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"James?"

James stood, gaze focused inward, with a tense set about his eyes as though afraid they might turn back to the island behind him if he wasn't careful. He seemed to be listening to a far-off shout, some voice only he could hear.

Then he took a step forward and followed Thomas aboard.

As the ship pulled away from the shore they stood above deck and watched the distance between themselves and the island grow. With every pace gained, Thomas felt something ease inside him, as though an invisible band around his breast was loosening.

James leaned against the gunwale. A clatter of metal and wood made him look down and with a frown he removed the sword from his hip.

Thomas watched him regard it a moment.

Then James tossed it to the waves.

"And take Flint with you," he said.

---


Thomas had no idea how James could sleep so deeply through the ship's rocking. Moderate waves, yes, Thomas could abide those, but the sea and sky seemed to have conspired to make the ship their plaything tonight.

He extracted himself from the bunk they had crammed themselves into together—room to move also meant room to be knocked about by the ship's motion—and soothed James back down with as steady a hand as he could muster.

"I'll be right back," he said. Sometimes a brief turn about and a breath of fresh air could help in setting a restless mind to sleep.

Nothing could have persuaded Thomas to venture all the way up on deck, but he did peek outside. Cold water sprayed his face and wind buffeted his ears. The sky seemed terribly close, heavy and soft like a palm descending to stifle a man's breath. Once, then twice lightning extended spidery, grasping fingers down into the sea.

Trying to grab us, Thomas thought, irrationally. To drag us back.

He shivered, suddenly afraid that the storm would reach into the ship to pluck him out and toss him to the waves.

Thomas cursed himself for a fool when he had to rouse James back awake to fit himself back into their bunk.

"It's fine," James mumbled, already half-asleep again, when Thomas whispered his apologies. Ensconced in Thomas' arms, fitted snugly chest to back, he seemed perfectly comfortable despite the incessant swaying.

Or perfectly exhausted.

Thomas gently rubbed James' chest as he himself began drifting off again. James had never wanted to go on this journey to begin with, and it had drained both of them.

"Nearly home again, love," he whispered into James' hair.

Almost asleep, Thomas shuddered at a gust of air at the back of his neck. A gentle, warm puff, as of a soft breath very close behind him.

He blamed a stray draught and sank into merciful sleep.


---

Thomas' eyes stuttered past the door across the hall from their bedroom.

He should have taken off his boots right after entering the house. Instead he dragged travel dust and remains of crushed, green things into their bedroom and allowed himself to collapse face-first onto the plush bedding. He rubbed his face on the woven blanket draped over the top.

"So good to be home," Thomas groaned. "James, what's taking you so long?"

"Taking off my shoes so I don't make a mess of everything," James' voice sounded from the kitchen and Thomas grinned into the pillows.

"I'm still wearing my shoes so it's no use worrying about the mess, come join me."

"A fine mess," came James' reply from the room across the hall.

Thomas blinked and twisted around. He could see the second door standing slightly open. He couldn't remember opening it.

He couldn't remember the door at all.

The thought slithered in his fingers and slipped through them slick as fish guts.

There was a second door across the hall.

Of course there was.

"Do you want tea?" James called from the kitchen. Eyes slipping over and over the other door, Thomas took a moment to respond.

"I want you to come here."

"Love to," said James' voice through the second door.

"I take it you have no intention of helping me unpack then," James said from the kitchen, drawing closer, and stepped into the bedroom. His eyes softened the way they always did when they caught sight of Thomas and Thomas rolled onto his back, suddenly eager.

"Come here." He opened his arms wide, wide enough to fit all of James between them. "You can unpack me."

James huffed a laugh and swayed in the doorway a moment as if indecisive, but the hint of a grin gave away the game long before he followed the invitation and sank between Thomas' legs, resting his head comfortably under Thomas' chin. Thomas wrapped a leg around James' hip and tapped a knuckle against his lover's jaw to encourage him to tilt his face up for a kiss.

"God." James made a sound half-groan, half-sigh into Thomas' ear and continued to nuzzle moist kisses into its shell.

"There's not much unpacking to be done anyway," Thomas said and pushed his hips up invitingly. "We can do that tomorrow." James made a noise that was probably meant to convey dismay, but only said yes. His hands were already working on Thomas' belt. "Christ, I hate ships. Why is there so little privacy on a ship?"

James grinned down at him - soft, all soft, with just enough teeth. Like his kisses. "It's common practice on most pirate ships to tear out the walls so everyone shares one sleeping space. Including the captain," he added.

"But given your emphasis on common I assume you didn't."

"You assume correctly."

Thomas mourned the loss of James' weight and warmth as he slid off the bed to pull off Thomas' boots. James knocked his sword off the bed with a clatter as he did. Neither paid it any mind.

Together they made short work of their clothes. The room was warm enough that they stayed on top of the blankets, and Thomas enjoyed seeing all of James in the dusky light that fell through the window. It had been too many days.

The bedside drawer was already open when Thomas reached out blindly to fumble for the oil they kept in it. He spilled some on the bed but couldn't make himself care. He was too busy groaning as James prepared him and slid home.

"Missed you," James sighed and Thomas canted his hips up in encouragement by way of an answer. He thought of pointing out that they had spent every waking minute together on the voyage, but he knew what James meant. He, too, had missed the easy and open intimacy their own four walls provided.

All attempts at words dissolved into groans and sighs, deep in their chests and high in their throats, and Thomas thought he heard their pulses thudding like boot steps, just out of hearing, but it might also have been the bed frame knocking into the wall, or a knuckle tapping at the open door.


---

Thomas was woken by the scent of cooking food. He sniffed and burrowed closer into the warm tangle of James' hair on the pillow.

Life was exceedingly simple in this slumberous, fog-minded, love-hazy dawn.

James was beside him. Thomas stayed close.

"It'll go cold if you don't come eat soon," James called from the kitchen.

"Just a moment," Thomas said and sighed, allowing himself to wallow for just a moment in the memory of last night. It had been good. It was always good, but privation tended to make all things sharper. He was pleasantly sore. With a last wistful exhale Thomas extricated himself from warm limbs and blankets and pulled on his shirt and breeches before padding into the kitchen.

James called. Thomas followed.

The second door stood open. Another bedroom. He had seen that room before, the thick posts of the bed, the surprisingly dainty bedside table with its single candle. Of course it must have been here all along, he had seen it before.

James sat halfway through his plate of food at the table. There was a tiny bit of egg stuck to his beard and Thomas felt the urge to wipe it away with a thumb, and wondered why he didn't. He took his place across the corner from James where a plate was already waiting. Beside it, a cup of tea so hot it scalded Thomas' tongue. He stuck it out of his mouth, affronted, and James flashed him a grin. A sharp, feral thing made entirely of teeth.

"I'll help you unpack in a bit," Thomas said. "I just really had other things on my mind last night. I needed that."

"I say," James said and looked back at his plate.

"God, I love you," James said and strolled into the room, brushing his uncombed hair out of his face. "That smells wonderful. I'll wash up after."

"Oh, I didn't make it. You... did."

The last words hung in the room a moment. Thomas stared at James. James stared at James. James stared at his plate.

James fetched another plate and helped himself to what was left on the stove. He sat across the other corner from Thomas, moving his sword off the chair before settling, and began to eat. Thomas swiped a speck of yolk from the corner of his mouth and stuck the finger in his own mouth without hesitation. He noted the lack of so much as stubble on James' jaw. It had been a while since he had seen James smooth and bare-faced like this. Not since... many years ago.

Thomas looked over at James with his finished plate and shorn head—which he hadn't seen on him since mere weeks after his arrival in chains at Oglethorpe's.

"Love," Thomas said to last night's bedfellow. "Is this Flint?"

James grunted in that way he did when he did not want to admit agreement, and so did Flint.

Thomas considered this a moment, and resumed eating.

 

Chapter Text

 

"How are the horses?"

Thomas' question was almost drowned out by the sound of rain, a great rushing torrent of noise that was cut off when James closed the entrance to the cellar behind him.

"They're hardy beasts," James said and sat on the bottom-most step with a sigh. "And the stable didn't burn with the rest of the house, so they're not going anywhere."

Thomas nodded and turned his attention back to the clutter surrounding him, these piles of memories and lost purpose. In the flickering light of the oil lamp it felt as though he were wading through deep canyons, towering high with stories he had long forgotten or never learnt at all. The shelves and stacks of crates were marked where fingertips had trailed in mournful, reverent curiosity.

Brushing dust from the lid of a large chest made him revise his metaphor. Not a canyon, but an abyss. Deep down in the ocean, seeing only as far as his lamp illuminated his surroundings.

Lifting the lid of the chest revealed silk, lace, linen. Sunken treasure.

"She got this here?" Thomas asked, trailing his fingers over the strange, distorted florals of a gown lying uppermost. Bizarre silk: fanciful and strange, calling to mind the fine, eastern arts it mimicked.

James cast a quick glance at the robe and turned away.

"When I first took ships I would always bring her part of the spoils. Taffeta, silk ribbons, the finest threads. I stopped when she told me those fineries weren't conducive to convincing people that she was a mere Puritan woman."

