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Even Then, Some Vestige

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Billy squints up at the faded sign above the inn's door. Two axes crossed, just as Darby had told him. This must be the place, unless he is already too late. He hesitates before the threshold. It has been a hardscrabble, hard-drinking few years for him since he ran from the Walrus in the dead of night, and he isn't sure what he is doing here even now. A chance meeting with Darby who'd told him how the rum and rage had pickled Flint's soul as well as his liver, who'd shaken his grizzled head and said, "It were never the same after you'd gone, Billy lad," as if Billy were still the simple bosun of Nassau days, had brought him here, instinct triumphing over good sense.

"He fell into such a stupor," Darby said. "And Silver said hisself we needed the ship more'n he would ever on, and that he could breathe no word of our treasure now, damn his soul. So we took him off in Savannah a se'nnight past and there he'll still be if there's a breath left in him."

Where's the harm, Billy tells himself. What could Flint do to him now that he hadn't already done a hundred times over? After all, he lies here a dying man, and Billy has a full belly, a full purse and the full use of all his limbs and that's more than he'd ever expected.

Still, his heart beats heavy as his footsteps as he opens the door to go inside. It's a small place, but clean: wide windows showering more light on the clientele than they're probably comfortable with, lighting their imperfections and stripping their secrets away. It smells of rum and spice and sweat and Billy pushes down the thirst that swells inside him. He'll see this through sober or not at all. A woman with skin as polished and smooth as old leather bustles up with a tankard swinging from one hand.

"What's your pleasure, darling?" she says with teeth as white as the washed walls outside.

Billy remembers how to do this the right way, to indulge in pleasantries that make the day a little brighter, to take a journey along the meanders and not follow where the crow flies, but he can't. Not today. "James Flint. Is he here?"

The bright smile vanishes. She jerks her thumb towards the stairs. "Up there. First room on the right. And if he asks for more rum tell him only if he shows me the coin first and not before."

"You give him what he wants," says Billy, voice lowering. "I'll make it right. You give him what he wants." How cruel to keep away the only comfort the man has left, even if it's the very thing that's killing him.

He turns to go, but hesitates, asking, "How is he?"

"Remarkable well for someone who had the death pall on him when they brought him here. I said, 'I ain't no nursemaid,' and they told me leave him be he'd die soon enough. Only the next day he starts hollering for rum fit to deafen the whole street and he's been nought but trouble ever since." She pauses with a considering look. "Mind, he's kept himself quiet enough after I told him not to scare away my customers with his rumpusing."

The landlady puts a hand on Billy's arm. "He's not long for this world, my darling. Tell him to make himself right with the Lord or there's no hope for him on the other side. He's in God's hands now."

Billy resists the urge to shake her off, to tell her God's never done him or Flint any favours, not since the Crown made it clear that they'd bribed Him good and proper to be on their side. He thanks her instead, even if he can't quite get up the smile that should accompany the words. Then he takes the stairs with slow, measured steps, pausing as Flint's door comes into view. It's painted a faded blue, the brass handle worn and dull. Billy sets his jaw and continues up the to the top.

He doesn't knock, pushing himself forward and into the small room before he can talk himself out of it. And there is Flint, propped on his bed, sword in a shaking hand, face curled in a faded caricature of his old battle rage.

"Come near me and-" he starts, voice croaking from disuse, but his rheumy eyes focus on Billy's and he lets the sword fall. "I knew you'd find me, Billy Bones," he says, twisting his face with the smile that still has the power to stir Billy's guts. "I knew it."

And Billy nods his head to the flagon in Flint's other hand and says, "You gonna share that rum with me or what?"

Flint shifts, an ugly, wriggling movement that pushes him onto his elbows, gazing at Billy as if he's the Second Coming at the very least.

"How are you doing these days?"

"Better than you, obviously." Billy can see light come and go from Flint's eyes, his focus unsteady. He crosses to the bed and tugs the sword from Flint's loose grasp to make room for himself, close enough for even Flint's poor sight to see. He's rewarded with a brightening in Flint's expression.

"The beard works," Flint says with an unsteady slur. "The hair I'm less sure about."

"Yeah? Thought it would pull me all the ladies."

"If memory serves--and I'm not so far gone that it doesn't--I think that might be the root of your problem, right there."

Billy concedes the point with a half-hearted shrug. He looks about himself. The room is sparsely furnished, but neat enough, pale yellow walls that warm to gold with the sun's rays. Above Flint's bed a simple crucifix. Much good that's doing him, Billy thinks. Flint never acknowledged any sovereign lord but himself and then only under sufferance.

Flint begins to pat at the bed, obviously searching for something. Billy worries. Is he looking for the sword Billy had moved only moments before? Is he losing his faculties despite what Flint may believe?

"It's all right," he says, trying to soothe. "I'll keep watch for you."

But Flint keeps patting until he finds Billy's hand, curling his fingers into Billy's palm. The misshapen tips of them are dark, as if they've been dipped in ink.

For a moment, Billy is struck dumb, so he closes his hand around Flint's, holding it tight, and tries not to notice how easy it is to feel the bones through his skin. His eyes sweep up over Flint's stained and grimy shirt, his chestbone stark under sparse grey hair. He searches Flint's face for signs of disease, aware that the flush across his cheeks is the stain of alcohol and not the blush of health.

