Actions

Work Header

Lightbringer

Chapter Text

Never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep…
John Milton, Paradise Lost

***

The mirror propped up over the dresser used to belong to Madi’s mother. There was a time when it had stood, proud and untarnished, reflecting the face of a true Queen. That had been years ago. With a sense of bitterness and dread, Madi leaned closer to the distorted glass, and angrily yanked at the grey hair that had dared to make its way into the hairline above her brow.

This was not right. She was never supposed to grow old.

She had been ready: to fight, to die. She remembered that feeling, that freedom in the knowledge that her path had been paved, that destiny awaited. Golden and glorious. Her hips encased in the loose trousers that tucked into the tall boots, she imagined herself storming into battle at the helm of a pirate flotilla. With him at her side. Her father, her captain, her friend.

Their war, her war, it had been taken from her. That man had been taken it from her. Now all she donned were the loose skirts of a wife, and the mask of a woman always looking past the thing that stood before her, towards another point in time, to what may have been.

After the war ended, after most of the others left, and the island fell quiet again, it had been difficult to imagine that life might simply keep on going. How days stretched into months, into years. Her mother passed away quietly, and it should have hurt more than it did. But Madi had known her mother, she had shored up sufficient time with her to still hear her words in the wind. She had known her mother’s mind and her will and her love, she had nothing to regret for nothing had been left unsaid between them. How strange it was then, that what she always seemed to mourn the most had been the unknowable, the what-could-have-been. The missing space in her life where she should have had a father. The empty space in her hand where she may have held a sword, had Flint still been around to teach her as he had taught the man who had destroyed them both.

Still, it was difficult to be alone. She had fought against the memory of John’s arms around her when her father died. The desire to be held that way again taunted her in her weakness. He was still there, on her island, the white man who rose from the sea and decided to use his will to change her life, to rob her of her choices. Oh, she hated him as much as she had loved him!

Finding him had been easy. It had been easy to put on a resigned mask to hide the scorn. He had waited for her, or so he had said, but up on that cliff, she did not need him to speak to know his mind had been far, far away. He had not been expecting her and his face had reflected the gamut of emotions: surprise, relief, terror. Hope.

“Tell me again what you did,” she had said.

And he had obeyed, unleashing that clever mouth of his, that burned like a furnace and opened the gates to her heart like Orpheus’ lyre to the Underworld.

Tell me what you did.

She enjoyed seeing the pain in his eyes when he spoke of it. With each repetition, each iteration, more and more convinced that he was telling her the truth. There had been no embellishment in his narrative, only the exhaustion of a man trapped inside a nightmare of his own making.

Tell me how he looked when you last saw him. Tell me what was the last thing he had said to you. Tell me. Tell me.

Until one night, he no longer had the strength to obey her.

“Please,” his lips moved with visible strain over his teeth. “No more. Don’t make me speak of it anymore.”

“You took him from me,” she had replied, her eyes set on the far off horizon. “He mattered to me. I never even got to say goodbye.”

“I thought you had forgiven me.” His voice trembled, the dread in it palpable in the humid night air.

“I can forgive you,” she said, “for ruining my war, for compromising my freedom, for destroying everything that I was ready to fight and die for. But that man loved you, you said you had his true friendship, and if it was not enough to protect him from you, then why should it be enough for me?” Silver’s head had hung low over his chest and from that angle, half-lit by the dying candlelight, he might have been one of the carvings in the books her father had smuggled into the camp for her over the years. “So you will tell me again, as many times as it takes for me to believe you, that you did it out of mercy. That you did it out of love. That you are tortured by it the same way that I am tortured by your betrayal.”

“I saw no other way to save you… both of you,” he’d whispered.

At night, she could close her eyes and revel in the fact that his touch, as ever, had been masterful. But there was very little comfort to be found in the body when you could never trust the heart that beat within its confines.

***

John,

I’m doing this for us. Please do not follow me.

Madi.

Three years had passed since the end of the war. She had tried, to the best of her ability, to be a strong leader to her people, her mother’s worthy heir. But their numbers had dwindled during the war and never fully recovered. Their island, their safe refuge, was no longer safe. All of the Caribbean knew where they lived and the supply lines they now had to rely on to survive were hardly going to be around forever. Soon, any allies she might have once had in Nassau might forget her, and the trail she had set herself upon would grow colder than her husband’s heart.

No. That had been an unkindness. John’s heart was never as cold as he would have liked others to believe. He was not him. He was not Long John Silver - that man, that monster - had been Billy Bones’ creation. If only John’s heart had been as stone cold as that, he would’ve listened to her, killed Billy Bones, and perhaps they would all have been living a very different life.

Perhaps.

But then again, he did send Tom Morgan to Georgia long before Rogers brought Spain upon their doorstep.

Or did he?

How can you heal a heart that cannot trust?

Nassau had been rebuilt and teamed again with life and unbridled energy. A sign in the square proudly proclaimed: Piracy expelled, commerce restored! Madi clenched her jaw as she walked past it. So, this is all she and Flint had been: two mad Don Quixotes, tilting their spears against windmills. And there she stood, in a town whose mayor was a former pirate, run by a woman who had been instrumental in stealing the Urca gold, while they proclaimed their so-called victory for the world to see, and she and her people remained shackled throughout the New World with dehumanizing bonds. While Flint too might still be in shackles, for daring to be different, for daring to love a man. For daring to love two men: one of whom had not been worthy of his love.

That is, if he was actually still alive.

Madi’s hand clenched over the hilt of her dagger that hung hidden among the deceptive layers of her skirts. No one would pay her any heed here. She lowered her head and crept like a shadow past the merchants pushing their wares, past the restored storefronts, local drunkards brawling on the steps of the tavern, and up the stairs where she suspected she would be able to find the one true power in Nassau: the woman who might still hold the keys to all their futures.

Max had been at her desk, writing. The afternoon sun that cast its rays through the unshuttered windows illuminated her form to great advantage. They had not been officially introduced, of course, but Madi had heard enough to recognize the woman before her. Her silken hair and her embroidered bodice might have been enough to fool a casual passerby, but Madi’s keen eye was not as easily duped. After all, no one better than her knew that a pretty face could always hide a dark abyss.

She latched the door and unsheathed her dagger. “Don’t call anyone,” she spoke evenly, as Max looked up from her books. “I do not come to cause you harm.”

“Then why are you brandishing arms?” Max asked, her voice the same kittenish purr that Madi had always imagined when John had spoken of his former business partner.

Madi took a few steps towards the desk and lay the dagger on the edge of the polished wood. “Do you know who I am?” Max made as if to rise, but Madi extended her arm towards her in a gesture the broached no argument. “Sit.” Madi drew out the other chair and sat down yourself. “I see you do not know who I am. And yet, I imagine, you knew my father. And my husband. And Eleanor Guthrie.”

“Eleanor?” Max’s brow twitched.

“I was with her, when Woodes Rogers brought Spain upon Nassau. I was with her when she died, defending herself from the embodiment of her nightmares. Because she had been loved so poorly.” Madi observed with curious calm as Max’s hand trembled and pressed against the bones of her corset. “We had been children together, Eleanor and I. But I do not have to explain to you the difference between a playmate and a slave, do I?”

“You are Mr. Scott’s daughter,” Max finally spoke, collecting herself and lifting her chin defiantly. “And John Silver’s wife.”

“My name is Madi.”

“Why are you here?”

“To resurrect a ghost from our past.”

“Come, ma chère, let us speak plainly.”

Madi shifted in her seat. This was it: all of her hopes were riding on being able to convince this woman to help her. And she had very little leverage, but if she had learned anything from her husband and from Flint, it was the power of knowing someone’s story.

“A few years ago, your partner, Jack Rackham, and my husband made a deal. With this deal, you were able to buy yourself stability, power, position. Perhaps even freedom. Freedom to be who you are. Freedom to choose whom you love. But there was a cost to this deal, an invisible cost, a cost felt only too keenly by me and by my people.” Madi paused, both to let her words sink in as well as to collect her thoughts. “Because of the deal you struck, thousands, maybe millions, may never be free like you and I are free. You may not have been there yourself, but you had a hand in the subjugation of the Maroon uprising, as surely as the white men who had decided they knew better how we should live, and love, and what we should be allowed to die for.” Bile rose up to Madi’s clenched jaw. “My husband was one of those men.”

“You married him,” Max replied, her face unreadable.

“Your actions left me bereft of choice.”

Max’s small hand beat out a nervous staccato against the wood of her desk. “What do you want from me now? The war is over. Life goes on.”

“Not for all of us.” Madi gathered herself, bracing her hand against her abdomen, where a stone lay that had sunk and settled over three years ago. “Captain Flint…”

“Captain Flint is gone,” Max spat out, propelled by sheer instinct, as if it had been a mantra she had heard repeated over and over again.

“My husband told me that he had taken Flint to a place you had once told him about. A plantation in Georgia, where men unjustly imprisoned in England could be kept in bonded isolation from the same civilization that had once rejected them.”

Max shifted in her seat. “I know of the place, but not of this story.” Her little, lithe hands had produced an embroidered handkerchief from her bodice, which she now twisted and turned between her fingers as Madi spoke. “How do you know your husband did not simply kill Captain Flint?”

Madi inclined her head forward. “I cannot be certain. That is why I am here.”

“I still do not see what any of this has to do with me,” Max exhaled, twisting the material in her hand again.

“You were a slave once. You loved Eleanor once…”

“Your husband has a big mouth!” Max fumed.

“Do you feel no regrets, no remorse over the role you played in all this? I cannot save Captain Flint alone.”

“Save Flint?” Max rose. “Even if he was still alive, which is unlikely, why would I help you save him? We have Nassau now. We have stability now. We have peace now!”

Madi rose in turn and picked her dagger up off the table. “Does he not deserve to be free?” The two women faced each other across the table as if across the ocean. “I need money. If my husband had been telling the truth, I need enough money to buy freedom for two men. And I need armed men with me, in case the proprietor refuses. Look at me!” Madi shouted, losing all patience. “You know I cannot do this alone. Had I not been this…” Her hand swept over her own body. “I would have gone to Georgia… I would have torn those gates down with my bare hands! Captain Flint was my friend.” She willed the tears that threatened to creep up back into her eye sockets. “I cannot have peace until I’m certain that he’s found his own. Do not make me hurt you. I do not wish to hurt you. I only wish to save my friend.”

The handkerchief had fallen from Max’s hand, but her bosom still heaved with each labored breath.

“If I help you,” Max spoke at last, her face once more donning the mask of cool composure, “you must promise me that you and he shall never return to Nassau. You must promise me that you and he shall never again bring war to my doorstep.” Hands braced against the desk, Max leaned forward, fearless of Madi’s blade. “Promise me!”

Madi sheathed her blade and stretched out her hand. “You have my word.” Max’s hand pressed against her palm. “You can count on me to keep it.”

“Then you can rely on my help.”

***

Chapter Text

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
John Milton, Paradise Lost

***

If ever before he had felt such joy, James could not recall, for when the veil lifted from his eyes and they beheld Thomas again - alive, and strong, and sane, alive and holding him, kissing him - he would have been hard pressed to say whether it had all been a dream, whether he himself was still among the living, or dead and ascended to a higher plane. Such blinding ecstasy, pure, radiant light, filling him, his body and soul, lifting him, up, up, into the very clouds over the fields of Georgia, as if they were the fields of Elysium. Such bliss, such untold bliss. The ice floes of his heart gave way, shifted, and began to melt, and from within him rose a devouring fire that threatened to immolate his very heart from too much love.

Thomas’ touch tore down the ramparts he had constructed around his heart, and filled his dessicated moats with waters of communion once again. But, like all things, when eventually this euphoria began to fade, when waking up each morning in his arms had started to become a habit again rather than surprise, there came a time when wordless rapture no longer sufficed, and he was called upon to put words to his deeds. And he faltered.

To toil the soil felt good and right. From the earth we all come and to the earth we all return. (But not Captain Flint: he had been born of the sea, and the sea was his rightful burial place.) But there was something liberating, meditative in that work, repetitive as it was. Marcus Aurelius surely would have approved of it, to do what you could and to do it well. And did they not both know those Meditations by heart? With each stroke of the shovel, James buried something in that earth, deeper and deeper, so that he would not have to think of it.

Funny thing, though. He had been so hurt before, so terrified of allowing himself to love again, he had been genuinely surprised when it had crept up on him like that. Thomas’ love healed him and made him whole again. It transported and lifted him. But it also revealed something else: beneath the ice floes, once the devouring fire rose up and burned down his ramparts, he had been shocked to discover more love.

