"A boat! A boat!" The signal goes up and Billy, up with the sun, runs for the rail, telescope already in one hand.
Seven days standing off and on, nothing to do but keep a lookout and see that the Walrus was kept shipshape. She's as perfect as she gets now, decks swabbed, ropes coiled, cargo neatly stowed, water barrels refilled. All the sails are mended and the rigging checked and double-checked. The cannons gleam and all the brass too. And yet, even in all this magnificent order the current that drags the crew along is not pride in a job well done. To a man, they're bored and tense and Billy knows what the muttering undercurrents can lead to.
He sights the boat and lowers the telescope in disbelief, rubbing the lens with his shirt as if that will somehow reveal more than he's seeing.
"Fuck me," says Silver beside him. "Where the fuck are all the others?"
Flint rows the small boat alone, a blue scarf wrapped around his head like some sort of mystic king, face unnaturally pale. Seven men had gone to shore. Seven men and a wealth of treasure.
"It doesn't look good," Billy says, ignoring the squeezing of his ribs. "But we should wait to hear what he has to say first. We've had enough problems jumping to conclusions before now, haven't we?"
Silver's expression hovers between pity and scorn. "It's not that I think you don't know what he's been like since Lowther took him, it's more that I think you're choosing not to. And that's not a safe place to be. Certainly not for the six left on the island."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying choices will have to be made, Billy. I'm saying that this crew may be vicious, illiterate, chewing with their mouth open thugs, but they're not indiscriminate killing machines. The Irwin was full of women and children, not spies out to inform on his every move. He shouldn't have needed persuading from the position of no quarter. No one should."
Billy's fist clenches. His natural instinct is to defend Flint, protect him, but there's no excusing some of the things he's done if he wants to maintain any pretence at a soul.
"I thought…with the reburying of the treasure, maybe things would be better for him. For us."
Silver claps a hand on Billy's shoulder. "As did I. Or at least, I hoped. But it seems as though Flint has other ideas. It might be time to cut our losses."
They watch the boat come closer, crew gathering silent along the rail. The air is thick with unspoken horror and disgust. No one wants to be the first to say it.
Flint doesn't even hail the Walrus, waiting for ropes to be dropped, tying one to stem and stern and climbing the third, hand over hand. He hauls himself over the side, looking about him with eyes like glass. His shirt is dirty and torn, the blue scarf round his head stained rust on one side.
"What happened?" says Billy, though he doesn't really want to hear the answer.
"Weigh anchor!" yells Flint, ignoring him. He thrusts a sheet of paper at the sailing master. "This will take us home."
"Where's the treasure?" asks Silver.
Flint rounds on him. "Go ashore and look for it if you like, but as for the Walrus, we're leaving before there's a chance for discovery."
No one stirs, all eyes on Flint.
"I said, 'weigh anchor'!" he shouts. "And that is an order. I am your Captain and by God, you will do as I say. That you see no ships to engage does not mean that we are not at war. We have all suffered and so will it continue if you don't move your fucking arses, right now!"
Flint strides through the scattering crew to his cabin, the door slamming shut behind him.
The men left without duties crowd round Billy and Silver, all talking at once and, though their individual voices might be lost, their message isn't. Someone is going to have to go into that cabin and find out what the fuck is going on.
"Don't look at me." Silver shrugs. "You're the mate."
There's something about the way he leans on the last word that makes the back of Billy's hands prickle. He narrows his eyes, but Silver only shrugs again.
Billy throws up his hands. "All right, all right. I'll go. Don't you be hanging round by the door, though, you nosey bastards. You've got shit to do so do it."
"What if'n 'e kills you, Billy?" asks Morgan, the carpenter's mate. "Mebbe you'll wish as we was listenin' in."
"Oh for…" Billy rolls his eyes. "If it makes you happy I'll yell out 'green coconuts' at the top of my voice if I'm in fear of my life. That suit you?"
"Green coconuts," repeats Morgan. "Aye, I'll mark it."
"Okay, lads," says Billy, squaring his shoulders. "Pray for what's left of my soul. I'm going in."
Flint looks up from his log. "I buried the treasure."
"And what else did you bury?"
Flint doesn't even flinch. "I had to."
This time the prickling is on the back of Billy's neck. He sits, stretching his legs out, hoping he casts at least a vague impression of nonchalance. The ship lurches into life, and he says, "Why?"
"You know why. No one must know where the treasure is except me. Men are venal and cruel and selfish and we can trust no one. Not after Blanquilla."
