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Ithaca

Chapter Text

The crowded, dusty streets of Nassau were bustling with activity as merchants sold their wares and farmers traded produce for a handful of coin. A raucous group of children nearly tripped a well-dressed, red-headed man as they crossed in front of him while they kicked around an empty scotch bottle. They paid him no mind as they continued laughing and chattering over their game. The man, as well, hardly gave them a second thought as he hurried forward, ducking under a frame two movers held overhead, and dodging between the flow of bodies around him. He stopped, for only a few moments, at a display of vibrant, yellow sunflowers. The woman tending the stand, leather-skinned and silver-haired, grinned brightly at him as he gave her a generous amount of silver for a large bouquet. He continued on, until he exited the thoroughfare, where the multitude thinned and the wharf came into view.

The day was perfect. The noon sun was high in the azure sky, puffs of clouds lazily crossed the horizon, and today the ocean was bringing to James McGraw a treasure that was priceless to him. He held the flowers behind his back, and held a hand to his brow to shade his eyes, as he searched the faces of those who were disembarking.

Months had gone by with only letters of correspondence passing from London to Nassau. Letters which, more often than not, were of business matters. Months of that had been much too long for James to have gone without seeing their familiar smiles and hearing their voices as more than ink on a page. Now, though, everything had been settled on the island. Crime had been tampered and any errant troublemakers were often only guilty of a petty offence. Pirates had been transformed into men and women who earned honest wages. And in the true spirit of a thriving society, people had time to spend on leisure. All this meant Nassau was now safe enough for English citizens, namely, Miranda and Thomas Hamilton—the two who had first envisioned this nation of thieves.

Ruby red fabric caught his eye first, and he should have guessed that she would enter into this world boldly with her head held high. Amongst the other passengers, who were dressed in dull shades and earthen colors, she was radiant. Next to Miranda, with his arm linked in hers, Thomas descended the boarding ramp slowly, while his gaze flitteed from the buildings, to the streets, and from person to person as he tried to take everything in at once.

James stood still, watching them with a joyous smile, and waiting for the moment they found him. It was Miranda who spied him first, and leaned to whisper conspiratorially into Thomas’ ear as she pointed in his direction. God, how he had missed them, he thought when both the Hamiltons waved with equally excited smiles and quickened their pace. He too was jittery with anticipation, but remained in his place.

As they drew nearer, more details of their attire and of their features became clearer. James catalogued each of the traits that had threatened to drift away from his memory during their long separation. He hoped to never need to rely on memory alone again.

When they reached him, James greeted first with a nod and revealed the flowers, “Lady Hamilton.”

“Lieutenant McGraw,” she answered with a glimmer to her eyes and took the bouquet, which only added to the attention she was gaining from each passersby.

“To hell with formalities,” Thomas cut in and stepped forward into James’ space, cupped his hand under James’ chin, and sealed their lips together in a way that was infinitely more satisfying than any of the seals on those damn letters.

James had the decency to look shyly around after the embrace, Thomas did not.

“I missed you,” Thomas said softly.

We missed you,” Miranda added as she placed a light kiss to James’ cheek and then proceeded to link her arm with his as well. “Show us to our new home, will you?”

Though Thomas hadn’t known which direction they were headed, he lead them with a light step back into the throng of people. Every few feet, at Thomas’ insistence, they stopped at a booth. He would introduce himself to the street trader as the new governor of Nassau and gesture to Miranda and James, who stood behind him trading amused looks, as he introduced them as his partners. Most of the sellers, James imagined, would rather have skipped the chatting in favor of peddling their goods, but by the end of the street, James had a basket full of fruits and vegetables and Miranda was carrying a newly-purchased Chinese porcelain vase for her flowers. So as far as first impressions go, Thomas had done well.

Further inland, half of the food goods they had bought had already been handed to kids with gap-toothed grins and even a stray dog had been offered a helping of their jerky. The curly-coated, chestnut brown mutt ran ahead of them now, with a lolling tongue, and paused every once in awhile to make certain the humans were still headed in the same direction as she was. Though James had tried to pay it no mind, the dog seemed to look for his approval first every time.

“She likes you,” Miranda remarked. “We’ll never be rid of her now.”

Miranda snatched another strip of jerky from the basket and encouraged the animal to join them at a closer distance. James couldn’t imagine Miranda was particularly interested in getting rid of it at all.

“James,” Thomas beamed at him, “you’re skilled in carpentry, yes? We should build a little house for her in our yard. We couldn’t leave her in the streets once she sees just how grandly we’ll be living.”

The dog barked in agreement, and James shook his head as Thomas petted her dirty fur and a puff of dust rose into the air. They really needn’t have a dog. However, when their Georgian-style townhouse came into view, James couldn’t help but imagine a god-awful dog house sitting out front and throwing off the symmetry of the entire place.

It would be perfect.

No, they were most certainly not going to be getting rid of her, though James would be taking extra care not to allow any more feeding of the homeless animals lest they end up living in a zoo.

"We will need a name for her,” James said as he looked to Miranda in silent concession.

Miranda gave a free-spirited spin and pointed to the dog, which was now wagging its tail and looking like it had belonged to them all this time, “Penelope.”

She barked.

Penelope it would be.

As they walked up the brick path leading straight through a grassy lawn, Miranda fawned over the landscaping that had been done. In front of the white decorative fencing, that surrounded the porch, were rows of mint, chamomile, and lavender, ideal herbs for tea. She made a point in saying that they would have no hired help for tending to the grounds, because she wanted to make this place theirs and theirs alone, even if it meant wearing the dullest of rags and kneeling in the soil to pull weeds.

“I’ve already had movers bring the furnishings from your old house into the home a few days ago, when the cargo ship arrived,” James pointed out. “Though I did leave the crates of paintings and smaller decor unopened. I have no taste for proper placements, so I thought to leave that task to you and Thomas.”

“Nonsense, you’ll be a perfect aide for hanging the art and your taste in florals seems to be quite refined,” Thomas said as he gestured to the vase. “I imagine we could save the seeds of these and have sunflowers growing all around the estate in no time.”

Miranda gave a thoughtful nod. “Yes, James, you’ll have just as much a hand in this home as we will.”

The comment was a simple one, but it had James’ heart feeling warm. Everything they had worked so hard to achieve was now resting before them. A life together. Free from the restraints of London and limited only by their own imaginings. Since three of them worked so well together, James was certain that their dreams going forward would be boundless.

James couldn’t wait to begin. He hurried up the stairs ahead of Miranda and Thomas and stood by the white, wooden door as he prepared to herald them inside. Then, just as he was about to reach for the knob, the door was flung opened and he was nearly sent to his feet as someone collided into his chest. Luckily, he steadied them both and looked down to see piercing blue eyes staring at up at him in surprise for a moment before the young man with long, dark curls grinned widely.

“Ah, sorry, sir,” the man said as he pulled away from James’ grip and stepped to the side.

“Who are you?” James asked with an accusatory tone.

“Just a mover. There was a crate misplaced in storage yesterday, Miss Guthrie ordered that it be brought here immediately. She is sorry for the trouble. Welcome to Nassau, sir,” he said to Thomas with a disarming smile as he walked on down the stairs, skipping a step at a time, “Ma’am. Have a wonderful day.”

Penelope barked at the man as he left, but remained decidedly next to James. Thomas commented on how lovely the citizens of Nassau were, and how it was hard to believe a great number of the residents were crooks. Miranda, well, she was just as eager as James to enter their home and begin settling in.

They stepped into the foyer, and Miranda immediately placed the vase on the walnut chest of drawers to the right. The two marveled at the gently curving staircase and the polished floors, while James struggled to keep Penelope from entering the home along with them and undoubtedly dirtying the entire place. He won the battle by throwing yet another piece of jerky out onto the porch and promptly closing the front door.

“Can you believe it’s ours?” Miranda asked aloud like even she couldn’t quite believe they were finally here.

“I can. We’ve earned it so let us enjoy it,” Thomas said as he took her by the hand and led them from room to room.

The tour of the house went by relatively quickly, save for the master bedroom, which took decidedly longer than planned. After the christening, they spent time in the kitchen eating the meager remains of their market haul, while discussing what they should attend to first. Miranda argued in favor of hanging the paintings, Thomas wished to fill the empty bookshelves, and James suggested the more practical need of filling the dressers and armoire with clothes appropriate for Nassau weather and tailoring the remaining winter wear.

In the end, they somehow ended up outside, near the well, wearing only their robes and chasing after Penelope with buckets of water and dumping as much water over the dog as they did over each other. James couldn’t remember another time in his life where he felt more like a child, never had he felt more alive.

When the sun began its decline, the three of them collapsed, sprawled out over the lawn, tired, soaked, and positively contented. The heavens were as alight as James, with trails of clouds highlighted in yellows, oranges, and pinks. A small flock of gulls flew overhead, back to their roost. If he had any skill with a brush, he would have been determined to preserve this moment on a canvas for eternity.

“We should plant an orange tree, right here,” Thomas mused as he reached up his hands and spread his fingers to the sky. “The leaves would provide some much needed shade.”

“You just want more of the fruit,” James laughed and pulled one of Thomas’ hands back down to inspect the residual orange peel under his nails.

Miranda dissolved into a fit of giggles as she too reached up a hand that was equally tainted. “I agree. An orange tree. Citrus is, after all, important for our sailor boy.”

By late evening, they had made it back inside and had gotten around to opening the remaining crates. The mantel over each fireplace was adorned with trinkets and statuettes, tables were set with candelabras, and the bookshelves were filled with their collection. Finally, the walls were hammered and nailed and paintings were painstakingly shifted until they were leveled. It was the final crate of paintings that gave them all pause. It was slightly ajar.

Miranda pushed back the wooden lid, and peered inside. When she looked back to James, who had been helping her hang the paintings, she looked stricken.

“Someone has stolen our painting of Ogygia and our van Dyck,” she said with a crestfallen voice, while removing the lid entirely and revealing the two empty frames.

The thought of a cunning smile and blue eyes came to James immediately. That shit, he thought as he remembered the distinct feeling of distrust and suspicion he had upon finding the man exiting their home earlier in the day. No hired mover would have been that excited to finish a job, no, that excitement was from successfully slipping away just as the danger of being caught had nearly grappled you. That man had been a good for nothing thief, but he had fooled them all into thinking he had just been there to help. He took advantage of their good nature to make away with an evil deed.

James should have known better. He knew the people on this island. Now, this perfect day would be forever tarnished by the thought of a stranger having been in their home, violating their space, and making off with their belongings. James wouldn’t stand for it. He would find that man and that man would suffer a just punishment. After all, examples always needed to be made in order to keep peace in Nassau.

Chapter Text

At daybreak, James was already on his feet, dressing in his Navy uniform, and gearing up for a manhunt. The evening before, Miranda and Thomas had convinced him to stay with them, in their bed, for their first night rather than to begin his search immediately. He had meant to wake even earlier, but unfortunately their busy night had caused him to sleep in. Now, he feared the criminal would have already boarded a ship and fled the island. If the man hadn’t, he would soon remember that to be the gravest mistake of his life.

“Must you leave now? You were supposed to have taken this week off in favor of spending a little more time here,” Thomas said from the bed as he followed James’ movements with a disapproving look.

Miranda sleepily mumbled something from where her face was smushed into her pillow.

“She asks that you stay.”

James looked back to see Miranda lift her arm and shoo him away. The warm morning rays were filtering in through the pulled curtains from across the room, bathing the custom-made, four-poster bed in light. They were beautiful there, under the rumpled sheets and looking themselves quite disheveled. He was glad to have woken first so that he could admire their sleeping forms, but he couldn’t afford to spend more time with them, now he had more pressing matters to attend to.

“I need to catch him, Thomas. I can’t allow any leniency in Nassau, not when things are still volatile. And imagine if word were to get out that the new governor had items stolen from him only moments after he arrived on the island. Reputations are still important here, being strong is important here, especially if we intend to be so openly unconventional.”

He strapped his sword to his belt and came to the bed to give a kiss to Thomas’ forehead before his departure. The resulting pout was almost enough to make him stay just a while longer, but he was firm enough in his resolve that leaving wasn’t impossible. He exited the room, informing them that if the thief was still on these sands, he would be found.

Miranda pushed herself up to her elbows after James had gone and placed a kiss on Thomas’ shoulder.

“You know how he is when he has that look in his eyes. There was nothing we could have done to stop him. Be happy we got last night at least,” she said warmly.

Thomas relaxed back onto the mattress and shook his head amusedly. Miranda was right after all, James was always an unpredictable force. There was no sense in dwelling on his moods any more than there was in dwelling on the weather.

Miranda rose from the bed and sat over at her vanity, to begin an attempt at brushing the wild tangles out of her hair. Thomas watched, not yet wanting to leave the comforts of the bed, though from his reflection, it looked like he could use some time taming the mop on his head as well.

“If the thief had been smarter, he would have stolen my jewelry. That I might not have even missed,” she said and winced while pulling out a particularly difficult knot.

“Perhaps he has a taste for the arts.”

Miranda gave him a look through the mirror that said the thought of a thief being so cultured was ridiculous.

“Speaking of tastes, though, breakfast?” she asked.

Thomas nodded enthusiastically and his stomach rumbled at the very thought of food. They had spent the journey across the ocean with dried pork and a slice of bread with butter for most of their meals. Anything else would be a welcome change at this point. He waited expectantly.

“What is that look for? If you’re thinking I know how to prepare anything like kippers or oatmeal, you’re mistaken,” she said and turned towards Thomas to give him an expectant look of her own.

He put up his hands and shrugged. “I’ve never been in the kitchens either.”

Miranda paused her brushstroke and let out a small laugh of disbelief. “You mean we’ve let our only cook leave the house to go on a wild goosechase before we even had a meal?”

Thomas too laughed and finally got out of bed to put on his robe, which had dried overnight, and brought Miranda hers as well. “I tried not to let him go,” he said while draping the fabric over her shoulders.

She turned back to the mirror and focused on putting in her pearl teardrop earrings.

“How hard can cooking a fish be?”

* * *

Heads in the tavern turned towards the loud, angry clunking of James’ boots as he strode through the room and to Eleanor Guthrie’s office door. He knocked twice and entered without invitation. Eleanor, who was sitting behind her desk and gripping the edge of the wood, looked up from her papers with a stern glare. As soon as she realized just who had barged in, the looked changed to one of concern.

“Is there a problem, Lieutenant?”

“Yesterday, did you send anyone to deliver a crate to me?”

His demand was more forceful than he had intended, but this had been his first lead. After all, the man had specifically mentioned Eleanor, and had he been under her employment, this whole ordeal would be much easier to sort out.

Eleanor bit her lip and shook her head.

So much for a lead , he thought. The thief had proved himself to be more clever than the average street rat, since he was skilled enough to have dropped in a name to add validity to his story. Luckily, James had already confirmed that only one cargo ship left the night before, and there were no extra crew members taken aboard. So, unless the man was a stowaway, somewhere on this island James would still be able to find the perpetrator.

“Have you seen a man with long, curly-hair, about this tall, looking to sell paintings?”

There was a shuffling under Eleanor’s desk.

“No,” Eleanor said, but not to James.

From under the desk, the dark-haired, dark-skinned mademoiselle of the local brothel rose to rest her elbows on the desk. Blessedly, she was still dressed. Max was her name, and it was well known that she often shared Eleanor’s bed. Max looked up at him with all too innocent doe-eyes. Eleanor’s face was bright red.

“Really?” James raised an eyebrow in annoyance.

“You were the one who barged in on us,” Eleanor said dismissively.

James shook his head, deciding that this line of inquiry would lead him no closer to his goal. He turned to leave, but heard Max from behind him call out.

Attendez. The man you are looking for, he sold two paintings to the British capitaine who set sail this morning.”

James quirked his lip in a crooked grin and turned back to this clever woman. It would seem that fate was certainly not working in favor of the other man on this day.

“And where is he now?”

“You had suggested I close the doors of my brothel and change it to a more proper establishment. You were wrong about that, non ?” Max questioned, her words heavy with suggestion.

James looked to Eleanor first, only partly hoping that she would ask Max to give the information freely. Unfortunately, Eleanor had been oddly fond of the old whorehouse herself, and after Max had purchased the place, she had directed the local language away from using “whore” when referring to the women who worked there. Max had done her part in making the place more respectable, and clearly Eleanor believed he should no longer get involved with Max’s business.

“You have a decent and profitable outfit,” he conceded. “Now, tell me where to find this man.”

“He calls himself John Silver and he has rented a room in my decent and profitable outfit,” Max said with a smile and stood. She leaned over Eleanor and gifted her a long, salacious kiss that had James again turning away.

“Follow me,” she said and led him out of the office and out of the tavern.

The air was hot and humid this morning, like a blanket had been put over the entire island. As a result, the market was much less active today. People moved languidly about, pulling at their collars, and cursing the weather under their breath. Max and James retained an unaffected gait as they headed towards her brothel.

“I have heard that the governor and his wife arrived yesterday. They made quite the impression. Gossip is rife,” Max said as small talk, though, as usual with her, she was clearly searching for something.

James had nothing to hide. “Is it gossip if it’s true?”

Max pursed her lips and held back a smile. “How bold. What an interesting méange you must have.”

“After I catch this thief, I could extend a dinner invitation your way, so that you may observe firsthand. You can bring Eleanor and Anne Bonny. Though, of course, that would mean Rackham would need an invitation too,” James said in return, knowing full well just how complicated Max’s own romantic liaisons had gotten.

“One day, Lieutenant McGraw. One day I will have the upper hand,” she said with an air of friendly rivalry.

Before them stood the brothel, with The Harbour painted in bright blue over the white exterior of the refurbished building. There was nothing to suggest what type of exchanges took place inside, but everyone on New Providence island knew this place by name, what services were offered, and that Max herself was not to be crossed. She was feared by many, and not just because her enemies would have Eleanor to answer to, but because within these walls Max learned the secrets of nearly every resident on the island. If she found someone treating a woman wrongly, or found someone trying to cheat Eleanor out of coin, Max would lord those secrets over the fool like the blade of a guillotine. She kept a great deal of men in line.

James, for one, was glad to be in a position of not needing to keep any secrets. Better to be at peace with yourself than to have Max discover that which would bring shame to most.

Max led them into the darker interior of The Harbour , and James turned a blind eye to any of the activities taking place around him. They ascended the stairs and Max gestured to a nondescript door.

“Mister Silver will be inside still, I am certain. Take him peacefully if you can.”

James entered the room, half expecting to catch the man in the middle of some indecent act, but instead found him sitting cross-legged on the floor eating what looked to be venison and beans from fine dinnerware. They were both equally surprised. Silver held a fork halfway to his mouth for a long moment, before he must have realized he had been caught. Then, his eyes went wide like a frightened animal.

The ensuing scuffle was almost comical. The fork clattered to the floor and Silver backed onto the bed as James rushed forward. They danced from left to right and when Silver looked to the open window, James was already moving to block it. Max, for her part, only leaned against the doorframe and tsked when Silver looked her way. That was James' opportunity, which he seized, and wrestled Silver’s arms behind him and gave a hefty punch to the man’s cheekbone. The punch wasn’t quite necessary, but it had felt good.

The man groaned, and made a poor attempt at trying to wriggle free, before he began hurriedly speaking, “Whatever you presume I have done—”

“You, you thieving shit, stole from me,” James spat against the man’s ear. “You stole two paintings from Lord Thomas Hamilton and Lady Miranda Hamilton. Now, I am taking you to them and you will apologize, you will return the coin you gained from selling the paintings, and then you will be on the next ship leaving my island. Understood?” Silver did not answer as quickly as he should have, so James wrenched his arm higher up. “Understood?” he repeated.

Silver let out a pained whimper and then confirmed that he understood.

Max entered the room and placed her hand under Silver’s chin so that he met her eye to eye. “It does not do well for my business to have men arrested in my rooms, so you will be led out by Lieutenant McGraw without restraints. After that, you are no longer my problem. However, because I am kind, I will give you a piece of advice. Do not run. He is a very good shot.”

James gripped the back of Silver’s neck like a vice as he directed them out of the brothel. Silver must have taken Max’s advice very seriously, because he had ceased all struggling and even when they exited onto the streets, he made no move to get away. James felt a certain kind of thrill in being able to bring fear to another man, especially this man, the man that had stolen the perfect day from him. The thought of it still made him seethe with anger.

“Let us assume, for a moment, that I no longer have the money, what will you do with me then?” the thief asked once they were nearly halfway to the townhouse.

“What do you mean, you don’t have the money?” James growled, pulling Silver to a stop.

The man hunched down, making himself look small and unassuming. “I may have spent it all?”

Perhaps the thief wasn’t as smart as James had given him credit for. “Those paintings couldn’t have been sold cheaply. What the fuck did you spend so much on?”

Silver held up his hands in surrender as James pulled tighter on the collar of his shirt. “New boots, new shirt, new pants, new jacket, good food, good drink...good fucks? And passage off your island to the colonies actually.”

James shoved Silver forward to keep him walking. “Consider your passage off the island cancelled.”

“I thought you wanted me gone?” Silver said looking over his shoulder and quite distressed.

“Now I want you in jail. Indefinitely.”

There were words of protest from Silver the rest of the way back to the home. He tried bargaining a number of times as to how he could repay James for the lost paintings, to the point where James stopped listening to him altogether. Silver could have been a squealing hog ready for slaughter for all James cared at this point. There was a brief moment where Silver had looked ready to run, but James artfully displayed the gun at his hip. Silver shut up after that.

By the time they were walking up the steps to the townhouse, Penelope was leading them and barking at the man again, occasionally letting out a low growl, like she had known all along that this human was a good for nothing thief. Silver had his head hung like he was resigned to his fate. James was glad to make the man regret ever having set foot on this property, he even felt a burst of pride knowing that he was about to prove to Thomas and Miranda that he could hunt down anyone who wronged them. He would have Silver begging for mercy at their feet.

When he opened the front door, however, he was greeted with the smell of smoke and the sound of a loud crash. He looked to Silver first, thinking perhaps the man had accomplices, but Silver looked cluelessly back at him. Hurriedly, James grabbed Silver by the back of the neck again and pushed him down the main hall until they reached the kitchen area, where the thin layer of smoke was originating from.

“Hello,” Silver said into the room with a sheepish wave.

In the kitchen, Miranda was kneeling on the countertop and pushing open a window to allow the smoke to air out, and Thomas was crouched on the floor, looking up at them, while holding a broken bottle of cooking oil. A charred lump of some unidentifiable animal was still smoldering on the stovetop.

“It seems we have no skills in the culinary arts,” Thomas said with a lost expression that James found much too adorable given the circumstances.

“I can cook!” Silver suddenly shouted, drawing all attention to himself, and then falling into a coughing fit from the sudden inhale of smoke. He regained his composure quickly and continued, “The price of the paintings, I’ll cook for you until the debt has been paid and, in exchange, I retain my freedom.”

“There will be no bargaining,” James cut in before the thief could continue trying to worm his way out of the mess he had made for himself.

Miranda jumped back down to the floor, wiped her hands on an apron they must have purchased during a second trip to the market, and looked appraisingly at Silver.

“You no longer have our paintings?” she questioned sternly.

Silver shook his head regretfully. “I’m afraid not, Lady Hamilton.”

“And your name?” she asked.

“My name is John Silver.”

Thomas furrowed a brow in thought for a moment, then looked at Silver and nodded to the pantry. “You will find a broom in there, clean up the shattered glass will you?”

Silver immediately followed the instructions, running to the pantry, and grasping at the broom like it could save him. Both Miranda and James fixed their gaze on Thomas, equally disapproving.

“You can’t be serious,” James said.

Thomas stood, moving next to Miranda and out of the way as Silver began the cleanup. “If he wishes to make up for the crime he committed, we should let him. Also, we do seem to require a cook.”

I can cook,” James retorted.

Miranda and Thomas shared a look, the kind that James was most annoyed with because their extra years together meant they could have conversations without speaking, conversations James had yet to learn the language of himself.

“Perhaps Thomas is right,” Miranda began, “you won’t always be here to cook for us, and when you are here, we would much rather have you by our sides than in a kitchen.”

“What do you suppose will keep him from running the second I let him out of my sight?” James asked angrily, pointing an accusing finger at the rat. He had caught the thief, they weren’t supposed to just let the man go.

“I won’t run, I give you my word,” Silver said as he took a rag to the mess of oil on the floor.

“The word of a thief?”

“I may be a thief, but I’m not a liar.”

“Says the mover who was sent by Eleanor Guthrie?” James shot back.

Silver snapped his mouth shut and swallowed whatever he had been planning to say next. James looked back to Miranda and Thomas, thinking he had won the argument, but for whatever damn reason they seemed unconcerned with the thought of a liar and a thief being under their roof and in their indenture. He could understand Thomas being too forgiving and wishing to see the best in even a crook like Silver, but Miranda siding with the man felt almost like a betrayal.

Miranda walked past James and stopped in the doorway to speak, “Mister Silver, when you are done, come across the hall into the drawing room. I wish to give you the schedule of our meals and what you may prepare. Also, I would like to clean that cut on your cheek,” she said giving a steady, defiant look at James, like she somehow knew the violence had been unnecessary.

Thomas told Silver to put away the basket of other produce they had bought and followed Miranda out of the kitchen. “Forgiveness is a virtue, James,” he said just before leaving.

James remained still and, frankly, dumbfounded at the whole exchange that had taken place. Silver, who was still on his knees with the oil spill, had the gall to look up at him smugly, like he was the victor. James felt his nostrils flare and his lip twitch in white-hot rage. In that moment, James knew that he hated John fucking Silver.

Chapter Text

The drawing room of this home was more immaculate than anything Silver had ever set foot in before. It was impressive the first time he had seen it, with only the harpsichord and large furnishings, but now that the place had been fully outfitted with paintings, curtains, statues from foreign lands, and other small accessories, Silver was again impressed. From where he sat on a small, cushioned, mahogany chair, he looked around at all the details he hadn’t taken the time to appreciate before.

There was a space on the white walls, next to the fireplace, where two empty frames were hung. The pang of guilt he felt, when he realized the room was incomplete because of him, was unexpected. Then, he hissed at the equally unexpected sting on his cheek. Lady Hamilton wiped a wet cloth over the cut James’ ring had given him.

“It’s hardly a scratch, it couldn’t possibly hurt that much,” she said, pressing a little lighter the second time.

“My tolerance for pain is quite low. And your guard has quite a strong arm,” he replied, hissing again as Lady Hamilton pressed a thumb over his bruising cheek. Even though she was tending to the cut, Silver had the distinct feeling that she wasn’t exactly sorry that he had been punched.

“James isn’t our guard,” she said, but gave no further information before continuing to a different topic. “Why did you steal from us?”

Silver knew she wanted some explanation that would be far more interesting than the truth. He thought of spinning a story for a moment, like the British captain that had bought the paintings disliked the very thought of the Hamilton name, so Silver had been hired to steal something prize worthy for the man. Personal grudges always made for a good tale. Somehow, though, Silver couldn’t imagine this woman or her husband having many enemies, if any at all.

“I was hungry and in need of a heavy purse. This house was the richest on the island and I only ever saw one man enter it. When all the moving began, I realized I could more than likely enter whenever I pleased and no one would question it. It was an easy target with the largest potential for my gain.”

“Why the paintings?”

Silver shrugged. It was the first crate he opened. That was all. He had expected to have more time in the house, but when he heard the dog barking and looked outside the window to see three people walking up the path, he had to leave. Paintings were also quite prized among the wealthy, so he figured he wouldn’t be at a complete loss.

“They were nice paintings?” he said with the inflection of a question.

Miranda didn’t continue any polite conversation after that. The paintings must have been particularly important to her, Silver decided. She moved about the room, picking up two sheets of paper from a desk and bringing an inkwell and pen with her to the small end table next to Silver. She wrote for a time, with a masterful penmanship. She was making a contract and a list of breakfast, dinner, and supper meals and the times each were to be served. On the back of both she wrote “90 days”.

“That long?” he asked incredulously as she handed him the sheets.

“As opposed to that long spent in a single jail cell?” she questioned back. “I thought it was quite generous of me. If you find my offer disagreeable, James would gladly escort you to your second option,” she nodded back to the entryway, where James was now standing and watching Silver like a hawk.

Miranda then nodded to the blank space at the bottom of the contract. Reluctantly, feeling like this trade off for his freedom was just another kind of jail, he signed both sheets. She took the contract from his hand, leaving him with the cooking list. Then, she took the bowl of water, now tinged a pale pink from Silver’s blood, and held it to her hip.

“If he isn’t your and your husband’s guard, what is he?” Silver whispered, feeling the uncomfortable weight of James’ harsh stare. He was certainly as vigilant as a guard, and the uniform suggested the stance he held was from military training. Higher pay grade than a personal guard at any rate.

The look Miranda gave Silver then was mischievous and highlighted with some kind of predatory smile. With a possessive drawl to her words, she said, “James is ours.”

Silver followed her with his eyes as she walked away. James stepped to the side to allow her to pass out of the drawing room, but just as he moved, she moved with him. Though the wooden frame of the archway obscured Silver’s view of James, there was no doubt that Miranda had placed a kiss to his lips. Ours, she had said. The implications of that single word ran through Silver’s head like a flash flood through a narrow canyon.

When James returned to the doorway, Silver didn’t quite know where to look, so he just stared. Returning that hardened gaze with his own perplexed one.

“Thomas and Miranda have ruined their breakfast, go prepare them a better one,” James said like it was an order he was daring Silver to disobey.

Silver stood and quickly moved, squeezing past James who hadn’t stepped aside for him, and back across the hallway to the kitchen. He had been hoping he wouldn’t have to cook today at all and that would have bought him a little time to plan his way out of this one. Unfortunately, it seemed his luck had run dry.

* * *

The kitchen smelled delicious, Silver thought to himself as he looked proudly down at the dishes he had prepared for the household. They looked presentable, better than that, they looked like they were made for the wealthy. Of course, it was nearly supper time now, so he had been right to skip the preparations of any breakfast foods and, stupidly, he was a little excited to see how well they liked the meal. He had never applied himself to anything that would benefit someone else before. He was even surprised at how enthusiastically he had dived into the task.

Silver placed the final dish, an extra one he had made for James, onto the serving cart. Even though the man hadn’t specifically said he would be eating with the other two, it hardly seemed right not to have him eat anything. Then, Silver pushed his way through the double doors of the kitchen and into the dining area.

The three were already crowded onto one end of the table, talking animatedly all at once. Thomas sat at the head of the table, waving his arms high in the air, while Miranda and James sat across from each other, laughing wholeheartedly at what the other man had been saying. Whatever they had gotten up to, while Silver was busy attempting to teach himself how a stove worked, it had changed James’ demeanor entirely. Seeing the Hamiltons smiling wasn’t a surprise, but seeing James with a smile, that was something else. Silver had almost thought the man had a permanent frown.

Silver watched them quietly, as they had yet to realize he had entered. It was odd being in a home with more wealth in a single plate than Silver had to his name. He had imagined before how the higher classes would conduct themselves, he had even mocked them a number of times, imitating some slow drawn out meal with deliberate motions and conversations that were seemingly read from a script. Seeing these three now, he was suddenly reminded of the mess hall in the orphanage, filled with raucous boys just happy to have a meal.

Thomas continued the story, of which Silver gathered was about a man wrestling a shark into a rowboat. Then Thomas made a biting motion towards James like he was the shark, he lowered a hand too, to rest it over James’ own hand on the table. Silver became suddenly very aware that he was intruding and clanked the silver lid that was covering the roast, making his presence known.

As soon as James noticed him, the frown was back on his face. The entire atmosphere of the room dampened immediately after that, and even the Hamiltons were watching expectantly. Silver was quite used to drawing attention to himself, and was usually comfortable doing so, but now it felt like he had taken center stage with the harshest of judges. He wasn’t sure if the sweat on his forehead was from the kitchen heat, or from nerves.

“You’re supposed to serve us now,” Thomas offered as guidance, while still smiling slightly. He removed his hand from James’ and folded both his hands in front of him, waiting.

That snapped Silver back into action. He shook his head and took a plate for Miranda and Thomas first, then returned to carry the remaining one to James. He gave the man a tentative smile as he placed the dish he had determined was most presentable in front of James. After all, this was the only person he really needed to win over at the moment. The frown only deepened.

Silver felt his foot uncontrollably tapping on the wood floor as James picked up a knife and a fork and cut into his piece of roast. Silver was practically leaning in by the time the piece of meat finally made it into James’ mouth. James kept an unreadable face for a few slow chews, then his expression contorted to one of absolute disgust. He spat the half-chewed chunk back onto the plate.

“What the fuck did you do to that?”

“Cooked it?” Silver shrugged. Disappointment also coursed through him, but he kept that hidden as far away from his features as possible. The food had looked good, he had thought it would taste good as well.

“It tastes like salt,” James said critically. He grabbed a piece of bread then, but didn’t even bother putting it in his mouth as he whacked it against the table. It sounded like a brick.

Miranda gave a light amused sound and poked at her potato with a fork. “I’m afraid you didn’t wash the vegetables either.”

Thomas, being Silver’s last hope for a positive review, actually tried the meat too, despite James’ reaction. Silver almost felt bad as the man grimaced through a swallow and grabbed his glass of wine immediately after. He gave Silver a pitying look from behind the glass as he drank a good helping.

Honestly, it couldn’t have been that bad. Silver took the fork James’ was still holding from him and cut a piece for himself. With determination, he pulled the decently browned piece of beef off the tines with his teeth.

“You’re a shit cook,” James voiced Silver’s own thoughts out loud.

He had eaten worse but, without a doubt, he had ruined a large amount of otherwise perfectly good food. He also realized that he had exhausted his chance to keep himself out of jail, which deflated the last bit of the good mood he had been sporting earlier.

“I’ll do better next time,” Silver turned to Thomas, the weakest link, pleadingly. “Please don’t fire me yet.”

Thomas looked to Miranda for guidance, which Silver doubted was a good sign for his future. She linked her hands and leaned forward over the table. To make himself look a little more pitiable, Silver began to wring his hands together. It wasn’t much of a performance considering just how he was currently feeling.

“You have never cooked before, have you?” she asked.

No sense lying to her. He shook his head.

James scoffed, like he had been expecting this outcome all along. Silver suddenly felt angry that he hadn’t been able to prove James wrong. If he had been able to cook a delicious meal, a meal worthy of a king, it would have been worth it just to knock the man down an extra peg.

“James, could you teach him?” Miranda asked then.

“I will not,” James protested immediately.

Silver himself wanted to protest, but he held his tongue. The Hamiltons had worked together in his favor before, and it felt best to just let them work for him this time as well, even if he would rather not become an apprentice under James. Jail would be worse, he told himself.

Thomas pushed his plate away, clearly giving up eating any more, and everyone looked to hear what he had to say. “When we first began this venture, to turn Nassau into a civilized place for us, we did so knowing that we would have to turn criminals into decent men, men who could make a living through means other than piracy and thievery. Now, doing so requires that the man have a skill set, which he can use to give back to society. Mister Silver, what are your skill sets?”

Silver could have said pickpocketing, sleight of hand, staying out of sight, manipulating others to better serve himself, but none of those were particularly useful in giving back to society. If he chose any of his actual skill sets, Thomas would likely give up helping him. The only other option was to say that he had none, which was demeaning in itself.

“I am a quick learner, with an indomitable spirit, and a great sense of self-preservation,” he carefully chose to say rather than list specific skills.

Thomas gave a tilt of his head and a smile, like he hadn’t quite expected to get such a clever answer. “The least we could do, for a man with such potential, is give him a skill set to use once he has repaid his debt to us. I would like to know that we had a very personal hand in leading one man away from a life of crime.”

“It’s hardly fair that you both make everything sound so reasonable,” James nearly pouted, and pushed his plate away too.

That sounded like a concession and that made Silver very happy. He also found himself glad that James had two people managing him, because if he had been a solitary entity, Silver was certain he would have already been in some cold, dark jail cell, never to see the light of day again.

Silver grinned, nearly open mouthed with joy. James was glaring at him again, but Silver couldn’t find it in himself to care.

“Don’t mistakenly think I’m doing this for you,” James said like a warning.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Silver replied, still smiling.

“It’s settled then,” Miranda declared, and stood from her seat. “Tomorrow, James will meet you in the kitchen to help you prepare a meal. I think we’ve had enough kitchen disasters for today, so we will eat street food of some sort. After you have cleaned up the table, please give the scraps of meat to our dog, Penelope. Then you are dismissed for the day.”

“May I have the potatoes?” Silver asked quickly before she could leave. He hadn’t had a meal yet today either and given that he also had no extra cash, stealing would be his only choice if he wished not to go hungry. Dirty potatoes were hardly something to be squeamish about in his world.

“Of course,” she said warmly. “You may also make an extra serving for yourself for every meal. Since we won’t be paying you, it’s only fair that we feed you at the very least.”

Suddenly, being indebted to these people seemed less like a punishment and more like a luxury.

* * *

The day had only gotten hotter and more miserable as it went on. Hardly anyone in the thoroughfare was cooking. Meat was spoiling quickly on the stands in the heat of the day, vegetables were wilted, and people looked equally wilted. Thomas, Miranda, and James opted for another meal consisting mostly of fruits and a bit of bread that had likely been made in the morning. Grapes were proving to be particularly amusing, seeing as Thomas kept trying to make a game of throwing them into each others’ mouth. Thomas was a terrible shot.

“I swear, it’s stuck down there,” Miranda complained with a bit of a laugh.

She tried inconspicuously reaching between her bosom to extract the offensive fruit, but really there was nothing inconspicuous about it. Thomas and James were grasping at the other’s shoulder and trying to keep from toppling over from their own laughter. In retaliation, a grape hit Thomas in the eye, and Miranda playfully glared at him. This led them into a game of chase down the less populated streets, until they finally made it to the white, sandy beach. Miranda slipped off her shoes and spread her toes over the fine grains of sand. Her primary thought, even on a day with weather as humid as this, was good riddance to London and its rain, its smog, and its temperatures.

“Shall we go for a swim?” she spiraled back to her loves and took each of their hands, walking backwards until she hit wet sand, where the ocean kissed the land.

She only had to toss her shoes aside and begin removing her petticoat for Thomas and James to silently agree by shedding their own jackets. They tossed all their unnecessary layers of clothing in a pile with hers and then ran into the waves together.

The ocean was not nearly appreciated enough for all it could provide. It brought them catches of fish, it brought the winds on which they could sail from one land to another, it brought the freshwater rains, and even something as simple as a cooling embrace on a hot day was a gift from the sea.

A splash of water from Thomas brought Miranda’s musings to a stop almost as soon as they had begun. She swam after him, only to find herself caught from behind by James, who lifted her out of the water and then tossed her, as she squealed, further away from the beach. She came back up, thoroughly wet, and with part of her hair sticking to her face as it began to fall from its styling. Thomas, turning on James to avenge his wife, dunked the man and pulled out his hair tie at the same time. Joy bubbled within her as they continued their play. James surfaced, catching Thomas’ legs over his shoulders and making Thomas fall backwards into the water.

“Haven’t you learned by now? There’s no winning against the two of us,” she said as she caught up to James and flung her arms over his shoulders.

“Here I thought we were tied, we’re all equally wet, are we not?” James asked with a little shake of his wet hair.

Miranda lightly bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling as she saw Thomas sneaking up behind James.

“Perhaps, but you’ve been under the water more times,” she chortled and pushed him down with the help of Thomas.

Under the water, James tried to drag Miranda down with him, but Thomas gripped her by the waist and kept her afloat. James returned above water, pushing his hair back away from his forehead, and then joining them more peacefully.

“I surrender to you,” James said as he crowded up against Miranda’s backside.

“Do we have a show of loyalty?” Thomas asked with a playful glint to his eyes.

James took a hand out of the water, pushed Miranda’s long, dark-brown hair away from her neck, and kissed her just behind the ear. She tilted her head to the side, giving James all the permission he needed to trail a line down her neck, tasting the salt of the ocean as he went.

His hand went up to thread through Thomas’ short, blond hair and he gently urged Thomas closer. James lifted his lips from her warm skin and leaned forward to give Thomas his own gift of devotion. They met just over Miranda’s shoulder. Miranda closed her eyes and listened to the sounds of the waves mingle with the soft hums and slick sounds of their passionate kiss, which was mere centimeters from her ear.

“You’ve gained a great deal more freckles since we saw you last,” Thomas said, his voice sounding light and warm with the amount of love he could put into his words. She could practically hear the smile on his lips.

She opened her eyes again and made to reach up to run her fingers over James’ new beard, but instead she let out a wholly undignified sound of surprise.

“There’s a fish up my gown,” Miranda yelled while squirming between them.

James was certain his cheeks were going to be sore from all the smiling and laughter he had done today, but honestly, there was just too much to be happy about. “First a grape and now a fish, should I be jealous about how close we’re letting these things get to her?” he asked, raising an eyebrow to Thomas.

“Let me fish it out for you,” Thomas said to Miranda, before ducking under the water.

James had half a mind to tell Thomas that the water was much too clear for him to do exactly what it was he was doing to make Miranda suddenly tense up and reach back to pull James’ hips closer to her, but there hadn’t been a person on this part of the beach when they had arrived. He took a quick glance to the shore, and nearly jumped when he actually spotted someone. The person hadn’t noticed them, he was walking backwards, shooing what was possibly a dog away. James squinted. Miranda moaned.

“Shit, Silver is on the beach with Penelope,” James said and pulled Miranda back from Thomas, who surfaced thereafter.

“If you want a turn—” Thomas began, but James turned his head and directed him to the beach. “Hello, Mister Silver,” Thomas shouted then, making James go wide-eyed.

Silver gave a wave high above his head and began walking closer to the shore, which was the last thing James had wanted. Penelope followed after Silver with her tail wagging excitedly.

“Why would you call his attention to us?” James asked quietly, even if he could have used a normal speaking voice and Silver wouldn’t have heard them.

“He has our dog,” Thomas said like it was an obvious answer and like he hadn’t just been under Miranda’s dress.

Being open about their relationship was one thing, but there were limits to what you should do in public.

Thomas began swimming to greet their newly hired cook-in-training and Miranda pulled herself away from James. She was a tad disappointed to be interrupted, but Silver was probably the best person she could have hoped for to show up on the beach.

From what little she had gathered of Silver, he was certainly the type of man that Thomas could make quick friends with. He was clever with words and just as much an optimist as her husband, though they used their traits for opposite means. Silver described himself as self-serving, while Thomas was anything but. Miranda wasn’t quite certain how she felt about him yet. If nothing else, she was finding teasing him to be quite amusing and she had noticed him staring at James and Thomas before he served the disastrous meal he had created. Silver seemed a curious sort. And, though they had met in less than favorable circumstances, Silver hardly seemed to be a bad man at heart—few bad men ever were. Perhaps she would find a friend in him along with Thomas.

Unfortunately, James seemed to have taken a particular dislike to Silver and, from the expression on his face, James was determined to hold a grudge.

“He has been contracted for nearly three months. I do hope you’ll get along by then,” she said and left James to swim closer to shore. “You should join us!” she called seeing as Silver had stopped before the water could touch him.

“I don’t much like the ocean,” he said back and sat down in the sands there.

Penelope must have shared Silver’s opinion. She would chase the tide as it receded and then she would promptly turn tail and run the other way when the water pushed back after her. She never let it touch her either. When Thomas walked out of the water, she sat down next to Silver and waited with an excited patience, until Thomas was safely out of the water’s reach. He gave her a thorough pat down and Miranda came to sit on the other side of Silver.

“What brought you to the beach if you don’t like the water?” she asked.

“Ah,” he rubbed the back of his neck. “I was looking for you, actually.”

Miranda gave him a look to make him continue.

“Your dog,” he began, but Penelope, as if knowing she was being talked about, turned and licked all the way up the side of Silver’s face, stopping the rest of Silver’s words.

Silver fell back into the sand holding up his hands and trying to get her to cease. Miranda and Thomas laughed entirely at Silver’s expense for a good while before Thomas helped to pull Penelope away. She ran to James’ side then, having realized that her favorite had finally exited the water.

“Earlier today she was nearly ready to attack you, what did you do to her?” James asked with narrowed, distrustful eyes.

Silver leaned up on his elbows, tucked his hair behind his ear, and shrugged one shoulder. “I’m a hard man not to like.”

Miranda looked to Silver with amusement, and also a new certainty that she was going to be friends with this one. Perhaps, once he became more comfortable around them, he would even be able to challenge Miranda at her own game of coquetry. Charm seemed so natural to Silver that she doubted he currently had any purposeful intent in the way he held himself, loose, with his top buttons opened, and a quirk to his smile that added to the intrigue. She could imagine that, whenever he chose to focus that talent, he could have a great many young ladies fawning for him. Or, he could use that charm to slip past three homeowners with two stolen paintings and make them believe he was merely there to help.

“And,” he continued, looking back to answer her question, “your dog simply wouldn’t leave me alone after I fed her the leftovers. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to lock her in the house to keep her from following me, and it hardly felt right for me to lead her somewhere if that somewhere wasn’t back to you.”

James mumbled under his breath, loudly enough that Miranda knew he wanted everyone to hear him, “Simply wouldn’t leave you alone,” he repeated, clearly not referring to Penelope.

Out of the corner of her eye, Miranda saw Silver’s face fall for a brief moment before he threw on his grin again. It seemed his charm might not have been quite as effective on those who were well aware of it, namely James.

Silver stood, brushing sand off his trousers. “Now that I’ve delivered her to you, I have places to be.”

Thomas gave a friendly wave goodbye as Silver departed. Miranda watched James curiously. He always had been a little rough around the edges, but it wasn’t like him to be so unnecessarily rude. James kept on an angered face as he kept his gaze focused on Silver for far longer than Thomas did. He was petting Penelope, in a slow, gentle motion, like his thoughts were far off and he wasn’t aware he was petting her at all. She would talk with him later, a longer discussion about how unreasonable he was being with this single-minded determination to dislike John Silver.

After drying out, on the sand, in the sun, they dressed and headed home. Thomas talked endlessly about how they would need to build Penelope her house as soon as possible—he suggested tomorrow a number of times. It was a good idea to have somewhere to keep her, so that they wouldn’t have a repeat of the predicament Silver had found himself in today. James made it explicitly clear that he didn’t believe Silver would show up tomorrow at all. Now that they had let him go, he would run off to stowaway on the next departing ship, and he would continue his thievery on some other island, never having learned his lesson. Thomas told James to have a little faith.

Chapter Text

There was a shuffling noise coming from downstairs when James exited the bedroom. He shut the door behind him quietly, as to not to wake the other two, who were still sleeping soundly seeing as the day had yet to break. They always woke with the sun and settled in for bed just after it dipped beyond the horizon. James himself didn’t much care for limiting his activity to daylight hours. During the months they were apart, he would remain awake, working with Eleanor, Mister Scott, and Max and various other influential persons long into the night. His days began before the troublemakers would even have finished their dreams of making off with a till from a local business, or cutting a little share off the top of a new shipment of goods.

Now, things were much calmer on the island. Less people breaking laws, more people helping to enforce them. Still, he enjoyed being up when the rest of Nassau was yet to wake. This morning, unfortunately, wouldn’t be a peaceful one because, when James followed the noises into the kitchen, he remembered that there was a thief he was supposed to teach to cook. Sure enough, when he lit the sconces on either side of the kitchen door, light was thrown onto none other than John Silver.

There was also a dog in kitchen.

“Why the fuck is Penelope in here?” James asked with a note of still sleepy anger.

Silver closed the door to the outside shut and held onto a rope that he had tied around her neck as a collar. He smiled up at James, unperturbed by the harsh tone directed at him, “It began raining on my way over here, and I saw her waiting on the front porch for you. I thought it better to let her in the back so she wouldn’t have run of the whole house, but you couldn’t possibly expect me to leave her outside to get drenched.”

She already looked drenched. So did Silver for that matter.

James closed the kitchen door behind him. If today was already set up to be a disaster, at the very least, he wouldn’t have a wet dog get loose. Especially such an excitable dog. She was practically dragging Silver across the kitchen floor as she struggled to get closer to James. By the time she stopped to sit at James’ feet, looking up at him with bright brown eyes, hopeful for attention, Silver had also looked up. He was standing nearly face to face with James now, with that infuriating ever-present smile of his and wet curls sticking to his face. James attempted to step back, but his heel merely clunked against the wooden door. Recovering quickly from his misstep, James slid to the side and away from the two cornering him.

Penelope made a disappointed sound.

James went to open a counter drawer and pulled out a towel. He threw it at Silver’s face. “I can’t say that I expected you to show.”

Silver let Penelope loose and ruffled the towel through his hair, though he seemed to prefer shaking it out like a dog rather than actually being civilized.

“I almost boarded a ship last night, as I usually would have done the moment I was in the clear, but then I thought of all the delicious food I would be missing out on. Miranda’s offer was just too enticing. That and, for some damn reason, I just had to prove you wrong.”

Of all things to make Silver stay, James wouldn’t have guessed his own stubborn assertion that Silver was a runner would have aggravated the man enough to make him want to change that opinion. His opinion wasn’t even wrong. Silver admitted himself that he would have been off the island as soon as possible in normal circumstances. What made this circumstance abnormal? Only the offer of food?

“Miranda? I wasn’t aware you were on a first name basis,” James commented on instead, with a flare of distaste.

Silver only shrugged, leaning back against the island counter. The flickering of the candles made his damp hair glitter with yellows and oranges. “You rich types and your formalities are foreign for me, you’ll have to forgive my slip ups.”

“Or you just enjoy being a disrespectful little shit,” James supposed, knowing that was most likely the truth.

“You’ve caught me again,” Silver chuckled, and held up his hands in mock surrender. “Though, I must say, there was not much respect in the way you barged into my room, while I was eating, and punched me in the face.”

James scowled. The purplish bruise under Silver’s eye was a quiet reminder of their less than amicable encounter, but James had already been scolded by Miranda for the lack of control and he certainly would not let Silver chide him on his conduct.

“Stealing from us what you did, that may have pushed me further than strictly necessary, but consider yourself lucky to have gotten out of your mess with only a little bruising. Before I came to this island, a thief would have had his hand cut off as punishment.”

“Ah, so you were the one to tame Nassau. I had wondered who was capable of turning a place I had heard described as a lawless paradise into this seemingly normal, little island,” Silver said with a small amount of admiration and rested his hands on either side of him against the counter. “Though the laws here seem much different than those of a typical British settlement. The rules here, they are your rules, aren’t they?” Silver smiled like he had pieced together some puzzle that had been eluding him. “I do enjoy pushing boundaries, but it seems to me that you and your Lord and Lady aren’t much different in that respect,” he added, insinuation heavy in his tone.

There was no hint of accusation or disgust in Silver’s words, but they made James bristle all the same. The caution he and the Hamiltons had to take in London, to avoid getting caught, still left him with a lingering fear, even when he knew that in Nassau there was no longer danger. He hoped the fear would leave him altogether soon enough.

Silver pushed away from the counter, possibly feeling the discomfort in the air, and turned around to tip the food basket so that he could peer inside. “What are we cooking for them today?”

