“Well, this is a poor turn of affairs,” Silver says. He glances sidelong at Flint, but the other man is still staring after the receding sails of Teach's ship, eyes squinted defiantly against the sun.
He gets no response, so Silver turns and studies their new setting, in the hope that if he sets his thoughts to the cataloguing the scenery, he will be able to delay the onset of panic.
The small island Teach has marooned them on doesn't provide much to look at from the beach. A rocky, wave-tossed shoreline bracketed by tall, barren cliffs. Already a few of the men have began the thankless trek up the bluff, led by Billy. Their curses can only just be heard over the crashing of the ocean at his back. Silver is not looking forward to making that climb on his leg.
Flint still hasn't said anything, or looked away from the mast sinking below the horizon in the distance. If he were any other man, Silver might worry. But by now he has become accustomed to this, the way the captain will go silent and turn inward, by all appearances brooding until he snaps back into action with a plan fully formed.
Silver shifts back from his side, ready to leave him alone to his thoughts. “I'll assemble the men into teams, begin the search for water right away –”
“You won't find any,” Flint says.
Silver pauses, curious about the certainty of tone. “How can you be so sure?”
“Judging from our bearings this morning, this is likely Dead Man's Chest. It has no source of freshwater. When we climb that bluff, I suspect we'll find it has no trees either.” Flint's voice is calm and unaffected, like he is merely making a philosophical observation and not pronouncing their death sentences.
Silver feels that trickle of fear he'd been trying to ignore grow. He looks after the line of men and wonders how much they know. How they will handle the realization. When he looks back at Flint, he finds that he has finally turned away from the horizon and is watching him instead.
“And the rum?” Silver asks. “Is that supposed to be some kind of farewell 'fuck you' gift?”
“Every sea captain knows the utility and danger of grog. After a hard day aloft, it can be just the thing to quell discontent. Marooned on an island, it will only be fuel to the fire of our destruction.” Flint looks after the men, the twenty-three members of the crew that had come along on the trip to meet up with Rackham and retrieve the Walrus. In that moment, Silver doesn't think Flint sees them as men, as his crew, but only a gaggle of potential problems he needs to eradicate.
“We should organize a hunting party though,” Flint says after a moment. “Give them something to focus on.”
“Teach left us no pistols,” Silver points out. “Do you suggest we engage some lizards in swordplay?”
But Flint only gives him this look, so he just raises his hands and leaves it alone.
They do find water, as it happens, in the form of a stagnant pool left over from the last storm in the area. It's turbid and a little sulfurous, but its presence immediately lifts the spirits of the men, which had grown steadily blacker as they explored the island's bleak surface.
Said spirits are raised even higher when Flint orders several of the bottles of rum be emptied so that they may be refilled with water. The crew sets to the task with great alacrity.
As the sun slips down, a small bonfire is started from driftwood and dried shrubs. The drink runs more freely without food to buffer it. Silver puts in time with the men, telling stories and fostering laughter. Some joke they would not take one of Silver's roast pigs even now, if one were offered. The joke renders some of the newer hands a little bemused, as they have never known Silver the inept sea cook but only Silver the one-legged quartermaster.
He is an attentive moderator and does what he can to ensure no mind wanders off into the dark of this place they've landed. But exerting influence over so many minds leaves his own vulnerable, and he finds his eyes drawn to Billy and Flint, who are standing apart from the group a ways off, just on the edge of the firelight.
They are discussing something serious, judging from the set of Billy's shoulders. Silver wonders if he should worry about him; he's been different since he returned from Nassau – pushing back against Flint a little more than normal, urging Silver to speak even in matters he has no business speaking to (Silver is no fine seaman, and certainly nigh on useless as a navigator). The last thing they need in this moment is to waste energy on in-fighting. The memory of how it felt to do so back when they were becalmed is exhausting even to think about now.
He puts in a few more minutes with the crew before curiosity gets the better of him, and he slips away to join the other two.
“...blames you for the death of Charles Vane?” Billy is saying as Silver approaches.
Flint replies, “Vane made his own decisions. And Teach has no shortage of reasons to turn against me. It's no secret that we've never got on.”
He glances at Silver as he comes to a halt beside them, completing the circle, and Silver immediately says, “Captain Flint, feuding with someone? Now that is shocking.”
To his quiet delight, Flint's mouth twitches into a small grin. “He wouldn't fall in line.”
“Because falling in line is exactly what fearsome pirate captains are known for.”
Billy, who has been looking from one to the other with something like apprehension on his face, says, “These men were promised a return to Nassau and are now facing death by starvation, again, because they followed you.”
Silver watches that rock break the surface of calm on Flint's face and then sink unseen into its depths without a ripple. He says quickly, “There's no sense in arguing about that right now. The men are sorted for the moment, but we need to have something to say to them tomorrow.”
Flint looks over to the raucous gathering. “You mean when they wake up with a devil of a head and find no food in sight.”
“Do you disapprove? You're the one who ordered the bottles be emptied.”
Flint shakes his head absently. “If the men are to indulge in drink, best do it at the start and be rid of as much as possible before tempers start to fray from the hunger.”
Silver is pragmatic. “Their hangovers will give us more time to come up with a plan to get off this rock.”
Flint turns in what looks to Silver like a random direction and points off into the darkness. “If memory serves, there is a larger island approximately five cables to the southeast. A strong swimmer could feasibly make it.”
“There's also a Dutch fort on that island,” Billy says. “Don't see them taking too sympathetic a view on a handful of marooned pirates.”
Flint fixes him with a flat stare. “No, but they might have a launch we could steal. We use it to ferry the rest of the men from this island to that one. Once we are on terrain that can actually support us, we regain our strength and look to take another ship.”
“He'd never make it past the breakers,” Silver says. Both men turn to him. “You saw what it was like this morning. The ship could barely get close enough to dump us. Any man trying to swim out in that would be dashed upon the rocks in short order.”
Flint sighs and rubs a hand along his beard, which means he cedes the point. “So we walk the perimeter, find a landing that won't be so perilous. Having to circumvent the island will lengthen the swim though.”
“We better be quick in finding that landing then,” Billy says. “With every day that passes, every one of us will be weaker.”
So they have a tentative plan. Just knowing that bolsters Silver's mood; he's seen these men defeat long odds before. Standing next to Billy and Flint that night, the warmth of the fire at his back, he allows himself to feel optimistic.
He wakes up shortly after dawn to the loud chatter of birds. He lays still for a moment, knowing his body will start protesting in earnest the moment he tries to move it. However, soon the implication of the noise filters through his thoughts and his eyes shoot open regardless.
Where there are birds, there might be nests. Eggs.
The trick to dealing with starvation, Silver now knows with a depressing degree of expertise, is to set expectations. For the first few days, so long as your body does not expect food, it won't bother you too much about the absence of it. After that, it's an agonizingly slow slide into your energy dwindling and organs shutting down, but with any luck they'll remedy the situation before that occurs.
He sits up, and then climbs to his feet, every movement taking twice as long as it should because of the pain from sleeping on an exposed, uneven rockface all night. He stretches slowly and looks around.
The men lie around the remnants of the fire, some with their heads resting on companion's stomachs, most of them snoring through their rum comas.
Flint is a few feet away, on his side facing away from Silver. His shoulders rounding inward towards the ground and his head pillowed on his folded black coat. As ever, even in repose, he looks cut off from the rest of the crew in some fundamental way. When Silver had turned in the night before, he'd still been sitting up, sober, staring out into the darkness.
Silver leaves him to his sleep, stepping back as quiet as he is able.
It takes him perhaps an hour before he happens upon a nest, and it's a roundly unpleasant time. He nearly loses his footing twice skirting a steep incline and ends up soaked from the hip down by a freak wave dashing against a cliff. But it's all worth it when he spies three decent-sized eggs nestled high up in a crack in a crag.
Despite the precarious footing and reaching it would take to collect the eggs, it is still all he can do to stop himself from grabbing for them immediately. Instead, he contents himself with staring for several minutes before slowly retreating.
He makes another half circuit of the island without another discovery before deciding to return to camp. By the time the worryingly depleted pool of water comes back into view, about a quarter of the men have roused themselves. Flint is among them, the lone standing figure. His coat remains discarded at his feet.
When he gets close, Flint looks over at him with sharp eyes and clenched fists. His gaze flicks down to encompass his leg; Silver grits his teeth and looks blandly back.
“Good morning. Sleep well?”
“Where the fuck were you?” A few men glance up at the tone of the captain's voice, but with Silver's calm expression, their attention doesn't stick along.
Silver hitches himself closer so he can speak without being overheard. “I did some exploring, in hopes of finding some pelican nests.” When Flint looks down at his empty hands, he continues, “Taking a leaf from your book, I thought it best to save what I found for the man upon whom we are all dependent for our survival – the one who will be making the marathon swim.”
He sees recognition and acceptance in Flint's eyes even before he nods and asks, “How many did you find?”
Silver can't help it; he sighs, just barely. “Only three. But more spots remain to be checked. Figure I'd tackle them when we go looking for a better departure point later.”
Flint nods again and thankfully makes no well-meaning offer to check in his stead.
Silver watches the day lay itself out across Flint's face. The narrowing of his eyes cataloging how many and which men were awake. The twitch in his upper cheek as he checks the sky, direction, and weight of the wind. The quick dart of his tongue as he wets his lips before he remembers that it will only hasten their chapping.
“Have you drank any water yet today?” Silver asks.
“Have you?” Flint returns. “I'm not the one who has been scaling cliffs.”
Suppressing a smile, Silver extends a hand: after you. Together they indulge in a breakfast of air and water and glances, as men must have done when they were still made of clay.
When a few more of the men have dragged themselves out of the depths of their hangovers, Flint dispatches them to hunt for food.
“Try catching a fish by hand if you fucking have to,” is how he technically puts it, but there is only so much buffering Silver can do for that man in a day, so he lets it go. He figures everyone understands the stakes, so a more diplomatic touch is not necessary.
The sun is well into the sky by the time he, Flint, and Billy start walking the perimeter. The other two automatically walk at a pace Silver can keep up with. For the sake of saving energy, he pretends they do it so they can get a longer look at each spot of coastline.
They talk as they walk.
“Who is our strongest swimmer?”
Billy, without hesitation: “Me.”
Flint cuts him a glance. “Besides you.”
“Do you know of another man who has been cast into the sea in the middle of a tempest and survived?”
Billy has the weight of reason, history, and righteousness on his side. But he doesn't have Silver.
“Not all skills are judged equally,” he reasons. “And your familiarity and respect among the men is just as critical to our survival here as the swimmer. Perhaps more so.”
Billy, like many before him, stands no chance against the two of them united. After a moment, muscle in his jaw visibly ticking, he says reluctantly, “Williams, then. Liam and Joji are also decent.”
Williams is a passable seaman but a fierce boarder. He is also well-liked. Silver sets his mind to considering the angles of the play, even as Flint glances from him to Billy and simply nods. Decided. He trusts Silver to figure any problems out. Under ordinary circumstances – if he were on the Walrus and had a full belly, for example – Silver would take a moment to marvel. As it is, he continues stumping relentlessly on by the others' side, dirt rising in the air with every thump of his false boot.
It's a long trek, and he feels every second of it. Some time after the sun has reached and passed its zenith, they find a spot of shoreline that Flint stares at for several minutes before deeming:
At Silver and Billy's hesitance, he elaborates, “The best we'll likely find on such an island.”
Silver stares down at the landing. It has a sandier shore and far fewer boulders than the one they'd been dropped at, but that is the only obvious characteristic to recommend it.
“Can he do it today?” Silver asks. His stomach can't help but give a disappointed twinge when Flint shakes his head.
“We announce it today, clock the tides to figure when they will be most cooperative. Let Williams drink water and rest and mentally prepare himself for tomorrow.”
“And his grand meal?”
Flint thinks for a moment as Billy casts them a quizzical look.
“Tomorrow morning. At least three hours before he sets out.” Flint casts a gaze at the sky. “Perhaps, if we're lucky, the men will have found some game by the time we get back.”
“And when have we ever been lucky?” Billy mutters as they turn to head back.
The men take the announcement with a fair amount of cheer. Any plan at this point is proclaimed a good plan.
Williams, though a tad pale at first, seems to gain confidence as the evening continues. This is aided by the generous amount of praise and attention bestowed upon him by the others.
They don't drink as much this night, the possibility of salvation making them conscious of their limited supply. The fire is a little smaller, a little more quiet.
Silver sits next to his captain and does his best not to think too much about anything. Not his empty stomach. Not the ever-shifting politics among the men. Not Billy's confounding behavior or Flint's disturbing reticence.
He is nothing if not a survivor. And he knows how to abridge reality to suit survival.
So he sleeps.
The pink of the third day's dawn doesn't go away.
Silver sits with his back against a rock and watches the color deepen as the morning ages, watches the evil eye of the sun turn watery around the edges like a mirage. The island is quiet. It is as if nature itself is holding its breath.
The men either murmur amongst themselves or stay silent, like they're putting their words to better use through prayer. Sailors are a superstitious lot to begin with, but nothing will send even the most blasphemous heathen whispering to a god above like bad weather on the sea.
He spends some time surreptitiously massaging the stiffness out of his leg and then limps across the island to where he knows he'll find Flint – the windward landing they decided upon the day before.
Billy is already with him. The two are looking towards the east at the gathering clouds. They do not speak as he joins them.
“How long do we have before it hits?” Silver asks. His voice breaks open the silence, allowing some of the fear to crawl out into the world.
“Hard to say,” Flint says. He hasn't looked away from the horizon. “It may blow north and give us a miss entirely.” His voice does not imply that he has much hope for this outcome.
“Not likely,” Billy says.
At least they were all in agreement, Silver thinks philosophically. Aloud he asks, “Could Williams make it in time?”
“If he leaves immediately,” Flint says.
“We can't order him to go out in that,” Billy says at the same time.
The two look at each other and Billy adds, almost gently, “We can't order a man to take a risk like this. The crew won't like it. It must be his choice.”
Silver catches Flint's eye. He thinks about Dobbs before the battle against the governor's forces, his grim willingness when he accepted the mission from Silver. He sees his thoughts reflected back at him when Flint gives the barest of nods.
“Let me talk to Williams. I'm his quartermaster,” Silver says. “I'll relay the situation to him fairly.”
Everyone gathers to watch Williams leave. Before he walks out into the dark waves, each man lays a hand on him, a solemn touch that communicates good luck, faith, and goodbye all at once. Then they step back and stand witness to his departure.
Every cut of his arm through the water buoys their hope, and every wave that shoves him backwards squeezes and makes it gasp.
“How will we know if he makes it?” Silver asks Flint.
Flint turns away from the beach. “If he comes back.”
The early afternoon light takes on a sickly green tinge. The wind picks up, whipping at their clothing and hair and stinging the cracks of their skin with salt from the sea.
Williams has long since disappeared out of range of the naked eye. They all know even if he is ultimately successful, they won't be seeing him until the other side of the storm. They need to survive this day first.
The island has little in the way of shelter. Flint directs the men to the lowest ground he can find in the center of the island and tells them to crouch there. It feels like paltry preparation but there is little else to be done. Twenty-four men huddled on an exposed rock in the middle of the ocean.
What a foolish life this is, Silver thinks.
He has been tossed by enough storms to know the hardest thing to endure is the mental game. The waiting, the physical discomfort. The way time and fear wed and stretch one's nerves to a breaking point. The sea always seems so close in these moments, pressing in all around like it's yearning to snatch you into its depths.
He sits and stares up at the dark, roiling sky. Lets the wind bend his back in the hopes it will not break it.
A scrape and thump announce Flint's arrival. The captain sits next to him, propping his elbows on his knees so he can create a semblance of shelter for his face to duck into. Silver watches rain drops make their debut appearance on his bare head, collect and run down the curve of his neck.
“Would you rather be out on the ship in this?” Flint asks him, voice raised a little so it may be heard over the wind.
“If we were on the ship, we would try to outrun the storm,” Silver replies and then cuts him a look. “That's what I hear normal crews do, anyway.”
Flint gives him an expectant look, humoring him. “Normal crews?”
Silver bows his head from the quickening rain and says, “Aye. I have a mad man for a captain, you see. He prefers to engage tempests rather than run from them.”
“What ungrateful slander is this?” Flint says. “While you are sheltered down in the hold, your captain lashes himself to the wheel so he may pilot the ship to safety. And for this he is called mad?”
Silver flashes upon Muldoon's face, terrified and spluttering as the seawater slowly overtook him. He feels his smile waver but disguises it by raising an arm over his face as if to block the wind.
Where's the captain, he'd asked Billy. His leg shaking so badly by then it could barely hold his weight. He'd been drenched and heartsick, but he remembers the cold feeling that stole over him when Billy had just looked upwards in answer. The howl of the storm could still be heard over the men's moans and the creaking of the ship. The idea that anyone was out in it willingly was simply unfathomable.
“Craziest man I've ever met,” Silver confirms. He blinks through wet lashes as Flint throws his head back and proves Silver's point by laughing. The defiant sound is met overhead by the first roll of thunder, like Flint is inviting the storm to a call and respond sea shanty.
“We're going to get through this,” Flint tells him a little while later, when his good cheer has been mercilessly drowned by the downpour. “This is not how we die.”
It is not possible to talk without getting a mouthful of water, for it feels as if the rain is coming from every direction. Nevertheless, Silver needs distraction from this ordeal. He slides closer so the two of them can talk behind a combined set of raised arms. It adds minor relief from the rain, though by necessity their faces are now very close.
“You act like death is a choice we get to make,” Silver says, picking up the thread of conversation.
Flint's breath is warm compared to the cold slick of rain. “It's always a choice.”
“Hmm, yes. I seem to recall fishing a man out of a Florida bay a few months ago. He surely would have died had I not intervened. Perhaps you know him – red hair, gunshot wound in the shoulder? A certain knack for driving even the most mild mannered of men to frothing-at-the mouth fury?”
Flint's gaze is steady and he repeats like a confession, “It's always a choice.”
Silver wants to rear back from the words. Something is fundamentally wrong about hearing Flint had given up back then. He'd reacted badly to this notion once before, when they were still locked up in the maroon camp and Flint had said let this be the end of Captain Flint. That so much time has passed since that day of the mutiny does not lessen his anger.
“So, what, drowning was a momentary lapse on your part? Feeling indecisive, were you?”
“I was tired,” Flint says simply. “I'd just lost my chance at the gold. My crew. My ship.”
Silver says, “I don't understand. You were – fine. You were up and plotting again only a few hours later. What could possibly have changed your mind in such a short time?”
A sudden gale of wind sends them hunching further down. The rain is like needles on their exposed skin. Silver slips in the mud and then gasps sharply when he accidentally angles pressure down on his stump.
A strong hand grabs his shoulder and turns him; he goes willingly, unthinkingly. The next thing he knows, he and Flint are facing one another, bracing their arms on each other's shoulders and making a tent of muscle and bone. Water drips down from their faces as they pant.
Silver breathes through the pain and focuses on Flint's words. His voice is low and calm, like they are conversing casually over his desk on a calm night at sea.
“Someone gave me a chance to catch my breath. Perhaps you know him – dark hair, one leg? A certain knack for eeling his way out of any situation?”
Silver can't look at the other man in this moment, doesn't want to show the captain the fear in his eyes. Instead he keeps his head down and bites out something that is half a smile, half a grimace. He remembers the other thing Flint said in the maroon camp. “I don't think I can talk my way out of this one.”
“Sure you can,” Flint says, as nature rages spitefully around them. “Just keep talking, and I will listen.”
The storm rages for what feels like nine lifetimes, until Silver feels as empty and dumb as a beast of burden. In the middle of the black night the rain gentles enough to slip beneath the notice of his numbed skin, and he finally sleeps.
