Flint couldn’t remember ever being this nervous. Not upon reaching Skeleton Island nor upon tying himself to the helm during a tempest. On both occasions, the worst outcome had been death, but which was the worst outcome here? That he would end up in Savannah to work and die alone as James Flint? Or that Thomas would be waiting for him and he would have to remember how to be James McGraw?
Thomas. Flint would have to get used to saying it aloud again. He’d treated the name as a sacrament for so long it felt heavy on his tongue. It struck him, then, that there was only one person left alive, aside from Flint himself, who knew Thomas’s name and story. Even that felt like too much, as if the more his name was spoken the more pieces of Thomas would disappear from Flint’s memory.
Would he even recognize him anymore? It had been a decade since he’d last seen Thomas. Perhaps he’d finally grown his hair out after all his griping about wigs. James could imagine it, soft as it had been, tumbling over Thomas’s shoulders in golden waves. His fingers twitched as he imagined running his hands through it, imagined it brushing his own shoulders as Thomas leaned to kiss him.
Would he taste the same? Would he feel the same? Or would his body be marked by ropes of muscle that came from years of labor? Would his skin be pale as it was in the London fog, or would it be tanned from the Georgia sun? Would he recognize Thomas? Would Thomas recognize him?
A bolt of panic shot through Flint’s spine. Ten years he’d spent memorizing Thomas’s face, sketching it on any available surface. He’d committed himself to that face, but had Thomas done the same? Or had his miserable shit of a father told him that James had left without looking back? Another jolt of panic. James’ heart roared louder than the ocean around him. What if Thomas hated him for leaving? What if he rejected him now, after all he’d done to get where he was? Because of it?
James could hardly breathe as he shut himself in the captain’s cabin, locking the door and sliding down it as he focused on the bite of the wood in his back instead of his own gasping lungs. Suddenly, he was a boy again, clinging to his mother’s skirts as a British officer explained that there was an accident at sea and his father would not be returning. It was the first chapter in a story defined by tragedy.
How he could feel so keenly the loss of something he did not yet have, James didn’t know. And yet the mere thought of Thomas dismissing him made his blood turn to ice. He buried the thought in the same corner of his mind that James kept the rest of his darkness, focusing instead on the wood beneath his palms and the gentle sway of the ship on the water. It reminded him that he was still James Flint, and James Flint didn’t have time to lose himself in emotion. The only context in which James Flint knew fear was the look in his enemies’ eyes before he slew them.
Flint dragged himself off the floor, resigning himself to solemn silence for the remainder of the journey. Silver would interpret his silence as acceptance rather than what it actually was: a feeble attempt by a desperate man to hang onto the last shreds of his composure.
The nervousness Flint had felt on the ship paled in comparison to the fear that claimed him the second his boots hit sand at port. He had half a mind to turn tail and run back onto the ship, to demand Silver take him back to the Maroon camp with the tone of voice he knew even Silver couldn’t deny. Yet, the other half of his mind urged him forward. Urged him onward. Even now, on the heels of peace, Flint couldn’t stop tearing himself apart at the seams. Perhaps Miranda had been right all those years ago. Maybe he did need someone to fight, be it Rogers or Silver or himself.
A hand guided him forward. Gunn’s hand. James had hardly taken the time to get to know him, assuming that one or the other of them would have died at the camp or the ensuing battle or any of the other myriad of ways Woodes Rogers would have seen them all killed. He thought idly about getting to know him now, asking Gunn his favorite color or if his mother read to him as a child, if only to quiet his own mind, but James’ tongue was too leaden to croak out the words. He hardly even felt the bite of irons around his wrist, too distracted he was by the ghost of irons around his ankles, weighing down every step that brought him closer to the end of his own story.
James hadn’t even noticed Gunn handing him off - had only noticed a difference when the sun was on his face again and a rougher hand grabbed his arm to push him forward. The man smelled of sweat and tobacco - two familiar scents. But he also smelled of grass and flowers, a scent both foreign and comforting. It was so different than the sea.
James took another deep breath as he was walked towards a field. The smell of freshly tilled earth greeted him, bringing his mind around to thoughts of Odysseus and his shovel. He wondered how much farther inland he would have to walk to forget about the sea.
As it turned out, James had only to walk another foot before everything else fell away from him - his name, his past, his story - because there before him stood a form more familiar to him than his own. The same cropped blond hair he could feel between his fingers, the lithe neck that had surrendered under his lips and which now stretched down into an expanse of bare skin pulled taut over ropes of muscles that contracted and relaxed as Thomas worked the earth the same way he would have worked James’ body - worshipping it and reveling in it at once.
He stopped, then, as if he could feel James’ eyes on him. As he turned, every second of the last ten years fell away. He was an officer again, standing in the dining room having just thrown Alfred Hamilton out of his own house and Thomas - Christ, Thomas looked as eager now as he had in that moment, so full of hope and longing as he took the first step forward and showed James for the first time what love was meant to feel like.
He basked in that gaze now, drinking Thomas in without reservation. He looked every bit as regal as he had in London, only with an added sheen of sweat covering his skin. He looked like cut marble, as if James was looking upon David himself, though even the towering masterpiece seemed little more than a child’s sand sculpture in comparison to the soft planes of Thomas’s body.
James was well aware what he must look like: a man starved, hungry for the touch of Thomas’s skin against his. He could feel the tenuous grip on his own composure slipping as every step brought him closer until a familiar voice crept into his mind and froze him in place.
Hennessy’s voice, as clear as the day it had been when it forced James out of the Navy, out of his home, his life. James could hear Hennessy’s voice now as the words tightened around his neck like a noose. It is too profane. It is too loathsome. Silver had assured James that the plantation owners were aware of the true circumstances in which Thomas had come here, that they didn’t much care who he bedded, but James was unwilling to take that chance again, not when Thomas was so close - so close that the thought of losing him again might actually kill James on the spot.
Thomas still had not moved, studying James from afar. There was a look in his eye that James couldn’t place from this distance. He watched Thomas touch the skin where his wedding band had been. It was a nervous tick. Something he’d done only when he was worried, and James felt the realization like a gunshot: Thomas was just as scared as he was.
No sooner had the realization hit him than James was walking, running, flying forward. He was Icarus and Thomas was the sun. If the wax melted and he plummeted to the ground, there was nowhere James would rather land than Thomas’s arms, and land there he did as their chests crashed together like waves on the hull of the Walrus. Thomas’s arms pulled him close as James dragged his calloused hands against the bare skin of Thomas’s back.
And then Thomas’s lips were against his and James could think of nothing else but the slide of their bodies against each other. Nothing else held meaning but the taste of Thomas and the glow of his smile as he stared at James with enough love to chase away the chill of the sea that had wormed its way in James’ very bones. Heaven and hell were nothing more than words to James as he let go of the oars tying him to the sea and picked up the shovel to bury Flint for good.