“I did tell you, did I not, that your proposal would be a death sentence to those left behind?”
Jopson’s words were softly spoken, his head cocked to the side, his back to Edward. Were it not for the blood dripping slowly from his pale fingers, or the broken corpse at his feet, the levelness of his tone might have reminded Edward of those halcyon days onboard Terror, when their greatest worry had been the ice and not the corruptible hearts of men, or the poison slowly seeping into their bones.
He said nothing, frozen in place. After a beat, Jopson made a wretched sound, devoid of joy. “You were supposed to leave.”
Edward’s fingers tightened on the musket, hard-won in his scuffle with Le Vesconte. There’s been a vote, Edward. We prefer the orders, sir. He exhaled. Hardened himself once more. “I came back,” he said, voice as steady as he could make it, and the creature he’d once thought to be Jopson turned its head, the dimness of the partially collapsed tent revealing the bloodied curve of its mouth.
“So you have.” Jopson looked away again, steadying himself. It was motion Edward had glimpsed before, in those brief moments when Jopson would emerge from the captain’s cabin, when he thought himself alone and needed to rebuild before encountering another soul. It was familiar, human, as was the bitterness in his voice when he spoke again, breaking the horrible silence that had fallen between them. “Is it guilt that brings you back, then, Lieutenant? Or have you sudden sympathy for the wretched dead left to rot in this place?”
Edward stiffened, the accusation sparking the anger that had lead to him overruling Le Vesconte only hours before; the anger that had lead him to return here, against all sense.
“If they rot,” he said harshly, “it is only because you are through with them.”
Jopson bared his fangs then, the stark white of them a contrast to his blackened gums. Edward stiffened at the sight.
“A last resort,” Jopson said, turning to face Edward fully, “but make no mistake, Lieutenant Little: I am dying as surely as everyone else.”
Something twisted uncomfortably in Edward’s chest at the admission, the same thing that had nearly choked him when he first realized how sick Jopson was, and looking at Jopson now, at the haggard remains of him, Edward could not find it in himself to argue the diagnosis. Death was suffused in all their bones, tainting every single one of them, and if that was all that sustained Jopson, if he was dying of the poison in their veins as surely as the rest of them, then—
The worst part of it was that even as he was now, brought low at last by the harshness of this barren landscape, there was still something beautiful about Jopson; something that drew Edward in, same as on the doomed ships. In the past, Edward had attributed his preoccupation with the captain’s steward to his own foolhardiness; his own inability to smother the wholly inappropriate reactions Jopson had always inspired in him. Now, caught in the predatory gleam of Jopson’s pale eyes, he could not help but wonder if the draw had been caused by something else entirely.
It was on the tip of his tongue to demand answers, the words what are you like lead in his mouth. He swallowed them. They were useless, he knew, when the evidence was right in front of him, and he would not insult his own intelligence, nor that of Jopson, by demanding an answer to a question he already knew.
“Does the captain know?” he asked instead, voice rough, grip still tight on the musket, futile though he knew the action was. Part of him did not wish for the answer, but he also hadn’t wished for a great many of the things that had occurred on this expedition.
“The captain knew,” Jopson said, soft. Something flickered in his eyes, something that almost made him look human again. “He always knew.”
Edward exhaled, but he tucked the betrayal away somewhere else, to deal with in the future on the off chanced he lived long enough to think about the implications of what he had just learned. The creature—Jopson—smiled again, but there was something sad in it now. Edward stifled the urge to reach out and comfort. He could not afford to be soft, not now, and the mention of the captain had reminded him of his purpose for being here, for returning to this place of wretched souls at all.
You would leave our captain with that devil?
