“… and ripping babes from their mothers’ arms, roasting over open fire… This is…”
“Far too exaggerated for anyone but a farmer to raise any concern over.”
“You’re having prejudices against farmers now?”
Flint just makes one of his unreadable little twitches and Silver lets out an incredulous laughter, holding the pamphlet up as if there were more people standing around listening.
“This is comeplete horse shit and whoever wrote it must be either crazy or desperate.”
“Or English. Yet some will still believe it.”
Flint drops the piece of paper onto his desk, like it’s a smearing his hand. He looks at it with a disdain Billy’s never seen before.
Silver huffs, shaking his head and folds his arms together. He’s not discovered Billy behind the door, neither has Flint.
“What’s the famous Captain Flint’s opinon on this… Ned Low?”
“I have not met him.”
“That’s why you havent shown me the pamphlet until now?”
“We have more urgent business to attend to.”
Flint sounds unimpressed, unmoved, but since when is that something new? Billy can barely breathe, he didn’t mean to eavesdrop, he came down to get a cup of water for Randall and the door to the Captain’s quarter was ajar. Billy is dead still and silent, listening to Flint raising from his chair.
“He’s probably just another brute, like Vane.”
“And does Nassau have room for two of them?”
“Sooner or later they’ll meet and I guess then we’ll see.”
There’s a joyless laughter that still, after all these years onboard with Flint, makes Billy’s skin crawl. It’s not that it sounds malicious or insane, it’s just… hollow. He can hear the chair creak.
“Men of power love when they have a good ghost story to throw to the crowd, a meatbone to the dogs and they’ll stop barking for a while. You of all people should know that, Silver.”
“You have an awfully grim view of people sometimes, you know that, right?”
Flint and Silver turn to throwing insults at each other and only then, Billy remembers to breathe. To move. He sneaks, as much as a man of his size can, to the galley and gets the promised cup of water for Randall – and one for Betsy – and heads back up to the crewman who thinks Billy took too long. Billy mumbles an excuse and then sneaks below deck again, not to eavesdrop but to get down to the cargo space and get a moment of solitude.
He closes the door behind him, sliding down to block it and no one has any business down here right now as far as he knows. They’re at sea again and it’s hell. It’s hell considering the news Silver brought along when they’d already set sails. That Ned Low has made Vane an enemy.
Vane! Billy curls his fists, he wants to hit something but there’s nothing here to break without ruining either the hunt or his own hands. Shitty ideas, both of them. He has respect for Vane, the man is one of a kind, but for all the men Ned could’ve challenged, why did he have to choose the one who doesn’t bend for anyone?
It has taken time to come to terms with what he’s feeling for Ned. Not the captain, not the fairytale monster, not the legend but the man. Billy closes his eyes, tries to let the firm reality of the ship’s floor boards ground him, like they used to when he’d been press ganged as a boy and the fear, the grief and the uncertainty of the dark, rocking prison carrying him far away from everything and everyone he knew and loved.
He puts his palms to his nose, but the scent is gone. He spent the night with Ned, the morning as well and as has been the case for a handful of meetings now, they’ve been talking. Billy closes his eyes, floating away, back to the bed in the forgotten house… Back to Ned resting on his arm, warm and heavy, satisfied and lax.
What was her name?
Eliza. Eliza Marble.
You loved her?
She was my wife…
Billy had guessed as much. That his lover was either a widower or had lost the woman he’d meant to marry. The band simply didn’t look like the one you shared with a matelot. Not that there were rules to it, but Billy still didn’t think it suited. He’d been right and he’d hated himself for the pang of jealousy he’d felt from the truth. That Ned had belonged to someone else once, a woman he’d not only loved but married.
Ned never said it, never confirmed in words, but the truth was there, clear as day. He’d loved his wife, still did and Billy didn’t need to ask why there was a was instead of is. So instead, he’d entwined their fingers together, resting his nose in Ned’s hair and told him about his parents.
William and Veronica Manderly… They were anti-impressment activists in Kensington, I helped them spreading pamphlets…
So… Wha’ happened?
One day when I was alone, three men came up to me, telling me to come with them. I refused, didn’t know them… They caught me though and left the pamphlets where they’d snapped me. For my parents to find, I guess. Got pressganged, stuck on a navy ship for three years before Flint rescued me.
How old were ye? When they took ye from Kensington?
The memory still hurts, not like a wound being ripped opened, but like the sting of an old scar and Billy had pulled Ned’s warm body closer, felt the solidness of it, of a life that was, not a frozen image from the past. He’d put a stop to the conversation by nibbling at the sensitive spot behind Ned’s ear and it was probably cheating but Billy just wanted that sadness threatening their rare moment together to go away and so did the one-eyed man.
Ned rode him, still slick and sensitive from earlier and it had been softer, both of them seemingly getting used to their bodies together, not rushing but just letting the waves carry them home and the sadness had faded, memories falling back behind the veils and the world turned, if not sweet, so at least managable again.
