tselmende (tselmende) wrote in masters_mate,

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The Worst of Times

Title: The Worst of Times
Tom and William...non slash, though they do end up naked.
4,764 words, PG-13 for some cursing.

It was, easily, the worst day of William Mowett’s life.

It started out rather nice, for they were finally ashore. For the last few weeks, he and Tom had spoken of the possible sweethearts they’d left behind in port, Tom had gotten one of the men to make him a small sailor’s valentine, and William had traded for a bracelet made of coral. They were both young…17, Tom was almost 18…and they’d just had a successful cruise under the very benevolent Captain Kingston, and while they might just be Master’s Mates, they were both filled with the possibilities of a good future and desperate to find a lady ashore to court, write letters to, perhaps wed.

“I want it more every time I set out.” Tom said quietly as they looked at the small port, and English outpost in the middle of French waters.

“A sweetheart?” William asked.

“Aye, a man wants someone to come home to,” he said softly.

William nodded. He was lonely, himself…the lads around him, even those younger, seemed to have better luck with the ladies than he did, and while he really ought to do as his mother suggested and find himself a heiress of equal breeding to himself, that meant he’d have to start going to various balls and to do’s, and he really wasn’t interested. Not yet…he couldn’t legally marry for a few years, anyway. “So, what’s your young lady like?”

“A pretty lass.” Tom said. “She lives in the building behind the smithy.”

“A Blacksmith’s daughter? You’d better watch out for her father, then…” William teased. Tom shrugged and grinned shyly. “Well, mine’s the shopkeepers daughter…less danger, there.” Tom laughed softly, and William felt himself grinning. He loved to make Tom laugh.

“Good luck with your lady,” he said, when they finally went ashore. Tom had a bundle of letters to deliver to the admiralty before he’d be free.

“And you.” He pulled his hat over his head, grinning, and turned and strode away, eager to be done so he could see his sweetheart. Both lads were tricked out in their best…though best was relative, considering their pay…and each had their present secreted in their coat bosom. The sun was different on land than it was at sea, and William kept studying the quality of light as it shone on painted signs and brilliant flowers. William was certain it was going to be a wonderful day.

He entered the shop calmly, as if he were just another customer, waiting for Lizzie to catch his eye. She did, and she grinned and came over. “Mister Mowett.” She said, and dropped a curtsy. He bowed slightly, and offered her a purloined flower with a flourish. She laughed. “I missed you William.” She said softly. “I got your letter…hair like fairy gold? Eyes like the sea at midnight? Skin finer than pearls?” she teased him, and with every word he grew redder and redder and more embarrassed, the lines sounded so…stupid and false.

“Watch the shop Mary.” She told her sister, and took his hand. “And you, come with me.” She lead him out of the building.

The words, “I thought you lived above the shop…” fell from his mind as she pulled his face down to hers.

Tom’s business was not long. They just wanted the letters delivered…he didn’t even see anyone of rank, just a page who nodded and gestured him on his way. He didn’t care. He felt like he was floating. The last time he’s spoken to Beth, she’d cut him a lock of her hair, and stroked his face and begged him to come back soon. He kept patting the sailor’s valentine as he walked, making sure the concoction of shells was still safe. The first thing he did upon entering the smithy was checking the forge, which was cold. Good. No father to deal with…though he would someday, Tom was certain of it.

“Mrs. Wilkins,” Tom called out to the lady who occupied the bottom of the house where Beth and her family lived. Even at 65 she was a pretty woman, her hair was pure white and it was wispy and it glowed. She smiled up at him absently. “I remember you, dear.” She said. “Miss Elizabeth is upstairs…but if she’s alone, you come right back down.” She said with a nod. “I don’t know where her father’s gone off to today, but I won’t have you alone with an unmarried woman, tis not proper.” Tom kissed the back of her hand gallantly, and the lady giggled. “Go on with you….but behave.”

“I shall, milady.” Tom said, before going up the stairs. Mostly.

He knocked on the door lightly, and heard a voice, though not what it said, and so he opened the door and went in. Beth was in the sun that streamed in through the small windows, running back wards, saying something to a man who grabbed her by the waist and pulled her into a kiss. “You caught me!” Beth squealed, laughing and pretending to struggle in his best friend’s arms.

“So I did,” Tom and William said at the exact same time.

William froze, his smile fading, as he looked up at Tom. “I’ll leave you to it, then.” Tom said, slamming his hat back on his head with such forced that he crushed the brim. He turned on his heel and shut the door as he ran down the steps, through Mrs. Wilkinson’s kitchen and out the door. He heard William, that damned Judas, calling after him, but he did not stop.

