it, there’s only one way to interpret it. Jopson’s hand stills. They both listen.
“Don’t bet on that,” Jopson whispers back. He doesn’t address him as sir. Is it suspicious, to speak in hushed tones? They could just pretend they didn’t want to disturb their captain, couldn't they?
Edward’s hands wander. He palms Jopson’s rear. Squeezes.
“You could be dressed as a masked lady,” he says, “I would know my boy anywhere. Are you my boy, Tom?”
Jopson bites down a smile. Dark shadows linger around his eyes. He looks exhausted. It doesn’t diminish the blithe grin as he reaches out, steals the command cap from Edward’s head. He puts it on: it’s too big, but he looks fetching.
“You tell me,” he whispers. “I’m positively unrecognisable.”
“It suits you, actually.”
“Lieutenant Jopson,” Jopson says, and snickers. Edward joins him, his laughter fond. There’s a snort from Crozier’s cabin. They listen, but no more noises follow. Jopson takes off the cap, chastened nevertheless. “I think he’s asleep,” he says.
Edward hums. He’s glad for the blade on his cheeks: it’s the only thing restraining him from stealing a kiss. His hands slide up to Jopson’s back, then fall away.
“Come with me,” he asks.
“I do hope I can.” A finishing touch is added; Jopson sets aside the razor, then surveys his work. Lips pursed, he runs his fingers through Edward’s whiskers, pinches his cheeks. “What a handsome man,” he whispers.
Edward smiles at him, toothy. Jopson swoons in for a quick kiss. Says against his lips, “I liked it fluffy.”
There’s a beat.
“Isn’t that remark somewhat belated?”
“I will admit, it is.”
Edward scoffs. His heart feels tight. His love for Jopson squeezes it; he knows not how to express it.
“In our little house by the sea,” he says, “I shall wear it as fluffy as you like.”
“And I will dance with you all night.” Jopson presses a kiss to his forehead. Edward didn’t even notice the headache until the brush of Jopson’s lips eased the pain. He’s grown used to dulled agony.
There’s a dry cough. Heaving. Jopson bolts up, shouts, “Coming!”
Edward stands from his chair, dazed as the cough develops into retching. He winces, covers his mouth in distaste. Jopson throws himself into the cabin.
“There, there. Deep breaths through the nose, sir. Inhale. Keep it in, sir. Exhale. Here’s the bucket. No, I’ll mop up the rest. That’s it. Breathe.”
“Have you chosen a disguise?” Fitzjames asks.
I’m wearing one right now, Edward thinks. A mask of bravery.
Fitzjames said the walk was inescapable.
Edward forces himself not to dwell on that. He cannot afford such terrifying thoughts. Not right now.
He focuses on the one that fits like a glove. The one he shares with Fitzjames, pretending to be men with common attractions. Fitzjames does a worse job at it, if Edward is being honest, with his slops clinched at the waist, and no amount of manly shoves and pokes will hide it. There’s nowhere to hide such things.
Maybe it’d be for the best if Jopson couldn't attend Carnivale. Crozier shows no improvement. Jopson won’t leave him behind. If he did, if Edward were to suddenly spot him, there might be no stopping him.
His love is turning into a dangerous thing. He thinks of how fearless he was in the great cabin, and cannot remember what possessed him. Probably the same thing that made him pull Jopson into a cabinet yesterday, when he was on his way to fetch the captain’s dinner. Edward devoured his mouth, whispered his praise.
He wants him so intensely it aches. Pulses with the pain stuck in his skull.
Should Jopson enter the tent the men erected, a tent with so many shadowy corners—Edward tries to picture it. What would he wear? The maroon sweater, maybe? But it’s not a costume, is it?
He thinks of the trunk given to the men. There was a dress in there. White, with a ribbon just under the bust. The kind he remembers women wearing in his early memories. He imagines walking in on Jopson as he’s trying it on: half out of it, half in; the arch of his strong back, the delicate muslin just covering the curve of his soft bum. The way he’d look at Edward, unashamed.
“I wanted to try it,” he’d say, “to see if it’d catch your eye.”
Would it? It would grant them some tempting latitude; wearing women’s clothes, Jopson would be expected to put on a coquettish air, so if Edward pulled him into his lap, nobody would object.
But he wants Jopson as himself, free of disguises. Maybe as he is back in London. His civilian clothes. They never discussed what he wears, but Edward can just picture it: no hat, but the felt cap working men wear, the caps Edward has always found so singularly attractive, sitting lopsided on the head of men waiting for their kiss, cock, and coin.
By the time of the event, Edward’s fantasies have evolved. He’s wearing his uniform with a paper crown, a last-minute resort, but he hopes that when he spots Jopson, he will see him in unimaginable finery. He’d deserve that, and nothing less. Edward lingers in a corner, alone with his grog, and thinks about taking Jopson to his tailor, back home. Silk neckerchiefs. A velvet collar on his coat. Waistcoats of exquisite colours. The shine of his shoes. Jopson has such noble features: anyone would be fooled.
Three drinks in, he sees him as one of the Greeks; for they are engaging in Greek vices, and it would be fitting for Jopson to enter in a himation, his chest half-bare. They’d no longer be in the Arctic: Carnivale would take place in some sunny country Edward has visited previously, and Jopson’s face would be bright and sun-kissed. It’d be before the expedition; no, it would be after. Survival, celebrated.
But the details don’t match.
If—when they make it back to England, Edward shall never leave again. He and Jopson will sit by the fireplace, naked entirely, and say, remember the walk we did? Help seemed far, far away. We just kept going. That had been all there was to it: one step, and the next. Eventually, we were in England. Remember how it went?
When Jopson enters, he wears no costume at all. He’s in his slops, two sizes too big—he bought them used. He looks worried, lost, trailing a sobered Crozier with tentative steps. Before Edward can get to him, Mr. Reid crashes into the captain.
“Hey, are we going, then?” he slurs. Jopson pushes him back. He’s stronger than he looks, and twice as fierce.
“Sir!” Edward announces his presence, with an edge of threat, should Mr. Reid get too rough with his response.
“The men are saying it’s up to—”
“Step back, Mr. Reid.” He helps restrain him. Catches Jopson’s eye. His confusion and concern is evident. Edward removes his paper crown, suddenly ashamed of it. He’s ashamed of the grog in his hand, the grog in his belly. Jopson needs him. Needs him steady. It dawns on Edward that they were never meant to enjoy Carnivale. It was silly to think he could ever partake like the rest of the men. He’s a lieutenant. He’s carrying Crozier’s gun. He should be overseeing the event, not daydreaming in a corner.
“Let me take you back, sir,” Jopson says softly, then tugs at Crozier’s’ arm. “Sir.”
Edward always knew Jopson to be reliable, sensible; he is reminded of the extent of these qualities. He follows Jopson and Crozier, chided. He let dangerous rumours spread. It was a mistake to think Carnivale safe. To believe in the possibility of safety, still.
Are we going?
He’s demeaned by it, but he half-wishes Crozier had answered.
They find two men in a hot tub of water, mostly naked. It’s too dark to see their faces. Edward feels Jopson tense. Glances at him. Jopson’s expression shifts from worry to fear; he’s regarding the ground, same as he did during Mr. Hickey’s lashing. Edward wants to reassure him. It’s not like that, he would whisper, were it safe. Crozier wouldn’t despise you for it.
He’s not willing to bet on it, but that’s what he would say.
He gestures to the men to leave the pot. Order must be re-established. It’s a small cost. He would rather betray his kind than his duty. He’s serving in Her Majesty’s Navy. He should remember to act like it.
“Francis,” Fitzjames says. “It was my idea, all of it.”
Edward isn’t sure what he’s taking responsibility for.
It was foolish to think Carnivale would see him and Jopson dance; that they’d embrace and hold hands unobserved. That Jopson could dress up for him. Risk that sort of thing. What they have, it’ll always be their secret.
In our little house by the sea, Edward thinks, we’ll be hiding.
It’s a shelter, still.
Crozier announces that the march begins in spring. It’s a good speech. The most reassuring part is Crozier’s clear eyes and even clearer pronunciation. Jopson did good work, restoring him.
Edward promised to marry him, if he achieved that.
Eight-hundred miles. Shorter, if they take the boats to Back’s Fish River. If, when they meet the rescue party. Edward doesn’t let himself consider the details.
Up the river we went. Straight back to England. Geography morphed: it opened into the North Sea, and we were in the English Channel in a blink.
Just a bit more restraint, till then. A bit more strength. Not much longer.
Then the horror unfolds.
This is what’s real now: fur drenched in blood. Fire on snow. He’s covering up Dr. Stanley’s charred corpse with a blanket. Soon there are more corpses like that.
Chaos doesn’t care for any of their rigorous plans.
This place wants us dead, he remembers, pushing through the crowd to look for Jopson. Every last one of us.
The tent’s flaps are tied closed. The kitchen’s exit is blocked too.
A sickening feeling tells Edward it was always going to go like this; exactly like this. There are no surprises here. No shock anymore.
He hears Fitzjames call for an oar. He should help look for that, but he catches himself looking for Jopson instead. He can’t spot him in the crushing crowd of slops, coats and Welsh wigs. All he wants is one glance. One glance to know he’s not afraid. Then he could see to his duty. He needs to look at him before he could be of use to anybody.
The smoke is rising.
He can’t see. Can’t breathe. He’s being pushed around. There are men on the ground. Men on fire.
“You’re crushing him!” someone shouts.
One glance is all he needs. Just to know that Jopson is all right. He must be all right.
The stench is turning his stomach. The smell of roast. Of food.
He needs to find Jopson.
The tent is cut open. He pushes his way through. He’s strong, tall: it’s easy to do. He doesn’t think anything of it until there’s something under his boots. Something alive and soft.
“Thomas Jopson!” he calls out. Did he tread on him? Was it him he crushed with his heel? Who was it? “Thomas!”
They all run to the ice. The survivors flock together; Jopson is nowhere. There are dark, twisted shapes in the distance, wood and bones. The smell rises.
“Tom!” he cries. Screams from the top of his lungs. Runs towards the fire; somebody clutches his coat, yanks him back. “Has anyone seen Mr. Jopson—” he asks; wheezes.
His throat is closing up.
It’s the nerves again.
The world is dark around the edges. Shadowed. The rest of his vision is crystal clear. He sees the destruction in detail. The flames. His heart is racing. He cannot feel his limbs. If he could, he would try to run back again. He can’t. He’s frozen to the spot. Mouth open to yell again. Tom. Thomas. He shouldn’t call him that. It’s a betrayal. Will it matter, if he’s gone?
“Tom,” he mouths. Between them, it always sounded like the most precious, secret petname. Jopson would raise his head from his chest, smile at him lazily.
The Northern lights are swimming in the dark sky. The fire laps at them. Maybe the flames will be part of its shine. The men go up like smoke. All dead now. None of the shadows move.
His chest is caving in. He clutches at it, thumps his heart with his fist, once, twice, and another hit: heavy, it’ll bruise but the pain isn’t helping. He can still feel the ache within. The numbness of it. It’s not a heartbreak. It’s his heart freezing up to one inmovable lump.
There was something alive beneath his feet. He kept going.
He spots Jopson. He’s just leaving the tent with Crozier. He was holding the door open. All this time, he’d been there. While Edward was screaming his name, he was in the fire, risking his own life to help.
Edward was among the first people who left.
There was something alive beneath his feet and the bone crushed.
Dr. Stanley’s skin turned to ashes.
Blood on fur.
Lady Silence had no tongue to warn them.
Fire on snow.
The short walk between the tent and the ice is littered with corpses. Edward had walked past them.
There’s a longer walk ahead.
He can’t embark on it.
He’s not the right sort of man.
Jopson is looking for him in the crowd.
Edward steps back. Hides.
Then comes the first sunrise.
There’s a knock on his door next midwatch, just after the first bell. Jopson comes in. Edward doesn’t rise to greet him. He smells of smoke when he embraces Edward. Neither of them talk. How to tell someone you love, I wish I died on the ice. I wish I was crushed, or eaten by fire.
Jopson is holding onto his neck, and he cannot even hug him back. His arms are too heavy. Useless.
He hasn’t spoken since yesterday. Since screaming Jopson’s name. The name that’s only Edward’s. An undeserved petname.
There’s no way around it. Edward let people die so he could speak it again. So he could whisper Tom in the back of Jopson’s neck while he’s fucking him. So he could take him home to their cursed house by the sea.
He knew what his duty was.
He knew exactly.
He could only act like a lieutenant when there was nothing at stake. Do what was expected of him. Remember himself and see to his calling.
“How are you faring?” Jopson whispers, caresses his back. His voice is broken. He must’ve been crying.
Edward can’t say anything.
“I will never get used to grief,” Jopson tells him. “I looked at their faces. I was so sure we would all go home. What can we bring back from them now? What remains when we’re no longer? How will we be remembered? Is that what matters, you think?”
Edward whines. He wants to bury his head in the crook of Jopson’s shoulder. His favourite spot. His scent is so strong there. He can’t, he can’t. Jopson keeps stroking his back, and whispers, “I loathe to think of death as sleep. That darkness before the waking. I cannot stand it. Are they in the dark now? All alone in the dark. Who’s there with them? Don’t say angels, I can’t—”
“Alone,” Edward says. “They’re alone now.”
“Oh, Ned!” Jopson holds him tighter. He’s curled in his lap. He’s wearing the maroon sweater. Edward doesn’t even deserve to look at him. He’s staring at nothing. He recognises its shape.
It’s in the corners now. It’s getting closer.
He hasn’t eaten in days. His stomach pains don’t go away. His head aches.
Jopson keeps coming to his cabin.
The berths on Terror are filled again. Edward’s door is not the only one sliding open. The men must do what Jopson does: seek reassurance. Jopson deserves to have that. Edward can’t offer it.
