“I have a plan,” Jack Rackham announced, pushing his way through the flaps of the tent. Which was annoying because Charles had specifically told his men to leave him the fuck alone that night. Jack’s presence meant that either his men had already forgotten his orders or they had assumed Jack was the exception to the orders. He would have to speak to the men again, ensure they understood that no one, meant no one, not even his quartermaster.
“Here lies Jack Rackham, the man who never shuts up,” Charles murmured into his bottle of rum, leaning against a post, “A good quartermaster, when his scheming wasn’t almost getting his captain killed.”
Jack stopped in his tracks, “are you practicing my eulogy? Wait, don’t answer that - I don’t want to know. Like I said, I have a plan.”
“Do you now.”
“I do,” Jack said, sprawling uninvited on the pile of pillows that served as Charles’ bed, “do you want to hear it?”
“Will my saying no actually stop you from telling me?”
“Not this time, Chaz. I think I know how to ensure we can sail and chase large prizes again.”
“You want to help fix things between me and Eleanor? You don’t like her. And where did you get the idea I would want that?”
“Don’t you? Even if you don’t want back in her bed,” Jack’s mouth twisted in distaste as he spoke. His dislike of Eleanor, of her influence on Charles in truth, was a familiar point of contention between them, “you must admit you want to be favored by her again, to get tip-offs about what ship to take. The men are going stir crazy, we need a good prize to win.”
Charles tipped back the bottle of rum and finished the last of it, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand when he lowered it. He wasn’t surprised when Jack took his silence as agreement.
“Do you remember our conversation the other day? You know, about her new favorite?”
Charles looked at him blankly.
“You don’t remember? Don’t tell me you were that drunk Charles. We were on the ship, talking about Flint?”
Charles continued to stare and Jack sighed, “you never listen to a word I say, do you?”
“What about Flint?”
“Fuck’s sake,” Jack rubbed his face, pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed, “about how he’s Guthrie’s new favorite. And - you know - his relationship with the Barlows?”
Charles had a sudden flash of memory, the captain’s cabin aboard the Ranger, about a week ago. Jack blathering on about something that wasn’t any of their business. Anne Bonny his usual shadow, lingering the background. “Jack,” He said, “if I’m recalling the correct conversation I hope you know I was at least half serious about your eulogy. I have never been, nor will I ever be, interested in discussing Flint’s romantic choices. I don’t know how it relates to your plan, but I suspect I won’t like it. You should quit while you’re ahead.”
“You do listen!”
“That’s what you came away with? Fuck off, Jack, and leave me to my drinking.”
“You don’t understand, hear me out, will you? Flint is Guthrie’s new prize captain, her highest earner. And thanks to his relationship with the mysterious Barlows we can assume she hasn’t taken him to bed as she did you. I mean come on - he’s old enough to be her father.”
“Arrive at your point. And quickly.”
“My point is we’ve been approaching this from the angle of reconciling you with Guthrie. I think we should focus on allying ourselves with Flint instead. He’s put it out he’s looking for a consort ship and crew - we could go back to garnering prizes without you having to work your way back into Eleanor’s good opinion. I think that will follow naturally, if you can befriend Captain Flint.”
“And how do the Barlows factor into your master plan?”
He moved to the makeshift dresser, tugging open the top drawer. Charles moved a thoughtful finger over the line of bottles inside and considered his choices. He stopped on one towards the middle, a dark and spicy rum but one that was watered down. Not good enough for this conversation, he decided. Instead he chose a bottle tucked to one side, this one was similarly dark but unopened and not watered down.
A huff came from behind him and he didn’t need to turn to see the disapproval written on Jack’s face. He used his teeth to remove the bottle’s stopper, taking a long swing before turning back to Jack.
“Must you?” Jack asked, his tone petulant.
“Yes. Now, the Barlows?”
“I think they’re your in with Flint. I won’t pretend to understand how things work between the three of them. But. Everyone knows that when he’s in Nassau, if he’s not on the Walrus or at the beach, you can most often find him at their bookstore.” Jack waved his hand around as he spoke, his fingers twisting in the air, “you and him have butted heads in the past, I think it’s best to approach him through Mr. and Mrs. Barlow.”
“What’s there to understand about them?” Charles chose the easiest bit of that to comment on, and if it was also the bit most likely to rile Jack that was just a bonus, “they’re three mature and consenting adults who have found a measure of happiness together.”
“Aha, I always knew you were a romantic,” Jack pointed a playful finger at him.
Charles took another drink of rum, trying not to remember all the times he’d gone off half-cocked in the name of Eleanor Guthrie. Considering that Jack was often the one who picked up the broken pieces of him afterwards, he’d earned the right to tease him about it. But there was a limit to what Charles would allow, one Jack usually sensed and stopped shy of.
“You truly don’t understand how three people could make a partnership between them work?” Charles asked rather than answer the accusation. At least Jack knew better than to call him a romantic around the men.
Jack flailed, and Charles knew that he had caught onto what he had been alluding to. While only the pairing of Jack and Anne was physically intimate, there was undeniably a partnership between all three of them and between he and Jack separately. He and Anne had respect for each other, and a grudging sort of partnership when it came to Jack’s health.
“That’s different,” Jack protested.
“It is, because we all know who you’d choose if it came down to it. I suspect that’s not true of Flint and his Barlows. I suspect they would refuse to choose until the world burned them down or they burned it.” Charles said, his grip on the rum a bit tight. He flexed his fingers until they stopped clenching the neck of the bottle. “There are similarities though, enough that you can’t claim ignorance.”
It was quiet for a moment, Jack was quiet for the first time since entering the tent. Charles had always known who Jack was ultimately loyal to, and he didn’t resent it, or Anne. Still, he never would have voiced it in normal circumstances. He set the bottle down on a table and moved to sit next to Jack, bumping their shoulders together.
“Ah,” Jack said, “we seem to have gotten off topic.”
“You want me to befriend the Barlows so that they’ll put in a good word for me with Flint,” he summed up Jack’s plan.
Jack was leaning towards him, his eyes lighting up, “Yes, exactly! You can be charming when you want to be. And I suspect we both know the trick to getting into their good graces.”
“Books,” they said together, Jack with delight and Charles with resignation. It was common knowledge that the Barlow Bookstore was more of a library than anything else. If you wanted to leave with a book you had to buy it, but if you were content to read it at the store you didn’t have to pay a cent. Few took them up on it, reading was not a common hobby among pirates. Most didn’t know how and didn’t care to know. Charles wouldn’t if his mentor hadn’t insisted that a captain needed to be able to read and write a log among other things.
It was common knowledge that the shop was able to stay open thanks to their partnership with Flint. They’d provided enough capital in the early days, and continued to help pay for repairs when needed, both of which earned them a share of every prize the Walrus took. An odd arrangement, but one that seemed to work for them and the crew.
“You really think this plan will work? What’s to say Flint won’t see through it and try and kill me for my trouble.”
“He probably will see through it. But this should benefit all parties. I’m not advising you to lie or manipulate them, Charles, just that you go make some new friends.”
“Maybe I should be writing by own eulogy,” Charles sighed, “Captain Vane, done in by his own quartermaster’s scheming.”
“Darling,” James whispered, his arms sliding around sleep-warm skin. He brushed a kiss on a bare shoulder, on the slope where shoulder met neck, on the sharp corner of a jaw, “darling, I’ve got to get up. Hal is waiting for me at the tavern for ship business.”
“Nnnggghh,” came the protest and James laughed softly, curling around the warm body in front of him.
“I’d like to stay but I can’t, I won’t be gone long though, a couple of hours at most. I’ll be back to have dinner with you and Miranda and we’ll have the next few days together before the Walrus is due to leave again.”
There was a soft chuckle from behind him, knees tucking up behind his, a second set of arms snaking around his waist. “Liar,” Miranda whispered into the back of his neck, making him shiver, “it’s never just a couple of hours.”
“It will be,” James murmured, “you two should decide what you want for dinner. I can bring something from the tavern or I can go to the market and pick up some things, cook when I get back.” It went unsaid that neither Miranda or Thomas should attempt to cook. They’d both learned how after coming to Nassau, but James was the only one who was more than passable at it. The less said about his earlier attempts to teach his lovers to cook, the better. There were permanent scorch marks in their tiny kitchen.
“I have a better idea,” Thomas said, rolling over in James’ arms to face him. He was the slowest of the three of them to wake and the most reluctant to leave the bed in the mornings.
It happened so fast James didn’t have time to blink before he was on his back, his arms stretched and held above his head. Thomas was straddling his waist, nuzzling into his throat, his hands wrapped around his wrists. He gasped and Thomas shifted to smother it with a kiss.
“Oh,” Miranda breathed from beside them, “I approve of this idea.”
“I thought you might,” Thomas broke away with a nip to his bottom lip, twisting to catch Miranda’s lips as she leaned over.
James took advantage of Thomas’ distraction and pulled his arms loose. He bucked his hips and twisted, toppling Thomas over so he was the one trapped between him and Miranda.
“Well,” Thomas breathed, looking between them, “not what I had in mind but this works just as well.”
Miranda rolled her eyes and reached over to lace her fingers through James’ loose hair, tugging him over and smiling into his mouth. “Stay with us, lover. You’ve been away too long and we have missed you.”
“Hal and I do have to speak today,” James said between kisses, a reminder to himself as much as them.
Miranda didn’t stop kissing him, one of her hands caressing his chest and abdomen, teasing with the idea her hand might travel lower. “Fuck, why do you both have to be so irresistible?”
“Your own fault for choosing us, loving us,” said Thomas, his lips replacing Miranda’s as she slid down the bed, and wiggled her way between their legs, smirking up at them. His ability to think was obliterated then, his mind lost to the feel of Thomas’ lips against his, to the warm sensation of Miranda’s lips trailing down his ribs, his hips, his thighs.
Needless to say, he was significantly late to meet with Hal Gates. Thankfully his quartermaster had restrained himself to knowing smirks and one pointed comment. James had borne it with a roll of his eyes, any irritation washed away by the warmth in his chest whenever he thought of his two lovers. They’d been incredibly lucky to end up here together, and he would forever be grateful that Thomas had convinced his father to fake their deaths and let them fade into obscurity under new names.
Well, Thomas and Miranda had faded into obscurity as the local book shop owners, Mr. and Mrs. Barlow.
James had cast aside his name, and taken up a new one, but he had done the opposite of fading away. He hoped Alfred Hamilton and Admiral Hennessy knew who the fearsome and infamous Captain Flint really was. He hoped they feared that knowledge and regretted driving him into the life of piracy.
“Captain Flint?” He looked up from the inventory list he and Gates were leaning over to see Max approaching them. She was one of the women who worked in the brothel, one of Miranda’s only friends outside the local Puritan community.
“Yes?” He asked when she hesitated before their table. Her gaze darted over to the bar, where Eleanor Guthrie was holding court with a few of Captain Hornigold’s men.
Her cheeks were flushed and he restrained a smirk, more apt to recognize that kind of affection than most. He cleared his throat and she focused back on him, and she had the grace to look sheepish about her distraction.
“Apologies Captain,” she murmured, “I just came from having tea with your Miranda. She asked that I pass on a message to you.”
“What was it?”
“She wanted me to pass on her apologies to you, and Mr. Gates,” she said, glancing over at Hal who nodded, “for causing you to be behind schedule. She also requested you stop at the market to get food to cook if you can still make it back in time for dinner.”
James propped his chin on his fist and glanced at Hal, considering. They really should finish planning today, but the sun was already beginning to set. He’d have to leave now to get to the market before it closed.
As if he read his mind Hal began gathering up the papers, “you can make it,” he said in a firm tone, “if we end up here an extra day the men won’t complain. And we can’t go anywhere until we decide on a consort.”
Max smiled, “she hoped you’d say that. Now, if you don’t need anything from me...” she trailed off, her eyes darting towards the bar again.
This time James didn’t hold back his smirk, waving her over to the bar. She went, her hips swaying as Eleanor looked up and caught sight of her.
Across from him Hal was chuckling under his breath, “ah young love. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you Captain?”
He didn’t dignify that with an answer as he gathered his things. He had a market to get to, and a dinner for three to cook. And if he had any luck, they would end the night in bed, as lost in each other as they were this morning. He would press his love into their skin, murmur it against their mouths, and not stop saying it until he was sure they would never doubt it. Life was too short to do anything less.
This was meant to just set up the plot a bit, but it got away from me.
Also, fair warning - there’s mature sexual content at the end of this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Thomas ran a thoughtful finger across the spines of the books in front of him, picking up the smallest one and moving it to the end of the row. He frowned and studied the result. Not satisfactory, he decided and returned it to its place with the rest of the books whose author’s names started with ‘S’. He’d tried organizing the books by author’s name, by the size of the books, and by the color of their covers - but the end result never seemed quite right. Every few months he found himself re-organizing. Miranda thought he should pick a system and stick with it while James didn’t care as long as their favorite books were always somewhere he could find them.