James settled on corn cakes with bacon and a side of fruit, while Silver remained completely unhelpful with his suggestions. He claimed to only have talent in cooking dirty potatoes, to which James commented that the potatoes had been too starchy and therefore undercooked. Truthfully, he hadn’t tried the potatoes at all.

Now, since this was supposed to be a tutoring session, James ended up instructing Silver to cut up some of the fruit into slivers while he sat by on a stool and finally gave Penelope the attention she had been begging for. Two minutes into the slicing, James first scolded Silver for not washing the fruit and then had to seriously question the man as to whether or not he even knew how a knife worked. Silver’s technique was a hard, up-down motion that squeezed the juices out of the strawberries and left the knife caught in the core of an apple.

Silver pouted, ate the strawberry defiantly, and then looked to the empty water basin.

“Does this mean I have to go outside and get water?”

James gave him a pointed look, which had Silver grumbling lowly about how he should have left the damn island already, but Silver did end up heading back out into the rain with a bucket. He returned, looking like he had walked straight out of the ocean, and dumped the water into the basin, while glaring at the fruits like they had offended him. James almost laughed.

“You’re enjoying this entirely too much,” Silver complained, but James could now see the hint of a genuine smile that he was hiding behind his curtain of hair.

It was impossible to take him seriously when he looked like a wet dog. Silver had tried to compare himself to the Hamiltons earlier, but really, he was remarkably similar in both personality and appearance to Penelope. She nudged her side against his palm and James ran a hand through her brown curls.

“You should tie up your hair when in the kitchen,” he said absentmindedly.

Silver tucked his hair behind his ear and set to washing the fruit. “I don’t have a tie,” he answered minutes later.

James felt where his own hair was pulled back into a ponytail. The bow he was wearing was particularly long, always a bother. He tugged at the end and took the ribbon with him over to the cutting board. Using the knife, he cut the blue ribbon in two and wordlessly held out one half to Silver.

Perplexed, Silver lifted a hand out of the water and let James place the tie into his opened palm. “I don’t know how to style hair,” he said quietly, staring down at the piece of fabric.

“You just have to pull it back.”

“I don’t know how,” he said again with more emphasis.

Silver looked back up to him with a silent plea for help. James rolled his eyes, because, honestly, leave it to a street rat to be so unused to the most basic of upkeep. It was a wonder he could even buckle those new boots of his.

James snatched back the tie and moved to stand behind Silver. He first untucked the hair from behind Silver’s ear and gathered all of the wet curls into a single ponytail, as he usually did with his own hair, but the ribbon was both too short and Silver’s hair too thick. He mumbled a curse, and didn’t miss Silver’s answering nervous chuckle. Silver had gripped the rim of the basin with both hands and was tapping a finger on the metal quickly. Impatiently, perhaps. 

Changing his tactics, James chose to only gather the hair that would fall over Silver’s face. He ran his fingers over Silver’s scalp and smoothed down his hair as much as possible, while arranging it high on the back of Silver’s head in a half ponytail. The tapping ceased. This attempt also proved to be much more successful. So it wasn’t perfect, but James had never actually tied anyone else’s hair before.

James stepped back, admiring the work, and even if it did carry the appearance of a little girl’s hairstyle, it would serve its purpose.

The moment Silver looked back over his shoulder, with a strange searching look in his eyes, James schooled the proud smile that had crept onto his face.

“Cut the fruit right this time,” James said harshly to mask any other emotion that could be mistaken as him enjoying himself.

Silver failed spectacularly during his second attempt, but this time, rather than letting himself be reprimanded, he blamed James for not having shown him the proper way to cut. This was true, but James had never been a teacher and he was beginning to think Miranda had set them up for another disaster in the kitchen. A disaster that was likely to end with a missing finger judging by Silver’s lack of skills.

“Can’t you do anything?” James grumbled.

He came up behind Silver again, this time with the full intent of showing Silver how to do something himself rather than just doing it for him. He leaned into Silver’s back and peered over the shorter man’s shoulder to see the cutting board. James put one hand over the hand Silver was holding the apple with and the other over the hand holding the knife.

“Hold the apple firmly, but gently. Don’t press down hard enough to bruise it. Then, you slice, like so,” he narrated while moving their hands together to slide the knife easily through the flesh of the apple, all the way through the core, and down to the board in one easy stroke. “And relax, you’re too tense.”

Silver exhaled slowly through an opened mouth and rolled his shoulders slightly to ease his taught muscles. He stilled the second his shoulders knocked against James' chest. James could hardly believe the man was stressed over cutting fruit of all things.

“Alright, now we slice the apple into fourths,” James continued, and turned the apple around so that they could make a perpendicular cut. He nudged Silver lightly with his elbow to make him perform the action himself. “Good,” James said with approval as Silver followed the instruction. “Next, remove the core. Here, take a quarter,” he said, while already placing one into Silver’s warm palm and using his own hand to hold Silver steady. “And carefully slice diagonally from both ends. There we are. No more seeds. Finally, place the quarter face down on the wood, like this, and slice it into wedges of about this width,” James instructed, cutting the quarter into thirds of equal width for Silver to mimic.

James picked up the first slice and held it to Silver’s mouth. “See? It’s the perfect size for popping into your mouth. Open,” he suggested when Silver just stared at the apple like he wasn’t certain it was edible. Silver’s cheeks were flushed, likely from the heat of the kitchen and their proximity, when he finally parted his lips and let James push the apple inside. “That’s all there is to it. Just relax,” he said again, “it’s not hard.”

“Maybe you’re not,” Silver said almost breathlessly.

“Excuse me?” James asked, clearly missing something.

Silver’s eyes widened and he moved closer to the counter. “It’s not hard for you, I meant. You’re the cook. I’m not a cook.”

James pulled away, giving Silver control over the cutting again. “Not yet you aren’t, but you will be. That’s why you’re coming here. Come on, show me what you learned.”

Silver correctly cut one of the remaining fourths, which really, if he was still having as much trouble as before James would have just considered Silver a hopeless case and given up trying to teach him at all.  

“That’s it. You did well, Silver,” he praised.

Silver clanked the knife down on the counter and breathed out heavily again. “I have to...go...out. More water for the basin?” he asked quickly, grabbing the bucket, and exiting in a blur.

There was plenty of water in the basin.

* * *

The grey light of a cloudy morning, flooded the dining room when Miranda opened the curtains and shutters. A gentle sprinkle persisted, but the birds weren’t letting a little water deter them from their daily chorus. Thomas sat at the table, listening with an amused smile as James complained about having to prepare all of the corn cakes himself, because Silver had gotten them behind schedule. There had also apparently been an incident of Silver being scared of the bacon. The grease of it had popped and singed him a little, then Silver had refused to continue working on a meal that would be fighting him.

James also related how he had witnessed Silver feeding Penelope a few strips of bacon when he thought he wasn’t being watched.

“At least you have successfully taught Mister Silver how to cut fruit,” Thomas commented. “It sounds like you had fun.”

James tried to frown at the idea of having had fun, but Thomas could see through the mask. Thomas was usually the one carrying most of the conversations around the dinner table. It was rare for James to begin a story of his own, so this particular morning must have been one he had enjoyed more than he was willing to admit.

“I believe I have learned how Sisyphus must feel,” James said straight-faced, when Silver came through the kitchen doors with breakfast in tow.

Miranda sat in her chair and gave Thomas a secretive look with twinkling eyes, “Thankfully, your burden is more shapely than a boulder.”

As the plates were set before them, Miranda commented on how delicious the meal looked compared to Silver’s first attempt. Silver practically preened while he listed what had been made and how much toil he had put into such an opulent breakfast, and even though they knew James had been the prime factor in making the dishes, the three of them let Silver have his moment to shine. It didn’t seem right to crush the bright spirit in the room.

The taste test of the food was also met with praise this time, and Thomas suggested that Silver hurry and eat his own before it cooled. Silver disappeared back into the kitchen with a radiant smile. That was when the blue ribbon caught Thomas’ eye, and though it could have been a coincidence, Thomas noted that James’ own ribbon was remarkably similar in shade. It had been longer the night before as well, if he wasn’t mistaken.

Thomas watched James curiously, as he munched on a slice of apple. Curious, that was the word Miranda had used just this morning when she told Thomas of the feeling she had gotten from Mister Silver. She suggested that perhaps their James was being equally curious in his recent behavior. Thomas had thought it a bit too early to be reading into James’ overzealous attempts to prove his dislike of Silver, but now he could see what she had already noticed. Thomas smiled into his next bite, feeling every bit as mischievous as Miranda usually was.

They ate in comfortable silence, letting the meal warm their bellies, with a mood light enough that even the rain clouds parted, making way for the sun’s morning rays. It was going to be a good day.

Chapter Text

A week into Silver’s contract, Miranda decided that giving the man a recipe book had been a grave error on her part. He was constantly making lists of goods for her to buy so that he and James could try something new. Most of what he asked for wasn’t even available in the street markets of Nassau. Worse, Silver still had only rudimentary knowledge of how to cook meats and most of his talent was restricted to chopping fruits and vegetables, while James reluctantly prepared anything more complex than two ingredients.

Now that James was back to managing New Providence Island’s defenses and sorting out conflicts with neighboring islands, Silver had the kitchen to himself for breakfast and supper. That meant Miranda had been buying breads and desserts to make up for the lack of dishes Silver supplied.

All in all, she had spent entirely too much time in the thoroughfare and was sick of it. The house and garden took enough upkeep as it was without her needing to make two trips into town a day. So today, after finishing a bowl of bland chicken soup for supper, she was dragging Silver out to introduce him to sellers of fresh produce and instruct him on his new job of buying his own ingredients.

“You even get to keep whatever change is leftover,” she explained as they walked out of Billy’s Tannery and Leather Goods and she handed him a newly purchased coin purse.

Silver gave a cursory glance into the purse, but Miranda couldn’t quite tell whether or not he realized that the daily allowance she was giving him would always leave a few coins in his pocket. He smiled and thanked her all the same.

James surely would have berated her for entrusting any money at all to their thief, but by now, Miranda was sure that Silver had no intention of running off. Giving him more control over what he could bring into the kitchen was practically rewarding him. Over these past few days, she could tell that cooking had become genuinely pleasing to him, and Miranda knew that Silver also looked forward to being able to eat the food he had put labor into. She might even dare to say that Silver enjoyed their company, James’ especially. The two bickered endlessly, but Silver always looked to James first for approval.

“May I ask you a question?” Silver asked as he inspected a crate of grapefruits, looking for a particularly large one that had not been damaged in transport.

“Asking questions is the only way one can learn,” she answered, and handed him a fine grapefruit from a crate he had overlooked.

He nodded his thanks, and then proceeded to charm the young lady that was tending the stand into giving him a free plantain, claiming that he had never seen such an odd fruit and he would love a chance to try it. Miranda hadn’t a clue if was lying or not, but watching him work his toothy smile was educational.

Unnoticed, Miranda slipped a silver piece onto the lady’s counter to pay for Silver’s trickery. “You shouldn’t cheat anyone here out of coin. We have wealth, there is no need to be stingy with it,” she said as they began to walk away.

“Sorry, old habits and all that,” he said while biting straight into the plantain. He pulled a face.

“I believe you peel those and I haven’t seen a soul eat a green one,” she laughed.

“I’m glad it was free,” Silver complained and put it into their basket.

They visited several other stands of fruits and vegetables, and Silver picked up a sack of flour while proudly proclaiming that he was going to have James teach him how to make bread as soon as possible. When Miranda reminded him that he had been prepared to ask her a question earlier, Silver seemed to calm down considerably.

“If it’s too personal,” he began, but Miranda only had to give him her best ‘out with it already’ look for him to be direct. “You used ours to describe James before. I saw your display—the kiss—as you no doubt wanted me to, but I’m left wondering if that ours extended to Lord Hamilton and James. If they shared...that as well.”

“Are you being prude because I am a woman or are you bothered by the idea of their relationship?” she questioned, and stopped them on a street corner so that she could stand face to face with Silver. She noticed him tapping his foot—a nervous tick.

“For some reason, I am bothered, but it’s not by them or you,” he lowered his head and kicked at the dirt.

“Then, I suggest you do a little introspection to figure out what is bothering you. But, I won’t be an informant for you, John. There are no intermediaries in our household, too much would get lost in translation if we worked that way,” she linked an arm around his and began walking them back towards home with their basket full of produce. “If you are curious, you’ll have to ask either Thomas or James directly for an answer. Though, I doubt they would mind if I told you that they shared a very warm, public greeting at the wharf on the day of our arrival. Those rumors are true.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t spent much time listening to the word on the streets.”

“There was a kiss,” she answered simply.

“A kiss?” he pressed. “Equal to the one you shared with James?”

“Oh, no. Theirs lasted much longer,” she laughed at Silver’s surprised expression. “Now, tell me, what have you observed during your week with us and what conclusions have you drawn from those observations?”

It took him a moment to recover, but when he did, Silver seemed to push straight ahead in trying to work out the puzzle he had made of them. “James lives with you both. You all sleep upstairs, in rooms I’ve yet to see—”

“We have three bedrooms and a storage room up there,” Miranda said to give Silver an answer to one question while only confusing the other. She did enjoy pulling Silver’s thoughts this way and that.

“Three bedrooms. All used?” he asked, like this had turned into a game of him asking questions that were related to abstract things rather than two people he wasn’t allowed to ask her questions about.

“Two are used often. One more than the others. The third is for guests.”

“The three of you share the one room most often,” he said like he had already suspected as much.

Miranda gave a shrug, but on her face she gave a very clear, almost salacious look of ‘oh yes.’

“That confirms some of my thoughts, but that doesn’t answer the one question I was seeking an answer for.”

“Of course not, I did tell you I wouldn’t answer for them.”

“That’s almost answer enough.”

“Observations?” she urged.

“They’re quite intimate. More so than most would consider appropriate. Certainly, if they have shared a kiss in public, then I image much more happens in that bedroom of yours. I have already told James that I believe the three of you enjoy pushing boundaries, but I’m beginning to think you waltz through boundaries like they aren’t there at all.”

“I assure you, Mister Silver, there was no waltzing to be had. What you perceive is the tail end of a very long, arduous road we struggled along for years. At its beginning, such a public display of affections would have been inconceivable. It is only here, in a Nassau of our own making, where we can be free.”

Miranda stopped them then, spying the two they had been discussing walking towards her and Silver.

“I won’t confirm your conclusions, but do not be afraid to ask Thomas or James. We learn nothing from silence.”

She shouted to the other two then, drawing their attention and smiles to her. James no longer seemed to constantly express distaste over Silver’s continued presence, which was certainly progress in her opinion.

“What are you fine gentlemen doing out here?” she asked James as Thomas reached her first and kissed her cheek.

“I am taking Thomas to see Vane today, so that we can finally get Penelope’s house built,” James answered with an annoyed edge to his tone. He wasn’t too fond of Charles Vane from what Miranda had heard. It was part of the reason they hadn’t visited the lumberyard yet.

“I thought the kitchen was her home by now, as often as John lets her inside,” Miranda teased by pulling at Silver’s arm. “But, if you will be hauling wood all the way up to our place, I’m sure you’ll need all the strong hands you can get. John, you’ll go with them, won’t you?”

She slid away from Silver’s arm and took the basket from him. Both James and Silver looked nearly ready to protest, but they held their tongues in the end as she gave a wave goodbye. Silver was perceptive, so Miranda was certain he would be well aware of her attempt to give him a little time with her boys.

* * *

The trip to the lumberyard ended in a yelling match between Vane and James. Silver had given an attempt to understand just what their argument had been about, but in the end his own mind had too many jumbled thoughts to begin trying to solve another interpersonal puzzle. Thomas had been the mediator and successfully brought James to heel, finishing the transaction with Vane himself. Again, Silver would have been more interested in the interactions if he hadn’t been so preoccupied by his conversation with Miranda.

As they left the smell of wood chips and sounds of axes and sandpaper behind them, Silver carried his share of lumber and followed Thomas and James, who were a number of paces ahead of him, back down the route to the markets.

Silver hadn’t been quite as ignorant about the relationship he saw between them as he had led Miranda to believe. Rather, he hoped he was wrong about his conclusions. Being right complicated a great many things.

Miranda had also told him to do a little introspection, which he already had been doing since what he dubbed ‘the apple incident’. Silver was well aware of his reason for being bothered and that reason had a name; James McGraw.

Once, many years ago, Silver had spent a wonderful night with a gorgeous woman who claimed to be a widow and offered Silver room and lodge for as long as he was staying in Basseterre. The next morning, her husband returned from a sea voyage and Silver barely made it out of the whole ordeal with all his parts intact. He made extra care not to get involved in any drama such as that again.

Herein lay the problem, Silver was beginning to find himself more than a little attracted to James, who was already spoken for by not only one person, but two. Under normal circumstances, Silver would not have a problem avoiding the unavailable woman he found himself interested in, as many other women would do just fine, but usually he wasn’t spending multiple hours of his day in a single, sweltering room with said woman. And James, the insufferable bastard, did not seem to understand just how much his proximity had been affecting Silver recently. More than once Silver had nearly told James of the issue, but how exactly do you tell one “can you please not help me peel cucumbers, it’s oddly arousing”? You do not. Silver certainly wasn’t going to anyways.

Problem number two—apparently there was a list now—, Silver never followed through with any of his curiosities regarding the coupling of men. He liked to think of himself as an equal opportunist, and had always known he found men with well-formed muscles and a fiery spirit to be attractive on an aesthetic level, but he also had a proclivity for women and women were always the simpler choice. Also, propositioning a man who looked like he could kill you with just a gaze was not a smart option for someone, such as Silver, who was looking to survive in this world as long as possible.

Thirdly, James was interested in men, without a doubt. That simple fact made the temptation Silver faced when alone with the man, all the more irresistible. Watching James work his fingers into dough, kneading it, while wearing his thin, white shirts with sleeves rolled up over his elbows. His hair tied back in the kitchen, always with that blue ribbon, like it was a secret they both shared. Silver purposely made mistakes more than once just to have James instruct him again, or to test how long it would take James to realize Silver’s game. Pushing those stubborn boundaries.

Lastly, as Silver currently looked down the road ahead to see Thomas chattering and James looking at him with that fond smile, Silver knew he could never waltz across that final boundary. They were happy. James, Thomas, and Miranda had a life that they had worked to build and Silver’s frustrating desires, if he acted on them, would only cause those three pain. The whole ordeal would likely end with Silver alone, on a ship, leaving this place behind.

In what was quite possibly the least selfish decision Silver had made in his entire life, he decided he would endure three months of torture because he couldn’t bring himself to hurt them.

“Mister Silver?” he just barely heard. “Mister Silver, take the can will you?” Thomas repeated, breaking Silver out of his inner thoughts.

It was a paintcan, white paint for Penelope’s kennel he assumed, since he hadn’t actually heard a word of the conversation. He let the merchant place it on top of his pile of wood seeing as he was carrying the lightest load. Thomas kept giving him glances the rest of the way back to the house, like he knew there was something on Silver’s mind.

Thomas had gravitated to his side by the time they had boards scattered across the lawn, two saws between them, and James taking up most of the work by measuring angles and lengths. Penelope stood by, letting him surround her with the lumber as he determined the appropriate sized dog house for her. James threw himself into the task with the same single-minded determination he seemed to give everything. Silver found it admirable.

Silver and Thomas were both watching James, while attempting to occasionally work together to cut along the marks he had made for them on the wood. More than once, James had warned them to pay attention because the last thing he needed was someone hacking off their own leg. Needless to say, neither of them were as enthusiastic about carpentry as James.

“You have been absent for most of the day,” Thomas commented, with a tilt to his head and the note of a question in his voice.

“Hm? I’m here,” Silver answered and looked back down to the piece he was supposed to be sawing.

“Playing the fool doesn’t become you,” Thomas said and crouched so that he could look up and catch Silver’s eyes.

The level of perception both of the Hamiltons possessed was a curse as far as Silver was concerned. There was hardly a thought he could keep in his head without one of them asking for him to voice it. Though, as much as he internally complained about that fact, he always found himself answering them, and being glad he did by the end of their conversation.

“How did you meet James?” he decided to ask before he could convince himself not to.

Thomas smiled warmly and Silver could see his mind drifting straight back to their first meeting. Almost involuntarily, Silver’s own mind provided him with the thought of his heart beating with adrenaline as he exited the townhouse and ran straight into James, who immediately looked at him with piercing, green eyes full of world-weary caution.

“Five years ago, a Royal Navy Lieutenant, James McGraw was recommended to me as the man to speak to if I wished to know Nassau. I was secretly drafting pardons for the pirates here already, but I needed more intimate knowledge of the island, and I needed someone who could help to bring discussions of New Providence Island out of the stuffy, dim inner workings of the English government and into the bright, dusty streets of Nassau,” Thomas laughed lightly then. “I don’t think James truly believed my ideas would ever see fruition—he is a bit of a cynic—but he believed in me. He stood up for me and my plan in the end. Would you believe James even kicked my father out of his own house while defending me?”

Silver looked past Thomas and to James, who was now taking a hammer to the slowly forming wooden structure, nailing it all together into whatever design he had imagined for the kennel.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all. He must have wanted your plan to succeed, though, that’s why he worked so hard for it,” Silver sighed, returning to his cutting, but talking over the sound of the saw, “I might understand better why he was so upset with me for stealing from you now.”

“Why do you suppose he was?”

Silver raised the corner of his mouth in thought and furrowed his brow. He had been avoiding putting a name to what he saw between Thomas and James for quite some time, but there was no sense in calling it anything else at this point.

“He loves you. He wanted to have you come to a Nassau you had envisioned, a place with decent men and little crime. It was his way of protecting your dangerously idealistic views from a harsh reality. I didn’t just steal a couple paintings from you and Miranda, I stole his gift of love and labor to you.”

Thomas handed him another board. “My world views are not so fragile that they would be broken by your one misdeed, John Silver. Though I believe you are partially right about why James is so antagonistic towards you. Miranda, however, believes there is another reason for his behavior.”

“What is the other reason?” Silver asked, feeling the confusion set in again just as he thought he had worked everything out.

Thomas gave him an unhelpful smile and stood. “If there is another reason, I’m sure you’ll figure it out, John,” he said cryptically, and then began walking towards the veranda, where Miranda had just came outside with a tray of drinks.

“Wait, what does that mean? Thomas?” Silver shouted as the other man just continued along.

James gave him a glare, no doubt for using Thomas’ given name. They stared at each other for a long moment, until James broke away and continued hammering. For the rest of the construction, Silver remained very unhelpful, though he blamed Miranda’s delicious, refreshing lemonade for stealing him away from the work. While they sat together on the wooden benches, he even tried to sweet-talk her into divulging more information about what Thomas had meant, but it seemed the two were conspiring against him on this particular matter.

When he was left alone on the bench, sitting cross-legged, and watching James attempt to herd Penelope into her new home, he was finally broken from his reverie by a wet blob hitting his nose. He went crosseyed first, to see only a faint bit of white, and then he rubbed at it quickly. The back of his hand revealed a white smear of paint. Silver tilted his head back to see Miranda hovering over him with a paintbrush in hand. She had her hair pulled back in a simple bun and her dress was a plain tan, frayed around the seams, and stained here and there. Even dressed like a working woman, she seemed regal.

“Since you left James and Thomas to finish the building alone, I am drafting you into helping me paint,” she said and held the dripping wet brush over him again.

He took it from her quickly, before another drop could land on his face. “Are we painting me or the doghouse?”

She laughed, and led him to James and Penelope so that they could put the finishing touches on the project.

The paint job took much longer than necessary when he and Miranda began drawing little pictures on the wood instead of just lathering the entire thing in one go. Silver drew a rough impression of Penelope first, to which Miranda answered with a little butterfly on the dog’s nose. Silver continued the scene by putting sunflowers around her feet and Miranda drew fluffy patches of clouds above the drawing. Eventually, the entire doghouse was white, and all their fun was buried under the paint.

Silver found himself smiling in a way that felt like it began somewhere in his gut and swam up into his chest and his cheeks. It was such a different feeling from all the carefully crafted smiles he usually gave to other people. He looked to the veranda then, spying Thomas lying there on the bench, his eyes closed and face softened in sleep, with his head resting in James’ lap. James was softly carding his fingers through Thomas’ hair with one hand and he was finally holding his share of the lemonade in the other.

Miranda joined them, rounding the bench and standing behind James in the same way she had done to Silver earlier. Only this time she reached her hand down to James’ rusty, bearded chin and tilted his head back so that she could plant a kiss to his lips.

They were an picturesque image of unconditional love.

Silver looked away and to Penelope, who poked her head out of her new house and woofed at him in a show of appreciation. He gave her his wooden smile and tried his best to tamp down on the wistful, envious pull inside him.

Chapter Text

James spent most of his day in Eleanor’s office trying to push Thomas’ plan for building a public library in Nassau. Luckily, Mister Scott and Mister Gates were in the room at the time, and they also happened to be great proponents for spreading knowledge. Eleanor couldn’t say no to all of them, so the accounts were adjusted to allow room for funds to be set aside for the purchase of texts and a contract for Vane and his men to erect the library.

Then, James visited Max to see if she had determined any suspects for a run of recent break-ins. This particular matter was harder for her sort out because the intruder didn’t seem to be stealing anything, and therefore not spending any coin at The Harbour, so she was unable to provide him with any updates.

It had been a frustrating day.

This late-afternoon, James had hoped to come home and relax for a while, but Silver was already sticking his head out of the kitchen and motioning for James to join him. The man must have been watching for him frequently because James had never had a set point of time for when he would return. With a grumble and a drag to his step, James’ hung up his coat and headed down the hall.

The kitchen was in a state of disarray that James hadn’t seen since the week before, and had hoped to never see again. Silver, with a frustrated edge to his voice explained how he had been trying to make scones to go along with the tea Miranda and Thomas drank after dinner. Unfortunately, though he had watched James make bread a few times now, he wasn’t able to get the consistency of the dough correct and then he began to wonder if scones were made like bread at all.

Penelope was in the corner with a white dusting of powder on her fur and a cooked bun in the back of her jaws that she couldn’t seem to bite into much better than she could a bone.

There were more little chunks of uncooked dough on nearly every countertop and James could scarcely believe the waste he was witnessing. At least nothing smelled burnt.

“Couldn’t you have just waited for me?” he said exasperatedly.

Silver gave a shrug and said how he had already finished most of dinner himself and was feeling extra confident about his abilities. Over confident more like, James thought.

He unbuttoned his sleeves and rolled them up, then took the apron Silver extended to him with both hands. It was a routine by now.

“You have to sprinkle flour on the counter first, that way the dough won’t stick to everything. And this dough,” he said, taking the bowl Silver had returned to stirring from him, “has the consistency of pancake batter, not scones at all.”

James gave up on salvaging the mix Silver had been working on and instructed him to start from scratch. He kept an eye on the ingredients Silver added and the measurements he was making, but James already knew Silver seemed to have an increase in skills if he was being carefully scrutinized.

After mixing in the butter, Silver continued stirring with the spoon for much longer than necessary. James stilled his hand.

“You can’t always rely on the spoon. You have to get your hands a little dirty. Go on,” he said while removing the spoon from Silver’s hand. “Crumble the dough like this.”

Silver actually complained twice about getting the mixture stuck under his nails, which was more complaining than Miranda had ever done when she was weeding in the garden. Though, James had a sneaking suspicion that half of Silver’s complaining was only done to irritate him.

When Silver finally got to mixing in the cream and was ready to roll out the mixture, James had to actually scrape the dried dough from Silver’s previous attempts off the counter. Silver dug his doughy hands into the flour bag and brought out and entire handful of flour for sprinkling on the counter. However, before he arrived, James saw Silver’s nose twitch, crunching up, and his eyes closed tight. The resulting sneeze sent that handful of flour flying up into Silver’s face making him look as ridiculous, white, and powdered as the wigs Thomas used to wear. The confused expression Silver wore, like he didn’t quite know what happened, was what finally broke James.

The laughter bubbled up and spilled over before he could contain it. He even heard Silver answer with his own lightly amused huff, but then James looked up to see Silver near the sack again and pinching a bit of flour while looking positively impish.

“Don’t you dare,” James warned, but there was no bite behind his words and he knew it.

He wasn’t even surprised when the flour was thrown at him, but he fell into another fit of laughter when it only made it a few centimeters his way before fizzling out into a harmless puff of white. His mistake was looking down and away, because he felt Silver’s next attack of flour as it was dumped over the back of his head.

Silver was already running to duck behind the counter when James tried to grab for him.

“You’re going to regret that, you little shit,” he shouted, while grabbing one of the failed scones and aiming at the man when he peeked over the ledge.

He missed and Penelope decided to join in on the fun by chasing after the treat as it rolled away.

The kitchen was soon transformed into a warzone with Penelope defecting to Silver’s side. In the ultimate show of betrayal, she supplied Silver with any scones that missed their original mark. James had taken the cutting board as a shield while Silver took their dough from out of the bowl and kept the bowl as his own shield. He had a spoon as well, but that was hardly threatening.

James readied himself for the plan he had devised to defeat the enemy and no bowls or spoons would save Silver from the bucket of water James had acquired. In the moment of silence between attacks, with only the island counter between them, James rolled a tin cup across the floor until it hit the cupboards to his left, he himself stealthily climbed onto the countertop. Silver would never have expected an attack from above.

When he spotted the mop of dusty, brown hair, James grinned devilishly. Penelope barked. That was what brought Silver’s clear blue eyes to lock onto his. His cheeks were reddened from their shared laughter and adrenaline filled play, but his eyes were widened in fear as he saw the bucket of water teetering dangerously over his head. Silver’s gaze went to the bowl beside him only briefly.

“Move and you’re soaked,” James threatened. “Surrender, and I might forgive you.”

Silver raised his shoulders just barely, making himself look smaller as he hunched in on himself, but then he smiled up at James. James steeled himself against it, because if there was one thing he was not going to let Silver use against him, it was that blasted fake smile.

“I surrender to you,” Silver said with a light exhale and complete acceptance.

James faltered. He had used those exact words nearly a week ago, when he was in the ocean with Thomas and Miranda. Thomas had requested a show of loyalty from him then. James unconsciously flicked his eyes to Silver’s lips. The fake smile faded slowly. The longer James stared the more he saw of Silver’s true expression of wonder.

He knew he should move away, accept the surrender, and stop this, because this was wrong. He absolutely should not be thinking of John Silver in the same sentence, with the same connotations, as he did with Thomas and Miranda. He loved them. He was happy with them. Happier than he had ever been. There was no reason for him to be thinking about how much resistance Silver gave him, and how Silver would always go pliant in the end. No reason for him to wonder if kissing him would be the same as battling him.

Silver’s lips parted, like he was about to speak, but then he didn’t say a thing. He closed them again.

James pulled his gaze away and back to Silver’s eyes. His long, dark lashes were dusted with specks of flour still.

Neither of them moved. He wasn’t even certain either of them were breathing.

James knew he should stop this. It was a lust-driven impulse that he had felt the beginnings of days prior, one that he had tried to push away. It was wrong.

“Are you two bringing dinner anytime soon?” an unexpected voice—Miranda’s—came from behind them.

The bucket of water slipped from James’ hands and fell onto Silver’s stunned expression.

“Shit,” James said immediately after as he pulled the bucket off.

James felt like a bucket of water had also been dumped over him. When he looked back to Miranda, she only appeared to be delighted that he was getting along with Silver.

Miranda went back into the dining room without saying much more, and seemingly unaware of the guilty tension in James’ shoulders. When she left, the atmosphere in the kitchen changed to one of awkwardness, because Silver must have also realized that the bucket hadn’t been the only thing teetering dangerously.

They stayed on opposite sides of the kitchen like they had entered a cold war. Avoiding speaking, looking, and James trying to avoid thinking.

Part of him wanted to dart out of the room, another part thought of apologizing, but he wasn’t sure if he should apologize to Silver or if he should go to the dining room and apologize to the Hamiltons.

The worst part of him didn’t want to apologize at all.

That part won.

He turned to leave as Silver pulled the main dish out of the oven.

“James?” Silver said quietly, stopping him in his tracks. From his tone, James expected Silver to follow up with something sincere, but instead Silver asked, “Does this mean you forgive me?” with a smugness that was infuriating.

Just like that, the awkward tension dissipated.

James snorted, “Not a chance.”

Even when Silver appeared to surrender, there was always another trick up his sleeve, another goal he was trying to achieve. One should never trust a thief.

* * *

Thomas watched Miranda come out of the kitchen with a crafty, smile and a smooth glide to her step. The two of them had heard the boisterous noises from the kitchen and, while waiting for dinner, they constructed imaginary tales of just what Silver and James were getting up to in there. Of course, Miranda’s assumptions had gotten more and more scandalous as the minutes went on. It was only when the kitchen went silent that they both looked at each other wondering if perhaps Miranda’s ideas weren’t so outrageous. Thomas finally told her just to go see for herself.

“Well?” Thomas asked excitedly as she bid her time by folding her dress under her and sitting down.

She raised her eyebrows, a sign that she was about to indulge him, “I’m more confident that our James is only hiding behind his anger.”

“What did you see?” he pressed.

“They were most certainly playing like children, making a mess of the place, but James seemed positively enchanted when I entered. Despite the silence, he didn’t hear the door hinges squeak or my heels on the floor. John was there,” she paused for effect, “kneeling below him—”

“No?” Thomas gasped in faux horror.

Miranda laughed, and then gave a thoughtful, pleased look, indicating that she was dropping her game. “John was hiding behind a counter and James had found him by quite literally climbing over that counter. I do think I entered into something, though. As I said, James was caught in a spell of some sort.”

Thomas nodded. Miranda had been able to read James since the beginning, there was no reason for Thomas to doubt her intuition. Then he furrowed his brow a slight bit. “You do think James will tell us, don’t you?” 

Miranda reached over and patted the top of his hand. “James is fiercely loyal to us. He will tell us before things escalate, worry not.”

“Oh, I’m not worried in the least about him doing anything behind our backs, I’m more concerned about him keeping this all to himself and fretting over it for weeks,” Thomas answered, remembering how skittish James had been before their first kiss.

Miranda hummed in understanding. “I still suggest we let them work this out between them. If it goes on too long, we might intervene, but for now their relationship is too fresh for us to be prodding James about it. Then there is John’s part in all this,” Miranda began. “We assume James is attracted to him, yes? My time with John, though, gives me the impression that he is more interested in James for reasons beyond the flesh.”

“You sense romantic interest?” Thomas asked brightly, leaning in closer and dropping his voice to a near whisper. This was entirely new information from her. He could sense it too though, when John had asked him about how he met James, the inquiry seemed to enter a personal level of which only someone who genuinely cared would have asked.

“Perhaps,” Miranda answered.

They got no further in their discussion, however, because James entered the dining room. He appeared to be a little aggravated but, beyond that, it didn’t seem he would be sharing anything with them today.

Shortly after, Silver entered. He was in a much different mood than James, with an easy gait and an aura of excitement about him, but Silver was usually able to brush off any negativity much more easily than James.

Silver was buzzing as he spoke, “Alright, I’ve tried something new and I did this entirely myself, with absolutely no guidance from him,” Silver pointed the carving fork he was holding at James.

James mumbled something about getting ready to fill Penelope’s stomach.

Silver continued, unfazed, “I tasted everything beforehand, and I do believe I’ve created something worthy of your table.”

“Then stop praising yourself and serve us, so we can decide,” James suggested, but even through his annoyance, Thomas noticed there was a shift to the way James spoke to Silver now.

With a flourish, Silver turned to his cart and lifted the cover off the meat. A puff of steam rose into the air. It smelled delicious and better yet, it was a ham, glazed with a sheen of honey. Their favorite. Thomas felt Silver’s own excitement filling him. When Silver cut into the ham, Thomas didn’t have a doubt that it would be perfect, and, sure enough, the knife went into the meat with an easy glide and a delicious succulence.  

Silver plated the slice and quickly brought it to Thomas.

The rest of the plate looked equally mouth-watering and showy. Slices of pineapple had been cut into diamond shapes. Sugar snap peas were lightly salted and steaming. To the side, Silver had placed a very small bowl of baked beans and a roll, topped with a slice of butter.

Silver gestured quickly for him to try something.

Thomas went for the roll first, breaking it in half and smiling approvingly at the soft, fluffy insides.

“Would you like any jam with your bread?” Silver asked, proffering a small dish of grape jam.

Thomas accepted. Then Silver fluttered about, giving Miranda her plate and lastly James his. Though Miranda was already praising the meal and Thomas began to congratulate Silver on making use of his quick learning ability, Silver was entirely focused on James. It was to be expected, James was the harshest critic, but Thomas found himself watching all their interactions through a different, more amorous lens now.

There was a sort of devotion to Silver’s attempts to please James, but it was entirely different from a student wishing to prove himself to his teacher.

As James ate his first bite of ham, Silver grew more and more intent, but he was smiling wider and wider, like he already knew James wouldn’t be able to deny him this victory.

“It’s good,” James finally said when he looked up to Silver’s waiting face.

Silver scoffed. “Good? That’s all?”

“Quite good,” James amended. “But this is all still very simple food.”

Silver leaned down then, bending at the waist and giving an eye-level, challenging glare to James. “I made dessert. You can’t possibly have thought all that dough was only for scones. And the batter. Honestly, I’m not that poor a cook.”

Thomas couldn’t help but quietly chuckle at James’ surprised expression. Miranda bit into her own roll and raised her eyebrows, giving Thomas a look that said she was positively fond of Silver’s insubordination. Thomas was tempted to call it flirtation.

“What did you make?” James asked.

“Well, that would ruin the surprise wouldn’t it?” Silver pulled back and stuck the tip of his tongue between his teeth teasingly.

Miranda then pulled out the chair next to her, making it scoot loudly over the wooden floor and drawing James and Silver’s attention to her.

“Join us,” she requested and patted the seat.

Silver’s eyes widened and he looked between her and Thomas like he wasn’t sure he had understood at all.

Thomas clapped his hands. “Yes, please, join us. There is no sense in you eating meals alone in the kitchen and we would love more company. Wouldn’t we, James?”

At times, Thomas felt a little bad that James was so powerless to deny the two of them, but this was not one of those times. Seeing James’ apprehensive expression give way to a sigh, and a resignation to the fate of having Silver integrated into their meal times was the best use of their influence, because Thomas knew James wanted this, even if he hadn’t quite worked up the courage to ask for it himself.

Silver exited to retrieve his plate.

James glanced back Miranda and Thomas after watching Silver leave. “I don’t know if this is a good idea…” he trailed off, looking down to his plate and scooting a pea around.

“I hope you don’t mind my setting your boulder next to me,” Miranda said, while standing and taking a fourth wine glass from the cabinet behind her.

James shook his head. “That was a terrible analogy. I’m not nearly as cursed seeing as I only have to bear eighty-two more days and, thankfully, I won’t be chained to him for eternity. What a punishment that would be,” James said more quietly.

Thomas shared a look of concern with Miranda as she poured wine for Silver. James held out his own already empty glass to her as well.

Silver returned with his plate of food and pushed the jam across the table and over to James. However, he didn’t sit immediately. He waited until James looked up with one raised brow in question.

“Are you sure?” Silver asked James directly, exuding none of his usual confidence.

“Sit,” James said plainly.

Silver’s shoulders relaxed and he slid into the chair next to Miranda, giving her an acknowledging nod.

Silver was quite the entertainer at the table, though there was a strange sense of unease in the air that Thomas wished would go away. He worried that Miranda had maybe pushed them a bit too far, too quickly. James was quieter than usual, but Thomas knew he was listening to Silver’s stories, because occasionally, during the funny bits, James would look up and smile, but it felt entirely too sad.

When Silver presented his desserts, crêpes and a strawberry tart, and brought Miranda and Thomas each a cup of lavender tea, James finally seemed to cheer up more. He scolded Silver for holding out on them, but Silver insisted that this was a new found skill. More than once, Silver subtly asked for more praise from James, and surprisingly, James gave it freely without a word of complaint.

“Do you like sweets?” Silver asked James.

James confirmed that he liked them well enough and Silver proclaimed that he would try making something for them every Saturday until his contract was over and he left for the New England Colonies.

Thomas saw the barely perceptible sadness return when James thanked Silver for his hard work and excused himself.

Eighty-two days, James had said. He was counting down, though Thomas had the feeling it wasn’t out of a desire for Silver to leave as quickly as possible. Miranda must have felt it as well. Which meant they were wrong about James being interested in merely sleeping with Silver. Perhaps, James was feeling the inklings of something deeper just as Miranda suspected John was. Perhaps.

Thomas wouldn’t press, but he had forgotten all his musings with Miranda over the four of them had a short, definite time limit. Now, those musings seemed all the more a possibility, but he did hope they wouldn’t wait too long and waste away the days of happiness. Happiness that could be theirs with a little bravery.

Chapter Text

The thin, brown twig, barely a dozen centimeters thick, with bright green leaves fluttering in the light breeze and three white flowers. The orange tree. Still but a sprig, Miranda thought kindly as she carried the little plant up the brick path.

John had gotten word about their plans for the tree in the front yard. She suspected Thomas had told him, given that her husband often vocalized his daydreams again and again until they were realized. This had led to John making inquiries with Mister Vane as to where he could procure the tree. John, who had been trying to keep this all a secret, was forced to inform Miranda of his plans when he requested an extra payment from her yesterday morning.

Which led to today, when Miranda went to visit her friendly acquaintance, Idelle, the young woman’s ever-hopeful suitor, Mister Featherstone, had provided Miranda with the orange tree sapling stating that it was a housewarming gift from the lumberyard and Mister Silver. Though Miranda found it amusing that she had purchased her own present, she also found John’s efforts heartwarming. He had even adorned the gift with a blue, slightly frayed ribbon.

Miranda dipped her head to smell the sweet flowers of the orange tree. Penelope quickly trotted down the stairs to get her greeting, and to sniff at the unfamiliar thing that was getting attention from her human. Miranda sat down the tree and patted Penelope lightly on the head.

“Guard it while I fetch our boys,” she said and carried on into the home.

Honoring John’s wish to have the tree a surprise, Miranda only alluded to what could be awaiting Thomas and James outside. The creation of a bit of mystery was worth it to see Thomas’ eyes light up when he saw the plant, still guarded by Penelope. James, however, complained briefly about how they shouldn’t share so many intimate wishes with Silver, but then he suddenly paused, crouched down before the tree, and rubbed the bow between his thumb and forefinger, pulling loose strands from the end.

“Where is John?” Thomas asked her while looking softly at James.

“Unfortunately, Mister Featherstone informed me that John intends to take the evening off,” Miranda supplied.  

As she expected, James was not at all happy about that bit of information. Immediately, he went back to old comments about Silver being irresponsible, shirking his duty, and possibly planning to leave the island. Thomas set about reassuring him, but James was steadfast in his anger again. Miranda hoped to help Thomas’ efforts.

“I believe John wished to avoid seeing our reaction to his kind gesture. He told me a couple of days ago that he wasn’t well-versed in the art of thanking others and had never given or received gifts before. He wished to thank us for allowing him to eat with us these past few days, to which I assured him it was a treasure to have him at our table, but he hardly seemed convinced,” Miranda gave a sigh, feeling a bit poorly for the life Silver must have lived to feel so grateful for a common courtesy.

“Don’t let his confidence and wit fool you. While he bears it quite well, it’s often but a mask for him to hide behind,” she said and lifted James’ chin so that he would meet her eyes. “James, don’t be cross with him for taking a bit of rest from us. We can be overwhelming, you know this better than anyone.”

James didn’t say anything more. Looking pensive, he pulled the bow off the tree and let it flutter away in the wind. Then, he said he was going to retrieve a shovel so that they could plant the orange tree as planned.

Miranda looked to Thomas as soon as James rounded the corner of the house.

“I’ve missed something, haven’t I?” she asked.

Thomas lifted the tree and began walking it to the spot where they had collapsed in the grass their first day, while Miranda followed beside him. 

“That blue bow, James gave it to John. It was half of one of James’ own hair ties,” Thomas answered sounding lovestruck.

Miranda glanced back at the ribbon, which had landed in the lawn a ways behind them. James’ reaction to the gift had not seemed positive in the least. If the ribbon held sentimental value of some sort, it made no sense as to why he was being careless with it.

“Why did it anger him?”

Thomas gave her a look that said he was mildly surprised she didn’t already know, but she just gave him a baffled look in return and shrugged.

“He’s still looking at the worst possible outcome. If someone returns a gift, doesn’t it usually mean the other person did not accept the emotions you were intending to give them? Be it a generosity, a thanks, a show of friendship, or love,” Thomas leaned down to smell the flowers himself. “Of course, this wasn’t John’s rejection at all,” Thomas said spinning to walk backwards and surprising Miranda with a light kiss to the lips.

“Of course it wasn’t,” she softly patted Thomas’ cheek. “He was saying thank you.”

She gave an easy smile as they sat the orange tree in its place.

“I forgot how difficult it could be to navigate new relationships,” she mused and sat gently down on the grass. Thomas joined her and rested his head in her lap. “All the uncertainties and fears that can creep up over the smallest things. We had it easy, you and I. Always aggressively pursuing and never second-guessing.”

Miranda thought of James’ absolutely horrified expression when she visited him, alone, at his residence for the first time. Every step she took towards him made him more likely to dart. He never knew what to do in their presence and his confusion was simply adorable.

Thomas gave a thoughtful nod. “Are you still certain we shouldn’t speak to James about this? It was easier for us because we had each other to confide in.”

“And James has the both of us to confide in. We can’t push until he first broaches the subject. I know you wouldn’t be afraid to tell us if you felt even the barest flutter for another, but you and James are two very different breeds of men. You know he would shut us out and deny any attraction or emotions he might feel for John the moment we tried to pry. As I’ve said, it’s too early for them,” she reasoned.

Thomas gave her an unnecessarily long sigh like he was about to disagree, but in the end he said, “You are right, but I don’t enjoy seeing him bothered by this.”

Miranda ran her fingers soothingly through Thomas’ hair. “John will fix it once he realizes James misunderstood.”

Thomas smiled and pulled her hand down to kiss it. “Ah, that indomitable spirit will have to make itself known.”

It was then that James returned with the shovel and set about digging a hole. Penelope offered to help, but she made more a mess than anything else. Miranda enjoyed sifting the cool, damp soil from one hand to the other and appreciating that all life was born from the earth. Thomas was more interested in the little critters that scurried from the sunlight and, with a concerned voice, he warned James to be more careful not to chop the worms in half. That earned Thomas a bit of an incredulous laugh from James but, nonetheless, Miranda knew the next strike of the shovel was a little more calculated.

The heat of the late-afternoon did well for James, as his pent up anger was mostly sweated out by the time he had a deep enough hole for them to place the tree in. The planting of the tree proceeded almost like a ceremony, with the three of them holding a different part of the plant and lowering it slowly into the ground. They all took a corner of the burlap, and pulled it from the roots. Then, together, they pushed the soil back into the hole, patting the dirt firmly around the base of their orange tree.

Miranda leaned around the plant to James and kissed his brow, tasting the salt of his labor.

“This is John’s gift, a gift to the three of us,” she said with as much emotion as she could convey.

James shyly averted his gaze, looking to the ground, but he returned her soft smile. All felt right once more.

The three of them lied back in a circle on the grass as they had done before. This time with an orange tree by their heads. One more addition to the townhouse to make this home a little warmer, a little more theirs.

Such a little thing. It would be a decade at the least before it could offer them shade, but, as with many things, patience and a bit of tending would help the tree grow and eventually it would give back to them all the effort they put into it.

Before they returned inside, Miranda saw James pick the frayed, blue ribbon off the ground and stuff it in his pocket. Some things required very little effort and gave back so generously even when one was not expecting a return at all. Those were also beautiful, priceless things.

* * *

Standing before the shop, looking at the window displays of pretty dresses and overly elaborate menswear, with the leather coin purse clutched in his hands, Silver debated with himself one last time whether or not this was wise. There were certainly more important things he should be buying with his money. A room at The Harbour primarily.

Yet, since the day where he had been certain James had wanted to kiss him, Silver had been coming to this spot, to stand in front of Calico Jack’s every evening before he went to the townhouse. Today, he was not going to the townhouse. Instead, he was going to walk into that textile shop and buy what he had saved a few coins for. That was the plan. As soon as he worked up the courage to actually go through with it.

A passerby bumped into him, rudely told him to watch where he was going, and continued on.

There were times when the courage would never come. During those times, it was best just to put one foot forward and hope for the best. No sense in endlessly loitering, he thought to himself as he walked to the door and pushed it opened. A little bell jingled above him.

This drew the attention of three people in the room, all crowded in the back around a counter.

The first was a woman, pale, with a head of bright, red hair that was braided here and there. She wore a scowl that could scare customers away, which possibly explained the lack any actual customers in the shop. She was leaning back on a chair, just behind the counter, with a tray of buttons on her lap. Her clothes were loose fitting pants and a plain shirt, which was quite a contrast to the man standing at the desk.

The man, probably Jack, was in well-fitted, layers upon layers of brightly colored fabrics. He had a suave smile, a smile that did nothing to hide the fact that he was hoping you would walk out of the shop with a lighter purse. On his fingers were more rings than either of the women had combined.

The second woman, whose back was to him, had one ring. A silver ring with a large, green stone in its center, which stood out against her golden brown tone. He recognized the ring. She looked over her shoulder to see who had entered. Light-brown, kohl rimmed eyes, with a distinct blue eyeshadow. Yes, he most definitely recognized the mademoiselle, Max.

Quelle surprise, the thief remains a free man,” Max said in lieu of a greeting.

“Thief?” Jack’s face fell to one of wary suspicion immediately.

This was considerably more awkward than Silver had anticipated, and for entirely different reasons.

“I come to you an honest paying customer,” Silver said with a little jangle of his purse.

Jack looked to the purse, back to Silver, then nodded to the red-head. “Anne will gut you if you steal anything.”

Anne gave a curt nod to him and went right back to her death-glare. Silver swallowed a little harder than usual and briefly considered asking her if she had a brother.

“Hello...Anne,” Silver gave a three-fingered wave with the hand that was holding the purse.

She began sorting the buttons again.

Max gestured to the stool beside her and spoke, “Come. Sit. I have many questions for you. The last I saw, Lieutenant McGraw was likely to take you far from the city to be executed by his own hand. Yet, here you are, breathing still, and with coin.”

Silver entered further into the store, passing the rolls of dyed cloth and patterned material, as well as jars of buttons and boxes of spools of thread. The interior smelled like wool and men’s perfume. He sat on the cushioned stool.

“A customer of yours?” Jack asked Max.

“He paid lavishly, with money gained through his thievery. Though he did not pay for the girls. Only a chambre and the finest cuisine.”

“I’m afraid Nassau is no longer a place for digging into other men’s pockets through any way other than good, old-fashioned capitalism. Jack Rackham,” the man, who no surprise was Jack, introduced himself and held out his hand.

“John Silver,” he answered with a business-like handshake.