Thomas delved deeper into the chest, brushing past quilted petticoats and richly embroidered stomachers. There was a gown whose fabric he recognised: the contouche he'd had made for her birthday from that lovely striped silk, the wide pleats opened up and refashioned into a mantua. Its cut was much more practical, but there were few traces of wear on it, so he concluded that the fine cloth had simply proved too delicate for everyday use, and been stowed away in this chest. He thumbed the towering frill of a fontange cap: the wires supporting it were cool between his fingers.

Another dress had been left intact, but all gold thread had been removed. To sell or trade, Thomas guessed and felt the knot in his stomach tighten. Likely when James had fallen on lean times while robbing fat merchantmen.

At the very bottom, Thomas stopped. Dark blue fabric, silver buttons, crisp white linen.

He pulled James' uniform from the chest and laid it atop Miranda's fineries. James had turned his back.

With a sigh Thomas stood, leaving the uniform where James might see later.

There was an entire shelf of preserves.

"I don't think those are edible anymore," James said and tapped a nail against one of the glass jars. "But she always made much more than necessary." He hesitated before adding, "She liked to keep busy."

Thomas brushed a hand along James' lower back as he joined him. Something deeper in the gloom caught his eye: a pale, slim shape about as long as his arm.

When Thomas pulled the sword from its sheath the blade gleamed in the dim light. It looked keen as a hawk's beak. He brushed a finger along the edge.

"Oh," Thomas said when blood welled up from his thumb. James took the Navy sword from his hand with an expression that couldn't seem to decide between worry and dismay.

"What are you doing?" he said and took Thomas' hand in his own.

"I didn't think it would still be so sharp."

James gave him a glum look and unceremoniously tossed the sword aside. It clattered out of sight, somewhere in the dark recesses between crates and chests.

"I didn't use it once I had firmly established myself on the island," he said and ripped a strip from his handkerchief to tie it around Thomas' thumb. "Of course it didn't go blunt from lying unused for close to ten years."

"You shouldn't have thrown it away like that."

"What use in honouring it? It was useless when you were taken from us, and it did nothing to bring you back to me."

Thomas cupped James' cheek in his palm. "It served you well for many years even before you knew me, and it kept you safe when you first ventured to Nassau so that you returned to me healthy and hale. I cherish that."

If Thomas had hoped for a smile he was disappointed; too painful seemed to be the thought of gratitude towards anything connected to the Navy or James' service to England. He kissed James' brow in lieu of saying anything more.

Thomas continued prodding for another few hours. His curious fingers and eager eyes ate up the history around him, these hidden treasures that were not laid out for him, but that he had to open and pull apart and interpret. James retreated to the bottom of the stairs, where he had built a little nook of two chairs, a number of crates and blankets he had pulled from a chest.

Finally, Thomas put down a worn-out pair of stays, whose baleen boning poked through the binding at the top of the channels, and moved to sit beside James. James wordlessly wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pulled a packet from the saddlebags on the ground beside him. Thomas stayed quiet as James fed him hard cheese and bread, chewing mechanically. The wet smell of salt rose into his nose and he stilled James' hands, set aside the food and pulled James down to rest his sorrowful head on Thomas' shoulder instead.

The night passed fitfully.

Time and time again Thomas would decide that he had seen enough, that he had found what he had come for—some sort of understanding, some sense of closure—and hunker down beside James, declaring that it was time to sleep. It was only to startle back awake with the next roll of thunder and fly into a jittery panic that this was his last opportunity to see what had passed in this house, this house that was now only burnt ruins above his head, and to a grumble from James he'd extract himself from the blankets and light another candle to begin rummaging again.

"Don't deny me this, James," Thomas said and waited until James lowered his eyes. Thomas wanted to sink to his knees and take James' hand, exchange soft words until they both could stop hurting over this. But there was no time, so little time, and so Thomas knelt before crates and stacks of papers instead and ran his thumbs along the edges of old letters in his fruitless search for lost time.

He imagined Miranda's hands as they bundled up things to be put away for later. Had they changed much? Had her soft, firm hands become coarse and calloused? Had she started wearing her hair in a simpler fashion, tucked under a linen cap?

The lavishly embroidered stomachers tucked into the cedar chests had long stopped smelling of Miranda's perfume. He wanted to ask if she had worn perfume in this house, but Thomas didn't dare wake James from his uneasy slumber for this. He would ask later.

He was already asking so much.

And how little it still seemed to him.

Thomas fantasised that any moment now, Miranda would press her face between his shoulder blades and squeeze his waist from behind and chide him laughingly for a fool, because there was no way that she was gone.

He glanced over letters and accounts and tied-up papers and knew that she had been gone for a long time.

Thomas' eyes had long run dry, from grief and exhaustion both. Eventually he found himself unable to keep them open: his very eyelids felt sore as they dragged across his sight with each blink. So this was it: this would be the last crate he had searched tonight.

"Rest," James mumbled when Thomas fitted himself into his embrace. Thomas breathed a long sigh and was asleep before the next inhale.

In his dreams he was still sifting through his late wife's possessions, through James'. Everytime he thought he had finally seen through everything, he would discover another crate behind the one before him. And he knew that in the next, there would be a diary, a letter, a whisper that would finally make it as though he had been there, as though he had not left them alone for so long.

The dreams winked in and out of the darkness, so real that he wasn't sure if he wasn't sleep-walking after all, searching for meaning still. He thought that in between stretches of restless sleep he would find James gone and look up to see his lover bent over a shelf, or digging through a chest, candle in hand. Overhead, thunder continued rolling across the land, and Thomas thought that these brief glimpses of wakefulness showed him flash-like the events of this night.

When he did wake properly, it was to the feeling of air brushing along his skin, which covered in a light sheen of sweat. A breeze drifted down into the cellar through the open door. Pale light slanted into the room.

James was nowhere to be seen, but the voices of birds and the whisper of palm fronds drifted down to Thomas' ears. A horse snorted somewhere above, and then boot steps approached the cellar.

"The horses are fine," James said when he climbed down the stairs. "But eager to be gone." As am I, he didn't add, but Thomas understood. He couldn't allow himself to forget that to James, this place was not a mere memorial, a cache of lost time trapped in amber, but a living thing that had died before his eyes.

"Alright," Thomas said, and still failed to turn from the secret-laden darkness beyond the patch of light. James gently took his hand.

"Take what you need," he said and squeezed Thomas' fingers.

Thomas filled two saddlebags with papers and books and trinkets. James retreated back outside.

The air was humid but less stifling than the cellar, and the sunshine and wind helped Thomas regain focus. He felt as though the edges of his vision had been blurry and only now regained sharpness.

"Good morning," Thomas said softly and rubbed his horse's nose. She snorted and pulled away to nose at his pockets instead, hoping for a treat. She was a sturdy creature, with a pleasant gait that wasn't too hard on his backside. He hadn't ridden a horse in many years before coming here.

"Ready to go?" James asked. His voice was a little threadbare, but gentle.

Thomas turned back to the charred ruins of Miranda's house. James' house. He brushed his fingertips along a blackened beam in the wall.

"I'm ready," he said then.

His fingertips came away black, and the traces lingered even once he had wiped them on his handkerchief.

 

- - -

 

There were things to do. Errands to run, food to purchase, neighbours to inform of their return, floors to sweep. Thomas clung to these things as he went about his day.

Captain Flint made breakfast for me, he thought over and over.

"Thank you for looking after our chickens," he told Mrs Price and thought, Captain Flint makes an excellent boiled egg. And, I was in bed with the man that is Captain Flint, after a fashion, and who also looks like my lover from ten years ago. While Captain Flint boiled eggs and toasted bread in my kitchen.

"I'll resume class tomorrow," he told young Bertram Winsterly, who might have hated mathematics but hated being forced to help his sisters around the farm even more. All the while, Thomas thought, Captain Flint has taken up residence in our house, in the second bedroom. Which wasn't there before. Or maybe it was. And he made breakfast and I ate it.

Thomas was still thinking these things when he returned home to their cottage outside of the fishing town. They had chosen it for its convenient but unobtrusive location between larger ports, and for the privacy it afforded them.

James was oiling the leather of his travel-worn boots. Flint was nowhere in sight. Thomas stepped out of his own shoes and sat heavily beside James on the wooden bench by the front door.

"Captain Flint made breakfast for me," he said and God, it was good to get it out.

James slid his greasy fingers between Thomas' dusty ones. His fingertips pressed along the fleshy pads below the base of Thomas' fingers, and Thomas sighed. He remembered the touch and the pressure and the exact size of the hands. He had felt them on himself ten years ago, had felt them last night.

"He makes a good egg," James said. "Not much else good about him."

Thomas frowned at their hands, turned this over in his mind, and made as if to rise. Before he could, the fingers tightened around his own and James leant in for a kiss. There was hesitation there, an unspoken request for permission, which Thomas granted without pausing to think.

"I love you," James said when he pulled away.

"You too."

It was the least confused he had felt all day, saying that. There were many things he wanted to ask, so many things that needed saying, but this had been the most important. Thomas kissed James again for good measure, long-haired and smooth-cheeked and beautiful. Then he went inside to finally unpack those bags and made another discovery.

