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The Witch-Wife's Tale

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[New Providence Island – Miranda]

There is an old African woman at the Underhill plantation. She is ancient, stiff and slow. Mr. Underhill happily hires her out to the households of the interior, to the wives and mistresses of traders and pirates who live quiet lives away from the simmering kettle of Nassau.

Miranda is not alone here, in that sense.

But no other woman on this island is the woman of Captain Flint, and for this reason, Miranda is essentially friendless.

She hires the old African woman when she can, to help with the garden, or to butcher meat for smoking. Mostly, she hires her for the company – for the quiet understanding, the exotic stories, the wisdom she never had a chance to glean from her own mother.

Miranda hires her for the stories, and the spells.

Mr. Underhill calls the woman Mary, but she tells Miranda her real name once, in confidence. She makes Miranda swear not to repeat it to anyone, and Miranda honors that. It’s less that names have power, and more that the woman has so little that is her own anymore. Miranda will not take such gifts for granted.

So when the old woman starts to share spells and prayers without any prompting, Miranda hoards them, scribbles them on makeshift scrolls, in diaries, on scraps of paper, and hides them in an ironbound chest under the bed. She practices them in the night, at dawn and dusk, in the rain, in the fiercest sun when not a soul ventures willingly outside.

Miranda finally becomes the witch they’ve accused her of being all these years.

She has nothing to gift the woman in return, but the woman tells her, “To teach one such as you is gift enough. A love so thorough, so devoted and consuming, it is the rarest thing on this earth.”

When Miranda asks for an explanation, the woman is stunned that she doesn’t know what is plainly visible to any true witch: She is soul-bound. Entangled at her very core with James.

With Thomas.

Who cannot be dead, because three souls have become one. So long as one part lives, the whole survives.

Thomas lives.

Miranda has no idea how to find him.

 

[Charles Town – Miranda]

Miranda feels the bullet pass through her skull, a brief, burning punch to the temple that overwhelms everything and plummets her into darkness.

She wakes in increments. Breath moves between her lips. Her limbs tingle. Her eyes roll in their sockets, sluggish and aching. There is no light, and the air is stuffy, so she lies there, and waits.

And waits.

At length, her senses coalesce, and conscious thought trickles in. Her knuckles rest against something that must be rough wood, and if she moves her foot, it brushes against an obstruction at her sole. She lifts her hand carefully, so carefully, and yes, there is wood above her prone body as well.

She’s in a coffin.

The sudden urge to scream steals the very air she needs to scream with, and her horror expels itself as a choked gasp. She shivers, trembles so hard that her teeth chatter. Her breath comes fast and shallow, loud in the cramped confines, and as she hears herself wheezing, it occurs to her that she must be quiet.

She can’t get caught.

Despite the appalling scene she’d made in the dining room, Miranda generally likes to think that she has a great deal of self-control, and she grasps at it now with both hands. A deep breath, and another, letting her lungs fill and her ribs stretch until they ache. Again and again, she breathes deeply, until her body gives one last, vicious shiver, and stills.

She listens carefully. Silence within the coffin, and silence without. Miranda bites her lip, and slowly puts her palms against the wood above her. She pushes, gently at first, then harder, until the lid shifts. She slides it carefully to the side, wincing at the awful scraping sound, yet pleased to see a different quality to the darkness beyond – it is night still, but she can soon escape the awful consuming blackness of the coffin.

It is no easy thing to keep the lid from falling with a clatter, but she manages. It thumps lightly onto the floor, and she sits up, perversely wary that there is someone behind her. A look around reveals the small room to be empty, bathed in weak light from the waning moon beyond the window.

Miranda rises, feeling ghoulish and profane, but as she gains her feet and sees the sliver of moon pinned against the velvet of the sky, a sense of triumph overtakes her.

She is alive!

Miranda is alive, and Thomas is alive, and James is alive, or will be again shortly, even if he’s done something that prompted Peter’s men to shoot him, too.

Miranda is alive, and she has the upper hand. It is still night, they think her dead; they will not suspect that a witch walks among them.

There is a spell for this. Miranda steps out of the coffin, puts a hand on the windowpane, and prays to the moon beyond.

- - -

The shack they’ve stored the coffin in lies on the edge of the governor’s compound, not far from the main house. Miranda thinks first to go find James, and free him, but after a few moments mulling it over, changes her mind.

Peter told hem Thomas was dead, yet this is not true. Alfred Hamilton was traveling for this very colony when James took his ship and killed him. The Maria Alayne limped into port a week or so after the attack to deliver its horrific story. It stands to reason that Peter might have information on Thomas’ whereabouts, either as a result of his own deeds, or through Alfred’s possessions passed on to him by the Maria Alayne’s captain.

She should search the house first, before the sun rises and the concealment prayer fails.

The night guard is numerous and alert, standing in pairs at the various entrances to the house; a clump of them are in the courtyard, smoking and glancing about nervously. The servants are mostly still abed, but a few of the slaves are up already, bringing water and firewood into the house. It is laughably easy to sneak in behind one of them, cloaked as she is in shadow. Beyond the entrance doors, only Peter and Abigail’s rooms are guarded. Miranda has the run of the place for hours, and she finds all manner of useful things in Peter’s office, in the study, in the library. She needs to find a small sack to carry it all, in the end.

There is money, of course, and promissory notes that may or may not be useful in the long run. There are also writs of incarceration, deeds to land both in and outside of town, letters and journals detailing business deals, trade manifests, the town budget... Miranda takes it all, and incinerates much of it with a quick spell in the study’s fireplace. But the money, the promissory notes, and a few select letters, and several books from the library – she takes those. She takes a ruby necklace she recognizes, that had belonged to Peter’s long-dead wife. It will fetch a decent price in Nassau. She gives a thought to Abigail, but the poor girl will have plenty of funds to her name, even if the whole house should burn to the ground – which Miranda is seriously considering.

In Peter’s office, she finds her prize. A stack of letters and invoices is hidden in a locked compartment in the massive desk – letters from a James Oglethorpe, of Savannah. Invoices for the care and feeding of one Thomas Hamilton.

They date back nearly ten years.

Miranda sinks down to her knees and weeps, because here is proof – real and tangible, something she can give to James – that their beloved husband is alive. The latest invoice is just two months old.

As Miranda wipes her eyes and looks up, the tint of the sky catches her gaze. The crescent moon will not set for some time, but the sun will rise soon, and overpower the shadow prayer. It’s past time to be gone from the house. She still has to figure out how to get to James.

She’d overheard the guards muttering. He is to be set out in the stocks at sunrise, and tried at eleven o’clock. The execution – a foregone conclusion – will follow the next morning.

