"I'm not saying I'm wedded to the plan," says Flint, "but it's the best I have."
Billy absent-mindedly pets the ship's cat perched beside him on the bumpkin as she swipes her paw at the hook he has baited. He drops the line, following its stretch aft before he turns his full attention to Flint.
"And which dozen men are expendable to you exactly? Mr Shearer who, yes, may occasionally get too cosy with the dairy goat for comfort but who's the best rigger we've got? Or Mr de Vries who's a lazy shit, but has a voice like God touched him and spins yarns that make the men forget they're tired and hungry? Or Mr Scott? Or Joji? Or will you just choose the ones whose names you don't know?"
Flint thumps the poop deck rail with the side of a closed fist. "None of them are expendable, Billy. That's the issue, isn't it?" He grunts in frustration. "Christ, it was so much easier before-" He breaks off, not prepared to finish the thought.
Billy frowns and finishes it for him. "Before me, you mean? Before I fucked you into having a conscience."
"That's not what I- Dammit, Billy!"
But before Flint can begin to formulate any kind of explanation, let alone a coherent one, a horrifying concatenation of circumstance: the cat stretching too far for the taut length of twine, Billy scooping her up before she can fall, the ship pitching before his balance is regained and Billy plunging forward in agonising slow motion.
Without thought Flint throws himself forward, catching Billy's outflung arm by the narrowest of margins, immediately clamping his other hand further down his arm, strengthening his grip. For a brief, frozen moment he stares into Billy's wide, terrified eyes. Billy still has the cat clutched under his other arm, Goddamn him. Flint knows he won't let her go, no matter what he orders. So he says, "If you let go I will have to jump in and that will ruin my coat."
The fear fades and Billy nods with grim determination. He's no will o' the wisp and Flint strains every muscle he has to haul him in, the scrabbling of Billy's feet against the cabin below a desperate sound that he hopes never to hear again. With one final, gasping heave, Billy slithers over the side like an eel, the cat springing from his relieved grasp and gone in a blink. Flint collapses on to the deck next to Billy, finding his hand and clutching it as tightly as he can, heart hammering as hard as it ever has in battle.
Within seconds the crew are upon them. "Once is unlucky, twice is a fucking idiot," they say. "Hey, our Billy, mebbe we tie a rope round your ankle, yes?" they say. "At least he kept hold of our luck," they say. "Nice work, Captain," they say. He hears the "this time" in empty spaces.
Flint gets to his feet, smoothing down his coat, leaving the men to their fun. He looks back through the crowd to Billy, still sprawled on the deck, his expression dazed and relieved, watching Flint walk away. He pauses and nods. There'll be time enough later.
It's a quiet night save the creaking of hammock stays and the soft snoring of the vanguard. Flint lies on the window seat of his cabin, dozing fitfully. Thomas comes to sit by him, laying a weightless hand on his leg. Flint tries not to be superstitious, has never believed in ghouls and ghasts, but Thomas has been visiting him at night for years now, since not long after he lost Miranda. It's no matter to Flint if this is dream or spirit; the one indisputable fact is that it will never be reality.
He's learned to accept it, even embrace it, though Thomas's determined refusal to look a day older than last he saw him is a persistent source of chagrin. Flint himself has new scars, grey hairs peppering his beard, bones that ache in the morning when he rises, a tooth that grumbles against hard tack and cold weather. Thomas remains beautiful, limned with a soft, golden haze that seems to have always belonged to him, no matter if once invisible to the naked eye. If this is somehow supposed to be penance it's a strange one.
"Billy Bones," says Thomas, never one to wait to get to the point when his interest was piqued, "It seems you were willing to leap in to the ocean for him. He must be important to you."
"I thought you knew everything I knew? How else could I conjure you?"
Thomas's face lights with the knowing smile that would always set James McGraw trembling with anticipation. "Let us assume for the sake of argument that I don't."
"He…he knew what I needed and he gave it to me."
"He gave you sex?"
"Yes," Flint agrees and then shakes his head. "No, it was more than that."
"Do you love him?"
Flint is silent for a long moment. "I value him."
"You value him," echoes Thomas. "What exactly does that mean to you, James?"
Flint has always thought the best way to peel an onion is one swift cut through its heart and as much as he wants to huddle into his own layers what does it gain him in the end? So he says, "It's hard to explain it. I may have saved Billy's life today, but when we…when this started Billy saved my life. Others too. He helped me learn acceptance, of myself, of what I'd lost. He showed me the way to remake myself, better, braver, made me stop seeing myself and my men as dispensable pieces on a chess board."