James' old uniform lay neatly folded in the bottom of Thomas' bag, beneath clothes and a modest collection of books. Crisp and blue with its round buttons and silver trim. Keeping it out of the light for so long had done well to preserve the colour, and it smelled faintly of the cedar chest that had kept moths at bay.

Thomas wanted to ask James if he had packed it but he saw no reason why James wouldn't have just carried it in his own modest luggage.

"Hanging after old times, I see."

Thomas didn't immediately turn around and exhaled with as much control as he could muster.

"And you aren't? When he came to Savannah, James told me you were gone. For good."

The muscles in Flint's cheeks tensed in a manner as fascinating as it was unreadable. Flint shifted his weight away from the door jamb against which he had been leaning and sank into an easy crouch beside Thomas to examine the uniform.

"You brought this with you?"

Thomas frowned. He didn't remember packing it. But by all evidence it must have come to their home with him.

"Yes," he said finally. It was not a lie, he supposed, if he was stating a clear, if inexplicable fact.

He watched Flint's hands as they smoothed over the fabric. They were the same size and shape as James', strong and calloused from years at sea, and Thomas had no doubt they would be just as warm to the touch. Flint flicked one of the buttons with his nail and there was something so casually lewd about the gesture that Thomas had to avert his eyes.

"You know me, I assume?" Thomas asked. "I mean, I know we have never met, but—"

"I know you," Flint interrupted and the odd timbre of his voice made Thomas blink, and he was about to burst out with a half-formed question to—

"What are you doing with that?" James strode into the room and tugged the uniform coat from Flint's hands—or attempted to, at least, because Flint showed no inclination of letting go. For a moment they were locked in silent, motionless struggle, neither willing to relinquish the coat.

"Oh, enough," Thomas said finally and took the garment from their suddenly unresisting hands.

Their expressions of contrition were remarkably similar.

Thomas did not ask the obvious question until they had reduced dinner to grease to be mopped up from their plates with scraps of bread. Flint really was a surprisingly adept cook.

"What's going on?"

The question lay heavy as storm clouds over the table. Thomas looked between the other two men: his lover, and the man his lover had become, and ceased to be, his future and past simultaneously—or at least, this was what James had given him to understand.

"I don't know what he's doing here," James said and jerked a rude thumb at Flint, who was drawing idle circles in the grease left on his plate. "But I want him gone."

"Gone where?" Flint snorted. "You want me to go out into the world again?"

"I want you to go back where you came from."

"Fine."

James blinked. "Fine?"

"I'll go. And it'll take me all of a moment because I don't have to go anywhere at all to grant your wish."

"You did not come from a cottage in Georgia. We've never even set foot in Georgia until a year ago."

"We?"

James coloured. It wasn't the charming flush of arousal Thomas liked so well on him, but the bloom of heat that announced an impending outburst. "Thomas and I," he corrected himself, and halted. "Me," he amended then.

"Hm." Flint said nothing but he smugly sucked the grease from his fingertip. Thomas felt a flush of his own rising. James had come to him like this, shorn and bearded, and he remembered the slow rub of those bristles against his hands, the clink of the earring against his teeth. The hard texture of those rings against his palm. He remembered that face, swollen red with tears of joy and nose full of snot, undignified and honest and alive.

Flint caught Thomas' gaze and held it as he let the finger slip from his mouth. There was nothing intentionally erotic about it, as far as Thomas could tell - none of the roguish affectations that grand stories of a lawless pirate might lead one to expect. No wink, no smirk, not even a twinkle in his eye. Just the quiet intensity of a sea always just below the boiling point.

Thomas, though not a terror of the seas, was at least as stubborn as James, and was determined to be at least as much so again as Flint—he was entirely set against looking away first, except James said something to draw his attention and they both turned towards him, not a breath's difference between them.

James' eyes were measuring, and Thomas felt the gentle pressure of his knee against his own.

"What are we going to do with him?" James repeated. "He's right, I don't want him just running about, who knows what he's going to burn down."

"England, if I had any say," Flint said lightly. "At the very least I'd like to go back to the Oglethorpe estate and set it on fire like we should have before leaving."

Thomas felt the thought drop into his stomach like a heavy stone. He had—when they'd left, they hadn't—

They'd taken their meagre possessions and slunk away under cover of darkness, and he had never quite stopped thinking about it.

He opened his mouth, closed it again.

"You're doing the dishes," Flint said with a decisive nod at James, though he kept a shrewd look fixed on Thomas' face. James bristled at the casual order, but Thomas helped him, so James was mollified again by his company. Thomas found a sudsy finger pinching his ear and he squirmed away laughing, and pushed aside the oppressive spectre of Oglethorpe's.

When they emerged into the living-room Flint had already lit the fireplace. Curling up on the settee with a book was supposed to dispel Thomas' unsteady mood, but he found himself unable to concentrate on his reading. He closed the book with a sigh.

He was reclining on his settee, James stroking the arch of his foot with an absentminded hand, warmed by a fire Captain Flint had lit in the hearth of Thomas' house. The absurdity of it all almost made him laugh.

Thomas put a thumb to his mouth in thought, tapped the nail against his teeth. What was there to be done about a situation as mad as this?

When he looked up he noticed two pairs of green, intent eyes fixed upon his finger in his mouth, and he set the realisation aside to think about later. God, he was going to think about it.

"I assume," he said, "that since none of us has any idea of what precisely is going on or how to fix it, or if it even is something in need of fixing"—James made a sound of protest and Flint glowered at his counterpart, but Thomas went on, determined—"given all these things, I suggest we arrange ourselves as best we can with the present situation. Until we arrive at some sort of conclusion. Or maybe we'll all learn to enjoy it."

James snorted. "Hardly likely."

"I said maybe." Thomas pushed a hand through his hair.

"We should discuss sleeping arrangements," Flint interjected.

They looked at him.

"Thomas and I are sharing," James said firmly. "We woke up in our bed, as we have every morning since we came here. You can have the room across the hall."

Thomas rolled his lips inward. "I suppose that's for the best. We don't use it much anyway, except—" But he had no idea what they had ever used the room for, and he shook his head lightly to clear away the haze. "There's a bed already in it, it only makes sense."

"And leaves you in peace in your love nest," Flint said, and again Thomas noticed how plainly he said things and yet how sharp they cut.

Thomas didn't know what to say to that. His lover was James, the tender, fire-bright, tearful, vengeful man he had fallen in love with, who had attempted to burn down England for him and kissed him, weeping, in a field and had since done everything in his power to supply Thomas with a life of quiet peace. Confusion over this new state of things aside, there was no doubt that James—the long-haired, smooth-shaved one—was as much in love with Thomas as he had ever been, and thought of Thomas as nothing less than his. In the present jumble, that steadfast assurance at least was dependable and welcome.

"There's more to think of than sleeping arrangements," Thomas said to cover his pondering. "What will you do now that you're here?"

"Why are you addressing only me?" Flint shifted more upright, and though he was across the room he seemed to loom. "If my existence is so sure to be temporary, why not his as well?"

"Because you are a spectre of my creation," James snapped. His fingers had stilled curled on Thomas' foot. "There was no Captain Flint before I lost Thomas. You're a fabrication, and that's what you'll return to being once this is all done with."

"Is that what you're hoping?" Flint's narrowed eyes glinted in the dark. "For your made-up villain to go up in smoke again? For the darkness you could never own up to to dissipate? Is that it, good man?"

James bristled at the epithet, but Thomas laid a calming hand on his and cut in before they could leap at each other's throats.

"For whatever length of time, you must have something to do. Suggestions?"

Flint settled back into his armchair. "This is a fishing town. I'll go fish. A ship is a ship."

"You, a fisherman?" James snorted.

"Would you rather I steal one of the boats to plunder the coasts? Yes, I thought so," Flint added with satisfaction when James' face spoke his thoughts more clearly than his words could.

"That's settled then," Thomas said before the brewing argument could develop into something more violent after all. "We'll introduce you to the townspeople tomorrow and ask if there's work for you with one of the fishermen. For now that'll have to do." He stretched and yawned, and stole a glance at the grandfather clock. He paused. "How can it possibly be so late already? We just had dinner."

"Time flies when you're enjoying yourself," Flint said and Thomas thought he might cut himself on the sarcasm if he wasn't careful.

"You have to get up early tomorrow," James said softly to Thomas. "We all do. Come on, love."

Thomas still felt rather confused by the odd passage of time but he nodded and let James pull him to his feet.

"Good night," he said to Flint and caught a flicker of something unexpected on his face. Not discernible in the unsteady light of the fire, half-bathed in shadow, but Thomas thought there was hurt there, or disquiet, or some other sort of unpleasantness that was more pitiful than threatening.

Flint must have seen Thomas' expression because he smoothed over his features and wet his lips before replying.

"Good night," was all he said, but Thomas felt his eyes on himself all the way out of the room. He felt them all the way along his spine.