It is time enough to get to the ship and back, to entreat the crew to rescue James – whether they want to or not. Miranda knows no few persuasion spells, and she is prepared to use them all. Perhaps a chance will come to free James that does not require rallying the men, but she will do what she must.

She is outside the compound walls when she hears the commotion – the empty coffin has been discovered. Miranda does not let it concern her. She had found water already drawn at the well, and washed the blood off her head and neck. She will hide herself amongst the crowd that gathers for the trial, and she will bide her time.

Her only fear is that James will not believe what he sees when she stands before him, hale and whole.

- - -

Miranda spends the morning in something approaching an almost civilized fashion. A whispered spell here and there helps the merchants and townsfolk overlook the fine cut of her dress, the bloody stain on it, and the sack at her shoulder. She is able to break her fast in peace, and even buy a few trinkets for her husbands – a luxury long lost to her.

There are whispers, here and there, of the empty coffin and a witch roaming among them, but most people are more taken by the idea of the notorious Captain Flint in chains than they are of an escaped magic user. Plenty enough of the women here are witches themselves, Miranda suspects. It is almost a necessity for survival in the New World, no matter how civilized a place like Charles Town proclaims itself to be. There are still natives in the woods, rebellious slaves, wolves and bears and wildcats. It is rarely safe for a man to go about alone, never mind a woman.

When the crowd in the town square thickens, people standing shoulder to shoulder, Miranda finds herself a nook amongst the buildings and watches, regret all but choking her.

James looks awful. Brought low by the chains at his arms and the collar around his neck, of course, but broken in a more fundamental way by her death. She can tell that he is holding it at bay, but to one who knows him as well as she does, the cracks in his soul are obvious.

When he says, “Everyone is a monster to someone. Since you are so convinced that I am yours, I will be it,” she knows that he has given up. For a man who so concerns himself with other people’s opinions to concede to the worst of them, it is as if he has lain down his flag, and let the weight of his trials bring him to his knees.

Miranda longs to lift him up again, but it is not the time. She has been patient for so many years; she can endure one more day.

It turns out she will not have to, because Charles Vane strides into the square – also chained, but proud as ever – and Miranda knows he has not set himself in the lion’s jaw without having put a pistol to its head first.

Vane has a plan to rescue James, for whatever purpose, so Miranda waits for the chaos to come.

When cannon balls rain upon the square, she crouches low and hopes her luck will hold. She doesn’t know a spell strong enough to divert hurtling spheres of iron. James and Vane free themselves in short order, and Miranda sees the moment James’s world narrows down to Peter, scuttling for his life. James launches himself at Peter’s guards, makes short work of them, and drives his sword into Peter’s gut. He lets Peter fall off the sword, grabs him by the throat and forces him the rest of the way to the ground. Miranda doesn’t know what he says, but his face is dark and vicious.

Vane finds him like that, exhorts him to move. James turns to follow him, and sees Miranda.

His eyes widen. His head moves in silent denial. He cannot take another step. Miranda can’t quite bear to take one either, until Vane, seeing that he’s not being followed, rounds on them both. “Flint! Barlow? Woman, let’s go!”

Miranda startles forward, reaching out to James. He runs for her, grabs her outstretched hand and pulls her along. Every few steps, he glances at her, disbelieving. “How?” he breathes.

“When we’re back on board,” she says. “I have much to tell you.”

The run for the docks is terrifying, and they almost lose their lives to the very cannons that enabled their freedom. James shields her with his body at every near miss, pushing her away only to confront the guards and soldiers who are looking for them amidst the madness. Miranda can see Vane’s frustration at their slow progress. She knows he’d leave her behind if he could.

She redeems herself as they make the launch. Colonel Rhett and his men thunder onto the docks just as Vane puts oars in the water. Miranda, unbalanced from James all but throwing her aboard, sprawls practically in Vane’s lap. She has a moment’s thought of what lewd remarks the man has on the tip of his tongue, then leans against him and raises her hands.

“What the fuck are you doing?” he growls, sliding aside as James takes the other oar. He grabs her with one arm and pulls her with him out of James’ way.

Miranda chants. The smoke rising above Charles Town rushes across roofs and through alleys to descend upon Rhett and his men, choking their lungs and obscuring their sight.

“You really are a fucking witch,” Vane marvels as Miranda extricates herself from between his legs.

“Row!” James snarls, and they put their backs into it. On the dock, the smoke roils, thick and black, and men scream as the Spanish warship’s cannons tear them apart.

- - -

James turns to Miranda, very briefly, as he gives the order to aim the cannons at Charles Town. He seems to be asking permission, and she gives it, a brief, sharp nod of her head.

She could stop this, and perhaps she should, but Miranda knows there is no turning back from this day. Any sign of weakness, any shred of mercy given at this moment, will only undermine James.

They don’t have the luxury of bargaining with this crew. They must get to Savannah, to Thomas, before word of Charles Town’s destruction spreads too far.

- - -

Miranda heads for the captain’s cabin as the warship finally makes its way out of the harbor, Charles Town reduced to smoking rubble behind it. At the door she finds two men who glance at each other in entreaty, before one of them says, as if taking a risk, “Begging you pardon, mum.” They’d not been quite so deferential before. Vane must have spread word of her witchcraft. “Mr. Silver’s in there. Softest bed near a window, Dr. Howell said.”

“Of course,” Miranda says. “Tell the captain that I’ll take the officers’ cabin just there.” She nods to a cabin a few doors down. She intends to fuck James senseless as soon as he releases himself from his duties, and the farther they are from guards when she does so, the better.

The two men nod, relieved that they won’t have to try and argue with her. “Would you like your clothes, mum?” the shorter one asks. “Only there’s, er, blood on your collar.”

Miranda does not flinch at the mention, only says, “Yes, I would. Very thoughtful of you, Mr...?”

“Dobbs, mum,” he says. He opens the door very cautiously, to keep it from squeaking, and gestures Miranda inside. “Dr. Howell gave him laudanum, but try not to make any noise.”

She nods, and hurries to the corner where her second dress and sparse sundries reside in a small trunk, sparing only a glance at the still figure of John Silver bundled up by the window. Mr. Dobbs is right behind her. He gestures, and she allows him to pick up the trunk and move it to the other cabin. Some of these pirates certainly know how to be gentlemen when they feel the need.

There is no water in the new cabin, so Miranda takes the pitcher and ventures to the kitchen. Nobody spares her a glance. Below decks is nearly empty, just an injured man or two lying in hammocks. There aren’t enough men left alive for anyone to be asleep right now, as gun crews clean and oil the guns so recently used, men aloft trim the sails for best speed, and guards keep an eye on Vane’s men, amassed in a grumbling huddle amidships.