"And if I'd trusted no one after that British fuckstain tortured me?" Billy reaches his arm across the desk and wraps his hand round Flint's wrist. Flint lets the quill fall from his fingers. "I get it," Billy continues. "I do. Silver too. You went through hell and you came out a different person, I know. And it's an appealing idea; we are none of us safe until all of us are safe. But even if it were possible at this point--and that's a monster of an if given everything that's passed since Woodes Rogers came to Nassau--you can't make it so by murdering everyone you consider a threat. Because those six men you killed were six of the men you were supposed to save."
Flint looks down at his own hands. His fingertips are misshapen and bulbous, the nails only half grown back on several of them. It's a permanent reminder to Billy that he was too slow to find Flint, to get him out, get him safe. Billy remembers lifting Flint from the filthy straw where he lay, emaciated, bloody and raging with fever. It had taken months for the physical wounds to heal and for Flint to regain his strength, but no one had known quite how deep the mental wounds had run. Not until the Irwin.
"Sacrifice is imperative," Flint says. "That is what we all signed up to. And sacrifices will continue to be made until we seize the opportunity to take back Nassau."
Billy lets go of Flint as if he'd been scalded. His ribs squeeze tight and he hugs his arms round them against the pain. Not this again. "Listen. Phenney is dug in on New Providence. He's stepped up the fortifications and his wife's got the same death grip on commerce that Eleanor had back in the day. It was good while it lasted and it's an admirable trait that you hold fast to the idea of freedom from tyranny, but it can't happen the way you want it to. It just can't."
"It can, Billy, and it will." Flint half rises on his hands, looming towards him. "You and I, the men, we can make this a reality. This reconciliation won't last. Phenney is a cipher, no matter how shrewd his wife. Soon there'll be revolt and we'll be ready with money for ships and men and…"
"What men?" Billy interrupts. "They're all dead. All of them. Vane, Rackham, Hornigold, Blackbeard, Bonnet, Read, all of them. And Bonny vanished who the fuck knows where. Privateers are making good money at the King's pleasure and no one wants to play outlaws any more. We're tired. We've made a good home these last years in Grand Cayman. Give the men their shares and let them go their way if they want to. We can go to the interior like you always said you would. Have a farm. Plant sugar. Raise fat pigs. Read to each other over supper. Kings of our own little castle, why would we need a whole island?"
"Because it's the right thing to do," Flint snarls and Billy flinches at the rage in his eyes. "Because Thomas…"
"Oh, for fuck's sake!" Billy yells, kicking the chair back as he stands. "Saint Thomas wanted to pardon the pirates and make them work the land. That's what they're fucking doing, them that aren't dead. This is what he wanted, what's happened. This."
"If he'd seen what I saw, what we all saw in Charles Town he would have changed his mind. He and Miranda both."
But they're dead, Billy wants to wail. The cabin walls have heard this same argument more times than he can count and he's suddenly exhausted.
He raises his hands and takes a step backwards. "I can't do this any more," he says. "I can't. I'll sail with you back to Rum Point and then I'm done. Keep my fucking share of the treasure, I don't care." Billy's laugh is so thick it feels like he could choke on it. "And to think I ever convinced myself it was the change in the law that drenched us in more blood. I must've wanted to be an idiot. A fucking fool for you. I stood by you, told the men we were doing what was right even though it cut me to do it. But enough. I can't watch Flint tearing the world apart and not be able to do anything to stop him, not with everything we've been through, James and me."
Flint's entire demeanour changes then, the rage washed away by confusion and concern. His arms crumple and he drops back into his seat. "I don't understand," he starts, but Billy waves him quiet.
"It makes sense that Flint would be easiest to wear when Lowther had you at his mercy, when we got you back and you were struggling for your life. Flint's always been a cold bastard, hasn't he? Miles away from who you'd given yourself permission to become. So you shrug him on because it keeps a distance between them and you. Bury James deep inside and keep him safe. And it even makes sense that things haven't been the same between us since we found you because maybe you blamed me for not getting to you quick enough."
Flint makes a soft sound of pain at that, but Billy ignores him and keeps talking, the words tumbling out before he can stop them.
"Maybe it was easier to remember those days when Flint blew the shit out of everything round him, fuck anyone who stood in his way, even the innocent. Back when you didn't care to remember my name. But I always hoped--stupid of me, probably--that if we gave you what you wanted, a ship to command and a safe place for your treasure, you'd feel, I dunno…Secure enough to remember that you had more peace and happiness back when Flint was only a coat you wore when you had to and you were James in your shirtsleeves with me. The others, they know something's different, but your legend was always bigger than the real you with a lot of them. They were always scared; this…this murder has bumped them up to terrified and I don't blame them."
