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Aloft

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"I must make a new bed."

Robinson paused with a piece of mango partway to his mouth and stared at Friday across the table. "A new bed? What's wrong with your present one?" He shot a look over his shoulder at the bed on the upper floor, but it looked as it always did: neatly made up, bright under a stitched skin decorated with ochre designs.

"It's too small; Dundee keeps kicking me in his sleep."

Robinson laughed. "It sounds like a great deal less work simply to make Dundee sleep on the floor." He popped the mango into his mouth and sliced off another piece with his knife.

But Friday was staring upwards with a considering look and no hint of teasing humour.

"Closer to the sky. That is where I would like my bed. What do you call it on your ships--aloft?"

"Well, men go aloft in the rigging, yes, but not to sleep." He was still amused, but Friday's intentness made him study his friend more closely.

A small smile played around Friday's mouth as he studied the treetop, his gaze seemingly much farther away than the distance above them. "Aloft in the branches. The perfect place to sleep, don't you think? Almost close enough to touch the stars."

And Friday's smile suddenly bloomed into outright joy and he turned it, warm and merry, on Robinson. Finding Friday's pleasure irresistible as always, Robinson smiled back spontaneously.

"It sounds delightful--in theory. A bit precarious, perhaps, in reality?"

"No, no!" Friday was all animation now, his hands as bright and fast as his eyes as he sketched his plans in the air between them. "We'll build a new balcony, very secure, the highest of them all."

"We?"

Friday pursed his lips and sobered. "A small one, not much work at all." He nodded, so confident and reassuring that Robinson might almost have believed him--if he hadn't known better. "Just big enough to hold my new bed."

Friday thrust his arms out to either side and waggled his fingers, looking first to one hand, then the other. "Not a big balcony at all. But a big bed! It's like one of those puzzles you have mentioned. A--?" He tilted his head questioningly at Robinson.

Robinson raised his brows in bafflement, then smiled. "Like a conundrum, you mean?"

"Conundrum." Friday rolled the word in his mouth with the sensual focus he employed with everything that gave him pleasure.

Robinson twitched his eyes away and concentrated on the remains of his breakfast for a few moments' silence. When Friday's voice drew his eyes back, Friday was staring at the higher branches through a box made by his fingers that he tilted back and forth. Robinson watched him, more bemused than anything else now.

"And with a cover," Friday said, as though continuing a conversation, gaze still turned up. "For when it rains. But not attached! A piece of canvas I can roll out when I need it, but open to the sky the rest of the time."

Robinson's mouth tugged into a smile. "A bed with a canopy, then."

Friday shrugged, grinning. "Mmm, more a balcony with a canopy, I would say."

Robinson couldn't hold back a snort of laughter. "Friday, my friend, you are quite mad, I think!"

Friday laughed back at him, glee and happiness warming his face. "But at least in my madness, I'll sleep well." He turned to look down at Dundee, who lifted his head, tongue lolling. Friday waggled a finger at him. "And no more kicking!" Dundee barked once and sat up, ears twitching as he watched Friday expectantly.

Friday jumped to his feet and rubbed his hands. "So, we should get started. One good day's work and it will be done!"

:::::::

Naturally, it took not one, but several days' work, but it was a pleasant way to fill the hours now they'd finished repairing the treehouse after Blackthorn's disastrous visit. Friday, despite an odd fevered quality to his abrupt desire for a new sleeping place, consented to break the work days with short hunts for fresh meat, along with their usual daily activities of a swim in the (non-piranha-infested) river, and a nap during the hottest part of the afternoon. A nap that was perfectly fine, in Robinson's opinion, in their current two beds in the dappled shade of their tree home. But what Friday wanted, Friday was unswervingly set on achieving, as Robinson well knew, and he'd been at sea often enough to know the futility of sailing against the tide.

Besides, the work kept him from dwelling on Blackthorn and his treachery. The work itself--selecting and sawing wood, making pegs, cutting and fitting notches in the planks, and hammering and fitting it all together into a sturdy platform--was satisfying, leaving him tired and sweaty, but content with the visible achievement at the end of each day. The glow in Friday's eyes was its own reward.

If Friday was less carefree about gaining his wish than Robinson would've expected--and, indeed, was accustomed to seeing in his friend when they weren't dealing with some calamity--he attributed it to a mere bout of passing moodiness. Lord knew they'd both experienced a spectrum of every conceivable temper in each other over their years alone together on the island. And Friday had taken Blackthorn's machinations to heart, responding with uncharacteristically cold fury not only to the vile fate intended for him, but to Blackthorn's actions against Robinson, too.

