Part 6

Sleep came fitfully to me, in snatches of what could only have been half hours, from what the bells told me.

In the morning, I looked over to Jasper's hammock to find him seemingly asleep. So beautiful - the lips that had kissed me and whispered to me in the dark night. I wanted to wake him and kiss him some more, but if I didn't show up above decks for duty, no doubt Garrett would send some malodorous and ill-tempered henchman down to fetch me. Frequently men didn't emerge from their hammocks at the required time, and if they were lucky they earned a bucket of cold brine thrown over them, soaking them through and waking them spluttering and coughing. If they were unlucky it was a flogging. It mattered not what state anyone was in to Garrett. If a man was still drunk by the time he was called to decks, it was simply the worse for him, and if he tumbled over the side in pitching seas, too bad. No-one would throw him a line, and the ship wouldn't turn back.

I'd finished my bowl of what was little better than pigswill in the mess, and made my way through the hatchway onto deck. I was about to commence the dreary and dreaded never-ending task of climbing and checking the ropes, when I became aware Demetri stood behind me. His stench was peculiar to him - rum and rot and the devil-knows-what. His face was pressed no doubt as close to mine as he dared.

"You and the captain's skinny bitch, eh Pretteh?" he sneered.

In shock I spun to face him, trying to keep my face neutral.

"Sharing a kiss, and more, I'll wager. Aye - your secret's out, pansy-boy. You'll be killed if Eleazar knows you've taken a fancy to his favorite little flower. You'd better not be caught even looking at her. He don't want anybody but him spreading her tight backside - "

Seizing Demitri's shirt front, I held my blade to his throat.

"Listen, you piece of filth," I snarled, barely managing to hold down my rage, but not prepared to let him see how much he'd riled me. "I have no interest in anything you've ever said, or are about to say, or could ever say. The very sound of your voice is disgusting. That being so, the next time I hear you so much as clear your throat I will cut your mouth off and feed it to the rats in the bilges. If you understand me, nod. If you're not sure, shake your head and I'll repeat myself. Take care not to speak, though."

Demitri was heftier than me, but I was taller than him, and due to his usual abject drunkenness, and my onboard sobriety, I dare say I was a good deal quicker too. It must have seemed to him that there was good chance I wasn't bluffing, and I'd carry out my threat. Indeed, I was so angry I felt fully capable of attacking and damaging him in just the way I'd described. He nodded, and I released him, knowing that now he had more reason to detest me than ever. I also knew that what he'd said about Eleazar was probably true, as our hated captain was insane and dangerous. Climbing aloft, I reflected that it wasn't only the breeze that had ears to hear and a mouth to speak. It seemed the very planks had seen and heard Jasper and me last night, and from now on we had very good cause to worry. Someone was telling tales, and I had no-one to trust.

Remembering Jasper's kiss was all that sustained me that day, once the familiar ache caused by climbing set in to my back and shoulders. Rigging was tiring, but a lapse of either strength or concentration could mean death. All the jobs aboard were back-breaking or potentially fatal, and many of them both. What madness had I ever been under, that I thought I would be suited to a life at sea?

Returning to my hammock at the end of a long day, I found the canvas wet, and reeking with the acrid stench of urine. I knew I had Demitri to thank for it. I had no option but to sleep on the hard and uncomfortable floor. Though I struggled to stay awake and wait for Jasper, both to tell him of this new development, and just for the pleasure of seeing him, I was so exhausted I was asleep before he appeared.

In the morning, upon rising I slipped into my sandals and made for the gangway only to feel sudden agonizing pain in the soles of my feet. Looking down, I watched in horrified amazement as trickles of blood appeared. On inspection, both sandals had thin shards of broken glass imbedded into the leather. I lacked a clean shirt to tear up and use for bandages, and was loathe to walk on deck in this state, knowing Garrett was sure to make me scrub whatever bloodstains I left in my wake. There was a small pot of rainwater I collected on wet days and nights that I left hanging for Jasper and I to drink from, so I pulled off the shirt I was wearing and soaked it. It was grimy, and I would be laying myself open to infection, but I scrubbed ineffectually at the fabric before tearing it into strips, and bound my feet. Then I went looking for Demetri.

"New socks, Pretteh?" he sang out, drawing the attention of everyone around.

"Yes, and if you like the look of them I'll give them to you as a cravat," I sang back. "I'll even knot it for you, Demetri, good and tight around your fat neck. It will improve your appearance greatly, especially when your face turns blue."

"Tough words - tough words," he sneered. "You almost sound like a real man."

There was hooting around from his bunch of cronies, all even uglier and more stupid than him. I wasn't about to stand for the ridicule, and it was time I stood up to Demitri in the only way he'd understand. The pain in my feet was causing me real hardship, but there was nothing wrong with my hands. I swung a punch, which landed with an almost bone-crunching thud on the side of his jaw.

He stared in astonishment, clearly having thought I didn't have it in me, and then collected himself. One hand curled into a fist and he was just about to let fly when Garrett appeared.

"Demetri!" he roared, and such was his command that Demetri actually stopped.

