For as long as he lived, Edward Little knew he would never forget the sight of Thomas Jopson laying half-dead in that God-forsaken place, broken down and stripped of all the finesse and composure that Edward had come to expect from him. He’d a musket strapped to his back, a bleeding Captain Crozier at his side, and a trail of dead mutineers and mythical creatures behind him, but all of that had faded as he’d spotted that lone figure, still and unmoving and achingly familiar against the white nothingness of the landscape.
“Captain?” Jopson had asked, and Edward, stricken, had only been able to shake his head, to kneel down and gather the man into his arms, cradling Jopson close to his chest as he tried desperately not to think about how insufficient the weight of him was. Now, tucked away behind the walls of Fort Resolution, he could only sit in silence and watch as Jopson, equally silent, waged a battle that Edward was not sure he could win.
Enough, Edward told himself with no small amount of self-recrimination. It wasn’t fair of him to think that. If anyone stood a chance of besting this, it was Jopson, whose control and composure in the face of adversity had been enough to make Edward intimately acquainted with both the meaning of shame and the shape and size of his own shortcomings. Yet, looking at him now, it was hard to reconcile the image he’d once known with the man who slept before him now, ragged and bedraggled and fighting for every breath.
Edward exhaled. Shifted a little, hoping to ease the burden on his stiff and frozen limbs. Perhaps it would erase the guilt that still sat hot and heavy in his chest, too, if he kept moving, and yet—
And yet here he sat still, as he had for the past two days, moving only when Crozier himself had bade him and promptly returning to Jopson’s side as soon as the onerous task of dealing with the surviving men had been completed. At this point, exhausted as he was, he could not tell what kept him there, be it shame or something else, something far worse, but if he and Jopson had been the unstoppable force and the immoveable object behind Crozier before, then he hoped that, in being the immoveable object now, Jopson might find it within himself to fight harder; to live.
It should have been anyone else, Edward thought, matter-of-fact. It should have been me.
Edward grimaced, leaning forward in the rickety chair, lacing his fingers together in an attempt to avoid them sliding into his own hair or, worse, into Jopson’s. He would wait. For as long as it took, he would wait, and if all that lay ahead of him be Jopson’s disdain, well.
At least he’d live.
Le Vesconte’s nose had made a sickening crunch when Edward’s fist had connected with it, his ragged, pained breathing the only sound in that hellish, monotone tent as Edward had loomed over him, incandescent with a rage so strong that it had struck dumb the other men present.
Now, in what passed as the fort’s mess, those same men avoided his gaze, dead eyes fixed resolutely on the food that had been provided to them by the Hudson’s Bay Company traders who had been stationed there. It suited Edward just fine where perhaps it would have once scraped at the corners of his psyche, and he walked through without addressing any of them, their faces slipping from the jagged edges of his memory like warm blood in a wound still too fresh to heal.
Crozier lived. Edward lived. Jopson lived. Do we?
The captain was a ghost, weighed down by yet more ghosts. He spoke to Edward, to the men, and Edward thought rather matter-of-factly that Crozier would have survived that place with or without his intervention—wondered, sometimes, if Crozier would have preferred that, if only because one could not pretend, out there amongst whatever lived in that wasteland, that the ones he sought were still with them.
Unkind. Edward rubbed at his eyes. The captain did his duty, and he did it well, as he must. As for Edward himself—
He woke. He moved. He ate. He spoke, when the need arose, carried out his duties, and pretended he didn’t find any vicious satisfaction in the way Le Vesconte, Couch, Weekes, Aylmore, and the others who would have abandoned their captain flinched when he caught their eye.
It was more than he could say for Jopson, and so it would have to be enough.
The worst part of it was this: that Edward was just as guilty of wanting to leave the sick behind as those men had been of wanting to leave Crozier to his death.