Jopson is kissing his lips. Edward is not responding. He’s sitting up in bed, in his nightshirt, sleepless. Empty.
“Should I stop?” Jopson asks.
It doesn’t matter.
“It feels like sacrilege, doesn’t it?” Jopson presses his forehead to his. He smells lovely. He’s so pretty. Edward wants him. Wants what he’s offering. The want disgusts him. “I want your hands on me to know I’m yet living. It’s so cold, I’m chilled like a corpse. My berth is a coffin. Warmth is all I need. You don’t have to do anything, just hold me, Ned, please, please only hold me.”
Jopson deserves to be held. He deserves to be kissed. Someone should pet his hair, bite his neck where he likes it to be bitten. Bugger him senseless. Fuck him so well he’d sleep sweetly. Warm him up thoroughly. Every inch of his fair skin should be caressed, rubbed, licked. Jopson deserves to forget the pain.
“I can’t,” Edward says.
“Tell me,” Jopson pleads.
“Can’t,” Edward repeats.
Jopson kisses his forehead, his eyes, tucks him in. Turns off the light when he leaves.
The dark is expanding.
Jopson approaches him when Edward is on watch. He must look more human like this, Edward thinks. Doing his duty. Functioning. But Jopson is too late. The dark is in his veins.
“How may I help?” Jopson asks, leaning against the railing. It’s freezing cold. There’s a wind. Jopson shouldn’t be subjecting himself to such temperatures for the sake of somebody like Edward. A coward. A failure. A self-obsessed, misbegotten idiot, who couldn’t tell North from South if his prick didn’t point that way—that’s the only direction he follows, isn’t it, to bed. To his lover’s arms. He’s fucking the captain’s steward. That’s who he is, as a man. That’s all that’s there.
It’s not a fair assessment, he knows. He loves Jopson. He loves him more than men love their wives. His intentions are pure. His actions, not so.
He can still smell the smoke.
“I suppose,” he says, “I just need some time to think.”
“Call for me if you need me,” Jopson says warmly.
I need you more than ever, Edward thinks, looking at the ice ahead. The miles to be walked. He never thought he’d walk them without Jopson by his side. Secret glances. Smiles. A rendezvous under stars. His coat thrown over the rocks. A whispered promise while he’s moving within, we’ll make it.
He won’t let his judgement be clouded.
This place wants us dead, he remembers again.
He struggles to recall who said it. Was it Fitzjames? The headache persists.
Jopson doesn’t pressure him. He serves dinner for the officers, which are getting more and more frequent, even though the portions consumed noticeably dwindle. He passes him through the passageway without even a muttered excuse, but walking too close. Catches his eyes, every now and then. This is how it began, isn’t it? It’s fitting, that this is how it shall end.
Certain sacrifices must be made for the greater benefit of all. Jopson, who’s brave and selfless, will understand. Understand that Edward must focus on his duty. That distractions are deadly.
Edward will tell him.
He could always talk to Jopson.
He sends Mr. Gibson to fetch him. There’s some excuse about tea from Crozier’s stock.
Jopson enters with a tray.
Edward fucks him.
First he bends him over his desk. Then proceeds to fuck him in the chair, Jopson riding his prick. They finish in the berth. Jopson needs to get back to work. Edward makes him promise, between lingering kisses, that he’ll return at night.
They need to talk, after all.
Edward needs to tell him that he’s made up his mind.
They talk about dogs and constellations and the Thames and fishing, then Edward fucks him again. Fucks him so thoroughly that Jopson is mewling with it, biting on his hand, then Edward’s offered fingers, his legs thrown over Edward’s shoulders. Edward is kneeling up to service him, fucking him good and deep. Licking up his seed.
The next morning Edward spits up blood. He checks his gums in the mirror. He’s been prone to bleeding after washing his teeth. There’s some ashen colour to the flesh, barely noticeable.
He looks at the blood in the basin. In the half-light of the cabin, it looks black.
It’s the dark.
Jopson is in his berth again. He’s fully dressed, which is progress. Edward is sitting by his desk. He’s trying not to get distracted. The words in the log don’t make any sense. Jopson is smoking a cigarette. He’s silent. Comfortable.
“When did you start smoking?” Edward bursts out finally. It feels like something he should’ve noticed. There are many things about Jopson he’ll miss, from now on.
“Carnivale,” Jopson says softly.
The smell of smoke spreads. A reminder.
Edward is not alone picking at his scars. He knows that. But Jopson is strong. He’s good. He can peel back the scab and find his soul healed. Edward is different. The ugliness is within. Rotting.
“Will you please put it out?”
“Does it bother you?”
“Will you put it out?”
Jopson does. Edward turns back to the log. The pencil is idle in his hands. The writing is smudged. He cannot focus on the numbers. The inventory. Too many things to carry. Not enough to survive.
Jopson pokes at him with his toes. Edward doesn’t react.
“Bad day?” Jopson asks.
“I’m trying to focus.”
“Can I stay if I don’t say anything? Just sit here. Sit on your lap, maybe.”
Edward glances up. Jopson is smiling. He still makes him smile. He doesn’t even try. Jopson is just happy to be with him. He’s in his shirtsleeves. At ease.
“Aren’t you needed elsewhere?” Edward mutters. He sounds irritated. He runs his fingers through his hair, stares at the log. At the blanks.
“Captain Fitzjames is visiting again,” Jopson chats, as if he made no note of Edward’s tone. He puts his back to the wall, stretches. “Captain Crozier will just ring if he needs me. I have the day to myself, if you’d believe it. Me.”
“Well, I have work,” Edward snaps. He doesn’t know what possessed him to raise his voice. Jopson is still stretching.
“I could help,” he offers cautiously. Edward hates that he made him sound like that. Timid.
“I’m perfectly capable of filling out an inventory, thank you,” he hears himself saying.
“We would finish sooner together; I know the stocks by heart.”
“Not your job. Mine.”
“Ned, love,” Jopson pleads. Reaches to touch his arm. Edward recoils. “What is it?”
“You can’t help me,” Edward grunts. “Dismissed.”
Jopson’s hand drops. He breathes out through his nose, slow. Edward’s heart is racing again. It’s not fear. It’s fury at himself.
Jopson stands, dusts his trousers. Edward could bet they weren’t dirty. He’s looking at his desk and can’t see anything. He’s clutching his pencil. He’ll snap it in half at this rate. He’ll break it. He’s breaking everything.
“I can see that you’re upset,” Jopson says, “so I won’t take offence. I know not what’s got into you to treat me so poorly. I shall hope you’ll apologise and explain. I’ll wait.” He bend down to press a kiss to the top of his head. “We can talk, yes?” he whispers into his hair.
Edward doesn’t say anything.
Jopson squeezes his shoulder, and leaves.
Edward sits there, staring at nothing.
His shoulders start to shake.
He clasps a hand over his mouth to stifle the sobs.
He should go after Jopson.
I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s happening to me. Help me. I don’t deserve it, but will you please help?
He looks at the inventory through his tears. His face crumbles.
He can’t bear it alone.
Pack a boat full of regrets. Haul.
This must end. Jopson deserves clarity. Jopson deserves so much more.
Edward can’t speak. Cannot trust himself, when he’s in Jopson’s company. He cannot think clearly. His mind has been clouded recently.
So he writes a letter.
He can write letters fairly well.
His handwriting is awkward, unpracticed. But the letter has the right words. Apt expressions. It says, in no uncertain terms, that their relationship must be promptly terminated. Reasons are listed. Moral obligations are chief among them. He confesses he’s been poorly, but gives no reason for it. The recent flares of his temper are inexcusable. He follows the rules of every writing lesson he ever had, feeling a tutor’s ruler hover above his knuckles. The letter has to be perfect, so Jopson understands. He will. Perhaps he’ll even be relieved.
He bumps into him on the passageway, as if by accident. Slides him the neatly folded letter, looking elsewhere. Jopson caresses his hand. It’s unmistakable: the brush of his thumb over Edward’s knuckles. Edward stares at him. Jopson catches his gaze. His eyes are warm. Forgiving. The colour of a calm sea.
Edward is drowning.
He locks himself into his cabin. Paces its length: three steps forwards, three steps back. He tries to remember what’s in the letter. He’d written it in a bit of a haze. These are hazy days. Weeks.
It’s nearly spring.
Jopson serves dinner the next evening. The officers from Erebus are visiting. Fitzjames is laughing, twirling his hair while conversing with Crozier. Edward won’t ponder on that. He tries to catch Jopson’s eyes, but he keeps them to the ground. An exemplary steward. He takes Edward’s plates and fills his glass. He’s in uniform, yet he smells of smoke. When did he sneak out?
Edward stays after dinner. Pretends to take interest in a sextant while Jopson clears the table. Once they’re alone, he says, “I wanted to explain myself.”
“I think you’ve made yourself perfectly clear, sir,” Jopson says. He’s balancing a tray on his fingers. The glasses clink. Edward remembers that sound. Remembers when he first pulled Jopson close.
“No,” he says.
Jopson looks up at him. Edward can’t read his face. He’s never seen him like this.
“Have you reconsidered your decision, then?”
“No,” Edward says, then adds, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Jopson says; soft; patient. “Does that change anything?”
“Very well, sir.”
Edward can’t stand it. He doesn’t want to hurt Jopson. He can’t. He wants to gather him up his arms. Apologise. Beg. Make him smile again. See him relieved. Snug in his embrace.
He can’t have it both ways.
He has more than one man to keep safe.
Crozier comes back, sweeping snow off his coat as he says, “That was fairly tolerable.”
“Indeed, sir,” Jopson says. His smile is not honest. Crozier doesn’t even notice. He just returns it. Jopson glances at Edward. “Will that be all, Lieutenant Little?”
“Yes,” Edward says. “That is all.”
Content warnings: canon-typical gore / brief mention of vomiting / guilt-induced thoughts of suicide after Carnivale
No I swear to god this fic is a hurt/comfort fix-it
The walkout calculations were based on this post
Chapter 4: Dead
Please refer to the end notes for content warnings
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
By eight bells, he’s convinced he’s made the worst mistake in his entire flawed existence. No going back. It would be the utmost cruelty to undo a decision of such magnitude. What if regret comes again? He can’t keep piecing Jopson’s heart back together just to shatter it anew. He shan’t be hesitant; faltering; his resolution shall be absolute: that’s good leadership.
His private existence must be sacrificed. An offering going up in flames. A trifle thing, compared to the suffering of the men who wasted away at Carnivale. In the grand scheme of things—
He can’t stop crying.
In the grand scheme of things, what is a torn heart? A heart can be mended. Edward can feel the fabric of it fraying. The flesh pushing through. The bleeding. His own suffering is meaningless compared to Jopson’s. Jopson’s is—not meaningless. He cannot say that. But it’s a matter of scale. Two hearts ripped apart—measured against a hundred that may stop. Jopson will be among the men saved, as a consequence of Edward’s decision. And once they make it back to England—
No. He shan’t entertain the thought. It’s not fair. Once back in England, he may—catch a glimpse of the East End from his carriage, see the sewage works, the mills, the people sitting on the street. He’ll know that in one of those shabby brown houses, just at the corner, there’s a little room with a shattered window which Jopson attempted to repair himself. Looking through the spiderglass of damage, he might sight his sweet face.
But he shan’t stop the carriage. Shan’t get out, take the steps by two; must not be carrying a bouquet and an apology, should not wear his best cape. Under no circumstances should he ever tell Jopson, “I’m just glad that you lived, that’s all I wanted, to make certain we’d all be safe, for it was my duty,” and if Jopson looked at him in a certain way, he shouldn’t grab his hand and clasp it with feeling, then bring it to his lips to say, “I’m so, so sorry.”
His decision is irreversible.
Time heals all things.
It’s been weeks.
The hauling will do them good. That’s what he tells himself. He also has Irving’s reassurance, although the details of Edward’s heartache were not shared. Some genuine physical exercise is all that’s needed to take one’s mind off lovesickness.
The first day is hell.
A mercy: Jopson is not on Edward’s sledge party. He couldn’t bear to see him.
It’s hard enough in the camp, where all of them are gathered. Edward is resting by the fire. Jopson looks knackered as he wanders around, aimless, before returning to his tent. If Edward weren’t resolute, he would go after him, offer to rub his shoulders, his back, his poor aching feet. He’d ask him about the progress of the day. How it feels wearing nails on his boots. Picking ice. Pulling weight. Fighting the strain and the temptation to shout bugger all and run off.
Edward would dearly like to run off.
Day two. Three. Four.
Edward would run as far as his legs could carry him, then collapse with relief. The idea is tempting. But he’s already given up too much to give up the men, too. He owes them all. He’ll haul and haul until his bones break. It feels like they’re breaking. He’ll help pitch tents. Organise watches. Supervise stocks of tins, fresh water. Discuss the road ahead. He’s useful. He’s miserable.
He nearly breaks a week in. Jopson is hanging laundry. It couldn’t have been more than a quick rinse to Crozier’s underthings. Edward watches him go to his tiptoes and remembers sheets flapping, and the sails, the open sea. It was a hot day. A good wind. Jopson had rolled up his shirtsleeves. Edward was in love with him already.
He will never stop loving him.
He knows it with a certainty, watching him.
The stronger his love is, the more paramount it is to consider his duty.
He’s less busy than he was on Terror.
“A song?” Irving asks.
“Any song that helps you focus. One that clears the head.”
Irving considers, then says, shyly, “I’m not much of a singer, unless I had a little drink.”
Edward is desperate. He flips his notebook to the back, to empty sheets of paper; offers his pen. Irving gives him a puzzled look; a worried one; but he takes the pen, and starts sketching the partiture, humming along. They’re sitting on snow, backs to a boat. The melted ice is steadily seeping through Edward’s wool coat.
He lets it.
He stopped shaving. Let his hair grow. The only thing he cares for is his uniform.