Hunger and a fitful night have combined to sap every man's strength, but hope rears its head in the form of crayfish.
A tossing such as the previous day's creates trouble for all earth's creatures; in this case, it has disturbed coastal silt and covered the usual hidey holes small crustaceans shelter in. They decide to dispatch the men in groups of four and five to tidal pools around the island, in the hopes of fetching a decent meal.
Every article of clothing on the island is soaked through. Combined with the rising heat of the day, it creates a humidity that most of the men find intolerable. They discard all but their underclothes, some even those, and leave the camp looking like the yard of an overwhelmed washerwoman.
Silver strips down to his waist, but leaves his trousers on for the sake of concealing his leg. Billy, a reserved sort rarely seen aboard a pirating vessel, likewise retains his trousers. His shirt he wraps around his head to protect against the sun, because he is nothing if not sensible.
Due to a childhood spent in a boys' home and the aforereferenced lack of modesty among pirates, Silver has seen enough flesh that he sometimes thinks it should cease to be a thing of note. Bared shoulders, a tapered torso, the dramatic cut of a pelvic bone – why should these be different than any other commonplace item in life?
“Do you take issue with Billy's sorting of the men?” Flint asks at his side.
Silver realizes he's been gazing a little fixedly. I must finally be feeling the effects of hunger and heat, he thinks. Aloud he says, “No, it's fine. Just hoping for a good haul.”
Flint hadn't been in camp when Silver woke; he'd disappeared entirely, a real feat on such a small island. Silver had barely started to wonder after him when he'd reappeared with news of the favorable fishing conditions.
Silver looks at him now and cannot help but notice that he has also submitted to the heat of the day.
Flint has – freckles. They group together along the back of his neck and shoulders, but suffer from attrition the further they journey down his back and chest. His waist is pale, the small of his back oddly vulnerable under the stark force of the sun.
To his horror, he finds himself asking, apropos of nothing, “Have you ever considered Billy? I mean in a – ” He stumbles to a halt, uncharacteristically without words. One hardly asks one's captain if they have had carnal thoughts about a crew member.
Though that is basically what he just did.
“I've never,” Flint says, immediately understanding his question. And, truly, that's just –
“What, never? So was Thomas Hamilton the exception then or – ” He stops again, immediately conscious that he has overstepped the bounds of both grace and trust.
He does not understand what is causing his mouth to run roughshod over all higher impulses and civilities. Yet when he dares to glance at Flint, the captain appears unwounded by the name drop. Instead, he is looking almost thoughtfully over at where Billy and his admirable back are disappearing down an incline with a gaggle of men.
“I will not deny that he has his – qualities,” Flint says, and if Silver didn't know better, he'd swear the man sounded awkward. “But aside from the conflict of interest inherent in such a situation, his disinterest would be enough to kill the matter. Surely his inclinations have not escaped your notice. Not after all this time?”
His voice asks more than just the simple question, but what the extra meaning is, Silver cannot divine in the moment.
“Well, no,” He says slowly, because Billy's relentless celibacy is the subject of equal amounts bafflement and mirth across the whole of Nassau. “Of course I haven't. But I don't see what that has to do with holding an objective appreciation?”
Flint gives a tight shrug. “Perhaps it's the Navy. Or my life in London. But I never look unless I know there is chance the look might be returned.” He glances at Silver, and it would almost be uncomfortable except that he meets his eyes with as steady a gaze as he ever has. “I could never be – interested in Billy. Not when I know he would not welcome such an advance.”
Silver doesn't know what to say, or what to think of himself for starting the whole conversation in the first place, and after a while Flint takes his leave to join in on the fishing.
His leg is in such a condition that even he admits temporary defeat and stays behind at camp. He takes advantage of the absence of company to finally unstrap the boot from his stump for the first time in a few days.
The damp leather peels off with difficulty, revealing reddened, pinched-off skin. He gives in to the pain and gasps for several moments. The ragged sound is loud and desperate in the small basin they've made camp. He is glad no one else is around to hear it.
Once the pain ratchets back down to a tolerable level, he finds himself with little to do except think. This would not normally be an issue, but the nature of their position on this island means his thoughts have little to reach for except that which he'd rather leave untouched. He is sure half the battle of a being marooned is being confronted with what one has buried deep within oneself.
Case in point: as he sits at the camp, bored and slowly roasting under the inching sun, he cannot avoid thinking about the previous day and all of the ways it has worked a change in his mind. He feels like he has turned a corner of some kind. The conversation with Flint, how the onslaught of the rain almost felt like it was closing them off together against the world –
He's always had a heightened awareness of Flint. He can admit it. Once upon a time he might have put it down to survival instincts, prey being hyper vigilant about the movements of a predator. But it's been a while since he could claim that. Because, still, he is aware of the man. His presence, his actions, his moods. The island is small but certainly larger than the Walrus. Surely he shouldn't feel like Flint is always there, front and center in his line of vision. He shouldn't find his thoughts returning to him as if he were some sort of touchstone.
He has little to do on this forsaken island but think, and the path of his thoughts are almost as disconcerting as the immediate physical threats to his survival.
The men return in the afternoon with a veritable feast of crayfish and even, through some creative aquatic engineering of DeGroot, three small fish.
Silver uses every drop of persuasion within his capabilities to convince the men not to pair their long awaited feast with more of the rum. Their bodies need as much nourishment as they can get without it being impeded by liquor, no matter how cheering it might feel in the moment. Thankfully, the prospect of food is enough to quiet most of the disgruntled spirits.
They fashion a rough grill from sticks and recapture some of the lost ground of their stomachs as the sun wanes in the west.
There is still no sign of Williams.
It is not until the next morning that they realize no one has seen Jack Casey since the night before last. The crew splits up to comb the island but without much hope; they would have come across him yesterday while fishing if he were still alive to call out. Their worst fears are confirmed when Billy spots his broken form caught in the waves under a particularly treacherous cliff.
“He must have wandered off in the dark and lost his footing,” Silver says.
“Why he decided to take a stroll in the middle of that storm, we’ll never know.” Flint eyes the height and shakes his head. “There’s no easy way to retrieve the body. And since we have no way of burying it, I think it would be a waste of all our energies.”
Ah, their energies. A resource suddenly to be withheld from all except the most critical of ventures. With the doldrums so recently in the past, they are all familiar with the tactics of surviving starvation. Silver can say that he is heartily sick of them.
They say a few words standing on the cliff high above the body, and then they leave it for the carrion eaters.
“Still no Williams,” Flint says back at camp. “We need to seriously consider sending another man. Liam or Joji,” he says to Billy and Silver. “Decide.”
Billy and Silver exchange a long glance. Over Billy's shoulder, Silver can see the bunched up groups of the twenty men they have left. There is not an easy expression on a single one of them.
“Joji's more critical to the crew,” Billy says at last, quiet.
Fewer men see the swimmer off this time, but Silver thinks it’s important to display confidence in the merits of the plan. He shakes Liam's hand, says a few words that make him straighten up and even smile a little under the nervous pallor of his skin.
He watches him set out, slow but dogged in the water, and allows himself for a moment to remember what it felt like to swim. He was never overly fond of it, but like most activities, he misses the skill he'd possessed, the surety of his movements. Dump him in the water now and he’d likely sink before he could get the metal boot off.
“I think I could have made it to the other island,” he finds himself telling Flint. “I was a strong swimmer.”
“And a rather poor diver, if I recall,” Flint says. Silver smiles slightly, remembering the pain of smacking front-down into the bay at Nassau. It feels like an eternity ago.
Then the other man adds, “You know – you haven’t changed as much as you think.”
“Right.” Silver can’t hold back a bitter smile. “What’s a leg or two at the end of the day?”
“I’m not trying to ply you with sentiment,” Flint says sharply, as if anyone in the whole of the English-speaking world would ever accuse him of such a thing. “A lot of men lose a leg and become nigh on useless — Randall, for example.”
Silver can’t help but stare. “Randall also had brain damage.”
Flint considers this before giving one of his small facial shrugs. “In any case, my point is, you weren’t exactly an eager fighter before. And you could hardly have been called an industrious worker.”
A peculiar feeling starts to come over Silver. Indignation, perhaps, or maybe annoyance. “I think I’d prefer some sentiment, actually. No, really.”
Flint ignores him, intent on making his point despite every sign Silver throws up warning him off. He continues relentlessly, “And you’d spend so much time nattering on and whinging — ”
“ — that your opponent would be caught off guard when it turned out you were highly competent.”
Silver is brought up short.
“You’ve always been underestimated, and you’ve always used that to your advantage,” Flint says, tone not betraying for a moment that he has noticed Silver’s reaction. “Even, I’ll admit, by me. I don’t suppose Mr. Dufresne came at you with his guard up that night in Nassau?”
Silver remembers the contemptuous way the man had walked up close and stood there, stance careless and loose as if Silver wasn't, couldn't be, a threat. He says nothing in response.
“So, no, I suspect you haven’t changed that much.” Flint gives him a lingering, indecipherable look and then turns away before Silver can bring himself to speak.
He’s had a lifetime of being written off as a weakling or a fool and it never bothered him once, because he knew it could be useful. After all, he knew who he was and that had always been enough. Could it possibly work the same way with his leg? The ever-present throb in his stump says no, but the unfolding feeling in his chest as he watches Flint walk away begs to differ.
“We should take away their blades,” Flint says.
The afternoon is hot. Silver, Billy, and Flint are all sitting shoulder-to-shoulder under the scant shade offered by a narrow outcrop of rock on the leeward coast. Silver lost the feeling in his backside an hour or two ago, but he knows there is no softer place to rest on the whole of the island, so he hasn't moved.
“You can't take their weapons,” Silver says immediately. “They are already feeling helpless, and now you want to unman them?”
“Real men don't need a sword to remind themselves of what's between their legs.”
Silver remembers one of the first moments he saw Flint up close. A snarling tyrant clutching his crew to him with blood-drenched hands. “And this is coming from you?”
Billy makes a noise, soft and irritated. Silver glances at him; he's got his head tipped back and his eyes closed, expression wrinkled in displeasure. At their conversation or life in general, Silver cannot tell.
Flint says, “Teach left us the rum and cutlasses for a reason. He understands men.”
“And what neither of you understand is that there can be better ways of managing them than an iron first. You try to take away their blades, I'll stop you.” Before they stop you, he doesn't add. Flint has always been oddly cavalier about the fact that many of his own men would cheerfully see him run through with a blade on a good day. No use encouraging him.
Flint sighs and his eyes narrow into pale-fringed slits as he looks out against the too-bright horizon. “Your talk smacks of mutiny.”
“Yes, well,” Silver says, shuffling on his numb backside so he can, ever-so-slightly, rest his head against Flint's shoulder, because it's a marginally more forgiving surface than the rock face and it's not like any one else is around to read too much into it the movement. “You can clap me in irons later, just get me on a damn ship first.”
Silver closes his eyes. He is sick of the view, devoid as it is of sail or cloud.
When the sun finally departs and takes the worst of the heat with it, the men decide to celebrate by cracking open a few more bottles of rum. They have not tasted anything except water in two days. Silver has his reservations, but he withholds them for the sake of hearing something other than silence or sullen mutterings.
This does not mean he is in the mood to cut loose himself. After monitoring the situation around the fire for a short while, he leaves the men in Billy's long-suffering hands and goes looking for the captain.
He finds him a short ways away, sitting on top of a small hill with his face tipped up towards the stars, which hang low over the island as if teasing.
“Is it strange for you?” Silver asks as he limps up. He gingerly lowers himself next to him. Flint gives him an inquiring look and he elaborates, “To look at the stars from a fixed point like this? You can see your navigational path but you can't follow it.”
Flint doesn't answer at first, and then: “That was the goal, someday. To look at the stars and only see clever shapes and stories. They wouldn't make me think of a destination, because I'd already be there.”
Silver finds that his throat hurts oddly.
“You still could be. Or do you not have confidence in this Peter Island plan?" he says, as if that was what Flint had meant, even though they both know it was not. But he does not know how else to respond. Flint is the only person he's ever met who is capable of rendering him speechless, of silencing the running commentary and calculations that go through his mind until all that is left is a perfect stillness.
“I may have a contingency plan,” Flint says.
Silver turns to look at him and is surprised to find his expression unusually hesitant. “For escaping this place? What is it?”
The three of them had discussed the matter backwards and forwards on the first day. With no ship and no means of communication, there was simply no way off the island. That Flint could propose an alternative now is surprising but not entirely unbelievable, because that simply is what the captain does. This is the man who had proposed stealing a Spanish warship with a bullet wound in his shoulder and an unwilling crew as his backup, and then had gone and done it.
Flint’s eyes shift and his brow quirks as if requesting something. It’s a look Silver has seen before, periodically thrown his way since the beginning of their tentative partnership. What Flint is really asking for, he rarely figures out, but twice now it has felt like some kind of turning point. The first time, Flint gave him just such a look as he asked whether Silver saw him as a villain. And the second was on the beach after a wind carried them out of the doldrums, when Flint spoke so insistently in terms of you and I.
“What have you done?” Silver asks slowly, instincts suddenly pricked.
“It was only a temporary measure,” Flint begins, quickly, aggressive the way he gets when he thinks no one will listen, “in case the battle was lost and the alliance fractured— ”
The name strikes them both momentarily dumb. In the resulting quiet, the boisterous sound of the men at their back sounds both too close and very far away.
It was only, Silver thinks carefully, a rhetorical strategy. If you’re demanding honesty as an equal, you don’t begin the address with captain.
Flint finally looks at him full on, no more glances or sidelong gazes. There is no hesitance in his face now.
“I moved Rackham’s treasure.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow,” Silver says after a moment. Surely he must have misunderstood.
“The remainder of the Urca treasure. I dug it back up and reburied it.”
“I see.” Silver feels oddly detached. “When?”
Flint hesitates. “The night before the battle.”
Days after their conversation, then. Silver’s mind flashes immediately on the scene, of Flint working alone through a dark night, long past when everyone else in the maroon camp had retired. He wonders how long after he turned in that Flint made the switch. Had he already decided during the course of their fireside conversation that he was going to do it? Did their conversation provide some motivation?
He keeps his voice even, does not let his expression betray his sudden turmoil. “And — why did you choose this course of action?”
“The odds of the battle were such that I was determined to procure us an exit strategy. Should we lose, Rackham could not abandon us without also abandoning his treasure.” Flint pauses and then adds, “I didn’t inform you of it because the idea only occurred to me as I lay awake that night on my bedroll. And it was not a two man job.”
Silver does not miss the attempt at placation. Nor does he appreciate such an obvious manipulation; Flint should know better by now than to try that on him.
“You didn’t think I was right about Dobbs. You didn't trust me.” He doesn’t know which is more surprising to him, that his voice is so calm or that his pride so wounded.
“I allowed it to proceed, didn't I?” Flint sounds almost confused, but Silver does not believe for a second that he doesn't understand the import of his actions. It's just like when Flint gave him his word about the gold still being a priority; he sees right through the lie. It kindles his outrage; why doesn't Flint understand that Silver will always see through the lie?
Flint continues, “Rackham will seek out his treasure. He will not find it. He'll want answers – when he hears what Teach has done, he will come looking for those answers. And he will find us.”
He is sure that Flint believes in what he is saying and, what's more, believes it should be reassuring.
“He might have come looking anyway, to preserve the alliance and our chance at dislodging Governor Rogers from Nassau.”
“We can't have known whether he would defy Teach. With Nassau cut off, Teach holds resources and sway that are not easily ignored. But this – however unforeseen our current circumstances may be – this will ensure that Rackham chooses the right side.”
“Have you learned nothing from your past mistakes?” Silver asks. He could almost marvel. “You plot, and you act, and you do it all standing alone. Do you not see where this leads you? Where it has led you before?”
Flint shakes his head. “This is not the same – ”
“The hell it isn't,” Silver says. He's truly angry, he suddenly realizes.
He is furious.
His breath is coming on fast now. He feels like he's had his other leg cut out from under him. Distantly, he is almost shocked at this reaction, for it was not until now that he fully knew how he'd come to expect – to rely on – Flint's trust. He’d thought, after the fire-lit conversation in the forest, that they were finally, truly partners.
Clearly Flint had an altogether different takeaway.
Silver speaks around his anger, addressing the logical weaknesses while he sorts out the emotional ones for himself. “It was an unnecessary risk to take. Then and now. How do you imagine Rackham will feel about continuing to ally himself with us after such a betrayal?”
Flint shakes his head. “Rackham doesn't hold grudges. He's too pragmatic – it's one of his only virtues.”
The words come before he can stop them, “And how do you imagine I feel?”
He finally turns and meets Flint's gaze and immediately wishes he hadn't; the captain is looking at him with the same open expression he had that night in the forest, like he's trying to understand Silver and be understood in turn. Silver always thought himself immune to being manipulated, but this look is casting doubt on that bedrock confidence. The damage is done, so he throws himself into the depths, even though the idea of showing any vulnerability goes against every instinct he possesses.
“The conversation we had that very night,” he says, looking into Flint's eyes so his meaning cannot be misconstrued. Flint had called them friends. “Am I to understand now that you were merely – humoring me?”
Flint draws his eyebrows together. “It's precisely because of that conversation that I moved the treasure.” He looks almost irritated to have to admit it. “Because of you.”
“I see.” Silver redirects his eyes to the darkness and nods his way through that. When the silence stretches on, conversation clearly over, he says lightly, “I should get back to the men, see to it they don’t drink themselves into an early grave.”
He gets slowly to his feet. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the other man reach out as if to stop him, but Flint snatches his hand back at the last moment.
Well that’s something, Silver thinks dully. At least Flint no longer feels entitled to manhandling him as though he was a troublesome pest. Good to know exactly how far he’s come up in the captain’s estimation, even if it is not as far as he'd thought. He'd thought when Flint told him about Thomas Hamilton, he'd broken through to a new level. Now he finds himself wondering blackly how much Hal Gates knew of his captain's past; how many lies Flint is able to purchase with carefully selected truths.
He doesn’t look at Flint again as he leaves.
He goes back to the men. Almost half of them are already passed out; he nudges those that are until they give a snort or some other indication that they have not killed themselves. When he has been satisfied towards this end, he takes a seat around the fire next to Billy.
When someone passes him a bottle, he takes a deep swig. He’s not usually one for heavy imbibing — yet another way he’s never been a proper pirate — and he can feel Billy’s curious gaze upon him.
By the time he finally lowers the bottle, a cramping warmth is making its way known down the long line of his throat and pooling in his dreadfully unprotected stomach. But it’s better to focus on that sensation rather than anything else he is feeling at the moment.
“Something’s on your mind,” Billy asks. “Is it Flint?”
“When is it not?” Silver passes the bottle on and doesn’t look at him. He's had enough emotional sharing for one night.
Tension enters Billy’s voice. “What’s he done now?”
“He has ensured our survival.” Silver stares at the fire. Despite the heat coming from the flames and the ambient warmth of the late summer night, he feels almost chilled. “It’s as I’ve said before, Billy. That man has an answer for everything.”
He wakes to a body wracked by stomach cramps. Gives one bleary look around the camp before crawling far enough away that he can wretch out of earshot and view. And wretch he does – rhythmic, miserable dry heaves that stretch his organs taut and bring up little but spit and bile. It goes on for he doesn't know how long, until finally he is left stretched out in the dirt, weak and panting.
“Damn fool,” he mumbles at the ground.
He lies there for a little longer, regaining his breath and sense of place in the world. After, he feels disgusted – with himself, this place, even the men.
Never mind the cutlasses, he thinks. They should pour the rest of the rum into the fucking sea.
He climbs gingerly up from the ground and then stands swaying as his vision blots black from the rush of blood. It's been doing that more often recently, one of the first symptoms of real starvation. But it's fine, he can handle it.
