He has a solid excuse, a whole lot of them, actually: he is still relatively new to his captaincy, he cannot afford to take it too easy so soon, Gates agrees that the more money they earn in the shortest time the better it will be for his handle on the crew, there is a solid lead that could get them a significant prize, the winds seem to be favourable—
It’s all true. James will swear by all of it.
(Too bad that Miranda has seen his tears and heard his cries, soothed them even through sobs of her own, she has seen him leave the house red-eyed, and although she has not called him out on the real reason why he is going, he could see the quiet reprimand in her eyes as she asked him to take a few days to mourn.)
(He cannot. He doesn’t think he would manage to drag himself back up if he did.)
Since when this has started, James has feared getting lost in his new life. He has feared the man that he created when he stepped up as captain of the Walrus, and he has put all his effort into not letting himself be consumed by him.
Today, he drowns into Captain Flint, silently praying for the crew on the vessel they are preying on to resist, to fight them tooth and nail and give him an excuse to stop thinking.
(He will take rage over devastation.)
There is a vicious battle, bodies dumped on the ground everywhere around him, and James – Flint – does not care to take a second look at any of them, he just doesn’t want to stop moving.
By the end of it, his hands are covered in blood, his handle on the sword too slack because of it, his clothes are unsalvageable because of the stains and the tears where he was hit – he feels some distant burning pain, but the excitement of the battle has yet to wear off –, and the only thing that he can hear is his own throbbing heart.
When the battle is over, it’s all too silent, too slow, and he is left standing over a graveyard.
Thomas. Dead. By his own hand, because he grew desperate enough to choose that way.
(In how many of the men James murdered today did he see Alfred Hamilton’s face? In how many his own?)
(You failed. You should have saved him.)
He leaves Gates to deal with the aftermath.
He doesn’t seem particularly happy about it, but he takes a look at his face and he seems to read something there, enough that he eventually takes it with a ‘Yes, Captain’ and not a single question. James doesn’t care to guess what he might know or think he knows.
He walks straight to his cabin, trying his best not to look at his men, not to count the injured or the dead, not now that not thinking is no longer as easy as it was before.
He gets out of his clothes, washes the blood off himself – most of it, at least – without fully realizing it, and the whole time he can only think of Miranda, of how he wishes to be in Nassau with her right now, because if he cannot breathe with the pain of his thoughts, at least there he’d know that he is not alone in his grief.
God, he left her alone. Only now he fully realizes the weight of his selfishness.
He will apologize, as soon as he comes back. He will go straight back home and hold her for as long as she’ll let him, and that piece of their world will be a little less broken, for as long as they can keep each other up.
For a moment, he considers walking out, asking if there were books on the ship that they’ve taken, so that he may sort through them and find a gift to accompany his apology with, but the mere thought of being among people once again is enough to make him want to throw up.
He elects to pace through his cabin like the madman – Thomas died a madman, and he does not deserve to be remembered as such, he should have saved him, he should have – he is starting to become, attempting to keep his own thoughts at bay and doing a poor job at it.
Eventually, Gates knocks on his door. James lets him in, hungry for another voice to cover the anguished cries in his own head.
“I will leave you alone in a minute,” Gates warns, which makes James assume that his expression doesn’t look particularly friendly, even by his – Flint’s – standards. “I will sort through the contents of the ship myself, there’s just one small matter I wanted to bring to your attention.”
“What?” James asks, gruffly. He thinks he sounds fairly normal, not nearly as devastated as he feels.
“We found a prisoner,” Gates explains. “He says he was to be sold to a plantation near Savannah, but that he is a nobleman, a lord. I thought we could try to see if there’s anybody willing to pay a ransom?”
James clenches his jaw, because the very last thing that he wants to think about is lords and high society and—Thomas, Thomas, Thomas—
“We have a lot of injured,” Gates adds, pointedly. “We will likely need the extra money.”
James inhales sharply, giving a brief nod before he can talk himself out of it. “Alright,” he sighs. “What is the man’s name?” There is a chance that he knows him, or that he has heard of him at least, and if he can immediately offer some help to his quartermaster this might be the last that he has to hear of this matter.
“Lord Thomas Hamilton, he says.”
