"Bugger!" Robin said, flinching.
"You must stay still, Crusoe," Friday said, a steady hand on his chest.
"You're stabbing me with needles!" Robin did not care for how his own voice went up at the end of that sentence, but it couldn't be helped.
Friday looked grim and shook his head. "You are very squeamish when it comes to pain. Little girls in my tribe do this to each other to pass the time."
Robin tried to glare back, but winced again. "I will have you know I am quite stoic—when I am not being stabbed with needles!" He didn't miss the glint of amusement in Friday's eye.
"You asked me to do this," Friday pointed out, leaning over to dip the needle in his hand into the pot beside them.
"Yes, when you said it wouldn't hurt," Robin agreed.
Robin grumbled and tried not to wince again. "I am beginning to suspect the little girls in your tribe are made of extremely stern stuff," he said with all the dignity he could muster.
Six Years Ago
It had been a long day, and Robin was tired, but relatively content. He looked across at the man who was at least a part of both.
He had rescued Friday from the cannibals almost a full year ago. Robin had been so ecstatic to talk to someone other than Dundee, he didn't care at first that Friday was a savage. He'd simply named him and moved on his way, finding Friday smart enough that he decided it would be easy to train him as Robin's servant, and soon he'd be helping with work on the treehouse.
Friday was smart, smart enough to let Robin know very quickly that he was no man's servant and had no intention of ever being. He was also, in some ways, smarter than Robin, and had no problem laughing at him when need be.
They had spent the day working on repairing one of the roofs of the treehouse after a storm the night before, and they were now both lying on their beds, staring up at the stars.
"Do you..." Friday said, sounding oddly hesitant. "I have seen you do not wear..." Friday stopped, obviously not having all the words in English. He tugged on the leather band around his right bicep, then the necklace he wore in illustration.
"Jewelry? No. Men in England usually don't," Robin explained. "In my father's time it was more common, but aside from the odd stickpin or watch, most men wouldn't."
Friday looked a little less hesitant and a lot more confused. "Then how do your tribesman know what you do?" he asked.
"You mean, for a living?" Robin thought of it for a moment. "We don't, not without talking to each other first. Though I suppose you would know what 'class' someone is just by the cost of their coat or the newness of their shoes." Robin felt bitter for a moment. "The English spend far too much time worrying about how fine their clothes are."
"Hm," Friday said, thinking. "I had worried that your lack of—jewelry?" he said, sounding out the unfamiliar word, "meant you had no skills for your tribe."
Robin laughed lightly. "While I can tell you with certainty that some found me without use," he said, trying to beat back a sense of bitterness as images of his father-in-law rose in his mind, "I am not without skills."
"No, that much is obvious," Friday agreed with a fond smile.
"So," Robin said, attempting to turn the conversation, "is that why you wear all of that? They each have some kind of meaning?"
"Of course," Friday said, matter-of-factly. He tugged again on the leather band around his right arm. "This means I am a hunter for my tribe. This," he continued, indicating the string of teeth around his neck, "is from the first lihlosi I killed. It tells all who meet me that I am a fierce warrior."
"Well, I would certainly not want to be against you in a serious fight," Robin acknowledged.
"But what about your ring," Friday asked. "Does that not mean anything?"
Robin immediately reached to touch his wedding band. "It means more to me than anything I own," he said seriously. "It's the symbol of my love and devotion for Suzanna. She wears one just like it."
"Hm," Friday said again, gazing at him thoughtfully.
Several days later, Robin was dripping wet and breathless from his latest swimming lesson. He had actually learned the basics from the captain of the ship he had taken to the West Indies in, and he thought he was quite good, but since Friday laughed at him every time he saw Robin dive into the water of the lagoon, he figured extra practice would not go astray.
Suddenly, a bracelet appeared in his lap, and Robin turned around with a startled smile.
"What's this?" he asked his companion.
Friday smiled, looking almost shy as he turned his face down and away. "For your wrist," he said carefully.
Robin laughed at that and picked it up. "I understand the concept, but why?" he asked.
"You have learned a new skill. This is to symbolize that, since you have no others," Friday said.
Robin realized Friday felt sorry for him, and his apparent lack of adult skills.
Friday's smile turned less shy and more teasing. "Friday made it for you," he said, barely controlling his laughter.
"Yes, yes," Robin groused good-naturedly. "Pick on the Englishman and his poor luck with languages, go ahead."
