The world started spinning even before Crusoe tried to open his eyes. "Friday," he mumbled. His eyelashes fluttered, but the spinning world lurched in such a way that he thought better of attempting to see a greater amount of it. "Friday, did you really need to wallop me across the skull again? I keep telling you I learn better without head wounds."
He received no answer, which was not particularly surprising; his words sounded like jumbled nonsense even to his own ears. Jumbled nonsense that rather hurt his aching head--he let out a groan and screwed his eyes shut as hard as he could. That brought him a warm hand to his brow, stroking lightly above his eyes and bringing an instant of relief.
But the fingers against his forehead did not feel right. No calluses, just a soft ghosting across his brow with none of the usual confidence in the touch.
"Friday?" he said again and tried harder to squint against the light.
"No, Robin," said the familiar voice of Jeremiah Blackthorn. "It's Wednesday."
"Uncle?" He shook his head to clear it and groped beside him to get leverage to push himself up. Soft sheets over feather ticking sank under his fingers. Not the tree house, then; not even the island. "Where am I?"
"In Kingston, Robin. No, don't try to move, you're in quite a weakened state after your long illness, I'm afraid."
Crusoe settled slowly back into the pillow. "What happened? How did I get here? For that matter, how did you get here?"
"You, my dear boy, got here via a ship that did not. I came in search of you, of course. It took a while, but the Jamaican governor finally discovered your identity and sent for me."
He and Friday must have made it off the island, though he could not remember how. "I see. Thank you for coming, Uncle. But what of the young islander who was with me? His name is Friday...."
He heard his own voice fading even as the light did the same. It eased his pain, but not his worry. Friday would not have left him alone for long. Blackthorn must have met him, but Friday might not have chosen to share that name of affection with this unfamiliar Englishman. After all, Friday had not always been so called.
It had been three days now, and Crusoe thought they were finally making progress, of a sort. He cast a sidelong glance at the man who sat halfway down the beach, staring out at the sea. On the first day after he had rescued the young savage from the hoard of cannibals, the man had not acknowledged Crusoe's existence. He had remained in his paints and ornaments, sitting beneath a tree, rocking and muttering to himself.
Crusoe had not understood what the man was saying. He was not entirely sure they were even words. The traders all said that the savages were barely human and spoke no human tongue. Crusoe's only experience with the native race so far had been with the cannibals, whose shrieks and guttural howls could hardly be termed language in any sense that Crusoe understood.
The second day, he had been working on a new shelter, secured in a tree a short way from the beach, when a slender, dark figure slipped from the forest and stood, watching. The man had stripped down to simple leather garb and washed the ceremonial paint from his face, and he looked even younger than he had when Crusoe had first spotted him.
Then, all Crusoe had really been able to see were those eyes--wide, dark, and horribly frightened. Now, they were still his most striking feature, wide and dark, but no longer frightened. Instead, they burned with curiosity.
Crusoe dropped out of the tree, but by the time he slithered down the ropes to the ground, the man had vanished back into the forest.
Today they sat together--or if not quite together, then at least with a shared sense of peace between them. Crusoe had scratched the current month's calendar into the sand, as he did every day to ensure he never lost track of the passage of time in the outside world. He counted again and again: the days of this week, the weeks of the month, the months since he had been cast away on this island with so little hope.
And now he had a new date to mark. He tapped it thoughtfully. "Friday," he muttered to himself.
Suddenly another stick tapped the same mark. Crusoe started, then smiled to see the young savage perched just behind him, looking over the crude calendar with that same burning curiosity. "Friday," Crusoe repeated again, then moved his stick over to the next mark, then the next. "Saturday. Sunday. And today is Monday."
The savage frowned, tapping along with his own stick, then returning to the first mark and looking at Crusoe with an intense question in his stare.
"Yes, Friday," Crusoe said, then cautiously lay his hand on the man's shoulder. "Friday was the day I found you."
The man put a hand on his own chest. "Friday," he repeated carefully, and Crusoe grinned.
"Yes, exactly! You came on Friday. And today--" Crusoe gestured vaguely down in front of him to indicate the here and now. "Today is Monday."
"Friday," the man said again, then put his hand on Crusoe's shoulder in the same manner. "Monday."
Crusoe started to exclaim his approval, then stopped with a sudden frown. "No, sorry, I think we haven't quite gotten the concept right. Then again, I suppose there's no reason you'd have ever seen a Gregorian calendar, is there?"
The man was frowning at him now, watching his mouth carefully as if he could siphon off the meaning of the strange words.
"Let's start again," Crusoe said with as much of a smile as he had been able to muster since the disaster. "I am Robinson Crusoe. My friends call me Robin, though you may call me anything you wish. I'm sorry, you're not understanding any of this, are you?"
