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It begins with a letter.

Except Silver feels it ends with a letter. Thomas would say it could be both – the letter is both the beginning of one thing and the end of another. And Flint would say it's just another thing – one more moment in a long series of events, because the only real end is death itself.

To Silver, it feels like a real end.

He clutches the letter in both hands. Flint and Thomas are chatting on the other side of the tiny breakfast table. Thomas is telling Flint about his own letter he received from a doctor in Philadelphia who admired Thomas's work. It all fades into a dulcet ring: Thomas's excited words, Flint's half-murmured acknowledgements as he tries to read his own mail, the scrape of dull silverware on chipped cutlery, the roll and clatter of the busy street outside. Silver reads and re-reads his only letter.

He tastes bile, burning in the back of his throat. There's a chill in the air, as the first true autumn morning hits Boston, but he can't feel it. He's warm all over – hot, like he's awash with blood.

“--Silver? Silver!”

Silver looks up. Flint and Thomas are both watching him anxiously, though Flint shows more obvious concern. Silver stills hears a ringing in his ears.

A beat. “Does...Madi have anything interesting to say?” Flint asks, brow furrowed.

Silver doesn't want to talk. He wants to run as fast as he can to Boston Harbor, book a ticket on the next ship heading south, and never return. He wants to crawl into Flint's lap, bury his face into Flint's neck, and never resurface.

But he finds himself asking, “Did you have anything to do with this?”

Flint frowns harder. “With what?” He looks down at his own letter from Madi. “Is something wrong? She didn't say --”

“If you --”

“Silver, honestly, what --”

“If she --”

“Oh, come on,” says Thomas, snatching the letter from Silver's grasp and scanning it. “Would you just – oh.”

What? ” Flint looks a little pale now, and more than a little angry.

“She's...well,” Thomas says, handing Flint the letter. “It seems Madi has found another war to fight.”

Silver watches Flint read the letter. He can tell by the crease between Flint’s eyes he's read the part where Madi says she's been making trips to the Maroon colony on the island of Jamaica, by the twitch in his lips that he reads about a close relationship formed between their leader, a woman they call Nannie. Can tell by the way he silently opens his mouth that he's read the part about how they've been embattled with both Spanish and British armies for decades, and the way he snaps his mouth shut means he's gotten to the part where Madi says she's going to join in their fight, she's bringing resources and people from her own island to bolster their number and work together for a freed island nations of Maroons.

When he meets Silver's eyes again, the look of shock in his eyes means he's read the part where Madi says she intends to fight until she is dead or her people are free, that if Silver sets foot on the island to try and stop her, she will forget she had any knowledge of Silver, and leave him in the hands of the Maroons, who don't take kindly to strange white men on their shores. The part where she says if she survives this new war she's found, without Silver trying to interfere, they can move forward in their marriage, and all will be forgiven.

“Did I have something to do with this?” Flint asks, sounding like he's trying to keep himself neutral. This has been an area Flint has always failed in. Every emotion has always been clear on his face. “Silver, you've seen everything I've ever written to Madi.” It's true. He'd often ask Silver to look over his letters, because he's never sure what Madi would find interesting about his day-to-day, even though it should be clear by now that Madi is always just happy to hear anything from Flint. “You must know I wouldn't--”

Silver knows. Still, he asks, “If you -- ” and he tries not to, but he can't help but glance over at Thomas quickly, “--told her about this place...”

Of course, Thomas had seen his look. He laughs slightly, placing a hand on Flint's wrist. “Oh, not to worry, darling. He doesn't suspect you of anything. Just me.”

“Well, did you?” Silver rounds on Thomas, feeling as though the blood that's all over him is gushing. “Piling one fucking crusade onto another is sort of your raison d'etre, isn't it? Was this your fucking idea?”

“Come, Long, you know better than to try and distract me up with French.” Even though he's sounding flippant, Thomas looks mad. “And even though we were the most genial during her last visit, Madi and I don't personally correspond. She includes me in her address to James, see?”

Silver doesn't look at the letter Thomas holds out. He snatches his own back out of Flint's hands and rises from the table. He hadn't even eaten any of his breakfast, but looking at it makes him sick. He feels like he’s swallowed a spoonful of hot oil -- slick and heavy in the center of his stomach, burning from the inside out.

Flint stands too. “Silver --” He stops.

Silver can only glance briefly at him. Anything he sees will just piss him off even more, whether it's worry for Silver or anger for suspecting Thomas or, the worst of all, barely concealed approval for Madi and her war. He looks lower, at the twitch of Flint's fingers. Fingers that Silver loves, that he had kissed this morning, that haven't held a sword in so long.

“What….” Flint starts, cautiously. “What are you going to do?”

Madi’s letter crumples in Silver’s hand. The paper is soft, but the sharp spike of her letters, her words, the “and if I am to die, I will die in the manner of my choosing, rather than to live in the manner of yours, ” slices deep into his tendons, carving fresh lines in his palm. He can feel the ink seeping into his skin, poisoning him.

Silver exhales. He counts to three, and then slowly unfurls his grip.

The letter doesn't do anything so delicate as flutter to the ground. It's too creased for that. It simply falls.

“I’m going for a walk,” Silver says softly. It sounds like a joke, and the stomp of his crutch the punchline.

Silver isn't unfamiliar with feeling helpless. It's an unbearable itch on the sole of a foot that isn't there. It's facing away from the edge of a cliff, throat an empty chamber where his story should be. It's sitting on the same cliff for days, waiting for a hand on his shoulder. It's older things, forgotten things, things that scar and disfigure this deep hole inside him.

After every moment of helplessness, he’d always promised himself that it would be the last time. This would be the last time he felt that way, and never again.

Silver is great at breaking promises.

 


 

Breakfast goes cold once Silver leaves the table. Even though Thomas could still eat, James doesn't sit back down and there'll be no coaxing him back.

James stoops to pick up the letter. He stays crouched as he reads it again. He hadn't straightened his hair after waking yet, and it stuck up in tufts at the nape of his neck. Thomas knows that when he eventually stands up, he’ll hear the pop and creak of old bones working. James will stay in that position longer than he really should, too familiar with discomfort to think to move.

“Jesus,” James mutters. “Jesus. You mad woman.”

Thomas doesn't know how to respond to that, so he just starts cleaning up the table. To be perfectly honest, it's one of the least surprising pieces of news Thomas had ever received by mail. He doesn't know Madi as well as the other two men, but surely they must have seen something like this coming. Beliefs are the hardest thing to change in a person, and all four of them are tethered by their ability to believe, God help them for it.

“You don't think he’ll do anything rash, do you?” James asks quietly, still on the floor.

Thomas snorts. “You know him better than I, dear. Is he the type to make rash decisions?”

James stands. He looks pale, fidgeting with barely contained energy. “Not usually,” he says. “I think the last time cost him his leg.”

“Long is a smart man,” says Thomas, piling the dirty plates into a stack. “I’m sure he learned something from that decision.”

James folds the letter, sticks it in his pocket, and comes to help him with the table. “He's irrational when it comes to her. I should probably --”

“Go to work,” Thomas says firmly.

James freezes, cradling the teacups. His face is carefully blank, which Thomas hates. Even when James is keeping things from him, the fact that he’s hiding it is always evident on his face. This blank expression is new, and rare, and cold. He imagines it’s what Captain Flint might have looked like.

It’s unbelievable, really. Thomas has not one, but two men warming his bed, and yet his mind always drifts back at the worst moments to a third -- this Captain Flint. Too many awful and quiet minutes of his day are spent thinking about this unknown man. Who he was, what he did, how he did it. How green his eyes might have looked doing them.

“You want him to leave,” James says flatly. “He’s going to go after her and you want me to --”

“I do not want him to go,” Thomas says, gently putting James’s teacups on the table so he can take his hands. “I don’t . Him being here was my idea, if you can recall. But answer me this.” He brings James’s hands up to his chin, rubbing at his worn knuckles. “However you may feel about Madi’s plan, you know it must be dangerous. Yet would you try to talk her out of it?”

The blankness on James’s face slips into confusion, which is infinitely better. “I….no. It’s -- she’s free to make her own choices.”

Thomas smiles, brushing a kiss to his knuckles before letting him go. “As Long is to make his, if he chooses to follow her. Though I don’t think he will. In the short amount of time I’ve spoken with her, Madi does not strike me as the kind of woman who trifles. I don’t doubt he’s aware of that. I’m not sure what he’s going to do, but I think he’ll take her words to heart, for now.”

Thomas continues to clean up the table, but James is unmoved.

“And if he goes after her,” James says, “and I make the choice to follow him , you would let that go without argument?”

There have been moments, in the months since they’ve left Savannah, where it seemed like James had been trying to start fights with him. They had never had this much consecutive time together in London, and at first Thomas had thought that perhaps their personalities might grate with each other, with prolonged exposure. But it’s always James who tries to rile him up, get him angry about something, and that something is always James . It’s like he’s trying to push ahead for something that Thomas knows will never occur -- that he will grow tire of James, and leave.

“When have you ever known me to let anything go without an argument?” Thomas says easily, piling the dishes precariously high in the crook of his right arm, his hand too weak to carry them. “But I imagine, in this scenario, the end result would be three very cross white men standing on a Jamaican shore, preparing to die, so there’s no particular reason to continue down that avenue of thought right now. Is there?”

He sets the plates down on the counter, and James is there to make sure nothing comes crashing down. As always, when Thomas ignores a fight James tries to start, he’s a little flushed around his ears in a way that is far too distracting when they both have to be at work shortly. He puts his fingers around the curl of them to prevent his mouth from biting down.

Thomas says, “Go to work. And make sure you stay with Christopher afterwards.”

James’s eyes had closed when Thomas had touched him, but now they flutter open. “What? No. I don’t have to --”

“You do,” Thomas says. “Because you want to.”

James had been working for Christopher Knopper, a local carpenter, almost immediately since they arrived (it had taken Thomas far longer to find and keep a job). Christopher is a crude, awful old man, hateful towards everyone and too fond of opiates, but he makes some of the most beautiful clock pieces in Boston. It didn’t take James too long to grow tired of assembling tables and chairs, and so he started studying horology in his spare time, determined to create something more. Something intricate and difficult and beautiful. It had taken him quite awhile to convince Christopher to show him the practical side of clockmaking, outside of books.

Not that Thomas has any issue with watching James read. Curling up in the uncomfortable chair in the sitting room, twisting his beard, face settling in half a frown that only deepens as the light gets dimmer, though he doesn’t bother to move -- he seems ten years younger than he is. Or younger maybe. More like the young man he’d been who Thomas had never met, but had often imagined, bright and angry and working so hard to be that rising star in the British Navy.

He wants to be good at clockmaking. Not just because it’s a complex skill he wants to master, but because Christopher has given him so much shit since he started working for him, that Thomas knows he wants to surpass him and put him out of business. James has never voiced it out loud, though, and Thomas doesn’t know how to tell him that he approves of his endeavor and supports it completely.

“He’ll change his mind if you cancel now,” Thomas says, smoothing down the parts of James’s hair that stick out like so many hands on a clock. “I’m meeting the boys at the Inn just after five. Long’s supposed to be there around then, too.”

“And you’ll keep a close eye on him?” James says, so he doesn’t have to say, And you’ll come find me immediately if he doesn’t show?

“Of course,” says Thomas. “Although not too close. I’ll be there on business, and you know how enjoyable I find it to watch him play.”

James sighs, closing his eyes, but with an uncontrolled smile tugging at his lips. Thomas knows what he just said about Madi and Silver, that it would be just as wrong to try and stop Silver from going to her as it would be to stop Madi from fighting. But that doesn’t make it any less true that he would drag Silver back by his ridiculously beautiful hair if he even thought about leaving James and upsetting him so.

The four of them are tied together by their ability to believe. And beliefs are the hardest things to change in people. But what the other three have never seemed to learn -- and what Thomas only came to understand after a decade in chains -- is there are moments when beliefs can indeed be ignored.

Thomas would forget every fundamental part about himself if it meant making James smile like that. One way or another, Silver isn’t going anywhere.

 

_____

 

Thomas and James had begun frequenting The Three Swallows Inn as soon as they’d arrived in Boston. It hadn’t been the closest tavern to their home, or the cheapest, but Thomas had been so taken by the name and the three little birds carved into the door, that he’d insisted it be their usual haunt.  

The official story is the Inn was named after the proprietor’s three daughters, all of them slight and beautiful singers. The more common story is that, by the third swallow, you’ll be so pissed you won’t give a damn how shite the ale is, which by all accounts is absolutely true.

Thomas had liked it because, as he had whispered the first time they had eaten there, it had been by the third swallow that he’d realized he’d been in love with James.

He’d made friends with the proprietor, Mr. Levine, because Thomas is a friendly man, and came in often, and brought other people who also spent money. Mr. Levine, however, is far from as genial. He hates most of his clientele and he hates Boston. He hates the cold and he hates alcohol. He loves his daughters and he hates his sons-in-law. He tolerates Thomas.

Which is why Thomas had been comfortable approaching Mr. Levine three months ago to get Silver a job.

“He’s our newest lodger,” Thomas had said cheerfully, ignoring their mutual grimaces, “and an excellent cook.”

“No,” Silver had said. “I’m not.”

But Mr. Levine had appreciated the honesty. He’d also appreciated Silver’s name, and his injury, and the simple, yet gruff explanation Silver gave it: “Naval accident.”

When it had been clear this wouldn’t lead anywhere productive, Thomas had been about to end their oddly short, stern conversation, when at that moment, Silver had said, “I see you’re bringing a piano in.”

And by some grace of God himself, two boys had been visible in the back room trying to figure out how to drag a piano through the thin door.

Mr. Levine had explained that he used to play while his daughters sang in their home, but now they’d married and sang in their own homes with their good-for-nothing husbands. Looking at it in his parlor upset him, but the idea of throwing it out upset him more. He had thought some people might enjoy playing it, after a few drinks.

“My new lodger,” Thomas had said, “is a wonderful pianist.” Then he’d added, “And this time I’m not lying.”

Mr. Levine had looked Silver up and down. “Do you know anything by any Italian composer?”

Silver had blinked at Mr. Levine for a moment. “My hands have committed many a dastardly act in my lifetime,” Silver had said, “but they would never sink so low as to play anything as vile as Italian music. Everyone knows the only composers worth playing are German.”

For the first time since Thomas had been in The Three Swallows Inn, Mr. Levine had smiled. And then he’d laughed. And then he’d dragged Silver towards the piano, which had finally found its way into the barroom.

“You can read music?” Mr. Levine had said, opening an envelope from behind the bar. “My brother sent me some new sheets from home.”

“Sure.” Silver had pulled up a bar stool and had sat down at the piano, not looking at Thomas. He’d told them, that first night, he’d only known how to play one song.

But he had taken the piano sheets, which Thomas had been able see held a composition by J.C.F. Fischer, with the words “Präludium Harppegiato (C Dur)” on the top. Just like that night in the study, Silver had leaned over, loose hair draping onto the worn ivory, and listened as he’d tapped a few of the keys. Thomas had been able to tell immediately it’d been a nicer piano than his own.

And then Silver had spread his hands over the keys and had begun to play. Suddenly, Thomas had been back in a crowded parlor in London, too many people chatting and shaking hands and wandering idly to even see where the music had been coming from. Or even further back, to those dinner parties of his youth when his mother was still alive, and she’d regale everyone with a song before the men retired to their brandy, and then she’d let Thomas sit in her lap and rest his hands on her wrists while she played some more, just for him.

Silver had played beautifully. It had only been a prelude, but quick tempoed, and his hands never once faltered. He hadn’t even watched the keys; his clever eyes stuck to the notes as he played. Well, on the sheet, and on Mr. Levine, gaging his reaction.

When he had finished, Thomas had applauded, in part because he knew it would piss Silver off, but also because he hadn’t heard such music in decades and it had been worthy of applause. And then he had kept applauding, because Mr. Levine had joined in, and he had liked the way the sharp points of Silver’s cheekbones had flushed pink under the praise.

 

Mr. Levine had given Silver a job playing in the bar four evenings a week for the last three months, and barely paid him anything. It wasn’t like the people who frequented The Three Swallows Inn gave a shit about music, for the music he played wasn't appropriate for the Inn at all, but it was more for Mr. Levine to listen to when he missed his daughters. He never once played anything by an Italian composer.

 

_____

 

And as far as Thomas knows, playing the piano is the only thing Silver does, outside the house. Inside, they keep themselves entertained, surely. But once Thomas leaves with James for work in the morning, they never see Silver, unless he’s at the piano at The Three Swallows Inn or back at their tiny house on the days he doesn’t work.

Which is why he’s surprised to see Silver walking up the street towards the Inn as he heads over to meet his friends. He feels like he’s never seen Silver in proper daylight, except for that first day he’d been on his doorstep.

Thomas takes the opportunity to observe Silver out in the world. He’s studied his form relentlessly in the bedroom, but usually in repose. Silver in motion is entirely different sort of beauty. Perhaps it’s the way people unconsciously glide out of his path, or the way each lumbering step is never stilted or hitched. But he walks with a dignity that is both hard-won and also careless, because his only concern is not in appearance, but in moving forward. Thomas had never been important enough to meet a King, but he had met Princes before, and Dukes and Earls, and they’d all attempted to walk in a similar manner, but Thomas can see they never quite accomplished it. Silver has a regal stride, to be certain.