It had been Thomas himself who had told him, his voice bereft of judgement, his eyes full of kindness and forbearance as always. “Of course, you are still hurt. You loved him.”

“No,” James protested weakly. “I did not. It wasn’t… I couldn’t… And it doesn’t matter anymore.”

His hand was pressed between Thomas’ hands, no longer the soft and indolent hands of an English lord, but still so warm, still so familiar.

“You know that isn’t true,” Thomas said with a soft smile. “And why shouldn’t you have? I imagine, to accomplish all you have done together, he must have been quite… extraordinary.”

There had been love there, but it was a love James was willing to bury in the warm soil, to sow and to never reap it more.

Thomas loved him. Thomas said he accepted him. But Thomas did not know him, how could he? It was one thing to say, “I have killed for you.” It was another to have seen it. All those innocent and not so innocent lives lost to an unstoppable hurricane. At the end of the day, Silver had been right to leave him there, where he could do the least harm.

Non Sibi Sed Aliis read the inscription on the gate, and Thomas had translated it for James. Not for ourselves, but for others. No, it was not for themselves that they had been locked away there. It was so that civilization could continue, at its own civilized pace, out of sight and out of mind. So that Silver and Madi could have a life together. He wondered whether Madi had forgiven Silver for tearing the war out of her hands. He wondered whether they had truly married, perhaps had children even. He imagined they would have fantastically beautiful children together.

He wondered about other things, too. Such as whether there had ever been a point in time when he could have said or done something different. Would it have changed their outcome? With the shovel in his hands, and the freshly tilled soil beneath his feet, he could finally admit it to himself: he had loved Silver.

James would have done anything for him; he had done anything for him, anything that was in his power to do. He had made him king, he had saved his queen, he was about to hand him a kingdom. He had lain himself bare to Silver in a way that he had never done with anyone before, not even Thomas, for there were parts of him that James still feared would make Thomas turn from him in horror. Silver had welcomed those parts, he had revelled in them. He had trusted Silver implicitly, even after his partner had sent men after him, to kill him. He had been certain then and he was even more certain now: they had cared for each other. They had loved each other. So, why then had it not been enough?

But you don’t stop loving someone merely because they’re gone. James knew that better than anyone. After all, had he not loved Thomas those ten plus years even though he had believed him dead? He had loved Silver, and he had lost him, yet on that plantation, under the heat of the Georgia sun, he was beginning to find Silver again, in ways that were downright unexpected.

More than once, James found himself contemplating the sign upon the gate, feeling mightily taunted by it. The man he had been would scorn that sign, he would snarl and rage against it, he would kill and not stop killing until their path out of that place had been paved in blood. It was almost a soothing thought, really, that this cage only held him as long as he had allowed himself to be imprisoned. The moment the idea no longer appealed to him, he could orchestrate a rebellion, or singlehandedly stab and slash his way out of this plantation, and leave this odd New World Purgatory behind him.

But he also knew exactly what he would do if he were to break free. He knew exactly where he would try to go. And he also knew he was not wanted there.

“You know, you can talk to me about him,” Thomas said one night as they lay spent from a hard day’s work and the languid lovemaking that followed it. “There is nothing that you should ever feel you need hide from me.”

“There is nothing to say,” James lied. “He was no-one, from nowhere. I never even knew his real name.”

He pressed his forehead into Thomas’ shoulder and shut his eyes, begging his mind not to conjure up the images that tormented him still. A pair of blue eyes beneath a heavily-set brow that sparkled in the sunlight with mischief, and perhaps something more. Perhaps. Long, unruly, brown curls blown by the wind. How young he looked and sounded sometimes, especially in those rare moments of vulnerability, when James had mistakenly thought that there really was no daylight between them.

Thomas’ fingers cupped the back of James’ head, running through the thick hair that had grown back now that he longer found it necessary to shave it. “If there is nothing to say, then how come I feel like he is lying in bed with us right now?”

“He only had one leg,” James offered unhelpfully.

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Thomas chuckled against his hair.

“Well, if you think about it, he’s not taking up that much room in our bed.”

Thomas’ chest shook with soft laughter again. “I have so missed arguing with you, my love.” And James drank his words in like a man thirsting in the desert. No, there was no need to break free, to go chasing some impossible dream across unwelcoming waters. He had everything he needed right here. It may not have been much, but it was true, which was more than he could say about John Silver, in the end.

***

Chapter Text

Thou art my father, thou my author, thou my being gav'st me; whom should I obey but thee, whom follow?
John Milton, Paradise Lost

***

Governor Featherstone pulled at his tightly knotted cravat and directed a pointed look in Madi’s direction, as their carriage ambled along.

“Does Mr. Silver know about this?”

At the mention of her husband’s name, a weight pulled at Madi’s breastbone. There were so many ways to find oneself in bondage in the world, she had learned. Once upon a time, the pull of those chains was sweet and oddly liberating. Today, it suffocated her as much as the heavy Georgia heat.

Featherstone cleared his throat poignantly, well-aware of the fact that a reply to his question was not forthcoming. “Very well. Max’s word for this being a good idea is… good enough for me,” he declared and added under his breath, “generally speaking…”

“I trust you know what to say to Mr. Oglethorpe?” Madi asked, tearing her eyes from the line of the horizon, where endless fields met the pale blue skies.

“Trust me, lady, if there’s one thing I learned from our dearly departed, it’s how to bullshit with the best of them!” Once more, he pulled at the ends of his cravat, seemingly unsatisfied with the way it draped over his chest. “Fucking tit curtains,” he muttered under his breath. “A man can get used to a lot of things, but why suffer the indignities for such limited utility!”

“You should ask your wife how she enjoys wearing her corsets,” Madi could not help but reply with a smile.

The carriage made a sudden turn and the sound of horse hooves coming to a halt made Madi’s heart clench in her breast, as if a ghastly hand rose from the grave and clasped it in its fist.

“We’re here,” Featherstone announced, opening the carriage door and offering Madi his hand.

***

“The restoration of commerce in the West Indies was nothing short than a miracle, my dear Featherstone,” Oglethorpe bloviated from behind his desk. “And yet, men such as ourselves, understand better than most that to serve is not a choice one makes, but rather a calling. For must we not all rise above our baser instincts in order to illuminate the path for those who rely upon us to provide for them?”

Madi had very little doubt this man expected no confirmation to his entirely rhetorical query. Nevertheless, she softly kicked the back of Featherstone’s chair.

“Um… yes, yes, I see you understand me perfectly, my dear Oglethorpe,” Featherstone chimed in. “Now, coincidentally… Around the time of Nassau’s restoration, I’d say, three to four years ago, some friends of friends had come here… upon the death of Captain Flint?”

Oglethorpe, visibly started by that name, sat straighter in his chair. “Friends of friends?”

“They had brought a man here, for your kind safe-keeping,” Featherstone continued, cowed beneath the scalding weight of Madi’s gaze. “A man named McGraw. Do you recall this?”

“McGraw,” Oglethorpe blanched and bit his lips. “Does not ring any bells.”

“You were handsomely rewarded at the time for taking stewardship of this man,” Madi broke her silence and stepped forward from around Featherstone’s chair. “Perhaps this,” she placed a heavy purse on the desk, “will aid in your recollection?”

“Please understand…” Oglethorpe moved away from the desk as if the purse had turned into a coil of snakes.

“My name is Madi Silver. You might have heard of my husband - Long John Silver.”

“Oh… god,” Featherstone hung his head.

“Please, I do not want any trouble,” Oglethorpe’s eyes cast wildly between Featherstone’s sunken face and Madi’s fiery gaze.

“Then don’t make me call our men,” Madi stated. “Take the money and give me what I want. No one needs to get hurt.”

“What my associate means is,” Featherstone lifted his head and threw a pleading look Madi’s way, “if Mr. McGraw and his… ah… friend Thomas Hamilton are still here…”

“You’re going to give them to us,” Madi concluded.

“Please, Ma’am… Sir… You must understand,” Oglethorpe stammered, “I have given certain warranties… I cannot simply…”

“If you do not take the money and release them into our keeping, I will return with my husband,” Madi bluffed. Still, they were here. Flint was here. She had not been sure before that moment, but now the reality of it sang through her veins, crimson and unstoppable like her own blood.

“I have also been authorized to offer you ongoing contracts for the sale of cotton and silk from your estates,” Featherstone added in his most dulcet tones. “Commerce in Nassau is growing, and my wife has such a weakness for frivolities.” Oglethorpe blinked. Featherstone adjusted his cravat again. “Well then, I would be grateful if you could send for Misters McGraw and Hamilton, my dear Oglethorpe.”

With an inward prayer of gratitude, Madi thought that when Max promised to provide you her help, she really did see it through to the smallest of details.

***

“This is not the time Oglethorpe usually craves your conversation,” James whispered to Thomas as they washed their hands. “It’s not even Sunday.”

“Perhaps he’s in the mood for something else,” Thomas shrugged, turning to follow the man who had arrived so unexpectedly to fetch them.

“Perhaps,” James nodded, scanning the plantation for any clues. “Surely he’s not in the mood for a game of chess. He doesn’t need both of us for that.”

“He does enjoy a bit of an audience for when he’s winning.”

James chuckled. “On the rare occasion that you’re letting him win?”

“Maybe it’s not me he wishes to see at all,” Thomas offered, looking at James askance. “What have you done?”

“Done?” James shouldered his lover gently. “You’d know had I done anything, surely.”

Thomas paused before the threshold. “I don’t like this.”

James’ hand alighted on his lower back, gently ushering him ahead. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”

Thomas took in James’ lopsided grin. “Forgive me if I do not find that statement entirely reassuring.”

The guard ushered them in, and James stepped through the door first, his senses honed and alert for the first sign of trouble. None of these men were properly trained to carry arms. Disarming them would never be much of a challenge. It certainly wasn’t something James enjoyed contemplating, but he had killed men with his bare hands before, and would be perfectly willing to do so again, had the opportunity presented itself.

“Ah, here they are!” Oglethorpe’s voice pronounced, as James’ eyes became accustomed to the dimly lit interior of the parlor.

He took another two steps into the room and froze in his tracks. It was impossible. No. Surely the summer heat had been playing tricks on him. Yet, there she was, the same poise, the same radiant smile upon her face as the last time that he had seen her, her face illuminated with such joy that it had nearly formed a gloriole around her head.

“Madi?”

She took another step towards him and fell upon his chest, her arms wrapping around his waist. “Captain.”

“Captain?” he heard Oglethorpe’s bewildered voice.

“Just… go with it,” another familiar voice offered and James looked over Madi’s head to recognize another face he’d never thought he’d see again. Fucking Featherstone?

“Madi…” he repeated, softer this time, his own arms wrapping around her shoulders as gently as if she had been made of glass. “Why are you here? Is he alright?”

She lifted her head off his chest and her eyes glowed with unshed tears like diamonds. “I’m here to take you away from this place,” she said, her hand reaching up to caress the side of his face, to brush into the hair at his temples that had begun to gray. “Both of you,” she said, her eyes alighting on Thomas, who stood behind James observing the entire scene with what was surely a mixture of fascination and dread.

James let her go and took a faltering step backwards. “Where are we going?”

“Please, come with me. We can talk more once we are rid of this place.”

“Yes, please,” Featherstone took a step forward, afraid to meet James’ eyes. “It would not do to keep a lady waiting, gentlemen. Let us be on our way.”

James’ eyes moved rapidly between everyone gathered, taking in Oglethorpe’s red face and the hefty purse that still graced the middle of his desk.

“James?” Thomas’ breath tickled the back of his neck.

“Yes,” he responded, remembering himself. “We should go.”

“Pleasure doing business with you,” Featherstone pronounced with a curt but polite bow.

“Y-yes. Yes, quite,” Oglethorpe muttered, gesturing towards the door. It appeared the way out was entirely unimpeded. After all he'd contemplated, James would not even need to break a finger to walk out those gates.

Madi’s hand slipped into James’ own and he followed her out the door, down the alleyway leading towards the heavy iron gate, Non Sibi Sed Aliis, past the inscription, and into a waiting carriage, which stood surrounded by armed men on horseback.

“Captain,” Madi’s fingers squeezed his own as he handed her into the carriage. “You do not know what it means for me to see you again.”

James stood transfixed while Featherstone and Thomas both followed Madi into the carriage. He took a look behind him, where the heavy gate had already shut closed, locking him out of that New World Purgatory that had seemed a Paradise to him.

“Please,” Madi repeated again, nodding towards the space upon the seat next to her, and James easily leapt into the carriage. Featherstone gave the order and the cavalcade took off. “You must have so many questions,” she said, once again taking his hand into hers and placing it into her lap, as if it had been an object of great value.

“You’re not taking me back there, are you?”

“Mr. Featherstone, having dispatched of his responsibilities to me, will return to Nassau,” she replied with a curt nod towards the Governor. “But no, we will not be returning to the West Indies.”

“We?” It was Thomas who had finally broken his silence.

“I’m staying with you,” she explained.

Her eyes once again lifted to meet James’ own, wise and trusting, and he had suddenly remembered how easy it had been to love her. The world in balance.

“Where shall we go?” James asked, pressing her hand in turn.

“It matters little to me,” she replied. “The world you once knew is gone, and there is nothing left back there for the three of us. But you had always been my friend, and you have never lied to me. So, I will follow you wherever you would lead me.”

As the carriage continued on its way, James understood what was happening: it was not merely him and Thomas she had come to save; Madi was also saving herself.

***

Chapter Text

Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.
John Milton, Paradise Lost

***

Madi was not sure what she had been expecting, exactly, but she was fairly certain it had not been that.

“England?” she asked, tight-lipped.

“Yes,” James nodded.

“You’re fucking joking.”

The winds slapped against the sails with the same force that beat inside her soul. Surely, this wasn’t what Flint was suggesting. Return to civilization he had spent over a decade fighting? Abide by the same yoke that had stifled them all?

“Thomas thinks he can reclaim his lands and titles. After all, he was never disinherited, merely presumed dead.”

“So, what… you just expect him to become… what?”

“The fifth Earl of Ashbourne,” Thomas supplied and Madi’s eyes widened.

“And why on earth would you want to be that?”

“You’d be surprised, my dear,” Thomas explained with a strange smile, “how much berth society will allow you when you are nothing but an eccentric nobleman.”

“Berth for what?” she pressed. Flint… James (she needed to stop thinking about him as Flint going forward) and Thomas exchanged a look and an arcane smile understood only by the two of them.

“We’ll talk about that later,” James responded and added, softly, “Trust me.”

And she did, despite herself. She had made a choice - to follow this man, to choose to believe him, to rely on him not to lead her astray, the way her husband had led them both astray.

Out of the corner of her eyes, she had beheld a rapidly pacing Featherstone. “I can’t believe you’re making me go back to that place,” he muttered at James.

“We have a debt to repay,” James grinned with all his teeth. “And besides, don’t tell me you would pass up an opportunity like this one, Governor.”

“Max is going to kill me,” Featherstone sighed.

“Max is going to thank you,” Thomas added, affably slapping Featherstone upon the shoulder. “Who is Max, again?” he whispered aside to James.

***

Skeleton Island was not a place James had ever planned on going back to, and yet, there they were. When he had consented, despite his innate instincts, to follow Thomas’ madcap plan to return to England and claim his rightful inheritance, he did so on one condition.

“We’re getting the cache,” he had said. “What you are suggesting is too insane a plan, one that relies solely on the kindness of English laws. There’s a concept that I do not put much stock in, and neither should you.”

He had been forced to leave that treasure in the ground then. But there was a lot more that lay buried on Skeleton Island than a mere cache of gems. His war lay buried in that ground. Along with his name and memory. Along with Long John Silver and his legend. Their friendship lay buried in that ground; maybe more. He hadn’t allowed himself to think it back then, not even when he shot poor Dooley, he sure as hell wasn’t going to think of it now: not when he had Thomas, and against all odds Madi, at his side.

When their shovels hit wood, James straightened out and looked his two companions in the eye.

“This is it.”

“I can’t believe it’s real,” Thomas said, wiping sweat off his brow. “In all those years, hearing your stories, I half-believed it to have been a metaphor for something else.”

James moved a few more shovelfuls of dirt off the lid, until it came into focus beneath their feet. If he squinted, he’d swear he could still make out Dooley’s blood smeared over the lid, from the hand wound Joji caused during their last stand. So much blood. So many men in the ground. And for what?

“Tell me what you’re planning to do with this cache,” Madi demanded.

“I’m planning on doing something good, Madi. Something right. He can’t take this from us. Not again.” He beckoned her closer and the three of them opened the lid together, running their fingers over the pearls that lay stacked in neat and colorful satchels, like bartered lives, waiting to be saved. “Listen. This is what we’re going to do…” he began to tell her.

***

The bag in Featherstone’s hand was heavy and smelled oddly of fresh earth.

“Tell Max there’s more than enough there to compensate her for springing us from Oglethorpe’s plantation,” James said, slapping Featherstone on the shoulder. “Also, hang on to this.” He handed the Governor a folded, but unsealed piece of paper.

“What should I do with this?” Featherstone cocked a curious eyebrow.

“You can give it to John Silver, if you ever see him again,” Madi supplied with a smile.

“Is it a love letter?” Featherstone winked at Madi.

“More of a fuck-you letter,” Thomas supplied and received a look of disapproval from James. “What? It’s true!”

“I don’t have to tell you,” James continued, addressing Featherstone again, “if you tell anyone we went back here to get the cache, other than Max, that I will find you again and haunt you until you shit yourself to death, yes?”

Featherstone was about to make some kind of a smart-ass reply, but then he unfolded the piece of paper he had been holding and chuckled. “What the fuck is this?”

“A treasure map.”

“To a hole in the ground?”

“Treasure is in the eye of the beholder, Featherstone,” James chuckled and offered Madi his arm. “Come, Madi. We have much still to discuss of our mutual plans.”

***

Bristol, 3 years later

Lord Thomas Hamilton was known far and wide to be the most peculiar of local gentry. Not only did he insist on wearing no wigs in polite society, like some savage, he kept company with fishermen and even came back from his mysterious travels of the New World with an African orphan in tow, whom, despite her weaker sex and dark complexion, he insisted on making his official ward and heir.

It was hard to say, in fact, how old his ward was, or where she had originated from. All that was known about her is that the Earl of Ashbourne insisted on introducing her as Lady Madison Scott, and that she shared his love of books, in addition to likely many other eccentricities. Be that as it may, the lady in question was charming of disposition and sharp of wit, and looked better in golden silk than any woman in her situation had the right or decency to. She never took up with suitors, of whom there would have been no dearth, no matter her questionable provenance or how sternly her guardian and her guardian’s fisherman friend looked askance at any man who might dare a glance her way.

The fisherman in question, a certain James Barlow, was no less peculiar than the company he kept, for what kind of a fisherman needed a fully-rigged tall ship, equipped with two dozen nine pound cannons in order to go fishing? He had named his rigger the Miranda, no less, doubtlessly as an homage to his lord and benefactor’s late wife. (And who even knew whatever had truly become of her?)

Oh what a trio they made! They had apparently traveled to London from the West Indies together one day, shocked all of society by resurrecting Lord Hamilton from the grave, much to England’s stupefaction, then like lunatics consented to allow his cousin (who had inherited the land and titles after the sudden and tragic passing of Alfred Hamilton) to continue to retain most of the revenues due to the fifth Earl, and finally settled in Bristol. All this apparently because “James missed the sea.” Heads were shaken, hands were wrung, but after a passable while, they were mostly forgotten and left to their own devices, away from the capital and the gossip of the London salons.

Such things were whispered among the crew of the Neptune as it traveled onwards, having stopped at Bristol to gather supplies for the long voyage to the Carolinas. Conditions on board slave ships were deplorable, with disease running rampant, and wages running far too low to accommodate for the risks. At times, the only difference among the men up top and the slaves down in the hold was the men up top got to hear their share of the local gossip.

The night shift was just about to come on duty when a shout of “Sails!” was heard from the crow's nest, and the men stirred in their hammocks.

“She’s gaining rapidly on us, Captain.”

“Colors?”

“Not flying any colors, Sir.”

“Is it her?”

A shiver ran through the crew. “Damn it, give me the spy glass!” The captain focused in the distance where the square rigger was gaining upon them, traveling under full sail. “It’s her! It’s the Lightbringer!”

“The Lightbringer is just a story they tell to discourage honest men from plying an honest trade!” the ship’s master grumbled under his breath.

“Prepare to repel boarders!”

“Aren’t they going to fire on us, Captain?”

“The Lightbringer wants our cargo. They won’t risk sinking us.”

How many guns?”

“Just fly up the flag of surrender, Captain!”

“Not on my life!”

At that moment, a whistling cannonball cracked their main mast wide open.

“You said they wouldn’t fire at us!”

“I said they won’t fire at the waterline!”

“Can anyone here actually fight?”

“What a bunch of boobs you all are!”

All in all, the captain of the Neptune thought, they should have paid him triple what they did for having to go out to sea with a bunch of sniveling nincompoops. “Draw your weapons, damn it! Gun crews, at the ready!”

“We don’t have gun crews.”

“They died of the cholera last run. Pity that.”

“Oh, bloody fuck it! Run up the white flag,” the captain said with a resigned sigh. He wasn’t going to get himself actually fucking killed over a bunch of apes in his hold. If the Lightbringer wanted them so much, they could bloody have them.

A tall man with a turban wrapped over his head that obscured his face was the first over the side, tall boots stomping the boards of the Neptune as if he was the god of the seas himself claiming his due. They could not see his face, but they could tell his eyes gleamed emerald like the sea before a storm.

“Tie them up,” the man ordered his co-conspirators. “Any surprises in the hold?” he asked in muffled voice, sword pressed almost gently against the captain’s throat.

“Just the cargo… captain?”

“I’m not the captain,” the man replied and nodded behind him. “She is.”

A murmur susurrated among the men of the slave ship. Over by the railing, they could all make out another figure, clad in form-fitting black leather, with wide trousers in the Turkish style that disappeared into a pair of tall boots, and wearing a bright red turban. She had been watching with glowing eyes as the slaves were brought up one by one from the hold and marched past her, aboard the Lightbringer, where someone was at the ready to strike the irons from their wrists and ankles.

“What do you say, Captain?” the green-eyed man shot back towards the woman in black. “They surrendered. Shall they live?”

The woman approached and sized the captain from head to foot with a condescending gaze that appeared to slough off the more craven parts of his skin. His stomach tied itself into knots beneath the weight of her scorn and judgment. The red sash that hid the lower part of her face appeared as if a maw of blood against the ebony of her skin.

“Please, Ma’am, I have children to feed,” he attempted.

“The men and women in your hold,” she replied, without removing the red cloth from her face, “they too had children.”

“Mercy, Ma’am! If you let us live, we shall find more honorable trade. Fuck it, Ma’am, I shall become a monk! I shall pray for you until my dying day, Ma’am. Tell me your name, and I shall worship it until Kingdom Come!”

“My name…” She took another step forward, so close that he could make out the whites of her eyes, in stark contrast to her skin. “I could tell you my name, if only so that you could lie awake at night, trembling in your bed, knowing that if you cross me again, I will make your life a vale of true horrors.”

“Mercy…” the captain stuttered again, shutting his eyes in terror against the sound of her voice that seemed to drip like quicksilver into his ears.

I am the Maroon Queen.

***

Chapter Text

Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.
John Milton, Paradise Lost

***

Three years, since she’d walked out of his life. I’m doing this for us. Please do not follow me. As always, he had not listened to her. He had attempted to follow her footsteps as far as Nassau, but that was where the trail had infuriatingly grown cold.

Max had been unreadable as always. Featherstone had been away “on business.” Hands and Gunn had managed to have both spent an entire week drinking and pissing their livers out and were consequently of no use to him. Which left Eme, who wanted very little to do with him to begin with, but having married Julius had seemingly elevated herself above mere mortals. No one could even tell Silver where to find them. No one could tell him anything. Or would.

He had managed to turn over every stone that did not resist turning, and finding nothing after his exhaustive search, he did the only thing he could. He remained in Nassau and resolved to wait. He had to believe that whatever this was that Madi felt she had needed to do for them was predicated on the fact that there still was a them to begin with.

But, if he were to be honest with himself, it had not felt that way in a very long time. Something had broken inside Madi after Skeleton Island, and Silver could only deny it for so long until he had to swallow it whole. He broke them. Flint’s fucking prophecy, it had come true. She hadn’t ever truly believed him and his love had not been enough. He had not been enough.

One day, Max found him passed out behind the tavern in a pile of his own piss. He knew that look of pity well, and seeing it on Max’s face made him immediately reach out for his bottle of rum, only to find it already finished.

“He was right,” he muttered through lips still half-numb with liquor and self-hatred. “We had been for nothing.”

“You need a job,” the de facto Governess of Nassau had pronounced, looking down at him through her moonlit amber eyes. “And a bath.”

“A bath!” Silver chuckled. “You must have mistaken me for a Roman.”

“So glad you still have your wits about you,” Max replied, with no outward sign of amusement. “I cannot have you lying around in my doorways. You are keeping respectable clientele away. Now, I would send you away, but somehow I am reluctant to have your imminent death on my hands. A predicament that I keep finding myself in because of you, John Silver.”

“I’m so terribly sorry to have inconvenienced you,” he slurred and attempted to get up, only to stumble and fall right at her feet again. The indignities, it seemed, would never end. “I will remove myself forthwith to die as far away from your immaculate conscience and hands as I, a mere mortal, can muster.”

That was around the time that he remembered the reason he could not stand was because he was missing a leg. And his crutch. He could still crawl.

“Wait.” Her hands were upon his shoulders. “For fuck’s sakes, wait. You can stay here.” The rustling of her skirts as she huffed and puffed over him. “Fuck!”

Silver blinked and something wet slid slowly down his cheeks. “I won’t be taken in like some fucking stray.”

“Jesus Christ, you have nothing and no one! This isn’t the moment for pride. Let me help you.”

Three years he’d remained in Max’s employ, a cook in her tavern. Despite himself, Silver had even managed to become a rather good cook. He could not help but wonder what Flint would say had he seen him now, in his apron, coming full circle, as handy with that spatula as Flint had once taught him to be with a sword. Despite the ridiculousness of the situation, something told Silver that Flint would not find it particularly laughable. Sometimes he needed to step away from the stove, to make sure he did not accidentally over-salt the food. He had learned to weep since Skeleton Island, suddenly and unexpectedly, in a way he never thought he would before.

At night, after the tavern closed, he could be found down at the beach, looking out to sea. Always waiting for a ship that would never sail into port again.

“I miss you,” he would whisper to the waves. “I can still hear your voice. I often wish it would curse me, but it doesn’t.” The waves never replied. “I hope you’re happy,” he would say, before turning on his crutch and heading inland again to his empty cot.

He had taken to feeding the wild birds out back. In the beginning, because his cooking had been terrible and someone had to eat it, if not humans. After a while, as his cooking improved, it had become mere habit. Plus, if no one was around, if he squinted, he could almost pretend that the parrots and parakeets and canaries had all been the departed members of the Walrus crew. The grey one who disdained the others was obviously DeGroot. And the yellow-breasted one that ate right of his hand was Muldoon. And the two that seemed to stay after all the others had flown away to fight over the last scraps were Joji and Dooley. The green one with the red crest that loved to sit on his shoulder and peck at his curls, she had been his favorite, and he had named her after Flint.

She had been riding along on his shoulder as Silver was taking some new-arrival’s incredibly unimaginative order when she had decided to open her beak and pronounce, “You shit!”

“That’s not a very nice way to talk to paying customers, is it, Captain Flint?” Silver chuckled, turning back towards the kitchen.

“D’you name your parrot Captain Flint?” The guest’s tone of voice was jovial and devoid of the same kind of judgement he’d heard from Hands, for example, on the same subject.

“What of it?”

“Craziest coincidence, eh?” The stranger elbowed his equally unknown companion in the ribs and the two of them toasted each other with filled flagons.

“What do you mean?” Silver turned slowly towards his customers.

“There was a fuckin’ lunatic in Port Royal a fortnight or so ago when we were docked there. Going on and on about how he had the map to Captain Flint’s buried treasure.”

“Bullshit!” Silver exclaimed. “There ain’t no fucking map!” And quickly added, “That I heard of.”

“Said he used to sail with old Flint on the Walrus,” the stranger continued. “Said he used to be Flint’s First Mate, he did. Di’in’t ‘e?”

“Heard it with mine own ears,” the stranger’s companion echoed. “Bones, he’d said his name was.”

“Billy Bones?” Silver hissed, clenching his teeth so hard that he worried he might shatter them.

“Wouldn’t know, mate. Bones was all I heard. And Flint’s map, well, he was waving something around under our noses. Talking about how he was gonna gather a crew and set sail for Skeleton Island! Ha!”

“Right…” Silver was shivering. “Skeleton Island… who the hell did he take you for, a bunch of gullible idiots?” The men laughed. Silver sincerely hoped they would not notice that he was neglecting actually cooking their order. “So, what? Did he ever get passage out of Port Royal? Did he find someone stupid enough to sail with him?”

“Doubt that very highly. That drunkard could barely stand on his own two feet. He’s probably still at exactly the same tavern where we left him, telling anyone who would listen about how one time he came this close to killing Captain Flint.”

Silver’s hand feverishly grasped his clutch. “Um… you don’t happen to remember which tavern, do you?”

***

“Guess he wasn’t expecting our little surprise,” Silver muttered to himself, stepping over Billy Bones’ corpse and walking over to the corner of the room so he could search through his meager possessions.

“Never seen a man literally shit himself to death before,” Hands muttered, poking at the corpse with the tip of his sabre.

“He didn’t shit himself to death, you stupid fuck,” Silver retorted without turning his back, “he shat himself post mortem.”

“Post what now?”

“Mortem, you giant sea slug. It means fucking death.”

“If yer so smart, why are you slinging slop in that woman’s kitchen?”

“Because,” Silver straightened up, his hand holding a stained and folded piece of paper, “I’ve been waiting for something exactly like this to happen, to remind me of who I am.”

“Long John Fucking Silver?”

“A-fucking-men, my friend.” Silver unfolded the paper and immediately shuffled his way over to Billy’s freshly vacated bed and collapsed on top of it. His hands trembled.

“I’m just sorry it was the black spot that killed him,” Hands sighed, leaving the corpse be at last. “Would’ve enjoyed something a little more hands on, after all he’s done for us.” He looked over at Silver. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s impossible,” Silver mumbled and rubbed his eyes furiously. “It’s his handwriting. I’d recognize it anywhere.”

“Whose?”

“Flint’s.”

“Oh. Of course you would.”

“But… you don’t understand… this is not possible.”

“I was there, wasn’t I? I bloody well know he didn’t draw anyone a fucking map. That’s the last thing we would’ve let him do - since you and Rackham decided the cache was better off staying in that fucking ground.” He pulled the paper from Silver’s hands, despite the fact that he wasn’t literate, and eyed the sketched terrain with growing suspicion. “Do you still feel that way about the cache?”

“It’s in Flint’s own hand. This means something.”

“After all these years, yer still obsessed with fucking Flint, ain’t you?” Hands shook his head in abject disappointment. “He’d crawled so far up yer ass that you’ll never be free of him!”

“I wish,” Silver muttered with a soft, sad smile.

“What’s that?”

“Do you want to go look for the fucking treasure or not?”

“Sure, sure. Why didn’t you bloody say so to begin with?”

Why didn’t he, indeed? Silver refolded the piece of paper and pressed it against his chest. After seven long years of being separated by so much more than the actual ocean, Flint was still calling his name. There is freedom in the dark, once someone has illuminated it.

***

The hole in the ground gaped at Silver with the toothless maws of Hell. All of his remaining limbs shook as he slid into the open grave, where once a priceless treasure may have lay. His foot struck against something solid and he bent down to pull up a small wooden box.

“Bit smaller than last you saw it, ain’t it?” Hands chuckled behind him, and for the first time in many years Silver wondered why on earth it had never occurred to him before to just kill that man.

He undid the tiny latch and flipped open the lid. Inside the box, hung over a knotted black cord, he recognized Madi’s wedding ring. Silver clutched the ring with his hand and, with a guttural cry, threw the box against the walls of the cave, where it shattered in two.

He still had no idea where the two of them were, but there was something that he knew now, because they had wanted him to know. They were free. And they were together. And as long as that was true, he was going to find them.

And then… Well, he still had time to figure out the next part of that story.

***

Chapter Text

Abashed the devil stood and felt how awful goodness is and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely: and pined his loss.
John Milton, Paradise Lost

***

It took some time before Madi grew to appreciate silverware for its finer qualities and stopped judging it for just another aristocratic extravagance. After all, it was a lot more difficult to poke someone’s eye out with a wooden spoon. She moved the food around on her plate rather than eat it, arranging it first into a sunburst, then into a crescent moon.

“My dear,” Thomas called to her, taking a slow sip of his wine, “Have I ever told you the story of the time James asked my father, the Earl, to leave his own house over dinner?”

“You did,” Madi smiled, looking up at James across the table and then back at Thomas. “But I admit, that is a story I do not grow tired of hearing.”

“You seemed troubled, and I could think of no other way to ease your mind,” Thomas grinned and reached across the table to stab at a piece of potato on Madi’s plate. “Open up.”

“This is unnecessary!” Madi crossed forks with him in what looked about to become a rather spirited duel.

“You must keep up your strength! Those slavers will not trounce themselves!”

“Do not mother-hen me, Thomas!”

“I would stop were you and James to give me grandchildren to hen over.”

Across the table, James choked on the piece of chicken he had been gumming in amusement while observing all the goings on. He punched his own chest and chased the stray piece of food with large gulps of wine.

“Oh dear,” Thomas smirked, “he’s not as young and spry as he used to be, you know, Madi. I should be more careful about what I say. We would not want him to pull the wrong muscle.”

“You need a hobby,” James responded, having recovered his breath and ability to speak.

“I have a hobby! Fishing boats are my hobby. Haven’t you heard?”

“One day, someone might wonder why James has the most unprofitable fishing boat in port,” Madi smiled, finally condescending to eat her food. It felt so normal by now, this domestic scene with James and Thomas. To look at the three of them squabbling over dinner, as if neither had a care in the world, no one would suspect that right at this manor lay the foundation of an extensive underground smuggling ring of freed slaves.

“And that day I suppose I’ll have to retire,” James shrugged. “Fishing is surprisingly taxing.”

“You’re catching large fish,” Thomas smirked. “Catching and releasing.”

Still lost in her own thoughts, Madi muttered, “Even if we stop hunting, we need to keep supplying the new Maroon camps.” Their work would never really be done, Madi thought. “This must have been what it was like for my father. He could never go back to the Maroon camp, there was always so much more to do in Nassau. And they will never stop bringing more people over to pick the crops for American colonies.”

“We’ll do the best we can for the ones we save,” James reached over, placing his hand over hers. Even more so now that this man had taught her to wield a gun and a sword, after he had taught her all he could of seafaring in the short years they’ve had, it amazed her how soft and warm his palm felt against her own skin.

“Your faith in me never waivers,” she smiled, looking up at him.

“You have never disappointed me,” James shrugged and caught Thomas’ eye, who had been looking at him with eyes radiant like the very stars.

***

The Lightbringer always came into port by night and Madi and James would personally remove the nameboard and uncover the ship’s proper name on the hull: Miranda. In the early days, they had allowed some of the liberated men to remain and join their crew: fishermen by day, slaver hunters by night. These days they had a system in place that would take the new arrivals to Maroon camps that had been springing up in rapidly increasing numbers. Even though she did not reside among them, they all swore their allegiance to the Maroon Queen who had liberated them from their chains. But having delivered them, she had to return back to Bristol, to don the mask of a lady and attend soirees in salons at her dear guardian’s side.

There were times when it had just been she and James, once the decks have been swabbed, and their turbans stripped from their heads, and they stood by the rail, looking out to sea in a perfect and companionable silence. She wondered in those moments where it was that his heart traveled to: was it back to the brightly lit manor in Bristol, where Thomas awaited them both while pretending not to worry; or was it somewhere else, a darker place, a place that she had escaped from herself.

“He told me about you and Thomas, you know.”

James had not needed to ask her whom she meant.

“He did? When?”

“Before I even really knew you. Long before I trusted you. I think he wanted me to see you the way he saw you.”

“And how did he see me?”

She stood still, feeling the cold sea breeze upon her face. It would be autumn soon, and after that the dreaded winter. She was still unaccustomed to the bitter English cold.

“As singular, I think,” she finally spoke. “There was no one else in the world that he cared about quite like he cared for you. When he spoke of you, they way he looked… I… was jealous.”

“You’d never seen his face when he had spoken of you.”

Madi averted her eyes, too overcome with emotion at his words. “You have always been too generous with me,” she said. “And with him. You were fated to mean something to him. I do not think he will ever forget you.” She looked over, to see James at the rail, his face buried in the palms of his hands.

“Why are you telling me this now?” he asked, softly. “It’s been... years.”

“You waited for Thomas for over ten years,” she pointed out.

“I had not been waiting,” James corrected her. “I had been raging.”

“We left him a message, and one day, he will find us.”

“We left him a message, and… if he is even still alive,” James replied, haltingly, “the message was clear - he would be a fool to come looking for us now.”

“You did not see him then, after Skeleton Island. He was ruined over you. I was half-certain he had killed you.”

“I half-wished he had,” James chuckled.

She had wanted to ask whether James had forgiven him. She often wondered, lying in her bed at night, whether she herself had. It was certainly easier to forgive someone from the point of having attained everything you had wanted in life, and some things you never even thought you could have. All this and more James had given her because his own dream had already come true, and he had told her he wanted the same for her.

“He loved you, Madi,” James said, suddenly taking her hands into his own. “And now I love you in his stead.”

She squeezed his hands with her own, sensing where she had developed matching calluses to his from handling the sword.

“He loved you too,” she whispered back, afraid to speak it too loudly, lest by the sound of those words to summon back the ghost of Long John Silver. “And now I love you in his stead.”

The sound of seagulls overhead interrupted the perfect stillness and James finally let go of her hands. “Don’t tell Thomas. He’ll demand some kind of progeny again.”

They laughed like children all the way back to the shore.

***

Thomas was enjoying a cordial of some ill-begotten port, with a book and a cat in his lap. The book had been a gift to him from Madi. The cat, who currently bore the honorable moniker of Marlowe, had been a stow away from a slaver ship that the Lightbringer took, and had somehow managed to follow James home. Thomas insisted they keep him, if for no other reason than his ginger coloration.

“He probably thought you were his daddy,” Thomas mused, holding the tomcat aloft to get a better look at his clever green eyes.

“Well, enjoy that then,” Flint shrugged, placing a fond kiss on top of Thomas’ head. “This is the only progeny you’re likely to get out of me.”

The cat had fleas, and it took weeks to get rid of them. Still, it wasn’t by far the worst thing that James and Madi might have dragged home with them.

A knock on the door roused Thomas from his contemplation. Marlowe stirred in his lap and placed a possessive paw over his hand.

“A man to see you, my Lord,” the butler’s voice had brought Thomas out of his easy chair. “A rather distinctive character, I dare say.”

“Thank you, Ellsworth. Does the man have a name?”

But even as he spoke, Thomas had already glimpsed the man in question as he loomed behind Ellsworth in the vestibule, in the only way that a man like that could loom, considering he was significantly shorter than Thomas and was also missing a key appendage.

“Oh… my god,” Thomas emitted and let go of Marlowe, who landed on his feet in a manner most becoming a feline and then hissed in indignation at the new arrival. If that was… if this was really… Well, he was shorter than Thomas had imagined. “Are you him?”

“That depends. And are you him?”

“I am Lord Thomas Hamilton, the fifth Earl of Ashbourne. And you are in my house.”

“I am John Silver. I believe you might be acquainted with my wife.”

“Oh,” Thomas’ elegant white hand rose and pressed against his lips, “my stars.” His eyes swept up and down the form of the man before him, taking his entire essence in. No, this was definitely not what he had pictured. There was quite a bit that James had held back. For example, the fact that he had been so… um… so very… “I don’t know whether to embrace you or slap you, quite frankly.”

“Well, that isn’t particularly hospitable of you,” Silver clenched his jaw, shifting his weight over from the crutch onto his one good leg.

“I’ll be honest with you. It appears I have buried my last fuck around the time that we had dug up that treasure of yours. Since that moment, I have found very little benefit in being either polite or hospitable. And how have you been?”

Marlowe performed sleek figure-eights around his ankles, and Thomas saw it fit to pick the cat up again, if only to hold him against his chest as some kind of a shield against the unexpected, surplus intrusion.

“I understand you may not have ample reason to like me,” Silver nodded and his hair fell over his face. What Thomas would not give to have hair like that. An image of James running his fingers through those curls immediately came to mind, but he forced it away. For now. “I seek no quarrel with you. I merely came here looking for my wife.”

“What makes you think I know where she is?”

“The Lightbringer? The Maroon Queen? They’re not exactly being subtle, are they? It did not take long to put it all together once I realized that Madi had liberated Flint. And then again, you are living here, under your real name. So… where are they?”

His eyes had also been strikingly beautiful, Thomas found. How could anyone look into those eyes long enough and not feel a distinct desire to drown in them? And then, of course, there was his physique, which he had to imagine had been even more impressive about a decade ago, when he and James had first met.

James is not home,” Thomas finally uttered. “I’d invite you to wait for him, but that feels like a terrible sort of an idea, far worse than using that lost treasure for a slave rescuing operation.”

“They’re out there right now, aren’t they? For all you know, they could both be dead.”

Silver’s jaw muscles moved beneath the taut skin of his face, as if pulled by the strings of an expert puppeteer. It must have taken great effort for him to maintain so menacing an aura, with such pretty a face. At least he did have a rather piratical beard still, just as Thomas imagined. But instead of making him look particularly fearsome, it lent a certain melancholy starkness to Silver’s features that Thomas could not help but find rather fetching.

“Yes, quite,” Thomas finally spoke, reminding himself to focus on the man’s unimpressive height instead of his almost cherubic facial attributes. “But then again, I’ve had these past eight years or so with James, and that’s a lot longer than I ever thought possible. In some way, I suppose I have you to thank for that, don’t I?” Then he shook his head, scattering the clouds around his thoughts. “I’m so terribly sorry for being so contrarian, you’ve caught me entirely off guard. Are you really here?”

“I am corporeal, if that’s your question.”

Corporeal, indeed, and by the looks of it quite exhausted. It almost made Thomas’ heart relent, only he had never thought he’d get this chance at all. Who was he to throw away such an opportune moment? And, if Marcus Aurelius had been right, and there was nothing indeed that happened to any man that he was not formed by nature to bear, then John Silver should bear it like a man.

“You broke his heart.”

“Beg your pardon?” Silver squinted.

“James. You broke his heart, you know that, don’t you?” He allowed his words to sink in, taking in the wilting of Silver’s face, the slackening of his jaw, the drooping of his eyelids. “Oh, it had taken me some time to see it. It had taken him quite some time to explain to me what had passed, to even mention you. And when he finally did, he did so without rancor nor recriminations. He had forgiven you, you see. For your base betrayal, for your lack of faith, for your inability to love him the same way he had loved you.”

“Please… Lord Hamilton,” Silver’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed the knot around his words, “I only came here to speak to my wife.”

“And it occurred to you to seek her out at the house of your former partner’s lover.”

“They’d always had a… connection. It seemed logical.”

“Hm,” Thomas intoned. “Logical. Yes, I’m sure you had been driven here purely by logic. What makes you think then, logically speaking, that she is indeed still your wife?”

Thomas had not been by nature a cruel man. Not even years of incarceration had turned him towards cruelty, although it had certainly made him a touch more cynical. And yet, there was something about this spectre from James’ past that made a wave of protectiveness rise up inside his heart that threatened to subsume his kinder instincts.

Silver had bitten his lips red. His hand gripped his crutch with such force that it threatened to break beneath the pressure. “I did not think I could simply show up on your doorstep, my Lord, and demand to see him,” he squeezed through clenched teeth.

“Finally, the truth,” Thomas sighed and scratched behind Marlowe’s ears. “Come inside, Mr. Silver. I’ll have food and drink brought. You look like you’ve had a long day.”

“What about…?”

“Oh, they’re really not home,” Thomas waved his hand in a gesture of futility and beckoned Silver to follow him into the sitting room. “You did not think I was lying, did you, Mr. Silver? I must say I feel far too old to challenge you to a duel over such aspersions, but Marlowe here has very sharp claws.”

The rhythmic stomp and drag of Silver’s crutch and one good leg against the parquet stopped a few steps behind Thomas. He had almost turned to look at Silver again, but thought better of it when he heard the man’s words. “I did not mean to…” He sounded so young and Thomas could remember James speaking of him like this, how easy it had been to forget how young Silver had been back then. “I had intended to mend his heart, not break it.”

Thomas swallowed and pulled his easy chair closer to the fire. “You should tell him.”

***

Chapter Text

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
John Milton, Paradise Lost

***

They crept into the manor house like thieves in the night, shedding their overcoats by the servants’ entry and stopping by the kitchen, where Madi, still in high spirits from their latest hunt, grabbed hold of a bottle of ale and a loaf of bread, and threw the latter towards James, who nearly dropped it.

“You’re losing your touch, old man,” Madi taunted.

“You were not complaining earlier today when this old man sent a number of younger men to dine with Hades.”

“To dine with Hades, yes,” she grinned, unstoppering the bottle and taking a long swallow. “Let me be your Persephone then and let us not awaken poor Thomas.”

“He worries. I should let him know we’re back.” James stretched out his hand to take the bottle from her and take a swallow in turn. “To another good night’s work, Captain.”

Madi threw her arm around James’ neck and, still giggling, stumbled with him into the sitting room, half-drunk on triumph and giddy with delight. The flames in the fireplace had been banked down, but it still warmed the part of the room where two armchairs sat as if awaiting their tired bodies. James collapsed into the closest one and Madi was about to take the seat opposite his when she squealed like a proper society lady who had seen a mouse and fell into James’ lap instead.

In the opposite chair, John Silver opened his eyes.

“Jeeeeesuuuuus,” he drawled out, his eyes focusing like two cannons upon Madi and James, who sat thunderstruck with their arms still around each other in the chair across from him. “I know Thomas has this whole ‘know no shame’ thing going, but you two… Really.”

Madi jumped off of James’ lap, and he too pushed himself out of the chair and unfurled to his full height, standing over Silver’s recumbent form.

“So, what then?” Silver continued, not bothering to rise in turn. “Took my ring off, did you? Are you wearing his now?”

Madi had still been clutching the bottle of ale in her hand, so she brought it to her lips and took a long swig. Then another. She would laugh. She should laugh. Only, in every scenario that she had envisioned where she might be confronted with Silver again, none of them had ever gone exactly like this.

“What if I am?” she asked.

“Madi!” James shook his head.

“Don’t scold me, old man,” she snapped and fixed her eyes upon Silver again. “Why the fuck are you here, John?”

“After a while, it dawned on me you were not planning on ever coming back.”

Madi sighed and looked over at James for support. “I should leave,” he muttered instead.

“Don’t you fucking dare,” she whispered at him, hotly. “Besides, you live here. If anyone should leave, it’s him,” she nodded towards Silver.

“Madi…” James repeated, his voice full of the resplendent note of pleading compassion that had never stopped having its effect on her. He was a better man than she was.

“I thought, when I first left,” she spoke quickly, avoiding looking at Silver too closely, knowing very well that she was not ready to face what she had the smallest glimpse of there before, “that if I found him where you said he would be, that I’d be able to forgive you. To put it all behind us. So I went, and I found him. And there he was.”

“There he is,” Silver echoed her, his own voice quiet and contained.

“But it was not enough,” she continued. “I could not go back. Can’t you see? I can only move forward.”

“And he took you… forward?” Silver asked, his eyes flicking briefly over to James.

“I should leave,” James repeated and moved towards the staircase.

“Don’t you dare!” both Silver and Madi hissed at him in unison.

James halted at the bottom of the staircase. The sound of soft footsteps made him lift his head to behold Thomas, with his hand upon the railing, in his dressing gown and slippers and eyes still half-full of sleep.

“I see you’ve found our guest,” he said softly, taking the few extra steps down the stairs and wrapping his arms around James’ neck. “Welcome back, love.” He pulled James into a kiss, at once soft and possessive, his hand clutching hungrily at the shock of auburn hair at the nape of James’ neck.

***

The bed was far too soft for any reasonable man to sleep in. Silver twisted and turned and bit into his pillow. His hand traveled down his body and wrapped around his infuriatingly solid cock that would give him no peace.

“We should all get some rest,” Thomas had said. “Things might seem less… murky… in the morning.”

It was easy for him to say. He knew whom he was taking to bed with him that night, fucking Thomas Hamilton!

Silver had not even had the strength to get off the cart when they had brought Flint to Oglethorpe’s plantation. Their farewells, such as they were, had been so fleeting, it was as if Flint was already long gone, as if he had never been there at all. And Silver had wanted more than anything to reach over and wrap his arms around the man in front of him, whoever he was, James McGraw, James McFlint, this phantom that would always haunt his waking dreams. He wanted to hold on to him for just one more moment, so that he could feel, as surely as Silver had felt, how impossible it was to let him go. He could not bear the thought of it. The thought of him reunited with his love, his truest love. Whatever Silver might have been to him, it must have paled in comparison to that. He could not bear the thought of it, and he could certainly not bear the sight of it.

And now, there it was. Before his eyes. Thomas Hamilton. Alive and breathing and wrapping his arms around Flint… around James… whoever he was. Kissing him like that, with such tenderness, with such certainty, as if nothing and no one else existed in the world.

Silver had made that happen. Silver had given that to Flint. He had reached into the past, and he had torn Thomas Hamilton from the veil to return him to the man he loved. Why then… had Flint not loved him for it?

His unruly cock throbbed angrily against the satin sheets.

And Madi. The way she had looked at Flint earlier that night, with that same radiant love that he had seen in her eyes at Skeleton Island once they had taken the Eurydice. He saw no other choice then but to separate them, for without separating them, there would never be an end to their war, an end to their mutual horror. And here he found them again, laughing at him, with their arms around each other. What was she to Flint? His new Mrs. Barlow? His new Mrs. Flint?

He did not want to imagine it, but the images flooded his brain. Her beautiful dark skin aglow against the paleness of Flint’s, her fingers tracing over the freckles and scars peppering his chest, her luscious lips sliding against Flint’s own equally lush lips, their bodies writhing together covered in blood and fuming with the catharsis of the afterglow of battle.

“Fuck...no…” he moaned into his pillow and bit into it again, tasting the down. His hand stroked up and down his engorged flesh, throbbing with painful want at each new image that his cruel mind conjured to torture him.

Images of Flint, naked and sated, his eyelids half-closed over those verdant jewels that he dared call eyes. Images of Flint licking his lips that still glistened from… No, god damn it! It was his own fucking mind, he could choose what they had been glistening from. Yes. Flint’s lips wrapped around his cock, eyes shut in ecstasy, moans of deep, bone-melting pleasure sending shivers through both their bodies. “Fuck, Captain… you look so good like this…”

It gave Silver some satisfaction to at least think about those satin sheets of Lord Hamilton’s now ruined with his spunk. Spilled in the name of Flint’s glorious mouth.

How was he supposed to face them all on the morrow? You should tell him, Thomas had said. And Silver resented him, because it had all be so easy for him, wasn’t it. Know no shame. But Silver could not even put a name to it. To name it would have reduced it. To name it would have made the other things no more. James, my truest love. No, no, he did not have the right words. If he had, he would have said them to Flint long ago.

My friend. My captain. My love. My all.

He should have thrown himself off the cliffs on Maroon Island. He never should have come here. They loved each other and he had lost them both. So long ago now, it seemed.

***

For a man who had Flint and Madi on his mind, Silver sure seemed to be spending an awful lot of time with Thomas Hamilton. But breakfast had been served and he wasn't some kind of philistine, so he wasn't going to refuse an invitation from the man who had so generously opened his doors to him, despite having every reason in the world to invite him to go fuck himself. (Which Silver did, anyways, without invitation.)

“I won't even ask,” Silver muttered when the sound of clashing swords sounded over their heads.

“James and Madi like to practice in the morning,” Thomas explained, buttering his scone.

“Are they always this…”

“Boisterous? Not quite. One should think they had something to work out. I can't imagine what.”

Silver smirked and reached for one of the scones himself. They were still warm. So, this was the real reason Madi left: how was he to compete with warm scones and proper clotted cream?

“You’re not what I imagined you would be,” Silver looked up at Thomas, kneading the scone with his fingers.

“I suppose I could say the same about you,” Thomas replied, seeming unperturbed. The damn cat had made a reappearance, jumping deftly onto the table, and, to Silver’s surprise, making a quick line right towards him. “Marlowe, where are your manners?” Thomas chided. Undeterred, the cat settled right next to Silver and attempted to butt his chin with his furry, ginger forehead.

“Um… he’s sweet,” Silver mumbled, not sure what he was supposed to do with the damn feline. Birds he had grown to understand. He hadn’t been around a cat since Betsy gave them all the heave-ho after Randall’s accident.

“Cats, you know, can tell when a person is troubled,” Thomas remarked, drinking his tea with the kind of composure Silver envied. “The good ones, like Marlowe, like to offer comfort the only way they can.” Silver reached out and uncertainly ran his fingers through the silky, ginger fur. “They say cats also know when a person is going to be ill or die, and will go sit upon that person’s bed, a grim harbinger, if you will.”

“That’s…” Silver stopped petting the cat.

“It isn’t true of course. They merely sense the change in body temperature and like to keep warm.”

“...Nice.”

“I’m going to ask Madi to accompany me to Bath today,” Thomas continued in that same nonchalant air. “I’m feeling rather arthritic. The years spent at Bedlam were not as medicinal as may have been hoped. I fancy a few days of minerals. Three should suffice, don’t you think?”

“Beg pardon?”

“Three days. Without me or Madi. I trust you will remain in the house. I would hate to leave James all alone. Marlowe isn’t much of a conversationalist.”

Silver’s heart sped up and his hands trembled to the point that he had to place the silverware down. The imprint of the knife handle cut across his palm from where he had apparently been feverishly clenching it.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because he won’t do it himself.”

“I know he won’t do it himself, but… why?”

“Look me in the eyes and tell me you want me and Madi to stay and I will send James away instead.”

“He would do that? Be sent away?” Silver asked, the hair rising on the back of his neck.

“He would do as I ask, yes.”

The cat was rubbing his entire face all over Silver’s chin, and Silver suspected it had less to do with comforting him than with enjoying the scratchy feel of his beard. He grabbed the furball off the table and placed him into his lap. He was going to get cat hair all over himself, but it did buy him some time to compose his thoughts, such as they were.

At last, he met Thomas’ eyes. “Three days may not be enough.”

“I figure if the two of you don’t kill each other on the first day, three days should be sufficient.” Above their heads the sound of metal clashing with metal came to a halt. “Think fast, Mr. Silver. They will be down here to break their fast any minute.”

“Yes.”

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, do…” Silver gestured towards Thomas with uncertain fingers. “Do what you suggested. Go to Bath.”

“Good, then it’s settled,” Thomas resumed sipping his tea. Above their head, a door slammed, footsteps shifted down the corridor. “Be gentle with him, Mr. Silver. That man has been through so much and can go through so much more, and yet… If you’re going to return him to me, do so unscathed.”

Silver’s eyes burned. He was about to make some kind of a reply. Either an empty platitude or a sincere supplication, he had not quite settled on which. And wasn’t that a common problem? But then the doors to the dining room opened and Madi and Flint swam into the room like two bellicose swans in their matching white chemises and black trousers and Silver remembered how he got himself into this mess in the first place.

It seemed he was constantly being put in a position to make some kind of an impossible choice.

“Madi, my dear,” Thomas spoke, rising momentarily to kiss Silver’s wife upon a flushed cheek, “I was just telling Mr. Silver that I’d like you to accompany me to Bath for a few days.”

“I’d love to,” she said, avoiding Silver’s eyes, and instead focusing her gaze across the table, where Captain Flint, or whoever he was these days, sat with an unreadable look upon his impossibly handsome face.

***

Chapter Text

Our state cannot be severed, we are one,
One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself.
John Milton, Paradise Lost

***

James had walked Thomas and Madi to the carriage and kissed them both farewell, wishing them a safe and enjoyable journey.

“Use your time wisely, darling,” Thomas spoke, hand lingering on the side of James’ neck.

“Try to forget we exist,” Madi suggested with a coy smile.

“You are both quite impossible, you know that?” James said as endearingly as he could and waved the carriage off.

He waited for the sound of the horses’ hooves to dissipate in the distance and shivered from the brisk winter air. It looked as if snow flurries were about to descend over his unprotected head. It would be warmer inside, he told himself. One foot in front of the other then, he commanded, and began the walk back towards the manor.

He found Silver exactly where he had left him: at the empty dining room table, absentmindedly petting the cat. He was refusing to look up and meet James’ eye, which worked to his favor, because this way, in this quiet obstinacy, he could look his fill at Silver at last, without being seen in return.

He looked exhausted, like a man who had been on a voyage without end, a man who had spent more nights awake than asleep. His face was cut with worry lines that made his already deeply set eyes look even more striking and haunted. His beard seemed freshly groomed, however, as if he had done his best to look as presentable as possible, and his coat had the look of a new acquisition about it.

He was still beautiful, the way the devil had been the most beautiful of angels before the Fall.

“Either Marlowe here thinks I’m about to die,” Silver spoke, without lifting up his eyes, “or I just happen to have the warmest lap in this household.” James watched as Silver’s tongue flickered out over his parched lips.

“Hang on. I have something that I think might make this… more palatable.”

He ducked into the kitchen, spooking the help just long enough to find what he had been looking for, and came back into the dining room to discover once again that Silver had not moved. Either Marlowe was an incredibly hypnotic creature, or this was going to be the longest three days of James’ entire life.

“Here,” James said, uncorking one of the bottles and filling two cups with the dark liquid. “This should…” What? Loosen your tongue? Take the edge off? “It’s cold outside,” he concluded awkwardly.

Silver reached for the cup and brought it to his nose for a suspicious sniff.

“It’s not poisoned,” James stated, trying with all his might to keep the offended edge out of his voice.

“Rum?”

“Yes.”

“Where the hell did you get rum in Bristol?”

“I’m a pirate,” James shrugged.

“I thought you were a fisherman,” Silver shot back after taking a gulp. “Captain James Barlow of the Miranda.”

“You’ve done your research.”

“You did not make it easy for me.”

James took another pause and filled the lingering silence with sips of his own drink. It tasted somehow of the sea, long nights spent over the embers of a flickering fire, of Eleanor Guthrie’s sweaty forehead. He placed the drink back onto the tablecloth and looked over at Silver again. Those haunted eyes looked wet and impossibly blue.

“I’m sorry about Madi,” James started again. “It was her choice. You know I would never have tried to…”

“I did not come here for Madi.”

They both reached for their drinks again, their stomachs settling into the pleasant warmth of the liquor.

“That little gift she left me on Skeleton Island, it was effective,” Silver continued. “And, well… I’m not a fucking idiot. Thank you for that, by the way. I followed your fucking map there. I imagine you all had quite the laugh at my expense over it. The only thing I don’t get is why the fuck would you have given it to Billy Fucking Bones!”

“What are you talking about? I left it with Featherstone to give to you.”

Silver’s face contorted. “You’re fucking shitting me.”

“No.”

“Featherstone knew?” James nodded. “And Max? Max knew too, didn’t she?”

“Max paid our ransom.”

Silver laughed and downed the rest of his drink. “I imagine then you all had quite the laugh. Ha ha, the joke’s on me! Looks like Governor Featherstone, at least, took fucking pity on me and decided not to give me your elaborate fuck-you.”

“Funny,” James smiled in spite of himself. “That’s exactly what Thomas had called it at the time.”

“Your Thomas is one poncy bitch.”

“Watch your mouth!” James’ voice rose to commanding levels and Silver visibly shivered.

“I’m sorry,” he quickly added. “You love him.” The way Silver had uttered that word, one would have thought he had been saying the filthiest of things about your entire familial lineage. James frowned and refilled their cups with more rum.

“What happened to Billy?”

“Oh… that,” Silver snorted and took another gulp. “Heard he’d been mouthing off about your treasure map in Port Royal. Hands and I paid him a little visit. He died like a bitch upon seeing the black spot. Shat himself too, you might be interested in learning.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“You’re fucking unbelievable, you know that?” Silver laughed. “That man tried to kill you… I lose count how many times. And you’re sorry.”

“You tried to kill me, too,” James reminded him. “And I forgave you.”

“Who are you right now? James McGraw? James Barlow? Is there anything of Captain Flint still left in there? What is it that you call yourself when you sail with the Maroon Queen?”

“I’m just a man,” James replied. “You know me. You know my story.”

And that had been it all along, hadn’t it? He had been an open book to Silver and Silver had used it to destroy everything they had created together. Did he know back then, as they stood in that jungle, and as Silver pointed that gun at James’ chest, that James had loved him? Because James sure as hell hadn’t known, not until so much later, when Thomas had reminded him what it meant to love again.

“So that’s it, is it? We’re back at the beginning. I know your story and you don’t know mine.” Silver gave James ones of those shit-eating grins that he excelled in handing out whenever he was in pain and attempting to cover it up. “Except that’s not true anymore, is it? You have become my story. To this day, when people say my name, they say yours right alongside it. They say all kinds of things about us. They say we were so close that we could feel each other’s heartbeat miles away. They say we could visit each other in our dreams. They say…”

“Why are you here, John?”

It was the same question that Madi had asked the night before, minus the expletive. James was hoping for a very different answer. Otherwise, he was not sure he had it in him to continue this discussion. He reached for the bottle and refilled his own cup again and then pushed the liquor over towards Silver.

Silver rose from his chair, balancing precariously on one leg, his crutch still propped up against the table. The last time they had faced each other like this, James sitting down, Silver looming in half-darkness, had been aboard the Lion. When victory was in their grasp. When James, when Captain Flint, had put it all on the line to save Madi, to save the war, to save their faltering friendship. He had still believed in them, back then. He had still believed in them even as Hands, Gunn, and Morgan dragged him off in shackles from Skeleton Island.

“You were right,” Silver said. His eyes even had that same look of earnest moisture that James remembered so clearly from that moment of betrayal. Perhaps this would be the day that Silver finally did what he had been unable to do back then. Take his revenge and end it, once and for all. “About everything. About what would become of us. Of me.”

“I did not want that for you,” James whispered, his throat parched.

“I made an impossible choice back then. Do you understand? It was an impossible choice. It felt as if I was cutting off my other leg to save my life!”

“Is that what you came here to say to me?” James spoke, each word lacerating his throat. Silver looked at the table between them and for a moment James thought he would overturn it.

“Please… help me, Captain.”

James was out of his seat and at Silver’s side in the blink of an eye, worried that the other man might be about to fall over. His hand tentatively reached out and wrapped around Silver’s shoulder.

“What do you need?”

Silver’s eyes locked on his and a cry tore from his lips that nearly rend James asunder. “You!” he said. “I need you. I’ve always needed you.”

James swayed. His thumb pressed into the sinew of Silver’s shoulder, rubbing small circles into the tense flesh.

“You have me,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “I am here.”

Silver shifted closer, his own hand bracing against James’ opposite arm. His fingers traveled up haltingly, while James’ eyes dropped to Silver’s lips, and finally brushed against his neck, Silver’s thumb settling gently over the hollow between James’ collarbones.

“Please,” Silver whispered again. “Please let me…”

James’ other hand lifted and came to rest around Silver’s narrow waist and he shut his eyes. His own heartbeat resounded like a drum against his ribcage, echoed in his ears. His own heartbeat, or perhaps their shared heartbeat. The missing piece of him that had called out to him across the ocean and the years. James pulled gently, and Silver’s body pressed against his, their lips meeting, at first tentative, then, as if two souls recognizing each other from a long celestial journey, in a ravenous, indelible collision.

He moaned, or perhaps Silver did. James opened his mouth to find it immediately filled with Silver’s probing tongue, Silver’s hands leaving scorch marks over his body, grasping at the muscles of his lower back, at his shoulderblades, fingers tugging at his hair. Silver kissed as if he wanted to devour him, as if James had been everything he had been thirsting for his entire life.

“Forgive me,” Silver whispered in between kisses. Diving back to bite at James’ lips and to lick over them as they swole under his assault. “Forgive me… Captain… God.”

Their bodies rocked into each other and this time, James was certain he was the one who had moaned, pushing back against Silver, his own hands tangling in those long, loose curls, still as thick and wild as ever. He held Silver still while he mouthed at his jaw, letting their beards snag and pull against each other, he pulled Silver back by the hair, baring his long throat to the assault of his tongue and teeth.

“Fuck… fuck…. Captain… Jesus...” A soft litany of desire trickled against James’ earlobes. “Please.”

“Upstairs,” James mouthed into Silver’s neck, concerned that if they remained in the dining room a moment longer, something entirely uncouth would happen on top of the table. And then, James may never be able to eat again.

“Yes…” Breathlessly, Silver steadied himself against James’ chest. “I can’t move.”

“I can carry you,” James suggested with a smile. Silver opened his mouth to protest, but instead James pressed his thumb against his lips. “You once said pride should not be an issue between us.”

“It’s not that,” Silver replied against the thumb, mouthing at it and wrapping his tongue around the digit filthily. “It’s that I hear you’re an old man now. We wouldn’t want you to throw out your back before we even get upstairs.”

“You shit,” James bit at his earlobe and swept the crutch up with his own hand. “Here. After you.”

***

Upstairs, James halted, the reason for his hesitation becoming immediately obvious to Silver.

“Guest room,” Silver quickly suggested, pulling James into the room where so recently he had spent a long and mostly sleepless night. Whatever they were about to do, Silver sure as shit didn’t want to do it in Thomas Hamilton’s bed. That was no way to repay the man for his hospitality, even though this was precisely the kind of thing the sly fox had left them alone for in the first place. “Now, where were we?” he asked, hands already pulling at James’ undone collar.

“Kissing, mostly.”

James hooked his foot around his one good ankle and Silver found himself back on top of his bed, his lap suddenly full of a very different purring ginger. A much more welcome addition than the cat, in his opinion. Silver shut his eyes, reveling in the feel of James’ weight settling over him, James’ strong hands pinning his arms over his head against the pillows, the burn of his beard along Silver’s neck making him buck up into the heat between their bodies helplessly.

“James…” Silver sighed in contentment. “I’d never called you that before. Is it…”

“It is my name.”

“But you’re still my Captain. You know that?”

“If you insist.”

His lips had descended over Silver’s again, erasing all thought, turning his entire focus onto that one part where their mouths and tongues slid against each other and savored each soft moan. Kissing Flint… kissing James like this… He suspected it might feel this way, so all-consuming that it would burn the very corners of his soul. But the reality of it was… so much more overwhelming, so terrifying.

“Wait.”

James had disengaged immediately. It was such a quick movement that for a moment they were back upon those cliffs on Maroon Island, their swords locked in a combat that was never and could never be even.

“What’s wrong?” James asked, his thumb gently tracing over Silver’s brow. “Do you not want… this?”

“I want you,” Silver reiterated and laughed at the absurd thought and how foolishly it had come into his captain’s head. “I want you. Jesus Christ, I… I love you.” There, he said it. The look of consternation on James’ face, however, was not exactly celebratory.

“Then why are we stopping?”

“We’re not stopping. I just said… Wait.”

There was that little demon in his mind again that loved to play tricks on him. The little demon from his past, the one that did not exist, because he had no right to be acknowledged. No right to be part of his story.

“You wanted to know once who I was. Where I had come from,” Silver said carefully.

“You don’t have to,” James interjected quickly. “It’s not important.”

“It had no importance until this moment,” Silver conceded. “But now I find myself…” Vulnerable. Terrified. He still couldn’t say it, couldn’t explain it. He pulled James down and pressed their lips together, willing him to know his thoughts. “I was hoping we might still be of one mind,” he smiled even as he beheld the open concern in James’ eyes.

“I’ll be gentle,” James said, such little words, yet they struck Silver like a solemn vow. “I won’t hurt you. You’re safe with me.” It made him want to weep. How could such tenderness have been there, underneath the surface of Captain Flint, this entire time? What a fool he had been not to have seen it before. How willfully blind!

“I don’t mind if you hurt me,” Silver found himself saying. I deserve it, the unwelcome voice inside him said.

“I won’t hurt you,” James repeated and pressed his lips to Silver’s temple, traced them over his brows, down his nose, until they settled once more into a kiss of such pure longing that Silver wanted to die right then and there so that he could leave this life on a true high note. With each kiss, each touch of James’ warm, reassuring hands, Silver trembled a bit more. It had been so long since anyone had touched him like this. “May I remove your clothes?” James’ breath scalded Silver’s clavicles.

“I wish you would,” he stated with a lot more bravado than he actually felt.

James’ breath tickled his breast bone as he chuckled against his chest, his fingers moving down Silver’s body quickly, with practiced ease, knots loosened, buttons undone, until James’ entire face rubbed up and down the skin of Silver’s abdomen not unlike Marlowe had done earlier. Silver’s fingers sank into the thick forest of his captain’s regrown mane and pulled him back up. What a marvel this was, to be able to kiss this man, to be allowed to linger so close to the furnace of his mouth. Oh, if he were a poet, he would have composed odes upon that mouth!

His clothes fell to the floor, pushed asunder by James’ impatient body, as he tore his own shirt off and tossed it overboard with the rest.

“I did not think it could be like this,” Silver spoke in awe, his own hands reaching out, desperate to feel that exposed skin beneath his fingers.

James frowned over him, one hand pressing Silver’s against the mound of his pectoral muscle, right over his heart. “You knew though…” He struggled to find the right words. “You knew I… preferred men. Surely, you must have thought this was a possibility.”

“I never thought this was a possibility. That you might actually want me.” In retrospect, that did sound rather daft. And besides, he was utterly naked now, and James still held a partial, unfair advantage. “You loved Thomas. It was impossible to compete with so sacred a memory. And when I realized there was a chance he might still be alive, well…” He flexed his fingers, nails digging into the flesh over James’ heart. “Can you ever forgive me?”

James’ hand slipped from Silver’s and came to rest against his exposed hip. “Stupid boy.” He scooped Silver up into his arms, pulling him up by the hips so that his legs rested over the soft indents of the crook of James’ elbow. “I loved you.”

The past tense of it stung Silver to the core and he shut his eyes against the onslaught of emotion and sank his teeth into his lower lip. But then, hot breath tickling his inner thigh, teeth nipping at his skin, lips pressing to the side of his knee, so close to where all those years ago Howell’s saw had separated him from his leg to save his life and bound him to Flint’s. The shock of it bolted all the way up Silver’s spine, his cock twitched in helpless anticipation, and a soft litany of curses trickled from his lips.

“You’re inescapable, John Silver. I loved you even more after I lost you. I love you still.”

And then, that perfect mouth, that veritable Ignis Sacer engulfed him whole. “Jesus… Captain!” Silver’s eyes flew open and his hand tightened in the thicket of James’ hair. None of his most explicit fantasies had ever compared to the reality of Captain Flint’s mouth sliding over his engorged cock. Those lips, so pink and stretched tightly around his girth, the way that tongue seemed to know exactly where to dip and how to curve, finding the most sensitive parts of him, ripping moans of pleasure from him that made James moan in turn and smile up at him and dive back down to take him all the way to the root. “Motherfucker!” Bereft of eloquence, Silver vaguely wondered whether James preferred this to blaspheming. Unlikely.

“You think too much, you know that?” James’ soft words washed over him as the mouth was temporarily replaced by James’ hand. “Perhaps this is the root of all your problems. Overthinking.”

James’ hand dipped lower, gently massaging his balls, pressing against the skin of his perineum as Silver allowed his thighs to fall open. It was intoxicating to be giving himself to James like this, to literally be putting himself into the palm of this man's hand. James’ lips returned, first mouthing at each one of his balls in turn, then traveling back up the length of his cock, peppering it with gentle licks and kisses while his hand pushed further down and rested against Silver’s opening.

“We don’t have to go further,” James whispered against the coarse hairs of Silver’s pleasure trail. “This can be enough. I can make it enough.”

Silver was burning from the inside, as if his entire body had become the Walrus engulfed by flames. “Please, Captain,” he begged, bereft of all shame or doubts. “I need you. I need to feel you. All of you.”

Another gentle kiss pressed against the bone of Silver’s hip and James’ finger circled his opening cautiously. “You sure?”

“I trust you,” Silver spat out breathlessly. “Do you hear me? I trust you.

James looked up at him from between his thighs, eyes clouded by lust and longing, and something far more untenable. And it dawned on Silver that he had seen this look before, on Captain Flint’s face, when they were huddled so close together in the darkness, speaking of things that could have been. Would it have made a difference if they had become this, too? Or would it have only made an unbearable situation all the more unbearable?

James nodded slowly and then his body slid off of Silver and for a moment, a panic rose all the way up to his throat, and he nearly threw himself off the bed to keep James from leaving him.

“I’ll be right back,” James whispered, as if sensing his turmoil. “Don’t move,” he added, pointing sternly right at Silver’s erect cock.

Silver lay back against the pillows and closed his eyes again, taking a few deep breaths to calm his senses. Every nerve in his body was inflamed. If James came back… when James came back, when James touched him again, there was no telling whether the powder keg inside Silver would go off. He wasn’t sure he was going to survive this.

There had been too much love in James’ eyes. There had always been too much in his eyes. Too much hope, too much despair. He had done the best he could, Silver had thought at the time, he had given him what Flint had wanted most in the world. But perhaps he should have done more. Perhaps he should have given him himself instead.

The bed dipped, and Silver opened his eyes, refocusing them to the light of the setting sun as it slowly crept past the curtains. “Hey,” James’ voice was a purr against his earlobe. His thumb traced over Silver’s cheek and the delicate skin of his lower eyelids. “Have I ever told you how beautiful you are?”

“I don’t recall that Captain Flint really went for maudlin,” Silver snarked, unable to help himself.

“Have I ever told you that you talk too much?”

“Every day.”

“Good.”

James lifted his hand and Silver beheld a glass vial in it. “Dainty,” Silver smirked. An all too-familiar twitch pulled at James’ eye and Silver ran his fingers over the side of that beloved face, pulling at the skin there, brushing at the freckles right over the cheekbone. “I think you’re beautiful too, Captain.”

He leaned his head sideways, burrowing his face in James’ neck, inhaling the warmth and scent of it. He mouthed at the skin beneath his lips, wanting so much to mark but careful not to. James’ hand cradled the back of his skull, pressing him closer as he slotted his entire body alongside Silver’s and shimmying his trousers down his legs so they could finally feel each other, skin to skin.

The powder keg inside Silver still threatened to detonate. There was only one man who could disarm it, and that man now had both his arms wrapped around Silver’s body, one hand clutching with glorious possessiveness at Silver’s ass. Silver brimmed full, overflowing with emotion, yet not full enough.

“I’m sorry,” he breathed into James’ skin. “I’m so sorry. You have no idea how much I’ve missed you. Please… don’t make me wait any longer.”

James shifted above him, shoving a pillow under Silver’s hips. The look of concentration on his old captain’s face would have been rather amusing had Silver not been about to die from anticipation. If James changed his mind, if he stopped… Silver would not be held responsible for his actions.

Fortunately, James had no intention of stopping. He merely opened the little glass vial and poured oil over his fingers and then into the crevice between his loins, that beautiful hand that Silver had seen perform so many feats before now coming to touch him in a place that he never thought he’d let another man touch again. “Please,” he begged in earnest, his voice sounding very small to his own ears. And then James’ mouth was back on his, kissing him deeply, slowly and methodically taking Silver apart with his tongue and his teeth, as he inserted one slicked finger inside him and moved it in slow concentric circles. Silver kissed back harder, giving it to James as good as he got, half-mad with desire that surged through his entire body and clouded his mind. The finger slipped out only to be replaced by two and James stopped kissing him to whisper, “All right?” against his mouth.

“Don’t you fucking stop,” Silver growled and squeezed around James’ fingers to drive home his point.

James moved his hand again, fucking Silver slowly but surely with his fingers, scissoring them inside him, stroking up to brush against some deeply hidden part that made Silver buck off the mattress and claw at James’ back.

“Fuck… so good.”

“Yes,” James kissed him right below the earlobe. “You’re being so good. I’ll make you feel good, I promise.”

“Please, don’t stop,” Silver pleaded again, careless of the tears in his eyes. He’s never wanted anything in his life more than he wanted this man inside him.

“Hey,” James was kissing his eyelids, “Hey, look at me.” Silver’s eyes focused on two aquamarine circles around the blackness of James’ dilated pupils. “I’m right here.”

“Please, fuck me - ah!

James’ fingers dragged over that secret knot inside Silver, thrusting in and stretching him, three at a time now. Silver’s own hand jolted between their bodies and wrapped around James’ tumescent cock. The heft of it against the palm of his hand told Silver all he needed to understand: there was a very good reason why his lover was taking his time stretching him out and driving him to the brink of insanity. Silver ran his thumb along a prominent vein on the underside of James’ cock, which made his captain thrust his hips forward into his grip and sink his teeth into the corded muscle of his shoulder. His fingers dove further into Silver, all the way up to the third knuckle.

“I’m ready,” Silver emphasized his point by bearing down against James’ hand.

Wordlessly, James nodded and carefully pulled his fingers out. Silver was one step ahead of him, reaching for the glass vial and pouring its contents into his own hand, to rub the slickness over James’ cock.

“I’ve always suspected it was this glorious,” he could not help but insert.

“Shut up, Silver,” James whispered, their foreheads pressed together, his lips seeking out Silver’s lips, pulling on them with his teeth as he positioned his hips in between Silver’s spread thighs.

They slotted perfectly together, which was odd, because Flint had always seemed so much larger than life. But James merely picked his thighs up to wrap around his own hips, then pressed forward, and Silver melted away. The length of James’ cock dragged perfectly up and down his slickened channel, pressing up against that bundle of nerves that sent shocks up Silver’s spine and ignited the powder keg. Each thrust of James’ hips fucked an increasingly louder moan out of Silver, until he found himself screaming, with James shoving his hand over his mouth in a desperate attempt to contain his cries.

He licked at the hand. He bit into the soft flesh of it right under the thumb. His fingers criss crossed James’ back and left angry red trails in their wake.

“I love you,” he moaned into James’ mouth as the hand moved away. “Oh god… I love you. Please... Please, James… I…”

Words caressed his ear, soft words, words of love and reassurance. He had called him beautiful, he had called him his angel, he had told him how good he was, and all Silver could say in response was “Please.” Yes, yes, all of it. He wanted all of it. He needed more. He was selfish and greedy. Please. He could not live without this again. More. He was going to die if James pulled out. Don’t stop. He was dying… he was pretty sure he was dying.

James’ hand was wrapped around his cock, pulling the last spasms of ecstasy from Silver’s body while his own hips stuttered and stilled, his body slumping over Silver’s and clinging to his, their skin melting together over a mixture of sweat and spent seed. James’ weight was a lot to bear, but Silver wrapped whatever limbs he had left around him, and pressed him close, preventing him from rolling off.

The sun had set, casting the guest room into the shadows of dusk. The only sound filling the space was their breathing and the ticking of an old standing clock in the corner.

Silver wiped at the moisture on his own cheek and shut his eyes again. In the dark, there is discovery. There is possibility. There is freedom in the dark, once someone has illuminated it. For the first time in eight years, he could sleep without being haunted by those words.

***

Chapter Text

Then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.
John Milton, Paradise Lost

***

“Madi, my dear, you’ve never been married in a church before, have you?” Thomas asked, adjusting the veil over Madi’s brow.

“This is ridiculous, Thomas, I am not a virgin.”

“Quit fussing. You look incredible. I cannot wait to give you away. Your future husband, I believe, has also never been married in a church before.”

“We’re not making babies for you, Thomas,” she squeezed his elbow, walking up the aisle towards the altar, where her bridegroom awaited her, looking strikingly handsome and more than a little embarrassed.

“But look at him..,” Thomas whispered.

“I can still murder you and inherit all your property,” Madi whispered back.

“Not under British laws,” Thomas murmured, kissing her demurely on her cheek and handing her hand over into the extended hand that awaited her. “By your leave, Reverend Father,” Thomas nodded and stepped off to the side.

“We are gathered here in the eyes of the Lord to unite Mister James Barlow and Lady Madison Scott in holy matrimony,” the priest intoned. “Who gives this woman away to be wedded?”

“I do,” Thomas pronounced cheerfully, bouncing up and down on his tiptoes.

“If there is anyone here who knows of a reason why these two people should not be united in wedlock, speak now.”

Other than the scraping of a wooden crutch against the marbles from the back of the chapel, no other sound could be heard.

“Then we shall continue,” Thomas prodded with alacrity. “I have the rings!”

***

Leaving the church with her arm entwined with James’, Madi beamed up at her newly anointed husband. “Thomas is right. You look very dashing.”

“And you look good enough to eat yourself,” James wiggled his brows at his bride and handed her into their carriage.

“About your future children,” Thomas walked up behind them.

“Thomas!” Madi exclaimed, entirely scandalized.

“I’m not joking this time. This was of course a brilliant way to ensure that you and James can inherit all my estates and titles, with you being my female heir and all, but eventually you will need heirs of your own, Madi. Otherwise my estate will revert back to those bloody gits in London. And if that happens, my ghost will haunt you in your afterlife, so help me!”

“Well, perhaps that’s something that Silver can help out with,” James chuckled and immediately got smacked on the shoulder by Madi’s fan. “After all, this was his brilliant idea.”

“Speaking of Silver,” Thomas looked out the carriage window and knocked to the driver to halt the horses. The carriage door opened, John Silver hopped in with surprising grace. Thomas still found himself in awe at the fluidity of his movements at times.

“So, that went well,” Silver declared with a grin.

“You’re not invited to our consummation,” Madi pronounced loftily.

“What fucking consummation!” the three men in the carriage exclaimed in unison.

Madi laughed, her head falling onto James’ shoulder. “I don’t know how he thinks these babies are going to make themselves, my darling.”

James picked her hand up and placed a chaste kiss against her knuckles. “I’m going to miss you, my darling.”

“I know.”

***

The Lightbringer sped along the waves at full sail. At the rail of the poop deck, Madi lowered her spyglass and called out the requisite commands to prepare for coming to port. Land was in sight.

“I return the command of this vessel to you, Captain,” she turned, beaming, towards James who stood behind her, regarding her with eyes full of pride. “I was loath to leave you before, but now that you have your quartermaster back, I suspect you’ll be in good hands.”

“Please, Madam,” Silver interjected, putting his own spyglass away. “I am merely the cook.”

“And not a particularly good one, at that,” James smirked.

“Hey! How would you know?” Silver protested. “You haven’t let me cook for you since I moved in!”

“You will be good to him, won’t you, John?” she smiled at Silver, while giving him a stern look. “If I learn that anything has happened to my husband…”

“I would certainly not wish to incur the wrath of the Maroon Queen,” Silver replied with a courtly bow. “Also, Thomas would kill me. And I’ve been told Marlowe has very sharp clawsies.”

James laughed, throwing his arm around Silver’s shoulder and pulling him in so he could press a warm kiss to his curls.

“We’ll see each other regularly though,” she placed her hands into theirs. “Coming here will be your job now, since you’ll be taking over the supply lines once I'm settled in the new camp. And I’ll visit Bristol as often as I can, if only to see Thomas again.”

“Certainly. Why would anyone want to see us?” Silver taunted.

“You’re lucky you have a home,” Madi scowled at him.

Ouch.”

Madi relented and threw her arms around Silver’s neck, pressing him against her tightly. “Thank you, John Silver.”

“What for?” he asked, confused and blushing.

“You are as much a part of this Maroon Queen’s story as James is. You’ll always have a special place in my heart. Even if I did give my hand to another in marriage.” She shot James a playful look. “Don’t look at me like that, old man. You’ll make tears burst from my eyes and that isn’t how you raised me.”

“Please take care of yourself, Madi.”

“And you two, you must now love each other in my stead.”

“That will not be a problem,” Silver promised solemnly, pressing his hand to his heart. “Of course, I cannot speak for myself, but we all know that James’ heart is big enough to encompass all of us inside it.”

“Sweet talker,” James muttered, blushing in turn.

***

How natural it was to be standing in the middle of the captain’s cabin, looking into John Silver’s turbulent eyes. The gentle sway of the hull under the their feet, the crisp sea air caressing Silver’s loose curls through the open storm windows.

“It’s a long way back to Bristol,” Silver smiled. “What shall we do to pass the time?”

“C’mere, you little imp.”

James wanted to chew that smug grin right off his face, even if each smile was still a gift from heaven when he saw it illuminate Silver’s features. He pulled his lover closer, letting his lips trail down, starting at his hairline, and at last landing at his sought-after destination, sucking Silver’s lips and tongue into his mouth. How many more times would he have to press his naked body against Silver’s before he was allowed to truly believe that this happiness had been granted to him, he wondered, rocking with certainty into Silver’s touch. There, in the span between John Silver’s lips, lay his past and his future, and he dove into those waters, the all-consuming waters of his present, knowing full well that he would not be drowning in them. Not this time.

***

Henceforth an individual solace dear;
Part of my Soul I seek thee, and thee claim
My other half: with that thy gentle hand
Seisd mine, I yielded, and from that time see
How beauty is excelld by manly grace.

John Milton, Paradise Lost