William was buttoning his waistcoat, trying to come to terms with what had happened. He was in shock, absolute shock…this simply could not be happening, this just could not be happening…

“What are you doing, darling?” Lizzie asked, pushing against him. Her sweet full curves no longer aroused him, he was cold from tip to toe. He pulled away from her, and looked out the window, hoping to see Tom.

“God damn me,” he said, seeing the smithy below. “God damn me to hell.”

He pushed away from her and left, going past the smithy and to the road. There, the sailor’s valentine lay on the ground…it looked like Tom had stopped to put his boot to it one or twice before moving on. “Oh, Lord,” he said softly. Tom was one of those people who did not get angry easily. He was calm, he knew when to lash the men with his tongue, but even in his harshest sounding moments he wasn’t really angry.

But when he did get angry, he was angry for days upon days. William was not looking forward to this.

When he found him, he was at the inn where they usually drank together, a pint in his hand. Every line in Tom’s body screamed “leave me alone” at the top of its lungs, but William, scared and guilty, ran right up to him.

“Tom, I…I’m so bloody sorry, I didn’t know, I swear…”

“Stow it, William,” Tom said softly. “Just stow it.”

William stared at his feet for a moment. In the silence, Tom said, “I think this would be easier to bear if it twasn’t the second bloody time you’ve done this to me.”

William gaped at him, “I…what?”

“I thought it was just an accident, but now…” Tom shook his head. “But you’re just so smart and charming and refined…” he said mockingly, imitating the tone of some woman. He downed the rest of his drink and slammed the mug on the table. He got up and walked past William.

He caught Tom’s arm, desperate. “Please, I am so sorry…tell me what to do.”

“You’re so intelligent, I thought ‘twould be obvious,” he snarled. Tom radiated pain and disappointment so deep it almost hurt to stand next to him.

William shrugged helplessly. He felt like crying, which was so damn stupid and girlish it only added to his debilitating weight of shame.

“Stay the hell away from me.” Tom snarled, tanked his arm from William’s grip, and stalked off.

William took a few steps after him. “Will.” Babbington called.
William turned, and Babbington shook his head. “Let him walk it off, he’ll get over it.”

But he didn’t. When William went back to the Sophie, Tom had moved his things to the starboard mid’s berth. The tiny little cabin they shared seemed empty. All William wanted to do was curl up and die.

The next day, they worked side by side, getting the ship ready for its journey at the end of the week. They didn’t speak, but Tom was not unkind. He even handed William a tot cup of grog as they stood there, sweating in the hot sun, but proud of their work. The capstan was now repaired so perfectly it looked brand new, and the scarlet paint glowed. He grinned at Tom and Tom nodded, which did not comfort him. Tom was treating him just like any other stranger you’d be crewed with, not with any emotion whatsoever. He drained the tot cup, but the joy was gone.

The next day, they were set at liberty again, and William took it glumly, walking along the street. The she-dragon harlot of Babylon came running up to him, and he tried, desperately to avoid her, that evil siren who’d ruined his life, but she grabbed his arm, smiling up at him, and he was forced to stop or look like an utter scrub.

“We’ve not finished our conversation, William..”

“I have nothing to say to you,” he said. “You should have told me you were seeing another man…”

She blinked, and shrugged. “I had no idea you were on the same ship.”

He gaped at her, and said, “He lead me to believe…you’d allowed him great liberties.”

She laughed. “You have no idea, do you? I may be only a couple years older than you, but I have suffered so much…now I am free, and I want to be happy. Don’t you dare judge. You don’t have the right, any more than you have the right to decide who I allow to kiss me.”

He looked up, and he saw a group of Sophies, Tom among him. The look he shot William was one of utter loathing.

He pulled away, wishing the earth would open up and swallow him, fumbling for his purse fob. One of the larger coins of his pitiful stash came to his hand, and he slid it into her cleavage, then turned and walked away. “Now, our accounts are settled.”

She yanked it out, furious. “I am not a whore!” she screamed after him. “You…you scoundrel!” There was a pause. “I never cared for you that much, anyway.”

Behind him, he heard some of the men laughing, but he knew Tom was not among them. He’d never laugh at someone’s embarrassment, no matter how well deserved.

The simple fact was, Tom was a better man than he. Not as well born, but what did that mean? God would hold both of them in His hands, and as he weighed them, it would be Tom whom He raised up to heaven, the angels singing their joy to have such a good hearted, wonderful man in their midst….and it would be William He would drop into the pits of hell.