He thought their opinions on it said a lot about them as people. Miranda was ever practical and would learn to work around whatever system he chose and James was sentimental and only truly cared about being able to easily find the books the three of them had inscribed love notes in.
“Fuck,” came from behind him. “Is everything here in Greek?” Charles Vane said and he dissolved into worse cursing thereafter. Obscenity hadn’t offended Thomas in years - living in Nassau had taught him tolerance for any manner of speaking - but hearing it in his oft deserted bookshop did surprise him.
“That’s the Greek Philosophy section,” he said, turning to face the first patron to visit his shop in weeks. “Can I help you find something?”
“Ah, Yes,” Vane said, his tone softening into something abashed. Perhaps he hadn’t realized Thomas was around to hear him. “My quartermaster seems to think I need to... expand my horizons.”
Thomas raised an eyebrow. “A quartermaster advised a captain as renowned and feared as you to read more? To achieve... what exactly? A more learned approach to hunting ships?”
“You know who I am?” Thomas smiled, moving to rescue his cooling tea from the counter and give up his reorganizing in favor of a conversation.
“Of course, Captain Vane. Are you looking for a specific type of book?”
He looked away from Thomas’ gaze, resting one hand on the edge of a shelf and leaning his weight there. Thomas opened his mouth to warn him but before he could get the words out, the wood creaked and gave out underneath Vane.
Thomas closed his eyes, listening to the sound of Vane and the bookshelf toppling to the floor, to the sound of books falling and flopping open. This time the string of obscenities that came from Vane were so foul that Thomas found himself reluctantly impressed.
“Is this why no one comes to your shop?” Vane asked, his syllables gone rough and less enunciated with his anger, “it’s a death trap disguised as a quaint little shop?”
Thomas opened his eyes and had to swallow back hysterical laughter. Vane had staggered back to his feet, his long hair and shoulders covered with dust from the books. His face was twisted into a scowl that would have been intimidating if he weren’t warily eyeing the other bookshelves around him. It was as if he expected one of them to topple over on top of him any moment.
“My apologies,” Thomas offered, hiding his smile behind his tea cup, “James built the bookshelves when we first arrived. Some are not as sturdy as others. He’s a much better carpenter these days but he hasn’t had the time to build replacements.”
Vane opened his mouth and then appeared to think better of what he was going to say. Instead he settled on, “can you recommend a book and point me towards a piece of furniture that won’t collapse beneath me?”
“Of course,” he said, crouching down to rescue one of the books at their feet. He brushed the grit from the floor off the cover, his fingers tracing over the title embossed across the front. He offered the book to Vane, “here I think you may find this one interesting. It’s translated from the original Spanish but the essence of it remains.”
Vane took the book from him and Thomas was heartened to see that his grip on it was gentle. He would wager that Vane hadn’t handled many books in his life, and certainly none he worried about damaging. “Don Quixote?” Vane read aloud.
Thomas smiled and pointed him to one of the arm chairs over by the windows, “that’s as good a spot as any, I’ll be around if you you need anything or if that book isn’t to your liking.”
He turned his attention to gathering the fallen books, allowing Vane to slip away and retreat to the arm chair. It was clear the captain was discomfited to be here, Vane seemed on edge and hesitant to make a wrong step. He did not appear to quite know what do with himself now that he wasn’t at the beach, on a ship, or in a tavern.
His coming here was a puzzle, and Thomas had never been good at ignoring those. He’d heard of Vane from James, who spoke of him with a grudging kind of respect and a trace of exasperated fondness. Not that James would ever show that fondness to Vane. He wasn’t even sure James was aware that he had a bit of a soft spot for Blackbeard’s heir and his two wily partners, but it was apparent to Thomas that he did. Few other men would get away with challenging James as often as Vane did and with as light a retribution as he usually got off with.
He’d heard less about Vane’s Quartermaster and his woman, he knew their names and knew Rackham talked more than was good for him. It was James’ opinion that Rackham would have been kicked off the island a long time ago if he didn’t have two shadows lurking around him and warning others off. Thomas rather thought he would get on with Rackham, he believed they might be two peas in a pod. He didn’t think he’d have been able to scrape out a place here in Nassau without James and Miranda at his side - nor would he have wanted to. Perhaps that was why James had a soft spot for them, he saw something of himself and Thomas and Miranda in them.
Thomas clambered to his feet, biting back a groan as his knees protested. He ignored it and moved to place the stack of books on a nearby table. If he had any luck, James would have time to either repair the bookshelf or build a replacement before he set sail again. He didn’t have any spare space for them otherwise.
“This isn’t fucking English,” Vane muttered, his voice pitched low enough that Thomas knew he hadn’t been meant to hear it. Vane flipped the page and continued muttering though this time Thomas couldn’t make out the words. After a while, Thomas got bored of straightening up and moved to the small bookshelf kept behind the counter. He crouched down and selected a well-worn copy of Homer’s The Odyssey and moved to stretch out on the couch by the window, the sunlight warming him as he read. Every now and then he glanced at Vane - the furrow of his brow, the clench and unclench of his jaw. Vane continued to mutter under his breath and Thomas could only presume he was reading to himself or continuing his cursing. Vane didn’t seem to be enjoying what should have been a leisurely read, and Thomas had no idea why Vane was forcing himself to do it.
Every few minutes Vane would flip through the pages, too quick to be reading them, and he did it at seemingly random points. Thomas was beginning to think Vane was after something other than the story within the pages of the book in his hand. But Vane seemed determined not to tell Thomas what he was really here for, or even to acknowledge his continued presence though he was only a few feet away. Thomas forced himself to concentrate on his book. It had been a gift from James, a prize taken off one of the first ships he’d hunted as a pirate captain. He’d inscribed a love note, a promise, to always return home on the inside cover. It was a book Thomas often returned to when James was at sea.
“Fuck,” Vane said again and this time he didn’t dissolve into worse cursing, he didn’t clench his jaw or even his fists. Instead he shut the book and slammed it down on the table beside him. He stood up with enough force that the arm chair was pushed back a few inches, the legs screeching against the wood floors. The sudden noise made Thomas wince. Vane was breathing hard. “Fuck this, fuck Jack, and his fucking plan,” he spat, and he had kicked the chair and left out the door before Thomas understood what had happened.
He sat there on the couch - frowning at the abandoned book. A book that was translated from Spanish but filled with English words a pirate captain wasn’t likely to have had cause to learn or to recognize. He forgot sometimes that James was the exception, not the rule. A weight settled on his shoulders and he closed his eyes.
At the quiet creak of the door opening behind him, Charles straightened his shoulders and took a deep breath. He kept his eyes fixed on the bustle of the street in front of him, his thumbs hooked through his gun belt. Barlow’s steps were hesitant and soft enough he’d never be mistaken for a pirate.
“Mr. Barlow, I - I’m sorry,” Charles said, his voice terse and too sharp. He was meant to be charming the bookshop owners, not leading them to think him an illiterate brute. “I didn’t meant to lose my temper,” he said, or tried to say. He found the apology was all he could force out from behind clenched teeth, the rest of his explanation dying unsaid in his throat. He turned his head when Barlow pressed something warm against his upper arm. It was a mug filled with a steaming liquid - tea of some kind by the smell.
“Drink,” Barlow said, pressing the mug against his arm with insistence. He fumbled for it, grateful that it was a proper mug and not a dainty tea cup like the one he’d seen Barlow with before.
He cradled the mug between his hands, the warmth seeping into his palms.
“Drink,” Barlow said again, “it’ll help. There’s nothing a spot of tea won’t make better.” He could tell that Barlow wasn’t going to let it go and so he did as he asked, keeping the mug between both hands to hide the tremor. It burned all the way down and he coughed, turning to sputter at Barlow who was grinning at him.
“Did I forget to mention I added a bit of whiskey to it?”
Charles chuckled, feeling some of the tension in his frame trickle away. Maybe he could still salvage this situation, maybe Jack never had to hear the whole story.
“Let’s circle back for a moment,” Barlow said and Charles turned his gaze back to the front, biting the inside of his cheek until he tasted something other than his own frustration and shame.
“There’s nothing to forgive on your part and much I should ask forgiveness for,” Barlow continued, and of all the things he’d expected Barlow to say - that had to be the most surprising, the most unexpected.
“I - What’re you apologizing for?” He asked, his voice tight and strained and he hated it.
“I chose the book I did because I thought you’d be entertained by the story,” Barlow said, his tone soft and his eyes mercifully turned away from Charles. “I neglected to consider whether...” he trailed off.
“Whether the words were simple enough that a rotten pirate like me could understand them?” Charles finished for him, hiding his expression behind the mug as he took a long drink. This time he was prepared for the burn of the whiskey.
“I like to think I would have landed on a better way to phrase it,” Barlow said, daring to smile at Charles, “but yes, essentially. I forget sometimes that not everyone has the vocabulary I do.”
Charles took another sip of tea, the warmth of it settling in his stomach, soothing his too fast heartbeat, easing away the urge to hit something. It made breathing easier, as did Barlow’s solid presence at his shoulder.
“When I was young,” Barlow said and now he was leaning against a column, his hands tucked into his pockets, his eyes fixed on the setting sun. “My father had very little time for me. When I was young, I spent much of my time with servants or tutors.” He glanced at Charles, a smile tucked into the corner of his mouth. An invitation to share his amusement at how far away a world like that must seem from Nassau.
“These tutors - most of them were kind, educated men. But there was one, a man who was like my father in that he was impossible to please. Anyone who failed to meet his expectations was little better than the dirt beneath his heel. I never met his expectations, not that I can remember.”
Barlow pulled out a battered looking pocket watch, but he didn’t open it. He held it in his palm, his thumb rubbing circles across one side of it. “This one tutor,” he resumed, “had a way of making a simple question a condemnation of my intelligence. Every question was a stupid one and it deserved a reprimand. Not like what you’re thinking,” Barlow said with a glance at him.
“He never laid a hand on me. He found other ways to humiliate me, he would force me to read aloud books and philosophers that were beyond my comprehension. And he would ensure I was so anxious that I could barely see straight let alone read without stuttering or mispronouncing a word. Every mistake I made was further proof of my ineptitude, of how I lacked something fundamental.”
“Fucking Christ,” Charles murmured.
“Quite,” Barlow shrugged, “he almost ruined reading for me. It was years before I picked up a book of my own free will, just because I wanted to. If he’d succeeded, it would have been a tragedy,” he shook his head with a laugh, “I’m not sure either of my lovers would have fallen for me so thoroughly if I didn’t share their passion for the written word.”
Charles tried to find something to say that, tried to figure out if he was expected to say something. He wasn’t particularly good at talking about this kind of thing, not with anyone other than Jack and occasionally Anne. His earlier frustration had faded but his throat was still tight and the tension in his spine had yet to uncoil. It was just that he hadn’t been prepared, he hadn’t tried to read anything other than sea charts and captain’s logs in years. Not since his old Captain Teach had forced him to learn, an order softened by Teach being the one to sit with him evening after evening and help him learn how. He tipped back what was left of his tea, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“I’ve only ever told that story to Miranda and James,” Barlow said quietly, “I told you so you would know that if you did desire to improve your reading, I would help without shaming or judging you. But, I rather suspect a desire to read was not what brought you into my shop today.”
Charles ducked his head, looking at the sand as if his mask was hiding there and if he sifted around enough he could find it and put it back on. He was unused to being read this easily, or at all. Barlow was more perceptive than he’d expected. Perhaps, he should have known any partner of Flint’s would be as uncannily able to read him. It wasn’t quite as infuriating coming from Barlow as it was from Flint.
Then, a steadying hand settled on his shoulder, not gripping or squeezing. Just resting there. A still, solid warmth. He didn’t know how long they stood there, both of them watching as the sun slowly set and the street came alive in front of them. Nassau was a bustling place of commerce during the day, and something entirely different once dark set in. The Barlow’s bookshop was located on the edges of the town, closer to the beach than most respectable people wanted to be. But they all knew why, when Flint was away it was common to see one or both Barlows out on their second floor balcony in the evenings - watching the horizon and waiting for Flint’s return.
“Are you ready to discuss the real reason you came by today?” Barlow asked, his tone neutral. Somehow, Charles had a feeling that any answer he gave would be met with the same polite smile and patience.
“Got more whiskey?”
Barlow laughed and turned to lead the way back inside.
“Yes, I do. You can call me Thomas,” he called over his shoulder, “all my friends do.”
“We could have had the schedule weeks ago, maybe then the fucking page wouldn’t be missing,” James was sitting at the bar, nursing a pint of ale.
“You may have found the right ship sooner, but catching prizes between hunting it has kept your men sated and happy.”
James arched a brow at her, and she grinned. “Last winter, during that long stretch when you were at sea, I spent some time in the interior with the people there. It’s a nice pious community, but one that faltered and fractured whenever their pastor neglected them. Keep your men happy and their pockets full, my love, happy men don’t mutiny or become disloyal.”