Just as Billy is getting used to the silence, Flint says, "I'm sorry, Billy."

And Billy, startled into it before he can think says, "What for?"

Flint smiles at that and it's the Captain back again for a second. No, not the Captain: James. Billy swallows. He's suffered near fatal blows that have stung less than this.

"You know what for," James says, carefully enunciating around the edges of the rum, "And lots of other things I'd be delighted to share only it doesn't seem to me that I've enough time left."

"Then it doesn't matter now, does it?"

James coughs, then, a wracking, heaving cough that splashes rum from the flagon he still grips and tattoos his lips with a deep, dark blue. Billy, frozen, watches helplessly until the attack subsides, blue receding too slowly for his liking. James's voice is raw and bloody as he says, "It matters."

"Then I accept your apology." And maybe that makes him the fool he'd always worried he'd turn into, but he finds it isn't in him to refuse.

James nods. "Thank you. That means something to me. You always meant something to me."

Billy is still struggling to find his voice when James says, "So did you come to kill me for it, Billy?"

And for the first time in a long time, Billy allows his anger with James, with Flint, to flood him, to boil it all up to the surface, lid flung far off the pot. He'd shake the life out of the bastard only it would be counterproductive for them both.

"You know me better," he says, fierce and low. "You should know me better."

James squeezes Billy's hand and it bleeds the anger out of his fingertips and he deflates, the wind fair cut from his sails.

"Then what did you come here for?" James says, barely audible over the draining rush in Billy's ears.

And Billy lifts both of their hands together, presses a kiss onto each of James's knuckles in turn and says, "This, I think."

They're quiet again for a while, James's room roasting in the afternoon sun. I should shutter the windows for him, Billy thinks, but he glances beyond the opposite rooftops and can see the sails of ships, jostling in the town's marina. He can't close James up against that. James lifts a trembling arm, placing his flagon on the rickety table that stands by his bed. He lets it go with a sigh and then falls back against his pillows, fumbling in his shirt with one hand. It would be easier with two, Billy notes, but James seems to prefer not to let go.

There's a dry smile in his voice when he says, "I'm sure this isn't how we used to do it," and he sees James come to himself again, sharp and vibrant, the cotton-fog of rum clean blown away. Billy wonders if he's living in the same memories that spark bright colours in his own mind.

"Wait," James says. He draws out a leather-wrapped cylinder and thrusts it towards Billy. "You're the only one I'd want to have it," he says. "The only one who should have it."

Billy's hand shakes as he reaches out to take the cylinder, soft and pliable from the heat of James's body, and it's not because of the precious contents inside it. He doesn't open it. He doesn't need to.

"I can't take this."

"You can." And in that moment he looks and sounds exactly like the captain he's always been--will always be—to Billy.

"Then this means something to me," says Billy. "Thank you." And he would say more, wants to say more, about how he means to live up to the gift that this truly is, that he understands that its true meaning goes far deeper than red ink on paper, but he finds the words get stuck in his throat.

Billy busies himself in tucking the map away safe and sound. When he looks back at James, he's fading again, returning to somewhere deep inside where Billy can't follow, can't find him. Billy's own gaze falters then, salt tears blurring James's sharp angles to bearable soft edges.

"Don't go just yet, eh?"

Billy shakes his head. "I wasn't planning to leave anytime soon. Shove over."

The bed is narrow and Billy broad and it's impossible for both to lie in comfort unless they press close together. Billy has always been by far the biggest of the two, but until now he's never felt that he was the strongest, not even in the hard times after James's torture at Lowther's hands. How could he when the tenacious way James had clung to life had spoken of the greatest strength of all? It seems almost obscene how little of James is left, how anyone ever allowed him to come to this pass. He frets about his choice to leave. Is this his responsibility? They'd never sworn promises or allegiances, but maybe that's because they hadn't needed to, because they'd understood each other all along. Billy had abandoned James to Flint, hadn't he? After all he'd been through. Seeing this then, this slow dissolution of a once great man, maybe this is everything that he deserves.

No, Billy thinks, forcing the dark thoughts back into their locker, he made his choices. We both made our choices. We live and die free men, that's all.

James's head droops, brushing against Billy's shoulder as it swings downwards, the effort of keeping it up too hard now. Billy fights down the flooding rush of compassion and affection and stretches an arm round James's shoulders, pulling James towards him until the troublesome head rests on his chest.

"Sleep now," he says. "No more nightmares, not for either of us. I'll take first watch."

James moves his hand to rest over Billy's heart.

Second watch, too, Billy thinks. All of them.

In the morning, Billy carefully untangles himself from James's cooling body. He stands for a moment staring down at the man he'd hated, feared, respected. Loved. May there finally be peace for him, Billy thinks. If there's any justice in this world, may he finally find peace. He leans down and places a tender kiss on James's forehead, another on his lips, then he pulls the sheet up over his still face and goes to fetch the landlady.

Billy steps out of the inn, stares up into the relentlessly blue sky, listening for the tuneful clang of ships' bells in the distance, and thinks that it's been a long time since he last saw England.