Alone in the officers’ cabin again, Miranda works herself out of her dress, sometimes avoiding the bloody stain at the neck, other times staring at it as if it will provide some answers about how she should feel. She thought she’d worked through it – the terror, the shock, the triumph of being alive again – but now that there’s time to sit still in the gloom, it’s all coming back to her.

She shoves the dress aside, stuffs it under the farther bed like a guilty child hiding a broken toy. She pours some water into a basin and watches it slosh about with the motion of the ship. She turns away, chanting a cleaning spell, and another, until she feels as fresh as if she’d just had a bath. She considers the dress under the bed, but lets it be. There is something about blood that makes it very difficult to remove with magic. There’s no sense wasting the energy. She thinks perhaps she never wants to see that dress again.

There is a metal cup near the wash basin, tacky with the sugary residue of alcohol. Another cleaning spell sets it to rights, and Miranda fills it, drinks the water down, fills it again.

She should have thought to get herself some food while in the kitchens. Breakfast had been a long time ago.

She glances at the canvas sack she’d brought out of Peter’s house, and the urge to act strikes. She needs to figure out exactly what the agreement is between Peter and this Oglethorpe fellow. Then she needs to write a letter that convinces Oglethorpe to set it aside. Peter’s handwriting is impossible to mimic, but fortunately she knows a spell for that, too. There is paper and ink in the desk between the beds. Miranda takes up the earliest letter, and prepares to make notes.

She is halfway through reading the semi-annual reports from the Oglethorpe plantation when James knocks perfunctorily on the door before letting himself in. He locks the door and stands there staring at her.

“James...” Miranda doesn’t know what to say.

“How?” he demands, voice rough and bewildered. “I saw you shot. I saw it. Your blood was on my face!”

Miranda rises, still clad only in her shift, and reaches for him as she did in the square.

James takes a breath, takes a step forward, clasp her hand with both of his. “Magic?” he ventures. “I didn’t think it was strong enough for this?”

“Magic of a sort,” Miranda says. “I don’t fully understand it. I didn’t believe it for a long time. Come, let me show you something.” She pulls him toward the desk, gestures at the letters spread there and across the two beds. “Start with...” She finds the first report. “Start with this one.” As James reads, she finds the last letter.

“This cannot be,” he says, eyes darting between the letter in his hand and the ones scattered about.

“This one is from two months ago,” Miranda says, pushing it on him, taking the other away. “He’s still there. He’s still healthy.”

James shakes his head, unwilling to believe, but Miranda points to the words she wants him to read. “Look here.”

He reads, from the middle, then from the top. His hand shakes, the paper rustling like a leaf. “Where? Where is he?”

“Savannah. We should try to get there as soon as possible. Before any messengers manage to make it from Charles Town.”

“They’ll beat us to it,” James says, still staring at the latest letter. “We’ll have to stay near the coast to avoid the northerly current, and the winds shift often.” He looks up at her, gives back the letter. “We need to change course. I’ll be right back.”

While he’s gone, Miranda gathers the letters into a neat stack, and secures them in the drawer of the writing desk. The mattresses on the bed are thin, so she pulls the one off the far bed onto the near bed, along with its blankets.

Well, they’ve fucked in worse places than this, to be sure.

James returns, and stares at the bed. He doesn’t seem to know what to make of it. “Are we sleeping, or...”

“What do you want?” Miranda asks, trying to sound coy.

“To sleep,” James says shortly, “but I know you, and I’m willing to put that off for a bit.” He doesn’t sound happy about it.

Miranda eyes him carefully, taking in the worry lines creasing his face, the black smudges under his eyes, his fists quivering at his sides. She sighs. “I’m sorry. I feel... I need... I know I take advantage of you sometimes. You’re right. We should sleep. There will be much to do in Savannah.”

Her words seem to deflate him. He comes to her, kneels in front of her as she sits on the bed. “No, I’m sorry. You just– you were... dead. It stands to reason that you need to feel alive.”

“I should not ask for things you cannot give,” Miranda protests, but she knows that he will give her this. He will probably even want it himself, by the end.

“You found Thomas,” he says, and his face lights with a slow, helpless smile. “You found our Thomas! That deserves a reward, to say nothing of your miraculous survival.” James takes Miranda’s hands in his, kisses her fingers, then brings one hand up to her cheek, and guides her close with a teasing touch. “Whatever you need, my dear. My wife, my heart.”

Their lips brush, gently, as if learning each other, but Miranda has no patience for this now. She leans in, deepening the kiss, opening her mouth, urging James onward. He obliges, pulling her down into his lap, his tongue invading, taking what he wants instead of giving what she needs – though they are, in truth, the same thing.

He ends up enjoying himself very much, indeed.

 

[Savannah – Miranda]

Vane’s ship – James says it belongs to someone else entirely, in fact – is anchored in a bay on the south side of Charles Town harbor, just out of sight of the fort. Vane departs grudgingly, declaring that James now owes him his life and a ship, but he does depart.

They hug the coast to avoid the drag of the warm, north-bound current, but the changeable winds slow them down all the same. They sail past the mouth of the Savannah River around noon the next day, and anchor in a bay a few miles south, instead. It takes hours to row the launch up one of the rivers that feeds into the bay, and hours more to walk into town. It is dark by the time James and Miranda, with Billy posing as their guard, seek a room at the first inn they find – possibly the only inn, Miranda thinks, for Savannah is a young town, still, and rather small. She hopes she’ll be able to find James something respectable to wear.

The innkeeper eyes them askance, especially James’ leathers, but is ready with gossip. “Did you hear the news out of Charles Town, sir, madam? Pirates burned the place to the ground! Flint and Vane, they say, in a Spanish warship! The messenger just arrived a few hour ago. It’s got us all worried, to be sure. What if they come here next?”

James, Miranda and Billy very carefully do not look at each other. It had been wise to avoid Savannah’s port. The last thing they need is to get into another fight, whether at sea or on the shore.

“If they really razed that town,” James points out reasonably, “they’ve likely little shot left with which to destroy this one. Besides, pirates fight one another as often as they fight civilized men. They’re probably at each other’s throats by now, arguing over whose ship it is.”

Miranda glances back to see Billy’s lips thin in an effort to maintain an indifferent expression. He looks like he might be trying not to laugh, or not to strangle his captain.

“Know much about pirates, do you?” the innkeeper asks, suspicious.

“We’ve been set upon a few times, on the crossing,” James replies. “I’m lucky to be alive, I suppose. Which rooms, again?”

That effectively ends the conversation. James escorts Miranda upstairs. Billy stays below, to gather gossip from the other inn-goers.