He’s never really seen what Silver had that made men follow him, and he’s smart enough to only believe some of the stories he heard. But he’s also smart enough not to ask him or James which are true. He knows Silver is a master charmer, and exceptionally manipulative, but when he’s not naked and writhing under James -- well, he just doesn’t seem interesting enough to be the dangerous and deadly pirate from the stories he’d heard on the plantation. He has no political opinion, nothing but a passing fancy in art or literature. He spends too much time in silent afterthought, or composing letters. For as much as Thomas tries for James’s sake, he struggles to come up with any kind of conversation.

Though he is, Thomas can admit, fun to argue with.

He hurries to catch up with him. Silver doesn’t walk fast (again, a kingly characteristic, because no royal would have to speed up for anyone) but Thomas’s knee is killing him. He injured it five or so years ago, and though it’s not bad enough to cause a limp, it does ache fiercely when held in a position for too long. Thomas had been hunched over on a high stool all day, counting the weekly inventory at the grocer’s, and the stretch to keep his foot on the floor always makes his leg hurt more than usual.

“You’re coming in early,” Thomas huffs as he finally catches up with him.

The way Silver just glances at him but doesn’t look even remotely surprised tells Thomas that he’d seen Thomas chasing after him, but hadn’t slowed down any. “Actually, I’m late,” says Silver. “I was meant to go in to speak to Levine earlier this afternoon.”

“Ah,” says Thomas. He tries to breathe normal again. “He’s not firing you, is he? Or letting you play more days?”

“Neither,” says Silver, turning onto another street. The Three Swallows Inn is still a little ways down the road, though. “It’s nothing.”

They’re silent as they make their way over. Thomas wants to bring up Madi like he wants another broken finger bone, so he doesn’t. He thinks if there is any threat of Silver leaving, it would have been immediate. Surely, his continued presence means he had no intention of going anywhere, right?

The wind shifted, and Thomas thinks he can smell the sea on Silver’s tied hair, like he spent all morning down at the docks, but he might be imagining it. He’s probably imagining it.

“You should just ask to sit on a lower chair,” Silver says suddenly.

Thomas starts. “I -- what?”

“If that stool is bothering your leg so much, ask for a proper chair.” Silver doesn’t look at him as he speaks. “Or don’t ask. Just find a better one. Being in agony isn’t actually an imperative in the workforce, all evidence to the contrary.”

“I… know that.” He did, sort of. In theory, anyway. “It’s not agony. It’s just an ache, like everyone gets when they grow old.” He tries walking a little straighter. He hadn’t thought it bad enough to limp, but he doesn’t want James to see it.

Silver snorts. “Your aches have nothing to do with your age. Just get a better chair, if you’re going to sit in one spot all day. If you insist on walking beside me like we know each other, we can’t both be hopping around like idiots.”

It’s not precisely an insult. James always is the last to arrive at the Three Swallows Inn, and before he does, Thomas and Silver don’t really acknowledge one another. They might nod, if they’ve accidentally glanced each other’s way. It’s absolutely childish. They’ve seen each other naked . They’ve touched each other. Thomas knows what he looks like when he comes twice in one night. No, they haven’t technically fucked yet, but still. There is intimacy involved, despite how hard they try to ignore it.

Thomas has never been in the situation. None of his past lovers have ever resented his personality before. He has no clue what to do about it.

“What do you do,” Thomas finds himself asking, “when you’re not at home or the Inn?”

What he means is, where did you go today?

Silver doesn’t respond right away. Then he says, “Oh, you know. Raping and pillaging. The usual pirate errands.”

Thomas scowls. “You're not pirates anymore.”

Silver hears the slip of his tongue and smirks at it. He says, “What is a pirate but a man who takes what isn't his?” He looks at Thomas askance. “Isn't that what you perceive me doing?”

He can’t help but roll his eyes. “How many times do I have to state to you both that I approve of your relationship? I was the one who suggested it in the first place!” Lord knows if Thomas hadn't stepped in, the two of them would have likely parted ways forever without exchanging so much as a limp handshake.

“Men are selfish creatures, Tom. We don't like to share.”

The common nickname irks him, the faded pale blue of his blood rising. “Perhaps I’m not so insecure. You share him, too,” he says quietly, as an older couple brushes by them. “Are you saying you're jealous of me?”

“Of course I am.” It's maybe the first time he's ever agreed with Thomas. It's so stunning Thomas is momentarily speechless.

“Well, Long, I’m just not the jealous type,” he says stiffly. “I know him. I know where we stand.”

They walk in silence for awhile, and Thomas thinks he’s convinced him, until he glances over and sees that Silver is quietly laughing at him.

What?”

“You are absolutely jealous of me, Lord Tomcat,” Silver says, now laughing openly. The lines around his eyes that had been present since that morning are gone. His grin is crooked and rabbity and Thomas is angry .

“I am not --”

“Oh, you're not jealous that he and I fuck,” says Silver, not even bothering to keep his voice down. He's stopped laughing, but his grin is still vicious and bloody. Thomas is reminded of the anti-piracy pamphlets distributed around London, the joyous pirate with a head of a politician in one hand and a weeping widow in the other. “You're jealous of me because I, unlike you, have seen the face of every man he has ever been. I know the ghosts that haunts you in your idle moments, and I know them intimately.  I have seen and known and been loved by them all, and you hate me for it. Because you have only known a part of him, and likely that's all you’ll ever know.”

Thomas never cursed in his youth, and only found them useful in his years of captivity. There are better, more devastating, more cutting ways to use words to take people down.

Fuck you,” he says.

Silver barks a laugh. “You wish. You know, the Captain might have some qualms about speaking of his past, but I don't. Not this past, anyway. If you want to know something, you could always ask me.”

He wants to. God, does Thomas want to know. He's heard some stories of Captain Flint without knowing who he was, and he's dying to know which are true. What really happened to Miranda? How did James gets his scars? What became of his father? Why does James jerk up in the middle of the night, terrified and gasping, and is only calmed by going out and pulling fresh water from the well? Why does he look down every time a guardsman wanders by, a look of fury barely hidden in his eyes? What does he want to do to that man?

Thomas wants to know everything. But he doesn't want to hear it from Silver.

“Why don't you tell me all about how you betrayed your wife, Long,” Thomas spits. He can't curl his one hand into a fist, but he wants to so desperately. “You know, Madi, who’d still rather risk death, torture, and enslavement rather than be the silent, obeying woman at your back? How many times is it now that someone have chosen a war over you?”

It's a step too far, and Thomas knows it. Silver stops, so Thomas is forced to stop, too. He's forced to take in the broad slope of his shoulders, the poisonous glint in his eye as he steps into Thomas’s space. The way he has no problem curling his hand into a fist. No one is on the street with them anymore.

Silver moves in close. They've been closer, but in those moments Thomas’s heart has never pounded like this before. Like it might just stop without warning. Silver’s eyes trace over his face, looking for something, and is left wanting.

“I brought you back from the dead, Lord Hamilton,” Silver says quietly, with a voice as deep and deadly as a bone fracture. “It’d be best if you remembered that.”

Silver continues to The Three Swallows Inn alone. Thomas lets him.

 

_____

 

Thomas circles the block twice to put some time and distance between him and Silver. Once he stops hearing his own heart beat through his badly-healed joints, once he starts hearing in his head James pleading you’ll keep a close eye on him, he feels ready to go inside. Which is just as well, since his friends Geoffrey and Pat are waiting for him outside. They’re already arguing with each other.

They take a seat too close to the piano for Thomas’s liking, but Silver isn’t even there. He’s about to start panicking, thinking only of James’s face when he asked him to watch out for Silver this morning, but Silver emerges from Mr. Levine’s office shortly after they order their dinner. He doesn’t look at Thomas as he makes his way out, but just goes and sits at the piano. Without ceremony, he begins to play.

Geoffrey and Pat aren’t listening to the music, though. They are still arguing, in between bites of food. Normally, Thomas would be joining in, but he feels a step away from them. A step away from himself, like his skin and skeleton aren't aligned. He takes a deep swallow of his ale which goes down sharp, trying to listen to Pat’s conviction that expanding the Province Massachusetts Bay would only lead to their imminent destruction. All he can hear is “Les Barricades Mysterieuses.” Even though they're at war with France, Mr. Levine only has it in for Italian composers.

Thomas likes his friends, though they are nothing like the ones he had back in London. They have no influence, no formal education (no money). Geoffrey collects fares at the docks, which is how he met his wife, a Cornish girl fresh off the boat. She’s got a wide gap between her teeth, delicate hands, and an insurmountable affection for Geoff. They live right by where James works, and she often drops meat pies off for them to share at night. Pat is a cobbler, with his own shop across the road from Thomas’s grocer. He’s only about ten years older than Thomas, and yet he’s fully white-haired, viciously reminding Thomas of his own age. He says he’s a widower, that his wife died young and he could never bring himself to remarry. It may very well be true, but Thomas suspects they might be kindred spirits, so to speak. But even if they aren’t, he understands Pat’s contentment to being a widower.

Thomas can’t imagine getting so lucky again as to find himself another Miranda, nor does he have any desire to look for one.

They had all met one night at a different tavern, shortly after he and James had escaped Savannah. They’d overheard yelling going on in a back room, and Thomas had managed to sneak inside, missing the thrill of a heated argument. He’d found about fifteen local men around a table, debating whether a woman in their community deserved any charity, and if she did, how much, just because her husband ran out on her, leaving her with three young kids. Pat and Geoffrey had been the only ones arguing in her favor.

Thomas had only heard about a third of the conversation, but he jumped in at the first opening before James could stop him, before they realized he didn’t belong there. He’d struck a fast friendship with Pat and Geoff, but not so much the others.

Now, twice a week they gathered to debate. Thomas loves them. They have no concept of theoretical ideologies or philosophies, but they understand anything Thomas might put forth about the human condition, simply by being human. They didn’t need tutors to tell them right from wrong. They had a lifetime of work and learning to teach them not to trust everything they heard until they had all the facts. Most shockingly, they seemed to actually like Thomas back. Men in London had liked Thomas, until he came to speak. Pat and Geoff liked him because of it.

They deserve his utmost attention, but Thomas’s ears keep tuning back into the music. Silver isn’t playing anything too complicated, a simple Händel piece he suspects he could play in his sleep. Thomas doesn’t look over at Silver, but he sounds listless and distracted, which shouldn’t make Thomas feel good. But it does.

“--Thomas? Thomas!”

Thomas blinks at his friends. He realizes he’s been sitting with his fork halfway between his plate and his mouth, food dangling dangerously over his lap. Pat and Geoff look at him, concerned.

“You alright?” Geoff asks. “Pat just managed to turn our conversation into a rant against the Jacobites again, and you didn’t laugh and ask to collect on our bet.”

Thomas sighs, lowering his fork. “I’m sorry. My mind wandered, as it tends to do. Although I intend to take that piece, sir.”

“Only counts if you heard it,” says Geoff with a grin.

“What’s on your mind?” Pat asks. “Heard back from the News-Letter yet?”

“Not yet,” says Thomas. “In the next couple days, surely.” Though he knows what response he’ll get. The Boston News-Letter rarely accepts submissions, and no one ever wants to think about disease unless they’re in the midst of an epidemic. No one cares about anything preventative. People still remembered their hatred towards Mather and Dr. Boylston, and he can’t imagine Bart Green, the printer of the News-Letter , would want take that kind of vitriol. No one would listen until the bodies are lining the streets. Of that, Thomas is sure.

“Then what is it?”

With a shrug, Thomas goes back to his dinner. More people are crowding into the tavern, filling every table. Silver is playing another Händel that sounds far too elegant to be playing at The Three Swallows Inn. “I’m fine,” Thomas says. “I’m just not in the mood to argue any more tonight.”

Thomas continues to eat his dinner while the two men watch him silently. He only stops when Geoff puts a hand on his arm.

“Thomas,” he says gently. “Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m --” With a huffed laugh, Thomas puts down his fork again. “I promise, I’m not ill or dying. I -- had an argument earlier today that wasn’t as fun as I generally like.”

As soon as he stops speaking, the music pauses, and its absence is so startling that Thomas turns to look. Silver’s back is to him, and he’s only turning the page of his sheets. When he starts playing, it’s jauntier than before. Mr. Levine is hovering by the door of his office, also watching him play.

“That’s your lodger, isn’t it?” Pat says over Thomas’s shoulder. “He giving you any trouble?”

Yes. “No,” says Thomas. He wishes he hadn’t insisted James stay late at work tonight. He’d give anything to turn and see his perfect form -- the architecture of his perseverance chiseled into the point of his shoulders, the might of his thighs -- silhouetted in the doorway against the evening light. To see those ridiculous green eyes of his light up on Thomas like the warm insides of a home suddenly full, suddenly bright behind the windows. “Stop hounding me. Look at that, you’ve got me feeling combative again. What we discussing, then. The Jacobites?”

“Those ruddy Stuarts -- !”

Dinner finishes, but the drinks keep coming. Night fully falls, and Silver takes a break from playing to eat dinner, and the tavern-goers fill in the silence with more chatter. If James were here, Silver would join their table, but tonight he eats alone. When he comes back to his piano and starts playing again, Pat has moved off James VI and they had circled around again to the Colonies.

“Look, it’s a foregone conclusion!” Thomas gestures roughly to Pat with his mug of ale, but it doesn’t slosh over the edge. Probably because he’s drunk most of it. “We aren’t locked in anymore. There’s no sea on all sides. We won’t stay in the Bay forever, we can’t. We will expand, there’s no question about it. The only question is when. Yes, we’ll be moving further from the Crown, but that is no reason not to do it. That is all the more reason for them to take a vested interest in us, to in -- to -- damn, what’s the word I’m looking for?”

“I haven’t the foggiest,” says Geoff. “To in….clude? Inflate? Inhibit?”

Invest. They need to invest in us. We are at the forefront of possibility here, on the edge of a wild unknown. There shouldn’t be - uh, excuse me - there shouldn't be any sanctions on discovery.”

Pat burps, but doesn't apologize for it. “You’re talking, y’know, about sending good Englishmen and women out into your wild unknown to die, you do realize.”

“Am I?” Someone bumps into Thomas’s back as they try to squeeze passed his chair, knocking him into the table. He keeps talking. “Is that not what we did when we first got on those boats? When we first left the Garden? As a -- as a race, we may have struggled, but we never retreated. We expanded with the land.”

“You’re talking like we left the Garden willingly,” Geoff mutters under his breath.

Thomas ignores it. “I don’t doubt it will be difficult. I don’t doubt there will be casal - cas - bloody - casualties, as every endeavor suffers. But we will discover the new terrains. We will learn to farm the strange earth, build homes and towns and roads on unknown lands. And don’t you see?”

Thomas stops to let them see it, and to take another drink.

“Uh,” says Geoff, mouth full of his own ale. “Not really, no.”

Thomas pounds his chest lightly to keep from hiccuping. He takes a deep breath. “Don't you see how this would benefit us all as a society? There’s so much to do. And so, the more people will be needed to do it. There is a civilization, just on the other side of an imagined territory  that is free from poverty. Free from hunger! Free from homelessness!”

“Hey!” someone at the next table says loudly. “Keep it down!”

Thomas hadn’t realized he’d been shouting. He continues, quieter, “If it threatens the Crown to have contented subjects, so be it. Let them feel threatened, if they’re not willing to grow with us.”

“And what about the savages?” Pat asks, eyebrow raised.

“The -- what?”

“The savages,” Pat says slowly. “The natives, y’know, who will just as soon cut our people to ribbons as soon as we set out on their lands. You’ve conveniently forgotten them in this perfect vision of yours.”

Thomas swallows against the bitterness of adrenaline that always comes from a debate. He’s never normally stunned by anything Pat or Geoff put forth. He can usually predict their arguments, and this is truly more of an exercise than anything. It’s not like he’s able to make a decision anymore that will affect the outcome of what they’re discussing. It’s just talk.

But Pat’s words bring him back to an earlier time, when he did have such influence. His words sound an awful lot like and then there are the pirates that we've agreed not to discuss, back before Thomas had been able to touch James, when he didn’t think he’d ever be allowed to. A darker time, for sure. But while the memories of those early meetings with James usually fill him with such a rush of fondness and excitement, knowing what they would become to each other, in this moment the recollection just made him flush with embarrassment. God, he’d been so naive back then.

Does this mean he’s still that naive? He thought, above all, he’d grown out of that. Perhaps there’s no real way to be a cynic and also want to change the world. Perhaps one day he’ll have to choose what to believe in. One day, he’ll have to finally admit to himself that this is the best humanity can do.

But at least that means Thomas will finally get to have a debate where he can follow through on the outcome.

Stiffly, suddenly feeling a lot more sober, he says, “I’ve always maintained that it’s entirely our fault for any aggression we’ve experienced from the natives. They should be our greatest resource. They’d be wonderful allies, if we hadn’t been so selfish and cruel from the start. We could work together to benefit us all. I don’t believe these relationships must end in war. I believe we are the ones who keep bringing it!”

He felt something soft graze the back of his head. He looks down and sees the corner of a roll on the leg of his seat. With care, he brings his attention back to the men at his table. He does not turn around. He must keep his voice down. Everyone is the tavern is talking, including the men behind him, and Silver is still playing his music, so it’s already very noisy. He must keep his voice down.

“Well, I believe we’re at war now, Thomas,” says Pat, who hadn’t noticed. “So, y’know, I just wonder when will this new regime of yours begin, after we blast them to bits or after they remove our scalps?”