“Silver?” Jack said thoughtfully. “I remember that name. Joshua ordered swaths of material for the tailoring of new clothes for you. You’ve put quite a bit of gold into all our pockets,” he smiled at Max.

“Yes, he has. The Hamiltons’ money. Which leaves me wondering, how are you not among the dead, Mister Silver?” Max tapped her fingernails on the counter and waited for his explanation.

“I work for James now actually. Well, not James. Lord Hamilton,” Silver answered, though choosing not to mention his unpaid servitude or the contract. He didn’t much like thinking about those things to begin with.

“A job? At... James’ home?” Max asked, with a draw to the name like she was tugging slowly on the end of a knit scarf and watching it unravel.

Suddenly, he found himself more wary of her than of Anne back in her nook. Max’s guess also gave Silver the impression that she must have acquired information about him working for the Hamiltons already. Or she knew someone working for them anyways. She did seem surprised to see him alive.

“Yes, I have to go there shortly, so it would be best if I can quickly purchase what I came for,” Silver lied, hoping to end any further inquiries from Max by appealing to Jack’s eager eye for gold.

Max smiled keenly, like she knew his game, but Jack was already exiting from behind the counter and clasping Silver’s shoulder.

“Right then, what can I do you for?” he asked while giving an unnecessary, theatrical wave of his hand to all his goods.

“Ribbons,” Silver responded immediately. “For hair, if there are different kinds of ribbons. I’m not exactly used to this kind of thing.”

Jack pulled him off the stool, led them past Persian rugs hanging over the rafters, and to a row of shelves with reels of different colors and widths of ribbons.

Max, however, was intent on not letting him escape easily. She hopped off her stool and joined them. “Are you courting a woman? I could be of great help to you. It is my area of expertise.”

Silver gave her his best smile, “We share a common talent then. I’m sure I can manage just fine.”

“Did you not say that you are not used to this kind of thing?” Max leaned against the shelving and drew out a length of red laced ribbon.

“Ah, buying fabric that is.”

“What color is her hair? The ribbon must complement her,” Max said like it was entirely casual, but Silver already knew she was looking to profile the woman he was supposedly buying a gift for. Max was evidently the eyes and ears of Nassau. He knew her type well. Even the most mundane information was an asset to her.

Brun,” he answered in her mother tongue, both to mask his lie and to hopefully endear her to him a little.

Max only watched him with a skeptical smile that he didn’t like at all, while Jack took charge as the salesman. He rattled off names of fabrics Silver hadn’t heard of, nor cared much to learn about, because who needed that many types of fabric anyways? He almost went for a ribbon of grosgrain, as it was the cheapest, before he began imagining the various strips of fabric in James’ hair. That was when he settled on sparing no expenses. Silk it was.

In total, it was probably a good half hour before Silver held two light green, silk ribbons in hand, and followed Jack back to the front counter.

“Green,” Max said, “goes good with red, non?”

Silver schooled his features, paid, and said nothing.

Jack, however, answered her. “I’ve been trying to get Anne to wear green for years. To bring out her eyes and the red in her hair. Would you like a ribbon, Anne?”

Anne looked up again, gave a grimace and said, “Fuck no.”

Both Max and Jack shared an unsurprised smile, like this was something they mutually teased Anne about often. Silver attempted to use this as an opportunity to slip away from them, and nearly cursed when Max was beside him before he made it out the door.

“Let me join you on your way back to the townhouse. Lieutenant McGraw is a friend of mine, you see, and I have information he would like to hear,” Max opened the door for him. The bells jingled.

Silver was beginning to think that everyone James knew was masterful at the art of lie detecting. Max had called every single one of his bluffs in such a subtle manner that only she and he would be aware of it.

Before she followed him out, Max said back into the shop, “Anne, I will see you tonight. It is a shame you won’t be joining us, Jack.”

Jack just gave a dismissive wave. “Save the false apologies, you’ve been dying to have fun without me,” he answered with an amicable tone.

Then, Max’s attention was back on Silver.

“I suppose you already know I’m not going to the Hamiltons’ residence,” Silver said once they were on the streets again.

“Mister Silver, I know each and every person on this island. The women are few, most are under my watch or married. Seeing as you have not visited The Harbour, you are not wooing one of my girls. I would know. Lady Hamilton is the only woman I have yet to speak with, whom I know you have met, but I doubt you bought those ribbons for her.”

“Actually, now that you mention it, I think she would look quite nice with one in her hair,” Silver said while holding a piece out in front of him.

“Deflection does not work with me. You are good at this game, but I have had far more practice.”

“Then, how about we drop the game and you ask what you’ve been wanting to,” Silver shot back, feeling uncomfortably cornered now, but also feeling a strange respect for Max’s talent.

“Do you live with them?” Max asked.

“What? No,” Silver answered truthfully.

“That is all I wished to know, merci,” Max gave a courteous nod of her head and again said, “Green goes good with red.”

Then, she turned to walk the other way down the street, leaving Silver more than a little confused over why that had been her question. He looked down at the ribbons. Max was already suggesting he had bought this for James, no thanks to his slip up in using McGraw’s given name. Silver had half expected her to accuse him of trying to start an affair. Why she went for such a simple inquiry was odd.

Silver shook his head. No sense in worrying over it. He wasn’t planning on starting an affair anyways. This was just a repayment for the ribbon James sacrificed for him. That was all. Silver sighed, frustratedly. He wasn’t going to fall into the habit of lying to himself. This was most certainly not just a repayment. It was an attempt at offering friendship. He would tell James that, while he was flattered the man was warming to him, they had best not let things get out of hand. This was not going to lead to an affair.

Silver would not complain, however, if it led to warmer smiles, more gentle laughter, and a more relaxed air between them. Wanting for others to be happy was a strange, though not unwelcome feeling. Most of his life had been spent roaming from place to place, from person to person, without stagnating for more than a couple of weeks. No family, no home, no attachments. Just the ocean, the wind, and rivers to carry him wherever he may wish to go.

The life of a drifter. It was a blessedly free life.

Silver had been with Thomas, James, and Miranda for almost two weeks now, and he had many more weeks remaining, but already he could feel roots trying to settle in. When the roots began, he would always take his leave. This time, he wasn’t certain he wanted to leave at all. He wanted to spend as much time in that house as he could. He wanted to absorb as much of the warmth he felt from them as he could. He wanted to give back to them as much as he could. He wanted to stay until the number on the back of his contract hit zero. Then he would leave, taking with him what he knew would be memories that could blanket him on cold, rainy nights.

There was a word that had been on his mind a lot lately—one he had never quite understood the meaning of seeing as he had never cared to have anyone else in his life before. He began feeling it when he left the townhouse after dinner. He felt it when he was trying to fall asleep against a brick wall or in some unfamiliar room. Lonely.

The life of a drifter. It was a terribly lonely life.

Chapter Text

In a pleasant change of pace, the work day had been kind to James. No domestic issues. No pirates. Not even a scuffle at the tavern, which he wouldn’t be the one to deal with anyways, but it was still nice to know it had been a good day. Or would have been a good day. Max had just stepped out of the brothel and was giving him a hard stare. Clearly, she was angry with him.

“You should keep your pet on a leash,” she said while storming over.

He gave her a mildly confused look and did a brief scan to see if Penelope was about, but that would have been unlikely.

Max stopped in front of him. “You did not think to tell me that your thief was not dealt with?” she bit out. “All week you have had my girls trying to find the person that is breaking into homes, when you have had the culprit under your fucking roof three times a day. Le petit déjeuner, le déjeuner, le dîner. Unbelievable.”

James took pause for a moment, processing her words, and seeing just how much of a scene she was trying to make. A few people were turning their heads, a few more just walked right on by.

“What? Silver?” he finally asked, feeling his stomach drop at the idea of Silver committing crimes during the night and laughing with him the next evening. Thomas and Miranda had both wanted to guide Silver onto a better path, this would crush them.

“Silver,” she said mockingly. “Yes, Silver. He certainly has not been paying me for a room and, when he happened into Jack’s yesterday, I asked him if he was sleeping with you—”

“You asked what?” he said in surprise, but recognized his mistake immediately when he saw the glint in Max’s eye. She was playing him.

The anger dropped from her face and shoulders, she pulled back, and grinned. He should have known. Max was rarely angry enough to yell, but she was very good at using a calculated rage to fluster and get a rise out of him. This was the second time she had used this tactic on him and the second time she had succeeded. It was a dirty trick. He wouldn’t let her use it a third time.

Max, looking relatively proud of herself, continued in a friendly manner, “I asked him if he was lodging at your home. Of course, it was more interesting to hear him call you James with such a familiar tone.”

“Now wait a minute—” he began.

Max pressed on, “More interesting still was the fact that you had not tossed him in some cell. Then, today, I hear from Idelle that he gave you an orange tree. Lieutenant McGraw, what new toy are you keeping all to yourself?” she teased.

“Remind me again why we’re friends,” he grumbled.

Max sighed, giving him a long look. “Maintenant, we are friends because I went through all the trouble of discovering that your Silver is breaking into unoccupied homes so that he may have refuge from the rain. He is also sleeping in the alley between the tanner’s and the blacksmith’s—that is where Anne saw him last night. Have you not been giving him shelter?”

James was taken aback by that. He spent another moment fitting all of the words together and, when he finally understood what Max was telling him, his primary thought was, Shit. Silver didn’t have a place to stay. He was paying for a room at The Harbour when James had found him and all his money had been spent. There was a crashing wave of guilt that hit James hard in the chest. The unsolved crimes that had been plaguing him since he returned to work were partly of his own making. How had he overlooked this?

“Shit,” he cursed aloud.

“Your Silver spent coin at Jack’s as well. He is not without money.”

James just shook his head. “Miranda has been giving him a small allowance, but not enough for a room every night. Shit,” he iterated.

He did another quick scan around to see if Silver was in the thoroughfare. They often met up when James was returning home since dinner was the one meal they continued to prepare together. Unfortunately, since the day had been peaceful, James was early and Silver was not in sight.

“For my trouble, Anne gets a job in the library our good governor proposed, yes?” Max asked.

“Yes, she has the job and she’ll like it. It’s quiet,” he assured her.

Max had been trying to help Anne find a workplace for months now, but nothing ever stuck. Anne would yell at customers if they were rude with her and she would yell at her bosses if they scolded her, but she also refused to accept a position under Max or Jack. The library was Max’s latest hope. James had a feeling Anne would stick to this one. Libraries fostered a certain environment that was more peaceful than anywhere else in a city.

“I need to get home...to figure out where Silver is going to be staying,” he sighed, still internally scolding himself for being so thoughtless.

“Before you go, tell me, are you as interested in him as he seems to be in you?” Max questioned with a sincere voice. “I promise, I will not use it against you. I ask as a friend.”

The corner of his mouth twitched in discomfort.

“I think he and I could be friends, but not anything more. I have Miranda and Thomas, you know this,” he said, giving his voice the inflection of being slightly offended. Then he warmed again, thinking of Miranda. “You should visit Idelle when Miranda is there. I know she has been wanting to make more female friends in Nassau, and I believe you would get along,” James suggested while pulling himself away from the conversation.

Max nodded and confirmed that she would also like to get to know Miranda. Blessedly, she didn’t mention Silver again, but really she didn’t need to. Max could read attraction between two people like a children’s book. If he and Silver had both slipped up around her, well, she knew. He hoped she also knew that he would never be unfaithful to either of the Hamiltons.

There was also the new, frustrating information that Max felt Silver was interested in him. James hadn’t put much thought into Silver’s side of the whole matter. He was too busy being wrapped up in his own confusion over this attraction and the resulting guilt to even consider that Silver might return any of the sentiments.

This was becoming messy.

An all too familiar kind of messy.

James had been in an all boys school during his younger years, which is where he had learned how to manage his attraction to men in order to retain friendships or to avoid punishment from teachers. Thomas had called it “a harmful institution that had forced him to internalize that which ought to be shared unashamedly.” Lessons learned in that school, however, would seem to soon be useful to James again. Friendship was all the further he could allow himself to go with Silver.

Continuing on the matter of Silver, James would not delay in confronting the other man anymore. He would tell Silver he was enjoying their growing friendship, but that Silver should not get it into his head that they could be anything more. James would not betray Thomas nor Miranda, not in that way.

However, no decent friend would allow Silver to remain on the streets. So, now, James was about to go to Thomas and Miranda and ask them to allow Silver to stay in their guest room for the duration of his contract.

Even though James had rationalized this, somehow, it all still felt terribly deceptive.

* * *

The drawing room was basked in the glow of afternoon sunlight as it filtered through the white curtains Miranda had lazily chosen not to open today. Thomas set next to her on the canapé, while across from them, James sat in the armchair, fiddled with the cuffs of his shirt, and waited for their response.

The moment James returned home, he had called them into the room to have a meeting. Thomas had been expecting an entirely different conversation and it seemed Miranda was also taken off guard by this if her expression was anything to go by.

She spoke up first, “You mean for the entirety of these two weeks we have made John sleep outside?”

She sounded positively upset. Thomas felt rather guilty as well. They hadn’t known, but imagining John stuck out in the rain in some alleyway was distressing. Even Penelope was brought into the kitchen on rainy days so that she could remain dry and warm—John had started that particular habit.

James looked up, expressing just how they were all feeling. He gave a hard, emotional swallow. “It’s my fault, not yours. If I had been thinking about him at all I would have remembered he that had no actual residence on the island,” he paused taking a breath. “To make up for this, I wish to offer him our guest room. With your permission of course.”

Thomas immediately agreed, “God, of course we will offer him a room and an apology.”

“It’s not your fault,” James repeated with a note of frustration. “You don’t have to apologize to him.”

Miranda shook her head. “No, we’ll all apologize. We put him in a situation where he was forced to commit crimes just to keep dry.”

Thomas could already see James bristling.

“Silver could have reminded me that he didn’t have a place before he started breaking into homes. The blame lies with me and him. You won’t be apologizing.”

“Won’t I?” Miranda and James exchanged equally petulant stares before she finally leaned back on the canapé with her arms crossed and a muttered, “Fine, but you are being completely unreasonable about this.”

Thomas jumped in to provide a middle ground and ease the tension. “The offering of our guest room can be seen as an apology. That’s what it is after all.”

Across the hall, the sound of the back door opening and closing drew the attention of the three of them. James didn’t look like he was going to be moving anytime soon as he focused on the stitching of his shirt again. Miranda was still pouting over the petty disagreement. So Thomas called out to John, asking him to come to the drawing room.

“Shit, wait, stop,” was the shouted reply once the kitchen doors into the hallway opened and a chestnut-colored mass came barreling into room.

Penelope bee-lined for James and had her front paws up on his lap before he seemed to even realize what he was nose to nose with. Then she gave him a sloppy wet kiss over his nose and over his eye.

John was sliding into the room in the next instance, with a broken rope in one hand and a green ribbon in the other.

“I was trying to keep her in the kitchen, I swear,” he tried to explain quickly.

Then John moved forward to get to Penelope, but in a chain of disasters, his foot caught under their throw rug, he reached out to try and keep himself from falling, and grabbed onto the cloth of their coffee table, pulling it down a few feet and causing a vase to tip, spilling water and flowers onto his own head. He landed on his back, staring up at the ceiling.

Miranda stood, likely planning to make a grab for Penelope before the dog could dart, but then she paused. Thomas followed her gaze back to James, who had not a hint of anger on his face. In fact, he was smiling at John and trying to push Penelope away so that he could pet her without being assaulted by a wet tongue and dog breath.

“Are you alright?” James asked John, who was a crumple on the floor looking unsure of how he ended up in that position. There were violets in his hair.

“I think?” he replied, sounding bewildered.

Thomas stood too, and held out a hand for John, who took it immediately and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. Thomas set to pulling the flowers out of the shorter man’s hair. “She must want to take up residence as well,” he said, nodding to Penelope with a laugh.

Miranda came forward then, picking up the rope and ribbon that had been dropped in the fall, and took John’s hand to give them back. “John, we have learned that you need a place to stay and would like to offer you our guest room.”

John closed his hand around the items and continued to look a bit lost. “Oh, I’m fine. I’m used to not having a...place.”

“Nonsense,” Thomas jumped in, while pulling final flower from a curl, “you should not need to be used to such a thing.”

James spoke up from his seat, where Penelope had finally calmed and was now sitting at his feet, “As the local law enforcer, I’m afraid I can’t allow you to continue breaking into houses.”

John took on a sheepish expression as he looked over to James. “You found out about that?”

“Max,” was all James said but it seemed John knew immediately why she was the answer. “We’re, um, sorry for making you resort to that.”

Thomas felt a sudden warmth fill him as James, in one fell swoop, had won everyone over. He did that often. Making Thomas fall in love with him again and again in a thousand different ways.

Miranda then righted her vase, Thomas handed her the violets, and she put them back into their place. “Do you have any personal items you’d like to bring here?” she asked.

John only shook his head.

Thomas made a mental note to himself to ask him more about his life. This whole ordeal of John being homeless was partly due to them not asking the young man a thing about himself. He and Miranda had gotten so caught up in fantasizing about the relationship John and James could develop that they forgot momentarily about the individual.

John also seemed to be quite good at directing attention off himself and to the stories he told, which was an entirely different issue that Thomas hoped they could work through. For now, however, it would be one step at a time.

Taking the vase from the table, Miranda held it out to John, “Could you go fill it for me, please? I’ll clean up the water.”

John stuffed the rope and the ribbon into his pocket and then, with both hands, John took the vase from her like it was something delicate. He headed out, stopping once in the hall and looking back like he wasn’t certain of anything anymore. Thomas gave him a friendly nod, and John continued on.

Miranda then went straight to James. She squeezed in beside him, hugged his side, and asked, “What changed?”

James shook his head with a light laugh. “I just got tired of all the discomfort lately. Ever since you two first arrived here, I wanted to have days filled with happiness, but I’ve been blaming Silver all this time and resisting him in our lives, which only caused discord. When you got angry with me just now, I finally realized that I was the one causing all the trouble. It wasn’t Silver’s fault at all, not really, so I stopped blaming him,” James paused and held a hand out to Thomas, who took it and joined them in the embrace. “I’m sorry,” James said quietly.

Thomas kissed his shoulder and then his cheek. “I’m proud of you and I’m happy,” he said and looked to Miranda who answered with her own affirmation of happiness. “Are you happy?”

James nodded. “Yes, I think I will be now. He and I, we could be friends.”

Thomas accepted that answer with a full kiss. One step at a time, he reminded himself.

Just as they pulled apart and Thomas let his forehead rest against James’, he opened his eyes to see John standing in the doorway. John gave a barely-there smile, nodded, and entered the room to put the filled vase exactly where it belonged.

There were a great many things Thomas was currently feeling grateful for, and John was climbing ever higher on that list. Of all the people that could have stolen from them, Thomas knew that they had been graced to have John as their thief. In Nassau, others were forced to tolerate them out of fear of reprisal. Very few were willingly tolerant. Even fewer were accepting. Fewer still, understanding. Thomas knew this. Just as he knew John was a member of that final tiny minority.

Thomas pulled away from James slowly, noticing when James startled at John’s presence. To reassure him, Thomas kissed his forehead and hoped for James to see that John wasn’t put out in the least. Miranda merely relaxed into James’ side, looking as if she could be drifting off to sleep. James too eased, though his expression to Silver almost seemed to carry an apology. The sun’s rays caught on dust motes in the air, shimmering around them as if dancing to unheard music. John was watching them too, and Thomas wondered if he thought of them in the same dreamy light.

“Let me show you to your room,” Thomas said.

“Dinner?” John questioned.

“I’ll fix it tonight,” James answered with a kind smile and kissed Penelope’s head.  

Thomas knew that John must have had a million thoughts going through his head since the moment Miranda extended their offering to him, but finally, John broke out of his stupor and gave a look that Thomas now recognized as John getting ready to rile James up.

“Good,” John began, “because I bought a fish and I’m entirely uncomfortable with those black, beady eyes that were watching me the whole way here. You were going to be cooking it anyways,” he shrugged.

James glowered, without any real intensity. “You’ll learn how to deal with it eventually.”

“Come on,” Thomas reached for John’s wrist and tugged him away.

John, the poor thing, was staring at Thomas’ hand and, though he had only just recovered, he looked entirely surprised once more. Thomas almost wanted to laugh, but he stayed quiet as John followed willingly out of the drawing room. The only bit of resistance came when they reached the stairs, where Thomas felt him pause before the first step. He turned his head to look back and see John looking mildly daunted.

James wore that exact same expression in London once upon a time.

John’s foot tapped on the floor in a jittery motion. “You know, most men would take being drug up to a bedroom to mean something entirely different.”

Thomas gave his best impression of Miranda as he gave a coquettish smile and leaned forward, “Are you turning down my offer?” he asked with a playful amount of shock.

John narrowed his eyes briefly before they lit up in play, “You’re fucking with me, aren’t you?”

Thomas shrugged but couldn’t quite hold back his laugh when John used his other hand to push Thomas’ face away. It wasn’t hard to see what James found so enchanting about his man. He could keep up with their games, which was amazing in itself, but John had a charm about him that made it seem like he was an old friend even when you hardly knew him at all. There was also not a formal bone in his body. John failed miserably at addressing them properly from the very beginning. All of his attempts at being respectful were as short-lived as his ability to be serious.

“Not everything has to have sexual connotations, honestly,” Thomas said in disbelief as they continued up the stairs one step at a time.

“Well, you’ll forgive me for thinking that this house seems to drip with sexual tension.”

“Is that what you think? Our shows of affection are more often than not wholly innocent and Miranda may flirt tirelessly, but she’s no more interested in sleeping with you than I am. Ask her yourself if you are concerned.”

“Was that meant to be offensive? I think I’m offended,” John laughed. “I’m a very good bed-partner.”

Thomas shook his head as they stepped onto the second floor and headed down the hall. “Are you certain you aren’t the one with too much sexual tension?”

“That could be,” John chuckled, but there was a nervous edge to the sound, and Thomas would have placed bets on the reason for that if he were a betting man.

“I assure you, while you aren’t hard on the eyes, I’m lucky to keep up with Miranda and James on some nights. I try not to overreach.”

“Which is your room?” John asked.

“The master bedroom is behind us, first on the right. Our spare bedroom is across the hall. Second on the right is a storage room. And this, is your room,” Thomas said while opening the door and entering with John. Having reached their destination, he let go of John’s arm, and went to open the shutters.

“I’ll be glad I didn’t get a room next to yours then. Sleeping in the brothel was not conducive to a good night sleep,” John said offhandedly as he peered around the room, pushed on the mattress, and then flopped over the dark green duvet. “This is really mine?”

Thomas smiled warmly as a bit of light entered the room. “Yes. You may move the furnishings around as you like, decorate it as you like, and call it yours. The bathroom is at the end of the hall. The ewer should be full if you wish to wash up in there before dinner,” he added and made to leave to allow John time to process all he had been given.

“Thomas?” John stopped him as he began to close the door. “Um, thank you,” he said like he knew it was something you were supposed to say, but the idea was foreign to him.

A thank you wasn’t necessary, and contrary to the point when this was meant to be an apology, but sometimes it was best just to accept gratitude rather than fight it. Thomas also found himself wanting to treat all of John’s insecurities with a gentleness, so, instead of turning down the appreciation, he nodded and said, “You’re welcome.”

“You won’t regret it,” John added quickly as the door clicked shut.

Thomas almost went back in, to find out exactly what John meant by that, but then Miranda was calling him from downstairs asking him to come help her gather new flowers for her vases. He joined her, as she chattered about how the violets were beyond repair and they had left the sunflowers to dry in their vase for weeks. There was a field she and had visited before, and she wanted to go there with him, just for the flowers.

By the time they returned, dinner was almost ready. John was sitting at the table, looking unsure of what to do with himself when he was the one waiting for food. Miranda went to her seat and gave a light squeeze to John’s shoulder as she passed him. Thomas took his seat as well and made promises to John that, next time, they would take him out to see the most beautiful spot on the island.

James came out of the kitchen soon enough, and Penelope was allowed to freely follow him into the dining room. They were served a platter of seasoned cod and sweet, yellow-orange mango slices with a side of rice. Thomas wouldn’t say so, but John certainly had a long way to go if he wished to reach the level of presentation James was showing off. Though, by the look on John’s face, he was soon going to make a competition out of this.

Needless to say, the food was wonderful and filling.

After dinner, Thomas and Miranda helped with the clean up, while John disappeared for the rest of the evening. It wasn’t until Thomas was retiring to bed that he saw John again, exiting from the bathroom with washed hair and a fresh shaven face. He looked as young and bright as ever.

“Goodnight, John,” Thomas said as he paused at his bedroom door.

“Goodnight,” John responded in the same manner he had said thank you—with the impression that pleasantries had never been a part of his life.

Thomas hoped that John would soon come to view kindness towards him as commonplace rather than perplexing. After all, in this home, there would be no shortness of love to share.

Closing the door behind him once he entered, Thomas went to the bed and pulled back the canopy curtains to join Miranda and James, who were under the sheets and had already been visited by the sandman. He slipped in behind Miranda and let a hand rest over her stomach, feeling her breathing, and letting the rhythm lull him to sleep. In his dreams, there was a fourth in their bed.

Chapter Text

There were still times when Miranda thought of retracting her decision not to hire any servants, and lugging buckets of water upstairs to fill the bath was one of those times. The labor gave her a new appreciation for all she had taken for granted in London, and, my God, the women that worked for them must have been built like oxen.

She let the bucket rest on the top step, having climbed her mountain for the final time. The sound of the front door opening caught her attention as well, which was perfect timing.

“Thomas?” she called, while leaning over the banister and peering down to the first floor.

Thomas shed his formal coat, tossed it over a chair, and peered up at her with a dazzling smile. “Hello, beautiful,” he said in greeting.

“I’ve prepared a bath. Will you be joining me?” she asked, even though the answer was, without a doubt, going to be…

“Yes, I’ll be up in a bit,” Thomas answered and began to untie his boots as to not track dirt into the home.

Miranda grinned and felt a renewed energy, which gave her the strength to pick the bucket up again and take it down the hall to the bathroom. The water was still pleasantly warm when she poured the last steaming bucket into the bath.

John had gotten them extra special gifts for this particular bathing session. Apparently, during his time sleeping in the streets, he had made the acquaintance of the blacksmith, Joji, who had a side business of converting the ashes from his day-work into soap. He was also particularly skilled in extracting essence from plants for bathing oils. For a man who worked in such a sooty, sweaty environment, Miranda could appreciate that he valued a good bath.

Joji received bundles flower clippings from John a few days ago and yesterday John had presented her with a bag of their returns. Soap infused with rose hips and lavender oil.

Miranda let a few drops of the oil fall into the water and rise up into the air along with the steam, creating a room that carried the aroma of a field of lavender. She slipped out of her clothes and perched on the edge of the white, clawfoot tub, while running her fingers in swirling patterns over the surface of the bath.

Thomas entered and closed the door behind him to keep in the steam.

“The construction of the library has been completed. It even has rows of empty shelves waiting to be filled with novels from as many corners of the world as we can manage,” Thomas said merrily as he shed his shirt and pants. “And what is this fragrance? It’s lovely.”

“John made a trade for lavender oil,” she answered.

Thomas nodded and cautiously dipped a toe in the water before sliding in and letting out a pleased sigh. Then, he held out his hand to steady Miranda as she lowered herself in with him and settled back against his chest.

“Will he be joining us? He should receive the benefits of his purchase,” Thomas joked, knowing full well that John would not be walking in on them anytime soon.

“Oh, I asked, but it seems he was in a hurry to go to market. He said I would have to enjoy the bath with only one for company,” Miranda said with an exaggerated sigh of disappointment.

She heard Thomas chuckle from behind her, and then felt the warm water wash over the back of her hair. She scooted forward a bit, giving him better access.

She continued her thoughts. “Perhaps John wanted to wait so that he and James may take the next round. Entirely for economical purposes, of course. He and I are the smallest, no sense in us making you and James squeeze into the tub.”

“Oh, is that his plan?” Thomas laughed and combed through her hair gently.

Miranda took bar of soap from the bath tray and showed it off to Thomas, who was equally impressed with Joji’s talents as she had been. While Thomas continued his tending to her hair, she set about washing herself and what she could reach of Thomas’ legs. In a bit of playfulness, she tickled the bottom of his foot, and joyfully squealed as he retaliated with a raspberry against her neck.

“In the week since John began staying here, they have been getting along much better, though, haven’t they?” Thomas mused.

Miranda hummed her agreement and passed the washcloth to Thomas so that he could clean her back. “They have settled into something of a friendship. John’s jabs of insolence aren’t taken to heart by James, so he doesn’t respond with real anger anymore, but rather an easy push back against the remarks. They have that—a sort of push and pull with each other.”

“He’s quite different with John,” Thomas said thoughtfully.

Miranda shifted to the other end of the bath to let Thomas have a turn to wash. He dunked himself under the water and came back up with a wide smile, which she returned with a smile of her own. Then, she settled against the tub, closed her eyes to soak, and took in a slow, deep breath of the calming scent around them while feeling all her muscles begin to relax.

“Maybe because John is younger and less stately than you or I. With us, James enjoys giving his gentleness and his protection. John, though, James allows himself to be wilder with him.”

“I think John revels in it—the wildness. It’s familiar to him in all this domesticity. Though, I must say, the most peculiar of terms of endearment has to be ‘little shit,’” Thomas added with another chuckle.

“You noticed that as well? I think it’s adorable,” she said fondly.

Miranda thought back on the time she had heard a shatter from the dining room and found John, mortified, and holding the handle of a teacup—the teacup itself unattached and in pieces on the ground. James was just bringing out scones when he saw the accident. Destructive little shit, had been his words then, but he shared a sly sort of grin with Miranda. The teacup in question was one James had dropped years ago, breaking off the handle back in London. The repair had done well for a time, but it was inevitable that it would not last forever. John simply had the misfortune of handling that particular cup.

James did not tell John the story, but Miranda informed him later to assuage any guilt he may have felt over the teacup. It could be replaced as it held no real sentimental value.

“Miranda, I fear James won’t ask to move this beyond friendship, even if he desires it,” Thomas said softly. “Love is patient, I know, but they have so little time.”

She had been wondering herself why James had yet to speak to them about this. At one point, she almost considered that friendship was all they had been hoping for, but the wistful, fleeting glances she sometimes witnessed them giving to one another reaffirmed her position. There was clearly more between James and John bubbling just beneath the surface, but throughout this week the progression had slowed and now there seemed to be a standstill.

Thomas was right, they would soon have to confront one of the two about this.

“We will give them a little more time, to see if they pass this plateau, but once the month is up, I believe you are right to say we should get involved,” she reasoned.

There was a sloshing sound and the level of the water sank, causing Miranda to open her eyes and look up to Thomas, who reached for the bucket, filled it, and poured it over himself to rinse off the remaining soapy residue. He held out his hand again for her to stand. She took it easily.

“You are also right about James. Even if we were to ask kindly about this, he would tell us they were only friends,” Thomas said before pouring a bucketful over her.

“Yes, he would claim exactly that. Our James is still concerned about what is considered normal in the eyes of others, and asking your two partners about adding a potential fourth to the relationship is well outside of society’s idea of normal,” Miranda said with an annoyed edge directed entirely at the idea of normal.

“But not here,” Thomas said while taking a towel and wrapping it around her shoulders. “In Nassau, normal doesn’t matter. My God, Max and her relationships are just as complex. We aren’t even alone in our boldness,” Thomas continued happily. “All James needs is a little help seeing that.”

She wrung out her hair one last time and raised an eyebrow at him. “I sense that you have an idea?”

Thomas nodded with a tight-lipped smile.

“Well, out with it,” she laughed and passed him a towel of his own.

“John is our answer,” he said like it had been a revelation. “I would like to speak with him in private about this. If John confesses to being attracted to or having feeling for James, then we can give him our blessing to pursue whatever it is he wishes. We will trust John to take the first step beyond the plateau.”

“We let the charmer use his charm?” Miranda smiled. She too had thought of him as their key.

Thomas was positively aglow with hope for this plan. He came forward and gave her a sweet, loving kiss. “We give a man who is holding back his love permission to love freely.”

“You’re so confident that there are such deep emotions there?” she asked, admiring Thomas’ continual bright outlook.

“I am,” he said without a hint of doubt.

That was enough for her to believe as well. She reached up and patted his cheek, while adoringly gazing into his calming, blue eyes. She loved him. There was not another she would be prouder to call her husband.

* * *

There was a sight James could never imagine growing tired, and that was the sight of Miranda and Thomas sitting together on the broad, white steps of the front porch and waving to him as he came home for the day. Knowing that they would be here filled his heart to the brim and the sight of Penelope there on the porch, sleeping in the cool shade of the house, was enough to overflow his body with contentment.

The stresses of the day melted away.

From beside him, Silver, who he had met on the way home, called out to the other two in greeting. The moment Penelope heard him, she was on her feet and galloping towards them like she had been awake the whole time. James couldn’t even be upset when Silver pushed the basket of produce into his arms, forcing James to take it or let it drop to the ground, before he went to pet their dog himself.

Silver, being as energetic as Penelope, wasted no time in hurrying to the Hamiltons either. They shared words James couldn’t hear from this distance, but they were smiling—they were almost always smiling now. Silver leaned down to Miranda, lifting a lock of her hair, which appeared to be wet, and holding it to his nose. Thomas bowed his head then, looking like he wanted to have his hair smelled as well.

James joined them just in time to hear Miranda suggest that he and Silver should take a bath, since she and Thomas had already finished theirs. Even if she had meant consecutive turns, the look Silver gave him made it clear that both their minds had provided the unbidden image of a shared bath.

While James looked at the ground and desperately tried not to blush, Silver recovered and made a comment about needing to cook. That was always his excuse to leave a conversation. James wished he could use it, but immediately joining Silver in the kitchen after one of Miranda’s comments was not the best idea.

After Max told him that she thought Silver was equally interested, he had been paying more attention to their interactions and Silver’s reactions. They were friends now, that much was certain, but with each passing day, James knew with more certainty that Silver was already holding himself back from their attraction and James knew that his own resistance was waning. James had also never gained the resolve to tell Silver that they should remain strictly friends, in fact, he didn’t know how to even bring up the topic anymore. They were too precariously balanced. Acknowledging out loud that there was mutual attraction could be enough to tip Silver over the edge. James knew he would not be the one to break, but if Silver did, James was not convinced that he could stop them from crossing an unforgivable line.

So, as if by an unspoken agreement, there were moments where they both knew they had to be apart. Those moments were becoming more and more frequent. They walked away from those moments less and less often, as if testing just how much tension they could stand.

They were like two ships spiraling into the gaping mouth of Charybdis and praying that they could break free rather than be swallowed into her depths.

It was as thrilling as it was foolish.

“Then, the bath is all yours, James,” Miranda said with a smile that made him feel even more roused. “Take your time,” she added as he climbed the stairs and passed her by.

One day he would ask her not to be so suggestive with her words.

The bath would have been nice to ease tensions, until he realized that Silver would be using the same water after him, which meant nothing lascivious could take place in the tub. Eventually he resigned himself to his frustrated state and willed the sensation to pass.

Dinner took place shortly after he came back downstairs. Silver had pouted and given him an earful for not helping at all, and James had returned fire by threatening to cease his kitchen visits entirely.

“I don’t think you could stay away even if you tried,” Silver replied, leaning back in chair with a self-assured smirk.

James narrowed his eyes and leaned forward, giving Silver his own half-smirk. “Is that a challenge?”

Silver huffed and ripped off a chunk of bread, looking for a moment like he was going to chuck it at James, before he glanced at the Hamiltons and popped it into his mouth. At least he had table manners.

“No, not really,” Silver answered. “I rather enjoy your company in the kitchen actually,” he added with a shrug, but was focused back on his plate, clearly not wanting to meet James’ gaze.

Those were the most sincere words James had ever heard from Silver. Coming from anyone else it would have been a simple friendly remark, but from they way Silver had said them, they sounded dangerously close to an admission.

Dazed from the way the playful bickering had suddenly morphed, James sat back in his own chair and continued to eat in silence while Thomas and Miranda began chatting about the public library being completed.

There was a strange feeling that was beginning to take root in his chest.

James left the table first and retreated to their personal library, where he stretched out on the chaise longue to read and to cease his circular thoughts about Silver. In retrospect, it had been a terrible idea to begin a story about a pícaro.

Some time later, with very few pages having been read, Silver entered, smiling brightly as he rested two hands on the back of an armchair in a casual stance. It appeared that Silver had taken his bath, as his hair was no longer held back in the green tie and his curls had a wet sheen to them.

“We’re going outside to plant Miranda’s sunflower seeds. She told me to ask you if you wanted to join us,” Silver said with an amount of hopefulness as he tucked a lock behind his ear.

“We just bathed,” James stated, like that was supposed to be his answer.

Silver was undeterred, as usual. “I can be quite persuasive. We recently cut back a number of plants and now the front of the house is looking a bit plain. Since Miranda has been wanting to plant those flowers you bought her for weeks, it seemed like a good idea. Brighten things up a little once they start sprouting. Thomas is helping.”

James closed the book.

Silver did this frequently. If things got a little too uncomfortable between the two of them, he would bring all four of them together in a collaborative effort of some kind. That worked better as a remedy than James hiding away in the library and trying not to think. Somehow Silver seemed to know this.

“I also found something in the storage room that I want to try,” Silver added as he led them to the front door.

“You were in the storage room?” James asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Thomas let me raid it for things to put in my room. That’s not the point. I found a game. Bowls,” he said with a childish sparkle in his eye.

James shook his head amusedly, because of course Silver would want to play a game reserved for the wealthy.

“Have you played?” James asked, opening the door for Silver, who shook his head. “Neither have I,” James answered with a smile.

Outside, Miranda and Thomas were already kneeling in the grass by the beds to the left of the stairs. Miranda directed them to the bed opposite her, to the right of the stairs, and handed each of them a small handful of seeds.

“Two inch deep trench, six inches apart,” she instructed.

James set about digging the trench. By the time he looked back to Silver for the seeds, the pile was noticeably smaller and Silver was chewing.

“You ate them?” James asked incredulously.

Silver took a few hulled seeds between his thumb and forefinger and held them out to James, who opened his mouth. He hadn’t meant to, but they taste-tested each other’s dishes so often that the response to food being held in front of him was involuntary. In an attempt to rectify his mistake, he closed his mouth, but found Silver to have been the quicker to react.

James’ lips closed around Silver’s fingers.

They froze. Silver staring at his fingers and James staring at Silver. His heart stuttered as he felt his own exhale run over Silver’s hand and, then, he inhaled the fragrance of lavender mingled with a barely-there, earthy scent. His blood ran hot. What possessed James next was indescribable. He let his tongue curl up between Silver’s fingers, stealing the seeds and wetting the digits.

The half-swallowed whimper from Silver brought forth a primal feeling, but the voice of reason was practically pleading with James by now. Stop this. James felt a small finger run slowly under his chin, through his beard. He felt and felt.

When Silver finally looked away from his mouth and to his eyes, James hardened his gaze. That was when he bit down, hard enough to bring pain above all else.

Silver wrenched his hand back with a shout. “What the fuck was that for?” he asked angrily, inspecting his fingers for teeth marks.

Both Miranda and Thomas looked over, asking if everything was alright, but Silver immediately waved at them with a smile to assure them that he and James were not actually arguing.

James smirked back at Silver and said, “You know exactly what that was for. Punishment. Don’t eat our sunflowers.”

The rest of the seeds ended up in the ground where they belonged, with Silver doing a majority of the planting, while James put distance between them again by going to see if Miranda and Thomas were interested in playing bowls. He desperately needed a distraction and challenging Thomas in the first round of bowls was the perfect option.

Silver retrieved the game set and Thomas happily explained to them the rules. Miranda and Thomas easily defeated their challengers in the first round, and Miranda came up on top as the victor. James declared her as champion and rewarded her with a heady kiss, which she seemed thrilled about, if not a little confused over James’ enthusiasm.  

Silver immediately demanded a rematch against her, claiming seasoned players would obviously win the first time around.

Twice more, she remained undefeated.

When Thomas suggested Silver and James play against each other for a more level playing field, James could not turn down the offer, especially when Silver was goading him by claiming he would undoubtedly win this time.

Unfortunately, James forgot that the cocky little shit was also a quick learner. They each had one bowl left and Silver practically had the game in the bag.

However, just as Silver rolled his final bowl, watching as it inched ever closer to the jack, Penelope rushed by and snatched the little white ball from the ground. Everyone was chasing after her then. They must have darted around the perimeter of the house five times before Silver finally raised a hand in the air and displayed the jack, while Penelope barked and tried to jump high enough to reach what she had decided was her new toy.

Thomas held her back as Silver came back to the game and set the jack down, noticeably closer to his other bowls this time.

James glared. “That’s not where it was,” he said.

Silver grinned, “Oh, you’re right, it was over here wasn’t it?” he said and moved the jack even further into a group of his own bowls.

James went over to Silver and made a grab for the jack, but Silver slipped it away from him at the last second. Still out of breath from chasing Penelope, Silver gave a light, giddy laugh and taunted James by shaking the ball.

That was the last straw. James made a grab for Silver’s forearm instead, pulling it to him, but somehow the ball had already been transferred to Silver’s other hand. When James made a grab for it again, while still holding Silver’s arm, Silver twisted so his back was to James and the jack was shielded as he bent over.

James decided to use one of Miranda’s methods of attack then. He ran his fingers lightly over Silver’s sides in a tickling motion and, sure enough, Silver was ticklish. The playful laughter turned into uncontrollable shrieks of pure hysterics.

As Silver tried one last time to get away, James stepped back, tripping over one of the bowls and pulling the both of them to the grass with a sound of surprise and then more laughter. James was determined though, and recovered quickly enough to pin Silver down before he could think of escaping again.

Looking down to Silver’s face was his undoing. There was a streak of dirt on his forehead that James hadn’t noticed before. The blue of Silver’s eyes were dotted with darker flecks that shimmered in the sunlight. There were wrinkles by his eyes from the smiles of a lifetime. All James could think was that Silver should laugh more. Not the laughter he used to get others to feel equally amused by his stories, and not the scathing, challenging laughter he sometimes used, but deep, all-encompassing laughter that made his body shake and his eyes water.

“Making a habit of ending up on your back?” James asked with a playful smirk as he thought of a violet adorned Silver.

The laughter settled down to a rosy-cheeked smile, and Silver opened his hands that were pinned above him at the wrists. The jack rolled free, but James wasn’t as interested in obtaining it anymore.

He took his thumb and rubbed it over the smudge of earth above Silver’s brow. It only smeared further, but the impression of his thumbprint on Silver’s forehead made James smile.

James wanted to lean down and feel Silver’s smile against his own. He wanted to share a little more of this ease with him.

“We can’t...Thomas and Miranda are watching,” Silver said softly with a voice dripping in regret even through his own smile.

Those words should have brought James back to reality and out of this warm haze. Those words should have made James pull away, but instead they made him pause as a great many things clicked together in his mind. Silver cared. He cared about Thomas and Miranda. All these weeks, Silver had been steeling himself against this pull for the same reason James was—Thomas and Miranda. He cared about them as much as James. In different ways, of course, but it was a kind of love all the same.

A self-serving thief didn’t have the heart to attempt to steal a part of James from them. Silver couldn’t hurt them.

James felt his own heart stutter again, and this time he knew it was from anything but a lustful feeling. There was an infatuation here.

Not only was his body betraying him, but his heart had begun to waver, and the second was a much greater level of treachery than the first.

“I’m sorry,” James said, while willing Silver to understand even though he wasn’t certain what the apology was intended to mean.

Silver gave a single nod, then pushed James’ shoulder with a hollow laugh. “Get off me,” he said.

James did. He helped Silver up and watched as he returned to Miranda and Thomas. Silver said something that made her press her forehead into Thomas’ shoulder and laugh. Then Silver began playing with Penelope’s flopping ears and called for James to stop standing there looking upset over a lost game. James tried his best smile, but he knew he wasn’t quite as skilled at acting as Silver.

It had barely been a week since he had finally let go of the anger and decided to be happy to have Silver in their lives. It was unfair that these remaining sixty-eight days with him would now be so bittersweet.

Chapter Text

Roaming shadows of clouds could be seen coming from the distance before they briefly shaded the spot Silver was standing on. The cooling breeze blew over the yellow-green grasses, creating waves and swirling designs in the field surrounding him. Scattered among all the green, were wildflowers ranging from golden yellows to royal purples, fiery oranges, and blues that mirrored the sky. The songbirds were no less colorful, as they ate seeds from the grass, picked gnats out of the air, and sang their songs to one another.

Penelope ran ahead of them, chasing after a bee and then changing her focus to a noise she must have heard off the narrow, horse trail.

Almost as soon as Thomas came back from whatever it was a governor had to deal with during the day, he asked Silver to join him on a leisurely walk with Penelope. Miranda had claimed to be too caught up in her book to go with them, but Silver did not miss the conspiratorial look she shared with Thomas. This was about more than a stroll.

Silver kept up his chattering in hopes of delaying the conversation he suspected was coming.

“Then, the boat lurched, and I swear I was nearly pulled into the ocean as that marlin took off. It drug the whole boat for a kilometer at the very least, before it finally tired and I could bring it back to the surface. Then, I had it, oh and it was the best meal I had in months at that point,” Silver laughed and Thomas amusedly shook his head.

Thomas looked more thoughtful as the lull between stories came, but he spoke before Silver could begin a new tale. “John? These stories you tell, did any of them actually happen?”

Silver faltered on his next step and he bent down to pick up the offensive loose pebble. Grumbling, he tossed it as far as he could into the field.

“John,” Thomas pressed gently when Silver went too long without answering. “You once said you had never been further south than Saint Kitts, but just now you said the fishing party was in Barbados.”

“Did I say that? The trip to Barbados must have slipped my mind,” he smiled, but Thomas, for the first time, didn’t smile back.

They stopped walking.

“There are other discrepancies not to mention the stories that are clearly fantastical. I don’t mean to put you on the defensive, but I have to wonder how much of your actual life you’ve shared with any of us,” Thomas spoke seriously.

Silver found himself unable to meet Thomas’ eyes. He had thought about this before. How the lies he spun would put more distance between himself and the people he now called friends, but his entire life was held together with the stories he told. The role of storyteller was one he knew he could easily slip into and no one had ever questioned whether or not the stories were true before. He never stuck around long enough for anyone to care. People were only supposed to care about being entertained.

“What does it matter?” he asked.

“What does it matter?” Thomas repeated sounding saddened. “John, I would like to know your story. The embellished tales are all in good fun, but claiming them as your own to bury the hints of actual life stories only builds walls between us. There needs to be honesty, not walls.”

Silver tried to take a steadying breath, but found his throat more closed off than he had hoped. This wasn’t even a scolding. Thomas was simply being genuine. That somehow made it even worse.

“My story isn’t interesting,” Silver shrugged.

Thomas shook his head, “I do not believe that for a second and, even if it were true, I would ask to hear all of the mundane happenings.”

Thomas took his hand then, and led them off the beaten path and into the grasses. Grasshoppers, butterflies, and bees scattered as they made their way to a large boulder that was jutting out of the waves of the field. Penelope took to chasing the insects around again as Thomas pulled Silver up onto the rock and had them both sit down on the warm surface.

Silver wasn’t certain he would ever get used to the way the Hamiltons touched so casually. There was an intimacy to their actions, an affectionate reminder that they were there, a simple show of human connection, or a display of friendship. Silver now knew that he would never have to worry about what their touches would lead to. Their touches just were.

Silver was a master of words, but this language—a language of touch without desire—was one he still stumbled through. He hoped he would have time to learn it. It was a beautiful language.

Thomas rested back on the boulder, stretching out over the smooth surface, and closing his eyes to block out the sun. He carried on with the conversation easily. “At dinner, could you tell us a story that is yours?” he requested. “It can be as simple as where you grew up. Or as complicated as a first love.”

Silver traced his finger over a group of little sea stars that had been immortalized as fossils. In his stories, he often used flowery language to describe the love between the hero and his lady as immortal, but those stories were often tragedies in the end. Silver ran his finger closer to where Thomas was lying. There, the rains had weathered down the stone and fossils faded into faint bumps that may have never been fossils at all. Nothing was immortal. Feelings would fade. And Silver had never felt that the reward outweighed the risk in love.

“I’m afraid I don’t have a love story that I could call my own,” he said with a light, self-deprecating laugh.

Thomas turned to his side, opening his eyes again, and propping himself up on one arm. He nodded, like that was an answer he heard every day from men as old as Silver, even though Silver knew for certain that he was odd.

“You should try it sometimes, it’s quite the experience,” Thomas said with a brilliant smile that created deep lines of happiness around his cheeks. “Could you fall in love with someone?” he asked then.

Unwittingly, Silver thought of a blue hair tie, a green hair tie, and green eyes. Red hair. Freckles. A man reading a book. A man teaching him to cook. James.

Wanting to know how it felt to have the weight of James on top of him, dominating him in a way that went beyond innocent play, was one thing, but having his mind supply those images along with domestic scenes and the word love was not an idea Silver wished to entertain. Certainly, he could not admit any of these things to a friend who was already in a relationship with the object of Silver’s unwanted desires.

The risk was too great.

“I imagine I could. Eventually,” Silver affirmed, while tamping down on any amount of sorrowful, yearning that may have tried to travel from his thoughts to his voice.

Thomas began following after the paths Silver was taking on the rock. Over pieces of coral, around seashells, and through the fossils of long dead fish. Silver noticed that Thomas did this often, he imitated expressions, habits, and idle fiddlings, like it was a way for him to see into the thoughts of the other person.

“Miranda has decided to call this place Elysium,” Thomas said as he sat up and reached out over the rock to run his hand over the fluffy tops of the seeding grasses. “Idelle and Max brought her here for a picnic, but apparently the locals never gave it a name. Have you heard of Elysium?”

Silver tried to place the name, it was familiar, but he must have never committed it to memory. He shook his head.

Thomas continued, “In Greek mythology, Elysium was great plain where heroes were granted eternal happiness. Paradise,” he said reverently and picked a baby blue flower, twirling it between his fingers. “Miranda and I have been discussing you a great deal lately, and I’m sure you already know that I brought you here for more than a walk.”

Silver gave an amused huff, because he had definitely been waiting to know why Miranda had given Thomas that look earlier.

“Did you ever find a bed-partner for your frustrations?” Thomas asked then, making Silver go tense, because it wasn’t like Thomas could actually read thoughts.

“Um, no. I should probably look into that,” he laughed. This had probably been the longest he had gone without sex actually. A month was a goddamn record. “Is that what Miranda wanted to know?”

Thomas chuckled, shook his head, and then crossed his legs and faced Silver fully. He looked more intense than Silver had ever seen him before, “She and I would like to know your intentions in regards to James.”

