He isn’t well enough to travel, but the captain of the whaling ship balks under Crozier’s glare and relents, and he gives Jopson the corner berth in the sick bay.
“He’s your responsibility,” the captain says. “My doctor won’t waste time on a dead man.”
“I don’t want your bloody doctor,” Crozier spits, and lifts the listless body of his steward off the crate where he sits, silent, eyes glassy and distant. Jopson’s hair flops over his forehead and his head lolls back. A week ago, Crozier had held him in the same position, cradled against his chest to take him towards the ship that had appeared over the horizon. It could just as easily have been an illusion, but Crozier was loathe to leave Jopson in the igloo alone.
“Let me walk,” he had mumbled, “I can walk, sir.”
“Not a chance,” Crozier had answered grimly. “You’re on strict orders to rest until you feel better.”
He doesn’t protest anymore, body wracked with pain and weak with a disease that continues to progress despite the fresh meat Silna brought them.
“I have to leave,” Crozier had told her. That she could see the ship as well was a cause of great relief for him; it was Jopson who had seen it first, fighting through the pain in his shoulder (an old injury from Terror’s collision in Antarctica, which he had successfully hidden for the remainder of that voyage and for a majority of the current one) to raise an arm and rasp out the word ship before his arm dropped and he closed his eyes, breathing heavily from the effort.
They had been met part way by a rescue party. It was a miracle, or perhaps a mercy. Perhaps, with Tuunbaq dead and gone, the arrival of the ship was the only way to ensure the removal of the white men from the hostile land the Netsilik made their home. If it was, Crozier thought, he didn’t deserve it.
But still, he dropped to his knees with Jopson cradled in his arms, and he began to weep.
“There are no words to describe my shame, Captain,” Hodgson says. They sit around Jopson’s bed in the sick bay, three chairs inhabited by three regretful men.
Tozer remains silent, arms crossed over his chest, but he watches George as he speaks before he drops his gaze back down to where his bandaged feet cross at the ankle.
“We should have stayed together,” Hodgson continues. “I should have stayed with you instead of listening to Mr. Hickey—“
“Don’t be sorry for getting pulled in by his… notions,” Tozer says. “It’s what he would have wanted.”
He stands, now, leaning on a crutch to take some of the weight off his frostbitten feet. Hodgson stands, too, offering him an arm.
Over his shoulder, he says,”For what it’s worth, Captain, I’m here for you now. If you need anything.” He can’t disguise the glance towards Jopson, still unmoving, still asleep. Tozer nods curtly in agreement, and Crozier is left alone.
“I can’t serve like this,” is the first coherent thing Jopson says. They’ve been at sea for weeks, though Crozier no longer keeps track. He spends his days in the sick bay, feeding Jopson spoonfuls of lemon juice in the morning and soup in the evening, hoping against hope that one day he’ll speak more than a string of nonsensical words or that the blood in his eyes will recede, leaving them as sharp and bright as they were before.
Crozier looks into Jopson’s eyes and finds them focussed on him.
“You don’t need to serve, Jopson,” he says. “You’re still on bed rest until you feel better, remember?”
Jopson looks down at his bandaged hands and pushes himself up on his elbows. He grimaces, but manages to move himself so he is sitting against the pile of pillows and blankets Hodgson has stolen from various pantries and other sailors’ beds.
“Why do I have such big gloves on?” he asks. “I’m afraid I don’t remember.”
Crozier shifts his chair closer and takes one of Jopson’s bandaged hands between his. He raises it to his lips and kisses once the fingertips, the back of his hand, and his palm, before lifting Jopson’s hand further and pressing the coarse bandages against his cheek.
“A bit of the cold got to you, that’s all,” he says. He doesn’t expect his voice to shake like it does. “That’s all.”
“Oh,” Jopson says. He leans back into the pile of blankets. “That’s alright, then. Will you stay with me? I don’t want to be alone.”
“Always,” Crozier says immediately. Jopson smiles, and despite the gaps from the missing teeth and the blood still wet on his gums, it is the most beautiful smile Crozier has ever seen.
They arrive without fanfare, and the survivors of Terror slink away before they are noticed. Tozer and Hodgson, having grown close over the ordeals of the past months, walk arm in arm towards the carriage where someone—Hodgson’s wife, perhaps—jumps up and down and waves at the two, embracing them both in turn when they arrive.