And whenever he hears someone mention the name of his lover, there’s no trace of the man left, only a monster, an insane and inhuman demon and it hurts, God it hurts way more than it should. Billy knows fully well there’s no reason for Flint or Silver to talk about Ned as anything but the feared Captain with a reputation that makes Vane look domesticated. He’s the son of pamhplet printers and activists for Christ’s sake, he’s here due to the power of unwanted words from the masses and the freedom the nobles and the authorities are deadly afraid to share.
How is it to mourn a wife in comparison to a mother and father? It feels so wrong to be jealous of a woman who no longer can claim the broken man that makes Billy feel closer to whole than he’s been since he woke up from the first sleep on the ship and realised he was already far, far away from his parents.
Billy knows he’s a fool for letting himself close to Ned, or any man, in this way. Because no matter how practical a man he is, there’s just something inside him that Billy knows will be irreparable should Ned be taken from him as well. He doesn’t know if it’s love, but it’s more than desire, something else than friendship and every time he tries to put a name to it, he fails.
Billy isn’t a complicated man. Not stupid, far from it, but he’s no maze of tricks and darkness as Flint yet neither has he the easiness, the unabashed and simple way of Muldoon. More often than not, Silver thinks he doesn’t deserve the kind and grumpy gunner and is confused that Muldoon’s affections so often reaches beyond the mere physical satisfaction. How it’s important to him that Silver is comfortable and feels good when they work, eat and sleep.
That’s sort of a trait the gunner shares with Billy, only it’s much more explicit. Billy’s concerns are there, but carefully wrapped in enough layers of bluntness, harsh pats and glares to not show anything like the grumpy sweetness Muldoon possesses. The first mate should be easy to read, but these days, often Silver finds himself a little taken aback with the almost serene expression Billy sports whenever he has a moment alone.
The tall man is getting still in unexpected moments, the giant body suddenly harboring something new one may or may not catch a glimpse of. And Silver knows that while he might be a complicated man himself, the feeling shining through Billy’s mask of calmness, is the oldest known to man.
The first mate is in love.
Silver almost laughs to himself when he reads the first mate right. Somehow the idea of Billy getting himself some mouth and ass in secret as if there’s any need to hide that sort of indulgence from a crew where at least a third or more either has a matelot or scurries off like rats as soon as they reach Tortuga where the mollies are of plenty and as willing as sweet as any girl, both is and isn’t a surprise.
Billy rarely engages in lewd talk, he might listen, might smile or roll his eyes, but he shares nothing and the crew accepts that the same way they accepted Randall’s loss of mind and his love for that cat. The Walrus crew is, strange as it might seem, a place where a man’s vices and screts not only can be accepted but looked at with understanding and not scorn, disgust or even pity. Billy, of course, is no exception and that’s why Silver can’t help but wonder what it is that he hides because it’s clearly not a woman, of that Muldoon is a convinced as Silver.
The waves are high and usually, the first mate would be impossible to keep below decks but he’s nowhere to be seen and Silver sneaks down to the carter cargo space, a small smile tugging at his lips because it would be fun to finally catch the almost monk like Billy Bones tugging at himself behind a barrel, but when Silver puts his ear to the door, the sounds coming from within aren’t those of pleasure.
For a second, Silver stops dead in his steps. His days of sneaking up behind someone are, indeed, behind him, but Billy can’t have heard the thump of his peg over the waves and noise of the men – and definitely not over himself. There is nothing but heartwrenching sobs to be heard from the door and Silver’s smile is gone as quickly as it occurred, because while he’s not a good man and has had his quarrels with the suspicious and uptight first mate more than once, these sounds tell about mourning, a loss of some sort and Silver isn’t even sure if he’s more curious at the source of it, or more concerned about Billy.
So, against better judgement, Silver knocks on the door.
“You need anything down here, Silver?”
“I… I wanted to talk to you.”
“Unless the ship’s on fire, you can fucking wait!”
Silver sighs, he can’t believe he’s doing this.
“You’ll see him again, Billy.”
There’s a moment of silence and Silver can almost hear the cogs of Billy’s thoughts spin two or three laps in different directions. The first mate’s mouth turns hard, lips pressed tightly together, Silver can’t see it but he can picture it.
“I do not know what you’re talking about.”
Silver has always been good at reading between the lines, fishing answers out of someone who thinks he’s giving none and the strained voice says a lot more than the actual words. Billy hasn’t been himself since they left shores this time and he’s definitely heard something through the ajared door because the look of complete and utter devestation is clear as day and good Lord, Silver can’t help but pity him, no underlying thoughts or schemes pushing through. He just… dammit, he doesn’t want the first mate to suffer, he’s not indifferent to it at all and that’s something Silver can blame the whole crew but mostly Muldoon for.
They’ve been giving him a long lesson in what it means to belong somewhere, to be a part of something and to care for someone and he’s been a slow learner but for the first time in Silver’s life, the new knowledge seeps far beneath the surface and the order of things has been stirred. He’s learned the difference between pity and care and that there are plenty of men who wont take advantage of his weakness.
Silver leans at the door to ease the pain in his leg.
“I don’t blame you if you don’t believe me, but I’m not here to get an angle on you, Billy. And not just because Muldoon would kill me, but because I actually care.”