Let the man die, shrivel inside the bounds of his command. This is the Lieutenant Little he must be. Flesh and bones to carry the uniform. He does not need to be content. His personal needs don’t matter. He has to distract himself from the thing inside him, the thing which is him, with wants and needs and regrets and a headache.
“Here.” Irving hands back the notebook. “It’s my favourite hymn.”
Edward follows the notes. For a moment, he knows peace: he ceases to be, raptured by music.
The watch drags on. He keeps his eyes on the dark horizon. If the spirit appears, a snow-white spot in the dull night, it will be all worth it. It will, if he kills it. Could he? Maybe: he has nothing left to lose, or fear. That should give a man courage.
His only wish is this: if the creature overpowers him, let it consume him entirely. He wouldn’t want Jopson to see his mauled remains. He’d much prefer to fade into death. A violent rush, perhaps, but then: nothingness. With his last breath, a worthwhile act. Let the spirit choke on him. Try to swallow his melancholy.
“I heard you collected songs,” Le Vesconte says, breaking the silence stretching between them.
Edward adjusts the rifle on his shoulder. Keeps staring ahead. “You got one to share?”
“Mm. What kind of songs do you like?”
Edward struggles to remember. It used to matter.
“Handel,” he says. “Purcell.”
“Ah, you would,” Le Vesconte mutters. Is it an insult? A compliment? Friendly banter? Edward is without a care. Grunts in answer.
“When I am laid in earth,” Le Vesconte sings under his breath, so he won’t awake the camp. That’s surprisingly considerate, from such a brash man. “When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast. Remember me; remember me...”
Edward follows the melody. “But forget my fate.”
“My head. Cut it off,” Mr. Morfin begs.
Edward keeps his gun pointed at him. He understands. It all makes sense. He knows exactly what he suffers. He doesn’t flinch when Sergeant Tozer pulls the trigger. Looks at the scattered brain matter.
There, he thinks. Captain Crozier said to tamper down all signs of illness before we proceed. This is not what he meant. Yet still.
He watches Morfin until he’s carried away.
That’s going to be me.
The prospect doesn’t scare him. As long as there are men alive to bury him. As long as they make it. As long as it was worth it.
He considers seeking Dr. Goodsir’s help, but all he has to offer are painkillers.
Edward can live with the pain. He’d prefer that to a foggy brain. His thoughts are disorderly enough already.
He brushes his teeth and spits up more blood. His gums are dark. Undresses himself to bed. Lies on his back.
It makes sense, he keeps telling himself. Fitzjames had given an order. It wasn’t obeyed. The lantern shattered. Now Morfin can rest. So can all of them. Order is restored. Illness is cured by death.
All is well.
He couldn’t sleep. Hardly a blink. He’s sitting by his desk, staring blankly in his looking glass. Well. He’s not going to shave. He shaved yesterday. The length of his hair would concern him, but not here. He looks for other things. Blood in the eyes. Peeling skin. Resurfacing scars. Scowls, then chews at his chapped lips.
It’s not scurvy.
What could it be?
He catches Jopson’s reflection. He jumps to his feet so hurriedly he nearly knocks his chair over, and the writing desk trembles. He has to extend his hands to steady them as he watches Jopson enter the tent and remove his cap.
“Captain Crozier called a meeting, sir,” he says. He’s looking straight at Edward.
It’s been a while, since he looked.
His face is haggard, grim. His eyes are cast in shadows so dark they look like bruises. There’s a scar on his lips. He hasn’t shaved either. The softness is gone from him. He’s lost weight. He’s sharp like the stones all around, cold like a diamond.
It’s the first time they’ve been alone since Edward made his decision, and Jopson is leaving with a bow.
“Wait,” Edward calls after him.
Jopson looks at him, but keeps the tent’s flap lifted. Sunlight is pouring in. It becomes him. He’s so lovely. Edward’s heart leaps, oblivious to the constraints of service. It pulls him towards Jopson, hauling his body along. A step, then he cannot move.
“Yes, sir?” Jopson says at length.
Edward coughs. Blinks. Frets with his hands. “Thank you,” he says, “for letting me know.”
“Of course,” Jopson replies easily. “It’s my duty, sir.”
He slips away.
Edward is left pondering if it was an ordinary remark, or a jab at his ill-received letter.
“Someone on this expedition has earned our trust, respect and confidence,” Crozier says, “in a way that merits absolute a place at this table.”
Fitzjames presents the promotion to Jopson, and Edward can’t stop laughing: shocked, delighted. He remembers to hide it too late, when Jopson turns towards him, puzzled. He hangs his head, but his smile cannot be stifled.
It’s not happiness.
A joy that is nameless, and which has nothing to do with himself. It’s all about Jopson’s merit: the mirth of it, the warm esteem that Edward feels. Trust, respect and confidence: indeed, those are all well deserved. Seeing him thus recognised stirs something inside, stronger than love. His affinity for Jopson is like the appreciation of a warm spring, good wind, a tranquil sea: things to relish, knowing full well he has nothing to do with them; that he is blessed to merely witness.
Their personal history, the recent—unpleasantness of it is momentarily forgotten as he removes his gloves, shakes Jopson’s hand in congratulation. It’s only his startled look that reminds him: you hurt him and now you commend him; how must that feel?
“Good luck,” he says shortly, simply. He cannot stop smiling, still, and beams at Crozier.
Thank you, he wants to say. Please continue to care for him well: I couldn’t.
While organising fresh water parties is a grueling feat, Crozier, Fitzjames and him keep grinning through it. Edward is stealing glances at the captain, reassured that his trust in him has been well-placed. Crozier will always keep Jopson safe, and care for him, besides, as if he were his own son, flesh and blood. Maybe he wouldn’t smile at Edward, if he knew what he’d done, but that matters not.
Lieutenant Jopson: it has a pleasant ring to it. There is hope, still.
Crozier and Fitzjames head to the cairn; Edward is left to supervise the camp. He goes around with leisurely steps. The men look vaguely troubled seeing him so at ease, but his smiles are returned. He hums a song he doesn’t remember even hearing. It must be pouring from his heart; and it’s a love song; a farewell, but one that’s joyous.
Maybe he doesn’t have to forget Jopson, or lose him entirely. Could there be a chance of friendship? Would Jopson welcome it? Is it selfish to hope for it? He yearns for his company.
Jopson arrives as if he heard the call of his heart, beating like a wardrum. He’s freshly returned from the hunting party. He walks up to Edward, who welcomes him with a smile. It’s reassuring, to see Jopson armed. He can take care of himself. He’s an excellent shot.
“Lieutenant Little,” Jopson says, “a word in private?”
Oh: now it’s allowed. Nobody minds as Edward lifts the flap of the command tent, lets Jopson step in. He has a place here. He reaches for his cap.
“Leave it,” Edward says. He leans to the table, arms crossed over his chest, and looks Jopson over. His uniform hasn’t changed, but he stands taller. When they return home, Edward might see him with his medals of gold; a dress uniform; epaulettes; they’ll all be earned. He’ll raise his glass to him, and think, proudly, that’s the man I loved once. That’s the one I love.
“I was surprised,” Jopson says, adjusting the gun’s holster. Edward’s gaze is drawn to it.
“Did you catch anything?”
Jopson tilts his head, as if the question is odd, or at least unexpected, then says in a rush, “No sign of caribou, sir.”
“Edward,” Edward offers warmly.
Jopson tugs at the holster again. It’s too loose. It keeps slipping off his shoulder. Edward reaches out to help adjust it. Jopson draws back. “I’m afraid I can’t call you that,” he says.
Edward drops his hand.
Jopson doesn’t look at him. Addresses his boots as he says again, “I was surprised to see you so happy for me this morning. I thought—I thought all your sympathies lost.”
Edward scowls. “Why?”
Jopson’s gaze flickers up. “I wager you could think of something that might’ve given me that impression.”
“But it is not so.” Edward pushes himself away from the table. Steps up to Jopson, who steps back, gaze lowered again. “You have my admiration,” he says, earnest, though his tone is hushed. “Love is not the extent of all that could exist between us. Don’t you think we could be friends?”
“No,” Jopson says, stern. The answer is not the one Edward expected; he tilts up Jopson’s chin with a finger, makes him meet his gaze. For the first time in a long while, he feels part of the living.
“Why?” he pleads.
Jopson’s gaze flicks to his lips, then back up to his eyes. Edward notices he has backed him into a corner.
“I’m in love with you,” Jopson says, plain and frank. “I cannot pretend that my sentiment is anything different. When you smile at me, I want all your smiles, for the rest of my life. When you shake my hand, I want your hands all over myself. When you offer your friendship, I just want your love back.” He presses his forehead to his, as close as the cap would let him. Their noses are nearly brushing. “Want me,” he whispers, “or I beg of you, please be unkind, so I can forget.”
Edward takes a breath in; a breath stolen from Jopson’s lips. How warm it is; how he misses the taste of him, and how cruel it seems, to deny the comfort of a kiss from him. Could he be cruel? Never; Jopson deserves more, deserves better. Deserves honesty, yes; but is it not his special day? Should he not be allowed an exception? Edward mustn’t reverse his decision to do this: lean in for a kiss. He presses their lips together.
Before Jopson could open his mouth for him, somebody yells. “Murder! Murder!”
They break apart once again.
“I have no doubt in my mind,” Hodgson says, “who was responsible for this brutish ambush, and it’s the men I shot.”
Edward listens patiently. The sunshine is blinding. It pulses in his skull. Jopson’s kiss still tingles on his lips. That is by far the most distracting part.
The tents surround Hodgson and him. These are no shelters. Edward understands the marines’ anxiety to reinforce the camp. Prepare. Crozier doesn’t see it like that.
“The captain is a thorough man,” Edward says.
“We have no time for an investigation to confirm the events,” Hodgson whispers urgently. “We already know what happened. Oh, you should’ve seen poor John; you’d know.”
“I’m far less concerned with what happened than what may come next,” Edward confesses. Leans against a barrel of fresh water. Should that barrel be looted; should they be attacked; a tent set on fire; one more men dead, or merely injured: at this point, the simplest loss could put the entire expedition in danger. They can’t risk a single thing.
He’s not the one giving orders, however.
He must put his confidence in Crozier. He’s proven himself to be frustratingly capable countless times over. He’s fearless, and that worries Edward. In the face of his calm logic, he feels like a feverish boy complaining to his father about nightmares, fancied dreads. But sometimes, children are right. Sometimes, there are monsters.
“Keep the men ready in case Mr. Hickey is telling the truth; but calm, in case he is not,” Fitzjames advises. Edward acknowledges him with a glance, but doesn’t find it in him to answer. Not after Crozier just threatened to flog him for insubordinance. He’s trying his utmost, isn’t he?
Has he started behaving irrationally?
Are people noticing?
His judgement should be solid. The only way to earn Crozier’s respect is through reason. Can he trust himself with that? The fog descends. It obscures his thoughts. There are shadows moving through the thick mist. Friend or foe? What could they be?
Where is Jopson?
He followed the captain. Edward needs to follow orders.
He just has to follow the orders and what his instincts and training tell him, and no one will be harmed.
The scissors’ blades cut open Irving’s stomach. Edward compels himself to watch while Jopson stands guard and Hodgson lingers, prepared for judgement. Knife-cuts zigzag over Irving’s chest. A horrifying pattern. Parts of him were removed. His brain is exposed, like Private Heather’s was. His eyes are open. The little wood cross is tight around his neck. His God failed to protect him.
There’s some calculated brutality to his fate. Edward cannot imagine anybody, English or Inuit, who would do something like this. The stab wounds are the least disturbing. There’s an insanity to them. Anger. The rest, however. That was meant to be discovered. Read like a warning. Feared.
Edward wants to think that Irving’s murderer didn’t know him. That matters more than the killer’s nationality. If they never saw Irving smiling. Didn’t know of his brilliance. His kindness to animals. His amiable self-importance. That his favourite song was Amazing Grace. Edward has it scribbled in his notebook. It burns his pocket. He watches the guts revealed and hears how sweet the sound...I once was lost, but now am found...'twas grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.
“That’s seal meat, sir. Barely digested. They fed him,” Goodsir says.
Whatever faith Edward ever had, it shatters.
The armory is open. Edward has given the orders. The enemy carries guns. Friends were shot down.
He carries the weight of his ill judgement as he arrests Sergeant Tozer. Seeks out the carpenters. Has the gallows made. Almost says, make it three.
They came too close to a mutiny.
Innocents were slain.
Blood is easy to wash off one’s hands. It washes away in tears of regret. Mistakes like this, however: they stain like ink. How can he scrub his soul clean?
He knows already.
He’s made the decision once. Step up. Give yourself over to command. All else is trivial.
His love life has a headcount.
He’s the one to announce Mr. Hickey and Sergeant Tozer’s crimes. He’s a representative of discipline and order. It’s only through Crozier’s mercy he stands there. He feels Jopson’s eyes on himself. Jopson mans the rope. He knew of the mutiny before Edward did. He captured Mr. Hickey.
Don’t you think we could be friends?
No. I’m in love with you.
That, they can’t afford, can they? Edward is still searching for an excuse, the coward he is. He made one too many mistakes to-day: the open armory, his parted lips, the kiss. Still, he wishes to discuss it all with Jopson. Confess his shortcomings. Have his insight. His support. Pity. All he wants is get back to that tent, once justice is served, and be purged. Curl up in Jopson’s lap, let him stroke his hair and beg, help me. Right my instincts. When I listen to my heart, it leads me astray. It’s poisoned by worse than lead: fear rusts it. My head is heavy. I cannot think. Be my better half again. I haven’t been myself since I sent you away; but wasn’t it a necessary sacrifice to make?
Noises emerge from the fog.
He’s hiding behind a tent.
He’s taking cover.
He needs to catch his breath before pursuing Tozer any further.
He has problems breathing.
It started when he saw the spirit.
When he really saw it.
It has a shape.