The bracelet was simple enough, two pieces of leather braided together.
He could have protested more. It was not the done thing. He'd feel very silly wearing anything like it in England. However, there was nothing remotely feminine about the bracelet. He also felt there was an underlying meaning here that Friday wanted to convey, but couldn't or wouldn't.
So, instead of protesting, he put it on. The weight was strange on his wrist, and would take some getting used to.
"Thank you," he said quietly, and smiled at Friday.
As usual, the smile was returned with great warmth.
After that, every time Robin did something—beat Friday in a match of skill, built a new part of the treehouse, killed a wild boar—Friday would gift Robin with a bracelet. Robin began feeling like Dundee, praised for learning a new trick, but he accepted them all, amused and touched that Friday was including him in his tribe's traditions. He was warmed by the thought of he and Friday forming their own little tribe of two.
"It's simple, really," Robin said, leaning over and adjusting the pulley, "as long as we weight this line just so, it will cause a reaction, and viola! We're up in the treehouse in seconds!"
Friday looked skeptical. He also looked about ready to grab the back of Robin's pants, if he should start falling. "I do not think I see the point of this, Crusoe," he admitted.
"It will make things easier," Robin pointed out.
"I am quite a good climber," Friday responded, eyeing the basket with wariness.
"Yes, but when you're loaded down with our next dinner, you'll find this is much quicker than trying to haul both you and it up the ladder," he pointed out. "Come on, just try it. Look, I'll go first," he offered, and got into the basket.
Later, as he lay in his bed, moaning with a giant bruise already forming on his hip, Friday gently but firmly took his left wrist and wrapped a broad leather band around it several times, tying a piece of bone into it.
"What's this one for?" Robin asked, looking at it where it sat with the several smaller leather bracelets.
Friday smiled over his shoulder as he walked away. "For falling near the bottom of the tree, rather than the top."
Four Years Ago
Robin sat on the beach of Suzanna's Bay, and stared out to the ocean. He liked to think he was staring towards home.
The hand that touched his shoulder didn't surprise him. He knew he'd been quiet and distant all day, that when he'd missed dinner and gone off on his own instead of staying and reading out loud to Friday as was their usual ritual, he was unlikely to be alone for long.
Friday sat down next to him in the firelight, not saying a word, for which Robin was grateful. He wasn't ready to speak until the sun had completely set, and the only light that remained was from the stars and the fire beside them.
"Today was my anniversary," Robin finally said into the quiet. "Mine and Suzanna's. Eight years. And I've spent over half of that time away from her. My children grow older; will they even know who I am when I return? If I return? Christ," he finally said, putting his face in his hand, feeling the water and anger burn behind his eyes.
The hand returned to his shoulder, but Friday remained silent.
"I don't even know what I wish," Robin said with a bitter, tear-stained laugh. "I want them happy, and I want them safe. It would kill me to see her with someone else, but-- I couldn't wish this on her, Friday. Not this crushing loneliness."
Robin found to his shame that he couldn't fight the tears any more, and he felt two course down his face. He turned towards the darkness, away from Friday, and concentrated on controlling his shaking.
But Friday had never turned away from touching him, not since the first time they had met. He had never hesitated to reach for Robin, and as odd as Robin had found it at first, he'd also found it comforting.
Maybe that was why this time, just this once, he turned into the touch.
Later, hours and breaths and cries to the sky and a sleepless span later, Robin pulled himself away from the comforting warmth of Friday's body and said, bitterly, "There: one last failure. One last betrayal of Suzanna."
He started to stand, to run away, but Friday shot out a hand and held onto his arm. "How? How could this be a betrayal?" he asked quietly, insistently.
"You don't understand," Robin said, still angry, though not with Friday. "I promised her: no one else, in my heart or in my bed. And I failed that as spectacularly as my vow to protect her." He tried to wrench away, but Friday refused to let go, and sat up behind him.
"Crusoe," he said sternly, and waited until Robin turned to him. Friday stared at him in that intent way he had when he did anything important. "That part of your heart that belongs to Suzanna is still hers. I could not touch it even if I wanted to. You know this."
"I..." he said, and stopped.
"You said you would not wish this loneliness on her," Friday continued, as if he hadn't spoken. "Do you truly believe that she, who loves you so much, would wish it for you?"
Robin closed his eyes. It was too much. All too much.