Once his vision has fully returned, he limps off to wash his face.
Flint is sitting up when he returns to camp, rum bottle in hand and tipped upside down over dry rock.
For a strange moment Silver thinks that he's managed some kind of psychic communication and that the captain is emptying the remaining bottles of rum. But then he realizes Flint is simply shaking out the dregs of last night and patiently refilling the bottles with water from the dwindling pool.
Flint looks up and gives him a slow once-over as he approaches. “You look like hell,” he observes.
“Go fuck yourself,” Silver says, walking past him as if he has anywhere else he can go. His head aches something fierce and he is no mood to converse with the man who is the reason for it. He settles down next to the softly snoring body of Ben Gunn, his back not quite turned towards the captain.
He casts a look around the camp, careful not to linger over the only other person awake. “Where's Billy?”
Flint's voice does not hint at a reaction to Silver's initial greeting. “Tidal pool since dawn. He wanted to try recreating Mr. DeGroot's fish trap on a different location.”
Silver nods in acknowledgement. Billy would be the last to stop searching for a solution to their food predicament.
They lapse into an uncomfortable silence, broken only by a periodic mumble from Gunn's rum dreams. Silver is acutely aware of Flint as he continues to measure out water into the empty bottles, and acutely irritated by this awareness.
“Speaking of Billy,” Silver says, still not looking over. “If Liam or Williams does not return today, he's going to have a bone to pick with you.”
“When does he not?” Flint's voice contains more of an edge than the conversational gambit really warrants, so Silver assumes he is not the only one still smarting from the conversation of the previous night.
“He's going to blame you for their loss,” Silver continues. “Since he could likely have made the swim days ago, and you did not let him.”
“We've been over this. Billy is too critical to the crew to take the risk, especially since – ”
“Since you have a contingency plan,” Silver says, biting off the words. “I remember.”
Flint says nothing to that, but there is a clink of a bottle being set down a little harder than necessary and then a heavy sigh. He's not expecting Flint to speak again but then:
“You seem to be harboring some misunderstanding about the thought process that lay behind my decision,” Flint says, choosing his words with obvious care. He is no doubt highly conscious of the fact that, although the men surrounding them are all sleep, they could awake and overhear at any time. Silver has the brief, irrational wish that the two of them were alone on this godforsaken island, if only so Flint would just speak plainly.
“Even should we have lost the battle. I wanted – us to survive,” Flint says.
Silver says, “To live to fight another day, yes, I am aware.” Flint would likely find a way to come back from the dead if it meant he could get one good hit in on the British empire. The tale they told back in Nassau only worked so well because everyone knew it.
He glances over in time to see Flint shake his head in frustration. The man gets to his feet and paces a short distance away. Silver watches him watch the horizon and wonders what he sees when he goes inward like that.
Any attempt at continuing the conversation is belayed by Ben Gunn rolling over, suddenly awake, and vomiting into the dry sand by Silver's metal boot.
The captain stalks around the camp, rousing the men from their hungover slump with harsh commands to seek out food. His hands, whenever they peek out from the drape of his shirt sleeves, are in an almost constant state of agitation.
Silver watches this all from a distance. He doesn't know how Flint has the energy to be so physical with his anger.
He thinks for the sake of the men he should probably intervene, that it would be preferable for the two of them to argue with each other rather than let their bad tempers diffuse throughout the crew. It would be the politically prudent thing to do.
He doesn’t move, though, and it's almost as if his refusal to engage in confrontation spurs the captain's discontent to greater heights.
At dusk, no one has the energy to bother with a fire. The crew, who have been giving Silver uncertain looks and murmured words of concern for the past few hours, thankfully withdraw with the light and leave him be.
He is barely able to draw in a relieved breath before Flint reappears for round three. He stiffens slightly as the captain sits beside him.
The anger of the afternoon has clearly left Flint, and in its place he looks only tired. The dying light creates shadows in the creases of his face and darkens the red of his beard.
“The men are beginning to talk.”
“Since when do you care when the men talk?” Silver asks.
“Rarely, unless a vote is coming up,” Flint agrees. “But you usually do. And just because you are angry with me doesn't mean you won't care again. So I suggest we get this situation sorted.”
Silver wants to shake him off, but the damnable logic of their existence on this island cannot be thwarted. Even last night's revelation does not change the fact they have to work together to get the crew through this state. Any denial from him would just be read as petulance.
So he gestures for Flint to continue.
“Until our conversation before the battle, I had never really realized that a certain pattern, as you termed it, existed. I only knew that I had suffered tragedies and grief enough to drive a man to madness.”
Silver, unsure where this is leading, remains silent. He turns his head so he can watch the captain, curiosity welling up despite his desire to remain aloof.
Flint avoids his eyes, looking instead down at his hands. “But after our talk, I could not escape the thought that association with me is what had led others so directly to their ruin. It hunted me through the dwindling hours before the battle. Eventually I could no longer sit still and felt the need to act.”
“Well,” Silver says after a moment, voice more puzzled now than bitter. “You must not have listened very closely, since I believe my exact point was that I was no longer worried about falling prey to that pattern.”
Quite the opposite, in fact, but the proof now lay before him that Flint continues to see himself as invulnerable — to the elements, their enemies, and to Silver himself.
Flint's mouth quirked, but it wasn't a smile, exactly. “Strange as it may be for you to comprehend, but you were not in possession of all the facts when you made your case.”
To that, Silver could only give him a look: arched brow, do tell.
“Miranda,” and damn it all if Flint’s voice didn’t soften on the name. Silver’s seen glimpses of it before, mostly while the young Miss Ashe and Mrs. Barlow briefly sailed with the crew, but every time he is struck anew at the incongruous capacity for tenderness his fearsome captain apparently possesses.
Flint clears his throat and continues, “For ten years she lived on New Providence Island. Exiled and lowered, certainly, but — fundamentally safe. You spoke of partners. She was mine for a very long time. It was only when she stepped up to take on a more active role at my side that she suffered the consequences. Consequences that I now have to wonder were lying in wait all along.”
Silver finally feels a glimmer of, not quite understanding, but a release of some of the tension he’d been holding since Flint first admitted what he had done. Even angry and betrayed, he has an almost instinctual empathy for the man. It is a damn inconvenience, but he has yet to find a way to curb it.
“That was her choice to make,” he says, more gently than he intended. “And she chose to stand by your side.”
“Maybe so,” Flint says. “But I’m tired of losing people.”
Silver is about to quip about the irony of a man saying such things while planning to lead his crew into a bloody war. But when he looks at Flint and sees his expression, the words die before they reach the air. It’s all over in the space of a second, the wordless communication that Flint is not talking about the crew, perhaps not even talking about Billy.
He wonders when Flint stopped thinking of him as simply useful and started to consider him something more. The thought is like a trap door, and beneath it stretches a depthless unknown.
He tries to speak lightly, as if he hadn’t just reached a terrifying realization. “I would think by now that you would have a healthy respect for my self-preservation instincts.”
“I respect much about you,” Flint says, as if he was determined to push Silver completely off-balance. “Chief of which is that your instincts, self-preservation or otherwise, seem to be much more complicated than even you realize. I couldn't be sure that your reading of the pattern, of how it might apply to yourself, was the correct one.”
Silver can only stare at him mutely, mind racing with thoughts of vulnerabilities and faith and how the two might intertwine.
“For what it's worth,” Flint says quietly. “I hope it is.”
When he stands to leave a few minutes later, Silver does not stop him.
Without the distraction of a fire or the obstruction of trees or other structures, the sky over the island is vast and terrifyingly brilliant.
Silver lies on his back away from all the others, body aching from the hunger and unable to do more than fitfully doze. He knows from past experience that sleeping on one's stomach is the better option while hungry, cuts down on the ache, but doing so puts too much pressure on his leg. So he's left on his back, heavy-lidded eyes unable to fully close. He stares up at the tiny lights of the stars until they begin to blur.
He wonders if a younger version of himself would recognize him now, the one-legged creature with a tangle of wild hair and a nascent dependence on another man. It is an unfathomable transformation, even looking backwards from now to then and knowing each point of change.
He’d joined the crew first on an opportunistic whim, as a way of saving his own skin. Then there’d been the gold. Flint. The men. Flint again. Somewhere along the line he went and became a real pirate. Men look to him for direction and one man looks to him for Silver knows not what.
Stars tilt in choreographed dance overhead, and he feels his thoughts slide sideways, the way they do sometimes right before sleep makes its claim.
Perhaps all the men of science were wrong and the world is flat after all. It feels like it might be in moments like this, with his back up against the earth and the sky endless overhead. Monsters occupy the depths of the seas and sudden precipitous drops await along the edges. So perhaps the world is flat. Or perhaps it is a die and he's just trapped on the wrong side.
God rolls the die.
John Silver and everything he knows gets tossed, again.
Something nudges his foot.
Silver opens his eyes and blinks up at the two figures standing over him. Their faces are shrouded in shadow, silhouetted against the brilliant blue of the sky, but he'd know the line of their bodies anywhere. They look impossibly tall. Unreachable.
Some daft impulse makes Silver want to stretch his arm up to them. To offer comfort, maybe, or to just to touch to see if he can. But his arm remains stubbornly down by his side, heavy and earthbound like the rest of him.
The figures shift and he can finally make out their expressions.
Billy's face is tight with worry, and he keeps glancing over his shoulder. Flint doesn't look away from Silver.
“What's happened?” He asks, voice faint and raspy from thirst. He doesn't move, content to lie there for a moment longer before having to stand and bear the weight of both his body and whatever terrible news is about to be delivered.
“Your services are required,” Flint says.
“Oh?” Silver says vaguely, still not moving. “Is there food that needs cooking?”
“We found two bodies,” Billy says. “A ways from camp. Davy Roach and Sweet Bob.”
Silver looks from Billy to Flint, mind finally locking back into focus. He asks, somehow already knowing the answer in his gut, “How?”
“Roach's throat was slit,” Flint says. “And Sweet Bob was stabbed in the back. Judging from the ground around him, he struggled a considerable amount.”
Before he can process that, Flint shifts forward. Silver doesn't know what he's doing until a calloused hand is suddenly very close to his face, palm up in offering. He glances from the hand back up to Flint, whose gaze is steady but a little questioning.
Silver doesn't have an answer for that question.
He slaps his hand into Flint's perhaps a little too hard, but that force is met with a grip of equal strength.
Where are you?
The simple matter of skin touching skin is more of a shock than he is expecting. It's been a while. And it's all his mind can focus on in the split second it takes for Flint to haul him back up to standing, back up into the world of men and murder.
Flint and Billy wait for his vision to readjust, and then the three of them turn back towards the rest of the crew as a united front.
Someone, likely Billy, has already closed Roach's and Bob's eyes. They could almost be sleeping, if it were not for the congealed spread of blood beneath their bodies and the splintered reed of Roach's open throat.
Silver, crouched a couple feet away from the scene, allows himself to briefly close his eyes. He asks without turning around, “And we are sure that they didn't kill each other?”
It's admittedly not likely; everyone knew that Davy Roach and Sweet Bob were very close, having come up together as cabin boys on a merchant ship out of Virginia. But he also knows that sometimes it's those closest to you that can best rouse a man's ire.
Billy says, “We considered the possibility, but look at the way Roach fell. The cut's deep, he wouldn't have had the chance to turn around and get Sweet Bob before dying.”
Silver nods in agreement and stands. He can feel the men behind him, the mass of tempers and suspicions already shifting, simmering. Glances being traded, dark looks all around. No one likes the idea of a murderer hiding in their ranks.
This was the last fucking thing they needed.
He takes a breath and turns around to face the crew. Keeping his expression open and calm is a struggle when all he can feel is a black anger coiling up within him. That one of them could do something so heinous is only one driver of the emotion, the greater portion being fury at the short-sightedness of it. Did the murderer think there would be no fallout from this? Did he not see how this endangers them all?
“I am going to make this offer only once,” he says quietly. The words carry out over the silence of the gathered men. Even the breeze across the island seems to have abated, as if it too is awaiting his judgment. Flint stands a few feet away watching impassively with his arms crossed.
“If the killer comes forward right now, I will promise leniency.” A few of the men start to mutter and he says louder, “He will face exile, not death. I say this out of understanding that the circumstances we find ourselves in are – difficult for all of us. Passions are raised, and there is little in the way of physical comforts to soothe them. So I am imploring you: if this was a mistake, an argument that got out of hand – come forward. I will protect you.”
Silence. The men shift and glance around, but otherwise no one moves. Silver takes this in without much surprise, but disappointment sinks into his gut nonetheless.
“All right then,” he says heavily. “Next I am going to ask anyone who has information or any memory of last night to step forward.”
A cacophony of voices break out. Silver faces this unrest like a man staring at the gallows.
One man shouts, “Davy been quarreling with Buck Wilson ever since we took that prize off the coast of Tortuga two months ago.”
“You shut yer gob, Vasquez, we put that to rest weeks ago and you know it – ”
“I saw Sweet Bob having words with McCrae!”
“We was talking about fishin' – ”
“Why's this even a question?” Someone asks loudly, breaking through the racket. Creedy, the carpenter's mate, pushes to the front of the crowd and then stands with his feet planted combatively. “There's only one man here we know without question is a crew-killer. Why aren't we asking Captain Flint about what he was doing last night?”
Silver goes still. He should have expected this turn, but for some reason it's taken him completely by surprise.
The other voices die out, and all eyes turn to the captain, who meets them unflinching. If Flint is concerned about the turning tide of suspicion, he doesn't show it. But then, Silver thinks in hot irritation, he is probably used to facing down an angry crew by now.
His mind races ahead, considering and discarding several arguments or deflections he could make. He cannot be heard speaking blindly in support of the captain. It needs to sound objective and reasonable –
“He was with me,” Billy says suddenly. He looks around, meeting every man's eyes. “The captain and I were up late discussing possible ways to construct a water still. We were still talking, last anyone saw Roach and Sweet Bob. He turned in before I did. It couldn't have been him.”
Flint's brow lifts slightly at Billy's words, and he stares the men down silently. Slowly, they all start to look away; no one wants to dispute the word of the crew's favorite.
Silver clears his throat, drawing their attention back to him.
“I will interview everyone individually,” he says. “In the mean time, we should give our brothers their last rites and lay their bodies to rest as best we're able.”
“Thank you,” he says to Billy later. “For speaking up for the captain.”
Billy gives him a weird look, like he begrudges the gratitude. “I only did it because it was the truth. And because if we don't get to bottom of this, it will tear the crew apart. But Creedy wasn't wrong. Flint is one of the only two men here who has killed a crew member.”
“Three,” Silver says.
“I realize Mr. Dufresne was no longer a part of our crew when I killed him, but what's the saying? Once a Walrus man, always a Walrus man?”
“No one says that,” Billy says, looking away. A muscle ticks in his jaw.
Silver decides to change the subject. “This is a dirty business we have to deal with here. If we don't find out who murdered those men, the suspicion will be exploited by every grudge in the crew. It will be the end of us.”
Billy nods grimly. “Then I suggest we act quickly, before dehydration robs the men of what little clear recollection they have of last night. When will you begin the interviews?”
“Immediately. Starting with Creedy.”
Billy notices his tone. “Do you suspect him?” A strange look passes over his face, and he glances over to where Flint is talking to Mr. DeGroot. “Or are you just angry with him for accusing the captain?”
Silver straightens up at that, withholding a wince from the pressure it puts on his leg. “I hope you are not implying that I am being blinded by – what, some misplaced protective urge?” Billy just looks at him steadily, and he grits his teeth. He doesn't look over at Flint. “A crowd can be swayed by well-timed misdirection, and no misdirection will stick as well as accusing the captain of murder. My question is: what motivation did Creedy have to do it? He was no close friend of either of the men, so it was not revenge or a passion for justice.”
Billy does not look convinced, exactly, but he is listening.
“If I murdered two men in cold blood,” Silver continues. “I would make it my sole goal to stir up as much strife and suspicion among the rest of the crew as I could. Soon enough, tempers and ill feelings would ensure that no man looks innocent. And while everyone else is focused on one another, I would slip free of all consideration.”
“Jesus,” Billy says, looking at him askance. “Remind me never to get on your bad side.”
Silver gives him a faint grin, even as the weight of the task before him starts to settle heavy on his shoulders.
“Don't worry, Billy. I don't see how that would ever happen.”
“Don’t you see, this is classic Flint. By the book, you might say. You remember how he was when we was all becalmed — we knew you didn’t support cutting off half the crew’s rations. We all knew that. And he’s doing the same thing now. You’ve seen how much water we got left, how much food we been bringing in. There’s not enough for all of us, and he knows it. He’s killed before to save his own skin, and I say he’s done it again.”
“I see,” Silver says to Creedy.
“Yeah, they went off just after ten o’clock,” Jake Buckle says. “I know it was then because Orion was yea-high.” He points helpfully at the sky.
Silver rubs his brow. “It couldn’t have been Orion.”
Buckle looks affronted. “I’ve been a seaman since you were still suckling at your mum’s teat, I know Orion when I see it.”
“It’s September, Jake,” Silver says patiently.
“So Orion is a winter constellation.” Silver might not have much of a head for celestial navigation, but he at least knows the basics.
“Oh.” Buckle squints up at the sky, as if he could see through the daylight to the stars. “Well what the fuck was I looking at, then?”
Clearly not Davy Roach and Sweet Bob, Silver thinks.
Matt the Rat Douglas sucks on his eye tooth and nods. “They was taken.”
Silver leans forward. “Taken? What do you mean?”
“By the island.” Douglas whispers, “Can’t you feel it? I think this place, it’s possessed by some — malevolent spirit. And it means to keep us all here. It took ‘em, mark my words.”
“Douglas, we found their bodies.”
He shrugs, looking unconvinced. “Then it was their souls was taken.”
“I really don’t know nothing of use, Mr. Silver. Honest,” Ben Gunn says. “Too hungry to think, much less be spying on the crew.”
Silver sighs. “That’s all right, Ben.”
“I’ll tell you what, though, we get off this island? I think I may have to leave the Walrus, if you don’t mind me saying. Tell you the truth, don’t think I’m much suited to life on the sea. Been marooned twice now, you know? Don’t think my luck’s too good.”
Silver nods dully, not really listening anymore.
“I still think they did each other in,” Wyatt Skipper says. “Lovers’ quarrel, or some such.”
Silver pauses, looks up. “Really? Roach and Bob were — ?”
“Fuck if I know.” Skipper makes a disgusted face. “I mind me own business.”
“You still think it’s better to be liked by the crew?” Flint asks dryly as the daylight dies around them.
The three of them are standing back, surveying the seventeen men that remain of their group. Silver has talked to all of them and is no closer to the truth of the previous night’s murders than he had been this morning.
“The truth reveals itself at last,” Silver says wearily. “Captain Flint terrifies his men only because he dreads having to converse with them.”
Flint tilts his head, considering.
“Their hearts are in the right place,” Billy puts in loyally.
Silver knows that they’ve all been a little distracted by this epic righteous fight against England, but really, some statements are just too much. “Billy, we’re pirates. None of us have our hearts in the right place.” Then he sees him preparing to launch into one of his earnest declarations of brotherhood and hastily changes the subject. “I still think our most potent avenue for investigation is Creedy.”
Flint looks at him. “Because he accused me?”
Silver avoids his gaze, nodding instead over to where the man in question sits holding court with three others. “All the men were angry about the murders, but he was — determined. Trust me, I know from experience. You don’t start to rabble rouse unless you’re trying to draw attention away from something else.”
“What did he say when you questioned him?” Billy asks.
“Well, that’s what I found so suspicious,” Silver says. “He tried to manipulate me into turning against the captain.”