He comforted himself with the assurance that Friday would be back to himself soon. He couldn't envisage any other possibility, just as he couldn't imagine not living each day with Friday by his side.

But, then, he'd once promised to cleave to Susannah for all of their days, and meant it, which hadn't stopped life from interfering, arranging matters so he'd spent less time with her than he had with Friday. A man's intentions weren't always the final word, and he'd learnt that lesson well; but he was wiser now to the mysteries of God's plans, and he'd be more vigilant this time. He wouldn't damned well let Friday slip away from him if he had any power on Earth to stop it.

He shook away a shiver and bent again over the table where he was fashioning the last piece of the balcony railing. He shot a glance at Friday on the upper floor, reassuring himself with a glimpse of the steady, familiar presence. His eyes caught on Friday's agile hands as he smoothed a board with a piece of sandstone in a strong, hypnotic rhythm.

As though feeling his attention, Friday jerked his head up, turning his head to meet Robinson's eyes with the reliability of a compass finding true north. For a moment, they stared at each other, then Friday broke into a warm smile that lit his entire face from within.

"Almost done, Crusoe. Just my bed left to make. It will be glorious, you'll see!"

Robinson smiled back, helpless not to respond when Friday looked at him like that. "Yes," he said, through a tightness in his throat. "Your bed aloft in the branches will be glorious, I have no doubt."

:::::::

Crusoe was an oddity amongst men; even amongst his own kind, Friday had learnt once he'd met more of these Englishmen. These men from England, from a land so far away across the vast sea that their world bore no resemblance to the one Friday had always known. Or would ever want to know.

He knew he didn't have a clear picture of this place Crusoe came from, but he'd gathered it was cold; and everyone had to wear many clothes even in the rare periods when it wasn't cold, even the children; and the women looked like bells--he'd seen two of them himself, so he knew that fact for a true one; and the men tended to be as cold as their grey skies and the steel of their long, curved swords. His own people were dangerous, if roused, but it was a danger tempered with passion and love of life and eyes that lifted to the sky; his people didn't walk with their eyes fixed continually on the ground searching for gold.

The band around Crusoe's finger was gold. Crusoe had a habit of rubbing or turning the ring on his finger, when his mouth would turn down and his face pensive as he drifted away from Friday and their life here to that distant place Crusoe still longed for despite the beauties around him.

One day, a ship of Englishmen who weren't pirates and--what was that fine word Crusoe had used for them? Ah, yes: blackguards. Pirates and blackguards and scoundrels and cutthroats. English had many words to describe evil men, who appeared as numerous as grains of sand in Crusoe's world. After meeting some of Crusoe's people, he hadn't found the revelation surprising.

His own people and, particularly, their enemies, also had evil, of course. Crusoe had rescued him from cannibals, after all, and he suspected that particular unpleasantness did not exist in England. At least, Crusoe had been appalled at the very notion. Friday took some comfort in thinking of Crusoe's grey world as free of one type of madness.

But the rest wasn't appealing. He would never choose to live in such a world, but he was caught in this noose Crusoe himself had put around Friday's neck. One day, if the right kind of ship came to their island, Crusoe would go back to his own land.

And he'd forced Friday to promise to go with him.

"Force" wasn't precisely the term, he supposed, but it felt like a choice that wasn't a choice. He wanted Crusoe to be happy. Crusoe was convinced he couldn't be happy except by going back to his land; back to his woman, who must look like a bell, and his children, bundled in so many clothes their own father wouldn't know the shape of their limbs, the curve of their bellies, the dimples at their knees.

Hard as it was to believe, he sometimes thought Crusoe didn't know just how often he smiled these days, and laughed; or how his eyes, as clear and bright a blue as this sky far away from England, shone when the two of them came home, or Crusoe gazed at the forest surrounding their house, or they visited one of their favourite places. He was sure Crusoe didn't realise that he now, after years here, didn't stroke his gold band or fall into dark moods anywhere near as often as he had in the beginning.

Crusoe sometimes forgot about his ring for several days in a row now, especially when they were busy or involved in some project he enjoyed doing: such as making a new balcony for a new bed. Friday watched, and he knew.

Still, one day a ship would come and Crusoe would go away, and he'd have to go with Crusoe, because he had no choice. He'd go to Crusoe's cold, unhappy world where the men considered him not a man at all, but a thing like a cask of rum, with more or less value; and the bell-like women shrank away from him and spoke in voices tight with fear. He would have to follow Crusoe back to a world where love slept with betrayal, so cunningly disguised even Crusoe hadn't realised his mistake until it was too late.