Suddenly, Silver found his heart was beating as fast as it did when he was on the run from a burly, enraged shop owner or lawkeeper. The feeling of being cornered hit him and he needed an exit, but he was already trapped by Thomas’ inquiry. He should have been more careful with his lingering gazes and he should have been more careful about how he distributed his attention between James and Miranda and Thomas. He should have put distance between himself and James the moment he began wondering what it would be like to kiss him. A monumental wave of dread washed over him as the thought of the contract being voided came to mind. The thought of jail came to mind. The loss of freedom came to mind. But, more than that, the thought being uprooted too soon and of leaving the townhouse behind made his breathing become erratic.

“Oh, God, I swear I wasn’t ever going to actually try anything, because I know how much he cares about you and Miranda and I’ve been there before. That Saint Kitts story was true, and I have learned my lesson, I assure you—” “John—”  “—I don’t even need him in the kitchen anymore, since I can use what I’ve learned so far to make plenty of meals for the three of you, and you can put me back in the kitchen for meals and I’ll visit the brothel to keep distracted—” “John—” “—but I don’t want this to ruin our friendship. Please, don’t make me leave,” he pushed out without much of a breath throughout the entire pleading ramble.

“John,” Thomas paused after his name like he was waiting to be interrupted again. Then he put both of his hands on Silver’s shoulders, which did not help the trapped feeling at all, but Thomas was smiling and Silver did not know how to read that. “John, we would never push you away over such a thing. Miranda and I also consider you to be a dear friend, which is why I brought you here to offer you a chance at happiness.”

Silver, attempting to bring his laboured breathing back under control, nodded, but then shook his head, “I don’t follow.”

“We think you should pursue your desires towards James,” Thomas said frankly, without a hint of dishonesty, as he pulled his hands away and folded them into his lap.

Confused did not begin to describe how Silver felt after hearing that. People were supposed to get angry over affairs, not encourage them. The Hamiltons had an unorthodox relationship with James, yes, but Silver was lost as to just how far they strayed from conventions. “I’m...I still don’t follow,” Silver said again.

“You are attracted to James, yes?” Thomas asked and Silver reluctantly nodded. “I am certain he would like to share a bed with you, as well, but James is far less opportunistic than any of us, and he would never ask us for permission unless he was pushed to his limits. Miranda is afraid simply talking to him about this would cause him to deny any attraction and return to his shield of anger, and I admit she is correct. So, we must go about this delicately, and we would like your help.”

“Wait, you want to help me take James from you?” Silver questioned.

Thomas shook his head with a smile, “There’s no taking from us. We only think you should be allowed to explore with each other. Miranda and I, in our younger years, frequently engaged in casual bed-partners either together or separately, and that certainly has not led to any less love between us. James coming into our life, romantically, also did nothing to lessen us. You would be an addition, not a subtraction. Of course, this conversation can end right now if you aren’t comfortable with the idea of joining us.”

“By joining you, you mean to say that you, Miranda, and I are friends, you two are still partners to James, and James and I are allowed to fuck?” Silver said bluntly and tried not to let his jaw stay slack due to his shock.

“Yes, Miranda and I are still not interested in sleeping with you I’m afraid,” he said with a laugh. “And we are fine with that arrangement if that is how you wish it to go.”

Silver felt his excitement building as he considered the possibility of exploding the powder-keg of constant, frustrating tension between himself and James. Lack of sex could even be the reason for James being on his mind in more troublesome ways, and laying to rest all of his nightly ponderings over how gentle or rough the man might be was not an offer Silver was about to turn down.

“Alright, I can’t say this all isn’t very strange to me, but you have made quite the offer and I couldn’t rightly walk away from this opportunity. So, alright,” Silver agreed, with a final, drawn out exhale of relief.

Thomas gave him an approving smile and stood as Penelope barked out her frustration over the walk being delayed for so long. Thomas agreed with her and suggested that they head back before they were burned from their prolonged hours in the sun. Silver followed quietly, while still in a bit of a stunned daze as he thought of the strange turn this day had taken.

Thomas was bright and full of energy as he explained that he only wanted to find out if Silver would agree or decline their request, but he was quite confident in a positive outcome. Silver had to smile at that, because Thomas would never consider that the worst was a possibility. Thomas also informed him that they were to return home because, apparently, there was much more to speak about, but Miranda was to be fully involved in the conversation. Thomas repeated the need for honesty, not walls, a number of times on their way back, and Silver nodded in agreement frequently, while thinking of how much he wanted this all to work even though, only hours ago, he hadn’t realized such an option was available to him.

Elysium indeed, he thought as a white butterfly teased Penelope by leading her down the path back home, before it flew up into the blue sky and disappeared into the distance.

* * *

Miranda did not appear to have had hopes as high as Thomas did in regards to the outcome of the discussion Silver had just had with her husband, because the moment they opened the front door, Miranda was already waiting in the foyer, sitting in the chair there. She stood immediately, and her gaze went to Thomas. Even without a word, it was clear that she could tell from Thomas’ demeanor what Silver’s response had been. There was a sparkle to her eyes as she came forward and took Silver’s face between her hands.

“You are interested?” she asked for confirmation, as though gauging just how committed Silver was to this plan.

“More than you know,” he answered more softly than he had intended to, but at this point he was surprised his words were coherent at all.

After a friendly, loving kiss to the cheek and a gentle pat, Miranda invited them both to the drawing room for an in-depth discussion on how this was going to work. Silver sat with her on the canapé at her request, and Thomas opted to sit on the edge of the coffee table rather than the armchair. The way they huddled together, all leaning forward into each other’s space gave the whole room the feel of a secretive rendezvous.

The first stipulation Miranda put forward was that Silver could not simply proposition James the moment he returned home, which Silver was glad they clarified, because that may well have been his plan.

Miranda hid a light laugh behind her hand as he admitted that. “Come now, you’re smarter than that. James would turn you down the moment you suggested a thing so bold.”

“With all due respect, you haven’t seen the way he looks at me sometimes, and I can be—”

“—quite persuasive,” both Miranda and Thomas said at the same time while sharing an amused shake of the head.

Silver shook his head too, feeling his smile fix itself as a permanent part of his expression. This was surreal. That was the best word to describe it. All of these thoughts Silver had about James were thoughts he never imagined would be seeing the light of day, much less being openly discussed in the brightly-lit, homely comfort of the drawing room, with the Hamiltons sitting around him and being just as playful as always. Not having to hide these desires from them made Silver feel lighter than he had in weeks, and he hadn’t even been aware that a weight had been there in the first place.

Miranda continued, “We had hoped you could be persuasive in a less overtly sexual manner. James needs to feel like this isn’t something you are hiding from us, but he needs to be eased into it. What I suggest, is that the four of us spend more time together, and you can be flirtatious with him in our presence. For example, playing bowls the other day was quite fun, and Thomas and I will be more involved the next time you and James find yourself in any compromising position,” she said with a drawl that was clearly suggestive.

Silver laughed again, because having Miranda of all people request him not to be sexual was quite ironic.

“Miranda and I will be gentle with our suggestions,” Thomas took over the explanation, “but it should not take long for James to understand that we are not going to be upset with him. When I asked John what his intentions towards James were, he went on the defensive quite quickly, and that made me realize how hard this must be for James,” Thomas added with a warm smile as Silver gave a sheepish expression at the reminder of his near panic attack. “The goal here, is to have James comfortable enough that Miranda and I feel confident that speaking to him about this won’t result in a similar outburst.”

Silver nodded and tucked a loose strand of hair away from his face. “Your James is more complicated than I imagined,” he said.

Our James is loyal to a fault, deliberates over his every action, and is terrible at asking for what he wants,” Miranda said with no amount of condemnation and a rather heavy dose of fondness over the shortcomings she had listed. “I do hope you will be more open with us. If you have questions, ask them. If you have doubts, voice them. Whatever opinion you have, feel free to share it.”

Considering that Silver usually did not have a filter between his words and his mouth, her request would be an easy one to honor.

“How long have you known about my interest in him?” Silver had to ask.

Miranda gave a seemingly all-knowing smile, “Oh, I had suspicions since our little talk in the marketplace after your first week.”

Silver shouldn’t have been surprised, but really he thought he had been much better about hiding his interest than that. Thomas gave him a single-shouldered shrug, clearly just as amazed by Miranda’s perception as Silver often was.

She patted Silver’s hand, “Did you ever figure out why you were bothered by our relationship?”

Silver looked away at first, letting his gaze trail over the room that was filled with items that were richer than what Silver could ever hope of owning. Artefacts, paintings, a grandfather clock, and a harpsichord. Then he looked to the coffee table, where a little teacup was sitting. Miranda had told him that James broke off the handle of the cup, but repaired it poorly as an apology. The cup broke a second time in Silver’s hand. Miranda said not to worry about it, because it wasn’t sentimental, but Silver had felt the need to fix it nonetheless. Silver went from shop to shop trying to find anyone who knew a thing about porcelain, he had nearly given up, when in a last desperate hope he went to Joji.

Now, the teacup was repaired—held together with gold—and Miranda always passed it to Silver after filling it with her brew. It was his teacup. It was the first object of sentimental value he had ever possessed.

“I was bothered because, when I looked at you three, you seemed to have want for nothing. Pirates, kings, farmers, myself, most people are always reaching for personal gain and never having enough. More wealth, more power, more land. But not you. You had already carved out a corner of the world for yourself and were content to reach no further. I wanted that level of happiness, I wanted to be a part of it, but I saw no place for me with you. There was no room for me. That’s what I thought. There is though, isn’t there? Room for me.”

Thomas rested a hand on Silver’s knee, stilling the bouncing he only just realized his foot had been doing. “You were a stranger when we allowed you to enter our kitchen to cook for us, you were an acquaintance when we asked you to sit at our table, and you were a friend when we offered you a chamber. We offer you peace of mind in regards to James because we have been making room for you for all this time, John.”

Silver could do nothing but nod because he no longer trusted his voice to come out steady. All the things he thought he would never have were now within his reach, and it was overwhelming in the best of ways.

From the doorway, James’ voice drew everyone’s attention, “What did he do now?” he said with a light accusatory tone, like he expected Silver to have broken the law, or to have broken a porcelain cup.

Miranda assured him that all was well and Silver swallowed his emotions as he met James’ curious expression. It was then that he realized, even if Miranda had never told him not to immediately take James to bed, he wouldn’t have been able to hastily enter into this arrangement. In fact, a part of him feared it. He feared that laying to rest his curiosity, satiating his desires, and knowing James’ kiss would do nothing to abate his other thoughts, but would strengthen them instead. No other could make his pulse beat with a smile. No other made him so desperate to know what it would feel like to wake up in a soft, warm bed and not leave immediately after having pleasured one another. No other made him want to surrender. To stay.

Still, fear or no fear, Silver had been stagnant in these feelings for too long, and it was always better to put one foot in front of the other and hope for the best. The right amount of fear could even be exhilarating.

James gave a nod of his head towards the kitchen doors, a silent invitation, but Silver shook his head and pointed to the empty spot next to him.

“I was just about to tell Miranda and Thomas about my time in Saint John’s Orphanage. My storytelling and thievery began there. Would you like to listen?” Silver asked with a nervous, but genuine, voice. This was not a florid tale built up with hyperboles and excessive drama. This was his story. The real one.

James looked to Thomas, who smiled, then to Miranda, who nodded, and then back to Silver. James’ fingers ran over the cuff of his sleeve, but he stepped forward, step by step, until he reached the canapé, where he sat next to Silver and let their knees touch. With a slight upturn of his lips, James watched him attentively and waited with open ears.

Perhaps it wouldn’t matter if the story was plain. Perhaps all that mattered was that someone was willing to listen.

Chapter Text

The upstairs hallway was draped in the dark blanket of night, with only a small, flickering light coming from the candle holder Miranda was carrying. The sounds of chirping crickets and singing cicadas drifted in through the windows on a cool, salty breeze and softly filled the house with their nightly song. They were the loudest sounds at this hour. To not break the silence, Thomas padded, barefoot over the cool, wooden floor and towards the open bedroom door.

Even though most people valued the privacy closed doors gave, John seemed to have never picked up that particular habit. It may have come from his lack of ever having a room to call his own, considering that he had said the orphanage packed eight beds to a room, but Thomas liked to think that John was comfortable enough in their home to not feel the need to shut them out.

Whatever the reason, the door was opened and Thomas slipped inside with Miranda following closely behind.

The candlelight revealed Penelope at the foot of the bed. Her ears perked up as they neared. Then, the orange glow shone upon John, who was sprawled out over the bed, with an arm hanging out over one edge and his toes sticking out from the sheets over the opposite edge. He was taking up as much space as possible and looked positively content to be doing so. A more recent habit John had adopted was sleeping without a shirt. They were readying for bed a few nights ago, when Miranda walked in on him, shirtless, as he was washing up. Miranda, unperturbed as always, joked about how appreciative she was of his physique, while James, who had been right behind her, complained about John having no sense of decency even though they had been the ones to walk in on John. After that, John stopped wearing a shirt the moment he was upstairs.

Thomas lightly shook John’s shoulder to wake him. He received a grumble first, but John still cracked an eye opened a moment later. He looked to Thomas and then caught Miranda moving closer to the bed, which was when he sat up and rubbed a bit of sleep dust from his eyes.

“Hm?” was his sleepy question.

“The sky is perfectly clear and there are a number of shooting stars tonight, Miranda and I are going to watch them, would you like to join us?” Thomas asked with a hopeful tone.

John yawned then, looked out his opened window, blinked twice, and then nodded. “Stargazing? You’re a hopeless dreamer, Thomas,” he commented with a gravelly, morning voice, but was already getting up nonetheless.

Before John could grab it, Miranda took the white, button-up shirt from where it was haphazardly tossed over the footboard of the bed, and held it away from John. “I had thought that the stars were the realm of the storytellers. Zeus, transforming the seven Pleiades into stars, while Orion pursues them for all time. Perseus slays the gorgon to free Andromeda and win her hand in marriage, and the two are in the stars for eternity.”

“Alright, the stars are my realm,” John conceded drowsily, and looked to his shirt and back to Miranda. “Is James joining us?”

She grinned and tossed the shirt over to a small chair in a corner of the room. Then she held out her hand for John to take, which he did without hesitation. With hands clasped, she led them up the hall to the spare room, which was closed. The clacking of Penelope’s nails were now the most prominent noise in the hall.

“May I ask why one of you often sleeps in here, rather than in the master bedroom?” John inquired with Thomas as Miranda knocked once, received no response, and proceeded to enter.

“Sometimes a little privacy from one another is required,” Thomas answered simply. “Though, mostly, it’s used when one of us would rather not join in the sexual pleasures of the night. Not all libidos align at once, John.”

“Ah,” was the quiet response John gave as he was pulled into the room and over to where James was, lying on his back, arms crossed at his navel, and legs pin straight.

“Wake him,” Miranda suggested as she tugged John closer and then lightly pushed his back.

Over the past week, since Miranda and Thomas had told John that he was allowed to pursue James, things between the two had progressed at an agonizingly slow pace. Though it was clear that John was more than willing to tantalize James at every opportunity. A touch to the shoulder as they passed one another, which was a habit of Miranda’s that John purposefully mimicked. Lingering fingers as John handed James his plate of food or a glass of wine. Once, John had pulled the tie from James’ hair and enlisted Thomas to teach him how to make a proper bow. John could seamlessly integrate them into his games of touching James, making it seem innocent and acceptable, while knowing at the same time that he was driving James mad.

Thomas was impressed, and slightly worried that he and Miranda had unleashed a monster on their poor James.

Although John was certainly bolder, more flirtatious, and open around them, during the quieter moments—reading in the library or sharing silence over tea—he became tentative. Thomas had been there one evening, where John sat with a book for nearly an hour, but the entire time his gaze passed just over the top of the pages and to James. He never said a word. Just observed. Another evening, James had taken a sip from John’s cup at Miranda’s suggestion, and after that John held the cup between his hands, stared into the drink, and didn’t move until James had left and the tea had gone cold.

When James’ attention wasn’t focused on him, John often appeared to be absorbed in pensive thoughts.

Thomas had asked him about it once and John supplied an answer about never having seduced a man before, but Thomas could tell that was very low on the list of John’s concerns, especially considering how brazen John was with James now.

Whatever was on John’s mind, it never stopped him from continuing to move them forward, however slowly that may be. Thomas was thankful for that and, for that reason, he didn’t press John for an answer.

Now, in the cover of the night, Thomas could see John become more cautious, but he still stepped forward, following Miranda’s lead. He leaned over the bed and pressed both his hands into the mattress at James’ side.

“It’s almost a shame to wake him,” John said. Then, because he never could be wholly sweet, he added, “Less sleep makes him grumpier.”

From the bed came, “He’s already awake,” as James opened a single, watchful eye.

Thomas tried not to chuckle when John nearly jumped out of his skin and almost tripped over Penelope.

James was a light sleeper, it was likely he woke the moment Miranda knocked on the door.

“Would you like to tell me why you’re here with him?” James asked calmly while looking straight at Thomas and noticeably avoiding John and his naked chest.

Thomas beamed, “Stars?”

There was no convincing to be done. Miranda blew out the candle, set it on the nightstand, and grabbed an extra bedsheet from the dresser. James proceeded to lead them as they made their way downstairs, out through the back doors, and onto the lawn.

Fireflies were there to greet them.

Miranda tossed two ends of the sheet, letting the breeze catch it and help her spread it over the grass. The wind, with a feather-light touch, tousled her hair, which draped in waves over her bosom. The white nightgown she wore was thin and loose fitting. Thomas was reminded of a maiden dancing with faeries. He couldn’t help but take her hand to give her a ballroom twirl, which caused her to grace him with her soft, joyous laughter.

James shook his head at their antics, and settled calmly on the sheet, resting back on his hands and letting his legs stretch out before him. He looked to the heavens. Miranda quickly dragged Thomas with her to join James. She copied his pose and patted her lap for Thomas to use as a pillow. He wouldn’t dream of declining his favorite seating.

John was still standing, but something about him this night looked unguarded, like he had made a decision. There was a nervous excitement in the air every time John got that look, and it had been building upon itself through the week. It was to the point where Thomas was as equally impressed with John’s determination as he was with James’ restraint.

Then, John moved from Thomas’ vision and the next sound was a loud oof from James.

“Thomas, be more g—, John?” James said with an outstandingly shocked, high-pitched voice.

Thomas looked to Miranda for clues as to what had prompted that reaction, and seeing her biting her bottom lip, clearly holding back an inappropriate comment, made Thomas absolutely have to sit up and see the other two for himself.

There, with his head in James’ lap, was John. Once again, he had mimicked Miranda and Thomas to further this game. Thomas felt his own heart race as John blinked up at James, looking supremely innocent with a question in his eyes. James had a hand resting in John’s curls, which had most likely been what caused him to realize that the occupant of his lap was not Thomas.

“You do know my name. I had wondered if you forgot it,” John said teasingly when the silence weighed around them.

There was not an answer from James for such a long moment that Thomas nearly jumped in to help John, but then James asked, “What are you doing?”

“Stargazing?” John answered. “Right, Thomas?”

James’ wide eyes quickly jumped to Thomas and he pulled back his hand like he had been caught, but Thomas was determined to portray to James just how alright all of this was. So Thomas reached out and ruffled John’s hair, smiled at James, and then lowered back down onto Miranda’s lap.

“Tonight is a perfect night for the four of us to tell stories and make wishes on shooting stars,” Thomas said happily and looked above them.

The inky silhouettes of trees framed the blue-black sky. The moon was but a thin sliver, which allowed the twinkling points of light to shine radiantly across the night. Hercules fought with a dragon and lovers continued to frolic with one another. Thomas told as many of the epics as he could remember, before John took over the tales and began weaving his own story in the heavens. Orange trees. A floppy-eared dog. Sunflowers. A townhouse. A teacup.

After every streak across the storybook, one of them would shout out a wish—a wonderfully simple wish.

“I wish for eggs tomorrow,” Thomas laughed.

“I wish for Penelope to not wake me up with a kiss,” John shouted.

“I wish to play the harpsichord more,” Miranda stated.

“I wish John would stop moving so much,” James complained, but there was happiness there, even as John wriggled around more and James finally shoved him off his lap.

Thomas made a wish for James to invite Max and her partners to diner, a wish John quickly joined in on as he rambled off dishes that were more elaborate than anything he could actually make. Miranda began wishing for a schoolhouse to be built, so that she could teach the children of Nassau to read, write, and be patrons to the library. This wish, James vowed to make a reality.

When Thomas’ eyes began to grow heavy, as everyone made to go inside, and as he folded the sheet with Miranda, Thomas caught one last shooting star. This time, he made a silent wish to God for John and James to be blessed with more moments like these and for James to understand that he could love without restraint and without shame.

* * *

Just as the hazy fog of sleep began to drown out incessant thoughts of a shirtless, pantless Silver in his lap in much more compromising ways, wakefulness returned to James at the sound of a knock at the bedroom door. Double checking, he opened his eyes to see Miranda curled up on the far-side of the bed and Thomas lying over his arm and loosely holding his hand.

The knock came again. Two light taps.

There was only one person who could be on the other side, unless of course Penelope had learned to knock, but James highly doubted that. James carefully extracted himself from Thomas, as to not wake his sleeping partner, and went cautiously to the door.

As he reached for the knob, it began turning. He let his hand hover centimeters from the brass.

James hated how this scenario had made it into his dreams, and he hated how he couldn’t stop his waking thoughts from returning right back to those dreams.

The knob stopped, but the door didn’t open.

James could hear Silver tapping his foot on the hallway floor.

The door still didn't open.

Finally, James had enough of the standstill and pulled open the door himself. Silver stumbled in about two steps, with his hand still on the knob, before he righted himself and stared up at James. They were close. Too close. The dim light from the window did not reach this corner of the room, which meant that, even at their proximity, Silver’s expressions and intent were unreadable to James. However, it was not hard to imagine why Silver was here. Images of a succubus came to mind.

James knew he should have never let Silver rest on his lap. It emboldened Silver. Every touch James allowed emboldened him. Even if Silver did not wish to hurt Thomas or Miranda, he was pushing his limits as far as possible, and a man could reason his way into a great many dangerous scenarios if he convinced himself that he was not in the wrong. James feared Silver was going to cross another line—an unforgivable line.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” he hissed, with a voice that was laden with premature accusations.

“Grumpy,” Silver shot back mockingly, but then quickly turned his gaze away and to the floor. “Look, I bought you something a while ago, thinking it could be an offering of friendship, but then Miranda and Thomas gave me a room, and I was living here, and I realized the gift could convey a message I hadn’t been willing to send,” he paused, moving his hand off of the doorknob and sending a bolt up James' arm as he circled his fingers around James’ wrist.

James knew his pulse betrayed him immediately, but he remained still, perhaps even afraid to move at all.

“John,” he whispered, a warning or a plea—he couldn’t be certain.

Silver brought James’ hand into the space between them, palm up, and placed something in it. Then, he folded James’ fingers over the silky material.

“Recently, my reluctance to give this to you was swayed by Miranda and Thomas. I think they would want me to give this to you. They’d encourage it even. Remember that,” Silver said cryptically with his head lifted back up.

Then, slowly, as to not spook James or perhaps to give him time to pull away, Silver brought their hands to his lips, and though his lips did not touch James’ skin, the sound of a light kiss seemed to echo in the quiet around them. James was certain his heartbeat was the second loudest sound in the night.

Then, just as puzzling, Silver pulled away and the bedroom door was closed shut, separating them once again.

There was a long moment where James did nothing but stare at the place where Silver had been, and a part of him was convinced he dreamt up the whole visit. However, when the shock wore off, James wasted no time in going to the nightstand, striking a match, and lighting the oil lamp. Feeling his heart still beating unnecessarily fast, James brought the gift into the light and uncurled his fist, which still tingled from Silver's touch. In his hand was a ribbon—a green, silk ribbon. New, unworn, and matching the one that Silver had begun wearing after returning James’ blue tie.

Had Silver come offering his body and his bed, James would have been able to turn him away with a very minimal amount of reluctance or regret. This, however, was not what James had been prepared for in the least.

James pulled open the drawer of the nightstand, pushed aside the contract taunting him with an inky countdown, and drug out his copy of Meditations, flipping straight to the pages that housed the tattered, blue ties he had kept. He didn’t know why he had to see them, but he did. John’s gift to the three of us, Miranda had said. Back then, so many weeks ago, James had been hurt by the return of this ribbon. Only now did he realize that the ribbon’s return had felt like a rejection.

It was never meant to be perceived as a rejection, though. Before James even recognized him as a friend, John had bought him a new ribbon. A ribbon that, for James, was now soaked in a muddled mess of friendship, lust, and love. This James did not know how to reject, because a part of him was begging him to accept it.

His heart was not wavering. It was quaking.

“Fuck,” James whispered into the oppressive silence around him, pressing a hand to his chest, and willing the feeling to stop. Begging it to stop. Knowing it wasn't going to stop.

He already knew this was beyond a surface level lust for him, but it had also passed the level of a schoolyard infatuation. There was love here. Love for John. A love that was only threatening to grow.

He couldn’t manage this alone anymore. He had failed at managing this every goddamn step of the way.

"Fuck," he muttered again, feeling the desire to shove everything off the stand just to feel something other than this.

He looked to the closed canopy of the bed, where Thomas and Miranda were sleeping, and were blissfully unaware of the turmoil taking place just on the other side of their sanctuary.

They would encourage it, John had said of Thomas and Miranda.

That was an odd thing for John to say, considering James had been certain that during the game of bowls they had a mutual, albeit silent, agreement that taking this any further would damage the relationship between them all.

Recently, my reluctance to give this to you was swayed by Miranda and Thomas, John had said.

That suggested they had spoken with him.

Then, a thought came to James that perhaps the increase in John’s suggestive antics throughout the week had been prompted by a conversation Miranda and Thomas had with him. James had noticed Miranda urging the other man forward. Thomas was often in the room with them all as well, always smiling and helping John.

Stargazing tonight suddenly felt like it had been another set-up.

The entire week had been a push for James to take John for a romp. James knew Miranda and Thomas used to do this sort of thing frequently—vetting for each other’s bed-mates and chasing after pleasure. They must have noticed the tension between himself and John. Miranda walked in on their scones and flour fight, when James had first thought of kissing John. They were both watching during the bowls game that went awry, nearly ending in another kiss. There were a dozen instances of heated bantering and wanton teasings the Hamiltons had no doubt witnessed.

James couldn’t even be angry with them for pushing for this. John was obviously interested and James did not discourage him.

None of them, however, knew what was happening inside him.

There was love here. Love where there should not be.

James held the green ribbon tight, wishing it could tell him what John had meant to say with this gift. For him, was it love or was it lust? Even if the answer were to come to him, it was hard to say which would be worse. James let out a long, sad sigh of defeat, before folding the ribbon carefully and laying it next to the blue pieces. He could neither accept nor reject this at the moment. He closed the book and slid it back into the dark corner of the drawer.

Then, he put out the lamp and crawled back into the bed, feeling like an adulterer returning from an affair of the heart. In his absence, Thomas had cuddled up behind Miranda and their hands had found each other. 

James had to tell them. He had to tell them he had been deceiving them ever since he asked for John to be given a room. This descent into love could have been stopped had he just told them earlier how much of a danger their thief was. Once he came clean, the decision was theirs. If they wished it, he would send John away on the next available ship to the Americas. If it eased the pain he was going to cause them by his admission, he would willingly tear out this treacherous piece of his heart.

Chapter Text

Since the night spent stargazing, Thomas had his morning breakfast of eggs, John still received morning kisses, Miranda began playing tunes nightly, and James had not been teased by John for days.

James had also yet to work up the courage to tell Miranda or Thomas of his heart’s betrayal. A number of times he had been ready to, but then he would see their smiles or hear their laughter and he could not bring himself to say a thing. James could brave swords, muskets, and cannons, but nothing was more frightening than the thought of hurting them.

There was also the matter of Thomas and Miranda being friends with John, close friends even. They spent as many hours of their day with John as they did with James—more actually, since John only left the house for his trips to market. The only time John was not in the presence of Miranda or Thomas was when they were in bed. There was never an opportune time to tell them, and this wasn’t something you blurted out over the dinner table.

Lastly, there was the selfish part of James that remained silent because he did not want to lose John.

John was currently whispering to Miranda as he helped her close the curtains of the drawing room. The sky outside was painted with strokes of lavender and violet, and, as the minutes ticked by, shades of dark purples and layers of indigo chased the others over the horizon. When the curtains were closed, they still breathed and billowed in the light breeze from the open windows, allowing him to glimpse the beginnings of a navy blue palette.

Miranda took a matchbox from atop the mantelpiece and lit a candle from a standing candelabra. John took a candle of his own and touched it to Miranda’s. He said something that made her nod enthusiastically, and then they parted, circling the room and lighting the remaining candles, before meeting at the coffee table and playfully racing to finish lighting the most wicks.

Thomas entered with a silver tray, carrying four crystal glasses, two bottles of red wine, and a glass candy dish, filled with sweets John had made.

It was with great excitement that Thomas announced that Miss Guthrie approved of the plan for a schoolhouse. In fact, John had found a small, unoccupied house on the outskirts of town, which he informed James of with the suggestion that it be re-purposed as a schoolhouse. Since there was already a standing building, Eleanor had easily granted him minimal funds for desks, a blackboard, and writing supplies. Miranda was ecstatic with the news, and bade them all drink to the future of Nassau’s youth.

“You will guide the new generation into a brighter world, I am certain of it,” Thomas said as he took her hand and pulled her onto his lap, both of them settling into the corner of the canapé opposite James.

John, rather than taking the armchair, came over to their side of the table. James half expected John to try squeezing into the space between him and the Hamiltons, but instead, he settled onto the rug and rested his back against the wood of the coffee table.

“My life would have been quite different if schools in Plymouth welcomed urchins,” John said with a note of regret.

James couldn’t help but knock John’s foot and console him with a jibe, “You wouldn’t have set foot through school doors even if they were opened to you.”

John raised an eyebrow and tilted his head in thought, before he proudly said, “You’re right, self-education has served me well and I would not let another take your place as my first instructor.”

James felt a blush crawl onto his cheeks at that, but quickly hid himself behind his wine as he took a sip.

Then John raised his glass to Miranda and added, “However, Miranda would have been wonderful to have as a mentor when I was a boy. The children are going to love you.”

Those flattering words alone made her light up and she began entertaining thoughts of lesson plans, team-building games, and free lunches for the students.

“John, you should create a dessert for the entire class once a week,” Thomas piped in and took a small chocolate bonbon from the tray. “It is your strong suit certainly and the children would adore you for it as well. Oh, you could fashion a story time for them. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

“Yes, you must accompany me on my first day, bribe the children with stories and sugary sweets,” Miranda took a bonbon for herself and then held one out for James. When he opened his mouth for her to place it in rather than holding out his hand, her eyes sparkled with mirth. “My, John has trained you magnificently.”

A choking noise came from John as he failed to correctly swallow his wine, and James was glad to have the sweet to fill his mouth so he didn’t have to answer to that.

“James does a majority of the training though,” John said once he had cleared his throat. “I’ve learned a lot and it’s always nice to earn praises for your efforts,” he indicated to the bonbons then, but James was narrowing his eyes at the double nature this conversation seemed to have.

“Do you like having someone else lead?” Miranda asked and placed her empty glass on the table. She stood and held out her hand for John to take. “In dance.”

“Dance?” John questioned, taking her hand and lifting himself from the floor.

“In addition to fulfilling my wishes for a schoolhouse, I have taken it upon myself to learn a new music piece and I think a performance would do, but this song must be danced to,” she pulled John over to the harpsichord.

James caught her wink to Thomas, which Thomas must have taken as a signal for something because it set him into action. Thomas refilled her glass and his own, then quickly made his way to the other two. Miranda settled onto the bench in front of her harpsichord and then extended John’s hand to Thomas, who took it easily after setting the wine on the edge of the instrument. It was surprising to James that John didn’t seem remotely bothered by the touches, and he couldn’t help but wonder at how entangled John had become in their lives.

They were like a family. The four of them.

The Fairy Queen,” Thomas read aloud from the sheet music Miranda was arranging. “Are we in for a midsummer night of merrymaking?”

“I do hope so,” Miranda laughed, and set her fingers to the keys.

The notes that rang out in the illuminated room were quick, vibrant, and playful, sending bursts of elation through everyone the moment the music began. Thomas pulled John out to the open floor and let their fingertips barely touch as he gave a bow. Then, with a flourish he pulled John to him, spun him once, and set about gallivanting, unrehearsed around the room.

“I’ve never danced anything other than a drunken jig,” John said loudly to them all.

“Then you must stop and have a sip each time you pass me,” Miranda answered. “We will have you happily drunk and your poor dancing will bother no one.”

“He isn’t poor at all,” Thomas laughed, directing John this way and that, before letting John go altogether and sliding away. John spun, trying to keep an eye on Thomas, and James was reminded of stories of the fae darting in and out of the woods causing travelers to twirl about to catch sight of the creatures. It was less John dancing and more Thomas dancing around him. “You will only improve from here, you are a quick learner after all,” Thomas said as he caught John from behind by the waist and pulled him back over to Miranda.

The two took a small drink from the glasses, though who knew whose glass was whose. Then Thomas focused on James and beckoned him over with an upturned hand and a hopeful smile.

“You know I can’t dance,” James said, nursing his second glass.

“Everyone can dance, you tragically choose not to,” Thomas pouted with an extra dash of hope in his eyes this time around.

James rolled his eyes.

John set down his glass with a loud clink and grinned devilishly, issuing a challenge, “Then I will have to continue this surprising new courtship and steal your dapper man from you.”

This time, John was the one to drag a very entertained Thomas onto the floor. Their next dance was an imitation of a folkish square dance, that James imagined John must have witnessed at one point. It hardly fit the second song at all, but somehow, anything that brought a smile to their faces began to seem acceptable for this tune.

James couldn’t sit still any longer. He went to the harpsichord, resting against its edge and watched Miranda’s fingers deftly, gracefully breathe life into the chords as if they were dancing to the music as well. She had talented fingers.

James chuckled at his own innuendo and looked back to John and Thomas. “You’re awful at this, John,” he said with a light heart.

“Aren’t you going to try and win Thomas back, or have you forsaken him?” John stopped in the middle of his step and moved to wrap his arms around Thomas’ neck. “I’ll steal his lips,” John threatened.

James tipped his glass in a ‘go ahead’ motion, mostly to call John on his bluff, and partly because he wouldn’t exactly be opposed to that image.

Thomas pulled a playfully disgusted face, with a wrinkled nose and a wide smile, “Surely you aren’t feeling the wine already.”

“I’m having fun is all,” John answered and slipped away from Thomas again. “Dance with him,” he encouraged.

James smirked at the way John’s cheeks were flushed pink and his eyes had gone a bit glassy, because it was evident that John did not hold his drink well. They’d have to make sure not to let him get properly drunk, because someone still had to make breakfast in the morning.

“If you leave him without a partner, I will be forced to stop the music and join him myself. Spirits must be kept up,” Miranda said while finishing the second song.

In the break of silence, James startled when he felt fingers lightly brush his. He looked away from Miranda, to John, who crowded into his space, gave him an attractive smile, and lifted the wine glass from his hand. The candlelight flickered in John’s eyes as he spun the glass slowly, deliberately to press his lips to the same side James had been drinking from. James fully blamed the drink for the warmth pooling low in his belly from that display. John was apparently back to teasing, as he took a sip for himself and James could have sworn he caught a glimpse of tongue before John stepped aside and gestured for James to accompany Thomas.

James took the escape route immediately and practically melted against Thomas the moment their hands were cusped. With Thomas’ hand on his back, and with his reflection in Thomas’ sparkling eyes, James felt comforted by the warmth that eased back up into his heart.

The third song began, and it was even more lively than the first, with a meter that almost drove James’ legs to moving on their own. Thomas, however, quickly took control, drawing James into a loose embrace and beginning a sequence of steps that were close to that of a ballroom dance. The steps were familiar, it was a dance that Thomas had taught him before and, despite only learning the moves one night years ago, James recalled every chassé, every lean, and his favorite, the lift.

The routine practically transported him back to the rainy, April night in London, where Miranda had insisted on having someone to dance to her playing and Thomas dancing alone was a travesty in her opinion. It was the first time Thomas held him close. That time, James had desperately restrained himself from kissing the married man during the lift. Now, things were different. He could kiss Thomas as many times as he wanted, and James wanted. So he acted.

As the room spun around him, and his feet lifted from the floor, James captured the lips of the one he dearly loved. The final cadence hovered in the air and drifted away in the breeze when James’ toes touched back to earth.

“God, I love you,” Thomas breathed out and gifted him another quick kiss.

Thomas made his declaration all the time, but it never sounded any less sweet to James’ ears.

“Now, that, you have to teach me,” John laughed, breaking the dreamlike state James had been in.

Thomas, not bothered at all by the interruption, led him back to the harpsichord to finish their drinks and sat down next to Miranda on the bench.

“James, you’re his teacher. Go ahead,” Thomas urged.

James balked, and was about to protest, but Miranda beat him to speaking. With a mischievous smile, she said, “How about a waltz?”

The impropriety of her suggestion was lost on no one. Least of all, John, who focused his gaze on James with an intensity previously unknown.

“One dance,” John said as he came forward in a loose gait. “Or must I suffer a second rejection?”

James furrowed his brow, at the thought of this being a second rejection. Of course, James had not worn the ribbon or acknowledged the fact he had received it at all, which could have easily been misconstrued as a rejection, but he did not wish to wound John with his silence. He nearly answered that he hadn’t rejected the gift, but that was a dangerous admission. He should be rejecting it. He should have rejected it days ago.

“If you wish to accept his offer, then say so,” Miranda said gently. “It would be a travesty to make John dance alone.”

She stood, taking Thomas by the hand and leading him out into the open dance floor.

“Just one dance,” John repeated, holding out his own hand expectantly.

James observed John’s hand for a moment, before looking back up to his eyes that were shimmering with optimism. Even the thought of the ribbon being rejected hadn’t deterred John.

“Neither of us knows how to waltz,” James answered, trying to find a way out, but also hoping John would not give up easily. John never gave up easily.

“We can imitate our talented couple,” he said and nodded to Thomas and Miranda who were beginning to romance one another with dance.

“There’s no music,” James said softly, in one last hope to avoid this.

“Does there have to be?” John asked. “We can dance to our own tune.”

God help him, James was not going to crawl out of this unscathed.

Let this be a dance of indulgence. After it, immediately after, James would stop his stalling and his excuses and he would come clean to Miranda and Thomas. Just one dance.

The moment James lifted his hand and enclosed his fingers around John’s, the magic of the night returned with breathtaking force. James squeezed John’s hand, a hand that James wanted to feel the push and pull of, but never wanted to let go of. A hand he would keep in his until the end of this dance, this dream.

He led John to where Miranda’s emerald dress fanned out around her as she spun, and Thomas brought her to press against him in artful desire, before letting her retreat.

“Try to keep up,” James grinned to John, who was not at all intimidated.

“Try not to let me fall,” John challenged and took a step towards James, who answered by sliding his hand over John’s back and cradling his waist.

John might not know it, but James’ hands did not wish to hold John up, they wished to pull him down into the depths of impossible love which James had already fallen into.

They waltzed.

For the first time since James had realized he was falling in love with John, he allowed himself to look at the other man. To really look. To notice the candlelight dancing in the messy ringlets of John’s hair as it twisted with their twirls. Hair that James admitted to wanting to run his fingers through again, like he had on the day with the blue ribbon. To watch the shadows play in the wrinkles of John’s serene smile. A smile James returned with adoration and knowledge that he wanted to feel that smile on his lips, on his fingers, on his skin. To see a reflection of himself in John’s deep-blue eyes, that still had the freckles James had noticed during their topple into the grass. Eyes that James could always count on to seek him out and eyes he wanted to show every part of himself to.

Mimicking Miranda as she leaned back on Thomas’ arm, John curved lithely, like he had been born for this dance. His weight fell against James and James supported him fully, watching John’s neck reveal itself to him before he pulled him back up and spun him in his arms. They were so close that he could not only see, but feel John’s chest expand with his inhale. He could hear the exhale.

John spun away, but James did not allow the escape. With their clasped hands, he curled John back into him, and settled his palm lower, more possessively.

On the walls and the floor, their shadows danced with them, multiplied by the dozens like there was a full ballroom for them to perform in. The curtains filled out like gowns. There was an orchestra playing, not here in this room, but somewhere in his mind, in the air, in the fabric of the universe itself.

John laughed. That laugh was one of James’ favorite songs.

From the side of his vision, James saw Thomas put both of his hands on Miranda’s waist and lift her, dancing round and round.

James let his hands press into John’s waist, feeling his hips and his warmth, and he too lifted his dance partner. John’s laugh cut out into a sound of surprise, but his hands held onto James’ shoulders as the room blurred out around them. Then, with some kind of euphoria, John let go, spread his arms to the ceiling, and returned to the jubilant laughter. James felt the joy course through himself as well, and again he had the thought of never letting John go.

When the spinning stopped, John’s hands settled back on James’ shoulders, but James had not yet lowered him to the ground. John, with his rosy-faced smile framed by dark curls, was looking at him like nothing else was as captivating. If James looked hard enough, he could almost see love there, swimming in the blue.

Desperately. Desperately, James wished to kiss him, but he could not act on this want.

James felt John’s hands grip him a little tighter, he saw John’s gaze fall to his lips, and then John’s eyes were fluttering closed and he was leaning closer. Closer. Almost.

Before their lips could touch, James loosened his hands from John’s waist, touching him back to solid ground, and James brought his hand to cradle the back of John’s head, pulling him close, avoiding his kiss, and drawing him into a hug.

It hurt. It began in his chest and radiated out until every part of him that was pressed against John felt like a mortal wound. The soft locks between his fingers became blades. The warm, wet breath against his neck became artillery fire. The way their chests moved together became the recoil of a gun. It hurt. It hurt so badly to reject him.

John drew back first, with a look of mild confusion, which changed to concern. “Are you alright?” he asked.

No, no, no, James wanted to cry. He was bleeding out. He let his hands fall away and stepped back. The dance was over.

“James?” Thomas questioned with worry in his voice. “Oh, love, what’s wrong?”

James shook his head. He couldn’t speak of what was wrong, not yet. “You need to leave, Silver,” he said, while swallowing everything he was feeling along with the blood the name left on his tongue.

“I—I’m sorry, what?” John asked with disbelief, like the spell had just ended for him as well.

“Give us the room, John,” Miranda requested kindly, and came to press a hand to James’ shoulder.

John took a step forward, looking ready to protest, but James bristled and, with a cold, firm voice, he repeated, “Leave.”

John stopped in his tracks, visibly swallowing as his expression went from concerned to blank. When Thomas gave him an apologetic nod, John left the drawing room without another word, his back being the last thing James saw before he closed his eyes against the pain.

“Now, what was that about?” Miranda asked sounding cross with his treatment of John.

“Firstly, why do you appear to be on the brink of tears?” Thomas asked and brought a hand up to his cheek.

James shook his head again and pulled away from them both. He needed to sit down and the wine bottle was over on the table, reminding him that he was too sober for this conversation. He went to it, tossed himself onto the armchair, and grabbed the neck of the bottle, ready to take a swig of wine, knowing it would both taste and feel awful.

Miranda stopped him, pulling the bottle away from his hand and placing it well out of his reach.

“You must talk to us otherwise we won’t be able to help,” Thomas urged, while taking a seat on the edge of the coffee table and trying to catch James’ gaze.

“I need you both to stop helping John,” James finally, pleadingly requested.

Miranda perched on the arm of the chair and rubbed his back comfortingly, an act he didn’t deserve. “James, you have had a fire in your eyes from the moment John clevered his way out of your attempts to toss him into jail. Each challenge he makes only feeds that fire. Do you think we have not noticed? You surely aren’t going to try and convince us we were mistaken.”

“No, Christ, it’s painfully obvious to me now that you have known and have been driving this forward,” James said, feeling numb rather than angry. He focused his gaze on his hands and ran his thumb over his fingertips to settle his mind.

Thomas laid a hand over his and James nearly flinched, but Thomas pressed forward and leaned down so that James was forced to look at him. “We will stop if that is what you truly want, but know that we think John is a charming, intelligent young man. We do not disapprove of you bedding him and he has expressed to us his desire for you to do so. John is more than confident that you will enjoy each other’s company,” he said while trying to lighten the mood.

“I can’t,” James breathed out, though there was no resolve in his voice and he could feel despair crowding out the numbness.

“Do you wish to?” Miranda asked.

“I can’t,” he repeated, shaking his head.

“We are in Nassau and you are here with us. There is nothing you can’t do,” Thomas squeezed his hand. “Ask us for what you desire and, so long as it hurts no one, we will be accommodating, but this restraint you are exercising is hurting you and seeing you so bothered pains us.”

“We love you, James. Thomas and I only want for you to be happy,” Miranda put her own hand over theirs.

James knew this. He knew how much love they had for him, which only served to make the sin of his straying heart weigh heavier on his mind. There were unforgivable things.

“I love you, too, but you don’t understand,” James said, finally fully facing them both. “He may be trying to seduce me into his bed, but that is not the only manner in which I find myself drawn to him,” his voice cracked. “He is in here,” he punctuated with a fist pounded into his damned heart. “John is in here with you both.”

The confession made his face heat with shame and the wine no longer warmed him, but rather made him feel on the verge of retching.

“Oh, James,” Thomas said sweetly, and drew James’ fist away from his chest and brought it to his lips in a soothing kiss. “Is this what has been disquieting you? Did you think we would be upset with you?”

James looked away, unable to handle those kind eyes on him. “How could you not be?”

“Well, I am upset,” Miranda said gently and without scorn. “I am upset that you did not speak with us earlier, so that we could ease your worries. Your feelings for John, though, are not upsetting in the least.”

“I am supposed to love you though,” James focused on them again, feeling confusion overtake him.

“You do,” Thomas assured. “That is the wonderful thing about love—one love does not diminish another.”

It was true, he did not love them any less, but he had heard how poorly men spoke of Miranda over rumors of her infidelity. He had seen women hanged for affairs, and he had seen men absolved of murder with the declaration of a crime of passion. Miranda and Thomas, he knew, would be much kinder when they learned of his own betrayal, but he had been prepared to incur their disappointment and whatever punishment they saw fit. This, acceptance and forgiveness, however, was not what James had expected.

“You forgive me? So easily?” James furrowed his brow and felt his swallow catch in his throat.

“There is nothing to forgive. Love knows no shame,” Thomas smiled up at him, unbothered and sure, and Thomas kissed his hand again, driving home the point.

The Hamiltons had taken him into uncharted waters when they first brought him into their ideals of love. How different it was to anything he had known before. How it still managed to surprise him. To warm him. To fill him with more love than he knew possible.

Tears welled up in his eyes, blurring his vision, as over a month of guilt rolled off his shoulders. His shame had been of his own making, much like the break-ins had been partially his oversight, but no more. James sagged against Miranda’s thigh, pressing his cheek into her soft, comforting warmth. It felt as if he had returned home from a war.

“James,” she said, while running her hand through his hair, “we built a world for ourselves here so that we would no longer need to hide our love. We know you are less inclined to share all of your thoughts, but please don’t feel the need to ever hide yourself from us again.”

James nodded his agreement, never again wishing to feel like he had failed them, and vowing to himself to be more forthcoming in the future.

“Now, John is looking to seduce you, yes, but if you wish to turn this game around and romance him, know that you have our blessing,” Thomas brightly declared and kissed him gently.

James let out a slight, shaky laugh, and rubbed away his unshed tears before answering, “I’m not certain I will do that.”

“Why hold back now?” Thomas deflated dramatically with a long-suffering sigh.

The reason was one James had tried not dwell on, but unfortunately was faced with every single morning when Miranda opened the nightstand drawer, pulled out a single sheet of paper, crossed out a number, and wrote another that was one count smaller than the last. The contract.

Even if James were to extend the magic of tonight, and attempt to enter into something more profound with John, it would still have a definite limit. This time, a very real limit that was not created by his own imaginings. James knew that John wanted to leave New Providence Island eventually. He wanted to venture off into new lands. He wanted to create new stories. He spoke of it often enough. It was no secret that he was here for a short while before he would once again take to the wind. That had always been the case.

“The contract is halfway complete,” James answered, and this time, instead of reaching for the wine, he reached for the one remaining bonbon, so that he could have something sweet to chase away the bitterness.

“All the more reason for you not to delay,” Thomas insisted.

Being as hopeful as Thomas would be nice, but James could not help but imagine how it would feel to, once again, have an ocean separating him from someone he loved. When the Hamiltons were in London and he was in Nassau, the nights had been lonesome and cold even with the knowledge that they would be reunited soon enough. Knowing that John would leave without a return in mind, well, that thought already made James’ heart ache with loss.

Miranda patted his shoulder. “Reluctance is understandable. No one is comforted by the thought of a goodbye, but letting this opportunity slip away from you out of fear of separation will only leave you with questions and regrets. To know is a greater achievement than to wonder.”

“And think of all that could be awaiting you if you pursue him. A fresh romance. Being able to hold his hand or kiss him whenever you wish. Making memories all around Nassau. Telling him all the things you love about him. Making him fall in love with you, as I am sure you could win over absolutely anyone. Oh, and it would be John’s first love. How exciting,” Thomas clapped his hands.

“What?” both Miranda and James exclaimed at the same time. “First love?” Miranda clarified the cause of their outburst.

“Yes, I requested for him to tell the tale of his first love a while ago, but he informed me that he had none.”

“He tells stories about his charming of women from all corners of the world,” James said as he thought back to John recounting dozens of escapades involving a striking, young woman. Those stories were part of the reason James had originally not even considered that John could be interested in him. “He has as many love stories as we have books in the library.”

“Well, he is a grand storyteller, and his good-looks certainly have helped him gain many lodgings, but the fact remains that John has never been in love.”

“Then that does not bode well for me at all,” James said paling a little at the thought of exposing his feelings to John only to have them rejected.

Miranda shook her head and slid from the arm of the chair, standing, and giving a tired little stretch. “You are either stubborn as a mule, blind as a bat, or both, but with the way John looks at you, I would predict a favorable outcome.”

Thomas stood too, pulling James to standing and then nudging him forward. “Now, even if you are not yet ready to grab at happiness with both hands, at least go tell John that you aren’t upset with him. He looked more than a little distraught over your behavior after we were all having such a good time.”

“Yes, make up, make out, make love,” Miranda said airily, giving him another push.

James left them both with kisses and the intent to do at least one of those things, but after searching all through the house for John, he was brought to a closed bedroom door. It wasn’t a surprise that John had decided to sleep off the night after James’ outburst, but he was a bit saddened to know he had let John go to bed with a sour taste to what had otherwise been a wonderful night.

James’ hand hovered over the knob, but it was John’s words that echoed in the back of his mind, It’s almost a shame to wake him. Those words brought his hand away from the handle and James placed his open palm to the wood instead, vowing to himself that tomorrow would be a new day, and tomorrow James would make it up to him.

Perhaps he would even consider taking Thomas’ advice and take over the game John had started. After all, James never did like letting someone else have the upper hand.