Silver wakes up on his good side, facing Flint.
The men decided the night before to sleep grouped up in threes or more, all wary of the killer in their midst. Billy, Flint, and Silver were no exception. Silver cranes his neck around to see if Billy is still on his other side but is unsurprised to see he isn’t; Billy is the earliest riser on the island, after all. He turns back to Flint and, for reasons unclear to himself, proceeds to just lie there and study the captain instead of getting up for the day.
Flint’s face is weathered from eight days of relentless exposure, and his lips are as chapped as any man’s on the island. His beard is still relatively well-trimmed, which is only just now striking Silver as odd. He wonders if the captain has actually been attempting to shave with his cutlass every morning. If so, he hasn’t followed the attempt up on his head, which means his scalp has at least been afforded some protection from the sun. Though the peach fuzz is a little at odds with his stern countenance.
It’s a strange thing, to become accustomed to someone’s face. At some point it ceases to be seen and just is. Whether the features are pleasing or not is almost inconsequential, because the sum of them is so well known. It speaks of an intimacy that is unsettling.
Silver looks back up to Flint’s eyes and finds that they are open and watching him. He should feel caught out, but instead all he can think about is that from this distance, he can make out the bloodshot whites surrounding the green of Flint’s irises.
“What are you thinking about?” Flint asks, voice pitched to barely above a murmur, words just for him.
Silver looks at him a moment longer and then says honestly, “Would you believe me if I said I don’t really know?”
The captain takes that in, a thoughtful look creasing his face. His eyes flick once more over Silver, and it’s like he knows something, but then:
“You’ll figure it out. You always do, sooner or later.”
And with that perplexing statement, Flint gets up.
Mid-morning finds the entire crew gathered around what used to be their water source. All that remains of the pool is a darkened patch of mud, which is quickly cracking under the sun wheeling brightly overhead. It’s going to be another hot day.
“How many bottles of water were we able to fill?” Flint asks Billy.
Billy licks his lips almost compulsively. “Eight.”
Silver thinks — if they limit each man to a quarter-cup a day, their current supply will last them four more days. On the heels of two murders, it’s lethal math. They are all well aware of what happens to each man’s share if even one more of their number dies.
“I want a watch on the water,” Flint orders harshly. “Three men at all times. If a single drop goes missing, all three will be held responsible.”
No one needs a reminder of what Flint means by that.
As Silver turns away, Creedy catches his eye and gives him a look. It’s overly familiar and knowing, like they are somehow fellow conspirators. He stares back and feels a pit grow in his stomach that has little to do with either hunger or thirst.
Allen Blake, one of their prime riggers, is nowhere to be found.
Billy thinks he tried to swim for it; Douglas says he was taken.
Creedy whispers in ears.
Billy and Mr. DeGroot attempt to construct a still with an empty bottle, a few sticks, and a stretch of leather cut from the back of the captain's coat. Silver sits back and watches with little hope for success. It's just as well he is too thirsty for unnecessary talk, because he's not sure he would be able to convincingly lie and lend confidence to the project.
He is not the only one choosing to save the spittle in his mouth. Silence blankets the island. He thinks it's not due entirely to parched throats; maybe they all just know there is nothing left to say.
Ben Gunn stumbles and jostles Blythe as he is drinking. Some water spills, precious droplets hitting the sand. Blythe stares down at them like they are blood from a new gunshot wound. The next moment he is roaring and charging at Gunn.
It takes four men to separate them, and the exertion leaves all six sprawled in the dirt, panting and dizzy. They are still there when Flint arrives on the scene.
Blythe and Gunn look up at the captain with fear stark on their faces. Silver watches them and feels curiously devoid of pity. But still –
“Fortunately the bottle was not knocked over,” he tells Flint, barely able to do more than whisper the words. “No water was lost.”
He's holding the bottle, and it takes more willpower than he thought he possessed to hand it back over to the men tasked with watching the cache.
Flint looks at the men and, after a space of time, says quietly, “If anything like this happens again, I promise you, it will be your last earthly act.”
The men take it like a threat. Silver thinks it sounds like mercy.
It feels as if someone has taken hold of his throat and started to squeeze. Nerves bristle over. For the first time since stepping on the island, Silver allows himself to feel real fear.
He does not want to die.
It's been a long time since he's had anything resembling comfort or pleasure, so clinging hard to his life shouldn't make sense, has never made sense, but god, he can't help it. He wants to live. He has always wanted to live.
The same temper that stalked him in the Doldrums and finally gave him the courage to tell Flint about the Urca plot – anger that he's here, that he's allowed himself to be put in this position, that he cares at all – for the men, for Billy. For James fucking Flint.
He is not like the captain or Billy. He knows this. He has never been motivated by some grand sense of justice or revenge. He doesn't even, to be honest, particularly care about England. The world's a shit place and will always be a shit place; if England doesn't wield the sword, some other great power will.
So why is he here? Why is he here.
That night, the pain in his stomach finally surpasses that of his leg, and he sleeps curled inward on his front.
Jake Buckle, one of the oldest men on the crew, does not wake up.
His body is left alone for several hours, as too few among their number have the strength or desire to haul it across the island to where they've been keeping the other bodies. So it lies among them in the sun, blood slowly settling on the underside. Most of the men look away and pretend it's not there, but Silver finds himself gazing at it for long periods of time, blinking slowly through each passing second.
He wonders if that's how he'll go. Just fall asleep one night and never awaken again. It should sound peaceful, but he can already tell the thought is going to needle him at night with quiet terror.
Billy returns from fishing, and he looks fit to topple over from exhaustion. But when he sees Buckle's body, he doesn't hesitate for more than a few weary seconds before bending to take hold of it. After a moment, Flint joins him. Together they drag it away.
Not a word is spoken during the entire event and not a word is spoken when they return.
He's been putting it off for days, but he needs to clean his stump again. He waits until after he's had his water ration for the day, and then he limps off to the nearest, easiest beach.
He has barely sat down on a rock near the water when a shadow falls over him. Looking up, he sees he's been followed. He turns his attention back to the straps of his boot, too tired to deal with this.
“Come to gawp at the leg?”
Flint says simply, “Without Mr. Howell here to keep me apprised of your condition, personal monitoring becomes necessary.”
Silver huffs a humorless laugh and uses it to distract Flint from the pained expression he cannot withhold as the boot comes off. He says through the pain, “I didn't know you'd been receiving reports.”
Flint readily responds with a shadow of his usual wryness, “I have learned the hard way that some ship assets are worth – Jesus fucking Christ.”
Suddenly Flint is kneeling in front of him, heedless of the tide soaking his trousers. Despite his tone and harried movement, his hands are careful as they take hold of Silver's knee and tilt the leg up for better viewing.
Silver grits his teeth through the inspection. He's already seen the leg, already memorized the unhealthy blush, the way the skin is stretched taut like a drum. He watches Flint's face instead, focuses on the groove of his bunched eyebrows, the involuntary waver of his mouth. He is distantly but sincerely surprised at the concern he sees on this familiar face.
Flint says without looking up, “You are not to put that boot back on.”
“Fuck you.” When Flint looks up at that, fury sparking in his eyes, Silver adds urgently, “I will not have the men see me hopping along like some kind of street beggar.”
“You cannot seriously tell me your pride is more important to you than your life – ”
“Thirst is going to kill me long before infection gets the chance,” Silver says. His tone is matter-of-fact, maybe even slightly apologetic.
Flint stares back at him, jaw clenched. After a second his eyes seem to lose focus, like he's staring down death in his head. He looks furious. Or maybe just sad. Silver looks down at him and thinks that Flint has never revealed such obvious wretchedness to him before. He doesn't know how to feel about it.
Pain and thirst have dulled his senses. He feels like a third party witness to the scene, standing by neutral as Flint remains on his knees before him, hands limp on Silver's leg like he's forgotten they were there.
Flint bows his head and moves. Silver thinks he's finally going to climb back to his feet and end this torturous moment. Shock pierces through his layers of remove when the captain instead cups his hands in the water and brings them up to the stump. He repeats the motion, calloused palms smoothing over the abused skin.
Silver swallows around a sudden lump in his throat. He does not speak as Flint washes the leg with painstaking focus. Doesn't know where to look, or what to say. So he sits and keeps on breathing, which seems to be all Flint wants him to do anyway.
After, Flint says in a subdued tone, “You should stay and let it air out for a while.”
And Silver says, carefully, “All right.”
Flint nods and stands. He turns to go, and Silver's hand shoots out without his permission to grab Flint's arm. The captain blinks down at him.
Silver says, “You could – stay. If you want.” When Flint says nothing, he lets go of the arm and continues with a passable pretense of lightness, “The view has gotten old, and I'm afraid I'll be dreadfully bored.”
And Flint says, carefully, “All right.”
So he stays, and together they keep breathing. They'll keep breathing, Silver thinks, for as long as they are able.
The crew awaken to find the despairing empty blue skies of the past week have been replaced with a striation of dark clouds.
True desperation comes the moment before relief, and the hope in every man’s breast is almost a physical pain. While they wait and pray under the gathering darkness, Silver receives three different concerns from three very different men:
“The men will want to abandon their discipline the moment it appears we have more water. I suggest you find some way to discourage it,” says Flint, eyes intent.
“Joji hasn’t been seen since last night,” says Billy, voice worried.
“I need your help,” says Creedy, expression furtive.
“Drop your cutlass and we’ll find somewhere private to talk,” Silver tells this last.
Creedy looks a little surprised by the request, but he doesn’t argue before unbuckling the blade and letting it drop to the ground. Silver glances around the camp, but both Flint and Billy have left to look for Joji, in the hopes of recovering him before the storm. None of the remaining men are paying any attention when he turns away with Creedy.
They walk towards the leeward coast, one of the lesser-traveled parts of the island, where the shoreline is hazardous and the wind unforgiving.
Eventually, Creedy wheels around and says with no preamble, “There’s a ship coming back for us.”
Silver says evenly, “Is that so?”
Creedy nods. “Blackbeard’s bo'sun, Ryan. He whispered it to me as we was being shuttled off the ship.”
Silver’s face must show some of his skepticism, because Creedy presses, “Think about it. Blackbeard doesn’t have it out for any of the Walrus men. He knows we’re proper pirates, all of us. He respects that. And he’s going to respect any one of us who is still standing when he returns.”
He begins to sense where this is going. “So he doesn’t hate our crew….”
“He just hates Flint,” Creedy finishes.
Silver could try to poke holes in the idea — after all, if Teach’s only objective was killing Flint, why not maroon him alone? But his mind is already answering the question; the crew would have fought back rather than see their captain deposed by some outside figure. And it is better for Teach this way, isn’t it, to see Flint fail to keep his crew in order. The man who came to Nassau and talked of order and alliances and long-term plans, ended by a desperate, mutinous chaos he cannot control.
Silver paces a half circuit around Creedy, thinking hard. “You know this for sure, that a ship will return?”
“Without a doubt. Ryan and I go way back. We was mates together under Hornigold until about six years ago.”
“This is such good news,” Silver says. “So surely you’ve shared it with some of the other men?”
Creedy shakes his head. “I wanted to bring you in on it first, Mr. Silver. Thought your mind would be the key to getting the job done.”
“Job?” Silver turns to look at him.
Creedy nods, a little puzzled. “Well — it only works if we kill Flint, don’t it.”
Silver goes cold.
“We all seen how he treats you,” Creedy continues, oblivious to how Silver has stilled. “You done nothing but help him, shown him loyalty, we all seen that. And I tell you, the crew would have your back in a second, the moment you want to make a move.” Creedy laughs, and the sound is harsh to Silver’s ears, the idea of humor so distant. “Bit awkward to bring up around the fire, but I’m sure we’d have numbers enough. I got half of ‘em thinking Flint did Roach and Bob in. The rest will come around once we mention Blackbeard’s coming back.”
Silver hasn’t carried his cutlass since the first day. It was prudent, he’d thought, to set an example and display that measure of trust in his men.
“Did you kill Davy Roach and Sweet Bob?” he hears himself ask.
“What? No,” Creedy says, seeming genuinely startled. “That was Allen Blake. Was off his head with rum that night. Couldn’t take the guilt afterwards and threw himself over the same cliff we found Jack Casey.”
Silver nods. He feels oddly detached as he approaches the other man, studies him.
They are both weak from want. Creedy’s of average build, but even after two weeks of hunger, he still has the hard-won bulk of decades in the rigging. In contrast, Silver has always been a little on the wiry side and is missing a leg. But the real difference, the important difference, is that right now Silver’s ever-present lightheadedness is giving way to a rush of adrenaline.
Creedy looks at him from an arm’s length away, quizzical and completely unsuspecting. He cannot possibly imagine what he committed himself to the moment he sentenced Flint to die.
It’s just like last time on the launch, Silver thinks. Shark hunting.
He lunges forward.
The storm is nothing like the previous. There is no lightning or thunder, no catastrophic gusts of wind. When the rain finally comes in, it is slow and plodding like withheld judgment. The men in the camp tip their heads back as if they are receiving grace from god. Clean water falls on their salt encrusted skin, and they know, for just one moment in their lives, the feeling of true purity.
For one man, the sky merits no attention beyond a single arched glance. Instead he peers through the rain around the camp for a figure he does not see, the only one who really matters.
On the other side of the island, two men wrestle in the mud for their lives.
Creedy has rings on his fingers, thick pirate baubles that cut into Silver’s skin when he lands a punch. They’ve already sliced up his forehead and cheek; blood drips down into his vision, stinging and blinding.
Creedy’s got him on his front, breathing raggedly into the mud.
“Why?” Creedy keeps saying, baffled, like it’s the only word he knows. “Why?”
With a grunt, Silver throws an elbow back and catches him in the throat. The grip on his head is released, and he wastes no time in scrambling back a few precious feet. Face twisting, Creedy throws himself at him again. Silver swipes out with his left leg, and the metal boot catches him across the face. It’s hard to say who is more wounded by it. Creedy spits blood out and shakily tries to regain his footing.
Silver’s near mad with anger and pain. He tackles the other man, heedless of the bend of his stump. Strikes him across the face until he’s senseless. Clasps hands around his neck and squeezes.
His eyes bulge. His hands clutch at Silver’s, fingers skittering helplessly over the implacable clasp.
When Silver first hit him, Creedy had been shocked and then angry. Now he just looks scared. Silver bears down, feels the give of the other man’s throat and lets out a noise that’s half curse, half sob. The body beneath him twitches.
When it’s over, Silver doesn’t remove his hands. He stares down, unable to take his eyes off the swollen face, the bulbous eyes that just moments before were shining with helplessness, but are now glassy and empty of emotion. He’s killed before, but this is the first time he’s killed someone who posed no threat to him personally. Murder. That’s what they call it.
He has just murdered a member of his own crew.
Slowly, he climbs back to standing. It takes three attempts, for his leg is shaking badly and reluctant to hold his weight. He leans heavily on his good leg and sways.
He looks up from the body just in time to see the captain arrive.
“You weren't – ” His voice cuts out. Silver has the slightly hysterical notion that Flint might be shocked by the carnage before him.
He almost reaches up to brush his hair out of the way, but remembers the mess on his hands just in time. They stall out in front of his face and he stares in sick fascination at the coated fingers. The blood stretches unbreaking between them, like sap from a tree.
He looks back at Flint.
“It had to be done,” he says haltingly. He barely recognizes his own voice. “He wouldn't – stop.”
But the captain is looking at the body now, a strange emotion on his face. He takes a step forward, and Silver has to stop himself from jerking back. The instinct to flee, or come up with some excuse that may garb this violence in something more palatable – he feels the need, but his legs remain stuck in place and his tongue uncharacteristically thick and clumsy.
“We need to hide the body,” he says, calculations unspooling messily in all directions. “Or – or maybe not. The men might – ”
Flint reaches out and cups the back of his neck, and his words cut out. Silver stares up at him.
“I’ll take care of it,” Flint says simply. His eyes rove over Silver’s face, searching and almost incredulous.
Silver breathes out a shallow breath. Any second now, he’s going to snap back into place. He’s going to snap back into place and take charge of this situation and himself. Any second now.
The hand on the back of his neck is very heavy.
He can’t speak and he can’t look away from Flint, not when he’s looking at Silver like he is some kind of miracle waiting to be canonized. The patron saint of murder and mayhem. Is that one taken yet? Silver was always terrible at his catechism.
Flint shifts forward and his other hand comes up to brush a tangle of muddy hair back from his face. Silver tries to stem the shaking that’s starting up in his limbs. He must do a poor job because the hand on his neck drops to his shoulder and grips hard.
“I’m sorry,” Silver says unsteadily into the inches of space separating them. He doesn’t really know what he’s apologizing for, but with a thrashed body lying somewhere behind them, the words feel right.
“Know no shame,” Flint says, almost to himself, and kisses him.
Silver has kissed plenty in his life.
There was sweet hesitating exploration with a few girls he knew on the streets when he was a lad. The thrilling bald arousal with the odd woman of compatible mentality and interest in ports throughout England and the West Indies. And, of course, there was always whores, whores everywhere.
He wasn’t the type to pay for company often, but when he did, they’d all get a read on him and know he liked to kiss. He could get so consumed with exploring a mouth, he’d almost forget to turn south. More than once they’ve had to break away and remind him of the time, breathless counsel passing through swollen lips: not for nothing, John, but if you want to finish before the hour’s up, you’d better get on it quick.
He can’t help it. Humans are oral creatures, and none more so than him. All the best parts of life are experienced through the mouth: a delicious meal, an engrossing conversation, an honest smile. You kiss someone and it becomes another dimension of your knowledge.
It has to change something, knowing Flint likes to bite his lower lip, that he nudges into kisses nose first, like he’s trying to inhale him. Next time they argue, is he going to remember the small noise Flint makes when he licks inside?
Many men will do little more than unbuckle their belt before fucking in, eyes on the dubious prize of a quick release. He’s never understood this, and received a fair share of mockery (what are you, some kind of woman) before finally learning to simply avoid the topic of sex. It had actually been one of his first points of bonding with Billy, the moment they both realized the other wasn’t going to try and draw him into a conversation about fucking.
Flint steps in closer, his hand large and warm where it rests along Silver’s neck, tipping his head back so he may kiss deeper.
Silver knows that some men are drawn to other men, that the soft curves and graceful sway of a woman’s figure holds no allure. He’s known one or two like that on other ships. And Flint even told him of his own affair, but somehow. Somehow he didn’t imagine. He’s never thought of it, but if he had, he’d assume it was all rough, rutting desire. Opportunistic lust boiling over in cramped holds and dark corners.
Flint’s lips gentle and finally lift. Silver pants and stares at them for several seconds before remembering that Flint can see him. When he raises his eyes, Flint is watching him with an indescribable look in his eyes. It is almost familiar, but he can’t place it.
That two men can kiss is academic knowledge. That it can be this — tender, lingering, lacking in ulterior motive? It’s a revelation.
Like most men confronted with revelation, Silver’s immediate response after the fact is to panic.
“How long?” Silver asks. It’s not a complete question, a far cry from his usual level of discourse, but it’s all he can seem to muster at the moment. His mind is racing over every conversation shared in the past several months, every look traded, and reconfiguring his entire worldview.
Flint is unnervingly calm. He even has the gall to sound wry as he says, “How long since I first wanted to kiss you or since I first wanted to give in to the impulse?”
The distinction throws Silver. Jesus. He’s supposed to be good at reading people.
Something in his expression makes Flint release him and step back. Silver doesn’t move, trying instead to reassemble his composure and thoughts. He blinks down at his muddy boot, confusion swirling.
After a long moment, Flint looks past Silver at the body and his face clouds as if suddenly remembering why they are here.
“I could claim the kill,” he says, in the distinct tones of what’s one more?
