Written for Yuletide New Year's Resolutions 2004
Peculiar, how the sea could seem so soothing, almost a nurturing presence, when so recently it had been wild and destructive, the instrument of his despair. That wildness seemed impossible now, as the waves slapped gently against the wood and the sails filled with a warm southerly breeze. The storm seemed unreal, distant, as if it had been nothing more than a nightmare from which he'd awakened with no harm done.
No harm; there was a thought. Nothing but an emptiness in his soul, a hole where his other half had been.
He shook himself and drew the borrowed cloak more tightly about him, despite the lack of an actual chill in the air. The shiver felt real; the water, the wooden deck below him, the fact he was still alive did not. The slow rise and fall of the moonlit waves was lulling him, inducing the sensation of a waking dream. No wonder he was so pensive, so melancholy. He pushed a hand across his head and found his hair was still wet. When he ran his tongue along his palm, he tasted salt. That at least was real.
The corner of his mouth turned down. "I've asked you to not to call me that. I have no rank."
Sebastian startled, then hid it with a twitch of the cloak. He'd nearly forgotten the false name he'd offered when he'd come to himself, sprawled here on the deck surrounded by a dozen rough men. One never knew with these pirates; for all he knew they'd hauled him aboard to ransom him. Though their leader, this man Antonio, seemed a decent sort. Kind, even. He'd given him dry clothes, a cloak. Held him steady by the rail as he vomited salt water back into the sea.
"I'm no one. A pauper. I'll be lucky if I can afford all the letters in my name."
"You are melancholy."
"Have I no reason to be?"
"Yes, my lo--Roderigo, but you've sat here since we pulled you up. Come. Eat something."
The anger died and was replaced by bitterness. Or sadness; he wasn't sure of anything any more. "I've lost everything."
Antonio came up beside him, a large presence smelling of leather and honest sweat and the slightest hint of sack. "You've lost all your possessions. But you're alive. Does that count for nothing?"
What right have I to live when my sister, the other half of myself, is dead?
"Come inside," the other man urged. "The fellows are sharing a tune. They're good comrades, I assure you. There's food -- not a fine banquet, of course, but meat and ale."
Sebastian turned away from the water to regard the other man, offering a thin smile. He felt tired, so very tired. "No, thank you. If you don't mind, I'll keep my own counsel this night, my friend."
A broad hand reached out to grip his shoulder, and dark eyes fixed on his searchingly. "I am your friend, you know. I mean you no harm."
The intensity of Antonio's gaze confused him. Why should he care if I eat, sleep, live or die, when I myself do not?
"I think it would be better if you were not alone tonight," Antonio continued. "The sea's a strange companion, as fickle as a lover, and as needful. She can make men do things, should they be melancholy. I'd not wish to see her call you to her."
A harsh laugh erupted from Sebastian's lips. "What? You think I'd throw myself over the side?"
Antonio shrugged. "Men have done."
"Not I, I assure you. I've no desire to kill myself." Liar. Go to her. Join her.
"I'm relieved to hear you say so, sir --"
"I am no 'sir.'"
"Your clothes and manner say different, I think, but that's all one."
"Sorry to disappoint you."
The other man made a wry face. "I've not said I'm disappointed. Disappointment would have been hauling aboard a corpse. Though when we plucked you from the sea you'd drunk so much I was certain you were dead. I'd hate to have to go through that again."
"Ah, I see, so you're merely saving yourself the trouble." Sebastian turned away, resting his arms on the railing. The vast green undulated before him. End your despair. You've nothing left.
"Of course not, Roderigo, I didn't mean--"
"--No, please, I'm sorry. I'm merely fatigued. I would never think so harshly of you." Sebastian lay his hand atop Antonio's, marking the warm roughness beneath. He thought that perhaps he himself would never again feel as warm. "You've done so much for me, been so kind. I didn't mean to give offense."
Antonio's hand turned and closed on his. Sebastian felt the power contained within that grasp. It was a man's hand, one that pulled ropes and bore weapons, not a smooth boy's hand like his own.
"You didn't offend. I'm certain you never could."