It’s not like a bear.
It has human features.
Something is wrong with the way it moves. Like the spirit is still learning how to carry this conjured body. The weight of it. How to be contained by flesh.
Edward looked into its eyes and learnt three things about Tuunbaq: it’s immense; it’s ancient; it’s like the land.
The ground under his feet shakes with the spirit’s anger. He cannot breathe: he’s not allowed this air. He’s gasping as his lungs keep collapsing. As the dark creeps in. He’s sick with nerves again. Helpless. Useless.
Jopson is out there, in the fog, with the spirit.
His muscles strain to run after him.
He has an order to capture Tozer.
He must see to that.
Tozer is the real danger.
The Tuunbaq is an avalanche. A blizzard. A whirl. They won’t defeat it. They just have to survive it until it passes.
The dead litter the earth.
He has no control over who’s next.
This is a test of the choice he made.
This is proof that he has no choice.
“No one can see you now,” Tozer says. “You’re invisible. They’ll think you died and you were carried off.”
Edward gestures with his rifle. “Get on the ground,” he says. He sounds weak. Winded.
He wouldn’t obey himself.
“Hickey didn’t get to say half of what he wanted to say, Edward. That’s your name, isn’t it? Edward?”
Edward gestures again. What is left, if orders are not followed? He won’t shoot Tozer. Won’t kill a man. Not one of their own. Tozer knows. That’s why he doesn’t obey. There are too many dead already. He’s safe as the world around him shatters.
The Arctic will kill them. It’s not about accidents or exposure to cruel weather. It’s slaughter.
All they have left are instincts and training.
Tozer should share them.
His gut should say the same thing as Edward’s. We must live. This is the way to it: obey.
His training should make him afraid. Have him raise his hands. Get on the ground. Comply with his arrest.
He’s a dead man.
He’s been marked.
He’s to be executed.
But Edward doesn’t have the authority to enforce that order.
“Crozier was going to lead that sledge party himself and leave. Quit the Navy. Quit all of us. You didn’t know that, did you? He was gonna leave you a big, losing hand, Edward.” Tozer smiles. There’s pity in it. You were always already doomed. “Watch out.”
Pain flares at the back of his head.
Then he sees the dark again.
He lies on the ground like the dead. He knows he’s alive, because he’s in pain. His head feels like there’s a knife in it. His joints ache. He fell, didn’t he? He’s been hit.
Something warm touches his face. Jopson. Jopson is here.
“Look at me,” he says very clearly. “Can you hear me?”
Edward nods, which is a mistake. He winces. Jopson touches the back of his head. Pulls his hand back. His fingers are red. His eyes fill with dread.
“Find the others,” Edward says, getting up to his elbows. “Where are the—”
“Careful. That’s a nasty wound there. What happened?” Jopson starts unbuttoning his own coat. Edward must be hallucinating.
“Was hit in the head. They got away, tell Captain Crozier they escaped—what are you doing?”
Jopson undoes his waistcoat, gets his shirt off. There’s a bruise on his chest, from hauling, perhaps. He glances at Edward as he bundles the shirt up, then presses it to the back of his aching head. “There. It’s the cleanest thing I have.”
“Tom,” Edward says, wretched.
“Cotton soaks up blood well.”
Edward puts his hand over Jopson’s. Their gazes lock. Jopson looks away, pulls back, dresses.
“Thank you,” Edward says.
“Don’t mention it.”
Jopson leaves as the fog flares up. A bit of hope illuminates him, the comet-bright shine of rockets. The spirit growls, and then there’s silence.
They burn the dead. They’d be impossible to bury. There’s over thirty. They go up in smoke. The smell of Carnivale follows as the survivors haul.
“How’s the head?” Le Vesconte asks at their temporary camp. Edward wears his cap over clean bandages. He still has Jopson’s shirt, which he should return. He’s just holding onto it a little longer.
He regards Le Vesconte. He looks tired. One day, and fatigue is already setting back in. Edward, too, feels it.
“I’m fine, thank you,” he says.
His muscles are tight as ropes. Fraying at the edges. They pull at him with every step. So now he’s sitting.
Le Vesconte makes a sympathetic sound. Takes a place beside him. Sits there comfortably, smiling.
“Are you,” Edward says. Licks his lips. Tries again, looking ahead at the camp. “Are you trying to be companionable?”
Le Vesconte scoffs. “Thank you for noticing my meager attempts.” He bumps into Edward’s shoulder. It smarts. This is why he can’t decide.
“Why?” he asks. His throat is dry. He’s perched all the time.
“Very well.” Vesconte, too, stares ahead. Dusk settles on them like ashes. “You see, I’m the only lieutenant left in Erebus’s ranks,” he says. “I wish to discuss my thoughts with like-minded people. We just had a mutiny. Us officers must rely on each other. Be of the same position. It’s pivotal that we understand one another well. I think I have the wardroom figured out. Not you; and I need to: you’re the third in command.”
Edward chuckles. There’s no joy in it, but Le Vesconte smiles at him affably. “If you ever figure me out,” Edward says, “do kindly share the results.”
“I’m not dying here,” Le Vesconte says with a fervour that embarrasses Edward. “I’m not.”
“We’re heading home.” Edward points east. “Best we can do. Soldier on.”
The march is agony. His body is no longer complying. He can walk, still, which is a blessing, but his joints ache with it. His stomach is in knots the entire day. He cannot eat. He’s lost appetite while his fellow men starve. He forces the tins down his throat. He knows it’s poison. He knows it’s what makes him sick.
If Goodsir were here, he would ask him for more details. Bridgens could only cite the headache. The feeble moods. He made a note on memory loss. That’s what concerns Edward the most.
He can push through the pains of the body. It’s been asked of him before. Nerves affect him. He’s beginning to see that. But what unkind disease it is, that rids its victims not just of health, character and good spirits, but their very past?
He struggles to recall the first time he laid eyes on Jopson. It must’ve been at Greenhithe. Three years since. Earlier, maybe. There must’ve been some social function or another. Surely, he would remember.
Their first kiss, he can picture vividly. The quality of light; the swirl of dust; the shadow Jopson’s eyelashes cast. That’s a problem. He was snowblind at the time. This means that his brain is conjuring imagery. Creates visions out of nothing. Will there be a time when he won’t be able to tell what was and wasn’t?
There’s a day where he becomes convinced that they’re looking for thaws. That they’ll go back to Terror and report.
He gets confused too often.
He sees Jopson swipe his forehead with a handkerchief he knows to be his, but cannot recall how it came to be Jopson’s possession.
Once he’s in Jopson’s tent. Jopson is not there, and he knows not what he came to discuss. He spots a familiar envelope among Jopson’s neatly stacked personals. He knows what the letter says. He doesn’t remember delivering it.
It’s all becoming rather worrying.
Fitzjames stumbles and falls. Blood seeps through his shirt, his slops. He’s put on a boat with a man whose name doesn’t come to Edward’s lips; who hasn’t moved in a while; hasn’t even blinked.
Edward heads out with the sweep party. He sings under his breath to keep up his spirits. I can no longer stay, our ship sails are hoisted and I must away. Jopson taught him this song. He remembers that. It was Jopson.
What fun they’ll all have, back in England. Edward can just picture it. A dinner at the Admiralty. Fitzjames with his curled hair, well-fed, tanned. “Like the shot that killed Lord Nelson. Well, it couldn’t kill me. Its reappearance troubled us shortly, but then—”
What happened? He imagines it still in Fitzjames’ voice, “We walked home.”
In his imagination, he looks at Jopson. He’s in uniform. Sitting by the table beside him. He’s drinking rose lemonade, and he’s smiling. His breath fogs the glass. “What a miracle it is,” he murmurs, “to have survived; you’d never know from his recounting!”
Fitzjames tells it in his usual style: a dismissive boast, an epic tale concealed as a dinner story he could tell any day. This is the life he lives: a life of adventure, and the expedition for the North-West passage is just a chapter. Edward follows the motion of his white-gloved hands, laughs and claps. Meets Jopson’s eyes again. Observes the glint in them; how the candlelight’s glow make them a greenish hue. God, he’s beautiful. If they weren’t in public—
—Edward would kiss him. It’d be welcome, and safe. Nothing would depend on it.
“Lieutenant Little, sir! It’s the creature!”
He turns in his seat. Hartnell is in rags. He’s standing in the Admiralty's dining hall breathless, like he had to run miles to find Edward here. He left the door open. There are ragged rocks behind it, and miles of ice. Something stirs within the immobile landscape. Creeps.
“We’re too slow,” Le Vesconte tells him. Edward shakes his head. They’re back at the camp. “You’ve spotted the creature,” Le Vesconte insists. “It’s tracking us still.”
“We have the mutineers to fear as well. We’re being pursued, and we’re incapable of running. We’re barely a quarter of the way in. At this pace, December will find us frozen and helpless in King William’s Land!”
“You must raise that concern with the captain,” Edward says.
“You must support me on it,” Le Vesconte insists. Edward shakes his head. He’s not arguing. He’s just incapable of handling this. He’s pacing the camp. It has shrunk. Three boats. A sledge. A couple of tents. Men in dwindling numbers. “We shall leave the sick to rest.”
Edward gives him a glare. Le Vesconte struggles to keep up with him. He used to be a good walker. He’s exhausted.
“That’s what we would do,” Le Vesconte says, “back home. Allow them to stay in bed.”
“They’d have doctors,” Edward says. “Nurses. Family members.”
“We need doctors to move on. If we’re to ever find game, help and rescue—”
“Then I beseech you, say something.” Le Vesconte grabs his arm. Edward halts. He’s swaying on his feet. He’ll collapse on Le Vesconte. Can’t they have this conversation in a dream?
“Captain Crozier will never agree to it.”
“You can convince him.”
“Hardly.” Edward bites his lips. Considers the disadvantages of honesty. Then thinks, to hell with it. “Captain Fitzjames is dying,” he says.
They both refuse to glance at his tent. They search each other’s expressions instead.
“He is,” Le Vesconte admits. His face is a mask. His eyes betray all. The depth of his grief, an abyss. It pulls Edward in. “I’ll bury my friend, then we will march on. We will walk and walk and we won’t stop until we have shelter and food and lemon fucking juice. On my honour I’ll lead the rescue party for our sick myself. We can send them meat, as soon as we find any. But we have to go on or else all perish.”
Relaying the plan to Crozier doesn’t go well.
Edward lingers by the campfire, warming his hands. The nights are still cold. He’s keeping his eyes on Jopson, who’s smoking on the sledge, sitting on it like a rider. He catches Edward’s glance.
“Are you still upset with me?” Edward asks.
“Trying to be.”
“Should I leave you to it?”
“Come here.” Jopson pats the sledge. Edward pulls away from the fire, wraps the coat tighter around himself. The camp is nearly empty. Everybody is trying to sleep. Nobody manages.
Captain Fitzjames is dying.
Lamps burn in the tents. They all keep vigil.
Edward sits facing Jopson, knees brushing together. “In my defence,” he says, “when Lieutenant Le Vesconte convinced me of this plan, it sounded much less heartless.”
The ember of his cigarette reflects in Jopson’s eyes. It flashes as he smiles. “I bet.”
He keeps his hair much longer. It frames his face most fetchingly. With a good wash and some rosemary, it’d become him even in London. The full beard, also. Jopson regards him too. Bafflingly, he touches his nose.
“You have freckles again,” he says. His voice is tender. Edward doesn’t deserve such gentleness, but on a night like this, he needs it. He can’t forget Fitzjames crying out in pain. Not long ago, the halest in their party. An expert of overland expedition. Crozier’s second. A man of noted endurance, strength and vigour. Edward tries not to think of it, but he strains his ears for a last cry of pain.
“It’s summer,” he says haltingly. “It’s the sun. They come out.”
He hears in Fitzjames’ voice, you should’ve seen us: we all looked frightfully unkempt. Lieutenant Little’s hair nearly reached his shoulders. Not many men can keep up that appearance, let me tell you that. Fitzjames would then toss his hair. There’d be laughter.
“You had freckles when we first met,” Jopson says.
Edward blinks, avoids his gaze. “At Greenhithe?”
“Mm. I thought you were cute. And I liked how you looked in uniform. Broad-chested. Sturdy.” He touches his buttons next. Presses his fingers to one until the Royal Navy’s sigil is imprinted on his fingertip. “I don’t think you noticed me.”
There’s a beat.
“Do you ever regret coming here?” Edward asks softly.
Jopson considers this. Smoke curls from his lips. “I can’t even begin to think what state I would be in, waiting for Captain Crozier’s return in vain. I’m glad I’m here to aid him. I wouldn’t trust anyone else with it. Not himself, surely.” He glances at Fitzjames’ tent. “He won’t sleep to-night,” he says, flat. “I wish he could, really. Find some relief.”
“I don’t think any of us will sleep.”
“I’m glad I met you,” Jopson goes on. He takes the cigarette from between his lips. Puts it out efficiently.
“If the circumstances were different,” Edward begins. Reconsiders. “We should’ve met under luckier stars,” he says. The comment is bland, non-committal. Jopson looks at him sharply.
“Luck has nothing to do with it. I think you’re punishing yourself. You shouldn’t; especially not through me.”
Edward nods, although he doesn’t agree. “I have a lot to atone for,” he says.
“Good people have died.”
“And you’re personally responsible?”
Edward looks at Fitzjames’ tent again. The lights are out. Crozier is still within. Bridgens had left a while ago; he was in tears.
“Good people have died,” Edward says, “and I still live.”
Jopson’s face softens. His compassion shames Edward. His kindness, clemency: all evidence Edward doesn’t even deserve to sit with him.
“I wish you shared the weight of your guilt, when I could still have helped you carry it” Jopson says, then adds, “Could I have?”
Edward strokes his knees, gently. “No.” His thumb ghosts over the old injury. Jopson flinches. Clasps his wrists.