James was oddly skittish once Thomas had closed the bedroom door. He averted his eyes modestly as Thomas changed into his night clothes, was solicitous to the point of stiff politeness, and gave Thomas the impression of a thing caught between two equally strong impulses. When they lay in bed, side by side on their backs, James was careful to give Thomas as much space as any person might ever need—and their bed was rather spacious, one of the few luxuries their house possessed. Thomas turned to look at James across the distance between them.

"What's going on?" he asked. James' panicked look at being thus addressed made Thomas sit up. "James, talk to me."

James' fingers burrowed into the bedding to conceal their fidgeting—a habit Thomas had observed a thousand times, and that never ceased to be endearing.

"I don't want you to feel under pressure," James said and, seeing Thomas' expression, hastened to add, "I say that I am the man you know, I'm James McGraw, your James, and what I feel for you hasn't changed at all, but—it must be disquieting to you, seeing me in this state, and wondering how much of the man you knew is present in him and in me, and you might think that you are suddenly with two men more like strangers than—"

"James. James, hush. If anything, you saying that only makes me more certain." Thomas had to smile suddenly. "Do you remember when I first took you to bed? You wouldn't even look at me undress, you were so determined to give me all the space I needed. Look at you, you're about to fall off the bed."

James' shoulders sank with such an air of bone-deep relief that Thomas' heart ached.

"Thank God," James said and Thomas moved closer and put their foreheads together.

"It's alright," he whispered. "I'm confused too. I can only imagine what you're going through."

"I just want him gone," James said, and hesitated as if reconsidering his words, and made as if to say something more but stopped himself. Thomas gave him the time he needed to compose himself and James asked, "May I hold you?"

"You're an oaf," Thomas said and wrapped a leg around James' hip and felt James' arms encompass him, warm and tender and firm. He sighed when this position brought their groins together, and shifted, just enough to entice. "We really should sleep. But I demand a more thorough inspection of what has and hasn't changed tomorrow."

James huffed a laugh and settled more heavily against Thomas.

As he fell asleep, Thomas wondered what had and hadn't changed in the body Flint wore. If all the scars were in the places where Thomas had kissed them so often since James had returned to him.

Chapter Text

Eleanor Guthrie

Golden unto death

 

The headstone was simple, wider than it was high, and reached no further than James' knees.

Thomas stayed a respectful two steps behind James. James appreciated being given the space. He crouched and traced a thumb along the engraved letters. Finely crafted work despite the simplicity of its design. Someone had paid good money to see it done to exacting standards, and he had a fair idea who was responsible.

James resisted the urge to glance over his shoulder or tell Thomas to be on the look-out. Even if Max had suspected that the note enquiring after the location of Eleanor's resting place had not been written by "William Fields", it was unlikely that she would be lurking about to stumble into them.

He read the inscription again.

Golden unto death.

It was a small comfort to know that Eleanor had been loved by someone else. James regretted that she had seemed destined to end up at cross purposes with those closest to her heart. He set aside the desire to curse Woodes Rodgers, if only because he did not want the man present in this moment. This was for James and for the friend he had lost.

One of the horses began tossing her shaggy head, and Thomas mumbled calming words to her.

"I'll take them for a brief turn about so they don't get too impatient," he said, and led the horses back down the path they had come. James felt a violent stab of fondness to be loved by a good man; a man that knew when to leave James be and let him breathe.

James inhaled and reached into his pocket.

"Not the finest that gold can buy," he said when he poured the liquor into two small tin cups. It was a statement of fact, not an apology: they had drunk worse, late at night over far-off visions of a prosperous Nassau. If anything, it was an echo of old times.

James raised his cup towards the grave.

"Golden then and forevermore," he said, suspended somewhere between mournful and jovial, and decided that he didn't care to choose one over the other.

He stood and let himself remember a mind he had found in this unlikeliest of places, whose horizons seemed to reach as wide as his own when he had been surrounded by the short-sighted. Someone that had stood facing the same way and seen the same shining promise in the distance, and had been willing to walk towards it.

James drained his cup in one long draught, lips peeling back at the sharp bite of the alcohol. The other cup he poured out over the grave.

 

- - -

 

When Thomas welcomed his students back to class he discovered a new boy next to Bertram Winsterly. A badly cut mop of russet hair, iron focus and a glint in his eyes that promised mischief and greater depths than might be expected in a lad of ten years.

No, not quite new. Thomas had seen him before—hadn't he? Around town? There never was a lack of mischievous-looking boys in a town full of families with children aplenty, though few had such a grave air about them. Probably Thomas had seen him by the docks, or near the shore, or running errands, or playing. Certainly one of those things.

"Let's see," Thomas said. "You're much too advanced for a horn book. Do you have anything else to read at home?"

The boy frowned. "Only my grandfather's Bible."

"Which is perfectly good," Thomas mused. "Encourages literacy and morals both. But, no, it won't do—I'll see what I can do about books, Jim."

The boy was thoughtful and well-spoken, though with a dialect that Thomas could not quite place. His reading was excellent, his handwriting both practical and promising future elegance, and his mind clicked rapidly through calculations of even more challenging nature. The mulish set about his face lightened when Thomas praised his innate talent for geometry.

 

- - -

 

Thomas wasn't closely acquainted with any of the local fishermen but he got on well with the apothecary, Arthur Parsons, whose brother owned a boat, though he hadn't used it since sickness had left him too weak to go out to sea anymore.

"I can't promise Fred would be happy, exactly, to part with it," Arthur said. "But I'm sure I could persuade him."

"Mustn't his family be struggling, now that he's so poorly? Might he be swayed if my friend shared part of the catch and subsequent earnings, to repay the borrowing? It won't cost your brother a thing for the boat to be used instead of gathering dust, and it would be a small supplement to the income."

"Quite. Let me ask him. What's your friend's name?"

Thomas' mind ground to a halt. James went by Hamilton, while Thomas was known as Mr McGraw: it never ceased to give them furtive pleasure to be addressed by each other's last names. It implied mutual ownership, even if no one else could know.

"Edward Hamilton," he said, fully aware that it had taken him too long to think of James' middle name. If Arthur noticed, he didn't comment. "He's James' cousin, actually—they look as alike as two eggs, you'll see."

And things were settled just as Thomas had suggested. Fred Parsons' wife was perfectly happy to see the boat used for something and Fred himself only made Flint promise that he would once in a while be allowed to come along, to help out as he might when his health allowed. "He misses the sailing," Mrs Parsons said.

"I think that worked out rather well," Thomas said and watched Flint dice an onion when it was time to make dinner. He wielded the knife like a natural extension of his body and the sight was mesmerising.

James was mending a pair of trousers by the table. Usually he liked to sit in the front room to do it, where he could draw a chair right up to the window to see better, but he seemed reluctant to leave Thomas alone with Flint. Thomas found it as endearing as exasperating. There was no question for him whether any incarnation of James were capable of harming him.

"Edward," was all Flint said.

"I had to come up with something quickly," Thomas defended himself. "If you two looked like twins and also had the same first and last name, it would look odd. If it's James' middle-name it's not even entirely untrue. Come to that, it's a miracle no one has commented on James' hair yet, it's like everyone has suddenly lost their eyesight. I don't know whether to be more grateful or disquieted."

The onion went into the pot and was replaced on the cutting board by a cabbage. "So I'm a Hamilton now."

"For all practical purposes, yes."

Flint chopped away, outwardly calm, but Thomas recognised that faintest of twitches at his jaw.

"I assume," Flint said, "that his going by Hamilton, and you by his name, is also entirely practical? Since in this bustling hub of great-scale commerce just about anyone might recognise a Navy lieutenant that disappeared ten years ago, or a lord presumed dead after being out of the public eye for years. And picking entirely new names simply wouldn't be practical."

"If you have a point," James said, jamming the needle through the fabric with more force than necessary, "I suggest you make it."

"I was simply struck by the marital bliss this little exchange of names implies. And me the second Mr Hamilton now. What would the neighbours say if they knew the first isn't yet dead or divorced?"

James made as if to rise from his chair and was only dissuaded by Thomas casting him a look.

"It seems I just keep collecting them," Thomas said dryly. "Who knows—Arthur Parsons is a widower, maybe I can interest him in becoming the third Mr Hamilton."

And Flint barked a raucous laugh that showed off rows of strong teeth and deepened the crows' feet around his eyes, and made Thomas feel as if he had missed a step down the stairs. It had been rare for James to laugh so gracelessly and loudly even in London, and he hadn't done it at all since they had returned from their voyage.

It had only been two days, but already a routine seemed to form. Flint cooked, seeming to enjoy the handling of the knives and timing things just so. James took care of small things about the house, fixing a wobbly shelf, going through their food stores to make sure nothing had spoilt in their absence, mending what needed it. Thomas went through his books to pick something to lend young Jim.

During dinner James' questioning foot kept bumping into Thomas', and it sent a thrill straight to his core every time. Thomas hadn't forgotten about what he had said last night, his plans to inspect all the novelty and familiarity of this new, old body, and they'd been stealing glances at each other like shy newlyweds all day.