Words he’d slung so heatedly at Le Vesconte rang through his head now, and he forced himself to look at Jopson, at every deathly, otherworldly aspect of him. He’d thought Hickey the devil, Hickey and his damned mutineers who had stolen their only chance at survival. Now he wondered if the real monster had been with them the whole time, playing at humanity, a pretty face obscuring the horror that lay beneath the surface. Had Jopson had merely been toying with them this whole time, a predator delighting at the frenzied scramble of its prey, waiting for the perfect moment to strike, deceitful and hideous to the core? Looking at him now, a monster in a sea of horror, Edward could not help such thoughts, and yet—
And yet Jopson had proven his loyalty, time and time again, more than most of the others—certainly more than the mutineers. Jopson had stood with them through the worst of it, had cared for Crozier, for the men, for Edward; had thrown himself into his duties and responsibilities time and time again, never faltering, never wavering. If Crozier was their salvation, then surely Jopson, who had always stood in the shadows, a silent, unwavering embodiment of support and stability, had worked to help make it so.
Memories surfaced: Jopson, giving Edward silent signals over the heads of the other officers; Jopson, ushering Edward’s frozen form over to the warmest part of the captain’s cabin with hushed sympathies, gently removing the pilfered bottle of Fitzjames’ spirits from Edward’s stiff grip; Jopson, haggard and exhausted, still trying to force a smile as he cared for Crozier in his infirmity; Jopson, even weighed down by the burden of his charge as he was, finding the time to converse with Edward quietly as they banded together to keep the truth of Crozier’s condition from the rest of the crew.
And then, too, a final memory: one of Jopson, asleep where he stood, hunched against the door of Crozier’s cabin, exhaustion written into every line of his face. Edward, fresh from delivering another report to Fitzjames, had watched him for a few moments, something impossibly soft and sad unfurling in his chest, warring with the perpetual exhaustion that had followed him ever since he’d been handed command of Terror on the back of Crozier’s decision and the shame that always accompanied all but the most professional thoughts he had of Jopson.
Back then he had wanted nothing more than to reach out, to gather Jopson into his arms and tuck him somewhere safe, somewhere where he could rest, and he had grimaced at those urges; grimaced at the desire to protect and care for a man who had seen more in his service as Crozier’s steward than Edward had in his entire naval career. He hadn’t known what Jopson was then, but as he took in Jopson’s evident exhaustion now, the paper-thin appearance of his skin, the length of his hair, the poisoned blood on his lips, he found that same urge manifesting in his chest: an insidious, selfish urge that he should have smothered without mercy long ago.
You would leave the captain with that devil?
This man who stood before him, this creature, could have killed them all and left them for dead long enough to make it to civilization, no witnesses to contest his miraculous survival. Yet he had stayed, knowing it would mean his own death. He was dying, knew he was dying, could have saved himself, and had stayed. He had stayed out of duty, out of loyalty to the man they both served, a loyalty that ran bone-deep, and Edward, looking at him now—
There was a choice to be made here, a terrible one, but in Jopson, in this creature wearing a familiar face, Edward saw more than an answer: he saw salvation renewed.
Jopson looked surprised at the words. His eyes, so pale, seemed even more so now, glowing in the perpetual light of what remained of man’s pathetic attempts at shelter. He said nothing, though, and Edward, eyes narrowed, marched on, as he always had.
He had made his decision. There was no taking it back now.
“Those traitors have the captain,” Edward said, stepping forward. Fear bubbled up in him, but he smothered it. Whatever Jopson was, whatever his nature--it didn’t matter, not now. Everything had a weakness, and of all the monsters in this god-forsaken place, Edward would prefer the devil he knew; the devil he could control.
And that was what it boiled down to in the end, was it not? The one thing he knew could sway Jopson even in this state, the one card he could play that would ensure the compliance of this creature who was Jopson and yet wasn’t: the well-being of the man they had both sworn to serve and protect; the protection of their one chance of surviving this hellish place, which visited only death upon them at every turn.
“Help me take him back,” Edward said. He took another step. Jopson eyed him, wary—and what a strange thrill that was, to see the predator wary of the prey—but did not budge. Edward pressed forward. “Help me take him back, and you can do whatever it is you need to those who took him.”
