In Nassau all is chaos. Max rules where once Eleanor did and Rackham and the Bonny woman sit like consorts to an Empress. Merchants are scared and exhilarated by turns. Flint's men, Vane's men, are full of fury for opportunities lost. They want revenge, they want justice, they want gold. Vane wants to discuss war with the Crown, how to walk this uneasy alliance to protect them all. Flint wants…Flint wants a moment to clear his head, a moment of peace. A moment to remember.
He escapes the Beach and rides to the house he'd shared with Miranda. It's deserted; servants vanished who knows where. He can't raise the energy to care if they've looted the place, if they're coming back. He sits at her harpsichord, hands spread against keys that make no sound, head bowed. His eyes are dry. What next? He strips to his smallclothes and wanders the house silent as a ghost, drifting his fingers along the spines of the books he'd brought from his adventures for her, for them both, staring for hours at the portrait in Miranda's bedchamber. Some small part of him is bitter that they are yet again together without him.
It's early the next morning when the door opens. Seated at the dining table, untouched plate of stale bread in front of him, Flint is slow to look up, expecting Joanna, Miranda's housemaid, to be sneaking back in.
"Good thing for you I'm not armed. Much," says Billy.
Flint's head jerks up.
"Be easy to kill you is all I'm saying. Fuck, you look like shit."
"Be reasonable, Billy, there's a poker within reach," argues Flint. "I'd have at least an even chance."
"Work against bullets, do they?"
"What do you want? You're disturbing my peace."
Billy snorts. "Some peace. Thought we could, you know, reprise our own Grand Union."
Flint's eyebrows raise. "You really think this is the time or place for that? Now, with everything in chaos and here, in her house?"
"Not in her bed," says Billy. "I'm not an animal."
"Way I see it," says Billy, "you were dangerous enough before. Now you've lost her, lost your anchor….You're deadly. The monster they always said you were. You need to feel something that isn't pain."
"It's best for all of us. For my brothers. For what's coming. I'll follow you and they'll follow me, but I need to know that some part of you is still human. I can't risk our lives on less."
"You don't like me much, do you?" It shouldn't matter, and yet…
Billy shrugs. "It's a complicated thing, life," he says, using Flint's own words against him. Flint laughs, short and unwilling. Billy pulls out a chair, drags it round and sits next to him. He rests one hand over Flint's and though Flint's fingers twitch, he doesn't pull away.
"Look," Billy says, "Flint isn't cold stone. It isn't dead. Strike it with cold steel and it sparks. That's you and you can't deny it. And we made plenty of sparks last time, didn't we? I'll be your char cloth, draw your fire, if you'll let me."
Flint swallows. He and Miranda had taken comfort in each other on the voyage from London. It had soothed them both for a short time, though Thomas was always a silent third in their couplings. He thinks about the brief freedom he'd gained from Billy's hands, the easing. Perhaps there is something in what Billy says. He nods, eyes flickering to Billy's face.
"All right. So tell me, Billy Bones, what comes next? Same as last time?"
Billy slides his dagger out of his belt and pushes it to the middle of the table. "I was thinking more about sucking your cock until you forget who you are. How's that work for you?"
The wave of arousal that floods him at those words leaves Flint awash with surprise, but he only says, "The thing I like best about you is your subtlety. You put Silver to shame."
Billy's lip curls at the mention of the new quartermaster and Flint marks it for later. He rises, hand slipping naturally out from under Billy's. He could catch their hands together but he doesn't. A memory. Straining muscles and a weak grasp. Billy's shocked-white face swallowed by darkness, a ghost before he even hit the water.
I'll never know, Billy had said.
It's good to have you back, he'd said.
Neither of them had lied.
"This way," he says, eyes shifting quickly away, and he leads Billy to his room. Richard Guthrie had been the last to sleep in here, poor bedfellow that he'd turned out to be.
"You're thinking," says Billy. "Stop that." And then, to ensure compliance, he pulls Flint round and kisses him. A brief flicker then, extinguished as the kiss ends. Billy splays his hand across Flint's chest and applies gentle, inexorable pressure, impelling him to move backwards towards the bed.