Chapter Text

The leather shop was sweltering and had the faint, foul smell of the tannery hanging in the air, but this was hardly on Silver’s mind as he helped Billy polish a few new shoes. The biggest concern of his was currently the pendulum clock on the wall, which ticked away the minutes past the time Silver was supposed to have cooked breakfast for the household. After all the occurrences of the previous night, facing James would not be something a man with any sense of self-preservation would consider doing. Silver was effectively hiding.

“Then, just when I’m thinking, fucking finally, he hugs me. A hug. Who does that?” Silver huffed, buffing the shoe a little harder. “Then, get this, he tells me to leave. I couldn’t even believe that was what he said at first, but, oh no, he repeated it. ‘You need to leave,’” he imitated mockingly.

Billy took the shoe from him. “Fascinating,” he said dryly. “I bail you out of jail and all you talk about is how lovesick you are for McGraw. Y’know I don’t actually give a shit, right?”

Silver began working on the other shoe, which earned him a warning from Billy to not attempt to tear a hole in the footwear this time.

“I am not lovesick,” he finally said.

Billy snorted and inspected a few nicks on the toe of a boot he was working on, “Right, the last three times you’ve come here you definitely haven’t talked about him nonstop.”

Silver nearly protested that James was not the topic of his conversations that often, but honestly, he couldn’t quite recall the last time James wasn't on the forefront of his thoughts.

“Gonna tell me about the fight at Miss Guthrie’s?” Billy asked.

Silver groaned, because last night had been a definite lapse in his self-preservation skills. In fact, they had practically vanished altogether. He had been an idiot and he was lucky to have only gotten a cut lip, bruised knuckles, and a night in a cell for his drunken behavior.

“I punched some asshole in the tavern,” Silver shrugged. “Multiple times. Guthrie had me escorted out.”

“No fancy tale to add to that one?” Billy said with a shake of his head.

Silver shrugged again.

“What he say to make you try to pick a fight?”

“You didn’t want me to talk about James anymore,” Silver pointed out and placed the shoe next to its pair on the counter.

“Lovesick,” Billy said under his breath and Silver had half a mind to hit him with the shoe. “So, why you hiding here? Don’t think I haven’t seen you checking the clock every minute like you’re waiting on the gallows.”

“James,” Silver whined. “He might put me six-feet under once he finds me.”

Billy gave him a grimace that certainly meant he did not see a bright future for Silver either. “You’re only delaying it, y’know he can track down anyone with the resources he has on the island. And Guthrie knows I got you out. I don’t really want to get in the middle of a lover’s quarrel.”

“Fuck, I hope he goes to Guthrie before he goes to Max,” Silver groaned again, while ignoring Billy’s comment about lovers, because for that be even remotely true, Silver would have actually been fucked by now. He tossed the rag back behind the counter and stood from his stool.

“What’s Max got to do with this?” Billy crossed his arms, looking more interested now that it seemed Silver had gotten all of the island’s most powerful people pissed at him last night.

“I went to The Harbour before I went to the tavern,” Silver said cryptically with a shrug and then gave a wave, “If James comes here, tell him you don’t have a clue where I am.”

“Where you going?”

“Exactly,” Silver laughed, certainly making no plans to tell Billy where he was going to sit and sulk for the next six or so hours.

* * *

Finding John’s bedroom door still closed the next morning had been odd, especially considering that John was often up before James and already in the kitchen preparing a meal. Finding the kitchen unoccupied and then finding Penelope sleeping on the front porch, rather than with John, bordered on unsettling. Delaying his duties, James had decided to return inside and check on John, which had been when James found the bedroom empty and the bed entirely unslept in.

Shortly after that, he woke both Miranda and Thomas and began fretting over the night before and how he had pushed John away, and, in particular, told him to leave. He had only meant to tell John to leave the room, but he hadn’t said it kindly like Miranda had, he had said it like a command. Apparently, John had obeyed to the extreme.

For nearly ten minutes James paced back and forth, while considering out loud that John had left the entire island, never to be seen again. Both the Hamiltons eventually calmed him down enough to remind him that, before thinking of the worst possibility, he should first check to see what ships, if any, had left during the night.

Immediately after their suggestion, he left the townhouse and went to the docks, to have it confirmed that no ships had departed. Relief washed over him, because James had not determined what he would do if John had actually boarded a ship. He had been devising plans to go straight to Vane and demand The Ranger set sail to chase down a merchant vessel. The plan was mad, certainly, but James could not handle the thought of one stupid mistake of his being the end of everything.

His next stop was Eleanor’s office, which he was currently headed towards as he pushed open the tavern doors and turned heads with the determined clunk of his boots. He was suddenly reminded of the first time he had gone through these exact motions to track down a nameless thief. Anger and hatred for John had pushed his feet forward back then. Now, he was driven by worry and love. So much had changed.

Without bothering to knock, James entered Eleanor’s office, fixing his eyes straight on her and Max, who was thankfully not up to anything under Eleanor’s desk this time.

“Have either of you seen John?” he asked immediately, hoping he sounded more put together than he felt.

Max pursed her lips and spoke first, “Your pet came to The Harbour last night and tried to seduce a client from one of my girls.”

“He what?” James exclaimed and brought his hand to the bridge of his nose. Much had changed, but apparently John was forever and always a stupid little shit. “How much do I owe you?”

“I said he tried. I did not let him steal from me and it would be bad business to give a man a night of regret. I told him to return chez vous,” Max explained.

James found himself more than a little thankful that John had not successfully gotten some stranger to sleep with him for the night, but still, he had to admit with a sigh, “John didn’t come home.”

“I don’t imagine so,” Eleanor finally spoke up, arms crossed. “Mister Silver started a fucking brawl in my tavern last night. I had him arrested and taken to the fort. Your friend, Mister Bones, paid bail about an hour ago.”

“I warned you, Lieutenant, that one needs a leash,” Max said then with a tease in her voice. “He was upset that you did not kiss him.”

James rolled his eyes, “John told you about that?”

“John told the entire brothel about that and he told us how you simply will not fuck him.”

“That story is in the tavern too,” Eleanor added, sounding impressed. “You’re once again the biggest piece of gossip on the streets.”

James sighed, because honestly he couldn’t be bothered to give a shit about anyone else’s opinion at this point. He just had to find John.

“Billy’s then?” he confirmed.

Eleanor nodded, but before he could leave she put on her business persona and said, “Lieutenant, pick up Mister Silver’s bar tab before you leave, will you?”

John was more trouble than he was worth, James thought as he shook his head, but could only feel fondness for the whirlwind John left behind him. Even though he was predictably childish in his revenge, at least John was still here in Nassau.

After paying the tab, James left the tavern and the hushed whispers of the patrons behind, making his way to Billy’s Tannery and Leather Goods, where there was no sign of John. Billy complained for a few minutes about how James should be straightforward with John, because apparently the chatty little shit had been confessing all his frustrations to Billy for days. James parted with more coin when Billy asked for him to repay half the bail cost—he repaid in full. Then, the only helpful information Billy could give was that John went to the right after leaving the shop.

So, James went right.

* * *

The tide had ebbed in the early morning, leaving behind a scattering of pools over the rocks in this part of the beach. The climbing morning sun glinted off the surface of the water every now and then, making Silver squint and look to a different section of the pool. It was teeming with life. Sea stars—living ones this time, unlike their fossilized friends in Elysium—, colorful little fishes, and a strange cucumber-like creature. There had even been an octopus that Silver followed for a while, as it scooted from pool to pool, until it slipped away into the ocean. These were Silver’s current company and less critical listeners than Billy, Max, or the drunkards had been.

Silver took a small smooth stone and tried to skip it across the ocean, but a wave swallowed it before it made it to the second jump. Silver plopped down onto the damp rocks under him and tried to figure out just how avoiding James was going to help anything. He hoped there were enough raw foods for Miranda and Thomas to make a breakfast meal out of.

“This is pathetic,” Silver spoke to a blue-green fish that seemed unconcerned with Silver’s problems. “Being a fish must be nice. No, James McGraw to deal with.”

“I had fish for breakfast,” came an unmistakable gruff, voice from behind him. Silver didn’t bother looking, but he heard James come closer and felt his presence as James sat next to him. He was close enough that Silver could feel his warmth. “No hello?”

“Would a hello make you any less pissed at me?” Silver asked, pointedly staring out over the expanse of the ocean and watching a couple small fishing boats bob on the water.

“I’m not pissed at you,” James said, sounding truthful, which was unexpected. “The brothel though?” he huffed out an amused sound.

Silver rounded on him at that, because if James wasn’t going to be pissed at him, then he sure as hell was going to be pissed at James. “Well you weren’t going to be fucking me anytime soon. I figured I might as well expand my horizons without you.”

James gave him a half-smirk and then looked away and busied his hands with a few bits of sand that had gotten stuck in a divot in the rock. “You didn’t though.”

“Max kicked me out, that didn’t have a thing to do with you,” Silver bit out, but his anger didn’t seem to be affecting James at all.

“You punched someone?” James asked then.

That had everything to do with James, and Silver almost pulled a lie out of his ass just so he didn’t have to admit that, but he knew the true story would get to James in the end. He picked up another stone and tossed it into a pool, listening to the plunk. “The bastard said you were a disgrace of a man who enjoyed fucking goats more than a good woman.”

“You punched someone over something as petty and untrue as that?” James looked up and raised an eyebrow.

“I was drunk,” Silver huffed, already aware of the absurdity of the entire night. “And he called me your whore.”

“Was this before or after you told both the brothel and the tavern that you want me to fuck you?” James chuckled maddeningly. 

Silver wanted to glower, but the feeling of surprise overwhelmed him. It was one thing for him to plainly state why he had been to The Harbour, but for James to acknowledge Silver's desires out loud was something else. Silver had been resigned to the idea that they would never speak about their mutual interest in each other beyond silent glances, fleeting touches, and vague comments. He was even about to ask if they were going to have a straightforward conversation, but, just as Silver opened his mouth, James reached a hand out towards him. Silver’s sentence caught in his throat as he watched the hand come slowly closer, until he could see every crease on James' palm. When James curled his fingers under Silver’s chin and ran a thumb over the cut on his lip, Silver hissed at the sting. Or perhaps the touch itself had been enough to draw the sound from him.

“I understand your anger. I’ve done something similar before, but a drunkard wasn’t worth your time or injury,” James said, while focusing his hawk-like gaze straight on Silver, warning him not to be so hotheaded next time.

Silver gave a slight nod, trying not to allow the feel of James’ thumb to give him any ideas. He longed to do something reminiscent of what James had done with the sunflower seeds, but, after last night, Silver doubted that James would welcome such a move. Then, the rough pad of James’ thumb moved off the cut as he dragged his finger across to the other corner of Silver’s mouth, pulling Silver's bottom lip down with it. There was a question in his eyes when he looked back into James’ striking green ones.

“You weren’t in your room last night,” James said softly, with something like kindness drifting into his words.

Silver’s world tipped, because that almost sounded like James had went to his room for...for something. “You told me to leave,” Silver breathed out, feeling his lips move against James' thumb, but trying not to exhale too quickly lest he give away the pounding of his heart.

“I only meant the drawing room, not home,” James corrected himself.

Then, Silver felt James’ other hand slip over his knuckles, which were swollen and red from the one good punch he got on the bastard at the tavern. Silver couldn’t look down, due to James holding his head still, but he did move his eyes just to see if it truly was James’ hand on his. It was.

This wasn’t like in the kitchen, where touching took place as a form of instruction. This wasn’t like dancing, when holding hands was required. This wasn’t like with the bowls game, when the jack was an excuse to touch each other. It wasn’t even like the sunflower seed, which had been an accident in the beginning. This was a willful, calculated touch. The kind of touches Silver had been giving for days. 

He looked back to James, still with a question. He inhaled, long and deep, until his chest would expand no further.

“I thought you left the island,” James said, sounding troubled by the thought.

The thumb on Silver’s mouth slid slowly up to his cheek and James caressed a spot there in small circles. This time, Silver could not control his stuttered breath as he leaned into the touch. His cheeks were heating and he could not control that either. These touches left him craving.

“You have a scar. From when I punched you,” James explained.

With each sentence, it seemed James drew closer, and now Silver could count every light freckle on James’ cheeks and over his nose. He could see where short, ginger hairs began sparsely and filled out into James’ tidy beard. There was a slight dent in James’ left ear, which suggested it had been pierced at one time.

“I’m sorry,” James said, his words ghosting over Silver’s lips, and haunting Silver with promises he feared James would never fulfill. 

They had been so close, so many times, but these moments continued to end the same way. They ended with a hollow, bone-deep ache. They ended with a heavy, mourning heart. They ended with Silver alone in the dark, tearfully revisiting the 'could have been's. They ended.

Silver screwed his eyes shut and weakly tried to pull away, but James held him in place. It was too much. His spirit was not indomitable.

“Will you stop fucking saying you’re sorry. That’s all you ever say to me. With your eyes, with your words, with that fucking hug,” he prayed James did not hear the quaver in his voice. “If you’re so fucking sorry, then stop doing this to me. Stop chasing me down, stop pulling me in, and stop touching me like you want more. Either stop, or fucking do something that you aren’t going to end with an apology.”

Silver opened his eyes to issue his challenge with fury, but the moment his vision adjusted to the return of the sun, a light breeze from the ocean blew James’ hair, gifting Silver with a glimpse of light green. The v-cut tip of a ribbon tail. The ribbon.

All at once, the fingers under Silver’s chin became a hand cupping the back of his neck, he saw James tilting his head to the right, drawing nearer, closing his eyes, the breath between them disappeared, and there were lips. Dry, warm, soft lips against his. A wave broke against the rocks, sending a gentle mist into the air, and catching the sunlight in shimmering particles around them. James tasted like apples. He smelled like the sea. The wave retreated back from the rocks and Silver’s frustration washed away.

At the feel of James tongue nursing his wound, Silver’s eyes fluttered shut and, even though he didn’t much like the ocean, he dove off the edge of this thing they had been teetering over with the intent of seeing just how deep he could go. The sting of his cut was but a blip in the back of his mind as he brought a hand to the grip at the front of James’ shirt, dragged him closer until the presses of their noses allowed him to go no further, and fucking finally.

In the moment, Silver could have compared James’ kiss to hundreds of others he had indulged in. He could have made note of how unformed, untamed the slide of his tongue was. He could have focused on the fact there was not smooth skin meeting his, but the drag of James’ beard—coarse and unlike anything Silver had felt before. Those thoughts, however, paled in comparison the one thing Silver could not get off his mind, and that was his heart, which was crying out to him that this was the feeling that made widows mourn its loss for decades, the feeling that made heroes travel through the underworld to find it again, the feeling that wrote itself into constellations to be remembered for centuries.

This was the feeling that made a thief stop running.

When they separated just enough for fresh air to pass between their lips, Silver whispered shakily through the dizzying sensations, “That was not an apology.”

“No, it wasn’t,” James said lowly, sounding as affected as Silver felt.

“Tell me you know Thomas and Miranda are alright with this,” Silver had to plead then, because James could not think of this as something wrong, not even a little, or Silver wouldn’t be able to go through with it.

“I wouldn’t be here if I thought they weren’t,” James answered.

That was all Silver needed to hear for him to lean forward for another, more impassioned kiss, but, instead of being met with lips, Silver felt the hand on his neck leave and found himself paused by two of James’ fingers, which had been placed between them. He opened his eyes to see James watching him triumphantly, with a look that reminded Silver immediately of the time James barged into his room at The Harbour.

“Don’t get it into your head that you’re going to be sharing a bed with me anytime soon,” James said with a terrifying calm.

“What? Why the fuck not?” Silver asked, going wide-eyed at the sudden negation of his plans.

“The brothel,” James answered.

“You said you weren’t pissed,” Silver shot back, feeling his frustration return in waves.

James remained unperturbed as he moved his fingers back to the cut on Silver’s lip, and pressed harder than necessary, causing Silver to wince. “Trying to steal a customer from Max. The fight at the tavern. A night in jail. Billy bailing you out, which I had to pay him back for,” he listed. “While I might not be pissed, I can’t let your behavior go unpunished. Certainly, I won’t be rewarding you for it.”

“You’re joking.”

“I am not,” James said straight-faced and without a hint of regret over his decision.

Silver was almost certain he whined then, because this was entirely unfair, but at the same time, exactly what he expected from Lieutenant McGraw. “Fuck, I think I hate you,” Silver released James’ shirt and let his head fall to James’ collarbones in resignation, in surrender. “How long?”

Silver could feel the rumble of James’ words in his chest as he issued the sentence, “A fortnight,” he answered easily, like that wasn’t an actual eternity.

“I know I hate you,” he looked back up to James and shook his head with a lightheaded, disbelieving laugh. “I am going to do everything possible to make you wish you had lessened that term.”

With a predatory smirk that made Silver squirm, James replied, “I wouldn’t expect anything less from a teasing little shit like you.”

A fortnight. James was going to actually kill him with this.

“Please, still let me kiss you,” Silver requested, nearly pouting, which he doubted earned him any favors.

Though his pitiful state must have had some effect, because James’ face softened just barely and he gave a single nod.

Silver broke into a smile and wasted no time in pressing forward, sealing their agreement, and allowing himself another taste of his piece of Elysium.

The roots were digging deeper. There were butterflies in his stomach. There were sunflowers growing in his heart.

Silver did not have a story of his first love, but he could not deny that the complicated tale was writing itself now. He did not know if he would have the courage to confess his love, he did not know if this was an acceptable part of the arrangement he had with Thomas and Miranda, and he did not know how it would end. The final page could very well be the contract, tucked away in the nightstand in his room, but the story leading up to the ending would be a beautiful one, Silver would make sure of that.

And, while a great many love stories ended in tragedy, the ending of his story had yet to be penned. Nothing was inevitable.

This time, the reward was worth the risk.

Chapter Text

There was nothing quite like sitting under the broad-leaved, twisting branches of the fig trees on the outskirts of their property and enjoying the scattered shade they provided. On particularly muggy days, days where the air hugged the clothes to her skin, a favorite pastime of Miranda’s had become laying a blanket under this natural canopy and working on a craft or planning classroom lessons. Her current project was painting a few small, oddly-shaped gourds she had found in the market when accompanying John on his daily outing yesterday. The gourds had been dried and fashioned into birdhouses, which Miranda hoped to hang up around the treeline to encourage more birds to take up residence in their garden. Next to her was a can of leftover paint, from when they built Penelope her rarely-used kennel, and John had convinced her to draw more clouds and butterflies on the gourds. That was quite possibly the simplest drawings they could have chosen to do, but Miranda was not exactly a talented artist, and the suggestion was sweet enough that she couldn’t say no.

“My cloud looks more like a whale,” John laughed as he swung upside down from the branch he had been perched on, his legs hanging him in the tree.

John held down his painted house for her to inspect. Miranda shook her head and brought her own paintbrush to try and remedy the shape John had made, which was certainly more phallic than whale-like. He brought it back up to see her fix, and Miranda couldn’t tell if his red face was from his inverted state or from her bawdy addition to the drawing.

“I want to believe that is a star, but you are terrible,” John said with disbelief.

“Of course it’s a star, whatever else could it be?” she said nonchalantly as John took to trying to salvage his work.

“I swear, it was a whale,” he pouted, and dropped from the tree, landing easily on his feet.

Years of making his way out of second or third storey windows, and other daring escape plans, had given him an amazing amount of acrobatic skills. Ever since Miranda pointed this out, John took to showing off on the fig trees at every opportunity.

“Monkey,” she said affectionately, which was always her response after his performances.

John plopped down next to her, dipping his brush into the paint, and adding a long, curled tail to his drawing. Miranda tried not to chuckle at the poor malformed creature he had created. Honestly, they were going to have to paint his whole house white at this point. At least hers still had images that resembled their living counterparts.

“Miranda?” John began, sounding a bit thoughtful all of a sudden. She hummed, to urge him on. “The other day, when James came to find me—I feel you should know this—but we kissed.”  

Miranda focused on the decorated wings of another butterfly, but she smiled heartily.

Two days ago, after James hunted John down once again, he had returned with a hand on John’s shoulder like he was guiding him, but there was also a new sense of familiarity in the touch. The air between them had changed as well, becoming charged with a kind of anticipation that had accompanied them through the door and replaced the previous air of reluctance. That night, when James came to bed, she had asked him to recount how the pursuit of John had gone and where he had been found. James was not one to go into much detail with his stories, but the wonder in his voice when he spoke of the tidepools was enough to tell all that he didn’t say with words. He shared with her and Thomas that a kiss had been the end result. A kiss and a homecoming.

Thomas and Miranda had made love to James that night. A slow, congratulatory love.

“James has told us, but thank you for also letting me know,” she looked to him with warmth in her heart and reached out to pat his cheek gently.

John broke out in a wide, toothy grin that reached his eyes, he pursed his lips once, looking to try and hold back the elated expression, but gave up entirely with an amused shake of his head and a return to the smile. “How much does he share with you?” he asked with raised eyebrows.

“Only the important bits. He is naturally quite concise and Thomas and I aren’t looking for any erotic details, but we would like to know if we should expect to see James kissing you more often,” Miranda said with a little laugh at John’s ensuing, hopeful expression. “We are approving, of course, but it does take some getting used to when your lover is openly affectionate with someone new,” she added. “We have also asked him to inform us beforehand if he will be spending the night with you. Does that all sound acceptable?”

“God, yes,” John answered without missing a beat. Then he let out a happy sort of sigh and continued, “The last time I painted with you, I was left feeling envious of the three of you. Envious of how Thomas could have James’ lap whenever he wished and how you could walk up to him and steal a kiss. Now, here we are painting again, and you tell me I can kiss him as often as I desire,” he paused nodding to where Thomas and James had just exited from the house and onto the veranda. “Instead of picturing just you three on that bench, I can see myself there. The four of us. It’s hard to believe this is happening. Am I in a fevered dream?” he put the back of his hand to his forehead dramatically.

Miranda giggled as the paintbrush in John’s hand dripped a splotch of paint into his hair. She reached out to take it from him and put it back into the bucket along with hers.

“Let’s join them, shall we?” she suggested, knowing that was exactly what John had been hoping for her to say.

John eagerly stood first and held out his hand to help her up, which she took easily. After smoothing down her dress, the two of them picked up their supplies and went to greet the breadwinners of their household.

Thomas spoke enthusiastically about having been to the new schoolhouse, which Miranda had been overseeing the remodeling of during the late morning hours. It would be opening its doors for students next month and she hoped to have everything in order before then. It would be some time before the more rural residents allowed their children to be taught by someone they deemed “morally loose,” but Miranda had no doubt that she could win over even the strictest members of the congregation there. John offered aid in the form of bribery pies.

James also informed them that a large shipment of books had arrived on the island this morning, and once catalogued, they would be filling the shelves of the public library, in preparation for the grand opening being held this weekend.

Anyone who wished to learn to read and write would be welcome in her school and in their library. Certainly, with a little help Nassau would be a learned city. More literate than London, she would make sure of it.

Though it wouldn’t hurt to invest a little in the arts, Miranda noted as John showed off his horrendous birdhouse.

“That’s meant to be a monkey?” James questioned critically with a squint.

“Well, technically it’s a cloud that looks like a monkey,” John explained sounding relatively proud of his work.

The two bickered briefly over what a monkey looked like, and then over how clouds should be drawn, before Thomas interjected by pulling a brush from the bucket Miranda was holding and holding it out to John.

“Perhaps you should make use of a reference,” Thomas said with a finger pointed up to the sky.

Everyone tilted their heads back at once and looked up to the robin’s egg blue sky, which was decorated with sluggish, puffy clouds today. Perfect clouds for imagining shapes of animals, faces, or intricate scenes being staged by the heavens.

“You’re a hopeless dreamer, Thomas,” John said, reminiscent of their night under the stars. He took the brush, and then pointed it at Miranda, “Don’t you even try to say the clouds are the realm of storytellers. This is firmly a dreamer’s domain.”

Miranda gave an amused shrug, “I was only going to point out that you were the one who suggested we draw clouds in the first place.”

John gave her a playfully, scrunched up, annoyed face, but she imagined he would be creating stories in the clouds soon enough. Storytellers and dreamers were often two sides of the same coin.

As the picnic blanket was laid out once again, this time for a session of cloud watching, James disappeared back into the house. Thomas and John settled onto the ground and were pointing out which clouds were the best imitations of monkeys, while Miranda focused back on her own work, making an occasional glance up into the sky to see what her boys were discussing. When James returned, Penelope was following perkily behind him. James came to Miranda and planted a wide-brimmed hat over her head, helping to block out the harsh rays of the sun.

“Your birdhouse looks beautiful,” he said to her quietly, perhaps to spare John from hearing the praise when James had only criticized his birdhouse.

She nodded to the bucket of water he had also returned with, “For the brushes?”

James ran his thumb along the metal handle and then nodded towards John, who was trying to avoid Penelope’s kiss, “There’s paint in his hair, but yes, feel free to clean the brushes. And here,” he said, handing her another small basket he was carrying close to his hip.

Taking it from him, Miranda sat up straight and excited as she lifted the lid and peered inside. Another pair of paintbrushes were on the top, but more importantly, there were at least a dozen little jars stacked up in rows, each filled with a different, vibrant colored paint. It was wonderful.

“Come here,” she said, beckoning him down to give him a soft kiss of thanks.

James nodded with a pleased expression, then went around to John, and thunked the bucket down near his left ear. John looked away from Penelope, tilting his head to the side, and smiling up at James who was now kneeling beside him. Without a word, James took a wet cloth from the bucket, held out the ringlets that were streaked white, and set about cleaning them before the paint could dry.

Miranda found herself adoring the way John’s expression melted from surprise to a comfortable, soft look of wonderment. These were acts James would have certainly restrained himself from mere days ago, and now, for the first time, he was shyly entering into a moment of intimacy while she and Thomas were around. She was grateful for the openness, as there was something beautiful about witnessing two people fall in love a little bit more every second they spent together. She was there for Thomas and James and now for James and John. It was a story that would never grow stale.

John’s hand reached up and, with a newfound ease, he cupped his hand behind James’ neck and lifted himself up enough to leave a chaste kiss behind before he returned to the blanket.

“Guess I do have a habit of ending up on my back,” John said with warmth, and James narrowed his eyes before looking to Miranda, who answered with an unbothered shrug and then returned to inspecting the jars and checking all the new colors available to her.

Thomas held back a chuckle at the innuendo. “Don’t get too carried away while Miranda and I are here,” he warned gently.

“Has this monster not told you about the two week restriction he’s placed on me?” John asked incredulously.

“They don’t need to know about that,” James said, sounding mildly uncomfortable.

Miranda looked away from her deep blue paint that she had mixed with white to achieve a decent sky-blue color, and to James who was coloring a decidedly red shade. Now she absolutely had to know.

“It’s unbelievable how modest he is with you two,” John said, while inspecting his hair to see if any paint was left. “He’s punishing me.”

Punishing?” both her and Thomas repeated, then glanced at each other with equally entertained expressions.

Then, John broke out into shrieks of laughter as James flicked water from the bucket at him. “Think of the birdhouse—the paint is still wet,” John reasoned between his cries, while holding up the object as a shield.

James relented easily enough and then took his place next to Thomas, lying down and trying to puzzle out what tomorrow’s weather would be like based on the height of the clouds and the direction they were coming from. Penelope also left John in peace, to take her spot next to James. Miranda too filled in the space between Penelope and John. They were like spokes of a wheel, with all their heads nearly touching. The last time they had lain like this, they were by a newly planted orange tree and John had yet to enter the picture so thoroughly. She was very glad to have him here now.

“John has told me that he has a very low tolerance for pain,” Miranda said teasingly. “Keep that in mind, James.”

“Jesus Christ,” James flustered. “I’m withholding sex, not punishing him in whatever way it is you’re thinking.”

Thomas let out an undignified snort.

“He wounds me deeply without even wielding a knife,” John lamented with a theatrical lit to his words.

“I’m going to invest in a gag for you,” James warned without any serious intent, Miranda was sure, but John’s jaw snapped shut with an audible click.

She turned her head to see John sporting flushed cheeks and a look of consideration. “I could be into that,” he said with a surprised little chuckle.

Miranda burst into a fit and buried her face into John’s shoulder to stifle the laughter, brought on by the thought of James awkwardly visiting Max’s to buy whatever toys John requested. How interesting it was that their sweet James had gotten himself into a dominant position with this one. James could be powerful and unyielding as an officer, yes, but Miranda could still hear him embarrassed and whispering about how inappropriate it was for a married woman to visit him alone and how vehemently he had protested the idea of three people sharing a bed. How hard he had wished to be proper and common. How nice it was to see him being more adventurous, daring, and wild with John.

“Alright, Miranda and I have heard enough,” Thomas kindly cut them off before John decided to share any more details about his bedroom interests. “We were painting clouds, yes?”

James readily agreed, obviously relieved to not have to respond to John’s comment. Once Miranda regained her composure, she whispered in John’s ear that she had plenty of literature she could share with him if he wished for further exploration into more unconventional bedroom games. Then, she placed the tray of paints she had mixed onto John’s stomach as he gave an unabashed raise of his brow.

There were extra, unpainted gourds, that she handed to James and Thomas, allowing them the chance to explore a little artistically as well. James complained about his lack of artistic skills, but when John claimed to be better at drawing than him, James set to the task with determined strokes of his brush. Thomas painted with thin, flowing swirls, hardly lifting his brush at all as he was more familiar with clouds than the rest of them. John began broadly painting his entire birdhouse white, deciding to apparently paint the blue sky and leave the clouds behind in the negative space. Miranda continued her slow, detailed study of the butterflies, which looked more like ornate brooches, but she quite liked the effect. Penelope didn’t seem to mind being left out.

John once again tried to find a monkey in the clouds, still adamant that he could draw one correctly. Everyone joined in on the hunt for a monkey-shaped cloud. There were ships with sails made of cotton heads, there was a lion with a mane of white, and a parrot with wings that blew away in the wind.

“That tree is resembles a monkey’s face, wouldn’t you say?” Thomas laughed as he pointed towards the woods.

“I thought we were looking at clouds,” John said, but nonetheless followed Thomas’ line of sight.

“You cannot just watch the clouds. If you are only looking at them, you miss out on everything else around you,” Thomas explained in his often childish, yet wise, way of thinking.

Miranda felt a smile creep onto her lips as Thomas continued to scan the area around them, trying to find more hidden monkey shapes for John to reference. Thomas was a dreamer, John was right about that. He was always searching for the next object he could turn into a shape of his own. It was the fact that Thomas often had his head in the clouds which had attracted her in the beginning. He viewed the world as a place full of magic and wonder, and teeming with endless possibilities. Spending time with Thomas could revive anyone’s imagination, keeping their mind young, and making a dreamer out of them as well.

“That looks like a phoenix, doesn’t it?” James asked with a youthful smile as he pointed up to a bird flying overhead, its wings set on fire by the sun.

Thomas raised his hand, fingers spread wide. “I wonder where it’s headed,” he mused.

John joined them, stretching a hand out, and letting his blue and white painted fingertips touch both Thomas and James’ hands. “Maybe it’s looking for a place to stay.”

A tender love came to Miranda at John’s soft spoken words, and for the first time she considered that there might not be a definite end encroaching upon them. The only limit they had placed on their time together was one that she had written hastily, without deliberation, and frankly, she doubted the contract was what kept John here.

Now, it sounded as if their wandering thief wished to stop running.

Miranda lifted both her hands, holding her gourd and paintbrush to the sky. “Then, we shall hang up our birdhouses and offer it a home, here with us, for as long as it desires.”

Chapter Text

The gathering of people around the white stone, two storey building could not be called a crowd by any stretch of the imagination, but there were more people than James would have expected to show up, especially on a day like today. A man walked by, holding onto his hat to prevent a gust of wind from carrying it away, while giving a cursory glance at the podium being set up for the governor. Muldoon, a man who James only knew by name because he stopped John in the streets nearly every time he was in town, was currently leaning against the post of a streetlight and chatting with John. They both looked up at the ominous, grey clouds that were barreling overhead. Thunder rumbled in the distance as if to deter others from venturing out to witness the library’s grand opening. Muldoon gestured behind him with his thumb—an invitation of some kind—and John gave a loose smile.

James left the front landing of the library and strode up behind John, putting a hand on his shoulder. John turned his head away from Muldoon, and up to him with a sly little upturn of his lip. “Are you going to join us?” he asked John, nodding back to where Miranda and Thomas were taking their places.

“Me? How would it look for a rowdy thief to join the affluent Hamiltons on stage?” John questioned, sounding entirely rhetorical.

“There isn’t a person in Nassau who doesn’t already know that you live with us,” he shifted his eyes to Muldoon briefly, and the man gave a small, tight-lipped nod in acknowledgement.

John crossed his arms, and leaned cock-sure into James’ chest, “And how would it look for me to be standing next to Lieutenant McGraw given all the scandalous rumors going around?”

“I don’t really give a fuck how it looks,” James answered easily.

The rumors, all beginning with John’s drunken night at the brothel and tavern a week ago, had evolved from mock performances of John trying fruitlessly to seduce a stoic James, into wild, fabricated tales where people claimed to have witnessed John and him in all manner of compromising positions. It was hard to say how many of those stories had been seeded by John himself, but it was clear that he was more than willing to stoke the fire. James, well, he was used to the heat by now.

John looked back to Muldoon, sporting his wide, happy smile. “I suppose I’ll have to get a rain check on that drink, then, M. Unless you plan on waiting for me until after—”

“You’re coming into the library after the speech,” James instructed John, while giving a hard stare at Muldoon, who was looking rather perturbed by the entire exchange.

Another loud clap of thunder sounded nearer.

Muldoon, at least, caught the message and gave some comment about how he wasn’t keen on getting caught in the rain. Before John could do something outrageous, like wave, wink, or hug the man, James turned them away and began leading John back to the stairs.

‘M’ ?” James mocked. “You weren’t even trying to mask that attempt at foolery.”

“I got your attention didn’t I,” John said with a half-shoulder shrug and a smug expression that James wished he could wipe off his face. “He’s a nice guy, you know,” John added, truly pushing his luck.

“Then you are a terrible person for using him as a means to evoke my jealousy,” James answered.

“What if I actually like him?” John asked wickedly, but James was done rising to the bait.

“It would be hypocritical of me to forbid you from pursuing anyone when you know who I go to bed with each night,” James shrugged as they moved to the space at the side of the podium and both Miranda and Thomas gave them a smile from the other side of the stage.

John returned the smiles and then stood shoulder to shoulder with James. With a cocky grin, he continued to push the subject, “While they are comfortable with this sort of thing, I don’t buy for a moment that you’re unbothered by the idea of me with someone else. Plus,” he began like it was an inconsequential afterthought, “I like it when you’re possessive of me.”

James quirked his lip into a smirk. “Do you? Then I admit,” he gripped John’s shoulder a little tighter and leaned in to his ear, “I ran Muldoon off because he only took an interest in you after you let every man on the island know that you weren’t particular about who was doing the fucking.”

John didn’t falter as he looked out over the public they were standing before, practically preening. “Funny how that worked. I attracted a whole new set of admirers,” he paused, chuckling. “Many of them are going to be talking about you parading me up here on stage like I belong to you. I wonder if there are bets on whether or not you’ve taken me yet.”

“You’re insufferable today, do you know that?” James said with amusement as he too peered over what could now be called a small crowd. He removed his hand from John’s shoulder, but stood with his head held high, his hands clasped behind his back in a commanding posture, and the hilt of his sword bared.

“All day, you’ve been striding around like you own the whole damn island. I don’t usually have the pleasure of seeing you while you’re on duty, Lieutenant,” John said with an appreciative hum. James didn’t give him the satisfaction of a reaction, and John—having a modicum of respect—  lost his chance to continue as Thomas took to the stand.

Thomas began his speech by thanking those that had shown up on a less than favorable day, and then quickly entered into discussion of the importance of the written word. Though Thomas was the only speaker, his style of oration often made it feel as if there was a dialogue taking place between himself and the spectators, and if anyone doubted the value of a library, Thomas was sure to have swayed their mind after his clever, but succinct, appraisal. Eleanor and Vane also made it into the speech for their work in raising the library, though Vane did not appear to have attended the opening ceremony. James reserved a bit more spite for the gruff man at his disinterest in civic affairs.

Lastly, Thomas called Miranda forward and the two stood together like a king and a queen as they publicly announced the schoolhouse. James stood, their proud knight, and even John visibly perked up when Miranda issued a thank you his way. For once, John was proud about something that was deserving of praise, so James nudged John lightly with his elbow, and gave him a rewarding nod.

A drizzle of rain began just as Thomas stepped away from the podium and opened the double doors of the library.

The interior was dim, as the primary source of lighting came from the large windows on the northern and southern walls, but it was dim in the way a cozy bedroom would be as one sat inside, warm and dry, while rain pattered against the windows, decorating the panes with rivulets. Along opposing walls and in a dozen, free-standing rows, were the shelves. Thousands of books had already found a home here, and more would arrive weekly to fill the various sections that could be perused. Two staircases, one on either side, led up to the second floor balcony, where only a scattering of tomes were present currently, but the potential for more was just as beautiful a sight.

In the middle aisle, were long, cherry tables, complete with cushioned chairs for zealous reading sessions. Already seated at one table, was Mister DeGroot, who had been helpful in securing a number of deals for the library. Further back, in the center of the library, was a circular desk for the librarians, where Anne stood, wearing a dress of all things, which James suspected Max must have supplied her with and likely also convinced her to wear. Anne looked uncomfortable and out of place.

“This is impressive,” John said from beside him as they entered, “and I thought the outside looked nice. Vane sure knows how to deliver,” he added, though James was almost certain the mention of Vane was done solely to annoy him.

Miranda slid passed them, her arm linked with Thomas’, as she went, “James, show John the cookbooks we have acquired. He could copy out a great deal of recipes from them.”

James nodded in agreement and added that she should tell Anne that a dress wasn’t a requirement for being a librarian. Making Anne more comfortable, and therefore less prone to aggravation, would be essential if he hoped to make this job stick.

“Maybe I should get a job here,” John said softly as James led them to the right and behind the rows. “Earn some extra coin so I can sail comfortably to New England when you let me go.”

There was a flash of lightning, followed quickly by a clap of thunder, which jolted his heart, and then, a barrage against the roof as the downpour began.

“Who says I’m letting you go?” James replied before his thoughts could properly warn him against such a statement. He didn’t dare look back to see how John reacted to such foolish words, so instead he moved to bury his blunder, “Not to mention, you couldn’t possibly stay quiet long enough to hold a position here.”

For a long moment, too long a moment, John said nothing. Their footsteps—nearly in tune with each other—were all that indicated to James that John was still following. The rows of books passed by invitingly, but there was already a destination in mind. When James stopped, as they reached the shelves with books pertaining to kitchens and cooking, he felt John’s hand catch the elbow of his longcoat. Still, he didn’t look back.

“I can stay…” John whispered barely above the sound of the rain, letting his sentence hang in the space around them. Then, just as James finally turned his head, the conclusion came, “...quiet.”

The quiet rang like a funeral toll. If only the sentence had been left unended. One word less and James would have held John tight and promised to never let him go.

“I can stay quiet,” John repeated, moving in front of James, tugging him closer by the sleeve, and looking up at him with a defiant spark in his eyes.

Quickly, James returned the look with a roving gaze, further burying his own disappointment over the lack of sincerity or vulnerability from John. Still, James was determined not to let his overly hopeful thoughts ruin what he had gained, and John remained consistently clear about which goal he hoped to achieve.

All week, John had been vying for his attention, for gentle kisses, for ravenous kisses, for more. John could turn on the heat in his gaze at will, and more often than not, the moment James entered a room alone with him, John’s entire demeanor would shift towards that of a challenge. If he was in a chair, John would relax back into it, spread his legs a little wider, and run his hand up his thigh steadily, suggestively. If he was standing, he would bend one knee, pop his hip, and tuck his hair back to reveal his bare neck. God forbid if he had anything in his hands, because then John would be likely to fondle the object in ways that even Miranda would deem immodest.

James could steel himself against the inviting displays, but as the days wore on, John’s impatience grew more palpable, and James had gathered that John worked himself up more with his teasings than he did James. Two weeks may have been pushing John to his limit, and even though James did enjoy denying him, he also enjoyed giving those he loved everything they wanted. Assuaging John, just a little, couldn’t hurt.

As a definitive answer to John’s current challenge, James gave him an appreciative leer. Moving his hand to John’s waist, James walked him steadily backwards until his back thudded against the shelves, stopping the movement. John let out a pleased sigh as he melted against them. Even with the storm outside, and with the shadows of the shelves providing them cover, it was light enough to see the eagerness in John’s face. His lashes were lowered as his eyes were already fixed on James’ mouth, his lips were parted in waiting, and his tongue glistened in a flash of lightning.

“To think, you punched someone for calling you a whore,” James said in a hushed tone, not at all intending his words to be read as an insult. He knew Max well enough to understand the value of wielding a measure of sexual prowess.  

“Mm, maybe I should work at Max’s. I could be the first of her boys,” John said, biting his lip and drawing James to stand between his legs, their thighs warm against each other.

James settled his other hand over John’s head, and John responded by sinking a little lower, allowing James to tower over him despite their heights differing by only a couple of inches. This had by far become James’ favorite moments, the moments in which John yielded to him with his body while still defying with his words. The thrill of it, knowing John—headstrong and capable of weaseling his way out of so many situations—wanted to be here, relinquishing himself.

The crash of thunder just overhead shook them to their core and James wanted nothing more than to wrangle the lightning and command it to course through John, drawing the hairs of his skin to stand on end, sparking his blood with desire, and setting alight every fiber of his being.

James leaned down, breath ghosting against John’s ear, “I thought we established this. You belong to me.”

In the quiet, James could hear John swallow even if he tried to cover it with bravado. “You think just showing me off in town would be enough for you to make that claim? You severely underestimate how desirable I am,” he bragged, while bringing his hand to the edge of James’ Navy coat and running his fingers over the buttons.

“How desirable you are, I am intimately aware,” James emphasized with a graze of his teeth against the lobe, pulling a half-swallowed, pleasured hum from John, while at the same time trailing his hand from John’s waist, to the bone of his hip, to the soft flesh of his thigh, his thumb rubbing along the dip of John’s pelvis.

The surprise of it made John jerk only slightly, but enough to displace books from the shelf on the other side, making them both nervously chuckle. James supposed the thudding of the novels to the floor was equal to the thudding of both their hearts. Of all the heated kisses and time spent pressed close to each other, James had never allowed their hands to drift further south than the loops of their trousers. This was uncharted territory, but that did not deter him—nerves would not deter him when he knew he had the upper hand.

“But you are forgetting just who I am,” James continued, taking John’s hand away from the coat, entwining their fingers, mixing the sweat of their palms, and returning their hands to the space above John’s head. John sank lower. “I came to Nassau when men killed each other over a few coins. I came, when the doctrine of the land was ‘the strong take what they want.’ Those pirates, your...admirers,” he scoffed, “I took their crews from them. I took their ships from them. I took the lawlessness from them. I took the whole damn island from them. Then, when they were begging me for mercy, I offered them forgiveness in the form of a pardon. And they’d thank me for it. For all of it.

“So, when I led you up those stairs to stand you next to me, with Nassau as witness, they knew that display for what it was. The most desirable man of Nassau is my prize and there’s not a person here who would dare take from me that which is mine,” he snarled, lowly and possessively, letting his fingers move from John’s thigh to brush, tantalizingly, over the front of his trousers, feeling just how his words affected the younger man. Pleased him. Aroused him.

John’s breath hitched, as he clenched his hands onto James to ground himself, trying desperately to hold onto the last of his control. Control James was stripping from him. “I stole from you,” John exhaled, less of a challenge and more a confession.

James almost hesitated in his game, surprised to hear John even think of the paintings at a time like this, when his goal was practically in sight. To ease his mind, James pressed his nose into the lavender scented curls, soothingly kissed his jaw, and offered his grace, “You’re forgiven.”

As if he had found salvation, John uttered, “Thank you.”

They met in an ardent, open-mouthed kiss, that was not at all holy, while James brought his hand to the leather belt, sliding it from the buckle, and fumbling with the button that was almost too large for the buttonhole.

“Fuck,” John breathed out, all his easy talk falling away. “Are we actually doing this in a library?” he asked, sounding genuinely unsure, which was not at all the reaction James had been expecting.

Instead of kissing John’s neck and slipping his hand below John’s waistband, which had been the plan, James pulled back to see John looking down the empty aisle. “That is what you were suggesting, wasn’t it?” James raised an eyebrow when John looked back up to him.

John tugged his bottom lip between his teeth, nervously this time, rather than seductively. “Well, honestly, I didn’t expect you to go for it. We’re in public and—”

“I would hear if anyone were approaching.”

John gave a look of consideration before he moved his hand from James’ elbow, sliding down his forearm, and pulling James’ hand away from the end of the belt. John remained unsettled. “Can you just kiss me?” he requested.

“You’re turning down a hand job?” James couldn’t even mask his surprise.

“You said two weeks,” John reminded him, a blush rising onto his cheeks. “And when I said I could be quiet, I was only expecting you to do what we usually do, not this. I don’t think I can be quiet if you actually touch me,” he said sincerely, brow furrowing in confusion at his own words.

It was endearing, the way John looked equally surprised that he had been the one to put a halt to James. How John was the one accepting the punishment with dignity and proving that he could endure just as well as James. However, there was also an emotion too close to trepidation creeping into John’s shoulders, which were tensing, and eyes, which were now flitting about skittishly.

“I won’t do anything you don’t want me to,” James assured him, suddenly concerned that he had done something wrong. He brought their linked hands away from above John and urged him to stand straight, though John didn’t move away from the shelves. For extra measure, James untangled his hands from John’s and began fastening his buckle. “If you’re having second thoughts—”

“What? No, I want you,” John stated clearly, face to face for the first time, leaving no room for doubt. James nodded, unable to conjure words to answer such a declaration. John continued to hold James close to him, his hands once again finding the edges of James’ longcoat. As he looked down to his hands, shadows falling over his face, his voice grew softer, “I wouldn’t usually decline an encounter as fun as this, I mean, you know I’m not picky about where I find pleasure with women, but...this is going to sound foolish...”

“I won’t laugh,” James said, knowing John never did well in serious situations. Gently, he tucked the curls that had fallen over John’s face back behind his ears.

John whispered, as he fiddled with the buttons again, “It just occurred to me that I’ve had hundreds of flings, but this, I don’t want this to be a hurried affair—not for the first time.”

“How do you want it to be?” James asked just as softly, afraid to startle the atmosphere around them.

The wind and rain were all that answered as it felt like minutes ticked by.

John appeared less confident than James had ever seen him before. More vulnerable. James wished he could join the war that was going on within his mind, battle away the insecurities, and bring John back with him. Of course, John had weathered many storms without James, so it was no surprise when he returned from his thoughts with victory in his eyes.

“I want us to be different,” John said.

“You want us to be different?” James repeated, wishing to take apart every word of that sentence to make its meaning clear.

John, returning from his low state, gave a wry smile, “Though I suppose that’s a given, since you’re a man and all. Different by design.”

That wasn’t a satisfying answer at all. James frowned. It bordered on insulting. This wasn’t the first time John had commented on the novelty of their relationship since their first kiss either. Once, he had spoken at length about how much he liked the feel of James’ beard, which had been nice, until John soured the moment in the end by saying how different the sensation was to his usual kisses. In the kitchen, just yesterday, John had stopped them to compare the sizes of their hands, lining up the planes of their palms and fingers, saying how unusual it was for him to be with someone with larger hands than his. Or when John had so very intelligently stated, ‘You don’t have breasts.’

James was aware that this was all a new experience for John—who practically lived for newness—but it only reinforced James’ thoughts that, once the two weeks were up, once he gave John what he wanted, and once the surface level attraction faded into familiarity, John would move on to continue to ‘expand his horizons.’ James McGraw would be another name on a long list of conquests and all their experiences together would be part of another fabricated love story.

I want us to be different. James could have said those very words, but they would have meant so much more.

Footsteps became audible, startling James, and instead of pressing the matter further, James stepped away and John finally left the support of the shelves. John disappeared around to the other side, began putting the fallen books back where they belonged, and just before whoever was coming rounded the corner, John returned with his nose between the pages of a thick volume, looking put together and engrossed in the reading.

Miranda appeared. Of course, James should have known the Hamiltons would be the only ones venturing back into the cooking section. He relaxed at her greeting smile. Then, she went to John and tipped up the book he had to read the title.

Pâtisserie,” she read aloud. “That’s perfect for you.”

John gave her a delighted smile and showed her the recipe he was reading, though James suspected he had just flipped to a random page, “It practically jumped off the shelf at me.”

James laughed through his nose and waved away Miranda’s confused look.

“You know French?” she asked and James too looked to John for his answer.

“I speak it much better than I read it, but if I need a translation I could always ask Max,” he said easily enough that it most likely was the truth. “This is a recipe for gâteau au chocolat. Chocolate cake.”

“I didn’t know you could read French,” James said sounding mildly impressed.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me. Plus, spend enough time in the West Indies and you’re bound to pick up a new language,” John shrugged. “I could help you read Lazarillo de Tormes, so you aren’t referencing the dictionary every few lines. My Spanish is much more advanced than my French.”

Miranda smiled, “Talented tongue.”

John stuck his tongue out playfully and made a face when Miranda tapped it with the tip of her finger, something she often did to Penelope as well.

“Now, what are you making a cake for?” she asked. “Is your birthday soon?”

“Oh, um,” John looked back down into the cookbook, thinking too hard over such a simple question. “I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so?” James repeated, taken aback by the answer.

“My earliest memories are of Saint John’s and I didn’t exactly come with a record. So, no, I don’t think so,” John said back testily, drawing in on himself.

“How old are you?” Miranda asked as she rested a hand on John’s shoulder.

John gave a sullen smirk. “Twenty for a pretty woman. Twenty-five for a con.”

The book was closed with a snap and John extricated himself from the conversation by saying that he was going to put it away. James resisted following after him and was thankful when Miranda came to give a peck to his cheek, whispering that John’s past was not something they should lament, but rather they should offer him a better present.

When John rejoined them, James put an arm around his shoulder, kissed the top of his head, and asked that, when they return home, John join him on the chaise, where together they could continue the Spanish novel and John could help him to better understand Lázaro and all his wiles.

Chapter Text

Penelope sat, wagging her tail and watching as her humans rummaged through the cupboards, drawers, and pantry for pans, wooden spoons, and bowls. Miranda suspected that, should the dog have the ability to talk, she would know the location of the utensils better than both Miranda and Thomas, who had been in the kitchen only a handful of times.

The kitchen was John’s domain, and it showed. There seemed to be no order to the placement of the items here. One was just as likely to find a knife in a cup as they were a banana in a drawer. How James had ever learned this haphazard arrangement was anyone’s guess. Though not all the discoveries were met with raised eyebrows and confusion. The most adorable finding had been the aprons, which were personalized with what appeared to be blueberry stains. The apron Thomas was currently wearing had Lieutenant Grumpy Face scrawled across the front, while Miranda’s apron read Teasing Little Shit. Miranda, in particular, wore hers proudly.  