James was peering at her, “you are an endless font of wisdom, aren’t you? Come on, pull up a stool.” Of course, he wouldn’t just pull her down to his lap, not even in Nassau would James be bold enough to do that in public. If they were at home, that compliment would have been followed by kissing her senseless. That wouldn’t be happening here. The first floor of Eleanor Guthrie’s tavern was beginning to fill with men as it grew dark outside, the promise of alcohol and company drawing them like moths to flame. The people here were rough, but honest, and Miranda found herself at home among them.
“Come on, please sit with me for a moment?” James offered her a hand, his smile hidden slightly behind the scruff on his face. She took it and let him help her onto the stool beside him, his hand falling to rest on her knee.
James slid his ale in front of her. She ignored the offer and leaned over to kiss him instead, smiling into his mouth when he jumped slightly. As he began to kiss back with fervor she slipped her hand between the folds of his leather jacket and stole the book he’d tucked away there. He leaned back, raising his eyebrows again, “Christ, Miranda,” he said, “you could have just asked to see it.”
Miranda just smirked at him. “Where would the fun be in that?”
“And everything must be fun,” James said mildly. He watched her as she opened the stolen log, she could feel the weight of his gaze as she flipped through it.
“Have you made progress on finding a consort ship?” She asked after a moment more of skimming the log.
James reached across and rescued his ale, taking a drink before answering her.
“Hal thinks we can convince Hornigold to loan us his crew and ship.”
“You don’t sound pleased with that.”
“Hal seems... reluctant to captain it,” James said with a shrug, “he agreed initially but something’s got him rethinking the idea.”
“Do you have other options?”
“No one that I trust,” James said, “I’m tempted to try and go without one. If Eleanor can get me the ten pounders I need, we may be able to do this with just the Walrus.”
She closed the captain’s log and slid it across the bar at him, the spine hitting his arm.
“Miranda?” She just looked at him.
The hand on her knee moved to grasp her shoulder, “what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Miranda said, “just - is there somewhere private we can talk?”
James picked up the log and tucked it away in silence, his brow furrowed. He left her just long enough to whisper with Eleanor’s right hand, Mr. Scott, before returning to offer her his arm. He didn’t look at her as he guided her through the crowded tables and up the stairs to the rooms that were tucked away there.
Once through the door Miranda slipped away from him, pacing into the room and keeping her back to him. James’ gaze was heavy on her but he didn’t say anything. After a moment she moved to sit at the small table, flattening her hands on the wood surface.
Her hands had grown rough in the last ten years, a product of cleaning and managing her own house and a small garden. Most days, she was proud to see evidence of her hard work but at the moment it was a reminder of all they’d lost. Of how they’d been forced to change. James leaned back against the table, his body angled away from her.
“If you’re angry with me, I’d appreciate you saying so,” he said.
“I’m not,” Miranda said.
“This is the angriest I think I’ve seen you since that day,” he didn’t have to specify what day he was referring to, “why?”
Miranda folded her hands together, tightening her grip until her knuckles were white.
“Do you truly not understand that you’re not alone anymore?”
“Excuse me? No, Miranda, I don’t understand what you’re getting at. I don’t understand why you’re angry with me, why you’re sitting there, refusing to look at me. Most of all, I don’t understand why you’re having to put so much effort into mastering your rage at me.”
Miranda forced her hands to relax, shut her eyes rather than acknowledge how she could not force her gaze to land on him. She swallowed against the bitter acrid taste in her mouth.
“You are not alone anymore,” she said carefully, “you haven’t been for a long time.”
“I don’t- “ James said at last and she opened her eyes.
“You want to sail without a consort, Christ James, really? You just - you sat next to me, as casual as can be - and just announced that you were thinking of not taking a consort with you when you go after the Urca. As if that decision doesn’t affect me or Thomas. Do you think I don’t know that it’s riskier for you to go without a consort? Have you considered what losing you would do to me? To Thomas? You can’t just -“ she rubbed her face, trying to rid herself of her rage.
“I’m sorry, I know this isn’t your fault. We’ve left these decisions to you and Hal in the past because we don’t know enough about pirating or sailing to have informed opinions,” she said, “I understand we have left you alone in this before now. But not this time, not when it comes to your chances of coming back alive.”
James was staring at his boots, his hair falling out of its tie and casting shadows across his face. “Well, I suppose I should be grateful,” he said slowly, “that you’ve finally deigned to weigh in. Let’s just ignore all the times you’ve advised me on how to handle my men, as you did not an hour ago, and pretend I’ve somehow not been considering you and Thomas in every single choice I’ve made.”
“That’s different and you know it,” Miranda said. She took a deep breath and willed her heartbeat to slow, she was startled at the breadth of her anger but aware enough to recognize it was masking a different emotion. “Counseling you on how to manage the crew’s mood is different than counseling you on strategic decisions. I’m just, I’m scared James. This plan of yours is risky and I’m terrified that you’re going to lose your life to it. Can we just - please would you just-“ she rubbed her forehead. Her attempt to master her emotions was not going well.
“Look,” she tried again, “will you please agree to take a consort ship with you? There must be a captain you can trust.”
James was facing her now, his hip resting against the tables edge. “Of course,” he said, “it’s not like this island is full of men who alternately hate or envy me. I’m sure finding a captain I can trust not to stab me in the back will be easy.” He levered himself off the table, striding towards the balcony.
“James,” she called, but the sound of the door slamming behind him cut off anything else she would have said. She shut her eyes. She hated fighting with James, the same as she hated fighting with Thomas. It had been easier between them before, when their worst fight had been over which of them was the blanket thief. Their fights back then had been born of small petty things and they’d been short lived. But that had been before.
Before that night when Alfred Hamilton had turned their world upside down and exiled them to live in a foreign land, before she had learned exactly what lengths James would go to in an attempt to protect them. She would never forget the paralyzing fear she had felt in the moments after he’d presented his offer to take the blame for the pardons and to disappear from their lives, from life altogether if the implications in his words that night had been true. If Alfred hadn’t turned James’ counteroffer down, if Thomas hadn’t somehow convinced his father to fake all their deaths... it didn’t bear thinking about.
James was leaning his back against the railing now, facing in towards her. She rose to her feet and went to join him on the balcony.
“I’m sorry,” she said. James was still.
“Please listen. I’m sorry, I know there aren’t many you can trust here, I don’t mean to sound as if I think finding a solution will be easy. But I worry about you and... I would feel better if you found a consort.”
James’ eyes were on the floor. Miranda reached a hand towards him, running her fingers through his hair, stroking his temple, and finally cradling his jaw. They were quiet.
“I’ll find one,” he murmured finally, “I know it’s the best plan. I’m just frustrated over the missing page and I shouldn’t have let my temper make me reckless. I’m sorry too.”
“Thank you,” she leant against him, nudging their faces together.
James eyed her suspiciously, “did you provoke a fight to get me to promise you that?”
“Of course not,” she said, leaning their foreheads together, her hands sliding in between his jacket and his shirt to stroke his chest and back, “I provoked a fight so we could have makeup sex.”
It wasn’t true by any means, but it made James laugh and kiss her, his hands tugging her closer.
“Is that so?” He breathed.
James was pushing her backwards now, through the doorway and back into the room. James stripped off his jacket and peeled off his shirt, his hands moving to her clothes next. Miranda reached for him, squeezing the back of his neck until he stopped and looked at her.
“I love you,” she said and James surged forward to kiss her, tumbling them both onto the bed. Miranda gripped the back of James’ head, her fingers clenching in his hair hard enough that he gasped. She kissed his mouth, nipped at his bottom lip. He growled and pushed her skirts up and out of the way, his other hand working on the buttons of her blouse. “We could,” she panted, in between kisses, “take a moment to get undressed properly-“
“We could,” James said into her ear. He hitched their hips together and she gasped, her legs moving to wrap around him and pull him closer. At some point he’d gotten his pants shoved down and out of the way so that all that separated them was her underwear, “but I like you like this. You’re gorgeous like this, debauched and wet for me.” His voice was somewhere south of a growl and she gasped as his hand slid between her legs to move her underwear out of the way.
“Is this okay?”
“Yes, James, please.” She kissed him then, rough and dirty and filled with the kind of passion that could only come from anger, fear, and all encompassing love.
James pulled back after a moment, his breathing heavy and his eyes dilated with pleasure. “Get in me,” Miranda panted, her hands gripping his hips and urging him to action.
“That’s what you want?”
“Lord above, yes, stop teasing me James.”
“Usually you like more build up, are you sure?”
“James. Just do it.”
“Wait,” he said, his hand slid between her legs but that wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted it rough, wanted to feel every inch of it, she wanted to come away with wounds made from love. She pushed his hand out of the way and gripped his cock, guiding him inside before he could register her interference.
“I told you what I wanted, I swear to God, James, do you not listen to word I say? Are you incapable of taking instruction on - Christ,” she rasped, her voice deserting her as James pulled out, thrust inside her firmly, and she couldn’t breathe from it, her arms were shaking and her grip on James was so tight her fingers ached. Above her, James froze.
“Miranda. Darling. Let’s stop, I’m going to pull out, slowly-“
“Don’t move,” she gasped, her voice so quiet she would have thought James hadn’t heard her if he wasn’t holding himself so still. Her breathing was fast and too light, her muscles trembling. James leaned his forehead against hers.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“No, it’s - it’s okay. I shouldn’t have pushed, just... go slow.”
“Tell me when you’re ready,” James’ arms were shaking from the strain of holding himself up and back. She knew he wouldn’t move an inch despite that, not until she gave him permission.
“Okay,” she murmured, following her words with a shaky nod when he continued to hesitate. James eased out, barely an inch, adjusted his angle and was back. She gasped, from pleasure this time, her head falling back against the headboard. James followed, pressing kisses to her jaw, down her neck, his touch light and gentle. She knew her desire for rough sex on occasion made him uncomfortable, she knew he preferred it like this. Drawn out and achingly tender.
Their first time had been rough and quick by necessity, their fourth time had been when she first requested it be that way again. Not because of circumstance but because she sometimes liked it that way.
She had kissed him, her grip on the back of neck bruising, “let go, lose control with me,” she had said.
“I can’t,” James had whispered.
“Yes, you can. Let go.”
“I can’t, I don’t...”
“Trust me. I can take it.”
Afterward, they’d laid in the estate’s guest room, listening to the sound of the rain hitting against the windows. Miranda had looked over at James, spread boneless and naked across the duvet. His face had told another story, his lips set in a hard line, the muscle in his cheek trembling as he hid his unease. His green eyes were as dark as the raging sea and fixed on the ceiling above them. She had known why he wouldn’t look at her, had seen the way he’d flinched when he glanced over and spotted the bruises beginning to form on her arms, her hips, her thighs. “Christ Almighty,” he had said, his voice shaking, “Miranda, I’m so sorry.”
She had just watched him, “don’t apologize,” she had said, “I wanted it. Sometimes, I need that. I need a reminder that my body is my own, that I can choose what happens to it. Even if what I choose is something that leaves bruises.”
James had jerked his head in a nod, finally turning to look at her, “Okay,” he had whispered, “just, I don’t know how often I can give this to you. I don’t want to hurt you.”
She had closed the distance between them then, folding herself into his arms and tucking her face against his neck. “Oh, my darling James, you didn’t hurt me. Love is not painful,” she had whispered into his skin, “love is giving and you have given me much tonight.”
Miranda knew better than to ask for it often after that, saving such requests for after they’d had a fight. She tried not to examine the manipulative part of her that knew it was easiest to convince him to let go when she’d provoked him into an argument first.
Here in a guest room at the Guthrie Tavern, almost a decade later, she knew not to push for it this time. She knew to let James turn their coupling gentle. She knew to roll her hips up to meet his, and to run her fingers through his hair, and most of all she knew to kiss him until he forgot the earlier tension and his misplaced guilt. “James, yes, oh God -“ she gasped, “can you - are you-“
“I’m close too,” James said through gritted teeth. He was easing in and out of her, slow and tantalizing and with unerring accuracy - God the sight of him over and around her, his cheeks flushed and his hair falling down to tickle her face. She tried to memorize how he looked, how he felt, how she felt being here with him-
“Miranda,” James panted, “I need-“ She pulled him close and held him there, her thighs quivering with the strain of holding him in place deep inside her. Miranda dug her fingers deep into his gorgeous hips and she surged up to catch his lips, muffling her cries against him as he began to move again.
“Fuck,” James panted, and he was coming inside her, the muscles in his abdomen contracting under her hands. “Oh, Fucking Christ-“ he managed as he shuddered.
“James - you beautiful - God, I’m coming too, I need you to, you to,” her groan as he eased out and slid his hand down to rub her was a thick choke of sound, the lump in her throat and the warmth between her thighs making it impossible for her to get a proper breath. James’ fingers pressed inside and crooked and she was coming. James’ other hand clutched her close, a bit on the rough side, just as she liked it. She spiraled down, shaking in his arms.
He flopped over onto his back, their tight grips on each other easing.