"Lie down," he says.
Flint's natural response is to say fuck you, Billy, I give the orders, but his bare feet are cold against the stone flags and his chest is warm where Billy's hand rests against it. He lies down, tucking his hands behind his head with feigned insouciance. Billy straddles his legs, rucking up Flint's shirt, mouthing a straight line down from the notch of his collarbone, thumbs dragging his ribs, small sparks flaring at every place he touches. His teeth catch on the top buttons of Flint's linen smalls and he tugs at it before continuing his journey down, hands curved over Flint's hips. He mouths at Flint through the thin material, breath hot and damp.
Flint's throat tightens; he swells under Billy's touch, as eager as he had been the last time they were together. Shame on you, Flint thinks, twisting his hair between his fingers and pulling hard to counterbalance the pleasure, to limit it.
"Stop that," warns Billy without looking up. "We're tabling that for later, remember?"
Flint flings his arms out wide and turns his head, eyes closed.
"Oh, no," says Billy. "This is not a time for turning away. Don't you dare close your eyes, I want you to watch. Look at me."
And, God help him, Flint does. Billy sounds so sure, so solid, and it sets something at ease inside Flint to simply do as he's bid. It's restful.
He pushes a little further up the narrow bed, propping himself on pillows. Billy works at his buttons with the same methodical care he applies to all his duties. It tugs at more than Flint's cock, and he can feel the corner of his lip curl up despite himself. But then he's freed and Billy shoves the pants down over his hips and takes him right down in one swift movement.
He's on fire, sparks be damned. He's burning in the wet heat of Billy's mouth, Billy's throat, the flush rising over his body as swift as a spring tide.
"Jesus Christ, Billy! How do you…" He can't finish the question, transfixed by the sight of it, Billy's mouth a rounded O of surprise as if this were an unwanted intrusion, but his eyes, his hands telling a different story.
"Fuck," he says, "I can't…" and his hips begin to thrust as if he's no longer in control of his own body. Billy holds him down, stilling him. Slow and steady, he pulls off, wrapping his hand round Flint's shaft as he does so. Flint resists the urge to tell him--to order him--to put it back, to take him back, but it's a close run thing.
"Careful," says Billy. "How'm I gonna explain to the men I can't talk for a week?"
"You were always the practical one," says Flint and then falls silent because Billy is running blunt nails up and down the length of his shaft and it's not the same heat, but a glorious firework of its own design. Flint wants to arch up into the touch, only for once he's at a loss with the protocol. This is not his ship.
"Billy," he says, voice catching and strange to his own ears. "Billy."
"Ask," says Billy. "Put words to it. You can want things. Ask for them. The world won't break because you learn to put names to your desires."
Flint's fingers curl into fists, his jaw setting. He can order men to their deaths or worse, but he can't ask for Billy's mouth on him, somewhere it's already been of the man's own free will. Billy's fingers keep their steady rhythm as the moment stretches until Flint thinks they could both die here, wanting. Waiting.
He forces himself to keep watching Billy's face, readied for the slightest hint of mockery. He exhales between his teeth and grinds out, "Suck it. I want you to…Suck it."
Billy puts a hand to his ear. "What's that you say? Suck it? Suck what?"
"You fucking…" Flint shakes his head and braces for impact. "Suck my cock, Billy."
"Now that wasn't so hard, was it?" Billy grins, open and guileless, and if he is mocking it's buried deeper than Flint will ever see.
Relieved beyond measure, Flint can't help but answer his grin. "Speak for yourself," he says. "Have you seen what you've got in your hand?"
Billy laughs. A startled laugh that shakes the bed. It catches like fire and Flint is laughing too as Billy goes down on him once more.
