Many of the atolls and small islands used by pirates and smugglers centuries ago were not on any of the modern sea maps but that was nothing unusual in this part of the Caribbean. Pirates had sworn their crews to secrecy, often killing anyone they could not trust implicitly to keep their stolen treasure safe from the British.
A few months back, Judson had been lucky enough to locate one such hoard of treasure, mostly doubloons and pearls. He had also found the skulls and bones of eighteen men buried with the treasure, and he had wondered how many pirates had sailed away with their lives that day. Still, the profit from the find had paid for the Vast Explorer's new engine and a shipload of supplies that should last him many more months.
He had given the remainder to Mac as a goodbye gesture.
Part of him wondered what she was doing now, whether she had started up that diving school off Florida's coast or if she had simply disappeared to reinvent herself, wanting to start over. He couldn't blame her for that because he had unwittingly led her on, letting her believe that there could be more to their relationship than casual sex. He'd tried to explain that casual didn't mean meaningless but Mac had been looking for something permanent and meaningful for some time, and Judson had failed to notice that.
He wished she had understood that it wasn't a matter of not caring enough but perhaps caring too much. He did love her after a fashion, and he would have done anything for her, except put a ring on her finger and call her his wife. He couldn't promise her forever when his heart was already lost to another. Perhaps if he had trusted her with that particular secret then she might have accepted whatever he could give and might have stayed, except he knew that would have been unfair on both of them in the end.
It seemed as if years had passed since he had been truly alone. Always before there had been someone on his crew: Mac, Gabe... Stefan.
He sighed, heart aching as he recalled the last time he had seen Stefan. He had left him lying unconscious on the dusty ground in the Lost temple of Qu'nichia after a strange, powerful electric force had almost killed Stefan. The Governor's men had taken Stefan away and even a request through the Governor's daughter, Ynez, had gained him no knowledge of what had become of Stefan afterwards. For the first time since their acrimonious break-up, Judson had no idea where to find Stefan. He couldn't even point to a single continent let alone a country and say, X marks the spot.
He snorted in self-derision. Almost a year had passed since then and the Jade Altar was now a new tourist attraction with guides telling the tragic story of E'Chala and her beloved; of how her father, Ko-Hi-Ho the Fierce, had slaughtered her upon her marriage altar when she refused to marry the man he had selected for her.
Judson's greatest fear was that Stefan was dead, killed for double-crossing the Governor by trying to steal the Jade altar.
He forced his thoughts away from those dark ones and concentrated on the old map in his hand.
Hidden within a jewel case in the Pirate's treasure had been another map with the obligatory X marks the spot, except this time the X seemed to be under the water instead of buried in the ground. The only problem had come from trying to decipher the co-ordinates when none of the land or sea marks were on a modern map. Instead, Judson knew he would have to follow the directions implicitly, using the place where he had discovered the buried treasure as the origin. Over the years, though, the trees had grown tall around the treasure site, obscuring the view so Judson took a gamble and head for the highest point on the small island.
The small hill overlooking the bay seemed as good a starting place as any. From here he could see the whole of the island and out into the Caribbean as far as the horizon in all directions. He looked down instead to the small bay lying before the treasure site, his sixth sense telling him that this was the place to search for the first clue. Sure enough, he saw a small pile of rocks just a little way out to sea and knew this would be the gateway marked on the map. Judson took out his compass and made a note of the direction before looking back down the hill towards the bay.
The water in the tiny bay was too shallow for the Vast Explorer and he took a moment to check that the dinghy was still pulled up securely onto the smooth, white sand below. Movement caught his eye and he frowned as another dinghy drove up onto the beach beside his, a single occupant jumping out.
His heart skipped a beat, convinced that he knew the figure even though he was some distance away.
He whispered the name as if afraid it would carry on the slight breeze and drive the other man away. Ignoring the temptation to head down the hill, Judson cast his eye around the horizon and spotted a second boat anchored further out. Even from this distance he could tell the boat was old and barely seaworthy, and his heart leaped into his throat at the thought of Stefan trusting his life to such a wreck.
The distant figure straightened and gazed up, one hand shielding his eyes, stilling suddenly when he looked in Judson's direction. Judson knew he had been seen and offered up a single wave, letting his arm hang in the air a moment before dropping it back to his side. He watched Stefan--he was sure it was Stefan--cross the beach and head into the foliage below. Long minutes passed before the rustle of leaves and branches heralded Stefan's arrival, and Judson's breath caught in his throat at the sight.
Stefan was still as beautiful as Judson remembered, with his dark hair flopping over his forehead and his liquid brown eyes capturing Judson's. His smile was bright but uneasy, as if he was uncertain of his reception but would bluff it out anyway. Judson didn't want him to feel unwelcome, not after their words inside the Lost Temple as he held Stefan's injured body in his arms. They had made their peace in that moment, admitting some of the resentments and fears that had driven them apart, and he knew so much more would have been said if Stefan had not lost consciousness.