“Preferably, before those things occur.” Someone behind him mutters an apology, jostling him again as they attempt to squeeze through the crowded tables. They’re sitting right by the bar. “Look, I’m not saying the idea isn’t without flaw. But your argument is that those flaws hinder the mere suggestion that we might one day expand our territory beyond the Colonies, and that’s fundamentally unproven. The sea was a flaw, and we conquered it. We will grow. We will get there.”

“How then?” Pat leans back and folds his arms. “The sea was a flaw, so we built better ships. What do you propose we build this time?”

He says it like he’s won, because Thomas’s problem has always been with the physical solutions. Ask him to visualize how his dreams become reality, which Pat and Geoff always ask, and he’s often stumped. His ideas are typically too extreme, and he's not often inclined to share them. He’ll think about it for days, and by the time he comes up with a better solution, neither will have remembered positing the problem. It’s one of the reasons why their meetings never bore him. They always keep him thinking.

But this time, Thomas is prepared. He finishes his ale and slams the empty mug onto the table with a grin. “I’ll have you know, sir, I know exactly how I’d do it, and if George ever asks me, I’ll be happy to tell him.”

“Is that so?” asks Geoff, who has never cared for this conversation. He has no interest in expansion, simply because he’s content with his life and his wife. He needn’t anything else. “Go on then.”

“It only involves,” says Thomas airily, “peace with France and the natives, a well-armed and intelligent crew of scouts, and the transportation of His Royal Highness overseas.”

They stare at him blankly for a moment, before bursting into laughter.

“What?” Thomas asks, frowning. “It’s a good plan.”

“The King? Here? ” Pat is still laughing, wiping his eyes dramatically. “Have you lost your mind?”

“No more than usual,” Thomas answers honestly, which cracks them up again.

“Stop!” says Thomas, although he's also beginning to laugh. “Just think about it!”

“We are thinking about it,” Geoff says. “I know there’s a spare room above the Inn here that George can buckle down in.”

“Or they can bring over St. James’s brick by brick!” says Pat. “Bung it up the top of one of those mountains in New York so we won't have to hear from him.”

Thomas leans back in his chair, holding his sides while he tries to speak. “Listen! Listen. Stop. I know what you're thinking, just. Listen. We already know this country is larger than England, alright? Geographically larger, alright? What else does a Royal do besides try to take up the most land? He’ll be like a - a - a crab. You know those crabs?”

“Those what?” Pat demands, while Geoff howls with laughter, slapping the table.

“Those crabs! On a shore.” Thomas gestures with his broken hand, which looks kind of crab-like anyway. “You know, the ones who outgrow their little shells, so they move into bigger shells! King George is just like a crab!”

Someone bumps into his shoulder again, and Thomas is too busy laughing, so he just ignores it. But then they knock into him again, hard enough to rock his chair, and instead of a murmured apology, the shadow above his chair says, “I fuckin’ told you to keep it down.”

Thomas looks up, intending to apologize, until he sees who it is.

Thomas has to avoid the slave traders in the Common, because James forces him to. It is dreadfully important that they keep a low profile, which is why he doesn't join any clubs, and he writes anonymously, and he stays away from town charter meetings. It kills him, but he does it for James.

But he’s been to a slave block once, passing by, and he’s committed it all to memory -- the men on the platform, the people in the crowd, the sweating auctioneer, the old owners and the new. But it was the white men who worked for the rich men, leading slaves to and fro by chains -- these men bother Thomas the most, after everything else that he hates about it. The traders, the owners -- their motivations are simple to understand. It’s just greed. Maybe a pathetic, paltry sense of power and superiority. But to the average white men working on these plantations and slave ships, whose pay is surely no better than Thomas’s or Geoff’s or Pat’s -- their why escapes him. Haunts him. What kind of value must they place on any human lives to see selling and buying people as just another way to make a living?

The man at The Three Swallows Inn is one of these men. Pock-marked and tall, he had a slick gleam in his eyes of a man more than three swallows in. Thomas remembers the man’s hands wrapped around chains. He remembers them tugging hard.

“You gonna keep it down?” asks the man. He has two friends behind him, just as soused, still seated at their table and smirking into their ales. One is shaking his head, like it’s just another night out with their friend. “Or do I have to make you?”

Pat and Geoff mutter quick apologies. Thomas says, “This is a pub, not a church. Though I wouldn’t expect you to know the difference.”

Thomas can sense his friends freeze beside him. He wishes he could stand up, so the man wouldn’t be towering over him, but he fears that might just escalate things more. Although it’s not as if Thomas is making any strives to ease the situation at all.

The man blinks down at him. “And why’s that?”

Shut up, say a voice in his head. It alarms Thomas to realize it sounds like Silver. For once in your godforsaken life, shut the fuck up.

“Only people who worry about their mortal souls, or indeed have any soul at all, bother with attending church,” Thomas says. “Tell me, was it our volume that upset you so, or the topic of a free society for all you found so bothersome?”

In the end, Thomas doesn’t have to stand. The man lifts him up by the front of his shirt, pulling him to his feet. He reeks of ale and probably something stronger, and the dirt on his hands stains Thomas’s collar. It’s the kind of thing he hasn’t cared about in a long time, his shirt no where near as fine as his old clothes, but it's the fact that it’s this man’s dirt on him that he finds grotesque. The Inn seems quieter all of a sudden, his senses narrowing down to the pain in his useless fist, the liquor in his head, and the devil in front of him. Thomas is livid.

“What the fuck you accusing me of?” says the man, swaying too close, cheeks red and eyes red . “I don’t fucking know you, do I?”

“C’mon, Colin,” says one of the man’s friends. “Look at him. Let’s just leave it, it’s not worth it.”

Shut up, shut the fuck up. “Oh!” says Thomas. “So there are limitations to what you would do to a fellow human being? I did wonder.”

Thomas can see the decision to hit him as soon as this Colin makes it. Good thing he knows how to take a punch, especially one as slowed as this one. Thomas closes his mouth and pulls his tongue away from his teeth. The last thing he needs is to accidentally break his jaw or bite off part of his tongue (although he can already hear James and Silver making the argument for his medically-induced silence being beneficial for all). He tucks his chin, protecting his neck, as Colin rears back with his fist. Thomas forces himself not to wince, and he tries to relax, although that’s the part he’s always had trouble with. As subtly as he can, he cants his hips, preparing to roll with the hit.

It never comes. A wooden stick appears in the crook of Colin’s elbow. They both stare at it for a second, confused, until Silver tugs hard on his crutch, sending Colin spinning back towards his chair, pulling Thomas just a little by his shirt before letting go. But Colin doesn’t quite make it, and lands hard on the floor.

Silver doesn’t look apologetic. He calmly places the crutch under his arm as Colin’s two friends stand. It is quieter now, and not just because Silver is no longer playing. Several of the other patrons have quelled their conversations to watch, and now the cheery inn does feel as solemn as a church.

“Who the fuck are you now?” says Colin, scrambling to his feet.

Still, Silver appears unconcerned. “Security,” he says. “Mr. Levine prefers his establishment to be free of altercation, and I am here to help ensure that. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you gentlemen to pay your tab and go.”

He fuckin’ started it!” says one of Colin’s friends, pointing at Thomas.

Thomas doesn’t deny it, nor does Silver seem surprised. He's composed and unworried, and his voice carries. “Yet it was his fist I saw raised.” He nods slightly towards Colin. “I’m afraid I will have to insist.”

Thomas isn’t sure what’s going to happen next, but he begins to feel something, standing beside Silver in this moment. Something close to awe, but nothing that innocent. He knows suddenly, clearly, that Silver is threatening them, and that he could easily follow through on it. He knows that everyone in the pub knows it too. He knows these people are looking at Silver, standing upright, with his handsome face and calm exterior, and they’re seeing a man easily respected. He’s a fair and reliable man, willing to help in the direst of situations. Go see Mr. Silver, people will be saying a week from now, a month, a year. He’s a good sort. Steady, sensible. You can put your trust in ‘im, I know it. He’s a good person to know.

Thomas knows him. Really knows him. Perhaps that’s what he’s feeling, in this moment.

Except Colin and his friends only see their injuries, eyeing Silver’s leg and Thomas’s hand, where he has it cradled against the front of his shirt. They’re seeing a couple of invalids, and they’re seeing their angry employers, who might hear word of this from some of these many witnesses, and they might not care, but it's not really worth the risk. They're not worth it.

“C’mon, lads,” says Colin, spitting on the floor. “Beer tastes like piss here anyway.”

They collect their coats and leave quickly, without paying for their drinks, knocking over a couple of chairs as they go. But those get righted immediately as conversation resumes as normal. Thomas can see Mr. Levine watching silently from his office, too shadowed to tell his expression. Pat and Geoff start murmuring behind him.

Thomas stays standing beside Silver. He’s not looking at him, but he thinks Silver is also not looking at him either.

Finally, Thomas says, “I would have taken the hit.”

And Silver snorts softly and just says, “I know.”

Then he heads back to where he came, weaving easily through the crowded tables. Thomas sits back down at his.

When he’s back at the piano stool, that’s the only time Silver looks Thomas’s way. He’s expressionless -- or rather, he’s wearing an expression Thomas hasn’t yet learned how to read. Is that glimmer in his eyes anger? Amusement? Possibly even affection? Thomas has no way to know.

Until Silver tips his head towards him slightly, and seamlessly begins to play again. It only takes Thomas a few seconds to recognize the opening music for “ Rail No More Ye Learned Asses,” and he allows himself -- and Silver -- the faintest of smiles.

 

_____

 

They only stay at the inn for a little while longer. Silver doesn't get paid to play throughout the night, and Thomas’s friends are no longer interested in debating the merits of colonial expansion. They're more interested in the topic of what a colossal idiot Thomas is, which isn't a conversation he finds very interesting.

He knows he was being stupid. His blood had been up from his debate with Pat and Geoff, from his very real argument with Silver, and he’d been filled with such pent up anger. He spent ten years with the same feeling, but sometimes it feels like his whole life has been the practice of repressing his rage. Before, he’d have to think about decorum as much as he thought about injustice. He’s tired of it. He can't afford to be, but he is.

Silver waits for him down at the end of the lane while he says goodnight to Pat and Geoff. They're still shaking their heads at him as they go, but they plan to meet again for dinner a few nights from now, so Thomas supposes he hasn't scared them off.

They stay walking in silence towards their little home. Thomas wonders if Silver is thinking about Madi. He probably is. Thomas is thinking about how he might convince him not to tell James about all this. There’s a more than decent chance tonight never would have happened if James had been there, and Thomas doesn’t want him thinking he can’t go out and do what he likes. Thomas doesn’t need a wetnurse.

Perhaps if he came up with a solution to his Madi problem, Silver would be more agreeable, but he needs more time to ponder it, and home isn’t that far away.

He says, cautiously, “That was impressive, what you did with your crutch.”

Equally cautious, Silver replies, “It was nothing.”

Thomas watches him move out the corner of his eye, the way the end of his crutch lands as solidly as his own foot, miraculously missing the cracks in the cobblestones each time.

Without thinking, and with genuine curiosity, he asks, “Have you ever beaten a man with it before?”

Silver is silent, and Thomas can feel the hard stare pressing into the side of his face as he keeps his gaze on the end of Silver’s crutch.

“Yes,” Silver says.

“How do you manage to stay upright?” Thomas asks, meeting his eyes.

“Speed,” says Silver, his mustache twitching.

Then, he says, “You know -- ” and stops.

Thomas smiles when he doesn’t continue. “Well, Long, I’m afraid I don’t.”

Silver snorts. “Probably the only time you’ll ever admit that.” But after a moment of some internal debate, he adds, “He taught me how to fight on a crutch.”

“James?” Thomas blinks. “What does he know about fighting on one leg?”

“Nothing,” Silver agrees. “Though I don’t doubt if he had to, he’d have no problem in doing so. He’s an exceptional fighter. Or -- he was.”

Thomas hears the quick assurance and smiles bitterly. “Please, not you too.” He sighs. “Just because he won’t tell me anything, doesn’t mean I can’t fill in some of the blanks myself. I’d gathered he was a skilled fighter from his time in the Navy. I did figure some of those skills might come in handy during a life of piracy.” Then he wants to curse himself, and adds so Silver will keep talking, “Was he a good teacher, too?”

Silver chuckles. “Best I’ve ever had, not that I’ve had many.” He scratches his chin, turning his face towards Thomas. “He worked very hard to ensure I didn’t die. At the time, I’d been only walking on an iron leg, you see. It was incredibly painful, the wound fresh, but I -- I had this reputation. A responsibility to uphold it. There were appearances that needed to be kept up, despite the agony it caused me.”

“I understand,” says Thomas, because he did. All his torments in London as he’d been growing up had been for the sake of appearances. There had been too many day to count in more recent years, of forcing himself to stand up and look healthy when his body had been beaten or overworked, because if he couldn’t stand, there’d only be worse visited upon him.

"You might be the only one who does,” says Silver, looking him up and down. “Madi showed me that I could be loved with this body. And Flint showed me I still had power with it. He taught me to be comfortable on the crutch, how to move with it, how to be myself with it.”

“How to kill with it,” says Thomas.

“Yes.” Silver is unflinching. “He was thorough.”

He thinks Silver is expecting a specific sort of answer, but Thomas refuses to give it. “Good. And it’s a good thing you remembered, or else I’d have a horrible black eye right now.”

They keep walking. Silver shakes his head, but unlike when Pat and Geoff did it, it isn’t a tired gesture. Thomas feels as though the earlier walk with Silver had been nothing but a bad daydream. Everything Silver had said, had been things he’s thought to himself, almost word for word. But this also feels dreamlike, this moment, and he never would have imagined anything like this. Walking beside Silver, ruminating like friends do. He’s never existed so quietly in Silver’s presence before. The few times they’ve kissed or touched had been overlapped with other things, hard things -- jealousy, competitiveness, lust, frustration, spite.

Thomas hadn’t known kisses could be spiteful. Knowing him as he does now, he isn’t surprised Silver is the one capable of it.

Silver takes this soft moment, though, and brings it crashing back down into the dirt. He asks, “What happened to your hand?”

As usual, whenever it’s mentioned, he can’t help but look down at it. But as usual, whenever he can get away with it, his hand is hidden in his coat pocket. It’s not just hated at his bent fingers, nor the way a casual swing pulls at the joints, that keeps it hidden. It just aches even worse in the evening chill.

“It’s not a very interesting story,” Thomas says.

“Oh,” says Silver. “Alright.”

Thomas thinks he really would let it go, but that’s because he and James both are haunted by a past they refuse to name, let alone share, and Thomas can’t complain about that if he doesn’t set a good example.

“It truly isn’t,” he says. “Someone else was having a bad day, and took it out on me.”

Silver shoots him a crooked smile. “Suppose I could say the same.”

“I guess we all could.” Thomas sighs again. “There was another man. A boy, really, at the plantation. He’d taken ill, but was made to work anyway. We were hidden from our families, you see, who wanted nothing to do with us, so it didn’t really matter what they did to us. I tried to help him with his work, but I was caught. It was against the rules. Every one of us was there for a reason, and we had to serve our own time. So the warden had my fingers broken. Two hands can do two jobs, I guess was his reasoning. One hand can only do one. They purposely set my index and ring finger wrong, so they healed crooked. I can’t bend any of them well, but those two, not at all. And then they sent me back to the field. It had only been midday. I still had the rest of the field to work before nightfall.”

Neither slow their pace any. He’s probably just imagining that he hands hurts slightly less than it did a moment before. Probably just the heat of his coat. Silver’s arm brushes against his as they turn a corner.

“What happened to the boy?” Silver asks. “The sick one?”

“He died,” says Thomas, “of course.”

A part of him desperately wants Silver to ask how, so he can get back on familiar ground. It’ll kill the conversation entirely, but at least his smallpox soliloquy is comfortable. Silver doesn’t ask.

So into the silence, he ventures, “How did you lose your leg?”

Silver doesn’t say anything for awhile, and Thomas thinks perhaps he misunderstood the adage men like pirates often had, which is essentially: you give a little, you get a little. Perhaps Silver will tell him to fuck off, though that is also familiar ground.

Then, Silver huffs. “That, actually, is a long story. Too long for this walk, I believe.”

“Ah,” says Thomas, swallowing his disappointment. “Another time, perhaps.”

People mill around them on the streets, bound in their coats and their own private worlds. Heels and hooves clack together on the cobblestones like Silver’s fingers on a piano. It’s not terribly late, and there’s always people headed somewhere, whether it’s homeward bound or another pub or to a midnight job that only the strongest among them can conquer. But it’s always quieter at night, and even though they’re further inland, Thomas thinks he hears the beat and rush of waves in the Bay, being carried over the wind like pilgrims. The stars are bright and true, and in them Thomas only sees stories of long-dead heroes and mythic beasts, figures of virtue and sorrow cascading through the streaks of night-purple clouds. They’re all up there, as long as someone is willing to connect the dots. To Thomas, they’ll only ever be lights that share their fantasy with him, on those darker nights that stretch out the longest. To men like James, like Silver, they tell them where to travel, what direction they should move in, how close they are to where they need to be.

He is jealous of Silver. But. He’s jealous of James, too.

“It is a long story,” Silver says, “and to be honest, I probably don’t know enough about events leading up to it to make sense of all of what happened. But -- one time, the Captain was... in terrible danger, and another man and another crew wanted to leave him to it. Leave him to die, and my men to die. He -- singled me out for some reason, and wanted me to name who might betray Flint, who among us might turn our backs on him and on our brothers. I refused. He tried to convince me with the blunt side of an axe.”