Donning the aprons, unfortunately, had not helped them come any closer to understanding the minds of their cooks, and Miranda feared this plan of hers was going to end in a smoked up house and burnt food once again. She voiced her opinion as such as she closed an upper cabinet filled with spices that should have been in the pantry.

“We have Idelle’s instructions,” Thomas reminded her, holding up the sheet of paper, which was inked with Idelle’s ever improving calligraphy. “This will be much easier since we are not diving blindly into scaling a fish or mixing up cooking oil with lamp oil.”

Thomas’ optimism was based on facts, certainly, and Miranda felt her own confidence rise as she opened another drawer, finally finding the butter churn, with butter still inside from John’s morning preparations. Penelope barked her encouragement, but Miranda quickly herded her out of the kitchen.

“Let us know if John comes home,” Miranda instructed, as she closed the door on Penelope’s dejected whine.

If Miranda’s plan went as smoothly as she had calculated, John would be out for an hour running her errands and about a half an hour would be spent as he stopped to chat with Joji and Billy. For extra assurance, Max had been asked to stall him if he returned before five. This, in theory, would be enough time to finish their surprise. She only wished she had known just how hard merely finding the tools and ingredients would have been. Time was ticking.

“Is this a ‘3’ or a ‘9’?” Thomas asked, showing Miranda the measurements Idelle had written.

Miranda squinted. “I believe it’s an ‘8’,” she answered with uncertainty.

Evidently, there remained more than enough room for disaster.

Nearly an hour later, there was indeed smoke and a burnt smell in the air. However, that was only because the batter had ran over the edge of the pan. The layers of their dessert remained moist and baked to perfection. Removing the cake from the pan had proven more difficult. Half of the first layer was stuck to the bottom and edges of the metal, while the second layer they had delicately cut out of the pan with a knife. The layers were also oddly shaped—domed at their tops—which Miranda thought was wrong since cakes were flat as far as she knew. They had pressed on though, and were now working to assemble the layers.

“The bottoms of the cakes should be put together, that would be better than filling the gaps with so much icing, wouldn’t you think?” Thomas asked.

“Then the cake is shaped like a sphere and isn’t right at all,” she said, flipping both layers to arrange them how she thought they were meant to be. “You put the layers together like an hourglass.”

Thomas inspected the shape critically, then nodded. “We’re going to need more icing.”

Ten minutes later, and the icing was seemingly melting off the sides and not staying in the gaps at all, not to mention there were chocolate cake crumbs mixed in with the white icing. Worse yet, Penelope barked a happy greeting from outside the kitchen.

Miranda moved to go to the door, hearing, “Watch out for—” from Thomas, but it was too late. She accidentally bumped into the handle of a spoon, which had been hanging over the edge of the counter, causing the spoon to spin and hit their small basket of strawberries, knocking it off the countertop and to the floor.

“Dammit,” she exclaimed, glancing quickly between the strawberries and door.

“Go, go,” Thomas said in a hushed manner, waving her off.

She exited quickly, pulling the doors behind her to keep them from swinging. Then she looked to the foyer, where James—not John—was standing. “Oh, thank goodness,” she sighed.

James greeted her with a wrinkled nose, sniffing the air. “Did John burn something?” he asked.

Miranda took his hand and pulled him into the kitchen as she explained that, no, John did not burn anything, but there was a disaster in the kitchen that required fixing. Thomas smiled as they reentered, giving them a wave with strawberry-tinged fingers.

“The thought came to me today that we should have a birthday for John,” Miranda said, “and what is a decadent birthday celebration without a cake?” she indicated to the pastry that Thomas was now beginning to ice the top of.

“A cake?” James walked up to the counter, inspected the cake from all sides, and then looked up to Miranda with sympathy. “It’s...a unique cake,” he said as a condolence.

It was bad. She knew it was bad. If John had made something like this, James would have scolded him endlessly, possibly tossing the whole thing out and making him start from scratch, but she and Thomas didn’t have time to start over. The cake had to be salvageable.

Thomas sighed and stopped the decorating process, “What went wrong?”

James took his finger, ran it through the icing that was pooling on the counter beneath the cake, and taste tested it. He gave an approving shrug. “The icing is fine, but the cake is still warm. You should have let it cool, then the icing wouldn’t have melted.”

“That’s all? A few minutes of cooling and this would not have ended in such a catastrophe?” Miranda huffed.

“Well,” James paused, looking critically at the dessert again, “there are a number of other, minor improvements that could have been made. Why didn’t you ask for my help earlier?” he asked then, knowing he was the only one with culinary skills between the three of them, though desserts were not his strong suit either.

“As I said, I only just thought of the idea today,” Miranda said, returning to Thomas’ side, taking the piping bag from him, and returning to the task that was likely beyond hope by now.

“You could have waited a day before executing the plan,” James pointed out to her. “Give yourself time to actually...plan. It’s unlike you to dive into something so quickly.”

“That would be my fault,” Thomas said, leaning down to rest his elbows on the counter and looking forlorn. “When she told me that John had no knowledge of his date of birth, and that she would like to celebrate him by baking a cake for him, I thought, why wait? We were at the library hunting down the recipe she found John reading before I even gave her the chance to properly think about the idea.”

“Then we happened upon Idelle in the library, she translated the recipe, and everything was snowballing,” Miranda looked at the awful decorating she was doing and sighed. Mercifully, James gently took the bag from her and tried his hand at fancying up the poor excuse for a cake. “I would have let you know about the plans, of course, but I got caught up in Thomas’ enthusiasm and entirely forgot myself,” she added, not at all accusatory, as she rested a hand on Thomas’ shoulder to comfort him.

“What about gifts?” James asked, as if suddenly thinking it was John’s actual birthday and that he should have bought something for him.

Miranda brightened up, remembering how well she had planned parts of this spontaneous celebration. “Rest assured, John will be receiving plenty of gifts.”

* * *

Behind a ramshackle cart, which was stacked tall with bundles of assorted flowers, a short, elderly woman poked her head around her goods and beckoned Silver nearer. Her skin was dark and ridged like the bark of an old tree. She waved off a bee that had landed in her long, silver hair. “John Silver,” she repeated his name with a weathered, but welcoming voice.

Silver adjusted the leather-bound notebook and the package under his arm and walked over to the flower stand with a bright smile. Today was proving to hold a great deal of surprises for him and, at this point, he wasn’t even going to question being called by a woman who he was quite certain he had never introduced himself to.

It all started with Joshua, who he had gone to per Miranda’s request to pick up a dress she had gotten tailored. Just before leaving the shop, Joshua had told him that a wealthy man had offered to pay for a new outfit for Silver. At first, Silver had assumed one of his new admirers were planning to actively pursue him, which was a daunting thought, but Silver wasn’t one to turn down anything that was free, so he allowed himself to be scheduled for a measuring session.

Then, when he went to see Billy and was handed the notebook, Silver got suspicious, because Billy always made a point not to get involved in drama or romantic pursuits. Silver had tried to get information out of him as to who this man leaving gifts behind was—he had nearly guessed James, because who else would Billy help—but Billy answered that a woman had asked him to bind the pages in leather and he would say no more.

Next, at the forge, Joji had offered Silver a charcoal pencil and a bar of soap infused with orange zest. Silver had then asked if Miranda was behind this, but Joji looked entirely puzzled by the suggestion and said Billy had asked him to make the pencil to go along with the notebook. The soap, Miranda had suggested he try making, but Joji swore on his sword that she hadn’t spoken to him at all today.

Now, Silver was thrumming with excitement over the thought of more gifts waiting to be discovered. When the old woman stepped up on a few crates to get a better view of her stand, Silver watched with a pattering in his heart as she slowly pulled sunflowers and lilacs from their bundles. With knobby fingers, stained green from years of flower cutting, she carefully arranged the bouquet, dispersing the green foliage among the purples and yellows.

Taking a long inhale of the fragrance from her arrangement, she said, “Smells of love.” She held out the bouquet for him, and he took it, not at all self-conscious about smelling it immediately after. “A lady is waiting for you,” the woman said then, nodding down the thoroughfare.

Silver turned, half expecting to see Miranda, but instead saw Max sitting on the white railing of The Harbour ’s porch.

“I suppose the flowers have been paid for?” Silver asked, not wanting to accidentally cheat the florist out of coin.

The woman shooed him off with a rumbling chuckle as she hobbled off the crates and disappeared behind the cart once again.

Smelling the flowers a second time, Silver spun on his heels and went to Max, light-footed, and feeling like he was being guided by a loving hand to the next gift.

“I don’t suppose you’re trying to win my hand,” he said, sounding like he was on the verge of giddy laughter even to himself, because he was now certain that the wealthy man had been Thomas and Miranda was the woman who had spoken to Billy.

“My hands are full, Mister Silver, and yours look to be as well. I will hold onto this if you cannot carry it,” Max teased, pulling up a small, dark-blue, cloth bag tied with a black bow.

Balancing the box containing Miranda’s dress on the railing, Silver set down the flowers on top of it and eagerly held out his hands for the bag. “From Miranda and Thomas?” he had to ask.

“Miranda, yes. Though I do not believe she intends to use these with you,” Max smiled, hovering the bag over his hands. “Votre trésor, on the other hand, he will find many creative ways of pleasing you with these,” she said suggestively as she placed it in his palms. However, the moment he went to pull the end of the bow, she stopped him, “There is a rule. It is not to be opened until your punishment is complete.”

“How do you even know about that?” Silver amusedly shook his head.

“This is what Miranda said and that is all I know, but I could guess as to who is punishing you, why he is punishing you, and likely even how. I have told you before, I know these games far better than you.” She let his hand go and gestured down the street, “Now, listen to me when I say rentrez chez vous. No detour to the tavern.”

Straight back to the townhouse. That was exactly where he wanted to go.

The entire way back he felt like he had to prevent himself from skipping down the road. Any people he met, he would smile at and wish them a good day. A little girl, who had dropped her favorite toy in a mud puddle, wiped away her tears when he gave her a sunflower and told her a good washing would make the doll as good as new.

Silver practically kept his nose in the flowers like they were the source of his geniality, and if he was being honest with himself—which he always tried to be—they were. He could count on one hand the number of times he had been gifted anything and on his remaining fingers he could count the number of times he had been this blissful. More than half his fingers were memories gained since meeting James and the Hamiltons. Right now, all he wanted was to go to them, hug them, and thank them.

When Silver entered the front door, he was first greeted by Penelope, who had a purple bow tied around her neck. She barked her request for pets, so Silver set his gifts on the top of the small table in the foyer and greeted her properly. There was also a lovely smell in the air, something freshly baked.

Miranda poked her head out of the dining room, her hair done up elegantly as if for a formal occasion, and Silver was quite certain his own emotions were so high that he could kiss her at this moment.

“Would you believe a young woman, wealthy and beautiful enough to have any man in the world, left me a trail of breadcrumbs to follow back to her quarters?” Silver grinned. “I come bearing a gown for you, my queen,” he bowed exaggeratedly and held out the box for her.

Miranda took it from him, merely setting it to the side again, and then kissed his cheek in what he assumed was a thanks, or maybe a you’re welcome.

“You’ve yet to find the treasure at the end of the journey,” she said with an air of mystery, as she linked her arm in his, lead him into the dining room, and sat him at the table. She stood behind him and then brought her hands to cover his eyes, cloaking his sight in darkness. “Come in,” she said, not to Silver but towards the kitchen, where Silver heard the doors swing open and several footsteps follow.

“The three of us love you very much,” he heard Thomas say, so earnestly that Silver suddenly felt at a loss for words, “and we are happy your adventurous lifestyle brought you to us, aren’t we James?” Thomas encouraged.

Silver brought his hands to Miranda’s, silently asking her to move them away, because this was all too much anticipation, but then he heard something being set on the table, James gave a light noise of agreement, and Miranda’s hands fell away.

“Happy birthday,” the three of them said in unison, just as Silver took in the sight of a lopsided cake, splotched with white icing that was refusing to stay in place, speckled with crumbs, and decorated in three entirely different styles. There were strawberries cut and arranged nicely on top, though one had what suspiciously looked like a fingerprint in it. It was, by all accounts, the ugliest cake he had ever seen.

It was beautiful.

He looked up to see Thomas wearing James’ apron and James wearing Teasing Little Shit. Thomas was smiling, warm and loving. James was looking at the cake like it was a personal offense. Miranda’s hand squeezed his shoulder. Silver almost reminded them that today wasn’t his birthday, but they knew that. Of course, they knew that. He didn’t have a birthday. So they gave him one.

For the first time in his life, he was beginning to understand the meaning behind the word family. A word that had always left a bitter taste in his mouth and an uncomfortable crawl down his spine, now conjured an image of a mahogany dining table basked in sunlight, with white porcelain plates, polished silverware, and three people watching him with kindness as he wove together a story for them to smile and laugh at.

The word home, which had been as foreign to him as the idea of warm meals every day, now brought to him memories of a candlelit drawing room, of dancing without music, of an orange tree and a kennel, and of goodnight wishes. Even though he was only a guest in Thomas, Miranda, and James’ lives for a little while, he knew the warmth of this house, this home, had already seeped into his skin and settled in his bones.

The word love, he thought he had known, but his previous impression was a shallow imitation of what he now felt in the blooming gardens of his heart. Love held such vast and varying meanings that he finally understood why poets chose to describe the feeling in pages upon pages of text but were never satisfied with the results.

Love to him was not a word, but three names and three faces and an adorable mutt, that were all watching him as his throat closed up, his vision went blurry, and he began crying over his birthday cake. Love was the swishing of Penelope’s tail over the wooden floor. Love was Miranda standing behind him and wrapping her arms around his shoulders. Love was Thomas plating a slice and sliding it to him. Love was James reaching across the table and holding his hand.

Love chased away the loneliness.

Through his tears, he took his fork, cut off a bite-sized piece, and brought it to his mouth. Tastes of love, he heard the florist’s voice in his head.

“It’s good,” he said with a shaky laugh, brimming over with more emotions than he knew how to express. “It’s the best cake I’ve ever had.”

* * *

They retired to the drawing room for tea after a light dinner consisting mostly of fruits and cheeses. James watched as John fluttered about, putting flowers in various vases, and brightening up the room. The smile never left John’s face, but after his tearful moment at the table, he had only spoken a few words and limited much of his interactions to nods. Miranda assured James that nothing was wrong. According to her, John had been overwhelmed was all, and he became quiet when he was overwhelmed.

John sat across the armchair, legs propped up on the arm, and he remained quiet as Miranda and Thomas chattered about planting a vegetable garden, complete with potatoes, peas, carrots, and cabbages. He was writing in a notebook—another gift the Hamiltons had gotten for him. Every so often John would stare at the far wall and, in one such moment, James followed his gaze to the two frames, still empty, but no longer carrying the weight of something lost. For James, those stolen paintings were a cheap payment for what he had found. Miranda would agree, no doubt, even if she had loved those paintings. Thomas would likely say how material objects were worthless when compared to human relations. When John looked at them, James wondered what he was seeing.

When the tea and biscuits were finished, their nightly routine brought them to the library, where Miranda and Thomas settled into their respective chairs after lighting the candles, and James silently held up Lazarillo, inviting John to the chaise longue if he liked.

The past five nights had been spent in the chaise, with John nestled between his legs as they squeezed onto the seat made for one. James often had one leg hanging off the edge to give John a little more room. The first night, they had begun reading where James left off—more than half way through the novella. The next night, James started at the beginning, claiming he probably hadn’t understood it as well as he thought, but truthfully, he started over because he wanted as many nights as possible in their candlelit library, with John resting against his chest. The third night, John had read to him, satin smooth, with tongue trills, and varying voices. The fourth, James reread the previous chapter to understand the words this time around. The fifth, John had asked him to read aloud, which had been a torturous affair, and John laughed at him.

If James got lost in the memories of those nights, he could almost imagine that he was feeling what it was like to be loved by John.

This night, in a surprising change, John scooted James’ legs off the chaise entirely and wordlessly settled his head onto James’ lap as he took over the rest of the seat. Without the stars to gaze up at, John could only look up at him. Then, John took James’ hand and pressed it against his head in a clear request. James stilled momentarily, but when John gave him a hopeful expression, he decided not to argue against the sudden neediness. It was, after all, John’s birthday.

With the book forgotten on a table, James weaved his fingers into John’s hair, as one would weave a basket, and gently teased out any tangles as he brushed through the soft curls. By the fourth pass, John had closed his eyes and James’ hand ran smoothly through his locks. Arguing against this would have been foolish, James had wanted to calmly, lovingly play with John’s hair for such a long time. When he began separating the curls into smaller ringlets, he had a passing thought of taking a lilac and decorating John’s hair with the little purple flowers—John had looked quite handsome with lavender.

“I love your hair,” he whispered, testing the feel of the word love on his tongue as it was spoken to John. The utterance made his heart hum. James twirled a curl around his index finger, “I love your curls.” James wondered if these moments—comfortable, intimate, and without desire—meant to John what they meant to him. Were they reading from the same pages, or were they on entirely different books? “I love—”

“James, my love,” Thomas said affectionately from his seat, where he was watching them, “he’s asleep.”

“Oh,” James answered, feeling embarrassment creep up onto his cheeks as he looked at John’s relaxed features.

It would be a shame to wake him, James thought. Instead, he carefully watched the steady rise and fall of John’s chest to catalogue just how he slept, so that next time, he would know if John could hear him.

When Miranda and Thomas decided to call it a night and James’ leg was prickling from having fallen asleep under John’s weight, James finally decided to rouse sleeping beauty. Of course, this beauty protested with an annoyed groan and a face buried further into James’ thigh, though James did manage to eventually persuade him to standing. With half-conscious, lethargic steps, John allowed himself to be led upstairs. He was too tired to even shed his shirt.

Blearily, with covered yawns, the four of them crowded into the bathroom and took turns washing their faces and rinsing out their mouths. A warm, comfortable silence blanketed their routine. Only ambient noises of swishing water and nocturnal songs filled the room. Then the sounds of their bare feet, sticking slightly to the wood floor from the humid night, accompanied them as they headed to their bedrooms.

Miranda, Thomas, and James all gave scattered goodnight wishes to John as they paused at his door.

John leaned against the frame, letting it carry much of his weight, but gave no answer. He tucked his hair behind his ear, still with sleep laden movements, and then he reached out, touching his fingertips over the back of James’ hand, making gooseflesh rise up James’ arm. John’s voice sounded half in a dream when he asked, “Stay with me?”

James remained unmoving as he felt the moment narrow to the feather-light touch and to John’s unguarded eyes, which were drooping with the weight of the day. Those eyes drifted to Miranda and Thomas and John gave a nod and a‘night as Miranda kissed James on the cheek, took Thomas’ hand, and led the two of them away. James was left to figure this out on his own.

The rush of his blood and the rapid, caged beating of his heart made it too hard to think of a proper response. He was supposed to have one more day to prepare himself for this moment.

John’s fingers curled around James’ thumb. “One more day, I know,” John voiced what James had been about to protest, “but can we—Let’s just forget about numbers. T’night, I don’t want to be alone.”

James fiddled with the buttons of his cuff with his free hand and caressed John’s knuckles with the other. He didn’t want John to be alone either.

“It’s my birthday,” John said, coaxing James with a tiny smile and an answering caress. “Please?”

A low, swooping sensation overcame him and he knew the request was undeniable. How easily he was swayed by the ones he loved. If John asked for his heart, James would lift it from his chest, tie it with a ribbon, and present it without question.

Through barely parted lips, James let out a slow, controlled exhale, expelling his qualms and blowing away his reservations. One more day wouldn’t make him more prepared anyhow. Tonight, he knew that he was not going to reject John, and so, with their eyes locked, he nodded his consent.

Crossing this threshold meant irrevocably giving every part of himself over to this love—parts only two other people in the world had ever known. He stepped forward. It meant giving John the means to hurt him irreparably, and trusting that he wouldn’t. He entered the room. It meant hoping that John was in this for more than a few casual, curious nights under the sheets. He pulled John inside. It meant that he had tonight to prove to John that his name did not belong on a list of those left behind. He closed the door.

When they kissed, James kissed him like they were on the same book, on the same page, and he was the one teaching John a new language.

If John wanted this to be different, then James would show him that the difference went beyond the physical. If John wanted this to not be a hurried affair, then James would give him a slow, rapturous evening of being made and unmade, again and again, by the hands of one who loved him unconditionally.

Slowly, until James was intimately familiar with the mountain range of John’s spine, with the valley between his thighs, and with his every meandering vein. Reverently, until the only word passing John’s lips was the name of his creator, until the only smell he knew was of their sweat, and until the only taste on his tongue was the ambrosia he was offered. Lovingly, until they found the heavens in each other’s eyes, until together they grasped the stars, until they collapsed into one another as celestial bodies, earning their day of rest, before the cycle continued and they breathed life into each other once again.

Chapter Text

The twittering of morning songbirds greeted John as wakefulness drew him out of sugar-coated dreams. Even before opening his eyes, he could sense that the room was basked in sunlight, which warmed his bare skin and reminded him that he had slept in long past breakfast. From where he was lying on his side, he stretched his arms out over the edge of the bed, noting the welcome soreness of his shoulders. All his muscles, in fact, felt well-used and were humming with morning energy. When he finally opened his eyes, on the nightstand he saw the waxy remains of candles, burnt down to nothing.

He gave a little smile at the melted mess as memories from the night flooded back to him.

Last night, James had insisted that they have some lighting, and though he didn’t say why, John suspected that it was because James had wanted them to see each other. See each other they did. Every inch of one another.

John too had been grateful for the orange glow that granted him sight and bathed the room in an air of romance. He had reveled in the contrast the flickering flames gave to the contours of James’ face and to the muscles of his body. He had delighted in seeing both real and desirous fires in James’ eyes as he hovered over him. He loved knowing that his every touch was like kindling for the creation of a wildfire.

It had consumed him. He allowed it to consume him. And, not to be painfully overdramatic, but John was quite certain he had risen from the ashes reborn. Or, at the very least, he had been reduced to a puddle much like the candles.

Needless to say, the sex had been phenomenal—whoever condemned sodomy did not know what he was missing. John could even admit to feeling a little regret over the times he had turned down women who offered to pleasure him in such a way, but mostly he was glad to have experienced this with James.

James made all the difference.

John yawned and stretched his legs a little to feel the delicious burn of their coupling.

The only sensation that was lacking this morning was the feel of James’ hands on him, or the warmth of his body pressed to John’s back. John tried to feel if the mattress dipped towards the other side of the bed, if he could hear James’ breathing, or if he had the ability to somehow sense James’ presence behind him, but, with the interference from bird songs and the warming sun, he couldn’t determine if the results were conclusive of the answer he was hoping for.

Just once, just once he wanted to know what it was like to wake up next to someone who cared for him, whom he cared for.

Willing away the feeling of dejection, John gripped the bedsheet, which was mostly pooled on the floor after he must have hogged it during the night. In one last test, thinking that perhaps James had managed to keep some of the covers to himself, John tugged gently on the sheet. It went taught. John buried his face into his pillow to muffle his happy hum of relief. James was still there.

Slowly and as quietly as he could have possibly moved, John rolled onto his other side and drank in the sight of waking up next to a lover. Emphasis on the love. So much emphasis on the love.

James, lying on his back, naked, with the sheet low on his hips, and bathed in morning light was certainly a sight to behold. Auburn hair fanned around him like a lion’s mane. Freckles were sprinkled over his shoulders and across his chest like embers. One arm, also beautifully speckled, was resting low over his torso and through his treasure trail.

Mon tésor,” John whispered, feeling like a romantic sap, but being too blissful to care. Maybe he was a romantic sap. This was all so new to him. “I feel for you,” he said, as his heart startled at how close those words were to the ones he was still terrified of confessing out loud.

James’ chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm, letting John know for certain that he hadn’t woken the light sleeper by speaking. He watched James’ breathing for a long moment, until he couldn’t resist reaching out his hand and hovering it just over James’ heart. “There’s room for me here too, isn’t there?” he asked so softly that he barely heard himself.

Since their first kiss, he had known that he was lost to this, but last night he had learned, without a doubt, that James was there too.

Last night, James had made love to him. John had no comparison for the act, but he knew. He felt it in the way James held him, in every steadily held gaze, and in every utterance of his name.

John floated his hand away from the heart and over to James’ other hand, which was close to John’s face, palm up and fingers slightly curled. John remembered falling asleep holding that hand. He slid his fingers between James’ again, recreating the memory.

The touch stirred James immediately, but his first reaction was to squeeze the hand holding his, like he had been waiting for John to pull him from his dreams the whole time. John watched, entranced, as James tilted his head towards him and gave a lopsided smile before finally blinking his eyes open and squinting against the bright room.

Waking up like this was something John could get used to.

Following the mood and feeling uninhibited, he leaned in giving James a languid kiss, which James answered to with a low rumble in his throat.

“Good morning,” James greeted just as they pulled apart and he nuzzled against John’s nose.

“Morning,” John answered in kind, smiling through his words.

James groaned as he sat up and rolled his shoulders, unknowingly giving John a show of his well-defined back muscles, which John certainly wouldn’t mind getting well acquainted with. He sat up too, and planted a kiss over a particularly dense area of freckles on the back of James’ neck.

“Sleeping with you is like sleeping with a hurricane,” James said.

“Why, thank you. I have been known to bring the ladies back for seconds,” John bragged, and moved his kiss to what could very well have been bite marks that he left behind the night before.

“I meant, you were moving all night and I hardly slept a wink,” James corrected, turning towards John and pushing a shirt towards him. “Remind me never to sleep with you again,” he concluded with a smile that ensured John he was merely joking and that this was in no way a one time thing.

“Then, next time, we’ll have to revisit our foray at the library instead of the bed,” he suggested with a leer at James, who stood to gather the rest of the clothes that had ended up on the floor somewhere or another. “Or, we could make use of my presents and have you tie me to the bedpost and fuck me until—”

His trousers were thrown at his face.

“Christ, you’re more candid than Miranda,” James grumbled, but was clearly suppressing a laugh.

John smirked in return. “You love it.”

The moment James’ eyes softened, John knew he should have chosen his words more carefully. He could see the response hanging on the tip of James’ tongue as his tranquil gaze went to the floor before returning to John’s face, sending a flutter through John. He could read the words before they were even spoken, and he wanted to hear them, God, he wanted them to sweep him away, but the thought of such deep emotions being brought out of his internal thoughts and into reality filled him with trepidation.

Words had power when they were spoken aloud. John knew this well, and he was not fool enough to think himself impervious to the spells they could cast. Such an incantation would cause the ever-growing roots within him to settle deeply enough that he would no longer have the ability to remove himself from this island. Not without acutely feeling their loss. Not without causing himself pain.

“I—” they both began and then froze, waiting for the other to continue.

James, ever the gentleman, gestured for John to finish expressing his thought first.

When John had planned to dive as deeply into this as he could go, he had assumed the initial cliff would have been the largest, most thrilling obstacle. However, next came the need for this to be about more than sex, which felt like being tumbled about by a riptide of unfamiliarity. Now, there were declarations to make, which was the moment he found himself standing at the precipice where the sandy ocean floor fell away into the endless, black abyss of the deep sea.

This time, John lacked the power to surmount his fear by stepping forward despite his lack of courage.

“I—I need to mark off a day,” John recovered, rolling back to the other side of the bed, pulling open his drawer, and retrieving the contract and his inkwell. His buoy. His leaden weight.

This thin sheet of paper was the one thing he could cling to that guaranteed that he still had an exit strategy. He dipped the quill into the swirling ink, stroke through the previous count, and wrote ‘30.’ This sheet, light enough to blow away in the wind, was the one thing that made his chest feel heavy every morning.

When Miranda first wrote ‘90’, he remembered thinking that the sentence was much too long. Now it wasn’t nearly long enough. It was hard to believe all that he had discovered within the span of sixty days. It was even harder to imagine that he had found love in such a short time. It was nearly impossible to think that he no longer wanted an escape route—that he would rather rip this contract to shreds, toss the pieces into a fire, and ask for his time to never end.

Forget about the numbers.

“Thinking about New England?” James asked.

John hummed cryptically, while staring down the taunting countdown. New England could never compare.

James’ footsteps rounded the bed, he took the pen and the paper, and put them away again, as if saying he wanted to forget as well.

When James ran his hand through John’s hair, John looked up to meet his eyes, and was relieved to find James watching him with a gentle smile, appearing unbothered by the flighty behavior and the show of cowardice. Those words of enchantment were still clearly teasing his tongue.

With a worried voice, John warned him, “If you say it, I won’t be able to say it back.” He winced at how that sounded worse than he had meant it to. A supposed master of words, who wanted nothing more than to have a beautiful love story, and yet he lacked the emotional viability to speak his own confession.

James, surprisingly, didn’t so much as flinch at how that could have been misinterpreted.

“I love your curls,” James said easily, leaning down and kissing the top of his head.

That was all it took for John to know that James understood. It was too soon for him to make any grand declarations.

They were beginning to learn each other’s bodies and minds. Their desires, their similarities, and their differences. They were learning how to be with one another.

John closed his eyes and sighed into the touch, letting James calm his troubled thoughts. Perhaps he could feel James’ presence, one that said softly I’m here.

“Now, dress so we can go downstairs and make certain Thomas and Miranda haven’t destroyed anything while trying to fix themselves the breakfast you failed to make this morning,” James said without real admonishment.

As James pulled away to put on his own clothes, John gave a childish whine. He heard an answering chuckle from under James’ breath.

Everything was good. They were good.

John finally left the bed to pull on his shirt, letting it hang over his thighs, but making no plans to dress any further. It was Sunday. He wouldn’t even need to leave the house and he wanted to see if he could get away with remaining undressed downstairs—allowing himself to feel a little more at home.

* * *

Thomas popped another green grape in his mouth as he watched Miranda, for the third time, impatiently peek her head out of the dining room to look up the stairs. She tapped her finger a couple of times against the framed archway, then turned back to him with a grin.

“Perhaps John is keeping them busy through the morning hours,” Miranda said, coming to the bowl of fruits they had for breakfast, and picking off a few grapes for herself.

“Were you not to attend Mrs. Mapleton’s book club this morning?” Thomas asked, reminding her of the invitation she was making herself late for by waiting for the new lovers to make an appearance.

Miranda sat down, clearly not at all concerned about decorum. “That woman is wholly unpleasant. Might I remind you, she called John our rentboy to my face. Even after avowing that was not the case, she continued to reason that the contract and my allowance to him made John just that,” she made a face of distaste.

“She may be a tad callous, but surely she can’t be all bad. Max calls John our pet, Mrs. Mapleton could have misinterpreted,” he pointed out.

“Max calls John James’ pet with endearment, not with derisiveness as Mrs. Mapleton does. I believe the woman thinks me a harlot as well.”

“Now, that is a mere assumption. She must value your intelligence or she wouldn’t have extended an invitation your way. Take this as an opportunity to befriend her, as that is the quickest way to change how a person thinks of you,” Thomas encouraged, hoping Miranda could avoid any of the ridicule she had faced in London.

Miranda sighed, not sounding entirely convinced, but she gave him a look that said she would give his methods a chance before declaring the other woman an antagonist. Thomas took her hand and kissed it lightly to show his thanks for her willingness to try.

“Though, I will be showing up fashionably late. I couldn’t possibly miss out on seeing their morning bliss and asking how their night was,” Miranda said, returning to her animated state at the thought of James finally sharing a pleasurable time with John.

Thomas laughed and pulled at the bags under his eyes, “Oh, we know exactly how their night went. All of Nassau likely knows thanks to how loudly, and explicitly, John proclaimed his enjoyment.”

“He wasn’t that loud and I thought it was all relatively tame,” Miranda shrugged, and of course she would think that. “You would have slept better had you taken up my offer last night,” she added, rolling a grape around with her tongue.

Thomas resisted tossing a grape at her, and instead chuckled at the reminder and at Miranda’s competitive nature. “It would have been rude to steal their thunder.”

At that, a thundering raucous sounded from upstairs, complete with boisterous laughter and bounding footfalls.

“John,” James shouted, “don’t you dare go down there looking like that.”

Miranda raised her brows at Thomas and both of them craned their necks to get the first glimpse of whoever descended the stairs first.

“Loosen up a little, James,” John rejoined. “We live here. We should be able to enjoy a day lazing around without suiting up.”

“Are you naked?” Miranda called out then, making Thomas let out an amused sound again.

“I could be, if you’d like,” John playfully said back, sounding to be on the stairs now.

“Don’t encourage him,” he heard James scold Miranda.

Then, John let out a squeal and practically slid down the banister into view. He jumped at the base of the stairs, hopped a few steps into the dining room, spread his arms, and let out a little ta-dah. Thomas gave a clap and felt a homely comfort at the sight of John being in nightwear and utterly relaxed in their presence. James appeared behind John a few short seconds later, also not entirely put together as his pants lacked a belt and the collar of his shirt was unbuttoned. James hardly ever left the bedroom without fully dressing for war, it was a sight to see.

“Good morning, monkey,” Miranda greeted John, who quickly darted to her side before James could grab him.

“Morning, butterfly,” John said, apparently testing out a nickname Miranda had yet to hear because she looked both surprised and flattered by the greeting. Thomas thought it was perfect.

James entered, asking if they had eaten, to which Thomas pushed the basket of fruits their way. Both James and John joined them at the table to finish off the remains of their simple morning meal.

Miranda was wise to have waited for them. They were radiant and to miss seeing them would have been like passing through life without witnessing a sunrise. During the night, James must have had an epiphany of some kind, because it now looked as if he were light enough to walk on clouds. John, who frequently smiled more brightly than anyone else Thomas knew, was practically made of light this morning.

Once again, the way they looked at each other had changed. In the early days, there had been spiteful challenges, then curious glances, to shared longing. More recently, desirous gazes had grown to include hopeful ones. Now, Thomas could see nothing but love.

Had there been confessions? He imagined there must have been, but to ask in the event that there hadn’t been would be unwise. He hoped James would tell them in private later if there had been.

As James shared slices of the last remaining orange with John, Miranda was finally unable to resist asking about the night. She began with a tease, pointing out the marks James had on his neck and then asking John if James had behaved himself, while James grumbled about her lack of concern for his own health when he was clearly the one who had been tortured during the night. Thomas stood and kissed over the bite as one would do to sooth a child with a small, unconcerning injury. The look James gave him in return was sparkling with boundless amounts of happiness.

Penelope came trotting in, headed straight for John, and plopped her head in his lap. They all laughed over how she was pouting about having been locked out of John’s room the night before.

John ruffled the fur of her head. “You’ll have to get used to sleeping elsewhere. There are going to be many more nights where I’ll be sharing the bed with James,” he said and looked up to Thomas as if making certain that would be the case.

Thomas smiled as he answered, “Penelope is welcome to be our third cuddle partner when James is otherwise occupied. Would that be alright, Miranda?”

“Of course, the bed is plenty big enough for anyone to join, whenever they want,” Miranda said, hinting at Thomas’ favorite daydream of the whole family sleeping under the same canopy and waking up in the same bed.

“Great, because I was just telling James how I wanted to try the ropes and the g—” John was cut off as James practically lunged across the table to push the remaining pieces of the orange into his mouth. John grinned against James’ fingers, clearly having aimed for that exact reaction.

“You two,” Thomas said fondly, drawing both gazes to himself, “you look as optimistic as new lovers should.”

Both blushed at the newness of the term being applied to them, and shared a quick, questioning glance, but neither objected to its use in the end. To Thomas, that felt like a momentous accomplishment.

John’s birthday had served as much more than a heartfelt celebration of John’s life, it had been the birth of a new stage, the welcoming of new love, and an official, though much belated, welcome to the family.

Thomas had all the faith in the world that next year the four of them would be sitting around the table, reminiscing these days with smiles, and, with any luck, eating a much prettier cake.

Chapter Text

Elysium in the balmy, dawn hours was somehow more striking than it was in the afternoon sun.

A thin fog rested over the field and became denser towards the border where the trees began, making Elysium itself seem to be part of a dream where one’s vision faded around the edges. Dewdrops hung on the ends of blades of grass and in delicately crafted spider webs, shimmering like diamonds as the sun teased its way through the mist. The air smelled fresh, like newly fallen rain, and carried the hint of an earthy aroma from the damp forest.

Miranda had been here just yesterday with a lovely young woman, whom she had met at the book club last week. Charlotte, her name was. Fair skinned, fair haired, and soft spoken, with the heart of an artist and brush skills to go with it.

Certainly, no place was more worthy of being captured on a canvas than this sprawling meadow. So, Miranda had followed through with her plans to invest in the arts, and commissioned Charlotte to paint Elysium.

Visiting the field with her had awoken a desire for Miranda to bring all her boys here. They had yet to spend a day together as a family in this paradisiacal place and, weather providing, it seemed a fine day for a picnic.

The crumbs of their meal were already food for the ants and honeybees were quite keen on the tops of the strawberries that were tossed to the side. A piece of bread had also been left on the top of the boulder by Thomas. He was intent on coaxing a few birds out of hiding and close to where they had set out their blanket. The birds, it seemed, were more fond of the damselflies and other small insects that were flying about.

Miranda sat with a book in her lap, though she was spending more time watching Thomas and James attempt to correctly tie together a kite than reading. Poor James had nearly had a heart attack when Thomas absentmindedly requested using James’ ribbon for the tail of the kite. Miranda had pointed out that it was John’s ribbon, and Thomas had apologized wholeheartedly until James kissed him.

Meanwhile, John was tossing everything from stones to sticks around for Penelope to chase after. Sometimes she would return with what he had thrown, other times she returned with something else entirely. She even found a grey flat cap, which John was now wearing. However, most often, Penelope vanished into the grass and John had to chase her down to make certain she didn’t run off too far. Miranda suspected that Penelope was merely playing and outsmarting John in her game of hide-and-seek every time.

“Success!” Thomas shouted as he held out a simple diamond-shaped kite, with dandelions tied to a string in a makeshift tail.

Miranda wished a breeze would come soon, because it would be a shame to have Thomas’ hopes for kite flying dashed by the still air of the morning. That and James would likely run himself to exhaustion trying to keep the kite in the air if the wind wasn’t cooperating.

John also appeared to have ran himself to exhaustion as he returned to them, hands on his knees and huffing, “Can I borrow your handkerchief, Thomas?”

Thomas handed it over without question.

“Can I borrow James?” John asked next.

“What for?” James asked warily, likely because John sounded entirely too excited in the moment.

“Penelope found something and, since I have learned that Lieutenant James McGraw can catch any runaway, I’m enlisting your help,” John explained, answering absolutely none of the curiosity that he was building in them all.

Taking the opportunity to delay the kite flying session, Miranda decided to shoo James away immediately, while Thomas made John promise to return the Lieutenant with enough energy for playing with the kite.

John had already turned around and was sprinting off before James could give his own answer, but, nonetheless, James followed quickly after with a huff and a roll of his eyes.

Filling the space James left, Miranda joined Thomas by the boulder and appraised the kite.

“Do you suppose John actually found something or was that an invitation for cavorting under the cover of the grass and fog?” Thomas asked with a smile as he slowly wound up the spool of twine.

Miranda wrapped a bit of the string around her finger and let Thomas reel her in.

“Hm,” Miranda began with an over dramatic expression of deep thought as she stepped closer and closer, “I think that his discovery was genuine, if not, I fear for your handkerchief.” Thomas pulled a playfully disgusted face at the imagined ruination. “You and I, on the other hand,” she gave a coquettish smile when her fingers touched the spool, “we have a lovely spot here on a blanket, behind the grasses. Perfect for cavorting.”

“Well then, we would be remiss to pass up such a welcoming place,” Thomas said, giving a kiss to her lips before putting aside the kite. “Though we will need to be quick, my dear,” he added and pulled her in by the waist to bury his face into her breast, his short hair tickling under her chin, and his kisses drawing out her carefree laughter.

* * *

The field was a beautiful place, James had to admit that much, but it quickly lost its appeal when one ventured off the small trails and into the thick, overgrown grass, with blades that could cut through skin if rubbed the wrong way, and with the poking sticks of hardy wildflowers, which were equally unpleasant. With the morning dew still clinging to all the plants, James felt his thin clothes grow annoyingly damp. Worst of all, they would have to remember to check each other over for ticks.

“Are you planning on telling me what it is you’ve found?” James asked as he flicked a bright green beetle off his sleeve.

John looked over his shoulder only briefly, then paused James by holding up his hand in a halting gesture. “I said Penelope found it. She’s guarding it from behind right now. I think it’s hurt, so I want to catch it,” he said, his voice going quieter.

“An animal?” James asked, copying John’s low volume, while trying to peer through the space ahead where he could vaguely make out Penelope’s brown coat. He couldn’t see anything else from his vantage point.

“A bird,” John finally answered, “but it doesn’t seem able to fly. Can you help?” he looked back again holding out Thomas’ handkerchief.

Penelope barked excitedly once and James heard the agitated flapping of wings, but it seemed she was not causing the bird any actual harm other than fear. “I know nothing about birds, John,” he protested, but still took the cloth.

“You don’t have to know about them, you just have to catch it. I’ll go to the right and try to herd it towards you, just toss that over it,” John said and headed off, clearly eager to tend to the distressed creature.

James waited quietly, wondering if he should crouch or if the bird would fly a little and he should remain standing. He should have asked the color of the bird—that would have been helpful for quickening his reflexes.

In the next instant, a flash of green, brighter than the surrounding foliage, exploded into the air. Penelope began her barking again and John was shouting, “Get it, get it.”

The bird—a parrot—made a pitiful attempt at flight, losing a few feathers for its struggle, before crashing back into the grass near James. He tossed the cloth over it as instructed and all the beating of wings ceased. John joined him quickly, pushed the grass aside, and knelt by the handkerchief, which was only slightly moving. He looked concerned, but hopeful.

“I never imagined you to be such a lover of animals,” James commented as John carefully reached under the cloth to retrieve the bird.

“I’m not. Not really. Just birds. Penelope’s not too bad either,” he added with a smile as Penelope sat down next to him to watch the proceedings.

“The gourds Miranda bought, did she buy them because she knew you liked birds?” James asked.

John tilted his head and continued smiling, a delighted kind of smile that James suspected meant Miranda knew of John’s fondness for avians, but John himself hadn’t made the connection between the birdhouses and his, likely offhand, comment about liking the animals.

The parrot squawked its protest when it was caught and John pulled it out. He held it delicately in his cupped hand, and stretched out the wing, inspecting it, and then did the same to the other wing. “Nothing’s broken. He must have been from the market. They clipped his wings,” he explained, running his fingers over the straight-cut edge of the flight feathers. “I always hated when I saw live birds in the markets losing their freedom that way.”

“How else are they supposed to keep the birds from flying away?” James asked.

John’s mouth briefly turned down and he let the parrot pull its useless wing back against itself. “I don’t know. How would you do it? Keep them locked in a cage?” he asked, not accusatory, but curiously. They did this more often now—sharing bits of their internal dialogue, asking each other simple questions, learning better how the other thought.

James watched John for a moment as he petted the green plumage of the parrot’s head and back, likely frightening the bird further rather than comforting it as intended. John had spoken of birds only once before, when the four of them were watching the clouds together. If James was remembering correctly, John had said that the bird might have been flying away to look for a new place to stay. James had liked Miranda’s answer.

“No, I wouldn’t lock the cage. I’d simply offer it a home,” James answered, knowing he wasn’t talking only about birds now. Perhaps neither of them were.

John watched him too, his eyes drifting back and forth between James’ like he was searching for something, but not finding the answer. “It could fly away then,” he pointed out.

“Perhaps,” James shrugged, “but I never said I wanted to take the bird’s freedom.”

James wondered if the contract was John’s locked cage.

Cradling the parrot closer to him like he was its official caretaker, John quirked a smile, and asked, “Can we bring him home?”

Home. That was the first time James had heard him refer to the townhouse as home. Home, like it was where he belonged as well. John continued petting the bird, until he looked up to see why James had yet to answer. He must have interpreted the silence as reluctance to keeping the bird, because he then brought the bird close to his face and gave his best impression of a pleading look, complete with wide, blue eyes and pouting lips. The parrot chewed at one of John’s curls.

“Oh, please,” John affected the voice of the parrot, “Mister McGraw, have sympathy for my tired, battered wings.”

James felt a smile tug at both sides of his mouth and the warmth, which had become a familiar feeling around John, settled high in his chest. He crouched down, meeting John’s level, and reached out a hand to save his hair from the sharp beak, while John continued to bribe him with the steady, adorable expression.

“I love you,” James spoke with adoration, unable, unwilling to hold the words back any longer.

It might not have been a glowing moment of post-coital bliss, or a moment of overwhelming, heart-pounding emotion in which lovers would usually choose to make their first declaration of love, but with John, it was the quieter instances, where he was domestic and settled, that made James feel the emotion most powerfully. When John stood on his tiptoes, trying to reach the top shelves in the kitchen. When John was elbow deep in dishwater. When he was helping Miranda hang laundry out to dry on the clothesline. All the moments when it felt as if John was home and here to stay.

John blinked back at him, taken off-guard by the unexpected confession, no doubt.

James pressed on, “You needn’t answer, I only wanted to—”

“Say it again,” John requested, still appearing dumbfounded.

“I love you,” he repeated without hesitation.

For a few breaths, John held his gaze and James almost believed he was going to receive an answer, though that had not been his goal nor even an outcome that had crossed his mind. John, however, eventually broke away and stared down at the parrot, which had now relaxed in his hold. The brim of his hat obscured his eyes.

Not long ago, James would have interpreted the behavior as proof that John had no true romantic feelings for him, but since their first morning waking up next to one another, James was confident that their relationship went beyond the sensual for John. There were, after all, not many ways to interpret waking up to a morning kiss, linked hands, and a hushed I feel for you.

Since then, James had also spent some time revisiting many of their interactions in his own mind. This time, he tried not to allow his preconceived notions to color the conclusions he drew, in fact, beyond objectivity, he thought of how Thomas would describe the moments—through rose-tinted glasses. Without the fog of his doubts, James could finally clearly see what Miranda and Thomas had been trying to convince him of the whole time—John had cared for him for a very long time.

That was why James knew, John avoiding his gaze and petting the parrot distractedly was not an attempt to block him out, and John’s frown was not due to thoughts of James’ sentiments, but rather all of those were likely signs of John showing disappointment in himself.

To comfort him, James let go of the curl, cupped his hand over the side of John’s face, and rubbed his thumb high on John’s cheekbone. John bravely looked up at him, though James could see the apology swimming in the blue. It reminded James of all the times he had apologized to John, not for lack of feeling the same way, but because his internal turmoil prevented him from acting on any of those desires.

John had been remarkably patient with him through it all, and now, James felt as if it were his turn to ease John forward into the parts of their relationship that were causing him fear. James, too, could be patient.

“There’s no need to feel pressured into speaking. I know that this is new for you,” he began, trying his best to avoid patronizing his lover, “and I understand that your leaving this month makes this harder, but I would like to know for certain, when you say you want us to be different, you mean for us to be different beyond the superficial, is that right?” he asked with as steady a voice as he could manage, hoping that this would be within John’s range of comfort.

The slight nod John gave was all James needed. Then, John surprised him by speaking. “We are different,” he said with a level of astonishment that spoke to just how significant a sentence that was.

There never needed to be a confession beyond that as far as James was concerned.

With a gentle press of his lips, that served as nothing more than to connect them for a moment, James kissed him. Then, moving up, he tipped back the old hat and lightly kissed John's forehead. “I love your hair,” he said, which had the desired effect of causing John to huff out a small laugh.

“Does this mean I get to keep him?” John held the bird up again and James pulled back quickly as the animal tried to make a meal out of his nose. John laughed again and somehow managed to kiss the top of the bird’s head without losing his own nose.

James remembered thinking once that he wouldn’t let their home become a zoo, yet it had already become a shelter for strays it seemed.

“We’ll have to ask Miranda and Thomas,” James conceded, already knowing that they would agree to keeping the animal until it could fly again.

Penelope led the way as they returned to the boulder, where Thomas was attaching more flowers to the kite, likely making it too heavy to fly, and where Miranda was stretched out over the rock, still reading her book, though she hadn’t appeared to have made it any further along.

John slid up next to Thomas and began complimenting the apparent marvelous work he was doing—buttering him up more like. James shook his head, joined Miranda, and then gave her a raised brow as he indicated to Thomas’ tell-tale mark, which was only slightly hidden behind the pendant of her necklace and was already fading. Then, all attention was on John as he showed off the parrot and reasoned that it couldn’t be left out here as prey to any number of vicious predators. Miranda and Thomas were to be its saviours.

John, of course, was allowed to bring it home.

The kite, miraculously, soared.

Chapter Text

Calico Jack’s smelled like potpourri today, Miranda noted as she browsed through a number of fabrics, trying to determine which would go best with the embroidery she had planned for the banner in her schoolhouse. Beside her, James tipped a roll of mint green linen, nearly toppling over the adjacent, closely packed bolts. Miranda pointed out a number of holes in the sea green fabric, and James took it down for Anne to further inspect.

Anne, who was doing remarkably well in her library job from what Miranda gathered, had the day off today, and was helping Mister Rackham cut off pieces of cloth that had been riddled by moths. Neither of them were in a particularly cheerful mood seeing as every snip of the scissors was money lost.

“Lavender,” Miranda then said loudly to Rackham, who was carrying a pile of scraps to a bin. James looked confused and touched a dark purple chiffon. “No, not the fabric,” she batted James’ hand away. “Mister Rackham,” she called, drawing his attention, “the smell of lavender, it keeps moths away.”

“Lady Hamilton, lavender is your answer for everything,” Rackham said with a tone that suggested he doubted her remedy would hold any merit. The moths had well and truly defeated him.

“Considering that I have smelled everything from pine to maple syrup to sandalwood in the weeks since your moth problem began,” Miranda listed, remembering the variety of aromas that assaulted her each time she entered the shop while seeking out Max, “lavender is at least worth the experiment, and I am confident that it will bear results.”

Rackham dumped the pile into the scrap bin and stared woefully at his loss. “Lavender would be better than the leather smell I was planning to use next. I’d hate to be confused with Billy’s.”

James helped Miranda unroll a length of the mint linen Miranda had decided on and Anne cut the strip. “Ain’t nobody gonna confuse you with Billy,” Anne said plainly, making both James and her hold back a laugh as the scrawny man briefly tried to puff himself up.

“I suppose you’re right, darling,” Rackham agreed as he leaned against his counter. “My dastardly good looks would set me apart from Billy any day.”

Miranda shared a doubtful look with James, but both of them decided not to argue the point. Let the man have his fantasies.

Joining him at the counter, Miranda made her purchase. “Tomorrow morning, when John makes his run for produce, I’ll have him stop here to give you some of my dried lavender.”