The rest of the evening was passed by the fireplace again; reading, talking, Thomas writing down his daily notes from class to try and keep track of each student's progress. James' hand was on his ankle again, thumb lazily moving over the bump of bone while James read a volume of poetry. Occasionally he'd read a line out loud and Flint would offer unprompted critique of emphasis and rhythm. It surprised Thomas that his opinions were clearly not meant only to upset—though needling James seemed to be part of the appeal—but that what he offered gave away both a deep understanding and true appreciation. There was no authoritative answer as for whose interpretation was more valuable—Thomas thought they both had merits—but he couldn't help but follow the exchanges with rapt attention.

When the sky darkened outside, James' thumb slid into the arch of Thomas' foot, firm and inquisitive at once, and Thomas made a small noise at the way his insides turned to liquid immediately. He caught James' eye and they reached the unspoken agreement to stop delaying.

Thomas could feel Flint's gaze on the side of his face, and he wanted badly to kiss James but found that he felt awkward doing it under such intense scrutiny. It was silly, especially since Flint was James, after a fashion.

There was a sense of misdeeds observed but uncommented when Thomas bid Flint goodnight and followed James to their bedroom. Flint could not but have guessed their purpose, of course, and Thomas felt that he should have no need to pretend they were about anything else, Flint wasn't their chaperone, but still he felt the urge for modesty, for discretion.

He closed the door firmly behind them.

For a moment they stood in awkward silence, staring at each other. Then Thomas said, "Oh, for—" at the same time that James stepped forward to kiss him.

They couldn't seem to find a pace that suited them, torn between eagerness and the desire to slowly figure out how their bodies fitted together now, how James' needs had or hadn't changed.

Once James had shoved his sword off the coverlet and they lay sprawled on the bed, half-in and half-out of their clothes, Thomas made sure to take careful, eager measurements with his hands. There were scars Thomas remembered, and others missing.

James' chin was as smooth as it had been the previous morning, even though Thomas could not remember seeing him shave. For a second he thought of the soft scratch of James' beard when he had returned to London from Nassau, when he had kissed Thomas in that field; thought of its texture drawing pleasure in more secretive places; and thought, unbidden, of Flint and the spun gold of his beard.

James smoothed a thumb along Thomas' brow and Thomas let go what didn't belong in this moment.

"Maybe I should draw up a list," he joked, out of breath, and James made a noise between amusement and frustration. "To see what's the same and what needs more study."

"I think this needs a lot more study." James' red cheeks darkened further as he said it, but he fearlessly drew Thomas' hand to his groin.

"Oh, it certainly does," Thomas agreed and began rubbing slowly along the hardening curve of James' cloth-bound cock. "I think I'll have to make sure to pay much attention to it. It doesn't seem to want to stay still for me to assess properly. Oh, I think it's gone bigger again. Whatever am I going to do with this?"

James had some firm ideas of what to do with it, and they discovered that Thomas' mind ran along the same lines.

Before long, however, the quips ebbed away and the laughter died, and breeziness was replaced with more focused adoration. There was an edge of desperation to it, Thomas reflected when James refused to release his mouth for the longest time. An aching relief in the way James touched Thomas, how sweetly he made love to him, as if he had not believed himself capable of such a thing and revelled in the discovery.

Thomas took it all and repaid it with equal fervour.

 

- - -

 

Flint lay awake.

He had never slept much or deeply, but it was hard to find even a measure of rest with the sounds keeping the house alive. Sighs and breaths and moans, floating into the room as if he hadn't closed the door. Flint glanced over and saw that it was open a hand's breadth. By the sound of it, so was the door of the other bedroom.

He had closed it. They had closed their door. Flint remembered, because the click had been like the key twisting in a lock between his ribs.

It was a small mercy that only Thomas seemed to make enough noise to be audible. His partner was oddly quiet—Flint could not hear a moan, not a breath, that he could not attribute to Thomas. It was as if Flint's door—his ears? his mind?—were a net woven to trap only what was wanted.

Thomas had wished Flint the same cordial, almost comically polite goodnight as before, and Flint had followed him with his eyes while Thomas followed—followed James down the hall.

The name stung in his mind and he refused to let it sting his tongue too.

"James," drifted across the hall. The sound of Flint's name on that tongue, and it was then that Flint realised the side of his palm was pressed to the front of his breeches.

He deliberated a moment, the fingers of his other hand twitching in indecision.

The sounds changed, grew more muffled, and there was no pretending any of this was meant for Flint if there was someone else clearly busying that distant, longed-for mouth.

Leaving through the house would have meant walking past their open door. Flint dreaded and craved what he thought he would surely see, and unlatched the window to let himself out.

 

- - -

 

Thomas woke to the smell of breakfast but found that Flint had simply left it on the table. He guessed that Flint must have risen early to leave with the other fishermen, though sailing mostly by himself he wouldn't have to follow anyone else's schedule. Thomas supposed being a dread pirate captain must entail a lot of early rising, so maybe it was simply a habit.

James looked sleep-tousled and gorgeous when he finally made his way into the kitchen. Thomas hadn't even realised before how awkwardly James had been moving about since Flint's appearance, but now his limbs were loose and comfortable, his fingers less twitchy. Thomas wanted to vainly attribute it to his being an excellent lover, but he knew now how James had been afraid of Thomas' reaction to these new circumstances. Never too self-assured where it came to affection directed at him, it must have weighed on James like leaden shackles. There was something irresistibly charming about the way James kept catching Thomas' eye now, kept touching him, kept calling him "love."

Look, his eyes said. Look how easy and free I feel, how wonderful it is to know you still love me the same. Look what I can be for you.

Thomas' mouth hurt from smiling when he went to feed the chickens last night's leftovers while James dressed properly.

Together they walked in tender silence into town.

By the time Thomas left school in the afternoon, having handed his chosen book to a wide-eyed Jim, he was settling back into the routine of their accustomed lives. Rising together, work, taking care of things about the house, dinner, letting the day trickle gently away while they allowed tenderness to ravage their peaceful, safe home.

Except their home now held another someone to work into their day.

"If Fred Parsons calls me Ed one more time, I swear I will reconsider my new no-disembowelment rule."

Thomas gave James an admonishing look when he didn't even try to stifle his laughter. Flint glared from the door, where he was removing his boots.

"I think 'Fred and Ed' has rather a charming ring to it, don't you think?" James said.

"I'll make an exception to the rule for you too. Soon as I get my hands on a knife. Or a spoon. Or one of the chickens, I'm not picky."

"Please do it outside, if you have to," Thomas threw in, underlining a sentence in his notes with a flourish. "I'd hate to be scrubbing the floors again so soon."

James cast him an offended look for not having chosen his side more clearly, but there was no sting in it. There was nothing, Thomas thought, that seemed able to shake James' newfound happiness, and James was rather demonstrative about it, not caring much anymore whether Flint watched or not.

Despite his griping, Flint seemed rather pleased to be back at sea. Whether it was enough to just be fishing remained to be seen. For now, Flint made the impression of a caged animal that had been allowed to stretch its legs.

Their evening went much the same as before, spent comfortably by the fireplace, until James was yawning with less and less restraint, and Thomas took him to bed.

 

- - -

 

"How much do you remember?"

"What do you mean?"

"You insist that you're not Flint. Don't look at me like that, I haven't exactly called you a liar, now. I'm asking. You remember things after our separation. So... You're not simply James from ten years ago."

"I suppose not. I remember... I remember everything."

"Even what Flint did?"

"... Yes."

"So how does that—"

"It means that I know exactly what he's done. I didn't—it's hard to explain. I know that he—"

"James. James, love, come back to bed. We'll talk of this another time if it upsets you. Come here."

"... I'm not him."

"Come here."

 

- - -

 

They settled into a routine, all three of them. It was a rather useful trick of the human mind to assimilate even the most extraordinary of events into the rhythm of a regular life, a small irregularity in the even weave of a larger tapestry. Barely visible from two steps' distance.

Thomas and James laughed and bantered and made love, James and Flint never passed up an opportunity to try and provoke each other. Flint watched Thomas with unreadable eyes and Thomas could never help but stare back until an interruption broke their spell.

 

- - -

 

"Thomas? You're so quiet. Is something the matter?"

"You can go harder, you know. You used to. Back in London. ... James?"

"... I think I'd rather want to do it like this."

"Oh. Oh. I—alright. God, don't stop."

 

- - -

 

Thomas was feeding the chickens leftovers from dinner when Flint joined him outside with a handful of scraps that Thomas must have missed.

"They're fighting over the bits of chicken," Flint said disbelievingly as he watched Callisto and Hestia throw up dust clouds around their frenetic scrapping.

"Not the kindest of creatures, chickens," Thomas agreed and knelt to brush a hand along the feathers of his favourite, Ariadne. "But there's nothing deceitful about them. You know where you're at with a hen."

As if to embarrass him Ariadne decided at that moment that she had quite enough of being caressed, and nipped him sharply in the finger. Thomas, not usually prone to blushing, felt his face heat at Flint's laughter. Then he had to admit how comical the situation was and joined in until he was red-faced.

Before long he found himself sitting next to Flint with his back against sun-warmed slats of the shed that served as their hen house. Flint had picked up one of the feathers strewn about and was plucking the barbs off the vane, one by one.