It seems to Flint that Billy must secretly believe in a Flat Earth, drawing Flint close to the horizon, but never letting him fall into the abyss below. By the time he spends his whole body is alight and nothing exists in the world but his need and Billy tending to it. He strains against his body's desire to move, but Billy takes a hand from his hip and Flint recognises the implicit permission. He bucks up and up, shaking at the force of his release, hands grasping at Billy's head, twisting in the beads around his neck. And Billy stays with him through each pulse, through every tremor. Only when Flint is still again, hands slipping away, does he let him fall from his mouth.
Too soon awareness begins to leak in at the edges: the musty scent of old bed sheets, the dinginess of the unpainted walls. Flint closes his eyes to keep out the world a little longer. Surely Billy won't begrudge him that.
The bed shifts and creaks as Billy moves, dull thuds of his boots against the floor. He doesn't stand up, though, and Flint is grateful for his quiet presence. As his faculties return, something catches in his head. He opens his eyes. Billy stares off into the unseen distance. If he reaches out he could brush Billy's arm with his fingertips, but movement seems too hard.
"What about you?" he asks. "Don't you-"
"This wasn't about me," Billy interrupts. He turns his gaze back to Flint, impassive and unreadable once again. "We're good." Then he smiles. "Do you remember who you are now, James?"
Flint thought that the fire would be put out once he had spent, but there it sits behind his breastbone, small and embered, but alive all the same. It feels nothing less than a small miracle. Of all the people he has had to be in the past ten years to hold the world to account, to keep going in the face of so much pain and sacrifice, so much rage, maybe who he is in this room at this moment can be someone he might grow to like.
"I'm not sure it's about remembering," he says, and shakes his head against Billy's confusion. "You've always known who you are, Billy, haven't you?"
"Me? I'm what life made me, and so are we all." Billy smoothes an invisible crease on the sheets. "We shift with the tides and the wind, don't we? There has to be something--a rock, a lighthouse--that keeps us standing straight or how would we recognise ourselves in the end?"
"How indeed?" Flint thinks about touching Billy again. He doesn't. Instead he asks, "Tell me what you think about Silver and the issue with the Urca gold."
Billy, suspicious frown clouding his face says, "Why are you asking me?"
"Perhaps this comes as a surprise to you, but I do value your opinion." And it's not even a lie this time.
"Since good counsel became so short on the ground," says Flint, and buries Miranda for the thousandth time since the shot that ripped them and all their hopes apart.
Flint thinks he catches a glimpse of pity in Billy's eyes but it is gone before his anger can flare against it. Billy is as guarded as he ever was. Flint realises he's never seen Billy's face in ecstasy and wonders if even then his expression would remain the same.
Billy says, "I don't trust him. I know what he did for us and I was grateful, don't get me wrong. He's our brother and we his, but he's still the same self-serving scheming shit who stole that page from under us and made it work for him. Who knows what he's cooked up in between? I think his loyalties are tearing him and that makes him dangerous. God help me, but I think I like the bastard."
He stands. "You should get dressed. I need to get back to the crew and so do you before we're heaped with even more trouble."
"Yes. Of course." It isn't without regret that Flint rises and goes to fetch his clothes from where he'd abandoned them the previous evening. When he returns, Billy is standing by the dresser, head tilted and fingers tracing the titles of the books Flint keeps there. There is a set to his face Flint isn't sure he's ever seen before. Wistful, he thinks, even if he can't quite make it fit. Flint considers his bosun carefully.
What Billy's parents had exposed him to beyond the writings on the tenets of their cause, Flint had no way of knowing. Did he know of the ways words can work not simply for practical purpose but to weave wonderful worlds that unfold in the imagination and bring the distant close? Would such things merely serve to remind him of everything he has lost since the impressment agents snatched him from the streets? A pirate's life is seldom dull, sure enough, but it is short and brutish and tends to end in violence. There's so much that Billy was never given the chance to learn. Would it be cruel or kind to offer it to him? Perhaps even foolish. Power is easiest held when all others are oblivious, after all.
In the end he simply says, "How's your Spanish?"
"Could be better," says Billy. "Why?"
"No reason. Here," says Flint, selecting a slim volume and holding it out. "Start with this."