Crozier waits to see them off, offering a wave of a hand and a genuine smile. They are home; they are safe.
He waits for the surgeon—the same one who denied Jopson care on their rescue—to finish his assessment before he returns to help Jopson ascend the steps to the deck. They hadn’t talked about their return home until yesterday when Jopson looked down at his hands, still bandaged and bulky, and said “I don’t know where to go.”
And Crozier had shaken his head and said, “You’ll come home with me,” because he had never once considered an alternative.
“I remember that you left me,” Jopson says that night. Crozier is helping him dress for bed. He has a spare nightshirt, one far too big for Jopson’s wasted frame, in his hands. The linen crumples as his hands close into fists.
“I was taken,” Crozier says. He isn’t trying to defend himself. “But I should never have gone.”
“Will you leave again?” Jopson asks. The redness in his eyes has receded, but the warmth has not returned. Perhaps warmth would never find either of them again—frozen out of them by the cold and wrung from their hearts by mutineers and the acts of desperate men.
“No,” Crozier says.
“Don’t lie, sir. I’ve seen you do it too often not to know when you’re lying.”
“Are you afraid of being alone, Jopson?”
Jopson fixes him with a look. His feet are tucked under the blankets but there’s a stripe of pale skin brushed with black hair that is exposed below the bottom of his drawers. Despite his vulnerable state of undress, Jopson’s look makes Crozier feel small. He pulls the neck of the nightshirt over Jopson’s head and lets him find the sleeves with his hands. The mittens of bandages pass through the ruffled cuffs of Crozier’s nightshirt and return to their usual spot, resting on Jopson’s lap.
“I’m not afraid,” he says, “though I would find myself heartbroken if you were to leave me again.”
“Then I won’t,” Crozier says simply, and he leans over to press a kiss against Jopson’s forehead. “Sleep well, Thomas. I won’t be far.”
“Don’t,” Jopson says softly. He reaches a hand out, leaving it where it finds purchase on Crozier’s shoulder. It stills him. “Anywhere away from me is too far.”
Wryly, Crozier smiles. “Would you have me sleep in your bed, Mr. Jopson?”
The look Jopson gives him now is different—different from before, and from before. It’s playful, almost, but covered by that practiced, patient smile.
“I would, Captain. If I should wake in the night, I may need my sole caretaker close by.”
“To brew you a pot of tea at midnight? Or perhaps to fluff your pillows?”
“Both things I cannot do with my hands bandaged as they are.”
Crozier laughs, a genuine, deep laugh that makes Jopson smile and shift over in the bed. Crozier undresses himself, aware of Jopson’s eyes roving over his body as he pulls his own nightclothes on.
“You’ve never looked before,” Crozier notes.
“I did,” Jopson says. “I always did. You just never noticed.”
“Now that you’ve noticed?”
“I don’t think I mind much. I no longer have a position to be removed from. By the pain in my hands, it seems unlikely I ever will again. I thought I had died, alone, but you came back for me. You cared for me when you didn’t have to.”
“Just as you did for me.”
“I was your steward, sir.”
“And you served me for all those years out of duty?”
Jopson’s eyes drop to his lap and he laughs. “No,” he says. “It was out of love. Every day, every meal. Every cufflink fastened, every rip mended, every linen washed. I had no way to express my love, so I expressed it through everything.”
Crozier sits on the edge of the bed and turns to face Jopson. His face is flushed and his hands shake until Crozier takes them in his.
“And now?” he whispers.
Jopson swallows. “And now… now I don’t quite know what to do.”
Despite his words, he closes his eyes and quickly kisses Crozier on the cheek before leaning back against his stack of pillows.
Crozier, in response, tucks his legs under the blankets and wraps an arm around Jopson’s middle, pulling himself close enough to fit his chin against Jopson’s shoulder.
“I’ll care for you as long as you’ll have me,” Crozier says, breath hot against Jopson’s ear. After a moment, Jopson relaxes back into Crozier’s embrace.
As he’s drifting off to sleep, Jopson shifts and murmurs the question that Crozier has been asking himself for many months.
“Do you love me?”
The silence that follows is warm and comfortable, so Crozier takes his time before answering.
‘Yes,” he says, but Jopson has already fallen asleep.