"Do you ever slaughter them?" Flint's sharp eyes followed a hen as she picked fruitlessly about the ground.

"Not so far." Thomas frowned at his own fingers, carding through the dry dirt and leaving deep grooves. "I know it's not exactly—well, we do eat meat, and buy chicken to eat. But I haven't been able to bring myself to kill one of my girls yet. Or to makes James do it. I'm not sure I would be much good at it."

He paused. Flint did not intrude upon his thoughts with words, as if he sensed that Thomas needed to sort them out in order to say more.

"Daphne," Thomas said then, eyes darting to her, away just as quickly.

"That one?" Flint indicated a light brown hen.

"Yes. She's not much of a layer anymore. Anyone with sense would put her on the chopping block before she gets too tough to make a nice meal."

"But not you."

Thomas bit his lip. Noticed Flint's obvious attention to the gesture. "I suppose it's dishonest. We got Daphne and a clutch of eggs from one of the neighbours when we first moved here. She's just a tough old hen. One chicken is worth as much as any other. But I still couldn't bring myself to kill any of them."

Flint said nothing, just narrowed his eyes.

With an exhale that carried half a laugh, Thomas ran a hand through his hair. "You must think me foolish. With all the things you've done—well, with all the things I've been through, too—it seems like a silly thing, sanctimonious, to pretend there's some sort of moral in not killing my own chickens, when I eat others."

"You think I don't understand?" Thomas blinked. Flint had picked up another feather and already stripped it of half its barbs. "You think that I just slaughtered people at random? One human life should be worth as much as any other. You always said that. And yet I made decisions, decided to kill some people and not others, and affixed my own value to people's lives. There is no objective price. There are only those lives that matter more to us than others, and those that matter most. We protect those that we hang our hearts on. We do away with what hurts them. If you're foolish for choosing those close to you over others, then you're in good company."

Thomas wasn't sure how to reply. He hadn't expected to be handed absolution, rather than derision, by this most ruthless of murderers for being sentimental over a handful of silly chickens.

He decided on a more practical thing to bring up.

"James has helped me feed the chickens before," he said. "He knows their names. Did you truly have to ask?"

He didn't say, Or have you just been pretending to not know something like that about our life here—in order to do what, exactly? To conceal what?

And Flint's even expression dissolved into that grin that always looked as if it might turn into a snarl at a moment's notice.

Before he could answer, James called for Thomas from inside. Flint pressed something into Thomas' hand and rose to stroll back into the house, past James.

While James joined Thomas by the hen house and asked if Flint had said or done something out of line, Thomas curled and uncurled his fingers more tightly around the thing Flint had given him. It was the bare shaft of a feather, naked and prickly as a thorn in his palm.

Chapter Text

James left Thomas half-slumbering in bed to take his nightly turn about the house. He would check that the door was locked, the window latches secured, everything in its place. He had been used for so long to running an orderly ship that running an orderly house must be the necessary substitute.

Flint sat by a loose floorboard he had pried open, calmly cleaning and oiling a steel pistol; a Scottish Dag so similar to the one he had favoured during his pirate days. James stopped in his tracks.

"What are you doing?"

Flint looked up.

"What does it look like?" He snorted. "You think I don't know the exact number and hiding places of your weapons in this house? If so, I'm not half the villain you insist. Which would still be quite devious, considering."

James' hands fidgeted at his sides, uncertain how to respond, though no less itching for it. He watched Flint's deft fingers, probing and twisting and testing. James realised that his own fingers were twitching in approximation of the motions. His muscles remembered the long practice of caring for his weapons, drills in the Navy, hours as a young recruit practising to shorten the time it took to reload. The satisfying clicks of pieces slotting into the right places, a promise of the future click of the trigger.

"You don't have to be afraid, you know."

Flint's voice shook James out of his thoughts and he felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck.

"Of you?" James huffed. "I don't think so."

"For him." Their hands stilled, their eyes met. "Feel free to hate me, but even you can't really think he's in danger with me. I've killed hundreds for him, and would kill hundreds more." The words were spoken with such blithe factuality they might have stated the time of day. "As for the safety of this house... Well, a livelier place than this town would still be hard pressed to rustle up anything more dangerous than me. Don't worry, good man." Flint grinned, all teeth and gleaming eyes. James bristled. "As long as I'm here, he's safe. I have no conscience or good name to hinder me doing what's necessary."

"You think he'd approve of more blood?"

"He seems to have made some sort of peace with what I've done so far. Of the two of you he's definitely the most solicitous."

James sneered. "And look in whose bed he is."

Flint frowned down at the pistol.

"Go back to bed then," he said. "What are you doing here, if you're so smug about him being there in the first place?"

This wasn't the reaction James had anticipated or, if he was honest, hoped for—he would have liked to see Flint crack, to watch an outburst and to see for certain how wide the chasm gaped between them.

"Until you're gone again," he said finally, "you better earn your keep. Be another pair of eyes on him."

"I always have my eyes on him," Flint said.

For a moment James stood, twitching hands and scathing words stillborn in the face of—whatever this was.

He turned on his heel.
 

---
 

It was hard not to look at Flint.

It shouldn't have come as a surprise, Thomas figured, given that he and James wore the same body, if in different incarnations. He noticed the blunt jut of Flint's collarbone and remembered licking salt from the hollow above one just like it when James had looked like that. Later that night he repeated the act and enjoyed James' resulting squirm.

He wondered idly if he ought to feel guilty for being spurred to lust by another and bringing the resulting thirst to James to slake. It didn't help that it was hard to tell how much of it was just memories of things he had done to a body just like Flint's, and how much it was the present amalgam that aroused him. And that still didn't touch on his confusion of how Flint was, somehow, James, even if James rejected the suggestion vehemently whenever it was brought up.

"You've been staring at his arse."

James' voice was strained, but it still reached Thomas' ears, even pressed between James' thighs as they were. He lifted his head to smirk at James.

"Miranda's scandalous Aunt Winifred always said to whet your appetite elsewhere and eat at home." Thomas could see the the cogs working behind James' eyes, torn between reproach and approval. He pinched James' cheek, one of the pair closest to his face. "And I may have been looking, but you might have noticed I'm not dining out."

James groaned, half exasperation and half lust, and pushed Thomas' grinning mouth back between his legs.

"Eat up, then."

James was quiet when they lay together afterwards. Thomas pressed patient, warm kisses to the top of his head.

"Do you want him?"

Thomas blinked slowly up at the ceiling. He had expected this question to come, sooner or later, and still he didn't have a complete answer.

"I don't know if I want him," he said slowly. "But - have you seen him? He looks like you." He traced James' spine to his arse. "You think I could see you and not be stirred?"

"He's not me."

"Your likeness, then. You were exceedingly handsome with the beard. And still are without it, of course," Thomas added.

He could tell James wasn't satisfied with his answer but he also had nothing better to offer as of now, so he held James close and kissed him until they fell asleep.

Still Thomas would catch himself stealing glances at Flint's thighs as they bunched into a crouch when Flint banked the fire for the night. Still the texture of Flint's short hair was enticing, the depths of his inscrutable eyes fascinating.

---
 

Thomas often admired the sea from a respectful distance but his daily routine rarely required him to go closer, moving with pendulum steadiness between home and his classroom.

Today, after seeing the last of his students out, he found that it was late enough for the fishermen to have returned to the harbour. Thomas decided to head down to shore and wait for Flint—they might, he thought, walk home together.

When Thomas spotted Flint among the men, it felt as though something slithered into the narrow space between his shoulder blades and his ribcage, strange and urgent.

He watched Flint unload the fish onto a cart with the help of a boy not older than eleven, one of Fred Parson's nephews that would take the catch and help his mother sell it. This arrangement meant less of the resulting income went into Flint's pocket, but it also meant he didn't have to spend his time fish-mongering. The image of Flint shouting the praise of his wares to attract customers was absurd, and thankfully between the three of them Thomas, James and Flint managed well enough for money anyway.

Thomas could not help but imagine Flint with the longer hair he knew he had worn until Miranda's death; James had reluctantly told him when Thomas first asked what had happened to it. He pictured Flint with the sun catching in his russet hair and the wind tugging at it, the way Thomas liked tugging at James' hair to hold him where he wanted him.

By the time Flint strolled towards Thomas, having of course spotted him from afar, the sun was slanting lower and dusting the bristles of his beard with gold. He was carrying lengths of rope, a net over his shoulder.

"Waiting for me to escort you back home?" Flint asked with a wry tilt to his mouth.

"I hear there are dangerous pirates about." Thomas fell into step beside Flint. "Who knows what might happen if I encountered such a ruffian all by myself?"

Flint fought to suppress a smirk and failed spectacularly. The light caught on his teeth and the stud in his ear.

Thomas realised that in the two weeks they had lived together he could not remember ever walking with Flint. Their gaits were well-suited to each other. Then Thomas realised that Flint matched his strides—the way James had quickly learnt to do. Had learnt, and apparently never forgotten, even after ten years' time.

He savoured the quiet way home, and the closeness to Flint it afforded him.