“What if I forgave you?”
“Haven’t yet made up my mind. I could be bribed.”
Edward reaches to cup his face. Jopson still clings to him. He kisses his forehead. Leaves.
Captain Fitzjames is dead. Long live Commander Little.
Fitzjames doesn’t look like he’s only sleeping. He looks like a man tortured by nightmares.
Crozier looks worse.
“He didn’t suffer much,” Jopson says, standing above the grave. “It was fast.”
“Aye,” Edward murmurs. Much too fast, he thinks. Scurvy isn’t swift. It doesn’t go in for the kill. It eats at you. Rots you. Plays.
Would he be able to do what Crozier likely did? Assist? He doesn’t suppose he would be.
They hide Fitzjames in the landscape, in case the spirit comes scavenging. In case a worse monster returns.
Edward cannot get rid of the impression that Fitzjames is still there, much amused by the proceedings of his own funeral. He expects Fitzjames’ boots to twitch, to hear a snicker from the rock pile, surprise. It’s a shock that he’d be still in denial, after the abundance of death he’s faced. That he’d still cling to a childish notion like resurrection or salvation and suppose that Fitzjames is up in the clouds, looking down.
He links his hands in prayer. Cannot say the words.
“He didn’t...” he tells Jopson, but cannot go on. Not with all the others around.
He didn’t believe in God.
What kind of sermon happened in that tent?
The wind carries a foreign noise. It’s Crozier’s laughter.
“We should’ve shot your bird,” he says.
“Can’t shoot a seagull,” Jopson replies. “Bad luck.”
“Food’s food. Besides, what could be worse luck than this?”
Jopson mulls this over. They were sent out after camping. A hunting party. No longer hunted. Mr. Blanky is to bait the spirit. Edward has lost all sense of optimism, but he supposes Mr. Blanky might just yet succeed.
“One caribou,” he says. “That’s not too much to ask for, is it? With our current numbers, it’d keep our belly filled for days. A week.”
Jopson hums, distracted. He’s still grieving Captain Fitzjames. Mr. Peglar. Mr. Blanky. Not all of them are dead. Soon, they all will be. Picky eater, death is. It takes them one by one. It’s uncharastically ravenous to-day. The table is laid.
Edward stops to get his telescope. Survey the horizon. The sun is coming down. They had to try for a hunt, still. See if there’s anything living here. Anything that moves and breathes.
Jopson gasps, and bends forward. He’s grasping his knee. Edward drops the telescope, runs to him.
“Hey, hey, hey—are you all right, are you—”
Blood spreads from Jopson’s knee and blossoms.
“I’d like to sit down,” he says, hoarse. He falls back to the rocks, right where he was standing. He’s so pale he’s washed grey, blending in with their surroundings. The dull dusk. The landscape. He’s fading away. Edward cannot bear it.
“What ails you?” he asks. He dreads the answer. “Rest a while,” he hastens to add. “We shall just rest a little. Long day, was it not? Hauling and hauling, but there must be water ahead, there must be—things that live—here, here.”
Jopson is swaying in his seat. Edward sheds his coat for him, spreads it out on the ground. It will hardly dull the rocks’ edge, but this is the best comfort he can provide right now. “Rest,” he begs.
“I will be quite restored in a moment,” Jopson says. “Shan’t keep you up, go see if there’s any—”
“I shall stay,” Edward says, more stern. He’s scared. Jopson looks like he’s barely there. He splays out on Edward’s coat, boneless. Removes his woolen wig. His dark hair spills out like ink. It makes his pale eyes stand out. They search the sky, the clouds.
“Don’t shoot the bird, please,” he says softly. “Promise.”
Edward takes his place next to him, lying down carefully. “You asked if we could all see it.”
Jopson clicks his tongue, closes his eyes. Now Edward is terrified. He can’t let him sleep. Death is hungry to-day.
“Do you hallucinate often?”
Jopson pulls a face, considering it. “These days, yes.”
“You never said.”
“You never inquired.”
Edward rolls to his side to look at Jopson proper. He should take better care of him. Even if his care shan’t, cannot be exclusive. Jopson peers up at him, one eye open. His face is scarred. His lips are chapped. Did he look like this yesterday? Bruised and death-pale? Would Edward have noticed? He’s been looking right through him, even when he faced him.
“It used to frighten me,” Jopson says. “Not knowing what was real; but the fancies disperse like mirages. You just have to wait them out.”
“Are you waiting now?”
Jopson hums. His hands rest over his stomach: he moves them up to his chest, crosses them over. Like the dead. “I hope I will go in a dream,” he says.
“Stop it. I’m really here. So are you. We’re hunting for caribou.”
“Much use I am to you,” Jopson says. “My bones feel like they’re broken. Every single one of them. The tiniest bones I never knew existed.”
Edward inches closer. “Rest, then.”
“I will walk in a minute,” Jopson promises. “I hauled all day, I can do it. It’s only that blasted knee. I think the wound is reopening.”
Edward waits a moment. A singular moment; just enough time to face the truth, or carry on a liar. He drags his gaze down. Jopson’s trousers stick to his right knee. Edward sits. Keeps looking. Removes his neckerchief.
“Stay still,” he says. Bends forward to tie it over Jopson’s knee; but what would that achieve? The blood will dry, and mould the trousers to the wound. The neckerchief is silk; it can be washed quickly, changed; it should be lying over Jopson’s bare skin.
Edward reaches for the buttons of Jopson’s trousers, unfastens the braces. The gesture is practiced. He feels like he should ask, but it’s not a breach of intimacy. It’s a necessity. His fingers tremble still. His selfish cock fills as Jopson’s stomach is revealed. He has no underthings on. Edward arranges his shirt for him to cover his dignity. The shirt, too, is bloody. His heart skips until he realises it’s old blood. His own.
“This,” Jopson comments, “definitely feels like a daydream.”
“I need to dress your injury,” Edward tells him and tugs at his trousers. Jopson hisses sharply. Edward mustn’t jostle him. Panic rises in his throat. He doesn’t know how to treat the sick. He has no idea. There were always women to do it, nurses and maids, and then doctors and surgeons when he started his service. He lacks training. He can only mimic what he’s seen. “Are you,” he asks, then licks his lips. “Are you in pain?”
Jopson scoffs, amused. “Constantly,” he says.
Edward tugs at his trousers again. Manages to reveal the wound and bare skin. Not the milky expanse of it he remembers, with the soft hairs. It’s blue and black and rotten.
He needs to alert Mr. Bridgens.
Mr. Bridgens probably knows.
There’s nothing Mr. Bridgens can do.
Edward covers the nastiest part with his palm. “Does it smart?” he asks.
“They don’t hurt,” Jopson says. “It’s just the wound.”
Edward pulls his hand back. It sticks with fluids he cannot even name. He winds the neckerchief around the wound, blindly.
Scurvy’s slow, he reminds himself. Tom may have weeks left, even months.
The walk takes longer.
He mustn’t calculate the numbers.
He climbs over him on his hands and knees, as if he could shield him with his body. As if it wasn’t late. It can’t be too late.
Jopson smiles at him. “What’s the matter?” he says.
I didn’t know, Edward wants to say. Never knew you were so poorly.
But of course he did.
He just refused to acknowledge it in any way.
He looked him in the eyes and told him, some of us will die, surely.
He surges to kiss him. Changes his mind at the last minute: he wants Jopson to remember their kisses soft and sweet. He presses his lips to his face instead, then his ear. Laps at it. Just how Jopson likes. Pleasures it with his tongue. Sucks, nibbles, bites, breathing slowly so he won’t start sobbing. Jopson moans underneath him, at first gently, like he used to, back on Terror.
There’s no one around for a mile or so.
Jopson moans again, loud, as Edward swirls his tongue deeper inside.
“What—” Jopson gasps. He grabs Edward’s shoulders, and he stills, expecting to be pushed away.
Jopson pulls him down to kiss his neck. Edward shudders. Encouraged, Jopson nips at his Adam’s apple.
The first sin.
Edward wants to fuck him.
He knows it’s impossible. It’d hurt both of them. He doesn’t want that. He wants what they used to do in his cabin. Leisurely sex. The exquisite pleasure of time shared, heat, laughter and closeness, paced out between breaths.
He wants something better.
Wants the future.
Both of them recovered. In their little house by the sea. England. The mainland. The rescue camp. Anywhere. Take Jopson. Take him back. Welcome him in his company again. He can’t.
Jopson’s teeth graze over his neck. The pleasure of it is sharp, thrilling. What a wicked irony, that his body still knows bliss. He’s been convinced it’s forgotten it completely. He’s been having problems with it.
Jopson cups his prick. Fondles it.
Something forsaken awakens within.
A will to live.
Jopson strokes him expertly, his hot breath caressing Edward’s neck. He struggles to stay on his hands and knees, when he’s so pulled to Jopson. When he wants to envelop him. Hide him inside himself. Would he be safer there?
He wants Jopson like he’s never wanted anyone, anything. He’s wild with it. That’s why he’s given him up. Because Jopson was the only thing he ever wanted. The only worthy sacrifice. A perfect lamb.
Edward lowers himself down to his elbows, sneaks a hand between their bodies, pressed closely together. Gropes Jopson’s cock. It’s soft.
“I’m afraid it no longer functions,” Jopson says.
“Give it time,” Edward insists, touching it exactly how Jopson prefers, the rough pulls, his strong hand.
“I haven’t had an erection in some months.”
Edward stops. “Ah,” he says.
He’s quite forgotten.
They’re both dead.
As good as dead.
“Let me touch you nevertheless,” Jopson whispers. “I miss you, Ned. May I call you Ned? Are you there?”
“I’m here,” Edward says, choked. Jopson strokes his cock. The gentleness of it is agony. It must pain Jopson’s hands to touch him. He said his very bones were hurting.
Edward hides his face in the crook of Jopson’s neck. He wants to breathe in his scent. His sense of smell is lost for good. He wishes he felt Jopson’s warmth. His skin is cold.
“I love you,” Edward says. “Never stopped. I’m sorry.”
Wherever Jopson touches him, it feels like that part of his body is healed.
“Are you really here?”
If he closed his eyes, he could pretend this moment was long ago. Back on Terror. So he keeps his eyes open. Stares into the dark. He runs his fingers through Jopson’s hair, pulls him closer. Arches into his palm.
“I’m here, love.”
“Stay, then; only stay.”
Jopson strokes him firmly and Edward spills. There’s no relief to it. Some droplets, nothing more. Edward sits back on his heels, tucks himself away. Should he be ashamed?
It felt holy.
Hollow, yes, and unsatisfactory, but holy.
He dresses Jopson again. Hides the wounds. He offers his hand to help him sit up. Jopson interlaces their fingers. Squeezes. He’s too weak to sit. Sways forward, his head resting over Edward’s chest. He must hear how his heart hammers. Edward tries to look calm. He has to.
“Come on,” he says, warm. “It’s getting dark. We’ll miss our caribou.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” Jopson says. “I was mistaken; I don’t think I can stand, after all.”
Edward trembles. “I know you’re tired.”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Rest a little more. I might sing you a song, huh? I have quite the collection.”
Jopson laughs, charmed but sad. He pulls back, looks at Edward. His eyes are gentle. Colourless. “I’m dying,” he says. “Please tell me you know that.”
“You just need time to recover.”
“I won’t be here much longer.”
“You’re not going anywhere.” Edward stands up. Pulls him into his arms. Hauls him up. Jopson clings on as Edward carries him back to Terror camp.
Edward is pacing in front of Jopson’s tent. Crozier is in there. Bridgens has disappeared. Peglar is dead.
Whoever comes after us will follow a path of bones, he thinks. Read our history from our teeth.
He feels like he’s forgetting something.
Three steps forward, three steps back. His rifle holsted over his shoulder.
He’s definitely forgetting something.
I’m expected to tea at my parents, he realises. I’m late.
But—no, it’s not that. His parents know he went to sea. Still: he sees them by the table with all his siblings, Papa checking his fobwatch. He’s upstairs, looking through the barrister. He’s nine years old. No. He’s twenty-nine. His sister Jane smacks his shoulder.
“Race you to the table.”
“No,” Edward says, but Jane is already running. So he runs after her, exhausted by her antics but charmed, too. He follows her to the same stairs they used to thunder down as children. Jane will cheat by sliding down the railing—there she goes. She turns to Edward with a grin. Edward realises he doesn’t remember the face of his own twin. Not really. Not the fine details.
Who will bring our bones back to our family? Who will own our teeth?
He’s forgetting to hope.
He should be convinced that they’ll survive and reunite with loved ones.
(Peglar is dead and Bridgens is gone.)
Crozier’s voice drones on. He’s talking about a cow.
Edward should go in. He hasn’t set foot inside since he laid Jopson down, tucked him in, even through Jopson was sweating and complaining of the heat. He went to fetch Crozier. Crozier would know what to do, he reasoned. Jopson was calling after him, but he ignored it. Jopson would have no use of him. He’s not trained. He cannot give him what he needs. Meat. He remembers Le Vesconte saying something about—
—bring them meat, when we find any; now we must go on or else all of us will perish—
Edward keeps pacing.
He’s not leaving.
They all need meat but they can’t leave to get it.
Maybe if Blanky succeeds—God bless Blanky—it will be safe to send out more hunting parties, cover a larger distance, maybe even advance days ahead while the sick rest, and there should be someone with them—
Crozier exits the tent. His eyes shine wetly in the dusk.
It is dusk.
Edward hasn’t noticed.
“He wishes to see you,” Crozier says, hoarse. Edward looks at the tent. He can’t, he can’t.
“Is he,” Edward asks, then stops himself. “How is he?”
“Not delirious yet. He’s quite himself.”
Edward blinks, rapidly. Crozier looks too exhausted to even stand, yet he stays, waiting.
“What should one do, if the...delusion...sets in?”