There was something in the sailor's voice, such kindness and warmth, Sebastian could have wept. Then suddenly he was weeping, after a fashion, hot tears pricking behind his eyes, a lump in his throat threatening to choke him. Weak, unmanly, to shed tears like this! He turned away, struggling to force the feelings down.
But they were tears for a sister with whom he shared a womb, so surely they were warranted, weren't they? And tears for himself, alone and adrift on this infinite, damned sea -- anyone would forgive tears under these circumstances, wouldn't they? If only Viola were here, she'd know, she always knew what was right--
But she wasn't here, and never would be again.
You're so alone, upon the sea, upon this cursed earth.
He pulled from Antonio's hand, turning again to the sea, watching the water as it fell in rhythmic waves beneath the vessel and let it lull his tears away. How soothing it was. How enchanting.
There's nothing left for you.
With an effort he tried to wrench his mind from within himself, turn from the calling sea, but found he could not. Go to her. She waits for you. You've nothing left.
He was halfway up the railing, the water beneath him and the salt spray on his face, before something had him in a vise-like grip that squeezed so hard it wrung a gasp from his bloodless lips. There was a sound in his ears louder than the rush of water. A name, someone's name being called in desperation, but not his name. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered...
Something shook him roughly. "Roderigo!"
He heard himself make a keening noise that seemed to go on and on and which he was powerless to stop. And then something slapped him hard across the face and he was pulled against a broad, warm surface that smelled of leather. "You fool," a gruff voice said, and he could feel it reverberating through the leather. "Foolish boy. Killing yourself solves nothing. Stop this. Stop, I say."
Why? I've nothing left. She's dead!
"Dead? Who is dead?"
Ye gods, had he uttered that aloud?
A face swam into view before him. Antonio had been calling him, calling that false name. The broad visage was fierce with emotion. "Who is dead? Your wife?"
Would he not cease? "No, there's no one. No one left. I've no one. No one."
To his horror he was weeping again, damned, damned unmanly tears.
"That's not so. Roderigo--"
"For God's sake, that's not my name. Don't call me that!" He shoved hard at the body in front of him and the hands left his shoulders.
Sebastian sank back against the railing. He felt like vomiting, but lacked the strength. He pulled the fabric of the borrowed cloak across his eyes, wiping away wetness, and immediately began to feel ashamed. The cloak was Antonio's; it smelled like him, and, like him, was rough-hewn but comforting. "You don't deserve my anger. Once again, Antonio, please forgive me."
"There's nothing to forgive. You've been to hell's mouth today. Though I wish you'd tell me who you really are."
When Sebastian turned, Antonio was next to him, leaning against the rail, arms folded across his chest. Waiting. The pirate's body barely touched Sebastian's chilled flanks, but it was close enough to warm him. "Perhaps some day, I will."
"That means you wish to live at least another day then," Antonio mocked gently.
"What concern is it of yours if I live or die?"
Antonio regarded him for a moment before answering. "Listen to me, Roderigo -- or whatever your name is. I've spent few enough hours with you, yet I can tell you are a person of many gifts. I don't know what has befallen you, who or what it is you have lost, but I will tell you this: you have much to offer, and to end your life would deprive the world of something fine and beautiful. I think the gods would not approve of that."
Sebastian cocked an eyebrow. "A philosopher pirate?"
"One must diversify."
That wrung a smile from him. "Indeed."
"And one must have hope."
"That, my friend, I cannot promise."
There was a long pause before Antonio answered him. "You are cruel, my lord."
"Don't call me--"
"--Don't interrupt me."It was an order, not to be disobeyed. Sebastian was struck with the realization that Antonio could be dangerous if he wished to be. This was no servant, no bowing slave, despite the kindness he'd shown. The man before him commanded a ship of dangerous men, of whom he was perhaps the most dangerous of all. Yet there was something in that strength, that power, that sent a shiver up Sebastian's back, a shiver that had nothing at all to do with fear. "You believe you've nothing to live for? That's folly, and, if I may speak plain, right selfish of you."
"--Money or not, possessions or none, there are those who would willingly enjoy your company. Those who would desire to know you better."
Desire. . . That word, from the fierce countenance before him, both surprised and engaged him. He looked at Antonio with appraising eyes.