That evening Thomas watched with rapturous attention as Flint restored frayed rope back to order, twisting the fibres against themselves as he twined the strands around each other.

Sometimes Flint brought home fishing nets to be mended and the smell of salt and tang and wet rope filled the room. Thomas often seated himself nearby to read and took frequent breaks to watch him at work. Flint's face would in disapproval over a particularly stubborn tangle: he narrowed his eyes for a moment and, having devised a solution, proceeded to quickly pick the knot apart with deft, steady fingers.

James would drift in and out of the room as if drawn and repelled by the scent of the ocean. Thomas saw in his face a complicated combination of longing and firm distance. He knew that James could have gone out with the fishermen, found some other way to earn a living by the shore. Instead he worked with wood, and shaped it to his mind's design in the workshop against the side of their house, and seemed to find a measure of satisfaction in it.

---
 

It was several days later when Thomas entered the house with a face like seven days of bad weather.

"What's wrong?"

James rose at the sight of him. Flint didn't move away from the hearth but he followed the exchange with sharp eyes.

"Something's been sneaking around the hen house." Thomas willed his fingers to stop tapping on the table top. He couldn't make himself sit down. "There are scratches around the door. I didn't see any paw prints but based on the height I'm guessing it's a fox, or someone's cat maybe."

James pressed a cup of hot tea into Thomas' hands.

"Mrs Rosleigh doesn't expect me to come fix her cupboards until noon. You go to class and I'll get started reinforcing the coop. We'll take care of the fence when we're both back tonight. The chooks will have to stay inside until that's done. We have more than enough grain and there'll be dinner scraps."

"Alright." James' steadfast words and the drink steadied Thomas' heart, and he pressed a moist, tea-warm kiss to James' cheek. "Thank you."

Knowing the task in his lover's capable hands eased Thomas' mind when he set out into town to teach his class. His trust was affirmed when he returned in the evening and found all hens still inside and accounted for—though it seemed unlikely the fox would have come for them during the day rather than the night.

Helping James with the fence was no hardship. Thomas had discovered to their mutual surprise that he liked menial labour. He hadn't thought it possible, not after half a decade toiling unseen and locked away for an empire that hated him and wanted him dead. Labouring for his own gain, however, especially on a clear evening like this, with a beautiful man by his side, well, there was something to be said for it.

Flint returned from town when James and Thomas were still busy.

"You could help," James gritted out and hammered another nail into a fencepost.

"You seem to be doing quite well for yourself." Flint leant a shoulder against the hen house. Thomas grew suddenly aware how sweaty and flushed he was, and felt self-conscious. He had grown used to sitting more than he used to, and though he did not long in the least for his days of imprisonment, he had become softer since starting to teach.

"You could start dinner while we're finishing up," Thomas said.

Flint gave him another lingering look and turned away, hopefully to make food.


---
 

Thomas woke in the middle of the night.

For a moment he lay puzzled and stared up at the ceiling, wondering what had roused him. He could remember no nightmare, he wasn't drenched in cold sweat, but he was as suddenly awake as though a bell had rung out to him.

The door moved in an unfelt draught. It clicked softly as it closed. Then it swung open again by an arm's length.

Thomas made sure that James was well-covered by the blankets before he slipped from the bed. There was water still in the kettle and the banked fire took little encouragement to come back to life. Thomas cradled a fresh cup of tea as he stepped outside.

The night was velvet-dark where the moon didn't illuminate it but Thomas found Flint without difficulty by the tool shed, on a crate leaning against the slats. The hammer and tin full of nails were still sitting on the ground where Thomas and James had left them.

"Seen anything yet?"

Flint grunted, adjusting his hold on the hunting rifle across his knees.

"You could have just helped with the fence, you know." Thomas smiled and Flint scoffed.

"Raise your walls, close your doors, lock up what's yours. That's how it goes, is it now?" Flint held Thomas' gaze as he seized Thomas' cup for a long sip of hot tea. Thomas watched his throat work as he swallowed. "No. Why hide from a threat and live in constant dread of it when you can destroy it instead?"

"Are you in constant dread?" Thomas took back the cup of tea. His fingers brushed Flint's. "Here, with us?"

"Aren't you?"

"Hm." Thomas smoothed a hand over his knee. "Not constantly."

Flint's hand lifted a fraction off the rifle. For a moment Thomas thought it was going to grasp his own, but then it merely settled down again.

"Destroy what makes you afraid." Thomas rolled the words around his mouth to determine whether they made a statement or a question.

"Destroy what threatens you and yours," Flint corrected.

"They sound awfully similar to me."

Flint blew out a breath and thrust Thomas' cup back in his direction, so abruptly that the tea sloshed like a storm-tossed sea. When Thomas took it Flint's fingers were warm and wet and, Thomas couldn't help thinking, fragrant with tea. They would taste like tea.

"Go to bed," Flint said and wiped his hand on his trousers, leaving streaks that glistened faintly in the moonlight. "You've done your bit of fence-building."

Something dark and ragged welled up in Thomas' chest at how easily the words dismissed his efforts.

"Maybe I want to do some destroying too," he said.

Flint's eyes were lightless and deep as they studied Thomas' face.

"I can well believe that," he said.

Thomas was suddenly aware of the handful of nails catching the meagre light where it fell into the tin, and he thought of driving their sharp points deep into the wood with blows that might have broken bones. He thought of James' breath puffing loudly with each fall of the hammer; all strength and control.

"Good night," he said, and rose. 

--- 

Thomas flinched awake at the same time as James, woken by a single gunshot.

"Just Flint after the fox," Thomas said when James was halfway out of bed.

James wanted to retrieve a weapon from one of his stashes hidden around the house—Flint hadn't been wrong in pointing out that James had several—and rush outside, but he made himself stay still and listen. There was no sound of struggle, no further shots fired. When James crept to the window and opened it a fraction, his ears only picked up unhurried footsteps and a hum that might have meant anything, disapproval or satisfaction, but belonged undeniably to Flint.

He shut the window decisively and returned into Thomas' waiting arms. He pulled the blanket over them both.

--- 

Flint wasn't there for breakfast in the morning. Something prevented Thomas from knocking at his door, and so he was left to wonder whether Flint was still in bed after a night spent awake or already off with the other fishermen.

There was no trace of a fox to be seen outside, no fur or body. Thomas frowned to himself and began to wonder if he had merely dreamt the events of last night.

In the end, Flint took longer to come home than usual but was back to make dinner in the evening and Thomas was so distracted by an argument he had had with one of his students' fathers that he forgot to ask after the fox. 

---

When Thomas came home two weeks later he found a freshly-cured red pelt over the back of the settee.

He stood and stared at it.

His father had been an enthusiastic hunter in his youth and their country estate had been full of old trophies, silent heads and antlers mounted on wood, uselessly guarding thick-walled rooms. The pelt didn't make Thomas feel the way he had as a boy, walking along galleries of dead things pretending at life, sockets stuffed with shiny, unseeing eyes.

The eyes of the fox were closed over empty hollows. The pelt lay flat. It wasn't full of wool and wire to impress upon lookers-on the splendour of life that had been taken, as if that raised its value. It was a statement, it was meant to make an impression, but what it stated was just a fact: a dead thing.

James made an indecipherable noise when he spotted the addition to their home.

"That better not have fleas," was all he said and disappeared into the bedroom.

When Flint emerged from his room Thomas was still standing in front of the fox, hands by his sides.

"There's your peace-breaker." Flint nodded at the pelt.

"There he is."

"She." Thomas blinked at Flint's correction. "Vixens hunt too."

"So they do." Thomas was quiet for a moment, a thought pressing unpleasantly against his skull. "Do you think she had cubs?"

Something in Flint's face turned to iron. "You can't think about that. What are you going to do, find them, drag them from their den and raise them? And live in fear they'll be the next to go after your hens? And what when they do? Don't force yourself to choose, down the line. Choose while it's still easy."

Thomas didn't know what to say to that and elected not to say anything at all.

It felt increasingly as if he lacked words, ever since Bethlem. He traded them like sweet tokens with James and was glad that they needed no words, most of the time.

Around Flint, Thomas floundered to achieve that much.

He did not know how to decrypt Flint's eyes, but they spoke all the time. Thomas heard it. He hadn't yet learnt how to understand.

Later that evening James made himself comfortable on the settee with a new book he had procured, reading aloud choice passages with his head pillowed in Thomas' lap. Thomas followed the lines with his eyes, but he was unfocused about it, drifting off and catching on odd words. He laid one hand beneath James' jaw. It comforted him that even should he miss a bit, he still wouldn't miss the vibration of each syllable in James' warm throat.

Flint sat in the armchair by the fire—closest to the flame, but the darkest silhouette.

Glancing down at his hand Thomas grew aware he had begun absent-mindedly petting the fox pelt, still draped over the settee. He realised that he had half expected hairs to come loose from the skin. They didn't. They were silk-rough and steadfast.

Thomas experimentally stroked against the fur's growth, felt the resistance and disorder, felt fine hairs penetrating the vulnerable spaces right under his nails, felt gooseflesh rise on his arms, his back. He reversed the motion, returned to even strokes, heavier at his fingertips.