Miranda wants James again, wants his teeth on her neck and the rasp of his beard between her thighs, but one look tells her that he truly is exhausted. Even the promise of seeing Thomas again cannot lighten his step or smooth his haggard mien. So she strips down to her shift, efficiently, not asking for his help, and very pointedly pulls the covers up to her chin once she’s in bed. All the while, he sprawls in a chair in the corner, head tipped back against the wall, eyes on the ceiling.

“Come and sleep, darling. We’ve much to do tomorrow.”

James’ gaze drifts down to meet hers, still distracted. He blinks, rub his eyes. “Yes, you’re right.”

And those are the last words either of them speak until morning.

- - -

Miranda takes Billy with her when she goes looking for respectable clothes for James to wear. They stop for an early lunch at the other inn. Afterward, she takes him thieving, because this town is too small to sell what she needs ready-made, but it’s a nice, warm day outside, and there’s been a lot of washing put out.

Stealing things is so much easier with magic.

Billy stares as a pair of nicely cut breeches comes floating over the fence. Miranda grabs them from the air, folds them neatly, and stuffs them in the sack Billy’s holding. “Stop staring, Mr. Manderly. You’ll only attract attention.”

Billy blinks at her. “Just Billy’s fine, ma’am.” He’s been saying that all morning. Miranda rolls her eyes and scrutinizes the other offerings on the wash line. The suit coat will not be flattering on James, but it will fit the persona he needs to don rather well. She cast the spell to grab it, and the linen shirt and hose that hang beside it.

“Leave some of those coins I gave you just inside the fence,” Miranda instructs as the clothes make their way into her hands. “Try to make them obvious.” It’s less than the clothes are worth, but more than Miranda’s usually willing to part with for things she could, technically, get for free. She’s feeling generous.

They’ll be seeing Thomas in mere hours, if all goes well.

The clothes fit James as expected – neatly, drably, unremarkably. He looks down at himself with a frown. “This is the best you could do?”

“You are such a peacock,” Miranda tuts. She gathers the letter she’s forged, and a handful of Oglethorpe’s most recent reports. Once they are tucked safely in a small leather satchel she’d brought from the ship, she extends her arm to James. “Let’s get going.”

He takes it and tucks her close, like the gentleman he used to be. Billy, having waited impatiently in the room while James changed, opens the door and mockingly bows them out.

- - -

They never did get a chance to talk about the soul bond, Miranda realizes as their rented wagon rattles down the rutted road toward the Oglethorpe plantation. James has accepted “magic” as the answer to why she’s still alive, and seems to have assumed that luck is why she found out about Thomas. She’ll have to set him straight at some point, explain everything to both of them, but it doesn’t make any difference now.

“Do you suppose anyone’s let them know about Charles Town at the plantation?” she asks after a particularly nasty jolt of the wagon. Billy, in the driver’s seat, mumbles an apology.

“I’m sure,” James says. “But they won’t have any more detail than anyone in town.” A handful of people had trickled into Savannah during the day and news of the attack – and the trial that preceded it – had spread, but there seemed to be little more than but generalities to share. Nobody would be able to point to James and says, there he is, that’s Captain Flint, especially now he’d taken off his leathers and earring.

Abigail probably doesn’t even know her father is dead, yet.

The forged letter is dated four days past, so it only remains to look properly shocked when they meet Oglethorpe, and grateful that they had escaped the carnage wrought by the wicked pirates.

They pass a bend in the road, and the trees make way for wide open fields. Not far away, a tall, foreboding fence marks the edge of the plantation. Miranda takes a deep breath. Beside her, James cracks his knuckles.

The guards at the gate are wary but polite when Billy introduces Mr. and Mrs. Barlow to see Mr. Oglethorpe. One of them unties the horse staked out to graze behind the guard shack, and wrestles a bridle onto its head. “Mr. Caruthers will escort you to the house, Mr. Barlow,” the other one says. “Please don’t stop on the way.”

Odd instructions for a typical plantation, but it’s clear even at this distance that the people working the fields are white, not African, and James nods agreeably as if he knows all about what’s going on here. “Of course not.”

The main house is impressive, something one might expect to see in Virginia, not this fledgling little colony dug into land claimed by two different empires. Oglethorpe has clearly made best use of the labor and funds that shamed English families have been supplying to him.

Oglethorpe greets them in a receiving room, looking amiable but confused. “Were you directed here by one of my associates, Mr. Barlow? I wasn’t expecting anyone until next week. Of course we can make arrangements for your stay, if you don’t mind a short wait.”

“That’s very kind,” James says perfunctorily, “but it won’t be necessary. We were sent here by Governor Ashe.” He takes the letter out of the satchel and hands it to Oglethorpe. “The timing, it turns out, is fortuitous. I assume you’ve heard what happened to Charles Town? By God’s grace we left the day before.”

Oglethorpe’s eyes kindle with interest. “Have you any news? I’ve only had one messenger from town, last night. It sounded grave, indeed.”

“Nothing of substance,” James replies. “The letter, please. We’re late arriving, and should like to make it back to our ship as quickly as possible. The captain wants to leave with the tide.”

Oglethorpe nods and cracks the seal on the letter. He reads, expression sagging, then folds the letter up and puts it on the table behind him. “This is most unexpected.”

“I’m sure you can agree that the governor will have his hands full in the coming weeks, and it is just as well that he agreed to transfer the burden of Thomas Hamilton’s care to us.” James’ voice does not crack on Thomas’ name, but Miranda can tell that it is a near thing.

“Thomas has been no burden,” Oglethorpe says, eyes darting to and fro, as if he can read some answer to this dilemma in the air. No doubt Thomas has worked hard for him, and the loss of both labor and income will be a significant blow. “Perhaps we can come to a new arrangement between ourselves, Mr. Barlow? Do you really have the time to devote to this troubled soul?”

“God has granted us both the time and the resources, Mr. Oglethorpe,” Miranda says before James, grown suddenly tense beside her, can come up with a reply. “We cannot disavow this new responsibility.”

“No, no, of course not,” Oglethorpe agrees, “but have you considered-“

“Mr. Oglethorpe,” James cuts in, glowering. “We need to be on our way. Please have Lord Hamilton brought to us immediately.”

That gives entirely the wrong impression, of course. Oglethorpe’s gaze becomes more scrutinizing. “You do not inspire confidence, sir, that you will care for him properly. I find this all a little too convenient, considering the recent news.”

“And I find your attitude disappointing, Mr. Oglethorpe,” Miranda retorts, squeezing James’ arm in warning. “God in his wisdom and mercy has sent us here so that we might repay a debt to Governor Ashe in caring for his dear friend during the governor’s time of trouble. Lord Ashe shared with me personally how very much this has weighed on him all these years. Now, more than ever, his mind must be clear and his heart unburdened. Would you stand in the way of that?”

