The journey to the coast is fast and frantic. A ship awaits, bound for America. James is troubled by dreams of the gallows and wakes gasping and terrified. The night before they are to board the ship, he gets stinking drunk and passes out. Will settles him to bed and returns downstairs. Rebecca is there still, sipping from the dregs of James’ glass.
Will decides to make the best of it. They’re to be trapped on a ship for God knows how long, he might as well try and make nice. “You play?” he asks, taking out a set of cards.
“Sometimes.” Rebecca smiles warmly. Will can see how a man might get himself stupid, over a face like hers.
The game is slow and ponderous. Will feels as though he is being judged, though for what crimes who can say? The litany of his offenses is longer than his arm by this point.
Rebecca loses the game.
“Pity we weren’t playing for stakes,” Will grins. “I coulda gotten some of that fortune of yours.”
“Or something more valuable.” Rebecca suggests.
Will frowns. “Such as?”
“You have given me my heart’s desire, sir,” she says. “And I believe it is in my power to give you yours.”
Will can’t help but crack a smile, though it’s a mirthless one. “And what might that be?”
“The heart of James Macleane.”
The smile slides from his face like mud. “You ought not to jest of such things, madam,” he warns.
“I do not jest.” Rebecca straightens in her chair. “I wanted my freedom. You have removed the only obstacle that remained in my way. I could join the pair of you on the road, in America … or stay here with my fortune and seek a husband of my own choosing.” She smiles sadly. “Could I tame the Gentleman Highwayman? Perhaps. But I fear his eyes would always be wandering to the next games table, the next woman, the next … adventure.” She gestures to Will. “You belong at his side, for good or ill. So, I shall render up his heart to you, if you would have it.”
Christ, but Will wants it. He wants it so badly it twists up his guts in the night and keeps him awake. He wants it so badly it makes him do mad things like storm the Tyburn Tree to rescue a notorious criminal.
Rebecca seems to read his answer on his face. “I could break it, if you like. I would prefer not to. But if you would rather pick up the pieces after I have gone, I could manage that as well.” She lays a hand over his. “I am repaying my debt to you: the choice is yours.”
A vicious part of Will wants to set her to it, to shatter James and leave him broken. It would serve James right for pissing away their hard won fortune in secret.
“No.” Will turns his head away. “Don’t … don’t harm him. He’s gone through hell already, we shouldn’t send him back again. Just … leave. Tell him you’re leaving. Dress it up as pretty as you like.”
Rebecca nods. “Take care of him, won’t you?”
“Good. If I hear tell that you’ve done him ill, I shall come after you.” Her eyes flicker, dark and dangerous, and he remembers her pistol tucked under her petticoat. “Do not cross me, sir.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
She nods, and takes her leave.
James is sullen on the ship to America. Will hadn’t seen him on his progress to Tyburn, but he images James looked much the same then as he does now: stoic of face and putting up a brave front for any who care to look at him, and gloomy as a funeral mourner.
There is precious little to do for entertainment on board. James gambles with the other passengers at cards, losing it all before Will arrives to win most of it back. Once he sickens of that, James seeks out the sailors. Will finds them far more to his liking than the posh passengers at least. Since the sailors have little coin amongst them, games often end with the most unlucky man doing something foolish and outlandish as payment.
James, frequently the loser of these games, strips himself of his shirt and waistcoat and stands half-naked before them all on numerous occasions. There is much laughter and crude jokes at his expense, without any real malice behind it. Life at sea grows tiresome without some respite.
Will watches, looks over James on those nights when he loses to the sailors. There have been many handsome men in his life, and James ranks high among their number by Will’s estimations. He’s not pretty like a woman, but he’s not the rough type that Will used to get bent by in dodgy pubs either. He’s … James.
And Rebecca gave him to Will.
It’s too risky on the ship to make any sort of advance. James was friendly with Rochester, but so were many men, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. James probably won’t smack Will in the jaw for trying to court him, but there’s no telling if he’ll accept an offer either.
Will prowls the ship and plots his future.
One night there is a storm. The passengers are confined to their cabins for their own safety while outside the sailors battle Nature herself.
Will and James share a bottle of something James managed to win off a midshipman the previous evening.
“I read that you spoke of me in the court,” Will offers, when the conversation lags. “I know most of those broadsheets are bullshit, crap a dozen men have said over a dozen years, but how much of it was truth?”
James looks uncharacteristically bashful. “What did you read?”
“That you called me more honorable than any of the toffs in that court, and your only regret was cheating me.”
James nods. “I did say those things, yes.”
“And meant them?”