Across the room Flint watched. Thomas felt it on his skin. He looked up and caught Flint's eye and did not look away again, hand still stroking the dead, beautiful, sad thing Flint had brought him. This offering.

Thomas let his hand travel a little further, and met the hard bulge of the skull after the pliantness of the empty skin. Kept going until his first and second fingers slid down to the blunt edge where the curve of the forehead sloped to the nose. Left his fingers resting right there between the hollow eyes and moved his fingertips in slow, steady circles, feeling the shift of short fur, sensing the rise and fall of Flint's broad chest across the room.

Flint shifted his knees slightly apart.

James interrupted his reading to ask—something—Thomas hadn't heard, but he tore his eyes away from Flint's and focused on James, and when he looked back up Flint was gone.

"Thomas?"

James' questioning hand found the side of his face and Thomas looked down. He drew the book from James' fingers, shifted them until he had James where he wanted him, under him. Beneath his own, James' mouth was soft and permissive. The crackle of the fire mingled in Thomas' ears with the low, wet sounds of their kisses.

A hand snuck around Thomas' waist. It drew a heavy path along his hip bone, across his arse, and slid between his legs to press down and in, bringing them closer together. Thomas grunted at the friction and pressed his forehead to James', giving himself over to the feeling for a moment.

Then he reached down to draw James' shirt from his breeches and James caught his hand.

Thomas stopped.

With great deliberation, James' hand, which had so far been snug between Thomas' thighs, withdrew. He moved it to cover Thomas' fingers where they were buried in the fox pelt beside James' head, red hair and red fur blending in the warm firelight. Thomas felt blood throb in his face when callused fingers slid between his own and pried them loose, one by one.

"What are you thinking about?" James asked. His voice was even, if a little out of breath. "His hands?"

He raised his other hand to Thomas' face for inspection, and curved it around his cheek. One finger brushed his lip and Thomas opened his mouth to suck on the tip, eyes never leaving James'.

"What else, Thomas?"

That tone of voice would suffer no coyness. Thomas felt gooseflesh rise on his arms.

"His neck." Thomas' voice was hoarse.

James tipped his head back. Thomas followed the invitation first with his palm, then with his mouth. James tasted of clean skin, of the soap he had washed with before dinner, and fresh sweat. The column of his neck vibrated with a pleased hum.

For a little while James seemed content to let Thomas shower his throat with caresses, arching into the playful nip of teeth and holding still for a mark to be sucked into the skin. Thomas eyed it with the pride of a craftsman appraising a task well done. Then James laid both hands on Thomas' shoulders to reintroduce some distance between their bodies.

"That can't be all, can it?" he said with a knowing look. Thomas swallowed and noted that James' eyes darted just briefly to observe the motion. When Thomas hooked two fingers in James' collar he felt the heat of James' skin against his knuckles, where it had gathered beneath the linen. His hand was gently pulled away again. "Tell me," James said.

Thomas had to bite back a sound of—maybe annoyance, perhaps frustration.

"Your chest," he said, and when the only reaction was the slight raise of a brow, he amended, "His chest."

Firm hands guided Thomas to move back on his haunches for James to sit up. Thomas darted a brief glance at the door but he knew with a strange certainty that Flint had withdrawn for the night, and that their twosomeness was as perfect in front of the fire as it could possibly be in the privacy of their bedroom.

James' shoulders were broad and beautiful, the collarbones curved like limbs of oak above his strong chest. He was lovely, Thomas thought; reclining against the red pelt he looked like a god at ease, the wiry hair on his chest the same red as the fur. If not for the prominent peaks of his nipples, the slight heaviness of his breath and the obvious bulge outlined through his clothes, James might have looked as if he were only indulging a lover's adoration with patience, needing no assurance of his own appeal.

"Use your mouth," he told Thomas when he reached out to touch. "To speak," he clarified with a wry tilt of his own mouth before Thomas could fully lean down.

"You're being very difficult," Thomas complained but he gasped when an unconcerned hand cupped him through his breeches. The thumb found a spot right beneath the head and rubbed with slow, firm pressure that made Thomas squirm in pleasure.

"Am I now?" James contented himself with those three sparse words and turned his hand so his palm was pressed along the length of Thomas' rapidly stiffening cock while his fingers gently squeezed his balls.

This time Thomas didn't have to be prompted into adding onto his list: "Thighs." He delayed saying it though to spend a little more time enjoying the feeling of being held so intimately by James.

"Whose thighs?"

"Your thighs."

"And?"

Thomas lowered his lashes. "His thighs."

James made a noise of satisfaction, not at Thomas' lusting after Flint but at being proven right in his assumption.

"Like them, do you?"

"Why wouldn't I? They're beautiful."

"Hm."

It took some maneuvering for James to remove his breeches; he had to take his hand off Thomas'—still fully clothed—body; Thomas had to make space for him to move his legs enough to pull the breeches down and remove them along with his stockings. It was a small mercy that Thomas wouldn't have to mention those shapely calves to see the stockings gone too. The presence of James' smallclothes was distractingly offensive already.

With James' hand gone, Thomas was palming himself through his breeches, not quite tugging on his cock but squeezing to give himself some relief. James, having settled back against the arm rest of the settee, dropped his gaze meaningfully and Thomas failed to hold back a curse when he took his hand away again.

"Are you quite finished, then?" James said archly. God, Thomas could see how hard he was, and the only thing that made him feel better about his own state was the knowledge that James too must be exercising iron self-control to not give in and let this game of his descend into indecorous, half-dressed rutting to completion.

Thomas' nails dug into his palms in a desperate bid for restraint.

"The insides of his elbows," he said, which made James' eyes light up in some surprise, followed by a gentle stretch of his arms. "Where the skin is soft. The back of his neck. And God, that arse of his, it seems just the right size to hold onto, if my estimation is at all correct." His estimation, of course, being based on the strong empirical evidence gathered from having often pulled James closer by his arse while getting thoroughly fucked. "I want to sink my teeth into it."

This little speech was playing dangerously close to the fire for he nearly excited himself to the point of giving in, but it was rewarded: James' thighs shifted, trying to allow him some relief from what looked like agonising arousal.

"And?" James added. There was the faintest twitch in his cheek, Thomas noted with satisfaction, even though he remained perfectly outwardly composed otherwise.

"I think about his prick." Thomas let the words roll off his tongue, watching James' face as closely as he was being watched himself. "How thick and long it might be, the curve of it, what it would taste like. Whether he's as wet when aroused as you. How he handles it and if he likes it the same as you. I think about how it would probably be the perfect size to fit inside my mouth, and how I'd like to suck it—unless it were put to better use otherwise, of course." He gave himself a moment to imagine it, difficult though it was to stay composed through it. When his eyes opened again they met James'. "I desperately want to ride it."

Thomas felt almost sorry when he watched James' awkwardly stiff movements while stripping off his smallclothes. James' weeping erection did absolutely nothing to make the endeavour easier, and neither did the sight of it slapping slick and heavy against James' lower belly do anything to calm Thomas' overwrought nerves. He reminded himself that James had only himself to blame for how drawn-out this play-acting had become, and that he ought to feel amusement at his lover falling prey to his own schemes; but in truth he was too preoccupied with trying to retain the barest shred of composure to enjoy any gloating, deserved or not.

When James took himself in hand and gave himself a few slow strokes, Thomas felt ready to bite clean through his own lip in desperation. And it rose again, that rakish eyebrow, calm as a mocking crescent moon even as the rest of James made a deliciously debauched picture.

"Are you sure you don't want me to call him?" James said. The words were calm ripples above deep waters.

Thomas shook his head, eyes still darting between James' face and his lazily pumping hand.

"Are you certain?" James prodded further. "Since you are so desperate for his hands, those lovely elbows... for those thighs—", letting his own splay further open, "for his prick... You look in quite a state, perhaps you need a little aid in rectifying it?"

"For fuck's sake, James," Thomas snapped at last. James' grin flashed sharp and quick and his hand reached for Thomas' face, the other grabbing him by the belt and tugging him down, even as Thomas threw himself forward into his embrace.

The kiss was wet and frantic; Thomas could smell the tanginess on the hand that had been stroking James' leaking cock, and he grabbed it by the wrist to pull it between them, so that in between kisses he could lick at his slick fingers. James played along, kissed Thomas around his fingers, obligingly filthy.

Lying between James' legs made Thomas even more impatient with his own state of over-dress, and he eventually fumbled for his fastenings. James slowed his movements to a halt and cradled his face to earnestly look into Thomas' eyes.

"If you are quite certain that this is the mouth you would like to be kissing right now," he began and was laughing before Thomas had finished swearing, and both sounds were lost between their open mouths when James unceremoniously jerked his breeches down and Thomas' cock was finally freed from its confines.

All artfulness had been exhausted during the lead-up. Without much sophistication Thomas squirmed out of his breeches, aided by eager hands, and rutted frantically against James while strong thighs urged him on. What little coordination he still had was not sufficient for much kissing, and when a hand landed heavily on the back of his neck Thomas surrendered and lowered his head, his face half against James' throat and half in the russet pelt.