But the other man continued as if he did not notice. "There must be women, some with large dowers, who could assure your future. Your beauty would beguile them. Would you die and leave the world no copy of yourself? That's most selfish, indeed. The world's an ugly enough place."
Sebastian felt a blush creep across his face and cursed his inability to hide it. He'd never lain with a woman, not yet. Should the pirate discover that, no doubt he'd mock his virginity. "I beg you, Antonio--"
"You think I flatter. I haven't time for it. Life's too short and too hard." Antonio shifted, moving closer. "You say you have no mistress nor no wife, but there must have been someone, some sweetheart who will be glad to find you alive. Was there not?"
Odd, the intensity of this questioning. "No woman has my heart," Sebastian answered honestly, watching Antonio intently as he did so.
A small smile appeared on the sailor's lips. He's pleased with my answer, Sebastian thought.
Something glimmered in the depths of Antonio's dark eyes. "Well, we all have our tastes, my lord, and I'm not one to point a finger."
Surely he doesn't mean -- Sebastian felt himself blush again, even hotter than before if that were possible. "I assure you--"
"Don't." It was an order, and once again the commanding tone was absurdly pleasurable to Sebastian. "Don't assure me. One should never try to predict the future." Antonio leaned over him in an attitude that should have seemed predatory, but the hand that closed on Sebastian's arm was gentle. "Believe me. Someone will love you again."
"I wish that were so."
"It will be. I promise you."
It was on his lips to say something, though he didn't know what. All Sebastian knew was that warmth was coursing through him for the first time since the storm had torn his ship in two. He was drawing strength from Antonio, strength and heat and the will to live. He hadn't believed it possible that he'd ever feel warm again, let alone imagine a future, but now the all-consuming despair was falling away, to be replaced by something akin to...hope.
The cry came from atop the mast, and both men looked up. "What is it?"
"Illyria, I should think," Antonio replied, frowning. "Not my favorite place on earth."
White teeth flashed. "I'll tell you that story when you tell me your name."
Sebastian laughed. "Fair enough." He looked toward the horizon but could see nothing. Oddly, the sea did not call him this time. "Illyria, you say..." I think my father knew the Duke there. "Would you, could I go ashore?"
A crease appeared between Antonio's eyes. "I suppose we need supplies."
"--It wouldn't do for you to go alone." When Sebastian looked up in surprise at the vehemence of his tone, Antonio ducked his head in a rare show of uncertainty. "That is, if you'll allow me."
"It would be most welcome."
He was rewarded by an expression of relief on the tanned face. "Thank you."
"I'm the one in your debt, Antonio. I regret I've no way to repay you."
"Well, now. No one can predict the future, as I've said."
The dark eyes flashed again, and once again Sebastian felt a frisson of pleasure. He clasped Antonio's arm. "You've been most kind."
Antonio said nothing, but looked pleased. His other arm came up and Sebastian felt the roughness as two big hands enclosed his smooth one. He felt safe in that grasp.
They stood that way for a long moment, eyes locked, until something in their stance felt embarrassing and Sebastian pulled away. "Well, then," he said, recovering, "Illyria it is."
"Now that's settled, won't you come inside?"
He nodded, capitulating. "Yes, thank you. I shall. I find I do have an appetite after all."
"Good." Antonio's arm slipped about his shoulders in a way that felt perfectly natural, and he was guided gently towards the hatch. Perhaps, Sebastian thought, perhaps with this kind of strength to aid me, I can face living.
At the door, he turned to look a final time at the sea. Moonlight played on the gentle waves; he listened for a moment to the rhythmic susurrations. Somewhere, within those green depths, his sister rocked gently in eternal slumber. He closed his eyes.
Forgive me, Viola. Forgive me for finding a reason to live.
The moment passed. Antonio squeezed his arm, not understanding his thoughts, merely offering comfort. Comfort, strength. . .and perhaps more? Sebastian wondered. Well, no one could predict the future, after all.
He opened his eyes and nodded, and they passed within. The sea rolled on, bearing the wooden vessel and her passengers, among them a slight man stolen from the sea, and beside him, another, close as a shadow.
More sharp than filed steel, did spur me forth.