“—wishes to live,” Allanach—one of the fort’s traders and interpreters, who had served as a makeshift doctor for the broken remnants of their expedition—said with a small roll of his shoulders, dislodging one of the two long braids he wore his dark hair in. With his clean face, heavy smile, and his every word laced with an accent that could not seem to decide whether it wanted to be more old world or new, he was about as far from any of the expedition’s ill-fated doctors as Edward suspected was possible.
Edward would say it was for the best, perhaps should have wished for less reminders, but all the differences did was serve to remind him that better men than himself had died while he remained.
“Happy he pulls through,” Allanach continued pensively. “The other men you bring back did not.”
“He’s strong,” Edward said curtly. Allanach’s smile was slower this time, and there was a look in his eyes that Edward did not like. He ground his teeth together, looking away, fixing his gaze resolutely on Jopson. Allanach murmured something under his breath that Edward did not quite understand—a language too old for him, too different even from the tongue the girl and her father had shared—before switching back to the same heavily accented English.
“It is good you come back for him.” A slow, even blink. Then, a correction: “Came back. Much the same, yes? With you?” He did not reach out to pat Edward’s shoulder, but his tone somehow managed to convey the same sentiment. “It is sad to die alone.”
Edward didn’t answer, but Allanach seemed to not need one and was gone moments later, slipping out as soundlessly as he had arrived and leaving Edward to fall heavily into the chair that had, at some point, become his.
The idea that Jopson, who had given so much, could have died—still might die—thinking himself abandoned made something cold spread throughout his chest, stealing his breath and leaving him trapped as surely as Terror and Erebus had been. And he would have had good reason to think himself abandoned, a voice that sounded suspiciously like his own whispered, insidious and cloying and, worst of all, true. You’re the one who suggested it after all, Lieutenant Little.
The errant strand of hair that Jopson could never quite tame was out of place again. It would be the work of a moment to reach out, to fix it, but he thought of his own actions in that barren wasteland; thought, I haven’t the right.
He reached out to do it anyway; reasoned, to himself, that Jopson would not want to look unprofessional, even now. Before the disaster on the ice, before Edward’s suggestion had ruined whatever it was that could have (shouldn’t have) built between them, he had come to know the captain’s steward better than anyone else aboard Terror, save the captain himself. Jopson may hate him now, and rightfully so, but if Edward could do this one thing—
This time, when he exhaled, it was a shaky thing, the fingers of his frozen hands trembling where they hovered above Jopson’s still face, his closed eyes. He thought, in that moment, that he would give anything to see them open again. Thought, resolutely, that he would take Jopson’s ire, his disappointment, his hatred, if it meant that Jopson would live.
Quietly, reluctantly, he thought of Bridgens—of how, after Peglar’s death, the man had simply left, with none of them thinking to look until it was far, far too late. It was an action that Edward was not sure whether to laud or condemn. Worse, he could not tell, even now, if it was an action he himself would have echoed. Or maybe he did know, and knew that he wouldn’t have. He could not tell which was more disgraceful: the choices he may have made, the choices he did make, or the fact that he could not say, even now, if he would be able to make the right choice, or even know what the right choice was, had he the ability to go back and do everything anew.
Bridgens had known what the right choice for him was, but then Bridgens was not a leader of men. The burden of command, of the lives of others, had not been his. Or perhaps it was simply that he had loved so much and so deeply that it hadn’t mattered.
Edward wondered if he could ever love someone that deeply. Wondered if such a love could ever be reciprocated.
He rested a hand on Jopson’s forehead, finally tucking that dark strand aside, marvelling—or perhaps despairing—at the streaks of silver he could see in Jopson’s hair. He’s so young still.
A throat cleared, and Edward pulled his hand back as if burned even as he stood and planted himself firmly between whoever was at the door and Jopson’s prone form, only to blink when he saw that it was the captain. He was unsure if it was relief or trepidation he felt, but whatever it was kept his shoulders stiffly squared, one hand clenched in front of him as the other reached slightly behind towards where Jopson still lay, vulnerable in a way Edward had never seen him, even during Crozier’s infirmity.