Silver’s mind finally snaps back into focus. It’s almost a relief to remember the urgent problem of Creedy instead of fumbling out an adequate response to this new situation.
He fixes Flint with a flat look. “I didn’t do this just for the crew to think that you have killed a man who was vocally opposing you.”
Flint gives him a lingering look, eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “You’ve stated a preference for being liked as well as feared. The balance of such a thing may be more delicate than you first thought. If you are known to be killing crew, sentiment will shift beneath your feet.”
Silver is acutely aware of this fact. He sighs. “If you take care of the body, I’ll take care of the men.”
He moves to shift back but rethinks the motion when his left leg gives a foreboding throb. Flint immediately reaches out to steady him by the elbow but pauses a moment before contact, clearly uncertain how such a gesture would be received. Because of the kiss, and because everyone knows how much Silver despises appearing vulnerable.
Silver stills. After a second, testing, he leans into Flint’s hand. He watches the surprise flare in the captain’s eyes.
He thinks again about the idea of tenderness, of other soft emotions men may be capable of feeling towards one another. Loyalty, sure. He knew that one. But what of fondness? Protectiveness? He remembers the way the men reacted when Billy first returned to their ranks after being lost at sea.
A nascent plan starts to take shape in his head.
Flint drops his hand with obvious reluctance. “Wait here while I drag the body to the cliffs.”
“No,” Silver says sharply. When the captain raises an eyebrow, he quickly explains, “If he disappears like Blake, it will only unsettle the men.”
“Fuck the men,” Flint says. “Better they’re unsettled than have another dead body to account for.”
Silver can’t withhold the faintest flinch at that. Another dead body. Another murdered man. It will inevitably be viewed the same as Davy Roach and Sweet Bob. But this is what he has done, and he must live with it.
Flint waits patiently for him to marshal his thoughts.
Finally, he looks up again. “Put the body with the others and then come back,” he says. “I’m going to need your assistance in returning to camp.”
Flint gives a dismayed double-take when he reappears, which satisfies Silver’s worry that he’d not gone far enough.
“Was this really necessary?” He asks quietly, fingers hovering over the forehead gash Silver has just spent several painstaking minutes widening with a rock. Silver breathes through the longing that suddenly surges up. He feels the need to shake himself.
“Very much so, I’m afraid.” He reaches out a hand for the captain to grasp and is helped to his feet.
Flint is visibly surprised when Silver uses the hand as leverage to hop closer and then throws an arm around his shoulders. The movement brings their sides snug up against each other from hip to chest, one long warm line in the cool rain. Silver has to fight not to sag completely into it.
“You never let others help you,” Flint says after a moment. “Not even when you were still recovering from the amputation.”
“Yes, the men will be shocked at the sight,” Silver agrees. He turns his head and fixes Flint with wide, earnest eyes. “But even I have to accept help after being so suddenly and violently attacked by Mr. Creedy.”
Flint looks back at him and appears to feel many things at once: impressed, rueful, perhaps still a little worried. But above all he looks like he’s thinking about kissing him again. Silver is startled to realize he recognizes the expression.
He clears his throat and nods in the direction of camp. “Now onward, before the rain washes all the blood away.”
It takes a few seconds for anyone to look over and realize their captain and quartermaster have returned. As soon as the first man notices them, a cry is raised, and in short order they are surrounded by dripping, questioning faces. At the vanguard, Billy.
Billy takes it all in with one sweeping glance: Silver’s bloody face, the way he’s relying heavily on Flint’s support as he limps forward. The resounding absence of Creedy.
A delicate balance, Flint had said. Silver casts a weary look up at the men, takes a breath, and throws himself into the act.
It’s a calculated risk, pinning the deaths of Blake, Roach, and Bob all on Creedy. One or two among the crew might know more than they’d let on and see through his story. But he’s willing to bet those men hold their tongues before rushing to accuse him. And who knows, maybe they will assume that Creedy did attack first and that Silver is merely assuming his guilt for the others as well.
It is almost disturbingly easy to rile a crowd; by now it’s second nature. This time is slightly different, however. This time, he is not trying to draw the men towards action but away from it. He wants them so upset that they do not think too hard or ask too many questions.
So he lets the captain deposit him gently on a rock and carefully doesn’t look after him as he steps back. He grimaces slightly, pain more transparent than he ever would normally allow. Keeps his words reluctant, like he hates appearing this way in front of the men. It’s easy, because it’s true.
“The wounds are superficial,” he reassures them after finishing the story. Rain makes the blood skate dramatically down his face, and he has to look out at them through a faint squint.
“Did Creedy say anything?” Billy asks, troubled. His eyes keep flicking over Silver’s body, cataloging his state. He is concerned, but Silver knows him well enough to see the suspicion that's also present. The logic likely works in reverse; Billy knows him well enough to see the lie.
“He was raving,” Silver says. Someone hands him a damp rag, and he carefully starts wiping at his face. “Thought Blake was a spy for Blackbeard and knew a way off the island.”
“And you, Captain?” Billy asks, turning to Flint. The captain is standing a few feet away with his arms crossed and face blank. “What did you see when you arrived on the scene?”
Flint says, “It is as Mr. Silver said. Creedy had him on the ground.” He glances briefly at Silver and says, “I moved to assist, but he was able to overpower him before I was needed.”
A delicate balance, spinning a story of strength while needing to appear weak. Silver feels a rush of gratitude and has to swallow back a smile.
“The fault in all this is mine,” He says regretfully, drawing all eyes once more. “Creedy had been wavering for days. Some of you may have noticed his paranoia. I am just glad I asked him to drop his cutlass before leaving with him. I knew he was unstable and had hoped to be able to diffuse the situation. I failed.”
He looks down, as if ashamed. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Billy and Flint step quietly back from the crowd.
“You did what you could,” McCrae says.
“We all know you’d do anything for any one of us,” another man adds.
Silver looks around at them, mouth quirked in an attempt at a smile. He clears his throat. “The important takeaway here is that we need to band together to get through this. If you suspect a man is losing his way, come to me and we will help him. I won’t have any more Walrus men dying in this place.”
A shout of agreement goes up. The men gather around him, offering water and bite-sized morsels of fish, all the while cursing Creedy’s name. In the shrinking space between their tightening ranks, Silver looks across the camp and watches Billy turn combatively towards Flint.
Shoutout to twobrokenwyngs for pointing out typos the past couple of chapters! Saves me from feeling shame at a later date.
“Creedy didn’t kill Allen Blake,” is the first thing Billy says to him, later.
The men have dispersed once more to search for Joji. After a brief wordless exchange, Flint had gone with them reluctantly, leaving Silver and a few other stragglers too weak to make the hike.
“No, he did not,” he agrees, looking up from where he is seated. He allows himself a second to curse the parents who produced such tall stock.
Billy is grimly unsurprised. “Did he kill Davy Roach and Sweet Bob?”
Silver just looks at him steadily. After a moment Billy swears and half turns away. Tension shivers along his shoulders, and his hands clench and unclench down by his sides.
He speaks with his head still turned away, voice pitched so the few others remaining in camp will not overhear, “Are you covering for the captain?”
Silver blinks. “I’m sorry?”
“Flint. Are you covering for him? Taking the blame because you know the men would not react the same if they found out he murdered Creedy.”
Silver studies him for a long moment, unsure of what the wisest next step is, of what Billy needs to hear. He is either too keen to cast Flint in the role of the villain or uncomfortable with the thought that Silver might be capable of stepping into that role himself. Silver has been so consumed with meeting Flint down in the darkness that he never paused to think about what it would look like from Billy’s perspective.
“You misunderstand,” he says, almost gently. “It really was I who killed him.”
Billy starts and stares down at him. His eyes are slightly too wide, and he suddenly looks younger than his years, which is a ridiculous thing to ascribe to a man who grew up in an agitator household and became a pirate by way of murdering his first captain. But it’s undeniably true.
“So all this was because, what, he accused the captain?” He asks slowly.
“He attacked me,” Silver says, ignoring the question.
“Did he,” Billy says. “Did he really? Because that didn’t seem to be Creedy’s style. And what even was his motive?”
“I didn’t ask, being a little preoccupied at the time with his fist in my face.” When Billy remains unmoved, he throws out his arms. “I don’t know what to tell you. The man was paranoid, completely without reason.”
“Don’t talk to me like I am just another one of the men,” Billy says, frustrated. “I can tell you’re lying.”
“You’re the one who is always going on about being one of the men. And now you want me to separate you out, place this extra burden of knowledge on your shoulders? I won’t do it.” Billy clenches his jaw and Silver sighs. “It’s done, Billy. I promise you, the situation is resolved. No more trouble shall come from it, so what use is there is in fixating on it?”
“Fixating on it?” Billy repeats, looking at him like he’s never seen him before. “Silver, you killed that man four hours ago. I think I’m entitled to still feel some concern.”
A wave of nausea rises up. If he were standing, he might have stumbled. When he collects himself enough to look back up at Billy, the other man is staring at him, some of his anger dampened.
“You’re bothered by it,” Billy says. He sounds almost relieved.
Silver says harshly, “Of course I am. Do you imagine I killed him for sport?”
“I’ve just spent the past ten minutes asking why you did kill him, and you refused to tell me,” Billy points out.
The nausea intensifies. His words come out low and with difficulty. “He was going to kill the captain. For Teach.”
He doesn’t know what Billy infers from the confession, for ultimately the other man’s only response is to shut his eyes and turn away.
In the evening, the voices of the men return to camp before their bodies. Silver and the others glance around in confusion. It’s been so long since they have heard jubilation that they almost do not recognize its sound.
A large group crests the rise above camp. They are led by Joji, from whose sword dangle four fat iguanas.
Silver gets to his feet, dumbfounded, as the men swarm into camp. They are cheering and singing like it’s the first night of shore leave and whores are giving out free handjobs. He stares first at Joji and then at Flint, who paces quickly over to his side. He is smirking faintly.
Silver asks over the raucous noise, “Did he — ”
“Engage some lizards in swordplay?” Flint says. “Yes. Apparently he noticed droppings yesterday and spent all of today waiting for the little buggers to make an appearance.”
Mirth bubbles up unexpectedly, and Silver can only breathe out, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
He makes the mistake of meeting Flint’s eyes. The next second they are both laughing — senseless, irrepressible laughter, the type that goes on forever and can be renewed at the briefest shared glance between its victims. It steals Silver’s breath and makes his stomach hurt, but for once he doesn’t mind.
The meat of four iguanas does not go very far between seventeen men, but no one really cares. It’s more food than they’ve had in over a week, and tasting something other than fish and crayfish is such a sublime experience that a few of the men nearly shed tears as they eat.
Silver consumes his portion slowly, chewing with care and relishing every second. Next to him, Flint does the same. They are not sitting close, have actually been known to sit closer, but Silver is nevertheless highly conscious of Flint’s every movement. He is equally mindful of Billy’s observant, worried glances, and so when he is finished eating and the men start talking of lighting a small fire, he slips away.
He sits on the same hill where Flint made his confession about moving the treasure, which feels to have occurred an age ago, rather than merely a week.
He is waiting for something. It is only when he hears steps approach some unknown amount of time later that he realizes what that something is. Flint sits down beside him, and tension Silver had not been aware of holding drops away so abruptly he is left dizzy.
“There has been no talk of Creedy since Joji’s return,” Flint says by way of greeting. He props his elbows up on raised knees and turns his head to look at Silver. Nothing in his expression suggests that he overturned Silver’s world earlier in the day. It’s as if the kiss never happened.
“It’s amazing how death just slides out of view,” he says distantly, watching as Flint fiddles with his hands. “It’s like we’re so surrounded by it, at some point it ceased to matter.”
Flint meets his eyes and says firmly, “It matters.” Somehow the words sound like a reassurance, as if Flint is telling him he is not alone in feeling the burden of the day’s events.
Silver feels very tired suddenly. It has been such a long day.
Flint looks like he is going to say more, which Silver does not think he can bear. So he does the only thing he can think to stop it; he reaches out and puts his hand on Flint’s thigh, high enough up that there can be no mistaking his intention.
Flint stares down at it. Eventually he says, a tad blankly, “I expected you to want to talk about this.”
Silver cannot think of anything he’d like to talk about less. Words carry weight. They require thought, and he is heartily sick of thinking. They could discuss what this means until their voices give out, for there is nothing else to focus on out here. But the mere thought of that conversation inspires dread. He has said before that Flint has an answer for everything, and he is not sure he wants to know the captain’s answer to Silver. Not when Silver has yet to formulate one himself.
Rather than admit any of this, he twists around and captures Flint’s mouth with his own.
Surely a practical approach is the best bet here. Why wonder about his sudden attraction to a man when he can instead learn the bristle of a beard against his lips?
If Flint has any objections to his waylaying of the conversation, he does not voice them. Instead he opens his mouth wider, clutches at Silver’s shoulders and pulls him forward. Silver ends up half on top of him, bad leg cradled off the ground between Flint’s knees. The position brings their groins into contact, a new sensation that would have startled Silver more if either of them were not too weakened by starvation to become fully roused. But he could spend hours just doing this, touching and kissing, exploring this person who has miraculously become available to him.
Silver drags hands up Flint’s body, shuts his eyes, and thinks no more.
“Sorry, you want to be a what?” Silver asks, almost aghast but hiding it well. Surely he must have misheard —
“A farmer,” Flint says. He cocks his head in consideration. “Raise squash and beans for my own personal larder, a little sugar cane for liquidity. Keep a couple goats and chickens, maybe a pig or two.”
“A pig or two,” Silver repeats.
The two of them are down by the water at Silver’s customary spot. He is perched on his rock and Flint is reclined in the sand at his feet, having just finished washing his leg. What had started as a wistful conversation about what each would first do when they got off the island had become a discussion about life in Nassau after the English have been driven away. Thus Flint’s disturbing confession.
Flint’s ruminations on his bright agricultural future were detailed and clearly well thought out. Silver thinks that this is something the men must never know, or they’d mutiny at once. A farmer, honestly.
“I don’t see the appeal,” Silver says. “I mean, how does a man such as yourself go from an engaged, albeit tumultuous life to one of subsistence drudgery?”
“It will be quiet,” Flint says. He sounds downright satisfied at the prospect. “I’ll have my books and the only thing I’ll have to kill will be the occasional chicken or pig.”
Silver looks down at him in amazement for a long moment. “I know you told me your reasons, but I still wonder at the fact that you ever became a pirate.”
Flint’s smile fades a little, but not as much as Silver might have expected a month ago.
He says, “Anger and rum saw the job done, mostly. It wasn’t an easy adjustment.” He glances up through pale eyelashes. “What about you? Why were you so eager to assist me, back when the odds of fetching that gold seemed distant? I must have appeared quite the tyrant.”
Silver breathes a laugh. “Quite.”
As a rule Silver tries not to think about that period of time. It’s a rabbit hole of what ifs and regrets, like if he’d just acted a little differently he might still be a whole man. But he thinks of it now, focusing his memory on Flint and how he’d regarded the captain then.
“Well, it’s true I’d seen you do things. Horrible things, in fact. But,” Silver pauses, wanting to get the words right. “You were trying. From the moment I first saw you — I’ve never seen someone try so damn hard.” He glances down with a slight smile. “Of course, at the time, I thought you were turning all that marvelous energy towards securing the gold. Didn’t realize I’d bet on an idealist, of all things.”
Flint shakes his head slightly, lips curving up. “Thomas was the idealist. I was always more of a ...romantic, perhaps.” His voice drops a little lower. “Miranda used to say that, back in London. I angered Lord Hamilton one night and she said she’d never seen such reckless romanticism in her entire life.”
Silver takes that in, amusement cooling. He tries to imagine being the type of man who could inspire another to go up against a lord, or to start a war in his name. He finds he cannot.
Flint has said something. Silver shakes his head free of its distracting thoughts and says, “Sorry, what?”
“I said, you still think yourself foolish for throwing in with me, don’t you.”
“I never think of myself as foolish,” he says automatically.
Flint’s immediate response to this is to throw him a sharkish grin and kneel up. Silver sits perfectly still and lets him come in close. Flint eases between his knees like he’s done it a hundred times in the past.
He runs hands up Silver’s thighs and clamps down tight on his hips when he can’t hold back a slight shiver.
“And this?” Flint says when he’s but a few inches away. The words are little puffs of warm air against Silver’s mouth. “You don’t think this is foolish?”
There are probably many things this could be termed, should Silver think about it, which he won’t be doing any time soon. Foolish is not one of them. How could it be, when it feels so necessary? It’s not even been a day, and already he can’t imagine suffering another hour on this godforsaken island without it.
He decides they’ve talked enough; he closes the distance between their lips and ends the conversation.
They can’t stay away from the camp forever. They go their separate ways so that they may arrive back from different directions.
Silver is limping heavily on the walk back. Somewhere in the back of his mind he is thinking about how much worse his leg has gotten just in the past few days, how hard it was to pull the boot back on over the distended flesh. He’d waited to do it until after Flint had left, not wanting to spoil the moment with pained gasps he knew he wouldn’t be able to suppress.
When he spies Billy lying down in the camp, he is almost grateful for the distraction.
It’s odd to see the other man on the ground in daylight. He thinks Billy might be sleeping, but when he nears, he sees that his eyes aren’t even closed. He is just lying there, momentarily defeated by the island.
Silver realizes just then how tired and thin Billy has gotten. His long frame didn’t have much to spare before this, and now he matches his nickname more than ever. He’s usually so active that it was almost possible to forget that he is starving like the rest of them.
Silver sits down beside him. “It’s been a hard year for you Billy, hasn’t it.”
Billy’s eyes shift away from the blue sky, and he blinks like coming out of a daze. After a moment he says, “You’re one to talk.” He glances meaningfully at Silver’s leg.
Silver is needled by the reminder. “That was a brief, if thoroughly painful, event. You were held by Captain Hume for weeks. It can’t be easy for you to be thrown once more into such terrible conditions.”
At the mention of Hume, Billy blanches and turns his head away.
Silver thinks there is only one thing in the world that Billy truly fears and that is the British Navy. It’s not just what happened with Hume. The fear stems from something older, has something to do with when he was a lad and was pressed into the service. He doesn’t talk about it much, so Silver doesn’t know the finer details. But he does know that when Billy first realized who it was that fished him out of the sea, he must have been terrified.
He suddenly wonders how much Billy knows about Flint’s past, if he’d picked up on the captain’s lingering Navy mannerisms and reacted instinctively, like a kicked dog might growl at all boots.
“It could be worse,” Billy says. “Last time, I was alone.”
For once, Silver does not begrudge him his brotherhood.
They remain in peaceful silence for a while. Silver has almost gotten used to the peculiar boredom of maroonment; either that or he’s just losing his wits. More and more lately, he catches his mind drifting off in reverie, broken only by the necessities of the day.
Eventually, Billy speaks again. His tone, and the careful way he picks through his words, indicate that he has been brooding over his subject for some time.
“You know, Dufresne said something to me before he left the crew.” He pauses. Judging from his expression, Silver thinks he must be pondering something difficult, but when he continues, his tone is unchanged.
“He said that the two of you — you and the captain — you could get the men to do anything if you were in agreement.”
Silver can still recall the exhilaration he felt during the first few weeks after Flint regained his captaincy. Back when Silver didn’t speak for the crew but at them, all efforts turned towards implementing Flint’s vision. It had been his first taste of power. Silver had started to think that they could accomplish anything. And when Flint abandoned pursuit of the gold, the emotional crash was the most bitter he can ever recall feeling.
“I’m not seeing the problem here,” is all he says.
Billy wearily waves him off. “I’m not going to pretend to know or understand what’s going on between you two. I don’t want to. But I do feel it is imperative to pose the question of whether getting closer than you already are is — wise.”