Billy shakes his head. "It was never the legend I loved," he says and stops, catching the next words before they come. He's said enough. It had never been supposed to go this far, not when they'd started. He'd thought he could control Flint, soften him through the judicious application of sex, make life easier for everyone as a result, and it had worked well enough for a time. He hadn't kept watch over his heart, though, and now here he is, compromised, fucked over, drowning in a storm brewed from his own failure to set a guard against the man he'd found behind Flint's eyes. Against James.
"Billy," says Flint, and he's as white as he'd been rowing across from the shore, fingers gripping the edge of his desk as if he wants to rip it apart. "Fuck. Billy."
He catches Billy's gaze for only a moment, eyes dropping away as if too heavy to hold. Still, it's enough for Billy to read the naked pain on his face. He's seen it before many times after Flint's rescue, but never once had he put it there himself.
It's in that split second that the enormity of Billy's impending loss hits him, like he'd been tossed overboard again, the impact jarring his whole body and sending him to his knees. Flint is there with him immediately, cradling his head, pressing it to his stomach. Billy knows he should resist, but he isn't strong enough. He wraps his arms round Flint and holds on for dear life.
"I'm still here," Flint says, stroking Billy's hair with swift, shaky movements. "It's still me. You have to believe in me, Billy. You have to believe that there's good in me. I can be James. I want to be James."
There's a panicked edge to his voice that Billy has never heard outside Flint's nightmares. He'd expected rage, blame, violent disappointment, but not this. When Flint had shouted in his sleep, it had filled Billy with a fierce, protective longing, angry that there were no more monsters left alive to slay in retribution. Everyone's a monster to someone, Flint had said. Maybe it's too late. Maybe Billy is already the monster and the only way out is to slay everything that he is.
"I'll let you see me. I'll let you touch me. I know we haven't…" Flint slides down to his knees and kisses Billy with desperate intensity. Billy kisses back around the rising lump in his throat. He'd taken care of Flint from the second he was rescued; he knows exactly what he's been hiding all this time. That's why he's never asked for anything other than Flint was willing to give, never pushed. To offer himself up…
Flint presses hard against him bearing them both down to the ground so that he lies between Billy's raised legs. "You can do whatever you want to me," he says. "You should have that." He kisses along the length of Billy's jawline, nuzzling into Billy's neck, finding the pulse point and sucking it gently. His hand strays to Billy's breeches and cups him. Billy twitches, soft still, but eager.
"Oh fuck," he says and rolls his head towards the door trying to remember if he'd locked it when he came in. There's a blue rag on the floor, dropped there without thought. "Should pick up after himself," Billy thinks idly and then freezes with realisation. It's the blue scarf Flint was wearing when he came back from the island. Except it's not just a blue scarf, it's Paxton's, one of the six who won't be coming back. Flint had obviously decided he could make better use of it now.
Billy's feet scrabble against the floor and he shoves Flint off him, scrambling backwards until his back is pressed against the door. "No." He shakes his head. "No."
Flint rocks back on his knees, stunned. He stretches out an arm towards Billy. "Please." Something shifts in him then, so imperceptible that Billy can't catch it. He smiles the old, familiar lopsided smile, but it's filled with such sadness it swamps the air from Billy's lungs. James is here and Billy could weep with the unfairness of it.
"Don't leave," says James, says Flint. "I don't know who I am without you."
Billy's sight blurs and he lets the tears do what they will, out of energy for fighting. "I can't take that responsibility. It's not right to ask and you know it."
"Yes. But it doesn't make it any less true. Here," he stands, offering Billy his hand. "Let me at least show you how much I trust you."
It's not as if taking his hand means I'm staying, Billy tells himself, and allows himself to be pulled to his feet. James keeps a firm grip and leads Billy back round the desk. He lets go, pulling out the drawer on the right and setting it on top of the desk.
He lifts up the piece of wood the drawer had been sitting on and pulls it out, revealing a small compartment attached to the back of it. "My father was a carpenter," he tells Billy's startled face. "I knew about all the tricks before I was waist high to him. I've known about this compartment for years, but have never had much reason to use it. Before now."
He lays the false bottom and secret drawer down and Billy can see a rolled, leather cylinder inside it. James takes it out and unties the ribbon, and the cylinder springs open as if relieved at the chance to spill its confidences. The parchment crackles as James unrolls it, hands spread wide to hold it flat.
"It's the island," Billy says, noting the red crosses marked on it. "It's a fucking treasure map."
"Shh," says James, says Flint even though Billy's voice had been barely above a whisper. He grins up at Billy. "See? Whatever happens I'll always be able to find it. And if the men don't know there's a map they'll have to keep me alive if they want to see their treasure again. We're safe, you and I."