The words were harshly spoken, impassioned; a tone he had tried to use on Le Vesconte and the others. He had failed, then. Looking at Jopson, looking at the way the steward’s eyes narrowed, his lip curling unconsciously, Edward knew it would not fail here.
Something twinged unpleasantly in his chest. Could he truly promise Jopson the lives of those men, many of whom acted only out of fear and a desire to live, as they themselves did? The thought gave him pause, and as if sensing his thoughts, as if reading his sudden hesitation, Jopson’s lips curled further over his fangs. His lips were still red with blood, his pale eyes glowing softly with an unearthly light. Monster, Edward thought, every prey instinct he possessed screaming at him to run, to flee, even as his obligation and loyalty to their captain kept him rooted firmly in place. Run.
He gripped the musket again. Fought every instinct his body had until his bones felt as though they were rooted to the barren landscape around them.
Then Jopson moved, his grace supernatural, and Edward wondered just how much he had been concealing this whole time; how much of himself he'd had to hide beyond his unholy diet.
“Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep,” Jopson said. His gaze was unwavering. Edward met it, challenging, until Jopson at last looked away, his eyes tracing the horizon.
“I will be of little use to you in my current state, Lieutenant.” As he spoke, Jopson lifted a hand to his own jaw, grimacing. “The blood of the dead and dying is an empty thing.” The words were soft, but it was the genuine pain in Jopson’s eyes that caught Edward off-guard, and before he could stop himself, before he could even think the action through, he found himself reaching out, grabbing Jopson by one too-thin wrist. Jopson’s reaction was instant and unexpected, a great hiss leaving his wasted frame. He jerked back, but Edward held firm.
You would leave our captain with that devil?
He would not. But Edward would make a deal with one to save him, if need be.
The words were scarcely out of his mouth before Jopson was on him, pushing him bodily against one of the still-standing tent poles with a strength that belied the slightness of his frame and the frailness of his bones. There was no affirmation, no are you sure, and Edward barely caught a glimpse of his eyes, of the way the darkness of his pupils seemed to consume what was left of the pale blue before Jopson’s hands were at his collar, tearing at the fabric, leaving the skin of his neck exposed.
In the comfort of his own berth, Edward had wondered, on more than one occasion, what it might be like to feel Jopson in ways that would have spelled his utter destruction had anyone found out. Sometimes, he had imagined a coquettish lover, soft and teasing, those come-hither eyes sparkling in the gloom as he gasped and arched so pretty under Edward’s roughened hands. Other times, he had imagined Jopson as more demanding, pushing Edward back and simply taking his pleasure until they were both gasping for it. Always, Edward had imagined him with that ironclad control, every action thought out; nothing left to chance.
This Jopson was nothing like that. This Jopson was feral, a drowning man promised air, a dying man promised his own salvation, and as his teeth sunk into the meat of Edward’s neck Edward had but a moment to question if he had made the right decision before Jopson began to feed, his lips, dry and cracked, an addicting sensation where they pressed against Edward’s skin.
Edward’s hands flew up of their own accord, gripping tight Jopson’s hips, feeling the sharpness of the bone through the thin material of his shirt. Part of him wanted to push Jopson away, but another part of him, a horrible part that wanted nothing more than to match and surpass the monster at his breast, to harness it and use it and direct it to better purpose, battled that urge until he found himself tugging Jopson closer, tilting his head to the side to allow better access as his hands swept up Jopson’s back to rest at his neck. A strange calmness overtook him, and just as he started to feel light-headed Jopson let out a groan, a keen, and pulled back, the feeling of his fangs withdrawing enough to make Edward tighten his grip, even as he angled his head back, nudging, prompting, because he had to see, he had to know.