James blinks. He must have heard that wrong. His sick mind is toying with him, making him hear— “Beg your pardon?” he gets out, barely, between greeted teeth.
Gates frowns. “Lord Thomas Hamilton,” he repeats, slowly.
James almost staggers backwards.
How? It isn’t possible, they’ve just received a letter, it said— does – did? – Thomas have any brothers? Who bear the same name because Alfred Hamilton is too much of an asshole to remember two names at once?
Is it an assumed name? But why would someone pretend to—Thomas, Thomas, Thomas—
“Where is he?” he growls, taking a step forward and hardly seeing straight. He knows that he’d tear through walls right now, if necessary.
Don’t get your hopes up, it might be a mistake, it might—Thomas, Thomas, Thomas—
The few moments of hesitation before Gates finally answers are enough to make James almost implode with the strength of his impatience – longing. He needs this, he needs it to be real.
“On deck,” Gates eventually says. “There is too much commotion, and we need to decide where to stash—”
James is long gone before that sentence is complete.
He runs out, almost colliding with half a dozen men on his way out, his eyes hungrily scanning throughout the messy crowd, the few still alive crewmen in chains, the injured, the pirates transporting the—
Thomas is with the other prisoners, standing in shackles in a little corner out of the way. He is frail and dirty and wearing rags that to call clothes would be all too generous, but it’s him, James can feel it more than he can see it, and he is flying himself across deck before he has taken a breath.
(He isn’t sure he even remembers how to.)
“Thomas,” he croaks out, too strangled to be heard. He gets a look from a crew member he can’t summon the name of, when they barely avoid collision, but James only spares a thought for him, because Thomas is there, he isn’t looking at him but he is— “Thomas!” It’s loud enough to reach him, this time.
As Thomas turns around, a stunned expression on his face, James feels a laugh tearing through his throat, a small pitiful sound that can barely be heard, and he only moves faster. It still seems to take way too long for him to crash against Thomas, wrapping his arms around him as tightly as he can – he does his best to ignore how many bones he can feel against him, only focusing on the strong heart beating against his own; he’s alive.
Thomas laughs, loud and beautiful and soon suffocated into his shoulder, his hands gripping James’ shirt even as he cannot raise his arms to hug him back.
“You’re alive,” James chokes out, as he finally remembers how to breathe, feeling like he is tasting oxygen again for the first time in months.
There are tears on his face. James doesn’t find it in him to care, not with Thomas sobbing in his shoulder and shaking in his arms.
“You found me,” Thomas eventually manages to say, and James’ stomach shrinks on itself, guilt attempting to flood him – because he should have done more; he has found him by complete coincidence, he should have—
“Captain,” comes a voice from behind him.
James doesn’t care to turn around, not now.
“Captain, I have the keys in my hands right now,” Gates insists, although oddly gentle. “May I free your— friend?”
On any given day, the hesitation before the last word would have felt like icing water suddenly soaking him to the bone, startling him by sheer terror of the consequences. As of now, having apparently survived the consequences, James could kiss Thomas right then and there and not give a single shit.
James pulls back, his fingers still gripping Thomas’ poor excuse of a shirt, his eyes not leaving his as he says: “Thank you, Mr Gates. Go ahead.”
Gates is quick and efficient, and he immediately steps back as soon as he has the shackles in his hands. Thomas briefly thanks him, then he flies himself at James without a second thought, embracing him just as tightly as James did with him, laughing once again, feeling so alive against him.
A new wave of tears fills James’ eyes, and he lets them fall without shame, only caring about Thomas’ hands clasping his back, about how he can now cradle his head like he has dreamt of doing so many times—
He left Nassau thinking him dead. And now—
“Miranda is okay,” James whispers, frantically. ‘Okay’ might be a lie, emotionally speaking, but she is alive and she is healthy and she is waiting for him – them – in Nassau right now— “She is in Nassau. She is safe.”
“Thank god,” Thomas mutters, with a relieved sigh, and he squeezes him a little tighter. “I love you,” he gets out then, too sudden and earnest not to startle James into flinching. “I do not believe I said it the last time that we saw each other,” Thomas explains then. James can feel him going a little slack against him, like he’s too tired to keep himself up. “It’s one of many things I’ve come to regret. So I’m saying it now.”