He just wished he’s get dropped into the pits sooner rather than later. The pain of seeing the disgust in Tom’s eyes, of knowing he’s lost his best friend, the one person who knew him and understood him and never judged him no matter how foolish or unsuited to the sea he was, the one who always could be depended on for help or companionship….William would rather hell. It could not be half so tormenting.

“Thief! Stop that thief!” a woman shrieked, and William saw a man with a pack running down the alley. He ran after him, not from any real sense of chivalry….why kid himself now?…but because he felt the urgent need to pound something.

He grabbed the man and kicked him hard, throwing him to the ground. Then he grabbed his throat with one hand, the other becoming a fist…

“That’s enough, young man,” the woman said, her boney fingers digging into his shoulder. William pulled back, and the thief, bloody nosed, scrabbled away.

He looked at the woman. If he ever needed a model for a crone or a witch for his poems, here she stood. “Thank you, young man.” She said in a wheezy, cracked voice. “Not many would save an old peddler’s pack…”

“Not much of a life for a lady of your years.” William said, and then blushed. “I am sorry…”

She cackled….cackled! William, if he’d not been swimming in despair would have been delighted. “Honesty is not something to be sorry for, lad. Now hand me my pack, if you would.” He did so, and she sat down on a pile of wood, rummaging through her possessions. “Now, for your prize.”

“Nay, please…I was glad to have caught the blackguard.” He said, trying to create an air of his old self.

“You are in pain…” she murmured, “This will fix it…your broken heart will mend, sir, simply place two drops of this in your tea…not rum, not wine…tea…and you will find that you forget her with the next sunrise. With the next sunset, another woman, far finer will you meet…all you have to do to catch her is to go out on the next full moon and gather three freshly spun webs, combine them with one drop of your heart’s blood and a drop of this potion, and give it to her in a silver wrought cup. I prefer red wine, it covers up the taste of the blood…”

“I…ah…” William sputtered. The woman was a gypsy. A gypsy witch! It was a sin, to truck with such, was it not? “A woman did not break my heart.”

She patted his arm. “Well, for a man, use two drops of blood, and if such is his inclin…”

“Nay! Nay!”

“You don’t have to shout, lad. I ain’t hard of hearing.”

William looked at her, and said, quietly. “He was my best friend. I didn’t love him…that way. Not as a sin against God. I loved him…he was a part of me, I know that sounds wrong, but it was like he was my brother, my family…”

“And you don’t have much family, do you dear boy?”

William realized he was weeping, crouched on the stones of the alley next to this odd old woman. He shook his head.

“Love like this is so rare.” She said tenderly, placing a hand on his head. “And it tis love, there is nothing wrong with it, most people confuse such love for romance, and throw it away, afraid of what others will think, afraid of the pain it will bring them. I have something just for that.,..”

“I do not wish for anything from you,” he said, “I was pleased to help.”

She straightened herself up. “I am Romany. I am from a long line of seers of the true sight, I have the lineage of kings…do you wish to go against my pride, my traditions and compound your sins?”

William shook his head.

She sorted through her pack, and brought out a folded piece of parchment. “This is a map to a nearby treasure. Take your brother-friend to it, and all will be well, I swear to you.”

He forced himself to smile as he reached for it…but she jerked it back. “Swear you will take your friend with you, no matter what. He has to go with you.”

He sighed. He just wanted this over with. “I swear.” He doubted Tom would want to come, but he just…he wanted to go, get a drink, go find some quite place to sleep his misery off.

She humphed and handed him the paper. “Do it before the next full moon.” She said.

“Alright, “ he said, standing. He held out a hand to help her up. “Why is everything by the next full moon, or at the next full moon? Is it a time of power?”

She laughed. “Sometimes. But also tis a good way to make sure that the person will get the job done. We humans will put things off until the last trump, if we can.” She put the pack on her shoulders, and pointed one dagger like finger at him. “By the next full moon, boy.”

He nodded. “Aye.” He only had three days, so it was an easy promise.

The bread was dry…a blasted shame, to have stale bread on dry land, Tom thought, as he ripped off another piece, chewed, forced it down with water, repeated. For the first time in his life, Tom wasn’t hungry. He was too upset to eat, he had been ever since…he pulled out his knife and hacked off some cheese. At least it didn’t have any damned mold on it. He was so sick of mold.

He’d started to get over the whole thing. William had been like a kicked puppy, following him around a bit, trying to make things up. At first it’d angered him to the core, and he’sd wanted to tell him to grow some courage and stay the hell away, but after awhile, the earnestness had gotten to him, and he’s started to forgive him…then he saw them in the street. He couldn’t bloody stay away from her. Bastard. Great big bloody oaf.