When he moved to walk away, Friday let him go this time.
The silence stretched out between them for days, awkward nights in the house eased only slightly by Friday's recitation of Milton or parts of the Bible Robin had read to him previously. One afternoon, Friday came up to him and silently handed him a necklace.
It was more elaborate than any of the previous baubles and straps he'd given Robin. It also looked nothing like the pieces Friday had made for himself or the simple bits of bone and leather Robin had made for Friday in return so far. It was two separate thongs of leather with their own ornaments, but tied together to make one piece.
"This," Friday said, running his fingers along the joined circles of ivory on the first thong, "is for you and Suzanna. Always together, no matter what distance separates you. And this," this time pointing to the single large circle of stone hanging below it, adding most of the weight to the entire thing, "is for me. It means that while you and Suzanna will never part, I will also always be with you, watching over you."
It was said so baldly, as if this went without saying, that it took Robin's breath away. He was moved, though still conflicted from what they had done.
"Your vow is as it always was, Crusoe," Friday said softly. "My vow to you, to her—that I will watch over you and do what I can to get you home—does not touch that. It cannot."
Perhaps, Robin thought later, he was justifying it beyond what God would allow. But at that moment, the pain eased, and the weight in his chest shifted and made him feel tethered, not trapped, for the first time in days. Possibly years.
"Thank you," he said softly, and clasped his hand to Friday's arm.
Friday grinned widely, as if Robin had given him a gift.
"What does the writing mean?" Robin asked, tracing his finger around the symbols etched into the lower circle.
"It is for protection," Friday answered. He then stood up, clasped Robin's shoulder for a moment, then walked across the treehouse to his bed.
Two Years Ago
"Bloody pirates," Robin muttered under his breath.
Time and experience had taught him what nothing else could, and he no longer saw every rare landing of a ship as a possible rescue. He examined it from a distance, on the off-chance an East Indiaman or a friendly naval ship might land. However, even those he looked at warily, after the visit from Blackthorne last year.
Really, though, he'd come to hate pirates the most.
Robin could have stayed at the newly built treehouse—built farther into the jungle than the previous one had been, and if not as extensive as the original, well on its way to being far more fortified—as Friday had urged, but while pirates would not be his chosen means of returning home, they still had supplies he needed.
Friday had remained at the house to watch in case it was discovered, while admonishing Robin to be careful, though sounding as if he had no real hope of that happening.
The pirate encampment was larger than the last, with the captain coming ashore as well as crew to search for provisions. Robin waited patiently until one of the crew called the captain out of his tent. As soon as he was gone, Robin slid in, and began tossing anything they might need into his satchel, being careful to take just enough to be helpful, but not enough for the pirates to suspect the uninhabited island was, in fact, inhabited.
He was just musing to himself what a dandy the pirate was—so many baubles!--when something caught his eye at the other side of the tent.
Robin at first thought it was a man he had missed, and started to reach for his knife. Then he realized it was a mirror. He froze in shock.
The image was not that of an Englishman. His skin was tanned browner than any sailor's he'd ever seen, missing that wind-burned and reddened sheen most sailors had. His hair was twisted in places, beads caught in one or two braids he'd taken to keeping. The bracelets and necklaces would have put any pirate king to shame.
Savage, he heard in the back of his mind, echoed in a hundred English voices.
Then he heard the raised and angry voice of the captain returning, ordering his men to ready the boat to row back to the ship, and Robin ran out and back to the treehouse.
That night, as Friday recited, he was still thinking about that mirror and the reflected stranger there. Robin listened with half an ear, letting Friday's voice soothe him and send his troubled thoughts away.
"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine."
The words used to fill him with such bitter longing for Suzanna, and still that edge was there, but with it was the certainty that someday, he would be with her. Someday, he and Friday would return to her and England and the children.
Yes, but what will you be when you get there? Robin wondered.
"I have compared thee, O my love, to the troupe of horses in the chariots of Pharaoh."
Robin gave more of his attention to what Friday was saying, smiling slightly at the memory of Friday's initial confusion over the reference and the comparison. Robin had admitted at the time that he knew few women who would be flattered by the comparison to horses.
He had once tried to woo Suzanna by calling her "colt-like," and she had only been amused, not flattered.
"My well beloved spake and said unto me, Arise, my love, my fair one, and come thy way. For behold, the winter is past: the rain is changed, and is gone away."