Thomas strokes Flint's hand. The memory of the touch is faded by so many years, cool where it once was so warm.
Thomas says, "What did I do to you, my dearest love, that you needed reminding?"
Flint shakes his head, no. No. "Not you. Never you." The wish to hold Thomas in his arms again, just one more time, bears down on him like a heavy weight. "Billy," he says, aware of an insistent need to strip down to his centre. "It wasn't…isn't…only about sex, about accepting my desires. Trusting his integrity has been as important these past years. I rely on his counsel."
"As I relied on yours?"
Flint thinks about the impassioned discussions he and Thomas used to have and the often yelled conversations in the midst of battle and storm that he and Billy share and he smiles, the weight lightening. "Not exactly," he says.
"But you trust him."
"With my life."
"Ah," says Thomas, face so close to Flint's that his features blur, " but does he trust you?"
Flint remembers the white-faced fear on Billy's face as Flint stood the barrier between him and death. A wide, expansive pain fills his chest like ripples from shot in water. "I don't know." He opens his eyes and Thomas slips away.
Flint worries at his answer for a long time. He's always cared what people think of him, despite his best attempts not to, but it would appear he cares about what Billy thinks most of all.
Billy comes to the cabin at dawn, their usual time, when the vanguard is about their business and the day is still quiet.
"Orders?" asks Billy, coming round Flint's desk to sit on it, leg grazing the arm of Flint's chair.
"How are you? Arm all right?"
"Bit sore if I'm honest. Not as young as I was the first time I went over, am I? Still, I'd rather a sore shoulder than torture any day of the week so I'd say I'm up on the whole deal."
Flint's hand drifts to Billy's thigh. He doesn't say, I don't know what I'd do if I lost you. He says, "We've been at this a long time now, haven't we?"
He doesn't know how to go forward without sounding plaintive, as if he's begging. But he has to know. "You didn't like me much back when this started."
"No," Billy agrees. "But the sex was bloody good so the liking didn't figure." There's no smile on his face, but the one in his eyes softens any blow that Flint might have taken.
"Do you…" he can't finish the question. He castigates himself for a coward and tries again. "After everything we've been through together. Do you now?"
Billy says, "I like James a lot. A hell of a lot, if I'm being honest. Not always so sure on Flint, mind, but I reckon on balance I come down on the side of yes."
This is the hard part, but Billy has always told him it's not weak to admit need. Why not put that to the test? "What about trust?"
"I follow orders."
"That's not what I meant."
"I know." Billy is silent for long enough to make Flint's fingers begin to twitch, staring out of the cabin window into the horizon beyond.
Flint rebukes himself again. Why should this matter so much today when yesterday it hadn't been even so much as a fleabite?
Billy jerks his gaze back inwards, looking straight into Flint's eyes. "Yes," he says. "It might yet make a fool of me, but yes, I do."
When they come together in these few, snatched quiet times, there's rarely any time for more than the briefest coupling, a race for completion before discovery. Far better for space to take pleasure in each other in cool rooms in inns and brothels where they can pay for an hour and discretion. It occurs to Flint that they never kiss here onboard ship, their truest home. It occurs to him that he can't remember a time when Billy hadn't kissed him first.
He stands and takes Billy's face in both hands, bringing his mouth down for a soft embrace. It's the same salt-sweet as it always is, unchanged since that first time years past. It's only when Billy forgets his bad arm and winces as he attempts to loop it round Flint that they break apart.
Flint rests his forehead against Billy's for a moment before moving away. "Thank you," he says. "I will strive to be worthy of your trust, Billy, even if sometimes I stumble and fall short."
Billy nods and catches Flint's wrist in a loose grip. They stay like that, safe in the silence, the gentle rocking motion of the ship mirrored by the movement of Billy's fingers against Flint's skin. Flint feels the press against his pulse point, slow, constant beats almost in time with the rolling of the seas. He thinks about the quietness of love that steals up on you without pomp or clamour and how being peaceful in someone's presence is a laudable goal in itself. He could live without the sex again if needs be, but he's not sure he remembers how to manage without Billy. He's not sure he wants to.
"What happened to the cat?" he says.
Billy smiles. "Now there's a tale."