"What has happened to Pretteh's feet you sack of shit?" Garrett continued. "Your rum rations are cut for two days, and you're on double duties. Lazy swine. Pretteh's better on the ropes than you ever were, you fat bastard, and now he's all but useless. Pretteh - you're scrubbing. On your knees, ballerina. Get him a brush and a bucket! Are you all as useless as these two fairy queens?"

God, Garrett was an unfeeling bastard. A bucket and brush were thrust at me, and though the blood soaking through the makeshift wrappings on my feet was obvious, he showed no lenience. And it seemed there was to be no punishment for Demetri. I hated all of them, I hated every aspect of this life, I thought grimly, and allowed a part of my mind to wander to when I would be free of this floating nightmare - on solid ground, and hopefully with Jasper at my side.

Suddenly, a pitch of the hull jolted me and I hazily shook my head, surprised to find myself flat out on planking with dark all around. Had Demitri hit me after all, and knocked me out? It took a while to realize that the scenario with the sandals and my bleeding feet had been a dream. It was before first light, I was below decks while all the crew but whoever was on watch were slumbering still, and from above me came the gentle and reassuring sound of Jasper breathing.

We weren't safe though, he and I. We were far from it. I had to wake him and warn him.

Whispering his name, I shook his shoulder lightly.

He must have been lost deeply in a dream himself, as it took him a while to come to me.

"It's me, it's Edward. Jasper - Demetri knows about us," I murmured to him, mindful now of how much care I had to take in anything I said or did.

"Uhhh?" Jasper mumbled, attaining alertness slowly. "Knows about what?"

"Us," I repeated.

I could only just make out the gleam from the whites of his eyes as he regarded me.

"What is there to know?" he asked.

What indeed?

"He knows I kissed you," I mumbled.

"And why should that be of any interest to Demetri, or anyone else? It's barely of interest to you," he responded, and he was making me pay for my ambivalence. I deserved it. I'd put my tongue in his mouth only a night ago, and I was more than halfway ready to entrust my heart to his keeping, but I couldn't tell him. He didn't know what I wanted from him, and thought he was just some sort of dalliance for me. I'd told him I couldn't love a man, and that I only wanted to bed women. Truthfully, I hadn't thought of anything physical with him beyond kissing, despite hazy, barely-formed recollections of his hand on me which I pushed away almost as soon as they presented themselves in my brain. My body's reaction to him the previous night had come as a complete surprise to me, and yet it hadn't been unwelcome. In fact, my body was having the same reaction to him right now. An urge to touch him, to explore, to feel and know him came upon me. My hand was still on his shoulder, and I moved it slowly, very, very slowly to his chest, allowing my fingertips to slip inside the neckline of his shirt. His flesh was smooth and warm and firmly muscled. Beneath my questing fingers his heart hammered, reaching the speed I already knew my own heart to be racing at.

"You're wrong," I said, my voice husky, my hand now sliding out of his shirt and down his front, over his belly, towards -

He stopped me.

"What did Demitri say?"

"Eleazar will have me killed if I so much as look at you."

Jasper sighed. "Then don't look at me."

"You don't want me killed?"

"Of course not."

"What do you want?"

"Oh, Edward. What I want is you. Just you - well, you and freedom. Not this ship, not the sea, not the petty cruelty and deprivation and the foulness of the people around us. I don't care where you and I are as long as I have you, and we're not here," he said, no hesitance in his voice.

Light was beginning to creep into the air now and I was able to see him a little. I could see the hope and the dream on his face, and I knew that I shared it.

"Yes, Jasper, yes," I answered. "Let's be far from all this. I want to love you. We'll find somewhere, and we'll work and live and eat and sleep and love."

Even in the dimness of first light, his smile was breathtaking.

"Really, Edward? Truly? Is that the way you feel?" he breathed, and at my nod, he pulled me down, and kissed me hungrily. I met him, I matched him, both of us unbearably excited by the newness and strangeness brought about by my discovery and my declaration. I savored the taste of him and the smell, the sweat and staleness despite his efforts to keep clean, and found him delicious anyway. I reveled in the texture of his tongue and teeth, and in the tiny growls he was giving as our mouths moved together. We'd sort things out for ourselves somehow - the two of us together. It might have taken a death-threat for me to recognize my feelings, but I knew them now. His hands were in my hair as I hunched awkwardly over his hammock, trying to get my arms underneath him to hold him, and then simply trying to climb in on top of him. We broke apart laughing as the bells sounded to wake the crew.

"I'd better go. I don't fancy a whipping," I said to him regretfully, although I felt the happiest I'd ever felt in my life. More kisses would be well worth a mere few lashes on my back.

"I don't want you to be whipped. It's only a few more days now. Go - get to work, and come back to me tonight," my beautiful boy answered. "And remember - if you see me about, don't look. We'll not give Demetri or anyone else any cause to spread rumors."

One more snatched kiss, and I departed, floating on air.

Three days to Tortuga. Three days more of hell, before we reached the heaven that beckoned us.