Because you're the only survivor, Billy doesn't say. Because you murdered your brothers. And he looks at the dangerous gleam in his captain's eye and there's no sign of James there. None at all. His heart could break if it hadn't already.
"Put it away," he says, gentling him like a small child. "Put it away and I'll string your hammock. You look like you're ready to drop and why wouldn't you after the week you've had? I'll stay till you sleep if you like."
Flint's face softens and he nods his agreement. Billy can't stand to look at the map a second longer and busies himself with the hammock as Flint replaces it in the compartment and sets all to rights. When Flint is settled, Billy sits next to him and holds his hand as he did so many days and nights during Flint's long recuperation.
"That's right. Sleep now. You'll feel better after a good, long nap."
Flint rolls his head towards Billy, lidded eyes already half way to oblivion. "Tell me a story," he says.
Billy swallows. It's been a good while since Flint has asked for that. Billy used to read to him all the time before he had the strength to lift a book for himself. And then, one night as Billy comforted him from his nightmares he'd asked Billy to tell him a story. "What kind?" Billy had asked. "A sweet folktale," he'd said. "A happy ending for all and a lesson learned." And they both knew it was because real life was never so easy.
"Once there was a man with three daughters," Billy says. "And one day he gathered them to him and asked them to tell him how much they loved him. The first said, 'Father, I love you as I love my life,' and the father was well pleased. So he says to the second, 'And how much do you love me, my dear?' 'Why,' says the thoughtless lass, 'better'n all the world.' 'That's right,' says the father. 'All as it should be.' So he turns to the third, who had been to him until now the apple of his eye. Surely she would have something to say that was better than her sisters. Now the third daughter was clever and kind and wise and most of all she was honest. She didn't want to deceive her father with flowery words that meant nothing, so she said, 'Father, I love you as fresh meat loves salt,' and her father flew into a rage…"
Billy pauses, listening. Flint's breathing has lengthened and his hand rests easy in Billy's grip. He won't hear how the story unfolds and yet Billy tells it anyway, of the girl's flight and transformation into Cap o' Rushes, into her meeting of the handsome master's son, of his gift of a ring and her gift of porridge, of their marriage feast without salt and her father's desperate weeping as he understood finally what he had lost. As he declares the happy ever after, Billy lifts Flint's hand to his mouth, kissing each knuckle in turn, the ritual he'd started when every sleep could have been Flint's last. He wants to hold on, but he can't. It's time to let go.
"Well?" asks Silver, shoved to the front of the group by his fellows.
Billy shrugs. "Apparently the sudden and unexpected deaths of our brothers was for the greater good. I took issue with that, as you can imagine."
"But are we safe? From him?" Morgan shudders on the last word.
"Now the treasure's safely in the ground again? Probably." Billy shrugs again, helpless. What is he supposed to say to these men? "The honest truth, Mr. Morgan, is that I have absolutely no idea. Time will tell. But if you want to stand a chance of having your share back again one day then murdering him in his sleep is what will lose you that dream for good. As for if you want to keep him your Captain, that's entirely up to you. Perhaps you could discuss the issue further with Silver, here, I've got a ship to check."
He escapes the group, but not the questioning, eventually hiding out in the bilge to avoid as many as he can. No one volunteers to come down here; it stinks of rot and stale seawater and the work is hard, unrelenting and mind-numbingly dull. His two companions are on punishment detail and haven't been above board since before Flint's arrival so they accept Billy's brief, "All done," and get on with the job at hand. They chatter between themselves and don't seem to care that Billy doesn't say a word.
Silent he may be, but his brain churns with different scenarios, if he leaves, if he stays, if, by some fucking miracle, he's magicked away into a world where none of this ever happened and he's taking over his father's business and living untroubled by the sea, mistaking an oar for a shovel. By the time his back and neck are aching from the constant stooping and his stomach has chosen hunger over the constant fear of retching from the stench, he has made up his mind. Now all he has to do is wait.
Flint, it seems, has slept the day away, for which Billy is grateful. Facing him again is the last thing he wants to do. He waits until night falls and the ship's lantern has been taken aft. It's quiet on deck, the moon's quarter light edging the water with silver, stars incalculable in the black sky. The Walrus rocks and creaks below him. Every boat has its own melody and this one is woven into Billy's bones, they've been so long together. It will be very strange not to hear her again. And if there are no more ships? What then? Who is Billy Bones if he's not a pirate? If he's not Flint's man?