Again, Thomas does not wince, although it’s a close thing. “You don’t know why he singled you out?” he asks. “I thought you were his Quartermaster?”

“Not then,” says Silver. “I was nobody then.”

They cross the road. Home is just a few minutes away. At the very least, Thomas got Silver thinking of something other than Madi for a little while, which might work in his favor. And now he knows there is a topic of conversation he and Silver share, which is something. As they turn a corner, he starts to say, “Oh, I doubt that --” when he’s interrupted by someone punching him in the face.

He stumbles backwards, catching himself on the wall of a building. Holding his nose, he blinks up at Colin and his two friends, who look like they’ve spent the last hour getting significantly drunker. One, with hair blonder than his own, tosses a bottle inches from Thomas’s head, where it shattered against the brick wall behind him as he flinches to the side.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Thomas says, muffled by his own hand.

“I just wanted a quiet fuckin’ night,” says Colin, swaying with the force of his own punch. “Just some fucking quiet.”

“Yeah,” says Silver, reaching for a sword that isn’t there. “Us too, mate.”

“We only get a little time on shore,” says one of the other men, scrubbing his mouth with the back of his hand. In it, he’s still holding a mostly-empty bottle of liquor. “We didn’t start nothing. Just wanted a peaceful night.”

Thomas should say something like, Then why did you punch me? That’s not exactly peaceful, is it? And turn it into a conversation, even though the familiar lean of their gaits tells him they’re beyond debating. Still, he could try.

Instead, he says, “Why should you lot deserve any peace? The way I see it, with how you spend your working days, your nights should be filled with utter torment.”

It’s some consolation, that the way in which Colin lunges for him implies he agrees.

He gets his fingers around Thomas’s throat, thick and wet on his skin like ropes holding an anchor. Thomas can feel them curl into his neck and suddenly, the injustice of it overwhelms him. Hands that pull on chains can work, but his hand cannot. His anger is almost enough to make him weep. Or perhaps that’s just the strangulation.

His hand might be useless, but his legs work fine, and he kicks Colin in the knee as hard as he can. Colin lets go, stumbling away, and Thomas stumbles too, but the blond friend is there to punch Thomas across the mouth. He hadn’t been able to prepare and he goes down.

He’s been here before.

He can’t see Silver, or indeed anything at all apart from two sets of feet beginning to kick. He curls up, knowing all the areas to protect, and listens for them to get tired. The kicks hurt, but Thomas has been kicked harder. A drunk man has neither the balance nor the coordination for anything too damaging. He’s most concerned with keeping his head and his good hand safe, but then one foot connects with his bad knee, and Thomas jerks with it. He almost slips out of his position in shock of the pain ripping up his leg. But it was just a glancing blow, it’s nothing permanent. It’s nothing.

Over their huffed curses, his harsh breaths, the sounds of boots stomping, Thomas hears another glass break, and then a guttural, awful scream. Suddenly, the feet around him are gone.

Thomas looks up.

Silver and his own opponent had moved away from them during their altercation. Still, Thomas can see the other drunkard also lying on the ground. For some reason, Thomas notices the shocked whites of his eyes before he sees the half a broken bottle sticking out of his stomach. The low lamplights make the blood pouring out look black and alive.

And Silver stands above him, breathing hard and leaning hard on a bloody crutch. His face and knuckles are also covered, but there seems to be no obvious signs of damage. He spits some blood out, and he’s watching his opponent cling to life in the dirt, making sure he stays down, so he doesn’t see Colin and the other man rushing towards him.

“Silver --!” Thomas tries to yell, but his throat is bruised and his voice comes out thin and rasping.

Silver hears him anyway, or maybe he just remembered he isn’t alone, because he turns just as Colin lands a fist against Silver’s jaw. He’s not expecting it, and he loses his balance, hard enough for Thomas to hear a crack of his skull on the cobblestones after he goes down.

Thomas scrambles to his feet as quick as he can, which is not very quick, faltering as he automatically goes to use his bad hand to stand. He stumbles as his knee refuses to hold him up, holding onto the nearby building as he looks around for anything that might be a weapon.

Silver is still awake, but the blow to the head must have dazed him. He’s stuck on his back, stretching a hand out towards his crutch, but Colin kicks it out the way.

Then Colin presses his boot hard on Silver’s left shoulder, and puts his weight down on it until they all can hear the snap, and Silver yells. It pierces through Thomas like glass shards.

Thomas drags himself over, but the other men are more concerned with kicking Silver, who doesn’t seem to know how to protect his vital organs. He can’t get away from them.

He reaches the man on the ground, who starts grabbing desperately at Thomas, gasping on shallow air. Thomas shakes him off as he searches his body, but finds nothing that looks like it could be used to fight. He lurches to his feet, staring at the men kicking. Staring back down at the man bleeding at his feet, who Silver stabbed.

He should stab them too, but he doesn’t think, even after everything he’s been through throughout his whole life, that he has it in him. But then he sees Silver’s eyes are closed, and he’s no longer moving, and he thinks he has it in him to slice .

Thomas bends down, and with his good and only hand, he rips the broken bottle from the man’s stomach. It hadn’t been in very deep, but the blood gushes out even further. The man screams again, trying to hold it his abdomen together. Then Thomas slices a long line down Colin’s back with the broken shard, though it barely ripped his coat.

Still, it gets their attention. It gets them to stop, and turn on him.

They’re about to move when Thomas throws the bottle against the wall, shattering it, which brings them up short.

“Your friend here needs a doctor now, or he will die,” Thomas says. “If your employers don’t care about what happens here tonight, I’m sure the constable would.”

They stare at each other, and then Thomas thinks while it might have been good intentioned to get the bottle out of the equation, he should have thought better of it. He feels vulnerable in a way he hasn’t since he saw James standing behind him, pale and tired and weeping. He needs to get them away from Silver.

But then, by some act of God, an elderly couple, out on a nighttime stroll, turn the corner and come upon the scene: two men bleeding on the floor, Thomas’s nose streaming down his neck, eye swelling, and two other men no worse for wear.

The couple stop, and gasp, and take off in the other direction. Thomas can even hear the old woman screaming for help.

“Fuck,” says Colin, as the blond friend immediately backs away from Silver.

It’s a dance as they slowly move to their injured friends, Thomas giving them a wide berth. Colin’s eyes never leave Thomas’s until they grab their friend by the upper arms, careless of his wound, and drag him away.

Thomas is at Silver’s side in an instant. His eyes are still closed.

“Long? Long!” He’s not sure where he can touch without hurting him more, so as soft as he can, he grabs his cheek. “Silver? John!”

Silver’s eyes blink open. “Who --?” The blue is startling, glazed and shining like a cracked teacup against the bruises on his face. He can’t seem to connect to Thomas’s face, and his eyes drift shut again.

“No, stay awake!” Thomas says loudly, clutching his ear. Silver winces, but opens his eyes again. “We can’t stay here. We can’t be found here .”

“I don’t -- “ Silver swallows, his voice far away. “I can’t -- I won’t -- stop --” He tries to shift away, and he cries out, finally noticing his arm. It hands limply at his side. Thomas sees the tips of his fingers twitching, and the way his breathing starts to increase, panting through the pain. “Oh. Oh no. No, no. Not -- not this. I can’t -- I can’t -- not this, not again, no --

“It’s fine!” Thomas grabs his face and forces him to look up. The panic in his eyes makes him look his age, so young and lost. “It’s just bones. It’s only broken bones. I’ve broken so many, Silver, we can fix it, it’s fine.”

The pain had brought Silver back to the present, but Thomas can feel him starting to slip again, his face lax in Thomas’s hands. He falls back against the cobblestones, eyes fluttering shut. Thomas jumps up to grab the crutch, bringing it over quickly. He cups Silver’s face again, and it rolls sickly in his hands, but then Silver lets out a weak groan, keeping his eyes closed.

“Silver, please, you have to stay awake.” Finally, Thomas is begging, and Silver isn’t even able to enjoy it. As delicately as he can, he tugs on Silver’s neck, trying to force him to sit up. “It’s going to be alright, but we have to get home. I won’t be able to get you to James without your help. Please.”

Silver gasps and groans, clutching tightly on Thomas’s coat with his right hand. He’s opened his eyes again, but Thomas is most alarmed to see tears welling up, clinging in his lashes.

“Where -- “ he gasps, looking around. “Where -- “

Thomas has helped men injured like this, who have had the reason kicked out of them. He knows sometimes the momentary confusion that occurs, and there’s no logical way to know where their minds have gone.

But Thomas thinks he can take an educated guess.

As solidly as he can muster, he says, “Mr. Silver.”

Silver’s eyes swivel back to him, still sick and drifting, but a thread is there.

Thomas licks his lips, wincing at the split there. “Mr. Silver, the…. The Captain needs you in his -- cabin?” He takes a deep breath. “Captain Flint needs to speak to your right away.”

Silver sighs with relief, nodding far too much for Thomas’s liking with his injury. “Yes,” he breathes, suddenly calm. “Yes, of course. Help me up.”

As best he can, he gets Silver standing. If they hadn’t had the wall to lean on, he never would have made it. Silver’s arm dangles uselessly at his side, and each movement brings fresh gasps of pain. Somehow, Thomas has to get Silver back to the house without injuring them more, with three legs and two working hands between them, and a crutch that currently serves neither use nor ornament.

Every time, whenever Silver’s consciousness wavers under the pain, Thomas would repeat, “Captain Flint is waiting.”

And Silver would come back, if only for a moment.

There’s no way James will become a clockmaker after this.

 


 

Flint is never going to become a clockmaker.

It’s not that he lacks the intelligence or the patience it requires to understand and construct the mechanisms. It’s not because he finds the process boring or tedious.

He’s just going to kill Christopher before he ever gets a chance to touch a cog.

Christopher, it turns out, is not only a terrible boss and a terrible human being, but he’s also a terrible tutor. Flint had wanted to know the practical side of horology, but Christopher spent the whole evening testing the knowledge he’d acquired from his own study, and calling him too stupid to learn if he so much as paused in finding the answer.

Life had been so much easier when Flint had been allowed to snap people’s necks.

He’s slow walking home, hoping to calm down. He tries never to walk through his front door angry. It’s something he had taught himself to do when coming home to Miranda. She didn’t deserve his anger, and neither does Thomas. And Silver has dealt with enough of it for a lifetime. They’ve all had their fill of anger in their lives. Those things should be left outside the house.

To be fair to Christopher though, which Flint has no intention of doing, he has been on edge all day to begin with. He keeps thinking of Silver, rushing to the docks, booking a ticket south and never looking back. He knew, once five had come and gone, that Silver remained in Boston, because Thomas might not have stopped Silver from leaving, but he would have found Flint immediately if he hadn’t shown up for work.

The path heading home is through a neighborhood far nicer than his. The row houses have painted shutters which aren’t falling off, and flower beds neatly trimmed in the windows and still living, despite the seasonal change. The numbers nailed to the door gleam in the candles burning on the swept porches. Flint runs his hand through the bushes lining their fences as he walks, occasionally pulling off a leaf, idly ripping it to bits and dropping them on the ground. He wishes he knew how to fix Silver and Madi.

He doesn’t begrudge her her mission, but in quiet moments throughout the day, he had taken her letter out of his pocket to read again. She seems needlessly curt and harsh with her words, as though wanting to make her meaning stick in Silver’s mind. Or perhaps, wanting to anger him, and have him say to hell with her, and forget all about her. Flint is familiar with the tactic.

He sighs, dropping another leaf as he turns the corner. Immediately, the street he’s on isn’t as nice as the one he just left, and of course it’s the street they live on. The row of squat houses look like sleeping field mice in the dim, crammed against each other to keep from dying in the night. There aren't any living flowers on this street.

Flint has only ever pursued wealth for the power it inevitably brings, the invulnerability. But it would be nice to be able to give Thomas a good home again. To give Silver one possibly for the first time. To give Madi some place she would want to come back to.

He speeds up his pace, eager to get home suddenly. His anger is gone. He’s not going to spend the rest of his evening thinking about killing his boss, no matter how satisfying it would be. The three of them are going to sit in the study or in the bedroom for as long as it takes, brainstorming the best way to respond to Madi’s letter. Silver and Thomas are the smartest men he has ever known (although, admittedly, none of them are any good with women). They will figure something out together.

He moves quicker for another reason: it occurs to him this is the longest he’s ever left the two of them alone. He understands why they fight, though it grates on his soul a little. It’s not just because of differing opinions over subjects. But Thomas is an idealist, and Silver is a realist, and these things are buried deep into the core of themselves. Neither know how to think any other way.

Flint somehow understands both their points of view, and he loves them for it. He thinks that might just make him a romantic. But if he can find a way to love both of them, they surely can find a way to not drive each other crazy all the fucking time.

When they’re in bed together, everything is so good . Maybe because they don’t speak much, and they spend most of their energy in bringing Flint off. He knows they enjoy it, though. He’s seen the potential they have to get lost in each other, if they’d ever let Flint lead them there. He doesn’t want them to be with each other for the pleasure it would bring him, although. It certainly would. But he wants to watch them discover each other. He wants them to know how good they can be to each other, since they are each so good to him. They deserve as much perfection as there is to be had.

He feels a renewed sense of purpose, heading up his front walk. Studying horology, which thirty minutes ago had seemed important yet futile, would have to be put on hold momentarily. He needs all his mental energy on how to get Madi back to them, and how to get Thomas and Silver to willingly fuck each other without himself in the way. It feels good to have tangible goals again.

But the good fades, as he sees his front door hanging just a bit open. Just enough to make it feel as though the floor has dropped out from beneath him.

He throws open the door with the flat of his palm, striding in. “Thomas?” he calls out. “Silver?”

Nothing looks out of place in the parlor, and then Thomas appears in the kitchen doorway.

“Now,” he says, “I’m asking you to stay calm.”

Flint can't move for a second. He can't think. All he can do is look at the dried blood running down Thomas’s nose and lips, the bruise rising on his cheekbone like the anger in his heart.

“What the fu--” Flint rushes to him. “Did he--”

But then he's standing next to Thomas, and over his shoulder he sees Silver, sitting at the kitchen table. The rush of rage he’d felt cascading over him vanishes at the sight of him, and suddenly he is cold, the shock like ice splintering in his heart.

Silver is shirtless at the table, his hair loose. His left arm rests oddly on the table, and he’s holding his head up with his other hand. There doesn't seem to be a part of him that isn't bruised, blood matting the hair on his temple. He blinks his blacked eyes at him. The worst, though, is when he realizes it's Flint standing there with Thomas. Then, he smiles.

“ ‘lo, Captain,” he says drowsily, his eyes drifting closed.

“Mr. Silver,” Thomas says loudly, and Silver blinks awake.

“What the fuck happened?” Flint tries to keep from outright yelling as he rushes to Silver, touching his neck. His heart flutters wildly under his fingers. He looks back at Thomas, who hasn't moved. “Who did this?”

“I’ll tell you everything later,” Thomas says, shifting uncomfortably. His shirt is torn and his clothes are dirty, but he's still standing. “I promise. But I need you to make sure he doesn't fall asleep while I go get the doctor.”

You --?” Flint stands again, because Thomas has left the kitchen. “Thomas!”

“Please, James,” Thomas is shrugging back into his dirtier coat. “Nothing feels broken, apart from maybe a couple ribs. I think his shoulder is dislocated, and I don't see any reason in us trying to move it back in when we can get a professional to do it. I’ll be right back.”

“Why the fuck are you going?” Flint grabs his elbow. The walls are too thin for him to scream, as much as he’d like to. “Thomas, what the fuck happened?”

“He's been asking for you,” Thomas says. He looks anguished. “And Madi, but. I can only deliver you. I’ll be right back. Clean him up in the meantime? Make sure he doesn't fall asleep.”

He hears something fall in the kitchen, something that clatters on the stone floor, but it's enough to loosen Flint’s grip. Thomas slips his arm out and opens the door.

“I’ll be ten minutes,” he says. He looks so unlike himself in this moment, in the dim light. He's a man Flint has never met, but has seen the imprint of in the shadows beneath his eyes after a sleepless night. The blood looks like a mask, and his eyelids are lowered like he can't bare to look at him. Thomas has never hidden from him before. “He’ll be alright. I’ll be alright. Just. Don't let him sleep yet.”

And then he's gone, as swiftly as he was the other time.

Flint stands in the parlor, unable to move. Unable to do anything but look at the closed door. He can hear the blood pumping in his heart, the sharp intakes of his own breaths, the wild ringing in his ears, the crack of his knuckles forming fists, and then, another clatter from the kitchen. Softly, cutting through the cacophony of his useless body, he hears, “Captain?

It gets Flint moving again.

Silver hasn't left the table. Of course he hasn't. But it looks like he's knocked over his crutch that had been leaning against a wall, as well as a pot of ink Thomas had left there this morning.

He visibly relaxes when Flint comes towards him. The puddle of ink is spreading nearer to the arm he can't move.

“Captain,” he sighs, head lolling in his palm. He looks happy to see Flint. “You wanted to speak to me?”

Flint picks up the crutch and rights the ink. He goes to the counter and finds a bowl of water that had been sitting there since breakfast. He can't find a clean cloth, so he takes his own handkerchief out of his pocket and sits down at the table.

As gently as he can, he starts cleaning Silver’s face. “What the fuck kind of mess have you gotten yourself into?” he asks quietly, his voice too shaky to sound scolding.

Silver sighs again, humming under the handkerchief as Flint tries to clean the parts of his face covered by his hand. He closes his eyes, and before Flint can urge him awake, Silver jerks up on his own, his whole body pulling away.