“How is the rabblerouser? Last time I spoke with him, he was purchasing that ribbon,” Rackham said as he gestured to James’ head. “Figured he was buying it for some lady. I never would have imagined a thief was reckless enough to approach you, McGraw,” he clicked his tongue amusedly. James gave a nonchalant shrug in response, but his besotted smile at thoughts of John betrayed him. “Though, I suppose some people are like moths to a flame.”

“John’s more like lavender,” Miranda said, linking her arm with James’ in a concealed tease.

Recently, James had shyly requested that John keep using the lavender oil, while she and Thomas stick to the rose or orange soaps. Apparently, all his lovers sharing a similar fragrance after bathing was bothersome in bed and he had somehow come to strongly associate lavender with John, which explained the incident where he sleepily called Thomas by John’s name one morning before he woke. Thomas had only pouted over the mistake for a few hours before he came to share her opinion that James’ sensitive nose was adorable. All was well after Thomas switched to orange scents—he liked orange better in any case.

James rolled his eyes at the inside joke.

“That aside, John is currently getting fitted with a new outfit at Joshua’s,” she informed with a smile as Rackham handed her the change and perked up at the reminder that they had already purchased more expensive fabrics from him, which would result in a decent payday. “He will be wearing it this Saturday during our dinner party, which I hope you and Anne will be able to join us for.”

“Max been waitin’ for that invitation for months,” Anne said as she came up behind James and nudged his shoulder with annoyance, likely knowing that James was the first one to mention the idea to Max. “El, coming too?”

James, who had been asked to invite Miss Guthrie when he saw her earlier today, nodded, confirming that she had received word of the dinner. “We also stopped by The Harbour before coming here, so Max knows as well. The invitation would have come sooner, but we have a mediocre cook and I wanted to make certain he wouldn’t fall apart trying to prepare that many dishes,” James explained, causing Miranda to give him another nudge for doing a disservice to John’s skills.

“Will Anne be required to wear a dress this time?” Rackham asked with a grin, while Anne glowered at him and spun her scissors threateningly on the countertop.

“Of course you won’t have to wear a dress,” Miranda nodded in camaraderie to Anne, who made a smug I told you so face back to Rackham.

In a way, those two reminded Miranda of herself and Thomas, based on how long they had been together, how well they knew each other, and how easily they could converse without a word. They were certainly partners in crime, though it was hard to believe Anne and Rackham actually had been violent pirates before settling into their lives as a librarian and a textile salesman.

It served as a reminder that one’s circumstances and environment could greatly change the behavior one needed to adopt in order to survive.

Miranda was grateful that the world had never pushed her as far as it had many of Nassau’s residents. She was also grateful for all those who had walked away from their troubled pasts and helped to create the sanctuary Thomas had envisioned here. Nassau wasn’t only hers, and James’, and Thomas’, it belonged to everyone.

Before leaving Jack’s, they settled on a time for the dinner and bid their goodbyes to the sound of jingling bells. As the door closed, Miranda could hear Anne begin bickering with Jack over whether the bells were annoying or added to the charm of the establishment. James eagerly led them away and towards the tailor shop, ready to rejoin Thomas and John.

John, too, she believed, had found a sanctuary here. Though should he leave, she would rest easy knowing that, thanks to their guidance, he could leave as an honest cook who had put his thieving days behind him. 

* * *

The small, wooden figurine with necklaces of cowrie shells and seagull feathers was positively gorgeous. Thomas bent down to the window ledge to touch the rope bindings around the man’s carved arms and then he tipped the dark brown bottle at his feet.

“What is the rum for?” Thomas asked as Joshua worked around John to make any minute adjustments to the sleeves of the new frock coat.

“An offering,” he answered, taking the last pin out of his mouth. “So the spirits will help me keep Rackham’s moths from invading my shop.”

When John made a small yelp of pain, Thomas looked back to see Joshua holding the pin and John rubbing at his wrist.

“It also requires blood,” Joshua grinned triumphantly.

Through the mirror, Thomas could see John’s look of mild annoyance turn to one of slight concern, which Thomas shared, until Joshua nearly doubled over laughing.

“You both are easier to frighten than Gates,” Joshua chuckled merrily and patted John’s shoulder. He offered an apology and told John to stop fidgeting if he wished to avoid more pricks.

John complained about how long fitting took and then about how glad he was that Thomas didn’t try to force him into ridiculous stockings and breeches, because according to him that would have resulted in a blood bath. Thomas looked down at his own outfit and scrunched up his nose in retaliation for John’s insult. This was proper fashion for a gentleman in London, and he informed John of such as he came to stand next to John and looked at himself approvingly in the mirror. Clearly, standing still for too long made John testy and ruined his sense of taste.

Under his breath, John made a comment about the wigs, which was entirely uncalled for because Thomas never wore those anymore and John only knew about them from James’ complaints.

Their fashion dispute continued when Thomas pointed out John’s bright, lime-green socks.

When their friendly bickering finally entered a brief silence, Joshua asked conversationally, “Are you two marrying?”

“Beg pardon?” Thomas practically coughed out and raised both his eyebrows. He was quite certain John also barely avoided having another pin in him.

“Well, Hamilton, you bought him this entire outfit, you live together, and rumors say you’re married to Lady Hamilton and McGraw. It wasn’t hard to guess that you’re marrying this one next,” Joshua said, seemingly thinking his logic unflawed.

“We’re friends,” John quickly corrected, nearly making a gesture with his hand, but was stilled by Joshua’s firm grip and was warned a second time to stop moving. “There aren’t any rumors about us are there?”

Thomas too wondered. “I thought that the local rumor mill was constantly spinning around James and John.”

“That’s right, I do remember some rumors about Silver and McGraw. You were in the tavern,” Joshua said in fuzzy recollection as he scratched his shaved head, “shouting something about McGraw...What was it?” he trailed off with a poorly concealed snicker and Thomas finally caught on that he was pulling their strings again.

John too must have realized because he shook his head with a little smile and a roll of his eyes.

Continuing the jest, Joshua focused his entertained smile on John and asked, “You’re marrying McGraw then?”

Even though it was said in good fun, Thomas saw that John tensed slightly before joining in on the jest by remarking how the dowry from such a union would be a perfect way for him to quickly obtain enough coin for his passage to New England. Massachusetts Bay, he specified. Though he added that he wouldn’t dare actually pull such a con on the Lieutenant for fear of being hunted across the seven seas. Nor would he attempt to seduce a twice-married man.

Contradicting his point, John winked at Thomas flirtatiously, but it felt more like a façade than John’s usual playfulness. Still, Thomas answered with a small smile, allowing John to act as if he hadn’t been thrown off-kilter.

Joshua clapped John on the shoulder and called him a smart man. Then, he declared the job done and asked John to remove the coat so that he could go in back and make the adjustments. As soon as Joshua disappeared behind the curtain, it was as if he walked away with both the coat and the easy-going demeanor John had donned.

John stared at himself in the mirror with a faraway look in his eyes.

“John,” Thomas eased up next to him, “try not to think too far ahead, no one is—” he cut himself off when John suddenly took his left hand and inspected the ring there.

It was the gold gimmel ring Thomas and Miranda had picked out when they decided to ask James to marry them. The ring, discovered in a trinket store, came in three pieces that would normally only remain apart until the marriage, at which point the bride would receive the completed ring, but they never had been ones to do things conventionally.

“The first day I cooked for you, I noticed that yours matched the one James cut my cheek with,” John said, running his thumb over the ornamental hand on the ring head. “Could you tell me about them?”

It was a strange topic to jump into, especially when Thomas had planned to carefully avoid mentioning anything close to betrothals, marriages, or vows, but if John wished to ask about the rings, Thomas would follow his lead.

“They fit together—the hands,” Thomas said, warmly recalling memories of a winter day when the three of them first put on the rings. “Have you noticed the ring Miranda wears?”

“The heart?”

“Yes, the heart fits between the hands. They are a set. All part of a single piece, but individually whole.”

When he closed his eyes he could still see James’ face the day they proposed. Thomas told John this with a smile, which John returned wholeheartedly.

“Tell me about that. Tell it like a story,” John requested, finally stepping down from the podium and leading them to the two cushioned waiting chairs by the storefront windows. John was still holding his hand and Thomas could imagine that, should anyone peer into the shop, they very well might be providing fodder for rumors of their own. Thomas scooted his chair closer before they sat.

Then, as requested, he told John the story, “The cinders in the fireplace were cooling, but the bed was still warm. Miranda had woken us to a morning where the first snow of the year was falling and settling onto the streets. Of course, we gathered around the window, looking at frosted patterns on the pane and snowflakes, which were fluttering down, light as feathers, and twinkling in the sunlight.

“Miranda signaled me to our dresser—where the ring had been waiting all week—and I shook my head hard enough to give myself a mild headache,” he let out a little laugh a the ridiculousness of his nerves. “So Miranda, brave and true, retrieved it, then pressed it to my palm and nodded to James, who was obliviously writing his name into the frost.” John smiled at the image. “Well, I pushed it back to her.” Thomas pushed and pulled John’s hand in show and they shared another laugh.

“Eventually, together we had cupped our hands around the ring and softly called to James. He was already smiling about the snow when he turned to us. I assure you, I could see the snowflakes still sparkling in his eyes. We extended our hands, and, with a wildly pounding heart, I told him, ‘Open it.’ You should have been there to see it, John. How unsuspecting he was. Even when he parted our palms and saw the three rings, it took Miranda saying, ‘Join us,’ for him to understand what we meant by the symbols of devotion.”

Thomas sighed happily, recalling how James had looked at them like they were angels that had handed him the keys to heaven’s gates. Wide-eyed. Innocent.

“I took the ring,” Thomas slid the ring from his hand and held it gently between his thumb and forefinger, “and slid it onto his finger.” He took John’s hand and slipped the ring over his knuckles, where it fit snugly. “When James looked back up to us, his gaze was radiating love—a look you know well, I’m sure.”

John blushed and focused his gaze down onto the ring, rolling it around his finger. “They’re inscribed,” he said, touching the engraved words.

“‘Know no shame’,” Thomas answered. “The most important lesson we could instill in James.”

In London, James had never been able to properly wear the ring outside of their home—even without shame, the danger was too great. Instead, it was confined to a necklace chain and hung close to his heart.

Now, in Nassau, James wore it on his hand and never took it off.

“My,” Thomas heard Miranda’s teasing voice and looked to see her entering the shop with James, “is John blushing and are you caressing his hand? Have you two secretly been growing this intimate?” she bit her lower lip and grinned playfully.

John laughed and brought his other hand to Thomas’ cheek. “Apparently, we’re getting married. I told you, James, I was going to steal your dapper man,” he warned with a devilish grin and held up his ringed hand.

“Is that so,” James said flatly and skeptically. “I seem to remember you threatening to kiss him once. You’re not very good at following through with your words.”

Thomas did not approve of the glint in John’s eyes as a result from that. Luckily, he managed to snatch back his ring and make a get away before he could become subject to one of their ridiculous challenges.

When Joshua returned with all the completed pieces of John’s outfit, Thomas stood back to watch as Miranda went to the counter and inspected the articles of clothing. James asked to see John put the waistcoat and frock on again, but Joshua pointed out that it was bad luck for the groom to see the bride in her dress before the wedding. This time, John didn’t tense. Neither did James. And Miranda looked back to Thomas, secretively pointing to her ring, and clearly wanting to hear the story.

Later, she would hear all about John’s curiosity and, once again, as they had many times before, they would speculate over whether John saw his future here in Nassau or an ocean away. They would also discuss how and when they should make their own future wishes known. How and when they should propose to John. Propose that he remain here, with them, with James, as a permanent member of their family and that the guest room could forever remain John’s room.

* * *

The entire kitchen could be classified as an oven with how high the temperature must have been in the room. Earlier, James had propped open the outside door with the bucket of water in an attempt to cool it down a little, but John couldn’t say it had helped much. He was sweating in more places than he thought himself capable of sweating in.

Like a choreographed dance, he ducked under James’ arms as James lifted a platter of clams over his head and began filling the second rack of the serving cart. John held out his hand in silent request, James took the knife near him, flipped it once to show off, and placed in John’s palm. As soon as John finished cutting the cheeses into cubes, James passed by with a bowl of mangos and kiwis and slid the plate of cheese off the counter to place it on the cart as well.

Jovial laughter could already be heard from the dining room, meaning that some of their guests had arrived. Though he hadn’t had much interaction with her, John was quite certain he heard Guthrie declare that she had brought ale and rum. He made a mental note to stay on her good side, since their last encounter had ended with her yelling, “Get him the fuck out of my tavern.”

James went to the steaming pot of mushroom soup on the stovetop, scooped up a ladle, and blew it lightly. He held it out just as John came forward with a towel to retrieve his raspberry muffins from the oven. Of course, John eagerly took a small sip, then he slid the cloves of garlic closer. James eyed him skeptically, no doubt because John always liked his dishes to be on the side of overwhelming. He blamed his eager taste buds on the fact that his meals had always been bland, tasteless excuses for food prior to life here. Another clove was crushed and added to the soup.

Jack’s voice filtered into the kitchen and John heard him compliment the interior decorating of their home, still with this loud salesman voice. There was a muffled conversation and then Anne said, “Mind your own fucking business, Jack.”

John removed the lid on the smaller pot of pasta he had spent hours on as he tried to roll the noodles to an appropriate width. The last time he had attempted pasta, it was overcooked and chewy. He took the ladle from James, lifted out a few noodles, and, with a confident smile, he held them out for James to try first.

James set aside the muffins, which he had started removing from their trays, and devoted his full attention to the noodle test. As James caught the ends of the noodles and slowly drew them into his mouth, he gave John a steady look and drove forward until he caught the ends of John’s fingers as well. John could feel the wetness of James’ tongue over the tips, which was entirely unfair considering that they had a dinner to serve. John pulled his hand away with a roll of his eyes and tried not to let his thoughts become as heated as the kitchen itself.

After what felt like an entire minute of James blankly deliberating over the taste and texture of the noodles, to the point where John was holding his breath and waiting for criticism, James wordlessly took another noodle from the pot and John opened his mouth as James coiled it down onto his tongue. Finally, James grinned.

“They’re better than your previous attempt,” he said with approval as he unnecessarily wiped his thumb over John’s bottom lip, which did absolutely nothing to help John cool down. “You did very well,” he added with a low tone and a gleam in his eyes that let John know he was entirely aware of what he was doing.

“We have guests,” John huffed in exasperation.

James hummed deep in his throat and let his hand fall away. “I suppose you’re right. You’ll have to wait until tonight then—after we’ve finished entertaining our guests—to be rewarded for all the hard work you’ve put into this.”

“Remind me why I’m the ‘little shit’?” John laughed, but gave James a brief kiss before moving on to drain the noodles.

Focusing on dinner after that promise was going to be torture. No matter how many times James spent the night in his room, it continued to leave him breathless. It wasn’t just the sex either. There were a couple of nights where James had requested that they do nothing but sleep and those were just as awe-inspiring.

The first night—the night after James had said that he loved him—James slipped into his bed, kissed the back of his neck, and told him just to sleep, which had resulted in John getting absolutely no sleep at all. He had never consciously thought of sharing his bed with James as something that required a transaction, but, when there was suddenly no payment of pleasure necessary, John had another moment where he realized just how deeply in love with James he was. His heart had pounded with it all night.

The second occurrence of just sleep, resulted in the best night’s sleep he had ever had. He woke up with James’ hand resting over his thigh, James’ front pressed against the curve of his back, and their ankles tangled. He must not have restlessly tossed and turned at all during the night. Settled against James, he had been calm.

“Why don’t you get changed? I’ll finish up here,” James offered and though it was said nonchalantly, he knew James had been wanting to see what he and Thomas had chosen for his formal wear.

John nodded, handed James the large bowl of pasta, and slipped off his apron to hang it over James’ head, declaring him the new Teasing Little Shit. He quickly ducked out of the kitchen before James could react to that. Then, he snuck by the doorway to the dining room, where Max, dressed up like royalty in a deep violet dress, was just entering. No one noticed him as he went upstairs to put on many more layers than were necessary in tropical island weather, but he was also eager to show Thomas that he appreciated the new clothes, even if he secretly wished he could get away with casual attire like Anne.

When he finished changing and freshening up, he quickly made to return downstairs to help set out the food and join their guests.

“Are you—” James paused the moment he looked up to the top of the stairs and John too paused as James’ gaze ran from his still tied up hair, to the white fitted shirt he had not bothered to button up all the way to his neck, to the periwinkle blue waistcoat that hugged against his sides, to the golden chain from a pocketwatch Thomas had let him borrow, and to the light purple scarf Miranda had given him to serve as belt since leather hardly fit the outfit at all. John shifted his weight under the intensity of the look, debating between feeling self-conscious or vain. James met his eyes briefly, before drifting his gaze over the deep ocean blue coat he wore. It was similar in style to the coats James himself preferred, which was exactly why John had asked for it. “Christ, you’re stunning,” James finally breathed out.

Apparently, feeling vain was appropriate, though an unbidden blush still crept up on his cheeks from James’ honest remark. He was used to flattery thanks to his looks, but only James had the ability to make John’s body warm from a simple genuine compliment.

Deciding to show off, John leisurely descended the stairs, letting his boots softly fall onto each step as he drew nearer. He drank in James’ rapt attention and the way James gripped the banister, as if holding himself back from charging up the stairs and dragging him back into the bedroom.

John stopped at the last step, giving himself a bit of height over James. He planned on offering to turn right around if James wished, but James surprised him first by reaching out, pulling at his ribbon, and letting his hair fall loose.

“Wait, can’t I keep it in?” John asked quickly, despite knowing it was unusual for him to wear his hair up outside of the kitchen and knowing that they both preferred his hair down.

“I thought you hated having your hair up,” James pointed out as he looked guiltily down at the ribbon.

“I don’t hate it. I just—well, you, Miranda, and Thomas have your rings and we have our ribbons,” he said and shifted his weight again to keep his foot from tapping. Perhaps he shouldn’t have phrased it like that, but ever since Thomas had told him the story of the rings, he couldn’t help but compare. “I know the ribbon isn’t as important, but I—”

“The ribbon means just as much to me, John. I understand.”

There it was again. The calm James could instill in him. The reassurance that John hadn’t even realized he had needed until it was given to him.

Then, James stepped up onto the stair with him and turned John so that he could access his hair. John knew what to expect and he loved it every time James did this. He closed his eyes and tried to record the feeling of James’ fingers rubbing over his scalp, combing his hair, gently tugging his locks into place. If he chose to leave, this could be the last time that he received such treatment. He didn’t want to forget.

When James stepped away, John still felt hair tickling the back of his neck, so he reached up to feel his hair tied into a half ponytail. The same hairstyle James had given him the first time he had done this.

“There. You look even better,” James said softly.

The blush was apparently going to be sticking around.

When James walked them to the dining room, all the smaller dishes had already been placed onto the table. Jack made to sit at the foot of the table, but, before he settled onto the cushion, a scathing look from Guthrie had him scooting a seat over. John nearly laughed as Anne then told him that she wanted to sit across from Max, so he was forced to move again, finally sitting next to James. Thomas, of course, sat at the head of the table, with Miranda and James at his side.

At a table made for eight, one chair remained. A spot waiting for him.

Max began talking to Miranda about the schoolhouse, which would be in session four days from now. Guthrie, who apparently always had business in mind, spoke across the table to Thomas and James about new imports arriving, while Jack piped in to ask about compensation for his lost fabrics. Guthrie gave him a look that suggested this wasn’t the first time he had asked and that her answer was not about to waver. John heard Anne thank Miranda for the lavender satchels, which worked as a moth deterrent as she said it would.

Friends. These were James’ friends. These had become Miranda and Thomas’ friends.

Mon cher,” Max called to him, “bring us the soup. I must see if McGraw has been too harsh on you.”

These were becoming his friends too.

While John went around to fill everyone’s bowl, Jack complimented his outfit, though John had a suspicion he only said that because all the fabric was from his store, Anne told him that the library had a new cookbook on desserts that she thought he would want to flip through, and Eleanor, shockingly, commented on the extra revenue she earned thanks to his stories keeping people tied to their drinks longer.

When the main dish of chicken was produced, Anne snorted and John gave her a questioning furrow of his brow. “El hates ‘em,” she shrugged and pointed to the garnished bird.

John’s face fell and he looked to Eleanor, who he had been most concerned about pleasing today, but she only gave him a dismissive wave. “I hate live ones—”

“‘Cause they can peck out your eyes,” Anne interjected, causing Max to give a small, concealed laugh like it was an inside joke.

“—but I do love eating them,” Eleanor said with a slightly terrifying smile, but nonetheless John beamed at his success.

Then, he stood for a moment behind his own chair, thinking of how it felt to belong after years upon years of belonging nowhere at all. He took his seat.

Thomas made a toast to friendship and to the hands that joined together to build a prosperous Nassau.

Glasses clinked and dinner began.

“It has been only two and a half months and he cooks this well.” Max pointed her spoon at James and tsked, “It is unfair that you have been keeping this all to yourself.”

James mumbled about how he had been the one to make the mushroom soup, but John quickly pointed out that the additional garlic, which had been his suggestion, saved the entire dish.

“Honestly, how the fuck have you not killed him?” Eleanor shook her head.

“It’s been a struggle,” James said flatly, but he shared a look with John that was filled with nothing but fondness.

Throughout the dinner, John learned how Max and Eleanor’s relationship had also began as a business arrangement, back when Max was no more than a whore in a nameless brothel. He learned how Anne had nearly killed Max during their first meeting, much like how John had been quite concerned for his own safety when Lieutenant McGraw first barged into his room. He learned how Anne and Jack had planned to travel somewhere far away from the sea, but came to call Nassau home.

These four had also built something here. Eleanor, the trading company she stole from under the black marketing schemes of her father. Max, The Harbour, which had once been like a prison to her, was reconstructed into something that was entirely hers. Jack, the tailor shop, which, according to him, was a family legacy. Anne, well, she seemed to be as adrift as John was, until the people who loved and cared for her helped her to cast her anchor.

“You could make a future for yourself selling these,” Jack said, when they moved onto desserts and he bit into a sugar cookie.

“The people of Nassau do enjoy indulging in a little pleasure,” Miranda pointed out as she shared a look with Max, who nodded her agreement.

Oui, share a small pleasure with us,” Max said. “Make a living off sweets. That is, if you grow tired of being pampered by Miranda’s allowance and McGraw’s sweet ministrations.”

This led to the entire table entering a conversation about how Lieutenant McGraw was thought to be celibate by nearly all the residents of Nassau—a rumor birthed at The Harbour—and how everyone was shocked to learn that Miranda was a real person. What more, that she was married and the wife of the new governor, who greeted James with a kiss as lovers would. Then, the tavern talk was all about James being the most virile man in the West Indies—a rumor that only grew when John entered the scene.

John gave a highly amused smile to James, who looked ready to sink under the table. Of course, then John had to inform them of what promises James made for later this night. If the look James gave him after divulging that was anything to go by, they had yet to pass beyond the point of James wanting to murder him.

The entire room was filled with the warmth of friendly laughter.

By the time they settled in the drawing room for tea, or more rum and wine as it happened to be, everyone had relaxed into a less rambunctious mood. Bringing a few slices of mango with him, John went to the pedestal, where their parrot had taken up residence on the bowsprit of a model ship. With his taloned foot, the bird took the mango graciously, slowly beginning to trust the benevolent soul that had rescued him.

“Miranda told me that you had a new pet,” Max said as she joined him. She petted his feathered head as he pulled off pieces of the fruit, making a mess. “What is its name?”

“‘The Bird’ usually,” he chuckled.

“I keep asking him to give it a name,” Thomas said from his spot on the canapé. “He stubbornly refuses.”

“He’s not a pet, we’re only keeping him until he can fly again,” John reasoned as he had a few times before. “There’s no sense in naming him.”

Usually, the conversation ended there, but this time Thomas had a response, “Refusing to name something will not make the attachment weaken, nor does it make letting go any easier.”

The comment was almost too apropos.

John glanced over to James, who was engrossed in a conversation with Eleanor and Anne, before he looked away so that no one seated there would have time to read his untamed expression. However, he found himself regarding the empty frames next to the fireplace.

In his peripheral vision, he could see Max follow his gaze. Her voice was softer when she spoke again, only loud enough for the two of them, “Those must have been your greatest haul. You gained much from them.”

It was true. There were times when he looked at the frames and thought of the fantastical dream every small-time thief imagined—the prize of a lifetime. One great treasure of innumerable riches, which would close the doors on a life lived from hand to mouth and open the grand palace gates to a life lived in comfort.

Only a fool would walk away from such an opportunity. Yet here he was, at the gates, and he was afraid to walk through for fear of the doors that were closing on the only life he had ever known.

“Once, I gave you a piece of advice. Do you remember it?” Max asked, linking her arm in his. He shook his head. So, like she was sharing one of her precious secrets, she leaned in close to his ear and said, “My advice was this, ‘Do not run.’”

Before he could respond, she turned them around and began walking to the others, her voice loud and spirited as she asked for Miranda to show off on the harpsichord for them. She had heard all about the fun to be had when the Hamiltons turned their drawing room into a ball room, and she refused to leave James to his bedroom games until after she persuaded Anne to dance with her.

When Miranda sat at the harpsichord and the airy tune began, James smiled and held out his hand to John for the first dance.

Do not run. Max’s advice had been followed from the start. Running was no longer an option. Perhaps walking away wasn’t either. If he left, he would leave at the slow crawl of a wounded man.

But not yet. There was not a life-altering decision to be made yet. There was a simple one. One he knew the answer to.

He placed his hand in James’ with an equally enthusiastic smile, and allowed himself to be swept away again.

This time, their dance was highlighted by the golden-orange glow of the setting sun. Rather than dancing in silence with shadows, they danced among friends, they danced to music that could be heard by all, and when the final joyous note drifted up into the air, their dance ended, not with a heartwrenching, apologetic hug, but with the impassioned kiss they had both longed for. Around them, the sound of clapping filled the room and the circle of people John cared for grew.

The future would come, but for now he would continue to cherish each and every moment of the present.

Chapter Text

The majority of Thomas’ weekday hours were spent at the desk in the spacious office of former governor, Richard Guthrie, and, though this estate still formally belonged to the man, Eleanor was the only remaining occupant and she was more than happy to allow the first floor to serve as a government building.

If Eleanor’s office was the beating heart of Nassau, then this office served as the brains of the nation. Ideas were born here.

Today alone, they had heard complaints of the road leading inland becoming an impassable river during heavy rains. Plans for small bridges to be built in the low areas of the road had been formulated. The sole doctor on the island, Doctor Howell, was also granted a permit for a small clinic. Nassau was a steadily growing being and Thomas loved nurturing and watching it grow.

James, on the other hand, found the discussions tedious and akin to watching grass grow, if his slouched posture and uninterested, wandering gaze throughout the meeting were anything to go by.

When the last of the council members made their leave, Thomas stepped up behind James, wrapped his arms around James’ midriff, and let all need for professionalism to fall by the wayside. “If these meetings are too dreadfully boring for you, you needn’t come for my sake. Being the governor, I could overlook your absence,” he said and let his chin hook over James’ shoulder.

James quirked a smile and spun the floor globe he had been eyeing every now and then. “Showing favoritism is a step away from corruption, my lord.”

“Then your suffering is a noble means to keep me on the proper course, is it, my love?” Thomas tightened his hold slightly and gave a kiss of gratitude to James’ cheek.

The spinning globe drew to a stop as James’ finger ran from the Bahamas, to the jagged eastern coast of North America, to rest over Massachusetts.

Here was yet another aspect of life he loved watching grow. Relationships between two people. Specifically, the relationship between James and John. They had grown so much that soon he suspected they would no longer need nurturing, but would be able to sustain their relationship themselves. Though, there was one last challenge Thomas would help guide James through.

“Thinking of John again?” he asked, though it wasn’t truly a question.

James’ smile evened out. “I’m sorry my focus has been on him recently,” he said as he brought one hand to rest over Thomas’ in a show of consolation.

“Make no apologies. Seeing you devote time and energy into making John happy only reminds me of why I fell in love with you. Besides, if either Miranda or I were feeling neglected, we would let you know,” Thomas assured him.

Love may not be a finite resource in their lives, but there were unfortunately only so many hours in a day. Still, James was more critical of himself than he needed to be considering that, thus far, he had been dividing nights nearly equally, and Thomas almost suspected that he could find a journal in which James meticulously recorded how many hours he spent with each of them. Such an attentive lover he was.

“The summer months are drawing to a close,” James said softly. “It will be getting cooler up north. We should give him some of the outerwear we have packed away in the storage room.”

“You’re doing it again,” Thomas said as he nuzzled into James’ neck, tickling him, and drawing out a small, uncontrollable laugh from James. James raised an eyebrow then, asking what Thomas meant. “You’ve gone and gotten caught up in a solitary, bleak outcome. An outcome which, might I add, is unlikely at best.”

“Miranda told me nearly the same just yesterday. Are you two conspiring again?”

“We merely wish to point out what you have overlooked,” Thomas said as he raised one hand up to where James’ rested against the globe. “Massachusetts for instance. Why did John pick it for his destination?”

James gave a small shrug, trying not to jostle Thomas’ head too much. “He had to make his plans more concrete eventually. He’s used to working on ships, and—”

“John is hardly one to plan that far ahead. He works quickly on his feet. Massachusetts was chosen because of the story you told him,” Thomas pointed out. James looked ready to protest, but Thomas pushed forward with his next point. “John has saved little to no money for a passage off New Providence—”

“I’ve taught him to cook, Thomas. He could sail in exchange for his skills—good cooks are a rarity on the sea,” James answered with a frustratingly reasonable counter argument.

Thomas sighed, pulled their hands away from the bay, and slid them south down the coast, down the Floridian peninsula, east into the Atlantic, the Bahamas, Nassau.

“We’re here. You are here. Why would he leave?” Thomas asked, knowing for certain that if he were in John’s place, leaving would be an impossibility. “He loves you.”

James’ expression then was brought back to a barely-there smile. “I know,” he said, but there was a hint of despondency in his eyes. “But, that alone isn’t always reason enough to stay.”

“Have you asked him to? To stay.”

This was the point Miranda and Thomas had wanted to bring up with James, that they should let John know of their own hopes. Judging by the way James brought their hands back to cradle around his midsection, Thomas knew that James had not said a word to John on the matter. The choice was, of course, ultimately John’s, but their wishes were hardly inconsequential.

“Asking him to stay would feel too close to a desire to cage him, especially when leaving has been his plan from the beginning. Two weeks from now, he’ll be free from the contract and he’ll continue on,” James said, sounding resolved in his belief. “That’s who he is—he runs, unbridled, from place to place, never stopping for long.”

Thomas couldn’t help but sigh over how hard it was to get James to see the most positive outcome, but that had never stopped him from trying to shine a little light over James’ outlook. To add more weight to his words, Thomas turned James around and held his hands in the small space between them. James was already looking up at him, anticipating the convincing Thomas wanted to do, and Thomas returned the waiting expression with his own optimistic smile.

“Tell me, out of all the times you thought John would run, that he would leave the island, from your first meeting, to the morning you thought he would not honor the contract, to when he thought you asked him to leave home, when has he ever ran too far for you to catch him?”

James glanced away, then back to Thomas, his fingers making worried motions over Thomas’ wrists. Unsure, he said, “Never.”

“I don’t believe this time will be any different,” Thomas said confidently. Again, he pushed forward before James could over-think the point, “Legs grow weary from continuous running. Eventually, everyone seeks a place to rest—a home to return to at the very least.”

“Yes, but, he wants to see New England. That is his destination, his plan.”

“Plans change, and John is hardly the kind of man to write his into stone,” Thomas said as he drew James closer and rested their foreheads together. “Consider that John will stay.”

When James closed his eyes, breathed deep, and his hands steadied, Thomas knew his point had made it through and James’ was finally contemplating an alternative, favorable future beyond the final day of the contract.

“Now,” Thomas began, as he moved away to return to his desk and tidy it up before they headed home, “Miranda and I have discussed this, and I am sure you are aware that we also want John to stay, so we are going to offer him a permanent place with us.” James was not surprised by that decision at all. “However, I believe you should talk with him first as such a request from you would be far more impactful.”

The nod James gave in response was exactly what Thomas had been hoping for. He closed the drawers of his desk, clapped his hands once, and felt a wash of pride for all they had accomplished today. James smiled at his enthusiasm and then, together, they hurried out of the office in hopes that their chat hadn’t delayed them too long and that they could still meet up with John, who would be buying produce in the thoroughfare.

In a silent prayer, Thomas asked that, when James decided to speak with John, he would be a little less noble, a little less self-sacrificial, and understand that the proper course for John just might be a life here, at home, with the three of them.

* * *

The library was closest to the front door, which was why James was currently pacing the room from the fireplace to the shelves and back. He nearly stubbed his toe on the foot of the chaise longue when he whirled around at a noise in the foyer, but it had only been Penelope checking to see why there was so much movement coming from James. She joined him in his repetitive path.

Two days ago, Thomas had managed to convince him that asking John to stay in Nassau was a reasonable idea, which explained why he was now anxiously waiting for John to return home. He glanced at the clock.

Pensively, James ran his thumb over the thin, leather spine of the book he had purchased for John. The more he thought about it, the worse this idea began to sound.

Firstly, writing messages to each other on the first page of books was an oddity he had picked up from Miranda and Thomas. They frequently expressed their love through literature, but John likely didn’t even know about this unless he happened across one of the novels with a message, in which case, he had never asked about them, which meant John must not have found the gesture interesting.

Secondly, this was arguably a terrible day for herding John into a serious conversation. Miranda would be returning with John, as the two of them had left together for the first day of the school year, John had woken up extra early to make a couple dozen jam tartlets for however many children showed up, so he might have spent all his energy for the day—though this was unlikely—, and James should let Miranda have a carefree evening spent talking about her new role as a teacher, which she had been excited about ever since the idea came to her.

Lastly, no matter how many times he told himself that he would be content to support John in whatever decision he made, James could feel himself building up the expectation that John’s answer would be yes. Yes. Yes, John would stay. Love was reason enough to stay.

James looked at the clock hands again. Two minutes had passed. Time always seemed to enjoy mocking a man when he was impatiently listening to the ticking of a clock.

Then, Penelope stopped in her tracks and perked up her ears, the front door clicked open, and James heard Miranda and John’s animated voices fill the hallway, drowning out the tick-tock .

Almost as a reflex, James hid the book behind his back. Then he realized neither of them would think to enter the library first as John would go to the kitchen and Miranda would likely go upstairs to change into a more well-worn outfit, before heading out to tend her gardens. James gathered himself and led Penelope to the foyer.

“Look who’s here to greet us,” Miranda said just as he stepped into the doorway of the library. “You’re home early.”

James gave her a smile in greeting and slight shrug as a non-answer, while John closed the door shut behind them with his foot and placed a number of baskets down. Waking early hadn’t slowed him down at all, and he was practically bouncing with energy as he began to talk about how he had already met one of the students a few weeks before and she stuck by his side, wide-eyed and curious, all day because he rescued her doll once. John said he earned extra marks from another girl because they shared the same hairstyle. John pointed to his hair, and when James saw that John had worn his hair up in a half-ponytail with their ribbon, he felt marginally calmer about what he was planning to ask.

Miranda commented that all of the children loved John even before he offered them treats for having come to school. In response, John opened the lid on the small basket he was still carrying and held out a leftover tartlet for James.

Taking it with his hand was a mistake, because it became quite obvious then that he was hiding something behind his back in his other hand. Fortunately, John distracted himself as he immediately returned to talking about how he needed to rework some of his stories to be child-appropriate, because there were apparently lessons to be had in his tales. It was evident that John loved children as much as Miranda did.

Miranda, however, was observant even when excited and had clearly caught onto him, though she was not being subtle at all as she leaned to the side to see what he was holding. He tried to nonchalantly eat the strawberry treat, while silently pleading with his eyes that she shouldn’t alert John to anything.

Unfortunately, she was focused on the book, hadn’t noticed his desperation, and asked with a playful, accusatory tone, “What are you trying to secret away?”

There was no avoiding it now, he would be asking John today.

“It’s for John,” he answered, keeping his eyes fixed on John, who halted recounting his day the moment James said his name.

Seeming to know exactly what James was about to ask, Miranda dropped the playfulness and came forward, granting him a kiss for courage. He could already feel his heartbeat in his throat and in his thumb, which he pressed into the hardcover. She patted his cheek when she pulled away.

“We will have to save the rest of our school day stories for dinner when Thomas can hear them too. I’ll take the food to the kitchen, John. You can stay with James,” she said as she returned to John, hefted the larger basket, and John placed the tartlet basket on top of it.

Before she left with Penelope, John snatched a few leaves from a head of lettuce. “I have a gift for the bird too,” he said, with noticeably more calm, and nodded down the hall to the drawing room.

James let John lead the way.

“I read up on parrots at the library,” James began as small-talk, because merely blurting out his request hardly seemed the best approach. “It could take months for the bird to molt—for the clipped feathers to grow out and be replaced with fully functioning flight feathers.”

The bird might very well outlast John here.

The bird called to John as soon as they entered the room. John had been working on earning the parrot’s trust, and though it still only remained calm when John had food for it, James could tell it was warming to him. Animals and children alike seemed to love him. A hard man not to like, John had said of himself once.

“Is this about your coat?” John asked as he coaxed the bird off the ship and onto his shoulder. “I swear I tried to clean the bird shit off it for at least an hour. I didn’t think you’d notice.”

James huffed amusedly and shook his head. He wasn’t angry about that anymore, the only reason he even knew anything had happened was because he caught John with the coat in his lap. Honestly, though, bird shit hadn’t been his first guess for the light-colored stain.

James took one of the lettuce leaves and tried to feed the bird, but quickly gave up when it tried to bite him. Twice. “You should name him,” he said.

“Not you too,” John chuckled with a huff of his own. “Thomas won’t let me rest until I give him a name either.”

“If he stays, and you go, we’ll be left to name him ourselves. Of course we want you to name him.” John rolled his eyes. “Name him and you’ll get your gift,” James offered as a trade.

“That’s hardly a gift then,” John said. James shrugged and began acting like he was about to turn around to leave, but John caught his arm. “Fine. Fine. The bird can be named named Captain since he has clearly commandeered this ship.”

“Captain? That’s a title, not a name,” James corrected.

John glared and James almost wished he hadn’t said a thing, because now John was going to do something to spite him, he could see it in his eyes.

“Captain McFlint,” John said with finality and a smirk.

Part of James should have been annoyed by the fact his name was being mocked, but mostly he was just struck by the fact that Thomas had been right. Flint was a name that came from a story James often heard his grandfather tell, it was a story James retold for John one night after they finished Lazarillo. It took place in Massachusetts Bay. The day after James told that story, John made his plans for the colonies sound more concrete by specifying his destination. Massachusetts wasn’t John’s plan at all.

“Why Flint?” James asked, which had not been the reaction John expected if his scrunched up brow was anything to go by.

The bird left John’s shoulder and returned to its perch.

“That was the one and only story you’ve told that had any intrigue and wasn’t some boring factual account,” John said as a jibe, but there was more he wanted to say. James remained quiet, ran his thumb over the spine of the book again, and waited.

“Flint crawled onto the ship’s deck, in the night, like he was conjured out of the sea, showed himself to only one man, and, when your grandfather looked away, Flint had vanished into the mist as if he had never been there at all.” John, who hadn’t let go of James’ sleeve yet, drew him closer as a cool ocean breeze blew in through the open windows. He nodded to the bird, “Captain Flint. He’ll vanish into the sky soon enough. Then, you’ll never have to worry about bird shit again,” he laughed, but it sounded slightly off. Too sharp. Too maudlin.

James wanted to be the optimistic one, wanted to tell John that the bird would come back because it liked him, but he had yet to figure out if John would be around long enough for that to even apply.

“There’s another reason I liked the story,” John continued as he ran his hand down to James’ forearm. “Such a brief encounter, and yet, you say he told it again and again and again, never forgetting a single detail of that night. It’s as much a ghost story as it is a love story.”

The thought of his grandfather having any sort of relation with a strange man on a ship was laughable, but John often said that the way one interpreted a story spoke volumes about that person. The interpretation was more important than the intention.

“Flint killed a man in Massachusetts, did you forget that part?” James asked.

“Did he? No witnesses. No blood. No body. No one truly died. Only your grandfather knew any crime had been committed. Isn’t that what love does? Kills a part of you when it’s gone?” John shrugged, “Or so the tragedies say.”

James frowned and stared into depths of John’s doleful eyes. “Christ, John. We’re hardly a tragedy. We’re—”

That was when James felt John’s fingers slip under his along the cover, and John’s expression instantly changed from one of sorrow to one of triumph, but it was too late for him to prevent John from pulling the book out of his grip. He did, however, manage to react fast enough to grab hold of John’s wrist.

They barely avoided knocking into the pedestal, which would have sent Captain Flint into a frenzy, but James directed John passed it and to the wall just beside the tall windows. The sheer, white curtains gently billowed, brushing against their sides and sending the reflected glow of sunlight into the slightly shadowed corner each time they blew in.

Caught, John bit his lip as he looked up at him. “That was underhanded of me, I’m sorry,” he said, without actually apologizing at all. “Though, if it is my gift, you were going to be giving it to me regardless. I thought I’d help you out since you were nervous about handing it over.”

“You’re a little shit, you know that?” James rolled his eyes and retook the book. “If you were looking to avoid a serious conversation, you’re about to be severely disappointed. Here,” he said and held it out for John to take properly, which he did, looking only mildly concerned at the thought of a serious conversation.

Then, James stood next to John and slid down the wall to sit on the polished wood floor. John followed him down. Their shoulders rested against each other. James let their knees touch as well and fiddled with a loose thread at the seam of his pants.

The book was an older copy, with worn edges, a faded spine, and a dusty, old book smell. It had likely seen many owners before it came into James’ possession, but the red cover and gold leafed designs still stood out around the borders and the title, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“This is the one with the fairy queen and the magic and the night of revelry, yes?” John asked, running his hand over the engraved image of a fairy playing a flute.

“Yes. The music Miranda played when we first danced, it was inspired by this play. Since you enjoy comedies, I thought you’d like it.”

John opened the front cover.

James felt more certain that this was a terrible choice of gift as he saw the words he wrote there. The ink apparently wasn’t completely dried when he first closed the book, so the writing was mirrored on the other page. Perhaps it had even bled through multiple layers.

My little bird, May your love be more than a midsummer dream. James

Now, he supposed, was the time to be direct. “John, I—” his voice cracked. He cleared his throat. He had planned what to say. Something poetic about how John wasn’t going to be caged, how he didn’t have to fly away, but that all boiled down to one thought. What James really wanted to say. When he pulled his gaze away from the book and to John, John was already watching him. “Stay with me,” he whispered.

John’s eyes widened and they were so unsure, so frightened still, and James felt his heart clench tight in his rib cage. All he could think was that Thomas had been wrong.

The bit of hope he had was light enough to be blown away, like a feather in the breeze.

He looked away, because he couldn’t look at John anymore. Not without breaking.

“Wait, wait, wait,” John pushed out in a rush. James heard the book being set on the floor and then there were hands on either side of his face and John was in his lap, forcing their eyes to meet again. “Fuck,” John said into the space between them, which accurately described James’ emotions as well.

“I’m sorry,” James said back, nearly choking on his swallow. He never wanted to guilt John into making a decision. “I only meant to tell you that you can stay, if you want,” he added in an attempt to correct his mistake.

“No, no, no. Don’t apologize for asking for what you want,” John said, rubbing his thumbs over James’ cheeks.

For a moment, he feared he was crying, before he realized his cheeks were dry and the motion was only meant to relax him. He thought he would be fine no matter John’s choice, yet, here he was, barely holding it together. He brought his hands up to John’s back and gripped tightly over his shoulders. John let himself be pulled in close and James could feel the comfort John wanted to give. He could feel it in the way John’s hand moved to hold the back of his head, in the way John’s arm protectively wrapped over his shoulder, and in the way John’s legs framed his thighs. John’s hold was a warm, soothing cradle, more tender than James thought him capable of.

There was still so much he wanted to learn about John, but only twelve days remained and it wasn’t nearly enough time.

“When the contract ends, you can stay. We won’t mind,” James repeated, his voice muffled against John’s chest, but steadier, as he breathed in John’s lavender scent to calm himself further.

“I know you three would let me stay, I know,” John said softly as he pulled back only slightly and James heard, more than he felt, the kiss that was placed onto his forehead. “What you want, it matters to me and I wish I could tell you right now what I want, but, to be completely honest, I don’t know. I don’t know what I want. Staying. Leaving. They are both fucking terrifying at this point.”

James let his hands release John’s shirt and brought them down to John’s waist, so that his hold was less desperate. “What exactly is frightening to you?” he asked, hoping that, if John voiced his fears, they would be easier to battle.

“For starters? You have to understand that, for twenty-some years I was no one to anyone, with only myself to care about. I was the name I gave and the stories I told. I was whoever I wanted to be on any given day. This ever-shifting being was my identity. The only common thread, that I was a liar, a thief, and a con.

“Then, you caught me, and in these—what has it been—seventy-eight days, everything I believed myself to be was turned on its head. Suddenly, I’m John Silver. I have friends and a family that I care about. I’m a very good cook—” James snorted and received a whack on the back of his head before John continued, “And none of that is a convenient lie. You, Miranda, and Thomas, you have come to know more of my truths, more of me, than even I know.

“Such a short time, and now I have to decide if I can remain here. Make a life with you. And I’ve already compared ribbons to rings. That is fucking terrifying.

“There is one promise I want to make to you though,” John said as he settled back on his heels so that they could look at each other once again.

The sun was setting lower in the sky, they should have been working in the kitchen by now, but that was the least of James’ worries. James looked up at John, the curtain had gotten caught on his dark curls and surrounded him like a white veil, but John didn’t bother to move it out of the way. They were enclosed in their own little space.

John picked up the book and showed the dedication James had written. “I promise you, James McGraw, we are not going to be one summer’s dream. If, if, I leave,” he emphasized, and James wanted to hold onto that if as tightly as he could, “I’ll write you letters about all my adventures. Just like you and the Hamiltons. You might not be able to write back, but I’ll send messages to you at least once a month. And, even if it takes years, I will come back. Understood?”

It sounded like a beautiful lie. If John left, once a month would become every other month. Once a season. Once a year. To none at all. The clean cut of the contract was a kinder end than a slow, torturous one.

But, as Thomas would say, that was a solitary, bleak outcome—the outcome he should try to avoid getting caught up in. Right now, John was here, holding him, searching his eyes, trying to offer him hope, and telling him that they could survive an ocean of separation.

“Understood?” John repeated, in a deeper, more commanding tone, like he was trying to imitate what he called ‘the Lieutenant voice.’

James couldn’t help but quirk up the corner of his mouth in the barest hint of a smile, which John instantly returned with his own.

Perhaps it was a beautiful lie, but, God, he wanted to believe in it. In John. In them.

“Understood.”

John kissed him like a promise—the flavor bittersweet.

But, there were promises that could be rendered unnecessary. There remained an if and decisions were yet to be finalized.

When they parted, John had a twinkle in his eye, the one James loved so much, and, while fighting back a grin, John remarked, “‘My little bird’ though?”

Leave it to John to end a serious talk by poking fun at something. James rolled his eyes. “You call Miranda butterfly and she calls you monkey. How is this any worse?”

“No, it’s sweet,” John assured, as he slid from his lap and settled into his side. “Birds are reliable. They follow the same migration patterns year after year. Meaning they will always come home.”

There were also birds that chose to stay.

Chapter Text

Large, wooden crates, filled with ammunition and firearms, were loaded onto the back of a cart as movers cleared away the last of the merchandise from Muldoon’s old firearms shop. There was no longer a need for weaponry to be sold in town, so Muldoon was moving closer to the fort, where a man of his talents was more appreciated. Some men never left their old lives behind.

John waved to James and Muldoon, who were overseeing the relocation of the wares, making certain nothing was stolen or forgotten. Neither saw him, as they were laughing together over something or another. When they had begun to get along, John didn’t know, but he was glad there was no ill will between them.

John turned back around just in time to prevent Miranda from stepping back into a rather deep, muddy puddle, left behind on the street after this morning’s heavy rain. She thanked him graciously for preventing a harrowing disaster, and then handed him the ceramic pot she had bought, as her gardening interests had now expanded into the indoor variety.

Thomas had begun to complain about her filling vases with cut flowers, which only retained their vitality for a week before wilting away. He worried all of Elysium would be flowerless by the years’ end. Their compromise—indoor plants.

Thomas had said, “Communication and compromise are necessary when tending the gardens of love.” It was most certainly a word of advice.

Miranda, however, hadn’t drug John out to market for pottery. She said that they had an errand to run and asked that he help carry some items, though she was keeping suspiciously secretive about what it was they were picking up. Miranda loved her surprises.

John had to admit his first bout of surprise when Miranda walked straight up to the front porch of The Harbour and entered without a bit of hesitation. He followed behind her into the warm, dimly-lit interior. Sex permeated the air.

Miranda was no stranger to sex, he knew, but seeing her weave around tables and pass occupied couches in a brothel, with unperturbed familiarity, made him wonder what manner of places she frequented in London during what she referred to as her adventurous years. Certainly, there were stories he would have to coax out of her one day.

“You know, you could have simply invited me into your bed. Save the time and money spent dragging me to a room here,” John joked as he followed her up the stairs to the rooms.

“I know how you like to be pampered,” she said, which was not untrue, and then she knocked at the second door.

A young, pale woman answered, her blonde hair held up in a bun by a paintbrush. Surprisingly, she was fully dressed. The man, behind her on the bed, was most certainly not. His backside was splattered with paint and he was melded to the sheets like some boneless whale.

“Charlotte,” Miranda greeted and kissed over Charlotte’s shoulders. “Have we come early?”

“Him, maybe,” Charlotte said with a glance over her shoulder, “but your timing is perfect.”

She pulled out a flat, rectangular, chest-sized object, covered with a cloth, from behind the door and passed it to Miranda. John could feel his curiosity building.

“What is it?” he asked, but Miranda only smiled, offering him no clues.

Then, Charlotte went further into the room, retrieved a basket, and held it out to John. He took the handle in his unoccupied hand and introduced himself, to which she answered by saying everyone already knew who he was. Lastly, she uncovered an easel and tucked it under her arm.

“A painting?” John guessed then.

“We couldn’t possibly leave two empty spaces on the drawing room wall forever,” Miranda said with a smile that spoke to how proud she was of this art piece.

An image of the drawing room wall came to John’s mind. He had entirely forgotten that the blank, white spaces indicated that something was missing. He looked at the covered painting again, wondering what it was Miranda had deemed worthy of their wall.

The three of them left The Harbour and began heading back home, while John asked what the painting was of numerous times. It had turned into a game of questions, with Miranda answering yes or no. Yes, it was original. No, it wasn’t of a ship. No, it wasn’t of a person. No, not a still-life. Yes, a place. No, not the townhouse.

They were at the townhouse by the time John realized there was a second painting to be made and that they were bringing Charlotte with them. She had been quiet the entire time, but the moment he turned and asked her what she had drawn, she answered, “A meadow.”