Judson glanced down. The Smith and Wesson revolver was still tied at Stefan's hip; the one he had admitted to taking from Judson by cheating. Judson had let him cheat that time; he had wanted Stefan to stop resenting him for always being the one who found the treasures and gained all the public acclaim. He should have known at the time that it wouldn't be enough.
Judson cleared his throat. "I tried to find you after..."
"I didn't want to be found. I needed time to think."
Judson nodded, drawing in his lips over his teeth in contemplation. "And now?"
"I spent a lot of time hating you... At least I tried to hate you but..."
"I love you," Judson blurted out, shocked by his own admission.
Stefan stared at him for a moment, brown eyes wide with shock before crinkling up into a smile, warmer than Judson could recall in many years. "Yeah." He cleared his throat and glanced back towards the beach, but not before Judson had read the pleasure in his dark eyes. "Still hunting buried treasure?"
Judson cocked his head to the side, squinting slightly at Stefan's embarrassment, but then Stefan was never the eloquent one. "Yeah. Want to join me?"
This time Stefan looked up with what could only be described as hope blazing in his eyes, and Judson knew he understood the hidden meaning behind Judson's offer; knew he had been forgiven. Stefan nodded slowly, and Judson held out the map. Within moments they were standing together on the island's highest point, pointing towards the gateway and the setting sun.
"You think it's a sunken wreck?" Stefan asked.
"According to accounts of the time, the Aquilia was carrying Spanish gold, and she disappeared somewhere between here and the Venezuelan coast just over two hundred years ago."
"You think she either sank in the attack, or they scuttled her in shallow water," Stefan stated.
"Good a place as any to hide the gold," Judson added with a grin.
Stefan smiled but then his face became serious. "I've missed this. Missed you." He reached out a hand and cupped the side of Judson's face, his thumb trailing over the cheekbone, and Judson leaned into his touch, eyes closing in pleasure at this simple, longed-for touch. He sensed movement, felt the shadow crossing his face and then the warmth of Stefan's breath just before their lips met. Stefan still tasted the same, that familiarity washing over Judson, pleasure racing through him as he reached out to pull Stefan closer. Lips slid apart, nuzzling the fragile skin beneath Judson's jaw and he sighed raggedly.
"Sorry, I'm so sorry," Stefan whispered against his skin. "Wasted so much time. Stupid. So stupid."
Judson's uncanny ability to take esoteric facts and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle pointing to hidden treasure had caused their split. Most people thought it was simply a greater intellectual ability, and Judson would be the first to agree that it helped to be smart. In truth, it mostly came down to sheer luck and an amazing sixth sense - like he was a human divining rod. He knew Stefan had resented that after a time, that he had hated the way everyone focused on Judson as if his own skills were immaterial. The problem was, nothing had changed. He was still the divining rod who drew in people as well as treasure.
"I can't help it... Figuring things out." He tried to feel apologetic but he couldn't change who he was even if he had wanted to, and he didn't. He loved this life, loved piecing together the puzzles from history even if there was no financial reward at the end of the trail.
"I've spent this past year thinking about that, and I was stupid to ever think it mattered." Stefan leaned in and kissed him again, slowly and deeply. He crushed Judson to him, holding him so tight that Judson could barely breathe, and yet it felt so good. It felt like coming home after years alone at sea.
When Stefan finally released him there was a twinkle in his eye. "Let's go divine some more treasure."
Judson threw back his head and laughed. Together they walked back down to the beach, bumping shoulders and offering a hand over the more difficult parts of the descent even if it wasn't strictly necessary but Judson recognized that they both needed to touch. They'd already spent too long apart. Judson teased Stefan as they made their way across the sand.
"As long as we take my ship."
"What's wrong with the Waverider?"
"Waverider? Looks more like a Wave-swamper. Are you sure she's even seaworthy?"
"And the Vast Explorer's that much better?"
"Hey! She's got a new engine!" He lowered his voice. "And she's still got most of your belongings on board."
Stefan stopped and turned to face him, reaching out to cup his face once more. "You were that sure I'd come to my senses?"
"No. I just hoped."
They took their separate dinghy's, parting company only to allow Stefan the chance to grab items from the Waverider before heading across to the Vast Explorer. When Stefan pulled up alongside twenty minutes later, Judson reached down and helped him on board before looking back across the clear blue sea at the other boat.
"I don't think anyone's going to steal her."
Judson's eyes widened as the ruin of a boat started to list to port, slowly sinking beneath the waves to become yet another sunken wreck littered across the Caribbean.
"You scuttled her?"
"She was already sinking."
Judson looked at Stefan in anger. "You came out here on a boat that was taking on water? You could have drowned! And how did you know I was even here?"
"Mac told me."
The quiet words took the wind out of Judson's sails, and he snorted softly, bowing his head and shaking it slowly before drawing Stefan into his arms and kissing him soundly.
Perhaps Mac had known his secrets after all.