It's enough to make him falter, but he knows he can't. His course has to be set in a different direction. That it's painful doesn't make it untrue. Billy sits by the lantern and opens his locker, searching through it for what he needs. His fingers light on the smooth, spiral surface of a magpie shell and he does falter then, thumb tracing the curves, remembering.
The onshore breeze was fresh and cool, the sun not yet at its height. Billy lying on the beach, propped on his elbows, watching James slowly wander about, letting the lazy waves at the waterline ripple over bare feet. It was the first day Billy had trusted him to know his own strength, to be alone. He watched him stoop and pluck something from the sand, crouching to wash it in the shallow water. Beyond, the cormorant's juddering cry as it swooped from the rocks to dive for its next meal, behind the soft murmur of dune grass. Billy let himself lie back, accepting the simple peace for what it was. Soon a shadow across him, James's face backlit by the sun curling with a grin that would have pulled Billy's heart out of his chest if he hadn't sat up to catch it. James said, "Here," and dropped shells into Billy's hand. Billy's puzzled, "Thanks?" and James. James who looked at him as if he were some wonder out of Catullus's poems and said, "If this were all the treasure I had to give you, would you still stay?" "Yes," Billy said. "Always yes."
That the shells are still intact, have weathered every storm, every battle seems a cruel miracle now. If they'd been the only treasure, how different could their lives have been? Billy shakes away the threatening stupor of misery and puts the shell back. He has a letter to write.
- I sit here and write by lantern light, a coward because I do not want to face you again. I am sorry for how you will feel when you read this letter, but know that I do not mean to betray you. Nothing has changed since our discussion earlier and I must go, even if it means I do betray my brothers. I will never forgive myself for that, but if I stay until we reach home I know it will be impossible for me to leave you.
- I've spent long years hoping James would return, but I fear the last of him died on the island with the others. For whatever good is left in my soul, if even a vestige remains, I must leave Flint behind even if it breaks both our hearts to do it.
- I wish you nothing but happiness and peace if it should pass within your grasp. I wish I'd been enough. Know that I regret nothing that has passed between us and that you will always be in my heart.
- Be well.
- Your mate,
Billy scans the letter, frowning. He hates every stilted word, but he couldn't write it better if he tried a thousand times. He folds the paper and seals it with wax from a candle stub. There's no going back.
The men of the night watch are at their posts or idling at cards round smoky lanterns and Billy goes unremarked as he silently provisions the jollyboat stowed at the stern. This done, he finds Silver and shakes him awake, a hand over his mouth to keep him quiet. Silver nods his understanding, his eyebrows asking a question. Billy shifts his grip and thrusts his note into Silver's hand.
"Give this to him," he whispers, and it takes everything he has to keep his voice steady.
"What's going on?"
"I can't stay."
Billy shakes his head. "You know why."
And if Billy had been expecting scorn, Silver only reflects back pity and concern. "Yes, but Billy, you'll die out there. It's a vast ocean and you only one small cork bobbing on it."
It's not as if Billy hasn't thought about it, going voluntarily into the water. But he'll have food and a solid craft under him and the sun and stars above. He's seen enough of the charts to know there's landfall in a few days reach and shipping lanes he can cross. Every day they stay on the Walrus, stay pirates, is a risk. With this option he risks only himself.
"I'll take my chances."
Silver's stare is cool and assessing. "You'll need two to launch the boat without discovery." He reaches for his wooden leg. "Will one and three quarters do?"
Silver's thumping walk seems loud in Billy's ears, but if anyone wakes or pays them any mind they show no sign. Together, they untie the boat from her cleats, swing the davits and hoist her into the water.
"Given the way things have been over the past two years, since the, ah, recovery," Silver says, "how long do you think we will survive, we Walrus men, after you've gone?"
Billy ignores the guilt that flashes across his back like the lash of a whip. "You've more sway than me these days, Silver. Fuck knows I've tried to turn him from the path he's on and yet we're all still stuck following him on it. Maybe me being here makes things worse."
"Oh, I highly doubt that."
"Not sorry enough to stay."
Billy gazes about him for one last look and suddenly there's a wrenching tear that seems to come straight from his guts and he forces himself to climb over the rail, to escape. These are his burdens now, the guilt of desertion and the clinging pain of loss. But he chose them with his own free will and he'll shoulder them to the end.
As he starts his descent, Silver reaches out and grasps Billy's wrist. "I'll miss you," he says, and sounds surprised to hear himself say the words.
"I'll miss you, too," says Billy, equally surprised.
He slips silent down the rope, unties the sheets and pushes off. Locking the oars, Billy starts to row. He doesn't look up until he hears no sound but the steady creak of shifting rowlocks and the gentle lapping of water. The moon is already setting; he is alone.