by Charlotte C. Hill
Desert Island challenge, May 2012. Write a story where two of them get stranded on a desert island.

He'd never expected to be here, never expected to survive once the storm came upon them--never expected to find peace alone in this deserted place. But survive he had, comforting himself with memories of how he'd taught Adam to tie this or that knot, or how he'd made rope, and figured out how to cut bamboo and weave palm fronds together to make himself a serviceable home.

Vin would be impressed.

Hell, everybody would, if--

He spent time not thinking about how he'd been the one to suggest the change, one sure way to keep Vin out of a noose and Josiah out of jail. He spent a lot of time not thinking about them, not wondering if they'd made it to one of the neighboring islands he could see on clear days, or if everybody but him had died in the storm.

Maybe five days after the ship went down: storm past, sky and sea so achingly blue and beautiful it was almost a blessing to have had the chance to see it, he'd caught sight of wooden cases floating, driftwood coming in, and run to the beach to collect what he could.

The sight of the bodies already in the surf, limbs moving almost as if with life from the motion of the waves against the beach, had sent a chill running so hard through him that his bones had ached.

He'd watched for a while, a whole day and night, in fact, hawk-like, for any movement, anybody alive crawling and coughing out of the water like he had, but nothing. Just a few more boxes and a bale of what must be drenched cotton, and one full turn of the tide. He'd watched even when the ebb threatened to pull supplies and people back into the ocean, willing movement, observing details from a distance to confirm that none of the clothes on the bodies looked familiar.

None of his men were down there.

He'd picked the bodies clean and then sent them back to the sea, found a barrel of whiskey and laughed out loud, and sealed it tight for the time when madness or injury demanded he drink.

That had been months ago, before the winter that had stirred up the ocean but mostly left him alone on the shore, and before the change of winds and the warm spring rains.

Neither madness nor injury had visited him, yet. Just routine, and the daily work of hunting or fishing, of repairing or improving, of whittling trinkets and tools from chunks of driftwood, realizing he could live out his days here without much complaint: no more killing, no one else dying on him. Nothing horrible left to learn--or at least, no way to learn it.

No more mistakes.

He wondered if he'd feel the same the next summer, or the next. The thought was moot; he didn't have any agency in the matter.

He did have a shack bigger than the one he'd left in New Mexico, half a mile from the shore. He had a pen for the wildfowl he'd caught, and a decent enough wardrobe that he'd claimed from the bodies to last him a while: eight pairs of trousers, most of which didn't fit but could be cut down or serve other purposes; underdrawers and shirts; boots; even two coats he didn't need. In addition he'd found bone combs in pockets, a little folding mirror like a woman's, and knives and straight razors tucked into more than one pair of boots.

He didn't shave often, even though he'd fashioned a decent strop from shoe leather--not much point, unless he wanted to examine his face in that mirror and remember who he'd been. Once a week, maybe, as much as he kept up with the passing of days.

He shaved this morning, ate a breakfast of eggs and greens, and slipped into trousers that hung looser across his belly than they had when he'd washed ashore. He stared at boots but decided against: these days, he only wore them when he had to walk up the side of the volcano, across the black rocks that cut like glass and made the best knife-points he'd ever seen.

Dressed in trousers and a shirt to protect against the sun, he picked up his fishing spear, pole, and the bucket he'd crafted from what he could, and stepped onto the trail he'd worn from the creek to the ocean, along the shore to his fishing spot not far away.

The day was like every other one had been, nature and water and birds and rats, trade winds rustling in the leaves of the trees. It was like every other day had been as he reached the shore and turned his shoulder inland, following the rocky coast toward the sand. It was like every other day had been until something drew his brows together in a frown: something different. He paused, standing tall and straight, waiting for the newness to tease itself into his awareness.

It didn't take long: the shadows in the trees on the north side of the trail remained unchanged. To the south, the dirt met the sand and sun, and beyond that the ocean stretched on for--there was a boat out there. Tinier than the smallest rowboat stowed on the dead ship, barely sea-worthy, it bobbed with the ocean and floated slowly closer.

It wasn't even a boat, he realized as it approached; it was a raft, like something out of Tom Sawyer, with a short mast and a sail no bigger than a coat and someone rowing furiously at the rear. He felt himself swaying with the mast, vaguely resentful that his solitude was about to be interrupted even as hunger for the sound of another voice, of news, stabbed at his belly. He could maybe learn about possibilities he steadfastly hadn't been thinking on.

He swayed with the sail's motion and watched it come, until he was sure the person on it was a man, and then he was sure he recognized the set of those shoulders and dark, too-long hair.

Impossible. Maybe it was time to open that cask of whiskey.

A hand rose high and waved, and just barely, over the pound of the surf he heard his name as Buck hollered, "Chris!"

Impossible. But that didn't keep him from dropping bucket and gear and sprinting to the beach, across the sand and into the water until he stood waist-deep, leaping up over breaking waves and determined to hold his ground. To feel seconds tick into minutes with the beat of his heart until Buck decided he was close enough to shore to dive off the edge of his failing craft and into the water, swimming strongly and looking like those Pacific islanders Chris had seen pictures of, all brown and lean from sun and sea.

