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bewitched, bothered & bewildered

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Almost as soon as Antonio had fished the boy -- gasping, nearly dead and yet still babbling about his dead sister -- out of the sea, he knew he was heading for trouble. They were far too close to the shores of Illyria, and the crew, all of them wanted for something or other by Orsino’s men, would not even have stopped to pick up the the castaway, except for Antonio’s insistence. He remember too well the feeling of being set adrift into the world, without a single friendly hand to guide him.

And besides, Antonio could not help but notice how very beautiful the boy was -- or would be, when he was not soaking wet and his lips were not trembling and blue.

He wrapped a blanket more firmly around the boy and led him down to the relative warm of the galley, and resolutely put any other thoughts outside his head.

*

Sebastian turned out to be a useful sort of person, though obviously by birth a gentleman. He soon acclimated to life (and work) on board a ship, and he was always eager to learn what Antonio had to teach him.

Antonio also found, to his surprise, that there was only a scant few years that separated them -- but Sebastian preserved his boyish qualities well, while Antonio … Well, Antonio had had an eventful life, and that was evidenced on his face more than anything else.

One day, while they were checking the rigging on the ship, Antonio asked of Sebastian's family, and Sebastian’s fair and open face closed like a fist. The existence (and presumed death) of Sebastian's sister was all Antonio knew -- and the strong resemblance between them.

“If you saw us side by side, Antonio, you would not be able to spy out the difference between us,” Sebastian said, climbing up, over Antonio’s head. He had taken off his shirt and let it flutter down to the deck below. Antonio watched him progress for a while, privately thinking that he would certainly be able to guess the difference.

*

But as quickly as Sebastian established himself as a fixture in Antonio’s life, he began to make noises about seeking out news of his sister if she lived. This was a pity, Antonio thought, that Sebastian could not see the truth in front of him. But still, they stopped in different ports and inquired about any ships bringing in shipwrecked girls to harbor. They found some such girls. None of them were Sebastian’s sister.

At long last, the only place remained was Illyria, and that was the place Antonio would not go. He explained as much to Sebastian, who could not seem to understand it.

He paced around Antonio’s stateroom, puffing like a dragon. “Why do you fear Illyria? I have heard it was a fair place.”

“Fair though it may be, I must keep far from it,” Antonio said, writing the day’s notes in his log, “the Duke, Orsino, has sworn to see me to my death.”

“Why so?” Sebastian demanded.

Antonio gave him a long look.

“Is it not enough that he has declared me a pirate and a murderer? In my youth, I spent some time in the old Duke’s court, my mother was an Illyrian, though not of noble blood. But when the old Duke died, I had the misfortune to side with his eldest son against Orsino. There was a battle. My side lost.”

“Bad luck,” Sebastian said, “but still, to Illyria I must go.”

“You are a cold-hearted youth, to leave me so soon,” Antonio said, setting down his pen. “But if you must go, stay at the Elephant. When I was last there, the innkeeper was not too dishonest and food was good. Well, good enough.”

“I am not so cold,” Sebastian said, and in a blink of an eye, he darted forward and pressed a kiss on the top of Antonio’s head. Antonio laughed, unsteadily, and rose from his seat. Standing, he was taller than Sebastian, but that failed to make him feel more secure.

“Careful, Sebastian. You know not what you do.”

“I do,” Sebastian said. “I leave for Illyria in the morning.”

*

It was not that Antonio had lacked in lovers. Well, in truth, the lovers he had, he tended to cling to, which was an unfortunate habit in one whose calling was the sea. In his youth, he plighted his troth to a fresh-face girl, and had then gone off to sea. When he had returned, the girl had married someone else. Then, he had developed a passion for one of his shipmates, but that had been born more out of loneliness than true feeling. It dissolved itself soon after. Another love he had, but that had led to exile and heartache.

Love was a sort of madness. It swept you off course, pitched you into fevers, hurled you into tempests and made you into a madman. And then, just as quickly, it was over and all had turned to ashes.