“I am less concerned with your debt to the governor, madam, and more concerned with Thomas’ well-being,” Oglethorpe declares. “You have not seen him in ten years. How can you be certain that you will still tolerate and forgive his... eccentricities?”

“Is he a murderer, Mr. Oglethorpe? Does he pray on young boys in the night? Has he developed some awful vice? Even these things, we would forgive. It is our Lord God’s place to judge, not ours. We can but provide a loving home, a firm hand and steady purpose. The rest is between God and Lord Hamilton.”

For a moment, Miranda thinks she’s gone too far, but Oglethorpe purses his lips and gives the letter on the table a pensive glance. “We do share a philosophy, Mrs. Barlow. Well... If Thomas recognizes you, and is agreeable, I suppose that I must let him go. Please have a seat while I send for him.” He gestures toward the settee before disappearing deeper into the house.

“Keep your temper,” Miranda warns when they’re alone. “He was a military man; he is no fool.”

James huffs disdainfully but grumbles an apology. Footsteps in the hallway signal the arrival of a servant bearing a tray with refreshments. Miranda dismisses him and pours herself a glass of some kind of juice. James takes a biscuit. The clock chimes four. It’s past time to go. They’ll be rowing in the dark.

More footsteps sounds, getting closer. James rises, jerky and stiff, as if awakened by a puppet master. Miranda stands, too, and grabs onto his arm again. “Peace,” she whispers.

Oglethorpe is first into the room, face impassive. He gestures broadly as he turns to the man behind him. “Thomas, do you recognize these people?”

Thomas stops short, and stares.

The years have not been kind to him. His hair is graying, his rough-shaven face weathered. His shoulders stoop, despite his straight posture. There are so many wrinkles around his eyes... not laugh lines, Miranda is sure.

James has stopped breathing, so it’s up to her, as always. She lets him go and steps forward. “My lord, do you remember us? Mr. and Mrs. Barlow. Lord Ashe recommended us to you on the matter of bringing religion back to the pirates of Nassau.”

Thomas chokes out a breath that turns into an incredulous laugh. “Yes, yes, I do remember you.” He swallows, eyes filling with tears. His gaze jumps between Miranda and James, unable to settle. “Forgive my lack of composure, please. What brings you here after all these years?”

His voice is rougher than Miranda remembers, but she doesn’t know if it’s years or emotion that have turned it gravelly. Still, it’s an achingly sweet sound that pulls her back to languid mornings in London, long nights in the library, a turn in the hayloft above Alfred’s stables... the memories hit Miranda hard, and it takes a moment for her to gather her thoughts.

“Lord Ashe has been very troubled of late, even before the recent, dreadful attack.” she says. “He bade us visit him this past week, and asked that we, being so close to our Lord God, take on your care. If you are willing, you will travel with us to our Massachusetts estate. I think it will suit you well.”

“Oh,” Thomas says, very softly. “Oh, that would be... I should like that very much.” He looks warily to Oglethorpe, hope writ clear on his face.

Oglethorpe is frowning. “Think this over, Thomas. It has been ten years since you saw these people.”

“And whose fault is that?” Thomas hisses. “Certainly not theirs, or mine! You would have come to visit, Mrs. Barlow, had you known where to find me?”

“Of course!” Miranda exclaims, a fire kindling in her heart to see Thomas still so forceful, still unbowed despite so many years of forced servitude. “My lord, we would have come immediately. You must have felt so abandoned here!”

James finally takes a step forward. “My lord, had we but known...” he rumbles, like waves washing ashore.

Thomas smiles at him, bright and brilliant. The tears that have been building finally spill down his cheeks. “I have no doubt, Mr. Barlow. No doubt at all.” He turns to Oglethorpe. “I should like to go pack, Mr. Oglethorpe.” His voice is steady as stone.

Oglethorpe sighs, and concedes defeat. “Very well. I’ll have Mr. Dwight escort you. Don’t take the books.”

Thomas bristles. “Peter did pay for them, did he not?”

“I’m sure you can spare a few books, Mr. Oglethorpe,” Miranda says. “The Lord gifted us with the written word for a reason. You would not deprive a man in need of its guidance, would you?”

“Of course not,” Oglethorpe assures, more or less graciously. “Please wait. We will return shortly.” He gestures out the door, and Thomas precedes him, casting a longing look at Miranda and James. They can do nothing to reassure him with Oglethorpe watching.

As soon as she’s sure they’re gone, Miranda turns and flings herself into James’ arms. “It’s him!” she chokes out. “James, it’s really him!”

James hold her close, puts his lips to her temple and murmurs, “Good work, my dear. You’re brilliant. Good work.”

Miranda wants to protests, to cry and shriek and beat her fists against someone in frustration, because it’s been ten years! She should have known. She should have looked, she should have found him sooner. But she can’t break down, not yet. It would make no logical sense for Oglethorpe to find Lord Hamilton’s good acquaintance bawling in her husband’s arms. Miranda lets James hold her for another long moment, breathes as deeply as the bodice of her dress will allow, calms herself to determined steadiness. Finally she pulls away. “You’re crying, James,” she says. “Wipe your face before they return.”

She pours a fresh glass of juice and holds it out to James along with a fine linen napkin. He drinks, dabs at his eyes, scrubs his hands roughly over his face. They both sit down again, and they wait.

At last, Thomas returns. He carries a canvas sack over one shoulder, long and round like a sea bag. The top half of it bulges with the shape of books crammed in as tightly as possible. Oglethorpe and a guard follow him. “All set,” Thomas says, a little breathless.

“Let’s go, then, my lord,” James declares. “Mr. Oglethorpe, it has been a pleasure.” Nobody thinks he means it.

Miranda should say something polite and Godly and kind, she knows, but words have deserted her as the reality of what’s happening dawns on her.

Thomas is returned to them.

Oglethorpe leads the way outside, where Billy still waits with the rented wagon; the horse is dozing, and startles when Billy jumps from the driver’s seat. The gate guard who had accompanied them unfolds himself from his seat by the hitching post, and goes to gather his horse.

“Take the bag,” James directs. He looks more sure of himself, now there’s someone to give orders to. Billy takes the bag from Thomas and secures it in the back of the wagon, careful not to bump the books, then returns to help Miranda up.

Thomas turns to Oglethorpe. “I find myself lost for words, sir. Farewell, I suppose.”

“A rare occasion, indeed,” Oglethorpe says. “Goodbye, Thomas. I hope you do not regret this.”