Her eyes had shut at some point, her chest heaving up and down as she fought to calm her breathing, her fingers twitching for something to hold.
“Darling?” said a faint voice from beside her, and just like that the world roared to life around her again. She opened her eyes, rolling onto her side and then over to sprawl out on-top of James. She could feel the rhythmic trembling of all his muscles beneath her.
James cradled her to him, one hand finding her hair and the other caressing her hip. She curled there, boneless and safe and loved. A fierce wild love beat in her chest and she couldn’t bear not to say it, couldn’t bear the thought of James ever doubting it.
She ghosted fingers over James’ chest, tracing old scars and more recent ones. James’ arm grew heavier and she knew without looking that his eyes were fluttering.
“I love you, and Thomas, more than I can bear sometimes,” she whispered. James hand on her hip stilled, she rested her chin on his chest and looked at him.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“I just mean... the reason I reacted so strongly to your idea of not taking a consort ship... I reacted like that because I love you, I need you and I-“
James shifted and settled, his hands tugging and pulling her up to his eye level so that she was looming above him. His hands cradled her face, his thumbs wiping away the tears on her cheeks. “I love you too,” he said, “I would die for you gladly, but more importantly, I would do anything to live for you. I swear to you Miranda I will take every precaution, I will come home to you.”
She turned her face to nudge at his hands, kissing his fingertips. One hand slid to the back of her head, her neck, caressing there and she sighed. James just looked at her and she looked back.
“You scared the hell out of me,” James said.
“I know, I’m sorry I got so angry.” She settled more firmly on top of him, making herself comfortable.
“James? Do you think you’ll be up for another round?”
His laughed reverberated through her, “Yes, later, after we’ve seduced Thomas into joining us.”
Miranda’s eyes slipped closed, her lips curling, “good idea,” she said.
I’m a bit nervous about how this chapter turned out, hopefully it didn’t get tooooo angsty.
I’d love to hear any thoughts on it :)
I was planning to spend a bit more time editing this chapter - but I live in Florida and with Hurricane Dorian barreling this way it seemed prudent to post this before we lose power or internet.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“In London there was this one minor Lord, his name was Stuart if I recall correctly, and he fancied himself an expert duelist. He frequented Thomas’ salon discussions. He and James did not get along.”
James’ sigh in response was more of a groan, and he rubbed at his mouth in an attempt to hide his grimace. “Miranda,” he said.
“Shush, it’s my turn to tell a story. You had your turn, it’s not my fault you chose to talk about Vasquez and the Urca again.”
“Charles hadn’t heard it before,” Thomas pointed out, catching James’ eye and sharing a grin.
“My turn, my story,” Miranda said, her tone light and airy, “so, Lord Stuart, I can’t for the life of me remember his first name but that’s not important. He’d won a fencing competition at Oxford and was convinced this meant he could take on anyone and win.”
“Fencing competitions?” Charles said, “you noble folk are odd.”
“Former nobles, if you please,” Thomas said primly, James snorted at that and it set him and Charles off into proper laughter.
“As I was saying,” Miranda spoke over them, “Poor Stuart got it into his head that he should challenge James to a gentlemen’s duel. He said no, of course, but Stuart didn’t give up so easily. Every week, he’d show up to one of our dinner parties and if it was one James was also attending - he’d challenge him after dinner. Eventually Stuart realized the only way to convince James was to goad him into it.”
“‘Goading him into it’ is putting it mildly,” Thomas said in protest, “He wanted to fight Flint?” Charles asked, he appeared mystified by the thought, “was he somehow less... fearsome then?”
“He was more respectable but no less impressive,” Miranda assured. She was idly tilting her glass of wine, the little that was left swirling around the bottom. “Stuart was just over sure of himself.”
“He was delusional,” Thomas cut in, “He was built similar to your Rackham. How he thought he’d have a prayer’s chance against our James...”
“Yes, thank you,” Miranda said, “back to my story. He finally provoked James by impugning my honor and insulting Thomas in his hearing. And so he got his duel with a respected Navy Lieutenant.”
“Not that respected as it turned out...” James was squinting up at the ceiling.
“Flint kicked his noble ass, as he deserved, then,” Charles said.
“In a manner of speaking,” Miranda said, and James’ grimace reappeared accompanied with a clenched jaw. He made no attempt to hide it this time. “He drew out the duel, made it clear to everyone watching that he was the better swordsman, and then he fumbled at the last moment and lost.”
“Miranda, surely there’s a different story you could-“
“No, I like this one thank you. Back then James was very aware of who he could afford to offend, and who he could not. So I wasn’t surprised when I asked him about it later and he admitted to throwing the duel at the last moment. But one win didn’t satisfy Stuart and he kept challenging James until -“
“Flint lost his temper and beat him to death,” Charles concluded, saluting James with his glass of whiskey.
“I think Vane should tell the story,” Flint said, “I like his version better.”
Miranda reached over to pat James’ hand, “close. James still managed to lose the duel in the end, but he thoroughly humiliated Stuart in front of a large crowd of onlookers. It was hard to watch, if I’m honest. Their skill level was that different. He may have lost the fight, every fight even, but James won the war, so to speak. No one in that crowd ever took Stuart seriously again. In fact, Stuart tried to recoup his losses by challenging Thomas next...” she trailed off, snickering at the memory.
“Stuart didn’t know I’d been trained in gentlemen’s fencing since I was as a child,” Thomas picked up the story, “or that James had taken it upon himself to teach me the dirty tricks I hadn’t learned from my instructors.”
“Most of all,” James said, seemingly resigned to the story being told, “Stuart had overlooked that Thomas, unlike myself, ranked higher than him and had no cause to throw the duel.”
Charles was grinning, “you were the one that finally beat him then,” he said, “I was beginning to think this idiot would get to come away having technically won.”
Thomas gave a little bow, “truly, though, it was a team effort. Who do you think gave Stuart the idea that he could recover his reputation by challenging me?”
Miranda smirked at them over the rim of her wine glass.
“We should consider cutting her off,” James leaned over and whispered to him, “she gets more devious with each glass of wine.”
“You love it, we both do. Her choice in stories will only improve from here on out.”
“For you maybe,” James grumbled, “it doesn’t escape me that she chose a story where I lost repeatedly.”
Thomas rolled his eyes, “you know that wasn’t the point she was making,” he whispered so that Charles and Miranda wouldn’t overhear. Not that either of them were paying attention, Charles appeared to be telling Miranda about the the long scar dancing down his forearm, “she wanted to show Charles that you were cunning enough to make your point, to achieve a different kind of victory than winning a duel, and that your pride hadn’t gotten in the way of that.”
“She’s trying to build a bridge between us and smooth the way for Charles Vane to be my consort, yes I know,” James scrubbed his face, “if you’d pitched the idea to me yesterday I would have laughed. But seeing him here, making an effort... perhaps I could trust him with this.”
They both turned their gaze to Charles. His hands were gesturing, the corner of his mouth curled up into a small smile, his normally dark eyes lit up as he told a story to his captive audience. Miranda laughed then, reaching out to run her fingers down the scar in question, “this was your quartermaster’s doing?” she asked.
“Jack is an excellent shot,” Charles said with a rueful shake of his head, “but he’s shit with swords. We, Anne and I, tried to teach him. I came away with this and Jack almost impaled himself. His sword is mostly for show - he does okay with knives though.”
“He’s not Blackbeard,” Thomas murmured, “he may turn to violence as a solution too often, but I think he’s like us and unlike Blackbeard in that he too considers Nassau his home. I think he’d be as protective of it as you are, given half the chance. If he knew he had cause to be.”
James tilted his head to the side, “we know civilization is coming for us, whether it’s tomorrow or five years from now, whether it’s England or Spain. But convincing others to take that threat seriously takes some doing.”
“I think tomorrow is more likely than five years,” Thomas stuck his hand in his pocket, grasping his pocket watch and pulling it out. He rubbed at the inscription on the side. It was almost worn away to nothing. “Can I assume you heard about the Scarborough and Captain Hume?”
James hummed, his hand came to rest on top of Thomas’, stilling his movements. “Yes, I heard about the attempt to arrest Richard Guthrie and his subsequent disappearance. The rumors say he fled to the Underhill plantation and not to Eleanor.”
“Are you two going to keep gossiping like old women, or do something useful?” Miranda interrupted, reaching for an empty bottle and waving it at them. The remnants of their meal were spread across the small oak table: empty wine and liquor bottles grouped together in a mockery of a centerpiece, a chicken picked near to the bone and bowls of fruit and salad creating a ring spreading outwards from them. It had been a hastily thrown together meal, James and Miranda had come from the tavern with alcohol and a chicken more suited to feeding three. In an attempt to salvage his record as a good host, Thomas had made up the difference with fruit and a salad from their garden.
His efforts would have been for naught - Charles had attempted to escape when he saw Flint - but Miranda had cut him off at the knees with a bright smile and an entreaty for company. He hadn’t been alone in trying to avoid dinner either. James had put up a token protest - one that hadn’t prevented him from lounging at the head of the table for the duration of the meal, his hair loose and his guard down.
Well, his guard as down as it ever was when they had company.
“These bottles have run empty,” Miranda said, pointing the bottle at James, her eyebrow arched. Thomas surveyed them all with concern. They’d been steadily drinking for a few hours now, it must be near midnight. Their volume had grown steadily louder, they’d begun slumping further in their seats, their walls down and their good will extended thanks to food and drink. And along with that goodwill, came a certain amount of unfiltered discussion that could easily lead to disaster rather than friendship.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“I think it’s a splendid idea. James, be a dear, and fetch us another bottle of wine,” she said with her most charming smile, “and whatever Charles would like.”
Charles shrugged, “as long as it’s strong I don’t have much preference.”
“Strong is a given,” James snatched the bottle from Miranda before she could drop it, placing it back on the table and out of her reach. He stood up, lacing his hands together and stretching with a sigh that traveled down the line of his body. Thomas’ gaze found and lingered on the way the movement stretched his shirt across his beautifully broad shoulders, the hem riding up and revealing a tantalizing glimpse of his abdomen.
“Is the good stuff still stashed in the shop’s backroom?” James asked, his grin was lazy and amused.
Thomas cleared his throat, ignoring the snickers coming from the peanut gallery, “yes, I’ll uh, show you, shall I?”
James attempted to find the stash of their best wines and liquors for a while, but their drinking earlier was affecting him more than he had let on upstairs and Thomas’ backroom office was somehow less organized than his bookshop. He leant heavily against the desk wedged in the tiny room. Discretion was the better part of valor, he decided. Thomas was the only one here to witness his weakness. That rankled less than one would probably expect from Captain Flint.
“How do you find anything in here?” he asked, and Thomas hummed in answer. He shuffled over, giving Thomas room to slide by him and rifle through the wardrobe they’d modified to use for storage. He glanced around the cluttered office and wondered how much of their overall savings came from the shop and how much from their shares in the Walrus’ hauls. If you added up the value of all the books in their shop, would it outweigh the gold and coin they’d been saving? To them, he knew many of the books were priceless but most would disagree. He shifted back to sit on top of the desk, his feet idly swinging as he considered.
“You agree with Miranda, then,” he said.
“You’ll have to be more specific, I’m afraid.”
“About Vane,” he said, “you think he’s a good choice as a consort. You spent the better part of the day with him, right? Miranda seems to be set on convincing us both to work together, and I know what’s driving her towards that goal. It’s your take I’m wondering about. I trust your judge of character, Thomas, what do you think of him?”
“You know what’s driving her, do you?” Thomas glanced over his shoulder with a sly smile, “is that why you two came home disheveled and glowing?”
Thomas was dodging the question, which was curious. “Hey,” he said, his voice lowering, “I’m not asking you to divulge anything he told you. I would never ask you to share something told to you in confidence.”
“I know. But James, a day spent with someone, does not an expert make.“ Thomas turned to face him, his empty hands telling James he’d not had more luck finding wine to please Miranda, “you’ve dealt with him off and on for a decade, I think your experience and opinion of him outweighs mine. And Miranda’s.”
“You seem to find him good company, at least,” James said. And he stood up, walking forward and placing his hands on either side of Thomas, caging him against the wardrobe’s shelves. “That’s good enough for now. You know, I could help you reach some of the bottles hidden away at the top,” he lowered his voice, pressing forward into Thomas, nosing and nuzzling at his cheek.
“I’m taller than you, James. How much have you had to drink?”
“Enough to not care that Charles Vane is upstairs wheedling all kinds of stories out of Miranda,” he murmured into Thomas’ ear. “Enough to not care if they notice how long we’ve been gone.” And slowly, because Thomas hadn’t pushed him away but his welcome was something he never took for granted, he moved one hand down to Thomas’ waist. And so he felt the immediate tension that followed, he felt the way Thomas swayed back and away from him until he hit the wardrobe with a thud.