Chris's heart pounded hard against his ribs as Buck approached, riding the swells and then the breaking waves that pushed him faster to shore, landing him on his knees just a few feet down the beach from Chris.

"God damn," Buck swore as he got his feet under him and turned to push through swirling water. "I knew you'd be alive!"

"Can't say the same," Chris replied, still stunned. He had questions, plenty of them lining up like a regiment of unruly soldiers in his head, but they didn't matter yet. They didn't matter until Chris was sure he wasn't crazy.

He walked out of the water and turned to stare up toward the steep mountainside, away from Buck Wilmington. He gave himself one blink, one more thought that this couldn't be possible, couldn't be real, and then he turned to look up at the man who stood frowning confusion at him. Worse, looking uncertain. "Chris?"

Chris gave him a hard stare. "You real?" he demanded.

The frown deepened and Buck leapt forward, grabbing Chris up in a wet hug more intimate than would have been proper, most places. Wiry beard and over-long mustache scratched the side of Chris's throat. "I'm real," Buck sighed. "Better yet, you're real. I really was sure that if that crash didn't kill me, it sure as hell couldn't kill you."

"You didn't know any such thing," Chris retorted, and his voice sounded tense and wild to his own ears.

"Did," Buck asserted, pulling back enough to hold him by the shoulders and squeeze hard enough to bruise, like if he let go Chris might disappear. Chris realized he was holding on just as tight, and told his fingers to loosen, his arms to fall. They didn't listen.

"You haven't been hopping from island to island on that little pile of driftwood," he accused.

"No," Buck agreed, and finally he let go of one of Chris's arms to gesture. "I been keeping an eye out from that island over there and waiting for the winds to change," he said, waving vaguely out to sea. "Could see this island tempting me like a pretty woman and I knotted rope and cut branches and built that pile of shit I thought was a boat. Knew I had to try for it, before--"

"Before you got sick of the sound of your own voice?" Chris interjected dryly.

Buck threw his head back and laughed, and Chris finally put enough breathing room between them to really look at him. He watched as Buck scanned him for injury, squeezed at his arms again, and licked chapped lips. "I shouldn't have missed all them jibes of yours, but I--"

Chris didn't let him finish. He pulled hard at Buck's neck until their mouths mashed together, and took advantage of the fact that Buck was still talking to slide his tongue in, affirming by taste what sight and sound and touch had already told him. His heart pounded harder: no more certainty, all kinds of chances for new mistakes, new hurts, and new losses. And if Buck had made a raft worthy enough to get him probably twenty miles, then together they could do better and make the next leap, and the next, until they rounded up any of the others who'd survived or ran out of land to look on.

Next summer. Or the next. Or the one after that, most like. Careful planning, better ship-building, and a damned rope to lash themselves to each other so they'd swim or sink together. Chris decided all of that in the brief moment between tasting Buck's mouth and Buck's surprised step back, his quick look around this empty space like someone might've caught them, and then it was Chris's turn to laugh.

Buck looked embarrassed as he chuckled at himself, but embarrassment died fast and he reached out, running a knuckle over Chris's cheeks. "You use the volcano glass to make some kind of razor?"

Chris shook his head. "Some stuff washed up on the beach that first week. Razors too." He didn't mention the bodies, even though he would, soon enough.

"I haven't shaved in months," Buck said dreamily. He used his fingertips this time to stroke across the smooth skin of Chris's cheek, and his thumb to trace Chris's lips. His eyes followed his fingers' progress and Chris felt his manhood twitch and stir. If this all wasn't real, he was going to drink that whole barrel of whiskey down.

But it was real, because Buck bent and kissed him, tender and gentle and without tongue, beard soft-wiry against his cheeks. When Buck drew back, he kept his eyes down. "I thought I'd never see you again. Never feel you."

Chris swallowed. "Couldn't think much else, under the circumstances."

"Yeah," Buck acknowledged, and Chris knew Buck hadn't spent enough time not thinking, and wondered if ghosts had pointed that raft in the right direction.

He glanced over toward the ramshackle craft, where a breaking wave pushed it the last few feet toward the sand. "Best get that out of the water, if there's anything on it you want to save."

Buck didn't reply, just kept staring down between them toward the ground, like Buck wasn't ready to trust that was real either.

Chris reached and snatched one of Buck's hands, and pressed it firmly to his groin. No quicker way in the world to get Buck's full attention, get every iota of the man right here in the moment. Buck's whole body jerked like a startled horse and then went stone still, and Chris smiled. "Buck?"

When Buck looked up and finally met his gaze, all heat and fire and love and relief, tears just spilling to mix with the rivulets of sea water still dripping down his face, Chris knew he wouldn't need that pocket mirror for much anymore; everything he'd been, everything he was, showed right there in Buck's eyes.