This time the man hesitated a moment, then put his hand back on Crusoe's shoulder. "Crusoe," he repeated, clear as day, and this time when Crusoe smiled, it felt real for the first time.
He was still smiling at the memory when he woke again. This time the pain in his head was greatly lessened, and the world stayed more or less where it should when he opened his eyes. He managed to get himself up on one elbow and survey his surroundings.
The room was open and breezy, though with four solid walls and a ceiling of sturdier construction than Crusoe and Friday had ever managed. It looked like Jamaica, or at least what Crusoe had always conceived Jamaica to look like. Something strange and joyful fluttered in his stomach.
They had done it. They had made it. They were off the island.
But where was Friday? There was no sign of him in the room. There was no sign of anyone, other than Crusoe's boots and Bible on a chair in the corner, and a weighty-looking purse on the bedside table.
He reached over and hefted it in his hand, letting out a low whistle. It was even heavier than it looked. Crusoe had never had such a sum in his possession at one time. Blackthorn must have left it here; only a very rich man would be so careless with such a large sum of gold.
"I see you've found your earnings already, Robin," said the man himself from the doorway.
Crusoe looked up with an abashed smile as he dropped the purse back onto the table. "Sorry."
"Sorry?" Blackthorn gave him a bemused look as he came the rest of the way into the room. "No need to be sorry. It's yours to do with as you wish."
"Mine?" He raised his eyebrows, then frowned. "Uncle, I can't accept another loan. I already owe you thousands of pounds that I can never repay."
Blackthorn waved a negligent hand as he sat on the edge of the bed. "It's not a loan, and I shan't ask you to repay me for anything for some time. When you've reestablished your business, then we will speak of what you owe me."
"Business?" If he was looking at his greatest benefactor as though one of them was a loon, he hoped it would be excused by the head injury. "Uncle, I've been marooned on an island for over six years. The only business I've done is trade coconuts for bananas with Friday."
It was Blackthorn's turn to raise his eyebrows now. "Marooned on an island? If that's what you want to call it, though from your letters I had the impression you were doing quite well for yourself in Jamaica, prior to this latest catastrophe."
Crusoe rubbed his head and squinted at Blackthorn. His head was beginning to hurt again, and he suspected it was only going to get worse. "I don't understand. Where's Friday? He can't have gone far, he'll be too eager to rib me about getting knocked unconscious again."
And too worried, though Friday would never admit to it. Which made Blackthorn's puzzled look even more disconcerting. "Friday? This is the savage you keep speaking of?"
"Yes, Friday. Surely you must have--oh, dear God. You said the ship didn't make it. Did he...?" Crusoe could not finish the sentence. The thought of Friday drowning when they were so close to their freedom made his mouth flood with bile.
Blackthorn lay a hand on his shoulder, a cold reassurance. "I did not hear of any savages on the ship, Robin. But no hands were lost. Another ship came to help just as yours was foundering, thank God."
"Then what happened to Friday? I would not have left the island without him." He dug the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Why can I not remember what happened? How did we get off the island?"
"You were never on any island but this one, Robinson, and wherever you may have gone to trade." Blackthorn still sounded compassionate, but his frown deepened with a hint of impatience. "But you were dreaming for a long time. No one will blame you if you're... a little confused, for a while."
"I'm not confused," he snapped, but he sounded lost to his own ears. As lost as he had felt before he'd found-- "You say I was never marooned? That I have not spent the last six years on an island with a man called Friday?"
"No. You have spent the last six years as a merchant in the West Indies. This is your house. The money on the table is the return from your last investment--and believe me, recovering it for you was no simple task. Your wife and children are waiting for you to send for them. You do remember them, don't you?"
"Yes," Crusoe said, and for an instant was overwhelmed with the long ache for them. Blackthorn's words made no sense to him, but this pain was all too familiar. "Yes. They are not here, are they?"
"No. I have kept them safe for you all this time, and gladly. They'll come when you are ready, but I wouldn't have Susannah see you like this." Blackthorn hesitated, then stood and squeezed Crusoe's shoulder one last time with a strained smile. "You can have a good life here, Robin. A wise man would accept it and be thankful."
"Thank you, Jeremiah." He managed to keep his head out of his hands until Blackthorn went from the room.
Then he let the deep shudders take him for a moment as the gales of conflicting hopes buffeted him without mercy. To have a life here, to have his wife and children with him soon, was a dream worth nearly any sacrifice. But if the other had been only a dream, his life on the island, his long years with Friday, then why could he remember nearly everything of that and nothing of the other?