James could never forget their last, all too rushed goodbye. There was a lot to take care of, they were not expecting any of what would happen thereafter, and they did not take the time to properly bid each other farewell, not when James had just come back and they thought they’d have so much more time to spend together from then on.
James can only nod, taking a deep breath to steady himself and holding tighter to keep them both upright.
“I love you too,” he says, louder than it was necessary. It is freeing.
Thomas is offered new clothes and some food. They lock themselves in James’ cabin, Gates promising that he can take care of everything.
James would normally feel uneasy under his knowing look, but today he can only appreciate the privacy that he is being handed: he has Thomasback. Everything that seemed so important before, his captaincy, his plans for the future, it has all suddenly fallen into second place.
He has Thomas, and he needs to keep him, to bring him back safe to Miranda, to—to make up for everything.
Thomas eats like he hasn’t seen a meal since when they have last been together. James doesn’t want to dwell on how close to the truth that might be, especially considering how disproportionate Thomas’ enthusiasm is given the quality of the food on the Walrus.
“I apologize,” Thomas grimaces, when he’s done. “I didn’t even ask if you wanted any.”
James smiles at him, shrugging. “I didn’t. I am not hungry.”
Thomas reciprocates the smile, putting the empty plate aside and then clasping James’ hand into his, squeezing a little too tight. When looking at him, James can’t help noticing the dark circles under his eyes, and a fresh new wave of guilt threatens to drown him.
(You should have saved him sooner.)
“Thank you,” Thomas says instead, so genuine that James wants to cry.
“You have nothing to thank me for,” he can only say, silently begging him to stop. He doesn’t think he can bear any more thankfulness, not when so much of Thomas’ pain is on him.
“Of course I do,” Thomas replies, easily. “You have saved me. I—”
“I should have come for you,” James blurts out, before he stop himself. His fingers twitch in Thomas’ hold, but he does not let go. “I’m so sorry, I should have— I should have tried.”
“I wanted to, I swear, it’s just— I didn’t know how, I thought we— I thought— I don’t know what I thought, but then came the letter announcing you had killed yourself and—”
It’s forceful enough for him to shut his mouth. It takes a few moments more for him to realize that Thomas doesn’t look mad.
“You are not at fault, for any of this,” Thomas says, firmly, with so much confidence that it becomes hard not to believe him. He speaks it in the same way he used to claim it their duty to pursue a better way, back when James was part of the Navy and not of the pirates its enemies. “If anything, it was my foolishness that tore everything down. I underestimated the threat posed by my father, it seems. I never thought he’d do— what he did. Much less that Peter would aid him.”
For a moment, James is distracted by the revelation of Peter Ashe’s betrayal, although given that he was the one to announce Thomas’ death he probably could have drawn the conclusions for himself, if he weren’t so rattled. Then, he comes to fully realize what Thomas just said.
“This isn’t on you!” James protests, indignant. “You—”
“Ignored both you and Miranda when you tried to warn me off my plans for Nassau,” Thomas completes, his tone neutral. “Eventually I dragged you down with me. And for that I am truly sorry.” James wants to protest, but he isn’t given time to do so. “I asked Miranda to flee with you, I made her promise that you’d take care of each other. Because I knew that had you tried to help me you would have suffered the same fate. That you were far away and safe was my only consolation, I assure you, so do not fault yourself for going. Please.”
It is only because of the way Thomas’ voice quivers a little as he pleads that James manages to keep himself from arguing over where to place the blame between the two of them. There will be plenty of time for that, after all, when the subject will come up again. They can discuss it at home, with Miranda.
“This is on your father and all those that betrayed us,” James eventually says, swallowing back the bile at the thought of Hennessey, the one person that he had thought would stand behind him, the one that he didn’t think he’d ever need protection from.
“Right,” Thomas exhales, letting go of James’ hand only to reach out and pull him into another embrace. He seems to be attempting to make himself smaller than his frame would allow, and James does his best to circle him with his arms, let him hide in his chest.