“I am sure I shall not,” Thomas says, and makes for the wagon. Billy helps him up, then James behind him. There is only one bench seat, so they all three sit together, Miranda on the left, Thomas in the middle. Miranda fights hard not press close and grabs Thomas’ hand.

Billy hops down, unties the horse from the hitching post, and gets in the driver’s seat. “Walk on!” he calls, and slaps the reins lightly on the horse’s rump. The wagon jolts forward. The gate guard keeps pace beside them.

Nobody looks back.

 

[Savannah – Thomas]

“When we are out of sight of this place, my love,” Miranda says quietly as the wagon trundles toward the gates, “we will greet you properly.”

“Is this a dream?” Thomas whispers, staring straight ahead. He still can’t quite believe what’s happening.

“Hell of a good one if it is,” James murmurs, the deep voice near his ear sending a shiver down Thomas’ spine. “We’ve missed you so much, Thomas.”

Thomas turns his head a fraction, away from the guard, toward Miranda. “I was told you were both dead.” His voice breaks on the last word.

“We were told the same,” Miranda says, with an edge of betrayed fury. “But I learned differently. We came as soon as we discovered your location.”

“Can you forgive us for leaving you behind?” James asks, rough with grief.

“I all but ordered you to leave me,” Thomas says, looking forward again, at the back of the driver’s head. He wishes he hadn’t asked it of them. He wishes they’d come for him far, far sooner. He knows it would have meant James’ death, at the very least. “How could I be angry about it? I needed you both safe.”

“Safe is a relative term,” James grinds out.

Then they are passing the guardhouse, all three of them falling silent. Only their driver replies to the guard’s farewell.

They stay still as the plantation falls away behind them, until they know they are hidden by the bend in the road. Then Miranda all but falls over to cry into Thomas’ chest, her hands scrabbling desperately for his. James sags into his other side, muffling a sob in his shoulder, one arm around Thomas’ back, the other gripping at his thigh.

Thomas frees one of his hands so he can pull Miranda close, then leans their combined weight against James, who settles in and holds on tighter.

They drive past the road that leads to town and head east, toward the marshes, if Thomas remembers right. The miles are eaten up as the driver pushes the horse into a canter, and still a fast trot where the road becomes winding and uneven.

“Ease up on that horse, Billy,” James says at last, after one too many jolts of the wagon. “No point in rushing now.”

Billy obligingly slows down, and they listen to the horse’s panting breaths set a rhythm to the suddenly awkward silence.

“Where are we going?” Thomas ventures eventually. “I didn’t think there was anything in this direction.”

“Our ship is anchored in the bay beyond these marshes,” James explains. “It’s safer this way.”

Thomas frowns. He wants to see James’ face, of a sudden, but he doesn’t want to disentangle himself from their embrace. “Are you in some sort of trouble?”

Billy snorts, but James doesn’t reprimand him. “You could say that, I suppose,” James allows. “But it’s nothing for you to worry about at the moment.”

Miranda has straightened up a bit, so Thomas glances at her, trying to weigh the truth of James’ words on her face. She tries to smile reassuringly and rubs a hand up and down his arm. Thomas can tell, even after all these years, that if she said something to him right now, it would be a lie.

“What really happened to Peter?” he asks. “The guards were saying that Charles Town burned.”

“It did,” James says bluntly. “Peter is dead.”

Now Thomas has to pull away and look at him. He needs to know. “Did you kill him?”

James nods, unapologetic. “I did.”

“Well,” Thomas says, then pauses. “Well. I can’t say I’m happy to hear it, but I grieved the loss of that friendship a decade ago.”

James seems to be looking for something in Thomas’ face. Thomas doesn’t know if he finds it, but he says, “He destroyed our lives. I’d do it again.”

“I know you would, James,” Thomas replies. “I know you would.” There’s always been a darkness to James, a banked fury that Thomas only ever caught glimpses of, but heard plenty about through rumor and gossip. It had excited him, all those years ago, but he’d never really thought about it beyond the edge it gave James in their shared bed, and in their arguments to Parliament and the Navy.

He supposes that death is its natural conclusion.

It occurs to him to ask why James was there while Charles Town was burning, and what exactly he had to do with it, but he’s not brave enough for that, yet. He is eager, for a change, to live in blissful ignorance for as long as possible.

The wagon slows, and stops. “Can’t driver any farther,” Billy says.

The road has not quite petered out, but there’s a single track in the cordgrass leading out toward the water. There must be a boat waiting at the edge of the marsh.

James pulls away from Thomas with an apologetic glance and a sigh. He hopes down off the wagon, stretching with an audible crack. “Untack the horse and let it loose.”

Billy gets down, too, and goes to unhitch the animal. “That was a good girl, huh? Yes, you were,” he murmurs.

“Billy Bones, sweet-talking animals,” James says, offering a hand to help Thomas to the ground. “I don’t know why I’m surprised.”

Billy rolls his eyes, but otherwise ignores him.

Thomas means to let go of James’ hand, once he’s on the ground, but he doesn’t quite manage it. James doesn’t seem willing to let go, either, so Thomas tugs him in until they’re face to face, chest to chest, breathing each other’s air. James’ lips are dry and chapped and Thomas doesn’t know if he should, because he’s finally learned to be cautious and he doesn’t know Billy from Adam, but James solves the crisis by leaning in whispering, “Thomas, Thomas.”

Thomas kisses him, soft and timid at first, growing bolder as James responds, lips parting, tongue darting out. Thomas is desperate suddenly to taste every bit of James, to be devoured in turn. He feels the rumble of James’ desire resonating in his chest.

“Boys!” Miranda’s voice startles them apart, James panting, hands clutching at Thomas’ arms. “There are children present.”

They turn, in unison, to see Billy and the horse both staring at them, though only the horse looks alarmed. “You were growling,” Billy says blandly. “You scared her.”

James blinks. “You... don’t seem surprised.”

Billy snorts with absolute derision. “Please. You think I haven’t noticed you ogling me and Joji?” He turns back to the horse. “Come on, sweet, let’s go find your halter.”

Miranda, still on the wagon, raises her brows expectantly. “And where, my lord, is my kiss?”

Thomas finds himself smiling, wide and helpless, at her amused expression. He steps up to the wagon, one hand still on James, and offers the other to help her down. “At your leisure, my lady.”

Miranda hops down daintily, and lets herself be towed close. James gives Thomas’ fingers a squeeze and lets go, so Thomas has both hands free to cup his dear wife’s face and kiss her, bold, unhesitating. She responds with a moan, clutching at his chest, opening to him immediately, eager to be claimed. They consume each other, vying to be closer, go deeper, until their breath is spent and they have to part, gasping for air.

