20. The First Time

          With their feet on the deck, it was finally time for them to part. He dreaded letting go, not wanting to give her up yet. Fortunately for Levi, Fate was in his favor for once. Just as the captain began to inch away, the maiden started to tremble, quivering like a child afraid of the dark. Sobs of fright and relief escaped her mouth, and, clenching his shirt in her hands, she refused to release him. He was her shield, protecting her from the terrifying world around her. What could he do but wrap both his arms around her and hold her close?
          "Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," he whispered. "Shhhhhhhh. It's alright now, Princess. I'm here. I'm here, Hataru. It's alright. You're safe now."
          As her convulsive cries slowed, she was able to tilt her head enough to peer up at his face, searching his eyes for the assurance his voice portrayed. Trails of stale tears glistened on her rosy cheeks in the light of the morning sun, and despite being covered in sweat and monster spittle she was still able to take his breath away. "Captain Levi," she stuttered, "I was so... so scared. It daunted me to think that... I thought that I... that you... that we were going to ─ to die. I thought... Oh, I'm sorry, Captain. I'm so sorry..."
          "Princess, you have nothing to be sorry for." A sad smile spread across his lips, his heart breaking to hear the remorse in her voice. "Hataru, what you did for me... you, you saved my life, and for that I am forever grateful."
          Upon hearing those words, Hope flew back into the girl's eyes, brightening her own spirit as well as his. "And I, for your chivalrous heroism, Captain. Thank you." Cautiously, she relaxed her hands, smoothing out the wrinkles in the fabric on his chest, and took a step back. "I should probably go wash up, now," she blushed, looking at her grungy nightgown and knotted hair.
          “That’s fine, Princess.” A devilish grin, the pirate’s trademark smile, flashed across his face. “Nothing like steamy bath water to wash away the horrors of the night.”
          Hataru smirked back, bowed her head in courtly reverence, and then turned to saunter back to her cabin. After taking only six paces forward, however, she whipped around again, eyes wild, as if an idea had just struck her. "Captain Levi, take off your shirt!"
          The captain was a rainbow trout, red in the cheeks with glazed eyes and a gaping jaw. "What?" he chuckled nervously, completely mortified, just now noticing all of his men circled around them. "I must have misheard you, Princess. For a second, I thought I’d heard you ask me to remove my ─ hey!" She was upon him like a thief, tugging at the hem of his shirt and struggling to yank it over his head. "What ─ what are you doing? Hey, Hataru!" Though objection rang through his voice, he wasn't sure if he should resist her or give into her wish. Ultimately he ended up in a twisted tangle of cloth and appendages.
           "Stop fighting me and just take it off, Levi!" barked the princess, and abruptly he obeyed, bending his back and straightening his arms in order to allow the princess to peel the fabric from his sweat-soaked skin. He gawked at her, like a man who had just experienced an electric flow of lightning course through his very being and survived. "There," she sighed. "Now you're safe, too."
          Peeking up at him through her lengthy eyelashes, nothing could hide her cherry tomato cheeks, burning at the sight of rivulets of perspiration trailing down his unclothed torso. "I'll ─ I'll," stammering, she had to stop herself in order to continue, "I will put this away in my cabin for safe keeping. Good night." With that, the princess sailed off like a yacht on a cool lake, leaving the befuddled captain in her wake.
          He was a statue ─ his stance unchanging, his eyes unblinking. Nothing could move him from he stood, scrutinizing the doorway through which the young woman had disappeared. It could have been seconds since he had become a frozen vegetable; it could have been years. Time was incomprehensible to him. He couldn’t detect the light of the rising sun creeping over the horizon. He couldn’t feel the pressure of his crew men's stares. Nothing seemed to make a difference to him at all. The captain’s mind was a tabula rasa, a clean slate; his mind was completely blank.
          “Captain!” an agog voice thundered. Hands shook his shoulders and danced before eyes. “Captain, snap out of it! You’re spooking the men!” Levi jolted back into reality, blinking away his cloudy vision. A familiar face materialized in front of him.
          “Sorry, Firious,” his voice came out choked and raspy.
          “Aye, you should be sorry! What in the blazes happened? One minute you were just screaming and shouting, and the next there’s a bloody bear terrorizing the ship. And I’ve got this old bloke here telling me that I can’t kill the folly-fallen beast because the gleeking thing is you up there terrorizin’ the dizzy-eyed dewberry of a lass! Are you going to explain this to me or not?”
          “Uhhh...” Levi grimaced. “Well, I don’t... I mean, I’m not sure ─”
          “What do you mean you’re not sure? You're the one who turned into that acursed monster! If you don't know, then who ─"
          “I believe what the captain is trying to say," interjected Antenor, "is that he was a victim of this event, and is as unsure as you are about all that has occured. He has no idea as to what has just happened, Firious. However, this old bloke does, and I'd be more than happy to share my knowledge with you both, but I suggest we go some place a little more quiet." He gestured toward the few stragglers who had yet to return to their bunks for an extra few winks or at least get an early start on their morning duties; one man, with a plunger in his hand and his trousers looking as if they were about to fall off, rubbernecked them as he walked towads the latrine, curious and worried about his captain.
          Levi nodded. "My quarters, then. Let's go."
The three commenced to move forward, trudging along, tired after a long night of no sleep and weary of knowing that there was still more to be done before the sweet, refreshing taste of rest could touch their lips. A heavy hand landed on the captain's shoulder.
          "If I might inquire you, Captain," the gentel old man began, polite as always, "what caused you to freeze up like that, right after the princess left?"
          Levi looked back over his shoulder to the place he had last seen the pretty maiden. "It was the first time, Antenor."
          "The first time? For what?"
          The captain met his elder's eyes, displaying a light of pure joy. "It was the first time she'd called me by my first name alone."

The End

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