“You are safe,” James whispers, rubbing his back up and down. “Everything is alright.” He knows that there is still blood under his nails, probably in his hair too, that Thomas will soon see it. Even if he didn’t, Thomas must have understood where he is, what James has become.
He hopes that the monster he has stepped into the shoes of will feel like half a good a protector as he is a murderer.
Miranda is not waiting for them on the beach. If she has been warned of his arrival, she chose not to come to greet him, for which James can hardly blame her.
They make their way to the interior as soon as they can afford to, taking only one horse because neither of them seems to be willing to step too far away from the other, even now that the reality of it all seems to have started to sink in, at least for James.
Thomas knows that he left in a foolish attempt at not feeling the grief threatening to drown him, he knows that he abandoned Miranda alone in the moment of need. He said he’s pretty sure she will understand and forgive him, particularly given that he won’t be coming back home alone.
(They have yet to discuss James’ new occupation, explicitly, at least. More than once he was about to start begging for forgiveness, Thomas’ judgement already tightening around his neck like a rope even before he has spoken a word about it, but every time James elected to be quiet, for now: Thomas looks exhausted, haunted, and he does not deserve somebody else’s baggage to be dropped on him only because he needs to ease his dirty conscience. This can wait.)
When they reach the house, James moves to the door first, knocking two times and calling out Miranda’s name. She might take it as an indication that there is something wrong, given that he usually just steps right in, or maybe merely as an expression of guilt for having left her.
Either way, he figured it’d be best not to barge in with Thomas in toe.
(God, Thomas is alive.)
When he sets eyes on her, she is moving in the direction of the door, with a cup and a cloth in hand – she was cleaning, which probably means she was nervous – and her eyebrows raised expectantly, probably in anticipation of his apology.
It doesn’t come, because he merely has time to open his mouth that her eyes dart behind him, where Thomas is hovering awkwardly by the door.
The cup crashes to the ground as Miranda’s hands shoot to her mouth, not before she has let out a strangled sound of surprise, her eyes running in James’ direction as if to ask him for confirmation that she hasn’t lost her mind.
“I—I found him on the prize,” James only mutters, which is stupid and inadequate but apparently good enough for her, because it isn’t even a moment later, as Thomas is pronouncing a soft ‘Hello, my sweet’, that she leaps forward, a disbelieving smile on her face and her hands shaking.
“Oh, my—Thomas—” she says, her voice strangle, her shoulders beginning to shake. Thomas smiles from ear to ear as he embraces her back, burying his nose in her hair and closing his eyes for a moment.
James watches them, his breath caught off as, for the first time since when they were all in London together, unaware of what would happen an handful of months from then, the whole world seems to settle in, until everything looks so perfectly still that when a voice in his head whispers it’s okay, everything is okay now, he believes it.
Thomas untangles one arm from Miranda, reaching out for him without a moment of hesitation.
“Come here,” he invites, gently.
James waits for Miranda to turn around, tears streaming down her cheeks as she smiles so brightly it hurts to look at. She gives a small nod, shifting a little to her left to make room for him, before pressing her cheek against Thomas’ chest with an heavy sigh, cut off by a chuckle of disbelief.
James lets out a sharp breath as he leaps forward to join them, unsteadying Thomas for a moment as he collides against him, Miranda gripping his hand tightly as soon as he’s close enough. He presses his cheek against Thomas’ shoulder and clasps his fingers around the back of his shirt, the absurdity of holding him in the very house where Miranda had to attempt to soothe him after his loss dawning upon him.
“I am not cleaning all that porcelain off the floor,” Miranda eventually says, perhaps hours later, maybe only a minute, her tone so light and normal in its playfulness that it takes James a few moments to realize what she just said. “It is not my fault that you showed up unannounced. That isn’t really proper, is it?”
It must sound just as strange to Thomas’ ears, because he is stunned for a few moments, then he breaks into a laugh, vibrating against James as tears start leaking out of his eyes.
For a second, James is paralyzed, stuck waiting to wake up with that sound echoing in his ears, the way it has so often been in these past months. That doesn’t happen: Thomas just keeps talking and he doesn’t slip away from his fingers, just as solid as when he first found him on his ship.
James holds on tighter, breathing him in.