“Damnation!” Blood welled up along the edge of one finger, he’d been careless in his cutting. Shoving the bleeding finger into his mouth, he glared around the inn, to see if anyone was laughing at him. He must still have the freshly painted “fight welcomed” sign floating over his head, because no one would meet his eyes.

Tom leaned back, looking at his meal. It all tasted the same. The wine, the ale, the water, the bread, the cheese, the stew. It all tasted like dust. It reminded him…some line in the Bible said something about eating ashes like bread?

A chair scrunched across the floor.

“Bugger off, William.” Tom growled, as William ignored him and sat down. He waited for some sort of explanation, some sort of sorry.

“I need a favor.” William said, and Tom blinked.

“I need a commodore's pennant and my own bloody frigate. Don’t see that comin’ any time soon.”

He pulled out a piece of paper. “I have this treasure map…”

“Stupid oaf.” Tom glared at him. “How much did you pay for that?”

William stiffened. “We don’t have time to be redundant, Mister Pullings. Anyway, I won it. Sort of. And I do know it’s reliable. I thought…after what happened, perhaps I could split the treasure with you. I don’t expect it to mend our friendship, but perhaps it will…help you find someone better suited.”

“At the risk of being redundant.” Tom said, stressing the word to prove he knew what William meant, “Bugger. Off.”

“Do you remember the time I took a flogging for you, when we were still mids?” He paused to let the words sink in, and memory to surface. “You owe me.”

Tom looked away. “I thought there were no debts between friends.” He was quoting William.

“Well.” William said, and even Tom, in his determined rage, could feel that the words hurt him to say, “We aren’t friends anymore, are we?”

Tom was clamping his teeth together so hard his jaw hurt. “No, I suppose not.” He clamped his hands around the water mug so they wouldn’t shake.

“You do this for me, all debts are cancelled.”

Tom nodded, once. “I’ll meet you out front of this building a little after sunrise.”

William packed a basket carefully, including every food he could find that he knew Tom favored. He prayed fervently that his friendship with Tom would be restored, but he felt as if it were a long chance. He’d gotten the details from Babbington, apparently he had…unknowingly…absconded with another woman Tom had favored. He hated himself deeply for it -- he was so damned oblivious -- that he thought perhaps, he didn’t deserve Tom as a friend at all.

“I am off women.” He’d told Babbington. “Forever.”

“Or, at least until Tom is married,” the other man laughed.

“That, as well.” Mowett said. He did not find this funny in the least.

He didn’t understand how things could go so wrong. He’d never meant to do anything like this. He’d not sat in some corner, watching Tom with some lady he fancied, and plotted how to steal her from him. When it came to looks, he was nothing compared to Tom. Often he wished he could look like Tom, but he was slightly soft, and he knew he always would be. He’d never be tall and slender and handsome. He was just…himself. Perhaps he was less shy than Tom, but that was about it…he was soon at the inn.

“Mister Pullings.” William nodded.

“Mister Mowett.” Tom said. “Shall we go and get this over with?”

“I would be grateful to, sir. According to the map, we must head north. Shall we begin?”

Tom nodded and they proceeded out. It was a long way. After an hour of walking, William felt himself wearying. He’d made a few conversational gambits, all of which had been utterly ignored, and he felt worn to the soul.

“Tom,” he said at last. “What I did was wrong, and I am deeply ashamed. That I did not know that I was doing it…it is no excuse, and no consolation. I was self centered, I should have….I should have paid more attention, or something. You were my brother and I betrayed you, and I will never forgive myself. I know I am deeply unworthy of your friendship, but…”

“If ye are going to continue to prattle on like this, I’ll take meself back to the ship.”

William stopped himself, hard. He could feel words bubbling up in his throat, pressing against his teeth.

“Give over the map,” Tom said, after awhile. “The way you read them, we might be heading clear away from our destination.” The words were not said unkindly, and William handed it over.

After that, the only words they exchanged where when he suggested food. They agreed to break their fast for real when they had recovered the treasure…Tom had called it treasure in the goading tones of someone who thought the other was a bit daft to consider it real, but when he took the pork pie William offered to tide them over, he ate it slowly, with a bit of relish, and William thought perhaps he was not unpleased.

“That weren’t half bad.” Tom said, sounding a bit surprised, and William felt just a little, tiny, itsy bit better.