Not that Jopson had willingly shown vulnerability then. No, if anything, he had tried even harder to keep his bearings, to appear as unflappable and in control as ever. The moments Edward had glimpsed of a man pushed to near-limits had been just that: glimpses, and not ones Jopson had willingly shown him, even as they worked in tandem, skillsets complimenting one another in a way that made Edward ache subconsciously for the impossible.
The captain was still looking at them, his gaze slowly, deliberately, shifting between Edward and Jopson. He did not comment on what he surely must have seen, and Edward lowered his head a fraction, shamefaced. He said nothing of it either. There was no point, and to invite words was only to spell his own doom.
Crozier was silent for a moment longer. Then he sighed, the sound of a man who had lost too much, and rested a heavy hand on Edward’s shoulder. “You’re a good man, Edward.” No, Edward thought, the sentiment too distant and matter-of-fact to be wild, I’m not. ”God knows you’ve proven yourself a thousand times over. If I were to trust anyone with him—“ don’t “—it would be you.” Crozier worked his jaw for a moment, tense, before lifting his chin, and Edward almost balked at the very real pain in his eyes. “I’ve buried all my chances, one way or another. Don’t make my mistake.” Then, message imparted, he turned around and marched out of the tent, leaving Edward standing afraid and alone, with naught but the sound of the wind and Jopson’s laboured breathing to accompany him.
The worst part of it was this: that the one man who had stood against him, who had stood against them all, was the one paying for their actions now.
In the way of things, Edward was asleep when Jopson woke, half slumped in the uncomfortable chair and half-fallen onto the narrow cot where Jopson had lain, his mind alight with nightmares depicting things he understood and things he did not, and the terrifying reality that the sole thing he did understand might very well have been the girl and the creature that had hunted them all, if only because the nature of men had proven itself unequivocally harder to predict.
There were fingers running gently through his hair, and for a brief second he wondered if he himself had died and returned to the warmth of the home of his youth. The notion did not last long. The arctic had bred within him the tendency to wake and react fast, and he was sitting up in moments, blinking against the perpetual daylight that trickled in through the fort’s haphazard windows, staring at a familiar set of pale eyes, open and exhausted but clear and alert and alive and so much sadder and softer than Edward could ever remember them being.
No sound escaped from Edward’s open mouth, and so he closed it against the flies that he did not think could exist in a land this cold.
“Lieutenant,” Jopson said, voice scratchy from disuse, from starvation, from fighting, from everything. He lives, Edward thought, delirious with that same everything. Captain? Jopson had said last time, questioning and hopeful and defeated at the same time. Captain? he had queried, as if the idea that they had returned for him was so fathomless a thing; as if he had given up on the very notion that anyone would care to return for him at all.
I would not have left you, Edward thought, desperate. He did not voice it. Did not deserve to voice it. It was a lie, after all, maybe. He had suggested it, after all. He had left Jopson, left him and the others with naught but James Thompson to guard the camp, as he all but dragged a reluctant Le Vesconte and the sad and sorry lot that would have followed him to Crozier’s rescue, arriving just in time to see the mutineers fall to the creature they courted.
He had almost not even done that.
There’s been a vote, Edward.
His jaw clenched. His hands, at his side, curled into fists, aggravating the broken and split skin of his knuckles. Last time he had seen Le Vesconte the man had still been sporting a face more black and blue than not. Perhaps it had healed somewhat. Privately, viciously, Edward hoped it had not. Le Vesconte had merely been the messenger, but as one of the few remaining officers, it had been his duty to—
It did not matter now. No, a lie: it did, but it would matter again the next time Edward was unlucky enough to see him. Right now, all that mattered was the clear regard of the man in front of him, awake at last, and Edward too exhausted to do anything more than stare.