“James, step back,” Thomas said, in a tone that brokered no negotiations, and James did. He backed up a step, hands falling to hang at his sides. The sting he felt was unjustified, he knew. But the alcohol in his system had brought his walls down, heightened his emotions, left him vulnerable. The rejection, however small, cut deeper than it would have otherwise. He didn’t have time to linger on it as Thomas stepped towards him. The next thing he knew, he was being backed into the desk, hands tugging at his hips and thighs until he took the hint and eased up to sit on it.
“Thomas,” James gasped, “I’m getting mixed, ah, messages here-“ the hand on the back of his neck was gentle, tugging him closer. How much have you had to drink Thomas? He opened his mouth to ask, but then Thomas’ mouth was on his.
It wasn’t the messy, passionate, alcohol-fueled kiss he was expecting. It wasn’t messy at all. It was... careful, almost hesitant. Thomas’ tongue slipped into his mouth. James relaxed his posture and Thomas slotted into place between his knees. He found himself in Thomas’ arms and being kissed so gently his head was spinning. Thomas had been a talented kisser from the beginning, and their years together had only taught them what the other liked. It was this kind of tender kissing that always got to James, it was arousing in so many different ways, and before he knew it his arms were raising to return Thomas’ embrace.
Thomas had moved closer as they were kissing, and James slid a hand around to find the small of his back, and tugged him closer still. “Fuck,” James gasped into the too-quiet office. Thomas tasted too damn good. He tasted like rich wine and fruit and it was intoxicating. Thomas made a small noise in the back of his throat. His hand was still on the back of James’ neck, his thumb stroking there.
“I think,” Thomas murmured, “that Charles could be trusted in the short term if you tell him you’re hunting the Urca. The prize at the end is motivator enough. If you want to trust him in the long term, you would have to tell him the entirety of your plan, our vision for Nassau.”
James nudged their faces together, “tell me that again when I can focus on something more than how gorgeous you are,” he rasped. He was getting hard - here in the bookshop’s backroom with Charles Fucking Vane upstairs making nice with Miranda. What was more, he could feel that Thomas was too. “You and Miranda are trying to kill me today,” he managed to add before Thomas’ mouth was back on his, stealing anything else he would have said. They were making out like teenagers, there didn’t seem to be goal here other than kissing and pressing against each other, and James didn’t mind that one bit, even relished it. “Christ,” he moaned, and Thomas kissed him hard, his hand moving to tangle his fingers in James’ hair, and James shivered. Both his lovers liked to grasp his hair, but right this moment, he could think of better things for that hand to be doing, and all he would have to do is reach up, clasp it, and guide it where it would better serve both him and -
“Hello?” said a voice from outside the door, and they froze. Fuck, James mouthed. He recognized that voice.
“You left the door unlocked so I let myself in,” Jack Rackham said, “apologies for the intrusion. I’m looking for Charles.”
“H-hold on,” Thomas called, “just sorting some things. I’ll be there in a moment.”
James arched an eyebrow at him, and left his hands where they were on Thomas’ waist. He stroked circles there, leaning his forehead against Thomas’.
“You forgot to lock up?” He whispered and Thomas rolled his eyes.
“You didn’t let Flint kill Charles,” Rackham spoke again, “did you?”
“Of course not,” Thomas said, wrenching himself out of James’ arms. And wrenching was the word for it as James did not want to let go. “We were just grabbing more wine.” Thomas chose a couple of bottles without looking at the labels and shoved one at James.
Thomas chose then to open the door, and James pinched the bridge of his nose as Rackham tumbled through it. The nosey shit must have been pressed against the door listening.
“Ah,” Rackham said as he scrambled to his feet and brushed at his clothes, “Captain Flint. How nice to see you.”
“I’m sure,” James said, letting his voice drop into a growl as he slid off the desk, “Vane is upstairs with Miranda. We’ll take you to him.”
Rackham’s arrival didn’t bring an end to the night, as James had hoped it would once he’d resigned himself to his presence. Instead his appearance inspired another round of drinking as Vane caught him up on the stories he’d missed out on and then some. Miranda’s stories got funnier and less cunningly chosen as the night went on. Soon she had Rachkam and Vane propping each other up as they laughed. Every now and then, James caught Thomas’ gaze, and they would trade commiserating smiles. At this rate, they wouldn’t get to bed until dawn and by then there would be no hope of resuming what they’d started, or of drawing Miranda into it. After a while, Rackham pushed his glass away, “I’m quite enjoying myself,” he said, “but I came looking for Charles for a reason.”
“What?” Charles asked, and he straightened in his seat, his hand scrubbing at his face.
“A most interesting offer fell in my lap today, literally to Anne’s consternation,” Rachkam paused, taking a moment to meet each of their gazes. “It seems one of Noonan’s whores, Max, has a partner who is in possession of the key to hunting a great prize. A prize he claims you’re hunting. Captain Flint.”
p.s. More characters (Anne, Billy, Silver) will make proper appearances in the next couple of chapters.
The chapter took longer than the others to post, but it’s also longer than any others *shrugs* I figure it evens out.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Max? She’s claiming to have the missing schedule?” Miranda asked, setting down the bowl of fruit she’d been foraging from. “This has to do with the Urca, doesn’t it,” Vane said, “this is the reason you told that story. You’re hunting it.”
“The largest Spanish Treasure Ship in the fleet,” James said. His legs were stretched out across Thomas’ lap, and he was cradling a half full glass of wine to his chest. “Of course I’m hunting it, that amount of gold would change everything for Nassau.”
“And you lost the schedule you need to hunt it?” Rackham asked, leaning closer, his fingers twitching where they rested on the table.
“It was stolen from me. By Max’s partner it seems - and ‘need’ is overstating it. I know the waters and the routes the Spanish tend to take, having the schedule increases the odds of success but I intend to hunt the Urca without it if necessary.” Next to him Thomas was rolling his eyes but his hands were gentle as they rubbed up and down James’ calves. Miranda balled up the nearest napkin and threw at James. He dodged with a glare.
“Yes, because you are the most stubborn man I’ve ever met,” she said, “if it was possible to will the Urca into being in front of you, you would have done it by now.”
“‘Stubborn’ is one word for it,” Vane said taking a swig of whiskey straight from the bottle.
“My preference is to have the schedule,” James protested, “but I’m not going to let this go if I don’t. It’s too important.”
“Yes, speaking of. What if I, and by extension Charles, work out a deal with Max and her mysterious partner,” Rackham said, “you’ve put time and effort into this but we can bring the recovered schedule to the table. You’re looking for a consort: is there a better one to have in a fight than the Ranger and Captain Vane?”
“That’s not a decision I would make alone,” James said after a moment of silence, his eyes falling pointedly on Miranda and Thomas, “lucky for you, they seem to like you and I’m open to the idea.”
Rackham shifted in his seat, his eyes gleaming. He stilled when Vane rested a hand on his shoulder, setting down the bottle of whiskey to meet James stare for stare. “You said the gold would change Nassau, not that it would change your crew’s lives. That doesn’t sound like the normal split of shares. What do you plan to do with all that Spanish gold?”
James stretched his arm out to set his cup back on the table but otherwise didn’t move from his relaxed slouch. He hadn’t even told the full truth of his plan to Hal yet, only Thomas and Miranda knew. He’d hinted to Eleanor but hadn’t told her enough to make her a party to it. She would lose her standing with the other crews if they knew she’d supported a captain who intended to keep back a portion of the shares that should rightfully go to his crew. It wouldn’t matter what his reason was, the few who could understand his reasoning wouldn’t forgive the duplicitous of the action. But if Thomas was right, Charles Vane may understand his motivations, may even support it if he could convince him it would be for the good of Nassau.
“I intend to set aside a portion of the gold, partially from our share,” he waved his hand to include Miranda and Thomas, “and partially from the crew’s share, to be used for all of Nassau’s benefit.”
“Are you insane?” Rackham breathed, “even if your crew will look the other way, and I’m not sure they would, ours wouldn’t. They’d skin us alive if a portion that should be theirs was withheld.”
James acknowledged that with a nod, it was well known that Captain Vane’s crew was the most vicious on the island, their fear of Vane only kept them marginally under control. James knew better than most how easily that could change. He kept his distance from his own crew, he let Hal handle choosing and managing the men for the most part. Still, a few bad apples had ended up on his ship. As much as it had galled him to stretch out the search for the schedule, he knew that keeping his crew’s pockets full had quelled the rumble of mutiny that had begun a few years back.
Most of his crew didn’t care that he kept his distance, that his lovers were bookshop owners, that he could be cold and ruthless to his enemies as well as to his crew. But some did. Some were just waiting for the opportunity to oust him.
“How,” Vane said, “how would the gold be used for Nassau?”
“My plan is to fix up the island,” James said, “because I think we can all agree, we’re vulnerable as is. The fort won’t hold up to a serious bombardment and it would take less than a day for England or Spain to take the beach and sweep inland with ground forces.”
“England or Spain?” Vane repeated, lifting his brows.
“They seem like distant threats now, but they are not. Should either of them decide that they want these islands back - they would throw their full weight behind the venture and we would be lost in a blink of the eye.”
Rackham stared at him but Vane had his head tilted to the side. He was considering it.
“I used to think the inevitable course of events would be them driving us into the interior, forcing us into landlocked guerrilla warfare we would have no hope of winning long term. I spent years planning for that eventuality. This gold gives us another option. My plan is to fortify the fort, invest in better guns, and to fashion some type of defense down on the beaches. Some of the gold would be set aside, an emergency fund if you will, in case something we couldn’t predict were to happen. We could train the crews to fight as a fleet, to defend their home. An island of pirates and thieves that would cost more than its worth for England or Spain to regain.”
“Well, you don’t do anything by halves,” Vane said.
“Look,” James said, slipping his legs from Thomas’ lap, leaning forward and thumping his fist on the table emphatically, “you know as well as I do that civilization will reach our shores at some point. And we could run from it, we could move to other free ports, follow Blackbeard and his ilk and live on our ships with no safe place to reliably return to. Or we could make a stand here, we could fight for our home.”
“I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t be that simple,” Vane observed.
“It sure as fuck would not be,” Rackham said, his tone sharp and anxious.
“The execution will be the furthest thing from simple, but the decision is that simple. Begone and live or stay and die.” James said, lowering his voice, “I have more care to stay, than will to go, let me be put to death, before I live without freedom. What say you?”
Vane was propping his chin on his raised fist, studying him. “Poetic. I always thought you were arrogant,” he remarked, “all along I thought you were too smug by half, but at least you were a good pirate. A good captain who kept his men’s pockets full. Now, I find you’re delusional as well as arrogant.”
“Aren’t all pirates delusional to some degree, Vane? Would a sane man do what we do? England isn’t invincible, it would be a hard fight, but I think the freedom on the other side would be worth it.”
“Freedom, is it? You think we don’t have that now?” Vane said, his tone edging into something derisive.
Miranda stood up, “I think I have something stashed away we could have as desert. Help me fetch it, please Thomas?”
James didn’t look away from Vane’s steely gaze as Miranda and Thomas slipped away to the kitchen.
“Ah, perhaps I should go see if they need my assistance,” Rackham started to stand but Vane gripped his shoulder and kept him seated, “sit, Jack. You got us into this fucking position,” Vane growled.
“We have a taste of freedom here,” James said, rescuing his abandoned wine and taking a long drink from it. “But is it true freedom when we have it by virtue of being ignored by civilization? What happens when they inevitably turn their gaze back to us? Believe me when I say they will. There have been plans to do it before. Now that the war that was distracting them is over, they will return their attention to the New World.”
“How can you be so certain?” Rackham asked, his voice going high in a way that had James and Vane wincing. It was a sign they should probably stop drinking but James couldn’t imagine getting through this conversation without the help of wine. “You speak like you have firsthand knowledge of England and Spain’s plans.”
James considered the two men seated across from him. It was common knowledge he’d been in the navy before this. That wasn’t rare among pirates. But few had guessed how highly ranked he’d been. Fewer would venture to presume that he’d been as close to England’s seat of power as he had been.
“I have no knowledge beyond educated assumptions. Of their current plans, that is. But I know what England’s plan to do it ten years ago was,” he said after a moment. It went against his every instinct to lay all his cards on the table like this, but his gut told him it was the only way to convince Vane and Rackham that the threat was real. That didn’t make him like it. “I helped craft their original plan to retake the West Indies in its entirety. Trust me when I say we won’t stand a chance should they bring that plan, or one like it, to bear.”
“You did what?” Rackham whispered, his face draining of color. “I had wondered if you were an officer, you stand like one,” Vane mused, “and it’s an open secret that the Barlows are some kind of disgraced nobility. The question is, is this plan why you three ended up here?”
“After a fashion,” James shrugged, “all that matters is that the threat is real and we’re ill-prepared to face it.”
Vane nodded, “why not tell your crew your plan? Convince them to freely give up a portion of their share.”
“They’re far too shortsighted to see the merit in that,” James said, forcing down a laugh, “you know that as well as I do. They’d rather throw it away on rum and whores.”
Vane snorted, “I can’t argue that.”