“Elysium,” he grinned at Miranda, knowing the answer without a doubt now.

Miranda showed the painting as soon as they were in the backyard and settled on the bench.

“Well, fuck, you have a talent, Charlotte,” he said to her as she set up her easel and picked a well-used palette and paints out of her basket.

The painting was all pastel hues with purple shadows and a dream-like glow. The attention to detail, though John was not knowledgeable in the arts, was exquisite. It seemed as if Charlotte had painted each golden blade of grass with a separate stroke. The boulder was just off in the distance and to the left. John ran his finger over the painted surface, half expecting to feel the texture of the rock, before Miranda batted his hand away. There was a picnic basket setting on the boulder. In the sky, a kite. No people were visible, but the space felt alive.

A memory captured in oils and canvas. This was what Miranda thought as perfect for the drawing room.

“What are you painting next?” he asked with an amount of awe.

“A portrait,” Charlotte said and took the paintbrush from her hair, making her bun fall out in a loose twist.

“You have no taste for mystery at all,” Miranda sighed.

Charlotte gave a meek shrug and set up a blank canvas so that they could no longer see her face.

John was about to inquire as to who the portrait was going to be of, when he heard Thomas call from the side of the house and Miranda answered by telling him to open the front door and bring Penelope outside.

“A portrait of Penelope?” John laughed, picturing a floppy eared, lolling-tongued dog among all the expensive, serious looking paintings in the room.

Miranda shook her head and laughed as well. “The only portrait we have in the house is of me and Thomas. We are long overdue for a new family portrait, wouldn’t you agree?” she asked with love and kindness in her eyes as she nodded to where James had just rounded the corner, Thomas walking alongside him, and Penelope leading at a gallop.

As John realized that James and his faithful companion were going to be in a portrait with the Hamiltons, his heart soared. To be in a family portrait, on the walls of your home, the painting telling any guest who entered that this was where you belonged—what a feeling that would be.

A family portrait. Immortalizing their love in art.

No one deserved it more.

“Before you get too excited,” Miranda said as she put the painting of Elysium in his arms, “set this, and the pot, on the coffee table in the drawing room for me? Hurry back, of course.”

John jumped from the bench and gave Penelope a quick pat as she ran circles around him. She nearly followed him back inside the kitchen, though the moment James called to her she was bounding with energy back to him. Hopefully, she would wear herself out enough to sit calmly for the portrait.

Once in the drawing room, John put down the pot and then held the painting out in his arms and lined it up with the appropriate-sized, empty frame. It would be perfect there.

Both Miranda and Thomas were people that knew very well how to handle the unpredictabilities of life. They hadn’t tried to replace the stolen paintings with copies, hadn’t tried to recreate to the past, but continued forward with something new.

A small bout of nostalgia at the loss of the empty frames snuck up on John. Strange how he had grown attached to the negative space. The new paintings would be better though, and, even if this painting had no people, John was a part of this memory. Out in the fields of Elysium, Thomas was flying his kite, Miranda was sharing her picnic, and John was with James and Penelope, and they were rescuing a parrot.

John gently placed the painting on the table and went back out through the kitchen door. He closed it quietly behind him, as to not draw the attention of anyone on the veranda. Miranda, Thomas, James, and Penelope were all at the bench now. For a long moment, he stood and observed them.

They were his something new.

Miranda was still seated, her ruby-red dress standing out against the white, stone bench. She adjusted her dress around her bosom. Thomas, thankfully wigless, stood behind her as he rearranged her hair so that it draped over her left shoulder. James pulled a black, velvet box from his jacket and opened it for Miranda. She lit up at the sight.

John made a few light steps forward to get a better look. From the box, James lifted out a necklace. A three strand, white pearl, cameo necklace. The cameo was mounted in gold, with a red-orange background, and most striking to John was the image in relief. A white butterfly.

“John, are you planning to stand there all day?” Thomas asked with a smile.

Miranda turned to look his way. “Come, join us,” she said, as she patted the space on the bench to the left of her.

John remained rooted to his spot. “You want me in the portrait?” he asked in stunned disbelief.

Honestly, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Miranda and Thomas always made room for him, they had said it themselves, but to be a part of their family portrait was a gesture so grand he hardly knew what to do with himself.

“Of course,” Miranda said, with a look that suggested she was offended he doubted them at all. “This was your idea.”

“I—my idea?” he stuttered out, not remembering the idea of a portrait ever having crossed his mind.

“When we were painting the gourds, you told me that you pictured the four of us, here on this bench, together,” she reminded him. There was a long pause before she added, “Surely you aren’t planning to leave the picture you dreamed about.”

It was said in such a way that he knew she was not only referring to the painting. John anticipated a question to follow, one he would be expected to answer, one about staying. His answer would be indecisive, causing distress to the Hamiltons and to James again. Hurting them, in any way, made John ache. However, no question came.

“This picture of yours is what we all want,” Thomas said, resting his hand on Miranda’s shoulder, his ring glinting in the sun.

Again, Miranda patted the seat as James clasped the butterfly necklace around her neck. It was no surprise when James, too, gave a nod of his head to the empty space, once again expressing his desire for John to be a part of their future.

Before John had time to process all of the implications of Miranda and Thomas’ carefully chosen words, he was already moving forward, light-footed, with a wonderstruck smile.

The moment he sat on the bench, James was behind him, pulling up his hair. John sighed, content that the dinner party hadn’t been the last time for this and, now that he had made a promise to return, there wouldn’t be a last time.

Miranda called Penelope away from the rabbit hole she was fond of inspecting on the daily, and, with the help of James, they arranged her to lie down at John’s feet.

Then, Charlotte picked up her chalk to begin the rough sketch.

“Wait, we’re missing someone!” John exclaimed, just as his general shock wore off. He received confused looks in return from everyone, including Penelope. “Captain Flint,” he said like it should have been obvious.

He was already up and running back into the house as James’ shouts in protest followed behind him. Thomas was much more accommodating than James when John returned with Flint on his shoulder.

“From hardly wishing to name him, to wanting him in the family portrait,” Thomas commented. “What brought about this wonderful change of heart?”

John fed a small piece of a carrot to Flint and answered, “I’m considering that, perhaps, he will stay.”

Thomas nodded, eyes sparkling. “Now that he is being painted with us, I must insist on keeping him around.”

“If he bites off your ear, or shits on you, don’t say you weren’t given fair warning,” James interrupted as Flint mistook the hand he put on John’s shoulder for another treat.

Miranda and John stifled their laughter, while Thomas fussed over the small indent left on James’ finger, and then they settled into their poses. Penelope fell asleep. After half an hour, John was complaining and James was telling everyone that he had predicted John’s restlessness. After that, John switched his tone and remained stock still for a solid five minute, until he was told that there would be a session a day for a total of six more days, and suddenly being a part of the portrait sounded like torture.

It was worth it.

Sitting here, with his family, being painted and becoming part of a fixed piece in their drawing room, even if it took a thousand hours, it was worth it.

Chapter Text

After the third day of a relaxing painting session, after a filling dinner, and long after the sun had bid good night, their home re-enactment of Shakespeare’s play, which John had insisted upon shortly after he received A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a gift from James, began to fall apart. Miranda would accidentally skip a line and read someone else’s, John’s words were a sleep addled slur and only understandable by reading the page they were all crowded around, James’ enthusiasm had slowly ebbed to the point where his primary acting choice was a tired grumble, and Thomas was not quite certain if he was awake or dreaming when he saw the mischievous sprite, Puck, poke out from behind the armchair across from them and grin.

It was in the best interest of everyone when they finally called it a night, especially once the chime of the grandfather echoed from the other room and informed them, with a solitary, resonating strike, that it was one in the morning.

They forced their tired limbs out of the chaise, which they had managed to make accommodate the four of them by possibly altering the laws of physics, and then blew out the candles around the room, before making their way upstairs in the protective glow of the candle Miranda brought up with them.

Their nightly routine was accompanied by the sound of the soft, pitter-patter of rain against their window ledges and by John sleepily imitating characters in the play, as if he had yet to realize they were no longer in the world of the stage.

Thomas shared a small smile with Miranda, as they both adored when John was delirious with his need for a decent night’s sleep.

When they paused at John’s room, Thomas expected James to silently express that he wanted to spend the night with John again, as he had for the last two consecutive nights. It was understandable. They were within the final week of the contract and, no matter how much reassurance he and Miranda gave to James, the possibility of John leaving, for what could be years, heavily influenced James’ decisions, which was why it was terribly shocking when James gave John a fleeting kiss, stepped back, and let their fingers linger as he slipped away, down the hall, and into the master bedroom.

There was a flicker of regret in John’s eyes, but it was clear to Thomas that their sleeping arrangement for tonight was something that the two had discussed earlier.

Penelope, oblivious as to who would be needing her comfort, followed James.

John made no move to protest. “Goodnight,” he said to Miranda and Thomas, with a tiny nod, making to turn into his room.

Thomas felt Miranda nudge him, and she stood up on her tiptoes as he bent down for her to whisper into his ear. “Shall we fulfill your wish tonight?” she asked, a smile blanketing her words.

Immediately, Thomas knew what she referring to, and, if there were ever a more opportune time, he was certainly not going to wait for it—not when John so obviously wished to be with James.

“John,” Thomas called, his excitement already coloring his tone and making him sound far more awake than the hour should allow. John looked over his shoulder, a question in his eyes, while Thomas extended his hand to him and revealed his long-held dream. “Would you like to sleep with us?”

“He has been wanting you in our bed for quite some time now,” Miranda added, with an arched brow and a great deal more suggestion than necessary.

“Miranda,” he scolded immediately.

However, John, being well familiar with Miranda’s over-exaggerated teasings by now, had clearly taken Thomas’ words for their true intention. John glanced down the hall to the open bedroom doorway, back to Miranda, and then to Thomas, the smile on his face building in increments, as he too seemed to be filled with a renewed energy. Perhaps this had even been a dream that had crossed John’s mind.

“Will the four of us fit in one bed?” John asked, eyes dancing in the candlelight, as he placed his hand in Thomas’ before even hearing an answer.

Miranda stepped forward, took John’s free hand, and began leading them down the hall. “I suppose we will have to find out,” she said, sounding just as excited as Thomas felt.

Then, they crossed the threshold, one after the other. James was at the nightstand, his form a silhouette in front of the light of another candle. He was letting his hair down and unbuttoning his cuffs, completely unaware of the change in plans. Miranda slipped away from John and headed to her vanity rather than to James. She sat in front of the mirror in such a way that Thomas knew she could see whatever proceedings took place by the nightstand next. A surprise was what she wanted.

Thomas removed his hand from John’s, brought it to John’s lower back, and gave him a slight push forward.

Playing along, John made soft steps across the cool, wooden floor, his approach going entirely unnoticed by James. Unfortunately, his plan of attack was flawed. John went for James’ sides, clearly meaning to tickle him, in imitation of James’ choice method of torture, but James himself was not weak in the sides at all. Thomas would later tell John that James’ most ticklish spot was the soles of his feet.

James did, however, yelp in surprise.

Thomas heard Miranda’s bubbling laughter and he glanced her way, seeing her brushing out her hair, before he looked back to James, who was sending Miranda a gentle glare. Then, James turned on his attacker, but was too slow as he had likely been expecting Thomas, not John, to be behind him.

John deftly escaped and made a dive for the mattress, his landing less graceful than his previous movements as the belly-flop shook the entire frame of the bed.

“John?” James asked, mouth agape.

Thomas tried not to laugh at the expression of pure confusion.

“This bed is luxurious,” John said, as he rubbed his face in the sheets and bounced a few times, ignoring James. “Your guests are being cheated.” He pointed an accusatory finger at Thomas.

“We can get you a new mattress,” Thomas offered, “since it is your room now.”

John rolled onto his back and Thomas thought he saw him nod, but it was hard to say. Thomas could see John’s mind wandering to the future, one with a new cotton-filled mattress. That future could be next week if he stayed. Thomas remained convinced that it would be and, even if John thought himself undecided, his talks of Massachusetts and the colonies had ceased, and, when he spoke of the future, he spoke of his life in Nassau as if it extended into next week. Next month. Next year.

As a yawn overcame Thomas, he shrugged out of his jacket and pulled off his cravat, making ready for bed. John followed suit as he sat up, tossed his ribbon onto the nightstand, and shook out his thick head of hair.

“You’re sleeping here?” James asked with astonishment, as the situation became clear to him. “You invited him to sleep here?” he repeated, his voice becoming so very touched as he watched Miranda, now in her nightgown, untie the canopy from the bedposts.

“We did,” Miranda nodded.

James surely wanted to kiss her in that moment, though he appeared to be restraining himself, likely for John’s sake and out of an uncertainty as to what would be acceptable behavior in this situation. Miranda, seeing his reluctance, nonchalantly stepped forward and gave James a quick, innocent kiss. When James looked his way, eyes full of love, Thomas smiled as much as the new wave of tiredness would allow, came over to them, and also granted a chaste kiss to James’ lips.

James gave a shy look back to John, who had returned to the bed after having unceremoniously tossed his outer garments and his shirt to the floor—Thomas would have to fix that habit at some point. John, however, was happily paying them no mind as his attention was on Penelope, who was enjoying a thorough petting from where she had sprawled out in her space along the foot of the bed.

Miranda left them, circled to the side of the bed, and pulled the canopy closed behind her, before she slipped under the sheet and into the space to the right of John.

“Just a moment, don’t I get to sleep next to John?” Thomas asked with a pout. This was originally his idea after all and he predicted that the other space would be reserved for James.

Very quickly, they learned that deciding on sleeping arrangements was far more complicated with the addition of a fourth. Complicated for all except for John, for whom the center of attention appeared to be a delight, as he sat back with an unabashed, though sleepy, grin, and remained neutral in the decision making process.

“He’s a wild animal in his sleep,” James said, with exasperation, a few minutes into their squabble. “Under no circumstances am I going to let either of you bear the brunt of that.”

“You won’t let us?” Miranda narrowed her eyes, and Thomas knew that she was going to get her way after that attempt at an ultimatum.

She took John by surprise when she lightly smacked her palm against his chest and guided him down onto her pillow, while giving James a pointed look. John recovered quickly, rolled onto his side to face her, and whispered something into her ear, which made her nod and pat his cheek.

John had apparently joined her side.

Thomas was a little saddened to have to concede his wishes, but if John preferred to sleep between Miranda and James tonight, he would respect that decision. There would be a next time.

Just as Thomas was about to gesture for James to get in bed next, John spoke up, “You’ve had me all to yourself for months,” he said to James as he pulled back the sheet and slid under. “Let them have a turn.”

Miranda, already having closed her eyes, reached across John and attempted to tap the bed to his right, but only hit empty air. “Come, dear. We both get him tonight.”

A giddy feeling hit Thomas immediately, and his smile wasn’t even dampened by James’ scowl. “It is true, my love,” he said, too happy and too tired to give James any words of solace.

The scowl, however, softened the moment Thomas settled in behind John and laced his fingers with the hand Miranda left draping over John’s torso. She hummed, already drifting off to sleep.

“Traitors,” James muttered with a small chuckle and a large amount of affection. In only a marginally childish fashion, James rounded the bed to Miranda’s side and told everyone to scoot over, which they did with only a bit of complaint from the half-asleep Miranda.

Thomas was left to sit up again and reach for the canopy, which had yet to be closed on his side. He began pulling it shut, but paused to give himself a moment to see his dream turned to reality.

John was beside him, one arm bent at the elbow and under his head, the other arm across Miranda’s waist. Thomas remembered a time when John was startled by a simple holding of hands, and now, here he was, comfortable sharing their bed and cuddling with them in a show of intimate friendship and love. How he had grown. Buried under John’s curls, was Miranda’s braided hair. She was peacefully asleep now, curled towards John, her cold toes touching Thomas’ leg. She hadn’t moved her hand from John’s chest. On the far end of the bed, James was on his back, with an arm extend above Miranda and John’s heads. His fingers had wrapped in a few locks of John’s hair. The sheet was barely covering him—they would need two sheets on the bed next time.

They were beautiful together. More beautiful in reality than in any dream.

Thomas leaned over to the nightstand and blew out the candle, welcoming the night. The canopy was closed and the four of them snuggled together in their cradle of love.

* * *

At the crack of dawn, James was already awake, outside, and bending over the small orange tree in their front yard. Drops of rain water, from last night’s shower, still clung to the tips of its leaves. One drop was displaced by a barely noticeable breeze, falling from the leaf, and splashing on the ripe, yellow-orange surface of the fruit their tree had bore.

This tree, John’s gift, which had been planted by Miranda, Thomas, and himself, was the first addition to the home that the four of them had a hand in. The first of many.

There were two fruits in total, the weight of them bending down the branches of the young plant. The corner of James’ mouth curved up into a smile as he cupped his hand under the orange, which he had been patiently waiting to see ripen, and alleviated the tree of its stress, picking the first orange and then the second. He tossed one in the air, catching it as it fell, while he headed back to the kitchen. There, he sliced each orange in half, creating four pieces, and set the last of his preparations on the silver tray.

After a late night like last night had been, James knew that he would be the only member of the household up at a reasonable hour. Being on the edge of the bed also proved useful for slipping out unnoticed, which would have been an impossibility had he chosen a spot in the middle. It all worked out in the end. Now, he had a chance to surprise them with a show of appreciation for how caring, understanding, and accommodating the three loves of his life were.

Taking the tray, he headed upstairs. The smell of buttered eggs on toast, bacon, and fresh cut oranges followed behind him. A New England breakfast.

Through the sheer canopy curtains, James could see that Penelope was the first to wake upon his arrival, with her nose sniffing the air. She had migrated during the night and was half atop both Thomas and John’s legs. Thomas, always clingy during the night, had wrapped around John, mostly engulfing the smaller man. John had managed to get the covers wrapped around him even though he was in the middle, leaving Miranda, whose body ran cold during the night, to seek out John’s warmth after James had carefully removed her from himself when he first woke.

Thankfully, neither Miranda nor Thomas appeared to have suffered any grievous injuries during the night due to John.

James stepped forward and opened the canopy at the foot of the bed for a clearer look. The morning sun from the east set windows bathed them all in a honey-colored glow. Their toes and pads of their feet were sticking out from under the sheet at the end of the bed. Their sleek hair shimmered like ocean waves on a sunny day. Their faces were serene, untroubled by any worries.

For a moment, James considered whether or not they could commission another painting from Charlotte. A painting of the four of them in bed, legs and arms entangled, not knowing whose limb belonged to whom. It would certainly not be a painting appropriate for the drawing room, but there was a space above their headboard where it would fit almost perfectly.

Four lovers in a bed.

Even when less than the four of them shared this bed, they could always look up and know that this was the ideal. This was the peace James sought.

This was his perfect day.

Then, Penelope moved, seeking out the bacon, and woke Thomas, who appeared confused at waking up next to John until he remembered the night before. He extracted himself slowly, yawned, and then noticed James and broke out into a smile.

“Good morning,” Thomas said, voice husky from his first spoken words of the day.

It was a good morning.

John and Miranda woke at nearly the same time, with her nuzzling into his neck and John whining for more sleep. When he caught a whiff of the food, however, he perked up as quickly as Penelope had and was the first to scramble over the bed and to the meal.

“Breakfast in bed?” John beamed, like this was everything he had ever wanted.

James nodded, glad to give John another new experience. John responded by leaning over the end of the bed, gripping James’ collar, and pulling him down for a kiss that was unreasonably longer than appropriate.

Neither Miranda nor Thomas seemed to mind.

Before they ate, Miranda reached over to the nightstand, pulled out the contract, and marked off another day. James couldn’t see the number she wrote, but he knew it, of course. There were four days remaining. However, today, the sight of it didn’t press against his chest like an unbearable weight. Today, James could believe that the contract was no longer an unkillable beast, but one that they could slay together with promises of a future.

“You are going to be late for your duties, James,” Miranda said as she ran her hands through her braid, undoing it and letting her hair flow over her shoulders.

“I’m taking these next few days off,” James confessed, tapping his fingers on the underside of the tray. Believing in the positive outcome didn’t mean it wasn’t still best to take precautions in the case of the less favorable one. He wanted as much time as possible with John. Still, Miranda and Thomas both gave him a look that said they didn’t approve of him shirking his responsibilities. “I asked Gates to handle any issues that might arise. Barring a civil war, nothing should happen during my absence that he can’t manage on his own.”

“I hope you know this means I’m sleeping in every day,” John began with a smirk as he eyed the meal, “and you are making our breakfast.”

Apparently James wasn’t the only one looking to shirk his responsibilities.

James joined them as they all sat cross-legged, in a circle, in the middle of the bed, with the tray in the center. Penelope, the spoiled girl, had an entire plate of bacon for herself, which James handed out first. Then, he told everyone that the oranges on their tree were ripe for picking this morning. Simultaneously, Miranda, Thomas, and John reached for a half, their expressions equal in brightness as they inspected their long awaited reward. John didn’t even bother to waste another second as he took the first taste.

“Mmm,” John hummed around the edge of his slice. “In a few years, we might have enough oranges to make orange juice for all of us.”

It was a spontaneous comment, the kind John often made when his mouth was running before his head could catch up with him. More and more often this week, John’s comments made it sound as if leaving was no longer on his mind, or as if his subconscious had already settled on the thought of staying.

James tried not to put any expectations on the next few days, and tried not to spend every moment with John waiting for him to make his final decision, but he couldn’t deny that those comments were the reason his own hope had reached the height it was at now.

Miranda and Thomas crossed their arms, feeding each other a bite of their orange and looking more like young lovers than two people who had been together for decades. Their smiles deepened at the flavor.

John raised an eyebrow at him, spun the half-eaten orange in his hand, and extended his arm, which was most likely a request to mimic the move with James. James rolled his eyes, held back a smile at John’s answering sulky expression, and then decided that there was no sense in resisting.

He crossed his arm with John's and sank his teeth into the juicy, pulpy flesh of the fruit. 

The orange was sweet and, like an aliment straight from the fairy queen’s enchanted banquet, the flavor made John’s words sound all the sweeter.

Chapter Text

The masts of the ship disappeared beyond the fuzzy line of the horizon and John watched them go from where he stood, leaning against the pilings of the dock. One day, perhaps, he would watch a ship set sail and, tucked away, deep in its hull would be his longing for new sights and his desire to never stop moving. The ship would vanish into the divide between the sea and the sky and he would finally be settled here in Nassau.

John sighed and kicked at the damp wood.

In three days, he could barter his cooking skills in exchange for passage on any number of ships leaving Nassau without paying a single coin. He could work for a wealthy family in Massachusetts for a month, one that had just as large a house as the Hamiltons. He could travel all up and down the coast of New England, working for any number of people, and never having to steal again.

He could have that future. He thought about that future again and again. At one point in his life, it would have been the greatest future imaginable.

These past few days, John had repeatedly ruminated over what he stood to lose if he stayed here, but the more he thought, the more he felt that he was falling into the trap he saw many men fall into—the trap where one was too afraid to take a brighter opportunity for fear of losing what he had grown accustomed to. For most men, the trap came in the form of a daily routine and a static job, even though he wished to travel the world or leave breakneck labor behind. For John, travelling the world was what he had grown accustomed to, while remaining still in a comfortable life was the change he feared. Funny how he once thought himself better than those men who were hesitant to follow through with their dreams.

Dreams. His dreams when he laid his head to rest were no longer of the sea or some unexplored inland place. The night he slept with Miranda, Thomas, and James, he had dreamed of setting up a hammock back in the fig trees, a hammock that was somehow large enough for four, and, with them, he watched birds come to nest in their painted gourds. Last night, his dream had been of a full-grown orange tree, one he would have to climb—like a monkey—to retrieve the fruits in order to make four glasses of orange juice for breakfast.

Less and less often did John picture himself on one of those departing ships, watching Nassau grow smaller until it was but a point in the distance. Even the thought of such a sight churned his stomach.

John turned away from the ocean waters and looked up through the teeming thoroughfare, where businesses flourished and people bustled about. Beyond all that was a familiar inland place, where a red-brick path led up to a townhouse.

Recently, John’s ruminations had shifted to thoughts of what he stood to lose if he did board a ship in three days. There were many memories that could be created in a year, in two years. Memories Thomas, Miranda, and James would create without him. He could create new memories too, memories of New England, but what was the point when he was alone with no one to share his memories with? If he left, he wouldn’t be here to see if Captain Flint stayed. The sunflowers, which had grown from tiny seeds into tall green stalks, would bloom without him. He would miss the end of the school year and break his promise to the class that he would bake them a cake in celebration.

With or without him, their lives would continue on.

“John!” he heard Thomas’ familiar voice call from a distance, pulling him from his musings.

Further down the shoreline, at the main wharf, Thomas was waving at him and made a gesture towards the street. It was nearly time to head home and Thomas always loved company. John pushed away from the piling, picked up today’s basket of fresh produce, and made to join up with him.

Thomas’ larger stride, combined with John’s leisurely gait, led to them both meeting at the end of the dirt road at the same time.

“You managed to get out of the house without James trailing behind?” Thomas asked in mock surprise, along with his usual cheerful grin.

It wasn’t as if James had been smothering him these last couple days—truthfully, John relished in their additional time spent together—, but they were all privy to James’ reason for taking the week off. More time together was exactly it.

As to why James was not currently with him, this afternoon, with the house all to themselves, John foolishly asked James how it felt for him to be separated from the Hamiltons, with only letters to keep in contact. James knew from experience how love stretched across an ocean felt. John hadn’t a clue, but was beginning to desperately, fearfully need to know. The stories he crafted almost always ended with a joyous return. Reality, however, was rarely the same. John knew many men on the seas had left their wives behind and the love had faded. Snapped under the stress of time and distance. Unlike the reality which John had grown used to, James and the Hamiltons were a success, a triumph, a testament that it was possible for love to endure.

However, after telling the story, with emotions as raw as if the Hamiltons were still in London, James had retreated into the library. Just like that, the sunny mood James had been sporting since their breakfast-in-bed sunk into a sea of melancholy.

“I invited him to come with me, but—” John paused, not knowing how to verbalize that he had single-handedly dampened the mood they had all been enjoying.

Thomas’ steps alongside his met the slow pace he had set. The presence was comforting among the bustle around them. “But?” he encouraged him to continue.

There was no point in avoiding saying anything when Thomas would be seeing James shortly, but John didn’t want to cause a second face to fall today.

When the two of them walked past the empty storefront windows of Muldoon’s old place, already dusty and streaked with residue from the rains, John said the first thing that came to mind in order to avoid answering the but. “I could make this into a pâtisserie.”

Both their feet stopped at the same instance and they both regarded the building, while John tried not to appear absolutely horrified by his unfiltered thought.

“I mean,” John continued, because now that it was out there, he couldn’t let the comment remain without explaining himself, “you’re busy during the day filling the role of governor, James is off being a lieutenant, Miranda is out teaching five days a week, meanwhile I’m stuck in an empty home, often eating a noon meal by myself, and waiting for the hours to pass. I desperately need something to keep the ennui from setting in.” John gestured to the blank store with one arm spread wide, “Picture it, La Pâtisserie Silver written above the doorway. Max was right, I could make a living off of my baking.”

Thomas picked up where John left off, not allowing any space of time for John to fret over how long-term his words were. “In this window, you could display cookies of all sorts, bonbons, crêpes,” he listed with increasing enthusiasm, pointing from one imagined spot in the window to another. “Oh, and the rum cake would sell like mad here. I can smell it now! Can you smell it?”

John inhaled, long and deep, and maybe he could smell it too. Somewhere behind the smell of fish, the distant smell of the tannery, and the sweat of the crowd. He barked out a laugh and mirrored Thomas’ infectious smile.

“We would have to paint the entire place. No dull, brown wood left in sight. Miranda is amazing at drawing silhouettes. She could paint a cake right on the front door,” John said as he stepped up to the door and turned the handle. It was locked, which ruined the dramatic effect John had been planning to go for.

“This is the perfect opportunity for you. No one else has shown interest in the lot yet,” Thomas said as he stepped up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. “If you want it, it is yours.”

The perfect opportunity. If he wanted it.

The metal knob was comfortably cool in his palm, the step he was standing on was scuffed and faded and squeaked when he shifted his weight, one window had a crack in the upper righthand corner, and the door needed a bell, because James absolutely loathed the bells at Jack’s.

John wanted to open that door.

He gripped the knob tighter, his heart beginning to beat through to his palm.

He wanted it all.

He wanted a new mattress, he wanted orange juice, he wanted sunflower seeds, he wanted to bake cakes, and he wanted to see Captain Flint fly. He wanted to wake up in the morning next to James, or next to Miranda or Thomas. He wanted, and he wanted, and he wanted to want for nothing.

“Of course, I am afraid that this building is one of the few things that will not still be here waiting for you should you decide to spend a few years abroad,” Thomas added almost too nonchalantly as he gave a hearty knock to the surprisingly sturdy door.

There were many things that would not wait for him. John, reluctantly, let his hand fall away from the handle. “Are you a governor or a realtor?” he asked, trying to sound as lighthearted as possible even though his mind was whirring.

“As governor, it is my job to navigate this nation towards the best possible version of the future and ask others to help me in my course. I offer you the same guidance. This pâtisserie, it would be good for Nassau, but more importantly, it would be good for you. For your future here. Considering that you brought it up, I doubt I need to sell you on that point,” Thomas said, seemingly confident that John would be taking up the offer. “Think it over for a couple of days if you must.”

John gave a single nod and stepped down, away from the door, though he could feel it beckoning him still. The door to his future had manifested itself in a literal sense, and it was neither looming nor garish. It was a simple, wooden door. Inside, inside was where the possibilities laid.

“Now,” Thomas said brightly, tossing his arm entirely around John’s shoulders, “let’s go home and cheer up James, shall we?”

“What makes you think he is in a mood?” John asked with surprise. “I never mentioned that.”

Thomas gave a perceptive smile. “You have a look about you when you’re worried about him, and I can think of few other reasons as to why he wouldn’t have joined you. But, worry not, he’ll recover quickly enough with our help.”

As they walked away from the empty building, John stole a look back and imagined Max entering to buy sugar cookies, Idelle and Featherstone ordering a wedding cake, or children enjoying an after-school treat that their parents would likely scold them for.

The gut-wrenching fear he often felt when thinking of his future in Nassau began to slowly ebb like the tide, leaving behind pools filled with excited anticipation.

The balance between the two decisions he had been weighing had ever so slightly tipped throughout the week. That much he knew. The pâtisserie was one more opportunity added to the scale in favor of staying, and when adding the gains and subtracting the losses, it was becoming clearer where he would find the greatest rewards.

* * *

Two days later, John entered the drawing room to feed Captain Flint, who was chattering away,  and found Miranda sitting in the armchair, working on her embroidery. The needle she held was artfully woven in and out of the fabric, creating the petal of a pink rose. Although Miranda appeared fully concentrated on her needlework, she was poised in a manner John had grown to know meant that she was preparing to speak to him.

John took a seat across from her, without her needing to prompt him, and watched as she deliberately put away her hoop and threads. Then, she stood with grace and came around the coffee table to sit beside him. Though her expression was open and warm, John had a clear idea of what she was going to ask, and he fought back the jittered nerves that came with it. His leg only betrayed him with two small bounces before he stilled it.

Miranda reached for the blue teapot, which was sitting on the table, and righted John’s gold-mended cup. “Chamomile, to calm the nerves,” she said attentively as she poured the tea and pressed the cup into his hands.

“Thomas and I try to foster an environment where you can freely voice your fears, wants, and needs without apprehension. Usually, I wouldn’t push too hard for you to speak your mind, but time is drawing short and I feel you are ready for this question, so I ask, what will you do, John? Tomorrow, once your ninety days are up and you have regained your freedom, will you run as James always said you would?” she asked, but it felt as if she already knew the answer and was only seeking to hear it confirmed. She was as confident in her optimism as Thomas had been.

John exhaled heavily through his mouth, in the guise of cooling the tea, inhaled the floral aroma, and took a sip. It was lukewarm, but not unpleasantly so, and, true to her word, the tea instantly settled his thoughts enough for him to gather them together. Miranda was right, after all, he was finally ready for that question. Finally, his answer could be steady and true.

“Honestly, the moment James first caught me at The Harbour, I had the distinct feeling that I wouldn’t be able to run anymore. And, it wasn’t as if you had taken my freedom with the contract—I could have left after the first day if I chose to, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to run. I chose, for the first time, to stay.”

John moved his wrist in small circular motions and watched the tea swirl in his cup like the maelstrom that had followed his continual choice of staying. The attraction, the restraint, the yearning, the uncertainty, the endless funnel of emotions. When the liquid settled, he saw himself looking back. John Silver. He had many roots, many attachments, many people he loved. He was no longer no one. And that was alright because he was no longer alone. No longer lonely.

“Now,” he continued, his own expression softening as he looked over to Miranda, “this is my home. You are my family. There is no other place in this world where I could wake up in the morning and matter as much as I do here. Which is why I suspect that the moment I boarded a ship to leave, homesickness would hit me, and I would be forced to dive overboard, because nothing in Massachusetts could compare to what I’ve found here.”

Miranda put her hand on his knee, her soft eyes shimmering and a tear holding onto her lashes. She looked so very happy. “Go on,” she urged and sniffled at the same time.

Now that he was bearing his soul, he didn’t wish to stop either. “I found a great deal of myself here. I discovered that I could be happy giving to others, that I am quite a romantic at heart, and that I would hate to break a promise to a bunch of school children.”

“God, they would never forgive you,” Miranda laughed.

“I might not forgive myself for breaking so many tiny hearts,” he laughed along with her. From the library, he heard James and Thomas laughing together as well. Laughter was a sound familiar to the walls of this home. John paused to take another sip of tea, drinking in the atmosphere, and swallowing around the overflowing happiness that had settled high in his throat. “Above all that, leaving would mean willfully breaking James’ heart. That I know I would not forgive myself for. And, as curious as I might often be, experiencing the level of longing that comes with physical separation is not something I wish to subject myself to. So, while I might be free to go wherever I choose tomorrow, I never want to be free from him. The choice I am making, it is him. I am choosing us. For those reasons, and for many more, I will stay.”

“Do you love him?” Miranda asked more bluntly than John had expected. Again, she certainly knew the answer, but she had a way of dragging everything out into the open, like she had the skeleton key to every door within his mind.

John looked down, ran his thumb around the rim of the teacup, and nodded.

“John, look at me,” she instructed and laid a hand over his own. He lifted his head, staring straight into her eyes as she gave him a patient smile, filled with her own gentle love. “Do you love James?”

“Yes,” he said, feeling his heart pattering at the admission.

She nodded once, while running her fingers over his knuckles in a comforting caress. “There are a great many things that are hard to admit, love should not be one of them. Too often people hold their words close to their heart and then regret never having said them at all, so I am telling you, to tell James what you have told me. Tell him that you will stay and tell him that you love him. As stoic as our James tries to be, the poor thing has worried himself sick these last few days by thinking, once again, that you would continue your plans to sail to the colonies, and that he would have to endure years without your presence. Put him at ease, for all of us.”

John intended to do just that.

With excited energy, he leaned forward and kissed Miranda’s cheek, nearly forgetting his tea, but thankfully spilling none.

“And, John,” Miranda said, just as he put his cup aside and made to stand, “the contract is annulled. If you are to be our family, then you are to be our family fully. I won’t allow another minute to go by with the existence of a piece of paper that labels you as a cook in our servitude. We should have shredded the bloody thing weeks ago.”

“Shred it to pieces, Miranda. I know exactly what I plan to do with mine,” John said with a grin.

As a rush of vitality filled him, he took the trip upstairs two steps at a time, practically skidded into his room in completely unnecessary haste, dove over his bed, and wrenched open the drawer of his nightstand. There wasn’t a moment’s pause between his grabbing the contract and crawling back over the bed, rushing down the hall, and sliding down the banister—James would have had a fit if he saw.

Then, John caught both sides of the doorframe into the library and took a moment to regain his breath.

Thomas had mysteriously vanished from the room—spirited away by Miranda, he imagined—leaving James, seated at the desk, facing away from the hall, and composing a letter. Thomas must have stolen James’ hair tie, because the ends of his hair licked over the shoulders of his waistcoat like flames. His coat was long-gone, hung up near the front door, and he had rolled up his sleeves to his elbows. Overall, it was John’s favorite at-home look.

“Are you just going to stand there?” James questioned without pausing in his writing.

Of course, he had heard John’s thundering approach. No one else ever ran through the house.

John glanced to his hand, which held the contract that was slightly crumpled in his careless handling of it. He ran his tongue over his bottom lip, feeling his mouth go slightly dry. The rhythmic beating of his heart had yet to return to normal after his sprint, though he suspected it wouldn’t be slowing down anytime soon.

The future he was opening up was a future with James. This was a commitment. A vow to go forward together.

This must have been how Thomas felt as he held the ring in his hand.

John let go of the doorframe, gripped the contract a little tighter, and put one foot in front of the other.

Chapter Text

The footfalls John made as he entered the library were barely audible—a stark contrast to the elephant stampede he had announced himself with moments before—but James was growing attuned to his more cat-like steps, and soon would come the days where John would no longer manage to sneak up on him.

Although, that assumed they had the boon of more days. It still remained a possibility that today was their last full day together. Tomorrow, after dinner, John could rush off to his next adventure, rush out of their lives, with his debt paid a thousandfold. James tried to push those thoughts into the recesses of his mind, but they continued returning to claw at his hope, scraping it away bit by bit.

Now, as the afternoon stretched long, it was taking a great amount of willpower not to turn around and drag John up to his room, where they could lie in bed and wallow in some sort of somber togetherness.

“I’ll never understand why you built a home with a fireplace in nearly every room when we live in the tropics,” John said from about midway into the room. “They’re practically useless.”

“A shame you weren’t here a few months earlier to pose as an architect and design the floor plans,” James sarcastically replied, while continuing to jot down the titles of books he wanted to acquire for their private collection.

“That would have been awful. You would have murdered me if not for Miranda and Thomas being here to reign you in,” John said as he stepped up behind James’ chair. “Tip your head back,” he requested, without giving James time to protest his previous comment.

James paused in the middle of a word, the nib of the pen still resting on the paper and leaving ink to soak into the sheet as he tipped his head back. He felt deft fingers extract the pen from out of his hand in the same moment the crown of his head pressed against John’s soft stomach. There was mirth in John’s eyes as they crinkled from his wide smile. James planned to ask what the excitement was about, but, after the first syllable left his mouth, he was silenced by John leaning over him and stealing the rest of the sentence with his tongue. One of John’s hands slid over the curve of his neck, into the dip between his collar bones, and under the collar of his shirt.

Taken entirely off guard, James’ eyelids dropped instinctively as he responded to John’s sheer enthusiasm for a moment, before he regained enough senses to remember that they were in the library, and that Thomas had not appreciated the last time he walked in on them when their activities ventured far outside the realm of reading.

In what was meant to be a scolding, James nipped the tip of John’s tongue just on the side of too hard, but instead of pulling back as expected, John made a genuine, pleasured whine that vibrated through their kiss and was wholly obscene.

“Christ, what’s gotten into you?” James asked breathlessly, when John finally relented, though he hovered close enough for James to feel the puffs of air from his open mouth.

“I know what I want,” John said, without sounding as if he was making a proposition despite his previous, fervent actions.

When John righted himself, moved to the side, and casually leaned against the edge of the desk, James furrowed his brow. “Yes, and you’re quite good at getting what you want, but I’m left a bit confused here.”

John tapped two of his fingers on the desk, which finally drew James’ attention to the sheet that appeared to have materialized on top of the list he had been working on. The contract. On it, below the long list of numbers starting from ‘90’—each digit the representation of a day spent together—the number that frequented James’ most unpleasant dreams stared back. He reached out, his trembling fingers touching the wet ink of the shakily written ‘0’. Four times as large and imposing as any other number in the countdown, it took over the remaining bottom margin of the page.

“This isn’t the last day, is it?” James asked, suddenly, irrationally thinking that perhaps the count on Miranda’s contract was wrong.

Unhurriedly, and unaware of the panic James was trying to cage, John capped the inkwell and ran his fingers along the plume of the pen once, before he put it back in its holder. Then, he slid the contract out from under James’ hand, causing his fingers to smear the ink with black, bleeding streaks.

James immediately began fiddling with the upper corner of the remaining sheet, and winced as the paper sliced the pad of his thumb, though that was the least of his concerns at the moment. He was studiously focused on the sideways tilt of John’s head and the lopsided grin that curved John’s lips, as if they could help James discern the reason for the juxtaposition of their reactions to the zero.

“One more day, I know,” John said, with astoundingly familiar words, as he pressed James’ hand away from the paper, turning his palm up, and lacing their fingers. It was an intimacy that John initiated infrequently enough that it highlighted this instance with a sense of memorability. “But, I think it’s time we forget about the numbers.”

John’s smile took on a dazzling quality, and James was pulled from his chair just as it occurred to him that those were the words from the night John asked him to stay. John’s enthusiastic kiss. His casual ease. His unrestrained smile. The contract being ended on the eve of their final day. Leaving would never be greeted with such high spirits from John, which meant one thing only.

The fear James had been descending into suddenly rose to a cautious state of elation, which could be heard in his voice when he asked, “Have you decided not to leave?”

“Ask me the way you did the first time,” John stubbornly requested, as he abruptly stopped them in front of the hearth.

Honestly, James could throttle him for prolonging this when the answer was clear as day. Instead, with their linked hands, James drew John closer until they were toe-to-toe and John was forced to bite his lip to continue playing coy.

“Stay with me, you little shit,” James said with the intonation of an order, though his own grin could hardly be held back.

“I’m trying to be romantic here,” John huffed, a hint of petulant pleading in the clear, blue depths of his eyes.

That was enough to soften James entirely.

Allowing himself to be as earnest as John, with his free hand, James tucked a curled strand of John’s hair back behind his ear. Affectionately and tenderly, without the anxiety that had come with the request the first time it was made, he asked, “Stay with me?”

“Yes,” John said, adding a nod for good measure. “Fuck yes.”

All it took was a slight sway forward for John to seal their lips together in the most satisfying of ways and, like a healing salve, the painfully uncertain future was soothed away. James melted into it as if they had never halted their kiss at the desk. He had half a mind to drag John over to the chaise, or toss him into the much closer armchair, or possibly lie him on the floor under their feet, to show how appreciative he was of John’s decision. John, however, thwarted those half-formed plans when he ended the embrace entirely too soon, leaving James dazed from the repeated sensual mood followed by a sudden, tantalizing withdraw.

“Take this,” John said and held the contract, outstretched, in front of them. James, now with an added bout of confusion, took the left side of the contract, but John didn’t let go of the right. “Ninety days, in a way, was the perfect number. Ten days less, and I might have been able to convince myself to leave. Ten days more, and I might never have stayed that first day. But, Jesus Christ, am I ready to see this burn and these damn fireplaces need to serve some purpose.”

“Are you giving a eulogy for a piece of paper?” James asked incredulously.

“I am. Now, you say something,” John urged, fully intending to stick to this mock funeral plan.

If John expected him to say something nice, it certainly wasn’t going to happen. James gave one last hard glare at the zero. “Fuck the contract. Let it burn.”

John smirked, apparently finding that eulogy acceptable enough, and, in one quick motion, he yanked his hand down and the contract split down the middle with a delicious ripping sound.

Destruction never felt so exhilarating and the armchair was seeming more and more inviting by the second. Miranda’s armchair was the closest, perhaps she wouldn’t mind.

Then, John untangled their fingers, reached for a match from the matchbook on the mantel, and crouched in front of the hearth, pulling James with him. The match was struck, held to their individual pieces, and the paper ignited into hungry, orange flames. They both held the burning piece and watched as it was slowly devoured. When the papers were finally placed in the fireplace, John sought out his hand again, and James slotted his fingers over the inky, smudged fingerprints left behind on John’s knuckles.

“No more counting down the days,” James said, squeezing John’s hand.

James spent another good, long moment watching the fire fully engulf the object that had caused months of turmoil. Tiny, glowing embers, which floated among the thin, grey smoke as it was drawn up the chimney, carried with them the last of his troubles.

“Perhaps we count up from here? Anniversaries and such,” John said, like he was already planning their celebrations in advance.

How heartening it was to know that, for a great many years to come, they would be together.

James hummed in happy agreement and turned his head to see John, with an endearingly mellow air about him, looking his way. Usually, the loose expression was reserved for early mornings, when they shared a bed and woke next to each other, but James would welcome it any hour of the day. The expression filled him with such warmth and ease.

While he soaked in John’s gaze, James let his own eyes rove over John’s features, in order to appreciate them in the present moment without the worry of losing them to fleeting time and faded memories. The mole, just under his left eye, that James loved to kiss, knowing that would make John squint and squeal. The fullness of his cheeks, now that he had been living off months of daily, nutritious meals. The crease of his smile lines, which James could swear had deepened since he arrived here. The stubble of his chin, which was almost in need of a shave. Though, perhaps, he was growing it out as he had mentioned wanting to do once before. James wouldn’t complain, he enjoyed the scratchy sensation of it under his lips—wanted to feel it again, right now.

“Meeting you, quite literally, changed the course of my life,” John said in such a way that there was no doubt as to the honesty of his words. “This is, by far, the most remarkable destination I could have ever hoped to find.”

“I’m glad the scenery was captivating enough for you,” James joked and found himself unable to resist reaching out for John’s chin to feel the roughness under his fingers.

“I’m glad it was you who I fell in love with,” John said so softly, so calmly, James almost thought he had heard wrong.

John took hold of James’ bare forearm and tipped backwards, easing himself onto the floor and guiding James, who was utterly spellbound, atop him. James’ hand settled onto the cool, wood floor beside John’s head to hold himself steady. The hand on his forearm traveled up over his rolled up cuffs, over his biceps, and to his chest, where John pressed his palm flat and spread his fingers wide.

“It continues to amaze me that there was room for me here. In your heart.” John cleared his throat, but James could hear his voice grow hoarser as he spoke and there was no masking his dewy eyes. “I love you, James. I mean, I really fucking love you.”

The declaration felt as if it originated from the wellspring of John’s heart, flowed over his parted lips, streamed up and around his arm, and coalesced under his palm, where it finally cascaded into James’ heart and permeated his entire being.

James knew. Of course, he knew. But to hear it spoken, God, to hear those words in the cadence of John’s voice, and to know that John felt secure enough in their love to say them, it was so wonderfully moving that tears welled up in his own eyes.

James brought his hand up to rest over John’s, both of them feeling his jubilant heartbeat.

As if the connection brought them onto the same wavelength, they surged into each other all at once. Two great seas of emotion converging. Vows of love and gratitude were exchanged between shared breaths and breathy, joy-filled laughter. The tears in the corners of John’s eyes were swept away by the pad of James’ thumb and by peppered kisses. The smokey scent of triumph mingled with the faithful aroma of lavender as James nuzzled John’s jaw, praising the drag of his stubble. Between encouraging hums, John spoke of opening his own business, building a future, and entangling their lives, while James set about marking John in ways that would outlast smudged ink. Truthfully, though, they had already marked each other in the most permanent of ways, the way only love could so profoundly leave its impression upon a soul.

They never made it upstairs to the bed, never made it to the chaise, nor to the armchair, but, no matter the location, in the security of each other’s arms, with the knowledge that the contract was not the end of their story, but rather the beginning of the next chapter, they found all the comfort necessary to celebrate their strengthened love and the future they planned to build together.

Their story would continue without an interlude.

Chapter Text

“Up a tad on the left,” Miranda said with a small gesture of her hand, though neither Thomas nor John could see her from their positions.

Thomas stood just behind John, facing the wall, with his hands hovering centimeters from John’s waist, while John stood on the unbalanced footstool, which was not at all intended for this purpose. James halted petting Penelope when the stool wobbled under John, as he stretched up to reach the bottom left corner of the frame. Penelope gave a little whine, clearly finding this as nerve-wracking as James. He watched on anxiously, while trying not to think of how John was one misstep away from falling forward and cracking his head on the corner of the mantel, which would serve as a hard lesson for his lack of ability to wait the few seconds it would have taken for James to grab the step ladder from the kitchen.

“I don’t see why you wouldn’t let Thomas put it up,” James grumbled. “He could reach without giving nearly everyone in the room a heart attack.”

John looked over his shoulder with an eye roll. “You three put up all the others without me. I get the honor this time.”

“You were too busy stealing them from us last—”

The footstool tipped, Thomas gasped, and James was off the canapé and on his feet in an instant. John’s arms flailed for one brief, terrifying moment before the look of horror on his face gave way to one of mischief and he purposefully rocked the stool again.

“Perfect,” Miranda said, unconcerned and unfooled by John’s performance, as she remained focused entirely on the task at hand.

Thomas laughed in relief, before he took revenge by grappling John by the waist and pulling him from the perceived danger. “Rascal,” he said loudly as John fell into a fit of giggles and kicked his legs in the air.

Captain Flint squawked along with the ruckus from his safe spot on the harpsichord. Penelope, too, sounded her excitement with a ruff.

“One of these days you’re going to get hurt by being so reckless,” James sighed and, since he was already up, went to join Miranda at her well-positioned vantage point.

“Good thing I have so many people willing to come to my rescue,” John returned happily, as Thomas carried him over to Miranda and James and set him back onto solid ground.

At that, James couldn't help but smile.

A gentle calm drifted over the drawing room as the four of them stood close together in the lazy afternoon sunbeams. The ambience was filled by bluebirds and wrens, that perched on their painted homes while singing away, and by cicadas, that accompanied them with their chorus from the fruiting fig trees. James inhaled long and deep, taking in the homely aroma of the freshly baked cookies they had all made together. Then, he followed the gazes of his loves as they regarded the space on the wall that had been bare for just over three months, but was now finally filled.

There, the intricately carved, gilded frame hung high above the fireplace and was perfectly level. Housed within its borders was their completed family portrait. Captured in paint was their likeness and, with delicate, detailed brushstrokes, even their personalities could be seen. Flint, the little devil, eyeing James’ finger. Penelope, watchful and brimming with excitement. Thomas with his intelligent eyes, the smile of a dreamer, and gentle hands. Miranda with her confident, regal air, but with an intensity that betrayed a sense of sensuality. John with bright, wonder-filled eyes and a curve to the corner of his mouth that spoke to his roguish qualities. And James, standing proudly and protectively, and doing so happily. Rings and ribbons, their symbols of devotion, were boldly visible for all to see.

This portrait was the centerpiece of the wall displaying the centerpiece of their lives.

Three months ago, the picture in James’ mind would have been of Thomas, Miranda, and himself. Three months ago, on the day Thomas and Miranda first arrived in Nassau, James believed that John had tarnished their perfect day.

Now, standing here as four, James could look back and see that three months ago was the beginning of the journey towards this larger portrait. Now, he couldn’t imagine the portrait looking any other way. Now, he knew that first day had indeed been perfect all along.

* * *

Ithaca gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
 
And if you find her poor, Ithaca won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.

- “Ithaca” by C. P. Cavafy