“Thomas --?” he asks, looking around wildly. “Where's Thomas? He’s -- Thomas!”

“Silver!” Flint grabs Silver’s uninjured hand and tugs him back, because he’d been trying to stand. “Thomas is fine! He went to get a doctor.”

“A doctor?” Silver's face crumples. “Is he hurt again?”

Again?”

“His hand,” Silver explains, swaying in his seat. “They keep hurting his hand.”

“No, his -- hand is fine,” Flint says, retrieving his handkerchief. It is red now with Silver’s blood. “He went to get him for you.” 

“For me?” Silver smiles. “That's nice.”

That's when Flint notices the bottle of whiskey Thomas usually tries to hide from them. It's significantly lower than when he last saw it.

“How much of that have you had?” Flint asks, pointing to it with his chin.

Silver takes a moment to see what Flint’s looking at. When he finally sees it, his smile widens. “Thomas got that for me. He says you're not allowed to have any. He says it's only for people who’ve had their heads kicked in tonight.”

Flint sighs. He desperately wants some, too, but he figures it's a bad idea. He starts cleaning Silver’s left hand as softly as possible. “I never thought I’d live to see you smile at the thought of Thomas.”

“He's an idiot.” Silver sounds like himself so suddenly that Flint looks up. “I like that about him.”

Despite everything, Flint finds he’s able to smile. “You do?”

Silver nods, though the movement makes him wince. He says, “I like that you like idiots. Means I don't have to worry so much about you getting tired of me.”

Flint pushes Silver's hair over his shoulder, finds a spot on his temple that looks free from injury, and plants a long kiss there. Silver leans hard into it, shoulders sagging, but then that makes him jerk up and gasp in fresh pain.

The movement makes more of his torso visible by candlelight, and Flint can see in sharp relief the boot shaped bruises covering his torso.

“Jesus Christ, Silver,” he murmurs. “What did you do?”

Silver's eyes clear for the first time since Flint got home. He doesn't look hurt or drunk or sleepy any longer. He looks keenly, horribly present. But he doesn't answer. He doesn't meet Flint’s eyes as he reaches for the whiskey.

Flint wants to kick his own head in. He should never have let Silver go unfollowed after he left this morning. He’d said to Thomas that he is irrational when it comes to Madi. He's not usually so reckless, though, and it is worrying. Silver is many things, but he's not one to wantonly put himself in harm’s way. That's more Flint’s area of expertise.

And Thomas clearly got dragged into it, too. He should have never stayed late at work tonight. For a man trying to study time, it seems he's poor at managing it. Some days he feels like he can barely find ways to while away the hours, and other days it seems like they just slip away from him and he's barely clinging on.

He continues to clean off Silver’s blood. Neither of them say anything until Thomas arrives with the doctor. He’s slow to take his hands off Silver, but from the noises Thomas makes banging through the front door and stomping his feet, he’s giving them time to prepare for company.

The doctor is what someone who has only ever heard a doctor described might picture. Flint has never seen him before, but he’s had no cause to. He’s a stout, balding man with thin, round glasses and a mustache that shouldn’t be trifled with. His pajamas stick out beneath his overcoat.

“Goodness,” says the doctor, catching sight of Silver. He clicks his tongue. “There are truly some barbarians in this town, on my life. Can’t believe anyone would think to rob a man in your condition. How unseemly.”

Silver’s jaw clenches, but he continues to say nothing.

“Doctor,” Flint says for him. “Thank you for coming.”

“Of course. Now get out.” He sets his heavy bag on the table, upending the inkwell again.

“Excuse me?”

“I need privacy while examining my patient. It’s too crowded in here as it is.” The doctor takes off his glasses and begins cleaning them as though to prove his point, his elbow jostling into Flint’s stomach with every gesture. “Don’t you wander too far, young man,” he says to Thomas, where he’d been fidgeting with one foot in the parlor. “I’ll be taking a look at you next. Be useful and collect some clean water from your spout? This water here looks the color of my wife’s linens.”

“Yes,” says Thomas. “Of course.” He looks at no one as he shuffles around them on his way out the back door. Despite the close quarters, he somehow manages not to touch Flint.

The doctor is busy sorting through his bag, so he doesn’t notice Silver grabbing Flint’s arm as he attempts to follow Thomas out. Silver looks petrified, his purpling throat swallowing hard, but still he seems incapable of speech.

Flint covers his hand with his own. Quietly, so the doctor can’t hear, he says, “I’ll leave the door ajar. If you need me, I’ll hear you.”

Silver stares at him for a moment longer, silently pleading, but then he lets go just as the doctor turns back round. “Alright,” he murmurs, gaze falling. 

“You’re still here?” He grabs the lantern off the counter and sets it down dangerously on top of Thomas’s essays. “Please. I need privacy.”

With one last promising look to Silver, he steps outside. He leaves the rear door opened a crack.

Thomas is pouring water from the spout, his back to Flint. Their yard is barely wide enough for the thin row of tomatoes Flint had been trying to plant. They have a couple shirts hanging from a clothesline across the way, and the wind whips through them like torn and beaten sails.  Thomas pumps the water slowly into a bucket, and Flint can’t tell if he’s in pain or just trying to drag it out.

He’s outside the house now. He can be as angry as he wants to be.

“What. Happened.”

Thomas stops and stands up straight, looking heavenward. He seems even taller from behind, somehow. His shoulders broader, his hair lighter in the moonlight. That first day at the plantation, before he had turned around, Flint had known instantly who he was looking at. Now, he’s not so sure.

“Thomas,” he says. “What did he -- “

“It was my fault.”

“What?”

Thomas crouches down, sticking both hands into the bucket. Flint knows the water is probably like ice, especially in the autumn chill. He splashes his face clean.

Flint walks around to face him. “Thomas.”

“I started a fight with a man at the Inn,” he says dully. His face is now streaked with pink as the blood drips away. “An argument. Silver stepped in to put an end to it before it could become a proper fight. Then the man and two of his friends caught up to us on the way home.”

“Fuck.” Flint scrubs at his face, all his momentary adrenaline at seeing his -- Thomas and Silver -- injured so badly has fled him. “Thomas. You started the fight?”

“Yes, James, believe it or not, I am susceptible to the whims of testosterone that afflicts you, or Long, or every other man on God’s green earth.” His voice is suddenly alive, and acidic. The cleaned away blood is staining his collar. Well water clings to his eyelashes. “I was talking with Pat and Geoff. He accused me of being too loud.”

“That always happens!” Flint interrupts. “You apologize!”

“He worked for a slaver,” says Thomas. “I won’t apologize ever to a man like that. Not again.”

“How did you know?”

“What?”

“How did you know he worked for a slaver?”

“I recognized him! I saw him at the block once!”

“Once! For God’s sake, Thomas.” Flint desperately tries to keep his voice down. The door is cracked. “That was months ago. You probably started a fight with a butcher.”

“It was him!” Thomas snarls. “I know his face, I know all their faces. I remember every one of them!”

Flint’s slightly taken aback by the anger. He had expected it, but only from himself. The last time he’d seen Thomas truly angry had been at his father. “Every one of who?”

“Every man I’ve ever seen senselessly punished,” he says. “Every man at the mercy of weaker men.” Thomas had told him once, as a child, he’d be an angry crier. Whenever he got into arguments, he’d get so frustrated at people not understanding his point, tears would automatically well up in his eyes. He’d spent most of his adolescence overcoming it.

Which must make the rage wetting his eyes even more frustrating for him. “God, James! You, and her -- and so many damn people, because of --” He kicks the bucket and it goes flying, water splashing everywhere and soaking Flint’s boots. “That man lives his life assuming he is inherently better than others, that he is deserving of whatever he wants in life, and everyone else must accommodate or else suffer his consequences. I’m tired, James! I’m tired of watching my tone! I’m tired of having to lower my voice! I’m -- Christ.”

He sits down hard on the ground.

Flint stares at him, hands hanging uselessly at his side. Perhaps it had been foolish to bring Thomas to a city. He’d wanted it, but they have to be so careful all the time, and it had been difficult, new ground for Flint. Being a pirate meant being anything but careful. It seems the opposite applies when being a prisoner.

He doesn’t sit down with Thomas. He grabs the bucket, which had rolled away onto his pitiful tomatoes. Some had been crushed completely, but they’d been pretty inedible anyway.

To the tomatoes, he says quietly, “God save me from men with guilty consciences and long memories.” Then he changes his mind and says, "God help me save them."

When he walks back over, Thomas is eying him. The remainder of the blood has been wiped away on his sleeve, leaving Thomas’s face either starkly pale or yellowed with bruises. Either way, a celestial face in Flint’s night.

“I’m sorry, James,” he says miserably.

“He’ll be fine,” Flint says. A part of him wants to sit down too, but he can’t give into the temptation right now. The night isn’t finished with them yet.

Instead, he extends a hand and helps Thomas up. He only lets go because they aren’t alone, but soon enough. He just needs to wait. “You’ll both be fine. Just. Tell me exactly what happened.”

Thomas does, his eyes never leaving the sky.

It takes every ounce of Flint’s military training not to give in and sit down afterwards.

“Was the man dead?” he asks hoarsely. “The one Silver -- “

“Stabbed in the stomach with a broken bottle?” Thomas finishes. “No. Not when I last saw him.”

“Fuck.” Flint tugs too hard on his beard, wishing, for possibly the first time ever, that he had his old long hair again. He needs something more substantial to tear out. “A bottle? I’ve seen men survive that, as long as you don’t --”

“Rip the bottle out before getting to a doctor.”

Flint closes his eyes. “He did -- ?”

“I did.”

Flint opens his eyes.

“They were kicking him,” Thomas says. His voice is blank, but he expression is anguished, teeth clenched at the memory. “He wasn’t moving. I wanted them to leave, and I couldn’t fight them off. Making the situation more dire for their friend seemed the most logical way.”

“Logical?”

“The easiest.” Thomas meets his eyes finally. “The fastest way I could get to him.”

Flint doesn’t know what to say to that. For some reason, he thinks of Miranda. What she’d have to say about that, about Thomas. Right now, he feels a bit like how she might have felt, sitting at her table in her nightgown, watching him stumble in bloody and barely conscious how many nights. Collapsing against the door, unable to touch her just yet. She must have known he didn’t think he could touch her, because she would never let him stand up alone. She’d always know the exact right moment to approach. A second earlier and he would have snapped beneath her palm. A second later and he wouldn’t have even been there to feel the touch.

He tries not to think about her because it seems selfish, to want yet another thing after so many others have been given back to him. But still, he wishes she were here. She’d let him know when Thomas needed to be touched.

“I know you think me weak,” Thomas says, faintly. “And perhaps I am. Perhaps I should have found a way to fight them off, instead of killing a man already dying. I just wanted them away from him. God.” He buries his face in his hands. “They could have broken his shoulder. He needs it to walk, God, what if he can’t walk now, what if I’ve bedridden him? He’ll never --”

“He’s fine,” says Flint. Thomas is worried about Silver. Flint wraps his hand around his wrists. It’s a risk, but Thomas brings that out in him. “And I don’t think you’re weak. I don’t. You got them away from him, you got him home.”

“I got them on him first.” Thomas sways into him. “Christ, I’m such an idiot.”

“Well, we’re all guilty of that.” Flint had assumed the fight was Silver’s. He wants to storm into the kitchen and beg forgiveness. He wants to hope that Silver was too out of it to notice his assumption, but Flint is, as stated, an idiot. He knows it’s futile to hope but he’s doing it again. Silver notices everything. “You got him home, Thomas. Thank you.

Thomas just looks at him, his arms hanging like Flint has him in irons. It is too risky to kiss him, though he just uses his fingertips to kiss the inside of Thomas’s wrists. “We make mistakes,” he says. “We live with them, and deal with the consequences as they come. And we just hope there are people behind us to withstand them all. You never need question that I am here with you. Do you trust that?”

Thomas hesitates just enough to notice before he nods.

There are no cries for help from inside the kitchen. Flint is about to go check on them anyway. It’s too silent out here, even with the crickets in the bushes and the nightingales in the trees, the rustle of autumn leaves and the beat of Thomas’s heart. It’s much too quiet.

Unbidden, compelled by some unknown force inside him, Flint says, “I killed my best friend.”

Thomas looks up sharply at him. Flint is still holding on to him, but it feels like he’s the one trapped, and suddenly he wants to run like he’s never run before.

“He was, technically, staging a mutiny,” Flint says, because his capacity to endure his own suffering is unparalleled, and he’s still able to go on. “But… no. It wasn’t so impersonal as that sounds. I killed him. Snapped his neck.”

Thomas takes a deep breath. “What did you do?”

“Silver found me,” he says, his lips quirking in the faintest of smiles. “With my arms still around his neck. He has a habit of that, in retrospect. He finds me when I am stuck on the ground, and then he finds a way to lift me up. He’d been this little, bare-faced prick back then, the kind of sailor I never thought twice of. But he’d found me there, on the floor with a dead man, and he helped me up anyway. He’d said that, no matter what had occurred, there was always a way out.”

Thomas tugs his bad hand away, and it’s how he imagines Silver’s assailant felt tonight, when Thomas ripped the glass from his stomach. But then, the bent fingers trace along the vee of his shirt, digging as best they can into his skin, through the breastbone, and straight down into his heart.

“Why are you telling me this?” Thomas sounds like he’s speaking to a grave, serious and longing, but one he expects might answer back.

“That action sent me on a path. That one mistake, that one moment of being tired of it all -- and at the end of that path was you. And Silver showed me there was a way here. Your mistake isn’t nearly as grave, and you have both of us showing you what’s ahead.” Flint then adds, “If you want it.”

Thomas snorts. “Of course I want it. But I think Silver would at this point rather lead me off a cliff. We -- argued earlier. When we walked to the Inn.”

Flint frowns. “About what?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Thomas steps away from Flint, with one last scratch at his chest. “But between that, and this, I think any potential progress we’ve made might be out the window.”

“I --” Flint begins, but he’s interrupted when the doctor peeks his head out the door.

“Gentlemen?” He’s holding a lantern directly near his face, as though afraid he might be mistaken for Silver if the light isn’t bright enough. “If you could bring me some of that water now, if you please.”

When they step back into the kitchen, Silver is gone.

“He’s resting in the parlor,” the doctor says, taking the bucket of water off them and starts washing his hands. “Poor lad was tuckered out.”

Thomas bristles at that. “He shouldn’t --”

“You’ll need to wake him up every couple hours or so.” But the doctor looks at Thomas with something that might be admiration. “I say, young man,” he says, hustling Thomas into the chair Silver had been occupying. “You were right with your diagnosis almost to the number of cracked ribs. Have you studied medicine before?”

“Idly,” says Thomas, wincing as the doctor starts brusquely cleaning the excess blood from his face.

The doctor hums, running his thumb down Thomas’s bruised nose. “This looks like it’s already been set. Did you do it yourself?”

“Yes?” Thomas looks quickly at Flint and then away. “It seemed easier.”

“Perhaps,” says the doctor, “if you set it straight. Though I suppose a man like you could stand to look a little less handsome.”

Flint hates that he’s so shaken with nerves, he can’t properly enjoy the way Thomas’s ears flush at that.

“Doctor,” he says, resisting the urge to grab the man by the shoulders and try to shake the answers out of him. “Will he be alright?" 

“Which?” says the doctor, starting to unbutton Thomas’s shirt. Until Thomas shifts away from his hands and starts doing it himself. “Oh, well. They’re both be alright, actually. Though I think your lodger is a tad more banged up. He seems a durable sort though.”

“He is,” says Thomas, before Flint could say anything. He takes off his shirt.

The bruises on Thomas are less extensive than Silver’s, but they made Flint want to burn Boston down just as badly. Most of Silver’s had been central to his chest and stomach though, bad places to get kicked. Thomas’s seem to be mostly on his arms and back. Which also weren’t the best places to get kicked, but Flint begins to see a picture being painted, in broad strokes of a sickly yellow and an aching purple.

“How is his shoulder?” Thomas asks the doctor, still avoiding Flint’s eyes.

“It is as you said it,” the doctor says, gingerly tapping Thomas’s bruises. He reaches for his stethoscope on the table. “Dislocated. On a normal man, such an injury isn’t too much cause for concern, but this is a different matter altogether, as I’m sure you understand. I’ve put it in a sling, which he can safely remove after a few days, but a crutch is only going to exacerbate it more. He’ll have to lay off it for a good while. I’m assuming his doesn’t have a laborious job?”

“He’s a pianist,” says Flint, “at The Three Swallows Inn.”

Thomas clutches the doctor’s sleeve as he goes to listen to Thomas’s heart. “Will he be able to play still?”

“As long as he isn’t lifting the piano himself, he should be fine to play once the sling is removed.”

“But he won’t be able to walk on the crutch for awhile.”

“No,” says the doctor, finally placing the circular end of the stethoscope to Thomas’s chest. He continues talking, a little louder than before. “Do you know if he’s ever used a false leg?”

Flint swallows. “He -- mentioned before that he has.”

The doctor hums again. To Thomas, he says, “No signs of anything abnormal. Though your heartbeat is a little fast, which I take to be the shock. Shall I pour you a drink?”

“No, thank you,” says Thomas faintly. “He’ll need to wear a false leg?”

“Only if he wants to move around while he recuperates. Though he’ll probably need to use the crutch still, on the other side, for balance. Now, I think you’ll be fine, lad.” The doctor stands up, washing his hands again in the bowl. “Just try not to get robbed again any time soon.”