“Are you actually considering this?” Rackham asked, “if the men ever found out we’d all be killed or worse.”
“Relax, Jackie,” Vane murmured, a hand moving to grip the back of Rackham’s neck and giving him a little shake. “I have conditions,” he said to James.
“Do as you like with your crew’s portion of the gold, but mine will get their full share. I won’t breathe a word of what you’re doing. I’ll provide the recovered schedule and I’ll donate a portion of my share to your plan for the island, as can Jack and Anne if they decide to support your venture. But I won’t steal from my crew.”
James nodded, “that’s fair,” he said and offered his hand to Vane to shake on it.
Rackham sagged in his seat, scrubbing at his face with both hands, “thank Christ. Anne is never going to believe me when I tell her about this.”
“I’m planning to tell my crew about the hunt for the Urca tomorrow,” James said, ignoring Rackham’s continued muttering, “and then we’re going to careen the Walrus. You should consider doing the same. We’ll need every bit of speed we can muster.”
“Even with the combined strength of our ships, we may not be a match for the Urca.”
“That’s why Eleanor agreed to acquire ten pound guns for us. With those, we can do it.”
“That easy?” Charles raised his brows again.
James shrugged, “likely not. But Eleanor was confident she could provide them. I’m taking her word for it.”
“Good enough for me,” Vane said, looking around the room, as if he wasn’t sure how he’d gotten there. “Fuck,” he continued, “we’re really doing this aren’t we?”
James sighed and reached for the last bottle of wine standing. He poured himself and Vane a healthy portion, sliding Vane’s across the table. Vane was just sitting there. “Fuck,” he ran a hand over his face, “are we actually becoming partners?”
James snorted and nudged the drink closer until Vane grudgingly took it and drank, “it appears we are, Charles.”
He smirked when Charles choked on the wine.
“Hey, where’s mine?” Jack asked and that set both him and Charles off into laughter that shook the table.
“It sounds likes it’s going well,” Miranda whispered. They’d made it to the kitchen, but hadn’t mounted a search for dessert yet.
“Yes, our James can be very convincing when he puts his mind to it,” Thomas agreed, tugging her into his arms and further into the kitchen. She was torn between continuing to eavesdrop - what deal would they make with Max and her mysterious partner? Would they careen their ships on the same beach or separately? How would they keep their crews from telling all and sundry about the gold they were chasing? - and kissing Thomas back, because he was clearly still worked up from whatever he and James had gotten up to when they disappeared earlier. His mouth was hot and desperate on hers, his hands roaming up and down her back. It was clear his plan was for them to do this right here in their kitchen and Miranda worked a hand between them to undo his belt, wondering if he’d been simmering in his desire the entire night, if she would find the evidence under her hand.
Miranda gripped Thomas’ jaw and angled his beautiful face to better kiss him and he let her do it, he was letting her take the lead, letting her set the pace. She rewarded him with a hard kiss and stepped back and to the side, drawing him with her and stopping when she backed into the counter. She guided his hands to her waist and he complied and lifted her to sit on the counter, her legs winding around his hips and dragging him against her. If he could get his cock free, if they could get enough of their clothes out of the way, they could get off right here, right now, in record time. If -
“Mr. and Mrs. Barlow?” Jack was walking down the hall, would be within sight of the kitchen in five more steps by her reckoning, “did you find dessert? Can I hide with you? I think Flint and Charles have gone mad given their braying laughter.”
Christ Almighty, Thomas mouthed and Miranda bent to rest her forehead against his. He was leaning into her, trying to wrest his control back. Miranda stroked his back and kissed his brow.
Jack’s steps were getting closer and Thomas moved away, fixing his belt and offering her a hand down.
“Jack,” Thomas called, and Miranda went to him, straightening his shirt and brushing her fingers through his hair. “we’re in here.”
Jack’s head poked around the corner and he grinned at them, “finally! Sane company.”
She covered a laugh with her hand, unaccustomed to being accused of sanity. Thomas raised a sardonic brow but moved to rifle through their pantry, “what desert did you have in mind, my love?”
“I think there’s some chocolate from last Christmas hidden in there,” Miranda said, leaning over his shoulder to point to a tin canister on the top shelf, “I thought we could melt it and have hot chocolate as a night cap.”
Behind her Jack laughed, “I’m not sure it would qualify as a night cap any longer.”
Sure enough a glance out the window revealed that the moon was low in the sky: it was only a few hours until sunrise.
“Nevertheless, it’s a good way to celebrate our two captains coming together. And then we should all get some sleep, or we’ll be useless tomorrow.” She eyed Jack’s tall frame, “there’s a couch in the bookshop that shouldn’t be too uncomfortable for you and there’s a guest room Charles could take. If you two decide to spend the night rather than return to your tents on the beach.”
Jack nodded, “I appreciate that, I’ll discuss it with Charles.” He opened his mouth to say more but cut it off at a loud burst of laughter from the other room. Miranda could just make out James’ voice over Charles’ laughter, could hear the mirth in his tone, and she smiled helplessly.
“That,” Jack said, as frantically anxious as he’d been all night. He was hugging his arms to himself, looking over his shoulder. Towards Vane or in search of his woman, Miranda didn’t know. “you have no idea how unnerving that is. Anne would say...”
“Anne would say what?” Thomas said as he maneuvered around them both to heat up the stove, “why isn’t she with you, by the way? To hear James tell it, you two are inseparable.”
“She volunteered to watch Max and ensure she didn’t try to take her offer to another captain,” Jack sighed, “I don’t much like having her out of my sight, but Charles needed to know sooner than later.”
He looked over his shoulder again and this time Miranda was sure he was looking to where Anne must usually stand. The forlorn look on his face when he found her missing tugged at her heartstrings and she moved to stand next to him and grasp his arm.
“Why don’t we rejoin Charles and James? Thomas will join us once the hot chocolate is ready.”
“Yes, alright,” Jack said, distantly compliant as she maneuvered him out of the kitchen. At the last second, she glanced back and caught Thomas’ gaze, trading a commiserating a look. If you’d told her that morning she would be spending her night herding drunk pirates she would have laughed until she couldn’t breathe. And yet.
“There you are.”
They almost ran into Charles in the hall, or rather, Jack did run into him and Miranda just barely avoided being pulled with him. Charles steadied Jack with an arm around his shoulder.
“You’re such a lightweight,” he said, his voice fond as he tugged Jack upright against him.
Miranda smiled and together they managed to get Jack back to the dining table and deposited into his seat. By that time, Jack had lost the ability to coordinate his gangly limbs and had to be propped up so he wouldn’t face plant onto the table. Charles didn’t seem to mind as he sat beside him and adjusted Jack to lean his weight against him where there would be less risk of him toppling to the floor.
“How sweet,” James observed with no real venom as he tugged her over to sit on his lap. She leant against his chest, tucking her nose behind his ear and nuzzling there. His arms slid around her waist, and just like that, she was relaxed and safe, her eyes fluttering as she sank into his familiar warmth. “I don’t suppose,” she whispered, “there’s any chance of the three of us retiring to bed anytime soon?”
“Sooner than you’d think, Charles has been flagging as well.”
“Who would have guessed we’d be entertaining Charles Vane and Jack Rackham? That you’d be willingly partnering with them?”
“Please, can we just,” and she lifted her head, her lips nudging at James’ and they were kissing, right there in front of company. “You taste like him,” James whispered before taking her mouth again and she was lost in it. In him, in the feel of his mouth against hers, in the comforting weight of his arms around her. Maybe she could draw him out of the room, maybe they could steal Thomas away, maybe the could leave theirs guests to their own devices and abscond -
“The hot chocolate is ready,” Thomas announced as he backed through the door way, the tray in his hands and his hip propping the door open. Miranda leaned back, but James didn’t let her go far. His mouth was tucked under her ear now, pressing a soft kiss there, “we’ll all be in bed together soon, I promise,” he whispered, his warm breath fanning down her neck and sending shivers down her spine.
“I’ll hold you to that,” she whispered back, “otherwise I may just take drastic action.”
James chuckled, kissing her temple before letting her up to help Thomas distribute the drinks. Thankfully for their guests’ sake, they were able to retire soon after that and they were finally able to spend time together in bed.
“In the morning,” Miranda whispered into the dark later, her men dozing off on either side of her, “remind me that this is why we don’t have guests over often.”
“Yes dear,” she couldn’t tell which of them said it, or if they both did, but it didn’t matter. She was too tired, her eyes too heavy, the warmth around her too tempting. She eased into a deep sleep, the kind that only came after staying awake far past your normal bedtime.
Jack’s head rested on the wooden table, his eyes closed. Anne set her sword down on top of it and his eyes flew open. “Fuck,” he said.
“What the hell took so damned long last night?”
“It is... hard to explain, my dear, my darling Anne,” his voice was so rough he hardly recognized the sound of it. The hot chocolate must have been spiked as well, the Barlow’s and Flint were lushes, that was the only explanation. No matter what Charles said, Jack could hold his liquor. Sometimes. Anne gripped his hair and tugged his head up to get a look at him, uncaring of his gasp of pain.
“You better try and explain,” she said, “I was up all night waiting on you and watching Max.”
“Alright,” he said, his eyes wide. He held his hands up in surrender until she released his hair and sat down across from him. “Alright, I found Charles at the Barlow bookshop, with them and with Captain Flint. Telling him turned into telling them, and things progressed from there.”
“Progressed how? Stop dancing around the subject, Jack.”
“Now, darling, does dancing around the subject sound like something I would do?”
“Yes, it does,” Charles announced. He strode into the brothel, looking none the worse for wear despite having had quite a bit more to drink than Jack. “You enjoy dragging out your stories too much. It’s liable to get you hit,” he said.
“Speaking of hitting,” Anne said, planting her hands on the table ominously, “you want to get to your point quickly Jack. I’ve been up all night and I’m too tired for this shit.”
“Of course,” Jack said, scrubbing his face as if he could rub away the headache behind his eyes, “long story short: we’re partnering with Flint and his crew to chase a great prize, one that can’t be discussed in a place so public. Charles and Flint worked out the shares last night and we’re to take it to the crew for a vote this afternoon. All we have to do to fully seal the deal is to come to an agreement with Max and secure the schedule for our collective use.”
“Oh, is that all?” Anne asked, kicking her feet up on the table and crossing her arms over her chest. “And the hangover? Where does the drinking fit into this tale?”
“Is she always this combative when you spend a night apart?” Charles asked with a smirk as he leaned against the table next to her feet. He squeezed the toe of her boot playfully when she dug it into his side.
“Yes,” Jack propped his chin on his hand, “but you know she’s just growly in general.”
Anne lashed out with her foot, knocking his elbow out from under him and sending him flailing. It was only Charles’ hand grabbing his shirt collar that kept him from hitting the table nose first. “See,” he crowed, pointing at her, “see what I put up with? Not that I would have it any different, darling.”
She tilted her head, the shadow of her hat hiding her smile.
“Now,” Charles said, “if you two are done, I’d like to meet this Max and her partner. Hear their terms.”
“Ah,” Jack said, exchanging a look with Anne, “the first bit is easy. But we’ve been calling him Max’s mysterious partner for a reason - he’s insisting he remain anonymous.”
Charles scowled, “he must still be a member of Flint’s crew then.”
“That’s my assumption as well.”
“Flint won’t like that.”
“No,” Jack sighed, “no, he very likely will not. Do we have to tell him?”
Charles shrugged, “let’s secure the schedule first, then we’ll see about the thief.”
“It’s going to cost us,” Anne said, standing and picking up her sword, “that schedule won’t come cheap.”
Jack grudgingly rose as well, swaying as the pounding drums in his head increased in volume. He was never drinking with Flint and his Barlows again. Never. No matter how nice they’d been. It didn’t matter that they’d coaxed Charles into relaxing and laughing in a way he hadn’t seen since Eleanor Guthrie broke his heart the first time. The hangover wasn’t it worth it. Maybe it was worth it. “Considering the size of the prize that schedule will lead us to, the cost will be inconsequential,” he said.
“Is that you volunteering to pay it?” Charles asked, slapping his shoulder.
“Ow,” Jack muttered, “is it ‘bruise Jack day’ and no one told me?”
They both ignored him as Anne led the way up the stairs, “she was awake and taking tea with some of the other girls last I checked,” Anne said as she knocked on the second door.
Max opened it quickly, poking her head out to look around. Her eyes grew wide when she spotted him and Charles behind Anne.
“Ladies,” she called over shoulder, “My apologies. but I have an appointment that I need the room for.”
“I’m afraid my partner’s demands have changed,” said the whore, Max, from where she was sitting at the small table.
Charles paused in his pacing and waited.
“I beg your pardon?” Jack’s tone was neutral, but the way his hands fidgeted gave away his frustration. “I was led to believe he wanted to get it off his hands and then leave Nassau with his reward.”
Charles resumed pacing, glancing at Jack every few turns. At the hard slant of his mouth, the clench and unclench of his jaw, the squint around his eyes. He was still in pain from the night before, and trying his best to hide it. Anne saw it too as she moved to hover behind him, one hand on his shoulder the other on her sword.