Jopson’s mouth, half-open was stained a violent, bloody red, his eyes wholly blackened, every last trace of Thomas Jopson the steward removed from his person as he stood there, a monster in a monstrous wasteland. He had never looked less human, and Edward—
“Yours was always the sweetest of temptations,” Jopson whispered, a sliver of blue creeping back into his eyes, and Edward reached up, pressing one thumb to Jopson’s bloodied lip. He thought of Thomas Jopson in the many forms he now knew him to exist in, from the unflappable servant to the diligent officer. He thought of Thomas Jopson as he had been before they abandoned the ships, not a hair out of place, not a word spoken without thought, a ghostly presence, seen and yet not seen. He looked at the Thomas Jopson in front of him now, the only colour on him being Edward’a blood, the only hint of the man Edward had come to know slowly creeping back into the unearthly blue of his eyes. All these different things that made up this creature, and yet—
Yet it was still Jopson. Unfailingly loyal, unfailingly strong in ways so many on this damned expedition would have been good to emulate, unfailingly a weakness, and if Crozier was this monster’s weakness then the weakness in Edward’s own character must be in part this man, whom he would promise the lives of others to both for their captain’s sake and for Jopson’s own.
As if sensing Edward’s thoughts, Jopson dimpled, and for a moment it made him look like the Jopson Edward had known before the sickness, before everything had done to hell, back when Thomas Jopson was distracting not for the blood on too-sharp fangs but for the impish, knowing glint in too-bright eyes. With the thumb still against Jopson’s lip, Edward pressed down, and when Jopson bared his teeth and Edward felt the prick of a fang against his flesh once more, he pressed forward, angling Jopson’s head up for a bloody kiss. To return their captain to them, Edward Little would promise a great many things. To survive this place, he would leave himself with the devil, offer himself willingly, and if the devil just happened to wear a familiar face, then that was all the easier, was it not?
They would rescue the captain, he and Jopson both, and when they were finished, when Crozier was safe, they would find their way out of this place. It was a promise sealed in blood well spent, and if they survived, Edward would not allow himself to regret it.
Jopson’s eyes glowed when Edward drew back, his body unnaturally still: a monster, inhuman, yet in possession of more humanity than the men who had betrayed them, who had stolen their captain and left the rest of them for dead to forge their own deal through murder and deceit. It brought to mind something he had read, once—a translation: who holds the devil, let him hold well; he will hardly be caught a second time.
There were places on this earth that God could not reach, and the corruptible hearts of men, if closed to Him, were but one of them. This land, too, was untouched by Him, beyond any holy sight, and so Edward would not direct his prayers where they would not be heard. Here, in his arms, was the pass to salvation, to freedom, and he would be damned were he to let him go.
The hand Jopson brought up to Edward’s face was bloodied, the cock of his head coquettish, an echo of fantasies that had never come to fruition. Blood still stained his skin, but when Edward moved to wipe it clean, using the heavy wool of his own sleeves, Jopson did not protest, standing with deceptive placidity until the job was done. Then he smiled, soft and terrifying: a promise made in return; a mutual agreement sealed through the exchange of blood and a loyalty ingrained so deep it was etched into their very bones.
Slowly, deliberately, Edward lifted the musket, which had fallen, abandoned, to rest among the dead at their feet. He remembered another passage: that which issues from the heart alone will bend the hearts of others to your own. He pressed a hand to Jopson’s breast. Wondered, idly, if anything beat beneath the skin. Decided, then and there, it did not matter, not when he could see Jopson’s heart shining in the gleam of his eyes, in the curve of his smile, in the determined set to his shoulders as they turned as one to face the direction the mutineers had taken Crozier.
Edward's neck bled still. Jopson, lips parting, leaned forward to lap at the sluggish trickle. Waste not.
“Shall we?” Jopson murmured, and when Edward nodded his assent, Jopson smiled again, fangs gleaming in the perpetual daylight. Later, Edward would question that. For now, he merely slung the musket over his shoulder, falling into step with the devil of his choice, the stinging of his neck something to focus on as they began their march over forsaken terrain.
You would leave our captain with that devil?
No, Edward thought.
He would save their captain with him instead.