“The captain did not want to leave you,” Edward said, slow, the words heavy and awkward on his tongue, but he had to say them, had to make sure Jopson knew that Crozier had not left willingly. “Hickey—the mutineers—” He broke off with a pathetic sound, a growl that wasn’t. He jerked his chin up, wanting to avoid Jopson’s gaze, but after so long spent yearning for it found he could not look away even for a moment, not even to disguise his own shame. “It wasn’t his choice to leave. He came back.”
“Yes,” Jopson said quietly, slowly. He did not look away from Edward. “You did.”
Edward lowered one clenched fist to his side, did glance away then, suddenly unable to bear the weight of whatever it was in Jopson’s eyes. This would be the moment for an interruption, he thought, resisting the urge to glance at the door as if by doing so Crozier or Allanach would be miraculously summoned. So many days spent sitting alone by Jopson’s bedside, resenting any intrusion, yet he was as skittish as the newborn colts he had once coveted as a youth now that he was faced with the man himself.
“Lieutenant?” Jopson sounded small, too small, tired, so tired, how long has he been hiding this, Edward remembered thinking when Jopson had first been laid up. Crozier had tended to him, then. Edward had envied him that, even as he understood that the task was not his to perform. His had been to shoulder the burden of command left behind, the both of them beholden to this man laid up, as frail as anything Edward had seen where only moments before he had seemed an indomitable pillar. Things are falling apart without you, Edward had wanted to shout, but he had held his tongue then, the weight of his mistakes as effective a bridle as any.
“Edward,” he said now, looking up when he heard Jopson exhale. Edward matched it with a sharp inhale of his own. “I think you have earned the right of familiarity, Lieutenant Jopson.”
Jopson’s smile was brittle. Tired. Edward ached, everywhere. Ached for this man, for the thing they could have had, for the thing they almost had, for the thing he was sure he had destroyed, for what Jopson surely almost died believing. Ached, too, for the briefs snatches of happiness, of levity, of Jopson’s soft smiles in the dark and Edward’s answering looks, of the what-could-have-beens before everything had fallen to ruin the night of Fitzjames’ Carnivale—a blow Edward, with the benefit of hindsight, could not help but think none of them had recovered from.
Jopson coughed, and the the hurt spread from Edward’s chest to his fingertips, stealing words and breath from his lungs. Desperation nearly sent him to his knees: desperation to atone, to reassure, to care, or perhaps to remember that he could care after so many years of wretched nothing in that place of death and despair, surrounded by the very best of humanity and plagued by its absolute worst. If this is love, he thought desperately, I want nothing of it.
If this is love, take it back.
He thought he understood Bridgens a little now, but it was too little, too late, was it not? Too late for Bridgens, for Peglar, for Goodsir, for Fitzjames and Hodgson—too late even for the girl, who had been bound by the creature as surely as they had been hunted by it.
But it wasn’t too late for Jopson—Jopson, who was watching him with half-lidded eyes, wasted and ruined but gloriously, blissfully alive, not Edward’s but not dead, and that was worth everything. Jopson was no paragon of humanity, Edward knew that damn well, the ice stripping the veneer of perfection from him the way it had torn so many things from them all, but in that place of death and ruin, of chaos and confusion, his steadfast, unwavering devotion to the captain, matched by Edward’s own, had been an anchor, sorely needed and much overlooked, so trusted was it, so confident were they that it would always be there.
There were questions in Jopson’s eyes now as he looked around—where are we, what has happened—and before he could voice them Edward was pressing a tin cup into his hands, filled with clean, melted snow, speaking of all the things that had come to pass—of Hickey, of the men who had followed him; of the captain, and his unwilling departure; and finally of Le Vesconte, and the men who would have followed him at the expense of Jopson’s life and their captain’s safe return.
He spoke of their rescue, such as it was, of discovering the traces left by the balloons of the two rescue ships that had been sent to find them, of the silken messages that contained the road to salvation. Of how they had manned one last march in a desperate attempt to reach them, and their relief at finding them at last. The men had been too weak to survive the voyage back to England, and so a course for Fort Resolution had been plotted, supported by supplies and the small fleet the Admiralty had sent after them.