“It seems Captain Flint told his crew the truth of the prize they’re chasing this morning,” Max said, her eyes flitting to Vane. He bared his teeth at her and she focused back on Jack, “my partner... he has decided he wants to remain with Flint’s crew and get a portion of that prize.”
“Along with what we pay him? No, absolutely not,” Jack declared, his hands flat on the table. “He doesn’t get both. He gets paid and he walks away or he provides the schedule and gets a share the same as any other crew member.”
Max winced, but nodded her acknowledgment, “I would have to discuss it with him, but I believe he’ll choose to remain with the crew and get a cut of the prize that way.”
“He would have to reveal himself,” Charles spoke for the first time since they were ushered into the room, “to us and to Flint. I won’t have an unknown thief on my ship, or on Flint’s. And Flint would have to agree. That is non-negotiable.”
“Surely you can see why he would be reluctant to do such a thing,” Max protested, “both you and Captain Flint have a reputation for being...” she trailed off, probably realizing that finishing that statement in present company would be unwise.
“Careful,” Anne warned.
Max swallowed, nodded. “If you can assure me, and him, that he won’t face recompense for his possession of the schedule - I may be able to get him to agree to reveal himself.”
“That will partly be up to him,” Jack leant back in his chair, covering Anne’s hand with his own, “it’s not truly us he need fear. If either crew finds out he’s a thief, he’ll face consequences we couldn’t protect him from - even if we wanted to.”
Max nodded, “is that also true of Flint? That he should fear his crew more than him?”
“Ah,” Jack said, “I can’t presume to speak for Captain Flint.”
“I see, well then, it appears we both need to speak with our partners before this discussion can go any further.” Max stood up, a clear dismissal.
“I can,” Charles moved to block her path to the door, “I can vouch for Flint. He won’t kill the thief and if your partner won’t trust that, he can join my crew instead. We’ll be careening both ships on the beach, if your partner agrees, bring him to us. Anne and Jack will be nearby, they’ll escort you both down.”
“He can still decide to accept payment and leave,” Jack said as he stood and moved to join Charles, “and we’ll pay your finder’s fee whichever way he decides. But he needs to decide by tonight - careening will take a couple of days and then we’ll be setting out.”
Max nodded, “my thanks,” she murmured.
Charles jerked his head in a nod, caught Jack’s eye, and led them out of there. He needed to speak to Flint, his crew, and he needed to see about getting supplies for the Ranger. With Jack and Anne tied up babysitting he’d have to do much of it himself.
“Can we trust her?” He asked once they’d reached the first floor of the brothel.
“I believe we can,” Jack said, pinching the bridge of his nose, “she’s being paid well and she knows the risks of tricking you and Flint.”
“And you?” He turned to Anne, “what do you think?”
“We can trust her to look out for herself.”
“And for Eleanor’s interests, right?”
The pair of them exchanged a look, Jack’s grimace easier to read than Anne’s.
“Did you think I didn’t know who she is? It’s not a secret that Eleanor pays special to prevent others from fucking Max.”
Jack shrugged, “is it relevant? She can provide something we need, something that will secure our partnership with Flint, and possibly if you believe him, a better future for Nassau.”
“No,” Charles sighed, “no it doesn’t matter. You two keep an eye on her, and an eye out for the thief. I’ll speak to Flint.”
Jack snorted, “good luck with that.”
Careening the two ships on the beach was on-schedule and going well, it was everything else that was refusing to fall neatly into place.
“Think he’ll show?” Thomas asked, passing the plate of grilled pork to James. “If he has any sense of self-preservation he would take his payment and disappear.”
James ate a piece of pork, chewing it slowly. “Don’t underestimate what greed can inspire someone to do,” he said, “if it’s true the schedule fell into his hands rather than him stealing it, the fact that his first thought was to sell it instead of handing it over to his new captain and crew does not inspire confidence.”
“Agreed,” Charles said as he stole a piece of pork and ate it, “can I steal Randall from your ship? My cook’s shit.”
James snorted, knocking Charles’ thieving hands away. “My crew likes him too much, they’d mutiny.”
“Didn’t you get a new cook?” Charles asked, reaching again for more food. This time James threw his hands up and let him swipe it. Thomas looked on, feeling indulgent. The three of them were sheltering from the sun in a tent set up between the Walrus and the Ranger. He’d planned to spend his day organizing his shop again but James had had other ideas.
“Come down to the beach with me. Getting some fresh air would do you good,” he had said, holding Thomas from behind, his chin resting on Thomas’ shoulder. Miranda had brushed past them, piling her hair on top of her head as she got dressed to go have her weekly brunch with some of the local Puritan women in the interior. “Go Thomas,” she had called over her shoulder, “ensure he and Charles are on their best behavior.”
Now, hours later, he was enjoying the perks of being Captain Flint’s lover and Captain Vane’s friend. He’d gotten to watch James tell his crew about the Urca and seeing the men cheering and chanting ‘Flint’ had struck him silent. The glint in James’ eyes, the power in his voice, the sight of him surrounded by his crew was one Thomas would never forget.
When Charles had shown up not long after the two captains had included him in their discussion about the deal proposed by Max and her mystery partner. Neither captain liked the idea of the thief being around but they’d agreed it was bearable if they knew his face and could keep an eye on him.
Thomas had chimed in to support Charles’ request that James not kill the thief but had otherwise spent his time watching the activity around them. He closed his eyes, breathing deep, the salt air was doing him good. He felt a bit more alive out here, with the breeze winding into the tent, the sun a few steps away, and with James close by. He only wished Miranda were here too.
“We did,” James was saying, his beautiful face creasing into a frown, “but I haven’t met or seen him.”
That had Charles looking thoughtful, “you picked him up on the same ship as the captain’s log, didn’t you? The one the schedule was torn from?”
James didn’t answer, surging to his feet and striding out of the tent, “Mr. Gates!” His voice was pitched to carry across the beach and Hal looked up from a heated discussion with a few of the men. With Jack and Anne stuck in town, Hal had been acting as quartermaster of both crews with the help of their respective bosuns.
He said something to the men around him, waved them off, and trotted over to join them. His face was red from the sun but he appeared cheerful. “Aye, Captain? Something the matter?” He asked when he reached them.
“The new cook,” James said, “when did you last see him?”
Hal frowned, “I don’t rightly know,” he said, “I think I saw him among the crew when you informed them about the prize we’re hunting. But I can’t be sure, why?”
“Did you search him? When you recruited him,” Charles demanded. Thomas sighed and stood, moving to fetch their water pitcher and pour a new glass. He handed it to Hal, who took it by rote and then looked between his water and Thomas like he didn’t know how it got there.
“Drink, Hal,” James sighed, turning on his heel to reclaim his chair, “and sit down. I think we have much to discuss.”
Thomas joined them, leaning sideways in his chair to bump shoulders with James. He didn’t have much experience with pirates, aside from James, but he was quickly realizing that they did a surprising amount of talking. Who knew, maybe it was James’ influence, or maybe the stories of pirates had been overblown and they weren’t brutes who didn’t pause to discuss strategy. He could admit that while his plan for Nassau had been driven partially by naïveté - he’d also been correct that pirates were just men who’d been driven to their lifestyle by society or trauma. So he was feeling optimistic that between them - they could come to an agreement with this Max and her partner and a plan that would see them take the Urca with minimum bloodshed. What could possibly keep them from their goal?
“You think the cook is our thief?” Hal’s voice was at odds with his neutral expression, but then anyone would be nervous when pinned under the combined glares of James and Charles.
“That depends,” James said, “did you, or Billy, search him?”
Hal sighed, scrubbing at his face and beard. “No, I don’t think that we did.”
They digested that in silence. James was rigid and tense beside him and Thomas slid a hand down to rest on his thigh.
“What was his name?” Thomas asked.
“Silver,” Hal said, “the name he gave was John Silver.”
Events are beginning to move quickly and Silver will officially make an appearance next chapter :)
This is going to be a few chapters longer than I initially thought, the total chapter count has been adjusted to reflect that.
“Okay,” Thomas said, “okay. Maybe we should review what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to say to Silver and Max when they arrive.”
Flint rolled his eyes and continued to lean over the table and examine the maps that had replaced the food. “I don’t think that’s entirely necessary,” he said.
“Oh? So you’re not planning on threatening him and intimidating her? I think we both know that’s not true,” Thomas observed, glancing at Charles to include him, “It’s in everyone’s best interest if we can get along. Which is why I think we should discuss our plan now.”
“I, for one, think a little threatening is in order. Thieves like Silver need reminding that there are consequences. How does anyone read this chicken scratch?” Charles waved the captain’s log in the air, “I thought I had bad handwriting but I can’t make heads or tails of this. Can you make sense of it, Thomas?”
Thomas dutifully took the log from him, and frowned down at it. “Is there something else of note in here? Isn’t the stolen schedule what we need?”
“The stolen page is important, but if we can decipher the rest of the log we can make some guesses to check the schedule against when it’s given to us,” Flint said as he rounded the table to look at the maps from another angle. “Insurance, if you will.”
“You think after all this trouble, they’ll give you a fake or doctored page?” Thomas flipped through the log, his eyebrows furrowing, “huh, this is written in a mix of English, Spanish and Portuguese.”
Flint looked up, his teeth bared in a parody of a smile, a shark’s grin, one any sensible person would be wary of. Never one to be sensible, Charles rather thought it suited Flint. He’d met few men as dangerous as Flint. Many of the most dangerous pretended not to be until the last moment, until they could see the whites of your eyes. Flint announced how dangerous he was to all, his predatory nature ensuring most gave him a wide berth. “The good captain probably figured that the chances of his log falling into the hands of someone who could read all three languages were low,” Flint said.
“Well,” Thomas said, “that was foolish of him.”
“Yes, Yes, you’re both very smart and impressive,” Charles said, keeping his tone dry and amused, “can we get back to mapping the most likely routes?”
“Of course we can,” Thomas mumbled and it looked like he’d been successful. Until Thomas frowned and he wasn’t, “wait, no, we didn’t finish discussing what to do about Mr. Silver.”
“Thomas, darling, you’re overthinking this,” Flint entreated, “stop worrying and come here and help me match the landmarks in the log with the ones on the maps.” He extended a hand in invitation to Thomas, who took it and let himself be drawn closer.
“That’s better,” Flint took the log from him and flipped to a certain page, tapping at a section, “read this bit aloud for me, please,” he said, handing it back, “and Charles, make yourself useful and see what became of Mr. Gates. Fetching Billy shouldn’t take this long.”
“I would, but it looks like we have company,” Charles straightened from where he’d been leaning against the tent’s post, looking over Flint’s shoulder, “A hurricane named Eleanor Guthrie is heading our way and she does not appear to be in a good mood.”
“Damn it”, Flint sighed, scrubbing at his face.
Charles agreed with the sentiment, watching Eleanor stomp her way across the sand. He knew the expression on her face, recognized the furrow of her brow, the tic in the corner of her left eye, the way her chin was jutted out and raised in defiance. Something had her worried. She always masked anxiety with frustration.
She stopped in front of the tent, hands on her hips, “well, this is a sight I never thought I’d fucking see. Captains Flint and Vane working together without being cajoled into it like unruly children. No one can decide what’s scarier, you two getting along or you two trying to kill each other when your partnership inevitably runs its course.”
“Hello Eleanor,” Flint turned to face her and leaned back against the table, “it’s nice to see you. We are playing nice, in fact, as there may have been some cajoling.”
Charles snorted, catching Thomas’ eye. He wasn’t the first one to look away and he let the corner of his mouth curl up into a smirk.
“Do you bring news?” Flint asked, “I didn’t expect to hear from you till tomorrow.”
“The guns are yours. Captain Bryson is preparing to offload them as we speak. One of my men, O’Malley, is overseeing it.”
Charles propped his fists on the table and leaned over it, “you convinced Bryson to part with his guns? How’d you manage that? He’s not known for cooperating with pirates more than he has to.”
“Maybe it’s just you he won’t cooperate with,” Flint spoke before she could answer, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “The Walrus should be done careening today, and the Ranger by tomorrow afternoon at the latest. We’re making good time, but I’d like to set sail sooner than later.”
“You’re not going hunting without me.”
“That would defeat the purpose of having you and your ship as a consort, yes.”
“Smug, condescending fucker.”
“See? That is exactly what I mean,” Eleanor said, “that is the type of snarky, alpha posturing bullshit, that has everyone doubting you two can work together. This is going to be a disaster.”
“Eleanor,” Charles said, “please, for all of our sakes, relax. Barlow here is worrying enough for all of us, and you know that neither of us are serious. If we decided to posture, as you put it, we wouldn’t do it with words. We’re both captains who can put their issues aside in favor of larger goals.”
“Two captains who happen to loathe and despise each other,” Eleanor corrected.
“Despise is such a strong word,” Thomas interjected, “and I think they’re both coming around, even if they won’t admit it.”