This, Antonio knew. But he also knew this -- he loved Sebastian.

He was a fool.

*

There was a mole on Sebastian’s right shoulder, a dot of brown against his tanned skin. Antonio rubbed his fingers absently against it and Sebastian curled into his touch, like a cat. With a cat's eyes, lily-pad green and mischievous. They widened somewhat when Antonio moved upon him and later he complained that Antonio’s beard left scratches on his thighs. Said thighs were now bracketed around Antonio’s waist, tight enough to make moving difficult.

Antonio lost control of his tongue first of all. He promised the most imprudent, extravagant things as soon as he touched Sebastian's skin, and those promises grew wilder and stranger until Sebastian stopped his mouth and gave it a more useful job instead.

Sebastian’s cock was as lovely as the rest of him, but Antonio knew better than to fawn over it. (He knew better, but he did it all the same.) He let his lips trail down the the slight curve of Sebastian’s cock, tasting the salt of it, savoring it, and savoring more the flush of color on Sebastian’s cheeks, and how they highlighted the freckles that were spread over the bridge of his nose.

“Antonio,” Sebastian gasped, pulling painfully at Antonio’s hair. He licked his lips, looking down, eyes a little unfocused. “More?”

More and more. “I would give you more, everything.”

“Oh sweet Jesu. Shut up, Antonio!”

Antonio smiled -- but he did not obey.

*

They left Sebastian in a row-boat off the coast of Illyria, and made all haste to leave without being spotted. Perhaps it was for the best. Sebastian had been -- a distraction (a welcome distraction) to his work. Really, he was happy to see him go.

*

Antonio lasted less than a week. He turned over his command to his obviously unimpressed second-in-command, left some gruff words instructions to the rest. He went ashore in the dark and made his way to the Elephant.

The Elephant wasn’t the way he remembered it. The suspicions of the Illyrians had sharpened over the years, and soon enough, he was recognized. But of all the people who did recognize him, it was Sebastian who did not.

Oh, but that hurt.

*

They kept him in a cell that had a very pointed view of the gallows. Despite that, Antonio resigned himself to be forgotten long before he was put to death. The wheels of justice ground very slow in Illyria.

(The clown, Feste, would sometimes come and sing up to him, but only in the dark nights when Antonio was mostly asleep.)

For want of anything else to do, Antonio began to plot his escape. But that did not turn out to be necessary. A few days after the streets outside his cell had been flooded with celebrants of the duke’s wedding, he was told that he had a great lady for a visitor.

Antonio assumed that it was Viola, Sebastian’s sister, whom he had only seen once, as Sebastian. But the woman who swept into his cell was not Viola, but rather Olivia, Sebastian’s new wife. Two of Sebastian's womenfolk in his life were entirely too many, but he knew better than to say so.

Instead, he trained a critical eye upon Olivia herself. She was regal, beautiful, and utterly out of place in his dismal cell.

Antonio, curled up in the corner, wondered if he should stand up and bow, but decided against it. “Lady Olivia, have you come here at the behest of your husband?”

She snorted, sharply. “You cannot imagine how much time it has taken me and Viola -- and Sebastian too -- to get Orsino to see sense. Come along, Captain.” The cell-door opened before her and she went out. It remained open.

Antonio blinked -- and then ran through it before anyone could change their mind.

They walked together, Olivia heading and him stumbling behind. He thought they would go to the harbor, but she took a turn away from the city and took a street that turned into a country lane, and that turned into a footpath, through a thick woods.

“If you’ve brought me here to be murdered, then I applaud your will to tie up loose ends personally, but it is wholly unnecessarily.” Antonio leaned against a tree and stared at her.

Olivia wrapped her arms around herself and said, “Don’t be a fool. I don’t want to murder you.”

“Why not? I’ve killed plenty of your countrymen. Orsino is not wrong to have me imprisoned.”

“Do you wish to be imprisoned?” She looked at him, exasperated.

“No, of course not,” Antonio said, with more conviction than he felt.

“I have heard that you -- you love Sebastian. Is it true?”

