Being thrown back into the world of man was more jarring than Fritz could ever have anticipated. They hadn't even reached the mainland and already he was set to crawl out of his skin to get away from the noise and the stench. The sailors, their benevolent rescuers, smelled awful, had brown teeth, and thought nothing of telling their vulgar stories after a few too many tots of rum; rum that burned Fritz's throat and made his eyes water, but rum that he drank regardless as it made the company more bearable and let sleep come to him more easily. They were good souls underneath their rough exteriors (save one or two with dark, wandering eyes that Fritz wouldn't have trusted as far as he could have thrown them) and he knew it wasn't Christian to have such ungrateful thoughts, but he itched to reach land again and be done with them.
There was no privacy on board. No special treatment. They weren't treated like skivvies but neither was it a free ride. Roberta was back to being Bertie -- so much safer that way on a boat full of men -- and yet Fritz couldn't help but look at her and see Roberta, having to stop himself time and time again from rushing to her aid to help with full pails or rough lines.
Fritz had been watching her closely, but out of the three of them, Roberta seemed to be coping the best with their temporary home, keeping her head down and drawing as little attention to herself as possible. Ernst had been too long without setting foot on a boat and was suffering through the indignities of seasickness all over again, but Fritz knew he should soon be over the worst of it. They'd been at sea a week now, four days of that with rough swells, but the conditions had finally eased, and Ernst was already starting to look less green around the gills.
Ernst appeared at his side to watch the last glowing sliver of sunset as it sank slowly into the ocean. The lower gun deck was empty, the one spot on the ship that they could sometimes be alone without even watchful eyes from the crow's nest able to see them behind the protecting wall of the raised deck, but still open to the world, still easily discovered if they should suffer any lapses in judgement, with only the sound of approaching footsteps to warn them.
They stood close, close enough for their shoulders to brush as they rested their elbows on the gunwale. Fritz forgot the sunset and watched his brother instead, drinking in the moment: the soft, dying light on Ernst's skin, the gentle motion of the calm sea, the creaking of the wood under their feet. Ernst didn't take his eyes off the sunset, but he smiled, knowing that he was being watched. His eyes were bright and his breath smelled faintly like rum.
Fritz smirked. "Feeling better, I see."
Ernst nodded. "Thank god for small mercies."
"And you celebrate your new found sea legs by getting drunk?"
"I'm not drunk!" Ernst insisted. "It was that damned Aldo. He saw that I was doing better, eating some supper, and he insisted we celebrate with a drink."
"Aldo celebrates the rising of the sun with a drink."
Ernst laughed. "That he does."
"And Rob--" Fritz bit his tongue and looked out over the ocean. "Bertie. He's doing well?"
Ernst lowered his voice, drawing even closer so that his lips were brushing Fritz's ear. "Roberta's just fine. She's sleeping. Tucked up safe and sound in my hammock. She's so brave, Fritz, our sweet girl. Taking on all of this like it was nothing. I'll just be so glad to get the hell off this boat so we can..." He faltered and looked down at his hands. "It's never going to be like it was, is it? I mean, the three of us, and Roberta living as she wishes. That's never going to be ours again."
Fritz couldn't stand the sadness, couldn't stand not being able to touch Roberta or even look at her the way he wanted to, couldn't stand being here, so close to Ernst and have to remember that the world didn't work that way, that he was only supposed to look at Ernst and think brother. He wasn't supposed to feel the tug in his chest, the one that spoke of desire and the need to protect, to soothe away any hurts, to stand in the way of anything that caused Ernst pain. He just wasn't sure how in the hell he would be able to protect Ernst from the entire world.
He took Ernst by the arm and dragged him further into the shadow of the raised deck, pushing his back to the wall and pining him there with his whole body. "We shall," he said fiercely. "We shall find a way."
"But how, Fritz? There isn't--"
Fritz cut him off with a kiss, hard and bruising, pouring all of his certainty into it, never wanting Ernst to doubt that he meant every word he said. When he drew back, Ernst looked dazed, his eyes more pupil than iris, and he strained forward, seeking out more kisses, but Fritz was the stronger one and he gave a gentle shove, keeping Ernst against the wall until he remembered where they were and stopped pushing for things they should never have, not here, now not.
Fritz looped an arm around Ernst's neck and pulled him into a hug. Ernst went willingly, his face pushed into Fritz' throat. "I just miss you," Ernst said.
"You don't have to. I'm right here, and I'm not going anywhere," Fritz said, his eyes on the sun as it disappeared beneath the waves.