Throughout it all Jopson listened, a strange expression on his face, one that Edward did not have the energy to decipher. All he could do was be thankful it was there at all, and let it ease the persistent ache in his chest, the one he could not face, not yet, not when it could mean his utter ruin.
“Thompson watched you while we were—while we were gone,” Edward said, letting the matter-of-fact tone of his own voice ground him. He was not searching for benediction, or forgiveness. It was not his right, or any of theirs, he suspected. Whatever they were, whatever had come to pass—he could not ask that of anyone, suspected none of them could. There was only the things that were and the things that would be. I’m sorry, he still wanted to say. I’m sorry, he thought, for he desired Jopson’s forgiveness anyway, deserving or not. He felt drained, more so than he ever had before, akin to a day’s march strapped to the boats, weighed down by supplies and the dead and the dying.
He breathed in. Steady on, sir, he thought he could hear Jopson saying in another time, an old place, the creaking of a wooden hull around them.
“The captain did not want to leave you,” he repeated himself, for lack of anything else to say. Then, grimly, almost hoping Jopson would not hear but unwilling to speak so quietly as to guarantee it: “I did not want to leave you.”
The image of Jopson laid bare in that place rose to the forefront of his mind again, the memory of how light he had been in Edward’s arms enough to make him shiver. Only Crozier’s voice had been enough to register to him, and Edward had been beyond grateful for their captain’s strength, for whatever remained of his own reservoirs had surely been depleted, and yet he had found enough scraps left in him to stand with Jopson cradled against his chest, and they had found their way out of that place.
Edward did not know what Crozier had thought seeing Jopson there, only that something had momentarily broken in the man’s expression before they had realized Jopson yet lived. He had watched it firsthand, watched the way Crozier had reached out with one shaky hand to brush Jopson’s hair aside—so long, too long, he would hate to been seen thus. Perhaps it would have been a reminder of all that Jopson had been to the captain, of all they had been through together, had Edward ever forgotten the captain’s regard for Jopson in the first place.
Because it is needed, and because it is deserved, I am making a promotion this morning. Someone on this expedition has earned our trust, respect, and confidence, in a way that merits absolute a place at this table.
Good luck, Edward had said then, a smile splitting his face, his joy in Jopson’s promotion heartfelt, a glimmer of happiness in an otherwise bleak existence.
I’m sorry, Edward wanted to say now, the way he wanted to say so many things, but those same things, the everything weighing down on his shoulders, stayed his tongue, and instead all he could do was watch Jopson, consumed by his own grief, by their collective grief, for all that had come to pass and all that surely awaited them on the horizon. Yet there was hope too, challenging him with pale eyes and a chest that expanded with breath despite it all, and Edward, so prone to despair, could not help but feel something ease in his own lungs, a hurt soothed however minutely.
He looked up then, not to speak, but rather just to behold, and found Jopson looking back, a small smile on his face, private and knowing and tired but soft in a way Edward found he craved. He did not know if it was love. Perhaps or was, or perhaps it was merely the potential for it, and he abhorred and craved it in equal measure, he found. His heart, a fragile thing, threatened to split in his chest, and he thought about how little England mattered now, when they had all seen the things they had seen; lived through what many would consider not just improbable, but impossible.
Crozier lived. Edward lived. Jopson lived. Ghosts, weighed down by more ghosts, but by god, they lived.
Jopson reached forward, resting one shaking hand over Edward’s own. Once, Edward might have froze. Now, he summoned his courage, the tattered remnants that had survived, and moved his other hand to rest atop Jopson’s: a promise, a reassurance. Something.
You are to lead the men forward, Edward. You and the others will live. Let me hear it.
Jopson’s eyes were fluttering shut, fatigue taking its toll, but he gathered his strength (in poor condition like Edward’s own, he was sure, but still there) and opened them again, holding Edward’s gaze, unwavering, the two words spilling from his lips rending Edward’s heart in two: