They drop anchor off Tortuga for a few short hours. Mr Scott has noticed a problem with their ammunition stores and it warrants resolution before they reach Charles Town. Needing to find some space, Flint takes a jolly boat with some of the men and goes ashore. So much is riding on their mission and the constant state of alert is exhausting. With Miranda and Abigail aboard it's even harder to remember who he needs to be at any one time. Perhaps a bath would be in good order. Allow him time to gather his thoughts and make it easier for Peter to see beyond the changed exterior to the neat sailor he once knew.
Once his other business is complete he stops and asks the first person he sees where he might find a bathhouse. The man grins, looking him up and down. "You could do with a relaxing, I'll be bound," he says in broken French, and gives directions. Flint repeats them back. The man nods and, as Flint turns to walk away, says, "Tell the man on the door Nicodemus sent you."
"Nicodemus," echoes Flint. "Thank you."
The directions take Flint away from the main street and climbing over fallen beams in dark alleys. It all seems a little odd, but he's too distracted by concerns of the coming undertaking to pay close attention. The building itself is clean but unobtrusive; the man loitering outside picking his fingernails barely looks up at him as he stops by the door.
"Nicodemus sent me," says Flint, suddenly self-conscious for no reason he can understand.
The doorman only nods and gestures Flint inside.
Despite the bright day, the interior of the bathhouse is dim and it takes Flint's eyes a second to readjust. When they do he sees that he has been led into a terrible mistake. The semi-dressed and naked men are only to be expected, but what many of them are doing, and not even in the shadows…Christ! A brief surge of arousal is swamped immediately by rising fury. What had that man at the docks seen in him that he'd sent Flint this way? Before he can turn on his heel and leave, heading for the comparative safety of his ship, he sees a tall man, cropped hair bleached by the sun, with his arm round a man who sits across one broad thigh, and he can't look away.
"Oh," says Billy, looking at his Captain. "Well this explains a lot."
Immediately Flint's anger is overlaid by irritation. Does the man not have duties he should be fulfilling? "Billy," he snaps, "what are you doing here?"
And Billy says, "Same as you, probably, isn't it?" in that thinking way he has about him that makes it impossible for Flint to maintain his irritation. The anger, though, that stays.
"You're not angry really, are you?" says Billy against Flint's glare. "You're scared. I've been there often enough these past years to know when the one hides the other. And I have to wonder if the fear is that your presence here will get back to crew or because you have no clue what you're about.
"Of course," he continues, "why would I tell anyone I saw you here? It'd be just as bad for me, wouldn't it?"
Some small part of Flint relaxes. "I haven't ever..." he tells Billy. "Not like this."
Billy says, "What was his name?" and Flint just shakes his head and silently damns his bosun for his shrewdness.
Billy studies Flint's face for a quiet moment. Then he pushes his companion off his lap to much complaining, stands up and says, "Let me help you."
Flint considers, maybe this is the safest option. He trusts Billy as much as he trusts anyone. Besides, it's mutually assured destruction and he's deeply, achingly tired of being ashamed and of forcing himself not to feel the barest trace of attraction to anyone. Even sleeping with Miranda is no more than a chore that he performs entirely for her benefit. So he lets himself look at Billy for the first time--tall like Thomas and fair, but broader shouldered as befits the responsibilities of his life--and he thinks, oh hell, why not? and lets Billy lead him into a small room, sparsely furnished with a small bed, a chair and a table littered with ephemera, unstoppered vials leaking their heavy scents into the close air.
Billy starts to undress Flint and when Billy's fingers brush Flint's bare skin, Flint begins to shake. Billy tells him that everything will be all right and then leans down, leans in, to kiss him. Flint flashes on Thomas and almost pulls away, but Billy's hand is not cupping his face, but splayed across his back, his jaw is not smooth, but prickled with hairs that catch and lift his own, his kiss is not sweet. Not sweet at all, but it goes right to Flint's cock and so he kisses back, rubbing himself against Billy who pulls back and says, "Whoa there, slow down."
He lets Billy push him into the chair and pull off his boots and every second is a frustration because now he's given in to it, it's like a ravenous maw inside him, this hunger to touch and be touched. And then Billy drags Flint's breeches off, pushes his legs apart and kneels between them, bending his head to suck at a nipple. Flint jerks at the intensity of it, all these sensations he'd forgotten, tamped down, beaten into submission, and he wraps a hand round the back of Billy's head, the other gripping Billy's arm. Flashes of how easy it would be to take advantage now, to snap Billy's neck as he kneels, no one would have to know what he is. He fights the old, familiar demon back, letting in the swell of physical sensations, the heat at every place they touch. He wants to make a sound but he can't remember how and so it comes out as a choked off gasp.
Billy lifts his head and grins. "Salty," he says, "like the sea. Like you." And then his free hand drifts to Flint's cock and wraps round it. A labourer's hand, strong and steady, not like Thomas's soft palm, strength in a different way. More flashes now of the first time he and Thomas touched each other, desperate and needy and not fully understanding what was happening to them, stained, dishevelled uniform a peculiar badge of honour. Billy's lips against his jaw, by his ear, warm hand rocking like a fair wind, it's okay to want this, it's okay to have this, you're safe now, let go. And he does. And it's better than any prize. A hundred prizes. For a brief second, even Nassau is less important than the receding of the tidal wave of shame he's lived with so long. He is destroyed in its wake, his earth salted and damaged almost beyond repair. But he's alive and has two good hands and the will to win and it may be that the peace he's been striving for isn't just about being left alone.
"Thomas," he says. "His name was Thomas."
Billy nods. "I'm going to fuck you now, if you're amenable," he says cheerfully.
Flint freezes. He's the Captain; Billy is his subordinate. This isn't how it's supposed to go.
Billy says, "It doesn't make you any less of a man. You'll still strike fear into the hearts of men just by raising your banner. What we do in here has no bearing on what happens out there, you know that, right? You know what weird shit goes down in the brothel back home. Doesn't make 'em worse at their jobs, does it?"
He's rolling Flint's balls between his fingers as he speaks and it's almost too sensitive for him to bear. Given his usual wits, Flint could probably make a good argument against Billy's stance, but he's half out of them and besides, Thomas had always said much the same. He swallows and nods.
"Good call," says Billy. "This is why you're the boss."
Flint can't help but smile at that. He holds out his hands. "Where do you want me?"
Billy tugs him to his feet, turns him round to face the table, then pushes up against Flint's back, sliding his hands down Flint's arms, taking Flint's hands and bracing them together on the table. "Hmm," says Billy, and Flint can feel his hardness move against the ridges of his spine. "Could do without the thigh strain," Billy says and moves away.
Flint bites off the complaint that rises unbidden at the loss of touch, of skin on his skin. He's not ready to give so much to his bo'sun.
Billy says, "Bed. Hands and knees, I think. Sorry, it's not very dignified, but I'll make it good for you, I promise."
Flint narrows his eyes and turns to look at Billy who shrugs. He looks exactly the same as always does and in some unnamable way it's reassuring. "I'm not sticking my arse in the air while you prat about," he says. "Get ready, would you?"
Billy grins now. "Hard to break the habit of giving orders, is it?" But he gets his own boots and breeches off swift enough, sorting among the boxes and pots on the table for what he needs.
Flint's never seen him naked before and he seems so easy with it, erect cock swaying a little as he moves. It's flushed and ready and as sturdy as Billy himself and Flint swallows down the rush of saliva, feeling himself begin to stir again.
"Ready if you are," says Billy and, though a part of Flint still can't believe this is happening, he gets to his hands and knees, the creaking bed dipping more under Billy's weight as he settles in behind. He doesn't know what to expect, but it's definitely not Billy's hands running down his back, fanned either side of his spine, soothing. They track a little further down each time until they cup his buttocks, squeezing gently. One hand disappears and Flint hears a slick squelch and knows what's coming next.
"Gently," Billy says, and pushes in his lotion-covered thumb. It's an instinctive response to clench up, to fight against it, but he's been here before and breathes through it, relaxing around the pressure. Billy thrusts a few times experimentally and it's enough to cause Flint to catch his breath. He's missed this. Or he would have if he'd allowed himself to. He pushes back against Billy's hand. He won't beg, but there's nothing wrong with a little enthusiasm, is there?
"Fuck," Billy says and Flint manages not to snap out, yes, that's what I'm waiting for. And then the thumb is gone, there are further sounds of rustling and slickness and then the bed shifts again so he's forced to brace for balance and then Billy's there, thick head nudging up against him. Heat rolls over him as he flushes and it's impossible to tell if it's desire or the old shame returned. But Flint is tired of fighting.
"Do it," he says, and his world stretches wide.
"There, that wasn't so bad, was it?" says Billy afterwards.
Flint smiles, a slow curling smile. He thinks about Thomas and how they'd made love and talked for hours. He thinks about the first time he'd fucked Miranda and how it had felt inevitable, a necessary release. He thinks about Eleanor stalking into the brothel and handing a purse to Mrs Mapleton for Max, chin high, daring anyone to say anything at all about it. Come on and face her who was brave enough! His body feels relaxed and sated in a way it hasn't since before he first sailed for Nassau.
"It's a complicated thing, life," he says.
"I'll take that as a yes," says Billy.
They sit in silence for a few moments. If it had been him and Thomas, perhaps he would have wrestled Thomas to the mattress and made him recite poetry, perhaps they would have held each other in silence. Perhaps they would have huddled together over their plans for Nassau, spilled ink staining the sheets. But this is not that. This is its own thing and maybe acceptable in its own right.
"Come on," says Billy.
And Flint says, "Come where?"
"Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but we both stink. And now we stink of each other. I don't know about you, but I want a bath."
Flint raises his eyebrows. He had asked for a bathhouse after all and there's still time before they have to weigh anchor. He stands up and gathers his clothes. "After you," he says.
"You know," says Billy, when they're clean as they're going to be in water that gets replaced once a week at best and Flint has shrugged on his coat, "given the right time and circumstance we could do this again. If you like and if I can keep from hating you long enough. I understand if you'd rather not, Captain."
"James," says Flint. "My name is James."