Thomas awkwardly puts his dirty shirt back on, buttoning it haphazardly. Flint watches the doctor clean up his belongings back into his bag, feeling more helpless than he had any time in his life he’d ever been in chains.

“He doesn’t own one,” Flint says. “A false leg.” He remembers first hearing Silver tell the story of how his old one had caught in the netting underwater and nearly killed him. He remembers thinking that he hopes the damn thing rusts away to nothing at the bottom of the ocean, thinking that never had an inanimate object deserved more to be crushed beneath a black, unforgiving sea, for the amount of suffering that bastard piece of metal and leather had caused.

“I can measure the stump now, while he’s out, and get one fashioned for you tomorrow,” the doctor says. “Mind you, they aren’t cheap.”

“It’s fine,” says Thomas quickly, standing up. His shirt’s untucked and he looks messy and untamed. So far removed from the man in the soft coat and thick wig he’d met on marble steps that he might as well be a wild animal, trapped in their tiny kitchen. “We’ll cover it.”

The doctor hums again, but this time it sounds a little confused. “And there are only two rooms here, yes? Where does he sleep?”

“The parlor,” says Thomas.

“The kitchen,” says Flint.

They look at each other. The house only has the one bed.

“He sleeps in the kitchen now, don’t you remember?” Flint says pointedly. “It’s warmer in here by the stove.”

“Of course,” says Thomas, and the smile he gives the doctor is his old one, the gentile, antiquated smile he’d perfected in dining rooms and courthouses. A smile that made ships move. “I forgot. I still can’t believe summer is over already.”

“That’s a sign you’re getting old,” says the doctor, moving into the parlor. He lowers his voice so as not to disturb Silver, sleeping beneath the drafty window under a pile of blankets. “No matter how much you ignore it, and no matter how much you fight it, time will always insist on moving onwards.”

 

_____

 

 

Four days later, Flint longs for something he could either fight or ignore.

Instead, he’s got Silver and Thomas, the two people he has never been able to properly fight or ignore his entire adult fucking life.

He wishes, though, they could at least try to ignore each other, if Flint isn’t able to do it. Or at least, literally anything other than fight.

The doctor had come by the morning after the brawl with a new wooden leg, nicer than Silver’s old one. The leather harness was lined with sheepskin and the wood was far lighter than iron, less likely to shift and slide. Still, the first time Silver had slipped it on, face strained, and tied the laces with trembling hands, had made Flint want to do something dangerous. Like weep.

He’d gone outside and had smashed what was left of his tomatoes. They’d been passed season anyway.

Flint had been trying so hard not to live in the past. When Silver and Madi had first shown up on his doorstep, it had felt like opening a door directly into a long-gone era he’d tried to forget. But in the end, they had only shown up to help propel him further into his own future, one he hadn’t known could ever exist.

But now, he feels ripped backwards, every time he hears the thud of Silver’s new leg hit their dusty floors.

The first time he’d heard it echoing throughout their little house in Boston, Silver had been coming down the stairs, out of sight. But the sound had been so distinct, so familiar, that Flint had known it instantly. That noise made him remember vividly the first time he’d heard it, out on the deck of the Walrus, while he’d been spiralling out of control in his own anger. The sound had seemed to pierce through the cloud of his own suffering.

Logically, Flint knows he must have heard it before then, as Silver had spent much of his time pacing Flint’s cabin learning to walk again. They’d seen each other, they had occupied the space together. Surely, Flint had watched him walk before he’d stepped out onto the deck that pale morning. But Flint had been so warped by his own misery, he hadn’t noticed Silver at all until that moment.

He’d been wearing a coat Flint had never seen before, far darker and more ornate than his usual wear, and for some reason Flint had found himself focusing on it, pulled from his own anguished reverie to wonder where on earth he’d gotten it from. Silver had been looking out onto the deck, searching, and when he’d found Flint, that was when he’d taken that first heavy step forward. His beard had been recently trimmed, but still too long. His eyes had looked -- blue, like always, but a blue he had suddenly felt in his mouth, sharp and cold, trickling down his throat. His hair had been longer than ever, tied back in the same style Flint had used to, back when he had hair. It had felt like it was the first time he could properly see Silver’s face. Like he wasn’t hiding it anymore. Like Flint had been seeing Silver for the first time.

It’s not a terrible moment to relive each time he hears Silver move, but he can’t help, then, but recall all the agony that preceded it, and the tragedy that befell them all afterwards. Now, he’s allowed to see Silver’s face for far longer than just a moment. He doesn’t need to live in the past any longer.

Silver enters the kitchen thunderously on his wooden leg and crutch, throwing himself into the seat opposite Flint, looks down at the table, and says, “I’m going to kill him.”

Flint shifts uncomfortably, putting down his teacup. “It’s just an apple.”

The look Silver gives him would have made the hardest murderers on the seven seas pause. “ Just an apple? I’ll kill you too. Who the fuck peels an apple?”

Thomas does, it seems. Or he does it for Silver, who is perfectly capable of eating an apple the normal way, even with his arm in a sling.

“He just wants to help?” Flint guesses.

“You have to talk to him again,” Silver snarls, shoving the plate away. “Or I won’t be held responsible for my actions.”

Flint knows Silver won’t actually kill Thomas. But that doesn’t mean he can’t come up with something equally damaging to do to him.

Thomas has -- quite possibly -- lost his fucking mind in the last few days. Flint understands guilt. He understands it. But his guilt has never manifested itself into peeling someone’s apple. Or cooking and cutting someone’s food and attempting to serve it to them in bed. Or making someone seventeen cups of tea in the span of one morning. Or refusing to let the person move by themselves for longer than five minutes. Or wash themselves alone. Or relieve themselves alone. Or withholding sex for everyone involved in an effort not to strain and further injure anything.

Every time Thomas attempts to help him, Silver just snaps at him or shakes him off or ignores him, and so Thomas just tries harder. If Silver tries to hurt Thomas, Flint would of course stop it. But he can’t say he wouldn’t understand Silver’s motivations.

It’s not just guilt over Silver that’s driving Thomas. Flint had wanted to prevent Thomas from finding out, but people in a town like this love gossip, and it hadn't taken long before everyone knew an unidentified man was found dead in an alleyway with a gaping stomach wound four nights ago. Panic had gripped Boston for a couple hours before it eventually subsided. The only slave ship had sailed out the day after the fight, and no guardsmen came to the door, so Flint figures they’re safe.

Silver hadn’t even blinked an eye upon learning the man was dead. Thomas had taken the news silently, walked straight home and went into the backyard. Then he’d taken it upon himself to wash every single item of clothing they owned, until Flint had managed to coax him back inside just after midnight. He’d been afraid Thomas might get frostbite on his wet, shriveled, white hands.

The next day he had stepped up his treatment of Silver, only to go absolutely mental when Silver had disappeared for a couple hours by himself, while Thomas had been sleeping in. They’d eventually found him in the back room with Mr. Levine, which particularly stung because they had checked the Inn first, which meant Silver had been actively avoiding them. That had resulted in the only actual fight since this all happened, with the two of them screaming at each other and Flint stuck in the middle, trying to calm them down. Silver had then locked himself in the bedroom all night, and he and Thomas had been stuck sleeping in the parlor.

Honestly. Flint had found it easier corralling pirates.

Since then, they hadn’t apologized to each other, but Flint could tell they were embarrassed. They then reached something of a stalemate, with Thomas trying to sneak in his acts of kindness, and Silver trying to quell his rage. They’re both extremely bad at it.

“I’ll...try to speak to him,” Flint says. “You’re recuperating fast enough, though. I can’t imagine he’ll keep it up for much longer. You know he doesn’t mean any harm. It might just be easier if you went along with it.”

Silver deliberately ignores the tea Thomas left out for him and starts pouring his own. “Easier for who?

For Flint. So, so much easier for Flint.

“Look, I know you don’t like asking for help,” Flint says, and then quickly adds, because Silver looks up at him, enraged, “Because you don’t need it! But this is me, asking you for help. I’ve never had to -- deal with Thomas like this. After something like this. I don’t want to upset him further.”

Silver is silent, letting the banging of his spoon inside his teacup speak volumes for him.

“I’ll speak to him,” Flint promises. “Just try not to lash out in the meantime.”

Silver sighs. He looks slightly less venomous when he meets Flint’s eyes again. “You still see him as your delicate little Lord, Captain. If you truly want things to be easier for yourself, you might do to remember that London is very far away from where we sit.”

Flint’s about to ask him what he means, but then Thomas comes in through the backdoor.

“Oh, good, you’re up.” Thomas has three of Silver’s shirts over his arm, that he’d needlessly washed the night before. He frowns at the toppled apple on the table. “Come now, eat your breakfast.”

“I’m not hungry.” Silver has, in the past, used his voice to sound like a titan and a politician and a killer. Now that same voice makes him sound like a petulant child.

Thomas tsks. “You need to eat.” He hovers over Silver, waiting.

After a moment, Silver very slowly picks up the peeled apple. He takes a very pointed bite out of it, eyes never leaving Flint’s, before dropping it back on the table. Then he stands.

Thomas doesn’t move to make room for him to leave. Pleasantly, deliberately ignoring Silver’s everything , he says, “What are you up to today?” It’s not a question Thomas would have ever asked before.

Through clenched teeth, Silver replies, “I promised the doctor I’d check in with him.” It’s not a question Silver would have ever answered before.

Thomas nods, like that was the answer he’d been expecting. He hands Silver a clean shirt. Or rather, he gently hooks it into the crook of Silver’s elbow, held up by the sling. “Do let us know what he has to say,” he says, stepping out of Silver’s path.

Before Silver can make his noisy retreat, Thomas says, “You should go to the carpenter’s after your appointment. It’s nearby, after all. James can walk with you home.”

Silver very obviously takes a couple deep breaths before turning around. He and Thomas stare at each other. Their faces are covered in the same bruises. Their eyes are the same blue, both beautiful and threatening.

Silver opens his mouth, closes it, then opens it and says scathingly, “Fine.” He gives Flint one more violent glare before heading back upstairs. The door slams, rattling the teacups downstairs.

Thomas lets out an angry breath. “Good lord, that man is the most ridiculous, stubborn ass I’ve ever met.”

“Don’t you think you’re being a bit --” Flint stops.

Thomas whirls on him. “A bit what?

Flint tries to think quickly, but can’t find a better word. “Mothering?

With an affronted scoff, Thomas throws the rest of Silver’s shirts on the back of a chair and folds arms. “Well,” he says, leaning against the wall, “I’ve never known someone in such a dire need of a mother as he. Do you want to know why I was out washing his shirts yesterday evening?”

Flint, in fact, did not want to know.

“He’d thrown them out the window!” Thomas cries. “All because I tried to help him put on his nightshirt. Of all the childish, inconsiderate…”

His biggest problem, Flint is beginning to realize, is that when they’re fighting with each other, Flint can’t stand it. But separate the two and have them just frustrated and angry and venting to Flint, he can’t help but find them each perfectly endearing. Thomas’s neck is pink with the morning chill and from getting himself worked up, and Flint knows exactly what that long stretch of skin above his collar needs.

Something he hasn’t been allowed to give Thomas in days .

Slowly, he gets up from the table. Thomas is still ranting, and doesn’t stop until Flint is holding his good hand, bringing his fingers up to his own lips. It’s as good as silencing Thomas.

“I love your concern for him,” Flint says honestly. “But perhaps it might be time to reel it in a little. He’s healing.” Flint steps in closer, slipping his leg between Thomas’s thighs. “You need to heal, too. You’ve not allowed yourself to rest at all, Thomas. Let me take care of you for a little while.”

The flush on Thomas’s neck is more pronounced, his eyes a little lost as he traces his fingers, still in Flint’s grasp, against his lips. While his mind wanders, Flint takes the opportunity to kiss him, softly. But soft kisses are exactly the kind that undo Thomas.

His lips part in a heady moan, gripping Flint’s shirt with hands as he slips his tongue into Flint’s mouth. They stay like that for awhile, Flint pressing him against the wall, Thomas holding his jaw at just the right angle that he likes

Thomas breaks away to breathe, and Flint starts in on keeping his promise to Thomas’s neck. He can’t mark it up the way he wants to (although Thomas is still so bruised, it’s likely no one would notice). So he must keep everything -- the drag of his teeth, the press of his lips, the lap of his tongue -- soft and hot and relentless.

“James,” Thomas moans, clutching his back. “We mustn’t.”

“I think you’ll find,” Flint mutters into his skin, rubbing his thigh over Thomas’s covered cock, “that we absolutely must.”

Thomas jerks up onto his leg once, twice, and then pushes Flint away entirely. 

It’s not fair,” Thomas pants, “to Long.”

Flint stares at him stupidly, suddenly cold at the absence of Thomas’s body on his. “You want to get Silver here too?” He moves in again. “I’ll go call him right now.”

Thomas steps away. He looks pained and flustered, like he doesn’t entirely believe himself when he says, “Not until he’s fully recuperated. It isn’t fair.”

“Thomas!”

“James,” Thomas pleads. “I won’t have him injuring himself further.”

The because of me goes unsaid.

Flint sighs, running a hand up his face and through his hair. “Will you then, please try to treat him like you had been previously?” Flint asks. “Before all this. He’s certainly going to strain himself if he winds up throttling you.”

Thomas snorts, busying himself with cleaning up the table. His neck hasn’t gone back to its normal color yet. “I’m not afraid of Long.”

“I’d never let anything happen to you,” Flint says, because it’s the truth. “But the only men I’ve ever heard say that were fools, who came to learn from that mistake.”

Thomas pauses, looking up from the five cups of Silver’s tea on the table, each at varying degrees of temperature. “Are you saying that you’re afraid of him?”

Of course Flint is afraid of Silver. But he’s afraid of Thomas, too. Just like he’s afraid of Madi, who has successfully made all his fears come true.

“I’m just telling you to be careful,” Flint says, helping him with the teacups. “I’ve never, in all the time I’ve known him, been able to predict his next move.”

Thomas looks at him sideways as they clean up the rest of breakfast in silence. The peeled apple is brown all over, as bruised and sweet as Thomas himself. Flint pockets it to eat on his way to work.

“I’ll consider it,” Thomas says finally, straightening Flint’s collar. “He is doing better, I suppose. And it truly is a nightmare, peeling an apple with only one good hand.”

 

_____

 

Silver shows up at the shop less than an hour before Flint is set to leave. There’s no way he spent that whole time at the doctor’s. He glares at Flint when he enters, daring him to question it, but Flint absolutely, positively knows better.

Christopher would normally never let anyone not a customer linger in the shop like this, but Silver just sits down on a freshly made chair, with his sling and his bruises and his crutch and his leg, staring at Christopher silently while Flint works. Christopher is so unsettled that he lets Flint leave fifteen minutes early. 

“You know,” Flint says as they walk home, “I could have sworn there was a time when you knew how to endear yourself towards someone.”

“Not with the week I’ve had,” Silver replies. “He’s lucky I didn’t walk out with that chair under my coat.”

When they get back to the house, Thomas isn’t there. He often gets stuck late at work, though, asked to stay behind to help his boss with some other trivial financial problem he can’t figure out.

Under no circumstances is he allowed to go to the pub without Flint or Silver there.

The sun hasn't completely set yet, leaving the interior of their house dusty with light and too cool. Flint heads into the kitchen. Thomas’s friend’s wife had dropped by again with two huge steak and kidney pies. He has long since questioned her intention behind it, after tasting her cooking the first time. He leaves them on the table and gets a fire going.

Silver follows him in, and the thump of his wooden leg behind him is enough to send chills down his spine, no matter how near he is to the fireplace. He can never quickly shake it off, which is why he’s more than a little grateful when Silver finishes lighting the candles and grabs the bottle of hidden whiskey.

He does raise an eyebrow, though, and Silver just says, “It’s going to be one of those nights, I can tell.” When he grabs two glasses, Flint doesn’t protest.

An hour and a half later, Thomas still isn’t home yet, but the sun has set, one of the pies is mostly devoured, and he and Silver are collapses on the sofa in the parlor.

“You would make some of the most beautiful clocks,” Silver is saying. “Absolutely wonderful clocks. Christopher is an asshole. No one would be able to fuck with your clocks.”

“Thank you,” Flint says, with feeling.

“You could also fuck with everyone with your clocks,” Silver proclaims, gesticulating with the bottle of whiskey. They had long since forgone the glasses. “Like. Clocks no one ever expects. Clocks you can only read upside down, or by moonlight. Or clocks you can only read if it’s sunny out!”

“So like,” says Flint, “a sundial.”

“Or a clock that only ticks backwards,” Silver says, ignoring him. “LIke this.” He holds up his good arm and starts moving it like the hand on a completely normal clock. Until Flint realizes it looks backwards to him.

“What would be the point of that?”

“So everyone would be an hour early everywhere,” Silver says. “Or eleven hours late. Anyway, it would be a hit with the nobility, I think.”

“I don’t even know how to build a clock that works the right way,” Flint says, grabbing the bottle off him.

“Then this will be even easier!” Silver puts his hand on the bottom of the bottle, encouraging Flint to keep drinking until it spills all over his face. “You could make a clock that only chimes at random moments. No one will know when to expect them, and so they’re always be surprised and look at the time when it chimed.”

Flint rubs the whiskey off his beard with the front of his shirt, saying, “What good will that do anyone?”