Quite a bit later, they were standing on the shore. It was a treacherous part of beach, where the land fell away abruptly, and rocks jutted out of the surf. “This be it,” Tom said. “Ain’t no other possibility, see? The landmarks match.”

William nodded and placed the basket above the tide mark, and began stripping. Tom joined him, shoving his clothes next to the basket. They both kept their knives as they waded into the surf, and, teeth clamped on the blades, they dove in. Tom tapped William’s arm, and pointed, there was supposedly a cavern, just beneath the surface, and in the shadows and water filtered sun, William thought he could see it as he swam towards it. No, it weren’t no cavern, not really, but someone had tried to build supports. What they were looking at was an old retaining wall. Perhaps someone had once hoped to make the beach more stable, or make this a small harbor. Some of the beams had fallen away, creating a cavern like gap. Tom saw it too, and they headed back up to the surface.

They broke free of the water, gasping, knives in hand while they gulped air. “I can’t believe it’s there,” Tom said, laughing.

“Do you think there’s really anything there? And can we get in and get out before we drown?”

Tom snorted. “It weren’t that far in, and it don’t look deep. We’ll locate the supposed treasure, then come back, see how we want to break it free. Ye din’t think to back any sacks, did you?”

“One,” William said, grinning. “But tis on the bottom of the basket.”

Neither of them worried that it was dangerous, the beams looked propped tightly enough, and it didn’t look deep at all.

Tom rolled his eyes and took a breath, diving again. William followed. They swam right into the cave. It was deeper than they thought, but Tom saw the box right away, leading William’s hand to the square, slimy wood feel. They hefted it experimentally, and as they did, the dim light went out, disappearing in a cloud of filth. William reached and managed to stay what felt like a beam in the murk, and he kicked out, pushing Tom towards the hole. The beam fell from his hands, he couldn’t hold it any longer. Nor could he hold his breath, what little air he held flooded out of his lungs. Had Tom made it out before he’s had to let go? He felt around, and his hand slipped over the beam and out. He managed to get his head out, but nothing more. Tom had, indeed, made it out, he felt the brave fool’s hands on his face, then his lips on his, pushing air into his lungs before going back up to the surface and refilling his own. William pulled away from the opening, trying to find a place to push. The dirt was soft, it felt like the builders had just thrown dirt and garbage behind the beams. Then there was Tom again, pulling at the utmost beam. William pushed at it desperately. Something slipped, and he wiggled half way out, and Tom, foot propped against the beam, reached for his wrist, and pulled. Another cloud of filth blackened the water as they both pushed up, up, up.

Air had never felt so sweet in his lungs.

They crawled out onto the gravely sand and flopped there, partly out of the water, panting.

“Was that a box, or a bit of wood we hoped was a box?” William asked.

“I’m saying that it was garbage….because I ain’t going back.”

William coughed. It was meant to be a laugh.

They both caught their breath, looking up at the blue of the sky. The sun had never quite felt so good.

“She played us both for fools.” Tom said. “Calling her self Beth to me, Lizzie to you….if that’s her way of having fun, then I’m glad to be shut of her.”

William sat up. “But still…”

“I’m apologizing, so belay that a bit, will you?”

“For what?” William protested. “I…”

“I didn’t have a claim on that other wench.” Tom said. “I was just…adding it in, I suppose, trying to make myself feel righteous.”

“Well, you were, I mean….”

“I didn’t want to think it were me. I didn’t want to think they preferred you because you’re William, but because you were…I don’t know. Trying to charm them a purpose. I know tis foolish, I just….bugger all.” He sighed.

“I can’t conceive of it.” William admitted. “You are a mite better looking…”

Tom pushed his shoulder. “And if I had half you’re charm, we’d be alright then, wouldn’t we?”

“Bah.” William said. “Let’s forget the whole thing and eat.”

Tom leapt up. “God, I could eat a cart horse.” He offered William a hand up. “And if you ever tell anyone I kissed you, I’ll murder you in your sleep.”

“Oh, you’ll snore me to death, eh? I’ve survived that so far.”

“Just as I’ve survived you trying to recite me to death with your poems. Even I know wenches don’t like being compared to ships, Mister Poet…”

“Leave the rhyming to me, dear. And open that bottle for me, will you?” He handed Tom a bottle of port and began pulling out the food.

“Only if you say please…”

“Maybe I’ll kiss you instead. Twas the best kiss I’ve ever had you know…the very kiss of life.”

“Put your breeches back on before you talk to me like that, William, you’re breaking the articles…”

Their laughter could be heard well up the beach.

It was, easily, the best day of William Mowett’s life.
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