“Let him dream.” Crozier pats him on the shoulder. Edward blinks again. Looks at the dark lurking in the tent.
He has something to give.
No cure. No hope. No food. No cheer.
Jopson is asleep.
He tries again the next morning. His courage has faded. He removes his hat. As he was standing by somebody’s deathbed.
Jopson just needs rest.
He’s with his back to Edward. Curled up. At the start of their affair, he used to sleep on his stomach. Now he sleeps as if Edward was in bed with him. He sleeps like that, still.
Edward considers leaving.
Then he considers the right thing.
He should sit. However: where? At the edge of Jopson’s bed? The stool? He looks around, helpless. Becomes aware that they are not alone in the tent.
The other cot is occupied. Just a vague bundle of somebody shivering. Who is it? He must’ve got sick during the evening. Edward thinks he heard somebody crying. He couldn’t sleep.
“I don’t want to go,” Jopson says. It startles Edward. He turns to Jopson, who’s looking at him over his shoulder. His right eye is bloody.
“Captain Crozier will take care of you,” Edward says. “I believe he has some...expertise. He can help you with whatever you need. He truly appreciates all you have done. Are doing. Presently. For him.”
He’s fiddling with his cap. He should stop. He remembers Jopson’s putting it on. How they laughed.
“What are you going to do?” Jopson asks.
Edward still hasn’t decided where he should sit.
“I,” he says, and gestures around. “I shall check on the freshwater supplies.”
“What are you going to do when I die?” Jopson clarifies.
It chills Edward. He takes a step back. “You mustn’t think of that,” he says. “Those are such unpleasant thoughts to have.”
Jopson reaches for him. Edward gives a quick glance to the pile of cloth on the other cot. Would he mind? he thinks. Cannot risk it. Smiles at Jopson, apologetic.
“I don’t want to leave you alone,” Jopson says. He drops his hand, rolls to his back. It pains him, but he still does it, just so he can look at Edward.
(The bleeding eye. He must be going blind.)
“I see that you’re rather scared,” Jopson says. “I know you needed me to be well. You wanted to save as many men as you possibly could; I think you always assumed—”
“Stop,” Edward interrupts. “If you’re saying good-bye, I beg of you, stop now.”
Jopson sits up with what could be his last strength. His long hair sticks to his death-pale face. “I don’t want to leave you alone in the dark,” he says with laboured breath, “because I don’t know what the dark will do to you.”
Edward’s back hits the tent’s opening. The light is pouring in. Jopson sits in the dark, his pale eyes following him.
“I need to fetch the Captain presently,” Edward says.
Then he starts running.
“You’re certain of this?”
“I saw it, sir. Through the glass. It’s there.”
“How wide you would guess it to be?” Edward asks urgently, trying to rein in his hope.
“Wide enough for our boats,” Golding says. “Yes, sir.”
A smile breaks free of the constraints of worry. “Weeks. This could save us weeks of travel.”
He quickly gathers his equipment and rushes to find men for the scout party. He can’t stop smiling. It feels like a dream, one of those dreams Jopson is having and he, too, shares. Solid visions that melt.
The pain in his hand is a reassurance. It’s too sharp to be imagined. He doesn’t remember hurting his fingers, but the bandage is fresh. Yesterday night he was very upset. Besides himself. Maybe he slammed his fist to his desk. He’s prone to do that, when anger flares.
He can now forget about anger and despair.
There’s a strait. Golding has seen it.
He hurries past Jopson’s tent. Considers peeking in, share the news in a triumphant yell; but he shall make haste. They must scout the strait right away and plan. It’s a fair distance, but he can carry Jopson there on his back. He will secure him in a boat, and sit by his side the entire time. He will row him to safety. The strait must have fish. He’ll catch them. On the Vindictive, he had a lieutenant swear fish roe was a tonic for scurvy. He didn’t take him seriously. Now he’s willing to try anything.
As the scout party sets out with Crozier he thinks of Jopson gently rocking in a boat. He can see his face clear as day. He’ll look so tranquil. The air will invigorate him. Edward will help him drink. He’ll wash him. He doesn’t know how to properly clean wounds, but he could wash his hair. Jopson will cherish that. He’s proud of his hair. They’ll get it cut together, at Fort Resolution, before they rejoin civilisation. Edward will shave him, if Jopson will be too weak to do it; but scurvy is fast in recovery—it can be turned around in a day—maybe Edward will shave him anyway, just for the excuse to touch his skin. To serve him. To say I’m sorry without language.
The ice looks endless. Unbroken. Edward strains his eyes to spot the strait. He waits for Crozier to call out, there. He’d never forget such a moment. He’d remember it forever.
Golding hurries past him.
Mason and Des Voeux are on the ridge. Their weapons are drawn.
Golding runs up to them.
Edward points his rifle, calls out for Crozier. His mind stays on the strait. The calm water, blue and green. Jopson’s eyes in a certain light. Jopson, when he laughs. He hasn’t heard him laugh in a while. If he told him about the strait, he would’ve laughed. He should’ve stopped by his tent. There’s a strait, we’re saved. He should have told him while it was true. While there was hope.
Mason startles and pulls the trigger. Shoots down Hartnell.
Edward flinches, glances at him, panicked.
Keeps his aim.
He’s ready to kill.
His vision is blurring.
He’s going to shoot every last one of them. Even Hodgson, who lingers like a confused ghost.
He’s going to—
“You did well. You did so well, son.”
—watch their skulls explode. The violence of it will bring no thrill. His heart is cold; it’s frozen solid; it cannot beat. He feels it in his chest, heavy, stiff. His nerves are jittery, his gaze skips between Hartnell, Crozier, the rest. His heart remains motionless.
All his hopes are wasted.
He’s carried them this far, carried them in his chest. Took such good care of them. It was pointless.
“Gun down, Edward.”
He can’t make his body submit to his will. He wants to kill Golding most of all. He needs to. They’re going to take away Crozier. They shan’t. He must stop that.
Crozier steps in front of his pointed rifle. Makes him lower it, gentle, gentle.
There will be no bloodshed, no revenge.
“Come back for Hartnell’s body. Bury him. Then keep moving South, as planned.”
Des Voeux gets Edward’s gun from Crozier’s hand. Gives it to Golding.
“You are to lead the men forward, Edward,” Crozier says, every word carefully pronounced. He grabs his shoulder. Shakes him. He must feel him trembling. “You and the others will live,” he says.
They won’t. Not without Crozier. Jopson needs him the most. All of them do. His expertise. His leadership. The clemency of his judgement. His forbearance and his cunning.
Crozier squints, grips his shoulder a bit more tightly.
“I understand the order, sir.”
“Let me hear it.”
“We will live.”
He passes Jopson’s tent again. He takes a moment to stop this time. Listens. He can hear him breathing, if he concentrates. His lungs must ache from the awful coughs and wheezing.
There are so many things to see to. They can’t act now: the night will approach fast. They might be expected. Edward is devising a plan as he stands, his bandaged hand trembling over the tent’s flaps.
He cannot enter. Not with news like this.
Jopson is better off not knowing.
He can sleep, thinking Crozier safe. He will wonder why he neglected to visit. He’s expecting him. Edward will let Crozier recount his reasons. He’ll bring him back to Jopson. If there’s a doctor with them, he’ll bring him too. If they had better luck finding food, Edward will take it to Jopson. Feed him and tell how it all went.
We stormed their camp with twenty strong men; they were outgunned, outnumbered, so I cannot say it was a heroic attempt. Captain Crozier was retrieved unharmed; he excused some mutineers—yes, I believe he showed mercy—but as for Mr. Hickey, he could no longer run from justice. A funeral was allotted for him, but I don’t think many prayers were said. This is our way, Tom. He told us so. I know his mind, and he knows mine. He’s waiting for us.
His inner voice resembles the cadence of Fitzjames’. He needs to look over his shoulder to see if he’s there, his presence is so strongly felt. An urgent energy tugging at him.
save him save him save yourself
He steps away from the tent. By to-morrow, he will have devised a strategy thoroughly. He will plan it out so well it will be infallible. For now, he must organise a burial.
“We prefer the captain's orders, sir.”
“To hell with the captain's orders,” he says. They only have the words. They don’t have the meaning. They did not feel the weight of Crozier’s hands, didn’t see the glint of his glare. They don’t know his soul the way Edward does; the way Jopson could testify what matters most to their captain. “We have a camp of nearly thirty men here. We’ve got nine so ill they cannot walk, with no surgeon to tend them. We’ve but two able-bodied lieutenants for the lot of us. None of us speaks the Netsilik tongue. None have been in the polar regions before. To restore our best chance of survival, we must restore our captain. Surely, that is plain.”
Jopson wetted the compress and arranged his pillow for him. Jopson took care of him, when he was ill. “I can hardly say I speak Netsilik,” he said. “I merely picked up a few expressions from Captain Crozier. I suppose we should learn how to say open water and help.”
Edward wonders if he had the opportunity to master those expressions.
Whether he did or not: Jopson’s been to Antarctica as Crozier’s right hand. He’s the most useful person on this expedition. He’s also too ill to even crawl to a sledge. Edward had glanced into the sicktent before coming here. Jopson lay shivering, even though it’s a warm day. Without Crozier, they might all perish; Jopson, certainly; he’ll be the first casualty.
“We prefer the order, sir.”
“Well, I'm giving a different order.”
“There's been a vote, Edward.”
Strange winds are blowing. Just a day prior, he would have sworn he could smell fresh water on them. Now all he smells is death. The sledges are packed, the boats loaded, the tins distributed.
He’s facing Jopson’s tent.
He’s been denying himself entrance.
He isn’t worthy to go in there. Every time he attempted since his last visit, he found himself lacking. Unable to give the care Jopson needed, or even a comforting report. The time is now. The time is now, when all he has are words that are too terrible to utter. He’s ready to speak them.
Therein lies the problem.
A small path of light leads to Jopson’s cot. He could follow it. Kneel by the side of his erstwhile love, stroke his hair. Whisper what needs to be said. Crozier’s been kidnapped. We are leaving Terror camp. We will be back.
Except he wouldn’t go anywhere after.
If he sets foot in there, he won’t be leaving. He won’t go to aid Crozier: he’d be slaughtered on his own, and no other volunteer was found. He wouldn’t go with Le Vesconte either. He would stay in that tent, breaking every vow, every order he ever had: no use to anyone but himself, and a small comfort to Jopson, who would resent him for failing the captain, failing the crew.
The wind is blowing.
The party is ready to leave.
“Commander Little,” Le Vesconte calls.
He hasn’t earned that title. But the men need a commander.
“A moment,” he says in a whisper. He doesn’t want to wake Jopson. His dream looks restless. A stubborn lock of hair has fallen to his face. Edward yearns to brush it back, before he leaves. No one could fault him for it.
He tears away his gaze. Turns his back, and marches away.
He hauls the entire day.
That way, he doesn’t think about the tins.
The tins are sealed tightly.
One needs an axe or a knife to open them.
Jopson is too weak to stand.
With every step taken, his decision becomes irreversible. Walking is, therefore, a relief. It shows him clearly which way he’s heading. Lying still: that’s when responsibility catches up with him, and he cannot bear it.
He’s been taught, trained to maintain his position. He’s made a decision. If he chose wrong, he shall bear the consequences.
Except it’s not his life on the line.
He should go back.
It would achieve nothing.
Mutiny after mutiny.
But how can he live, when Jopson is dying?
He’s not just ill.
He is dying.
He didn’t camp near the others. The evenings are cold, but he’s fine by himself. Except he’s not alone. Jopson is there. His hair is smooth, jet-black. His face cleanly shaven. He’s in his nightshirt, and nothing else.
“Come to bed, Ned.”
It’s a waking dream. Edward goes anyway. He doesn’t slip under the duvet: he lifts it, surveys Jopson fondly. His bare thighs that used to hold him so tightly. The wound above his knee, healed.
“What is it?”
“You’re so clean,” Edward tells him. “I’m filthy.”
“I don’t mind. I love a man haggard.”
“You’re pure,” Edward goes on. Licks his chapped lips. Jopson traces the movement: his eyes are hooded. He strokes himself. Edward kneels on the berth and cups his face. He can feel how warm it is. He kisses Jopson’s rosy cheeks. “You’re beautiful, but you’re not my Tom. You’re here. My Tom is vanishing.”
“We should stay here a few days,” Le Vesconte proposes.
Edward nods slowly. His head is swimming. He stopped eating. He cannot stomach anything.
“I will lead the party,” he says.
“We must reconsider that plan.”
“No,” Edward says. “That was the agreement. As soon as we make a camp overland, we send a party back to our sick. Put them on sledges and deliver them here safely. Feed them and wash them and then proceed.”
“What would you feed them?”
“They have enough tins.”
“It’s time we provide them with fresh supplies. Let me go back and see to it.”
Le Vesconte tilts his head. Edward resents that gesture.
“They have more to eat than we do,” Le Vesconte says.
Edward stares. “Flesh?”
Le Vesconte is silent.
“You cannot possibly be suggesting flesh.” Edward stands, quite ready to leave the tent.
“Listen,” Le Vesconte says. Grabs his hand. Must’ve aimed for the cuff of his coat, and missed. He’s holding onto his wrist. Edward’s pulse is jumping. “I don’t know what villain you take me to be; what I have done to make you resent me so much. Know this: I don’t delight in suggesting something so—”
“Vile,” Edward interrupts.
“—but I shall implore you to be practical. If you consider the matter from the point of survival, you must admit that they’re aptly supplied, and we are not. I said we would turn back if we found game. We didn’t find any.”
Edward yanks his hand back and cradles it, as if it’s been burned. Le Vesconte pulls up his knees to his chest. Hugs them. He looks ahead. The whites of his eyes are visible.
“I don’t resent you,” Edward says. “I resent what you made me do.”
“You weren’t forced.” Le Vesconte adjusts his hair. The gesture is familiar. It sickens Edward.