Guardedly, Antonio said it was.

Olivia nodded, deep in thought.

Almost in passing, she said, “And I love Viola.”

“Truly?”

“Of course!”

“Then we are a miserable lot,” Antonio mused.

“Not I,” Olivia said, with a trace of hauteur. “I am far too rich and powerful to be so.”

“Of course, forgive me, I forgot.”

“Do you wish to go?” Olivia asked. “If I could outfit you with a ship and supplies, and a crew, would you go?”

“Certainly, I would,” Antonio said.

“Would you take Sebastian with you?”

“I --” Antonio shook his head. “My brain and my heart are at cross purposes. I love him, but he is a --”

“Handsome opportunist?”

“Yes.”

“But still you do love him?”

“Yes.”

“Let me think on it,” Olivia said at last. “For all that he is, Sebastian is also my husband. There is some dynastic purpose to him.”

“I only want is the ship,” Antonio said, sincerely. “The rest is up to you.”

*

In a few months, Antonio had his ship. During that time, he stayed at the Elephant, which, he decided, had not changed entirely for the bad. The food was still good. In that time, he was visited often by Olivia, who inquired about the progress of the ship and his preparations. Then, he was visited by a guarded Viola -- or rather, Cesario, which she was for official purposes. She offered him a commission to become a privateer for Orsino and Illyria. The prospect suited him well enough, and he agreed.

He would decide if he would honor it when he was clear of Illyria again.

Cesario stood awkwardly while he signed the papers. Antonio looked up at her and marveled that he could have mistook her for Sebastian. There was, of course, a strong resemblance between them, close enough to be unsettling. But it wasn’t as if they were indistinguishable.

Cesario, at his scrutiny, stroked her hairless chin. “My brother has grown a goatee, you know, to help tell us apart.”

“Very kind of him,” Antonio said, signing his name with a flourish.

“I think it looks very stupid,” Cesario said, and took the document from him. She bowed smartly, he kissed her hand, and she was away.

*

The day he was to sail dawned bright and the sea was shining. There was a sizable crowd there to see him off, more, perhaps, than would have come to see him hanged. Olivia was there, hand in hand with Viola. Her uncle, his lackeys, the clown, the housekeeper, they were all there. The only ones missing were Orsino (who was out on a hunt) and Sebastian (which was to be expected.)

The launch was successful -- Olivia did the honors -- and they were off. It was tense but exciting, getting the ship out of the harbor and into open waters. Antonio felt himself grow sharper, less numb the farther he went from land. He took a deep breath, then two. The briny air fortified him. But, he thought, of the bottle of very good port sitting in the captain’s quarters would do him almost as much good.

He barked at his lieutenant to take charge and went inside, only to find Sebastian there, already drinking from it. He had put his legs up on Antonio’s desk. “You took your time,” said he to the utter dumbfounded Antonio.

(That goatee did indeed look stupid.)

“What are you doing here?”

“Overseeing your operations,” Sebastian said airily. “As privateer for Illyria, you will share some of your profits with our friend, the duke. You needn’t look so worried, Antonio. He is really quite reasonable when you aren’t there to agitate him. Although I never really learned why…”

“What about … dynastic purposes?”

Sebastian looked blank for a moment. “What do you mean?"

“You and Olivia, married. Heirs?”

“Oh,” Sebastian said, relaxing. “Really, Antonio. It isn’t a very long process -- not for me, anyway. And if it fails, my lady wife will recall me to port.”

“You assume,” Antonio said, “that I will accept your presence on this ship, and not turn this ship around, back to Illyria and back into your wife’s arms. Despite your past -- and present! -- actions and your casual disregard for decency or anyone’s rights but your own.”

Sebastian said, “Of course I do. Won’t you?”

After what seemed like a very long moment, Antonio shrugged and said, “Well, yes. But don’t look so -- smug about it.” He quickly turned around and left the cabin. The cool night air hit his face. He breathed in.

He truly was a fool.

Oh, why couldn’t he stop smiling?