Miranda laughs, sudden and joyful, and wraps her arms around him. “We found you! We found you! James, come here!” A moment, and powerful arms wrap around Thomas from behind, a broad, strong chest presses to his back, a half-hard cock to his arse. James’ face is buried in Thomas’ shoulder, James breath hot and wet against his skin even through his thin shirt. One of them starts sniffling, and Thomas thinks it might be himself.

They stay like that until Billy clears his throat. “Sunset soon. We want to start rowing.”

James sighs, deep and bothered. “Billy, you take the fun out of everything.”

“Oddly enough,” Billy says archly, “that’s what we all say about you.”

- - -

“That... is no merchant vessel,” Thomas says, as they make the mouth of the river. Billy and James are rowing, trying to make it to the ship before they lose the light. The sun is all but down.

“It is not,” Miranda says, patting his hand consolingly.

Thomas is afraid he knows where this is going, but, again, blissful ignorance is currently a desire state, so he asks no more questions.

The climb up the side of the ship is a little dizzying, despite the gloom of dusk masking the height, but once he makes the deck Thomas feels quite stable again. He and Billy help Miranda over the side, then await James. A group of men have gathered to haul up the boat, and they begin to do so even before James is on deck. Thomas isn’t sure if this is a sign of an efficient crew or a disrespectful one. Perhaps James isn’t even the captain here.

Billy is dressed well enough, clothes clean, if patched, and boots on his feet. The rest of the crew looks more ragged – shoeless, stained clothes, tattered cuffs and pantlegs. Some of them sport jewelry, short earrings or bracelets of gold and silver. There are a few Africans among the crew, moving as if they were equals, not slaves or servants.

It is certainly not the sort of crew Thomas remembers seeing on a merchant vessel, for all that he has seen but few of them. Though they look less put together, they also look less cowed. The men move smartly, with purpose, and heads held high. They follow James’ orders, but they do not seem to bow and scrape before him. Nobody nods in deference as he passes.

“I’ve got work to do,” Billy says behind Thomas. “You’ll have to carry these yourself.” He nods at Thomas’ bag, and the ones he’d brought up for Miranda.

Miranda rolls her eyes, takes up her bags, and gestures that Thomas should follow her. They cross the deck and descend down a short stair into a darkened hold. Shafts of light pierce the gloom. Hammocks are stung everywhere. Men are sleeping in some of them.

“This way,” Miranda says softly, heading down a narrow corridor. She makes a turn and stops before the door of a cabin. “Mister Silver was badly hurt, and they’ve left him to rest in the captain’s cabin. We are sharing this one.” She juggles her bundles in her arms, opens the door, then dumps the lot on one of two narrow beds. Thomas steps in and does likewise with his burden. Miranda closes the door, turns and falls into his arms again. “We left you. I’m so sorry! We shouldn’t have, not ever.”

Thomas holds her close, rests his cheek on her head and tries to soothe her. “I am glad you did. There’s no telling what could have happened to you.”

“Nothing!” she cries into his chest, oddly distraught. “Nothing would have happened! We could have died a hundred times to no consequence! I should have listened to James. He wanted to go back for you. He was making plans, when Peter told us you’d died. And we didn’t know. I didn’t know, not for years... Thomas...”

Thomas can’t entirely parse what Miranda means. He rocks her gently and lets her spend her sorrow. When she finally ventures to look up at him, he caresses her face, trying to wipe away the tears. “My darling, Peter lied to all of us. You cannot blame yourself for being misled by one you trusted.” His hand drifts up her cheek, to her temple, her hair. He can’t stop touching her – if he does, she might disappear. “He told me the two of you were dead as well.”

“He said you forgave him,” Miranda whispers, half-accusing. “Is it true?”

Thomas snorts inelegantly. “Not in the least. Perhaps he told himself that to ease the discomfort of seeing me the last time. They’d drugged me, but it hadn’t quite taken effect yet. I ranted and raved, I know this, but I could not tell you what I said. Perhaps there were some words that one might twist into something like forgiveness. But my heart? No, my heart never forgave his treachery.” It burns even now, even knowing that Peter is dead... hatred really does weaken the soul, but Thomas cannot help himself. The last ten years have taught him hatred, and other vile things.

Miranda seems eased at his words. She tightens her hold once more, and says, muffled into his chest, “I suppose I would have understood if you had. You have always been a generous man.”

“Not this generous,” Thomas mutters. “Come, let us sit.” He guides her to one of the beds. “Tell me about this ship. Tell me what you’ve been up to. Tell me everything.”

Miranda sinks down onto the bed, looking suddenly wary. Thomas joins her, not letting go, pulling her close again once he’s seated. “I won’t be angry, you know, or appalled.” It’s time, too soon, to set that blissful ignorance aside.

“Won’t you be?” She hides her face against his shoulder.

“Even if you should tell me that James has turned pirate...” Thomas feels her stiffen at this. “My dear, do give me some credit. What other explanation can there be, for this ship and those men?”

She looks up at him, trying to gauge the truth of his words. Her expression is equal parts hopeful and disbelieving. “You are right. He turned pirate many years ago. I... I did not think you would be pleased to hear it.”

“I am not pleased,” Thomas says gently, “but neither am I surprised. It saddens me, that this was the only recourse that you both felt was left to you.”

“James was trying to gather resources, to save you,” Miranda explains. “Against my word.” She looks down again, ashamed. “When Peter told us you were dead, it all but destroyed us. When I heard– When I heard that Alfred was traveling to the Carolinas, in secret...” She seems to be trying to confess something, but can’t bring herself to do it.

“I’ve never heard of a pirate named McGraw,” Thomas ventures, hoping to spare her. There’s no reason she should punish herself. “What does James call himself now?”

Miranda takes a stuttering breath. “Flint,” she rasps. “He goes by Captain Flint.”

“Ah,” Thomas says. That, he was not expecting. Much is made suddenly clear, though, and he is not sure if he should be enraged, or ashamed, or proud that his furious, beloved James has become one of the most successful and notorious pirates in the New World.

“Well,” he says, letting his conflicting emotions roil, but keeping his voice steady, “he never did anything by halves, our James.”

Miranda is startled into a hysterical laugh. She brings a hand to her lips, as if to keep in the laughter, and goes in the blink of any eye from giggling to sobbing. Thomas turns and puts a knee on the bed so he can pull her tightly to him, as close as possible. He wonders, almost idly, how many tears are left for her to cry, and how long she has been holding them back. He finds angers rising out of the maelstrom of his emotions – anger at James, for letting Miranda stay in such a wretched state. Anger at himself, for bringing this upon them in the first place.

Footsteps sound beyond the door. Miranda startles up, tears still flowing down her face. “That’s James. He’ll be checking on Mister Silver.”