What have I done?
“I was meaning to ask,” Le Vesconte says. “Were you and Lieutenant Jopson intimately acquainted?”
Edward turns his back to him, sharply. How dare he. How very dare he?
“Oh,” Le Vesconte says. “Well, I always had an inkling. I think I understand you better, heh?”
“You don’t,” Edward says.
He leaves the tent.
He wants a cigarette.
He takes a brisk walk to think.
The walk is only for thinking.
The problem is the following: he’d made a decision months ago, when he was in comparatively sound mind, just after Carnivale. That decision was to reject his personal needs, leave Jopson and devote all his attention and servitude to the crew.
That decision was one decision amongst many he could’ve taken.
There are several versions to these events.
In one of them, he goes South. Carries on with his strategy until he sees it fulfilled. Cross King William’s Land, get to Back’s Fish River, cross the mainland, get to Fort Resolution, get back to England.
In another, he dies trying to see this plan through.
What he’s currently doing is this: he’s walking.
His hands are in his pockets. They are empty. He’s not carrying anything. He has no plan.
He’s not heading East.
The sun is up and he keeps on walking.
The sun is burning.
He needs water. He needs to eat. He should sleep.
He spots the tents. There’s a figure crawling over the rocks. It’s Jopson. Edward runs towards him. Jopson is not moving.
Edward carries Jopson back to his cot. Fluffs up his pillow, and lays him down. He’s soiled himself: Edward changes his underwear, wipes his face, his chest. Tucks him in.
Sits back on his heels, and thinks.
Jopson hasn’t moved, but he’s breathing.
Edward leaves the tent quite calmly. Comes back with a waterskin. Notes the other man in Jopson’s tent. He’s dead. Edward covers him up with a blanket. He will bury him later.
He knows what he’s doing.
He brings the waterskin to Jopson’s lips. Pours it in. The water flows down his neck, his chin. Jopson is not drinking.
“Come now, love,” Edward whispers. His voice is ragged. He tries again.
It helps if he keeps Jopson’s mouth open, and massages his throat. Jopson makes a sound.
“That’s it,” Edward says, and starts crying.
He sits by the end of Jopson’s bed. His fobwatch is in his hand. He makes Jopson drink every two hours. Maybe it should be more frequent, or less.
The other cot is empty now.
He does not remember the burial, but there’s dirt under his cracked nails.
His fobwatch ticks.
It no longer shows London time, or any time that makes sense.
Jopson will need to be fed.
He’s lying in the dead man’s bed, but he’s not sleeping. Jopson has finally succumbed to it.
Edward lets him dream.
“Captain,” Jopson says.
Edward blinks himself awake. Jopson is looking at him. He’s not curled up. His muscles are rigid.
“Mr. Hickey took him,” Edward says. “Before we left. He’d never have let us abandon you.”
“I went with the crew, yes.”
Jopson has more questions, but no strength to utter them.
“I will try to feed you to-day,” Edward says.
He cleans up Jopson’s spit and sick, then sits on his bed to think. Caresses his hair absentmindedly.
“I could throttle you,” Jopson says, with what must be considerable attempt.
“That’s only fair. I left you for dead.”
“Leave me. Get the captain.”
“I would need a gun.”
“We took yours. When we went.”
Jopson scoffs. Rolls to his side, so his back is to Edward.
“Shall I leave you alone?”
There’s nothing Edward can say to that.
The watch ticks.
“Do try to keep it down, please.”
“Pray don’t waste it on me. Eat.”
Edward knocks the silver spoon to the tin. Thinks.
“You told me,” he says, “that certain penguins digest the food they then feed to their young.”
Jopson is glaring.
“I’m merely considering our options,” Edward says, defensive.
Edward starts crying.
“What is it?”
“Just drink.” He presses the cup to Jopson’s mouth. The blood paints his lips red. Edward caresses his throat. Jopson notices the bandage over his wrist. Stares at him. Keeps drinking.
“I think the captain lives,” Jopson says. Edward can’t see him. The sun has set.
“He may have escaped. He could be back any moment.”
“Are you waiting for him?”
Edward nods. He understands. “You must be ready for him,” he says. “Drink some more, and I will comb your hair. Would you like that?”
Edward attempts the tins again the next day.
“Don’t cheat,” Jopson chides him. “One bite for you, one bite for me.” His voice is still gravelly, but there’s a gentleness to it.
“I’m afraid we don’t have much.”
“We have enough. Open up.”
He washes Jopson’s feet in a tin bowl. Jopson can barely sit up. He’s bent forward, breathing audibly.
Edward massages the soap between each blackened toe. Keeps his touch light, like the caress of sunshine. Washes the wounds on his legs, tends to his knee, still injured. The scar will never close up again.
“That letter you’d written,” Jopson says. Edward’s hands still as he’s rewrapping the bandage. “It’s in my personals; could you kindly get it for me?”
Edward stands. Water and blood drip from his hands. He wipes them on his uniform, looks through Jopson’s possessions. A comb, a razor, a looking glass, a handkerchief embroidered E. L. The ivory envelope. The red seal broken.
Edward presents it, head hanging in shame. Jopson doesn’t reach for it.
“Would you please tear it up?” he asks.
Jopson is lying in Edward’s arms. His back is pressed to his chest. Edward’s hand rests on his belly, where his touch is not hurting.
“When was your first kiss?” Jopson asks him.
“Mm. At fourteen.”
“Boy or girl?”
“Boy. I always knew. You?”
“Seventeen; but I knew too.”
“I never learnt much of your romantic history.”
“I used to be popular on ships. Now look at me.”
Edward frowns. Gets up to his forearms to have a proper appraisal. Jopson flashes a sad smile at him. His teeth are yellow and black, but it’s his charming smile nevertheless.
“You’re handsome as ever,” Edward says.
“Don’t flatter. I must look a nightmare; I smell.”
Beneath the rot, Jopson's scent is the same. Warm, comforting.
“If it didn't hurt you,” Edward says, “I would prove the extent of my ardour.”
Jopson scrunches up his nose. A rare expression of delighted shock.
“Edward!” he scoffs.
Edward bites his lips to hide his grin. “‘Tis true. I would.”
“That’s perverse,” Jopson says, smiling back with an impish glint in his eyes. “My, what a wanton man. Utterly insatiable."
Edward nuzzles his nape. Kisses it.
“If I had my health,” Jopson goes on, “this is where I would straddle your hips.”
“I know,” Edward murmurs against his skin. “That’s why I’m saying it.”
Jopson laughs, giddy. Edward strokes his stomach, then slides his hand down, cups his cock. There’s nothing to it. The gesture is fond, protective.
“Will you try to sleep a while?” he whispers.
“Only if you keep holding me.”
“I'm not letting go.”
Jopson doesn’t get better. There was a part of Edward that still believed he would. He’s wasting away, too. His mind is terribly clear, but his head still aches, and his sore limbs started tingling.
They don’t have much time left.
Always this hour, and the next.
Surviving them together.
Jopson sits in his lap on the ground, the tent’s flaps open. He asked to watch the sunrise. The mornings are getting colder. If nothing else, winter will be their murderer.
They ran out of tins. Edward reopened his wrist. He’s light-headed and weak. Jopson is feverish. His muscles are rigid. He’s started breathing oddly, but he’s still breathing. Edward is caressing his back to ease the pain of his dry wheezes.
“This must be the end,” Jopson says, voice ragged. “I’m seeing the captain. He’s coming towards us. He’s pulling a sledge. The Lady Silence is with him. Should I wave? My hand is so heavy. He isn’t here.”
“I can see him too,” Edward says calmly. “He’s much changed. Can you see his beard? It suits him rather well.”
“Oh,” Jopson sighs. Wiggles in his lap. Edward pulls him closer, holds him faster. Jopson’s body is tight like an overwrought rope. About to snap. Just hold on a moment more. “I don’t think we ever shared a dream before.”
“Is he missing a hand?”
“I would prefer if he wasn’t injured. Could you please imagine him hale, Ned?”
Edward tries, as instructed. The vision of Crozier is as headstrong as his inspiration: he doesn’t change. He has a strange expression on his face. Grief. Relief. He hesitates before entering the tent.
Edward looks at him with mild curiosity. Keeps caressing Jopson’s back.
“I was hoping we would meet again,” Crozier says. His breath forms white puffs in the air. “How I hoped.”
He kneels. Jopson reaches for him, tentative. He’s expecting him to disperse.
Crozier envelops the both of them in an embrace.
It has warmth.
It has weight.
It is real.
Edward opens his mouth. Closes it. Words are not exchanged. They are insufficient. Jopson clings to the captain, but keeps close to Edward, safe in his lap. Safe, now.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Edward manages to say. Crozier claps his back, awkward but companionable. Is this how it always felt? Edward remembers these clumsy pats of encouragement, from the journey’s end. He’s forgotten so much, but he remembers them. They mattered. They felt undeserved. He arches into it, now.
“Where are the others?”
“They went South.” Edward swallows. His throat feels raw. It aches with tears swallowed. “There was a vote.”
Crozier doesn’t press it. Caresses Jopson’s hair. “Can you walk?” he asks, gentle.
“We could carry you to the sledge, haul you along.”
Jopson shakes his head. “I have nowhere left to go, sir,” he says.
Crozier stays with them. Just until the sun rises again. He promised to find the others. He sits with them, and tales of their adventures are shared. Edward doesn’t contribute much to the conversation. He’s still holding Jopson. Jopson is too faint to keep himself upright. The breathing gets worse, until he can’t speak. Edward glances at Crozier. He’s in tears. He reaches out to adjust Jopson’s errant strand of hair. Jopson tries to smile, but it twists into a painful grimace.
“In our little house by the sea,” Edward tells him, “we will have Captain Crozier come for tea. Right now, right here…” He cups Jopson’s paling cheek. Jopson kisses his palm, then hides his face in it, so it covers his mouth and his nose entirely. Squeezes his eyes shut, and waits.
Edward presses down.
Crozier helps grasping Jopson’s neck.
There’s a whimper, and movement, then Jopson’s face finally relaxes. Edward pulls his hand back. Jopson is smiling.
“Let me help bury the body.”
“Please don’t take him away, sir.”
If Crozier is startled by the request, he doesn’t betray it. Edward is holding Jopson tightly.
“You should set out, sir,” he says. “Before the dark catches up with you. The others must be close.”
He cannot read Crozier’s expression. “Are you sure?”
“I think they must be close.”
“Are you sure you won’t come along?”
Edward blinks. Why would he?
“I would rather stay, sir,” he says.
“I shall leave you something to eat, and fresh water.”
“I won’t be needing that, thank you.” He repeats, “Thank you.”
That was all he had left to say. He hopes Crozier understands the extent of it.
Crozier pats his shoulder again. Edward bites a grin back.
Edward watches the Northern lights dance. He shan’t sleep. This is a wake. They say a dead man’s soul stays until the morning. Thomas is still with him.
He lets his mind drift. Ebb away.
It’s fruitless to cling to sanity.
It serves nobody.
The dark is within.
He sinks into it.
His head drops, and then, the memory of a sharp pinch. His governess used to poke him or tweak his ear to keep him awake during dinners that took an eternity. He would sit up straight, put on a serious face.
His watch ticks.
The longcase clock in his memory echoes it.
“Pay attention,” the governess hisses.
The pendulum swings.
He sees his mother sitting by the parlour’s vast window. She’s working on a doily. The pin ruptures the cotton. Her face is calm. She keeps stabbing at it. Her face shows nothing.
Papa’s ship is much delayed.
He’s been missing for another year.
His mother bites the thread.
Edward glimpses the dock next. A seagull on the pier is peck, peck, pecking the pillar. His father squats down. His hand is on his shoulder.
“That’s my ship,” he says, pointing ahead.
“Will it be my ship, when I’m older?”
“Oh, you will serve on a different ship, darling.”
Donegal. Britannia. Vindictive. Terror.
He remembers them all.
You had freckles when we first met. I don’t think you noticed me.
Crozier was standing by the wheel, appraising the ship. He had his steward with him. Jopson was holding his folded coat. It was warm out, and his cheeks were flushed.
Pinch, pinch, pinch. He mustn’t sleep. He must remember this.
Edward looked him over. Stewards were supposed to be invisible. He had no reason to look. He just wanted to. Easy on the eyes, he thought. A vague impression, not pursued.
Jopson caught his gaze.
His eyes were striking.
Now he’s closed them forever.
Edward caresses Jopson’s face. Notices he’s smearing blood on it. Just a streak. Touches his own beard. When did his watch chain get there? He pulls on it, hisses.
He had to keep awake, hadn’t he.
The watch is ticking.
It will go on once his heart has stopped.
He looks up at the pale winter sky. The sun is out now. He stands, gathering Jopson in his arms.
“Let’s put you to rest,” he says.
He won’t make him a bed of stones. He’s not giving him over to rot. He makes the cot like Jopson would, and lays him down. Takes his place next to him. Pulls him into his lap, like they used to lay. Never until morning.
He presses a kiss to his nape, then gets up to his elbows to look through his possessions. He finds the razor easy enough. Caresses the letters carved into the bone handle. T.J.
He lies back down, and opens his wrists.
Pulls Jopson into a last embrace.
They will be found like this. Two skeletons, nestled close.
He said he wouldn’t let go.
“Lieutenant Little!” a voice calls. He bolts up, fumbles to salute.
That’s Fitzjames’ voice. He’s standing in the entrance, arms folded.
“Chop-chop,” he says with a grin. “Come along.”
Edward glances at Jopson. He mustn’t. He won’t.
“Oi!” Fitzjames says as Edward nestles back. “Unbelievable,” he mutters. “The blatant disrespect; you die and they forget everything you ever accomplished!”
He’s in his shirtsleeves. His face is pale, windchafed, hair unruly. He’s barefoot.
“Lieutenant Jopson,” he calls. “If you would.”