“You’ve never cared about anyone but yourself, Silver.”
“You’re right, I haven’t. Not until I… came close to Muldoon.”
Silver knows Billy wont open up unless he gives him something first and as unfamiliar as it is, the confession comes easy. He lifts his aching stump to keep it off the floor.
“Vane can manage himself better than most, Billy.”
There’s a short moment of silence and then, Billy laughs. It’s a highly surprising sound, a cackle almost, loud and unhinged and Silver quickly moves to the side when he feels the door being opened. He scoots against the wall and the first mate comes out, doesn’t stand though and his face although wet from tears, has an incredulous, if not baffled look.
“Vane? Charles Vane? You think he and I…? Oh, fuck… Jesus Christ, Silver, this is…”
Not at all what Silver had expected and he can feel his eyes turning to the size of fucking plates as the names and faces fall into their right places and the truth sinks in.
“Ned Low? You mean…? I mean, I… What the fuck, Billy?”
The first mate just keeps laughing, keeps crying and Silver doesn’t even know where to begin because this was a back alley he, for once, didn’t expect at all. So he just tries to find the least uncomfortable position for his leg, leans back towards the wall and looks at the man who’s mask wasn’t hiding what he expected.
“Tell me … Please?”
“I must say I feel a wee bit… insulted, ma’m.”
“You should feel honored, Captain Low. I only hire the best artists here.”
“Well, it’s a small island.”
Ned gives his cold smile, the one that means he’s in for the game, but not the one this Guthrie woman thinks they’re playing. It was a stupid move to not bring a bigger escort ashore, but he’d been eager to look for Billy and well, Ned isn’t one to deny to himself that he’s prone to make headless decisions.
Getting into a brawl with a little too deadly outcome at the tavern doesn’t belong to his greatest moments, he freely admits that, but the idea that it would lead to some sort of arrest order is downright laughable. This is Nassau, not a town in the civilized world and if this young lady thinks she can scare him, she’ll find out soon enough how wrong she is.
Ned has felt Billy’s absence like a festering bullet wound for far too long now and the sliver of sanity his lover is bringing to life in their moments together is wearing thin when there’s only the memory to hold onto. Maybe it’s good that he’s currently in cuffs and chains in this dungeon cell or he’d actually do something truly headless. He looks up at the Guthrie woman who, he must admit, holds far more power than he expected, even if the search warrant looks like the artist took a bet on making an already ugly person look like some kind of fairytale villain.
“Ye’ve made my nose too big.”
“We can solve that problem in various ways, Captain.”
“Mm… Aye, an’ I bet tha’ tongue o yers masters a vary o’ skills too, Miss Guthrie. Now tell me, is it common in Nassau to make use o’ the dungeon over a friendly discussion.”
“You threatened my friend.”
“Then perhaps ye need new ones.”
He licks his lips, there’s blood on them.
“A suggestion in all… friendliness, Miss Guthrie, maybe ye should stop sending pups to a dog fight. I don’ take kindly to insults.”
“You don’t? I imagined a man like you would be used to them.”
She comes closer now, anger sparkling through her eyes and Ned can’t help but feeling thrilled by it. He’s never met a woman like this, who dares to get in his face with only a chain of keys in the belt as a weapon. Sure, he’s cuffed but still. A part of Ned badly wants to slam a leg up her pussy and just handle her like the man she must act like to have power in a place like this.
Instead, he leans back to the wall, head tilted as if he was weighing his options when, in fact, there are very few of them right now. He looks at her, but turns his blind eye to a mockery starr and just grins.
“I wont forget about yer… hospitality, Miss Guthrie, but I suggest tha’ yer generousity doesn’t get the best o’ ye. I’m sure…”
He licks his lips, knowing he can still intimidate her.
“I’m sure we can find a way o’ balancing out our… business if ye start thinking more about jus’ how little ye mean to my crew an’ how much this island means to ye...”
Ned rarely stumbles but now he’s falling and the depths are unfamiliar for in this form, this shell of a man, he’s never expected to hold onto something worth feeling for. Or for another man to throw him off balance by simply not being there.
He’s not sure why, but somehow the days and even nights are becoming a little easier after the time spent with Silver in privacy, after sharing some of what’s been going on between him and Ned. The worry is still there, but the discrete looks from Silver and Muldoon, the way the gunner offers some of his precious share of mulled wine during a particularly cold night’s watch and how Silver somehow manages to keep the more or less constantly lurking anger of Flint on a distance from Billy, helps. It really does.
But every night when he turns to his hammock, his mask of sanity crumbles and the tears find him, lulling him to sleep as his heart keeps praying to a god he doesn’t even know if he believes in and who most likely wont listen:
Please, Lord, bring me back to him… Bring me back to his arms again… I’m not gonna ask for anything else, but please, Lord, if I’ve done anything good in my life, don’t take him away from me…
And he’s not sure if his prayers are loud enough to be a whisper but in the moments when the bundled shirt he’s using as a pillow is turning too wet to be comfortable anymore, at least there’s a hand, sometimes two, who in the cover of darkness may reach over and give him something to hold onto, while drowning.