Silver doesn’t reply. Flint busies himself trying to clean the whiskey up, and gathering the pie crumbs they left everywhere, and looking for the cork lost in the sofa so they don’t drink any more, and maybe having one more sip before putting it away, and --

DONG!

Flint chokes on liquor, turning to Silver wildly as he falls back on the sofa, laughing hysterically. He seems unbothered by his injuries as his body shakes with laughter, although his good arm is wrapped around his cracked ribs.

“What the fuck?” Flint exclaims.

“Made you look.” Silver grins at him stupidly, but Flint hasn’t seen that smile since he got Madi’s letter, so that’s alright.

“Silver, people look at clocks all the time. They’re meant to be looked at. I don’t have to trick people into looking at them.”

“Yes,” Silver agrees. “But you could make them look at your clock whenever you wished it. Train strangers to turn their heads towards your work on your command. Your clock could be sold halfway across the world, could outlive us by several lifetimes, and yet there would still be people, entirely under your control.”

Flint is momentarily distracted by what an interesting idea that is, which allows Silver to scooch in close, press his nose against Flint’s cheek, and whispers, "Dong!

Flint pushes him away, laughing. And then, because they’d been talking about it, he looks at the clock near the fire.

“Where the fuck is Thomas?” he says, frowning. “He better not have gone to the pub, or I’ll -- “

“You’ll what?” Silver asks, still grinning. Although it's a bit sharper now. “Stare adoringly into his eyes for a few hours? Write a sonnet to his lips? You are absolutely useless with him, Captain.”

“Hey!” says Flint. “I would….never write poetry.”

“Useless,” Silver says fondly. “I know you tried to convince him to leave me alone by seducing him in the kitchen this morning. You're no help whatsoever.”

“I thought you didn't want anyone's help,” Flint points out, so he doesn't have to mention the fact that his so-called seduction honestly had very little to do with Silver's request and more to do with that fact that he's never been able to help himself around a frustrated Thomas. He really is useless.

Silver sighs, leaning his head against Flint’s. “When it comes to reckless, irrational, stubborn lovers, I need all the help I can get.”

Something in his tone, the slip of honesty, makes Flint look down at him. He can only see him out the corner of his eye, the movement making the top of Silver’s hair catch on the crook of his neck. Silver's eyes are lowered, the fan of his dark eyelashes spreading against the scrape on one side of his face, against a brown and blue bruise on the other. Silver has this ability to wear his injuries naturally. However he looks -- whether he was dark and foolish and clean-faced, or black-eyed and wild-eyed and crawling into the minds of men, or fearsome and lopsided and long-haired at sea and at his back, or curled up in his side, exhausted and warm and smelling of Flint -- it's how he's always looked. He is perpetual that way. Whatever state he's in, that's how he's always been, and even though Flint can remember how he was, it doesn't change that fact. Even when Flint is a part of Silver's past, Silver is forever a creature of the present.

“Have you figured out what you're going to say to Madi?” he asks, shifting so he can put his arm around Silver.

“No,” says Silver, in a carefully careless way. “Perhaps I won't say anything at all. Would serve her right.”

It's a good thing they're sitting next to each other and not facing. There's no way Flint’s skepticism at Silver not saying something wouldn’t be too apparent.

“I still think you should tell her what happened.”

No,” Silver says again, much more forcefully than before. “And don't you go tell her either, or him too, for that matter.”

“You know I wouldn't, and you know Thomas wouldn't either.” Thomas doesn't write anything ever anymore. Flint has suggested learning to write with his left hand, but Thomas had gotten so discouraged by the sloppiness of his handwriting he’d given it up altogether.

But because Silver knew that, he has the decency to look embarrassed. At least he didn't say it directly to Thomas. He doesn't say anything for a moment, toying with a loose string on Flint’s pants.

Finally, he says, somewhat nervously, “I started composing a letter to her, actually. Can I read it to you?”

“Of course.”

Silver thinks for a second. “I left it upstairs.” He pulls away from Flint, reaching for his crutch, which had fallen on the floor.

“I can --” Flint begins to say.

Silver glares poisonously at him.

“-- sit right here while you get it,” Flint finishes.

He doesn't miss Silver's eyeroll, nor the hitch in his breath as he finally stands. He doesn't move for a moment, adjusting to the pressure on his stump. Flint had thought, because the wound was no longer new, and they weren't at sea, and the false leg was a better quality, the pain would be less than before. Of course, he’d been wrong. He's usually wrong, when it comes to pain.

Silver’s just made his way upstairs when the front door opens.

Thomas stands there, swaying in the doorway, bringing a whirlwind of autumn leaves and restless energy with him. He looks around, the action taking more movement than it usually requires. “Where's Long?” he says by way of hello.

Flint rises to greet him. He squints. “Are you drunk?”

“Are you drunk?”

They stare at each other for a moment.

“Please tell me you didn't go to the Inn alone,” Flint says.

Thomas draws himself up indignantly. “I was invited round for a drink by Doctor Reynolds.”

“Who?”

“Doc--Doctor Reynolds.” Thomas squints back at him. “The doctor who treated us the other night. Where is Long?”

“Upstairs,” Flint says, and stumbles a little when Thomas grabs him by the wrist and starts pulling him towards the stairs. He manages to grab an extra lantern on the way. “Thomas, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” says Thomas, still tugging. “I just have some potential good news to share and an accusation or two to hurl, and I’d  rather not have to repeat myself.”

Silver is standing crookedly by the bed, his crutch leaning by the window. He’s rifling through yesterday’s pants by touch alone. The only candle he’d brought up sits on the small armoire. He blinks at them in the dim light.

“Are you drunk?” he asks Thomas.

“Did you speak to Doctor Reynolds today?” Thomas demands.

A slight pause. “I said I would, didn't I? He said everything looked good. My ribs are healing well.”

“Did you speak to him about me? ” Thomas specifies.

“No.” The way his says it makes Flint look at him sharply. It had taken him a long time to hear it, to figure out that tone, to pull on the massive tangle of thread and rope that was Silver's complex way of speaking. It was a hard-won skill, one he rarely needs to use these days. Silver is lying.

“What happened, Thomas?” he asks, eyes on Silver.

“I ran into the doctor on my way home,” says Thomas, approaching Silver. “He insisted I follow him back to his practice to check me over. He then offered me a drink and asked to break my hand again.”

“He what? ” Flint tears his gaze away from Silver’s impassive face to Thomas’s hand, which looks as gnarled as always, but not broken or bandaged.

“He said,” Thomas wavers a little in his voice, but not in his intense lock on Silver’s face, “that if he breaks the fingers again and sets them properly, I might regain use of it again. At least more than I have now. Then he offered me a job.”

With a frown, Silver starts looking through his trouser pockets again, like that’s the end of Thomas’s story. Even though it's too dark to see clearly, he keeps his eyes down, blindly searching for his letter.

“A job,” Thomas repeats, sidling up to him. “As his assistant. He said I’d be a perfect fit for it with my knowledge of illnesses and injuries I had to pretend was entirely book-learning. Silver, was this your idea?”

“No,” says Silver, still meeting no one’s eyes. “Congratulations, though.” 

“Thomas,” says Flint cautiously, because he's not entirely sure what's happening. “This is… a good thing, isn't it?”

“It's wonderful,” Thomas replies, not looking away from Silver. The face he's wearing is familiar, suddenly. It's the same face he’d worn when Flint had yelled at his father, years ago. “It's exactly the kind of job I’d want. It’ll pay better, and the possibility of my hand -- Silver, did you come up with this?”

“No.”

Tell me.”

“I just did.” Silver throws his trousers back down on the chair. He looks angry and cornered. “I had nothing to do with this.”

“If you put in a good word for me…” Thomas presses. “If you made all this happen, I’d never be able to thank --" 

“I didn’t!” Silver shoulders past him. Flint is still standing in the doorway, and Silver is looking at him like he has to sneak by without him noticing in order to escape. “Perhaps you impressed him with the ability to set your own nose. I don't know.”

He's only able to walk a few steps away from Thomas before he loses his balance without the crutch and nearly topples. With a curse, he snatches the sling over his head and rips it off his arm. Gently, he stretches his arm out, letting it hang normally at his side.

“Hey!” Thomas grabs the sling out of his hand. “You mustn’t take that off yet!”

“Yes, I can,” Silver says angrily. “I don't need it. The actual doctor said it would be fine.”

“You shouldn't needlessly exacerbate your injuries,” Thomas says, unfolding the sling and approaching Silver with it, mindless of the evident rage in Silver’s eyes.

“If the doctor says he’s fine,” Flint starts warily, but Thomas interrupts.

“No, it's senseless taking it off.” Thomas reaches for Silver, gesturing with the sling. “Here, let me --”

“Enough! Leave it, I said!”

“Will you just let me help--”

He’s cut off by Silver.

More specifically, he’s cut off by Silver’s hand around his throat.

His other hand reaches up to grab Thomas by the hair. Thomas has a few inches on Silver, but the steadiness of his grip forces Thomas to bend his knees, trapped eye to eye.

No one moves.

“I know you haven't heard this often in your lifetime, Lord Doctor,” Silver says, low and rough, their faces inches apart. “So I will say it again slowly so you might get my full meaning. Enough.

Thomas doesn't even look remotely afraid, though. If anything, he just looks angrier than Silver. “Enough of what? Trying to help you?”

“Silver,” Flint says sharply, but he might as well not be in the room.

“I don't want your help,” Silver hisses. The hand on Thomas’s throat is weaker from his injured shoulder, but the points where his fingers meet Thomas’s throat are white. “At no point did I ask for it, nor do I need it.”

“You were severely hurt,” Thomas says through clenched teeth. Flint doesn't actually see any of the guilt there, now. Just anger. “You couldn't walk! How --”

Silver pulls Thomas even closer to him, his eyes black in the thin candlelight. Too many nights, in a past he tried not to think about, had Flint seen Silver like this. Had he seen himself reflected in those eyes, after a night of hurting people other than each other.

“The last man foolish enough to see me as an invalid,” Silver says, “I took his head. I won't have anyone looking at me that way again, least of all you.”

Flint can see Thomas’s throat working hard against Silver’s hand. His face is red, and if it was a strangulation shade of red, Flint would have stepped in to stop this. But the rise in his cheeks, the glaze in his eyes -- well.  Flint knows what that is. He's surprised to see it here, though.

The guilt Thomas feels is getting out of hand, and Flint is, after all is said and done, completely useless about Thomas. It's good that Silver is here, then, to shock these things out of him. Silver needs to say this, as much as Thomas needs to hear it, and maybe Silver was right before. The way Thomas’s hand rests on the arm choking him, not fighting it but just clinging on -- maybe Silver was right. Maybe Thomas isn't his delicate Lord anymore.

Especially not with the way Thomas grows angrier and says harshly, “So. I suppose this is how you won James’s love, then? Threats, violence, verbal abuse. Pushing him around for not doing things your way?”

“No.” Silver’s laugh is delighted but utterly mean. “That’s how he won mine.

Flint blinks, inching closer. He sets the lantern down beside the bed. What does this have to do with him?

Thomas darts a quick look over to Flint, wonder caught on his flushed face. He knows the fact that he isn’t stepping in sort of undermines Silver’s threat, but Flint is a step back and he is seeing this, even if they can’t. He sees the way Thomas is curving his body into Silver’s. He sees the way the hand in Thomas’s hair is loose, holding instead of grasping. He can’t quite believe he’s seeing it, but he is.

Silver shakes Thomas a little by the throat, getting his attention again. “This ridiculous attempt to take care of me ends now,” he rumbles. “I don’t care what your issues are. I don’t care about your guilt. That’s for you to deal with. But you think because it’s harder for me to walk, that I need you to hold my hand with every step? For a man who thinks he sees the world as it really is, you truly are blinded by your own goddamned ignorance.”

With every heavy breath Thomas lets out, it’s harder to get one in. Still, he manages to sound surly when he pants, “Is that right?”

With another small shake, Silver says, “The things I did when I was whole were unspeakable. But the things I’ve done as half a man? Well, those things are still being spoken of, Lord Hamilton, in the new and old worlds alike, whispered in the dead of night. You look at me and think me needing taken care of? Someone who should be more grateful of your concern? Someone who should curl up and lap at your considerate hand like a beaten dog? Do you have any idea who I actually am? I’m the one who killed Captain Flint. An act which, I’ve noticed, has earned me no ounce of gratitude from you.”

The rainbow of expressions that passed over Thomas’s face were certainly interesting, but now he seems to have landed on indignant rage, and he starts actively trying to pull Silver’s hand away from his throat. “Gratitude!

He owes me no thanks,” Silver continues, tightening his hand just a little, “but you, my lord, you should be on your knees. I brought James McGraw back from the dead and delivered him right to you. A shining new key to release you from your shackles and to warm your bed. You are only here, free, under this shithole of a roof, because I made it so. That isn’t the weakness of an invalid, my lord. That is the mercy of a King.”

Thomas snarls. “You’re no bloody King, Long,” he says, pushing back against his hold. The hand in his hair tightens. “Damn you, you’re nothing but a selfish, cruel, weak pirate who imprisoned the man you love when things go too difficult. You’re no King. Now let me go!”

Now, Silver looks at Flint, where he stands uselessly by the door. He doesn’t loosen his hold any. Silver’s smirk is like a viper. “He made me his King, Lord Ham. And had things turned out differently, he would have lived out the rest of his life, happy to only. Serve. Me.

"Enough,” says Flint.

Thomas stops pulling himself away from Silver, and Silver loosens his grip slightly, but other than that, neither of them move.

Then Silver says, quietly, meanly, “There’s that word again. Do you need him to repeat it?” And Thomas’s lips curl up, an entirely animal expression of hatred, and both his hands come up to Silver’s chest, ready to push.

Enough, I said.” Flint steps forward. “Silver, let him go.”

Silver does, after a pause.

The room is dark, like the inside of his skull. The more he strains to see them, the drunker he feels, and he recalls vividly why it was so necessary to keep liquor out of this already volatile situation. He feels too warm and absent, standing in the dark. Like it’s harder to exist without being seen, without seeing them. Without their raised voices, all he can hear is breathing, and it’s impossible to tell them all apart. It sounds like five thousand men could be standing in the room with them. It sounds like it could be only one.

“Now, I am tired of this.” Flint commands every ounce of authority he’s ever had into that voice. He collects the candle about the armoire and goes around the room, lighting the half dozen they keep in there. Silver and Thomas haven’t moved apart, standing at the foot of the bed. With no more shadows dancing over them, they’ve stopped resembling flames themselves. Now they look like stubborn jackasses, forced to contend with each other in proper light.

“I don’t believe I deserve to live in this kind of environment,” Flint continues, joining them in the center of the room. “No, don’t move. Stay right where you are.” They shuffle back, turned so they can watch Flint. “Thomas, we promised each other, when we first moved here, that we wouldn’t get into any trouble. We would keep ourselves out of public argument, we would never get into any altercation no matter what was being said. We pledged this to each other, because we both know too well the ruin that often follows when we let our tempers get the better of us. And just today, I asked you to stop tending to Silver as though he were an injured bird. And you, Silver. The one thing I asked of you was to not lash out at Thomas, whose actions you know are not in judgement of your abilities to handle yourself. You’re both being ridiculous and I am tired of it.”

He waits then, and just like he expects, they both murmur apologies. To him.

With a sigh, he says, “Do you both promise to listen to me from now on?” And he tries not to smile too dangerously when they both nod. “Good. Now I want you to look at each other.”

They do, and he suspects they’re both thinking about spitting in the other’s face. They look sour and childish, preparing for the worst, like Flint is going to make them do something awful, like shake hands.

“Silver,” he says. “Take off Thomas’s shirt.”

What? ” Thomas exclaims, twisting towards him. “James, I’ve said, I don’t think it’s best if he strains himse --”

He’s jerked back around by a scowling Silver, roughly tugging Thomas’s shirt out of his trousers. By the time he starts undoing the buttons, all protests have died in Thomas’s throat. By the time he lifts the shirt over Thomas’s head, Silver has stopped scowling, and his movements are somewhat gentler than a second before.

“Now Silver,” Flint says, watching Silver stare at Thomas’s rising chest, watching Thomas gaze at Silver’s face. “Take off your own shirt.”

It’s not because Thomas would have difficulty with the buttons. It’s not because Silver doesn’t want any help. It’s because Flint knows Silver would do it slowly, eyes locked on Thomas’s, would grasp it from the bottom, arms crossed, and lift it over his head, revealing his stomach inch by perfect inch. It’s because he knows Thomas’s fingers would twitch with the barest desire to touch the skin at the top of his trousers.

He takes the opportunity to look at them both. Silver’s ribs are still wrapped, but other than that, they are a matching set of yellow-brown bruises, old scars, hardened muscle, and soft skin. Even with the new injuries, their bodies are as familiar and well-traveled for him as an old sea, as his path home.

“I have done nothing wrong,” says Flint, which is only true about this specific situation. “And yet I have had to put up with all this aggravation, and I haven’t been able to touch either of you this entire time. You two can fight all you like, but I intend to enjoy my evenings the way in which I’ve become accustomed.”

With that, he sinks to his knees. Thomas gasps, and Silver says, “Captain!” as Flint tugs both of their trousers down their thighs. He raises a severe eyebrow at them, cutting off any further protestations.

In truth, Flint has yet to be here, in this spot, though he has often fantasized this. On his knees, these two cocks in front of his face, dripping and ready for him. Like a mistranslation of a bible story, here’s hanging fruit he’s meant to taste, and he would often break from his reveries with a lingering sweetness on his tongue.