Silver finds himself frozen between denial and sheer awkwardness. He does not speak.
But Billy, of course, is relentless.
“I know better than anyone how difficult it can be to keep Flint’s counsel. Mr. Gates was like a father to me, but I can admit that he made the mistake of getting too close to the captain. The quartermaster is supposed to keep his distance. Think about it: if the two of you can direct the men in any direction when you are united, what happens when you are not? What happens when Flint finally does something you cannot abide?” He pauses and then adds almost like an afterthought: “Or when your interests diverge from his?”
That these occurrences have already happened would not comfort Billy, Silver thinks. He’d despair at their priorities if he knew what crimes they’d both forgiven the other for.
He still remains silent.
Billy shakes his head. “I worry. I worry that any division between the two of you might not just break the crew, but it would mean the end of our hope for a free Nassau.”
Silver thinks of Flint toiling away in a sun-drenched garden somewhere outside Nassau. Despite his earlier incredulity, it’s suddenly easy to envision him there — irritably shooing the odd chicken away from seedlings during the day and, come dusk, burying himself in some thick tome or other.
“On that front, you need not need worry,” Silver says finally. “The captain is committed to seeing Nassau free.”
And I, apparently, am committed to seeing the captain free. The thought goes unspoken, uncomfortable as it would no doubt be for each of them to hear aloud.
Something within him has shifted during the night.
Silver pushes up onto his elbows and nearly blacks out from the effort. By the time his vision clears, his breathing has gone ragged. His thoughts are a little blurred, but one thing seems clear: he has a fever.
He is surprisingly calm as he reaches down and unbuckles the boot, but the shallow nature of that calm is revealed when he finds he cannot get it off. His skin has swollen and pushed up tight against the leather; it seems impossible to even get the tip of his finger wedged under the lip.
He tries anyway and this time he does lose consciousness. Comes to moments later sprawled sideways, face in the dirt and panic scrabbling its way forward out of the depths of his mind. His leg throbs.
It’s Ben Gunn. He kneels down and helps him sit back up, hands gentle in a way that makes Silver instinctively want to lash out.
Gunn looks him over uneasily. “You’re not looking too well, sir, if you don’t mind me saying. Should I fetch Billy — or maybe the captain?” He adds this second option with a hint of dubiousness.
“No,” Silver says sharply. “No, Ben, that won’t be necessary.” He licks his lips and tries to think, but it’s so damn hard, harder than it’s ever been before. He feels slow and hot, inside and out.
“Do you have your cutlass?” He asks after a moment, and when Gunn gives a hesitant nod, says, “How steady are your hands?”
“Why, I could walk through my father’s parsonage holding a candle and the flame would never gutter.”
“Fantastic. I need you to cut this leather strap.” He pats the boot and restrains himself from snapping when Gunn stares down at it in plain dismay.
“But sir, how will you be able to walk?”
Silver grits his teeth. “Ben, right now I can barely sit up. I need to remove this boot and get a look at the leg. Now can you cut the leather or not?” And can you do it before Flint or Billy come back, he does not add only through sheer force of will.
Gunn reluctantly nods but he doesn’t move. Silver stares at him. Gunn stares back.
“Oh,” he says, starting. “Did you mean right now, sir?”
It’s just as well Silver can barely remain upright, otherwise he might have lunged for the man’s neck.
His ire is replaced with apprehension as Gunn slips the flat of his blade under the leather. It barely goes in and when it does, it drags unpleasantly against his skin. One wrong move will slice him open.
Gunn glances up at him uncertainly. “Tight fit, Mr. Silver.”
His hands fist impotently into the dirt and he clenches his jaw. “Just get on with it.”
Slowly, carefully, Gunn starts to saw away at the leather. Every forward scrape comes paired with a backwards pressure on his stump, and Silver clings on to consciousness with everything he has. The world goes grey around him.
“What,” says a deadly voice, “is happening here.”
A shadow has fallen over his face. Silver opens his eyes — when did he close them? — and looks up to find that Flint has returned. Behind him, several men are watching the scene. At some point he attracted an audience. Great.
Gunn, the useless fool, has gone white under his tan and is staring up at Flint in terror. His hands are frozen, so Silver knocks them away and carefully slides the blade out from under the boot. Then, without further ado, he takes hold of the frayed leather and rips it open.
The release of pressure brings about a relief so profound it nearly steals his breath. Then he gets a look at the stump, and his breath abandons him after all.
The pinched skin has purpled at the center of the cleft. Thin, dark streaks are crawling up from the tip like they’re enemy fighters advancing on the rest of his body. Which they sort of are, Silver supposes. He’s seen enough men die of infected wounds to recognize blood poisoning.
Silver looks up from the necrotic tissue and at the gathered men. He does not, cannot, look directly at Flint.
Gunn had worried about how he will walk but the question has been rendered effectively moot. If they are not rescued by a ship with a surgeon soon, he’s a dead man.
The business with the boot saps all his energy. Under the bright heat of the pre-noon sun, he sleeps.
It’s late afternoon when he wakes up again, blinking muzzily at the odd angle of the world. After a moment he realizes his head is resting on something. A moment after that, a freckled, sunburnt face appears in his line of sight and he realizes that something is Flint’s thigh.
His head is in the captain’s lap. During broad daylight. In camp.
“And... what do the men think of this?” He croaks.
“Fuck the men,” Flint says.
“Have you ever considered getting that as a tattoo? Or maybe just engraved on your favorite blade?”
Flint’s mouth does not so much as twitch towards a smile. Silver shrugs slightly and drops back into silence. It’s not a pleasant silence, not with his entire body heavy and aching and the brooding presence of the captain hovering above, waiting, just waiting to speak up any moment now and say—
“You’re not going to die.”
Silver’s lips quirk humorlessly. “Oh, you’ve decided, have you? Glad that’s settled.”
Frustration positively bleeds down on him from above. “I cannot believe I allowed myself to forget what a flippant little shit you’re capable of being. Though why you’ve decided to return to this behavior now, of all times — ”
“James,” he says – because fuck it, he’s tired and if he's really going to die he'd like to spend his last days at least pretending to be close enough to use the man’s Christian name. “Can you please just leave it. I don’t want to argue.”
He doesn’t even have the strength to inject emotion into the words, and so they lay between the two of them like a death omen.
“I just don’t understand why you’re giving up,” Flint says insistently. “Why now, when you know a ship will return eventually and you have — ”
He cuts himself off. Silver spares a thought for what the end of that sentence might have been. You have the crew? You have me?
But he can’t respond to something that hasn't been voiced, so he says, “I’m not giving up — or, I don’t know, maybe I am. What difference does it make? I cannot talk my way out of an infection. There is nothing for me to fight here.”
Fingers brush his burning temple lightly, so lightly he could almost be imagining it was a fever delusion.
“You can hang on. For as long as you possibly can.” The words are quiet.
Silver sighs and closes his eyes. “I will. It’s not like I want to die, you know.”
Flint pauses and then says, sounding more hesitant than Silver’s ever heard or thought him capable of, “You called me James.”
"I did." Silver opens his eyes and looks up at him. “Do you mind?”
Something strange moves behind Flint’s eyes, as if another man were peeking out from behind a veil.
“Why would I mind,” says the captain at last. “It’s my name.”
Day 16, probably
It’s a manifest truth of Silver’s life that things can always get worse. He would not have guessed, a few days ago, that he could reach new levels of physical discomfort and mind-numbing boredom. And yet here he is.
He’s been drifting in and out for an indeterminate amount of time. At some point he woke up and it was dark. Then it was light out again. He hasn’t been able to track the hours.
At the moment he is propped up against a rock. He appreciates the gesture. Dead men don’t get propped up against rocks; they are left to lay sprawled flat on the ground or stacked in a pile at the opposite end of the island. But he is not yet dead, so: rock. Already he has gotten used to seeing the world from this lowered vantage point. It’s not so bad. The ground has far more differentiation in its make up of dirt and pebble than he’d previously credited.
Some kind of disagreement nearby is threatening to turn into an outright argument, he thinks. He’s only half-aware of it. (Has he become the new Randall?)
He can’t see much else besides the back of Flint’s legs, since the captain has planted himself in front of Silver and his rock and is refusing to move. Silver would appreciate that gesture too, but he seriously doubts crewman Pew is an immediate threat to his physical safety. No, he is merely suggesting —
“The rations are wasted on him, captain. It’s not like they’re enough to keep him alive for long even without his leg being bust. And since he’s likely soon to perish from the fever, we might as well put his share to better use and give the rest of us a better chance.”
The logic is not entirely different from what Flint himself had used while they were becalmed.
“Count yourself lucky that I don’t strip your share and give it to him,” Flint says, voice steel. “Because he is worth a hell of a lot more to this crew than you.”
Silver’s half off his head with fever at the moment, but he suspects that was not the most diplomatic answer the captain could have given.
This was all perhaps inevitable. The men are pirates, not saints. The much-vaunted brotherhood can only carry one so far. Silver knows this well; his own brother left him on the streets when Silver was seven to take a job with a merchant ship. He’d tried to get John hired on as a cabin boy, but when that didn’t work out, it was a shrug and a clap on John’s shoulder and that was that. Man needs to work, because man needs to eat.
Man needs to eat. He’ll say this for the fever: he hasn’t really noticed the hunger pangs since it started up. It’s as if his stomach has detached itself and floated off somewhere. Maybe they should give his rations to someone else.
He doesn’t notice when Pew disappears again, but he is aware of Flint sitting down beside him. He thinks about pointing out the flaws in the captain’s strategy, but he cannot dredge up the words. So he just nudges his shoulder up against the captain’s and sighs in what he hopes is an appropriately sardonic manner.
Flint asks immediately, “What’s the matter, are you in pain?”
“Oh, constantly,” he replies tiredly. “But even so, if there was a wall around here, I’d gladly add to the pain by slamming my head against it. Repeatedly.”
But Flint only looks nonplussed, so Silver lets the matter drop. Besides, he sees Billy approaching. Good old Billy. He’ll take care of the necessary critiques.
“I’ve shut the men down about the rations for the moment,” Billy says without preamble, dashing Silver’s hopes. “But I think there’s going to be more trouble before too long.”
“For the love of god, would you crouch down or something,” Silver mumbles.
Startled and bemused, Billy obeys. He studies Silver’s face for a disquieted moment before turning back to the captain.
“What are the numbers? How many men are agitating?” Flint asks.
“Not many, five at most. But there are several who are beginning to talk about — about you two. The way you’ve been.” To his credit, Billy keeps his face blank as he says it.
Flint doesn’t acknowledge to the second part. “Keep an eye on the situation. We haven’t come this far just to have the crew fall upon each other now.”
Billy nods and starts to rise.
“Billy?” Silver says. When his face appears before him once more, he tells him, “Pour out the whatever remains of the rum.”
“They’re not going to like that,” he says, hesitating. “Things are tense enough as it is — ”
Flint says, “If they’re quibbling about the water rations, then they surely won’t be needing a diuretic on hand. Get rid of it.”
Reluctant, Billy nods again and leaves.
“Am I the new Randall?” He asks Flint.
The captain glances down him, expression tight. “You’re delirious.”
“Not delirious, just. Wondering if this all is some kind of punishment for past deeds.”
Flint looks away. “I wasn’t aware you were a religious man.”
Silver gives up on propriety and lets his head roll down against Flint’s shoulder. It’s not more comfortable, exactly, except in all the ways it releases some tension inside of him.
“Oh, I’m not, not really. But you can’t grow up with all that fire and brimstone talk going on around you without it becoming part of the canvass from which you draw your… oh, fuck it,” Silver says, no longer knowing where he was going with that. “Never mind.”
He angles a look up at Flint to see if he’s at least amused by his rare tongue-tied state, but the only thing Flint looks is miserable.
Silver studies his bleak profile and has to wonder at how many times he has been exactly in this position — at the captain’s side and contemplating terrible things. How many times does he have left before his last?
It’s absurd. He’s dying and all he can think is that he doesn’t want to leave James alone.
Is this what love is, he wonders. Isn’t it supposed to be prettier? Softer? Perhaps this is the only type of love men like them are permitted. Love that must operate in the negative, as a constant struggle against what the world would otherwise allot them.
He wants to be able to offer James something other than another corpse at his feet. Another ghost to torment and incite him into violence. But his leg is burning him up like a candle wick. He imagines the infection stealing seconds and minutes from him, squirreling them away while his back is turned. At some point he’s going to look and there will simply be no time left.
He could almost welcome, now, losing the rest of his leg. Anything to end this pain. But why stop at there? Why not just keep chopping away at him bit by bit until there’s nothing left but a talking head and aimless heart.
Day Not Known, And Frankly, Not Particularly Of Concern
It begins with an argument over seven crayfish. Blythe, Skipper and Pew are no longer content to share the bounty of their fishing and have put forward the idea that every man should be responsible for his own stomach.
Pew’s preaching to the crowd of men hanging around the camp. “Don’t see why we should be down by the water for hours each day while others laze about back in camp and then be expected to divide up our hard-won scraps.”
Murmurs. Some in agreement, some in plain unease. It’s an audience ripe for manipulation, if only Silver had the strength to stand and speak. Instead, he lies a few feet away from the rabble like a discarded puppet and listens to the crew begin to tear itself apart. Beneath his cheek, he can feel Flint’s leg muscles leap and tremble in rage.
“Equality in rations is one of the fundamental tenets of this crew, you miserable ingrate,” the captain says from his seated position. He’s going to have to stand up soon to deal with them, Silver knows. No argument can be won whilst sitting on the ground.
Yet he doesn’t want him to go. Dilemma.
“Is it, captain?” Pew says. “‘Cause I remember a time not too long ago when you two was the only men getting rations. Left the rest of us to starve.”
Ben says, “That was for good reason, though, weren’t it? We needed someone to keep their strength up, didn’t we?”
“Gunn,” someone says gently. “You weren’t even here for that.”
“Been told the story enough times, it feels as though I were.”
“And look at them now,” Wyatt Skipper says abruptly. The crew look. “All done up and frat— fratraniz—”
“Fraternizing,” Pew puts in.
“Fraternizin’ with each other. Just fraternizing all over the damn place.”
Silver should probably get his head out of Flint’s lap. Flint's hand tightens on his shoulder as if he picked up on the thought.
The captain’s back is ramrod straight, and he surveys all the men from the ground as if it was a throne.
“You put the whole crew at risk with this kind of talk. I won’t permit it.”
Pew makes a show of looking around. “Need a ship to be a crew, and I don’t see one around here. Maybe it’s time to stop pretending.”
A ripple goes through the men in response, as if the bonds of brotherhood were being physically broken. Flint slides out from beneath Silver, hands betraying a moment of care as they set him to rights on the ground. Then he stands and turns to face the men.
“All this talking makes me think we’ve been too generous with your water. Another word, and your ration will be cut.”
Pew’s eyes flashed. “Water don’t belong to you. You hold no claim over it.”
“That’s right, I don’t. The crew does. And since you’ve just elected to remove yourself from that category, I don’t see what could possibly motivate us to share with you.”
Silver catches Ben Gunn’s eye and motions him closer. When the other man kneels down, he whispers to him:
“Go get Billy. Immediately.”
Wonder of wonders, Gunn only glances around to where the men are slowly gravitating into two groups and then departs without further question.
“You always were a blackhearted turncoat, Skipper,” Douglas says.
“It’s no crime to lookout for one’s own interest — ”
“Blythe’s been withholding part of his catches for days.”
“Yer a dirty fuckin’ liar, McCrae!”
The anger grows and spreads like a contagion, feeding off a fortnight of suffering and exploiting every grudge among the men. Perhaps, if Silver had been better, he may have been able to the stem the tide of rage. He’d have talked the men down, discredited the ringleaders. Instead he is left to watch, helpless, as Flint strikes a match and holds it to the powder keg fuse.
“You been putting him ahead of the rest of us for long enough. Probably helped him kill Creedy, even.”
Voices quiet down as Flint steps in close to Pew and stares him down. His voice is barely more than a whisper, but it carries easily to every man present.
“Is that what this is really all about? Creedy attempted to murder his quartermaster. He was master of his own fate right to the end. As are you. If you persist in pressing for a fight, make no mistake: I will oblige.”
Silver notices that at some point several men have taken up their blades. The metal glints in the sunlight, a mocking wink.
He wonders where the fuck Billy is.
“I could gut you like a fish and most of the men here would thank me,” Pew says.
Flint bares his teeth in a terrible smile. “I could kill you and I’m not sure any of the men here would care.”
This tableau holds for a long moment, tension stretching everyone’s nerves. Silver bunches his abdominal muscles, thinking he might try to at least sit up. His mind stumbles over what he might say to alleviate the anger and comes up with nothing useful.
“I saw Blythe over by the bodies the other day,” McCrae says suddenly, the words shooting out like a surprise broadside. “I think he was eating Creedy.”
Every man in camp freezes. Flint and Pew, still inches from each other, turn their heads. Everyone stares at Blythe, who appears too shocked to even muster a denial. He goes white, then red, and then he roars and runs McCrae straight through with his blade.
Three men jump on Blythe, wrestling him to the ground as McCrae keels over clutching his stomach. Blood gushes through the press of his fingers. Steel rings out as several skirmishes flare up among the men, even the specter of cannibalism proving no match against long held grievances.
Pew slashes at the air where Flint had been a moment before. Flint rolls through the dirt and snatches up Blythe’s bloody cutlass. He brings it up just in time to block Pew’s next blow.
“Shit.” Silver has spent so much time in recent days growing accustomed to the idea that he would have to leave Flint behind, it never occurred to him that Flint might beat him to it. The idea is unthinkable. He clenches his teeth and forces himself up onto his elbows. He starts trying to drag himself closer to the fight, vague ideas of grabbing Pew’s ankles spurring him forward inch by inch.
What Pew lacks in finesse he makes up for with speed; he swings at Flint relentlessly, giving him no time to recover or find an opening of his own.
Flint seems to realize this, for he breaks away and quickly puts McCrae’s dead body between the two of them. Then he switches his grip on the cutlass and stares at Pew, assessing.
Pew barks out a laugh. “Running away, captain?”
The other fights have all ended, brought to a quick close by exhaustion and spent anger. One or two men clutch bleeding grazes. All eyes are on Flint and Pew, even those belonging to the men currently slitting a twitching Blythe’s throat.
“It will be a pleasure to no longer have to watch you strut about this island like you’re in control.”
Flint launches his attack. Finally on the offense, he is able to unleash his superior skill and within moments, Pew is disarmed and bleeding freely from a cut on his arm. Flint presses the blade against his throat and the other man sinks down to his knees, looking furious.
“You tire of watching me, is that it?” Flint muses thoughtfully. “I know of another way to remedy that for you.”
Silver is so relieved, he drops his head and presses his face to the ground.
“Well. I wouldn’t say I expected to see something like this, but I also can’t admit to being surprised.”
The voice is familiar, but it’s one he hasn’t heard in what feels like years. Silver shuffles up onto his side and spies three pairs of boots a few feet away. They must have walked up while he was distracted by the fighting. He cranes his neck upward and then blinks through the sunspots that dot his vision. His mouth falls open in dumb astonishment.
Jack Rackham glances down at him and raises an eyebrow. “Hello, John. You look dreadful.”
In all of Silver’s distraction, he misses the moment Flint slashes his blade down across Pew’s eyes.
Trying to hold a conversation in his current state is hard enough as it is, but Pew’s screaming makes the whole thing substantially more difficult.
The moment Flint had turned away from the bleeding man and spotted Rackham, Bonny, and Blackbeard, his face underwent a radical range of emotions — from seething rage to disbelief, followed by a painfully naked hope that Silver immediately wanted to shield from all other eyes on the island.