Crusoe's love was fierce and loyal and enduring. It clung like a starfish, or could entangle a man to his death like the fronds of a bed of seaweed.

Crusoe was fiercely determined not to let Friday leave him, and equally determined to reclaim his wife and children when he could.

Friday, unlike Crusoe, had no one but Crusoe. And this island, his true place in the world, which he would have to give up on the bleak day when a ship of decent Englishmen arrived and he followed Crusoe to a world where nothing good could await him. He'd chosen Crusoe and the island over returning with his father to his own people because Crusoe was his home, and home was Crusoe. He was home to Crusoe now, too, but Crusoe was split: half-warm sunny skies, half-grey. Half-Friday, half-Susannah.

But not yet. Crusoe was still wholly his, here in this place, at this time. The sea was clear of white sails and England was just a bad dream on the horizon. One day, he might lose everything he cherished as he followed Crusoe to England, to stand helpless witness to Crusoe's joy and try to be happy to please him.

He smiled grimly as he laid the big cotton ticking, stuffed with fresh grasses, on the slats of his new bed. He looked down on Crusoe below him, watching the sway of his long hair as Crusoe leant over a frame containing a design of bent woods he was fashioning, then cast his gaze up to the sky that arched close and wide above him. He took a deep breath, feeling the tightness behind his ribs ease for the first time in days, then spread the covers on the bed and hopped down the ladder to the upper floor, and down the steps from there to the main floor.

As he landed with a thump on the boards, Crusoe looked up and smiled. Friday grinned at him, feeling light-hearted and free for the first time since before the blackguards and Blackthorn had arrived. Crusoe stared at him a moment, his smile deepening, then he blinked and ducked his head back over his work.

Friday rubbed his hands as he glanced at Crusoe's work. "It's ready, yes? We have about three hours to sunset. Just time to get this fitted on."

Crusoe slanted a look at him. "You're in a rush. Can't wait to sleep with the stars?"

"Ah, it will be truly magnificent, won't it?" He stepped closer, put a hand on the peeled wood frame, aware of Crusoe's heat beside him. His nostrils twitched at the familiar scent of Crusoe's sweat.

"Well, your canopy isn't done yet."

Crusoe's voice sounded strained, and Friday turned back to him, studying the flush on his sweat-shiny face. He reached out and squeezed Crusoe's arm gently, revelling in the firmness of the flesh and the flex of the muscle under his touch.

"I see no sign of rain, so the canopy can wait a day or two."

He helped Crusoe fit together the last of the thin, pliant strips of wood making a board to stand at the head of the bed--a useless bit of decoration in his view, serving no purpose in holding the bed together, but Crusoe had wanted to make it--and they set it aside to have dinner. He started an argument about building a lift up to his new bed just for the pleasure of exchanging words back-and-forth with Crusoe and making him laugh with Friday's own exuberance.

"Well," Crusoe said at last, wiping his fingers on a square of old cloth he called a napkin, "I concede that it would be very convenient for you to have a lift up to your bed, but it would be a major job building it."

Friday shrugged. "We can do it as we feel the urge, no? We can take all the time we wish." He lifted his eyes to smile directly into Crusoe's watching ones and tilted his head. "But I think it would be very fine to have a lift."

Crusoe's smile warmed his face from eyes to mouth, firing sparks of gladness and nervous anticipation in equal measure through Friday's body, making him shift in the chair. Crusoe looked away from him, lashes guarding his expression as he looked down at his empty plate.

Friday added, "Dundee will appreciate it, anyway!" and sat back to enjoy the expected spluttered protest as he recaptured his place at the centre of Crusoe's attention, and they launched again into spirited debate.

Yes, life was good. For now, it could only get better.

He and Crusoe finished attaching the board to the bed just as the sun was setting. They hadn't had the hands to carry a lamp up the ladder along with the bulky wooden frame, so they stood beside the bed in a dusky space between the soft sheen of lamps below and a wash of dying golden sunlight above. Crusoe glowed a little in the half-light, like a magical being, and Friday could see the light catching the clean sweat on his own arm in a similar effect as he lifted a hand to Crusoe's shoulder. Crusoe shifted under him, but didn't move away.

"It's a beautiful bed." Friday squeezed the tense shoulder under his hand. "A most fine and magnificent bed. Is it not, Crusoe?"

He could hear a hitch in Crusoe's breathing; could feel a faint tremble under his hand. He fancied he could hear the hard beat of Crusoe's heart, but knew that was his mind rather than his ears.