It dawns on Thomas that he doesn’t know his husband’s gait anymore. It’s a sobering thought. He doesn’t know James as he once did. He doesn’t know Miranda. They’ve become different people, all three of them. Perhaps they don’t fit together as they did before.

That though terrifies Thomas. That James and Miranda might have rescued him only out of obligation... that they might house him with them only out of pity. Their kisses and their bodies cleaving to his in the marsh tell the truth, of course, but reason has no power when he starts to feel like this. His heart thunders in his ears, and his breath rattles in his throat. Well, then. Here he goes, panicking again.

Mr. Oglethorpe would surely be disappointed, if he were around to see it.

“Thomas?” Miranda draws back and eyes him carefully. “Thomas, what’s the matter. You’re not... are you afraid of James?”

Thomas shakes his head. “No,” he manages. “No.”

“You’re safe,” Miranda says, clearly unsure how to deal with this wreck of a man before her. “You’re safe, I promise you. We won’t ever let you go again.”

That startles a laugh out of him “Won’t you? We don’t even know each other anymore.”

“Then we shall learn one another all over again,” Miranda declares, sure and certain despite her tears.

He wants his old idealism back, wants to think it will be that easy, so he doesn’t argue. Instead he tries to dry Miranda’s face with his sleeve. It feels awkward and clumsy, but she seems to appreciate the tenderness. She catches his hand and kisses his knuckles. Her red-rimmed eyes are warm and kind, and Thomas loses himself in their familiar depths.

A knock startles them out of their trance. “Miranda?” James’ voice comes through the door.

“We’re in here,” Miranda confirms, kissing Thomas’ hand again.

Thomas turns to see James skulking in and locking the door. His shoulders heave as he takes a deep breath, and slowly faces the bed. “Thomas,” he whispers. “My dear Thomas.” But he is wary now, and makes no move to step closer.

Miranda sniffles, and extends a hand. “Come here, James. Don’t leave him waiting It’s all right.”

James jolts into motion, shuffling closer, tentative and so familiar in his hesitancy that it makes Thomas’ heart race again. He lets go of Miranda, feels her release her hold, and rises. James stops, a foot away, and says, “I need to tell you something.”

“You’ve already told me about Peter,” Thomas reminds him, closing the gap between them. “Miranda’s told me that you turned pirate, and she’s told me your new name. I know about Alfred. Charles Town was your doing as well.” He stops for a moment, gaze roving over James’ dear, regret-washed face. “I can’t claim to understand, not yet, but I know, James. I know, and I’m not sure how I feel...” he takes James’ trembling hands in his. “But I don’t hate you. I could never hate you.”

James’ breath gusts out of him, and hitches on a sob. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Thomas. I failed you in so many ways.” He tries to pull his hands back, but Thomas doesn’t let go; pulls instead himself, until James gives in and comes to him, shaking and tentative. “How can you still want me?”

Thomas leans closer, until their foreheads touch. He sighs, pulls back a little, kisses James’ brow, nudges his nose against James’, rubs a cheek against his, cat-like. When he touches his lips to James’, James parts for him, helpless and wanting. Thomas kisses him, short, sweet, teasing. “How,” he asks at length, “can you want a coward like me, who never fought his captors, who never tried to escape?” He nips at James’ lower lip. James’ hips stutter against his. “How can you want a man who just let it all happen?”

It finally seems to penetrate, what Thomas is saying, because James pulls back sharply. “A man who loves peace is no coward,” he protests. His grip on Thomas turns possessive. “A man who stands by his principles at the cost of his own freedom is no coward. A man who tries to protect those he loves, that man is no coward.” His eyes boring into Thomas’ are fierce now, burning with conviction. “You are the bravest man I know, and I will always love you, no matter what you think of yourself.”

“And I will love you,” Thomas tells him, “even if I don’t understand, even if I’m angry, even if I disagree with you. Whether you hate yourself or not. I will love you, I will stand by you. I have a second chance and I will not let it slip through my grasp.”

James shakes his head, breath stuttering, but Thomas lets his hands go and cups his jaw. “James, my darling, don’t argue with me.”

That startles a laugh out of his pirate. Thomas kisses him again, quick and firm. “That’s better. Now,” he turns to Miranda, not sure if he’s expecting tears or shame or smiles, “what shall we do to reassure our wife?”

Miranda’s eyes are still red, but her smile is proud and satisfied. “Tell me there’s still room for me,” she says, rising to join them, “among these declarations of undying love.” Though her tone is teasing, there’s something just the smallest bit vulnerable about her.

“Always,” James says, unhesitating, as they draw her in beside them, James’ arm wrapping around her waist, Thomas’ across her back. She puts an arm around each of them, in turn. “You have stood by me these ten years, fought for me, fought beside me, fought against me when you needed to. You are my anchor, my keel and my rudder. When I saw you...” he stutters to a stop, glances at Thomas, and continues, “When I thought you were gone, I felt my world collapsing. Losing you would rend me apart. I love you, Miranda. I am bound to you, and I would not untie those knots even if I could.” He leans in to kiss her, confident of his welcome, and she meets him halfway, demanding and possessive. Her grip on Thomas doesn’t slacken in the slightest.

When they turn to him at last, the both of them, Thomas should feel put on the spot, but he doesn’t. He should feel inadequate, in the face of their ten shared years of brutality and privation. He doesn’t. He feels... “Blessed,” he says. “I am so blessed, to be in your heart and your thoughts after all these years. The memories of our life together kept me from losing myself, Miranda. The love and the freedom you gave me, your understanding, your support, your wisdom... You saw me, you knew me, and you loved me. Whenever they told me I was ill, or wrong, or filthy, I remembered you, and the truth you forged for us kept me whole. Even when you were not with me, I survived because of you. Now I have the chance to live for you again, and the possibility of it overwhelms me. My darling, I want to show you such love, such joy as you have never known before.”

There are tears flowing down Miranda’s face again. When she pulls him down to her, Thomas tries his best to kiss them away before seeking out her mouth. She doesn’t hesitate, nipping, sucking, licking at him, and oh, the fire that sears his veins when she forces in and withdraws, like she’s fucking him with her tongue – he scoops her up and wraps her legs around his waist, and James, fine tactician that he is, supports her up from behind as she wraps her arms around Thomas’ neck. Thomas’ hips echo Miranda’s tongue, James is chuckling, his hands are probing beneath Thomas’ waistband – Miranda draws back, panting, neck arched, head resting against James’ shoulder, and growls, “If one of you doesn’t fuck me right now, I’m going to scream!”

Thomas laughs, arcs of lust and glee coursing through him like lightning.

“Anything my lady desires!”

-fin-