James’ eyes flash with anger. “Of course I meant them! I meant every word!”
Will grins. “You warmed to me after all!” He gives James a companionable clap on the arm. He wants to kiss James, pin him to the small bunk and ravish him like a man as handsome as James ought to be ravished. “Declaring your loyalty to me on the stand? Proper dramatic you are. Real lovely of you.”
“It was my only hope of you, well, hearing about it eventually.” James lowers his gaze. “I could hardly write to you from Newgate with my apologies. And I never dreamed to think you’d be so stupid as to come to my hanging!”
“That wasn’t stupid. That was a good plan and it went off brilliantly.”
“I nearly died!”
“But you didn’t!” Will spreads his hands wide. “Not many men can say they’ve died and come back, now can they? More intrigue for your highwayman, a certain air of mystery.”
James shudders. “I would rather have avoided it altogether. It was … horrid.”
Will sobers. “I’ve seen my share of hangings. Nasty business.” He takes another swig from the bottle. “Did you at least see the angels?”
The look of confusion on his partner’s face gives Will his answer.
“Sometimes when a man’s hanged, he sees the angels,” Will smiles, just this side of rakish. “And, well, he’s very pleased to see them …” he gestures to his cock. “You’ve seen hangings before, haven’t you?”
“Of course!” James snaps. “But I never … I don’t …”
“You’ve seen it before.” Will smirks. “Not like it’s rare. Tyburn gets right crowded usually, at least half the men see the angels from what I’ve noticed.”
“No, I saw no angels. I saw …” James abruptly stops speaking. “Never you mind what I saw.” He grumbles, nursing the bottle for the rest of the storm-tossed evening.
Will shrugs, and tries to get some sleep as the cabin pitches and outside sailors bellow.
America is not what either of them expected. There are echoes of England, but a spirit unique and strange. They find almost respectable lodgings just as the sun slips behind the buildings.
As with many cheap rooms, there is only a single bed, and it must be shared for warmth. Will has long since grown accustomed to such practices, but James still puts up a bit of gentleman’s hesitance about the thing. He fusses with the candle on the mantle, folding and refolding his jacket by the door.
“If it bothers you that much, you can sleep on the floor, but I’m not budging.” Will splays out on the mattress. “Plenty of room, I promise. Not like I bite.” He smirks. “Unless you like that sort of thing?” Will never did get around to asking the whores James visited what he liked in bed.
James flushes and climbs in beside Will, avoiding eye contact. “This ought to have been my wedding night,” he says at last.
Ah, right. That. Will shifts. “Want me to go find you a woman?” he hates himself for offering, but it’s not as though he knows whether James fancies men as well. All evidence points to pretty women with dark hair. James needs cheering up, and if Will can provide that, then that’s enough for now.
“No.” James snaps. “I don’t … I want …” he sighs angrily.
Will waits, for such a long time he wonders if James has fallen asleep.
“You want to know what I saw, that day? When they hoisted me up to watch me strangle to death?” James asks, voice hoarse.
Will’s not sure he does. “What did you see?”
Will sits up in bed, staring down at James. The candle doesn’t give off much light, but it’s enough to see James’ eyes staring back up at him.
“Everything we’d done together. The robberies, the duel, that damned infection, Newgate, the graveyard, all of it.” James sits up as well.
Will forgets how to breathe.
James leans close, then closer, and then suddenly they are kissing, embracing, toppling onto the mattress. It’s not a scrambling fight to pin the other down, as Will has experienced in the past. It’s desperate and yearning. Will thinks he saw a man and wife kiss like this once, when the man was bound for the Tyburn Tree.
It’s James who breaks the kiss, and pulls away, panting like a dog.
Will grabs for him and seizes him by the collar.
James stiffens. “You saved my life. If you want to kill me for what I’ve done, then so be it. I won’t fight you. Not any more.”
Will gawks at him. “You … pompous fool,” he manages. “Get back down here and finish what you’ve started!” He hauls James down into another kiss, a deeper kiss. Reaching, he gets a hand around James’ waist and pulls them close. To his delight, he can feel James’ cock pressed to his thigh, hard and full of promise.
“Fuck!” James gasps.
“That’s what I was thinking.” Will chuckles. “Good plan.” He gets his other hand around James’ waist to squeeze his arse. “God, I’ve wanted you for ages.”
“Sorry to have kept you waiting.” James moans and ruts against Will’s leg.
“No more waiting.” Will promises.
There are conversations to be had, about preferences, and history, and whether they’ll seek their fortunes west of here or rob fat merchants on the riverbanks.
For now, for tonight, Will is content to have his heart’s desire.