Flint stalks over to them and helps Silver sit up. By the time he is standing again and facing the trio, his expression has settled into neutral wariness.
His eyes flick to Blackbeard. “Come to gloat or is this a rescue?”
“Don’t be difficult, Flint,” Rackham says, as Blackbeard looks silently from Silver to Flint with a strangely knowing gleam in his eyes. “Of course we have come to fetch you. The Walrus is stationed securely in the water, and the remainder of your crew is anxious to see you all returned to her post-haste. Well,” he adds, glancing around the watching gaggle of men. “What’s left of you, that is.”
The matter-of-fact way he says it is a little hard to take. Silver stares at their faces, the healthy skin tone and fullness that bespeak of regular meals. Flint and the others look almost skeletal standing next to them. Silver thinks he probably looks even worse.
Silver asks, “And to what do we owe this sudden change of heart? Is it the treasure or was he just feeling generous?” He nods at Blackbeard.
A rare hint of steel enters Rackham’s voice. “Charles Vane gave his life to see Nassau free from English rule. Teach knows as well as I that Flint here is our best chance at seeing that done. He just needed to be reminded.” He pauses. “Also Anne asked and I think he likes her better than me, so.”
If Anne Bonny were the type to sigh, she would do so now. As it is, she just slants an unimpressed look at Rackham from under the brim of her hat.
“What the hell is — ” Billy arrives back at camp, a small fish in hand. He takes in the bleeding men and Pew’s groaning, prostrate form and then turns to look for Flint with livid eyes. He starts when he sees the new arrivals.
Billy is only speechless for a moment or two before he’s drawing himself up and saying to Flint, “We need to get these men back to the ship immediately. They need medical attention.”
Flint glances down at Silver as if he can’t help it. “Howell will have his hands full.”
“Well, there's no time to dawdle then,” Rackham says. “We have two launches down by the water. How many men do you need to shuttle to the Walrus ?”
Silver glances around. “Is Pew still alive?”
“For the time being,” Flint says, which provokes a glare from Billy.
“Then fifteen,” Silver tells Rackham.
Blackbeard shakes his head and finally speaks: “Drink and the devil should’ve done you in, yet you still have a majority of your men. You truly are unkillable, aren’t you?”
And even as Flint locks hard eyes with the older captain, Silver says, “Haven’t you learned by now? The devil has nothing on Captain Flint.”
Silver is on the first launch. Three of Blackbeard’s men carry him down the rocky path to the shore, Flint and Billy having remained momentarily behind to organize the men.
Every bounce along the path sends a bolt of white hot pain through his body, and he is barely able to hold back a shout. Rackham strolls alongside his procession, directing chatter down at him the whole walk. Silver thinks he’s attempting to be kind, in his own way, and distract him from the pain.
“Rogers has sent for reinforcements from the Royal Navy. Word from our friends Idelle and Featherstone makes me think this request was sent at great personal expense — I wonder if we make a mistake in not directing more of our efforts towards draining his financial resources. A poor governor can quickly become a corrupt one, and we have dealt with those in Nassau before.”
Silver tries to focus on his barrage of words through a wavering consciousness. The ocean is glimmering before him now; it is the first glimpse he’s had in days and the light bouncing off the waves is distracting.
“I think the idea is certainly worth exploring,” he finally manages.
Rackham nods and looks quietly pleased.
The men hoist Silver up over the side of the launch, and his vision goes dark for a moment. It clears in time to see Rackham’s brow knit in belated realization.
“Wait, what was that you said about my treasure earlier?”
“Ask Flint,” he says, and passes out.
He resurfaces at the gentle rocking of a wave. He has to blink several times before realizing what he is looking at.
The island is before him in its entirety, a long distance out and shrinking with every passing second.
It’s such a small, barren thing. Hard to believe it held such misery. He may still die, but it won’t be on that godforsaken rock, and for that he is glad.
The boat finally nudges up against something with a dull thunk. He tips his head back and sees the familiar hull of the Walrus looming overhead, tall and stalwart against the vast blue sky. Some tight anxiety releases in his chest like a lock being broken. For the first time in his life, he wonders if this is what it feels like to return home.
As soon as he is back on the ship and everyone realizes his condition, Dooley and Wayne jealously shoulder aside Blackbeard’s men and take over holding him up. More concerned faces draw close on all sides as he is carried across the deck and down into Howell’s cabin. Before the door shuts behind him, he can already hear dark whispers promising vengeance against Blackbeard thread throughout the crew.
Howell is grim and businesslike as he checks his vitals. He cuts Silver’s trouser leg off at the middle of the thigh and curses when he finally gets a light on the stump.
He glances up. “You know what has to be done."
Silver gives a short nod. “How much will you need to take?”
Howell’s hand traces past his knee to high, high up his thigh. Silver stares down at the length of leg he is proposing to cut off and then raises his eyes to meet Howell’s.
“With how far the infection has advanced and your weakened state, I’d like to only have to make one cut. This is not a time to take risks on the off chance we could save you a few more inches.”
Silver doesn’t want to think about this. Never mind his pride about wearing the boot; after this, dispensing with a crutch won’t even be a choice. He lets his head drop back down and says tightly, “Just get it over with.”
“Not yet, I’m afraid.” Howell reaches over and pinches the skin on Silver’s arm. It lifts up high away from the muscle. “You are dangerously dehydrated. In this state you wouldn’t survive half the blood loss I’m expecting to deal with.”
“I’m not likely to survive this fever much longer either.”
Howell’s voice turns placating. “I’m going to have a man fetch you water. Give it a few hours and then — then we’ll see what we can do.”
And that’s what his life becomes for a while: a cup of water every quarter hour. In between his doses he has little to do but lie there and stare at the ceiling. He wonders what is happening back on the island. He comes up with increasingly elaborate revenge fantasies for Blackbeard. It passes the time, but just barely.
Somewhere into the fourth or fifth hour, when his stomach is starting to protest the protracted flood of water to his system, the cabin door opens early.
He lifts a hand without looking over. “I don’t care what Howell says, I’m not drinking that before I have to.”
A hand claps into his and folds warmly over the palm. It still has blood underneath the fingernails. “Are you being a difficult patient?”
The captain hooks an ankle through a chair leg a few feet away and drags it closer to the operating table, all without letting go of his hand. Once he is seated, he glances at Silver’s stump and his face goes somber again.
“Howell says he’ll have to take most of it,” Silver says, not looking at him. “Maybe I can become a street act back in Nassau. I’m sure many people would get a good laugh over a one-legged juggler. I could even learn to toss the boot."
Flint’s voice is firm. “You’re not leaving the crew. A quartermaster’s duties first and foremost require mental faculties, and I suspect most of the men don’t possess any.”
“There’s always Billy.”
“Billy doesn’t trust me and the crew all know it.”
“But he’d come around if you just — ”
Silver bites his tongue. After a moment Flint reaches out and cups his cheek, forcing him to turn his head to face him.
Flint studies him and asks, “Do you want to leave?” Leave me? His eyes add.
“No,” he says quietly.
“Then, since we all know you’re good at fighting for what you want, I suggest you stop this talk. You’re going to get through this and by the time your leg has fully healed, I am sure you will have figured out a way to move about the ship with full dexterity and speed.”
“You think my leg will be healed in time to recapture Nassau?” Even allowing for a few months of respite before the reinforcements arrive, it seems an impossible feat.
Howell reenters the cabin before Flint can answer. The captain releases his hand and sits back out of his eyeline as the doctor starts to poke and prod and mutter under his breath. Eventually Howell catches Silver’s eye and nods. He turns around and starts gathering his tools.
So this — this is it.
Silver realizes all of a sudden that he might have just seen the sky for the last time. Even though he would have sworn only a day ago he would never want to be under the full sun ever again, he wishes desperately he could see it once more.
He stares up at the ceiling of the cabin; it could be the last thing he ever looks at. An entire lifetime of moments, all leading up to this ceiling.
Howell’s assistant starts washing down his purpled leg. The soap and water stings and the pressure of his hands is overwhelming.
“Where’s the captain?” he mumbles.
“I’m here.” A strong hand clasps his once again. The grip is far too tight, but Silver doesn’t protest.
“Prepare the laudanum,” he hears Howell say from a few feet away. And that, that’s just unbearable, the thought of just slipping away and never waking again.
“No,” he says. “No, not like that — ”
And James is there, murmuring to him: “You have to, you won’t get through the surgery without it. It’ll be agony fit to drive a man mad.”
“I got through it last time.”
“Last time, you hadn’t been starving for a fortnight.”
Their eyes meet, and Silver wonders if he looks as afraid as he feels, as frantic as James looks.
“John,” he says. “Please.”
But fear claws at his throat and he shakes his head helplessly. “I can’t. Don’t you see, I can’t. You didn’t want me to give up, so don’t ask me to do this now — ”
Billy appears next to the captain, looking spooked. Silver doesn’t know how long he’s been in the room. “Howell says we must operate. His fever is only spiking higher.”
They give him a length of leather to bite down on. He takes a deep breath and clenches his jaw.
Howell steps up holding a wicked knife, the same one that took his leg before. He looks around the table and nods. Hands descend from all sides to hold him down: Flint and Billy at his shoulders, Wayne and Dooley at his sides. Silver tries not to tense up against the press of their hands. He fails.
“Just keep breathing through it,” Howell tells him, and makes his first cut.
It’s worse than before. It must be. His swollen skin splits beneath the blade like the peel of a rotten fruit and oh, he screams. Eyes squeezed shut and head thrown back, he screams.
“Jesus Christ, give him the laudanum,” Flint says harshly. "That's an order."
And he means to protest, but the pain is just too much. It’s blotting out his world. He's only peripherally aware of the sickly sweet smell of opium before it engulfs him, stealing what little remains of his senses.
When he first washes back up on the shores of consciousness, it's like his surroundings are holding themselves at arm's length. There's pain, the creaking of a ship, and a strong arm propping him up to drink cool water from a tin cup.
“Where are we?” he breathes out, or he thinks he does. The drugged sleep pulls him back out to sea before he can get an answer.
“Are you alright?” Is what he asks Flint, the first time he opens his eyes and can see him properly again.
They are in the captain’s cabin. Silver thinks he’s lying on Flint’s pallet, which might explain why the captain looks like he's been neglecting sleep for too long. He is haggard and looks more defeated than he ever did on the island, even though he has clearly been drinking and eating full rations again.
Flint quirks an eyebrow tiredly. “You've just dropped fourteen inches of length from your leg. You haven’t been able to stay awake for longer than a few minutes at a time in three days. And yet you're asking if I'm alright?”
It’s perhaps a peculiar twist of logic, but because of the presence of opium, John is mostly pain-free for the first time in recent memory. And it’s not that he feels good — he doesn’t, his body is a distant looming weight and his mind is too muzzy to do anything but grope along, hands outstretched into the darkness. Asking after others is easier than confronting the question of his future.
Because Silver’s not in the clear yet. He feels the truth of this. Death still lurks around the corner, but he cannot bring himself to face its presence. He never could.
“I always was a coward,” he says, because if he is going to speak the truth to anyone, he thinks it should be James.
The other man’s face collapses then, confusion and denial warring for dominance. Before he can counter the statement, Silver slips off once more.
At some point deep into a night, he wakes to Howell feeling his forehead and checking his pulse. He blinks up at the doctor’s candlelit face and waits.
“Well?” Flint says impatiently, somewhere behind them in the darkness of the cabin.
“His fever’s broken,” Howell pronounces. “We need to start getting some food into him. Broth for the first day, then we can try introducing solids. Biscuits, perhaps.”
It takes Silver an absurdly long moment to realize what the doctor is saying — that he isn’t going to die. That he is, in fact, going to live.
“Huh,” he whispers. Howell startles slightly, having not realized his patient was awake.
Flint immediately crowds in beside the bed and, heedless of Howell’s presence, fumbles for his hand. Once he’s found it, he squeezes Silver’s fingers hard.
“How do you feel?” He asks.
“Tired,” Silver replies truthfully. Somewhere in the background Howell is packing up his bag and quietly exiting the cabin. “I’m fairly sick of being so tired all the time.”
Flint sits on the pallet beside him. He doesn’t let go of Silver’s hand, but he does look away from him, staring around the dim walls of the cabin like they hold some desperately needed answers.
“Some day soon you’ll be past all that. You heard the doctor — you’re going to recover.” His voice is calm, but holds a strangled note of relief.
He does not bother to point out the fallacy inherent in the captain’s words; Silver is never going to get his leg back. There will be no recovering from that. But he is going to live, and that is enough.
He attempts to squeeze Flint’s hand back. He falls back asleep before he can judge his success.
His recovery from the amputation goes much more slowly this time around. It could be because he's starved, but it also might just be the opium, which makes meaningless distinction out of hours and days. Time loses all sense. He does start to suspect that they are keeping him drugged longer than is strictly necessary. Perhaps Howell reminded the captain of how quickly Silver forced himself back to walking last time and Flint decided to head him off from the start.
Well, they have nothing to worry about on that front. Silver isn’t planning on attempting to walk out on deck in front of the men until he has become acquainted with the new balance of his body. Besides, they haven’t given him a new boot yet. Or a crutch.
He broods about this while awake and alone during the day, for there is little else to turn his attention to. Flint is off somewhere in the bowels of the ship, reorganizing crew and wares to make sail for the maroon island. The men will need rest and practice before they lay siege to Nassau, and besides, Howell said Silver would recover faster if he was on land.
Silver could try to parse which motivation is the stronger of the two, but he knows a self-defeating battle when he sees one.
He is finally staying awake for longer stretches, so at least there’s that. And when Flint is in the cabin with him during the day, it turns into scenes of:
“I never want to see that fucking place ever again. In fact, I say we avoid that entire section of the sea charts.” He turns his head on the pillow and fixes Flint with a solemn look. “I'm your quartermaster, you have to listen to my counsel.”
Flint's mouth quirks in a smile, the one that shows a flash of teeth. Once upon a time, that smile would have made Silver fearful, but now he just wants to prod it into growing, feel the curve of those lips under the pads of his fingers.
He keeps wanting to touch everything, wants to remind himself that he still has other limbs.
“I'll take it under advisement,” Flint says.
Silver doesn’t remember what they were talking about. Judging from Flint's indulgent tone, he can only assume he just won an argument. Of course he won. He is a masterful manipulator of men. He speaks and the world bends to his will.
“Yes, you are very eloquent. Your talk has driven me to try and kill you only a couple times,” Flints says, amused.
Silver hates opium.
He stares out of the cabin windows, blinking drowsily at the blue sky. Flint's hand is a warm weight on his own. The smell of the fresh sea breeze is a constant comfort, as he imagines it pushing their ship further and further away from the island.
He looks back to Flint, who is reading quietly in his chair and using his free hand to keep a large book propped open in his lap. He is wearing a clean white shirt, open at the collar and a little loose around the shoulders from his dropped weight. Silver doesn't know how long they've been sitting like this. It could be five minutes, but it feels like it's been forever, like he never existed before this moment.
He hates opium.
“I never want to see that fucking place ever again,” he tells Flint. The other man's hand tightens on his own, an acknowledgement if not a response. And that feels nice, but it's unsatisfying. Silver wants conversation, not humoring.
“Truly, I mean it. I never want to so much as hear the name Dead Man's Chest ever again.”
“I see no reason why it should come up,” Flint says absently. “Fifteen men starving on a rock in the middle of the sea is hardly a thrilling anecdote to bandy about a tavern.”
“Right, you're right.” Silver relaxes back, reassured.
He fiddles with the hand on his lap, turning it this-way-and-that, studying the blunt fingertips and trying to figure out if Flint has more freckles or scars on the back of his hand. Flint submits to this inspection patiently, barely glancing up from his book.
This is something Silver is evidently going to have to get used to. He wonders if England has ever thought about simply chucking a nice leather bound book in the middle of Flint's warpath. There's a good chance, he thinks tolerantly, that the most feared pirate captain in the New World might just bend down and pick it up, even as men are being cut down around him.
He huffs a slight laugh to himself at the image. Without thinking too much about the still-unfamiliar fond feeling welling up in his chest, he raises Flint's hand up to his lips.
When he lowers it, Flint's eyes are on him, oddly wide with surprise. The book slides slowly off his lap and lands with a muffled thump on the cabin rug, but Flint pays it no heed.
“You're going to lose your place,” Silver points out, ducking down to check on the book, but Flint stops him with a hand on his chest.
He looks up inquiringly and is met with a kiss.
It’s been — days, at least, since they last kissed. John has a faint lingering impression of a pair of cool lips from when he was still in the throes of his fever, but otherwise part of him had started to wonder if he’d imagined it all. Perhaps the whole interlude had just been a delusion, something his mind conjured up out of the depths of starvation and dehydration. Something to cling to and take a small measure of comfort in.
Clearly, he thinks, as he clutches James’s shoulders and tugs him down, he hadn’t imagined all of it.
“Are you ready to talk about this yet?” James murmurs.
At that, John cracks open an eye. He did not think this through properly. He says, “You wouldn’t take advantage of a man on mind-altering drugs, would you?”
James glances pointedly down to where John is holding James’s hand against his dick.
“That’s completely different,” John defends.
He flexes his hand and John can’t help but arch into it. “Do tell,” James says dryly, because James Flint is nothing if not a bloody-minded bastard.
John stifles a groan and tries to think past the hand moving in his lap. “The discussion you, ah, refer to surely requires — a clear head. And I’m not in the position of — oh good Christ, please stop making me talk.”
James makes a considering noise. “I suppose the conversation has waited this long. It can hold off for another day or two.”
Silver loves opium.
Shaking his head slightly at John’s obvious relief, James deftly unlaces the front of his trousers and slips a hand inside. Life for a while becomes a glorious wash of pleasure, as his senses are consumed with JamesJamesJames. Behind the miracle of the closed cabin door, it’s just this: the two of them, their bodies working in concert while arousal eddies lazily through his body.
James eventually breaks away and glances down at his lap with a wry smile. “This doesn't appear to be working for you.”
This time, John allows himself the groan and lets his head fall back against the pillow. He closes his eyes. “Oh, this is working for me, believe me. It's just the damn laudanum. If I could just have this for the rest of my life, this cushioned seat and your hand, I'd die a happy man.”
James props his head up on one hand. “I’m happy to hear my ministrations are on par with a cushioned seat.”
He shrugs, unrepentant. “I really missed sitting on something that wasn't dirt or stone.”
James is definitely smirking at him now. “Evidently.”
“Shut up and kiss me some more.” John tugs on his shirt front until he relents and closes the distance between their lips once again.
The problem with laudanum, the thing no one around you fully understands, is that the return to sober reality is a stark affair.
The world you wake up to is inevitably the same one you retreated from. Perhaps worse, depending on who you were. And this renewal of worldly concerns is compounded by pain and the constant, itching reminder that you could be free of it all should you just partake again in a little opium.
But Silver would not be who he is if he let any of this control him. So he awakens one morning and starts saying no. No to more opium. No to the idea that he should be cushioned from the affairs of the ship. No to his own infirmity and the irrelevance it threatens to consign him to.
The primary difficulty, as always, is convincing everyone else.
Flint has been meeting with the others in some other part of the ship. Every time Silver asks after it, the captain is evasive in his answers, as if he suspects Silver would try to drag himself there by the power of his arms alone.
In the meantime, the cabin has started to feel less like the captain's and more like some hidden retreat. Silver's days consist of black brooding interspersed with all-too-brief scorching kisses. Flint descends upon the cabin like King Midas checking on his gold. The distraction is brilliant and all-consuming while it lasts, but as soon as the door closes upon Flint's back once more, Silver is left wondering if he is destined to be rendered inert by his touch.
On the island, they were partners. Silver will sink the fucking Walrus before he lets that change.