If only he could remember what happened. There had been men on the island--the pirates? No, after that, and after the mutineers. Civilized Englishmen, who had come and--
There was nothing after that, and Crusoe pounded his fists on the bed beside him. His mind had always been nimble and responsive to his command; he did not know what to do with this blankness.
Yet even in the blankness, his memory was alive with Friday. Why would he make up these memories? Why would he dream of such intimacies as they had shared? Friday would have said that it was their spirits coming together in their mutual need--and how did Crusoe know even that?
Except that somehow, he had always needed Friday, even before he knew him.
They had settled into a routine quickly enough, Crusoe and his new friend. The other man seemed to feel no inclination to leave him for long, nor any need to search out his own people. They had established, through a long exchange of words and signs, that his people were not on this island and could not assist either of them in leaving it. After that, it seemed only logical to continue getting used to each other.
The man had adopted the name Friday with good humor, even delight, once they had given up on Crusoe being able to pronounce Friday's true name. It embarrassed him, but not as much as when Friday had begun testing his linguistic prowess in other areas. Crusoe had almost jumped out of his skin the first time Friday had reeled off a question in French, then in Spanish, then in something Crusoe could only guess might be Dutch.
"No, I'm sorry," he said after Friday had attempted at least a dozen different tongues, trying to have the grace to seem properly abashed instead of letting his pride be pricked. "I'm afraid English is the only language I speak. And, it seems, the only language you don't."
Friday had shrugged and grinned and started quizzing Crusoe on English nouns once more. It had not been long after when Crusoe had been struggling to pulley up a section of the tree house. Strong hands joined his on the rope, corrected the angle of the approach, and pulled until the structure slid neatly into place.
"You are a brilliant man, Crusoe," Friday said with a laugh as Crusoe fell back, panting. "But every man needs help. You more than most, I think."
"Ah," Crusoe said, bent over with hands on his knees. "So we're onto complete sentences, I see."
After that, there didn't seem much point in wondering which of them was civilized and which was the savage. After that, Friday was just Friday, and he was always there. Even when Crusoe woke from dreams of Susannah, face wet and body hard, Friday was there, hands gentle on Crusoe's face.
"No," Crusoe told him when hands became lips and gentleness gave way to a greater intensity. "Friday, I cannot."
"And why not?" Friday grew gentle again, the lightest of touches settling on Crusoe's hair, his cheek, his shoulder. "Whom does it hurt if we help each other with this? Your god?"
Friday laughed again, implacable in his touches. "How do I offend your wife? I am no woman, Crusoe."
"I had noticed," Crusoe replied with a catch of his breath. Friday's hand was slipping down, and the heat of his body was reminding Crusoe of how long it had been since he'd felt another's skin against his.
"Then your wife should have no worries. Someday, we will meet, your wife and I, and I think we will have much in common." Friday's lips brushed his forehead, then his cheek. "For example, we both hold you dear in our hearts. For another example, both of us will be with you for the rest of your life."
"Well," said Crusoe, closing his eyes. "As long as you promise that you'll be the one to explain it to her."
He clenched the bedclothes until he felt them rip beneath his grip. It was not possible. He had never thought he would welcome the touch of another man, until that man had been Friday. Why would he have imagined it? How could he have dreamed such a thing?
They had not escaped the island. They had been taken. There had been men, the men had come and Crusoe had never learned his lesson. He had welcomed them, and been taken.
Slowly he raised his head and turned it toward the heavy purse that still sat on the bedside table. The return from his last investment, Blackthorn had said. He reached out and hefted the bag of gold one more time in his hand. The sneering voice of the mutineers echoed in his memory--the savage, your slave, he'll fetch a good price.
The blankets tangled around his legs and gold coins scattered across the floor as he bolted across the room to hunch, retching, over the wash basin. This was the life Blackthorn wanted him to accept: nothing more than a lie washed clean in his brother's blood.
Crusoe straightened and wiped the sickness from his mouth. He would never accept that life. Susannah would never accept it, even if he could ask her to. How Blackthorn could expect him to agree to it, he would never understand, though the shame of it would bow him forever. The one Englishman Crusoe had held up to his friend as a paragon of honor and trust, and he had sold Friday's freedom for Crusoe's sake.
His head still throbbed and spun, but within the pain, plans were already spinning. He forced himself to crouch down and gather the spilled gold. He would use it, but only to free Friday. And if Friday had already managed to free himself, as Crusoe would half-expect, then they would use the gold together. Blackthorn's approval would not be necessary.
They would start anew, all of his family together. Surely somewhere in this vast world was a place where men could live honest lives without fear or bigotry. Both Friday and Blackthorn would probably agree that was another of Crusoe's mad dreams--but this one, he would live.