Thomas’s cock is already hard, Silver not far behind. He strokes them both in unison from base to tip, loving the quiver and sharp dip of Silver's stomach, the way Thomas’s thighs tremble. When he glances up, they're both looking down at him with dazed, hungry expressions. Which he expects, and enjoys, but not what he wants right now.

“Don't watch me,” he murmurs, exhaling on the soft, vulnerable flesh. “Watch him.

Silver jerks up immediately, Thomas rising slower to meet his eyes. He wants to make sure they're listening to his orders so he scoots closer, keeping his neck craned while sucking the tip of Thomas’s cock hard. He strokes Silver firmly at the same time, then switches back and forth, licking and pulling evenly. He doesn't want them to get to used to one sensation. He wants them right on the edge.

The odd thing about being with more than person is that, in time, you start to develop similar reactions to things. Silver shares his desperate, insatiable hunger for cocksucking, and they lose themselves completely when someone is fucking their face. Thomas and Flint will both become wild, frantic, keening messes if stuffed with enough fingers. All three are masters of, and utterly susceptible to, all kinds of dirty talk.

Flint has no point of reference for Silver, but he can remember vividly how domineering Thomas would get while getting his cock sucked. He’d fist Flint’s long hair and ride his face throughout the night, Flint just able to hold on.

But recently, Thomas has begun to mirror Silver’s behavior. They both become so overwhelmed and boneless, lost and wordless in the heat of Flint’s loving mouth.  

He sucks Silver down to the root, pulling back with a wet pop and doing the same to Thomas. His hands are drenched in his own saliva and his neck is starting to twinge and his own cock is straining in his trousers and he is in heaven, completely. Silver and Thomas’s eyes have closed, but their foreheads are just this close to touching as they twitch and pant above him, barely able to stay standing. Flint pulls at their legs, bringing them closer so as to get both their cocks on his tongue at the same time.

Silver stumbles a little at the sudden movement, grabbing Thomas’s arm reflexively. Now their foreheads are holding each other up, their gasps mingling together like clouds meeting to form a storm.

Flint learns he can fit both heads of their cocks inside his mouth if he opens wide enough. He can't really suck, but he can lap at them both, moaning as spit drips down his chin. He pulls off, kissing each tip, letting their cocks rub together, and glances back up at them.

Bad timing is something he normally excels at, which makes his study of horology even more amusing to himself. But he's just never been good at getting it right. He'd used to dwell on it, how every moment in his life that ended in disaster might have been fixed if he’d been a second faster, or conversely if he gave himself an extra moment to think. Time never wants to be on his side.

Which is why he can't believe it when he looks up, hands still stroking their cocks together, just in time to see Thomas lean down and kiss Silver.

Like their whole bodies, the kiss is open and slow, their tongues messy, loose in each other. It isn't their first kiss, but it's the first kiss that hadn't been directly preceded by an argument, their unkind words cut off by unkind lips. It's the first time they’ve kissed each other the way they kiss Flint. As he watches, he sucks sharply on Silver's cock, and Silver surges forward into his mouth, upward into Thomas.

Silver goes to grab Flint, before deciding at the last minute to clutch Thomas’s face, kissing him deeper.

The taste of both of them on his tongue makes him feel dizzy. Or perhaps it's the sight of them kissing over him, like celestial bodies heaving in the cloudless sky, a turbulent flow of colors and darkness and light, a natural chaos he cannot explain but swears his life to anyway. And him here, on his knees, on this Earth, mesmerized by how effortless it is for them to float up there and not fall. Or perhaps it's the whiskey he had earlier.

They aren't quite touching enough. Flint puts the faintest pressure to Silver’s legs, nudging him closer to Thomas. Their cocks now align perfectly, their discolored chests flush. Flint mouths at them idly, watching how Silver moans lowly, clutching at Thomas's jaw, how Thomas's hands trail down Silver's sides, passing Flint’s head to clutch Silver's ass.

With the barest of touches, Flint pushes again on Silver's thigh, and Silver falls forward. Thomas steps back, and back again, still cradling Silver's backside, so that when he sits down on the end of the bed, he's also pulling Silver with him.

Flint holds his breath, waiting.

They don't seem to notice his mouth is no longer on them, though. They're too busy grinding their cocks together, using the warm slick of his saliva to glide along each other. From his vantage point on the ground, he can see Silver try to widen his legs, still trapped in his trousers, as Thomas’s cock drags underneath his balls.

But it isn't until Silver breaks away from the kiss, until Thomas immediately latches onto one of his nipples, until Silver shudders against him and moans, “Thomas,” eagerly pulling him back into another kiss -- that’s when Flint smiles.

Slowly, so as not to distract them, he rises to his feet. They're still kissing; Silver too busy sucking Thomas’s tongue, Thomas too busy stroking their cocks in one hand. They don't notice Flint fully undressing, but he doesn't mind.

He tugs on his own cock, thinking without taking his eyes off them, where the best place to watch is. He doesn't just want to hover here. The room isn't large, but the chair in the corner might be too far away. He can't miss any of their hands roaming like the kindest explorers over each other, the beautiful sounds they’re dragging from each other, the way Thomas stops kissing not to breathe, but to whisper, “Yes, Silver, yes," the soft little gasps punched from Silver’s lips every time Thomas twists his hand up, thumb swirling against the wet head of his cock.

Flint needs to see all of this. He's always had a vivid imagination. It's what makes his nightmares so excruciating and what made his long, monotonous days at sea bearable. It's why he had been able to envision a bright future, a freedom for all, even when all evidence in the world suggested nothing but misery. It's why every time his vision was thwarted, it had been so devastating. Everything had been so clear in his mind, if only everyone else could have seen it, too.

So Flint had imagined this, had dreamt every possible detail. Long before he’d ever known Thomas to still be alive, before Silver had even joined them in Boston. When it had just been a fleeting thought, dancing through his head to feel guilty over once the pleasure had passed. Now, when they're together, he's yet to enjoy the sight of them together. They’ll kiss, they'll touch, but only on their way to kissing and touching him. And the pleasure, the ecstasy, the sheer fucking bliss of having them both on him and in him and with him -- it's blinding. He can't see, he can only feel.

But he's seeing it now. He wishes he had a painter in the room to forever capture the hues of their skin blending together, Silver’s curls tangling around Thomas’s fingers, the pink flush around Thomas’s lips as he scrapes them along Silver’s bearded jaw. He’d have the artist paint it on the ceiling, like Michelangelo. Right above the bed, so he can see it right before and after waking. So he can live in his dreams a little longer.

He settles at the top of the bed as gently as possible. He pulls on his own cock, hot and heavy against his palm, mimicking the movement of Thomas's hand with practiced ease. He longs to touch both of them again, longs to have them come on his face together, to taste them both simultaneously, but he needs them to have this moment. He just has to hope time remains on his side, and this is just a new beginning for them. This isn’t all he’s imagined.

Flint has a very vivid imagination.

Silver strokes the sharp indent of Thomas’s spine, dipping hard at the dimples above his ass. He presses forward of his own choosing now, leveraging until Thomas falls backwards. But Silver gives him no opportunity to breathe, staying attached to his mouth the whole way down. Thomas can't keep his hand between them anymore, but because he's an industrious sort, he just starts lifting his hips up to grind against Silver’s cock, his good hand slipping back to press his fingers against Silver’s asshole. They're lying so their hair touches Flint’s knee, but God’s perfect idiots are too preoccupied to notice.

The candles and the fire downstairs have warmed the room considerably, and they both shine with sweat. Silver moans, pushing backwards into Thomas’s hand and then pushing down again, rubbing their cocks frantically together between their stomachs. They move together like dancers, like they’ve figured out how to do this ages ago.

Flint licks his palm and starts stroking himself faster, reaching lower with his other hand to fondle his balls. If he’d adequate time to prepare, he would have found a way to sneak a jar of oil in, let them decide naturally who would fuck who the first time, and he could fuck himself while he watched, thrusting his fingers into himself in unison with them. God, he can picture it every way and he honestly doesn’t know who’d go first. Because he’s so eager to see, so hungry for it. The world keeps delivering him firsts and he plans to enjoy every single fucking one of them.

Thomas arches away from Silver’s mouth, his back bending on the bed, his eyelashes fluttering. He groans Silver’s name, his hips stuttering and falling out of sync. Silver lifts his head from where he’d started sucking on Thomas’s throat, and Flint’s breath catches as he sees them properly look at each other for the first time since Silver had his hand on Thomas’s neck instead of his tongue.

They look stunned and gone, and of course neither can let the other have the last word, even when it’s a kiss instead of insults. After a fraction of a pause, they crush into each other again, Silver dragging him up just as Thomas pulls him down. They’re pressed too closely for Flint to tell which of them comes first, but he can tell the other is shortly behind, Silver’s gasp and Thomas’s whine combining to make the most beautiful note.

It’s been days since they’ve all touched each other, and they’ve spent these days feeling heated and on edge and worried and angry, so it’s not surprising Flint feels so close himself. But the thing that sets him over is when Silver and Thomas finally stop moving, stop kissing, pull apart just slightly and really see each other, see who they are, now that their passions have abated. It’s the look on their faces as Silver leans up on his hands, bandaged chest wet with their release, as Thomas sits up on his elbows, hair and lips a wild mess, as they gaze at each other, that finally have Flint moaning, hips working as he spills hot ropes of come onto his hand and stomach. He never closes his eyes. He can’t stop smiling.

Again, the only sound that fills the room is just their shared breathing. This time, though, he can just hear one animal. It sounds like they’re inhaling and exhaling as one.

A moment later, Thomas says, voice hoarse, “What the fuck was that?”

They’ve both turned to look at Flint, still panting up on the bed, but other than that, they haven’t moved.

Silver sighs an old sigh -- the longsuffering noise of a Quartermaster allowing his Captain’s maddest ideas. “That,” he says, settling back down onto Thomas’s chest, “was Captain James Flint. Isn’t he a bastard?”

Thomas blinks at Silver, suddenly closer to his face, then blinks up at Flint. “He --?”

“Is a manipulative asshole,” Silver finishes. “I’ve seen him do the same thing to steal his crew back from a mutinous commander. It’s unbelievable.”

“Christ, not the same thing,” Flint says, grimacing at the thought. Silver reaches up and tugs on Flint’s ankle until he shimmies down the bed to lie beside them. Truthfully, it’d be more comfortable back where he was, but also truthfully, he’s much more comfortable lying beside them.

Thomas seems to consider his next words, before going ahead and saying them anyway -- his signature move. “Mutinous? Is this the one you…?”

“No.” Flint moves the hair over Silver’s shoulder, allowing him to lie down fully on Thomas without it getting into his face. He leaves his hand there, stroking his fingers between where their bodies touch. “Different mutiny. Well, actually. The same mutiny, just an extended version of it.”

“Ah.” Thomas is smiling a little. His arm is around Silver’s back. “And you….killed this one, too?”

“No,” Flint says again, and stops. He doesn’t mean to, but he looks right at Silver.

But Silver is already answering anyway. “He’s the one whose head I took.” The crooked grin he gives Thomas is a downright playful , an expression he hadn’t think Silver capable of making.

Thomas rolls his eyes. “Noted. Remind me never to mutiny against either one of you.”

Flint couldn’t believe everything that happened tonight, but he really can’t believe they’re talking about this, here, with Silver and Thomas still wrapped around each other. With the night just barely started. He’s not sure where they’ll go from here, but he’s never been sure of that. He’s not sure what these new discoveries mean for him, if he can be the kind of person who can think about the past without it overpowering him. With his present triumphing, so the corners of his lips can still be upturned in happiness while talking about that time long ago.

As if reading his mind, Silver says, uncertainly, “Captain, you know it is entirely your decision to make, and I of course am never in a position to judge you for it. But if you’re worried that Thomas might react negatively to your history, you might find it interesting to note that he had an erection the entire time I had him by the throat.”

“Excuse me!” Thomas says, pushing against Silver’s chest. “Not. I mean. Not the entire time.”

Silver laughs, moving back with Thomas’s hand and sitting up all the way. He slides off Thomas’s lap into the space between him and Flint. Thomas sits up too, sliding out of his trousers. Silver does the same, a little slower to remove the wooden leg.

“So is everyone okay now?” Flint finds he needs to ask. “Are we done behaving like idiots?”

“Probably not,” Thomas admits, leaning behind Silver to touch Flint’s chest. “But I’m pleased to see you’ve developed a method to reduce these incidents. I’ve always admired your ingenuity.” He wipes some of Flint’s come off his stomach and licks it.

Flint grabs him by the face and kisses him, chasing after his own taste. He doesn’t stop until Silver falls backwards, crashing into their faces and splitting them apart.

“I’m sorry,” Silver says unapologetically. “Was that too metaphorical?”

Flint kisses him too, for being an asshole.

When he pulls away, he says, “I think you should write to Madi as though she hadn’t written anything about going off to war.” He settles down next to Silver, can feel Thomas doing the same on his other side. “Compose a normal letter, but wish her well. She wanted to see you finding a life here in the world. Show her you can. Show her you’re not pining, and you’re finding yourself. She’ll be comforted, I know it. She might not stop fighting, but make her understand there’s something for her back here.”

Silver looks pensive. Thomas hums in agreement. “You could tell her about my new job! She’ll be undoubtedly impressed. And I think she’ll be pleased to hear about Doctor Reynolds possibly fixing my hand. Then we could finally correspond properly. She’ll be thrilled.”

Silver rolls his eyes. “So you’re going to have the doctor break your hand, then?”

Thomas’s twisted hand rests on Silver’s chest, but he holds it up for them to see. “Yes, I think so. He said it has to be broken a certain way in order for it to set properly.”

But then he adds, somewhat shyly, “But I’m sure he’d show you how, if you wanted to do it.”

And Silver responds, equally shy, “Yeah, alright. I suppose I could.”

Flint sighs, closing his eyes. “You two are exhausting.”

They lie there quietly. It is only early evening, but Flint does feel both ready to sleep and eager to stay awake and enjoy every second in this bed. There’s still another pie downstairs. They have to tend to the fire so they don’t freeze in the night, or burn the place down. They should clean themselves up, lie down properly on the bed, and discover how well Flint’s mediation holds up.

Then Silver says, “I could probably tell Madi how I’m taking over ownership of the Three Swallows Inn.”

The words hang above them impossibly, because they're heavy things.

Flint rises on one hand to look at Silver. Thomas has done the same. Unlike Flint, though, Thomas’s face looks more angry than disbelieving.

“You what?

“Mr. Levine hated the business,” Silver says, unconcerned at the two of them hovering over him. “It was easy to convince him to retire, now that his daughters have all been married off. He and his wife wanted to live somewhere warmer. I suggested Savannah, but in my defence, you were being exceptionally annoying that day.”

“And he’s just giving it to you,” Thomas says, voice rising. “His whole business. He’s just handing it over.”

Silver looks confused by Thomas’s mounting fury. “Plus the apartments over the Inn. We’ll have to evict the young couple living there now, the only occupants, but I figured we might rent out this house to them for the same price. It’s better suitable here for a growing family, don’t you think? I made Mr. Levine promise to let me pay him a percentage for the Inn each month for a year, but I have a feeling he’ll forgo the payments by January. We can move next month.”

Thomas continues to gape at him, face red.

“I’m like the son he never had,” Silver explains with a shrug. Then he winces, cupping his injured shoulder. “Ow.”

“Good!” Thomas shouts, jumping out of bed. “I hope you’re in terrible pain! There,” he snarls at Flint. “Am I doing it right?”

“Where are you going?” Flint asks as Thomas snatches an old blanket from the floor and wraps it around himself. He wears it like a toga -- an itchy, flustered Caesar. He looks magnificent and ridiculous and fiery, the way Flint had always held him in his heart when he thought he was gone, but perhaps never truly was. But he is now, so perfectly real and solid, beautiful in his bruises and his indignation and his blanket. He hears an echo of Miranda in his heart, looking at him. Flint knows what she would say, if she saw him now. Here is Thomas, fully formed.

I heard there was pie! ” Thomas stomps out of the room, then turns around and stomps back it. “Honestly, do you know the hoops I had to jump through tonight to seem evenly marginally qualified to be a doctor’s assistant? What do you know about running a business, you shit! Both of you! You- you pirates! Why don’t the two of you manipulate France into ending the bleedin’ war, if you’re so capable? Convince the King of bloody England to settle up in Philadelphia? Save me the goddamned effort! Honestly!” He storms out the room again in a swish of flannel.

Silver calls out, “I’ll let you drink for free!”

Thomas yells back, “I’ll make you live to regret that promise!”

Silver leans back, smirking up at him. He’s warm and smooth where he’s pressed against Flint. Maybe that’s why he always looks like he belongs in the present day. However Flint is, whoever Flint is -- Silver always fits. He’s a constant, fitting into him exactly no matter how often Flint is in flux.

“Don’t worry, Captain, I think he secretly likes pirates,” Silver says, rubbing his cheek against Flint’s chest. He chews on his bottom lip and looks up at Flint, eyes bright and nervous. “So, d’you think she’d want to hear about the Inn, then?”

Flint has no idea at all what just happened in this room. In this house, in this town. He feels like his life has always been one of Silver’s mad, impossible clocks: ticking backwards, chiming suddenly, at odd intervals. Each strike in his life would be another brutal reminder of his time running out. The complex inner mechanisms of his world worked effortlessly to be off-balanced, to keep him guessing.

He used to only guess the worst. He used to always be right.  

Let the clocks chime whenever they fucking please. Now Flint has all the time in the world.