Edward curls closer to Jopson. Captain Fitzjames can’t make him leave. He died here. This is where he shall remain.
Jopson peers into the tent. His hair is long, his beard unkempt. “Please do hurry up, Ned,” he says. “You are needed.”
Edward is undecided. He doesn’t like leaving his body behind. It doesn’t feel right. He should stay in this tent a little longer. Haunt it proper.
“Please,” Jopson says. Offers his hand.
Edward reaches for it. He’s standing in front of Jopson without moving. He’s touching him. It’s like twirling a candle’s smoke around his fingers. A memory of heat.
“There you are,” Fitzjames says. The tent’s flaps blow open. It’s still day, but the world is darker than it should be. Drained of colour, the shapes vague.
The invisible world, he remembers.
Jopson and him step into it together, fingers intertwined.
Companions wait for them. The men who died at Carnivale. Edward beams in recognition.
A twin flame burns within the dead.
“You went back for them, sir,” he says, turning to glance at Fitzjames. He nods; his head is crowned with a golden halo.
“I tried to find everyone.”
Edward looks around, and spots the shine of the Hartnell brothers, Lieutenant Irving, Mr. Hornby, Billy Orren, David Young, even Sir John himself.
“Ah, Edward,” he says. He’s in dress uniform, complete with white gloves. “You look…” He clears his throat, looks away from Edward’s face. “You look well,” he finishes.
“I’m sorry to rush you so,” Fitzjames says, “but we must locate the rest of the crew. You are our best chance to find them, if your memory serves.”
“Yessir,” Edward says. “I remember them, and where they went.” What a joy, to state that.
“I suggested we find the mutineers’ camp first,” Jopson interjects. “We suspect Dr. Goodsir might be kept there.”
“How long have you been—” Edward asks.
Realises that time no longer matters.
They roam through the land. Nobody floats, so Edward doesn’t attempt it himself. It’s a comfort, to walk. To hold onto Jopson. To have a mission. He’s aware that they’re dragging their remembered reality to a no-man’s land, the in-between. But how could he leave—how shall he take that next, most frightening step—when his assignment is not finished?
Jopson is with him. He’s free of pain. He’s finally free. His head is clear. The rest of eternity can wait.
Irving walks up to him. He notes that Edward is holding Jopson’s hand, but makes no comment. “I was meaning to ask,” he says, “if you remember my death.”
There are seven wounds on his chest. Less than Edward recalls; much less.
“You see,” Irving goes on, “I have the feeling certain details are being withheld from me, and you’ve always been candid.”
“Not always,” Edward admits, then adds, “Are you certain you want to know?”
Irving looks ahead to Dr. Stanley, who walks in flames.
“No,” he says, sobering. “Perhaps I don’t.”
The march continues.
“Has anybody seen Francis?” Sir John says. “I’ve got something to tell him.”
“We’re looking for Dr. Goodsir,” James reminds him patiently; offers an arm for support. Sir John leans on him, as if he could still tire.
“Ah, right, yes,” he says. “Where’s he got to? I, ah. Well, I wasn’t going to mention, but I think some of us should see a surgeon.”
They make it to the camp, but cannot find the doctor anywhere.
“Maybe he passed away,” Bridgens opines.
“I do believe he did,” Fitzjames says slowly. They’re all looking at Goodsir’s earthly remains.
“Only consider, sir,” Bridgens goes on, “that perhaps if one’s death is not shocking or violent—”
“Not violent, uh-huh.”
“—or if he’s ready to leave—then maybe he passes away.”
They keep staring.
Where? Edward wonders. He can feel the call of something. It’s not Heaven, nor Hell. Beyond the invisible world, there’s another.
“We must find the creature,” Jopson says. “We couldn’t restore the souls it devoured. When we went to find the bodies, they were empty.”
Edward swings their joined hands. “Are you ready to face the spirit?” he asks gently. “You’d see it for what it is. You would see through the form it chose to take.”
Jopson frowns, seeks his embrace. Edward halts to hold him tightly. The light they emit merges into a single glow when they’re so close. “I remember when I first saw it,” Jopson says. “Climbing up the stern. I wasn’t frightened. It was like when high waves wash over the ship. My helplessness was terrible, not it.”
Edward hums, mulling it over. He leans his head on Jopson’s shoulder, who caresses his hair. Their light grows warmer. Like the afterglow they used to share.
The world around them, the world that’s left is dull and grey. Edward spots Fitzjames’ dim flame, who walks far ahead, nimble like a cat, and halts every now and then.
“What is he doing?” Edward asks.
“I think he’s tracing the captain’s steps. He says he can feel his presence everywhere.”
“So this is where the beast was felled?” Sir John says. “Serves him well; it caused us much grief, that bear.”
“This is where he—changed,” Fitzjames corrects.
The Tuunbaq is the tarnished sky above. The icy cliffs are its teeth. The souls it spewed out are dazed and lost. Not Mr. Blanky, of course.
“Finally,” he says from his place on the ground. “I need your help lads, these wretched things barely remember who they were.”
“Mr. Collins,” Billy Orren calls. “Henry, Henry, it’s me.”
Mr. Collins stirs. He’s sitting like the rest, motionless, but he raises his head. Listens.
“Henry,” Orren says. “Henry Foster Collins.”
They go around, giving the souls their names back. Edward stops by Golding’s ghost. Looks at him. He’s sitting with his head pressed to his knees, arms folded over his nape, don’t hurt me. He’s scrawny, pale. Just a rabbity kid.
“Robert Golding,” he says. “Robert.”
He wakes up George Hodgson, Solomon Tozer and Thomas Armitage.
He’s not even going to approach Mr. Hickey.
“Cornelius,” Fitzjames calls to him.
Mr. Hickey cannot hear him. He’s turning around, looking over his shoulder. He looks right through the ghost crew, scanning the horizon for some unknown threat.
“That name is not his,” Gibson says.
“How should we address him?”
“He never told me.”
Mr. Hickey’s alert gaze jumps around and doesn’t see anything.
“You were right to leave,” Le Vesconte tells Edward in his weather beaten tent. He’s surrounded by bones, but he still starved to death.
“I could have been you,” Edward says. “I nearly was.”
“I wanted to save as many as I could. Our numbers kept shrinking. I died last. There was no justice in that.”
“Dundy,” Fitzjames calls from outside. “Cease your moaning and come help us, please.”
Le Vesconte perks up: he sheds his body and stands. Fitzjames passes through the canvas of the collapsed tent, a playful smile on his lips. Le Vesconte clings to him.
“Have you seen Francis?” Fitzjames asks as he rubs his back.
“You just missed him,” Le Vesconte says. “He was here: I drew my last breath in his presence.”
“Dundy,” Fitzjames says with sympathy. “I’m afraid you’ve been dead for a while.”
“Have I?” Le Vesconte pats himself down, touches ribs. Edward politely looks away. “How embarrassing.”
“Your face kept its youthful complexion,” Fitzjames narrates. Le Vesconte’s frozen cheeks pinken promptly until he almost looks healthy. “You handsome devil,” Fitzjames says, and ruffles up his hair. “Come along now, let us leave this gruesome place.”
“We almost made it,” Le Vesconte complains as Fitzjames leads him away. “We were close. I told him."
They search for the captain high and low. He’s nowhere to be found. Edward feels no urgency. They will recover him, eventually.
There’s a blizzard one day. The snow is a stark white against the dull blur of the world. He cannot sense temperatures: Jopson and him nestle in the storm as if they were sitting amidst a flurry of feathers. The shipboys are attempting to make a snowman nearby, but no-one has figured out yet how to interact with reality: the snow falls through their grasping hands. The rest of the crew wanders, chats. Edward is reminded of the first year frozen in time. The games on the ice. Jopson slipping into his cabin. The rum they shared, the laughter, the heat.
Jopson is sprawled over his lap like a lazy cat, and Edward is stroking his hair. They could never have done this so openly, when they lived. He’s stripping away protocol. Certain rules. Not all of them. Not yet.
“I wish I died better dressed,” Jopson says. “Now I’m stuck donning nightclothes and underwear forever. I don’t want to sound thankless, but it’s rather unfair.”
“You could have my coat,” Edward offers.
“I doubt I can. It’s made of memories: I never wore it.”
“It’s also made of dreams: I want you to have it.”
He imagines Jopson, to the best of his abilities, in navy wool, with gold buttons. A frivolous gift, after everything Jopson had given him: but he wishes it to be real, with all his heart, with all his love.
Jopson laughs; stands up, and twirls around. The coat swirls, and Edward claps, excited. He’s in his jacket; the gold chains remain, his beard, his long hair, for none of those matter.
“Now I’m truly a lieutenant,” Jopson says. The sleeves of the coat are too long: it covers half of his hands as he reaches to adjusts the collar.
“Well deserved,” Edward says. Jopson gleams at him: his glow shines bright like the long-forgotten sun. He reaches for Edward, and he takes his hands, lets him pull him to his feet and join his dance. They spin around in the air, and the crew cheers for them.
“Music!” Irving calls. “Oh, if we only had some music!”
“We have our lungs,” Morfin counters. He starts a song the likes of which Edward has never heard: it’s not an earthly harmony. The spirits rise with it, pivot, twirl. There’s never been a jollier danse macabre; it’s their second carnivale, and nobody dies. Jopson is in his arms.
They dance with the snowflakes, and dance until spring. The midnight sun is shining when they dance through a barren field. That’s where they meet Lady Silence. She’s not pleased to see them. She has a blanket wrapped over her furs, and her hair is let down. She’s squinting at them, clearly exhausted.
Something is different about her face, but Edward cannot say what it is.
“You’re very loud,” she says. “You’re the loudest people I’ve ever met.”
She doesn’t speak in English; her lips don’t move as she speaks; but they hear and understand her perfectly.
“We did not expect to be overheard,” Fitzjames says, bowing to her in apology.
She looks through their ranks, one hundred and twenty men, and mutters, “This has been going on for long enough. You will have to be exorcised.”
“Ma’am,” Fitzjames floats closer, “we were just leaving.”
“How will you leave?” Lady Silence gestures East. “You may cross the strait, but you cannot cross the ocean. It’s sacred; it’s saltwater.”
“Francis will know where to go.”
Lady Silence looks doubtful.
“He’s one of our best navigators,” Sir John chimes in.
She makes a dismissive gesture. “Find him, then; do what you will; but I have put up with you long enough—I’m a shaman in my own right—I will absolve the land of your presence, if you continue to loiter.”
“There’s no need for such language,” Sir John scoffs, arms folded. “We are visitors: we’re just passing through.”
“You were never invited.”
Edward averts his eyes; realises, too late, that he owes it to her to meet her gaze. He looks at her, looks proper, and recognises what changed: the lines around her eyes, her mouth. She aged.
It’s a calm summer day when they find the captain.
“He’s calling to me,” Fitzjames says. “Oh, he’s far away; but I’m the best walker in the service.” He smiles to himself and leads the trek. Miles and miles ahead, through an unforgiving terrain. Edward doesn’t mind the distance, basking in Jopson’s presence.
They reach a village. There are tents the likes of which Edward has never seen, and snow houses he heard described. One of them, more tattered than the rest, glows with a golden light that penetrates the ice.
Fitzjames passes through the wall, and Jopson follows, with Edward and Blanky in tow. Francis is curled up on a bed of furs, shivering. His hair is silver, and there’s silver in his beard. The lines around his eyes are deeper. His wrinkles have set, like a map. He’s sixty-five, perhaps. Still a strong man. He’d have years to live, back in England.
“A common cold,” he tells Fitzjames. “I cannot bear it; the irony, that it would murder me.”
“You fought it valiantly,” Fitzjames says. Caresses his face, his lips.
“The healers didn’t know what to do,” Crozier says. That’s when Edward realises he’s not speaking in English. “Never seen a man succumb to it like this.”
“You may rest now.”
“Rest? Like hell; Thomas, give me your hand. Jopson, my spear. Brief me on the way, Edward, we have men to save yet.”
“They’re waiting for you, sir,” Edward says. His last report to be given.
Crozier climbs out of the igloo, and gasps to see all gathered.
“Well, I never!” he says. “You will frighten the children.” He looks around with such warmth in his eyes it could melt the ice. James pulls close to him. He’s floating.
“Where to, dear?”
“Away, I should think. We overstayed.” He looks up at the night sky. A scattering of stars. The arch of the Northern lights. “There,” he says. “That bridge shall take us over the ocean.”
“Are you certain, sir?” Jopson asks.
“This is still the Discovery Service: we shall see it for ourselves.” He clasps Fitzjames’ hand, and they lift up, weightless, stepping into the air, as if climbing an invisible stairwell.
Edward tugs at Jopson’s sleeve. “Shall we?” he asks softly. Jopson is looking up: the lights dance on his face, in his eyes.
“It’s a bridge,” he says.
“Do you suppose,” Sir John says, trotting towards the centre, “that we may see the North-West Passage from up there?”
“I’ll show you, sir,” Blanky grunts, takes his arm. Glances at Edward and Jopson. “After you.”
Jopson peers it Edward; there’s something sly in his gaze. “Carry me?”
“Of course, Tom. You earned it.”
Edward kneels, and Jopson comes into his arms, laughing.
Content warnings: memory loss / increasingly graphic descriptions of scurvy and lead poisoning symptoms/ canonical major character deaths / voluntary euthanasia / suicide / assisted suicide / wrist cutting / no listen it's a happy end
This fic was inspired by Oochilka's fanart of Little and Jopson holding hands as ghosts, and I was like, "I wonder how they came to be united in death." It took me 30k to answer that question.
Oochilka is an actual angel and made this fanart inspired by the fic which I sent to her early. I've been emotionally compromised ever since.
Speaking of music, if you feel suddenly bereft of feels, I'd like to humbly suggest this playlist with Joplittle songs I listened to while writing this fic 🎵