It will be almost summer in England, Robin thought. He remembered the children playing in the sunbeams that streaked in through their windows, and Suzanna smiling at them from her place at the table. It made him smile to think of it.
"In my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loved; I sought him, but I found him not."
Robin looked across the room at Friday, and he saw him working on a new carving, a large piece of whalebone slowly becoming the figure Friday demanded of it, the muscles in his arms shifting slightly in the candlelight.
Friday came to his bed more often than not these days. What slight pangs of guilt he still felt were eased only by the knowledge that the love he felt for Suzanna was matched, but not replaced, by what he felt for Friday.
He used to think that the day he and Friday sailed to England, they would be sailing home, and all the problems they would undoubtedly face would be figured out, if not with ease, then with little rancor. But the more he thought, the more insurmountable all those difficulties seemed to be. He found that he longed not for wet and dreary England itself, nor any of its wet and dreary inhabitants, but only his wife and his children, now that his father was gone (if Blackthorne could be believed on that point). He thought more and more about how much he wanted to go only to bring them back: to show Suzanna her bay, his children the waterfalls, and hear them laughing through the trees. He realized how tired he'd become of war and repression in the way you can only realize when it is no longer an inescapable fact of life.
Robin had slowly come to realize that he fit here, in his home in the sky, with the wild boars and the goats and the sea. He fit in a way he never had in England, try as he might. He wanted to show his children a world where they did not have to worry about what people thought of them because of their name or where their family was from or what their father or their father's father may or may not have done.
He looked again at Friday, listening to the smooth rhythm of his voice more than his words. Robin no longer wished to see what would happen to Friday in grey England. He did not want to think about what would happen to the man, trapped in a place with people who would rarely, if ever, see past his color, his being a savage, to what Robin knew: the smartest man he had ever met. He could not live with the idea of watching Friday fade away, losing himself under that weight; he could not live with it any more than he could live with the idea of never seeing Suzanna again.
Someday. Someday the Spaniard would return as promised, or another honorable ship's captain would find them. Someday, Robin would return to England, reclaim his family, and bring them all here, together, to be happy.
"Set me as a seal on thine heart, and as a signet upon thine arm," Friday said, and for the first time Robin realized he had stopped carving and was looking straight at him, smiling softly as he spoke.
Robin smiled back.
"Are you almost done," Robin asked, trying to look over his shoulder before Friday pushed his head around to face forward. Again.
"You have no patience. No wonder you are such a terrible hunter," Friday said, with what almost sounded exactly like Robin's mother tsking at him.
"I am a terrible hunter?" Robin said, more amused than affronted. "Who was it who got that goat yesterday?"
"Yes, the island goats are quite fierce," Friday said. "I stand corrected, o great warrior."
"To think there was a time when you didn't know what sarcasm was," Robin grumbled around a smile.
A few seconds later, Friday sat back on his heels. "It is done," he said. "No, do not sit up yet. I need to cover it," he said, putting a restraining hand out again when Robin tried to turn, then reached over for the poultice he had made.
"I'm still not sure what the point of this is," Robin said, though he was the one who had asked for it, after many a night of tracing Friday's tattoos and scars in the dark. He was glad it was over, however, and he did enjoy the soothing feel of the rather foul smelling mixture. "I can't even see it from here."
"It is not for you to see, but others," Friday said, not for the first time.
"Yes, and I can just imagine what Reverend James will say when he sees it," Robin said, actually thinking with great relish about the shock on the old man's face, should he ever happen to see it. Which wasn't likely from where it was on his back, even if he did return to England someday.
"I can see it," Friday whispered into his ear, leaning over his back without touching his sore bit of shoulder.
Robin shivered, and turned his head to catch Friday's mouth.
"You were the one who wanted it," Friday said again when he was free to, pulling away.
"You asked me after...," Robin started and trailed off. "There are rules about not believing anything someone says after that."
"If you did not want it," Friday began.
"I didn't say that," Robin said, dropping the teasing and mock grumbling. Friday had showed him the design the night before; it was a circle of black swirls, independent, but twisting around each other so that at wove into a whole. "It's a sign. Our tribe. I want it."
"It is protection," Friday clarified, letting him sit up.
"Like the necklace?" Robin asked turning around, happy to finally be in a new position. He touched the bone and the stone and thought of his family here and far away.
"Yes, exactly," Friday answered, looking and sounding quite pleased.