Jopson awakened between watches, knowing not what bell it was nor how long he had been asleep. The lantern in the cabin was doused low, but he could just make out the distressed rumple of abandoned sheets where the captain's form should be resting.
He had taken to sleeping within this most private of spaces upon his captain's request, as his assistance might be needed at a moment's notice. So went the theory, anyway; in practice, the captain refrained from calling for help more often than not. But Jopson did not hold it against him. He was firmly dedicated to making sure the man would not face this terrible ordeal alone – for when it truly mattered, the captain asked for his help.
Oh, but how his heart beat faster at the thought!
Jopson extricated himself from his bedroll and stood stretching for a moment. He looked around for the captain and soon found him huddled on the floor near the open privy.
“Sir, I would have brought you a bucket,” he said, hurrying forward to cover him with a blanket. The sight of the captain's pale, thin legs lying helpless outside the curtain of his nightgown sent a tremble through Jopson. All that chilled skin.
“I know you would've, Jopson, that's why I didn't ask,” croaked Francis – he could only be Francis in this state: Francis in the hushed confines of the cabin; Crozier when garbed in overland gear and staring at the withholding horizon; his Captain, always.
How does one take the true measure of a man? Good grace is surely easier to summon if one has been accorded all of life's advantages. Jopson had worked for too many employers to take an honestly pleasant demeanor for granted, but he was also not so accustomed to the service as to be overly impressed by it alone.
Look at his Captain stealing across the frigid room to be sick in the privy so as to not wake him – was that generosity of spirit not more true than a high-handed compliment or fair manners? Was that not gallantry at work?
“This is still twice less than yesterday, Sir,” Jopson says, crouching down to pat the sweat off his brow. Francis submitted to the tending by closing his eyes and sighing. “I do believe that is an improvement, and that you are now in the upswing.”
“Something certainly is,” replied Francis with a passing attempt at dryness.
He shivered hard and clutched the blanket tightly about his shoulders. His expression spasmed – it was the only warning they got before he turned his head and was sick again. Not much came up, by the sound of it. Bile and dry heaves.
Jopson dared to rest a hand between his shoulder blades. He wished he could provide a more substantial comfort, but this far out, they were all making do with less.
Francis spat and groaned softly. He slipped backwards from the drafty seat and into Jopson's waiting arms. He shifted in his cradle, seemingly unaware of anything but the warmth of the embrace. “You're too good to me, Jopson.”
His throat hurt for the stymied tenderness within his chest. It was a sensation he was familiar with. “No, sir.”
He busied himself with arranging the blanket more securely around his shivering form. In a moment he'd have to insist Francis go back to his pallet, but – not just yet.
“No? Are you correcting me, Jopson?” But his tone was teasing.
His captain did not possess the dashing looks of some favorites of the service. The curve of his mouth was more often pinched and sour than it was shyly sweet, and his eyes fell on more than one in the ranks with an inimical coldness. But in the candlelight of his cabin, his weather-beaten skin was softened. His gaze, folding and shortening itself from the horizon to the aborted stretch of one wall to the next, never failed to grow warm and friendly. Jopson had long since learned how to see the beauty in this man's face, and he saw it even now, in the faint tears in his eyes, and in the honest need with which he gave himself over to Jopson's care.
He said, “There is no man I believe more capable of seeing us out of our current predicament than you, sir.”
A pause, and then Francis roused himself with great effort from his growing stupor. “Your care for me is motivated by self-preservation?”
“If it amuses you to believe so, let us leave it at that.” Jopson smiled into the other man's unwashed hair. He added a belated, “Sir,” and felt the corresponding vibration of laughter.
It was strange to stumble upon a moment of genuine pleasure on this northern edge of the world, surrounded by a landscape so alien and inhospitable to men. But he was accustomed to grabbing his happiness where he could – recovered fragments from an altogether darker whole.
But oh, happy was the day they were reunited! Francis's land-bound half-pay had not been generous enough to keep a staff, and Jopson was otherwise consumed with attending his ailing mother. Neither of them had much cause to smile in the two long years between expeditions. England offered no potential, only a guarantee of suffering.
The Terror – as cold as it could be, as stifling as Navy society often was – had become a home to them both. A comforting shadow that loomed out from the ice, festooned with lights, its masts reaching for the stars, and – here, Jopson's arms tightened fractionally – a stout soul keeping them all afloat.
It was strange to reflect that they were but two of a handful of men aboard the Terror, the majority having stayed fled to the Erebus out of a wariness of the helpless crumpled form now held in Jopson's arms.
The prevailing winds of public opinion rarely blew in his direction. Fools, all of them.
Sometimes Jopson felt his regard for the captain like an old wound, badly headed. It pained him to see the man struggle with drink and his peers, with his bad luck in the marriage market. It always pained him, even back when he was newly made his steward and barely knew the man or his character.
Knowing Captain Crozier's background, he'd expected the man to be uncomfortable with a steward, perhaps even standoffish – but instead Francis welcomed Jopson's entry into his life with respectful gratitude, an attitude he kept even in the harshest moments of Ross's expedition. He was always honest about when he required help, and this openness disarmed Jopson, unmanned him.
He saw now Francis was again asleep. His body was in such a state of torment that it cared not where it fell in the intervening hours between open revolt. He'd waited too long to get him back to the pallet.
Jopson ducked his head and watched his face closely, studying the flutter of his pale eyelashes, mourning the shadows beneath his eyes.
Was it so bad, to crave this weight in his arms, to want to soothe his captain's restless stirring? To go without sleep in the hopes that he may allay even a fraction of his suffering? It took this long fraught journey they have been on to discover the love brimming within his chest, and if pressed he could not say he regretted the closing of the leads, the steady encroachment of the ice.
He knew this was wrong. There was a word for it: selfish.
His mother had wanted him to be more selfish. She'd urged him to sign on to the first expedition in the hopes he'd find a taste for adventure, for life. But he didn't think it was in his nature to live for himself alone.
He combed lightly through his captain's bedraggled hair, the pads of his fingers singing at his boldness.
What were such expeditions for, after all, if not throwing oneself upon an unfamiliar shore and hoping for a welcome.