“It is looking as good as can be expected,” Howell pronounces. He gently lowers the stump back down on the pallet and stands. “You’ll be needing that crutch in another day or so. Let us hope we don’t hit any storms before the wounds heals enough for another boot.”
“How long has it been since we rejoined the Walrus?” Silver asks. After emerging from the opium haze, he had no way to judge how many days had passed. The only thing he knew was that it had been long enough that he was pissing normally again.
Howell glances up from his medical bag. He looks unsurprised by the question. “Tomorrow makes it a week.”
“A week.” Silver lets out a long breath. “We were on that island scarcely more than twice that time, but it felt like years.”
“Just as well,” Howell says. “If had been much longer, it would have started to wreak long-term damage on all your health. The kidneys don’t like repeated bouts of dehydration and starvation.”
He makes to leave, but Silver stops him.
“If you would please, tell Billy I’d like to speak to him as soon as he can get away.”
After he has nodded and left, Silver lets himself rest back on his pillow and smile.
Step one: sorted.
He is worried that Billy will choose to stop by during one of Flint’s tempestuous visits, but instead the man slips inside just after the captain leaves. Perhaps he is just as motivated to avoid such a scene as Silver is to have him avoid it.
Billy doesn't so much as glance at the remnants of his left leg. “Howell mentioned you wanted to speak with me?”
“I’d like an update on the state of the ship and crew.”
Billy doesn’t look confused in the slightest about his ignorance, which confirms Silver’s worst suspicions about Flint’s orders. But bless Billy and his abiding disaffection for the captain, because he comes right out with a report.
“The men who were on the island have been recovering well. We have them doing half-shifts. Yesterday was the first day Howell cleared them for grog. There was quite the celebration down in the hold."
Silver smiles faintly. Part of him would have liked to have been there, but truthfully the evening passed nicely enough. James had sat behind him and together they’d read Gargantua and Pantagruel, which was far too humorous to have been written by a Frenchman. He’d voiced this opinion sleepily to James and then fallen asleep against the reverberations in his chest as he laughed.
“Rackham and Bonny have been shuttling back and forth between Teach’s ship and the Walrus. Teach doesn’t seem to care to talk directly to the captain, so they are acting as a ...liaison, of sorts.”
“Are they on board currently?” Silver asks sharply. When Billy shakes his head, he continues, “I need you to gather all the pertinent crew members for a meeting at four bells. We need to discuss what direction we are taking after we have refit at the maroon island.”
Billy hesitates. “We’re to head for Nassau after, that’s the current plan. We’re making our first assault in three weeks’ time.”
“We’re not discussing the battle,” Silver says. “We’re discussing what’s to be done about Teach.”
Step two: sorted.
Silver waits until Flint is sucking on the thin skin over his pulse to say, “I’m going to need you to help me sit over behind your desk.”
Flint breaks away and looks at him. “I should be surprised that you would find such a position erotic, but somehow I am not.”
Any worries about breaking the truth about the meeting with delicacy evaporate.
“Don’t get too excited,” Silver says. “Billy, DeGroot, and the others will be joining us shortly.”
The look that crosses the captain’s face in the next instant is priceless. The thunderous one that follows immediately after is less so.
Step three: sorted?
“A meeting,” Flint says in a dangerous tone. “And who called this meeting?”
“Me,” Silver replies calmly. “Now will you help me into the desk chair or not? I won’t talk to the men from a pile of pillows.”
Flint glances from him to the desk and comprehension floods his face, though he still looks disgruntled. After a moment the emotion fades to one of resignation.
He moves under Silver’s left shoulder and curls an arm around his waist. Together, they hop and lurch over to their target. It’s only a few feet but Silver is breathless by the time Flint helps him lower down into the chair. Flint's lips are tight as he steps back.
The desk is wide and sturdy, the solid type of fixture needed for a ship’s cabin. Sitting behind it allows him to conceal his leg and pretend everything is fairly normal. The optics are convoluted; everyone knows the state of Silver's leg, but the simple act of disguising the full extent behind a desk – Flint 's desk, no less – will be enough of a distraction to allow business to continue as usual. That’s the theory, anyway.
This first meeting is mostly about making a statement — to the men and to Flint, especially. He is still the quartermaster, and he will not be excluded from ship matters.
When Billy and the others file in, he asks all the right questions and pokes just enough holes in the current plans to make his point. Sometime after the quarter-hour mark, Flint starts to look slightly abashed — not so as anyone else would be able to tell, but he catches Silver’s eye once and gives a slight nod. It makes something unclench in Silver’s chest.
Finally, he dismisses everyone except Billy. When it’s just the three of them in the cabin, he sighs and lets his shoulders drop slightly. The world had become so small on the island. Having that scope suddenly broadened beyond Flint and Billy is its own brand of exhaustion.
He finally brings up Teach.
Billy says, “I know it’s not what you want to hear, but we need Teach alive.”
“We never needed him before,” Silver says. He knows it’s a weak argument even as he voices it.
“Before we had Vane,” Billy says. “Teach’s experience and resources are integral to recapturing Nassau. Not to mention that his name is one of the most widely recognized in the West Indies. Think of the power in that narrative — one of pirate Nassau’s founding fathers returning with a vengeance. It’s the kind of tale that can turn the street.”
In the short silence that follows his words, Silver realizes Flint has yet to speak on the matter. When he glances at the captain, he finds him looking oddly neutral.
“So we don’t kill Blackbeard,” Silver says. “Not directly anyway. But don’t tell me there won’t be a way to arrange for his part in all this to end in death. All we have to do is make sure he doesn’t see it coming. Vane’s martyrdom started this whole thing. I think it’s only fitting, narratively speaking, if his oldest friend’s martyrdom ends it.”
Billy stares at him. “How is it that the shorter your leg gets, the more terrifying you become?”
Silver lets his expression relax into something less intense. He shrugs. “Well, I can’t say it’s been helping my temper any.”
Billy glances at Flint, having also noticed his reticence. “Captain, do you have thoughts on this?”
“I don’t give a fuck what happens to Teach,” Flint says flatly. “Never have.”
Silver looks down at the desk, careful not to let his thoughts show themselves. If Flint feels no impulse towards vengeance for what the crew has just undergone, it doesn’t really change anything. To feel like it has any bearing on his emotional investment would be foolish.
He went to war with an entire nation over Thomas Hamilton, a treacherous voice reminds him. He sweeps the thought aside and turns his attention back to the conversation.
“Billy, there are ten men missing from this ship because of Teach. How can you tell me you have any compunction about killing him?”
The uneasy flick of Billy’s eyes away from the desk reminds Silver that he is personally responsible for at least one of those deaths. Three, if you count his manipulation of Williams and Liam to swim out to their deaths.
But all Billy eventually says is, “I won’t argue. And the men will certainly be glad to hear of it.”
“Well, whatever you do, don’t tell them yet. We don’t want to give Teach forewarning.”
Billy lifts a shoulder, subdued. “Of course.”
He does not look at either of them when he lets himself out of the cabin.
“Satisfied?” Flint asks when the door closes.
Now that Silver has gotten his way, he is feeling generous. He leans back in the chair and smiles. “Quite.”
Flint nods at this and walks over, stopping right next to the chair. His hand meanders up the line of Silver’s shoulder and then pushes gently into his hair. It’s a bit like being petted, which is a new experience; Silver presses into it, keeping his eyes on Flint’s.
“That was a productive meeting,” Flint muses, keeping his voice pitched low and slow. Silver, only half listening, hums in agreement. The hand in his hair tightens fractionally, and Flint smiles down at him.
It’s once again the one that shows a hint of teeth. Silver thinks he must have been off his head with opium if he hadn’t seen anything perturbing in it.
“It seems you are fully capable of reasoning.”
Too late, Silver realizes where this is heading. The moment is not dissimilar to when the Spanish warship opened all one hundred of its gunports back in Division Bay. All he can do is stare, wait, and hope he comes through the other side intact.
“I think it’s time to have that conversation,” Flint says.
“Perhaps I could offer a more pleasant alternative?” Silver says.
Flint nods. “Go on, then.”
Silver smiles up at him. “I could suck your cock, and we could forget all about this.”
After an imperceptible pause, Flint releases his grip on Silver’s hair and steps away.
Silver is pretty sure this is not the ideal reaction to an offer of that nature. He doesn’t bother hiding his dismay as Flint steps to the other side of the desk and fixes him with the steely eye of a negotiator.
“And next time?” Flint asks.
Silver blinks. “Excuse me?”
“What pleasant alternative will you offer next time I attempt to initiate this conversation?” Flint’s mouth curls up into a not altogether friendly smirk. He runs a finger along the navigational quadrant resting on top of the desk. “And what were your long term plans? Are you going to indenture yourself to my personal pleasure for the foreseeable future? Or were you just hoping I’d bow to your desire to avoid the topic and let it drop?”
Silver reacts unwillingly to the ugly twist in his tone, and his own voice takes on an edge. “I can’t say I haven’t wondered at your insistence in the face of my obvious discomfort.”
Flint’s eyes flash and he leans forward over the desk like this really is a negotiation. Silver grips the chair’s arms tighter and gets a flash from when the positions were reversed, when it was he asking where the two of them stood. He wonders if it’s too late to tell Flint to keep wondering.
He prepares for the onslaught, doesn’t know what to expect, but then Flint says:
“I know why you don’t want to talk about this. About us.”
He can’t help but twitch slightly at the word us. And judging from the oddly triumphant expression that takes over Flint’s face in the next second, the captain caught it.
“At first I was confused, I’ll admit,” Flint says, voice abruptly conversational. He pairs it with a lecturer’s pacing. His turn about the cabin gives Silver a break from the eye contact, but he can’t relax.
“‘How could my calculating and relentlessly gregarious quartermaster not want to discuss something as pertinent to his future as the current goings-on between he and I?’ I couldn’t understand it. Finally I remembered — before the battle, in the forest. Our conversation then.”
“What of it?” Silver asks sharply, not following and instinctively uneasy because of it.
“You called us friends,” Flint says simply. “Had I wondered then about the timing, I probably would have put it down to our possibly imminent deaths. But looking back, haven’t our deaths always been imminent?”
“It does seem to be an ongoing theme,” Silver cautiously agrees.
“So I thought about what else you said that night. About how you once thought that you might fall into the same pattern as my previous partners. That you would be vulnerable to me. That night, you were no longer worried about it, and you called us friends.”
The trap is set; Silver can sense it. He’ll be damned if he says a word to spring it, though.
“I think,” Flint says slowly, looking out the cabin window, “if you believed yourself to be at an advantage, as you did that night, you wouldn’t need to avoid this conversation. You could engineer it to flow towards whatever outcome you desired.”
Silver badly wants to interrupt, to cut off this avenue of thought, but his words have abandoned him. He wonders just how much time in the past week Flint has spent mulling all this over. How many hours did he lie by Silver’s side and plot this damned conversation out.
Flint turns back around and pins him with a look. “Which leads me to the conclusion that you believe yourself to be at a disadvantage. You either think your feelings on this matter outweigh mine or you simply aren’t sure. Which is it?”
“You think I know?” Silver snaps. He’s breathing hard. “Do you think I have any fucking clue?”
He should probably be pleased that he isn’t being coddled like an invalid or a halfwit, but all he feels is trapped. He’d forgotten how demanding the captain could be when there was something he wanted.
Flint doesn’t respond to his outburst. He just waits and looks at him. Silver shifts restlessly under his gaze, ignoring the pain that it causes his healing thigh.
“I don’t trust my instincts towards emotional honesty,” He says at last, every word a new height of discomfort. “I worry that despite my best intentions, I’ll slip up. Try to feed us both a lie.”
Flint regards him for a long moment, face inscrutable. The silence stretches long. Too long. Silver feels sick.
“Have you ever been in love before, John?”
“No.” His throat is as dry as it ever had been on the island. “Until recently, I wasn’t sure I was even capable of it, to be honest.”
“Until recently?” Flint echoes.
He grits his teeth. He is heartily sick of his emotions being the only ones dissected. “Your willingness to use my own voice against me can be downright ruthless. I’d forgotten that.”
Flint is brought up short. For the first time in the entire conversation, he looks hesitant, maybe even slightly abashed. “This discussion has been rather one-sided thus far, hasn’t it.”
Silver glares across the room. “A broadside from the Walrus would feel less forceful.” He shifts again and sighs, “Look, just — help me out of this chair, will you. The edge of the seat is putting too much pressure on my leg.”
Flint hastens to assist him, and quiet reigns for a few blessed minutes as Silver gets situated back on the pallet. From his nest of pillows, he watches covertly as Flint looks around for a chair to drag over. John quickly makes a decision; his arms shoot out and pulls Flint down to the pallet.
Only Flint’s reflexes save his stump from being crushed, but he knew he could count on the captain to avoid just such a consequence. Judging from Flint’s glare, he doesn’t appreciate this display of faith on Silver’s part.
Flint wrestles with his limbs until he is no longer in danger of either falling off the pallet or doing damage to Silver’s injured leg. Finally he stops and, propping himself up on an elbow, fixes Silver with a look of sudden suspicion.
“Is this you still trying to get out of the conversation?”
Silver thinks seriously about shoving him to the floor. He contents himself with merely knocking his arm out from under his head. When he is finally flat on his back, Silver settles back alongside him.
“Satisfied?” James asks, voice doing a poor imitation of irritation (John, of all people, can tell the difference).
“Just reminding you of the appropriate emotional context.” He gestures at their recumbent bodies. “I was growing tired of your pacing and looming. Felt like I was back in Eleanor Guthrie’s office, chained to a divan. Please tell me you don’t do that to all your lovers.”
James’s gaze shifts sideways, evasive.
John’s stomach drops. “Have you had any others? Since…” he can’t bring himself to say the name.
“Not since Miranda and Thomas, no.”
They lie there in silence. Silver isn’t really sure what his reaction to this news should be, emotional or otherwise. He wishes he didn’t have to have a reaction, that he could just close his eyes and enjoy the close press of James’s body. It’s still strange and new, and its presence without the accompanying burn of the sun or feeling of grit beneath him is even newer.
“Perhaps this will go better if you lead off,” James suggests finally, eyes trained on the planking of the cabin ceiling.
If it were up to John, they wouldn’t be talking about this — he can’t even say it — at all. But he’s hardly going to pass up the opportunity to avoid another interrogation. So he asks the first question that comes to mind.
“Why don’t you want revenge on Teach? It seems uncharacteristic, to say the least.”
He turns on his side as best as he is able and studies James while he thinks the question over. He watches his pale-fringed eyes narrow at the ceiling, mouth twitching as he considers and discards several thoughts. All the while, he hears the question again and again in his head, have you ever been in love before, John?
“I’m not opposed to getting revenge on Teach,” James says eventually. He turns his head, and their faces are mere inches apart. The cabin is large and empty around them, but it feels like this added semblance of privacy is entirely necessary. “But after we reclaim Nassau, it just won’t be a priority.”
“After everything he put us through on that island,” John begins, but James, for all that he’d been demanding his participation earlier, interrupts.
“My life has been centered around revenge for over ten years. Miranda, near the end, couldn’t take it. She just wanted it to be over. At the time, I didn’t understand how she could give up on everything we’d been working for, fighting for — but now.” James breaks off and makes a complicated face.
“Now you want to be a farmer,” John says, mostly just to see James smile.
Green eyes flick to him and away. The smile appears. “It doesn’t have to be a farm. We could do something else.”
At the we, John can’t control his expression. He presses his face into James’s shoulder and just breathes.
There was another reason he didn’t want to have this conversation, one that had less to do with the balance of power and more to do with protecting his own damn peace of mind.
He’s made it through impossible odds already — a lifetime of poverty, battles at sea, two amputations, the island. Lying now at James’s side, it seems almost painfully easy to imagine that it all could have occurred for a reason, so that he may have this. John has always been wary of happiness, and James is promising something he might not be able to deliver.
He keeps his forehead pressed against James’s shirt. His next words come out slightly muffled, which is fine, because maybe then James won’t hear the slight desperation in his voice.
“If I asked you to stop, would you?”
James draws back a little, likely trying to get a look at his expression. “Stop what?”
He shakes his head. “Everything. The fight against England, chasing after control of Nassau. What would you say if I asked you to drop it all? We could seek our happiness elsewhere and just forget about the war.”
There is a short silence. He steels himself and looks up in time to see James’s noncomprehension splinter apart.
“This fight has defined me for over a decade.”
It’s not a no, though. John hitches himself closer, like he might physically squeeze a yes from his lips.
“Defined Captain Flint, maybe. I think it's up to you to decide what defines James.” When he sees him hesitate, John says, “Make no mistake, stories are something you tell other people, not yourself. In my experience, confusing the two only brings trouble.”
James’s mouth takes on an almost bitter slant. “When have you ever confused the two?”
“Most recently? When I told myself I didn’t believe in you.”
He’d maintained that delusion for so long. It’s what had allowed him to sneak around sabotaging the Spanish warship under Vane’s feet without examining too closely why he'd risk discovery. He didn’t question his story right up until a man was bringing the hatchet down upon his leg.
But it didn’t all have to be for nothing. James is alive and here by his side. He could be John’s, when no one else ever has wanted to be.
He feels flush with possibility right up until he sees the look on James’s face, the flash of abject fear in his eyes.
“Would you really ask that of me? To abandon the fight when we’re so close to winning?”
Silver tries to hold on to whatever bright images had flown through his head just moments before, but they fade as quickly as dreams do upon waking.
“No,” he hears himself say. “No, of course I wouldn’t.”
He doesn’t know what James senses in his tone, but the other man rolls over onto his side and curls an arm around the small of his back like he’s worried John will leave. As if John could leave, with his leg the way it is.
It’s better this way, he thinks as he breathes in James's scent. John’s pragmatism surely would have woken up the next morning to a ship full of men and been appalled at his fanciful thoughts of abandoning them.
James, for some reason, is smiling again. After several moments, John, caged by his arms, can’t help but smile quizzically back.
“You don’t even realize,” James says, voice marveling. “You’ve given me a future. The desire for a future. After Miranda – I couldn't even conceive of such a thing. Or, I could, but it was almost like a betrayal. And Thomas was – ” He shakes his head. “The idea of being happy felt wrong for so long.”
John tries to comprehend giving such power to another person, but the venture is faulty from the start; he has never been able to conceive of happiness as anything but a passing phase anyway. That James might try to rely on him to guide them to it is nothing short of terrifying.
“How can you put so much faith in me?” He asks. “Have you forgotten what I am?”
“You’re John.” James smiles. “By your own accounting, it’s up to you to decide what that means. I’ll believe any story you choose to tell me.”
He kisses John then, soft and slow like they have years ahead of them. And John never would have believed it, had someone told him he would have this. All the poets in the world say love is natural, but he doesn’t think this feeling would go away if he tried to let it.
And he’s right; it won’t go away.
Someday years from now, on a different island and with a different crew, he will hear a song on the wind. For one heart-stopping moment, he will think that his old captain is still alive. He will remember a past he has tried to bury, bury deeper than Flint's lost treasure. In the next second, he will shake himself and move on as if it hadn't happened, the way he has always done. Because only two things truly matter in the end: life and the gold that allows it to flourish. Flint had long since thrown both away.
But all that is a lifetime from now and doesn't merit attention. Men do best when they are living by the second and not dwelling too much on past or future. John Silver happens to be very good at this.
So John smiles into the kiss and pulls a shirt from freckled shoulders. He pushes into a loving hand and murmurs encouragement between gasps and the press of James’s mouth. Later he muffles a laugh with the soft skin of James's inner thigh and shakes his head in surprise at his own eagerness.
The cabin is awash in sunlight. The ship creaks gently around them. John holds fast to the moment and allows himself to believe they can have it, that they will be allowed it: a life after the war.