Crusoe took a breath so quiet it was almost silent, but Friday felt it.

"It is, indeed, an exceptionally fine bed," Crusoe murmured.

He saw the upturn of Crusoe's lips into a brief half-smile only because he was standing close enough to feel the fabric of Crusoe's shirt against his bare chest. He slid his hand slowly down Crusoe's arm to close his right fingers around Crusoe's wrist. While Crusoe stood still as a carved idol, Friday slid his left hand up Crusoe's other arm and along the slant of his shoulder to spread his fingers against the back of Crusoe's neck under the soft strands of his hair. He slowly, very slowly, pulled Crusoe forward until their foreheads were pressed together.

"Friday...." Crusoe's voice was a breath against his cheek, but the tensing of his body was a scream.

He kept his grip on Crusoe light but firm, and his voice was a matching whisper. "We are aloft in the branches in this place we built together, far away from your distant England. One day, you'll return there, but for now, I have a magnificent new bed, Crusoe. A bed big enough for two."

The sun had dipped below the edge of the world and the only light was the faint pool below, just enough for him to see Crusoe's throat move as he swallowed. Crusoe laid his free hand against Friday's cheek.

"You know I care for you, my brother--"

"No." He shook Crusoe lightly. "I'm not your brother. I'm not your woman, either, but here--" he let go of Crusoe's wrist and placed his hand flat against Crusoe's chest, pressing until he could feel the wild thump of his heart "--it is the same."

He turned his head to trail his mouth down Crusoe's cheek, tasting the salt of sweat and the roughness of stubble. He shifted his feet to press the hardening between his legs against Crusoe's thigh, and bit down on a joyous laugh when he felt Crusoe also hardening. Carefully, he touched his lips to the corner of Crusoe's mouth--

"Friday, I can't. I promised--" Crusoe took a shaky breath and pulled back, though only a handspan, still close enough for Friday to feel the heat of his body and Crusoe's breath against his face. "I promised Susannah I'd never betray her."

Taken aback, he frowned. "Blackthorn took your love and did evil things with it. That's betrayal I understand. I don't see how the two of us touching each other, alone in this place far from your England, could be evil."

Crusoe pulled back another handspan until only Friday's fingertips rested against his chest; but Crusoe didn't move the small distance more it needed to break his touch completely. Eyes glittering in the dimness as he raised them to meet Friday's, Crusoe spoke in a hoarse voice.

"No, not evil, not that kind of betrayal. But I promised her I'd never love another, and I...." He trailed off into a trembling silence. For a moment, stillness held them fast, with no sound but their quiet, ragged breathing and the pound of his own blood in Friday's ears.

Then he took the tiny step forward he needed to press his hand flat against Crusoe's fast beating heart again. Crusoe's breath caught in a small sound that echoed like a musket shot.

Friday kept his voice low: "But it's already too late for that, Crusoe." He carefully regained his grip on the back of Crusoe's neck. "Is it not?"

When he kissed Crusoe's mouth, he had a moment of fluttering fear he'd never have anything to hold but the stiff, wooden idol. Then Crusoe's mouth opened under his, tongue flicking against his lips, and Crusoe's hands grasped his arms, fingers hot and needy on his skin like a shower of embers. He freed Crusoe from the complicated ties of his shirt while Crusoe skimmed off Friday's trousers with far more ease, then Crusoe was tumbling them onto the bed. The thick mattress bounced on the slats as Friday rolled them over--without either of them falling off his wonderful big bed. They paused for a moment of shared realisation, Crusoe's teeth flashing bright in the dim light in shared laughter.

Then Crusoe was stroking his cheek, hands hard and strong from work, but with a touch soft as the parrot's feathers. Friday smiled, and felt Crusoe's fingers trace the upturned corners of his mouth, which made him smile more broadly until Crusoe chuckled, too. They leaned into each other as so often before, only entirely differently now, bodies moulding instinctively together as they discovered a secret map to this unexplored territory inked into their skin itself. When Crusoe held his face still and guided them both into a kiss more bewitching than rum, Friday fumbled with clumsy eagerness at the laces of Crusoe's trousers until they were finally both naked, both hard, moving together with fierce, joyous familiarity into a newfound world purely of their own making.

Later, with a thin moon overhead like a sideways smile and a warm breeze aloft in the branches caressing their naked skin, Friday fashioned a redoubt against the threat of far-off England from the quiet contentment in Crusoe's heartbeat under his hand.