Brave Soft Hearts
My eyes were still adjusting to the dimness of the hull as I stood in the door of the small cabin which barely fit the two hammocks hanging inside of it: one made with a blanket, the other, which would be mine, filled with the belongings of a roommate I had yet to meet. Pushing aside the worn maps and a brass spyglass thrown over the pile of clothes in the hammock, I picked up a single left boot, lonely and abandoned by its other half. ‘I guess we have something in common.’ I sighed.
Startled by the low voice, I stepped back from the hammock and turned to the man leaning on the doorframe, wearing a smile both honest and forced, the sort kind people muster when they are either tired or aren’t thrilled to meet you. I couldn’t blame him for it—I didn’t know a soul who would want a surprise roommate, let alone one who talks to their shoes.
He stepped inside. The little light cast by the porthole behind my back reached his tall frame in timid rays; soft, but not shying away from touching his bronze skin under his half-buttoned shirt. It stroked highlights into his dark hair, down the waves brushing his round shoulders and guiding my eyes to his inked arms, strong enough to steer a ship caught in a wicked storm.
‘Are you looking for something?’
‘No.’ I dropped the boot back into the hammock and cleared my throat. ‘Sorry to intrude.’
‘It’s fine, as long as you don’t snore. Hope that’s not the reason why you got dumped?’
‘No.’ I blinked. It would’ve been nice if it were that simple; if I had been just dumped, and for something so trivial. I would’ve picked that over the war. ‘Are you also here because of a ditched dream?’
‘Don’t let your eyes fool you.’ He smirked. ‘I’m not some wish waiting to be fulfilled.’
The dim light caught the mischievous glint in his storm-blue eyes as he offered his hand.
‘Haider Wright. Sailing master.’
Unlike the quartermaster, he didn’t squeeze my hand hard. His warm, calloused hold was the perfect balance of firm and gentle, one I couldn’t immediately let go.
‘Cillian Hale,’ I replied, out of breath after only two words. Maybe it was how our handshake lasted longer than what’s polite, maybe it was the roughness of his skin or the playfulness in his voice that both scared and intrigued me, but something about his touch reminded me of Aland’s. My nose pinched. He would never hold my hand like that again.
The hammocks swung with the rocking of the boat over larger waves as I pulled my hand from Haider’s, but his eyes didn’t let me go.
‘What are you?’ He glanced over me while putting his hand on the wall for balance.
‘What kind of dream?’ He got hold of my locket before I could step away and clicked it open. His eyes flicked to mine over the words of happily ever after, lips parted.
Snatching the locket from him, I dropped it under my shirt.
I needed some space to breathe.
But as I stepped back, the boat rocked hard and Haider lost his balance. He fell on top of me and knocked the air out of my lungs against the floorboards.
Grabbing onto the hammock, he sent its contents tumbling over us.
‘Fuck.’ Haider flinched as the boot hit his head, and he pushed against the floorboards, lifting his weight. ‘Are you alright?’
I’d not been pinned under another man since Aland had last tackled me to the ground, returning from combat in pelting rain. I hadn’t even noticed the hardness of the oak’s protruding roots I’d landed on, though I would feel the soreness from the impact for weeks after. I’d welcomed the bruises though. Aland could’ve crushed all my ribs if it meant I could be sure he was still alive.
Are you hurt? He’d stroked my face with his muddy hand and kissed my cheek.
Wrapping my arms around him, I’d shaken my head, Relieved.
Holding onto his rain-soaked military tunic, I hadn’t noticed my tears until I tasted them on Aland’s lips. It had been a long day, and a bad one. Some of the blood hadn’t yet dried on my jacket. I’d not had a break for sixteen hours, and I hadn’t seen him for twenty-six. And not seeing a soldier inside the field hospital could only mean one of two things: they were either unharmed or they weren’t ever coming back—I would’ve rather stitched him up than waited to find out.
It made me sick I’d ever thought that.
Haider’s hair fell into my face, hitting me with the scent of the sunny deck, sweat and fresh ocean breeze. The memories of mud, the smell of iron and gunpowder slipped from my grasp, like water through my fingers; faster the more I tried to hold on.
My muscles tensed. ‘Get off–’
‘Bear with me.’ Haider pulled himself onto his knees, swaying as he held onto the now empty hammock.
Biting my tongue, I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to be trapped beneath him for another moment. I didn’t want the sea and the boat and this stranger. I only wanted what once was, what could’ve been. But the longer he stayed close, the harder it was to hold onto that feeling, that nostalgia. I couldn't take it any longer. With a frustrated grunt, I shoved him off to the side.
‘Life on a boat must be hard with two left feet,’ I muttered. As a distraction. As a joke—but, too embarrassed of what I’d just done, I failed to bring light into my voice. My tone stayed flat.
Stunned silence stretched, long enough to force me to look at him.
Haider stared at me from underneath his hammock, mouth agape as if I had punched him.
Propping himself up, he scooted away from me.
‘It’s even harder without any,’ he said dryly.
The words of apology dried up in my mouth, and my heart swapped places with my stomach.
My gaze fell onto his legs.
And the right half of the boots.
On his left, the hem of his trousers grazed the ground, revealing nothing as he struggled onto his feet; a movement marked with a hollow knock I hadn’t noticed earlier—a piece of hardwood stomped against the floorboards.
It was my turn to lose all sense of balance.