Charles studiously avoided making eye contact with any of them.
“How did you convince Bryson?” Flint asked after a moment of silence.
“My father, after a lot of arm twisting and a bit of emotional blackmail, negotiated with Bryson. I didn’t rely on him, however, I had a plan in place to guarantee Bryson’s acquiescence. One I did not tell Mr. Scott about, I lied to him. Betrayed his trust.” She was speaking directly to Flint.
Charles stayed silent, even if she were to look to him, he doubted he had a response that wouldn’t make things worse. Thankfully, she wasn’t looking for a response from him, anyone with eyes would recognize that she was hoping for reassurance from Flint. It should have galled him, it probably would have if she were looking to any other man, but Flint was painfully obvious about his devotion to Thomas and Miranda. Maybe that was why Eleanor felt safe looking to him for answers. For judgement.
“Why lie to him?” Thomas asked, shifting close enough to Flint that their shoulders were brushing.
“I didn’t think he would understand. I know he doesn’t understand how important this all is.”
“You can’t expect him to,” Flint murmured, “everyone will think it impossible until it happens. It’s a miracle those of us here understand. And you know what everyone else will say when it does happen?”
Eleanor shook her head, her eyes big and fixated on Flint.
“That it was inevitable,” he said, his voice rasping like the ocean against rocks. Listening to him now, knowing what he knew, Charles could see how Flint had swayed so many into following him. More impressive, was that he explained himself to few and still managed to get the majority to fall into line.
Eleanor smiled then, relief easing the furrows and creases from her face. He leant back against his post and wondered. Were Flint and Eleanor fond of each other because they had similar visions for Nassau? Or did they have similar visions because they were fond of each other? He titled his head to the side, watching the tension fall out of Eleanor’s frame, watching the way Flint smiled at her. Soft, affectionate, almost paternal. He knew the captain could be gentle, had seen him handle his Barlows with infinite tenderness, but seeing it extended to Eleanor was different somehow. He wondered how many could claim to have earned Flint’s affection, platonic or romantic, he’d bet the number was small, he bet he’d met all of them, he’d bet most -
The wind picked up around them, the lanterns hung from the tent in preparation of nightfall swinging and clattering. A creaking noise filled the air, the sharp sound of ropes snapping catching his and Flint’s attention, and the following shouts and screams catching everyone else’s. Charles blinked and Flint was gone, his figure cutting a swath through the sand and towards the ships.
“Captain! Cap’n Flint,” Gates was shouting, “we’re going to lose the main mast.”
“Stay here, Eleanor,” He said as he jogged after Flint, exchanging a worried look with Thomas who was at his shoulder as they caught up. He could hear Eleanor grumbling behind them but she wasn’t following.
“Hal, Mr. DeGroot, Billy,” Flint said, “how long can you hold it without doing permanent damage?”
“All that’s holding her up is that main mast,” DeGroot said, wiping sweat from his brow, “it’ll snap before long.”
“Captain, it’s Randall pinned,” Billy said, “I’ll go and try and help.”
“Billy, no,” Flint ordered, he grabbed him by the arm before he made it farther than a step and redirected him towards where the crew was scrambling to hold the ropes, “I’ll go, the men need you more. Don’t wait on me, DeGroot, do you understand? Save her mast, that’s an order. Vane, help Gates with the men.”
Charles nodded, but Flint’s gaze looked right through him, he could see the calculations happening behind his green eyes.
“James,” Thomas said as Flint was turning away, “you don’t have to, surely someone else can -“
Flint turned on his heel and towed Thomas to him for a brief, hard kiss. Charles looked away and made it a point to glare at anyone who was watching with too much interest. It lasted maybe thirty seconds and then Flint was sprinting towards the ship.
“He’ll be okay,” he offered to Thomas, his voice lowered so no one else would overhear. He gripped Thomas’ shoulder, towing him with him to where Gates was yelling orders, “Flint’s been around ships his entire life - he’ll know when to cut his losses and take whoever can walk with him. He’ll come back to you, Thomas. He will.”
“He’ll try,” Thomas agreed, his voice quiet and strained with emotion.
John arrived on the beach and had to resist the urge to kick at the sand when he caught sight of the ships. He’d already been scolded and called childish by Max once today, when he’d heard the terms of the deal she had brokered and balked, he wouldn’t give her another reason to arch an judgmental eyebrow at him. Not if he could help it. Behind him, the others stuttered to a stop.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Rackham breathed, knocking shoulders with him as he strode forward to get a better look at the chaos unfolding in front of them, “why aren’t they letting the Walrus right herself?”
“Someone must be stuck,” Anne murmured.
Rackham took off across the sand at a jog and John found himself scrambling to follow. He would have no chance of getting his share of the gold if the ship was severely damaged or if either of the captains spearheading this venture were injured.
“Charles?” Rackham called, skidding to a stop next to a man with long hair and a feral look to him. His skin was bronzed from time spent in the sun and he was baring enough scars to make anyone think twice before facing him in a fight. John swallowed and moved his attention to the scene in front of him.
The two crews were working together to keep the Walrus upright and the ropes looked ready to go at any moment now.
“What’s happened?” Rackham demanded.
“Some idiot tied the ropes to the wrong tree,” Vane growled, “the cook, Randall, is pinned. Flint is attempting to dig him out.”
“He’s taking too long,” the blond man standing next to Vane whispered. John glanced over to see that he was hugging himself, his face pale and pinched with fear.
Max brushed past John, going to the blond man and wrapping her arm around his waist, “he’ll be fine, Thomas, you’ll see.”
Flint was under the ship then, the ship that looked liable to right herself on top of whoever was left under her belly any moment now. The increasingly shrill shouts from the crew were not inspiring. His quest for gold was about to end before it had even begun. Unless...
John glanced around the campsite, looking for something that could be used to dig the trapped man out. His gaze landed on a large knife, the same one Randall had shoved at him this morning before he’d snuck away to visit Max.
He sidled over to it, picking up the knife and considering it. Time was running out and Randall’s only hope may be an amputation. Flint hadn’t given up yet, and John couldn’t predict whether he would in time to save himself. Rackham had been adamant that their venture wouldn’t succeed without Flint, you may have the schedule to trade and my Captain may be acting as consort, but none of this would work without Captain Flint. He’s been on this quest since the beginning and he’s the driving force behind it, he had said mere hours earlier. The emphasis he’d put on Flint, the way Bonny had nodded along, had left him no choice but to believe them. If they were right...
He had to act then. No one was paying him any attention, or they weren’t until he moved and and set off towards the Walrus. He ignored the calls behind him, focusing on getting to the ship before it fell and killed everyone still beneath it. He tried not to think about what would happen if he didn’t get there in time, if he didn’t get away in time after leaving the blade.
John had reached the shadow from the ship and squinted into the shade. Randall was just visible under the belly of the Walrus, a man on either side of him frantically digging around his legs. John bent over, hands on his knees as he caught his breath. It was clear that digging Randall out wasn’t working, his leg pinned too well.
“Who are you,” Flint growled, his eyes on John even as his hands continued to move sand. He didn’t answer, tossing the knife down onto the sand instead. Flint looked at the knife and then back at him. He met his stare.
Flint’s face was impenetrable and blank. After an excruciatingly long moment he jerked his head in a nod and reached for the blade. He was doing what John wanted, that was good. He swallowed, that was good but he had no desire to stick around and watch. His stomach lurched at the thought.
The man on the other side of Randall swore but moved to hold Randall’s shoulders down and John turned on his heel and bolted back to the others.
Only later - weeks later, longer if he was truthful - did he recognize the significance of that moment. His decision to bring the knife, Flint’s grudging decision to follow through on the plan - would set a tone for their uneasy partnership. It had been a rare moment of understanding, one he would look back on and say was one of the few times where their purposes and goals fully aligned. Nothing unheard of if the second person had been anyone but Flint.
It was something he would one day look back on and mark as the beginning of the end of an era.
Thomas caught sight of James emerging from the shadow of his ship just as the crew let the ropes go. He closed his eyes and sent a grateful prayer to anyone who might be listening. He didn’t pray often, James didn’t at all, and Miranda prayed daily. It was fascinating how their views on religion had shifted after leaving London.
He’d likely changed the least, his family had been Protestant on the surface but hadn’t practiced many of the beliefs. He himself held to the moral ideals but went back and forth on his faith in a higher being. James came from a devout Irish catholic family and had once been the most faithful of them, he seemed to have entirely lost his faith in the past decade. On the other hand, Miranda had dove deeper into her Protestant roots than ever before, helped along by the community of them in the interior and the idea that it had been divine intervention that had seen the three of them to Nassau, together and unharmed. Today, he didn’t know if it was god he was thanking or fate or something else entirely but he was thanking whoever had been looking out for James. He opened his eyes to see James handing poor Randall over to Billy.
Max shifted her grip from his waist to his back, giving him a small push forward.
“James?” He called, “Are you...”
He stumbled to a stop, frozen. He forced his burgeoning panic to recede, in order to make sense of what he was seeing. He’s hurt, was his first crazed thought, but he knew that it wasn’t true. Randall was the one who’d lost a leg in order to save his life. The blood on James wasn’t his, it couldn’t be, but he was having trouble convincing himself of that fact. There was blood splattered across James’ face, down his white shirt, and his forearms and hands were covered in it.
Sound roared to life around him and he became aware that those around him were all talking at once. Jack was the loudest of them, his anxiety spiking above everyone else‘s more calm response. James didn’t say anything, his gaze finding Thomas’ and fixing there.
“You cut that close,” Charles observed, “a moment more and none of you would have made it out.”
“It was too fucking close,” Jack agreed.
“Captain, the main mast may need some minor repairs,” Hal said, “but overall it could have been much worse.”
“I see the blade could cut through bone,” Silver said, his casual voice standing out amongst the others. Thomas sensed the group swivel to focus on Silver but he and James didn’t.
“What kind of question -“ Jack said.
“I’d advise you to keep your mouth shut, thief,” Charles said dangerously, and when didn’t he sound dangerous, but Thomas didn’t care, couldn’t care about any of it. He only saw James, covered in blood, but standing, breathing, alive. The pounding in his chest was getting quicker, louder, until he could barely hear what they were saying.
Delicate hands clasped his arm, hands too delicate to be Anne’s. Max was whispering something to him, but he couldn’t make out the words, couldn’t understand a goddamned thing, because James had moved one step forward. One step closer. There was a small quirk to his mouth and he reached a hand out, “Thomas?”
That he heard just fine and that was the moment where everything fully fell away and all that was left was James. He crossed the distance between them in a blink and looking back he wouldn’t be able to say who he pushed out of the way, or stepped around or what, all he knew was he reached James and somehow had him in his arms. He heard his own voice saying, “thank god, thank god, James,” and James saying, “hey, I’m alright, I swear, love, I’m here, I’m alright.” His arms were wrapped around James, who was gripping him back just as tight. James smelled like copper and sweat and something else under it all that was inherently James. A hand cradled the back of his head, warm and sticky, and probably getting blood on him, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was the man in his arms.
Distantly he was aware of Charles snarling threats and Jack stepping in to more gently persuade the others to give them space. His main focus was the man in his arms - warm, solid, alive, really and truly alive. He breathed in, the tension he’d been carrying seeping out and away like the tide. “We can stand here as long as you like, but the sooner we deal with Silver the sooner we can go home and get this blood off of us,” James said tiredly and Thomas stepped back and managed a shaky smile. He didn’t go far, cradling James’ face in his hands, rubbing at the splatters of blood with his thumbs and succeeding only in smearing it more.
“Hey,” James’ hands came up to grab his, “it was close, but I made it. I’m sure I look a frightful mess, but this blood isn’t mine. I’m okay, Thomas, I swear I’m okay.”
“Never scare me like that again,” he managed to say and James gave him that same odd, quirk of a smile.
“I’ll do my best,” he said, “but we both know I can’t make that a promise. Going to sea, chasing treasure, it’s dangerous. Unpredictable. But I can promise to do everything in my power to come back, as whole as I can manage. This was a good day, darling. Randall will live, I’m okay, and the ship is repairable. Let’s take our victories where we can get them, yeah?”
“Yes,” Thomas agreed, “of course.”
“And maybe we don’t have to tell Miranda just how close it was,” James said but Thomas wasn’t really listening, too busy drinking in James’ wry smirk and the dancing twinkle in his eyes and the low rumble of his voice. He didn’t realize he’d gone too quiet until James grabbed his hands again and arched an eyebrow at him.
“I still have to deal with Silver and check in with Eleanor - do you want to stay? I’ll understand if you want to go home and rest,” James said.
Thomas wrapped his arms back around James, pressing his face into his shoulder, “I’m afraid, I won’t be letting you out of my sight for the foreseeable future.”
“You’ll get no complaints from me,” James huffed, “Silver will be grateful for your moderating presence, I’m sure.”
Thomas laughed, lightheaded with relief and joy and good will for the universe that had seen fit to return James to him unharmed.